Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sunday Roundup III

I feel a bit odd this week, because I haven't written a post every day. Still, I have been working on my detective novel and a new post for The Camel's Hump. I've also been doing some running, shopping and other things that are necessary to maintain my equilibrium (such as having a few pints of real ale).

The other day, through Twitter, I became aware of a great blog by Alan McDermott, a fellow writer. Take a look at his post on Authors Helping Authors. Great idea, Alan!

This roundup features no other weblinks because I haven't had the time to surf the web much this week! Next week's roundup will be far more comprehensive.

Have a great Sunday, everyone!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Eight Thousand, One Hundred and Seventy-Six

This is the word count of my novel.

I aim to reach 10,000 by the end of tonight.

If I can do that, I'll be very happy.

Time to write. Get down to it. Be industrious. Productive. Achieve the target.

But first, a bit of Brand X.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A Night Off

I'm sure it must be healthy to have a night off. I thought I would post this to indicate that last night - the time of writing this piece - I took some time off, because I was worn out and just fancied a break. Then I realised I wanted to do some more work on my detective novel. I must really love this writing thing...

Actually, I really should do some work. I set myself a deadline for the first draft of my detective novel: 12th April. Not long to go. It's the first day of spring. Better get tapping away at that keyboard.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Characterization Oversight

Unbelievable! Here I am, having written a short story that effectively put my detective novel on hold for a week, back into the swing of writing on the second night of restarting my project, and I suddenly realize I've made a massive omission: I don't know what the murder victim did for a living. Or anything else, really, about them, save for the fact they got murdered.

But that's OK; I'm inventing that now. I'm actually quite glad I didn't over-characterize this person at the start. Yes. I'm glad I concentrated on plot rather than character. I'm sure it will help keep things fresh.

It's an exciting adventure.

Monday, 19 March 2012

How I Wrote A Short Story In Five Days

I know that a few people read the short story I wrote and published here, in five parts, last week. Thank you for reading it.

It was the first short story I have written for a few years, and that one, which I wrote sometime in 2009 or 2010 (I can scarcely remember it and I don't have it saved on my current computer, thank God, because it was probably terrible) was the first one I had written since I was at school. I had never been into writing short stories, although I have always enjoyed reading them.

Why did I choose to write one now? Well, the idea came to me. That was all.

If you haven't read it yet, you might want to read it now before you go any further.

I started thinking about American diners because I had been to one with my partner a few weeks ago, in west London. I then started to remember the diners I had eaten in a few years ago, in the States. Within a few minutes, I had drifted into thinking about the time my car had broken down and I had to call someone to tow my car to a garage. From there, I decided to place a tow truck driver in a diner, add a guy in his mid-20s who had some kind of history with the tow truck driver, and write a story in which the twentysomething guy exacts his revenge on the driver (who has obviously done something bad to him).

That was all I had as a plot idea. I decided to make the waitress an integral part of the story, so that made three main characters (named after old British cars, if you spotted that).

I thought I would write it in a couple of days but I was very busy last week, so I thought I would write a bit every day and serialize it. The trouble was, how could I keep the reader interested? I thought of soap opera-style cliffhangers. Job done.

So there you have it. My first proper short story. It was an enjoyable experience. I think I'll write some more.

What of the revenge? The scatological ending I had envisaged just didn't seem to fit, so I changed it. A fight didn't seem realistic, nor did a confrontation of any description, so I didn't put one in. Having looked at it again, the story reads like a psychological thriller along the lines of Duel . This was one of my favourite films when I was a teenager!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sunday Roundup II

My selection this week features an amusing story about a serious matter and a serious story about being amusing. But first, let me recommend something at an art gallery!

As a fledgling writer, it's true that I do sit and tap away at my computer rather a lot. But I do get out. I think it's essential. I have a zest for life, which is something I think any writer needs to have. I love to live life...then write about it. Anyway, as part of my getting out and about, I went to Newcastle yesterday, with my partner, to visit some of her friends. Whilst there, we saw these powerful videos by Elizabeth Price, one of which features footage from the 1979 Woolworth's fire in Manchester. I would highly recommend a viewing. The Baltic is a lovely building, too. In fact, Newcastle is a great place and the St. Patrick's Day atmosphere was energetic!

This article - "A Stand Up Joke Is Born" - from the New York Times caught my eye. Much of this blog is concerned with the process of writing - and any creative pursuit - and this article, centred on a Myq Kaplan joke, will be of use to anyone interested in the creative process.

You're a massive, international furniture company. You receive complaints. How do you find out whether they're true? Take a look at this article from the Guardian. I'm not going to spoil this one for you by going into detail but I had a great laugh at the complete absurdity.

Before I sign off for the evening, just a couple of other things. I hope you enjoyed the short story, "Brook No Truck", that I posted in five parts from Monday to Friday. In true Titmouse! fashion, there will be an article coming up tomorrow about how I wrote it.

Finally, I have also taken up a post as a deputy editor of The Camel's Hump. This is an excellent blog, full of thought-provoking and humorous articles from a great team of writers. If you like art, politics, current affairs, satire and a good rant every now and then, please have a read of the site. I feel deeply honoured to be joining them and very privileged not only to be a part of the editorial team but also to have my rail-related rant on the front page today. Exciting times!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Brook No Truck: Part 5

Victor’s pulse was turbocharged. He froze. The acid rose. He fought the urge to vomit. He reached for his fresh water.

“Sorry?” said the voice.


Victor turned his head to look over at Hunter.

“I’m sorry, I think you’re mistaken,” said the man, who was in the process of sitting down at the table near Hunter’s.

