Resources for writers

We spend a lot of time staring at our computers, so I figure we may as well make the most of them. Here’s a few ideas as to how to maximise your computer to boost your inspiration, creativity and productivity.

Images

Visual inspiration is crucial to me, particularly at the start of a project. Pinterest has been invaluable for collecting inspiring images, including videos and links back to articles and other sites. I’m going to have to admit, I’m a teensy bit addicted to Pinterest. Just a teensy bit. The upside is that I’ve stopped buying magazines, as Pinterest fulfils my need for pretty pictures and visual inspiration. It’s seen as social media by some, but I’m using it on a purely personal level. For anyone who hasn’t ventured over to Pinterest, it works on the principle of being your digital pinboard on which you can pin images from anywhere on the internet. You can create as many boards as you want (I think – at least they haven’t told me to stop yet) on the themes of your choice – food, fashion, interiors, or in the case of writers there’ll be boards like “Horror storyboard,” “Ways to die” or “Big WestEnd Musical” – that last one containing pictures of grim industrial estates and people wearing scary clown masks. You also choose people/boards to follow, giving you a feed of images that you can repin to your own board. Check this one out for atmosphere.

You already know about Flikr.com, I’m guessing, and of course there’s always the trusty Google images – but then once you’ve found a picture you want to keep looking at, the handy Pinterest toolbar button lets you collect images to your boards, without filling up your hard drive.

What’s your current desktop picture? Does it relate to the project you’re writing? Why not have your desktop background set as an image that links to whatever you’re working on? Or perhaps an image of the theatre you’d most like to work with, a collage of your fantasy cast, or Hollywood writ large across the hill – whatever it’s going to take to get you most inspired. Hit Google or Pinterest for images and download one as your wallpaper. Windows 7 or 8 users can download desktop themes, including my personal heaven here:

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/beauty-of-books-download-theme

If you’re even slightly technically capable you can also create your own theme – but please Google the How-to rather than asking me. Ta.

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/themes?ocid=w8_client_themes

Sound and music

Writers tend to be divided between those who must work in ABSOLUTE SILENCE (they tend to be pretty clear about that), or at best having Radio 4 switched on in a distant room as a kind of background white noise, and those who crank up the volume and create a thematic playlist for each project. I tend to be in the second camp, or at least I was until I filled out my first tax return, which required the silence of the entire postcode district. Normally though, creating a playlist is one of the first things that happens with a writing project. Often when I’m writing, I’ll have a particular song playing on repeat, over and over until someone else in the house cracks and demands I change track. With The Crow King, I found that none of the music I had was suitable, and ended up searching through Spotify to find artists and tracks that were new to me – their radio function was invaluable. If you’re one of the writing-to-music writers, Spotify is genius for coming up with playlists based on a particular track or artist, or you can browse other playlists that people have created or create your own if you prefer. I’ve been working on something recently that demands listening to the soundtrack from Peaky Blinders, demands it, I tell you. It’s also a great way of finding new music and artists. You won’t find everyone you’re looking for, but there’s a very good spread on offer.

Youtube can be a similar starting point, and there’s often a playlist option with 40 or more tracks that will play consecutively. It’s also handy for research on any given theme, if you can trust yourself not to get sucked into the black hole of procrastination. The downside with both Youtube and Spotify is having to put up with occasional adverts, but that’s the deal when you try and get stuff for free. Just that when you’re deeply immersed in the world of your story, it’s hugely disconcerting to suddenly be jogged out of it by a bloody car advert or similar. You can upgrade Spotify to get rid of the adverts, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen. We’re a cheapskate bunch.

As well as music, the internet contains a wealth of sound effects, all of which can help you to get into the right frame of mind, set the scene and ease you into the imaginative world that you’re trying to create. In terms of scriptwriting, it’s essential to start thinking in a more 3D sense, to think about sounds and sights, not just dialogue. How much of your story can be told through sound? What can sound add to a scene? While creating a soundscape is unlikely to be the writer’s responsibility, unless you’re seriously self-producing or the genius Tim X Atack, sound is an essential tool in the writer’s kitbag whether you’re writing plays, films or novels. If you have characters talking to each other in a busy market, try writing the scene with the market sounds playing in the background. Yes, it sounds obvious – but how many writers actually try it? Google the particular effect or ambience you’re looking for eg “Haunted house free audio.” You’ll also find audio environments on Youtube – I mean, seriously, people go out and record things like “Greek fishing village” for half an hour or more. I don’t know why they do this, but I’m prepared to take advantage of the fact. And if you’re writing a play called The Crow King, then something like this is pretty much perfect. Sound dogs is another good site to check out, if you don’t mind trawling through random sound effects – they have a search engine, so it’s not that bad. Sometimes it can help get the juice going. Sometimes.

Writing, notes, research.

Evernote is a fantastic multi-platform app that allows you to record notes and pictures, and clip entire articles or highlighted phrases using a handy little toolbar button, sorting it into different notebooks. I can start a blog post on Evernote on my laptop, add to it later on my phone or tablet, come home and pick it back up on the laptop again. Notes are stored in Notebooks, one for each project, with a small snapshot of each note visible while you’re working so you can jump between them. It has a toolbar button for clipping items from the web, so it’s easy to store up research and ideas for future posts and inspiration. If I get a good idea while I’m out, I can type it into my phone’s Evernote app, adding to an existing note/notebook or creating a new one, then sync it so it shows up on my laptop when I get home. It’s a great way of collating research, recording ideas and being able to access your notes from a variety of locations/platforms. You can use it as a form of file-sharing, allowing for collaboration on a project, although you might have to upgrade to the full version in order to do that. It’s big advantage is the ability to work within Evernote, using it as a word-processor, and have your project synced to all the various platforms you’re using. Great for recording snippets of inspiration and research, clipping articles you know you want to re-read and working on the go. I’ve got a notebook on the go for each of the projects I’m working on, and it’s so much easier than saving masses of articles onto my hard drive.

I’m currently trialling Scrivener and thinking that I like it so far. If you’re a novelist, it would quickly become a vital tool, but it has its place for other forms of writing as well. Basically it’s a jazzed up word-processor (Desktop environment, sorry) which allows you to organize your writing project in a much more streamlined way. Watch the video and be impressed. I should mention I’m not an affiliate for any of these sites – ooh, maybe I should become one. Similar programs exist, such as Liquid Story Binder, but Scrivener seems more comprehensive and easier to use. I’ve used Liquid Story Binder before, but struggled a bit with stupid things like page and font colour – everything was in strange, eye-unfriendly colours. LSB has a very handy time-line tool, which I haven’t come across on Scrivener. But I’m loving the way Scrivener makes it easy to organize your work and move stuff around, have instant access to notes (including a split screen function so you can have a research file open while you work) and just have everything in the one easy-to-access place rather than repeatedly opening and searching through multiple files on Word. The snapshot function is genius too, allowing you to archive a section before you alter it, so that if you change your mind it’s easy to put it back to how it was. Yes I know you can use “Save as,” in Word, but Scrivener seems much more intuitive. There are Youtube tutorials created by Scrivener users for further information and cleverness. You can compile your draft and export it in various file formats, ranging from Word docs to PDFs to Final Draft. The only issue I’ve had is with trying to copy and paste from Word into Scrivener – it goes horribly wrong unless you remember to use the Paste – match style option under the Edit menu. At the time of writing, there’s a special offer for the full version, $15 off.

OmmWriter – A sweet little writing environment designed to be distraction-free. You don a pair of headphones and type away, with tiny little sounds whenever you press a key, in a way that encourages you to keep going rather than pulling you out of the zone. Customizable so you can choose the background image, sounds and music, or turn them off as you prefer. I haven’t tried writing a script in it, I’m not sure what the formatting would be like but you’d have to copy and paste it into a proper word-processor afterwards to get it into shape. My kids love it, so it comes in handy for homework writing assignments. Free to download, with the option of paying to upgrade to the full version. Very zen.

Stickies are virtual post-it notes you can stick on your desktop. More recent versions of Windows may have a similar app installed, but if not it’s worth getting so you can keep a variety of To Do lists up there on your screen without having to clean off the sticky gunk that comes with the real thing.

Get your Google or Hotmail calendar working for you. It’s easy to lose track of opportunities, competitions and deadlines, so now I keep tabs on them by adding them to my To Do/task list in the Hotmail calendar, which also syncs to my phone and tablet. I’ll copy and paste relevant info such as website details, set the deadline and ask it to send me a reminder. You can also create a colour-coded project schedule on your virtual calendar so that you know what you’re supposed to be working on and when. If I want to know what’s coming up, it’s easy to check out the list of deadlines stored up in my calendar. Writing things out manually on a paper calendar just didn’t work for me, partly because the calendar was upstairs, while I was checking my email and discovering opportunities while downstairs. Yeah, I know. I doubt I’m the only one though.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t break the chain wallplanner has become legend, so much so that he’s started discrediting it. His simple-but-effective tip was to buy a year planner, and put a large X against every day that you write. You only need a small row of X’s before it becomes a habit that you don’t want to break. For a digital version, try out something like Lift. There are various Don’t break the chain style apps – here’s a free one for iPhone, but given that I don’t have an iPhone, I can’t test it out for you. Looks good though.

