The Story Behind the Story

Last year, I completed an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree. For the dissertation element, I had to submit a creative piece for 80% of the mark and a reflective piece worth 20%. In the reflective part, two references are juxtaposed:

  • Samuel Pepys and others, The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (London: Bell, 1970), p.xi.
  • Peter Doherty, The Books of Albion (London: Orion, 2007), pp.322-324

The first book was written by naval administrator Samuel Pepys who lived in the 17th century, and the second is by the musician Peter Doherty from The Libertines who’s yet to reach his 40th birthday.

English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The ...
English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899). Book editor died in 1917. Samuel Pepys died in 1703. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the reason they’re referenced so closely together is that they both kept detailed diaries. My creative dissertation piece was in diary form and I used both books to figure out how I was going to structure my own work; for example, whether I should use exact or rough dates, how formal or informal the language should be, and so forth.

It was Doherty’s volume that I find particularly interesting since he uses it in three ways, sometimes on the same page: as a notebook for poetry and lyrics, as a scrapbook for pictures and paraphernalia he likes, and as a diary to document where he is and how he’s feeling. It effectively tells the story behind his work.

At the time of writing the dissertation, I was also trying to convey the story behind my own creative piece, albeit in more academic language.

I was reminded of this last week while listening to Creative Chit Chat Dundee, in which the dancer Gemma Connell was being interviewed; I’ve known her for a couple of years now. Out of a dozen subjects discussed that I could have picked up on, the one that interested me most was that she likes to keep a journal of her process.

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve been journaling in a limited fashion. My own notes were functional, mainly reminders or suggestions for the story, but I was also interviewed by the woman who helps me run our NaNoWriMo region, so she has a weekly record of my progress. I’ll report back when I listen to it.

With journal-keeping at the forefront of my mind, I’m going to experiment with the practice for my next major project. I’m planning to take the Doherty approach. The journal won’t be online; it’ll be handwritten and kept separate from the material I’m writing for the project. Once it’s finished, it’ll be interesting to look back and to see how the endpoint compares to the beginning.

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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.

Looking Forward, Not Back

At Christmas, BBC Four broadcast the last stand-up show by Bob Monkhouse before his death in 2003.

He was already one of my favourite comedians, but my respect for him increased as it became clear he liked to look to the next generation as well as his own. At one point, he made a complimentary reference to The League of Gentlemen. The invited audience at the gig included comics such as Mark Steel and Jon Culshaw, who were both breaking into television at the time.

Franciabigio's Portrait of a Young Man writing
Franciabigio’s Portrait of a Young Man writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I only began writing when I was nearly 27, I’ve frequently met others who are younger but had been expressing themselves that way since they could hold a pen. In 2016, I completed a Masters degree. I found most of my classmates were in their early to mid-20s, so up to ten years younger than me.

Yet the work they produced was often outstanding, even from those who hadn’t completed an ordinary English degree: some created elaborate fantasy worlds, others wrote short pieces with incredible punch. My favourite writer in the class would produce prose and poetry on themes such as feminism or family. These themes wouldn’t normally excite me, but she’d been writing for a long time and had personal experiences to draw upon. Shortly before we graduated, I told her how much I enjoyed her work.

Incidentally, the course leaders’ personal library was stocked with at least as many contemporary books as classics, partly because they were sent for the student magazine to review.

Last week, I was invited to operate the microphone for a group of 14- and 15-year-old writers as part of Dundee Women’s Festival. The girls – and one boy – read stories written by themselves and their friends. Despite their age, what struck me were the heavy topics they chose to cover: suicide, kidnap, the care system, and so forth. I do think many of the stories needed redrafting and editing, but each had potential and none of them shied away from speaking to the audience.

As some writers age, they declare that anything written after a certain year is rubbish, often without so much as looking at it. Conversely, I’m excited about the authors of the future. Of course it’s important to look back at the classics, but times change and I’m satisfied there are young folk out there ready to document that new world through their storytelling.

Jack of All Words

For those of you who haven’t read it elsewhere, I’m pleased to report that I’ve now graduated with an MLitt in Writing Practice and Study. I’ve become a jack of all words, and master of letters.

