Monday, 3 November 2014

Arvon, Again

I am, somewhat groggily and reluctantly, re-entering the real world after spending last week in Yorkshire, at Lumb Bank in Heptonstall, on an Arvon course. This one was entitled Fiction: Work-In-Progress and was tutored by Jim Crace and Susan Elderkin.

The house at Lumb Bank
This was my third Arvon course (my first was about nine years ago and also at Lumb Bank, and the second came at the start of 2012, when I went on a Starting to Write a Novel course - this time at The Hurst in Shropshire). When I signed up for the latest one, back in March, I had a plan: I was going to have finished my science fiction novel by about June, have made a start on editing it, and be stuck into the new idea, which I'd been mulling over for a couple of months.

It didn't quite work out that way. I only finished the SF novel at the end of August, and I'd spent a few weeks editing the opening section for a competition, but it wasn't as well put to bed as I'd hoped. In terms of the new project, as of a week ago I had nothing down on paper. I'd done a tiny bit of research and an awful lot of thinking, but I couldn't really claim to have started anything. Obviously this wasn't ideal for a "Work in Progress" course! But I was sure there would be plenty to learn that would be applicable to both my almost-finished and barely-started projects.

Fifteen of us were there for the week and we split into two groups, each having a morning workshop with one tutor and then switching to the other one the following day. The afternoons were ours to do with as we pleased - although we had to fit in taking a turn at cooking dinner and having a one-to-one tutorial with each of the tutors. My group's first session was with Jim, and he got us to justify our books as though we were pitching them to an acquisitions board at a publishing house. This was quite a bruising experience to start with, but it was a good exercise to be brutally honest about what was original or different about our various novels and face up to any weaknesses in concept or execution.

Susan's sessions tended to be more focused on generating new writing, coming in the form of exercises that encouraged us to consider point of view, characterisation, and perspective. I found these really useful and a couple have given me ideas for blog posts, so I will come back to them in more detail in the future. Our second time with Jim involved a discussion and various exercises looking at editing, and although I feel like I've more or less got the hang of the process, it was very interesting to hear a different take on it and get a few extra tips on how to make your prose work as hard as it possibly can.

Sunrise over Lumb Bank as seen from my 'front door' - utterly magical

Overall, the course was fantastic and I feel like I've taken a big step forward with my new project. Just having a chance to talk the idea over with tutors as knowledgeable and talented as Susan and Jim was invaluable, and it's given my confidence and determination to see it through a huge boost. Arvon weeks tend to be a strange mixture of exhausting hard work and huge amounts of fun, and this one was no exception. As before, another highlight turned out to be my fellow writers on the course - a great bunch and, as the Friday performance night proved, a very talented lot too. I'm looking forward to seeing some of them hitting the bestseller lists in the months and years ahead.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Is it an Award? Is it a Competition?


From tomorrow, the five stories shortlisted  for the BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) will be broadcast on Radio 4, one each day. I'm not sure how many I'll catch live, as they go out mid-afternoon when I'm usually working, but I'll make sure I download the podcasts once they're made available.

This was the first year in quite a while that I wasn't holding my breath and listening to the announcement of the shortlist with the absurd and fading hope that my name would be read out. I didn't enter this year's competition. Part of my decision was, admittedly, down to me not having written a story of suitable length, subject matter, and quality. However, a far greater part was attributable to the lingering sour taste left by last year's revelation by one of the judges that the way the competition was run meant the final selection might be, possibly, not actually being judged as anonymously as everyone had assumed.

