Thursday 26 May 2011

I almost forgot to mention ...

... that there are a few copies of "Somewhere to Start From" for sale in the Guernsey Press Bookshop on Smith Street.

So if you're in Guernsey and don't have a copy, pop along and save yourself the P+P cost of buying one from

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The (Very) Late Review - Part Two

So, at long last, here’s what happened on Sunday. In the morning I went to a very informative talk entitled “Getting Published: Four Things Nobody Tells You”, given by Tony Booth. Tony is a Guernsey-based writer with a number of non-fiction books to his name and a refreshing, no-nonsense approach to the business of getting published. The focus of his talk centred on the submission package you send to prospective publishers and/or agents – the bundle of cover letter, synopsis, and sample chapters.

This is one area of the process that I find fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. I’ve read a lot of books, websites and heard different people talking about what publishers “really want”, and the overall impression I’ve been left with is that nobody really knows. Tony’s guidelines made a lot of sense, though. His core message – that, above all else, publishing is a business and your job as a writer looking to get a book deal is to give the agent/editor all the information they need to make an effective business decision – may seem slightly cynical to those more interested in literature as an art form. But as an unknown author approaching a publisher, your chances of being offered a contract are slim, if for no other reason than sheer weight of numbers (Tony quoted a submission to acceptance ratio of 5000:1 for UK publishers), so it makes sense to do everything you can to make the editor’s life easier. If the cover letter is concise and conveys all the information he or she needs to decide whether it’s their type of book, they’re more likely to read the synopsis. If that shows you know how to structure a story, control plot and character development, they’re more likely to read the sample chapters. After that, you’re on your own, but at least you’ve got that far; you've got your metaphorical foot in the door. It was an interesting talk, and some of the details Tony included about his own working methods gave a real insight into his approach to the craft – the thing that stuck in my mind most of all was his admission that he employed narrative techniques used in 1980s rock videos to shape the structure of some of his chapters. Just goes to show, inspiration can come from anywhere.

After lunch, zero hour arrived and it was my turn to contribute something to the festival rather than just sitting back and soaking it up. I arranged my stack of books, checked and double-checked my notes, ran through my timings once again, and waited nervously for my class to arrive.

... And what an enthusiastic and talented bunch they turned out to be! And friendly, and patient (I lost track of my timings within about 30 seconds of starting, and the start of the workshop veered wildly off-course as I realised I’d forgotten to introduce myself before starting to talk about short fiction). Having never led a workshop before, I was uncertain whether I’d done enough to get the creative juices flowing by the time I handed out my ‘ice-breaker’ exercise sheet. It was a short characterisation exercise, and although I think a couple of people didn’t quite get what I was trying to achieve with it, it seemed to do the job and get people thinking about character – and it got the pens moving if nothing else.

I’d structured the rest of the class with the idea that I’d talk for a while about short fiction and the essential elements of a short story, as well as some flash-specific tips on how to pare the word count down to an absolute minimum, then let people write for 25 minutes, then talk a little about editing, then give everyone another 25 minutes to either edit what they’d already written or tackle a new story if they preferred. At the end there was time for people to share what they’d written with the rest of the class. Knowing that it can be tough to write under pressure I’d also prepared a series of prompt cards to give a gentle nudge to anybody who needed it.

On the whole, it seemed to work pretty well, with a fascinating range of subjects and styles in evidence. We had dark stories, light stories, a couple of tales of canine revenge, a madcap tour of Russia in a mobile museum, and one man’s desperate search for green food colouring. I was impressed by the quality of the writing and the fact that so many of the class were able to produce finished work within the workshop’s limited timeslot. For those who didn’t manage that, or who didn’t feel comfortable reading their work out; don’t worry, it’s extremely difficult to write stuff “on demand”, and it can be intimidating to share your work with a room full of strangers. All I can say is stick with it; it gets easier with practise.

