Instagram a pack of lies? You should see my Little Black Book from 1989.

littleblackbookEssena O’Neill, a teen online celebrity has this month quit Instagram saying that social media is not real life.  I think it isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain or mould a sense of self. We should chill out about this, and also trust teenagers to navigate their worlds.

I was 14 in 1989 and I didn’t have Instagram.  I did, however, own a Little Black Address Book.  Maybe I bought it from WH Smiths, from the display of stiff glossy address books, probably tempted by the skinny pencil and ribbon tucked inside the tiny spine. You tend to spend a lot of time in WH Smiths when you’re 14 and the internet doesn’t exist.  They didn’t even need to tout the discount chocolate back then.  You’d just go in and buy books, magazines and stationery. Maybe the Little Black Book came free with More, the slutty racy teen magazine of choice, in 1989.  That’s certainly possible.

It was such an exciting and, let’s be honest erotic item, this Little Black Book; just the idea of it!  A tiny glossy oracle, to be crammed with the phone numbers and addresses of all my friends, and more importantly, all the boys I knew. I am not sure if grown women then actually had Little Black Books or if it was a myth from films but it felt like the passport to popularity; reassuring evidence of my status and my identity.

After putting in my own address and phone number, and my Nan’s, my Aunty’s, and my German penpal’s (female), I realised with looming sadness that it was nothing but a passport into Awkward and evidence of my Lack of Friends.  I didn’t even really like my German penpal because she wrote in loopy cursive which was difficult to read.  The only boy whose address I actually knew was my brother, and he didn’t count because he was six.  I included him anyway.

So I did what any resourceful 14 year old would do and I went through the BT Phone Book and took stab at guessing the contact details for all the boys in my school to whom I harboured crushes.  I could work out their rough location in Stevenage based on the direction they walked to school coupled with surreptitious glances at the school register.

I did quite well at this early version of stalking, or at least I think I did, safe in the knowledge that these details would never ever be tested in the real world.  I added in some celebrity names too; Jason Bateman, Corey Feldman, Michael J Fox and the like, just to pad things out a bit.  My Little Black Book was, in the end, fat and full and hidden in my bedside cabinet where no one else would ever ever see it. Ever.

This brave work of fiction was the extent of social media for a 14 year old in 1989.  For years I thought it was a bit pitiful but now I see it in a new light. It was a comforting item at the time.

It isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain, or mould a sense of self. Many of these fantasies will be played out in public.  Concerns about the narcissistic “selfie generation” may gather pace but it also isn’t uncommon for adults to get their pants up their arse about such things. Mikhail Bakunin in 1838 wrote “Noise, empty chatter–this is the only result of the awful, senseless anarchy of minds which constitutes the main illness of our new generation – a generation that is abstract, illusory, and foreign to any reality.”

Instagram and Twitter are – let’s be clear – subject to a degree of distasteful commercialism. And, with their fluid real-life audience of millions, fantasy and reality can become turbo-charged.  Make-believe can become snared in heady affirmation, or hurtful mockery and it must become difficult for teenagers to figure out who the hell they are.

But conceptually these things are nothing new. Teenagers today will navigate their worlds, as we did, however vertiginous they may appear to a generation past.

And that Little Black Book?  I am not sure exactly where it ended up, the little work of fiction which defined me for a while (even if only to myself).  It was replaced by other constructs over the years, (most of which are still hidden in a drawer).  But here I am now, twenty five years on, pulling it out and talking about it on the internet. Sharing ourselves is nothing new and sharing constructs is nothing new either.

The Last Radio Kid.

Radio-On-Air-Large-HomeAn excerpt from some radio reminiscences; born in 1974 I was part of the last generation to grow up without a mobile phone or internet.  Radio was particularly important to us, and still is.

Actually working in radio stations as I went on to do in the 90s was frequently fun.  This was local radio: a strange world of larger-than-life DJs, magnified in their own self-importance by the adoration of the audiences.

The star turns often had seaside postcard showbizzy names left over from the 50s and 60s. Danny Dazmore was one DJ I remember particularly well.  He had been a Butlins Redcoat and was probably quite dishy as a younger man.  Now past sixty it was all wearing a bit thin but he still had a massive following; a bevy of ageing female fans would often loiter in reception to catch a glimpse of him. His real name he told me was Reginald Oakes. I liked Danny a great deal; he might have been a relic but he had a gift for telling an anecdote and was gentlemanly and generous.

