Sunday, 28 February 2010

For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven (part II)

The continuing saga of my primary day out and three more stories from the enthusiastic imaginings of 5-10 year olds.

One class began its story by choosing a title: ‘The blue truck’. It was set in Hawaii and the cast consisted of:
• a blue truck and a red one, which was later changed by the girls in the class to pink because it was a girl truck and the trucks were (giggle) boy- and girl-friends;
• another couple – this time, forklift trucks;
• two fairies, who were considerably less interesting than the vehicles;
• and a single racing car, but one with long hair because the class couldn’t decide whether it was male or female, so they called it ‘he’ but gave it long hair to imply its feminine side.
The owner sold the blue truck, which had to leave Hawaii and go to Scotland, where it was miserable. The pink truck was bereft, of course, so she organised a rescue. The fork lifts hoisted the pink truck onto a boat and the fairies made the racing car magic so that it could fly. In Scotland, the fork lifts broke down the door to the garage where the blue truck was being held and they all flew back to Hawaii.

This next one I liked for its offbeat, almost cool attitude to its characters. It began, for example, with a caveman called Ugg sitting by the sea fishing. Not far away, lying on a rock, singing and combing her hair was a Goth Vampire Mermaid with red eyes. In the woods just off the beach lived a fairy whose intentions were evil. Having established all this, they shifted their attention back to Ugg and his fishing. He got a huge bite and, after much difficulty landed his catch, a shark. I asked them what Ugg said when he saw he’d caught a shark. One boy answered ‘Nothing. Cavemen can’t talk. But the shark said “Hi, I’m Steve”’.
In the end, the fairy and the shark merged and became a merman and I suppose he lived happily ever after with the Goth vampire mermaid, but we never got that far because more plot strands were still being developed when the bell went.

I’ll forego telling you of the upside down mountain in the sky, the turtles from Pluto, the alien girl called Sag, etc., and just sketch the outline of the final example. A plane is flying along, piloted by a lion and a leopard. It has only two passengers, a tiger and a spider. They’re flying from Egypt to Russia. (In the case of the spider this choice of destination is bizarre since he’s doing it to get a sun tan.) Anyway, I said we needed some conflict so the passengers started arguing about who was the stronger. When some kids said that was too obvious because tigers are obviously stronger, I suggested they think of ways a spider might possibly win. So the spider crawled up the tiger’s nose and spun a web, then did the same in his mouth.

This meant the tiger was having great difficulty breathing. But the leopard co-pilot heard the tiger choking on the cabin intercom and went back to investigate. (An aside, there was the predictable suggestion that the spider could also crawl up the tiger’s bum. This came from a gentle-voiced, sweet-faced girl but added little to the plot.) The co-pilot persuaded both passengers that they had their own particular strengths and should learn to respect one another.

But suddenly, the plane stopped and hung there in mid-air. It had run out of fuel and was only being held up by the hot air rising from a volcano. This gave the spider time to spin a huge web, which they could use as a parachute. They jumped out, began to float down into the volcano but the three big cats all blew hard together in the same direction and they floated clear and landed on a warm beach.

As I left at the end of the afternoon, I was walking past a file of kids on their way to get their coats etc. and was pleased and relieved to be invited to give several (very low) high fives. It was a great day of uninhibited creativity and another nice reminder of the privilege attaching to being someone whose trade involves words, ideas, relationships, and escape as well as understanding.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven (part I)

There’s no irony intended in choosing that title. The whole of yesterday I was at a primary school, spending 35 minutes with each class, from the wee 3 year olds to the 10 year olds. It was a day of entertainment, pleasure, hope and a confirmation that people aren’t monsters from the start – that’s something they obviously learn later. Admittedly, the story that one class produced relied for one of its possible resolutions on an exploding mum (literally exploding, not just with anger), but overall I was absorbed in and delighted by the way they all engaged so willingly in the things we did.

