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.

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.

The 5am Story

One of the pieces of advice often given to beginner writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bedside to write down any ideas that occur in the middle of the night. I’ve said a few times on here that this has never worked for me. Yet something happened last week that helped me with a current project.

I woke up before 5am on a couple of occasions last week, and was unable to get back to sleep. It’s a dangerous distraction to switch on your computer at that time, but I decided to give it 20 minutes, then head back to bed.

Instead, I ended up solving a problem with a story that wasn’t coming together properly. There were a lot of solid plot points that were difficult to arrange into a logical narrative. This was also part of a series, so there needed to be a little explanation for those who hadn’t read the previous instalment, but not so much that it slowed down the pace.

The breakthrough came after about ten minutes, and once I’d arranged the first few paragraphs into the right order, the rest followed. It’s now up to more than 1,300 words with more to follow, and the next story in the sequence will include the points I had to leave out of this one.

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.

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.

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.

The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

Arting About

I periodically remind people that I’m not a lifelong fiction writer nor poet. I started in 2010, when I was around 27 years old.

As such, I’ve now gained an decade of intensive experience that I reckon brings me up to a similar level compared to those who have been writing for far longer.

That said, I don’t ever want to be that writer who feels they’re too good to learn something new. When I took part in Imogen Stirling’s classes recently, I knew I could manage the work, yet I was still pushed in new directions that I wouldn’t have walked by myself, such as kennings and univocal poetry.

In the same spirit, I’ve been taking art lessons from my pal Ana Hine over the last couple of months, who is offering weekly classes via Patreon. This is a major deal for me because I’ve always had a mental block with art: I wouldn’t do it because my drawing wasn’t of a high standard, yet it wasn’t of a high standard because I wouldn’t draw.

I had a problem with the way I was taught at school. The focus was on making a finished work rather than going through the process or making a rough draft first. Yet that same criticism also applied to my poetry teaching. I should note that I’m talking about the 1990s, so their methods might have improved since then.

I have once before attempted drawing lessons with another pal, Jen Robson. Last year, she ran an afternoon class called Scared of the Paper, and my picture is still on her website. That was a great experience, and I learnt techniques that I’ve carried over to Ana’s lessons, such as correcting mistakes by adding lines rather than erasing them, and listening to music as I work.

However, I didn’t ride the wave of enjoyment and instead let the mental block build up again. Now, with being asked to stay indoors, I decided to give art another shot.

With six of Ana’s lessons under my belt, I’ve only once burst into tears and I’ve only once thrown away my eraser in frustration, so that’s progress. I’m still clouded by The Dread before I start, and it’s something I need to fight through.

When it comes to poetry, I no longer care whether people see my half-done work as I know I can go back and improve it. With art, by contrast, I sometimes can’t properly capture a particular scene and I don’t know how to fix it, so I’ve shown only Ana and my partner thus far.

Indeed, there’s only one drawing I’m willing to pull out in public just now. This is a drawing of a bus seat done while on the bus:

Sketch of bus seat
Sketch of bus seat

It’s a fluke that everything looks roughly the same here as it did in real life, so I need to work on achieving a decent image by skill rather than luck.

Be advised that today’s deviation from writing is a one-off event, and that this page will not turn into an art blog. Meanwhile, as I’m shining the spotlight on pals, Eilidh Morris is a visual artist who doing the opposite of me by including more spoken word in their practice.