Exploring the real world… swimming

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

March, 2018

It’s been a very good six months since Sally and I moved to Bradford on Avon. We love the cheesemonger and the bookmonger and all the beermongers. We’ve been for walks, met friends and entertained visitors. But most of the time it has been autumn and winter, the seasons when frankly my body tries to hibernate. I move less and eat more – a lot more. There’s just something about the nights drawing in that brings out the biscuits.

However, now that springtime is more than just a rumour I’m in the mood to shift some timber. So much so, that I’m contemplating regular exercise – and not just a daily stroll to the newspapermonger either. I mean actual exertion.

But what exercise? I’m not a natural runner – I shuffle along like a stiff-legged zombie – and I don’t want to pay for a gym when there are so many tow-paths and riverbanks and woodland trails to explore, and although I like cycling it’s not in the Lycra, time-trial kind of way.

And then, while leafing through the Gudgeon, I was reminded that BoA has a swimming pool. I love swimming. I used to go all the time until about three years ago when I stopped and took up lounging around in the house instead. But in my mind I have always been someone who swims regularly. For me, a well-run swimming pool is like a well-run library, a social necessity. And BoA has both. What was I waiting for? I grabbed my towel and trunks and hurried out.

Once the librarian had redirected me, I arrived at the swimming pool and was shown around by a friendly and helpful pool attendant. There is a Main Pool and a Teaching Pool. The Main Pool is 25 metres long, has a proper deep end, and a lifeguard. There is also a sauna. This was going to be great. My plan was to knock off a quick 40 lengths, bound lightly to the sauna and then cartwheel my way home. In my imagination I was already cleaving through the water like a shark.

However, three years is a long time out of the water.

First of all, I got in at the wrong end, the deep end – the very deep end.  So there was more thrashing my way to the surface than I had envisaged. And once I was afloat and able to launch myself in the right direction, I remembered that 25 metres can feel longer than it looks. About a mile. I don’t know how long I took to reach the shallow end but it was definitely darker outside than when I arrived.

Not that such things matter. Swimming is a democratic pastime. Whether you are the gasping, pop-eyed piece of driftwood that I had become; or a hazard to shipping who veers diagonally across the pool on your back; or a person who glides side by side with a friend and chats with effortless ease as if relaxing on a sofa; or a splash-machine who attacks the crawl like you’re burying a bone; or a torpedo in the fast lane who really does cleave through the water like a shark; the pool is there for everyone.

After half an hour, I hauled myself up the ladder and tottered back to the changing room. I felt inspired. So inspired that I went back to reception and signed up for a year. What a great place to live. I went home, hung out my towel and… tucked into a plate of biscuits.

There are still a few more days before springtime.

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A day in the life of a creative writer

IMG_8127(The Gudgeon runs a monthly feature called ‘A Day In The Life…‘ James had contacted them to ask if they would review The Wrong Story. This led to them running A Day In The Life Of A Creative Writer which was first featured in their February 2018 edition.)

Days are different depending on where I am in the writing process. I’m fortunate that currently I can write full-time without distraction, and the past year has been all about creating new work – a second novel, some short stories and two radio plays.

7am (ish). I try to get going around seven o’clock but it’s an increasing struggle. I used to bound out of bed but now I emerge bleary-eyed and some way down the evolutionary scale. Even so, the first thing I do is reach for my phone and check my email.

8am. By the time I’ve had a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge I’ve evolved again. Usually around this time I say goodbye to my partner, Sally, who sets off to do a real job. I write my daily journal and then check my social media accounts. Social media is an important part of my working life, providing direct channels to readers, writers, editors, publishers and booksellers. I also catch up with the news on the Guardian app (and check The Gudgeon for local events, of course).

9am. Procrastination over, I chain myself to the desk and start work. I write fast and have a minimum prose target of 800 words a day. I usually average around 1200 and on a good day I can hit 2000. Drama is different. Here I let the dialogue dictate the pace and hope that there are no awkward silences.

