Friday, 28 December 2012

The Obligatory Year-End Post: Goodbye 2012

How's 2012 been for you?

For me, it was very much a year of two halves. At this point (almost) 12 months ago, I hadn't written a book, and couldn't work out which of the ideas I was carrying around in my head would be The One. I was looking forward to going on an Arvon course right at the start of the year to kick-start something I was sure would be either a straightforward, traditional novel, or a novel-length collection of connected short stories (which seem awfully fashionable at the moment). I loved the course, but the moment of clarity I was hoping for proved elusive. I didn't feel like I could commit to a long project without being sure it was the right one, and I drifted along for the next few months, sending out a few short stories, without much of a sense of direction, and with even less success.

Things picked up in the summer. I got a story published at The View From Here, and the 100RPM ebook came out, with a music-inspired 100-word story of mine included. Then it all went quiet again for a couple of months, until in fairly quick succession I scored hits in three competitions - a win at Flash500, a commended story in the Seán Ó Faoláin competition (my story has now been published online - follow the link to read it), and 2nd place in the inaugural 3-Into-1 Short Story Competition. These brought some much-needed confidence, as I had begun to regret frittering away so much of the time I could have been writing a novel on short stories.

I toyed with the idea of doing Nanowrimo, but I had a few things that I knew would get in the way, so I chickened out of that. I also wondered about trying to get an entry together for the Terry Pratchett "Anywhere but Here" competition, as a couple of my ideas might have been suitable for that, but I decided I hadn't left myself enough time. So, I'm ending the year novel-less, again, but with a few more publications and prizes in the bag. I'm happy enough with that.

Onto 2013, then. I've had a story accepted for the February edition of Jersey Devil Press, which I'm very pleased about. The story in question is the much-gone-on-about (on this blog at least) winning story from the Chapter One competition. As Ch1 don't seem to be doing any promotional activity themselves, I felt it was time to try to get the story out into the public domain. Jersey Devil Press is a great online magazine; I'm sure they'll provide a fitting home for the story.

I'm also judging a competition, which I hope lots of you will enter. 500 words, around the theme of "Start", more details here, and there's some extra guidance that I came up with after judging a competition earlier in 2012 here.

But, above and beyond all this, 2013 will be The Year of the Book. The "Next Big Thing" questions I answered in my previous post and general New Year optimism have got me fired up about tackling it properly this time, and setting myself some targets. I still have to decide whether I'll go back to the almost-finished draft I wrote years ago, or take on something new. There are so many plot holes and so much rewriting to do if I go back to my first attempt, I'm not going to save myself much time/effort compared to starting with a blank page and a new project. I also wonder if it's an idea that would be better saved for a screenplay. But whatever I do, I'm going to get it done. This year has taught me that it's much less frustrating to complete something you think is substandard than to fail to finish it at all.

Thank you to everyone who's read this blog this year, for commenting, for entering the competitions, for following the links to my stories. I really appreciate it, and I hope you'll stick with me into 2013, whatever it may bring. I hope the New Year turns out to be a happy and healthy one for you all.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Next Biggish Thing

The lovely, talented Rachel Fenton tagged me in this blog meme that's doing the rounds at the moment. Rachel is a writer and artist living in New Zealand, she has an enviable list of publications and prize-winning stories to her name, and if you're not already following her blog and Twitter updates, you probably should stop reading this and come back when you've sorted that out.

The Next Big Thing comes with a handy cut-and-paste description of what it's all about:

The Next Big Thing is a great way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they're working on. The idea is fairly simple. You, the writer, answer a standard(ish) set of 10 questions on your blog one week then ask up to five other authors (whose work you like and you think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same questions the next week.”

It sounds straightforward enough. The problem is, I'm not actually working on a "Big Thing" at the moment. 2012 was going to be The Year of the Novel - I went on an Arvon course right at the start of the year with a few ideas for different books and an almost-completed first draft of a (sort of) science fiction thriller that I'd started rewriting but had lost confidence in. I finished the course with bags of confidence, feeling like I could write any of the books I had floating around in my head, but without any progress in terms of which one to focus on first. Then work got a bit hectic and I needed to finish the renovation work on my house, and the idea of writing a book suddenly seemed ridiculous. After a fairly 'dry' start to the year, I then got a few short story 'hits' and decided to concentrate on those again. So, it looks like 2013 will have to be The Year of the Novel instead.

But which one? The advice from both tutors on the Arvon course was to finish the book I'd started, whether or not I ended up submitting that one to publishers/agents. I can see the sense in that advice, and so I'm going to answer the questions in relation to that one, in the hope that I can get myself feeling all enthusiastic about it again.

Here goes:

What is the title of your next book?
I guess it's a working title. It's a story of a guy who gets cloned in an accident. So far I've been calling it A Man Repeated, and so far that's stuck. I think it works quite well.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
The seed came from a "thought experiment" I heard on Radio Four something like ten years ago. I'm not sure who was presenting it, although it could have been Paul Broks, as there is something very similar in his book, Into the Silent Land. Basically, the question posed was, 'If an exact copy of your body was made, how could anybody tell which was the real you?' The argument was that your mind, your memories, everything that makes you you, is just a matter of the way all the billions of atoms in your body are arranged. One atom of carbon, for instance, is interchangeable with any other, so - in theory - a body made using the same blueprint would be as much "you" as you are.

Whoever it was on the radio used the concept of teleportation as a means of posing this question - the idea being that the passenger's body was mapped and broken down, and the data sent to their destination, where a new version of the body was built according to those instructions. The idea was that if something went wrong at the sending end, and the original wasn't broken down, which of the two resulting versions of the person would have the right to carry on living their life, and which would have to be destroyed?

This question took root in my mind, and a few years later I wrote a short story based on that concept. It was okay, but it didn't feel complete. Not sure what else to do with it, I filed it away. It was much later that I got the jolt I needed to start thinking of using it as the start of a novel.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
My protagonist is not a typical action hero - while I was writing it I always kind of imagined him as a Spaced-era Mark Heap. I still think he'd be a good choice for the role, but if it was a big-budget Hollywood production (ha, ha) maybe Damian Lewis could be persuaded to audition. There's a policeman in the story who I've always imagined as looking like Richard E. Grant. The protagonist's only ally is a grizzled older cop with an early-1990s Harrison Ford-y kind of vibe. I'd pick Sally Phillips to play the protagonist's wife. Rene Russo would be a good match for one of the R&D directors who may or may not be trying to help the protagonist.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
How do you prove you're innocent of murder when the only way to clear your name is to implicate ... yourself?

Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
I've had fun self-publishing my short stories, but I would like to think that - if it turns out to be a good enough novel - I would be able to get this published via the traditional agent-publisher route.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It feels like I've been writing this book forever! I guess I started it about five years ago. If you take out all the time I've been deliberately not writing it, I've probably only been working on it for seven or eight months. The first draft is about 80% complete, and I've rewritten the first 5-10% in what I hope will be closer to the book's final style. There's a long way to go.

What other books would you compare ‘A Man Repeated’ within the genres?
I'm wary of genre. On the face of it, this book is science fiction, but I don't think of myself as a science fiction author. I think I'm looking for that elusive middle-ground, trying to find readers who are open-minded enough to read a book set in the future, but who aren't demanding "hard" SF, where everything is justified as being theoretically possible. I'm not hugely interested in whether or not teleportation is something that will ever work, I just want to use it to put my central character in an impossible situation and watch him find his way out. This is the approach Philip K. Dick tends to use - he'll just start off with a concept like, everybody has a machine that records their dreams so they can watch them during the day, and then (without explaining how any of it is possible) launch into a story about what happens when the protagonist's dreams are accidentally broadcast to the entire neighbourhood.

