Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It's December. Another time of year when we stretch one day of celebration into a whole month. Except the retail sector who stretch it for much longer. A time when we've started to see how long we can go without hearing "Last Christmas" by Wham!

(Five days for me, if you're asking)

Anyway, in honour of the holiday (and to procrastinate an assignment), I decided to take a look Mischief Theatre's Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Mischief Theatre's "Goes Wrong" productions are a series of stage shows which centre around the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, whose productions are exactly as the title suggests. The series started with The Play That Goes Wrong in 2012, but I haven't seen that one.

I'm specifically looking at the Peter Pan Goes Wrong TV special which Mischief Theatre did with the BBC during Christmas in 2016. The hour-long special follows the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they perform the traditional Christmas vignette (not pantomime), Peter Pan. Unfortunately, their production is seriously hampered by faulty props, cast members forgetting their lines, substandard sets, and even some personal dramas. What results from this is some of the funniest slapstick comedy I've ever seen.

The characters are all great. To illustrate things easier, I'll talk you through the cast members:

  • Chris, the director, plays Captain Hook and Mr Darling, and gets angry when the audience regards the production of a pantomime
  • Robert, who refers to himself as the "lead actor", plays none of the lead roles (Nana the dog, an unintelligible pirate called Starkey, and Peter's Shadow)
  • The showboating Jonathan plays Peter Pan
  • Sandra plays Wendy, and is in a relationship with Jonathan off-stage
  • Max plays Michael and the Crocodile, has a crush on Sandra, and is said to have only got the parts because his aunt runs the BBC
  • Dennis plays John and Mr Smee, and has to have his lines delivered to him through a headset
  • Annie plays Mrs Darling, Liza the Maid, Tinkerbell (who is traditionaly played by a beam of light), Tiger Lily and a pirate (both in the same scene)
  • Robert's niece Lucy plays Tootles the Lost Boy, but suffers from stage fright and multiple injuries
  • Trevor serves as the stage manager, and sometimes ends up working on-stage as well as off
  • David Suchet makes a guest appearance as the narrator
There are plenty of other jokes I haven't shared here. I'd say my favourite scene is when Mrs Darling is singing a lullaby, while Robert (as Nana) is stuck in the dog flap and the stage hands are trying to extricate him. Annie has to belt out the lullaby as her words are being drowned out by the stage crew's power tools. This is immediately followed by this gem:
Overall, it's a great show with some great laughs, but I have the feeling that something as slapstick-heavy as this would be even funnier on stage.

The TV special was so popular that they returned for A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong the following year. In this one, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have been blacklisted by the BBC, and hijack their made-for-TV special of A Christmas Carol. To expand on the comedy utilised in the previous special, this one also has Chris dealing with attempts on his life from Robert (who wanted to play Scrooge), and Sir Derek Jacobi (who was playing Scrooge).

If you ever get a chance to see these specials, I highly recommend that you do. I don't see a lot of stuff on stage, but I'd love to check this out at some point.

Happy writing.

Meet the Author - Andrew Marsh

Today I'm delighted to be joined by fellow Swanwicker Andrew Marsh, who is launching his latest book, Jack Janson and the Storm Caller. He has come to the Writer's Block to answer some questions.

1) First of all, tell us a little about yourself and your writing.
I'm a 55-year-old former geologist who worked in the construction industry, and now spend my time writing and speaking.

I self-published my first two novels but I have had a change of emphasis in my writing and now write fantasy for young adults and teenagers, although adults will enjoy them too.

When I was 51, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and this has bought great clarity to my life and made sense of a lot of things that happened as a child and adult. I now speak on my Asperger’s Syndrome and want to share my experiences and what benefits and skills that people on the spectrum can bring to the community.

2) Tell us about your new book.

Jack Janson and the Storm Caller is the first in a series of books. It tells the tale of Jack, who is unloved at home and bullied at school. Things improve when he goes to his grandmother's home for the summer holiday, where she treats him like an adult. They bond over her garden and baking until one day when she takes him to a cave at the bottom of her garden. There, a booming voice causes the rock walls to reverberate and looming over him is Winfred Storm Caller, a large friendly giant.

This begins Jack’s adventures with the giant which leads to great discoveries and secrets. The book explores the relationship between Jack, his grandmother, Winfred, and Jack’s neighbour Sarah-Jane at this critical time in his life.

3) Do you prefer to plot stories or work it out as you go along?
I generally have an idea of plot, characters and setting before I start writing, although when in the zone, it is as much free writing within a framework.

4) What are your ideal conditions for writing in?
I use the spare bedroom as my study and have most of the things I need around me, especially writing aids, reference books, files, printer/scanner and so on. I usually write in the quiet, although I sometimes listen to rock music. I am usually left to my writing and this allows me to make good progress daily.

