How I Ended Up Quoted Alongside Wilde, Socrates & Shakespeare
June 24, 2013
"The philosophy exam was a piece of cake -- which was a bit of a surprise I was expecting a sheet of paper with some questions on it."
Twenty years ago or so I wrote some material (including the above one-liner) for Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones's BBC 1 comedy sketch show "Smith & Jones". I was a mere spotty youth of 18 at the time and had already been contributing material to a couple of comedy shows on radio for about a year. I ended up getting a smidgen of material in the following two series of "Smith & Jones" and, while not exactly raking in enough to retire on, the gig certainly sat very pleasingly on my nascent CV and I was pleasantly surprised over the next few years when the occasional minuscule residual payment drifted in for repeats of the shows in Sweden or the inclusion of a joke of mine on a Best of BBC comedy compilation cassette.
What surprised me even more was my recent discovery that one of the jokes I wrote for the "Smith & Jones" series has gone on to have a bizarre afterlife on Internet quotation sites. Thanks to one bored afternoon of unabashed self-Googling, I have ascertained that my "philosophy exam was a piece of cake" one-liner quoted above gets over 7,000 online hits, principally on quotation web sites like coolquotescollection.com, great-quotes.com and worldofquotes.com. It's exceptionally weird to see a silly gag you dreamed up nearly a quarter of a century ago suddenly appear on a web page sandwiched between some exquisite Wildean epigram and the immortal wisdom of an ancient Greek philosopher.
Of course, I don't actually get the credit for it. Sometimes the joke is attributed to 'Anonymous' which is a bit annoying (but maybe not entirely inaccurate). Sometimes "Smith & Jones" are listed as the authors, which is fair enough as they orignally paid me to put those words in (one of) their mouths. A huge number of online quotations are attributed to Homer Simpson, after all, rather than than any of the Simpsons' team of writers, and it is they of course who put in all the actual hours of joke thinking-up.
One of the most amusing aspects of this bizarre 'joke that won't die' thing is that the gag is often listed on quote sites under the subject of 'philosophy', hence it appearing alongside the musings of your Platos, your Nietzsches and your Wittgensteins. Philosophy was what I took my degree in at Reading University from 1989 to 1992 and had you told any of my lecturers that something I wrote would end up appearing alongside "I think, therefore I am" and "The unexamined life is not worth living", well - they would have laughed.
Mark Griffiths's third novel, the kids' sci-fi comedy "Geek Inc - Technoslime Terror", is out now from Simon & Schuster and he would consider it a personal favour if you bought a copy.
(Slightly) Giving Up The Day Job
April 05, 2013
Writing has, until recently, been something I fitted in around 'proper' work. I held down a full-time job and still managed to bang out four novels and a few plays. Nothing so amazing in that. If you're a writer you just sit down and get on with it whenever you can. It's people who describe themselves as 'aspiring writers' or 'budding writers' who always moan about never having the time to write. If you really want to write, you do. I hear Noel Gallagher wrote 'Definitely Maybe' the platinum-selling first Oasis album while working full-time for British Gas. I wonder if they had Muzak versions of Beatles tunes piped into the office at the time...
One of the great advantages of being a writer who also has a full-time job is that you do not die of starvation. It's hard to compose a decent sentence, after all, when you're constantly being distracted by the thunderous rumblings of your own tummy. Even a literary giant like Katie Price knows this, which is why she also flogs perfume on the side. I take off my metaphorical hat (in this case a luxuriant imaginary fedora with a natty feather in its scarlet band) to anyone capable of earning a living through writing alone. Even if it's for Hollyoaks. You need to be pretty darned good at scribbling to get people to cough up sufficient readies for it that you can pay your bills each month and still have some left over for useless iPhone apps and parma violets.
'Don't give up the day job' is a wise refrain every writer (budding or otherwise) has heard innumerable times. And yet, once you've had a few books out and the advances sit there invitingly in your bank account, having effectively doubled your salary for the past few years, the question starts to form, pearl-like, in your brain: surely if I did give up the day job I'd have time to write even more books? And do even more promotion for them? You weigh the possibilities in your mind. It's a gamble, no question. But is it a gamble worth taking? You've been poor once and found it not really your cup of tea. To be blunt, you very much like having the money your full-time job brings in. What if you pack it in and the publishing world suddenly decides it's seen more than enough of your witless ramblings and, rather than commission that new novel you've been slaving away on, would much prefer to go with a safer literary bet like, say, Katie Price (she's got this brilliant idea about giving away a sachet of perfume inside every one of her books)? What then?
