Monday, 16 April 2012

On Being Deaf

Confession. I'm not actually deaf. I can function like most people, hear what I need to hear and rarely get caught out. If I had to put a figure on it, I'd say I'm about 70% deaf. My right ear is completely useless; that's 50% right there. If I bash it with a saucepan or stick the radio on it at full volume, it can pick up some sounds, but I'm essentially reliant on my left ear - the remaining 30%, if my maths isn't awry - which was failing long before my right packed in.

I'd had a problem with tinnitus about 10 years ago. This condition, as most people know, is characterised by an incessant variety of blips, cracks and ringing sounds which can deprive beleaguered victims of sleep and sanity. The causes are disputed, but my specialist told me that when your hearing starts to fail, your body starts 'reaching' for sound - something to do with an atavistic self-preservation instinct; we need to hear if we're being chased/stalked/about to be attacked, an essential skill if you insist on going to Arsenal wearing a Spurs shirt, for example - and instead starts picking up the many and various electrical sounds your body makes which we normally screen out. The solutions include listening to other sounds, especially at night, so that the body focuses on them rather than the tinnitus, and improving your hearing by using hearing aids. I tried everything, but couldn't get on with hearing aids - frankly, I wasn't prepared to accept that I needed them at my relatively young age - and eventually learned to screen the maddening noises out by sheer force of will.

Then, about 6 years ago, my right ear - my better ear at that time - closed for business. One minute I could hear, the next I was deaf. Sudden deafness, it's called, and nobody knows what causes it. Theories range from bangs on the head to viruses. My GP thought it was an ear infection and gave me some drops. Panicked when the hearing didn't improve, I went to see another GP at the practice who prescribed different drops. Valuable time was being lost but I didn't know it. The condition can be ameliorated - partially or fully - provided you act fast. Nearly a week after the hearing failed, I saw a specialist who put me on steroids and, thankfully, my hearing returned. It wasn't as clear or mellow as before, but I'd have settled for it. But, after two years of the hearing coming and going, it finally went, leaving me to stumble on with only a dodgy left ear.

The problem for those with unilateral hearing loss is that you can't tell where sound is coming from. As far as I'm concerned, it's all coming from my left, which can be a problem when I'm crossing the road or trying to deal with a heckler in a comedy club (I'm a stand-up, in case you didn't know). On one occasion in a God-forsaken club in Preston, I lashed out at a woman who was utterly blameless. Poor love. Sorry again, by the way.

But deafness is no joke. I suppose I will have next to no hearing by the time I'm 70 and that's a scary prospect. At the moment, hearing aids help a bit (I use a CROS system which means noise on my right side is transferred to my left hearing aid). They help me hear films and the telly, and I can use them in social situations albeit, with all the noise clattering into one ear, it can be difficult to pick up conversation. This can be a blessing, of course, enabling me to screen crashing bores out if I need to. There are other advantages. Cocking a deaf'n becomes easier to justify. My wife yelling something from three floors up can be safely ignored; my kids asking where my wallet is, likewise. Well I can't bloody hear, can I? But it's a bastard most of the time. As mentioned, doing stand-up as a partially deaf man can be hazardous; trying to pick up people speaking in hushed tones - as they often do in the studios where I do voice overs - leaving me craning and guessing how to respond; in shops when they ask me for ten pounds and I hand them a fiver (nothing to do with the deafness, that). Many's the time I've nodded when I should have shaken my head, or gone off at some irrelevant tangent, leaving my inquisitors utterly baffled. I find myself concentrating intently on people's lips, which helps make sense of some of the sounds I'm missing, but probably makes them think I'm being a bit weird.

Most of the time I don't wear my aids. Luckily, I work alone in coffee bars during the day - most of the time - and don't need them. Yet, miraculously, I can still hear American teenage girls talking, like, shit? five tables away as if they're bellowing in my ear. And I can always hear annoying three year olds running wild while their parents assume everyone finds their offspring as charming as they do. That kind of shit is audible. It's the finer points of hearing I miss out on. The sharply delivered quip, the whispered response, the tones and shades of good music. Hopeless.

