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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Let’s Push Things Forward

There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.

For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.

To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.

Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.

Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.

Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.

These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.

I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.

Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.

ʍǝᴉΛ ɟo ʇuᴉoԀ ɹǝɥʇou∀

On Tuesday two weeks ago, I was hurrying back to the office after lunch to prepare for a meeting. En route, I spotted tourists taking photographs of nearby statues, taking advantage of a brief window of sunshine in an otherwise rainy week.

Exactly a week later, I was the tourist at the Edinburgh Fringe squeezing past locals in bus stops as they went about their business. This started me thinking about point of view in the stories we write.

Let’s fictionalise the scenario above into character sketches, starting with the first-person point of view of the office worker:

I didn’t mean to take so long over lunch, but I was dreading that meeting. Profits are down for the third quarter and couldn’t explain why. Just then, some tourist, not looking where he’s going, steps back trying to get a picture of some statue and knocks the papers right out my hand. He’s in a world of his own and if I wasn’t so late, I’d have had a word with him. But I picked them up and carried on and went to the meeting and just said customer engagement was better than ever.

And now from the first-person point of view of the tourist:

Finally, a sunny afternoon after all that rain. Thought I’d take the chance to come out of the museums and take a few photos round the town centre. There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria so I had to step back quite a bit just to fit it all in. Next thing I know, bumped into some local who’s more concerned with reading documents than looking out for people. Said I was sorry, as you do, but she just ignored me. Fine by me. I got the picture I wanted.

Hynek Moravec - Self-photographed
Hynek Moravec – Self-photographed

Already, we can see a difference in the two characters’ points of view. The office worker is in a hurry and preoccupied about the meeting, but the tourist is more relaxed and concerned with taking good photos. We also see different details depending on the perspective of the character. Finally, let’s examine the same scenario in third person:

On Tuesday afternoon, Alice left the pub clutching her documents with five minutes to spare until the meeting. She still could give no good reason why profits were down for the third quarter. Meanwhile, Ben cupped his hand to his camera screen against the strong sun. The statue needed a wider angle. Without turning around, he stepped back. At that moment, Alice turned the corner and they bumped into each other.

The first and second passages are in the first-person voice. The characters use ‘I’ and ‘me’ to describe what’s happening from their perspective. But neither of them knows what the other is thinking; they can only make assumptions based on the actions of the other party. This voice is an excellent way to portray an unreliable narrator.

The third passage is in the third person, a more objective point of view. The narrator uses ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’. We now find out the names of the characters, which is also possible in the first person. But that would require a self-introduction or for a second character to mention the name, which might distract from the story. It’s also revealed that Alice was in the pub. Was this detail simply not at the forefront of her mind, or is she an unreliable narrator with a drinking problem?

So we have a choice to make, and it’s a choice that beginner writers sometimes struggle to make. Even experienced writers occasionally need to rewrite.

A few Novembers ago, I was writing an alternate history novel, where the past is reimagined in some way. In mine, the petrol engine wasn’t developed until the end of the 20th century. My plan was to tell the story from the point of view of a historian who had interviewed the reclusive inventor; this would be peppered with newspaper and journal articles.

The technique didn’t work. I couldn’t find enough material to construct a detailed narrative. I recalled some advice I was once given that if a piece isn’t working, the point of view is often the cause. I’ve found this to be true.

I decided I had to let the inventor speak for herself, and the story came alive. The first thing she did was attend an office Christmas party and hit her boss with a glass bottle.

Earlier this year, I read a letter in Writing Magazine that a subscriber’s own story wasn’t working from his main character’s point of view. He explained how and why he rewrote it in the third person, then rather grandly signed off the letter with First person – last choice.

However, I disagree; the point of view will probably change depending on the story you write. In the case of a novel, there might even be shifts from first to third or vice-versa from one chapter to the next. If the subscriber in question did stick slavishly to third-person, he would probably encounter the opposite problem eventually, as I have recently.

The first- and third-person voices are by far the most common, but there exists a far rarer alternative: the second person. This is where the narrator uses ‘you’.

It’s a personal opinion, but I believe this technique is only effective in poetry, as it gives the impression of the poet writing a letter to a third party. In prose, it can feel as though the author is instructing the reader. A novel in the second person can be done, however, as Angelina Mirabella found out.

The Submissions Tracker

I’ve been falling behind on my submissions to publishers.

One of the most important steps a writer can take is to keep track of the submissions made. Below is an excerpt from my own tracker, a Google Documents sheet. You can click the image to make the text larger.

An excerpt from my submissions tracker

Publisher

When you routinely send pieces to publishers, you start to develop a gut feeling about those to avoid. One publisher seemed evasive about giving anything more than an e-mail address and a Skype number, while another promised a cash prize for the winner but stated that the piece wouldn’t be published unless they felt like it. If it feels dodgy, steer clear.

I now send my work almost exclusively to publishers rather than competitions, although I’ll make an exception on occasion. My main motivation is the cost of submission, which often seems disproportionately high, but I also tend to find them less well-organised than commercial publishers.

Submission guidelines

I can’t stress this enough: read the submission guidelines, then read them again, ideally out loud. The publisher will usually be specific about the type of work wanted, the word or line count, the format in which it should appear, the method by which it should be submitted, the deadline, plus any other relevant information such as a brief biography. Great story and poetry templates are available at William Shunn’s website.

