Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

How well do you know your bookshelf?

Hello internet!

I have missed you. Due to the new schedule, it has been aeons since Tobias allowed me to post anything. But now my patience has paid off, and I have you all to myself for a week!

’tis the Christmas season, and if you’re a writer who goes through the gift-giving traditions of Christmas every year, you’re probably expecting to find at least one book under the tree.

I love acquiring books, and I am hopeful of my chances of acquiring some more on December 25th. But I seem to acquire them at a much faster rate than I can actually read them.

Unlike many writers, I didn’t really discover the joys of reading until I was already in my twenties. In my teenage years I fairly scorned reading (apart from Star Trek apocrypha) and thought, with the arrogance only possible in teenagers, that I didn’t have anything to learn from contemporary authors, even those writing the kind of books that I wanted to write.

Since leaving university I’ve come around to accepting that I am the merest novice, and I’ve learnt to welcome the lessons in the art of writing that can be gleaned from devouring as much fiction as possible. As such, I buy a lot of books. If I see rave reviews of a fantasy novel by an author I haven’t heard of, I’ll usually order it on Amazon (or get my bookseller sister to get it for me half-price 😉 ). I also have a big back-catalogue of classic fantasy to get through. Until a year ago, I hadn’t read anything by Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, and I have a lot of catching up to do to get through all of the excellent fantasy that was published during my arrogant teenage years, or indeed before I was born. And as a history graduate who wants to write fantasy that’s very historically-informed, I also buy a lot academic texts.

All of this tends to pile up.

My Desk
I apologise wholeheartedly to any readers with OCD

Currently, amidst the ever-expanding entropy of discarded chocolate wrappers, scrap paper, unwashed teacups, and loose change on my desk, I have unearthed:

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Herodotus’s Histories
  • Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Arabian-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (artfully arranged here on top of a novelty flashing Santa hat)
  •  The City Stained Red by Sam Skyes
  • Simon Armitage’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom
  • Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman, on long-term loan from my sister’s boyfriend
  • The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
  • The Incorruptables by John Hornor Jacobs
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
  • Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
  • The 722-page academic behemoth Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James
  • William Shakespeare’s ‘The Empire Striketh Back’ by Ian Doescher

And (inexplicably) the dog-eared manual for Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, a PC game which came out in 2002, and which I haven’t played for at least half as long…

On top of all of those estimable volumes, though, is The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, and therein lies the problem.

Thirteen Gun Salute

Out of that entire list of books, I have read only three from cover-to-cover: The Empire Striketh Back, (because it’s hilarious) Throne of the Crescent Moon, (because it’s amazing) and ThIncorruptables (because I read it one sitting and couldn’t put it down). The rest are lying about forlornly under sheafs of paper, in various stages of chronic neglect. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having finished the meatier academic books on the list, but I feel a certain guilt about seeing The Iron Ship or The Promise of Blood accumulating dust when I’ve only peered inside their covers once or twice before putting them down in favour of another book. And the ‘other book’ is almost invariably by Patrick O’Brian.

I love Patrick O’Brian. The Times called him ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’, and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you don’t believe me, just listen to award-nominated British YA and adult author Lou Morgan! (who I follow on Twitter!)

Lou Morgan
Heed her words

For those who don’t know (and there can’t be very many of you, given how many times I’ve mentioned him on this blog), Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, a series of historical novels starting with Master and Commander and ending with The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. It’s always hard to describe a series without bias (and without going into too much detail) when you think it’s among the greatest works of literature ever conceived by the human mind and committed into prose, but I’ll try.

At their core, the Aubrey/Maturin books are about a Royal Navy captain in the Napoleonic wars, and his friend, a surgeon and scientist who is also a shadowy operative for Britain’s intelligence services. The series is naval military history at it’s very best, but it is also so much more than that. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin go on voyages around the world, confounding the naval enterprises of Napoleon, but also struggling to overcome the human faults that make them into such interesting characters. Jack struggles with his weight, his finances, and his conceptions of honour, while Maturin suffers the ravages of drug addiction, depression, torn loyalties, and an unstable marriage. Their adventures are a sublime journey through history and through the human condition, with bold forays into naval warfare, but also into romance, philosophy, scientific discovery, and abstract existential musings on every subject under the sun. They’ve become two of my favourite characters in fiction.

Most of the action takes place on ships at sea, which is a setting that O’Brian brought to life in vivid detail, drawing on his amazing reservoir of technical knowledge about the age of sail. His characters navigate the world, crossing oceans, rounding Cape Horn and passing through the freezing southern latitudes in almost every voyage, against a constant backdrop of everyday naval life:

‘the old pattern fell into place again, and the ship’s routine, disrupted by the violent, perilous race eastward through sixty degrees of longitude, soon became the natural way of life once more, with it’s unyaring diet, the cleaning of the decks before full daylight, the frequent call for sweepers throughout the day, the piping of the hands to witness punishment on Wednesdays (reprimand or deprivation of grog; no flogging so far in this ocean), the ritual washing of clothes and the hoisting of clothes-lines on Mondays and Fridays, quarters every weekday with a certain amount of live firing still, mustering by divisions on Sunday, followed sometimes by the reading of the Articles of War

…Day after day they travelled slowly over a vast disk of sea, perpetually renewed; and when, as the Diane was approaching Capricorn at four knots, Captain Aubrey ended church with the words ‘World without end, amen’, he might have been speaking of this present voyage: sea, sea and then more sea, with no more beginning and no more end than the globe itself.’

As a reader, it’s easy to let yourself be lulled into the same comfortable routine as the characters. The books are laced together with masterful character arcs and strands of overarching narrative that draw you gently onwards, making it easy to coast from one book to the next without intending to.