“Uh-uh,” said Hunter. “’Bout two years ago. Flat tyre. Just off the I-35.”

The man looked startled.

“How is your pretty wife, by the way?”

The man got up and walked towards the door. Marina crossed his path, looking apologetic. The man started running. He made for the door and ran into the car park.

Hunter laughed and shovelled eggs into his cavernous, scruffily whiskered mouth.

Perhaps that man suffered more than I did, thought Victor. Hell, I wonder what Hunter did to him? To his wife? Christ.

Outside, the man who just left was busy getting into his car. He managed to start it and drive away. Fast.

Victor tried to sit still. All the shock had drained him and his system was shot. He was thinking again of what happened on the long country lane. Just him and Hunter. Hunter intimidating him into accepting help. His own kind of help, designed to cause fear. The help that causes you to hand over two hundred and fifty dollars because you’re desperate. The smile, but not with the eyes; the grimace delivered while the hand wields a tyre iron, gripped by clenched rough digits powered by bolstered sinew. The casual conversation that makes you feel he’s the only other person in the world at that moment: your ticket to survival. The threat to walk to the truck and drive away. The reminder that theft of services is theft: seventy dollars won’t get you out of this mess you’re in. Who else is gonna help you, boy? Who can you call out here? Got any signal on that phone? The trip to the ATM. The polite “thank you” when you hand the money over. Money gone. A payment that means you’d better not have any other emergencies this month.

Hunter’s phone rang.

“Yeah? HEY!”

He was in full flow. Another friend of his – if he had any true friends.

Victor, feeling sure Hunter wouldn’t notice him, got up and walked to the counter. He handed Marina a twenty dollar bill and told her to keep the change.

The door opened. A state trooper walked in.

“Anyone own a tow truck here?”

Hunter broke off his conversation and turned around. “Yeah, me. Why?”

“Parking violation and expired tags,” said the trooper. “Get it moved and get those tags renewed or I’ll issue you with a fine for both.”

“Good morning, Mr. Somerset,” said Marina.

“Good morning to you, ma’am,” said the trooper. “And please – call me Austin.”

“OK, Austin,” said Marina.

They both smiled.

“Usual?” said Marina.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Brook No Truck: Part 4

Victor jolted.

“Sorry!” said Marina. “I think I broke the glass there.”

He was breathing heavily. Panic attack? He’d never had one but had heard what they were supposed to be like.

He looked down at the glass that Marina had set down on the table just a bit too hard. There was a crack in it. Water started to leak out and trickle onto the table.

“I’ll get you another one,” she said. “Just gonna leave that there for a moment. I’ll come back with a bin to put it in.”

Marina walked off.

The bathroom door at the back of the diner started to open. Hunter started to walk out.

Victor’s heart pounded again. He looked for something to distract himself. Something to make him invisible to Hunter. He reached for a discarded copy of USA Today on the window ledge, opened it up, spread out the pages, clutching them as if to stretch them further and create a shield, and pretended to read.

He could feel Hunter walk past. Feel the breeze. The dread.

His eye caught the splintered glass again. He saw Hunter’s face in the water and glass, gaining on him.

Two sharp raps.

Victor’s backside cleared the seat.

The door opened. The rain bounced off every surface and sounded like a rolling drum solo - every tom and cymbal in action.

“Jeez, boy! You’re out in the middle o’ freakin’ nowhere, huh? Damn!”

He got into the cab and sat down. He shut the door. The drum solo was muffled again.

Victor looked over at him. He was massive – probably six-four and at least two hundred and eighty, with a lot of muscle. Dishevelled, too: off-white baseball cap full of oil stains, ripped lumberjack shirt, frayed jeans. He turned to look at the fresh-faced Victor, slim and shaky. Victor looked away. Looked ahead.

“So. You broke down, huh?”

Victor swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Damn! Well, I have a tow truck there. I can come round and pull you all the way to a garage. Or all the way home. Up to you.”

“Oh, a garage, please.”

“You sure, boy?”

Victor nodded. “Yes please, sir. Thank you.”

“OK!” said Hunter. “Now, just you wait here.”

Hunter opened the door. He got out of the cab. He shut the door behind him.

Victor exhaled. What was the best option? Stay here and wait, as told? Or run?

He then tried to rationalize it. His truck had broken down. A man had pulled up behind him, in a tow truck. He had then offered to help. That’s all.

Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling of complete fear. He looked in his rear view mirror and could see the man getting back into his truck.

As soon as he saw the man close the door, Victor tried the ignition again. And again. Both times: nothing.

A hand on his shoulder.

Victor’s knees shot up and hit the underside of the table.

“Here’s your water,” said Marina.

Victor looked up from the paper. “Hmm?”

“Your water. There you are. And I brought you another coffee.”

“Oh, thank you so much.”

“You’re looking a little better now,” she said. “Oh, that’s yesterday’s paper. Do you want today’s? I think Mr Hunter has it on his table. I could-“

“No, no, that’s fine, there’s something I want to read in this,” said Victor. “Yes, I do feel a bit better, thanks.”

“OK,” said Marina. “I’m glad to hear it. Well, enjoy the coffee. And the water.”

“Thank you.”

Marina walked away, back to the counter.

Victor inhaled deeply.


Thursday, 15 March 2012

Brook No Truck: Part 3

Great! Victor had thought. Someone who can help. It was a large truck. Looked like a tow truck.

In the five minutes between the spluttering and the tow truck pulling up behind him, his own truck had run to a halt. He had managed to steer it on to the side of the road, although the rear jutted out a bit. Thankfully, no cars had passed in that five minutes – but that started Victor worrying whether anyone would see him parked there and help him. He couldn’t get a signal on his phone and there seemed to be no houses in the distance. He felt isolated. But not when the truck pulled up.

