Monday, 2 July 2018

The Selkie, Self-Belief, and Asking for Help #theselkie

By the time this gets posted, I will have just started my first full performance of The Selkie in front of Actual People in nearly two years. I think it’s fair to say that I’m nervous. I’m also launching my fundraiser, and that’s pretty scary as well, but for other reasons (namely: I’m crap at asking for help; help!).

Two years ago, I finished tinkering with my first solo show, The Selkie: A Song of Many Waters. It’s an hour-long show that celebrates a modern life mythologised, where nearly all the characters are mythological, fairytale, or everyday creatures. I wanted to explore what it meant to be someone who know that they’re different, but not how or why, and the journey they take to discover that. Using the analogy of a selkie – a Celtic sea creature that looks like a seal until it sheds its skin to look human – that didn’t know that its transformative pelt had been taken from it at birth. The Selkie in this tale grows up able to do amazing things with its voice, but also somewhat shunned as an anomaly.

At the end of nearly two years of development I had a show I was proud of – people seemed to enjoy it, using some very complimentary terms (and some technical language that was new to me) to say how much it spoke to them, how much it moved them.

I had created something that dipped and weaved between performance poetry, storytelling, and song, with elements of the traditional weaved with the modern. It made people laugh – for which I wasn’t entirely prepared! – and cry – about which I felt a bit guilty, as well as expressing all sorts of emotions in between.

After some previews, I performed it for a week at Edinburgh Fringe, after two weeks of running other shows, came home, and abruptly got ill. Very ill. I lost my voice for nine months; lost far more weight than I could easily afford, unable to eat much. I couldn’t sleep unless I sat up, and even then only for snatches of time before I stopped breathing. Every night for months.

Frankly: it was a bit rubbish. Also: somewhat frightening, to say the least. And, on top of that, I’d lost – I thought, perhaps, forever – one of the things that informed my identity – made me… me…

The real irony was that this came hot on the heels of performing a show about a creature whose power – and weakness – is bound up in its voice, while watching my career as a vocal artist vanish.
As I started to recover, I got the news that The Selkie had been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for best Spoken Word Show. In case you don’t know: this is a Big Deal in the spoken word world, and I was over the moon!

Luckily, I currently have a better handle on my health, and my voice has recovered somewhat. I’ve decided to bring The Selkie back to life – give her a voice again. I’ll be performing the show at Edinburgh Fringe 4th-11th August at 52 Canoes, Grassmarket, 12:30pm every day except Wednesday 8th, and – for once – I’ve decided to ask for people’s help to make this happen.

I’m going with the Free Fringe, as ever – they make it easy for both artists and audiences to take risks by not charging either a penny. However, as artists, we’re reliant on audience donations to help offset our costs, and getting audiences in costs money.

Publicity, accommodation, transport, props, hiring a technician to provide music cues, insurance, costume – they all cost money. And creating merchandise to sell to try to recoup some of that cash means spending money up-front. In all it costs between one and two thousand pounds to take a show run of eleven days up to The Fringe. And no – there are no official grants available!

I have to work part-time because my health isn’t strong enough, and having chronic health conditions costs money in itself. Yay. But I thought that, instead of owning the bank interest, I’d owe you a reward – far more satisfying! If you donate, you can claim from a range of returns on your investment from a hearty thanks, a badge, the book or CD of the show, prints of the beautiful artwork by Sa’adiah Khan, to a writing or performance coaching session with me, or various other rewards. And you can tell everyone that you’re an official patron of the arts, as well as earning my undying gratitude, and helping to ensure that more people get to enjoy the show!

Thanks for reading, and hopefully see you soon!

Monday, 12 March 2018

Back to the Archives

I talked last month about my foray into writing fanfic. I’d written what was essentially a chunky short story (~7,100+ words) of angsty, explicitly erotic, transformative fiction. I told you that I’d enjoyed it and that it was likely I’d write more.

Boy, was I ever not wrong about that. Even before the first one was finished, I had ideas for another. Spurred on by the enthusiasm of the few people who actually commented, I started writing the follow-up. And it expanded into a gigantic monster thing, 23,976 words long and packed with more angst and more explicitly erotic stuff. And three fight scenes. And a bunch of historical detail*

And then I got ill. I’ve been dodging colds and other bugs like a pro for months now, but when it’s right inside your own house, the options are few, and there’s only so much echinacea and extra Vitamin C a body can take that will make a difference. So I set myself a challenge: be ill. Don’t do poetry admin, don’t run around doing extra stuff, don’t, for the love of Hades, go into work and a) make everyone else ill, b) make yourself more ill (see: stressed person in your house who has likely gifted you these microbes). You’re allowed to sleep and read. Okay, and write.

