It’s time to admit that I’m not very good at keeping this blog. Since Baby 2 came along, I’ve needed every minute I can get for my writing. I will continue to update my publications and prizes page, and the contact form will work should you need to get in touch. I am currently editing my first novel, planning my second, and seeking an agent.
1. I need to let my brain run.
It’s an annoying hyperactive shit, my brain, and left to its own devices it will bang on in a ceaseless stream of commentary like autonomy autonomy autonomy funny-sounding word isn’t it wonder what happens if you say it with music notes maybe that ad jingle you know the one AUUU-TOOO-NOOO-MEEE (au-to-no-mee) the paint’s chipped just there look also ring Dan HOLY SHIT DID YOU PAY THE MILKMAN no no need to shout just thought I would AUUU-TO-NO-MEEE oh my God remember that awful thing off the news yesterday BRUTAL it was BRUTAL let me replay you some horrible details did you call Dan also there’s no bread do you think the world’s going to end? This is why I like to distract it regularly with books, TV, podcasts and conversations with real people, because otherwise I end up standing in the middle of the living room saying ‘SHUT UP’ out loud, like a madwoman. But the thing it does really well, if fed the right information and not diverted, is create stories. On writing days, I don’t divert it. I let my brain get up to fifth gear and then I feed it work. I cannot expect it to work at a moment’ notice, after it’s been dulled by an hour-long podcast on how the Freedom of Information Act works. It needs to be fresh. So I start working days by gently prompting it – often as I’m still lying in bed – then leaving it alone for an hour or so. By the time I get in front of a screen it’s got five good suggestions about how to deal with that tricky midpoint plot twist.
2. The more I work, the more it works.
I used to read posts on Twitter where writers talked about their characters haunting them, or about constantly thinking about their novel, and I’d do this eye-roll-but-secretly-a-bit-worried-it-wasn’t-happening-for-me thing. That was before I started writing a book that was working. Now I have a book that is working, and last night I dreamed about it. The story is like a fever, or early love – constantly there, a preoccupation that has moved in like a possession and developed a life of its own. The more I let my brain run, the more I work on the novel, expand it and give it depth and tangle its characters together, the more it seems to happen by itself, and the easier it is to pick it up and work on it.
3. Earworms are an occupational hazard
Something about the intense focus and creativity of writing mode breeds spectacular earworms. It’s especially bad when you have kids, and kids’ TV is in your life. I fantasise about taking revenge on whoever came up with the new Thomas And Friends theme. It runs circuits of my head like a leaf stuck to a bike wheel.
4. Reading at the same time as writing is essential
I used to think that I should avoid reading when I was working on new material, because the other writer’s voice would end up leaching into my work and altering it. I don’t know whether I’m more secure in my own voice now, or whether I was just wrong all along. Anyway, reading whilst writing is a very good thing. It shows me ways that other people have dealt with all the things I need to deal with, like plotting and character development and awkward timelines, in a way that I wouldn’t remember if I just sat and thought ‘Hmm, how have books I’ve read in the past sorted out X issue?’
5. Make it up if you have to
Research is great, but sometimes you just can’t access the right people and there are no books telling you what that particular thing is like. One of my characters is a luxury goods broker. I’m not even really sure it’s a thing. I sure as hell don’t know any. No-one’s written a non-fic book called ‘Inside Luxury Goods Brokering’. I just needed a job in which my character could be a bit of a materialistic douche and earn big bonuses whilst working for a small family firm. So I made it up. Nae worries.
6. Then again, research is essential
It’s not so much facts that are the problem. It’s OK to make up facts. If, in the event of this book’s publication, an annoyed luxury goods broker writes to me and complains about my inaccurate portrayal of luxury goods brokering I’ll be all right with it. I’d rather have got it right, but eh. It’s the people who matter. I care if I write a crappy, stereotypical portrayal of mental illness. I care if I write cartoon minority characters. That’s where I can’t just make it up. The inside of my head is not enough. I have to do research, and sometimes that changes how the story works, but it always makes it better.