The logistics of the ceremony has left me behind with my other work, so I’m afraid it’ll be another short entry.

The end.

Readjusting My Reading Ratio

Over the last few weeks, I’ve devoted a lot of time to writing my MLitt dissertation. I’m pleased to report I submitted it on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. Yet I’ve also found I’ve been reading more than I have for months.

The dissertation totalled more than 17,000 words, so rather than edit on a screen, I printed the full document for analysis. I like to leave some time between making one set of corrections and the next, and since I’d cleared my writing diary to work on the piece, I would read a book to fill the gap. This was especially true when I spent a couple of days in rural Aberfeldy with patchy Internet access. I tackled the following works:

  • Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Morning Breaks in the Elevator by Lemn Sissay
  • Tonguit by Harry Giles

I can recommend all these books. When I’m writing my blog posts, Zemanta generates a list of related articles, and it seems Barack Obama has also been reading The Girl on the Train.

Reading is, of course, a vital part of becoming a better writer, and as I begin the next on my list – Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse – I wonder about the optimum ratio of writing to reading that an author should achieve. Is 75% writing to 25% reading an ideal proportion? Perhaps half-and-half would be better? Could an argument be made for reading more than you write?

Let’s factor in other forms of storytelling. Yesternight, for instance, I watched In Time, set in a future where time has become currency. The film benefits from some terrific writing that shows most of the workings of the fictional universe through dialogue and camerawork without a narrator having to explain the rules. So could some of my reading time be devoted to looking at screenplays?

I know I haven’t answered these questions for myself; whenever I do something else, I feel as though I need to be productive. And yet without outside experiences and influences, a writer is at risk of covering the same topics from the same perspective time and again.

One of my aims on the MLitt course was to create a diverse portfolio of work. I succeeded, but in the creative part of the dissertation, this diversity caused difficulty in making the pieces flow by theme. Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream is in a diary format, and was a way of bringing together my different styles of work.

I’ve also spent much of August at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. One place I went was The Janice Forsyth Show, recorded as-live in front of an audience for later transmission on BBC Radio Scotland. While I was there, I realised it might be possible to adapt my dissertation piece for the stage, so I’ve acted on the impulse, and I have a meeting with a playwright tomorrow to discuss the possibilities.

If I hadn’t taken that time out of my writing to visit Edinburgh, I might still be questioning what to do next with the piece. And should I come up with a definitive answer about the optimum writing-to-reading ratio, you’ll be the first to know.

Together in Electric Screams

This is the last Monday of working on my MLitt Dissertation, freeing me to give you more in-depth entries from next week onwards. But I’ve one more filler photo for you, and it’s the cover of said dissertation.

There is a creative part of up to 15,000 words, which can include prose and/or poetry, and 3,000-word part to discuss it further. Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream is set in 2027 and is written from the perspective of a 29-year-old poet who finds and transcribes a video diary she kept as a student in 2016.
You might notice the dissertation is ‘written by Gavin Cruickshank’, and that’s because I have to use my legal name. I would otherwise use my middle name Cameron.

Last week, I was speaking to a poet and I accidentally used this individual’s last name, which can also work as a first name. The poet accepted my apologies but described such mistakes as a ‘pet hate’.

I was furious with myself not only for doing it to someone whose work I admire, but because I feel the same way when someone spells Cruickshank incorrectly, especially when I’ve spelt it out or the other party has made an assumption. J K Rowling didn’t help by giving Hermione Granger a cat called Crookshanks.

I therefore use my middle name to avoid the spelling issue. Of course, this sometimes causes as much confusion as it saves. At a reading a couple of weeks ago, the organiser thought Gavin Cameron and Gavin were two different people and wasn’t sure which of us had agreed to participate.

News in brief.

I’m afraid last week’s entry was rather short, and so is this one.

For the first time in six years, I’ve been unable to complete the 50,000 words required for a NaNoWriMo novel. It’s not that I’m stuck with the story – far from it, in fact – but I have to write a detailed essay about Paradise Lost by John Milton for my MLitt degree, and it’s due for this Friday.

Happily, the essay is now under control and I should be able to submit it a day or two before the deadline. After that, I’ll aim to resume my usual long entries.