Words, words, words.

My attitude tends to be one of throw everything you’ve got at it. What are your passwords? Obscure combinations of letters, numbers and symbols that have to be recorded in a little book because you’ve got no chance of remembering them? Slightly more obvious things like your cat’s name or MyPa$$word? How about switching them to something that’s going to inspire you, a mini affirmation every time you type – like BAFTAwinner2014! or GreatWriter01? Yes I know I’m a hopeless hippy, but if it can’t harm you and might just help then I say go for it. If nothing else, pick something that’s going to make you smile. Oh, and tweak a few characters to make it more secure. Obvs.

What works for you? If you’ve spotted something I’m missing out on, a magic tool of the trade that works for you, hit the comments and let me know.

 

 

 

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How Windows 8 can make you a better writer.

“I just bought a new laptop,” I say. “It’s got Windows 8.”

“Oh,” comes the reply down the line. “Nice.”

The nice isn’t sarcastic. At least, the word sarcastic wouldn’t do it full justice. It’s as if I’ve just told him my puppy contracted Parvo virus after eating a pile of poo. Or that burglars had stripped us of everything we own, then sprayed graffiti over the sofa. That kind of nice, not merely sarcastic but spoken with true empathy and an understanding that there is real suffering in the world and that bad things can indeed happen to good people.

Nice.

For anyone unacquainted with Windows 8, it goes like this; imagine that some 14 year old boffin at Microsoft figured out a great new operating system on their tablet. Swippetty swipe, Facebook, Twitter, Games, Photos, Cloud, whoosh-de-whoosh, as if by magic, job done. No need for tedious details like Start buttons, back buttons or little red X buttons to shut down the page, it’s all done at the swipe of a finger. Then they quickly rolled it out across all their platforms – tablets, phones, laptops. Sorted.

Except. Laptops aren’t tablets. Most laptops are finger-pad and mouse click affairs, relatively few are touchscreen. And people who buy laptops to actually work on might choose to eschew the touchscreen option in favour of a decent keyboard, a larger memory, perceived reliability or durability. Because, you know, if you’re actually working on a computer rather than pissing about on Candy Crush, your fingers are tapping away on the keyboard or clicking the mouse, and having to start swiping the screen is only going to get in your way. And if you’re not going to work on a laptop, why would you buy a laptop rather than a tablet or X-box?

So the list of complaints went something like this, and you should really imagine this is typed all in caps, in bold; it just doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense, it’s not at all intuitive, it’s only designed for touchscreens, hotmail has gone horribly wrong, there’s no back button on the browser, hang on a moment – where’s the fucking browser gone? Where’s my tabs? It keeps – oh crap! – it keeps on jumping around, I can’t find the little icon, no I didn’t ask you to do that, no go back, why can’t I select multiple messages to delete them, oh my god this is just nasty and seriously did they not test this out at all? And oh my god, what do you mean Office isn’t actually included, why the hell isn’t Office included, what the shitting hell do they think I need a laptop for if I’m not using a word processor or spreadsheet or something? And how the hell do I turn it off?

The man in the computer shop understood this.

“I told them,” he said. “You need the Start button, you need a back button, people need to know how to close pages, but no, they’ve designed it all for swiping. But most people with laptops don’t want that.”

Microsoft knew better, evidently. They didn’t listen.

Which is why I just paid Computer Man £70 to wipe Windows 8 from my brand new laptop and put Windows 7 on it instead. Let’s not talk about how that affects my warranty. He even put Office on it for no extra cost. All the extraneous gubbins that gets loaded onto a new computer – you know, the stuff that you don’t want but are scared to delete – that’s all gone too. And although I was sweating a bit over the decision, I now have a clean, usable laptop whereas before I had something that just didn’t work properly and felt horrible. According to Computer Man, I’m not the first and I won’t be the last, and if you’re reading this while contemplating buying a new laptop then for the love of God get a Mac, or ask me for Computer Man’s number.

And the better writer part?

Listen. For pity’s sake listen. And allow a space for that listening to unfold. Invite criticism, make it safe for people to be honest with you about what they thought of your work, and listen to them. Write down what they say, whether you agree with it or not. Sit with it a while, especially the parts you found challenging to hear. Let go of your belief that it’s good, that it’s right, that it’s important. Embrace the possibility that it might not be perfect, at least not yet. There are things you can improve, and listening will help you find them. Listening will help you determine whether this thing that you’re writing has legs, or whether you’re merely rolling a turd through more layers of glitter with each draft. But that listening has to be active, not merely getting your friends to tell you how brilliant you are. It means engaging at a far deeper level, finding people who know what they’re talking about and asking them how you can make it better, without putting up a defensive front or sulking when they don’t say what you wanted to hear. Yes, that can hurt. A lot. Until you figure out that it’s going to make you a better writer, that is. At which point your attitude shifts to hell yeah, bring it. Because let’s face it, we’ve all sat through plays that didn’t work and wondered how they got to the stage without anyone realizing it. And no doubt someone at Microsoft thought that they’d had the most brilliant idea for a new operating system ever ever ever.

Don’t be like Microsoft. Be like Computer Man. Delight me. Listen when it’s not working and step in to fix it. Don’t be afraid to delete everything you’ve got in the quest for something better. And always throw in a copy of Office for free.

Don’t make your audience sit through Windows 8.

Listen.

 

 

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“But I’m not a real writer yet” : Proposals and the art of selling yourself.

blackpool-rock-mountain-2

Message received:

I am being put forward for the Writersroom Ten and I’m really not sure how to write the proposal for a play. I’m suddenly feeling panicked and completely lacking in ideas and I’m not sure how to sell myself.  I’ve written several plays and a book but still don’t feel able to call myself a writer. Maybe if someone gave me a cheque…  Any hints, tips, calming drugs would be gratefully received.

Right then.

First thing: you are not the only one to feel this way. Most writers will cheerfully dive straight into writing a seven-volume series of epic novels, a hit West-End musical (in our imaginations at least) or box-office-smashing blockbuster movie, yet will collapse into a blubbery heap when confronted with a grant application form or a request for a short bio or “blurb.” Plus having to write a proposal sounds a lot like Pitching, that large scary demon many of us have sworn to stay away from, nasty dirty Hollywood invention that it is. And yeah – at what point do you get to call yourself a writer? After your fiftieth unpublished novel, after the local AmDram group have performed your panto, after your first professionally produced play, after your screenplay wins an Oscar? Are you only a writer if you’re getting paid? What about the stuff you write on spec or for the sheer love of it, doesn’t it count?

Feeling like you’re not a real writer erodes your confidence, which makes the whole proposal/selling issue that much harder. Because if you don’t believe you’re a writer, why would they? It all starts to smell a lot like bullshit, and you don’t want to do bullshit, so it’s now impossible. So let’s start with giving yourself permission. I’m a writer. Say it. I’m a writer. Say it out loud. I’m a writer. If that feels too much like bullshit, try it another way. I write. I write. I write. And what do you call someone who writes? A writer. International best-selling author SARK described herself as a writer for years before she was actually published; on being questioned about what it was she actually wrote, she’d reply “My journals.” Perhaps you’ve created an amazing blog, crammed full of beautiful writing that you’re never going to get paid for – you’re still a writer, aren’t you? Point is – you get what you expect. Thoughts create reality. If you believe you’re not a real writer, then you’re not a real writer. So start believing it. Yes, I know there’s a lot of self-delusion out there, a lot of people kidding themselves about their level of talent and the amount of success they deserve, but if you write at all you get to call yourself a writer. Own it. You have my permission, if not your own.

So, the proposal. Let’s assume you’ve got an idea for a play. If you haven’t got an idea – hell, that’s a whole other blog post. Get brainstorming and hit Google for creative writing exercises.  Read The Daily Mail online until steam is whistling out of your ears and sheer fury is propelling you to write. Preferably come up with two ideas, then you (or whoever you’re working with) can choose the strongest – it’s always good to have a choice rather than opting for the default. If you’re working with someone else, they might have strong reasons for not wanting to do what you consider your most excellent idea and so you’re going to need back up.

You’ve now got an idea, but it’s vague and fluffy and you’re not sure what it is.  Even if this is the big idea you’ve had for a while, it’s just been in your head and you’re not sure if you can put it down on paper as a proposal before you’ve written a word of the damn thing. Play around with it for a day or so, get some inspiration flowing. Doing any creative writing is better than just worrying about it. Jam with it, explore possibilities of character, story, style, theme. Create a Pinterest board for inspiration, put together a Spotify playlist, whatever works for you. Get excited about the potential.

