The show comes first

There are several things that I believe in, most recently the fact that if a hotel says nope, there’s no room at the inn, you should check their website and suggest that maybe they look again.

This is on my mind because I’ve just had the best night’s sleep of my adult life in a hotel that had taken one look at my exhausted face and had initially decided it would be fun to suggest I get back on the motorway and drive for another hour.

But that’s not what’s on my mind to talk to you about. Nor is this: I believe that it is always better to be crew than passenger.

The belief I actually want to natter with you about and which I’m delaying discussing at all, is that the show comes first.

Doesn’t matter what show.

Doesn’t matter what it needs or what I need or what I want. If I’m working on a thing, then I’m working on it and the job is to do whatever it takes. This is why I’ve never watched a clock when working: I suppose I’ve often enough been hired for certain hours but in my head it’s not 9 to 5 or whatever, it’s When I’m Needed until When I’m Not O’Clock.

This is so deep into me that this week the belief overrode all common sense.

I’ve been running a writing workshop series for Writing West Midlands and the Birmingham and Midland Institute. It concluded this week and for the last session, I wanted two things. One was a guest speaker to talking about what one needs when preparing writing for publication and one was to somehow cover editing and rewriting.

The guest was Katharine D’Souza who is also an editor and in an unrelated crime has been editing my collection of short stories.

So last Monday, I was planning this session and actually having a lot of trouble getting it right, getting it to be good. Katharine chooses that moment to let me know that she doesn’t like my stories. “It’s not all awful,” she didn’t say but nearly did. “They are typed very well.”

And my first thought is not a typical writer’s feeling of rejection, which takes many flavours but always adds up to ow.

Instead, my first thought is ooooh.

My first thought is that maybe we could discuss this in the session. She’s going to be there anyway, I’m going to be there anyway.

“Are you sure you want your writing ripped into bloody pieces in front of people?” she also didn’t say but I’m certain was thinking it. (Actually, I’m sure she did mention blood.)

“N – ye – no – yes – no – yessss,” I said, with total and instant certainty.

I say that to you as a joke but I did hesitate, just not over whether I was happy doing this in front of an audience. The hesitation, the thing that I think drove Katharine toward madness in that phone call, was that I vacillated over this point: whether it would be interesting for the workshop or not.

I also worried about how much time it would take: I needed something quite substantial, the session needed a really chunky, quite long piece. “Not a problem,” she didn’t actually laugh. “It’s ten stories, I could fill a month.”

So on the night, we took the starts of two of my precious new stories, the best things I’ve ever written, and examined why they are not the best things that anyone has written.

It was the right thing for the workshop, it was interesting and it got everyone examining text, looking at when to rewrite, when to give up writing and go home to a different career, William, and it so perfectly fitted in with the next part about publishing that I’m actually proud of that session.

Only, since this is just you and me here, I’d like to confess something.

It is true that my first thought was the show.

But my second was that it sounded like I was going to be destroyed here and if it were going to happen, doing it in a workshop was the safest thing. You know what it’s like when you’re presenting something, you’re in Performance Mode and I figured that no matter how excoriating the criticism I’d get was, I’d be playing the host and my concentration on the audience would mean the knives wouldn’t penetrate as deep.

Also, I’m less keen to admit this bit but it’s true and you’re looking at me like that, so here it is: I did think I’d look pretty good being willing to do this. I’d look like a mensch.

That bit didn’t work out.

But then nor did the criticism. Instead of this one editor, Katharine, telling me that I shouldn’t rule out moving to accountancy, I had something like 16 people telling me yeah, you should listen to her.

Or, to put it a slightly different way, I had a total of 17 talented writers improving the short stories that I care most about.

Bastards.

Book people

This is new. As I write this to you, there’s a writing workshop going on and I’m producing it. Just over there. In that room. Now, obviously I would come out of it to talk to you – nobody else, mind, let’s be quite clear there – but I’m not in the room at all. The session is being run by <a href=”https://twitter.com/smalextownley”>Alex Townley</a> and I’m hearing laughter, I’m hearing the buzz of chatter, I’m hearing that it is going very well.

I should be feeling rubbish out here but instead I am deeply, deeply delighted. It’s like when you write a scene you think is good, you hope it’s good and then you see it working even better. A couple of years ago now I sat in the audience at the Birmingham Rep watching a discussion event on stage and actually marvelling that I’d made that happen. You can’t count the number of other people involved but I couldn’t dismiss the fact that I made it happen. Nobody in that audience had any idea I had anything to do with it and at the end, everyone on stage got applauded and I was right there applauding with them.

There is something just tremendous about creating things, I think, and when you have someone good doing part then it is tremendous that you saw what they could do and you got them. This week of the writing workshop series is about creating characters and bringing them to life on the page: no question, Alex is the one to tell them about that. Equally no question, or at least not very many questions or at least I’m not listening to you if you’re questioning, is the fact that I’m the guy to do next week’s one on dialogue.

You should probably not get me started on dialogue. It’s my thing. You’ve got your thing, I’ve got dialogue. It keeps me warm.

