Tuesday, 22 June 2010

June (Haiku)

Bats swooping manic
pollen jarring my tired eyes
dull heat slows my thoughts

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Animal Psychology

Do not be surprised when those who ignore the rules of grammar also ignore the law. After all, the law is just so much grammar.
-Robert Brault, Freelance writer

“I'm going to dig a big hole for myself here, Career-wise.” Fluffy Oakes is reeling off the challenges he faces from his fingertips. “An aardvark has Attention Deficit Disorder. We've got an autistic condor. The rainbow lorikeet can't gage what you're supposed to tell people and what you're supposed to keep to yourself, which can get uncomfortable. He's on the autistic spectrum too. Edgar, he's our silverback gorilla, his cage had to be padded to stop him from killing himself when he's repeatedly banging his head against the wall... I enjoy working at the zoo, but it's not a fucking easy job.”

Fluffy Oakes is overwhelmed. “I spend a lot of time with the animals, finding out how they are feeling, what they'd like to see improved, and basically fixing all the problems in their lives.”

When you live in a small brick room with three walls and a pane of glass, you develop issues. No matter what species you are. So, week by week, animal by animal, Fluffy Oakes sits down at the side of each animal enclosure and lets the creatures talk. Lets them blow off steam.

He jots into budget notebooks that the zoo provides, and he makes sure his notes make sense: he writes legibly, with what he assures us is good grammar.

“When I'm in group meetings with the staff, it's a different story,” says Fluffy. He's rarely the one making the notes at these times- maybe it's the doctor, the security officer, the cleaner or the zoo manager. These people are supposed to be a highly-trained team, who look after some of the most vulnerable animals in Britain.

“I've sat next to the the note-taker a few times in these meetings- there are a few members of staff I'm referring to here. I've seen the state of their writing. Their grammar is atrocious. That paperwork, which is already part of the shoddy service that the zoo offers, then goes on to admin staff, who you'd think have a grasp of the English language, at least slightly. But they don't know any better either!”

And everyone who works there is English, right?

“One member of staff isn't. She's Thai, I think. In all fairness, her notes aren't any better or any worse than the rest, but she still needs to sort it. In fact, every single member of staff, bar me, needs retraining in basic English grammar- admin and front-line animal handlers. These animals deserve better than this.”

Fluffy is well aware that “gripes go up, not down,” as Tom Hanks would say. He knows they don't go sideways, either.

“I spoke to the manager. He said it was okay to suggest corrections, by adding a written note explaining what I'd change. I tried that. But what I realised was that, even though I was a fuckload better at grammar than the rest of the staff, I'm still no grammarian. You can show someone what they've written, then show them how it should be written so they can see the difference. But explaining why one sentence works and another doesn't, that's a separate skill. One that I don't think I have. I work a lot with the English language, but I'm not an English teacher.”

So what then?

“I needed another opinion. I went to the union. I explained the whole situation. The union guy said, admin staff- and any other member of staff- shouldn't change a thing, no matter how dumb the mistake. Changes should only be made by the person who wrote it originally. He put it like this: Imagine that there was a major animal welfare scandal, like a zoological Baby P case. The authorities would swoop in here and they'd want to check every written item about that animal. The union guy suggested something like, Let's say I get a draft of a report and it says, 'investigators repeatedly found that the animals were abused.' I shouldn't, then, change it to 'investigators found that the animals were repeatedly abused.'

“First off, I want to make it clear that I would never let that happen. If anyone abused an animal in this zoo, I would abuse them.”

Considering how he threw me across his living room within five minutes of starting the interview, (http://powerisastateofmind.blogspot.com/2010/04/who-is-fluffy-oakes.html) I'm prepared to believe him.

“But that's beside the point,” Fluffy says. “What the union guy failed to understand was that it's the lack of good grammar in particular, and the way it's misuse can cause misinterpretations, was exactly what I was kicking up a fuss about.