The rain was so heavy that day, too. Victor recalled it now, how violent the outsized drops were as they battered the windshield, and unclear the view of the shadowy figure approaching him was as he strained to see the reflection in the waterfall flowing down the wing mirror. But there was something about the way he approached that chilled Victor. His spine seized - a physical reaction he couldn’t control, like when he was a kid and he saw his first horror film - and he had to shuffle to free himself from the pain. He shivered. As the figure approached, he tried turning the key again. This time, the starter motor didn’t make a sound.

The chair scraped and Victor jolted from his thoughts, almost jumping out of his chair. He looked around for the source of the sound. It was Hunter, getting up from his seat.

“Your breakfast is ready, sir,” said Marina.

“Gee, honey! Just put it on there. I’ll be right back,” said Hunter.

Victor watched as Hunter walked towards the restroom door at the back of the diner. As he did so, he could see the heavy rain again and feel his heart pounding, racing faster and thumping against his breastbone. He started sweating. Throat dry, he reached for his coffee and spilled it on his hand. “Aargh!”

Marina came over immediately. “Are you OK, sir?”

“Oh, yes. Pardon me, I just spilled my coffee on my hand.”

“Oh, my! Are you all right?”

“Yes, thank you, ma’am. It’s not even that hot. It just startled me, that’s all.”

Marina looked at Victor. She thought he was the palest person she had ever seen.

“Are you sure you’re OK? You look like you’ve got a fever.”

Victor chuckled. “I think I may have a cold starting,” he said. “Shame, on my day off. Oh well.”

“Do you want another coffee?”

“Oh, yes, please. And could I get a glass of water?”


“Thank you.”

Victor tried to bring the coffee cup to his mouth. It was shaking in his hand but he managed to get it to his lips without spilling any more. He drank the rest of the cup like he was enjoying a glass of fresh cool water after a long run. He regretted it, because it caused his heartburn to start. He could feel the acid rising, touching his throat. His heartbeat was even faster now.

He tried to think of something else but that something else wasn’t forthcoming. He was stuck fast in his cab, three weeks ago, on a remote lane, the rain teeming, desolate, the man approaching, a fractured image in liquid pixels looming in his mirror, walking behind the truck bed, walking towards the passenger door, footsteps closer, advancing –

The glass smashed.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Brook No Truck: Part 2

“Hello? Can I help you?” he said. He had answered the call at the same volume as the ringtone. Victor Vauxhall feared for the caller’s hearing.

Marina, coffee pot in hand, walked over to Victor’s table.

“More coffee, sir?”

Victor looked up.

“Oh yeah, thanks, ma’am.”

Marina poured coffee into Victor’s cup.

“There you go, sir,” she said.

“Why, thank you.”

Marina smiled and made to walk to another table.

“’Scuse me,” said Victor.


“Do you know that guy over there?”

Victor looked over at Hunter. Marina looked with him. Hunter was busy chatting away on his phone, laughing, banging the table with his fist and rattling the cutlery. Even some of the regulars were looking.

“Sure,” said Marina. “That’s Hillman Hunter.”

Victor turned his head back to face the opposite side of his table. He thought for a moment.

“What line of work’s he in?”

“He drives a tow truck,” said Marina. “Unfortunately.”

Victor nodded.

“There anything else I can get you?”

Victor was still thinking. “Hmm?”

Marina smiled.

“Oh, sorry, no. No thanks. Coffee’s fine, thank you very much. The eggs were good, too.”

“My pleasure,” said Marina. “Why do you ask about Hillman Hunter?”

“Oh,” said Victor. “I just recognized him, that was all. Probably saw him at a gas station or something. He stands out!”

Marina laughed. She walked to the next table, clutching the handle of the coffee pot.

Gas station? thought Victor. No. I recognize him now. And I hope he doesn’t recognize me.

Hunter was still laughing and slapping the table. Victor could overhear bits of his conversation. Well, not so much overhear them; he might as well have been sitting next to him.

Victor recalled being at the side of the road a few weeks ago. He was on his way home. He had finished his last appointment and it had been particularly difficult all round: a company owner, set in his ways and with an impoverished management style; an assistant eager to curry favour with his boss and appear to visiting salespeople that he knew what he was doing; heat and humidity. Amid the stifling conditions, the assistant’s posturing and the boss’s reluctance, he had driven home the advantages of their roofing shingle and business relationship over the competitors’ product and service. One meagre order later, he was out in the car park, in the cab of his clean truck and trying to stop his trousers from sticking to the seat. He had turned the air conditioning up to MAX and pulled out of the car park. No point in hanging around. The owner might run out to cancel the order!

He had got into his truck at just the right time, because it started raining as soon as he had started the truck. He went through several miles of country roads without any problem but about ten miles later, the truck had started to splutter. At this point, the rain was heavy and sounded “like a cow pissing on a flat rock”, as he remembered his grandfather saying.

Five minutes later, with no sign of the rain stopping, the truck had pulled up behind him.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Brook No Truck: Part 1

I haven't written a short story for a long time. Tonight, I started writing one. Here it is, in several parts.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

The country station whispered gentle songbird vocals through the small speaker behind the counter. Pleasant for the diners, but Marina Morris couldn’t take any more. Her fellow waiting staff would hum or sing along when they were wiping the tables and serving customers but she remained unmoved, concentrating so much that she would almost wipe the veneer off the table. She couldn’t wait to remove the garish gingham apron the boss had issued them with as uniform, and go to her afternoon class. Still, as mornings at Chet’s Diner went, it was all right. No customers had annoyed her and the tips had been quite generous – especially from the older couple from Tennessee visiting their grandchildren.