I really enjoyed the workshop – once the nerves had settled down – and one of the best aspects was meeting a whole new bunch of people passionate about the written word. I must say a quick hello to a couple of people with an online presence. Firstly, Martine Ellis, a newcomer to short fiction and curator of the iMake blog. She’s been kind enough to give the workshop a very favourable mention on her blog, even though I caught her unawares with my demands for short stories to be written there and then. Also, I had the privilege to meet Ric Carter, a very skilled writer with a real flair for quirky and imaginative flash fiction. I urge you to check out his website – he wrote Grand Gestures during the workshop, and I think it’s great. Ric also made a grand gesture himself, presenting me with a copy of The Second Beestung International, one of his beautifully handmade mini-books. I didn’t get a chance to take a proper look at it at the time, for which I apologise (the library was closing, so I was hurriedly packing everything away) – but now I’ve had a proper butcher’s, it’s a fantastic thing and a brilliant couple of stories. Thanks again, Ric, I’m honoured.

Also deserving a special mention is Ed Jewell, the Customer Services Librarian, who couldn’t have done more to make me feel more welcome and supported, despite my diva-esque demands to have the desks laid out half a dozen different ways before deciding on the correct one (which was, as you’d expect, the way we’d set them out at the beginning). Thanks again, Ed!

Monday 23 May 2011

The (Very) Late Review - part one

Okay, so I'm back at home and very much back to reality after my time in Guernsey. Or should that be "on" Guernsey? How big does an island need to be before you are in rather than on it?

Semantics aside, I'll get on with the much-delayed business of reporting how the remainder of the weekend went, after the glittering showbiz of Thursday night. Friday was a day of preparation for me; I spent a few hours getting my notes in order and sorting the handouts for the workshop, reading through my book to decide which stories to read out, and generally chilling out in anticipation of a considerably more hectic weekend. In the evening, I had a lovely meal at La Perla, an Italian restaurant in St Peter Port, and afterwards walked over to Castle Cornet. The castle is one of my favourite "touristy" things to do on the island, and the novelty of visiting it in the evening added an extra level of enjoyment. Particularly in that it meant I could watch the sun set over the town of St Peter Port, which - it has to be said - is a very attractive place (although my phone's camera struggled to do it justice).

Saturday morning kicked off with a very interesting talk and reading from author Tim Binding. Tim has written several novels, both for adults and children, but the talk I went to focused on his Guernsey-set work, Island Madness. I started reading the novel a couple of weeks before I went, and even now I'm only about halfway through it - I'm just not getting enough time to read any more than a few pages at once. It's very good, and conjures up the atmosphere of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation extremely well. Tim talked about his inspiration for writing the book (essentially the photograph that now serves as the book's main cover image), the research involved in putting it together, and some of the perils of writing fiction. The main example he gave was in the opening chapter, where he talks about the damage caused to the Major's lawns by the local moles. Several years after the book came out, a Guernsey girl working at his publishing house calmly informed him that there are no moles on Guernsey. It's risky taking anything for granted, it seems.

Next up was a dash to the cake shop and then back to the Hub to catch a poetry reading from Richard Fleming and Peter Kenny. The two of them go by the name "A Guernsey Double" and offer two different perspectives on island life. Richard is an Ulsterman who moved to Guernsey, and Peter was born and grew up on Guernsey and moved away. Their poetry revolves around themes such as the concepts of home, safety, travel, and many more. They have a book out, a back-to-back anthology of poems called The Boy Who Fell Upwards / The Man Who Landed. From the snippets they read and the reviews the book has garnered, it sounds well worth investigating. I'm hoping to pick up a signed copy next time I'm over, which should be later in the year.

The last engagement of the day was an evening performance in the town church. Here, Olivia Chaney performed a fantastic set, showcasing her beautiful voice and musical talent on the piano, guitar, and harmonium (I think - it was something like an accordion, but more of a box). Olivia plays a variety of styles, from folk to operatic, traditional and more contemporary songs. She writes her own songs, too, and said she was putting an album of her work together. It should be worth tracking down. In addition to Olivia's songs and music, the winning writers from Guernsey's "Poetry on the Buses" competition read their work. I struggle a little with poetry sometimes; it's not a form that always 'clicks' for me, but most of the work was accessible even to a dullard like me, and it was great to hear the poets read their own work in the impressive setting provided by the church.

I've run out of time now, so I'll leave Sunday's details for another day. I'll try not to leave it too much longer.

Monday 16 May 2011

Books, books, and more books...

(This post was delayed from Friday due to some sort of problem with Blogger. I'll post an up to date report later.)

