Thursday, December 21, 2006

Evelyn Waugh versus mince pies

Reading group on Tuesday night at Doug's. He had a beautiful huge Christmas tree, tastefully decorated with red baubles and tiny white lights, which made everyone exclaim as they entered, and people brought Christmas food, mince pies and chocolates, and Jenny had a bag of samosas left over from her other reading group at Didsbury library which had had a Christmas gathering earlier in the day. And no one was much inclined to get down to business and discuss the book.

In the middle of all the hilarity I asked everyone if they minded my writing about our meetings on my blog (previously my reports have appeared on my website), and everyone said it was fine. But then Doug said suddenly that that reminded him: he had a good mind to start a rival web report because my last one (on Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn) was totally biased (towards my own view of the book) and ended on a yah-boo-sucks note. (Trevor added that he's always shocked by how different my memories of the discussion are from his.) Quite right! I retorted, refusing to be chastened.

Anyway, this is my memory of the discussion we had on Tuesday:

Ann had chosen Evelyn Waugh's 1938 novel Scoop in which, in a classic case of mistaken identity, a naive aristocratic nature-features writer, Boot, gets sent as a war reporter to the fictional African Republic of Ishmaelia, and in which journalistic contempt for the truth is famously satirised. Having read other Waugh novels and enjoyed them, she said she had chosen it as a civilised and urbane antidote to the linguistic grimness of Selby Jr. However, having expected to enjoy it without reservation, she now wasn't so sure, finding it on the whole to be in fact more of a farce than a satire. Everyone readily and strongly agreed, although most had enjoyed it - though Sarah said she had given up after the first seventy pages, for the very reason that she hates farce.

John pointed out that, while the overriding trope of mistaken identity and that of the innocent abroad were in the realm of farce, there was true satire in the treatment of the activities of the journalists and their newspapers, and most people agreed that the telegrams passing between them were very funny. Most were agreed too that the book was in any case very clever, but John and Ann weren't so sure since it wavered between satire and farce. Trevor said that, having previously avoided Waugh because of his right-wing reputation, he had been amazed to find how even-handedly Waugh had poked fun, representing the aristocratic Boot family as dodderers mainly confined to their beds. At which point Jenny expressed her oft-stated opinion that aristocrats are anything but duffers, it just suits them to have people think they are, and Waugh (who was not in fact aristocratic) had fallen for that.

John also noted that Boot is something of a psychological blank, and he said that while this is part of the satirical or farcical point, he found that it created a sense of something incomplete. We discussed this - the fact that in a satire you don't really need psychological complexity but that somehow here it seemed like a flaw - without coming to much conclusion as to why this should be. I said it was particularly noticeable in the 'love' interest (Boot falls innocently in love with a young German woman who is quite cheerfully taking him for a ride), and Trevor, who'd had quite a bit to drink by then, explained to me their relationship. I said I understood what their relationship was, I was talking about the treatment of it, and he explained it to me again.

Ann wondered how much more impact the book might have had in its day, as we are now so much more used to the idea of not trusting the press, but Doug said, haven't there always been satirical cartoons?

And that was about it. A very short discussion (as far as I remember it), and by the time Mark arrived, late from putting his kids to bed, we'd long gone onto other topics which we stayed late discussing, even though Doug had to go to London next day...

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

North West Playwrights at Christmas

Christmas Party at North West Playwrights last night. Nice red wine, a lovely Christmas tree with silver baubles and a room full of playwrights gabbing about playwriting and the eternal obsession: HOW TO GET PLAYS PUT ON.

NWP was originally started by a bunch of playwrights including Dave Simpson and John Chambers (both veterans of Coronation Street and Emmerdale), as a yearly showcase of work by north-west writers, presented as script-in-hand readings at Contact Theatre. My first-ever try at writing for stage - a one-act play, Cakes - appeared in the showcase, and later I was privileged to be invited onto the judging panel. More recently, NWP has evolved into a somewhat different organisation, with a different emphasis. Headed now by a Director, Chris Bridgeman, and Deputy Director and playwright Sheila McNulty, it is geared towards nurturing and developing the careers of playwrights in a more ongoing way via not only script-in-hand performances but also workshops, training sessions and links with several theatres.

There was much talk of course amongst us playwrights of the recent debate, prompted by the Guardian's Lynn Gardner, about the frustrating aspects, for writers, of theatre 'development' schemes (which I wrote about in an earlier post). Everyone was agreed however that North West Playwrights is very different, its aim being not only to help writers develop their skills and scripts but also to find homes for their plays.

One guest was Dave Slack, co-founder of 24:7, the yearly Manchester theatre festival with an increasing profile, and a question on everyone's lips was: 'Are you putting something in for it?'. As I said to someone, 24:7 is one place where you can come from nowhere with a play, put it on unchanged by anyone else or for any theatre's philosophy, style or mission statement about 'development,' and then by virtue of having put it on, can be regarded as a professional playwright (rather than someone 'in need of development' by theatre professionals other than writers). Many theatre professionals might presume that this would make for inferior plays, but for two years running now plays from 24:7 have won prestigious Manchester Evening News Awards.

Closing date for 24:7 is 31st January.

And then it was time to go, and guess what, I'd been vain and worn my high heels, and when I went to meet John it turned out he'd had to park the car at the other side of town...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Normblog Writer's Choice

Famous blogger Norman Geras has invited me to contribute to his Writer's Choice series, where writers discuss books which have been important to them. I write about Wuthering Heights as perhaps the most influential on my own writing, and the shock I had when I re-read it for the purpose. The piece appears today.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Lost Literature

You can't help wondering what literature, both written and potential, is lost through lack of outlets. Commenting recently on my other blog, nmj relates how she started out as a short-story writer and got an agent on the strength of her short-story writing. However, she discovered, it wasn't the stories themselves the agent was interested in, and she was immediately persuaded to write a novel, and her short-story writing went by the board.

My own experience was the same, and I'm sure we are not the only two. It seems to me that the AL Kennedys and Ali Smiths are only the exceptions that prove the rule: Ali Smith, indeed, has stated in an interview that she feels she was helped towards publication of her first collection by things extraneous to her (marvellous) prose: the fact that she was Scottish, and the fact that she was lesbian.

Once upon a time short stories were all I ever really wanted to write. I loved the form with its special poetic yet muscular compression. Once I had published several stories in literary magazines, I began hoping to publish a collection. I went on an Arvon course and to my delight and gratitude my tutor Martin Booth sent my stories off to his agent, who immediately rang me. (And there are people in the blogosphere insisting that you don't need assistance and contacts to get taken up!) But this agent said the same to me as nmj's did to her: we have to have a novel, it's impossible to sell short stories. So I wrote a novel (The Birth Machine) - not a very long one that first time, more of a novella really; it took me a while to ease out of the short form - and then another (Body Cuts).

I didn't stop writing stories; I just went on publishing them in magazines. But then the magazines began to die away, and there didn't seem any point in writing them any more... And my novel publishers got bought up, the usual story, and the list I was on was remaindered. And, just as I found myself out in the cold, the commercialisation of publishing accelerated, and, after a beginning when all doors had opened before me, getting fiction published seemed no longer the easiest thing in the world. And since the doors in radio were flung wide open - I had written a play on the off-chance and it had been broadcast and won a prize - I became a radio dramatist instead.

Of course you don't stop altogether, you can't keep the urge down. And this week a collection of short stories won the Guardian first book award. Small presses like Comma, Salt, Elastic and Leaf are springing up to specialise in short stories. There are doors swinging open again.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sundar Kanta Walker - exhibition of paintings

Yesterday I went to the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Sundar Kanta Walker, 'This Precious Place', at the new Waterside Arts Centre in Sale in South Manchester. Kanta's paintings are vibrant with pure colour, as can be seen above, brimming with a seething yet patterned life, and also often with humour. That's Kanta above, standing next to one of my favourite paintings in the show: 'Ethnic Chick'. If you can't afford one of the oils, there are limited prints available, and I persuaded John to buy me one for Cristmas!

Kanta is of course also a writer, which was how I met her, when she and I once did a reading together, along with novelist Jane Rogers. So it was no suprise that there was another writer at the show, and to my delight Kanta introduced me to her: poet Judy Kendall, who has two books due out, a collection of poems from Cinnamon Press, and the edited letters of Edward Thomas from Carcanet.

I haven't been to Sale for a long time and was amazed to find how gentrified it's become. The Waterside Arts Centre is in a splendid new complex looking out over a paved and lamplit area next to the canal. There were other things going on in the centre besides the opening, and towards the end a group of people drifted past the gallery entrance, coming downstairs from a North-West Playwrights training day. And who from among them should come rushing in to the gallery but my actress friend Mary-Ann Coburn. You could see the pub across the canal through the glass wall of the gallery, so no prizes for guessing where we ended up then...