And the instant I say that to you, my mind splits in two directions. I want to tell you of a line of dialogue that cropped up in a TV drama recently where someone said: “I’m done with listening, do you hear me?” I don’t fully understand why I laughed at that.

But my mind also wants to address the realisation that I’m just after saying that to you about dialogue and what am I doing tonight? I said a few words at the start and I will at the end, otherwise I’m sitting here typing.

It’s not typing, though, is it? It’s writing to you. It’s a weekday evening as I write this, I’m sitting in the offices of <a href=”http://www.writingwestmidlands.org”>Writing West Midlands</a>, there’s a colleague working across the room, and next to both of us is this room where a group of writers are having a good time concocting characters. I think this is pretty good.

Back to school

I left school certain that I would never go back and not at all certain that I could ever be a writer. It took a lot of work to pull off writing and while I was concentrating on that, I accidentally went back to many, many schools. From last weekend to the start of next week alone, I’ll have spent three full days in schools as a visiting author and I ran one short workshop for school-age writers.

I’ve also done one workshop for adult writers which doesn’t sound relevant except one of the attendees was a teacher from my old school. In the Venn diagram of things I remember about my school and teachers I liked, she’s in the tiny smidgeon of an overlap. She walked in that door and the only thing faster than her asking if I were the William Gallagher she taught was me asking her if she’d been my chemistry teacher.

I didn’t like my school but she and I had a great natter after the workshop and I’m astonished how much she got me to remember. Good and bad: I told her of the teacher who, heading for a nervous breakdown which he later succeeded at, had worked hard to get me expelled for no reason. That sounds bad and it was but the fight to keep me in there later proved useful in the politics you get in journalism.

I told her of the other chemistry teacher we had who’d spent a lesson having us mark the homework of the previous group. I know I was irritated, I wish I had been older and objected, Mind you, I really wish I’d just turned to the back of the exercise book and given this pupil a 10/10 well done, see me. Just to find out what happened.

There’s no 10/10 anymore. I don’t know how marking is done and from what I gather, I am unlikely to comprehend how teachers are supposed to mark or really do anything. The sobering and distressing part of going into schools is seeing this sliver of how controlled and inflexible things are forced to be.

But the good thing is that I can go in to them, cause a right ruckus and then get out. Usually get out and go right back to writing. I don’t usually do this many schools so close together, I’m a writer who does the odd school visit. I could never be clever enough to be a teacher nor have the resilience they do to go in again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

These three school visits all came via a company I’m just getting to know called Authors Abroad. But I can trace the lot back further to one conversation with Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands, the company currently running the Birmingham Literature Festival as well as around 300 events for young writers – three hundred, every year.

I’d just moved back to Birmingham, I don’t know how I’d found Writing West Midlands. But I met Jonathan for a coffee. This is three years ago and I can tell you every detail of the conversation including the moment when he mused over whether I might be good in schools and I pretended that would be great, every single ferociously bad memory of mine coming back into my head and flooding down to make my stomach twinge too.

I can tell you every detail and I can picture every inch but I can never go back to the same place because we met at New Street Station. I was there yesterday, coming back from a Manchester school, and I tried figuring out where the coffee place had been. New Street is transformed and, okay, maybe I am too.

But those Manchester kids. There’s at least one who I’m sure will become a writer, who I think actually already is. And there’s another who told me that this had been the best day they’d ever had there. I melted them, I’m still melted now.

What writing gives you

One thing that writing and being a writer has given me is that I got to speak at the launch of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival – and I got to say something that matters to me. I got to explain why the same company’s year-round programme of Young Writers’ groups gets me invigorated and just a wee bit passionate. Some of these groups are for 8-12 year olds, some for about 14-16 and with two minutes to describe what they were all like, I got to say it like this:

Just let me say that first that I feel privileged to be the one who gets to talk with you about this tonight. With 21 groups, that means there are 21 professional writers like myself running them, then there are 21 assistant writers plus everyone at Writing West Midlands. Each month we must work with something like 300 kids between us.

We all do it differently but we all want the same things and – actually – we get it.

We want young people to be able to explore writing and reading. We want them to express themselves. Sometimes we’d like them to be a little less exhausting.

Two of my Burton kids told me – about a year after we’d started – that they’d been afraid it would all be like school.

It’s not like school.

In our sessions they write underneath the tables. They write while actually running around the room. They write stage plays that we then stage. Really, we get in actors and we stage them. Forget the kids: can you imagine how exciting that is at my age?

They write film scripts – that we all then film. They write books, poetry, short stories.

They write.

No exams, no Ofstead. Writing. Creating. And talking. So much talking.

I want to give you one example. Well, actually I want to talk to you all evening but I am allowed one example. I worked with such a quiet, shy little girl once. Eight years old, very scared. Wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t. If she ever did, you could barely hear her.

Yet a few sessions along… The last time I saw her, she was on her feet, calling across the room, horsetrading with other kids: I’ll write this bit if you write that. Imagine this: she was the shyest little child I’ve ever met – talented, I think, but shy – and I watched her say… No.

