Monday, 7 November 2016

Nine Ways to Energise Your Writing During NaNoWriMo

Not so long ago I ditched a novel I’d been working on for 18 months. Having got a great agent off the back of the initial few chapters, I was sad to accept the novel was ultimately doomed because - apart from anything else - I’d sunk so much time into it. But I went on to write my new novel in a mere three months and I’m excited to say it’s being published in April.

Here are some things I’ve learnt about writing the first draft of a novel quickly.

1. Set your story in motion early on

Even if biding time for the inciting incident, you still need enough potential conflict to give the story a sense of movement in the first few chapters. The other day someone described using details like ‘trap doors’ and I love this idea of little things being set up that can later lead the story in new directions. Part of this is remembering that every character is interesting and might want things that will cause friction to others.

2. Don't be bogged down by backstory

If backstory is important at that particular point in the novel then great. Otherwise, don’t feel the need to explain everything about who the character is or the situation they’re facing. Rather than have chunks of explanation about their past, try drip feeding the relevant info. This will help get readers turning the pages to find out more.

3. Get into your protagonist's head

If stuck for something to write next, think about what your characters want, what they fear and what is the most challenging situation you could put them in. While you’ll most likely save the biggest confrontation for near the end of the novel, you need to poke and prod your characters along the way so they never get too comfortable.

4. Turn off spell check

I hate those stupid squiggly red lines because no matter how much I try to resist, I have to go back and correct the mistake. Worse still, sometimes it isn’t even a mistake but a spelling that the software doesn’t recognise. I’d recommend turning off spell check until you reach the editing stages.

5. Fill out unknown details later

There’s nothing better than getting into the flow of writing so I avoid letting things trip me up like when I can’t remember a particular detail such as a character’s last name or what year something happened. On these occasions I add a placeholder that I can later fix. (I use ‘NBED’ but it could be any unique combination of characters.)

6. Resist editing

As tempting as it is, frequently re-reading what I’ve written not only slows me down but is likely to make me worry what I’m doing is a complete shambles. I try to head straight to the section I’m working on which is easy with Scrivener. With Word, you could add a note or marking to the document.

7. Set the mood

If you only have a short amount of time to spend writing, it might be useful to have a particular photo, song or quote that quickly puts you in the right headspace for your story. With me, it’s generally a photo on my desktop.

8. Ask what your side characters are doing

This can be especially important for your antagonist who you might even draw up a timeline for. Doing this avoids a sense of you just wheeling them on and off when needed, plus will generate ideas for storylines.

9. Think while you're not writing

There’s no escape! I write questions on my phone and come back to them when walking the dog. Writing them in a separate place helps me to clarify what the ‘holes’ in my story look like and set my subconscious mind working on the problem.

Got any tips on writing a first draft quickly? Please share below!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Self-Deprecation and the Surrealist Ideas of Claudia O'Doherty

Last week on Woman’s Hour, Hadley Freeman discussed what she refers to as ‘deprecating tourettes’: a tendency to point out one’s own shortcomings over and over again, as if some kind of compulsion. According to Freeman, this is a quality particular to women and is indicative of an apologetic stance in the world.

While the radio show debated women more generally, we may ask: in the sphere of comedy, what is the role of self-deprecation?

For this is of course a well-rehearsed comedic device used by both male and female stand-ups. Yet, when trying to list comedians who commonly feature self-deprecation, women by far outweigh the men. A self-deprecating Ricky Gervais? Or Stewart Lee? Or Louis CK? Doesn’t seem likely. Whereas to think of a supremely confident female comedian is considerably more difficult.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen a female stand-up belittle their own success by pointing out their (supposed) failures as an unhappy singleton who still lives at home. In a sense, it’s a clever, or at least a natural, thing to do – endearing yourself to the audience by showing your human, flawed side. Indeed, self-deprecation is often celebrated as a form of wry wit, a particularly British quality one should be proud of.

Yet, the problem lies when a female comedian feels that they must behave in this way. Self-deprecation becomes a compulsory act that stifles and limits comedy performances. This is why Claudia O’Doherty is so refreshing. An Australian stand-up with a somewhat oddball, left-of-field persona, O’Doherty has recently appeared at London Kings Cross’ Invisible Dot with her variety show featuring various performers.  She is, however, most well-known in the UK for ‘The Telescope’. The posters for this surrealist performance came with the warning, ‘this show will not be funny’. Indeed, the premise was that O’Doherty had been commissioned to do a piece, yet a loophole in her contract meant that no jokes must be made.

Described as ‘difficult theatre’, this act took the notion of an unlikely and ill-equipped performer and turned this into an absurdist parody. The play blended a range of surrealist characters, all coming from different historical times, and formed some kind of bizarre murder-mystery. Rather than appeasing the audience with self-deprecation, O’Doherty sought to unsettle the stand-up genre. Part of the way in, she feigns the performance going off-the-rails, leaving her left stood looking startled in front of a bemused audience.

