The Writing Life – Feb 2014

Busy with all kinds of writerly activities this week. Yesterday a writing workshop at Art Central in Barry, courtesy of the Women’s Arts Association and their exhibition for International Women’s Day. Events conspired against us, with a few apologies from people who couldn’t make it due to illness (it’s been a bad winter for bugs of all kinds) and other problems, but those happy few who braved the possibility of winter weather were rewarded with a lovely clear day and a lot of fun at the event.

Arriving at the venue in plenty of time, we were unable to drive in as the bollards hadn’t been lowered, but I spotted a lady getting out of the passenger seat of another car and striding purposefully towards the Hall. On a hunch, I suggested we drive round the block and try again – which paid off as a charming man had unlocked the bollards to allow our access. Inside, I barely had time to glimpse the art exhibition as I was shown to the room I’d be presenting in. We rearranged the furniture and unpacked my props and stock. A writing buddy had arrived at the same time and helped set things up and we chatted about our current projects – my books and the script she’s working on.

The organisers (Gwyneth and Eve) had secured funding literally at the final hurdle – they’d only been informed of the final decision the previous afternoon, so they’d decided to make the event a free one, rather than charge participants as we’d agreed to do. It makes a nice change in these austere times to have some last-minute good news about funding!

Other participants arrived in ones and twos, chatting about the weather, their writing and everybody’s health problems. Some things never change. Apparently a local block of flats had been evacuated in the small hours when part of the roof blew off, so there was good reason to talk about the Welsh weather! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-26199300

The workshop went really well – I love it when everybody jumps in with both feet, giving the exercises a good try, even when they protest that my prompts won’t work for their story. I’m a firm believer in the idea that adding elements at a tangent to the story you think you’re writing is a great way to add depth and twists the reader won’t anticipate. Apologies if that sounds like a mixed metaphor – it makes sense if you’ve ever been at one of my slightly anarchic workshops, honest! They were a fabulous bunch and we all had a great time. They left with freebies from me, a partially-constructed story each and several of them were planning to start a local writers’ group.

I still didn’t get time to browse the exhibition after the workshop, as so many people wanted to talk – both workshop participants and those who hadn’t made it for one reason or another. A really friendly town! I chatted with a lovely young lady about the ongoing story she’s writing at school (sounds like she’s got a great teacher) and a few people who asked about disability and told me related issues they had themselves. A few people bought copies of books from me and I even found time to eat a few of the yummy cakes laid on by the WAA ladies. (Loved the cupcake topped with fruit!) Then it was official opening time with the Lady Mayor. I was invited to say a few words about how I became a writer and I encouraged people to have a go at something creative, regardless of their age or life situation. More chat and we left. I was ready to collapse by the time we got back to the car.

A tiring day, but it was well worth it.

A couple of other bits of writerly news. I’ve guest-blogged on the Bristol Book Blog, giving Ten Tips for New Writers. You can read it (and other great entries, too) here: http://brsbkblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/this-week-ive-been-chatting-with-author.html#more

I’m also participating in the #mywritingprocess blog chain. My episode will be posted tomorrow morning, complete with an explanation!

In case I wasn’t busy enough, tomorrow (Monday) is Launch Day for my new book – even though a few people already have their copies and have been giving me some great feedback. It’s a pocket guide for writers, especially those starting out and unsure of how to take their writing to the next level. It’s called Just Add Writing and can be ordered through all the usual retailers as well as myself: http://www.jaywalkerwriting.co.uk

There is a Facebook event for the launch – drop in and say hello if you can. There will be a party on there, with virtual drinks, nibbles and probably some shenanigans behind the virtual bikeshed I’ve had installed specially. There will also be the chance to win some non-virtual prizes. You can find us at: https://www.facebook.com/events/606496329431142/

So today I’m taking things easy, recovering from yesterday and getting stuff ready for tomorrow. Hope to see you at the party.

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Funny Women

I watched Newsnight (BBC2 last night) conclude with a discussion on the insistence of Danny Cohen (head of BBC TV) that more women be included in panel shows such as Mock the Week and QI.

Now, I’m all for equality, but is this a good way to tackle the problem of imbalance?

Let’s take QI – chaired by the lovely Stephen Fry with teams of mainly male competitors and an esoteric scoring system. Undoubtedly a testosterone-rich environment, this is blokey comedy at its richest, not feminised by having a (whisper it) homosexual presenter. And there are women who thrive on the show – Sandi Toksvig (hey – is homosexuality compulsory here?) gives the male panellists a run for their money, whilst Jo Brand could almost be Les Dawson reincarnated as a woman. That’s two females who do well, in part because they behave in a mannish manner by standing up for themselves when necessary, but without trying to be men. They are women – and they are funny.

So – does a policy of increasing the number of female panellists mean we need women to act like men? Or should we change the format to be more feminine? Stephen – time to camp it up.

