Can I come and give a talk in Wootton to the upper school reading club? said the email. Wootton, just up the road from Abingdon? Yeah, no problem. I’d just take a long lunch break, maybe half a day off work.
I’m sure Wootton only has a primary school, mused a colleague. I looked more closely at the email address: wootton.beds.sch.uk. Okay, I’m guessing “beds” isn’t short for Oxfordshire. I may need to take longer.
Turned out to be Wootton Upper School, near Bedford, just past Milton Keynes if you can fight your way past the roadworks. First you have to drive through southern Milton Keynes, which is retail Mordor: vast and hideous, with towering, city-sized warehouses that you can probably see from orbit serving the likes of Amazon and John Lewis and which suck the very soul from you if you dare even glance at them. Sudden flashback to Big Engine days when it was cheaper for me to deliver my own books to Amazon than have them couriered, and I spent a happy day fighting my way past Amazon’s shielding spells and wards to get a simple phone number of someone to call if I got lost.
Anyway, getting through Mordor more or less unscathed I then failed the simple little task of passing under the M1. They’re converting the A412 into a dual carriageway and the whole area is a devastated battlefield with fewer signposts than the Somme.Then Google Maps lied to me by assuring me I could and should turn left into a road that doesn’t exist any more, crushed into non-existence by the route of the new big road. I had already made out an invoice with mileage based on how many miles Google Maps said it should take, but I’ll gift the school the extra as my bit towards easing a strained education budget. But I made it, and suddenly I was back in civilisation – a clean, airy, modern school with lovely people in it, both staff and pupils, who seemed to be expecting me:
Well, half of Sebastian was there (I only wrote books 1-3), but they also seemed quite pleased to see the whole of Ben Jeapes. I didn’t do a head count but I would guess 30-40 turned up. I talked for an hour about how I got into writing; the various forms I have partaken of (my own stuff, Sebastian, the ghostwriting); agents; editors; how publishing and bookselling work; what to look for in good science fiction; and then gave readings of my favourite crank letter
and (a world premiere) bits of the first chapter of the current work-in-progress. It’s hard to tell how well you’re doing: carefully honed witticisms may or may not be sinking in; they might be keeping silent for an hour because they are stunned by your awesomeness, or they might have tuned out long ago.
Following the hour’s set piece it was an informal lunch and natter with the school reading club, me answering questions, of which there were many. Some harder to answer than others.
“Do you find working out plots hard?” “Yes.” – Easy.
“I write romance stories; how can I stop them sounding corny?” – Um …
It’s not completely true that you should only write about what you know, of course: I’ve never captained a starship, for a start. But when it comes to writing romance I can’t help thinking you probably should stick to your own experience and that really wasn’t something I was going to talk about to a teenage lad I had never met before. “So, have you … I mean, um …” I suppose I could have told him to write under a woman’s name. That seems to work.
I met some lovely young people with a real love for reading and writing, and at least two budding sf writers, which are of course the best type. I sold my first story
when I was 24, published when I was 26, so give them another 10 years and I fully expect some high quality fiction to be emerging on the market. Pay it forward, guys … (but thanks for the bottle of wine, that was a nice touch!).