7. Titles are hard
Short story titles are easy. Short stories tend to have one theme and only a very small cast of characters, so you can pluck out some pleasingly symbolic collection of words pretty easily. Not so novels. The book has been called The Book since its inception. Now I have to think of a title because I’m submitting it to a first novel competition. It was called Fortune for a bit, before I decided that luck wasn’t actually the overriding theme, and also it sounded too much like a Jeffrey Archer novel. It was Fathom Five for about 6 hours before I realised that was way wanky. Now it’s The Book again. If inspiration doesn’t occur before the end of the month it’s just gonna be called the protagonist’s name because this is haaaaaaard.
8. It’s OK to not know where it’s going. To a certain extent.
There’s an E.L. Doctorow quote: ‘Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I know who my book’s protagonist is, and I know where he starts and ends up. I know how he changes. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t be able to write the book. But as for the details, I can see as far as the headlights. And that works great for me. Letting the book grow inside my head as I go along keeps it fresh and interesting and weird. For me, sitting down with a detailed outline wouldn’t work. I don’t think I’d write the thing if it was only a question of labour.
9. Just Do It
That’s it really. Write this bit, because then you can write the next bit. If I hang around hesitating because I don’t know what a luxury goods broker’s office would look like and also I’m not 100% sure whether the drink driving scene should be someone’s fault or kind of an accident, it stalls the work. Sometimes a bit of breathing space is good, but sometimes it’s time to get in there and do something. I can always change it later.
10. Sometimes family life helps rather than hinders
I complain about the demands of childcare and the way they impact on my work time, but there’s an upside (and not just the obvious one, i.e. having a lovely family). I’m asleep by 9:30 every night. I barely drink. I take my vitamins. I zealously avoid doing anything I don’t really want or really need to. I am aware so much more of my time limits. I have never been more productive than I am now, despite also being under more pressure of time than ever. I’m efficient in a way that I wasn’t at twenty-five, or even at thirty.
11. It doesn’t have to be perfect
I’ve been listening to the Worried Writer podcast, on which a writer interviews published authors about their process in a wholly unpretentious way. It’s so reassuring. One thing people talk a lot about is rewrites. How many of them there are, how tough they are. That’s after the book’s been accepted for publication. There’s a whole polishing phase that goes on after your draft is done, if it makes it. It does need to be as good as it can be to have a chance of being accepted at all, but it doesn’t need to be as perfect and polished as the book you pick up off your shelf. That’s the result of a team of professionals. It’s OK to think your book’s not perfect, as long as you carry on writing and editing it, get it to the best standard you can and then send it out.
12. Be brave
I used to have a needle phobia. To get rid of it, I became a blood donor. The first few times were horrible; horrible enough that the nurses asked me if I really wanted to do it. The next few times were OK. Now I just get slightly clammy palms. The thing I learned was that the moment of puncture, the bit where the pointy metal went in my skin, was never anywhere near as bad as the fear. Every time it happened I was like ‘Oh hey, that was fine really,’ and then I’d feel awesome about having done it. Sending out work for review is similar. It feels bad and scary, but press ‘Send’ or ‘Post’, and it’s over. Then you get feedback and it’s helpful, and it’s never as bad as you fear. And you can feel awesome about yourself and your work. Never sending it out just makes things worse, and makes any rejection sting more when you are forced to do it. 2018 is going to be the year of going for it. Cheers, and Merry Christmas all.
If you’re not on social media you might have missed it: it’s NaNoWriMo. Translated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that you aim to write a novel in a month – first draft, sure, but a novel. That means writing between 50,000 and 100,000 words. There’s a website where you can register, track your word count, connect with other writers doing the same thing and earn achievement badges. At the end, if you make it, you get a digital trophy! There’s a lot of chat on social media about it, with writers cheering one another on, comparing word counts and commiserating.
The thing that NaNoWriMo is great at is motivating writers. We’re legendary procrastinators, most of us. Having an externally imposed deadline and reward structure plus widespread recognition and social support can be an absolute gift. There is no denying that NaNoWriMo works beautifully for many, many people.
Obviously what I’m building up to here is the fact that it doesn’t work for me.
That doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be A Thing. I totally do. It’s a tool, one that produces great results for many people. My problem is that those people NaNoWriMo works for are a particular subset of writers with a particular process, and we do not all fit into that mould.
