Sunday 1 December 2013

No Mo' Nanowrimo

November turned out to be a blur of novel-ing and nagging doubts about whether I was writing enough, or whether I was fooling myself that taking part in something as daft as trying to write a book in a month was anything other than a waste of time, and really really wanting to write some short stories. But it's over now. So what have I ended up with, and what have I learned?

My progress, as tracked on the Nanowrimo website

I decided to attempt the NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, for the first time, this year. The aim, in case you've not heard of it before, is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. This works out at 1667 words per day, every day. It doesn't sound much but I knew it would be a challenge. And, as the graph above shows, it's a challenge I never really got to grips with. But I'm glad I gave it a shot.

I ended up with 30,198 words of my science-fiction novel (the one I was going to finish by the end of the year, and then wasn't, and now is back on my list of Things to Get Done). That's more than I'd written during the whole of 2013 up to 1st November, so I'm pleased with the outcome, even if falling short of the required 50K means I don't get to call myself a Nanowrimo "Winner". I think it's fair to say that I would never have done that anyway, so it's not a huge loss.

The other aspect about Nanowrimo is that you're supposed to start a new project on 1st November. As I was working on a project I'd started years ago, it probably wouldn't have counted anyway. Or, there's a possibility I'd have been branded a "Nano Rebel". Again, I got what I needed from it, so I'm happy to have bent the rules for my own purposes.

I decided not to make a big deal of the fact I was doing it. I didn't mention it here; I didn't post daily word counts on Twitter or Facebook. Part of this was because I didn't really think many people would find it that interesting. But the other thing, that took me somewhat by surprise, was how viciously some writers (particularly published ones) decry the whole concept of Nanowrimo. Seriously, they "hate" it, they think it's "annoying", they want people to know it's a total waste of time. Which is bizarre. It's like me complaining about people taking part in the New York Marathon or something else that doesn't affect me in the least.

The haters appear mainly to object to three elements of the challenge:
(1) 50,000 words do not make a novel - which is true, generally, but it doesn't really matter, the point is that it's a decent chunk of a book and is enough to feel like a real achievement.
(2) You should write all the time, not to some arbitrary deadline - this is perhaps the objection that makes the least sense. Publishers have deadlines, competitions have deadlines; if you want to write a novel but need an incentive, why not sign up to an arbitrary deadline?
(3) A month is not long enough to write a good novel - again, it's probably true, but that's not the point. The argument here is that a book needs time to gestate, and to be crafted into something worth reading. This seems to be the main bugbear authors have with the campaign, but it's a flawed objection because it assumes that (a) the writer hasn't had a single thought in their head about their story until they sit down to write on the first day, and (b) the writer considers the book finished at the end of the month. Both of these, though they may be true in some cases, are not what Nanowrimo is about, as far as the organisers are concerned. Yes, they like you to start a new project, but they encourage you to work from a detailed plan, character sheets, pages of notes, etc. - so, in effect, you're fleshing out a pre-prepared skeleton of the book, not merrily churning out interminable caffeine-induced stream-of-consciousness drivel. Unless that's what you want to do. If it is, go for it. I won't want to read it but that in no way reduces anybody's right to write it.

There was a lot about Nanowrimo that didn't really work for me. The weekly (or was it daily? There seemed to be an awful lot of them) pep talks quickly became annoying. The wide-eyed enthusiasm for it all, the strained tones of "Come on, we're all in it together!" "We must be crazy!" and so on ensured I kept away from most of the 'social' aspects of the Nano website. I am spectacularly grumpy when it comes to that sort of thing - plus, the opportunity for procrastination is limitless, so best avoided.

In fact, there was only one aspect of the process that would get me to sign up again, and that was the progress graph. I quickly learned to ignore the target line, shooting stratospherically away from the brown bars that signified my modest progress, but the days when my graph was flat-lining, when I wasn't able to find time to add anything at all to my word count, really niggled at me. Those flat spots were what made me knuckle down whenever I got the chance - they were what got me out of the habit of checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest until after I'd done my 1667 words (or however close I could get), which is quite incredible considering how deeply ingrained that behaviour is. Somehow seeing those little bars stretching upwards felt far more significant and encouraging than just logging the word count increase over the course of the month. So, that's the main thing I've learned from this: graphs are the answer. And the beauty of that is that I don't need the Nanowrimo site to get that - I can set something up in Excel and off I go. Any month can be Nanowrimo.

Or, perhaps, Danowrimo...

Thursday 7 November 2013

Review: "The Night Rainbow" by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
(image from Claire's website)

There's a cover quote from Joanne Harris on the front of the edition I read - "Quirky, elegant and sweet" - and if you wanted a quick summary of my feelings about this book, those three adjectives would do a pretty comprehensive job. Although I think it's fair to say this isn't a novel that's aimed squarely at blokes in their mid-thirties (the purple and pastel-pink cover isn't going to win you any Man Points, after all), I really enjoyed this beguiling tale of childhood and imagination.

The Night Rainbow is a relatively compact novel, both in terms of its physical size (260-ish pages in my version) and its scope - it covers a single summer, a few acres of land, and not many more than half a dozen significant characters. This is possibly a reflection of Claire King's successful track record with short stories, and the focus this brings is, by my reckoning, A Good Thing. Sometimes it's great to read sprawling epics that span continents and decades of history, sometimes it's better to go with something that knows where it is and is confident enough to stay there.

The story is that of Pea, short for Peony, a five-year-old girl who is left to more or less fend for herself after her heavily-pregnant mother takes to her bed. Pea's father has been killed in an accident and this, added to an earlier miscarriage and her apparent ostracism from the village in which they live, means Pea's mother feels unable to cope with the impending birth. Pea's only companion is her four-but-tall-for-her-age (and surprisingly worldly) younger sister, Margot. Together they construct elaborate games and take care of themselves as best they can while trying to make sense of the confusing rules and contradictions of the adult world.

Pea tells the story in her own words, and I think Claire's done a great job of creating a credible child narrator. There are a couple of linguistic quirks I wasn't sure about - such as the lack of speech marks and the way nobody seems to use contractions when they talk - but ultimately it works well and draws you into Pea's world. She's an appealing central character, and I found myself willing her on in her attempts to break through the darkness surrounding her mother.

The Night Rainbow is a relatively slow, gentle read. Its pace matches the hot, languid summer during which it is set, and the plot is not overburdened by many distractions. There are a couple of mysteries that add a little suspense; the main one concerns Claude, a neighbour who befriends the girls. This element of the story is where having the child narrator is most effective - in Pea's naive eyes Claude is a kindly guardian and possibly even a replacement for her dead father; while from an adult's viewpoint he is a lonely middle-aged man taking what could easily be an unhealthy interest in Pea.

There is a twist in the tale, although this comes as a slow reveal rather than a jolting "ta-da!" But, really, this isn't a novel that sets out to whip the rug from under your feet or keep you on tenterhooks. It's the book equivalent of a lazy summer afternoon in a hammock, or - as the weather in this part of the world has taken a decidedly wintery turn - a long soak in a hot bath. It's story to immerse yourself in, as you think back to those childhood days when life was both incredibly straightforward and unfathomably complicated.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Those who Shall Remain Nameless

I follow the BBC National Short Story Award with interest every year. There have been some cracking stories that have reached the shortlists and, although I occasionally buy the anthology, I particularly enjoy hearing the stories read on the radio. They're always well produced, and there's something very satisfying about sitting and listening to a half-hour's worth of fiction. This year I didn't get a chance to do much sitting, but the stories kept me company while I painted my dining room.

Much was made of 2013's all-female shortlist (it has, incidentally, never been an all-male shortlist). But while every possible reaction to that was flying around in the media and on Twitter, a much smaller aspect of the story caught my attention - Peter Hobbs (one of the 2013 judges) saying that judges "can choose to read anonymously".

