How I Don’t Remember It

I’ve recently joined a new poetry group. It’s so new that we don’t even have a name yet, but I’m enjoying the work of the other members.

One of them wrote about his time at Stirling University and included a photo of the place in the springtime. For the following month’s meeting, I visited Paisley, where I studied at what’s now the University of the West of Scotland. I’d paid a brief visit to the town centre in 2016, but it had been some years since I’d explored its other areas.

I’d expected some change, and I saw it particularly in the accommodation. There were new blocks of flats in a couple of spots, while one place I used to rent from the University had clearly been sold to a slum landlord – and the other might well have been going the same way.

I then walked up Neilston Road, which is one of the backbones of the town. From the moment I turned onto it, I began to wonder where I was. There were new tearooms with seats outside – even though it rained all day – but even taking them out of the equation, I didn’t even remember other landmarks.

Deutsch: Logo University of the West of Scotland
Logo of the University of the West of Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were bends in the road I didn’t recall, buildings that must have been there a century I didn’t register, and a field with cows as you head out of town that I must have seen at some point.

At least now I had a focus for my poem. One of the prompts had been ‘A letter to…’ so my piece became A Letter to Paisley, with the first lines reading:

I saw you the other day,
I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you.

But I found the opening words to be the easy part. Sometimes I can have something I really want to say, or I theme I particularly want to explore, and I find it difficult to work out how to present it.

In the rest of the piece, I muse upon the changes that have taken place and the parts I didn’t recognise, and I ponder whether it was the excitement of moving there at age 18 that caused me not to take in the details I saw on that day. I presented the piece to the group on Thursday of last week, and they helped me to make a few changes that will probably find their way into the next draft.

Strangely enough, I gained a BSc Music Technology while I was there. I didn’t do much with the qualification as it was, but I was able to use it to gain a place on the Masters degree I completed last year.

Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru

A Long Aside

Once you’ve written a piece, it’s a good idea to lay it aside for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. But what happens when the days and weeks turn into months and years?

In 2013, I was given a homework task from a writing class. I had to pen a story containing the words sleeping, falling, and alchemy. I struggled to write something, so I used a fallback technique of creating a diary form. The draft of the story was about an 18-year-old woman who had just started university and was assigned a nasty flatmate. I titled it F in Hell, the F being short for the antagonist’s name.

I redrafted the story a couple of times over the next two years, tightening the language and enhancing the plot points. But I didn’t do anything else with it, other than giving readings at a couple of events.

In 2016, I was desperate to write a creative piece for my MLitt Writing Practice & Study dissertation. The problem was that there was no unifying theme to my pieces because I’d wanted to expand my horizons, so they were difficult to bring together into a cohesive collection. I’d printed off some of my best short stories and poems to show my supervisors. One of them picked up on F in Hell and suggested expanding it.

Phone Booth (film)
Phone Booth (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tactic worked. The diary structure was ideal for demonstrating my prose skills yet flexible enough to allow interpolation of my poetry. Furthermore, as the story is told in an impromptu first-person narrative, I didn’t necessarily have to iron out every inconsistency before the relatively tight deadline. The title was changed to Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream.

Almost overnight, a short story that had lain forgotten in my archive became the piece that helped me to clinch my Masters degree.

And the tale doesn’t stop there. In August of last year, I was in the audience for a BBC radio recording when I realised the piece would work well on stage. I spoke again to one of my tutors, a playwright himself, and learnt the basics of script formatting and practical considerations for the props and scenery.

From then until last week, I’d been converting Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream into a script, and making the plot much darker, before entering it into a competition. Even if I don’t win, I know I have a finished product ready to be sent elsewhere.

There are many professional writers who have left work aside for one reason or another and reaped the benefits.

In the 1960s, Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock for a film set entirely in a phone booth, but neither could find a compelling reason to keep the character there. When Cohen revisited the concept decades later, the world had changed: nearly everyone carried a mobile and had fears of terrorism on their minds. In 2002, with the idea well over 30 years old, Phone Booth finally opened in cinemas.

Sometimes the delay is beyond the control of the author. Jilly Cooper left a novel manuscript on a bus in around 1970. Disheartened, it took 14 years to begin again. In the intervening time, the plot and characters had time to mature, and her novel Riders was finally released in 1985. She considers it among her best work.

