writing

Longlisted for the CWIP short story prize!

My entry to the inaugural Comedy Women in Print short story prize has made the longlist! There are no links to anyone’s websites or social media (yet) so we can’t all check out their work but I do recognise a couple of names on there and I’m happy to be in such company.

JY Saville author photo
Author photo of a comedy woman in print

Sadly you don’t get to read my highly amusing longlisted story, You Can’t Get There From Here, but here are a few other things I’ve written in the last couple of years that are intended to make you laugh:

  • Episode 1 of my one-woman (+1 cat) sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays is available wherever you get your podcasts (listen-in-browser or find the appropriate links here)
  • I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a short film by Slackline Productions starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth is available here
  • Or if you prefer something to read, Silver-Topped Cane is a short story at Funny Pearls

If you enjoy any of them, you can always buy me a cuppa. Excuse me while I go off and dance…

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So, I wrote a sitcom podcast

Remember how I did James Cary‘s sitcom course last year? And then realised that writing a radio sitcom was a daft idea because you’re either competing for Radio 4 or you have to do your own podcast? Well, I’ve done my own podcast. It’s called Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen right here:

Episode 2: Book-signing Lee-Ann's Spare Fridays

Lee-Ann gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

I had a pilot script for a sitcom that I was working on during the course (until I got diverted by an idea for a historical sitcom, which I still can’t quite get right). It was about a woman who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research local history – can you tell she’s partly inspired by me? Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister* who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends her entire Friday trying to get her sister off her case so she can have a free Friday.

*I should point out that although I have two older sisters, neither of them are remotely like Gina. Though Sister Number One did once say that I spent too much time reading about life instead of experiencing it, and she’s not that keen on cats either.

I wasn’t sure I’d quite got the script right – I remember having a conversation with James about how to ensure Lee-Ann wasn’t simply reacting to her sister Gina, and how to make her a funny character in her own right (I hope I solved that one in the end). Even after the diversion into the historical sitcom though, I kept coming back to Lee-Ann. I liked the entangled but antagonistic relationship with Gina, and I liked her dry, laid-back neighbour Douglas. Was it likely to bump Ed Reardon from a Radio 4 slot? Probably not. Did I want to make it? Of course I did. I wasn’t owed any favours by actors though, so I shelved the podcast idea.

And then I remembered how much I enjoyed reading my stories aloud, and how I’d written well-received comedy monologues before. I set about adapting the script to be told entirely from Lee-Ann’s point of view, but still with the odd scene-setting sound effect, and with scene-breaks. So it has the length and structure of a half-hour radio sitcom episode, but it’s all in one voice (except for Lord Salisbury the cat who is expertly played by Parkin, one of my cats).

So if a monologue sitcom about two sisters needling each other in a Yorkshire village sounds like it might be your bag, scroll back up and give it a go. If you enjoy it, subscribe so you hear about episode 2 then tell your friends, and if you’re grabbed by the Christmas spirit you could even buy me a cuppa…

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Amazing what you find when you’re clearing out

Photo by Giallo on Pexels.com

Ten years ago I entered a Sherlock Holmes-inspired flash fiction competition. I forget the exact criteria but I didn’t get anywhere, and never knew what to do with the resulting short tale about the impossibility of time travel. Having finally mothballed my decaying laptop I’m tidying up the file structure on the new (second-hand) desktop and stumbling across forgotten stories, including that one. It’s less than 500 words long, so if you fancy a small piece of Victorian-set SF, read on, and if you enjoy it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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When you’ve eliminated the impossible…

“Carstairs, you simply must come,” insisted young Fotherington. “How could you miss the chance to use a time machine?”


Professor Carstairs sighed. In twenty minutes of argument his delightful cousin’s foolish husband had failed to take on board the basic principle that such a machine was a physical impossibility. It was all the fault of that bounder Wells and his sensational literature. If only more people had read Conan Doyle’s excellent stories in The Strand instead.


“How indeed?” Carstairs said. Fotherington beamed at this apparent capitulation, and set about writing to the friend who had invited them for the weekend.


By the time they boarded the train on Friday, the professor was looking forward to the trip. Since the machine couldn’t really transport anyone through time, he wanted to ascertain whether the perception was created through physical or psychological means. In short, did the experience involve the administration of drugs or a subtle blend of auditory stimuli and the power of suggestion.


They had almost arrived when Fotherington said, “I knew you’d come round in the end, Carstairs.”


“Fotherington, you do understand that the supposed inventor of this machine, your friend’s new acquaintance, is either a fraud or a fool? Or both.”


“Carstairs!”


“There are laws of physics which absolutely forbid -“


“Wasn’t it once a law of physics that the sun went round the earth?” asked Fotherington, his smile suggesting his clever friend had been caught out.


“That wasn’t a law of physics, it was a piece of dogma which has since been overthrown.”

#

The breathless Fotherington found Professor Carstairs prowling their host’s library later that afternoon.


“Carstairs, it was marvellous. I threw back a lever and fetched up in Elizabethan times, I could hear feasting.”


“Hear?” Carstairs raised an eyebrow. This hinted at the drug-free theory of subtle suggestion.


