Thursday, 20 February 2014

E=MC2 for writers

I have now supervised the linguistic endeavours of two small children, and I’ve reached some important conclusions.

Firstly, and most importantly, that I have no idea what goes on in their heads and how that connects to what comes out of their mouths.

Actually, that’s pretty much it.  For ‘some important conclusions’, read ‘one fairly useless conclusion.’

Despite two linguistic degrees and personal study of a whole lot of pre-school wittering, I have absolutely no insight into the process of language acquisition in small children.

Thomas barely said a word until he was nearly two.  There was a lot of ‘bu’ and ‘ca’ and ‘do-y’ but very little actual communication until the day he announced, from the back seat of the car, that ‘that man not indicate, mummy.’  Which made me look slightly daft when the health visitor rang me to follow up my concern about his lack of speech.

Ben, on the other hand, has followed the ‘repeat everything indiscriminately until something sticks’ model.

Leading to useful utterances such as “Wassa story Balamooooory’ and ‘Bob Builder canny fissit.  ES!  E CAAAAN!” and  ‘Isa any ‘ticular reason oo doin’ dat?’ 

He also appears to have no preference for any particular tense or viewpoint.  So ‘My no like dat’ is interchangeable with ‘Nonono mummy. Ben do it.’ or ‘I want it. I WANT IT!’

I have some sympathy for this confusion.  Tense and viewpoint  - particularly viewpoint - are probably the most fundamental choices that a writer has to make when beginning a new project.  And that choice can create a whole lot of angst.  Particularly when you get 30,000 words in and then develop a sneaking suspicion that your first person viewpoint should actually have been third person, and then start trying to work out whether you need to entirely re-write, or whether you can get away with a ‘search and replace’ exercise on ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’, ‘I’d’, ‘I’ve’ and every other possible permutation thereof.

Or when you’re particularly pleased with your innovative use of the third person omniscient narrator, and then your entire writing group perform a co-ordinated nose-wrinkle, before chorusing ‘Really?  Are you sure?’ and extoling the virtues of first person.

There’s been reams of advice and theory written about viewpoint.  I’ve read a fair bit of it, and I still struggle with it.  I don’t find that it’s a choice that I ever actively make.  Each idea and project seems to come with its viewpoint packaged up with it, as part and parcel of the whole, and I don’t tend to question it, unless something is fundamentally not working and I need something to blame.  Then I start pointing the finger at viewpoint, and trying to remember how to do a ‘search and replace’ in the mac version of Scrivener.

In that respect, I can empathise with Ben, and his desire to be left in peace with whichever point of view fits his mood at the time.

Inhabiting his emotions.  Using the unequivocal, self-exposing first person in order to communicate the true extent of his fury at having his socks put on by an intrusive third party parental figure.

Ben no like dat.
Distancing himself slightly from his likes and dislikes in order to provide a wider context, and a better overview of his complex relationship with in-car music.

My not eat it.
Employing disorganised grammar to convey the chaos of his conflicting thoughts about baked beans, and the way they interact with the toast.

Or something like that.


Anyway, I empathise.  I don’t like viewpoint rules.  Mainly because they never seem to quite fit with what’s actually going on in any project.

First person, for example, is supposed to be the most immediate viewpoint, with unfettered, direct access to a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  It’s supposed to dump us right in the middle of that character’s emotions, so that we experience what they’re experiencing, in as close to real time as you ever get in fiction.

I’m not entirely convinced.

I like first person.  It’s probably the viewpoint I use the most.  Well, I know it’s the viewpoint I use the most.  Both novels are in first person, which means that there are at least 280,000 first person words kicking around in my computer.  Even if everything else I’ve ever written was in third person, the I’s very much still have it.

But I’m becoming less and less convinced that it’s automatically the most immediate point of view.  I think that there’s a certain distance in some first-person writing that you don’t get in the equivalent third-person approach.  Because you’re never going to be able to experience someone’s thoughts and feelings as that person experiences them.  The act of writing about them means that they have to be vocalised and verbalised and honed into some sort of coherent structure.  This creates an automatic editing of sorts.  A first-person narrator who communicated every fleeting, irrelevant thought, would be spectacularly difficult to follow – and I suspect you’d probably not bother.

It would be like a conversation with Ben, with every little fleeting impulse broadcasted in incoherent technicolor.