Moving away from writing, My Modern Met ran an article in April about the Draw This Again project, inviting artists to revisit and redraw their old pictures. Sometimes there’s a year between the two, sometimes there’s a decade. Be sure to click through to the Deviant Art page for many more examples, and see how each one has improved by being left aside for so long.

A Walk in the Gardens

A couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, owned by the city’s university. Within its 21 acres, there are plants and trees from around the world and educational areas where you can learn more about them.

That day, the Gardens had been opened up specifically for writers, artists and photographers to respond in their chosen media for an upcoming anthology by the organisation who maintains them. A botanist even led us to many of the noteworthy spots, from tropical plants that change gender overnight to hardy shrubs that live on a limited water supply.

I’ve long believed that going for a walk helps to sort out any thoughts a writer has. In this case, there was a lot of input from the botanist’s talk, from discussions with other participants and indeed from my own observations.

English: Bean germination
English: Bean germination (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there was so much input to process that it took several days to form any meaningful output. During these days, I was taken by the idea that some trees can survive forest fires while other trees actually rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. I made drafts in free verse with internal rhymes, but the narrative was ultimately going nowhere.

Some friends, also poets, were on the same tour. One of them writes poems around the length of a haiku, although he doesn’t use the haiku form itself. Looking at my own work, I realised I liked the opening line and the conclusion, and I felt that to include other details would simply be filler and distract from the message I wanted to impart. So, borrowing his style, I kept only those parts: two sentences enjambed over four lines.

After leaving it aside for another few days, I came back to my verse yesterday morning and decided to enter it for the anthology. For that reason, I’m unable to publish the finished product online, but you’ll be the first to know if it’s included.

Which brings me to an event happening this coming Thursday. I’m having a poem published in Dundee Writes, a pamphlet distributed by the University of Dundee. I’ll report back on the launch event next week.

The Business of Personality; The Personality of Business

I feel I often bore you senseless with NaNoWriMo references, though it is a large part of my writing life. This time, I pinky-promise to use it only as a launchpad for my main point.

Over the past month, I’ve come to know two NaNo members particularly well: one through spending time together at meetings before the rest arrive, and one by corresponding mainly online. I’ve known both parties for some time, but by conversing so frequently, I feel I understand them better as individuals and as writers.

Notice the order of those words: ‘individuals’, then ‘writers’. I believe we can create better professional connections by first knowing a little more about the other person.

We’ve all probably passed sales reps on the street who ask, “Who’s your electricity supplier?” without so much as a preliminary, “How are you?” Three thoughts occur to me when I hear the electricity question:

  1. It’s annoying.
  2. It’s too personal and abrupt when you haven’t built up even a little trust.
  3. It signals that the seller is interested in you only as a customer, not as a person.

    A segment of a social network
    A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen the people-first principle succeed before. I have a ‘day job’ in the civil service, and my department began experimenting in around 2010 with an internal social network modelled on Twitter. The rules told us that the site was primarily for business talk, but that some social and recreational chat was permitted. In practice, the social talk was predominant, and it led to a lot of in-jokes and banter. Yet when someone wanted to talk business, the others were more inclined to help because we were already acquainted with one another.

I still speak to some of these people today, though the network has long since closed. Of the replacement websites introduced, none has created the same sense of community. I believe that’s because the social club aspect has been relegated in favour of a business-first approach that doesn’t prompt the same connection.

So where can a writer meet with other writers without feeling as though they’re being sold something? Where I’m from, we’re lucky enough to have a regular monthly meet-up where any writer can drop by and interact with other writers on an informal basis. We meet in a bar aptly called The George Orwell, and there are no readings or speeches. If somebody does have work to promote, it never feels pushy because we all know each other socially.

If you ask your nearest library, they’ll probably be able to direct you to such a nearby group. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own; it’s not easy, but it can be hugely rewarding.

Outside The Box

Regular readers will be aware that this blog covers all types of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays and rap music. I believe there’s a lot we can learn from all these forms. Even watching Made in Chelsea is a great lesson in improv.

However, on moving into a new place last month, I took the decision not to own a TV. This was something I’d considered for a long time as I would either rarely watch it, or it would become a distraction when I could be doing something productive. Either way, it would more than counteract the benefits of having one.

The other factor swaying my decision is the matter of the TV licence. In the UK, you need to pay an annual fee if you have equipment that receives television broadcasts, if you watch live TV online, or if you use BBC iPlayer for any purpose. The money goes towards funding the BBC and there are heavy fines if you aren’t correctly licensed.

