Caitlin McDonald reports on a recent Off the Shelf at Black’s event
Pic: Helen Smith (left) with David Nobbs and Off the Shelf organiser, Jan Woolf credit: Anne Hogben/WGGB
I was actually there under false pretences. Off the Shelf at Black’s is advertised as ‘A series of monthly, one-day residencies for fiction writers held on Mondays.’ It was that one word – fiction – that kept stopping me from signing up. But each time I saw an article in the Guild magazine about Off the Shelf it sounded like such fun, and so useful, that at last I couldn't resist and I booked a place. I believe that no matter what kind of writer you are it is always possible learn from someone else's experience. There are so many aspects of writing that transcend genre that it’s worthwhile hearing about another writer’s process. Plus, coffee, lunch and the chance to poke about the worn splendour of Black’s... what more could you want?
This particular Off the Shelf was a comic-writing workshop with Helen Smith and David Nobbs. We got off to a very comedic start indeed: as Helen began to read from her darkly comic mystery Alison Wonderland one of our number literally fell through the floor. Or rather, one of the legs of his chair managed to find a large chink in the wood, tipping him unceremoniously on to the carpet. No writers were harmed in the incident.
Once the chair had been extricated from the floorboards, Helen talked about writing what you know, whatever that means to you. For example, Being Light, the second novel to feature her character Alison Wonderland, begins with a man who gets swept away by a freak gust of wind on a bouncy castle. The germ of this novel came from Helen having read about a real Australian man getting tumbled off a bouncy castle by a gust of wind. Helen fictionalised this by allowing herself to consider the ‘what-if’ moment: what if instead of landing a few feet away, the man had bounced away for good?
Following on from this Helen made a point about the need for fiction writers to have the capacity to notice the unusual. Everywhere there is fodder for humour in writing and the comedy isn’t always in the event itself. Instead it is so often in the capacity of the writer to provide a voice, to give a perspective that allows the telling of an event to be framed in a comic way. This echoes Helen’s strategy about the ‘what-if’ moment, the ability to take a real situation and apply fictional possibilities to it. What I took from this was the need to keep an open mind to comedic possibility and to seek out perspectives that might be used to present a situation or an idea in a humorous way.
Another aspect of Helen’s talk was how even a lightly comic description can be rooted in the darker parts of the human experience. The funny image of a man inexplicably bouncing off into a strange new adventure allowed Helen the space to build a metaphor about the unexpected end of a romantic relationship. Drawing on personal experience, she used the idea of her fictional bounced-man to explore feelings about how easily a person can extricate themselves from the bounds of what appears to be a settled relationship. Approaching tragedy obliquely can allow space to explore these darker truths from a humorous angle.
Helen’s advice about style can be applied equally to fiction and to non-fiction. As discussed in the article Non-Fiction: a True Story, non-fiction can be just as rich in description and perspective as any novel; non-fiction can still be a story. While the realm of ‘what-if’ is the province of fiction writers only, the ability to observe keenly for events that might be presented in the desired voice or tone (in this case comic) is valuable for all writers.
David Nobbs, known best for his Reggie Perrin works, spoke next, reading extracts from The Return Of Reginald Perrin and from his upcoming book The Fall And Rise Of Gordon Coppinger.
Part of David’s talk concerned stylistic choices. In particular he highlighted the power of succinct description to create a full picture in the reader’s mind with a single phrase or even sometimes a single word. As David read from The Return Of Reginald Perrin, I was reminded that lists can be a very effective descriptive tool in this way. Instead of a drawn-out narration of each object or concept, a rapid-fire list can act as a series of metonyms calling to mind a rich kaleidoscope of images. David chose a passage in which Reggie remonstrates with his friend Jimmy about the latter’s new ‘secret army’, in which two lists categorise who might be attracted to or repulsed by its aims. A single word or phrase sufficed to call to mind a whole phalanx of each group being described.
Speaking about the editing process, David focused on being open to criticism and editorial suggestions. David suggested that an editor acts as a reader’s advocate to clarify questions about the story. He discussed how easy it can be to lose sight of what has and hasn’t been revealed about a character in an initial draft because the author is so close to the material that it is possible to forget which parts of the story have actually gone down on the page. A well-placed question from an editor can improve the text by explaining what’s missing from a reader’s perspective. Often the answer to questions like these, regarding, for example, a character’s motivation for a particular feeling or action, is already clear in the author’s mind and the problem can be rectified with a few lines or even a few words.
The key point I took away from David was a very useful bit of advice on how to approach criticism. David always welcomes criticism or commentary before a work is finished because if he agrees with the critic, he is left with a better piece of writing as a result, but if he disagrees, his faith in the strength of his own writing is reinforced. Either way, it’s profitable.
Following the author readings there were questions from the audience. Several concerned the importance of tone in writing. Referring to the bright, gentle world of Wodehouse (often considered the consummate comic novelist), the first interlocutor wondered if it were possible in the present day and age to really create that sort of gently comic fictional universe. In response both Helen and David focused on the importance of personal perspective and the individual sense of voice that can be brought to a piece. Tone is a very personal aspect of an author’s writing and the way each author creates comedy comes down to his or her unique voice.
