andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Resistance is Futile: Collaboration can be Fun!

Gavin Inglis’s recent post about collaborating on a Bloc event had me thinking. Collaborating on a creative project (as opposed to with occupying forces: that can really come unstuck when you find yourself on the wrong side of history) can be such a fruitful venture, why don’t people do it more often, especially writers?

Needless to say, anyone from a musical background will find the question strange. Collaboration – whether in an orchestra, a rock and roll band or a jazz quintet – is the rule, rather than the exception. Even the great lone wolves of rock such as Dylan or Van Morrison need to at least give their band an idea of what they want them to play (although in the case of the former, maybe not so much, apparently).

And the production of recorded music is almost always the result of joint working (see, e.g., Oh Mercy, one of my favourite Dylan albums, and the product of a not entirely painless collaboration between the His Bobness and Daniel Lanois, his producer, amusingly described in Chronicles).

Collaboration in the songwriting arena is, again, the norm. Lennon and McCartney famously wrote their songs separately from each other, but you can bet your bottom dollar they had a massive input on each others’ work once it was brought into the rehearsal room, even before George Martin got his hands on it.

Other pairings have had different approaches: Elton John writes the melody first, and then hands over to Bernie Taupin to come up with the lyrics. Carole King and Gerry Goffin churned stuff out in a cubby hole in the Brill Building, and at home over the piano, while King tried to get the kids to sleep at the same time.

In the context of literature, however, the romantic idea of a lone writer, hammering away at the typewriter in a garret, holds a lot of mystical power. This is my vision, my masterpiece! And a curse on any editor who dares to suggest a single comma is out of place!

The reality is, of course, that writing with someone else can produce something which is greater than the sum of each others’ creative parts. Perhaps it’s because I was playing in bands before I decided I was a writer that I’ve found collaborating on writing and other projects a natural thing to do. Or maybe I just don’t have enough decent ideas of my own.

Whichever, I have in the past collaborated with a lot of people on stuff, ranging, in the context of writing, from poems and short stories to full length books: the late, great C Bruce Hunter (Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, as well as articles and several other so far unpublished book length works) Hannu Rajaniemi, Jack Deighton (short sf stories, also both sadly unpublished so far) Jane McKie (the poetry pamphlet Head to Head) to name but a few.

Writers’ Bloc is a seething mass of collaboration. We like to liken ourselves to a band, and although the reality is actually somewhere in between the tight collective creative burst of Revolver-era Beatles and a bunch of wildly different individualists going off and doing their own things in separate corners, each show is – to a greater or lesser extent – a collaboration, and we have, in the past, even collaborated on stories together.

So what would my top tips for a successful collaboration be?

1. Collaboration is a Negotiation

Life’s a negotiation, right? Well, collaboration definitely is. The language of a commercial property deal might taste strange when describing a wonderful coming together of two or more creative types, but actually it applies just as well. You should approach it with the clear intention of being a win-win; be co-operative rather than competitive; establish what your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is. See it from the other person(s)’ point of view, but also try to take a Third Party Perspective. All that stuff.

2. What Actually is it You’re Collaborating on?

This might sound obvious, but there’s no point one of you handing over a libretto for a four-hour opera and the other one with a 90-minute film score. Is there a market in mind/Fringe show slot oven ready if you only had the material? How long, how much, how genre-specific? What’s the elevator pitch, the strap-line and the press release? Actually, in Bloc we’ve found  coming up with these three things will go a long way towards pointing you all in the same direction.

3. The Project Initiation Meeting/Thought Shower/Eight Pint Session

Okay, so you’ve decided it’s going to be a science fiction space opera, using a classic Cowboy Western plot device featuring female Bulgarian choir singing. But which classic plot – the aged sheriff strapping on his Colt 45 to drive the guys in the black hats out of town, the Bounty Hunter, or what? Which universe? Eastern or Western Bulgarian plainsong?

