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.

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.

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.

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.

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.