Kanta's exhibition runs until the 20th January.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Whose writing is it anyway?

In yesterday's Guardian Maddy Costa writes about an 'extraordinary' collaboration betweeen five women playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre this week, instigated by outgoing artistic director Ian Rickson and echoing a similar experiment in 1971 with seven young men including Howard Brenton, David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff. Well, the play does sound exciting, so maybe it's extraordinary in that sense, but it's a little amusing that the concept of collaboration should be considered so innovative once it's applied to mainstream theatre, when it was of course a commonplace with alternative theatre in the seventies and eighties, and often still is to this day.

It puts me in mind of the time I took part in a similar exercise. Two other playwrights, Sue Ashby and Janet Mantle, invited me to join them in writing a play for Theatre in Education on the subject of child abuse, It's OK to Say No. I was interested and excited to find out how such a process would work, and what it would be like writing someone else's concept rather than my own, and something so very research-based.

First off, we did the research by talking to professionals. Next, we mapped out a story and a structure for the play. This was easier than I'd imagined, sitting swapping suggestions and coming to a consensus - partly, I suppose, because our aim, teaching children how to deal with abuse, very much dictated a structure. Then, like the Royal Court group, we divided up the scenes between us and went away to write them. It was a good experience - I liked the learning process, I loved the companionship and sharing, but I have to be honest and say that it felt more workmanlike than writing usually does for me, without that thrill of inspiration that comes from somewhere deep.

Halfway through the writing period I dropped out. After we had talked to one of the professionals I began to have doubts about the professional methods and ideology for dealing with child abuse which she was describing and which our play was endorsing, and I left Sue and Janet to it.

At least one of my scenes remained, however, a pretty crucial one, and it was a very strange experience to attend the first performance of a play over which I no longer had any claim and no longer felt any ownership, and to witness that scene being acted out. I'd written it, but it was no longer mine; I didn't even feel the need to claim it. Weird.

It's OK to Say No has toured schools all over since, mainly with Action Transport Theatre Company, who probably know nothing of my early involvement with the play. Maybe my scene has long gone anyway, but whenever I hear of another production I get that strange mixed feeling of disconnection and ever-so-vague connection.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Frontlist

Times in an author's life, there's no point in having any pride. The Frontlist seems like a good idea, says Fessing Author. That's what I thought too.

Like Fessing Author, I wasn't a new writer, but I emailed Tom Lodge, who runs the scheme, and got the go-ahead to put something up.

First the synopsis. This is really important, the site tells you, so important that they provide you with guidelines. I look at the guidelines. A synopsis should be all about plot and story, they tell me. It should be written in the style of the novel and should include a flavour of the dialogue. I scratch my head. This doesn't quite sound like the kind of summing-up paragraph I know most publishers and agents prefer (and anyone else, surely). I email Tom again. Is he looking for something longer or something shorter? Tom says it's all early stages yet, and it's really up to me but he thinks something that an agent would like sounds best. But he also says that on the other hand it might be a good idea to write something my peers would like, and some people have been marked down for not making their synopses long or detailed enough.

I scratch my head again. I compromise. I write as short a synopsis as I can while trying to outline a ridiculously complex and psychological story and include a sense of the (fluctuating) voices of the novel.

I post up my submission, synopsis included.

Straightaway I get five pieces to critique. Each piece has to be given a mark out of 5 on each of several criteria. Firstly Syntax, which to my surprise is explained as spelling, punctuation, grammar etc, and which - although I know that writers who can't do the basics mostly can't come up with the bigger stuff - seems a rather nit-picking and superficial approach to establish in beginning to look at a novel. Next Concept which we are told we should judge via the synopsis. Well now, I can see that a synopsis might indicate that a novel has a good shape, etc, but just because it fails to do that doesn't mean a novel hasn't: as anyone in the business knows, a synopsis is one of the most difficult things to write, and the person it's most difficult for is the author, so necessarily close to the subtleties (why would you write a novel if you could sum it up in a paragraph - or a page or two, as some of these synopses run to?). So I'm not so sure about the idea of at least one fifth of the marks being based on the synopsis, about which there seemed to be some confusion in the first place...
Then the last three: Originality, Intelligence, Readability. Nothing about narrative thrust or characterisation (though later characterisation was introduced), nothing about voice. And the explanations of some of these categories seem confusingly to cut across each other...

Now to look at the work I must critique. Well, I've done a lot of critiqueing of work at all sorts of levels, and I am sorry to say that some of the pieces were not, shall we say, of the best I have ever seen. I am pretty used as a teacher to commenting constructively on people's less-than-good work (I am being euphemistic here), but on this occasion my heart sinks, because what I am doing with my comments - and the marks which I must in all honesty give them - is denying them their goal in entering this scheme, being passed to a publisher. No way can I bring myself to use the word which comes to mind about one of them: 'semi-literate'. But there is one good one, thank goodness, pretty brilliant actually, and with relief I can say so and give the author practically full marks.

It all seems a bit embarrassing, I think. Professionals pitted against would-bes, and let's face it, never-will-bes...

Ha! Here's my come-uppance, my own critiques. Sparse dismissive comments, eg 'Waffelly' (sic); I am told that there is nothing original, complex or insightful about my novel, several times I am told that my 'syntax' is poor, I am pulled up for my 'improper' sentences (by which the reviewer doesn't mean indecent), and my narrator's use of the word 'caff' (for cafe) is marked down as a spelling mistake of my own. I'm even told that at one point my novel is 'a bit illiterate'. And it's the synopsis they really have it in for: some tell me it's too long, others that it's not detailed enough (and all the time its 'syntax' is faulty). Not all of my reviewers are negative, there's one who gives me almost full marks, but even he/she feels obliged to take marks off for my synopsis.

Crumbs. (No doubt they'd tick me off for that verbless sentence.)

And the overall results? Well, some of the ones I didn't rate did a whole lot better than me...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Taken over...

Oh dear, I have not been blogging. Why? Because I have an idea for a play simmering, and I'm one of those writers who, once this happens, can't think about much else. The play takes up all of my attention, I stop halfway through the washing up and find myself leaning on the windowsill thinking about those characters, wondering how the heck I am going to get them from A to B; halfway through cleaning my teeth I find I have wandered downstairs, toothbrush in hand, listening to the conversation they are having which has sprouted unbidden into my head...

And we writers wonder why people sometimes look at us askance...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Driven to drink?

Reading group on Wednesday night. Only six of us drinking, and when I got up next morning there were eight bottles to clear away! I don't think I drank much of it, but if I did, this is why.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What are playwriting schemes for?

Today on my other blog I ask What is Theatre FOR? but you could ask the same question about playwriting schemes, and when I came back from holiday I was alerted to the fact that Lyn Gardner has.

Wondering where all the good new playwrights are nowadays, Gardner speculates that they are clogged up in burgeoning playwriting development schemes, which she suspects exist for their own sakes, and to keep personnel in jobs, rather than actually to bring plays to the stage.

Some of the comments on her post endorse my own about theatre script readers in an earlier post here about my attempts to place 'O'Leary's Daughters' with New Writing mainstream theatres. (I hesitate to betray the arrogance of placing myself among the 'good playwrights', but the play has been fringe-produced, twice, and has won prizes, and I'm a pretty established, you might even say veteran radio dramatist). Gardner might have added that the playwrights are stuck in never-to-be-touched slush piles: it was February when I sent the play off, and I'm still waiting to hear back from several of those theatres and know now that I never will. But of the responses I did get back, more than one betrayed the tendency I described earlier to apply naturalistic measures to a non-naturalistic play (and thus to find it lacking), and the rest appear to fulfill Gardner's suspicions. I have been repeatedly told that my 'well-written and engaging script' can't however be put on by a theatre, since the theatre only puts on the plays it 'develops'. Once or twice this has extended to putting my name down on a list for 'the next development programme' (ie to write another, different play, which will, as Gardner says, be molded to the theatre's mission statement).

The most encouraging response was from Suzanne Bell, the Liverpool Everyman's Literary Manager, who I have to say quickly is a great person, but her hands are tied by this system. Again she said that the theatre only puts on the plays it develops, but she said she wanted to keep links with me and invited me to a workshop with Paines Plough and Graeae Theatre Company. But what was this workshop? Oh dear, yes, the Paines Plough and Graeae people were lovely, but it was one of those workshops which I used to do all the time with schoolkids, and then later with WEA adults, you know: get into pairs, each think up a character, swap characters, then write a dialogue using the two characters. Oh... Groan. For godssake, I just want to get my play on a mainstream theatre; it's already wowed audiences, I'm a radio writer going long in the tooth... what am I doing BEING TAUGHT HOW TO WRITE FROM SCRATCH????