No, she said. I’m not writing that bit, I’m writing this bit.

So proud of her. And I do hope she becomes a writer. But whatever she does, writing has given her this. The Young Writers’ Groups have given her this.

Confidence, expression. Now you can give her that too. You can help the next shy little girl or shy little boy. In fact, you can help the next kid who is just like you and me: interested in writing and only needing a little encouragement to bloom.

The Young Writers’ groups are by Writing West Midlands, a charity which you can – and I do – help by becoming a Friend. This is a particularly good time to do it if you’re near the West Midlands, too, as you also get discounts for events and October’s Birmingham Literature Festival is replete with performances, readings, workshops and countless things happening.

Plus if you’re nowhere near it and can only dream from afar, bung Writing West Midlands some cash specifically to fund these Young Writers’ groups. Text WWMS15 £2 / £5 / £10 to 70070.

Gone from a Burton

I’ve just finished two years running a monthly writing workshop for children aged 8 to 12(ish) in Burton-on-Trent. From September, I’m replaced by writer Lindsey Bailey and as we were talking about the group the other day, I found myself suggesting what she could do with them next – and I’m glad to say I stopped myself.

“No,” I said. “It’s your ship now.”

There are things I would love to see that group do, ideas we’ve done that I would build on if I were coming back, most definitely issues we’ve not touched that I want us to. And, oh, do I want to know what these kids write next. But it is her group now: she’s running it, she’ll be planning it, she will have myriad things she wants to do with it.

By the way, I adore telling you this: for my final session the Burton gang scripted and filmed a Doctor Who regeneration scene for me turning in to Lindsey.

They did that after writing and recording a radio play. They don’t hang about in Burton. Did I mention they did this after finishing writing a book? Are you picking up on the teeny clues that I adored working with this group?

I could go on about this. I’m surprised I haven’t before, though doubtlessly things I’ve said to you here have been influenced by these sessions or how Burton has seeped into me. The sessions are only 90 minutes a month yet the time you spend thinking and planning is huge. How do teachers plan for day after day? I like storming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again.

I do want you to know that I wouldn’t have chosen to leave Burton this year. I wouldn’t have ever left. I do very much want you to know that as upset at losing the group as I was, I actually felt an awful lot better when I heard who my replacement is. And for the sake of my ego I’m quite keen for you to know that I’m leaving because I’m replacing someone somewhere else.

These sessions, properly known as Write On! Young Writers’ Groups, were created by and are run by Writing West Midlands which is a charity that commissions us writers and decides who goes where. (Do support them if you can. If you’ve got kids, exploit this organisation as much as you can: they’d like that.) I think the current total is 21 groups across the region and in each case there’s a maximum of 15 kids, all of whom have chosen to come work with professional writers one Saturday a month. I’ve now run or assisted or nosily sat in on seven of these groups. So I can tell you that the format is broadly the same, the logistics are identical, but the groups are astonishingly different.

A lot of that difference is down to the kids who’ve joined and a lot more is down to where the sessions are held: my Burton ones were in a library and that’s quite common but others are in art galleries and even an Abbey. But I believe the greatest difference is in the lead writer. We’re all there to do the same thing, we’re all there to do the best we can for these kids. You should see the online chatter between us after a Saturday session: it’s exhilarating, you race back to that Facebook group to beam about the things your group got up to.

I see this in the other groups and in the other lead writers so I must accept it about mine and about me: Burton reflected who I am. I may have discovered who I am while doing it, but that group functioned the way it did because of what I ran there.

It is time they had a different lead writer.

It’s better for the group to get a change and I think it’s equal parts thrilling and daunting for any writer who comes in to take over such a bunch. But these new lead writers are there to take over, that’s what they have to do. I know this and I believe it but I felt it anew when I was in that conversation with Lindsey and stopped myself suggesting things.

That phrase, though, “your ship now”. I must’ve got that from somewhere. I can’t remember where but I can remember how often I’ve thought it and I can well remember why.

I may not say it all that often but I think it a lot because I’m a man. I’ve been in work situations where a team has had a new man come in and, right or wrong, good or bad, he’s forced a change in the dynamic. I say right or wrong, good or bad, but it’s always been wrong and bad. Equally, I had a thing once in radio where, as it happens, I was the only man working in a small group of women. I didn’t register that until another woman joined and she made a point of it. “Don’t you feel awkward, surrounded by women?” she asked in that kind of question that isn’t a question, it’s a bullet.

I remember that from an astonishingly long time ago. I remember seeing in that instant that she was creating lines within this team and actually that she was going to succeed in getting me out of it. I remember how clearly and immediately I could see there was nothing I could do. You think of a team as a collection of people, in the best cases a group of friends, but it is a body in and of itself: it’s a single entity and it changes, evolves, stops in ways that have little to do with how the individual members are together. Maybe today I could’ve been more astute, more aware of how to game a team but it’s not my thing and I’m no good at it.