I wrote that post almost a year ago and, while I was pleased to see that for the 2014 Award the organisers had updated the Terms & Conditions to make the situation regarding the final stage of judging much clearer, there are still elements of it that concern me. Here's the relevant section from the rules:
4.3 Some judges may reserve the right to read the longlisted stories anonymously, however they are not required to do so. The whole panel will be provided with the name of the author of each longlisted story ahead of shortlisting to ensure all judges are party to the same information when making their decisions. At this stage, judges may call-in entries from authors whose stories were not longlisted in stage 1.
So, we know the final-stage judges are given the names of the authors, and that it's down to them whether or not they ignore those names. That's strange but, OK, fair enough, if that's how they want to run things. It's that last sentence that doesn't entirely make sense. Are the judges entitled to call in stories that didn't make it past the initial readers? Isn't that like a football team winning the World Cup even though they were knocked out of contention at the group stage? Considering only the longlisted stories are forwarded to the judges, does that include stories they haven't read? Or maybe it's even stranger than that; as the stories can be previously published (as long as it's within the 12 months before the closing date), can the judges bring in stories they've read elsewhere - stories that weren't actually entered in the competition?

The problem, I think, is that the BBC is in an awkward situation. They need good stories, but they also need authors who are recognisable enough for people who aren't really into short fiction to take an interest and get on board with the idea that the Award is a genuine reflection of the 'best' of the work that's currently out there. Consequently, it's not really a competition, but it's not quite a straightforward award, either. And I wonder if that's why in some ways, although the stories are usually pretty impressive, the Award itself is beginning to feel a little stale. The shortlist seems to have fallen into a pattern whereby it contains two or three household names, a couple of lesser-known but well-established writers with a book or two to their name, and a newbie, who often turns out to have a novel or at least a collection of short fiction approaching publication.

Obviously I don't know exactly how the judges come up with the shortlist. There's no way of knowing how many of them ignore the names of the writers when making their decisions. Maybe they all do. Maybe even if they recognise a story they've read somewhere else they can somehow ignore that. Maybe none of them call in any other stories from the rejection piles or from outside the competition. Maybe all that stuff's in the rules just in case, but it's never been put into practice.

Whatever's happening, as a reader/listener, I can't help but think the quirks of the selection process might be contributing to the fact that the NSSA is getting a bit samey. Even 2014's all-female shortlist didn't attract much comment - because this is the third time in the Award's seven-year history that's happened. I'd love the whole thing to be a lot less predictable. I'd love to think the Award was bringing me exciting, new stories I couldn't hear or read anywhere else. I'd love, just once, for the shortlist to be announced and for me to have never heard of any of the writers. I'd love to believe that stories by talented writers at the start of their careers were competing on equal terms with those from established best-selling authors, that the quality of the story was the only thing that influenced the selection of the shortlist. At the moment, I'm not really feeling any of that.

Asked how it felt to be shortlisted for a third time, Lionel Shriver quipped, "Familiar". Well, quite. This year, three-fifths of the shortlist is recycled from elsewhere (Zadie Smith's story was in the Spring 2014 edition of The Paris Review, while Tessa Hadley's and Lionel Shriver's both appeared in The New Yorker towards the end of last year).The NSSA is one of the biggest and most prestigious literary prizes in the UK. It should be many things, but I don't think "familiar" should be one of them.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Hopping Mad?

"Mad as a Box of Frogs" by Becky Brown. Used here by kind permission of the artist.

Twitter and Facebook were ablaze earlier this week with the unfolding (or should that be 'unravelling'?) story of a writer who had taken exception to some (to be honest, rather mild) criticism about a book he had created with iBooks Author. The full exchange can be read HERE. Be warned, you might need a large pot of coffee if you hope to get through it all in one go.

If you have better things to do than trawl through all that, suffice to say it's another example of a writer launching what I'm sure he believes is an entirely justified defence of his work, standing up for his artistic integrity, etc, etc. He asserts that the reviewer is factually wrong to, for instance, call his prose "workmanlike", and goes on (in an extraordinary series of twenty-three comments, posted over ten hours (and that's just the start!)) to post extracts from his work, saying some of his descriptions are worthy of Keats or F Scott Fitzgerald. As far as he's concerned, he's doing the critic a favour, by highlighting examples of his writing that prove the review is incorrect.