No, I can’t believe this would work. I applaud both Sandy and Jo for being entertaining women in a man’s panel game. And make no mistake – it is a man’s game. Not only are the panellists mostly men, the whole idea was created by a man (John Lloyd) specifically for Mr Fry and Alan Davies. I don’t know if they ever thought about including women or if we snuck in afterwards. It’s a big boys’ playground game. That’s why it’s fun to watch.

I worked for many years in male-dominated environments and I know how much it takes for a woman to get any respect. I’ve been told on many occasions that I was thought of as “one of the boys” and other, less printable, terms. I’ve worked in teams where there was more testosterone than oxygen in the air – and it isn’t healthy. Groups of men will act in ways they know will cause problems, but no-one is prepared to say anything in front of the rest. And so…

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve worked in all-female offices, too. And it can get so bitchy that I sometimes wondered if I should keep a note of who’s not speaking to whom and who’s staking a claim on which fellas…

Danny Cohen is correct that we should have more women on panel shows. But shoehorning females into the boys’ own world of most TV panel shows won’t work. You’ll annoy the fans by diluting the male hormones, which will change the feel of the shows they love. And the poor token women will know they’re included because of their gender, not because they’re likely to be funny.

Tokenism doesn’t work. If a panel game has to have a women in front of the camera, what about someone from an ethnic minority? Or a disabled person? QI, at least, is already in the clear on the LGBT front – should we insist all other shows toe the line, too?

Imagine the advert:
_____________________________________________________________________________________
Panellists wanted for new quiz show. Successful applicants will have appropriate qualifications or be able to demonstrate proficiency in at least two of the following areas:

Female
Non-Caucasian
Visible Disability
L/G/B/T
Over 50 years of age

GSOH desirable but not essential.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

No – this isn’t the solution. For women to be entertaining and successful in panel games, we need to involve them from the start. We need female designers and writers, as well as males. Perhaps in a few years we could all be enjoying panel games where men and women compete on an equal footing – and they can all enjoy being themselves. An entertaining panel of people.

Read more here:
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/feb/08/bbc-comedy-shows-male-panels-female-presence

Equality Schmequality

Come on Britain, open your eyes and look around you. Is everyone the same as you? No? Thought not.

I ran a stall at a Christmas Fair yesterday to raise a little money for charity – mainly the MS Society. And Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, as I’d bought a load of Christmas cards from them to sell. I was also supporting a relatively large event being run in a small village. It’s almost an hour’s drive each way, and Martin and I gave up our Saturday for this. I’m just setting the scene before I start criticising.

Because most people we met were very nice.

But the ones that stick in my mind were the rude ones. The ones who can’t cope with anyone being different from themselves.

One woman wanted Christmas cards, but told me she wouldn’t buy the charity ones because “charity encourages lazy people to expect everything for free”. I sold her some that didn’t say they were charity cards and forgot to tell her where her money would go.

A middle-aged woman told me how much she liked to support new talent and asked me which of my books I would recommend. I suggested The MonSter and the Rainbow, thinking she may appreciate that. She flinched when I mentioned it was about disability, so picked up a copy of Chrystal Heart to read the back. It took about three seconds for her to read my tagline, “She’s a 188 year old, bisexual, cyborg vampire and she might just save our world” and put it down as if she might catch something. She left my stall in a hurry.

I’m afraid if you don’t want to read about people who have disabilities, non-mainstream sexual preferences or interesting personal habits, then you’ve come to the wrong writer.

If anyone’s thinking of reading Chrystal Heart, I should warn you that it includes a character who cross-dresses, someone with a disability and even a redhead. There’s also one character who will behave in an unexpected way after their initial appearance – but you’ll have to wait for the next book to find out who. Unless you’ve already spotted the clue, that is. 😉

Personally, I like a fictional world to bear some resemblance to the one around me. That includes people of different shapes, sizes, skin colours and modes of dress. I’m not going to set a story in the 21st Century and pretend no-one is blind or in a wheelchair, not will I insist all my characters stick to heterosexual relationships and dress in three-piece suits. But I won’t include people from minorities just because of some belief it’s the “right” thing to do.

The weirdest behaviour yesterday, though, were the people who decided I was a rubbish bin for their use. I spotted a man dashing away – having left a couple of polystyrene cups in my stock behind the stall. At least I assume it was him- he didn’t wait to be asked, just came behind our stall and the cups were there when I went to investigate what he was doing. I was too busy to take them to the bin, but I looked round a little later to see a woman adding another cup to the stack.

I said, “Excuse me – that’s not a bin!”
She gestured at my wheelchair, “So you put it where you want to.”
I tried again. “Can’t you put your cup in the bin?”
She snorted, “You people,” pointing again at my wheelchair. Then she left.

She didn’t know me, she hadn’t even looked at my stall and evidently had no interest in me, except to assume that my wheelchair entitled her to treat me like a servant. Or a bin.

