An Outdoor Scene (a freewrite)

Outside the office I can hear the traffic flowing along the dual carriageway, with a large roundabout facilitating everyone’s movement. The sound of the rain mixes with the engines to create a gritty swish of relentless noise outside the window.

The wind zigzags through the few token trees which struggle to stay green amidst the grey weeds circling their roots. At this time of day, as the offices release their workers onto the greying turf the dutiful roundabout starts to heave with fatigue, taking deeper and deeper breaths as it breathes in the approaching  cars, swirls them around and around, then spits them out the other side. The rows of cars at the edge of the shore keep growing, becoming huge tidal waves, swelling and roaring while they wait for the next wave.

People sit motionless in their cars staring ahead at the monster they must face. As they trickle forward towards their sacrifice they think of the other side and how if they just get through this, another day, they will make some changes. They just need to get through the sea storm ahead of them.

During the dead time before the storm there are people who are listening to the same radio station because their mouths are moving along in time to the same songs and I wonder what everyone sounds like inside their bubbles. They are tapping the steering wheel and waiting for their turn in the storm.

Meeting Rachel Joyce – Her Take on Writing for Radio

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Me getting her next book signed

This is a little shout out to people embarking on writing for Radio.

In the middle of October (2014 – yes I am that behind the time in posting this), in Chepstow Library in Wales, a crowd of us dragged a chair up to listen to the loveable Rachel Joyce talk about writing for radio.

It is difficult not to be drawn into Rachel’s world. With her long ruffled skirt and Victorian boots, just looking at her made you feel like you were in another world.

I don’t know if any of you have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. If you have you will be surprised to hear that she is not someone who described herself as a novelist beforehand. It turns out that she is predominantly a playwright, and has been one of the main writers for Radio 4’s afternoon play, and lots of plays for Woman’s Hour. She has also been involved in a lot of adaptation work, adapting the Bronte sisters’ works for radio, and her own novels.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells the story of Harold’s epic walk from one end of the country to another. When he walks out of his front door one day in his usual clothes and shoes, it is clear that he is completely unprepared for his journey. Rachel explains that this was a mirror of her own writing journey. She had no idea how to write the book and likens the writing process to Harold just putting one foot in front of the other and just keeping going every day.

Some of the points she made were relevant to anyone on a Creative Writing course, in particular the A215 Creative Writing Module with The Open University, or indeed any writing course, or journey, so I thought I would write them up and share them with you.

Please note, however, that these are just her thoughts, and not to override any advice from your tutor or coursebook! Just things to think about, I suppose.

When asked about her radio writing she said that you have to remember that the radio can be switched off very quickly and then you have lost your audience.

They are unlikely to turn it back on, or find you on ‘listen again’ once they have made that decision, unlike with a book where the reader may well pick it up again when they have more time or are back in the mood.

Consequently, she feels that radio plays need to have a strong storyline to keep the listener engaged.

Other interesting points Rachel made:

–          In Britain we are one of the only nations left who still have radio drama, so we have to look after it, write it, listen to it, share it, review it etc.

–          Character names are hugely important as they carry a lot of weight

–          Rachel always knows what the end of her play will be, and feels as though the beginning and endings are answers to each other. However, she said that one of her most respected writers (named no names) said that anyone who knew their ending when they started out was dull.

–          Writing every single day is vital to improvement

–          Rachel likes to include a lot of truth in her work. She sees the truth as stepping stones. She will write about/fictionalise something truthful, then see another stepping stone stone of truth ahead of her and have to work out a way to get there.

–          Predominantly a writer for radio, Rachel is not used to writing descriptions at length. She has mainly worked in dialogue, and she found that having prose to write descriptions was like having a load of colours to work with.

–          She said that she often used sound to punctuate action and that certain sounds can be very effective in radio work such as rain and other weather.

–          She said that different writing disciplines flex different writing muscles and that there is merit in trying your hand at all varieties so that you can draw from different ones when needed.

–          In order to adapt prose for radio, especially short plays in episodes, you have to get very used to cutting and being brutal. You have to look for that hook for each episode and allow time to remind the listener of what happened in the previous episode. In her adaptations of one of the Bronte stories she had to cut whole scenes and remove whole characters entirely in order to give the main focus to the main characters.

–          Her next book about Queenie Hennessy is being dramatised on the radio in 5 or 6 episodes so for anyone who has read it you can see how she adapted it for radio.

–          The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was also on the radio and is going to be a film in a year or two so it could be interesting to see how the book, radio play, film differ.

