On your marks… NaNoWriMo!

Painted desert, Colorado cr Judy DarleyIt’s less than a day until the start of NaNoWriMo 2018 on 1st November. Are you taking part? I love the concept of this word-packed month, with ardent writers across the world hunched over laptops sweating out every last drop of inspiration..

I know plenty of writers this enforced period of productivity really suits. For some folks it seems to be the ideal way to stoke up ideas and get them to catch alight on the page.

For me, the beginning stages of novel-writing are all about thinking ahead, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do some speedy planning even as you begin to write. After all, what else are you going to do when waiting for buses, in post office queues and doing the washing up?

Here are my top five preparation tips to ensure you make the most of this exceptional month.

1. Form a vision of the story you’ll be aiming to tell, with the beginning already shaped in your mind. If possible, do the same for the ending. Having an idea of the finale you’re working towards will mean you’re far less likely to veer off track!

2. Spend some time considering your characters – working out who they are, how they think, what their goals are, how they might help or hinder each other.

3. Know your setting. This is one of my favourites, particularly if it offers a valid excuse to meander in a much loved wilderness or similar.

4. Pick out a few dramatic moments your plot will cover and brainstorm them, then set them aside. Whenever your enthusiasm wanes over the intensive NaNoWriMo period, treat yourself by delving into one of those to reinvigorate your writing energy.

5. Finally, make sure you have plenty of sustenance to hand. For me, the essentials are coffee and chocolate. What are yours?

In 2017 more than 26,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month. If you’re signing up, I raise a glass (or rather, a mug of coffee) to you. Good luck!

Book review Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut

Live Show, Drink Included by Vicky GrutIn her debut short story collection Live Show, Drink Included, Vicky Grut reveals her knack for summoning up characters so real they’ll follow you around your house, loitering in your kitchen as you make a cup of coffee until you almost feel you should offer them one too. Her protagonists crackle with unspoken preoccupations that often verge on somewhat unsettling obsessions. These are people you might see marking the perimeter of a social gathering, being avoided largely due to the air of discontentment, and even, resentment, that they exude.

Yet their delivery through Grut’s carefully selected words is deeply relatable. With her skilful hand, she renders them comedic, lyrical, or a shining blend of the two. We eavesdrop and enjoy their conundrums while being glad, for the most part, not to share them.

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Chicago 10 Top Experiences

Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. Photo by Judy DarleyThe first sighting of Chicago – long before the towers come into view – is of the lake. Big M, a landlocked ocean licking the shore of three states, sans salt, sans sharks, sans tides. Lake Michigan.

Our Airbnb is just a stroll from its edge, in the Gold Coast district where ornate mansions speak of an almost grotesque excess of money, while more time-worn streets have been turned over to a more Bohemian clientele.

We’re close enough to stride along the water’s edge into the city, using the John Hancock Center or Navy Pier’s big wheel to guide us. Nature battles against the rampant urbanity here. Cormorant spread their wings in the harbour and fish dart, while tourist paddle kayaks, ride tour boats or pause on bridges to admire the soaring architecture. All human life jostles here – wealthy residents sidestepping broken-down beggars to enter designer shops, while holidaymakers hurry to the next museum, the next work of art, the next tower to ogle and ascend.

Here are my top ten recommendations of what to see, eat and experience in and around Chicago.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, Chicago_Photo by Judy Darley

1 Encounter the Cloud Gate

Known by locals as the Bean, the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoorresembles a gigantic silvery globular mirror. It rests in the AT&T Plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park like a capsized UFO, enticing tourists and passersby to pause and photograph their own reflection.

A vehicle to our own selfie-obsessed vanity, it’s a perfect tool for people-watching, as well as capturing majestic views of the Chicago cityscape. The one thing it doesn’t seem to me to meditate on is sky – but perhaps it’s in the Illinois winter, when sub-zero temperatures halt human hive activity, that it truly comes into its own.

