A week in the life of Stop the Clock

launch of Stop the Clock
Me with the owners of Mostly Books

I’ve always fought shy of public speaking, but no longer! Just over a week ago, I gave a thank you speech to a lovely group of people at the launch of Stop the Clock. The launch was hosted by Mostly Books, a brilliant independent bookshop in my hometown.

It’s funny how you can end up feeling physically nervous even if, in your head, everything is hunky and dory. I couldn’t have wished for a warmer, more encouraging audience, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say, which was along the same lines as my last blog post. I wanted to thank everybody for coming, acknowledge the help and support I’d received both from the people present and from some who had been unable to make it, and let everybody get back to their wine. Yet, when it came to it, it was – not intimidating, exactly, but definitely a little tremble-inducing!

You can see some more pictures of the launch on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AlisonMercerwriter and on the Mostly Books blog.

Tip for handling speech nerves: kid yourself it doesn’t count!

A work friend googled nerves about public speaking  and sent me a good tip (it’s funny how google has become the first port of call when potential problems arise – google is the oracle). The tip was that it’s actually counterproductive to build up to something and steel your nerves and tell yourself how desperately important it is. Instead, if you kid yourself that the stakes are low and it really doesn’t matter, you’ll be much more relaxed and confident.

This reminded me of the advice we were given on hitting high notes back when I was a child singing in the South Berkshire Music Centre choir: you were meant to imagine yourself falling down onto the top notes like a cat landing on its feet, rather than straining up as if they were on a high shelf out of reach. I tried to remember this when I did my first ever radio interview at Radio Oxford on Bank Holiday Monday.

Sex on a Bank Holiday Monday… with a lion on the loose

As it was a public holiday, most people were off work when I went into Radio Oxford – I had to go through the car park to the back door to be let in. I’d never been in a local radio station before, and was reminded ever so slightly of a hospital – it had that functional, conscientious, public service feel, where things tend not to get chucked out for the sake of it, as long as they still work.

The green sofa I perched on while waiting for my slot could have been in a parents’ room off a children’s ward, and the big notice reminding staff to ask listeners to send in their pictures reminded me of the signs you get everywhere in hospital, exhorting everybody to go and wash their hands.

I had somehow managed to kid myself that the interview was going to be pre-recorded, and it wasn’t until I was sitting down at a little desk with a big green baize-covered microphone in front of me (there was a lot of green baize) and saying ‘Good afternoon’ that I allowed myself to realise I WAS NOW LIVE ON AIR! Actually, we had a nice chat, and it was all over very quickly.

And so I got to talk about sex via a public service broadcaster at lunchtime on a Bank Holiday Monday. Well, sort of. We chatted about 50 Shades and how the girls in my class at school didn’t think the family saga I wrote as a teenager had enough rude bits in it. I giggled quite a lot. You can hear my Radio Oxford interview here, for the time being anyway  – my bit kicks in at 1:07:25 (after Saturday Night Fever!) It’s about 10 mins.

The big story of the day was the lion on the loose in Essex, which turned out to be a big cat. I left the studio and found I had a very cheery text message of congratulation from my husband. Then I went home and ate a very large slice of caramel cake to celebrate.

What they’re saying about Stop the Clock

Here are some of the comments that have appeared in mainstream print media about Stop the Clock:

‘Mercer has a satirical eye which she puts to good effect in describing such cornerstones of middle-class life as private antenatal classes and bitchy newspaper columnists. A funny, promising debut’ Wendy Holden, Daily Mail

‘Effortlessly readable and sharply realistic, this is grown-up chick-lit at its very best’ Closer

‘Funny and moving, this is a fab debut from Alison Mercer’ new!

There have been some great amazon reviews, too, and some lovely blog reviews:

I also did a guest blog post on Shaz’s Book Blog which sets out my dream cast for a film adaptation of the book

And, on a slight tangent… here’s the Guardian article I wrote about birth scenes in fiction. (Birth does feature in Stop the Clock!)

I was particularly chuffed to hear about my friend’s mum who read Stop the Clock in six hours straight. Once they get started people seem to read it fast!

