Are You Sitting Comfortably?

My story so far.

I left education thirty years ago. I don’t have a degree. I work full-time. I only started writing three years ago. It is true that once I turned my spare bedroom into my own office to work a few days a week from home, there was no stopping me. I’d write a story or two every month, and either post it here on this blog or enter it into competitions, out of which, 95% were rejected. The successful stories made it into printed anthologies or on-line journals. Click here for details of those.

Then 2020 happened. I bought Masterclass, and, after watching several sessions, realised I was ready for some interactive, on-line, real-time classroom writer’s training. Doing a degree (£9,000 per year tuition fees) and working full time, was out of the question. If I went back to working in the office, then I’d be too tired to travel to class after work. I didn’t have a clear idea for what I wanted to do, except that I was ready to observe, learn and ask questions within a group of writing students.

I struggled with my old chromebook until March 2021, when I had finally saved enough for a Mac. I bought Scrivener (which I am still trying to fathom out). In the last six months, I must have attended 50-70 online creative writing classes, author talks, book launches, publishing industry seminars and related webinars. Of the dozens of partially-started stories and outlines I’ve written to prompts in breakout rooms, a handful have made it further (click here for one of them).

It is strange now to think that virtual events and online teaching wasn’t done on a mass scale until last year. I hope it continues as life begins to open up again. At the moment, I still have far more things to read, write, watch and learn from before I take any more new steps, but at least I have stretched myself out of my comfort zone.

Here follows some of the things I have learned that you may find useful.

Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ is recommended in almost every writing class as a must-read.

I usually type on a screen but if I’m in a Zoom class, I write by hand. I write in one colour of ink on alternate lines, then use a different colour ink for my edits in the spaces left. (I get now why they always ask for submissions to be double spaced!) My favourite pens are the Stabilo PointBall Ballpoint Pen and the Schneider Slider Memo XB Ballpoint Pen. I must have a dozen ballpoint pens but only one has black ink, and I’ve only bought that for signing official forms. (Apparently it’s National Ballpoint Pen day on June 10th)

Not all writing paper is the same. I like the feel of the paper in Leuchtturm1917 notebooks.

Eventbrite has loads of Zoom/MSTeams classes. Paying for classes doesn’t guarantee that they will be good. Free classes aren’t necessarily bad. It depends on how the classes are funded and who is teaching them. I would recommend searching for library or city literature festivals, as well as adult education classes. Lots of those organisations have Arts Council funding, so their creative writing or author events are usually free or subsidised. Some are, however, ringfenced to certain groups of people, such as residents of a particular county. Some publishers also run courses, with their own authors as tutors.

Many of these organisations record their Zoom classes/webinars and add them to YouTube after the event, (Reedsy), or onto their own websites for a small charge (The Hay Festival).

Twitter is a great place to find and connect with writers and publishing industry people. What other field could you chat to famous people and attend classes taught by them for free?

Most writing competitions use Submittable or Duotrope. The former tracks your progress. This is a small portion of my Submittable tracker.

Most writers don’t make enough money from writing, so they need a day job as well. Writers read a lot (see above for part of my tbr pile). I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading recently, so have immersed myself into Audible.

70 lessons condensed into 70 words

You will hear about the inciting incident, hero’s journey, creating a narrative, showing not telling, a sense of place, mind mapping, hermit crab flash fiction, prose poems, hybrid stories, polishing your story, strings of tension, three act structures, limiting your flashbacks, the story arc, flow, character motivation, memorable/unusual not obvious descriptions, conflict, pace, every sentence needing a verb, drama IS conflict, being concise, and what does the protagonist want/need?

I’ve heard these lines more than once. The more you write the better you get at it. It’s during the process that the nuggets of gold can be mined so you get to the emotional core. You can’t edit a blank page. Most writing is rewriting. There are structural, character or line edits. Use fewer adverbs. Only use “said”. Readers don’t see “said” but they will see “exclaimed”, “whispered” or “bellowed” and it will throw them off.

There’s a difference between what some editors want to read and what the public generally wants to read.

One of the rules is that it’s positive feedback in class only. If the reader thinks the story doesn’t work, they are generally right. Learn to live with rejection. It’s just one person’s opinion.

None of the above is set in stone. It is all opinions I have heard that you are free to agree with and use, or not.

Only you can write the story you want to tell, and look where it might lead to!

92. A Northern Light

empty-glasses-passel-5901

“Sorry I’m late.” Lauren was slightly out of breath. She took off her cross body bag and unravelled her scarf. Sitting down wearily, heavily into the chair, she fanned her face. “How’d it go then?” She asked, but before I could reply, she had clocked the boxed tuna Niçoise salad I’d bought for her.” Ooh thanks!” she said, as I hand her a burgundy-coloured plastic knife and fork and a couple of recycled napkins.

