The Next Chapter

On A-Level results day I always get a bit twitchy – partly because that day for me, twenty years ago is emblazoned on my mind and partly because every year that passes reminds me of how quickly time moves. How summer is almost etched into the past because September is almost here and how choices that get made on days like today can shape the course of a lifetime.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to June and July but they sped past without so much as a ‘I know what you did this summer.’ There was, of course, some amazing time spent at the beautiful Larmer Tree Festival and seeing Sigur Ros in Cornwall and then a week in Lithuania with the family. But two months since I last wrote a blog post? Really?

Lithuania was, as always, amazing fun and truly inspirational. I got to visit a location I have written about in one of my short stories – I had been there before but this time we went to a specific place that I had only seen from a distance: the lighthouse at Ventes Ragas. This is a magical place where they ring migrating birds and track their distribution patterns. I got to release one of the ringed birds. Just saying. But it was possibly the best bit of the entire trip. As the only English speaker, the ornithologist rewarded me for speaking Lithuanian to him with a handful of finch! As I released my fingers slightly, it flapped its tiny wings and took off over the Nemunas Delta as I stood there open mouthed. Gorgeous.

There was also lots of reading. In preparation for seeing Margaret Atwood in St George’s, Bristol later in the month I re-read Oryx & Crake and The Year of The Flood. So excited to get my paws on a copy of MaddAddam. I need to narrow my questions down to one just in case I get to ask her….

Novel: So the novel is out there. Having sent my query it to a small number of agents for feedback in the last week or so I have had two initial expressions of interest – it’s not ‘that’ phone call / email but it’s something that encourages me to continue with the sequel, albeit relatively slowly. I really have got to thank my four tremendous readers for getting it this far – without them it would still be a collection of random theories bound up in nonsense. At least now it has a story and some characters too… I am excited to see where it goes next – it may, of course, go nowhere but at least I have done it. I have written a novel.

Short Stories: Since I blogged last I have had the incredible honour / surprise of getting long-listed in the Bristol Prize  (See previous blogs about prestigious prizes with names beginning with the letter ‘B’). I didn’t, sadly, make the short-list but with over 2000 entries, to get into the last 40 was pretty astounding. I entered two stories – yet again, the one I held out the most hope for, got nowhere. But to have chalked up a mention in the Bristol Prize at all is pretty something, even with a story that someone once described as ‘a tale that…fizzes out into nothing.’ I’ve also had a couple of short-listings in Writer’s Forum but no further wins on that front. I also got a short listing in Inscribe Media’s monthly competition with a story that I know has potential – it’s just getting it to the right market (and that, clearly, wasn’t it)

So now it’s time for some new stuff – a new novel, a new set of short stories and possibly even the release of a small collection on Kindle.  It’s exciting, this being a writer business – I do sometimes wish that on that day, twenty years ago, I’d have made some different choices about where I’d studied, what I’d studied, how I’d studied. But then the question remains – would I still have the same stories to tell and the same people to tell them to? Probably not.

But it’s never too late to do what you want to do. Even twenty years after the fact.

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The Idea of Zombies

In terms of writing, the month of May has been pretty interesting, busy and filled with ups and sideways-es. The title of the blog comes from a point I’ve been debating around a couple of short stories that I have had doing the rounds for some time now and have not managed to get any further than a long-listing. These stories are now called zombies. These are the stories that hang around with no earthly purpose, making a noise and not earning any money.

Take The Idea of Zombies for example. This is the title of an early story; it’s an ok concept, nice imagery and has had some good feedback but it’ll never be a winner. It’s a filler story. It’s mooched around on the competition circuit but never managed anything more than a longlist. So what do I do with it now? Does it get chalked up to experience? Do I try a few more places? Do I edit and edit again? (this particular piece has 3 versions, all at different lengths. Do I finally lay the Zombies to rest?

As most writers know, feedback and selection is subjective – a story I wrote that was recently unplaced in a minor competition came 3rd in a national one. A judge who likes one of my stories may hate another. Do I keep farming out the zombies until they find a literary home? The thing is about zombies is that they are undead. They never rest. They keep going until they become something. Or eat someone.

Updates

Novel: In finishing the very first raw cut of the novel I’ve managed to spend a small amount of time re-reading it and also to start digesting some of the comments I’ve received from the two people who have read it all the way through (and the third is reading while I type). These people (by the way) rock. Completely. Imagine reading a book that’s raw and un-publishable and having to say constructive things about it. They are amazing. Big up to KK, HQ & IM. You have earned your place in the Community. DF & KM, you will be sent to the Catacombs.

