Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

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The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.

Far, Wide and Deep

This blog primarily discusses writing and the performance of literary works. For the most part, this encompasses novels, short stories and poems.

But some of the entries touch upon films, TV series and rap music. What these forms have in common is that they almost always begin as a written document, from the musician who jots down lyrics in the notebook to the screenwriter carefully crafts a story arc.

In my view, it’s healthy for a writer to have influences from many different sources. Last week alone, I’ve been to see a 40th anniversary screening of Alien, I visited and participated in the StAnza poetry Festival in St Andrews, and I’ve been listening to the hits of Rizzle Kicks.

That’s not to say these sources will immediately influence my work. Rather, I might pick up a line of dialogue or a neat way of wrapping up a plot.

When I undertook my MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee, I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Jim Stewart before his death in 2016.

If you came to him with a piece he didn’t understand, he’d ask you questions until it was clear to him or research it. If he felt something could be improved, he would guide you rather than make outright suggestions. I never once heard him dismiss anything.

And when a writer embraces an unlikely influence, the result can be eye-opening. Take P D James as an example. She was known for her detective novels, then at the age of 70, she wrote Children of Men, her only science fiction work.

The Short Verse

Before we head properly into this entry, an announcement that from next week, these updates will be posted on Tuesday rather than a Monday. This small change means it’s easier to make any last-minute amendments that need to be done – and they often need to be done.


I know a poet called Roderick who writes almost exclusively short poems, rarely more than four lines long. He doesn’t use any prescribed forms such as the haiku or the clerihew, only free verse, drawing inspiration largely from the landscape in the north of Scotland and the train journeys that take him there.

As such, Roderick rarely wastes a word, so it’s always a treat to experience his work. Too often, I hear poetry that has potential but contains extra language that serves only to make each line a similar length, usually to create a rhyming couplet. Used sparingly, rhyme often works just as well in free verse.

One occasion when I used such a technique was writing about a tree in the botanic gardens owned by the University of Dundee. The piece began as a stanza of around 12 lines, but it felt rather drawnout and inelegant. By paring it down to a third of that size, I was able to make the point much more clearly. The final version will be published in an anthology this year.

That’s not to say that a short piece is always better than a long one. It’s doubtful that Allen Ginsberg would have made the same impact with a two-minute Howl, and there’s no way John Milton could have condensed Paradise Lost into a slim volume.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.

Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.