With all but two of the classes (oldest and youngest) I read them one of my Stanley stories then got them to think up a story of their own, either as a whole class or in smaller groups. As I read mine, they listened, laughed and the rapt faces far outnumbered the yawns of those who obviously hadn’t had enough sleep or were bored witless. On each occasion, the transition from the silence as I read my stuff to the enthusiasm as they developed theirs was fast and smooth and the day rushed by, probably teaching me more than it taught them. I could pontificate about the innocence and generosity of children this young, their willingness to cooperate on things, the model they present of how creative social cohesion can be but in some ways that detracts from the experience. It’s the old distinction between sensation and perception. The moment you become aware of the experience you’re having, you become detached from it a little – analysis takes the place of involvement. We were all living totally in the moment and in the creation of their fictions. My mind, sixty-plus years older than theirs was just part of the mix. So I thought I’d just let you know what ephemeral things the day produced.

My first question to the first class was ‘What do we need to start a story?’ The hands shot up, I chose one, a girl, who said ‘Once upon a time’. Incontestable. I then got suggestions about the characters in the story, locations and, by simply asking them questions, which were my only input, each class produced one or several stories. In this and the next blog, I'll give you just 4 of the 13 that they created between them.

The first was the one with the exploding mother. It also had a robot mother and a mother in prison. (Lest you think this was a worrying indication that all might not be well at home, they all came from different individuals and were obviously attempts to negotiate narrative hurdles rather than cries for help.) The problem was that Sam and Sally, who lived near a volcano, were bored with just wandering round its slopes and wanted to try the crater. When they asked if they could go, Mum (amazingly) said ‘OK’ so off they went. Inside they found a button. They pressed it and the lava, smoke and ash started bubbling up, so they pressed it again and it stopped. They rushed home, told Mum about it. She went back with them and the button had vanished.

It was the same every time; if they went on their own, it was there, if Mum came, it wasn’t. The explanation centred around an old man who lived nearby and had remote control things in his house. He’d built a robot replica of their real mum, substituted it for her, imprisoned her in a cage under the lava, etc., etc. In the end, Sam and Sally tricked him, got into his cottage, worked the remote so that it made the robot mum pick up the old man and start walking. She strode off into the distance and is probably still walking with him clutched tight in her metal embrace. This meant Sam and Sally could raise the cage and save their real mum.

And this blog’s long enough, so I’ll save the rest for the next one.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Sparrow Conundrum

Right, time to get back to normal. My brother’s posting more or less doubled the traffic to the blog but I can’t keep relying on him like that. So the men who read this must accept that role models come and go and, until Ron decides to start his own blog, they must retain that brief few days of glory when he was here before them, showing the way. For the ladies it will no doubt be more difficult. The swooning and vapours occasioned by his likeness at the head of his message must be suppressed and you must now content yourselves with strolling through cornfields or beside the river at dusk, stilling your beating heart and heaving bosom and sighing wistfully to yourself, ‘I once knew an Englishman who could touch ceilings’.

Back then to the prosaic and mundane. I refer to my own reflections on the changing business of writing. When I first started, long, long ago, I sent crap plays to the BBC, which returned them with personalised (not standard) rejection letters which told me they weren’t quite right for them. But always, somewhere in the letter, there was some sort of encouragement – with some they liked the dialogue or characters, they saw promise in the plot of others or praised my sense of humour. It was always enough to make me think ‘OK, I’ll try again’. And, one day, it worked and they broadcast the next five. Then came the novels and, once again, I sent the first one I wrote to an agent, who liked it and signed me up. He didn’t manage to place it but I wrote another and he liked that, too. But still there were no takers. And (unbelievably to me now), I changed agents – just like that. And the second agent got my third and fourth novels published.

So that’s what it was like in the good old days.

Today, the planet is full of writers, some of whom should definitely not quit the day job but thousands more who are very, very good and deserve to be published. But driven, understandably, by the need to make a living, agents and publishers don’t seem to have the time, patience or courage to take on individuals who have no proven track record. I was told that, if an agent tells a publisher ‘My client has already had books published’, the response is not ‘Are they any good?’ but ‘Did they sell?’ And so the whole climate is forcing writers to become PR and marketing specialists and generally whore themselves around.

Which is fine. In the halcyon days, many writers were unrealistic. They assumed that society owed them a living; they were as bad as the type of academics who lived in cushioned fairylands and didn’t know the meaning of real life or accountability. (I refer not to ALL academics but to the underdeveloped few.) But we’ve certainly swung too far the other way and it’s depressing to read, on peer review sites such as Authonomy, excellent novels which really do deserve to be published and yet which languish in slush piles. (I’m mixing metaphors to show how good I am at it.)

