creative writing

Monologues in Minutes

You know I love a writing challenge, so it was inevitable that I’d put my name in the hat for RapidReel. They’ve been having challenges throughout lockdown, where a bunch of writers are given a prompt at 9am, they have until noon to send back a 1-2 minute monologue script with a character note to aid casting, and then suitable actors have 4 hours to read, rehearse, film and upload the finished thing.

On Friday evening when I got the email to check I was available to take part on Saturday, I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up, so it had an element of pleasant surprise about it and I was sat at the computer by five to nine on Saturday morning, keyed up and ready to go. We got a photo prompt, someone walking up a sloping tunnel towards what looked to me like sunshine. I drank Earl Grey and brainstormed with a biro. Words it made me think of. At the back of my mind, but not written down, was a thought about Time Team. Five minutes later I started writing about Time Team.

Time Team, for those not British, old or nerdy enough to know, was a long-running programme where a group of archaeologists had 3 days to dig some interesting site and see what they could learn. I loved it, I watch old episodes whenever I get the opportunity, and their dig at Piercebridge already inspired my story Ghost Bridge which is in the first Crossing the Tees anthology. But I digress…

By 9.50 I’d written a monologue from the point of view of a farmer’s son in his 20s that was safely within the time limit, prompted by the picture, and was light-hearted. Working title: Inspired by Time Team. Time to run it past OneMonkey.

“So what do you think?”

“You’ve done your usual trick with the ending.”

“What do you mean, usual trick?”

“With the last two lines you’ve hinted at the start of a whole new story which has the potential to be way more interesting than the one you’ve just told.”

“Oh.”

Back to the scribbling board.

OneMonkey brought me a huge mug of black coffee and I wrote a different ending to Inspired by Time Team, but before I had the chance to read it to him I’d been seized by another burst of inspiration. Half past ten saw me finish a monologue from the point of view of a woman in her 50s. Working title: Redundant. Still plenty of time to polish it up, but I wanted to read it to OneMonkey first.

“You’ve done that thing with the ending again.”

Drat! I wrote a second ending to Redundant, read it to OneMonkey knowing he’d been right, knowing this one was better, waiting for the nod of approval from my trusted first-reader.

“The ending works now. But…”

“It’s nearly the same character as Custard Cream isn’t it?”

For those who haven’t seen it yet, I Could Murder a Custard Cream is a darkly comic monologue I wrote, which was made into a film for Slackline Cyberstories last month (you can read about it here).

“What happened to the rewrite of Inspired by Time Team?”

So I read him that and he liked it, and so did I. It wouldn’t make me look quite so much like I could only write monologues for middle-aged women. And it was light-hearted. We could all do with a bit more light-hearted these days. It was well after eleven but there was still plenty of time to edit it to my final satisfaction, come up with a proper title, check all the formatting and file-naming guidelines again, edit it some more, and send it in. Plenty of time.

I came so close to calling it Farmer Jones and the Field Drain of Doom. I opted for A Ferret Too Far – this may have been partly influenced by writing a radio play involving a wereferret on Thursday. But that, as they say, is a whole other story.

I faffed with commas, I wrote a quick character note. I changed one mild swear word for another. I re-read all the guidelines. I pressed send at 11.56 and sank back, drained, half-expecting to be told I’d named my file with the wrong date or some such glaring violation. But no, all was well.

So if you’d like a minute and forty-five seconds of light relief in the form of a young man called Alan doing a lovely job on A Ferret Too Far (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you can watch it here:

 

Prescient at the time, outdated now

I’ve been tidying up my work in progress folder over the last few days, part genuine attempt to feel less overwhelmed when I switch on the computer and see such a massive list of incomplete work, part procrastination technique at a time of wavering focus. For whatever reason, they’re mostly speculative fiction of some flavour or another. Probably because with SFF I’m striving for perfection and never finding it, comparing every story to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett or PKD and feeling dissatisfied, endlessly seeking the optimum ending.

