The 5am Story

One of the pieces of advice often given to beginner writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bedside to write down any ideas that occur in the middle of the night. I’ve said a few times on here that this has never worked for me. Yet something happened last week that helped me with a current project.

I woke up before 5am on a couple of occasions last week, and was unable to get back to sleep. It’s a dangerous distraction to switch on your computer at that time, but I decided to give it 20 minutes, then head back to bed.

Instead, I ended up solving a problem with a story that wasn’t coming together properly. There were a lot of solid plot points that were difficult to arrange into a logical narrative. This was also part of a series, so there needed to be a little explanation for those who hadn’t read the previous instalment, but not so much that it slowed down the pace.

The breakthrough came after about ten minutes, and once I’d arranged the first few paragraphs into the right order, the rest followed. It’s now up to more than 1,300 words with more to follow, and the next story in the sequence will include the points I had to leave out of this one.

Murder, She Implied

Turn on the TV any given afternoon, and chances are you’ll find what may be termed a cosy crime drama, from Quincy ME via Midsomer Murders to the relatively recent The Doctor Blake Mysteries.

Yet despite the deaths that are central to the storylines, they remain PG-rated, and would never be categorised alongside – for example – NCIS or Criminal Minds. So why is this?

The answer lies in what’s portrayed onstage and offstage. Whereas CSI can show graphic violence or injuries front and centre, the most you’ll see in Murder She Wrote is a dead body slumped over a desk with no visible blood.

Offstage events are an underrated tool in a writer’s arsenal. They can help to further the plot without slowing it down.

Let’s say a character has a meeting to discuss the details of a project. Rather than writing page upon page of negotiation, it can be more effective to show the person going into the meeting at the end of one chapter, then summarising to someone else over coffee in a subsequent chapter.

Some publishers even ask that certain themes are kept offstage. The fiction guidelines for The People’s Friend require that themes such as divorce are kept away from the main narrative.

Sprinting Like a Champion

Yesterday, I volunteered to take over one of the Twitter accounts for National Novel Writing Month for an hour. NaNoWordSprints provides nearly 50,000 subscribers with writing prompts and encouragement to reach their chosen goals.

When I first started writing, I went to classes with an author who would give us five or ten minutes to write a passage inspired by a snippet of text or a photograph, or occasionally an object.

My approach to this hour-long stint was similar, except that shorter prompts and longer writing periods seem to work better on Twitter. I’d thought about the prompt topics in advance, but the structure was constructed largely on-the-fly. In minutes, the four sessions were: 10, 15, 15 and five. The third of those had a photograph as a prompt instead of text.

On top of this, you need to keep an eye on any replies coming in, and answer accordingly if it was warranted. However, I found the pace manageable, and once I was in the swing of presenting the exercises, I enjoyed the experience so much that I signed up to take over on the three coming Mondays.

The Evasive Verse

This week, I’ve been trying to write a piece for my poetry circle. Specifically, it had to be in some way related to the author Robert Duncan Milne, a forgotten contemporary of H G Wells.

As the reading for this has taken up so much of my time, I don’t have a full-length entry for this site.

However, I’ve often advised that going for a walk is a great way to sort out the ideas in your head, and that’s exactly what happened here. After days of reading, and trying to tie together a few of Milne’s concepts into a single verse, it was a lunchtime trip outside that gave me the final verse.

I’m about to read it over just now, maybe tweak it, and send them my work.

Hesitation

A few weeks ago, as part of the inaugural Dundee Fringe, I hosted the premiere of an experimental game show called The Literal Flow Test. It borrows elements of the Radio 4 show Just a Minute, asking five players to speak for up to two minutes without stopping, and pairing that with the knockout stages of a poetry slam.

I was pleased to find that we had attracted nearly a full house; the official paperwork shows 27 out of 30 seats sold. Most of the topics were picked at random from a pool, but part of the fun was asking the audience for topic suggestions in the last round, and they joined in with enthusiasm, with subjects ranging from ‘Stonehenge’ to ‘Cybernetic enhancement’.

I’m aware that despite this show being all about avoiding hesitation, it’s taken a few weeks to write about it. However, I wanted to bring you pictures as well. You can find them all on the PPG Photography Facebook page, but below is one of the poet Fin Hall.

The poet Fin Hall standing up taking his turn as part of The Literal Flow Test.
The poet Fin Hall taking the Literal Flow Test. Credit: https://www.ppgphotography.com/.

