My story at Liars’ League

A couple of years ago I wrote a story about euthanising my goldfish – and you can watch the Liars’ League performance here. Sounds a bit bleak I know, and it is, but inspiration comes from unlikely places.

It was a bit strange – the most humane way to do it is by putting the fish to sleep with a few drops of clove oil and then killing it with vodka. As my narrator says, quite “fragrant and poetic” in its own way.

Even though I don’t live in London anymore I keep up to date with live literary night Liars’ League. When I saw that they had a ‘Rack & Ruin’ themed event I submitted my piece, and voila!

It was performed recently, beautifully read by Suzanne Goldberg. You can also read the story at on Liars’ League website.

I also found out recently that my first Liars’ League story – The Flyerman – is the most-watched on their YouTube channel! (Bets that half of the views are mine…?)

Enjoy!

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My job saga

So I notice that it’s been seven months since my last post, and that’s probably because I’ve been job-hunting pretty much the whole time.

Are you ready to share in the long and painful story of my job prospects in 2017?

Let’s begin.

The saga starts in January when my girlfriend got a new teaching job starting in York this September. We decided to relocate from Newcastle to York, and I thought I’d get a job in Leeds and commute.

Just five months before, I had managed to snag a job at a Newcastle PR agency within one week. Literally one week . . . I sent my CV on Wednesday, had an interview on Monday and accepted the job on Tuesday!

I didn’t expect getting my next job in Yorkshire would be that easy, but I didn’t think it would be this hard either.

Here’s how it all panned out.

  • Over the course of six months from February to July . . .
  • I made around 30 applications . . .
  • Of which, I was invited to nine interviews . . .
  • Of which, I got five rejections, one ‘reserve list’ and two that I didn’t progress
  • I used up six days’ annual leave
  • I spent at least £323.50 on train travel (plus extra for petrol)
  • Longest wait for any reply after interview: 6 weeks (yes, weeks!)

As you can tell from all that, it’s been a pretty rough slog of a year so far.

Here’s the thing: I think of myself as very employable. I’m Cambridge educated, have had a good run of roles and employers, and have been promoted upwards too. It’s probably these that got me nine interviews (a pretty good record). So I hate to think of how hard job-hunting is for other people without a good CV on paper.

In general recruiters and employers were quite sympathetic to me as a candidate (though it didn’t feel like it at the time and just one day’s delay would send me mad!) and I got some good feedback too.

What frustrated me about some employers and interview panels was their complacency. When you have job security you forget about the wild fluctuations in emotion and the deep underlying stress of it all. You also forget that job-hunting usually comes with a whole load of other baggage. In my case, I was house-hunting in York, selling a house in Newcastle and planning a wedding.

I could see people on interview panels thinking that this is just another role and just another candidate, but hell it really didn’t feel like it to me. As time ticked on it felt like I was never going to get a job, my new life in York was a mistake, my career choice in general wasn’t suited to me, and so on.

And of course, after all that, I have eventually got a job offer and will be starting in the next few weeks.

It’s not the answer to all my problems. In fact it’s only the basis for a solid muggle life, and from here I have a lot of writing to catch up on. But it’s a start.

Advice.

I really don’t have much to offer for any job-hunters out there.

Job hunting is tough. And it’s as long as a piece of string.

One thing. I made a conscious decision early on not just to take any job out of desperation (in fact I could have taken a job in March) and instead to make sure I was getting the right role, salary and career prospects. Taking this approach set me back a long way, so I suppose if you want a job now then you could lower your expectations in the short-term.

A mentor told me “Keep going” and that’s what I did, but to be honest there’s not really much choice.

That’s my job saga. Does this ring any bells with you? Want to share in my pain at all?

I made five goals for 2016 and here’s how I did…

So this time last year I set myself five goals for 2016. Time to see how I did…

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What happened

Me and my girlfriend both sat down at the end of 2015 and thought ‘What the hell have we achieved this year?’ and we couldn’t really come up with anything. It was pretty depressing, thinking that a whole year could go by and you’ve got nothing to show for it. Plus I can be quite an aimless person sometimes and my priorities can change loads from one month to the next.

I decided that for 2016 I wanted to consciously set out with around five aims in mind – even if they weren’t hugely ambitious – and then spend my year trying to achieve them.

I realise that this sounds a lot like New Year’s resolutions (and it is) but I really wanted to make sure that I stuck with these goals and didn’t just forget about them in February.

Some of the goals were quite private at the time, so I kept this to myself.

