Category Archives: limitlesspotential

‘A Novel Idea’

Article about National Novel Writing Month, first published on The Edinburgh Reporter website 25th October


If you had to choose one month of the year full of deranged activities that have spread like wildfire through the power of the internet, November would be a top candidate.  Not content with changing its name to ‘Movember’ in a bid to have men raise cancer awareness by growing outrageous moustaches, it’s also home to National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.


The goal of NaNoWriMo is simple.  In the month of November, you sit down and write a book.  Or at least 50, 000 words of one.  You do not go back and re-read or edit these words until either the month is over, or you have reached your word count.  Going back will invite your inner critic to tell you the whole thing is nonsense and you must delete it at once, and then you’ll never finish.


This was the brainchild of a small group of American friends in San Francisco 1999. They initially wanted to write novels “for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands.  Because we wanted to make noise.  Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.”


Ten years later in 2009, 165,000 people across the world signed up to complete the challenge.


But why is this of interest to us?  Well, given that Edinburgh is the self styled city of literature, it would be a bit surprising if we didn’t join in.  And sure enough there are just over 200 Edinburgh people primed and ready to take part in NaNo 2010.  According to local organiser Terry Rodgers, this is roughly the same number as Glasgow or Newcastle, or as the whole of Norway or Spain.


So why would anyone put themselves through the drama of writing 50,000 words in 30 days?  This averages out at 1,666.66667 words per day.  Do these people not have jobs?!


“For fun!” Rodgers tells us.  “The only reason for doing it is because you think it might be satisfying.”


“50, 000 words seems daunting at first, but you can break it down into chapters and smaller scenes.  It’s more important to enjoy the process of writing than to see it as a daily chore to get to a particular word count.  Certainly, nobody should feel bad just because they haven’t written as much as the person next to them!”


That’s all very well, but I don’t have the time, might be the response of the average person with a job, kids or other commitments.  Not so, Rodgers argues.


“If you can get up early in the morning, or find time between teatime and going to bed, that could give you a few good hours.  If you commute by public transport you could take a laptop and squeeze in time then, or during your lunch break.  On top of that, you’ve got a whole weekend to play with.”


“It’s easy to think of excuses or reasons why you can’t do it – but what about all the reasons why you can? If you don’t write anything, then this time next year you’ll be twelve months older, but with one thing less to show for it.  I’ve encouraged people to list what other things are going on in their life that might stop them from writing – and then decide why they won’t!”


There is also a lot of support available.  Rodgers’ co-organiser, Karen Harding, has made sure the Edinburgh group is present on twitter, facebook and in the blogsphere as well as on the main NaNo site.  With this enveloping online presence it will always be possible to find someone nearby to give you a bit of encouragement.


So who are the 200 Edinburgers ignoring all the reasons why this is a silly idea and doing it anyway?   “You can get teenagers who’ve been writing fiction since they learnt how or retirees writing their first story,” Rodgers says, “but none of that really matters.  Knowing that everyone has the same challenge and faces the tyranny of a blank page is a great equaliser.”


It’s also a good way of bringing Edinburgh’s writers together.  Members meet to write together in coffee shops well in advance of the November 1st start date.  Last year younger participants organised their own write-ins for under-16s, whilst second year Geophysics student ‘jammycarrot’ set up a university ‘word war’ to give students an extra incentive to finish.  Edinburgh University beat Napier by only 1,080 words, and there is plenty of good-natured rivalry on the subject on the online forums.

‘Word wars’ exist between different regions in the UK and Ireland too. These incorporate dares to make things interesting or weird, such as random phrases, objects, places or characters you have to add at some point in your story, and aim to see who can get the highest average word count, or the highest proportion of people reaching 50,000 words.


With this in mind, anyone who has ever thought that they have a novel in them might want to reach in and extract it in the coming month.  Details of meetings can be found here, or you can go it alone as long as you register here.  Perhaps the time could also be used to grow a particularly jaunty moustache.

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Filed under Edinburgh, edinburghreporter, limitlesspotential

Class War

I am researching an article about the status of vocational training as opposed to the university education that we’re apparently all meant to aspire to.

In 2002, Chris Woodhead wrote:

“If the Government pursues its policy of expansion the consequences will be dire… for the thousands of students who will find themselves locked into three years of sub-degree study that is unlikely to bring any real intellectual satisfaction, and may well not lead to worthwhile employment.”

I was doing standard grades when he wrote that, and had no intention of going to university.  (I was destined to be a writer and thought practical experience would serve me better than studying other people’s books to death.)  But just a few years later I was swept along in the expansionist tide, giving in and applying on the grounds that everyone else was going and it probably wouldn’t do any harm.

In fact, this choice led me to become yet another one of the over-educated in a jobs market that needs practical skills far more than the kind of knowledge and attitudes studying for a degree gives you.

