Thursday, 24 December 2009

A little perspective please


You'd be forgiven for thinking that life is just a series of trials and tribulations, followed by an inevitable decline and death. And thanks so much for coming. It's not difficult to find reasons to be despondent - the weather, the recession, climate change, the list goes on.

But... let's not also forget that people out there are doing amazing things - every day, unsung and often unrecognised. People are planting trees, cutting their carbon footprints, helping their neighbours, supporting charities and generally doing their level best to make a positive difference. It doesn't make good media copy though, if you want to sell newspapers or capture viewer figures.

As a working cynic, for my writing, I plough through a lot of news - mostly bad - to find comedy gems and witty juxtapositions. It's like panning for gold in a river of misery. Sometimes, even I need a break. A glance through Positive News is like stepping into another world. It's similar to ours, only brighter. There are still environmental challenges and poverty aplenty but people are doing something about it. It always takes me a while to settle into the paper and rekindle that little beacon of hope but I'm always grateful to Positive News for reminding me that it's there.

We in the West are not that bad off. I know things are shit for a lot of people but if we saw the bigger picture around the world and realised that wanting something is not the same thing as having a right to it, we might find our individual loads a bit more bearable.

Today I was going in the newsagents to buy a lottery ticket and this bloke headed out muttering: "I give up - it's a MASSIVE queue in there." I decided to go in anyway and what did I find? What riotous chaos met my eyes? I'll tell you. It was indeed a queue of FOUR people.

All I'm saying people is let's get some perspective.


Monday, 21 December 2009

It pays to advertise... but what?

I've always been fascinated by advertising. So much so that, in 1983, I even put together my own 3 hour video collection of adverts.

Sadly, it didn't survive the dampness of the front room in our old house (mould 'r' us) but I still have fond memories of watching the video avidly, in chunks, while the rest of the family gave me a wide berth.

It's a bit of a dark art - what to show and what not to show. Much like writing. The golden rule, it seems to me, is that you only tell people what you want them to know. Or, to translate that into corporate speak: "Perception is everything and strategy is everything else."

Recently, a 'top ads of the decade' TV programme crowned a Hovis advert as the winner. Even a coeliac would have to admit that the ad was superbly crafted, depicting a scrap of a lad fetching the family loaf and running through 120 years of British history. Cutting through different streets, he encountered the First World War soldier boys, the Suffragettes, the burned out buildings of the Blitz, a VE party and the jubilation of a 1966 England word cup victory. So far so inspirational.

It doesn't detract from the ad any but I did proffer a wry smile when I learned that only between 25% and 50% of British wheat is used by the brand, with the remainder being imported from Canada. In the interest of balance, I should point out that Hovis is moving to 100% British grown wheat from 2010.

Returning to the writing theme, most of us are familiar with the joys of CV writing. What to include, what to omit and which keywords to employ, all conveying a combination of superhero, Swiss Army Knife and human dynamo. For writers, the focus has to be on the writing and what you want them to know.

My current CV covers articles, comedy and fiction. More recently, with some copy writing under my belt and some additional training, I realise that I need to be more client specific. A business may not find my achievements in comedy encouraging if they are looking for new training material or in-house literature. In short, a writer, just like any other business, has to respond to the needs of the marketplace and to meet those needs.

Artists have patrons - or malnutrition; writers, with few exceptions, have a business to run.


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Persistence wins out!

As I've probably mentioned before, there are few openings for freelance comedy writing.

You can craft your sitcom script or sketch show to your heart's content but without an 'in', it will languish on a slush pile or even - as was the case for me - sit with a bonafide TV producer for 9 months - then get returned without any comment at all (Beyond: 'I'm very busy.').

Consequently, any radio shows offering openings to non-coms (non-commissioned writers) are treated like the first day of the sales - it's all hands to the stampede. So, for the last 11 weeks, I and doubtless several dozen other writers, have been merrily and optimistically submitting topical gags and sketches to BBC Radio Scotland's Watson's Wind Up. It's a funny show, focused predominantly on Scottish news and comment.

