Sunday, 29 March 2009


Reading the poetry of Leonard Cohen

Vixen Tor, on Dartmoor, now open to the public again after a long legal campaign

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Readers of this blog have asked how (the hell) I managed to obtain an Arts Council grant to write a novel. My stock reply: Not easily…but I promised to elaborate some more.

I imagine, though I’m guessing, that many applicants are defeated by the application pack. I nearly was. Good job us novelists are familiar with seemingly insurmountable pursuits that require inhuman levels of stamina and obsession. Besides, after completing the pack, penning a mere novel felt, for a week or two at least, almost facile. So, yes, brace yourself for the pack; dig in; regard it as that hardest essay or job application you ever wrote, and more.

There is help out there. Each regional office has its own panel who determine whether the proposal warrants serious consideration and ultimately whether it’s successful or not. But they also have people dedicated to specific disciplines able to coach you through the application process. They can advise how you go about meeting the strict criteria, how you might demonstrate required qualities, tick all the literal and metaphorical boxes. An initial informal chat with this person will often determine whether your project is something likely to be considered for funding.

And such funding is, of course, limited. You will be competing with tens of similarly worthy projects. The good news is that, even if unsuccessful (yes, more rejection letters), you can apply again, armed with all that valuable feedback publishers and agents don’t have time to give.

What does seem a little unfair – the catch-22 – is the stronger your track record as a writer/artist/musician/athlete, the greater your chance of success. They regard this as getting the most value for their money, a sign that the project itself will succeed. So you need to shine. Time to dig out every little (but preferably big) literary achievement. You will need a glowing cv, strong extracts of your work – a whole portfolio of evidence that lets them know you are serious about your writing. But more importantly you need to show how you will manage the project and ensure its success. This is where a flare with words is advantageous.

Grants for the literary arts are especially hard to achieve, as one of the core remits is to demonstrate public benefit. You could argue that thousands of folk will get to read your magnum opus, enlightening and enriching their lives, but you’d be wasting your time. First, there’s no guarantee of publication and sales, unless you’re a McEwan or Smith (Zadie or Ali), in which case you shouldn’t be applying for a grant. Second, the public, libraries aside, have to fork out hard-earned cash to read it, so not much (free) benefit really.

I was advised by someone at the regional office that I needed to open up the writing process, making it somehow interactive. The result was this blog. Readers considering writing a novel could, hopefully, get some insight into what is an extremely exciting and daunting undertaking. Research can also be discussed at this point: how you will work with others to acquire the knowledge you need.

So what is the grant for exactly? The budget section is rather daunting and many slip up here. Surely a couple of pencils and a notepad hardly warrant a sizable grant, and besides they rarely give funds for personal items, so don’t think you’re going to get that new laptop and a week on a writers’ retreat. Well, there’s the cost of research for starters – travel, accommodation – broken down into as much detail as possible. Mostly, though, you are going to need something to live off whilst you inhabit the esoteric, twilight world of full-time scribbling, though best omit the caviar and champagne from your breakdown. Lastly, you need to show you can raise a small percentage of the funds yourself.

In return you will be expected to take part in various promotional work, as well as using their lovely logo (see sidebar) on anything related to the project.

I know a few people who have received such grants, and several who haven’t. They are possible to obtain, yet with anything worthwhile, you have to work hard for them.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


I have strong views on celebrities-turned-novelists, views best left for after the watershed. Sue Cook, I hear, may actually be able to write, though. Most people remember the now novelist from the TV programme Crimewatch, but for me it's always the sketch below...

Sunday, 22 March 2009


My fun little 6-word short story competition (see post below) got 31 entries. My favourite 3 were:

Third - He almost called her Helen, again. Annie Clarkson

Second - Plop. Sadness of an empty cone. Barb

And the winner is...Wolves got your grandmother. You're rich. Hannah Eiseman-Renyard

Well done, Hannah. Email me your address and I'll post your prize.

Thank you to everyone who entered.

Thursday, 19 March 2009


This is a picture of where, on a good day, writing happens. As you can see, I’m tidy enough to keep a psychoanalyst in business for a month or two. Post-its remind me to WRITE. YES YOU. NOW instead of indulging in the usual procrastination of blogging or practicing cricket shots in the mirror.

I love looking at other writers’ rooms. The Guardian has a hundred such pictures of well-known writers’ places of torture…erm, I mean creative joy. You can see them HERE.

What’s worrying is the number who have large signs just above their screens saying DON’T PANIC.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Last call for submissions to THIS exciting competition.

Monday, 16 March 2009


I enter the occasional short story competition – it’s fun when you do well, bolsters the CV – though I balance this out with submissions to literary journals who pay a token amount for publication. Obviously it’s important to follow the submission guidelines to give yourself a chance, so I was a little flummoxed (do people still say that?) on reading this one:

Stories should not contain content of an overtly religious, political, sexual or violent nature. Stories may contain expletives where they are relevant to the story itself.

This about rules out my entire oeuvre. And as for the expletives, I’d like to think every word included would be relevant to the story. Oh well. If your work is of a more benign nature you can enter HERE .

