Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 31 January 2016

Collaborating with the Husband, and a Pat on the Back

It’s a funny thing, collaborating with the husband, and something I’m asked about often.

The husband has some status. He’s pretty well-known, even celebrated in some small corners of the publishing world. People know who he is. People should know who he is, because he’s damned good at what he does.

The husband has been responsible for hundreds, probably thousands of comics, and dozens of novels. I don’t know how many short stories he’s written, and now he’s making a name for himself in the games industry, too. He’s written audio dramas, and even a movie. His work has been optioned for film and tv. Dan’s version of the Guardians of the Galaxy was the basis of James Gunn’s blockbusting movie.

I’m one of the husband’s biggest fans, and there are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is that I’m the one person who gets to watch him work.

He and I have very different processes and, separately, we produce very different types of work, but, from time to time, when we want to, for fun, and sometimes to keep the work rolling along, Dan and I collaborate. There have been a number of novels, and other things, too. Right now, we’re working on narrative for a big computer game, which I’m sure you’ll all get to hear about in due course.

Collaboration comes in many forms.

Much of my input has been incidental, small, simply part of our day to day lives. We talk and we share. He discusses ideas with me, and I give him my take on things. Of course I leak into his process. I might have given him a set-up, named a character, added a theme, offered a sub-plot, even given a political insight… It happens naturally. I’m simply one of his many resources. Is that collaboration? I don’t know, perhaps it is, in its broadest sense. Writers take inspiration from all over. I see no reason to take credit for another’s work when my contribution was half of a conversation, a thought process, being a sounding board.

Dan is successful, and it is partly due to his success that I am able to collaborate with him, it is partly due to his success that I am able to work, too. So, sometimes, we work together on projects for which I am also credited.

The things we do separately are different, and our processes are different. There are things that he can do brilliantly that I wouldn’t try for, and there are things that I love to do that he would never choose to attempt. When we come together, the things we produce are a third thing, something different from the things I produce on my own, and different again from the things that he makes, solo. That’s part of the wonder of it.

So we collaborate. If you want to know about the process, it goes something like this: We talk… We talk quite a lot about ideas, and from the talking we evolve a plot. All of this is done together.

The ideas thing is fine; we can both talk ideas until the cows come home. Plot, I struggle with more. I prefer not to plot, because I like what comes before in the writing to inform what comes afterwards. When I begin a solo project, I start with nothing more than a theme or a basic idea, and I allow it to grow in the writing. Sometimes the process moves me away from my original idea, sometimes not, but I enjoy the freedom. I like the mental process to be part of the writing process, for those two things to unfold together. The husband is used to doing a lot of the thinking first, and plotting quite extensively. This, of course, is a bi-product of the commissioning process. Publishers like to know what they’re getting. I speculate more and write for myself first to deliver a manuscript that I hope might one day sell.

Once we have a plot, I begin to write. Dan reads, comments and edits until he wants to take over or until I want him to, and we go back and forth. The more he likes what I’m doing, the longer I write. When the book is done, I do all the final edits. We are equals when it comes to the practicalities of the job. Sometimes, I do more of the day to day work; it just depends how the project happens to be running. There is no sense that it is an unequal partnership.

Dan carries all the weight in this writing relationship when it comes to status, and that’s true when it comes to reviews, too. I get a co-credit, of course, but reviews of our collaborations rarely include my name in the text. I’ve seen great reviews highlighting tracts of prose that I’ve written, but with the reviewer attaching the husband’s name. It doesn’t matter, just so long as the reviewer likes the product. It’s bound to happen. Why wouldn’t they see me as a make-weight? They know the husband can write; he has a track record. They don’t know me. They could put both our names in the text, but that would take time and effort, and they’ve all got limited word counts for their reviews. 

There’s no way for a reviewer to know who contributed what to a collaboration, so, if they use a name, they’re bound to pick the husband’s. So be it.

If I sound put out by this, I don’t mean to.
Wild's End: The Enemy Within #5

I say that, because this is all a preamble to a celebration of a comic book called Wild's End.

The first six part series of Wild's End ran last year. It was published by Boom! and written by Dan with art by the incomparable Ian Culbard. I love the comic. The elevator pitch for the first arc was War of the Worlds meets the Wind in the Willows, and I think it’s extraordinary. I was very glad that a lot of other people thought that it was extraordinary too, and, as a result, the series has been collected into a trade paperback Wild's End: First Light , and the second six part series, Wild's End: The Enemy Within was commissioned. The last episode will be out next month.