So with first person, what you often get is a nicely edited, carefully trimmed version of what the viewpoint character sees as the truth, or wants to be seen as the truth.  People don’t generally have absolute insight into ever nuance of every thought that crosses their mind, and fictional characters with that kind of piercing self-awareness would be fairly unconvincing, and probably more than a little bit dull.  For this reason, I think that most first person narrators are unreliable, to some extent, whether it’s because they don’t understand something, or because they don’t want to acknowledge something, or because they are deliberately trying to fool themselves, or someone else.

You’re kept at something of a distance, because the character is, on the face of it, in control of what the reader learns about them.

So what about third person viewpoint?  This is traditionally considered to be the slightly more detached point of view.  But I’m not sure I agree.  With a third person viewpoint, you are watching the character, and analysing what they do, and you can be as detached, or as involved, as the author allows you to be.

I had a blinding lightbulb moment at a workshop with Emma Darwin, at the York Festival ofWriting.  She was talking about ‘psychic distance’, a term coined by the author, John Gardner, in his posthumously published The Art of Fiction.  Emma used the following example from Gardner:

1.It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

2.Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

3.Henry hated snowstorms.

4.God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

5.Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

The examples show how the reader can be kept at a distance from the main character, or granted direct access to his thoughts and feelings.  The fifth example, while in third person, is every bit as immediate as a first person account, arguably more so, because the third person narrator is like a ghost, barely there and with no agenda or filters of their own.

There’s a lot of discussion about ‘voice’ in writing workshops and books, and people often talk about the importance of ‘finding your voice’ as a writer.  I think that the trick is actually finding your voice as a narrator, in any given piece of writing.  And I think that, to some extent, finding that voice is about balancing viewpoint and psychic distance.

If I was trying to write a best-selling ‘How to build a best-selling novel’ type book, I would probably announce at this point that I’d discovered the secret formula at the heart of all fiction writing.  I’d assign characters and symbols to it and put it in big block letters.



It would be like one of the courses on my postgraduate linguistics degree course, where we’d all sit in silence while the tutor would work his way round the room, covering every whiteboard with complex equations, the point of which appeared to be to assert that a statement is true if, and only if, that statement is true.  At which point we’d all look at one another out of the corners of our eyes, before deciding that we weren’t going to be the one who stuck their hand up and said ‘Er, so the point of all that algebra was….?’  If someone else had done it, we’d probably have been willing to nod supportively, right up to the point when the speaker was made to look spectacularly stupid, at which point we’d adopt disapproving expressions and edge away, as though the thought had never crossed our minds.

I’ve never been good with equations.  I never understood quadratic equations, much to the perpetual and incoherent rage of my GCSE maths teacher, who did not feel that ‘well I’ll just miss them out ’ was a valid approach to a whole branch of mathematics.

It clearly was.  An A in GCSE mathematics attests to the complete irrelevance of quadratic equations.

Unreliable?  Me?
So probably best to avoid the novel-writing equations.  Maybe someone could come up with a writing program which calculates how close you are to a character’s thoughts, and then shades that section of writing in different appropriate colours, allowing you to then print it all out and analyse it.   Maybe there could be a little unreliable narrator alarm.  I could customize mine with a recording of Thomas, saying ‘Ben did it’ or ‘Wasn’t me.’

Of course, all that would probably involve equations again, but as long as I don’t have to do them myself, I can live with that.  I’m sure the clever people at Apple can come up with something.  I’ve recently switched to an Apple and it seems to do pretty much everything else.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s not actually as straightforward as an equation.  I suspect it’s probably more like tuning one of those CB radio thingies, where you twiddle knobs... – not like that.  If you’ve come here on a ‘knob-twiddling book’ google search, 50 Shades of Grey is that way...

...until it stops making a horrible noise and you start hearing voices.

Or voice, perhaps.

I think I’m starting to get my head around the whole viewpoint thing.  I don’t think it’s something you can really figure out in isolation.  It doesn’t seem to me that you can consider an idea and simply think “Right. Third person.  Off we go.”  You need to work out what kind of person your main character is, and what relationship they are going to have with the reader, and with the fictional world around them.  Maybe that equation should be something like:


Or maybe I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.  Maybe I’m an unreliable narrator.  Maybe it is as simple as “Right.  Viewpoint selected.  Off we/you/I/he/she/it goes.”

