For the last six days, I’ve been rather unwell. It’s not the Big Thing, that’s for sure, but it’s meant I’ve been less physically able to move. This has meant I’ve spent more time in front of the computer.
On the plus side, though, I was able to devote some time to a short story I’d half-written, and it didn’t take that long to finish.
Unfortunately, the effort it took to finish that story has drained the energy required to write a blog entry. So tune in next week when this illness has hopefully eased off a bit more.
Having run events for so many years now, it’s always interesting to watch the folks who are new to writing.
Some have an idea, but don’t know how to start off. Others need constant reassurance that they’re doing a good job. There are even some who fill every spare moment with writing classes and courses.
It’s not only inevitable that everyone will go through this process, but it’s necessary. All the experimentation allows you to figure out your preferences and dislikes. From my own perspective, I figured out early on that I like sending my work to publishers but entering it into competitions. I then worked out that I like to pen monologues or plays rather than novels.
If you do have that kind of energy, my advice is to use it while you have it. Bluntly, once your motivation goes, it might never return.
On Christmas Eve, a pal and I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the cinema. After the showing, we discussed the number of times we’d seen it. In her case, it was around the 15th time; for me, probably around eight or nine.
Unlike my pal, it’s a rarity that I’ll watch a film more than once. Ones that fall into the three-times-over club include The Matrix, Home Alone, and Star Wars: Episode IV. I simply don’t gain the same enjoyment from watching something again, especially if it’s soon after the last time.
With books, it’s even less likely I’ll read one for a second time. It’s not just that I can’t find the same enjoyment, but there’s a greater time commitment. Assuming a minute per page, a novel takes far longer to read than the two hours or so needed to watch a film.
The only attempt I’ve ever made was with the Christopher Brookmyre story All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. In that case, I didn’t even reach the halfway point.
I do, nonetheless, tend to keep books afterwards if I like them. I might never again read A Clockwork Orange, Breakfast at Tiffany’s nor Fight Club, but I do like to know they’re there.
Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.
I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.
As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.
That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.
One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.
That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.
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.
One of the pieces of advice often given to beginner writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bedside to write down any ideas that occur in the middle of the night. I’ve said a few times on here that this has never worked for me. Yet something happened last week that helped me with a current project.
I woke up before 5am on a couple of occasions last week, and was unable to get back to sleep. It’s a dangerous distraction to switch on your computer at that time, but I decided to give it 20 minutes, then head back to bed.
Instead, I ended up solving a problem with a story that wasn’t coming together properly. There were a lot of solid plot points that were difficult to arrange into a logical narrative. This was also part of a series, so there needed to be a little explanation for those who hadn’t read the previous instalment, but not so much that it slowed down the pace.
The breakthrough came after about ten minutes, and once I’d arranged the first few paragraphs into the right order, the rest followed. It’s now up to more than 1,300 words with more to follow, and the next story in the sequence will include the points I had to leave out of this one.
It sometimes happens that a number of writing projects need to be completed at the same time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the last week.
Some of these are self-imposed, like two job applications and writing a private blog entry for a closed group. But the others have been opportunities like supporting a funding application for an Edinburgh poetry organisation, and an invitation to write a public blog post for Creative Dundee.
This deluge has been a prime lesson in prioritising, some pieces due on sequential dates. I’m making headway, with only the Creative Dundee post still outstanding, but at the time of writing, I haven’t been given a definite submission date.
It does, however, pay to hit a deadline. Just yesterday, I heard I’ve had a piece selected to appear in Poetry Scotland and I can’t wait to see it in print.
Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee that happens every January. There is no specific brief: you can write, draw, compose music, dance, or whatever your skillset us. The timing is designed to fill the void that artists often experience after the Christmas rush.
For the first time in a long time, we were able to meet up in person on Sunday. As I’d already arranged to do something else that day. I was only able to come along in the last 15 minutes, but it was great to see everyone again.
When I first started Fun a Day, my work was strictly writing, creating one new poem or story for each day of the month. One year consisted of writing a number of words each day that would combine to form a single sentence.
I’ve edged slowly into drawing, inspired by the other participants, and I’ve developed a style that includes recycled materials. Sometimes I use the recycled material in the work, other times I shred what I’ve created.
At the beginning of this year, I looked back at popular culture between 1998 and 2001, and writing was still an integral part of my projects. I kept a handwritten diary of my thoughts as I created each piece.
