We’re now into the thick of National Novel Writing Month. The Dundee & Angus region alone collectively ended 11 November at well over half a million words, and the total is rising every day.
But other literary events are still happening. Tonight, I’m going to a Silent Reading Party, then a Spanish-themed poetry night. And on 25 November, I’ll be seeing the actor Alan Cumming in conversation with Muriel Gray about his latest book.
I would like to take this opportunity to plug a couple of events. You might be aware that my poem Crossing the Road has been included in the anthology Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, which officially launched in Edinburgh last month. There is also to be a Glasgow launch tomorrow 15 November where I can’t be present, and an Aberdeen launch on 21 November where I’ll be performing.
For now, though, it’s back to NaNoWriMo. I didn’t know where I was going with this year’s story – in some respects, I still don’t – but I now have a character who loves to fill notebook pages with the same phrase, much like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Here’s what happened when she was turned down for an arts grant:
Every November, I take part in National Novel Writing Month – aka NaNoWriMo – which is a challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel in a month. Along with an assistant, I’m also a Municipal Liaison (ML) for the Dundee & Angus region in Scotland. We arrange regular meet-ups for members, encourage and support them, and persuade them to donate to the project.
As such, some of my other projects have to be scaled back or placed on hold. This includes submissions to publishers, reading books, and updating this blog. In fact, my current issue of Writing Magazine is still in the cellophane. However, I’m making good progress, having written more words than required every day so far; in fact, the whole region is doing a sterling job.
Hot on the heels of my copyright post the other week, a case of poetic plagiarism was brought to my attention. Remaining copies of Laventille have been pulped after Sheree Mack admitted to including others’ work in her own inadvertently, although fellow poets have accused her of stealing work deliberately.
In this instance, it’s not only the original poets who have been hurt by her actions, but the pulping will wipe out the profit margin that Smokestack Books would otherwise have made.
The one positive aspect we can salvage from this mess is that this type of plagiarism is relatively rare. If it happened every day, this story wouldn’t have been reported and nobody would have kicked up such a stink.
I’m a firm believer that every writer ought to learn the skill of public performance. More on that story later. But last Wednesday marked the first time I would be performing to an audience of academics, rather than the general public or other writers.
The University of Dundee has run a Postgraduate Conference for the last four years where students set the agenda by presenting papers. Students were also free to respond creatively to this year’s theme, Lost in Translation. When I saw the final running order, I appeared to be the only person giving a creative response, and I seriously considered withdrawing as I didn’t feel it would fit in with the other presentations.
The upshot is that I did go ahead with it, although I was moved to a different slot with theatre students and a novelist. I felt it flowed more smoothly, and I received an excellent response, both verbally and on the anonymous feedback slips. My tutor was also sure to stop by and ask a couple of tough questions.
Shortly after the Postgraduate Conference, I went along to a workshop… on performance; unfortunately, it had to be in that order. Jenny Lindsay, one half of poetry duo Rally & Broad, was hosting, and they’re one of my favourite contemporary acts. She asked each of us why we were there. I told her I was quite comfortable with public speaking, but I felt there was always more to learn.
She took us through the process of preparing for an event, including how we might introduce ourselves, putting together a set list, and we even took turns at walking out in front of an audience. The organiser is hoping to put on another event in the near future but using an actual stage.
If you have the chance to hone this skill where you live, I recommend signing up. What many writers don’t realise is that if you’re snapped up by a publisher, you’ll be expected to read excerpts to a live audience. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to stand up and entertain people, but the only way to make it easier is to keep practising, and prepare your materials thoroughly in advance. Remember, most audiences aren’t sitting waiting for you to slip up – they’re willing you on.
Although National Novel Writing Month and its offshoot Camp NaNoWriMo are over, an enthusiastic band of us have continued to meet each week. The most recent meeting was yesterday, but we left after an hour to visit Waterstones where Kirsty Logan was promoting her novel The Gracekeepers.
I’d seen the posters across town, but I hadn’t heard much else about it until that evening. By the time I’d listened to the excerpt, learnt about the background of the world in which it’s set, and was told were some characters written as gender-neutral, I decided I wanted it. The issue of gender is something I become interested in since my feminist friends talk about from time to time.
And our group each spoke to Kirsty Logan for a couple of minutes each as she signed our books. I wish I’d thought to take a photo, as her dress contained pictures drawn in the same style as the book jacket. If I ever have a novel published, that’s a touch I’ll think about adopting, although I might settle for a shirt rather than a dress.
You were expecting an entry on Monday, weren’t you? Douglas Adams commented, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
While I normally frown upon such a laissez faire attitude, I completed National Novel Writing Month on Sunday 30 November at 1:13pm with 50,123 words. As Municipal Liaison, I wanted to set a good example, but I was keen to stress to the members that there’s no shame in not reaching the target.
From there, it was straight into the folio for my MLitt module, comprising two short stories, two poems and a poetic monologue, representing a variety of styles. I’d done most of the work, so it was a matter of pulling together the threads into one document. I submitted that at lunchtime yesterday, the day it was due.