On the last 'open' show I finally heard my material and experienced the short-lived but singular joy of hearing my name mentioned in the credits. The producer was also kind enough to drop me a couple of encouraging emails. The payment when it comes won't make me rich but it's good practice signing a contract and it's another twangy string for my bow. As it's been 3 years now since I had material used by Channel 4 Radio, I'm hoping it's a positive sign for the coming year.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it's a named person in broadcasting to send a CV out to. Because you can never have too many of those.


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Shakespeare it ain't

People write for many reasons - burning ambition, money, fame, a stop-and-stare mindboggling idea that won't go away or even the misguided notion that the actual act of writing will somehow transform one's life.

For the jobbing writer (I believe 'portfolio writer' is the latest buzz term), half the battle is often what to do with something once it's been written. That, and getting your work accepted. Small wonder that self-publishing has a niche in the marketplace, whether for sale or for personal satisfaction.

This month I completed a demo CD of some comedy material that doesn't really fit any of the avenues I supply or pitch to. So, rather than let the material languish in a drawer, I've recorded it in all its nasally glory. Audacity is free-to-use recording software and take it from me, it's pretty much idiot-proof. Once saved, the files can be exported as wav or mp3 files so you won't need Audacity to play them back.

It's surprisingly liberating to be someone else, recording darker and smuttier material than I'd usually put my name to. Even the topical material that goes to The Treason Show and to The News Revue is only associated with me in the running order following the show.

Here's my running order, followed by a sales pitch!

1. Jedi
2. Numbers
3. First dates
4. Polar bear
5. Eco Worrier
6. Charity cards
7. Emails
8. Condoms & porn
9. Breaking up
10. Comedy virgin
11. English language
12. Crap drinker
13. Snippets
14. Radical views
15. British wildlife
16. Bird watching
17. God and fatherhood
18. Ambition

The sound levels vary and the content is likely to offend. But if you want around 40 minutes of entertainment and you have £5 to spend, drop me a line. Wolf has a copy so he's welcome to post a review of any flavour.


Saturday, 5 December 2009

Who's in charge here?

There comes a point when you're writing a novel, if you're lucky, when the characters start to wander off in different directions. Different, that is, from the paths you've carefully laid out for them using your Plotter-matic 5000 (or A4 pages taped together). This has happened to me in three books now and always at a stage where the characters are sufficiently well established to know their own minds.

I well recall attending a writing class; back in my youth when I had hair, optimism and aspirations (they all left on the same bus). One opinionated soul there declared with certainty that characters are only projections of the author and any notion of a book writing itself was just absurd. Maybe that's true for him but me and my characters laugh at him now, together.

So, is it a good sign? The characters becoming independent, not the laughter. Well, it adds another dimension and creates choices, leading to unexpected consequences that can impact the plot hugely.

In Covenant, my magical fantasy, two characters almost have sex and this leads to a revelation that became one of the core subplots. Whatever it did for the reader, this scene told me something I didn't know but needed to.

In Standpoint, a twisty turny thriller, my lead character Thomas Bladen told me about a past I didn't know he had - certainly not one I'd ever written for him. Later on, he spoke to other characters in situations I hadn't imagined and wrote the ending for himself. He also told me from the off that he was from North Yorkshire (I'd never been) and about his father. It was like meeting a new friend.

In Line of Sight, the sequel thriller still in the first draft, I'm 87,000 words in and one character has told me she's related to someone else. I was flummoxed and thought about ignoring her at first but it makes sense. Even if it does mean some rewriting to accommodate and resolve the plot line.

The point to this, I think, is that when we set up plausible, well-rounded characters, their choices and behaviour become independent of our well-orchestrated scheme of a book. It's often a revelation for the author which means there's a good chance it will delight or confound the reader too; and that can only be a good thing.

