A Day of Two Halves

I hesitated outside the venue, sweat beading on my brow, nervous about what would await me inside.

I stepped over the threshold, walked into the bar, checking the place out – fairly empty, a mix of tourists and ale drinkers — not the gang I was gunning for. After all, it was a pub that was well known for its beer – but it wasn’t a need for anything alcoholic that I’d made the journey up to London. (If I’d have wanted beer I wouldn’t have passed up the invitation I’d been offered to visit a brewery on this very day. Isn’t that what real men did at the weekend?)  I was looking for novelists – romantic novelists – mean, hard-scribbling people.

They must be upstairs, holed-up in the function room already, the inner sanctum, doing whatever a group of women do in a place where, I guessed, no men dared to tread. I climbed fearfully up the staircase. Would I have to knock or would I stand there in the doorway, faced by heads turning faster and faster revealing stares of incredulity and shock. ‘What is he  doing here?’ 

And then I woke up . It was still Saturday morning. I could change my mind — and go to the brewery visit instead — not the London Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association as I’d planned. I’ve blogged before (and on the RNA’s own blog) about the perceived gender issues associated with the romantic genre — and how, in reality, I’ve discovered there not to be any problems at all. But it’s one thing sending in a manuscript or e-mailing a blog post remotely and another actually meeting people face-to-face.

So deciding to go along to the London Chapter meeting of the RNA at the end of April did take a bit of courage — and maybe the thought of a little of the Dutch sort was quite appealing as the meeting was held above the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Like most people, I expect most of my trepidation was because I’d be walking into a meeting not knowing anyone while anticipating that everyone else would have been friends for years. But there was still an element of anxiety at being male and walking into what was likely to be an overwhelmingly female meeting, if not exclusively.

But, I rationalise, that’s a good experience for a writer — there must be many occasions when women feel ‘different’ walking into a predominantly male gathering — and the feeling of being ‘other’ must, by definition, be common for people from minority backgrounds.

In the event, I was sweating uncomfortably when I did walk into the room but this was less to do with any nervousness at arriving at the meeting and more connected with having walked all the way from the Euston Road on a humid day.

Needless to say, I was actually made to feel extremely welcome by the organisers and, among the twenty-five or so attendees, there were two other men — one a husband of a member and another a writer. There were also a few other first-timers, including a very pleasant woman writer, whose husband had a job that almost cries out for novel treatment itself. He is Elvis. Or at least an Elvis tribute who is so popular overseas that he takes a whole touring show out to places like China. He apparently started off in a karaoke competition in a pub and it took off to the extent it eclipsed his day job and he went to being Elvis full-time. It shows how careers can grow out of  hobbies.

While it was a very sociable occasion, I was struck by hard-headed attitude of many of the established writers. This wasn’t a meeting that was the sort of exaggerated stereotype that some might imagine — of sighs over Christian Grey or discussion on Mr Darcy. It was the opposite — it was as business-like as any other conference or trade association meeting I’ve been to. For the more established writers, romantic fiction is a very much a business — one that provides an enjoyable and fulfilling livelihood.

This theme was emphasised by the guest speaker, Victoria Connelly, who gave a fascinating and very informative talk about how she juggles both traditional and self-published routes to market. As Victoria’s website shows, she’s written a very impressive back catalogue of books and her choice in publishing and marketing many of these titles herself (also employing her husband to help her) shows that once an author builds a market and readership then the self-publishing option can be as financially viable as traditional routes and allows much more independence for the author.

After the meeting I felt encouraged and invigorated by spending time with a group of writers who were not only friendly and welcoming but great examples of people who approach writing practically and successfully.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was also in London on that day to hear one of my short stories being read to an audience. Fay and Sabina, organisers of Studio 189′s Spring Ball, had heard Alex Woodhall’s excellent reading of Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? at Liars’ League last year and when they had the idea of ‘something literary’ to entertain their guests on the evening, wondered if a repeat performance could be arranged.

Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189's Spring Ball
Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189’s Spring Ball

I was flattered to have been asked and fortunately Alex was free to repeat his performance. Studio 189 has a wonderful secluded garden, which where the Spring Ball’s entertainment had been planned — we’d earlier had a spectacular performance from an opera singer. However, the heavens opened and Alex had to do the reading inside. This meant grabbing the attention of the whole party for the duration of the story (there was nowhere to escape but into the rain).

It’s testimony to the effectiveness of Alex’s performance that the audience remained captivated by the reading for the full fifteen minutes or so of the story — with no audible side-conversations or distracted chat. And it was a big audience. Apparently over a hundred guests were at the party. It’s an exhilarating and addictive feeling to hear the words you’ve written providing pleasure and entertainment. Reading the expressions on the audience’s faces is much more immediate feedback on your writing than comments made a reader’s had some time to reflect (as happens with written work).

The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)
The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)

Oddly enough, it had been well over a year since I’d written the story and, perhaps I’d had too much wine, but I’d forgotten some of the details and some of the writing actually surprised me!

So thanks to Alex (who recently read another Liars’ League story in London) and Fay and Sabina who are organising several other intriguing events at Studio 189 — the latest being a sushi school and a comedy night.

It’s taken me a while to write it up (and apologies for the cryptic placeholder message that’s been on this site for a week or so) but that Saturday in April demonstrated several facets of the writers’ life — that, for most, it’s a business that needs hard work and a commercial focus but that knowing people enjoy something that you’ve created is immensely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that many other professions aren’t.

I’ll be going to the RNA Conference in July and look forward to meeting many other friendly and professionals writers there — and with much less trepidation.

Don’t forget that Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? is still available to download as a Kindle book from Amazon along with three other Liars’ League stories of mine. I’m afraid the free promotional days have been used up for the time being and it’s currently £1.99 — but that’s still less than the price of even a Prêt coffee.

Buy My Book! (Or Download It for Free if You’re Quick)

The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
The Cover of my eBook: Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?

As hinted in the previous post, I’ve been dipping my toe in the waters of ebook creation and my first offering is now available for download (free for a limited period until the end of Tuesday 7th April) on Amazon for Kindle readers (and Kindle reader apps).

The ebook features four short stories, all  of which were selected and performed by the Liars’ League.

Read about:

  • Naked photography in a hipster’s  Shoreditch loft kitchen in Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?
  • An intern’s impromptu elevator pitch for the most calamitous disaster movie ever in Elevator Pitch
  • The petrol-headed rage of a spurned, blade-wielding opera singer in The Good Knife
  • Lovesick rapping from the dock by a guilt-ridden, Premier League hard-man in Well Sick for a White Guy.

All are 2,000 words or under so can be read in ten minutes or so.  10-15 minute stories that were memorably read by actors at Liars’ League’s award spoken-word evenings in London, Leicester and Hong Kong. Click on the cover image to download the book.

Links to three of the live performances can be found elsewhere on this blog. The exception is Well Sick For A White Guy, which was performed in September by Liars’ League Leicester. The video for this story hasn’t been made available online and the only place the text can be found is in this ebook (unlike the two Liars League London stories which can be read on the Liars League website).

Well Sick For a White Guy might actually be my favourite story of the four. The reading would certainly have been fun and I’m rather sad that I missed it, although Alex Woodhall and Sarah Feathers’ readings of the first two stories in London were excellent in person and Bhavini Ravel’s great reading of The Good Knife can be viewed below.

I’m not normally a fan of giving away intellectual property for free because of the way it eventually undermines the ability of creative people to get a decent reward for their work. However, it’s the fact that these stories are in the public domain already which has encouraged me to publish them together as an ebook — and people did pay to hear all of them read for each public performance. Therefore I’d have the book on free download indefinitely if it wasn’t for the rather strict promotional rules on Kindle Direct Publishing (only five days in any ninety day period).

When the promotional period is over, the book will revert to the current Amazon Kindle minimum price of £1.99 — which is less than the price of a cappuccino in Pret A Manger or half a pint of beer in most pubs in London (i.e. not much at all compared with the relative effort that goes into the creation of each).