In turn, O’Doherty plays with the idea of the performer as a flawed and precarious creator of comedy, expanding the limits of what might be termed ‘self-deprecation’. As ever, diversity and imagination is what keeps comedy exciting and I believe O’Doherty has this in spades.     

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Challenges of the Trans Award

The Trans Award has recently joined up with the BBC Writers Room to launch a script writing competition - calling for positive and affirming portrayals of transgender characters in mainstream comedy. While the desire to change the ways the media represents transgender issues is cause for celebration, the competition’s premise does pose a certain kind of challenge for a comedy writer. 

What does it mean to portray someone in a positive light? That they are happy and accepted by their society? Or, that they avoid tired stereotypes and, instead, come across as a fresh, original character who people can relate to?

The latter seems like a favourable option. Whereas the former notion of trying to prescribe specific kinds of characters sets off alarms bells for a few different reasons:

Happy characters:
A comedy writer will often be hesitant to make any character too happy or well adjusted. Generally, comedy comes out of placing characters in difficult or even desperate situations, humiliating them, confirming their worst fears and generally putting them through the mill. This is how the audience gets to know them, and learns where their boundaries lie. Likewise, the idea that this character should be accepted by the people around them flouts key comedy rules – storylines and tension is created through conflict and a perpetual lack of harmony.

The debate over transgender issues tends to provoke comments on taste and offensiveness, functioning as parameters of what is deemed worthy discussion. But, as Picasso once famously said, taste is the enemy of creativity. Taste has no place in comedy; rather, comedy is perhaps best and most fruitfully used when exploring ideas that are subversive or unpopular. Writers should, therefore, not shy away from representations on the grounds that the majority may not be pleased by these. In the world of comedy, each person should be presented through the comedic gaze – subject to scrutiny and laughter.

What can often be pleasurable in comedy or any form of art is its ability to reflect the nature and details of everyday life. We should portray not only the positive aspects of the transgender experience but also the inevitable challenges faced. To ignore this would be frustrating for an audience, and ultimately an unsatisfying representation of the complexities of this subject. 

To this end, I hope the winning script is one which tackles transgender issues with courage and conviction. I hope it is one that does not avoid difficult subjects but confronts them head-on to create fresh and original comedy.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Let's Talk About Rape Jokes

These days, it seems that the easiest way for a comedian to get publicity is to make a joke about rape. This is almost guaranteed to get people sitting up and listening, and may even spark a media frenzy. Most recently, a Virgin Mobile US advert was accused of making a joke about a husband raping his wife, describing this as the ‘gift of Christmas surprise’.

As a result, a wave of debates has been provoked, with news sites and Twitter pages being flood with opinions and responses. There has also been the inevitable backlash against feminists or other groups who have commented on or criticised rape jokes. Louis CK perhaps articulated this resentment most obviously, arguing that comedians and feminists are natural enemies. In turn, the familiar retort of “they just can’t take a joke” gets banded about, attempting to silence and belittle those who dare voice an opinion.

Yet we can and should talk about rape jokes.

I will start by saying that I am not in favour of enforcing some kind of censorship on comedy. Even if it was felt a useful thing to do, we could never draw up a set of rules and parameters delineating what counts as acceptable. In other words, people should be free to say what they want. But, in the same way, people should be free to react in the way that they want.

Rape jokes don’t operate in purely abstract terms; not only is the high incidents of rape an ongoing reality, the politics around the issue are often very contentious. This is unlike cases of, for example, racism or paedophilia, where there is generally a clear demarcation between the guilty and the innocent. Rather, accusations of rape are often met with the attitude that the victim deserved, or was somehow complicit in, the act. Needless to say, women’s rights and other social groups have much anger towards what they see as the ignorance and misconceptions around rape.

So when a comedian engages with the issue of rape, people tend to listen closely. And those who don’t like a particular joke aren’t hypersensitive, they’re human. At some point in each of our lives, we will hear a joke or line that we find offensive or an affront to our taste; everyone has ideas that they care about, viewpoints that they are protective over.

Sarah Silverman
However, it is not the contentiousness of the subject of rape that in itself results in the criticism of certain jokes. In fact, the tendency to provoke strong reactions is what can make jokes about rape really great. Sarah Silverman’s line “I was raped by my doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl” got her a big laugh from many feminists, for example. Here, the act of making a joke from the perspective of a woman disrupts the dynamic of the powerless, silent female victim. Yet, more generally, rape jokes can be about breaking a taboo as a means to challenge a dominant viewpoint.  When Louis CK quipped “I’m not condoning rape, obviously you should never rape anyone… unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you”, he was mocking the prevalent dismissal of rape as an unfortunate yet inevitable outcome of overriding sexual urges.

