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…?)



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.


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?

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.

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.

Why I stopped blogging and started journalling . . . and why I’m now doing both

The problem with blogging

I’ve blogged on and off for a few years.

I used to write a blog called Really Practical Criticism, where I did “close readings of modern life” (that was 2011-12). And then more recently I just wrote updates on my minor successes as an aspiring writer, like when I got published in a magazine or something (around 2013-14).

Then I just stopped. To be honest, I didn’t really see the point in blogging: it takes a long time, a lot of effort to maintain, and not many people were reading what I was writing.

The fact is, in a blog you write for an audience, and not only do you edit and revise your work to interest or impress them, you also self-censor before you even start writing. Personally I ended up double-guessing and overthinking. Instead of using it as a way to exercise my creativity in a relaxed way, I would end up asking myself: what should I write about, what would interest people, how can I make this more interesting, etc, etc?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas; I had tonnes of thoughts and I also had the desire to say things honestly and clearly, but didn’t feel comfortable expressing them through this medium.

The benefits of journalling

So this time last year (Sunday 2nd August 2015 to be precise) I started writing a journal instead.

I didn’t set out to journal, it just started naturally. I happened to be travelling on a long train journey for work, and had a notebook and pen on me. I was annoyed about not being able to find enough time to write my novel, and so I basically scribbled down a long rant about it.

Then over the following weeks I wrote my thoughts about books and magazines I was reading, kind of like ‘literary criticism lite’. I also wrote about my novel: trying to articulate the plot and characters, or just venting the troubles I was having with it.

Within a year, I have filled five notebooks with thoughts on books, writing, relationships, work, life, basically whatever interests me at that time.

Writing a private journal solves all of the problems that I had with blogging: there’s no self-censorship, no audience, just my own small thoughts. I write whenever I want – sometimes with a fortnight gap, and then sometimes twice in one day. It’s inspiration-based.

If you haven’t tried it, I would seriously recommend it. Just pick up a pen and paper and write whatever comes into your head. You’ll be amazed what you end up writing, and the act of articulating your priorities and problems will help you understand them better too.

The problems with journalling

As you might have guessed, my decision to start journalling came out of a bigger desire to become more self-aware. At the same time, I was lucky enough to get onto a development course at work, which meant I had my own coach and mentor who were posing loads of intriguing questions to me. So most of my thinking during the past year was focused on how I could understand and improve myself. If you’d asked me at any point what the key to life was, I’d say self-awareness. And journalling was a key part of my self-awareness.

But then I started having my doubts. This summer I happened to be reading The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: it’s a great book, but the narrator is a frustrating guy. He is passive, non-committal, numb and cynical – everything that I was trying to avoid being.

But then I started to understand his philosophy. What he’s critical of is people who take a reductionist approach to life, especially writers and teachers. He talks a lot about when he was “seeing around”, by which he means being distanced from his own feelings and trying to analyse and objectify them. The better alternative is actually to be “fully in your emotions, when they are simple enough to be in” and to “relinquish and stop worrying”.

All of this got me thinking: is journalling actually the right thing to do? I had been labouring under the impression that my attempts were well-guided and noble, but what if they weren’t? What if in reality I was just feeding and fuelling my neurotic desire to be in control of situations, to analyse ‘objectively’, to create my own private forum in which I was always right—when in reality I would be better off trying to live authentically and “be in” my feelings rather than “seeing around” them?

What next?

This is all a long way of saying that writing in a journal is great, but it’s not everything. In many ways, being introspective means being isolated. Explaining means explaining away. And that thinking you’re self-aware shows a real lack of self-awareness.

And in many ways, I missed having that dialogue with the outside world. Maybe instead of marshalling my thoughts on private things, I could be blogging ideas about media and copywriting and design and other things that interest me. If form determines content, teh medium of blogging would make space for new ideas. (It might also make me a more light-hearted person, lol.)

So now that I am going back to agency life professionally, I want to be more extroverted and outgoing in my writing – and intend to start blogging more regularly, as well as journalling whenever the inspiration takes me.

Do you journal and/or blog? What do you think?

I finished my novel! (Well, the first draft)

I’m very happy and relieved to say that I finally finished the first draft of my novel today!

That’s right. After a false start in 2014 and then about year of concerted concentration, my novel English Interiors has now got a beginning, a middle and an end. So I decided to celebrate by printing it all out in this big wad of literary loveliness.

img_0016 Excellent news, I know. Thanks very much. You’re too kind.

Now I know there are tonnes of problems with it which I need to sort out, including the fact that characters’ names and personalities change throughout (or they just disappear entirely), and there are pages and pages of longueurs, and the pivotal middle section is an incoherent mess.

I also need to ask myself some pretty fundamental questions like: is this one novel or a trilogy? It weighs in at 240,000 words (which is about 800–1000 pages) so I either need to cut it in half somehow, or split it into three.

In fact, I know that the second draft is probably going to be longer and harder than this one – next I need to figure out what it’s actually about, how it all fits together, how to cut out extraneous scenes and how to make the language sing.

But for now I’m just going to breathe and relax and enjoy the fact that my first draft exists.

Anyway – regardless of what happens in the future, this is the most rewarding thing I have done. Ever. (Maybe.) It’s the only thing in my life that I am completely responsible for, and that I can take all the credit for. I’m massively proud of the fact that I had a goal and stuck with it.

I hate cheesy quotes, but a few months back when I wanted to ditch the whole thing, one of them spurred me on:

You only fail if you don’t try, not if you don’t succeed.