You don’t need a Kindle to download to as Amazon will provide Kindle reading apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PCs and so on.

As well as experimenting with the mechanics of self-publishing, my motivation for publishing it is purely give anyone who’s curious enough a concise taste of my writing and if anyone who downloads it feels kind enough to leave a review then that would be great.

I don’t make any great artistic claims for the cover image above (anyone spot where it is?) but it’s a fact of self-publishing that you need to have one — and not one that rips off anyone else’s image rights (that’s my own photo). The eventual image was voted for overwhelmingly (out of a not-very-inspiring selection) by my Facebook friends!

And my stories are rubbing literary shoulders in exalted company as Liars League is now on Radio 4! A series of three readings — from Hong Kong, New York and London — is currently running on Sunday evenings at 7.45pm. The first story was broadcast yesterday. While my stories have no connection with those broadcast, it’s a fantastic endorsement of overall quality threshold of the Liars’ League events and is a very positive reflection on my fellow LL writer alumni.

Liars' League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015
Liars’ League Listing in the Radio Times, Easter Sunday 2015

My collection has been put together with the blessing of Liars’ League — Liar Katy Darby helped me pick the title and had a look at an early version of the ebook. I’ve actually been doing Katy’s  highly-recommended Writers’ Workshop short course at City University between January and March this year to help develop ideas for the next novel — keep reading this blog for more news on that over the next few months).

I’ll be looking at other means of distributing the ebook but it needs to be exclusive to Amazon for the next three months so, if you’re interested, download it as soon as possible. Watch the blog or follow me on Twitter for when it goes on free download again.

Incidentally, if you want to watch Alex Woodhall’s superb reading of Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? one more time in person then he’ll be performing it at a special event — the Studio 189 Spring Ball organised by my friends Sabina and Fay on 25th April in north London. It also offers a private viewing of some erotic artworks and an opera singer — all for the bargain price of £30.

Studio 189 Spring Ball
Studio 189 Spring Ball


The Liars’ League Experience

My short story Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? was selected as a winner for this month’s Liars’ League London event (see previous post for an account of its selection and the rehearsal).

It was performed last Tuesday evening by Alex Woodhall and, as the Liars video all the stories, the reading is now available on Youtube (along with the other four excellent stories by Ursula DeweyKassalina BotoPhilip Suggars and Eleanore Etienne (co-incidentally a fellow graduate of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing — now the Novel Studio).

The video is embedded below. It lasts just over fifteen minutes.

The transcript of the story is now also on the Liars’ League website — minus a one or two slight tweaks made at the rehearsal for the performed version.

My story was the last on the bill, which meant me enduring an evening of nervous anticipation, although this was eased a little by my consumption of more than a couple of drinks on the house. I made such good use of this unexpected author benefit that I turned up at Marylebone station suddenly realising I’d lost an hour somewhere (chatting to the actors, other writers and organisers I think) so had to get the slow, stopping train and didn’t get home until nearly 1 am. The next day I felt like one of my characters the morning after the story’s night before.

I was very grateful for the company of several friends who came along to support me, including Rachel and Bren Gosling from the City course, my writer friend Fay and Sabina, the street art guru (see previous posts). There were a couple more people from the City course who were intending to come but who were beset by last-minute hold-ups.

It was a fantastic evening — the downstairs bar at the Phoenix was packed-out. I reckon there were well over a hundred people.  I needn’t have fretted about the reception for my story — Alex read with such verve and superb comic timing that the audience’s attention seemed to be seized for the whole fifteen minutes it took to reach its climax — and with plenty of laughs heard along the way (thankfully I didn’t imagine them — they’re on the video).

I was flattered afterwards to receive some enthusiastic compliments about the story, not only from friends (Bren wrote me a wonderfully congratulatory email) but also from some encouraging comments made via Twitter and Facebook. And the story’s characters appeared to have been vivid enough to pass the crucial ‘what happened next?’ test. I bumped into one of the other authors on the tube on the way back and she asked me ‘Did they go on to have sex? I think they did.’ If you want to see if you agree with her then listen to the story — I’d be very interested in blog readers’ opinions.