Although I was okay when a similar thing to that radio experience happened in front of me many years later. That was with a group of men where the pivotal issue was that one guy wanted this other man’s job. It was a management post and to get it, he was inserting himself into decisions, was taking charge wherever it didn’t matter if he were in charge so nobody stopped him. I saw it and I saw what he wanted, I also didn’t care as I was just freelance there, but I do then also remember the exasperation I felt when I realised I’d have to do something about one of his decisions or I’d be collateral damage.

People, eh?

I don’t want to be people, not in that sense. I also don’t want to be a man in that stereotypical pushing way, not just by being a man, not just by being male. If I push for something, it’s me, it’s not my gender.

So I admit that when I said to Lindsey no, it’s your ship, I was conscious that I’m a man and she’s a woman. I would’ve thought the exact same thing with any replacement but I was conscious of our sexes. I had felt the same thing when I started as an assistant to lead writer Maeve Clarke and it’s not about joining or replacing or being replaced by a woman, it is about how there is a type of man I don’t want to be. There is a type of man who sees it as necessary to be alpha and are we really still that bothered? Alpha Male stuff surely shouldn’t still be here when we’ve stopped being hunter-gatherers and become shopper-clickers.

Yet I’ve seen men entering teams, I’ve seen men asserting authority that they don’t have and don’t need but believe they lack. I don’t need you to believe I have authority.

Then it sounds like a joke, it should be a joke, but I’ve seen men be incapable of listening to a woman and, God in heaven, I don’t want to be that. In fairness, I’d like to tell you that I recently had to ask my wife Angela to repeat something I’d said because a woman we were with simply would not listen to me. It’s not universally a male thing.

But it’s big. Maybe it’s galactically a male thing.

So when I went to learn from Maeve, it was important to me that she knew I understood it was her show, it was her ship. Now that Lindsey has replaced me at Burton, it’s important to me that she knows I understand I’m gone and that it’s her group. I hope she’s thrilled at how she can now do anything she wants with the group; I imagine she must be as daunted as I was that this means she has to do something, she has to do everything, with her group.

She’ll be great, the kids in Burton will have the very best of times and maybe some day I can come back to visit. That will be up to her although, Lindsey, hello, I’m always available.

And in the meantime, I’ll be off running a Young Writers’ group in Rugby.

That’s my ship now.

The facts, ma’am, just the facts

Sometimes you have to say something before you realise that you think it. Consequently this may be very obvious and I’m definitely going to take a time getting to it, but I first realised it on the ring road near Damascus.

Follow. This week in Stafford there’s been a children’s event called Page Talk, produced by Hayley Frances for Writing West Midlands. It’s a writing event where a small group of 10-14-year-olds have worked with professional writers, journalists, poets and more.

On Monday, they had poetry with Stephen Morrison-Burke. Tuesday was journalism with Alex Townley. Wednesday was science fiction and horror writing with Alex Davis. Tomorrow they get taught performance by Cat Weatherill. (Seriously, what a week for these kids, eh? Stephen, Alex, Cat – I don’t know Alex Davis’s work as well as I do the others but the kids told me he was superb. I’d pay to see that lot.)

Today they got me and “Play in a Day”. Twenty kids wrote a play together from scratch. At 11am, we had nothing whatsoever. At 4pm, we had a play.

What I hope also happened is that they got to taste a little of what it’s like writing for real. Not in school, not to be praised for how clever you are. For real. I told them that I wouldn’t be giving out grades. I told them that if we didn’t quite manage to finish the play today then we needn’t have bothered starting.

(I can do that, I can play the this-is-real and this-isn’t-school card because it isn’t school and I’m not a teacher. I’ve only once been studied by Ofcom people and that was a mistake. I’ll tell you now, I came away from this Play in a Day feeling pretty good – but I could because today I’m in my office writing for 16 hours or so. No kids. No trying to teach anybody anything. I’m not even a parent. Truly, I am a civilian.)

Anyway. No near misses, I told them, no well done for trying, the job was to write a play and that’s what we were going to do. That’s what we did.

But I was also strongly aware that this was one day in a week and that they have been doing all these other types of writing. They were obviously going to see what the differences are but there are two that I particularly wanted and needed them to know from the start.

I think one of them is obvious and I’ve said it a hundred times. Scriptwriting is different to novels and short stories and journalism and poetry because the audience never reads the script. The script is there for you and everyone else involved to make something else: a play, a TV show, a film.

It’s the other thing that I hadn’t realised I really think and it’s this.

Journalism is about the facts.
Drama is about the truth.

Journalism is who did what, when, where, how and only in the most coarse way why. Drama is all about why and also why it matters.

I’m not convinced that I gave them a brilliant example but it popped into my head and I said it. Since nothing else has popped into my head since, I’m going to say it again.

I was working with a guy named Connor Evan so I pointed at him. “If I walked in here with a custard pie and slapped Connor in the face with it,” I said, “that might be a news story.”

You can see the headline: Prat Pies Producer. Connor would point out that he isn’t a producer but we’re talking 21st Century journalism here and alliteration goes a long way.

You can also see the news report. You can practically read it now. A reporter would get a quote from a witness, from Connor and from me about why I did it – “Well, I had this spare pie and…” but otherwise the whole news story is Prat Pies Producer.

