Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

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The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.

The Short Verse

Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.


I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.

As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.

One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.

That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


Ramp up the Action

By convention, a stage play is written in three acts. The first act introduces the audience to the characters and their world, the next presents the protagonist with problems to solve, and the third makes those problems even worse until the climax near the end. The same structure can also be borrowed for screenwriting, novels and even short stories.

I’ve recently been editing my play in the hope of having it featured at a festival in April. When I started, it was an hour long, and I need to submit a 20-minute extract. I’ve decided to use the first 20 minutes, the equivalent of the first act.

When creating the extract, however, I realised there was too much exposition and not enough foreshadowing. So I’ve been working to tighten up that first act, eliminating subplots that aren’t referenced again while bringing forward those that are.

While my work isn’t finished yet, I’m now happier with the play than I was. That said, it comes at the cost of shortening the overall length, which will need to be considered at a later time.

The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.