What’s interesting is that their feedback, in many ways, is very similar. There’s one character that works and one that doesn’t quite work. The beginning is a bit confusing but the concept is good. Certain bits need rehashing while other bits convey exactly what they need to. It’s kind of like a C+ / B- which makes me pretty happy. I think I just wish I could have written Empty World by John Christopher. I think there’s probably about 2-3 month’s work of editing left before it’s ready for the world.  It’s not even at the stage when I would consider retiring it yet but the fear is still there – what if no-one likes it and it becomes a zombie around my metaphorical neck?

Short Stories: It’s also given me some time to kick out a couple of new short stories – one for Frome Short Story Comp and one for Bridport; There was something very satisfying about completing something end to end in such a short space of times, comparatively, to a novel. Amazingly so. But why are there so many deadlines on 31 May? If you’re a writer of short stories, it’s a crazy time. Bridport, Yeovil, Frome to name just three.  But they all require something different, something with an edge that’s unique to that particular competition.  I decided to set them all in places dear to my heart – New York, Peckham and Lithuania. Put that in your regional competition and smoke it.

Last month, I also got 3rd Prize in Exeter Short story Competition. It’s the first time I’ve been placed in a regional competition and the Exeter group has some really great short story writers so I’m properly happy with that one.  That story is a relatively new one –shortlisted in Writers’ Forum on its first outing and then a 3rd prize. It’s about Asperger’s…I think there’s a blog about it somewhere.  That story was never going to be a zombie, it just needed the right judge to come along and place it neatly alongside a winner.

Also, A Handful of Photographs has just been published on 5-Stop, having received an honourable mention in their Spring competition…which leads me onto another point…

5-stop only pays the winner and runner up – stories that receive an honourable mention get points on a league table, the winning writer on the league table at the end of the year wins the prize. That’s ok by me as long as it contributes to something. I’ve given up subbing to anywhere that doesn’t pay runners up. That’s just not fair.

Anyway, ‘Photographs’ was one of the first stories I wrote and it started as a piece about the Jubilee then morphed into something else. This definitely was a Zombie – no-one really liked it as it was too raw, too personal, too painful. But now it seems to have found a home – an unpaid home, but one with a shot at contributing to a place on a leaderboard, plus publication, it means something. And someone likes it.

Which is what this is all about isn’t it? Most writers write to write but almost all of them also write for some kind of recognition. We want people to like what we write or at least talk about it the idea of it. I think that people will quite often talk about the idea of The Idea of Zombies, I guess I’m just waiting for someone to actually like it.

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This is Just the Start of Things

After almost a month of not writing a blog post it’s difficult to know where to begin, but maybe I’ll start at the end as it’s just as good a place to start unless you’re a die-hard Julie Andrews fan.
We just got back from the Isle of Skye for K’s birthday– what a totally beautiful and inspiring place that its. Dramatic, windswept landscapes abundant with wildlife and stark countryside and coastal backdrops set against rugged terrain and mountain views. We stayed in a gorgeous B&B called the Old Church House which was, coincidentally, an old church house. The hosts were superb, informative and friendly and fed us with enormous breakfasts and interesting facts and places to go.

We took a death-defying boat trip to Loch Coruisk – everyone else had cried off due to bad weather but we braved the massive waves and torrential rain to reach the loch which was possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Seals peppered the rocks around the loch but had to come second to the puffins that, our personal guide told us about twenty times, mate for life as long as they both make it through the harsh winter alone. Sounds like a good motif for a story there…

This week I also had some fantastic news – an old friend of mine who’s a schoolteacher used one of my short stories The Man Who Walked Through Windows as inspiration for a lesson with her tutor group of 11-16 year olds. Having something I’ve written used in this way is absolutely amazing and exciting for me – one of the things I love about creating something is the idea that it can be used in ways not intended and to be included in a school lesson is brilliant and just makes me want to write more.

Last week , I received a copy of this month’s Writers’ Forum that features my short story Five Hundred Words for Snow. This is a piece I wrote a while ago and recently re-edited to make it more commercial and less inward looking. Based very loosely on a collection of unrelated semi-true events, it focuses on the theme of dislocation; a young girl, Caitlin, is brought by her father to live in the UK to be with relatives after the death of her mother. Befriended by her cousin Julia she learns what it is like to grow up in the UK in the 1980s with tragic consequences of her making for someone unrelated to the girls.