Happy first book birthday to Stop the Clock

Dreams don’t come true without a bit of outside help; someone else has to wave the magic wand and give you permission to go to the ball. My debut novel, Stop the Clock, is published on Thursday 16 August, a big day for me which wouldn’t be in the offing without the hard work and encouragement of numerous other people along the way.

The publication of Stop the Clock represents the culmination of more than three decades of wanting to be a writer, and an awful lot of pens, printer ink and paper. I’m very grateful to my agent and to my editor and the rest of the team at my publisher, Black Swan, for transforming my manuscript into the finished book that will hit the shelves on Thursday. It’s been one hell of a ride – now for the final fast downhill run!

None of it would have happened without the back-up of my husband, the poet and writer Ian Pindar, an editor par excellence who always has a cool head in an IT crisis. Ian has a sharp eye for a redundant word, and a disciplined attitude to work that I’ve tried to emulate. It’s always very reassuring to have him look over something before sending it out into the world.

He’s also a dab hand with a camera. He took the photo of me on this blog, which makes me look at least five years less tired than I really am.

A big thank you to my ideal readers

Ian was one of the book’s first readers, but there were others who helped to get it through the early stages too. Books that give advice about creative writing often talk about how, when you’re writing, you should imagine the ideal reader, the sympathetic audience that is receptive to what you have to say, and willing you to say it. It’s a bit like the scenes in the film The King’s Speech where George VI speaks directly to his speech therapist rather than to the terrifying masses. I was lucky to have just the right reader at each stage in the development of my book. They take pride of place in the acknowledgements.

Stop the Clock is a book about friendship, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if it wasn’t for my friends, though I’m grateful that we haven’t had quite such a fraught time as Natalie, Lucy and Tina.  Thanks are due to my family too, and my children, without whom Stop the Clock would never have got started.

My experience of working on the book over the last three and a bit years has been bound up with what has been happening in my family, in particular my son’s diagnosis with autism. It’s been a strange, intense time, but while the future is always uncertain, I think we feel much better placed to face up to it now than we did a couple of years ago. So thank you to all the people who have cared for and taught him, and advised us on how to help him, and to our lovely, supportive local community.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Stop the Clock in our home town week after next. Finally the time has come for the book to make its way into the world! I feel like a mother on a child’s first day at school, waiting at the gate, peering at the playground and realising that what happens next is out of her hands.

Part of parenting is letting go. So goodbye and good luck to Tina, Lucy and Natalie, the three main characters who originally existed only for me and a handful of others, and now are ready to tell their stories to anyone who wants to read them.

More tips for writers: how to get to the end

Here are some more tips for writers on how to get your first novel out. It’s not just about creativity and imagination – it’s also about stamina, bloody-mindedness and keeping on going. Inevitably you’ll have other demands on your time, so how do you fit it all in, and stay the course till you get to the finishing post?

It is quite normal to have to work for a living as well as write. James Ellroy was a golf caddy. Sylvia Plath did shorthand (for a bit). William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant – at least, that’s what he said later. (Writers! You can’t believe a word they say!) You may not be able to crank out a masterpiece at quite such a breakneck pace – I certainly couldn’t – but you can definitely push out a first draft if you work most evenings over the course of a year. I wrote pretty much all of Stop the Clock between the hours of nine and midnight, when my children were in bed.

Don’t worry if what comes out to start with doesn’t look all that great. Write secure in the knowledge that you will re-write. A novel is infinitely perfectible. The words you scribble down on your notepad can be reworked, polished up, transformed into e-book or printed page – but only if you’ve set them down in the first place. You may find longhand is better to start with. A keyboard gives rise to the temptation to edit as you go along.

Take notes. All kinds of writing are useful for getting you in the habit: dry-as-dust research reports, accounts of fetes and conferences, long, crazy love letters – it’s all exercise of one kind or another. If you’re not ready to commit to a novel, try short stories, a diary, a blog, flash fiction, whatever. Keep pen and paper to hand, because when you’re in the habit of writing phrases will present themselves to you at odd times. Don’t lose them. Write them down as fast as you can.

Don’t believe the spiel about the enemies of promise. This was a list dreamed up by Cyril Connolly, and it included the pram in the hall and journalism. It’s a funny, well-written essay. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s nobler to try to make something than to knock it – even if you fail. It is always, always harder to create something than to destroy it. Don’t let meanness or indifference put you off. The act of putting pen to paper, regardless of outcome, is what counts. And as Brendan Behan says in Borstal Boy, F**k the begrudgers.