“Yes,” said Fotherington. “The chap said stay in the shadows and don’t interact with anyone.”


Carstairs smiled and followed Fotherington to the contraption which had been built into a closet. He shook hands with the inventor and settled himself inside, nudging the lever gently forwards. There was a prolonged mechanical whirring, a flash of light, and then silence. Carstairs opened the closet door expecting Fotherington, but found an empty room. The light seemed different and he cursed himself – the handshake must have been a means of transferring an hallucinogenic substance.


“…doesn’t matter what I saw on Friday, I’m not convinced, Fotherington.”


Carstairs heard a familiar voice and two sets of footsteps approaching. As the door to the room opened, he came face to face with himself wearing a look of abject horror.

What makes a satisfying biography?

I was listening to Gideon Coe’s BBC6Music programme on BBCSounds, as I do most days, only for a change I actually listened to the Late Night Book Club segment which he includes from time to time. With apologies to Mr Coe and his no doubt fascinating guests, I generally skip past it because they’re discussing a book about a topic I’m not that bothered about (a band I was never that into, or the Northern Soul scene in Macclesfield one memorable Spring) and I’m there for the music, man. This time, however, it was a biography of an artist I have reasonable familiarity with (including, crucially, some of the bad bits) but have never been what you might call a big fan of, just an occasional listener. In other words I had enough of an interest to listen to the discussion but nothing to lose if there were revelations ahead that would put me off. I’m not going to say who it was (it’s no longer available on Sounds anyway) because I mean no disrespect to the biographer, but you could hear the shine in their eyes as they talked about their subject. It made me wonder what makes someone write a biography, and then I started thinking about why people read biographies (and autobiographies, and memoirs) and why I almost never do.

In my late teens I read biographies of Che Guevara, Billy Bragg, and The Clash, which I’m sure you could have guessed, and I’ve read the odd rock star autobiography since (Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde both of which I wrote about a few years ago, and Bruce Dickinson as pictured above), not to mention Anthony Trollope’s, but the only other biography I can think of that I’ve read is the Richard Ingrams book about William Cobbett. I admired William Cobbett from the little I knew about him at that time, and maybe with him and Che Guevara I already felt there was enough of importance or interest in the work they’d done, that their being revealed as useless fathers for instance couldn’t take away from that. The biography added new information and different perspectives, without diminishing the achievements I already knew about.

So why would you write a biography? Because you’re a shining-eyed fanboy. Because you have an axe to grind or want to prove a point. Because you think other people will be interested and therefore there’s a market for it, but you have no particular stake in the subject yourself. There are problems with all of those approaches, I think, or there can be.

Bias is everywhere, it’s hard to get away from. I’m reading a history at the moment which has reached the Middle Ages and the author seems unduly lenient with the Mongols, justifying every wholesale slaughter of a town’s inhabitants while (rightly) condemning similar behaviour from Crusaders. The partisan biography can be similarly unsatisfying to a reader who doesn’t share their enthusiasm, skating over or playing down dubious behaviour and unpleasant traits. On the other hand the frank portrayal of them can be disappointing if it downgrades a reader’s view of a hero, or off-putting to someone who wasn’t expecting them and didn’t intend to sit down and read the detailed chronicle of a selfish alcoholic or serial adulterer. The selective evidence of the biography attempting to portray its subject as a pioneer in something we hadn’t previously thought of them as being involved in starts to feel strained quite quickly (Frederica Bloggs was fifty years ahead of her time, look, if you squint it sort of looks like she was a precursor to this trend she’d never heard of), and the hurried cash-in on a newly-famous person doesn’t have time to be particularly in depth.

Which brings us, I suppose, to why would you read a biography? Celebrity gossip, a hard-backed Hello magazine? To find out how a favourite artist/musician/writer ticks? To recognise a commonality with them, or to look for evidence of greatness, difference at an early age? As a window onto a particular time or place? With a biography, unless it’s written with a lot of input from the subject or their closest associates, there’s going to be an element of guessing or interpretation; if the subject is dead they have no opportunity to correct any misapprehensions. Most people aren’t saints, and everyone has boring bits. At some point I realised I’m rarely interested enough to read about someone’s early years, while also being detached enough to not be disappointed by the unsavoury revelations. With great figures from history I often want the author to go follow some other person for a while rather than concentrating on a single person’s views, achievements and activities, as they’re not necessarily the most interesting person in every situation.

In the last few years I’ve read a few memoirs, including the sort of nature-writing that’s very author-focused. It’s in the author’s own words, it’s selective so unless it’s actually about their bad behaviour or ill health you probably don’t have to wade through all that, and it’s focused. My life as a birdwatcher. My childhood in the Yorkshire Dales in the late nineteenth century. In search of my sea-faring ancestors. Some were by famous people, some I hadn’t heard of but were released by one of the big publishers, others were small-circulation books for a local audience that I’ve picked up second-hand. Maybe what I’m saying is that I don’t find the entire story of a person that interesting and what I actually find satisfying in a biography is…it not being a biography.