Think about what makes your idea exciting, both to the theatre and in this case to the BBC. What makes you exciting, what is your USP? Don’t freak out about the notion of an artist having to think in terms of USP, just get on with it. Think about your strengths as a writer and as a person, what life experience you’ve had, what you can bring to this. What you’d get out of it. Write a manifesto-proposal, just for you. Write down why you want to do this, why you deserve it. Write from the heart. Write about the play you’d love to write and why it’s important and why it’ll be brilliant. Whenever you get stuck/lost, use the phrase “What I really want to say is…” Use all of this as a springboard to write your official proposal.

Make sure your passion runs through the proposal like Blackpool through a stick of rock. When someone else reads it, will they get a sense of who you are, where you’re coming from, what lights you up? If not, go back and do it again. Whenever someone has asked me to read through a proposal then my usual note is that it just doesn’t sound like them, like the amazing, creative, intelligent, funny, sexy person that I know. When they go back and put themselves into the proposal, it suddenly shines off the page.

I should probably blog a bit more about fear. There’s a bit here, but there’s more to say. Fear gets in the way a lot. Each time you reach a new level, the fear is paralyzing. Get used to it. Just learn that it’s normal – you don’t get anywhere unless you stretch yourself, and stretching yourself is always scary. Journal your fears, write down all the shit that’s getting in the way about how you think you’re no good etc etc. It’s quite good to do this in a blank Word document, and then just delete it afterwards, let it go. Then write some more about how you deserve this, why it should be yours. Acknowledge the fear – literally, say hello to it, talk to it. It’s just your subconscious trying to protect you. It’s the leftover caveman bit warning you not to go into the forest because there’s lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Acknowledge it, reassure it/yourself that you know what you’re doing, that you can do this, you’ve got this, and that the view from the other side will be totally worth it. And breathe. Remember to breathe. Keep telling yourself I got this. Whenever you get panicky; I got this. What’s the worst that could happen? They’re not going to burst through your front door to capture your failure and humiliation on live TV. Every single writer is going to have a long list of things I didn’t get, even the successful ones. But if you conquer the fear and the doubt, and the panicky voice telling you it’s rubbish and you’re not a real writer and you’re never going to get it so why are you trying anyway – if you push yourself through that and carry on, then there’s a chance, there’s just a chance that you might get it. And that opens a whole new world of possibility.

You got this.

Good luck.

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All these moments

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I’ve found myself wanting to expand the scope of this blog, to incorporate more of myself, my wider life rather than just my theatre writing. Not necessarily descending to the level of blogging about my cat (she died recently, so that’d be tricky) but because while writing is a big part of who I am, it’s not the only part. I ended up taking a massive blog break during the summer holidays as I was finding it impossible to plough on with my playwriting while caring for the kids 24/7. Other things were happening, things called life, not just writing. And on a larger note it’s important for writers to develop a balance between writing and living. Writing tends to happen from a position of retreat. You observe, you think, you imagine, and then you withdraw from the world in order to create a space that is just your head and the page and finding the words to tell a story. Too much distraction from the real world and that magical space is destroyed, the muse sent packing. Certainly I’ve broken off mid-sentence to go to the loo and then looked up, disorientated because I wasn’t expecting to find myself in my own house. You can easily become fully immersed in the imaginary. The danger is that the writer tries to stay in that imagined space for too long and never really emerges back into reality. This is particularly true when you go straight from one project into the next, constantly trying to make the next deadline, the next submission window, the next idea. Writing never stops.

Trigorin in The Seagull puts it this way;

…I’m obsessed day and night by one thought: I must write, I must write, I just must… For some reason, as soon as I’ve finished one novel, I feel I must start writing another, then another, then another… I write in a rush, without stopping, and can’t do anything else. What is there radiant or beautiful in that, I ask you?

(…) I snatch at every word and sentence I utter, and every word you utter too, and hurriedly lock them up in my literary pantry – in case they come in useful. When I finish a piece of work, I dash off to the theatre, or go off on a fishing trip, and that’s the time when I ought to relax and forget myself – but no! Something that feels like a heavy cast-iron ball begins to revolve in my brain – a new subject for a novel. – So immediately I drag myself back to my desk again, and I have to push on with my writing once more, to keep on writing and writing. …And it’s like that always, always… and I can’t get any rest away from myself. I feel as though I’m devouring my own life, that for the sake of the honey I give to all and sundry I’m despoiling my best flowers of their pollen, that I’m plucking the flowers themselves and trampling on their roots. Am I out of my mind?

Ultimately a form of writer’s block must surely emerge, the creative well drying up. Every writer faces that panic at some point, the notion of What if I’m out of ideas? What if this is it and I’m done? But more than this, what are we writing about? How can writers write if they’re not engaged with the world?

At a Simon Stephens workshop at Bristol Old Vic a few years back (he gives a damn good workshop, by the way), he asked us what qualities were needed in order to be a playwright. The one that stays in my head was wonder.
Wonder can suggest a child-like state of innocence, a sense of awe at the world and just how bloody amazing and beautiful it all is. But it can can point just as easily to a state of bewilderment, of asking just how did everything get so fucked-up, why are human beings so bloody awful? Whether in awe or bewilderment, wonder involves questioning, the I wonder… that leads so often to the new discovery. I wonder what this recipe would taste like if I added cinnamon? I wonder where this footpath leads? I wonder why apples fall down instead of up?
For me that sense of wonder is increasingly coming from nature. Wildness. A desire for a sense of connection with the earth, a sense of rootedness. A desire for the imaginary worlds in my head to be deeply connected to the real. What is more real than the soil, the trees, the rain, wind and sun? An awareness that our lives are designed to shut out nature as much as possible – that despite the fact we’re living in stone-age bodies designed for active and outdoor lifestyles, hunting, gathering, running, walking, swimming, we now spend the vast majority of our lives sitting indoors staring at illuminated screens be they computers or televisions, eating food that isn’t really food and connecting with people only virtually. This year I’ve been drawn towards finding out more about foraging, herbalism, permaculture – things that have hovered around the periphery of my interests for some time, but which now feel urgent and vital to me. The connection between stories and the land, myth and landscape, a cultural triangle between people, nature and stories.
This beautiful post by Rima Staines seems appropriate.
Earlier in the year I was filling a bag with cherries foraged from trees in the local park, taking the time to pick the tiny wild strawberries that are rampant in our garden. I’ve been gathering mint and nettles, hanging them up to dry in the kitchen, ready to make teas during Winter. A family bike ride was halted to pick elderberries, while school pick-up time had us plucking damsons through the wire fence and searching out cobnuts in the hedges. Blackberries this year were plump and abundant, no journey complete without seeing somebody, somewhere, stood in front of a hedgerow, container in hand. Bramble-hunters always make me smile . Blackberries seem to be our last great link to our hunter-gatherer past, a compulsion exists to gather them in, make use of these sweet dark jewels that hang there, tempting and free. Obvious, too, I guess – the one foragable item that everybody recognises, as opposed to the mysteries of the potentially fatal fungi kingdom. I’ve been turning to the books I own, trying to identify more of the wild plants I go past each day, the ones that we generally ignore as weeds and pay little attention to. An interesting side effect is that plants cease to be weeds once you’ve learned their uses; plantain, dandelion, clover, hedge garlic, even the dreaded equisetum (although that’s not one I plan to introduce to the garden any time soon, some things are best foraged from elsewhere.)
Children are fantastic at wonder, until their senses become dulled with age and formal education. Sharing their wonder has been one of the best things about parenthood, whether that’s through seeing their eyes widen as I’m telling them a story, or drawing their attention (or them drawing mine) to something amazing on the ground, up a tree, hiding in the undergrowth or flying above our heads. We have taken in caterpillars on nasturtium leaves and watched them hatch out as cabbage white butterflies. The morning mists of Autumn acting like a highlighter on the spiderwebs in the hedge that we’d normally pass by without noticing. The effect is as if a thousand spiders arrived in the night, bringing the mist with them as they spin their webs before morning. This morning, the mists were gone, the webs invisible once more, as if the spiders had disappeared with the change of weather. They’re still there, if we have the curiosity and patience to seek them out – but how many of us could tell one species from another, could name the spider we were looking at, know its preferences, its habits? There is so much about the world that we don’t know.

Trigorin again: …But the worst of it is that I live in a sort of haze, and I often don’t understand what I’m writing. I love this water here, the trees, the sky. I have a feeling for nature, it arouses a sort of passion in me, an irresistible desire to write. But you see, i’m not a mere landscape painter, I’m also a citizen of my country; I love it, I love its people. As an author, I feel I’m in duty bound to write about the people, their sufferings, their future – and about science, the rights of man, and so on, and so forth. And I write about everything in a great hurry while i’m being prodded and urged on from all sides and people keep getting cross with me, so that I dash about from one side to the other like a fox badgered by the hounds. I see science and society forging ahead, while I drop further and further behind, like a peasant who’s just missed his train, and in the end I feel that all I can do is to paint landscapes, and that everything else I write is a sham – false to the very core.