Both Julia and Caitlin are based on people I knew growing up – although neither are identical copies, the characters still ring true for me. I am going back to where it’s set in a couple of weeks to meet up with some school friends – maybe one of them is in the story? Either way, I am hoping to come back with more memories and inspiration for something new.
And then finally, there’s the novel. The last 10,000 words were like a downhill rollercoaster ride to the finish – desperately tying up loose ends, winding the theme together, ending back where I’d started and pushing the last two chapters of epilogue out until it all gelled into one big ball of words. It’s there now, in all its 88,600 words of semi-glory waiting to be edited into something that makes sense and is enjoyable to read. Developing from a collection of theories about how the world might work in a post-apocalyptic state, it’s now a threading together of the lives of two main characters – Alice Davenport and Carter Warren. They never meet nor directly interact but throughout the novel the impact of one’s life upon the other is an exploration of love, community and survival of the human spirit.

There’s still a huge amount of work left to do; editing is not my biggest love but now I’ve taken a break away from it I can get on and get the first re-write completed. Then I’ll get it out to my group of wonderful first readers – and the incredibly kind person who’s offered to perform a line edit – who will batter it into shape and help me polish it. Then I get to finally smooth this sucker into a clean, rounded book that will hopefully catch the eye of a publisher somewhere. Then, of course, a sequel that is already in the planning.
The novel has been operating under a working title for some time now, but (I think) I have finally agreed on an edit title, although it may well be subject to change. Although I’m nowhere near the end, I think I can confirm that the title will be: This is Just the Start of Things.

And if I have my way, it will be just that.

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We are the 63%

It’s been almost two weeks since I wrote a blog.  The world didn’t fall apart and there were plenty of other things to read, what with that crime commissioner kid, Thatcher and North Korea kicking off. Not that Thatcher kicked off; she just, well, kicked the bucket. One of the most shocking things about that was that somehow I didn’t know that Reagan was dead. When Radio 4 said that Nancy wouldn’t be coming because she was too ill I was all, like, what about Ron? Turns out he was too dead to come. How did I miss that one?

It brought be to thinking about one of my neighbours that died when I was a kid. He was a serial funeral attender. Used to go them all, loved sausage rolls in the after-party. By the time it was his turn, pretty much most people he knew were already dead so there was a meagre turn out on the day. And the tragic way in which he lost his life? Had a heart attack running to a wake.

Other things that have happened in the last two weeks – well me and Kristina spent a wonderful four days in Formentera. Truly idyllic, except for the fact that they have built another roundabout. That makes four on the whole island. Seriously, someone is taking the piss. We got drunk on mohitos in the middle of the day and on hierbas at night. And I still managed, somewhat half cut to write 4,000 words.

In the cultural explosion that is 2013 I have booked tickets to see: Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Sigur Ros, O’Hooley & Tidow, No Fit State Circus and there’s a fair chance we’ll also go to KT Tunstall. Eclectic to say the least but diverse.  I also went to a superb dinner party hosted by one of the guys on the novel-writing class (which has sadly finished). What a fantastic group of people. If any of them ever read this – I mean it, you are fab creative people 😉

In the world of writing I secured a runner-up place in this month’s Multi-Story competition and also in Global Short Stories, both of which I was happy with. Neither were deserving winners in their current state but with a bit of editing, they’ll get somewhere I hope.

Also, in the world of the novel, in the last week I’ve shelved three characters because they really did have nothing important to say and in no way did they offer any comfort. It’s now at 63% (so my Excel spreadsheet tells me). The various run rates calculate that I will either finish on 4 June or 1 July depending on whether I write at speed or at expected volume. Alternatively, I could never finish. although this evening I think I have found the twist I have been waiting for. I just need to write it. Maybe if I disengage myself socially from the world or pack in my job again, I’ll have the time.

Time. I do wonder how other writers with full-time jobs manage to get anything done. That pondering is for another day, I think. Finally, in the light of the political overplus this week, I’ve been thinking of a manifesto should I ever get elected into a position of power. I think that’s sort of unlikely as I’ll never stand but, should someone come a-knocking and ask for my views I have started to draw up a list of policies that I would implement in my first three months as head of state.

1. Compulsory creches for children under fifteen in supermarkets. I’m tired of them getting in my way.

2. For anyone who has more than 10 years service in a corporate organisation – one month’s minimum paid leave. They need to get out in the world again and realise there’s more to life than f*cking spreadsheets (note to self, take own advice)

3. One month’s unpaid voluntary work – a subsistence grant would be paid, but kind of like national service. For the reasons above.

