Thursday, 30 May 2019

Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare company



Did your first experience of Shakespeare at school put you off, or were you lucky with an inspirational teacher? I was lucky and loved it, but hadn’t acted in a play since I was at primary school. In an area of my life loosely related to my writing, I’m co-directing Macbeth - my second Shakespeare performance – for the Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare Company (WOASC).

When I was a primary-school teacher, I used drama and wrote and staged devised plays and noticed how the whole process improved the children’s writing, understanding and confidence. Wanting to develop my skills, in 2012 I went along to watch The Tempest in rehearsal with Sheila Foster (Director and Founder of WOASC) and stayed. I became prompter for the performance. By the end of the run, I knew the play so well, I devised and wrote a version which the year 6 class performed - followed in subsequent years by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf and Treasure Island (I was thrilled that when OFSTED came into the hall to watch my lesson, we were rehearsing the mutineer versus crew fight scene!) and several other small-scale productions. I enthusiastically taught English through drama and was disappointed when the government cut much of it from the National Curriculum, as I’d seen how much it helped, and indeed I sent a tranche of children off to secondary school with a love of Shakespeare. But that’s for a different blog post.

In the meantime, I tentatively had a try at acting for myself and cut my teeth as a comic character called Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor. Making the audience laugh went straight to my head and I was hooked! Maybe I’d been an actor all along, as a teacher. Later parts for WOASC included Lord Essex in King John, Celia in As You Like It, a multitude of small parts in Pericles (including an assassin and also the Goddess Diana) and Saleria in Merchant of Venice. I am in no way a Shakespeare expert, though I’ve learned a huge amount from performing in these plays. If you’re interested – and it’s great fun – look out for our open, informal workshops during the Autumn and Spring, when we’re not rehearsing for our summer performance.

Last year, I was lucky enough to co-direct the complex and intriguing lesser-known play Cymbeline with Sheila, and this year I’m Assistant Director (with Clare Durance directing) for Macbeth. We’re performing in St Mary’s Churchyard, Wivenhoe, and, if you’re local, I strongly urge you to come and watch. For those of you who are confused (and I was, until I became involved) a Director guides the actors performances, while a Producer organises everything in between venue-booking and insurance, printing of posters, tickets and programmes, right through to ensuring there are audience toilet facilities! There is a huge and talented production team to co-ordinate and the crew (staging, lighting, costume design, props, publicity, music) comprises a greater number of people than actors. This year we are Producers as well as Directors (the latter being more fun) working with the cast on interpreting Shakespeare’s lines and telling the story as a whole. We started work last Autumn, auditioned in February, and began rehearsing our superb cast at the end of March.

The WOASC philosophy is to tell the story as clearly as we can, so the audience can follow (even without much knowledge of Shakespearean language). We hope we’ve achieved that, although the language in Macbeth is truly beautiful - some of the best - and it’s been described as a long poem with good reason. There is something very special about whole atmosphere and experience of Outdoor Theatre (fingers crossed for dry evenings, wrap up warm even if it’s a hot day!). Do come, 25-29th June, 7.30pm, tickets £7.50 from the Wivenhoe Bookshop and online here. Next year, I’m Lead Director and I’m already playing around with ideas. Watch this space!


Sunday, 7 April 2019

Review of reviews

How useful are book reviews?

I’ve noticed writers in the writing community on Twitter often ask readers to submit book reviews – sometimes with a discrete nudge, sometimes with a direct request, occasionally with a blatant bribe. This has set me thinking about the usefulness, the value and indeed the ethics of reviews. It’s turned out to be a more interesting subject to consider than I expected. (I was just planning to write a quick 5-minute blog!).
     Most of the reviews I read are on commonly accessed, online sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. When it comes to writing one, every time I finish an ebook on Kindle I am asked to rate it on Amazon and a review is requested. I often as not might press the rating stars but then ignore the request for an actual review. Isn’t that what most people do? Of course it might be different if I feel very strongly about the book. If I’ve read a paper copy, bought from a bookshop or borrowed from the library, I’m more likely to rate it and maybe comment or recommend on Goodreads, rather than on Amazon.
     I realise there are many other online sites on which to post or read reviews and also a myriad of review magazines exist, ranging from ‘The London Review of Books’ to ‘Book Club Bible’ and ‘Self-publishing Review’. A review can be a literary analysis or a scholarly essay, a summary review, an opinion piece or simply a comment based on personal taste. I imagine formats used by the publishing industry might be different from those used by the average readers.
     So what makes me write a review? Sometimes it could be a favour for a writing friend, or more often I will simply be passing onto others a recommendation for a book I’ve loved reading. I’ve often had the feeling when I’ve enjoyed a particular book, that I want friends to enjoy it too - I want to be able to talk to them about it. Sometimes I feel sad, even a little lost, when I’ve finished a special book and I want to recall my own thoughts and feelings about it before I let go. Sometimes I genuinely want the writer to know how much I’ve enjoyed their work, especially if I’ve felt a special connection with their characters or subject matter. (I’ve looked at the last twenty book reviews I’ve posted on Amazon and was surprised to note that seven of the books I’ve responded to were actually written by friends).
     In terms of the ethics of book review writing, I think it is important to be honest but also kind – not every book deserves five stars and not all genres or styles are to everyone’s taste but most books have some merit that can be recognised. Good teachers always say it’s good to balance any negative comments with positives – I suggest in book reviews always look for the positives and handle negatives gently and with sensitivity. If the writing is truly awful, I would consider avoiding doing a review at all. (If it is offensive, pornographic, or downright rude, rather than reviewing it, I’d say report it). In most cases I would acknowledge that the writer has worked long and hard to create their 80,000+ word masterpiece.  They probably have battled through umpteen rejections before getting their book published, be it traditionally or independently, so most will appreciate some consideration.

