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.

The Go-To Person

On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.

As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.

Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.

I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.

This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.

I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.

Rejected, but not Neglected

I’ve been invited to appear on a new podcast called Story Circle Jerk. It was started by my pal Kai Durkin to showcase short stories and music, either self-written or from others. We’ll be recording our episode at the end of the month, giving me a deadline to prepare material.

One part of my appearance will be an interview about my open-mike evenings. I’ll have to do some preparation for this, so I cover the all main points without overloading the listeners with information.

The other part will involve me reading one of my own short stories. The one I immediately reached for was a piece called Him, in which the narrator talks about seeing his life replayed through his own eyes after his death. I wrote this in 2014, with its most recent revision dated 2018.

Between these dates, the story was rejected by six different publishers. However, I’ve also read it to an audience on a number of occasions during that time; I deliver it in a slow and stark tone, inspired by Salman Rushdie reading Concerning The Bodyguard by Donald Barthleme. As such, it seems to work better on stage than on the page so I still have faith in it.

The story will need to be revised a little. The way I start the process is by reading it out loud, not to an audience, but to myself. If it sounds excessively wordy, or if I find myself unable to follow a plot point, it needs to be revised. This particular piece, however, shouldn’t need too much changing for Story Circle Jerk.

Another podcast I can recommend is The Beans Podcast, run by three friends. Be advised that it’s not specifically about writing, but covers many topics, from advice columns to caffeine to nuclear bombs.

Let’s be Clear

Last week, I went to a music and poetry event where a friend was performing. I arrived at about 7:15pm, giving me 15 minutes to find a good seat and to buy a drink.

However, there had been no indication in the event listing that the show actually began at 8pm, and that 7:30pm had been when the doors opened. Conversely, if I’d treated 7:30pm as the ‘doors open’ time, there’s a chance I would have missed the start of the show.

It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this ambiguity, so when I’m listing my own events, I specify when the doors open and when the show actually begins. It doesn’t stop people being late, but it signals that they’ll miss part of the event if they arrive after the stated time.

At least at the aforementioned poetry evening, the performers spoke into the microphone, which brings me to my second pet hate of this entry: those who don’t use it, or use it incorrectly.

Where a working microphone is provided, always speak into it, as it’s usually there for a reason.

We bought a PA system for our open-mike night because we used to meet in a noisy pub. But even where there is minimal background noise, anyone with hearing difficulties might not be able to make out what you’re saying without amplification. Even among an audience with good hearing, taking away the amplification can mean they miss the beginning of what you tell them.

In a larger venue such as a theatre, hearing aid users can usually tap into the induction loop, which relies on microphone use, so they might not be able to hear you at all without one.

Where amplification is used, be sure to keep your mouth a consistent distance from the microphone – especially if it’s hand-held – or the sound can come and go in a distracting manner. Also be aware that some of them need you to speak into one side rather than the top.

In a nutshell, to be figuratively and literally clear:

  • Be specific about when your gig starts
  • Use a microphone where one is provided

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.