Tuesday 28 April 2015

London Wanderings #1

I find London fascinating. Except for a brief period, I've been living here since 2002. And I do love it.

I have some ideas for something that I'm going to write about London, but I need to get some thoughts down and in order before I do. I don't quite have it yet. I need to do some working out.

So, that's what this is going to be. Some thoughts, observations and flights of fancy about this city and the stories in it. Occasional posts, just seeing how my brain works when I'm thinking about the place. It's going to be a little bit stream-of-conscious, but there'll usually be something I'm struggling towards. And maybe sometimes, I'll find it.

Following a talk I went to earlier tonight, I got to wondering about the links between London and horror stories. And it led to me thinking about whether there has ever been a series of macabre stories as influential and intense about a place as there was in London at the tail end of the 19th Century? Following on from A Christmas Carol earlier in the century (which, along with Dickens' other work, painted a picture of London covered in snow at Christmas that has stayed in culture's heads since), we saw the stories of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And around the same time, we also saw that reality could be just as macabre with the murders of Jack the Ripper.

That leads to a sense of London being a scary place, with death around every corner. I find it interesting that Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula were written by people who moved to London - two Scots and one Irish. There's an element of London being described by intepretation.

And I think that London has to be interpreted. It's a city that almost defies understanding, with it's incredible, intricate history of smaller areas joining together, each with their own individual culture and background, as complicated as the roadmap. It's constantly changing, often in front of your eyes as you walk down one part or another and suddenly an entire block has been torn down. It can be difficult to get a concrete idea of sometimes, because it keeps changing.

London is very vital. It's very of the moment, because occasionally you'll look around an area and realise just how much it's changed over a few years. And it does change. One of the things I find fascinating about London is how much of it has been lost. There's still plenty there, obviously, but there are bits that have been lost over the years, between fires, plagues, bombs and development. Identities of areas change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

But the past remains. It's burned into the city. The stories are there, planting this idea of London into people's heads. And the fact that the city has changed so much somehow makes it only more real. It's not past that we can see and hold and touch. It's past that exists more in the realm of story. Of myth. Of legend. A London that exists with some foundations in the ground, and other foundations buried deep in the memory... the personal memory and the cultural.

The London of the real and the London of the stories.

And somehow, it's all the same London.

Saturday 18 April 2015

What you learn about content by dying in stand-up comedy

The importance of being misunderstood

Doing stand-up comedy is a great learning experience. One that I'd recommend to anyone in content, marketing or communications. But I wouldn't recommend it because of what you learn from doing it well.

It's because of what you learn when it goes badly.

Comedians refer to it as 'dying'. And it's pretty apt. The first time I performed a routine that absolutely died in front of an attentive audience, it was like time slowed down and I was looking out at a growing chasm between me and the light at the back of the room.

It's odd, especially if you're used to doing reasonably well. The first time it happens, your response while it's happening is utter confusion. You had them a moment ago, but something disconnected and stopped working. You assume, at first, that a single punchline work, but then the next one doesn't work. Briefly, you might assume that you've briefly forgotten how to speak English. And, worse, you still have to keep going, because you don't want to walk off-stage and give in. So you try everything you can, and you try to get them back. Sometimes it even works.

You often hear about comedians blaming the audience. "They weren't listening." "It was just the wrong room." "They didn't get what I was trying to do." And sometimes it is their fault. But most of the the time, it isn't. It's your fault.

And this is where it becomes useful from a content point of view.

Content is all about communication. Taking a product, service, idea or message and explaining it to an audience. If you explain it well and the product is good (or even if it isn't, sometimes), the audience will respond. If you don't, they won't.

Let's take a hypothetical. Johnny's tasked with selling a new perfume. He can see the idea in his head clearly, and he's worked on it. He's got the story, the message, the core of the idea and it all makes sense from beginning to end. And the distribution is good. But once it's out, it just doesn't connect at all with an audience. The next day, Johnny realises he has mysterious powers and becomes a supervillain because of his anger at his failure. Obviously, this has to be avoided.

My belief is that a lot of the time, this happens because the person or people behind the message haven't been able to make the leap between what they think works and what actually connects with the audience.

Often, this happens because of ego. Someone thinks the way they've defined something is the right way for it to happen. And that's understandable - when it works for you, it works for you, and it isn't necessarily intuitive that it only works for you. Or it may be that you've left out an important part of the information at some point during the process, and without it, it doesn't fully make sense. And because everyone involved in the process knows the information, they don't realise. Or sometimes, you just become so bogged down in the whole process and so many people get involved that you stop seeing the wood for the trees.

With comedy, you're getting instant feedback. If what you've got doesn't work, there aren't too many ways to deny it. You can have put together something that you absolutely love and find absolutely hilarious, but it just doesn't connect.

At that point, where you learn is when you start to try to work out why you didn't connect. When you look at it from the audience's point of view and try to figure out what caused the gap.

That first time I died, it was because I'd assumed the audience had information that I had. I missed it out, so the basic context for the routine didn't connect and the routine didn't work.

You can't force something to work. But you can fix something, assuming the basic idea actually works. You have to listen and react to feedback. And, ideally, you have to get that feedback before what you're working on goes out to an audience.

It's no coincidence that the best writers I know never assume they've got it right first time out. They look for feedback, assuming that it's probably broken in some way that they can't see, and they look for fresh pairs of eyes on it, to make sure they're not assuming knowledge.

And it's no coincidence that the best comedians I know listen to their audiences, working out what connects and what doesn't. They test and test and test.

