Master Plan

I finished my community college creative writing course in December 2013. The boost to my confidence was enough to take me all the way through Christmas and New Year and deposit me right in the middle of a London February. Cold, dark, depressing. But I was in a much better place mentally than I had been for a long time, and felt sure that as soon as the sun came out again, my spirits would lift accordingly.

Then a good friend came over for a cuppa and threw the St Mary’s University prospectus on my kitchen table.

‘This would be right up your street Lars.” (My friend is Australian. You must read all of her bits with a thick Australian accent.)

She had folded over the corner of one page. Creative Writing: Your First Novel

“Well that’s ridiculous.” I scoffed. “I’m not writing a novel.”

“But you could mate, if you wanted to. You did really well on that creative writing course.”

‘That was different. It was just bored old people. And bored slightly younger people, like me. This is serious. For serious people. Who seriously want to write a novel. And, it’s £5000. That’s a serious amount of money.”

“Alright mate. Just saw it and thought of you.”

We drank tea and ate biscuits (standard Monday morning fare) and I thought nothing more of it.

Except, actually, I thought of nothing else.

I googled the university, the course, the tutors. I read and reread the entrance requirements. I qualified, apart from the very small issue that my application would need to be accompanied by the first 3000 words of my novel. Because this was a serious course. For serious people. Who were seriously writing a novel. And I was not. Not until that very moment, when I thought, just for fun, I could start writing one. A week later, I had written the first chapter. (I’d love to say I’m considerably quicker these days, but sadly, a chapter a week is still my average.) I filled out the application form. Attached it to an introductory email, along with the first chapter of my novel (ha!). And then I sent it to the program director. And then I thought nothing more of it.

Except, actually, I thought of nothing else.

I refreshed my emails a thousand times a day (which is excellent practice for being an actual author btw). And, by the end of the week, I had a reply. I had an interview! My first professional appointment for nearly eight years. It went well. I was offered a place on the Creative Writing: Your First Novel Master’s course at St Mary’s university.

At this point, I decided it would be an opportune moment to share all of this with my husband. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I was thinking of going back to university. To do a Master’s.

Him: Okkkkkkkkkkkaaaaaaaaay. In what?

Me (Clears throat): Creative Writing.

Him: Right. Well. Ok. Ok. Good idea. you should definitely look into that.

Me: I applied, had an interview and have been offered a place. It’s £5000.

Him (Mouth open) (Mouth closed) (Mouth open)

Me (low growl): I’ve borne three of your children.

Him (whisper): I one hundred percent support you on this endeavour.

And, God love him, he did.

Below is the first page of the first chapter of my first novel, the one I sent as part of my application. Although the main character changed name and profession, this was still very much the beginning of The Devil’s Claw, which later landed me a two book deal with Orion in the UK and publishing contracts in the US, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
MA Application

Just because.

In the spring of 2013 I was recovering from severe post-natal anxiety, which had hit me like a bus following the arrival of my third child the year before. I was over the worst of it – still seeing a counsellor – but we had progressed from, ‘your children won’t die if you stop looking at them for five seconds’, to the heady heights of, ‘you need to take some time for yourself.’

‘And do what?’ I murmured. ‘Get my nails done?’

She glanced down at my fingertips, bitten to shreds. ‘What about an evening class?’ she said.

I felt that cold wriggle of panic in my stomach, which had become so familiar to me over the last year that I’d only just stopped noticing when it wasn’t there. An evening class. That would involve leaving the house every week. Probably driving the car. Maybe even getting a babysitter, if my husband couldn’t get home from work in time. All of these things, just a few months previously, would have been out of the question. But now… I knew if I was going to keep getting better, I had to keep pushing myself. I nodded. I wanted to go back to work at some point in an as-yet still unimaginable future. I had been thinking about what I could do.

‘Maybe an accountancy course?’ I ventured.

The counsellor shook her head. ‘No. It can’t be anything useful. Nothing practical, nothing that will serve a purpose. It has to be something you’ll enjoy. Something just because.’

I’ve always been a good student (read ‘teacher’s pet’) and despite suspecting that the counsellor’s suggestion was ridiculous (as if a hobby was going to further pull me out of the tangled web of anxiety and depression I had found myself caught up in) I was eager to please. So I started to think about something I wanted to do just because. I picked up a copy of the local community college prospectus. Flicked through it. Accountancy – not allowed. Beginners Floristry – hmmm, I loved flowers. But no, I killed every plant I ever touched. Cake Decorating – So. Sick. Of. Baking. Creative Writing – Perfect! I loved books and it was probably the least practical course in the brochure. No way I could be accused of doing it for anything other than entirely frivolous reasons.

So I signed up.

That first Thursday evening, I shook off my anxiety (by which I mean I threw up, stood at the front door deep breathing for several minutes, opened it, tottered outside on legs of jelly, got in the car, cried, semi pulled myself together) and drove thirty minutes in rush hour traffic, to Richmond Adult Community College in Twickenham. I found my way to the classroom, sat at a desk at the back, mumbled my name when the tutor asked us to introduce ourselves. There were ten or so people in the class. I recognised the harried look on another woman’s face, the smudge of ketchup on her jumper, and knew that she too had left fish-fingers and chaos in her wake to get to class on time. One smartly dressed lady, about the same age as me, worked for the business pages of a national newspaper. One older gentleman was working his way through the college brochure, had already tried pottery and glass-blowing. Another lady regretted not dedicating the year after she graduated from Oxford to working on a novel (her friend had spent that time in a cottage in Norfolk writing and at the end of it had landed a three book deal, she told us, wistfully). Introductions made, the first exercise was set. Write about yourself in the third person. One paragraph. Describe something you did today. I took out my pen and paper. My hand shook. I started to write. For the first time in so long, I felt like me.

Over the next ten weeks, with the help of our tutor, an author himself, who had self-published several novels, we explored different genres, different styles, shared our work, gave each other feedback (strictly positive). I was reminded how much I’d loved English at school, how I’d filled notebooks with poetry and short stories, how I’d dreamt about being a writer or a journalist, a librarian even, so I could spend my days surrounded with books. I wondered at what point I’d forgotten how much the written word meant to me. I made a promise to myself never to forget again.

And then the course was finished. It had served its purpose – I was much less anxious about leaving my children, I had kicked my brain back into gear, I had taken some time to do something selfish, something frivolous, something just because. That was that.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

I found that first exercise I did, on that very first day of the course. The last line ends ‘…a new beginning perhaps?’ I’ve included it below – because all writers start somewhere, and I started here.

a new beginning perhapsa new beginning perhaps (2)