Some stories I have no recollection of writing, and I read the pages I have got (3,000 words, in some cases!) with great enjoyment, getting caught up in the plot, feeling for the characters, and then… What? What happens next? I need to know! But if I knew, I’d have written it down 8 years ago. Those ones stay, somewhat optimistically, in the work in progress area, a promise to myself that one day, one day I will know and I will write it down.

Others are from writing exercises and aren’t going anywhere. They maybe have some good descriptions but I’m just riffing on a half-baked idea and there’s nothing much to salvage. They go in the folder labelled Abandoned so I can strip them down for parts later. I rarely do, but there’s always the possibility that gold is buried in those paragraphs of dross.

The ones that I’m finding the most interesting and frustrating are the ones that would have looked like I had insight, if I’d actually finished them. Like the one where I had Boris Johnson as PM (I wrote a note on that one in June 2016: “with Boris looking likely to replace the recently-resigned Cameron this no longer seems as amusing as it did a few months ago” – of course, it was actually 3 years later that he finally got there), or Hillary Clinton pointing out (in 2008) that if she’d been elected as president this situation would have been handled so much better. There’s the one I wrote when civil partnerships were a new thing, featuring the first gay cabinet minister to get married (in a church!) while in office, the incredibly futuristic one where everyone wears wristbands that they wave at the barriers to pay credits for their city journey – I’ve seen my friend do that with her Apple watch on the underground when I visited her in London 2 years ago! There are numerous instances of people using things that are suspiciously like ipads (usually called entscreens) as well as scientific and technological developments where capabilities and attitudes have come a long way in 15 years.

I’m not sure what to take away from this rummage through my old writing. If you haven’t touched a story in 17 years you can probably delete it? Some developments are inevitable? Or maybe I’ve learnt that if I can just figure out how to find the optimum ending for those lingering stories, I could be a pretty decent SFF writer.

Did I mention they filmed my monologue?

I announced with great delight recently that Slackline Productions had chosen my monologue, I Could Murder a Custard Cream, to be filmed for their Slackline Cyberstories. It is now available on YouTube starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth, and it’s been done so well I grinned incessantly for the full 9 minutes and 51 seconds.

It’s a dark comedy set in a village in the Yorkshire Dales, and revolves around the magnificence of the humble custard cream (that’s a popular biscuit, for those not from round these parts). Susannah was glintingly wicked as the nameless biscuit-lover.

She was also kind enough to say that this was one of her favourite monologues,

and Lee Stuart Evans, author of the novel Words Best Sung (which I reviewed a while ago) said it was brilliant.

 

Lee’s a genuine TV and radio comedy writer by day so I’m choosing to believe that he knows what he’s talking about! As does my dad of course, who declared it ‘most amusing’.

If these endorsements have made you think that this film might be worth ten minutes of your life, I urge you to go and watch now at https://youtu.be/J4BR3odiNQI

While you’re there, I’m sure you can spare a few more minutes for the other Cyberstories too, they’re good. You can quote me on that if you like.

Very specific commissions

Five Dials are holding another of their Very Specific Commission flash fiction competitions (deadline 5th May 2020), and as the name suggests they are prescriptive about setting, main character, and a line of dialogue to be included, which forces you to be extra-inventive I think. This time it’s about an infectious disease expert, but I took part a few years ago when it was about a climate scientist, and it was great fun. They even quoted part of my story in Five Dials issue 42.

The criteria for the one I entered was as follows:

about a scientist who smuggles out crucial climate change facts under the iron fist of a censorial government.

Scientist’s name must be Rowena.

Story must contain the line of dialogue: ‘Some things you just don’t see coming.’

Here’s what I wrote in response, it might spur some of you on to respond to the latest one…

Recipe for Rebellion

by JY Saville

Rowena tensed at a noise from the corridor. She swallowed, fanned her face with the minutes of the environmental science regulatory committee and willed the printer to work faster.

Five minutes later she was on her way out with a freshly-printed recipe for pea soup folded in her bag. Government employees weren’t supposed to print personal items at work, but that was the least of her problems. If anyone tried making the soup they’d find it inedible.

“Mark?”

She knocked on the locked door of the bookshop. Like the library, it was closed until the government had decided what citizens could safely read.

“You shouldn’t come to the front door,” Mark said as he opened it.