Each issue of the comic book has several additional pages at the end, which we call back-matter; others refer to this stuff as bonus material. Ian uses some of this space to draw beautiful maps of the countryside where the story takes place, and, in the beginning, Dan did some things with newspaper cuttings and whatnot. At some point, and I don't remember when, he came to me and asked if I’d help him out by filling these extra pages with stuff that interested me about the characters in this story and the situations they faced.

I loved Wild's End, and I loved what Dan and Ian were doing with the story. It was all there on the page, so I jumped at the chance to contribute.

Of the twelve issues of Wild's End that the guys have produced, I’ve written back matter for nine of them, three for the first series and all of the second series. Each month, I sit down to think about what I might do, I run a few ideas past the husband, and I get started. At no point has he told me what to do or interfered with my process. He’s let me run with it, and I’ve enjoyed every moment.

These are small jobs of work, less than a couple of thousand words long, and never more than an afternoon’s work, but they’ve given me immense pleasure.

Fawkes from Wild's End
Back matter isn’t new, it regularly appears in comic books in various forms. It is seldom commented on by reviewers. 

I was surprised and delighted when reviews of Wild's End began to include comments about the back matter that I’d written. I was thrilled when my name began to appear in those reviews. Then, something extraordinary happened,  and it was so extraordinary, and so trippy and it gave me such a huge confidence boost that I’m going to copy it here in all its glory. This review came out on my birthday, and it was written by Matt Carter for Project Nerd.

Wild’s End: Enemy Within #4 of 6 (Boom! Studios)
created by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard; written by Dan Abnett; illustrated and lettered by I.N.J. Culbard; additional material by Nik Abnett

While Dan Abnett’s plot is engaging, his characters endearingly compelling—little Alfie shines in this issue—and Culbard’s illustrative work is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, it’s Nik Abnett’s supplemental material that really ties this series together, making this issue quite a moving read.
Major Helena Upton’s letter to her father is a beautifully written demonstration of feminist defiance inspired by prisoner Susan Peardew’s antagonistic strength during her interrogation back in issue #2. In the letter, Upton identifies as a compassionate woman, daughter, soldier, and rebel—her life is a constant tightrope walk and she’s been suddenly inspired by this seemingly powerless, meek woman who “did not just stand up for the truth…she made a powerful, arrogant man cower before her.” It’s an insurmountable power that comes from a place of total conviction.
This book has been a team effort from the start, but my hat goes off to you for this issue, Mrs. Abnett—the writer and artist are certainly very talented and I love their work, but this one is all you.

I adore the husband, and I admire what he does and how he does it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I write too. I’m never going to be him, but, you know what? I have no ambition to be him; one of us per family is plenty. As a writer, I live somewhere in the depths of a long shadow, and I know that there are worse places to be, but when someone gets a torch and shines a light on me, it’s lovely to bask in that glow for a moment or two. 

The first review came out on my birthday and it was enough. Then, a month later there was a second review, and I got to bask all over again.

Wild’s End #5 of 6 (Boom! Studios)
created by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard; written by Dan Abnett; illustrated and lettered by I.N.J. Culbard; additional material by Nik Abnett

Another stellar issue from the Abnett’s and Mr. Culbard. As this series approaches its final issue, we’ve hit the third act in a highly entertaining, character-driven sci-fi/action story that has been a pleasure to read. The dialogue is peppered with dry, English humor—I’m pretty sure the intended accents of Coggles and Fawksie have only gotten more exaggerated as the story has gotten more intense—and the script has plenty of action, but it’s the on-page chemistry of the characters that really sells this book for me.
I haven’t had a minute to confirm it, but I suspect that there’s an underlying narrative to Nik Abnett’s backup material that will become clear in the final issue. When we all figure it out, we’re going to feel like a bunch of dummies for not getting it sooner. Contrasting with last month’s emotionally moving feminist creed from Major Helena Upton, Abnett gives us some perspective from the subject of Upton’s letter—Susan Peardew, who’s using her writing as a way to simply keep hanging on. It’s a heartbreaking vision of a character who was presented as the portrait of stoicism in last month’s backup, proving that how we are perceived is truly a matter of perspective. I wasn’t the only one who praised Mrs. Abnett’s work last month, and I doubt I’ll be alone in my appreciation this month. Great work, ma’am.

