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Mentoring 2020

2nd January 2020

I spent a lot of 2019 feeling frustrated about politics, toxic discourse and commercialisation. To put things back together, 2020 needs to be a year about grassroots positivity and building community. So I've decided to offer a little free mentoring to six new or emerging local writers. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m a professional writer who has also been teaching for fifteen years. I learned a few things along the way, and I’m happy to share.

This is what I can help with:

This is how it will work:

I will choose a writer for each two month block, Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr etc. I’ll make the decision based on where I feel I can be of the most use. In the first month, you’ll send me something to read, then we’ll meet for about an hour and have a chat. I’ll buy you a coffee or whatever, and make a few suggestions. In the second month, we’ll meet up again and see how it went. That’s it. I promise to be encouraging, and to give you a shout out on Twitter after the sessions if you like. You promise to be committed to your work.

If you’re not sure whether you qualify, you probably do. The only restrictions are: I’ll want to meet in/near Edinburgh, or maybe Glasgow city centre; and I can’t offer help with poetry, sorry.

If it sounds like this would be useful, drop me a line. Don’t worry about a CV or anything formal. And don’t overthink it. Just write a couple of paragraphs telling me what you’ve done so far and what you would like help with. Remember to include your email address. I’ll pencil in three writers for the first half of the year, and we’ll take it from there.

Thanks, and hope this is a good year for you.

Seven Spaceships

30th June 2019

One of the more rewarding things I’ve done this year is to volunteer with the Super Power Agency. This is an Edinburgh organisation patterned after San Francisco’s 826 Valencia. It goes into schools and runs workshop programmes to encourage creative writing from kids who otherwise might lack the confidence to try.

The latest project was called Seven Spaceships. Each of our Primary 7 participants created a character on a colony ship, which is reaching the end of its seven-year journey to a new world, Alba Prime. On one level, this is a great platform for imaginative science fiction adventures. On another, it’s an opportunity for P7s to explore their feelings about the transition to high school. In classrooms you can see the difference between Primary 7 and Secondary 2; the uncomplicated enthusiasm melts away and is replaced by something more sceptical and self-conscious.

Seven schools are represented in the resulting (358 page!) book, 156 stories in total. A surprising number of the authors regard fast food outlets as an essential resource on any spaceship. From my crew, Lorne Primary, you can read about:

It was quite something to see the seven crews assembled in Leith Academy to get their hands on the book and collectively become published authors. The new planet was a tough environment for those who read out loud: a massive, acoustically dead space and alien rain battering on the roof. But the Edinburgh International Book Festival has the same problems; and it didn’t seem to matter to the colonists at all.

If you think you could use 156 uplifting stories in one volume, the book should be available on the SPA website. But if you can spare some time during the week, you could volunteer and help to create the next project. I guarantee it will be an exhausting and highly satisfying experience.

Games Lab

17th October 2018

I spent the last couple of weekends curating and presenting a Games Lab with the Scottish Book Trust. Many of the participants thanked me for my time, but in truth, I love doing this stuff.

The Labs are the Trust’s events for professional writers interesting in exploring another field. We selected ten participants: novelists, screenwriters, theatre makers and comicbook creators. The group has to be kept tight to allow for personal attention and to encourage deep networking.

This year I’ve taught interactive writing quite a bit: Writing Fiction for New Media at the University of Edinburgh; the Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library; and a day in Belgium with the fanTALES European consortium, using collaborative IF to encourage schoolchildren to write. Some stuff always comes up, like the design patterns of Sam Kabo Ashwell, or the delayed branching discussed by Dan Fabulich in How To Write A Long Interactive Novel That Doesn’t Suck. But the lab needed a wider perspective, so I invited guest speakers.

Tomb Raider (2013) © Square Enix

Olivia Wood is on the staff of sinister indie Failbetter Games, and also freelances, recently on Where the Water Tastes like Wine. Although a terrific writer, she is perhaps best known in the industry for her editing work. Olivia advised on text — keep it short, avoid the word “strange’ — but also on the use of visuals and environmental cues to tell a story. Olivia admitted that being edited can be a painful experience, but after the edit process, any problems with the text are her problems, not yours.