 

 

 

Paris in August- 5 days of Graves, Skulls, and Red Sancerre

I didn’t know you were this packed, Paris. I mean, I know everyone loves you and everyone’s supposed to love you even if they don’t really. But seriously, the traffic? I wanted to throw myself into the Seine at one point. Instead I just collapsed on the grass in the Jardin du Luxembourg and propped myself up long enough for a photo before unlocking that elbow and having a tantrum on my back like Harry Enfield’s Kevin.

Clinging on to life in the Jardin du Luxembourg

I wanted everyone to just stop walking INTO MY FACE for five minutes so that I could see Paris for a second. But then again I’m a bit of a country bumpkin when it comes to cities and I tend to just have a strop in the middle of pavements until people move past me. Look at these folks with their back to Notre Dame. Do they know they’re facing the wrong way?

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Jardin du Luxembourg

The Jardin du Luxembourg in August is an absolute godsend. Little toddling boys and girls in clothes that toddling children should wear (i.e. not jeans or clothes with words on) lean over the stone wall and place little wooden yachts into the water and gaze at them as the wind takes them on their near horizontal adventures across the lake. It is a place where you will manage to to regain some peace and be able to face the rest of Paris again.

Shakespeare & Co.

I think I was sulking at being so hemmed in at Shakespeare & Co. (If you don’t know what Shakespeare & Co. is then you’re at the wrong site and you need to go here instead).

As I was saying, I was sulking.

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Conflict (a freewrite)

She can inject life into the empty rooms and turn all heads towards her, awakening lost and tired eyes. Her energy prevents you from succumbing to the routine of daily life. She can whisk up the debris of her surroundings and pick you all up until you are like plates on a stick, spinning and balanced high above your usual level. Your comfort zone fades into the distance as you are swept along on her wave of laughter and lack of self consciousness. Her raw energy inspires and intimidates. She does so much for other people. She exhausts you. Her relentless introspection and projection of her findings leaves you craving a solitary corner. Bewildered at her lack of awareness of those around her you withdraw into yourself, at the same time reaching out to those closest to you for reassurance that you are right in feeling how you do, and for some mutual understanding. She talks of nothing but herself and her work for others, work which noone asks her to do. She is compelled to offer up her time for all those around her yet is unable to act altruistically for long. Those closest to her are subjected to list upon list of charitable acts which have rendered her more tired than the rest of us, and therefore more deserving of preferential treatment. Any attempts to articulate ones own voice is met with a lack of awareness that someone else has spoken. Her need to be in constant contact with someone means that she gives the impression of being more supportive to others than the rest of us, but they don’t hear the way she applauds herself for this and judges those who choose to keep their problems to themselves.

god I love our bookclub, and advice for those wanting to start one

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I went to a cracking little bookclub when I lived in Oxford, where we sat in a cosy pub once a month and all the people around me sounded like they knew loads about what they were talking about. Everyone had a chance to vote for the next book on the list and in general it was just a ruddy nice time and I always cycled home with my book in my basket feeling a little bit like a better person for having actually left my bed to drink wine that night (Tracy Emin just pipped me to the post on that exhibition by the way).

When I moved back to my local area in the middle of nowhere I was unable to find a bookclub where I could get drunk and spout off my opinions about books. The only ones I could find had a ‘one in one out’ waiting list (code for ‘we have to wait for one of the members to die’) or they involved having to read Ruth Rendall in a stranger’s chinzy lounge eating overly buttered sandwiches with my legs crossed. So I decided in February 2013 to see if I could rustle up a tipsy book club like the one in Oxford, for lovers of liquor and literature, and call it Reading Between the Wines.

I put a shout out on facebook about this little gathering, chose a night of the week, chose a venue, and chose a really stupid book choice. Note to others who are thinking of starting a bookclub – maybe don’t pick a book about how every time a certain nursery rhyme is uttered a whole load of kids drop dead. Over and over again. And again. And some more. Cheers to Palahniuk for almost stopping the club before it started. Slightly more death than I’d planned for but at least it served the purpose of showing I didn’t want this to be a club that reads the equivalent of the ‘easy listening’ playlist on Spotify.

3 friends showed up out of sympathy to me. I have nice friends.

We drank some wine and turned the book over in our hands a bit and looked at the front and back cover while we said ‘yeh it was ok’. Once everyone’s alcohol limit for driving had been reached we were allowed to leave, and I tentatively said I hoped to see them next month. Someone chose a book. I thought ‘cool’.

Next month there were more of us. People suggested things. I liked the suggestions. I didn’t tell anyone they were stupid. It seemed to work.