Wait - hold on a minute. This is a competition that requires you submit your manuscript with no identifying marks whatsoever. No name, no email address, nothing to give even the smallest clue as to who might have written it. So what's going on?

Intrigued by this, I asked on Twitter if anybody knew what he might have meant. This led to Susie Maguire and I contacting the competition organisers. We were told the judges were notified of the shortlisted writers, although - if they wanted - they could still read the stories anonymously.

Now, I'm not suggesting the BBC NSSA was judged with anything other than the utmost integrity, and I have no quarrel with the final results (even if neither of my favourite stories won!). However, as a writer struggling to get a toehold on the fiction ladder, I find it troubling that this was an element of the competition that wasn't made clear in the terms and conditions, and I can't help wondering whether this is widespread practice.

What's in a name? Well, obviously it depends on the name. It's fair to say names carry a lot of baggage, most of which is entirely irrelevant when it comes to short stories (or any kind of writing). I've judged a couple of small writing competitions, and in both cases the organisers made sure there was no way I could tell who'd written what. It didn't stop me wondering about the unknown, unseen authors, though. And I don't think I can honestly claim that I wouldn't be influenced at some level if I knew their names. Even unconsciously, knowing who wrote something adds an extra layer to your impression of the work.

I'm not talking about favouritism, or any sort of discrimination. I like to think I've enough integrity not to automatically bump one of my favourite authors to the top of the pile if they just happened to have entered one of the competitions. I'm thinking more subtle than that. Imagine an utterly convincing narrative, written from the point of view of a modern-day teenage girl. I know a person's name isn't a sure-fire indication of their age, but if you were convinced it was written by a young woman, it might just be a good story. If the same story had been written by a man who sounded old enough to be a pensioner, it's not only a good story, but an impressive piece of empathetic writing too. So who is the better writer?

It's irrelevant. The point is, short story competitions should never be about the writer, and what skills they've used to tell the story. All that stuff should be hidden away in the background. It's the wiring under the board, the fishing line up the magician's sleeve. The words on the page are the important bit. A good story is a good story, regardless of who tells it.

I don't know of any writers who would want it any other way. We tie ourselves in knots trying to get our stories right, and when we send them off to be judged, the last thing we want is for their chances to be raised or lowered by our personal fame (or, more likely, lack thereof), our gender, our age, or the social class or background our name suggests. Journals and magazines are a different proposition, and editors might, quite understandably, want to get a feel for a writer's track record before giving him or her space in their publication. Book prizes are different again (although there are several competitions for unpublished novels that are judged anonymously). But short story competitions should be a pure test of writing ability, and the field must be as level as possible. I'd like to think most competitions, large and small, understand this, and work to ensure that, when the prizes are handed out, the individual story is the only thing being rewarded.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

October: No Tricks, All Treat

From now until Halloween, the ebook version of my short story collection, Somewhere to Start From, will be available for FREE from Smashwords. It couldn't be easier. Just go here:, pick the format you want (you'll need to sign up for a free Smashwords account if you don't already have one), and enter the sweet discount code:
Mmmm... treats

That's BB82C, in case you want a version you can cut and paste. That will give you a tasty 100% discount.

If you've not been following the blog long, you can find out more about the book HERE. The short version is that it features 22 short stories, covering a wide range of themes and styles, many of which have been published, won prizes, or been shortlisted for various competitions, including Writers' Forum, The Guardian, and the James White Award (see the acknowledgements page for full details).

So, why am I doing this?

To tell you the truth, I'm never sure how much effort to put into promoting this collection. It's a couple of years old, it's sold relatively well for a self-published book of short stories (at least, according to the average sales figures I've seen) but it hasn't exactly set the world on fire. It's brought in enough cash for an ink cartridge or two and an occasional pint, but I'm never going to get rich off of it. Sometimes I think I should forget it and move on. Occasionally, I feel like I have. But a couple of things happened recently that made me reconsider - firstly, a payment turned up out of the blue after a handful of copies of the print version sold on Amazon. This came as a surprise, as I'd more or less written off the paperback once the ebook was launched. Secondly, I met up with an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time, who asked how the book was doing. It was strange, talking about it like it was out there, living a life of its own, an entity in its own right. These events combined to remind me that the book is something I put a lot of effort into, that I'm still proud of, and that - more than anything else - there are some decent stories in there. So, I thought I'd try to encourage a few more copies to leap off the virtual shelves.

The other reason is that I enjoy the experimentation of it all. What's the best way of letting people know about the promotion? How do I strike the right balance between encouraging people to download it and annoying them? Will giving the book away for a whole month spark new interest in it? Will it sell more or fewer copies once the promotion's ended? Will it attract any more reviews? Might it even encourage a few more sales of the print version? I don't know, of course, but I'll keep an eye on the figures and report on any interesting trends next month.

Friday 27 September 2013

Keeping On

It's been pretty quiet around here lately.

The truth is it's been difficult to find things to say, and I'm always wary of those 'blog posts about how hard it is to write a blog post' posts. Put simply, this has been one of the least successful writing years I've ever had, certainly in terms of competition results and publication. It's taking some getting used to, to be honest.

So far, 2013 hasn't yielded a single publication or longlisting, let alone an appearance on a shortlist, or a prize of any kind. My output has been slightly reduced (as I've mentioned before, I moved house last month, and that caused significant disruption to my usual routine both before and after), but it's taken me by surprise to find that none of my stories are finding homes at the moment. As the months have slipped by I've found myself scanning the results of the new Bath story competition, Bristol, Bridport, the Salt Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, HISSAC, the Wells Festival competition, the list goes on - all to no avail.

OK, some of those were very ambitious long shots, but the point is that the stories I've been sending to all these places have been, as far as I can tell, pretty good. And I know it's all down to luck and the results of any given competition would be dramatically different if you changed the judge or the initial readers, but still, this year is feeling like a particularly tough roll of the dice.

I suppose the problem is that I've always used competitions as a way of gauging whether I'm on the right track with my writing. To go through nine months without getting a single confirmation that, yes, what I'm producing is all right, does open up a floodgate for the doubts to come rushing in. Have I lost the plot? Am I somehow writing the wrong things now? Are my stories too far-fetched? Or not far-fetched enough? Are they -gulp- boring?

A dry spell like this does knock your confidence. It's times like this when I feel silly for even having a blog. It seems ludicrous that I can claim to have anything worthwhile to say about writing when my work is sinking without trace in competitions left, right and centre. What insight into the process can I offer, if my stories seem to appeal to nobody but myself?

There's only one way to go - onwards. Anybody my situation can whinge, but the only way things are going to change is just to carry on. Write more stories, send them out, try new things, revisit old things but do them better this time. Nobody's entitled to get results in competitions, or a string of publication successes. Those things have got to be strived for, earned. The knockbacks are there to weed out the people who just don't want it enough. The ones who succeed are the stubborn swines who just won't take No for an answer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some fiction to write.

Saturday 24 August 2013

The Novel Is Dead - Long Live the Novel!

I've moved house since my last post, which hopefully explains the delay in updating the blog. I had planned to make my first post a very upbeat, optimistic affair about fresh starts and the inspirational influence of new surroundings. (It's the main reason I've given the blog a bit of a refresh, too.)

What I wasn't expecting was for a new start to be forced on me so soon after I'd moved. I was applying new sealant to the bath - just one of many, many DIY jobs on my list - when I heard Lauren Laverne on 6Music discussing Casey Affleck's new film with a guest from Empire magazine. Not exactly Earth-shattering news, you might think, but it caught my attention. This is the story.