In which case, I might adopt a multiple second-person unreliable narrator for my next project.

You are sitting on the radiator, posting dominos through the slats.  When I shout and wave my arms, you look at each other and something passes between you.  Then one of you looks me in the eye and tells me “Ben did it.”

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

We built this novel...

I had a bit of a “bad parent” moment the other day.

No, I didn’t let Ben drink toilet cleaner, or send Thomas to school in his pyjamas.  But it’s almost as bad.  It could spell the end of any credibility they might hope to have with their peers.

On the way back from the school and nursery run, I listened to the strange caterwauling in the back of the car, and it gradually resolved itself into a fairly clear rendition of “We built this city on rock and roll – the acoustic duet version.”

Ben does the chorus, while Thomas chimes in with “Marconi plays the mamba” and the bit about “Tell us you need us ‘cos we’re just chips and fools.”  And yes, I’m willing to contemplate the possibility that those aren’t the exact words of the song, but I can’t really argue, given how adamant I once was that Abba were sick and tired of being thin, when they called you last night from Tesco.

Anyway.  I may need to review my choice of in-car entertainment.  This isn’t the first musical cheese incident.

Not by any means.

In my defence, while my car playlist does have its fair share of driving-drivel, there are a number of perfectly acceptable songs on it.   Thomas regularly entertains me with his rendition of 30 Seconds to Mars’s From Yesterday Wednesday or Gabrielle Aplin’s My Salvation Nice Invention. 

He also does a good line in lyric analysis. 

Apparently, when Labyrinth sings “Take it off now girl, take it off now girl” in Beneath Your Beautiful, this is because she’s wearing something nice, and he wants a turn at wearing it.

But I’m not planning on changing my in-car soundtrack any time soon.  While some of the tracks are there just for cheesy singalong value, the majority of the playlist has evolved for a particular reason.

When I first returned to writing after a long hiatus, I was convinced that I could only be productive in substantial slabs of time.  Unfortunately, I’m a bit lacking in the time-slab department.  Time-pebbles – yes.  Time-slabs – not so much.

However, after a while, I realised that all those bits and pieces of time could be utilised.  Obviously, several hours of uninterrupted time would be helpful – although I’m sure Ben and Thomas would be surprised to hear that tuneless singing and cartoon dust-ball-esque fighting aren’t conducive to creativity – but there are effective ways of using a few minutes here and there.

For me, the point when I realised this was the point when I stopped thinking about everything I was trying to achieve as one single, amorphous mass of WRITING.  Capitals intended.

The thing about WRITING is that it involves sitting down, in stately silence, after a reverent approach to the appointed desk or table, and a quick prayer to Qwerty, God of the Laptop, to keep keys from sticking and batteries from running flat at crucial moments, and to #Hshtg, God of Twitter, that he may keep his temptations at bay.

Preparing for a stint of WRITING generally requires a lengthy period of mental limbering up, including several long-winded announcements to the rest of the household that Right, I’m off to do some WRITING.  If anyone wants me, I’ll be at my WRITING desk, you know WRITING.

Generally, by the time I’ve got all that out of the way, I’ve got just about enough time to type three words.  Which I usually delete again. 

Sometimes they’re profound words, mind.  But really, there’s only so much profundity that you can fit into three words.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of things that go into the writing mix, and some of them can be squeezed into a snatched moment.  I can’t produce any substantial chunks of work against the backdrop of the usual chuntering and clattering, but I’ve found that I can edit existing work, no matter what defcon-level of apocalypse is going on around me.  Creating words needs peace and quiet – removing them seems to be a whole lot easier.

Even CBeebies doesn’t scupper the editing process.  And if you something can survive the best efforts of Mr Tumble and Iggle-Piggle, it can survive anything.

Then there’s plotting.

No, not the “I have a cunning plan, mwah ha ha ha” hand-rubbing sort of plotting.  The “Let me take this perfectly happy hero who is currently minding his own business, tilling his turnips and contemplating proposing to the nice young lady in the next village, and make his life thoroughly miserable until he gives in and sets out in search of some trials and tribulations” type of plotting.

I’m not very good at it. 

Not at planning it, anyway. 

I’ve tried.  But my characters never seem to want to follow my carefully –laid plans.  They want to go off and snog in corners, or pick fights with unsuitable sorts, no matter how much I try to herd them towards major life-changing moments which have a vacancy for a speech about destiny and the nobility of mankind.

