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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Review: "Burnt Island" by Alice Thompson

A struggling author accepts an invitation to stay on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere while he tries to write a horror bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
Image from Salt Publishing's website
I feel I should use a hushed tone to begin this review, because what I'm about to say may result in people with pitchforks and flaming torches chasing me down the street. Here goes, then. Despite the seemingly universal acclaim with which the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was received, when I read it I found myself somewhat bemused by the tsunami of adulation that had washed over Twitter and swept the novel up the charts and onto a lot of Book of the Year lists. Although I enjoyed the writing (and am keen to read Moore's collection of shorts, The Pre-War House and Other Stories), the story itself and the central characters didn't really press the right buttons for me.

So my heart sank a little when I picked up another novel from Salt Publishing, Alice Thompson's Burnt Island, and discovered that it too opens with a hapless, awkward chap undertaking a journey by ferry. Max Long, Thompson's protagonist, is perhaps marginally more successful in life than Moore's disaster-prone Futh, but as the ferry rolls on the rough sea and casts Max's luggage into the waves you know that he's not somebody upon whom good fortune has any particular interest in shining, either. But I was pleased to find that that's where the similarities ended, and Burnt Island turned out to be very much my kind of book.

Max is an author with a back catalogue of unsuccessful literary novels. Having been awarded a writing fellowship on Burnt Island, he steps off the boat with little more than the clothes he's wearing and a vague plan of penning a schlocky horror story - a novel written with a cynical eye on the bestseller charts. He's selling out; is he, perhaps, selling his soul? After being attacked by a gull and spending a disturbed night in what he first believes is a tiny stone cottage but turns out to be a pebble-dashed caravan that rocks in the wind (the first of many things on the island that are not what they seem), Max is invited to stay with James Fairfax. In some ways, Fairfax is the struggling writer's nemesis, an author whose debut novel achieved both huge critical acclaim and stellar sales - sufficient to keep him living in luxury for years. The world eagerly awaits Fairfax's next masterpiece, and Max is jealous of the other man's success almost to the point of hatred, yet convinced that staying with him will somehow be the key to breaking through his writer's block and hitting the big time.

Once he takes up residence in Fairfax's house, things really get strange for Max. He develops an obsessive interest in the beautiful Rose, who he first assumes to be a maid, although it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between her and Fairfax is far more complicated than that. Shadowy figures seem to be watching and following him wherever he goes. He encounters huge stones that appear to move by themselves, runs into numerous doppelgangers, and experiences deeply unsettling visions. Is any of it actually happening, or is the horror novel he's trying to write affecting his mind? As Max's grip on reality starts to falter, he discovers a sinister secret about the book that made Fairfax's fortune, and begins to uncover the mystery of what happened to his predecessor, the last author to accept the Burnt Island writing fellowship... and who was never seen again.

There are many nods to established horror tropes in the book, and it all gets a bit meta in places, particularly when Max finds a disturbing passage from a manuscript Rose is working on, featuring a protagonist called - as you might expect - Max. All this trickery is done extremely well, though, with the horror movie cliches adding to the story and the island's mystery rather than undermining it. Thompson's writing is direct and unfussy without being too sparse or detached, and she keeps up the pace throughout. I loved how there are numerous interpretations you could apply to the novel; it's a story that stuck in my head for a long time after reading it and I'd recommend it to anybody looking for something a little less straightforward than your typical thriller, particularly if you're also a fan of the low-key horror of The Wicker Man and the isolation and creeping insanity of The Shining.

Salt Publishing will be reissuing a couple of Thompson's previous books soon, including The Existential Detective. On the strength of Burnt Island, I'll definitely check them out.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Bear With Me

If you follow me on Twitter you've probably already heard this, but I'm very pleased to announce that the latest volume of The Fiction Desk has gone on sale. There Was Once a Place is volume seven of the short fiction journal and features my story, The Guy in the Bear Suit.

I've liked the look of The Fiction Desk anthologies for a long time so I was very pleased when my story bagged a runner-up spot in their annual flash fiction competition and so earned a place in the new collection. Online and magazine publication's great, but there's something about being in a proper book that can't be beaten - particularly one that's as well curated and interesting at TFD.