A huge roar soon stopped her from feeling almost happy. She recognized the rumbling and hissing only too well. And the music, just about audible even over that engine. The Eagles? Lynyrd Skynyrd? It all sounded the same to her. It was all he ever listened to. She now had country through one channel and country-influenced rock through the other.

At least he always parked around the corner now, since the boss had finally had the courage to ask him to stop blocking all the light out of the diner with his cab up against the window.

He walked in.

“Hey, baby!”

Marina sighed.

“Good morning, Mr Hunter.”

“Haha!” he laughed. “Call me Hillman!”

“Good morning, Hillman.”

“Good morning to you too. Damn! You look good today. Good every day. YEAH!”

He didn’t wait for her reaction but that didn’t matter because she didn’t matter to him and it was always the same: expressionless. She had long since bothered showing disdain.

Hunter chuckled and walked to the centre of the room, to his usual table.

“Usual?” she shouted over.


She scribbled his order down on the notepad: a stack of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, with hash browns. He had never ordered anything else in the six months she’d worked there. Everyone else had told her that he’d placed the same order for years. One waiter’s older cousin had worked at Chet’s about fifteen years ago and he remembered what Hillman Hunter ate for breakfast, too. Everyone seemed to remember this guy and his dietary habits.

They also remembered his personality. Hillman Hunter was, quite simply, the worst man they’d ever met.

A tow truck driver since his early twenties, he was now in his mid-forties. In nearly a quarter of a century, he had managed to annoy, harass and take advantage of several thousand stranded drivers and innumerable other people in whatever else he did.

Hunter belched heartily and didn’t bother to excuse himself. You could always tell who the regulars were in this place, because they didn’t look around when he burped, farted or blew his nose – always loud enough to stop every conversation in the room. Even the young kids didn’t laugh after a few visits.

The passing trade always noticed, though. Today, a young man sat in the corner, sipping coffee and reading the paper. Hunter’s ill-mannered aural assault made him turn around, look at Hunter and shake his head in dismay. Hunter was oblivious.

The man turned back around. He was sure he’d seen the guy in the faded lumberjack shirt and grimy cap before, although there were plenty of large guys wearing checked shirts and baseball caps everywhere. And he certainly saw a lot of people in his job selling roofing supplies to hardware stores across the state. Friendly, dependable Victor Vauxhall, the youngest salesman at Rootes Roofing, buzzing from store to store in his sample-laden F-250. Perhaps his fellow diner was a roofer?

A phone rang. The loudest ringtone Victor had ever heard. A few other diners looked around.


It was, of course, Hillman Hunter’s phone.

Monday, 12 March 2012


I'm experiencing writer's block. I think it's caused by tiredness, the dog running around all over the house, the washing up needing to be done, a slight back pain, looking at old photos on Retronaut, talking to my girlfriend, watching comedy, listening to jazz, thinking about the value of a KGB deal (which sounds like something a dodgy American or Brit might have entered into during the Cold War), doing my finances, uploading photos, checking Facebook, checking Twitter, remembering TV drama from when I was a kid, thinking about rearranging the room, wanting to settle down in front of the telly to watch comedy DVDs, wondering whether I should have gone for a run this afternoon, and excuses.

Time to start writing.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Sunday Roundup 1

Well, Titmouse! has been going for a week. And what a week it’s been.

Before starting Titmouse!, my internet use had narrowed to a handful of sites. Now, largely as a result of my finally understanding the value of Twitter, I am becoming obsessed with surfing the web again.

This section – which I intend to make a regular feature of the blog - shows some of the things I have found useful, informative, amusing or thought-provoking during the past week.

Fear of Facebook? I keep my privacy settings high anyway, and maintain a healthy degree of work-life separation. However, I do not see why someone should be penalized for engaging in pursuits in their spare time that their employer or potential employer might not approve of – essentially, doing what people do to let off steam! Why should someone be compromised for not having their privacy settings at the highest level? This article raises interesting questions about whether an employer has any business poking their nose into employees’ extra-mural activities. Work places enough demands on people as it is.

How to cite a tweet in academic work. I remember being at university when the internet was just starting to take off and citing web addresses. I don’t think there was any standardisation back in the late ‘90s, though.

How to connect your blog to Twitter. It took me so long to figure this out. Eventually, stubbornness gave way to common sense and I tweeted for help. Within five minutes, Titmouse! was posting automatically to my Twitter account through Twitterfeed.

RETRONAUT is worth a post of its own. Probably several posts. I’m sure I’ll be writing about brilliant things I find on here quite a lot, for several years. My goodness, it’s an amazing site. If you have an addictive personality, don’t click on it! Walk away from the keyboard, now! Don’t follow my lead!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Personal

It's difficult to bare your soul in writing or speech to a readership or audience, but I have come to realize that it's essential. In my detective novel, I give speech to the characters and, in order to do that, I have to draw on my own experiences of how people speak, how they interact, how they ask questions, how they give answers. I have to think: how would I go about those things? How would I face situations my characters are confronted with? How I would feel if what happened to them, happened to me? Bits of my personal experience cannot help but come to the fore.

