Writing courses: the pros and cons

As if we'd been there

In A New Use for an Old Christmas Tree I was thinking of how I'd explain, to someone who doesn't understand, how I can be celebrating that the work-in-progress is finished, when it isn't finished. And the more I thought about the image of having built a house, the more I found that the 'snag-list' metaphor fits beautifully.

I have two friends who routinely use the phrase: one is an architect, and as I said before, I realise that what I've done is build the house. It exists, standing four-square on the ground, with walls and roof, foundations and floors, doors and windows. What I haven't done yet is sort out the socket which doesn't work, the light which needs moving and the draughty bit in the corner of the drawing room. In doing so, I'll probably discover that one of the carpets is the wrong colour, and I know the paint in a couple of the bedrooms needs another coat. I do hope I haven't put the kitchen on the wrong side of the house, but if I realise I have, I'll just have to get out the lump hammer and the wrecking bar, and do some rebuilding. And after that, it'll need a builder's clean: scrubbing windows and washing down skirtings so that everything sparkles, except for the nicely distressed ironwork which I got from an architectural salvage yard. And then I'll put it on the market.

This is, if you like, what our readers want to buy: a whole, small world. I suspect that it's why it's so incredibly difficult to get short stories published as a collection. On the whole, readers - maybe wrongly - feel that reading a short story is like being given a table in a delightful restaurant for an evening; a novel is like moving into someone's house for a week.

The other friend who knows all about snagging is a TV drama set designer, and that's a different kind of creating for a different kind of purpose. Never mind bricks and mortar, this is more about painted flats and back projection, sometimes solid furniture in a solid location, but only for a week or a month before it's redecorated and given back to the owners. My part of South East London is popular for location filming, and for over a week last summer the park had about ten trucks settled in: dressing rooms, wardrobe, makeup, director's office, equipment store, catering, toilets, a couple of old double-decker buses as green rooms, generators, water tanks and so on. There was a lot of beanie-hatted standing about, every single person was on a mobile and about fifty percent were wielding clipboards; the other fifty percent were heaving lightstands and trying to avoid concussing the ducks. And all to create the illusion that none of this had happened. (One reason I decided not to go into stage management, after my Drama degree, was that the perfect stage management is invisible: you're not aware that anyone's done anything.) Whereas in creating a house in real life there's a hierarchy of permanence, from foundations to scatter cushions, for Candy, and for me, the decision about colour of the front door is as long-term (or short-term) as the colour of the Christmas wrapping paper. And whereas most houses have only their drains and cables hidden, film and TV drama sets are designed to hide the fact that they're TV sets at all. The majority of readers don't think about how I create the world which seems so real to them, but which exists only in their heads. They understand that I've imagined it - unless they've swallowed the media-nurtured myths that you can only write something well if you've experienced it - but they can't and don't want to know how the cogs work.

I think this is something that we writers often forget: compared to most readers we are unnaturally knowing in how we read, like being the people who have x-ray vision in a sci-fi movie. And my job now is to make sure that it's only the x-ray-visioned who can see the bones of my story, even though without the bones it wouldn't be a story but only a blob. So as soon as I've got various other things out of the way, I'll be tucking ropes behind flats; deciding whether it's the bookcase or the camera angle which needs changing for that shot which doesn't work; matching the inside to the outside of a beautiful house which is actually two buildings twenty miles apart with an admixture of a third-party's bathroom; and taping over the yellow lines on the road before scattering tan bark and digging out my FX tapes (MP3 files no doubt, these days) of carriage-horse hoofs. And all to create the miraculous 'as if', which is the nature of storytelling: as if the house were real - as if it were true - as if it really happened - as if we'd been there...