Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

Knowing My Own Limits

I’m often uncertain what to write on this blog until I actually sit down to type it out. But I’ve recently been plauged with a different problem, where I know exactly which topic I want to cover, but I can’t find an angle for it.

Some months ago, I was reminded about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The University of Hawai’i has an excellent introduction, breaking down the usage into vocabulary, sounds and grammar. My trouble is that I’ve nothing to add beyond that as don’t know any native speakers personally, so my experience is limited to what I’ve heard in films and on TV.

If I were to pursue this topic in the future, it’s possible I could draw parallels with the Scots language.

One example from the university link above is using the word bad to mean good. It can, of course, still mean bad, but the meaning may depend on its context. Meanwhile, I grew up listening to Scots speakers talk about the morn’s morn. The first morn means tomorrow, while the second means morning. But again, it’s a matter of context, as the phrase can also be used to refer to the indefinite future, much like the Spanish mañana.

Aside from that short analysis, I feel that’s as far as I can go with discussion of AAVE, certainly for the time being.

Hearing Yourself Back

Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.

During this time, I became so accustomed to hearing recordings of my work that I can’t recall the last time it bothered me. As such, I often forget that many people don’t like listening to themselves.

The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.

During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:

Submission to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight.

When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.

A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.

&

In last week’s entry, we looked at handwriting recognition software. If you read the text in the scanned picture, you might have seen I used the ‘&’ symbol instead of ‘and’.

When writing by hand, I do this regularly, barely thinking about it, whereas I would always type out ‘and’ in full. The only time it’s come to my attention is when I’ve been transcribing my notebooks.

Last week, I spotted a video from one of my favourite content producers on YouTube: Tom Scott. He makes short educational films about a range of subjects, from elevators to nuclear waste to computer programming.

This one was about the letters in the English alphabet that have been either merged or separated over the last thousand years. The ‘&’ symbol once came straight after Z in the alphabet, and he explains more below:

Video by Tom Scott about the evolution of the English alphabet.

Oddly enough, I always spell out ‘the’ in full, even although its frequency could justify shortening to ‘th’ or even ‘t’. In 2013, an Australian restaurant owner tried to invent a new symbol for ‘the’, but eight years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t caught on.

Bringing Back a Bygone Blog

Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee, which encourages artists to be creative throughout January. Most years, I have an idea what I’m going to do; this year, by contrast, I didn’t.

I have a tradition of keeping a handwritten logbook each year, which visitors are able to inspect at a weekend exhibition. With less than 5 hours until January 1st, I found an old notebook and began my log, and as I was writing, an idea began to form.

On the assumption that public events will still not permitted in two to three months’ time, I wanted to present my scans of my drawings and the logbook online. Instagram is the go-to site for many participants because it’s perfect for photos, and I’ll still be using it. Yet it’s not geared towards long-form explanations, which this project needs, so I set about looking for a secondary site.

The solution was to resurrect my old LiveJournal account, just for January. Recycling is one of my major recurring themes in Fun a Day, so reusing that page is very much in the same scope. When you visit it via the URL www.ladygavgav.com, it’s been set up to show only the Fun a Day posts.

I first used LiveJournal in the early 2000s, which in turn has inspired my Fun a Day art to be themed around Millennium nostalgia and pop culture as I remember it. The interface to post a new entry hadn’t been updated by the time I jumped ship to WordPress in 2013, but I was pleased to find it’s now more user-friendly, especially when embedding pictures.

Now I have a course of action, we now begin the real challenge of finding the time and motivation to update that site every day this month.

Using Retrospective Continuity

This blog does not normally include spoilers. However, don’t read this if you intend to watch Dallas (seasons 9 and 10), Star Wars (1977), and/or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Last week, we touched upon the concept of retrospective continuity, where facts established in the plot of a fictional work are adjusted, ignored or contradicted by what comes later.

The term only appeared in the 1970s, and its common abbreviation ‘retcon’ is only 30 years old. Yet the actual device has been used for as long as there have been stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it with Sherlock Holmes, as have major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

In my experience, retconning works best when the change in question:

  • is small rather than sweeping
  • adds to existing canon rather than negates it

Let’s look at when it was done well in mainstream culture, and when it was handled badly.

Season 9 of Dallas was broadcast in 1986, and a major plot point was the aftermath of the death of Bobby Ewing, who had been killed by a car. At the end of the season, however, he appeared again, and the entire season was written off as the vivid dream of Pam Ewing.

This instance was a big change rather than a small one, and took away existing canon instead of adding to it, so many viewers were unhappy with how it was handled. That said, the show continued until 1991.

Now let’s look at Star Wars, the original from 1977. It had been a point of contention among fans that the Death Star had a weak point, namely an exhaust port, that could destroy the whole behemoth.