The important thing, as far as I'm concerned, is that the new film's an adaptation of Paul Brok's short story about a man who uses a malfunctioning teleportation machine and ends up with an unwanted copy of himself. I hadn't read the story when I started writing my novel, but I had heard Paul on the radio talking about the idea - I assume as part of the promotional effort for his book, although it was several years ago and I don't remember anything other than the basic plot he outlined.

I was fascinated by the concept, and wrote a short story inspired by the idea. Eventually, the story evolved into the first chapter of my book (for details about that, see here). I'm sure the direction I've taken the story in will be significantly different from the way the film will unfold, but the problem is, obviously, that the core idea my book is based on is shifting from appearing in a fairly obscure short story to being the basis of a major Hollywood movie. So I'm having to re-evaluate things a bit.

It might be different if it wasn't a science fiction novel. Sharing a plot that's been used in a film is going to make it much harder to pitch the finished book. Or at least, I assume it would - I don't know how many successful novels there have been about genetically reconstructed dinosaurs since Jurassic Park, for instance. I'm guessing not many.

There are plenty of well-used plots, of course, even in science fiction land: time travel, robot uprisings, alien invasions and the like all crop up fairly regularly. This just seems a bit too close for comfort, though, which I suppose is inevitable given that both my book and the new film share the same source material.

My initial gut reaction is to put my novel on hold, and start one of the other projects I've been kicking around recently. It seems a shame, as countless hours (spread over about six years) have gone into writing the book, but in the long run it might be for the best. It's kind of liberating to think I might have a legitimate reason to step away from it, even if only until the film comes out and I can see what they've done with the idea. I've always been uneasy about the "borrowed" nature of that core concept, and in some ways I feel I'd be heading down a road I wasn't keen on continuing along if my first published book was a 'pure' science fiction story. I've always seen myself as aiming for less clear-cut territory, and perhaps this is my opportunity to check my bearings and explore the kind of place I'm really interested in.

So, for the moment, the novel is dead. But something new definitely will rise to take its place; I just have to figure out what it's going to be.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Not the Best Short Story Ever Written

We've all seen it.

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway came up with this one night in order to win a bet, showing off his mastery of language by writing a story in just six words. It's often wheeled out as an example for new writers to gawp at. And gawp they do, struck dumb by the sheer power of it. The six-word 'masterpiece' is often held up as an example of how leaving things out of a story can sometimes be even more powerful than putting them in.

Type "Hemingway's six-word story" into a search engine and you get hundreds of hits. The vast majority of them are people saying what a magnificent story it is, how powerful, how evocative, how inspirational, etc, etc.

But, does it deserve this adulation? Well, frankly ... no. For a start, it seems pretty unlikely that Hemingway actually wrote it. And while I can't argue about the fact there are six words there, I will metaphorically bang my fists on the table at this point and shout NO WAY IS THIS A STORY!

I accept there's no hard-and-fast definition of what a story actually is. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, some will say. It should be about a character facing a challenge, others will tell you. It needs a moment of epiphany, somebody at the back will whisper. They're all good theories, but there are exceptions to all of these 'rules' that I still consider stories. I'm a traditionalist, in many ways, but essentially my main requirement for a story is that it should be about something happening to someone. And, as a reader, I want to know two things: who that someone is, and what happens.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm going to demand pages of back-story about every character. I can get by without even knowing their name. The important thing is, I want to get a feel for them, for who they are. And just a word or two can be enough to sow that seed. Having that feel for a character is where a story gets its emotional punch from - whether the character is a saint or the most devious scumbag on the planet, you need to feel that sense of connection to care whether they're rewarded or punished. The baby shoes story has no characters in it. It's a card in a newsagents window, or a classified advert. Who cares about that?

The main failing, though, is the 'What happens?' part of the equation. While I will be the first to admit that the main event of the story doesn't have to occur during the narrative itself, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a hint or two about what it might actually have been.

But, Dan, it's obvious - the baby diedThat's why it's such a sad and beautiful story.

Well, apart from being one of my pet hates (...This story needs more drama - I know, I'll chuck a dead baby in! Guaranteed emotional gut-punch!), there's nothing to back that up. True, it's probably the first conclusion most people will jump to, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Not really. What's the first thing people do in times of extreme grief? Personally, I believe there would be a lot of things on the list ahead of cranking up eBay. Your kid dies and all you can think about is trying to get a few quid back on the clothes they won't be wearing? Yeah, no, I don't think so.

So, what else might have happened?

  • The baby (and, why not, the mother too) died and the father distracts himself from the overwhelming grief by selling all their possessions one by one through the local paper.
  • The father died on his way to the hospital and, as he'd chosen the shoes, the mother can't bear to see the baby wearing them.
  • The shoes were bought by the grandparents, but due to a row about what the baby will be called, the parents have shut them out of the baby's life and refused to accept their gift.
  • The baby was born with no feet.
  • The shoes are liquidation stock from a baby boutique that's gone out of business.
  • The baby was born with enormous feet.
  • The shoes are owned by a shoe fetishist who's finally overcome his addiction to tiny footwear.
  • There never was a baby - it was all part of an elaborate practical joke that got out of hand and just returning the gifts would be really awkward.
Science Fiction:
  • The baby turns out to be an alien, with a writhing mass of tentacles instead of legs. The parents are nonetheless smitten, and raise the baby as their own, but don't need the shoes.
  • The baby's been born in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and, thanks to the radiation poisoning, has three legs, so a pair of shoes isn't much use.
  • The notice in the newsagents window is a coded message for a secret agent, and has nothing at all to do with shoes or babies.
  • The baby shoes are shoes made from babies.
  • The mother is the Little Mermaid, and when her first child arrives she discovers the magic potion that gave her her legs doesn't extend to her offspring, who's born sporting a fishy tale.
  • Who buys shoes for a baby, anyway? They can't walk, they don't need shoes. The baby wears booties and everyone's happy.
  • The shoes were a gift and got lost in the post. When they turned up five years later, nobody in the house needed them.
  • The parents are obsessed with designer brands and the shoes were a present from a well-meaning but less label-conscious relative.

... and I'm sure there are hundreds of other possible explanations. But that's the beauty of it, people might claim. It can be all these and more. What a wonderful story! No, that's not how a story works. In a story, you might not know exactly what's happened, but you do need a reasonable idea of what it might be that's floating there, hazily, just outside the narrative. The baby shoes piece might well lend itself to the ideas above and more, but that makes it a good writing prompt, not a good story.

To bring things to a close, I'll leave you with something Hemingway did write (in his diary), and though it's more than six words long, it has character, drama, and is an infinitely better story than Baby Shoes:

Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Review: "Freaks!" by Nik Perring & Caroline Smailes

I've read quite a few books recently and I thought I would at least try to post reviews for some of them. I've no idea whether this is useful to anybody, as the reviews category of this blog seems to attract far fewer comments than other topics, but hopefully they at least of moderate interest to some of my readers. Let me know if not, and I'll stop doing them.

Freaks! by Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes was part of a promotion recently, with various ebooks published by The Friday Project available free of charge. The giveaway's over now, but the ebook version is still available for a very reasonable 99p. I'd recommend getting the paperback, though, as I can't imagine it working quite as well on a screen.

Anyway, seeing this book on the list reminded me that I hadn't read it properly. I'd dipped in to it but I'd had other stuff on the go at the time and I'd put it on the bookshelf for later. Later, it turned out, was a couple of weeks ago.

Freaks! is a collection of very short stories. There are 50 of them in around 130 pages, so it's probably accurate to describe them as flash fiction. The stories are ostensibly united by a theme of superpowers, but in truth they're all about 'otherness', that sense of being different. It's a collection dedicated to "all who, if only for a moment, felt that they didn't belong." Which is pretty much all of us, at some point, right? I was interested in this book because I enjoyed Nik's "Not So Perfect", I'm getting to know Caroline's work, and I've always been intrigued by collaborative writing.