I do not want to write a sham. It means a lot to me when others have described my writing as “honest” as that has always been my intention. It’s why I’m also becoming less interested in argument – intellectual debate, at least; the knowledge that words can be used so easily to manipulate opinion, without the writer even believing in their own liturgy.
I set an exercise in a workshop I ran - write one true sentence. Then another. Then another, and so on. Write only truth. Try it. It sounds easy, simplistic even, but can in fact prove incredibly difficult unless we return to the barest of facts. I am sitting on a grey sofa. I am wearing red socks. It is nighttime. It is raining. On the television, one actor is pretending to kill another. But as soon as we delve into the realms of I believe… or I know… we are entering tricky territory. Do I really believe that? Do I really know that? Traditional debate has lost its appeal as I find I’m wanting to talk about the experience of the thing, about how it feels, the truth of the subject for me, words spilling from my heart and gut rather than my brain. Some of this stems from university, from knowing which words would get me the best marks if I put them on the page, a knowledge that was purely intellectual, while a small voice inside whispered Is this what I really think? Really? all the time knowing that it was not. But of course, speaking from the heart is not welcomed in our rational culture, certainly not in academia. Even in arguments housed within Facebook comments, I have found myself stung by the refusal to accept a viewpoint based in the experiential rather than the intellectual.
More and more I find myself rejecting certainty, welcoming the not knowing, the open mind, the starting point. The Fool of the Tarot, setting out with nothing but the desire to experience, to learn, to wonder. There is so much to know, and we know so little that certainty can seem like arrogance, or a lie. And I don’t want a lie. Stories can be lies, or they can be true – even when entirely fictional. It is truth, honesty, heart and gut that I want in my writing, in my stories because they are then rooted in the real, in the soil and the rain and the wind. Because Nature doesn’t lie. Humans lie, we’re brilliant at it. We can lie brilliant worlds into being, or we can lie nightmares into existence. We can watch with wonder as a butterfly takes its first flight, or we can wipe out entire populations of badgers because we’re choosing to only pay attention to one side of the argument, the side that has money and votes.
We can listen, or not. We can wonder, or not. For writers, I strongly recommend the former. The listening, and the wondering. Being in the world with an open ear, an open mind and an open heart, as well as our eyes wide open. Wandering. Wondering. Experiencing what is real, what is true. And then telling stories about it.

“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.” Roy Batty, Bladerunner

I started this post with a desire to share stuff that wasn’t writing. Stuff that wasn’t stories. Stuff about nettles, blackberries, weeds, and swapping your windfall apples for your neighbour’s plums. But ultimately, it’s all stories, all of it. Isn’t it?

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

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BBC Writersroom 10

shot_1382358415537BBC Writersroom have re-launched their scheme for playwrights, Writersroom 10. It’s a national search for 10 writers to receive mentoring from the BBC and a seed commission of £1000 to begin writing a new play. There’s also a film about it here. I’m not in the promo film – thank fuck – but I was part of the original scheme so here’s a few thoughts, prompted by someone else asking me whether it was worth applying for it.

Top tip: anything involving those three magic little letters gets people’s attention. As soon as you say BBC, people’s ears prick up. In conversation, on your CV, whatever. So to get on any kind of BBC scheme is a massive seal of approval, it’s seen as some kind of guarantee of quality. It’s worth doing for that reason alone. I don’t mean that in a cynical way – the BBC is deeply ingrained into our consciousness as a voice we can trust, it’s where you go to get the proper news or weather, it smacks of importance and quality. Except for Homes under the Hammer, perhaps. People are wary of taking risks on an unknown writer, they want someone else to vouch for you. It looks good if that someone else is the BBC. For more info on the Writersroom and what they actually do, look at this excellent blog post by Paul Ashton.

The main thing I got out of it – two main things – confidence and a mentor. I got into the scheme in my first year of trying to turn professional and felt such a huge degree of imposter syndrome, especially when it came to comparing my CV to everyone else’s. But it meant a great deal that there were people at the BBC who believed in me, who thought I could actually write. That helped keep me going on days that I doubted myself or lost out on other things. The BBC thinks I can write. That’s a pretty good feeling.

We all got given mentors at the BBC, which was hilarious. I was thinking about the possibility of maybe getting a radio play on one day, if I was very very good and worked very very hard at it, so I mumbled something about maybe being given a mentor in radio. Everyone else was like “I should totally have Steven Moffat as my mentor.” Okayyyy. Nobody got Steven Moffat as their mentor, it was pointed out that he was a little bit busy, what with doing Doctor Who and all. But everybody got given a mentor of some kind – comedy, children’s, continuing drama, radio, whatever field you were most interested in. I’m now working with a lovely producer with an aim of developing a radio play. I’ve also had 2 short pieces on the radio as a direct result of the scheme (even got paid for one of those, which was nice.)

In terms of the actual scheme and what we did – we had an initial day in London after we’d been chosen, to discuss stuff like mentors and the aims of the scheme, get to know each other. We had a 2 day intensive (travel and accommodation all paid for by the BBC) where various people came and spoke to us about radio, children’s, and continuing drama. Fairly rapid masterclasses – you’re not going to get all the skills you need from a one hour talk, but it gives you an insight and of course it gives you the opportunity to network eg the script editor from Holby led a workshop and was impressed by my idea – that’s something I could have chased up if I wanted to write for continuing drama.

We each wrote a 10 min piece over the next few months for a showcase at Newcastle Live theatre – the BBC paid for our travel and accommodation, including a meal out. Generally they really looked after us when we were with them. 4 of those pieces were chosen to be adapted for radio, including mine, and went out on Radio 3′s The Verb. 4 were then selected to be filmed for The Space website, including mine. I was also asked to contribute to the Writersroom blog, the kind of thing that gets me ridiculously over-excited.

Getting onto the scheme: I had won a short play competition hosted by Salisbury Playhouse who then mentored me for a year and put me forward for it. Our application was hugely last minute, to the extent that the Artistic Director had to hand deliver it to make the deadline. My CV was pretty much non-existent at that point, so I can’t really offer much of an explanation of why I was chosen. I put forward a proposal about a piece that combined professional actors with a youth theatre – it was about urban regeneration, questioning whether the poorest communities get a look-in, social unrest etc, which was beefed up by my experience of growing up in Liverpool. I guess they liked the script I sent them; Respite, my first play. We’d come up with ideas for events/schemes for the theatre to engage in, although in the end none of those came to fruition. Reading it through, it seemed like a strong application at the time, I remember feeling like we’d given it our best shot. My only tip would be to put your heart into it, make sure it sounds like you rather than being oddly formal or what you think they want to hear. Unless you’re deeply weird, in which case try and sound like someone else.

You have to be already working with a theatre to apply for the scheme, but can’t have had a production (full, professional.) That rules out a lot of people at opposite ends of the spectrum, either because they’ve not yet developed a relationship with a theatre, or because they’ve already been produced. In theatre terms, it hopefully further builds your relationship with the theatre that are putting you forward, they’re generally grateful to be able to get some money for you and it maybe boosts their new-writing profile too. You get a seed commission for a new play, which the theatre gets the first option on without being committed to do it. Win-win. In TV/radio terms it’s a springboard to developing crucial mentoring relationships that can really help you get started along the right path. You’ll also get to meet some fantastic writers who are in the same boat. My group included Kenny Emson, Rachel Delahay, Dawn King – who’ve all gone on to great things, but the point is that they hadn’t when they were chosen. Dawn was pretty much walking around going “I’ve got this play and no one will do it” – which turned out to be Foxfinder. So it’s nice to have been able to see people finally get some level of success, and it reinforces the belief that if they can do it, you can too. I think that’s about it – but I can’t underestimate the value of having an “in” at the Writersroom – they know us really well and so we can each go back to them and ask for help/advice etc. If you meet the criteria and have a theatre willing to back you, it’s definitely worthwhile. The odds will never be in your favour, but someone – 10 someones – will be chosen, and one of them just might be you. Good luck.

 

 

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Building a case for funding support

Grab yourself a cuppa and buckle up, it’s a long one. Who comes up with these catchy titles? This time it was Create Gloucestershire, with a free workshop

to help people build their strategic case for support, in a friendly and creative way, before bid-writing begins in earnest. The workshop is an opportunity to crystalize thinking about the unique contribution of your organisation/project/event and how it adds value to the wider art and cultural ecology in Gloucestershire and beyond.

Although the workshop was Gloucestershire-specific, the thinking behind it applies to the overall national strategy that the Arts Council are putting in place until 2020. Or until they change their minds, I suppose. So here we go:

2 key questions:

  1. What inspires you?
  2. Why should you get public funds?

Whether you’re an individual artist, an arts organization or charity/community body, the first question to ask yourself is what inspires you. What is your aim, your passion, your motivation? Only then can you move onto the issue of why you should get funding.

The Arts Council are pointing out that we talk about investment in schools, hospitals etc, but talk about subsidizing the arts. The very language involved provokes an immediate question of why and whether the arts should receive public money. Instead, we need to talk about investment in the arts and create a clear picture of how society benefits from such cultural investment. It might seem like an obvious point, but it’s a crucial one.