Oh boy. I polished off the gigantic monster work and decided to see whether I could write another one that I figured would be less popular in a few days, just get it out of my system and into the world.

The new one proved… Well, I enjoyed writing it (and doing the research - yes, I’m a nerd, whevs, as the youth say), but its pairing and its subject matter seemed to get fewer people going. By this point, I had a game plan (that, yes, kept expanding, shhh), but I knew it was only a step on the way to the later episodes. And I’ve tried to be less upset/ weirded out by the new piece’s lack of popularity, but there’s still a vocal part of me that’s been affected by the notion of a reduced audience.

Up until about halfway through the monster piece, I was writing for myself, and pleased that people were along for the ride. But now I’ve become a stats hound and got myself tangled up. Argh.

{Deep breath}

It hasn’t helped that someone started shouting at me in the comments section of Chapter 6, ALL CAPS AND ALL, because I dared suggest that one character might think that the life of female, Renaissance royalty might be a bit constrained. To put it into context: this passionately verbal reader would presumably have already read through five chapters of intimate fantasies, graphic depictions of masturbation, a completely invented play re-imagining Genesis by evoking Lilith, detailed talk of herb-growing, etiquette, and historically accurate chess (because I love to do this stuff to myself is why), and THIS WAS THE HILL THEY WOULD DIE ON, BY GOD. I’ve been sanguine about it and presented myself as wryly amused by this to friends with whom I’ve discussed the issue; I’ve been calm, polite, and assertive in my responses to the commenter (despite receiving more shouting at first, and silence thereafter); I’ve refused to let myself doubt the particular aspect about which they’re shouting rattle my resolve (pretty sure I’m right and they can take a hike). However, their actions have damaged my calm; up until now the comments section was a place of validation and over-excited people (there were fewer of those latterly (again: I knew this one would be less popular), but still…), and now there’s the possibility of people hating what I wrote for the oddest of reasons that I can’t predict and waah, basically: honeymoon’s over.

And yet here’s the thing. I’m starting into a fourth work (AO3 allows people to post works (multi-chaptered or otherwise), which can in turn form part of larger series), which will draw all the threads of everything I’ve written about (plus some canon stuff), and I already have detailed notes about it (and the two further works to follow). In 25 days I have combined 52,508 cohesive, coherent, reasonably well-researched (do other fanfic writers go on IMDB and other sources to check the heights and freeze-frame shots of actors to get the eye colour right?!) words (not including plot notes, dialogue fragments, and research) and have a bunch more planned.

In other words, I’ve written more than people are supposed to aim for in NaNoWriMo in less than a month, and it all makes sense. And about the getting weird over stats thing; here’s some True Facts for ya:

First piece: 7,135 words in 2 days, 658 hits since 14-Feb-18 and still growing.
Second piece: 23,976 words in 14 days, 1,139 hits since 19-Feb-18 and still growing.
Third piece: 18,670 words in 5 days, 371 hits and still growing.
Fourth piece (unfinished): 2,727 words in 1 day so far, 75 hits already (two of those in the time it took to write this post).

That’s freakin amazing - why am I being such a meanie to myself about this?!

I have, it turns out, made the mistake of going and comparing my stats (comments and kudos included, which I haven’t listed above) with people who have been writing works for this fandom for… years. I haven’t even been doing it a month, I’ve just been a bit… intense about it all. I cannot realistically expect as many people to be invested in this newbie who likes writing extended (apparently very realistic - that’s nice! :) ) dialogue and gathering plot points around the filth.

And yet. And still.

So here's my new challenge: write the thing, enjoy the thing, post the thing. If you don't get many hits or kudos or comments, whatever - you will have written this for yourself and you will have had a blast. Anyone else who enjoys it is a bonus, ffs. And you will have created the equivalent of a medium-sized novel. Now take that information and discipline and apply it to non-fanfic work (like, e.g. your wayward novel).





