Thursday 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

It seems too clear and bright a day to be late December, but I guess the calendar doesn't lie. Where is the drizzle? Where's the howling wind? It doesn't feel like Christmas at all.

However you're celebrating Christmas (if of course you do), I hope you have a wonderful,  stress-free day. For me, Christmas has changed in spirit over the years, and I think I regard it these days more like the Americans' Thanksgiving Day. It's less about getting more stuff and gorging on rich food and drink all day, but taking time to be grateful for the things I already have and for the special people in my life. This year it feels especially poignant as I lost my stepsister to a brain-stem tumour in the summer, and although I won't see that side of my family for another couple of days, they're very much in my thoughts.

Writing-wise, though, it's been a pretty good year for me. I've had a couple of stories published, won a couple of prizes (including a first place at The New Writer), and finished the first-ish draft of my SF novel,  the first chapter of which was recently shortlisted for the Flash500 Novel Opening Competition - which was very encouraging. 2015 looks to be getting off to a good start, too - my story The You-Know-What in the Room will be published in Writers' Forum in late-January. And I have a brand-new novel to work on as well.

I'm not sure whether I'll get a chance to post anything before the New Year, so I'll sign off with my very best wishes for you all to have a fantastic 2015, full of good reading, good writing, health and happiness and all the other important stuff in life.

Monday 15 December 2014

Guest Post: Richard Fleming

The second half of the year seems to have gone into overdrive - I was just getting used to it being August and now all of a sudden it's almost Christmas. Apologies for the rather sporadic nature of my blog posts in recent months.

Anyway, I'm very pleased to play host today and extend a warm welcome to Guernsey-based poet, Richard Fleming. Richard grew up in Northern Ireland but has made Guernsey his home. He's written verse for many years, had numerous pieces published or broadcast and taken part in poetry readings at local and international festivals. You can find many of his poems in the BBC archive, and others can be found in assorted publications throughout the UK and Channel Islands.

I have a couple of Richard's books - the back-to-back collection The Man Who Landed / The Boy Who Fell Upwards (a joint publication with UK-based poet Peter Kenny) and his own collection, Strange Journey. Both showcase his remarkable precision with words and a keen eye for the kind of detail that stir the emotions. Richard was kind enough to host one of my "lost" stories a couple of weeks ago, and I'm very happy to be able to return the favour and share one of his poems with my readers here.


Catechism came with porridge
on Sunday mornings, then.
and Answer.
What is man’s chief end?
A lifetime later, adult, grown,
I have the forthright answer still:
To glorify our God, amen.

How those morning pictures linger.

With hair slicked down and parting straight,
scrubbed knees, nails free of grime, clean hands,
in Sunday Best, clean underpants
and vest, black brogues with Bible shine,
I went with hymn-book to the church
then into Sunday School we trooped
like little soldiers off to war,
while parents stayed for Hell-Fire words
and promises of Satan’s wrath
that they, in turn, would promise us.

Grey were the Sundays of my youth:
shut shops, shut faces, shuttered hearts.
A football kicked would damn to Hell.
A comic read, a careless laugh,
would be recorded in God’s book.
Guilt was instilled and mortal fear.
I haven’t yet got off the hook.

If you enjoyed that, please go and have a look at Richard's blog, where he posts interesting observations and reminiscences as well as other examples of his work, including one of my favourites, Suitcases - the opener from Strange Journey.

Monday 3 November 2014

Arvon, Again

I am, somewhat groggily and reluctantly, re-entering the real world after spending last week in Yorkshire, at Lumb Bank in Heptonstall, on an Arvon course. This one was entitled Fiction: Work-In-Progress and was tutored by Jim Crace and Susan Elderkin.

The house at Lumb Bank
This was my third Arvon course (my first was about nine years ago and also at Lumb Bank, and the second came at the start of 2012, when I went on a Starting to Write a Novel course - this time at The Hurst in Shropshire). When I signed up for the latest one, back in March, I had a plan: I was going to have finished my science fiction novel by about June, have made a start on editing it, and be stuck into the new idea, which I'd been mulling over for a couple of months.

It didn't quite work out that way. I only finished the SF novel at the end of August, and I'd spent a few weeks editing the opening section for a competition, but it wasn't as well put to bed as I'd hoped. In terms of the new project, as of a week ago I had nothing down on paper. I'd done a tiny bit of research and an awful lot of thinking, but I couldn't really claim to have started anything. Obviously this wasn't ideal for a "Work in Progress" course! But I was sure there would be plenty to learn that would be applicable to both my almost-finished and barely-started projects.