If only, you dream, you could go part-time at work - say, three days in the office and have a couple of days a week for extra writing and promotion. Wouldn't that be the perfect solution? The best of all possible worlds?
But they'd never agree to that, would they? It's a wild, crazy notion. Inconceivable, as that bloke from The Princess Bride would say. I'll ask anyway though. I suppose it does no harm to find out for sure -
They said yes. They actually said yes.
So I'm now part-time. A part-time full-time writer. And I'm churning out two and half thousand words a day on those days I'm not in the office, in addition to arranging lots of promotional events (as all but the best selling authors must do these days).
Now my hope is someone will actually want the book once it's finished. If not, there's a part-time job going two days a week at my local chemist, flogging Katie Price perfumes. The hours sound great.
Mark Griffiths's most recent novel, the sci-fi comedy for children aged 8 and up, GEEK INC: TECHNOSLIME TERROR, is out now from Simon & Schuster Children's Books.
Space Lizards in Church
May 14, 2012
It was one of those Monday mornings when you find yourself in a church talking to 300 children about space lizards.
It was the first event of my author mini-tour for Space Lizards Stole My Brain!Three hundred kids from 9 different schools had squeezed into Christ Church in Wesham, Lancashire to hear me read from my novel and talk about writing comedy. I could tell it was going to be a rather surreal event when I arrived at the church and found the shelves on either side of the altar were lined, not with hymn books, but with copies of Space Lizards. It was hard not to imagine being on some weird alternate Earth where the dinosaurs had never died out and instead gone on to become Anglicans.
I clipped on my radio mic and waited in the wings (or should I say transept?) while the friendly lady vicar introduced me. And then I was on, launching into my spiel. I'd been nervous in the days leading up to the tour but once I was there, in front of an audience, the rehearsals I'd done paid off, and my brain clicked into automatic performance mode. Being on tour, I realised, was fun!
After the reading there was a Q&A session, and then a signing in which I scribbled my increasingly wobbly signature into 200 books. I am now something of an expert on popular first names for children aged 7 and 8 (there are an awful lot of Mollies and Charlies out there).
It was a marvellous, exciting, hilarious and very rewarding couple of hours, and left me feeling pretty exhausted. I could have happily fallen asleep there in the church and snored away contentedly until evensong. It was then that I remembered that this was not just the first event of the tour, it was the first event of that day and it was time to pack up and move on to the next one...
May 14, 2012
How do you achieve the impossible?
Surely in fantasy fiction it's easy? Anything can happen, can't it? Perhaps. But if your story is to be appear real and not the febrile outpourings of an overheated brain (yes, I'm looking at you, the film Avatar), it pays to keep two factors in mind.
The first is to place your fantasy within a believable setting. Jaws works so well because the (pretty fake looking shark) inhabits a world steeped in 1970s realism, with unstarry actors messing about with semi-improvised dialogue. Compare this to 2005's War of the Worlds. Tom Cruise is so uncannily perfect a specimen of manhood and such a massive Hollywood mega-celeb that he appears scarcely less alien than the Martians chasing him. The vital contrast between reality and fantasy is lost. In Ursula K. le Guin's remarkable 4th Earthsea novel Tehanu, there is precious little magic as the story concentrates on the central character's everyday practical and emotional problems. When magical things do eventually happen, you believe them and they astonish you.
The second factor is to keep your impossibilities small. We're all used to seeing epic space battles, rampaging herds of dinosaurs and cute fish singing Randy Newman songs, but none of us (over the age of 4, at least) believe any of those things are actually possible. Reduce the scale of the impossibility, however, and fantasy suddenly begins to fit into the everyday world we inhabit. The early episodes of The X Files are so creepy because they keep the CGI hokum to a minimum. A billion spaceships overhead is somewhat far-fetched but seeing a man impossibly stretch his fingers by just a few centimetres (as in the episode Squeeze) is far more more terrifying for being so slight an oddity. In Susanna Clarke's superb Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, magic is a highly tricky business to master and often ends in disappointing results, just like any other area of human activity.