A few weeks later I get an email from Paines Plough. Would I send them what I wrote at the workshop? A bit later another: if I've developed this piece since, or written anything else, would I send it, as they are looking for writers for their Wild Lunch series of rehearsed readings. What they are looking for is 30-minute plays. Oh! Well, sounds like an opportunity you can't miss. I sit down and develop my piece into a 30-minute play.

A couple of months later I am informed that unfortunately I am not one of the fourteen writers they have selected to develop their 30-minute plays into 45-minute pieces. Fair enough, but what was I doing being diverted through hoops to no avail, WHEN I JUST WANTED TO GET MY ALREADY WRITTEN PLAY STAGED? This week I am sent the Wild Lunch programme of rehearsed readings. Eight plays, eight writers. Which means that SIX of the fourteen CHOSEN TO DEVELOP THEIR 30-MINUTE PLAYS have been dropped!

Oh please! These lovely, committed and hard-working people aren't to blame, it's the system, but this is playing with writers. This is not taking seriously any concept of writers' individuality or professionalism, just as Gardner laments.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Artists and Power

Power. It's nothing, but it's everything.

You're a writer. You don't have a publisher/producer. You petition everybody. Everybody turns you down. You feel like the lowest of the low.

You go to a 24:7 Theatre Festival meeting (as I did tonight) . People come up to you. You say you're an actor (as I did half the time). They look at you with matey commiseration. You say you're a writer (as I did the rest of the time). They hand you their CV, they tell you (with a wild , longing look in their eyes) that they'd love you to get in touch if you ever have a play produced. You feel like Herod or something.

Sometimes I think it's hell being a writer, but, honestly, there are worse things to be...

But I'm off out of it, from tomorrow I'm neither, I'm just a holidaymaker...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Spooked by a cough

It's great to support your writer friends, isn't it? Hm...

I've had a stinking fluey cold, which is why I haven't even been writing my blog, but last night I felt better, which meant, Great: having missed Nick Royle's launch during the Literature Festival, I could go to his reading with Conrad Williams in Didsbury Library. I kind of knew Conrad, too: I'd met him once, though I couldn't remember where, London, I think, and now, it turned out when I got there, he had come to live round the corner from me.

Nick and Conrad both write stories 'on the dark side' - stories which touch on the surreal and on alternative realities - so this reading, the brainchild, I gathered, of the Manchester Libraries fiction buyer, was intended as a Halloween event. It was intended also as a test of the viability of a series of readings, though as a one-off receiving consequently minimal advertising, it was not expected to be full. Huh. It was packed! They had to bring extra chairs and people had to sit just outside the reading area...

Lucky me, I got there early, making it through the chilly wind and revelling in the fact that I was no longer sneezing and coughing, and got a seat slap-bang in the middle. Nick began, a chilling story about strange events in a lonely pub. Then Conrad: another short spooky story, followed by a longer, seemingly realistic story about a wedding. It was just as you realised that there was something ghostly happening - just when the tension racheted - when, oh no, my throat began to tickle, and the uncontrollable coughing began. Oh no, I'd have to leave, stand up right in the centre, distracting people just when the story was at its most tense, and I did, I walked out, and fled off down the library towards the foyer, whooping and spluttering in a way which the library ceiling seemed to hollow and exaggerate. And, oh no, here came a kind librarian with a cup of water - what a fuss I was causing! - and at last the coughing stopped, but only just in time for the break, and I'd missed the end of Conrad's story.

Worse - in the second half I sat near the edge in case it happened again, and it did, and those lovely librarians chased me with more water, and when that didn't work a sticky toffee, and when that didn't a Strepsil tablet.

How to ruin your friends' readings without even trying...

I don't really think I did, though: the audience seemed thrilled by the readings, and the fiction buyer said that the success of the evening meant that a series was definitely on the cards.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Rhyme or Reason

Yesterday I wrote on my other, critical blog about an article in the Observer by Jason Cowley on our current era of winners-past-the post cultural prizes. Afterwards I fell to thinking about the time I didn't actually win a glitzy prize but may as well have done, and got to experience how it felt.

The occasion was the Sony Radio awards. I had just had my first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, produced. One morning Robert Cooper, my producer, rang up and said that something wonderful had happened: my play had been nominated for the Best Production category, and Harriet Walter, who had played my protagonist, for Best Actress. I was invited to the dinner and ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel, and since Harriet was in LA and wouldn't make it, would I collect her award if she won?

Crikey. Help. But yes!!! Yes!!

So off I went on the train, worrying about what I was wearing, worrying about getting up on that stage, rehearsing the speech I might have to make, almost shaking with nerves the whole way in fact, in through the doors of the hotel, down the stairs (behind Ned Sherrin, in fact) and into that vast ballroom filled with glittering tables. I'm not sure why I didn't actually faint.

And I couldn't sit with Robert, the only person there I knew; as a nominee (nominated for Best Production for two plays) he'd been placed at a table near the front, and I was stuck right at the back with a table of unnominated BBC employees. They had no idea of course who I was, and I was so small and black in my dress and my nervousness, so removed and silent in my agony (what if Harriet won?) that they clearly decided to leave me alone. I listened a little, understood that some of them were producers whose names I knew, but most of the time I blanked out. Needless to say, I hardly ate a thing.

Then the ceremony. I followed the programme, my heart going like a goose in a bag. 'Best Production.' Robert Cooper! 'Best Actress.' My heart flapped up my throat. 'Harriet Walter. Unfortunately, Harriet can't be here this afternoon, but the writer of the play, Elizabeth Baines, is here to collect her award for her.'

Funny things happen at moments like this. Not for nothing are they done in slow motion in films. That's exactly how they seem to happen. I stood, and in the space of what must have been only seconds - I had to get across that vast floor, between all those staggered tables - I saw in minute and leisurely detail the way the people at my table turned and looked at me in astonishment, the changing of their expressions to realisation and then delight.

In his article, Jason Cowley writes of how winning a prize can change someone's life as a writer, and it's true: even though I hadn't actually won a prize - it was Robert and Harriet who had won - in that moment I went like Alice through a hole into another dimension, out of literary anonymity into recognition, out from 'struggling' into 'established' and 'successful.'

That whole vast room clapping and cheering as somehow, remembering my performance skills, I got quickly across it. Jane Asher kissing me (she was presenting the prizes), then down off the stage to a barrage of flash bulbs. And back to the table and everyone there waiting to hug and kiss me. 'Congratulations!' they kept saying. 'But it's not me who's won!' I said. 'Rubbish!' said the woman with the long hair who had turned out to be the producer Enyd Williams. 'No one gets nominated for a play that isn't great!' 'It's your win too,' they kept telling me. 'Make sure you put it on your CV!'

And then they called me to go with them in their taxi for a celebration at the BBC.

And afterwards? Well, as a radio writer I was made. One unfortunate result was that Robert - Sony-award-winning radio producer - quickly moved off to TV and Dublin, but the prize made it easy for me to get another radio producer. 'Anything you write, I'll produce it!' said Sue Hogg, who did indeed produce my next play. (Though there came a time of course when BBC Radio embraced Marketing, and no producer could say such a thing.)

But you can't help thinking how much luck is involved. What if that play hadn't fallen into Robert's hands? I had entered it in a Radio Times competition, and it hadn't won that - wasn't even a runner-up - and it could have fallen into oblivion if someone running the competition hadn't made the decision to pass it to Robert. I could have taken it as a message that I couldn't do radio plays and abandoned the whole idea... What if Robert had been less ambitious, and hadn't bothered getting a well-known and respected actress to play the part (bound to get more serious attention then)? What if he'd been less good at marketing and hadn't created a series of linked plays of which my play was one (an innovation at the time, that got a lot of attention)? What if, what if... As various people have commented, not least Grumpy Old Bookman, people take prizes as serious measures, but there's much about them that's random and not a lot of rhyme or reason.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bitches and Chicks

Manchester Bitch-Lit event last night and Waterstone's packed out for it. This time I wasn't performing, but could sit back and enjoy: delicious performances from Rosie Lugosi, Chris Scholes and Sherry Ashworth.

The tour is over for me now, though there will yet be events in Newcastle, Leeds, York and London. It's been interesting to compare the different events and the different audiences and audience discussions. The 'Bitch-Lit' idea really seems to have struck a chord: events have sold out, with people placed on reserve lists or turned away. (If you still want to go but find it sold out, then reserve a place, because at Manchester some people who had booked failed to turn up - though you might need to turn up on the off-chance.)

