24hrFFC – The stories behind the stories, what where when

Posted: 26 March 2013 in 24hrFFC

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

– excerpts from the first chapter, nay the first page, of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

In a similar way, it has to be understood from the very beginning that the musical comedy songwriter and satirist Mitch Benn is one of my closest friends, or you won’t appreciate how a brief throwaway line on a car journey turned into my raising £1,400 for Comic Relief.

You also won’t truly understand why I owe quite so many thanks to quite so many celebrities, nor how 4,800 words were written by me in response to approximately 120 words thrown at me, nor even how I learned to both love and loathe a white board and orange marker… nor finally how every bloody one of the stories surprised me. For different reasons, each one of them, sure, but they all surprised me.

Ok, so where to start? That car journey? Not quite – let’s leap back a little bit further, to late December 2012. For some years, I’ve on occasion thrown out to the world the following:

Give me a title of up to four words in length, together with a single word you want me to include in the tale, and I will write you a story of exactly 200 words.

Now, usually, those challenges came from anyone on Twitter, on Facebook, people who read my blog, etc., but just before Christmas 2012, I asked twelve writers and artists, all friends of mine, to challenge me with their own titles and words. They did, and the resulting Twelve Days of Fast Fiction, wherein I wrote and published on the blog one story a day seemed rather popular.

Skip forward a couple of months, during which I serialised and self-published a novella, and then we’re in early February.

Ok, finally, we’ve reached six weeks before Red Nose Day… And I’ve picked up Mitch from the airport (he’d been in Jersey the previous night playing a gig), and we’re chatting in the car. He’s been thinking about Red Nose Day; specifically, he’s been thinking about what he could do for it. He was already doing something for Radio 3 with Simon Russell Beale, but he’d had an idea… to create, record, and make available for purchase an album of comedy songs… in 24 hours.

At this stage, Mitch hadn’t come up with the idea of how to get the titles supplied to him, to ensure it’d be a ‘genuine challenge’; more about that later. But that it would be sorted partially explains why the next words out of my mouth, after saying I thought it a great idea, were something along the lines of…

“You know, of all the fast fiction challenges I’ve done, I’ve never done a timed one. Twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours. That’d be… interesting.”

I swear: it was a throwaway comment, conversational conceit; apart from anything else, if I’d have had to swear on a stack of bibles, I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it. I knew that on average, a story in response to a fast fiction challenge usually took me about 45 to 50 minutes to write, but I’ve mentioned before that one in particular (Shakespeare on Summer’s Morn) took me almost three hours.

The conversation continued. I’m not sure how long it took for “so if I were to do this” (genuinely not for a second thinking I would) to become “we’re doing this”. Because that was, undoubtedly, what swung it for me: doing it contemporaneously, in the same room, as Mitch.

I’d been a fan of his for years before we became friends. And the opportunity to do this thing effectively with him was too good to immediately turn down.

Now the original plan was to raise money for the eventual ebook I foresaw by getting people to bid for the titles and words I’d use, but I quickly saw the drawback in that: no guarantee I’d get twenty-four different titles and words that followed the rules of the challenge. (Seriously, folks you wouldn’t believe how many people have challenged me with five word titles over the years… and then been surprised when I’ve pointed out the four word limit.)

And then, like most simple solutions to simple problems worried about by simple people, it hit me: do it just as I did for Twelve Days of Fast Fiction – get celebs to challenge me. But this time, not exclusively friends – no, aim big, aim BIG. Get comedians, authors…we ended up with one BAFTA winning composer and several broadcasters…

I must at this point thank once again both Mitch, and another friend, Neil Gaiman, for offering their own challenges and helping me secure many others.

So now we had the challengers, and Mitch had got us a venue.

I’ll discuss the individual challengers in the next few blog posts when I write about each story, but I must mention two here.

I knew that I wanted Neil to challenge me once again; I’d written one for him for Twelve Days and it was a pleasure to write a story for him for his fiftieth birthday present, but Neil’s been such a support in so many ways, I wanted him part of this madness I was attempting. And, delightfully, when I told him I was planning it, his reaction was unfettered support for the event.

The other person I knew I wanted was Richard Curtis. As the creator of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day and a writer I enjoy (usually, let’s not talk about Love, Actually, but Notting Hill is a sheer joy) of course I wanted a challenge from him. I was delighted and so very pleased when he not only challenged me with a title, but also sponsored me £240. Yeah. Wow.

Now we come to the titles.

How to ensure the titles were a surprise to us? Well, that actually turned out to be the easiest thing of all. Mitch is part of the cast of a weekly satirical show; the audience were asked to supply song titles, after which Steve Punt, another member of the cast, chose some for Mitch. They were given to a friend (Darren Saunders, who with Hayley Gale was so superb organising the tech side of the challenges, including webcasting them) who handed them over at the start of the challenge live on cam.

My titles?

Well, with three exceptions which were sent to me, all the challenges were sent direct to Mitch and his missus, Clara. Clara then stuck them in a list, together with the three I’d received, and she presented them to me at the start of the challenge.

As the time ticked down to half-past noon on 15th March 2013, Red Nose Day, I was bricking it. To be fair, I’d been bricking it for several days, moving between understandable nervousness at what I was about to attempt to outright being scared shitless: what if I had a mind full of brain-farts? What if I just plain ran out of time? But as time passed (and I did with increasing frequency, running to the loo) the clock ticked away.

And then we were in, and setting up.

Mitch, of, course was surrounded by tech, including lots that I heard the names of but didn’t have a clue what they were.

Me? I had three pieces of equipment, not including chargers, and not including the webcam aimed roughly in my direction:

– an ipad
– a bluetooth keyboard
– a whiteboard and marker, upon which I wrote the name of each challenger as I embarked upon their story.

And upon that last, after getting in, setting up and getting everything ready…, I wrote the following:

#1 Ian Rankin’s story

More tomorrow…

To read about stories 01 to 04, click here.

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