Fifteen of us were there for the week and we split into two groups, each having a morning workshop with one tutor and then switching to the other one the following day. The afternoons were ours to do with as we pleased - although we had to fit in taking a turn at cooking dinner and having a one-to-one tutorial with each of the tutors. My group's first session was with Jim, and he got us to justify our books as though we were pitching them to an acquisitions board at a publishing house. This was quite a bruising experience to start with, but it was a good exercise to be brutally honest about what was original or different about our various novels and face up to any weaknesses in concept or execution.

Susan's sessions tended to be more focused on generating new writing, coming in the form of exercises that encouraged us to consider point of view, characterisation, and perspective. I found these really useful and a couple have given me ideas for blog posts, so I will come back to them in more detail in the future. Our second time with Jim involved a discussion and various exercises looking at editing, and although I feel like I've more or less got the hang of the process, it was very interesting to hear a different take on it and get a few extra tips on how to make your prose work as hard as it possibly can.

Sunrise over Lumb Bank as seen from my 'front door' - utterly magical

Overall, the course was fantastic and I feel like I've taken a big step forward with my new project. Just having a chance to talk the idea over with tutors as knowledgeable and talented as Susan and Jim was invaluable, and it's given my confidence and determination to see it through a huge boost. Arvon weeks tend to be a strange mixture of exhausting hard work and huge amounts of fun, and this one was no exception. As before, another highlight turned out to be my fellow writers on the course - a great bunch and, as the Friday performance night proved, a very talented lot too. I'm looking forward to seeing some of them hitting the bestseller lists in the months and years ahead.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Is it an Award? Is it a Competition?

From tomorrow, the five stories shortlisted  for the BBC National Short Story Award (NSSA) will be broadcast on Radio 4, one each day. I'm not sure how many I'll catch live, as they go out mid-afternoon when I'm usually working, but I'll make sure I download the podcasts once they're made available.

This was the first year in quite a while that I wasn't holding my breath and listening to the announcement of the shortlist with the absurd and fading hope that my name would be read out. I didn't enter this year's competition. Part of my decision was, admittedly, down to me not having written a story of suitable length, subject matter, and quality. However, a far greater part was attributable to the lingering sour taste left by last year's revelation by one of the judges that the way the competition was run meant the final selection might be, possibly, not actually being judged as anonymously as everyone had assumed.

I wrote that post almost a year ago and, while I was pleased to see that for the 2014 Award the organisers had updated the Terms & Conditions to make the situation regarding the final stage of judging much clearer, there are still elements of it that concern me. Here's the relevant section from the rules:
4.3 Some judges may reserve the right to read the longlisted stories anonymously, however they are not required to do so. The whole panel will be provided with the name of the author of each longlisted story ahead of shortlisting to ensure all judges are party to the same information when making their decisions. At this stage, judges may call-in entries from authors whose stories were not longlisted in stage 1.
So, we know the final-stage judges are given the names of the authors, and that it's down to them whether or not they ignore those names. That's strange but, OK, fair enough, if that's how they want to run things. It's that last sentence that doesn't entirely make sense. Are the judges entitled to call in stories that didn't make it past the initial readers? Isn't that like a football team winning the World Cup even though they were knocked out of contention at the group stage? Considering only the longlisted stories are forwarded to the judges, does that include stories they haven't read? Or maybe it's even stranger than that; as the stories can be previously published (as long as it's within the 12 months before the closing date), can the judges bring in stories they've read elsewhere - stories that weren't actually entered in the competition?

The problem, I think, is that the BBC is in an awkward situation. They need good stories, but they also need authors who are recognisable enough for people who aren't really into short fiction to take an interest and get on board with the idea that the Award is a genuine reflection of the 'best' of the work that's currently out there. Consequently, it's not really a competition, but it's not quite a straightforward award, either. And I wonder if that's why in some ways, although the stories are usually pretty impressive, the Award itself is beginning to feel a little stale. The shortlist seems to have fallen into a pattern whereby it contains two or three household names, a couple of lesser-known but well-established writers with a book or two to their name, and a newbie, who often turns out to have a novel or at least a collection of short fiction approaching publication.

Obviously I don't know exactly how the judges come up with the shortlist. There's no way of knowing how many of them ignore the names of the writers when making their decisions. Maybe they all do. Maybe even if they recognise a story they've read somewhere else they can somehow ignore that. Maybe none of them call in any other stories from the rejection piles or from outside the competition. Maybe all that stuff's in the rules just in case, but it's never been put into practice.

Whatever's happening, as a reader/listener, I can't help but think the quirks of the selection process might be contributing to the fact that the NSSA is getting a bit samey. Even 2014's all-female shortlist didn't attract much comment - because this is the third time in the Award's seven-year history that's happened. I'd love the whole thing to be a lot less predictable. I'd love to think the Award was bringing me exciting, new stories I couldn't hear or read anywhere else. I'd love, just once, for the shortlist to be announced and for me to have never heard of any of the writers. I'd love to believe that stories by talented writers at the start of their careers were competing on equal terms with those from established best-selling authors, that the quality of the story was the only thing that influenced the selection of the shortlist. At the moment, I'm not really feeling any of that.

