February. Half Term. Sheffield. Robots.

It’s been a busy time since my operation and I’ve barely had time to catch breath – aside from trying very hard to recover (almost there!) I’ve been doing loads of good things (including losing a stone in weight!) – I’m finishing up the anthology of work for my First Story residency at Melior Academy, and I’ve been loving my other residency over at Leeds West Academy. Loads of cool Hive teachings too. Writing has been happening, editing, a lot of trains – the usual stuff. And it’s all been good.

There aren’t too many places for my half term workshops for Sheffield Library Service next week, but I’m sharing this just in case they might be able to squeeze a couple extra in. As usual, it’s going to be brilliant fun and I really can’t wait!

Arvon Anthology (and a few other bits)


I have absolutely no idea why I’ve not posted this before. Apologies. I know I meant to because it’s a wonderful thing, filled with wonderful things. Back in the summer I taught at an Arvon residential (with Jasmine Ann Cooray for First Story) and it was one of the best weeks I’ve had (you can read about the whole thing here). Arvon’s always magical and I love it.

An anthology was compiled of the best stuff from the week we were there and it’s incredible and, drumroll please…

HERE IT IS!

Read! Enjoy! Be amazed!

*

In other, less exciting news… I’m still trying to get myself back to normal after the operation. I’m just about walking about, which is a relief. I had an appointment with the GP earlier and I was a little bit worried about speaking to another actual human after being on my own for so long. I think I got through unscathed and unembarrassed. Anyway, I’ve another appointment next week with a specialist, so things seem to be moving in the right direction.

I’ve not been able to read much this week (fuzzy head and lack of concentration) but I have watched a few films I’d definitely recommend.

I adored Puzzle.

I loved Jeune Femme

And this is just a classic (and still delightful at almost 90 years old).

leaf

Christmas at Melior

I’m still in that weird/tired/recovering post-op fug (thank you to all who said nice, encouraging things – don’t worry, I have, for once in my life, taken advice and have been taking things exceptionally slowly). I’m able to walk around a little now – I even went outside earlier, but it’ll be a little while until things are properly back to normal and until I feel myself again, I think. And it’s been odd being inside for so long. It’s been strange not going anywhere or doing anything and being in bed early. But I’m starting to feel the benefits and, at the moment, I’m all for the positives.

But enough of me. I’ve been writer in residence at Melior Community Academy at Scunthorpe (for First Story) since May and I’ve loved every second of it. The writers there are all terrific human beings and super talented and they’ve worked hard with me over this past few months and produced some genuinely remarkable work – funny, sad, fantastic – downright heartbreaking. So when Miss L, the amazingly brilliant teacher I work with there, suggested a Christmas showcase, with invited guests and parents and VIPS and cake, we were all super excited.

And it happened. Work was shared, readings were read and, honestly, it was one of the best things I’ve done all year. I couldn’t have been prouder or more pleased to see others genuinely loving what they heard or read – and I couldn’t be happier to see the writers getting the credit their hard work and brilliant words deserved. Thanks so EVERYONE who came and who helped out and were involved in any way. It was magic.

And here we are…

Drained

It was a strange sort of time for me over the holidays. I got to see my sister and her children, and family, on Christmas day which was lovely. But there’d been something I’d been struggling with for a while now that ended up dictating the way everything else went. I’ll spare the details but, after complaining something wasn’t quite right for a while, and after visits to the doctor and a couple of calls to 111, on Friday I was admitted to hospital with, what I can best describe as, an infection in my knee.

First, they aspirated it; the doctor telling me they’d be able to tell by what they took out how good/bad things were. And, once he started filling his syringes, he was able to say that things didn’t look so good and that I needed to speak to the surgeon.

Which I did. They operated that night (well, at about 2am).

There are many things you notice when you’re in a situation like that – how brilliant the NHS is; how great the doctors and nurses and hospital staff are; how you should really, not go in for something like that on your own because it’s lonely and there’s no-one there to keep you calm or to keep your seat if you need to go anywhere.

After signing my forms and after the risks had been explained to me I… You know what, I honestly don’t think I’ve felt so scared in all my life. I know it’s probably an exaggeration that hindsight’ll let me laugh at (and I’m sure I’d have been better if I’d had some time to prepare and process things), but the thought that something could go wrong, that this could be it, that I’d not finish this book, deliver those workshops, that there was nothing else – it was terrifying.

