Back to Making Plans

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been invited to meetings with people in different parts of the literary scene.

The first of these was a pal from the Scottish Book Trust. He and his colleagues are trying to set up a professional spoken word organisation in Scotland that’s similar to Apples & Snakes in England.

As my own events have been passion projects rather than for profit, I was limited in how much I could contribute directly. However, I was able to point him towards others in and around Dundee who more readily fitted the bill.

In the other meeting, I was part of a group of performers and producers. The plan is to hold a Fringe-style programme of events in Dundee in September, and I liked the organiser’s attitude, particularly towards audience safety.

Before this opportunity came up, I’d already been devising a stage show for people accustomed to live performance. I didn’t expect to have just a month and a half to put it together, however, so the next few weeks are going to be intense.

Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

The Acronym and the Mnemonic

Sometimes I think I know English grammar inside and out. Other times, I stumble upon an aide memoire I’ve never heard of.

I was writing a story where I kept typing ‘Thamos’ in error instead of ‘Thomas’. Out of interest, I looked up ‘Thamos’ as I was sure there was someone with that name. There was: it was an 18th-century play called Thamos, King of Egypt.

However, the top search result defined it as an acronym for remembering conjuctive adverbs, namely ‘Therefore’, ‘However’, ‘Also’, ‘Meanwhile’, and ‘Otherwise’. The last letter of ‘THAMOs’ is in lowercase and seems intended simply to create a word.

I’ve no idea whether the folks at NoRedInk invented this acronym, but it was news to me. They also go on to give two others: ‘FANBOYS’ is for coordinating conjunctions while ‘SWABIs’ is for subordinating conjunctions.

This started me thinking about acronyms and mnemonics as a memory aid. I’m somewhat ambivalent about them. If carefully crafted, they do their intended jobs.

One that sticks out from high school Chemistry is ‘OILRIG’, meaning ‘Oxidisation is loss, reduction is gain.’ This works well because the initial letters always spell out a sentence with the words in the correct order.

But supposing you wanted to remember something in a non-linear order. Before Pluto was reclassified, you could recite the names of the bodies in our solar system with ‘My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets’.

This is great if you wish to name them all, but supposing you wanted to check the order of Uranus and Neptune, it would take a few seconds to find your place, even starting from the beginning.

Another weakness with this type of mnemonic is that you still need to remember the word that each initial letter stands for.

There are better methods. A classic one is the the method of loci – sometimes called a memory palace – using spatial awareness for easier recall. Here’s an academic description by the US National Library of Medicine.

This system is used extensively by Tony Buzan in his educational books. I read one of his publications when I was younger, and it’s a robust method that allows recall of items in any order, but I never persisted with it.

At present, I have no practical use for acronyms like ‘THAMOs’, ‘SWABIs’, or ‘FANBOYS’. However, I am amazed I’ve reached degree-level English without ever encourtering them, and I’m sure they’ll be of use to someone.

From our Correspondents

I started this blog in October 2013 with no real expectation of gaining an regular audience. As I mentioned at the time, it was done as an experiment to make me write more regularly.

Over time, the number of people reading it has steadily increased. Any given week, I can bank on between 4 to 6 people pressing the Like button, and they are all appreciated.

Every so often, I’ll receive replies to my entries. Most often, it’s from my pal Webgirluk, whom I’ve known for nearly two decades from LiveJournal. Then last week, I found a comment from someone I met at a poetry workshop a few years back.

This started me thinking how bad I am at reading others’ entries. I have followed a lot of people over the last eight years, but I rarely have a chance to read their words, let alone comment on them.

I spend a lot of time speaking to writers and organising events, and I wish I could say I’d make the time to read the words of my WordPress contacts, but I can’t make that promise. The best I can offer is that I know they’ll always be there for when it’s possible to read them.

Finding a Suitable Writing Spot

One of my favourite places to write is a particular McDonald’s restaurant, especially on a Saturday morning.