This can become a little bit of a problem, considering the length of the series.

O’Brien wrote twenty Aubrey/Maturin books before he died, leaving another unfinished. Twenty-and-a-half books is a lot of books. I’ve been reading this epic saga since January and I still haven’t got further than the fourteenth installment. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and I’m sure that my own writing has benefited immeasurably, but I’m beginning to wonder if too much exposure to one author’s writing style can start to be a bad thing. 

For writers, reading books is necessarily a case of monkey see, monkey do. You can tell what an author has been reading by looking for clues in their own writing, the same way that forensic scientists can find out what someone’s been eating by analysing their hair. After reading his books for almost a year, all of the clues in my writing point to Patrick O’Brian.

Everybody has a favourite author, but I think it’s important to diversify the books you read, just as it’s important to…diversify the foods you eat…if you want to have strong hair….?  This metaphor is creaking slightly, but I hope you understand what I mean.

The late great Sir Terry Pratchett said that authors should ‘read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees’, and the best way to do that is probably to venture out into the forest and look at as many different trees as possible, rather than admiring the same tree over and over again because you like it’s particular shape or the way that the moss grows on it. As such, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tear myself away from the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, and launch some exploratory forays of my own, into the umplumbed depths of my bookcase, uprooting lost books from the bottom of piles and actually getting around to reading them. I may blog about the results. And I encourage you to do the same!

Short Story: Lakebed

Hello, internet!

None of my usual meandering thoughtpieces this week. Instead, I present a short story!  The original idea was actually based on Tobias’ story prompt from yesterday – the idea of magic versus science – but in the execution, I never actually got as far as introducing magic. Perhaps I’ll post the next instalment some time in the future. Enjoy!


LAKEBED

underwater starship

Putting the Canyon Diver on the bottom of a lake really hadn’t been the best start to Maz’s day.

After she’d checked herself for broken bones and made sure that the cockpit was still watertight, she’d spent nearly an hour trying to cold-start the TC drive and put the spark of life back into her engines, swearing at the Canyon Diver in four different languages and fighting with the ignition switches until her thumbs were raw. She only gave up hope when the batteries ran dry and the cockpit lights cut out, plunging her into abject darkness. She heard the fading whine of the atmospheric reconditioner cycling down, and she knew that she was totally fucked.

Pragmatically, she only had about fifteen minutes before she ran out of air. She sat for a long moment with her boots on the pedals and her hands on the control columns, staring into the abyss, until a voice in her head told her that she was going to have to leave the ship behind if she wanted to live. Her bones screamed in protest. But what were the alternatives? She was half-buried in lakebed muck under fifty feet of water, with no power and no oxygen. There was an emergency beacon in her survival kit, but if she set it off, she’d only attract the same Seven Systems cruiser that shot her down in the first place. She wasn’t much of a martyr, but being captured would only lead to her being handed over to the praetorians. Oxygen deprivation would be a far more comfortable death.

With no power, there was only one way out. She managed to make her hands unclench from the controls, then to unbuckle her harness, and grope beneath her seat for the survival kit. She tried not to think about what she was doing. Or about how long she’d owned the Canyon Diver. Or about how it had been a gift from Hera, to apologise for a row they’d had, a few weeks before Hera got herself killed. Or about how it had saved her life twenty times over since then, even though she didn’t fly it half as well as Hera ever did. The little ship’s bright blue hull had acquired a lot more scratches, dents, pockmarks and plasma burns since Maz became its pilot.

She was biting back tears by the time she got the survival kit open, but she managed not to cry or vomit. There would be plenty of time for crying and vomiting once she wasn’t at the bottom of a lake.

The kit folded out into pouches and strips of webbing, which she slipped awkwardly over her shoulders, hitting her elbow against the Canyon Diver’s canopy in the process. It made her stomach clench to think that she’d never hit her elbow on that canopy ever again. Unless she did it in the last five minutes, which was more plausible than she cared to admit.

Once the kit was fastened up she reached to her hip and pulled out her Aegis multitool from its holster, taking comfort from its pebble smoothness against her hand. The status light flashed, casting the whole cockpit in a momentary green light, to show that the biolock recognised her DNA. She thanked the Sisters for that small mercy. Now would have been a terrible time for her Aegis to break.

The first thing she did was to switch on the tools’ flashlight setting. Light returned, white and blinding. Once she’d blinked away the afterimage from her retinas, she moved the light over the small panel of analogue instruments on the control bank. The lake had been broiling around her when the Canyon Diver plunged into it, still hot from its descent through the atmosphere, but now the water temperature was dropping again. Once she was out she’d have to get on dry land and warm herself up as quickly as possible.

But first she had to get there. Which meant getting outside the ship. The water pressure outside the hull wasn’t registering as high enough to crush her to death or break any ribs, but it would be too great for her to open any of the hatches. She had to equalise the pressure first. And she could only think of one way to do that, off the top of her head.

If she thought of another, more sensible way, sometime later, she was going to feel really stupid.

She ran her thumb over the controls on her Aegis to activate the tool’s photon maser setting. Then she took a few deep breaths, looked around the Cave Diver for the last time, and thought about Hera.

Hera had been an awful, wonderful human being. Maz hated her, most of all for getting herself killed.

Maz aimed the Aegis, squeezed the trigger, and blew a giant hole in the canopy. Part of her imagined that she was shooting Hera. But then frigid water hit her in the face like a five-tonne block of ice.

Bad guys are people too

Hello internet,

I’ve been on a bit of a Star Wars binge recently

Neeeeerd

Yes, yes, we established that two weeks ago. Keep up.

