Spring cleaning

Spring means the return of communal bathing season. The birds didn’t do much bathing over winter, unsurprisingly. Now the sun forays forth occasionally and Floralia is upon us, they are back at it. It’s also baby-making time, so our garden is a flurry of frantic feathered fauna doing their best to put ALL THE FOOD into their beaky faces to take back to the nest.

BRO, STOP, UR DOIN ME AN AGGRO

While chatting with a colleague at work over a break, looking out the window at some seagulls, I voiced aloud my imaginings of what the birds might be thinking. She expressed surprise that anyone would do this — I have no idea whether this habit results from a childhood of indoctrination by Johnny Morris, or simply my constantly hyper-active imagination. I can only assume there’s something instinctive about it, though; since being exposed to the concept, my colleague tells me the habit has caught on.

At the meeting of Lemon Tree Writers a fortnight ago, we received an interesting workshop from the writer Sophie Cooke. A workshop presenter rarely covers short fiction, long fiction and poetry all in the space of one workshop, and this one was very well received by our eclectic mix of Scottish writers. While largely pitched for novice writers, I enjoy any prompt to produce some potentially useful word chunks, and found this no exception. Despite poetry requiring much more effort from me than prose, I managed to throw something together that didn’t sound terrible when I read it out, reminding me again of that well-known quote from cyclist Greg Lemond:

It never gets easier, you just get faster
Image courtesy of Quotesgram.com

If it had been suggested to me even five years ago I could produce an eighteen line poem in the space of ten minutes, which — critically — I would not be too embarrassed to read out to a dozen people I barely knew, I would have found it hard to believe. Exercises like this are good reminders of why all the writing and reading is important. Even writing one has no intention of ever seeing the light of day presents an opportunity to embed a reluctance for copulas, a mental red flag for flabby words such as “that” and “very”, and the habit of specificity.

I think, these days, even my imaginary conversations between starlings need less copy-editing than they used to.

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Navigating distraction

While I’ve been doing pretty well at keeping up with my short story target, I’ve not been doing quite so well at everything else.

It happens. Life gets in the way. Holding down a full-time job, writing, editing and participating in crit groups, as well as the other things like house hunting, riding my bike and getting out into the sun occasionally for the sake of my sanity all take time. Not to mention eating, sleeping, reading… As important as a social media presence is to the modern writer, I think it’s important to cut yourself some slack. Of all the things for which I could berate myself, not posting as frequently as I intended on my blog is not going to be top of the list.

I’ve been trying different modes of writing this year, sparked by an exercise I completed in one of Cat Rambo‘s classes (very good, I’ve taken a few, do try them). The hypergraphia means I’ve always been a pantser — I get an idea, put pen to paper, the words come out. This is fine, to a point, but the same capacity to dribble countless words directly from my brain onto the page via the medium of pen and ink means I find it really hard to stay on track. As an example, I set out to write a piece of Christmas themed flash for a LTW anthology, and two months later it had turned into a 12.5k word novellette.

For me, the process of writing a story feels like opening a door in one branch of some great, fractal beast, and it’s really difficult to stick to the one little piece. Imagine opening a door into one tiny alveolus then moving further out into the bronciole, the lung, the chest, the person, the person’s family, village, country, world…

When I first started outlining, I tried to write what would happen and it felt awful. I wrote a list, and tried to stick to it, and it was like being surrounded by a wall. I couldn’t see past it. Rather than helping my creativity, it stifled it. Conforming to a list was too much like having to stay on a path even though the best view would be from the other side of the adjacent field. So I gave up, went back to my old method of writing, and was faced with the problem of sifting a coherent story from the mass of verbiage.

Cat also recommended Ken Rand’s the 10% Solution, a recommendation I have passed on to others. For me, most often, staring at the first draft of what was supposed to be 5k and has turned out to be double that, ten per cent isn’t ambitious enough.

I needed to find a happy compromise, and to that end I’ve been playing with mind mapping software.

