Saturday, 17 August 2013

Anything that Throws Life at You

Keri Smith is doing pretty well for herself at the moment. You can’t go into a high-street bookshop without being tempted by Wreck this Journal or its wiser and more costly cousin, How to be an Explorer of the World. I’m a sucker for her work. I love it and I’m far from the only one; her appeal is broad indeed. At school recently, I found myself chatting with three year nine girls who were all meticulously following the brilliant and bonkers instructions in one of Smith’s books and comparing the results. If you’re not familiar with her stuff, she’ll fire you up with something like this:

Then suggest you get out of the house and do something like this:

In a version of that spirit, I was riding my bike down Chorlton Ees waiting for something interesting to happen and I reached an iron bridge spanning the Mersey across which trams from Sale and Altrincham rumble their way up into town. It happened that as I pulled up at the bridge for a rest, a tram came hurtling past in a rush of air and noise, and I could watch it through the chain link fencing only a few feet from me. The fencing there has been detached from its rivets, probably by some kids looking for a thrill, so that you can slip through onto the bridge and the tracks. There are two running parallel to each other with a knee-high iron spine, maybe a couple of feet wide, acting as a wall separating them. 

I watched a couple more trams rush past, trying to figure out whether it would be possible to lie on your back on that divide, eyes tight shut, and feel the trams careering past only inches from your face. The howl of noise and the smell of diesel and axle-grease; all of that would really be something. The kind of kid with the guts to do it; interesting too. Someone forced to do it against their will – even more compelling.

In a previous post here, I discussed a couple of books exploring the source of good ideas. I’m not ashamed to say that there were times, just after Poison Boy, when I wondered if I’d ever get a decent idea again. The anatomy of the birth and gestation of an idea is a constant source of wonder for me. How the hell does my mind work? Will it ever work again? And if so, when? The short answer is, erm...dunno. 

But that half an hour I spent with my face pressed against the mesh of the fence watching trams is the beginning of something that’s worth storing away; of that I’m sure. Perhaps it’ll have enough of a magnetic pull to tug other thoughts into its sphere of influence and its gravity will grow. Maybe it’ll become something more.

On the way home, I passed an advert for washing powder at a bus stop, that claimed it could deal with “anything that life throws at you”, and I misread it as “anything that throws life at you.” In a weird way, that’s what Keri Smith’s work is about. Putting yourself in a situation where you get a little bit of life thrown at you.

Maybe, if you do that often enough, something will stick.

Monday, 5 August 2013


I got lost on the way and was consequently late – but that’s another story. It was late July and the sun had been out all day. I’d driven for hours and my shirt was clinging to me in the heat. My two-year old girl had been crying in the back of the car on and off, so it had been difficult to think. It was 4.30 in the afternoon when I finally found Mr Publisher’s place in the country. We wove through cool corridors to the clutter of his study. He cleared a pile of papers from a sofa and invited me to sit. His colleague was with him. They both had notebooks.

“So, you’ve been working on something” he said, after some preliminaries about Poison Boy.

“Yes” I said and, being fond of pointless questions, added; “Do you want to hear a little bit about it?”

This is a post about – you guessed it guys – my first ever pitch. Not about the thirty minutes or so itself; they were pretty routine, I guess – particularly for Mr Publisher and colleague who must hear it all a hell of a lot – but the stuff I found out in preparation for that day.

I’d been lucky enough to meet some lovely people at The Big Book Bash in Derbyshire a fortnight before. It was a great day. I got to spend time with the mighty Emma Pass (whose account of the day you can read here), the splendid Sarah Naughton (whose account of the day you can read here) plus many other luminaries. And being wired on anxiety and high-sugar snacks, I’d asked pretty much everyone I met how I should approach the looming day-of-the-pitch.

Ciaran Murtagh wasted no time in exploiting the painfully comic potential of my quandry. “Try this” he said, before doing a perfect impression of a cock-sure writer buzzing on a great idea; “I’ve got two words for you. (pause) Monkey Tennis.” Others had compelling anecdotes about the importance of plot-plans and outlines as concrete evidence of shape and structure. Others hadn’t done it face-to-face before, but over the phone. Sophia Bennett had this simple, clear advice. “Just tell them the story” she said.

That, in the end, was what I decided to do. I’d trawled through site after site of online advice about pitches, but I decided for better or for worse, I was just going to tell the story. So I got in my car, put on the soundtrack to Super 8 (my current obsession at the time) and drove home. As I drove, I started to tell the story aloud. And you know what? It’s bloody hard. It takes practice and a skilled eye for precisely what the story is. Do you begin with the theme? The concept? Do you do a speedy chapter-by-chapter gallop through? Describe, like Richard E Grant in The Player, the moody opening scene? (Check out the wonderful clip here) Do you go for genre first? Or the climactic battle?

I was stuck. I pulled over in a little town God knows where. I sat and stared at the trolley park of a budget supermarket for a while. For want of something to do, I read JJ Abrams’ sleevenotes to Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Super 8.

And lo! The answer was there.

“As always, Michael is a storyteller” Abrams writes about his composer. “He writes scores from the inside out; he understands the math of the structure of the story…” Christ, I thought to myself as I read. I didn’t even know stories had ‘math’. I know the movie well, and to my limited thinking at the time, it was a straight-up monster-from-outer-space tale. It came as a bit of an epiphany, therefore, to see Abrams write, “But it was always Joe’s family theme and the Alice love theme that mattered most. This was the heart of the movie. This was the kids’ point of view and, if that didn’t work, nothing else would have mattered.”

So that’s what I did in the study of Mr Publisher. I started with the heart of the story; the kid. His family, his relationship with his Dad, his two-bedroomed flat, his school-pal, the mystery of his missing friend; the insomnia, the walking at night, the discovery in the alleyway.

I don’t know whether it was the right approach – I won’t know for some time yet, I guess. But it was the right approach for me and, crucially I s’pose, the best I could have done.

I was back in the car and on the road again by 6.00, and by 8.00, I was putting up a tent and starting my holiday.

Needless to say, the first beer tasted better than usual that night.