guide

So You Want To Be A Writer

No, you really don’t. But if I absolutely can’t persuade you otherwise, I suppose I should at least share a little of my experience on the matter. Talking to a lot of writers, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were all producing epic masterpieces from the womb and have been engaged in the great literary struggle ever since, barely a moment passing when swathes of creative perspiration were not dripping from their brows. And I’m sure that’s how a good deal of them view the situation. Such declarations can be intimidating for us mere mortals, as if the fact we haven’t been scribing equivalents of The Odyssey since we were in short trousers means we don’t stand a chance of ever putting pen to paper.

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What do you mean you haven’t written your first draft yet?

The truth is, everyone has to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter when or where we start, just as long as we start. And not everyone is obliged to become a fully-fledged literary obsessive, dedicating every waking moment (and non-waking ones, in some cases) to their magnum opus. Take my friend Sam, for example (regular readers will know her as Ice Badger). Sam is a professional technical writer, but has a huge creative streak outside of work and is particularly gifted in the field of haiku. She has often hinted at wanting to write some fiction and last week asked my advice about getting started. I took this as a huge compliment as I am certainly no expert in penmanship and my fiction writing is pretty low-brow, to say the least. But this is what I would say to Sam, and anyone else thinking about wielding the quill for the very first time…

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Sam in her other role as Minister for Good Ideas & Gin, helping me run the country

Notebooks!

In the past I have been guilty of hoarding notebooks, too afraid to write in the nicest ones because I didn’t want to ruin them with scribbles and nonsense. But scribbles and nonsense are exactly where the best stories come from! So I got myself a cheap, functional, unassuming notebook and began a-scribbling with gusto (gusto is optional, but it really helps). I’ve got lots of them, now, some of them are really nice. Even the nice ones are full of nonsense – quite frankly, I’d make notes on the back of the Mona Lisa if an idea came to mind.

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Lots and lots of nonsense that eventually became books and things

Your notes don’t have to be profound, interesting, or even make sense. They should be things that strike you for any reason, cause thinking, raise a smile or a question, make you cry or fume. It could be the funny mannerisms of that woman on the tube, a quirky turn of phrase favoured by your granddad or some graffiti that caught your eye in the underpass. Maybe you have half an idea for a character on the bus, or think of a great opening line whilst doing the ironing. Anything at all, write it down. You’ll be surprised how quickly those seemingly random missives become a little creative goldmine. Sometimes, the random things join themselves up and little stories peek out their heads when you least expect it.

Inspiration!

Inspiration can be fortuitous and unsolicited, but more often than not it needs a little helping hand. It is widely agreed that going for a nice walk is very helpful. Get out and about and notice everything. What does the sky look like? What can you hear or smell? Notice the tiny flowers and the way the little bird cocks his head. Notice the people – how they move, how they speak, try to imagine what they’re thinking or where they’re going, where they’ve been. There are stories in everything, if only you look carefully enough.

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There’s got to be a story in this…

It’s always good to write about what you know and the more you know, the more you have to write about. Travel is a fabulous way to open the mind to new experiences but isn’t possible for everyone. Just going to unusual places (or places unusual to you), speaking to people you normally wouldn’t and looking at things you haven’t seen before are super ways to foster inspiration.

Reading?

You should probably read a great deal. I admit that I am not a big reader, although I did read a lot when I was small. If you fancy turning your hand to writing, chances are you’re already a keen reader and will already have a good idea of styles you like and things you don’t. A broad spectrum of reading material will help you find your writing voice, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate your favourite authors. Rather, think about what it is you like about their writing – beautiful rhythm and alliteration? Gorgeous, rolling descriptive prose? Clever dialogue? Whatever it is you love, grab it and develop your own unique take on it.

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Reading big old books in your jim-jams is very writerly.

Be Brave!

Just start writing! It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away with the preparation and contemplation and forget to actually put stuff on the page. You don’t have to show anyone – in fact, I’d probably advise against it whilst you are in that tentative, fledgling stage of writing. And if you do, show it to someone who knows what they are talking about, who can offer you some constructive advice. Or, if you are feeling thick-skinned (and the material is appropriate) show it to a kid. Kids know what they like and are very good at saying what they think.

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My brave face

I promise you, with every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter you write, you will get better. Believe me, it won’t be too long before the words start behaving in a much more civilised manner and you are producing stuff that, while not quite Dickens, is actually, well, pretty good.

Just give it a go, enjoy it and be true to yourself. Nothing about writing is complicated, difficult or requires special insight. No one can teach you how to write, but some people can help you think about how you want to write. Pick up a pen. You will never know unless you try.

