Sailing By

Four weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about warming up for Fun a Day Dundee in 2020.

I’m pleased to report that a version of that entry has been posted on the official website. Be sure to click around the menu at the top to read more stories and information about the project.

Note that the post is under my legal name of Gavin Cruickshank, which I don’t normally use for writing since few people can spell it correctly.

I haven’t had a great deal of time this week, so I’ll be back next week with a fuller entry.

The Middle of the Road

It can be hard to believe that that even well-known writers might only be one piece of work away from losing popularity.

Experience helps a lot, from knowing your particular audience to being aware of wider trends – not to mention fads – in contemporary tastes. However, there is no telling for sure how the public will react to the next offering.

A good way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the winners of the Booker prize. Here’s a list from 1969 to 2014, in reverse chronological order.

Only a few of these have become household names, such as William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and double winner Hilary Mantel. But mention Aravind Adiga, JM Coetzee or even the first winner Bernice Rubens, and it’s likely you’ll need to give a little more context about who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t popular writers among their fans, merely that their work hasn’t caught on with the public the same way as their prized novels.

But who needs to be an outright success as an author? There is a term in publishing known as the midlist.

These are books from authors that don’t shift in great numbers, but do sell well enough to justify remaining in print. By its very nature, there are no great examples of midlist authors, because most of a publisher’s roster is likely to fall into this category. In fact, remove the handful of high earners and everyone else probably fits there.

This structure seems to be particularly true in non-fiction. Friends who have told me anecdotally that writing articles can bring in a steady enough income to justify their efforts.

So even if your next project doesn’t catch on as you expected, give it a little time and see whether it fits within the midlist.

Making Time for Editing

Beginner writers sometimes fall into a common trap after finishing a piece. That trap is reading over a freshly-written piece once or twice, correcting any obvious mistakes, then sending it out into the world. As a result, editors and competition judges routinely receive work that is littered with careless mistakes. Most of them are not inclined to read beyond the first few errors.

By contrast, more experienced writers know that creating a satisfactory piece of writing is not something that can be rushed. Editing work is a very distinct process from writing it, and the mind therefore needs time to switch between the two.

As such, it’s essential to leave an interval between writing a piece and looking at it again with a critical eye. That means leaving your work in a drawer – either physical or virtual is fine – and returning to it at a later time.

In just about every piece I’ve written, the passage of time has alerted me to spelling and grammar errors, sentences that are too unwieldy, or plot points that aren’t clear to the reader.

But how long should you leave that work in a drawer? This is a question I’ve previously considered on this blog, but I’ve returned to the issue as I consider how much breathing space is necessary once I finish my current long-form piece.

In an entry from three years ago, I proposed a minimum period of one minute per word or at least 24 hours if the length was under 1,500 words . Three years is more than enough time to revisit that entry and to tweak the formula I proposed.

My new recommendation is to leave at least three minutes per word, or at least 72 hours if the word count is 1,440 or below. The slight adjustment from 1,500 to 1,440 is merely a pedantic tweak to reflect the number of minutes in one day.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, cut those figures to two minutes per word, or 48 hours for 1,440 words. And whatever deadline is absolutely looming, I still strongly recommend one minute per word or – you guessed it – 24 hours at the lower end.

This works out at between one and three days for most poetry and flash fiction, while a 20,000-word novella would be left between roughly two and four weeks.

When you open the drawer after that time, one of the best ways to spot mistakes is to read it out loud without an audience, as any blips are more difficult to ignore. It’s also a good idea to read it at different times of day, when you’re in different moods, and so forth, and see how you react to it then.

If you still have the time, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it aside again and coming back to it at an even later date.

With these blog entries, there often isn’t a lot of time as I want to publish by 6pm every Tuesday. But I always aim to make sure it’s typed up early, and I go back to iron out the inevitable mistakes.

After these periods of resting and editing, that’s the time to send your work out. Naturally, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is a higher likelihood that editors and competition judges will read more of the work you send them and take it more seriously.

Two Festivals

There are two major festivals happening concurrently this week.

The first is the popular Book Week Scotland, an annual festival of books and reading across the nation. The organisers produce a promotional paperback containing short stories from contemporary writers that are given away at literary events. As such, I ordered a box for my open-mike night Hotchpotch, and we had just enough for each member to take one.

What is less well-known is the Being Human festival, a commemoration of the humanities across the UK, and it’s that one I’d like to focus on in this entry. Until Saturday 23 November, there will be events held in Lincoln, London, Sheffield and Swansea – as well as in my native Dundee.

