ʍǝᴉΛ ɟo ʇuᴉoԀ ɹǝɥʇou∀

On Tuesday two weeks ago, I was hurrying back to the office after lunch to prepare for a meeting. En route, I spotted tourists taking photographs of nearby statues, taking advantage of a brief window of sunshine in an otherwise rainy week.

Exactly a week later, I was the tourist at the Edinburgh Fringe squeezing past locals in bus stops as they went about their business. This started me thinking about point of view in the stories we write.

Let’s fictionalise the scenario above into character sketches, starting with the first-person point of view of the office worker:

I didn’t mean to take so long over lunch, but I was dreading that meeting. Profits are down for the third quarter and couldn’t explain why. Just then, some tourist, not looking where he’s going, steps back trying to get a picture of some statue and knocks the papers right out my hand. He’s in a world of his own and if I wasn’t so late, I’d have had a word with him. But I picked them up and carried on and went to the meeting and just said customer engagement was better than ever.

And now from the first-person point of view of the tourist:

Finally, a sunny afternoon after all that rain. Thought I’d take the chance to come out of the museums and take a few photos round the town centre. There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria so I had to step back quite a bit just to fit it all in. Next thing I know, bumped into some local who’s more concerned with reading documents than looking out for people. Said I was sorry, as you do, but she just ignored me. Fine by me. I got the picture I wanted.

Hynek Moravec - Self-photographed
Hynek Moravec – Self-photographed

Already, we can see a difference in the two characters’ points of view. The office worker is in a hurry and preoccupied about the meeting, but the tourist is more relaxed and concerned with taking good photos. We also see different details depending on the perspective of the character. Finally, let’s examine the same scenario in the first person:

On Tuesday afternoon, Alice left the pub clutching her documents with five minutes to spare until the meeting. She still could give no good reason why profits were down for the third quarter. Meanwhile, Ben cupped his hand to his camera screen against the strong sun. The statue needed a wider angle. Without turning around, he stepped back. At that moment, Alice turned the corner and they bumped into each other.

The first and second passages are in the first-person voice. The characters use ‘I’ and ‘me’ to describe what’s happening from their perspective. But neither of them knows what the other is thinking; they can only make assumptions based on the actions of the other party. This voice is an excellent way to portray an unreliable narrator.

The third passage is in the third person, a more objective point of view. The narrator uses ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’. We now find out the names of the characters, which is also possible in the first person. But that would require a self-introduction or for a second character to mention the name, which might distract from the story. It’s also revealed that Alice was in the pub. Was this detail simply not at the forefront of her mind, or is she an unreliable narrator with a drinking problem?

So we have a choice to make, and it’s a choice that beginner writers sometimes struggle to make. Even experienced writers occasionally need to rewrite.

A few Novembers ago, I was writing an alternate history novel, where the past is reimagined in some way. In mine, the petrol engine wasn’t developed until the end of the 20th century. My plan was to tell the story from the point of view of a historian who had interviewed the reclusive inventor; this would be peppered with newspaper and journal articles.

The technique didn’t work. I couldn’t find enough material to construct a detailed narrative. I recalled some advice I was once given that if a piece isn’t working, the point of view is often the cause. I’ve found this to be true.

I decided I had to let the inventor speak for herself, and the story came alive. The first thing she did was attend an office Christmas party and hit her boss with a glass bottle.

Earlier this year, I read a letter in Writing Magazine that a subscriber’s own story wasn’t working from his main character’s point of view. He explained how and why he rewrote it in the third person, then rather grandly signed off the letter with First person – last choice.

However, I disagree; the point of view will probably change depending on the story you write. In the case of a novel, there might even be shifts from first to third or vice-versa from one chapter to the next. If the subscriber in question did stick slavishly to third-person, he would probably encounter the opposite problem eventually, as I have recently.

The first- and third-person voices are by far the most common, but there exists a far rarer alternative: the second person. This is where the narrator uses ‘you’.

It’s a personal opinion, but I believe this technique is only effective in poetry, as it gives the impression of the poet writing a letter to a third party. In prose, it can feel as though the author is instructing the reader. A novel in the second person can be done, however, as Angelina Mirabella found out.

Back to My Roots

We’re on the last day of Camp NaNoWriMo, a spin-off project of National Novel Writing Month. Camp allows a writer to set an individual word goal and offers an alternative option to log hours of editing. I chose to edit the material I wrote during the April version of Camp.

By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I first started writing, I penned exclusively prose: short stories at writing classes and novels during NaNoWriMo. After about three years, I segued to poetry. For a long while now, I’ve wanted to return to writing short stories and other types of prose; whenever I’ve tried, I’ve been pulled back to poetry. But on looking at April’s material, I feel as though I’ve finally made a step in the right direction.

There’s one short story I like in particular. A Drink for Everyone is from the point of view of a woman who wants nothing more than to have enough money to get drunk, and the story sees her hit upon a way of achieving this aim. It’s sometimes the case that I like a story while I’m writing it, but not on rereading. In this case, I enjoyed the editing as much as the construction. At around 1500 words, it’s also a length that many publications will accept.