Whereas drama would convey to us – not tell, never tell, always convey, always show – what it is like to be the victim of that pie. What it’s like to feel cold custard against your skin for the rest of the day.

It would also convey why I’d really done it – and it would’ve accepted the fact that actually, maybe I don’t know.

Drama is messy. Drama is people. Journalism is just the facts.

The Book Groups

The plural is important. I’ve been waiting to show you The Book Groups for months. It’s a short story that I was commissioned to write – actually my first-ever commissioned short prose – for the West Midlands Readers’ Network. That’s an organisation which does a just unfathomably huge and wide range of work with readers, libraries and anything to do with books. I think this is their best idea: they commission six writers and then pair them up with six reading groups.

I got a group in Combrook, near Stratford on Avon. (Actually, they might disagree with that definition. Sorry. It’s just that the two times I went, I pointed the car at Stratford and it seemed to work out.)

So I got to see the group twice. The first time I went to sit in on one of their meetings and have a natter about what we all particularly like in fiction. It started so sensibly. I took proper notes. Lots of notes. You should see the notes. More ideas than I could capture. Every author in the programme says this is exactly what happened with them and their group: you come away dizzy with information and perplexed about how to fashion a short story that covers all of these points. That addresses all the groups’ preferences.

It’s easy.

You ignore them.

I didn’t mean to.

I really didn’t mean to. I took that first night very seriously – as daft and funny and full of chocolate fingers as it was, I also took it seriously – and so it was with some guilt that I ignored everything.

Everything except one tiny point. I think literally the tiniest point. It turns out that this gorgeous little village actually has two book groups. And I could not get it out of my head. What if the groups were rivals?

I’ve not had this before: driving home, it was as if the story were pounding at the inside my head, wanting to get out. I refused to listen, I concentrated on the drive and I refused to listen and I will not listen, okay? Enough. The next morning, it was as if I were shaking to get this written. I’ve had that plenty of times on deadline but here it was pushing, shaking, pounding its way out. I can clearly remember the moment when I thought – and maybe even said aloud – okay. Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll write this story about rival book groups, are you happy now?

The plan was that I’d write this tale, get it done and out of my head, then I would go to the notes and start doing the job properly. I’m all for doing jobs properly and as I say, I took this seriously. The Combrook group is so nice there was a moment when I could’ve stopped being a city boy and moved there. They deserved a story that fit all we’d said, that covered the characters and the village, that was a proper job.

And instead they get The Book Groups.

Because once it was written, I just liked it too much. I felt I hadn’t touched the research and yet I’d also spent the research. It was all in this story even as none of it was in this story.

So this is about book groups and I want to tell you that nobody from Combrook is in it. Not from either of their groups. That was one thing I stressed when I went back to read them the tale. The other thing I stressed was that I’d like my seat to be nearest the door in case there was trouble.

I think I can tell you that they loved it. They stood up this week at an event and said so. On Wednesday, there was a presentation to all of the groups of the book we made. Six authors, six groups, six stories and about eighty people gathered in the Library of Birmingham. I know five of the tales were superb. I think mine is too. You don’t often hear me say that, do you?

One more thing? My tale is narrated in the first-person by the leader of a book group. So it’s a short story but it sounds like a script to me. Something I’ve not really understood and yet have been rather proud of is that actors have often told me my scripts are easy to learn because the dialogue is good. How could I not be proud of that? I get it now, though. Because I learnt my story and I learnt it very easily. I didn’t read it at the presentation, I performed it.

Or at least, I preformed the start. We could only read a few minutes of the tale at the event, there wasn’t time for all six stories to be read in full and anyway, we wanted you to grab the limited-edition book.

I long to read the whole story to you. To perform it. Combrook called it “Alan Bennett chic lit”, which made me shatter with pride. My sister said it made her picture Hyacinth Bucket. I admitted I sometimes channeled Les Dawson. If I could come around your house and perform this to you, I would. I can’t even get you a copy of the book now – but I can show you the story. In full.

Sorry: I really intended to write you a single paragraph of explanation and then simply reprint the story. I even thought that would make this week’s Self Distract a quick job. But this story, getting to write this story and then this week to get to act it, it’s been a highlight of my year and I had to tell you.

I could’ve told you faster, mind. Your tea’s gone cold. Go get another mug and a biscuit. Because here’s The Book Groups.

William

THE BOOK GROUPS

by William Gallagher

Our little Book Group isn’t perfect, I’ve never said it is. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you it takes quite some running. But it is our group.

And we were first.

Susie Farrow can say all she likes, I started ours six months before hers. And she only did it because she couldn’t get into mine. It’s not my fault I’m popular. And we can only have so many chairs, that must be obvious to the meanest intelligence. I understand she’s disappointed, of course I do, but that’s no excuse for running around claiming it was all her idea. I ask you. She even got that in the newspaper. Back in Plant a Tree year. “Susie Farrow runs the village’s first reading group and plants trees”. The Parish Observer.

Not very observant if you ask me.