However, arguing with a lead character while driving, when he tells you where the book will end and how many weapons he needs, is I suspect something of a rarity. Still when he told me that he wanted a helicopter - and where to get it - to finish the book, he clearly understood it better than I had.


Friday, 20 November 2009

Rebel without a pause


The first time I walked past the billboard, I could see its potential. It stood there, bold as brass and as proud as a full ashtray, sharing its jocular message with the world. I wasn’t laughing though but I soon thought of a way to change that.

I’d have to move quickly, because advertising posters seemed to have short life spans. (I know, darkly ironic for tobacco advertising.) And I’d need to plan carefully. I was as subtle as a kick up the arse, in a lift holding just two people. The billboard was at the end of our road so I nipped down there with a ruler and measured the height of the lettering. Then I dug around in the plastic box under the stairs – the one with all the tools that I can’t use properly – and found the masking tape.

The idea was both simple and largely pointless. I wanted to tape over the original tagline, mask up my own then take a photograph. After that, I’d remove my work and nip back home for a celebratory cup of peppermint tea, like a good little liberal activist.

I spent an evening wasting a felt-tipped pen to colour in the letters, got everything ready and prepared myself for the assault. Next morning, somewhere between 05.30 and 06.30, I tiptoed into the street, a scroll under one arm and a camera in my other hand. I remember there was a breeze in the air but that wasn’t why I was shivering.

Two cars drove past, which I hadn’t expected, so I leaned casually against the wall, staring off into the distance. No one stopped; no one cared. Then it was just me, standing there, blood pulsing in my brain.

The lettering stuck where it was supposed to – that was the easy part. Now I had to stand in the road and take a reasonable picture without attracting the attention of passing vehicles. There were a couple of false starts, and an unexpected commuter who seemed to appear out of nowhere, gazing at me intently as I pretended to cross over and search my pockets. I must have looked like a very amateurish car thief.

Then a moment of stillness descended and I finished the job, hurriedly removing the evidence afterwards and slinking away back up my street. I was jubilant, like a kid completing a dare, just for the hell of it.

Later, I walked into work as usual, past the poster which was none the worse for my shenanigans. And as I looked up at it, I smiled. Not quite adbusters material but a very British effort.


Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Someone else's space

I quit Myspace today.

It was like one of those relationships that had never worked from the start but you tell yourself that it's better than nothing. Initially, you're flattered by the attention, by all the possibilities and new personalities. Then, after the 25th band you've never heard of - but who are a friend of a friend of a friend you've never met - get in touch, you start to wonder: 'Is this really for me?'

At first you figure that, if you keep on trying, you'll find a way to make it work. You get caught up with how time and effort you've put into it and how you don't want the other people to feel ignored. Or else you try and collect as many people as possible, treating superficial contacts the same way that Blue Peter used to treat milk bottle tops.

My intention was to meet and collaborate with other writers, and also performers who wanted to work with writers. I have to say that I 'met' some really nice people, for a time. But the truth is that the doers out there tended not to have time to report back on Myspace. It works for bands, I think, because you can add tracks and people can listen to them on your page. Not so for scripts, unless you record them, and I'm not sure the world is ready yet for my nasally tones.*

I was sorry to leave because it was a recognition that my experiment had largely failed. But that's okay. I console myself with the knowledge that I hadn't unduly pimped my profile nor spent excessive time shouting out to my community daily - all 24 of them.

I did learn a few things though; I call it my Beginner's Guide to Myspace and it's a handful of useful definitions:
1. Friend - A person who wants to sell you something, even an idea.
2. Site - an often garish attempt at creativity that proves the opposite.
3. Community - a whole bunch of people all simultaneously trying to sell one another stuff.
4. Comments - a facility to use other people's sites to try and sell your own stuff.
5. Kudos - an arbitrary pat on the back to encourage others to do the same with you, thus undermining and devaluing the whole kudos economy.

And who knows, maybe some of the gang will pop across and read my blog!