NaNoWriMo works for:
1. The naturally prolific
If your process is to sit down and write massive word counts for solid blocks of time, then NaNoWriMo is right up your street. It also helps if you’re one of:
2. Those with a splurge-and-edit process
We’re all different in the way we write. Some get first drafts out of their heads onto the page in one giant prolific creative outpouring, then spend a bit more time working that splurge up into something novel-y.
3. The pros
You’ve published six novels already and you know yourself and your writing well. You’ve got your book planned out, you’ve written lots of backstory for all your characters and you’re good to go. Let’s do it.
4. Those with time
Retired? Professional author? Bonanza. You can work every day. Or maybe you’re able & willing to make time: you’re a night owl and you can cope on five hours’ sleep! It’s not forever, it’s only November.
Here’s who NaNoWriMo may not work for.
1. Those with processes which are slower, steadier, or require more downtime.
2. Those who tend to edit and structure as they draft.
3. Writers who have to balance their work with demanding jobs, family care commitments, health problems, or disability.
4. Writers who are feeling their way through their first novels, learning and discovering as they write.
OK, you may say, so what’s the problem? It works for some people and not for others. Most things in this world do. Marmite built a whole marketing campaign out of it.
My problem is that the whole NaNoWriMo thing reinforces the ‘ass-on-the-chair canard’ so excellently pointed up in this article by Electric Lit’s writing advice column. There is this strange idea that writing is the thing you do where you write the words on the page. If you are not doing that then you are not writing, so get in front of that computer/notebook/scroll and quill and bloody well make that novel right now.
This is not true. Stories are built in brains. The words on the page are the transmission medium. Writing is not one of those things that you get done quicker and/or better by working harder at, at least not in so direct a way as plonking yourself down in front of a computer and making yourself do words. You can undoubtedly work hard at it by reading widely, doing human stuff, listening to people, thinking, exercising, avoiding procrastination, building a writing routine which works for you and putting lots of lovely influences into your brain. But this is oblique work. It is subtle. It is not of the ‘get a bigger hammer’ school of writing philosophy.
The ways in which people get stories from their brains onto the page can vary wildly. I strongly recommend The Worried Writer podcast, where you can hear lots and lots of different professional authors being interviewed about how they work. It’s refreshing and inspiring and it shows you we all write in different ways. Some are ‘burst-of-creativity’ types. Some can only do about 1000 decent words a day. Some splurge then edit. Some find first drafts painfully slow. None of these is wrong. They all produce novels.
Around this time of the year, I guarantee it, I’ll start to see writers (especially new writers like me) metaphorically banging their heads against NaNoWriMo. Blank pages and panic on Twitter, contrasting with tweets from those it works for, announcing they’re already 30,000 words down (achievement badge achievement badge achievement badge!) There’ll be the casualties by the end, people feeling glum because they only managed 35,000 words. The whiff of self-doubt hangs in the air. Other people have done it, so why can’t I? Surely if I was a proper writer, I could just sit down and hammer it out?
And who knows the number of people who’ve sat down and hammered first drafts out and then torn their hair out over them for a year before throwing them in the bin. There is no way to fuck a story like writing it without getting it (at least kind of, basically) straight in your head first. NaNoWriMo doesn’t tell us whether that first draft was any good, or how long it took to edit, or whether it was ever published. It just gives you a trophy for bunging 70k words one after the other.
I suppose I’m writing this for anyone who’s feeling a bit despairing: maybe staring at an empty notebook, wondering where everyone else gets the words from, and thinking that they’re not a writer after all. It’s so temptingly simple, so in line with our Protestant-work-ethic culture, to think that working harder will produce better results. If you can’t do it, then (oh God) maybe you’re just a dilettante or a hobbyist. More words per day = a more pro writer. And it looks that way too, when NaNoWriMo is so directly competitive and everyone’s talking about it (and you hear the most from those who succeed, because, y’know, social media).
But if it’s not working for you, all it means is it’s not working for you. You’re better off writing your own draft, in your own time. It’ll all be over in a month, and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of heartache by continuing to do your writing, in your way, and knowing it’s OK. And in the meantime, try to ignore Twitter.
