Thursday, 13 January 2011

Your call is important to us

I've written two profile pieces for The Skinny in the last two days, which should appear on their site fairly soon. One of them was an email interview - I wrote some questions, he sent me back some replies. It sounds easy and I have to admit that copying and pasting does save a lot of typing. But what you end up with is this kind of weird join-the-dots puzzle, where you take all of the interesting and amusing quotes and weave them into a single narrative. Of course, I had a rough idea what shape the thing would be and I had structured my questions accordingly, but there was still a bit of patching up to do.

The other one was a terrific phone interview which went on far longer than it was meant too. Without a doubt this is a more enjoyable experience than emailing, but afterwards you have to do a lot of filtering and the more verbose the interviewee, the greater the chance that you'll have to chuck your original plan for the article in the bin.

Oh, and it helps if you record the call properly as well. Otherwise you have to rely on near-illegible handwritten notes. Doh.

I haven't done any face-to-face interviews for The Skinny yet but I'm dying to have a crack at it. It's been a loooong time since I've done one of those. Glasgow Comedy Festival is coming up in March, so I might get a chance then.

Monday, 10 January 2011

What have we learned?

In terms of writing, 2010 has felt like a little bit of a disaster, enough to really get me down.

Of course, thinking rationally, it's been anything but. Let's see: I've finished my Creative Writing diploma, won a place on a really good screenwriting course, written about five short stories and a 30-minute comedy pilot, finished out the year by doing a lot of comedy reviewing for The Skinny, and the supersecret project I mentioned is actually still going full steam ahead. The Skinny stuff in particular I should be proud of: I've graduated to the paper edition, interviewed Russell Kane and earned probably the highest readership of my career to date.

So why do I feel down? Well, it's two things. One is that 2009 was for me, as a writer, probably the best year of my life. 2010 pales in comparison.

The other thing is that I've never really felt on top of things in 2010. A lot of the good things in 2010 have been down to some excellent people helping me out, nudging me on and giving me things to work on. I'm deeply grateful to them, but I haven't really felt much initiative behind me this year.

A lot of this is to do with the demands of normal life. I was discussing this with my writing buddy on Saturday, who is now going through a swanky novel-writing workshop run by Faber. She's in the same boat as me, struggling to balance writing with the demands of parenthood and having a full-time job.

(She has twice as many kids as me but she's twice the writer I am, so our burdens are roughly equal.)

The thing is, we've both been doing this balancing act for the last few years. We both frittered away enough time to write a dozen novels during our twenties; we've both written our best stuff while under enormous pressure from our personal lives. The demands of domesticity are not a good enough excuse for not writing.

Writing can be done anywhere at any time. Your office is in your head. The challenge isn't finding free time, the challenge is keeping your office organised and getting some work done.

So. A wobble in 2010, but back on course for 2011 is the plan. I've got a list of ideas, some little and some laughably huge. There will be successes, there will be some spectacular failures. Will I be happy this time next year? I will, if I can look back and say that I've given 2011 everything I've got.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Blind items

Two strange things happened yesterday:

First, one of the acts I gave a positive review to during the Fringe took the time to email me and thank me for the review. Which was lovely and unexpected. I never felt that reviewers were doing anything other than provide a little publicity, but the act involved (I won't name names) seemed genuinely pleased that someone rated their work so highly.

Second, a close friend rang me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to be involved in writing something. It's unpaid and it probably won't come to pass, but if it did then the project would be overseen by one of my favouritest writers in the whole universe. If anything does come of it, I'll post it here.

Today's been a far more normal day. I've got an idea for a lengthy project which is still at the brewing-in-the-back-of-my-brain stage. We'll see.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

For the write fee

So, in amongst all the Fringey stuff there has been some activity in the world of fiction, with another rejection letter bringing me thudding back to reality. It was from the In The Write Light people mentioned previously, and I will not be getting to spend a weekend up a mountain in Spain with Nell McCafferty. Awwww. Seriously, I would have loved that, even if I was slightly worried she might beat me up.

The rejection email came with an offer to return three pages of feedback on the submission which is of course an interesting offer, feedback being like oxygen to any hatchling writer. I emailed them for details and was quoted a price of €50. Not a huge amount, but fairly eye-watering to someone as skint as me.