In the book and at the readings editors Mary Sharratt and Maya Chowdhry have pointed out that generally in literature female protagonists are allowed to be less trangressive than male ones, or if they are transgressive they must be punished and/or realise the error of their ways. A condition for submissions to this book was that protagonists must not be punished for their behaviour, but must triumph in their transgression. The idea was to counter the censorship on women writers - that sense that you'd better make sure that, in some way at least, your female protagonist can be seen in a good light. The female heroes would be autonomous, answerable to no one, and thus an antidote to Chick-Lit, where your heroine is usually pathetically desperate to get her man (well, that's what they say - I've never read any Chick-Lit myself).

At Sheffield, and especially at Ilkley, you could see that the audiences, mainly female - there were only three men at Sheffield - were really taken by this. 'We're celebrating female badness!' said Mary at Ilkley, and many in the audience grinned and nodded. I have to say that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with this sentiment, though of course it was not completely serious, rather a provocation. I wouldn't exactly celebrate or condone my protagonist's behaviour, I'm simply inviting the reader to understand the extremes of behaviour to which her situation has driven her. At another point (in the book's introduction) Maya says that the women characters in the book are not victims 'lashing out in self-defence'. 'I don't intend to be a victim,' my protagonist says at one point, but it depends what you mean by a victim, and you could say that her act of revenge makes her one, a slave to her vengeful emotions, and as desperate, in a different way, as any Chick-Lit heroine, to get her man. As Suzanne Elvidge, another reader at Sheffield, said to me in the bar afterwards, several of our protagonists are indeed, in this sense, victims lashing out.

As I said, though, in the Q & A at Ilkley, the real difference with this book is that it blows a breath of fresh air over the taboo subject of female badness, and does this largely by reclaiming the word Bitch. As I said then, if we can't say a word then we can't begin to discuss the issues around it, but once you reclaim the word you can break the taboo, and begin to discuss the concept of female badness more rationally.

Most of us were agreed that there has been a real taboo. At Sheffield we were asked if we felt liberated by the book into censoring ourselves less when we write, and even Sophie Hannah said that she did. Sophie is one of the most straight-speaking and independent-minded women I know, and one of the most balloon-pricking of satirical writers, yet she said that it has made her more determined to resist editors' pleas to 'make her protagonists nicer' (and thus, in Sophie's opinion, less lifelike).

Interestingly, however, when I asked Rosie the same question in the Q & A last night, she said that she had been developing in that direction anyway in her writing, and Sherry said that she had never felt censored, even though she writes books for teenagers, an area in which language is inevitably strongly policed by editors. I suppose, however, it depends how far you are already censoring yourself, and Sherry did indeed admit that although she had never been troubled by the b-word, she still found herself shocked by the use of what she called the c-word, a fact which many of the Manchester audience may have found shocking in itself.

It was a different kind of audience last night in Manchester, much more mixed in age and gender. A nineteen-year-old student in a red bakerboy hat said that she felt we were perhaps making too much of it all, and it was the same on the English degree course she had just started, as soon as you get to a woman writer people start on about the feminism thing, it really didn't mean a lot to people of her age and it irritated her, and furthermore she read Chick-Lit and enjoyed it and didn't see anything wrong in it. She clearly felt that there wasn't an issue, as the editors were making out.

The fact remains, however, that when Mary went on Women's Hour to talk about the book, Jenny Murray avoided using that word, as did many of the writers who rang up to inquire about submitting...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bollards, fences and boxes

When you're doing a reading, always turn up early.

Yeah, right.

Bitch-Lit reading in Sheffield yesterday evening. 7.30 start, plan to get there an hour beforehand to change into costume and check out the venue, so leave at five for the one-and-a-half hour drive. Oh-oh. Traffic blocked at Glossop. At 6.30, when I'm meant to be there, we're still scooping round those scary bends between darkening misty hills, not a city light in sight. 6.40, we hit the outskirts, zoom downwards to the centre only to find what no one has warned us about: the roads around it are completely dug up, it's all bollards and diversions, hardly any lights or signs, and no one around - why not? - it's like the surface of the moon, the dark side. We're going round in circles, and now we seem to be driving away from the centre again... One lone man walking. I wind down the window. 'We're looking for the station!' He scratches his head, not sure how we'd get there with all these altered directions... Another: with all these altered directions, he's not even sure any more in which direction it actually is. It's seven o' clock now. John's driving, so I rummage in my bag, thinking I should change in the car, but then find I don't have the room. Two young girls, about twelve and ten. 'Know where the station is?' 'Oh yes! Well... erm... MUM!' they scream up to a window above the shops. The window opens. 'Mum, where's the station?' The woman starts yelling down instructions we can't hear.

It's 7.10 when we get to the back of the station which we know is opposite the venue, the Showroom Cinema. 'Stop! I'll run from here!' I grab my bags and costume and jump from the car, my skirt dropping from the hanger onto the pot-holed ground. Snatch it up, run through the dark round the side of the station car park, stumbling over potholes, only to come to a high workman's fence and be diverted a very long way round. It's 7.15, when I finally reach the steps of the Cinema Showroom. I fling myself, breathless, onto the box-office desk. 'To the stairs and then left,' I am told. I race down the stairs. There's no left turn... I race back up. 'Where's showroom 5?' I call to an usher. Oh, he meant past the stairs and turn left!

Everyone else is ready and waiting. So where can I change? Not in an office as they'd vaguely suggested we might, but in the loo... Great. Race to the loo. Can't paint my bitch lips on, must have dropped my makeup bag when I rummaged in the car...

I emerge with my arms full of bags, coat, clothes and a coathanger to find the audience already being seated. Where can I put them? Under that table there, I'm told, which I must squash past the legs of the audience to get to. So much for making an impact as your character...

And the setup, which I'd come too late to have a say in? A lectern with a mic we didn't really need, and which would hide our carefully planned costumes. And each side of it and a little behind it, two chairs for the readers, which meant that in the long room where the seating was arranged horizontally, each pair of readers was hidden from half of the audience. And as for the Q & A session: well, I tell you, it's amazing the rapport we achieved with our sell-out audience from behind a big blue box!

Here Maya Chowdhry and I are trying to converse around the lectern with the other two readers:

And here we are at last released from the box [From left to right: me in my wig and dressed as my avenging wife character, Sophie Hannah as herself (because, as she told the audience, she is her character), Suzanne Elvidge as her avenging cook, and Maya Chowdhry as a fairy punk]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

From the sublime to the wicked

Yesterday I went to the talk by Murat Belge in St Ann's Church - an event I found quite mind-blowing, and which I've written about on my other blog where I try to tackle the more serious matters.

Afterwards I wandered a bit gloomily, musing how in Britain we just don't value serious literature any more, when we damn well ought to: after all, the issues Belge was talking about, and in the novels he publishes by Nobel-Prize winning Orhan Pamuk, are even now being played out in Britain, not least in the current comments by British politicians about the veil.

And then I went into Waterstone's and found something to cheer me right up: there in the anthology section was Bitch-Lit, our light-hearted anthology with nevertheless a pretty serious point, turned out in all its bright-pink glory. Not only that, someone was reaching up to look at a copy! I tip-toed away, thinking, Good Old Waterstones, and Three Cheers for our lovely publisher Cathy Bolton at Commonword!!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Salt added

Yesterday afternoon I'm waiting to cross the road to get to the fish shop and over the other side, waiting to cross in the opposite direction, is Steve Waling, poet and editor of poetry magazine Brando's Hat. He waits for me, looking somehow calm, beatific yet excited... What's cooking, I wonder? When I get there he gives me this exciting news: he has a poetry collection coming from Salt. No wonder he looks like the cat that got the salmon! There is nothing so wonderful, so heart-warming as the joy of a writer who, after years of working away, has achieved success (just look at Marie Phillips' blog recently)! And this small press, Salt, seems to have come from nowhere to become a hugely respected force in publishing in a very short time. Another reason for writers not to give up in the face of the more commercial trends in publishing...

Friday, October 13, 2006

One reason to turn to drink

Reading group last night, and another useful illustration for the writer of how differently people read and the different criteria they apply. 'Brilliant,' said Mark about our choice for discussion, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. 'Really clever marriage between journalistic and novelistic forms. The objectivity means there's a lack of sensationalism, prurience or moralising, yet it's a compulsive read, you just can't put it down.' Others differed. 'Afraid I struggled with it,' said Doug. Doug and others felt that the marriage didn't work, and that the book did in fact at times induce a prurient reaction on the reader.

See? You hone your prose, you think carefully about your structure and its effect on the reader, and then a load of crisp-chewing, wine-guzzling punters casually bring to your book their own preconceptions and taste and experience...