Old College – A Visitor’s Guide

Straddling the ancient river of one of Britain’s most venerable cities, Old College is among the most esteemed Colleges of The City University. Even those with a firm grasp of the complexities of higher education are likely to be baffled by the anachronistic nuances of the academic elite, a world mostly unseen by those not permitted passage beyond those hallowed walls. A little light reading is required by any wishing to ingratiate themselves into College life, but it is well worth keeping in mind that even veterans of scholarly society don’t really know what’s going on. A quick glance at this visitor’s guide will have you swanking around like an alumni in no time.

Hierarchy

Ruled by a sort of benevolent autocracy, Colleges have at their head The Master of College. This role is usually taken by a person of great academic achievement and often also of high standing within society. The Master of Old College is both a professor of economics and a Lord of the Realm, which is fairly impressive. A somewhat sinister and distant figure, he spends a good deal of time abroad, avoiding his sex-mad, surgically enhanced wife who is sadly devoid of any notable talents beyond those bought and paid for in Harley Street.

Luckily, Old College is blessed with the formidable force of nature that is The Dean to keep things relatively on track in his absence. Previously an international lawyer with a dubious past in Kuala Lumpa, The Dean is fearless, tactless and prone to random violence. A handsome man in his mid-forties, Deputy Head Porter has held a candle for him since their first meeting. Fraternisation between The Fellowship and College Servants is not so much frowned upon as simply unthinkable, and his often frenzied approach to enforcing discipline and maintaining reputation make any union between them unlikely. He is ably assisted by the softly-spoken Senior Tutor, whose remarkable tolerance makes him perfect for dealing with students and Fellows alike.

The Fellowship

‘The Fellowship’ is a rather romantic title for the multifarious conglomerate of academics who make up the ruling body of College. Although there are some bone fide proper jobs performed by members of The Fellowship, a great deal of them seem to exist simply to occupy the dining halls and their only reason for being in College is that they haven’t anywhere else to go.

Keeping an eye on the vast sums of money passing in and out of College are The Bursars. Traditionally, one collects the money whilst the other spends it, although Old College is now down to one Bursar and even he is currently locked in a dungeon in a French chateaux.

Sitting firmly and distantly beneath The Fellowship we have the College servants. All the really important roles are covered by this somewhat pompous term – Housekeeping, Maintenance, Catering, Gardeners and, of course, the Porters.

Porters

Ensconced in the muted splendor of the Porters’ Lodge, the bowler-hatted jacks-of-all-trades are at the top of the humble servant pile. Although I am sure other departments might dispute that. The Porters, naturally, are not the carriers of bags but the keepers of keys. The role is so broad and varied it is difficult to encapsulate concisely. Always on hand (except when they are sneaking off for a smoke), Porters act as security, deliver the post and are called upon to deal with everything from lost property to broken hearts. But woe betide any who upset the Porters. Think of Porters as butlers with attitude.

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Here I am, doing some actual Portering.

Bedders

Housekeeping staff whose primary priority is keeping the student quarters from becoming biohazards. Bedders keep the College spick and span whilst accumulating some of the more salacious gossip, which makes them great allies of the Porters.

Formal Hall

By definition, Formal Halls are formal dinners often used for the entertainment of College guests. As such they are governed by certain guidelines, customs and rules set out to ensure all College members behave themselves. Failure to observe these guidelines may result in punishment up to and including death, or something far worse than that – being sent to see The Dean. Eating and drinking (especially drinking) is taken very seriously indeed by The Fellowship and they expect everyone to attribute a similar gravitas to the consumption of victuals. Formal Halls are held once a week in full term and are seen as a way of keeping your hand in for the Feasts and Balls that are a common part of College life.

The Other Place

Among the upper echelons of British society, there are only two Universities given any consideration. Their annual boat races are a long standing tradition and the contention between them goes back centuries. It is considered bad form to utter the name of your academic rivals, hence the University that is not your alma mater is automatically known as The Other Place.

Punting

Punting is a prerequisite of proper City life. The art of gently steering a flat-bottomed boat with a twelve foot pole along the urban waterways is one which must be mastered by anyone wanting to be taken really seriously in College. Here in the City, we always punt from the rear of the boat, whereas The Other Place adopts the rather undignified practice of dragging the boat through the water, punting from the front. Heathens.

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Fairly frantic punting

(Bit random – but click here to see William Shatner punting in Cambridge)

This covers the basics of a complex and convoluted ‘organisation’ (I use the term loosely) that, despite ambiguous origins and esoteric arrangements, has managed to thrive for eight hundred years, becoming inordinately wealthy and more powerful than government or the church.  How the University wields its power is difficult to know, but how they maintain it can be easily observed. 

Welcome to Old College. You’ll never leave…

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First Lady Of The Keys – preorder NOW!