On writing

I believe that professional writers, once they reach a certain level of success, are asked how to write by those who believe that a novel (or film or sitcom) lies within just waiting to be unleashed.  To the surprise of no-one, least of all myself, I have yet to be so cross-examined: but will share my modest insights nonetheless (yes, I do recognise that if my insights were properly modest, I would not be broadcasting them to an unfeeling world: I’m just ignoring this fact).

Since starting this blog, and feeling the pressure to keep producing new content, I have written more than at any previous point in my life.  This requirement to write has intensified since starting my Open University course for which I have to produce an essay (or two) every month (now up to 1500 words).  This writing has to be produced to a rather higher standard than the blog and to stick to the point substantially better.  As a result, they take a lot longer to produce – and despite the evidence to the contrary, these posts take quite a period of time to craft from the raw material of language.

I believe the most common advice to the novice writer is to just write.  In my experience, this is very much to the mustard.  I find it very easy to spend many days, sometimes well over a week, thinking about an essay – but at some point, nothing moves forward unless I start to write it.  After the first draft, I tend to be cast into the slough of despond (nowhere near Eton, whatever one J Betjeman and his entreaty to airborne ordnance might suggest) as the writing seems awful, I’m over the word limit and have still failed to cover a number of points I feel are critical to include.  I then try and leave the abomination for at least a couple of days (not always easy) and then return to redraft.  This is usually much better and covers all the bases within the word limit (though I generally require most of my 10% allowance), but still not really there.  The second redraft a day or so later, usually allows the essay to reach its apogee – it is still not perfect, but I can live with it and it seems unlikely to improve to a material degree with further effort.  Earlier this week, my opus on the art of Benin finally reached this state and was submitted – only time, and my tutor’s marking, will tell whether it achieved the required standard.

The blog is a fish of a rather different feather.  No-one provides a subject, word or time limit for the production of a post.  Nor am I required to write in the academic style or quote my sources (though I could if there were pressure from the readership).  This freedom is all well and good, but my relatively incident-free life (by design) coupled with the desire to be funny (hadn’t noticed?  Oh well…) does lead to my life being dominated by the tyranny of the blank page (or web form) somewhat frequently.  I also feel I should try and be somewhat original – though seven billion other souls on the planet (assuming humans, and only humans, are possessed of souls) makes this a challenge (and rather hard to test) – but at least I can try and avoid the merely trite or clichéd (which is doubly a past-participle: would that make it a pluperfect, in Franglais if nowhere else?).  However, I may be hindered in these attempts by my general failure to understand how other (they might like to think “normal”) people ratiocinate: generalising from myself seldom leads to as much insight as hoped.  To my astonishment, I do still seem to come up with topics on which to witter from the minutiae of my existence – despite being well into the difficult second year of the blog – though I now find myself wondering if used this idea before (and am too generally lazy to check).

I tend to feel posts are overly long, without the discipline imposed by the OU, with too much text integument needed to link the key ideas together.  Perhaps with more time, I could produce more condensed material – with less extraneous detail, though that can sometimes provide a useful diary function for me (which could be handy if I ever decide to write my Memoirs).  Despite these reservations, when I look back over the 335 back-numbers – usually in response to a post being viewed by a reader – they do still make me laugh.  (If you will indulge me in a brief divagation, why are the good folk of India so interested in a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear?  Is it on their national curriculum?  This blog is  receiving an unusually large number of hits from this search – and I’d never realised Edward Lear was so big on the sub-continent, and fear I am going to be of little practical assistance).  The occasional idea of mine really appeals to me, most recently the concordance between a rail journey and 2001: this is one of the few ideas that feels as though it could be worked up into a proper chunk of a stand-up act (most require far too high a level of general knowledge to ever work in public).

