26 October 2011

Writing in Cafés: Five Places to Write in Edinburgh

In the run up to NaNoWriMo, there has been much talk amongst Edinburgh's future novelists about where the best places to write are.

I have thought long and hard about this, by which I mean thought a little about this. Here are my suggestions for NaNo writing haunts, presented in no particular order.

Any Starbucks, or Coffee Shops in General

Immoral giant corporation-status aside, Starbucks has very cheap coffee and free Internet. It also tends, depending on which Starbucks you go to, to have attractive people spread evenly around its tables.

The nice thing about Starbucks for me is its clever balance between music and conversation. In a library environment, someone dropping a book will startle me out of concentration on a fairly regular basis. In Starbucks the abundance of sound sources just fade into a big buffer of white noise which is much easier to tune out.
A WriMo begins to regret relying of coffee to keep them awake at a real-life write-in in 2006.
The Pulp Fiction Store

This new book shop's owner Steve informs me that it aims to be the go-to writing locale. The elements that make a go-to writing locale are apparently armchairs, tables, lots of books, WiFi, caffeinated drinks and cake. Steve is evidently a sensible man.

Whether Pulp Fiction will become Edinburgh's answer to Shakespeare & Co. remains to be seen. I kind of hope it will because, you know, I live in Edinburgh and could do with a bit of literary magic. Even if it is genre-based. Also, I'm a really nice person.

The Central Library

The Reference Room of the Central Library has lots of tables in neat rows and a lovely old-fashioned ceiling, which combine to give the impression of the accountancy hall in The Producers. Very conducive to work. It also has the advantage of stocking literary-flavoured magazine like the TLS and the LRB, which come in handy for procrastination.

The Ref gets very busy, so I'm often shunted downstairs to the Scottish History section, where there are significantly fewer browsers.

These lower bowels of the Central Library boast a mezzanine balcony set aside for people to work in write novels in. The area has been cleverly calibrated to serve the dwarf population of Edinburgh. The tables are very low down, the perfect height for people of low stature. There are no windows, wonderful for those who require low light levels for working, and who prefer to be stiflingly hot when they work.
A WriMo works on their opening chapter in the mezzanine floor in the Scottish History section of the Central Library. (Source.)
The National Library

The Nat reading room benefits from being quite difficult to get into, and therefore very quiet when you do, eventually, get in.

This exclusivity also means that you are less likely to encounter a smelly older person, as is a constant danger in more open-access libraries. Clearly not all the old people who go to libraries smell of cabbage, but enough of them do to make this a genuine consideration if you are as easily distracted by nasal stimulation as I am.

The café downstairs is a great place to overhear the pretentious academic conversations of PhD students. Gradually, I have built up a fairly complete picture of the content of the regulars' thesis, which is very nice as I like that sort of thing. My favourite is an American lady who is writing about Spanish literature from a "traditional" perspective which is, apparently, "pre-Queer".

Edinburgh Napier University Music Library

If you're not a student at Napier, entrance to their library will be a bit tricky - though most universities have an associate membership programme will a silly name like Schonal Access.

It's worth the effort, because if you can swing a reading pass then you get to write overlooking one of the best views in Edinburgh. The whole north side of the library is one big window, and faces the castle from a vantage point halfway up Craighouse hill.

Catch this view sooner rather than later because the library is scheduled to be knocked down to build a housing estate.

19 October 2011

Youthful Novels: Six Crossed Wands Introduction

The Six Crossed Wands and the Kidnapped Frog: A Tale of Wands, Leeks and a Glove of Pure Glass
by James T Harding, aged 11


"Standly! Come on, get up!" Called Standlys mum up the stairs, "Weave got a train to catch you know!"

In Steven King's On Writing, starting a story with a character on the move is given as a great way to introduce momentum to a novel early on. Note that I seem to have instinctively grasped this principle, even though I didn't read On Writing for another five or six years.

"Coming mum." Grumbled Stanlys brother, (Jhon,) Standly didnt anser, Mainly because his mouth was full of toothpaste and partly because he was too sleepy to talk.

The Pritcherd family was moving house, Standly dident mind to much. The school he went to was terrible. But to his younger brother, moving house was like the end of the world.

Standlys teacher, Mrs Piano, fitted her name exactly. She had teeth like piano keys, a voice constantly cracking between C and F sharp. She had a cane as long as the longest piano string, and a temper as short as Mary Had A Little Lam. You could also play her like a piano. Forenstence, if you were to make a Spelling mistake. (Hitting the key.) She would can you, (The hammer hitting the string,) and make a smarmy comment. (The noise the string makes.) Melvin, Standlys best freand, was an expert as Music on on Krisses birthday he had got Mrs. Piano to sing 'Happy Birthday.

Melfin has moved to a boarding School to get away from her. And Standly would be coing to the Same school!