The only thing I can hear in my right ear is that Jumbo jet taking off 24 hours a day. Yes, deaf as a doornail, but lumbered with deafening tinnitus. Great, eh? There are innovations in the pipeline, and a cochlear implant might restore some of what I've lost, but I don't hold out much hope. Learning to live with it is probably the way forward.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On Literary Agents

Let me take you on a journey. It's 2002 and I've just submitted my lovingly crafted manuscript to five literary agents. I don't really know what I'm doing, of course, so I've picked them out more or less at random. Less than two weeks later and my mobile trills. It's one of them, bubbling, champing at the bit, not just excited about my novel, but also the fact that, as a professional performer, I will be brilliant at promoting it across the UK and...wait for it...globally. Yes, this was what the lady told me during our first conversation. Oh, and we're not talking about some grubby, pay-us-for-reading-your-MS, back street, fly-by-nights; we're talking J K Rowling's agents.

Well that was bloody easy. Wasn't this agent business supposed to be a nightmare? Shouldn't you endure 82 rejections before you get even a tickle? I mean, even the saintly J K got rejections. There was a catch, of course, but a smallish one, I thought. They wanted me to work with one of their editors to get the MS into shape before formally signing me up and submitting it to the major publishers. Well why not? They're the pros, they know what sells. Undoubtedly, many of their comments were valid - my female protagonist was too male, too hard - and some of the structuring needed tweaking. I re-submitted the draft but was then asked to soften the protagonist further. Because they'd missed my point. She was meant to be strident, someone whose independence and fuck-you attitude masked her emotional instability and desperate craving to be loved. They wanted her to be a timid, emotionally together, run-of-the-mill office worker who somehow goes off the rails. Boring.

Well what would you have done? My guess is that you - and, indeed, any sane person - would have done whatever they told you to do. J K Fucking Rowling's agents!!! Come on! Key to the door. Well not me, thank you very much. No, I stood by my artistic principles, told them they didn't understand the book, and walked away. What. A. Fucking. Wanker.

A couple of the other agents expressed an interest but it went no further and, two years later in a fit of narcissistic pique, I published it myself through Matador. Turned out I was pretty good at selling the book - I shifted 400 on the back of some local radio interviews, personal appearances and good reviews, but it was all after the event and half-hearted. Chance missed.

That book was a psychological thriller. But I'm a comedian and thought my next attempt at novel writing should be something within my natural genre. So Song In The Wrong Key was born, the story of a middle-aged man whose idyllic family life falls apart when he's made redundant. Redemption is achieved via his serendipitous selection as the UK's Eurovision Song Contest entrant. It's probably best described as an edgy romcom, with the emphasis on com.

And so on to another ridiculous dance with the agents. I submitted it to 6 of them, and three responded asking for the full MS. A good hit rate, apparently. A fourth didn't bother with all that. He wanted to sign me. I'd only applied to him because he accepted MSs via email, which saves a lot of bother, as well as photocopying and postage costs. And I was flattered - or, to put it another way, still being a fucking wanker. He was an established agent, but one with a conspicuously thin roster of fiction writers. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out. My feeling is that his contact list amongst the fiction publishers numbered no more than two or three. When they didn't take the bait, there was nowhere else to go.

So I left him. Now I've published the book through my own company, Lane & Hart. I've had it professionally typeset and the cover professionally designed. I've engaged a top class PR agent and we're lining up radio and press interviews and personal appearances. I've run a giveaway on Goodreads (745 people applied) and will do another. I uploaded it to Kindle and have been receiving sparkling 5 star reviews (likewise on Goodreads). Would I rather have done all this through traditional channels - an agent championing my book, a top publisher with a serious marketing budget, top chains stocking it etc? Of bloody course. But that all takes patience and a thick hide, neither of which I possess. Yes, you can earn more money per unit by selling on Kindle, but that's not what this is about. Writers need validation and, as much as I value and appreciate the reviews of the handful of readers who've bought the book so far, a traditional deal would open my work up to a vast readership and set me along the path I really want to follow, that of an established author with an established readership who can't wait for my next book. It might come to that one day, but my guess is that it's more likely to happen if an agent and a traditional publisher pick up the reins from here. Well come on. What are you waiting for?