In the novel, what happens may be based on what I might do, or think I might do, in some situations, but there is a distance between me and the characters. In comedy, it's different. You have to be yourself and there is no barrier. Write satire and it shows what you think - if you're having a go at the tabloid press (and who wouldn't want to?) by writing a piece as a tabloid journalist, your intense dislike of that journalist and everything they stand for will be laid out, clear for all to see. Get up on stage to do stand-up and it's all you. That's what people have come to see. You and what you want to talk about. What concerns you. What worries you. If you don't show any personality, there is a problem. I wasn't confident enough as a stand-up, almost a decade ago, to give all of myself to the audience, so I struggled to win them over.

As time goes on, it gets easier. I have just written a rant about something that could affect me and many other people I know, not to mention many other people across the country, if some government plans are implemented. I disagree strongly with these plans, which isn't surprising, since my politics are the polar opposite of the current government's. So I decided to write something about it, which I may post on here. I started the rant by stating what is planned and why it demonstrates, as I see it, an injustice. I then went on to set out how I think it happened and how I would rectify the problem, my way. As pieces of satire go, it's not exactly a snappy tabloidesque piece, although, weighing in at under 1000 words, it could hardly be termed a tome.

It was quite an enjoyable experience. Rather cathartic, in fact. I would urge anyone to have a go at having a go.

Have a lovely weekend!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Enthusiasm Uncurbed

When I first performed stand-up comedy, I did so because I wanted to write a sitcom. Why? Well, I was young and naive. I was a student in my early twenties, obsessed with Fawlty Towers and anything by Steve Coogan, as well as other sitcoms. It seemed that everyone who did sitcoms started out doing stand-up, therefore I did stand-up. It was that simple. I'm cringing with embarrassment just thinking of my belief back then that there was some sort of apprenticeship system or graduate training scheme on the comedy circuit, just like in normal everyday jobs, whereby someone would start performing stand-up on stage in the smoky function room of a pub and then, somehow, get spotted by a Beeb or Channel 4 producer and be taken on to write comedy for radio, with the ultimate goal, if the radio show did well, being a prime-time TV slot.

It didn't take long before I was disabused of this notion. Fortunately, seeing the light coincided with a speedily developing love for the adrenaline rush and buzz that everyone who has ever done stand-up will know, and a new view of the art as an end in itself. I felt that I was destined to be a stand-up comedian.

The only problem was that, in the early days, I had no idea how to structure a joke. Growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, stand-up, to me, was Ben Elton, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott and Victoria Wood.* None of these seemed to tell jokes, as such; jokes, to my mind, were something that "blue" comics, such as Chubby Brown, told. They were associated with a bygone era of racism and sexism, exemplified by Bernard Manning. Jokes were the kind of thing that kids told in playgrounds and embarrassing uncles told at parties. They were passe, and everyone wanted to be like Peter Kay now, didn't they? Family-friendly Peter Kay, who told stories about life in the North - we could all relate to that, couldn't we?

I couldn't. Nor did I want to. I didn't know where to go. If I didn't like observational comedy and I didn't like gags, what place was there for me on the comedy circuit?

Fortunately, I saw Stewart Francis performing comedy in late 2002 and found him absolutely brilliant. He was telling jokes but they weren't jokes: they were one-liners. And I loved them. I could not get enough. This led to my searching for Emo Philips, Rodney Dangerfield and Milton Jones. Oh, and Tim Vine. I now understood what I should do, but still no idea how to go about it. A conversation with another comedian one night yielded the advice: "Writing one liners? Start with a set-up and end with punchline. That's it." So I had a go at writing one-liners in the logical way: start with a set-up ("I was doing X"/"Have you noticed that X"/"I wouldn't say my X was stupid, but") and end with a punchline ("..."). Hmm. No matter what set-up I had written, the punchline hung in the air and then floated off like a kite in a gale-force wind.

And then, just like the frisbee in Stewart Francis's excellent gag, it hit me: reverse the process! Write the punchline first and then construct a set-up to suit! The punchline could be anything from a phrase on a billboard to a conversational gem from a colleague. Once you had that, write a way of arriving at that statement. Done! If only I had known that process earlier! Not to worry; I take comfort from the fact that I learned a lot whilst trying to figure it out.

It took several more years - many years after I had ceased to perform on stage - before I discovered how to write a sitcom. There was so much material out there for me to look at. Fawlty Towers was the best of all, of course: John Cleese and Connie Booth had created a masterpiece and, if we're talking class-based comedy, Roy Clarke's Keeping Up Appearances gets an honourable mention. Steve Coogan managed to secure a second series of I'm Alan Partridge around the time I was performing stand-up; very funny but nowhere near as cringe-inducing as the first series from 1997, which will surely go down in the annals of comedy as one of the greatest. The Office, by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, had come out around the time I first ventured on stage (its second series appearing when I had just about worked out how to write a one-liner) and I loved its low-key, naturalistic style and documentary feel. A wealth of material was available but I didn't understand what to do, even from structure master John Cleese.

The dearth of ideas on writing a sitcom continued until two years ago, when I was introduced, by a close friend, to a programme that not only provided the key to open my mind's cupboard of rotten, half-baked ideas and replace them with fresh, robust plotlines with beginnings, middles and ends, but also changed my perception of what a sitcom should be. That show was Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Within the first few minutes of the first episode, "The Pants Tent", I was hooked and within a few weeks, I had watched the entire seven series of Curb. The everyday exploits of this awkward, middle-aged, bald guy were fascinating. I loved the fact that I was constantly torn between having sympathy for him (e.g. when his teeth are knocked out by a child who is playing pinata) and feeling that he was the architect of his own downfall (e.g. the many occasions on which he apologises to someone for having upset them, then proceeds to negate the apology by suggesting they were at fault). Usually, I have sympathy for Larry because he often tries to do the right thing but events conspire to make him fail, much like Victor Meldrew in David Renwick's brilliant One Foot In The Grave (the similarities between Larry and Victor were pointed out to me by a friend over a couple of pints and I immediately agreed with his assessment).