The playwright Jen McGregor emerged as victor after a tense five minutes of tiebreaking. With a few minor tweaks to the rules, it would be grand to run it again at some point, possibly for charity.

All the players, and the judge, were members of the Hotchpotch open-mike night. But unlike Hotchpotch, which is run entirely on a voluntary basis, each act at the Fringe received a share of ticket sales. This meant each participant could receive a little cash towards their travel or drinks on the night.

Of course, I nearly forgot to give Jen her envelope, and had to chase her up the street at the end, but we’ll move on from that.

Not Raining, Just Pouring

It sometimes happens that a number of writing projects need to be completed at the same time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the last week.

Some of these are self-imposed, like two job applications and writing a private blog entry for a closed group. But the others have been opportunities like supporting a funding application for an Edinburgh poetry organisation, and an invitation to write a public blog post for Creative Dundee.

This deluge has been a prime lesson in prioritising, some pieces due on sequential dates. I’m making headway, with only the Creative Dundee post still outstanding, but at the time of writing, I haven’t been given a definite submission date.

It does, however, pay to hit a deadline. Just yesterday, I heard I’ve had a piece selected to appear in Poetry Scotland and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Looking Ahead to Fun a Day

Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee that happens every January. There is no specific brief: you can write, draw, compose music, dance, or whatever your skillset us. The timing is designed to fill the void that artists often experience after the Christmas rush.

For the first time in a long time, we were able to meet up in person on Sunday. As I’d already arranged to do something else that day. I was only able to come along in the last 15 minutes, but it was great to see everyone again.

When I first started Fun a Day, my work was strictly writing, creating one new poem or story for each day of the month. One year consisted of writing a number of words each day that would combine to form a single sentence.

I’ve edged slowly into drawing, inspired by the other participants, and I’ve developed a style that includes recycled materials. Sometimes I use the recycled material in the work, other times I shred what I’ve created.

At the beginning of this year, I looked back at popular culture between 1998 and 2001, and writing was still an integral part of my projects. I kept a handwritten diary of my thoughts as I created each piece.

I don’t yet know what form this year’s project will take, but I know the title, and I know I’ll continue to log my thoughts in a notebook as it progresses.

Another t

Indefinite Ephemera

This week, I received a direct message on Twitter. It’s unusual for me to have one of these, so I wondered what was going on. It turned out to be from someone called Hayley.

Some background here: I’d met her six years ago at a feminist poetry evening in Dundee, and I’d performed a new poem that directly referenced my bisexuality for the first time. She’d enjoyed it and asked for a copy. However, the piece was so new that I had only one handwritten version in my notebook, so I copied out the piece and gave it to her, adding the date and place.

In the message, Hayley told me she had been 19 at the time, and had kept that paper for the last six years, adding that she found it just as validating and comforting at the age of 25.

The poem in question was then included in an anthology by the first publisher I sent it to, but it means more to me that someone has kept it for such a long time, and I hope it continues to bring such validation.

It’s not the first time someone has kept a piece of mine. A few years ago, I owed £1 to my pal Jen Robson, so I placed a coin in an envelope with a silly four-line verse on the front, expecting it to be discarded. To my knowledge, she still has it.

What to Tell; What to Leave Out

Last week, you should have seen an entry about memoir writing, but just as I was about to type it, my Internet speed inexplicably slowed to a crawl. By the time I was able to access WordPress, there were only five minutes left to hammer out a basic explanation.

It’s doubly frustrating because the planned entry was in reference to the terrorist attacks of 11 Sep 2001 and would have been more relevant last week. Rather than a straight retelling of my experience that day, I was exploring what details might be included in such an account.

I was at school in sixth-form at the time, and I heard the news just as I was about to head home.

One possible emphasis is how I heard the news: first by word of mouth from classmates, plus the librarians had set up a TV showing the news footage. One pal was also able to find out details online with the first Internet-enabled mobile phone I’d ever seen.

Anotdher possible aspect is the political one. My Economics and Modern Studies teachers were both well-informed about global security and were able to lead discussions about what might happen next. The Modern Studies course also felt as though it was being rewritten as we were trying to learn it.

In my experience, memoir is better when it comes from a certain angle, although in a lengthier account, it might be appropriate to include both versions. Ultimately there is no right or wrong emphasis. It’s up to the writer to decide what type of story to tell, and aim it in that direction.