My favourite anecdote was from his Butlins days about a club singer who was too big for his boots. Danny was the compere for the show, but after each obsequious introduction would try to distract the singer on stage in a series of outrageous ways.  His favoured method was by mooning from the wings with a “W” drawn in marker pen on each buttock.  This particular singer’s specialty was The Searchers’ Wow Wow Baby and Danny in the wings would bend over every time the lyric came up, his bum displaying the word.  It’s a story Danny would mime, cigar in mouth, although he kept his trousers up in the telling.

Phone-ins were another source of enormous fun for me in my early career.

Hard-core listeners to radio are often, to be frank, a little bit odd.  The boundaries of reality are rendered somewhat fluid when you have a disembodied voice urging you to get in touch. Now!  Phonelines are free!  The whole transaction is necessarily weird and this is something to which most radio stations are sensitive.  Generally due to the number of security doors between studio and street it rarely comes to anything more than some extremely odd mail.  As a more general happy consequence, regular super keen listeners can be relied upon to be encouraged to participate/take the bait for most phone-in topics and thus ensure a lively amount of programming.

The best fun, however was always when there were insufficient callers to a show and members of staff had to fake being members of the public.

Gifted with an ability to lie at will and a keen ambition to progress I was often enlisted to help by pretending to be a phone-in caller.   I was pretty young; my experience of life was fairly narrow but my imagination already flying ahead of me.

“We’re doing pregnancy cravings Nic – anything you like… three.. two… one…”

“Well of course no one believes me but I really did like fish and ice cream.”

“Actual fish?”

“Yes.  Cod with vanilla ice cream, it had to be the own brand one from Somerfield though.  Ice Cream I mean.”

Another time it was winter memories of Bristol.  At the time I hadn’t set foot in the city so I asked the DJ for a bit of help.

“What’s a big hill in Bristol?”

“I dunno… St Michaels Hill?… ok three.. two…  one…”

“We used to love sliding down St Michaels Hill on tea trays.  Dad was too stingy to buy us sleds.”

I don’t think I’d ever actually seen someone using a tea tray as a sled in fact but it sounded plausible enough.  I’d chat away to the random presenter about my imaginary dad and his imaginary tea trays sliding down a hill I’d never seen, grasping an imaginary childhood out of the air.  The stories, oddly, felt like they’d been there all the time and I could see how psychics and mediums believed their own hype.  My imagination which would become a leaping tiger was already a fairly lively cat and the lines between reality and imagination tended to happily blur.  My conjurings came to an abrupt end a couple of years later however and it was all thanks to a pensioner called Elsie.

Things became a little more complicated when it came to a love and relationship show  I wasn’t particularly coy and certainly not inexperienced but coming up with believable sex confessions was more of a challenge.

“Shall I say I can’t get enough sex?”

“Nah… we’ve done nymphos a million times, anyway it can’t be slutty.”

“What if… um I was an eighty year old woman who was still a virgin?”

The producers liked that.  It had a certain poignancy to it: a warmth.  So I faked being Elsie, an eighty year old lady, with a feisty edge who’d lived a full and satisfying life as a teacher and then working in the social services.  She enjoyed tennis, could still play a short game on the right surface, had always had a few good friends, but never married and she was sad about never having had relations.  I assumed a quiet voice as I channelled this fictitious senior citizen.  The presenter asked gentle questions about lost opportunities, we shared a joke or two; the presenter suggesting I try the lonely hearts advertisements in the paper, Elsie laughingly appalled at the prospect, saying she’d got a plumber from the local paper once and he’d made a mess of her kitchen so she wasn’t about to risk her heart or anything else the same way.  And so it went.  A sympathetic portrayal I felt and one which might just connect with a real listener.  Had I known just how resonantly it would connect with a particular listener I might have thought again.

I didn’t think too much about it after that, until the producer phoned.

“You’ve had some fan mail.”

I could hear laughter in the background.  It had a hysterical edge to it.

“What does it say?”

“It says… it says…”, he couldn’t finish the sentence as giggles crowded out his words.

“Why are you reading my mail anyway you bastard?”

“It’s not yours its Elsie’s.”

“Fuck you!”

“I’ll have to join a line”, again he dissolved into giggles.

“What?”

“Well darling “fuck you” is pretty much what 76 year old Don would like to do actually… and 68 year old Tony, and about fifteen other randy pensioners.”

I put the phone down, nauseous.  It rang again.