The beauty of Curb is not just in its naturalistic style (The Office was similar in this respect: no gags, no exaggerated, caricature-like protagonists) but also its incredible structure. Larry David's Curb has knocked Fawlty Towers off the Number One spot in my Top Ten sitcoms and I don't care if that's heresy. Twenty-five years after Basil fawned over Lord Melbury, Larry rumpled an erection-resembling fold of fabric in his baggy corduroy slacks and a new Sitcom Of All Sitcoms took the crown. There are some sublime episodes of Fawlty, such as "Communication Problems", but there are others in the two-series, twelve-episode collection that I rarely bother to watch because they do not seem to propel themselves along (e.g. "The Anniversary"). However, I have yet to see a weak episode of Curb (of which there are eighty). Every episode starts out with a blink-and-you'd-miss-it plot point, then another (and then perhaps another) and everything comes together in a precisely crafted denouement - of just the right duration - in which Larry experiences devastating embarrassment. In some episodes, it is as if you are watching two episodes in one (for example, in "Beloved Aunt" [S1, E8], early on, he advises his sister-in-law's boyfriend to dump her and, shortly after this, he dictates his wife's aunt's obituary to his manager; halfway through the episode, a typo is discovered in the obituary, causing immense upset, for which Larry gets the blame, and in the tear-drenched aftermath of this, his wife's distraught sister confronts him about his earlier advice to her [now ex-] boyfriend).

As a result of watching Curb, I started carrying a notebook with me and jotting down everyday experiences. I then started to think, "what would happen if...?" and write how scenes might unfold. Through Curb, I had found out that I needed a framework within which the characters could operate. Within a few weeks, I had enough material for four episodes. A year or more passed, during which I was creatively blocked. In October last year, I wrote more material, sufficient for a further episode. Just one more and I'll have enough for the Magic Six, as with the best British comedies. Or perhaps I should write enough material for ten, since Curb has ten in each series.

Over a year after I first saw Larry attempt to explain away the first of many excruciatingly embarrassing misunderstandings, I saw the eighth series, which was as wonderful as ever. After that, my partner and I built up our collection of old Curb episodes. Save for series 2, 7 and 8, we have the lot on DVD. The most recent purchase was Series One, which features the original pilot episode from 1999. On Wednesday night, we settled down with a cup of tea to watch the first ever Curb episode, which was an hour's worth of pure joy. I'm living life backwards. Next stop: Seinfeld.

*At the time of writing, it is International Women's Day, so I am reflecting more than usual on the subject of Equality. Victoria Wood is the only female comedian I remember from childhood. (OK, I remember French & Saunders, too - but I never found them funny.) I was too late for Joyce Grenfell and too early for Gina Yashere, both of whom I happened upon in my teenage years.

Thursday, 8 March 2012


As I write this, I am choosing the tracks for the forthcoming jazz radio show that I co-present once a fortnight and desperately trying not to cave into the temptation presented to me by Retronaut, an excellent site that I have just discovered. Clearly, I am not concentrating. This is entirely appropriate, since I have been planning to write about the subject of concentration for some time.

For many years, I believed that I could be creative with music on in the background. Plenty of people seem to do all right with a bit of music while they work. I used to listen to music whilst revising for exams and I certainly enjoy it when I'm reading.

When I'm writing, though, it has to be switched off.

I can't believe it took me so long to discover. I don't have music on at work and I get quite a lot done. When I was doing stand-up comedy, I didn't have music on while I was scribbling jokes on bits of paper wherever I happened to be, nor was there any background noise coming through my hi-fi speakers when I practised my set. When I was learning my lines for the comedy revue I took part in recently, I did so in silence. So why did I think I could write with music playing?

Perhaps I had a notion that, if I put the music on and sat at my laptop, the ideas would flow. Instead, the ideas stopped and I became blocked. Yet when I started to write with no music on, I was almost overwhelmed with ideas. Why is this?

I am too easily distracted. If there is even a hint of peripheral activity, I strain to find out what is going on. A dustbin could rattle in the alleyway and I'll suddenly lose my train of thought and wonder who is moving it, or if it's the wind blowing it - and, more to the point, why is there a dustbin still in the alley when the bins were emptied this morning?

The rattling dustbin - or police siren, car horn, dog bark, doorknock - is a transient sound. A few seconds at most and it's over. Back to work. The opera overture I have loved since childhood lasts seven or eight minutes and I have to pay it my full attention; I become nostalgic but cannot translate the images of my own past that run through my mind into anything meaningful on the page. The jazz fusion tune I am excited by will propel my pulse to sprinting pace; when the frenetic guitar solo starts, I am helpless and might as well be asleep, because I cannot pay any attention to anything else. And when that's over, there's always another tune I have to listen to. Once I have devoted twenty minutes or so to a few tunes, it's onwards and downwards to the hallmarks of procrastination: desk-tidying and coffee-making.

When I write, I have to devote myself to writing. Nothing else can demand my attention. No wonder it's considered a lonely pursuit. But that's how it should be. If something is important, then it is worth total investment of your time and concentration. And writing is worth just that.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Spark

How is it that now, with my work and home life busier than ever, I can sit down to write? I never could before and I didn't have anywhere near as many commitments as I do now.

I think I came to the realisation that I had spent far too long wasting time. I had wasted time in the wrong jobs for many years. I had wasted time by watching too much television. I had wasted time on chat forums and surfing the web for pointless things. It was time to do something about it.