Friday, 6 April 2012

On Writing My Book

I’d feel a bit pretentious if I declared that writing is in my blood or that it’s my consuming passion; I don’t have to write to live. I can survive on chocolate, if it comes to it. But it’s a marvellous means of expression, a wonderfully creative and fluid medium for the ideas that rattle around my head. Being a comedian and comedy writer (and ex-solicitor, but we don’t talk about that), I can express myself on stage or in a script, but both forms are necessarily limited by what audiences – who offer a very instant response - or terrified-for-their-jobs TV/radio producers demand. Novels, though, unfurl slowly; they allow you room to breathe, to lay things out, to establish rhythms, to colour every character in, right from the opening sentence. I suppose the people who read my book will tell me whether I’m doing it right but, so far at least, they seem to approve. 

I’m an avid reader – contemporary fiction with a humorous bent being my favourite genre – and I always felt I could ‘do’ a Nick Hornby or David Nicholls if I put my mind to it. Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Well, as I discovered, it is that hard. In the way that comedy is hard. I was always the quite amusing guy amongst my friends, the guy with the quick ripostes and funny voices, but I was a million miles from being a guy who could make a roomful of strangers laugh rather than throw something heavy at me. It took me a while – and the odd bruise - to bridge the gap between the two.

The dialogue in Song In The Wrong Key came fairly easily to me, but structure, story-lining, pacing, knowing when to cut out the distracting quips, avoiding the self-indulgence, were elements of the writing process I had to learn mostly through trial and error. Every time I thought I’d completed the definitive draft, another ‘quick’ read-through convinced me there was still work to do, cuts to make, bits to shift, commas to add. In truth, you can refine a draft ad infinitum, but at some point you have to say ‘that’s the one’ – it’s never an easy task to let go, like watching your child go off to university.

Song In The Wrong Key is my second book. My first, Losing It, was a psychological thriller based, loosely, on something that happened to me as a young man. I started it about 18 years ago, left the first 50 pages in a drawer for 10 years, then started again. At the time I’d been reading a lot of grim, gory thrillers and felt I had it in me to emulate the genre. It was a difficult process for me because the tone of the book is fairly po-faced...and I’m not! Even so, J K Rowling’s then agents took a shine to it and offered to represent me, provided I made some changes. Which I did, but not entirely to their liking. Stupidly, I refused to make more changes and nothing came of it. In a fit of pique, I published through Matador, sold 400 copies and forgot about writing for a few years.

It was about 4 years ago when I decided to write something more in keeping with my natural comedic bent. I’ve always been drawn to stories about nobodies suddenly rising to prominence and, having been a wannabe pop star myself, Song almost wrote itself. The first draft flowed – I’d say it took a couple of months to finish - and I took great joy in writing a story with which I connected personally and was predominantly a comedy. Needless to say, the first draft was over-written, lumpy, occasionally illogical and chronologically confusing. Writing – good writing - as I’ve already suggested, is bloody hard work. But it was something to work with and I think the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach brought out the best in me from a comedic perspective. Structure, character and story-sharpening came later. I particularly enjoyed getting my teeth into the breakdown of the protagonist’s family and the central love story, both of which, hopefully, will tug at the heart strings (I get a bit misty-eyed watching Love Actually, so you know where I’m coming from). Some readers have already owned up to shedding a few tears which, as someone whose principal aim is to make them laugh, is a huge compliment.

Like most writers, I drew from experience. As the father of two girls, Millie and Katia were easy to write (mine are called Molly and Katie – that’s imagination for you!). And there’s something of my own life story in the protagonist, Mike’s, obsession with the former love of his life (I’m over her now, darling). And it’s through Mike’s voice that I was able to express many of my own attitudes and ideas. Friends who have read the book tell me it’s like listening to me prattle on, grumble, grouch and attempt to amuse. Mike is a heightened version of me, as is the protagonist of my follow-up novel, Standing Up – about a solicitor who becomes a stand-up (where do I get my ideas?).

My aim is to stick with edgy romantic comedies for the foreseeable future. But I shan’t put the cart before the horse. If no-one buys Song In The Wrong Key, though, I can always revert to gory thrillers.  