“Don would like to… what does that say Kate?  Kate – read it out… ‘initiate you into the pleasures of the flesh.. and delve’.  Is that delve?  Yeah DELVE into unimagined intimacies…  Gosh this paper is ever so creased, his hands must have been well sweaty.”

“Fuck you.”  I put the phone down again then lifted it off the hook.  Unfortunately in an open plan office with well-ordered telephone extensions the next phone along merely rang and my friend proffered the receiver to me.

“He says he can be ‘the rudder to steer you through the unchartered waters of passionate love’.

“Ugh!  I don’t want to have anything to do with Don’s rudder.  And fuck off.

I thought on this occasion perhaps even I had gone too far and from then on refused any requests to roleplay.  It had however, been fun whilst it lasted. They sent me the letters for Elsie in a jiffy bag which was bad enough but Don in particular was extremely persistent and continued to write for several months and every time a new letter arrived from my ancient suitor a cheer went up around the office.

In the end someone else had to lie on my behalf and claim Elsie’s death – momentarily saddened at this news, it was hard for me to remember that she wasn’t actually real.

The Martian: If only Watney was a Botanist. Oh. Hang on.

marsmars

I think it was Christopher Vogler who said that it isn’t enough for the protagonists in our stories to face peril.  They have to face the worst kind of peril possible for that specific person.  Added to which, in order for us as viewers, or readers to give a shit, the stakes have to be high.

A doting father, scared of heights?  They must rescue their child from the top of The Shard.  Greedy billionaire can’t stand bugs? His fortune is sinking under a load of bugs. No really.  It’s sinking now!  Strip off and get in there Moneybags!  Feel those wing cases brushing your face!  THE MONEY IS SLIPPING under the bugs!  Now!  Or all is lost!  HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT IT, HUH?  HUH?!

You get the idea.

If Moneybags didn’t care so much for money he’d just go home.  If he wasn’t scared of bugs he would jump instantly and the movie would be over in 45 minutes.

I am not saying these models are perfect, but tension is certainly interesting.

So Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian, stranded on Mars, will need a county shitload of science skills to survive.  There’s not much food so he might starve.  It’s quite a predicament, make no mistake.

BUT. The little bastard is a botanist.  Not just a keen gardener; a kick-ass NASA strength botanist who was botanisty enough to be trusted to terraform a planet.  Mentally tough enough to have tolerated the months in space to get to Mars.

He’s got this.

Sure there are problems.  Things explode.  Science bites back.  He deals with these issues in turn.  Aside from one or two dashboard punches he never looks like he’s losing the plot which is in part because the plot is never off the leash.

Watney lacks vulnerability.  This isn’t helped by the casting.

Matt Damon.  I love Matt Damon.  Possibly a little too much, especially in the scene where they show how skinny he’s got by having him sashay around, a little butt-naked.

Sorry where was I?

But you see Mark Watney in this movie – he’s just Matt Damon.  Beautiful Go-to Astronaut/Sci-Fi Renegade, fresh back from his mission to Interstellar (where he was a much more emotionally interesting character). He’s a solid capable sort.  They’ve included the humour of Watney, for example, his mining of the crew’s music collections to pass the time but even these cheesy disco tracks lose the OCD urgency they might have had; they become a peppy soundtrack, further diminishing the terror and darkness that this story needed.

Watney had nuances in the book, not so many vulnerabilities, but he had quirks that would have been nailed by casting an unknown.  It would have enhanced the feeling that maybe Watney has NOT got this. If Watney was in real danger of freaking the fuck out or not having the answers it would be so much more satisfying when he triumphed.

It doesn’t work that way in film-making so they cast the money.  He does it well.  Serves up the zingers.

Ridley Scott has created a visually gorgeous and deft movie. It is true to the strengths of the novel, but ultimately it exacerbates the weaknesses; not least with the casting.

Cue the disco music.

Pitch & Polish.

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Promotional image by Luke Fielding for Allen Road – our TV Pilot Script.

 

Luke and I have been working like crap to get the pilot script of Allen Road ready to be pimped at a pitching event in November.  It was meant to be a few weeks back but the organisers had a few issues and it was cancelled.  This was frustrating as I had booked a hotel room and gone to other expense and it did make me ruminate on the cost of promoting work, especially screenplay.