I’m writing this at the kitchen table. Ordinarily I’d be writing it on the sofa, because the stove is in the sitting room and it’s snug and warm in there, but Waybuloo is on. If you don’t know Waybuloo then count yourself lucky. It’s a yoga-themed children’s programme featuring wide-eyed elf things that talk a horribly twee toddler-speak (‘Noktok want strawberries for all the cheebies!’) and periodically urge viewing children to adopt the tree pose. The whole hellish concoction is overlain with that ghastly ‘relaxation’ music they pipe into spa treatment rooms. My daughter, who’s two, is entranced by it, and if she’s entranced it at least means I can write this. She’s not supposed to be here, you see. She’s supposed to be at nursery.
We are a family of four, though the fourth member is still internal at 21 weeks gestation. My husband works full time. We have nursery care for our daughter two days a week: Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday she often visits her grandparents. I take care of her on Thursday and Friday. Theoretically that means I have two good work days in a week (bearing in mind that I need to use some of that childcare time to do all the other crap that needs doing in the week: cleaning, batch cooking, taking the car to the mechanic, taking delivery of and stacking logs, going to the post office, going to my midwife appointments, picking up prescriptions, waiting in for the BT guy, going to the hairdresser (sadly infrequent), packing away clothes that my daughter no longer fits and washing new ones, dealing with the endless supply of laundry, mending broken bits of the house like the loo doorknob that’s always coming off its spindle, painting walls, raking leaves, picking up milk and bread and juice and whatever else we forgot to stock up on on Saturday).
Two good work days. Those break down into two mornings of novel writing, as mornings are my best and most productive time, with a walk in the afternoon followed by some editing at the end of the day, when I can insert all those changes that occurred to me while I was walking around. Once I’ve done my blank-page writing, the real coalface stuff, I’ll sort out writing admin: seeing if anywhere I like the look of has opened submissions recently, querying existing submissions if it’s been aaaages, maybe reviewing short stories I’ve not sold yet and seeing if there are any enticing open markets that fit with the theme and word length, editing stories into the right format to submission, writing the accompanying blurb. I’ll probably do some laundry too, and unload the dishwasher, maybe put the bin out, hoover, and do something crazy like changing the hand towels or washing out the food recycling bin. That’s just the way I roll.
In theory, following this routine I can knock out about 3,000 words of new material a week, plus editing what I’ve got and sorting out the regular plot/character snarl-ups that first drafts create. 3,000 words a week is what I need to do, minimum, if I am going to get Novel Draft 1 finished before the new baby arrives. I can also chip away at my collection of unpublished stories: sending them to beta readers, applying changes, finding new markets and submitting to them, hopefully finding the stories a home and moving them from the ‘Finished’ to ‘Finished and Published’ file on my hard drive. I can keep the house clean, organised and habitable, plan and cook family meals, and enjoy one on one time with my daughter for the last two days of the week, taking her to playgroup and the park and generally feeling pretty content with my work-life balance.
Here’s how that worked out in practice for the last three weeks.
Week 1: Ill Monday and Tuesday with cold contracted from my daughter which stopped me from sleeping, meaning I was able to write new material on Monday but had to resort to editing and admin on Tuesday because your brain cannot do blank-page writing on broken sleep and a 6a.m. wakeup. I can’t even caffeinate, because I’m 5 months pregnant. 1,200 new words written. 1,800 down on weekly target.
Week 2: Clock change. Daughter up at 5 a.m. on Monday because toddlers don’t know or care about pointless daylight savings rules dating from a hundred-year-old war, and why should they? Rose to discover there was no mains water supply to the house. A break in a major pipe meant that our whole neighbourhood, including nursery, had no water. No childcare all day. Managed 1,500 words Tuesday and a further 800 on Weds. 700 down on weekly target, 2,500 down overall.
Week 3 (this week): Out at writing event on Sunday night, got to bed at midnight. Woken at 5:30 by toddler. Brain wrecked on 5.5 hours sleep, able to do some new writing but again reverted to editing after a while. Nursery rang at 5 to say my daughter had been sick, meaning she needed an immediate collection and was subject to a 48 hour exclusion because she had a vomiting illness. No childcare Tuesday. 900 words written. 2,100 down on weekly target, 4,600 down overall. 4,600 is a week and a half’s work. A week and a half lost, out of three.