Anyway, it’s probably just because of the new trailers coming out for The Force Awakens and Battlefront – but I’m hyped. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 2003, when I was ten years old and the original Clone Wars cartoon (not the CGI series) was airing in five-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network. At the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was produced by Genndy Tartakovksy, who also produced Samurai Jack, and it had the same pacing style and the same gorgeous animation. Minimalist but seamlessly functional, with as little exposition as possible, focusing on sharp bursts of action broken up by long periods of quiet suspense, with casual acts of badassery thrown in, and interjections of funny dialogue. Looking back, it was probably a big influence on my writing style. Except I need to learn to be a bit more economical with my exposition.

I can highly recommend watching it. It’s all on YouTube, and it puts the CGI follow-up series to shame. (And it is, so far, the only media from the Star Wars universe to feature high-velocity speeder bike jousting.)

But this post wasn’t supposed to be about Clone Wars. I watched the series again this week, as well as playing through some of my old favourite Star Wars video games and watching the original film trilogy, and I enjoyed them as much as ever.

I’ve harboured secret desires to be a Jedi ever since I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi leaping off that speeder bike, but one of the things that’s always fascinated me about the Star Wars universe is the minor characters. Particularly, in the original movies, the officers and starship crews of the Imperial Navy. Maybe it’s just superb acting from one or two minor actors, but I’ve always found them to be quite tragic characters, in their own way. I’m thinking mainly of Admiral Piett and Commander Jerjerrod. You remember Commander Jerjerrod?

Jerjerrod

In their minds, they’re serving their emperor, bringing order and justice to a galaxy which is full of “scum and villainy” even by the appraisal of Master Kenobi, who’s apparently the most philosophically enlightened being in the entire universe, given his power to become one with the living force and appear as a glowy blue ghost. The opening scrawl of Episode IV denounces the Galactic Empire categorically as “evil”, but it probably doesn’t seem like an evil organisation to the men who work for it. The Old Republic was more democratic, but it was also more corrupt: corruption which has been swept away by the New Order. Under the empire, does the galaxy still have the problem of huge militarised corporations laying siege to planets which won’t agree to exploitative trading rights, while the politicians – many of them with Trade Federation credits in their pockets – bicker over an appropriate response? Is slavery still common practice on the outer rim worlds? It doesn’t seem like it, from what we see in the original trilogy.

I’m not trying to make the case that the empire are the good guys (even though I do always play as the empire on Battlefront 2 and Empire at War). They did, after all, perpetuate genocide on a planetary scale. And more importantly, they’re supposed to be the bad guys. That’s their function in the story. But what I like is that not every servant of the Galactic Empire actually seems like a ‘bad guy’. Palpatine’s supposed to be maleficence given form, and I’m prepared to believe that he has a core group of supporters and agents whose motivations are wholly evil. But the wider empire must be held together by billions of front-line officers who think that they’re the good guys, or else they wouldn’t get out of bed every morning, pull on their jackboots, and report for duty. For people like Piett and Jerjerrod, the empire probably seems like a breath of fresh air, and Palpatine probably seems like a hero: a reformer who finally made sure that the galactic government had the ability to end corruption and exercise real power to end slavery and other shady practices on the outer rim worlds.

My point – and yes, I do actually have one – is that as writers of any genre, it’s important (and often very rewarding) to make sure that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t uniformly evil. Even if they’re the ones wearing evil uniforms. A multifaceted presentation of any large group is always better than a flat, uniform depiction, but that’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a large organisation or empire that serves as the antagonist in your story. I get bored very quickly if the “good guys” in a story are all morally upstanding paragons of virtue – in Star Wars, we have figures like Han Solo to prevent that from happening – but I get disinterested even more quickly if the “bad guys” are carbon-copy evil scumbags from the emperor of the galaxy all the way down to the lowliest stormtrooper. Shades of grey are always more believable, and more entertaining. Misplaced loyalty from fundamentally honourable characters can be very compelling. Particularly if those characters start to suspect that they might be on the wrong side of history.

This is what I like about Piett and Jerjerrod, and to a lesser extent the regular officers on the command bridge of Darth Vader’s star destroyer, who look up from their stations in terror whenever he billows past. Not only do they seem like semi-decent human beings (or, at least, we never see them do anything outright evil without it seeming like they’re conflicted about it), but when we see them come into close contact with the leaders of the empire – Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself – we see that their loyalties begin to waver. They begin to wonder whether they want to be on the same side as people who are willing to commit such foul acts. In any story that depicts people fighting for a cause that they believe in, I’m always interested to see people stop and question their loyalties.

So I have a writing challenge for you, this week. Go and read whatever story you’re writing, or one you’ve already written. Look at the “bad guys”, whoever they are, whether they’re an evil interplanetary empire or just one person who serves as your book’s primary antagonist. Remain conscious of their motivations, and ask yourself whether they’re certain of what they’re doing. Is certainty realistic? Look at the good guys as well. Could you improve your story by making them more doubtful of their actions? I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments!

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Multiple irons in multiple fires

Hello internet!

I’m posting on Tuesday this week because I was travelling over the weekend. My thanks to Lorien for covering my usual slot.

I am in Poland! I’m visiting Selayna, one of the other authors here on the Art of Writing, who’ve I’ve been friends with for almost a decade without ever actually meeting her face-to-face. It transpires that she’s just as nice in person as she is over the internet.

Selayna and I actually met through an online text-based Star Trek roleplaying game.

Neeeeerds

Yes, we’re nerds. Remember that I willingly flew sixteen hours to attend a convention called NerdCon last weekend. 