So, given that I find plotting difficult, there’s probably not much point wasting perfectly good writing time on it. 

I usually do it in the bath. 

There’s something about bubbles which is strangely conducive to solving difficult plot issues.  And bath crayons are great for making notes about lightning-bolt ideas – although this does then involved hanging over the side of the bath the next morning, trying to read upside-down, bright purple scrawls about that really vital brainwave concerning a minor character and a goat.

Better note-taking techniques are probably available.

But back to the music. 

I find music good for composing dialogue.

There’s a lot of creative snobbery about what is and isn’t literature.  Many written works draw upon the vast body of story-telling and poetry that has gone before – particularly when it comes to certain recurring strands – love, destiny, the end being nigh/well-past nigh/hopefully not nigh – and many writers reference other works, directly or obliquely.

If I was to say that there is a character in my first novel with his roots in The Wasteland or that a fairly substantial strand of the same novel came from a passing reference in a James Elroy Flecker poem, no doubt this would be acceptable and entirely in keeping with people’s idea of what WRITING should be about.  If, however, I was to mention that there’s an idea in the same novel that came from a misheard line from a Coldplay song, eyebrows might well be raised.

But there are several popular songs that wouldn’t look out of place on the pages of a poetry anthology, and there are many more individual lines which hold their own amongst some of the great literary quotations.

If my first novel ever gets published, I may run a “Spot the really obscure song reference” competition.  I find that listening to certain songs is a great way to kick off a bit of crucial dialogue.  One of my character gets the song-lyric in question, and then the others get let loose on it. 

Two of my main characters once had a very dramatic stand-off over something Christina Aguilera said.  Character one did not agree with character two’s take on it.  Character two thought character one was an idealistic idiot who should spend less time worrying about Christina Aguilera and more time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.

Sort of. 

Only without either of them actually uttering the words ‘Christina’ or ‘Aguilera’, obviously.

Another character once set someone off on a hopeless quest, based on a passing reference to the song in a Hovis advert.

Of course, these bits of dialogue don’t make it into the completed project in anything remotely recognisable as the song that suggested them – and I would suggest that, if you find your main character exhorting the love-interest to not go chasing waterfalls, just stick to the rivers and the lakes like she used to, or your hero receiving a dire battlefield warning that there’s a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye and a blade shining oh so bright, you have a bit of a re-think about your use of this technique.

But I owe several passages to passing ideas, thrown up by song-lyrics.

And no, the characters in question weren’t calling last night from Tesco.

But to get back to the point, driving is one of those short stretches of time that I’ve found that I can utilise.  I quite often do dialogue in the car, while listening to music. 

Hence my reluctance to replace my usual soundtrack with something that might better serve Thomas and Ben in terms of street-cred.

Of course, the main problem with this practice is that I can’t do dialogue without at least moving my lips.  I don’t always need to speak it out loud, but lip-moving is pretty non-negotiable. 

As is the face-pulling.

So if you ever pass me in the car, and I appear to be mouthing at you, while grimacing violently, please don’t take it personally.  I’m just having a heated argument with an imaginary character who just misquoted “We built this city on rock and roll” at me.

I am not coming out of this blogpost at all well, am I?

Oh well, altogether now.

Tell us you need us, ‘cos we’re just chips and foooooools……

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The year that was

So.  It's been a while.

Someone pointed out to me the other day that the blog has been languishing a little.  This is because I've been engaging in a spot of gentle musing about its future.

It has occurred to me that Thomas is currently learning to read, and will therefore soon be in a position to track down my blogposts and object, vociferously, to my version of events.  Given the number of times that 'S'not faaaaaaair!' is currently echoing around our house, I can hazard a pretty good guess at the form his objections would take.

Ben is not learning to read.  Actually, he might well be able to read already.  He's got a certain sideways smirk that tends to suggest that there's a lot more going on inside his head than he lets slip.
 But he has mastered the iPad and is making some serious inroads into the complicated gestures needed to operate an Apple.  It is only a matter of time, therefore, before his opinions make an appearance in the comments section of this blog.  Okay, those opinions might be expressed in terms such as 'xhsjhjhjjjjjjjjjiwowssllm!@' or 'thhrhrhrhrhrhrpppppp0(((((pow!' but when accompanied by the sideways smirk, I'll know what he's thinking.