I guess I'd like to pull off the same trick as Michael Crichton and a couple of others, of using SF concepts in mainstream novels without finding themselves hidden away in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of the bookshop. Maybe with so much shopping done online these days, that will become less of a problem and the boundaries between genres will become a lot more porous. I was pleased that the last China Miélville book I bought came from the Crime section of Waterstones.

Who or what inspired you to write the book?
The book would never have been anything more than a short story if it wasn't for the American crime writer, Peter Plate. He was one of the tutors on the first Arvon course I went on (about five or six years ago) and was an inspirational enthusiast for all forms of writing. When he read my story, he said it was "Philip K. Dick meets Kafka". At the time, I hadn't read either author, but what little I knew about them merged with the story in my mind and all of a sudden I had a clear view of how the rest of the story was going to unfold.

It's soaked up a lot of influences since then - I've read a lot of PKD and a little Kafka, for a start - and elements of films like Minority Report have played a part, too. I've just finished reading William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, which I enjoyed a lot and which made me think more positively again about the idea of writing a thriller.

What else about the book might pique a reader's interest?
I hope there'll be a lot about this book that interests people. On the surface, it's a thriller with a familiar set-up - an innocent man is framed for murder and has to find a way to clear his name before the law and the obligatory shadowy corporations catch up with him. But beyond that, there are explorations of identity, the use of personal data by companies, how much of our privacy we're prepared to sacrifice in the name of convenience. There's also this really cool bit where ... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?

"Now it is time to pass the baton and introduce a few writer friends (and great bloggers) who will take part in The Next Big Thing on Wednesday 26th December."

Well, to be honest, I doubt any of them will have time to do anything on Boxing Day, and of course it isn't compulsory, but it would be great to hear what the following writers are up to:

Chloe Banks
Ric Carter
Kerry Hudson
Sarah Salway

Monday, 17 December 2012

A Free Flash Fiction Competition - Erewash Writers' Group

FREE entry competition with the following great prizes:


If you're planning to get 2013 off to a flying start, you could do a lot worse than get started on an entry for the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. For a start, it's free to enter and the winning entry will be published on their website and receive a print copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From. First and second place stories will also give their authors a head-start by earning them free entry into the Erewash Writers' Group Open Short Story Competition,which has cash prizes and closes in September next year (follow the link for more information). Oh, and just in case the bold text isn't starting to annoy you, the theme is "Start".

As judge of the competition, I'll be picking a winner from a shortlist selected by the Writers' Group, so I thought it might be helpful to highlight a few of the factors I think will help make the difference between a contender and an also-ran. So, here are some things to keep in mind when you're penning your entry:

The theme should be the theme
Themed competitions represent two tests. The first is, as with all competitions, a test of how well you write. The second, and in some ways secondary, is a test of how well you integrate the theme. If the theme was "rabbits" I'd be disappointed if an otherwise brilliantly written story had nothing but a passing mention of the fact that the protagonist had a pet rabbit as a child, and this turned out to have no bearing whatsoever on the events of the story. It might win an open competition, but it wouldn't be fair to the other competitors who'd gone to the effort of making the theme part of the story - whether that's by writing a story about somebody buying a rabbit for their kids, or dealing with an infestation of wild rabbits under the house, or awaking, Gregor Samsa-like, to find he has been transformed into a giant rabbit.

The theme should go all the way through the story like the writing in a stick of rock. If you take it away, the story shouldn't work any more. So make sure you build your story around a start of some kind, weave it into your prose, and make your characters care about it.

500 words isn't a lot
Flash fiction requires a different approach to a regular short story. The real beginning and end often aren't actually in the story at all. You need to drop clues into the text so the reader can work out how the characters got there and where they go next. You don't have the space to take a run-up at the story, so grab the reader's attention right at the start and whisk them straight into the drama. Keep the momentum building and finish as early as you can without leaving the story feeling incomplete - your story should leave the characters changed in some way, but don't labour this. A lightness of touch is required here, just give the reader a clear idea of where things are going and leave them to figure out what happens next.

Keep things compact: no more than two or three characters, one or two locations. Descriptions aren't story, and they gobble up word count, so limit the things you have to describe to an absolute minimum.

The first thing you think of probably isn't a great idea
Most people's brains work in reasonably similar ways. The first half-dozen or so ideas you come up with are likely to be the same as the majority of your competitors. Brainstorm. Type the theme into a search engine and skip to the later results pages to see what comes up. Get a blank piece of paper and try some free-association to explore the theme as fully as you can. Twist the theme - think about all the different things that have a start, or can be started, or start happening whether anybody wants them to or not. Look for unusual combinations of characters and motivations; play with contradictions and subvert stereotypes.

If, after all that, you feel particularly drawn to write about one of the first few ideas on your list, that's perfectly fine, but remember your story will need to stand out amongst similar entries. This is your chance to play with language to find a unique "voice" for your story, or do something interesting with the story's structure - maybe a disjointed or reversed time-line, or an unusual form (can you tell your story via an exchange of text messages, a to-do list, a lonely hearts ad, etc?).

Even tiny gems need polishing
A short word count will not hide sloppy writing - in fact, it tends to highlight any flaws. So, edit, edit, and edit some more. Hunt down and destroy all typos. Make your characters as vivid as you can. Describe scenes with a sniper's precision - one or two well-chosen elements can be far more effective than a blunderbuss approach of listing everything in the room. Examine every word and ruthlessly strip out anything that doesn't pull its weight. Break it down, chop it up, and rearrange it until you are sure you have the very best version of your story possible. Then hide it away for a couple of weeks while you work on something else. When you come back to it, imagine someone you don't like wrote it and it's just won a competition. Is it a deserving winner, or can you see the faults in your nemesis's prose? If you don't spot anything that needs changing, read it again, slowly, and out loud (or preferably, get somebody else to read it back to you). Still satisfied? Good - it's ready to go.

Rules, of course, are made for breaking. These guidelines aren't a formula for winning - they're just advice to help keep your story on-track. The winning story may not fit any of these (although I doubt it will be badly edited), but whatever form it takes will be right for that particular story. So, trust your instincts, and enjoy the process of creating your story. And, most importantly... Good luck!

Click HERE to go to the competition page.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Zeroes and Ones: Somewhere to Start From goes digital

The print copy of Somewhere to Start From, my collection of short stories, has been selling for about eighteen months now. For a self-published book without a much publicity effort behind it, it's achieved modest success. I read in one of the writing magazines that the average self-published book sells about 40 copies, and I've sold around twice that, plus a couple of giveaways, which have been encouragingly popular.

In addition to the paper copy, the book's been available as a PDF download since day one from (although I've now withdrawn this). I think it only ever attracted one download and I felt that now was the time to re-evaluate my digital options.

For the moment, I've chosen to use Smashwords. This is a e-publishing service that's straightforward to use and offers a relatively quick way to get your book in a number of formats and a variety of different e-booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and the Apple bookstore. It doesn't get it onto Amazon, although it does offer the Kindle 'mobi' format.

From what I've been able to ascertain, to really get the most out of Amazon, you really need to enrol in the 'Select' programme, where you make your book available solely through Amazon, and can offer it for free for a few days every few months. The exclusivity aspect of this concerns me; I'm not sure of the wisdom of giving the biggest online bookseller even more control over the 'content' it supplies, even though the promotional benefits of giving a book away are certainly interesting - as Scott Pack's recent example shows.

So, for the moment, I'm a Smashwords author. As well as reformatting the book so it will look OK on e-readers, the 'relaunch' gave me a chance to do something I just didn't have time for when I was putting the print version together - create a properly bespoke cover. For the original, I just followed the usual self-publisher's path of, "Find a decent photo, slap a title on it, job done." I like how the book looks, and I've been pleased when people have complimented it. But it's never been a perfect fit, and it makes for a lousy thumbnail image - the title vanishes and the image is hard to decipher, so it just looks dark and blobby.

