Second Stage – The Importance of Theatre Outreach

I’ve previously blogged about my experience of writing and performing a monologue as part of a Roots Touring production of ‘Queer Spaces’. The production was staged at The Stephen Joseph Theatre and also the York Theatre Royal.

The Assistant Producer and Literary Coordinator of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the talented and lovely Fleur Hebditch (@Fleurhebditch) saw the production. She subsequently Directed the performance of my script again as part of the SJT’s ‘Second Stage’ which is described as a showcase for new writing talent.

My monologue was performed (beautifully by Jacky Naylor) alongside excerpts of scripts by Annie Fox (@anniekathfox) – ‘The Sleepwalkers’; Elizabeth Godber (@elle_godber) – ‘An Unexpected Birth’; Cara Christie  (@CaraMChristie) – ‘Influenced’; Jingan Young (@jinganyoung) – ‘Hong Kong Tragedy’; Steven Bloomer (@stevenbloomer)– ‘The Burn’ and Sadar Mohammed’s ‘Ducks’.

After the performances, Annie, Elizabeth, Steven and I were invited to participate in a Q & A session with the audience. We had loads of astute questions from an enthusiastic audience and it was a warm, fun experience. It was also affirming to gain the support and encouragement for my writing.

And that is the point. The excerpts of plays showcased were without exception seriously good. Each touched on some thought-provoking themes including loss, dementia, and abuses of power. I personally hoped to be able to see each and every script fully staged and performed and from the audience reaction it was obvious others hoped for the same. But as any writer will confirm, it is ridiculously difficult to get one’s work noticed and scriptwriting has a difficulty niche all of its own.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre – in addition to being a pioneering theatre, film, and music venue with a reputation for delivering a marvellously diverse and entertaining programme also has an extraordinary participatory ethos. Its outreach programme involves all ages and communities, and actively seeks to encourage and support new writing, acting and performing talent and I cannot state strongly enough how important I think this work is.

I know from personal experience that freeing imagination is liberating. Through a process of enabling communities to represent their own experiences, the process of identity formation is strengthened and a sense of belonging and contribution can be facilitated. Moreover, the opportunity to present new voices means the opportunity for different life experiences to be seen and heard. Theatre outreach is progressive, arguably political, and has huge potential for the generation of positive and respectful approaches to social coexistence.

I am hugely grateful to the team at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for showcasing my work and for their dynamic approach to ‘theatre in community’.

I can’t end this post without giving a big shout out to the fabulous cast.  Andrew Dunn (@theMr Andrew Dunn); Siu-see Hung (@siuseehung); Sarah Pearman (@_sarahpearman); Chris Jack and Jacky Naylor.  They were amazing.

The Unreliable Narrator

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘unreliable narrator’.

I read Catriona Ward’s ‘Last House on Needless Street’ (Viper Press, 2021) which is listed as ‘gothic thriller’, ‘horror’, ‘psychological thriller’ depending on which blurb you read. I am mindful of not giving away any spoilers so I won’t go into too much detail about my response to the book, other than I loved it. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I did not see the ending coming and, upon ‘end of the book review’ I was seriously impressed with the cleverly woven drip and hide of information throughout the story. This is a very well-crafted book with love and kindness at its heart.

There are several POV characters – including a cat!  Is everyone telling the truth?  What is the truth of any story anyway? I have pondered this a lot because my Mother died on the day I finished Ward’s book. 

People often say things about the aftermath of death being challenging and it is on so many levels.  Managing the practicalities of death admin whilst experiencing grief which ebbs and floods and fogs is exhausting. In the context of such a challenging path to navigate it is so so easy to fall into preciousness about stories.  Perhaps it was already obvious to everyone except me but my stories about Mam, are not the same stories that others share and similarly, theirs have, at times, appeared to be about someone I never even met. 

It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or that some stories are more valid than others, though it was interesting to me that I felt solid ground as the ‘reliable narrator’ while considering other stories, somewhat ‘unreliable’ and of course, this is actually nonsense.

Mam was the person who first introduced me to books

She taught me to read before I started school and then stood up to the teacher who demanded I read Janet and John books while, thanks to Mam, I was already relishing The Chronicles of Narnia. She is still sending me lessons from her Heaven (a story she believed but I don’t).

Readers to a large (but not exclusive) extent, need a reliable narrator because that is all they have when they invest their precious time in a story crafted to entertain. But as an author, I am now more consciously mindful that there is no objective truth, everything is subjective and everyone is someone else to everyone else – including themselves. Facts do not speak for themselves and that is perfectly right and fine.