A related question about tone was raised about the impetus behind humorous writing: should it be rooted in ludicrousness, or should it come from a sense of the lighthearted, a sense of telling amusing tales? Helen suggested that her writing is always an invitation to readers to explore a world view that is not their own. She discussed the idea that comedy can be a way to alleviate some of the difficulties that arise from misunderstandings based on differing perspectives. David echoed this, indicating that comedy is a blend of character and situation.
One writer asked about pathos in comic writing. Helen said that her preferred method of creating a humorous tone was not pathos but bathos, which can help avoid the emotional fatigue that comes from constantly reading one style. She also highlighted the importance of having empathy with characters; regardless of what style you write in, eliciting a feeling of empathy for the characters allows the reader to get a deeper hold on them and become more involved in the story.
As the duckling non-fictioner among the swans at this fiction workshop, I challenged that if we are all supposed to write what we know, why use the medium of fiction at all? David answered that this was a very big question, but that in his mind fiction should always be there to illuminate fact. It is there in the service of truths, whether those be factual events or the emotional truths of human experience. I was able to corner Helen after lunch to answer this as well. Her take was that though much of her writing is rooted in her own life, to write without the veil of fiction would be constraining. Having tried non-fiction in her first book, she felt limited by fears of offending the people she described. She also mentioned the hindrance of realism: sometimes real life just isn’t extraordinary enough to create a compelling a story, while fiction can take building blocks from several sources to create challenging situations for characters. Being informed by situations in her own life, these fictional settings then provide space to explore from an oblique angle the emotional truths that David spoke about.
After lunch three writers shared extracts from works in progress and received feedback from the audience. This was, naturally, valuable for those with work under discussion but it was also really informative for the whole audience to take part in the conversation. There was plenty of rich information to take away and apply to our own writing, regardless of our personal style or genre.
The day was fun and immensely valuable as a source of advice that was platform-neutral: no matter what kind of writer you are, it really is beneficial to hear from others about your craft. Do go along Off the Shelf and get some food for thought.
Caitlin McDonald blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com
Details of upcoming Off the Shelf at Black's events will be posted on this site.
Wednesday 10th October 7 - 8.30pm - a Birmingham Book Festival event, in partnership with the Writers' Guild
Lecture Theatre, Muirhead Tower, University of Birmingham B15 2TT
A talk with readings showing how drama shares many of its structures with poetry £8 / £5 for Guild Members
To book: call 0121 2364455 or visit www.birminghambookfestival.org
In this session, playwright David Edgar will show how drama shares many of the elements and structures of poetry. This is because both forms are written to be spoken, as well as being designed to be consumed at a single bite.
Illustrating his session by actors’ readings from classical and modern plays as well as clips from films and television drama, David Edgar will show how how plays communicate meaning by the technique – familiar to poets – of drawing unexpected connections between different elements. Plays as a whole have a common, underlying shape which owes more to the metaphorical character of the poem than the literalism of the novel. This is partly because the key events in so many plays take place in a metaphorical space.
So, as well as containing poetry (from the Greek chorus via Shakespearian blank verse to the bleak imagery of Samuel Beckett), great plays are poems in themselves.
David Edgar is one of Britain’s leading playwrights, who has written extensively for the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many other theatres. His best known work includes Destiny, Pentecost and a multi-award-winning adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. His play about the making of the King James Bible – Written on the Heart – opened at Stratford last October. Founder of Britain’s first full-time university playwriting course (at Birmingham in 1989) his session draws on his hugely successful book about playwriting, How Plays Work, published by Nick Hern Books in 2009.
11am-4pm, 1 October
Price: £25 (includes two-course lunch and coffee)
Off the Shelf at Black’s is a literature collaboration between Black’s members’ club in Soho, London, and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain books committee that organises a series of monthly, one-day residencies for fiction writers, held on the last Monday of the month. The next writer-in-residence is Nigerian-born Chioma Okereke.
The writer will read from published work as well as works in progress. The audience will then discuss the work and writing processes, chaired by Jan Woolf of the WGGB books committee. After lunch, there will be an open mic session during which participants can read short extracts from their own work. This is an opportunity for established authors to receive mature critical feedback and for the audience to get some guidance.
Okereke came to England at the age of seven. She started her writing career as a poet before turning her hand to fiction. Her writing has been published in Bum Rush, The Page and the Callaloo Literary Journal. Additionally, her work has been shortlisted in the Undiscovered Authors Competition 2006, run by Bookforce UK, and in the Daily Telegraph’s Write a Novel in a Year Competition 2007.
