Appearing at the Oxford Story Museum

There’s a place in Oxford called The Story Museum. It’s just re-opened after a bit of a break, with an exhibition called 26 characters, which features 26 famous authors dressed as their favourite character from childhood, photographed by Cambridge Jones.

The list of writers is like a who’s who of children’s literature and includes some of my contemporary favourites. There’s Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows, Philip Pullman as Long John Silver, Terry Pratchett as Just William, Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West; Julia Donaldson, Holly Smale, Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame), Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and many others.

And thanks to my wonderful writing mentor, John Simmons, a piece of my writing features there too. I’m a member of a writing organisation called 26 (after the number of letters of the alphabet) ideally linked to the theme of this exhibition. So, I was invited  to contribute a poem, to accompany one of the portraits.

The 26 writers were matched completely randomly with an author and a letter of the alphabet. We got to see Cambridge Jones’ splendid photographs of our author and were set the task of writing a sestude – a literary form of exactly 62 words (26 in reflection).

I positively squeaked when I discovered that my author, Steven Butler, had chosen The Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his favourite character. I love Alice in Wonderland and the characters have continued to inspire some of my creative writing.

Michelle reading The Horse and His Boy
Enjoying one of my favourite books from childhood again. Photo by Mike Tulip

I didn’t know Steven Butler’s work, so I quickly read a couple of his books and found out a bit more about him. He’s written a fabulously funny series called ‘The Wrong Pong’ which tells the story of how Neville Briskett is mistaken for a young troll and sucked down the toilet to Underland.  And more recently, he’s written ‘The Diary of Dennis the Menace’.

I loved ‘ The Wrong Pong’ and think it’s a great series for children to read for themselves. It has the right mix of disgusting, yuckyness to put off most adults as well as being a cracking adventure story that rips along  at a fair pace.

It’s been great to discover a new writer who I wouldn’t normally come across too. I really like the way he creates his characters, especially the troll family who adopt Neville and absolutely love the special language they use. I was delighted to be able to include one of Steven’s brilliant made-up words in my sestude which you can read on the Story Museum’s website.

I’ve also written about one of my favourite childhood characters, Aravis from the Horse and His Boy for the museum’s digital gallery. Thanks to Mike Tulip for taking the accompanying photo.

It would be enough to have a poem in an exhibition alongside some of our most brilliant writers, but to have the chance to pay tribute to one of Lewis Carroll’s most memorable characters in the city where he first created Wonderland is a real honour, and a little daunting.

But Carroll wasn’t just an Oxford man. He has connections with the North East of England, where I live too. He visited members of his family who lived at Whitburn, and according to his letters, wrote the first verse of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ while he was in the area. So there’s a nod to that in my poem too.

I studied Carroll at university and later researched the influence of the North East landscape on his work for a feature I produced whilst working at the BBC. You can see what I discovered about Lewis Carroll’s connections with the North East on this archived website.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but thanks to stalking the story museum on twitter, I’ve seen a few glimpses. It seems each room becomes the setting for a different character, so I look forward to stepping into Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland when I go to visit in May.

It’s been a brilliant project to work on. The only difficulty has been keeping it secret for so long. And now I can’t wait to see it for myself. The exhibition lasts until December, so if you’re in Oxford and go to see it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Finding the joy of business writing

I gave blood yesterday. There’s sometimes a bit of a wait, so I grabbed a book to pass the time. Having finished my most recent fictional treat, I picked one off my desk – Room 121 by John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

The front cover proclaims it “a masterclass in writing and communication in business”. I say it’s a really good read.

It takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation between the two writers, sharing their thoughts, wisdom and experience of writing for many different kinds of business. And having spent many wonderful hours in their company on a couple of Dark Angels writing courses, I can hear John and Jamie’s voices in my head as I read it.

I opened it at random to find John speaking to Jamie about the joy of writing (page 119 if you’re interested). As a copywriter for a large company, it’s sometimes something hard for me to find. It’s a challenge to keep things fresh when you’re covering the same subjects or writing about the same products over a sustained period of time.

