Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.

Preserving Audience Expectations

About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a poet who’s planning a book tour and was looking to promote it later this year, either in an existing event or as a one-off collaboration.

I was rather excited by the idea. This poet is quite well-known on the Scottish scene and to have her along at Hotchpotch would be a terrific boon.

On the other hand, our open-mike night is not set up to place the focus on one person. Instead, everyone who comes along on the night is given equal time and prominence. Furthermore, we’ve already arranged to vary the format in September and November this year to welcome an established company. The question was whether a third time might have been too much.

As such, I made the suggestion of having the book launch before the open-mike. I also urged the poet to contact another organiser whose events do have a headline act.

I then received a message from the other organiser at the weekend saying this person was ‘quite a scoop’ for his event. Although the door is still open for a Hotchpotch tie-in, I still feel it was a good call to preserve the open-mike element and therefore the expectations of the audience.

Wherever this poet chooses to launch, I look forward to seeing it happen.

Dvorak Devotee

One of the greatest writing-related discoveries I’ve made in the last 15 years is the Dvorak keyboard layout.

The letters are arranged in such a way that the most common ones are on the middle row – including all the vowels – and you don’t need to stretch as far for a full-stop or a comma. You can read more about the improvements made in this BBC News article. The inventor designed his system decades before the personal computer revolution, yet it’s natively supported on both Windows and Mac.

The hardware is another story. While I do have a custom-made Dvorak keyboard, it’s not always practical to take it with me. Fortunately, I can touch-type and I’ve learnt where the letters are by sheer muscle memory. At one point I could even mentally switch between that and QWERTY, depending on whether I was at home or work. For the last 18 months, I’d been able to use exclusively Dvorak in both places.

That changed yesterday. I started a new job and was issued with a new laptop. It’s similar to my own and runs Windows, but the administrator has jammed it into QWERTY mode only. I’ve therefore spent the last 24 hours relearning the most popular layout in the Anglosphere.

In theory, this should be easy because the letter on the keyboard matches the letter you want to type. However, when I learnt touch-typing at school, it was drilled into me that you look at the screen, not your fingers, so I have to remember to look down from time to time. Today has produced better results than yesterday, but it’s going to take some time before I can once again switch flawlessly between QWERTY and Dvorak.

A Surprisingly Unpopular Event

I received a message from someone local who’s currently working on a community-focused project that launches this weekend. It’s aimed at encouraging people to think more about the clothes they have, the memories they represent, and imagining what might happen when these items are passed on.

One of the proposed events was to bring in local poets to respond to the above themes, but as the organiser didn’t know many poets, she wanted to tap into my connections. I was happy to help out, and I spoke to two of my poetry groups.

After a week, I was surprised to receive virtually no response to my messages, especially as the clothing event was intended to take place in person. As an organiser, I’ve found that people react to staged events more positively, as the public has become weary of so many virtual ones.

I explained this to the organiser but added that I would still like to contribute. My starting point was a T-shirt from 1996 that I still own, and the resulting piece became an exploration of when I met my first girlfriend at age 12, and how my approach to relationships has changed between then and now.

I don’t know whether I’ll actually be able to attend, as something more pressing has arisen, but I wish her all the best with the project.

When You Find the Words

I’m pernickety about keeping backups of my stories and poems, even if I ultimately don’t end up doing anything further with them. Each is given its own folder, and the different versions appear in date order. The oldest files go back more than a decade.

As such, I was most surprised that I couldn’t find a certain light verse I’d written in 2018. I tried searching by title: Too Chicken. I then tried searching by first line: I’m in love with the woman from Nando’s. I tried searching again with other words I recalled from the text, but no results appeared.

I thought I would have to reconstruct the piece from memory. I knew a reasonable chunk of the text, and it was written in a triolet form, so some lines would be repeated at predictable points.

The other day, however, I was looking at Snapchat. The app has a Timehop-style section where you can look back at pictures you sent in years gone by. I don’t often use that feature, but I’m glad I did, because I’d taken a picture of the original handwritten draft.

A lot of my pieces are first jotted down in pencil, and are then typed up and edited to create a second draft. That critter had somehow escaped the net, but it’s now safely on my computer and can be easily found.

Thinking Time

My main way to consume novels and other publications is to listen to the audiobook version. This allows me to walk or run or be otherwise active at the same time, so I tend to read paper books only if there’s no other option.

However, I also go through periods of not listening to anything, and I’m currently in one of these periods.

I mentioned in my last entry that I’d been unwell, but that I was able to finish a short story I’d half-written. I’m feeling much better, and I’m back to leaving the house for much longer periods. I’ve been using this time to think about the sequel to that story, and now that’s coming along nicely.

I’ll eventually be ready to go back to the audiobooks, but I can’t see that happening for a little while yet, at least until that sequel is completed. But when that day comes, I’ll be able to pick up from where I left off.

Nobody’s Ever Over the Weather

For the last six days, I’ve been rather unwell. It’s not the Big Thing, that’s for sure, but it’s meant I’ve been less physically able to move. This has meant I’ve spent more time in front of the computer.

On the plus side, though, I was able to devote some time to a short story I’d half-written, and it didn’t take that long to finish.

Unfortunately, the effort it took to finish that story has drained the energy required to write a blog entry. So tune in next week when this illness has hopefully eased off a bit more.

The Energy of the Beginner

Having run events for so many years now, it’s always interesting to watch the folks who are new to writing.

Some have an idea, but don’t know how to start off. Others need constant reassurance that they’re doing a good job. There are even some who fill every spare moment with writing classes and courses.

It’s not only inevitable that everyone will go through this process, but it’s necessary. All the experimentation allows you to figure out your preferences and dislikes. From my own perspective, I figured out early on that I like sending my work to publishers but entering it into competitions. I then worked out that I like to pen monologues or plays rather than novels.

If you do have that kind of energy, my advice is to use it while you have it. Bluntly, once your motivation goes, it might never return.

Repetitive Reading, Repetitive Reading, and Repetitive Reading.

On Christmas Eve, a pal and I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the cinema. After the showing, we discussed the number of times we’d seen it. In her case, it was around the 15th time; for me, probably around eight or nine.

Unlike my pal, it’s a rarity that I’ll watch a film more than once. Ones that fall into the three-times-over club include The Matrix, Home Alone, and Star Wars: Episode IV. I simply don’t gain the same enjoyment from watching something again, especially if it’s soon after the last time.

With books, it’s even less likely I’ll read one for a second time. It’s not just that I can’t find the same enjoyment, but there’s a greater time commitment. Assuming a minute per page, a novel takes far longer to read than the two hours or so needed to watch a film.

The only attempt I’ve ever made was with the Christopher Brookmyre story All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. In that case, I didn’t even reach the halfway point.

I do, nonetheless, tend to keep books afterwards if I like them. I might never again read A Clockwork Orange, Breakfast at Tiffany’s nor Fight Club, but I do like to know they’re there.

Redrafting the Unredraftable

Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.

This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.

Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.

I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.

As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.