A short story in slides – I attempt digital fiction

This is my first stab at “digital fiction”. Scroll down to read about how I made it, and why…

So…What an inspiring and mind-numbingly frustrating few days.Over the weekend I went to another excellent workshop organised by the lovely people at East Kent Live Lit. This one was all about digital storytelling. At the helm was Andy Campbell, a master of the art.Hearing Andy talk about his work was truly inspiring. He produces great stuff and is an incredibly patient teacher.Andy showed us a few simple ideas for telling interactive stories, which involved a little bit of raw html coding. Surprisingly easy, so I thought I’d give it a go.For my own efforts, I decided to jump straight into the – very, very – deep end, downloading a trial version of Flash Professional CS5.Andy uses this software to create beautiful, engaging dreamscapes – I used it to make a word follow a block around a screen. It took two hours, but I did get it to happen. Behold the masterpiece that I call Block/Words (note, I can’t make it loop – duh!):

Next, I tried to get a bit clever, adding some images and textures to my creation. Lord, it was a nightmare. I gave up in frustration.Then, refuelled with caffeine, I fired up the MacBook and made my own Flash message for the people at Adobe:

After a fitful night worrying about Timelines, Stages and Layers, I decided to try again in the morning.I gave up on Flash and tried to combine the inspiration from Andy’s workshop with the low-fi, DIY, punk attitude that I took away from my previous Live Lit session. (Thanks to the excellent Matt Rowe, who gave my brain a cold rinse in February)I set myself a simple challenge: make something creative; spend only one hour doing it; use only the tools at your disposal; put it online, however crappy the end product.I took the text of a story that is about to be published in Cent magazine and mixed it up with some photos I shot at last year’s Latitude festival. The aim was to produce a simple slideshow. How hard could that be?I used Keynote – the Mac alternative to PowerPoint – to make the slides and edited the images in iPhoto: just basic cropping and colour-fudging. I exported the whole thing as a QuickTime movie and – bingo! – I had my first piece of interactive fiction.That all took an hour.Then the hard work started: how to share it online?I tried to upload the movie to Blogger, TypePad, Tumblr and elsewhere, but each platform’s video conversion gizmo stripped out the “clickability”: the slideshow ran straight through each time, like a crappy five-second movie. No good.What next? I exported each slide as a jpeg from Keynote and imported them into Soundslides, a neat app for creating online slideshows. This worked really well, except that the only export was to a bunch of html files and folders; I had nowhere to upload them.Next step, I thought I could put the jpegs on Flickr or Picasa and create an embedded slideshow. I could, and did, but couldn’t retain the “clickability” – each slide changed after a three-second interval; too quick to read my text.Finally, I tried Slideshare, a site for sharing presentations and other stuff. (I kind of like the idea of sneaking a bit of fiction onto a site meant for corporate stuff)First up, I tried to upload a Keynote version of the story. Slideshare struggled to convert this, so I produced a PowerPoint version instead, which it dealt with in seconds.The result looks a bit rubbish. You have to click the little maximise arrows in the bottom-right corner if you want to see it properly. But here it is:

After many hours of algorithmic crunching, Slideshare finally spat out the Keynote version, which is below (and looks much better):

My conclusions:

1/ The best version of my story remains the QuickTime movie, and that just took an hour to make. But I can’t work out how to get it online, and even when I emailed it to someone the sound failed.

2/ The technology was a nightmare, but the creative side of mixing words and pictures was fun and rewarding. I will try again.

3/ The workshop was great. If you live in my part of the world, and  get a chance to attend anything that the Live Lit people do, I’d recommend it.

Must go and earn some money now….

(oh, for the sake of completeness, here is the embedded Flickr version:)

The downside of a holiday

It is always hard to get back into writing after a break, especially one as pleasant as a holiday in Thailand. But over the last few days I have gradually found my way back to the page. And just now I read this insightful comment from writer Clare Dudman, which captures the feeling well:

“I really should be writing. I keep thinking that. I should stop doing so much reading of other people’s books and do some writing of my own. The longer I leave it, the worse it gets. It’s like standing, shivering, on the shore of a bleak ocean. You know you’ll enjoy it when you get under the waves, but first you have to wade out?”