For the new edition, I went back to basics. I wanted to reconnect with the concept behind the book - that it was a collection of early works, my first successes, the experiments that turned out okay. The stories represent my first steps as a published author. The word 'evolution' popped into my head. And so, with a Haeckel's chart in one hand and Adobe Photoshop in the other, I came up with this:

Whether everyone just assumes it's some kind of textbook will remain to be seen. I'm pleased with it; it works as an acknowledgement that I've come on a fair way from the first, wholly unpublishable attempts at prose, long since banished to the dark recesses of my laptop's hard drive, while accepting there's still a long way to go.

It was tempting to make a few changes, and add in a few of the stories I've had published since putting the book together, but I've resisted the urge to mess about with it too much. I thought it ought to fundamentally be the same book. But, as a bonus, I have included "An American Psycho in Wolverhampton", a story that came third in the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition in 2011 and has never been published, so the collection now contains 22 stories.

For the moment, the electronic version of the collection is priced at $1.55, which should be just under £1.

If you like the look of the new version, it's available HERE.

Or, if paper and ink's more your thing, you can still grab a copy of the old version HERE or HERE.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Review: "The Understanding of Women" by Janina Matthewson

I 'know' Janina Matthewson via Twitter. She always seems to have something interesting and entertaining to say, so when she announced she'd written a novella and released it on Kindle, I thought I'd take a look.

The Understanding of Women straddles the boundary where a long short story starts to become a short novella. I'm not sure of the word count, but it took me an hour or so to read. For me, that's about my limit for reading from my mobile's screen (I don't have an e-reader of any type, so the Kindle app is as close as I get). But it turns out that a little screen actually suits the story pretty well. It's not an epic tale, just a neat, small story with a lot of heart. It's the book equivalent of a fondant fancy (or, if you don't like those, something else compact and sweet and self-contained).

James wakes up at the start of the story, hungover and lying on the floor of a library. As he is taking in and trying to make sense of his surroundings, he realises he is not alone - a girl who might be entirely imaginary has arrived to help him track down his ex-girlfriend, Isobel. This girl is Meg, who might be Meg Baxter, James's first-ever girlfriend, or maybe not. To be on the safe side, he calls her Maybe-Meg.

As well as a tendency to have conversations with imaginary people, James has the gift of being able to understand exactly what people want, regardless of what they say. This has enabled him to have a string of successful but ultimately unfulfilling relationships with girls - until he met Isobel, who remained a complete mystery to him. Now Isobel is gone, and James wants her back.

His quest takes him on a journey around London, tracking down mutual friends and visiting all the places he can think of where Isobel might be. Along the way, he learns more about himself, and in doing so he is forced to start thinking more clearly about what he's actually looking for. 

Janina Matthewson writes clearly and she does a good line in understated humour. Her unfussy prose never threatens to get in the way of the story, and as a result the book zips along nicely. I read it in one sitting, but you could equally well break it up into shorter sessions, as it's divided into several sections or mini-chapters. It's a straightforward read, with a linear storyline interspersed with flashbacks to James's formative relationships, and a lot of it is dialogue. I note from her website Janina also writes plays, and you can see that influence here - the characters reveal themselves through what they say, rather than with thick slabs of description. The story ends a little abruptly and the quirky set-up won't appeal to everyone, but I suspect it will win over more people than it turns away.

Overall, The Understanding of Women is a well crafted, charming story, and well worth checking out. Particularly as it's available for less than a pound.

You can buy it from Amazon (UK link, although it's on .com too)
Or, for non-Kindle devices and Kindle owners who don't like Amazon, it's at Smashwords
Janina on Twitter: @J9London
Her website:

Saturday, 1 December 2012

We Have A Winner!

Firstly, prepare your competition and let it simmer for a week or so.

Then, take one list of names:

Substitute them for Scrabble tiles:

Tip into a suitable container:

And mix thoroughly.

Finally, recruit a glamorous assistant to select one of the tiles at random:

... All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that the 100th blogiversary copy of Somewhere to Start From has been won by SJI Holliday!

Well done! Please get in touch (a DM via Twittter or a message on Facebook) to let me know your address and I'll get the book sent to you ASAP. Also, please let me know whether you'd like it signed, dedicated, etc.

Thank you to everybody who expressed interest in the anthology - I've been really pleased with the response to this draw. I hope you'll stay tuned for some more news about the collection, too; hopefully I'll able to spill the beans within the next seven days.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

One-Oh-Oh - and a giveaway!

Ta-da! Here it is - my 100th blog post. I must admit, I was quite surprised when I noticed a couple of weeks ago that my blog counter had crept into the high nineties. It's taken about two years to get to this point, as I only post once a week or so. I thought it was worth marking the occasion. And I thought a good way of doing that would be with the time-honoured tradition of a giveaway. Whoo!

Up for grabs is a copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From. Just leave a comment below or - if the anti-spam controls here defeat you - you can leave a comment on my author page on Facebook. If neither of those options are any good, you might need to resort to carrier pigeon or something, sorry. At the end of November I'll put all the names into a hat (quite possibly a Christmas hat) and pick a winner at random. Then I'll post the book to whoever that might be, wherever they are in the world. I'll happily sign, dedicate, or otherwise scrawl on the book, or leave it pristine, whatever he or she would prefer.

It struck me that I've not really described the collection on the blog before, and this seemed like a good opportunity. So, here goes:

What is it?

Somewhere to Start From is a collection of 21 short stories, ranging from stories with a handful of words (I think the shortest is 27 words), up to much more substantial pieces. The collection represents the best of my "early work", in terms of stories that did well in competitions and those that were published in print or online during my first five or six years of writing fiction. There are a couple of unpublished stories in there too, although the majority of them have earned their stripes out in the big wide world.

Is it any good?

Since I put it together, the book's been well-received, attracting some very favourable comments on Amazon and elsewhere. It's a tricky collection to promote in some ways - although it has sold (and is for sale) in bookshops, notably the Press Shop in St Peter Port in Guernsey, and Books & Ink in Banbury, and has sold online too. Being both self-published and an admittedly random collection of short stories, it's hard to get past the assumption that it's yet another badly edited vanity project, and it's almost impossible to answer the dreaded question, "What's it about, then?"

What's it about, then?

One theme that pops up in many of the stories is a character trying to find their place in the world. Sometimes this is because the world they knew has changed beyond recognition; sometimes this is because they've never quite been able to understand the world in the first place. In Changeover Day, the first story in the collection, god prepares to make way for his replacement, and ponders what will become of both himself and his beloved dinosaurs. In Secondplace, a travelling salesman realises the sacrifices he has made for his career have left him stranded in a bleak no man's land. In A Night In with Zil, King Kong and his flatmate Godzilla try to keep a low profile while the outside world won't let them forget their violent pasts.

Elsewhere, there are stories of redemption, revenge, and unrequited love. Relationships fail, new ones are kindled, existing ones shift and change. There are stories about gods, monsters, angels, robots, hellish hotels, body-builders and body-snatchers. There are ordinary people just doing whatever they can to get by. There is a daring heist on a jewellery store masterminded by a talking magpie, a tale of adventure on the not-so high seas, and a restaurant review that's almost - but perhaps not quite - outlandish enough to be real.

Who'd want to read it?

I believe the mix of stories, genres, and styles mean most of the book will appeal to most readers. If you absolutely cannot stand short stories, or you only like bleak, humourless prose about beaten-down characters spiralling their way to an early grave, it might be best to give this a miss. But if you're open-minded, appreciate a skewed take on life, and enjoy not really knowing what's coming next, this could be just what you're looking for.

From a writer's point of view, it offers an insight into the kinds of stories and ideas that catch judges' and editors' eyes, as many of these tales have won prizes or been published in places like Writers' Forum, or The Guardian website. I totted up the prize money and publication fees and the book has a theoretical worth of £396 - which means the cover price represents extremely good value for money. You can see where some of the stories ended up by going to Amazon and having a 'Look Inside!' at the contents page. It's (obviously) not a how-to book, but if you're entering the same kinds of competitions, you might pick up some tips or inspiration. Or you can just sit there and seethe, thinking, The story I submitted was much better than this rubbish. Whatever floats your boat.

