Wednesday 12 August 2009

Ikea Dave laptop table: a heartwarming success story (not words I often associate with Ikea)

I am a profesional writer so I spend a good portion of my life hunched over a laptop, madly typing away. I's important to be comfortable as possible while I'm doing this. I don't have to sit at a desk — that's one of the nice things about working at home; instead I sit on a sofa with the laptop, yep, in my lap. But you can't actually use a laptop like that. There is the issue of painful overheating, plus lambent paranoia about what the buzzing overheated electronics are doing to a fella's reproductive capability. So you need to set the laptop on something. You could always use a cushion or a pillow — yes, you could always do that if you wanted your computer to overheat and seize up in a terminal and very expensive disc crash. Or alternatively just burst into flame. The solution I arrived at was to use a pillow but to put a large book on top of the pillow (I mean a very large, but very thin book, a solid hardcover. For some reason I used to be fond of using A Pictorial History of Sex in the Movies by Pascall and Jeavons, Hamlyn 1975) and place the laptop on top of that. This provision of a hard flat surface for the computer allows its vents to 'breathe.' This is an adequte, but not an ideal solution. For a start, when you invite half a dozen actors around for a reading of your latest play, and they spot the book, they might laugh scornfully at your explanations to account for its presence on your sofa. Also the angle for your wrists when you're typing on this set up is far from perfect. I used to dream of commissioning a precision engineering firm to install one of those tables on a hydraulic arm which can be swung in and out, like they have to hold the instruments adjacent to the chair at a dentist's. Such a device fastened to the wall beside the sofa would, I imagined, hold my computer and be adjustable so I could set it at just the right height and position for typing. Colour me thunderstruck when I discovered that Ikea, of all people, had come up with a budget version of just such a mechanism. Yes, I have gone and purchased an Ikea Dave laptop table. And I like it. I like it a lot. Lest this become an encomium, though, let me list what I don't like about it. The only frustrating real design flaw so far is the painfully knurled adjustment knob which digs into my shin. I sit cross legged while I'm typing (did I mention on a sofa? While listening to jazz. Specifically Count Basie at the moment, as it happens) and presumably the ergonomic tests didn't allow for such an eccentric (indeed potentially subversive) posture. Also, it shakes while I type. Causing the screen to dance annoyingly. This is only a pain when I'm concentrating on something small on the screen. About the size of this font as I type this entry, as it happens. And then there is the slight problem (compounded by the shaking) that the laptop on which I'm typing starts to slide gradually off the table. You can't quite see from the picture at the top of this entry, but the table tilts to a convenient angle for typing. This angle combined with the almost but not quite brilliantly designed matte high-friction non-slip surface of Dave send my MacBook on occasional excursions over the precipice.