Having a winning story for the Liars League would be great news at any time but it was particularly welcome for me at present — a couple of months after the much-anticipated results of the MA novel dissertation — when I’m still wrestling with a few changes to the end of the novel prompted by the feedback. It’s also been five months since the MA draft of the novel was handed in — so it’s been brilliant to had have this event to give real impetus to my writing.

I can also draw some motivation because, while it’s a self-contained work, Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line? perhaps unsurprisingly shares similarities with the novel: genre, setting, brand of humour. While the narrative perspective is different –it’s first-person, present tense — the dynamics between the characters are reminiscent of some scenes in the novel — the tensions and awkwardness of trying to guess the intentions of others whom one cares about — or wants to. That the story was picked as a winner and enjoyed apparently positive reaction of the audience encourages me to think there’s a market for more — at least a novel’s worth I hope.

Besides the thrill of hearing my words read expertly by a professional, the Liars League experience also allowed me to get some insight into my writing from a refreshing and almost unique perspective. One of the great mysteries of the writing process is that all readers interpret fiction in their own personal way — a skilled author employs words economically enough to communicate the essence of the story’s action while prompting the reader’s imagination to invoke scenery and background.

It’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act: too little exposition and the reader will fail to grasp vital elements of the narrative; too much detail and the pace will falter and the reader will be swamped and bored — and in a short story there are far fewer words than a novel to play with.

Working with the Liars League actor and editors, and also sitting in the audience and observing the reaction of people hearing the story for the first time, provided valuable insights into what worked in my story and what didn’t — and also how the Liars had imagined the action, setting and characters. While the event is a reading, the actors can dress to some degreein costume  and their delivery, spoken and non-verbal, projects their own interpretation of character, particularly for first person narratives. 

It is, therefore, rather the opposite of the sort of forensic collective copy-edit of prose that risk bogging down Creative Writing workshopping sessions (‘I’m really not convinced by that comma). Nor, because the story has won through the selection procedures, will it be the kind of creative writing workshopping experience when, for the best of intentions, workshoppers’ suggestions extend a little past the scope of a structural edit: it would be great if turned your shy, sensitive artist character into a grizzled Scottish trawlerman possessed by an alien or why not relocate your novel from a Deptford loft apartment to a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre? ‘It’ll up the conflict and sense of place’.

Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in a workshop the written text can be seen as something malleable and interactive — when it’s read out loud as a story it seems much more fixed psychologically.  

Often writers are asked to read out their own prose in Creative Writing workshops before it is discussed — this was the way the City University Certificate worked, although I don’t know how the Novel Studio handles it. This has its merits — certainly reading out loud exposes clumsiness in phrasing and the rhythm of the prose that often lies undetected when read silently on the page — I always read drafts of my novel out loud for that reason. Reading a piece in a class also ensures that any less conscientious students, who’ve not prepared properly, will know what’s goingabout to be discussed.

Nevertheless, a writer who has an aptitude for reading out loud will always breathe extra life into prose whereas a hesitant, self-conscious monotone will muffle the merits of the word on the page (most writers I know tend slightly towards the latter). Also, a writer will always know his or her own intentions — where to place the emphasis, what type of voice or accent to use for a character or narrator — even if this isn’t evident on the page and, consequently, not communicated to a reader of the written word.

If a piece is to be read out loud in a Creative Writing workshop, I prefer it to be read by another student. This lets the writer hear the words spoken by a reader new to the work and takes away any direction that’s not explicit from the text itself. It gives an insight into how an ordinary reader might encounter the writing on the page.

That’s why Liars League was so illuminating. From my experience at the rehearsal (see previous post) Katy Darby and Liam Hogan, the editors, had clearly made a connection with the voice in the narrative and cast Alex in the part accordingly. It was very satisfying to me, as the writer, that they’d also picked up the subtle dynamics between the three principal characters, even when this was only hinted at with a line or two in the story.  The changes they suggested to the text served to increase clarity and remove ambiguity.