Ceej at Big Comic Page also liked my work. He reviewed issue five of Wilds End, and had this to say, among other good things:

One thing I haven’t touched upon much in my previous reviews is the wonderful ‘bonus material’ that Abnett includes with every issue.  Too busy gushing about the main story, I guess.  While the standard has been consistently high thus far with newspaper articles, diaries and the like, in this particular issue it works even better, taking the form of Susan Peardew’s journal as she seeks outside assistance along with Mr Minks.  With both characters absent from the main story here, this adds some much-needed additional flavor to the issue, allowing us to check in with two of our heroes without having to sacrifice or distract from the main narrative.  Terrific stuff.

I was particularly gratified when the husband left a comment, pointing out that I was actually responsible for the back matter, and agreeing that he and Ian thought it was wonderful, too.

Ceej responded:

Always a pleasure, Dan. I hadn’t realised that about the bonus material, but thanks for the heads up. Great work, Nik!

The second series of Wild's End is about to end, and all the writing is done. I hope the readers and reviewers like the final episode when it hits the racks in February. I shall miss writing the back matter… I already do, but I plan to take this experience forward with me. 

A lot of writers take a great deal of rejection throughout their careers, and I'm no exception to that rule. When I do something right it might be recognised without my name being associated with it, and that's OK, too. But, when they come, recognition and praise are great motivators; they’re no substitutes for hard work, but a little confidence boost never hurt anyone, and I need it as much as any writer does.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

A Thought on the Arts: Where Craft Meets Concept

I was given pause, yesterday. I was given pause and it made me think about the other two occasions in the past few days when I’ve been given pause.

On all three occasions the subject that gave me pause was creativity. They were small things, or at least, not so small in many ways, but the triggers seemed reasonably small in scope at the time. The problem is that all of these three smallish pauses are part of a bigger and more important thought-scape.

It’s something I feel the need to tackle, and yet it is full of contradictions and culs-de-sac… And I’m not even sure where to begin.

Perhaps I should begin at the beginning with the triggers.

Last week, an English undergraduate asked me whether she should consider taking a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
The sale of a Rothko at Sothebys for upwards of £45 million

A couple of days ago a very well known commercial artist who is famous for his SF book jackets talked in the social media about a Rothko that sold last May for upwards of £45 million.

Yesterday, I looked at some art by the twentieth century war artist and illustrator Evelyn Dunbar.

My answer to the student’s question was No… Then I thought about it. It’s more complicated than that, of course.

My response to the news about the Rothko was ‘I bloody love Rothko… and Auerbach and Hodgkin!’

My response to Evelyn Dunbar was that her sketches were energetic and dynamic and extraordinary, and that all of those things were lacking in her finished work.

Now, here’s where I contradict myself, again in three convenient points.

I become deeply frustrated by how poor some contemporary writing is. I wish that books were better written and better edited. I often feel the same way about tv and film scripts. I wish that grammar was taught in schools. I wish that writers had a better understanding of cadence and rhythm. I wish they knew how to develop themes and ideas. All of these things can be taught in English Language classes in school, but don’t seem to be anymore. And, besides none of that really matters because talent can’t be taught.

While art does not have to be figurative to be beautiful, Rothko, Auerbach and Hodgkin did learn conventional skills, and it was those skills that allowed them to make beautiful, accomplished art outside of the constraints of the figurative. It is ignorance to suggest that this form of art has no value, and I was appalled when commenters on the social media thread did just that.

Evelyn Dunbar clearly had talent, but being taught art, studying it, stifled her creativity, hindered her process and did not allow her to produce her best work… Or was that her personality? Did she choose to conform? And this is only my opinion, of course.

Already, I’m in a quandary.

Already, I find that I am contradicting myself.

It is not possible simply to be an artist of any kind, whether that is a writer, a painter or a musician. It is not enough to want to be an artist, one must practice one’s art. It is not enough to have an idea for a story, a song or a picture, one must have the skills to translate those ideas to the page, the stave or the canvas.

Practice is one thing, but learning blindly, alone is difficult. Instruction can be useful.

I know people who can play an instrument by ear, and can therefore compose by ear, but how sophisticated can a piece of music be that cannot be written down? It might be possible to compose a pop song, a verse and a chorus, and to be able to repeat it, but it can only be handed on to another person by repeating it to them, probably more than once.

There is no way to write a concerto, for example, and to hold all of that information in one’s head, to make subtle changes, to draft and redraft each movement, and to arrange it for an orchestra.

To be a serious composer, it must, surely, be important to learn to read music and to play an instrument to a high standard. To be a composer, surely one must have more than a natural ear, one must be trained.