So, we have to resort to stratagems such as that to which all the above is an introduction. I’m not sure how long this has been going on but there’s now a fad for fan pages on Facebook. I’m a fan of lots of writers whom I admire there and I started wondering whether I should start a fan page myself. I started messing around with it but realised that all I was doing was duplicating the page I already had. So instead I started a page devoted to The Sparrow Conundrum. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s a totally reworked version of that first ever novel which got me an agent way back. But how do you entice fans to sign up to something which doesn’t exist? Well, my idea was precisely to use that as my gimmick. So I wrote the following introduction:

The Sparrow Conundrum exists, but not yet in any accessible form. To become a fan is to show faith in something you just have to take on trust. And those among you who are now shaking their heads and dismissing it as yet another religion must disabuse yourselves. Apart from the occasional taking of Someone’s name in vain, it has no religious or mystical pretensions.
And yet its Coming has been predicted and should the day dawn when the fathomless workings of absurdity evanesce sufficiently for it to appear in corporeal form, you will be one of the happy band who may glory in (or regret) your allegiance to it.
Predecessors have sprung from the same literary loins but none of them shares the Sparrow’s linguistic or conceptual DNA. Some acolytes have glimpsed parts of it, others have actually absorbed its spirit in its entirety but none, as yet, has taken possession of it.
If there is a Sparrow-shaped gap in your life, becoming a fan is the first step towards plugging it. If there is no such gap, you are truly fulfilled and the wishes of the rest of us go with you as you pass by.

And that was that.

I'd thought of writing it in the style of the St James Bible but realised that that would offend people and, since this is all supposed to be enjoyable and fun, I didn’t want to do that. Next, I added some actual comments taken from a peer review of it on another website. They were:

“Your adverbs look corny and misplaced.”
“Your story does not stand up in this century.”
“You show clearly you know nothing about IT, mobile phones or modern crime.”
“My personal opinion of your story is that it is not particularly funny or even marketable.”

Well, you’d have thought that would pull in the crowds, wouldn’t you? But no, not yet. So far I’ve gathered a whole 17 fans, most of whom I knew already and are probably giving me the sympathy vote. I mean, it’s not as if I were soliciting virtual groupies. At this rate I shall have to get my family involved.

But this is far too long already. Thanks for your patience.

Next time – did I survive 7 classes of kids between the ages of 5 and 12 when I went to their primary school to do stuff with them on writing? That's what's happening next Wednesday. Pray for me.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, my first guest blogger.

This posting is from my first ever guest blogger, my brother Ron. I could embarrass him by saying what a nice man he is but I’ll let you judge him on his posting. He’s very funny and writes great short stories, lyrics and speeches. I asked him if he’d be prepared to blog on anything he liked and here’s the result.

Reading Bill’s account of his Goldilocks spin-off got me thinking about his ‘audience’, the grandchildren, and by extension, children in general and the way they deal with the ‘messages’ we –writers, grandparents, mentors, teachers- are conveying to them.

Let me illustrate. I am a retired teacher and one of my roles as a year leader in my middle school was to visit our feeder primary schools towards the end of the summer term and tell them what wonderful experiences were waiting for them when they joined us in September. My spiel was designed to inform them, reassure them, excite them, send them home to comfort their mothers about the upcoming transition. Thus, I would describe our school’s on-site swimming pool, the three football pitches, science labs, IT suites, all-weather playground surface, drama studio…

The pupils in this particular school were sitting at my feet and – partly because of the huge build up the class teacher had given me – were completely rapt by my twenty minutes of inspired salesmanship. Shock and awe weren’t in it; they were gagging for the middle school extravaganza. Finishing with ‘any questions?’ I was comforted in one sense by the initial lack of response: my performance had clearly stunned them, their jaws were dropped in either amazement or adenoidal boredom, except for one small boy who reached up to tap my knee and asked, not the anticipated,

“How many pottery studios did you say you had?” or,

“Is there really a keyboard each in the music suite?”

but, simply,

“Can you touch the ceiling?”