Architecture river cruise. Photo by Judy Darley

2 Embark on an architecture tour

In a city riddled with extraordinary towers, there’s plenty of scope for admiring the architecture. With the river attracting many of the most ambitious designs, the most leisurely way to take in the their grandeur is with a Chicago Architecture River Cruise by Shoreline Sightseeing. From just over £30, you’ll get a 75-minute guided voyage through the urban masterpieces, learn about the fire that destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago in 1871, and discover that in Chicago, the word Willis is pronounced Seeears. As an added bonus, our excellent tour guide Jalen seemed to be warming up for a set at legendary comedy hotspots Second City.

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower. Photo by Judy Darley

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower

3 Ascend the towers

In a city of skyscrapers, there are several that stand out more than others, and you can pay to visit two of the more notable of these.

The Skyjack of the Willis Tower (previously the Sears Tower), offers exceptional views over Chicago and some unexpected treats. We glimpse a kestrel swooping on the thermals and a few vertigo-defying spiders too. Don’t miss the chance to step onto the Ledge, a glass balcony that juts out from the 103rd floor of the tower (1,353 feet up!) – the perfect opportunity to snap your next profile pick/author photo/ album cover. Buy your tickets.

Above Michigan Avenue, 360 Chicago is accessible from the 94th floor of the John Hancock Centre, overlooking the city and Lake Michigan. You also have the chance to test your nerves with thrill ride Tilt, try Sky Yoga, get into photography, challenge your artistic side, or simply enjoy happy hour at the bar up in the clouds. Get your ticket here.

Pancakes for breakfast. Photo by Judy Darley4 Eat

The people of Chicago are ravenous. Hungry for better views (how else do you explain all the skyscrapers?), bigger lives, and most of all for food. There are several dishes you have to try here: deep pan pizza, best served against a backdrop of TV screens each showing a different sport; burgers and fries; pasta; cheesecake; ice cream…

There are tricks to getting the most out of these dining experiences without losing your mind and gaining a ton of weight. 1) be ready to answer questions about the types of bread, side orders, salad dressings and cooking methods you want (fried eggs just won’t do, you need to know whether you want them over easy, sunny side up or whatever). 2) Request a box and save half of your breakfast/lunch/dinner to eat the next day. 3) Share your dessert with your beloved. It will be ever so romantic and ensure you can get amble afterwards without waddling too badly.

And if you decide to opt for something a bit classier, you could do a lot worse than Café Robey. Read my review of Café Robey.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Edward Kemeys, Lions

Edward Kemeys, Lions, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

5 Mingle with art stars

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is bound to be a highlight for any art aficionado visiting this extraordinary city. This vast space is teeming with renowned artworks, as well as plenty of less famous gems. From the intriguing Thorne Miniature Rooms to marvels such as Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, I found myself floating on an excess of wonder. To me the Art Institute of Chicago felt like a portal through time, space and sensibility, with each doorway offering admission to another absorbing world.

Find out more at www.artic.edu. Read my full write up of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kalamazoo Public Library.Photo by Judy Darley

6 Hop on a train!

Have an adventure and take an Amtrak train journey to one of the quirky towns that sit outside the major cities. Kalamazoo is just over a couple of hours from downtown Chicago, yet lies in a different state (Michigan) and timezone. Trains run here infrequently, so we got up early, and saw dawn break over the Chicago towers during our stroll to the elegant Union Station.

Our train passed through industrial areas and by sparsely populated woodlands before reaching this small township of cute shops, breweries and one of the most attractively housed public libraries I’ve seen. Intriguingly, the town was once renowned for its celery crops, but don’t let that put you off. We pass the time in coffee shops, admired unexpected sculptures, and visit the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Sadly, there is no longer a zoo in Kalamazoo – it closed its doors in ’74. Hmm, that sounds like the start of a Dr Seuss story…

Lincoln Park Zoo Harbour Seal. Photo by Judy Darley

7 Explore Lincoln Park Zoo

A good zoo done well with plenty of imagination and an emphasis on conservation is a wonderful thing, and Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the world’s finest. Even better, it’s free to visitors, providing families and passerbys with the opportunity to glimpse wonderful animals and learn about the natural world both within and beyond America’s shores.