So, if you like the sound of the book, or if you already have a copy and would like to win another for a friend or relation (hey, Christmas is just around the corner, after all), just leave a comment here, or on Facebook, and don't forget to check back after 30th November to see if you've been picked.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Guest Post: Jonathan Pinnock Talks Competitive Writing

Today, I have great pleasure in handing over responsibility for my blog to Jonathan Pinnock. Jonathan stopped by a couple of months ago to talk about being in-between books, a few weeks before the launch of his new, Scott Prize-winning collection of short stories, Dot Dash.

Now that the new collection has hit the shops, Jonathan's out and about, spreading the word. Today, he's here, with some thoughts about short story competitions. Over to you, Jon...

The thing is, all writing is competitive. Even if all you do is send stuff out to agents, you’re competing against other hopefuls. Even if all you do is self-publish, you’re competing with everyone else out there who’s publishing stuff. The only difference with entering competitions is that there is money involved. Usually (but not always), you have to put up an entrance fee. More importantly, apart from one or two very rare occasions, there is prize money involved.

What it all boils down to is that entering a competition is essentially the same as taking a bet that you are actually as good as you think you are. If you’re right, then you’re quids in. Not only that, but everyone else now knows that you’re as good as you think you are, which is good for your CV. If you’re wrong, at least you know you have work to do, and you’re getting a useful lesson in dealing with rejection. No-one need ever know, either, because the losers’ names are never published.

So how do you go about choosing which competitions to enter? First of all, you need to have plenty of material if you’re going to be taking this seriously (because comps tend to take a dim view of folk who submit the same piece to several places at once). The best way to generate lots of material is to enter the type of competition where you have a short time to write something (a couple of weeks, perhaps, maybe just one week or even an hour or less), usually to a prompt. Most of the stories in my new collection originated in one of these events.

Most of these events are run by writers’ forums, such as The Write Idea (who do the Whittaker Prize) or Café Doom (who have a weekly flash challenge) or Write Invite (who do an unbelievably scary twenty minute flash challenge every week). Believe me, they are fantastic for generating original material – stuff that you never thought you had in you.

So, now that you have your material, you can move onto the secondary level competitions. But how to choose which ones to go in for? Obviously there are the biggies, such as the Bridport, the Fish and Bristol, but while a score there can do wonders for your reputation, you need to be aware that the odds are stacked heavily against you, even if you send in a couple of entries for good luck. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the smaller comps as well, and this is where Sally Quilford’s competitioncalendar is immeasurably useful. Not only is it an excellent reference, but Sally also does a pretty good job of weeding out the ones that are a bit iffy.

Ah yes. It’s an unfortunate fact that some competitions are better run than others. The gold standard, in my experience, is set by the Bristol Short Story Prize: the lists are announced on time, the anthology is of superb quality and you’re treated like royalty if you get as far as the shortlist. However, there are others where the list of winners isn’t so much as announced as permitted to escape, where the promised anthology fails to materialise or even where the prize money itself fails to appear [I seem to remember you had a bad experience with one comp, Dan?*] My advice is to look at who’s running the competition and how long they’ve been doing it, see if you’ve heard of any of the previous winners and see if there’s a named judge that you’ve heard of.

I’ll finish with a few words from the position of someone who’s been a judge. First of all, we get things wrong. We have our own subjective ideas. We may pass over something that the folk at Bridport think is the best thing since Raymond Carver. That’s tough. Deal with it and send it in to someone else. Secondly, we get bored. There is a finite limit to the number of stories about abuse we can read in a day without slitting our wrists. If you can throw in something a bit unusual – maybe even with a spot of humour – you may get our attention, as long as it isn’t trying too hard to be weird. Similarly, an unusual title will work wonders for getting us in the right mood. Finally, even if the maximum word count is 5000, if you can say what you want to say in 500, don’t pad it out.

That’s it, really. What are you waiting for?

Thank you, Jon. That's great advice and a very sensible way of looking at competitions.

If you'd like to read many examples of stories that have done well in competitions, or just want to grab yourself a fistful of top-quality, short and very-short stories, Dot Dash is now available from your local bookshop, direct from Salt Publishing, or from everyone's favourite tax-dodging online behemoth.

* Yes, my experience wasn't as bad as some (details here), but it proves people should always find out as much as they can before entering a competition.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Good news...

... for anybody who thinks my blog posts are usually far too long, because this one will be very short in comparison.

I found out earlier this week that my story, A Little Chaos, came second in the 3Into1 Short Story Competition. I've held back from announcing this until now because the results weren't up on the website before today, and I didn't want anybody thinking I was a massive fibber.

The story won't be posted on the website, but it will be appearing in a charity anthology, which the organisers tell me should be published towards the end of the year. This is all very exciting as far as I'm concerned. Watch this space for further details.

Right, that's it from me. As you were.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Perilous Path of Self-Promotion

Following on from my previous post, it turned out that my story, Hotel Subterraneana, ended up in second place in the Ether Books Halloween Contest. That’s not a bad result out of sixty writers all vying for attention. For me the contest was more an experiment in promoting a single story, something I've not done before, than a concerted attempt to win the prize (an iPad). I’m not saying I wouldn’t have liked to have won, of course...

I had fun promoting my story, although it wasn't something with which I was 100% comfortable. I like to think I have more than one string to my bow, and it was good to mess around with non-writery things like the ‘cover image’. It was good to come up with different ways to talk about the story on Twitter and Facebook, and an interesting exercise in terms of trying to gauge how many mentions of the story would seem like overkill.

I think I just about managed to get through it without annoying anybody too much. I made sure I had three days out of the seven when I didn’t mention it at all online, and I tried to ensure I wasn’t posting the same thing on Twitter as I was on Facebook, as I have an overlap of friends and followers, and nobody likes being bombarded with the same stuff everywhere they go. Most people seemed pretty cool with it, and it was fantastic that so many were keen to help.

Not everybody feels that way, though. Although none were directed specifically at me, I noticed some sniffy comments on Twitter about popularity contests calling themselves writing competitions, and even in the dedicated Facebook group, one of the writers asked whether the next contest would “also be won by the person with the most phones”.

It’s strange that there doesn’t seem to be the same distaste for writers who promote their work by making it free via Amazon or similar channels, and then tell everyone how far up the Kindle charts their book/story has risen. Perhaps with the Ether contest it’s the element of a tangible prize at the end that upsets people – free promotions are acceptable, it seems, when it’s just about boosting your own fame and/or encourage sales of other work, but add in an iPad as a potential prize and suddenly it all seems a little exploitative.

The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a student at an American university. I think students have a distinct advantage in a contest like this – I certainly knew and was in regular contact with more people during my uni days than at any time before or since. The winner worked social media pretty hard and was able to create quite a buzz around her story.

I don’t own anything Apple-flavoured, so I can’t download the app or read the winning story. I’ve no idea whether it was any good. But that wasn’t the point of the contest – it was never going to be about the “best” story winning. From Ether’s point of view, it’s a pretty effective promotional tool. For a relatively meagre outlay, they got 60 writers rushing around for a week, telling everyone they knew how great the Ether app is and how easy it is to download stories. They haven’t announced the final figures for the downloads, but the total must be well into the hundreds, maybe even thousands. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the majority of these also involved a new download of the Ether app itself.

What would be really interesting is what proportion of these new users actually read the story they’ve downloaded, and how many of them go on to download anything else from Ether Books. Presumably the intent is that the contest stories act as a free sample, and – assuming the reader is suitably impressed – that the freebies will lead to these new users purchasing stories in the future. They have some impressive writers in the pay section of the app (Hilary Mantel, anyone?).