Remember, as the screenwriter William Goldman says repeatedly in Adventures in the Screen Trade, nobody knows anything. Be prepared to listen to advice, especially if it comes from someone whose judgement you trust. However, when it comes to your work, others may be able to offer a view or a steer, but ultimately, you are the one in charge. You decide. You judge. You choose. As a novice writer, you are simultaneously without status and magnificently powerful.

When you put your shoulder to the stone, something magical happens: forces conspire to help you shift it. When I was a student I interviewed the polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, and he said that when you commit to an expedition, however impossible it seems, things fall into place to get you on your way. That can happen with novels, too.

If you find it difficult to get started, try writing in bed. Like reading in bed, it’s a way of tricking yourself into thinking that you are resting and indulging yourself, and about to go to sleep any minute. It worked for Proust…

Carry on reading. But don’t force yourself to read books you think you ought to. Read whatever you like, and plenty of it. If you feel stoppered up, try a page-turner. I read the Twilight saga when I was writing Stop the Clock in the hope that the flow of it would rub off. Read books that are similar to the one you want to write and see how they’re put together. Borrow other people’s tricks and make them your own.

Keep going. Music can be useful to psyche you up and push you on, just as it is (I believe) for runners. Be stubborn and bloody-minded. You will be peculiarly pleased with yourself when you get to the end.

Here are some more tips on how to write a novel in next to no time.

Tips on how to write a novel in (next to) no time

Novels are time machines that take in hours from their writers and convert them into the ability to transport their readers elsewhere. They eat up evenings and weekends and whatever you throw at them. It’s amazing how long you can spend agonising over a couple of sentences. On the other hand, it’s equally surprising how much you can produce in just five minutes.

If you’ve got a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and want to write a novel but have no spare time, how are you ever going to fit it in? Part of the answer is sleight of hand. You need to kid yourself that it’s feasible until you’re so deep in that there’s no way you’re going to give up. You have to get over the hump.

Here are some tricks and ruses that will help to get you started and keep you going. The time your novel takes up is going to have to come out of somewhere, sadly; you’re never suddenly going to get a whole new load of hours in which to write it, unless a very wealthy and obliging patron comes along. So, what gives?

If there’s anything you routinely do that you don’t really like doing and would prefer not to bother with, why not cut back on it? In my case, that has meant embracing my inner domestic slut. The inner domestic goddess is no help at all on the writing front – we’re barely on speaking terms. And to paraphrase Rose Macaulay, better a house unkept than a life unlived (or a book unwritten).

I do feel ashamed of my writerly sluttishness, but console myself with the thought that Iris Murdoch apparently had a very messy house. And as for Quentin Crisp – he maintained that after the first five years, the dust didn’t get any worse.

You’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners somewhere.

During your precious writing time, resist interruption. According to Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, when Plath was a new mother living in Devon she tried to write in the morning and leave housework till the afternoon. However, she was liable to be interrupted by surprise visits from the local nurse and midwife, who would head on upstairs and find Plath working away, undressed, the bed unmade, and the chamber pot unemptied.

The Person from Porlock called on Coleridge and Kubla Khan ground to a halt. If you can avoid letting the Person from Porlock in, then do. It may be necessary to cultivate a bit of writerly ruthlessness.

Be very, very selective about what TV you watch. Consider abandoning all reality TV. The reality you invent will be much more compelling. Maybe this will mean some holes in your water cooler chat, but you’ll manage.

Get to know some other writers. If one or two of them are published, so much the better. It’s proof that it’s possible. I met Jenny Colgan socially back in the mid-90s and a few months later there were posters for her debut novel up all over town. It happens.

One way of meeting other writers is to do a creative writing course, selected according to the funds and time you have available. The Arvon Foundation runs week-long residential courses that don’t cost the earth and there are various online options. Some terrific writers have done creative writing courses. Many have not. It isn’t a pre-requisite.

Set yourself a deadline and make sure that someone else knows what it is. The carrot – publication, praise, renown, money – is far off, and likely to keep on getting jerked out of reach, so a stick is more likely to help you on your way. A deadline is an excellent stick.

