Style Counsel

Every so often, I find I naturally lean towards writing in a certain style. There was a long while where I was churning out poems in triolet form, then I went through a clerihew period, and a time of short free-verse work.

At the moment, I’m drawn towards producing longer and more wistful pieces, as demonstrated in last week’s entry with a video of a recent poem called The Living Ghosts. With a running time of more than two minutes, it’s the longest poem I’ve produced for some time.

Sometimes there will be a trigger for writing in a particular manner, but often there isn’t anything specific.

I find that if you have such an impetus, the best way to deal with it is to run with it. I have a spot at an open-mike on Sunday, and I want to produce something original, so I’ll be letting that wistfulness come out before it turns into another style.

Hearing Yourself Back

Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.

During this time, I became so accustomed to hearing recordings of my work that I can’t recall the last time it bothered me. As such, I often forget that many people don’t like listening to themselves.

The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.

During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:

Submission to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight.

When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.

A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.

Being There

In early March, the StAnza poetry festival takes place in St Andrews. I’ve been going for at least five years now. It’s an easy half-hour bus trip, although I’ve previously stayed over so I can go to late shows without worrying about missing the last ride home.

While it would be inaccurate to say there is a ‘house style’ of poetry, it does tend towards the contemplative and wistful, more Carol-Ann Duffy than Brian Bilston. In this relatively quiet town, save for the transient student population, it’s a mood that fits well.

In 2020, the in-person festival narrowly escaped cancellation, so the events were held in venues across town as normal, predominantly the Byre Theatre or the town hall. The challenge this year is to convey its essence through a screen for the first time.

The ones I’ve been to so far this year certainly fit what I expect to see from StAnza: these include the two-hour launch event, a meditation session, and a poets’ feedback group.

But what I enjoy most are the breakfast panel discussions where the audience is served with a pie and a cup of tea. On Sunday, I tried to recreate this at home, and it was somewhat successful:

A Twitter update showing a pie and other food on a plate, and an online event on a projector.

It’s not too late to grab many of the tickets. The festival is on all this week, and there are plenty available free of charge.

Debunking the Basics

I’m now in my tenth year of writing, and I was thinking back today about the advice I’ve heard given to beginner writers, and how it can be misleading. Here are three of them that I feel could do with some clarification.

‘You have to write every day’

The classic example cited here is Stephen King, as his process is widely known through On Writing. When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to write daily, but there are other schools of thought. In 2016, Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida, and she sees writing as seasonal, with fallow periods in the year.

‘Write what you know’

This advice is often misinterpreted to mean: ‘write what you already know’. Instead, think of it as a reminder to research anything outside of your experience. So whether you need to find out how to write a character with dementia, what happens in a restaurant kitchen, or how a train crash is investigated, it’ll have a little authenticity.

‘Kill your darlings’

William Faulkner is credited with saying, ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ A ‘darling’ in this instance is what you feel to be a particularly good phrase or sentence.

But don’t take that as a sign to strike out words you like. I’m conjecturing here, but I suspect Faulkner meant to take out any good phrase or sentence if it doesn’t fit or work in the text at hand. Remember you can always save your favourite turns of phrase for another piece.