But I find ways. Sometimes I take a sideways approach, starting a draft in a deliberately different style, or with a word chosen at random from a nearby book. Or I begin the assault on the blank page by free writing, just spending 15 minutes or so taking my pen for a walk, writing non stop, banishing the inner editor and seeing where it takes me. There’s usually a phrase or combination of words, a nugget that gives me a way in to the next, more focused draft.

Yesterday’s moment of joy came from using the word ‘palaver’ in a piece I was writing. Palaver – what a wonderful playful word. Doesn’t it just make you smile? Don’t you want to say it? To feel it tumble around your mouth?

It’s not a word you might expect to see in a piece of business writing. But it was a direct quote from a customer, a fish and chip shop owner describing the experience of using his software saying: “There’s no faff. There’s no palaver.” Perfect. Real words. Authentic, natural and robust language. They gave me a small moment of joy. I reckon we need more of that in business writing.

Read more from John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey on their blogs.

Writing with a sense of place

La Finca
Our outdoor classroom in Aracena

I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.

In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.

The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.

Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.

I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.

Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.

So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.

Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.

I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.

And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.

Does a sense of place influence your writing too?

If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post. 

A new word for a familiar feeling

Someone tweeted this link  to words that don’t exist in English. Well I love a new word or 25, so I was happy to learn some.

The one that really stood out for me was:

Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; from Greek)– doing something with soul, creativity or love. When you put something of yourself into what you’re doing.

Isn’t that a lovely word for a lovely idea?

It got me thinking about what I do with meraki.

I write with it, certainly. Not always, I’ll admit. But the really good stuff, the phrases that have stayed with me, things I’ve been nervous about making public have had meraki.

I read with meraki too. When I pick them up, books are more than just objects. They open up new landscapes and conversations. There are characters I regard as old friends. They have delighted and comforted me when I’ve needed it.

I train with meraki too. Probably running is where I find it most often. It’s easy to trace in those glorious faultless moments where it feels so easy, it’s like flying. When you feel like you could keep going for ever. They don’t last long, but you never forget them.

There’s meraki too in the tough times, the early mornings or the sweat, strain and mental challenge of a race. When you push yourself and leave it all out there, because just then, at that moment it’s the whole, the everything, the only thing that really matters.

I half joked elsewhere this week that I run with my heart. Of course I do. It pumps the blood to my muscles so that I can. But I meant more than just the physical biology.

When I run, when I train, when I swim or cycle, emotion plays a big part in it. Positive and negative, frustration and success, high drama and quiet reflections.

And I think what I really meant was that I do it with meraki. I just didn’t have the word for it. Now I do.

Of writing and running

I have had an amazing, inspiring and humbling week. I have sung, read, listened, thought and written at high volume. I have given my writing the same focus, energy and passion as my running.

In two days at Toftcombs, I have been whalloped by words, lambasted by language – Russian, Swahili, Arabic, Spanish; flailed by the feathers of a parakeet, smothered in spices and chocolate, bombarded by beetroot.

I have exhausted my mind, my memories, my emotions. Delighted in discovery and found the quiet confidence of belief.

I am beaten. Empty. Satiated. I have feasted well and am satisfied. I left joyful and hopeful, but craving rest.

I have never felt less like a run. My adrenaline habit had been fed by a riot of images, ideas and conversations. By simple complex human connections. After a late night that I never wanted to end and sad sweet goodbyes to my housemates of the past couple of days, I felt weary.

But a run was the plan. And a much anticipated run too. A new course promising pace. And a chance to see some old friends I’ve never met before.

Me and Alastair at the beginning of Edinburg parkrun
On my way to a new PB

Alastair met me at the appointed time and place and we drove to Cramond, catching up on his time in Tyneside. We were only parked up for a moment when Lesley arrived. I couldn’t get the car door open quickly enough. She has the best and brightest smile and the most enveloping hug.