Monday 10 August 2009

I've just finished a new play called The Lift. I've given it to friends to read and luckily my friends include some terrific writers and also Conrad Blakemore, a terrific director. So the feedback is always very high quality, though I must say sometimes a trifle tardy in arriving, gentlemen. And often very useful. The Lift looks now like it's in good shape. So of course I'm now casting about for what I'll write next. First up is my novel Operation Herod, a spy thriller. This marks the debut of Rupert Hood, my 007 for the twenty first century. I'd put a link to Ian Fleming here but I'm sure nobody needs that. They do? Okay. Now, the two most important things about a James Bond story are the villain and the big action set piece at the end. So I had these criteria in mind, along with the character of Rupert, when I set about writing Operation Herod. I completed the novel and since it was powerful and moving and funny as an escapist paperback thriller should be, I sent it out into the world. Then of course I came up with a way of improving it. A simple but powerful improvement. I did this before, on The Wise. The Wise was my first novel and it was about this brilliant shrink who falls in love with one of her patients who thinks he has strange powers. The complication is that he does. Boom boom. I finished the book and sat back in my favourite armchair listening to Miles Davis. Then a nagging thought assailed me. I sat aside my glass of Appleton Estate twenty one year old rum, a spirit as fine as any great brandy. I pondered the idea... What if I just added a little vignette, a little teaser chapter at the beginning? To introduce the shrink. To warm her up as a character, so to speak, for the reader. To get the reader to engage with her. So I wrote this nifty prologue in which she lost a patient. "If you're a psychiatrist and you're working with schizophrenics, one of the problems is that you're going to have a certain number of suicides. It just happens," said the shrink from north London I spoke to. Rather alarmingly, he'd had two that week. So anyway I gave this situation to my character in The Wise, in a taut, grim little vignette. Then, mind at rest I resuming listening to jazz in my armchair. My then editor at Virgin books, Rebecca Levene was so impressed that she almost bought me lunch. In fact she did buy me lunch, on a number of occasions, bless her. "It has transformed the entire beginning of the book," she didn't say. "It makes you feel completely different about the the character," she didn't add. But she did say words to that effect. As well she might.End of flashback. So now I propose to apply the same procedure to Operation Herod. Back to work.I sigh as I rise from my armchair and change the music. Steely Dan I think, this time. Listening to this and other nutritious sounds I wrote a brief (five page) teaser prologue. My thinking behind this is that the book as it stands takes a while to get to the action and suspense, and a little vignette at the beginning will serve to instantly give a mission statement, so to speak. The prologue in place I also decide to set about making a few other deft revisions, mostly small cuts, to further turbo-charge the book. Having done my novel writing for the day (there goes the morning) I turn to my next play. A big new project. Yes, another stage play. I love writing these. The scale is so different from a film or novel. There is an intensity and immediacy which is unique. And you can riff on dialogue. Anyway, I was casting around for a new subject for a stage play and this light bulb went off over my head. A few years ago I wrote a film script which attracted a lot of attention and was even optioned. The rights have now reverted to me and it's just lying around. But last week I suddenly realised it would make a great stage play. In fact, it's more naturally a stage play than a film.
This was a real moment of revelation. As I said, I was convinced I'd hit upon a great idea. And what was even better, it gave me something to do while I was sitting on my sofa listening to Raulzinho's International Hot. But then began the ticklish business of changing from one medium to another. Physically this was quite easy to do. I discovered that if I just cut and pasted the film script into a play script, the software I use (Final Draft) automatically reformatted it so that it now looked like a stage play. Great. The wonders of the computer. If I was doing this in the days of a typewriter I'd need a bottle of laudanum and revolver. Next I went through and cut out any material that obviously was wrong for a stage play, was obviously only for the big screen and that I was never in a million years going to use in a play. Then I realised much of this stuff was actually perfect for a play and and had to restore it. Ah the creative process has begun! My next order of business was to bring the characters down to a reasonable number. In a modern stage play the absolute maximum is about eight. My first play, End of the Night, had eight actors and I'll never do that again. They were all great actors, and engaging characters, but the fact that there was so many of them indicated a tyro's brio in the writing, and also frankly some poor planning. Still, as I say, it was my first play. My second play, Under the Eagle (which Conrad Blakemore directed; great job there Conrad!) had six characters. So that was moving in the right direction. Then Authenticity, my stage thriller (not yet staged) has four. Now The Lift had two. So logically, the next one should have none. Could be difficult. Wait a minute. Didn't Beckett pull it off? In fact, with a little work pruning, I soon had it down to five or six characters plucked from the movie version who could effectively express the story (essentially the same story) on stage. At this point I stalled. Because most of the characters (not the central character, luckily) were subtly wrong for the stage play. And it was very difficult to make the necessary alterations without losing them altogether. When you tamper with characters there's a danger they'll vanish in a puff of smoke, so to speak. Yet the five or so main characters in the play needed to be substantially the same as the main characters in the film. They were good characters. They required small yet crucial changes to be right in a stage play. This I was finding, ahem, challenging. It's a bit like making mayonnaise. If you get it right, it thickens nicely into something delicious. If you get it wrong it separates into a runny mess. (You sigh and gaze ruefully at the half litre of fine olive oil you've just wasted.) But today was a turning point. Having got the prologue for the novel done I sat down and started on the first scene of the new play. This would introduce the basic situation and four or five of the main characters. I really got into it and it went well. It runs about 15 pages, which means a substantial portion of Act 1 completed. For anyone who is appalled by the swiftness of this I would modestly cite the example of Alan Ayckbourne and Noel Coward who would happily write play in a weekend. And some of their stuff turned out okay he said in a tone of ironic understatement.Of course I'm not that quick but the beauty of a play remains that a big scene can come together quickly. This is what is happening now and the best thing about what I've written is that it really is a play, the characters are living in a play and it's not a film any more. Also, it's funny. Which in a comedy always helps. Yep, it now looks like this new play is viable. I'll keep at it.

Sunday 9 August 2009

One blog is not enough. I find it telling that the first blog I created was about the music in my life and only the second one was about writing (and reading). But then writing and reading come under the heading of work as well as pleasure, whereas music is for me pure pleasure. I guess it would be different if I was a gigging musician. Instead I'm a gigging writer and that's what I'll be writing about here. And also what I'm reading, which at the moment is William Golding's Lord of the Flies. A nice old Penguin Modern Classic paperback edition. It lives in the pocket of my jacket and gets read on trains. Recently I was reading with trepidation the scene where the increasingly feral schoolboys, armed with spears, attack a sow suckling its piglets. Having speared the screaming piglets, the boys are chasing the sow through the jungle of their tropical island. As a well known animal lover, I was frankly dreading this. The boys finally corner the sow in a forest clearing. As they prepare to close in for the kill, Golding describes the uncomprehending desperation of the sow. And he says the clearing is full of "sweat and noise and blood and terror". At which point I began to chuckle, utterly jolted out of my discomfort. Golding, you chump! Pigs don't sweat. They don't have sweat glands. What a relief, to have what promised to be a gruesome prose experience converted so smoothly to a mirthful moment of chuckling superiority over the author. I guess you can say the spell was broken. A big relief for a pig lover like me. Now where is that Milano salami sandwich...