When to Stop; When to Start

In April, I began to redraft a novel that I originally wrote in 2011. In the intervening years, I’ve learnt a lot more about the principles of structure and how to raise the stakes in a narrative, so I was pleased with the way the redraft was turning out.

By Tom Murphy VII [ GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
By Tom Murphy VII [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/) ] from Wikimedia Commons
However, there came a point where I’d pushed the main character through as many hoops as I could conceive until he’d achieved his goal. At that point, there wasn’t much to keep him from doing anything he wanted without resistance, so the narrative began to stall. At around the same time, I began to pull together a spoken-word show. I therefore made the decision to leave aside the novel, so for the last month, I’ve been concentrating on the show.

When I stop thinking about a work in progress, I find that’s the time to leave it. The novel is currently handwritten, so I’ll start typing that up once I’m finished with the show, then see where we can take the main character from there.

Other highlights this week include performing at Inky Fingers in Edinburgh on Tuesday and listening to some cracking poets, including the featured Rachel Plummer.

And on Thursday, I heard Caroline Bird performing from In These Days of Prohibition. This is the second time I’ve heard her on stage, and it was again a wonderfully absurdist experience.

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Passing the Microphone

I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.

This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.

A microphone
A microphone. It seemed like the best picture to illustrate this entry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.

Additionally, this seems a prime opportunity to dust off my own advice for speaking in front of an audience from earlier this year.

In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.

And Yet the Pencil Moves

Four weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been rewriting a novel I started in 2011. I’m pleased to report that I’ve had enough momentum to keep going until now.

I’m following a chapter-by-chapter breakdown with the key points and word counts. In my experience, planning is never a waste of time, even if the plan is eventually amended or abandoned. Indeed, I don’t know of any major novelist who doesn’t plan to some degree.

English: Signature of Charles Scrivener
English: Signature of Charles Scrivener (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this case, the plot has been amended substantially, but I believe it’s for the better. In the first few drafts, the main character achieved his goals too easily, whereas now there are a number of obstacles in his way. My favourite tight corner so far is where he catches a taxi to pick up millions of pounds, but doesn’t have enough immediate cash to pay the fare.

Like many of my drafts, this one is written in pencil into a notebook; even my plan is written on the back of scrap paper. I find this method more satisfying than typing it. When it is finally entered into Scrivener, I’ll edit it, so that becomes the next draft.

Writing a novel is a time-consuming process, and even more so are the rewrites to produce a tighter story, but it can be a rewarding endeavour.

Making a Move

Every month, I organise an open-mike night called Hotchpotch for writers to read their work in front of an audience.

Mayfly, May 2007
Mayfly, May 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Mayflies are aquatic insects belonging to the order Ephemeroptera.

For the last couple of years, we’ve been using a bar called the Tinsmith, who took us in when a previous venue closed. We’re indebted to them for allowing our group to keep going, and we made it clear that the move was on good terms.

They have a snug area that offers some degree of separation from the other customers. Over the last few months, however, our audience has grown beyond this area. As a result, it’s become difficult for everyone to hear, even with a PA system.

With help from another member, we scouted out a few locations, bearing in mind that any venue needs to benefit from our presence. Some didn’t have the privacy or the space we need, while others charged amounts that we wouldn’t be able to sustain in the long run. We found the Mayfly, who take a reasonable approach to space versus cost.

Of all the impending changes ahead, the format of Hotchpotch remains the same: for writers to read out their fiction or poetry with no judgement and no criticism. The next meeting is on Monday 14 May.

Delayed Gratification

Having been delayed by heavy snowfall six weeks ago, the Fun a Day Dundee exhibition finally took place Friday to Sunday. This is a challenge to produce creative pieces during January.

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The exhibition featured dozens of artists working in different media: plastic, paint, photography, wire, ceramic, &c. My pieces were almost entirely made of ink on paper. Most of them were displayed in a ring binder, but a few were hung on the wall by the organiser Sam Baxter.

I was only able to be there for the Friday launch and the tail end of Sunday, but I tried to keep away from my work as much as possible. I wanted to observe how people interacted with it, particularly the centrepiece, a sheet of Amazon packing paper inviting visitors to write their stories of corporate waste. Another exhibit comprised a sealed envelope emblazoned with ‘PRIVATE – DO NOT OPEN’ that was opened within 20 minutes of the public entering.

It felt strange to present my writing in such a manner. A writer mainly sees written feedback on finished pieces, often from publishers. Here, on the other hand, was the possibility of instant reactions on rough drafts. The feedback I heard was largely positive, though.

Two of the other artists I liked were David Kendall who produced works within cardboard boxes, and Yasmin Lawson‘s tiny but monolithic tower blocks.

As the name of the project suggests, I found it fun to take part. I intend to be involved next year, perhaps with something completely different.

A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.