It’s not all creative work during this time. I also provide structural editing and mentoring for other writers, and prepare and present material for writers’ workshops. My first book, The Wrong Story, was published by Unbound Books last year and I’ve just submitted my second novel, An Other’s Look. As they are a crowdfunding publisher, part of the coming months will be taken up with seeking patrons and pledgers to support its publication. 

1pm. I break for lunch (fruit and yoghurt blended into a smoothie), and then I play my ukulele (no giggling.) The local cats seem distressed at this time and dogs howl, but I’m doing my grades so things should calm down.

2pm. I spend a lot of my time in imaginary worlds so it’s good to join the real thing, and I like to get out of the house for at least some of the day. Also, my lifestyle is sedentary and I mustn’t forget how to move. I shop locally for our evening meal and then either swim, walk or cycle. I also try to pop into the local library and the excellent Ex-Libris bookshop (which stock my book, hem).


I work for another three hours editing the morning’s output and wondering why I wrote such gibberish in the first place, and then, before I know it …

7pm. … it’s evening and the door slams and Sally is home. If we’re not going out it’s time to cook, eat, catch up with the family news, and then read and/or binge-watch box sets. My feeble excuse for passively consuming all this entertainment is that I have to keep up with what other writers are doing. At some point I’ll also spend a few minutes skim-reading the days work.

11pm (ish). I try not to look at a screen before going to sleep and so I continue reading or I do a crossword for half an hour before lights out. Then I think about the story I’m writing and consider what new scenes I might create in the morning.

It’s a precarious way of making a living but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

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Don’t hand out leaflets, Stephen. I’ll do it.

My next few months are now defined – crowdfunding my new novel, An Other’s Look, which is going to be published by Unbound. The site has gone live and here it is!

I spent all last year writing it, following the Stephen King model: I wrote the first draft as fast as I could, kept it hidden and let it brew. Only after the second draft was complete did I let it out for peer review. And then a third draft before submitting it. (No doubt there will be a few more when the editors get their hands on it.) It worked. I think. Well, I’ll find out

Sager minds than mine who have been through this crowdfunding process more than once advise me that it can be even tougher the second time around. I didn’t think that was possible.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.02.06

An Other’s Look leaflet

I hope I’ve learned something since I worked with Unbound on The Wrong Story. I’ve prepared my leaflets ahead of time and I’m looking forward to the windy, rainy days when I can stand on street corners handing them out. Not sure Stephen King does that, but you never know. Actually, I hope he doesn’t because he should be at home in the warm writing more novels. If he wants any leaflets handing out, I’ll do it.

Anyway, returning to topic, we’ve enhanced the reward levels so that now, pledging is as much about pre-ordering one or more paperback copies as supporting the novel’s publication. There will also be bundle options, book club rewards and aspiring writer’s workshops on the reward list.

I’ve improved the video too by keeping my face out of it for as much as possible. That was a definite plus. Of course, I show up in it towards the end – it would be rude not to, but by that time I hope the message has come across and people aren’t too distracted by what appears to be me looking into a spoon. Stephen King n

Feedback, as ever, warmly received.

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The Gudgeon

When you walk across the town bridge in Bradford on Avon, three things are likely to strike you. The first is the wing mirror of a passing car.

The second  is the town lock-up which is affixed to the bridge. Apparently here, back in the day, drunken rascals were locked up for the night. I’ve seen inside (as a non-drunken rascal) and apart from the iron beds and the cold, it looks quite a nice place to spend the night. Certainly the views of the river are worth waking up to. Even with a punishing hangover.

The third thing is a gold gudgeon on top of the lock-up. In terms of being a fish, a gudgeon is small, edible and usually used as bait. It is also, I think, an easily fooled person and a spindle or pivot.IMG_8129

But most importantly, The Gudgeon is the name of the local magazine, a wonderful monthly issue that celebrates life and living in Bradford on Avon. And this month I’m in it! Double-take. Triple-take. But it’s true. You can see how I spend my day.

I think you should go and buy it immediately.


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Coming Out Of The Upstairs

Here’s something a bit different – a piece of Flash Fiction – and I’m enormously grateful to the wonderful The Pygmy Giant for publishing it.

