Tuesday 10 September 2019

Who's Laughing Now?

Well, hello there. It's been a while, hasn't it? The fact that I even managed to remember my Blogger log-in details bears testament to the remarkable resilience of the human brain. I'd assumed such trifling details would have been pushed out of my cerebral cortex long ago by the onslaught of barely having a decent night's sleep in the past three years, combined with being required to memorise the storyline of every single Octonauts episode by my ever-so-slightly obsessed son.

Anyway, I've dusted off the cobwebs and shooed away the various bots that have been visiting diligently over the past couple of years to bring you news. And it's news I'm very pleased with - my short story Five Toes, and So On has reached the shortlist of the 2019 To Hull and Back Humorous Short Story Competition. I've been shortlisted there before, in 2016, which seems like forever ago, but - look - it was only a couple of blog posts back after all.

I'm a big fan of Chris Fielden's competition. For a start, it recognises and celebrates a often-dismissed but very difficult genre. Humorous prose is hard. I've said it before, but making people laugh takes more effort and skill than making them feel sad. Plus humour is notoriously subjective, and what leaves somebody helpless with mirth is pretty much guaranteed to fall flat with the next person to read it. So why would any sane person attempt to write humour? Maybe it's for that exact reason, the challenge of striving for something almost impossible to achieve. Or perhaps it's some kind of personality disorder. I dunno.

(Thinking about it, Five Toes, and So On is the story of a man who becomes obsessed with a severed foot, which might suggest a little more of the latter than the former...)

It's the first bit of proper writing I've done in a long time, and even though it feels like a bit of a cheat (it started off as flash fiction and I extensively reworked and expanded it for the competition, so it's not "new" in the true sense), it feels like progress after many months of being stuck in neutral, writing-wise.

If the story progresses to the Highly Commended category or one of the top prizes, that would be fantastic, but I'm very happy that it's already won a prize and will be published in the next anthology, which will be released on Hulloween, the 31st October 2019.

Thursday 20 July 2017

I is for ... Interruptions!

So... i was going to be for Inspiration, but looking at the time that's elapsed since the last time entry in the A to Z of Writing, I think I'd better explain myself. Which means, I is for ... Interruptions!

It may be a bit of a leap of faith to think I might have any readers left after leaving this blog gathering dust for nine months, but if there is anyone out there wondering what happened, wonder no longer.

Yes, that tiny, cross-looking bundle is my son, who arrived into our lives back in mid-November. These days he looks more like this:

It's fair to say he's cheered up a bit!

I was completely unprepared for just how much time a baby can absorb. Before he arrived, I harboured what I now know to be wholly unrealistic visions of myself merrily tapping away at the keyboard while my son dozed in his cot beside me. Ha! I was so naive.

Nothing is straightforward with a baby in the house. Everything takes three times as long, and requires five times as much energy. The simplest trip to the shops is doomed to failure without at least a solid hour's preparation. All those cliches about lack of sleep and perpetual exhaustion are true. There is, of course, an awful lot that compensates for this, but this is a writing blog, not a chirpy smug parenting one.

Fatherhood, the day job, trying to get my photography venture off the ground, and writing all compete for the limited time available. For the last eight months, it hasn't been possible. Something had to give, and it was, sadly, the writing.

I've kept my hand in, kind of. A few notes here and there, an idea or two floating around in my head. But no more than that. Initially I found it frustrating - I was beating myself up about not finding/making time to write. In the end I just had to accept that the stories, the novel, all of it, was going to have to wait. I hate the expression but I "gave myself permission" not to write. It's proved to be the most useful thing I could have done.

Because, to drag this post back on topic, I've realised it's a fact of life that we all get interrupted. Things beyond our control have a habit of cropping up, and there's never a convenient time for that to happen. Whether it's the arrival of a miniature person who gets more amazing and wonderful with each passing day or just a phone call right when you're in the middle of a key scene, you can't let the interruptions get to you. Everything will settle down again, eventually, and even if what they settle down to isn't anything like you imagined, you will get back to what you were doing. As writers we need to learn to roll with the interruptions, not fight against them.