You may be good at communicating, but it really is worth trying some stand-up at some point. Can you communicate what you think is funny in a way that other people will find funny?

When you stand in front of a room full of strangers, with no real way to spin the results, trust me. You'll know if you're not communicating.

Sunday 12 April 2015

Writing when burnt out

For the last few months, I've been finding it difficult to write. It's been for a whole bunch of reasons, including a very busy period before Christmas and finally coming to the end of a few long-term issues and stresses, some of which went on for years. Once it was all done, I deflated a bit. And I've found getting my energy back difficult.

And I'm the kind of person that withdraws when they feel like that. That doesn't want anyone to pay attention to me. That just wants to burrow away and not deal with anybody or anything.

These are not ideal conditions for writing. And I strongly suspect that I'm far from alone in going through periods where I feel like this. So I thought I'd explore it a little.

Part of it is that putting your writing out there is an exposing thing to do. You're taking something that is very personal and letting people see what they think of it. This writing thing, it's a compulsion. A secretive, furtive thing, that you can't really do as a social activity. Most of it is done on your own, quietly. And like most furtive, secretive things, sharing it with an audience can feel a little exposing.

But you'll have people you can share with. When you start writing, that's a very small group. Perhaps some family. Perhaps some friends. And you're probably looking for some element of validation. "Can I actually do this?"

That's a scary thing to do. And taking the steps towards trying to get published, whether in short or long form, are scary as well. You have to take this personal thing, that you're very close to, and ask other people to judge it. Magazine editors. Website owners. Agents. Publishers. And with the awareness that they may even want to tell you what they think. They may love it. But they may hate it. And, even worse, they may tell you why. And even worse, you may agree with them.

It's tempting to keep it to yourself. But the longer you do that, the more personal it becomes. The more private it becomes. And so the more difficult it becomes to expose to the light and share with other people. It's one of the reasons I've set up writing groups, and run the one I'm currently part of for the last four years. Talking to people about your writing, and sharing it in a safe environment is a good way to get over some of those nerves. Because if you want to be a writer, it involves people reading your work.

Being published is exposure. Both in a good and a bad way. You're putting yourself out there in front of people. People who know you, people that remember you, people that like you, people that don't like you. You can't pick and choose - that's part of the point. And once it's done, once it's out there... it's out there. There's no going back.

That's good, I think. A writing career, I believe, is all about building. It's all about building your confidence, building your profile, building your audience and maybe even building your income. You get better at writing by writing.

If you don't put your work out there, it's difficult to get better. You have to expose it to the light and see what people think of it. Sometimes they'll like it. Sometimes they won't. But if it's going to be something that's real, that's going to live and breathe, it has to stop being in your head, and has to stop being something that you just endlessly polish and polish and polish. Sometimes, it's got to be tested.

At this point in time, I've had a few things published and began to see some success in terms of response. Some people really liked Deadlines and POV. More, as far as I've seen, than didn't. And that's all good. I enjoyed putting something out there that I made up in my brain-meats and put into words and see if they sank or swam. I tested it. And I'm going to keep testing stuff, not just because I have to, but because I want to.

And getting to the point where I'm comfortable with that isn't easy. I've had to take a couple of steps back and realise that I've been trying to juggle a lot in my life, and trying to do all of them means that I'm not always doing all of them well. I have to occasionally build in some time where I'm not doing anything and it's okay for me not to do anything.

I have the kind of mindset where if I'm not doing something productive, I start feeling guilty. And while that's motivating as hell in a lot of ways, it's also a way that adds a lot of pressure. And when I'm not feeling at my most confident, it's only making me feel worse. And when that happens, not writing makes me feel guilty, which makes me feel more anxious, which makes me less able to write. Not fun.

I'm keeping working on it. I'm working on my next novel, and then I'll look at polishing up the first novel I ever wrote. I'm currently unagented, so I'll be looking for an agent again at some point soon. I'm also writing some comic script and other projects. But I'm not working to a deadline here, and it's important sometimes to remember that feeling like I'm falling behind is a self-imposed deadline.

I'm only going to be able to do it if I shift gears a little. Remembering that if I need to take a little "me" time, that's not going to break me completely. I don't lose the steps I've already completed.

So, if you're feeling in a similar boat, do remember that every now and then, it's okay to just settle back and enjoy the sea. If you're constantly racing and constantly pushing yourself, sometimes you'll burn out a little bit.

You can get it back. Totally (and right now, I'm feeling more like I'm beginning to get back to it). But if you're spiraling, sometimes you need to stop, take stock and make sure you're okay, because otherwise, you're just going to run smack into a wall that stops you for much longer.

Quitting is bad. Don't quit. But stopping to breathe a bit is okay too. You don't stop a panic attack by stressing your way out of it. And you don't go through burn out without needing a little recovery time. But then you start up again and you keep going.

Writing isn't a sprint. It isn't an endurance test. You can get a certain amount of the way through sheer stubbornness, but you need to take care of yourself as well.

But whatever stage you're at in your career, you're going to go through points where you don't feel capable of exposure. Where the idea of sharing your writing would be like sharing your deepest, weirdest, innermost thoughts (or even, gulp, your browser history). There's no superhuman trick to confidence. Even the most talented go through points where they feel like they're idiots who shouldn't be allowed crayon in case they accidentally write something somewhere.

So, realistically, you're probably going to feel like this at some point. You may feel like it more often, you may feel like it less often. You may feel like it most of the time.

But it passes. Being a writer means veering wildly between embarrassing amounts of ego and crippling self-doubt. Take a bit of time. Breathe. Remember why you're doing what you're doing.

And then get back to it.