Some thoughts on reading fees

The topic of reading fees came up on Twitter again this week. Since I don’t seem to have talked about this for a while (about 3 years, in fact) here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking.

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First off, what do I mean by reading fees? I mean any kind of payment or purchase required before your own writing will be given consideration. Some places have tip-jar options, or you can pay if you want feedback rather than a bald yes/no, but those are not a barrier to entry as they’re not compulsory. I can think of 3 types:

  1. A stand-alone competition e.g. the Bridport prize
  2. A competition run by a magazine or media company e.g. Stand magazine or The Sunday Times
  3. Run of the mill submissions e.g. to a magazine for publication

Secondly, why is it a problem? After all, in the age of instant electronic submissions isn’t it reasonable to want to put the brakes on the half-baked, ill-considered, nothing-to-lose, late night entries? Some poor soul has to read these things. And the prize money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t expect people to judge competitions out of the goodness of their hearts, and there are printing and website and publicity costs… Well, yes. But still…

It was Sarah Davy of Northern Writers Studio who got me thinking about all this again this week. If you’re not a writer you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Nobody’s forcing anyone to enter competitions and sure, we’d all love some free money but there’s no need to whine if you can’t afford to enter. Except, in short fiction at least, it’s those competition wins (or shortlisting, or longlisting) that get you noticed, show people you’re at a particular level, get you work. So they matter, and consistently deterring particular groups from entering means you’re consistently holding them back from – shall we call it career progression?

I’ll take the 3 types of fees in reverse order. Number 3 is easy – it shouldn’t exist. If you think of a magazine, publisher or production company, who are their customers? Readers or broadcasters, I would say. Logically, the customers should be who they’re charging. If they’re charging money to submit a story or a script and what they’re offering in return is what the average person outside the industry would imagine is their day to day business (we will print this story in our magazine and sell it to readers, we will pitch this sitcom to the BBC and hope they pay us to make it) then it looks a lot like exploitation. Kind of like charging the actors to appear on stage as well as making the audience pay for tickets. If you can’t get by without charging writers, you haven’t got a viable business model and you might want to have a rethink.

Number 2 should allow for funding of prize money by the magazine etc profits. Ironically the biggest prize money, the most publicity and arguably the most kudos comes from two competitions with no fees – the Sunday Times short story prize and the BBC Short Story Award, both presumably funded via their other business, and/or sponsorship. They weed out the time-wasters by requiring a certain number of publication credits. Now, I have other problems with those two (if the judges can call in stories that haven’t even been entered, it’s not a level playing field) but they’re not putting up barriers to writers with little spare cash. In other cases, you would hope that their normal business (selling books or magazines, for instance) would give enough money to at least subsidise the competition. If it doesn’t, and they’re in fact hoping the competition will subsidise the magazine, then we’re back to the scenario in number 3.

The ones I find it hardest to know where I stand on are the first batch, the competitions that just are. The Bath flash fiction or novella-in-flash awards, the Bristol short story prize (which came out of a magazine originally but it no longer exists), the Bridport. As far as I know, they charge fees to enter, a certain number of writers will be selected for their annual anthology which they then sell, and any profits from that will be ploughed back into the competition. They often have early-bird discounts, and the Bath has a regular (free) writing competition where the prize is free entry to the quarterly award. Once they’re up and running you could think of them as being a bit like scenario 2, only with a single product that isn’t the main focus of their business, but mainly they’re getting their funds from entry fees. Tricky. I have entered the (quarterly) Bath award 5 times (2017×2, 2019×2, 2020), the Bristol twice (2013, 2020) and the Bridport twice (2013, 2017). Why?

The cash prize would undoubtedly be nice, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped writer. It could pay for a course, a new laptop or snazzy software, books or a research trip. Perhaps a treat, as a reward for all the rejections you put up with for the remainder of the year. Or the gas bill, so that’s one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to concentrate on a plot knot. But is that the main reason we want to enter? (I say ‘we’ but I’m on a well-paid contract till next summer, only working 3 days a week but my annual salary still starts with a 2 so I can afford these things at the moment). If it’s easy money you’re after, lottery scratchcards are a better bet – you won’t have spent hours writing and rewriting, and when you don’t win it won’t feel like a judgement on your talent and possibly your worth as a human being. So it must be something else that’s drawing us in. External validation. The thrill of having that famous judge rate your work. Kudos. Bragging rights or a notch on the CV (that career progression I mentioned earlier).

Which leads me to my first suggestion:

reduce the prize and therefore the need for fees

Judging, printing and publicity costs will remain but if the prize fund needs to be £1000 instead of £5000 surely you can knock a couple of quid off the fee (the small fees still add up but it’s a start) or afford to waive fees for more people. Sarah Davy mentioned the problem of there only being a handful of free entries, and these having to be applied for. This means people of limited means are competing with each other for those coveted places, and there are plenty of people I know who have the attitude that there’s always someone worse off than them so they would never apply. Also, it’s mortifying to have to plead poverty, particularly since writing’s a small world and it could be someone you know who’s processing the applications.

About 10 years ago I worked in a university estates department and there was a presentation on the implications of the Equality Act 2010. I recall there being some emphasis on treating people the same where possible – so instead of saying if you need level access you can go round the side of the building, you make the main entrance accessible. Or in my case, you make the general campus map hold all the accessibility information instead of requiring people to ask for a separate map as we had done previously. So instead of making people prove their need and compete for access,

have a free-entry day

Or happy hour, or whatever suits you. You can announce it in advance, spring it on people on Twitter at short notice, mention it in passing in an email newsletter 2 months beforehand and it’s their own fault if they don’t write it on the calendar. But in some way, you’re saying whoever enters during this slot doesn’t have to pay, and you’re trusting that the entire cohort won’t wait to enter on that day. I believe SmokeLong Quarterly already do something along these lines.

In some ways, I think we’re in another argument for universal basic income, but until that day comes there are things that can be done to mitigate the discriminatory effects of reading fees, which you would hope would be a popular move, what with all the talk of diversity in publishing recently. Like it or not, if your magazine or competition is seen as prestigious in your field (poetry or flash or crime-writing or whatever) you have some responsibility for ensuring you aren’t only selecting winners from those who can afford to pay.

Bridport prize (novel) £20; Bridport prize (short story) £12; Bridport prize (flash) £9; Bath Flash Fiction (or novella-in-flash) Award £9; Bristol short story prize £9; Mslexia novel competition £25; Mslexia short story competition £12; Mslexia flash fiction competition £6…

If you fancy taking the sting out of all those fees, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Although I’ve been struggling through fiction this year I have been able to read non-fiction at a reasonable pace so I took the opportunity to dip into this book everyone’s been talking about and awarding prizes to. Dara McAnulty is an autistic teenage nature enthusiast and climate change activist from Northern Ireland that I follow on Twitter. The book covers the year he was 14, from Spring to the following first day of Spring. It’s in the form of a diary as you might expect from the title, though not every day has an entry.

Some of his descriptions are amazingly vivid, and I don’t just mean ‘for a kid’. There were passages in the book that were completely immersive, a joy to read – his focus and intensity really draw you into the scene and his enthusiasm is infectious. Because I grew up in the 1980s, the first thing that springs to mind for me when I hear ‘Northern Ireland’ is unfortunately sectarian violence. This short book (150 pages in the ebook I borrowed from the library) has introduced me to a part of the UK countryside I knew nothing about, and portrayed it as a place of wonder. It obviously has its problems, and he mentions the dwindling of bird species and problems with the reintroduction of red kites for instance, but there is a lot of hope and positivity here.

There is, however, also a fair amount of teenage angst. This is a diary first and foremost, and happens to be mostly about nature because of his interests. I have to say that reading about a child being bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts, in the child’s own words, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. That said, there is far more natural wonder than anything else, and his passion and drive are inspiring. If you want to rekindle a sense of childlike awe for the world around you, dip into this book and then spend some time outdoors watching birds in a tree or insects on a wall.