Ifyou have thoughts on what makes good life-writing, let me know in the comments, and if you enjoyed mine you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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While opinionated celebrities carry on, it’s reasoned debate that’s in danger of cancellation

Cries of ‘cancel culture’ from loud-mouthed celebrities who have more outlets than ever for their opinions might be misplaced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. Quick judgements and condemnation on social media mean the thoughtful, the people who don’t want to be misconstrued and would hate to think they’d genuinely upset anyone, say nothing rather than risk public flaming. What’s that one about evil triumphing when good men do (or say) nothing?

Writers know the importance of rewriting, but even writers don’t spend weeks crafting a tweet or rehearsing a TikTok video. They’re produced quickly, on the move or while half-distracted by something else, and often as an immediate reaction. Yes, there are some people (including some well-known writers) who know exactly what they’re saying, and they really mean it, and it’s not pleasant. But there are plenty who have reacted in good faith to something they’ve misunderstood, or changed their minds about later after reflecting or learning more about it. There’re the hot-headed responses to something that caught a person at a bad time, which they may well apologise for later on. And there’s the stuff that doesn’t quite mean what you meant it to mean. All of us use clumsy wording sometimes, from the unintended double entendre to saying ‘drat, the bulb’s died’ in front of a bereaved friend. Among friends, colleagues, or anyone with empathy who’s willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, it gets laughed off, hugged away, or reworded in a second attempt a moment later. The trouble with social media is, you’re not always in a comparable situation.

It’s sometimes said that there are always people waiting to be offended. While there are the odd few that take everything personally and filter the conversation through the worst possible meanings of the words, there are many more who are looking for scandal and don’t really care what the intention was as long as it causes a stir. Whether gossips or a certain sort of journalist, they pounce on anything that could be used against someone. One of the more innocuous examples of recent weeks is Liz Truss supposedly being greeted by the king with ‘Back again? Dear oh dear.’ Mildly amusing but if you watch the clip it looks an awful lot like he’s just making social noise because he’s not quite sure what’s expected while the cameras are rolling and he can’t start the ‘real’ conversation yet. It was, a BBC correspondent notes, only a couple of hours since he’d last seen her. It all reminds me of primary school where someone might comment that the teacher smells of strawberries today and immediately the troublemaker shoots their hand up, shouting ‘Miss, Miss, she said you smell’.

There are an awful lot of complex issues around and Twitter, even at the increased character limit, isn’t the best place to discuss them. They get oversimplified and mixed together, and the confidently loud tell me that if I think X then I also agree with Y (the implication being that I am therefore a monster). No, there’s more than one reason to think X and some of them might mean you agree with Y, definitely not in my case. The wonderful thing about people is that they’re a mass of contradictions and perfectly capable of holding apparently opposing views at the same time. If it was all so obviously black and white there wouldn’t be so much bickering. No doubt my Twitter followers get a strange sense of my priorities, but I tend not to comment on anything I think would require a few hours’ reflection and an essay to gather my thoughts on, and only weigh in on the simpler issues where I know where I stand and can sum it up in a couple of sentences.

Even keeping out of it doesn’t seem to be an option for everyone at the moment though. People in the public eye (which includes anyone who gets noticed on social media) can’t win. If they say they have nothing to add, haven’t been following the argument, or don’t have a fully-formulated view, both sides see them as the enemy. They failed to condemn the one position and failed to defend the other. Nuance is no longer allowed. You can’t say you disagree with the way someone’s presented an argument and some of their conclusions but you do agree with a kernel of their premise and maybe we should be having a grown-up discussion about it – all that will get out is that you ‘agree with’ them.

I’m pretty left-wing and I think of myself in those terms because I’m interested in politics. Most ordinary people are not, and don’t think much in terms of left and right. They think in terms of the things that bother them and the politicians that promise to listen or to do something about it. Hence the shock of the crumbling of the red wall – it’s not that most of the urban north was committedly left-wing it’s that Labour spoke to their priorities for many years, and then Brexit came along and Labour shied away from talking about the underlying concerns so the voters turned to someone who professed to care. Many on the left forget, or perhaps don’t even believe, that ordinary people who feel silenced, who are told they’re wrong even to question the liberal media view, and that if they think that then they must also think this other awful thing, will eventually turn to the loudmouths who don’t care who they offend because, ‘at least they’re not afraid to talk about it’. And that, I think, should worry us all.

I’ll leave you with this post I wrote at the end of 2016 but never posted, which I’d titled Closed questions, closed minds?

Which camp do you fall in, The Beatles or The Stones? It’s still a question that gets asked, though for a while when I was a teenager the equivalent was the synthetic rivalry between Blur and Oasis. Ironically, given the recent move to add non-binary as a response to gender questions, we seem to be in an increasingly binary mode.

Sweet or savoury? Dogs or cats? Tea or coffee? X Factor or The Voice? In a world of short attention span and Buzzfeed lists it’s as though we only have the capacity for quick decisions, comparisons between two options. Never do we get the idea that it might be acceptable to like both (or indeed neither).

Most families I know who have either a dog or cat have had both at some point. Most people I know who drink tea or coffee will happily drink either, even if they veer more to one than the other. Admittedly my coffee-loving eldest sister is an exception – to my knowledge she has never tasted tea, but she does have an interesting phobia of teabags and I’ve never met anyone else quite like her.