The whole picture of why public funds are needed has been lost - Peter Bazalgette

In general terms there has been standard public investment into arts and culture since 1945, a situation which the sector has maybe taken for granted. And while this public investment is a lovely thing for the sector, it means that the cultural sector has lost the ability to argue its own value. Whereas Maria Miller might be arguing that the sector needs to demonstrate its value in purely economic terms, the Arts Council is now building a holistic case for the arts and culture.

The aim is to put culture at the heart of everything. Scroll through the slideshow to find the blobby diagram with culture at the middle, you’ll need it. As they themselves explain:

Culture allows us to understand ourselves; and the arts illuminate our inner lives, enrich our emotional world and teach us compassion. They engage us in a dialogue about values, they define our national identity and our concept of citizenship. They hand down tradition, the ideas and the language that makes us confident innovators.

Arts and culture are also essential at all levels of education, bringing imagination and self-expression to the primary school and the lecture hall. From first contact to lifelong learning, the arts have a symbiotic relationship with other subjects. We need to describe this, and make sure that the arts become integral to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths.

The arts and cultural sector also makes a major contribution to social wellbeing – in engagement with children and young people, old people and the sick and marginalised. We encourage the individuality of local communities and through our commitment to diversity we strive to bring out the positive, creative potential of the nation.

There is also a wide contribution the creative and cultural sectors make to economic strength. The arts attract income to other areas of the economy, shape the environment for economic regeneration, drive exports and fly the flag for England abroad.

- See more at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/advocacy/holistic-case/#sthash.bbljsSn8.dpuf

So we’re now trying to put culture at the heart of society and places, rather than just creating economic justification for the arts. Within the sector we’ve long understood the need for the arts as a core part of the educational curriculum, not just as individual subjects such as drama and music but as a way of teaching/learning across all subjects as well as a means of engaging students, whether those students marked out as gifted and talented, those labelled as having special educational needs or those at risk at exclusion. Hello Michael Gove, it’s maybe time you started listening. We also know that the arts can be at the heart of regional regeneration, with ground-breaking museums and galleries acting as a focus and attracting visitors and investment. The worth of the arts stretches from our internal well-being to how we are perceived on a global scale. We know this. We now have to show it. The sector needs to convince other government departments as to how/why culture needs to be at the heart of their thinking. And then get money from them, basically. I may be under-thinking this.
The 5 goals:
  1. Excellence. The feeling is that previously this wasn’t high enough on the agenda. Everything now needs to be excellent, and -
  2. For everyone. Not just any one particular demographic.
  3. Resilience and sustainability. Organizations need to have the resilience to survive if/when Arts Council funding is withdrawn, by creating partnerships and embedding themselves into communities.
  4. Diversity and skills. Both for the people making art and the people enjoying art. Diverse leadership also.
  5. Children and young people. The artists/audiences of tomorrow – and also of today.

You don’t necessarily have to meet all of these goals (although I got the feeling that excellence was now compulsory, no pressure there,) but you can demonstrate how you’re supporting the other goals even though you’re focusing on one of them. It’s been pointed out that THE ENVIRONMENT hasn’t been mentioned in any of this so far. Oops. It remains an aim, allegedly, but the fact that it got missed off the diagram probably speaks volumes. They might try and pretend they were talking about environmental sustainability in #2 rather than mere economics. I’m thinking that’s really rather a big Oops, actually.

Grand Partnerships
Tom and Jerry, Angie and Den, Renee and Renato… and now you and whoever has money. Bearing in mind that this was a workshop aimed more at organizations than individuals, but the strategy is linking things together to make things happen. Funding is starting to shift away from individuals and organizations, and towards particular outcomes. If a social need has been identified – improved wellbeing for elderly people, for example – then generally funding will be channelled towards that need, and so the arts sector needs to communicate with the organizations that have expertise in that area, or have funding but no strategy. Again, it might seem obvious, but there’s a shift in thinking; outcome-based funding. Not organization- or artist-based.
Within an area, we need to co-ordinate assets and strategies and then evaluate together. Yeah, you can probably tell that’s not one of my sentences. But people, we’re thinking holistically, and creating links with other artists/arts organizations/businesses and community/charitable organizations to create projects based around specific outcomes in areas of identifiable need.
Next buzzword: Place.
This one is really really important. Massively important. If you want to stop reading at this point, then bear in mind these three things: Art-at-the-heart, Partnerships and Place. And now fly, my pretties.
Still here? Right then:
Where you are matters.
Your contribution is in a specific place at a specific time. Understand the place you are in and your role in it, rather than you/your organization within the wider Arts ecology. How are you rooted in your community?
At this point we looked at statistics and maps gleaned from the Gloucestershire County Council website, for example the county is relatively affluent and has above average educational attainment and good health, but there are areas of true deprivation, mainly within Gloucester and Cheltenham. Every County Council has a website with this kind of information and statistics. You need this information. Armed with this, you can create a funding bid or identify where to form partnerships to deliver creative solutions – or even use it to inform the kind of projects you initiate.
At this point you might be screaming But I’m an artist! I’m a playwright! I just want to write plays and have theatres put them on! Well, that’s great, and I hear you, I really do. Deep down, I’m kinda with you. But why should we get public funding for that? We could get into a debate about art for art’s sake at this point, and I’m not going to deny the value of that – but historically artists have survived through patronage, or creating a commercial product, generally both. Shakespeare had patrons and put a lot of bums on seats. He didn’t get an Arts Council grant. Given the current state of the economy etc etc, I’m not sure how long we’re going to manage to get G4A awards as individual artists, or even as theatre companies. Granted, I’m a Capricorn and Saturn is heavily over-represented in my birthchart, but to all you Pollyannas out there – the shit is really hitting the fan right now, and the future is looking 50 Shades of Excrement. And no matter how passionately we believe in our Art, our rights as an Artist, the role our Art has to play in the world, it doesn’t mean we’re going to get funding in the future. Even if we’re really good at it. Perhaps we need to be shaking down the Commercial sector a little harder, and letting them know they’re going to run out of good new work/talented artists if they don’t invest in the sector-formerly-known-as-subsidized, but in the meantime, if we want to get paid for what we do then we might need to shift our thinking towards the holistic, partnerships and place direction. Or fuck it, let’s shrug our shoulders and de-monetize the work, like the producer once said.
So: understand your place, your community in your corner of the world and what your issues are. And apply this to your funding bid, using facts and figures, and preferably partnerships. Someone pointed out that the G4A form has recently changed, and now gives you a box the size of a postage stamp to put all of this information into. I can’t help you with this one, other than perhaps if enough people complain to the Arts Council, they might change the form again.
Who you need to know
We got a helpful diagram at this point, a recreation of the Arts Council blobbing strategy, but with the blobs changed to list the local organizations working in those areas. Seriously, we really did use the words blobs and blobbing. Blobbing is the new black. This is where your local strategic knowledge comes into play. Culturally, Gloucestershire draws a bit of a blank in that centre blob, whereas Bristol would have a longer list of organizations and individuals who work to support the Arts. It’s worth doing this yourself.
Culture: ACE SW, Borough Councils, some County Councils, which bodies are supporting/funding Arts/culture in your area.
Education: schools, Further education, early years, universities, Adult education, county council
Society: Health/wellbeing board (not sure if this is Glos-specific, but look for similar organizations,) District councils, VCS (Voluntary and Community Services), something called GSSJC (Glos Safer, Stronger, Justice Committee? again, look for similar bodies,) County Councils
Economy: LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships, possibly Local Economy Partnerships – the replacement for Regional Development Agencies,) County Councils, Creative Industries, District Councils.
There was mention and comparison with Bristol (the eyes of Gloucestershire creatives look jealously upon you, Brizzle) as there’s a dearth of visionary leadership and political will in Glos compared to Bristol. If local politicians understand and value culture it creates an ecology where much more is possible even when there’s no specific funding, for example the idea of rates relief for creative organizations. Stokes Croft is seen as an area that has been reinvigorated by artists, without the use of public funding.
LEPs are key. They have money. Real, actual money. And in many areas, they’re not exactly sure how to spend it. So organizations such as Cinderford Arts Space are redefining themselves as “Enterprise Centres” rather than “Arts Centres.” They’re doing exactly the same work as they were before, but they’re showing how local young people would far rather go on a 10 week Circus Skills course than a 10 week course on How to Get A Job. And those young people then go on to set up their own organization teaching Circus Skills to younger children. The Bristol Old Vic initiative Made in Bristol supports a group of young people to create their own theatre company for a year, giving them the skills they need to build a career in the industry – not just performance skills but learning how to collaborate, how to market a show etc. You can register with your LEP’s website, free of charge.
Health and Wellbeing is another key area. Here there are recognisable targets – in Glos these are:
  • reduce obesity
  • reduce alcohol-related harm
  • mental health
  • health and wellbeing in old age
  • health inequalities

Additionally there are 4 strands to their strategy in terms of health, or rather poor-health-prevention:

