Monday, 13 July 2015

Cornbury: How it Went

I got home late last night after a great weekend at Cornbury. It's a lovely little festival, really laid-back and friendly with a good mix of acts. Of course, I didn't really take much in on the Saturday until after I'd done my reading - my nerves weren't too bad but it was certainly a relief to get to the end of my set and feel that I could relax with a well-earned pint and take more of an interest in what was going on.

Me, on the Other Stage
I think my reading went well - at least, I had an audience for the entire time, which was a pleasant surprise as I'm sure none of them were there because they'd heard of me. People came and went, which I got used to fairly quickly, although it was distracting at first. A few people stayed throughout, and that was hugely encouraging, although I was so wrapped up in trying to get through my stories without making any major mistakes that I completely forgot about doing the obligatory sales pitch. Whether that was the reason or not, I didn't sell any of the books I'd taken along. But that wasn't a huge disappointment.

I'm really glad this opportunity came along, and I gave it a go. It was a useful experience of public performance in a less forgiving environment than a writer's circle or even a workshop. It's boosted my confidence and I hope I'll get the chance to do something similar again before too long.

There were a few things I learned from the reading. Firstly, I think I should have stood up - for all the practice I'd done at home I had been on my feet, and although it doesn't seem like a big change it felt a bit strange to be sitting down. It meant I had to hold the book / printout differently, and it made it harder to look up and engage with the audience. I got it worked out soon enough, but it felt awkward.

Secondly, and possibly the most important thing I got wrong was that although I practised my readings I didn't give much thought in advance to how I was going to introduce myself or to what I was going to say in-between the stories. As a result I only gave a rushed and very brief introduction to each story, off the top of my head. This left me feeling like I was rushing from one story to the next without giving the audience any breathing space.

Thirdly, I should have taken into account the nature of the festival environment - people would stop by the tent to see what was going on, either on their way to see another act, or just as a way of filling time. Consequently I should have kept everything bite-sized and, probably, on the lighter side. But I was concerned about whether I'd be able to fill the time just with flash fiction, so I put in a couple of more weighty pieces too. The longest was just under 3,000 words, and I think this is way too long for people who might just have wandered in to see what was going on. The rules might be different for a literary festival, or if you are a big name with a bit of a following, but it's something I'll do differently if I get the chance again.

Overall I'm really pleased to have been a (very) small part of such a fantastic festival, and I hope the people who heard me read enjoyed themselves. Thank you again for your attention and support!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Cornbury Music Festival

It's been a while since I had an event to mention on here, but this one's worth the wait (in my humble opinion, at least). I'm very pleased to announce that I'll be reading onstage this Saturday at the Cornbury Music Festival:

Even at full size you'll probably have to press your nose right up against the screen in order to spot me, but I am there - I'm on the Other Stage and I'll be reading at approximately 3pm on Saturday. It's very exciting, daunting, and slightly surreal to see my name on a poster with the likes of Tom Jones, Joss Stone, John Cooper Clarke, and Pam Ayres!

The thought of reading in public always makes me apprehensive. Like many writers I think of my stories as existing in little bubbles that drift off into the world to be experienced by other people individually. It's a totally different prospect to the sort of collective experience you get at a public reading. In those situations so many more factors play a part. It's no longer just about the words on the page, with the author (hopefully) completely out of sight. The author is there, in plain sight, reading those words out loud, competing with other noises and disturbances as the band plays in the next tent and people wander in and out and phones go off and dogs bark for reasons known only to themselves.

Despite these perhaps less-than-ideal aspects for both author and audience, there is something very special about a story read out loud. For a listener, it can be particularly satisfying to hear a tale told by the person who wrote it. Not all writers are great readers, of course, but there's an authenticity to somebody reading their own words that very few actors can replicate. And for the author, it's a rare chance to experience an immediate and genuine reaction to what you have to say. Although that in itself is a pretty terrifying prospect.

So, I'm looking forward to it. I'm trying to counter the nerves by practising the stories I'm going to read, and thinking about what to say in-between the readings. Hopefully I'll be able to keep people entertained! I'll report back next week on how it all went.

My sincere thanks go to Sam at Books & Ink Bookshop in Banbury for putting me in touch with the festival organisers and helping to set this all in motion.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Three Reviews

Way back at the beginning of the year, I tried to get up to date with a few of the books written by authors I've met either via Twitter or through blogging. The intention was to review each book as I finished it. I started off with Karen Jones's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories, but I didn't get much further. I did read and enjoy the other books on my list, though, and although it seems unlikely I'll get time to do a 'proper' review for them, I thought I'd post some mini-reviews instead.

The Electric by Andrew David Barker
Freshly available in a rather handsome paperback edition, this is a coming-of-age story steeped in a love of cinema - not just the films themselves, but the (seemingly) increasingly old-fashioned concept of going to watch a film in a building specifically designed for the purpose. Set in 1985, the novel follows Sam Crowhurst, a teenager reeling from the death of his father, who stumbles across a run-down cinema in the woods, the eponymous Electric. Unable to resist the urge to investigate, he ventures inside, and his exploration results in a fascination with the old building and its mysteries that borders on obsession.