The problem is, writers don't get to do that. When somebody reads something we've published, their response to it is entirely outside our control. If they think the prose is workmanlike, or the plot is unoriginal, or the characters are unconvincing, then our only option is to take it on the chin. It's only one person's opinion, after all. If several people say the same thing, that probably highlights a weak spot that would be worth concentrating on when it comes to the next book, story, or poem. What we don't get to do is fly off the handle, accusing the reviewer of telling lies or being ignorant. Because that will only ever make you look like a complete nutcase.

I think the only case when it might be appropriate to response to a review is when there has been a genuine factual error - for instance if they've misspelled your name, or got the book title, ISBN, or release date wrong. Anything else, you just have to let go. And even if there is something justifiable, then a discreet email to the reviewer or editor of the publication in question is a far better option than waging all-out war in the comments thread.

Personally, I'm going to keep hold of the link to this particular example of a writer in meltdown. If, in the future, I find myself published and on the receiving end of what I consider to be an uncharitable review, and I feel my fingers creeping towards the keyboard to unleash the kind of righteous indignation that only a writer can muster, I will stop, read the entire "Venice Under Glass" thread from start to finish, and then see if I can summon up the will to tear into the reviewer in the same way. Chances are, I won't. And that can only be a good thing.


In one of the happy accidents that the internet often throws my way, while I was looking for a picture to illustrate this post I chanced across the work of Becky Brown. Her animal illustrations are fantastic - full of life and personality. If you like them as much as I do, please go and take a look at the wonderful prints and cards for sale in Becky's shop.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Chloe Banks on The Art of Staying Flexible

I'm delighted to welcome long-time friend of the blog Chloe Banks, who is out and about promoting her debut novel, The Art of Letting Go. Chloe is an accomplished short story writer, so I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing how she's taken the leap into the longer form. The book is available from a new publisher, Thistle Publications, and that in itself is an interesting aspect - the company is a new independent outfit that slots itself somewhere in between the two usual avenues; it's not self-publishing, but it's not quite traditional publishing either. It's an exciting reflection of the way the publishing landscape is changing and you can read Chloe's thoughts on it by clicking here.

Anyway, without further ado, let me hand you over to Chloe...


The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?


The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.





And streeeeeeetch...

When I was a competitive runner I was proud of being supple. I could pretty much do the splits, I could touch my head to my knees and all sorts of other contortions. When I switched priorities from racing to writing, I thought I could stop worrying about being flexible. I was so wrong.

There is a famous and much over-used phrase in writing – kill your darlings. In order for a story to be as good as it can be, sometimes you have to cut the bits of writing that please you most. In the first draft you can write what you want, how you want. When it comes to re-drafting and editing you need to make your narrative work, and that requires being flexible – changing your own ideas of how the story should go or how your characters should act.

When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, I had to change a lot. I have written elsewhere about changing from a straight-forward narrative to a multiple viewpoint narrative and how hard it was to create four or five authentic voices. With one of my characters, Cheryl, it was particularly tough. I knew what I wanted her to be like, and I knew how I wanted her to act, but feedback kept coming in – she’s not believable. It wasn’t until I had an agent and was perhaps six or seven drafts into writing the novel that I realised the problem: a person with the character I’d created wouldn’t act in the way I’d asked her to act. I ended up re-writing her completely – giving her a different background and different influences and motivations. And I think she finally works.

This willingness to adapt your ideas – rather than just edit your original plan – is key to getting an agent or a publishing contract. Believe me, it’s deflating to go through the euphoria of being offered a contract and then receiving an edit letter outlining all the things you have to change in the manuscript, but it has to be done. Edit letters often make authors cry. Here you are, with a book worthy of an agency/publishing contract, and you are STILL being told that you need to completely re-think one of your characters, alter a major part of your plot and start the entire novel at a different point. You don’t want to do that? Fine. Don’t expect to be published.

All this, of course, comes with the caveat that you are the master of your own story. Yes, you need to be prepared to flex and change. No, you don’t have to cave in to every suggestion. When my agent listed all the changes he wanted me to make before we submitted to publishers, I set to work on most of them. There were a couple of points however – such as changing the ages of my main characters – where I dug my heels in. I was able to explain why I didn’t want to make those changes and David respected that. Agents and editors are looking for writers who can both touch their toes and stand their ground!

