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.

A triathlete’s guide to dealing with rejection

I’ve been submitting a lot more this year, which inevitably means handling an increased number of rejections. Rejection is never fun, but it’s part and parcel of writing life. There was a time, back in the dim and distant neon glow of the past, when I believed my first story sale would be some kind of watershed. It would mean I’d learned how to write and everything flowing from my pen from that moment on would be finest prose, to be snapped up by eager publishers. I would dance around in an ecstatic haze surrounded by fluffy unicorns, and I’d fart fine fiction materialising in rainbow ink to be formatted by a team of highly trained aye-ayes.

Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work like that.

I started submitting in 2010, relatively late in life for someone who turns as many trees into words as I do. That year I submitted one piece as a favour to a friend. In 2011 I submitted a second on a whim. Both were accepted. I submitted three in 2012 (three personal rejections), and so far this year I have submitted eight pieces with one acceptance and two personal rejections. This is nothing like a high submissions rate. I am aiming for eight or more submissions in a month, but it’s going to take me a while to get there.

This year has been a learning curve in all sorts of ways. I’ve learned the value of good crit — and by that I mean intelligent, insightful and constructive crit. I’ve learned crit partners who will take time to analyse my work and subject it to scrutiny, and who are prepared to be hard but fair, are a precious commodity to be treasured. I’ve also learned the real prize in the process of preparing a story for submission to market is the creation of a good story. The story is the commodity, in the same way a cut diamond is the prize, rather than the eventual sum paid for that diamond (with the difference that you sell rights to your story, not the story itself).

A while ago I did an interview for the Literature Show. One of the questions we didn’t have time to cover was whether I felt doing triathlon had any influence on my writing. I’d have said it most definitely does. I race for one main reason: if I didn’t have the races as targets, I wouldn’t train. Competing is my way of injecting motivation to keep fit. If you race, you make time to train. You go out in the rain. You invest time and effort for a prize that is nothing to do with standing on the podium — the podium, particularly when elite athletes are involved, is the preserve of the genetically gifted and those whose job it is to compete in triathlons. Those of us who make up the ranks of the age groupers do it for the achievement, for the fun, and for the goal of being fit enough to compete.

Submitting to paying markets is similar. Without the goal of making it past the guardians of the slush pile and giving sufficient enjoyment to an editor that he or she is prepared to pay for the rights, I would not put the same effort into my work. I spent years writing without that goal in mind, and the difference between what I write now and what I wrote during that time is one of craft. It’s the precision of comma use, the lack of extraneous thats, the avoidance of unnecessary qualifiers and the focus on making each sentence carry the story forward. I’m not saying my work is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s miles better than it was.

Putting in the runs, the swim sessions and the bike training, turning up for a race, racking my bike, prepping my transition area, putting vaseline in my shoes, and remembering to put my helmet on before touching my bike will not guarantee me a win. It does mean I’m fit enough to compete. The drafting, re-drafting, editing, crits, re-editing and submission will not guarantee a story sale. They do mean a story I am happy to submit, and there are always other markets.

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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