Tuesday 13 September 2011

Mikron Celebrates 40 Years on the Waterways

Mikron has been floating through the waterways of my life from an early age. My mother met her partner on a narrowboat, and they remain keen boaters. I remember summer days, beer gardens, and salt 'n' vinegar crisps providing the backdrop for a travelling troop of multi-talented performers.

Perhaps the play that stood out most for me was If You Go Down to the Woods... tales from the Newbury by-pass. It epitomised the resourcefulness of Mikron's prop department when one actor managed to represent an entire human wall. Wearing something akin to a milk-maid's shoulder board, he unfurled two life-sized cut outs of workmen on either side and - hey presto! - a security line. Ingenious.

It was a huge honour to be involved in working with Mikron earlier this year in my capacity as a Charity Consultant. Seeing first-hand the hard work and dedication that goes into continuing the fantastic achievements of the last four decades.

Here, I talk to Artistic Director, Marianne McNamara, about the stories that inspire Mikron, and their own hopes for the future.

Artistic Director: Marianne McNamara

Mikron is celebrating its 40th anniversary of touring the waterways this year. That's a long time for a small company. What do you think it is that makes Mikron so special?

We are unique and accessible. No other company tours by narrowboat and not many companies break down as many barriers as we do at Mikron. The actors engage with the audience before the play, during the interval, and afterwards. The people that support and follow us appreciate this. They feel that they are part of our extended family.

Most of our supporters and friends have followed us for years. In fact, lots of them know more about Mikron than I do! We will, can, and do perform practically anywhere. All we need is a plug socket. I think that the relaxed nature of our shows, the lack of pomp and circumstance that surrounds our work, as well as a high standard of professionalism are what make us so special.

What have been the most memorable moments during your time as Artistic Director?

This time last year we were really on our uppers. We had just had all of our formal funding cut, and were even talking about having to sell our beloved narrowboat, Tyseley, in order to fund our 40th year of touring.

Then we launched our Ruby Appeal and slowly the letters and the cheques started to roll in. People of all ages, and from all over the UK, dug deep into their pockets during the hardest financial time that we've faced as a nation in years.

Individuals sent photographs and memories, and told us how Mikron had affected their lives. To date the Ruby Appeal has raised £38,000. This saved the company, and ensured that our 40th year happened. It also reaffirmed the faith and passion that people have for the company. This was such a humbling experience. I am so proud to be a part of a company that evokes such an amazing response.

Has Mikron produced any famous names over the years?

In my first year working with Mikron as an actress, we'd often hear the phrase 'oh it was so funny when Mark Williams was in the shows.' I think he's the most famous person to have worked for us, especially since his appearance in the Harry Potter films. Buffy Davis, who plays Joleen in The Archers, is another. Many other actors have gone on to have very successful careers - Sarah Parks springs to mind.

Who comes to see your shows, and how do they help you on the tour?

That's the million dollar question!

Many boaters come to see our shows, lots of families, people with an interest in history, and people that like a pint!

We have a friends scheme that is probably like no other. Not only do people support us with annual membership fees, but our friends have also been known to move the van, move the boat, cook our meals, wash our clothes and costumes, and deliver us eggs on tour!

How do you choose the type of plays you perform? What is important about the messages Mikron take out there?

Different shows happen for different reasons. Mikron likes to tell the stories of the people behind the big events and movements in history.

We often commemorate anniversaries, but also we choose subjects that are important to us. For example, next year we're producing a play to commemorate the bicentenary of Luddism, alongside a play about allotments.

There have been occasions where different companies or groups have commissioned us to tell their stories. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) commissioned us to write Striking the Balance, which explored and celebrated forty years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act. The Clarions were also happy for us to tell the story of the Socialist Cyclists in Pedal Power.

Forty years is an amazing achievement. What have you got planned for the future?

Yes, we think it's an amazing achievement too, and we hope that we have another forty years in us!

We were thrilled to secure funding for next year from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. Once again testament to the fact that people think our work is worthwhile. This grant is two-thirds of what we need to ensure that next year will happen.

I'm thrilled to reveal that we are commissioning two new shows and two new writers. Maeve Larkin will be writing Can You Keep A Secret? - the rise and fall of the Yorkshire Luddites. Deborah McAndrew will be writing our allotment show Losing The Plot - earthy passions and pitchforks at dawn! We'll be touring these shows nationally as we do every year.