There’s no obvious reason why it should be this way. The place is on an industrial estate with a view onto dull buildings and a car park, yet if I go there on any given Saturday morning, I’ll come away with something written or redrafted. Perhaps it’s by association; I used to live almost across the road and it was the most convenient venue that wasn’t home.

I haven’t been there recently because of local restrictions. For weeks upon weeks, pubs were closed in Scotland, while restaruants and cafes were only allowed to offer a takeaway service. During this time, I discovered I was craving somewhere to write that wasn’t at home.

I’ve found I’m able to batter through a lot of work in pubs on a Monday or a Tuesday. While writing and editing this entry, I’ve taken advantage of a quiet pub and a bus journey. I will be back to McDonald’s in the future, but not just yet.

Additionally, I’ve discovered I don’t much like writing outside. It’s not just that the sun makes it difficult to read the laptop screen, or rain makes it impossible to use paper, but I don’t find it very productive nor satisfying and I don’t know the reason. That said, I still find that going for a walk is good for genetrating ideas or consolidating existing notions.

Now it’s possible to go to many places again, I hope it’ll do wonders for increasing my output.

Coffee and Cosy Poetry

On Saturday evening, I attended my first poetry writing group in person for many months, held in the Blend Coffee Lounge in Dundee.

I first learnt about this directly from the café, as they asked me to pass it on to any writers who might be interested. They were also hosting separate art and craft events at the same time.

The intention here was to write what was described as ‘cosy’ poetry. Rebecca Baird read us some Wendy Cope and similar poets, then invited us to pen our own verses, mimicking the style of what we’d heard.

When I started writing about a decade ago, this is exactly the type of class I would take part in. Just as actors often attend improv groups to sharpen their reflexes, I highly recommend writers find a circle where you’re given a few words or a scenario and are asked to write a poem or a passage inspired by what you’ve heard.

In this case, I wrote for a solid 10 minutes, making each line of the piece begin with first words of the previous line. I haven’t been in a flow like that for a long time and I think I can edit that piece so to make it even better.

As yet, I don’t know when or if there will be another one of these, but I’m looking forward to taking part again.

Making Trade-Offs to Keep an Event Running

Yesterday saw another edition of Hotchpotch Presents… on Zoom. We had a marvellous time, and with a relatively small group, so it felt more intimate.

This format is based upon the in-person writers’ open-mike night I would otherwise run, simply called Hotchpotch, with the difference that the line-up is decided in advance, rather than improvised on the night. In my own experience, our free-and-easy vibe has worked in person, but it’s proved necessary to have an established running order for our online events.

This format has evolved over the last 15 months as a result of the trade-offs we’ve had to consider.

Hotchpotch Presents… currently happens once a quarter. What’s great is that it always evokes a colloborative spirit, shown last night when audience members volunteered to perform in place of absent readers. On the other side of the coin, these events are also more difficult to arrange, and I know some members avoid chatting online outside of work as they do it so often during the day.

In the other months, we use YouTube, where – by contrast – members can submit in their own time with less pressure to perform, and it’s far easier to compile a playlist than to control a gathering. However, you also lose that community spirit.

All being well with the easing of restrictions, the plan is to hold the next Hotchpotch as a live event over the next few months. Failing that, we’ll revert to Presents… as a plan B in September.

But that easing also brings its trade-offs. Members have become accustomed to being able to view the event without having to physcially be in Dundee, which is ideal for those unable to travel or navigate the stairs down to the pub basement.

But one question is: the pub is traditionally a self-enclosed space, so will other members be willing to read if strangers are listening over the Internet? Even if we do it that way, will the technical side become needlessly complicated?

However, one factor will help in the decision-making process. I like to keep a ‘cabinet office’ of trusted members who can offer advire. We have a group chat that currently contains 18 regulars.

Since any decisions made about the group will also affect their experience, I know that if we can come to a consensus about a given issue, then it’s probably the right path to take.