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.

It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.

Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.

Why lie about reading?

I listened recently to a Backlisted episode from 2018, where they discussed How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Having never heard of either book or author, I assumed it was going to be satire about the kind of pompous windbag that always has to have been there or done that, no matter where the conversation turns. Weirdly, it didn’t seem to be.

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Bayard is a French literature professor, I believe, and seems to subscribe to the peculiar idea that it’s somehow embarrassing or shameful to admit to not having read a particular book. I guess if you’re teaching a course on it or writing a review of it, it might be – though I would say there are bigger problems there than saving face. I can’t think of any other circumstance where you would want to say you’d read a book when you hadn’t. Even in a book club, surely there’s a more interesting conversation to be had about why you couldn’t get past page six, than in trying to bluff your way through a discussion of major themes.

In the podcast a couple of them talked about working as booksellers and deceiving the customers. Who expects someone who works in their local bookshop to have read all the stock? I wouldn’t even expect the sci-fi specialist in Waterstones to have read everything on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. What’s wrong with saying ‘no I haven’t read it but my friend raves about it’ or ‘I don’t really do cyberpunk but it got 5 stars in The Guardian’?

There was also mention of shady dealings with visiting authors. I think it’s much less rude to tell an author you haven’t (as yet) read their book than to pretend you have. I’ve been to many litfest events where I haven’t read the book and on the occasions I’ve ended up speaking to the author afterwards, I’ve truthfully told them the reason. That may have been because I had only heard of it due to the event (which is at least part of the reason they’re doing the event), or was on the library waiting list for a copy, or just hadn’t worked that far down the To Read pile yet. As a writer, I’d rather someone said they were keeping their friend company or had picked an event at random than pretend they’d read my work.

Cathy Rentzenbrink mentioned on the podcast her work with literacy charities, and how it can be intimidating to people starting to read when ‘everyone’ has read this massive list of books, so actually it’s good to admit you haven’t, and take the pressure off . I think my dad said something to me when I was in my late teens and still in my ‘ought to’ phase with books, about the ever-growing list of classics and not reading anything new till you’re thirty. The idea being that there was this nineteenth century list of classics that the educated man ought to have read, compiled when literacy was becoming a mass achievement in England, and nobody knocked Dickens off when they added Orwell, or replaced George Eliot with Virginia Woolf. Every generation added more books, more authors, so it got to the point where you’d have to read nothing but books on that list for several years once you move on to adult fiction, before you could start reading new releases and developing your own taste. And if you feel like you ‘ought to’ read all the Sunday Times bestsellers and the Booker prize shortlist to keep up with the cultural conversation, then maybe you never do develop your own taste.

I could slip into a meditation on class, here, and who defines cultural norms and expectations (harking back to my last post on gatekeepers) but I’ll restrain myself. However, I will say that if you don’t have to read it for an exam, never read a book you don’t have reasonably high expectations of. Some will disappoint you, but honestly if you think an incredibly long nineteenth century book about whale-hunting sounds dull don’t feel obliged to waste whole days of your life on it just because Moby Dick’s a famous title. If anyone asks if you’ve read it, tell them it didn’t sound like your kind of thing. If they insist you must and you don’t want to argue (it is guaranteed to be someone’s favourite ever book, after all) tell them you’ll give it a go when your To Read pile is empty, confident in the knowledge it will never happen. I’m not saying you can’t ask them what they love about it, or let it lead to a pleasant conversation about books set at sea, just don’t try and convince them you read it thirty years ago and can’t quite recall the details. Own your unique blend of tastes and preferences.

Coincidentally, a couple of months before that podcast episode initially went out, I wrote the following here on my blog:

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

Now I wonder if it was truly synchronicity or if some of them had been taking tips from Prof Bayard.

If I’ve got you out of learning pertinent facts about books you don’t care about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Gatekeepers and optimum curation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gatekeepers: literary agents, publishers, programme commissioners, the people who put the playlist together for national radio stations… There’s a lot of them about. For the most part, that’s a good thing – I want some quality control if I’m going to invest my time or money in buying a book, listening to a radio programme, watching a film. But who gets to be the gatekeeper and who do they have in mind when they’re checking for quality, signs of popularity, or profit-making potential?

I happened to hear a clip on the radio recently, MeatLoaf talking about how hard it was to get any record company interested in Bat Out Of Hell. And when eventually they did get it recorded and released, only two radio stations would play anything from it. It has since sold over 50 million copies. Lots of people have heard of it, even if it’s not their cup of tea. Clearly there was an appetite for that album and it must have made a vast profit, but both of those things are only obvious in hindsight. At the time it must have seemed like an insane risk, and the record companies who turned it down were making a rational decision. But was Bat Out Of Hell an out of the blue fluke that it would have been hard for anyone to predict the popularity of, or were those record company execs out of touch? I don’t know, but I’ll come back to this point in a minute.

Say Meat and his mate Jim decided all those men in suits knew nothing and they were going to make the album themselves, press a few hundred vinyl copies and take it from there. It would have been on a lower budget, naturally. And with a different producer, and without anyone at the helm who had experience of marketing and sleeve design and all that aspect of it. It could have strayed (further) into self-indulgence and tried the patience of its listeners. It might have been a close cousin of the Bat Out Of Hell we know, but it would be unlikely to have become quite as popular, and maybe there’d be good reason for that.

Now I happen to like Bat Out Of Hell but I’m not trying to lay out a nightmare scenario where it never existed. I would never have known I’d missed out on it. Maybe Meat and Jim would have tried again on something else, more successfully, and got to record Bat Out Of Hell as their second album anyway. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone in charge heard what they had to offer, said ‘nobody will buy that – or at least not enough of them for us to turn a profit’ and turned out to be wrong. There are a few stories like that – the men who passed on The Beatles, the agents and publishers that rejected JK Rowling, the self-published authors on six-figure incomes – but they are the few who persisted, and either eventually found someone who believed in them, or did it themselves to a high enough standard that they found their own audience.

There are two aspects to this and I don’t have answers to either part I’m afraid:

  • There are currently gatekeepers who control whose novel gets picked up by the big publishers, whose sitcom gets on BBC1, whose album gets enough airplay to get to number one, etc. They are not always as diverse (in background, experience, location, taste or anything else) as they could be. They sometimes get it wrong despite their best efforts. They are usually looking for The Next Big Thing.
  • It is easier than it has ever been to record and distribute your own music, publish your own novels, make your own radio programme (podcast). How do you find your audience? How, as a potential member of that audience, do I find decent quality output that fits my taste?

To go back for a moment to those out of touch record executives. Let’s say none of them like heavy metal, none of their friends or cousins or younger brothers like heavy metal, so they’re either unaware of or dismissive of the vast, global appeal of heavy metal. They hear something that sounds a bit metal and they say ‘nobody likes metal, we can’t sell it’ so they don’t pick it up. You could argue that if you were a metal band you wouldn’t want to be picked up by a record company where they don’t like metal, but if all the big record companies have that attitude you’re a bit stuck if you want to hit the big time. Now extrapolate that to any taste or viewpoint in your field that might not appeal to the few gatekeepers, whether it’s novels with working-class main characters, British Asian sitcoms, or overblown rock opera. You see the potential problems?

This year I’m working my way through a course called Writing Your Sitcom by James Cary. He wrote or co-wrote several BBC radio comedies I particularly enjoyed, though he mainly focuses on TV in the course as it’s only the odd weirdo like me apparently who prefers radio. However, we were recently talking about why and how to self-produce a sitcom. The how is relatively simple for radio, I know the technical ins and outs of recording and editing audio and I have a decent microphone due to recording some of my stories (which you can find here on chirbit). I’ve been to a Script Yorkshire workshop on how to produce your own podcast so I’m aware of how to distribute it. If I can keep the number of characters down to the number of friends I have with time on their hands and enough acting ability to help me out, I can make it for next to no money – though it would cost me in time, effort, and biscuits. But how do I know if it’s any good? Then assuming it is ok, and I’m not entirely deluded about my own script-writing ability, how do I persuade other people to listen to it when it hasn’t been through any gatekeepers?