I’ve been in the Parish Observer now. I’ve been in all the newspapers. And you don’t see me bragging.

It’s about standards.

We have standards here in my group. I insist on it. But that doesn’t mean we are exclusive. We do welcome new people, of course we do. When there’s room. I mean, we let in Henry, how is that being exclusive? He arrived just after Sally Moon passed away so there was a vacancy, but that’s beside the point. He wanted to join and we let him, no questions asked. We don’t vet people. We don’t check their income and everybody has a secret past in banking, I’m hardly impressed by that.

Some of us have commented, just in passing, that Henry is good-looking but I don’t see it myself. I love my husband. It’s so much easier when you’re married and can get back to books. I don’t envy these young ones chasing men all the time, I really don’t.

No, the problem with Henry is that none of us in the Reading Group are quite sure he can read.

I suspected it first when we discussed Bleak House and he looked quite blank. Fair enough, I thought, it was a challenging read, perhaps it was too soon. So I went the other way for our next one, I chose an easy book for us. The Da Vinci Code. It’s a terrible book. But sometimes those are best because you can have a really good time discussing how terrible the writing is, how schoolboy the descriptions are.

I was right, too. Henry was much more lively in that session, he got quite animated. Waving his arms about. Touching knees. I don’t like that myself. My husband never gets animated. It’s easy to say what you think without touching, that’s what we say. But it takes all sorts. So long as they’ve read the book.

And I was just sure he hadn’t. I went out of the room to replenish the chocolate fingers and did he say thanks when I came back in? Or was he in mid-sentence talking about Tom Hanks? I pretended I thought it was thanks and the group did give a little laugh. I confess I am quite funny, but I don’t like the group to get boisterous. My husband watches the football upstairs while we’re here and it’s just easier if we keep things a little quiet. “You are a reading group after all,” he says.

When they’d gone and he was off to his bedroom, I rented the film version off Netflix to check it out. It’s a terrible film.

We should’ve had a film group.

Some of the things Henry had said were definitely from the film and not in the book. Well, I say definitely. It was very late when I watched it and we had drunk quite a bit of wine – we are always respectable, I will not tolerate drunken behaviour, someone has to stay sober in our house – so I might be wrong. I’d have to watch the film again and I’m not that concerned.

I think Henry has a little thing for me.

I don’t say anything. Let the girls fuss over him. It’s them I’m thinking of, really. I know they’d be disappointed if I asked him to leave the group. So, never let it be said that I turned anyone away.

Not since 1989 anyway when Amy Rogers said that about Pride and Prejudice and, well, I think we all knew I simply had no choice.

She’s with them now. The other group. I’m sure they get our post.

Still, once you get something in your head, it is hard to stop it festering. And at each meeting, Henry would only ever suggest books that have been made into films. Mind you, what book hasn’t now? But a couple of months ago, before all this unpleasantness, I decided we should pick a John Irving novel. Something meaty for the run up to Christmas, you know? I went through Amazon and I looked up every book on IMDb to see what had been filmed and what hadn’t. I love the internet. You can read how to do anything on there.

Anything. I miss it.

Then at the next meeting, I proposed A Prayer for Owen Meany. I expected to see Henry nipping off to the bathroom again to look it up on his phone but no. He agreed right away. Said he’d never heard of it but if I recommended it, we should definitely read it.

I mustn’t encourage him, I won’t.

Everybody was quite frosty to me that evening, it was most unusual. But I’m not there to be liked. I’m there to get us reading good books and then having a good time talking about them. It’s important. It binds us together, there is nothing like reading. And I really do believe that our little group is a key part of what makes our village special. Makes it a community.

I was walking through our village a few days after the meeting, just past where the post office used to be. It was the last shop in the village and it closed down twenty years ago. Either the Post Office closed it down because of fraud or Environmental Health did for something else. If I ever knew, I forget. But it’s on my way to the brook and everybody knows I take a walk to the brook each morning.

You can’t go anywhere here without bumping into two or three people you simply have to talk to. It’s why we like it here. My husband isn’t much of a talker. It’s easier to get conversation out of a stone! But I do like talking with people, I do like knowing what’s going on. I do like eve-rybody mucking in, everybody cheery together. We’re not some anonymous city, I couldn’t bear that.

So I wasn’t surprised to see Henry walking up to his Jaguar. He was pleased to see me. He can be sweet like that. I look at his excited, out of breath face and I haven’t the heart to tease him about his reading.

But it just shows that you never know what people are really like be-cause he said to me, he said: “I’m so glad you picked that book. Great, isn’t it?”

Then he was gone, I didn’t see where he drove.

Primarily because here comes Susie Farrow, overdressed as usual. She’s out of breath too but I don’t think it’s excitement at seeing me. She’s unfit. Unfit to run a book group, I say. That’s my little joke. Still, it comes to something when a girl her age is red and panting. I ignore that, of course, and just give her a short but polite enough nod.

She sees the book in my hand. “Oh, I heard you were reading that. Sad ending, isn’t it?”