Her debut novel Bitter Leaf (shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa Best First Book) is a richly textured tale set in the idyllic village of Mannobe. The story features a colourful cast of inhabitants: Babylon, a gifted musician who falls under the spell of the beautiful Jericho who has recently returned from the city; Mabel and M’elle Codon, twin sisters whose lives have taken very different paths; Magdalena, daughter of Mabel, who nurses an unrequited love for Babylon; and Allegory, the wise old man who adheres to tradition. Set during a time of encroaching commercialisation, these inhabitants try to get to grips with their changing situations, without losing themselves in the process.
David Edgar introduces two new booklets from the Writers' Guild
- The Working Playwright - Agreements and Contracts (pdf)
- The Working Playwright - Engaging with Theatres (pdf)
In the old days, getting a play on wasn’t easy, but it was simple. You’d send a play off to a theatre, and, if they read it, they might decide to put it on. The production would be cast, designed and marketed largely without your input. If the director felt like it, you might attend the read-through and a late run, to check on what changes had been made in your play. After it opened you’d get some money, in the form of a percentage of the box office. In the 1970s and 1980s, all that changed. In collaboration with the Writers’ Guild, a new Theatre Writers’ Union negotiated binding, minimum terms agreements with, first, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. Then agreements were negotiated with the rest of the building based sector, and finally with independent, non-building based companies.
These agreements gave playwrights an up-front commission fee (or an option fee if the play wasn’t commissioned) as well as a royalty. It guaranteed the playwright the right to approve or prevent any changes in their play, to be consulted over the choice of directors and actors, as well as over casting and marketing, and to attend rehearsals. Despite dire warnings by theatres, these changes didn’t lead to a drop in the number of new plays being presented, but, over time, the reverse.
Over the last couple of decades, things have become more complicated. Encouraged by the Arts Council, expanding literary departments came up with schemes to develop young playwrights in particular, including seed money schemes, attachments, mentoring, readings, workshops and scratch productions of various kinds. There is a growing number and variety of co-written plays, and playwrights are increasingly working outside theatres in the community and in schools.
None of these forms of development fitted within the existing agreements, and playwrights found some aspects of them irksome and even exploitative. On the other hand, these schemes were designed in good faith and led to many more new plays being done, particularly over the past 10 years (during which the number of new plays presented in the building-based subsidised theatre has more than doubled).
In order that playwrights can get their plays on, but also get the best deal for their work, the Writers’ Guild has collaborated with the Antelopes playwrights’ group to produce two sets of guidelines: Agreements and Contracts outlines the current agreements the Guild has with theatres in (we hope) comprehensible language. Engaging with Theatres describes the various schemes to develop writers and their work which lie outside our current agreements, with examples of best (and worst) practice and guidelines for playwrights and theatres to follow.
The idea of these booklets is to inform and arm playwrights and their agents, and also to help theatres and companies to get the best out of playwrights. As we seek to preserve and improve our agreements, we hope that theatres will endorse and implement our recommended guidelines.
Please let us know of your experiences of the theatre- playwright relationship – where it goes right and where it goes wrong. We are also keen to hear how our agreements and guidelines work, and how they might be improved.
Since our first agreements were negotiated, the number of working playwrights has expanded hugely. Good agreements, contracts and guidelines are vital to keep new work at the core of the British theatre.
David Edgar is President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain
Jayne Kirkham reports from the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton
Brighton is supposed to be a sunny, rather hedonistic place isn’t it? Not sure that’s how I would describe the Lib-Dem conference there this week. The weather was cold, wet and blustery and, given the furore about Nick Clegg’s apology and their position in the polls, you might think that would describe the conference too. But, while politicians are always full of wind, everything was rather… fuggy: warm and soporific with any genuine angst or anger covered in a blanket of goodwill.
It is of course a gathering of the clan and, Lib-Dems are no different to the other parties in the midst of a storm: smiling while holding their skirts down firmly lest the wind woofs up and shows us their pants.
So do I have anything new to report? Anything that you couldn’t read in the main papers or hear on TV? Quite possibly I do. Because my agenda was not that of the main press nor of the Lib-Dems. I went as a writer. And a children’s writer at that – someone who believes children deserve the best we can give them. So I went looking to hear from ministers and spokespeople for Education, Culture, Media and Sport about their policies on art, media, children’s art and media, art in education, education, soft education, hard education (beginning to sound like toffees), the creative industries, intellectual property rights…
I didn’t hear very much. On some subjects I was the one doing the telling: about how the new English Baccalaureate will affect the teaching of and children’s access to theatre, music and art; how British children’s TV is the best in the world, yet crippled by an un-level international playing field; how so little public arts funding is spent on children.
What was very satisfying was that they were listening. Now, of course, the important bit is the follow up – will those meetings I had really result in questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time? Have I really found new advocates that will do rather than just say? Will we see changes to policy regarding arts in schools or the funding of children’s arts? In his speech, David Laws, the Minister of State for Schools (pictured above), said ‘A good education is the cornerstone of a liberal society. A good education for all is the cornerstone of the society our party wants to create. My job is to deliver just that.’
My job then is to not let him forget it.
Jayne Kirkham is Chair of the Writers’ Guild Children’s Committee