As to the why, there are several reasons why you might want to go your own way, but for me the main one comes back to that search for The Next Big Thing. If you’re a BBC radio bod you’ve only got a few slots and although it’s relatively cheap to make a radio sitcom you want to get a decent audience. You need mass appeal, not niche interest. Podcasts of course are the opposite. If you know your sitcom about cosplayers is full of in-jokes that other cosplayers will find hilarious but nobody else will get, then it’s pointless trying to persuade the BBC to give you half an hour a week on Radio 4, but if you can make a good enough podcast it makes perfect sense to appeal directly to a few thousand cosplayers who like comedy. Similarly with your flash fiction collection about British cheese, your album of bagpipe covers of Iron Maiden songs, your novel which is genuinely funny for anyone who’s ever programmed in Fortran but impenetrable to anyone else…

It is just possible that I’m over-thinking this. That not everything has to be the best it could possibly be, and the low-fi Bat Out Of Hell on limited-pressing vinyl would still have been a good album. After all, I write this blog with no quality control (except OneMonkey occasionally reading a draft post). In the Before Times I stood up at open mics or sat in a radio studio in Seacroft and read unpublished stories that I thought were good enough to share. I’ve self-published graphic novels, story collections, and a novel. I’ve had enough confidence in my own ability to do all this but always, I suppose, with the nagging feeling that my confidence might be misplaced. Perhaps what I’m looking for is a network of people who have varied enough tastes and background to really get a wide variety of things, and to be able to say that while that bagpipe album is the pinnacle of its kind, the cosplay sitcom needs more work.

If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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A dark fairytale, The Crows Remember

I have a dark fairytale up at Crow & Cross Keys this weekend. It’s called The Crows Remember, and it’s a reprint of a story I wrote for the 52 Crows project from the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins in August 2018. Here’s what I said about the story in my blog post that week:

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle.

It’s great to have this story out in the world again, it seems to have been getting some love on Twitter already – thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read it. Here’s the excerpt Crow & Cross Keys chose to share on their tweets:

Next morning as she swept she saw something flutter past the open doorway, and when she went to look there was a velvet ribbon the colour of fresh blood lying on the flags. She stepped out and looked around but there was only a crow watching her, head cocked.

The Crows Remember by JY Saville
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

If you’d like a short excursion to a dale haunted by the beauty of the past, where wildflowers still bloom, go to https://crowcrosskeys.com/2021/04/24/the-crows-remember-jy-saville/ and if you enjoy it, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Why own books?

I don’t mean why buy books, rather why bother hanging onto them once you’ve read them? Spending lockdown staring at our bookshelves and wondering why we had so many books, and how many we’d actually read, OneMonkey and I had a cull recently.

About a quarter of the books waiting to go

There are piles of books lying around our flat now, waiting for the charity shops to reopen so we can pass them on. They are mainly mine. Books that were my undergraduate set texts more than twenty years ago, second-hand books I haven’t read and can now admit I never will, books I have read but won’t read again. As we went through each shelf deciding which books to keep and which to jettison, it made me think about where I got them and why I kept them in the first place.

When I was a teenager, in fact probably into my early twenties, I stocked up on the books I thought I ‘ought’ to read. The ones I thought might be impressive (to whom?) on the bookshelves in my student digs. With the aid of the new Wordsworth cheap editions and the clearance shelf in Thornes and/or Dillons in Newcastle I got Tolstoy and Turgenev, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. Birthday book tokens got me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (single volume abridged) and some of the optional reading for my philosophy of science modules. I even read most of them. Then I hung on to them for years, no intention of re-reading the ones I’d read, never getting round to the ones I hadn’t. They had become part of the furniture, being packed up and redeployed every time OneMonkey and I moved house (which we did six times in the eleven years after graduation).

Books, as you might expect, are a bit of a Proust’s madeleine for me. With most of my books, I pick it off the shelf and recall its acquisition. Often I get a flash of when or where I read it, if indeed I have. For most of those ‘ought’ books, I got nothing. I hadn’t read them because I got a flash of excitement when I read the blurb in the bookshop, I’d read them because I recognised the title or the author from a list somewhere. With a few honourable exceptions (Tolstoy, for one), I never connected with them. Now I’m in my forties, my hair shot with silver threads that match my glam metal scarves, I don’t care about having Plato or Hume on my shelves. I don’t even care that I haven’t read them (I did try Hume, but his punctuation and phraseology were impenetrable).

Those books joined the popular science books I’d left too long after graduation and didn’t understand, the history books on topics I was no longer interested in or that were written in a dull old-fashioned way. It was easier to ditch the second-hand books, the dog-eared ones I’d rescued from the bin at an Oxfam bookshop I volunteered at many years ago or the ones I’d bought at charity shops or library book-sales. The ones I’d bought new were harder (I paid good money for that!) and the ones that were gifts, harder still.

I find it hard to get rid of books that were gifts, even when they were wide of the mark. I can sometimes pass them on to someone else I know, but to hand them over to a charity shop, not knowing what kind of care they’ll subsequently receive, is too much. Of course, when you’re known to be a book-lover and your nearest and dearest give you books at every available opportunity but you live in a flat, there comes a time when even some of the presents have to go. The books friend T gave me for my 18th and 40th birthdays remain beside each other on the popular science and rock ‘n’ roll shelf (the shelving system only really makes sense to me), as do scattered others, but there are books from friends and family on the To Go piles. The cringing this is causing made me realise that part of the reason for keeping the gift books is so I can hope said friend or relative notices it on a visit and thinks better of me. Even though most of my friends and relatives rarely, if ever, get close to my bookshelves and probably wouldn’t recognise half the books they’d given me.

So we’re back to bookshelves as a means to impress. It made me think of the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility, which popped up at the start of lockdown in 2020 to offer tongue in cheek analysis of the shelves used as background by experts and politicians appearing on the news from their homes. I had a job interview by video call in February and I admit I agonised over which angle to have my chair at. In the end I realised that the books I’d be happiest about having on show (sci-fi and fantasy novels, northern and/or working-class history) were on the higher shelves and I could either do the interview standing up or just not mind. I ended up with Muppet DVDs on one side and a random collection of fiction on the other, most legible among which was probably the Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus (and yet, I did get the job).

How I ended up presenting my shelves

Why own books, then? I reckon they fall into four categories:

  • I (realistically) intend to read them but haven’t yet
  • reference volumes or say, a history book that I’ve read but might want to revisit for a fact or date
  • fiction or poetry that’s likely to be re-read, e.g. a seasonal collection or favourite Terry Pratchett
  • fiction I’m pretty sure I won’t re-read but holds fond memories that flood me when I pluck it from the shelf, possibly because it was a gift

Oh yes, and of course the ones I’d prefer to have as my public-facing background on a video call or author photo, but I’m pretty sure I’m hanging on to them for one of the four reasons above, anyway.

Oddly this is how I’d prefer to be seen. Many of you will be puzzled, I’m sure.

Why do you keep books, if you do? I’d love to know, so feel free to tell me in the comments (or on Twitter @JYSaville)

If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships took me weeks to read despite being magnificent, so I’m hazy on early detail now – blame lockdown fatigue. However, the simple message is: read this book. If you like epic fantasy, or if you like adventurous tales of the high seas, and especially if you like both, you will love this novel. I happened to start reading it the same week OneMonkey and I started watching Hornblower (late ’90s adaptation of some CS Forester books, set in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century) on Britbox, and I realised how nicely they went together.