And when I reached up and showed that I could, the whole group fractured into gasps and shared their wonder at the giant from the big school. Until that moment I hadn’t realised that the staff around me in this primary school – mainly women – were below average height, and barely capable of reaching their coat pegs. The headmaster was notably short in fact. My six feet three made me the one-eyed-man in the land of the blind. I sensed that the children might go on to conclude that, as they graduated through the different levels of education, the pedagogues got bigger:

“Maybe that’s why they have those raked banks of seats in university lecture theatres, so the students don’t have to crane their necks looking up at the nine-foot professors.”

Returning to my school I had a fresh awareness of the potential for this kind of failure to connect and began to notice examples in my working day. Our deputy head was giving (or taking) an assembly on a familiar theme. It was about the dizzying pace of technological change and how pupils should pause and reflect on how fortunate they were, etc. They’d heard it all before and were dumbly counting the wall bars to keep them awake until the sports results were announced.

Then the deputy said, “I expect most of you have a TV in your bedrooms as well as a huge flat screen surround sound system in the lounge. Well, when I was young “ (how many wall bars was that?) “all my family had to watch was a twelve inch Bush in the corner of the living room.”

They were too sleepy to react but I can imagine them in the corridors afterwards:

“Did he really say that?”

“The whole family watching a bush?”

“Yeah, like, ‘Can we watch the other side mum, it’s greener.’”

“Or mum says, ‘Stop moaning you two, you can have a bonsai in your room when you’re thirteen.’”

What children – if we let them – keep telling us is that there is a parallel universe, although it’s not a remote, inaccessible quantum thing but a handy little resource they can, and must, use in their admirable quest to make sense of the rubbish we sometimes talk. What we can do in response is stop trying to impose order on the resulting chaos and join them in the way Bill demonstrated. When they see we’re not pretending, that we’re in the flux too, maybe we can start to make the connections we crave.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Writing Game (PS)

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a postscript to a blog but that’s what this is. In the last posting, I was talking about the various writing jobs I’d done over the past few days. This one is about a different sort of writing again, and it’s a tip for you if ever you find yourself in the type of sleep-deprived and/or literary trap I’m about to describe.

I’ve just got back from a weekend in Glasgow with my daughter and her two sons. Part of the deal when I stay there is that, in the mornings, one or both boys come(s) in to my bed to chat, play word games or tell stories. If it’s the story option, they clatter quickly through their turns and expect a professional performance from me. (I should say that the same thing happens when I visit my other grandchildren and one of the results is a series of stories featuring Stanley, the misanthropic fairy I’ve mentioned before and whose adventures I’ve actually written up.) Anyway, please remember that we’re talking about early mornings here, usually with me just having been woken up. In other words, the creative flow is sluggish or non-existent but the audience still expects to be entertained. Like all stories, the one you tell has to get their interest right away. But there you are in your half-awake state, knowing they watch stuff like Power Rangers and high-tech cartoons and expect intense levels of action, adventure and narrative involvement. (Although the truth is that my 7 a.m. brain is incapable of holding refined concepts such as ‘narrative involvement’.)

So, you need a reliable, recognisable structure, you need something where someone has already done the donkey-work on your behalf. And that means plagiarism, which is a no-no, or parody.

Parody is cheating in a way. It’s definitely flattering to the original, it relies on the reader/listener identifying the source, which in turn is a compliment to that source. But you’re borrowing it, benefiting from its language, rhythms, themes or, as in this case, its underlying structure.

Anyway, parody is the road I took. It happened by accident. With no idea what story would emerge, I started by saying ‘A lion was walking through the forest’. Playing for time, I asked ‘What do you think the lion was called?’ ‘Tracey,’ was the immediate answer, relayed in a voice that implied it was a stupid question. So I had Tracey the lion, and he (she?) was in a forest. And he came to a cottage, so he had to go in – and suddenly the story was there in stark relief. On the table were three pizzas, a big one, a middle-sized one and a little one. This got a laugh so I knew I was home and dry. Tracey was an incarnation of Goldilocks and changing the bear into giraffes gave me scope for all sorts of architectural gags – high ceilings, tall thin doorways, strangely shaped chairs and beds. Breaking the baby giraffe’s chair was an opportunity to introduce sound effects and a mini debate about whether giraffes make any noises at all and, if they do, what their crying might sound like after having travelled so far up their throats. Detailing the vile ingredients of the mummy and daddy’s pizzas permitted the introduction of the projectile vomiting elements and other bodily fluids kids love so much, and the only looming difficulty was the prospect of the giraffe family finding a lion in the baby’s bed. Would it suddenly turn the story into a gore-fest? Would the laughs turn to tears as Tracey eviscerated the loving domestic trio?

