Think globally, act locally.

As this blog is about fiction and poetry, my chosen title is a correction of the phrase Think global, act local. Since think and act are verbs, I’ve added -ly to the other two words to change them from adjectives to adverbs. Now both clauses are paired up nicely.

The phrase has been around for decades, however you choose to word it, but it gained new currency at the dawn of the 21st century as more and more people had access to the Internet. For the first time, ordinary individuals could type a message and potentially have it seen instantly by a worldwide audience.

One problem this throws up is relevance. Unless I’m writing only for local folks, I somehow have to make my blog relevant to an audience much further afield, and that often means overlooking what’s happening in my own city to concentrate on our shared mass culture.

Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee c...
Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee city centre; behind it is City Square, the Caird Hall (straight ahead) and Dundee City Chambers (to the right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, however, I’ll be turning the camera on my own city of Dundee in Scotland, with a population of around 148,000. This place has made its mark on the wider world in several ways. Grand Theft Auto was coded here, James Chalmers introduced the adhesive postage stamp, and the Beano is printed five minutes from my house.

From a literary standpoint, a number of notable works have been produced by its citizens, from William McGonagall’s terrible verse in the 19th century right up to Oliver Langmead’s 2015 novel Dark Star.

Mondays are a particular bottleneck for reading and writing events, with the Literary Lock-In at the end of each month, my own group Hotchpotch near the middle of the month, and a Silent Reading Party fitting in between the two. Literary Dundee helps to coordinate these, plus the regular author visits, not forgetting the major Literary Festival in October.

Altogether, Dundee is one of the best places for a writer to be at the moment, with a more active literary scene than its population figure might suggest. Later this year, two of my poems are also scheduled to appear in Seagate III, continuing from volumes I and II published in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. You can bet I’ll be telling you all about that when it happens.

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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.

The Finish Line.

Every April, there’s a contest called Camp NaNoWriMo, an offshoot of November’s National Novel Writing Month. In November, the aim is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Camp, by contrast, allows participants to choose a word goal starting at 10,000 and to work on any type of writing.

I intended to do more work on one of my unpublished novels, which is mostly written but needed extra scenes. I did write a few thousand words of it, but I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm as I did when I edited it a couple of months ago. Rather than bore myself stupid with it, I changed focus.

A piece of advice often given to new writers is Finish what you start. It’s rare that I don’t finish work, but I did have a few short stories that had gone nowhere. I therefore used the opportunity to finish two of them.

One had started off as a little self-indulgence but rereading it after this time allowed me to work out and deliver the message I was trying to convey. The other one should have been written in one session, but I was interrupted and never went back to it. I now have a satisfactory ending for both pieces and they’re ready for a second redraft – and a ruthless reduction in their word counts. As for the novel, I will redraft it when my enthusiasm returns.

Camp NaNo is traditionally done without a group leader and without meet ups in person. In Dundee, however,  we’ve been fortunate enough to have active members who have met up every Tuesday in April to work on their respective pieces. I set my own target at 10,000 words as I also had a university paper to hand in around the same time, but thanks to these meetings, I managed to reach the goal.

If you’re also in Dundee, by the way, there’s a new monthly Literary Lock-in at the George Orwell up the Perth Road. There are no speeches or readings, just an opportunity for writers to mingle and speak with each other. The next one is on 25 May.

Author amnesia.

If British Rail posted a blog entry late, they would claim it was on time. I, however, make no such claim, but I have been busy over the last couple of days. I shall attempt to restore my Monday timetable from next week.

On Sunday, I went to see bestselling author Irvine Welsh launching his latest book A Decent Ride. There were two unusual things about this event. The first was the charge for admission since book launches are usually free in the hope you’ll buy a copy, which I did anyway. The second unusual occurrence was that I asked a question.

Hint: I'm the one that's not the bestselling author
Hint: I’m the one that’s not the bestselling author

Welsh was interviewed for 40 minutes, during which time he gave a couple of readings, one dressed as his main character. Then the audience was invited to ask questions, and I asked whether non-Scots readers find his use of slang and dialect a barrier to his work or a way of pulling them into the story. It seems readers struggle a little for the first 20 pages, but slowly learn to adjust.

I don’t what it is that stops me from thinking of a question on the spot. It’s not that I’m embarrassed, but I can’t think of something to quiz them about, and I don’t want to rely on the old classic, Do you write longhand or use a computer?

If I can think of something, I often go away thinking it was perhaps best to keep my mouth shut so I didn’t ask something stupid. That said, I saw Iain Banks live on stage twice and he invited questions from the start of both events. Again, my author amnesia struck. Shortly after the second event, he announced he was dying and cancelled all future engagements so I’ll never have another chance.

The Other 75%.

Just before I begin, a couple of an announcements for people in and around Dundee. Hotchpotch, the writers’ open-mike, is next Monday, 4 August between 7pm and 9pm at The Burgh in Commercial Street. I’m afraid I can’t make that meeting, but there’s a similar event for poets between 12pm and 4pm in Baxter Park on Sunday 10 August, to which I plan to go.