The Guy in the Bear Suit is an odd little tale that grew out of me considering how sinister those character costumes in theme parks are once you're too old to simply accept them as cartoon characters who've strayed off the TV into real life. There's something unsettling about them never speaking, or the way they can stand right in front of you / follow you around without you having any idea who's under all that fur and foam. And with that in mind, I began to think, well - what there was something inside much worse than just some random, over-attentive stranger...?

There Was Once a Place will be the third Fiction Desk anthology I've read. So far it's excellent. Next up I plan to return to the beginning of the series with volume one, Various Authors, which can be downloaded for Kindle and ebook readers (or the relevant tablet / PC apps, of course) free of charge from the TFD website. The other volumes can of course be ordered online or sourced from your friendly neighbourhood bookshop.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Dead Go Live, Magazine Dies

My excuse this time for neglecting my blog is that I was away for a big chunk of May, on a Californian road trip that included driving through a fair bit of desert. It struck me that I might be able to get a photo of some actual tumbleweed, which I could have posted to the blog as a hilarious reference to how sparse my updates have been of late. It turned out that tumbleweed isn't as common as TV would have you believe. So no side-splitting photo of not much happening, then. Sorry.

Fortunately I returned from my travels to find issue 118 of The New Writer had arrived. This was exciting because it contains the winning stories from the 2013 Prose & Poetry Prizes. One of these (the winner of the microfiction category) is my story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave. I wrote about the inspiration and the clash of ideas from which the story emerged a blog post or two ago. It's always good to see a story in print. I'm not sure why they've used my full name, though - I only use that on passport applications and the like these days.

I was thrilled with the comments the judge (the novelist and Jane Austen enthusiast, Rebecca Smith) made, praising the story's "humour and elegiac tone" and calling the writing "poised and elegant". I particularly liked the fact she felt the ending worked well, as I find the ending the hardest part of a story to get right, and I'd had a good feeling about that one when I sent it off all those months ago.

Sadly, it turns out issue 118 will be the last New Writer. Editor Guy Pringle has found there wasn't a big enough subscriber base to keep the magazine going, and has decided to shut it down. This is a real pity, as I think The New Writer was beautifully put together and offered something a bit different from the two high street mainstays, Writers' Forum and Writing Magazine. As a recent subscriber I'd been enjoying TNW and I'll be very sorry to see it go.

If there's a silver lining to this development, it's that Guy and his team have decided to make the final edition of the magazine available for free, online. You can read it in full via Scribd, HERESo the Dead... shuffles into view on page 35 of the digital edition. In the past you would have had to buy the competition anthology to read the prize-winning works, so it's nice to think my story and the others have a chance at catching a (hopefully) bigger audience.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A Superhero in the Classroom

Oh dear - it seems I've neglected this blog for a whole month. I'd like to say it's because I've been spectacularly productive in other areas of writing, but even though this is a blog dedicated to fiction I don't think I can get away with such blatant fabrication.

I have added more to the novel-in-progress, which has now reached something like 97K words. This feels like quite an achievement, although what I was hoping would be a freewheeling-downhill rush to the finish has turned out to be an arduous uphill slog. I'll get there, eventually. I submitted a couple of stories to competitions, most notably the Bath Short Story Award and the Bristol Prize. A good result at either of those would be very welcome.

The most significant thing to happen in my writing life recently has been the arrival from Irish publisher Forum Publications of a contributor's copy of Expression, their study guide to Leaving Certificate English Paper 1. I have to confess I'm not fully up to speed with the Irish education system, but I'm guessing that the Leaving Certificate is more or less the equivalent of the UK's GCSEs. As I mentioned recently, Forum approached me out of the blue to ask whether they could use my story Gecko in one of their study guides. I agreed and almost immediately wondered if I'd regret doing so - I mean, what if they used it as an example of terrible writing, or pointed out all the poor choices of punctuation I'd made, or some other humiliating exposé of my shortcomings as a writer?

