This weekend, I was at the launch of Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, where I performed my piece Crossing the Road at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Edinburgh. Every reader did a fantastic job and nearly every seat was full.
As I was staying over the weekend, I decided to post a video of the poem performed in the city. That one poem turned into three, which turned into five.
It’s rare that I post work online, as most publishers won’t then accept it. But two of the poems are already available, and two are site-specific clerihews, so I’ve made an exception .
So in today’s entry, if you’ll excuse the high winds and tourists chatting, I’m presenting these five poems.
Fans of the BBC TV show The Apprentice will remember a candidate who styled himself as Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs. While his idea of branding was certainly misguided, it was nonetheless a memorable gimmick. As a writer, it is similarly important to consider how you’ll be perceived by your readers.
Next time you’re in a bookshop or a library, have a look at some of the book covers. You’ll often find that books by the same author share certain elements: perhaps the author’s name is written in a particular typeface, or perhaps a certain style of artwork is common between them. But branding goes so much deeper than a cover. It can include the personality or values that you want to convey to the reader.
My own branding begins with my moniker: Gavin Cameron is actually my first and middle names. My real last name is Cruickshank, but I don’t use it because there are several possible variations in the spelling, and it serves as a small distinction between my real life and writing life. Not to mention that Crookshanks is Hermione Granger’s cat in the Harry Potter series.
There is a long literary tradition of pseudonyms, and this is catered for in the standard manuscript format. Your real name goes in the address at the top left-hand corner, while your pen name is included in the byline underneath the title. I also mention it in the body of the e-mail or on the cover sheet.
Even so, the issue does occasionally cause problems. A couple of times, show organisers have thought that Gavin Cameron and Gavin Cruickshank were two different people. One organiser recently made publicity material in the name of Cruickshank instead of Cameron, and it’s now being corrected.
In an attempt to stop this from happening again, I’ve now made it clear in my e-mail signature:
On the same subject, you might have noticed my Twitter name @LadyGavGav. Although I’ve never liked my first name being shortened to Gav, and still don’t, I felt I had to take that Twitter name as it was available and was an improvement over my previous handle @Knaw_Says.
I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.
A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.
Think about your introduction.
Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:
Give your name
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
Story is called On the River Tay
Taken from collection The Pie Seller
Published by Law Hill Books
Brought copies, happy to sign
Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The PieSeller, and that’s published by Law Hill Books. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”
Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.
Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.
Before reading to someone, read to no-one.
The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?
If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.
Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece, or reading out only a section to reduce it.
Practice your page turns.
Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.
Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.
I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Sometimesthe audience reacts wrongly.
I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
If there’s a cock-up, keep going.
In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.
Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.
Over the next couple of months, I’ve been asked to read poetry at a few events. Each one is free to attend. Here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to them:
Livewire; Wednesday 19 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. I’ve just finished an MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee. This is one final showcase for our class, where I’ll be reading a piece called Sir Madam from my dissertation.
Launch of Aiblins; Monday 21 November; Underdog, Castlegate, Aberdeen. This launch is for the same book discussed above, but in a different city. The event is still being finalised, and I’ll give you more information when I have it.
Last week, a friend was complaining about a major writing competition that still only allows postal entries. I’d also submitted work because it’s a prestigious publication, but I agree with her point of view. Considering the hundreds of manuscripts that must be received – versus the tiny portion that makes the final cut – this seems a colossal waste of paper, not to mention the needless postage time and cost.
Many competitions offer the postal route as an alternative to an online submission, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any issue with posting work that must be physically held to be appreciated. But there are still a bunch who want normal prose and poetry to be sent on paper.
Until the 1990s, this was how submissions were made. Internet access and e-mail accounts were generally the domain of academics and computer enthusiasts. Come the next decade, however, and newer technology began to creep into people’s homes. Nearly 17 years after the millennium, online access is nearly universal in the Western world, and postal submissions now look incredibly outdated.
That’s not to say I don’t like a paper book. In fact, some recent research has concluded that sales of e-books are falling. But a book is the final product; the process of gaining the interest of an editor or a competition judge ought to be as quick and cheap as possible.
Yet I would like to understand the other side of the argument. Do you run a publication that only wants submissions on paper? How does it benefit you? What would make you consider accepting online entries?