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.