Dear Journal

This blog is currently updated every Monday at 5pm. Each entry is usually finalised a day or two beforehand, then is set up to post automatically at the allotted hour; however, I still like to check manually whether the update has worked.

This is a scan of a microfilm of the third pag...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began this blog four years ago, it was convenient to make this check at 5pm. These days, it’s more difficult to be available at that time. So from next week, this blog will be updated every Monday at 6pm. However, as a participant and an organiser of National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to be hella busy over the next four Mondays. As such, my entries for this period will probably be short, functional affairs.

If you are taking part in the NaNoWriMo challenge, remember to take good care of your physical and mental health. In my region, Dundee & Angus, our ethos is that there’s no shame in not reaching 50,000 words, and it’s something our participants will be sick of hearing by the end of November.

It is a tough contest but it’s meant to be fun, so don’t let it overwhelm you. If it does, talk to your Municipal Liaison, or someone you trust.


Ask Me a Question

As I’ve had a busy week, I haven’t been able to construct a full entry. So this week, it’s over to you.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to ask me? Whether it’s related to writing or not, now is your opportunity.

Gavin ‘The Brand’ Cameron

Fans of the BBC TV show The Apprentice will remember a candidate who styled himself as Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs. While his idea of branding was certainly misguided, it was nonetheless a memorable gimmick. As a writer, it is similarly important to consider how you’ll be perceived by your readers.

Next time you’re in a bookshop or a library, have a look at some of the book covers. You’ll often find that books by the same author share certain elements: perhaps the author’s name is written in a particular typeface, or perhaps a certain style of artwork is common between them. But branding goes so much deeper than a cover. It can include the personality or values that you want to convey to the reader.

Bronco branding in the Top End.
Bronco branding in the Top End. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My own branding begins with my moniker: Gavin Cameron is actually my first and middle names. My real last name is Cruickshank, but I don’t use it because there are several possible variations in the spelling, and it serves as a small distinction between my real life and writing life. Not to mention that Crookshanks is Hermione Granger’s cat in the Harry Potter series.

There is a long literary tradition of pseudonyms, and this is catered for in the standard manuscript format. Your real name goes in the address at the top left-hand corner, while your pen name is included in the byline underneath the title. I also mention it in the body of the e-mail or on the cover sheet.

Even so, the issue does occasionally cause problems. A couple of times, show organisers have thought that Gavin Cameron and Gavin Cruickshank were two different people. One organiser recently made publicity material in the name of Cruickshank instead of Cameron, and it’s now being corrected.

In an attempt to stop this from happening again, I’ve now made it clear in my e-mail signature:

Gavin Cruickshank
writing as Gavin Cameron.

On the same subject, you might have noticed my Twitter name @LadyGavGav. Although I’ve never liked my first name being shortened to Gav, and still don’t, I felt I had to take that Twitter name as it was available and was an improvement over my previous handle @Knaw_Says.

An Empty Tank

In preparing this week’s entry, I struggled to choose a topic: the singular ‘they’, ‘because’ as a position, past neologisms we now take for granted, the work-life balance, even the events of 11 September 2001.

I managed to start writing a couple of these topics, and I couldn’t even begin on the others. Either I ran out of material or lost my enthusiasm halfway through. I hesitate to use the term ‘writer’s block’, because I didn’t have trouble beginning these entries, only carrying on to form them into the shape of a coherent blog post.

Русский: Это мои коты
I also couldn’t decide which picture would best illustrate my point, so here are two cats. I hear felines are perennially popular on the Internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my experience, there are two main strategies for overcoming this difficulty. Strategy 1 is for when a deadline isn’t looming: I’ll leave it aside and go for a walk or do something else while the idea sorts itself out in my head.

However, I’m writing this on Sunday with the time fast approaching 3pm. Although it’s more than 24 hours until I publish, eight of these will be spent in bed, another eight will be spent at the office, and I would like to leave some time to proofread the text before it goes live. So Strategy 2 involves writing and writing until something usable appears on the screen. Just as you’re more likely to win a raffle prize if you buy more tickets – although it’s never guaranteed – you also have more chance of finding the right words when you write more of them.

As for the topics listed in the first paragraph, I’ll leave them aside for the moment and I might come back to them for a future entry.

Your 30-Minute Trial

I’m working on an MLitt dissertation at the moment, among other projects, and this has left me little time to compose an entry.

In lieu of a proper entry, here’s an activity:

  1. Find a book you wouldn’t normally touch, or that you’re unsure about.
  2. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
  3. Read as much of the book as possible in that time.
  4. If you find you like it when the timer sounds, keep on reading. If not, leave it there.
  5. Let us know how you found the experience.