He went on to say:

“The Government talks endlessly about the need for graduates in the Knowledge Economy, but the ‘dirty little secret’, remember, ‘is the scarcity of jobs that require more advanced skills.’  We need plumbers and electricians, not, to take the letter C at random, graduates in Caribbean Studies, Caring Services, Childhood Studies, Chiropractice, Cinematics, Clothing Studies, Combined Studies, Communication Studies, Cosmetics, Contemporary Studies, Creative Therapies and Critical Theory.”

The idea of getting everyone to go to uni, irrespective of whether it’s relevant to what they want to do or if it’s even a real subject (sorry, but ‘contemporary studies’?), was apparently justified at the time as being positive for the economy.  Even though the Centre for Economic Performance was saying that 30% of British adults were ‘over-educated’ (ie more qualified than they need to be in order to do the job they were in.)  I can’t imagine that statistic has improved, based on the number of people I graduated with who have in jobs in admin, retail, call centres etc.

He continued,

Margaret Hodge is quite simply wrong.  ‘Promoting an ambitious increase in the number of young people in higher education’ is not necessarily ‘an economic imperative’.  It could be a waste of everyone’s time and money.”

I really think that this view has been proved correct, less than a decade later.  So many spend years of time and thousands of pounds on going to university, and what are they then qualified to do?  Study more.  Entry level jobs in any field of vague interest are so amazingly competitive that it almost doesn’t matter how good you are, certainly North of the border.  You are one of probably 40 or 50 really good, degree wielding candidates.  And before whittling you into that pile, the prospective employer had to wade through another 100 or so pretty poor applications.

What university helped me to do was decide that I definitely wanted to write for a living.  What graduating into a recession did was help me to hone this a bit more.  I was surprised to discover that I still wanted to be a journalist, just like when I was sixteen.  University (and DC Thomson rejections) had made me widen my horizons, looking at communications and marketing quite seriously because after all, this would involve writing copy for a living – so what if the content wasn’t quite mine?

But now, having been rejected by far more than merely DC (The Evening News, The Herald, Deadline News, and The Guardian to name but a few), I know I want to write my own stuff.  And more than that, I have confidence that some of my ideas are quite good.

On the way towards this realization I discovered that I really should have done vocational journalist training somewhere like Napier, because skills alone do not make up for lack of contacts, NCTJ approved qualifications and a heady mixture of old-skool skillz like shorthand and new media ones like podcasting.  So now I am building up my knowledge base in a haphazard sort of a way, and freelancing – invariably for free.

I will get there eventually.  But I think I would have even if I hadn’t gone to St Andrews.  I was already blogging constantly and writing reviews for local papers in Perthshire before my third knock-back bounced me across the Tay to sunny Fife.

But what of the people I graduated with?  Those who got their 2:1 in whatever and then said well, that box is ticked.  Now what?  Some have traveled.  Some went into jobs in offices or retail.  And a worrying number went straight back into education again.

I can genuinely only bring to mind about 3 people who went and got ‘graduate’ level jobs.  For which you may read ‘went through 8 rounds of interviewing with one of the companies on Milkround, and after a great deal of stress in their final year attained high-paid jobs in London which they don’t particularly enjoy.’

Does anyone really gain from even higher percentages of young people going to university ‘cuz thats what you do’?  Education for its own sake is a wonderful, interesting thing, but I don’t think it suits everyone.  The reason I went is because I wasn’t sure I was cut out for what I wanted to do.  That’s a hell of a reason to run up several thousand pounds worth of debt.

The book I was quoting from is ‘Class War’ by Chris Woodhead, published by Little, Brown in 2002 and available to purchase here.

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Filed under government, graduate, limitlesspotential, scotland, unemployment, university, vocationaltraining


Yesterday the BBC reported that there are sod all graduate jobs at the moment, and that some people feel as though doing a degree hasn’t helped that much.  Well done, this has only been going on for about three years.  Do you know how many people applied for my very average job in a library when it was advertised in 2008, at a time when things were allegedly OK?  180.

Anyway.  Following on in a helpful sort of way, The Guardian printed a short piece today about how to make your CV more effective. FYI, I’ve followed all those steps and it still took me six months to find work… in a job where they didn’t take CVs as part of the application process.

In a bid to move on from said job I have continued to follow the above guidelines, gaining maybe one interview in ten applications over the past 18 months.  I have had 6 or 7 interviews over that period.  You may now take a brief moment to conduct the mental arithmetic required to work out how many individual-tastic applications I have written (whilst in full time work and attempting to somehow build up a career in freelance journalism).

Maybe this article in The Journal earlier in the year was on to something when they said:

“Data collected by the University of Edinburgh suggests that the highest levels of involuntary unemployment occur in graduates of Divinity, History, Chemistry and Geosciences.”

My 2:1 from The University of St Andrews just happens to be in History, y’see.  Although I find the research fairly unhelpful as it doesn’t explain why this should be the case.  Why should history graduates be less employable than people who studied Philosophy or English?  We have all the same transferable skills, and arguably less predilection for the pretentious.  Although we do like a bit of alliteration now and then.