Who knows what will happen after 2012, but I assure you we'll do our best to secure funding and ensure our future. 

If anyone would like to commission a Mikron show, or has an interesting story that they think we ought to tell, then please get in touch.

I'd Go Back Tomorrow
The history of Mikron Theatre
Available through Mikron's Shop.

See Also:

Wednesday 7 September 2011

100 Thousand Poets for Change

The 24th September marks a global initiative uniting poets across the planet with a voice of social and political conscience. With 500 events in 400 cities across 95 countries already scheduled, this is one of the most ambitious artistic outcries of the millennium to date.

Here, I talk to one of the founding organisers, Michael Rothenberg, poet and editor of Big Bridge Press and zine, to find out what 100 Thousand Poets for Change is all about.

Organisers: Michael Rothenberg    &        Terri CarriĆ³n

I take it this is the first time that 100 Thousand Poets for Change has been held? Where did the idea come from?

Yes, this is the first time for this global event. So far there are already 500 events in 95 countries being scheduled!

I came up with the idea through a conversation with a friend. I was saying how bad things are going around the world: wars, poverty, violence, genocide - and it occurred to me that there ought to be 100 Thousand Poets for Change. My friend said: "That's a great idea". So I created a Facebook event page and invited my Facebook friends. Immediately people started to write to me. 

The date was selected through discussions with friends on the event page. It just seemed like a convenient time for all of us.

You talk about using poetry to effect 'serious social, environmental, and political change'. What sort of changes are you talking about, and how can poetry help to attain them?

You can check out my discussion of this on the 'About' section of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change website.

Here's an excerpt:

It appears that transformation towards a more sustainable world is a major concern and could be a global guiding principle for this event. Peace also seems to be a common cause. War is not sustainable. There is an increasing sense that we need to move forward and stop moving backwards. But I am trying not to be dogmatic. I am hoping that together we can develop our ideas of the “change/transformation” we are looking for as a group, and that each community group will decide their own specific area of focus for change for their particular event.

Who's involved so far - anyone we might know?

There are tons of famous poets and infamous poets involved in this event. We are looking at over 500 individual organizers from around the world. You can go to the website and look at the Event Location List to check out who is doing what. We have been very fortunate to reach a broad community of poets, slam poets, spoken word poets, experimental poets, surrealist poets, hip hop poets, MFA poets - it's global and inclusive and decentralized.

What will happen to all of the material generated from this event - will it go into something more long-term?

All the material from this event that is posted on the website and blog will be archived by Stanford University. This archive will provide a great history and refection of this event. It will help us to know ourselves and each other better. This is how I think we can create a global community, and encourage the empowerment of a global poetry community. We can hear each other's poetic voices and become better poets.

How do you see this movement developing in the future?

I hope that September 24th is the kick-off for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and not the endgame. We have a lot of work to do to spread the word that we can do better!

I know there will be another event next year on the same day. 100 Thousand Poets for Change 2012. And I hope organizers and participants will talk about what they have learned from this event, and know more about what they want to do to make change. I have asked that organizers put together a manifesto of their group for compilation in a grand 100TPC manifesto. From what I hear from participants, things have already begun to change.

See Also:

Monday 5 September 2011

Doctor Slang

I saw this article on the BBC a while back and it made me chuckle: Doctor slang is a dying art.

Medicine is a profession already overflowing with acronyms and technical terms, and doctors over the years have invented plenty of their own.

However, Dr Adam Fox, who works at St Mary's Hospital in London as a specialist registrar in its child allergy unit, says that far fewer doctors now annotate notes with abbreviations designed to spell out the unsayable truth about their patients.

It's been suggested that the drop in use is due to doctors becoming more respectful of their patients:

Dr Fox is keen to point out that neither he, nor the other authors of the paper, published in the journal Ethics and Behavior, actually advocate using any of the terms.

He said: "It's a form of communication, and it needs to be recorded.

"It may not be around forever."

He said: "I do think that doctors are genuinely more respectful of their patients these days."

I think they might also be a little afraid of being sued ;)

It has certainly leant something to English. 'Coffin dodger' has definitely made it into general usage.