All of these boundaries will start to move you in one way or another, and help to focus the slow-burn of mutual creativity on the lower levels where you can really establish something unique. Sometimes, though, the first set of bonds you choose might start to chafe: the sf element really isn’t adding anything, for example, or at least it isn’t for some of you. Which leads me to the next point:

4. Is there a Grand High Pooh-Bah?

As Gavin says in his post, with two of you it’s relatively straightforward: it’s about mutual trust and respect. In Tribute to Venus Carmichael, for example, my musical joint project with Kelly Brooks, it’s pretty simple. Either the arrangement of a particular song works for both of us both, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we move on to something else: there are plenty of songs to choose from (and some new ones have been mysteriously appearing recently, TTVC fans, so stand by for news!)

In a band with four or more of you, that approach can still work. It just depends on personalities: if there’s a big lead singer/lead guitarist dynamic going on, it might mean they dictate to the others, or be at each other’s throats, or both. Cf  Jagger/Richard, the Gallagher brothers, etc., etc.

Monty Python had an interesting way of working: they tended to produce sketches in pairs, and then bring them together in the wider group. The general rule was, if someone really, really hated something, they didn’t do it. But then, the nature of Flying Circus meant the whole thing didn’t have to be totally joined up, in a making sense kind of sense. So no Grand High Pooh-bah there.

The Bloc show with John Lemke and Poppy Ackroyd at last year’s Book Festival Unbound was a bit different. We had to come up with a bunch of words which all made some sort of sense in the overall story arc, to be performed alongside/over the top of music by two different composers which we’d just been given, comprising a series of tracks with fairly gnomic labels like ‘Dorothea II.’ Actually, now I write it that way, it makes me shudder to think we even thought of attempting it.

So we, like, totally needed a Grand High Pooh-Bah to pull it all together. The music was just great, and highly suggestive, but it suggested different things to each of us, so the Project Initiation Meetings (there was more than one) involved a lot of ideas, many of which went off in several directions at once. Gavin was a really excellent Grand High Pooh-Bah. All the same:

5. Accept You Must Bend to the Collective Hive Mind Sometimes

I actually found the project initiation sessions quite difficult. I tend to come up with lots of ideas, some of which I kind of know right away are crap, some of which I get quite attached to. I also have a fault of Just Wanting To Crack On, which will sometimes lead me to think: that’ll do fine. Let’s crack on. Others in Bloc tend to be better at holding off a final decision and letting the flavours stew for a bit.

6. First Draft is only ever First Draft

The first draft bit is the bit I really like: that moment of creation, of converting a tune in your head into something that, on the first run through in the rehearsal room, sounds pretty damn good; that moment when the words on the page start to flow until you reach a full stop and think, actually, I think I’m still going to love that tomorrow.

However, the second draft is usually where your collaborators will come in: has what you’ve created off in your corner part of the overall tapestry, or does it stick out like a camper van parked next to Harold getting one in the eye at Hastings? Hive mind, remember. Grand Pooh-bah may make a Ruling. You may not like it. Negotiate.

7. Getting the Soyuz off the Runway

Ok, so we’re at second, third, or twentieth draft stage (depending whether you’re collaborating with a whole crew of Completer Finishers – did I mention Belbin’s Team Roles is also a useful analysis of how your fellow creators might operate?). If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to think about how you’re going to make the project fly. In Bloc, to keep the Soviet analogy going, we sometimes refer to this as getting the Soyuz off the runway.

Which of you is going to persuade the Methil Ladies Singers to act as your East Bulgarian Undead Choir (we jettisoned the sf idea, remember, and followed the current industry standard advice of putting a zombie in it)? That Hammond organ solo the lead singer can just hear in his head but hasn’t a Scooby how to play – which of you is still on speaking terms with the Hammond organ guy in the last band? And which of you took the compromising pictures of the Festival Director at the fetish club with someone else’s wife? (To be clear, that’s not how we got the Book Festival gig. Honest.)