Asked how it felt to be shortlisted for a third time, Lionel Shriver quipped, "Familiar". Well, quite. This year, three-fifths of the shortlist is recycled from elsewhere (Zadie Smith's story was in the Spring 2014 edition of The Paris Review, while Tessa Hadley's and Lionel Shriver's both appeared in The New Yorker towards the end of last year).The NSSA is one of the biggest and most prestigious literary prizes in the UK. It should be many things, but I don't think "familiar" should be one of them.

Friday 5 September 2014

Hopping Mad?

"Mad as a Box of Frogs" by Becky Brown. Used here by kind permission of the artist.

Twitter and Facebook were ablaze earlier this week with the unfolding (or should that be 'unravelling'?) story of a writer who had taken exception to some (to be honest, rather mild) criticism about a book he had created with iBooks Author. The full exchange can be read HERE. Be warned, you might need a large pot of coffee if you hope to get through it all in one go.

If you have better things to do than trawl through all that, suffice to say it's another example of a writer launching what I'm sure he believes is an entirely justified defence of his work, standing up for his artistic integrity, etc, etc. He asserts that the reviewer is factually wrong to, for instance, call his prose "workmanlike", and goes on (in an extraordinary series of twenty-three comments, posted over ten hours (and that's just the start!)) to post extracts from his work, saying some of his descriptions are worthy of Keats or F Scott Fitzgerald. As far as he's concerned, he's doing the critic a favour, by highlighting examples of his writing that prove the review is incorrect.

The problem is, writers don't get to do that. When somebody reads something we've published, their response to it is entirely outside our control. If they think the prose is workmanlike, or the plot is unoriginal, or the characters are unconvincing, then our only option is to take it on the chin. It's only one person's opinion, after all. If several people say the same thing, that probably highlights a weak spot that would be worth concentrating on when it comes to the next book, story, or poem. What we don't get to do is fly off the handle, accusing the reviewer of telling lies or being ignorant. Because that will only ever make you look like a complete nutcase.

I think the only case when it might be appropriate to response to a review is when there has been a genuine factual error - for instance if they've misspelled your name, or got the book title, ISBN, or release date wrong. Anything else, you just have to let go. And even if there is something justifiable, then a discreet email to the reviewer or editor of the publication in question is a far better option than waging all-out war in the comments thread.

Personally, I'm going to keep hold of the link to this particular example of a writer in meltdown. If, in the future, I find myself published and on the receiving end of what I consider to be an uncharitable review, and I feel my fingers creeping towards the keyboard to unleash the kind of righteous indignation that only a writer can muster, I will stop, read the entire "Venice Under Glass" thread from start to finish, and then see if I can summon up the will to tear into the reviewer in the same way. Chances are, I won't. And that can only be a good thing.

In one of the happy accidents that the internet often throws my way, while I was looking for a picture to illustrate this post I chanced across the work of Becky Brown. Her animal illustrations are fantastic - full of life and personality. If you like them as much as I do, please go and take a look at the wonderful prints and cards for sale in Becky's shop.

Friday 15 August 2014

Chloe Banks on The Art of Staying Flexible

I'm delighted to welcome long-time friend of the blog Chloe Banks, who is out and about promoting her debut novel, The Art of Letting Go. Chloe is an accomplished short story writer, so I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing how she's taken the leap into the longer form. The book is available from a new publisher, Thistle Publications, and that in itself is an interesting aspect - the company is a new independent outfit that slots itself somewhere in between the two usual avenues; it's not self-publishing, but it's not quite traditional publishing either. It's an exciting reflection of the way the publishing landscape is changing and you can read Chloe's thoughts on it by clicking here.

Anyway, without further ado, let me hand you over to Chloe...

The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?

The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.

And streeeeeeetch...

When I was a competitive runner I was proud of being supple. I could pretty much do the splits, I could touch my head to my knees and all sorts of other contortions. When I switched priorities from racing to writing, I thought I could stop worrying about being flexible. I was so wrong.

There is a famous and much over-used phrase in writing – kill your darlings. In order for a story to be as good as it can be, sometimes you have to cut the bits of writing that please you most. In the first draft you can write what you want, how you want. When it comes to re-drafting and editing you need to make your narrative work, and that requires being flexible – changing your own ideas of how the story should go or how your characters should act.

