The Art of Writing Fiction Michael Wheatley

Exercise Five: Observational Journal

'Once you get into the habit of keeping notebooks, you will begin to notice noteworthy things; you will become uncommonly attuned to all manner of things you might not normally see, and this noticing will become ingrained, almost like a reflex'.

Exercise Five of Andrew Cowan's 'The Art of Writing Fiction' brings us to eerily familiar territory from my undergraduate degree. Cowan suggests keeping an observational journal; a notebook small enough to keep in your pocket, and generic enough that you won't fear writing in it (I have so many blank notebooks), the purpose is to note any phrases, behaviour or scenes which strike you.

From this, you will then have a repository of real behaviour at your disposal which can be used to embellish a piece. Or, perhaps, spawn a new piece of their own.

To complete this task I decided to make my observations at the one place it seemed most sensible: at work. Yes, instead of using any of my free time to sit in a coffee shop, I thought it wise to do observe whilst I had a dozen other tasks at hand.

In truth, the rationale was that I had done a coffee shop. That's not to say it wouldn't have been different this time - every day is an opportunity for something new - but on the opportunities I have observed in a coffee shop, the material recorded has been so oppressively dull that to include it in a piece would detract, rather than embellish.

Instead, I know from experience that all sorts of weird things happen at work which could make for good observations. Below are what stood out to me. In the spirit of honesty, a fair number of the quotes are things I said because I like how I talk.


Exercise Five: Observational Journal

  • Gone for a few weeks, become a ghost. 'Mike who?'
  • 'I had such a clumsy day yesterday'.
  • 'That's how you out-post the post: move by Tupperware'.
  • 'I don't have the upper body strength, nor the willpower, to handle boxes'.
  • 'Do you want a cheese scone?- Daft question! Daft question!'
  • 'Cheese biscuits? Biscuits for cheese'.
  • The grimace of concentration.
  • The old lady who spends the whole day in the store before her daughter collects her when we close.
  • 'I prefer the earlier Bond films - more English', said the slightly racist man.
  • 'That's right, isn't it? I've got Caroline and Jill, Linda and Paul'.
  • Parents narrating their lives to their children.
  • Staring with an unwavering smile before saying hello.
  • A father lifting the tasting display and feeding the entire thing to his children in a feral display of carnivorous delight.
  • 'These haven't got covers on 'em, can we have 'em cheaper?' 'It's not time yet'. 'Fuck'.



Once again, I'm sure if, or how, any of these observations would directly apply to my current writing. My preference has never been to explicitly portray 'real life', as such an act renders your writing redundant: 'real life' is just a step outside away for anyone. Instead, I like to intrude upon 'real life' with an element of the unconventional or unexpected.

However, even in these works the dialogue and characters should remain natural, which is one aspect in which these quotes could help. Most of all, though, Cowan's words from the beginning of the chapter resonate. He quotes W. Somerset Maugham saying, 'I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it'. Cowan disagrees with this notion, but I find myself leaning towards it.

Whilst the isolated chunks I observed may be inapplicable in their own right, the act of observation heightened my senses to the extraordinary nature of ordinary . Even the subtlest incidents seemed prime for building a character. Most of all, observing teaches you that people are really, really weird.


Next: Scrapbooks

Find all posts in this series here.




The Art of Writing Fiction Michael Wheatley

Exercise Four: When, Where, What? Redux

Familiar ground for Exercise Four as Cowan instructs that I revisit Exercise One. With my distractions and procrastinations, friends and foes, all considered, I am now prepared to create and follow a structured writer's routine. And, most importantly, write something.

However, Cowan stresses not to set your routine in unachievable terms, as the frustration of a failed day will only lead to disenchantment with your routine. Instead, he suggests one adapts their usual daily routine to include writing, making the structure much more attainable.

Below are my answers to Cowan's questions.


Exercise Four: 'When, Where, What? Redux'

Where will you write?

A simple answer to this question. I will write in the spare room. Having completed the previous three exercises in that space, as well as a variety of other writing tasks (job applications, scholarship statements, etc.), I appreciate the value of a quiet, distraction-free location. That it comes with a beautiful view of Bredon Hill overlooking me makes it even more ideal.

When will you write?