Of course, it’s also possible to take a four year old child and to make it learn an instrument, to give it lessons and make it practice daily, perhaps for decades, and still not produce a talented composer.

Of course, there have been any number of very talented popular musicians who have been self-taught, and singers who've had no vocal coaching. Great music doesn't have to be classical music.

The same is probably true of the painter. Even a talented artist can only learn so much about materials by trial and error. Oils and watercolours are both highly technical mediums to work in, and without some instruction a painter might produce a beautiful painting that simply cannot endure, for example. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful art ever produced has endured for thousands of years, and who knows who painted the walls of the caves at Lascaux? Naive and primitive art does not rely on years of learning skills, but retains its value.

As an art student, my enduring frustration was that I could not realise my ideas because there was no one willing to teach me skills. Ideas, concepts were currency, and I had plenty of them, but I never had the satisfaction of seeing them fully realised, because I simply didn’t have the craft. No value was ever put on the craft.

I know artists with wonderful skills who can do no more than reproduce what is in front of them. They make decorative work devoid of thought or expression, and it seems dull to me.

There are, or at least there have been, schools of art, too. There have been times when there has been a trend, a right or current way to achieve something. We see it in various periods of art history. So, students during those periods conformed to those expectations, but what if their talents naturally lay in other areas? Would they tow the line, or must they rebel to achieve their ends? Would they even graduate art college if they failed to produce what was expected of them?

Writing is very particular among the arts because it simply extends a skill that is universal. We all communicate, we all use words all the time. We don’t all write, not even e-mails or texts, although a great many of us do. But all but a very few of us have the power of speech. We all have a vocabulary. Very nearly all of us learn to read and write, even if we do not read for pleasure. Very nearly all of us partake of some form of entertainment that involves communication, whether that’s the written word or the spoken word, whether it’s books, comics, poetry, radio, tv, movies… Words belong to all of us all of the time.

By comparison to the writing student, many art students have had very little real art training before they head off to art school.

We do not all learn music and we do not all learn art. We do all learn to read and write.

What we need, I think, in all of the arts, is a synthesis of skills and ideas. Neither, on its own, is satisfying for very long, and while ideas will always outlive craft, the best ideas will invariably be taken up by better practitioners in new ways and will always be exploited. Artists with the best ideas and with a compulsion will always, I hope, master the skills to produce outstanding art in any arena. They will always find inspiration from those who’ve gone before, and often from masters and mentors too.

The rest is about personality. Some will need encouragement and support, some will need solitude. Some will need order and routine, some will need spontaneity and chaos. Most, perhaps all, will need instruction. How much instruction and for how long will probably depend on the artist. Some might need tutoring their entire lives, others might prefer to rely on practice and on their own processes.

Monday 25 January 2016

Walking with Wolves… Or not

So, we had plans last weekend… And the best laid plans…

We were supposed to be walking with wolves. There’s a place that offers the opportunity to do that. We were excited, because that’s the sort of thing we get excited about. We booked a place to stay, made arrangements to do other stuff for the weekend, sorted out the house-sitter, and made our way… well… away.

Part of the sitting room and the sleeping alcove
Fox Hall
Fox Hall is a Landmark Trust property located just outside Chichester. We like the Landmark Turst; you might know this from reading previous posts about our sojourns at the historic houses that they rent to the public. Whenever we have to venture away from home for a few days, we try to book a Landmark, and last weekend was no exception.

Fox Hall was the closest Landmark to where we needed to be for the wolf walk. We don’t generally book the smaller buildings. We like a bit of room, and we sometimes have other people with us for some of the activities we embark upon. Fox Hall is one of the smaller Landmark buildings we’ve visited, and, honestly, I was a little trepidatious about booking it.

I needn’t have been.

Fox Hall
The Hall was built by the Duke of Richmond, so that he could be close to the Charlton Hunt. It’s a little Palladian building over two floors. Below is an entrance hall with a twin bedroom and bathroom, and above is a large sitting room with an alcove for a double bed, and a little kitchen. It has a grand fireplace where we built roaring fires, silk covered walls, an impressive chandelier, and any amount of coving and gilding. The large sash windows on two aspects look out over rolling countryside to one side and stables to the other, and have shutters to keep out the darkness and the drafts.

Fox Hall is cosy and intimate for two, while feeling elegant and palatial. We absolutely loved it, and won’t need much of an excuse to return at the very first opportunity. If I could turn back the clocks a decade or two (or even three) this would be the perfect place for a wonderful honeymoon.