The Hundred Isles have been at war forever, it’s what they do. The war ships are built from dragon bones but nobody’s seen an actual dragon for generations. Until now. Whoever gets hold of that dragon will have a prize indeed.

That’s the rough gist of the blurb and it was enough to grab me, having never read any of RJ Barker’s work before. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to the inventiveness of this world, however: the myths, rituals and religion; the vegetation, geography and animals. The characters. Oh, the characters: Joron Twiner, Meas Gilbryn, and the gullaime for starters. But it’s so hard to say anything further without spoiling one of the many revelatory moments.

I could talk about the themes of bravery and loyalty, propaganda and political truth, environmental exploitation and unexpected allies. I could mention the fact that RJ Barker is, like me, from West Yorkshire (about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England), though I didn’t find that out until after I’d started the book – an added bonus, if you will. I will note in passing that subtle shifts in language like calling all ships he instead of she, talking about wings instead of sails, and flying the sea rather than sailing, were effective in shifting this firmly into another world. And I will say again, if either ships or dragons are your thing you will love this book.

I had just finished reading the penultimate chapter of The Bone Ships when it won Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2020 and I thought yes, that makes perfect sense. Book 2 of the Tide Child Trilogy is Call of the Bone Ships, which came out in paperback at the end of 2020, and I will be getting it for the Kobo forthwith.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The green writer’s dilemma: a scrap paper crisis

I have a constitutional inability to use paper. Tricky in a writer, you might think. As a physics student in the nineties my back of the envelope calculations were genuinely done on the back of an envelope. I hoarded scrap paper and my flatmates used to add their surplus to the cardboard box under my desk, which went with me when I left. I have three writing notebooks that are actually other people’s discarded desk diaries, bought in a fit of enthusiasm and never used. Or in my mum’s case for the 2006 one, put down somewhere safe and lost until 2008.

Brought up in the eighties by my Nana with her 1940s make do and mend ethos, scared into good habits by Friends of the Earth, I have taken reduce and reuse to heart. Even I, however, print things out sometimes. I cannot, no matter how many times I try, successfully edit a novel on the screen. Something about being able to flick back and forth, put pages side by side, or scrawl in coloured pencil helps me enormously. Short stories, even a novella, I’ve happily managed on my laptop. Novels, no chance. But I’m running out.

My fast-emptying drawers of scrap paper. Yes, the labels are cut out of the backboard of an A4 pad.

I have three novels that I’m working on to a greater or lesser degree right now. There’s the semi-rural fantasy that got me on the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, which I’ve been sending to agents left, right and centre and now want to go back and rework a bit because I’m not sure there’s enough nature in it. There’s the sci-fi noir that I got useful feedback from a small press from around Christmas time, that I want to tweak to address their concerns so I can send it elsewhere with confidence. And there’s the crime novel I got my first ever full manuscript request for last year, which needs tightening up for the second full manuscript request which I got from another small press, who meanwhile gave me helpful feedback on the few chapters they’ve already read. That’s a lot of pages to print out and go through with a red pen.

OneMonkey has often been heard to say I have more than enough scrap paper. Usually when I’m about to squirrel away flyers and handouts while we’re out, or the single-sided descriptive insert from a box of Christmas crackers at a family gathering. In fact when he cleared out his box of MSc notes recently I agreed to be ruthless and not keep every last printout and single-sided form. I ended up with two full drawers and a one-inch thick stack of A4 on the top of the cabinet, thinking it would last for ages. It’s almost all gone.

It occurred to me this morning as I printed out another section of the crime novel (forty pages of single-sided A4 from the drawer) that I’m not replenishing this supply. Given that neither of us has been a student for at least a dozen years we’re certainly not adding printouts of slides, homework questions, instructions for formatting essays. I suspect if we were students these days they’d point us at an online resource anyway. After a certain number of years I used to put bills, bank statements, mortgage letters and the like into the scrap paper box but they’re mostly electronic now, and the few that are paper are printed on both sides. In a way, that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t help me with my printing. Among the sheets from this morning’s session I also had particulars from estate agents from before the days of rightmove, job details from when you sent for an application pack instead of filling in an online form, and letters from the Institute of Physics which have undoubtedly migrated to email.

Before long, I’ll be forced to print out on brand new (recycled) paper, and the only additions to my scrap paper drawer will be the half-sheets from when a chapter ends partway down a page. And the inevitable double-sided printing disasters where I print the second page over the first. It’s going to come as something of a shock after all these years, the demise of my scrap paper printing supply. I might have to delve under the bed to check I haven’t got a forgotten folder of A-level notes I can liberate some homework sheets from.

If you’d like to help me brace for the shock you can always buy me a cuppa…

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A book about archaeology at Ur

I’ve been trying to use lockdown as a prompt to read the books languishing unread on my bookshelves. It’s proving full of delightful surprises, and is also making OneMonkey and I clear out a stupid number of books – more of which in a later post, I’m sure. The latest discovery is this slim volume, Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Woolley was in charge of British Museum excavations in the 1920s at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq, and this is his account, written in 1929 (though I have the 1952 revised edition, and I think there are modern editions as well).

You may recall I read a book called Footsteps by Bruce Norman last year, about nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological expeditions and the birth of scientific archaeology. This book on Ur was a nice coda to that, being an expedition right at the end of the time period covered in Footsteps. Woolley describes techniques that made me wince, and I’m sure Professor Mick Aston from Time Team would have thrown up his hands in horror at them, but he is using the most up to date techniques available to him and contrasts them with the plundering seventy years earlier which has damaged some of the remains. I mention Time Team not just because I love the programme, but because Woolley’s descriptions of techniques, practicalities and frustrations reminded me of it. It struck me that this swiftly-produced book was the pre-television age version: an insight into the excavations for a popular audience, educating and entertaining in equal measure.

The title is, I believe, a biblical reference which was lost on me, something to do with Abraham. However, I do vaguely recall Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus from primary school religious studies, and both those kings crop up here. As does Hammurabi, whose eye-for-an-eye code of law I remember learning about in history when I was about twelve. Basically, I know more about ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kings than I thought I did, and you probably do too. Not that it matters, because Woolley’s enthusiasm carried me through. The edition I have is 164 pages including the index, which is short enough to be casually and quickly readable. I did get a bit confused about layouts, because there are only twenty-seven black and white photos and a few line drawings in the whole book, but on the whole I got a sense of wonder and discovery as he described unearthing the different layers and artefacts. Amazingly, one of the places they excavated was a museum of antiquities! A site from around 600BCE where objects already at least a thousand years old were gathered as a teaching resource, it seems. A fascinating thought.

Trying to make out details on the small pictures included in this paperback, I wished I could see the objects themselves. He was digging for the British Museum, I realised – they must have pictures somewhere, they’re good at that. What they’ve actually got is a Google street view of the gallery, so you can (if you’re better at controlling street view than I am) walk through the gallery as though you were there. And the same goes for the rest of the museum, I think. I did also discover a British Museum blog post, which I haven’t explored but I think suggests there’s a new online Woolley/Ur resource somewhere. I had a wonderful time spotting objects in the gallery that I recognised either from the photos in the book or from Woolley’s descriptions. To have read about the difficulties of identifying or excavating them gave me much more of a connection than if I’d simply looked through the objects without reading about them first.

Possibly I’m just slow on the uptake and everyone else who’s missing museums has been tripping through the rooms of their favourites in a virtual way for months. However, I realised that in a similar way I could ‘visit’ museums I’ll never get to in real life. It is vaguely possible my London-based friend will persuade me to the British Museum once all this corona-horror is over, but I’ll never go to Cairo or Washington or St Petersburg but chances are their museums have virtual tours too. In the meantime I’ve also discovered, courtesy of OneMonkey, a reddit channel where people post photos of man-made objects, many of them ancient, from all around the world.