Here's some other acronyms the article threw up:

CTD - Circling the Drain (A patient expected to die soon)
GLM - Good looking Mum
GPO - Good for Parts Only
TEETH - Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy
UBI - Unexplained Beer Injury
NFN - Normal for Norfolk
FLK - Funny Looking Kid
GROLIES - Guardian Reader Of Low Intelligence in Ethnic Skirt
TTFO - roughly translates as "Told To Go Away"
LOBNH - Lights On But Nobody Home
CNS-QNS - Central Nervous System - Quantity Not Sufficient
DBI - "Dirt Bag Index" - multiplies the number of tattoos with the number of missing teeth to give an estimate of the number of days since the patient last bathed

And some euphemisms:

Digging for Worms: varicose vein surgery
Departure Lounge: geriatric ward
Handbag Positive: confused patient (usually elderly lady) lying on hospital bed clutching handbag
Woolworth's Test: anaesthetic term (if you can imagine a patient shopping in Woolies, it's safe to give a general anaesthetic)
Pumpkin Positive: if a penlight were to be shone into the patient's mouth it would encounter a brain so small that the whole head would light up

Saturday 3 September 2011

Book Trailers Part II

After debating the merits of book trailers in Book Trailers Part I, and coming up a little short on enthusiasm - I decided to try my hand at one anyway.

I was curious to know just how difficult it is to make a book trailer on a budget. Accepting the fact that top-listers will have the full financial clout of their marketing department behind them - what, then, is available for struggling shoestring authors?

Before I start this, I should mention that I'm not a complete novice when it comes to sound production and editing programmes. It would be unfair to give the impression that I started from absolute scratch. Keeping it simple, I used the following two tools to make this trailer:

Windows Movie Maker: I prefer Adobe Premier Pro, but Movie Maker used to come free with most Windows office suites and, as far as editors go, it is fairly easy to get the hang of. AVS Video Editor is also cheap and fairly easy to use. They're both simple point-and-click non-linear editors. All of the photo manipulation shots at the beginning (where the photos look like they're moving) were added at the click of a button. You can cross-fade and insert film clips very easily.

Audacity: This is a free audio editing programme which you can download online. I had to edit the sound track separately before adding it to the film reel. Audacity does everything you need it to do, but personally I don't find it to be that intuitive. Actually, at times I find it frustrating for its lack of guidance. But it's free, and it works. If you get stuck, search for a YouTube tutorial on what you're trying to achieve. Nine times out of ten, someone will have done one.

Accepting that I know my way around the software, from beginning to end this project probably took me in the region of five hours to compile. The main frustrations were:

  1. Recording a usable voice-over with a stinking cold (yes, I am swallowing my own snot towards the end there - seriously, who says 'human nate-ur'?)
  2. Lining up the music tracks so that they fitted the timing of the visual track, then dipping it at appropriate intervals for the voice-over. Very laborious work unless you have Premier Pro which has an auto-duck feature.

If you haven't got a cold, you can rule out having to deal with one of those two problems.

If you are a complete newcomer to editing software, or just interested in the subject, author Morgen Bailey has created an easy walk-through: How to create your free 30-second book trailer video using Animoto.

Here's some observations and considerations from my own attempt. You can judge for yourself from the quality of the video whether it's worth reading them.


I realised very quickly that I was blessed for having written a work of historical fiction. Of all the genres, it's possibly the easiest to create a basic trailer for.

Firstly, you have a wealth of previous material available: documentaries, music, photographs, archive footage. Secondly, you're more likely to get those for free than with contemporary work (see below on Copyright).

If you've written a work of science-fiction, fantasy or contemporary fiction, the likelihood is that you're going to need the assistance of some funky CGI, possibly actors, and probably a talented artist who can bring your vision to life.

TOP TIP:  So you've written a novel set in outer space in 4022, or a contemporary thriller in the wilds of Afghanistan from your comfortable bedsit in Peckham. Pulling off a convincing trailer is going to be tough. Instead of trying to compete with the big budget production companies - keep it simple. I knew that I couldn't find a group of actors, fly to Aus, or pay to use documentary footage, so I went for a simple interview style voice-over. If you try too hard to tell the story in your trailer, you may spoil it for the reader. After all, it's their imagination that completes the novel. But an interview adds to the reading experience by letting them get to know the author. That was my reasoning, anyway.

