Creating and Performing a Story in Six Hours

The tale in this entry happened on Tuesday evening of last week, just too late to be included on the blog.

At around 3:15pm, I received a message from a comedian pal. He was due to debut a new show that evening, but one of his warm-up acts had dropped out. He asked for anything of a spoken-word nature to fill a ten-minute gap.

I have plenty of pieces available, but Tuesday night is also when I lead National Novel Writing Month on a Discord server. Some of the members love to put together collaborative stories, so I gave them a challenge.

Starting with a line from a book, namely Clubbed to Death by Grant Hill, I invited them to add up to three lines of action or dialogue in each subsequent post, inviting them to be as humorous and/or surreal as possible. Subject to minor edits to keep the flow, the story was read out to an audience that very evening.

So here for your interest is the version created after editing.

We also have a recording of how it sounded at the venue; the technical quality isn’t great, such is the nature of live performance. Starting at 4:33, listen out for how I accidentally printed one sheet on top of another, rendering the print unreadable, but didn’t realise until I was well away from home.

Secret Projects Abound!

I’ve recently been asked by a poetry production company to write a letter of support for a funding application. As I’ve spent most of the week composing this, I was going to make it the subject of the entry.

However, once I actually began writing, I started to doubt myself. It’s fine to announce the good news once the funding is actually awarded, but posting details of the application is a much more private affair. I’ve chosen to leave that aside for the moment.

The other topic I’m dying to write about is a non-urgent pet project I’ve had in mind for months.

However, I’ve yet to ring-fence the time to start it and – while I dislike clichés intensely – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was spot-on when he said a goal without a plan is just a wish. The time spent writing about it could be time spent actually writing the project.

So what can I tell you about this week? The answer is a programme of events called Rep Stripped.

In 2019, Dundee Rep ran the inaugural Stripped event. Members from my open-mike group successfully applied to appear in a special hour-long poetry show alongside many other and varied acts. All the restrictions and uncertainty over the last two years has meant that 2022 is only the second edition of the programme.

For the avoidance of doubt, we’re not taking part in the Stripped programme this year, but I know people who are.

In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing Elfie Picket Theatre as I’ve met the owners a few times at their productions. Each ticket allows entry to more than one show, so I’m also looking forward to seeing what surprises are in store for us.

Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

Preserving Audience Expectations

About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a poet who’s planning a book tour and was looking to promote it later this year, either in an existing event or as a one-off collaboration.

I was rather excited by the idea. This poet is quite well-known on the Scottish scene and to have her along at Hotchpotch would be a terrific boon.

On the other hand, our open-mike night is not set up to place the focus on one person. Instead, everyone who comes along on the night is given equal time and prominence. Furthermore, we’ve already arranged to vary the format in September and November this year to welcome an established company. The question was whether a third time might have been too much.

As such, I made the suggestion of having the book launch before the open-mike. I also urged the poet to contact another organiser whose events do have a headline act.

I then received a message from the other organiser at the weekend saying this person was ‘quite a scoop’ for his event. Although the door is still open for a Hotchpotch tie-in, I still feel it was a good call to preserve the open-mike element and therefore the expectations of the audience.

Wherever this poet chooses to launch, I look forward to seeing it happen.

A Surprisingly Unpopular Event

I received a message from someone local who’s currently working on a community-focused project that launches this weekend. It’s aimed at encouraging people to think more about the clothes they have, the memories they represent, and imagining what might happen when these items are passed on.

One of the proposed events was to bring in local poets to respond to the above themes, but as the organiser didn’t know many poets, she wanted to tap into my connections. I was happy to help out, and I spoke to two of my poetry groups.

After a week, I was surprised to receive virtually no response to my messages, especially as the clothing event was intended to take place in person. As an organiser, I’ve found that people react to staged events more positively, as the public has become weary of so many virtual ones.

I explained this to the organiser but added that I would still like to contribute. My starting point was a T-shirt from 1996 that I still own, and the resulting piece became an exploration of when I met my first girlfriend at age 12, and how my approach to relationships has changed between then and now.

I don’t know whether I’ll actually be able to attend, as something more pressing has arisen, but I wish her all the best with the project.