Anyway if you’re curious about how text-based roleplaying works, it’s like writing a book, but only having control over a handful of characters. All of the other characters are written by other players, and the other players control their actions and decisions, like in a D&D game. I’ve been running our game, the Starship Intrepid, since 2007, albeit with irregular updates and long periods of inactivity. I’ve let several months pass since the last time I was active in the RP, and since I arrived in Poland, Selayna has been badgering me to put more time and effort into it, so that she can get back to playing some of the characters that she loves writing for. I’m beginning to think that her invitation to visit her in Poland might just have been a clever ploy to get me in the same country so that she could accost me and demand more roleplaying…

There are plenty of characters in the RP that I love writing for as well, and nothing beats the feeling of taking command of a starship and exploring strange new worlds through the medium of prose (save for doing it in real life), but I have to admit to some feelings of hesitancy about the idea of getting back into the saddle and re-immersing myself in the comfortable creative environment of the Star Trek universe.

I spent most of my teenage years devoting my creative energies to roleplays and fan fiction based on Star Trek, and I don’t regret a moment of it, but I do sometimes wish that I’d written some more of my own material. As a teenager, I didn’t finish very many pieces of writing based on my own ideas. I only really started to make progress on my own stories, set in my own fictional universes, once I went to uni and fell out of the habit of regular roleplaying. And then whenever the lure of roleplaying calls me back to the bridge of the Intrepid, it seems that my own writing tends to suffer.

I don’t think that roleplaying is the root of the problem here. I think my main problem is that I’m very bad at having multiple irons in multiple fires, and giving them all the attention that they deserve. I’ve made it clear in some of my earlier posts that I’m not the world’s most disciplined writer, and that’s definitely something that I need to work on, but what interests me about this problem is the difficulty of budgeting my creative enthusiasm. If I start to get into a Star Trek frame of mind, I can very quickly find myself falling down the rabbit hole. Before I know it I’m spending all of my free time roleplaying, agonising over minor aesthetic changes to the site where we host the game, writing out rules and guides to good Star Trek RPing, creating image prompts and character avatars in Photoshop, and generally expending all of my creative energies trying to build the best roleplaying environment that I can imagine. I usually enjoy this process, and produce good writing as a result, but ultimately my other projects suffer. Going back to the metaphor of having different irons in different fires, I end up with one beautiful piece of steelwork (that I can’t sell), at the cost of neglecting the others, which melt and warp and distort in their fires.

But it doesn’t end there. Sometimes I can be in the spiralling depths of a roleplaying binge when I consume another piece of media that isn’t Star Trek – a movie set in the Age of Sail or a young adult novel about teenagers struggling with their existential crises in the modern world – and it suddenly shifts my attention. It feels as though someone has taken a magnet and shifted the poles of my creative compass, and I will launch with equal zeal into the epic fantasy series that I’m writing, or an entirely new project, or one plucked from the backburner of books that I’d like to write but keep putting off until later. When this happens, roleplaying tends to stop. And if I’m working on a book at the same time, then that tends to stop as well.

Perhaps I just have a short attention span and I need to work on fortifying my focus, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. For me, striking a healthy balance between different hobbies and creative projects can prove very difficult. I want to throw this one open to comments – do you have similar problems? Do you find that you get obsessively carried away with individual projects, or that you can only truly devote yourself to one project at once? Or are you more of a multitasker, capable of writing three books at the same time? I’d love to know!

NerdCon: Stories, and disassociating the dream of “being a writer” from the practice of actually writing

Hello, internet!

Sorry that Tobias had to cover for me on Sunday, but I had a good reason.

I am a Nerdfighter. If you don’t know what a Nerdfighter is then this video may, or indeed may not, help.

I’ve been a devout follower of Hank and John Green for over a year now. That means I’m very late to the game compared with other Nerdfighters, some of whom have been subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel since it’s creation in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, Hank and John started out recording daily video blogs – some magnificently silly, others serious and thought-provoking – and have slowly expanded their online aegis into a vast array of web series, charity fundraising efforts, and educational shows about science and history. Hank Green also runs VidCon, a huge convention for online content creators. Their self-ascribed mission is to fight worldsuck wherever it may be, and make sure that nobody ever forgets to be awesome.

As well as a Nerdfighter I’m also a writer, and an aspiring author. So when Hank Green announced that he was going to use his famed convention-creating abilities to throw together an event that celebrated stories and the human capacity for narrative thought, I was beyond thrilled.

Initially it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go. NerdCon: Stories was being held in Minneapolis, from which I was separated by a not-insubstantial ocean.

Probably sharks

Even if I could somehow cross the Atlantic, tickets to NerdCon were limited. And there was also the small problem of being in a job that didn’t pay very well and didn’t give me much time off to attend fun conventions. My prospects seemed bleak.

Fortunately, my former employer dealt with both of those problems in one fell swoop, by making me unemployed and paying me my last month’s wages without expecting me to come into work. With free time and money to spend, I decided that NerdCon would be worth the cost. I think I might have been the only British person who thought so, although I did run into someone from the Republic of Ireland. (At a vending machine. He wanted to know if $3.50 was too much to pay for a bottle of soda, and out of all of the attendees in the Minneapolis Convention Centre he managed by sheer chance to ask the only other non-American. I had to tell him that I didn’t know.)

As well as the vlogbrothers, NerdCon had a heap of featured guests whose names might be more familiar to you. I spent the weekend soaking up the imparted wisdom of heavyweight sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Holly Black, and being entertained by humorists, musicians, and creators like Paul & Storm and Darin Ross (the genius behind Superfight). 