Back in the Writing Saddle

The last week has proved to be quite a productive one, even if my pieces were inspired more by deadlines than by the need to express my thoughts.

For starters, my poetry circle is compiling an anthology to mark the 250th birthday of Sir Walter Scott. My original plan was to copy selected lines from the Mark Twain book Life on the Mississippi, in which he levels a number of criticisms at Scott, and create a poem from those. It wasn’t happening that way, but I was able to write a shorter verse during a bus journey.

I also have a pal who runs the writing podcast Story Circle Jerk. Unfortunately, the latest episode has been held up with technical problems, so Kai asked previous guests to submit readings of original flash fiction to appear in a future one. I actually submitted two pieces, allowing the host to choose: an old piece that was revamped for the occasion, and a new one inspired by the title of the podcast.

Finally, I’ve been working on a longer-form piece since last year. It’s not ready to be shown to the public at this stage, but the feedback I’ve received from the other website users has been encouraging. I’d posted a one-off short story, never expecting it to spawn no less than seven sequels, with another one in the pipeline. My current thoughts are to draw them together into a single 15,000-word volume.

On top of this, I’m once again starting to see writer pals getting published, being booked for events, launching pamphlets, &c. It even turns out I know someone involved in Life & Rhymes, which won a BAFTA on Sunday. I feel all this energy starting to rub off on me, and I hope I can sustain it and create something useful with it.

Using Fractals as Illustrations

Regular readers will probably have spotted that each of these blog entries has a pattern as its featured image. Specifically, these are fractals, each generated by a mathematical formula.

It’s long been known that visual content appeals more to users than plain text. However, licencing pictures can be expensive and appropriate public domain images are hard to find. My content is all about writing, which – by its nature – is often plain text.

Instead, I use a program called Xaos for generating these patterns. As I’m not mathematically-minded, I simply use the random image generator, cycling through them until an interesting one appears.

What’s more, it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. This helps me a lot, as I commonly write or edit my entries up to the last minute.

The main cover picture is my own work, though. A few years ago, I would attend writing classes in the grounds of Barry Mill, a former watermill in Angus, and I captured this wonderful shot of a light over the doorway. I’m unlikely to replace that with a fractal any time soon.

Watching What You Wouldn’t Normally Watch

Not far from where I live is the Dundee Repertory Theatre, known locally as simply the Rep. The programme is a mixture of classic plays, contemporary works and local interest productions that appeal largely to a Scottish audience.

There was a time when I’d go there with my theatre buddy to see just about everything in the programme, but that hasn’t been possible for some time. Recently, however, the theatre has started the Rep Studios streaming service.

The first play to be streamed, Smile, is one of those local interest productions, about the football manager Jim McLean.

The tickets sold by Rep Studios are all timed like stage shows, usually for 2pm and 7pm, and that led me to think I’d be seeing a live performance transmitted from the theatre. Instead, the show is pre-recorded. I know this because I logged in early, expecting to see a countdown clock, yet it started straight away.

I’d waited until the last few days of its run because while I’d like the service to succeed, sport is not an area of interest to me. In fact, I didn’t mention it to my theatre buddy either as I knew she would feel the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I watched it, although I didn’t find it outstanding and I probably wouldn’t seek out a re-run.

The first time I encountered a streaming theatre production was not at home, but in a cinema, maybe seven or eight years ago. This was a National Theatre production – probably Shakespeare – and it was broadcast live.

Yet I felt a distinct vibe that they didn’t much like doing it this way. For a start, they could charge twice as much for an in-person performance, and the audience would have the draw of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch or Daniel Radcliffe live on stage.

The economics of this likely tell a different story. Cinemagoers were charged perhaps half as much as the theatre audience, with the trade-off that more than twice as many people could potentially see the play without any more performances being staged. I imagine the actors received extra pay for the broadcasts, although such transactions are typically kept confidential.

I’m going to keep an eye on how Rep Streaming emerges and evolves, and I look forward to the day I can next to my theatre buddy again.