“Coconut water or lemonade?” I held up both bottles, lifting each one slightly higher than the other as I said its name.

“Lemonade please.”

“Yeah, he was a great date, but I don’t think I’ll see him again.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, Harry’s a lovely bloke, exactly like his profile, which makes a nice change, and I really liked him online – he was funny, kind, and we got on great – but we just didn’t…” I paused trying to find the right word. “You know? Click.”

“No spark?” She peered at my avocado and crayfish salad. She did this to me every week. Lauren always wanted what I had.

I shook my head.

“Oh that’s a shame.” said Lauren. “You sounded like you really liked him.”

“I did. I do. I mean, he’s great. I keep thinking I’m being too picky. I just want to feel that, you know, that, pang of desire.” I said, trying to summon some kind of enthusiasm for the whole ridiculous process.

“You gotta have the pang.” She replied using a fake American accent. “Mind you, it never lasts, so what you never had, you never miss. No wonder-lust.”

I shook the tub of already-separating peppery oil and vinegar dressing and just about managed to open its fiddly lid, without spilling it. Dribbling the glossy, opaque liquid over my salad, a lemony garlicky aroma filled my nose. I gently prodded first at a slippery slice of avocado, then stabbed at a big piece of lollo rosso. There was no elegant way to eat this.

“Why don’t you just go out with him again? Just for the practice. It was only one meal.” She emphasised the word, ‘one’. “That’s a lot of pressure. He might have been nervous. Your nerves make you” pointing at me “a bit full-on whenever you meet someone and that’s not the real you. You wouldn’t give up on someone you really liked if the first time you went to bed, it was a bit… er, off.” She said, trying to be supportive.

“Nah.” I say. “You’re totally right though. You always are. I don’t know. Maybe I should, but there wasn’t any spark and I’m alright for friends. It might give him the wrong idea if we met up again. I can’t do that to him. He’s one of the good ones. Anyway, what if I met someone? I can’t have two people in my head like last time.”

“Yeah, good point” said Lauren. She screwed the lid back onto her cloudy lemonade bottle then smoothed out some imaginary creases on her skirt. “Actually,” she cleared her throat. “I’ve met someone.” She looked up at me, and then paused for a second to pick at some invisible lint from her cardigan. “He’s called Robert. He’s a Solicitor and he’s wonderful. We’ve been out twice. Once for coffee and once for lunch. I’m a little bit smitten and we’re going out for dinner on Saturday.” She clapped her hands together with glee.

I chewed and smiled as best I can though a mouthful of lettuce, but she wasn’t looking at me.

Her hands had formed a prayer pose, thumbs together, fingertips touching her lips. Sighing longingly, she opened her hands slightly, and placed the tips of her index and middle fingers over her mouth, almost as if she was trying to stop herself saying something. Her eyes darted around for a second. She was worried. Pensive. Then she took a deep breath in, sighed out, whilst doing a cleansing, pushing away tai chi gesture.

“God, please, please, please, let him not be one of those Don Draper types that only likes the beautiful beginnings of things.” She was almost begging. Then she looked right at me and said. “You know what I mean don’t you? When you think you’ve found the perfect gent, but once you’ve had sex, he loses interest completely. You’ve met one of them?”

“I have, unfortunately.” I said wearily. “I hate them. I absolutely effin hate them. Why is sex like a switch? The first month they adore everything about you, and they even say they think they’re falling for you, and then the next week, literally everything you do or say is annoying, and they make you feel like you’ve don’t something wrong, that you repulse them. It’s exactly like that Foo Fighters song, “Then I’m done, done, onto the next one.” Or they just disappear. Why do they do that?”

“Because they can, and we let them. They’ll wait as long as it takes to get what they want. I’ve heard some pathetic excuses. The reasons they give are just shocking.” She said, shaking her head.

“I know!” I said incredulously. “How can they not be ready for a relationship when they’ve signed up to a relationship site?”

“Billy liars. That’s what.” She said. “I tell you what, right? If Robert turns out to be a complete tool, then I swear I’m off men. Fini. They’re not worth it.”

We clink our plastic bottles together to seal the deal.

“Do you think we should keep these from now on?” I said, holding up my fork.

“Why’s that then?” She asked.

“You know I’ve got this theory that in a few years, when cannabis is legalised, there will be sales reps that come round to your house to sell you ‘weed for your needs,’ from the comfort of your own home? They’ll ask you if there is anything else you want, like home-made edibles that aren’t regulated, or vape oil or whatever. And you’ll go, “Actually, I’m having a party, so do you have any plastic knives, forks, spoons and straws?” So, they’ll go to the boot of their car and get them. It’ll be totally illegal.”