I don’t know that it is necessary to spend as much as I have along the way but I also know it is pointless sitting at home and fervently wishing your script appears on the telly all by itself.  Just a smattering of money thrown at projects includes:

  1. Competition entries – can be free or around 50 quid even, although you get feedback sometimes.  I had good feedback from Bluecat even though I didn’t place.
  2. Script Analysis – we paid around 120 quid for Allen Road to be analysed by Philip Shelley, a well respected script consultant for Channel 4 and as a result have some awesome quotations for the promotional stuff.  His feedback was very detailed.
  3. Cards – to hand out at events.
  4. One Page Pitch – this is basically a short synopsis but as Luke is a graphic designer by trade we tend to go all out on this – see above for some of the kick ass imagery we have put together.

It’s a balance – you need to make sure you are only spending what you can afford and target your investment rather than entering and going to everything.

Anyway.  Pitching my screenplay to LA like the fucking lunatic I am was a zillion times more complex and ten times more expensive.  So that’s some sort of comfort when I’m watching my bank account get hammered for the British stuff.

Next up, the Polish.  And you can say that like the country or the verb – both apply.  I was invited to join a writers’ group earlier this year run by Clare Morrall, the Booker shortlisted author as well as some other very experienced writers.  I was very much the newbie and even, entertainingly for me, possibly the youngest in the group (been a while since that happened).  It was an intense full-day’s worth of group analysis and it took me a week to get over it.

I submitted a chapter of The Challah Tin, one I thought was very evocative of the scenes set in the Polish village.  This included a version of the “bottle game” with amusing and unlikely pairings, (the busty 15 year old Magdalena with short fat 12 year old Roman, for example).  The group did like it, but I had masses of feedback including my old achilles heel of quite a few technical faults.

Other feedback was to slow the pace and immerse the reader more into the detail of these scenes. I enjoyed the rewrites in this respect; it’s such a cliche but the scenes do feel like they exist already and I have only to think about them and all the detail is there.  It is a comforting place.  Grammar improvements are not remotely comforting, however, and leave me drained and irritable.

In all it was bloody hard work but the chapter is better after the polishing – no two ways about it – and out of that meeting I was asked to be a Reader for the Rubery Book Award so I’m pleased with that.

I have been to various writerly groups over the years and they are very much like Forrest Gump’s box a chocs – you never know what you’re gonna get.  Some ask you to do exercises – especially writing prompts.  Others you take something you wrote and everyone does the praise sandwich on it.  Other times someone is just talking and you play on your phone until it’s time to get a drink and gossip.

I think I like the drinky gossipy types of groups the best.  Or perhaps I just like drinking and gossiping.

It’s the people that make the event anyway – I love meeting other writers and so will be looking forward to the Birmingham Literary Festival next month and recommend it to anyone who wants to talk writing.

Or just come and drink or gossip with me.

Choose Your Sausages Wisely.

sausage-v.SM

A career which involves writing can seem like the perfect fit, if you are an aspiring author.  In a talk I gave this weekend to the Stevenage Writers’ Group I outlined some of the pros and cons, including being realistic about “giving up the day job.”  Thank you to the group; it was a lovely laid-back session on a beautiful sunny day and I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in their stimulating and fun company.

Thank you for asking me to talk a bit about what I do.  My job is to write educational features and commercial scripts of all sorts, for a children’s radio station.  I get to invent characters sometimes.  Other times I use a client’s own characters and put words in their mouths.   So that’s my job.

My own writing ranges from TV pilot scripts, feature length screenplays in the science fiction genre, to a novel in progress.  Increasingly I like short form and have played with flash fiction too. I’ve had a few wins and awards but the amount of money I’ve generated from all this doesn’t quite stretch to four figures.  So I won’t be giving up the day job just yet.  In fact … I don’t see a time where I will.  And that’s OK. I hope I can explain why I feel this way.

Of course people do make money from their own writing, especially these days from e-book sales, but as you probably know the average working writer in the UK draws a salary from his or her writing of less than seven thousand pounds a year.

A good advance on a first novel might be 5,000UKP.  Afternoon drama for Radio 4 might be around the same although you would get repeat fees for that.   Screenplays are quite lucrative – get one of those optioned and you could be talking 30,000UKP or more.  Sadly however getting optioned is marginally more difficult than trying to learn Polish overnight.  Having attempted both I’ve had a little more success with the Polish thanks to a particularly grueling commission.

If you get that advance the carousel doesn’t stop.  Only two per cent of books published are bestsellers and over eighty per cent of books published in the UK sell less than five hundred copies. Make no mistake, even as a full-time author of nothing but your own works you will need to keep writing to maintain an income from your writing.