“If an animal does find itself a victim of a sadistic bestialist... off the top of my head... the animal welfare officers, RSPCA and the police are all going to check everything. And when they check through the notes, they are going to say 'who the hell wrote this shit?'

“Somebody's going to lose their job. Now, because I'm the one these animals are talking to, mostly, people are going to ask me a lot of questions. I'm going to have to slag off a lot of my own colleagues. I know I've not done anything wrong. But because I want the best for these animals, I'm going to have to criticise those who are letting them down. Every member of staff that I've worked closely enough with- which is most of them- they've all made mistakes. I'm sure I do too, but I ask people about things before I go ahead with something, like if I have to help an animal to move position or something, I'll get advice. So generally, I don't make mistakes.

“We've all learned English- either as a first or second language. Well, all the human staff have, of course. So there's really no excuse for people to make these errors. And I'm fucking sick of the zoo brushing over it.”

Monday, 14 June 2010

A Great Writing Exercise

On Sunday I visited Writers Connect, a bi-monthly writers' meeting in Manchester. We started the meeting with an exercise. We were each given two small pieces of paper. We were to write the opening line of a story on one piece, and the closing line on the other. We then passed the first piece to the writer on the left, and the second piece to the writer on the right. We then had opening and closing lines. The task- connect them in a story. It was initially planned as a ten-minute task, but we all needed a little longer than that!

Here is my opener-

“It all started when the train didn't turn up.”

Here is my closer-

“James smiled a sad smile, turned, began walking and never looked back.”

I managed it, just about, by abandoning the principle of paragraphs. Here it is in all its, um, glory. Yeah.

It all started when the train didn’t turn up. The platform was freezing. He hated standing still. He also hated not having anything to do. As soon as the train would arrive, he’d be the annoying yuppie commuter- yelling into his phone, manically scribbling into an academic diary and rummaging around in his satchel. There wasn’t much in it, but then that was fitting. Everything he did was for show. He put the bag down on the platform and blew his nose in a tissue. He looked at the hills on the horizon, the distant cousin of the crowded offices that were about to swallow him up. He ignored the bravado-laiden banter of the local chavs, crowding the station. Even they were starting to hush. The hills were tempting. What if he could live like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance? Just disappear into the wilderness and forget all this ridiculous hubbub? BAM. A weight lifted off his shoulder as his bag disconnected. The chavvy kids had undone the strap and now had his bag in their hands, throwing it between them. “You little bastards”, he yelled. He stepped to them. They laughed, and brakes squealed. The train was slugging into the station begrudgingly. Like a rugby player, the kid in possession tossed the laptop bag into the path of the train. There was a crunch as it landed under the wheel. “Run!” one yelled. They vanished down the platform. In the summer sun, the hills were looking at him, tempting him. Without his work, he had nothing. James smiled a sad smile, turned, began walking and never looked back.

BAM! How do you like them apples? If, for instance, Don DeLillo was to stumble across this, he would not be quaking in his boots at the thought of newfound competition. I think it's safe to say. It's a hard task to pull something together creatively with those restrictions, but it's a good exercise for working the imagination and handling the pressure of a deadline.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Compliment Sandwich

Family Guy is, without a shadow of a doubt, the funniest thing ever to be produced on DVD format. Although I tip my hat- and occaisionally piss my pants- to other shows like South Park, Blackadder and the legendary Monty Python's Flying Circus, Family Guy stands head and shoulders above them all in the hilarity stakes.

There's a scene in the episode “Model Misbehaviour” where Stewie the one-year-old megalomaniac talks Brian, the very eloquent pet dog into a marketing scam. In order to get some much-needed worms treatment, Brian has to work in Stewie's makeshift office (bedroom) and trick companies out of their money. Not long into the job, however, Stewie calls Brian into the office for a dressing-down.