* This may have to change, because I'm working on a demo comedy CD of my own material.


Saturday, 14 November 2009

The girl and the dance

So much of what we respond to, and how we define the quality of our experience, is entirely subjective. The same incident can be perceived in entirely different ways, by different people, based purely on their own internal landscape.

I recall a friend telling me, years ago, of two women discussing their childhoods and the effects on them as adults. The first woman said that her parents showed no interest in her upbringing and gave her no guidance or boundaries. As a consequence, she was now a woman who felt there was something fundamentally missing in her psyche, leaving her incomplete. The second woman talked of how her parents had encouraged her to be independent by letting her make choices for herself and never passing judgement on the consequences of those choices. Now, as an adult, she looked fondly on her childhood as the basis for her strong will, spirit of adventure and independence. The two women were twins.

But back to the title of the piece. Picture a boy, contemplating the high school dance and a girl that he wants to take along. Fix them in your mind – got them?

Now, imagine if you will, the following scenarios:
1. He’s too shy to ask her to the dance.
2. He’s asks her to the dance and she says no.
3. He asks her to the dance and she later changes her mind and doesn’t go.
4. He asks her to the dance and she says yes but something unanticipated stops her going. (You can be creative here – localised hurricane in her back garden / swine flu in the house, whatever.)
5. He asks her to the dance and she says yes but when they get there the dance is cancelled. (More hurricanes or swine flu, anyone?)

Now, his objective – or desire for the emotionally literate among you – was to take the girl to the dance. In each case, his ambitions are thwarted but his experience of each scenario is tempered by his perception.

All of which suggests that, most of the time, we’re only responding to internal values. And so is everyone else. So next time you’re told the train will be delayed but some other smug sod is standing there smiling, you’ll know why!


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Armistice


I don't know of anyone who doesn't observe the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. Whatever our views of the business of war, military engagements overseas or the economics of investment in defence, we pause and reflect on the fallen. The last survivors of WW1 have passed on now, but those affected by that conflict - and all those that have followed - are still with us.

A year or so ago, Anne and I (she's the brains of the relationship) took a short trip to Bruges, in Belgium. It's a marvellous medieval city which was spared the devastation of WW2 bombing; a gem of a place where development has been kept to a minimum.

While out there, we visited Ypres in a daytrip, including Tyne Cot Cemetery, Hill 62 and Ypres itself. All most of us know about WW1 is poppies, a few old songs that make little sense and the fourth series of Blackadder. 54 nations were involved in the 'Great War', many regiments from fledgling countries keen to demonstrate their new national identity. A global generation slaughtered or scarred, and in the whole bloody process, the foundations laid for the Second World War. At all those places we saw, people paused and reflected there too.

It's easy to get caught up in our modern lives with rising mortgages, shit jobs and unfulfilled childhoods / adolescences / adulthoods. But here's my cure. Take a trip to Tyne Cot Cemetery and gaze in wide-eyed despair at row upon row of identical headstones, reflecting the bright sun like bleached bones in a field. And look at the columns of names that fill the walls: like the graffiti of the lost. I promise you, it brings a different sense of perspective. No answers, just an opportunity to pause and reflect.

It would be a fitting tribute indeed if Armistice Day became a focus for peace. But until that day, the very least we can do is make more time to pause and reflect.

And while we're strolling in shades of grey ambiguity, have a read of this famous poem by Rudyard Kipling. It's as relevant today as it's ever been:
http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_tommy.htm
You can also find a great version of it on Youtube, read by the actor Nigel Planer.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Knowing when to quit


As a writer, searching the Net for work is a hit and miss affair, a little like searching for a piece of hay in a needle factory. In my experience, much of the freelance writer jobs are from the USA and usually stay there. But, with a refined search, you can often find little gems.

One such nugget was the writing team of the iLarious phone app, which delivers topical news gags direct to the user. As a compulsive gag writer myself, this seemed like a match match in cyber-heaven. Even better, when submitted material is used, the writers are paid proportionately, based on the number of subscribed users to the app.