So, I think it's time that the blog stopped being a random series of rants - although I suspect that rantage will still feature fairly heavily.  After all, I have yet to work my way through my backlog of rage-inducing parking incidents and country lane stand-offs.  But I think the blog needs a bit more of a purpose.

I've been talking to my writing group about the possibility of using the blog as a resource for all of the useful bits and pieces that we share with one another, but never get down in any permanent form. There are many useful writing books out there, but a lot of these are aimed at beginners, or at a specific aspect of writing.  We would like to create a log of the things we learn, and the opportunities we come across, as well as all those lightbulb moments that come from talking around a particular issue or idea.

So things are going to change around here.  There's going to be a new focus.  The random ranting is going to take a back seat.  That's not to say it's not going to undo its seatbelt and attempt to climb into the driving seat once in a while.  And yes, that metaphor does come from somewhere specific - yes, I am looking at a certain smug-faced Houdini-wannabe who will find himself walking to nursery if he doesn't stop undoing his straps with a gleeful cry of "Done it!"

Sorry.  Old ranting habits die hard.

But time for a recap about the year that's gone.

In late 2012 I started looking for freelance writing work.  This was around the same time as I was offered representation for my first novel, Telemachus, by the very lovely Lisa Eveleigh of the Richford Becklow agency.  In December of that year, I decided to have a crack at short stories.  I'd tried my hand at these once before, with disastrous results, and had concluded that I was incapable of saying anything in less than 140,000.  Probably with appendices and footnotes.

But having read more short stories, and having looked at the judging comments in the Writing Magazine and Writers' Forum competitions, I thought I had an inkling as to how they might work.  I'm still not sure that it's more than an inkling, but I've been fortunate enough to have had an encouraging first year of short story writing:

Writing Magazine competitions - Dreams Come True - shortlisted, The Writer - shortlisted

Bath Short Story Award - The Man on the Platform - long listed (withdrawn after placing elsewhere)

Mslexia Short Story Competition - The Man on the Platform - runner-up and published in magazine

Bristol Short Story prize - Why I Waited - third place and published in anthology

H E Bates Short Story Competition - Last Tango in Space - first place and published online

Writers' Forum competition - The Girl who Walked on Walls - first place and to be published in March 2014

In 2013 I also completed my second novel, Fallen, and this is about to go out on submission.  At which point I will obviously check my email five million times a second, and come up with spurious reasons to email Lisa, just in case she has somehow forgotten to mention that someone has offered me a three trillion pound book deal.

I have also been lucky enough to meet a number of incredibly talented and interesting people, and have attended various events as a member of the audience, as well as being directly involved with some projects myself.  I started a writing group which, after some very lean times, has now grown to full capacity, with regular monthly meetings.  Members of The Beermat of Silence (don't ask - it's a long story and something will inevitably be lost in translation if I try to explain) should hopefully be popping up on this blog, as several of them have expressed interest in providing guest content, and sharing their own writing experiences.

I have also joined the long-established Company of Writers, and have benefitted hugely from the generosity and experience of members of both groups.

I've managed to overcome some of my spectacular nervous tics (see here for details - I'm not sure I can bear to repeat them) to read at three of the bi-monthly Story Friday events, and at a new event in Cheltenham, run by Philip Douch.

I went on an Arvon course in late 2013, and blogged about it here.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants an intensive course, and who doesn't mind drinking their own weight in wine in the process.  I also attended an extremely enlightening Royal Society of Literature masterclass, taken by Helen Dunmore, and various events at the Bath and Bristol festivals of literature.

I've been surprised at how many other writers there are in my local area.  They don't just pop up at events - they seem to lurk everywhere.  I've met fellow writers in a swimming pool and a playground and on a street corner in Bath.  I've discovered them lurking in my office, and hanging around my local magistrates' court*

*NB I am a lawyer.  I don't just hang out at court for kicks and giggles.  Nor am I regularly summonsed for misdemeanours.  Probably best to clarify that one!

I've discovered Topping & Company's incredible program of author events, and have hyperventilated at having an actual conversation with Margaret Atwood.  Although, I am prone to getting a little over-excited by things like that.  I nearly exploded when The Last Unicorn author, Peter Beagle favourited one of my tweets.....

So that was 2013.