Ah well.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Manchester Literature Festival

The Manchester Literature Festival, conceived by outgoing director Chris Gribble and built on the foundations of the Manchester Poetry Festival, kicks off on Thursday, and it looks pretty exciting. I'll be sorry to miss William Boyd that day, as I'm already committed to my reading group, but I'm looking forward to the Amnesty International event on Freedom of Expression in St Ann's Church on Saturday afternoon and to Sebastian Barry at the University of Manchester at six on Monday. Sometimes as a writer you JUST DON'T GET OUT, but I've got an embarrassment of choices later on Monday evening: free tickets to a rarely-performed Tennessee Williams play at the Library Theatre, cult artist and musician Ed Barton reading his poetry at Matt and Phred's, or the Manchester Blog Awards at Urbis. How on earth can I choose? Maybe I'll get a migraine trying...

I'm extremely sorry to be missing the launch of novelist Nick Royle's first short story collection at Matt and Phred's on Tuesday, not least because we published him in metropolitan, but that night I'll be doing the Sheffield Bitch-Lit event. Apparently, to our great delight, the Manchester Bitch-Lit event at Waterstone's on Thursday has long been booked out. Sharon Olds at Manchester Museum on Wednesday is a must-see, I'd say, as well as the 'Celebrating Burgess' event at the Whitworth Gallery on Friday, and the exciting festival-within-a-festival of Palestinian literature and the Decapolis European short story events.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A schizoid moment

What do you do when your relatives decide to come to one of your readings? Bite the bullet, I guess: thank the lord they support you in your mad life's endeavour and hold no grudges about the way you've unfairly portrayed them, decide not to care about the clash between your carefully honed writer's persona and the real embarrassing you they could let slip in flash, and when the night comes shut your mind to the fact that they know precisely which bits of the piece you're reading are autobiographical, and can transmit this to the rest of the audience with their knowing, readier laughs.

My mum rings me: 'We're coming to the Sheffield Bitch-Lit reading.' Eek. 'But we've got this problem. We tried to book, but they told us because we're relatives we'd get complimentary tickets.'

They told them they were my relatives? (Like proud parents or something?!!)

'And they said you'd know all about it and would sort it out.'

Ohmigod. I know nothing. I want to know nothing... 'OK.'

I ring the festival box office, apologetic, foolish. 'Oh, that's fine!' they tell me. 'Yes, your mother and your sister: we've already put two comps aside!'

I feel just like when I was in the school play...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

There's never not a hitch...

Forget your posh pens or your slick laptops: a writer's best equipment is a damned good sense of humour.

Yesterday we kicked off the Bitch-Lit tour. Drive from Manchester to Ilkley, leave in plenty of time, but the traffic is dire, backed up for miles, and I know others are cutting it finer. Will they make it? Will the folk of Ilkley miss out on the revelation of a row of bitches bitching? And what about the parking? Lucky for me, there's a space right outside the Ilkley Playhouse where we're performing. Grab costume and bags, rush in to find Mary Sharrat our editor there already, and I no longer need my sense of humour: lovely ladies ply us with cups of tea and a bottle of wine (before a performance?) and lead us up to a plush green-room with glorious mirrors and a big plate of fruit and enough hairspray, as Mary said, for Margaret Thatcher if she lived another forty years.

We're already changed when the others arrive in a breathless dash. 'Hi Mary,' they cry and fling their arms around her, but they don't speak to me, just glance at me uneasily. 'You bitches,' I say, and at last they see it's me beneath my wig and in my vamp's jacket and killer heels...

But there's no time for laughing, and in a very short while a sound engineeer who looks all of sixteen has excessively politely spoilt the line of our costumes by sticking mics up our jackets, and we're being led downstairs to the stage. The show begins, it's going well, and Cath Staincliffe is two minutes into her reading, the first. The door opens at the back and a tiny elderly woman in a sharp grey trouser suit bursts in. The usher jumps up to direct her to a seat near the back, but she booms that she has to sit at the front 'because I'm deaf', and, still booming over Cath, is led all the way to the front row.

Hitch over, the show seems to go well. The audience is a gift, laughing at all the right moments and very appreciative in the Q & A session afterwards. We're walking out to the foyer for the signing when I realise the hard-of-hearing lady is right in front of me. She turns and snaps at me: 'You want to invest in a microphone.' 'We had microphones, actually,' I tell her kindly and sympathetically, and then realise I might not be speaking up enough. She heard all right, though: 'Well, they didn't work.' She turns, scowling, to Mary who chaired the event: 'I didn't hear a thing and I'm demanding my money back.'

Hm. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, however, and we sold a fair few books, the main point of the exercise, after all....

Four bitches, from left to right: Mary Sharratt, me in my wig, Char March and Cath Staincliffe

Friday, September 29, 2006

Those literary dos...

To London on Wednesday to attend the Writers' Inc Competition winners evening and collect an award for my short story Compass and Torch. Well, it's only a commendatory award, I'm only in effect a runner-up: is it really worth the fuss of travelling all that way and forcing my hosts out of their bed and onto the living-room sofa bed? Well, the thing is, of course, you just never know... And what shall I wear? I've no idea what kind of do it's likely to be. Better not wear my black trousers and waiter's waistcoat from Afflecks Palace - last time I wore them to London I was waiting for friends at the door of a private view and several people came up to me with a formal 'Good evening' and waited to be shown where to go and handed champagne.

My hosts come with me - they might get a drink out of it for their pains - and we stroll up from Shoreditch to the Barbican library, and sure enough, there's wine waiting. 'Network!' they remind me, but I don't know a soul in the room... and there's no time, anyway: the proceedings are about to begin, and what's this? Turns out it's to be a whole evening of readings, and my hosts are artists, not writers: will they cope?

Turns out they do. Turns out they're downright fascinated. 'We're not used to this,' they tell me: 'the nakedness of the writer-artist out there presenting his/her work on such a personal level.' Crikey. And then in the break they have a big discussion about the fact that competition judge and Writers Inc resident poet Mario Petrucci is introducing us with flattering summaries of our pieces. 'Wouldn't happen in the art world,' they tell me: 'someone else deconstructing an artist's work in front of the artist without reference to him/her.' Blimey.

Then it's the second half, time for the short-story section of the evening, culminating with the winner reading his brilliant story. Turns out he's not only the man in the specs and stripey shirt and trainers whose wine glass I nearly knocked out of his hand, but Michael Carson, whose name I know well from literary magazines. As I'm talking to him afterwards, a woman in a red jacket comes up to me: 'You're Elizabeth Baines! I had no idea until you went up to get your prize...' And who is she? The poet Katherine Gallagher whose poetry I've been reading for years...

'Finished your speed networking?' ask my hosts as I join them at last in the foyer. 'Right, we're hungry, let's go and spend your cheque!'

Definitely worth it after all.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The things writers suffer...

In March I get an email from an editor: would I like to contribute to a book of 300-word short stories? There's no payment, all royalties will go to a charity, but the book will include several well-known names and be published by a named established publisher. Now I'm not that flattered: the editor has been given my name by another writer, so he may never have heard of me, and it's clear he's going to need a lot of contributors to fill up his book. Still, I'm glad I've been asked, and I sit down and write a story - and it's not that easy, actually, writing such a short story - and email it off, and the editor gets back to say he likes it a lot. It does strike me that it's all very casual, and no contract or anything. But still...

At the end of July I meet a friend who was also accepted, and she says, 'We've heard nothing, even though he promised he'd be in touch by now about the charity. Do you think it's all alright?'
'Yes of course!' I cried. 'These things always take time!' 'And, actually,' she says, 'it's annoying, isn't it, that the story could have been 600 words after all?' What? Why did I not hear about that? Well, she didn't either, actually, or not from the editor, but from another contributor...

A couple of weeks ago we still hadn't heard anything about the charity, so I looked the editor up on the web. I was surprised to find that the book was no longer to be published by the established publisher but a new imprint... Why on earth hadn't he informed us? Still, I went and changed the name of the publisher on my web site...

Then last week my friend emailed me. She had heard through a third party that she had been dropped from the anthology! She contacted the editor and was told that, due to the change of publisher 'her story no longer fitted'. So today I emailed the editor and asked what was going on. Guess what, I too had been dropped 'because my story no longer fitted'.

Here's the lesson. However professional a writer you are, don't ever assume you'll get treated professionally. And never sit down and write something for a project you haven't thoroughly checked out.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Writers reading

Since writers are so often called on to read their work out loud, it's worth learning to do this well. It shouldn't matter, but it does: a reading can sometimes have quite the opposite effect to that intended by the publisher. I have nodded off in many a Waterstone's reading by an acclaimed writer, and been unfairly put off their book.