I was thrilled to be offered a contract and signed my John Hancock (signature to you) before you could shout comedy connections. The writing team is headed up by Fred Graver, a seasoned US writer whose track record reads like a who's who of comedy.

So far so good, but you know me too well dear reader. 'Where is the custard pie?' I hear you shout from your seats. Rest easy, it's coming. The gags, naturally enough, are based largely on American news. No problem there because I've written material for an American stand-up before and I'm an international kinda guy.

However, after 38 gags submitted (plus 14 samples) and no material used, it was time to face the music, because the lady of ample proportions was already launching into an aria. As everybody knows, there is a huge difference between British humour / sensibilities and that of our American cousins. I knew that but I thought I could write my way around it. On this occasion, I was wrong.

So, rather than bang my head against a cultural wall, I've drawn a line and asked for my profile to be deleted on their site. If there's a lesson here, it's that sometimes things just don't work out however amenable and positive people are. Fred's been great and I think the idea is a brilliant one. And if anyone is thinking of starting something similar here in the UK, drop me a line. I can definitely do British humour, honest! Below were some of my submissions...

Pop star and professional child-catcher Madonna has visited a school in Malawi. A spokesman denies rumours that she was carrying a colour swatch so she could collect the set.

The 18 year-old amnesiac found in Times Square NY has been identified. Someone had to break it to her that we’re still in a recession.

McDonalds is shutting its business in Iceland because of the global credit crisis.
Health officials are drawing up plans for emergency feeding stations, for the Icelandic obese.

Madonna has visited Malawi for the construction of a new school for girls. She cut a ribbon and planted a tree, before declaring the drive-thru officially open.

A British drug dealer has finally been charged after refusing to go to the toilet for 16 days, to avoid producing ‘evidence’. A spokesman said: “The situation was creating a real stink for the prosecution team and a backlog in the cells.”

The owners of the world’s oldest dog, 20 year-old Otto in Britain, have put his longevity down to Sunday dinners and vegetables. And having a big enough straw to suck them up.

The Walt Disney Company is offering a full refund for anyone who bought Baby Einstein DVDs but failed to end up with a genius child. George Bush senior is said to be reading the small print.

Two Washington teenagers have been barred from their school, after they used turf to draw a swastika and spell out racist messages, in a car park. They’ve been set community service and ordered to attend the Holocaust Museum. Hopefully the courts won’t combine the two and assign them to garden duty.

Elizabeth Taylor has declared the Michael Jackson film ‘This Is It’ the greatest documentary ever. Mind you, she thought ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’ was a documentary about Animal Welfare.

Japanese officials have high hopes that president Obama will visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The idea has given local communities a warm glow. That and decaying Uranium 235.

Hillary Clinton has criticised Pakistan for its failure to capture extremists. She said it was hard to believe nobody in the Pakistani government knew where they were. In an unusual role reversal, Bill Clinton is staying tight-lipped.

After an historic deal, the US military will get access to seven Colombian bases. A spokesman said it was an opportunity not to be sniffed at.

America is now officially out of recession. Next up: genuine evidence of the lunar landing.

Christians in Kentucky are up in arms over plans to rename the Frankfort Christmas Tree as a 'Holiday Tree' to be more inclusive. Unusually, that's a bitter sting for KY Christians.

An Iraqi immigrant in Arizona has been charged after running his daughter over for being too westernised. He was unrepentant and said if she hadn't been wearing high heels she'd have made it to the sidewalk.

The White House says that federal stimulus has resulted in 650,000 jobs. And most of those jobs are in the 'print more money' industry.

Dr Martin Luther King's daughter has been elected president of the civil rights group he helped to found. Critics have called it a shining example of affirmative action and nepotism.

President Obama is lifting the ban on HIV sufferers entering the country. He said not only was it time to end the stigma, but there were a whole lot of quality pink goods available on special.