Coming Out Of The Upstairs

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Beasts, Tentacles, Early Days & an Unruly launch

Wow. After nine months strapped to a keyboard writing The Other’s Look, when nothing much happened other than my elbow snapped (it now has a sticky-out bit, like a cartoon elbow, which I quite like), there’s been a flurry of writerly happenings.

Firstly, The Wrong Story has been entered into two prizes: The McKitterick Prize and The Golden Tentacle award. All digits are crossed, sacrifices have been made, chanting begun on a daily basis.

Two, my short story, The Beast, has been highly commended in the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition, and will be published in BFS Horizons. This has made me very happy not just because it is one of my favourite short stories, and not just because the BFS is a long-established organisation with a tremendous following – but because of the very kind and generous feedback that I received. It’s rare that editors and judges go out of their way to do so, and it’s all the more welcome in consequence.

(C) not to be outdone, my short story, Early Days, has been highly commended in the short story category of the Carers UK’s Creative Writing and Photography Competition 2017. I’m very pleased about this because it is a very personal story and written in an experimental form that I hadn’t tried before. Carer’s UK are a fabulous and worthy charity and I am proud that Early Days will be published in their forthcoming anthology, Not In The Plan, and that I have been invited to read at the celebration event in London at the end of November.

IV. Some things just make me ludicrously and unconditionally happy, and seeing writers who are friends have success is one of them. The launch of Sam Guglani‘s new novel, Histories, in London earlier this week was a true joy. Great book, great speech and great reading. The Unruly Writers were out in force and it was my pleasure to be amongst them.


a vintage year

Numero cinco, it’s not really a happening but it is an event for me: the second draft of The Other’s Look is complete and now ready for beta-reading and then submission. It includes three of the characters from The Wrong Story and takes place in a subsequent time period, so although it is not strictly speaking a sequel, it is related. As with Early Days, there is a chunk of emotional investment in this story that goes beyond the telling of a tale, so I will be interested to see if it all hangs together. Elbows crossed.

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A bone is born

I’ve broken my elbow. To be precise, I’ve fractured it. To be utterly accurate, the end of my funny bone has been chipped off. I’ll leave the gags to you. I was knocked over by a group of charging youths late on Friday night. It was an accident; these things happen; it could have been worse – I could have chipped a bit off my head. The lesson I’ve learned is to wear body-armour whenever I go to Bath.

I’ve never broken a bone before, at least I don’t think I have, but now I wonder about all those times I tripped and landed on my knees when I was young. Are there fragments of my fractured knee drifting inside my joints?

On the X-ray I could see the end of my funny bone floating some distance from the main bone, like an off-shore island. Its shape exactly matched the coastline where it had once been. I felt strangely uplifted, as if it were setting off on a new adventure.Elbow

While the X-ray was being displayed the nurse explained the purpose of each bone inside my arm. But she had to agree that, strictly speaking, I now have an extra bone in my arm, and one that has no purpose at all. I like that. I am proliferating.

It’s been a while since I was clattered to the ground. The last time was when I was thirteen and playing rugby. I was a terrible rugby player and they only picked me because I was big and heavy. The opposing scrum would charge at me and knock me flat and then run over me in their studs. Sometimes my own team did that too. Getting back to my feet in Bath city centre  brought back many of those happy childhood memories. And it’s made me wonder if adults fall over enough. I don’t think we do. I think we need to establish controlled environments where we can go on a Saturday morning and spend an hour or so tripping up and falling flat on our faces. Just like we did when we were young.

I feel positive about this new pain in my life. There are lots of advantages to having a broken elbow. Playing my ukulele, for example. I can only strum and pick for a few minutes at a time. This is a tremendous relief to so many people. And carrying things and lifting things up – I don’t have to. In fact, almost any household task can be avoided by saying, ‘I have broken my elbow’. Even typing takes its toll which means I have the perfect excuse to finish whatever I’m writing, such as this blog post, whenever I want, and without having to come up with a witty or satisfying or logical ending…

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