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I set myself the target of writing a chapter a month, for twelve months, at the end of which I figured I’d have a novel, of sorts. I handed over each chapter on the due date each month to a colleague at work (in a brown envelope so no one else would pick it up and start reading.) I missed one month’s deadline, which was when my children had chicken pox. Just knowing someone was expecting me to deliver spurred me on.

Find yourself a reader, or readers, but choose with care. With an early draft, you don’t need detailed feedback. That can come later. In the meantime, while you’re trying to get the damn thing out, ‘I liked that bit’ will probably suffice.

You may not need much more than to know that someone has read it. You certainly won’t want detailed criticism. Hint: your ideal reader will probably share some of your tastes and values, but is unlikely, especially in the early days, to be your spouse.

You will also need at least some people around you who believe that what you are trying to do is worthwhile, even if you haven’t yet shown them what you’re writing. If your spouse or partner is one of these, count your lucky stars. However, you should beware of telling the world at large that you are writing a novel. Play your cards close to your chest until you’re really getting somewhere. This helps to create the psychological space and sense of freedom you need to make stuff up (which is what you need to do for writing to cease to seem like hard work, and become a pleasure).

More tips to follow…

My top seven novels about female friendship

IMG_3490
Friends, by my daughter

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I looked at lots of other books about groups of female friends that follow the outcomes of different attitudes to work and men and family life, and the decisions women make and how this affects their relationships with each other.

Here are seven novels about women’s lives and friendships that I’ve enjoyed hanging out with over the years.

  1. One I keep going back to was Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, which I think is just terrific – funny, frank, sexy and moving (and full of relationships with men that don’t quite work out).
  2. The mother (grandmother?) of all these books about groups of women has got to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. OK, it’s about sisters, but still – different types of woman, different attitudes to how to be a woman, and to what sort of man and relationship to aspire to. I often think of the bit where Jo passes the manuscript of her book round, and people tell her to cut different bits out and it ends up getting thinner and thinner!
  3. Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy. Her first. I still remember the cover, with bold red-headed Aisling and quiet blonde Elizabeth. That seems to be a common dynamic in these kind of stories – the go-for-it girl and the one who is more reserved but would secretly like to be wilder.
  4. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. A gutsy tomboy, a shy, lady-like girl, and a bad bloke. Warm, but also dark and surprising: southern Gothic. Cuts between the Depression and the 80s.
  5. Lace by Shirley Conran. Meet Pagan, the Cornish aristo; Maxine, married to a French count; Judy, the American magazine publisher; and Kate, the writer. Epic romp across decades and different countries, with designer luggage. (I wrote a blog post recently on why Lace is a much better read than Fifty Shades of Grey.)
  6. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Brilliant telling of the stories of four Chinese women who have come to live in the US and their American-born daughters.
  7. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Again, looks at both friendship and mother-daughter relationships (the main mother-daughter relationship is pretty damn fraught, and the friends – the Ya-Yas – intervene to try to repair the damage). There’s a great scene when the troubled mother welcomes in a woman selling cosmetics door-to-door, who is hopeless as a saleswoman but also desperate, having fallen on hard times, and the two of them restore each other’s self-belief: quintessentially feminine.

Friendship and falling out in Stop the Clock

Good times bond people together– I guess it’s the honeymoon principle. Bad times, too, especially if you help each other get through them.

With old friends – the friends you make at school, or university or college, or in your first job – the history that glues you together is a compound of both the fun stuff and the disasters, plus something else; you come to define each other. The friend who knew you back then as well as now, who has seen you change, really knows you; someone you just met only sees the person you appear to be today. But change can mean distance, too; how far can the bonds of friendship stretch before they break?

The three main characters in Stop the Clock, my debut novel, are close in their mid-twenties, but their lives are set to head in different directions. Lucy, married and a mum, has no desire to go back to work; Tina is ambitious and career-focused; Natalie just wants to settle down with her boyfriend, or thinks she does. By their mid-thirties, they have ended up in quite different positions as far as their love lives and careers are concerned – but is the picture about to change yet again?

