Friday, 24 April 2015

Three things which have made me smile this week

1. This street graffiti, on a housing estate in Brixton

2. This story about a 7 year old girl who has invented the best superhero comic EVER.

3. This video of a 102 year old dancer seeing herself on film for the first time.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

I'm back. Maybe.

Gosh. It HAS been a while.

I didn't make a deliberate decision to stop writing this blog, but that's sort of what seems to have happened. Life got in the way, I guess, and by life I mainly mean work.

More specifically, I mean becoming a full-time freelancer again. It has been much easier this time around, which is both good and bad news; the good news is that I haven't been short of work, and I've had chances to do all sorts of things I hadn't expected to find myself doing.  The bad news is that it hasn't left me with much time for anything else.

It's not just here I haven't been writing; the short story collection I had planned to finish last year is still a work in (very slow) progress, and I made a foolhardy attempt to embark on a NaNoWriMo project  back in November, but gave up  - for the first time ever -  within the first week.

And of course it's easy, once you've stopped doing something, to keep not doing it.  A few days of not doing something turn into a week, and weeks turn into months, and suddenly it's a year between blog posts, and you're not entirely sure how it happened.

So this is me trying not to stop. Or, more to the point, trying to start again.  Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Writer's Process Blog Tour

Huge thanks to the lovely Lisa Goll, who invited me to take part in this blog tour. Lisa runs the London Writers' Cafe, a London-based writing group I'm a member of and which, if I'm honest, I would be quite lost without. It's a lively, friendly community with regular meet-ups, events, guest speakers, workshops, and if you are a writer who lives in (or near) London, it's definitely worth checking out. You can read what Lisa had tosay about her own writing here, and now it's my turn to answer the same questions.......

What am I working on?

I have a terrible tendency to flit between lots of projects at once, which means that nothing ever gets finished. So this year I'm trying to focus on just one of those things and am compiling a collection of short stories. (Of course that means I still get to flit between several different projects, just much shorter ones.  Sneaky, isn't it?)  I'm working from a short-list of about fourteen stories – some finished, others less so – but I'm not sure yet if they'll all make the final cut.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think (or hope, at least) that I've started to find a distinct voice. The stories I have gathered together are all quite old fashioned in tone - they're generally written in the third person, with a very distant narrator, and although the settings are contemporary, the content is fairly old fashioned too. They are full of love triangles and plucky underdogs and people who are too proud or vain or selfish or so on getting exactly what they deserve. I'm a bit nervous about using the term, but one way to describe them would be as modern day 'morality tales'.  They are set (for the most part) in the real world but it's a reality where slightly fantastical things sometimes happen. Not quite often enough to be classed as magical realism, probably, and I don't stray too far into the realms of the supernatural (there are no goblins or dwarves), but I think it's fair to say that  there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed sometimes.

Why do I write what I do?

It happened completely by accident. When I first started writing I formed a writing group with some friends I'd met through a creative writing class, and we would met once a month or so to share our responses to a particular writing prompt or task. The thing I struggle with the most is plot, so when it was my turn to set the prompt I cheated and suggested that we all try and write a modern version of a fairy tale. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn't have to worry too much about a plot because I could just pinch one.

The story I ended up with contains some shoes, but apart from that it bears very little resemblance to Cinderella, which it was going to be based on. I strayed completely away from the original plot, and eventually wrangled one of my own into submission instead. Writing a fairy tale didn't solve the problem it was supposed to, but it gave me so much more than that. I discovered I loved playing with the form and found myself trying to sound like a storyteller would, breaking away from the story every now and then to make a wry observation or share a joke with the reader. That same tone carried over into the next story I wrote (about a love triangle which is resolved with the help of a terrible cup of coffee) and it is something which has stuck with me ever since. It's a useful excuse for a multitude of sins – I can be a bit wordy, for instance and get away with telling instead of showing more often than I wouild otherwise. So I do have have to keep mysef in check occasionally and make sure I'm breaking the rules for effect, rather than just being lazy. It' a fine line, but one I really like trying to tread.

How does my writing process work?

Gosh. I've tried to write this down before – one of my stories was published by Arachne Press a couple of years ago in a collection called Stations, and I wrote this 2-part guest blog for their website, trying to capture the process I went through to write that particular story. I'm not sure how well I succeeded.

Usually, I start with a tiny idea. This might be a character or a place; a vauge concept, a snatch of dialogue, or a situation..... just about anything really. Those ideas can come from anywhere. I'm constantly eavesdropping on other people's conversations, and scribbling down things which grab my attention; I tear interesting looking articles from magazines and newspapers and I borrow from other sources quite a lot. I've written a story based on the classic 'Two Guards' puzzle (the one where one guard always lies, and one tells the truth) for example, and another where the main character's life is controlled entirely by Beatles songs.

