Tuesday, 11 December 2012


What did I get up to last weekend?  Glad you asked.  In 48 hours I went to a wine tasting, mentored at a writing workshop, attended a book launch, cooked an AMAZING game casserole (if I do say so myself) spent Friday night watching  my friends get very drunk in a pub, blew up several hundred balloons, lost my phone, argued with my husband, worried incessantly about my friend’s 18 year old son, saw two personal training clients and ran a pilates class. 

I didn’t physically do all of those things.  You might have already worked this out, especially if you know me in real life and have been wondering where I’ve kept my husband hidden all this time.  But the other thing I did last week was take part in ‘Twiction 12’, a project set up by blogger and writer Virginia Moffatt, who wanted to find out whether Twitter could be used as a medium for story telling.  The second half of that list consists of things that my fictional alter-ego, Fitness Dee, got up to.  Reading them back, I think it’s safe to say I had a better weekend than she did.  

I first heard about Twiction12 a few weeks ago, when Virginia sent out (via Twitter - where else?) a call for participants.  The main story would take place, she explained, in real time, over the first weekend in December.  She’d be playing the part of The Derby Diva - a larger-than-life single mum, whose son Jack was about to turn 18 - and was looking for people to join in, either by interacting with the characters as themselves or by creating a new one. I replied, saying I thought it would be fun to give The Diva a friend - a fitness instructor called Dee -  and so my dual life began.

Although the story proper wouldn’t happen until December Virginia was keen to establish a back story so in mid-November, the Diva started tweeting about her son Jack, and his horrible girlfriend - only known as ‘The Slag’.  Soon, Dee began to tweet too.  Establishing her character was a lot of fun.  “Porridge and blueberries for breakfast and now I’m off to the gym! Busy day ahead!” I’d merrily tweet, still tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and a croissant.  Dee nagged the Diva to come along to her pilates class, and talked about her personal training clients, and her poor neglected husband Dave. 

After a week or so Jack began to tweet, played by Virginia’s twin sister, Julia, and before long, we were joined by what might be the best comedy pairing since Rodney and Del Boy: real life participants Rosie and BigBgnome.  This larger than life pair quickly befriended everyone - signing up for Dee’s keep-fit classes, availing themselves of The Diva's staff discount in the M+S lingerie department, and scaring poor old Jack with talk of cougars.  All the while they bantered with each other, providing a lively stream of chat about Rosie’s past drinking problems, and dalliances with Dee’s husband Dave, who they knowingly referred to as ‘Big Dave’.   I have to admit I felt a genuine sense of outrage when I first read about this. That was my husband they were leering over!  A completely fictional one, perhaps, but I was livid none the less - a good sign that the story was working.

This all went on for a few days and then last Friday at 8am - Jack’s 18th birthday - the story proper began.  What followed was a roller-coaster of emotions, conflict and drama as the Diva and Jack argued and made up, then argued again, to a backdrop of Friday night drinks, a nasty encounter with The Slag’s ex, hospital visits, interfering relatives and a whole lot more.    I had a lot of fun taking part, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience ever since.  Telling a story collaboratively via Twitter  was very different to anything I’ve done before; but in lots of ways, it was just like ‘real’ writing, and there are some basic principles of storytelling I was reminded about over the weekend:

1. Stories require a balance of character and plot

Virginia struck this balance with the Diva beautifully - each tweet simultaneously moving the action forward and reinforcing what we had learned about the Diva.  When it came to Dee, I realised after a while that although I had established her character fairly firmly I hadn’t really created a story for her - there was nothing driving her forward. I began to plant a few seeds -a new personal training client, and a few suggestions that Dave was starting to feel a bit neglected. I also made it known that The Slag sometimes came to the gym as well, vaguely thinking she might live up to her name and start flirting with Dave.  (Little did I know that Dave was about to find himself in a whole lot more trouble than I’d bargined for.....) but in the end I didn’t really do anything with them.  This didn’t really matter as there was plenty going on with The Diva, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that plot was the part I found the hardest - it's what I struggle with the most in my normal writing too. 

2. Characters don’t always behave the way you want them to. 

I’d originally imagined Dee as the devil on the Diva’s shoulder; she didn’t have kids of her own, and wouldn’t understand the Diva’s attachment to her son.  Being married, I thought she’d also be trying to live a little vocariously through the Diva and encouraging her to make the most of being single.  But as time went on, Dee - as fictional characters are want to do - developed a mind of her own and turned into someone quite different.  She had plenty to say about Jack’s behaviour, not to mention his taste in girlfriends - but when he was in real trouble, she showed much more of a caring side than I’d ever imagined her to have.  