Despite the theme of the conference, I don’t want to just tell you the story of what happened at NerdCon. I could write a 10,000 word post about all of the technical writing advice that I got from just one of the panels, or a long thought-piece dwelling on all of the ramifications of the discussion into the ethics of writing that Patrick Rothfuss led on the last day of the conference. (How many deaths from lung cancer can be causally attributed to the romanticised depiction of tobacco-smoking in the early chapters of The Hobbit?) The morning and evening shows in the main auditorium were enrapturing, full of poetry and theatre and comedy and messages every day about why stories matter. I was moved to tears by the power of John Green’s address on how we should never look down upon fiction that allows us to escape ourselves when our own bodies start to feel like our own private prisons. As someone who’s had my own bitter struggles with depression and anxiety, I knew exactly what he meant.

I can talk about all of that stuff in later posts, if that’s what people want. What I’d like to write about now is the changes that I started to notice in my own attitudes to writing, over the course of the conference. I took a lot away from NerdCon that wasn’t in the program (including a lot of happy memories and a nasty case of con flu), but I think that Hank Green was kind of hoping that everyone would leave NerdCon feeling like they attended a slightly different convention, and that they’d all draw their own narrative conclusions from it. Here are mine.

NerdCon was an excellent resource for any aspiring author, with the featured guests offering a huge amount of very practical advice that I can take away and apply directly to my own writing. For me, though, it also had the potential to be a bit of a trap. This was not NerdCon’s fault at all – it was mine – but the problem was only compounded by the warmth and personability of the featured guests. I felt like I’d made friends with all of them by Saturday night, even though part of my brain knew that it was a fundamentally unequal relationship. I didn’t go to any signings or smaller meetings where they might have learnt my name or formed an impression of me, and even if I had, I would still have just been one fan among 3,000. But being in a friendly environment with these successful writers for a whole weekend made me feel like I could bask a little in their fame and success. The mere act of being at NerdCon gave me a sense of authorial gratification that was perhaps undeserved. “Here I am, at a writer’s convention”, I could think, as I rocked up at the conference centre with my cup of coffee each morning. “With real successful writers, just like I’m going to be one day.” I watched them on stage, enjoying their well-earned limelight, and delusions of grandeur began to take root in my mind. I began to wonder how long it would be before I (inevitably) got invited to speak at writing conventions. I imagined myself on stage with the panellists when they played Superfight. Instead of listening to their advice in panels, I started to let myself think of the kind of advice that I would give if I was sitting in their place.

And eventually, after I’d wasted a lot of time doing this, I remembered how many other attendees there were in the room. They were all writers too, some of them far further down the road to publication and financial success than I was, and I realised that I was being an idiot. Daydreaming about success was very gratifying, but it was ultimately completely useless.

The latest page of Wondermark, a webcomic that I adore, sums this up nicely.

2015-10-06-1164novel

Unlike the aspirant novelist in the comic, I did actually manage to write something at NerdCon, which I was hoping to read out at one of the open mic events (alas, they were fully booked before I had the chance to sign up). But that doesn’t vindicate me at all if I still go away from NerdCon and spend the next week daydreaming about how amazing it will be when I’m a famous author on stage at a writing convention. I should be striking while the iron is hot, writing as much as I can while the advice and inspiration from all of the speakers is still fresh in my mind.

Perhaps this conclusion might seem totally self-evident to the writers who were speaking at NerdCon, and many of the other attendees, if they were to read it. Perhaps the panellists never had this problem themselves, because they didn’t have any delusions of grandeur to start with. Perhaps when fame came to them it was as a genuine surprise, rather than the achievement of something that they’d aspired towards since they’d first decided that they wanted to write books. Perhaps they just set out with realistic expectations, pressed their noses to the grindstone, and worked tirelessly over the course of years and decades to produce some truly excellent books. And that’s exactly what I need to do. Statistically speaking, not everyone who attended the conference and heard the panellists speak is going to end up as a financially successful author, even if they are naturally talented writers. I think the ones who do succeed are probably going to be the ones who sit down at their writing desks and banish any thought of fame and glory from their minds. At least until after they’ve published something.

I suppose it’s possible that all of the other attendees were already fully intending to do that, and I was the only one narcissistic enough to get wrapped up in wondering how I’d answer when attendees at future conventions asked me about my writing process. But I’ll post this anyway, just in case there’s anyone else like me, who needs a cold shower to get the thoughts of fame out of their head, and a motivational boot up the arse to get them back to their writing.


NerdCon itself was wonderful, and I could go on for weeks about it. If you have any questions, or you’d like me to post some of the notes I made during the panels, then please let me know in the comments!

What are the best life circumstances for the successful writer?

Hello, internet!

I have a slightly shorter post for you today, to atone for last week’s epic uberpost.

I’ve written before about whether it’s necessary or remotely useful for writers to make ourselves suffer for our art, and how important it is to persist through tough ruts in pursuit of our dreams. Today I want to talk about the best lifestyle for an aspiring author. I don’t have any definitive answers – if I did, I wouldn’t have to write blog posts trying to puzzle them out – but I can share a few observations.

I recently lost my job, when my company downsized their operations and cut half the staff. I wasn’t particularly upset about this, because I hadn’t really been enjoying the job. I spent the last few months working there daydreaming about my book, writing reliably most evenings, and thinking that if I didn’t have to go to my stupid job every day then I could increase my creative productivity by about 1000%. I even found myself writing snippets of my story in a scaled down window whenever my manager was out of the room. In retrospect, this might have been one of the reasons that I was on the list of employees made redundant. But I maintain that it was worth it.

Fortunately I have supportive parents who are letting me fall back on them while I regroup and look for other job opportunities. I have to admit that, in the first few days of unemployment, I had soaring hopes for my productivity. “Between now and finding another job,” I thought, “I’ll have half a book written.”