We watched grey seals cavort with harbour seals, spotted a pygmy hippo being groomed by fish, saw black and white colobus monkeys playing, met an aardvark and glimpsed a slow loris, among so many other species I couldn’t possibly list them all. Plus, beyond the confined areas a chipmunk darts by, turtles sunbathe with ducks, and a hummingbird dances in mid-air for its supper. There are some exquisite sculptures too.

Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk. Photo by Judy Darley

Outside the confines of the zoo, but in this case considered part of its realm, you’ll find the Nature Boardwalk, which teems with wildlife and offers a tranquil spot within sight of the city. Find out more.

8 Sample the neighbourhoods

Old Town. Photo by Judy DarleyChicago is made up of an assortment of different districts, or neighbourhoods, each with boasting its own distinct personality. While Downtown is where you’ll find the major highlights such as Millennium Park, even this area boasts an assortment of areas, including Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile and the Loop.

Check out Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) at transitchicago.com to discover the treasures awaiting you in the other areas, from Andersonville to Old Town.

Picasso Baboon Daley Plaza. Photo by Judy Darley

9 Search for public art

As treasure hunts go, this is one with endless riches. Sculptures pose on Chicago’s street corners, in plazas and outside edifices. The Chicago Picasso is one of the more notable – untitled it stands 50 feet tall in the Daley Plaza, a monumental artwork that doubles up as a kids’ slide.

Gentlemen by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Photo by James Hainsworth

On the AMA Plaza beside the river, look out for Gentlemen, a series of statues by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming resembling quirky businessmen complete with umbrellas.

The Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa. Photo by Judy Darley

In Millennium Park, the Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa comprises two 50-foot blocks that stand adjacent to one another, each made up of screens that present a vast visage of a Chicago citizen. The faces blink, smile and occasionally purse their lips so that spouts of water emerge. It’s especially appealing on hot summer days.

ake Michigan beach.Photo by Judy Darley

10 Be amazed by Lake Michigan

This shining pool is so vast that the far side is beyond the horizon’s edge. One of the five Great Lakes of North America, it’s unique in being set entirely within the United States. I’ve heard that in winter, it freezes over. In summer it attracts swimmers, kayakers and sand castle builders. Cyclists and runners pelt up and down the shore, while fish dart in the depths. A short train-ride away, more rural areas appeal to day-trippers, but within the city, the beauty of the water framed by gleaming skyscrapers is undeniable.

Discover more about Chicago at www.choosechicago.com.

Save money on some of Chicago’s top attractions with the Chicago CityPASS.

Discover Bilbao.
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Discover Budapest.
Discover Bath.
Discover Barcelona.
Discover Laugharne.
Discover Reyjavik.

A short story – Fish Flakes

Reggie cr Judy DarleyYesterday I received the news that a short story I submitted to an online publication in May has been accepted. And today they notified me that it’s been published!

Just shows it’s worth being patient! I’m excited because it’s a creepy/ridiculous work of fiction (honest!) that stars our resident goldfish Reggie. Apologies to our neighbour’s cat who cameos, but doesn’t fare so well. Click on the link below to read it in full. They even used the photo of Reggie, with a slightly sinister filter…

If you’re having a vague sense of deja vu, it may be because I posted a writing prompt about Reggie some months ago. I followed my own advice and wrote a piece inspired by our unexpected lodger, with a rather twisted ending. Perfect for Halloween week!

Sunday Stories: “Fish Flakes”

Milk Poetry review

Tom DenbighUnfolding in Foyles Bookshop Bristol as part of Bristol Festival of Literature, Milk Poetry wound through our ears, hearts and minds, reminding us that words have a life beyond the page. This group of skilful poets and their guests each imbue their lines, rhymes and musings with startling individuality and honesty.

Malaika Kegode founded Milk Poetry in January 2015. “Milk Poetry was conceived to be a friendly, nurturing night that treated all performers with equal respect, warmth and room for growth,” she says. “The impetus behind the night was to offer equal billing and opportunity for up and coming poets, with a focus on artist development. Many poets can get stuck in limbo after performing for a couple of years; not quite a headliner but creating work more advanced than standard open mic fare. So Milk Poetry was created to bridge that gap and offer chances for people to hone their skills on stage and perform shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘big name’ acts, so they can feel like the true artists they are!”