Will Ether's plan work? As I say, I haven’t been able to read any of my fellow contestants’ stories. I had confidence in mine, but then it had already won a cash prize and been published in a national magazine. The terms of the contest were that everything submitted would be published on the app, and there didn’t seem to be any editorial control (for instance, there is a glaring typo in the author-submitted synopsis of the winning story, which doesn’t bode particularly well). Personally, it seems odd that Ether are prepared to launch stories onto their app with a very light touch in terms of quality control, and then expect those stories to act as an advert for the service. Will people who read a friend’s story for free really be motivated enough to pay for another story, regardless of whether they thought the first one was any good?

Maybe Ether have a longer-term goal in mind, and it’s all about normalising the concept of reading short stories on a phone. Or maybe it comes down to economics, and contests like this are a more effective way of advertising the app than paying for adverts in the books review section of newspapers. I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Writers need to be able to promote themselves and to understand the boundaries of what’s acceptable in directing people's attention to their work. I just think I’d be more comfortable with it if Ether could find a way to give a stronger impression that the writing comes first, and the self-promotion is very much secondary.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


I'm trying something new, and I need your help. Yes, you - with your iPhone in one hand and iPad in the other. You're just the kind of reader I'm looking for.

I've entered a story in the Ether Books Halloween Contest. It's my first foray into publishing solely for mobile devices, in this case, exclusively for Apple devices (the Android version is coming soon). The rules are simple - whichever story is downloaded the most times before the end of the day on 31st October (next Wednesday, and - spookily - Halloween) wins the prize.

The stories were all released together at lunchtime yesterday, and now the various authors have until Halloween to get the message out there and encourage people to download the free Ether Books app from iTunes, find the "Halloween Contest" in the genres section, and download our respective stories, again for free. The QR code above should take you to the app.

So, if you have an iPad, iPhone, or other Apple device that can download content from iTunes, please get yourself a copy of my story, Hotel Subterraneana. Thank you!

It's been fun thinking up ways to promote this story, which is more in the Twilight Zone mould than about grisly gore or ghostly goings-on. Facebook and Twitter are the most accessible outlets, of course, and this blog, but it's hard to make sure the post gets noticed in the torrent of information that everybody is faced with everytime they log in to a social network these days.

I've designed a simple promo poster, which I'm pleased with:

... and I'm working out some other ideas that may or may not come to anything. It's interesting to play around with this kind of challenge. Find new ways to approach it, different angles to explore.

The drawback is that with this being a competition where marketing skills and pester-power are more likely to result in success than plain old writing ability, it's difficult to know where to draw the line. I don't want to annoy anyone, but to do well in this contest I'll need to persuade lots of people to download my story in a relatively short time. It won't cost them anything, just a few moments of their time, but it's still awkward to have to prompt people to do it soon, not just when they get around to it in a couple of weeks.

I'm lucky that I have people around me who are supportive and willing to help out, and I'm hugely grateful to them, but the likelihood is that I'll have to win over strangers as well, who may have no existing interest in my work and no real incentive to read one of my stories, regardless of whether it's free or not.

So, please accept my apologies if I stray too far into mindless promobot territory, and if you can help by downloading my story, know that you'll have my undying gratitude. And by all means, let me know you've dived in and got yourself a copy - I'd love to hear what people think of it and I'm more than happy to owe a few favours by the end of the contest.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Closing the Chapter One Chapter...

As I mentioned in a recent(ish) blog post, the 2010 Chapter One anthology arrived at the end of August. Here are some thoughts about it:

Okay, first things first. Let's start with the question everybody who's seen this so far has asked me. I have no idea why it's called "The Graft". It's not the title of one of the stories, in fact I'm not convinced the word "graft" appears in the book at all. I don't know why the cover has no mention of Chapter One, short stories, the competition itself, or even 2010. All the other competition anthologies I've seen (Bridport, Bristol, Willesden Herald, etc) have at least a hint of what they are and where they've come from. I kind of like the cover image, in a way - it's simple and striking enough, but again seems to bear no relation to any aspect of the contents. Or, if there is a story about a midnight lumberjack wearing pirate boots and chopping down an apple tree, I must have missed it somehow. Maybe it's a metaphor, for something.

The contents are the important bit, of course. I was a little surprised that there was no foreword or introduction, but that's obviously not essential - again, it's just the kind of thing that you usually get with a competition anthology. The stories themselves are, to resort to an over-used expression, a mixed bunch, although it was interesting that most of them were contemporary (mine is, but I thought there might be a few more historical stories or some science fiction or fantasy), and generally serious. I thought the quality varied considerably - there were some pieces that gave the impression of the writers being very new, with awkward phrasing and a few grammatical stumbles spoiling the flow of the prose. On the whole, though, the writing is pretty good, and although the majority of them are concerned with relationships, the stories show plenty of imagination. Sometimes competition anthologies get a bit samey, with the judge's personal taste stamped a little too firmly on the selection. That doesn't seem to be the case here.

Highlights for me were the story included came second, Dorothy Schwarz's Requiem for Lisa, a poignant tale of a woman obsessed with her voice coach but lacking any real talent for singing, striving desperately to perform one song perfectly so she can win his heart. Last Rites by Benjamin Dipple makes effective use of a dual timeframe, dual location narrative to tell the story of an elderly poet about to receive an award for his latest work, a book of poetry that draws on terrible memories from his past. And Ben and the Bomber by Susi Holliday, set during the Second World War, which includes some fantastic period detail and a heart-rending conclusion.

So the stories themselves are generally strong. It's a shame, then, that they're let down by the presentation. The general quality is fine - it's similar to my anthology, a typical print-on-demand grade of paper and glossy cover, which some people don't like but I think is perfectly acceptable. It doesn't say who was responsible for the editing, but although all the stories use the same font, there are big differences in how they are laid out.  Some of the stories use indenting for paragraph breaks (although they are unusually big indents), while others look more like they're formatted for on-screen reading and one or two have no gaps or indents at all. This is possibly something I only noticed because a rogue line break turned up in my story, giving what should just have been a regular paragraph change unnecessary emphasis. It definitely wasn't like that in the proof version I signed off. In some of the stories there are missing words, typos, or commas in odd places. These are small details, I know, but flaws like that do take the shine off the finished product.

The annoying thing is that with a bit more effort, this kind of slip could have been avoided. The Graft has been two years in the making, after all. The prizewinning stories in the collection represent an outlay of £4000, and by my reckoning that kind of expense justifies a little more polish. And considering the organisation behind this is Chapter One Promotions, there was a distinct lack of any announcement to herald the book's release. No launch party, no mention on Twitter, no Facebook page, nothing. I can't imagine anybody who's not got a story in the book has any idea it's been released. You have to dig around on the Chapter One website to find it, and when you do, it's very expensive - £12, plus £2.50 for UK P&P. There's no other option - you can't buy it from Amazon and there's no ebook version.

Ultimately, the anthology seems like a wasted opportunity. It missed the chance to sell to people to people looking to enter the 2011 competition, and now that it is available it's too expensive and too hard to get hold of, plus it's let down by some sloppy editing. All this means I'm very reluctant to recommend it to people, which is a shame, because there are some good stories in there.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A Review and Some Other Stuff

Okay, a very small post from me, mainly to say a huge thanks to Dawn Nelson for giving Somewhere to Start From a fantastic write-up on her blog, dans les points de suture. It's always great when you hear that somebody has bought and enjoyed your work, and about a thousand times better when they feel strongly enough about it enough to tell other people about it. So, please take a look at Dawn's blog and her stories. Flash fiction fans might also like to check out (and join in with) her "Friday Fifties" - fifty word stories inspired by something seen or heard from earlier in the week. Fridays usually work out quite busy for me, but I'm determined to give it a go sooner or later.