“I’m visiting a friend, I don’t want it to look like I’m sneaking.”

Mark held his hand out and Rowena passed him the print-out.

“Pea soup?”

“It’s humidity data,” she said. “It made me think of fog, pea-soupers.”

He tucked it inside a second-hand comic novel in a cardboard box, Rowena assumed it was the latest order from one of a network of climate scientists overseas. The government had banned publication of climate change data, officially dismissing it as nonsense but in reality knowing they had the only access to a crucial piece of the jigsaw. There were many government officials with links to companies that would benefit from being ahead of the game. They thought withholding the data would only damage their foreign rivals, not their own chances of survival.

“I should have got out before the travel ban,” she said.

“Some things you just don’t see coming.”

The door crashed open and two men pointed guns at them.

“Police!” one barked. “What are all these books doing here?”

“This used to be a bookshop,” said Mark. “It’s old stock, strictly for export.”

The government had no objections to corrupting other countries’ citizens.

“Liar, she’s here to read.”

Rowena moved closer to Mark and put her hand on his arm.

“I’m just here for sex, honestly.”

To her surprise, Mark fished a condom from his jeans pocket and held it up as proof. She looked at him and he shrugged.

The policemen looked uncertainly at each other, made a show of checking a few box-labels, and left.

Shakily, Rowena sat on a table.

“Could you fit me in one of your book shipments?” she said. “I can’t do this any more.”

Somebody’s filming my words

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Remember how I was stuck for a monologue? Well I wrote one, featuring custard creams, and Slackline Productions are making it week 5 of their fabulous Slackline Cyberstories, next week! They haven’t announced yet who will be acting it but I’m so looking forward to seeing what they make of it. This will be a new experience, seeing someone else interpreting my words. Thrilling, but maybe also a bit nail-bitey.

You can watch weeks 1-4 at their YouTube channel, and if you’re in the mood for monologues in lockdown, you can also try Coronavirus Theatre Club and Buglight.

I’ve been adding a few old recordings, mainly stories I’ve read on the radio, to Chirbit so you can now hear Viv’s 64th (a popular one from The Little Book of Northern Women, which started life as an Alan Bennett style monologue for my mum’s 64th birthday), Guilt By Association (part of National Flash Fiction Day Flash Flood 2015), Can’t Stop the Rock (comic fantasy about reanimating dead rock stars) and The Library of Forgotten Dreams (a short piece of whimsy I wrote for an Ilkley Writers programme on Chapel FM in 2017). There were already a few recordings up there, including another of my monologues which I didn’t end up using for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in 2015, as we changed theme.

Enjoy. Stay safe. Check back here next week for a link to the finished film.

Monologue for the socially distant blues

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So here I am with writing time on my hands and although I’ve got a major project or two to be getting on with, everyone knows I’ve got a butterfly mind. I skim through Twitter and the BBC Writersroom looking for opportunities to submit to, a challenge, something to get the brain exercised, and everyone is asking for monologues.

It makes sense, if you think about it – they want to record them quick and stick them on the internet to entertain a bored nation stuck at home, and what with all the actors being stuck at home as well, the best way is to make it short and make it for one person, and they can read it out in their own bedroom and nobody has to meet anyone else. Great, I think, I can do monologues, I’ve done monologues before, I did the one for the Ilkley Writers river project, I did Viv’s 64th that always went down well (I must put a new recording of that up, the Chapel FM one isn’t available any more), even Pat’s part in Lavender Ink started as a monologue in isolation.

So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that with all that experience and a copy of Talking Heads to hand, not to mention the Mslexia guide to Writing for Radio (even though these aren’t for radio), I’d be laughing. Slackline Cyberstories even want strong female characters over 35, and anyone who’s read The Little Book of Northern Women knows I can write them, I bloody love writing them. But it won’t come. I’m sat at the keyboard waiting for an outpouring of monologue in the voice of a northern matriarch, preferably one with some curbed liberties so I can try the Popelei Seed Commission, and all I want to write is scripts full of silliness featuring as many characters as possible. It’s no good, I must’ve got the socially distant blues.

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.