The Bitch-Lit publishers are sparing nothing to help us out in this respect, and we had another rehearsal yesterday afternoon with Contact Theatre's Cheryl Martin. Actually, everyone taking part in the tour reads really well, but Cheryl helped us finesse things, pointing out when people were swaying on the spot (and likely to make the audience sea-sick), or where we could leave a longer beat for effect, or where certain passages might benefit from a subtle change of pace.

It's a completely new experience for me: I'm accustomed to practising in private and with no idea of what other contributing writers will be reading or how my piece will play out against theirs, and without knowing beforehand the running order or even often the basic format. Yet yesterday we were able to discuss and plan everything: how we'll introduce the sessions, the order we'll run in, even - since we're performing in character (in the characters of our narrators) - what we'll wear. And Char March, who reads her story, two intercut dramatic monologues, in a quite brilliant Russian accent, was able to ask people's opinions on a matter that was bothering her: how far she needed to vary the accent between her two characters.

Since my narrator is most definitely not blonde (but takes revenge on a blonde), I took myself off to Paul's Hair World on Oldham Road to buy a dark wig. Well, I have never had a wig before, and this was some experience. Walls draped from floor to ceiling in wigs and hairpieces, rows and rows of wig-topped plastic model heads. And half of them real hair! Where had it come from? I have had long hair cut very short now and then in my life, and never, ever, was it all cut off in one hank, but snipped away in fussy little hairdressery bits and let drop on the floor all higgledy-giggedly and hacked about, for the junior to sweep away. So there in Paul's Hair World I got a bit of the same creepy feeling I had when I went to the Bodyworks Exhibition in Brick Lane, and had images of poverty-stricken women in Eastern Europe or the East forced to sell their hair whether they liked it or not...

But my wig was for the stage, so I could happily get nylon. I would never have guessed, though, how hard it might be to find a wig which on the model had the vampish, wicked look of my character but didn't make me look like either a pea-head or a lion with a mane. 'This one,' I said finally, to the youth who was serving me and whose eyes had long gone glassy either from boredom or from trying not to laugh: black with bitch-red artificial-looking streaks. John seemed quite nervous when I tried it on at home...

Each of our gigs is tied in with a festival. I'm doing one at the Ilkley Festival on 3oth September and another in October for the Off the Page Festival in Sheffield. At the Manchester event, which will take place at Waterstone's Deansgate and be part of the October Manchester Literature Festival, the readers/performers will be Maya Chowdry, Mary Sharratt, Chris Scholes, Sherry Ashworth and Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Still not gagged

I am clearing up the breakfast things this morning and dreaming the dialogue I have to write today, when the telephone rings.

'Hello, is that Starling Editions?'

I whip off my dreamy writer's cap and pull on my publisher's hat smartish. 'Yes, it is.'

'This is Gardners. Did you receive the order we sent for The Birth Machine?'

'Yes, the book is in the post. You should receive it by tomorrow.'

I know what this usually means. Some academic is writing a book and wants to refer to my novel, or, since it's the beginning of the academic year, someone wants it for a course.

Not that this last will mean I'll sell a class-worth of copies: a lecturer friend long ago made me aware that classes get by on photocopies nowadays. Do I mind? Do I heck. No, I just jump up and down with glee and triumph because my novel still has a life, long after it was once almost suppressed and people tried to silence me as a writer.

Once upon a time I failed, in the eyes of the feminist world, to be a good feminist (long story), and there were those who thought I should be deprived of a platform and a voice. Letters went out warning feminist journals that my reviews should not be published, and pressure was put on the Women's Press, who had just accepted my first novel. The Women's Press, afraid of 'alienating their market', seriously considered withdrawing their offer, and it was only after I'd jumped through hoops of abject public (well, feminist-public) apology, that they went ahead. They were never happy, though, I think, with my pariah status in the feminist world, and when my novel sold out its 3,000 print run they declined to reprint - unusually for them at that time.

Damn good job I decided to reprint it myself instead. It was also a chance to restore the original and crucial structure which the Women's Press insisted on changing 'for their market' - with no leg to stand on, I felt unable to argue at the time. And why did I call my press 'Starling Editions?' Not simply because a black starling is a significant motif in the novel, but because starlings are noisy, insistent birds. You can't shut them up or easily chase them away.

Aunty Anne comes up trumps

From left: me, actor Mary-Ann Coburn, playwright and organiser Debbie Freeman, actor Nicola Gardner, writer Sue Sterne.

It is of course a writer's duty to take every opportunity to promote her writing. So when playwright Debbie Freeman rang me up to say that she was organising a reading, the culmination of a writing workshop she had been running on the theme of Immigration and Identity, and did I have anything I could read to contribute to the evening, well, I said yes right away: my new novel, The Forgetting (as yet unpublished) hinges to a great extent on this very theme.

The reading in the Jewish Museum would be the final event of the three-day Cheetham multi-faith festival. John would also contribute a poem, writer Sue Sterne would read two of hers, and the workshop writing would be read by two professional actors, Nicola Gardner and Mary-Ann Coburn. Everything should be great. Then it got to Sunday afternoon, the day of the reading, and I went to look over the piece we had chosen from my novel.

Problem. My protagonist was a man with a West-Meath Irish accent. Now give me any other accent - Scottish, Yorkshire, Welsh, Dublin at a push - and I can do it, no hassle. But West Meath? With that especially nasal twang, and those particular vowels? Which, actually, though I knew they were particular, I couldn't in fact hear in my head, even though I'd heard them fine, I thought, while writing - even though, for goodness' sake, I had relatives of my own from West Meath? How strange is that? Well, those relatives are dead now so I could hardly ring them up to have a listen. I could just picture those jokers smirking down from their clouds with their mouths tight shut as I tried to remember: did they occlude their 'i's or didn't they? And, you know, that's not the way to learn an accent: the best way is instinctually, not cerebrally, letting the patterns slip sideways onto the back of your brain...

Does it have to be West Meath? John asked me. Well, yes, somehow it did, somehow I had the feeling that any other accent would render the whole piece so fake to me I wouldn't read it convincingly. Just do a hint of an Irish accent, Mary-Ann suggested: just watch the 'r's. Yes, I'd have to do that, but surely it would sound really fake... My heart was sinking.

My turn. I stood. I asked that if anyone present was Irish they'd look kindly on my reading. And then I gave up worrying, stopped thinking, started reading and sank into the time and place of my story, and to my utter surprise, out through my mouth, from the deepest recesses of my brain - with only the odd moment of wavering - came a voice just like that of my dead West-Meath Aunty Anne.

It was a great evening. All the other work was fantastic - moving and funny. Nicola and Mary-Ann gave beautifully judged readings, and Debbie threaded everything together with a thoughtful and entertaining commentary.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Three of the Best

To Bolton last night and the Octagon Theatre, where the best three plays from the 24:7 Theatre Festival in July (evaluated by the audiences) were being given an extra run: the surreal and funny The Judgement of Mr Jenkins by Ross Andrews; Vegetable by Diane Whitley, the moving and highly topical tale of a woman trapped in a persistent vegetative state yet conscious of everything around her; and Neil A Edwards' shockingly raw play about the devastating effects journalists can have on people's lives, Canaveral's Lurch. This second run is a new innovation for 24:7, and it has been inordinately successful. The two scheduled nights at Bolton were sold out, and so the run was extended to Saturday, when again the house was full. Next year a repeat of the six best plays is planned.

Festivals like 24:7 are a godsend to writers and other theatre artists. Up to 24 plays by North-West production companies are chosen each year for the seven-day festival. It doesn't matter if you're a lone writer, you can still send in your play, and if it's chosen form your own company, and 24:7 will help. I did it two years running. The first year, 24:7 found me a director and with their help I learnt from scratch how to be the producer - the person responsible for making casting calls, setting up auditions, liaising with everyone and doing the marketing and publicity. Last year my experience was more communal: Sue Twist was directing plays by two of us, so we decided to produce the two plays jointly, and there was a greater sharing of the labour.

That's the point: 24:7 allows for all sorts of set-ups, and for people trying things out for the very first time. So three cheers for Dave Slack and Amanda Hennessy for setting it up and making it such a growing success!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Network, darlings, network!

Network, network: that's a main piece of advice for aspiring writers nowadays. Time was when you could despise the idea: God, if a writer is good enough he/she will get through anyway! And who wants that horrid doubt scratching away at the back of your mind: am I really only published/broadcast because of whom I know, how can I know if I'm really talented? Pish. None of that pious stuff nowadays. Darlings, you won't get anywhere, however talented, unless you network, network!