This is what it is really like being a writer and a mother of small children. The buck stops with you. Your time is, officially, the least important of everyone’s. Your novel, when it comes to the crunch, is less important than washing out the bins, because the bins need emptying right now and your novel is a thing of potential, built on faith, a thing which may at some point be recognised as worth doing but right now earns you no money, no allowances, no reward of any kind. Certainly no respect. Let’s face it, it’s very unlikely to get published. Obviously if we all obeyed that dire warning then no novel would ever be written because the stats are the same for all of us starting out. But as far as the world is concerned you’re on the wrong side of the odds, because you’re just another frumpy mum in leggings pushing a pram in the rain, and everyone knows real writers are crazy clever eccentric men who stay up late being whisky-drinking tortured artistes and look like they have important things to say and also never have scrambled egg on their clothes.
There is no wage, no contract, no sick pay. There is no leverage. If the choice is between your working day and your partner’s, your partner’s will win. The mortgage needs paying. Food needs buying. Someone has to stay at home on a rainy day with a sick toddler and endure 8 hours of Waybuloo, coat refusal, floor cleaning and tantrums over the wrong colour cup.
That’s not to say that this is wrong, or illogical. It is inarguable. There’s no way round it. The mortgage does need paying. Your novel is not, yet, White Teeth. It could be a total pile of horseshit. You are going to have to finish it, against these odds, around being a mother, before you have any chance of your work being recognised as valid. And these odds come on top of all the standard writers’ difficulties: imposter syndrome, self-doubt and the tricky internal voice that Anne Lamott memorably labelled Radio KFKD. When you are a female, unwaged writer with small children, the world repeatedly and forcibly informs you that you are an imposter. What time you have is bought with your partner’s generosity and support, and your family’s. It’s a luxury. It’s the first thing to go when the going gets tough. It takes a loooong time to write a book and you will seem to achieve nothing, in return for this generosity, for at least a year. You feel simultaneously guilty that you have any time at all (you’re just indulging yourself at your husband’s expense!), guilty that you’ve put your kids in nursery to pursue a fantasy (poor kids!), overworked (because you’ll know other mums with an equal amount of childcare who quite sensibly don’t shoehorn two days of work into it and, consequently, have highlights, weekends away and clothes that fit), and frustrated by having the little time that you so desperately need constantly snatched away from you. You have all the pressures of a job, but nothing to show for it. And you still have to do the cleaning. And yet this is the best state of affairs that could exist for you right now. It’s the dream.
The fight must be in your own mind, to prevent these challenges from invalidating you and your work, to keep the flame of it alive even when your writing time is invaded over and over and over again. To carry on believing in your book when there is no evidence – not a jot – that it is any good. When even you often think it may not be. To carry on defending your work time, scrabbling it back where you can; to carry on taking yourself seriously as a writer. You must back yourself.
If you are lucky, as I am, you will have a few people backing you too. But sometimes it will feel like it’s just you.
Repeat after me:
I am a writer.
I am a writer.
I am a writer.
And start again tomorrow.
Last week I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether you could get petrol out of petrol station tanks without using electricity. Also, how long it would take foxes to move into Asda if Asda was deserted and the power was down, and how many months a small group of people could live off the dry goods contained within one supermarket, and how far one woman could carry a dead body cross-country.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is a new genre to me, and it’s tricky. Short fiction, especially modern short fiction, is full of shorthand. It’s impressionist. From the swift daubs that you lay down on the page, the reader’s brain lifts a whole person, a whole world. It mirrors the neural work of reading itself, in which the brain reads the word rather than the individual letters. The olny iprmotent tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer is in the rghit pclae.
Shorthand is much easier when most things are given. It is tricky to use it when the world in which your story takes place is our world turned upside down. The structure, the social and cultural order which surrounds and supports your characters, is no longer given. The physical environment which encloses them is alien. There’s a balance to be struck between explaining nothing and leaving your reader asking where your characters are and how they can possibly be alive, and dogmatically laying down the technicalities of every part of your world in a way that’s tedious and overwhelming. The aim is to illuminate the new world so that it’s exciting and real, but without giving it centre stage over your characters. The process is one of deciding which questions to answer.
The added difficulty is that as a writer, you’re excited by your new world too. You want to gambol off to obscure corners of it, exploring them and then metaphorically peeing on them to mark your territory. ‘Ooh,’ you think, ‘they’re living on a farm and they’re cooking stuff, and obviously they can’t use gas because the apocalypse, so I’d better specify that this is a wood-burning stove and also, hang on, that the farm is surrounded by trees and they cut those down to use for fuel.’ You have to curb those instincts, because no-one cares how your characters are cooking potatoes. On the flip side, a little bit of exploration can come up with really interesting directions for your story to go in.
