News, and Other Four-Letter Words.

When you’re a writer, and one of the country’s best literary festivals is on your doorstep, you can’t help but pop your head around the door. The Dundee Literary Festival closed yesterday after five days of events.

The highlights included Dundee International Book Prize winner Amy Mason, BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor choosing his favourite books, the STV Digital Spark Award to develop a Web-based project, topped with off with Sonny Carntyne performing ‘alt echo rock’ and novelist Zöe Venditozzi with her hilarious antidote to a hypnosis CD. For a more in-depth flavour of the programme, visit their Twitter account, Facebook page, and the Dundee University Review of the Arts (DURA) blog.

If you only look at one thing, make it The News Where You Are by James Robertson (below). I had a debate with one of the DURA bloggers over whether it was a story or a poem, but it’s a hilarious satire about what is implied when the national newsreaders hand over to the local newsrooms.

 

This year, I’ve become Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month in Dundee. I arranged our Kick-Off Event to coincide with the festival. It’s impossible to tell how many people will come to a given event, but we ended up with ten members altogether, and we listened to last year’s MLitt graduates each reading his or her magnum opus. Our regular write-ins will begin on Saturday, and I’ll no doubt write more about these throughout November.

The cast of Avenue Q performs "It Sucks t...
The cast of Avenue Q performs “It Sucks to Be Me” at Broadway on Broadway, September 10th 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In between all that, I found time to see Avenue Q, the show that’s broken out of Broadway and crossed the Atlantic. The actors stand on stage and sing alongside the puppets, but this soon ceases to be a distraction as they settle into the story of a new graduate coming to town, Kate Monster’s fight to have monsters recognised in society, and Rod’s reluctance to admit his sexuality. Content-wise, there is very little actual swearing. If this was a film, it’s the adult concepts that would probably earn it a 15 classification.

It’s also hard to see why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I also caught this week, was given a 12A rating, when I could find nothing that would it earn it any more than a PG.

I don’t often swear in my own writing. The intention is often to shock, but when everyone does it, the words lose their impact. Comedian Bill Bailey summed it up nicely when he compared effing and jeffing to road humps: one or two isn’t an issue, but a constant barrage is. By contrast, Quentin Tarantino takes the view that, “I’m a writer, no word is in jail,” but from watching his films, I do see the F- and C-words being given more parole than any other.

That said, I’m not above including blasphemy, as that’s commonly used and – generally speaking – is no longer thought of as swearing. There’s a 90-page study from Ofcom on the matter if you have the time, but the relevant sentence is: “There were a small, but vocal number of participants who found the use of holy names unacceptable.”

But in the right hands, swearing can be done well. I’m thinking mostly of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown, in which the F-word appears 83 times to produce an onomatopoeic effect of a chicken’s squawking. When he recorded it in the early 1980s, though, he had to replace 80 of these with bloody.

I was going to end this entry with a word that sounds a bit rude, but I shan’t.

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An Update on @Strange_Musings, and Some Transatlantic Translations.

Alternate Hilarities
Alternate Hilarities

Around three weeks ago, I was pleased to report that I’ve had a third short story accepted for publication. Strange Musings Press of New York will be printing Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, subject to raising enough funds through their Kickstarter page.

There’s still around a week left to raise the $1,100 required for it to go ahead. You can donate at several different levels from $1 to $150, each of which buys you into the project with increasing levels of reward, including electronic and/or paper copies, autographs, and your name in the Contributors’ section.

My story is called Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, and it’s about a man who wants to rid the world of badly-constructed acronyms. Although I’m Scottish, my dialect is British English so that’s how most of my stories are written, including this one.

If I’m sending to an American publisher, I often change the grammar and spelling to suit; at least, I have a decent stab at it. In one case, I even wrote the whole story in US English because the character was so strong in my head: a cross between Jason Gideon from Criminal Minds, and Adrian Monk. In Amending…, I took the decision to keep it in my natural dialect as there are a number of references to British places and companies, and I felt it would look odd if I, “translated” it.

A couple of weeks ago, I began reading The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks. The narrative is written with a curious mix of dialects. For instance, the title is spelt with two Ls and there’s a reference to a pub, but the colour gray and an SUV appear in other parts. The SUV would be known as a 4-by-4 in Britain. The story is set in several countries so I expect it’s difficult to settle on one standard spelling, yet it’s not a distraction here, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the story.

Conversely, my mentor Zöe Venditozzi released her debut novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here in 2012. When a US edition hit the shelves, she told me there were no spelling changes made. When you buy a copy, watch out for the character whose initials match mine.

So is it important to adapt your dialect depending on which side of the Atlantic you’ll be published? I expect most Internet users will be accustomed to reading both, but at the same time, people will still write in whichever they feel comes most naturally.

Perhaps one day in the future, the two will merge and we’ll have one way of spelling each word, one form of grammar for all. It would be more practical, but probably rather dull.

The C-Word.

I’ve seen Chris Brookmyre twice already, and tonight was my third time. I’m a big fan of his work after All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye, and most recently, a signed copy of Flesh Wounds. Tonight, he was promoting Bedlam, which also has his autograph.