To me there’s something liberating about these jokes – laughing at social wrongs from a point of view that is insightful and surprising in some way. In contrast, many rape jokes are tired and lazy, simply dressing up sexist and offensive statements as comedy.  In my opinion, Frankie Boyle’s joke about Victoria Pendleton falls into this category: “Victoria can lift twice her own bodyweight. Sexy, as it means she still wouldn’t be able to throw me off”. To point out a man’s ability to overpower and rape a woman is not so much a joke as the reminder of a sad reality. For me, a funny rape joke engages with the culture around rape rather than laughing at the act of rape itself. Otherwise you’re laughing at pain and victimisation, which isn’t exactly hilarious.
Having said this, I do think it’s dangerous to start dissecting what is funny and why. Like I said earlier, there will never be a set of rules for comedy – perceptions of what is funny will always vary. What I am defending is the right of reply. This is nothing new. While the advent of blogs and news chat rooms may be relatively recent, people have always vocalised a response to comedy – be it in the form of heckling or printed reviews. And by making rape jokes, comedians are willfully inviting this dialogue, so must therefore accept all responses – good and bad.

Strong reactions are what keep things interesting and comedians on their toes, because words are important and carry a certain amount of weight. There’s nothing wrong with actually thinking about what you’re saying, which isn’t to say that comedians should censor themselves or intellectualise their actions. Rather, they should have a little conviction about the words they use. This way, if someone has some sort of response, they can retort with something more credible than the rather measly, “you can’t take a joke”.

This article was first published at The Platform.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Gillard gets a Giggle

Australia’s PM, Julia Gillard, displayed her playful sense of humour this week when she made a speech declaring the end of the world is coming.  It was part of a promo clip for the radio station Triple J, and sees Gillard talk about a zombie apocalypse before making the final quip “at least I won’t have to do Q&A again”.

Gillard has often been praised for her ability to see the funny side of things, and many people claimed this spoof speech as further proof of the PM’s status as quick-witted feminist. Indeed, when Gillard accused Tony Abbott of sexism during a parliamentary debate in October, at times her speech was notably comedic, telling the opposition leader that if he wanted to find misogyny all he needed to do was look in a mirror. So although her feminist values have been disputed, Gillard is certainly one sharp woman.

The use of humour has long been used in politics as means of reinforcing a point or, for example, deflating the opposition. Obama gained many fans when he poked fun at the issue over his birth certificate, portraying his birth with a clip of the Lion King

I personally hope we see more of Gillard’s dead-pan comedy. Not only does it disrupt the stereotype of feminists as being overly serious and highly strung, it provides an opportunity to engage with issues in alternative and interesting ways.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Can Burlesque be Seen as a Feminist Statement?

Burlesque and cabaret are pretty popular in London these days - huge hoards of women roll into darkened clubs and gym classes are filled with women sliding down poles. And while burlesque dancing is becoming more of a casual pastime, organisers are also doing well to promote its status as a glitzy high-end performance. This week Crazy Horse Paris presents its show Forever Crazy at the South Bank, an expensive and highly choreographed affair starring Kelly Brook.

I often love to watch these kinds of show but do feel confused over what to make of this so-called art form. Is burlesque another form of sexual exploitation or a way of championing the feminist cause? Well, I think inevitably it can be either, or both. Arguably it comes down to whether the particular burlesque show successfully subverts the conventions of other forms of stripping, as well as the powerless spectacle of the female body more generally.

Burlesque dancers do exert a certain amount of power in that they choose their stage name, costume, and – perhaps more importantly – how much flesh they show. Yet, a more significant area of consideration is the nature of the performance itself. Arguably, burlesque performances are far from a basic form of titillation, but subtle and intelligent works of art.

Indeed, burlesque has a long history of acting as a medium in which to explore the social and political issues of the day. Clickety Split, for example, is a burlesque group from Chicago that make statements on current issues such as abortion rights and war. And of course, pretty much all performances can be said to explore the idea of femininity. Sexual stereotypes and characters – such as the pin-up, housewife, and movie star – are playfully exaggerated to the point of parody and humour. In turn, the notion of the passive female is disrupted as the audience laughs and interacts with the show. In fact, unpredictability and audience interaction frequently comes into play, as performers actively surprise and challenge people in the crowd.

In addition, there tends to be different types of femininity on show – including women covered in tattoos, with shaved heads, and larger women. Shows can promote a diversity of shapes and sizes as well as personalities. 
So perhaps burlesque can be seen as a way of celebrating the female form without displaying it as a passive sexual object. It is often about sensuality and lightheartedness, as well as politics and subversion. Of course, there will always be different forms and interpretations; Dita Von Teese has more of a classic look, seeming submissive and almost childlike in some of her acts. But I think, ultimately, it's important to have diversity. If something is to be creative, there can't be too many rules and set ideas. 

Of course, the risk is that as more women perform burlesque and it becomes more mainstream, it loses its creative and political edge  - instead becoming full of one-dimensional routines, bloated with clich├ęs.

Like the idea of femininity, I think we should strive to think of burlesque as an open-ended and actively creative medium, full of play and humour.