I'm pleased to report they've done no such thing. The story's used as a walk-through example of a writing exercise in which the students are asked to read a portion of the story, and then write a sequence of diary entries that pick up on the tone of the piece and describe what happens next. At first, I was a little disappointed they hadn't used the whole of my story (it cuts out about a third of the way in, when unlikely superhero Gary is about to set off on his first crime-fighting mission). But obviously the whole point of the exercise is to take an incomplete story and let the students' imaginations take it wherever they see fit. It's exciting to have one of my stories used in this way, and I'd be fascinated to see what students come up with, although I expect it's pretty unlikely I'll get the chance.

Overall, this has been a thoroughly positive experience. Forum Publications have been a pleasure to deal with and Expression is a book I'm looking forward to reading in more detail - it has some very interesting extracts and several of the writing exercises look like they'd be worth a go. You can see a great deal of care has gone into putting it together and they've done a great job of presenting Gecko (although their version of Gary appears considerably more dynamic than mine ever did). I just hope the students enjoy the story and the writing exercise.

And finally... it's particularly flattering to see my name on a list along with the likes of Frank O'Connor, John Updike, Joan Didion, Bill Bryson and JG Ballard. I can't imagine that's likely to happen again. Not for a while, at least...

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Thomas Hardy vs the Walking Dead

Hot on the heels of my unexpected reprint request and Fiction Desk prize comes some more good news: I won the 2013 New Writer microfiction competition! Hooray!

I'm very pleased about this as it's a competition I've entered several times over the last few years (usually just in the short story category) and was beginning to think I'd never even land a spot on the longlist. The best part is that as well as a cash prize, I'll have my story printed in the magazine. Print credits are something I'm determined to get more of this year, so this is a very welcome addition to the growing publication pile (if three things can legitimately constitute a pile?).

My winning story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave, is an odd little piece, a zombie story entirely lacking in gore or horror, and I thought I'd use this post to talk a little about the inspiration behind it. The story evolved out of an exercise a few friends and I do on an occasional basis in a group over on the writing forum Chapter 79. It's an informal arrangement, but generally the idea is that we each post a short piece of writing to the forum, and then are randomly allocated one of the pieces to work with. There's no set rules to how we respond to the trigger piece - we could write about what happened next, or retell the story from another character's perspective, or just take an image or line of text that stands out and go off on a complete tangent, whatever feels right at the time. Usually we submit pieces of our own work, but occasionally we'll use a poem or the first paragraph or two of a book pulled at random from our shelves.

Late last year, I found myself allocated Thomas Hardy's poem, The Walk. I didn't find the words themselves provided much in the way of a trigger for a new piece, but the slightly detached, melancholic tone of the poem seemed a more promising angle. Particularly the second verse, which seemed to me to suggest that whoever the first verse was addressed to had died. My thought process basically went along the lines of Death... The Walk... The Walking Dead! I'd been watching a fair bit of the zombie-filled TV series back then. But, with the mood of the poem still in mind, I decided my zombies would bring with them, not blood-lust and terror, but a kind of sadness. Their resurrection would be a warning, not a danger, to the living. But would anybody listen?

And so the tale took shape. At the end of the exercise, I had a short story I was pleased with. It got a good response from the other members of the group, and I decided it was worth taking further. So, a few edits, a trim here, a bit more meat on the bones (so to speak) there, and I had something ready to send somewhere. I picked The New Writer competition - and if you want to know what happened next, go back to the beginning of this post and try to pay more attention this time.

So the answer to the question, "What do you get if you cross Thomas Hardy with The Walking Dead?" appears to be, A prize-winning short story. Who'd have thought it? I hadn't really given the process of combining two such disparate ideas much thought, until a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Adam Marek's utterly brilliant "sketchnote" of The Evolution of an Idea. His argument (and it's a convincing one) is that ideas combine in a similar way to atoms undergoing nuclear fusion - two unrelated concepts, if you can mash them together with sufficient force, will combine. The energy of the collision pulls in other ideas, images, and triggers a sort of creative flow, that the writer then has to work into a semblance of order in order for it to be accessible to everyone else. It's a fantastic way of looking at the creative process, and describes exactly what happened with So the Dead Rose from the Grave. Do go and check it out.

If nothing else, it explains the enduring appeal of those "It's X meets Y" potted descriptions of film/book plots. The prospect of a combination of two unlikely, even opposite, concepts catches our imaginations and draws us in. I'll certainly be looking out for more interesting collisions in the future.