The Scribe at Night

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bed to capture any ideas that occur overnight. So for years, I’ve duly kept said pen and paper but it didn’t work; I need physical movement to come up with ideas. At least, that was the case until a few weeks ago.
Lunar libration with phase2
I realise there’s nothing duller than hearing other folks’ dreams, so I’ll keep this brief. I saw an image of a woman called Magin – that’s Magin, not Maggie. She was in hippie-style clothes sitting next to a man in plainer clothes; both were eating ice cream. I can’t remember at what point I decided they were cousins, but on waking up, I realised there was a story there. I’m currently working through that.

Then on Saturday, I began a poem for a poetry group, in which I wanted to include the phrase ‘Young’s Modulus of Elasticity’ as it was part of the prompt. I discovered that was the easy part, and I was having some trouble completing the rest of the poem. I left it aside,  went for a long walk, and headed to bed on my return.

I must only have been in bed 10 minutes when I figured out how I might continue the poem. I spent the next hour drafting five stanzas in total, then I really needed to go to sleep.

But this doesn’t mark a change in the way I come up with ideas. These are merely two cases in nearly seven years of writing and they stand out because they’re unusual. In any case, I still need to finish these pieces and find out whether they’re any good.

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Paper View

Last week, a friend was complaining about a major writing competition that still only allows postal entries. I’d also submitted work because it’s a prestigious publication, but I agree with her point of view. Considering the hundreds of manuscripts that must be received – versus the tiny portion that makes the final cut – this seems a colossal waste of paper, not to mention the needless postage time and cost.

Many competitions offer the postal route as an alternative to an online submission, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any issue with posting work that must be physically held to be appreciated. But there are still a bunch who want normal prose and poetry to be sent on paper.

English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until the 1990s, this was how submissions were made. Internet access and e-mail accounts were generally the domain of academics and computer enthusiasts. Come the next decade, however, and newer technology began to creep into people’s homes. Nearly 17 years after the millennium, online access is nearly universal in the Western world, and postal submissions now look incredibly outdated.

That’s not to say I don’t like a paper book. In fact, some recent research has concluded that sales of e-books are falling. But a book is the final product; the process of gaining the interest of an editor or a competition judge ought to be as quick and cheap as possible.

Yet I would like to understand the other side of the argument. Do you run a publication that only wants submissions on paper? How does it benefit you? What would make you consider accepting online entries?

 

Writing to 10 of My Greatest Influences

Regular readers will know that a few months ago, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. I did it because his publisher didn’t provide anything but a postal address for its authors.

To date, Ishiguro has not replied, but I was itching to repeat the experiment with others I admire. It’s a slower and more laborious process that makes you think about every word you write. Yet the sealed envelope is far more difficult to ignore, and your words don’t become just another comment on another social media page.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to emulate the pre-Internet and pre-fax era as much as possible, a time when celebrities felt more removed from their audiences. I’m lucky enough to have mutual friends with a few popular performance poets who influence me. I’ve excluded them because they feel too ‘close’, even though we don’t know each other directly.

There’s one important concession to the old-school vibe: it would create a lot of hassle to find out the postal address of agents, management companies or publishers in an offline manner. I therefore set a rule that I was allowed to use the Web for the task, but I wasn’t permitted to contact anyone to ask for the correct details. I instead used the most likely addresses I could find.

So who are the top 10? I’ve listed them in no special order:

  1. Andrea Gibson – performance poet
  2. Peter Doherty – musician and poet
  3. Marshall Mathers – rapper, aka Eminem
  4. Mike Skinner – rapper
  5. David Nicholls – novelist
  6. Tracey Thorn – musician in Everything but the Girl
  7. Jasper Carrott – comedian
  8. Billy Joel – musician
  9. & 10. Harley Alexander-Sule & Jordan Stephens – musicians in Rizzle Kicks

It took under an hour to collate most of the addresses. However, I counted six contacts for Marshall Mathers alone as he has a number of specialist managers, so I settled for writing to his agent. Conversely, Peter Doherty proved über-difficult to pin down. My initial searches pulled up a management company in the West of Scotland; later searches provided a much more likely address.

But finding the contact details was only the start. Before I uncapped my Biro, there were other issues I wanted to iron out.

  • Firstly, should I use my pen name? A pen name would allow the recipients to look me up online should they choose, whereas using my legal name would ensure that any reply is correctly delivered. I decided from the start I wouldn’t include an e-mail address to maintain the pre-Internet feel – though I can be easily contacted via this site – so I’ve compromised by including my legal name in the address, but explaining in the body of the letter that I write as Gavin Cameron.
  • Secondly, what about the content of the letters? Naturally, this had to be customised to the recipient, but the text can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, what I enjoy about their work or views; the second explains why I’m writing by hand rather than doing it online; the third is a summing-up and best wishes. I haven’t asked for an autograph, a photo, or even a reply; I wanted the letters to be mainly about the recipient and his or her influence, without me being too much of a fangirl.
  • Thirdly, do I publish any replies? I quickly decided that would be a negatory, rubber duck, other than to provide a brief summary in a future blog entry. It’s not that I think any of the recipients would mind, but because personal letter-writing is an inherently private activity, I would rather the recipients kept my correspondence confidential, although there is a sample in the picture and it’s ultimately their decision as I haven’t specified I want it kept secret.

    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities
    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities

So how did I feel when I put pen to paper? I knew I would have to develop a template of sorts as it’s far easier than starting from a blank page. I first drafted the Marshall Mathers letter (pictured), then copied it onto writing paper in pen. Even with my preparations, I found it difficult at first to place my thoughts in a flowing order.