I am very focussed and organised when writing and these are some of my Asperger’s traits which I find very helpful in the creative process. 

For the editing and reviewing phases of writing a book, which I find the most difficult part, I need peace and quiet and to be left to my own devises. 

5) Was there anything in particular which got you into writing?
I first became interested in writing in my thirties when I was part of or was told funny stories about things that happened on construction sites or in the design office where I worked. I started to keep notebooks on me and wrote all of these things down. I soon got the idea for a significant event that would be a good start for a book and started that in 1996. I soon became hooked and have developed my writing over the years since.

I also attend the Writer’s Summer School, Swanwick, where I have made great writing friends and learnt a great deal about the craft of writing. 

6) Are there any authors you’d like to meet, and why?
I would love to have been able to meet J.R.R Tolkien and chat with him about world building and how he was able to create such an epic story. I would have to get him to show me his maps and how he created them, they are works or art as well as useful information to help the reader understand the story.

Also, David Eddings. He wrote the Belgariad and Mallerion series of books and I started reading those when I started to develop my own writing. Like with Tolkien, the ability to write long tales and books that told a bigger story is a great art.

7) Finally, what’s the best piece of advice anyone gave you?
Be true to yourself.

Thank you for joining me today. I wish you every success with Jack Janson.

You can find Andrew Marsh's website here.

Jack Janson and the Storm Caller is available from Amazon here.

Happy writing.

Savage Worlds

Tools of the Trade
I've said before that tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons are partially responsible for getting me into writing in the first place. I've even joked that I originally went to university so I could play it again. While Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most well-known of these types of games, I like to run my games with Pinnacle Entertainment's Savage Worlds roleplaying system.

Savage Worlds is a generic universal system which is readily adaptable. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, in which you roll a 20-sided dice (d20) for every skill and the other dice for damage, in Savage Worlds you have a die type for everything. For example, a player with a d8 in the Fighting skill will roll an eight-sided die whenever called to roll Fighting. They also roll a six-sided die alongside the d8, and take the better result. Additionally, if the maximum result is rolled on a die, it's rolled again and the results stack. This often means that a lot of Savage Worlds games tend to be more action-packed than other roleplaying games.

I especially love the array of settings which have been released. Pinnacle's biggest franchise is a setting called Deadlands, a dark fantasy and steampunk roleplaying game which takes place in the American West. In fact, one of the first things I wrote was a Deadlands fan fiction. This spawned several sequels, such as Deadlands Noir, which shifts the setting to 1930s New Orleans but still retains the dark fantasy and science fiction elements. I'm actually running a Deadland Noir campaign, and was surprised how there seemed to be a greater focus on the mystery than action, yet it still flowed.

Other settings which use the Savage Worlds system include: Lankhmar: The City of Thieves, a swashbuckling fantasy based on the works of Fritz Leiber; Rippers, a Victorian gothic horror reminiscent of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; and The Savage World of Flash Gordon, based on the characters created by Alex Raymond (and that guilty pleasure 80s cheese).

Last year, I backed a new version of Savage Worlds on Kickstarter; Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, commonly known as "SWADE". There's a cafe in my area which caters to the roleplaying game crowd, so I volunteered to run campaigns there one day of the week. Unfortunately, this had a rough start, as most players are more accustomed to Dungeons & Dragons and seemed intimidated by the character creation process. Fortunately, I'm getting all kinds of ready-made adventures from Pinnacle as part of my pledge, so I plan to run one of those using characters I've made myself.

I look forward to running all kinds of campaigns, and introduce more players to the system.

Writing Hashtags - Pitch Madness (Content Warning: Promotion)

Writing's been a bit slow since I got back from Swanwick. Yes, I've been procrastinating again, playing through another campaign in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom while I pass the time before going back to university.

Anyway, yesterday I took part in Pitch Madness, a quarterly writing event hosted by the Pitch Wars mentoring programme intended to help writers find agents. For 12 hours on a given day, writers tweet pitches for their works, using the tag #PitMad. However, users are specifically asked not to like any of the the pitches unless they're an agent or publisher (but retweeting is fine).

In order to illustrate this, I've included a screenshot of my pitch. This includes the hashtags, an "X meets Y" statement if it fits, and the pitch itself. The hashtags include the mandatory #PitMad tag, a mandatory age catergory (New Adult), and some optional genres (Action, Adventure, and Historical Fiction).

In fact, I actually came up with this pitch during one of the courses at Swanwick this year. If you want advice on how to pitch, I believe you must ensure that your pitch contains a situation, a protagonist, an antagonist, and an objective.