I now understand more clearly that every single story has unreliable narrators. As a writer, I am a better storyteller if I consider how characters in my stories understand and respond to their perception of the ‘truth’ of any other character’s point of view.

Thanks Mam, for everything. Xx

RIP Yvonne Frances Collinson
31st January 1940 – 3rd April 2022

Mam and me 1959, Hull.

Proof

Definition: denoting a trial impression of a page or printed work

Definition: evidence establishing a fact or the truth of a statement.

I received the proof copy of my novel. This established the fact that my novel is soon to be published.

I am stupidly proud of it and of course, there will be the fanfare of a proper launch and endless tweets/social media posts and yada yada yada when the time comes (there are some typesetting errors to correct which is frustrating but part of the process), but for now… just enjoying the feel of it.

Pondering semi-colons; my book; and competition entries

My son bought me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a Christmas present. He is working his way through a long list of classics (admirable) and said of those he had read so far, this was his favourite. I had to confess I had not read Virginia Woolf. As a feminist, this seemed like a particularly shameful confession because although Woolf was conflicted about labelling herself a feminist, so many women I admire hold her in near saintly esteem. When I started reading Mrs Dalloway I remembered (at least one of the reasons) why I had avoided her work. The semi-colons.

As most people interested in the written word will know, the story details Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to host a party. She muses and ponders as various characters are introduced. The writing style is a jumbled, poetic and wordy stream of consciousness slipping between different narrative points of view.

The interesting themes of the book are widely discussed, debated and deconstructed but the thing that stops me being able to make any tiny contribution to the discussion is the semicolon.

The semicolon litters the book like particularly invasive confetti – it germs the book to a point where I can’t get past the irritation of it to enable me to see the work in all its discussed glory.

I have never been a fan of the semicolon. A recent editor of some of my work invited me to add them to a particular paragraph. I had to re-write the whole thing because although I could see where she was going with it, why the suggestion had been made – and even how it might subtly add nuance to the paragraph – I just couldn’t litter my text with them.

As we all know, a semicolon is used to link two separate, equally positioned but closely related ideas in a single sentence.

I understand they have more about them than simple lists. I completely get that they can add a particular quality to a sentence. I am aware of many great authors who not only praise their utility but consider they add beauty to text. I am not one of them. I am in good company.  Hemingway preferred short declarative sentences honed to acute sharpness.

In a written text I like the perfect word choice. Also, the weighty space of a period rather than the ephemeral dainty pause of the semicolon.

However, one of the great things that often happens when I finally read an avoided or neglected classic work is that I am forced to consider why I haven’t read it earlier. In this case, to revisit my animosity towards the semicolon. Perhaps, maybe I am considering a softening towards considering the possibility of it being (as Abe Lincoln said) ‘A useful little chap’. I’m not sure. I need to ponder…

In any case, I will of course finish Mrs Dalloway – because I think I should and also because I will look forward to discussing with my son why he enjoyed it so much but whether it will nudge me towards more semicolon use remains to be seen.

In other news…

I submitted my novel to the publisher’s deadline.  The wheels towards publication are in motion and after submission, I felt a little bit ‘what now?’.  It is a strange space to be in and I had a peculiar gap of feeling I should be writing but despite lots of ideas not having any motivation. It lasted for most of January. I don’t recall reading about gap management in any ‘writers process’ type scripts.  Stephen King and many others say they write word count every day – does this mean they don’t perceive ‘gaps’?

Anyway, fortunately, last week I suddenly got my AWOL mojo back and wrote and submitted three short stories to competitions, a trilogy of poems to an online anthology and started on my next novel.  So far no semicolons have been used.

Writing – hobby, passion or work?

My novel – ‘Everyday Wendy’ is to be published in 2022 (more details to follow).  To a required deadline, I’ve spent most of the past year editing my story into a publishable work.  I’ve learned more from the process than I could ever have imagined.

I have notebooks full of ideas for stories.  I have shelves of books on writing craft which I’ve studied and drawn upon in an effort to improve my writing. I read a broad range of genres. For a number of years, I’ve written every day and enjoyed creating playgrounds and characters. I’ve been lucky with having a few things published too – even won a couple of prizes for my writing.

The past year has taught me the difference between being a hobby writer and a career writer.

