Moving On

On Friday evening, I finished National Novel Writing Month just over the target of 50,000 words.

But rather than look back and analyse the struggles of achieving that goal, I feel more inclined to tackle the tasks that had to be put aside in the meantime.

To that end, have a great week, and I look forward to updating you in a more complete fashion.

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Dear Diary

Last Monday, our open-mike night for writers moved back to its old venue after a refurbishment. We had an excellent turnout and enough material for more than two hours, not including the two 15-minute breaks. A couple of the staff also said they enjoyed meeting us.

Then on Tuesday, it was our NaNoWriMo meeting where we sometimes write and sometimes chat and always exchange ideas and maybe fill in each other’s plot holes. After that, I spent a little time at a playwriting evening called Scrieve where playwrights get to hear their work performed by volunteer actors.

On Thursday, I was with my poetry group Wyverns where we each presented our poems about Frankenstein on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. There is a local connection as she acknowledged in an essay that the grim Dundee climate inspired her creation. Our poems have been published in a slimline booklet.

Saturday was when we had our second NaNoWriMo meeting of the week, and despite not starting until the afternoon, it was one of my most productive days so far with 2,500 words written. However, at the end of Sunday, I only had 35,482 when I needed 41,666 to stay on target. If I don’t pull my finger out soon, I’m not going to manage the 50,000 words, but dear diary, you can tell anyone I admitted this.

I Didn’t Know You Could Do That

When I was around 15 or 16, I heard a track on Radio 2. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before.

There was no singing, yet it wasn’t recognisably rap music. Rather, someone was speaking words over an acoustic funk groove, telling us that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this point, I knew nothing about Gil Scott-Heron and I didn’t understand the majority of his references. Nonetheless, in a little over three minutes, it had shown me something that I didn’t know could be done with words, a relentless stream of passion. When I was at university, I bought the album featuring the track. This was a good 10 years or so before I started to write poetry. But together with the first two albums by The Streets, my mind was stretched in a different direction. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m more selective about what I enjoy and more critical of what I hear. However, these eye-opening moments still happen every so often. Last week, I went to an event in Birmingham held by Out-Spoken Press. I’d initially heard about this through Harry Josephine Giles, who rotated the book while reading from it. I bought it afterwards, and I could see why. The words curled, or were set vertically, or were occasionally run together in a massive heap, whereas it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than start a new line. Birmingham is a more multicultural place than where I’m from, and racism is something that Anthony Anaxagorou tackles head-on, just as Scott-Heron did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Ollie O’Neill spoke frankly about her experience of Britain’s mental healthcare system, a common theme among poets. Unfortunately, neither of their books are published until next year, so I’ll have to wait. However far my writing career goes, I don’t want to turn into one of these idiots who think they know it all and who stop learning or who taking constructive criticism on board. I want these moments to keep happening to me, the ones that hit me like Gil Scott-Heron did when I was a teenager.

To the Edge

Over the past week or so, I’ve had a lot of time to write while travelling on trains. In fact, I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham that reminds me of an old-school Butlins chalet. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s marvellous.

Unfortunately, while writing, I haven’t had much time to write about writing. I only started this entry at 5:30pm and it’s due to be published at 6pm.

Douglas Adams is known for saying, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ I know he was trying to be funny, but I can’t get behind that mentality. To me, a deadline needs to be met, even if it’s a self-imposed one.

Last week, a friend needed a reference for a job application. I hadn’t read the e-mail properly and didn’t realise it needed to be done on the same night. I wrote it nonetheless on the grounds that the employer might be flexible. My friend agreed, so I submitted it the moment it was proof-read.

My top tip for meeting deadlines is to use a paper diary rather than a phone calendar; I favour a Moleskine. The pages are much larger than a mobile device allows, so you can see a week at a time, and you can refer to it while you’re speaking to someone on the phone.

It’s Gonna Be Epic!!

I was invited last week to be part of a one-off writing workshop. I knew little about the content in advance because it was brought to my attention by a third party. However, I believe improv keeps me sharp, so I was excited to go along and find out.

Martin O’Connor led us through the workshop. He’s interested in epic poetry, particularly in the Scots dialect, so he was holding these sessions around Scotland.

As part of the exercise, the eight or so participants were asked to complete several statements ranging from ‘My favourite holiday was…’ to ‘After death, I believe we…’ From these, we were asked to build a chronology of one aspect of our lives, before building up to the beginning of an epic piece of prose or poetry.

Martin invited us to send the work to him, either as it was written in the workshop or expanded into a full-length piece. The work didn’t necessarily have to be in Scots; in fact, none of the participants wrote that way.

Poetry is about boiling down big concepts into a few words, so for epic poetry, you need a lot of source material. Paradise Lost by John Milton is based upon Bible Scripture so he had a lot of material to draw up. Similarly, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are both set over a 10-year period.

Prose allows a little more flexibility for expanding ideas. The classic example is War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which runs to 250,000 words. This took seven years to write, and is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place from 1803 to 1815.

This month, I’ve started upon my annual attempt at National Novel Writing Month, as well as leading the local region with the help of a co-host.

The target is 50,000 words, more modest than the works mentioned above, but the challenge is to write them all within 30 days. Fortunately, I’ll be spending a lot of time on trains, giving me ample time to boost that word count, and the region as a whole is nearly at the 300,000-word mark.

Of course, the new standard of epic literature is neither fiction nor poetry. In July 2016, Sir John Chilcot published his long-awaited report about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It ran to 2.6 million words.

The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.