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Edinburgh Festival

I was first taken to the Edinburgh Festival by my parents when I was about 11 (a long, long time ago, before the internet, kids - actually, it was before cars with heaters). In those days, the main Festival comprised a handful of theatre and arts events and the Fringe was about as lush as a slaphead's comb-over.

And that was it until 1988 when I took my wife-to-be up there in an attempt to convince her of my aesthetic sensibilities. By then, the Fringe was fairly well established, albeit a far cry from the behemoth of today. The Assembly Rooms - now defunct - was the hub, while the Pleasance and the pre-blaze Gilded Balloon were in their infancy. We saw some cracking shows including Victor and Barry, a brilliant camp-fest with the young Alan Cumming who was clearly a star in the making.

Thereafter, we went almost every year, often with my parents in tow, and saw some stunning shows - plus, of course, plenty of crap. That's the Festival. New venues opened up every year, while existing ones expanded. Rawness was replaced by slickness and professionalism, and it became THE place to make your name. Pre mega-fame, we saw people like Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Alistair McGowan, Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Omid Djalili and Jenny Eclair. And the Perrier Award - since superseded by the Fosters - was the key to the comedy door.

Edinburgh inspired me to give stand-up a try, although I had no designs on a career in comedy. I'm shy and was never a performer, but I was that irritating attention-seeker who could make his friends laugh and thought I could simply adapt my schtick for a roomful of strangers. I got that dramatically wrong, as it turned out, but I had some impressions up my sleeve which seemed to work and, suddenly, and without particularly wanting it, I was launched into a 'career' which eventually included live work all over the UK and abroad, TV shows and countless radio shows.

Edinburgh, though, was the promised land and, in 1996, I was offered a last minute slot at the Gilded Balloon which I couldn't turn down. I should have. My half-baked show got me nowhere. The following year, I took more time over it, used my experience, brought to bear everything I'd learned, and performed an equally useless show in the same venue. I waited 5 more years before revealing my obsession with baldness with a show called Losing It. It was funny in parts, but wasn't well received and, worse, I shaved off all my hair for the 4 week run. I'm still not bald 10 years later, by the way, but remain traumatised. By 2005, I'd teamed up with Philippa Fordham and we took our show, He Barks, She Bites, to the Pleasance. We were nominated for the Dubble (sic) Act Award and spotted by the BBC, eventually getting our own series on Radio 4. Finally, Edinburgh had paid off.

This year, I decided to try Edinburgh for probably the last time. I had an idea for a show, you see - about how I stumbled into impressionism - and started exploring the possibilities. But it was a late decision, too late. In the old days, comedians applied in June, wrote their shows in July and pitched up in Edinburgh in August. Nowadays, you need to be on the case as soon as the previous Festival has finished, writing, previewing, organising a venue, having photos taken, creating posters, appointing a PR agent...and that's the tip of the iceberg. After I was offered a slot at a leading venue a couple of weeks ago, I started fumbling around trying to first locate then fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together. The show - nowhere near written - was the least of my concerns. And, as one delves into the Edinburgh minefield, it becomes clear that it's going to cost a fortune. Guarantees to the venue, travel, accommodation, printing, PR - not much change out of £10,000. With a following wind, a couple of good reviews and 50% seat occupancy, you might eventually only lose £7,000. The point, of course, is that this is an investment. If you get spotted by the BBC or a promoter who wants to take your show on tour or an awards panel, you could be on your way, but for the 2000+ shows that fly under the radar, it's a case of trudging home with all your savings blown.

The money wasn't the only reason I decided not to go, though it was certainly a compelling one. The show just wasn't going to be ready. And I'm old. I know that shouldn't be a factor, but comedy is a young man's game and mature performers are often given short shrift by reviewers however funny they might be. We're just not hip. And, worse, I'm an impressionist, the most heinous, unworthy, unoriginal genus of performer in the comedy-sphere, at least in the eyes of the comedy purists. Or wankers, as I prefer to call them. I'd only get a bashing if I didn't pitch the show just right, and you can't do that if it's April and you haven't even written it.

So...Camden Fringe, here I come! Edinburgh? Maybe next year.