When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, I had to change a lot. I have written elsewhere about changing from a straight-forward narrative to a multiple viewpoint narrative and how hard it was to create four or five authentic voices. With one of my characters, Cheryl, it was particularly tough. I knew what I wanted her to be like, and I knew how I wanted her to act, but feedback kept coming in – she’s not believable. It wasn’t until I had an agent and was perhaps six or seven drafts into writing the novel that I realised the problem: a person with the character I’d created wouldn’t act in the way I’d asked her to act. I ended up re-writing her completely – giving her a different background and different influences and motivations. And I think she finally works.

This willingness to adapt your ideas – rather than just edit your original plan – is key to getting an agent or a publishing contract. Believe me, it’s deflating to go through the euphoria of being offered a contract and then receiving an edit letter outlining all the things you have to change in the manuscript, but it has to be done. Edit letters often make authors cry. Here you are, with a book worthy of an agency/publishing contract, and you are STILL being told that you need to completely re-think one of your characters, alter a major part of your plot and start the entire novel at a different point. You don’t want to do that? Fine. Don’t expect to be published.

All this, of course, comes with the caveat that you are the master of your own story. Yes, you need to be prepared to flex and change. No, you don’t have to cave in to every suggestion. When my agent listed all the changes he wanted me to make before we submitted to publishers, I set to work on most of them. There were a couple of points however – such as changing the ages of my main characters – where I dug my heels in. I was able to explain why I didn’t want to make those changes and David respected that. Agents and editors are looking for writers who can both touch their toes and stand their ground!

When I was county cross-country champion I needed to have muscles that could power me up hills, but were still flexible. As an author I need to create my darlings, but be willing to kill them – or at least bend them a bit. But the real key to both? The same as it always has been: putting in hours of hard work and practice. When it comes to writing there are some rules that can’t be bent after all.

Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

Friday 1 August 2014

Five Things

I was recently tagged in a Facebook post by Jonathan Pinnock in which he listed five things about his current work-in-progress. There was an enjoyable progression to his list, as it basically went from him saying he had no WIP (perfectly understandable seeing as he's just launched a non-fiction book, the excellent-sounding Take it Cool, which I'm planning to buy very soon (unless I manage to win a free copy from these guys)) to him deciding on an idea and planning to write it that same evening. To be honest, I'm hoping for a similar boost from taking on this challenge. Let's see...
Long-term Relationship
I've been working on this novel forever. At least it seems that way. It started off as a short story somewhere around 2005/6, back when I'd never have had the confidence to send it off anywhere. A couple of years later I showed it to one of the tutors at an Arvon course I was on, and he made a chance remark that 'unlocked' the rest of the story and convinced me it could be much more than just a few pages' worth. I wrote a few chapters, lost momentum, moved from Leeds to the Midlands, joined a writing class, wrote several more chapters, lost interest, wrote lots of short stories, had some success with those, moved again (not so far this time), decided I was never going to get where I wanted to be purely through the stories, rewrote everything I'd done, got nearly to the end, and stalled. That happened in about March this year, and I've been adding a few hundred words to it every so often, but it really doesn't feel like progress.

Identity Crisis
The main problem I'm finding with this book is that there's part of me that really worries about what will happen if I get to the end and if I can stay enthusiastic enough to edit it into a publishable sort of shape and if I'm lucky enough to land an agent/publisher and get the book out into the world. You see, it's a science fiction / techno-thriller type of deal, and I'm not convinced that's the kind of writer I am, or want to be. Michael Logan's written an excellent series of blog posts about his literary journey since winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. The thing that's really stood out for me is how reluctant publishers are to let a new author change course - it's all about building your 'brand', it seems. If you want to veer off-course for book four or five then, depending on how your sales have been, they might let you take that risk. I know I'm jumping the gun massively here, but it's hard to focus on a book that could lock me into a genre I don't want to commit to in the long term.

I mentioned a while ago that another obstacle to keeping up my enthusiasm for the book is that some Hollywood types are, rather unsportingly, making a film that's based on more or less the exact same concept. I haven't heard much else about the film since then, but I go from thinking it's great news because people will be interested in other ways of looking at the idea, and it being a prime opportunity to piggyback on any big-budget marketing from the movie, to being despondent that my book, which always seemed (to me at least) a unique spin on the "teleportation accident" scenario, will just seem like a lazy knock-off of someone else's idea. I feel a bit hamstrung, and I'm trying hard not to convince myself that I ought to wait to see whether the film turns out to be any good before I make my next move.