A few minutes later, I spotted a man adding an empty beer can to the growing pile of rubbish in my stock.
“That isn’t a bin,” I said.
“It’s not mine,” he replied. I must have looked as dumbfounded as I felt.
“We just found it outside,” he explained.
“So you thought you’d add it to my stock?”
The same woman who’d shouted at me before shouted again, “Just leave her to it, if she’s going to be bad-tempered about it!” and the man left again.

Bad-tempered? Yes, I was. I think I have every right to be bad-tempered when someone’s rude to me, expects me to clear up her rubbish and then sends her husband (or whoever) to do the same. She could have told him to drop the can into the bag of rubbish in the car park – or to put it under the stall closest to the door. Instead of dumping it in the stock of the person in the wheelchair who had the nerve to complain that she wasn’t a bin.

I hadn’t gone all that way to be a servant for a lazy woman without any courtesy for someone who happens to be in a wheelchair. Neither do I write my books for people who can’t see beyond their own cosy world.

If you disagree, don’t try to read my work. It’s not erotica, but neither is it dumbed down to only include white, middle-class middle-aged people with no unusual habits. If you’ve bought a copy, it’s yours to burn as heresy, if that’s what you want. In fact – you’re welcome to burn as many copies as you can buy. I don’t mind. I’ll even sign them for you, if that’ll make you feel better.

It isn’t illegal for someone to be different from you. What is illegal is treating them as lesser because of those differences. And being rude when they object.

Come on Britain, we’re better than this, aren’t we?

Disability and London Theatres

In planning a recent trip to London, I wanted to incorporate a little culture by watching something at a theatre. After all, the capital of Great Britain is renowned for its theatres and shows of all types. Like any other theatregoer, I began with a list of what shows were running and would be open on the dates we could attend. I setup a shortlist of possibles, decided which was my favourite and went onto their website to book tickets. There was no button to click for accessible seating so I worked my way through multiple layers of adverts and information in search of their accessibility details. Apparently, I have to phone them to make arrangements. A premium rate number, of course.

I rang and was told that I was speaking to a booking agent and would have to phone the theatre directly. She gave me another premium rate number. This went on until I eventually got through to someone at the venue itself. She informed me that they only have one truly accessible seat – and that it’s booked for every performance for several months, although there are “normal” seats available for the majority of dates. I asked why they don’t make some of that clear on the website and she told me they prefer to speak to disabled customers individually, so as to offer the best service they can.

At, of course, the customer’s expense.

It took me a whole day of internet use and expensive phone calls to find out that none of my shortlist could offer me a ticket for the week in question. Several of the theatres don’t have any accessible seating at all. A few of the comments I received:

There’s no call for wheelchair seating.

We’re an old building, we don’t have to comply with the regulations.
Our fire officer says we can’t have wheelchairs in the auditorium because they’d take too long to get out and be a hazard to “normal” theatregoers.
(My quotation marks.)

We have to take out a dozen “normal” seats for every wheelchair space we create – it’s not cost effective.

Several people told me they had to speak to each disabled person before allowing them to book a seat, with a variety of reasons, none of which convinced me. If it’s so important for me to be asked in person what my requirements are, why don’t they pay for the call by providing a freefone number? Or even a straightforward geographical one?

In the course of all this, I did come across one website that provides much of the information in a handy downloadable form:

Here:

Which is very helpful, but quite shocking in terms of equality for the disabled. The theatres which have accessible spaces told me they’re booked up long before the auditorium fills. If I want an accessible space, I need to book as soon as a show goes on sale – months before I’m actually going to be there.

Needless to say, we didn’t get to see a show.

If I try to do this again, I’ll start with the list of theatres from the above link, so that I don’t waste time and money on the ones who have no accessible spaces at all. I have a suspicion that my choice of shows is the last thing I’ll be able to decide.

Tubular Bells for Two – Wow

Tubular Bells, an iconic album produced by one man with a 24-track tape recorder, a lot of talent and a little help from his friends. It’s been performed live – and it takes a small army of musicians and singers. There’s no possible way to perform it live without a stage groaning under the weight of performers.

Until now. Two Australians. Four hands and four bare feet to play the whole album live on stage. Yes, they use looping – but it’s played and looped live as part of the performance. If you’d asked me, I would have said it was impossible.

The sheer choreography of two men moving between instruments, shifting stands and microphones to where they’re next needed, playing guitars or keyboards, whilst operating loops and playing drums with their feet. This pair won’t need a gym membership to keep fit if they keep playing this concert.

Yes, there were a couple of points where they stretched a passage by a few bars, giving them time to setup the next phase – but I can’t hold that against them. And they simplified some of the arrangements – but so does Mike Oldfield himself.

This is a stunning achievement and an incredible performance.

Go see it for yourself and then decide if I’ve overdone the superlatives.

http://tubularbellsfortwo.co.uk/