Halloween has been politically corrected. 'Trick or Treat' will now be known as 'Developmental Non-Confrontational Challenge or Appropriately Nutritious Reward'. Not only will it be better for kids but only the literate ones will be able to cope with it.

Hillary Clinton insists that Washington remains firmly against Israeli developments in the West Bank. She said the US stance has firm foundations, much like the lovely new homes in the West Bank.

The city of Vallejo, California is voting on whether to tax text messaging, in a bid to raise funds. If it's approved, there will be a further monthly text poll.

Aghanistan's president Karzai is celebrating after winning an election where he was the only candidate, after the opposition withdrew. Yeah, it's a victory for democracy, in the same way that sending yourself a Valentine's Card shows how attractive you are.

Two Tower of London Beefeaters have been suspended after allegations of harassing the only female beefeater. Moira Cameron from Argyll said “I’m not usually one to complain but I won't be squeezed between two buns for anybody.”

The Czech Republic's constitutional court has endorsed the EU reform treaty, despite President Vaclav Klaus's Euro-skepticism. One critic descirbed it as giving burglars the keys to your house so they don't scratch the paintwork.


Thursday, 15 October 2009

My way...

For anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript then the day finally comes when the package returns. (With apologies to Frank Sinatra.)

And now, the post is here;
And so I face the mail uncertain.
That jiffy bag is mine,
I want to hide behind the curtain.

I sent a full typescript,
I edited, not in a shy way.
And still, I have to say,
I write it my way.

Rejects, I’ve had a few,
But then again, which writer hasn’t?
I did what I had to do,
And ploughed on through, it wasn’t pleasant

I planned each chapter well;
My characters along the byway.
But still, I have to say,
I write it my way.

Yes, there are some, I’m sure it’s true.
They got their book deals, from who they knew.
A relative who’s in the trade,
One dinner guest and they are made.
But that’s not me, and so you see,
I write it my way.

I’ve tried, I’ve done rewrites;
I’ve started new and different projects.
My bottom drawer is full,
Attempted all different subjects.

To think I wrote all that;
And may I say - not in a sly way,
No, oh no not me,
I write it my way.

For what is a scribe, what have they got?
If not their dreams, genre and plot?
Create the words they love so well.
Or sometimes crap, in case it sells.
I read the note, lump in my throat,
I write it my way.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Lost Contract

(From the late, lamented Writing Centre website.)

To any would-be novelist, the sight of a book – your book – on the shelf is surely the Holy Grail of writing. And, like any true grail quest, the path is fraught with challenges, monsters and dead-ends. Here are two of my tales.

My novel Covenant is an unusual beast, a genre crossover that I’ve called Magical Fantasy Fiction. It draws on the Western Qabalah, ritual and reincarnation; not your general sword and sorcery epic.

So you can imagine my delight, after years in the wilderness, when a British publication company expressed an interest from my initial approach. After friendly emails they invited me to submit the complete manuscript – a first for me. Better than that, they telephoned me at home and quizzed me for half an hour about the structure and meanings within my work. It was going so well that I felt sure the 12 weeks evaluation period would fly by.

Then, like buses, another opportunity came along – a delayed response from an American e-publisher I had all but given up on. They asked to see the whole book too. Lightning had struck twice and I wasn’t in wellies. Positive feedback ensued and, when I’d been advised I was under consideration, I asked for and received a sample contract.

Meantime, in the British camp, my 12 weeks passed without a response. I left a polite telephone message and waited. No response. A week went by. I sent a polite email and ticked off the days. Silence. I then sent a recorded letter indicating that I’d had a favourable interest from another publisher and wondered if, now at week 15, they’d come to any decision. At the very least I’d appreciate an update. All I got back was a sense of disquiet. Keen to draw a line under the experience I emailed them and, reminding them that I’d heard nothing in over 15 weeks and had received no response to any of my communications, I asked for my MS back. An email informed me it was with their editorial office and would be returned to me forthwith – this email made it to my inbox in under 24-hours, incidentally. I never got a clear explanation and even with the assistance of the Society of Authors, I could not penetrate the castle.