  • starting well: pregnancy and early years
  • develop well: childhood
  • live well: adult years
  • age well: old age
If your work taps into any of these themes, or you have the idea for a project around these targets then forming a partnership with your local Health and Wellbeing body could mean accessing funding.
We were told there’s a genuine crisis in a lot of government departments, they’re not working well. In many areas they have specific targets to deliver, and no ideas of how to do it. Again, Michael Gove, pay attention.  The creative sector can come in with ideas for how to engage with the public and deliver outcomes for these targets. Many departments now outsource delivery, which frees up funding. Show the linkages and synergies with other organizations trying to tackle those issues. No, that wasn’t one of my sentences either. Your starting point is what inspires you. Then show why that should be publicly funded, using this model of holistic thinking. See, we’ve come full circle.
I found it exciting that the Arts Council is pushing forward with this holistic model of the Arts, rather than diminishing creativity to something that has only financial value. It’s depressing to have a Minister for Culture who seems to believe that Culture stops at the bottom line, a Ministry whose tagline is We help to give the UK a unique advantage in the global race for economic success. Personally, I don’t want anything to do with a global race for economic success, I’d sooner shag Satan and all his minions in the fiery depths of hell. I believe that a healthy artistic culture is vital at local, regional and national levels, that creativity is crucial to all aspects of our thinking and doing.  So Ya Boo, sucks to you, Miller, and bring on the holistics.
People who’ve been filling out funding applications for years will no doubt groan that it’s nothing new and they’ve been ticking off these boxes for decades. People will also complain that Art should be funded for Art’s sake, that it’s the sign of a healthy society. I don’t disagree. But when libraries are closing, Meals on Wheels scrapped, and the Young Carer’s Group my daughter used to go to can no longer afford to hold meetings, I’m not sure that I can make a case for why I should get public funding to go and write a play, just because I want to. But if I can partner with the Young Carers Association, and a theatre company, and the local health and wellbeing board to create a project working with those young carers, which might include me writing a piece for performance that reflects their lives, and attract funding because we’ve identified an unmet need… well that all feels worthwhile.
Something I scribbled down in my notes during today’s workshop, a vague thought I wanted to recall and explore: engage with culture/arts/creativity as an act of rebellion. There are times when I look at the state of the world and wonder what the hell I’m doing, how the hell I can have any kind of real cultural agency when I’m piddling around in theatres, desperately trying to convince someone to put on my play. But when we have a government dedicated to stripping away the rights of the poor and vulnerable while granting tax breaks to the wealthy, a government dedicated to eroding any last strand of creativity within the educational curriculum, a government that’s frack-happy and badger-hating,  a government determined to gag its own citizens and outlaw protest: then being an artist becomes a protest in itself. The notion of creating cultural and political agency through the arts, of engaging with the dispossessed, of fighting back through outreach, working with causes we believe in – that’s got to be attractive, hasn’t it? And if I can do that via funding from my state-endorsed LEP, convincing some bureaucrat that I’m equipping my Young Carers with improved mental health, general wellbeing and a unique advantage in the global race for economic success, all of which is true, but has the end result of getting financial support to keep the group going then I’m pretty much going to feel like Robin Hood. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I got a real sense today that we can learn to play the system and use their rules to fight them back. And yeah, that inspires me. That inspires me plenty. So engage, fellow artists. Go build your case for funding support. Root yourself into your communities, learn the rules of your local ecology, build those partnerships and use your creativity in any way you can to beat the bastards.
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Orion

2013-11-11 20.13.59(Pub theatre, as it should be.)

Theatre West are a Bristol-based company that punch well above their weight, Ann and Alison somehow managing to produce 5 new plays every year in their Autumn season, making them one of the foremost new-writing companies in the region. The A-Z of theatre season has run across two years, giving regional writers the chance of creating a one hour piece and/or a ten minute piece. A proper ten minute piece too, none of this script-in-hand malarkey. I was lucky enough to have Items of Value on with them last year, now it’s the turn of Orion, a ten minute piece that goes out in front of their main play Canis (by the lovely Samuel Taylor.) As with Items of Value the piece was inspired by the location I drew at random on the day, an industrial part of St Phillips – an abandoned mini van had been left on one of the side streets, no wheels, no engine and full of junk as if someone had been living in it. Straight away that made me wonder who the van had belonged to, what their story was. Combine that with complete fury at the Bedroom tax and the horror stories emerging from the Atos disability assessments, and Orion was born. Superbly acted by Marc Geoffrey and Paul Currier, it’s funny and hopefully a bit heart-breaking. It’s on this week, Tues 12th – Sat 16th November at the Alma Tavern, Bristol. More info here, booking here.

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A Theatre-Broadcast conversation, part 2

shot_1382377641279(Because the day you walk past a Dalek in the lobby without taking a photo is the day you have to admit to being old, cynical and too damn tired. Yesterday was not that day.)

Continuing the debate from the BBC Writersroom conference looking at the relationship between theatre and television.  Part 1 here. Once again I’m paraphrasing (couldn’t write fast enough to keep up) and the italics are where I’m paraphrasing wildly and should not be read as any kind of direct quote. Right. Let’s do this.

Vicky Featherstone  It always feels like the BBC nervously tries to be good. It needs to take a breath and relax. It’s so worried that it needs to know exactly what the audience wants now. No disrespect, but the audience doesn’t know what it wants. If it did, they’d all be artists instead. At NTS we always said we were artist-led and audience-focussed.

Kate Harwood (audience)  TV is about beating out risk, because it’s so expensive, it’s about £1 million an hour. Theatre is about taking risk. It’s all about the BBC 1 9pm slot, finding work/writers for that. It’s about writers finding a home for their voice (which is difficult to achieve in TV) – we need to enable them to be able to try.

Mark Ravenhill  It feels like everything on TV aspires to be expensive. Can’t we find an aesthetic that celebrates the cheapness rather than emulating costume drama? Make TV more cheaply? eg the biopics that were on BBC 4, seemed to be emulating an aesthetic that they can’t afford. There’s a few limited slots (for drama) and they’re expensive, but could we do 30 hours of drama instead of 3? (a sense of being able to take more risks, innovate, allow artistry if it was being done more cheaply. Also the potential of using digital platforms.) 

The high cost of producing TV drama means that there’s a huge fear of risk and failure.

VF  I have a massive fear of failure in everything we do. We only get 1.7 mill a year, so me putting on a Dennis Kelly piece is as much a risk as a drama costing a million for the BBC. More so.

Talk about authenticity, representation, diversity of voices. Particularly in terms of ethnicity, whether writers from different ethnic backgrounds are pigeonholed into writing very specific stories and not allowed a wider platform.

Roy Williams Was initially writing stories that he felt weren’t being told, people who weren’t represented. But that’s now maybe expected of him? Writers need to be free to write about whatever they want, not what somebody might expect of them. (Sorry, I was struggling to keep up at this point, there was a lot of audience discussion too.)

VF  I’ve banned the word “authentic” at the Royal Court. Every writer has an authentic voice. Writers should be able to write whatever they want. Not “well, you’ve written your authentic story about your upbringing 3 times now, we can’t use you any more.”

Abi Morgan  I still think good work is hard. We’re told “Write for your audience” but I find that incredibly hard (having to second guess who your audience is and what they want.) It’s about surrounding yourself with the right alchemy of people. (In terms of creating good work and getting people to collaborate and feedback on your writing) Write truthfully and reasonably.

RW  David Simon, the creator of The Wire said “Fuck the audience.”

Very much a sense of not wanting to second-guess who the audience is and what they want, but creating work as an artist, original voice and vision and the audience responding to that.

AM  There’s a saying “The most important person in film is the writer and the most important thing is that they don’t realize it.”

Audience  You’re part of a unique community when you see a play, it’s a social event. That doesn’t happen when you watch TV or digital content. How do you keep that social, community element in digital?

MR  You can tweet through a TV programme. TV is now more interactive than theatre. I have arguments with complete strangers on my Twitter feed while I’m watching TV.

Audience (Hilary?) The straitjacket we have in TV is genre. Thriller/crime dominates. Does the audience watch them because we provide them, or do we provide them because the audience watches them? Other shows, about relationships for example, aren’t breaking through, not in terms of the BBC 1 9pm audience. How do we get writers to tell a story within a particular genre while keeping their voices? We don’t have enough spaces to put them (writers as artists). You get told  you have to write in a particular way in order to move forward to make a living. You can’t trammel a voice into a space (slot) too early. But the spaces are going to get more limited (cuts to drama budget on the main channels.) The competition is too big, writers are too important and we’re not nurturing them enough.

Kate Harwood   We can’t recognize the outlets that are coming that we’ll need writers for in the future. We need writers, we ignore the future at our peril. The Americans are already taking our writers.

Learning how to write/nurturing writers, schemes etc

MR  I essentially learned playwriting from putting plays on in pub theatres, when that was a lot cheaper. Now there seems to be a lot of schemes and workshops and chasing around. When I was at Paines Plough, their diary was looking very full. That’s a lot of people to be working with, and the writers are running around attending all these schemes. You want to say “go and sit in your room for a bit.”