I’ve previously mentioned my poetry circle, the Wyverns. In 2018, we created our first booklet as part of Being Human. This was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the novel Frankenstein, all the more appropriate since Mary Shelley was living in Dundee when she started to write it. The booklet was then launched at the University of Dundee.

We’ve now been given an opportunity to do the same with this year’s theme: discoveries and secrets. Our circle took inspiration from the nearby River Tay, more than a mile and a half wide at its mouth, with plenty of physical and metaphorical space for secrets waiting to be discovered. Incidentally, only one poet wrote about the obvious connection with the RRS Discovery, which was built in Dundee and visited Antarctica in the early 20th century.

To me, it’s lamentable that Book Week Scotland tends to grab the headlines and overshadow Being Human, as there are so many potential connections to be made between the two that they deserve an equal footing.

For instance, my friends Erin Farley and James Barrowman have been temporarily resurrecting The Poets’ Box in the Wellgate shopping centre. The original Box opened in the 1870s and stayed open for more than 70 years, albeit in different locations around the city. It not only sold poetry and sheet music, but had a printing press on the premises to distribute work by local writers.

Despite the overshadowing, I’m looking forward to taking part in Being Human this year, and if all other factors remain equal, in years to come.

Looking Ahead to January

Although it’s not until next year, I’m already gearing up to take part in Fun a Day Dundee (FADD) for the third time. This is the local chapter of a global project that encourages participants to undertake something creative during the month of January. It happens at a time of year when professional artists and creators often struggle after the Christmas rush.

I first learnt of FADD in 2017, although the group has been running since 2011. A few of my artist friends were taking part, some working on a different piece every day for the 31 days, others concentrating on one or more larger projects during this time.

Those friends told me I should take part the following year, but I had some reservations: I’m not a painter, a model-maker, a jeweller, nor anything similar. Rather, my craft is writing words in pencil or pen on lined paper.

Rationally, I knew I was welcome, while still feeling like a misfit. As such, I hesitated in signing up, only registering my interest on the first day: 1 January 2018.

I started off with the intention of producing one piece of prose or poetry each day of the month, with provision to create side projects if something else occurred to me that I wanted to try out. Four days into FADD, I created my first such side project and something extraordinary happened.

In late December, I’d ordered a watch strap from Amazon, and it arrived in early January with six wasteful feet of brown paper cushioning stuffed into a needlessly large box. But inspired by the artists of FADD posting their work on Instagram and Twitter, I straightened out the paper and kept it aside for the public exhibition. I then planned to invite visitors to write down their own stories of corporate waste on that sheet of paper.

With the addition of that piece and my other side projects, the exhibition display looked so much more colourful and engaging than simply a folder full of black or blue ink on cream paper, and visitors did indeed fill the paper with anecdotes.

But more than that, this piece in particular gave me a direction for my 2019 project, where I still wrote words, but on recycled material. The surfaces used included used envelopes, expired tickets, and even the sole of a worn-out Dr Marten boot; anything except fresh lined paper.

In 2020, I have every intention of taking the recycling theme one stage further. The finer details will be worked out nearer the time, but the project will include actively destroying some of what I wrote in 2018 and 2019, and encouraging the public to do the same.

Whatever happens, however, I will make sure I have fun doing it, just as the name suggests.

Pomodori Doppi

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) underway, there is currently a worldwide race among members to tap out 50,000 words each by the end of November. But how does someone find the time to jot down an average of 1,667 words per day?

For someone like me who generally works core nine-to-five office hours – with at least one shift per week lasting until 6:30pm – I have to make use of any time possible.

I also organise the events for our region. Throughout the year, we have two hours of ring-fenced writing time every Tuesday evening, and an extra two hours per week on a Saturday throughout November. While at meet-ups, it’s relatively easy to crack on with work because everyone else is also trying to reach their word count goal.

The difficulty arises on non-meeting nights. I want to achieve a certain number of words per day, but I also need to tidy the flat and catch up with correspondence. The solution I find works best for me is based upon the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, one of the official NaNoWriMo Twitter accounts ran Pomodoro word sprints just today.

In the classic technique, you carry out a task for 25 minutes and take a break for five. However, I find that isn’t enough time to allocate to writing, so I prefer a double Pomodoro: write for 50 minutes and tackle another task away from the PC for 10 minutes.

I also have an instrumental playlist that lasts for approximately 50 minutes and helps me slip into the mood for writing, as that’s what I chiefly do when I listen to it.

Whatever time management techniques work for our members, however, we the organisers always make it clear that National Novel Writing Month is supposed to be fun.

If anyone finds it overwhelming, we want them to know it’s perfectly acceptable to leave aside a project, and there is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.