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Filed under limitlesspotential, unemployment


Review of Huge for The Edinburgh Reporter

As a fan of the Armstrong and Miller shows, I was interested to see Ben Miller’s first film, Huge, which is about a pair of comedians trying to make it.  If nothing else the director/co-writer has the research under his belt.

Unfortunately, the film is a little bit flat.  The main problem is that there is no evidence that the comedians, Warren (Johnny Harris) and Clark (Noel Clarke) are funny.  In any way.  We hear the same three lines of their material over and over again, which is of symbolic relevance in terms of different stages of their relationship – but the bit isn’t that funny and certainly doesn’t stand up to constant repetition.

For some reason Warren and Clark think they are hilarious.  Whilst Russell Tovey is brilliant as Clark’s horrible manager, Thandie Newton does a hilarious coke-addled talent agent, and nice guy Darren (Oliver Chris) is very funny when he finally stops being nice, the so-called comedians are just a bit sad.  If anything, having so many very strong moments courtesy of the supporting cast adds to the feeling of unfulfilled potential of the main protagonists.

If we found out more about Warren’s wristbands, or saw a conclusion to Clark’s unrequited love, maybe there would have been some emotional resonance.  If we had seen some more of their material, maybe we’d have got behind them more in the knowledge that they genuinely deserved to be huge.

Instead this was a film about two fairly average blokes, both of whom are desperate to escape the drudgery of daily life.  They might be funny or they might not, it’s hard to tell.  And they argue a lot, which is probably realistic if nothing else.  It’s not a terrible film by any means, but neither is it the one thing you need to rush out and buy tickets for before the festival ends.  Do watch it when it comes on telly, if only for the numerous cameos, but don’t expect the likes of the RAF Airmen sketch, because Warren and Clark are no Armstrong and Miller.  Or Mitchell and Webb.  Or Lee and Herring.  Or Pete and Dud.  Or even their own idols, Morecambe and Wise.

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Filed under edinburghreporter, EIFF2010, limitlesspotential


This is an article I wrote for Edinburgh-based magazine Brikolage, but unfortunately I missed the submission deadline.  I’m told it may yet appear on their lovely new website, though, and I am working on a piece for the autumn edition.

The best substitute for experience is being sixteen – Raymond Duncan

When does adolescence end?

Mine went today, when I impulse bought a pair of sensible shoes on the way past Clarks.  The clincher was that I agreed to pay an extra fiver for velour toe shapers.

“What are toe shapers,” you might ask, as the hip and vital young person you undoubtedly are.  Well, they are the retail equivalent of scrunching up some newspaper to put in your shoes to suck up moisture and stop them wrinkling.

At 24, I suppose I’m well over the accepted UK adolescent line.  But I don’t feel that different now than when I was a teenager.  I have a sense of awe at friends the same age or younger than me who are getting married and having kids. Sure, technically I’m old enough, but all that stuff seems so… grown up.  My boyfriend and I only just took the plunge of going halfers on a Nintendo Wii.  We thought it’d be easier than a dog.

According to Wikipedia, that trusted and always 100% accurate internet fact bucket, “Adolescence (from the Latin: adolescere meaning “to grow up”) is a transitional stage of physical and mental human development that occurs between childhood and adulthood.”

It goes on to list a few examples of levels you can complete in the game of life that may earn you adult status – getting married, being allowed to drink legally, getting a driving license and so on.  But you can do all that and still be emotionally immature.  A 32-year-old man recently propositioned my friend who had gained all of those ‘adult’ badges – including the fiancé.  But all he wanted to do was go out and have fun, and by fun of course I mean be a cheating arsehole devoid of morals or conscience.  Apparently, it was unfair of people to expect him to take responsibility for his own life.  And if that’s not an adolescent sentiment, I don’t know what is.

Being a teenager is bloody brilliant.  OK, I will concede that you’ve got mood swings and acne, which are rubbish.  If you’re a girl, you’ve got other teenage girls to contend with, and they’re horrible.  Meanwhile boys have a tendency to oddly timed growth spurts and an irrational compulsion to overdose on Lynx, which is definite emo poem fodder.

But in other news, this is the time in your life where you can make mistakes without terrible repercussions.  You can dye your hair stupid colours without upsetting your employer.  You’re still finding out who you are and what you want to be, and as long as you don’t have a bawbag for a guidance teacher basically anything is possible.  You don’t pay taxes, or have kids to look after, and your money is entirely your own to blow on whatever you want.  And everyone – your parents, teachers, the government – is obsessed with working out how to engage you so that you get the best opportunities in life and don’t piss it all away by making ill informed decisions.

A lot of teenagers already know this.  They’ll admit it as well, but only to each other.  Adults must be made to think that adolescence is a constant struggle against a tide of adversity; otherwise they’ll stop making the effort to help out.  And the only thing worse than being talked about, as a teenager once said to Oscar Wilde, is not being talked about.

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Filed under adolescence, brikolage, limitlesspotential, oscarwilde, raymondduncan, sensibleshoes, wikipedia