The time you have left

‘As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?’  David  Bowie

‘And it’s a human need to be told stories.  The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other, about who we are, why we are, where we come from and what might be possible.’  Alan Rickman

Before Monday I knew exactly what this blog was going to be about.

I’d had a great start to my writing year, with one short story – Dinner for Four – published in Shooter Lit and another – Charis -Highly Commended in the Words and Women Prose Competition and due to be published by Unthank in Words and Women: 3

And then David Bowie died.  So many thousands of words have been written, tears shed, songs listened to and discussed, posts shared, quotes quoted, tributes piling up in Brixton and Berlin.  I’ve got his music playing as I write this, I’ve gone to sleep and woken up thinking of him all week.  My copy of Blackstar still hasn’t been delivered, but when I ordered it I thought ‘oh well, no rush, he’s not going anywhere’.

On Thursday, Alan Rickman died.  Also 69, also cancer, also an icon to so many.  I was so shell-shocked by Bowie that I couldn’t take it in, even though I’d loved him as an actor for years – and yes, I am one of those people who can say ‘well I saw him on stage long before Die Hard’.

They were both storytellers, both used their lives to create and create change.

While I was thinking of where to submit my two stories, I read a blog that said ‘don’t write about dementia and don’t write anything based on the bible .’  Well, that was me fucked right there.  Charis is about dementia and Dinner for Four is set in a curry house where four warring siblings – who also happen to be the four horsepeople of the Apocalypse – are having their once a year dinner because their father has ordered them to.

I then went to a meeting of our brilliant short story critique group.  We discussed the blog and everyone’s advice was ‘just ignore it’.  So I did and submitted and here we are.

I write what I write.  I like writing odd, surreal takes on things.  I love my four horsepeople and am currently planning a sequel.  And yes, as Bowie so rightly said – what do you do with the time you have left? David Bowie, who died at 69 leaving us more gifts than we can number and who turned his death into art perhaps because that was the only way he could deal with it.  The only thing he could do with it.  Because what else would that man do?

So this is not the blog I meant to write, but it’s the one I’ve written, and I will continue to write what I write, no matter what blogs advise.

Because it’s about the stories – and if we’re grieving their loss, not as family members or friends, but as part of the huge mass of people whose lives they affected – perhaps the best thing we can do is to tell stories, in the best, most creative, most truthful way we can.  Because we will always need stories.

One about writing and the Word Factory (with some shameless name-dropping)

“So when did you start writing seriously?” someone asked the other day.  Drawing a veil over the ‘novel’ I began when I was around fourteen, dealing with the invasion of the UK by Germany during WW2 (move over Robert Harris), I suppose it was when a friend and I began what we called The Comic, but could probably be better described as Fan Fiction.  I do not propose to speak a word about what went on in The Comic, but we then progressed to writing a novel based entirely on multiple choice.  As I recall, we were on a rowing boat on Regent’s Park lake when we began mapping it out thus:

1.  It is set in a) 20th century b) ancient Rome c) Medieval Tymes.  (We chose c).

2.  The hero is called a) Dickon b) Robin c) PanPot.  (None of those, though Robin did end up as a subsidiary character.)

You can probably imagine the rest.  We loved writing it, even though it was shite.  Never ones for much research at that time, we decided one character needed a wheelchair and duly ‘invented’ it.  The anti-hero was a necromancer, so it was pretty easy for him to do (his name was Gui, in case you’re wondering).

Then I went to India for 6 weeks, my first time travelling alone.  A couple of years later, I saw that Bill Bryson, whose writing I love, was the judge for the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year competition.  “What the hell?” I thought and entered with a piece about a 24-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali.  Dear Reader, I won.  The prize was a round-the-world air ticket and a posh camera that I dropped in the Okavango Delta whilst escaping from a hippo.

Still,, I never seriously considered writing as an option, although I did a lot of freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, mainly about travel, sometimes not.  Not even when my then-flatmate (name-drop alert) Michael Grandage wrote me a letter – yes, we did write letters then – to say: “I’ve just seen three people on the tube reading your article.  I wanted to shout ‘I know her!’  It’s brilliant.  Be a writer.  Why would anyone want to be a poxy actor anyway?”  Michael, as we know, gave up being a poxy actor and pretty much took over the world as a director.

Still I didn’t consider it as an option.  I loved being a poxy actor, I still do, though have diversified quite dramatically into all sorts of other things.

And then I wrote a novel.   One that I think is good enough to be out there (and which is currently being read in its entirety by two agents), and that is not based on a multiple-choice scenario.  And I met other writers, all incredibly generous with their time and advice.  One is Stella Duffy (name-drop alert 2) and she introduced me to the Word Factory one Saturday night at the end of January, where she was reading one of her short stories.

Now, I’ve never really got short stories.  I mean, I like them and all, but offer me a novel instead and I will take it.  But the Word Factory showed me what short stories could be.  This is what the website says:

“In the beginning was the Word Factory – a series of intimate short story salons bringing brilliant writers and readers together for wine, conversation and great work.”