I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Normally, blog entries come to me easily. It might be prompted by a comment during the week, or be inspired by a particular problem I’m having.

This week, however, I’ve been struggling to complete an entry. I started on the topic of swearing, then about gaps in your writing CV, then about third-person biographies, but none of these topics were going anywhere. I might return to them in the future, but today’s entry is about finishing what you start.

I normally good at finishing stories and poems, but I have a few that have been untouched since the first draft. Most recently, I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I abandoned my original idea after four verses because it was much too wordy and I wanted to take the narrative in a different direction. Here are those four verses:

We saw the archipelago of masts
while sailing over Dogger Bank in gale
force six conditions. They displayed full sails
like pirate vessels of the ancient past.
They numbered in the twenties. We informed
our captain. She immediately warned

them of our presence with a blast,
instructed us to try the radio.
All frequencies, all wattages, yet no
response was heard. When 30 minutes passed,
she ordered that her ship should deviate
of-course toward the masts, though gale force eight

was forecast. Once we had a closer view,
we noticed something out of place. The decks
were underwater. So it seemed. We checked
again. Correct. All decks submerged, no crew,
no skeletons, no personal effects,
just masts with sails and ragged flags. Perplexed,

we asked the captain where to go. Perplexed,
she stopped us by the archipelago.
Again we tried to use the radio
as gale force eight turned into 10. The next
the next we knew, the bow was pointing in the air.
It knocked us to the deck.

This needs a lot of work done. There are a number of options to breathe new life into it: cut out unnecessary words and phrases, continue to add verses, rewrite it as prose, recycle elements of it into other works, and/or cut it into individual phrases and shuffle them about.

To make what became the response, I used some elements of this story, cut out a lot of detail and rendered it as prose. The final result mimicked the shipping forecast on Radio 4.

I’ve done something similar for older pieces. Around 2011, I wasn’t writing much poetry and I thought what I had was quite a good piece. Four years later, I revisited it while answering a writing prompt and it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I took the same idea but structured the verse differently and I’m now happy with it.

Some writers seem scared to finish pieces, as if they’ll think of a better word or structure as soon as it’s been submitted to a publisher. But if its publication you’re looking for, there comes a time when you need to let go of it. Remember there will be every opportunity to amend it if it’s rejected, and some publishers will allow – or insist upon – amendments if it’s accepted.

I’ve been asked before how I know when I’ve finished a piece. That’s not an easy one to answer, but the best measure I have is when I stop thinking about it day-to-day. That’s when I leave it alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes later on.

It’s a good idea to finish what you start, at least to the best of your ability. If you see the perfect outlet for your piece, it’s much easier to tweak it than to have to add or remove significant portions. You might then be able to submit it comfortably before the deadline.

Irregular behaviour.

Anyone who’s attempted to learn English as a foreign tongue can tell you how weirdly different it is from other languages. I’d like to focus on just a few of these absurdities, prompted by the recent decision of the American Dialect Society to award their Word of the Year to the singular they.

To refer to yourself, you use I; to refer to a group you’re part of, it’s we. The English language has this sorted. However, a third party group is given the pronoun they, while a third party that’s not part of a group is given he, she or it. These latter three pronouns are often fine to use, but there can be problems.

English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns - third...
English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns – third person singular (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Supposing you’ve received an anonymous letter. How would you refer to the author? It would be inappropriate to say it because it wasn’t written by an animal nor an inanimate object. Similarly, it’s unwieldy to keep saying he or she. So like a trooper, they steps up to the challenge.

To compound matters, there are people who are not necessarily transgender but who identify as a mixture of both genders or as neither, and therefore it would be incorrect to write he, she or it. Again, they volunteers for duty.

So on the whole, they fills the gender-neutral gap in our language, and it has done for hundreds of years. Yet it falls foul of another uniquely English grammar quirk.

Let’s use the verb to run. Substituting the to for a pronoun gives us: I run, you run, we run, but he, she or it runs. So when we use they as a singular, it ought to be correct to say they runs, but it sounds wrong.

Why, then, hasn’t anyone come up with with a suitable substitute? Folk have tried, but none have caught on. The Guardian gives a detailed account of the search for the magic word while the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides a guide about using personal pronouns.

If you’re unsure about word usage, you could do worse than follow Hannah McCall. She’s a qualified proofreader who writes about the trickier points of English in her blog, yet in an accessible manner. I’m also aware she can probably find a dozen holes in this entry alone.

But I don’t want you to go away feeling that English is the worst language in the world. After all, we have some words that no other language has.

One of these is serendipity, when you make a beneficial or pleasing find by chance. Another biggie is trade-off, which won an award a few years ago as it’s so difficult to translate. It’s not a mere compromise, but where you exchange one quality for another, while understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each.