Even if an agent picks up your novel, you get an afternoon play and flog ten features to the Guardian it may still not be enough to live on.  To keep an income there will inevitably be a sausage machine aspect to your writing – which may be fine if you’re prolific.   Or really really like sausages.

For the rest of us, I think we have to be realistic and accept that only a few will ever “give up the day job”.  We will all have to work, as our books stories and poems take shape.  Some people will build houses, others do accounts, others will teach, some will do something totally different.  Maybe we do a combination of things.  We’ll all do a bit of everything, and do you know what?  That’s normal these days.  There’s even a name for this – it’s called having a portfolio career.  Bit of this, bit of that.

Some people might have careers like mine which involve writing and this can seem an appealing prospect –  and that’s what I’m going to talk briefly about next.

I make money from writing.  Enough to live on. Trouble is, it’s not my writing. I’m a commercial writer.  I write to order.  Journalists, technical authors and copywriters of all sorts fall into this category.  It can seem like an attractive career … but I’d urge caution.

I idiotically thought that being a commercial writer would be a heavenly job – the perfect fit in my portfolio – earning money whilst honing my craft.  Even if the topics, characters and plots… subjects… settings… style…  weren’t technically mine.  Even if I was writing about Jumbo Jets, Bread, um Quarries.  Beef.

It’s a good job.  Challenging.  Interesting.  But it isn’t a heavenly job most of the time.

My life is at times like an endless Nanowrimo with a set amount of words to get down every single day and the days stretch into the distance.  I’m shackled not just to the sausage machine but to the to the sausages in the sausage machine.  I mean, I like a sausage as much as the next girl but… you know.  Sausage overload.

There are however, no doubt about it, some good things about a career as a commercial writer f you write for yourself too.  So here are four benefits:

  1. You do make some quite good contacts

Working with magazines, or radio stations or newspapers or whatever – you may find a producer or an editor with whom you click, and who in the future you can ask to read a ms (athough I’d offer money for them to do this, as they will be busy people and not your mate) – and if they don’t utterly hate it maybe you can get a positive quotation to use in any subsequent approaches to agents.  Those quotations are apparently worth their weight in gold because they make it easier to market your book.

A slight downside is that the contacts as a jobbing copy hack are unlikely to be Will Self, and more likely be with the Nautical Effluence Alliance or the British Toilet Manufacturers.  I have brilliant contacts at some children’s comics.  They understand me.  Like me I hope.  They like the writing I’ve done for them.   Which is great.  Except all my personal work has themes around sex drugs and violence. I could ask them to read my novel, give me a quote…  but anxious about lawsuits they’d suddenly pretend they didn’t know me and start gently unfriending me on social media.

  1. You get really really good at starting to write. Which is the hardest bit.

You can’t claim writer’s block with a commercial deadline.  Or you can but they’ll find a better commercial writer who lies and says they never get blocked.  And it is absolutely possible to be blocked even if the subject matter is laid out for you in a detailed brief as you’ll know if you’ve plotted out your novel, deeply feel what you want to say…. You just… can’t say it.  It happens.

However, pushed by constant terror that they will get someone else in I have got fairly good at sitting down and starting to type.   After about two years of this like any muscle memory it began to get easier to start and this does translate over to my own writing.  Mostly.  Sometimes.

  1. It is quite a good way to “make money from writing.”

Which is always nice to be able to say to people.  But other than those people you have told… no one will ever know you wrote all these things.  Because they won’t have your name on them, they will have the client’s name.  And sometimes that’s a good thing when bafflingly inappropriate sound effects or horrible illustrations are thrust betwixt your crafted words.   Or when the brief changed so many times a neat piece of writing has globbed into something which looks like it was translated through four languages.

  1. It’s a brilliant way to cut down on your drinking in the week.

This is personal.  Writing pissed is BRILLIANT when you want to purge and exorcise your life onto the page or to carve and craft a sentence and throw it all down… speak from the heart…  When, however, you’re trying to accurately describe gravity in a way that an 8 year old will understand via the medium of a computer dog …. It’s not so good.   You need to keep a clear head for that shit.

The best thing about my day job is not that it involves writing.  The best thing is that it is I work with nice people, it is stimulating and most importantly quite flexible so that when the sausage machine is powered down for the night there’s still enough time and sanity left for me to pick up my own writing and get on with it.

It’s very unlikely that we as writers will be able to give up the day job.  I do think that as long as the day job is tolerable, and buys you the time to write then in my opinion it really doesn’t matter – and it doesn’t matter what it is you do.  We should look for something that buys you this time – and something that stimulates us – and if it isn’t in a writing sphere than that’s OK.