The sitting room is easily big enough for four, and there’s also room for a dining table that comfortably accommodates four people. The floor plan is bigger than the average new-build, so, providing privacy is allowed to those sleeping in the alcove, I imagine that there are couples who’d be more than willing to share this house with whoever they chose to tuck up in the twin bedroom downstairs: kids, friends or even younger of older relatives. We rather liked having the place to ourselves.

Every Landmark Trust building is special in its own way, but this one had a particularly lovely atmosphere, and we felt very relaxed and happy in it.

As for the wolf walk, the husband hurt his foot on Saturday, so wasn’t able to trek across country for several miles on Sunday afternoon; we called it off. It was a great pity, but it’s impossible to regret staying at Fox Hall. We did spend an hour in Chichester instead. The husband limped manfully around the Pallant Gallery, looking for stimulus, while I researched some art for a project. Time is never wasted.

Thursday 21 January 2016

The Yellow Star, the Pink Triangle… The Red Door

Right now I’d like to urge every right-thinking person in Middlesbrough to go to one of the local DIY shops as soon as possible, buy a pot of red paint and a brush, and paint the front door of his or her home.

Right now, I see no other simple solution to this problem.

Of course, if this did happen, and if enough homes in Middlesbrough suddenly displayed red front doors there’d soon be a shortage of eggs in the town, but things would quickly settle down… Or would they?

Here’s what’s happening, for those of you who haven’t yet read this tidbit of news.

An asylum seeker in Middlesbrough noticed that the home he was assigned had a red door, and that the homes of other asylum seekers he knew also had red doors. The homes of asylum seekers in Middlesbrough are regularly attacked. Vandals pelt their windows with eggs and gob phlegm through their letterboxes, and dog turds are left on their doorsteps.

Bronze Red by Little Green
A great colour for a front door
The asylum seeker and his housemates conducted an experiment whereby they scrounged together the funds for a pot of white paint, and they changed the colour of their front door. The vandalism stopped. It stopped until their landlords painted the door red again a fortnight later.

As an aside, I’m not sure how painting a front door puts the asylum seekers in breach of a tenancy agreement or why a door would need to be painted twice in a fortnight. I won’t mention the fact that I’ve rented property in the past, and that I know trying to get even essential works completed in the space of a couple of weeks is virtually impossible. Doing a cosmetic job like painting a front door would be a long way down a very long list of household maintenance on most rental properties. Of the 168 properties managed by the contractor who did the work, 155 have red doors.

According to the article I read, it is common knowledge among the locals that asylum seekers live in houses with red doors. They are easy targets. It clearly wasn’t common knowledge among the asylum seekers, who had to work it out for themselves.

The same contractor manages similar properties in Stockton-on-Tees where it also houses asylum seekers, and those houses also have red doors. The conservative MP for Stockton South is reported as saying, “I suspect they got a job lot of doors or paint and just didn’t think about it.”

Not for nothing, that would mean hundreds of doors, or enough paint for hundreds of doors. I realise that contractors buy in bulk, but in those quantities? To paint the 155 red front doors in Middlesbrough alone would take over 90 litres of paint, and that’s a lot of cans to warehouse, and where would they keep the rest of the paint they bought in that ‘job lot’, all that magnolia emulsion?

It’s so simple isn’t it? It’s so easy to explain a thing away. It might even be true, but if it is then somebody should have thought about it. It’s a simple enough equation.

Q: We are homing vulnerable people, does anything about our properties signal their presence?
A: Yes, they’re identifiable by the colour of their front doors!

If it was a coincidence at the outset, it must soon have become clear that the red door was an identifier, and that some members of the community were using the red doors as a signal to attack. Steps could have been taken to make the asylum seekers safer by making their front doors less uniform and more anonymous. Those steps weren’t taken. In fact, the contractor repainted a door, making that home less safe for its occupants.

There is to be a Home Office investigation into this situation, an audit is to be performed.

There is a possibility that the audit will find that the red doors really do put asylum seekers at risk. I imagine that no fault will be found, that this will all be put down to ‘a job lot of doors  or paint’. So be it. None of us wants to think the worst of people. No doubt, this will be seen as some kind of isolated incident, an aberration. I imagine that the contractor will undertake to get rid of the red doors.

But what then? Will they simply get another job lot of paint? And how long will all of this take? Will it be weeks or months before the red doors are gone? How much more abuse and vandalism will the asylum seekers suffer at the hands of their neighbours? And when they’re gone, how long will it be before the abusers know the homes of asylum seekers by their distinctive green doors?

