On Thursday, I took part in the Echo event at Dundee Contemporary Arts. This is an open call for artists and writers to respond creatively to the current exhibition; this season it’s Kate V Robertson and Andrew Lacon.
I’ve been taking part for roughly three years and each one is different in character, in mood and in style. Still, the last time was particularly unusual as there were no visual artists, only poetry and storytelling. The DCA collated some of the pieces into a leaflet to be given to the audience. The pieces are performed in the gallery itself, often in front of the artwork that inspired it.
Echo is not a paid gig. The participants volunteer their own time and the DCA benefits from increased visitors. On the face of it, this sounds like a one-sided deal in favour of the gallery, but I like doing it because I believe having a deadline keeps my skills sharp.
I’ve also come to realise that when I write a piece, I like to know my words will be seen by someone.
When I was completing my MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree, one of the tutors wanted us to complete a daily routine called five-finger exercises, where you take an existing paragraph and rewrite it in five different prescribed ways. While I understand this might be useful for beginners or creatively blocked writers, I found I was generating all that material for no useful purpose.
With Echo, I find I still have that freedom of experimentation, yet the fact it’ll be heard helps me to raise my standard as high as I can. I do occasionally write just for myself, but that’s only by exception.
I was advised that the next DCA exhibition will be ‘bonkers’, so I look forward to seeing what arises from that.
A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.
Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.
The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.
Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.
There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:
Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.
Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.
If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.
So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.
I also like to participate as often as I can, and I’m always happy to give advice to those who want to do the same. I’ve updated my guide from 2016, and I stress that it is only a subjective guide, not a textbook.
Talk with the organisers about what’s required
Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to: how long you’ll be asked to speak for, what type of content is required, whether you’ll be given an introduction, where you should wait before you’re called up, and whether any fee is payable.
If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.
Think about your own structure and running order
The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own time so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:
Give name and say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
Tell obesity clinic anecdote
Read out And an Onion One Too
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
You’re happy to sign copies
Read out The Crust of the Matter.
Note that the thanks isn’t placed at the very end. This structure means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head.
Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise
Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take from the piece.
If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising, either take it out of your set or work on it until no apology is necessary.
Read out loud and time your words
The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?
When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.
Don’t forget to use a stopwatch so your words fit within the agreed timeslot.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig
I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier.
One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Keep going through the cock-ups
Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody keeps chatting during the show. A performer has no control over these factors.
The audience will normally forget the problem if you ignore it and keep going. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who dries up and leaves the stage or screams at noisy attendees. However, if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly or say Thank you, whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and so on.
Ultimately, a good performance can increase your fan base and help sell more work.
Regular readers will know that I’m an avid blogger; I produce an entry every week come rain, shine or public holiday.
Always open to an alternative point of view, however, I clicked on a sponsored post a couple of weeks ago about the topic of how blogging doesn’t lead to book sales. Sponsored posts are usually an indicator of quality, often containing persuasive text and statistics to support the blogger’s point of view.
In this case, an author was selling a book via Kindle about how to increase Kindle sales, but using what amounted to a 3,700-word rant. I then headed to the author’s Amazon page to read what others had to say about this guy; the consensus was that the information was useful, but they objected to some unnecessary and offensive material within the text. In short, the writer had adopted the wrong tone.
Judging the tone of a piece can be a tricky business. Something meant in a satirical or sarcastic manner can be interpreted as serious or libellous, and that’s partly why I believe it’s important to take a break from a piece and to look at it later with fresh eyes.
But this sponsored post wasn’t a one-off piece written on a bad day. Everywhere this author had been published, there appeared the same attitude and the same comments. The reason I’m not linking to his site isn’t to do with the tone of that page; he’s also a pickup artist, so I’d rather not drive any more traffic there.
Fortunately, there are countless other examples available. I’d like to single out the Washington Post as having a particular problem. Consider these two headlines, published around six months apart:
In both cases, we have an accusation. Firstly, the reader is told they know nothing about US Independence Day. Secondly, it’s the sub-headline that causes a problem; it assumes that the reader has no mental impairment. This is a deliberate move from the publication to anger the reader and therefore generate a click.
What I haven’t been able to find is why we as a culture haven’t collectively learnt to ignore these sensationalist tactics, just as many users have become selectively blind to banner and sidebar advertising.
In my years of running this blog, I probably haven’t judged my tone correctly in every single entry. However, I always aim to bring people on board by moderating my words in such a way that people are engaged, not outraged.