I found that this P-A story, my first, took a lot more head-processing and drafting than my work set in the present world. It had to be written piecemeal and then returned to my brain for further processing. It was in my brain that most of the technical questions were asked and answered, questions like ‘If you took spice seeds out of a cook shop packet and sowed them, would they be viable?’ and ‘Do zombies tidy up after themselves?’ With the world built in my head, it was then possible to factor back down to the shorthand which told the reader what they really needed to know and left the rest to their imagination.
I could have spent a novel in my new world, but I spent 4000 words there. There are unanswered questions. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions. But these are questions that intrigue, rather than annoy. They are not questions which I can’t answer or would have to have ridiculous answers for the story to work.
Part of achieving this involved leaving huge chunks of the world completely alone. A small amount of elaboration breeds three times as many questions and actually makes the world feel less real, more fake, than the world that was only hinted at. Obsessive detailing would have undermined the story by highlighting my presence on the page: hi, it’s me, I think you’re wondering how that little bit there works and look I’ve worked it out right here, kthxbai! The scenery becomes cloth and paint, the characters become marionettes in silly costumes. I’m exposed, the little wizened person behind the Wizard of Oz mask.
The story had to feel perfectly natural, as natural and easily accepted as a story set in your home town, today. I hope I have achieved this, and if I have, it’s by seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. They live there, after all. It’s not an ordinary world to them, but it’s totally real. They refer a little to what happened in the past and how they eke out a living, but they’re also preoccupied by love, and clothes, and the future; still human, just under extraordinary circumstances.
A couple of years ago, in severe need of time and space to write, I travelled halfway across the country to Brighton to go to an affordable writers’ retreat run by Writers’ HQ. Writers’ HQ is two writers, Sarah and Jo, who know exactly what it’s like trying to write at the same time as raising a family and paying the bills. Difficult.
At many stages of our lives, writers find that we don’t have enough time to write, or that we feel guilty about carving out the time to write, or that it’s doing our heads in trying to work at home. Sometimes we need to get some time out to pull ourselves out of a rut and kickstart whatever project we’re working on, or sometimes we’re just desperate to get away from it all for a few hours. That’s what writers’ retreats are for.
Personally, before this my idea of a writers’ retreat was the one described in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, in which Adrian flies to Greece and skinny-dips in the Aegean with poets. This is the standard, ‘fancy’ writers’ retreat. They may not involve Greece, but you’ll be looking at a stay in a lovely country house, talks by professional writers, a few days away, and a price tag many of us can’t afford. Plus it’s hard to take that amount of time off if you’ve got children, other care commitments, or a demanding job. That’s where Writers’ HQ comes in. The retreats are affordable (£35 for the day, or £30-ish if you bag a first-timer’s discount code/10%-off flyer) and they’re on one weekend day, 10-4. They are not in country piles, and skinny-dipping is positively frowned upon. There’s just a chance to meet other writers, talk about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and then get your head down and get some work done. With plenty of caffeine and food.
I liked the retreat I went on so much that when WHQ announced they’d like to expand the retreats across the southern UK, I was one of the people who put themselves forward to host them. There are five of us, in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Hastings. We’re all early-career writers, and we’ll all be running one retreat a month for writers in our local areas.
Cheltenham’s retreats will be on the third Saturday of every month, starting in August. If you’re interested in finding out more about retreats here or elsewhere across the country, check out the Writers’ HQ website; or go straight to the Cheltenham booking page here, and get £5 off with the code ‘itsmyfirsttimebegentlewithme’. They’ll be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me.
I posted a piece last week about how to start your own live lit night, and now I have an addition to make. An embarrassing addition. It’s about disabled access.
Embarrassing, because I neglected to mention it. I neglected to mention it because I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it until I’d hosted three live literature events and noticed that – oh look – some of our readers and audience members are disabled. The reason I didn’t think about it was, of course, because I am not (yet) disabled myself. Hello, able-bodied privilege.
