writing

Sharing Isolation in an Asynchronous World

Back in 2018 when I got a new day-job it was a two-year contract so I knew that, all other things being equal, I would leave in mid-April 2020. As we began this year, what with Easter and accumulated leave my last day in the office looked like it was going to be March 31st. What perfect timing, I thought, for my last-Sunday-of-the-month blog post to be an amusing look back at office life, commuting, and the people-watching I’d done over the previous two years. Light-hearted thoughts about the pronunciation of acronyms and why I was inordinately fond of a database that sounded like it was called Malcolm, even though I knew nothing about its contents or purpose. Speculations on the sudden smartening up of a familiar stranger. That kind of thing.

As we’ve all noticed by now, however, March 2020 isn’t going to anybody’s plan (unless, perhaps, you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – which really makes me want to go back and finish a comic fantasy story I started writing in 2012) and my last day in the office turned out to be, rather abruptly, March 16th. Because I mainly sit at a computer all day sieving and cleaning data and occasionally taking a SQL-spanner to the workings of the odd database, I can work from home. There are technical challenges that need to be figured out before we can work completely as normal, but basically I’m easily transplantable. Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve had a day or two working from home for one reason or another and it’s been fine being on my own, peaceful and productive. Besides, after March 31st I was planning to be writing at home anyway, with OneMonkey working in the next room three days a week, so all I’ve done is move to the next (planned) phase of my life two weeks early. Except it doesn’t work like that because for those two weeks I still have colleagues.

I tend to keep the day-job out of this, but I guess with a quick search for my name you could find out what I do so it seems tiresome to talk around it in this context: I work (for the next week and a bit) on statutory returns at a university, sending student data to HESA and the OfS. Bits of it are fiddly and arcane, and at certain times of the year incredibly high-pressure, and the four of us in the HESA corner end up having long, detailed, technical discussions over whether some particular student in unusual circumstances should take this code or that code out of the five rigidly defined possibilities in the HESA specifications, and kind of forget that anyone else in the office exists. Believe me, we’re great fun at parties. Assuming that by ‘parties’ you mean gatherings of geeks who are particularly interested in student records. And like to quote Douglas Adams at every available opportunity.

Because that’s the thing you miss when you’re suddenly all separate. The in-jokes, the familiar joshing, the leaning round the monitor and asking what’s up when you hear the snort of disbelief from the other side of the desk. In my writing life I’ve never had that, I’m not missing out on anyone’s company by sitting at home rather than being somewhere else. I was gearing up for leaving my office job and I knew I’d miss everyone but it feels so odd suddenly never hearing someone’s laugh (or Terry Jones impression) and yet still interacting with them via email or text discussion, rather than having left them behind as expected.

We’re all getting to grips with using Microsoft Teams and apart from technicalities like getting headsets to work, we’re grappling with etiquette about why and when and how to initiate a voice call, which I’m sure will settle down after a while (though maybe not before I’ve left). In the office, I can see from the set of my colleague’s shoulders that she’s concentrating and I shouldn’t disturb her, but I can also see her stand up to stretch or get a drink and before she settles back to work again I can ask her a question or tell her some piece of information she might like to know but doesn’t warrant clogging up her inbox. At a distance, the best I can do is leave it in Teams and see if/when she spots it (as yet, we haven’t all got the hang of mentions and notifications and the like either). The Dilbert cartoons, the cat pictures and the Dungeons and Dragons memes that we might lean over each others’ screens to look at are missing entirely so far, as we try and keep the Teams feed ‘professional’, whatever that means.

At the end of the week we instituted a daily afternoon chat, half an hour of hearing each others’ voices (and seeing the one person with a working webcam) and it surprised me both how much I was looking forward to it all afternoon and how refreshing it was. Over the last few years I realise I’ve gradually slipped into asynchronous communication outside of office life. I don’t have the hour-long phone conversations with friend T that were a feature of our lives (however irregular) for twenty years, we text for quick updates or email if we want to include pictures. I went from Christmas Day to mid-February without hearing the sound of any of my siblings’ voices, in fact I still haven’t spoken to Big Brother – Sister Number One and I text each other so we all know what’s going on in each others’ lives (they all live in one place, I live 20 miles or so away). Nobody seems to watch TV programmes or even listen to the radio at the same time anymore, it’s all about catch-up services and convenience, and there’s so much choice and individuality that they’re often not watching or listening to the same thing anyway so all of the ‘did you hear..?’ has gone. I wonder if this enforced separation will change that?

I’ve already seen global book clubs springing up on Twitter, I think Robert Macfarlane for one was suggesting everyone read a particular book and then presumably they’ll discuss it somehow. Bands are live-streaming gigs with no audience, or filming to put them online. Writers are setting up webinar groups to write together to the same prompt at the same time as though they were in the same room. Even with catch-up or podcasts, you could agree with a friend that you’ll both watch or listen to the new episode on a particular day of the week and then ring up for a chat about it. Or even better, video call. Maybe when broadband is struggling with all the extra home-working and extra streaming of TV services to bored people in self-isolation I shouldn’t be encouraging extra strain on the capacity. However, having used Skype or Google Hangouts now and then to catch up with distant friends and family, I can recommend it if you’re not used to phoning particular friends. Particularly if you’re using a screen that’s larger than a phone screen, and preferably have it propped up somewhere (for a phone or tablet – you don’t have that problem with a laptop) so you don’t have to hold it for ages, it can start to feel more like a cosy chat in the same room than a potentially stilted phonecall. You get the body language cues of someone being about to speak so you don’t keep talking over each other, and it can include anyone in the household who wanders into the room, rather than it being one on one.