The superpowers in the stories vary. Some are 'real', others are metaphorical or imagined. In keeping with the theme, the stories are illustrated in classic comic book style by Darren Craske, who is an author himself, although not somebody whose work I'm familiar with (I'll aim to address that soon). These illustrations suit the stories perfectly and bring the characters to life by adding another dimension to the often sparse descriptions.

I really enjoyed the book. There are some wildly imaginative scenarios in there, but also some very keenly observed details from universal experiences, or at least ones you can easily relate to. There's a fair bit of sex, and not a lot of it is terribly romantic; in fact many of the stories are quite gritty and deal unflinchingly with the seedier side of life. There's also joy and loss and sadness and longing. One of my favourites was 'Sixteen', one of the longer stories in the book, which conjures up perfectly those awkward teenage dates where you're not at all sure of yourself, and the terrifying possibility occurs to you that the apparently normal things you've been doing for years with your family might seem utterly bizarre to outsiders. Many of the others also triggered that little smile and nod of recognition, which is one of reading's greatest pleasures.

With 50 stories on offer, it would be pretty astonishing if I liked them all. The only criticism I have of some of the stories is a complaint I commonly have with flash fiction - they're just that little bit too slight. Several of these tales seem like a good idea that hasn't been fleshed out, or perhaps an intro for a longer story. There's enough there to get the concept off the ground, and then ... they stop. The first story's called The Photocopier, about a woman who can make identical copies of herself at will, and the it's written from the perspective of the woman's daughter, who may or may not have inherited the same power. There's nothing actually wrong with the story, but I felt it was lacking something because the 'clones' of the woman just seemed to hang around, waiting to see whether her (their?) daughter would be able to do it or not. When the woman multiplied, I thought it might be a metaphor for being a busy mum - that thing of having to be in more than one place at once, needing more than one pair of hands, etc - but they didn't seem to do anything in particular, so I'm not sure what the intention behind her multiplication actually was. I probably missed something.

Another story concerns a boy who finds he has the ability to speak to bees, after accidentally swallowing one. But the story ends without him actually saying a word. Some flash enthusiasts will insist the key to super-short fiction is that the reader has to fill in the gaps, and I'd agree to some extent, but - for me - this kind of gap is too big. It's more like a writing prompt: "Imagine you could talk to insects..." And off you go. I'm left wishing that whichever of the pair wrote it had pushed it just that little bit further.

But these are minor niggles and to be honest there is such a variety of stories here that the odd misfire doesn't detract from the overall fun of the book. The stories are short, sharp, strange, and you never know whether they'll hug you or slap you in the face. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday 27 June 2013


Wow, three weeks since my last post. Time doesn't hang around, does it?

For most of that time, I've been on holiday, and I've been not writing - or at least, not as much as I planned. The holiday was a week-and-a-half in Guernsey, where my mum and stepdad live. Long-term visitors to this blog will know I try to get over there at least once every year; it really is a fantastic place.

Another day fighting the crowds on L'Ancresse beach

The view of Castle Cornet from Victor Hugo's garden
While I was away, in addition to relaxing, doing vaguely touristy things, catching up with my parents, etc. I also planned to write 1,000 words of my novel each day. Ten days, ten thousand words. It seemed a realistic, achievable goal, and one that would result in a significant step forward (this project's really starting to feel like it's taking far too long). Plan B was to work on a short story.

Neither of these things happened. I think I wrote about 2,000 words of the novel in total, maybe 2,500 at a pinch, which isn't great for ten days' worth. I found it hard to concentrate, I struggled to work up the enthusiasm I needed to sit at my laptop, and because the weather was a bit hit-and-miss, it seemed a waste if I was trying to work and it was sunny outside. By the end of the holiday, I was beating myself up for squandering this great opportunity to write.

But, since I've got back, I've realised there's more to writing than just writing. Imagination needs exercise, and it needs rest, too. I'd been busy in all sorts of ways in the month or so before I went away (I'm in the process of moving house, I'm trying to build up my design/engineering business (give me a shout if you need anything designed or engineered!), and for the last few weeks of May I was wrestling with two 5,000-word stories for Bridport, which I only just managed to complete in time). To be honest, I hadn't fully appreciated how in need of a break I was.

So, when I look back on my time away, I realise I did so much more than not writing. I went to museums and learned about things I didn't realise I was interested in. I read a couple of novels. I watched some films. I walked a lot. I played crazy golf. I mucked about with Photoshop:

I played in the sand:

I tried to take photos of the wildlife:

... in short, I gave myself permission to ignore that (mostly unhelpful) definition of a writer being somebody who writes every day. A doctor is no less a doctor if she takes a day off. A bricklayer doesn't lose all his bricklaying skills following a fortnight in the Algarve. My time off has left me refreshed, re-energised, and generally a whole lot more enthusiastic about knuckling down and making progress on the novel. I've a feeling that wouldn't have been the case if I'd stuck to my original plan.

But enough about me. What do you do to refresh your enthusiasm for writing?

Thursday 6 June 2013

Sometimes it's Hard to be a Woman

It's been an interesting couple of weeks for ... well, now, exactly how do I complete that sentence? ... the fairer sex? ... those of a female persuasion? ... literary ladies? ... Let's just go with women. An interesting couple of weeks for women in the world of literature.

Last Tuesday, we had Fay Weldon saying on BBC Radio Four, "There are books, and there is literature - and women read books", adding that women "read for comfort". I noticed a few splutters of objection on Twitter, but generally her comments didn't seem to stir up the kind of backlash I'd imagined when I'd heard the interview on my drive in to work. I'm tempted to wonder whether that would have been different if such broadly dismissive comments had been made by a man?

Next came the news that the Women's Prize for Fiction will, from next year, have Baileys as its title sponsor. Reaction to this seemed considerably stronger, from lofty sneering at the liqueur in question in the Telegraph, to a down-with-snobbery, bring-it-on whoop of delight from the Scottish Book Trust that the prize has a secure future once more.

All of this overshadowed, to some extent, the fact that this year's award was won by AM Homes, for her book May We be Forgiven, making her the only person - male or female - who's managed to beat Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies to the top spot in a major competition.

As usual, the Women's Prize for Fiction brings with it some hand-wringing and soul-searching. Is a prize restricted to women entrants actually necessary? Is it patronising? Is it [deep breath] sexist?

Danuta Kean makes a good argument on her blog for why the prize is important. But, right at the start, she spoils it all by her response to men questioning the need for a women-only prize: "Diddums". By assuming the only reason to question or criticise the prize is because jealous male writers see a £30,000 prize they're not allowed to compete for, Danuta misses the point - or at least, one of the points (I'm sure there are some green-eyed men grinding their teeth and swearing never to drink Baileys again (more on that, later)).

I'm speaking here not as an embittered male writer deprived of the chance to win a substantial wedge of cash, but as a male reader interested in contemporary fiction. I'm a member of a minority - it's estimated us chaps account for just a fifth of fiction sales. However, though we're a small band, our influence is considerable. The vast majority of broadsheet critics and reviewers are male, and they tend to review books written by men. This disproportionate representation at the top of the literary food chain is what concerns and annoys Danuta and a lot of other people. The argument is that, by having some sort of old boy's club determining what's good literature and what's too girly to even bother with, female authors don't get taken seriously and a lot of fantastic books by female writers get overlooked.

