The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

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Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

Far, Wide and Deep

This blog primarily discusses writing and the performance of literary works. For the most part, this encompasses novels, short stories and poems.

But some of the entries touch upon films, TV series and rap music. What these forms have in common is that they almost always begin as a written document, from the musician who jots down lyrics in the notebook to the screenwriter carefully crafts a story arc.

In my view, it’s healthy for a writer to have influences from many different sources. Last week alone, I’ve been to see a 40th anniversary screening of Alien, I visited and participated in the StAnza poetry Festival in St Andrews, and I’ve been listening to the hits of Rizzle Kicks.

That’s not to say these sources will immediately influence my work. Rather, I might pick up a line of dialogue or a neat way of wrapping up a plot.

When I undertook my MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee, I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Jim Stewart before his death in 2016.

If you came to him with a piece he didn’t understand, he’d ask you questions until it was clear to him or research it. If he felt something could be improved, he would guide you rather than make outright suggestions. I never once heard him dismiss anything.

And when a writer embraces an unlikely influence, the result can be eye-opening. Take P D James as an example. She was known for her detective novels, then at the age of 70, she wrote Children of Men, her only science fiction work.

The Short Verse

Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.


I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.

As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.

One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.

That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.

Two In a Room

Last week, I was working in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to see the TV writer John Osborne in Wolverhampton. The Arena Theatre wasn’t busy when I entered, but I didn’t expect to be one of just two people in the audience.

It must have felt frustrating for Osborne, especially as he plans to take the show on tour, but he didn’t let it show as he took the microphone. He was there to promote his book No-One Cares about Your New Thing.

And what a performance it was, with the first half devoted to poems and the second filled with a personal humorous story centred around his late grandfather’s collection of old Radio Times magazines.

At the end, he offered us both a complimentary copy of the book, though I did pay for mine; I’d planned to buy one from the moment I heard the first poem.

I’ve also had experiences where there’s far less of an audience than I expected. There’s nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.

At one meet-up of Hotchpotch a couple of years ago, there was me plus five attendees, far removed from the dozens we attract today. Since it was a mild summer night, we decided to head into the beer garden and hold an open-air event.

Incidentally, it seems that the Arena Theatre holds a similar open-mike event called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to their upcoming events, although I might manage to see the poet Jess Green in March.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.