Old friendships – like any long relationship – sometimes hit a rough patch. (I still feel bad about ruining my friend’s egg poaching pan that her grandmother gave her. What can I say – in an ideal world, nobody would ever let me near a cooker.)

Stop the Clock looks at what happens when there are tensions between friends, when the goodwill built up over the years is put to the test. Following what happens to the three friends was a way of dramatising the different kinds of lives that women lead, depending not just on our choices, but also on chance – the opportunities that come our way (or don’t, however much we wish they would).

Destruction, revelation, survival: stories about writing

They say you should write about what you know… and one thing writers know about is writing.

Here are eight novels in which writing, or the desire to write, plays a sometimes destructive, sometimes liberating role. One thing’s for sure, writing in literature is not a fast route to a happy ending. Often it’s done in secret and then exposed. Sometimes it brings the truth to light. Usually, for good or ill, it’s an agent of change.

Look out for artists, actors and musicians in fiction – sometimes they’re useful proxies. Journalists, too.

In my book, Stop the Clock, one of the characters starts writing a newspaper column which causes all sorts of trouble. Her friends think it’s about them. Maybe it is. They don’t like it.

Frost in May by Antonia White

After Watership Down by Richard Adams, this was the second novel that made me really cry. Nanda Grey, a Catholic convert at a super-posh Catholic boarding school attended by lots of aristocratic Europeans, decides to start writing a story, which she keeps tucked away out of sight. She decides to make all her characters really really bad, and into various nameless vices (she doesn’t know much about vice so this requires some imagination) in order for their eventual redemption to be all the more dramatic. How does it work out in the end? If you don’t know, I’ll leave you to find out.

Antonia White wrote another three books about the same character, and they’re all very much worth reading. The last one, Beyond the Glass, describes what it’s like to have a mental breakdown and end up institutionalised, which was something else the author knew about.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

So: a first novel about the writing and publication of a first book, with dramatic results. Skeeter has an impossible deadline to meet, and faces an impossible challenge: persuading the black maids she is meant to be writing about to risk sharing their stories. Still, if Aibileen and Minny help her, maybe she’ll make it…

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Until I read this I had the vague idea that Peyton Place was a wishy-washy soap opera. Then I discovered the book on which the long-running TV series was based. Published in 1956, it’s a pretty angry book about a pretty New England town where the falling leaves mask something nasty buried underneath the sheep pen… It’s like the world of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet 30 years later, where evidence of grimness lurks just beside the white picket fence.

One of the central characters, Allison, is a lonely innocent (played by a young Mia Farrow in the TV version) who dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother, Constance, grew up in Peyton Place, moved away, and then returned with Allison. Constance is doing her damnedest to preserve a facade of respectability, even though her relationship with Allison’s father (who worked in publishing) wasn’t quite what she would like others to believe.  And then Allison befriends local beauty Serena Cross, who knows a story worth telling, though for now she’s keeping it to herself…

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain is hungry and penniless, but she lives in a (rundown) castle and has a journal to write in. She also has a beautiful sister, a daffy stepmother called Topaz (a former artist’s model), and a hopeless father who wrote a cult hit years ago, but now hides himself away and produces absolutely nothing.

Cassandra’s journal is going to be exchanged for a succession of grander volumes as her fortunes change (but at what cost?) This book includes a scene described by Antonia Fraser as one of the most erotic ever written, according to the introduction. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it is not explicit.)

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

After his mother’s cremation Ritwik takes flight, leaving India and his brutal childhood behind for Oxford, where he has a scholarship to study English literature. One evening he is picked up by a stranger; he is afraid, but still goes along with the encounter, which is both vivid and dreamlike, absurd and otherworldly.

When he gets back to his college room a story presents itself to him. What if he were to write about Miss Gilby, the prim Englishwoman who made a fleeting appearance in a film, Ghare Bairey, that he had seen nearly ten years earlier?

Adrift in London without a work permit, he continues to pursue the story of Miss Gilby in India in the 1900s. She struggles to establish herself as a companion and English tutor to an Indian woman, and witnesses the unrest and resistance stirred up by Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal into Hindu and Muslim states.

Miss Gilby, like Ritwik, is a migrant, trying to live in an often unreadable world. But will they both be able to survive the time and place in which they find themselves?