{sigh} Yes, it would appear that I can’t even write naughty fiction about characters for whom I don’t need to do any world-building without Googling the shit out of what would be realistic and appropriate. Everyone’s lucky I didn’t start getting over-intense about weaponry, but I now know a lot more about European Late Renaissance (is that a term? Fuck it…) footwear, headwear, outerwear, and underwear than I did, also lighting (civic and personal), drainage, personal hygiene, coinage, exchange rates, civic building, historical characters around which the original fictional characters would have been based, geography, bed linen, the intersection of church and state, royal regiments, and the creation of post roads. I also know some interesting words for human anatomy that I didn’t before. Let your mind boggle over that unlikely scenario! And then I had to balance it off so that the historical detail just ticked over in the background and grounded the sex in something realistic without turning into Little Miss Exposition.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Here's One For The Archives

For the last couple of days I’ve been doing something I said I’d probably never do, something I long derided, even used as a short-hand for a certain type of moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and right now I can’t see me ever stopping. Chances are very good you’ll never bear witness to it.

Some background: A couple of weeks ago I. Wait. Okay, back in March last year, I. Hmm. No.

Right. Late September 2016 it started to become clear that the bad laryngitis and the terrifying moments of stopping breathing every time I slept wasn’t going away anytime soon and, quite frankly, I could probably have coped with the sleep deprivation, but, as the months went on, not being able to speak, let alone sing, properly started to fray my sanity.

After the HILARIOUS cancer scare (“Oh, that was just a clerical error!” Riiiight...), and a growing understanding of how to manage the underlying problem, my voice started to crawl back. I was underweight, quiet, squeaky, and in a permanent fog of tiredness, like a ultra-depressing throwback to my teenage years, but I was able to walk without having to stop and cough every ten paces, and I’d even got back on the bike by mid-March.

Then I see a casual acquaintance on Facebook on the lookout for voice artists - especially if they’re not male, middle-class, or English. They definitely had a surfeit of those, thanks. One of my burgeoning career paths, the long-dreamt-of step into narration work, had been scythed out from under me in the autumn, so I thought: let’s play them my Audible showreel, and see what they think.

A driech Saturday in March comes and I’m buzzed into a building where I’ll stand in a darkened corridor, walls wrapped in a menacing shade of insulating material, and make a recording of what was supposed to be a one-off character slot for Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives. Just to make things more “interesting” for myself, I decided to go with a flat Cardiff accent, which actually worked out quite well in combination with the laryngitic rasp, for this hard-arsed police detective character (even though I had to channel a combination of my school bullies and my dad to get there). It was fun, it turns out I read the “statement” part well and accurately (and could just about manage the small bit of acting dialogue either side of the storytelling element), and then I went home, curiously uplifted.

After the episode went out I got asked back to reprise the character, who was now to develop a bit of an arc. By this point I’d got enough of a voice back to feel I made a better fist of it, and had to do more Actual Acting, which turns out to be fucking difficult. Who knew. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, a few sessions down the line.

Following their social media output, I discovered that, not only do they have a large, appropriately obsessive following, but many of the fans write fanfic. Like: a lot of it. The (apparently) least distressing selection lives, again appropriately enough, in Archive of Our Own (aka AO3), a place where I’ve rediscovered my love for well-written transformative fiction, while avoiding the hell out of anything to do with the fandom I’ve somehow found myself a peripheral part of (okay, fine: I read two pieces, neither of them in any way sexual, in which my character threatens/ beats the shit out of/ stabs people; seems legit).

I am, you see, as big a hypocrite as the next person - I’ve enjoyed all sorts of original erotic fiction/ slashfic/ fanfic, the latter mostly based in the Whedonverse, over the years, but have been known to use the word “fanfic” as a shorthand, derogatory term for derivative writing, occasionally wondering why some of the people producing such frankly breathtaking work online, for free, weren’t using their talents to create, you know, original characters.

See, I definitely thought (and think) that there’s a massive place for written erotica - queer erotica helped me come to terms with my sexuality, and it being online means that there was nothing for my mother to find (although that did mean I had to read it all on university computers - I’m old, remember), for example. And it’s a place to channel things that are unethical, illegal, and frankly downright impossible. I’ve heard some fairly compelling anecdotal evidence to say that getting the more dubious stuff off your chest in virtual terms sublimates the need to carry things over into real life. (Of course, it’s quite difficult to find a genetically modified, flying version of your own arse who wants to do you so...)

