My First Library

It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.

My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.

I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.

Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.

I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.

All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.

My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.

Playing it by Ear

About a month ago, I bought my partner an audiobook through Audible as she prefers them over paper or e-books. I also received a credit to use in exchange for an audiobook of my choice.

After some deliberation, I picked the J G Ballard novel Crash. With a running time of six hours, it was shorter than many other novels and a good introduction to the format, this one spoken in the calm and almost factual manner in which the author writes.

When hearing something on the radio or in a live setting, there’s no opportunity to recap what you’ve missed. Yet when listening to Crash, I found myself many times pressing the button to skip back 30 seconds.

It is true that if I were to let my mind wander, I would soon be able to grasp a sense of what had just happened. The novel is a heavily descriptive one, going into detail about the curve of the motorway embankment or the injuries sustained by the characters.

I’m already accustomed to listening to podcasts. I found it easier to listen to a single voice on an audiobook, as podcast hosts often talk over each other. That said, with the opportunity to repeat the previous half-minute, I wanted to dwell upon each word and to confirm my own understanding of what had just happened. I only made an exception if it were too inconvenient to reach the controls.

I am keen to listen to more audiobooks, as I enjoyed being free to work or to wash dishes at the same time. I reckon the more I do it, the less I’ll be inclined to rewind what I’ve just heard, so I’m still checking Audible every so often for other appealing titles.

Say It Like You Mean It

If you know anything about the town of Falkirk, you’ll probably have heard about one of its landmarks: giant statues of two horse heads known as the Kelpies. I visited the statues a couple of years ago, led by a tour guide.

Most guides would give a factual description of when the statues were built, how high they are, how many tons of metal were involved in the construction, and so forth. Instead, this one was a great storyteller, reeling us all in with a tale about the mythology of the Kelpies in Scottish culture, weaving in the facts and figures as he went along.

It’s this type of passion that makes for a good performer. Most writers and poets do infuse that into their stage presence – but I have seen a few who recite their words with little emotion. It’s particularly jarring when an event host flatly reads from a piece of paper that they are ‘very excited to welcome’ their guest.

I understand it can be difficult to stir up as much enthusiasm for a piece you’ve read a hundred times. Yet it might only be the first or second time the audience has heard it, so it needs to sound fresh. The best technique is to try to think about the meaning of the words as you read, and to make a conscious effort to pace and emphasise them.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another tour guide who was so memorable, but because he was so engaging, I’ll always remember the one who took me around the Kelpies.

Carving Out the Time to Write – and to Read

On Christmas Eve, we explored the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field.

It’s a concept I’m still thinking about five weeks on, so I’ve been conducting a couple of unscientific experiments about increasing the time available for writing – and indeed reading, which is almost as important for an author.

As many mornings as possible, I go for a half-hour walk around the local park. I’m also a frequent radio listener, so I often take my pocket-sized DAB receiver with me. I use it when I walk other places, and occasionally at work when it’s quiet.

For five weeks, I’ve replaced that radio listening with educational podcasts; the subjects covered have not been writing-related, as I’m already familar with that.

Similary, I also have two 15-minute breaks per day. To increase my reading time, I’ve started setting my watch to beep after ten minutes, during which time I concentrate on my book. When time is up, I then finish at the next convenient break, usually the end of the current paragraph or page.

By doing this consistently, I’ve now clocked up an estimated 100 hours of learning in just over a month: that’s already one percent of the 10,000 aformentioned hours.

If I were a beginner writer, I could replace the walks with audiobooks, and replace the reading with writing, and I’d be on my way to becoming better at what I enjoy. There is usually time to be carved out if you look for it.

Performing to an Audience: Updated Oct 2018

It’s come to my attention that this blog is now five years old. After a few test posts, it officially launched on 14 Oct 2013.

Throughout this time, I’ve periodically updated my guide to performing in front of an audience. From this entry onwards, these posts will have a consistent title format. I’ve placed this one and my previous posts about performing into a single category so you can read them on one page.

If you have time, two other great sources are a guide from Lies, Dreaming and a more detailed post from John Foggin.

My last update was made in January, and wasn’t due to be revised so soon. However, a few incidents happened last week that made me return to the topic. These are peppered throughout the current guide, below. Remember this should be treated as a subjective guide, not a textbook.


Talk with the organisers about what’s required

Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to:

  • How long you’ll be asked to speak for
  • What type of content is required
  • Whether it’s de rigeur to read from paper or speak from memory
  • Whether you’ll be given an introduction
  • Where you should wait before you’re called up
  • Whether any fee is payable

Each event has its own particular character. At Platform Poetry, for instance, each performer is asked to fill a 10- to 15-minute slot. At Blend In – Stand Out, each person performs one poem before the interval, then the reading order is reversed after the interval.

If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.

Think about your own structure

The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own slot so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:

  • Give name, say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
  • Say you’re happy to sign copies
  • Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
  • Tell obesity clinic anecdote
  • Read out And an Onion One Too (page 24)
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Read out The Crust of the Matter (page 12)

Note that the thanks should be placed second-last, not as the final item. That means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head rather than why you think Tracey is so great, even if she is.

Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise

Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take or infer from the piece.

If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising or telling a long story, either take it out of your set or work on it until only a short introduction is necessary.