8. Keep a Bolt-Hole

By which I mean, it’s sometimes handy to keep a project all of your own simmering on another ring while all of this is going on. So when the Methil Ladies Singers are giving the atonal East Bulgarian Death Chant a good seeing to, you can always think of the book-long sequence of poems about Fife’s transportation infrastructure you’ve been tinkering with for a while now, and get that warm glow creatives get when they’re thinking about that sort of thing.

9. Plan, Do, Review

Or in other words, like all projects the logical paradigm is to follow a three stroke cycle of planning it, doing it, and then sitting down afterwards and seeing if you want to do it all again. If you do, is it with the same people, or is it time to have that chat with the rhythm guitarist? Have you now remembered why the Hammond organ guy was in the last band, and not this one? Would you go to Kelty rather than Methil for your zombies next time?

Don’t wait too long to do the review stage. Like childbirth (I imagine) the awful pain you went through at the time recedes and is replaced by a warm, fuzzy memory of an event/gig/best-selling novel that makes all the participants up for more.

10. There’s Always the Door

If you do collaborate, the worst thing, the very worst thing, you can do is go along with it when you’re really not happy, and then disown it when it finally sees the light of day: ‘well, to be honest, it was all really Colin and Clarissa’s thing, I was looking more for the Western Bulgarian vibe, or maybe even a bit of Albanian, but (rolls eyes long-sufferingly) you know what they’re like…’

Don’t be so pathetic and passive-aggressive. If you don’t want to put your name to it, don’t then (and don’t lay claim to any of the royalties neither, when Bulgarian Zombies – the Musical! takes off on Broadway).

To be fair, this has never happened to me – but I have seen people walking away from joint projects, and I have always respected them for it.

A few years ago, Hannu, Gav and I were both involved in some meetings about an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with a group of people, some of whom we knew, some of whom were new to us. It was all quite exciting initially, particularly as it looked as if there might be some money in it, and people from as far away as London and Birmingham were making the trip to talk to us.

Then, one by one, everyone walked away. I remember one participant telling another (without any apparent rancour) ‘you’re a very rude man.’

A few months later, Gav assembled a crack team (and me) to produce something with ARG-ish elements to it for the City of Literature’s campaign. The thing that made it work especially well, I think, apart from Gav’s gentle Grand Pooh-Bah-ing, was the fact that we had disparate talents around the creative arts, so that the whole thing had a rounded, transmedia element to it that a bunch of poets could never have managed by themselves.

It was called Hunt the Poem and it was really rather good. Have a look – it’s still up there. I would work with all of those guys again in an instant. And that’s not just the warm fuzzy glow talking, either!

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The Surrealist Year Ahead

 2014

JANUARY

The rock world is shocked by the news that the Rolling Stones have been using prosthetically enhanced lookalikes on stage for years. Jim Henson is credited with giving the session musicians such convincing makeovers that the only original band member to remain on the tours, Charlie Watts, was completely fooled.

‘I’ve been playing with muppets for years,’ an ashen-faced Watts tells reporters, adding, ‘I thought they sounded a bit better than usual recently.’

The real Keith Richards, currently floating in a tank of methadone in a private clinic on the Dutch Antilles, is unavailable for comment.

FEBRUARY

December 2013’s heart-warming story of the couple who had to deliver their baby at Sainsbury’s petrol station at Cameron Toll, subsequently giving their son the middle name Cameron, inspires a rush of copycat births at other retail outlets, in a desperate bid for media coverage. Campbell Starbucks Straiton Sweeney is one picked up by the headline writers for the alliteration, but everyone agrees Louis Vuitton Multrees McLatchie’s parents should have known better.

Mrs Jane O’Rourke is reported as having been thinking about the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, rather than the birth location, when naming her daughter Precious. However, the manager of Poundstretcher’s in Gorgie Road tells the Evening News he was still ‘proud tae lend a hand.’

