Nobody’s Ever Over the Weather

For the last six days, I’ve been rather unwell. It’s not the Big Thing, that’s for sure, but it’s meant I’ve been less physically able to move. This has meant I’ve spent more time in front of the computer.

On the plus side, though, I was able to devote some time to a short story I’d half-written, and it didn’t take that long to finish.

Unfortunately, the effort it took to finish that story has drained the energy required to write a blog entry. So tune in next week when this illness has hopefully eased off a bit more.

The Energy of the Beginner

Having run events for so many years now, it’s always interesting to watch the folks who are new to writing.

Some have an idea, but don’t know how to start off. Others need constant reassurance that they’re doing a good job. There are even some who fill every spare moment with writing classes and courses.

It’s not only inevitable that everyone will go through this process, but it’s necessary. All the experimentation allows you to figure out your preferences and dislikes. From my own perspective, I figured out early on that I like sending my work to publishers but entering it into competitions. I then worked out that I like to pen monologues or plays rather than novels.

If you do have that kind of energy, my advice is to use it while you have it. Bluntly, once your motivation goes, it might never return.

Repetitive Reading, Repetitive Reading, and Repetitive Reading.

On Christmas Eve, a pal and I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the cinema. After the showing, we discussed the number of times we’d seen it. In her case, it was around the 15th time; for me, probably around eight or nine.

Unlike my pal, it’s a rarity that I’ll watch a film more than once. Ones that fall into the three-times-over club include The Matrix, Home Alone, and Star Wars: Episode IV. I simply don’t gain the same enjoyment from watching something again, especially if it’s soon after the last time.

With books, it’s even less likely I’ll read one for a second time. It’s not just that I can’t find the same enjoyment, but there’s a greater time commitment. Assuming a minute per page, a novel takes far longer to read than the two hours or so needed to watch a film.

The only attempt I’ve ever made was with the Christopher Brookmyre story All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. In that case, I didn’t even reach the halfway point.

I do, nonetheless, tend to keep books afterwards if I like them. I might never again read A Clockwork Orange, Breakfast at Tiffany’s nor Fight Club, but I do like to know they’re there.

Redrafting the Unredraftable

Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.

This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.

Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.

I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.

As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.

Note to Self – Don’t Call This Entry ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’

Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.

I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.

As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.

That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.

One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.

That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.

When The Muse Strikes

As I sit down to write, it feels like a continuation of the last entry, where I talked about inspiration appearing at 5am. This time, however, the inspiration happened near the end of the day.

I’ve been asked to provide a poem for a 12 Days of Gratitude project. As late as Saturday of last week, I’d absolutely run dry of ideas. There were plenty of people to thank, but nothing that fitted into a structure.

While I do find walking helps with the process, I wasn’t having much luck – and over an hour later, I thought of my first line and the structure. I even took a couple of pictures to document this. It’s rare that I would show such an incomplete draft so early, but it happened by surprise.

Half-completed villanelle about gratitude
Half-completed villanelle about gratitude

My walk had taken in river views and grassy areas, but when I wrote those lines, I was probably the least inspiring place I’d been that evening: behind the Mecca Bingo.

Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written
Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written

What I need to do now is finish the piece and make a recording of it, but arguably the hardest part is over, so the rest should be plain sailing.

Murder, She Implied

Turn on the TV any given afternoon, and chances are you’ll find what may be termed a cosy crime drama, from Quincy ME via Midsomer Murders to the relatively recent The Doctor Blake Mysteries.

Yet despite the deaths that are central to the storylines, they remain PG-rated, and would never be categorised alongside – for example – NCIS or Criminal Minds. So why is this?

The answer lies in what’s portrayed onstage and offstage. Whereas CSI can show graphic violence or injuries front and centre, the most you’ll see in Murder She Wrote is a dead body slumped over a desk with no visible blood.

Offstage events are an underrated tool in a writer’s arsenal. They can help to further the plot without slowing it down.

Let’s say a character has a meeting to discuss the details of a project. Rather than writing page upon page of negotiation, it can be more effective to show the person going into the meeting at the end of one chapter, then summarising to someone else over coffee in a subsequent chapter.

Some publishers even ask that certain themes are kept offstage. The fiction guidelines for The People’s Friend require that themes such as divorce are kept away from the main narrative.

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.