3. Writing is often about finding solutions

Using Twitter as a medium posed all sorts of problems I hadn’t begun to consider.  How can you let the audience know something which one of the characters isn’t meant to know, when everything is public?  Why would the characters be tweeting each other if they were all sitting around the same table in the pub? (My solution: Dee was tweeting from the toilets, so her husband wouldn’t hear her telling The Diva how good looking ‘Hot Guy‘ was....)  Then of course there was the ‘real-time’ aspect, which meant that at times the events in my own life got in the way.  On Friday night, while Dee was at the pub I was at a wine-tasting where a particularly nice Pinot Noir proved more than a little distracting.  “And whatever did happen to Dee, who was last seen tweeting from the toilets?”  Virginia pondered in her write up the next day.  Thankfully, just as sometimes happens in ‘real’ writing, it was possible for some of the Twiction12 action to take place off-stage.  “Sorry we disappeared so suddenly last night - will explain when I see you”  Dee tweeted early the next morning. 

I had a similar problem when the key events of Sunday afternoon coincided with my own book launch. It soon became clear that my original plan to keep up with tweets while at the launch was a little over-ambitious, which meant more retrospective explanations.  Harder this time because it was Jack’s birthday party - an event which the Diva had been planning for ages, and hardly something her good friend would duck out of without explanation.

Over the course of the weekend, I constantly found myself  asking “how can I .....” and “what if she......” - exactly the same questions I ask when I’m writing stories.  The art of problem solving - getting characters out of the situations you’ve written them into - is central to the process.  

4.  Sometimes all it takes is a bit of faith

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written a tiny detail into the beginning of a story, only to find it there waiting for me when I need it pages later.  There were some wonderful moments of serendipity during Twiction12 too.  My explanation for Dee’s silence after she left Jack’s birthday party was a lost phone.  “Never mind, found it in the car” I (she) tweeted, just as the same time as the Diva was saying she’d found it behind the wine bottles in the kitchen. 


‘This must be someone else’s phone...wonder who it belongs to?’ improvised Virginia, as the Diva.  Curiosity got the better of The Diva and she read the text messages on it, which neatly set the the story on the path to its natural conclusion.  What would have happened if Dee hadn’t lost her phone?  Or if I’d sent my tweet to say I’d found it a few minutes earlier?  We’ll never know, I suppose.  Perhaps the ending would have been the same - we  just would have got there a different way.  Call it serendipity, or call it your subconscious knowing what was going to happen all along, and paving the way - coincidences like this happen all the time when I write.  I'm very glad that they do. 

5.  Show, don't tell....

It’s an old maxim, but  one which kept springing to mind over the course of the weekend.  Especially on Saturday afternoon, when Virginia sent me an email. “Tonight Jack’s going to need his mum,but she’s ignoring his phone calls. Finally, in desperation, he’ll tweet her, but she won’t believe it’s him.  After the third time he tries, can you tell her?”

Although I’d been reading Jack’s tweets, Dee hadn’t noticed them, so this posed something of a challenge.  Why would she suddenly discover them now?  And how could I let the readers know she’d seen them, without telling the Diva too?  

Of course, Rosie and BigB had been chatting to Jack for ages so I gave Dee a reason to go and look at their timelines, then alluded to the fact that she’d discovered something she wish she hadn’t, and then had her frettting about it:  “It’s not a lie, if you just don’t tell someone something, is it?” she tweeted.  Show, don’t tell, I kept reminding myself.  Show, don’t tell.  Sometimes the old advice is the best.

6.  Good stories are all about emotions

On Saturday night I, just like Dee would have been, tensely sat and watched Jack’s timeline, wondering how much to tell the Diva.  Slowly his tweets began trickling in.  “Mum’s not answering her phone.”  “Come on Mum, PICK UP!”.  I felt my heart break a little, as this tough sweary 18 year old found himself having to beg his Mum to listen, and I wanted to shake her when she refused to believe him.  Waiting for my cue - the third tweet - I physically felt my heart starting to race.  
These emotions continued for the rest of the weekend.  I felt genuinely wounded when the Diva was cross with me the next morning ("but I'd only just found out!  And I thought about telling you..."said Dee)  and quite relieved when I heard Jack was OK. By the time the story reached its beautifully sweet epilogue on Sunday night - a three-way conversation between the Diva, Jack, and Granny May, who was a late addition to the cast (also written by Julia) I was a complete wreck. 

 This happens when I’m writing ‘real’ stories too.  I’ll get a flash of genuine emotion - sorrow, anger, happiness - and that’s when I know the story is right. If I haven’t cried at least a few tears while writing something, there’s a good chance it will be a bit rubbish. 

So, does Twitter work as a medium for telling stories?  Virginia is busy collating the tweets so you’ll be able to read them and decide for yourself.  My answer is a resounding ‘yes’.   Collaborative storytelling, in real time, certainly posed some challenges, but it was a fantastic experience and one I hope to be able to repeat one day (Twiction13, anyone?)  In the meantime, I had a ball.  I stretched myself, and I learned a lot about writing, and made some new friends.  And who knows?  One day I may even forgive them for stealing my husband.

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