It's quite a gentle story - although there are strong supernatural elements to the book, it steers away from horror. It struck me as the type of coming-of-age story Stephen King might write, although it's much more in the Stand By Me mould than the It one. There are subtle undertones of a different Steven, too - I'm sure Spielberg would have turned this into a cracking movie back in the day. Despite the spooky goings-on in the cinema, The Electric is not so much a ghost story as a tale of grief and loss, and an exploration of the vital part friendship plays in your life in those early teenage years. There were a couple of occasions where I felt Andrew took a bit of a run-up to saying what he was going to say, but overall this is an impressive debut. It's charming and full of heart, and its nostalgic, elegiac tone is perfect for the subject matter.

Looking out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell 
Dan Powell's short stories have won many plaudits and this, his first collection, was shortlisted for the prestigious Scott Prize (sadly now discontinued). There are twenty-seven stories here, with many having been published and/or winning prizes in a variety of different places. Although the subject matter of the stories varies considerably, they're united by a strong sense of being about a character (or characters) who have been dealt a rather unfortunate hand by fate, and are struggling to make the best of it.

There is a good balance here - although sometimes the subject matter can seem fairly heavy, Dan avoids letting everything descend into gloominess by employing deft touches of humour at just the right moments. There are some great surreal aspects to many of the stories - an unborn baby communicates with its mother via morse code, a man falls in love with a painted silhouette he finds behind his wardrobe, a woman discovers she's transformed into a vending machine - and it's to Dan's credit that these elements never seem forced or outlandish.

The Art of Letting Go by Chloe Banks
When attractive stranger Ben arrives in a sleepy seaside town to try to paint God, he throws the lives of three women into turmoil. Rosemary, a retired physicist, just wants to be left alone. To her, the artist's presence is an unwanted intrusion, but she gradually becomes intrigued by his work. Timid, middle-aged Jenny sees Ben as a possible cure for her broken heart. And young nurse Cheryl, bored of small-town life, is just looking for a bit of excitement. As they all begin to gravitate towards Ben, secrets they'd rather have kept buried are forced out into the open.

I was impressed by this debut novel. I'd read several of Chloe's stories before, but I got the impression she'd really upped her game for this book. The four strands (each written in first-person from the viewpoint of the different characters) are keenly observed, well managed, and provide interesting insights - for example, when the same event is described from different perspectives. The quality of the writing is very good, too, and makes for a deceptively easy read. It's a slow burn, and people looking for a breakneck, twisty plot may be disappointed, but if you are happy with a more relaxed pace, this thoughtful book won't disappoint.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Myth of "Prestige"

Prestige. Exposure. They're good things, right? The kind of thing writers hanker after, whether they're just scrabbling onto the foot of the career ladder or balancing way up on some lofty rung? Getting a story - or perhaps even just your name - into the right place at the right time might unlock doors to untold fame and riches.

Or not. Because, it turns out, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, getting a story somewhere prestigious doesn't automatically have agents beating a path to your door, or publishers fighting over your half-finished manuscripts. You can drop as big a rock as you like into the literary pond but the ripples you make will quickly be drowned out by the constant rain of pebbles everybody else is chucking in.

Jonathan Pinnock illustrated this nicely in his thoughtful and well-researched blog post regarding what happened after one of his stories was broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 4 'Opening Lines' series. Most people (and I counted myself among them) would probably assume that if you get your foot in the door at the Beeb, that's it, you're set for life. But it appears that's not the case. Hardly any of the writers who've been picked for Opening Lines have ever been asked to follow-up their appearance. (The same, incidentally, can also be said for getting a story into The Guardian). Such achievements help, but for almost everyone it'll be more a case of adding weight to a portfolio than any kind of magic shortcut to success.

So, with this in mind, what are we to make of the 'award' recently launched by Pin Drop Studios? On the face of it, Pin Drop seems like an excellent idea - an organisation celebrating and promoting short fiction read aloud, with a collection of big names onboard in terms of both voice and writing talent. I'm definitely going to have a listen to some of their recorded short stories. But that award bothers me. There's a ten pound entry fee, for a start, which is on the high side. I don't know how many entries they're anticipating, but they seem to expect enough to justify not acknowledging receipt of emailed entries. I don't know what happens to the entry fees because there's no monetary prize. All that's on offer is the chance to have your story read aloud at one of their events and added to their archive.

That may be enough for some people. It would certainly be good exposure, and who knows who might hear it and where that might lead? (Um... see above.) And I'm not suggesting you shouldn't enter if you can afford the fee and feel like one of your stories might be the perfect fit.

But, ask yourself this: if your story is good enough to be ranked alongside those by Sebastian Faulks, Lionel Shriver, William Boyd, and Jon McGregor, why should you have to pay to have your work considered? Did those authors send in a tenner with their stories? Do the actors who bring the stories to life pay a fee for such prestigious exposure? In fairness, I don't know; Pin Drop don't say. But it seems unlikely, doesn't it?