Audience (Adam)  We need to think about reducing the number of playwrights on these schemes, it’s a plague. I only work with writers with an eye for actually producing them. I want to minimize the number of promises I can’t keep.

RW  Yes, it wasn’t schemes for me, it was individuals. Writers need to be wary of them (schemes.)

Lorne Campbell  I’ll go and see readings, scratch nights, then ask – “What are you doing the scratch night for?” If it doesn’t have a particular purpose eg trying to explore/answer a specific dramatic problem or question it’s a waste of time. It’s a scratch night for the sake of doing a scratch night. We need writers who can write for big stages (not just for 10 min scratch nights.)

VF  We’ve had to obliterate the Young Writers Programme, for those reasons. It’s now running twice a year, for a limited number. Writers want to put their plays on. (Far too many writers on schemes, more than there are production slots available.)

Dawn King, audience  I only exist as a writer because of those schemes. But maybe we need a scheme showing people how to put their scripts on with no budget.

This was a very popular statement with both the panel and the audience. Go Dawn.

AM  We do tend to infantilize and over-nurture writers. I recently read scripts for a scheme – I didn’t read a single good screenplay. You wonder how they’ve managed to get so far, that no one’s told them they’re not good enough, they’re kidding themselves. We have to know when to be brutal, when to cut-off.

AM  We hone in on writers and directors, but there’s a huge body of people and roles in the industry. You might not be good enough as a writer, but you’d be great in a Literary department, or a DOP. Writing isn’t going to be possible for everyone, but there are a lot of other possible roles in the industry.

The Bush theatre, audience  Sheer numbers of would-be playwrights. We want to focus on how we can commission work and see it through to production. Don’t want to have hundreds of writers with us not getting a commission.

Audience (theatre in Scarborough) The discrepancy in funding, how much the NT gets in comparison to regional theatres and companies, the effect of sheer lack of funds in being able to see work through development to production. Had a conversation with Nicholas Hytner, saying they (Scarborough) had a promising script that was nearly ready but needed a couple of days workshopping – he then got Hytner to put his money where his mouth was, and lend a few NT actors to go and workshop the script, which was then produced. There are lots of ways big institutions can help support writers and smaller organisations, it doesn’t have to be about money. It’s support in kind – it often doesn’t need an awful lot.

AM  Having been alone on a set late at night doing rewrites during filming, I’d come out and think “Why don’t we hand over this amazing space after hours?” Let people use it to create short films etc.

Kate Rowland We’re piloting Smash and Grab at the moment, you get to do just that, use a set and make a short.

There was a short film about the Writersroom 10 scheme, which was my reason for being there, and the announcement that the BBC would be running it again. At which point we got kicked out of the Radio Theatre and into the bar to drink, mingle and network. Looking over what I’ve written, I’ve missed some of the debate about representation – the point was made that the room was predominantly middle class, middle age and white, and that if this was a representative picture of the gatekeepers for theatre and television then no wonder that writers from different ethnic backgrounds didn’t get a look in. Hopefully the BBC will make at least some of the debate available on their website.

What has lingered for me overnight – a lot of talk about The Space (the man from The Space was very very keen on The Space); a lot of talk about NT Live and whether that’s good or bad for theatres/audiences – it was talked about quite negatively during the event, but in discussion afterwards there was much more recognition about how for many of us it’s the only way we can access these plays/events; how can TV develop/nurture writers as artists so they can discover and keep their voice; that nobody in theatre has got any money to produce new writers and the belief that if the BBC wants to know how to engage with theatres then maybe just get the chequebook out (a popular if unstated theme with the audience, who looked about nervously before whispering it to each other); much talk about schemes for writers, how oversubscribed they are and whether they’re of any use. Theatres were wondering if the schemes were a waste of time, but the writers generally stood up for them. The belief that good work will make it through still prevails, whether that’s theatre or television. But that above all, whether it’s theatre or television, it’s all down to people. Sometimes we forget that and elevate the job title or the well-known name to godlike status. Ultimately though, it’s a bunch of people in a room who like stories. Who love stories. And nobody is perfect and nobody is sure and nobody has any money, but everyone wants to do this and to do this well or at least have a damn good try.

Oh. And that healthy crudites are a evidently waste of time with theatre people. Wine and cake, wine and cake, wine and cake.

Edited to add – I’d forgotten to add a comment from the audience about the lack of regional drama/representation – where are the current works like Our Friends in the North? for example. Someone gave The Paradise as an example of Northern drama. I’m going to have to restrain myself from commenting on that. The original commentator adjusted the question to being about current state-of-the-nation type pieces that were set in the regions. I think an actual tumbleweed blew across the stage at that point, but then I’m from the North.

 

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A Theatre-Broadcast Conversation

shot_1382358699354I was lucky enough to be invited to a conference this week about the relationship between the BBC and theatres. In their words:

Writers are at the heart of what we do, with theatres and broadcasters all sharing the imperative to nurture potential, take risks and champion talent across the UK.

Partnerships with theatres are vital to the way we reach writers, and BBC Writersroom, with its mission to inspire and develop, is always on the lookout not only for new voices but for new ways of supporting these voices with industry collaborations.

We would like to talk about the relationship between theatres and the BBC in this changing climate, and provide an opportunity for us to network and debate:

  • ·        The ways in which we find and nurture talent, and how we can support each other. What more can be done?
  • ·        The opportunities created by the changing digital environment for developing and showcasing new talent. How can we do this together?

The guest panel was impressive, Kate Rowland of BBC Writersroom talking to Vicky Featherstone, Abi Morgan, Lorne Campbell, Mark Ravenhill and Roy Williams. Having settled down to listen, I found myself reaching for notebook and pen very soon into the discussion, geekishly scribbling down quotes as the conversation inevitably got very interesting very quickly. So here’s what I took away from the event, the points which resonated the most with me. Please bear in mind that I’m having to paraphrase in part, I’ve tried to be accurate, but words were being spoken far faster than I could get them all down on the page. The event was being filmed, I’m not sure whether there’s an intent to make it available online or not – if I find further information I’ll link to it. I’m using italics to show where I’m hugely paraphrasing/summing up what was said.

Edited to add: official coverage of the event here on BBC Blog.

VF (on being asked whether TV/BBC were doing enough to support and nurture theatre and playwrights) No. No way near enough. Theatre will be fucked if TV continues to succumb to commercial pressures to dumb down. The audience will become intimidated by challenging work, they’re not used to it.

MR I’m too gobby for television. (he talked of how he’s previously tried to collaborate with TV producers but it hasn’t worked out. In theatre he’s very involved with all aspects of a production – casting, design, marketing, growing an audience, not just script-writing.) I consider myself a theatre maker, not just a writer. That seems to intimidate people in television, they go “This isn’t somebody who will just write us a script.”

AM Writers starting out used to have a lot of small opportunities, writing for local rep companies etc so they could build their craft and find their voice. We’ve lost all that. Writers now are having to skip all that and go straight to the big thing, so they’ll download an Eastenders script and learn from that. They’ll learn to write for Eastenders, but won’t have found their voice. Before you could find your voice and then apply that to Eastenders. (a real sense that we’re in danger of losing the artistry, of a sense of unique voice when it comes to creating larger work.)

LC We’re finding that writers don’t have the ability to write for large stages, several theatres in the North have formed a scheme to encourage writing for larger spaces. Writers need the space and bravery to make things that fail.

(There was a lot of mention of risk and failure throughout the day, that creatives need to be able to fail. Which inevitably brings much head-nodding and agreement, but several of  the writers I talked to pointed out that there isn’t space to fail, the scene for emerging writers is too competitive to allow for failure.)

Does a theatre need to convey a sense of being a successful business, do writers need to reflect that?

VF  Writers have to care about the audience in terms of their experience, but not in any other terms, not in terms of responsibility (audience numbers, marketing etc.) The audience that Dominic had aren’t coming to the Royal Court any more, but we had huge numbers in over the summer (I didn’t catch whether it was 14,000 or 40,000) – there’s been a huge demographic shift. We have to have a sense of running a successful business. It doesn’t mean that everything has to be even, one play can be more commercial, another can be more risk-taking.

AM  Writers go into television not always because they love it but because they need to make money. Where do you put your artist in broadcasting? There is no artist in broadcasting. Theatre creates artists. TV isn’t about single vision. In TV you can create a script with a character that you want to be a certain way and they’ll turn around and tell you “Oh, we need a role for James Nesbitt, can you make the character Irish?” In theatre I’d tell them to fuck off, in theatre that just doesn’t happen. I’m going back to theatre because I need to replenish, I need to find my artist again.

Mark Ravenhill was adamant that writers could make a living from theatre alone, although admitted he lived fairly cheaply. Abi Morgan pointed out that he had an unusual level of global success with his first play. I may have tackled him in the bar over this issue, after necking 2 glasses of free wine, pointing out that I don’t know a single person who makes a living solely out of playwriting. May have. I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t be allowed to go to these things unchaperoned. Not events with a free bar, anyway.

Talk of whether TV was more universal than theatre.