So, Ur of the Chaldees has earnt its continuing place on my bookshelves, next to Footsteps. Unusually for my second-hand books I have no recollection of where it came from or when I acquired it. It’s not ex-library, I can’t imagine anyone giving me it as a present, and I can see no evidence of a rubbed-out price from a charity shop. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in the first place, or why I then didn’t read it for years. However, I dare say I’ve appreciated it more after Footsteps than I might have done if I’d read it a couple of years ago so all in all, I’m glad I put it off.

If I’ve helped you discover some wonders you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Short amusing fiction

I have a new story up this week, Silver-Topped Cane at Funny Pearls. They referred to it as ‘bona fide comedy’, so if that sounds enticing, go and have a read. It’s the story of Barry, his flamboyant dream of a more adventurous and creative life, and cruel reality.

This is an actual silver-topped cane I found for sale online

I say it’s a new story – this version is new. I dusted it off recently and rewrote it, but it must be 3 years since I took an earlier, longer incarnation along to an Ilkley Writers critique night in the pub, and it wasn’t new then. I didn’t really know what to do with a funny story. So many places want thought-provoking stories, poetic language, the serious and dark. I write plenty of dark things but now and then I need a laugh. We all do, particularly mid-pandemic if we can manage it. So hurrah for Funny Pearls, a site for humour by women, which has enough short humour to keep you going for a while. Because it’s free to read the writers don’t get paid for their work, so if you enjoy a story consider supporting the writer – that can be as simple as saying you liked it on social media. You never know when the word of mouth chain will lead to paying work.

I’ll give you a brief bit of background and a quote, then you can wander off and read it for yourself. Barry is called Barry because it’s a very Victoria Wood character name, and I’m a great admirer of her. His alter ego J Orpington Spadina was inspired by my flatmates at university twenty-odd years ago: one was from Toronto, near the Spadina subway station. The other thought this was such a pleasing name that in the unlikely event of them writing a novel it would be under the name Spadina – I forget the forename they chose so I made up one with a nice rhythm. It turns out (I looked it up yesterday) that Orpington is actually a place near London. Go figure, as the Toronto flatmate would have said.

If anyone asked – and they were sure to, for what was a silver-topped cane if not a conversational gambit – he would claim to be a poet.

Silver-Topped Cane by JY Saville

If you enjoy Silver-Topped Cane you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Dealing with rejection as a writer

Everyone who’s ever tried to be a writer knows there’s a lot of rejection involved. You might have seen my rejection round-up of 2020 just before Christmas, I’d had over a hundred failed submissions by that point and I added a few more before the year was out. I listed them there as submissions that were ‘rejected or ignored’. I referred to them a moment ago as submissions that ‘failed’. Harsh words, all.

Photo by burak kostak on Pexels.com

Now, it might strike you as odd for someone who works with words, but personally I don’t mind what we call the non-acceptances. I’ve seen arguments for ‘acceptances and declinations’ – you decline a party invitation, you don’t tend to reject it. Though I guess it depends who’s asking. Submittable, one of the most popular submission managers, labels completed transactions as Accepted or Declined. In the common parlance, however, it’s rejections. And it comes with as much psychological baggage as you might expect.

It’s easy to feel like the editor is rejecting your writing, throwing it over as not worth bothering with, even rejecting you, the writer, altogether. Particularly if it’s your third rejection this morning, your eighth from that magazine, and your twenty-third for that story. However, usually – admittedly not always – they are not rejecting you as a writer, probably not really ‘rejecting’ that story. It may be that if you’d submitted that same story for the previous issue they’d have taken it, or they’ll snap up the next thing you send them. In the meantime, here’s a couple of tips from me that might help take the sting out. I might have had a fair few stories accepted now but I’ve had way more than that rejected, so I have useful experience…

Copy the nice bits from rejections into your spreadsheet

What do you mean you don’t have a spreadsheet? If you want to keep track of all your submissions regardless of whether you emailed an attachment, used Submittable, or filled in a contact form on a website, a spreadsheet is the logical way to go. Make a few columns with simple headings so you know what you sent where, when, and what the outcome was. I have a wide notes column at the end, and if I got any personal feedback whatsoever, it goes in there in quotation marks so I know I’ve lifted it verbatim from a response. Even if it’s a standard rejection of the ‘but please try us again’ type, I’ll quote that encouraging phrase. That way, when I feel like abandoning a particular story I can look back through some of the positive responses I’ve got for it – or similar stories – before and take heart. Or if I feel like maybe I’ve lost the knack, I can remind myself of the encouraging things editors have said about recent stories that haven’t quite made it (or that have made it – the excited ‘yes please’ with the reasons why, is a good thing to keep here too).

Screenshot praise for your work on Twitter (particularly from strangers)

This one makes me sound vain, I know. Maybe I am. I’m definitely human though, and flicking through praise for published work perks me up when I’m having a day where I start wondering if I should give up on this writing lark. Friends and supportive acquaintances are likely to have said nice things which, on a bad day, you will convince yourself arose from obligation. This is why I strongly advise you to store away any praise from strangers. You will need to be having a seriously bad, beyond redemption, day to convince yourself that the stranger was being polite or had mistaken you for someone else. I mention Twitter because it’s where I hang out, but comments left on online stories, relevant paragraphs from a review of the anthology you were in, anything that you can look at later that reminds you someone enjoyed your writing and took the time and trouble to say so.

If you’re just starting out, build up a store of these things as you go along. If you’ve been going for a while and you suffer from self-doubt, trust me when I say it’s worth trawling back through the rejection emails to copy the nice bits into your spreadsheet. And if you enjoy someone’s writing, say so – you might not only make their day today, but cheer them up in years to come.

If this has helped, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Wyldblood Magazine issue 1

Wyldblood Magazine is the new bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine from Wyldblood Press. For the writers, it’s a paying market based in the UK. For readers, it’s 11 stories ranging between 4 and 10 pages each, plus an author interview (Tiffani Angus) and some book reviews. The editor Mark Bilsborough was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here’s a quick scoot through what you can expect.

Coal Dust and Shadows by Holley Cornetto is a good old-fashioned eerie story set in a mining town in the USA. An odd girl is rescued from a mine, and seventeen-year-old Preston’s in love. But is this silent girl as innocent as she seems? One of my favourites from this issue.

Thawing by JL George is firmly in the realm of fantasy, set in a world where cold-bringing dragons are feared. A young girl is enthralled by the legend of the ice princess but how close is it to the truth?

The Butcher’s Dog by Peri Dwyer Worrell is a light-hearted tale of animal experiments, narrated by the dog of the title. Who is really in charge in this human-canine relationship?

A Gleam of Gold by Dorothy A Winsor is a fantasy tale in a land where magic is seen as barbaric. We meet Jarka as he begins to learn the mastery of his magical skills. This reads like a selfcontained excerpt from a longer story, there’s definitely a sense of a fully-formed world out there with a past and a future.

Bargaining with Frogs by Stephanie Kraner is a fun take on the frog prince fairytale.

Et In Vanadia Ego by Rosemary Sgroi is science-fiction. In a society geared for cyclists, where energy is currency, a young man has fallen in love with a woman from Vanadia, the last outpost of capitalism.

Little Escher by Robert Borski. Is there more to a little boy’s drawing ability than his father thinks?

A Murder of Crows by Jacey Bedford is a gripping story with a noir edge. Anka works for the Port Authority, basically she’s a cop, and having just lost an apprentice she’s determined to go it alone when her greatest foe shows up in the city. My personal favourite, I think, and anyone else with a fondness for William Gibson’s style will probably also love this one.

The Paint-Over Artist by Mark Rigney is sci-fi initially feeling like fantasy. A secluded authoritarian state, and the woman whose job it is to paint over graffiti and subversive slogans. Another favourite of mine.

Souls of Smoke and Ash by Sydney Paige Guerrero is set in the Philippines and nudges into vampire territory without the gore. It’s a compelling character-driven tale of betrayal, teenage identity and loneliness.