MARCH

A new dance craze known as gwerking hits the world of celebrity. Soon global figures as influential as Katie Price and Kim Kardashian are spotted wearing v-neck Pringle pullovers and National Health specs, flailing their arms around in a spasmodic manner to Seventies disco hits such as Chic’s 1978 hit Le Freak.

Men of a certain age remain unimpressed. ‘This is just dad dancing dressed up as being something new and cool,’ storms Ronald O’Donald, 49, of Peckham. ‘We’ve been doing it for years.’

However, no one in celebrity land listens to those kinds of people. Miley Cyrus creates a Twitterstorm bitch-fight by saying she’s ‘too young to gwerk.’ ‘I can see it would work for people like Kim,’ she tells !Celeb!!Biz!Online! ‘Maybe when I’ve fully pushed the envelope of the twerk, I’ll be ready to gwerk.’

APRIL

An alien race from near Alpha Centauri finally make contact with the world’s media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

‘We’ve been waiting for you guys to develop something compatible with our systems for aeons,’ the spokesperson, Zog the Archaic (1,003) says. ‘Well done you for getting there in the end. Lol.’

Before  – inevitably – posting a selfie, he adds: ‘We tried visiting you direct, but there was something wrong with the satnav and we kept ending up in a car park near Bathgate. Even we’re not perfect, obvs.’

In a related development, Clackmannanshire Council respond to a Freedom of Information request, admitting that the strange silver disc-like object on the roof of their headquarters in Alloa is in fact a form of router to boost the Alpha Centaurians’ wi-fi signal.

‘We thought it was the least we could do, after that unfortunate misunderstanding in Skinflats,’ a spokesperson says.

@zogthearchaic soon has more Twitter followers than Cheryl Cole. But then who doesn’t these days.

MAY

Fed up with stand up comedians making fun of the lyrics for her 1996 hit Ironic as not being examples of irony (blackfly in chardonnay, a traffic jam when already late, yada yada) Alanis Morrisette issues a remix, where the line ‘isn’t it ironic’ is replaced by ‘isn’t it a bit shite.’ Although she keeps the original song title. Which critics agree is a bit ironic.

JUNE

A news report of an escaped baboon in a Morningside tea shop turns out to be based on a typo in a Tweet about an escaped balloon, slightly dislodging a cake stand at a children’s party.

However, in one of an increasing number of examples of life imitating the internet, a female baboon called Dorothy does escape a few days later from Edinburgh Zoo, making it as far as Corstorphine, where she holds down a job as a waitress in a cafe for several weeks before being recaptured.

‘I did find her a little difficult to understand, but I thought she was maybe just a bit foreign,’ the short-sighted owner, Calista McFlockhart (63) explains. ‘She was very popular with the regulars, although I noticed the scones were disappearing a whole lot faster than usual on her shift.’

Dorothy soon acquires her own Twitter account, @dorothyscone.

JULY

A last ditch attempt by the Scottish Government to make the Commonwealth Games more inclusive sees the rules changed to ensure at least one local competitor is given a place on the starting line up of each sport.

In the 100 metres final, Davey MacSwedger, 37, of Castlemilk, beats Usain Bolt by a clear 7 tenths of a second, and becomes the only gold medal winner in the Games’ history to mount the podium still clutching two packets of meat and a box of disposable razors.

Constables Shaun McDaid, 43, and Malky Malcolmson, 22, come a creditable 7th and 8th despite not being formal competitors. In interviews, MacSwegan thanks them for providing him with his ‘motivation.’

‘I’d also like tae thank Aldi fur providing the trainin facilities,’ he adds. ‘And fur no pressin charges.’

AUGUST

A new crop circle controversy breaks out in East Lothian, where fields of barley sprout what appear, at first sight, to be landing strips for alien craft, the distances between each marker on the strip being 3.14159259 metres, prompting feverish speculation amongst mathematicians as to why aliens would measure things in units of Pi.