Cryptic notes of a time-strapped writer

In amongst the day job and household life I get brainwaves, flashes of inspiration and insight that I can’t let go but don’t have time to act on. So I write myself a note, on a corner of scrap paper or in a draft email, and later on when I’ve got more time I read the note. And wonder what the blazes it means.

Northern King. Hefting. Rebanks.

Individually I know what all the components of that note mean. The Northern King is my semi-rural fantasy novel. James Rebanks is a shepherd who wrote a great book about Cumbrian hill-farming, which I don’t have a copy of and therefore can’t look anything up in. If I recall correctly, hefted is how you describe sheep who are so used to a particular fell that they won’t stray. Can I tell you what was in my mind when I wrote these crucial words down? No, I can’t. I could guess at an analogy between my main character John (a former shepherd) and the hefted sheep, but exactly what I was driving at I couldn’t say. The significance of this moment of clarity is lost.

All Points North, Ch1. Rules.

A few weeks after I’ve scribbled this in the margin of a notebook I can clearly recall reading the first section of All Points North by Simon Armitage and being hit by something I needed to say, related to a line he’d written that was about rules. This note has done its job. I pull the paperback from the shelf and flick through the first few pages. The only instance of the word ‘rules’ that jumps out at me is connected to train fares: “There are also rules against travelling on Fridays and travelling north at teatime,” it begins. I read it a few times, wondering what was so important about it. A political point to make? A story set in a world where you’re not allowed to travel north at teatime? Had it jogged a memory of some other tangentially related passage, perhaps in a travel-related piece by Stuart Maconie or JB Priestley? I can’t remember and doubt I ever will, though I’m sure it will periodically resurface to taunt me.

I could, I suppose, learn to let go. If an idea arises while I’m wrestling with a database at the office I get paid to turn up at, let it float on by. Give a mental shrug, get back to the SQL and trust that if it was important it will come back around later. Like the word ‘Walt’ and a flash of a memory related to Walt Whitman, that resurfaced as I was typing this. It’s crucial, I know it is, and the story it relates to is almost graspable at the back of my mind.

I remember walking from the station to the office one morning last week and the next part of that story writing itself as I walked along. I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have the time (or paper) to write it down before I arrived, and making a conscious effort to hang the whole thing on a key word. Walt, I thought, if I keep saying Walt to myself it’ll cement the thought and I can retrieve it later. Indeed, that afternoon in a meeting at which a colleague named Walter sent his apologies the whole idea flashed into my mind again. Fantastic, I thought, this is really working. Since then, it’s gone. It’ll come to me. It’s something really crucial to the next part of a half-written story, and it vaguely relates to Walt Whitman.

Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

National Flash Fiction Day recommendations

It’s National Flash Fiction Day again, and there’s enough short fiction on the go today to keep you going for weeks, even though each one is bite-sized. There’s my Badge of Honour, of course, and fellow Ilkley Writer Emily Devane’s unsettling Laundry, as well as a host of others by names that will be familiar if you’re into your short short fiction (Helen Rye, Anita Goveas, Stephanie Hutton…).

There are also many stories by debut flash writers, and people who I at least haven’t come across before. In my first half-hour of reading on the day I particularly enjoyed Emulsion by Liz Wride and In the Field by Simon Lee-Price.

They’re releasing writing prompts throughout the day so you can join the fun, and you can read the whole FlashFlood at http://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.com/

Spring, not so much sunshine

I often see the question, “If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?” Never mind what I’ve said before or may say again, the only piece of advice that genuinely matters in terms of writing or anything else is, “Look after your back!”

You guessed it, my unreliable back has given up on me again (on day one of a ten-day break from the day-job, just to rub salt in). Truthfully it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things but it does mean I can only do short bursts at a computer, and I can only read chunky paperbacks (Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott is my current reading material) if they’re on a pile of cushions on my knee – flat on the knee means bending forward to read, holding the book up puts a strain on my back. I feel like one of those historians on telly, carefully opening the ancient leatherbound tome on a stack of foam with suitable wedges.