Read out loud and time your words

The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out where nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?

When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or to stick a post-it note as a lever. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.

Don’t forget to use a stopwatch to make sure all your words fit within the agreed timeslot.

Make sure everyone can hear you

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you might need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation and don’t be afraid to pause.

If there is a microphone, always use it; it’s generally there because there’s a known problem with people being able to hear the performer. However, unless it’s a major gig, there’s unlikely to be a professional sound engineer around, so ask to test it out beforehand.

A big annoyance for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random. So whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth and speak into the top; that said, there are types of microphones where you speak into the front. Don’t worry about being too loud or causing distortion; it’s almost always better than the alternative.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig

I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look

I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it’s  unnerving to make eye contact for most people. Fortunately, there are some techniques to avoid this.

One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way is to look beyond the back row; again, everyone assumes you’re looking at someone else.

Both of these methods have the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Keep going through distractions and cock-ups

A common issue at spoken-word nights is the audience member who keeps talking. Unlike a music gig, you don’t have the advantage of drowning them out with your instruments. A good host will take charge of silencing any chat, but if they don’t, either carry on as you were or – if it’s too distracting – politely ask them to refrain.

Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps a hundred other unpredictable problems crop up. Keep going as best as you can. It might mean cutting a piece short or shouting instead of reading, but the audience are there to see you perform.

Listen to the performers

This might seem like an obvious and unnecessary piece of advice, but it doesn’t always happen.

I was speaking at an event last week where I talked about Hotchpotch, the open-mike night I run; I was on a panel with others who are involved in the local literary scene in different ways.

Someone in the audience clearly hadn’t listened to what I was saying. At the end of the event, he kept commenting to me how ‘brave’ I was for standing up, then giving me advice about how to handle an audience. I explained to him that I’m completely comfortable doing this, but he didn’t seem to listen to this either.

Later in the week, I went to an event where some of the performers were standing outside the venue rather than listening to their peers’ readings. I found it rather disrespectful to expect others to listen to their work when they didn’t offer the courtesy of returning the favour.

Signal that you’ve finished

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect.

A good clear signal is to lower your manuscript or to step backwards slightly, or even say ‘Thank you.’ At that point, people should take the hint and applaud.

Do it again

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and even which subjects to cover for different audiences.


There are no guarantees that your poetry performance will be a success. But by following the suggestions above, you can maximise the chances that it will.

Restoration

I’ve had some computer problems over the weekend. Windows was running slowly and wouldn’t update, and I eventually had to perform a system restore.

Although this has caused lots of short-term chaos, it seems to be a good long-term solution; it already feels like a new machine. Unfortunately, this episode has taken up so much of my attention that I don’t have a full blog entry for you.

However, I did manage to catch up with some reading earlier in the week. I was on a train to Birmingham and back, a total of around 11 hours, so I’m halfway through the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Most authors write short stories of mayble a few thousand words long and that stand alone from each other. By contrast, this author’s short stories are more like novel extracts, while some would qualify as novellas. What’s more, almost all of them link into the same universe, known as the Cosmere.

I bought the book when I met Sanderson last year because there were no more copies of his latest novel left. I’m glad I started with this collection as it’s given me an excellent sample of his style, and now I look forward to tackling his novels when I have the chance.

Surprise, Surprise

On Tuesday of last week, I came home to a parcel. I was only stopping for a brief time before heading out again. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was expecting a USB cable.

Just before leaving, I opened the parcel to check I’d received the correct equipment. So imagine my surprise when I found it actually contained the following:

Picture of Good Omens with a personalised gift note

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There was no sender’s name, only a cat’s face made up with punctuation marks. However, it didn’t take long to trace it to an American friend. Around a week before, she’d heard the BBC radio adaptation from 2014. I’d casually mentioned I’d heard this, but hadn’t read the full novel, so she’d jumped at the chance to send it.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I’m making good progress with reading it. I’m working on what to send back as I have National Book Tokens that need to be spent before the balance expires.

Ring-Fenced Reading

By the time you read this entry, I’ll be on a train between Edinburgh and Preston. It’s a long journey, so I’m going to use the time to read two borrowed books.

"Derek Robertson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Derek Robertson (CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons
The first is ‘Hong Kong’ Full Circle 1939-45 by Alexander Kennedy. The author was a lieutenant commander who had 500 copies privately published to tell the story of his service. Although it’s not something I would pick myself, I’ve flipped through some of the pages, and it promises to be an engaging story.

The second is The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair, about the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath. I originally intended to read the book in the town, ideally on the cliffs overlooking the water, but my plan didn’t work out. Although the overall book is a work of fiction, its characters are based on real people and the plot is based on actual events.

There used to be a Silent Reading Party nearby, modelled upon an event in New York, where readers would sit together and read silently for an hour; attendees were allowed to converse beforehand and afterward. Unfortunately, the organiser hasn’t run the parties for some months now and I have too many commitments to revive it.

I enjoyed attending because the time was specifically set aside for reading. If I’d decided to do it myself at home or even in a cafe, I would probably have become distracted, but the presence of the other attendees kept me what your organiser has focused. So I hope I’m able to employ some self-discipline on this train journey.