The Klizzys by Bonnie West is a sad and unsettling tale of a grieving child and imaginary friends.

The stories range in tone from light-hearted to dark and tense, and cover sub-genres across the speculative spectrum. Not every story will be to everyone’s taste, and it’s skewed towards fantasy but only because the submissions were, I think – if you want to redress the balance submit some good sci-fi, or nudge your favourite sci-fi short story writer to do so. Wyldblood magazine has the potential to become one of those broad-taste SF mags like Interzone, where you know you’ll find stories of a certain calibre and there’s sure to be something to entice you, even if you won’t like every story in every issue.

The interview with Tiffani Angus was interesting and really made me want to read her novel – my To Read list just keeps on growing. Threading the Labyrinth is essentially about the garden of a large English house, over several centuries. She gave some insight into the amount (and types) of research involved in writing real history with fantasy and time travel elements. The editor then rounds out the issue with a few book reviews – most of them seem to be books that didn’t quite satisfy him! However, he gives the sort of detailed reasons that should help you work out whether the book still sounds like it’s your cup of tea.

It would be nice to see some commissioned artwork in the magazine but I know that racks up the costs so maybe it’s unrealistic at this early stage. It can enhance a good SF story though. I guess you’d expect that viewpoint from the founder of International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Issue 2 is due out mid-March as print, pdf, epub and mobi editions. You can buy individual print or electronic copies or take out a subscription at the Wyldblood website, individual copies are also available via Amazon.

January’s over. Has your resolution fizzled?

We’ve reached the end of January and if your new year’s writing resolution has hit the rocks you’re not alone. As anyone who’s ever done NaNoWriMo can tell you, it’s possible to sustain feverish wordcount-building and dedicated writing time for a month if you live alone, or with understanding types who’ll let you slack off the housework. Eventually, however, normal life creeps back in. Particularly in 2021, the unappreciated sequel to the year from hell. It probably doesn’t help that you or those around you (or in the media) are coming to the end of their own challenges like Dry January or Veganuary, or the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. So, what to do?

It’s worth stepping back and taking another look at your writing resolution. Did you feel like your brain was turning to mush and you wanted to get creative? Did you dip into some online writing workshops during last year’s lockdown and want to make more of it this year? Is it an old habit you want to reawaken? Do you already write and the resolution involved finishing a novel, submitting more stories, writing a set number of words a week? Get specific, and then dig down to the intention.

Now think about why you’re faltering. Be honest – only you need ever know this reason! Have you lost momentum? Do you feel like you’re floundering? Have you set an unrealistic target? Have you set the wrong kind of target? Are you less than enthused by your creative efforts? Have you fallen out of love with your novel?

You wanted bitesize but you don’t like the taste

For example, you may have wanted to take up the haiku a day habit one of your friends acquired last year, because you feel like it’s an easily achievable way to stir up your brain. Only it turns out you don’t really like haikus, and counting the syllables is fiddly and you always go wrong in the third line. So why not try another daily short piece of writing? One creative paragraph, or a tweet-length story. Write down or compose in your head or say aloud a descriptive sentence. You can keep it straightforward, make it start with a particular letter, or play with alliteration as OneMonkey and I sometimes do while waiting for the kettle to boil – e.g. chicken cat food might be described as perfectly packaged processed poultry for picky pussycats (yes, that’s a real one of ours…).

Use objects around the house as prompts, like tins of cat food, or look for pictures online – beware procrastination here. Write a weekly rainbow: Monday=red, Tuesday=orange etc. For word-based prompts there’s #vss365 which is a Twitter-based daily story prompt – write a tweet-length story incorporating the word they give you. You can join in on Twitter or keep it to yourself if you prefer. You could sign up to Merriam-Webster word of the day emails, or visit the Collins dictionary word of the day and you might learn something as well.

You’ve run out of steam

I always have a burst of energy, confidence and enthusiasm for writing at the start of the year. There’s usually a BBC script deadline and the Northern Writers’ Awards deadline in the first couple of months, and the time off (and mince pies) over Christmas seem to give me renewed determination. I submit, often to schemes, magazines or commissions that could be seen as ambitious or totally out of my reach depending on your point of view. Then I lose a bit of momentum and start questioning my plans, and nothing I write seems quite up to scratch.

If this is where you are, you might have picked the wrong project to write. Or the wrong time to write that project. There is no inherent ‘failure’ in that. Try putting it aside for a while and working on something else. Try approaching it obliquely, maybe doing writing exercises but always using the characters from it or the world it’s set in. I have never got on with character questionnaires but some people swear by them. If you haven’t written an outline of your story, try that. If you’re stuck on your outline, try diving into a scene. Maybe a novel is not for you and you were happier when you wrote poetry, or vice versa. Maybe you’re not having as much fun writing as you expected and you’d be happier reading a book or watching some finely crafted TV drama instead. There is no ‘failure’ implicit there, either.

Assuming you do want to keep going, accountability can keep you on track so tell a friend, colleague, parent or whoever will radiate vague disappointment if you confess you haven’t stuck to your plan. Ask them to ask you how it’s going every week, or every day if you can stand it. I’ve seen people commit to tweeting their wordcount daily, so their own shame keeps them going (can backfire if you hit a blip). A writing group might also keep you on track. There are various write-ins going on online, for instance Northern Writers Studio has a weekly session which is free during lockdown I believe, where everyone turns up and writes at the same time – you don’t have to be based in northern England to take part. Or have a go at Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Bootcamp, daily audio tracks to listen to including a period of silence to attempt the exercise. I tried it last year and enjoyed it but I only got to week 4 because by then I was firing on all cylinders again and eager to get back to my project.

Approach February with a calendar and pen

Don’t underestimate simple motivation techniques. Reward yourself with a chocolate biscuit or ten minutes on Twitter. Keep lists. Make colourful spreadsheets. Write on calendars which might be going cheap by now, or draw your own grid to colour in – look at habit trackers in general for inspiration. Ideally you want to stick to achievements, so when you’re sagging you can go, ‘But look how many submissions I’ve made, words I’ve written, days I’ve done some writing on’. You can also use calendars to mark on goals and deadlines but beware of unrealistic goal-setting and too many story competitions you won’t enter, as that can make you feel like a failure.

You’re under too much pressure

Maybe you’ve read the writing habits of successful authors and thought you needed to get up an hour early and write a thousand words before breakfast, or on Boxing Day you managed 500 words while everyone else watched a film so that’s the daily goal you set. It’s hard to write every day when you have other commitments. Even if you manage every day you might not manage the same time of day and you might not manage much. Every sentence you write this week is a sentence that didn’t exist last week. Sentences build up, slowly but surely into paragraphs and then longer stories. Recalibrate your expectations. Tot up what you’ve written, not how much you missed the target by. Nearly four years ago I wrote about the pressures of a rigid target, it’s probably worth a read. Have a think about the goals or targets you set. Did you set a daily wordcount goal when what you really wanted was to write every day, or to get a first draft finished by your birthday? You could try Sarah Rhea Werner‘s podcast Write Now, I think she presupposes that her listeners are trying to write around day-jobs, family life etc and she is quite gentle (and currently doing write-ins of the kind mentioned above). She also writes and stars in a superb sci-fi drama called Girl in Space.

You don’t know what you’re doing

Most of us are winging it most of the time. So on the one hand, don’t worry. On the other, it’s always a good thing to learn new skills. Is there really some aspect of writing that’s holding you back or are you just nervous? There are so many free resources out there if you’re moving into a new area this year, for instance plays, sitcoms, or novels. A quick search should turn up articles, videos or podcasts that might help. There’s an abundance of courses you can pay for and instructional books you can buy, too. Chances are it’s not really that you need to do a course about endings in short stories, however, you might just need to keep trying, keep reading other stories and working out what you like about their endings, and then try some more. However, January is not the only time you can start a new habit so by all means go off and learn how best to approach a screenplay and then come back to the ‘write a page of my screenplay a day’ in March or April. Or mid-February, it’s entirely up to you.