In the weeks since then I’ve learnt an important lesson, which I’ve expressed pictorially below.

being-a-good-writer-is-3-percent-talent-97-percent-not-being-distracted-by-the-internet-writing-meme-photo-kill-your-darlings-atl1

I haven’t found another job yet, but I certainly haven’t written half a book, either. My old employers paid me for my notice period without making me work it, so I effectively got an extra month’s salary. They could have been paying me to write. Instead they ended up paying me to level up on Skyrim and conquer half of India on Empire: Total War.

(And attend a writing course, and go to a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wasn’t a complete layabout. But let’s pretend I was, because that makes for better narrative progression.)

I can’t explain exactly how this transpired, given my intentions. I spent a little time being hard on myself and accusing myself of barefaced laziness and weak-willed procrastination but that didn’t really achieve much either, and after a while I got to wondering whether having wall-to-wall free time is actually the best environment for an author to work in.

Perhaps this is only true for people of a certain persuasion who share my weaknesses for playing video games…and reading webcomics…and scrolling through Tumblr…and watching livestreams…but I think too much free time can be a bad thing. It allows you to put off your writing indefinitely, to after you’ve eaten, or after you’ve read a chapter of your book, or to tomorrow, or to next week. Unless you’re a naturally disciplined person, having more free time just encourages you to waste it. You end up becoming a vegetable. An unproductive vegetable.

veggie brain

Now that I lack the strict daily routine enforced by my job, I almost miss it. Having a set, limited number of free hours every evening where I could write encouraged me to use those hours as productively as possible, because I knew that if I didn’t write anything then, I wouldn’t end up writing anything at all. But a 9-5 routine can be counterproductive as well. Sometimes when you’ve had an exhausting day at work, you just want to come home and crash like a regular human being who isn’t trying to write a book. Successful superhuman writers seem to just learn how to soldier on through evenings like this, often with the help of alcohol or other stimulants, until they’ve finished writing their books. And that knowledge can be very daunting for aspiring authors who aren’t quite as battle-hardened. If we have a rough day at work and get home feeling dead on our feet, it’s natural to want to collapse in a heap and binge watch our favourite shows on Netflix. But we end up feeling guilty, because we know that if we do that every night, we’re never going to get around to writing anything. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. Even on the nights where I procrastinate, I don’t end up enjoying myself.

There must be some sort of midpoint – some way of having a good routine without completely surrendering our freedom to just collapse and vegetate every so often. The best way I can think of is probably academia. I didn’t write much myself while I was at university, but I mostly forgive myself for that. I spent most of my time stressing about my deadlines, or playing video games to flee from deadlines, and dealing with mental illness, compounded by a very unhealthy romantic relationship with an abusive partner. Obviously these weren’t the ideal circumstances for writing, let alone completing my degree. But if you can afford to stay in the academic bubble, without going through all of the extra drama that I did, I can imagine that it might be a good way of sustaining your writing. You have regular contact hours and plenty of other work to do to stop you from vegetating, but you also have enough free time to get a few hours of writing done every day, and still have some genuine free time at the end of it if you budget wisely.

I’m lucky to live in the UK where higher education is relatively cheap, and I’m lucky to have parents who will let me leech off them when I’m unemployed. All of my lucking out has reminded me of how much harder it must be for aspiring authors who don’t have the same opportunities. Small wonder that we see such a disproportionate number of white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender, college-educated men from wealthy backgrounds getting their books published and winning Hugo awards, when it’s so much easier for them to devote time to writing and editing. Authors who don’t fit that description are playing the game on a much harder difficulty setting, straight from the intro sequence all the way through to the final boss level. I know that a lot of readers might not have the luxury of staying in college or spending a few weeks leisurely unemployed. A gruelling 9-5 job, or worse, might be your only option. But if you’re in that camp then I hope you can take some solace from the fact that, in my experience, the daily grind actually encourages productivity.

As I said, I don’t know any answers. But I think the ideal lifestyle for writers is one that strikes a balance. You have to be jealous about protecting your free time and making sure that you have the headspace that you need to be creative every day, or at least to churn out a few hundred words. But you also need to make sure that you marshal your free time and use it effectively. From my own recent experience of unemployment, that process becomes a lot easier when you actually have less free time to work with. You know you have to use it wisely.

wisely use your time

So if you’re going back to your day job tomorrow thinking “if only I was at home, I could be writing right now” – ask yourself, would you really be writing? Or are you going to write a lot more effectively when you get home at the end of the workday and only have five or six hours to write before you go to bed?  I know which is true for me!

Anatomy of a writing course

Hello, internet!

Last week I posted a brief, muffled endorsement of the Arvon Foundation and their very fine writing courses, from beneath the proverbial bedclothes under which I’d crawled until I recovered from the substantial hangover that I’d accrued during the week. Now I think I owe it to all of you, and indeed to the Arvon Foundation, to go into some more detail. This post will probably end up being much longer, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it’s like to attend a residential writing course, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it would be a good investment for you.

I decided a fair while ago that if I was going to take this writing malarkey seriously (and give potential employers the impression that I was taking it seriously), I was going to have to do one or both of two things: get a short story published in a fantasy anthology (I’m still working on that one), and/or attend a creative writing course. At the time, I thought about it mostly as CV padding: in my ill-deserved arrogance, I assumed that there wasn’t much that a writing course could teach me about the art of writing which I wouldn’t already know. How wrong I was.