Red-eyed, stunned and carrying a pile of books…

204A couple of months ago I was lucky to be selected for the Room 204 Writer Development Programme. It’s a mentoring scheme for emerging writers, and with only fifteen places each year the competition is tough.  I was especially pleased to get a place as I have no shortage of written things…. but I have a big shortage of homes for my own projects despite hustling the crap out of them.

In June I had my first one-to-one with Jonathan Davidson, the Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands.  Jonathan’s work has been published and broadcast in just about every creative writerly sphere.  He’s a director of plays and literary events, worked in the publishing industry for many years, and so there is no one better placed to point out my failings.  Joke.  Jonathan is too darn nice to do that.  Or if he did it would be in a way that would make me feel all fuzzy and acquiescent.

The session was hugely useful.  Jonathan knows everyone and everything; as I went down a tangent he instantly produced targeted information about a related writer’s group, relevant book, connected residency, interesting website, person-who-knows-a-person who I should meet, amusing anecdote or scorching gossip on the topic.  He also talks very fast which I like because I talk fast too.  Also the session was only an hour and I like to get value for money.  He made me laugh which was particularly welcome as I think I cried at one point.  He wasn’t laughing at me crying; it was just emotional.  I went home red-eyed, stunned and carrying a massive pile of books from the WWM library.  That doesn’t happen every day.  The massive pile of books I mean.  I have two kids.  I’ve been red-eyed and stunned on and off since 2007.

The biggest conclusions were:

1. My screenplays are pitched already or will be pitched at networking events so Room 204 won’t concentrate on those.

2. I’ll use their help to concentrate on my prose fiction.

3. Writing for radio isn’t something I want to do for my own projects.  I could radiofy my prose fiction … but I’d just rather not.  The process of creating broadcast work involves a lot of other people and whilst that doesn’t bother me for my screenplays, for my prose fiction is more intimate and personal and I want to control it.

4. The Challah Tin is my most complete work.  I will rewrite some sections and take out others and make it as good as I possibly can.

5. Then, WWM will put me in touch with another writer who may be amenable to reviewing the ms as a private commission, as opposed to having it sent to a literary consultancy who may not “get it.”  As we discussed, having people “get it” is very verrrry important.  As is having a decent review and feedback on the whole.

6. There is an opportunity to visit or stay at the International Centre for Dialogue in Poland.  This would be amazing as my book touches on historical aspects of Poland post WW2.  It would also help me infuse and inform the book with detail accurate to the country.

7. I will write more short fiction and enter comps as often as I can for practice and profile.

It all feels manageable, exciting and focused.  Thank you WWM and off to work I go.

Bin Weevils/Fun Kids Partnership wins Gold

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L-R: Joe Friel, Content Manager at Fun Kids, Mark Heads from Create, (our production company), Me, The Bin Weevils guys and Bex Lindsay, one of our Fun Kids presenters. Photo via Radio Today / audioBoom.

This week Fun Kids won Gold for Innovation at the 2015 Arqiva Radio Awards Ceremony.  The Award was for the work we’ve done with Bin Weevils.

Bin Weevils is a very successful online game for kids.  In the game your character can build a nest, buy items, play games and accumulate points and levels and chat to other kids in a very moderated and safe setting.  It’s somewhat addictive; in the course of “research” I got up to level 56 and had a tricked out nest with the Deluxe Super Mega Garden and I was severely irritated with my children when they went online and messed with my nest Feng Shui.

So where was the Innovation? Well in the game you can buy a radio and when you click on it you’ll hear a sample episode from the Bin Weevils show on Fun Kids and then the radio station continues to play in the background. Simple idea really.

When we heard the award announced I have never screamed so loudly – and then I laughed my ass off for the rest of the evening, exhilarated with the win.

My contribution was and is scripting the shows, from gossip and tips about the gameplay to jokes and pranks and stories off the back of the existing magazine content.  I get an immense amount of satisfaction from writing the educational features on Fun Kids…  but I have to admit Bin Weevils was plain and simple fun.  The Awards event was fun too but of a much more adult variety and the least said about that the better.  Hic.

The show still goes out every week on Fun Kids.  In fact it it is a year old this week.  The Award was a brilliant birthday present!

Why I put my Kalashnikov on ebay.

wordsThe devastating news about Amber Peat made me think about the things we don’t say and the things we don’t communicate.  Communicating is powerful.  I think writing is perhaps the most powerful kind of communication of all.  After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, right?