What I did

I thought about what I actually wanted to achieve in all areas of my life (relationships, work, hobbies, admin, etc).

Then I wrote my goals down on a small laminated piece of card and kept it in my wallet, meaning I got a regular reminder about what I wanted to be up to. (That’s also why it looks a bit tatty after 12 months.)

It was quite liberating actually, because once I had consciously decided on what I did want to prioritise, I stopped feeling guilty about the things I wasn’t going to achieve (like getting fit, eating healthily, etc).

Here they are.

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How I’ve done

Goal 1 – Get engaged. Well… I did get engaged to Sarah! Back in March at Tynemouth Priory. So a big tick there.

Goal 2 – Finish my novel. This was a real slog, and I had to set myself fortnightly deadlines to get anywhere with the first draft of my next novel. It turned into a bigger task than I thought and has ended up at 240,000 words. But, as I mentioned in this blog post about my latest novel, I did manage to finish it. In fact, not only did I finish a ‘rough’ and ‘raw’ first draft in September, but I’ve also written another autobiographical novel-length work since, as well as keeping a journal throughout.

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Goal 3 – Get a new job. My current role at DWP was coming to an end in October 2016 and I was apprehensive about what I would be doing after. Early in the year I managed to secure myself a continuation of that job, but then I went one further and got a job as an Account Manager at a Newcastle PR agency. So tick!

Goal 4 – Finish the house. We moved into our place in August 2014 and I had this idea that within two years we’d have it decorated. There were a few things which I ticked off this year, including getting the bedroom floor sanded and varnished, and buying furniture for the back yard so we could spend summer outdoors. There’s always more to do with home improvements – and due to lack of money I couldn’t do them all – so this one got a solid half mark.

Goal 5 – Relearn the guitar. I got a guitar last Christmas so figured I should probably learn how to play it again (after a few years of dabbling in my teens). I took a term of classes at the Sage and learnt a few songs using the Ultimate Guitar app, but I admit that I haven’t persisted with this goal so I doubt I’m any better now than I was at the beginning of the year. I say this is a fail.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

What I learnt

One thing that I did learn from this is that the more specific a goal is, the easier it is. Think about getting engaged or getting a new job – these are momentous life events which require a lot of effort, but they’re also very tangible so it’s easy to say if you’ve achieved them or not. In future, I’d go for goals that are specific and tangible.

Also, like I mentioned before, I learnt that consciously prioritising your life is liberating. It helps you cut out distractions for other things that you could be doing, because you’ve decided not to do them. Goals might actually help you stop feeling guilty about underachieving.

Roll on 2017.

To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo, that is the question. (And the answer is probably, yes.)

So it’s October 31st. To muggles this means Hallowe’en, but to writers it means something more important: NaNoWriMo Eve.

Writers I know are divided on whether to take part or not. (It’s the same as writing groups and retreats, in that sense.) In fact, most of them say it doesn’t work for them so they don’t bother.

I think the vote against is based on the fact that you consciously prioritise quantity over quality: a lot of the guidance on the site is about writing through the badness, ignoring the inner editor, and so on.

There’s also something subtly competitive about the month. You try to ‘win’ at writing. You’re kind of competing against other writers too, which is not normal.

So, yes, I can see why some writers don’t like NaNoWriMo. It has a specific ethos which doesn’t fit with writers who like to work autonomously and independently.

So obviously it does work best for writers who like pressure and deadlines and a kick up the arse.

I find myself somewhere in the middle camp, as I need enough pressure to make me write every day, but not so much that my creativity seizes up. (Precious, I know.)

I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time last year, and wrote about 60,000 words that November. It was for a literary epic that ended up at 250,000 words – so I couldn’t exactly celebrate at the end of the month when I was still less than halfway through my novel.

Looking back on my manuscript, I’ve also found that my NaNoWriMo chapters are less focused and less convincing than those I wrote more slowly over the following 9 months. It’s as if I didn’t have time to do the mental prep-work I usually need, and ended up rambling as a result.

However, this year my writing project is much more suitable to NaNoWriMo. It feels like it will be 50,000 words; it’ll have short chapters, so I could write about one per day; I have 25-30 chapters left, which could take me 6 months unless I just get my act together; and it’s autobiographical and an ‘easy write’ so I feel like the voice and quality will be there.

So, if you’re still trying to decide whether to NaNoWriMo or not, ask yourself:

  • How do I write best: under pressure or with space?
  • Does my project fit into the timeframe?
  • What’s the ratio of mental time vs writing time?