     Having said all that, if any of you readers out there have read and enjoyed reading ‘Lawn House Blues’ do feel free to submit a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Please regard this as a gentle nudge, as I’m not going to bribe you. Be assured it’s quite an easy and straightforward process to write and post a brief review and you might well make a writer’s day.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Finding the Right Title


Finding the right title

Choosing a good title for a story or novel can be tantalisingly difficult. I usually resort to random brain-racking, leading to a few unsatisfactory possibilities based on fixations with particular phrases or words that cannot be dislodged from the mind. So, I wondered if using a more systematic approach would help.
            Predictably, there is a wealth of material online – individual writers and organisations offering various approaches. I selected one by iUniverse: https://www.iuniverse.com/Resources/Writing-Editing/HowToChooseABookTitle.aspx
This provides a step-by-step guide to generating possible titles. The advice starts with some general ‘rules’ about titles and then moves on to 10 ‘Tips to get Creativity Flowing’.

            I tried to use these tips to generate titles (in italics) for a novel I am currently writing. (Please note that I have adapted the tips. There is more detail on the site.)

1.      Consider the essence of your book. What is your book about? Underlying theme of story?
Illegitimacy, Identity, Paternity.  Comment: As titles these sound like Sociology books

2.      Look over your book’s text. Are there any lines that jump out at you?
Revelry for Gentlemen.  Comment: In the novel this phrase, used in a letter by one of the minor characters, is meant to suggest the attitudes of upper class men to lower class women, but as a title it sounds rather pornographic.

3.      Add perspective. How do the characters see themselves?
The two main characters commit criminal acts of different types and are remorseful.
Remorse, The Guilt of Thieves, The Price of Theft

4.      Consider the visual. Is there a special setting for the story?
Early 18th century King’s Lynn, a thriving port with coastal and overseas trade.
Port of Plenty, Smugglers’ Haven

5.      Add some mystery.
Who is my father? The Love Child, A Question of Fatherhood, A Mother’s Secret

6.      Research best-selling titles in your book’s genre

A very swift survey reveals certain preferences:  the pattern definite article – adjective – noun e.g The Italian Wife, The Incendiary Plot, The Scarlet Thief and definite article – possessive noun phrase e.g. The Gamekeeper’s Wife, The King’s Evil, The Prince of Mirrors



7.    Search for words in the dictionary. Flip to random pages in your dictionary and look over the words.
dishonour, flesh and blood, imbue, mental, pursuer, rogue, titled, vassal
Comment: A thesaurus might have produced more relevant words!

8.      Consider song lyrics and lines from poems and other books.
The Family Face (a phrase from a poem by Thomas Hardy called ‘Heredity’)

9.      Free write. Jot down every title, word or combination of words that comes to mind.
Boat Crew, Inherited Evil, River of Evil, Redemption, Criminal Classes, Compulsion, The Hoard, Father and Daughter, Orphans of Evil, Theft and Keeping, Evil in the Blood, Crime in the Blood

10.  Change your words. Try adding an adjective or verb to the main idea of your book.
Wicked Inheritance, Beautiful Bastard, Unknown Daughter, Base Born, Thieving Classes, Finding Father


In conclusion, this process certainly generated a wider range of ideas than I can usually produce, though I’m not convinced that I’ve found the right title yet!



Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Getting to know one's characters.




I once read that Philip Roth used to interview his main characters. Then more recently I happened to come across an ‘interview’ between Michael Connelly and his main character, Harry Bosch. So I thought it might be an interesting exercise, in my authorial persona of Paula K Randall, to interview my main character, Detective Inspector Fiona Brightman. So here is the result.

PKR
Thanks for seeing me. Are you sure you’re quite comfortable where we are?

FB
Yes, well I wouldn’t want to do this in my office.

PKR
No, quite. I think I can understand that.

