Of pumpkins and boxes
Testing, testing…is this thing on? Are you receiving me? Ah, there we go.
Hey, Internet, it’s good to be back amongst you. After a couple of chaotic weeks and some incredibly painful days without any sort of signal that belongs in the 21st century, The Blank Page is up and running again. I’d call it 2.0, but let’s not fool ourselves. We’re in for more of the same here. The overly long posts and occasional reveries that don’t quite add up to a bigger pay cheque. Still, that’s hardly the attitude to start on. The Longs have moved finally moved house. Let’s begin there.
The final push to getting things ready got pretty damn epic after I last blogged at you. As well as rounding up the last of our essential belongings and hunting for spare keys, I ended up powering through a Christmas short story for a charity book coming out in December. When that was done, there was no time to relax. The actual move turned out to be the most surreal day. I’d love to say it ran smoothly, but we’re talking about moving house here. There is always a cloud attached to that silver lining.
The morning was a whirlwind of boxes and lorries as we watched our first home of 12 years turn back into an empty shell. After a quick walk around its cleared out rooms, we headed off to home number 2. That was where things got interesting, as we waited for over two hours for solicitors, estate agents and builders to play nicely and let us in.
After that, things got very strange for me. I spent the first week in my new house sitting in pretty much one room and typing. You see, after the mists of moving madness had cleared, it suddenly dawned on me that I had less than a week until I stood in front of an audience to tell them a horror story. A horror story I hadn’t written yet.
I’d originally been aiming for something a tad meta and more performance than recital. Then I’d listened to Neil Gaiman telling a story called ‘Feminine Endings’ and realised you could do something more interesting and less forced with an audience to get them on your side. You could make them laugh before you made them uneasy and that sounded good to me. I figured some humour would warm an audience up if I was on early and also, if they were a little drunk, it might help hold their attention. I also knew I wanted to end with something I rarely used in my horror stories: gore. I thought that would stir some revulsion and intrigue into the mix.
The first draft was written on pure, exhausted adrenaline. It was a truly sketchy thing. More rough directions than any sort of actual map. The original ending felt like it was only there so I could step away and make myself a cup of tea without feeling too guilty.
It took me the first four days to work it all into something fully formed. That came in at around 9 pages which, as it turned out, was far too long. I had ten minutes to play with and it seems 3 – 4 pages is about as much as you going to fit into that without rushing. That meant the subsequent drafts took a lot of hacking with the delete key.
I spent the last three days reading the story out, over and over again. By then, I’d locked into survival mode. I was growling at myself for every typo I found and for every mistake I made trying to get through it. The re-reading and editing definitely helped the flow of the story, but it completely wrecked my nerves. The house around me was about as unpacked as it was going to get by then. We’d gone on brief trips to buy wardrobes and watch Thor Ragnarok, but bar those and a few walks into the village, I was sitting where I am now; hammering at the story.
I got to the point where I would love it one moment and hate it the next. The script version, i.e. the shorter version, felt too simplistic. I had also, as it turned out, thrown in some absolute beasts of tongue twisters. The phrase ‘stubble strewn sink’ was the first to go.
Thankfully, there came a moment when there was no more time for editing. I moved onto a printed copy and focused on my volume and diction over anything else.
On the actual day of the reading, I couldn’t face waiting in the house. We went to Birmingham early and found something greasy to eat. I had a beer and tried to calm myself down. Which would’ve worked if my parents hadn’t called to wish me luck and set my nerves on red alert again.
We got to The Gunmakers Arms with over an hour to kill. By then I’d gone very pale. My hands were ice cold. I was clutching my story in a folder and trying not to neck my only pre-show beer. An old friend stopped by to wish me luck and then I met David Shakes, who is well worth finding on social media. His work on The Infernal Clock collection and Flash Dogs is really driven and interesting, plus he happens to be a genuinely nice chap as well.
He led the way into the brewery, where the reading was taking place. He was about to face his first live audience as well. I think that helped us both relax a little.
The night started slightly rocky, but smoothed out as the first stories took to the stage. By then, Gareth Vaughan-Wood had appeared as well. Another brilliant writer and all around lovely bloke.
I was about fourth or fifth in the bill and the stories before mine were really varied, which made me feel better. Most of the audience were writers, which also helped. There was a genuine sense of support and keen interest in that room. It formed quite the safety net.
I nervously sat at the back and listened intently to each tale, happy for the distraction. When it was my turn, I nearly fell over on the way to the stage, but that seemed to be the only major wrinkle.
I made a point of talking to the audience for a moment first and then I launched into it, allowing myself no moment of retreat.
It was a really interesting experience. To start with, I just motored in but as the story got a few laughs, I realised something I’d never thought of when it came to storytelling. It’s a really obvious thing to say, but you know something the audience doesn’t. If you’ve done your job right, you know the ending and they shouldn’t have any clue about it. You can drop little red herrings into the exposition. You can draw out the laughs with performance and then, slowly, you can wind them in. It’s fine. You’re not betraying them. They know it’s a horror story. They’re onboard. Which means you can begin to increase the tension, build up the atmosphere and they’re with you. They’re willing you on.
As I got to the end, I could hear their reactions change. It was brilliant. It meant I’d managed to write the story I’d set out to tell. They laughed, they were caught off guard and they were horrified by where they ended up. Three for three.
I walked off to a round of applause and that was it, I was wired from then until about one in the morning. I watched David Shakes knock it out the park for his first story and saw a couple of great Birmingham writers show me how to sell themselves and their writing before getting down to business.
Gareth Vaughan-Wood, by the way, is a superstar in the making. His pace and performance, let alone his story, were outstanding. It was no wonder he had people crowding around him after the show. Mark my words, that boy will go far.
Since then, it’s been a case of trying to catch my breath. Of the four short stories I wanted to get done October and December, I’m two down and two to go. I’m working on my yearly ghost story for Christmas for the always wonderful Shadows at the Door at the moment. Then there’s another project I’ve been invited to add a story to, which I’ll tell you about later.
So, in summation:
Moving house isn’t easy and home isn’t a simple concept to move once the process goes from paperwork and surveys to lifting actual boxes and locking doors for the last and first time.
Thor Ragnarok is far too much fun for a third movie in a Hollywood trilogy.
The Gunmakers Arms is a worthy institution when it comes to ales, atmosphere and live performance.
Live storytelling is definitely something I’m going to pursue in the future.
Peddle your wares people. Peddle your wares. Your audience is not psychic. (Turns out that’s the one thing I forgot to do.)
Sorry this has been a bit of a long one, but I’ve missed you all. As soon as I get a chance to give it one last wrangle, I’m going to put the Halloween story up on the site for you. I think I’ll give you the writer’s cut, the full version. You know, because you’re awesome and incredibly patient.
See you next week, Blank Pagers!