I have been listening to podcasts a fair bit though, so for the writers among you I can recommend Lit Mag Love featuring the melodious Canadian voice of Rachel Thompson of Room magazine. She interviews the editors of litmags about what they do and don’t want to see, the ethos of their magazine etc, and covers poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

I’ve also been catching up on Reasons to be Cheerful, which I listen to quite often but not every week. Neither Ed Miliband nor Geoff Lloyd has what I’d call a melodious voice, but they do have some interesting guests and generally come out with a thought-provoking podcast (recent topics have included university admissions, cycling, English identity, the power of protest, and innovative taxation). I suppose it helps to be reasonably left-wing if you’re going to listen to it.

I’ll leave you with a reminder that I have a story in this year’s National Flash Fiction Day FlashFlood on June 15th, and other things you can listen to include mine and Roz’s radio drama Lavender Ink, or our recent performance of stories and poems accompanied by live music (The Food of Love).

Writing on Air Festival 2019

The beauty of radio in the internet age is the listen-again function, which means that when a local station’s annual celebration of writing blossoms into a four-day extravaganza featuring hosts of established and emerging, amateur and professional writers from across the region, you don’t have to try and take it all in at once.

Last month was my fourth year of being part of the Writing on Air festival from East Leeds FM (Chapel FM as it’s sometimes known, it being based in a converted chapel complete with organ and stained glass) and it continues to be a pleasure. Because it’s a community arts venue there’s some great encouragement for young writers in the area, and I particularly enjoyed Scattering Sounds, which collected some writing from the Associate Writers group. Throughout the festival there were interviews, discussions, readings; poetry, prose, drama; the topical, the evergreen; gravity and humour.

You can see some of the bustle of the festival (including Keely and Karen rehearsing) via the Chapel’s photo collection on Instagram, and all the programmes from this year’s festival are available to listen to online on the ELFM player (last year’s festival is still available too, and many of the participants appear regularly on ELFM throughout the year).

This year I featured in The Food of Love with Rosalind Fairclough and Emily Devane, where Emily and I read three of our stories each, Roz read three of her poems, and throughout it all we had marvellous, specially-arranged accompaniment on cello (Keely Hodgson) and violin (Karen Vaughan). You can listen to us, or you can even watch the video we didn’t realise was being recorded (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to access it).

(And for those few who still haven’t heard the radio drama Roz and I wrote for last year’s festival, here’s a direct link to listen to it now).

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.

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My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.

What is lost, and what comes of it

For reasons of trying to focus a (tentatively planned) short story collection I wondered recently what it is that drives my writing these days. What theme binds it all together? I mused over the possibilities: anger, frustration, class, the north. And realised with a shock that it seems to be loss.

Given what kind of a year 2018 was it shouldn’t have been so surprising, and maybe it’s the 2018 hangover that’s making me view some of this with a loss-filter, but if I want to make that the theme of a collection it’s there.

Loss of family members and pets, naturally. Loss of youth. Loss of opportunity. Loss of friends and social networks. Loss of memory, vocabulary, personality, identity. Loss of dialect. Loss of places, buildings, green spaces. Loss of the past, of a different way of life.

I am without a doubt inclined to melancholy, and there are deaths that remain raw no matter the passage of years and will crop up in my writing forever, I’m sure. However, there are new kinds of losses that come with age or injury, or with a failed attempt to reconnect with friends or relatives whose paths diverged from yours along the way somewhere. Things you don’t realise the importance of until they’re gone.

Take the village of my early childhood, which my mum’s family had already called home for a hundred and fifty years before my birth (and even then, they’d only moved a mile up the road). It seemed perfectly natural (not to mention eternal) when I was young that scattered across the place were relatives’ current and former workplaces, and the houses of cousins, uncles, multi-generational family friends, and my paternal grandparents. Four generations of my family lived in their end-terrace for seventy years and more, and now there’s a stranger’s tarmac drive where once my grandparents’ rose garden was admired and tended and enjoyed. The older generations have died, and for the most part the younger have moved away (I for one live nearly twenty miles away). New houses (and blocks of flats, unthinkable in my childhood) stand where horses grazed and on mill and factory sites that closed down as I grew older. I wrote a story called Worth a Mint? about returning to old haunts, memories, identity (and death) which is partly set there, but as it’s well over 8,000 words it’s been hard to find magazines to submit it to. That story is a major reason why I want to put a (non-genre) collection together in the first place.