This pandemic is necessarily going to change everyone’s lives, at least for a while. We’re all going to have to get used to our own company but don’t misjudge the place of casual interactions. If you’re used to pointing to a passing peregrine falcon from the office window and sparking a conversation, or chatting about hair straighteners while you queue for the kettle, you probably need to find an equivalent of that while you’re in your weird new solitary world. Now excuse me while I make a cup of tea and see if my dad’s up for sitting quietly in front of distant screens making occasional observations about what birds each of us can see from our respective windows.

Twine and interactive fiction

Readers of a certain age may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, that were popular a few decades ago.

Ahead of you, Robin Hood is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. As the remaining member of his band at large in the forest it’s up to you to rescue Maid Marian. Do you run back the way you came, to talk to the woodcutter (turn to page 7) or follow the Sheriff’s men as they lead Robin away (turn to page 8)?

That kind of thing. Basically it was a thrilling short novel in which the reader made the decisions, usually after reading only a page or two of text, and thus could read the same book multiple times, having slightly different experiences, and feeling like they were in the middle of the action. I came across a couple of essentially novelty versions for adults in the late nineties but on the whole I’d only heard of the format being used for children’s books.

Having also grown up on text-based computer adventure games (because graphics were a luxury thirty years ago) and sharing a love of noir, it was perhaps inevitable that OneMonkey and I would drift into entertaining ourselves by starting to write a detective story on the computer, with the intention that the plot could pan out in different ways depending on the decisions made at each turn.

Four and a half years ago during a hot, lazy summer we started fooling around with the tale of an unnamed private detective who lived above a chip shop somewhere near Middlesbrough, and what happened when he came home from a poetry recital one evening to find the body of one of his clients sprawled on his kitchen lino:

Yet here she was in the fringes of suburbia, sprawled on my beige and orange linoleum. She’d only been looking for a missing spaniel when she pitched up at my office last week, and wherever the dog was it wouldn’t be in my kitchen. My cat would never allow it.

Instead of the typical second person narrative (you go into the kitchen…) we opted for the traditional noir first person (I stepped over the threshold…) with the reader acting as the detective’s conscience, inner voice, or maybe guiding deity (Should I call the police or slip out the back door?).

Because we both have programming backgrounds and because it probably didn’t cross our minds that anyone else would be daft enough to do stuff like this, we used our markup facility of choice (txt2tags) and made a simple html version so you could read a passage of text, click on one of the links and move to the next passage. The only trouble was, the way we were keeping track of the interconnectedness was to draw decision trees on paper and magnet them to the side of the filing cabinet, and we were running out of filing cabinet. Fun as it had been, we were getting tangled in our own storylines and we shelved the poor detective a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to the Christmas holidays 2019, when I was formatting a radio script to send to the BBC Script Room. OneMonkey, convinced there must be specialist script software that would stop me swearing so much (and indeed, I’ve downloaded a demo of Fade In but I haven’t tried it yet), was trawling the web. He found a nifty thing called Twine, which wouldn’t help with the radio script but was just the thing we needed to get our detective back into his favourite thinking-chair.

Twine is open source (did I ever mention I use Linux? And LibreOffice, and Vim, and…) and is also incredibly simple to use. I find it just visual enough to be helpful without being overwhelming, and at its simplest you can use the default set-up and make simple text passages with simple links (like we were doing in html before), and be up and running straight away. Within an hour we’d downloaded Twine, learnt enough to get started, copied across our existing story and were examining the incomplete pathways.

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 17.09.16

The layout of our story in Twine, which makes me think of international flight-paths

We set up a couple of tags to add colour-coding, so we know which ones are still only headings, with no text added, and which ones are end-points. OneMonkey got enthusiastic on the coding front and added an inventory (represented here by the disconnected set of items on the left-hand side) so at any time we know what our hero has in his pockets, but this is very much an optional extra.

Since our adoption of this new software approach, all we’ve done is untangle a couple of threads, add an inventory, work out where we’d got to, and sketch out a couple of scenes to be used later (the disconnected items on the right-hand side). It’s not often we’ve both got the time (or maybe I mean energy) to sit down and work on this together, but Twine certainly seems to be a useful way to do it. You can do a test run through the ‘game’ (I can’t figure out what terminology to use for this venture, I would naturally say interactive fiction but they get referred to as games) to see how it’s going so far, or you can sit in storyboard mode (as shown in the screenshot above) and edit the passages, add links etc.

As I understand it, you can get even more advanced by adding images, sounds (say you want to have a distinctive door-opening hum every time the character goes through a door), and we’ve used conditionals in a couple of places already. By ‘conditionals’ I mean the text shown, and/or the decisions available are conditional on what’s already happened – if the detective has visited the bathroom already then he will behave in a different way when he enters the bedroom, for instance. In our detective’s case he’s looking for clues and deciding what to do next based on them, so if he encounters things in a different order then he might jump to different conclusions. If you’re a programming beginner, you might want to stick to basic building blocks of narrative at first and only bring this sort of nuance in once you feel more confident.

As with anything of this nature, a quick search for how-to articles, or YouTube tutorials should turn up helpful pointers. If you want some inspiration there’s a community site with links to interactive fiction that people have constructed, you can even search for ones made using Twine.

We may never guide our detective through all the twists of his fishy plot but at least Twine has given us a way to progress, and if Above a Chip Shop in Teesside is ever available to the public, I’ll let you know.

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

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/