And when it says “brilliant writers” it isn’t kidding.  Since January I’ve heard Val McDermid, Toby Litt, Alex Preston, Evie Wyld, Vanessa Gebbie and more read their fantastic stories.  And if that weren’t enough (for £12 including a glass of wine), you can also go to the free Short Story Club for an hour before the salon.  Each month, clubbers are sent a story which we then discuss, fairly politely.  I’ve been introduced to George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor thanks to the Short Story Club, and can’t believe I’d not read them before.  And as if THAT weren’t enough, there are Masterclasses to sign up to on the Saturday afternoon.

I love the Word Factory.  It is welcoming, friendly and relaxed and that’s thanks to the organisers – Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and team – and I always come out of a salon inspired to write more, write better.  Every writer needs a Word Factory in their life.  And the wine is excellent.


Discovery Day

Back in September, Jonny Geller tweeted about a joint Curtis Brown/Conville and Walsh initiative called Discovery Day.  Who is Jonny Geller, you ask?  Who is Jonny Geller??  He is a literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown and represents ooh lots of people like John Le Carre, William Boyd, Linda Grant,  Sally Vickers and David Nicholls.  And I follow him on Twitter.

Anyway.  You sign up for Discovery Day and if you’ve done it fast enough and beat the other 5,000 people who didn’t you are invited to go to Foyles on 16th November to pitch your novel/novel in progress to an agent from one of those two agencies.  You have 30 seconds to deliver your elevator pitch, and then another six to eight minutes (I got eight) to expand on it.  They made it very clear that no new novelist would be taken on at the end – eight minutes, even the frankly quality eight minutes I pulled off, isn’t really enough to base an agent/writer relationship on.  And multiply those eight minutes by 250 because I think that’s how many of us there were…  Well.

But I did write this afterwards, awaiting the opportunity to stick it in my blog.  And here it is.  And now i’m going to submit my first three chapters and synopsis, because I have finished the final draft and it’s going on its way before 2014.

It’s Discovery Day day!  (DDday?)   On the train down from Hitchin, I deliver my elevator pitch to three total strangers who are off to the rugby.  Apparently this is how you should test out elevator pitches.  Apparently.  I’ve never had to do one before, so I’m going with any ridiculous suggestion thrown at me.  However, they all go ‘ooh’ and say they can’t wait to read it.  Bless them.  

Arriving at Foyles, I stand in the first of several queues and am greeted by a friendly man who explains the process. “It’s a good idea to get all your bits of paper out before you sit down, to optimise the time.”  We all start scrabbling in our bags, even though we are already holding everything we need.  I am glad I decided on my more glamorous notebook for the occasion.  At least the notebook will look impressive even if the pitch is shite.

And then it’s my turn.  A room full of tables and people.  I am ushered over to table 7 and the charming Alex Christofi from Conville and Walsh – it’s like literary speed daring.  He smiles.  I smile.  The clock is ticking.  I deliver my pitch with all the words in the right order and Alex gives me constructive, positive feedback.  Having established that there are four narrators, he says it’s a good idea to make sure that information is in the pitch.  And of course it was, in the first one I wrote.  Always go with your first instinct – how many times have I said that as an actor?  Every time.  As a writer?  Very different.

Alex reads the first page.  I watch him avidly.  Will he laugh?  Thankfully yes…and in what seems to be the right places, as far as I can tell without actually being inside his head.  More constructive feedback and an ‘ooh what a good idea’ moment.  And I loved that he got (without my saying) that it was partly about the object of obsession. He even mentions Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ although I’m pretty sure he’s not saying: ‘And your first page is just as good, Sharon, so let’s auction it now – I think it’ll sell for at least a million and we’ll throw in a Peter Jackson film trilogy’.  How can eight minutes pass so quickly?  Would anyone notice if I went round again? And how are all these agents managing to keep their focus without their eyes glazing over?  Very impressive.

Then it’s down to Surgery and whirlwind chats with Jonny Geller, Jonathan Lloyd and Lucia Rae.  Interesting, informative and generous people, answering our questions with precision and humour.  One other thing I notice – they look at us properly, making eye contact with everyone.  I’ve been to more than enough auditions where nobody bothers to look up from their notes/Ipad/Twitter account while I do my thing.

And it’s over. I emerge blinking into the light of Charing Cross Road.  Is that it?  After all the imagining, telling my own stories about what it would be like…  So, what to do for three hours until the panel talk?  A 30 minute chair massage, falafel for lunch and a trip to Fopp (series 1-3 of Breaking Bad for 20 quid, nice). 

Back for the panel and more thoughtful responses and comments.  Quite a few people say they had terrible pitch sessions and that the agent they saw didn’t ‘get’ their idea at all.  That’s interesting – I did actually think that they’d all be nice to everyone, but I’m glad that they’ve been honest. I’m also glad that I had a good experience. I try not to be smug about this and mostly succeed. Biggest applause for S.J Watson, who is honest and funny and I definitely want to read his book.  And that really is it.  I am delighted to meet Sheila Crowley, who I’ve been tweeting all day via a mutual friend.  I’ve chatted to some great people.  I’ve spent all day being a writer.  This rarely happens, and it’s bloody great.

On the train back, I half-expect to meet the rugby three again, but I am alone, so spend the time re-editing Chapter 6 for what I really hope is the final time.  I’m on my 7th draft and this has to be it.  My baby is ready to go.  Fly, my pretty, fly.