New Year’s Resolutions 2016

Well, better late than never: Happy New Year everyone! Over the past week I’ve been reading some fantastic New Year’s Resolutions posts from bloggers all over the world. I normally only tell close friends and family what my personal goals for the year are, but there is one ‘resolution’ that I wanted to share.

Rather than drawing up a long list of goals and aims I would struggle to follow past January, I decided to focus on three main areas: writing, acting and personal (about trying to be a better person and all that). Midway through last week I added one more, which is perhaps the most important of all:

Be proactive

There are several ‘p’s that are important in the acting industry, and could just as well apply to life itself: be personable, persistent, punctual, polite… but at this early stage of my career, I think ‘be proactive’ is the best advice.

As an actor, this means building and keeping my contacts book up to date, knowing what’s going on in my industry, following directors and other artists whose work I admire, going to see plays on a regular basis, being active (and positive!) on social media, constantly looking for opportunities and networking the hell outta this year.

As a writer, much of the above also applies – contacts book, networking, keeping up to date with the work and careers of writers I admire, and also putting my writing out there: applying to competitions, submitting work to magazines and other publications, perhaps posting my creative writing here on my blog.

I can also be proactive in my personal life – remembering friends’ birthdays (something I’m sadly bad at), making the effort to see people in person rather than always texting or Facebook messaging, and looking for ways to help people out.

So if anyone’s stuck for a mantra for 2016, you’re very welcome to give mine a go!

 

 

NCTJ Production Journalism exam

Last Thursday I took my NCTJ Production Journalism exam. I’m studying for the NCTJ Diploma via distance learning, and after putting my studying on hold while at drama school, I recently decided to pick up where I left off. The Production Journalism unit is one of my two optional units, the other being Business of Magazines, and it teaches you the principles and practice of sub-editing.

As a distance learning student living in Putney, I sat my exam at the nearest centre offering that unit, which was Lambeth College. The exam lasted 2 1/2 hours, which I thought would drag terribly, but once I’d got stuck in to the tasks it flew by and I had to step up my rather relaxed pace in order to give myself some checking everything over time at the end!

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While I was preparing for the exam I re-familiarised myself with Indesign by creating some mock magazine spreads. You can see one of the pages I created above, using text from previous blog posts. Unfortunately you can’t see the edges of the page in the jpeg, so it looks like there’s a hell of a lot of white space!

Considerations when creating this spread included:

Fonts/typography: I used a serif font for the main headings and subheadings and a sans serif font for the main body text. I think a sans serif font is easier to read for features, though many magazines do use a serif font for the main body text and sans serif for the headings.

Use of colour: I chose one of the colours in the image (the girl’s cropped trousers) and tried to find a colour similar to this for the main title, subheadings and pull-out quotes. I also used the same colour but knocked back to about 40 per cent for the border around the review. By doing this I hoped to create a theme for the colours so they worked in harmony across the spread.

Breaking up the page: The unit teaches you the importance of breaking up a page to keep the reader’s interest, so I tried to do this by using pull-out quotes, subheadings, placing the image appropriately and laying out the review slightly differently to the main article (placing a white text box on to a coloured box and laying the text out in just one column rather than two).

My practice spread has a very clean and simple layout, which I do like to see in magazines, but I have also come across some rather busy-looking spreads that I love, mainly because of the harmony of the colours, beautiful designs and illustrations, and the skill of the sub in ensuring everything is still clear.

Below are some of my favourite magazines in terms of layout and design (click on the name of each to go to their respective websites – unfortunately the websites don’t always give you a good idea of the hard copy magazines so I would of course encourage you to pick up a printed copy if you can):

Oh Comely magazine

Aesthetica magazine

Elle Decoration

Little White Lies

Please feel free to comment below and share your favourite magazine layouts!

 

NaNoWriMo – bitten off more than I can chew?

So at the start of this month I signed up to do NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Naturally, the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month somewhat fazed me, but I thought if I put my back into it I could give it a good crack. The fact that I was also rehearsing for a show and that show week was in the middle of that didn’t seem to enter my mind at the time. Now, however, it most definitely is, as is the fact that I have just started working back in my old office for a few weeks, limiting my writing time for the final sprint. Out of a goal of 50,000 words, my current word count is: 2,918. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

The answer is: probably yes. Will I make it to 50,000 words? Probably no. But according to the lovely folk at NaNoWriMo: “If it’s really not looking possible for you to hit that elusive 50k target, then why not set yourself an achievable goal for the end of the month and work towards that instead? We all know Real Life can get in the way sometimes, but even writing a little every day can make a big difference.”