One of my favourite examples of this 'less-is-more' approach to the impossible is in Magritte's painting The Human Condition. In it, a painting on an easel placed in front of a window impossibly shows the view through the window it covers with perfect precision. We might think it is simply a plate of glass on an easel in front of the window - except, a tiny strip of the painting covers a portion of the curtain to the left of the window, and yet we can still impossibly see through it to the sky beyond. That strip of canvas covering the curtain must only be a centimetre or two in width and yet it is all Magritte needs to show us something impossible.
Mark Griffiths's debut novel "Space Lizards Stole My Brain!" was published in January 2012. The sequel "Space Lizards Ate My Sister!" is out in August 2012.
Why I Should Thank Neil Gaiman For My Writing Career
November 24, 2011
In the first five years I spent at my comprehensive school in North Wales, my friend Richard and I would write and record comedy sketches onto tape. Having a much about with the tape recorder was always a reliable bit of fun whenever a mate came around to my house, but Richard and I ended up taking the whole process extremely seriously. We loved listening to radio comedy - Son of Cliche, Hancock's Half Hour, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - and spend most of our waking hours annoying the rest of the human race by quoting lengthy chunks of those shows to each other. We began to fill up C-90 after C-90 with what we referred to with precocious professionalism as "our material" - largely spoofs of any radio or TV programme we had the theme music for.
When it came time to enter the sixth form, Richard left school to join the RAF. I wanted to carry on writing but had lost my outlet. The best thing about having a comedy writing partner is that you have an instant audience for your ideas (in my case, the only audience; it wasn't as if anyone actually listened to the tapes we made, except us.)
It was not long after this that I read a book by Neil Gaiman called Don't Panic about the life and works of Douglas Adams. In it, Gaiman explained that Adams had once been a Light Entertainment producer for BBC Radio, and, as a junior member of the department, had been given en the task of producing the long-running satirical series Week Ending, a show I had listened to and loved for years. I reasoned that if producing Week Ending were a job for novice producers, maybe they would be willing to give a novice writer a try? (This was years before I learned that Week Ending was practically the BBC's comedy Youth Training Scheme.)
That Sunday, I trooped off to the newsagents and bought some papers. I took them up to my bedroom and spent the day writing one-liner gags for the show's 'Next Week's News' section. I typed them up and posted them off to the BBC. The following Friday night, I tuned into Week Ending with heart-thumping anticipation...
And they used one of my jokes! It was read out be David Tate, the guy who played Eddie the Computer in Hitch-Hiker's Guide! Incredible! And then a minute or two later there was my name on the credits! Wowsers. I'd recorded the show on tape (of course) and played back my joke and the credits sequence over and over. And over. And then a few more times. And then gain. Eventually I began to believe that it had actually happened.
The next week, they used another gag. And the week after that. In time a contract arrived, actually offering payment for my work. I was 17 and earning money as a comedy writer. I'd got my break...
And it may never have happened had I not read Don't Panic. So if you're reading, Mr Gaiman, a 24-year-late thankyou is due! Cheers!
Mark's debut novel SPACE LIZARDS STOLE MY BRAIN! is out on the 5th Jan 2012.
Speaking as a stammerer (…if that’s not a contradiction in terms)
November 04, 2011
I was chatting once to Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell (Pow! Big name drop in very first sentence! Get me!) who, like me, is a writer with a stammer. Ours are not terrible, life-crushing, debilitating stammers, but nonetheless often frustrating and inconvenient. And we both felt that stammering played a part in turning us into writers. It’s not just that writing allows you to express yourself in unencumbered fashion – although that is certainly one attraction in it – it’s more that stammering actively equips you to become a writer. You develop a keen awareness of syntax as you’re mentally shuffling around the words in a sentence like Scrabble tiles, searching for the version that’s easiest to say. Similarly, stammering expands your vocabulary. Finding it difficult to say the word dog? That hard d sound is impossible sometimes, isn’t it? Not to worry! Before you’re even halfway through your sentence you’ve already come up with hound, pooch, mongrel, mutt. Your friends think you have a colourful turn of phrase. You know it's actually just a coping strategy. Now I think about it, it’s lucky I stammer in English, where we have a wealth of synonyms. French stammerers must really lose out in comparison. Synonyms are a stammerer’s best friend, after all. It’s just a pity that the word synonyms is itself so hard to say. If only there was another word for it…