FB
So what is it you want to know? Do you make a habit of interviewing police officers?

PKR
No, actually. I’ve never done it before. But you’ve been in the news quite a bit lately, haven’t you? Those murders in Hangman’s Wood…

FB
Yes, before we continue, I do want to dispel a lot of what was in the press. These guys were NOT serial killers. They attacked four people, it’s true, but only actually killed one. The little boy died, yes, but that was manslaughter. Plus, I hope you’re not going to sensationalise this interview, because if that’s so we can stop it right here.

PKR
Absolutely not. I only mentioned them because they’re so recent. And as I understand it, you took a great personal risk in apprehending the culprits.

FB
Police officers take great risks every day.

PKR
So is that what attracted you to the job?

FB
Taking risks? Of course not.

PKR
So can you tell me what it was about the job that made you decide to go for it?

FB
 I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.  Well, in a way there was, I suppose. It was at the annual university milk round – you know, where employers set up stall to recruit new graduates to their industry. The opportunities for graduates to fast track seemed appealing. And I didn’t have anything else in mind, to tell the truth.

PKR
I read somewhere that you did a Literature degree. Do you think that helped in any way? It doesn’t seem like the logical next step, does it?

FB
It’s true I’d considered further study and looking for a university post eventually. I suppose that’s what my parents had expected. That’s what one of my older brothers did, and so I guess they just assumed, you know…

PKR
So they’d have been surprised.

FB
Yes, you could say that (laughs). But they were supportive. They’d have supported me whatever I decided, but there were some fairly lengthy conversations, let’s put it like that.

PKR
I read somewhere you’re from Manchester. Suffolk must seem a bit sleepy after that.

FB
At times, maybe. But you’ve just referred to a pretty involving case, so it’s not always as tranquil as people may think.

PKR
What brought you to Suffolk in the first place?

FB
My husband’s job. He was offered a promoted post here and we liked the area.

PKR
So you were lucky to get a transfer.

FB
In a way, yes, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that. I did six months maternity cover in Essex before the position here came up.

PKR
Do you miss Manchester?

FB
No.

PKR
Can we talk about your personal life for a moment? You don’t have children. Have you considered that, or do you think it’s a bit difficult in your job.

FB
No, plenty of police officers have children. It’s just not right for me at the moment. You see we did have a daughter, but she died.

PKR
That’s awful, I’m sorry. Was it an unexplained death?

FB
No, not at all. She died from undiagnosed meningitis.

PKR
That’s really shocking. Did you consider suing the doctor, the hospital, the NHS, whatever.

FB
Not really. It wouldn’t have brought Amber back. And I’ll never forget that young doctor’s face. He’ll never forgive himself, but I don’t suppose he’ll make that sort of mistake again.

PKR
OK. You mentioned a practical reason you joined the police – good promotion prospects and so on. But I’d like, if I may, to dig a little deeper. Could you talk a bit about what you find most satisfying about it?

FB
Yes, I suppose I’ve thought quite a bit about that. My parents would probably say I was born saying ‘that’s not fair’. And I do have a deep=seated sense of fair play. And it always seems to me so unfair that some people get away with harming other people. And I guess I wanted to try and prevent that as much as I could. Right some wrongs, you know?  And also, I always feel deeply for victims. I often feel as if they’re speaking to me, even accusing me of not protecting them. And that drives me, that feeling. Absolutely drives me.

PKR
Do you believe in evil?

FB
Gosh, that came from left field! I think the answer has to be no, not in pure evil anyway. I do believe in corruption, and I suppose that suggests that some influence, whether it’s internal or external has been at work. And I don’t believe in pure good, either. I doubt if any of us is immune from a little bit of illegality or immorality. You know, a few biros pinched from the office, speeding through a built-up area, just being mean to someone or taking a bit of spiteful pleasure in someone’s downfall.

PKR
But don’t you think mass murderers and so on are evil?

FB
I think that’s a bit na├»ve, if you don’t mind me saying so. I think there are people who are somehow born without, or with very little anyway, empathy. And that might explain why they do certain things. But you’d have to talk to a theologian, not me, if you want to discuss the nature of evil.

PKR
So are you religious?

FB
Not really. I’m not actually irreligious. I was brought up a rather lukewarm Catholic, and I think I still have a bit of that residual guilt that we Catholics imbibe with our mother’s milk. It’s not something I give much thought to, to be honest.

PKR
Well I’m going to ask you one last question. An easy one. Do you watch cop shows or read detective novels?

FB
(laughs) I’m not keen on TV representations of the police. They’re not usually very accurate, and I get exasperated. My husband watches them. I do sometimes read detective novels, though. Usually that’s because I like the main character. That’s really important to me in a novel, and I like to feel that the author really likes his/her characters, even if s/he is poking gentle fun at them.

PKR
Well thank you so much for this interview.

FB
So can I go now?