A more challenging question, because of the aforementioned trials and tribulations of life. I think the most sensible plan, as followed by the majority of successful author's highlighted in Cowan's book, is to start in the morning. As such, this will be easily adaptable. If I know there is a time I need to be somewhere of a morning, I shall wake an extra hour early and dedicate that time to writing.

Which days of the week?

Every day. I asked it of myself before, and I shall ask it of myself now.

How long will you write for?

Rather than set myself a potentially-unattainable high target, I shall set myself a minimum amount, hopefully thus encouraging a degree of pride if it is exceeded. I shall write for a minimum of an hour each day. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

What implements will you use?

I think I shall stick with my tried and true system, even if it is more time consuming. Pen and paper to draft as bad a draft as I can conceive. Word processor to hammer it into shape.

What rules will you set yourself?

No phone. This has worked for me the past days and shall continue to do so, I imagine. I shall also set myself the rule of no redrafting for the first hour, beyond the transfer from pen and paper to processor. My usual work method over the course of my degree was extremely redrafting intensive, to the point of the ludicrous. To encourage a shift in writing method, I shall devote the first hour to new material.

What excuses are you determined not to make?

Tiredness. Anything which delays the process of travelling up the stairs, sitting down, and diving straight into writing. If I can iron out that first step into writing each day, what follows should be easy. It is, after all, something I love.



Having completed this exercise a routine is now in place. The proof will be in how well it is followed in the days to come, but the determination is there. Cowan concludes this chapter by stating, 'writers write - regularly, habitually, routinely'. For me, that time has come.


Next: Observational Journals

Find all posts in this series here.

Монстр poem by Michael Wheatley


'Монстр' is a protest poem against Russia's terror-mongering following the Westminster Bridge Attacks of last year.
It is the last poem I will write before I get hacked.



It speaks our tongue:
Pray for London. Westminster. Ban Islam.

It speaks its own:
Молитесь за Лондон. Вестминстер. Запрет ислама.

Our Country's Good Abstract by Michael Wheatley

Our Country's Good (Abstract)

Our Country's Good is one of the text's studied during the first year of my undergraduate degree.
It explores the effects of English colonisation on the indigenous population of Australia.

Our Country's Good

In Australia, all were criminals. Colonised despised colonisers. One tried to be mates with Ducky. One tried to mate with Ducky. They went on a boat. Capsized. The players staged a play. Why? The Aborigine lamented. The Aborigine lamented.

The Art of Writing Fiction Michael Wheatley

Exercise Three: Friends and Foes

For the third exercise, Cowan continues to foster awareness of what's helping and what's hindering your writing by suggesting you make two separate lists: one of your 'friends' (everything which encourages your writing), and one of your 'foes' (everything which discourages it).

The intention here would appear not to be having side by side comparisons, but only to help determine what is beneficial when creating your ideal writing environment and what to remove.

My friends and foes are:

My partner
The Bibliobuffers (my writing group)
The narcissistic gratification of social media
My broken Parker pen
My Masters place
A shower
Horror literature
My completed degree
My writing

The narcissistic dissatisfaction of social media
My actual room
A sofa
Poor attention span

Looking at my lists there appears to be two main trends: sentimentality and peace (sounding like a life guru now). My partner, my friends, and my broken pen (great band name) are all emotional attachments which fill me with self-belief, whilst the candles and the lack of noise allow me to concentrate. My foes, meanwhile, largely equate to a poor environment and mindset: the very things the previous two exercises have been geared towards removing.

From these lists, and following the two previous exercises, I should now be able to make an ideal writing environment: an environment which I can enter and immediately start to write (or daydream a bit and then write). As I suggested in Exercise One, this should eliminate the need for 'inspiration'.

Cowan writes: 'This is partly so that you don't come to depend upon the gift of inspiration, which may strike when you are least ready, or may never strike, or may in fact require you to be fully immersed in the process of writing and rewriting before it can find you'. For me, inspiration always seems to strike when I lay down in bed a 2am and don't want to get up. It's hardly the ideal time for the writing urge.



While each of these posts has now been written at a similar time (the afternoon: surprisingly my sleeping pattern is okay right now), I am ready to create a scheduled writing routine. More than anything, I'm ready to move ahead from this schedule-based chapter into the more practical exercises: I'm ready to write.

Tomorrow: Creating the Routine


Missed yesterday's post? Find it here.