Well, I try. An invitation last night to the relaunch of the Circle Club, Manchester's club for media bods. The perfect opportunity!! It's to be a burlesque party, apparently, so I don my high black heels and off we go, John and I, and in to the beautiful Barton Arcade with its glass-domed ceiling and intricate ironwork balconies, 'floor girls' (as I hear them calling each other) running around in burlesque satin bodices and full net skirts, and the place heaving already with guests.

A girl sweeps up to us immediately with drinks on a tray - bright pink and frightening luminous green. 'What's in it?' I ask. 'I don't know,' she replies. We look around, sipping and wincing, ready to begin the networking. Do I know a soul to get going on? Do I hell. We wander off to try a different corner of the arcade. 'There's someone, isn't there?' I say to John, nodding towards a blond bloke who looks amazingly familiar, yet whom I can't place. Maybe he was in one of my radio plays... 'No,' John tells me, 'he's the gay hairdresser in Cutting It.'


We concentrate instead on fighting to the bar to get a proper glass of wine. Everyone laughs about the crush, but before you can get talking they're gone, spilling their drinks as they go, off to their own little networking clique... Also, I must stop staring like a writer at all the clothes, and all the gestures, and listening to the fascinating snippets of conversation, and remember to push myself forward...

Wait - there's someone we know! Kirsty who runs Croma restaurant in Chorlton. 'Kirsty, what a fantastic white trenchcoat!.' 'I call it my lab coat. I can only wear it one more time.' Why? Because after a certain date in September, she tells us, according to American tradition, it's unlucky to wear white... Really? Well, I never knew that...

But this is chatting, not networking. Must get on with the task in hand. Although we're side-tracked just then: a burlesque strip tease begins on the stage. Call me sheltered, but I have seen few (call that none) real-life burlesque strip shows in my time, so I was fascinated and my eyes were glued. Very tasteful, actually, and I wonder where she got the costume made, and did she design it herself, and whoops, there was a sticky bit when she got ahead of the music, but altogether very professionally done... But why were so few people really watching, like me? Had they seen it all before? Oh no, that's it, they were too busy networking...

'There's someone,' said John, nudging me as a guy took his place beside me in front of the show. 'Isn't he Paul Oldham, who was in your vampire serial?' No, John, I can see what you mean, but in fact it's Baz who was in Celebrity Big Brother...

And then suddenly Joe Moan, the Circle Club Membership Secretary, for whose company, Glasseye Productions, I may be writing a script (the reason, I presume, I'm invited tonight), appears with a tray of searingly yellow drinks and a big grin on his face. I rush forward, but several others beat me to him to grab the drinks, and, tray emptied, he turns and is gone before I can call him.

Hm. It's half-ten. My high heels are starting to make the balls of my feet ache. We've had enough to drink if we want to write tomorrow. Come on, we said simultaneously. And went home without a single new contact netted.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How people read

Reading group last night, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a tale about post-war American suburbia. Everyone without exception loved it, everyone thought it prescient, long before its time (as far as we British were concerned). Everyone found it brilliantly observed, the language utterly accurate and telling, the whole extremely moving. Only thing: only three of us found it funny as well, and I don't think anyone found it as funny as I did.

Best to confront this reality as a writer: however well you write, in the end you've no control over the way people read what you've written...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Saturday afternoon in Manchester

Rehearsal today at Manchester's Green Room for the Bitch Lit tour (to Ilkley, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, York, Leeds and London). A room full of bitches!! People kept letting the side down, though: everyone was so helpful, listening to each other's pieces and making useful suggestions for each other's performance costumes and carefully planning a coordinating colour scheme. But then you've heard of honour among thieves... Camaraderie among bitches...
Seriously, though: apparently we're not getting quite the coverage we were promised in Good Housekeeping, because when the editor saw the image (above) which the journalist had chosen for his article on the upcoming Manchester Literature Festival, she balked: no way would she allow that word in those huge letters... What is it with this word? Why is it so much harder to reclaim than all the others? As John my partner said, the dog world must be wondering what all the fuss is about...
Anyway, the least successfully bitchy woman of the day was Cheryl Martin, our director: she slogged away all day helping us in turn with our readings, yet she was due to perform herself later in the afternoon at the Manchester Book Fair in St Ann's Square. My turn. I began, glanced up, caught her seemingly horrified gaze, my eyes slid away to the ceiling, to the sides, out through the window, anywhere but meet her gaze again. 'Can I stop you there, Elizabeth? Now, my note to you is to speak to the audience, pin their gaze.'
First rehearsals are the hottest hoop of fire. Last year was just the worst, the first rehearsal for my monologue Drinks With Natalie for the 24:7 Manchester Theatre Festival, when my director was Susan Twist, Royal Shakespeare Company and ex-Brookside actress. How could I stand up and perform in front of someone like that? What hubris, what idiocy... But Susie was brilliant, and the first thing she told me was that everybody, however trained and professional and experienced, is scared stiff at the first rehearsal, not knowing precisely what is expected of them - something I had never guessed as a radio playwright when I would walk into the BBC green room the first morning of a production and face a company of well-known actors...

After the rehearsal I made my way to Waterstone's. I'd only gone a hundred yards when I met Trevor from the reading group and his wife Anne, who had just been to the current exhibition at Cornerhouse, and when I got to Waterstone's (via the book fair) I met Debbie, also from the reading group, and the organiser of the reading at the Jewish Museum next Sunday. Manchester: a small world, you say?

Reading at Manchester Jewish Museum 10th Sept

An advert today:

Next Sunday, 10th September at 7.30 there's a reading at The Jewish Museum, Cheetham Hill Road, on the theme of Immigration, organised by playwright Debbie Freeman, and based on a writers' workshop she has conducted there. She's invited me, John Ashbrook and Sue Sterne to contribute: Sue is reading her own poems and I'm reading a section from my new novel - this will be my novel's first outing in the real world. Other pieces will be read by two professional actors, one of whom is my old mate Mary-Ann Coburn, she of the rich voice, big personality and acting talent seeping from every pore, and who recently appeared in Debbie's play Candlesticks at the Royal Northern College of Music and is currenly touring with Function Factory Theatre's play about the Pendle Witches, Cold Light Singing.

Admission to the reading is free, but booking is necessary on 0161 834 9879.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Anyone out there?

Mark, the BA cabin crew member in our reading group, has the distinction of once having been taken for a literary device: his job and his babies made it so difficult to turn up to meetings that writer Nick Royle, reading the reports of our discussions on my website, thought that he was my joke and didn't really exist. Well, he does exist, but he's now going to have a new incarnation: back in Manc at the weekend and at a barbecue I discovered that he's giving it all up to set out on a course to become an English teacher. Great! But damn it! He's a literary type after all!

Let me explain. It's always been a source of great comfort to me as a writer that most of the people in our reading group aren't what you might call 'literary types'. There's a furniture maker, a doctor, two scientists, a criminologist, a psychologist, a social work administrator, a textiles conservator and an accountant, and only three of us writers. What it seems to mean is that there are endless readers out there from all walks of life, and that when you write a book (as long as it's published!) you will reach EVERYONE...

But who am I kidding? It's not as if ours isn't a rarified group (all educated, all 'middle class' ), and anyone who reads books is by definition a 'literary type' after all (so Mark's move is hardly surprising). And when I conducted a straw poll of people in pubs and cafes for metropolitan (Issue 6), to try to assess the reading habits of the general public, the results were pretty depressing if hilarious. No one reads nowadays, was the message: 'Books is books, innit?' said one baggy-trousered lad contemptuously, switching his Walkman back on. And when I think of the educated, middle-class neighbours who declined to join the reading group 'because they didn't read'...

Whatever you do, though, don't let this get you down....

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sent out of class

In a post entitled 'Class Reaction' Bournemouth Runner at The Art of Fiction muses that no British writer he can think of is able to write dispassionately about class, our great British subject. Everyone he can think of writes from 'inside' one class or another - mostly from inside the middle or upper classes, but Irvine Welsh too - writing, he claims, from inside the Scottish working class.

Yikes. Reading his thoughts makes me squirm. When I think of the times, when I first started writing, that I aspired to a middle-class certainty of tone and ambience because of my hunch that that was how I'd get published... And then when I grew up and learnt to write more honestly there were negative reactions from middle-class literary people ('What a strange book!' cried my first agent uncertainly, scratching his head; those editors who said politely that they failed to 'warm' to my work), and the sense then - however much I aspired to literary honesty - that, just as I had previously felt trapped by my fake middle-classness, I was now trapped once more in my lack of it. And I was still trapped by middle-classness anyway, since certain readers and reviewers, who defined themselves as working class, saw the middle-class status of the protagonist of my first book, The Birth Machine, (as opposed to the stance of the narrative) as making my book definitively middle class. And anyway, I was middle class now, just through - apart from anything else - the process of getting educated and being published, as Bournemouth Runner points out, and I started to see signs of it in the narrative, in spite of its lack of gentility in the eyes of some. And I think that the trouble I subsequently got into with the women's movement and which just about destroyed my writing career (a hairy saga for another time) was fuelled by perceptions of me as a poncey white middle-class writer.