Whether or not it’s requested, make an effort to find out the name of the editor or the person who’s taking submissions. Don’t worry if you name the wrong person; it shows you’ve at least done some research.

I’ve had experiences where submission guidelines for competitions have been unclear or even self-contradictory. If you’re in any doubt about them, don’t hesitate to ask the organisers. That signals to them that their explanation isn’t clear.

Deadline and Submission date

I know it sounds as though I’m insulting your intelligence, but don’t miss the deadline if you can possibly help it. The overwhelming majority of submissions are done online, and most publishers will accept entries up to 11:59pm on deadline day unless otherwise specified. For the few places that accept or insist upon postal entries, it’s worth checking whether the publisher wants your letter by the deadline, or whether the postmark date will be taken.

If your submission is late, there’s no harm in a phone call or an e-mail to the publisher regarding whether it’ll still be accepted.

Decision notified

We’d all love to be told instantly about the result. I once posted a piece on a Monday and received a rejection on the Friday morning, but that’s a rare experience. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of pieces, and you could be waiting up to six months for a response.

Always be aware that you might not receive any response at all. The New Yorker, for instance, advises contributors that owing to the volume of submissions, they should assume it’s a rejection if they haven’t heard within 90 days.

Title (s) entered

Very often, a publisher won’t allow a short story or poem to be under consideration by anyone else; that’s why it’s wise to have a number of other pieces to send elsewhere in the meantime. If you’re a novelist submitting to an agent, however, simultaneous submissions of the same book are acceptable.

I store each of my stories and poems in individual PC folders. Whenever I submit somewhere new, I always create a new file within the folder containing the latest revision and specifying where it’s been sent.

Entry method

Most submissions are done by e-mail and few are done by post, as explored earlier. Shorter pieces might be accepted by filling in a form on the publisher’s website. The Submittable  site is popular among some publishers. This not only accepts documents online but allows you to track the status of every submission.

Whichever online method is used, you’ll usually receive a receipt by e-mail. By post, place a stamped and self-addressed postcard in the envelope so the publisher can signal when it’s been received.

Overall submission count

Every year, I set myself a target of submitting 53 pieces to publishers; one a week on average, plus one for the extra day or two that comprises a year. It’s a generously low target, but my immediate mission is to catch up and keep pace.


Postscript

I normally try to stick to one theme per entry, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rappers Versus Poets event hosted by the BBC on Saturday night. I know a few of the poets, either personally or by sight, but I’ll leave you to watch it and find out whether they won or lost.

Back to My Roots

We’re on the last day of Camp NaNoWriMo, a spin-off project of National Novel Writing Month. Camp allows a writer to set an individual word goal and offers an alternative option to log hours of editing. I chose to edit the material I wrote during the April version of Camp.

By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By snowyowls [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I first started writing, I penned exclusively prose: short stories at writing classes and novels during NaNoWriMo. After about three years, I segued to poetry. For a long while now, I’ve wanted to return to writing short stories and other types of prose; whenever I’ve tried, I’ve been pulled back to poetry. But on looking at April’s material, I feel as though I’ve finally made a step in the right direction.

There’s one short story I like in particular. A Drink for Everyone is from the point of view of a woman who wants nothing more than to have enough money to get drunk, and the story sees her hit upon a way of achieving this aim. It’s sometimes the case that I like a story while I’m writing it, but not on rereading. In this case, I enjoyed the editing as much as the construction. At around 1500 words, it’s also a length that many publications will accept.

Other highlights of April’s material include a story about a group of people who live as though it’s 1999, a parody of an announcement at the end of the day’s TV broadcasting, and a response to a pastel drawing of a stacked shed that I’d forgotten I’d written.

A Drink for Everyone is only the first step to reintroducing prose into my regular output. Writing a story is different in many ways from writing a poem. Generally speaking, prose needs to have a plot or an inciting event, and the text might take no particular form other than the accepted rules of grammar. Poetry, by contrast, can muse upon a theme or a moment without necessarily having a narrative structure, though the words are often written to evoke a sound, a rhythm, or a cadence.

If I can climb into the prose mindset, and use the techniques I’ve learned since I last regularly wrote short stories, I believe I can find a balance between the two disciplines.

From Scratch

I haven’t had much time to pull this entry together, but working quickly has very much been the theme of this weekend.

The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre

I attended a workshop run by poets Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC), aimed at those who have a spoken word show either already written or at the draft stage.

On the Saturday, we discussed such topics as: how the show might be mapped out, technical considerations, and how to attract funding. We were also invited to try a number of physical movement exercises and experiment with using the space.

The next day, the group put together a show from scratch, making sure the running order flowed, discussing lighting requirements with a technician, and ultimately performing our best pieces in the custom-built Netherbow Theatre at the SSC.

I found the group a joy to work with. Jenny and Rachel pointed out there were no ‘egos’ and that we all took each others’ ideas on board. The final show went incredibly well. I usually find among a group of writers that I like many of the others but there’s one whose work I especially admire. This weekend, I found that person and let them know.

As I begin the week, I’m excited to take my project to the next stage, and I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the other participants.