Human beings are complex individuals, still (thankfully) capable of holding contradictory positions and of having nuanced responses to anything from pets to politics. The media presents us with false dichotomies and we react to them. Clinton or Trump, for instance, even when Sanders was still in the running. Until late October from my sheltered position in the UK I had no idea there were more than two parties fielding candidates in the US presidential elections.

We can blame mainstream media for this binary view of the world, where everything is black or white and if you’re not with us you’re against us. Or more often, if you’re not fully opposed to something in an ostentatiously vocal manner, you must be a supporter – witness the ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slurs against certain politicians. We also need to take some responsibility ourselves. Think about our own views and reflect on where the contradictions lie. Consider the shocking possibility that someone could have voted to leave the EU on anticapitalist grounds and is appalled by fellow leave-voters’ racism, and that equally it is possible to be anti-immigration to a racist extent and yet have voted to remain in the EU on economic grounds. At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair, we need to recognise that most of the time there is a third way.

My own answer to The Beatles or The Stones? The Kinks, naturally.

If I’ve made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip

It’s fair to say none of us were expecting the Queen to die last week. From radio and TV schedules to sporting fixtures and parliamentary debates, there’s been a flurry of last-minute cancellations and rearrangements as people either have unexpected tasks (like the PM and the BBC) or don’t want to look disrespectful. Incidentally, there’s a side-note here about nobody quite knowing where the borders of disrespectful are because social expectations around death and mourning have completely changed in the UK in the 70 years since we last had to negotiate this, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

I was listening to a 6Music programme on BBC Sounds (i.e. listen-again) this morning. It had been broadcast last Monday, and included a trailer for live coverage of the Mercury Music Prize which would begin at 7pm on Thursday evening. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet large sums that the BBC did not in fact switch across to the Mercury Music Prize half an hour after the Queen’s death had been announced to the nation. If, indeed, the prize event went ahead as planned. It made me think of the posters in darkened shop windows at Easter 2020, advertising events in March that never happened because of the national lockdown for the pandemic. That gap between plans and reality, that’s where the stories can be found.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.com

If you run across a flyer for gigs at a particular venue in November 1995 you probably assume without a second thought that they all went ahead. Likewise past newspaper announcements of forthcoming sales, talks, events. When I’m researching family history the reading of banns, noted in the parish register, is usually enough for me to say that my ancestors got married the following month. But what about the ones that didn’t? It’s not you, Obadiah, it’s me. It’s both a cautionary note about making assumptions in research, and a good starting point for writing a story.

  • Weddings are a category all to themselves. The invites were sent and various plans made, but the wedding didn’t go ahead. Did one of the pair get cold feet and not turn up on the day? Did they have a row (or a heartfelt but amicable talk) and call it off in advance? Was there an illness or accident that threw a spanner in the works? Did the couple get sick of the fuss their families were imposing, and run off for a quiet wedding? Did the reading of the banns turn up someone with objections? Was the church hit by lightning the night before?
  • Anything else that requires an invite and advanced planning can also get scuppered by illness or accident, the venue being unavailable, or a change of heart: christenings, birthday or anniversary parties, graduations. The silver wedding couple decide to get divorced. The soon-to-be-fifty-year-old has a wobble about reaching the half-century. A lorry takes the corner badly and puts the bar out of action for a few weeks.
  • There’s a related category of unused tickets: train, plane, theatre, concert. As above, there’s the possibility of illness, accident, change of heart or unavailable venue, plus a few more besides. Bad weather or strikes mean the transport’s not running (this goes for events as well as train tickets actually – I once bought a theatre ticket I couldn’t use because of train disruption). The local authorities have banned the concert (those infamous Sex Pistols gigs) or the band have split up partway through the tour. There was a terrorist incident the day before and now the ticket-holder daren’t go. Maybe they just got a better offer on the day, bumped into an old friend or a new love. As well as the reasons for not using the ticket, there’s also the possibility that it is kept, in the story – they run across it twenty years later and the memories flood in, or someone else finds it – and why they kept it. What does it mean to them? Or did it get forgotten as a bookmark in an abandoned novel, and the person who finds it reads more significance into it than really exists?
  • These stories can be contemporary, historical, set in other worlds, and there will be specific circumstances that suggest themselves based on the setting. A scientific demonstration in the 17th century might be blockaded by a group from the local church who consider it blasphemy. Anything high-profile in the 1910s is ripe for suffragette disruption. A wormhole collapses unexpectedly, meaning someone can’t travel across the galaxy as planned. An apprentice wizards’ convention blows up the venue as they’re setting up, or accidentally sends the only person who can let them in into a nearby painting.

The possibilities are endless and what’s more, relatable – we’ve all experienced messed-up plans, whether mildly frustrating or heartrendingly tragic. There’s an awful lot of stories lurking in those gaps.