When I was county cross-country champion I needed to have muscles that could power me up hills, but were still flexible. As an author I need to create my darlings, but be willing to kill them – or at least bend them a bit. But the real key to both? The same as it always has been: putting in hours of hard work and practice. When it comes to writing there are some rules that can’t be bent after all.




Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Five Things

I was recently tagged in a Facebook post by Jonathan Pinnock in which he listed five things about his current work-in-progress. There was an enjoyable progression to his list, as it basically went from him saying he had no WIP (perfectly understandable seeing as he's just launched a non-fiction book, the excellent-sounding Take it Cool, which I'm planning to buy very soon (unless I manage to win a free copy from these guys)) to him deciding on an idea and planning to write it that same evening. To be honest, I'm hoping for a similar boost from taking on this challenge. Let's see...
Long-term Relationship
I've been working on this novel forever. At least it seems that way. It started off as a short story somewhere around 2005/6, back when I'd never have had the confidence to send it off anywhere. A couple of years later I showed it to one of the tutors at an Arvon course I was on, and he made a chance remark that 'unlocked' the rest of the story and convinced me it could be much more than just a few pages' worth. I wrote a few chapters, lost momentum, moved from Leeds to the Midlands, joined a writing class, wrote several more chapters, lost interest, wrote lots of short stories, had some success with those, moved again (not so far this time), decided I was never going to get where I wanted to be purely through the stories, rewrote everything I'd done, got nearly to the end, and stalled. That happened in about March this year, and I've been adding a few hundred words to it every so often, but it really doesn't feel like progress.

Identity Crisis
The main problem I'm finding with this book is that there's part of me that really worries about what will happen if I get to the end and if I can stay enthusiastic enough to edit it into a publishable sort of shape and if I'm lucky enough to land an agent/publisher and get the book out into the world. You see, it's a science fiction / techno-thriller type of deal, and I'm not convinced that's the kind of writer I am, or want to be. Michael Logan's written an excellent series of blog posts about his literary journey since winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. The thing that's really stood out for me is how reluctant publishers are to let a new author change course - it's all about building your 'brand', it seems. If you want to veer off-course for book four or five then, depending on how your sales have been, they might let you take that risk. I know I'm jumping the gun massively here, but it's hard to focus on a book that could lock me into a genre I don't want to commit to in the long term.

Disaster/Opportunity
I mentioned a while ago that another obstacle to keeping up my enthusiasm for the book is that some Hollywood types are, rather unsportingly, making a film that's based on more or less the exact same concept. I haven't heard much else about the film since then, but I go from thinking it's great news because people will be interested in other ways of looking at the idea, and it being a prime opportunity to piggyback on any big-budget marketing from the movie, to being despondent that my book, which always seemed (to me at least) a unique spin on the "teleportation accident" scenario, will just seem like a lazy knock-off of someone else's idea. I feel a bit hamstrung, and I'm trying hard not to convince myself that I ought to wait to see whether the film turns out to be any good before I make my next move.

Considering a Sex Change
No, not me. But I've been looking at one of my favourite main characters - a grizzled and unpredictable agent from a European equivalent of the FBI who helps the protagonist - and wondering about making him a her. I'm wary of the work involved in this (as one of the main elements of the rewrite was changing the narrative from third- to first-person perspective and that's been hard enough), but I think it might be an interesting way to go. It would help balance out the book a little, as it's pretty bloke-y at the moment, and I can't think of many similar stories where the 'mentor' character is a older woman helping out a male protagonist. I've been imagining Kenneth Branagh or Keifer Sutherland in the role - maybe I should consider Gillian Anderson or the evergreen Helen Mirren instead (not that I'm suggesting either of them could be described as "grizzled"!)?