Friday, 13 March 2009


There’s an interesting piece on the Guardian’s literary blog questioning how much impact the author’s gender has on a reader’s experience. I’d like to think none, but this may be naïve. Would your favourite novels remain so had they been penned by someone of the opposite sex?

I’ve read anonymous competition submissions, noticing how I make assumptions about the gender of the writer, usually determined by the narrator. I enjoy being wrong.

What irked me about the article, though, was a comment left beneath it, its contributor suggesting men can’t write female characters well, and vice versa. I have an obvious interest in this being spurious, as my novel’s main narrator is a woman.

And so I set about my bookshelves looking for tomes that render this argument ridiculous. I didn’t have to look far as both William Trevor’s Death in Summer and Felicia’s Journey have compelling female narrators. But the male writer what does women brilliantly is John Irving, as I’m sure anyone who’s read A Widow for One Year will agree.

I can think of plenty of bad novels where the author has got the voice of the opposite gender so wrong, but I don’t regard this as inherent in the writer being a man or woman; they’re just poorly written.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


Today’s research is gonna be a messy affair. One of my characters is a potter, so I thought I’d better see exactly what she gets up to. The (larger) hands in the above picture belong to friend and potter, John Pollex. He’ll be the one laughing as my clay disperses from the wheel in all directions. You can see his wonderful work here.

Sunday, 8 March 2009


She entered the room, a pretty woman of medium height, average build, with lovely brown hair. The nice dress lit up her beautiful eyes…

Try to picture this person. Really picture her. You can’t because she’s been described in the most lazy, vapid and generic way. The description tells us virtually nothing about her. Horrifically weak words such as ‘pretty’ and 'lovely' are meaningless. Pretty to whom? Compared to what? And as for ‘medium’ and ‘average’, even if someone is precisely in the mean of physical statistics among the population, they are unlikely to regard themselves thus. And if they do, they don’t belong in fiction.

‘Brown hair’! You might as well say she had white teeth. Or toes that protruded from the ends of her feet. ‘Nice’ and ‘beautiful’…I’ll just get too angry pointing out the inadequacies of these words; hopefully they speak for themselves.

The reader cannot see a character, and whilst they don’t want to sink in a quagmire of physical chronicling, there must be sufficiently precise detail to bring them to life. (This applies to descriptions per se: ‘a big room’, ‘a lovely vase’, ‘a hot day’. NO. NO. NO.) If you say a character has medium-length hair, you’re essentially saying they have hair. Find something that isn’t average about it. Or concentrate on more salient features.

Be specific. Think of the characters in your favourite novels; I bet something stands out – if not physically, then a trait, a mannerism, a nuance. Weak generalisations are worse than no descriptions at all.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


The term ‘creative writing’ is a relatively new one, as is the concept of teaching it. Often just an extension of English in the past, the subject started to gain prominence in its own right following an MA course established at the University of East Anglia by Malcolm Bradbury in 1970. Today, UEA’s creative writing programme is one of the most prestigious around, with an impressive, high-profile alumni: McEwan, Ishiguro, Chavalier…to name some. There are now 200 post-graduate creative writing courses in the UK, yet writers seemed to have managed perfectly well without them before. So why are they so popular? And what do they offer?

Well, the cynical would say universities find them lucrative. The University of Manchester paid Martin Amis a salary of £80,000 for his teaching time (that’s £3,000 an hour). Applications for the course, though, rose by 50%. Further criticism has come from those suggesting students believe the MA will catapult them instantly to literary stardom, becoming the next Zadie or DBC. (Certainly unrealistic expectations of publication exist, but I’ve found these as prevalent among new writers who have chosen a less academic route.)

Hanif Kureishi is even more damning: “One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student. The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals.”

My own experience is a more positive one, entirely absent of murderous urges. It was only once committed to the MA that I took my writing seriously, adopting a more professional and systematic approach. I began to regard writing as a craft (something you had to graft hard at), rather than an art that could be visited when inspiration should happen to breeze through.

Instead of teaching ‘creativity’ per se, such courses look to develop skills, crucially teaching the writer to be self-critical. Classes take the form of workshops rather than seminars, where students critique each other’s writing. Although a fear of pointing out weakness in a stranger’s work often prevents this initially, students soon learn to give as good as they get. It sounds ruthless, and at times can be – good rehearsal for the real writing world, then. Just as with learning to paint, or playing a musical instrument, there are rules to learn – about structure, voice, character development, viewpoint, creating dramatic tension – yet nobody regards art or music courses as exploitative. I also learned to become a critical reader, essential for anyone hoping to understand what successful writers are trying to achieve and how they go about doing it.

Whether a student goes on to achieve publishing success will depend on many factors, almost entirely related to the individuals themselves: dedication, motivation, talent, luck, a willingness to learn, the ability to take constant rejection…

A creative writing MA doesn’t guarantee you afternoon canapés rubbing shoulders with JK; it’s not a shortcut to the shelves of Waterstones (there are none). But it will make you a better writer. In my humble opinion.

Monday, 2 March 2009


Having eaten almost half my birthday cake by mid-afternoon, I am fit to do little else other than indulge in these wonderful presents...