Brookmyre does not fit the stereotype of the introverted author, much like the late Iain Banks, whom I had the privilege of seeing twice. Rather, Brookmyre takes centre stage and spills out anecdotes full of swearing. He’s so well known for it that he’s now been forced to apologise in advance. Indeed, the first time I saw the guy, he read out an e-mail he’d received by a previous organiser, effectively banning him from appearing several years ago.

Tonight, he brought along a guest. Barry Phillips started a parody blog of a local footballer and found it attracted the attention of readers around the world. Now he’s written a book called The Tartan Special One about a 17-year-old who is snapped up by Dundee FC. I don’t follow the game, and I didn’t buy a copy tonight, but it still appeals to me so I might so do in the future.

I’ve started back at two writing classes: a short course in fiction run by published author Zöe Venditozzi, and Level 2 of the Life Writing course at the University of Dundee. A couple of new people have joined us, one of them from Life Writing, and she says she’s having trouble thinking of ideas for passages in the five- to ten-minute exercises we’re given in class.

By coincidence, I was discussing this issue with one of the other short course stalwarts earlier the same evening. We realised we’re so used to thinking on our feet that we don’t even hesitate over it any more. But when we began in 2011, it would be tiring trying to think of stories.

Most of our Life Writing class knew each other from Level 1, and we really bonded over this week’s homework, which was to write a summary of our life, then pick one part and make it into a vignette. The ideas for this class also come to me rather quickly, and I can sometimes think of one before I’m on the bus home.

 

Finally, I didn’t realise until tonight that there’s a reminder feature on WordPress. If you want to post at least once a week, or once a month, it’ll send you an e-mail.

Being Mugged.

A quick word to say that while Zöe Venditozzi didn’t win The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, she did come first in the public vote, even if the panel voted against it.

Kate Atkinson walked away with the mug, although Neil Gaiman initially seemed a front runner.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/14/not-booker-prize-2013-judging-meeting-live

The End of The Beginning.

Ye gods! I knew I was living under a rock with LiveJournal, yet I didn’t realise the exact extent until other users started hitting the Like button. I’m unaccustomed to such a response, and I much appreciate it.

I chose WordPress over sites such as Blogger because I have a couple of friends here already. Even the range of basic features are bewildering; when I typed Like button in the previous paragraph, it gave me a Wikipedia link to the Like button page. After a little more kicking the tyres, I’m sure I’ll soon crawl into the 21st century.

Today I’m talking about endings. I recently read two short story anthologies by the same publisher: one from 2011, the other from this year. It struck me that a high number of the pieces in both of these did not have a proper ending, in fact the editor seemed to prefer this style. In some cases, the author would conclude with a limp or vague paragraph. In other cases, it would simply stop, leaving me checking for a missing page and in a couple of cases, asking, “And?” out loud.

It was disappointing rather than annoying because a lot of the stories in the anthology contained great ideas that were let down by their execution.

I try to give my stories a twist ending, or at least a clear marker the reader has reached the end. I don’t always manage, however. I recently received a rejection from a publisher looking for funny stories because, “… the ending lacked a good punch line.” To me, a rounded ending is important in a short story. Even if the reader is meant to be left in some doubt, there ought to be enough clues or information in the body of the story to narrow it down to two or three possible options about what might happen next.

One important exception, however, is autobiographical writing. I’m going to come back to this in more detail on Monday. For purely fictional writing, however, an ending is king.

Photo of mug with,
Not The Booker Prize, nor The Nine O’Clock News.

I was going to leave it until Monday to post about the Not the Booker Prize run by The Guardian, but the deadline is midnight on Sunday.

In my last entry, I mentioned my writing sensei Zöe Venditozzi. Her novel has been shortlisted, and I encourage you to click on the photo above and vote for it before the deadline of midnight on Sunday.

That’s not just because I know her, but because it’s a cracking character-driven piece from a début novelist, featuring alongside established authors Neil Gaiman and Kate Atkinson. It also happens to feature a chap with my very initials who happens to volunteer at hospital radio, just as I do.

To cast your nomination, you’ll need to create a Guardian account and write a short review in the comments. As the paper says, Comment is free, and so is your vote.

Taking The Lid Off The Pen.

When you speak to a lot of authors, it’s common to hear that they were always writing stories as children or experimenting with poetry as teens. However, I’ve only been writing for three years, since 29 October 2010, in fact. That was the day I signed up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on a whim, since everyone else was doing it.

From high school until that point, I’d written hardly any fiction. Since then, I’ve entered NaNoWriMo every year and written dozens of short stories, many of them under the tutorship of Zöe Venditozzi, whom I’m sure would like you to buy her book. I’m also pleased to report that I’ve had a flash fiction piece published in The Fiction Desk, while FourW will publish one of my short stories next month. More on the latter when it happens.

Although I didn’t write fiction until three years ago, I have kept a blog for a long time, and it’s still a powerful way of spreading your message, even in these days of Twitter and Facebook. I don’t plan to give up my with ageing LiveJournal for my day-to-day activities, but I did want to start afresh with WordPress for discussing my writing.

I’m viewing this as an experiment, and it might not last. After all, the more you write about writing, the less time you have to write. But I hope I can whip myself enough to keep this place updated, and more importantly, to make sure you want to read it.

One final thought: I’ve used the tag-line Carry on for a long time, before that Keep Calm poster ever came out. I’m debating whether to have a tag-line at all, and if so, what should it be?