Being a Scrivener user, I’ve had Scapple for a while, and I really love its simplicity and endless permutations. I would recommend both programs to anyone who likes complete freedom to plot and write. I have been using Scapple a lot for outlining An Elegy in Dustvines, and it has helped enormously.

It’s not the only option. I bought a Samsung tablet last year for editing and proofreading — it’s almost as good as having a printout of a story for catching typos one might otherwise miss — and Scapple doesn’t run on the Android OS. Instead I’ve got both Mindomo and SharpMindMap.

Of the two, SharpMindMap is the closer to Scapple in terms of flexibility. It doesn’t try to hold you to the standard format of a central topic with sub-topics. I prefer not to be confined to that, as I often want to have two separate main threads running parallel, for instance critical points in the story for protagonist and antagonist. The export options are not as good, however.

Mindomo exports directly into Evernote, which is another productivity tool I’ve started using. It can be persuaded to have more than one major nexus in a single project, but it has a tendency to try to join them up again if they are placed too closely together. That said, it’s a good looking app, with some nice themes, it’s intuitive to use, and the export options are very handy.

mindomo

That’s the kind of context map I might produce for a short story. Once I’ve finished sketching out some of these details, I’ll outline the main points of the plot. While this level of detail might be far too much for most people, I find having it set out in my outline helps me keep my imagination in check. Well, not so much in check, but satiated. Without this, I’m far too easily distracted.

I’ve just finished outlining a new story, and today I’m going to experiment with moving directly onto outlining and writing a different new story, just to see what happens (also, deadlines). It will be interesting to see if the detailed outline is enough to hold the story in potentia. I would normally expect the hypergraphia to roll on to something else if I don’t use a story idea right there and then.

It would be nice to find a way of holding onto all of my crazy ideas.

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Spoken word, seasoned with citrus

Recently I’ve been pretty busy on the writing front. On the 7th September I was one of the guests on the Literature Show, alongside my fellow Point of Balance writers Pam, Morag and Haworth. If you missed it (let’s face it, you probably did), you can listen again at mixcloud. We were there to promote the chapbook and you can hear me and my fellow writers reading excerpts from the pieces in the book. I also took the chance to sneak in a signal boost for Minister of Chance, as the movie is in pre-production.

[Naturally, if you haven’t already listened to it, do so immediately (IT’S FREE, THERE’S NO EXCUSE) and then please bung some dosh Dan’s way. It’s still entirely crowd-funded.]

Last weekend I had two launch events for the chapbook and my first spoken word event, Lemon Zest.

The first launch event was at Better Read Books in Ellon. It was a lovely evening; we were guests at a regular poetry evening (even though there isn’t any poetry in the book). We heard some fanastic poems — including a telling of the story of Noah in Doric — and I picked up a copy of Cathrynne M. Valente’s Deathless in hardback. I was surprised to see this volume in a local store. Clearly, Better Read Books is an amazing bookshop. They have a fabulous selection of second-hand and illustrated texts, and Euan is the only person so far to engage with me enthusiastically on the topic of 18th century automata. Euan and Bill definitely deserve support (and they have signed copies of the chapbook for sale). We sold a few copies, but most interest was in the cover, and so Frood ended up getting all the attention.

Saturday’s launch went well, too. That was held at the regular LTW meeting venue, so the regulars turned up, although it was nice to see some unfamiliar faces. Then, on the Sunday, was Lemon Zest. We had our first run through the programme during the afternoon, with the show proper that evening.

I’ve had plenty of experience of public speaking throughout my career, so I don’t get nervous, as a rule. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was hot on grammar and diction, and being understood isn’t a worry, but I’ve never considered myself to be a natural performer. (My run as the evil magician in my primary school’s version of Aladdin And His Lamp doesn’t count, despite the standing ovation.) I don’t write with a view to the piece being performed, even though reading out loud is an essential part of my writing process.