Disabled access is not an addendum. It should have been something I looked at as soon as I began to plan the night. Except that, being clueless, I hadn’t. Clearly I needed to sort this out, and fast. If you are thinking of setting up your own night and are, like me, non-disabled and clueless, please read on and benefit from me being ignorant before you.
I will, naturally, get some things wrong here, so I apologise in advance if I put my foot in it. Corrections and suggestions are more than welcome. Let me know in the comments section.
Some things to consider:
Luckily, and purely through serendipity, Flashers’ Club is held at a wheelchair-accessible venue. It’s not ideal, as it’s an old building with a narrow front door and a couple of steps. I probably should have twigged this when I tried to get a pram in there once, and had to get help from a waitress. However, there’s a ramp available, and once inside, everything you need is on the level ground floor. The other venue I looked at was the first floor function room of a liftless pub, which would have been useless.
There are no disabled toilets, which is an issue. The loos are hard to get into for those using sticks, frames or wheelchairs. If you have the option of a nice modern venue with level access and disabled loos, this would be ideal.
A raised stage may present problems. Flashers’, and many other live lit nights, just has a mic on a stand in the middle of the room. The seating is in clusters, at tables. There’s plenty of space in the room so the route to the stage is clear from most tables, meaning fewer obstacles for those who are blind, partially-sighted or have mobility issues.
Standing-only venues, or those with long rows of seats and narrow aisles, may exclude people with mobility issues or leave them languishing in crappy seats behind the back row. Plan in advance to make sure there’s seating provision.
In its initial inception, Flashers’ was just a mic on a stand. The stand is important, allowing people to read standing or seated whilst keeping their hands free. If someone is reading using a Braille terminal, a mic on a stand is essential.
After a conversation with a partially-sighted attendee at the last event, I’ll be adding a lectern with a bright clip-on adjustable light. The lectern I’ve bought for this purpose is actually a music stand: a heavy-duty one, as it shouldn’t be rickety or easy to knock over. They’re much less expensive than lecterns and available via the web on big selling sites.
Bear in mind that people may want guiding or assistance to and from the microphone, and that you may need to take paperwork such as sign-up sheets and e-mail lists out to blind and partially-sighted attendees rather than leaving them at a table.
Background noise is inevitable at most live lit nights. The bartender will be washing glasses, or the pub downstairs will be playing music. The informal feel is part of what makes live lit nights lively and spontaneous. When it gets annoying is when it interferes with listening, and that can happen very easily if you’re hard of hearing and/or wearing a hearing aid.
Flashers’ has something of a background noise problem. Not a huge one, but enough to cause a bit of grumbling from our hearing audience after some events. Our venue is one half of a coffee bar, the other half of which remains open to walk-in trade. The music in the back half is turned off, but the music in the front is kept on, just quietly. The venue’s take on this is that they need to maintain the atmosphere their normal trade expects, and I get it. The bar and kitchen is also open to the room, so there’s a bit of cutlery clinking and chatting. This means that our hard-of-hearing audience sometimes finds it difficult to hear the speakers.
This problem was the first thing that showed me I needed to do more to make Flashers’ Club more accessible. I was approached after a recent event by a friend of an attendee who wore a hearing aid, to tell me he had found it difficult to hear all the stories. Would it be possible to have hard copies for him to read along? Well yes, of course it would. We now ask all readers to bring a couple of spare hard copies for those who need them. If they’re not provided (and because we’re open mic, people are sometimes unaware of this request), we collect them after the event and distribute them out via the post.
I would love, love, love to have a portable induction loop for Flashers’. Sadly, they are prohibitively expensive for a shoestring-budget live lit night. If you are reading this and you would like to be our anonymous benefactor, go for your life.
Flashers’ now has a section on its website which details how accessible the event is. It tells readers about wheelchair accessibility, toilet provision, access to the stage, the mic/lectern/light setup and the availability on request of hard copy. I hope that this will help any new attendees who want to plan their night, or are wondering whether it will be possible to visit us at all.
I’m in the process of learning about making our website itself more accessible, and it’s fascinating. Updates should be coming soon.
OK, that’s it. I wish I had thought of all of this earlier, and I’m aware some of this is pretty basic, but the best I can do now is listen and learn. If you’d like to tell me something I need to know, pop it in the comments below. And if you’d like to join us next time, our next event is on the 3rd August. Full details on the website.