She adds: “As Milk Poetry has grown, I think that nurturing backbone has just become stronger, and some artists who started performing for the first time at Milk Poetry have gone on to be major players in the poetry world.”

Tom Sastry

The evening opened with the wit and self-depreciating humour of Tom Sastry. Tom is one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice poets. He brought us the first and only use of the word “ersatz” and wrote of “ganging up on our past selves who we secretly love” and “dead cakes in cellophane.” Many of his poems were a whisper away from being reclassified as flash fictions, pouring whole lives into our ears distilled down into a few vivid lines.

Malaika Kegode. Photo by Judy Darley

Next up, Malaika Kegode’s poem rattled through and over us, drawing us into a train journey, a relationship gone awry, and an ending so tragic that it made my teeth shake. There’s something powerfully filmic about her composition, so that you see the train carriage and its passengers, see the passing fields with their excess of sheep, and see the moon and the sun each highlighting what went wrong.

Next up, multiple slam winner Tom Denbigh (picture at the top of this post) delivered a story in the form of a poem, setting word choices at curious angles that created a sense of eavesdropping, and getting caught. He brought us the evening’s first use of the word “cardigan.” Offbeat and comic, the poem twitched with a sense of the search for identity, and of trying to solve the puzzles that make up the people we encounter.

Sam Grudgings. Photo by Judy Darley

Milk co producer Sam Grudgings, who describes himself as a poet perpetually on the edge of collapse, had rather delightfully brought his granny along. Taking us collectively by the hand, Sam led us on an excursion into a haunted house, speaking not to us but to the ghost herself, with her “arson fingers.’ Exquisite imagery drew us into a gloriously painterly scene, pegged with emotion.

Beth Calverley. Photo by Judy Darley

The potent Beth Calverley, co producer of Milk and Chief Operator of The Poetry Machine, performed Witchcraft, a poem laced with tenderness. Her words glimmered as though lit from within, with echos sounding quietly on the peripheral of our hearing. As Sam said in introducting Beth, her poetry is comprised of layers of meaning – there’s far more here than a single read or listen can reveal.

Rebecca Tantony. Photo by Judy Darley

Our final poet Rebecca Tantony shared a set of poems rooted in the complexities of family. Visceral, raw and compellingly intimate, Rebecca’s poems sent tremors oscillating the bookshop’s air, rustling pages and ricocheted empathetic shivers down listeners’ spines.

Find Milk on Facebook.

Seen, read or experienced anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

 

Writing prompt – legal

High Valley Retail Cannabis, Colorado. Photo by Judy DarleyI snapped this photo in rural Colorado, where cannabis is legal to sell and buy.

What would you like to see made legal? Or, conversely, what would you make illegal? Create a story around this. Note: the legal or illegal item doesn’t necessarily need to be something that actually exists.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Poetry review Bragr by Ross Cogan

Bragr by Ross CoganBragr is Ross Cogan’s collection of entrancingly personal poems inspired by Norse mythology. Quite simply he picks up Earth and its neighbouring galaxies, gently placing them where we happen to sit or lie so that we nestle with wonders.

I found myself reading most poems more than once – firstly for the pure beauty of the word choices and secondly to drink in the meaning of the piece.

In Part 1, The Beginning, And The Rest sweeps us beyond the presentation of a creative act – writing, painting or music – and draw us to the exquisite nature of the silence just beyond that last fading note.

There’s a playfulness to the assortment – from the evident delight of selecting the perfect phrase to conjure a scene or emotion, to the joy of regarding the world and its surroundings, to summon up origin stories of time and humanity and pin them to the page.

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A short story – Evening Tide

Little House by Gilly Mound

Little House by Gilly Mound

My story Evening Tide has been published in the October issue of Living Quietly magazine. It’s a version of my tale Farewell Gifts, which I shared at Salon Soirées’ mirror-themed evening on Tuesday 11th September. It reveals the crunch moment in a woman’s life, and a fresh start within earshot of the sea.