That woman has not spoken a word to me since I turned her away from the group and the first thing she says is to spoil a book. It’s meanness, that’s what it is. And it’s to boast. Of course she’s read it. Of course her book group has read it, hasn’t everyone?

Bad enough that I’m going to see her at the village Christmas party. I walk on and put Susie Farrow out of my head.

I wear a little tinsel hat and I give a little speech about how our lovely reading groups are such good friends. I say something like it every year and it always gets a polite little round of applause. One year even my husband joined in. It was easy to get him to come that Christmas, I’d actually organised sponsorship and he came to support me. To this day, people ask how I got a company to sponsor our little do.

I’ll tell you, though, because it’s about quality. It’s because our group is best. I know it and so does everyone else, including the brewery. So it’s no harm being gracious at the party. I am gracious. I’m not “up myself”. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Still, it is about standards and I do think that we should all play our part. Especially in our village. And this year it was so obvious that Susie Farrow thinks she’s superior. She was right there in front of the stage before I was called up to make my speech but then I couldn’t see her when I went to start. I always like to catch her eye during my speech and let her know I know that our group was first. But this time she had walked out. She had actually walked out. Fresh air, said one of the girls. Can’t take the heat, I said. I was pleased with that.

My gaze went to Henry. He’s dependable. Even if he can’t read. I hardly had to look at him before he understood me and was heading out after Susie Farrow. He didn’t get her back in time for the end of my speech but as I say he’s dependable, it doesn’t make him a miracle worker. And they had clearly had words outside. They came back in looking so angry and it was obvious how they avoided each other for the rest of the night.

I’m proud of Henry. Standing up for me like that.

I’m sure he has a little thing for me.

I mustn’t encourage him. I won’t encourage him. But there is something there. I can’t deny it.

My husband came to pick me up. It was easy to get him to do that, it was on his way back from the club. When I came out, Henry was talking to him. He saw me and slapped my husband on the back. “Here she is, you lucky fella.” I’m just saying what he said.

My husband never says anything like that.

Maybe that was why it was so easy.

I was surprised how many people came to his funeral. But then I am a figure here, it’s silly to be modest about it. They all turned out to support me. They’ve not been quite so good since. I really thought Henry would be here every day but I haven’t seen him once. But I expect he’ll make up for it when I’m out.

I tell you, though, it’s really the girls I’m disappointed in. I haven’t seen any of them, either.

I have seen Susie Farrow.

Of course Susie Farrow came to visit me.

She said she was here to build fences, she said she was here because she didn’t know I’d got it in me. She said we could be friends when I get out. Got to stick together. Us girls. “Very well,” I said. “Let’s talk like friends. Who’s given you that ring?”
She wouldn’t tell me.

All front, all talk, that Susie Farrow.

But I’ll give her this, she did bring me a book. She says that she and Henry had a meeting, representing the two book groups, to discuss what to bring me. That will be Henry’s doing, I’m certain. The book is The Wimbledon Poisoner and Susie Farrow says it’s a joke. I’ve never been one for comedy but I thank her for the thought. And I’ll check it out later, I’m sure there’ll be a message in it for me.

Do you know, there are quite few ladies here who I’ve seen reading at recreation. I should start a group. I’m going to start a book group, just for us.

We won’t be the first group, obviously. But you’ll see. We’ll be the best.

Writing prompts vs writing promptly

It’s probably a vestige of starting in journalism where you knew what you had to write and you knew you had to get on with it. But it has taken me so long to warm to the idea of a writing prompt that actually, I still haven’t. Not quite. I see the appeal a bit more than I did yet the notion someone can say “Write about… happy daisies” still feels a bit wet.

I can’t shake the feeling that a prompt is necessarily random and trivial. That if I were ever to write about happy daisies it should be because something in them makes me shake and I must get it out, not because a stranger glanced at a Van Gogh painting.

What’s slightly embarrassing is that I’ve used prompts, I’ve set them for people.

What’s mortifying is that people have set them for me and I’ve written some of my best material because of them.

Maeve Clarke, an author I worked for and then with at Writing West Midlands’ Young Writers scheme, once set her group of 8 to 12-year-olds this prompt: write a fairytale. I was helping out at that session and I joined in. I wrote a fairy tale. In about a quarter of an hour, having never typed a single word that could ever be construed as fairytale-like, I’d written 900 words of The Prince and the Spinning Wheel’s Angular Momentum. And you see that’s a link? I was so pleased with that wildly out-of-my-wheelhouse story that I posted it here on Self Distract.

The disadvantage of posting it, though, is that I can now see the date: November 2012. It’s two years since I had proof both that a writing prompt could spin me off into new and satisfyingly unsafe areas – and that when prompted, I can’t half write promptly. Nine hundred words in a quarter of an hour. That tale fell out of me, didn’t it?

Maybe I can’t really account for why it’s taken me two years to properly accept that writing prompts can work, but there is a reason I’m telling you all this today. Last night, I invited my family to an event in which I will be reading a story. I’ve been a writer for my entire adult life and I’ve never invited them anywhere before. To be fair, I can’t bring guests to a Doctor Who recording. And even in the past year when I’ve been doing a huge number of talks, every one of them has been either closed or far away. But now my own family is spending money to come see me. I’m not scared.