Actually, now that I come to think of it, there isn't a lot of "other stuff". I haven't been updating this blog as often as I would like, because I have been focussing on getting a bunch of stories whipped into shape for the end of October, as there are quite a few decent competitions closing then or then-abouts. I have half an eye on the Scott Prize, although I'm not convinced that's entirely realistic. It's a good thing to aim for, at least. I have booked some time off work later in the month to focus on writing, and this feels like an exciting opportunity. I think I'll have to plan my time very carefully and be disciplined about it or it'll fly by and I'll have achieved nothing.

And at some point I'll be posting a review of the Chapter One anthology. Yes, it turned up at the end of August and I've read it and am now processing my thoughts about it. I had hoped to get a response to it up here quite quickly - it would be good to close that particular chapter soon - but after waiting two and a half years to get the book, it's not going to matter if it takes another week or so, is it?

*** Edited to add: If Dawn's review has got you hankering after your very own copy of the anthology, then you might like to check out this offer from Just use the code below and save 20%. Bargain!

You'll need to be quick, though - the offer ends on Friday 5th October. Click HERE to go shopping.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

An Interview with Jonathan Pinnock

I have great pleasure in welcoming to my blog short story maestro, rib-tickling novelist and Scott Prize winner, Jonathan Pinnock. This time last year, Jonathan was in the enviable position of of having two books scheduled for publication.

The first was his hilarious sequel to Pride & Prejudice, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens - the follow-up Jane Austen might have written if she'd blown all her royalty cheques on cider and DVD boxsets of The Fast Show, X-Files, and James Bond movies.

The second book was Dot Dash - a collection of short stories that had been awarded the Scott Prize - the prestigious award for an author's debut collection of short stories (administered by Salt Publishing, who are currently surfing the crest of the Booker Prize wave with Alison Moore's The Lighthouse).

So, two books launched at once - great, huh? Well, not quite. Jonathan and his publisher wisely decided that trying to promote two entirely different books at the same time would probably trigger an A Scanner Darkly-style schizophrenic breakdown, and delayed publication of Dot Dash by a year. It comes out next month, on 15th October.

I thought this would be an interesting point in time to talk to Jonathan about his first year of having a book out, what it's like to be preparing to launch the next one, and where exactly his unhealthy obsession with tentacles came from. Okay, I didn't ask that last one but, having read Mrs Darcy, maybe I should have.

Jonathan in a scene from "Mr Pinnock versus the Undergrowth"
Dan: Firstly, congratulations on your first anniversary as a published novelist! I really enjoyed Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens and, judging from the reviews on Amazon and Good Reads, I’m not alone. But how have the past 12 months been for you? What have you encountered in terms of highlights and frustrations along the way?

Jonathan: Thank you! The last 12 months have been a lot of fun. There have been all sorts of highlights, but I think the best thing is when you hear from a complete stranger that they've enjoyed the book. That's the point at which you feel you've broken out of the echo chamber and you start to believe you're a real writer. The main frustration was not being able to get anyone in the mainstream media to take any interest in the book. I guess they looked at it and thought, "Oh, it's another of those stupid mash-ups," and I can see their point, I suppose. The timing was not good from that point of view.

D: That must have been hugely frustrating. What would you say has been the most useful thing you’ve learnt from your experiences?

J: This is a very boring, worthy sort of answer, but I guess the key thing I've learnt is "never give up until you've tried every window". I've had my fair share of rejections over the last few years, but I've responded to them by writing and submitting more and more. It's also helped that I've had several different strands to my writing. I actually started serialising Mrs Darcy out of frustration at my failure (at the time) to get a publisher interested in my short stories.

D: If you had an time-warping app on your phone that allowed you to call your past self the night before Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens launched, what would you say?

J: "Hello? Yes, it's me. From the future. No, I've no idea either, but it's kind of cool, isn't it? No, I'm not allowed to tell you anything like that. As if he's EVER going to win a grand slam. Especially not the US Open. Definitely not. No sirree. Anyway, about this Mrs Darcy thing: to be honest, I'm not sure there's a lot I can tell you, because the one thing I have learnt over the last year is that publishing really is completely random. Unexpected things will happen. Expected things won't. The important thing is you won't regret it for a moment - in fact the only regret you'll have is not trying harder to get published earlier. Which reminds me: I must go. I have a call scheduled with my 16-year-old self..."

D: I won't ask what you said to him! I’m interested in what this phase of your writerly journey feels like – you have one book out, another is just about to launch. Are you looking forward to the new collection taking centre stage, or are you sorry to have to put Mrs Darcy to one side after spending so long in her company?

J: It feels odd. I think if Mrs Darcy hadn't come out last year, I would be barely containing myself right now, but I'm a lot calmer about it all this time around. I'm happy to put Mrs Darcy to one side for the moment, because in some ways the short stories are more important to me. But then again, I would really love to write that sequel, because I loved playing with those characters so much - which is why I keep writing those special episodes. Part of me is also keeping an eye on what's happening with Book Number Three, which is non-fiction and another complete departure.

D: It certainly sounds like you enjoy variety. With that in mind, how did you go about selecting / writing the stories for Dot Dash? For instance, did you pick ones that seemed to ‘fit’ together somehow, or did you not worry about (or try to avoid) common themes or links between the stories?

J: I'm not a big fan of themed collections. I'm more interested in seeing what a writer can do in different genres and styles. So it was a case of picking the best stories I had. There is a concept to the book, implied by the title, in that it's a collection that alternates between very short stories (some only tweet length) and full-length ones, but beyond that, expect the unexpected.

D: It sounds great. I love not quite knowing where a collection will go next. How do you think being the author of Dot Dash will be different to being the author of Mrs Darcy? Will fans of one book be happy to pick up the other, do you think – or are you looking to win over a brand new audience?

J: That is a VERY good question. In some ways I feel like the comic who wants to play Hamlet - quite a few of the stories in Dot Dash are intended to be funny, but I'm also pathetically desperate to be taken seriously as a literary writer. My ideal scenario is that (1) people who liked Mrs Darcy will also read and enjoy Dot Dash (even if it isn't quite what they were expecting) and (2) serious literary types who pick up (and review) short story collections will read and enjoy Dot Dash and then check out Mrs Darcy. The nightmare scenario is that I succeed in upsetting both camps and I end up with no-one having a clue what kind of a writer I am. But then again, I'm not entirely sure what kind of writer I am myself, so maybe that would be poetic justice!

Well, I guess - as you say - there's no sense in trying to predict anything in the publishing world, so I wish you luck, Jon. I've read many of your stories online and am looking forward to seeing the pick of the crop on paper. I hope it's a great success for you. Thanks for visiting, and don't forget to keep us posted about Book Number 3.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Success at the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize

Well, if the first half of this year was pretty barren in terms of publication and competition success, I’m happy to say the second half is looking set to make up for it. This weekend I found out I’d won one of the runner-up prizes at the Sean O’Faolain short story competition. The competition has a winner, a second place story, and four runners-up, and there are cash prizes and publication for all six. I think the stories will be online towards the end of the year.

I’m very pleased with this result for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I have been trying to get a story into the SOF competition for a few years, and I’ve never even made the shortlist before. Secondly, it’s my first competition success in Ireland, where they take their short stories pretty seriously. Thirdly, 2012 was a bumper year for the competition, with the number of entries almost doubled compared to last year and reaching almost one thousand, so it’s good to think my story stood out amongst all those others.

But I think the thing that pleases me the most is that the story I entered, Gecko, is my type of story. It mutated from a story I was trying to write for a flash competition, which had a word limit of about 300 words. I began with one idea, only for others to pile in and take it way over the word limit. I liked the way it was heading, and (quite rare for me), I decided to abandon the flash competition and just let the story go where it wanted. When I was writing it, I had the feeling it was going to be difficult to place, but by that point I was simply writing it because I was enjoying the ride.