Despite signing up to NaNoWriMo on the 2nd November, I didn’t actually write a word until two days ago. Up to that point I was still planning! Obviously the idea is to plan before the start of November so once the month starts you can write away to your heart’s content, but I was a little late to the party. Now I am cracking on with the writing, like most writers I’m finding it difficult to fit my writing time into the day. The bookbaby blog has some great advice on time management for writers and a few tips for setting deadlines that I’m going to use from now on to help me rattle off that first draft. One of the most crucial tips for me is to focus on phase one first. I’m guilty of constantly thinking ahead, looking to the future, the next step, the finished product, rather than focusing on the here and now, and not just in my writing!

To all you fellow NaNoWriMos, I salute you! Whether you’re on track for the 50k target, have flown past it already, or, like me, have set your own smaller goal (I’m going for 10,000), I admire your effort, your persistence, your tenacity and your desire to tell stories. Keep on writing!

 

Simon Stephens playwriting workshop

I’ve always considered myself a writer of sorts, but until now I have limited my efforts to writing short stories, journalistic articles, marketing copy and multiple abandoned efforts at writing a novel. My love of theatre and, particularly, my current actor training on the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School, has awaked a desire to write for performance. So you can imagine my excitement when I went along to a workshop run by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, called How to Shape a Play: Narrative Structure.

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At this point I feel the need to say this workshop actually took place over a month ago (drama school = limited free time = a backlog of unwritten blog posts), but I felt it still worth writing about, especially as I thought it was a really useful and inspiring day. The workshop was organised by Actors and Performers and took place at the Bloomsbury Publishing offices in London.

Simon strode in clad in a trendy suit yet with an air of something rather rough-and-tumble and not so trendy about him. As is the custom with most people in this business he swore passionately, fidgeted and fiddled with his hair, a habit he happily drew attention to. I instantly liked him. There was something very human and not at all ‘award-winning playwright’ about him, but then, how many award-winning playwrights have I actually met?

The day was fascinating, and not only did I feel very inspired speaking with Simon, but also being in the room with so many other writers from different walks of life. There were some brilliant and original ideas zipping around, and an air of excitement and enthusiasm hung in the air like a thick electric cloud, generated by the coming together of so many creative minds and our shared passion for theatre. I came away with so many useful tools for developing characters and plot. I don’t want to set down everything here as it would spoil the fun of doing a workshop with Simon – and I highly recommend it if you get the chance – so I’ll give my top five nuggets of food for creative scribblers from the day:

 

Playwrights organise chaos and ask the question: what is it to be human?

“I am not a writer, I’m a write” (in the words of Mr Stephens) – the word ‘playwright’ comes from the word ‘wrought’, not ‘write’. ‘Wright’ was an old English term for a craftsman, so a ‘playwright’ is someone who has ‘wrought’ words into a dramatic form i.e. crafted plays.

ACTIVATE, don’t CONGRATULATE – make sure each line of speech has an action behind it (what is one character trying to do to the other?).

Structure is music – plot the structure of a play on a chart with one vertical line per scene, spaced out as they are in the play (i.e. if scenes are set far apart time-wise draw them far apart, and if there are some scenes that happen a few hours apart draw them very close together), then if each line is one beat/tap, tap out the sequence of lines (i.e. scenes) and you’ll find the rhythm of the play. This worked brilliantly with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.

CONTENT-STRUCTURE: your play and its gesture lies in the relationship between the content and the structure (music – see above).

 

If this has fizzed up your creative juices and you want to read more about the day (and don’t mind a few more spoilers), you can read a thorough account of the day by Actors and Performers web editor John O’Donovan on their website. The Actors and Performers blog is worth a read too.

You can follow Simon Stephens on Twitter at @StephensSimon.

Epic Fairy Tales writing workshop

From one kind of workshop to another… at the weekend I went to a writer’s workshop at Southsea Library run by Zella Compton and William Sutton. The workshop, entitled Epic Fairy Tales and Mysteries at Our Own Doors, was part of a project called Portsmouth Fairy Tales, which involves 11 local writers, including Zella and Will.

On such a lovely sunny day I think they were quite surprised that a good number of us turned up, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I first met Will at the launch of his book Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square last summer, and have been delighted by his energy, creativity and kindness ever since.