Anyway, I had the operation and I woke up and they’re good things (although, what they don’t tell you is someone comes every half hour to take your blood pressure/examine you, so rest was at a premium). They let me leave after three days (as long as I was supervised – thanks, Mum) and I’ve been doing my best to not do much. To keep my movement down, to keep my stress levels sensible, not get re-infected and, mostly, sleep. I’m still super drained and not quite with it. I am still recovering.

So I missed the new year fun and all that but that’s okay because I am still here and I will finish this book and do all the things I’ve been looking forward to and, as soon as I’m back on my feet and I’ve shaved my face and can walk properly, I’m going to jump head first into 2019. Because I can. Because I, like everyone else here, am far braver than I thought.

(And, as an aside, I’ve not been checking emails so if you’re waiting for something from me don’t think I’m ignoring you.)

Me, at about 4:20 am on Saturday morning.

Happy New Year

Wishing everyone a delightful, and healthy, 2019!

Nine-Show Week, with William Rycroft

Photograph © Pieter Lawman

I’m still struggling with a dodgy elbow but, while that’s recovering (or doing its best to) here’s long time friend of the blog and brilliant human, William Rycroft, on theatre. (He has a book out too, All Quiet on the West End Front. Details at the bottom…)

Christmas. Season of goodwill, comfort and joy. Time to gather with the family; eat, drink and be merry. Or at least that’s the theory. Are you going to see a show over the holidays? A panto perhaps? A musical? A show for the kids? Whilst many businesses can wind things down over Christmas, Theatreland speeds up, if anything; building into a frenzy of extra performances to meet the demand for family entertainment. So, if you’re off to see something this festive period, I want you to spare a thought for those sweaty performers on stage. They might be as nutty as the walnuts in the bottom of your stocking.

You see, most acting companies are used to an ‘eight-show week’ – performances each weeknight, two on Saturday and a mid-week matinee. Eight shows a week takes its toll, especially if you’re doing it for forty-eight weeks of the year. That’s what I did during my time at War Horse in the West End. Eight shows a week, forty-eight weeks a year, for four and a half years. Longer than the actual First World War. Except of course at least once a year, on top of all that, we’d have to enter the mythical territory of the – drum roll please – ‘nine-show week’.

Pantomimes famously have insane schedules with two or even three shows a day but those runs are at least limited to a fixed period over Christmas. You buckle up, give it your all for a few weeks and if you’re the celebrity drafted in to get bums on seats you buy yourself a new house afterwards. Over at War Horse, an extra matinee in the week before or after Christmas, coming after an arduous year, might have been enough to tip some of us over the cliff-edge of sanity and into the precipice of mixed metaphors.

So how did we cope? Well, Christmas is all about family, and if work kept me away from my actual relatives until the day itself, then I was lucky enough to have a company of people around me that functioned like a slightly dysfunctional surrogate. You support each other with concern, kind words, back rubs and post show drinks. You eat festive treats, hang decorations and observe the most important ritual of any work-based Christmas: Secret Santa. In the West End, we’d heard that musical companies would often get some kind of celebrity in to play the role of Santa. No such glamour for us. Each year, those gifts were handed out by a member of the company dressed up as some kind of bastardised version of Father Christmas. Usually avuncular, often vaguely seedy, it’s a unique Christmas when ‘Santa’ is wearing a form of red tunic/WWI uniform hybrid. 

Photograph © Pieter Lawman

And the same rule applied at this time of year as any other: no matter how exhausted you might’ve been when the show began and the company assembled onstage for the opening song, looking out into a sea of a thousand expectant faces had the effect of filling you with the energy required to do the show justice and to tell them that important story. This is even more the case when the audience is filled with children. Your responsibility isn’t just to tell the story; this may be their first time in the theatre and its within your power to enchant them with its possibilities or turn them off for life. So you take a deep breath, look out to them all, and remember what the words you’re singing really mean – ‘Only remembered for what we have done…’

So have a good Christmas, enjoy the show and, if you think they deserve it, then a standing ovation is a great way to send actors off for Christmas with a spring in their step.

All Quiet on the West End Front is available from Waterstones and the other place and also on Kindle

Weird Tales Radio

Very quick post from me today (I’m nursing a very sore arm) but… a little while ago my good, old friend, Charles Christian, asked me if I’d come on the radio and talk writing advice. So I have. And you can listen to it here. I’m about 15 minutes in.