It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, I appreciate having a phone and central heating (and broadband, and the ability to listen later to a BBC radio programme I missed) and I’d hate to go back in a time machine to the mid-eighties. For one thing I’d have to play the dried-pea game at New Year, in which younger members of the family were given a saucer and a drinking straw and told to transfer (with hands behind their back) as many dried peas from a tray to the saucer in a fixed time (“This was entertainment?” my cousin’s daughter asked at the start of 2019 as she played on her smartphone, to which we had to explain that yes, it seemed like it at the time). However, I do seem to set a fair few stories in the eighties and nineties, if only because I have more of a grasp on what life was like then. Ditching the TV at the start of 2002 I lost my grasp on popular culture (some might say I never had much of one anyway) and certainly now with no smartphone and not being on Whatsapp or Facebook I feel disconnected from the majority experience. I’m even starting to be baffled by some of the allusions on Radio 4’s News Quiz. Oh dear.

Which, I guess brings me back to the loss of youth and all that goes with it. The midlife crises in my stories, the attempts at reinvention, and regrets over the path not taken. As well as many a death of a parent or beloved aunt, or the disorientation of their dementia. All of these, and the loss of dialect, accent, roots, chip away at identity until eventually that can be lost too. There’s plenty of scope for writing about all these facets and I keep revisiting different angles.

Loss is universal, even if we lose different people and places and abilities we are all still experiencing similar aches and regrets. I’ll leave you with a link to Word Factory apprentice Sharon Telfer’s gorgeous flash fiction My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds which has stayed with me since I first read it last year. (Though in case anyone is concerned, I’ll reassure you that both mine and OneMonkey’s dads are fine).

Writing another gender

Recently, I overheard a woman express surprise that a male writer had written a novel from the point of view of a female character. She wasn’t disapproving, merely commenting on what she saw as an interesting choice. There is often an assumption that men can’t write convincing female characters (there may also be assertions I haven’t read, about women not writing convincing men) but it made me think about the assumptions that underpin that.

I’ve written from both male and female perspectives depending on what the story demanded at the time, and where I’ve written a short piece where the first-person narrator’s gender isn’t specified, I’ve had some people read it as male and some female, and both sets of readers seemed satisfied. If I stuck to writing my own gender, there’d be a whole host of common female experiences I might want to give my main characters that I have never had, affecting everything from everyday detail to major plot points and motivation:

  • I don’t wear a bra, underskirt, pop socks, tummy-control pants, and no doubt a whole list of things I don’t even know exist. I do feel like I’m in that episode of Father Ted whenever I venture into a lingerie department
  • I don’t wear high heels; the odd pair of cuban-heeled boots in the past but mainly it’s Doc Martens, Converse, and imitations thereof.
  • I’ve never worn, nor had any desire for, an engagement ring or a wedding dress
  • I’ve never planned a wedding, gone gooey over someone else’s wedding photos or engagement ring, or been on a hen night
  • I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was seven
  • I’ve never found out I was pregnant, had a miscarriage or abortion, or used the morning-after pill
  • I’ve never been on maternity leave, or felt like I was being torn in two by the conflicting demands of children and career
  • I’ve never changed a nappy
  • I’ve never run for a bus and felt like my chest had a life of its own
  • I don’t wear make-up, and beyond lipstick and mascara (which I did wear at my gothiest) it’s all a bit of a mystery
  • Since I only have one ear pierced, I’ve never worn a discreet pair of matching earrings
  • I’ve never been to Weightwatchers, memorised the calorie content of common foods, or jumped on a new diet bandwagon
  • I’ve never worn false nails or false eyelashes, had highlights or a fancy hairdo
  • I’ve never thought about breast enhancements or agonised over cellulite
  • I’ve never been to be waxed, plucked, massaged or caked in mud in the name of beauty
  • I’ve never had a girls’ night in
  • I don’t see a baby and make strange noises and ask to hold it
  • I’ve never declared myself a feminist or had any interest in how many women are in senior positions at work
  • I don’t read women’s lifestyle magazines, keep up with fashion or enjoy clothes shopping
  • Despite having two sisters and a couple of close female friends I’ve never had the kind of conversations about sex and shopping that feature so heavily in the flicks