Turning my novel into a publishable draft has been work. Several hours a day, most weekdays, concentrated graft. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been an adventure and fun and through the process, I believe I have learned how better to write my next novel. I will write another novel (I have two more in the planning stage) but I’ve needed to ponder on whether I want to be ‘a writer’ and if I do, why (Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash).

I love creating worlds. Even more than this though are the many surprises I find in those worlds.  Remembering those moments sat at my desk, tapping away on a keyboard when I’m taken to ‘oh, OK then – didn’t see that coming’, makes me smile. I love that. I love finding the essence of the thing – chewing over the right word to use, how best to show emotion or find the right hook to make a reader want to turn the page.  When a story works, when it does what I had hoped it would do with the richest of words and the most crafted of forms, I am happy.  Writing makes me happy. If, sometimes, my writing makes other people happy too, even better.

Writing for me is more than a hobby – I need to write

I don’t know who I am without it and a few days away from a keyboard has me twitchy.  Even on beach sunbeds, I’m making notes on dialogue heard and possible settings.

Do I want it to be work though? I’m not looking for another career – I’ve had one of those and very fine it was too but life now takes a different pace. Indeed, it is a pace and with space that allows me the joy of writing. Making writing my job would suck the joy out of it I think. (Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Hopefully, the novel will be successful, sold all over the world, goes into paperback, options taken, book tours. Yada yada (living the novelists dream for a moment there…. But if, as is more likely, this is not what happens I guess I will carry on joyfully writing anyway.

There’s writing… and there’s writing….

How can it be that I haven’t posted since February? No blog posts about writing but I have been writing – more than ever before. 

I have finished the first draft of my current novel (120k words) and am now at ‘structural edit’ phase.  I must admit this phase of novel construction has stymied me in earlier writing.  When I wrote my doctoral thesis I presented what I confidently told my supervisors was my final, final draft.  They had different ideas. I nearly exploded when they said it needed a ‘re-jig’ into more chapters.  It was the hardest writing task ever – until I tried to do it for my last novel. 

My last novel is a story I am proud of and am sure it has merit worthy of a second draft but I didn’t know how to do it.  I tried but it was like wrangling cats and I gave up.  It is sitting in a file waiting for attention.

Fortunately, I have learned a lot since then.  The structural edit on my current work is difficult but exciting and I am confident I will be sending my next draft out to my beta readers at the end of July.  Wish me luck.

I don’t usually have more than one WIP on the go at a time but I do try to write short pieces – stories, articles and blog posts – to help to take my mind to a different place.  It helps broaden focus and give a breathing space for ideas.

In June I was astounded to win a prize for a short story.

The story had to be under 1k words, be based on a historical event and include content factually accurate.  My story ‘Into the Depths’ is a fictionalised account of one of the rescuers of survivors of the Titanic.

The competition was run by The Scarborough Writing Circle who awarded me a marvellous plaque. Many thanks to the SWC for their generous feedback and the award. I am chuffed to bits to have won.

All writers should of course be readers too and I have been doing a lot of that.  I have to take the opportunity to spread the word about poet Dean Wilson (@Poetdeanwilson6). I am not a huge fan of Twitter but I first became aware of his work through tweets of the films made by Director/Producer/Filmmaker Dave Lee (@davelee1968) of Dean reading his poetry.  The poetry and films are glorious.  Funny, poignant, clever and powerful.

Dean also has something of a twitter following for his ‘pebble of the day’ posts which, in partnership with Dr Karen Turner (@k_j_turner) a textile artist who has turned Dean’s pebble photo’s into a wonderfully crafted, detailed, hand stitched quilt, have become a most remarkable art exhibition of talent you could hardly imagine unless seen with your own eyes. The exhibition is currently on display at Withernsea Light House until October 2021 and is well worth a visit.  

While I was there, I had the good fortune to be able to buy Dean’s latest book of poetry ‘Take Me Up the Lighthouse’

The poems in this small collection have a quality and integrity which puts them up there, with, in my opinion Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. The poems speak to contemporary experience in all its richness, lend to being read or spoken, are accessible and enjoyable, funny and warm, cheeky and poignant. His work takes poetry in a fresh and beguiling direction. 

Dean’s books are published by Wrecking Ball Press (Hull) and I strongly recommend you check them out.

Now… back to writing….

