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Tales from a TLC Pen Factor Competition Winner: The Snake Whisperer

Johnny Gaunt

This month’s TLC Blog comes from 2022 TLC Pen Factor Competition winner Johnny Gaunt, who you can read more about in our Showcase special.

When I was about 12, an auntie on my mum’s side sent down a bag full of old bits and bats for me to have a poke through. It wasn’t something she did regularly. Maybe she was clearing out her cupboards, who knows? The bag, though, was full of nothing but tat, and I was just about to sling it in the bin when something suddenly grabbed my attention. And, surprisingly, it was a book.

Until that day, you see, the idea of me reading anything outside of the compulsory stuff for school was… well, pretty far-fetched. But, for whatever reason, that whole hot summer’s day I sat on our front room settee and didn’t shift. Even when my mates came a-knocking to go play footy, I didn’t budge. Just sat there and read. And to be honest, nothing was ever really the same again.

The Snake Book

It was, I suppose, a classic… of its field.  That being the 1970s-schlock-n-shock field. Make no mistake, The Snake was far too adult for a 12-year-old to be reading. Sex. Gruesome deaths. Drug gangs. A bit more sex. Being kind, I’d say it was a book of its time. And that time was one when genre fiction sold in millions, and horror/thriller literature was riding a wave it would never quite crest again. It seems not everyone can have a Golding, a Salinger, or a Lee to set them on their literary journey. I got Godey, and what Godey whispered to me between every hip line of dialogue, every writhing New Yorker plugged full of snake venom, was:

“Hey kid, you could do this, too.”

I always sort of believed him, although it took a while for me to do anything about it. Half a lifetime, in fact. But last year, I submitted the start of a novel I’d tentatively begun a few months earlier to the TLC Pen Factor Competition. I told everyone who’d listen it stood no chance, of course. Not a hope. But hey, guess what. It won! Hurray!! Now all I had to do was write the rest of the book…

Fast forward nine months… and I’m almost there. But I’ll be honest, writing this first draft has been a challenging process – even with the excellent support and mentoring I’ve received from TLC. There’s been places in this journey where I’ve felt completely… lost. EL Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you still get to where you’re headed. I wholeheartedly agree with the first part… and cling in hope to the second. There are other analogies. Stephen King compares writing a novel to archaeology; the writer’s job being to get the whole buried thing out of the ground – in one piece, if possible. I kind of hope he’s joking about this last bit… my first draft has been broken, glued, and rebroken so many times I’ve lost count.

But daily (seriously, not a day has gone by when I haven’t put pen to paper) practice for over a year has led me to some of my own insights on the process. To me, writing is a leap of faith. It’s about putting trust in yourself. Allowing those mental doors to swing open onto the dark matter of our minds – and to let whatever comes our way… possess us. Obsess us. Consume and take us over. There’s no ‘how to’ on doing this. For me, it’s a question of sitting down at the same place, the same time, every day. Writing. Letting it happen. Letting this habit gain you a sort of awareness. An ability to recognise headlights from fog. Relics from dung. To navigate those moments when you reread what you’ve written and that sudden, crushing feeling descends. The one which brings with it enough wisdom and insight to clearly show how the words just aren’t right, but rarely enough to offer what those right words might be… At these times, I’ve learned to sit tight. Learned to breathe. Be patient. To give that relic of yours some close attention. A little spit, a little polish. And more often than not, something of value starts to shine through the fog.

We’ve all no doubt got our own John Godey. A writer you can believe when they whisper, “Hey kid, you can do this, too.” The TLC Pen Factor Competition is open again this year, for Being a Writer Festival 2023 ticketholders. So maybe you shouldn’t wait half a lifetime to enter. Someone has to win it. And only by sending in your best work can you be in with a shout. So go on. Get spitting. Get polishing. Let your story shine.

Johnny Gaunt

Johnny Gaunt was born in Rotherham, a town full of good, honest people — despite what you might have heard. He has just completed the Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University, studying under Monique Roffey, Nicholas Royle and Andrew Michael Hurley. Twitter: @GauntJohnny

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