4. Retribution on bad tradesmen – if, for example, a tradesman were to come in and screw up your garden completely, you should be allowed by law to take a hammer and a blunt axe to his. Just saying, like.

5. If you are a head of state you should have a good hair cut.

It’s a start. I am on my way.  They are not at all joined up or coherent yet but, then, that seems to fit perfectly with the politerati of today. If, by some fluke of nature, I do end up as some form of diplomatic leader I can only see it going the way of the first youth crime commissioner. My immature forays online being thrust back upon me and laughed at as I am held up as a figure of ridicule. It is for that reason that the following disclaimer is placed.

*Please note these policies are my own and do not reflect any opinions I may wish to change in the future.

 

 

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Twelve months in the life of a wannabe pyromaniac

As it’s the last day of March, I thought it would be fitting to write a short round up of the year. It’s been twelve months exactly since I have been writing semi-professionally and by that I mean writing for market and submitting to various competitions etc. and getting paid as well as working on the novel.

Competitions first: Five wins (Cazart Flash x 2, Global Short Stories September and the overall 2012 prize, Story Star Publishing 2012 & Writers’ Forum) One other placed (Writers’ Forum) and an HM for which I won a book. Also, some pretty exciting Short/Long lists – Rubery, Writers’ and Artists’ 2013 prize, Flash 500.

The Novel: Since the idea in 2008, I sketched out the main theories & ideas I wanted to explore but didn’t really start writing the story of it until this year. Since February I have written 41,500 words. Almost half way to a first draft.

Blog: I hated the idea of a blog but I really wanted a way to record what I was doing – and everybody else seemed to be doing it. It’s self-conscious, sometimes embarrassing and painfully time consuming but whatever else it is, it’s a mechanism for pouring out onto a screen where I am right at that moment. There have been many times when I have wanted to jack the whole thing in (writing and sometimes everything else too) but even if I’m not a world-successful writer, I’m also not a quitter. When cranking out some rubbish onto a page, I’d rather it be here on a blog than in something I want to commercially market.

All that said, it’s been a year where I thought I’d ‘got it’ at several stages. After my first win I thought I knew all about competition writing. Then after my next, bigger win, I knew I knew a lot more. When I got my first long list for a major competition, I was part of the community, man. First shortlist in a PROPER big competition, I wasn’t just part of the community, I was a player.

Part of it is having a competitive nature but part of it is wanting to be in a place I belong. I want to feel knowledgeable, comfortable, top of my game, all of those things make me feel like things are going the way they should. But after each competition, each short list, each runner up, you have to move on. Write something more, write something better.

The thing I’ve learned most over these last twelve months is that I create a place around me where I feel safe in the knowledge that I know everything. It’s like language immersion except I don’t need to go to another country, although that is always preferable. But the thing is, I never can know everything because there’s always another level to go to. So my creation is fruitless. But what is not fruitless is my creativity because twelve month ago I wouldn’t ever have expected to be where I am.

I did an English degree, I thought I knew about writing and literature. What I’ve learned is that counts for nothing when you can’t remember any of it. I’ve learned more in the last twelve moths about the craft of writing, books, language and literature than any time I spent at school.

What schooling gave me was the matches but not the desire to start a fire. I feel like a pyromaniac who’s charred a few twigs. But I’ve just heard about this thing called petrol…

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I’m all out of faith…

For those that remember, these are the opening words to the chorus of the epic anthem ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia. I’ve always wanted to reference her in some way and now I have. My life’s work is, in some small way, now complete. But torn indeed I am. I am 150 words away from what my spreadsheet tells me is the magical 40% of my novel and I am now desperate to finish. But having dedicated the majority of the last twelve months to hitting the short story scene and with some big-ole competitions coming up I am itching to get back to short stories. Itching like, well, some sick disgusting itching thing.

And for two reasons. I found out last week that I was on the shortlist for the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2013 short story prize. Pretty exciting and all that. But then, almost as soon as the adrenalin shot to the neural cortex came, it went. I made the shortlist of 20 from 1500+ entries and felt pretty self-superior. And then I didn’t win.