The Ghost by Robert Harris

By the time you read this… what has happened to the writer? If what you write fails to please, or falls into the wrong hands, what’s going to become of you?

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The first Margaret Atwood I read. Features a story within a story within a story: but who’s telling what?

The golden rule of writing: ‘nobody knows anything’

I bet even in her very wildest dreams E L James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, never imagined that it would turn out to be the runaway publishing success story it has become.

But then, who ever really knows what’s going to work before it’s out in the market? I’m a big fan of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, the recurring motto of which is: ‘Nobody knows anything’.

Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride, so clearly he did know something, and in his book he discusses how to set about adapting stories for the screen. But what he meant by ‘Nobody knows anything’ was that you can’t tell whether you’ve got a hit or a flop until it’s out there. (Apparently he didn’t get very good marks in his creative writing classes in college, which should be heartening for anyone else in the same boat.)

The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen

Once books or paintings or other works make their way out into the world, it can take time for them to find their place. So Van Gogh died in penury and his art now sells for squillions. And F Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, went to his death having absolutely no idea that in 2012 the book would be adapted all over the place, performed unabridged, and regarded by many as pretty much as close to the perfect novel as it is possible to get.

According to Jay McInerney in The Guardian back in June ‘many of the 23,000 copies of the book printed in 1925 were gathering dust in the Scribner’s warehouse when Fitzgerald died in obscurity in Hollywood 15 years later’.

Even Jane Austen, who has something not far off a cult following – the Janeites − nearly 200 years after her death in 1817, was out of print by the 1820s.

It’s a funny old game. Maybe we should qualify the adage ‘Nobody knows anything’ by adding, ‘Not for a while, anyway’.

Before Stop the Clock: my other first novel


We marched down the aisle, my head on his shoulder, the white dress trailing behind me.

“At last,” I said. It was only a whisper, but it stated a lot of things…

And that was the beginning of the end of my very first novel, finished in, er, circa 1982. I think someone did point out at the time that you might get unromantic neckache if you marched down the aisle with your head on your husband-to-be’s shoulder. But never mind.

Inspired by a blog post on Novelicious.com,  I thought I’d drag Solitude (illustrated and published, with hand stitching and sellotape, by the author) out into the light of day. I was proud of it at the time… I still remember how astonishing and heady it was to get through to THE END, and how I never quite believed I’d get there before I did.

I think that still holds good – I felt pretty much the same way when I finished Stop the Clock. Though I promise you it doesn’t end with a heroine with neckache.

Anyway, you have to start somewhere, and for me the start was Elizabeth Davis and her faithful servant companion (!) Dorrie, traipsing round Europe at the beginning of World War I in search of Elizabeth’s beloved Edward. Not quite sure where he had gone or why, but I think it turned out to be something to do with a mad wife in an attic and a house burning down. I was quite immune to Anxiety of Influence.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Stop the Clock is also about women looking for what they think they want.. but then getting it doesn’t turn out at all the way they might have expected.

A tale of two creative writing courses (with an Arvon happy ending)

‘So…’ The two middle-aged men in jumpers regarded me dubiously. I tried to look back at them like a Writer. Like the existentially serious black polo-necked youth I’d met while I was waiting for my interview, who had left me feeling like a bit of a fraudulent dilettante.

‘Are you sure you shouldn’t be trying to become a journalist?’ said one of the creative writing course tutors. The other looked down at the printout of the short story I’d sent in with my application and added, more in sorrow than in anger, ‘There’s a repetition in your first paragraph, you know. You wouldn’t get away with that here.’

And so I lost my chance to do a highly-regarded creative writing MA, and went off to do a journalism course instead. I’m not surprised the jumperish men turned me down, really, as I hadn’t written enough or regularly enough, and had pretty much scraped together the story with the offending repetition in it at the last minute. (In The War Against Cliche Martin Amis says it’s a sign of bad writing to iron out all your repetitions, but alas, the habit is ingrained now and I can’t help myself. See? Scarred!)

