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.

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.

Here’s What You Could Have Been Reading

Every so often, I’ll start to write an entry, then abandon it. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it; sometimes a more urgent topic arises before I can finish it.

As such, I have five draft entries in my WordPress account, listed in order of when they were last edited. The original unedited words are in italics, with further explanation below each one.

18 Mar 2018: The Importance of Outside Influences

While it is necessary for an author to read within their own genre, one of the first pieces of advice given to beginner writers is to read widely.  and collect influences from different sources.

This is fairly self-explanatory and probably would have segued into a couple of examples of where the author has successfully put together two disparate ideas to create something new.

Oddly enough, I was at a workshop run by Kirsty Logan a couple of weeks ago where she explored this very idea, so this topic might make a resurgence.

15 Oct 2019: But Who Would Want to Hear About That?

At the weekend, I took part in two different tours: on Saturday, a road train around Arbroath; on Sunday, a walking tour around the mostly-disused basement of Glasgow Central Station.

In both cases, it was clear that the guide had a vast knowledge of his subject, including a recognition that there were still mysteries to be solved

There is no shortage of fiction written by people with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject: Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, Dan Brown in Angels & Demons, &c. Often it makes for compelling reading, but an author needs to be careful not to overload the reader.

21 Jul 2019: Respeaking

Respoken.

This was the entirety of my note. It was a reference to how TV subtitles are created, at least on the BBC.

Rather than using a stenography keyboard, the operators listen to the output and use voice recognition software to produce the words on the screen. This means the computer only has to understand one person rather than a variety of volumes and accents.

This draft also came with its own image:

Sample of closed captioning on a news programme
Sample of closed captioning on a news programme

13 Jul 2020: Different Place, Similar History

Post-industrial place with distinctive dialect.

I wrote this fragment while listening to a poetry event from Wolverhampton and surrounding areas. Someone talked about living in a post-industrial place and the language that grew out of that, and I could draw a comparison with where I live, hundreds of miles away.

I’m not sure how much I could expand much on this idea, but it’s still there for the taking.

10 Aug 2020: The Fallback Formula

While taking my Masters degree, our class was asked to perform a piece for public reading. We could do anything we wanted, but the tutor suggested the prompt ‘piece of my mind’. As I wasn’t finding any ideas, I did what I often do in that situation, and go for a walk. I recall it was a freezing February night.

The walk resulted in my first list poem, called Textbook. Each of its 23 lines begins with the words ‘I’ve learnt’, in which the narrator is worried about a third party. The original plan was to begin each line with a different verb, but I found the repetitive structure worked rather well.

Those two paragraphs were the original entry, while the one below was copied directly from notes I made at the time.

Kirsty, voice suited the piece, dichotomy, you’re never the subject until last line. Corrin, liked the repetition, person depression, created flickering image. Graeme, think you can tell it’s someone close to narrator, didn’t get gender. Jackie, speaker was male, person was female. Eddie, took it as daughter who was self-harmer.

I’ve discussed my writing process many times, including the devices I rely upon, so there’s no specific reason to finish this piece.

OneBigWallOfText

I’m going to write this entry in a markedly different style to demonstrate a point. I’m normally pernickety about starting a new paragraph every two to three sentences, or perhaps only one sentence to emphasise particularly pertinent information. A surprising number of people don’t leave enough paragraph breaks, or don’t leave any, which makes the text harder to read. If you analyse a newspaper or a novel, you’ll invariably find the first sentence of each paragraph indented by a few millimetres. This tiny gap indicates that the narrative is moving on and allows the eye to rest briefly. There are occasional exceptions, like the Will Self novel Shark, deliberately shunning paragraphs in favour of a single sentence that spans the whole narrative. The Look Inside feature on Amazon shows how the publisher prudently compensates for this by using wider line spacing. In the early days of the CD-ROM and the Web, it was quickly discovered that longer articles aren’t so easy to read on a PC, and not just because of screen brightness. The main difference is that it’s possible to turn your head or eyes quickly to see a whole double newspaper spread, giving a solid frame of reference, but a computer screen can typically only show part of the text at any given time without some input by the user. As such, additional eye rests are necessary, and professional websites will generally leave at least one line between paragraphs, often with additional negative space at the sides. A big shout-out must go to WordPress for its readability. Composing an entry is done in blocks, typically containing one paragraph or illustration, and as such, it encourages spacing. The publishing layout is also widely customisable – something that social media sites could learn from – so you can fill as much or as little of the screen as you need. If you’re a writer of any sort, one action that makes your work look instantly more professional is to leave paragraph spaces. It doesn’t have to be every two or three sentences like me; indeed, Virginia Woolf was known to use page-long paragraphs. Your reader’s eyes, however, will thank you for the occasional rest.

The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

From our Correspondents

I started this blog in October 2013 with no real expectation of gaining an regular audience. As I mentioned at the time, it was done as an experiment to make me write more regularly.

Over time, the number of people reading it has steadily increased. Any given week, I can bank on between 4 to 6 people pressing the Like button, and they are all appreciated.

Every so often, I’ll receive replies to my entries. Most often, it’s from my pal Webgirluk, whom I’ve known for nearly two decades from LiveJournal. Then last week, I found a comment from someone I met at a poetry workshop a few years back.

This started me thinking how bad I am at reading others’ entries. I have followed a lot of people over the last eight years, but I rarely have a chance to read their words, let alone comment on them.

I spend a lot of time speaking to writers and organising events, and I wish I could say I’d make the time to read the words of my WordPress contacts, but I can’t make that promise. The best I can offer is that I know they’ll always be there for when it’s possible to read them.

Using Fractals as Illustrations

Regular readers will probably have spotted that each of these blog entries has a pattern as its featured image. Specifically, these are fractals, each generated by a mathematical formula.

It’s long been known that visual content appeals more to users than plain text. However, licencing pictures can be expensive and appropriate public domain images are hard to find. My content is all about writing, which – by its nature – is often plain text.

Instead, I use a program called Xaos for generating these patterns. As I’m not mathematically-minded, I simply use the random image generator, cycling through them until an interesting one appears.

What’s more, it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. This helps me a lot, as I commonly write or edit my entries up to the last minute.

The main cover picture is my own work, though. A few years ago, I would attend writing classes in the grounds of Barry Mill, a former watermill in Angus, and I captured this wonderful shot of a light over the doorway. I’m unlikely to replace that with a fractal any time soon.

Still Trying and Failing to Read

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a 12-hour Yule readathon, run by a pal from one of my writing groups. The intention was to devote a day to reading, with optional mini-challenges. I did manage to read on that day, but not as extensively as I’d wanted.

Then couple of weeks ago, we re-ran the event. Rather than start any new books, I wanted to make some progress with War & Peace.

I’d left it about halfway through, and I hadn’t touched it in some time. A lot of people think it’s a hard read from the sheer size, but actually, it’s divided into four volumes with chapters no longer than any other novel. You could easily finish a couple before bedtime.

As I jumped straight back into the story and remembered what had happened, I enjoyed it as much as I did the last time I picked it up. But have I touched it again since then? I really want to say yes, but I have not.

The trouble is not finding the time per se, but alloacating it. You see, a lot of what I do in a week is time-sensitive: creating announcements for my groups, writing this blog, keeping up my exercise routine. Reading, alas, doesn’t need to be done by any particular time, so it’s often left behind.

That said, I’m going to make a concerted effort with Mort by Terry Pratchett. On Saturday, I’m again meeting up with the woman who lent it to me about a year ago, and I’d like to be able to return it fully read.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.