Keeping the Faith
Okay, this post is turning into more of a self-pitying whinge than I planned. The thing is, I really believe in this story, and I want to get it finished and out into the world in some form or another. I think people will enjoy it, and I believe it will be a success if I can just keep going with it long enough to do it justice, although exactly how that success is likely to be measured remains something of a mystery to me at the moment.


So, there you go, five things maybe not so much about the book itself as about the crumbling mental state of the guy attempting to write it. Sorry about that. I'm now supposed to nominate five people to take up the baton and although I'm always reluctant to point the finger at anyone, I'd like to invite the following people to take part, who may do as much or as little with it as they choose. All you need to do is tell everyone five things about your current work-in-progress - interpret that however you wish.

Freya Morris
Nik Perring
Teresa Stenson
Amanda Saint
Dan Powell

If anybody else fancies jumping on the bandwagon, feel free! Rules are made to be broken.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

How Very Curious...

Our home for the weekend
I spent last weekend under canvas (particularly excellent canvas, as it happens, as the picture on the left plainly demonstrates), at the Curious Arts Festival. This is a new event from, I think, the same organisers of the Voewood Festival, which I went to a couple of years ago. Set in the beautiful grounds of Pylewell Park near Lymington in Hampshire (not far from where I grew up), the festival featured a diverse line-up of authors, musicians, and other performers across the two-and-a-bit days from Friday afternoon to Sunday night.

My other half and I made it our mission to to see as many author talks as we could. And there were some fantastic writers there - from Costa Book of the Year winner Nathan Filer to the Man Booker-shortlisted Deborah Levy, from all-round comedy superstar Rebecca Front to BBC National Short Story Prize shortlist regular MJ Hyland. All of them had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the process of writing, that odd compulsion some of us have to take what we see going on around us and try to make sense of it by noting it down. I could listen to writers talk about writing all day, so it was a pleasure to be able to do just that for a couple of days.

The house at Pylewell Park
I don't intend to make this post a review of the festival (suffice to say I really enjoyed it, despite a few very minor teething troubles. The festival will, I hope, return next year, bigger and even better). And I could waffle on for hours about the various authors and the different things they said about how they do what they do. But I think the most important thing I learnt from the weekend wasn't any of the things that the authors did differently. It was the one thing they all did the same: they finished what they started, whatever it took. It sounds simple, but there's an awful lot more to it than just starting typing at Point A and not stopping until they reached Point B.

Several of the authors talked about how they'd worked on their books (particularly their début novels) for five or six years. Lottie Moggach (author of acclaimed thriller Kiss Me First) said her novel had started off as a science fiction book before she found a way of rooting it in the present day. The change in setting opened up the story to her and took it from being an idea she was playing around with to a novel she could actually finish. Nathan Filer's Shock of the Fall grew from a couple of sentences that popped into his head after work one day; although they didn't actually make it into the novel, those few words told him everything he needed to know about his protagonist. It took numerous drafts to fit the tone of the book to those few words, but he kept tweaking it until he'd found the perfect voice for his narrator. MJ Hyland jettisoned 33,000 words of her work-in-progress when she realised she was writing about her main character as a grown man, when in fact the real story was about him as a child. The list goes on.

These revelations were depressing and inspiring in equal measure. Depressing because I've been treating the completion of the first big redraft of my novel as pretty much the final stage. Yet that - when it comes - will only be the next step in the journey. There'll be a lot more work to do afterwards and none of it will be easy. Inspiring because not so long ago all these writers whose books I see on the shelves of my local Waterstones were in the same position as me, chipping away at a novel with no real idea of whether anybody else would ever want to read it and only a sliver of self-belief to convince them it was all worthwhile. They stuck at it, carrying on where most people throw in the towel, turning a blind eye to the distracting sparkliness of Other Ideas, and then sending it out to agents and publishers even though they could only ever hope to be one among thousands all vying for the same few slots on a publisher's list. That's the main thing I took from the weekend: it's not easy, but it's possible, and the only thing that's guaranteed to stop me is giving up.