So, here I am in the first full day of the literary festival. It's a pretty quiet one for me, most of the events I'm going to are happening tomorrow. I attended the sponsor's reception yesterday evening, which was a new experience for me. One of the first people I met was Annie Barrows, co-author of the massively best-selling The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and the top celebrity author here at the festival. She was very friendly and down to earth, and we talked about the strange leap of faith it takes to start calling yourself "a writer". It good to know that even hugely successful authors struggle with that one from time to time.

Today's main task was to deliver a stack of my books to the Luna, an inflatable pod thing in the Market Terrace. It was a slightly surreal experience to see copies of it alongside other books, but hopefully people browsing the stall will be sufficiently intrigued to pick up a copy.

If you're in the neighbourhood, why not go along and take a look?

Wednesday 11 May 2011

The Magic of Wood Pulp

Last Friday was a big day for me. The first copies of my anthology arrived from Lulu. I have to admit to being quite nervous as I prised open the cardboard packaging. Would the black-and-white cover image look too drab? Would the orange title seem washed-out or garish? I fretted over the inside most of all - the choice and size of fonts, the layout, and the running order of the stories.

But, happily, the end product exceeded all my expectations. The cover image is crisp and clear, and the overall effect is just what I was aiming for. Inside, the text looks great and, in my opinion at least, presents the stories in a very professional-looking way.

It's been great revisiting these stories, and an interesting insight into how my writing has changed over the last couple of years. But, more than that, it's rewarding to see my work in a fresh light, particularly those stories that were published online a while ago and had faded a little from my memory. Here, assembled and lined up together, it's almost as though my stories have gone on parade in full dress uniform, primped and polished and keen to impress new readers (hopefully!).

There is something undeniably special about paper. Although I was excited to find a half-dozen or so e-books pre-installed on my new mobile phone, I'm yet to fully embrace the concept of electronic fiction. I do read short stories online, and appreciate the accessibility and variety the internet provides both readers and writers. But I'm not going to be giving up my coveted bookshelves just yet. The sensory, tactile elements of printed matter are something that I associate so strongly with reading it's hard not to miss them when they're not there.

Perhaps the printed book form is even better suited to short story collections than novels? It's so much easier to pick up a book, flick through it until a title or first line catches your eye, and then settle back with your mug of tea and a biscuit or two for a well-deserved bit of escapism.

I hope people will be inclined to pick up "Somewhere to Start from" when it makes its début appearance on the booksellers' stall at the Guernsey Literary Festival. I'll also have a few copies with me at the Flash Fiction Workshop, just in case anybody fancies a signed copy. I'm looking forward to seeing how new readers respond to these works and I hope people will get in touch to let me know what they think.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Despite my intention to blog more often, the observant among you will no doubt have noticed that posts here have been, at best, infrequent. Part of the reason for this is that I’m now working full-time again, but more recently I’ve been putting whatever spare time presents itself towards a new project.

As my workshop at the Guernsey Literary Festival  draws ever closer, I’ve been conscious of the fact that if somebody wanted to read a collection of my stories I’d need to direct them here, or give them a list of URLs to work through and a few photocopied pages from magazines and books. Fine in some respects, but not really something that fits with my intention to present myself as a professional writer (if not in terms of how I make a living, at least in the sense of my attitude towards my writing).

There’s nothing wrong with stuff being online, it’s just – even in these days of mobile internet, wi-fi hotspots and horseless carriages – sometimes it all feels a little remote. So, with the intention of having something glossy to brandish in front of my workshopees, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pulling together a selection of my stories that have been published, online or in print, those that have done well in competitions, plus a couple of tales seeing the light of day for the first time (Yes! Exclusive bonus material!)

Having gathered all this together, it was then a matter of using to fashion it all into a book. This process was pretty straightforward, and I was impressed by the user-friendly set-up Lulu operates. I did hit a couple of problems, but these were mainly due to me trying to avoid anything that would howl “Self-Published!” at anybody who picked up the book. This involved much messing about with typesetting, trying out different cover designs, and a lot of agonising over the ‘correct’ running order for the stories.

It was good to revisit my back catalogue and the search for suitable stories unearthed a few that I’ll be revisiting in the future. And although I’ve only seen it in PDF format, I’m very pleased with the finished result, too. It looks – dare I say – just like a proper book.

Have a look for yourself and see what you think. Note that the preview image quality is pretty ropey on the Lulu site – the actual cover and text are far sharper.