First Great Movement Poem by Michael Wheatley

The First Great Movement

'The First Great Movement' is a modernist environmental poem using only one verb.
Hope you enjoy!


The First Great Movement

with white swash eyes;
with seaweed mask;

one small step,
claim their first frontier.

The Art of Writing Fiction Michael Wheatley

Exercise Two: Timewasting

Having now reflected on my writing routine, the second exercise of Cowan's book is designed to make me consider the environment in which I write: and the excuses I make not to. He suggests that you should imagine yourself at your desk, with no life commitments, in some form of blissful yet dystopian idleness, and to then list all the things that you would do to avoid writing.

Thankfully, as I write this I am once again in the spare room, my phone abandoned on my sofa for a second time, and procrastination has been all but eliminated. However, before I started writing this post, here are the ways I put it off:

Had something to eat (10 points)
Browsed the internet (10 points)
Read articles (2 points)
Played video games (10 points)
Did other work (5 points)
Slept more (10 points)

As you can see, much like a Weight-Watcher's plan, Cowan allots each form of timewasting with an amount of points. These points are divided into categories: fiddling (1 point), 'almost work-related distractions' (2 points), stalling (3 points), dreaming (3 points), skiving (5 points), and absconding (10 points). Your total amount of points then reveals your writing habits, with both 0 and 31+ being 'abnormal'. In between, 11-20 suggests a sensible amount of timewasting, whilst 21-30 suggests that maybe you have too much time on your hands.

If it seems confusing that both 0 and 31+ are the abnormal results, Cowan clarifies. He concludes that procrastination is an integral part of being a writer. With writing being such a sedentary activity, as we all know from looking at your bodies, we need to do other things so that our tiredness does not translate into 'tired writing'.

Indeed, Cowan further stresses that the main obstacle for many young writers is having too much time, over too little: that everything other than writing appears more appealing. This, I can certainly vouch for. Having limits on your own time is the simplest way to encourage yourself to write.

Three years ago, when I first bought this book, I was working near full-time at Marks and Spencer (still there). When I got home from my shifts, I would fall asleep, only to wake and repeat the cycle. As such, my writing time suddenly became incredibly scarce; I snatched the moments, writing on till-roll receipts when there were no customers, or writing for the hour or so before I would have to leave in the morning. My only guaranteed time devoted to writing was a weekly meeting with my writing group. Suddenly, this having no time at all led to a spurt of productivity, and in the space of three months I'd written 60,000 words of a novel.



Having completed this exercise, I remember the importance of allotting specific time for writing so that that time itself becomes valuable. Alongside yesterday's exercise of 'when, where, what?', I think scheduling writing time each and every day will encourage me to use it to it's fullest potential, knowing that it's the only time I'll have.

Tomorrow: Friends and Foes.


Missed yesterday's post? Find it here:

And find all posts in this series here:

The Art of Writing Fiction Michael Wheatley

Exercise One: When, Where, What?

Nearly three years ago, my then Creative Writing course leader suggested to all of us The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan. 'Do a Masters in a summer', as she described it. Written by the Director of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (perhaps the most prestigious creative writing university in the UK), The Art of Writing Fiction is part-textbook, part-memoir, and part kick-up-the-arse to write.

Now that it's coming to summer, he says staring out at an oppressively gray sky, and with months before I actually start my Masters, I thought now was finally the time to grab this book off the shelf and give it a read. And, as a text that's fit-to-burst with Creative Writing exercises, I thought I would share the results on my blog, alongside reflections which I can only imagine will start laced with self-loathing, and end filled with self-confidence. If you'd like, you could complete these exercises alongside me over the next twelve weeks.

Before the first exercise, however, a couple of takeaways from Cowan's introduction. Firstly, he writes that 'I don't believe you can be a writer unless you are also a reader': a statement echoed by almost all my contemporaries. For this reason, I'll be posting the books I read onto Instagram (@md_wheatley), with reviews to follow on my blog when they're finished (a while for House of Leaves, judging from the size of it). Cowan also suggests keeping a log of your reading, noting particularly impressive instances of craft or turns of phrase, so as to learn from past practitioners. The aforementioned quote is now at the top of that notebook. And, even if nothing comes from this log, it still means that I'll become a walking repository of literature quotes which I can bust out whenever I feel like looking smart (read: pretentious).


Exercise One: 'When, Where, What?'