I like that. And on her recommendation, I have just ordered this:

My Big Night at the Komedia

Komedia, but not this Sunday

I did my reading at the wonderful Komedia Theatre in Brighton this week, for Story Studio. What an amazing experience!
The venue was much bigger than I expected, and had sold out – they were actually turning people away at the door. I know they weren’t lining up to see me, but even so.
I was third on stage out of nine “acts”, the last before the first interval. This was a good slot, the friendly organisers said, because it meant I could relax and enjoy the rest of the evening.
Strangely, I felt no nerves at all when my time came. Up on stage, I couldn’t see a thing – the spotlights were so bright. But there was a big audience out there somewhere. And they were waiting for me to entertain them.
I only realised afterwards – or maybe not until the evening itself – what a risk the organisers were taking when they decided to give me a slot. They must have liked my story, but they’d never heard me read to an audience. I could have been a disaster.
Luckily, I wasn’t. It went better than I could possibly have hoped. People were really kind afterwards – audience members and other performers. One, who’s act I really enjoyed, said “you’ve got ‘It’”; the organisers said I was “amazing”.
Anyway, I’m hooked on live performance now and will be looking for any chance to get on stage again. So watch this space.
Just a shame I didn’t get any photos.

Experimenting with "Live Lit"

I went to an amazing workshop in Folkestone yesterday. The idea was to explore new ways of presenting literature to an audience. It was massively inspiring, and I put some of what I learned into practice today.

I put together the little “film” here in about 45 minutes. The audio was recorded into a dictaphone, in the bathroom, with a towel over my head. My voice sounds pretty rough and shaky, but that’s because I’d only been awake for a few minutes.

Normally I’d try to get this perfect before posting, or just throw it away. But in the “just do it” ethic of yesterday, I’m putting it here as it is.

I learnt a lot from doing this, and from yesterday. I’ll post more about that later.

Happy Christmas

Finding a voice for personal essays

Carl H. Klaus

I’ve read a lot of personal essays, and read a lot about them, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written one.

I say ‘not sure’ because I’ve maybe written quite a few in notebooks, or written words that could be turned into an essay, but have never tried to actually produce one that might be published.
I’d like to try that, and have been thinking about giving it a go this year. One obstacle is voice: Who is writing the essay? Is it me, or some kind of essay-writing version of me? And is it a voice that speaks the truth, or a version of it?
Today I came across an interesting interview with Carl H. Klaus, an essay writer, theorist on the craft of the personal essay, and author of “The Made Up Self” (via here). He says something interesting on this question of voice:

I do think there’s some double-edged quality in writing personal essays – because despite the fluid nature of the self, we do in the long run develop a conception of our selves that we aspire to be true to in our own writing.  And yet I know that such a thing is impossible.  To think that I could in fact create a style that was an echo of such a multi-sided thing as the self – that’s simply a cuckoo notion.  So what can I say?  We do, in fact, aspire to write like ourselves even though we know that in some sense this is an impossibility – much as it’s a difficult notion to imagine never being yourself and yet always being yourself.  It’s a paradoxical thing.”

The full interview is worth reading, especially for what he says about Montaigne, which I think I disagree with.

Writing and being lonely

Great image from Gaping Void

Because I spend so much time on my own, at my desk, writing, with nobody else in the house apart from the dog, people often ask me whether I get lonely. I don’t, usually.

This isn’t because I’m an antisocial misanthrope. I enjoy company, mostly. The reason I don’t get lonely is that I am writing. This might sound contradictory, but I came across a Julia Cameron quote yesterday that explained it well:

“The minute I let myself write, everything else falls into balance. If I get a dose of writing in my day, then I can actually socialise with a clear conscience. I can actually be present for the life I am having rather than living in the never-never land of the nonwriting writer, that twilight place where you always ‘should’ be somewhere else – writing – so that you can never enjoy where you actually are.”