“Probably,” she chuckled. “A reversal of fortune. Like fox hunting and homosexuality were last century. Carrying a plastic bag will be the new fur.”

I laughed and nearly coughed at the same time. “Do you want to get a gelato?” I asked hopefully.

“Mmmm. Yes. That sounds good. Next week I am definitely getting THAT.” She said, determinedly, pointing her knife at the remainder of my salad.

“You still coming with me to that Twitter Writers meet-up book launch thingy tomorrow?” I ask her.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I get a free book written by someone you know, and you finally get to meet the people you spend so much time with.” she replied. “Will there be anyone famous there?”

“Nah. Doubt it.” I say. “The author’s brother is in ‘Holby City’, so he might be there if he’s not working, and that bloke from that band, ‘Air Mail’ likes to be seen out and about. I reckon he’ll be there. It’s probably how he got his band name.”

I had no idea what to wear to a book launch. I’d only been to a couple of indie publisher’s launches in bookshops before. Nothing like this, with money thrown at it, from a major house. The invitations were printed on cream stiff card that had a fake red wine stain ring on it to echo the novel’s subject matter.

The hotel foyer’s sign indicated the event was in the Kensington Room, and there had already been an afternoon tea pre-launch event earlier in the day, to which I had not been invited. I had a plus one to the wine reception/mixer and official book launch. The author was going to do a reading, then there was to be a Q and A, a quick half an hour signing, photos, then four, maybe six of us from Twitter were going to go for a meal. That was the plan anyway. It might end up being just me and Lauren down the pub.

It seemed like quite a posh do. There was a sign-in table which still had about 60 name badges on it by the time I arrived. I considered whether I should write my Twitter name on the badge as well as my real name, and decided to go for it, or how else would some people know who I was?

I admitted to myself that I was a little nervous about meeting people in the flesh that I already kind of knew. I wasn’t bothered that they might not like me in person. Not that at all. People are hardly ever like you imagine they are when you finally meet them in real life. No, it was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just felt a bit, uncomfortable.

I scanned the room. There was a long table with some good Malbec, chilled Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower cordial and sparking water. Retro cheese straws and those Japanese coated peanuts that look like tiny eggs to nibble.

I think I would have quite liked to have gone to the afternoon tea, but it was a private event for the author’s ex-students and family.

I recognised a local journalist talking to the actor, and my old English tutor. She was with someone I didn’t know, and I thought I’d go over and say hi.

Two waitresses with black waistcoats and white cloths over their bent forearms, were slowly walking around, topping up glasses, and pointing people in the direction of the loos.

The usual canvas tote bag with the name and logo of the publishing house contained a hardback copy of the book – already signed – plus a bookmark for a future release, a promotional postcard, a pen, a granola bar for some bizarre reason, the obligatory metal water bottle, and a yellow stress ball with a smiley face on it. That last item was an in-joke for the Twitter community, for that was the author’s avatar.

My old English Lit teacher was talking to someone called Bob. I realised I knew him online as ‘Night,JimBob’ and he greeted me enthusiastically with an awkward sweaty handshake/arm squeeze, and then went in for a two cheek kiss. We both clumsily went to the same side for the first kiss.

He smelled incredible. There was definitely a pang, alright. I felt it. I desperately wanted to kiss him again right there and then. To this day I can’t walk past a bar of Dove soap without wanting to smell it, to try to recreate those few seconds.

An observer would never have realised that this was our first meeting, as our conversation felt so natural and fluid. It picked up right from where we left off online yesterday. Within ten seconds of meeting, we were laughing.

I finally understood why people said, “Never meet your heroes”. Everything was going to be different between us from that point onwards.

These first few moments were amazing. We just bounced off each other and after only a couple of minutes, it felt like I’d known him all my life. It was too soon to know whether he felt like that too, but it felt like he did. I hoped so anyway.

I couldn’t believe that I paid dozens of pounds every month to be introduced to police line-ups of unsuitable men, and I still managed to pick the wrong one every time. Here was someone right here, right now, in real life, standing in front of me and I’d never even noticed him before. All that time, wasted.

Bob’s interest in me abruptly halted and his voice trailed-off mid-sentence. Something else had caught his attention. He was no longer looking at me, but over my shoulder. Surprised and delighted, he had obviously just recognised someone who meant a lot to him. Someone who he was not expecting to see here. I felt like a voyeur intruding, as I observed his expression change. His face visibly softened; he beamed, eyes sparkling with pure joy at the person behind me. I turned to see my friend Lauren gazing lovingly in a lingering, locked eye embrace, with her new beau Robert.