Other highlights of April’s material include a story about a group of people who live as though it’s 1999, a parody of an announcement at the end of the day’s TV broadcasting, and a response to a pastel drawing of a stacked shed that I’d forgotten I’d written.

A Drink for Everyone is only the first step to reintroducing prose into my regular output. Writing a story is different in many ways from writing a poem. Generally speaking, prose needs to have a plot or an inciting event, and the text might take no particular form other than the accepted rules of grammar. Poetry, by contrast, can muse upon a theme or a moment without necessarily having a narrative structure, though the words are often written to evoke a sound, a rhythm, or a cadence.

If I can climb into the prose mindset, and use the techniques I’ve learned since I last regularly wrote short stories, I believe I can find a balance between the two disciplines.

Serving Your 10,000 Hours

There’s a much-quoted theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make you an expert in anything. While the notion of becoming an expert by this method has been debated for nearly 25 years, it is true that quality practice makes you better at what you do.

If you’re a long-term reader – and there must be one or two of you out there – you know I’m upfront about not being a lifelong writer. I started to pen fiction seven years ago at the age of 26; my last creative writing before then was done at high school, at which time I was more interested in music and computing. I’d entered my thirties before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet.

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...
Creative writing class-fine arts center (402690951) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the purposes of this entry, let’s convert the 10,000-hour theory to more manageable figures. It’s near-impossible to calculate accurately, but let’s say I practised my writing for two hours every day. If we enter that into the 10,000 Hours Calculator, it gives me a figure of 13.7 years. Eight hours devoted to my field per day brings that down to 3.4 years.

By this measure, I’m not convinced I’ve reached 10,000 hours yet, but does it matter?

As I started relatively late, I used to believe I’d forever be catching up with more established writers. These days, however, I lean toward the view that once you’ve practised for a certain length of time, the gap begins to close. The writer who’s done it for two years will know far more than the one who started 12 months previously. Yet when you’ve written for five years, say, you’ll probably have more in common with someone who’s written for 20 years than two.

The message here, of course, is not to stop practising once you’ve been at it for two decades. On the contrary, the more a relative newbie learns, the narrower the gulf will be between their knowledge and those with more experience. Every day is a schoolday.

A Long Aside

Once you’ve written a piece, it’s a good idea to lay it aside for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. But what happens when the days and weeks turn into months and years?

In 2013, I was given a homework task from a writing class. I had to pen a story containing the words sleeping, falling, and alchemy. I struggled to write something, so I used a fallback technique of creating a diary form. The draft of the story was about an 18-year-old woman who had just started university and was assigned a nasty flatmate. I titled it F in Hell, the F being short for the antagonist’s name.

I redrafted the story a couple of times over the next two years, tightening the language and enhancing the plot points. But I didn’t do anything else with it, other than giving readings at a couple of events.

In 2016, I was desperate to write a creative piece for my MLitt Writing Practice & Study dissertation. The problem was that there was no unifying theme to my pieces because I’d wanted to expand my horizons, so they were difficult to bring together into a cohesive collection. I’d printed off some of my best short stories and poems to show my supervisors. One of them picked up on F in Hell and suggested expanding it.

Phone Booth (film)
Phone Booth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tactic worked. The diary structure was ideal for demonstrating my prose skills yet flexible enough to allow interpolation of my poetry. Furthermore, as the story is told in an impromptu first-person narrative, I didn’t necessarily have to iron out every inconsistency before the relatively tight deadline. The title was changed to Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream.

Almost overnight, a short story that had lain forgotten in my archive became the piece that helped me to clinch my Masters degree.

And the tale doesn’t stop there. In August of last year, I was in the audience for a BBC radio recording when I realised the piece would work well on stage. I spoke again to one of my tutors, a playwright himself, and learnt the basics of script formatting and practical considerations for the props and scenery.

From then until last week, I’d been converting Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream into a script, and making the plot much darker, before entering it into a competition. Even if I don’t win, I know I have a finished product ready to be sent elsewhere.

There are many professional writers who have left work aside for one reason or another and reaped the benefits.

In the 1960s, Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock for a film set entirely in a phone booth, but neither could find a compelling reason to keep the character there. When Cohen revisited the concept decades later, the world had changed: nearly everyone carried a mobile and had fears of terrorism on their minds. In 2002, with the idea well over 30 years old, Phone Booth finally opened in cinemas.

Sometimes the delay is beyond the control of the author. Jilly Cooper left a novel manuscript on a bus in around 1970. Disheartened, it took 14 years to begin again. In the intervening time, the plot and characters had time to mature, and her novel Riders was finally released in 1985. She considers it among her best work.

Moving away from writing, My Modern Met ran an article in April about the Draw This Again project, inviting artists to revisit and redraw their old pictures. Sometimes there’s a year between the two, sometimes there’s a decade. Be sure to click through to the Deviant Art page for many more examples, and see how each one has improved by being left aside for so long.