Considering a Sex Change
No, not me. But I've been looking at one of my favourite main characters - a grizzled and unpredictable agent from a European equivalent of the FBI who helps the protagonist - and wondering about making him a her. I'm wary of the work involved in this (as one of the main elements of the rewrite was changing the narrative from third- to first-person perspective and that's been hard enough), but I think it might be an interesting way to go. It would help balance out the book a little, as it's pretty bloke-y at the moment, and I can't think of many similar stories where the 'mentor' character is a older woman helping out a male protagonist. I've been imagining Kenneth Branagh or Keifer Sutherland in the role - maybe I should consider Gillian Anderson or the evergreen Helen Mirren instead (not that I'm suggesting either of them could be described as "grizzled"!)?

Keeping the Faith
Okay, this post is turning into more of a self-pitying whinge than I planned. The thing is, I really believe in this story, and I want to get it finished and out into the world in some form or another. I think people will enjoy it, and I believe it will be a success if I can just keep going with it long enough to do it justice, although exactly how that success is likely to be measured remains something of a mystery to me at the moment.

So, there you go, five things maybe not so much about the book itself as about the crumbling mental state of the guy attempting to write it. Sorry about that. I'm now supposed to nominate five people to take up the baton and although I'm always reluctant to point the finger at anyone, I'd like to invite the following people to take part, who may do as much or as little with it as they choose. All you need to do is tell everyone five things about your current work-in-progress - interpret that however you wish.

Freya Morris
Nik Perring
Teresa Stenson
Amanda Saint
Dan Powell

If anybody else fancies jumping on the bandwagon, feel free! Rules are made to be broken.

Saturday 26 July 2014

How Very Curious...

Our home for the weekend
I spent last weekend under canvas (particularly excellent canvas, as it happens, as the picture on the left plainly demonstrates), at the Curious Arts Festival. This is a new event from, I think, the same organisers of the Voewood Festival, which I went to a couple of years ago. Set in the beautiful grounds of Pylewell Park near Lymington in Hampshire (not far from where I grew up), the festival featured a diverse line-up of authors, musicians, and other performers across the two-and-a-bit days from Friday afternoon to Sunday night.

My other half and I made it our mission to to see as many author talks as we could. And there were some fantastic writers there - from Costa Book of the Year winner Nathan Filer to the Man Booker-shortlisted Deborah Levy, from all-round comedy superstar Rebecca Front to BBC National Short Story Prize shortlist regular MJ Hyland. All of them had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the process of writing, that odd compulsion some of us have to take what we see going on around us and try to make sense of it by noting it down. I could listen to writers talk about writing all day, so it was a pleasure to be able to do just that for a couple of days.

The house at Pylewell Park
I don't intend to make this post a review of the festival (suffice to say I really enjoyed it, despite a few very minor teething troubles. The festival will, I hope, return next year, bigger and even better). And I could waffle on for hours about the various authors and the different things they said about how they do what they do. But I think the most important thing I learnt from the weekend wasn't any of the things that the authors did differently. It was the one thing they all did the same: they finished what they started, whatever it took. It sounds simple, but there's an awful lot more to it than just starting typing at Point A and not stopping until they reached Point B.

Several of the authors talked about how they'd worked on their books (particularly their début novels) for five or six years. Lottie Moggach (author of acclaimed thriller Kiss Me First) said her novel had started off as a science fiction book before she found a way of rooting it in the present day. The change in setting opened up the story to her and took it from being an idea she was playing around with to a novel she could actually finish. Nathan Filer's Shock of the Fall grew from a couple of sentences that popped into his head after work one day; although they didn't actually make it into the novel, those few words told him everything he needed to know about his protagonist. It took numerous drafts to fit the tone of the book to those few words, but he kept tweaking it until he'd found the perfect voice for his narrator. MJ Hyland jettisoned 33,000 words of her work-in-progress when she realised she was writing about her main character as a grown man, when in fact the real story was about him as a child. The list goes on.

These revelations were depressing and inspiring in equal measure. Depressing because I've been treating the completion of the first big redraft of my novel as pretty much the final stage. Yet that - when it comes - will only be the next step in the journey. There'll be a lot more work to do afterwards and none of it will be easy. Inspiring because not so long ago all these writers whose books I see on the shelves of my local Waterstones were in the same position as me, chipping away at a novel with no real idea of whether anybody else would ever want to read it and only a sliver of self-belief to convince them it was all worthwhile. They stuck at it, carrying on where most people throw in the towel, turning a blind eye to the distracting sparkliness of Other Ideas, and then sending it out to agents and publishers even though they could only ever hope to be one among thousands all vying for the same few slots on a publisher's list. That's the main thing I took from the weekend: it's not easy, but it's possible, and the only thing that's guaranteed to stop me is giving up.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Review: "Burnt Island" by Alice Thompson

A struggling author accepts an invitation to stay on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere while he tries to write a horror bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
Image from Salt Publishing's website
I feel I should use a hushed tone to begin this review, because what I'm about to say may result in people with pitchforks and flaming torches chasing me down the street. Here goes, then. Despite the seemingly universal acclaim with which the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was received, when I read it I found myself somewhat bemused by the tsunami of adulation that had washed over Twitter and swept the novel up the charts and onto a lot of Book of the Year lists. Although I enjoyed the writing (and am keen to read Moore's collection of shorts, The Pre-War House and Other Stories), the story itself and the central characters didn't really press the right buttons for me.