Perhaps the most prominent name in games writing is Rhianna Pratchett. Known for 2013’s unflinching Tomb Raider reboot and the cheerfully evil Overlord, she also worked on Thief, Bioshock Infinite and Prince of Persia. Rhianna talked about writing for AAA games as a hired gun, and introduced the wonderful job description of “narrative paramedic” for games writers called in when the story is already breathing its last. She recalled early games of Mazogs on the ZX81, with pixels about a centimetre across. Her new title, Lost Words, uses movable words for a platformer set inside a young girl’s diary.

I wanted to get someone doing individual, leftfield work, and Simon Meek fit perfectly. Designer in Residence at the new V&A Dundee, he creates playable stories which draw more from graphic design and film than video games, and his approach appealed to the visual artists in the room. Simon talked about previous projects: a digital adaptation of Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Beckett, an uneasy detective story with a powerful narrative style. His new work, Marnie Wakes, is a digital memoir collecting monologues designed to be read in any order — also presented through video and live performance.

I sometimes feel guilty for doing the bulk of my work for publishers outside Scotland, and Brian Baglow was the perfect guide to the national scene. Previously a writer, game designer and producer, he lectures on interactive/digital media at Napier University, recently took up a new role at dev training house CodeClan, and is the brain behind the Scottish Games Network. Brian talked facts, figures and trends in the industry and ways in which writers might fit. He also mentioned writing missions in 1997 for a small open-world driving game named Grand Theft Auto, which apparently became very popular.

Our final speaker was a blast of energy on a drizzly Saturday morning — crime favourite Chris Brookmyre. His background in competitive first-person shooters influenced many of his books, such as Pandaemonium and One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, and he got the chance to work on one with Bedlam. Chris had a lot to say about turning budget limitations into creative opportunities, and it was refreshing to hear that he’d had a positive experience dipping into game development. I also enjoyed his references to Spectrum games, and the joy of exploration over actually trying to complete the thing.

The event wasn’t all theory — the participants worked on their own games in Twine between sessions, and the Lab wound up with a chance to circulate and try their new creations. An early prompt about wine theft inspired three entirely different games: a gallery heist, party pilfering and a domestic betrayal. We also infiltrated a cult with suspiciously good coffee and met a terrifying little girl whose drawings seemed imbued with cosmic horror.

Norman Dott

8th November 2017

This year I’m working with the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Western General Hospital, to explore its practice and mark its transition to a new building at Little France. There are three Creative Fellows involved in this section of the programme. Susana Cámara Leret is the Design Fellow, Alex Menzies and Florence To are collaborating on the Music Fellowship, and I’m Language and Cognition Fellow.

As part of the Art and Therapeutic Design programme, this is not simply a writing job. My experiences so far have inspired several new short fiction pieces, which you may have heard at Flint and Pitch or EIBF Unbound this year. I have also been looking for a way to contribute to patient recovery, and such an opportunity has arisen for the remainder of the fellowship. More on this later.

Norman Dott on the steps of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary
Dott on the steps of the Royal Infirmary, circa 1937. (Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library.)

One rich area has been the history of neuroscience in Edinburgh, which I unearthed through the case notes of Norman Dott. He was a compelling figure in many ways. After a motorcycle accident on Lothian Road sent him to hospital, Dott became so interested in the process of diagnosis and the patients around him that he turned to a career in surgery, where his mechanical skills were to find their place designing tools for the emerging field of neurosurgery. Before the Western General was constructed, Dott operated in Ward 20 of the old Royal Infirmary, directly under the clock tower you can still see from Lauriston Place.

With the writer’s eye, I notice the details that assemble his character: strict with his junior staff, but gentle and candid with his patients; regularly dealing with life-changing traffic accidents, but never losing his enthusiasm for a powerful car. His operations could take eight hours of exhausting attention, yet he always made his evening rounds of the ward; and first priority on Christmas Day was to take his family to the hospital to entertain the patients.