Looking back over the last three months, each week has attracted between two and eight presses of the Like button, plus the occasional new follower. I’d much rather have two engaged readers than have a hundred people visit, be offended, and leave permanently.
On Saturday, I attended the Scottish Slam Championships for the first time. At this event, poetry slam champions from around Scotland compete to be crowned the first among their peers. Before we move into the details of the evening, what is slam poetry?
Ross McFarlane, who performed at the event, outlined the idea in an article from 2015:
Based on different criteria depending on the slam itself, poets are expected to, in one way or another, perform their poetry to be judged by the audience as a whole or a panel of onlookers (sometimes experts and sometimes not). While it might be the case that a lot of slams have more in common than just this description, it would be pretty safe to say that any event with this format could be considered a slam.
This particular Championship is run under Glasgow Rules:
The running order of the performers is determined by names drawn from a hat.
In round one, the performers each have 3 minutes to perform a poem in front of a panel of judges. The running order is then reversed and each performs a second poem.
In the second and final round, the three highest-scoring poets each duke it out with a third poem until a winner is declared.
The photo isn’t from this night, but it is royalty-free. Here are the photos from the night. [Photo by Charlyfoxtrott4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)]So what type of material can the audience expect to hear? While there’s no fixed theme, don’t expect to hear nature or Shakespearean poetry, except in a satirical context. You’re more likely to learn about the political landscape, LGBT issues, religion, and of course the self. It’s not uncommon to hear swearing either. I attended to support Angela Strachan who performed a hilarious satire on the appeal of Aldi, and A.R. Crow who reflected upon the death of George Michael.
I also happened to meet a university friend attending her first-ever slam, and what an introduction it was. It’s sometimes possible to guess who the finalists might be, but the performances were so strong that the field was wide open, even at the end of the first round. The host Robin Cairns kept the night running smoothly, trading the occasional strong insult with some of the poets.
Having seen some amazing work produced last year, I was pleased to be accepted into the Fun a Day Dundee challenge. The aim is to work on something new during January; it could be one new piece per day and/or something you append throughout the whole month.
Despite the lax rules, I decided to set three of my own to keep me moving forward:
I’ve stuck to Rule 1 every day so far. Rule 2 has already been tested when I’ve wanted to start a piece again and I have to tell myself I can’t. Rule 3 has already been satisfied; most of the work is prose and poetry, but I have pieces that don’t fall into those categories.
Those rules are listed in my commonplacing document. I’m experimenting with this practice at the suggestion of a friend; it’s essentially the process of recording how and why your works are created while you’re still working on them. Some people choose to make a scrapbook, others fill their documents with drawings, but I’m recording mine in plain text like a diary.
Fun a Day has been an opportunity to scribe the first draft of some outstanding ideas, which will then be redrafted next month. I’ve also had the opportunity to create ad-hoc work; a case in point is when I received a watch strap from Amazon in excessive packaging, and I’ve turned that packaging into an artwork that makes an environmental point.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be part of the Beans Podcast, run by three friends and updated twice a week. I appeared as one of two guests to speak on a subject of our choosing and to join in the general banter. Released on Christmas Day, the episode is available here.
But the main thrust of today’s entry is to talk about Star Wars. [Reader’s voice: On a writing blog?] Indeed, on a writing blog.
I hadn’t previously been interested in the series; I’d only seen Episode I:The Phantom Menace on its release while trying to impress a girl. But 1½ weeks ago, I decided it was time to watch Episodes I to VII in the order of release then Episode VIII: The Last Jedi at the cinema, which came as a shock to some friends.
It’s a huge time investment to watch eight films at around 2¼ hours each, and you risk letting your concentration wander, thus missing a vital plot point. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve now become really rather immersed in the universe. From reading articles online, it seems I’m more or less up to speed with the action so far, and I’m understanding a lot of the jokes and references. The next stop will be to watch some of the official spin-offs.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Star Wars, it won’t be news to you that the plot of each one follows a formula. Yet you might be surprised to find out that almost every mainstream film follows a similar formula. On his website, Michael Hague discusses the six turning points of all successful screenplays, using Erin Brockovich and Gladiator for reference.
The word ‘formulaic’ is often used negatively as a synonym for ‘predictable’. Predictability often stems from weak plot twists. A formula, by contrast, helps the screenwriter to keep the attention of the audience as the characters’ difficulties become worse and worse. Note that a happy ending isn’t necessary, merely a satisfying resolution of the preceding story; I refer you to A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Buried (2010).
Next time you’re at the pictures, look out for the structure. A good writer will make the turning points natural and the formula invisible, but these elements will almost certainly be present.