After a tough year, great news

As far as running a blog goes, 2020 did not go according to plan.  In 2019 I wrote two pieces every month and had every intention to achieve the same on my differently focussed blog for the following year. As I wrote in my first 2020 post, I planned to enter a writing competition every month.  The competitions had to take me into unfamiliar writing arenas.  I aimed to write a piece about my writing process and, depending on the outcomes, post the submitted pieces on my blog.  Up to July, it was going well.  Enthusiasm was high and I had done OK in the competitions – a win and a couple of commendations.  And then… we all know what happened then.  Lockdown.

Lockdown coincided with a family funeral, selling my house and moving 300 miles away.  Throw in our house purchase falling through leaving us homeless and I had a perfect storm of ‘stressful situation’.  Fortunately, homelessness was seen off by belongings going into storage and my partner and I moving into a caravan on a lovely peaceful site while we looked for a new house to buy.  We had a bit of an extended summer holiday and it was lovely.  Then the government decreed that the site had to close.  We were fortunate to be able to find a fully furnished rental which allowed pets but again… ‘stress’ doesn’t cover how challenging the period was.  For the record, a word of advice: don’t sell a house in a pandemic or try to move 300 miles in a lockdown.

Thanks to Georgy Rudakov Via Unsplash for the image

I stopped writing.  From the end of June 2020 until mid-January 2021 I did not write as much as a shopping list.  It wasn’t apathy, fugue or procrastination.  With hindsight I think it was process-related – I simply got out of my ‘groove’ which included elements of physical space (my lost office and only having my laptop to work on) and different measurements of time in a lockdown.

What kickstarted me back into a groove was the astounding news from Pen to Print that I am one of their ten Book Challenge Competition winners.  Way back at the beginning of 2020 I submitted a synopsis and first chapter of a novel.  Submissions are filtered down to ten winners and I was one of the ten.  The winners all get mentoring support to get the book to publication. The prize is worth £5k. Next year, the ten completed books will also go into a final competition and the ultimate winner will be chosen.

I am beyond thrilled to win such a valuable prize which is packed with opportunity.  Pen to Print has a great deal of book industry respect and support and I am so lucky to be joining their stable of writers.  I have already (virtually) ‘met’ my fellow writers and the mentor team and am at last writing again – with a curious wonder that I ever left something I love so much. 

For those unfamiliar with Pen to Print do check out their website at https://pentoprint.org/  They run amazing competitions and fabulous courses. 

I will not, mostly, be entering competitions in 2021 but I will be focussed on completing my novel. So, I am changing the name of the blog to reflect the different writing focus this year. I will continue to blog about my process as the year goes on.

PS Am delighted to have had a poem, ‘FUG’ (about lockdown) accepted for the annual on-line Febulous (sic) February blog. I have recorded a reading of the poem which is to be played on Medway Pride Radio sometime in February. I will add a link when I get it.

Microfiction

Thanks to Vlad Tchompalov Via Unsplash for this lovely image

An unexpected comp opportunity came up this week.  Alyson Hilborne (@ABBK1) via Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) alerted me to the Scottish Book Trust’s call for stories – only the stories had to be on the theme of ‘fog’ and no more than 50 words!

A couple of my flash fiction stories are published. Both were 300 words.  It was great fun writing each, but I also learned a lot about determined and ferocious editing, economy and preciseness of word choice and the importance of a tight narrative arc. 

I wrote another short non-fiction piece for a collection of first-person accounts of Brighton’s queer history*. The work was edited by poet Maria Jastrzebska (@mariajastrz) who pressed over and over for me to edit the piece when I thought it was already perfectly fine as it was. Of course, she was absolutely right, and the final published version told a story and told it well. I learned a great deal from Maria through this process which I have taken into my future work. (I take this opportunity to say a heartfelt thanks for Maria’s guidance and fabulous editing).

Twitter hosts stacks of micro-fiction writers and I have seen some awesomely creative stories as good as, and better than, the famous ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ story attributed to Hemingway. It seems to me that writing micro-shorts takes a focused and concise way of thinking and while I am fairly good at editing content out these days, I wasn’t sure I could write to that exacting 50 word max count.

In the end, I wrote a long list of words to describe my experience of fog, then eliminated 90% of them. The words left on my edited list evoked feelings and a context in which such feelings might be experienced. So, I ended up with a story and, it has now been submitted. 

A quick google shows a range of suggestions about fiction lengths.

Editor Jodie Renner (@JodieRennerEd) has written a great blog post listing typical lengths for each type of fictional work.  It can be found here

*Queer In Brighton. Edited by Maria Jaztrzebska and Anthony Luvera. New Writing South. 2014