Stepping off the train.

From 2002 to 2005, I lived and studied in Paisley, a 20-minute train trip from Glasgow. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to revisit the town for the first time in at least a couple of years.

Throughout the journey, I began to remember snippets from my life there: familiar landmarks; songs I associate with the place; even which train would stop at which platform. At my destination, I could have gone to any number of places and they would’ve triggered other memories: the stalag-style residences with the hilarious security guard; the club we visited on Student Sunday; the computer labs where we played Gaia Online all night; the locations where we shot films for the course; ex-partners’ houses where we argued. Maybe.

But as I had limited time, I could only visit the student union, a purple building with a concrete and aluminium interior. The place you went when you didn’t want to spend very much; where we went in for the weekly quiz, karaoke and pool tournament; where I ran a juggling club; where someone stole a dozen bottles and dropped them when one of the bar staff slapped him.

Before I become too self-indulgent, my point is that revisiting a familiar place can trigger off a lot of memories and potential story ideas. I would have found it rather difficult to compile the above lists when I wasn’t physically in the location. Yet if I’d had more time in Paisley, I could’ve filled half a notebook with recollections.

Long-term readers will also know I’m a big advocate of walking anywhere. The physical act of bipedal locomotion is a fantastic way to sort out your thoughts and solve plot problems.

If you have the opportunity to revisit an old haunt, I recommend doing it. When you see a familiar place, or a gap where a building used to be, it can bring to mind details that you might not have remembered otherwise. That memory might become your next plotline. Don’t forget your notepad and a pencil.

What do you call…?

When I write a short story or poem, I don’t normally think too hard about the characters’ names. Sometimes they come to me as I’m writing; sometimes I have them before I start. But in a novel, I find myself thinking hard about it. I should point out that the works I’m about to discuss are unpublished.

In my first novel and the 2014 one, I needed unisex names to fit with the plots. The first was Christine Monkton because the forename could be shortened to Chris while the surname was borrowed from cartoonist Edward Monkton. In 2014, Charlie Dixon was how Natalie Charlene Dixon styled herself, and she worked as a car mechanic. Bizarrely, I visited a transport museum just after writing it and saw a book from a tram driver called Charles Dixon which referenced his daughter Charlotte.

In 2011, I explored the idea of names a little further. The main character Josh Rush worked in an office where everyone was nicknamed. He’s known as Speedy. He works with Hostage, whose favourite phrase is My hands are tied, and a Country and Western fan called Dodge.

Pam St. Clement
Pam St. Clement (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I’ve never put more thought into a name as Malcolm St Clement. The book is set in the 1960s, and I took the approach of pairing a relatively common first name with a distinctive last name, much like James Bond. In fact, the only person I’m aware of with the same surname is Pam St Clement who played Pat in EastEnders. It took weeks of thought to find just the right combination, and I also wanted the first and last names to share some letters. I realise the latter requirement is rather arbitrary.

The same applies to your own writing name; one day it might be in inch-high letters all over Waterstones, so it’s got to be right. Some people choose a pen name because it’s expected in the genre, or initials and a surname to remove gender preconceptions. Perhaps you’ve simply never liked your name and want to present a different public image.

Readers of this blog know me as Gavin Cameron, but that too is a pen name. Cameron is actually my middle name and my last name is Cruickshank. I started using Gavin Cameron on hospital radio long before I started writing as it’s easier to hear and pronounce, not to mention that there are at least three other ways of spelling Cruickshank. Additionally, it helps to keep my writing separate from my day job.

I wouldn’t normally admit my real name in a writing context, except to illustrate the point of writing names. One of my pet hates is reading a blurb that says I’m Jane Plain but I write as Faerie Queen. To me, a writer should choose a name that projects his or her writing personality and inhabit that name – a brand, if you will.

I think Iain Banks did it particularly well. When he needed an alternative moniker for science-fiction, he wisely chose to modify his current name. In marketing circles, that’s called a brand extension, and it’s considered an easier ride than introducing a completely new brand.

Whether it’s yourself or a character, you might need to look at these names for a long time, especially if it’s published, and might also hang around in the public’s imagination for years or decades. So if it’s jarring for you when you write it, it’ll be ten times as bad seeing it on a bookshop shelf.

How to manage a writing group.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been organising literary events, and I’ve gathered some experience during this time. Remember that every group is different, and what worked or didn’t work for me might prove the opposite for you.

The two groups I currently run are: Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers; and the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to pen a novel in a month. The two groups are rather different beasts, and there is little crossover between their memberships, but there are common factors in the way they’re run.

Planning

Ensure your group has a defined purpose

Hotchpotch has a definite purpose: you can take along your own work and read it for up to 10 minutes, or simply come along to listen to others. It’s a format that works for us and has done for some years.

NaNoWriMo is a franchise of sorts with a not-for-profit organisation, so you must follow their instructions and ethos. As such, we started off with purely November meetings where we would encourage each other to finish our novels. But there was such enthusiasm that we continue to meet up weekly and work on other individual projects.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, of course, but don’t stray too far from your original intention. There is a risk that your members will be put off going as it’s not what they expected.