In an interview with the BBC, literary agent Johnny Geller stated that in a survey of self-published authors, 75% of those asked said it was a hobby and that he was interested in the other 25%. I think that’s a fair comment from an agent, as he needs his authors to make a full-time commitment. But I wonder how many of the other 75% would be willing to turn that hobby into a career if they were offered the right publishing deal? It can be a big step to give up the fabled day-job.

For me, it’s a trade-off between a permanent office job with a regular income versus handing in my notice and freeing up those 37 hours per week to write. There would need to be a compelling offer to give it up because if a book deal didn’t materialise, the organisation isn’t replacing lost workers so I would need to look elsewhere for another regular income.

The other consideration is how long to continue trying before finding another regular income. Six months? Two years? Until I feel as though I’m suffering for my art?

It is possible to combine the two. Oscar Wilde and Philip Larkin both worked other jobs throughout their writing careers, and I know an author who is currently employed by a major bookstore chain. The next time I have the opportunity, I’ll ask him whether he considers it a help or hindrance.

Hey hey, I wanna be a rock, er, film star

Finally, I took part in a low-budget film on Saturday as an extra. It’s called Shooting Clerks, about the making of the 1994 Kevin Smith movie Clerks. We were asked to dress in fashions of the period, so I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and a backwards baseball cap. By good fortune, I was meant to attend an open-air Grease singalong later that day. It was cancelled due to the weather, but I could have become John Travolta simply by removing my headgear.

There was no script available to have a nosy through so I don’t know too many specifics. We were simply given instructions when to laugh and applaud as if we were at a film premiere. But keep an eye out around its scheduled release date of 13 April 2015.

Ready to Play.

Having been flat on my back with illness last week, I missed the chance to go to a play on 25 June called Shape of a Girl at the Little Theatre in Dundee. It tells the story of a Canadian girl who was bullied and subsequently found dead. I’d been invited by a friend, playwright Mark McGowan, who is involved with Dundee Dramatic Society.

By last Friday of that week, I was feeling much better, and Mark invited me on a backstage tour of the theatre used by the society. It really is a little place: more like a large house than a venue. The auditorium seats just 100 people, and I saw the actors holding an intense rehearsal session there for a show that opens in August. Backstage is upstairs in the attic space, accessed by wooden staircases at the sides of the stage, yet it houses a green room, costume store, sewing room, and a coffee bar.

As Mark persuaded members of the company to sign up for his latest production, I spoke with one of the actors. The theatre group has lasted around 90 years, and we discussed how it has managed to remain in its own niche against comparable venues in the city, and the potential threat from a cinema that is due to open across the road.

I also flipped through an index of plays, each with a summary of the plot and required number of actors. Between the ages of twelve and 14, I had a brief acting career through the National Youth Music Theatre. It now strikes me just how difficult it must have been to find a suitable script so we all had a part. Similarly, Dundee Dramatic Society are volunteers, so there is little control over the age and gender of the players.

I’ve only once tried my hand at playwrighting, and I enjoyed the process. The group that runs National Novel Writing Month used to run a similar event in April called Script Frenzy where participants were challenged to produce a 100-page script during the month. Many of my local SF group chose to produce screenplays, but I elected to write for the stage as it needs only two actors.

I haven’t redrafted the script since it was written. But I’m confident I’ll one day return to it, tighten up the dialogue, iron out any plot holes, and see it performed.

 

Three Candles, Four Ws.

I admitted in my first entry that I have only been writing for fiction three years. Today marks that third year.

On 29th October 2010, I joined National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on a whim. A lot of online friends seemed to be doing it. Until then, I had written only non-fiction blog entries, so I can’t explain why I’d already had a book idea kicking around for months before this.

I didn’t initially tell anyone what I was doing,except for the active NaNoWriMo chapter I discovered in Dundee. At their meetings, and any moments I could grab, I bashed out my first novel Chris The Girl, set in the year 2525 when only women exist, and reproduce by the use of technology. I reached 50,042 words; just over the punishing target. I’ve successfully tackled it every year since, and will be starting again in a few days’ time.

Then in March 2011, I heard of a new local writing group. At school, I was forever being marked down for not writing long enough pieces, but after a few weeks, I started to think, “Chuffing Nora. I’m finding this easy.” I don’t know what changed in that ten-year gap but perhaps it was because our focus here was how to make the story flow, not on refining the grammar or making it fit an exam question.

Now I’ve written dozens of stories, and had a couple of them published, my first being with The Fiction Desk, while I haven’t really talked about my second, with FourW. My story The Almost Man will be published in their latest anthology. If you live in Australia, you can go along to one of their launch dates:

Wagga Wagga on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at Wagga Wagga City Library commencing at 2.00pm.

Melbourne on Sunday 24th November 2013 at the Robata Bar in St. Kilda commencing at 2.30 pm.

Sydney on Saturday 30th November 2013 at Gleebooks, Glebe Road, Glebe commencing at 3.30pm.

The one good element of starting late is that I’m not embarrassed by my earlier attempts. There are many people who go through their teenage notebooks and cringe at the clumsy metaphors or purple verse, whereas the worst I experience is spotting rough corners that could do with tidying up.

On the other hand, I’m very competitive and find it difficult to accept that I haven’t written nearly as much as I might have by this age. And that means I’ll forever be playing catch-up.