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.
Advertisements

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.

Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book!

I enjoy having people follow me on Twitter. If you’re so equipped, you can do so at @LadyGavGav.

As you might imagine, a number of writers follow me, plus those in other creative fields such as music or visual arts. However, there are a significant minority who do nothing but sell sell sell. If you type the words “Buy my book” into the Twitter search bar, you’ll see plenty of examples.

I understand the temptation. It was September 2013 when my first story was published in an actual proper actual book on an actual shelf somewhere. All I wanted to do was fill my 140 characters with Buy My Book! 50 times a day. But there’s a word for that, and that word is spam.

Spam is everywhere, and has been since the earliest days of the World Wide Web. Regular Web users have long learnt to filter out advertising—legitimate and dubious—to the extent that we can concentrate on genuine content. So when someone comes along with a wall of identical messages, the average user will hit the Back button like Billy Whizz.

Targeting your audience so directly also potentially discourages people from interacting with the user. How often have you been in a shopping centre when somebody at a stall enquires, “Can I ask you who supplies your gas and electricity?” I’m by no means a shy person, but I ignore that as it’s so confrontational.

Twitter
Twitter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So how do you use Twitter without coming across as a complete pillock?

One Twitter user, in my opinion, achieves a great balance. Rayne Hall is an author and editor of fiction and factual books. She intersperses promotional material with writing tips and pictures of her cat. Sometimes the feline even ‘promotes’ her books. This approach encourages people to interact with her, particularly if it’s agreeing (or disagreeing) with a writing tip or commenting on a picture, and she makes a point of responding to messages.

For my own part, I like to crack a lot of puns, mostly because they come naturally to me but partly because people bond over a bad joke in a way that they don’t over good material, according to Professor Richard Wiseman. At least then someone can say how much they liked or groaned at it. And then, when I do have something to promote, it stands out from the jokey messages.

PS, buy my books. My stories are in the following anthologies:

Don’t be a slowcoach.

Last week, I mentioned I was working to submit an essay about John Milton’s Paradise Lost before Friday.

I’m pleased to report I managed to submit it via the university’s online system on Wednesday and – as Dundee hasn’t gone fully electronic yet – in person at the office on Thursday. There will be more to come next semester, but that’s it for the moment.

Unlike Douglas Adams, I try my utmost to respect deadlines. Yes, other priorities are going to stand in the way from time to time, but not on every occasion. The last thing I want is to gain a reputation as someone who says they’ll do a piece of work then doesn’t deliver in time. Even with the essay business, I made sure there was an entry here every Monday.

Ladybank railway station Original description:...
Ladybank railway station Original description: Ladybank Railway Station Looking down the track, straight on for Perth, bear right for Dundee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday evening, I was booked to read poetry at Off the Rails at Ladybank railway station in Fife; it was at one point the stationmaster’s house. About 50 people are packed into a single room, while poets and musicians perform in front of an open fire. The building seems to be well soundproofed, so it’s rare to hear a train; the loudest noise was the wind howling outside the window.

Unfortunately, two of the four poets had to cancel, and only one replacement could be found at short notice. This gave me a deadline of less than half an hour to expand my set accordingly. I’d brought seven poems with me, which would push me just over my 10 allocated minutes.

Fortunately, the rest of my work is backed up to Dropbox and I was able to read a long piece from my phone to make up the time. It ended up being an excellent night, and I’m happy to do it again in the future.

Review of the week.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at book reviews. It’s markedly different from ordinary reading and from fiction writing, as you’ve to make notes as you go along. From these notes, you then have to identify themes and techniques, and explain why the author has or hasn’t delivered a successful product.

The first volume I reviewed was In the Catacombs by Chris McCabe, which appears on the website of Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA). I had some difficulty writing it, not only because this was one of my first pieces, but because I found the author’s research to be less focused than I would have expected. That point is reflected in the final piece.

One of the DURA editors then handed me Play with Me by Michael Pedersen, which I duly opined about. I found this one so much easier as I enjoyed his writing and the themes that emerged from it. It turned out after I’d submitted the review that the editor had given it to me purely for personal interest, but it was accepted anyway. I’ve heard the book publishers liked it as well.

Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee
Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There will also be a third review published in a few weeks, as each one goes through a rigorous edit. By that time, I’ll have returned to the MLitt Writing Study & Practice course at the University of Dundee. Part of your final mark depends upon carrying out a review of a live event, so this is prime practice. It also gives me an insight into how editors think and how to resolve any disputes that might arise.

A secondary benefit of writing reviews is exposure. The more publications in which you can place your name, the higher the chance that someone will have heard of you; like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m always pleased when this happens to me. Last week, I was recognised by an art student who had heard me at an event in May and enjoyed the two poems I read. I was especially pleased because I also enjoyed her Masters art installation so much.

That said, I forgot to ask DURA whether these reviews could be published under my pen name, as my real one is harder to spell, but I’m not bothered by it. It never hurt Peter Serafinowicz’s career.