All of this makes sense. But it relies on the idea of broadsheet reviews and critical opinion being the whole story. I haven't been able to find any information on how getting a review in, say, the TLS affects book sales. Do the 77% of women in the UK (who account for the other four fifths of all fiction sold) read reviews? Does it actually influence their decision as to what books to buy? If that was the case, books written by men would hugely outsell those by women - is that the case? These aren't meant to be rhetorical questions, but with limited time to research all I can say is it's not a simple matter to find the answers. There always seems to be a decent mix of male and female authors in the top ten whenever I go into Waterstones, and (in recent years, at least) there's been no shortage of female authors on the shortlists of major literary prizes. When I went to the Voewood Literary Festival last year, there was by no means a male bias to the selection of authors speaking and signing books.

What I'm getting at is that it's all very well bemoaning the bias of the critical establishment, but without data to prove it makes a difference, then it's impossible to say whether or not it's actually a problem. Danuta Kean cites Marian Keyes as a typical example of an overlooked female author, writing "about alcoholism and depression" but saddled with the burden of being deemed a "chick lit" author. I've never read one of her books (and, yes - the swirly font and hearts on the cover would probably put me off), but it's hard to be too sympathetic with her plight when her books frequently sell more than five million copies and have made her one of the richest writers around.

It strikes me that women appear to be a lot more 'social' with their reading, and a book will do well through word of mouth even if it's been ignored or even lambasted by the critics. The Fifty Shades phenomenon was perhaps the most compelling example of this - women read it not because it was any good, but because all their friends were reading it. It didn't need to win any prizes to become one of the most important and influential books of recent years (and, no - I haven't read that one, either).

Whether or not that theory's true, I am left wondering about this idea that the best way to draw attention to women authors and their work is by having a women-only prize. Is it likely that female drivers would be more respected by men if they had their own lane on the motorway? Dividing fiction into "Fiction" and "Fiction Written by Women" doesn't make sense to me. There's no way to dispel the impression this gives that the kind of stories women make up are less important, less powerful, and need to be judged away from the bright lights of the stories the men have concocted. This is, of course, utter rubbish - but here we are.

Which is why I can't get my head around the choice of sponsor for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Baileys. Sickly, sweet, and quite thick. Is that really the image female writers want to be associated with? Okay, the latest Baileys adverts are striving for a more refined, glamorous image, but it's still aimed entirely at women. Baileys' involvement isn't something that's going to make many men sit up and take notice. You could say, "So what?" but, with more than three-quarters of women already buying books it's not them the organisers need to convince. Less than half of men buy books, so it would have been encouraging to have seen a sponsor that might have been able to shift the stubborn perception that women write books for other women to read. As it stands, I can't see how having Baileys at the helm is going to do anything other than reinforce the status quo, with the dusty old critics peering over their reading glasses and saying, "Aw, bless 'em and their girly drink, still scribbling away at their funny little kitchen table dramas."

Surely that doesn't do anybody any good?

Friday 24 May 2013

I'm in Writers' Forum (again)

Just a quick post, as most of my writing energies are directed towards a couple of entries for the Bridport Prize (only a week to go if you're planning to send anything that way).

But, anyway, I'm in this month's Writers' Forum (issue #140), in Sally Quilford's "Reader Success" column.

Back at the beginning of the year, Sally put out a call to anybody who'd won a prize in a writing competition. At the time, I'd just won the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition, so I thought I'd try my luck, and sent her an email. I was very pleased to hear she'd picked my response as one of the ones she would feature in the magazine.

Anybody who's followed this blog for a while will know I'm a fan of competitions, so it was a pleasure to talk about how comps have encouraged me to experiment with different styles and genres, and how getting results in a range of different contests has boosted my confidence. And it's always good to get your name out there; you never know who might be reading.

And now, back to the editing...

NB There's a small error, in that a couple of the competitions I'm listed as having placed in only netted me a shortlisting (the James White Award, and the Southport Writers' Circle and NAWG competitions).

Friday 17 May 2013

10 Myths About Grammar

Grammar. Everybody's favourite most-hated topic. It's back in the news this week with yet more proposed changes to the education system. Everybody's pitching in to have their say on how (and even if) it should be taught to children and at what age and why it's an outdated and irrelevant concept and why it's still one of the most important parts of anyone's education and so on and so on.

Matt Haig has written an interesting blog post on the subject, 30 Things to Tell a Grammar Snob. I enjoyed this, smiled at the funny bits, and agreed with a lot of it. But I started thinking that, just as it isn't healthy to adhere slavishly to the 'rules' just because somebody tells you to, it isn't healthy to ignore them purely because you can. In other words, it's no better to be a grammar slob than a grammar snob.

I wondered if it was a question of perspective, so I asked:

I didn't get a reply, but I was interested to see that Nick Harkaway joined the debate, summing up his defence of grammar using much the same terminology as I did. So, encouraged that I'm not alone here, I'd like to attempt to bust a few myths about grammar:

1. Grammar is a straitjacket to squeeze language into.
Grammar should never be thought of as something that works from the outside, constricting language and stopping it growing. It's not like a crab's shell, something that has to be abandoned if you want to take your writing onto bigger and better things. It's better to think of it as working from within, like a skeleton, with language as the flesh. Skeletons change over time - mine's different to when I was a baby, a child, or an adolescent. Bone responds to usage, becoming harder and more resilient when it's heavily loaded, or fading away where it's not used so often. It can be broken and heal into new configurations, but it always does the same job.

2. Following rules means everything ends up the same.
Saint Paul's Cathedral, the works of Antoni Gaudi, and the New York Guggenheim couldn't be more different, but they all follow the same rules of physics. Their designers and architects have used their understanding of the way materials behave, how stress is transferred, how gravity affects steel beams or blocks of stone, in order to come up with wildly different solutions to the question of how to build a structure. The B of the Bang, a £1.4m sculpture commissioned to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games, didn't follow the rules. It looked great, but it was fundamentally flawed. It couldn't support its own weight, and was dismantled a few months after it was unveiled as its immense metal spikes started falling off. Sometimes understanding the rules can save you a lot of bother.

3. Grammar is boring.
This, I'm sorry to say, says more about the person making the claim than about the topic. If you're not interested in the use and history of words and language, maybe a career in writing isn't a sensible aspiration for you. Who genuinely doesn't enjoy learning, or discovering something new? I did the BBC's grammar test a couple of days ago and got 9 out of 10. The question I didn't know was about gerunds. I'd heard of them but didn't know what they were. I now know. I feel good about this, and hope they crop up in a pub quiz sometime soon.

4. The internet and texting is changing language anyway, so there's no point getting bogged down with old-fashioned stuff.
While this is true, who wants what they write to date as quickly as a tweet (or a blog post!)? Fashions in social media come and go, and there's an acceptance that whatever's there is disposable and fleeting. There's nothing wrong with this, but I can't imagine anybody being won over by a novel with writing like this:
Brian LOL'd. "That's the funniest joke ever," he said, ROFLing.
"I know," Sandra replied, "When I heard it I was all like :-D"
Jane looked unimpressed. "Whatever." #sarcasm

5. As long as your readers get the gist of what you're saying, that's close enough.
Context is key here. Getting the wrong word from the their/there/they're triumvirate in a Facebook status is pretty harmless. Being ambiguous in the operating manual for a kidney dialysis machine or safety guidelines for a nuclear power station, not so much. Sometimes a precision of language is absolutely essential.

6. Grammar is a way for the intellectual elite to lord it over the rest of us.
It may be used that way, but it's the absolute opposite of the point of grammar. Anybody who's felt themselves sinking into a whirlpool of notwithstandings, hereforths, and aforementioneds in a legal document knows that sense of language being used as a barrier. A knowledge of grammar gives you the tools to dismantle those barriers, and extract the meaning (or lack of meaning) from this kind of document. If everybody understood the subtleties of language use, it would be a level playing field. If the majority of the population shys away from grammar, the elite have free rein to trick and befuddle us with their wily ways with words.

7. Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time before there was any notion of 'fixed' grammar and he's done alright for himself.
Shakespeare also lived in a time when people emptied their bedpans in the street, the average life expectancy was around 40 years and women weren't allowed to vote or own property. Let's not get too misty-eyed about the good old days. Also, does your typical person on the street understand (or even get the gist of) everything Shakespeare wrote? I bet you a pound they don't.

8. "Alright" is not a word.
Yes it is. See, grammar can evolve.

9. Grammar is a barrier to self-expression.
Often, because dialects appear to bend or break the rules of grammar, it's said that grammar is an attack on regional variation in the way people talk, a way of forcing everybody to speak and write like they were on the BBC in the 1950s. But I don't think this attitude withstands much scrutiny. There aren't many sayings that actually fly in the face of generally accepted grammar. It's mainly a case of different words being substituted, or the order of words played around with. Embellishments or abbreviations, not whole-hearted rejection of the underlying principles.

As an aside, I really don't like the use of "while" meaning "until", in the sense of "I won't be able to repay you while next Wednesday", and I'd be happy if I never heard it again. But, though I wouldn't want to ban anybody from using the word that way, are they really expressing anything different to saying the same thing with the word "until" in its place? I don't think so, but I'd be interested to hear an argument to the contrary.

10. Correcting somebody's grammar means belittling their efforts and humiliating them.
This is the biggie, and I suspect it's the main driving force behind Matt Haig's post. It is, of course, utter hogwash. Firstly, let's get away from the word "correcting". It's arrogant for anybody to think they are correct when it comes to grammar. And it's very counter-productive to try to make somebody learn something by telling them how wrong they are. If I'm critiquing somebody's work and there's a grammatical issue, I'll try to phrase my response along the lines of, "There's a couple of ways of interpreting that; which of them do you mean?" or similar, not "Oh, you used a split infinitive, you utter cretin!". If you can't help somebody with their writing without shattering their confidence and bigging yourself up, that's not grammar's fault, that's you, being an arse. Stop it.

Friday 10 May 2013

Striking a Balance between Writing and Being A Writer

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

A writer writes, right? Well, yes, of course. In an ideal world, that's how it would work. Writers would be left alone to do their thing and publishers would make their words into wonderful books and everyone would buy them and fat royalty cheques would arrive and everybody would have a lovely time. I doubt it's ever really worked like that, though. And it's certainly not the way things are these days.

I've been thinking about how I spend my time recently. After a couple of months with no real routine, the freelance day-job has settled (temporarily, at least) on a more regular arrangement, and it's made my writing time feel a lot more precious and finite. It's been a bit of a wake-up call, to be honest. I've found it difficult to work on my novel at the same time as producing new short stories for competitions. On top of that, I've been thinking of new ways to promote Somewhere to Start From, as well as trying to ensure that my output on this blog, Twitter, and Facebook are actually of interest to other writers and, ideally, readers.

It would be easy to look at all that and say, It's too much, something has to give. But saying it's the easy part. It's not just a question of priorities; I can't say I'll work on my novel at the expense of everything else, because I know I don't have the stamina or dedication to devote all my time to just one idea. My mind wanders, seeks out new challenges, and in the end I get so disillusioned with it I have to shut it away - I know this because it's happened already. I had to put it aside for well over a year before I could even think of working on the damn thing.

I don't want to give up on the short stories, either, because I enjoy writing them, and because I know that using short fiction to test out new ideas and play about with styles has made me a better writer. I'd also like to enter the Scott Prize this year, as I didn't have enough material of sufficient quality to submit a collection last year. That means I have to keep producing and submitting the short fiction: trying, failing, learning, and - I hope - improving as I go.

So, if I can't cut back on the writing, how about the Being A Writer stuff? Is the self-promotion justified? Is a "platform" genuinely important for a writer without even a completed manuscript to his name? The truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that this blog is a good 'signpost' to have for people looking to find out more about my writing, that Twitter has introduced me to a huge community of writers and that many of them have been terrifically supportive and helpful, as well as making me feel like I have something to offer, too, and that promoting the anthology has resulted in sales to people who I've never met, which is ace. Facebook, I'm not so sure about. In fairness I don't use my author page that much and I'm still trying to work out exactly what it can do that other places can't. I'd love to know about any author pages that work really well.

The question of whether a platform is necessary is impossible to answer. Whenever I read an article or interview with a newly published author, there's always some mention of how much promotion writers have to do for themselves, even when they're backed by a big publishing house. I doubt an agent or publisher would ever decide whether or not to take on an author based on how many Twitter followers they have. But, all else being equal, I can imagine an author with a great book and a legion of engaged, supportive fans will stand a better chance of getting a contract than somebody who would have to start from scratch. I've never heard anybody say the publishing industry is actively looking for complete unknowns.

So, as somebody writing with the aim of being published, what's the answer? I'm going to try being more disciplined, to keep doing all the stuff I do but to keep better track of time and try to ensure Writing always comes before Being a Writer.

What's your approach? How do you prioritise your time? I'd love to hear any tactics you have for making sure you're always working on the thing that matters most. It can be done, I'm sure!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The End of the Start - or Just the Beginning?

That's it, then - the "Start" flash fiction competition is over, the winners have been announced, the prizes have been awarded, the stories will be up on the Erewash Writers' Group website in the next few days, the bunting's coming down and the Champagne corks and sausage roll crumbs are being swept away.

I was very pleased to be involved with the competition, and judging it was a real pleasure. My judge's report is on the Erewash site, so I won't talk about my reasons for picking the winners here. What I will do is offer my congratulations to Tony Oswick, to whom I awarded first place, Jenny Long, who was runner-up, and Fiona Faith Ross, to whose story I awarded an honourable mention. Well done, all of you! And I hope you enjoy the book, Tony.

Being a judge is a mixed blessing. You can make someone's day - and I was thrilled to read Fiona's response to getting that honourable mention (I even get called "the internationally renowned short story writer, Dan Purdue", which is a very generous exaggeration, whichever way you look at it). But of course the flip side to that is that you have to trample on the hopes of all but a few of the writers on the shortlist.

Being shortlisted for something you don't win can sometimes feel worse than getting nowhere at all. If your entry sinks without trace, you can always assume it was lost in the post or, if you entered online, the organisers' printer ran out of ink just as it got to your story, so factors beyond your control took you out of contention. There's no such luxury when your name's up there on the shortlist. I follow Formula 1, and I've heard it said that finishing fourth, just shy of the winners' podium, is the most disappointing result for a driver. I guess it's probably true of all the Olympic events, too, and many more besides. It's that thing of almost being good enough to break through into the prizes, but not quite. Somehow, being that much closer to the top of the heap can make it seem even further out of reach.

Of course, the proper way to look at it is to think in terms of what you have achieved, rather than what you haven't. Wherever you end up in the results table, you've written a story, followed the rules, and got it finished in time. Huge numbers of people don't even get that far.

So, for this and any other competition, take confidence from the fact that you're potentially mixing with the literary superstars of the future (hey, who knows? - everybody has to start somewhere), reassure yourself that nobody who enters competitions gets a result all the time (with the possible exception of Hilary Mantel), and use each one as encouragement to push yourself and make sure your next story is the best one you've ever written.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

The First Cut is the Cruellest

I'm about to begin reading the shortlist for the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. I'm excited about this, and looking forward to reading the stories and seeing how all the different writers responded to the "Start" theme. I'm wondering how hard it will be to pick a winner - will there be a clear favourite, right from the first read-through, or will it be a process of erosion, with "lesser" stories gradually falling away until the eventual victor stands alone, all-conquering?

What it also means, is that I won't be reading any of the stories that didn't make the shortlist. Different competitions work in different ways - sometimes the judge will read all the entries, sometimes just the longlist, sometimes (as in this case) just the shortlist. Debbie and the Erewash team have selected the 20 best stories from an overall pool of over 130 - which is a great response - so the vast majority of entries have fallen at this first hurdle.

