Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Quantum Shorts

What do you get if you combine creative writing with quantum mechanics? That's what the organisers of the Quantum Shorts short story competition are trying to find out with their biennial contest (it alternates each year between a prose competition and one for short films). The idea is that the genuinely weird world of quantum physics provides fertile ground for stories and, considering the number of entries they tend to get and the wide range of interpretations of the theme, it's hard to argue otherwise.

My story, The Physics of Falling (in Love), was inspired by the unpredictable behaviour of particles at the quantum (for anyone not up to speed on the terminology, for the purposes of this post you can just take that to mean very, very small) scale. The way quantum particles interact means it's very hard to accurately predict how one will influence another, and scientists can usually only work to establish the likelihood that Outcome X will happen, as opposed to Outcome Y. Although I did GCSE physics at school and several of the engineering topics I studied at university were heavily dependent on the subject, the quantum realm was never something I was required to learn about. I've read about bits of it since then, but I'm a long way from being any kind of expert.

The example I use in the story, of photons hitting a pane of glass, was something I heard on a radio programme during a long drive several years ago. I hope I've remembered it correctly, otherwise it's a really bad choice of metaphor! I actually wrote the first draft of the story for the 2013 competition, but I'd only heard about the contest very close to the deadline, and my initial attempt was way over the 1,000-word limit. In the end I couldn't edit it down in time, so I missed my chance. I refined it, send it out a couple of times - it was shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition in 2014 - but after that I decided it was probably worth waiting for the Quantum Shorts contest to come around again.

Anyway, the story is up on the website if you fancy having a read. Chances are it'll be the only love story powered by quantum physics you'll read today, but you never know. There's the option of rating the story if you feel so inclined, although I don't think it makes any difference at this point in time. If it makes the shortlist, though, I will be asking people to vote, as there's a "People's Choice" prize for the most popular/highest-rated tale.

If you feel suitably inspired to write a quantum-themed story, get cracking. It's free to enter, the prizes are pretty good, and submissions are open until 01 December 2015.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Not NaNoWriMo-ing?

November brings with it dark nights and a sense of escalating panic as Christmas and the end of the year loom ever closer. This is, of course, fertile ground for NaNoWriMo. It's hard to imagine anybody reading this blog and not knowing what that is, but for the avoidance of doubt, it's the (inter)National Novel Writing Month - when participants are encouraged to write 50,000 words over the course of the month.

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I tried it a couple of years ago, with limited success, and I wholeheartedly support anything that encourages passion and commitment in writing. However, my reservations come from the way the thing seems set up as a flash in the pan - a month of concentrated effort and then you're left on your own. There's also a tendency for people (at least quite a few of those whose tweets and Facebook posts I read) to focus squarely on the word count for each day, and cheerfully talk about writing rubbish to fill that day's bar on the graph. Of course, the intention is to go back and edit it when it's all over, but I never hear about that actually happening.

There are some high-profile novels that have come out of NaNoWriMo, but I get the feeling these are the (extremely rare, considering how many people take part each year) exceptions. I worry that without the support and camaraderie of the NaNo site, the enthusiasm dries up and many participants file their 50,000 words away. And then start the process all over again when the next November 1st rolls around.

Writing is rewriting. It's an old cliché, but it's been around for so long because it's true. And I think that's what my main objection to (some of) NaNoWriMo comes from - it's all about the relatively easy process of first-drafting. And - in my opinion - writing a lot of first draft in a short time doesn't make you a better writer. At least, not in the same way that revising, editing, and all those other less exciting (and harder to measure) aspects of "the craft" do.

I think all I'm saying is by all means do NaNoWriMo if it appeals, just find a way to fit it into a broader habit of writing than just that one month-long splurge. If you genuinely only have 30 days where you can find the couple of hours required to write your 1667 words, there may be things you can do that will have a bigger and more beneficial effect on you as a writer.

For instance:

Finish that NaNo novel you started last year. If you made it to 50,000 words then congratulations, that's a terrific achievement. But you don't need me to tell you that's not a novel. Be a NaNo Rebel and get the rest of it written. Ignore the shiny new idea(s) bouncing about in your head and press on. Finishing things is difficult, a real slog. If it wasn't so hard there would be far more actual NaNo-written novels in the bookshops. But getting all the way through and writing "The End" is way more of an achievement than filling up those progress bars.