Still, it has never been my intent to rest on any member of the family Lauraceae (whomsoever claims ownership) and I seek continuous improvement.  As part of this drive, I found the excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast: which is a series of interviews by Stuart Goldsmith (a man whose comedy and forename I admire) that provide a fascinating insight into how proper comedians come up with ideas and write material.  Reassuringly they face many of the same problems that I do; annoyingly they seem to resolve them rather more successfully.  This listening has also had the positive effect – for the world at large – of putting me off a career in stand-up: it seems to be seriously hard work with far too many late nights.  I think I shall stick to writing material for other poor saps to perform (while I am safely tucked up ‘neath a duvet): which reminds me of the very poor progress made on two other writing projects: the panto and the poesy post.  Must try harder…

Pulse Pugilism

It’s about time I completed my in-depth coverage of the Edinburgh festivals, before it becomes entirely moot.  I’m not sure the Culture Show has much to fear yet, though the small portion of their coverage I have glimpsed was rather lighter on weak puns than this blog – so it depends what you prioritise in your arts coverage: cultural insight or dodgy jokes.

After being thrilled by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography, I made my way to the Pleasance Grand – sounds exciting doesn’t it?  No chandeliers here, it’s an indoor basketball court for the other 11 months of the year – a sport which tends to use strip or flood lighting (in my very limited experience).  I came to the Grand to see Paul Merton and chums (including wife – his, rather than mine) improvise short sketches or playlets based on suggestions from the audience (both written and shouted-out).  Fresh from the gallery, I proposed “capturing lightening” as the basis for a skit and, to an admixture of my delight and horror, it was pulled from the basket and performed.  Yes, in a very small way, I am now a successful playwright – my legs may not be short or fat, but they are fairly hairy (despite cycling, I refuse to shave them – that way lies madness, blood and stubble) and it would seem that 1 out of 3 is enough.  I really must get on with my panto… the West End is in desperate need of an injection of new writing blood! (AB+ obviously).

After a pitstop at Bonsai, I headed to my next gig which also required a modest amount of audience participation – providing the bones of a very brief musical.  My suggestion garnered the biggest laugh of the entire gig – and, indeed, of my entire comedy career to-date.  However, it is hard to see the words “ten past three” ever going down quite that well with an audience again (I should perhaps make clear at this stage that I was going for the laugh).  Still, it has given me a taste for the sound of an audience laughing with (rather than at) me.  I did have some vague plan that this blog could form the basis for my stand-up act – however, I now realise that it would require a very specific and well briefed audience.  Or I suppose I could provide York Notes or access to Google (other search engines are available) for my gigs, so that the audience can look up the jokes and thus understand why they are so funny.  Perhaps I need to start working on some more commercial material…

I then headed still deeper into the lowest caves of the Underbelly – a venue whose use for the rest of the year is a mystery to me – for one of my highlights of the festival.  This blog may have given the impression that the range of my musical tastes is somewhat limited – quite broad within the classical world, but not straying very far from there – so you may be surprised that a beatboxer was such a highlight (I certainly was).  I had heard Shlomo beatboxing (hence the title: why have a thesaurus unless you’re willing to use it?  I’ve also been reading about Anglo-Saxon poetry, where alliteration is big.  Go hemistich!) very briefly on the Shaun Keaveny breakfast show and thought it could be quite interesting, but doubted it would fill an entire hour.  Boy (or girl), was I wrong!  The range of sounds he could produce using only the human vocal apparatus (his, in this case) – augmented only occasionally by use of a mouth harp – was quite extraordinary.  His performance was extended by use of a loop station, nothing to do with the railways, but a device which enables a single performer to accompany themselves (by recording and looping the voice) – ideal for the lonely child with a huge vocal range and a desire to stage major choral works.  The mix of musical genres he could cover in an hour using only his own voice was incredible – and very entertaining.   If Mouthtronica comes to a village hall near you, I thoroughly recommend giving it a go – if nothing else, it will do wonders for your street cred (just look at mine!).

My final Edinburgh highlight was seeing Neil Gaiman whilst I was queueing outside a carousel (well, it looked like a carousel – but inside it was more like a round tent).  You will be pleased to know that he was shorter than expected – natch!  I was very excited – my first author-spotting for the blog (my view is spotting an author at a Book signing doesn’t count – any celeb-spotting has to rely on serendipity) – but sadly, and shockingly, the young chap I was with had no idea who Neil Gaiman was.  This was even more shocking as the youth in question had, in years gone by, dragged me to Games Workshop. A chap could despair about the national curriculum.  Maybe its time for me to start a free school: obviously the curriculum would be based on this blog – certainly, its use would teach the students a lesson.  Get your kids names down early (conception?) as I expect places to go fast…