I've taken part in Pitch Madness a couple of times, and this was the first time I've had someone like my pitch (who wasn't just a bot advertising hair treatment). So, the next step is to research the two publishers in question. I'm relatively new to this side of the writing world, so my general rule of thumb is make sure they're not asking for any kind of upfront fees.

Of course, if you don't get any likes, it's still a good way to network with other writers on Twitter. As Pitch MAdness usually takes place on a Thursday, I like to dedicate the traditional #FollowFriday shout-outs to anybody who shared my pitch.

Now it's time for some shameless promotion.

I received a like from Something or Other Publishing (SOOP), who run an unusual model in which writers submit a story idea and then people can vote on it. If the idea receives 2000 votes, then a publishing contract can be drawn up. There are also a few milestones in which other services are offered if they receive a certain amount of votes.

If you'd like to vote for my story, you can find the link to the SOOP page here. I'd very much appreciate the support.

If you'd like to learn more about Pitch Madness, you can find the guidelines here. The next one is due to take place on 5th December.

Happy writing.

Swanwick: Season 4

If only the weather was as nice as it was in this photo.
Well, it's that wonderful time of year again. I'm starting to contemplate making some kind of Swanwick equivalent of Christmas songs. Which can be played in July and August. Anyway, this week was my annual visit to the Swanwick Writers' Summer School at the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire.

The trouble with being a mature student is that it gets lonely over the summer, as most school-friends my age are in full-time jobs and even have kids now. So Swanwick is the best social contact I get all summer. In fact, it's kinda like going to university. There's writing workshops, fun activities, and a cheap bar. I suppose that was why I originally chose to go to university. Although I'm not accustomed to getting up so early in the morning.

With that in mind, let's look at what was on the cards this year.

Specialist Courses

The morning sessions are for the four-part specialist courses which are taught over the week. Trouble is that I was so torn between several of them which looked interesting. Unfortunately, they're taught at the same time and I lack Hermione Granger's time-turner and the ability to play a tune on the ocarina (and for that matter, I lack a regular ocarina, let alone The Ocarina of Time). Anyway, I eventually settled on a screenwriting course led by Bridget Holding.

This course looked at how to write pitches (which may come in handy next time I do Pitch Madness on Twitter), three-act structures, how to show rather than tell, and how to format scripts. I'd originally planned to use this course with a fantasy comedy piece written for one of my assignments (which is available on my other blog here). However, I was distracted from this by an epic historical series which I felt had the potential to be the next Game of Thrones. Well, I suppose I'm more accustomed to writing historical fiction than fantasy.

Short Courses

Following on from the specialist course sessions, there are two-part short courses which take up the sessions before and after lunch.
Sunday: Promoting Your Work
The first of these short courses was on Promoting Your Work, hosted by Val Penny. This was done in the form of an A to Z, with pointers on blog tours and social media, or where you can advertise books. I'll have to check things out once the notes become available, but it was fascinating, and Val can be a very amusing lecturer.
Monday: Gender Awareness
Monday's short course was on Gender Awareness, hosted by Pauline Mason. This was studying "Gender Theory", and how to avoid gender stereotypes. There was also a look at examples of characters written by authors of an opposite gender (and not the cringe-inducing "Men Writing Women" Twitter feed).

Wednesday: Time - Friend or Foe
There weren't any short courses on Tuesday, but there were some single session workshops in the morning. However, I didn't go to those ones, as I was nursing a hangover from the previous night. So, Wednesday's short course was on time management, hosted by Christine Williams. I figured I could use this one, as I've been putting things off a lot lately. That's the trouble with summer; no deadlines. So I'm not writing as much (and I've got nothing else to procrastinate from). Even if I did do Camp NaNoWriMo last month. Christine talked about making lists and limiting the number of tasks each day.
Thursday: Setting and Sense of Place
Thursday's short course was on Setting and Sense of Place, with Lizzie Enfield. This one looked at developing settings in a similar way to developing characters. There was a fun exercise which involved developing a setting from an object, taking into account the wider environment and how to use the five senses.

Evening Events

Groovy, baby!
Swanwick isn't just about courses. There are also a myriad of evening events. The first night had a new addition this year called "Birds of a Feather", in which different attendees could meet and network with those writing in the same genre. It was neat idea, and I got to meet a few more historical fiction writers, but I don't think they held it in the right place. The Main Lounge doesn't have the best acoustics.

Sunday night had a poetry open mic, and I decided to give that a go this year. I read out a poem which utilised audience participation, which a lot of people enjoyed. Meanwhile, Monday night had a fancy dress disco with a "flower power" theme (although they didn't play "Soul Bossa Nova"). There was also a prose open mic, a busker's night, a general knowledge quiz, and the "Page to Stage".