In Rogue One, however, that weakness is revealed to have been deliberately placed by Galen Erso, so anyone who knew about it could easily destroy the behemoth. Vulture.com explains it in much more detail than I do. Here, it was a lelatively small detail that became important later in the story, and it added to what was shown in Star Wars rather than negating it.

Unlike the Dallas retconning, this move went down well with fans, even impressing the folks at ScreenRant.

The Stories That Have Legs

Around this time last year, I intended to write a silly joke for Twitter. It was intended to read along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember before the Internet, you had to phone in your YouTube order and wait for the videos to be delivered?’

I never posted that joke because I kept thinking of details I wanted to add. at last count, that one-liner has gradually morphed into a short story of more than 1,800 words.

Now another piece is currently growing legs in a similar manner. My old school sports grounds are on a main road, so I often walk past them. This prompted a one-off story about a group of teenage school pupils who are required to take games class, but either loathe it or are at least indifferent about it, so they find other ways to keep themselves occupied during this time.

Unusually for me, I posted it to a popular writing website to see what the feedback would be like. Some commenters pointed out there was a potential cliffhanger, so I wrote a second part to fill that gap.

That second installment received as much attention as the first. By this time, the characters were so well-rounded that I could take them out of games class and into other locations, so a third part quickly followed.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the one-off story, I’d only named a handful of the 14 characters. This was fine for the sequel, which took place in the same location the following week. However, it had been established in the one-off that the summer break was nearly upon them. The narrator is shown to ask the named characters to meet up again during summer, but none of them were keen for their own reasons.

I therefore injected some retroactive continuity in an effort to avoid inconsistencies.

It would have been possible, but implausible, for all the named characters suddenly to change their minds about meeting up again. However, there were two unnamed characters mentioned en passant by the narrator. I pushed them centre-stage when said they had somewhere to meet over summer. This in turn persuaded the best friend of the narrator to change her mind and join them.

As such, the number of characters reduced to four, arguably a more manageable than 14. Introducing that new location then meant I was able to introduce other characters who weren’t necessarily required to have been in the previous installments.

The third part hasn’t made nearly as big a splash on the website as its two predecessors. I’ve nonetheless planned for a series of six or seven short stories because I really need to write this tale, almost regardless of the reaction.

I’m now considering releasing them as one collection, which will give me even more opportunity to make the continuity seamless rather than retrospective.

The Plot Summary and the Log Line

When submitting work to a publisher, the writer is often required to summarise the piece, especially if it’s a long-from work. This is one of the most difficult post-production activities, as it can involve removing tone and nuance from the piece, leaving just the key plot points.

Here are the two main types of summary that might be expected.

The plot summary

This type is most associated with novels. The publisher will ask for around 500 words to summarise the entire plot, even if that novel is 100,000 words long.

This means focussing on only the main characters and the key story points, however interesting the side plots might be. There is no sure-fire method of making the process simple, but one tip is to divide the number of words by the number of chapters and apportion the summary accordingly. To make it flow better, the ratio can then be changed once the summary is written.

Note that ‘entire plot’ means just that, and it should include details of how it ends, not a teaser.


Log line

This type of summary is most associated with screenplays.

It’s one or two sentences long, but never three, and acts as a teaser that gives the premise but not the ending. It’s also customary that characters are mentioned only by role, not by name.

There are some good examples at Masterclass.com, including one from Titanic:

Two star-crossed lovers fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, you can see the protagonists (the lovers), the setting (the ship) and the inciting incident (the sinking), but not the ending nor how the protagonists reach it.


Remember that a publisher might form their first impression of your project on a summary or a log line, so it’s worth giving it as much attention as the work itself.

Packed Up and Sent Away

About a week before the deadline, I learnt that the Traverse Theatre in Glasgow and had an open call for stage play submissions of at least 50 minutes. I already had a piece that fitted the criteria and was in a nearly-finished state, but I hadn’t touched it for many months.

So I hurriedly began work, giving it a once-over for any obvious errors, then restructuring where necessary. My usual way of approaching this is to read the entire script out loud, as this highlights any flaws more clearly than simply reading it over. There were parts that I felt could be beefed up, events that could be clarified or simplified, and even some instances when a character’s former name had accidentally been retained.

As much as I wanted to send it off straight away, I left it for a day or two. Coming back to it after that period lets you more easily spot mistakes that slipped past the first time. Once I was satisfied that the script was as ship-shape as it could be within the timescale available, I sent it in.

This is the first piece of work I’ve submitted for a long time. It’s been such a while that I’ve cleared the rest of my submissions tracker on the assumption that if I haven’t heard back from the listed publishers by now, I never will. It’ll be a nine-month wait before I hear back about this play, during which time I can’t send it anywhere else.

I stopped submitting short stories and poems to allow me to work on longer-form pieces, but now I’ve been working on these longer ones, it’s time to start finding a home for them.