Alex also made contributions of the type a reader might unconsciously add to the text. He’d decided the character Anja was Icelandic — which I thought was a great — there’s nothing in the text to suggest any nationality beyond her name and the rhythm of her speech. He also used some great comic timing to emphasise lines that I’d hoped might raise some amusement if read as I’d intended by an ordinary reader but, when spoken to an audience, raised a proper laugh — the ‘distressed [BEAT] brick’ being a great example.

(One of the advantages of writing plays or screenplays is the ability to add in [BEAT]s or other direction that’s not seen by the audience.)

Despite having written the words, it was a process of discovery for me to see how the story came alive in the minds of other people. The imaginary world of the story as viewed through the lens of Alex’s performance was different to what I’d envisaged while writing it — but that’s the magical property of fiction — everyone has their own interpretation. 

So while it was an honour and a great pleasure to have my story selected and read by the Liars’ League, I also learned a surprising amount from the experience about my writing, how it’s interpreted by other people and how I can improve it. And it’s for that reason, as well as being a great literary night out in the pub, that I’d wholeheartedly recommend other writers submit their short stories to the Liars — either for truth or dare.

Liars’ League London — Come and Hear My Story Performed

I’m thrilled and very excited that a short story of mine (called Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line) has been selected as one of the Liars’ League’s winning entries for their March reading event.

It takes place on Tuesday this week (11th March) at 7.30pm at the Phoenix pub at 37, Cavendish Square, London, near Oxford Circus. There are five stories in the reading and, with a common theme of Truth or Dare, all promise to be extremely entertaining. Please do come along (it’s £5 on the door), listen to some excellent readings and say hello to me. Full details are here on the Liars’ League London website.

For those who aren’t familiar with Liars’ League, it’s a collaboration between authors and actors — a mutually beneficial arrangement which gives each the chance to showcase their skills by making use of the talent of the other. So professional actors bring their training and experience in performing, while the authors provide new and original writing.

Liars’ League is a prestigious and well-known fixture in the London literary circuit (and has associated events elsewhere in the world and the UK). (I was contacted before I’d had chance to email anyone with the news by Emily Pedder, who runs City University’s The Novel Studio course — whose predecessor course I took in 2009/10. One of my fellow graduates described the Liars’ League as ‘really famous’.) I found, via their website, that Katy Darby, who’s organising this month’s event, spoke about the short story as a form on Radio 4’s The World Tonight at the end of last year — pretty authoritative I’d say.

I first encountered the Liars’ League about a year ago when I attended the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook short story competition awards at the Bloomsbury Institute, where the top three prizewinning entries were given readings by members of the League’s company of actors.

Videos of all the performances and texts of the stories are published after each event on the Liars’ League website and I’ll post a link from this blog as soon as Tuesday’s become available.

While I’m relieved it’s not me standing up and reading out loud, I’m still starting to feel nervous about how an audience will respond to the story: will it grab their attention; will they pick up on any hints or clues; will they laugh in the right places? (FYI, if you’re planning on being in the audience there are bits that are deliberately meant to be funny!) They’re the kind of questions about your reader’s response that you wonder about as a fiction writer but you rarely have the opportunity to discover the answers first hand.

By contrast, one of an actor’s core skills is to thrive on live interaction with an audience and to exploit their experience in delivering the material. And having attended the rehearsal for Liars’ League in London last night I’m sure my story’s in excellent hands. It’s being read by actor Alex Woodhall whose interpretation of the story and phrasing of the narrative and dialogue provided a captivating and enthralling perspective.

I was also impressed and flattered by how Katy Darby and the rest of the Liars’ League editorial team perfectly grasped the underlying dynamics between the characters and suggested small but perceptive changes to improve the impact of the story. I’ll say no more because the proof will be on the evening itself and in the subsequent video.

I’ll blog later about the evening’s experience but, despite the nervousness, I’m looking forward to it hugely. I know a number of friends (some of whom have been mentioned on the blog) have said they’ll try to get along and I’d love anyone else to come along who might enjoy a great night of literary entertainment.