First came the disappointment. Big, ugly, empty disappointment. Like when my 7th birthday party was cancelled because of the snow, when I didn’t get picked for the netball team, when I didn’t get to play the Artful Dodger in Oliver. (I know, disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes). Then I read the very-most-excellent article on Why Losing isn’t the Same as Failing by Rachael Dunlop and it gave me some perspective. I will say, only on the short story writing, there’s nothing that will get me over the Oliver situation. Singing “Ripe, Strawberries ripe” when I should have been instructing the rest of the cast to consider themselves is no substitute – especially not for a small-framed sixteen year old tomboy. But, yet again, I digress.

The article really made me think about how to move forward and then what I really wanted to do was get on the short story horse and ride into town, all guns blazing and smash Bath, Bristol, Bridport and Lightship out of the short story water. It’s all learning, right? AND, the buzz, the thrill of the shortlist, the deadlines, the satisfaction is all infinitely more immediate than the slog of a novel. It’s like a drug, a line, a toot and the novel is more of a slow night on the beer. Both unfortunately are likely to make you a blubbering idiot, just at different speeds…

But there’s no time. No time to work on the novel, AND write for every submission date and do the day job. Something’s got to give. But the call coming from people who’ve been involved in the novel from its inception, conception and partial destruction was fairly clear.

Finish the book  before the book finishes you.

And so I continue. Continue proudly and openly with the novel while secretly squirreling every spare non-novel second on short stories. Getting a sly hit of a 2000-worder behind the bike sheds at work,  surreptitiously sneaking a bit of Flash Fiction in the toilets, dreaming of a 5000 epic at night.

That’s what’s going on…nothing’s fine, I’m Torn*

*Ashamed of self for ending a blog that way.

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To B or not to B: Bristol, Bath, Bridport and, er, Bournemouth

Bournemouth: It’s not Narnia (or is it?) Imagine a place where you always got the news you wanted, where your wishes came true. That’s Bournemouth. Yep, you thought it was all Pavilion Gardens and coastal footpaths but no. It’s where luck goes to hide. Last week when I was there I found out that I had won the Global Short Stories 2012 prize. Today while I was there, I had an email saying I’d won first prize in the Writers’ Forum magazine. Amazing, crazy brilliant Bournemouth-style news.

Genuinely, my 2013 goal was to get a 1st in WF. So I am Seriously Super Happy.

Therefore, when I know competition results are due I might just have to arrange some meetings down there instead of a once a week commute. Well, maybe when someone builds a road that goes directly there. Is there any other town that you have to go around that many corners to get to? By rights I should have ended up back in Bristol after 2 hours of circling like a crow across Wiltshire.

But. It’s not the best. (or is it?) I don’t want to sound all ungrateful, like, but I had two stories in that short list. And the best one didn’t win. Well, not the best one in my opinion. The other one, a deeper and more intimate account of the human condition felt like it had more substance and was better written. What do I know? I genuinely can’t judge my own work. When I’m totally sure I’m going to make a shortlist, I wait and check emails and websites and then, nothing. Then other things that I’m really no sure about go and win. It makes me think it’s all subjective-jiggery-pokery-hocus-pocus-craziness that I’ll never understand. Or good taste, which I may never have. The one saving grace is that Twitter tells me other people are procrastinating just as much as me. If I could add up all my social media words I’d have a full story.

But I don’t even know what a good idea for a story is today. And there’s only nine days left until Bath deadline. While other people’s procrastination is heart-warming, it’s not helping me snatch a moment of genius from the jaws of mediocrity.

Bath: It’s not Bridport. (or IS it?) After almost a year running the competition circuit, I’ve learned a lot. And, there’s a lot more to learn. Firstly, the one thing to know is that there’s quite a hierarchy of competitions and short story markets. I have a spreadsheet of as many as I know about: good, bad, indifferent, famous, tiny and pointless. Here’s a selection of some of them:

Bridport = very important and prestigious; Bath = fairly prestigious and reminds one of Jane Austen; Bristol = ooh lovely big prizes and my own city; Fish = oooh lovely big prizes in special euro currency. Global Short Stories = regular and monthly and they like new writers.

There is a rule that you can also add them together. For example, 1Bristol + 1Bath = 1Bridport. 1Fish – 1Lightship = 1Bath. And so on.

It’s a little bit like algebra you don’t know.

With this level of mathematical precision, I should really work in banking.

But seriously, while there are a number of incredibly helpful websites to guide you around there really are some that are better to win than others. And entering them can be a full-time job. So I’ve decided to pick a random letter of the alphabet and choose competitions that begin with that letter to win. Completely at random, leaving it all to luck, I dip my hand in the bag containing all the letters of the alphabet and…I pick….one.

Completely at random.

B? Really?

Oh go on then.

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