Once I have a vauge topic or idea I often do some sort of research. The internet, of course, is great for this - I've learned all sorts of things, from how lighthouses work (it's quite complicated) to the best conditions for keeping jellyfish (curved tanks, otherwise they get stuck in the corners). This part is fun – I like finding things out, as a general rule, and I'm not really looking for answers to specific questions, so I can read the things I find interesting and ignore the things I don't. I also make lists, and ask odd questions on Twitter -any kind of information gathering which might help spark some ideas.

Then, at some point, I start to write things down. Getting started is hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. I have huge arguments with myself which go like this:

“But that's going to sound so STUPID!”
“Well, write it anyway!”
“But I can't!” “Yes you can. Just do five minutes.”
“Maybe I'll just clean the shower first......”
“....and there's this ridiculously complicated recipe I've been meaning to try.....”
“Really? You're going to cook that NOW?”
“....and now there's all this washing up.....”
“Fine. Oh, God, this is so awful I think I'm going to DIE!”
“No it's not. You'll be fine. Remember what Dave Eggers says.”

and so on.

I do start writing eventually though. And more often than not, it's that pesky Dave Eggers quote which does it. I keep it pinned above my desk, and what he says is this: “People can't read what's inside your head. They can only read the words you put down, with great love and care, on the page.” It's obvious, when you think about it, but it's painfully true.

I don't always start at the beginning, and what I write down tends to be a mix of the actual words which might eventually end up in the story, and notes about things which might happen, which I need to go back and write. At this stage, usually, I still don't know what the actual story is but there are all sorts of ideas and bits and pieces swirling around in my head, and those are what I'm trying to capture. So I just keep writing little bits of scenes which might fit here or there, or even nowhere, and moving them all around, and skipping over some bits while rewriting others. This can take place over the course of several days, or weeks, or even months and as I'm writing things I notice or read or think about slip in as well and suddenly, before I know it there are a few thousand words on the page.

Eventually, if I'm lucky, there is some sort of shift. It's hard to explain what I mean by this; it's sort of my 'Eureka' moment, except it's not quite as dramatic and it doesn't often happen in the bath. But something suddenly falls into place and I realise what it is I'm actually writing about. Once that happens I can filter through everything I've got on the page and start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of, and usually there are lots of gaps left to fill in. Then it's a case of editing and polishing and tinkering around until I'm happy(ish) with the result.

I write on a computer, usually, in boring old Word, but (and this is crucial) in a very specific font. I have no idea why -  I guess it's the digital equivalent of always writing in green pen, or on a particular type of paper.  I save as I go and if I've made major changes tend to save a new version, which means I end up with folders containing 20 or 30 'drafts'. That sounds like a lot, but those aren't full, finished versions – it's just whever I got to the day before, or the week before, or whenever I was last working.

So there's my process. Of course, that 'Eureka' moment doesn't always happen quickly. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't happen at all, which means I can spend ages working on something which doesn't end up going anywhere. So it's not the most efficient process.....but it's the one which works for me. Sometimes.

And now it's time for me to pass on to two other writers, who will tell you what works for them. Yakinamac and Mr Phipps who are both regulars at London Writers' Cafe, have agreed to take up the challenge, and their posts will be online next week.

Monday, 21 April 2014

We all must have been having a LOT fun. Yes, that must be it.

Hello.  Doesn't a year go by quickly?  I say this for no other reason* than just under a year ago I rather foolishly promised to write a cryptic crossword for my friend Steven to solve.  It turns out they take AGES.  Especially if you start writing one, and then forget all about it, and then start again after a few not-so-subtle reminders, and then forget again, and then receive another reminder, and so on.

 Anyway. I finally finished it today, nearly a year after I first started, and sent it to Steven (who I'm not sure ever really expected to see it) and I thought I'd put it here too.

1. Mantra starts and ends softly to create a show of splendour (4)
5. Stephen's favourite way to cook eggs (3)
8. Get back, old boy; South Africa return is punishment for poor behaviour in public (4)
12. Novello on the piano? Why not! (4)
13. Band lost in the stars? It's a sign (3)
14. Glaswegian perhaps? Beds are unmade (4)
15. Bad worker kisses nothing to form a famous alliance (4)
16. Initially show surprise when cat becomes confused (3)
17. Moving around rings, tree loses romance (4)
18. Don't catch this if you're in a rush to hear what Dylan sings (4,5)
21. Bob's friend? She's a queen! (3)
22. Set down an old fashioned way of returning a phone call (4)
23. Honest love for a writer (4)
25. Norton and Milliband could be magazine bosses (3)
28. More than one of these spells trouble for Caesar at a cetain time of year (3)
29. This fruit will make him leave (5)
31. A lizard which cheers the girl on (6)
33. Bond's boss, fashionable with a broken leg, to chat to everyone at the party
34. After a turn in Eastenders, you'll be waiting for him all night (5)
35. Forbid the airline to go north (3)
36. I can see the comic sailor's lost his dad (3)
37. Travel on 18, for example
38. The measure of this space is that it's a music venue with no point (4)
40. Abba's music always spells trouble
41. If Dan goes by backwards, for example, the Princess Bride's rats could cause peril (9)
46. Chooses to put spinning toys into more of a spin (4)
48. Fish missing a note can still make a type of music (3)
49. Eastern Sea is choppy but will soothe pain (4)
50. Sounds like wig-maker will get the lot (4)
51. No point in being crooked, I'll wager (3)
52. Cleaner loses article, holds up plant (4)
53. Single performance starts on cello (4)
54. Substance in the ground provides options, we hear (3)
55. It will wear out after too much driving (4)