Ultimately regardless of all that, I think it’s good for writers to get out of our comfort zone and try a new way of composing. So unless you’ve got a writing routine that works perfectly for you, just do it.

For me, the answer for Year 2 is yes. How about you?

Why not being a writer is good for writers

I’ve follow Amie McNee for a while on Instagram and read her latest blog post dealing with that awful question for aspiring writers: “But what’s your real job?”

This got me thinking (and I never know where I fall on this debate so I thought for a long time!)

I find answering this question so awkward that I always say I’m a PR man who does creative writing as a hobby. So first of all: well done Amie and everyone else who proudly says “I am a writer!” It takes guts.

But there are things I don’t quite agree with – and I don’t think it’s just me being pedantic (though that has been known).

First off all a ‘job’ is whatever pays your bills, so if you ain’t getting at least some cashflow from writing, then writing ain’t your job. It can be your passion, your goal, hell even your life purpose (all of which are more meaningful than just a job) but it can’t be your job.

Secondly, just as we should be proud as writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our jobs. Loads of aspiring, and even successful, writers have jobs as teachers or PRs or freelancers or lawyers or whatever. If you’re in denial about the fact you’re not a full-time paid writer, then that’s not healthy.

Thirdly (and this is where my title makes sense) I think there’s a way of solving the writer-job conflict. I think we’ve got to embrace our shitty time-consuming jobs which take us away from our real passion. That’s right, cherish all of those frustrating emails and long meetings and 7-hours-a-day spent away from your novel.

I’m not just being facetious here. I genuinely think there’s merit in having a separate work life: it’s full of writerly material like characters and situations you don’t get elsewhere; it connects you to a different world in which your priorities don’t matter; its humbling; it forces you to analyse yourself and your environment.

For me, one of the worse sins that full-time writers commit is writing a novel about writers and writing. JK Rowling does it with Cormorant Strike investigating the publishing world. Richard Yates does it in Young Hearts Crying. Even Philip Roth is guilty.

These are the books in which you have a character or narrator who is a novelist or poet and they spend their time writing and thinking about writing. And it’s all because the real writer has nothing else to talk about. Professional writers have no material as compelling, no passion or drive as vital, as those of us who spend our time at some other job.

So I think we should use our jobs for our own purpose. To mine material, to make us more determined and focused. That’s what some great work-based novels do, like Heller’s Something Happened and Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

That’s why for me, not being a writer is one of the best things for my writing.

New things I like

I work in PR and marketing, so I always keep my eyes and ears open for cool new things.

I noticed two TV ads recently which I thought were really unexpected and impactful.

One is by Nationwide and is a series featuring spoken-word poets “talking about what’s important to them” – I particularly liked the delivery of Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Little Things’.

The other is by TalkTalk, and is essentially a mini fly-on-the-wall documentary of a regular family in their house, called ‘This Stuff Matters’.

I was wondering what stood out about these ads.

I guess one thing is personal preference: I like spoken-word poetry, and I like subtle and low-key advertising, so both of these naturally would appeal to me.

But I was also thinking that every type of media—TV, newspaper, radio, online, social, etc—has its own set of rules and expectations. It’s similar to films and novels, where each genre has its own tropes, like the happy ending in a rom-com or the obligatory action-film car chase.

If brands are aware of these expectations, they can cleverly subvert them and stand out.

The tropes that I expect from a TV ad are things like: sleek production quality, emotive music, professional voiceover, attractive product shots, maybe some story-telling with a character and plot.

So I like these two ads because they both subvert those expectations. They use the tropes of different media like documentary and poetry, and they draw on these different qualities, using them in a big broadcast channel.

I think this is better for the brand and the customer, to be honest. At least it prevents us from living in some homogenous environment where the media we consume all live up to our expectations.

 

A poem for the writers, on National Poetry Day

Here’s a poem I wrote a few months ago, just for the hell of it. I found it hiding in notebook just now.

Happy National Poetry Day!

The writer

The writer is an accomplished child-minder,
decorator, gardener, husband, father,
amateur footballer, barista, shopper,
cleaner, driver, office worker and cook.

The writer’s time is not his own,
but borrowed by family and friends.
The writer’s mind is not his alone,
but taken by chores, to-do lists and debts.
The writer is a busy island.

Then the writer creates another world for himself.
Takes a pen and carves time in his making.
The movement of his hands describes new lands.
When the house is quiet, when the streets are dark,
by the light of the desk lamp, the writer writes and writes.