Busy with parkrun preparation, I began to shake off my tiredness. The cold air had me pondering extra layers as we made our way down to the course.

The sea churned into mudflats. The trees glistening golden leaves, shaking off the remains of a shower. This is a course that promises riches.

Al knows everyone and introduced me to a couple of the parkrun regulars. I was keen to be moving, to warm through my cold legs. A few jumps, heel kicks and knee lifts and some perfunctory stretches and I Geordied up, ditching my hoodie and long sleeved top.

Before I knew it, we were lining up at the start. I felt small in the crowd, unsure where to place myself, not catching any eyes. An almost casual three, two, one – go. And I start the Garmin. 

Al running beside me, we set off at a lick. Two days of reading out loud, talking and discussing words around the fire have left me with a dry throat. The cold air catches my breath and I struggle to soothe it, coughing to clear my airways.

Lesley and me
Lovely Lesley and a big hug

“Are you okay?”
 “Yes!” I say confidently, resolutely. At least I’m not cold now.

We wave and smile at Lesley and the camera.

Out along the sea front and the wind whips my face, but my legs are warming through and stretching out and I sense this first kilometre is fast. The Garmin beeps and I check it at 4:44. That is fast for me and it’s the only time I look at my watch.

Al pulls ahead, running easily and I keep pushing to keep pace. But the wind’s stronger now and I start to drift backwards through the pack. Never mind, never mind. Run your own race. Keep pushing. You have a precious 15 seconds in the bag.

The runners stream ahead, impossibly distant. I cannot see the turning point. I sense I have slowed and Al is more distant still.

I feel empty. My core is hollow. There is nothing left inside. I am here running beside the sea, on a cold autumn day and I do not feel it. My heart has left me.

I always wondered what it would feel like to run cold, not caring. Just the white clean focus of a race. I do not like it. The emptiness unsettles me. I need the heat of the passion, the desire to race.

I feel my dreams of a sub 25 min or a PB are over. And I’m sad, because I feel like that’s letting Al down. But then I think, it’s Al, he’ll understand. I keep his bright red shirt in my sights and my stubborn legs propelling me forwards.

I realise I cannot feel my toes and have been clodhopping flat footed for goodness knows how many strides. I try to wriggle my icy extremities and roll through my feet.

As the turning point approaches, Al’s spotted that I’ve dropped back further than he realised and veers off the racing line, slowing down to meet me. “Come on,” he encourages, “Not far now.”

We turn and I am lifted. Is it that I am out of the wind or just that I have my good friend running beside me? I don’t know, but I feel more hopeful.

It’s hard though and my breath is still patchy. I slow to catch it, but cannot afford to lose the speed. When my breathing is like this, it’s too easy to let everything else go. I push on and try to stretch out, allowing myself a brief grunt of frustration as another runner passes, pushing a buggy, and shows us a clean pair of heels. 

Al is jogging. I can hear this pace is easy for him though it’s not for me. As we pass Lesley again, he fools around for the camera. I cannot even spare the energy for another smile.

The final stretch approaches. We are into the last kilometre and I’ve tried to pick it up, once, twice, three times. Fighting the urge to slow down. Doing the opposite of what I feel and going faster.

“Don’t go until we get into the trees,” Al advises. Even when we get to the trees I know there’s still a fair distance and I’ve learned my lesson from parkrun a few weeks ago when I tried to chase down the girl in black from 800m.

This time it’s a girl in blue who is my nemesis. She eases past as we approach the end. Marshall’s fluorescent jackets teasing us towards the finish.

“Come on!” Al cries. “You can crawl from here and still get a PB.”

Can I? I have not looked at my watch, but I sense I have picked up the pace in the last kilometre and maybe dogged determination was enough for the middle two.

Now my blood is up. Now my heart is in it. If you’re a girl, you don’t get past me this close to the prize. I start to rev through my gears. A bit faster. And again. Get the arms moving. Stop thinking, just bloody go for it. I put the hammer down and sprint for the finish. The girl in blue doesn’t stand a chance.