Here's a good example of that in practice:


That cringesome word.

My trailer cost me a grand total of nothing to produce. The reason being? Well, once again - historical fiction.

The photos were either mine, or taken from the Library of South Australia's archived footage - which they're happy to give permission for so long as you fill out a form. The music is taken from original recordings which are now all out of copyright (though not the lyrics! - be careful there. If I'd subtitled them, I might have had to pay!). Even the film clips are now in public domain. There's a useful Public Domain Calculator to help you work out what you can legally use.

The massive money saver was that I was able to do my own tech. That's what you're paying other companies silly amounts of money for: editing time. It's well worth getting to grips with Movie Maker/AVS and Audacity. But, if you can't get your head around it, you could always make an appeal to friends on Facebook, tech  or arts forums.

Just remember - you always need copyright permission for any images, music, recordings and clips you use unless you take them yourself or they're out of copyright. Make sure you have written permission from anyone who says 'yes'. Also - just because something appears in the public domain, doesn't mean that everyone can use it or alter it. Run a Google search for creative commons image sites. Creative Commons license (CC) is material that is in the public domain for anyone to use. But you then need to check whether that material has a commercial CC license. A lot of stuff is free for non-commercial use, but for commercial use (meaning advertising - of your book) it might not be.

If you need backing music, check out Jamendo. This is CC music. Again, mostly free for non-commercial use, but it's easy to contact the artists to ask about terms for commercial use.

TOP TIP: Don't be afraid to brows through other people's Flikr and YouTube accounts. If you see something you would like to use, contact them. A lot of people are happy just to get a mention in exchange for letting you incorporate their work. But get something in writing, even if it's just an e-mail response. This avoids argument later down the line.


The earlier you start to think about your trailer, the better. I put aside a full day to cobble mine together. But that was after I'd spent three weeks waiting for permission to use the archived photos, scouring YouTube for footage, obtaining permission for that and - above all - managing to formulate the approach in my own mind.

You want your book trailer ready to roll the moment your book is available, if not a couple of months before. The longer your pre-release lead-in, the greater the chance of pre-orders and publicity hype which will boost sales on the day.

Another aspect of timing is how long to make the book trailer. In Book Trailers Part I you can see that the first book trailer ever produced was four minutes long. Most would agree that's too long. The shining example from Penguin Books: What the Nanny Saw, only ran for forty-eight seconds!

TOP TIP: Really, the shorter the better. People usually understand quicker than they're given credit for, and switch off faster than we'd like. Two-and-a-half minutes should be ample. Not forgetting that one minute of footage is likely to take you a couple of hours to compile.

So, that's my little foray into the world of book trailers. It has certainly been useful to have something to direct people towards when they ask 'So, what's your book about?' and to drop a living flyer into online forums. It's received a couple of likes on YouTube and a few thumbs-up on Facebook. Whether it's sold any books - I remain sceptical.

Please feel free to leave a link to your own book trailer as a comment, and explain a little about how you chose to approach it.

Friday 2 September 2011

Book Trailers Part I

(Image courtesy of Reinis Traidas)

Shortly before my debut novel came out, I was intrigued by a post in a writers' forum by a person asking whether book trailers were a good idea or not.

In all honesty, I hadn't heard the term. But it didn't take long to catch on.

A book trailer is just like a movie trailer. But for books.

What you may not know (thank you Wiki), is that:
The term "book trailer" is currently a trademarked term owned by Sheila Clover of Circle of Seven Productions. The first book trailer to be played publicly was at a book convention in Shreveport, LA. in 2003. The trailer was for a book entitled Dark Symphony by author Christine Feehan.
And here is that first ever trailer, at an extensive four minutes in length:

The word seems to have seeped happily into common usage. Everybody appears to be taking a bash at creating their own multi-media hook with which to reel in undecided readers.

It's natural to be suspicious of new ideas. Especially when those ideas seem to be at odds with their aim. For instance, BellaOnline's Women's Literary Editor, Jeanette Stingley, begins her article on book trailers by explaining that:

Book trailers are quickly gaining popularity among publishers and authors to help promote books and get people reading again.