Reading the case notes is a fascinating and emotional experience. Dott describes each patient’s background, not just the signs and symptoms they present. The reader gets the sense of the character of the patient; gets to know them a little. Even without medical training, I can often follow Dott’s reasoning to a diagnosis, and the course of the subsequent operation. He logs the patient’s condition when safely returned to the ward, and it hits very hard when you flip the page to find an image covered in thin white paper — because these images are post-mortem photographs of that patient’s brain.

Dott maintained correspondence with many people whose lives he saved, years, even decades after they were discharged. Certainly there was an element of courtesy to these letters, but we can also see him working to build the emerging field of neuroscience — and it becomes clear he has retained the case notes of unsuccessful operations because there is something to learn from each.

I was pleased to discover that reading aloud was a feature of his upbringing, with a local link to a particular favourite, Robert Louis Stevenson. I cycled out to Spylawbank Road to get a sense of Dott’s beginnings. Here Norman constructed his 10-seater sledge, and would not send it plunging down the twisty corners of the icy Kirk Brae until every seat was occupied by a local child. It’s strange to see, in that childhood recklessness, the beginnings of the life path which would create a pioneering surgeon.

Audio Jam

27th October 2016

If you’ve caught any of my gigs in the last few years, you probably heard some stories with a soundtrack. I got fed up at the mysterious power musicians had to work the emotions and decided to use it for my own ends. I find composition a harder creative process than writing, however, and difficult to make enough time for.

So I signed up to a weekend audio jam with the action-packed Edinburgh Game Symposium. In a game jam of this type, you try to produce something rough but interesting to a theme, within a tight timeframe. They teamed me up with Sarah, an audio engineer specialising in spoken word; Maeve, an audio engineer specialising in mixing and sound design; and Aurelie, a composer and DJ. We happened to all be users of Ableton Live.

The weekend took place in the Roxy, a beautiful repurposed church where I once sat a maths exam. Friday night was supposed to be for relaxing and socialising, but we ignored that and got right into it, clustering around one half of a folding table. The theme was “time travel”. Here’s our initial list of ideas:

Towards the end you can totally see the influence of Star Trek: Voyager and The Black Tapes Podcast. I had been at an IGDA Scotland event about game jams where I heard wise advice to throw away your first three ideas, because they’re too obvious. I’m glad we did this. We settled on a soundscape-audio-drama-thing telling the story of a particular incident from viewpoints before and after it happened. We never actually explained what that incident was: a disruption of time caused by reckless experiments. Similar stories have been done before, but it sounded fun and just complicated enough for a jam weekend. Also, I had a labcoat left over from a Halloween zombie walk. So we went home on Friday with our project already blocked out, and that turned out to be a very good thing.

A less obvious benefit of this project was an easy division of labour. There were two characters, and each had their own theme. Maeve and I would write a character each; Aurelie and Sarah would write a theme each. It was only when I was alone in the theatre upstairs, fighting grumpy wifi to read about the Einstein-Rosen bridge, that I realised I had come to a music jam and agreed to do the bit that was the same as my day job. But hey.

So Saturday featured writing, sharing for feedback, and a nice lunch. We situated the lab in Grangemouth, for which I blame Maeve. By 4pm we were ready to go into a hot studio to lay down the vocal parts. We recruited organisers Luci and Sam to do news bulletins; Aurelie supplied some French radio chatter; and the rest of the team went to polish things up overnight while I sloped off to see John Carpenter live at the Usher Hall.

I feel like you don’t really experience a true jam/hack event unless you have a disaster and have a panicked rush to finish everything. I was still humming Assault on Precinct 13 when I got in about 10.30am on Sunday and learned all our audio from Saturday had flatlined. Which meant the producers hadn’t been able to work overnight. Uh-oh.

So we rushed back into the studio, and did it all over again, getting in the way of other groups who desperately needed to record. We had time for about twelve minutes worth of hasty rehearsal during the “Well done! This is your time to relax!” break, before we were thrown on stage to perform The Grangemouth Incident live.

And y’know what? It went fine.

I’ve collaborated with quite a few groups of people before. Some have been great and some have been rocky. I attribute the success of this weekend to a clean breakdown of effort — so nobody became a stressed-out bottleneck — and everybody leaving their ego at home.

Thanks to Luci and everybody else who made the weekend fun. Same time next year?

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