For any of these I (like the men who were being derided on social media for even attempting the exercise) would have to observe other people’s behaviour, ask a friend, or read up on it. People have such individual experiences of life that surely we all of us (writers, I mean) have to use empathy and imagination all the time in order to offer a range of believable characters. Gender is probably the broadest category out there, so to expect women to automatically have a better handle on female characters than men seems ludicrous. I suspect the men who fail to write female characters are also not much good at male characters unless they’re heavily based on themselves, and that’s got nothing to do with gender, it’s just a gap in their writing ability.

Life’s spanners and NaNoWriMo: getting back on the writing horse

It’s fair to say I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately, missing weeks, publishing posts I wrote ages ago for fallow times, or republishing old posts. You may recall about six months ago I began a new day job (completely unrelated to writing) after eighteen months of trying to write full-time, and I acknowledged that I’d have less time to write, and it would take time to form new habits and routines. However, I hadn’t taken on board that shorter lunchbreaks than in my last job meant I could no longer get to the library at lunchtime to write (I’m working about 100 yards away from my old office), and I hadn’t realised how reluctant I’d be to sit at a computer on an evening when I was spending seven hours in front of a screen during the day, rather than the old blend of screen, paper, and time away from a desk. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the succession of spanners life was about to chuck in the works.

In the last six months OneMonkey and I have encountered bereavement, health problems in the family involving long periods of waiting, disruption and upset and general stress which looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Plus we both turned forty and celebrated (dancing alone to our playlist) our twentieth anniversary. There has been much reflection on life and direction, priorities and what’s truly important.

For me, writing is definitely one of the important things, but such has been the effect of the past six months I’ve barely written anything. The writing community on Twitter is another one, but I’ve largely withdrawn from that partly due to squeezed time, partly because I don’t have the energy to be social. Those of you who’ve been around here a while or know me in real life know I’ve usually got a book in my hand (or I’ve just put it down for five minutes to make a cup of tea). I’ve been reading River of Gods by Ian McDonald for so long I’ve kind of forgotten what’s going on, I’m almost reading each chapter as a stand-alone story that sets off echoes of something else I once read, a long time ago. Clearly these are unusual times.

So, in part this stands as an apology for those of you who enjoy my blog and have been left wanting lately, and those of you who feel I’m neglecting you on Twitter, whose stories I haven’t read and whose successes I haven’t celebrated. In part (upbeat ending alert…) it serves as encouragement to keep trying – I’m aiming to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year.

Some people see NaNo as a competition, a thing to win, and if you haven’t written 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th you’ve failed. I see it as a cattle prod. There’s this writing you want to do, and it’s easy to lose it among the day to day. For one month NaNo and the other writers taking part will be saying come on, keep going, just write a bit more. And for one month you can tell yourself you can postpone this other thing or not spend as much time on that, and carve yourself out a writing niche. If you write 500 words during November when you didn’t think you’d manage any, then that’s an achievement. I certainly won’t be aiming at 50,000 words of the semi-rural fantasy, for one thing I reckon I only need another 30,000 to finish the draft, but I’ll try and write some, which is more than I’ve managed in a while.

Best of luck to anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ll let you know how I get on. Eventually.

The Food of Love

You’ll be eager to know how the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe event went, no doubt, if you read last week’s post about the preparations. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d dared to hope, and then some.

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OneMonkey took loads of photos of us

The sun was warm, the breeze not too strong (though we did have a moment of concern with the pages of music at one point – mostly the clothes pegs and bulldog clips did their job). Past and present members of Ilkley Writers turned up to support us, and a couple of Wharfedale Poets for good measure. Add in the various other friends and family, festival-goers and passers-by and we had an impressively large audience – I did a rough headcount at some point and got to 60, the steward thinks there were 70 (plus 4 dogs) – sitting on benches, standing on the grass and generally having a pleasant Saturday lunchtime.