Then immediately follows up with:

A book trailer is very similar to a movie trailer. Some have live actors playing out parts of the book to catch your interest.

You, like me, may be stroking your imaginary beard (or real one, if you're a bloke), and thinking - 'So, the way to get people back into reading (if, indeed, they ever left) is to make a movie?'

Although no longer available online, as far back as December 2010 someone posted to TheBookSeller.com: Book Trailers More Like Movie Trailers All The Time.

If we're to continue in this mildly cynical vein, then, after reading Rye Barcott's article: Why Book Trailers Are Now Essential to the Publishing Industry, you may indeed get a solid sense of what makes them so attractive to business:

Eventually, I found a few companies that produced short promotional videos. Unfortunately, these companies charged $5,000 – $10,000, and none of them appeared to have any particular expertise in how to differentiate a book trailer from an ordinary advertisement.

Circle of Seven Productions who, you may remember, coined the very phrase, also offer a range of creative trailer packages ranging from $350 for flashing the cover art, through to $2,000 for sitting you down in front of a camera and talking to you about your book.

Certainly not a problem if you're a top-lister with a large marketing department behind you. Some of the big names have produced some quite artistic material:

The problem seems to creep in when people try to do Hollywood on a budget:

Or when the genre of the trailer doesn't seem to match the genre of the book. Such as the introduction of something faintly manga to adult horror:

Actually, I really like that last one. But I think the point here is that the book probably stands alone as a great work of crime fiction, and the trailer probably stands alone as a trailer. Whether the trailer truly captures the theme of the book... possibly not. But then, does it need to? In Rye Barcott's article she states:

Most of the authors I know detest the very idea of [book trailers]. We pour our souls into creating a book, a piece of work that can take people deep into places, problems, and things that matter. The experience of reading a book unfolds over hours, and sometimes days. It takes time and commitment to draw knowledge and meaning from narrative...

You know what? I've heard similar complaints about back blurb. One prolific review blogger said something to the effect of: 'I'm sick and tired of book blurb never reflecting the actual story.'

But then blurb, trailers and - at its core - marketing, have never been about sincere representation of the product. You're aiming for sales. In this case, anyone who isn't persuaded to buy the book simply because of the genre or the author. The 'stragglers'. So why not try something a little different?

Well, it is a big gamble. According to different research (from Wiki, the Association for Psychological Science and Cornell University) you could loosely say that you have one-tenth of a second to make a good impression, eight seconds to keep a person's focused attention, and not a lot of hope of hitting an audience's 'sweet spot'. So, as much as a book trailer may be reaching out to new audiences, that's no guarantee that they're going to like what they see. With our movie tastes getting ever more sophisticated by the day, we may well find ourselves turned off by something as minor as a melodramatic voice over or crude static zoom. How long before we start handing out Razzies for worst book trailer?

And who even says that book trailers translate into sales? I think this is the big question. Whether you're spending hours of your own time creating a book trailer, or whether you're paying someone else substantial amounts of money to make one for you - where's the hard evidence for their market value?

As with any form of marketing, the amount of money and effort someone invests is usually contingent on how effective it is. If book trailers first burst onto the scene in 2003, that gives us eight years of evidence we should be able to point to. But, sadly, one of the few articles I've seen on the matter is this one in the Wall Street Journal from 2008: Watch This Book

Which states:

There is scant evidence, however, that the average book trailer actually has much impact on book sales.

Another article titled Are Book Trailers Effective? uses that statement to conclude that it is just too difficult to track the influence of advertising on direct book sales. So, perhaps it works, but who knows?

I suppose, like any form of publicity, if you can afford it it's better to have one than not. It may only garner one or two extra sales but it may also increase traffic to your website, and it will get your name out there to people who haven't heard of you before. A modern-age calling card for social media sites and e-mail distribution.

Book trailers, in short, are a minefield. In the hands of a great and mighty marketing department, you may stand a decent shot. But what of us poor waifs who have to battle through on a meagre budget?

Well, sod it. I gave it a go. Everyone else was at it - I didn't want to feel left out. My next post (Book Trailers Part II) is all about how I put mine together, with some useful tips for the shoestring author.