Over the line. Stop the watch. Collapse, fighting for breath. 

Al keeps me moving through the funnel. I just want to keep my head down and recover. Eventually I scroll through to today’s time –  24:43. You beauty!

The demons of doubt and tiredness have been beaten. This run was good. This run had heart. This run did matter. It would still have been a glorious run, because my friends were there. But to break that magic 25 minute mark for the first time is very special.

We escape to extra layers and warm ourselves with hot drinks and cake in the nearby cafe and another cuddle from Lesley. It is a fitting way to finish a brilliant few days and I feel incredibly lucky.

I’m lucky I have found running and it has found me. I’m lucky it’s brought me new friends and unimagined experiences.

I’m lucky too that my first love has not left me. Through running I began to return to writing for myself again after too long away. Two days at Toftcombs in the company of some stunning Dark Angels has reminded me of writing’s richness and the power it has to speak to my heart, if I let it.

I have returned to my neglected love and been welcomed with open arms. We have vowed not to take each other for granted again, but to spend more time together, working on this relationship, and enriching each other’s company.

The language of the World Cup

So the World Cup kicked off today and as well as the host nation hoping to build its reputation on the back of football fever, there are plenty of big name brands hoping to cash in as a worldwide audience of millions turns its attention to South Africa.

It means beer and burgers in the supermarket, barbecues at the petrol station and any amount of plastic tat on sale just about everywhere you look.

There are some big brands out there hoping to draw some of that attention to themselves through their TV adverts. Nike’s done one featuring its sponsored footballers, Pepsi and Sony have taken a humorous approach, but the one that’s caught my eye, or rather ear is Carlsberg’s team talk.

It mimics a motivational team talk, putting you, the viewer, in the heart of the action; from the dressing room out into the tunnel, encouraged on by some British sporting legends, with a rousing speech ringing in your ears.

Watch it and listen to it. How does it make you feel? Inspired? Emotional? Excited? That’s not an accident. While the film itself is undoubtedly designed to push your emotional buttons, the language is designed to do that too. In fact it users a number of tricks to grab your attention.

Here are the opening lines:
“He says he knows how good you are. You know how good you are. It’s time to prove how good you are.”

Look at the repetition. It’s like poetry. Sometimes when we’re writing, we may feel that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves and will go to great lengths to find an alternative word or phrase, but here it’s used to create a particular effect.

Repetition is often used in speeches, to reinforce a point or to get a message across. And it can be stirring stuff. Just think of Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Did you notice that ‘how good you are’ is repeated three times in those opening lines? That’s not an accident either.

Patterns of two and three (doublets and triplets) just seem to make sense to our ears. In fact the rule of three is often used in speeches because people tend to remember three things. For example: “Friends, romans, countrymen”, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

It also helps to create a rhythm to the language. And in the case of the Carlsberg advert that rhythm subtly changes as it builds to its climax. Although none of the phrases are particularly long and wordy, it starts off slowly and by the end there’s a noticeable quickening created by short, sharp phrases, like: “Enough talk. Time for action”. There are two sentences there without a verb in them. Remember your English teacher told you a sentence had to have a verb in it? Sometimes breaking the ‘rules’ can create something quite powerful. The trick is knowing when to do it.

Listen again to the words in this advert. There’s nothing highbrow, nothing fancy there. “It’s gonna take bottle,” may be a sly nod to the brand’s product, but it’s also the kind of language that you’d use with your mates down the pub. The point is that it’s simple, everyday language. Nothing poshed up, no jargon, just good old everyday words.

And that’s something that I try to explain in my tone of voice workshops. That simple language doesn’t have to be dull or dumbed down. Simple language doesn’t have to lack passion. Simple language can be strong and powerful. As strong and powerful as a ball hitting the back of the net.

My top ten tips for business writing

1. Begin with one grain of sand
In other words, you have to start somewhere. So state your purpose and outline what you’re trying to do.