But hey, there’s still Plan B, right? While waiting for the British publisher to get off the pot, I’d sent the sample US contract to the Society of Authors (I’d recently become a member). A wise investment. So, when the hallowed contract offer did come in, I already had amendments and clause deletions ready to discuss. The editor explained that she was also an author with the firm and she’d made changes to her contract, through the company lawyer, without incident. So, picture the scene; I’m looking at a 3 year e-book deal, for my original 160,000 MS split into two books, with hardcopy publication to follow. My first full vision of the grail!

I emailed the editor back and ask for the lawyer’s email address. No response. A day or so later I email again, explaining that I can’t find the lawyer’s details on the website and asking if she’ll simply refer on my comments and changes. Still no response. Now I’m starting to get a little paranoid. A day or so later I email for a third time, asking if I need to airmail my changes over. It’s as quiet as a foam covered pin factory.

A couple of days on, I receive an email from the executive editor, apologising for contacting me this way and for the news that follows. My editor had died unexpectedly from a heart attack a few days before. Dreadful news from all angles. I’m sure you’re ahead of me now. As my contract wasn’t signed and as the only person in the company to see and approve my work is now deceased, I have no contractual relationship with the company. Regrettably I now need to resubmit my novel so that two new editors can evaluate it and made a decision. Oh yeah, and it will probably take several weeks. Fortunately it’s submission by email so that’s quickly taken care of. I tell myself that it’s a minor setback and prepare to bed in for a month or three. My luck starts to change. I get a response in less than three weeks. But my new luck quickly runs out. The two new editors do not enjoy Covenant at all (they’re forced by the executive editor to write an explanation), consequently the contract offer is now null and void. Almost unbelievably I’m invited to submit something new in the future and the exec apologises once more, assuring me it’s not the quality experience they aim to give writers.

And so, like Bors and Percival, I do not attain the grail; I just get enough of a sniff to be able to go home and talk about it. Perhaps it’s all for the best, under the circumstances. In the first case, I did some research on the British firm and I couldn’t find a single book that they’ve published under their own imprint. And in the second case, with the American e-publisher, having seven years to work with editors who don’t appreciate my work doesn’t not sound like a match made in heaven. It may have taken seven years of rewrites to get an acceptable MS together.

So I end my grail quest empty handed; older, wiser and frankly rather jaded. I’m sure not all publishers are charlatans, bullshitters and fantasists. I have to believe that as I set off in search of new publisher. In case you’re wondering, I did research the US company and yes, my editor was real and, tragically, she did die. And, if I’m being really honest, a little bit of me died with her.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

And what do you do?

Newspaper and magazine questionnaires are always popular (as distinct from surveys, which aren't). If there's one thing we like to know about, it's ourselves.

Writers, whether they are aspiring or published, tend to define themselves by their output. It's useful from the writer's perspective because it reinforces the way we see ourselves – a little like a brand – and it cuts to the chase. But at best it's a limitation and at worst a lie.

For example, many writers don't know or accept that they are novelists until they've completed their first novel. For some strange reason, we associate definition with achievement.

On a recent Arvon Foundation comedy writing course, 16 of us were thrown together and given singleton and collaborative exercises. Playwrights, poets, songwriters, novelists and stand-up writers all pitched in, drawing on their existing experience to create something new. If we’d stayed resolutely within our existing borders, we would have all missed out. As the saying goes: ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’

Even the title of novelist raises as many questions as it answers. Which genre of novel? What age group and market? And the dreaded ‘So, do you have an agent / publisher then?’ Any writers reading this will already have inserted an appropriately sneery / competitive / eager / dismissive tone to that particular line of inquiry.

