Blimey, it’s my competitive story reading debut

My journey to find new ways of making a fool of myself enters scary territory this coming weekend. I will be taking part in my first competitive story-reading event.

On Sunday, I’ll be on stage at the wonderful Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, a participant in “Flash Factor”.

The boards that I shall tread

This is X-Factor meets short stories: me and a bunch of other writers read our flash fiction; the audience and a panel of fearsome judges will…. Well, I don’t know what they’ll do: cheer, boo, throw stuff? We’ll see. But at the end of it all, there will be a winner.

On the panel will be writers Sarah Salway, whose work I love, and Danuta Kean. I hope they are kind. My main worry is that, while there is a 250-word limit on stories, my two (not chose which to read yet) only come in at about 100 words. Too short? Or maybe less is more?
Writing this now, it occurs to me that the Trinity is where my journey into writing short stories began, many years ago. I used to live in the town and signed up for a “so you want to write fiction….?” course that was held in the theatre. Seems such a long time ago.

I remember in the second week reading three paragraphs of a story – my first – and nearly suffocating with fear and nerves. I hope to do better on my return.

Finding a new audience for literature and stories

Normally, you’d get yourself in trouble if you broke an egg on a stranger’s trousers. But such behaviour is fine when one is performing live street literature. Then it’s just part of the act.

I learned this interesting lesson on Saturday. I was on the promenade of Herne Bay, an English seaside town, “performing” – and I use the term loosely – my short story Egg-box Eyeballs as part of the rather excellent Herne Bay Festival. The action concluded with me smashing an egg on the floor in dramatic fashion.

In my one rehearsal I used a tennis ball rather than an egg, so as not to make a mess in the church hall where the piece was conceived.

Doing it for real on Saturday, I was surprised at how far an egg will splatter if you chuck it on hard ground. You can see just how surprised in the short film of the event below. Fortunately, my audience/victims took it all in good spirit.

Getting ready to go

How did I get myself in this situation? A lovely group of creative people called the Reauthoring Project told me they were looking for five writers to present work at the festival. Would I like to be one of them? they asked. Yes, please, I said.

Their challenge was a simple one: each of the five writers had to take an existing piece of their work and find a way of presenting it to the public in a way that didn’t involve the traditional author reading. Our stage would be a beachfront shelter; our audience would be whoever happened to be passing.

The five writers produced a fascinating mix of work. Apart from me barking away and chucking eggs about, there was interactive poetry, two sound installations and a “found” story experience on the beach. The people of Herne Bay were open minded about it all and showed a remarkable willingness to watch, listen and take part. I hope they enjoyed it. I know I did.

But why agree to a challenge so rich in possibilities for creative disaster and public humiliation? Fellow writer-participant Peggy Riley gives a good answer on her blog. The aim, she explains, is “To bring text and writing and writers out into the open, to let words breathe in air.” Peggy continues:

“With paper-based writing the writer is not a part of the reading – unless we hover or stalk, we do not know when a reader rejects the writing, when the page is folded down or the cover is closed. Live literature asks readers to engage with writing in a way that is live. It is unexpected and unrehearsed. It is authentic. It is raw. It is an offer made in a public space. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it is all the more exciting for that, as a writer.”

Exciting? Yes. Raw? Totally, especially the eggs. I learned a great deal about how to engage an audience and I realised the folly of thinking that I can control how people experience a story. I also challenged a lot of my stereotypical assumptions about the kind of people who might enjoy my writing.

We went to the pub afterwards to consider how we might do this kind of thing again. All very exciting.

Taking literature to the streets, man

It’s good to step outside of one’s comfort zone occasionally, and I will be a very great distance away from mine next week.

I’m “performing” a short story at the Herne Bay Festival. That is not the scary bit. I have done a few readings before and enjoyed the experience. But in the past I was mainly talking to an audience of arty writerly types: they knew what to expect from me; I knew what to expect from them.

It will all be very different in Herne Bay. I’m working with what is euphemistically called a “found audience”; I’m doing my stuff on the pavement, for however many passers-by I can persuade to listen. They might enjoy it. They might stand and jeer. There might be no audience at all.

My piece is called Egg-box Eyeballs. I describe it thus: “A man plans to bake the special cake that will make his girlfriend love him. At the supermarket, shopping for ingredients, he finds a new pair of eye balls in an egg box. He uses them to see everyone’s secrets, but sees more than he wants to.”

I’m working with a group of brilliant local writers as part of the Reauthoring Project. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come and check me out. I need all the support I can get. I’m doing my thing on Saturday August 27 at 12pm, 2pm and 3.30pm.

The photo above shows me at a workshop to devise my performance, pondering what on earth I’ve got myself into. (That’s a tennis ball at my feet. I found it kicking around on the floor and it became the creative spark that unlocked my performance idea)

And here’s me checking out the “venue”: a wooden shelter on the seafront at Herne Bay.