The story I read at Lemon Zest is a homage to Russell T. Davies called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead? Those who grew up with British Television in the 70s and 80s may remember the show the title references. I’m very fond of this flash piece, which grew from a prompt in one of the group’s 10 minute writing exercises — I like the layers of meaning and internal reflections — and although I’ve not yet succeeded in selling it, it’s had some encouraging rejections. My outfit for the occasion was a nod to Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, I had 11’s sonic screwdriver poking out of my pocket, my piece was cunningly disguised in an antique storybook the colour of the TARDIS, and I introduced the piece as ‘Sam does Jackanory’ to put people in the mood.

Yet, watching the other group members, I realised I was outclassed in reading for an audience. Richie Brown’s tale of bringing King George III to the 21st century was very well performed, which is hardly surprising given that he’s one of the driving forces behind Demented Eloquence North. The undisputed highlight of the show, however, was Pam’s sketch Mike and Susan, in which Bill Robertson and Helen Elizabeth Ramsay played a couple discussing how they might go about spicing up their love life.

For me it was both an enjoyable and educational evening. Audiences, I realised, go to these events to be amused and entertained, and they’ll enjoy things that make them laugh more than things that make them think (although you’re onto a winner if you can do both). A lot of it was undoubtedly lack of practise and experience, but as an introvert who takes as much pleasure in the construction of a sentence as in the overall story, I think performing to an audience is not the best way to show off my work. Unless, perhaps, I get someone else to read it.

I put a lot of effort into the chapbook and I’m very pleased with the result. Mark Pithie put a lot of work into Lemon Zest, and I hope he’s also very pleased with the result. There are some talented people in LTW, particularly when it comes to writing for performance, and Mark did an excellent job organising an evening for them to demonstrate it.

Point of Balance will be available at LTW events until we sort out wider distribution. In the meantime, if you want a copy (if only so you can feast your eyes on the gorgeous cover, to which the photos don’t do justice), drop me a line at sam [at] ravenbait [dot] com and I’ll see what I can do. Cover price is 4 of your Earth pounds, all of which goes towards keeping Lemon Tree Writers up and running, including putting on events like Lemon Zest for all to enjoy.

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Point of Balance chapbook launch

Last year I was asked if I would like to be part of a chapbook for Lemon Tree Writers. Although it has been part of my growth as a writer to decide I do not work for free, in this instance it was for a good cause. I’m fairly introverted, and very busy, and if it were not for the fortnightly writers’ group meetings it’s possible I wouldn’t go out and meet people outside the day job at all. I also happened to have some work lying around that was in need of a home and thought the experience of working with other writers and seeing a project through from concept to publication would be good experience.

Point of Balance cover artPoint of Balance went to the printers today. Inside is a collection of six works by four writers: Haworth Hodgkinson, Pamela Shand, Morag Skene (who doesn’t have a website) and me. It’s hard to describe this collection, which spans from the dark past to the whimsical future and the abstract never-was; from the humorous to the horrific. It has a piece written in broad Scots and one that uses scientific jargon. Choosing a running order was one of the hardest parts of the process (best described as educational).

The cover is a beautiful photograph of a rock balance by Alibarbarella — and I may be biased, but he has done an amazing job. We had a number of images to pick from, and he was brilliant to work with, happily flipping things, cutting things, swapping things around and adding text on the fly so we could see what would work best. If you are in need of a cover artist, please consider dropping him an email.

We launch the chapbook on Saturday, 14th September 2013 at 11am at the Douglas Hotel, 43-45 Market Street, Aberdeen, AB11 5EL (map). You’ll be able to buy a copy (of course we’ll sign it for you if you want!) and talk to the writers about their work. We’re also hoping to have prints of the cover art available, signed by the artist. There will also be a pre-launch at 7pm at Better Read Books in Ellon (map)on Friday 13th. Leave a comment if you plan on coming to either event, so I can be sure to say hello and thanks for the support.

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