I’d be tempted to give the asylum seekers a voucher for their nearest DIY store and let them choose their own colours for their front doors, and then require the contractor to send someone to repaint the door with that paint. I’m sure that wouldn’t work, though. I’m sure there must be a hundred reasons why asylum seekers couldn’t be trusted to buy the right kind of paint, or why decorators couldn’t be allowed to use paint supplied by the tenant… Or who knows what else. There are always reasons why not.

Red doors are dividing these neighbours one from another. They’re preventing this community from forming some kind of integrated whole.

It’s not the paint, though, is it? It’s the people.

People have been building societies for millennia, and part of building societies is finding enemies and scapegoats, and the people we need to hate to feel better about ourselves. It’s the ugly side of who we are, and it’s a trait that surfaces in all circumstances.

Nazi Germany gave its people the yellow star and the pink triangle, and a number of other symbols by which to define people and then to marginalise and despise them. The people of Middlesbrough, whether by accident or design have found a symbol, a label for their asylum seekers, and it is ugly. I cannot think, however, that it is unique.

John Stuart Mill said this:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

So, we must form opinions and we must hope that they are good, and then we must act upon them. While the asylum seekers of Middlesbrough wait for Home Office officials to investigate their problem, perhaps the good people of the town, the asylum seekers neighbours should form their own good opinions, and perhaps they should cease to look on and do nothing. Perhaps they should try to do something about the least of them, the people who are abusing their neighbours and vandalising the houses with the red doors.

I might not have the nerve to confront a vandal, but I might just go out and buy a pot of red paint and change the colour of my front door.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

A Comment on Writing Courses

Writing is Big Business

It’s true.

And I’m not talking about writers earning money from their work, because we all know how rare that is. The average advance on a first novel is dropping all the time, and the average sales of a first novel are lower than most of you can imagine or would believe if I told you.

Of course, there are stars in the literary firmament. We all know who they are. I also personally know some wonderful, well-known, award-winning writers who can’t make ends meet on the earnings from their work. I’m talking about writers who write consistently and have put out a decent body of work and continue to write a substantial amount.

Writing doesn’t pay.

Nevertheless, writing is big business.

It’s big business, because people still want to do it, they still think they can do it, and they still believe that they will make money at it. A lot of people who want to write still honestly believe that they will make their fortunes when they’ve finished their novel and those lucky publishers get to read it. People who haven’t done this job and don’t know what it means to do it still honestly think that publishers will fight over their work, and that fight will mean a bidding war that will land them earnings for life.

They might just as well buy a lottery ticket.

Writing is big business because very good writers need to earn money. They need to earn money because writing doesn’t pay them a living wage.

This equation leads a lot of people to be very happy to pay sometimes pretty large sums of money to take writing courses, and it leads writers to run them.

I’ve written about writing courses before. There are a great many of them, and I suspect that most of them aren’t terribly good or useful, depending on what the student is looking for or hoping to get out of them. I’ve never taken a writing course, and neither has the husband. We've never run one, either, not together and not separately.

When I mentioned that I was going to write this blog, the husband said that anyone who wanted his advice on writing and, in particular, on writing courses could send him a tenner… He was only half-joking.

Of course, I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of an expert, but that’s never stopped me having an opinion before.

The Husband at his desk, where he writes and earns money:
Not your Average Writer!
Photo by James K Barnett
It saddens and frustrates me that good writers don’t earn good money. On the other hand, there’s a little bit of me that still believes that if they really were that good they absolutely would be able to afford to live on their earnings. Not for nothing, the husband and I are both writers and our only income is what we can make from our writing. The husband’s pretty well known in his field, but he’s not the sort of megastar that might translate into a household name, and, let’s face it, a lot of the time, I can’t get arrested.

We work a lot and we work hard. We do what’s needed. We hit targets. We’re professionals. The husband’s talented and adaptable, and he works fast and cleanly. He’s also had a lot of practice at this thing we call writing.

The back page of Saturday’s Guardian Review section was a full page ad for the UEA-Guardian Masterclasses. Ad space in any newspaper or magazine has to pay, full-page ads are expensive and back page ads the most expensive of all. I happen to know this because I've sold ad space. This is a house ad, of course, but assuming the ad sales team could have sold the space to a third party, it would have been bloody expensive. Ad revenue is a big part of the profit margin of any newspaper and any magazine, and it’s often the difference between keeping the presses rolling and the end of the line.

