Patronising: that’s where you talk down to someone.

The other day, I saw a petrol tanker. It had a sentence painted on the side that said, as far as I can recall:

We take the petrol to the pump so you don’t have to go to the refinery to collect it.

I thought this rather insulted the intelligence of the audience. That’s how you might explain it if a child asked. But if you’re old enough to buy petrol, you’re old enough to understand what a tanker does. A friend’s daughter used to work in the media and often encountered this kind of tone. She brands it infantilisation.

It’s timeworn advice not to think about your audience while you’re writing fiction, but I do think it’s important while editing. Let’s say your character plays a musical instrument. It’s probable your audience would know what a balalaika is, but would they be familiar with a theremin?

If you’re unsure how a passage will be received by an audience, give it to other people. If it’s not clear to the majority of them, can your meaning be shown through dialogue or action rather than plain description? For the balalaika, you might only need the action:

Becky strummed her balalaika every evening, adding a fresh twist to popular rock classics.

Whereas the theremin might need more explanation, done here through dialogue:

An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert M...
An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert Moog’s kit: the loop antenna on the left controls the volume while the upright antenna controls the pitch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What’s that aerial thingy?”
“This? It’s a theremin; it’s what I play.”
“How do you play that?”
“Put your hand near it and it makes a noise.”

Also ask yourself whether something actually needs to be explained. It’s a common habit of beginner writers to overexplain:

Jessica pushed down the door handle and pulled the door towards her. She stepped back as it opened and she saw Fiona in the room. Fiona was sitting in a chair and clasped in her hand a stack of £50 notes. When Jessica looked at her, she raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth wide, knowing she had been caught with the takings from the shop.

Whereas this could be made less flabby by allowing the reader to make the mental leap between actions:

Jessica entered the room. There was Fiona; £50 notes in her hand. The takings from the shop. “This is not what it looks like,” said Fiona.

Notice in the second passage that the focus is on the actions that drive the plot forward. Here, the facial expressions are of little relevance to the story; the reader wants to know what happened to the money. The question of relevance is key to pitching your text at the right level.

If anyone sees that oil truck, please pass on my comments to the company.

Advertisements

Think globally, act locally.

As this blog is about fiction and poetry, my chosen title is a correction of the phrase Think global, act local. Since think and act are verbs, I’ve added -ly to the other two words to change them from adjectives to adverbs. Now both clauses are paired up nicely.

The phrase has been around for decades, however you choose to word it, but it gained new currency at the dawn of the 21st century as more and more people had access to the Internet. For the first time, ordinary individuals could type a message and potentially have it seen instantly by a worldwide audience.

One problem this throws up is relevance. Unless I’m writing only for local folks, I somehow have to make my blog relevant to an audience much further afield, and that often means overlooking what’s happening in my own city to concentrate on our shared mass culture.

Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee c...
Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee city centre; behind it is City Square, the Caird Hall (straight ahead) and Dundee City Chambers (to the right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, however, I’ll be turning the camera on my own city of Dundee in Scotland, with a population of around 148,000. This place has made its mark on the wider world in several ways. Grand Theft Auto was coded here, James Chalmers introduced the adhesive postage stamp, and the Beano is printed five minutes from my house.

From a literary standpoint, a number of notable works have been produced by its citizens, from William McGonagall’s terrible verse in the 19th century right up to Oliver Langmead’s 2015 novel Dark Star.

Mondays are a particular bottleneck for reading and writing events, with the Literary Lock-In at the end of each month, my own group Hotchpotch near the middle of the month, and a Silent Reading Party fitting in between the two. Literary Dundee helps to coordinate these, plus the regular author visits, not forgetting the major Literary Festival in October.

Altogether, Dundee is one of the best places for a writer to be at the moment, with a more active literary scene than its population figure might suggest. Later this year, two of my poems are also scheduled to appear in Seagate III, continuing from volumes I and II published in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. You can bet I’ll be telling you all about that when it happens.