Room 204

The other day I caught myself telling someone that I got my start in radio. I wasn’t lying to them, but not two hours before, I’d mentioned to someone else that I got my start in magazines. If you asked me now, then depending on the direction of the wind I might say radio, magazines, newspapers, BBC, college or in writing computer manuals. There was a bit of TV in there, too.

All of this is true: I was simultaneously doing all of these and the one I pick when you ask is not chosen chronologically. I don’t even really choose it, it’s just the one that I unconsciously know I’m leaning on for whatever you and I are doing.

I could defend that and anyway I don’t need to: you get it.

What I think is less defensible, is less reasonable and yet I know is still true is that I also want to tell you that I got my start in the Room 204 development programme from Writing West Midlands. It’s indefensible because I got on that for a year back in 2013. You can’t honestly call it a start when I’d already spent more than a decade on Radio Times, my first book was out and so were a couple of Doctor Who dramas.

Yet I’d recently lost that Radio Times work. I’ve been hired back since – would you believe they keep making the magazine without me? – and I was only ever freelance, but losing it was a big deal. Not so big that I didn’t just have to check what year when it happened, but at the time it was a blow.

So coming back home to Birmingham and learning of this Room 204 programme could reasonably have felt like a new start. I didn’t get on it that year and I believe I just squeaked in the following year. But I will always take a squeak, I will always take being a second or third or tenth choice. I’ve no problem with that at all.

And as I write to you now, my head is back in that office when I’d got on the programme and was having the first of three serious Room 204 consultations. I can see the room – you’ll never guess what number it was – and the people and the table.

Plus I can see me explaining about all of these different starts, all of these different things I was doing. In my head then and now, these were six major areas of work and I laid them out on the table like folders. I didn’t. But I felt like I did and I remember feeling a bit foolish as I’d talk about, say, fiction writing and would nod at the second invisible folder from the left.

This is all on my mind today because everyone who’s ever been involved with Room 204 has just been asked to spread the word about how it’s open for submissions again. Applications are now open for what will be the new 2019/2020 cohort. It seems to have come around quickly this time but I know I’ll be having conversations with people about it and I know I’m going to over-enthuse.

I promise you that isn’t over-enthusing because I’m exaggerating or paid. But it could be considered over-enthusing because I suppose it is actually possible to go through Room 204 and get nothing out of it. I think you’d have to put your back into it to achieve nothing and defeat all the efforts of organisers Writing West Midlands but you could do it. And I have seen people waste the time they get on it.

The trouble is that it isn’t a course. There isn’t a syllabus. It’s not for beginners and it doesn’t set out to teach you anything or pat you on the back when you write a poem about the ocean. Rather, each year and each person are given what they need to develop their writing career. That can well include getting you work or putting you in touch with people who may need you: It most definitely does include workshops and sessions and experts in areas your year’s cohort needs.

In my case, what it gave me during the year was that I got my head straightened out. I swear that by the end of this key introductory conversation, organiser Jonathan Davidson was also pointing at these invisible folders of mine. I remember him saying that, right, this one and this, you could do those today. That one at the end will take longer so maybe park it until you’ve got these others developed.

I love, utterly love, thinking of something and then doing it. The idea is the thing but the doing it is the other thing. I need them both and as I felt I was being more open with these people than I usually was with myself, they saw this in me. Consequently where I understand many Room 204 people left their first conversation with an idea of what to do next and maybe who to speak to, I didn’t.

Instead, I left that room with a To Do list of 40 specific steps to take to sort me out. I went in a mess who wasn’t writing, I came out straightened and ready.

By the end of that week, I think I’d done 20 of those things. By the end of the month, I know I’d done 39. All these years later, I’ve not managed the last one but it isn’t for want of trying. Well, it wasn’t for want of trying but now it is: it was to do with contacting someone or other who has never replied to me.

My year on Room 204 was ignition. And it was just a year, you do get just a year on this programme. At the end of mine, I tell you I was deeply upset at this great time being over. They do tell you, repeatedly, that once you’re on Room 204 you never really leave but bollocks. When your year is done, another 15 writers are starting, you’re gone.

Except you’re not.

A few months after my year finished, I needed some advice and I got it from Room 204 exactly as if I were still on it. That was a few years ago now and to this day, they still help me.

You can see why when they asked us all to spread the word that applications are open for the next year’s cohort, I wasn’t certain that I could be concise about it all. Let me try, before you go applying: you have to be a writer in the West Midlands of the UK, you can’t be a beginner – and you have to be someone that they can help.

You can see that I’m a fan. I hope you can also see why I sometimes think I got my start in Room 204.