I have no idea what 2014 holds, but I'm going to try to keep this blog updated, and to shape it into a useful resource.  If anyone has any writing-related hints or tips that they would like to share, please get in touch.  I'd be particularly interested to hear from people who are trying to make the most of very limited time, or who are juggling writing with a full-time job, or who have had a writing lightbulb moment on a course or workshop.  Local writing events and news would also be useful.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Dear Arvon...

Dear Arvon Foundation

You requested feedback on your recent short story course at your Totleigh Barton venue, but there wasn't much space on the form, so I though it appropriate to provide some further detail.  I feel I have
identified some key points which could improve the experience of future course attendees.


Consider locking the fridge at night.  Or maybe just be a little less welcoming.  This will prevent a large number of nocturnal incidents in which your clients are prevented from sleeping by a persistent little voice, whispering enticingly in their ear "Treat this as your home.  Eat anything you like from the big silver fridge."

And if there are any Geordies on the course, hide the crisps.  Northerners are often prone to a little-

Please also bear in mind that not everyone is from England and may not, therefore, be aware of the requirement for as much tea as is humanly possible to be consumed over the course of a week.  You may wish to send them some information about this, so that they can begin acclimatising.


I would propose a detailed questionnaire for all those attending your residential courses, in order to establish the precise nature of all your clients' sleep requirements.  This will probably reduce the number of minor nervous breakdowns experienced by your management team, due to multiple five-
way room swaps, all requiring an updating of the in-case-of-emergency paperwork.

Identify your insomniacs at the earliest possible opportunity, and put them in the rooms above the kitchen and off the dining room.  They will be so spectacularly hyped-up on gallons of tea and writing-related adrenaline that there is no prospect, whatsoever, of them sleeping, and can quite safely be lodged in the parts of the house most likely to be the location of midnight fridge-rummagings, early morning
gatherings and impromptu field-hospitals following the spraining of ankles.

It's probably worth asking your clients to keep a tally of the number of times they wee during the night, the week before they arrive.  You can then average out the number of nocturnal, bladder-related wanderings, and decide the most appropriate occupants for the rooms nearest the bathrooms.  No-one who wees more than once a night should be permitted to sleep in the room above the kitchen unless they sign an undertaking that they will, under no circumstances, step on the third and fifth step, between the hours of eleven and six.

Writers can't do maths.  Any room swaps should be carefully supervised by a member of staff, preferably with a note taken, and signed off in triplicate.  Otherwise all that will happen is that three people will finish up wandering around the annex, clutching bags and looking blank, while a fourth attempts to evict a puzzled, non-swap-participant from a room that was never actually involved in a set of arrangements, which are so complicated that they should probably be run by a military tactician, before being unleashed on the world.

Establish, right at the beginning of the week, if anyone is planning on falling in a ditch and spraining their ankle.  Consider placing them in a ground floor room.

Someone will lock themselves out of their room at some point.  At the first briefing, you should probably make the entire group repeat, out loud, the location of the master key.  Probably three times, at least.  And then do spot-checks.  I guarantee that none of them are listening.

Do not allow the various room-swaps to be referred to as "bed-hopping."  It gives the wrong impression.


Please correct your entire stock of dictionaries.

Jigiliaise, saxoding and yolearning are definitely words, referring, respectively, to a new, slightly saucy dance craze, the Saxon method of calling others in for dinner by "dinging" a pot with a spoon, and a complex emotion, a sort of amalgam of yearning and learning.

Hinch, however, is not a word.  No matter how many Canadians try to persuade you that it is the act
of a tall person shrugging.

Rectifying this minor etymological oversight will prevent another entirely-avoidable situation in which England loses to Canada in a game of pan-continental Scrabble.

The Pub

Do not, under any circumstances, permit anyone to leave the site after nine pm, if they have uttered the word "pub" at any point in the last twenty-four hours.  All that will happen is that they will drive around Sheepwash, accosting locals and demanding to know if they've seen a pub, before arriving just before closing-time and refusing to take the landlady's increasingly broad hints. 

When the lights are turned off, they will then sit in the dark for several moments, clutching their glasses, before asking, with an air of surprise, "Oh.  Did you want us to leave?"

When they do, eventually, leave, they will then discover the Sheepwash Book Exchange, and all attempt to crowd into the telephone box to explore the stock of Danielle Steele romances, while being frantically shushed by the designated driver, who will be the only one who has figured out that it is after midnight in a very small, very quiet village.