Anyway, if I had got in I would almost certainly have spent the best part of the year-long course feeling horribly insecure and clueless. So it all turned out for the best. And some years later I went off to do a week-long Arvon course, which was a very happy creative writing course experience, and here’s why:

  1. I stayed at Lumb Bank, which is this fab old house that used to belong to Ted Hughes, with little writing shelters in the garden. When I went I hadn’t been out of Zone 2 in London for months. Pastoral bliss.
  2. When you’re on an Arvon course you get looked after and shopped for so that you can Write. In the outside world this is, alas, not usual.
  3. We had a lovely person looking after us who went out and bought me The Sun – I was obsessed with my Mystic Meg horoscope at the time. All those valuable things that were going to turn up in my attic! Where are they, Meg? Where?
  4. Everybody was lovely! It was a week of otherworldly loveliness!
  5. Evenings involved lots of red wine consumption (money in the honesty box) and drunken singalongs featuring lots of Frank Sinatra. (Someone had brought a guitar.)
  6. You’re put in little groups to take turns at the cooking, but luckily there were enough people who knew what they were doing for my incompetence not to matter.
  7. You have to write stuff very quickly and read it out, and everyone has to do it, so you just have to get over yourself. And then you see that you can actually do something in as little as five minutes! The start of something, at any rate.
  8. I came back all fired up.

I did an evening class at a local college some years later, and that was good too, and I’ve heard good things about online courses run by the Open University and various other universities, which don’t cost the earth and can fit in round other things.

There is definitely something to be said for spending time with other people who are interested in the same thing. Especially with red wine, Frank Sinatra, Mystic Meg and pastoral bliss thrown in.

Catching up on the fun stuff

A friend of mine has a phrase for the way the rest of your life goes by the wayside when your kids get sick: she calls it ‘falling down the mummy hole’. That’s when you can’t leave the house, or see or chat to anyone on the outside, and the most you can do is just try to get through whatever bug they’ve got.

Sometimes I end up doing the writing equivalent of this – falling down the writing hole. Boy, writing can eat up the hours… Novels are like time machines than suck in real time from their writers and their readers, and convert it into the imaginary time that we all get to spend somewhere else.

Then, in the end, you come back up to the surface and oh dear, the garden’s full of weeds and you have a gazillion practical things to attend to. But also, you get to catch up on fun stuff. Like what’s on telly.

The other night I watched two of Channel 4’s new-ish American comedy imports, 2 Broke Girls and Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23. What an eye-opener! They’re both anti-children of Friends – they’re about friendships that aren’t always friendly. And about being skint, and living somewhere that’s not all that great, with someone you wouldn’t ideally choose to be with.

2 Broke Girls had a slightly Paris Hilton-ish blonde, the posh one, who couldn’t afford to keep her horse any more, and a cute deadpan brunette, the normal one, who’d fallen for the horse but had to say goodbye to it too. At the end off they went to console themselves with cut-price booze and a video of a cat on a piano on youtube (or something like that – I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

Remember how in Friends they lived like bankers in a swish apartment, but actually they did stuff like waitressing/archaeology/being a chef/going to auditions? By rights they should have been squished into a grotty dump of a place, and much too poor to afford all those lattes. The Broke Girls really are broke – at the end of each episode a message flashes up telling you how much $ they have got left now.

On to the B****, and what a peculiar, but likeable, programme this is, and what a great job it’s doing of reformulating the career of James Van Der Beek, who plays a down-at-heel version of the former Dawson’s Creek star. This episode was all about James Van Der Beek’s sex tape. He was quite up for it coming out, thinking it might help him win the public vote on the reality celebrity dance show he was involved in. But he was worried that the weird lip-licking thing he did through most of it would put people off. So he wanted to re-shoot.

This show is not only the anti-child of Friends, it’s the anti-child of Sex and the City – lots of suggestive rudeness and less glamour to take the edge off it. What does your flatmate get up to in the bathtub? You may not want to know – but the B****, who is a scruple-free marvel of disinhibition, is most definitely interested. The B**** prides herself on being nasty. Friends was so not nasty, ever. It didn’t feature a pastor who paid for her nose-job and office refit by selling on a sex tape, either.

In the ad break there was a trailer for a film called Magic Mike, which looks like a US Full Monty, with the likes of Matthew McConaughey in it. Men taking up stripping because they can’t find work, broke girls tallying their $, making the best of flat-sharing with a B****… I guess we’re all counting our pennies and wondering when, and how, things are going to look up.