It was very liberating, and of course it’s a great confidence boost to now find that other people seem to like it as much as I do. I can get too hung up on trying to keep my ‘audience’ in mind while I write, and that can end up being restrictive. I guess the answer is to write like nobody’s going to read it, and only worry about readers when you reach the editing stage.

Is this something that happens to other people? Do you find your creativity gets stifled if you start thinking about how people will respond to your work, or is that just part of the process for you?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Why Oh Why Oh Why...?

Don't panic - this isn't some Points Of View-style whinge, just a writing tip inspired by a short story I read online recently.

I'm not going to link to it, because that would be mean. It was interesting and well-written, but it was one of those stories that I got to the end of and felt something substantial was missing. I read through it again and realised that if I had written it, and somebody started asking me questions about it, I would come unstuck at some point.

I'd be okay if they asked why I'd chosen that particular character, as the first-person narrator was an interesting type of guy in a challenging set of circumstances. Likewise with the setting - although it didn't add a great deal to the story it was authentic and stopped everything from happening in white space. But what if they asked, "Why this? Why now?"

You see, the story I read was one of those where the main character does something they're accustomed to doing and afterwards, at the end of the story, they're right back at the beginning and ready to do it all over again. Nothing's changed. You'd have the same story if you told your readers about the next time, or the previous time, or the time before that, and so on. A story needs to be about a unique moment. If it's too run-of-the-mill, then why bother to tell people about it? If I was down the pub with friends and I got them all to quiet down and said, "The other day, right, I went to work; I had a couple of meetings, I wrote a few emails, I ate my lunch, then had another meeting and wrote some more emails," I think the best response I could hope for would be for them to say, "Yeah? So what?"

It doesn't really matter how interesting you think the stuff that happens in a story will be to the reader, because the reader experiences the events through your characters' eyes. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because you've made your main character a racing driver or an intergalactic warlord or a paramedic, it automatically gives you an interesting story. If you're recounting just another day at the track, or dodging black holes and plundering far-flung planets, or tearing through the city with the blue lights flashing, then - at its heart - the story's going to be no more riveting than my slice of office life above.

A story should be a special insight into a character's world. It needs to revolve around an extraordinary moment. Give your readers a glimpse of something that's never happened before, and show them how it affects your character. Make sure that at the end, even if you deposit your character back where they started, it's clear nothing's ever going to be quite the same again.

Ask yourself why you've chosen that particular moment to write about. Ask why the events you're describing are important in your characters' lives. If you can't point to the answers within the text, get the red editing pen out. You probably haven't written the story you meant to.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Burn, Baby, Burn

Just a quick note to say that my story, Spontaneous Human Combustion, has won the Summer 2012 Flash 500 competition.

I'm really pleased; Flash 500 is a market I've been trying to crack for a while. It's a well-organised competition and - having at last won a prize there - I can confirm that the stories are published online and the prize money sent out immediately after the results are announced. Why can't all competitions get it right like that?

Spontaneous Human Combustion is one of those stories that I wrote a while ago, and didn't really know what to do with. I liked it, but couldn't think of anywhere it would 'fit'. I left it for a while, subbed it out somewhere, got nowhere, left it a while longer. A couple of months ago, I dug it out again, cut it down by about a third, found a new (and better ending), and tried again. This time it worked! Sometimes things can't be rushed - if you've got a story you believe in, stick with it. Sooner or later you'll know what to do with it.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Chapter One: The Final Chapter?

According to the people at Chapter One, the 2010 competition anthology is currently at the printers. It might be ready to send out by the end of August. It’s very hard to marshal my thoughts about this.

Just to put it in perspective, in January 2010, when the competition closed, Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister of the UK, the film Avatar was breaking box-office records, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad, and, tragically, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. All of this seems an awfully long time ago.

Since then, I have continued to write. I have not, as I hoped at the time, completed the novel I was working on. In fact, I haven’t written anywhere near as much of anything as I thought I might have done by now, and I've definitely not managed to get as many stories published as I would like. But I feel I have improved as a writer, in some ways at least. This leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth, though – I’ve got better, but my biggest achievement still lurks two-and-a-half years in the past. At the moment, it's out of sight - but not, apparently, for much longer.

The prospect of it finally being made available is an exciting one. But it’s a terrifying one, too. The story I wrote, all that time ago, will be out in the world, out of my control. I don’t know how successful the Chapter One anthologies tend to be; it’s not like they are high-profile releases and I’ve never seen any marketing of the books. So I really don’t know whether anybody other than the other prizewinners and the shortlisted authors will see my story. But that’s bad enough – surely they’ll be the toughest, most critical audience? They might hate it, wonder what on earth the judge was thinking. And it feels unfair, that they’ll be judging me on something I wrote back then.

I was worried until the proof copy of my story was emailed to me. Reading it again after so many months was an odd experience. I was amazed at how much I’d forgotten, and – more importantly – I was pleased that it still read pretty well. True, there were a few sentences I’d cut, or rephrase, or reorder, but generally, I’m pleased with it. I did my best, and if people don’t like it, it’s not for any lack of effort on my part.

It got me thinking that it’s just something you have to deal with if you’re going to publish your work. You’re never going to write a story that everybody loves; it’s simply not possible. And saying that it’s an old piece won’t cut any slack. It’s still your story, and people will assume that it’s the best you can do. This is why it’s so important that you always ensure every story you send out really is the absolute best you can make it – not just because it will improve the odds of it being accepted, but because you owe it to your future self.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Mark Billingham's Rush of Blood - A Review

A quick announcement before I start - if you entered Kerry Hudson's "Tony Hogan" prize draw via the post on this blog, the results have now been announced.

Right, on to tonight's main story... As some of you might remember, a fortuitous bit of tweeting a couple of months ago won me an advance copy of crime maestro Mark Billingham's latest book:

This tiny crime story was among what seemed like a gazillion or so entries for the competition, but it was bone-ridden potatoes that caught Mark's eye, and I was very excited to receive a proof copy of the book a few days later. I was sworn to secrecy regarding the content, but as it's released tomorrow (2nd August), I can finally let you know what I thought of it.

Rush of Blood is Mark's second standalone novel (he's written nine in the popular and terribly good series featuring DI Tom Thorne). For this one, he's spread his wings a bit, moving away (initially, at least) from the London setting of his other books to kick things off in the USA.

The plot centres around three British couples who meet on holiday in sun-drenched Florida. As UK holiday makers tend to do, they hang out together and swap contact details, fully expecting never to hear from each other ever again. However, the last day of their holiday is marred by the disappearance from their resort of a young girl with learning disabilities. The local police interview the couples and decide to let them return home.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the disturbing end to their stay in paradise, the couples exchange emails and end up arranging to meet for the first in a series of increasingly strained and unpleasant dinner parties. As time progresses, and the situation in Florida develops into a murder investigation, the stress of having to confront events that they'd all rather forget about causes tensions to rise and a supporting cast of skeletons to come tumbling out of various closets.

It's an unusual book, in some ways. For a thriller, there's not a huge amount of action - no car chases, no desperate races against time, no fight scenes. Tension is maintained through a gradual drip-feed of detail and the suspense comes from the slow unravelling of the lead characters as they find themselves under the unblinking scrutiny of the law.

The characters are the driving force of the novel and at first they seem thinly drawn (the bolshy builder with a chip on his shoulder, the creepy computer geek, the bubbly housewife, the bohemian actress-wannabe, the Jack-the-Lad salesman, and his timid wife - who may or may not have a penchant for a bit of 'rough play' in the bedroom). However, what Mark does so well is peel back layer after layer of their personalities to reveal some surprising facets, and a plentiful supply of red herrings. None of them turn out to be particularly endearing characters, but they all have enough quirks, failings, and redeeming qualities to lift them above the stereotypes they might initially appear. Other readers may guess whodunnit before the end, but the twists and turns kept me guessing.