None of this will endear you to your neighbours.

The tutors

Vet them carefully.  Some of them are a Very Bad Influence.  They will teach your na├»ve, unsuspecting students subversive techniques for avoiding unwanted company on public transport, and other undesirable things. 

This will give Arvon a Bad Name.

It would be helpful if all tutors could be encouraged to develop a secondary skill.  This means that when the students reach writing saturation point, and their brains have turned to mush, the tutors can
provide extra value for money by entertaining them with light, unchallenging displays of artistic talent, or perhaps acrobatics.

For example, Rob Shearman can draw daleks.  In order to broaden the appeal of the Arvon courses, it would be nice if Alison Macleod could perhaps learn to draw cybermen.  Not all students are scared of Daleks.  A sizeable sample of the Short Story 2013 group were more frightened of cybermen.  Or, as one student put it, "the ones that look a bit like people."  Not terribly descriptive, perhaps, except when coupled with a rather alarming impression of something that could, just about, have been a cyberman, but could equally have been intended to represent a zombie on its last legs.

And it's understandable, really.  The Daleks were a bit rubbish.  Mainly because they could be thwarted in their attempt at world-domination by a flight of stairs, or a very small kerb.  Only residents of bungalows needed to be remotely alarmed.

It wouldn't have to be cybermen, necessarily.  Perhaps Slythin.  Or the ones that look like rhinos.  There are many Doctor Who villains to chose from.

Or maybe she could juggle.

It might also be sensible to ask tutors to undergo psychological testing before entering the intense atmosphere of a residential writing course.  Not all will be able to stand up to the pressure, and some
carefully constructed tests might weed out the type of tutor who will, for example, succumb to momentary bouts of madness, on or around day three, and demand that students insert the words "left-luggage office" and "guzzle" into a piece which has, up till that point, been a gentle musing about the philosophy of the stars.  It is fortunate that writers are a resourceful bunch, on the whole, but no-one should find themselves in a situation where they are forced to use the words "Jupiter" and "left-luggage" in one sentence.


This aspect of the course was, I'm afraid to say, an immense disappointment.

I'm not sure whether or not the Totleigh Barton management team are aware of the Chekhov's Gun theory.  This states that if a gun is mentioned in chapter one, it must, at some point in the novel, be fired.

At the initial briefing, fireman were mentioned.  At some length.  The fact that the Totleigh Barton fire alarm is directly linked to the local firestation was mentioned several times.  We were informed that the alarm has never gone off before, and that it was highly unlikely that it would do so during our time there.  A classic Chekhov's Gun, if ever I saw one.

On Friday, the fire alarm went off, due to an unfortunate incident involving some halloumi.

We accordingly assembled, expectantly, in the appointed assembling place and waited for the firemen to appear.  Someone even put on a high-viz jacket.  Although it's worth noting at this point that the mere act of donning a high-viz jacket does not a hero make, whatever the wearer of said jacket might think.

No firemen appeared.  We stood there for a while, before someone informed us that the firemen had been informed of the absence of any actual fire, and would not, therefore, be putting in an appearance.

The gun was clearly visible on the wall.  It was taken down, cleaned, loaded and pointed.  We were led to believe it would be fired.

And firemen.

I would suggest that actual firemen are produced on the next occasion.

This will avoid disappointment.

Telephone/Internet Access

A little more information about this aspect of the course would be useful.  "Somewhere between the second and third cattlegrid", while technically accurate, isn't all that descriptive.

I have drafted a suggested information sheet for those who might need to make an urgent phonecall, or pick up an email.

1)  Climb hill.

2)  Proceed past second cattlegrid.

3)  Pass through gateway and continue for approximately twenty paces (based on the average stride-length of a 5'4" female)

4)  Stop

5)  Turn phone off and on again.

6)  Repeat step 5)

7)  Take two steps sideways to the very edge of the lane.

8)  Hold phone in an elevated position and walk backwards and forwards for approximately ten seconds.

9)  Attempt to dial.

10)  Repeat step 9)

11)  Listen to voicemail.

12)  Proceed a further ten paces along the lane.

13)  Reverse step 12)

14)  Download emails.

15)  Do NOT attempt to reply.  This will not work.