So my heart sank a little when I picked up another novel from Salt Publishing, Alice Thompson's Burnt Island, and discovered that it too opens with a hapless, awkward chap undertaking a journey by ferry. Max Long, Thompson's protagonist, is perhaps marginally more successful in life than Moore's disaster-prone Futh, but as the ferry rolls on the rough sea and casts Max's luggage into the waves you know that he's not somebody upon whom good fortune has any particular interest in shining, either. But I was pleased to find that that's where the similarities ended, and Burnt Island turned out to be very much my kind of book.

Max is an author with a back catalogue of unsuccessful literary novels. Having been awarded a writing fellowship on Burnt Island, he steps off the boat with little more than the clothes he's wearing and a vague plan of penning a schlocky horror story - a novel written with a cynical eye on the bestseller charts. He's selling out; is he, perhaps, selling his soul? After being attacked by a gull and spending a disturbed night in what he first believes is a tiny stone cottage but turns out to be a pebble-dashed caravan that rocks in the wind (the first of many things on the island that are not what they seem), Max is invited to stay with James Fairfax. In some ways, Fairfax is the struggling writer's nemesis, an author whose debut novel achieved both huge critical acclaim and stellar sales - sufficient to keep him living in luxury for years. The world eagerly awaits Fairfax's next masterpiece, and Max is jealous of the other man's success almost to the point of hatred, yet convinced that staying with him will somehow be the key to breaking through his writer's block and hitting the big time.

Once he takes up residence in Fairfax's house, things really get strange for Max. He develops an obsessive interest in the beautiful Rose, who he first assumes to be a maid, although it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between her and Fairfax is far more complicated than that. Shadowy figures seem to be watching and following him wherever he goes. He encounters huge stones that appear to move by themselves, runs into numerous doppelgangers, and experiences deeply unsettling visions. Is any of it actually happening, or is the horror novel he's trying to write affecting his mind? As Max's grip on reality starts to falter, he discovers a sinister secret about the book that made Fairfax's fortune, and begins to uncover the mystery of what happened to his predecessor, the last author to accept the Burnt Island writing fellowship... and who was never seen again.

There are many nods to established horror tropes in the book, and it all gets a bit meta in places, particularly when Max finds a disturbing passage from a manuscript Rose is working on, featuring a protagonist called - as you might expect - Max. All this trickery is done extremely well, though, with the horror movie cliches adding to the story and the island's mystery rather than undermining it. Thompson's writing is direct and unfussy without being too sparse or detached, and she keeps up the pace throughout. I loved how there are numerous interpretations you could apply to the novel; it's a story that stuck in my head for a long time after reading it and I'd recommend it to anybody looking for something a little less straightforward than your typical thriller, particularly if you're also a fan of the low-key horror of The Wicker Man and the isolation and creeping insanity of The Shining.

Salt Publishing will be reissuing a couple of Thompson's previous books soon, including The Existential Detective. On the strength of Burnt Island, I'll definitely check them out.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Bear With Me

If you follow me on Twitter you've probably already heard this, but I'm very pleased to announce that the latest volume of The Fiction Desk has gone on sale. There Was Once a Place is volume seven of the short fiction journal and features my story, The Guy in the Bear Suit.

I've liked the look of The Fiction Desk anthologies for a long time so I was very pleased when my story bagged a runner-up spot in their annual flash fiction competition and so earned a place in the new collection. Online and magazine publication's great, but there's something about being in a proper book that can't be beaten - particularly one that's as well curated and interesting at TFD.

The Guy in the Bear Suit is an odd little tale that grew out of me considering how sinister those character costumes in theme parks are once you're too old to simply accept them as cartoon characters who've strayed off the TV into real life. There's something unsettling about them never speaking, or the way they can stand right in front of you / follow you around without you having any idea who's under all that fur and foam. And with that in mind, I began to think, well - what there was something inside much worse than just some random, over-attentive stranger...?

There Was Once a Place will be the third Fiction Desk anthology I've read. So far it's excellent. Next up I plan to return to the beginning of the series with volume one, Various Authors, which can be downloaded for Kindle and ebook readers (or the relevant tablet / PC apps, of course) free of charge from the TFD website. The other volumes can of course be ordered online or sourced from your friendly neighbourhood bookshop.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Dead Go Live, Magazine Dies

My excuse this time for neglecting my blog is that I was away for a big chunk of May, on a Californian road trip that included driving through a fair bit of desert. It struck me that I might be able to get a photo of some actual tumbleweed, which I could have posted to the blog as a hilarious reference to how sparse my updates have been of late. It turned out that tumbleweed isn't as common as TV would have you believe. So no side-splitting photo of not much happening, then. Sorry.