And yet, from trying to pop off like a Rentaghost as a five-year-old, to the time in my teens I dreamed I was Doctor Watson, through the time I wrote an undying time-traveller into the Trojan War (again in my teens), to every time (arguably), I write a showpoem reimagining mythological/ historical/ fictive characters, I have been engaging in transformative writing. Hell, Shakespeare and Marlowe did it. Matthew Bourne does it. Angela Carter did a lot of it. Patience Agbabi, Kate Tempest, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Alan Moore, Salman Rushdi, Tarrell Alvin McRaney, Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor, Ben Okri, and Margaret Atwood have all made moolah and reputations from it. George Lucas definitely did it. And, of course, if Joseph Campbell is right, we’ve only got a small handful of constantly recycled stories between us anyway.

Enough warm-up, Fay - tell us why you’ve got us here...

Fine. So, I have several writing projects that are currently on hiatus - most notably a commissioned poem that is about five months overdue (I’m so sorry), and a novel that I started last year while near-mute, which keeps growing, shows no signs of stopping, and is still at least 30% shy of completed. I have created nothing new except pieces in workshops and the odd new-poem-made-of-everyone-who’s-performed thing since August. In other words: if it’s planned, it’s not turning up. Argh.

Get on with it.

(Thanks for your patience so far!) Anyway, seemingly out of nowhere, on Wednesday this week, I picked up my laptop and started to write a wildly explicit bit of slashfic featuring characters from a piece of mainstream media. Within two days it had turned into eight short chapters of raw angst and filth which I posted, pretty much as I finished them, with minimal editing, onto AO3.

Within minutes of the first chapter going up, I had people I’d never met before reading and offering “kudos”, the platform’s “like” of choice. 48 hours later, and it has 375 hits (which I have to assume doesn’t translate to 375 people), a handful of kudos, and a scattering of complimentary comments (the person suggesting it needed a government health warning was a particular favourite).

I am, I have to say, feeling a little giddy (and mildly conflicted) about this. But we must analyse new experiences if we’re to learn and grow from them, so, what have I learned?

1. I can churn out what essentially amounts to a long short story (7135 words), with plot, development, structure, action, dialogue, and stuff, in less than two days.

2. When you have pre-created characters and worlds, all you have to do is a wee bit of tweaking, and their story is there. Everyone reading it knows the background, so there’s no mileage in world-building and exposition. (No-one wants to read 43 pages about Hobbit history, do they? Do they...?!)

3. I am a filthy, filthy bastard (mind: I’ve seen some of the tags on a bunch of these works, a set of rather hefty trigger warnings left, right, and centre - turns out I’m a filthy bastard who has strong preferences for consensual, safe(ish), adult, human encounters, and I’m good with that).

4. The dopamine rush from a stranger begging you to add chapters and end their torment is quite extraordinary. And apt, obviously.

5. There is something frankly liberating about being Not Yourself. It’s a long time since I’ve written under a pseudonym, and moving out from under it was liberating then, but this is something else now.

6. My poetry blog posts, and this one, easily garner 100-odd views these days, and I’m happy with that baseline. (Listen: I know where I stand in the poetry rankings of the world.) My most popular entry on any of my blogs ever topped 1400 views, but that was over the course of 20 months and, now I come to think of it, is actually a transformative piece (satire counts, right?). Hah! :D

Contrast this: within 48 hours I had over 300 views of this one work. If I’m after an easy fix on approbation, this has some quality juice to offer. (Yeah, I am aware of how that sounds...)

7. I am now really excited about writing prose again. Like: really excited. And yes: some of it is going to be fan/ slash fiction (see points 2, 3, 4 and 5 above), but I think the characters from the dusty novel can finally stop poking me in the head and making a variety of disappointed faces when I say “maybe later” (sorry, kids).

8. I don’t really write straight prose anymore. This last two days I watched myself changing words because they would sound better, have more rhythm, play with internal rhyme. Thanks, performance poetry - I’m going to be writing on a slant for the rest of my life.

So, that’s it, really. I’ve been dying to tell someone, so I’m glad it could be you. Thanks for listening.

(What’s that? A link to the work? Ah. No. No, I don’t think so, do you? I mean, you know: not yet...)