As Standly packed his toothbrush away into a bad, he smiled.

I suspect that Mrs Piano is based on one of my old primary-school teachers. I dare say she would be delighted with her highly unfair representation if she ever read this.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Pritcherd were makeing final adjustments to Packed lunches etc.

"Train Tickets," Said Mrs. Pritcherd.

"Check," anserd Mr. Pritcherd.

"Packed lunch."


"Our suitcases."



"Oi, boys, in the car!" Shouted Mr. Pritchers up the stairs. "Check"

"Good, lets go!"

Mr. & Mrs. Pritcherd were organization freacks, you only had to move to have them running with a dustpan and brush.

Brilliant use of dialogue here to create the impression that the story is moving faster, as the eye travels quicker down the page.

"By the way Standly," Said Mrs. Pritcherd "there is a litter from Melvin in the back, why don't you read it on the way to the Station?"

"Thank mum!" Anserd Standly. They were going to drop Standly of at the boarding school, and then move on to the new house.

The letter was in a cheap white envelope and addressd in a handwriting quite different from what Standly remembererd Melfins handwriting to be like. Inside was a single sheet of paper coverd on both sides by the strange handwriting.

It might be worth mentioning that in Welsh, the language I learned to write in, an "f" is pronounced as an English "v", while the English "f" sound is represented as "ff". Spelling aside, I think you'll agree that my ingenuity in introducing this letter for expositional purposes is admirable.

Dear Melvin, it read

I am so pleased to here you are coming to my School...

And it went on to explain all about the other boys in his (and Standlys soons) dorm,

Although all that effort in introducing the letter seems to have been largely wasted.

& how much the head resembled a Teacosy, and all sorts of other things. But it ended in rather a queer way,

I shall be waiting for you by the N-W-S tower, the head told me show would take you there.

Yours Seeyasoonedly


The West Port Book Festival 2011

Two very exciting things happened in Edinburgh this last week. The first was that Edinburgh's West Port was taken over by its very own book festival. The second was that I got myself a bus pass.

Somehow I ended up performing at two of the West Port events, although I hadn't intended to make a fool of myself in public at all this year. Both of these were on the 16 bus route.

The first was an open mic at the Traverse, which was also my first time reading in public. I read a story that wasn't a story, but luckily no-one noticed as I read it very quietly.

The second was an event called Cringe, which was advertised as a support group for re-reading the terrible stuff participants wrote when they were young. One of the festival organisers, a Miss Peggy from the Poetry Library, had a poem that was so terrible it was impossible to read it aloud.

Cringe was rather embarrassing for me, because it turned out that I was incredibly talented as a nine year old. I will be posting an extract of my youthful fiction here so you can see for yourself.

As you might expect from a literary festival, there were a whole host of other events, some of which I attended and some of which I didn't. Certainly all the readings and workshops I turned up at were fantastic - especially as they're free - and so I'm really looking forward to the West Port Christmas Party and future festivals.

12 October 2011

Review: 'Art' by Yasmina Reza (READING Plays? Part 2/2)

The first play I ever read was Art by Yasmina Reza, in the Faber and Faber translation by Christopher Hampton. This choice was inspired by a gentleman with a ginger moustache and a blue velvet jacket saying it was his favourite play, and greatly facilitated by my mother leaving a copy in the bathroom at roughly the same time. That's a true story.

The first page of Art is somewhat encouraging for beginner writers. It contains the line:
Long silence: from both of them, a whole range of wordless emotions.
Well if a play containing that stage direction can be produced in the West End, there's hope for us all, that's all I'm saying.*

But the really striking thing about Art is that, for a multi-award-winning comedy, it doesn't seem very funny at all. Reading it is simply not an entertaining experience.

I found myself thinking about how I would direct the play, how I would act it. A good example is this speech:
Marc To be precise, [our argument] started on the day we were discussing some work of art and you uttered, quite seriously, the word deconstruction.It wasn't so much the word deconstruction that upset me, it was the air of solemnity you imbued it with.
You said, humorlessly, apologetically, without a trace of irony, the word deconstruction, you, my friend.

I'm not known for my sense of humour, in fact I'm known for loathing stand-up comedy with a venom I normally reserve for incompetent showbusiness PRs, but I do recognise jokes when I see them. I can see that the above lines are supposed to be funny, and I can see how I might perform them to make the repetition and amplification of the joke funny, although I did have to brainstorm for quite a long time.

Now imagine a whole play of speeches like the above, and factor in the insider information that the Ludicrously Escalating Posture is a recurring element in the play, as well as its main structural device.

Now avoid reading this play at all costs.

I think these lines rely so much on an actor to bring them alive, that reading them from the page is rather unfair on them. It's a play as much about dramatic technique as it is about the words. In the context of the play script, Reza's LEPs just don't make me laugh.