There are too many examples of writers being expected to write or contribute or perform for free - or worse, to have to pay to take part. Prestige is no bad thing, but you can't eat it and it won't keep a roof over your head. Competitions like the Pin Drop one contribute to the erosion of the perceived value of the writer - the one person without whom the story would not exist. I'd urge anybody thinking of taking part to consider the implications of what happens when the only people left writing are the ones who can afford to pay to have their stories heard.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Review: 'The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories' by Karen Jones

Over the last couple of months I've been trying to tackle a specific region of my to-read pile: books by some of my writing friends. It's one of the perils/joys of getting to know other writers on social media - before you know it, you are swamped with dozens of books you might not otherwise have known about. This is certainly the case with me! But it's a good thing, and as it's always a pleasure to help other writers along, I thought I'd review a few of them here over the next few weeks.

First up was Karen Jones's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories. I 'previewed' this collection back in March 2014 when it was first released (having just written that I'm alarmed it took me nine months to get to it - but then again my pile of unread books is much taller than I am). The book is a collection of 24 of Karen's stories, the majority of which have been published - with a fair few of them having won prizes on their way to publication. There is a mixture of flash and longer stories, with the average being about three pages long. The full book is just under 100 pages.

Although they're short, Karen's stories don't tend to be sweet. These are tales in which nobody quite gets what they want - or if they do, it's usually only to find out that the reality can never quite live up to the dream. There's a bittersweet edge to many of the stories here, with a distinctly dark edge to most of the humour. In less capable hands this could easily make for a bleak and, ultimately, unrewarding collection. But what Karen does so well is balance the tone of the stories, so that even in the characters' darkest moments there are still splashes of colour and wit.

In the title story, a young girl overcomes a phobia while a tragedy quietly unfolds around her. In The Resurrection of Andy McPhail, a man's second chance at life gets off to a rocky start when his miraculous recovery turns out to be more of an inconvenience to his friends and neighbours than a cause for celebration. Natural Instincts, one of the stand-out stories in the collection, focuses on a schoolgirl's obsession with the murder of one of her fellow pupils, distorted by her fascination with the sexual experiences of the dead girl. 

The collection wraps up with Cowboys and Indians, the story of Grace, a young girl taken to a run-down hotel by her unstable mother, who has left her father. It's a story of outsiders, with the people who work in the hotel all hiding something - loss, regret, or their pasts. Grace possesses a special quality, which the men in the hotel find hard to resist. It's a discomforting read, and one of the best examples of how Karen's light touch can keep you guessing as to exactly what type of story it's going to turn out to be until almost the end.

As with almost all collections, there were a couple of pieces I felt didn't quite pull their weight (these tended to be the shorter stories, with one or two of them feeling a little under-developed), but there is such a good range here it's hard to criticise. I had read the majority of these stories in one form or another before, but to work through them en masse, so to speak, was a pleasure. It made me hope Karen will press on and write a novel, as it would be fascinating to see what she can do with the longer form.

The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories is available from Amazon, Waterstones online, and Lulu. Or, your local bookshop should be able to order it in.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

(Not-So) New Year

There's not much left of January now, but this is the first chance I've had to write a post since before Christmas. I've no idea where the time has gone; the first month of the year always seems to fly by for me - which is odd as most people complain about how January drags on interminably.

The start of the year often delivers a bit of a muddle of emotions. I generally feel optimistic about the start of a brand-new year - that whole sense of blank-page potential and the fact that the days are (very gradually) getting longer again. Then a few days into the year comes my birthday, and though I'm not one of those people who hates the thought of getting older, it's hard to ignore the fact that the number is creeping ever higher. I'm thirty-eight now; my chances of having a book traditionally published before I hit forty must be almost non-existent, given the glacial pace of the publishing industry (and of course the fact that I still need to edit my science fiction novel before I can start submitting it to agents/publishers). Not that it matters, of course, but as I get nearer to the Big Four-Oh I realise I've had that as a goal, subconsciously at least, for the last few years. I'm taking this realisation as a kick up the backside and an incentive to get on with it.

Having said that, I didn't write much over the festive season. I sent a couple of stories out and applied for the Arvon-Jerwood mentoring scheme. Getting onto the scheme would be a terrific boost, but it's hotly contested and the odds of me landing a place are pretty slim. I'll keep my fingers crossed and plough on with editing the old novel, writing the new one, and hopefully finding time to keep the short story production line running, too!

And with that aim in mind, I'm pleased that 2015 has kicked off on a positive note, with my story The You-Know-What in the Room published in Writers' Forum magazine. This is the second time I've had a story published in the magazine and it's a very good feeling. There are of course literary journals that are arguably more prestigious, but I don't think anyone should knock the buzz of having one of your stories on the shelves in WH Smith and other newsagents/supermarkets. The pleasure is only slightly marred by the fact that they don't seem to send a contributor's copy of the magazine any more. They did last time.

EDITED TO ADD: It turns out they do still send contributor's copies - it just takes a couple of weeks to come through, and arrives with the cheque, too. So all is well.