“I'm going to do something I call 'the compliment sandwich,'” Stewie says, “Where I say something good, then talk about where you need improvement, and then end with something good.” Stewie tells Brian that he “looks like Snoopy”, he “has smelly dog farts” and that he “dazzled a rep from the Cincinatti office”.

Snap back to reality, as Eminem would say. I've recently been visiting a number of different writers groups across the Greater Manchester area. I've also tried out a few writer's reviewing websites.

I think Stewie Griffin would make a pretty good amateur-literature reviewer. Not only is he smart, with a good grasp of the English language, but he finds two “positives” for every “negative”. Essentially, this is the best way to critique someone's writing (no matter how bad it is). Look for something you like, explain what needs changing and end with how good the peice could be with a few adjustments. The best reviews I've received have always followed this pattern, and have come across very clear and fluid.

If you dabble in writing, and you're wondering what people think of your work, please feel free to join Writers Connect on Sundays in Manchester. We meet fortnightly in the Arndale branch of Waterstones. http://www.meetup.com/Writers-Connect-Manchester/calendar/13139890/?a=ce1o_grp&rv=ce1o

No matter where you are in the world, there is always the World Wide Web. And as you are reading this now, I'm assuming you have access to it. So why not try out http://authonomy.com, http://youwriteon.com or http://writing.com. I stick with http://urbis.com for online reviews, which I recommend. It's the first writing site I visited and the one I understand the most. So jump on there and let's help each other out. Gaining feedback means giving feedback, remember, and that's the case on all of these sites. That can take quite a while. So don't forget your sandwiches.

Friday, 4 June 2010

May Medley

“This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”- Scanlan's Bill Carduso reviewing Hunter S Thompson's Kentucky Derby piece.

For those unfamiliar, the term “gonzo” generally refers to anything that has been done off cuff. You may have heard it used to describe an article written at the scene of an event, then handed straight to an editor for publication with minimal editing. Thompson himself was probably the biggest name in that field. You may also have heard of “Gonzo porn”, but I'm not getting into that.

One of the benefits of gonzo: it doesn't take up loads of time. There's no feedback session, no re-write, and the piece itself is written as quickly as possible. And as I have a writer's meeting at Oldham Library later, I don't have much choice but to conform to this style. So here's May.

Earlier this month I was photographed by The Oldham Advertiser. As mentioned in April Ridiculousness, I am part of a group of writers who have just had a book published. Local newspaper The Advertiser covered the book launch, and came to snap us at the writer's meeting a few days later. The following week, I appeared in the paper, circulation 87,000. Move over, JK Rowling.

Moving on. In May, Britain voted in a general election. Labour were ousted. The Tories and Liberal Democrats now share leadership of the country. Interesting. I voted Lib Dems. The reasons for this: Labour have made a giant balls-up of Higher Education, and have allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to get a degree without checking whether there were any relevant jobs for them to move into after graduation. They have allowed courses to be ran that did nothing to improve the job chances of those attending- like the course I did. They also let crime to spiral out of control, and are punishing sensible drinkers like me for the mistakes of drunken idiots by hiking alcohol prices. In short, they are a party of incompetent morons.

The other reason for voting Lib Dems- the Conservatives have done nothing effective to modernise their image, other than sticking a “young” man in charge (David Cameron was 40 when elected party leader) and have him ride a bike for the cameras to show he's doing something about pollution. Woo.

The other parties don't really get mentioned much, except for the BNP. And I would rather piss molten lead than vote for them. So effectively, I had to vote Lib Dem by proxy.

Here's where it gets interesting. We have a hung parliament. We have a right-wing Prime Minister, and a slightly left-wing deputy. Now. Here's a letter that I wrote and sent to the Manchester Evening News. It was published in the “Postbag” page, 29th June 2009.


In this piece I propose a “Devil's Advocate” system. Somebody high up in the power structure has the job of finding fault and challenging the leader's plans, where necessary. This person is on the same side as the leader, and not in the opposing party. But they still offer a “pull” when the leader wants to “push”. That's not a million miles away from the scenario we have at Westminster, with the current shared leadership.