If I’ve given you some inspiration you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Walking the Wall: now in audio

Having brought you all up to speed on what I’ve been writing this year, I’ve now recorded me reading the almost half-hour journey through time along Hadrian’s Wall that is Walking the Wall (new writing commissioned by Hexham Book Festival this year). You can listen to it at: https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4

It occurred to me that not all of you will be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, or Northumberland. If you want a bit of scenic inspiration you could try this short video on YouTube which zooms over an iconic rural section of The Wall, and try and picture Sabinus in 122AD stuck somewhere not too different, in the drizzle. I had a look on the North East Film Archive and unfortunately people tend to film Hadrian’s Wall in amongst other landmarks and tourist attractions, but there’s some nice footage about 16 minutes into this fab old documentary.

I don’t mention many places specifically, because I used a bit of artistic licence and blurred nearby places together. Places I do mention are Corbridge (the capital of Northumbria by the late 8th century, burnt down by Robert Bruce in 1312), the Carlisle-Newcastle turnpike (which I think is now the B6318 where I was thinking of), Kielder forest, Heddon on the Wall, Benwell (including the temple), Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne (including the Swing Bridge and the university), Wallsend and the fort of Segedunum, Tynemouth priory, and the rivers Tyne, North Tyne, South Tyne. I did have general areas in mind when I was writing the historical fiction elements and the successive flash fictions move eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall. And of course once we’re in modern Wallsend and Richard’s been to the Segedunum museum he heads off to Tynemouth priory to have an ice cream and gaze out to sea.

The mouth of the Tyne from Tynemouth priory, taken by JY Saville

I was inspired along the way by: an actual account of a wren’s nest being found in a skull, though this was in an abandoned chapel not at a battle site; farmhouses built from Hadrian’s Wall stones; the Tyne Flood of November 1771 when ‘coffins were torn out of the ground, and the living and the dead were swirled away in the torrent’; Syrian archers at a fort near Birdoswald; Frenchmen’s Row in Heddon on the Wall which had housed ‘French royalist priests’ who fled the revolution; a Roman hoard dug up near Killingworth in 1811, a couple of years before George Stephenson built his first locomotive there; the battle of Otterburn and other border skirmishes; and twenty-odd years of brief visits to Tynemouth and Wallsend.

If all this has intrigued you, you can either listen to me reading Walking the Wall at https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4 or read it for yourself at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8c710378-92c6-4194-8186-cbd38fa87397 and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Long time no waffle

You may have noticed – possibly to your relief – that it’s been a bit quiet around here. I managed one excited post about my Hexham Book Festival commission, but that was typed laboriously on my phone (yes, I got a smartphone. Wonders will never cease). Manageable in a fix, but not something I’d choose to do. The problem is, I make do. I make things last, get my money’s worth (and beyond), and my laptop having already given up on video, got so that it couldn’t handle the new WordPress interface. I remember having a conversation 5 years ago at the Penguin WriteNow day about my laptop and its tendency to colour everything cyan unless you got the angle of the screen spot on, and how I’d have to shell out for a new one soon. Its long goodbye is reminiscent of those aunts that spend longer perched on the arm of the settee with their coat on, turning down offers of further refreshment with ‘no, I must go’, than they do sat comfortably in the armchair. It’s still here, with its intermittent wi-fi and preference for cyan, but I’ve also been given a desktop computer that has a passing familiarity with the modern world. I mean, it’s about the same age as my laptop but it’s a higher spec and has lasted better so I’m back on WordPress without one-fingered typing on a tiny screen. Did you miss me?

You may well have missed the Hexham commission, so let me put that right. Hexham Book Festival commissioned 3 writers and an illustrator to celebrate “the diverse and fascinating county of Northumberland, its inhabitants, its agricultural Heritage and historical connections with particular emphasis on Hadrian’s Wall and its upcoming celebration of 1900 years”. Beyond that, we all developed our work in isolation and yet when we got together in June we realised there were common themes: the colour red, thin patches in time, modern-day walkers alongside the Wall. You can read the patchwork pieces from me (Walking the Wall) and Bridget Hamilton (This Next Hill), the children’s story from Garry Lyons (Lupa, inspired by a mountain rescue dog who was present at our reading in June) and the illustrated booklet from Deborah Snell at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/writing-commissions. My favourite of Deborah’s illustrations is the stoat at the end (I think it’s a stoat. As my dad always says, Weasels are weasely recognised whereas stoats are stoatally different).

Deborah Snell, JY Saville, Susie Troup, Garry Lyons, Bridget Hamilton at Hexham Book Festival June 2022

Months and months ago I mentioned in passing that I was a winner in the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020, but obviously there was a delay in recording the programmes due to the small matter of the pandemic. Well, this Spring they finally got made and made well. It was such a thrill to hear the finished recording of mine (Playing With My Heart), it had been so long since I wrote it that it almost felt like it was by someone else. The theme of the competition was ‘vision’ and it was supposed to be on the radio in January 2021 so I set it in January as someone’s putting their Christmas decorations back in the loft. You will notice that the title refers to the theme song by the Eurythmics, which refers to the subject matter (angels playing with your heart). It’s got time-slips in again, like Walking the Wall. Chapel FM put out an interesting programme about the making of the four winning dramas, in which each of them was played out in full (they were each less than 10 minutes long), but if you want to go directly to listen to mine you can hear it on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/user-803061228/playing-with-my-heart (promise me you’ll go listen to the others when you have time though, they’re good).