Writing this post is a small victory for me, but an important one. It's been on my to-do list for at least a month. It's not going to win any awards. I don't even know if anybody will read it (do people still read blogs?). But it's confirmation that things are starting to settle down, little by little, and time and space might once again make themselves available for writing. I hope so. I feel like I'm well and truly ready for it.

Friday 23 September 2016

H is for... Humour!

Funny, isn’t it, the way things work out sometimes? There I was, planning a post on humour, and the challenges of getting anything amusing published, when I received an email telling me one of my more bizarre stories had been shortlisted for Christopher Fielden’s Humorous Short Story Competition. I’m very pleased about that, as it means that even if it doesn’t go on to win a prize, Feeding the Creatives will be published in an anthology along with the winners and the other shortlisted stories.

So while that’s undermined my point a little, I still think it’s worth lamenting how rare it is to find good examples of humour in mainstream short stories. Year after year, the judges' reports for places like the Bridport Prize plead for stories with a lighter touch. Reading an anthology from a 'serious' competition can be a dispiriting slog, as all too often a story about death will follow a story about a relationship breaking down, which in turn followed a story about a parent suffering senility (and, probably, then dying).

My take on this is that there's a general feeling that when it comes to short stories, bleak is best. Trying too hard to be funny can mean the characters become cartoonish, or the plot is simply a mechanism for delivering the punchline. Besides, thinking about competition entries, it's much easier to make a story "powerful" if it's designed to make people feel sad. Mainly because things that make people sad are more universal than those that make them feel happy. Create a character people can relate to and have bad things happen to them. Take away someone they care about, threaten their safety, or deprive them of something they've worked hard for. Boom! Instant sadness, literary success, awards, etc.

But misery is only part of life - and, one would hope, as small a part as possible. Stories that focus entirely on the dark side fail to capture the truth about life, with all its funny quirks, contradictions, and absurdities. Who could argue against the idea that making somebody laugh is better (and, potentially, harder) than making them feel sad? So why is there this persistent sense in writing competitions that for a story to be "good" it must be deadly serious?

Some writers master this balancing of humour and proper grown-up emotion, and their stories are all the better for it. For instance, A L Kennedy, whose writing often leans heavily upon darker themes, tends to sprinkle amusing one-liners through her work and these - like seasoning in a meal - add a piquancy that lifts stories that otherwise could feel oppressively bleak. I've written before (ages ago!) about Rich Hall's story "Circadia", taken from his collection Magnificent Bastards. Here the humour comes from the characters and the strange situation in which they find themselves. It manages to be both funny and poignant, and I think each of these amplifies the other - to the extent where it remains one of my all-time favourite stories.

So those are just a couple of examples of stories that manage to be both "funny" and "good", but I'm always on the hunt for more. Can anyone suggest any others?

Incidentally, humorous novels don't seem quite so hard to track down, which makes me wonder if the rules are slightly different for longer stories.

Saturday 20 August 2016

London Calling

Another quick interruption to the #AtoZofWriting series. Don't worry, I haven't abandoned it, but for the minute I have some proper news to share...

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I was lucky enough to be shortlisted in a competition held by Writing Magazine and Just Write. I'm assuming you already know about Writing Magazine,  but you might not have heard of Just Write before. They're a team of editors and publishers working within the John Murray imprint that's part of Hodder & Stoughton, and they're responsible for the 20 or so creative writing books published in the "Teach Yourself" series.

I saw the competition via a full-page ad in Writing Magazine. It caught my attention straightaway because although the overall winner's prize was  pretty impressive (feedback on your work from the editorial team at Hodder), the reward for reaching the shortlist was almost as valuable - the chance to meet editors, publishers, and published authors at the reception evening where the winner would be announced. I sent a off a story and, not really expecting to get anywhere, more or less forgot about it immediately afterwards.

I did, in fact, manage to forget about it so comprehensively that when I received an email from Jonathan Telfer, editor of Writing Magazine, telling me I'd reached the shortlist, I genuinely had no idea which story I'd sent until I checked my competition tracker spreadsheet. So it was definitely a nice surprise!