In conclusion then: work out why you’re grinding to a halt; remember what you were really aiming for when you made this writing resolution; figure out if you want to carry on; recalibrate for February if you do. Best of luck!

If I’ve helped you get back on track you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Giordano Bruno as a fictional character

Back in the Before times, when I browsed charity shop bookshelves regularly, I kept spotting SJ Parris novels and thinking for a moment they were CJ Sansom novels. That’s probably the intention behind the fonts and general vibe of the covers. Eventually I picked one up and discovered that they seemed to be sixteenth century spy thrillers, rather than the sixteenth century crime of Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series, and parked the knowledge for later. I have a history of getting confused by the subtleties of spy tales. However, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the series as the central character was Giordano Bruno.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of physics you’ll have come across Giordano Bruno, the mad monk. I talked about him briefly in my dash through celestial mechanics at York Festival of Ideas in 2018 because in among some of his more outlandish theories he suggested things that turned out to be true. Here’s what I said about him, in my section on challenging dogma:

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after 7 years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, though before long most of his worldview replaced that of medieval Christianity. He wasn’t an astronomer, his theories were based on neither experiment nor observation, he dealt in philosophy, really, though I’ve seen him described as “a renegade monk” which conjures up an interesting image. He often comes between Copernicus and Kepler in history of science books, but that’s the benefit of hindsight again. He suggested that the earth moves round the sun and that the sun moves; that there’s no such thing as a point absolutely at rest; that the stars are at vast and various distances from the solar system and that they are themselves centres of comparable systems; that the universe is infinite and can provide no criterion of fixity, and that our solar system is in no sense the centre of the universe. Which, as you can imagine, kind of annoyed the church who liked the idea that Man was special. Anyway, alongside all this fantastic stuff, way ahead of its time, he also had some strange ideas in the same way as Kepler and his mysticism or Newton and his alchemy. So was Bruno a crank with some lucky guesses or an insightful thinker? And would you have known what to make of him, without several centuries of hindsight?

You can see why I might be interested, then. And why I couldn’t resist a book of three Giordano Bruno novellas by SJ Parris on offer for 99p when I was browsing the Kobo store for new reading material at the start of January.

The first story, The Secret Dead, is set in 1566 when Bruno is 18 and has recently taken his vows, and contains both a murder mystery and the dangers of exploring science when the Inquisition are on the prowl. It was a bit gruesome in the dissection scene – remember, at the time scientists didn’t stick to what we think of as different disciplines – but I zipped through it. It felt close to being a Shardlake-Cadfael mash-up and I enjoyed the first-person perspective on the hypocrisies of the church.

I ran out of steam during the second one, however, The Academy of Secrets, set when Bruno is 20. I think there are several reasons, some to do with reading it as an e-book and some to do with Bruno as a character. I’ve come to realise how much I rely on the blurb on the back of a paperback, which of course is missing from an e-book, though I could go to the website and read it there. I take my cues on what to focus on from what is deemed important enough for the paragraph on the back cover. So I’m wondering if the incident I’ve just read is an aside, a sub-plot, or the main thrust of the novella. And because I don’t know how far through that story I am (I can never remember how to set a bookmark so I can get back to where I just was, so I don’t want to check the contents list and lose my place) I don’t have the cue from page-count either – if I’ve got two pages left that’s very different from having fifteen pages left. Though I haven’t read an awful lot about Bruno, he’s cropped up now and then from my undergraduate physics days onwards and I’d formed some kind of idea of him that doesn’t match this rendering. From these stories, Bruno is being played by a young Rufus Sewell in my head – a handsome philandering youth who is also interested in forbidden scientific writings. I had always thought of him as an austere solitary thinker.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is Bruno’s youth, and not having enough story to get my teeth into. Both of which would be solved by reading the first novel, Heresy, which is set in 1583 so would make Bruno 35. The novella and a half (or maybe three-quarters) that I’ve read so far are well-written, and I imagine fans of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series would find much to interest them. I may well come back to the novellas, and dip into the first novel, when I’ve severed Giordano Bruno the fictional character from my idea of Giordano Bruno the figure from the history of science.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Reflections on rejections in 2020

I have an 87% rejection rate this year so far. Wow.

Inspired by Katie Hale’s recent post I thought I’d summarise my 2020 experience as a writer through submission and rejection stats, in case it’s comforting to fellow writers or interesting to readers. It should be noted that my 28-hour-a-week day-job ended at the end of March, after which I threw myself into writing as a distraction from the news and it all got a bit feverish for a while. I calmed down as the year went on.

As I write this in mid-December I’ve made 140 submissions. That includes 32 short stories/flash, 7 pieces of creative non-fiction, 5 novels, and 13 scripts. I’ve pitched articles and applied for commissions (unsuccessfully so far), sent pieces to journals and anthologies, entered competitions, sent partial or whole novels to agents and publishers, sent scripts to BBC opportunities or open calls, and probably more besides. I’ve heard back from 125 of those (or the ‘if you haven’t heard by…’ date has passed) and 109 of them, that’s 87%, were out and out rejections or silence. For context, in 2019 I made 39 submissions and had a 90% rejection rate, so this is an improvement of sorts. Still, that’s a lot of rejection for one year, particularly when it’s already pretty shabby. Until April I was still getting 2019 rejections trickling in too.

On the plus side – and I really do want to focus on plus sides this year – that’s sixteen times in 2020 when I got an acceptance in a magazine, or won a competition, or someone asked to read the rest of my novel after they’d read the first 3 chapters. I’d never had a full manuscript read before but by the end of this year I’d had three small publishers express interest in reading from chapter four onwards, two for one novel, one for another. One of them has since said no, but the other two are technically still potential acceptances [Late edit: a second no, but with helpful feedback]. I have seen two actors take on my monologue scripts and bring them to life wonderfully, and this month I found out a short radio drama of mine will be recorded next year as one of the winners in the Script Yorkshire competition.

Even some of the full-on rejections have had silver linings. I have received ‘encouraging’ rejections more times this year than ever before, including those form rejections that ask the writer to submit again sometime. Before this year I dismissed those as mere politeness that costs the editor nothing, but I’m coming to understand that in general they do mean it and when I get a rejection like that I feel pretty good about it now. I’ve also received some more concrete near-misses – thank you to all the editors who took the time to give me even one line of feedback. It’s still frustrating to know a piece didn’t get accepted because someone else had already sent a similar topic, or they were put off by that one line I wasn’t sure about and should have taken out (ask me to change it – I’d probably be happy to! I know, I know, you don’t have time for the extra emails and not everyone would take kindly to the suggestion, but a girl can dream).

I made 35 quid from writing this year, one payment on publication for a story accepted last year, one payment on acceptance for a creative nonfiction piece due out in 2021. Unfortunately I’d already spent 26 quid on competition entries and submission fees. The monetary gain wasn’t much but I’m finishing the year with twelve stories, sixteen scripts and two novels, either written from scratch or finally finished or substantially reworked in 2020. I’ve started another couple that have potential but aren’t quite there yet, too. The astute among you will notice that I wrote more scripts than I sent out (partly confidence issues, partly not finding a suitable place to send it) and sent out more stories than I wrote. I have stories I absolutely believe in that I wrote years ago, and while some people might say it’s time to put them away, I’d point to the story I had published this year that I wrote in 2013, and the novel I got my first full manuscript request for, which hit the end of its first draft in 2011.

So what can we take away from this? Persistence and self-delusion are useful traits in a writer? Maybe. I’ve written stuff I’m really proud of this year, and I hope some of it’s made people think, and some of it’s given them a laugh in this bleak year. I’ve had my confidence boosted in some areas (scripts and novels) and it makes sense to concentrate on them next year. I’m also intent on applying for grants for the projects I want to do, instead of letting all the bureaucracy put me off as I have this year. Let’s hope 2021 is better than 2020, and may you read as many good books as you need.