The ad for UEA-Guardian Masterclasses clearly pays. People will respond to this ad and buy these products. The writing courses on offer from the Guardian in association with the UEA are clearly profitable, successful, beloved.

I will just say that the University of East Anglia probably has the best Creative Writing department in the country, with students studying at all levels. Its list of alumni is formidable. I question how it’s possible to teach writing, but if it’s possible at all UEA has learned how to do it well and effectively. The university deserves credit for its accomplishment. It has a great reputation.

Of course, the best writers seek out the best courses, and the best minds tend to congregate and find one another. I suspect that the writers that passed through UEA would still have written and would still have been published to great acclaim. Did their alma mater support and nurture them? I’m sure it did, but it did not make them; it could not have invested with talent those who had none.

Six courses are advertised on the back page of the Guardian Review. I’m going to talk about the first three. The first is a level one course titled How to tell a story, the second is a level two course titled How to complete the first draft of a novel and the last is a level three course titled How to finish a work of fiction. Having read the descriptions of the courses, and having surmised that the level distinctions indicate advancement, I’m jumping to the conclusion that completing these three courses might get a novice writer to the point where he’s happy with a final draft of a first novel.

Together, the three courses run for a total of twenty-one months. I think that it should be possible, with good intentions and this kind of guidance, to finish a novel in two years, even for a part-time writer.

This all sounds rather wonderful. With a bit of self-belief, lots of guidance from qualified people, (the courses are all run by writers), an investment of time and a bit of effort, a keen writer should have a finished manuscript in two years.

I repeat. That’s wonderful! If all that writer wants to do is finish a novel, and if what he wants is to meet other writers, and have his work appraised and guided, I’d have no problem saying, ‘Go ahead… Writing courses are a fantastic way to spend your time.’

Time is a precious commodity though, for most of us. Time spent doing something you love is always a good investment. If you love to write, don’t count the time spent. Most new writers, and most of the writers who want to be published aren’t thinking about it this way, though… at least not in my experience.

I generally write more than the average writer, at least more than the average novice or amateur writer. A portion of my year is given over to writing something for myself. I could earn more money by writing more of the stuff that earns me money, but it matters to me to do something of my own once in a while. I feel that I have something to say. To that end, I have several hundreds of thousands of words in files on my computer that have not been published or read by the public. That’s OK with me. I don’t know how OK that would be with most writers. I don’t know how OK the kind of rejection that goes with having a number of unpublished books languishing in files on a computer would be with most writers. I don’t know what percentage of writers keeps going. I don’t know what percentage of writers begins a second novel after the first has been soundly rejected… or the second… or the third. But, that’s what writers do.

Money is the other component in all of this. Money is also a precious commodity for most of us. Of course, there are people who want to be writers for whom money is no object. There are people who have or have had professions that have paid well, or who have private incomes or who even won the lottery, who want to turn their hands to writing. They’re the exception, but they must exist, I suppose. Any writing course will cost something. A weekend course run by someone who had a short story published ten years ago will cost less than something run by a big organisation with current authors, but every course costs money.

In my experience, novice writers think that the investment in courses will be more than recouped by their earnings. The total cost of the three courses I mentioned above is twelve thousand pounds… That’s £12,000. 

Let me put it another way. The cost of those three courses is roughly the same as the annual minimum wage.

In July of 2014 the Guardian ran an article by Alison Flood about the average writer’s income… Yes, the Guardian! She spoke to writers, including Will Self. He admitted that he’d seen his royalties decline dramatically over the previous decade. The article comes with numbers.

The median income of the professional author (by which they appear to mean writing full-time) was £11,000 per year.

The median income of all authors was £4,000 per year.

So the average professional author now earns less in a year than it costs to get the advice it requires from those same authors to become an author and earn an author’s income.

To take only one of those three courses costs what an average author earns in a year.

I can also tell you that to take only one of those courses costs more than the advance offered on the average first novel.

Perhaps it is in the nature of the writer to be an optimist. Perhaps we all believe that we aren’t going to be average, that we have something new to say and a new way to say it. Perhaps that’s true of one of us somewhere, and perhaps embarking on those writing courses might make a difference to whichever one of us that might be.

A great big part of me simply doubts that. So, I suppose, for what it’s worth, my advice would be, if you want to take a writing course and you can afford to, do it because you think you’ll have fun and maybe learn something; do it to meet new people, to get out of the house, to have your work read by someone who might have an objective opinion; do it to give you momentum and do it as a hobby. Please don’t do it with the idea that you’ll end up making money, or even that you’ll be published, because the odds are still very much stacked against you.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

The Landmark Trust does it again

I’ll be back tomorrow to have another chat about writing, because I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, but it’s the start of the week for me, so I’m going to begin with something lovelier than a snark.

