Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Stories come in all shapes and sizes. Ernest Hemingway famously penned a tale comprised of just six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

What has always struck (and moved) me about Hemingway’s six-worder is that it is potent precisely because of what is not said and what the reader is left to infer – in short, the old ‘show don’t tell’ chestnut. Going by this principle, I decided to pen my own six-word effort for a twitter competition. This was the result:

Zookeeper missing. Distraught lion loses appetite.

Hemingway it ain’t, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the above six words were to draw me into a far bigger story in which I – or more specifically, my name – was to play a rather large role. 

The twitter competition in question was organised by Scottish Book Trust (SBT) as part of  their ‘It Will Be All Write On The Night’ project. Described as ‘a storytelling experience with a difference,’ SBT had challenged three of their New Writers Award winners to pen a story in weekly instalments for the final night of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF). In addition to this, each chapter was to be influenced by prompts from twitter and Facebook, such as book spine poetry or a favourite piece of artwork.

I admit to only vaguely following what was going on when I entered the competition (and if I haven’t explained it very well, there’s more info on it all here) but I was nevertheless thrilled when Cargo Publishing declared my story the winner, and thus the next prompt of the project. Well marvellous, I thought, eagerly anticipating how that week’s author, Kirstin Innes, would be slotting lions into the tale. Only, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. For when the next chapter appeared on SBT’s website, I discovered it wasn’t just my six words that were woven into the story, but my name too.  

I can’t really go into it too much without spoiling the story (which I really recommend reading, starting from the bottom of this page) suffice to say that what was emerging by the time we got to Kirstin’s Part Five was the tale of a rebel movement’s struggle against an oppressive regime – a rebel movement now named ‘the Amanda Block.’ 

He was as surprised as I was.
I have to confess: I panicked. Seeing my name like that was so strange, so unexpected, I didn’t know what to think. Fortunately, after a soothing conversation with SBT’s Writer Development Manager, Caitrin Armstrong, and a thorough reread of the work so far, I began to gain a bit of perspective. What was going on, I realised, was something rather special: a big, bold story was being created, not just by one author, but three; not just from one idea, but from multiple prompts and multiple medias. It was, in fact, exactly the kind of experimental and collaborative approach to storytelling that I’m keen on. And when I looked at it like that, I was keen to be a part of it too. 

“We have a few ideas for the night itself,” Caitrin explained to me. “We wanted to have posters with ‘the Amanda Block’ on them and – I’m not sure you’ll go for this – but we were thinking of putting it on badges too.”

Posters? Badges? I should point out at this juncture that Caitrin assured me my name would not be used against my will and it was my decision as to whether it be included at all. Going away to think about it, however, I found myself reflecting that this was the last night of the Edinburgh International Book Festival we were talking about, where an exciting narrative featuring my name was nearing completion. How could I not agree? I gave her the go-ahead, badges and all.

So to the night itself, which miraculously coincided with my summer visit to Edinburgh. ‘It Will Be All Write On The Night’ was to be EIBF’s last ‘Unbound’ event (if EIBF is, by day, a bespectacled, buttoned-up nerd, then Unbound is the moment it ruffles up its hair, throws its specs aside and orders a vodka or three to wash down all that literature). I had been told that, aside from getting up on stage and reading all of six words, I could sit back and enjoy the show. But that didn’t stop me from being a little apprehensive, especially as the section of the Spiegeltent in which I was sitting was dubbed 'the representatives of ‘the Amanda Block’'.

I needn’t have worried. Because despite the posters and the badges bearing my name - yep, there really were posters and badges - the evening was, of course, not about me. It was about the writers and it was about the story, which once more I really urge you to investigate (I have come to the conclusion it’s Margaret Atwood meets Cloud Atlas with a bit of The Hunger Games thrown in - and if that hasn’t made you want to read it, I don’t know what will). And it was about expanding that story too for, as a final challenge, Kirstin and her fellow New Writers, George Anderson and R. A. Martens, were asked to complete it that very night using prompt words from the audience (deliberately difficult words, it emerged: scunnered? Unicorn?) But they rose to the occasion magnificently and their fitting final chapter can be read here.

So, in the end, it was more than all right on the night. After a few gin and tonics, it seemed perfectly normal to me that tables and people were festooned with ‘the Amanda Block’ badges. Besides, by that point I was far more interested in the brilliant – if rather madcap – tale that somehow belonged, at least in part, to everyone there that night. The authors had triumphed, the challenge had paid off, and it was all so much fun – just as storytelling should be. 

Plus it’s not every day a rebel movement is named after you…

I got to keep one.