If Art came to Edinburgh, would I be queuing up to see it? Well, yes, because it's obvious that in the right hands this is a great slice of stagecraft. But unless you intend to study it in depth - preferably after having seen it so that you know there's a joyful light at the end of the tunnel - your bookshelf would be better off without a copy of Art.

So, I read a play, and what did I learn? That as far as comedy plays are concerned (and why would be interested in anything else?) I'm probably better off pursuing a career as a theatre reviewer.

* Alternatively it shows that these small matters of style are much less important than writing tutors would have us believe. Or that copy editors are strange beasts these days, as any element of pretension has been carefully removed from - or was never present in - the rest of the stage directions.

READING plays? (Part 1/2)

I know, right? People read plays all the time, especially so-called playwrighting students. How can I possibly have got through my life so far, had scripts produced, without ever once reading a play? Am I totally bonkersnuts?

My tutor at Traverse Young Writers recently went so far as to say that for leisure, he would much rather read a novel or a book of poetry than a play. I'd love to be scandalised by this, but in fact I agree with him.

Given the choice between watching a play or reading its script, I think most people would side with me on the latter. Plays were meant to be performed, after all, and a lot of interpretive work goes on in the rehearsal studio which the casual play-reader is forced to do all by themselves.

Outside of plays I've performed in, produced, edited, or critiqued for friends, I've never had cause to resort to that weak second option of reading a play.

I've simply never been dry for drama. The fact I neither have not have ever had any money hasn't really mattered. I've been very lucky in that most of the live stage plays I've seen have been on a press ticket, have had friends in them, or have been sponsored in some way by various benefactors - including but not limited to my parents, the government, my schools, my college at university, and rich older men.

Meanwhile hours and hours of screen drama (admittedly of varied quality) has been displayed on my computer screen for free. Whoever invented iPlayer and the BBC's Film Network are very nice people indeed.

Despite this unusual access, I've never seen or read some of the greats of the dramatic canon. Death of a Salesman, for example, has completely passed me by. I don't know Look Back in Anger, and I haven't even seen all of old Shakey Spee. I'd like to think my readers will be shocked by these admissions, but I know better.

So a few days ago, I came to the conclusion that if I'm going to talk intelligently about drama and thus learn how write it, I was going to have to bite the bullet and actually read a play.

And so - I did...

5 October 2011

Review: The Calling Card Script by Paul Ashton

Paul Ashton
The Calling Card Script: A Writer's Toolbox for Stage and Screen
A & C Black

Paul Ashton's opinions about writing are to be taken very seriously. There's a simple reason: he's one of the BBC's development producers. Frankly, he could say scripts should all be written on pink scented paper and anyone sensible would run to Rymans immediately and stock up.

Ashton is at his most illuminating talking about the modern writing scene: what producers are looking for, why it's important to write for different mediums, why being sniffy about genre is a bad idea.

His messages, in essence, are that we should do what the hell we like in a calling card script because it's never going to get made. And that script writing is pretty much script writing, whether its for a fringe theatre play or an epic high-concept TV franchise.

The sections on the differences between radio, stage, television and film are particularly interesting. His introductions to each of the four dramatic media are on pages 13-45. He then returns to the topic on pages 64-71 to consider how to choose a medium for a particular story, on pages 92-94 to compare how we relate characters in different media, on pages 167-170 to discuss how scenes are structured in different media, and on pages 172-173 to explain how step outlines function differently in play and screen writing. If you read the introduction and these pages, you've pretty much got the gist.

There's some useful advice about the nuts and bolts of writing in Calling Card, much of it summarised and synthesised from other how-to-write books and the sort of pragmatic advice available on the BBC Writersroom website - as Ashton freely admits. He's not as page-turning on every topic as he is on differing media, but a comprehensive grounding in dramatic writing practice as it stands is clearly established.

Examples usually annoy me, but here Ashton has been careful to use ones which his reader can realistically get hold of, and is very good at returning to a few key works so that we get to know them well. The downside of this is that radio drama is significantly underrepresented, but what can you do?* Of course, Ashton's examples are useful beyond their function as examples because they give us a reading list of scripts he rates (as opposed the scripts that are merely popular) and the reasons that he likes them.**

The Calling Card Script is a neat summary of the hows of dramatic writing. Despite it's subtitle, A Writer's Toolbox, this is not really an instruction manual or a quick-fix reference, it reads instead like a checklist of things that make good scripts. Its confusing organisation makes it hard to read cover to cover or to browse, but its comprehensive nature and original insights (at least, I've not heard them before) make it a bit of a Bible for what the BBC wants from its script monkeys.

* Well, the BBC could make its huge archive of radio drama available online... - I'd pay, if that helps - but it seems unlikely they're going to.
** Not that duplicating a successful show would get me very far. ;-)