I wondered if I was getting hustled (my Pavlovian response to any email asking me for money) but I realised that this probably represents better value for money than a lot of other writing competitions. So many of them have entry fees but offer no kind of feedback service for losing stories. It's possible to spend €50 in a few months without ever getting anything more than a few brief rejection letters.

So in fairness to the Write Light guys, it's probably not a hustle (although I'd need to see their feedback to see if it's worth €50). But there are plenty of other people out there willing to shake down new writers. The only guaranteed defence against them is to not have any money in the first place. It's worked for me so far.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reviewing the Fringe: a review (Part IV)

Part IV: Leading the cheers

And so we bring this fascinating thread of blog posts to an end by looking at the good stuff: four and five star reviews.

Trying to figure out the difference between a four and a five star review was one of the big headaches of the Fringe. A good headache, and one I suffered often because I was lucky enough to see some cracking shows.

My first review was Sarah Millican. She went on to be nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, so her show can’t have been that bad. I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed by her stage craft: underneath some fairly ordinary material is a world-class understanding of how to keep an audience laughing. I debated about whether it was a four or a five star show and ended up consulting the editor. I told her the show was “guaranteed great time” but not “show you’ll tell the grandkids about one day”. She recommended four stars. The Skinny set the bar pretty high.

(I had a very brief Twitter exchange with Sarah about this review. I told her that I thought she was phenomenal and she replied with “Phenomenal is 5 stars”, which I’m choosing not to interpret as snippy)

Once the bar is set though, it’s still a judgement call on whether you give 100% or hold something back. Often, I ended up comparing shows to each other. For example, Alex Horne and Helen Keen both had similar shows this year, Odds and It Is Rocket Science, involving multimedia and a lot of science. I loved them both and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one. But Odds felt slightly like an episode of a TV show, while It Is Rocket Science felt really fresh and original. So Alex gets four and Helen gets five, but there’s not really much in it.

I was similarly fond of both Jason Cook and Paul Sinha. Again they had similar shows, using dramatic experiences from the last 12 months as a framework, with lots of general stand-up thrown in the middle. But Jason used his experience as a theme, while Paul constructed a quite brilliant essay on intolerance in modern Britain. I came out of Pauls’ show feeling like I had witnessed a really important new voice emerging, so he got the five stars.

It’s random and arbitrary, but that’s the nature of reviewing, which is probably why artists hate being reviewed (unless they’re getting unqualified praise). But in some ways, this problem is the most enjoyable one faced by reviewers. I said before that I think reviews are at their best when they’re subjective and personal; making that decision between four and five stars give you that option to say that you really, really loved something and you desperately want to share it with others.


Thanks for reading all of this, if you have. Of course, I’m not remotely qualified to give definitive advice on reviewing. I just wanted to record some of my thoughts, which should also make a handy set of notes if I’m lucky enough to be doing it again next year.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Reviewing the Fringe: a review (Part III)

Part III : Stuck in the middle with several of you

So, previously I linked to an article by Alex Horne because it namechecked me and included a mortifying use of the phrase “OMG”. But there’s a line in there which really irked me and caught the eye of a few other reviewers. It’s this:
“Precious performers like me tend to sniff at the traditional reviewers’ star system, whereby newspapers give a show a mark out of 5 and thus can dismiss a year’s work with a simple 3 stars (or worse).”

A dismissal, eh? I’m going to cite myself here, and include some quotes from the three-star reviews I gave during the Fringe:
“For anyone with any kind of interest in comedy, this is an unmissable experience.”
“Extremely funny, but also observed with the painful honesty.”
“Borders on brilliant”

I mention these because they hardly count as dismissals. Sure, the reviews also include some negative things which is why they are three stars rather than five, but all of the three-star reviews I gave had something nice to say about the show. The same is true of most other three-star reviews I read, and therein lies the problem:

Nobody reads three-star reviews.

It makes sense, of course. During the Fringe, people are as bombarded by reviews as they are fliers and they have to exercise quality control. A one-star review will get a read because everyone likes a good bitch; a five-star review will get read because people want the hot tips. But a three-star review often may as well not exist.

Sometimes this is really frustrating. A couple of acts like Robert White and Nat Luurtsema had huge potential but slightly unpolished acts. I’d like to have given them four stars in the hope of encouraging people to see them, but they didn’t really deserve it. So they get a useless three-star review. (The ironic thing here being that the 0-star review White got on Chortle was probably a bigger profile-builder than any single review printed over the whole Fringe).

