The Critique in All of Us

A delivery of copies of  A Tour of the Indies

I'm delighted to say that A Tour of the Indies: A Creative Quest for the UK's Best Cinemas ... and Cake is now available to buy in print as well as electronic format. You can find out all you need to know on this page of the website.

But this post isn't really about the book being for sale.

Don't get me wrong, I'd be delighted if you bought a copy. I'd be even more delighted if you bought it and enjoyed it enough to write a review or share the love for it. On the occasion of its publication though, I'd like to talk more about how it came about rather than how it can be bought.

My writer friend Wayne Kelly is launching a writing-themed podcast with a fellow member of the critique group he attends in Leicester every Saturday. In preparation for the inaugural recording, he posted this tweet and it got me thinking about the origins of the book:

What's the Story?

In 2011 I was accepted on a non-fiction writing course called 'What's the Story?' Six days of learning, discussion and feedback spread over the latter half of the year, leaving plenty of time between sessions to write and produce 5000 publishable-quality words. I'd done some writing on cinemas in the run up to the summer, so the topic was the natural choice to develop into a bigger project.

Was it the natural choice to put before seven strangers though? What if they thought the whole idea was too niche and it spoke to none of them on any level at all? I'd rarely had opportunity to receive feedback on previous work, and I'd certainly never offered ideas to other writers about how their work might improve.

After the necessary ice-breaking of day one, the second session called for opinions to start flowing - and for my worst fears to look like being realised.

"I left this until last because I didn't expect to enjoy it," said one person about my account of a trip to Broadway in Nottingham. She paused - briefly, for dramatic effect - before adding: "But it was really good."

A welcome string of positive comments followed, fleshed out with equally welcome suggestions for where improvements could be made. The opinions of the others followed in a similar fashion, but what they were saying wasn't the important thing.

It was who was saying it.

You see, I never stopped to think who might be interested in my writing. Being a man in his late-twenties, I assumed a similar demographic would be most likely. I never wrote with a target audience in mind, though; only a faceless crowd sitting before their computers, stumbling across my online ramblings.

Thanks to the course, suddenly I was confronted by something more tangible: a group of real people!

Excluding the male course leader I was the only guy in the group, though gender was mostly irrelevant. More important was the diversity of ages and backgrounds of the other six writers: from mid-twenties to mid-fifties, with life experiences that firmly put into perspective any troubles I thought I'd got. They weren't the close friends and family I might normally have sought an opinion from, yet they all said how much they liked it.

The boost you get from that ... Well, you simply cannot buy that kind of confidence.

Nor can you overestimate the benefit of reading work that you wouldn't normally choose to pick up, forcing yourself to confront what you think is good, what you don't like so much, and why. It highlights techniques you can try for yourself, and little things that you might wish to avoid in your own writing.

A Critical Voice

As we all watched each other flourish in our supportive little group, it was genuinely disappointing to reach the final session. There were suggestions of keeping going, but we came from far and wide. Without the structure of a calendar that was decided for us - and without the benefit of an experienced, published writer guiding us along the way - any efforts would have quickly fizzled out.

A regular writing group with sufficient focus on non-fiction has proved elusive in my (admittedly limited) searches, but with time at a premium I find the best approach is to hone my craft through practice. The lessons learned three years ago stay with me to this day. Sometimes I even imagine what my fellow course attendees might say about an unnecessary paragraph or obscure pop culture reference.

Maybe hearing voices in my head shows I spend too much time alone! But on the occasions when things seem a little hopeless and I question the merits of putting pen to paper, I remember how a group of people I had never met came together and showed me that I had something worth sharing. Like I say: you simply cannot buy that sort of confidence.

You can, however, buy a box of your own books!


The unexpected result of What's the Story? are the pictures you see here: a completed book, copies of which I'm sending to all the featured venues. When I began writing about indie cinemas, it felt like a niche topic - so much so that there have been times when people questioned whether 'indie' was even the right word to use in the title.

Three years on, the independent scene finally seems to be getting the wider attention I've believed it deserves all along - and other people are calling them indies too (phew). As a self-published author, that is great news for the timing of publication - and validation for the money spent on editing and printing!

In the last few weeks alone, Time Out polled readers about their favourite London cinemas, the majority of which were indies. The Royal Institute of British Architects got in on the act, with a '5 of the Best' list dedicated to cinemas. And Den of Geek published an article listing 51 brilliant independent cinemas (they also kindly retweeted a link to my book!). All three articles are worth a read.

Finally, on the subject of things worth a read, Adam Batty (he who sold Super Mario Bros. to me!)  has unexpectedly featured A Tour of the Indies on a rounding-up post of books from 2014. Exalted company in which I am honoured to be grouped.