Epic Fairy Tales workshop

The workshop began with a few warm-up exercises, including what I have termed the paper-throwing game. We were each given a sheet of paper with one sentence typed upon it, then had to write just one sentence in response. We then scrunched it up into a ball and threw it (nicely!) at another member of the group, who opened it, smoothed out the creases and wrote another sentence. This went on a few more times then we all opened out the sheet of paper we were left with, now containing four sentences, and were invited to read them if we wanted to. There were some quiet poetic combinations, just going to show how you can create something from just a single sentence – a useful thing to remember when staring at that daunting blank page.

We then got down to business with a brilliant little worksheet from Zella (see picture). It was to help us plan our epic fairy tale, and it gave us a list of protagonist names, settings, villains and magic objects to choose from. The idea was to just give it a go and see what we ended up with, spending no more than five or so minutes on the worksheet. Down the right-hand side was a column for us to briefly plan the start, middle and end.

Epic Fairy Tale worksheet

Once upon a time I would have spent far too long deliberating over my hero’s name, and worrying whether I had got everything ‘right’, but the more you practise letting go the easier it becomes. All these improv workshops, acting exercises and the writer’s group I went to – all activities and environments that require the ability to be spontaneous and go with the flow – have helped me reach this more creative state of mind.

On the back of the worksheet or in our notebooks we chose either our hero/heroine or villain, then answered several questions about them from Zella. Again, this wasn’t a case of leisurely pondering over each minute detail, but about putting pen to paper and getting an answer down, often the first thing that popped into our heads. This produced some pleasantly surprising results, with many of us discovering hobbies and characteristics we didn’t originally realise your characters had. The questions ranged from what is their favourite hobby (spear-throwing for my heroine, Faith), to what is underneath their bed (a rottweiler), and my personal favourite, what are they most ashamed of (apparently Faith has a third nipple!). It was a quick, incredibly productive exercise and great fun.

We finished the workshop by starting to write our story not at the beginning, but at the point of climax where the main action happens (in my case, Faith kills her evil twin sister with a spear). Hard-working writers need brain fuel, and Will kindly supplied this in the form of home-made brownies, which I must say were bloomin delicious. It took all my willpower to stop myself having more than one!

After 20 minutes of writing Zella and Will drew the workshop to a close and we said our goodbyes before heading back out into the sun. I may have missed two hours of tanning time, but it was well worth it, and if these guys run another workshop any time soon, I’m there!!

 

You can download the Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups ebook here (priced £3.97 on Amazon).

A visit to Jane Austen’s House

On Saturday I paid a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in the pretty village of Chawton. Although I’ve always wanted to go there, this seemed a particularly fitting time to finally make the short trip, with One Off Productions currently rehearsing Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen's House Museum

Jane Austen’s House Museum

I wanted to get a feel for the writer behind the story – if I can better understand her, surely I can better understand her work and the characters within that. I’m lucky enough to be playing Elizabeth Bennet, and though I’ve seen the film and TV adaptations, and am a great fan of Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie in the BBC series, the original source material has to be the novel, and indeed the writer herself.

As the novel is set during Jane’s lifetime, seeing the house also helped me get a taste of the clothes, living conditions and day-to-day life of that period, which I can apply to Lizzie’s life.

The baking was done in an outhouse, which would have been lovely and toasty when in use, but on a chilly day in the middle of January was rather less so! Inside the house, we wandered round the kitchen, which is entered separately from the rest of the house, then headed back out and in through another door to the other rooms. Although it’s not a small house, the upper quarters seemed a little cramped, probably due to the number of visitors trying to circumnavigate the furniture and each other.

The Austen kitchen

The Austen kitchen

The kitchen was my favourite room as it had things to play with – quill fountain pens with ink and paper, dresses and bonnets to try on, dried lavender by little circles of fabric and string to make lavender bags with. The writing proved to be particularly difficult, as you could only write a few letters before needing more ink. To think that Jane Austen wrote all her novels by this means fills me with an even greater admiration for her.

Upstairs there were further examples of the type of clothing worn at that time, including some delicate dancing slippers, which I’m guessing would have been worn at the infamous balls. Perhaps Lizzie wears these at the Netherfield Ball when she is dancing with Mr Darcy, ripe with sexual tension.

The museum portrayed a life of eating, writing and taking long walks, with a spot of needlework in the evening. Now if only I could give up work and do a spot of method acting – I reckon I could cope with that!

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It was wonderful to see the place where Jane Austen lived, to look down at the desk where she did so much of her writing, to walk in the footsteps of a person who’s beautiful stories have so delighted me – well worth a visit! I felt closer to the writer, closer to the mind behind Pride and Prejudice, and that bit closer to Lizzie. Bit by bit, I’m getting there…