The next bit was the tricky part - keeping quiet about it for a couple of weeks until the shortlist was announced in the next issue of the magazine. But soon enough the magazine hit the newsstands and I could let people know, and also get my first look at my fellow shortlistees. I recognised Sally Jenkins from her blog and from the Talkback website, but the other four were new names to me.

The shortlist

So that was a few weeks ago. Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon, and I was travelling down to London to find out what this reception party was all about - and, of course, discover which one of us had won. The Hodder building is slap bang in the middle of the city, on the north bank of the Thames. I arrived uncharacteristically early, and on my way to the Hodder building I bumped into Emma Myatt, another shortlisted writer. Soon we were joined by the other four and whisked up to the Hodder and Stoughton offices, presented with some very fine goody bags, and subjected to a mercifully brief interview about our writing. This was on camera, and I discovered I really need to work on my technique - unsure whether to look directly at the camera, at the interviewer, or just, y'know, elsewhere, I opted for a mix of all three and will probably look like I'm watching a moth flying around the room. Ah, well.

Strong contender for the goodiest of goody bags...

Once our interrogations interviews were out of the way, we headed up to the stunning rooftop café and garden terrace for some fizz and photos while we chatted to editors, publishers, people from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and several published authors. For me, this was the part that seemed the most surreal - standing there sipping sparkling wine on a sunny London rooftop, talking to people with actual proper jobs in the publishing industry who'd read our work and had very encouraging things to say about it. I'm sure I speak for all six of us when I say this was an unforgettable experience and one that'll keep our levels of inspiration topped up for a long time to come.

The wonderful rooftop garden

Six very happy writers

Meanwhile, back in the café, the decorations were out and the tables were groaning beneath the weight of yet more goody bags, books, drinks, snacks...

...and cakes!

After a couple of brief speeches by two Jonathans - chief editors at Just Write and Writing Magazine respectively - it was time for the moment of truth. The envelope was opened and the name of the winner was read out. And it was... Emma Myatt! I know it's the done thing to say that one doesn't mind losing out to somebody else in these circumstances,  but in this instance it's genuinely true. After spending the afternoon with the other five shortlisters, I'd have been truly happy to see any one of them bag that prize.

As something of a consolation, the organisers had arranged for all six stories to be printed in a limited-edition book. Emma was given a genuinely unique hardback edition, and the rest of us collected a few paperback versions each. It was a added thrill in an already amazing day, as naturally the six of us had discussed our stories and we were all itching to find out what everybody else had written. I'm really looking forward to reading them all.

The anthology

If you're a writer reading this and wishing you'd entered the competition,  or you did enter but didn't reach the final six, the good news is that Writing Magazine will be running it again in the future. Keep an eye on the magazine for details and, who knows, next time it could be you sipping champagne on that rooftop terrace!

Wednesday 10 August 2016

The Curious Arts Festival 2016 - Part Two

Continuing my write-up of this year's Curious Arts Festival. Part One (Friday afternoon and Saturday) can be found here.


As we were staying off-site for the weekend, my wife and I met up with my sister, brother-in-law, and my two nieces for breakfast in Lymington and as a result our return to the festival site was a little later than we'd planned. Although I'd wanted to hear it, we decided not to blunder into the middle of TV producer Stephen Moss's talk about his book Wild Kingdom, and instead opted for a more leisurely stroll around the site, browsing in the Waterstones tent and drinking tea.

Peace and tranquillity await you in the Wellbeing Area...
I'd signed up for what was billed as "an intensive creative writing workshop" with SJ Watson. It turned out to be more of a panel discussion about publishing and approaching agents. As well as SJ (Steve) himself, the panel also featured Clare Conville, co-founder of Conville & Walsh; Carrie Plitt, an agent at C&W, and another woman whose name I didn't catch but I believe was from Watson's UK publisher, Transworld (I think). As a result, it was an interesting discussion, although I got the impression that some of the people attending the talk were more at the 'starting to write' end of the spectrum than the 'actively seeking an agent/publisher' one. Not that that's a problem, of course. It also gave me a chance to get Steve to sign my freshly bought copy of Before I Go to Sleep.