Write, edit, and submit one complete short story. This is perhaps more for novice writers than established ones, and admittedly there are significant differences between writing novels and short stories. But there is a lot to be learned from the short form. It's more manageable to work with something a couple of thousand words long, but even that can take as much time and effort as a first draft ten times longer. Additionally, as well as finishing and editing the story, you should aim to send it off somewhere. A competition is one possibility, but why not be brave and fire it off to a literary journal of some kind? It gets your writing out into the world, and whether it results in an acceptance (Yay!) or a rejection (Boo! Revise it and get it back out there!), that's something you can learn from too.

If you are already writing and submitting regularly, you could always write your 50K words in the form of short stories. Della Galton did exactly that last year, and her publication rate and financial results are impressive. Much better than half a novel lying untouched in a digital drawer somewhere, right?

Read, read, and read some more. I don't know if there's a NaNoReMo. There should be. I've never heard a published author saying they wish they hadn't spent so much time reading, and in any list of writing tips, reading will pop up. So put down that pen/laptop and pick up a book. Read stuff you like, stuff you've never heard of, something you enjoyed years ago (Is it still any good?), read the classics, read trash. Learn from it all.

Personally, I'm going to be doing a mix of all of it. Trying to tackle my to-read pile, working on at least one short story, and ploughing on with the novel. How about you?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Three Months Later...

With Halloween just a few days away I know it's really not the right time to be getting rid of cobwebs, but I thought I'd neglected my blog for long enough. To me, it seems like a lot longer than three months since I last had the time to put together even a quick round-up of what I'd been doing. So why haven't I posted anything since mid-July? It's partly because life in general got pretty hectic, and is only just starting to calm down, and partly because not a lot has happened to me writing-wise since the Cornbury Festival in my last post.
Admittedly, I'm writing this so post to try to get back in the habit of blogging, so its contents may well be of interest to no-one but myself. I'll return to material with a broader appeal as soon as I can, I promise!

Anyway, without further ado, here's a brief summary of the most significant things that have happened to me in the last few months:

I got married. Okay, so this is a pretty big deal, and anybody who's got hitched in recent years will know how much time and effort goes into organising even the smallest of Big Days. Beth and I tried to do away with a lot of the stuff that exists for tradition's sake and tried to focus on the details that meant the most to us, but it still involved a lot of work. We tried to do as much of it ourselves (with loads of help from family and friends, too, of course). And we'd made things hard for ourselves by only deciding we were, after all, the marrying type in mid-April and then finding the perfect venue that turned out to availability at the end of August. All the build-up was enjoyable, in a stressful kind of way, and the day itself was wonderful.

We had a literary theme, and it was fun thinking up ways to incorporate this into the various decorations and phases of the day.

Book Centrepieces

Book Cocktails!

I got a bit carried away with the wedding programme, and essentially ended up putting together a small magazine - it tipped the scales at 16 pages, including the covers. It was very rewarding, though, and was a nice excuse to employ skills I don't often get to use in combination - writing, photography, and graphic design. The result, in my opinion, was well worth the effort, and our guests seemed to enjoy it too.

I went on honeymoon(s). My wife had a business trip booked a couple of weeks into September, so we couldn't go away straight after the wedding. Also, with the rush to get everything sorted for the wedding, we hadn't actually had a chance to work out where we wanted to go. To mark the start of our new lives together, we had a weekend break in the Cotswolds, then set about deciding where our 'proper' honeymoon would be. In the end, we went for Costa Rica, which was fantastic. I might go into more detail in a later post, but suffice to say it's an amazing country with wonderfully friendly people, great food, and some astonishing wildlife.

I hardly did any writing. Something had to give. The day-job and wedding organisation seemed to expand to fill every available moment, and even when I did get a free minute or two, my brain was too fried to come up with anything useful in the way of fiction. It's good to take a break, I guess, and probably healthy too. I did feel a bit anxious about not getting any more novel editing done, or working on a short story, but it's left me excited about picking it back up again.

I got published. My story, The Four Funerals of Augustus Black, was published in issue 166 (the August edition, approximately) of Writers' Forum, after scooping 3rd prize in their monthly competition. With so much else going on at the time I didn't really take the time to register it, but I'm very pleased to get another story into the magazine (the last time was in January). I've now won two 2nds and a 3rd - I'm tempted to give the top spot another go, maybe in the New Year.

I've been shortlisted. One of my flash pieces is currently on the shortlist at Flash 500. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

So, that's you up to date. Hopefully my blogging will be a little less erratic from now on, although real life isn't settling down quite as quickly as I thought it might after the wedding.

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.