The story was partly inspired by artist Gilly Mound’s painting Little House, pictured above.

Here are a few lines from it:

The house sits on the edge of a field, its tiled roof sagging in camaraderie with windows and doors. Sunbeams bounce from the panes as though someone inside has turned on a light.

The lettings agent allows me to spend half an hour exploring.

“Let me just…” I keep saying as I try to imagine how the spaces will feel with only me and the resident spiders to occupy them. Cobwebs glint wherever the sun sneaks in, nestling where beams meet and holding the place together.

“It’s perfectly safe,” the lettings agent says as we emerge.

“I’ll take it,” I respond. My heart flutters as I utter the words, and I grin at the crooked house.

I’m really pleased to have Evening Tide included in the magazine, which describes itself as being for people “who want to tread more gently through life.” How lovely.

Theatre review Twelfth Night

(L-R) Brian James O'Sullivan, Meilyr Jones, Jade Ogugua, Dylan Read. Photo credit Mihaela BodlovicRe-envisioned amid the bacchanalia of an everlasting 1960’s house party, Twelfth Night (possibly the 12th night of these revelries) at Bristol Old Vic is a colour-saturated feast for the ears and eyes.

Shakespeare’s popular comedy of gender-swapping and mistaken identity makes perfect sense against this backdrop of unbridled debauchery. Director Wils Wilson has unleashed a cast of exuberant talents, where light, sound, set and movement conjure all the passion and magic of a world where love is a bargaining tool, music the food of said love, and every act fringed with mischief.

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Christopher Green, Joanna Holden, Dawn Sievewright and Guy Hughes

The set design, led by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, is the first ingredient of this heady mix, creating the illusion of a grand country house, complete with a grand piano, sweeping staircase, and several holes cast members can appear through at unexpected moments. Weave in strands of soul-stirring music courtesy of Dylan Reid (sensational as wit-fuelled fool Feste), Meilyr Jones (Curio, in a pair of spectacular shocking pink trousers), and Brian James O’Sullivan, among others, and you have an audience riveted by every scene.

L-R Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O'Sulllivan. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Dylan Reid, Meilyr Jones and Brian James O’Sullivan

When twin brother and sister Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) and Viola (Jade Ogugua) are separated by a tempest that wrecks their ship, each assumes the other has drowned. Viola dresses as a boy for easier passage, so that when the two reach the same court, they are constantly mistaken for one another. Larks!

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Joanne Thomson and Jade Ogugua

The tenuousness of this element of the plot is emphasised beautifully in the production, where each sibling is played by a woman of different races and statures. We’d effectively urged to collude with the cast in agreeing the two are identical, and choosing who appears male and who female.

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Jade Ogugua

In fact, their subsequent love interests, Duke Orsino and Olivia, are also both played by women, respectively Colette Dalal Tchantcho and Lisa Dwyer Hogg. The face that in this version of the play, Olivia’s Uncle Toby is transfigured into her defiantly rowdy cousin Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright), adds to the blurring of the sexes in a most delightful way.

Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright1. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

L-R Guy Hughes and Dawn Sievewright

It’s a cunning strategy, as we become part of the seductive high japes on stage. The joyousness of the performance rings out in ripples we spectators can’t help but be caught up in. By the end of the show, you’ll feel positively tipsy.

Production photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

Twelfth Night is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 17th November. Find out more and book tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Writing prompt – vanity

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, Chicago_Photo by Judy DarleyKnown by locals as the Bean, the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoorresembles a gigantic silvery globular mirror. It rests in the AT&T Plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park like a capsized UFO, enticing tourists and passersby to pause and photograph their own reflection.

A vehicle to our own selfie-obsessed vanity, it’s a perfect tool for people-watching, as well as capturing views of the Chicago cityscape.

Imagine the alien society that might have placed this in our midst. Could they be the same interstellar race that thought to populate our Internet with kitten videos? What might their aim be? What could be the next step in their insidious plan?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.