Although there was an inevitable return to some of the ground Steve had covered in his talk on Saturday, it was interesting to get more of an insider view on the process from the other members of the panel. I was particularly struck by how hard the agents work, when they're convinced they have a hit on their hands, to get a bidding war going between a number of publishers. For the publishers, of course, this is the last thing they want as it pushes the price up, so they have to work equally hard to make themselves the only player in the field. It all sounded very exciting and stressful, and I can imagine it's a pretty surreal process to go through for an author.

Time was limited, but there was a short Q&A session at the end of the session. I asked about something that's been bugging me for a long time - whether writing a debut novel in a particular genre will make it difficult to publish subsequent books that don't fit into that same pigeonhole. As a sub-question, I asked whether being approached by a writer with plans to write across genres would be a "red flag" to an agent. Although I got the impression that science fiction raised some particular challenges, the overall response was encouraging. Essentially, it came down to a straightforward question of whether the writing's good enough to sell. If it is, there are ways for a writer to span two or more genres - the most common being via a pseudonym. Or you can adopt the Margaret Atwood / Kazuo Ishiguro route and just tell everyone it's literary fiction that just happens to be set in the future. Obviously, that's a bridge to cross when I get to it, but I was very pleased to not be told that not wanting to stick to a specific 'type' of book doesn't necessarily present an obstacle to signing with an agent.

The workshop / discussion finished in time for me to catch 45 minutes or so of Andrew Miller in conversation with Paul Blezard. Andrew was there to - in theory, at least - talk about his latest novel, The Crossing. But apart from saying that a large part of it was set on a small boat, he was reluctant to reveal too much about the story. So instead it proved to be more of a discussion of a life in writing, the difficulties of making a living as an author, and the many literary awards Andrew has collected for his books. He comes across as a very modest, likeable guy with an obvious talent for writing intelligent yet accessible books. I really need to read some of them - Oxygen and Pure have been on my shelf for months if not years!

Andrew Miller talking to Paul Blezard 
After lunch, we headed back to listen to Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean author and lawyer talking about her novel The Book of Memory. Neither my wife nor I had heard of her before but we'd had a look at the book in the Waterstones tent and thought it sounded intriguing.

Petina Gappah
Unfortunately, Petina was under severe time pressure as by this point in the day the schedule had gone a little awry and she was in danger of missing her plane for her next festival appearance. So the interviewer rattled through the questions and we got a good overall (if not in-depth) impression of her writing. The Book of Memory sounds fascinating, telling the story of an albino black woman arrested for the murder of a white man. Petina said having an albino protagonist allowed her to explore racism and prejudice from two angles. Set in Harare, the local word for albino translates as "fake white", and so the protagonist occupies a unique centre ground in a divided community, belonging to both sides yet welcomed by neither.

Sunday evening's comedy was another great selection. Tom Lucy looked a little uncomfortable with the restrictions placed on his routine by the presence of so many under-10s, but delivered some cracking lines nonetheless. Lucy Porter was on good form, reading out a letter she'd written as though from her 16-year-old self, and telling a story about moving to suburbia that got steadily funnier and more surreal.

Improv troupe The Noise Next Door had impressed me last year so it was good to see them on the bill again. They didn't disappoint, unleashing a barrage of puns, songs, dodgy accents, and a surprisingly good Alan Rickman impression - all made up on the spot in response to suggestions shouted out by the audience. Finally, Justin Edwards took to the stage. I wasn't sure what to make of him at first because he sat down with a guitar and began a slow, meandering ballad about a grieving widow. However, he steered it around to an absolute killer of a last line and from then on had the audience in the palm of his hand.

By the end of Justin's set, the weather had progressed from dreary to dismal, and although there were a couple of events still to go we decided to call it a day and retreat to a pub in Lymington to warm up and get a meal we could eat with a knife and fork (quite a novelty after three days of festivalling!).