I can remember showing my fantasy novel Covenant to a friend of mine, in one of its many incarnations. He later told me that he thought the idea of me writing a novel was a little like a clown trying to write Shakespeare, and that I’d be better sticking to what I was best at. Leaving aside the fact that he never actually read the novel - he merely discussed it with someone else who had – what was his logic? To quote myself (hey, it’s my blog): ‘If you always play to your strengths, they’re the only ones you’ll ever have.’

My writing CV states that I write articles, comedy and fiction. Although arguably, anyone who’s ever written a CV has written some fiction.

In practice that means: articles for one newspaper, some magazines and the web; slogans and captions; topical and situational gags, sketches, monologues and parody songs; a clutch of humorous Little Books; As Above So Below magazine; a fantasy novel; a thriller and a half (that’s not boasting – I’m halfway through the sequel); a couple of children’s books; and around a dozen short stories, of various lengths. I should add that not all of that work is published or performed but quite a bit of it is, and the rest I’m working on.

My point is that fish swim, trees photosynthesise and writers write. When we limit ourselves by definition or genre, we are closing ourselves off from new possibilities. However… it’s important for us to know what kind of writers we are. That is, I think, quite distinct from the types of writing that we do. In my case, I am not a literary writer. I have friends who are poetic and lyrical in their prose; I am not one of them and I’m comfortable with that. And I know because I’ve tried it and it reads false on the page.

Unless we know - and can come to terms with - the kind of writers we are, we don’t have a foundation to work from. But once we fully inhabit our own skins, warts and all, we can create our own personal blend of imagination, insight and magic.


Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A touch of class

I’m not sure exactly when it happened but somehow I’ve become middle class. At least, I think I have – it’s hard to tell these days.

I grew up in East London in a terraced house that had a toilet tacked on to the end of it. My parents were a milkman and a home help. I went to a local secondary school, left with few O levels and stayed on for a few weeks to study A levels. That is, until I got offered a job and needed to ‘pay my way’ at home.

I suppose the slide started when I was 22. After stints at a chemical manufacturers, as a milkman and then in the civil service (they really did take on anyone), I went to America for a year. It was only meant to be an 8 week trip, as far as my boss was concerned, but a car accident at week 6 gave me the opportunity I'd been looking for.

True, I’d held pretensions of writing a novel since I was 17, like many other disaffected adolescents. However, by the time I got back from New York, I had a rough draft of a very rough novel. And that’s not false modesty; I still have the original handwritten and typed versions.

Fast forward a lot of years and I’m a manager in a Telco, where I started out as a clerical officer. I’m living in Cornwall and posting this now as a distraction from the ongoing edit of a different novel. And that original manuscript? Well, it's much improved over the years, I hope. And a contract has been signed with a 2009 publication date looming. [You can read about it elsewhere in this blog.]

Now, my brother maintained that I had become middle class on the following charges:
1. Purchasing an Aga - guilty, using my partner’s redundancy payout.
2. Possessing a golden retriever - guilty, it was a second-hand one.
3. Driving a brand new car - guilty, but he paid for it after the family house was sold.
4. Reading the Guardian - guilty, once a week, on a Saturday.

I could ask to be taken into consideration: writing that second novel (available to all good literary agents and publishers, gag & sketch writing as a hobby and co-writing The Little Book of Cynics (plug, plug).

Evidence to the contrary is more circumstantial but I’d probably chalk up on the list:
1. Pro union and worker’s rights (I may not be a shop steward anymore but I still know the difference between socialism and socialising).
2. A lifelong and heartfelt love of swearing (thanks mum!) and not in any ironic way.
3. One business suit to my name. (And when it wears out, I’ll get another one, in the sales)
4. I eat in front of the TV. And not through a lack of furniture.
5. My idea of a good meal out is going down one of the local pubs.

I think, on balance, I’ve a foot in each camp. Whatever I am now, the roots of my upbringing run deep and rightly so. If a taxi driver can win Mastermind and a bus driver can be a successful novelist then surely I can knock up a story or two.