For the first exercise of the book, Cowan describes the numerous and varied routines of literature's most celebrated authors. These include George Orwell's bed-ridden writing of 1984 whilst suffering from TB, to Ernest Hemmingway writing naked at a lectern. Then, he turns the attention to you, with a series of seven questions. He stresses, 'if there's no discernible pattern, that's fine, for now. We'll come back to this later'. My answers are included below, and, if you think their flowery nature suggests over-editing, I'm sad to inform you that's genuinely how my thoughts manifest.

Where do you write?

An unclear answer to his one. I may write in my room during the day, but this is almost wholly unsuccessful. I may claim the entire dining room table at 2 o'clock in the morning, and find this much more fruitful. Or, as on this occasion, I may sit alone in the spare room.

When do you write?

The kiss-of-death answer to this question, even though I've yet to read ahead: 'when the urge takes me'. Even writing it now, with its suggestion of a crack-habit only surfacing when it needs to be fed, it seems ludicrous. Waiting for inspiration is like waiting for Godot: nothing comes of it, and you miss one-thousand opportunities whilst doing so.

Which days of the week?

At least this answer provides some semblance of self-discipline: every day. At this stage, that's the only requirement I set myself. No arbitrary word or time limits. Just write every day, and then you may dare to call yourself a writer.

What implements do you use?

A question here that exposes me as a freak: writing straight onto a laptop scares me. Despite there being literally nothing of the sort because CTRL+Z exists, in my mind the computer, the word processor, holds a degree of permanence. As such, I scribble everything with pen and paper first: pen and paper is where I draft. There, it can be as horrendous as I like (and it often is), because it's only meant to be a draft. When I transfer it to the laptop, then I can start to revise.

What rules do you set yourself?

I don't, although I'm sure I should. As I complete this exercise, my phone lies abandoned downstairs, which at least removes one distraction. But, at the same time, I don't believe one can set a rule like 'no internet' as research should be a constant requirement. We'll see how much that answer changes after twelve weeks.

What excuses do you make?

A wonderfully loaded question that hits the heart of any writing student. The list is frankly endless. 'It's not good enough'. 'Nobody would want to read it'. 'This isn't a career'. Having wrote those, three is probably enough. Otherwise this will all get a little bit down.


Lastly, Cowan then concludes this exercise by considering all the routines he has listed. He summarises that most, but not all, successful writers would appear to write in the morning (bad news for me). He suggests two possible reasons for this; that imagination comes best when closest to slumber, to the 'dream-state'; or that it's simply the case that in the morning there is time to write before the demands of the day. Perhaps, then, my night-writing is excused as it fits with both.



Having completed this first exercise I can already feel myself returning to the disciplined, self-reflective headspace any writer should inhabit. As I re-read my answers to those questions, I can see multiple flaws which need ironing out. But, at the same time I feel excitement of how things may change over the next twelve weeks.


Tomorrow: Distractions.

Find all posts in this series here.


Michael Wheatley Blog Coffee

Why the Dreams and the Reality?

Hi all,

You may have noticed in the various tags on my poetry that half are tagged 'Dreams' and the other 'Reality'.

The reason for this is because I believe my poems can be divided into these two distinct groups.

The 'Dreams' are the more abstract poems, indulging in metaphor and imagery with indistinct meanings.

The 'Reality', meanwhile, are the more hard-hitting, political poems where the message is delivered with blunt honesty.

So if you find you have a preference for one or the other, follow the tags!


The Turn of the Screw Abstract by Michael Wheatley

The Turn of the Screw (Abstract)

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw genuinely freaked me out.
Enjoy this Abstract poem which succeeds in removing all that fear and tension.


The Turn of the Screw

A young lady becomes the nanny for a shit dad who lost his wife. The dad never comes back. The kids aren’t shit, but little Stephen Hawkins’s. Then she sees a ghost. Quint? A glint, glimpse, of a ghostly apparition. On a staircase. She thinks she’s going mad. Now the kids are driving her mad. At night, she checks on the girl. She sleeps by candlelight. She looks to the courtyard and sees the boy, looking at her, through her, above her. Ghost. They go to a lake and the ghosts follow them, so they go back. The kids are really quite awful now. Or, they’re not. She’s scared to death. She gets scared, helps the boy. She gets scared, and tries to help the boy. She gets scared, and shakes him to death.