I want to offer a note of encouragement to anybody whose story didn't reach this point. I know free contests are a popular place to make your short story competition-entering début, and it can be very disheartening when your entry appears to sink without trace. It's easy to take this as a kick in the teeth, to think that your story must have been rubbish, even that you are a rubbish writer. It's easy, but it's the wrong way to look at it.

The main thing to bear in mind is that the odds are against you. This is the case with any writing competition, it only gets worse as you move up into bigger and more prestigious contests, and it's something you just have to accept. In this case, only the top 15% get onto the shortlist. In terms of the numbers alone, the odds of any particular story winning the competition is less than 1%.

No writing competition should ever be a lottery, of course, but there are a huge number of factors over which you have no control that'll determine whether your story goes forward or not. So much of writing is subjective: subject, style, genre, pace, point of view, even which tense it's written in - all of these can influence whether a particular reader thinks a story is any good, and it all boils down to personal taste. The stories I'll be reading are those that appealed most to the Erewash Writers' Group readers, and whichever one of that selection appeals most to me will be the winner. I have no idea how well my tastes and those of the Erewash crew overlap, but it's entirely possible that if I had read all the stories I would have chosen one of the 110 stories that have already dropped out.

However, this isn't meant to suggest the system is unfair and you can assume your story was perfect. It may well be, but if you haven't made the shortlist, consider it as a prompt to re-examine your work. There will be a (hopefully small) proportion who were disqualified; usually this is down to a small error - going over the word count limit, leaving your name on the manuscript (I did that myself recently and it's absolutely gutting), or some other lapse of concentration that means your story couldn't be considered. I know at least one writer scuppered their chances by publishing their story online.

If you got everything right, from a basic administration point of view, it's time to take a good, honest look at your story. Often, just having a bit of a break from the story while you're waiting for the result will to the trick. Ask yourself: Does it begin in the right place? Does the ending resonate? Is the structure you've used the best way to tell the story? Are the characters as strong as they can possibly be? Is your dialogue realistic? Does the plot make sense? Does it take at least one of the characters from one place / state of mind to another? Look hard, be brutal, and chances are you'll find something crying out for editing. And then, send it somewhere else. Good luck!

Monday 1 April 2013

Review: "Dot Dash" by Jonathan Pinnock

Jonathan Pinnock has appeared on my blog a couple of times - I interviewed him about being "between books" here, and he wrote a guest post about the weird world of competitive writing here. I've recently read his Scott Prize-winning collection of short stories, Dot Dash. Here's what I thought of it:

Image: Salt Publishing
After ploughing through a string of four over-long and largely disappointing novels, Dot Dash turned out to be just what I needed. It's quite a slim book, weighing in at a shade under 200 pages, but it contains 58 stories. As implied by the title, these are arranged in sequence, with "dots" (very short stories, many of them small enough to fit the 140-character limit of a tweet) alternating with "dashes" (more traditionally sized short stories). The "dashes" tend not to extend over more than four or five pages, so - if you so desired - you could gulp down the entire selection in a relatively short space of time.

I've enjoyed many of Jonathan's stories online in recent years, and so it wasn't a surprise to find myself enjoying this book too. There were some old favourites - such as rZr and Napoleon, The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife, and Advice re Elephants - but the majority of the stories were new to me. I have to say I got more from the dashes than from the dots, on the whole - microfiction is interesting (and I've tried it myself with varying results), but even when it's done particularly well it often seems more like a demonstration of the writer's skill and/or imagination than a genuine story with real depth. That said, there are some impressive examples throughout the book, and having them interspersed with the longer pieces produced an interesting effect - whenever I got to the end of a story, it proved almost impossible not to read the microstory that followed it, and more often than not I would then find myself reading the next story as well.

Reading this collection, I found myself thinking of Adam Marek's Instruction Manual for Swallowing, as there is the same sense here that you can never predict where the author is going from one story to another, and the only answer is to give in and follow wherever he leads. Neither author pays any attention to the invisible boundaries between genres, and the resulting collection is much richer, more varied, and interesting than the 'variations on a theme' you get with some anthologies. However, where I found Marek's stories had a frustrating tendency to peter out towards the end, Pinnock keeps a tighter hand on the reins and ensures the endings do justice to the leaps of imagination that get the story off the ground in the first place. There is plenty of humour, in both dots and dashes, but Jonathan's prose is equally sure-footed when tackling poignancy (see Return to Cairo or The Guitarist's Inheritance) or horror (the unsettling Nature's Banquet, for instance). Many of the stories occupy a curious middle-ground, funny-but-disturbing, sad-but-hopeful, stubbornly resistant to classification.

When you get to the end (and particularly if you're a writer), it's worth reading the Acknowledgements section, where the publishing and/or prizewinning history of the stories is revealed. Almost all have earned their stripes in competitions, anthologies, magazines, and online publications, and it's easy to imagine Dot Dash becoming a set text for any writer looking to address the tricky question of exactly how you go about getting a judge or editor to notice your story among everybody else's. Jonathan Pinnock's answer appears to be simple: Write - write whatever and however you like, about anything that interests you. Don't worry about being one type of writer or another, don't let genre be a constraint, and - most importantly - don't forget to leave the reader grinning like a lunatic.

Monday 18 March 2013

Last-Minute Larry

The Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition closes on 21 March, so if you haven't entered yet and you like the sound of it, you'd better get a move on!

If you're here for the first time and don't know what I'm talking about, this is a free flash fiction competition I'm judging, in which the story must have a theme of "Start" (interpreted however you like). The maximum word count is 500 (there's no minimum). Up for grabs is a copy of my anthology, Somewhere to Start From, which I'll gladly sign and dedicate for the winner if they like. Additionally, the winning story will be published on the EWG website for all the world to see, and the winner and runner-up both get a free entry to the open competition later in the year, which has cash prizes. I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE.

I've often wondered if there's an optimum time to enter a short story competition. Sometimes I think it might be best to be among the first entries a competition receives, so that if the judge is reading them as they arrive yours gets read while he or she is still fresh, before any similar plots crop up which might make yours seem less original. Or perhaps it might be better to be amongst the last entries, so that the judge reads yours towards the end of the process, giving it more chance of sticking in their mind as they come to make their decision.

But what if the stories are printed out as they arrive, and being first in means your story ends up on the bottom of the stack, with the last one received right at the top? Is that good or bad? Maybe it's best to aim to be in the middle ... or will that halfway-through stage be the point at which the judge is feeling overwhelmed and thinking they'd be quite happy if they never saw another short story in their lives and wondering why they ever agreed to this?

The thing is, there's no way of knowing what's best from one contest to another. Each one is organised differently and each judge will read the stories according to their own preferences. When I judged a competition last year, I wasn't able to set a big block of time aside to read all the stories in one go, so I looked at how long each one was, and read them according to whether I had 10 minutes or half an hour free, totally ignoring the numbers they'd been allocated by the organisers. Other judges might choose to read in alphabetical order according to title, or just pick from the pile at random, or any one of countless possible ways of organising the stories.

In the end, you have to go with what works best for you. There are super-organised writers out there who like to get an entry in weeks before the closing date. I'm a Last-Minute Larry, partly because it often takes the pressure of a looming deadline for me to fully focus on a particular story (usually I have two or three at various stages of completion at any one time), but mainly because if I send it off too early I really struggle to resist the temptation to look back at the story and - without fail - spot areas that could be improved.

