michelle green

Creative collaboration, or how to build a narrowboat*

We decided early on that we wanted to create some kind of printed object as part of the Towpath project, something that people could take away with them. Sarah quickly came up with the idea to create an origami narrowboat: a simple and elegant fold that leaves space for text, and fits perfectly with our focus on canals and water transport.

One of the first prototypes was a ‘ghost boat’ made from semi-transparent paper, which ended up being very beautiful but structurally unsound. Transparent paper doesn’t like to fold, unfortunately, so we had to leave the ghosts behind and go for something more solid and crisp.

Once the right paper was found, the design process involved a LOT of finicky work on millimetre bleeds and text placement. Many, many files passed back and forth until Sarah and Helen had the draft worked out and ready for testing. This was a print project that absolutely required a hard proof copy from our printers. Small blips that were unnoticeable when the piece was flat became glaring once it was folded into shape.

Folded up, the boat looks like this –

a small flotilla, moments before they blew across the garden

It’s got text on all sides, but take it apart and it’s only a few lonely lines on a mostly blank piece of paper. Not much room for writing. As a piece of sculptural literature (is that a thing? If not, I hereby designate it a thing) the boat needed to justify itself not only in form, but also, of course, in content. It needed to hold pieces of the story, as well as being coherent enough on its own that it would mean something to people who might not have encountered any other parts of the Towpath story via the trail or the performance. A lot for a small boat.

All of this brought us back to the core of the story – an extreme edit, which now sits in the middle of the boat, with quotes from our two main characters running along the waterline on each side.

This extreme editing process also produced the surname of one of our main characters – Tib Aberforth – which impacted the performance script, and the trail text. Like the collaborative process we’ve used to write the text, the different formal elements of the project have grown together, influencing one another as the story has emerged. This little boat actually carries far more than its size would suggest.

We printed 1500 origami boats to distribute around the Festival venues, and I personally have folded about one hundred so far. Better get cracking…

*In the spirit of our collaborative venture, I’m using discussion and notes to write about the piece of the project that was largely led by my co-conspirators Sarah and Helen.

Story trail playlist – Track 1

For those of you planning to follow our story trail in search of the geocaches and zappar codes, I’m starting a suggested playlist of songs that are connected to the themes and images in our story.

Here’s number one: Stolen Shark by Rozi Plain, a beautiful and strange track from Inside Over Here. If you like this one, her whole album is well worth purchasing, and YES, this track does contain a little hint to an element of the Towpath story…something to listen to while you wander the trail.

The story trail opens on October 6th, the first day of the Manchester Literature Festival, and it will be open every day throughout the festival.

Collaborative writing, tools, and pirates

‘Have you ever used PiratePad?’

That was Helen, our digital artist and wrangler-in-chief of all things tech. For the uninitiated (like me): PiratePad is a free online collaboration tool for producing text documents. It’s a beta-version basic word processor that allows more than one person to work on one document simultaneously.

Most of the online reviews talk about business and administrative applications. Helen, however, had used it as part of a live performance not too long ago, so she could see the creative potential. Back to the first question: who’d used it?

Maya had, once, at a transmedia workshop at MadLab, as part of last year’s Abandon Normal Devices festival. Sarah and I were entirely new to it.

We were in the midst of our development lab in June, and we’d hit the point in our collaboration where we needed to start knitting ideas together. In past collaborations I’ve been part of, this has been the point where pieces of paper are thrown all over the floor* and we try to agree on who will work on what. Much discussion, many notes, and then everyone takes a piece of text away to work on it alone. Next, a flurry of Word documents are emailed back and forth with increasingly long suffixes: v4, v4FINAL, v4FINALFINAL. Emails go missing. I never really know which is the most recent version. The process feels slow, and confusing.

This time, Helen sent each of us a link to a new PiratePad session she’d opened. It looked (after a while) like this:


A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.

A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.


You know those energised conversations you have with people who really get what you’re on about? The ones where your brain sparks with shared excitement and ideas? It felt like that, but we were capturing it. An accelerated thought process, four brains on one document in real time.

An hour went by, and then another. Tangles of logic were smoothed out, and the story grew in four colours. Punctuation was changed, a new piece of dialogue added. I’d have an idea I wasn’t sure of, say it out loud to the room, and by the time I’d finished talking, the words were appearing on my screen, except better, more precise than my first stumbled thought. We talked throughout the whole thing.

We have also used more traditional methods of collaborative writing, but have increasingly been using PiratePad for both drafting and editing. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a creative collaborative writing tool. It’s a little glitchy as it is beta, so don’t forget to save and copy your work regularly, but it’s one of those things that’s so simple and so good, I can’t believe no one built it until now. It can be used by people in the same room together, or across a continent with a voice-only Skype call.

One PiratePad session open on everyone’s computer, and three creative hours fly by. I love it. I’m converted. I’m a Pirate.

*We still threw pieces of paper all over the floor. Had to be done.

Cache construction ahead

I spent the weekend making caches for the geocaching element of our story trail and have discovered that what was once a familiar part of my life has now become a relic: film canisters. I managed to root out three of them between Maya’s house and mine, and am at a loss as to where all the others have gone. Ten years ago they were commonplace, and now they sell on ebay in listings marked specifically for geocaching. I’m glad that these handy little containers are finding a new niche in a digital world.


Little pieces of the towpath story will go in each cache. Follow the breadcrumbs for more...

Little pieces of the towpath story will go in each cache. Follow the breadcrumbs for more…