I am, but I have help. The event is Seven Minute Tales and it features six authors reading extracts from stories we’ve written to order. I’ve seen two of my fellow authors’ tales so I know my family will have a good night. Plus I burn to read mine and the fact that we have to stand there in front of a room of people and read is dwarfed by the fact that we only get to read extracts to them where I burn to read the whole thing. I know, as all of us in the event know, that seven minutes works out to about half the story if we’re lucky.

You’ll get six half-stories, six tales where you will end up wanting more. Fortunately, if you buy a ticket for the event, you also get a copy of the book collecting them all. So I suppose you don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next. But I want to tell you.

I want to read it to you. I am that pleased with my tale and it is something I would never and I think could never have written without one hell of a prompt. And without having to write it quite promptly.

This is what I call a real prompt. I was commissioned by Roz Goddard of the West Midlands Readers’ Network to create a story for a particular group. Six authors were assigned to six reading groups: the groups had to apply to the scheme and the authors were asked to pair up with them. I don’t know yet where everybody went but the authors are Yasmin Ali, Liam Brown, Charlie Hill, Catherine O’Flynn, Kate Long and I. It’s pretty good company to be in.

I got a reading group in the village of Combrook, which to my navigationally-challenged mind is near Stratford. I bet the group would say Stratford’s miles away, what am I talking about, but that’s the rough direction I pointed the car at.

The job was to meet with this reading group and have a natter about fiction. Talk about what they like in reading, talk about them and talk about their village. Then I was supposed to go away and write about 2,200 words of a new short story for them.

I tell you now, you would want to live in Combrook. And you would want to join this book group. And if you did, you would be agog and delighted at the torrent of tales they could give you about the village. There is too much to ever get into a story but then that wasn’t the brief, I wasn’t meant to document the village or recount a real tale, I was really to create fiction that this group would like.

Talking with some of my colleagues, I know we all came away with huge long lists of points and elements and facts and preferences. One author, I think, managed to get the entire list into the tale and that’s rather amazing. Another cherry-picked two or three elements and crafted a story I think is the best of the ones I’ve read.

And then there was me.

I recorded the session plus I made several thousand words of notes and I didn’t use any of them.

All this glorious material, all these delightful people, and I ignored everything.

Because.

During the email exchanges before the meeting, just sorting out when I’d go and how near Stratford they are, the group mentioned the very smallest of facts. This village of Combrook, as small as it is, actually has two reading groups.

I drove away late that night with masses, simply masses of detail and information and history and yet all the way home that one fact of the two groups kept banging at my head. You’re not supposed to actually write about your group. This project has been running for years and every author, every year, has conjured up the most astonishing range of stories and settings and tones. None of them has ever written a syllable about the group they visited.

But bang, bang, shove, the village has two groups.

It go so I decided fine, write this story about two rival reading groups and get it done, get it out of my head, then throw it away and do my job properly. Write it, forget it, and start thinking what my real story should be.

I never did. All those notes, forgotten. That audio recording of the session, never listened to. Because I have never before had a story that was more in charge of me than I was of it. I get really passionate about my Doctor Who scripts and if I can’t do one because my idea is too close to something else, it physically hurts me. (Writers will tell you that nothing is wasted, that you will always find a home for an idea if it’s good enough. But this is Doctor Who. It’s not like you can take a rejected idea and pitch it to Hollyoaks.)

But this was more than that. The banging in my head, I feel ridiculous telling you that so I’m not going to admit that my hands shook at the keyboard. You didn’t hear that, I didn’t say it.

The story came out of me very quickly, though it then took a long time to get right. Fortunately, my sense of time is as bad as my sense of navigation: I misunderstood the deadline and I think part of the shaking was to do with how I thought I had much less time to write than I had. I did have this writing prompt about the two groups and I thought I had to write it promptly.

Whereas right now I know I have to write a disclaimer. This is an easy disclaimer because it’s entirely true but it’s also an important one because I liked the Combrook group a lot. Nothing in my story really happened and, most importantly of all, there is not one single character or even facet of a character that I based on anyone in the group.

But a few days ago, I went back to Combrook and I read them the story: “The Book Groups”.

If it hadn’t gone down so well with them, I might not be telling you this so happily and I definitely wouldn’t have told my family at all. But it did and right now I am very proud of it. I’m a writer, the pride will alternate with doubt, but today I’m seizing the pride and I’m being a bit brave about it.

Because I want to invite you to the event.

You’d have to pay, I’m not that generous, and you’d have to get to Birmingham, I’m not on tour. But if you can get to the Library of Birmingham for 6pm on Wednesday 26 November this year, you will hear six stories read promptly.

Details and online booking here or on 0121-245 4455. Tickets are a fiver and are genuinely selling out fast. I half hoped I could boast to my family about it but it’d be full before they booked. No such luck.

And when it’s done, when the book is out, I’ll post The Book Groups here. That’s not scary either.