All in all, this was a fantastic weekend, definitely as good as the previous two years. It's good to see the Curious Arts Festival growing in popularity, and great that it's already confirmed again for July 2017. The organisers are doing an excellent job of ironing out some of the little niggles that cropped up in 2014 and 2015, so all credit to them. I can't help hoping it doesn't get too much bigger, or more commercialised, as at the moment you rarely have to queue for anything and (apart from Billy Bragg on Saturday night), there's plenty of space for everyone to go and see whatever they like. As it stands, though, the festival has a real charm and I'm sure the organisers will try to preserve that.

We'll see how they do - I'm already planning to go again next year and make it four in a row!

The photos for this post were kindly supplied by my alter-ego, Foxlight Digital.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

The Curious Arts Festival 2016 - Part One

A quick detour this week from the A to Z of Writing series while I look back to what I got up to a fortnight ago. I know, I know, but that's how long it's taken me to find time to review and edit the photos and get around to writing this.

How very Curious...
For the third year in a row, my wife and I went to the Curious Arts Festival. Whether it's best described as a boutique festival or a slightly overgrown garden party is a matter for debate, but what's undeniable is that there's nothing quite like it anywhere else (or at least, not that I've heard of, and I tend to keep a look out for such things).

At heart, it's a literary festival, in part organised by the literary agency Conville & Walsh. Unlike other literary festivals, which tend to consist of different events spread around a town or village and paid for individually, the Curious Arts festival takes place in the grounds of a stately home and once you have your entry ticket/wristband you can go to pretty much everything that takes your fancy. In that respect it works more like a proper mud-and-wellies festival. Only instead of wellies there are books, and instead of mud there is gin and tonic. Or, you know, rum and ginger beer.

Thinking about books is thirsty work

The first event we went to was on the Friday afternoon, and was a fascinating talk and reading by Rupert Thomson. He's an author who's been on my radar for a while, having written an intriguing novel called Divided Kingdom, but this time he was talking about his new book, Katherine Carlyle. This is the story of a woman "created" via IVF who feels dislocated from her own life and believes part of this is due to the eight years she spent in suspended animation as a frozen embryo. The extract he read was compelling and I will definitely be catching up with some of his work before too long.

Rupert Thomson talking about his latest novel
In keeping with its festival vibe, Curious Arts features music in the evenings and Friday night was rounded off with a cracking performance by Lucy Rose. We'd seen her play in Wolverhampton a couple of years ago, supporting Bombay Bicycle Club. She was good then and even better now, mainly playing songs from her latest album and rocking out to a surprising (and very welcome) degree.


Normally we camp in the festival grounds but this year we opted to stay with my mum and stepdad, who now live about 25 minutes away from Pylewell Park. Although at times this meant we felt more like visitors than true festival diehards, it did mean we got to spend some time with the family and arrived on Saturday morning feeling somewhat fresher than might have been the case after a night under canvas. We made our way to the main tent to hear Meg Rosoff, an acclaimed children's / Young Adult author, talk about her first novel for adults, Jonathan Unleashed.

Rowan Pelling talking to Meg Rosoff
Meg has a sense of humour that somehow manages to be acerbic and warm at the same time. The extract she read was very funny, and the central theme of her book was appealing. Essentially it's the story of a guy who's totally unsuitable for both his job and his girlfriend, trying to work out where it all went wrong with the help of two of his brother's dogs. Meg said she drew on fifteen years working in advertising - a job she loathed but felt she couldn't risk walking away from - and has channelled all the frustrations of being in that industry into an offbeat, semi-romantic dark comedy. It sounds pretty good, so that's another book added to the list.

After a spot of lunch, we swam against the tide of the crowd flocking to see Celia Imrie and headed across to hear Andrea Wulf talk about her book The Invention of Nature. This was a bit of a wildcard selection as neither of us had heard of the book and only had a vague idea that we might have heard of Andrea before. But she'd won the non-fiction category of the Costa Prize so we figured it might be worth finding out about.

Rowan Pelling again, this time in conversation with Costa-winning biographer Andrea Wulf
It turned out to be a great decision. The Invention of Nature is the life story of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian polymath-scientist-adventurer in the 18th century who travelled throughout Europe, the Americas, and Russia, and brought new understanding about how nature works to the scientific community. It was revolutionary at the time and much of it holds true today, particularly Humboldt's prediction of humanity's damaging impact on the environment.

