Back in October 2012 I took part in a 6-week creative writing course, facilitated by the very wonderful Karen McLeod, novelist, performer, and part-timer in my local bookshop, The Bookseller Crow on the Hill (maybe you’ve heard me mention this shop before?). The course was structured around the five senses, and each week we were given a sense-related homework task which we read and critiqued in the following session, as well as doing some writing exercises within the class itself (this process was eased with wine and biscuits). This strategy meant that we were forced to write, had nowhere to hide, and as a result we could leave the course with a range of pieces to develop as we wished, along with some techniques to help our writing. It was extremely enlightening and a lot of fun (Karen is, as a friend of mine who met her said, ‘a hoot’. But she’s also a great writer and teacher, which is what we all needed most).
As a result of the course a few of us decided to continue to meet as a writing group. Our structure was similar: we would take turns to assign the homework task and then read and critique the pieces in the next session. But we would also take it in turns to submit a piece of our pre-existing writing ahead of time so that everyone else could read and plan a critique to it for the focus of the next meeting. In doing this, we hoped we could advance some of the work we had been writing in recent months (and, in my case, years).
I stole my homework task from the event I participated in at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in 2011: I got people in the group to name an object and a line of dialogue, and we ended up with a cheese slate, a bottle of water and a phone, with ‘she’s a feisty piece’ as our dialogue. The objects were chosen at random based on what the host of the meeting had in the kitchen cupboard nearest to his fridge, and what two others had in their bags and pockets. The dialogue came from a story one member had written for the previous week’s homework. I had failed to do the previous week’s homework (writing an argument from the point of view of the other person I’d argued with) so I decided to include that in my story, too.
I’m terrible when there’s no strict deadline. I don’t write, I pretend to be thinking about ideas, but mostly I’m just doing nothing. So, for most of the month between this first meeting and the next, I did nothing. Then I kind of had an idea, that the theft of the cheeseboard would spark a humorous but intense relationship between a shop assistant and a kleptomaniac. I struggled through for a few paragraphs before I had to admit defeat. I remembered the words of one of my best friends (‘for someone who’s so funny, your stories are not funny’) and I had to accept that this attempt to do something different, though laudable, was not working. The story was coming to nothing because it wasn’t me. It’s a shame that I can’t branch out but it seems that under pressure I rely on a specific style and I was under pressure and suddenly it was three days before the group was meeting again and I had nothing.
So, I really did put the time into thinking. I would gaze out of the train window on the way to work, thinking about how these items and this line of dialogue could form a story, and then just as I hit London Bridge station one day something popped into my head. I cannot say what sparked it, just that it did just that – sparked. And then I had my story.
What was most exciting to me, as a writer, was that the idea I came up with related to something I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, but had not yet found a form to suit it. I’m fascinated by children who kill other children. The work of Gitta Sereny on Mary Bell and Blake Morrison on Robert Thompson and Jon Venables has long interested me, not least because of these writers’ ability to look beyond the knee-jerk, throwing-stones-at-police-vans, holding-up-placards-calling-for-the-murder-of-kids-who-have-murdered-kids, and investigate what might make a child transgress in this way and what that transgression does to us as adults, how it shatters some notion we have of the innocence of childhood. It’s a notion that, if pressed, most of us would have to admit didn’t hold up to scrutiny. But for many of us, no matter how much of our childhoods we spent stealing our friends’ sweets, pulling their hair, even hitting and bullying them, the thought of crossing that line into irreversible violence is shocking and unthinkable to us. Or maybe it isn’t so unthinkable, and that’s why we find it so shocking; that’s why we have to hurl stones at police vans, hold up placards, wish those kids dead.
And so that was the inspiration for my story: a child who would kill another, during an argument, not with a bottle of water or a phone obviously, but with a domestic implement: a marble cheese slate. The story then came quickly: two kids playing, their mums drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the garden, occasionally looking in on their offspring, seeing only what they wanted to see: two girls replicating the closeness of their own lifelong friendship. It seemed too easy to me to make everyone the kind of characters you see in Shameless or similar, of whom we would ‘expect’ such behaviour. So, my characters were coded middle class so that I could, in the minimal word count I had, try to move beyond obvious stereotyping and give the characters some complexity.
I read it to the group; they gave their feedback. It was positive and constructive and useful for moving the story forward. What I remember the most, though, is how they suggested it could become a longer work. A much longer work. Like a novel.
Within two days I had a novel idea. It remains at the ideas stage, circulating my brain, because I know that as soon as I try to write it down I’ll worry that that’s all I have; that there’s nothing else. That’s the reason my long-standing short story collection remains unfinished, I think. But I know that it should spur me on to finish the collection, knowing that at least there is something else wandering through my brain around inside me.
A couple of weeks later, I sent an edited version of the story to White Rabbit’s Are You Sitting Comfortably, because the theme was crime. I omitted the previously-enforced line of dialogue, which had never sat well with my characters or themes and the phone became a Blackberry, out of necessity to the idea of tapping out a modern morse code, something that smart phones don’t allow. The Blackberry also said something concise and precise about the woman who owned it. The story was picked; it was read brilliantly by Bernadette Russell while I sat with friends drinking reasonably-priced red wine and eating chip butties amongst the Cluedo cards and toy rabbits, in front of the slide show depicting Batman and Robin and Lauren Bacall in her Chandleresque prime.
Now my writing group has an old story of mine, one that has not been seen by anyone else, one from the aforementioned collection. In our next session, I fully expect them to help me to mend it, make it better, take me one step closer to finishing that collection. And starting the novel. It’s a big ask but they’re up to it.