It doesn't matter how much editing I've done beforehand, it doesn't matter how perfect I think the story is when I seal the envelope or press "send", there will always be something that'll leap out and make me wish I'd held off sending it for just one more day. It's a guaranteed way of convincing myself I've wasted the entry fee and making me feel dejected and annoyed. So, in the main, my rule is to send it during the closing week of the competition, so that the gates close behind it much sooner. I find it much easier then to consider it completely out of my hands, and I don't feel the same urge to look at the story again until after the results have been announced.

This can be taken too far, though. I've found myself on more than one occasion clicking "submit" with crossed fingers at 11.59pm on the day of the deadline, and it's a horribly stressful experience.

So, if you're feeling inclined to START writing an entry for the flash contest, don't worry that you've left it too late, but then again don't leave it any longer...

Sunday 3 March 2013

Review: "Not So Perfect" by Nik Perring

Nik Perring's collection of short stories has popped up on my blog a couple of times, but after a recent conversation with a friend I realised I'd never actually reviewed it. So, I re-read it a couple of days ago and here's what I think:

Not So Perfect is a collection of 22 short stories. They're very short - the shortest stories don't cover a page and the longest is maybe four or five sides long (and the book's only about the size of a CD case, so the pages aren't all that big). Most of them therefore fit very comfortably into the 'flash' bracket.

Nik's writing style is very clear and concise, perhaps even minimalist. He distils the events he describes to the bare essentials; there's no lingering, no flowery prose. If you're used to reading classics, or just more "traditional" writing, it can feel a little sparse at times, although there's a real warmth to it, too. In several of the stories, the characters aren't named, and only a few of them take place in a definite location. Flash fiction does put significant demands on the reader; there are a lot of blanks to fill in.

Nearly all the stories deal with relationships - whether they're just starting, stalling, or coming to an end. Some of the stories have strongly surreal or at least slightly skewed elements. There's a lot of sweetness, too - although sometimes it's concealed under a darker veneer.

I really enjoyed this collection, and having read it again, I found plenty of new aspects I'd missed the first time around. In a lot of flash fiction, I sometimes reach the end of a story and wonder if perhaps the author brought things to a close a little too soon, or left a bit too much out for me to be really sure I'd 'got' the point he or she was making. But perhaps that's just the way my brain works - I don't like feeling I've missed something. Part of the appeal of Nik's work though is not so much that he tells you anything in particular, but that he just offers a new way of looking at something, a different take on a familiar situation, and leaves you to make your own decisions.

I can't honestly say I liked every single one of the stories - a couple of them feel too slight, too much like a good idea with nowhere particular to go (besides, I can only think of a couple of collections where I've genuinely loved all the stories) - but overall I thought they were very good. I admire Nik's writing style, and it's interesting to see how he describes things so well with such a limited word count. My particular favourites are "The Seconds are Ticking By" (a story about a schoolboy who finds himself holding a grenade in one hand and the pin in the other), "Say My Name" (in which a lonely man fears he is fading away), and "The Mechanical Woman" (who believes she is unlovable, until a chance encounter with an engineer on a train).

Whether you enjoy this book will depend, mostly, on how you feel about flash fiction. If you love to spend time with a character and really get under their skin, you may find the brief glimpses offered by Not So Perfect a little frustrating. If, on the other hand, you're happy to be dropped in just in time to share a tiny but vital moment in the history of a relationship, and don't mind being left to imagine how things turn out afterwards, you'll probably get a lot out of this book. Interested? Check out some of Nik's stories online and see what you think.

- - -

Don't forget!
I'm judging the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. Up to 500 words themed around "Start" - it could be the start of something, a couple trying to start over, a car that won't start, you name it. It's free to enter, you can win a copy of Somewhere to Start From, and the winning story will be published on the EWG website (global exposure for your work!). The closing date is 21 March 2013, so get going! I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE. Good luck!

Thursday 21 February 2013

For the Love of Books

I've been thinking about buying an eReader. I don't have one, and whenever I've bought an ebook it's been to read on my phone. So far that's limited what I've bought to short story collections, mostly. And even those are a bit of a pain to read on such a small screen. But then I started thinking that I didn't really want an eReader. Not yet, at least, and I had a look at a few in various shops and they didn't seem that great, to be honest. So I thought about writing a post about how rubbish eReaders are. But then I didn't like the negativity of that.

Instead, I decided to write about how great books are, and put into words why I think books will always have a place in my heart. A lot of these reasons, if not all, have no digital equivalent. Or at least, not one that I can think of.

Small Hardbacks
I love small hardbacks. I think they're pretty much the embodiment of book perfection. I'm talking about the ones that are about A5 size, and are hardback but don't have a dust jacket. They're substantial without being too bulky, portable but far more hard-wearing than a paperback. They feel right in the hand, they're beautiful to look at, and they exude quality.

Gorgeous, aren't they?

Folios / Special Editions
There is, I suppose, an argument that putting fancy packaging around a book is gilding the lily. Well, perhaps that's true to some extent. But although the words are obviously the most important part, there's something desperately sad about books being considered no more than simply their text. People can be sniffy about novels with pictures, too - but how could you not love a copy of Cold Comfort Farm illustrated by Quentin Blake? Or a book of Irish short stories, spiced up with a few bold, stylish block prints? Add to this the hard-to-quantify aesthetic differences brought by high quality paper and clothbound covers, and you have a reading experience that feels like a real indulgence. The way it should be, really.

Folio editions: making wonderful books even more wonderfuller

Signed Copies

No matter how beautiful books are, they are (in the main) mased objects. There's not much to distinguish one from the other. So, having the author scribble on the front page is the perfect way to turn a run-of-the-mill book into something unique and individual. The basic signed book, such as those the author signs on behalf of a bookshop, are great in that they have that "touched by the pen of..." quality, but even better is the signed and dedicated book. Having the actual author write your name in your copy of the book, personalises it in a way that can't be bettered.

Sarah Hall added the "Good Luck!" when she found out I wrote short stories...

First Editions
I'm not really a book collector, but I do keep an eye out for first editions.

Steven Hall's "Raw Shark Texts". Apparently the very first printings had the first three pages in green ink. But I'm happy with this one.

It's not so much about the value, it's about getting closer to the creation of the story. I love the idea of owning one of the first batch of books that made it out into the world; there's an optimism about it, as though the book still carries some of the hopes and dreams of the author, regardless of whether it went on to be a massive blockbuster or disappeared without a trace. Each reprint, every new edition, feels like another step further away from that moment when the book launched in its 'natural' state. No or hardly any cover quotes, no pages of review extracts inserted into the front, just, "Here's a book. Enjoy."

My treasured A Scanner Darkly first edition. Definitely not one to read while eating spaghetti bolognese

Variety is the spice of life. Though cliched, it's entirely true. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of books (or music albums, or films) just being filler for a little black box. I like to see creativity - it inspires me, makes me want to be creative, too. Even within the relatively tight constraints of a standard book format - it's pretty much rectangular, it's made of a wad of pages with a cover wrapped around three sides - there still seems to be huge variety in how books are presented. A row of thumbnails on a virtual shelf, or a real bookshelf jostling with different sizes, shapes, thicknesses, materials and designs? No prizes for guessing which appeals more to me!

The fantastically innovative "An A-Z of Possible Worlds" by A.C. Tillyer - a collection of short stories, printed individually and presented in a little storage box.

So, that's why I like books. Have I missed any reasons? What do you like about those lumpy paper-stuffed objects cluttering up your home? Or have you made the leap to digital and will never go back to dead trees?

Don't forget!
I'm judging the Erewash Writers' Group Flash Fiction Competition. Up to 500 words themed around "Start" - it could be the start of something, a couple trying to start over, a car that won't start, you name it. It's free to enter, you can win a copy of Somewhere to Start From, and the winning story will be published on the EWG website (global exposure for your work!). The closing date is 21 March 2013, so get going! I listed a few tips on how to make your story stand out, HERE. Good luck!