After a week two conceptual artists claim responsibility, explaining that the ‘installation’ is meant to represent a giant ruler, being a comment on the unavailability of space for conceptual art in Edinburgh during the Festival. ‘The work plays with sensibilities on space in every sense of the word,’ simpers Jason Twistleton-Smythe, 27, of Chipping Norton.

In an unrelated incident, Damien Hirst  recovers from gunshot wounds in Cumberland Infirmary after an altercation over the use of drystane dyke materials to build his latest artwork on a hillside near Carlisle. The work, a shark made of slate entitled Set in Stone, is believed to be an ironic reference to Hirst’s most famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 14-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde.

On being charged with the shooting, local farmer George Tomkins (69) comments, ‘It were worrying my sheep.’

SEPTEMBER

The independence referendum is stopped in its tracks by a writ from Donald Trump, who successfully argues that the vote might interrupt his constitutional right to ‘screw as much money out of the little guy as I conceivably can.’ Trump becomes an unlikely hero with the Scots who, scunnered with the whole Yes or No debate, vote to have Trump’s hairpiece declared a Listed Building under the relevant legislation.

The Scottish Government retaliates by making wind turbines compulsory on the pin flags of all golf courses constructed in the last three years.

OCTOBER

Following the inconclusive result in the independence referendum, David Cameron announces the most fundamental shake up of the UK Constitution in a thousand years.

The country will be divided into a house system, similar to that used at most public schools. England will be divided into ‘Southerners’ and ‘Northers’ (beyond Watford Gap) with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each being given their own house. Houses will elect their own Head Boy and Girl, and compete in a series of sports such as lacrosse and cricket to win points.

These will then affect how much money goes to new regional assemblies, known as ‘Common Rooms,’ to spend in the respective regions.

Everyone that matters agrees it’s worth a jolly good go, although there is some predictable whining from Dragon, Saltire and Ulster Paisley Houses.

NOVEMBER

A new phone tapping scandal comes to light. Journalists trying to hack into the private phones of Met Office experts mistakenly gain access to a coach party of pensioners from Swansea driving past the building.

The pensioners’ anxious speculations about the weather, fuelled by earlier tabloid predictions of ninety days of snow and too much prescription medication, set off a feedback loop of inaccurate media predictions which then, in turn, create even wilder speculations on the coach the next day, to be picked up by headline writers the day after. Pieces like ‘Christmas Killer Wave for Cardiff,’ ‘Tsunami to hit Sheffield,’ ‘Snowfall to Flatten Forfar,’ and ‘Avalanche Threat to Aberdeen,’ become commonplace.

Veteran newscaster Michael Fish is wheeled out to confirm that the whole thing is untrue and that a new ice age is not, in fact, due to spread south as far as Macclesfield by next Tuesday lunchtime.

Nobody believes him.

DECEMBER

Scientists announce a research breakthrough: a chemical found only in Brussels sprouts is the cure ‘for almost everything.’ However, clinically significant doses involve daily ingestion of at least 8 ounces of the gas-producing cultivar of Brassica oleracea. R & D departments of major companies go into overdirve trying to refine a more acceptable alternative than eating industrial quantities of the stuff.

In the meantime, as the western world belches and farts its way through Nigella Lawson’s new bestseller A Kilo Of Sprouts A Day Keeps The Ex-Husband At Bay, the Chinese come up with way of extracting the chemical into a single pill to be taken once a day, and keep it to themselves.

As methane levels reach dangerous new highs, however, they relent, and trade the secret process. In return for Scotland, Peru, the Balearic Islands, and the New York Mets baseball team. And the secret recipe for Coke.

Then 2015 dawns, and things get a whole lot weirder.

 

With thanks and love to Heather and Keith Ferguson for their suggestions

Dawn Breaks Over The Scottish Lowlands (well, more like mid-morning, really…)

A healthy and happy 2014 to all my readers. The crystal ball’s a bit cloudy this morning, but I hope to have The Surrealist Year Ahead finished up in the next few days. As they say, you heard it here first!

Andrew xx