LISTEN HERE.

This is About Freya J Morris

And we’re back to letting you know about good new stuff today. It’s a pleasure to welcome Freya J Morris here, whose new collection, This is (Not About) David Bowie, published by Retreat West, is out now. And, specifically, she’s talking about finding her voice. So giver her your ears…

Finding your voice

On this day three years ago, Bowie released the song BLACKSTAR. A song that inspired the story ‘Lifeline’ in my collection: This is (not about) David Bowie. He sings about not being a popstar or a marvel star, not being a gangstar or a filmstar – He is a blackstar, born the wrong way around.

Don’t we all feel a bit like that? That we’ve been born a bit wrong? If there’s one thing that Bowie embodies – it’s giving yourself permission to be who you really are. To find your voice. That’s something writer hear all the time: find your voice.

I am an intensely emotional person deep down. I have so much feeling and had no way to manage it. I love to get to the root of people, to find out who they are, why they are, and how they came to be. But with that comes an intense amount of empathy. 

Feelings. Oh how the brits hate their feelings. And here I am – QUEEN OF FEELINGS! I used to be ashamed of it. I’d hide it. I’d supress it. I’d bottle it in and collapse in on myself. You’re ‘too sensitive’ I’d hear.

And it was true. Partly. The words were true but the tone wasn’t. When I started to write This is (not about) David Bowie, I began to OWN it. To embrace who I was. I had been treating this thing-that-nobody-understood, this intense-ability-for-empathy as a flaw. But in fact, it could be a strength if I could see it differently. 

That’s how I discovered my voice. That’s how I found my space. That’s how I became my own black star.

‘Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.’ David Bowie.

That quote, along with some other Bowie-wisdom runs through my collection. He was a living contradiction. He was the King of Pretending and the King of Truth. And if you’re a writer, you’ll know how wonderfully human that is. 

I wanted this collection to embody that messy truth, because that’s what Bowie did for me. When someone asked me if I’d write a collection, it gave me permission. It also gave me a deadline to stop getting in my own way.

Permission. It’s such a weird thing. Permission to show up for yourself. Permission to define yourself. To let go of that impossible ideal. Bowie is an impossible ideal. Having a collection orbit around him was risky. In most cases I wouldn’t have dared use his name in vain. 

But I knew how important it was to get out of my comfort zone. 

So I hope when you read the crazy-weird oddities in my collection, that they will inspire something in you. To really see yourself, flawed, complex, full of contradictions, and wonder at how amazing that all really is… 

You’re a blackstar.

And here’s a sample of the good stuff…

Hatch Fiction Programme – Deadline Coming

It’s been an absolutely crazy busy start to the academic year and I’ve been all over the country, mostly teaching. I was down at Cambridge University for First Story’s Young Writers’ Festival, and then I was at the BBC National Short Story and Young Writer of the Year Awards (it was broadcast on Radio 3’s Front Row, and I was actually sat on the front row, so lots of meta things to amuse me), and there’s been lots of writing of my own which I’m pretty excited about and lots more teaching and even more trains (1800 miles after three weeks, and then I lost count) not enough shaving, and, suddenly, it’s autumn – my favourite time of the year – the trees’ leaves are golden and the air’s chill and the ghosts are getting ready to come out and… and I’m out of breath just typing this.

But there is more news! And an opportunity for Yorkshire prose writers (up to 30) to work closely with me on a brand new fiction programme. I should have mentioned this much, much earlier (sorry!) and most of the places have already been snapped up, but there are a couple left. I’ll paste the detail’s from Hive South Yorkshire’s website below – any questions, give me a shout. Deadline’s OCTOBER 31st.

Hive Fiction programme for writers (18-30) – take your writing to the next level 

Writing can be a lonely and a tricky business to navigate, even for those who’ve been doing it for some time. It’s difficult to know where to get feedback, or if what you’re writing makes the grade. And then there’s what to do with a story or novel once you’ve finished.