Maybe we know the saying but we don’t believe it.  It doesn’t always feel true for us.  We can’t all make speeches like Churchill or Malcolm X, nor are we world-changers at Charlie Hebdo;  our own small world writing can feel somewhat impotent and silly. So, often we just don’t bother writing, or communicating – after all what’s the point when it is open to misinterpretation, argument, dismissal and ridicule?  Or the worst of all – disinterest.

And in an actual fight to the death, come on – pens would be rubbish.  You might jab me in the eye with your pen but even half-blind I stand a reasonable chance of blasting off your legs with my Kalashnikov.  My Kalashnikov is fictional and your pen is real but the point stands, unlike you if you come at me with that pen. Okay? We’re cool bro.

Notwithstanding comparisons to Russian automatic weapons, it is a truth that writing is a tool which helps us to communicate.  The more deft you are at communicating then the more likely you are to get what you want. You may receive the refund on your shitty holiday experience at Centre Parcs or get a replacement toaster off of Argos. You may get a job you applied for.  And the extra pint of milk.  Or the restraining order against the writer with the fictional Kalashnikov who keeps doing the “gun finger” thing at you.

The most measurably powerful piece of writing to which I can lay claim was a character statement for someone I know who was facing a jail term.  They still received a jail term but my statement went some way to making it a little shorter than it otherwise might have been.  I’m not certain that tap dancing or posting a drawing or blasting off the judges legs with a Kalashnikov would have achieved the same result.

Writing can communicate complex feelings too, and feelings aren’t so measurable, or transactional.  That power to communicate shouldn’t be underestimated.  What moves us more than a beautifully written letter of condolence, or an intimate love letter?

You might not sway a people to rise up against their oppressor, (or I suppose, quell a separate, less desirable uprising) but writing can give us and others comfort and can express truths – “to tell someone all the truth before it kills you” even, to quote a favourite lyric.

I have written pieces of prose or poetry for people on a few occasions which enabled me to express feelings.  One time it was for a friend who had lavished me with so many hand-made gifts that something shop-bought in return felt thin and ill-suited in comparison.  My effort turned into a piece of free verse that ran into about four pages and I don’t expect anyone other than the recipient to understand a word.  It was packed with the encapsulation of remembered private jokes and bits of history.  It communicated everything I felt about our friendship – even today I could point at that verse and say – yep, that’s us.  It made physical something which was ephemeral – and that is a comforting party trick for an atheist.

I wrote another piece of prose once, for a friend who infuriated me and with whom I argued on many occasions.  I wanted to set in stone that we were friends, at least in my opinion, but without a conversation about it causing another row.  A piece of writing can’t be interrupted and so is an excellent way of communicating with stubborn bastards.  Typically for me I created an elaborate analogy set in space, in part because duh and also perhaps to put him at a disadvantage in not being able to rebuff my argument as instantaneously as usual.  I am not sure we ARE actually talking at the moment but at the time it did smooth the ripples and we smiled a while instead of provoking each other.

The effect of writing those things made me feel powerful – mighty in some way.  I even put the Kalashnikov on ebay as a result.

The pieces of my writing which I like the best (and which have done the best) tend to be informed by this strong desire to communicate.  There is a point to them – some sort of truth I am attempting to express – dragging the painful abstract into black and white reality.  I think the best types of writing are like this.  Friends of mine who write reviews always seem to create the most astonishing writing of alll when they are fuelled by rage, or delight, or wonder.

I am reminded of this: the simple power of writing, power felt inside, coming from truth however unpalateable that truth can be.  I resolve to be more truthful.

If you write and are blocked maybe think – What truth do you need to tell before it kills you?  Go and write that.

1914 – Through a London Child’s Eyes.

London schoolchildren planting vegetables as part of the War Effort.
London schoolchildren planting vegetables as part of the War Effort.

Yesterday I finished writing the final episode of the WW1 radio series for the Heritage Lottery Fund.   In ten three-minute episodes I try to cover off a good deal of information about what London in 1914 was like through a child’s eyes and how things changed as war encroached into every corner of everyday life. Even though the time frame of six months is short I have to cover a lot of ground. This includes detail on the homes people lived in, clothing, entertainment, schooling, communication, food and celebration – across all the social classes at that time.  And I try to make the narrative engaging and moving too, obviously.

