A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

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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.

The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.

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.

Dear Diary

Last Monday, our open-mike night for writers moved back to its old venue after a refurbishment. We had an excellent turnout and enough material for more than two hours, not including the two 15-minute breaks. A couple of the staff also said they enjoyed meeting us.

Then on Tuesday, it was our NaNoWriMo meeting where we sometimes write and sometimes chat and always exchange ideas and maybe fill in each other’s plot holes. After that, I spent a little time at a playwriting evening called Scrieve where playwrights get to hear their work performed by volunteer actors.

On Thursday, I was with my poetry group Wyverns where we each presented our poems about Frankenstein on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. There is a local connection as she acknowledged in an essay that the grim Dundee climate inspired her creation. Our poems have been published in a slimline booklet.

Saturday was when we had our second NaNoWriMo meeting of the week, and despite not starting until the afternoon, it was one of my most productive days so far with 2,500 words written. However, at the end of Sunday, I only had 35,482 when I needed 41,666 to stay on target. If I don’t pull my finger out soon, I’m not going to manage the 50,000 words, but dear diary, you can tell anyone I admitted this.

It’s Gonna Be Epic!!

I was invited last week to be part of a one-off writing workshop. I knew little about the content in advance because it was brought to my attention by a third party. However, I believe improv keeps me sharp, so I was excited to go along and find out.

Martin O’Connor led us through the workshop. He’s interested in epic poetry, particularly in the Scots dialect, so he was holding these sessions around Scotland.

As part of the exercise, the eight or so participants were asked to complete several statements ranging from ‘My favourite holiday was…’ to ‘After death, I believe we…’ From these, we were asked to build a chronology of one aspect of our lives, before building up to the beginning of an epic piece of prose or poetry.

Martin invited us to send the work to him, either as it was written in the workshop or expanded into a full-length piece. The work didn’t necessarily have to be in Scots; in fact, none of the participants wrote that way.

Poetry is about boiling down big concepts into a few words, so for epic poetry, you need a lot of source material. Paradise Lost by John Milton is based upon Bible Scripture so he had a lot of material to draw up. Similarly, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are both set over a 10-year period.

Prose allows a little more flexibility for expanding ideas. The classic example is War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which runs to 250,000 words. This took seven years to write, and is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place from 1803 to 1815.

This month, I’ve started upon my annual attempt at National Novel Writing Month, as well as leading the local region with the help of a co-host.

The target is 50,000 words, more modest than the works mentioned above, but the challenge is to write them all within 30 days. Fortunately, I’ll be spending a lot of time on trains, giving me ample time to boost that word count, and the region as a whole is nearly at the 300,000-word mark.

Of course, the new standard of epic literature is neither fiction nor poetry. In July 2016, Sir John Chilcot published his long-awaited report about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It ran to 2.6 million words.