A Launch at Long Last

Anyone who routinely submits work for consideration can tell you how long it often takes to receive a response, let alone see your words in print. Right now, for instance, it’s too late to plan for summer; publications will shortly be looking for Christmas-themed material.

In October last year, I heard that my poem The Executive Lounge had been accepted for the local publication Dundee Writes. However, the launch only took place on Thursday of last week. Nonetheless, it was worth the wait because my piece is alongside some excellent work from students and alumni. There is also a focus on one of the creative writing tutors who died around a year ago.

The style of the pamphlet tends towards the less mainstream and more experimental and wistful. My poem describes an object without naming it. Instead, the reader is presented with a list of statistics about the item, with the most telling stats placed near the end.

It’s a favourite of my own work, and it seemed to go down well with the audience, but it is primarily a page poem. On this occasion, audience members could follow the text in the book; but when I read a loud it a couple of years ago, it received no reaction at the end, not even applause.

Here’s the piece:

 

I’m Falling Further Behind

It’s an implicit expectation from you, the reader, that I’ll post an entry every Monday at 5pm. This means you should have seen it here yesterday, and it wasn’t. Since yesterday was a public holiday, it felt like a Sunday and it slipped my mind until after the due time. But that’s an excuse rather than a reason.

To this end, I owe you an apology and an entry, and I think an appropriate punishment for missing the deadline would be to would be to whip my own back with a knotted rope. I have, however, settled for making a second entry of at least 500 words on Friday at 5pm. Then I’ll update as normal from Monday of next week.

Last time, I promised to make a little progress on each of my outstanding works. Let’s go through them all.

“I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher”

On checking my submissions tracker, I found it was 23 February, or nearly eight weeks ago when I last send something away. It was difficult to find a publisher who was accepting submissions; I looked right through my usual sources, and most of the reading periods were closed.

However, I did find one publisher who would accept up to five poems. By coincidence, I’d sent five poems to another publisher in December who had turned me down at the beginning of March. With only a few minor changes, I was able to send them to the new place. Even better: my aim is to send away an average of one piece per week, and this submission brought me bang up-to-date.

“I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook”

It’s virtually a truism that inspiration strikes in the most bizarre of places; in my case, in McDonalds at 9:30am on a Friday. I found myself able to finish two poems – one of which I’d been struggling with for a while – and I typed them up later that day.

“I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. … I have around half as many words as I should”

I’m not up-to-date with this, plus I’d increased my word target from 10,000 words to 11,000 as an extra challenge. I intended to write a series of interlinked stories, but I changed my project name to Any old nonsense to reflect the diverse pieces I’ve actually written. Despite this, there is now a ray of hope as I’ve figured out a structure for one of the stories that I was finding difficult to write, and it’s practically pulling itself along.

During Camp, you can enter an online virtual cabin with up to 11 other participants to help and encourage each other. I have only one other person in our regional cabin, and an honourable mention must go to them. I relayed the thoughts I expressed in last week’s entry and they helped me to regain my focus and perspective.

“I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018”

Last week, I happened to meet the university tutor who was going to help me bring this to the stage. Unfortunately, the theatre he wants to use was undergoing a change of management and he was uncertain when we would have a chance to go there.

The play is a one-woman sequence of monologues that looks back over her university days. The running length is currently around 30 minutes to give a potential test audience a flavour of its content. To reduce it to that length, I had to cut out the poetry supposedly written by the character. I’d like to extend it to between 50 and 55 minutes by reintroducing the poetry and unpacking it in other areas. Having looked at the manuscript again a few days ago, I now have an idea how I’m going to achieve the expansion.

Tonight, after this entry should have been published, I received an e-mail from another tutor who wants to include a brief excerpt in a promotional leaflet for the MLitt course I studied. I’m more than happy to give that permission.

“I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010.”

The bad news is that there’s a scene in the novel which simply isn’t working, and it’s a pivotal scene because the main character needs to be left in an unknown location to fend for himself. I’m probably finding it difficult as I’ve never experienced this myself, so maybe I’ll need to go on a training weekend.

The good news is that I’ve finally fixed an annoyance. When I first wrote Fifty Million Nicker, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was released a little while later. It was a coincidence, of course, but the number has become so iconic that I wanted to end the association. So I’ve now gone through the manuscript and changed it to Sixty Million Nicker to reflect that the main character is now competing for £60,000,000.

“I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme”

I have been working on a few poems along the same theme, and they do fit well together. I’m still working on one of them, and I took it along to a new poetry group that a friend is starting. I received useful feedback, particularly on one point, and I implemented the relevant change.

If I hadn’t gone along, I might not have met the tutor who’s helping me with the play. And one of the pieces I finished in McDonalds was the homework for the next meeting.

 

And thus, I’ve done what I set out to do in the last entry, albeit 24 hours later than scheduled. Whatever happens between now and my next one on Friday, I promise you the title will not be I’m Falling Even Further Behind.