Which left today to craft an entry, and I’ve had plenty of time to do so, as I’ve been awake since 1:50am after approximately four hours’ sleep.
This will be my blow-out weekend before I dive straight back into other projects and catch up on my reading. On my coffee table lies Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver’s collection Elephant and Other Stories, both of which need to be returned to the library in under a fortnight. The former is a weighty volume, but I shall tackle it before that deadline.
For this, I’d like to introduce Binge Reading™. It’s similar to the more familiar binge drinking or binge watching, but better for you than both of these activities. Use Binge Reading™ as you please, but remember to mention you read it here first.
When I’m writing a new story, I have a particular manner of approaching it. I tend to let it churn around and around in my head, and then when I think it’s ready, I’ll write it in one sitting. From conversations I’ve had recently, it seems I’m not the only one who works this way.
Yet when I was asked to write a monologue recently – which I performed on Thursday – I approached it in the manner suggested by the person who set the challenge. That was to think of somewhere that means something to you, either good or bad, and write about this place for 15 minutes without stopping. Then think of somebody striking, whether someone you know personally or who is in the news, and write about them for 15 minutes without stopping. Finally, put them together and use that as a jumping-off point.
At first, I didn’t know whether I could do anything with the place and person I chose, but after those 15 minutes of writing, I found a lot of usable material, which I then assembled into a poetic monologue. Instead of writing from the top to the bottom, I worked on the second part first, setting my ideas to an iambic rhythm; then worked on the first part second, using a dactyl meter.
It produced a piece with which I’m very happy and went down well with the audience. I wonder whether I should approach more of my pieces like this?
I’m tackling National Novel Writing Month at the same time, where the aim is simply to write the raw material for a first draft and worry about the editing at a future date. As always, I’m finding unusual twists and turns simply by the process of writing. For instance, the novel was originally to be a series of newspaper reports about an inventor, with a historian filling in the gaps. However, more and more of the inventor’s own words started to creep in, and now it’s written almost entirely from her point of view with only a little help from the historian.
The next time I work on something original, I might try writing it out instead of just thinking about it, but I’ve learned a little lesson on that front as well. NaNoWriMo was planned out on three sheets of paper the size of newspaper pages. This is fine to refer to when writing at home, but inconvenient to take along to a cafe.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, National Novel Writing Month kicked off. As I’m the organiser for Dundee, I’ve been in the thick of it since then, and I’ve had other work on top. It’s left me little time to compose a full WordPress update.
So far, we’ve held our Kick-Off Event and our first meet-up, and our word count continues to rise. When I checked it at 4:30pm tonight, we’d managed to register 168,000 words. My own words make up about 0.5% of that.
So I’m going to crack on with this, and aim to come back with a fuller entry next week.
When you’re a writer, and one of the country’s best literary festivals is on your doorstep, you can’t help but pop your head around the door. The Dundee Literary Festival closed yesterday after five days of events.
If you only look at one thing, make it The News Where You Are by James Robertson (below). I had a debate with one of the DURA bloggers over whether it was a story or a poem, but it’s a hilarious satire about what is implied when the national newsreaders hand over to the local newsrooms.
This year, I’ve become Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month in Dundee. I arranged our Kick-Off Event to coincide with the festival. It’s impossible to tell how many people will come to a given event, but we ended up with ten members altogether, and we listened to last year’s MLitt graduates each reading his or her magnum opus. Our regular write-ins will begin on Saturday, and I’ll no doubt write more about these throughout November.
In between all that, I found time to see Avenue Q, the show that’s broken out of Broadway and crossed the Atlantic. The actors stand on stage and sing alongside the puppets, but this soon ceases to be a distraction as they settle into the story of a new graduate coming to town, Kate Monster’s fight to have monsters recognised in society, and Rod’s reluctance to admit his sexuality. Content-wise, there is very little actual swearing. If this was a film, it’s the adult concepts that would probably earn it a 15 classification.
It’s also hard to see why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I also caught this week, was given a 12A rating, when I could find nothing that would it earn it any more than a PG.
I don’t often swear in my own writing. The intention is often to shock, but when everyone does it, the words lose their impact. Comedian Bill Bailey summed it up nicely when he compared effing and jeffing to road humps: one or two isn’t an issue, but a constant barrage is. By contrast, Quentin Tarantino takes the view that, “I’m a writer, no word is in jail,” but from watching his films, I do see the F- and C-words being given more parole than any other.
That said, I’m not above including blasphemy, as that’s commonly used and – generally speaking – is no longer thought of as swearing. There’s a 90-page study from Ofcom on the matter if you have the time, but the relevant sentence is: “There were a small, but vocal number of participants who found the use of holy names unacceptable.”
But in the right hands, swearing can be done well. I’m thinking mostly of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown, in which the F-word appears 83 times to produce an onomatopoeic effect of a chicken’s squawking. When he recorded it in the early 1980s, though, he had to replace 80 of these with bloody.
I was going to end this entry with a word that sounds a bit rude, but I shan’t.