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.