16)  Phone someone and shout "I'mupahillinDevonandthephonesignalisrubbishcanyoulookupanumberforme"

17)  Repeat step 16) as necessary.

18)  Attempt to memorise number.

19)  Dial number and shout "I'mupahillinDevonIcan'temailyoubuttheanswerisyesthat'sfine."

20)  Return to the house.  You will find that the phone signal develops a strange, elastic nature and, as long as you do not hang up at any point, you will retain signal most of the way back down the hill.  This is a good time to fill in loved-ones on random details of your stay, and embark in a spot of gentle musing about the quality of the rain.  The problem with this is that you won't know whether their silence means that they have expired with boredom or that the signal has cut out.  It is therefore important to punctuate the call with occasional interjections of "Hello?  Hello? Are you still there?"

Please note that the above instructions only relate to O2 customers.  Vodaphone users will, of course, discover at an early stage that they can, in fact, receive phonecalls while standing on the windowsill in the upstairs front bedrooms.  This might be something that you wish to address.  The current situation is faintly discriminatory and ensures that O2 customers spend a lot of time wandering about in the gently-drizzling rain, absorbing the idea, deep down in their fractured souls, that they are, and always will be, on the signal-less side of life.

Perhaps it might just be a good idea to confiscate all phones at the beginning of the week.  It's so much easier to embrace the complete lack of hope, if everyone around you is similarly hopeless.

Hallucinatory Drugs

I think you probably need to have the place surveyed for any strange gases or mushrooms.  Several fellow residents were quite clearly under the influence of some sort of intense hallucinatory substance by the end of the week.  I suspect it had a cumulative effect - like that stuff in the Hound of the Baskervilles.

If the source of the problem cannot be identified, perhaps a gentle debriefing session could be arranged for those who are worst-affected.  You know, the ones that are convinced that they were involved in a three am tutorial session with some strangely-named, probably Freudian, versions of the course tutors.  Or the ones who develop a strange obsession with a disembodied voice, or a soggy wasp.


I am fairly sure that your insurance limits the number of people that you can accommodate in the barn at any given time.  You might, therefore, wish to look into the unexplained and alarming Friday-night presence of assorted dubious characters: a stiff-legged man, a couple of cannibals, some women of uncertain morals, a philandering policeman, a maybe-angel and a once-was-angel, an almost-ghost, a witch, a wolf, a juggler, some moonlight wanderers.

I'm not saying we didn't enjoy their presence, simply that, no matter how engaging and diverting we found them, they did rather fill the place, and this almost certainly has implications in terms of fire safety and potential insurance claims.


Please do remind your guests that they are, at the start of the week at least, strangers to one another.  They should be very aware of what they choose to share.  They should probably be advised to stop talking after one glass of wine, rather than continuing to spill their innermost secrets and most embarrassing disclosures.

The other guests may not have their best interests at heart, and residents should make sure that they carefully scrutinise any advice given to them during this week.  For example, should any resident, who discloses the fact that she has embarrassed herself with exactly the same, particularly stupid comment to a well-known author on two separate occasions, be advised to track down said well-known author, ring her doorbell and explain herself yet again, the resident should probably be offered some help in analysing this advice, and deciding whether or not to act upon it.  Particularly if the advisers also express a wish to be notified of this visit in advance, in order to come along and film it for the internet.

Perhaps guests could be encouraged to draft a short disclaimer, for fellow attendees to sign, confirming that, in the event of any member of the course becoming a famous and celebrated novelist, other guests will refrain from disclosing, on the eve of the Man Booker Prize announcement, the embarrassing anecdote that was shared, somewhere between the third and fourth glass of wine, on the second night.


Guests should be reminded to bring a large amount of paper.  There will be more information than they could possibly have foreseen.  Failure to write it all down will lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth upon their return home, as they try to remember that one, tiny life-changing piece of information disclosed at 11.03am on Day Two, aware that nothing else so profound and important will ever enter their lives again, and that the whole of their existence has been rendered meaningless and monochrome, all due to the fact that they thought "Don't worry, there's no way I'm going to forget that," never realising that their heads would have exploded messily by the end of the third day, leaving no room for anything but the most casual contemplation as to whether another cup of tea would be a good idea.

So, to conclude, thank you Arvon, for a wonderful week.  But please do consider acting upon this feedback in order to improve the experience of all future guests.

Yours sincerely

A Very Happy Punter