Fortunately I returned from my travels to find issue 118 of The New Writer had arrived. This was exciting because it contains the winning stories from the 2013 Prose & Poetry Prizes. One of these (the winner of the microfiction category) is my story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave. I wrote about the inspiration and the clash of ideas from which the story emerged a blog post or two ago. It's always good to see a story in print. I'm not sure why they've used my full name, though - I only use that on passport applications and the like these days.

I was thrilled with the comments the judge (the novelist and Jane Austen enthusiast, Rebecca Smith) made, praising the story's "humour and elegiac tone" and calling the writing "poised and elegant". I particularly liked the fact she felt the ending worked well, as I find the ending the hardest part of a story to get right, and I'd had a good feeling about that one when I sent it off all those months ago.

Sadly, it turns out issue 118 will be the last New Writer. Editor Guy Pringle has found there wasn't a big enough subscriber base to keep the magazine going, and has decided to shut it down. This is a real pity, as I think The New Writer was beautifully put together and offered something a bit different from the two high street mainstays, Writers' Forum and Writing Magazine. As a recent subscriber I'd been enjoying TNW and I'll be very sorry to see it go.

If there's a silver lining to this development, it's that Guy and his team have decided to make the final edition of the magazine available for free, online. You can read it in full via Scribd, HERESo the Dead... shuffles into view on page 35 of the digital edition. In the past you would have had to buy the competition anthology to read the prize-winning works, so it's nice to think my story and the others have a chance at catching a (hopefully) bigger audience.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

A Superhero in the Classroom

Oh dear - it seems I've neglected this blog for a whole month. I'd like to say it's because I've been spectacularly productive in other areas of writing, but even though this is a blog dedicated to fiction I don't think I can get away with such blatant fabrication.

I have added more to the novel-in-progress, which has now reached something like 97K words. This feels like quite an achievement, although what I was hoping would be a freewheeling-downhill rush to the finish has turned out to be an arduous uphill slog. I'll get there, eventually. I submitted a couple of stories to competitions, most notably the Bath Short Story Award and the Bristol Prize. A good result at either of those would be very welcome.

The most significant thing to happen in my writing life recently has been the arrival from Irish publisher Forum Publications of a contributor's copy of Expression, their study guide to Leaving Certificate English Paper 1. I have to confess I'm not fully up to speed with the Irish education system, but I'm guessing that the Leaving Certificate is more or less the equivalent of the UK's GCSEs. As I mentioned recently, Forum approached me out of the blue to ask whether they could use my story Gecko in one of their study guides. I agreed and almost immediately wondered if I'd regret doing so - I mean, what if they used it as an example of terrible writing, or pointed out all the poor choices of punctuation I'd made, or some other humiliating exposé of my shortcomings as a writer?

I'm pleased to report they've done no such thing. The story's used as a walk-through example of a writing exercise in which the students are asked to read a portion of the story, and then write a sequence of diary entries that pick up on the tone of the piece and describe what happens next. At first, I was a little disappointed they hadn't used the whole of my story (it cuts out about a third of the way in, when unlikely superhero Gary is about to set off on his first crime-fighting mission). But obviously the whole point of the exercise is to take an incomplete story and let the students' imaginations take it wherever they see fit. It's exciting to have one of my stories used in this way, and I'd be fascinated to see what students come up with, although I expect it's pretty unlikely I'll get the chance.

Overall, this has been a thoroughly positive experience. Forum Publications have been a pleasure to deal with and Expression is a book I'm looking forward to reading in more detail - it has some very interesting extracts and several of the writing exercises look like they'd be worth a go. You can see a great deal of care has gone into putting it together and they've done a great job of presenting Gecko (although their version of Gary appears considerably more dynamic than mine ever did). I just hope the students enjoy the story and the writing exercise.

And finally... it's particularly flattering to see my name on a list along with the likes of Frank O'Connor, John Updike, Joan Didion, Bill Bryson and JG Ballard. I can't imagine that's likely to happen again. Not for a while, at least...

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Thomas Hardy vs the Walking Dead

Hot on the heels of my unexpected reprint request and Fiction Desk prize comes some more good news: I won the 2013 New Writer microfiction competition! Hooray!

