The Importance of Structure and Conflict

This entry gives away the storyline of the novel The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kae Tempest. If you don’t want to know, it’s a good idea to skip this entry.


Every six months or so, one of my writing group members runs a 12-hour read-a-thon, where members can encourage each other to engage with a book they want to start or finish. We had the last one on Sunday just past, and I finished reading the aforementioned novel.

As a long-time fan of Kae Tempest’s other work, including poetry readings and music-backed albums, I really wanted to enjoy this, but what a letdown.

We’re led into the slightly seedy, slightly grimy world of the characters. But when the characters’ backgrounds are spelt out one after the other, it quickly becomes directionless.

Around two-thirds of the way in, there’s a scene where some chancer is beaten up after trying to charge a drug dealer double the previous price. This would have made a fantastic opener, from which we could have seen the tensions rise. Instead, any conflict is almost immediately resolved in the following chapters.

The book also suffers from some hallmarks of the first-time novelist. Firstly, Harry is a thinly-veiled version of Tempest. Secondly, the other characters all talk in a similar manner to each other, and not much conflict is built up between them for most of the time.

All the elements of a great story are there, but the final product feels like a collection of notes than a cohesive whole. The only element that made me push on through is the poetic prose throughout.

Having reached the abrupt ending, I recalled hearing about the first edit of Star Wars. It didn’t impress test audiences very much.

There is a standard story structure underpinning almost every major film, so an editor carefully went through the footage and shuffled it into an order closely resembling that structure. Here is the video of how it was done:

Had someone done the same with this novel, I might have been giving it a far better review.

Proofreading at Speed

One of the best ways to proofread a new piece is to leave it aside for a while, and then revisit it in the future. Writing and reading are two distinct processes, much like cooking and eating,

My preferred formula is to leave one minute per word, or 24 hours, whichever is longer. To find this, divide the number of words in a piece by 60. So a 600-word short story would be set aside for 24 hours, while an 80,000-word novella would be left for over 1,333 hours or around 56 days.

But what if you have a deadline that won’t allow the piece to be set aside for long? Here are three ways I’ve learned over the years to speed up the process.

Change the typeface

Microsoft Word is usually set up to type in Arial or Times New Roman, with equivalent typefaces available for Mac. However, there are countless others pre-installed on both operating systems. Save your work, then convert the text to something completely different.

I suggest picking wider letters than usual and increasing the font size, because the eye tends to focus on different parts of the same words, and any errors will seem more obvious.

Read it aloud

For the avoidance of doubt, there’s no need to read it to anyone, just as long as it’s out loud to yourself. This method is good for picking up poor grammar and clumsy sentence construction that reading alone often misses.

Make your computer read it out

I used to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking a lot, and that has a feature to read text from the page, although Word and other word processors also have this built in. I have a particular problem with typing form when I mean from, and vice-versa, and this method is particularly good at finding these.

Older speech synthesis is a little grating for longer pieces, but the inflections have become much more realistic over the last decade. Just ask the actor Val Kilmer, who was given a cutting-edge system after he lost his voice.

… and a disclaimer

Murphy’s Law dictates that a blog entry about proofreading will contain some errors that can’t be attributed to stylistic choices. I haven’t found any, but I’m sure my many readers will be all over it.

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.

Grammar, and the Importance Thereof

For a long time, I’ve used Grammarly on my computer. It acts as a spellchecker and grammar checker, but works across the whole of Windows 11, not just the Microsoft Office suite. Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company telling me how well I’ve been writing in the previous seven days. Let’s take a look at the one from yesterday.

That claims I was more productive than 76% of Grammarly users, was more accurate than 78%, and used more unique words than 81%. I have a streak when I’ve used the software for 124 weeks in a row, so there’s a lot of data to mine from that. It also points out my most common errors, but it must be stated that around half of these are stylistic differences from what the programmers expect. For example, I would write ‘6pm’ and not ‘6 PM’, and with the free version, there’s no way to inform them that’s just how I write.

I routinely watch educational videos on YouTube, and over the last few weeks, I’ve stumbled across a language tutor called Olly Richards. His method of teaching is what he dubs the StoryLearning method, in which learners are encouraged to read materials in the target language and hold conversations with native speakers – and to be less concerned by individual words, phrases and sentence construction. His view is that the grammar of a language will be learnt naturally through everyday use.

I’ve been considering how this applies to the English language. In everyday conversation, few people think about every word they say, and the general sense will usually shine through even when the words aren’t precise or are in an unusual order.

When I’m writing this blog, on the other hand, the words will probably hang around for some years. As such, I feel it important to maintain a decent standard of writing, especially as the subject is prose and poetry. Grammarly is one of the tools I use for this, but it isn’t the only one.