Be early

Think months or weeks in advance, not days, to save rushing around at the last minute. The main NaNoWriMo event happens in November, so I’ll start planning in August as I need to receive promotional material and work out where and when our meetings should be. The next Hotchpotch is usually booked on the same day as the last meeting. Always be super-early to set up for meetings.

Coordinate and cross-promote

Hotchpotch must ‘compete’ with a monthly Silent Reading Party and a monthly Literary Lock-In as these also happen on Mondays. Through having conversations with the organisers of the latter two events, we now coordinate these events so they hardly ever clash. When one of them announces a new date, I also promote it to Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo participants.

Communication

Use suitable methods

This depends largely on the IT skills of your members. Our NaNoWriMo region has a Facebook group where most people engage with us, although NaNoWriMo HQ require us to use their own mailing system. Conversely, many Hotchpotch members don’t use Facebook and prefer to be on our mailing list.

Hotchpotch has business cards with contact details to give to new members. During NaNoWriMo months, I also have a mobile number with a budget SIM card so people can contact me with urgent enquiries. In practice, however, we’ve rarely needed to use it.

Not too little; not too often

By all means send out a message early, but remember to issue regular reminders. People forget, or accidentally delete the e-mail. Also make sure your latest message reflects any changes that have happened since the last one. For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. Hotchpotch reminders are usually two or three weeks apart as the meetings are monthly.

But once a day is far too often, unless you happen to be sending out daily writing prompts.

Exercise privacy with e-mail

Whenever you send out a group e-mail, use the Bcc box, not To or Cc. This means each member will only see his or her own address when it’s received. Always give people the option to unsubscribe from updates; the last thing you want is to be reported for spam. It can be as simple as typing Let us know if you want to unsubscribe at the bottom of each message.

People

Be welcoming

This is a big one for me. Unless your group is really only for you and your mates, everyone who comes along needs to feel welcome. I’ve been put off going to groups in the past when it became clear the existing members were only interested in their own company. Whenever new folk turn up to NaNoWriMo or Hotchpotch, I make a point of introducing myself and chatting to them.

Consult, don’t dictate

Keep a list of a few trusted regulars you can talk to when the going gets tough. In the case of Hotchpotch, we had to make a difficult decision about a venue. We made a collective decision that I now agree with, but if I’d dictated, I would have gone the opposite way and might have lost their cooperation. NaNoWriMo is largely stable now, but I know the core membership are there should any problems arise.

Deal with troublemakers appropriately

Literary meetings are generally safe spaces. I can think of only one serious incident. I was a member of a group where we felt the standard of leadership fell far below what was expected. The incident was resolved, but not before pages of online words had been exchanged. If you need to keep someone in line, it’s rarely appropriate to do it over the Internet or in front of other members.

Most often, someone will say he or she didn’t like the group. I find it’s best to fix the problem, where possible, or to acknowledge his or her point of view and accept you’ll be one member down next time. It’s not worth turning a complaint into an argument, but to learn from it and concentrate on attracting new members.

 

If you have any tips you’d like to add, leave them below. I’ve no doubt I’ll think of one or two more myself when this has posted.

Paper boon.

Until a year or two ago, I didn’t do much writing on a notepad. It generally went straight into a computer unless one wasn’t handy.

I began to use a pad extensively for two reasons. Firstly, my small laptop has only just enough RAM to run Windows and was a pain to use. Secondly, I type extensively in my day job and my fingers began to hurt, whereas holding a pencil was a sufficiently different motion and it didn’t hurt.

Using a pad is also a different experience from typing: It slows down your thoughts so you become more focused on what to say next. It also looks less like a finished product and I’m more inclined to edit it. Furthermore, it’s easier on the eye to read paper than a screen.

Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.
Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.

My fingers aren’t nearly so bad now, but I’ve kept up another habit I fell into during this time. I dug out my printed dictionary and thesaurus. Online references generally focus only on the words searched for, whereas flicking through a book can throw up possibilities from other pages. The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.

On Saturday, it’s the 37th birthday of one of my influences, Peter Doherty. I feel compelled to point out that he prefers Peter over Pete. Last year, I bought The Books of Albion, containing writings from his many notebooks. I expected to read drafts of his poems and songs in there, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But he also includes a lot of diary entries, many of them with the dates on which they were written. He talks about what’s happening to him at the time, whether it be relationship problems, a budget trip to Germany, or his first professional poetry gig.

I stopped keeping a diary when I was about 20, and started a blog on the relatively young LiveJournal. Almost overnight, my style changed from private and unguarded to public and slightly more guarded. I still have some of the diaries but they’re unlikely to be available in the shops any time soon.

By contrast, Doherty’s diaries start when he was about 20, so there’s a maturity in them that mine don’t have. Yet it’s still clear he never intended them for publication, and it’s perhaps this honesty that makes his writing so compelling.

Initially, I found myself thinking back to what I was doing around the time he was keeping his notes. Then I began to wonder whether I could experiment with bringing back my pre-LiveJournal days and writing the occasional dated diary entry in my current pad. It contains mainly poem and story drafts, yet true events are at the heart of many literary works.

I would then have some events to draw upon when I need ideas.