I don't read a huge amount of crime fiction, so I don't know if my only real gripe with the book is a common tactic or not. There are sections when the narrative pulls back from its close focus on the individual characters to give a much broader overview of the scene. This doesn't happen often, but it distracted me from the story the way seeing the wires on a magic trick would. There's a scene near the end where the enthusiastic rookie cop working on the UK aspect of the case arrives after the climactic event that ensures the couples won't be arranging any further dinner parties. The scene's written from her point of view, but the characters are referred to as "the suspect" or "the witnesses" - by this point the cop has interviewed all these people and delved into their murky pasts, so she knows them all by name. To me this just seemed like Mark wagging his finger and saying, "Uh-uh, I'm not going to tell you yet; you have to keep reading," and it felt a little unnecessary.

This was a minor concern, though, and on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Mark evokes the punishing heat of Florida very well, and the scenes with the missing girl's mother are realistic and heartbreakingly poignant. The London-based dinner parties are a hoot, with plenty of bitching, personality clashes, and some very dark humour. Mark's direct, clear prose hustles you along, and 400 pages zip by in no time at all. There's even a cameo from a certain Tom Thorne - although you might not recognise him at first...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Kerry Hudson Sent Me a Nice New Book Before She Visited My Blog

Today, I'm very pleased and excited to welcome début novelist, Kerry Hudson. Her book, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, was launched on the 5th July and has already generated quite a buzz. Kerry has kindly stopped by Lies, Ink on her whistle-stop blog tour to answer a few questions, and give an insight into the book itself.

But wait - That's not all! There is also a FANTASTIC and incredibly easy-to-enter competition that no writer harbouring dreams of following Kerry into the whirlwind that is the book publishing world would want to miss. More details at the end of this post.

For those of you who don't know Kerry, she was born in Aberdeen and grew up in a succession of council estates, B&Bs and caravan parks. These formative years provided her with a keen eye for idiosyncratic behaviour, material for life, and a love of travel. She now lives, writes, and works in London. You can keep up with Kerry on Twitter - @KerrysWindow, via her website -, and her blog -

Kerry describes the book as follows:
When Janie Ryan is born, she's just the latest in a long line of Ryan women, Aberdeen fishwives to the marrow, always ready to fight. Her violet-eyed Grandma had predicted she'd be sly, while blowing Benson and Hedges smoke rings over her Ma's swollen belly. In the hospital, her family approached her suspiciously, so close she could smell whether they'd had booze or food for breakfast. It was mostly booze. 
Tony Hogan tells the story of a Scottish childhood of filthy council flats and B&Bs, screeching women, feckless men, fags and booze and drugs, the dole queue and bread and marge sandwiches. It is also the story of an irresistible, irrepressible heroine, a dysfunctional family you can't help but adore, the absurdities of the eighties and the fierce bonds that tie people together no matter what. Told in an arrestingly original -- and cry-out-loud funny -- voice, it launches itself headlong into the middle of one of life's great fights, between the pull of the past and the freedom of the future. And Janie Ryan, born and bred for combat, is ready to win.

I'm reading the book, although I'm only a few chapters in at the moment. I'm definitely enjoying it so far. Janie is an engaging character and Kerry's writing is confident, fluid, and strikes the right balance between the grim surroundings of the characters and the humour that allows them to cope.

So, a very warm welcome to the blog, Kerry. Now let the interrogation commence!

Dan: I understand Janie's story began as a collection of short stories; what triggered the idea of reworking those into a novel and how did you find that process?

Kerry: I always knew I'd attempt to write a novel one day but what triggered actually writing one was interest from my (now) literary agent. I sent her some stories and mentioned in the cover letter that I thought they might form the basis for a novel, she said she'd like to see that novel and so I wrote it!

The process was so much easier than I'd imagined it would be because I'm actually a far more natural novelist than I am a short story writer. It's like wearing a shoe just a half size too small – you don't really realise there's anything wrong until you get the right size and then you're like 'ahh'. Besides, the novel spans sixteen years of Janie Ryan's life so I needed all of that space.

D: In your Foyles interview, the question of class and labels came up. How do you feel about labels and being identified as a "working-class writer"? Do you think such labels help or hinder a writer in terms of generating interest and sales?

K: Being a working-class writer (particularly a female one) has definitely generated some interest because there just aren't that many of us around and that makes people curious. How that affects sales I couldn't say as I suspect it's like any other label (socialite, academic, politician, philosopher, glamour model...) some people will respond to the idea and others won't. But I can't pretend that's not what I am and nor would I ever want to.

D: What's been the biggest surprise for you so far on your way to publication?

K: That people will get behind a début novel and that it's far less scary than I imagined. There may be some débuts who ride high on the excitement of being published for the first time but while I've had bursts of elation here and there I've mostly been walking the anxiety high wire. I was very nervous about the book coming out but people have taken the Ryan Women into their hearts and championed the book in such a wonderful and touching way. Quite a few people have been telling me they have given the book to their mums or daughters as soon as they've finished it – it's those moments that make the holy terror of it all absolutely worth it.

D: Are there any characters in the book you wish you could have given more 'space' to / any you think you'll revisit at some point in the future?

K: All of them! I'm desperate to pick up the story a few years later and see how Janie, Tiny, Iris and the rest of the Tony Hogan... gang are living their lives. There's also one character, who has a small part in Tony Hogan..., who gets a cameo in my second novel Thirst so I'm not done with them yet either.

D: Are there any books that inspired or guided you as you wrote Tony Hogan? Either directly or just by being the 'type' of book you wanted to write?

K: I've spoken a fair bit elsewhere about how I found it difficult to find books that represented the world I came from and which I then wrote about in Tony Hogan... but Roddy Doyle had always been one of my writing idols. Doyle is a writer who brings light and shade to rough situations, perfectly describes the love, energy and tenacity of people on less-salubrious streets and, for me at least, he brings tears and laughter in equal measure. I'd hope one day to be able to do the same and he definitely both influenced me and inspired me. I remember, very clearly, reading Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as a teenager and seeing it had won a prize (I didn't understand what the Booker was then) and feeling like, maybe people like us do get to have a say after all. I'm so grateful to him for that.

D: "Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma" will be followed by your second novel, "Thirst" - so you're going from one extreme to the other in terms of title length! What do you think makes a good title, and do you have any particular methods of finding titles for your work?

K: Ha! Yes, I promise the one word title wasn't a reaction to always having to take a deep breath before reading my current title. I think titles just feel right or they don't. Thirst came pretty much instantaneously (though it's a working title and will probably change...) but Tony the third incarnation from 'The Dole Cheque Kid' to 'Echoes of Small Fires' and then to 'Tony Hogan...' I love the title though and long as it is it's perfect for the book. I guess it's like naming a child, you take your time because you don't want to be saddled with A Boy Named Sue scenario for the rest of your years. If any of you have an idea for the next incarnation of Thirst let me know! 

Thanks Kerry, I wish you all the best with the book. I'm sure it'll be a big success!

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is available from Amazon, Waterstones, and of course your local independent bookseller!

The Tony Hogan Blog Tour continues, with a visit to Karen Clarke on Write Writing Written tomorrow.

And now, that fantastic competition I told you about:

The Competition:
This prize draw is open to anyone who hosts or comments on a Tony Hogan post. There is no purchase necessary. There is no limit to how many times a name can be entered i.e. if you comment on three blogs you have three entries but it's only possible to win one prize per person. The winning names will be drawn at random on Wednesday 1st August and announced on my Tumblr blog and on Twitter.

1st prize - A three chapter or synopsis critique plus afternoon tea at Beas of Bloomsbury, London (at a mutually beneficial date and time) with Juliet Pickering from the AP Watt Literary Agency to discuss your critique. Plus a personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before he Stole My Ma.

2nd prize - A literary hamper containing a personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma as well as three of my most recommended writing theory books and Hotel Chocolat chocolates to enjoy while reading them.

3rd prize - A personalised copy of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.