1.To cut back could mean there's just enough money for these (4)
2. Egg needs to learn to be egg shaped 3)
3. These services will break a thousand, too (4)
4. When played backwards, record contains an argument for roaming stealthily (5)
5. About a letter, two old ladies are in a state (7)
6. About that bad cheese? We covered it (6)
7. At first you only get it for a famous bear (4)
8.Raise a question as potassium is added (3)
9. At the top, she can seek retribution and take what she needs from what's left
10. Ron Bigly turns monotonously (8)
11.In two ticks I'll be near the ear (4)
19.Theodore, by including an example of poor grammar, is spoiled (7)
20. Mine and one other on the shortlist for an award (7)
24 To criticise a cooking implement (3)
25 This example's good for Easter (3)
26 management style prefered by burgulars (4,4)
        27 every other stay drips it, witch enjoys pain (8)
30 Overall, equipment efficiency put first (3)
32 Oxford professor is up, but off for some sleep (3)
33 Spoil the entrance to a sea-side resort (7)
35 River some say responsible for financial ruin (6)
39 Lazy policeman could do with one of these (1, 4)
40 In London, sounds like a farmer will fashion his old fashioned tool from cloth (4)
42 A punishment you've seen before, in which he was as bold as brass (4)
43 could describe a breakfast cereral which starts on top, we hear (4)
44 When confused I'm sure I'm often the cause computer errors (4)
45 Appear to be a Massai dagger, by the sound of it (4)
47 Initially spent in the Seychelles 

*Well, maybe that's not quite the only reason. Writing this crossword isn't the only thing I've spent the last year doing, obviously. I also ran a marathon, went to Australia (twice), and left my part-time job, among other things, but somehow didn't manage to blog about any of it. I plan to fix this.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

John Lloyd on The News Quiz

Three things about this:

1.  I had NO idea John Lloyd was responsible for The News Quiz.  Turns out he's responsible for most of my favourite things.

2. Jeremy Hardy looks nothing like I expected him to.

3. Francis Wheen, less so.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

An A+ for creativity, but not so hot on ethics

I love this story which comes via the Futility Closet website .  You can read it for yourself, but the synopsis is:

1. Australian journalist needs to fill a hole on the front page of his paper, so makes up a story about a

2. Police contact the journalist to say they've caught the (imaginary) sex-pest.

3. Journalist realises police have used his story as an excuse to charge a minor sex-offender they've had
    their eye on for a while, and feels so guilty he vows never to make up a story again.

Of course, like all good stories the devil is in the details and here the details are the nature of the invented crime, which was nothing if not creative and involved using a long wire hook to surreptitiously raise the hems of women's skirts in order to peek at their stockings.

As an aside, if you Google 'Hook Hoax' you'll discover there are all sorts of conspiracy theories suggesting that the Sandy Hook school shootings last December were a hoax perpetuated by the anti-gun lobbyists in America.  These theories were quite a big thing, apparently - the youtube videos have had over eleven million views - but I didn't know about them until this morning.  Part of me wishes I still didn't know about them.

As another aside, the Hook Hoax story also features in this book,

which I am now desperate to own.  Some entries from the index:

British Military Fainting Epidemics
Husband-Poisoning Mania
Jumping Frenchmen of Maine
Zimbabwe Zombie School
Spouse Dropping Revival
Sardine Packing Hysteria
Genital Shrinking Scares
Genital Vanishing Scares
Phantom Hat-pin Stabber

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Bits and Bobs

Sorry for the radio silence - I've been on holidays.  I meant to say I was going before I left but I ran out of time so Happy Christmas and Merry New Year and all that.  On the bright side, the burglars didn't know I was away either, so my flat is still intact.

The Bits:

1. A transcript of 'Some Days in the Life' - a twitter storytelling project I took part in last year - is now online if you want to have a look.

2.  I'll be reading from my Stations story at the Ideas Store in Whitechapel on Thursday January 17th  - details here 

3. Speaking of Stations, I was interviewed by the editor a while ago, and there is a video snippet here  where I talk about my inspiration for the story, and do an un-inentional impression of a nodding dog.  (Seriously.  If you are prone to any kind of motion sickness, you might not want to watch.)

The Bobs:

Answers  here.  How many did you get?