For those interested in glimpses behind the scenes, here’s a photo of a couple of pages of my script (it happens to be the end of the pop song tribute, Variations on the theme of young love):

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Stage directions are hand-written so I don’t accidentally read them out, and there’s a list of the pieces that come after that and before my next one.

Everyone seemed to enjoy it, several came up afterwards to tell us so. I was still excited hours later, but that might partly be relief that it didn’t rain, nothing blew away, and the audience could hear us OK. Emily and I spent the rest of the day with tunes from each other’s pieces stuck in our heads, and I’ve inspired Keely to dig out some cassettes from her youth. If you’ve been round here a while you’ll know how much music means to me (hence, I suppose, this entire event) so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

The general cry was ‘When can we do it again?’ so plans are already afoot. If any of them involve a recording I’ll point you at it, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with another picture of us and you can either remember what a lovely time we all had, or imagine what it was like to be there.

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Roz York, Emily Devane, and JY Saville in her trusty old biker jacket (Black Sabbath hoodie hidden by music stand)

Musically accompanied at the fringe

Remember that homage to the 3-minute pop song I told you I was writing, back in July? Well, that and the other pieces by me, Emily Devane and Rosalind York are all ready for our event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe this Saturday lunchtime, The Food of Love. Did you spot the mention of live music? That’s the ultra-exciting bit, which meant we went to a rehearsal this week at Karen the violinist’s house, and were blown away by musical interpretation.

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Thanks to Karen’s husband for this photo of Emily, Roz and I hard at work (aka drinking tea, playing with the dog, and listening to the musicians)

When I floated the idea of this event (based on a throwaway remark from Emily, months before the fringe application deadline) I had no idea what kind of musical accompaniment we’d have, but between us we knew a few people who might agree to collaborate so we sent the application in and decided to worry about detail if we got selected.

When we heard we’d been given a slot in the programme, Roz suggested asking Keely Hodgson if she and her cello would like to be involved. We all know her from her Purple Room showcase of local musicians and writers (in fact we all read there in June) and I like the sound of a cello, though I still had no idea what form the musical end would take. Keely invited her violinist friend Karen Vaughan into the mix and I had even less clue what the final performance would sound like.

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Karen and Keely genuinely hard at work (thanks again to Karen’s husband for the photo)

We sent Keely our stories and poems, shuffled into some sort of order, and left her to mull it over and discuss it with Karen. What with holidays, work and other commitments we didn’t manage to get together until ten days before the performance! I was nervous as well as excited when I entered the room but as they played the first few bars for Roz to recite her first poem over, I knew this was going to be fantastic.

Keely has chosen just the right music for each piece, and arranged it for herself and Karen so that it works brilliantly. We spent several hours drinking Karen’s tea, reading and re-reading our pieces aloud, while the two musicians experimented with cutting, repeating, playing in different styles. They now have cues written on their scores, like ‘repeat until Poland’, and of course being a writer I made a note of fabulous questions like: Is Carol waking up in a sweat before or after I come in?

I wrote about the benefits of writing with a partner when Roz and I wrote a radio script together, back in March, and I can highly recommend collaborating with musicians as well. Seeing how someone else interprets your work, and hearing it acquire an extra dimension with a punctuating score is magical. If any of you are within striking distance of Ilkley at 1pm on the 29th of September, come along and share the magic at the bandstand on The Grove. It’s free, open air (fingers crossed for a dry day) and unticketed.

 

Short piece at Visual Verse

I’ve got a story called Air of Belonging at Visual Verse in response to this month’s prompt, you can read it here. It’s less than 500 words long, perfect for a tea break. Because September’s guest editor is Carmen Marcus (I recently reviewed her novel How Saints Die) and because I’ve been banging on about class again anyway, my sci-fi story is kind of informed by the row about working class access to the arts. While still being very much related to the prompt image, which is a woman in ballgown and breathing apparatus, playing a harp. Intrigued? Read everyone else’s response to it as well, as usual it’s sent all the contributing writers off in different directions, which is pretty impressive for such specificity.

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.