It’s funny how these things come about. A few months ago, I did an internship with an academic publishing company, and I found out that their chief book editor was an aspiring writer, far further down the line than I was in terms of having prepared her manuscript, and gauged interest from a few agents and publishers. I sat down for a short conversation with her where I asked her about her experiences as a writer and hungrily jotted down almost every word she said, not caring about the vague awkwardness of the meeting – a mere intern ruthlessly grilling one of the senior editors of the company – so long as I gleaned a few useful morsels of advice out of it. She said a lot of interesting things about her writing habits and the best day-job to pursue if I wanted to become a full-time writer, but the most useful thing she said was “do a creative writing course.” She’d attended one herself, and she had only the most glowing praise for Arvon, the company who’d orchestrated it. I was initially sceptical, but I was surprised to learn that Arvon had a writing centre only about an hour’s drive from where I live. She’d gone to the same centre herself. And when she told me about how much it had boosted her confidence as a writer, I started to come around to the idea.

It was only recently that I booked the course. I paid the £750, filed the absence form at work, and was called into the manager’s office a day or two later to be told “Well, seeing as you’re off on your holidays soon enough, we thought we’d best give you the bad news now.”  So when I turned up on the doorstep of the Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Craven Arms, it was in a slightly more advanced state of unemployment than I’d been anticipating. But the beautiful venue helped me to forget about my redundancy pretty quickly.

House

The Hurst was once the home of the English playwright John Osborne, famous for originating the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement in British literature. I confess to never having read any of his work, but after living in his house for a week I can at least attest that he had good taste in architecture and interior decorating. There was also no WiFi and no mobile phone signal. This came as no surprise to me, having lived in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside for most of my teenaged life, but it did make me think about how a writing course in an isolated mansion would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. I will be logging that idea away for if I ever want to write a quick best-seller.

Fortunately, nobody died (A sentence which I’m sure Arvon will be plastering all over their promotional material if they read this review). The first night consisted solely of getting to know the other writers on the course, along with the authors who’d be tutoring us over the course of the week. Arvon has a colourful carousel of different authors who they bring in for different courses throughout the year, and my tutors were Christopher Wakling and Anjali Joseph, authors of some very fine works of contemporary literature. The other writers on the course were from all walks of life: there were practicing journalists, one or two graduates doing slightly better than me in the world of employment, a few full-time mothers, and a brace of happy retirees looking to polish off their books now that they were free of the trammels of the daily grind.

Upon arrival, I felt a little like I’d misunderstood the brief of the course. It had been advertised to writers with a “work in progress”, and I’d taken this to mean writers past the point of embarkation, still moulding the first drafts of their book and viewing publication as a distant dream rather than an imminent possibility. I turned out to be in the minority. Most of the people on the course had completed their first draft, and many of them had consulted with agents, gaining the accolade of having their manuscripts rejected, or even published, albeit in languages other than English. I was far behind – but this didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would.

On the first night we also had to think ahead about when we wanted to schedule one-on-one meetings with the tutors. I booked a tutorial on the first full day of the course, and realised only towards the end of the evening – once I’d already had my fill of complementary wine – that I hadn’t written a synopsis for the tutors to read, or compiled 3,000 words of my first draft into a presentable sample. I retired to my room (well-furnished with an en-suite bathroom and vintage writing desk) and tried to gather my addled wits together and rattle off a short summary of the book I was trying to write. Easy, I thought.

Or perhaps not so easy
Or perhaps not…

I was amazed how difficult I found it to sum up my book in just under a page. Having never submitted a manuscript before, writing a summary was something that I’d never had to do. I stayed up until long past midnight agonising over the synopsis, alternately worrying that the whole concept for my book was completely juvenile, or thinking “these literary snobs aren’t going to appreciate good fantasy when they see it.” In retrospect, having to write a synopsis for my tutors was good practice in of itself for whenever I come around to making submissions, but I didn’t see that at the time. I eventually wrote a fairly apologetic synopsis and went to bed feeling like a sham writer who’d signed up for a course that wasn’t going to be of any help. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I got up early the next morning, printed off the previous night’s desperate efforts, left them on the designated tutor’s shelf on an upstairs bookcase, and went down to breakfast. From there on in, things improved drastically.

The course lasted four days, and each day had roughly the same schedule. We all got up early and helped ourselves to breakfast in the communal kitchen, chatting about whether we’d got any writing done the night before, and hoping to sit near one of the tutors in case they let slip a few esoteric secrets of how to become a successful author whilst it was still early and they hadn’t quite gotten their guard up. Then we went straight into tutorial sessions that lasted until lunch.

The sessions had a different theme every day, progressing chronologically through the writing process – starting with openings and first lines, moving on to characterisation and pacing, and ending up with editing and how to get your work published. If I tried to cram all of the stuff I learned into a single post then you’d be reading for days, but it was all very insightful and practical advice, conveyed by two very talented teachers. It ranged from technical lessons in prose and structure to general discussions about how to maintain the levels of self-confidence that any author needs to see their book through to completion. We did five-minute writing exercises to try and bring extra life and depth to our characters, and then if we wanted to we could read them out to the group, letting everyone get a flavour of the kind of book that everyone else was writing. All in all, the sessions were as fun as they were informative. On one morning we ventured out a little way into the grounds of the Hurst and strolled around looking like we’d escaped from a rehabilitation centre for romantic poets, trying to capture the sublimity of the English countryside in prose. Which proved a little difficult, given the pervading scent of manure.

English countryside
A glimpse of my native Shropshire countryside

The grounds were open to us throughout the week, meaning we could go and stroll through them as much as we liked during the afternoons, which were left free for us to spend time writing or doing whatever we pleased. A few writers made regular pilgrimages to the pub in the nearest village, whilst I personally found it hard to resist rifling through Arvon’s expansive library. Given the huge amount of books on site, the paltry half-shelf devoted to fantasy and science fiction seemed a little bit of an afterthought, but they did have Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, which I’d never had the pleasure of reading before. I can recommend the whole of the Shattered Sea series. Even if Abercrombie did basically steal my world-map, the fiend.