It follows the changing life of Edward Hampton, who is 12.  He lives with his mother and father in an middle-class part of north London, and enjoys school, the cinematograph theatre, and fishing with his father.  His richer Grandmother lives in a very large house with many servants – her main concern about the war is that finding staff will become harder than ever.

Edward is friendly with Sidney, 13, the son of Mrs Parry the housekeeper.  The Parry’s live in the poorer enclaves of Clerkenwell.  Sidney’s brother John joins up the very first day he can and is soon at the front.  Mr Parry follows, and even Edward’s father joins the London Fusiliers, Stockbroker’s Battalion before the year is out.

Mrs Hampton takes a job at the War Office as a censor, and Edward is increasingly left to his school and scouting friends as even Sid starts work as a telegram boy and Mrs Parry moves to better paid factory work. Sidney desperately wants to join up like his brother.  The year ends with khaki everywhere on the streets as the “lights go out over Europe”, and the British realise that this terrible War will not remotely be “over by Christmas.”

My favourite line is from Sidney who is trying so hard to join up:

“I acted all angry and said I was twenty one if I was a day and my diminutive stature was because I come from a long line of jockeys. I said my father won the 1899 Derby on a horse with backward leg, and if they put me on any old nag they want and give me a revolver, I’ll gallop right up and shoot the Kaiser myself”

And the Curse of Blackadder (unintentional double-entendre) manifested spectacularly in this line, only spotted after it was off for production:

“I read in the newspaper how they are desperate for large houses to serve as hospitals for the wounded soldiers. Might your mother oil her enormous front gates and open them a crack for our men?”

 

Oops.  I had to research an awful lot of things quite quickly over six weeks, and translate this to a series for children.  I was aiming for it to be moving and informative, without slipping into sentimentality. Where we lacked detailed information I have had to creatively fill the gap – something I enjoy although there is always the issue of whether your imagination has diverged too spectacularly from fact.

One of the biggest ahem creative differences I had with my boss along the way was whether to use contractions – you know don’t instead of do not, shan’t instead of shall not.

I do not (ha) know the exact extent of the informal use of contractions in the spoken word in 1914 across all classes; letters from that time seem to include them … and not include them but then the written word is not equivalent to the way people would have spoken. There are not many audio examples of the raw spoken word from that time, far less across the social classes.

My position is that this is a script; it is essentially dialogue which will be heard by listeners, as opposed to being a document, and our ears are used to hearing contractions.  Although I include plenty of accents and idiom appropriate to the time, I have included quite a lot of contractions – even for the richer, better educated characters.

Partly because it felt right and well, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, not…..It is a Long Way to Tipperary. Right?

This series has involved much careful thought from myself and the team and I am really excited to hear how it translates to air later in the year.

1914 – Through a London Child’s Eyes, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be broadcast on Fun Kids this Summer with a series of accompanying workshops for families.

Spring Forward.

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So! How’s the writing going? 

Well I’m writing two series for Fun Kids at the moment – an interesting one is for the Heritage Lottery Fund.  We’re trying to come up with a beautiful narrative to show the experience of being a child in 1914.  My boss Greg and I visited the exquisite Geffrye and Postal Archive Museums, and the London Metropolitan Archive, where I inadvertently set all the interactive displays to my own personal Gmail.  That was funny. We learned a lot, like how never to attempt to hack into your own Gmail in an interactive display and, less amusingly how over half a million children died as part of the War Effort – aside from all those who perished in the Zeppelin raids.

But that’s “work” right?  How’s your own writing going?

Well yes, it’s going pretty well.  I love our office.  I wish I could order Mel and Sally by Direct Debit so that I could constantly have their wordery, insight and energy.  I sent out all my Carrier query letters and I’m already excited to have three LA rejections.  Say what you like about the Hollywood machine but they are at least devastatingly efficient.  Luke and I constantly hone the collaborations.  We clawed The Fade into line last month.  We can’t really sell it until we do. I am also editing up a chapter book for kids, so that I can e-publish it, but it’s difficult to get it right.  I’m working on it.

Yeah… but have you like…  made any money yet?  From the personal stuff I mean.

Thanks for sticking the knife in there – that’s nice.  No.  Remind me to never come to your house ever again.

There was, however that Faber flash fic runner-up placement, a place on the Writing West Midlands Room 204 Programme and an invitation (this week) to join a very cool writing group in June.

Writing – that’s like a mid-life crisis isn’t it?  It’s like making artisan bread or crafting, isn’t it?

Fuck off.  Anyway, I like artisan bread.