I won’t bore you with the resolution because it involved audience participation, suggestions and refinements, and a leonine viewpoint restricted by a combination of blankets and the height of the giraffes. Seeing only parts of his ‘hosts’ made the patterns on their skins look like carpets to the sleep-befuddled predator but no one got hurt, the lion decided never to have pineapples on pizzas ever again, and the giraffes decided to move the lock on their front door even higher, (which in turn created the ingredients for a sequel - forced entry by a baboon).

Of all the types of writing in this and the previous posting, this story-telling probably gave me the most pleasure. All I need to do now is find a way of making the boys or their parents pay me.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Writing Game

The past five days for me have illustrated that sitting here at my desk isn’t the single monotonous activity it may seem to be to an outsider. I haven’t even had time to experience life block (q.v.). The ongoing background activity finds me in the early 19th century reading about people such as Samuel Martin, a hatter in Aberdeen who was way ahead of the game when it came to advertising. In 1842 a competitor advertised ‘new patent washable beaver hats’ and almost immediately Sam was advertising his own ‘superior beaver hats which never require washing’. (That’s from Edward Ranson’s The Mad Hatter of Aberdeen.) Sam would have been all over Facebook and Twitter – he insisted that you should ‘never omit an opportunity of placing your name in printed characters before the world’.

Anyway, in order to earn some money I’ve had to switch away from that now and again to write a DVD about how to get stuff out of the hollow concrete legs of offshore platforms as part of the decommissioning process, another on the responsibilities of security personnel on ships' gangways, and a third on the awareness of the procedures and systems needed for gas testing where hydrocarbons are being produced. I know, I know – it’s really fun stuff and you’re all agog with excitement and tension now, wanting to know more about such fascinating topics. But I don’t want you to get over-excited and anyway, there are two more projects which are almost as interesting.

The first is with a local charity, the Aberdeen Safer Community Trust. Its aim is to make the city's streets safer, bring crime levels down, etc. Next month, they’re holding a fund-raising event called CSI Aberdeen. It involves people in groups of five combining to solve a mystery - it might be a murder or an accidental death. They get to study documents, interview witnesses and a forensic scientist, take and compare fingerprints, do experiments in a lab on substances and whatever else the scene of crime team produces. And they have to come up with a solution to the crime (if there is one) and/or an explanation of the death. The organisers asked me if I'd be interested in helping, so I've been creating the scenario and, in between the commercial stuff, I'm now writing briefs for witnesses, the scenario itself, notes to help the forensic chemists to decide what sort of experiments to devise, and a surprising number of other things.

I've never been to one of these murder mystery dinners so it's interesting to see how the process works from the inside. The writing is different in that I have to think very carefully about what to reveal and what to conceal. In a novel, I can control exactly when and how to drop in the clues for the reader, hint at motives, and so on. In this case, though, those taking part should really get the information they need from interviewing the witnesses but if they don't ask the right questions, they won't - and they'll probably feel cheated. It's a fascinating balancing act. And it occurred to me that, once the event’s over, it might be interesting to blog a version of it to see what conclusions you come to about the incident.

So I’m piecing that together but now there’s another, quite scary event coming up next week. I’ve been asked to go to a primary school and read one of my kids’ stories then talk to them/work with them to create another story or do something related to writing that might interest them. I’ll have 45-50 minutes with each of the 7 classes and it’s part of what the school calls a ‘literacy week’. I think it’s a great initiative and I’m actually looking forward to it. I won’t even mind if a 5 year old butts in as I’m reading my masterpiece to tell me it’s boring.

Meanwhile I think you should know that, although people say Hydrogen Sulphide smells like rotten eggs (and it does), in higher concentrations it destroys your sense of smell. That happens not long before it kills you. I just thought you should know.