My feeling then of wanting to escape it all - all these class prejudices and hang-ups - out to some kind of dispassionate classnessness which Bournemouth Runner seems to advocate, and one of the ways to do this, I felt, was an even greater irony than I had so far employed.

But then we can't always write satire, and if Poststructuralism offers us anything it's the knowledge that we can't ever get truly 'outside' our own experience and voices. In any case, we all speak with many voices and as writers we can use them all. Unless this is what Bournemouth Runner is saying...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Some publishers are marvellous

That fabulous woman Cathy Bolton at Commonword has done a sterling job on the Bitch-Lit anthology (Crocus Books), due out in September and including stories by Manc writers Cath Staincliffe, Sophie Hannah, Rosie Lugosi and also yours truly. This week an interview with the editors appears in The Big Issue, and we're promised coverage in Good Housekeeping, in the Guardian and on Radio 4 Woman's Hour. Her nifty idea of decking some of us out in polka dots to match the book cover for the press photo (Bonnieandclyde) has clearly paid off. The spotty scribblers above are [clockwise from top left] contributor and editor Maya Chowdry, Susannah Marshall who offers a sinister tale of a female truck driver, contributor and editor Mary Sharratt, guess who with a story of revenge against a pious feminist, Rosi Lugosi the 'vampire queen', Char March with a brilliant tale of a female Russian mafiosa, and Brighid Rose whose anti-heroine just loves to cause destruction all around her.
This kind of thing doesn't happen without utter hard work on the part of a publisher (I know - I've published a magazine, Metropolitan) and sheer flair. When it does, count your blessings, I say, and give thanks to the God of Marvellous Publishers...

Funny, hype never seems such a bad thing when some of it is happening to you...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

To read or to write

Anyone who has read my contribution to the Palgrave MacMillan Creative Writing Handbook (edited by Mary Luckhurst and John Singleton) will know that I strongly recommend that those who want to write should read, read and read all the time. You hear it everywhere from practised novelists: readers make writers. Most writers were big readers as children; books and the shapes of novels and the tropes of story-telling make up their psyches. And when I'm stuck as a writer, reading other people can get me writing again, something which Erica Jong has also said.

Not long ago though, Jeannette Winterson stated without shame that she finds it hard to read others while she is writing, which must be most of the time, and in the process she let the cat out of the bag. It's true for me too, in spite of all my pious urgings to others: when I'm writing I need to stick to my own psyche and (I hope) original vision, I can't go letting other people's fabulous sentences and images infiltrate my head (which, when writing is good, they inevitably do) and therefore my work. I have to read between projects. (Perhaps, while I'm at it, I should confess that I had hardly ever listened to any radio plays when I wrote my first one, Rhyme or Reason, which went on, to my shock, to receive two Sony nominations: I simply wrote what I wanted to hear, which goes against all advice to would-be radio dramatists which I've ever read.)

Three years ago, when I embarked on the long novel I've recently finished, I, the great champion of reading, was going to become a non-reader unless I did something quick. So I started a reading group, and at least once a month I was made to read a book, and got away from the self-imposed isolation I found necessary to write the novel, and had a laugh and a booze-up to boot. It's still going, I doubt we'd ever give it up now. (I report our discussions on my website.) This month we're reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, whose sixties novels are undergoing something of a revival with Methuen's recent reprinting. Trouble is, now, instead of a novel to write, I've got that blinking paint stripping to stop me reading it...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Can't write? You will!

What do you do if you can't write?

Perhaps some people don't care, but if I can't write I feel about as useful to myself and everyone around me as an old sock, and about as limp, and I start to wonder about the point of my brief visit here on this crock of rock spinning in that great void round a star which will only explode in the end etc etc... (You get the picture: slit my throat, quick.) (I do know that there are people who never can't write - a couple of my friends, for a start - but I'll pass over them quickly before I start feeling murderous rather than suicidal.)

I don't mean the kind of not being able to write I'm suffering at the moment, ie simple lack of time or suitable circumstance. For years now I've had the use of a cottage in North Wales for writing - no need to tell me I'm lucky, I know! I've written loads here, and (at the risk of implying it was autobiographical, which it wasn't) I set my radio play Holiday Home here. Wales is where I was born and spent my early years, and this particular place really does feel like my spiritual and creative home; I sit at this window and look out at the field with ash trees lining the stream and in the distance Nantlle ridge, purple and topped with clouds, and I instantly feel in touch again with the fundamentals and start to dream, which for me is what writing is all about. This year, though, the cottage is being renovated, and I'm not here to write but to help out. Today in the foreground through the window is a man with a cement mixer, and I've promised that when I've written this I'll go and strip some paint. It feels really weird.

But I'm talking about different ways of not being able to write. Firstly there's that really frustrating one where you've got this thing inside you and you just can't get it out, can't find the key - the image, the phrase (the finger down the throat!) - to release it and allow it to come flowing. That's the time I pace the house, raid the fruit bowl or nut jar (making myself feel literally sick) and have to restrain myself from throwing a chair when my partner John says with a maddening grin: 'Can't write? Always a good sign: it means you will.'

And then there's the even worse kind, which I have to admit I haven't suffered too much, but have done so badly this year. Recenly I finished a long novel, the biggest and the hardest thing I have ever done, and when it was done I was exhausted, not only physically but creatively. My mind felt dead, numbed. Brain empty of ideas and stories, retinas dead to the images passing before them. I felt as though I had written myself right out. I really thought I'd never write again.

Well, I was wrong. Here I am, full of ideas again, here is the world throwing people and stories at me (those Morris dancers in the pub last night, Terry the builder and his history emerging as he plasters the walls), and I've got to go and strip damn paint!

My advice to any blocked writer: don't lose hope, lock the pills in the drawer. Just bide your time.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Taking brickbats

Sometimes, when you're a writer, you've got to laugh or you'd cry.

Some years ago now, when I was munching on my toast and marmalade, a letter popped through the letterbox: would I like to be a reader of scripts for Contact Theatre? I sprayed marmalade and wet crumbs. Me? I had written one short one-act play, which had not even received a professional production, but a rehearsed reading by North-West Playwrights. I wasn't qualified to judge scripts by people who could well be far more experienced playwrights than me! I turned down the offer.

So I should have expected what happened when I recently sent out my play O'Leary's Daughters to theatres. Now I'm not one to boast (though it seems to be part of the job description nowadays) and it is in order to illustrate the irony of what happened that I tell you that this play has already won two awards and has received two successful fringe productions with full houses and standing ovations, as well as having been chosen by Alan Plater (among others) for an earlier rehearsed reading by the Writers' Guild - successes which I naturally mentioned in my letters.

This week a response comes back from one theatre, a copy of a reader's report. First, I am treated to a long synopsis of the story of the play - I, who wrote the thing and know the story better than anyone. And then, in a much shorter report section, I am told in no uncertain terms that this is not a play yet, only a skeleton of one, that the motives of the characters are 'somewhat suspicious' (by which I think the reader means unconvincing), and that the characters 'would probably make the worst ultra-masochistic trio a world has seen' (which he clearly thinks a bad thing), and that the play 'frankly isn't that much engaging.'

Well, he could be right of course, I won't dismiss the possibility, but you can't help thinking that he never saw my letter and if he had he might have been less certain that I was an incompetent novice. What this illustrates is a lazy, lip-service system for dealing with scripts - the synopsis was clearly meant for the theatre, not me, but was lazily passed on to me anyway - which does no service to writers or readers (I know from my own invitation that readers are paid pennies), but simply shifts the burden of considering scripts away from the theatres, and is based in any case on the assumption that unsolicited scripts to theatres come from would-be playwrights unlikely to produce anything of value.

This lack of commitment over scripts is particularly hard on new writers whose confidence is most in need of nurturing, and it helps to understand what's going on when those cavalier and damning reports come slinging through the letterbox and bring you to your knees.

And not all theatres are the same. I got a lovely response from the Liverpool Everyman, where Suzanne Bell, the fantasic Literary Manager, is working her socks off for new writers and new writing...

New Start

Well, it seemed like a good idea, the Togs Blog, pinning my musings about literary and theatrical activities around the theme of clothes - and so damned metaphorical! (and thank you, Katy Evans-Bush) - but there are things I just can't talk about there without bending over backwards to force the connection, so here goes with a new blog instead.