VF  Who are you writing for? Her experience with Paines Plough showed her that writers and companies might end up touring in a specific area, writers can get stuck in one place, it begins to feel a bit tribal.

KR  I was told a long time ago that television is the Art, the Craft and the Business, it’s the ABC. We still think of writers as artists.

LC  As a director/commissioner you are the choices you make. Every time you make a commercial choice it makes it harder to make a bold choice. Our box office is terrifying, every year we have 70% new audience. The imagined core audience just doesn’t exist. Our resources are now so tight that the notion of being universal is absurd at best. We have to make choices that are bold and vital.

Talk of the ubiquity of writers’ schemes within theatre, that probably everybody in the room was running some kind of scheme for new writers.

RW  TV schemes might force feed writers and make them think they have to write a certain way. Schemes need to encourage them and help them find their voice.

Much of the talk was taken up with discussion of the impact of NT Live and The Space website (the curator of The Space also gave an opening address.)

VF  NT Live begins to obliterate the need for touring. It’s brilliant, it’s really important, but we have to understand the ecosystem.

LC  Regionally, people might go to the theatre once a year, and then that becomes NT Live instead. We need to think regionally. There can be an inherent elitism with it – that our theatre is so elite and rarefied that we couldn’t possibly bring it to you locally.

AM  For me the problem is how to transition it artistically. I feel that if I’d have known the audience were going to be watching it on screen, I’d have presented it differently as a writer.

From the audience: it doesn’t seem possible to have a dialogue between TV and theatre-makers who aren’t writers, eg devising companies. There’s a need to find a different space in which to play around with form, perhaps something like The Space?

AM  There is a possibility for TV to not be so writer-centric, to be more of a collaborative space.

Talk of whether digital technologies are opening up new arenas for different kinds of work, devising, more artistry than mainstream TV.

I’m aware that this is a loooong one, so I’ll break it down – part 2 to follow. The kids are both ill and off school today, so I’m typing while dishing out tea and sympathy against a background of non-stop Wolfblood. Will crack on with it as soon as I can.

 

 

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The Crow King Open Sessions

Being on attachment with Bristol Old Vic this year meant that I had to start a new play to develop with the literary team there, and it seemed like The Crow King was ideal. I pitched it to Sharon Clark, she liked it, and we went on from there. The play has been in my head for a full year, some of the ideas behind it have been hovering for a lot longer. The notion of a young mother gone missing, and a story told to fill the gap she’s left behind. The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories that we tell our children and how history, place, memory and truth become embedded within them.

When I started looking for visual inspiration, I was drawn to bleak shorelines in the Toast catalogue. This kind of thing. Tove Jansson’s island. Pictures of solitary crows and mysterious girls and a woman whose face we can’t quite see. Music is another key part of my writing process and I found myself searching Spotify for new ideas; none of my existing music collection was going to cut it. Martha Wainwright, PJ Harvey, Anthony and the Johnsons have been on repeat ever since, particularly this track.

This and I Will Internalize have been played over and over in what must seem like OCD to the rest of the household, that or some horrific karmic debt they’re in the midst of paying off through having to live with me. But it was clear that this play was going somewhere new for me, somewhere that went beyond what I already knew, liked, lived. A different kind of play, deeper and darker.

I was looking forward to writing it, to jumping in with a new idea and letting rip with a first draft – those heady, idealistic writing days when the story is bursting to be told and you’re in love with the whole thing and the creative engines are running full tilt. Having learned a lot more about the craft of playwriting over the last year, I was keen to use the opportunity to consolidate this learning. I envisioned a fairly smooth creative journey, a more logical planning process, a new-found rigour in my approach.

Yeah, so that didn’t happen.

I could see the structure;  one story moving forwards in time, another told chronologically backwards, a third strand weaving through them both. Yet when I tried to write, all I could capture were segments – like catching raindrops. Drip by drip by drip, each one a coherent moment in itself but not necessarily connecting with what I’d written before, what I would write next. Messy and painful and slow, the Muse insisting that I write in long-hand or not at all. I began to panic about how I was going to put it all together – the equivalent of trying to pin up raindrops on the wall and shuffle them around to find an order. About two-thirds of the way through, an order emerged through a very literal process of cutting and pasting (hello sellotape) and a first draft began to emerge.

Phew.

Cue my first dramaturgy meeting. What’s the story? I was asked.

Well.

Well.

Um.

I couldn’t do it. Absolutely could not summarize what I’d spent the last couple of months writing.

Houston, we have a problem.

Admittedly, writers are often terrible when it comes to summing up their own work. If I could tell you the story in a sentence, I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire novel/play/movie, goes the thinking. We bristle at the suggestion of having to reduce our work to a mere sentence, brushing it off as a Hollywood studio imposition, turning writers to hacks, reducing our artistry to mere copywriting. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, because it’s easier than admitting that we’re just not very good at it. We cringe when asked to write blurb, treatments, outlines, pitches because that’s not the type of writing that we’re good at. We’re artists, dammit! But the truth is that all too often we’re guilty of woolly-mindedness, of a lack of clarity about exactly what it is we’re trying to say. We don’t necessarily know what it’s about, the writing process is a voyage of discovery to find out.

But we need to find out. We really do need to find out. Because if we can’t sum up the story when required, then we don’t know what we’re writing. And if we don’t know what we’re writing then we can’t write it well. We can’t apply focus and rigour and economy; we get bogged down in exposition, experimental tangents, sloppy structure, over-writing, dialogue that is merely banter. Writing that doesn’t really go anywhere. Mediocrity. A script that doesn’t shine. Which isn’t to say that you have to know it all at the start of the writing process, just that you’d better make sure you know by the end. And if you’re not a natural planner, if you can’t see how to structure your ideas at the start, you need to resign yourself to rewrite after rewrite. Onto draft 2, draft 3, 4, 5, 6.

The play has changed so much since I started thinking about it – one character has been taken out and replaced with another, motivations have changed, scenes have been ripped out and rewritten. Stupidly, I’d ignored my original inspiration of a bleak island, a grandmother grinding up herbs, a hint of magical realism and tried my hardest to set it in a normal suburb, being sensible, playing safe. The next draft shook that off, moved out to the island, grew darker. Greta, my main character, grew wilder with it, emboldened by Sharon’s instruction to create a really great role for an actress. The play solidified and condensed into form; a decaying, creaking house holding too many secrets, rain dripping in constantly from the outside world, crows hiding in corners. An innocent fairytale covering up a nightmare.

This is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a play. Fact. At various points it’s been like pulling teeth. I’m sure that without Sharon’s hands at my back, at once supporting me while pushing me forwards, pushing me further than I would have gone myself, the play would have been written months ago. I’d have settled for an earlier draft and told myself it was good enough – indeed, a very early and somewhat rushed draft made the top 10% in this year’s Verity Bargate Award – good enough, huh? But the play I’ve got now is far, far stronger than that earlier draft – while earlier drafts might have been good enough to get someone’s attention, this version stands a much better chance of getting produced. Good enough isn’t good enough any more; you can’t settle for anything less than the draft that feels so far beyond your competency that it’s like having your lungs ripped out through your eyeballs each time you sit down to write. I’ve trashed entire scenes, started over several times, scrapped or profoundly altered characters, wept over having to excise some of my favourite bits, cut and rewritten, cut and rewritten, cut and rewritten to the background music of severe self-doubt, overwhelming anxiety and a rising sense of panic. And Martha Wainwright, obviously.

I’m feeling a little bit proud of the result. Truth be told, there’ll be more work to do after the reading, maybe another couple of drafts before I send it off with fingers crossed. Stuff will come up in rehearsal; things won’t sound right, actors will point out that their motivation doesn’t entirely make sense, someone will have a much better idea. The kind of stuff that always happens. Maybe the reading will go well, maybe it won’t; actors can dazzle you with their ability to pick up a script and run with it, or you can feel your guts eating themselves in despair watching an actor drop a script and lose their place, someone unexpectedly skipping 5 pages, or the tech with an itchy trigger finger blasting away the last five lines of a play by bringing in the music too early – yep, I’ve seen all of the above in the various readings I’ve been to over the years. And while I’d like the reading to go well, what matters most is what I learn during rehearsals for it – that’s the bit that I’m really looking forward to; seeing the actors grapple with it and test it. Pushing it even further. The process has changed my mind about Development – that thorny word spat out in disgust by many emerging/wannabe playwrights. Development can work. It really can.

The Crow King is being read on Oct 17 as part of the Open Sessions at Bristol Old Vic. (if you phone or book in person for the sessions rather than book online there’s a 4 for 3 offer.) The Open Sessions were an invitation to writers based in the South West to submit a script to the theatre earlier this year. Five writers have been chosen to have rehearsed readings alongside writers who the theatre are already working with; a total of 11 playwrights, 4 directors and 17 actors bringing new work to life in the space of two weeks. It promises to be an inventive fortnight and is a good opportunity to see the kind of work that the theatre is excited about; come along, watch, debate in the bar afterwards.

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