2. Be a reporter
Ask the questions who, what, where, when, how and why? And answer them. Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

3. Just do it (no critics allowed)
The best way to write something is just to write it. Banish your inner critic. At this stage no one cares if it’s spelt wrong or you missed an apostrophe. Just get on and do it. You can go back and refine things later.

4. Be active
Choose the active, rather than the passive voice eg. ‘I am doing this’, rather than ‘this is being done’. It makes you sound more involved, interested and less shifty.

5. Sell the sizzle
Every time we write in business we’re trying to get a response. It’s not just about increasing our sales (though that’s a distinct advantage), but also about how people feel about doing business with us. So we have to write persuasively and that means talking about benefits not features. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

Think about perfumes – their feature is they make you smell nice, but they’re sold on the benefit that smelling nice will encourage the object of your admiration to fall at your feet. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

6. Leave it
It’s easy, particularly when you know your subject really well to get wrapped up in what you’ve written, to lose perspective. Take some time to away from it and come back with new eyes. It can be as little as a few minutes while you make a phone call, grab a coffee, whatever – but try to read it as though you’ve never seen it before.

7. Prune it
Read through what you’ve written and look for places where you may have repeated yourself. Look for the businesses and doublespeak; the handy jargon and short cuts we might use everyday but that make little sense outside our own circle. Cut big, then cut small.

Pruning also means you have to let some areas grow. Sometimes it might be better to take a couple of sentences to describe what something does instead of referring to what it’s called. So rather than telling me it’s a personal GPS system, you might want to describe it as a gadget that helps you pinpoint exactly where you are.

8. Map it
Help your reader out by signalling where you’re going. New paragraphs help single out thoughts. Bullets and lists are great for drawing attention to things – and they’re easy to read. Subheadings help the reader to skim through to key points of interest, or to pick up reading from where they left off.

9. Check it
Ideally you shouldn’t proof read your own copy, but in reality most of us have to. Use your spell check if it’s an electronic document (make sure you’ve chosen English dictionary), but remember it’s not infallible. Take the time to read it through again.

Read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If you spot a mistake, look for the one next to it.

10. Test it
Does your piece of writing do what you set out to do? Get a second opinion. Does your tester understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

This made me smile…alot

We all make mistakes. And it’s easy to make them when you’re writing. The English language has some rather unusual spellings and lots of words sound the same, but have different spellings e.g. write, right, wright. They’re called homophones by the way.

So when someone sent me this link, it made me chuckle:
It’s a light hearted look at a common error in writing.

I have to confess, it’s the kind of error that would normally make me tut and roll my eyes. But now, if I see it, I’ll smile and point the perpetrator to this post to help them remember the correct way to write ‘a lot’.

Matters of a hirsute nature

As any regular readers will know, I’m big fan of Neil Gaiman. I check his journal just about every day, usually as a treat to myself for meeting a deadline or finishing a piece of copy. It’s much more educational and far less fattening than chocolate.

Another blog treat is Separated by a common language in which Lynneguist (great pseudonym) makes observations about British and American language with a great deal of humour and style.

So I was delighted to be able to forge a link betwen the two when I dropped Lynne an email in reference to Mr Gaiman’s recent posts about hair styles (here, here and in an interview over here). The fact that she took my suggestion and ran with it gave me a big smile and a warm fuzzy feeling. You can read her post here.

It also inspired me to start blogging again after an embarrassingly long time away.

I met a new word today

The word is chaebol. And today was the first time I’ve ever encountered it.

I met it in an article which referred to Samsung as a “Korean chaebol”, which didn’t really give me many clues as to what it meant. So I had to look it up. I couldn’t find it in the online Oxford or Cambridge dictionaries but came up trumps. 

For those of you still in the dark, chaebol is a conglomerate of businesses, usually owned by a single family, especially in Korea.

It’s not every day that I meet a new word. When I do, they’re often compound words  like podcast or blog, and I can work out their meaning from the context and understanding of their familiar roots.

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be using chaebol in my every day language. But it was nice to make its aquaintance.