I don’t yet know what form this year’s project will take, but I know the title, and I know I’ll continue to log my thoughts in a notebook as it progresses.
Every so often, I’ll start to write an entry, then abandon it. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it; sometimes a more urgent topic arises before I can finish it.
As such, I have five draft entries in my WordPress account, listed in order of when they were last edited. The original unedited words are in italics, with further explanation below each one.
18 Mar 2018: The Importance of Outside Influences
While it is necessary for an author to read within their own genre, one of the first pieces of advice given to beginner writers is to read widely. and collect influences from different sources.
This is fairly self-explanatory and probably would have segued into a couple of examples of where the author has successfully put together two disparate ideas to create something new.
Oddly enough, I was at a workshop run by Kirsty Logan a couple of weeks ago where she explored this very idea, so this topic might make a resurgence.
15 Oct 2019: But Who Would Want to Hear About That?
At the weekend, I took part in two different tours: on Saturday, a road train around Arbroath; on Sunday, a walking tour around the mostly-disused basement of Glasgow Central Station.
In both cases, it was clear that the guide had a vast knowledge of his subject, including a recognition that there were still mysteries to be solved
There is no shortage of fiction written by people with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject: Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, Dan Brown in Angels & Demons, &c. Often it makes for compelling reading, but an author needs to be careful not to overload the reader.
21 Jul 2019: Respeaking
This was the entirety of my note. It was a reference to how TV subtitles are created, at least on the BBC.
I wrote this fragment while listening to a poetry event from Wolverhampton and surrounding areas. Someone talked about living in a post-industrial place and the language that grew out of that, and I could draw a comparison with where I live, hundreds of miles away.
I’m not sure how much I could expand much on this idea, but it’s still there for the taking.
10 Aug 2020: The Fallback Formula
While taking my Masters degree, our class was asked to perform a piece for public reading. We could do anything we wanted, but the tutor suggested the prompt ‘piece of my mind’. As I wasn’t finding any ideas, I did what I often do in that situation, and go for a walk. I recall it was a freezing February night.
The walk resulted in my first list poem, called Textbook. Each of its 23 lines begins with the words ‘I’ve learnt’, in which the narrator is worried about a third party. The original plan was to begin each line with a different verb, but I found the repetitive structure worked rather well.
Those two paragraphs were the original entry, while the one below was copied directly from notes I made at the time.
Kirsty, voice suited the piece, dichotomy, you’re never the subject until last line. Corrin, liked the repetition, person depression, created flickering image. Graeme, think you can tell it’s someone close to narrator, didn’t get gender. Jackie, speaker was male, person was female. Eddie, took it as daughter who was self-harmer.
I’ve discussed my writing process many times, including the devices I rely upon, so there’s no specific reason to finish this piece.
I’m going to write this entry in a markedly different style to demonstrate a point. I’m normally pernickety about starting a new paragraph every two to three sentences, or perhaps only one sentence to emphasise particularly pertinent information. A surprising number of people don’t leave enough paragraph breaks, or don’t leave any, which makes the text harder to read. If you analyse a newspaper or a novel, you’ll invariably find the first sentence of each paragraph indented by a few millimetres. This tiny gap indicates that the narrative is moving on and allows the eye to rest briefly. There are occasional exceptions, like the Will Self novel Shark, deliberately shunning paragraphs in favour of a single sentence that spans the whole narrative. The Look Inside feature on Amazon shows how the publisher prudently compensates for this by using wider line spacing. In the early days of the CD-ROM and the Web, it was quickly discovered that longer articles aren’t so easy to read on a PC, and not just because of screen brightness. The main difference is that it’s possible to turn your head or eyes quickly to see a whole double newspaper spread, giving a solid frame of reference, but a computer screen can typically only show part of the text at any given time without some input by the user. As such, additional eye rests are necessary, and professional websites will generally leave at least one line between paragraphs, often with additional negative space at the sides. A big shout-out must go to WordPress for its readability. Composing an entry is done in blocks, typically containing one paragraph or illustration, and as such, it encourages spacing. The publishing layout is also widely customisable – something that social media sites could learn from – so you can fill as much or as little of the screen as you need. If you’re a writer of any sort, one action that makes your work look instantly more professional is to leave paragraph spaces. It doesn’t have to be every two or three sentences like me; indeed, Virginia Woolf was known to use page-long paragraphs. Your reader’s eyes, however, will thank you for the occasional rest.