Fortunately, I have a day job that is quite demanding and provides me with a lot of focus and intellectual challenges. It involves interacting with people to a great extent, which is something I enjoy. I am allowed to take responsibility for projects and I have the opportunity to attend training courses and develop my professional skills. I also have the most supportive manager I could wish for. I could not say any of those things about any of my previous jobs and that is why my CV, up to a few years ago, reads like a printout from a job title generating spambot. So I am happy to stay in my current position. It's good for the creative drive, too. Sometimes, I arrive home worn out but still with the urge to write.

Did I really need the telly? No. I've never been into Stephen King's fiction but his advice not to watch TV (in "On Writing", his excellent book on the craft, which I enjoyed very much) was bang on. We have a TV but only use it for watching DVDs. Fortunately, my partner isn't bothered about TV either.

Same with surfing the web. There is only so much out there that you can read before your mind becomes saturated with pictures of animals doing funny things and bile-filled quotes from comment thread after comment thread on some badly written article on the online version of a tabloid paper you hate anyway. As for Facebook, I hardly spend any time on there now. If I want to know what my friends are up to, I'll text them, have a chat with them or go and see them.

Prioritizing things in my life was the next, natural step once I had identified what to change or dispense with. I love running and had seriously considered the idea of running a half marathon at the end of March and a full marathon at the end of May. I was unwell for much of January - two bad colds in quick succession and some sort of sub-flu-style viral infection - so never managed to train. Now I can run again, I am not looking for races to enter because I have decided that writing takes priority. I can run for pleasure any time I want.

So, because I am not training for long races, watching TV and aimlessly surfing the web, I can spend time with my partner and my family. I can also spend time listening to music and choosing tracks for the jazz radio show I co-present with a close friend every fortnight. I can cook several times a week. I can watch DVDs and go to see films at the cinema. I am doing so much writing that it fills any gaps that are left over - yet it is the writing that dictates where most of the gaps are, because it is so important.

Above all, I am happy. The fact that my life changed so much, for the better, over the course of just a few months, enabled me to examine and reflect, then choose to channel my creativity constructively. This was the spark that ignited the tinder box of everything above.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Allowing Yourself To Be Creative

Allowing yourself? Surely that can't be right! How can you allow yourself to be creative? Surely if you are creative, then you are creative?

Not in my experience. I have always felt like a creative person but I have often stifled my creative drive. In fact, I haven't always had to stifle it; everyday life does that perfectly well without any help. But I have certainly enabled outside factors to suppress it, and it was changing this that allowed my creativity to flourish.

I didn't consult any self-help books or go on any NLP courses. Having an extremely supportive partner and network of friends has helped - and continues to help - immensely, but the crux, for me, was turning the barrier to my creativity around so it kept the negative out and allowed the positive to roam free.

Rather than waking up one morning and saying: "Right! That's it! I'm in my 30s now and I've waited too long and wasted too much time! People write books and have them published, and so can I! I'm not too old! I can be taken seriously as an artist! Even though I did sciences at A-Level rather than English Literature, and went on to do a B.Sc. rather than a B.A., I am worthy of this! I do have something to say! I can deal with harsh critics! I am a writer!" the thoughts in this sentence filtered into my consciousness over several months and gradually turned into positive action.

All of the thoughts in my sentence above are the reactions to fears that I have held for years, and it is these fears that have stopped me from even attempting to accomplish anything. I cannot tell you how to face these fears because I haven't analysed my own fears properly. All I know is that, if you are feeling held back, then you need to try to find what it is that is holding you back and remove that destructive force so that you can create.

I have a feeling that this could become a theme, but if there's one thing I can point to as an important factor in shaking off the baggage, then it's the fact that I'm now in my thirties. Being in my thirties, I no longer worry about things. A decade ago, I would spend hours getting ready to go out, exercise obsessively and agonise over every morsel of carbohydrate; now, I don't care how I look, as long as I can fit into my clothes and I look reasonably well groomed. The energy I expended in worrying has been released, and it has to go somewhere; in my case, that somewhere is writing. A major problem for me was the idea of not being taken seriously by my contemporaries who have a career structure in a profession; now, I don't care, because I know just how unhappy you can be when you are doing something you don't fully enjoy, especially when you want more than anything to do something else that makes you happy.

I am now too old not to at least have a go at attaining happiness through creativity, therefore I allow myself to be creative.

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Artist

Confronted with the sight of my CD collection, anyone would think it was amassed by a sixty-year-old man who went through a jazz fusion phase sometime in the early '70s rather than a chap in his early thirties who was born long after much of this kind of music was created. I think the most recent album in my collection is from 2003. Appropriately, it is a jazz album and, even more appropriately, it is by one of my all time favourite musicians: the great Gary Boyle, a guitarist who was once in Isotope, probably my favourite band. A 1970s band.

It's not that I don't like anything modern or see any merit in contemporary culture. Conversely, I enjoy it. I am glad that we live in an era where everything is a mixture of elements of everything that has gone before. This, I feel, shows that today's musician, writer, or artist has an appreciation of the history of their craft. Nor is this post-modern culture a barrier to invention: people are forging ahead in all kinds of directions - with new technology, too - rather than imitating the past.

This brings me neatly on to something new but with its roots firmly in the past: "The Artist", a film that my partner and I saw on Saturday. Neither of us is the kind of person to give in to hype. I don't care how many Oscars a film has won. In fact, I generally don't - or didn't - care for film. I have only recently started to see the value in sitting down for two hours and watching something; for years, I didn't have the patience. My DVD collection takes up about half a shelf and much of this isn't even film.