I drafted this entry on the evening of Monday 16 May, and I came back to it this evening. I redrafted the previous paragraph to include another relevant point, and I deleted two instances of ‘and’ right next to each other. I consider that time away from the writing to invaluable for spotting such errors.

When the Ephemeral Becomes Lasting

Having been on the comedy circuit since 1994, Janey Godley has risen to far greater prominence over the last couple of years.

For a long time, she’s been overdubbing footage of politicians with a humourous counter-narrative. But these really took off when she applied this to the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, giving COVID-19 briefings. Here’s an example that’s not safe for work.

Early in the series, a number of running catchphrases were established, many of which appeared to be improvised. One of them caught on more than any other, namely ‘Frank, get the door’, which was said as the First Minister left the stage. Godley has now used this as the title of a compilation book.

I’m sure everyone’s been at an event or gathering where an in-joke was established and built upon as the night went on. Most often, the joke is forgotten in a day or two, but sometimes it carries on, gaining arms and legs along the way.

A good example is from a poetry pal. Ross McCleary runs a Twitter account where the majority of the material revolves around recurring themes, including – but not limited to – the video for the Robbie Williams track Rock DJ, Hump Day as a nickname for Wednesday, Infinite Jest, and LinkedIn cliches.

Yesterday, I took part in an impromptu discussion surrounding another account called Edinburgh Watch, known for constantly retweeting messages from the city. Ross jokingly suggested writing a poetry show about ‘the death of Edinburgh Watch’, with other people suggesting elements that the narrative could have.

However, he’s also one to round up collaborators and take seemingly silly ideas to fruition. Previous projects have included reading poetry dressed as pandas, and a show set in the same universe as the old Fererro Rocher adverts.

It’s entirely possible, therefore, that something lasting might come from all this idle joking about Edinburgh Watch, and I look forward to seeing the end product.

A Summary of Summary

Last week, I made a major edit to a Wikipedia entry for the first time in years. The page in question was about the defunct Roodyards railway station in Dundee. Although no evidence of the station survives, I had a picture illustrating its approximate location, so I posted it.

Back when the site was still a novelty, I used to make contributions on a regular basis. I created my account in May 2006, although I did make edits before that date.

Whenever a page is changed, the person who made that change is expected to leave a summary sentence about the amendment. Some of my early ones include:

  • ‘Removed Stub status, since there is sufficient material regarding this song.’, for the Ben Folds Five track Brick.
  • ‘Corrected spelling of Kaiser Chiefs.’
  • ‘Added Differences from the book section.’ about the BBC series Hotel Babylon.
  • ‘Removed Young Lochee Fleet vandalism.’ after a page was maliciously edited.
  • ‘Made page into a disambiguation page, since the two Dairyleas are separate entities.’ for two companies that have the same name.

I even created a complex word association game called Word Before Last that is no longer popular, but is still a live page. Other users have not only continued the game, but even created extra branches and expanded the rules for clarity. There is robust documentation behind the scenes about the changes made at each stage.

For the last ten years, I’ve been working in jobs where I’ve been required to write reports. Looking back, those Wikipedia contributions offered vital practice in writing summaries of my findings. It’s a difficult skill to teach, but the main question to answer is, ‘What can be removed while still conveying the same message?’

It might sound strange, but that same principle of summary also works for poetry. This morning, the humourist Brian Bilston published a very short verse about a duvet.

He could quite easily have written many more lines about wanting to stay in bed because it was comfortable. In just four lines, however, he encapsulates his thoughts, and there is an effective implication of the comfort without needing to spell it out.

A Trickle of Income

In 2003, The Killers released their first single Mr Brightside, but it didn’t take off commercially until 2004. Despite the gap of nearly two decades since then, the single has spent 307 non-consecutive weeks in the UK Top 100, accurate to Friday 25 March 2022. This type of sleeper hit has a literary equivalent called the midlist.

A midlist book in a publisher’s catalogue won’t shift a lot of units at any one time, instead consistently selling enough copies to justify keeping it in circulation. But is this a good or a bad place to be? It depends on who you ask.

Publishers typically like the midlist because it gives them a wide pool to choose from, not to mention bringing in reasonable passive income for minimum marketing. On the other hand, writers can find it difficult to promote their work because those marketing budgets are geared towards new releases.

Realistically, most published novels will end up on that list, with only a few breaking out as household names. But the aforementioned passive income can also benefit authors. I’ve had a few short stories and poems published between five and ten years ago, and they bring in secondary royalties from when books are lent or copied.

If you’ve had anything published with an ISBN, I urge you to register with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. There’s a one-off membership fee taken from your first payment, but subsequent ones are made every six months with no further deductions.

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.

Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.