Reading that reminded me of something James Thurber said in an interview:

“I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’”

John Berger: Indecently Intense

I bought someone a Kindle for Christmas, or contributed my share of the cost. A useful gadget, but I prefer to have all my books where I can see them, on the shelf.

I was looking at one of those shelves late last night, from the comfort of my chair, and pulled down a copy of Photocopies, by John Berger. This is a stunning book, which I bought some 15 years ago and have read many times. It blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and, importantly, always inspires me to write.

Berger is English, but left this country to live in France four decades ago. Why? He gives a fascinating answer in the interview below. He never felt at home in England, he says. Whenever he talked to people or listened to them, he felt he embarrassed them. “I was indecently intense,” he says.

(relax, only the first 10 seconds are in French)

Finding time for writing – the big lie

Yesterday was my first day back at work. Over the holidays, as usual, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to balance my working day, how to mix my different responsibilities. The aim, as always, is to find more time to write. Because if I had more time to write….ah, well.

How much money does it take to be happy? Ask anyone that question and they’ll usually answer with a figure that is just a little bit more than they earn now. The amount of money they need is always just out of reach.

The same applies to me and writing time. If I just had a little more… And then I read these wise words from Julia Cameron:

“The myth that we must have ‘time’ – more time – in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. If we are forever yearning for ‘more’, we are forever discounting what is offered.”

I felt a shiver when I read that. She continues:

“The ‘if-I-had-time’ lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment.”

Fire and smoke

I was just reading an interesting blog post from Alex Keegan and came across this great quote from Arthur Plotnik:

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. You edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”


How to come up with short story ideas

Blocked up like a bank holiday motorway? Devoid of any writing ideas? Here’s my Five Step Short Story Idea Generating Process (TM pending).

  1. Take a blank sheet of paper and make a random list of characters and their objectives. For example: A man who desperately needs £100,000 within a week; a woman who must get her head unstuck from some railings; a man who wants to be young again; a girl who wants to buy a second-hand caravan.
  2. Make a random list of scenarios: The world will certainly end next Thursday; walking is made illegal; all the bees die; dogs rule the world.
  3. Make a list of interesting words: Treachery, lust, envy, arrogance, porridge, goats, pasta, secrets.
  4. Quickly jot down sentences and ideas that take something from at least two of the lists. Such as:
  • A man needs £100,000 to deceive a goat
  • A woman trying to annoy a goat gets her head stuck in some railings
  • Arrogance kills all of the bees
  • Dogs rule through treachery
  • Porridge is the secret of youth
  • Over-consumption of pasta will lead the word to oblivion next Tuesday

Choose one and get writing. Easy.

How hard is it to write?

Writing can sometimes be very difficult. How’s that for an understatement? But how hard, or easy, is it meant to be?

Here are three very different reports from the coal face of the writing industry:

1) In Slate magazine Garrison Keillor tells writers it’s easy, so stop moaning:

“The fact of the matter is that the people who struggle most with writing are drunks. They get hammered at night and in the morning their heads are full of pain and adverbs. Writing is hard for them, but so would golf be, or planting alfalfa, or assembling parts in a factory.”

2) While over at Columbia Journalism Review Robert Boynton interviews the painfully unproductive Gay Talese and reports how:

“Displaying equal parts pride and self-loathing, Talese reports he wrote barely fifty-four-and-a-half typed pages between 1995 and 1999.”

3) Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Orhan Pamuk reflects on the joys of putting words on paper:

“If you leave aside sensual pleasures, sexual pleasures, good food, good sleep, and so on, then the happiest thing is that I have written two and a half, three good pages. I am almost assured that they are, but I need confirmation. My girlfriend comes, we are happy, I read to her, she says, ‘This is wonderful’ – that’s it! That’s the greatest happiness.”