For the first time in a long time I’ve also had flash fiction out there. A dreamy little flash called Hair Spread Like Sea Fronds is free to read at Ellipsis Zine: “The way she remembers it can’t be the way it happened, but it’s the way it creeps into her dreams, soundless and in filtered blue-green light…” It mentions an Indian silver anklet of elephants, which was inspired by my mum’s constant wearing of jangly silver anklets, though I don’t remember if any had elephants on.

I’d love to know what you thought of this year’s writing so far, and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Dreaming about Northumberland

Just before Christmas I applied to Hexham book festival for a writing commission for this summer’s festival, and in January I read the acceptance email with a mixture of shock and excitement. This is the first time I’ve had new fiction commissioned, rather than writing something and sending it off to people in the hope they’d like it enough to publish it and maybe, if I was really lucky, also pay me. For a while the thought that this needed to be special, and somehow worthy of the fee, froze my creativity. Until OneMonkey helpfully pointed out that: I’ve written loads of stuff that people have liked before; I had sent writing samples with my application which they must have thought were good; I’ve successfully blended fiction and non-fiction a few times at live events, like at York Festival of Ideas.

The festival is taking place in the context of the Hadrian 1900 celebration of 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall began to be built, and what I’d promised was this:

To create several connected short prose pieces, a blend of fiction and creative non-fiction aimed at adults but accessible to older children. Highlighting continuity and illustrating change, the fluidity of time slip fiction interspersed with a celebration of the natural world – a dreamlike exploration of Northumberland focused along the Wall.

My first ports of call

If you’ve seen photos of my bookshelves you’ll know I had plenty of resources to get me started, and I immediately pulled a likely pile from the shelves, including the wonderful Northumberland volume of the King’s England series of county guides. I also went to the Internet Archive and found eighteenth and early nineteenth century books on the natural history, history, agriculture and songs of the northern English counties. I read about fish and butterflies, archaeological investigations, battles and ballads, inquisitive antiquarians, and sheep-breeding. You won’t be surprised to know I went down a few rabbit holes that had little to do with the matter in hand, but it all adds to the mix. I ended up with pages of scribbled notes of interesting places and odd facts, and then I had to decide on a structure and a thread. I wrote a list of all the bits of history that I might be interested in touching on, and picked six time-periods that weren’t too cramped together, to meld into five pieces of flash fiction.

Blame my fascination with local and family history, but sometimes I become acutely aware of the crisscrossing paths layered in time, all the people who’ve been at a particular location before me. I liked the idea of somehow all the points in history being there at once, in key places along the Wall, and occasional seepage from one time into another. The thread became a student in a red cagoule who’s walking the Hadrian’s Wall path from west to east, experiencing weird time-slips along the way, although he thinks it’s the isolation making him see things.

Undoubtedly an influence but I didn’t dip back in

So much for the fiction. What about the creative non-fiction? I took my inspiration from the events I’ve done with Alice Courvoisier at the York Festival of Ideas among other places, where we’ve interspersed fiction and non-fiction to tell a patchwork story or explore a theme. Sandwiched between each pair of flash fictions is a flash CNF, on birds, forests, farming, and the Tyne. They connect to the surrounding fiction by image or theme – a circling bird, a darting deer, a discussion on eighteenth century agricultural improvement…

Surprise inspiration in the form of venison pasties

Once I’d started writing, my reading kept feeding in and I changed tack completely here and there. So many things I wanted to include I didn’t have room for, and so many fabulous things I found out that I want to use somewhere in future but were never going to be relevant here (take this as advance notice of future stories and local history articles about Northumberland).

When I applied for the commission, I fully expected to have moved to Hexham by June and to be strolling down the road to the New Writing event to read my piece. Nearly six months on, circumstances have changed so we’re going to be staying in West Yorkshire for a while longer. So apart from being great fun to research and write, Walking the Wall will stand as a reminder of That Time I Was About To Move To Hexham.

If you’re in the vicinity of Hexham on June 11th, you can book a free ticket to the festival event at which I’ll be reading a ten minute extract (roughly a third) of Walking the Wall.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Meditation on stone

It may look like a shrivelled mouldy potato now, bluish purple with a few streaks of pink, but on the beach, shiny with seawater, it was stone-washed denim with red veins. I shifted other stones in my search for fossils and it caught my eye, caught my heart. I brought it home by train across the county and forgot about it.

I’d like to say I gaze upon it and ponder the vastness of geological time, the insignificance of man in earth’s history, but it’s a stone among stones. It has no special place like the few treasured fossils in the glass-fronted cabinet, handed down the generations, or the ones under the glass dome of the thimble-stand that we found ourselves. It doesn’t even have the status of the plainer ammonites in the glass vase on the hearth. It is a stone in a small basket of stones, picked for its colour and kept for its holiday memories which have now faded with its hue. I can’t tell you when I found it, or if it was in Whitby or Filey. It is overlooked, another piece of clutter.

Holding it now, it feels like a pumice stone, light and pitted. It fits in my hand like an unyielding stress-ball covered in a light film of dust – who dusts their basket of stones? Who has a basket of stones? It is a small piece of the earth which has tumbled down a cliff, rumbled under water. It is a shrunken asteroid, an inhospitable mining planet from 70s sci-fi. If I tasted it would I taste salt and seaweed and fish and chips? Would I get an electric jolt as though it was a 9V battery? Would I convince myself it was a mouldy potato and spit it out? Would I lap up the discarded body parts of tiny long-dead creatures?