And now that we have around 16 members, with a core of 8 who are there despite flooding, and other countryside obstacles, I’m assuming they don’t hate it because many of them bring a friend, and they often say nice things about it, and write me cards which make me cry (in a good way).

I’ve had various requests of advice from people wanting to set up a bookclub. After completely winging it for years now here is what I think about it all:

Don’t be put off about living in a tiny place. My own fantastic gathering of people happens in a place that only has a blacksmith, a church, and a pub. In places like this you can tap in to the fact that there is little else to do, a lot of people will have shit broadband services, and many will have started drinking at such a young age in the local pub that they will be down there every night anyway and may not even notice they’re even in your bookclub. Use these people to bump up your numbers and to fill the background in photos and make you look popular on social media.

Do have a bookclub ‘afterparty’ when the situation allows. It’s a great time for non bookclub members to dip their toe in, see what all the fuss is about, and also they’ll usually tell other people about you when they hear of others looking for a bookclub.

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One of the many after parties.

Let go of your own reading list. So you want to read everything Steinbeck has every written? Twice? Great. And so you should. But unless your book club is held in the National Steinbeck Centre then you really need to indulge in your own shit in your own time. Let everyone have some kind of say in the books, or the genres at least. You’ll often find that people will love to follow a theme for a little while anyway so you can totally have a few months of a theme ranging from ‘autobiographies’ or ‘books that won the transgender immigrant writer of the year’ award , but be open minded to all books. I won’t lie – you will hate some books, but others will hate your choices too at times. The flip side is that you will most probably fall in love with a book you would have previously assumed you’d dislike from your preconceived ideas. Even if you end up reading a book you thought you’d dislike, and it proves you right, well done – it is sometimes good to be reminded of what your taste is and often we don’t actually read the books we think we don’t like. Besides, you can still come along for the wine and opinions. And hey, maybe there is only one other person in the group who also doesn’t like that book. Maybe you end up talking about how you’re both better than all the rest of us because you clearly have more discerning taste. Maybe you go for a drink after the bookclub, maybe you end up getting married in the Bodleian and having a smug happy highbrow life together. Just turn up and read godammit.

Pick a few books in advance. I have found it really useful to gather book suggestions for as far ahead as the whole year. This has a few advantages:
1. People can choose to plan holidays around the months they really want to attend (often to showcase the book they chose)
2. Some people are avid readers and want to know immediately what they next book is so they can make a head start
3. If people know they can’t make one month they can use their time reading ahead to the next one
4. People can do all their book shopping in one big go, or order books ahead at the library
5. New people who ask you about joining the club will always ask ‘what sort of books do you read?’. Having the whole list ahead gives people a clearer idea of what type of book club you are.

Stick to the same schedule. I tried to start a bookclub 2 years before this one. It was a group of friends who had just had children and wanted to get out and meet others, and read more. I spent the whole time working around other people’s changing schedules. The meetings never happened. I gave up on bookclubs for over a year. It’s sad when someone who you really want to attend can’t make it one month, especially if they have chosen the book. But having a set day is the only way to keep it going. Trust me on this one, and this is coming from a total people pleaser who would love to be able to change it month by month to have the maximum attendees possible.

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Discussion Questions in the hiking boot for ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

Get a fantastic ‘Second in Command’.  I  am lucky enough to have a remarkable lady who helps me out so much. She is the Question Master on many an occasion and comes up with themed stuff like this (yes, the questions are in the boot).

Go online. People bloody love to be tagged in a photo holding a book. Make it happen.It’s useful to have a little public or private space for members to share stuff between meetings. I have a facebook page to create events, invite people to them, and share updates, and a private group where members post opinions and reviews about the book or ask questions to each other. I also send out a few emails a month to the whole mailing list as not everyone is on social media. It helps remind people to keep reading and gives people a chance to let you know if they can’t make the next meeting.

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One of our members stocking up

Get out of your house and meet in a (nice) pub – you’ll find that members (and yourself) often barely have time to finish the book, let alone whip the hoover round and arrange their book collections to hide any shitty books from their peers. Find a venue where people can order what they like, leave when they like, and leave someone else to do the washing up. It also allows people to drop out last minute, which brings me on to the final point…

Don’t be a dick to people if they don’t show up or drop out altogether. Sometimes people have an idea of what a bookclub will be like. Believe it or not, your gathering of pissheads reading that one book plucked out from the millions and millions on offer may not be what they want to do right in that moment in time, or ever again for that matter. There was enough of that crap at school (Disclaimer: without the alcohol)*.

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Secret Santa Book Swap

Failing all that, just do a quiz and give out some free stuff sometimes.

*My schooling was in Wales so this disclaimer does not apply.