He seems a remarkable character; to him, everything was there to be studied and understood. Nothing was too remote or too dangerous. Electricity fascinated him, so much so that he travelled across the country to examine the bodies of a unfortunate couple killed by a lightning bolt, and roped in his mates for some decided risky experiments with electric eels! Many of his achievements are well known around the world, but he's almost unheard of in Britain, having been virtually edited out of history due to anti-German feeling here in the first half of the last century.

After that we went back to the main tent to hear SJ Watson and Renee Knight discuss their "domestic noir" thrillers - Before I Go to Sleep and Disclaimer, respectively.
Renee Knight talks about her domestic noir thriller, Disclaimer
(For some reason, both the pictures I took with SJ Watson in them turned out to be incredibly blurred. If you ever read this, Steve, you've not been edited out, just let down by technology!)
It was an interesting conversation from a writer's point of view, as both authors had a similar route to publication. They both took part in one of the Faber Academy's novel-writing courses, through which they met their respective agents, thus dodging the dreaded slush pile, and went on to have terrific success with their first published novel (they both confessed to having an unpublished / unpublishable one lurking in a bottom drawer).

Although I'm always interested to hear about how a writer has got into print, I couldn't help thinking their particular routes weren't typical examples, or at least, they're not the kind of route that's open to all that many aspiring writers. For instance, the Faber Academy course would set you back a not-insubstantial £4,000 and it's only really an option if you live in London. So, while it was interesting to hear about how life had changed for them both and the kinds of challenges a runaway success with your first book brings when it comes to writing the next one, the talk mostly just reinforced the impression I have that anything you can do to avoid the anonymous void of the slush pile is well worth the effort.

A bit later on, we caught most of Joanna Cannon's talk about The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. It was very popular and having missed the very start we couldn't quite squeeze into the tent, but what we heard was enticing enough for my wife to buy a copy of the book. She's reading and enjoying it now. Joanna had some thought-provoking things to say about the way people who are a bit different can quickly become scapegoats, and how a more accepting, open society actually works better for everybody.

Another highlight of the Curious Arts Festival is the comedy line-up. This section of the festival is apparently curated (a horribly overused phrase but probably the most apt in this case) by the comedian Simon Evans. He did a routine at the very first festival, and it proved so popular he has basically been saddled with the job of rounding up a mixture of new and established acts to entertain the literary crowd. A task he performs particularly well, it has to be said.

Simon Evans

Chris "Not from Coldplay" Martin

Zoe Lyons
On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, some of the newer, younger comedians had a touch of the rabbit-in-the-headlights look about them as they came on stage and realised much of their material would have to be hastily reworked due to the number of young children clustered around the edge of the stage. I felt sorry for Chris Martin (emphatically not the one from Coldplay!), who got off to a very funny start but whose act was derailed somewhat by some older kids trying to throw their shoes over the roof of the tent. He opted for an "if you can't beat them, join them" approach that meant the rest of his routine was still funny, just not in the way he'd originally planned. I'm hopeful he did, eventually, get his shoes back. The highlight for me was probably Zoe Lyons, whose routine had me in stitches at times and who's made sure I'll never again be able to look at a Dyson hand-drier the same way.

While the main tent was being set up for the musicians, a very talented and athletic lady kept us entertained with some ribbon and hoop acrobatics, all while suspended from what looked like a partially assembled crane.

Aerial acrobatics outside the music tent
Amazing stuff. The strength she must have had in her arms and neck...

The evening drew to a close with a set by Billy Bragg. I've seen him a couple of times now and his music is always very enjoyable. With people able to buy tickets just for the evening, his performance was the busiest point in the entire festival. We didn't fancy joining the crush in the tent so we sat just outside, where we could at least hear him and occasionally catch a glimpse of the man himself by standing on tiptoe and peering into the marquee. But mostly we just sat and listened and watched the stars come out. A pretty good way to end the day, to be honest.

Well, when I started this I didn't realise I had this much to say. Rather than prattle on further, I'll end this here and write about Sunday in a follow-up post.

The photos for this post were kindly supplied by my alter-ego, Foxlight Digital.