If you’re an aspiring short story writer, or novelist, keen to take your craft to the next level, Hive is running the Hive Fiction programme offering an immersive set of workshops over several months providing the help and guidance to get to where you want to be. Join prize-winning author, editor, and short story writer, Nik Perring, for all things fiction, and:

  • identify and work towards your writing goals
  • generate great ideas and turn them into brilliant stories
  • focus on the mechanics of fiction writing such as creating compelling and believable characters, convincing dialogue and description, and strong plots
  • learn how to edit your work to make it publication-ready. Even down to identifying the small changes that can turn something good into something brilliant
  • receive one-to-one feedback on work and tips and insights into publishing routes and opportunities

Who’s the Hive Fiction programme for?
The programme is for fiction writers, aged 18 to 30 in South Yorkshire, at any stage of their writing journey who would like to get more serious. You might lack direction, sticking power, or confidence. You might have a project you want to get stuck into, or want to sharpen your skills, or focus on honing your work.

All levels, genres and interests welcome | Meet like-minded people | Refreshments | Where: central Sheffield near trains/buses
Intro session TBC – Regular fortnightly sessions – day and time subject to majority interest in the first meeting (likely a weekday evening or Saturday afternoon)

Cost: The programme is subsidised by Hive South Yorkshire meaning a cost of just £55 for 12 sessions, and one to one tutorials and support at key stages. If cost is a barrier, please let us know in your application. Places are limited.

To Apply: Send up to 4 A4 pages of work (Times/font size 12), and up to 600 words saying what your interests are, where you are with your writing, and how you’d like the programme to help you to fiction@hivesouthyorkshire.com (also include your age, date of birth, town you live in and postcode)– by midnight 31st Oct (deadline extended)

And here are some photos of my face in different places. (Actually, you’ll have to make do with just the two because technology is not being kind to me.)

Paula Rawsthorne, Sonya Hundal, and a bridge

The Truth About Archie Pye

Jonathon Pinnock’s latest, The Truth About Archie Pye, was published last week (huge congrats!) so I thought it’d be a fine thing if he were to come over here to celebrate. And he has, with his top tips for writing a comic novel…

Ten Top Tips for Writing a Comic Novel

Use Dialogue

Don’t drown in swathes of description. Humour needs to move fast, and dialogue is a splendidly economical way to show character. Think about the different ways in which different people can describe the same thing and what that says about them. Also, it can be a great way to show a relationship in action. Listen to how people discuss and argue – how they talk over each other and ignore the other person altogether.

Listen to the Rhythm

All writing needs to have a sense of rhythm, but for comedy it is everything. It’s the only way you can control the timing of the joke. 

Be Specific

Don’t be lazy. Fix your point of reference exactly and the reader will be drawn in. Instead of saying “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her meal for one”, say something like “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her Findus individual ocean fish pie.” Victoria Wood was the master of this – study her.

Logistics

Most of plotting in the end comes down to logistics: ensuring that person X arrives at Y at the right time with Z. Comedy arises when any or all of these go wrong. Play with all these possibilities. Give your protagonist a terrible time. Set him/her off on a quest and then strew rocks in his/her way. Read PG Wodehouse’s “The Code of the Woosters” to see how a master handles logistics in comedy.

Keep Moving

Don’t linger on anything – especially a favourite gag. Once it’s done, move on to the next one. Pretend you’re writing for the Fast Show. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it won’t matter because there’ll be another one along in a minute. Running gags are great, but make sure they build and don’t just repeat.

Avoid Clichés Like a Plague of Feral Badgers

If you’re tempted to use a cliché at any point, you have basically two choices. Either (1) take it out altogether or (2) subvert or develop it. Think of Blackadder’s plan that was “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University.”

Be Fair to Your Characters

Don’t create characters just to be the butt of jokes. Remember they have feelings too. Are they entirely passive? Do they have agency? Are you being fair to them? Are you punching down or up? They can still be really terrible people and have terrible things happen to them, but they must absolutely deserve it.

Avoid Info Dumps

This is a rule of writing in general (although I maintain that a well-executed exposition can cut an awful lot of flab – consider the first five minutes or so of the film “Serenity” for example), but it does apply especially to comedy. If you have a load of information to get across to the reader, make sure it’s done in an amusing way. Have something else going on in the background. Use something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the only expositional device in literary history to have given its name to an entire book.

Don’t Overdo It

Don’t rely excessively on relentless devices like puns and in-jokes that will eventually wear the reader out. But if you can’t help yourself, make sure you REALLY overdo them. There’s no middle ground.

Ignore All the Above

Humour is MASSIVELY subjective. If you’re confident that what you find funny doesn’t fit the above template, go for it. If you find it funny, chances are someone else will.

Jonathan Pinnock’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was published by Farrago Books last week. A surprising number of people seem to be enjoying it.