Finally, the Thursday night has the Dregs Party, in which attendees suit up for the final night as they attend the raffle prize draws, an awards ceremony for the Page to Stage, and a sing-along. Not forgetting the famous "Swanwick Anthem".

Anyway, now to mark the days on the calendar until next year.

Happy writing.

A Look Back - Age of Empires II: Age of Kings

Ah, glorious nostalgia. I've got a few days before I go on my annual visit to Swanwick, and I've finished my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2. So, I need to find another way to procrastinate. With this in mind, I thought I'd take a look at a classic which is been growing strong for twenty years now; Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

I think this game may have been one of the first real-time strategy games I ever played. Even when I was still living in Lancashire. Released in 1999, the game is about building up a Medieval village, gathering resources, and raising an army to crush your opponents. You can play random map games with computer or human-controlled enemies, or you can play one of five campaigns (in ascending order of difficulty):

  1. William Wallace's battles against the English during the First War of Scottish Independance in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries (which serves as the game's tutorial)
  2. Joan of Arc's campaign against the English and Burgundians during the Hundred Years' War
  3. Saladin's defence of the Middle East against the Crusader States
  4. Genghis Khan's conquest of Eurasia
  5. Frederick Barbarossa's expansion of the Holy Roman Empire
Or you can do what I always did and muck about with the scenario editor. I never made my own campaigns though.

An expansion pack, titled The Conquerors, was released in 2000. Those were the days. You'd buy the game, and then the following year you'd buy the expansion pack. They'd probably then put them both together in a "Gold Edition" not long afterwards. I think that kinda thing later developed into downloadable content (DLC).

Anyway, The Conquerors added five more playable factions (to the original game's 13), three new campaigns (based on Attila the Hun's rise to power, Montezuma's defence of the Aztec Empire, and the adventures of El Cid), along with eight single missions based on famous historical battles. I never actually bought The Conquerors when it was originally released. It wasn't until fairly recently, which is why this game surprises me.

In 2013, a new developer, Hidden Path Studios, re-released The Age of Kings and The Conquerers as the Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam. As stated above, I always used to muck about with the scenario editor, and there was the ability to make your own campaigns. Put that on a platform like Steam, and you'll have tons of players able to share their own campaigns with others.

And it wasn't just campaigns. An old game like this probably has simpler codes, which opens the gates for a large modding community. Four months after the re-release, a fan-made expansion titled Forgotten Empires received an official release as The Forgotten, under the supervision of Skybox Labs. This added five more factions, six new campaigns, and eight more historical battles.

But it doesn't stop there. Two more expansions were released; The African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Each one adds another four factions, each with their own campaign. Not to mention more Random Map types.

So, we've got Random Maps with 31 playable factions, 22 campaigns, and 16 historical battles. That'll keep someone occupied for a while.

And if that's not enough, there's another remaster due to be released later the year; the Definitive Edition.

It amazes me that one game can be kept going for so long.

Happy writing.

Camp NaNoWriMo - A Virtual Writers' Retreat

Well, it's July, so I'm back home for the summer holidays. Unfortunately, there's not much to do in my hometown. Except perhaps another playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2.

So, to pass the time, I decided to try out Camp NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge held every November in which writers attempt to write a 50,000 word story in 30 days. Participants sign up to the website in order to register their projects for the month and monitor their progress. I tried this back in 2016, but felt it wasn't for me.

Anyway, the people who run it also do what is known as Camp NaNoWriMo. This is a virtual writers' retreat of sorts, held in August and July. The principles are similar to the November challenge, but this time you set your own goals. November's challenge involves starting a new novel from scratch, but I used Camp NaNo to work on an existing project. Additionally, you don't have to set word count goals for the month. Instead of words, you can also choose to write a certain number of chapters or pages, or spend a certain amount of time on the project.

With this in mind, I set myself a time goal to work on my swashbuckler story, The Lady's Favour, as this mostly involved revising and editing and made it difficult to monitor word count. I set the goal as 30 hours for the month, the minimum. I also experimented with timed writing sessions, starting with an hour and then working my way down to smaller sessions. Ultimately, I submitted The Lady's Favour before I fulfilled my time goal. So, I also included blog posts and visits to my writers' group within my time, along with the first draft of a follow-up story.

I think I prefer Camp NaNoWriMo over NaNoWriMo, as it offers more flexibility. Also, July is a fairly quiet time for me. I'm at university in November and I'll have a few deadlines on April.

Anyway, I've spent the month on a virtual writers' retreat. And on the day that I won, I also received the programme for an actual writers' retreat. I think you'll know which one I mean.

Happy writing.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It's December. Another time of year when we stretch one day of celebration into a whole month. Except the retail sector who stretch it...