Probably the easiest letter to write was that to Andrea Gibson, which ran to three A5 pages with my signature on the fourth. I found once I’d started that I had loads I wanted to say, and I acknowledged at the end that if I’d been using a PC, I would have edited much of the ramble. I could have started a new letter, but I felt it wouldn’t have been so candid as it was in that first form.

If I did make a mistake in a word, I would simply cross it out and write it again. It didn’t occur to me until I’d sealed the envelopes that Tippex still exists. I’m glad I didn’t realise this, though, as it wouldn’t have looked pretty on the cream page.

The hardest letters were probably those to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel. I imagine it’s because they influenced me more in my childhood than they currently do. But I’m glad I still wrote to them because I might not repeat this experiment, and none of us will be around forever.

The one thing I didn’t find intimidating at all was the level of fame my recipients enjoy. I’m currently taking the MLitt course at the University of Dundee. There, I was introduced to the concept of thinking about where I fit in with other writers and poets, including those who are well-known. So rather than considering yourself to be lower down the food chain, you’re encouraged to ponder whether you’re producing your own work to an equal standard, and how you can raise your standard if you’re not. Or in Internet jargon, MIND=BLOWN.

Thinking in those terms helped to relieve the pressure. I know I can produce work to the same standard of some of the folks I’ve contacted, and I also know I can pick holes in their work just as much as they could potentially rip mine apart. So in that respect, I’m a person doing one creative activity who’s writing to a person who does another creative activity, not a ‘civilian’ writing to a ‘celebrity’.

If I receive no replies, I won’t cry into my notebook, as I’ve said what I have to say. I’ll be happy if I attract one response; I’ll be ecstatic if I receive two; goodness knows what I’ll be like if three or more come back.

Now all I need to do is what writers do best: wait.

Paper boon.

Until a year or two ago, I didn’t do much writing on a notepad. It generally went straight into a computer unless one wasn’t handy.

I began to use a pad extensively for two reasons. Firstly, my small laptop has only just enough RAM to run Windows and was a pain to use. Secondly, I type extensively in my day job and my fingers began to hurt, whereas holding a pencil was a sufficiently different motion and it didn’t hurt.

Using a pad is also a different experience from typing: It slows down your thoughts so you become more focused on what to say next. It also looks less like a finished product and I’m more inclined to edit it. Furthermore, it’s easier on the eye to read paper than a screen.

Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.
Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.

My fingers aren’t nearly so bad now, but I’ve kept up another habit I fell into during this time. I dug out my printed dictionary and thesaurus. Online references generally focus only on the words searched for, whereas flicking through a book can throw up possibilities from other pages. The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.

On Saturday, it’s the 37th birthday of one of my influences, Peter Doherty. I feel compelled to point out that he prefers Peter over Pete. Last year, I bought The Books of Albion, containing writings from his many notebooks. I expected to read drafts of his poems and songs in there, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But he also includes a lot of diary entries, many of them with the dates on which they were written. He talks about what’s happening to him at the time, whether it be relationship problems, a budget trip to Germany, or his first professional poetry gig.

I stopped keeping a diary when I was about 20, and started a blog on the relatively young LiveJournal. Almost overnight, my style changed from private and unguarded to public and slightly more guarded. I still have some of the diaries but they’re unlikely to be available in the shops any time soon.

By contrast, Doherty’s diaries start when he was about 20, so there’s a maturity in them that mine don’t have. Yet it’s still clear he never intended them for publication, and it’s perhaps this honesty that makes his writing so compelling.

Initially, I found myself thinking back to what I was doing around the time he was keeping his notes. Then I began to wonder whether I could experiment with bringing back my pre-LiveJournal days and writing the occasional dated diary entry in my current pad. It contains mainly poem and story drafts, yet true events are at the heart of many literary works.

I would then have some events to draw upon when I need ideas.

The Final Cut.

Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.

The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.

I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.

But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.

In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.

But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.

Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.

The Paper Trilogy.

I intended to make only one entry on the theme of paper, which turned into a second post. This entry will be a short third and final update on this topic, as I just keep finding more material.

I’ve discovered more notebooks, including some early drafts from my second novel, and a review of Tron: Legacy for my old LiveJournal blog. Once again, I’ve never reached the last pages of these pads. I find this rather strange, as I’m not the sort of person to leave a job half-finished. Once, I would have preserved them as they were, but I’ll use the other pages in the future if I need to.

My pencils are a different story. I have dozens of them around the house, and I don’t like to waste them. In fact, here are my two smallest ones joined by a rubber grip. I’ll use them until I physically can’t hold them any more:

The world's smallest pencil

I’ve also discovered from Mental Floss that every new prime minister leaves a handwritten letter about what to do in the event of a nuclear conflict if both he and his assigned second-in-command are dead. It seems a little strange that such a format is still used. If I was PM, I’d make sure I spelled it out in 16-point Helvetica so the commanders aren’t standing around asking, “Does that say, ‘load weapons,’ or, ‘lower weapons?'”

More poignantly, ListVerse posted a collection of last words written by people facing certain death. Not all of them had the luxury of pen and paper, including the prisoner of war who scratched out a memorial on a rock, and a diver who wrote his on a slate.

Lastly, I’d like to show you the paper books I plan to read throughout the rest of the year, including modern writers such as John Twelve Hawks and Richard Dawkins, a selection of Penguin Classics, and a number of local anthologies:

Paper books to read this yearIf you want more information on any of these, let me know.

Some Salvaged Scribbles.

A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.

I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.

Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.

My filing system
My filing system

Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.

But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.

I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?