Reading with White Rabbit

An interesting new writerly experience for me last week. I was lucky enough to have one of my stories selected for a public reading by the lovely people at White Rabbit a while ago, and on Wednesday I went along to a pub in Ashford to see it performed.

I’ve read my own stories to an audience before, but I’ve never seen one of them read by someone else. Gareth Brierley did a brilliant job. It can’t have been easy for him; unlike most of the other stories featured in the evening, mine contained no humour at all and didn’t really tell a story.

It was more of an atmosphere piece, really. That’s not the kind of thing I usually write. In fact, if someone tells me a story of theirs is “more of an atmosphere piece, really”, I tend to interpret that as an admission of failure. But I won’t anymore!

Like I say, Gareth did a great job. And I had a good chat with him afterwards to get some tips on public reading. Video of the performance exists somewhere, I’m told, but I don’t have any yet.

Interestingly (for me, anyway) I wrote the first draft of the piece – “One of us is a ghost” – in the room where it was eventually performed, and then developed and edited it in the knowledge that, if it were accepted for performance, I wouldn’t be reading it out myself. That seemed to change my writing style in interesting (for me, at least) ways that merit some reflection. But not now.

Staying analogue

(This post started life as a comment added to someone else’s blog. Thought I might add it here, too)

I bought myself an iPad last week – or rather, it finally arrived last week – so that I had another way of writing when out and about.

I’ve since been reflecting on the “cool” new ways of working that this impressive piece of technology is urging me to adopt: electronic diaries for every area of my life, synched across all my devices; details of every project at my fingertips, wherever I happen to be; ways of generating ideas, planning stories and creating, all achieved without paper and pen.

The iPad certainly gives me more efficient ways of achieving work tasks, but I don’t think those digitised ways of working are necessarily any more effective – not for me, at least. And its ability to automate certain activities does seem to strip out a lot of simple, everyday creative thought and reflection.

If I write a to do list on paper, I have to think about it: how should I use my time, what are my real priorities, how do I balance my goals with the expectations of others? The act of writing the list is a moment for reflection. But if the computer generates the list for me, I just perform the tasks it offers.

The iPad has been a surprisingly good writing tool, but yesterday I went out and bought a new paper diary, some sticky labels, glue and coloured pens. Sometimes analogue is better.

Today’s favourite word: Cummerbund

I just updated my membership of 26, the brilliant community of creative business writers. As part of the process, I had to nominate my favourite word. I don’t really have one of those. Or if I do, it would probably take days of ruminations to decide what it might be. So, in a hurry, I opted for Cummerbund.

This was a surprising choice. I very rarely attend black tie events, and when I do, I always decline the opportunity of renting a cummerbund. I actively dislike them. And yet, I like the word. It has a pleasant sound; strong vowels; resonant consonants. Say it slowly, and there’s even a bit of an eastern mystical mantra going on – the Ummmm followed by the Unnnn. Pleasingly – and another surprise – this connects with the roots of the word.

Cummerbund, I discover, is from the Hindi word kamarband. “Kamar” means waist or loin; band is from “bandhah” – a fetter or something that ties.

This interests me. I’d have thought that a cummerbund, back in the 1600s, when the word was first recorded, had little practical purpose – it was just a clothing accessory. But that would be wrong. It’s original use, based on the etymology, was to strap a flabby stomach in place – which is mostly its purpose today, of course.

South Bank Poetry

Walking along the south bank of the Thames today, I came across a wonderful poetry installation. Called the Lion and the Unicorn, it’s part of the Festival of Britain anniversary celebrations. Hope the images from my Blackberry are legible.

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.

More LiveLit – This time, at the seaside

I made another small piece of “LiveLit” yesterday, inspired by last weekend’s workshop. This is based on a  story idea I had knocking around but, unlike my last effort, I was writing the words with the images in mind this time.

Only one of the images that I was thinking of actually made it into the finished piece, but it was interesting playing with them nonetheless. The original idea used a lot of covers from 1970s knitting patterns, I had great fun researching those.

I want to do more of these, taking inspiration from writer Sarah Salway, who regularly posts 50-word photo stories on her blog. I met her briefly at an exhibition she has contributed to at the Tubridge Wells museum – writing words suggested by an item from their archive, and turning them into something people can look at, touch and play around with, rather than just read or listen to. Very much in the LiveLit spirit! Well worth a visit. My kids loved it, too.

I’m thinking of 100-word film stories, rather than 50-word photos. The original draft of the “West of Aran” piece was 170 words or so; the final version about 90. Cutting it down was a useful discipline; if I wasn’t making the film I would have left it as it was. I prefer the short version.

Listening to it again, I can hear changes that I would make, parts that don’t work as well as they might. But in the spirit of LiveLit, here it is – make of it what you will!

“West of Aran” by the way, is the name of a buoy that captures meteorological information. It’s off away in the Irish sea, somewhere west of Aran.

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.”

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.