Here’s a quick run-down of what you can read or watch from me this year:

Starting in April there was I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a dark comedy monologue produced by Slackline Productions, directed by Callie Nestleroth and starring the fab Susannah May. Watch it on Youtube (and catch up on the whole Slackline Cyberstories series while you’re at it, there are some under-rated gems in there) and you can read a bit about it here.

In May there was a short comedy monologue as part of the Rapid Reel challenge. I wrote about taking part, and you can watch A Ferret Too Far, admirably portrayed by Alan Cammish on Twitter here.

May also saw the Dortmund leg of the Leeds-Dortmund 50th anniversary town-twinning, for which I wrote Upstairs Left (flash fiction on living in flats, on this page: https://leedsdortmund50.com/the-work/open-writing) and a prose poem which you can hear me read at https://dortmundleeds50.de/was-uns-verbindet/ (click on the cherry blossom photo).

In June I had a splurge of fiction: light-hearted gay romance Evidently Lovestruck at Truffle magazine and angry pandemic-inspired Twelve Weeks’ Rest in the first issue of Untitled:Voices. You can read a bit about them both here. I also had prose poetry at FEED, Eyes Front.

In October Secret Attic shared my 1980s flash Stolen Warmth, about being a kid & thinking your parents are just being mean when they won’t put the heating on, and Ellipsis Zine printed my flash memoir Dream On in their eighth anthology, You, Me, and Emmylou which you can buy here.

Issue 14 of Confingo came out last month, which you can buy if you’d like to read a dark story of mine called 24 Years, 361 Days (they’re the ones who paid me – thanks Confingo!). And if you enjoyed any or all of that, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

Merry Christmas!

Disconnected from popular culture: 2020 special

I’ve mentioned before how I’m adrift from popular culture and the majority experience as portrayed in the media. I haven’t owned a TV since March 2002, I don’t read tabloids, wear make-up, follow fashion, or own a car or dishwasher. Ordinarily it means I don’t always get the references on Radio 4 comedies – I haven’t seen the advert or sitcom they’re referring to, or I haven’t experienced the frustration they’re talking about since I don’t own a smartphone. Trivial stuff, on the whole. At its worst it makes me feel old, that I’ve been left behind by modern life, but then I see some spat on Twitter and I’m glad I’ve never bothered to find out who Kim Kardashian is. I shrug and get on with it. 2020, however, is a different matter.

This year of turmoil is the ultimate in ‘all in this together’. As a human being, never mind a writer, I should be carefully observing all these changes to everyday life so I can look back on this notable, disruptive year. The insidious little things like adding ‘mask’ to the leaving-the-house checklist, or ‘you need to unmute’ becoming a kind of catchphrase. And yet, largely, I’m not experiencing them.

Because my day-job contract was about to end anyway when lockdown hit in March, I spent eight days working the day-job from home. Eight. During the mad scramble phase where we knew certain systems wouldn’t work and we were leaving some complex tasks ‘until we got back to the office’. It felt like a crisis and an intriguing novelty at the same time, but it also felt temporary, for my colleagues as well as for me. I never had to face the realisation that we wouldn’t be going back to the office anytime soon, or the protracted loneliness of interacting with colleagues in a work context but not getting to natter to them in the kitchen anymore. I didn’t even have the forced jollity of a morale-boosting quiz night in Microsoft Teams. All I had to do was accept that my rainbow striped mug was out of reach on a desk that was no longer mine and my leaving drinks weren’t going to happen, even the ‘come back and have a proper goodbye in the summer’ version. And since I’d been planning on taking the rest of the year to concentrate on my writing I haven’t (yet) had to look for jobs during a time of major redundancies, or do an interview via Zoom, or be a new starter when everyone’s working remotely.

OneMonkey worked from home most of the time pre-pandemic, so we’d been expecting to be at home together most days from April onwards. We’d worked like that before, when I took my previous writing-focused break (Nov 2016 – Mar 2018). It’s been weird not having one day a week where he’s in the office so I’m not tempted to wander into the next room and chat when I reach a tricky plot knot, but not that far removed from our plans. We don’t have children so we never had to juggle any of this with home-schooling or try to explain to a toddler why they can’t go to the park and play on the swings. Because neither of us had unexpected downtime, we didn’t bake sourdough or take up new hobbies, and I haven’t caught up on classic books I’d been meaning to read, in fact I’ve read less than normal.

I didn’t have a camera on the computer I was doing my day-job from so I never took part in a video meeting while worrying about my PJ bottoms becoming visible if I stretched. My laptop doesn’t cope well with playing video, and the tablet we have only seems to consistently pick up my mic if I’m in a Zoom break-out room with fewer than 4 participants so I’ve generally avoided events on Zoom that aren’t simply presentations. Against my better judgement I’ve signed up for the odd one that requires interaction, then got frustrated as I can only make myself heard intermittently, and can’t type on the chat fast enough to take part in the conversation. I have never been interrupted by a pet or family member wandering into shot, oblivious.

The big one I’m missing out on is the mask. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been mixing indoors without one, I mean I haven’t been anywhere. I’m easily flustered and my dodgy back means I often can’t carry much shopping, so back in early March when we decided it was fairer on retail staff if we didn’t shop as a pair (before that became the rule) it fell to OneMonkey to do all of the grocery shopping. He took photos of the empty shelves to show me because I thought all the talk of panic-buying was exagerated nonsense. Mid-April I walked down the local high street for the first time since lockdown and marvelled at the Easter displays fading in shop windows, beneath posters still advertising events for March. It felt weirdly post-apocalyptic but on the plus side it was possible to dance along the main road watching red kites soar overhead, a road that’s normally hard to cross due to the amount of traffic – unless it’s shut for the Tour de Yorkshire.

I took the phrase ‘non-essential’ to heart, and decided when the shops re-opened it wasn’t worth risking passing the virus around just because I fancied buying a new notebook or browsing through the books in a charity shop. I don’t even know if you were allowed to browse through the books in a charity shop. This is the kind of detail I’ll be unaware of if I choose to set any fiction in this pandemic era. I haven’t been to a city since March 16th – I haven’t been anywhere I can’t reasonably walk to. I have no pressing need, and our local council has been consistently advising that public transport should only be used if unavoidable (remember, we have no car). I get claustrophobic just thinking about being on a train for half an hour with a mask on, anyway. Consequently I haven’t seen the changes wrought by remote working except through photos online. Neither have I had socially-distanced meetings with friends or family, or been inside a pub or restaurant under the new guidelines. I don’t know how people have been behaving, how you choose your pint from the selection of guest ales, what the new signs look like (are they using signs or is it gaffer tape on the floor, or a system of roped-off areas?). I don’t know the new retail etiquette, or if there is any new etiquette, how people queue when they can’t get close, how conversations arise if everyone’s wearing a mask.

So as usual I’m listening to Radio 4 comedies and either not getting the references at all, or recalling an article I’ve read about it in The Guardian. But somehow it doesn’t feel as trivial as usual. In one way, the writer way if you like, it feels like a missed opportunity to observe a (hopefully) temporary phenomenon. On a human level I also feel guilty that I’ve largely dodged this, like I’m shirking some kind of responsibility. It also serves as a reminder that Radio 4 comedies with their white-collar Zoom-laden rule-of-six vibe haven’t been reflecting the experience of everyone. People who have been working as normal in supermarkets, hospitals or factories for instance, or were living under tight restrictions in the north even before the new all-England lockdown. Like my sisters, whose situation as undervalued ‘key workers’ inspired me to write the short story Twelve Weeks’ Rest during the first lockdown. And I’m not saying Radio 4 is always entirely middle-class and London-centric, but that does make the times feel somehow more normal.

If you enjoyed Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can always buy me a cuppa…

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