Two In a Room

Last week, I was working in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to see the TV writer John Osborne in Wolverhampton. The Arena Theatre wasn’t busy when I entered, but I didn’t expect to be one of just two people in the audience.

It must have felt frustrating for Osborne, especially as he plans to take the show on tour, but he didn’t let it show as he took the microphone. He was there to promote his book No-One Cares about Your New Thing.

And what a performance it was, with the first half devoted to poems and the second filled with a personal humorous story centred around his late grandfather’s collection of old Radio Times magazines.

At the end, he offered us both a complimentary copy of the book, though I did pay for mine; I’d planned to buy one from the moment I heard the first poem.

I’ve also had experiences where there’s far less of an audience than I expected. There’s nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.

At one meet-up of Hotchpotch a couple of years ago, there was me plus five attendees, far removed from the dozens we attract today. Since it was a mild summer night, we decided to head into the beer garden and hold an open-air event.

Incidentally, it seems that the Arena Theatre holds a similar open-mike event called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to their upcoming events, although I might manage to see the poet Jess Green in March.

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A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.

Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.

Slam Up

Having taken a break from my poetry group to join a choir, I jumped back in on Thursday. The Wyverns meet up every month to give each other feedback on our latest work. In my absence, they’d acquired a new member and set up a Twitter account.

The great strength of the group is the freedom to write in your own style. One member tends towards long and thin poems; another usually has a political undertone; a third normally writes no more than ten lines. I aim to produce something original for each meeting.

This month, one of our suggested prompts was ‘memory’. I received positive feedback from the piece, with one commenting that it had more impact when read aloud instead of on the page, although it wasn’t specifically written for either page or stage.

Speaking of performance poetry, however, I had the opportunity to watch the Scottish Slam Championship in Glasgow yesterday. The participants are all winners of other slams that took place around the country over the last twelve months.

Unlike a rap battle, as seen in the film 8 Mile, these performers don’t go head to head. Instead, they’re each allowed to perform two pieces for up to three minutes apiece in front of a panel of judges. The three who score the most combined points for their poems – four if there’s a tie – then perform another one. The best one of those is invited to the Poetry World Series in Paris.

Robin Cairns is the perennial host of the Scottish Slam, this year introducing more than a dozen contenders covering all manner of subjects, including mental health, feminism, self-worth and many stations in between. Each was so strong so that a clear winner wasn’t evident to me; however, the judges awarded most points to Calum Rodger, so he’ll be heading to France in May.

One of the other poets that particularly inspired me was Gray Crosbie, who talked about struggling to find a gender-neutral barber. I already had a poem with a related theme, but I’d left it aside months ago as it wasn’t working out as I intended.

As I sat on the bus home, I rewrote it in around an hour, and this time I’m much happier with the result.


It’s Been a Good Week

It’s been a good week for completing some writing. It has, in fact, been a terrific week for this activity. However, it’s left me with no time for writing a blog entry.

I therefore refer you to my Fun a Day project on Instagram . The captions of the last ten or so posts talk more about the fragments of text in the pictures.

I’ll be back here next week with a full entry.

All the Fun of the Day

For the second year, I’ll be taking part in Fun a Day. This is a project where participants do something creative during January, either one project per day or something larger over the entire month.

I’ve already started to document my progress in a commonplace book. With the official hashtag now announced, I posted my first two pictures online. The first contained the three rules of my project. The second contained this quote from Monica Geller in Friends.

Rules are good! Rules help control the fun!
Rules are good! Rules help control the fun!

My main project will be text-based. I’ll be writing a fragment of 40 words on Day 1, 39 words on Day 2, and so on until I’m writing 10 words on Day 31. The text will form a complete circle so the fragment on the last day will join up with the fragment on the first.

That said, being around visual artists has had an effect on me. Last year’s project consisted largely of pen on lined paper, which looked somewhat out of place compared to the other participants’ installations. Poets think about how their work looks on the page; artists think about how it looks on the wall.

In fact, the proposed title is Line for a Walk, derived from a quote by the artist Paul Klee. Depending upon which source you read, he said, ‘A line is simply a dot going for a walk,’ or ‘A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.’ I actually used this analogy to explain to the organiser what it’s like to write a novel in a month, and the phrase stuck with me.

There are side projects planned alongside the main one, but these aren’t quite so rigorously defined yet. Even if they don’t happen, January will not be a dull month.