Half a King
Read this! It’s good!

Others took the retreat more seriously and bolted themselves away in their rooms every afternoon, only coming out for meetings with the tutors. We were given twenty-minutes of one-on-one time with each of the tutors, which might not seem like a lot, but it proved to be more than enough. 3,000 words and a synopsis is what any agent or publisher will expect when a new author is submitting their work, and it was enough material for the tutors to get a good sense of my work and give me detailed feedback. I got to guide the discussion as much as they did, and Chris Wakling went out of his way to address my concerns about the characterisation of my narrator, being kind enough to look at several different drafts of the opening page of my book and help me decide which narrative voice was best. Anjali helped me in unexpected ways by giving me a few plot and character ideas from Indian history, which has always been a huge source of inspiration for my writing. One of the things she mentioned gave me the germ of an idea for an entire book, which will hopefully come midway through the series I’m writing. Between nailing down my narrative voice and figuring out the plot for a whole book, I’d say the one-on-ones by themselves were worth the price of the whole course.

One of the other things that made the week truly worthwhile was the atmosphere of communal living, which really came to a head during the evenings. The writers took turns cooking dinner for everyone else in groups of four, under the watchful gaze of the site staff, without whom we probably would have set the place on fire or poured whole jars of chilli powder into the risotto or heaven knows what else. Everyone came together at 19:00 to eat, and then moved to the lounge, where we sat around and heard different readings on each night: first from the tutors, them from a guest speaker (ours was David Whitehouse, author of Bed), and then from the favourite authors of every writer on the course (in my case it was, of course, the late Sir Terry). Finally, on the last night, we read out five minute excerpts of our own work. The sheer variety of good writing in the room was staggering, covering genres all the way from political thrillers to romantic comedy to bold experiments in writing about people with mental illness. And each of the readings was followed by hours of discussion, lasting well past midnight, full of the kind of off-the-cuff inspiration which had me scrabbling for my notebook and underlining things with an urgency that seemed a little excessive when I tried to make sense of my notes the morning after, unhelped by the fact that wine had been flowing by the bottle since before we sat down to dinner.

Carnage
An example of the kind of heady carnage wreaked when writers are given alcohol and left unsupervised

I should probably add a brief disclaimer that the liberal consumption of alcohol was by no means mandatory or even encouraged during the week. I can recommend the course even to the strictest teetotallers. The organisers made us all aware on the first night that there was a local wine merchant who would be taking our orders if we wanted, allowing us to stock up based upon our personal estimates of how much we would be drinking during the course of the week. Naturally, some of us ended up making bigger estimates than others. There was a full spectrum of imbibement from total abstinence to the kind of indulgence that Ernest Hemingway might have been proud of, perpetrated mainly by myself and one of the tutors. (Although being the youngest attendee and thus having the biggest ability to bounce back from hangovers, I was probably the worst). Most of the writers went to bed at a respectable hour every evening and probably benefited from it by being clear-headed and fully awake for the 9 o’clock tutorials. I was not among their number. And indeed, on the last night, I stayed up with a dedicated core of other writers until 05:00 in the morning, meaning I had to be woken up by the site staff at 10:30 AM to be told that all of the other writers had left and my father was waiting in the car park to pick me up.

For me, that by itself is the mark of a very good week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a writing course sounds worth your time and money, even without all the drunken revelry, but I can heartily recommend it.


If you want to replicate my experience exactly, spending a week among fellow souls with excellent tuition and facilities in the heart of English countryside, pay a visit to the Arvon website and book yourself in on a course!

Making lemonade

The Hurst

Hello, internet!

Forgive me if this week’s post is a little truncated.

I just got back from a week-long residential writing course, aimed at aspiring authors who have started writing a book and need a bit of help ending it. It was an amazing experience. The tutorial part of the course offered a lot of practical insights into how to harness your talent and weave your story together, and living communally with twenty other authors for a week was an absolute delight. If any of you want to fly to the UK and spend a week in a country mansion, having your writing looked at by published authors, and meeting lovely people, then I can heartily recommend booking a course with Arvon.

My course came at a strange time for me, but in a way, also a very appropriate time. I’d booked a week off work to go and do the course, expecting to come back afterwards. But on the last Friday before I left, my manager called me into his office to tell me that he was making me redundant, along with half of the rest of his workforce. I wasn’t upset – it had been a long time coming, and the job wasn’t particularly near to my heart – and my excitement about the course stopped me from feeling anything else during the weekend. But now, with the course over, I find myself unemployed, with time stretching out in front of me, and not knowing how to fill it. I’ll be looking for another job, but I can afford to fall back on my parents for a little while, and thankfully they’re willing to let me.

The main thing that I took away from the course was a renewed confidence in my writing ability, buttressed by comments from the tutors – both of whom were successful, published authors – that my writing was funny and vivid and, perhaps most encouragingly, marketable. What they said was “go away at the end of the week and write more of it.” And with nothing else to fill my time while I look for a new source of bread money, I think I’m going to follow their instructions to the letter.

My head’s still swimming with all of this, and the memories of everything that happened on the course. The events of the week deserve a much longer post, which you can probably look forward to next Sunday. But it transpires that when twenty authors live communally in a country mansion for a week to discuss their writing, they end up consuming a lot of alcohol. And, in my current state of sorry veisalgia, my winesoaked and dehydrated brain isn’t really up to the task of taking all of the jumbled occurrences and organising them into an entertaining narrative. It will have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll reiterate – if you’re considering a writing holiday, but don’t know where to start, you could do far worse than paying a visit to the Arvon website.