Speaking to other reviewers, there’s a general consensus that three-star reviews are the ones that really make you feel like people are only looking at the rating and nobody’s reading the copy underneath. It’s quite grim, because reviewers are writers and all want to be read.

Of the acts I reviewed, I only discussed my review with one: JoJo Sutherland. I met her on the very last day of the Fringe and accidentally let my name slip. She looked homicidal for a moment and I was about to launch into a defence of the three-star review (basically everything above, except delivered with a greater fear of being murdered). She smiled and gave me a huge hug, and thanked me for the nice review. She had actually read it and considered the text. That, folks, was probably my favourite moment of the whole Fringe.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Reviewing the Fringe: a review (Part II)

Part II : Execution Style; some thoughts on bad reviews

Bad reviews are when writers really get to strut. I’ve done some movie and music reviews in the past where I’ve gone giddy with delight while giving something a kicking.

Yet this Fringe I’ve only given one bad review, and that was a 2-star job. So why’s that?

One reason is simply that I had a good Fringe and enjoyed the majority of shows I saw. Another reason is the editorial policy of my kindly publishers, The Skinny. They basically warned us all that if we saw someone die on stage, it would be uncool to dance on their graves (they’re very anti-strutting).

But I do worry that I’m a bit too nice to comedians. Without breaking into autobiography, back in the 90s I got to spend a lot of time around comics and I learned two things about them:

1) They’re generally quite nice, warm people. The post-Tony Hancock myth of comedians being miserable gits offstage is generally nonsense. Comedy is a very tiny world and being able to get along with people is an essential survival skill.

2) It is impossible to overstate how important Edinburgh is to them.

I admit that whenever I’ve watched an act at the Fringe, I’ve been very aware of these two points. In this rather eye-catching, zero-star review of Robert White, the reviewer says “The reviewing convention is that a comic gets one star just for showing up and doing their show”. Not for me. I give two stars for completing the act, and deduct one if the act really annoys or offends me. (I gave Robert White three stars, by the way, but he didn’t walk off when I was there.

Is this the right way to be? I don’t know. My two-star review could have been a one-star. It was an act called Silence Of The Trams, a sketch troupe made up of what felt like a bunch of jobbing local comedians (I later discovered that they were… jobbing local comedians).

It was funny in places. It was boring in more places. Some bits were just excruciating. One sketch, portraying a first-time London comedian dying at the fringe, was so unknowingly self-referential that it made my toes curl. I checked my watch at one point and swore out loud when I realised there were fifteen minutes left.

So why didn’t I go for the jugular and shred them? Editorial policy; the fact that there were some good bits; the desire to reserve the 1-star rating in case I saw an act I really hated. But I do know that a part of it was simply the fact that I liked the guys. I liked them for pulling a show together and making an effort, even if it didn’t come off.

I wonder about how reasonable that is. If it was a movie, I would have stuck the boot right in.

The second bad act I saw were an Australian outfit called The Nelson Twins. I saw them on the first day of the previews, and wished I hadn’t bothered as they ploughed through a tedious set of one-liners delivered in a monotone and mainly dealing with incest and beards.

I chickened out of reviewing them. I had paid for my ticket so I was under no obligation, so I decided to just pretend I had never been there instead of slamming them. Some else did though, and you can read their review here. Worryingly, I still reckon I would have given them 2 stars. They seemed like really nice guys.

Reviewers should, in my opinion, be massively subjective. Trying to be balanced makes for dry, dusty writing. Better instead to be completely true to your own opinions. Be passionate and hope that your voice connects with people. I adore Mark Kermode, not because he’s always right but because he’s such a devoted cineaste.

But maybe it’s a little too subjective to feel respect for anyone willing to stand up and have a bash at making me laugh. I would probably be a better reviewer if I didn’t pull punches.
Not that I’m certainly not going to go seeking out bad shows just so I can practice being nasty. I’ll keep doing it my way for as long as The Skinny will have me. And of course, this means that if I ever do give a 1-star review, you know I really hated it.

In part 3: a discussion of the worst possible review for comedians, reviewers and readers – the three star review.