We were away at the weekend.

I do so love our weekends away. You probably all know by now that we don’t really take holidays. Let’s face it, we’re busy people with impossible schedules, so taking three weeks off to sit on a beach doesn’t really fit the profile of our lives… Besides, what the hell would we do with ourselves on a beach?

We do, however, take weekends from time to time. Often we add stimulus for the work, so these aren’t necessarily holidays, but we do so love them.

Belmont House run by the Landmark Trust
Last weekend, with our new and rather fabulous house-sitter happily ensconced, we toddled off to Dorset, to Lyme Regis in fact. There were reasons for this to do with the landscape, and the sea, which will feature in some of our work, and to do with palaeontology… and stuff and things, but we also used it as an opportunity to spend a few days  at Belmont House, run by our very favourite holiday home rental organisation, the Landmark Trust.

To call the Trust a holiday home rental business is rather to underestimate what they do, and to call Landmarkers renters of holiday homes is rather to underestimate their enthusiasm for the amazing historic buildings they choose to spend their time in.

The Landmark Trust is one of our very great pleasures, and its a fabulous resource for us as writers. We found out about it from another writer, and, over the past four years, we’ve visited a number of the buildings the Trust has lovingly restored and kept up so that people like us, and other people less like us, can live in and enjoy them. 

The Trust is in its fiftieth year and owns a little over two hundred buildings, mostly in the UK, but also in Europe and a couple in America. They range from tiny follies fit for two people to share, to larger houses and castles that sleep up to sixteen, and a campsite that will sleep forty people. The buildings range in age from over a millennium to less than a century. Each one is special, and they are all different one from another.

They do have things in common. They are all beautifully restored, well-managed and made comfortable for twenty-first century living. There is also continuity between the Landmarks so that bedding, towels, crockery etc become very familiar as they are uniform across the properties. The standard of decor, and the choice of furniture, fabrics and fittings is also consistently high across the board. Every house is decorated by one man, appropriately, in keeping with the nature and period of the building. He does a wonderful job and never compromises comfort.

The other singular luxury is the lack of electronics. Whether there is a signal for a mobile phone is the luck of the draw. Wifi is not provided, and neither is there a television or radio in sight. There is nowhere to dock an i-pod. Of course, there are electrical sockets, so if you need those things, I suppose it’s possible to bring them, but the quiet of these buildings really is golden.

Belmont House is, perhaps, the best and most beautiful house in Lyme Regis. It was, until his death in 2005, the home of the novelist, John Fowles. His writing room is now the grand, first floor drawing room of the house with a wonderful balcony overlooking the grounds, an observatory where it is still possible to look at the stars through a wonderful telescope, and, of course, the sea. Fowles set his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Lyme Regis, and it was partly filmed on location in the town. You may remember Meryl Streep in her cloak, walking out onto the Cobb. Playing the dual role of Sarah Woodruff and Anna, Meryl Streep won a number of awards for her work in the movie, including a Bafta and a Golden Globe; she was also Oscar nominated for the role.

We spent time enjoying the house, the wonderful drawing room, the spacious kitchen and the master bedroom with its four-poster bed. The house sleeps eight, and for most of the time it was just the two of us, so the snug and the grand dining room didn’t get used, but that’s OK too.

The rest of the time we spent in Lyme Regis. We walked the sandy beach and the shingle. We followed the line of the Cobb on the sheltered side of the bay, and took Streep’s path along its ridge. We ate in the local pubs and cafes, and we shopped in the junk shops, fossil shops and book stores. We loved Ryder and Hinks, where I bought a beautiful shawl and some thick socks, because I’d underestimated just how chilly it can be beside the sea in January.

The Landmark Trust always delivers with its buildings, in a purely practical sense, but to find this building in this place was particularly wonderful. We’ll be back. Sadly, it won’t be soon, because Belmont House opened to the public only recently and it’s in very high demand, but the very first opportunity we get to book another visit, we’ll be returning to Belmont and to Lyme Regis. In the meantime, we’ll be back on the Landmark Trust website to look for other wonderful possibilities, and to return to some of our favourite haunts.

For its fiftieth anniversary The Landmark Trust, in association with Channel 4, made a program called Restoring Britain's Landmarks about its work and some of its buildings. It makes for fascinating viewing, so, if you haven’t seen it, follow the link and take a look.