Redrafting the Unredraftable

Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.

This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.

Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.

I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.

As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.

How The Live Scene is Doing

This entry serves as a kind of companion piece to last week, where I talked about still being able to hold the open-mike night Hotchpotch.

It did indeed go ahead, but with substantially reduced attendance. On any other night, we can normally welcome upwards of 30 people in the room, with more than half of the attendees taking a turn on stage. But last week, we saw less than ten readers.

To be fair, a few of them had called off in advance because they were either away for Christmas or didn’t want to catch anything before seeing relatives, so we made the best of it. Dispensing with the timer, anyone who wanted to read was allowed two turns, with a drinks break in the middle. I’d encouraged the absentees to come instead to the virtual version that Sunday, called Hotchpotch Beyond.

But a smaller pub attendance didn’t translate to a larger online presence. There, we welcomed two genuine readers – one Scottish, another from Russia – while two troublemakers were booted out and reported to Zoom. In November, the Beyond event had to be abandoned altogether because only one other person turned up.

Yesterday morning, I made an executive decision to suspend Beyond, and I told the pub regulars before the wider membership. Nonetheless, our previous online presence has shown we’ve been able to reach an otherwise untapped market.

I can’t stress enough that it’s never the fault of the audience if they don’t turn up. It’s up to me as an organiser to attract attendees, and to show them a good time once they’re through the door, so it’s us who needs to adapt. It’s a much bigger question how we’re going to adapt to reach that otherwise untapped market, but it’s one that we’ll work on.

Changing Times and a Change of Time

I’ve left it until the last minute to write this entry. It’s not entirely because I’ve been busy – although that’s a factor – but because I wanted to hear the announcement today from the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Tomorrow is the next instalment of my open-mike evening Hotchpotch, and it was expected that new restrictions would be brought in today on account of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Happily, nothing in the announcement affects our ability to hold the event tomorrow, even if more members might choose instead to attend our virtual event on Sunday.

Last week, we were also able to run a new version of our gameshow The Literal Flow Test, involving Christmas-themed topics, as part of a wider programme of events. I might come back to this topic in a future week as there’s a story to be told there as well.

The one event that isn’t back in person is National Novel Writing Month (NaNo). As that organisation has a largely top-down approach, all the regions in the world have been advised not to meet except online, even if our local authorities allow it. Which brings me to a point about the timing of my weekly blog posts.

When I started writing this blog, I was able to update regularly at 5pm on a Monday. This evolved into 6pm on a Tuesday, and that lands squarely during the NaNo meetings. That used to make sense because I would talk to people around a table while using my PC to type the entry.

Because I’m now using my PC to talk to members and write at the same time, it’s not so simple. As such, from next week, I’ll be updating this blog at 8pm on a Tuesday. The time is still subject to a trial run, but expect my entries to appear a couple of hours later.

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.

Cleaning Up This Town

Regular readers will know that I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been holding it online and experimenting with different formats.

Last week, it was confirmed that we were able to go back to our previous venue. For the foreseeable future, however, it won’t be as simple as just turning up with a microphone and some poetry.

The main health hotspot is the microphone itself, which can be shared by between ten and 20 people of an evening, and can therefore pick up a lot of bacteria.

As such, I’ve bought 400 disposable covers for the top. After every reader, the surface will be wiped down and a new cover applied. Because I address the audience for a few seconds after each speaker, I’ve also cut down on cleaning by buying a headset microphone for my own use. There will also be the option for readers not to use the sound system at all.

This is what 400 disposable microphone covers look like.

That, however, only caters for the people who come along to the pub. We’ve seen a thirst over the last 18 months to participate from outside our home city. For many, it was inconvenient or impossible to travel into Dundee, while others weren’t able to navigate the stairs in the venue, or are not ready to mix until the public health threat passes.

In response, we’re trialling an online edition called Hotchpotch Beyond. This works the same way, with the sole exception that priority will be given to those who weren’t at the in-person version. The trial will last for three months to gauge interest.

To join in either of these events, Hotchpotch is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Hunter S Thompson pub, while Hotchpotch Beyond is on Sunday 19 September at 7pm on Zoom.