Do you miss the sea? Can you hear its shush-shush in your dreams? Do stones dream? Can you hear me? Where does a stone’s soul go when it splinters and crumbles to dust?

I imagine the stone maintains a dignified silence, and then it hits me: on its timescale I am inaudible, a microsecond’s squeak, and even if it did hear, and understand, and choose to reply, it would take aeons for its thought processes to grind together into something resembling words, and by then I would have splintered and crumbled to dust.

This post began as an exercise in the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshop in July 2021. If you enjoyed it you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Why writing a radio sitcom is a recipe for disappointment

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sitcoms. I mentioned a while ago I’d been working through a sitcom-writing course from James Cary which has been really helpful, not least because it made me realise I’d sent a comedy-drama to the BBC Galton and Simpson Bursary by accident. However, it’s also made me realise a few other things which are giving me pause. To be honest, they’ve given me some ‘what the hell is the point of writing this?’ moments.

I keep hearing that we’re in a golden age of TV, the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are commissioning British writers as well as the BBC, Channel 4, ITV or the various production companies that make programmes for them. Those of you who’ve been around here a while may know that I haven’t had a TV since March 2002, and though I’ve watched stuff when we’ve visited OneMonkey’s parents, and we used to watch the odd thing on the iplayer before the BBC realised non-licence-payers like me probably oughtn’t to be allowed access to the website, it’s not the same as watching telly and getting a feel for what’s popular and where things sit in the schedules. Consequently, though there are many TV sitcoms I know and love, I don’t want to (and wouldn’t feel equipped to) write one. No, idiot that I am, I want to write for radio.

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

I know I can write passable radio drama, on a good day. I was one of the winners of the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020 (production delayed due to the pandemic but fingers crossed it’s coming soon) and I co-wrote a well-received drama for a community radio station in 2018 (you can listen to it here). Comedy’s a different matter though, and as I said in a post about gatekeepers a while ago just because you’re confident about your script doesn’t mean it’s good, so it’d be nice to get someone else wanting to produce one of my scripts rather than, say, making it as a podcast.

However, while confidence doesn’t imply ability, I don’t agree with the idea that repeated rejection necessarily implies lack of ability. In a recent discussion about self-production of sitcom pilots, James suggested that if a script isn’t getting anywhere it’s not a good script and thus not worth trying to make your own version of. In many cases this will be true, but it did get me thinking, and we’re back to gatekeepers again.

The only place I can think of that would pay a writer for a radio sitcom is the BBC. To be precise, BBC Radio 4. So whether you’re entering BBC competitions or sending your radio script to Pozzitive or a freelance producer, you’re ultimately aiming to bag one of the few sitcom slots on Radio 4 (possibly via a stint at writing for someone else’s). And so is every other radio comedy writer, including the long-established ones. If you’re a Radio 4 executive, do you give up one of those few slots to a new but promising writer, or do you put series six of a previous ratings triumph in there? Because the reality is, it’s either or. There isn’t room for everyone and it’s no good consistently being top 20 in the pile when they can only take three scripts forward. It would be like a novelist having to either be picked up by Penguin or self-publish. Oh, and Penguin could only publish a dozen novels that year and they’d have to bump one of their bestsellers to let you in. I’m not saying the big publishers never pick up new novelists (and note there that they are publishers plural) but it wouldn’t universally be seen as a failure if your debut novel didn’t get on their lists. And yet it is with a radio script because there are no alternatives.

With a novel there are many smaller publishers you could try, and it may well be that some indie with its own niche is particularly suited to what you’re trying to do. With radio… As far as I know, there are no commercial radio stations in the UK that want scripted programmes, whether comedy or drama. BBC local radio doesn’t seem to either. So we’re down to community radio stations like the fabulous Chapel FM who help people make what they like, or making your own podcast. In both cases there’s only as much budget as you’re willing or able to fork out, you won’t get paid, you have to drum up your own audience, and the available actors probably rely on who you know and who’ll do you a favour. To write a sitcom well takes a lot of time and effort. Then add more time, effort and possibly money to make it yourself. To sink that much into a hobby takes dedication, an understanding household, and a bit of financial cushion, which naturally limits who can manage it. It might lead to a producer’s interest, if you can send them a link to a sitcom you’ve already made, but see above for scarcity of slots in the radio schedules and I think we all know what the reality will be.

Incidentally, during the discussion James also mentioned in passing the Radio 4 demographic, and it hit me in a way that it hasn’t before, just how limiting that is. For TV sitcom in the UK, people know what you mean when you say it’s more suited to ITV than BBC, or it’s a bit Channel 4. They’re aiming at different audiences. Radio 4 is one station, with one target audience. They can be a bit flexible in the hope that they draw in some younger listeners for a particular programme but they won’t want to alienate their core. Which means there are some sitcoms that can be as well-written as you like, they’re never going to be broadcast on that station. And that, in terms of nurturing a diverse bunch of writers (particularly younger writers) is really sad.