"The Artist" was interesting because of the way modern production techniques were used to create the effect of a silent film from the 1920s and an early "talkie" from the 1930s. It was made in the 2010s but in black and white throughout; a half-French, half-American production with a main character who resembled Django Reinhardt and a set that was pure LA film noir; a non-Hollywoodesque movie that was inescapably in and of Hollywood, through and through. In two hours, there were two pieces of dialogue.

The public loved it. The age of the people in the screening we attended ranged from early teens to early 70s and all were spellbound for the entire duration. The only noise was laughter. No one talked; nary a whisper between youngsters was audible. This wasn't an art house cinema, either, but a multiplex attached to a bowling alley and chain restaurant.

I would venture that the success of The Artist demonstrates you can produce anything you want and it has the chance to capture the hearts and minds of anyone and everyone, and if you believe in what you are doing, it is worth taking the risk. If someone had mentioned to me a while ago that people who are not silent film enthusiasts would flock to a film about the silent-to-talkie era, itself almost silent throughout, I would have doubted it. I would also have doubted that any Hollywood producers would collaborate with European film-makers to create it. But that is what happened.

My detective novel is set in the present day but the influences are Raymond Chandler, David Peace, James Ellroy, The Sweeney, black and white photos from the 1960s, overexposed family snaps from the 1980s and true crime cases from the 1970s. Detective stories have been done before and they will continue. My story mixes together all these elements and plays them out in a city in 2012, because I am also influenced by the life I live. It is driven along because I believe in it and I believe that people will want to read it. I love adding to it every day and I am looking forward to completing it and, more than anything, knowing that people are reading it.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

So You Want To Be A Writer?

Yes, I do. That is the only thing I have ever wanted to be. Well, not the only thing. As a kid (and even as an adult), at various points, I wanted to be a rock star, a mad scientist, and a footballer. I wasn't even into football, either, but in an attempt to fit in, I chose a team* to support because I liked the colours of their strip.

Writing has been the one pursuit that I have enjoyed throughout all the phases of my life, though. From early childhood, I never had a pen out of my hand. I always wanted to be a writer. I have always had a work in progress. Yet I have always sabotaged myself because I was scared of becoming the very thing I wanted to be.

Throughout my teenage years, instead of dabbling with rebellion and hard drugs, I dabbled with novels and scripts but never thought to construct a plot beforehand, instead concentrating on the characters. I suppose it demonstrates a keen eye for detail but it's no wonder so many of my attempts to write something petered out after a few chapters. Trying to write a novel without a plot is like trying to build a business without a business plan.

In my early twenties, after asking whether I could write something for the university newspaper, I landed the role of TV Editor, quite by accident ("You're in luck - our TV Editor's just dropped out. Can you do it?")! I didn't do the job for very long because I started getting into stand-up comedy as well, and one of the pursuits had to go (why?). Through the stand-up, I realised I could construct jokes. I even had a stab at co-writing a sitcom, as part of a group. I found some of the material a few months ago and, even with my incredibly harsh self-criticism, realised that there was some merit in what I had written. If only I had applied myself.

Now, in my early thirties, I am having a go at being a writer. In 2010, I signed up to "NaNoWriMo" and did nothing about it. In 2011, I was going to have a go but again, did nothing about it. Admittedly, I was busy - but probably not ready to throw myself into writing.

Then, two things happened that showed me I really did want to be a writer.

Firstly, the editorship of a local community blog came up for grabs. I had been thinking that I would like to blog about community affairs and was wondering about starting my own anyway, so I made enquiries. A couple of months later, I took on the blog with another person who had expressed her interest to the outgoing editor. Since early January, I have made several posts and look forward to our team carrying on the excellent work of the previous editor and contributing to its continued growth and success.

Secondly, through reading old posts on the community blog, I became aware of a local amateur dramatics group and made enquiries. Two days later, I attended my first meeting. One of the other "players" would not be able to take part in the comedy revue they had planned, so I got his parts. The revue took place two weeks later. Nervous? You bet. But the thrill of performing outweighed any stage-fright. I drew on my stand-up experience and reasoned that a receptive audience of forty was a far easier prospect than a beer-fuelled audience of a hundred plus, containing the odd stag or hen party here and there. Owing to other commitments, I am unable to rehearse or perform for some time, but one thing I can do is write for the group, so I have volunteered to write the Christmas pantomime. Oh yes I have!

These two events were real turning points in my life. They pushed my mindset from "wannabe writer" to "writer". Instead of telling people that "I want to be a writer" or "I'm trying to be a writer", or even - truthfully - "I'm an unpublished writer", I tell them this: "I'm a writer".

The above things also happened at a time when most people are strengthening their resolve: the start of the New Year. Two months in, I am finally writing the detective novel I have been talking about writing for years. I drew up the plot for this in the middle of January and started writing it at the beginning of February. The characters are there but, crucially, so is the plot. I can add to both as I go along but the plot is key. It is the plot that keeps me going.

So what advice can I offer to anyone who is in the same position? Can I offer any? Dare I offer any? Probably not. But if, from reading this piece, you can relate to anything I have mentioned, then it might get you thinking about giving in to your own creative urge, in whatever arena. That's probably more helpful than any advice.

*In case you were wondering, it was Aston Villa. Much like the "nouveau football fan" in The Fast Show, I didn't have a clue about anything football-related and demonstrated this clearly - much to the amusement of my dad - on holiday when I was about eight years old and I thought I had met a fellow Villa "fan" who turned out to be a West Ham supporter. My inability to be "blokey" was confirmed there and then; finally, in my thirties, I have learned not to bother trying.