While it’s a difficult field to police, that’s enough of a disincentive for me not to have a telly. If there’s something I really want to see, I have other options. You can watch DVDs or most catch-up services without a licence, and you can also own a radio without charge. Even better, I’m fortunate enough to be within easy reach of two cinemas: one mainstream, the other independent.

With not having a TV, it’s an obvious question to ask what I have in its place. The answer:

 

I’m Falling Further Behind

It’s an implicit expectation from you, the reader, that I’ll post an entry every Monday at 5pm. This means you should have seen it here yesterday, and it wasn’t. Since yesterday was a public holiday, it felt like a Sunday and it slipped my mind until after the due time. But that’s an excuse rather than a reason.

To this end, I owe you an apology and an entry, and I think an appropriate punishment for missing the deadline would be to would be to whip my own back with a knotted rope. I have, however, settled for making a second entry of at least 500 words on Friday at 5pm. Then I’ll update as normal from Monday of next week.

Last time, I promised to make a little progress on each of my outstanding works. Let’s go through them all.

“I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher”

On checking my submissions tracker, I found it was 23 February, or nearly eight weeks ago when I last send something away. It was difficult to find a publisher who was accepting submissions; I looked right through my usual sources, and most of the reading periods were closed.

However, I did find one publisher who would accept up to five poems. By coincidence, I’d sent five poems to another publisher in December who had turned me down at the beginning of March. With only a few minor changes, I was able to send them to the new place. Even better: my aim is to send away an average of one piece per week, and this submission brought me bang up-to-date.

“I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook”

It’s virtually a truism that inspiration strikes in the most bizarre of places; in my case, in McDonalds at 9:30am on a Friday. I found myself able to finish two poems – one of which I’d been struggling with for a while – and I typed them up later that day.

“I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. … I have around half as many words as I should”

I’m not up-to-date with this, plus I’d increased my word target from 10,000 words to 11,000 as an extra challenge. I intended to write a series of interlinked stories, but I changed my project name to Any old nonsense to reflect the diverse pieces I’ve actually written. Despite this, there is now a ray of hope as I’ve figured out a structure for one of the stories that I was finding difficult to write, and it’s practically pulling itself along.

During Camp, you can enter an online virtual cabin with up to 11 other participants to help and encourage each other. I have only one other person in our regional cabin, and an honourable mention must go to them. I relayed the thoughts I expressed in last week’s entry and they helped me to regain my focus and perspective.

“I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018”

Last week, I happened to meet the university tutor who was going to help me bring this to the stage. Unfortunately, the theatre he wants to use was undergoing a change of management and he was uncertain when we would have a chance to go there.

The play is a one-woman sequence of monologues that looks back over her university days. The running length is currently around 30 minutes to give a potential test audience a flavour of its content. To reduce it to that length, I had to cut out the poetry supposedly written by the character. I’d like to extend it to between 50 and 55 minutes by reintroducing the poetry and unpacking it in other areas. Having looked at the manuscript again a few days ago, I now have an idea how I’m going to achieve the expansion.

Tonight, after this entry should have been published, I received an e-mail from another tutor who wants to include a brief excerpt in a promotional leaflet for the MLitt course I studied. I’m more than happy to give that permission.

“I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010.”

The bad news is that there’s a scene in the novel which simply isn’t working, and it’s a pivotal scene because the main character needs to be left in an unknown location to fend for himself. I’m probably finding it difficult as I’ve never experienced this myself, so maybe I’ll need to go on a training weekend.

The good news is that I’ve finally fixed an annoyance. When I first wrote Fifty Million Nicker, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was released a little while later. It was a coincidence, of course, but the number has become so iconic that I wanted to end the association. So I’ve now gone through the manuscript and changed it to Sixty Million Nicker to reflect that the main character is now competing for £60,000,000.

“I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme”

I have been working on a few poems along the same theme, and they do fit well together. I’m still working on one of them, and I took it along to a new poetry group that a friend is starting. I received useful feedback, particularly on one point, and I implemented the relevant change.

If I hadn’t gone along, I might not have met the tutor who’s helping me with the play. And one of the pieces I finished in McDonalds was the homework for the next meeting.

 

And thus, I’ve done what I set out to do in the last entry, albeit 24 hours later than scheduled. Whatever happens between now and my next one on Friday, I promise you the title will not be I’m Falling Even Further Behind.