Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

Coffee and Cosy Poetry

On Saturday evening, I attended my first poetry writing group in person for many months, held in the Blend Coffee Lounge in Dundee.

I first learnt about this directly from the café, as they asked me to pass it on to any writers who might be interested. They were also hosting separate art and craft events at the same time.

The intention here was to write what was described as ‘cosy’ poetry. Rebecca Baird read us some Wendy Cope and similar poets, then invited us to pen our own verses, mimicking the style of what we’d heard.

When I started writing about a decade ago, this is exactly the type of class I would take part in. Just as actors often attend improv groups to sharpen their reflexes, I highly recommend writers find a circle where you’re given a few words or a scenario and are asked to write a poem or a passage inspired by what you’ve heard.

In this case, I wrote for a solid 10 minutes, making each line of the piece begin with first words of the previous line. I haven’t been in a flow like that for a long time and I think I can edit that piece so to make it even better.

As yet, I don’t know when or if there will be another one of these, but I’m looking forward to taking part again.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

The Stories That Have Legs

Around this time last year, I intended to write a silly joke for Twitter. It was intended to read along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember before the Internet, you had to phone in your YouTube order and wait for the videos to be delivered?’

I never posted that joke because I kept thinking of details I wanted to add. at last count, that one-liner has gradually morphed into a short story of more than 1,800 words.

Now another piece is currently growing legs in a similar manner. My old school sports grounds are on a main road, so I often walk past them. This prompted a one-off story about a group of teenage school pupils who are required to take games class, but either loathe it or are at least indifferent about it, so they find other ways to keep themselves occupied during this time.

Unusually for me, I posted it to a popular writing website to see what the feedback would be like. Some commenters pointed out there was a potential cliffhanger, so I wrote a second part to fill that gap.

That second installment received as much attention as the first. By this time, the characters were so well-rounded that I could take them out of games class and into other locations, so a third part quickly followed.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the one-off story, I’d only named a handful of the 14 characters. This was fine for the sequel, which took place in the same location the following week. However, it had been established in the one-off that the summer break was nearly upon them. The narrator is shown to ask the named characters to meet up again during summer, but none of them were keen for their own reasons.

I therefore injected some retroactive continuity in an effort to avoid inconsistencies.

It would have been possible, but implausible, for all the named characters suddenly to change their minds about meeting up again. However, there were two unnamed characters mentioned en passant by the narrator. I pushed them centre-stage when said they had somewhere to meet over summer. This in turn persuaded the best friend of the narrator to change her mind and join them.

As such, the number of characters reduced to four, arguably a more manageable than 14. Introducing that new location then meant I was able to introduce other characters who weren’t necessarily required to have been in the previous installments.

The third part hasn’t made nearly as big a splash on the website as its two predecessors. I’ve nonetheless planned for a series of six or seven short stories because I really need to write this tale, almost regardless of the reaction.

I’m now considering releasing them as one collection, which will give me even more opportunity to make the continuity seamless rather than retrospective.

Your Words Right Back at You

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend Ailsa on Instagram who is a professional actor. She was asking her peers for monologue resources, as she was having little success finding good ones either online or in books.

You might remember in October I made a script submission to the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow. This is in monologue form, and I’d already wanted to hear it read by an actor to check whether someone else would interpret my words as I’d intended. However, I wouldn’t have had time to do this before the submission date.

Nonetheless, I asked Ailsa whether she was interested in making an audio recording. After some discussion about what form it should take and her fees for doing this, she sent on the recordings a few days later.

Holy mackarel, I should have done this a long time ago. Ailsa had added pauses and shifts in tone of voice, all in-keeping with the character. By the final scene, I couldn’t believe the life that had been injected into my own words.

Probably the most illuminating part was how little would need to be rewritten. The corrections identified so far are all minor, and come to a total of less than half a page of A4.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been working on finishing another play, this time a dialogue. When it’s time to review this, I’m seriously considering hiring other actors to read it for me.

Packed Up and Sent Away

About a week before the deadline, I learnt that the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow and had an open call for stage play submissions of at least 50 minutes. I already had a piece that fitted the criteria and was in a nearly-finished state, but I hadn’t touched it for many months.

So I hurriedly began work, giving it a once-over for any obvious errors, then restructuring where necessary. My usual way of approaching this is to read the entire script out loud, as this highlights any flaws more clearly than simply reading it over. There were parts that I felt could be beefed up, events that could be clarified or simplified, and even some instances when a character’s former name had accidentally been retained.

As much as I wanted to send it off straight away, I left it for a day or two. Coming back to it after that period lets you more easily spot mistakes that slipped past the first time. Once I was satisfied that the script was as ship-shape as it could be within the timescale available, I sent it in.

This is the first piece of work I’ve submitted for a long time. It’s been such a while that I’ve cleared the rest of my submissions tracker on the assumption that if I haven’t heard back from the listed publishers by now, I never will. It’ll be a nine-month wait before I hear back about this play, during which time I can’t send it anywhere else.

I stopped submitting short stories and poems to allow me to work on longer-form pieces, but now I’ve been working on these longer ones, it’s time to start finding a home for them.

Local Motion

If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.

I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.

Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.

For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.

Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

The Initial Hurdles

As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.

Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.

Probably the most important task to undertake before showing someone is to learn how to edit your own writing.

We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.

And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.

When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.

When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.

Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.