I am confident that I can write a decent novel (Wasted Years has been enjoyed by the few who’ve read it). With the aid of a sharp-eyed editor I could write a better one that might do OK. But I don’t imagine I’d ever trouble the Sunday Times bestseller list. Most authors don’t. In the same way, I reckon if I work hard I can write a decent sitcom script but I don’t imagine I’d ever be in the top five of several thousand entries to the Galton and Simpson, or make a Radio 4 executive pass up the opportunity for another series of Conversations from a Long Marriage or Ed Reardon’s Week. And while that would be fine if I had other avenues to explore with it, I don’t so it isn’t. I can either stop writing radio scripts (never going to happen, I’ve been at it on and off for 35 years) or I can make sure I write ones I can make into a podcast. Better start saving up to hire some actors.

If you want to help in that direction, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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A is for Alphabites

You don’t get many J’s in a packet of Alphabites and as for a Y, well – forget it. Or at least that was the case in the late 80s when my family first encountered these letter-shaped frozen mashed potato pieces. Back then we still had a deep fat fryer so chips at home meant the proper fried variety. At the static caravan, however (probably the subject of C is for…) we had oven chips, skinny and over-cooked. We were thrilled, therefore, when Walter Willson started stocking Birds Eye waffles and eventually Alphabites. For a slow eater (and bookworm) like me, a plate of moveable type is too distracting to eat. Of course I started to see what I could spell, as though this was an edible version of Scrabble. But before I got onto the proper words I needed my initials: JYS.

The only Jacqueline mug I’ve ever owned. Pretty faded, but I have had it nearly 40 years.

I already knew that Y was hard to come by as an initial letter. Souvenir key-rings, pen-pots, mugs at seaside towns rarely came with a Y on them and never an Yvette. J should have been easier but it didn’t seem to be, and Jacqueline certainly wasn’t a name you often saw on bedroom door plaques or novelty pencils. Which meant that alongside the natural egotism of the baby of the family, I had this constant quest for rarities so whenever I did see a Jacqueline or a Y (I never did see an Yvette) I had to have it. I’d like to say I’ve grown out of it, but I saw a huge wooden J on a market stall a few years ago and OneMonkey knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t buy it for me (in my defence, I’d like to point out that friend T has a flat full of T’s of various sizes, styles and colours).

The wooden J from the market

Back in the caravan c1988, the meal was halted while everyone searched their plates for a J or a Y. I already had an S. My dad dutifully handed over his J. Nobody had spotted a Y. Everyone looked again but a Y had not magically materialised, the Alphabites were now cold and I was disappointed. I don’t recall us having them again.

The holy grail: JY. Took me years to realise the wreath is supposed to make it read ‘joy’.

Other A’s I could have written about include: Animal biscuits, almonds (both sugared and paste), AA Milne, and Auntie Ann Tin Can Copper Kettle Brass Pan. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Creative non-fiction: letting go of accuracy

Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.

My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.

I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.

What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).

Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.

If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Do you know more than you think about garden birds?

Last summer when lockdown had apparently made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more, I wrote a light essay about the birds in my garden. I wanted to braid past and present together and show that, almost by accident, I now knew far more than I thought about birds. I forget exactly why, but I’d started listing things I’d learnt from nearly a decade of watching our wildlife garden from an upstairs window, and I kept remembering another thing, and another and finally realised the list was longer than I expected. It made me think of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, where Michael Palin starts listing their weapons, remembering another, and has to settle for a vague statement (‘Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise…Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and…Amongst our weaponry…I’ll come in again’). Hence I called it ‘Among the things I know about birds’.

I couldn’t quite get the form of it right last summer and I put it away for a while then had another go after I’d read the admirably accessible An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth. When I’d finally got it in a state I was happy with, I sent it out to a couple of magazines. It was accepted almost immediately by ThereAfter, and finally appeared online this week. Richard Smyth’s read it and he liked my descriptions, if that’s an incentive.

I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn’t have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I’ve watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.

from Among the things I know about birds, by JY Saville
Collared doves in our garden

I partly wrote this essay in wonder at my accidental education, but also as encouragement to other suburban (or even urban, if there’s any greenery nearby) nature enthusiasts who consider themselves clueless about the wildlife around them. You probably know more than you think you do. And if you don’t yet, then you can almost certainly learn gradually and painlessly by watching, with occasional looking things up in books or online. Ultimately, it’s not a race and it’s about enjoyment and appreciation rather than accumulating knowledge. I learnt recently that the sound like a rusty pump handle that I’ve noticed for the last few years is the call of a great tit, but I can’t recognise any other birdsong. Except the cloth-tearing sound of a jay, of course. And the squabbling jackdaws. And the tawny owl that sits on the roof sometimes. Hang on, let me come in again.

If Among the things I know about birds made you look at your surroundings differently, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Learning to write about climate change

I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.

Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.

I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.

Bridlington beach
The North Sea in calm mood in 2015

The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…

Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.

Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.

The view from my front door when the moor was on fire 2 years ago

While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.

My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.

A butterfly photo I took at Tropical World in Leeds, before I even had this blog

If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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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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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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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