Political forcaster? Or confused young blogger who's stab at “grown-up writing”, coincidentally, wasn't far off the mark? You tell me.

As the Monty Python team would say... And now for something completely different.

The 38th Annual Saddleworth Beer Walk was held Saturday, 29th May. It was bigger than ever before, with 2400 people taking part. The event is an all-day fancy-dress fundraising walk through the many hills- and many pubs- of Saddleworth.

I went as Tony Montana in Scarface- basically in a suit and waistcoat, carrying a giant fuck-off plastic rifle with a laser sighting and firing sound effects. (Worryingly, someone copied this idea in Cumbria a week later, only with a real gun, and killed twelve people. It's not been a great week for Britain.) I even carried some bank bags filled with self-raising flour for “comedic effect.” Hmm. Other walkers included a group of schoolgirls (men), Scotsmen in kilts, a troupe of cheerleaders, cowboys, a gaggle of Where's Wallys and some sumo wrestlers (fatsuited young men who were, underneath the outfit, probably skinnier than most people).

The strangest outfits were worn by some young lads: morphsuits are basically gimp outfits made of spandex, available in an array of different colours and designs. There's a discreet zip up the back used to put it on, but other than that, they are completely sealed. The wearer can see- and drink- through the material. One morphsuit wearer mentioned that going to the toilet was the only hassle. From the slight stain around the back of his suit, I believed him. I never found out where he kept his money. I did see two of them try to clear a horse-jumping obstacle that we passed on the route. One made it clean. The other did not, and got an arseful of horseshit.

First-time walkers, expecting a quick stroll around a few Uppermill pubs, were in for a shock- the route was 11 miles, and included some steep moorland trekking. We started walking at 1pm and didn't finish the route 'til around 7pm. The soles of my shoes were more battered than Ken Clarke's.


At least I had the common decency to bin mine when I noticed the next day.

Book update: this month I read Chuck Palahniuk's Rant, a novel about a very strange serial-killer junkie- a man who gets high off the bites of various wild animals, and goes on to start a rabies epidemic. It starts off really interesting- the main character is only seen through monologues from other characters, and the people of this world can upload their own entire experiences to the internet by “outcording”. Imagine a multi-sensory homemade video taken straight from a participant's brain, and that's what these people buy and sell. An interesting nod towards Youtube, and the way TV industries “buy up” the cream of what they find there. The ending of the novel, however, is very far-fetched and a bit of a let-down.

As mentioned earlier, this is a quick-fire blog (albeit one that has taken all fucking day to finish due to distractions.) I have previously searched for feedback on most of the blogs below this one, in an attempt to tighten up any weak spots and make my writing the best that it can be. Another person's critical eye can be really helpful when writing fiction- a genre that must have a payoff to the reader at the end. Blogs, however, are more difficult to find advice on- how are people to offer suggestions on a writer's descriptions of their own life experiences?

I became so reliant on feedback that I'd get nervous uploading something to my blog that hadn't been checked and criticised. What if people don't like it? What if I'd made some really dumb factual error? Well, if they don't like it they should stop complaining, get off the net and go and get some exercise. Secondly, factual errors could be missed by numerous people. Nobody on the review sites spotted one particular error in “Modern Woman Has Shot Herself in the Foot”, my article on sexual equality. I mentioned that Annie Kennie, the suffragette from Oldham, died for women's rights. She didn't. She died of old age, at home. Emmeline Pankhurst, another suffragette, was killed when she threw herself under the king's horse. I'd had it reviewed maybe seven times, then I uploaded it to my blog. Someone commented within hours correcting me.

That time I spend searching for feedback will now be used only for pieces I want to send out for publication. I have cured myself of my feedback obsession. I might also try and- crazy notion- get out more...

I will now keep rolling, as Scanlans suggests, in the direction of my bed.