From the Lascaux caves to the Booker dinner...
Not all mouth, just new trousers

Cake houses and paper games

Children instinctively know what makes a satisfactory story: if that knowledge isn't coded into our genes, it's certainly wired into our brains. But I've been wondering what else in my childhood has fed into my writing self, and I realise that one thing I'm grateful for is childhood paper games.

Adverbs: The first person draws say ten lines across the page, then on the left-hand side writes a vertical column of ten quantities - a hatful of, a fathom of, a milligram of - and folds it to hide them, so only the lines show, not the words. The next writes a column of adjectives and folds over, the third writes nouns, fourth verbs, fifth adverbs, prepositions, (indirect) object, (direct) object. When it's unfolded you have the basic elements of ten mad sentences, though you may need to tweak the prepositions before you read them aloud: 'A mouthful of motherly ping-pong tables waltzed distractedly towards Richard Nixon holding a machete.' It would probably give a nervous breakdown to the doctrinaire avoider of adjectives and adverbs - the kind who takes endless Creative Writing courses but never actually reads. The rest of us just enjoy it.

Dictionary: Not Call My Bluff, but made-up words, the madder the better. The first person writes a made-up word and hands the paper on. The next person writes a definition below it, complete if they like with faux-grammatical details and invented illustrative quotation, and folds over the word. The third reads the definition and writes a new word for it, folds over the definition, and hands it on so the next person will write a definition for their new word, and so on. Some chains of word-and-meaning evolve a long way from their origins, others stay remarkably true to the kind of thing the first word evoked. A lot keep one foot in convincingness, so they sound like IKEA product names, words that Tolkein discarded as too silly, or what you think Pingu might be saying. Which isn't coincidental: we have a hard-wired sense of what the building-blocks of language are. This is like building a house out of bricks which are actually cake, or designing some mythical beast: tiger's tail, eagle's wings and tortoise's paws, but you still know it's an animal.

Bouts Rhymées: You start by writing a line of poetry in an agreed metre (iambic tetrameter, as in 'The boy / stood on / the burn/ing deck', is traditional), and hand it on. The next person writes a second line which rhymes  ('He wished that he had washed his neck') , and then a third which doesn't rhyme ('But now it really didn't matter'). They then fold over all but the last non-rhyming line, and pass it on. The third person writes a new, rhyming line, to make second line of that couplet ('The main mast fell with quite a clatter') , and then the first line of a new one ('Oh help! the boy cried with a shriek'), and so on. However daft or dire the resulting verse (let's not call it poetry), learning to manipulate words so they rhyme and scan is incredibly good training for learning to manipulate the sound and rhythm of any writing.

Surrealist Poetry: The Oulipo gang played this, apparently. Fold the paper in half lengthways and open it again, to give you a line down the middle. On the LH side of the paper you write the first line - say 'The black crow flies' and hand it on. Opposite it on the RH side the next person writes a line reversing as much of the meaning as possible ('A white sparrow swims') and then continues with another line below it ('slowly among the weeping leaves'). They fold the paper downwards so the top line (crows and sparrows) can't be read, and only that second line is visible, and hand it on. The third person writes a reversed version of that across on the LH side: 'swiftly beyond the laughing twigs' and another line below it ('where gold threads shimmer' ), then folds over , hands it over, ('no dross clinkers rattle'.) .. It's up to your conscience - and your taste for a struggle - how closely or loosely you insist on the "opposites" being. When it's all unfolded you have two, side-by-side poems (and these usually do feel like poems) of wonderful, surreal sense. It makes connections where the writers couldn't possibly have meant them, and it's salutary to realise how much of a poem is what the reader makes of the words and their juxtaposition: The black crow flies /swiftly beyond the laughing twigs /

Title and Paragraph: The first person writes an invented title and author, and hands it on. The next person writes a paragraph from that book and folds over the title; the third reads the paragraph and gives it a new title and author, folds of the paragraph, and so on. The Pratislovickirika Incident by Otto Plog, Not Wisely but Too Well by Pandora Rosemeathe, or With Faithful Fowling Piece in Hand, Memoirs of a Duck-shooting Life by Maj. Gen. Sir Crombie Smythe-Gordon (Retd.) are the kind of thing we handed on for the next person to write paragraphs for. Voice is one of my most cherished technical tools: The Mathematics of Love has two narrators of different genders and centuries, and one review praised its 'bilingual dexterity'. For that, clearly, my thanks go to Otto Plog, Pandora Rosemeathe, and the Major General.

PS: inventing those titles makes me realise how the standard booktrade genres have changed since I was ten. Now it could also be Winning Balls by Wayne Broome, as told to Jonathan Smugge, Hard Man in Helmand by 'Joe Crown', Oh No, Where Have I Put My Choos? by Sacha Brilliant, or Bashed-Up Brat, my life in Hell by Jane Brown.

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