I’ve been writing stories, in one form or another, since I was about six or seven. It’s hard to be sure exactly when I started. It’s all become a bit of a blur thanks to, well, getting old. I know I was definitely small enough that older relatives thought it was adorable. I guess it was at the age where it’s socially acceptable to patronise a child for trying to do something you associate with grown-ups.
(If only it’d encouraged them to patronise me in the monetary sense. What a world that would have been.)
Whilst I’ve been writing stories down since the heady and vague days of my childhood, I’ve rarely ever read them out loud to people. Which is odd when you consider how much I like to talk.
I’ve been a fan of stand up comedy for most of my life, plus I did drama at school and college. You really would think it’d be a case of finishing a story and then rounding up people to listen to it. In fact, the rewriting of ‘The Final Restoration of Wendell Pruce’ was doubtlessly improved by re-reading it to myself over and over again out loud to get the rhythm and growing atmosphere just right. Still, for some reason, I’ve never sought out an audience for my stories. I was offered one a couple of years ago and did intend to try it out, only I got myself completely tangled in the maze of second novel writing not longer after.
Well, it just over a month, I’m finally doing it for real. On Halloween night, no less. The Gunmakers Arms in Birmingham have offered me a ten minute slot during their 'At the Brewery of Madness' show. To be honest, I very nearly said no, but Sam pointed out that I was bound to end up sitting around the house sulking on October 31st if I turned it down. She knows me so well.
Besides, I’ve felt like I need to try this for a while. It’s like I said on a previous blog, I keep getting the sense stories should be told this way more often. Books, self-published or other not, aren’t exactly setting the world on fire. Surely that means we need to find other ways to wrangle an audience. Something live and intimate feels like a good way to go. In many ways, it’s where stories started out.
Come Halloween, I’m going to appearing amongst a host of other writers and a couple of short horror films as well. It promises to be an interesting night, once the nerves clear up. I just need to wrap my head around what I’m going to do with my own slot first.
Let’s be honest, none of my current stories are around ten minutes long and I’m hesitant about standing in front of my first audience and using their time to advertise a novel or novella with an excerpt. Which means I’m going to need to write something new, which I’m very up for.
I’m getting bored of writing horror/ghost story novels at the moment. There’s something about a short story which feels sharper and more efficient to me. At least, within the process of actually writing something. There’s no real risk of wasting time on going too far the wrong way or losing momentum. A short story gives you time to toy with the bare essentials of a scare, plus it also gives you more chances to go back and really improve on what you’re trying to plant in your reader’s head.
In order to get myself into the right head space for this, I attended another show at The Gunmakers Arms the other week. I wanted to see how things worked and get a feel for the place. It also gave me a chance to meet the brilliant G J Wood. A future interview, without a doubt. As long as he agrees to answer a few mildly inquisitive questions.
It wasn’t an evening of ghost stories that night. No, it was part of Birmingham Heritage Week. Tales linked around the theme of Birmingham’s past. It was a great night. Getting to sit and talk to writers who work in different genres was an interesting experience. Plus, the pub is a great little venue, with a fine selection of ales. Well worth checking out. (Hey, why not come on Halloween?)
That night, I watched seven writers get up and tell their stories. It was a varied programme of tales. Some were deeply personal. Some worked the crowd with humour, whilst others were loaded with research.
They all did a great job, but I noticed one thing each of them struggled with. Something that could easily trip me up. Each writer got up and produced a fistful of paper, either kept incredibly pristine in a wallet or folded up in a pocket. Regardless of how it had been treated, the paper rarely behaved for them. It had a wide range of difficulties to present them with. One person struggled to hold the microphone close and flip their pages at the same time. A few had their paper betray them and reveal a shaking hand. One poor writer had a sheet escape and then had to work out where it was supposed to go whilst she kept writing.
Now I know my hands shake. It’s an adrenaline thing. It’s one of the reasons I memorised my best man’s speech for a friend’s wedding last year. I like the appearance of possible spontaneity you can give by just getting up and talking. I like to think it makes people wonder if there’s the potential for chaos up ahead. It keeps them watching. It can also change their expectations a little, if you can do it right. The problem is it also means you’re working without a net.
Still, that intention, coupled with my love of stand up has got me thinking that I’d love to attempt to tell a story that way. Although I do also see the appeal of crafting something and taking it to present to people at the same time. The success of a great ghost story, or any great story, can come down to the writing. The subtle structure of the plot. The play of the dialogue. The success of a truly well-honed sentence. It’s an act of recital, in many ways, but that doesn’t lessen the potential for success. Neil Gaiman is an absolute master of that style of storytelling.
(For the record, to say most of the authors in the pub that night were from very different styles and genres, I think they all mentioned Mr Gaiman at least once. Looking back, I think we missed out on a great opportunity for a drinking game there.)
I just wonder if, particularly for a Halloween night ghost story, there’s a more interesting way of telling a story. I’m not talking about props and plants. I just think it could be more engaging. It’s an idea that’s certainly engaging me, anyway.
Of course, there are risks. For one, looking at it from here, it feels like the story could end up becoming incredibly vague. Also, if I forget my place, there would be nothing worse than fishing some crumpled paper from a pocket and attempting to carry on.
It’s a gamble, particularly for a first attempt. I just think it’s worth a try.
My plan is start writing it on Sunday. Which gives me around a month to get it right. For the first time ever, that’s going to involve not just rewrites but retelling. Which promises to be an experience. Who knows, it’s very possible that the next four weeks could totally change my mind about this.
I’ll keep you posted on how it goes, but I just wanted to fire off some quick thoughts before wheels begin to turn.
I’ll put a link below to The Gunmakers Arms website. It’d be great to meet you on the night. See how you think I did.