I'm very pleased about this as it's a competition I've entered several times over the last few years (usually just in the short story category) and was beginning to think I'd never even land a spot on the longlist. The best part is that as well as a cash prize, I'll have my story printed in the magazine. Print credits are something I'm determined to get more of this year, so this is a very welcome addition to the growing publication pile (if three things can legitimately constitute a pile?).

My winning story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave, is an odd little piece, a zombie story entirely lacking in gore or horror, and I thought I'd use this post to talk a little about the inspiration behind it. The story evolved out of an exercise a few friends and I do on an occasional basis in a group over on the writing forum Chapter 79. It's an informal arrangement, but generally the idea is that we each post a short piece of writing to the forum, and then are randomly allocated one of the pieces to work with. There's no set rules to how we respond to the trigger piece - we could write about what happened next, or retell the story from another character's perspective, or just take an image or line of text that stands out and go off on a complete tangent, whatever feels right at the time. Usually we submit pieces of our own work, but occasionally we'll use a poem or the first paragraph or two of a book pulled at random from our shelves.

Late last year, I found myself allocated Thomas Hardy's poem, The Walk. I didn't find the words themselves provided much in the way of a trigger for a new piece, but the slightly detached, melancholic tone of the poem seemed a more promising angle. Particularly the second verse, which seemed to me to suggest that whoever the first verse was addressed to had died. My thought process basically went along the lines of Death... The Walk... The Walking Dead! I'd been watching a fair bit of the zombie-filled TV series back then. But, with the mood of the poem still in mind, I decided my zombies would bring with them, not blood-lust and terror, but a kind of sadness. Their resurrection would be a warning, not a danger, to the living. But would anybody listen?

And so the tale took shape. At the end of the exercise, I had a short story I was pleased with. It got a good response from the other members of the group, and I decided it was worth taking further. So, a few edits, a trim here, a bit more meat on the bones (so to speak) there, and I had something ready to send somewhere. I picked The New Writer competition - and if you want to know what happened next, go back to the beginning of this post and try to pay more attention this time.

So the answer to the question, "What do you get if you cross Thomas Hardy with The Walking Dead?" appears to be, A prize-winning short story. Who'd have thought it? I hadn't really given the process of combining two such disparate ideas much thought, until a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Adam Marek's utterly brilliant "sketchnote" of The Evolution of an Idea. His argument (and it's a convincing one) is that ideas combine in a similar way to atoms undergoing nuclear fusion - two unrelated concepts, if you can mash them together with sufficient force, will combine. The energy of the collision pulls in other ideas, images, and triggers a sort of creative flow, that the writer then has to work into a semblance of order in order for it to be accessible to everyone else. It's a fantastic way of looking at the creative process, and describes exactly what happened with So the Dead Rose from the Grave. Do go and check it out.

If nothing else, it explains the enduring appeal of those "It's X meets Y" potted descriptions of film/book plots. The prospect of a combination of two unlikely, even opposite, concepts catches our imaginations and draws us in. I'll certainly be looking out for more interesting collisions in the future.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories

Back when I was a newbie at all this writing stuff, just a fresh-faced slip of a lad (well, okay, I must have been about twenty-six), I joined the BBC's 'Get Writing' website. A lot of people know about this and remember it fondly, so I won't go into all the detail here. Suffice to say it was a writing forum where you could post your work and the community of writers would respond to it, and it was pretty much the perfect way for somebody like me to dip my toe into the world of short fiction.

Within a few months of signing up, I was approached by a small group of writers who took this exchange of work and feedback to a whole new level. I was flattered to be asked to join them, as well as slightly alarmed and apprehensive about what I might be letting myself in for. At first, it was a bruising experience. I learned there were bits of my stories that didn't work, or that went on too long, or sections of dialogue that were unconvincing. The key thing about this feedback, though, was that it wasn't delivered with an aim of scoring points; nobody was trying to force anyone else to write the way they did, or bow to their superior knowledge of how fiction works. It was honest and constructive criticism from people who loved stories and understood that paying close attention to how other writers worked could improve their own skills. Once I'd got used to the idea, my writing came on in leaps and bounds.

One of the writers in that group was Karen Jones. I've always been a fan of Karen's writing, and I'm not alone - over the last few years she's notched up a healthy crop of publications and competition results, in  places like Mslexia, The New Writer, Menda City Review, Flash500, Leaf Books, Spilling Ink, to name but a few. Now she's compiled the pick of the crop into a collection of short fiction called The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories.

I've ordered my copy, and I'm looking forward to reading it. If you like the sound of the book you can find out more here (worth a click just to find out what Tracy Chevalier - yes, the Tracy Chevalier - had to say about the title story). If you fancied getting your hands on a copy too, you can buy direct from Karen herself, or head over to Lulu. It'll be available on Amazon in a couple of weeks or so.

Lulu can be a bit pricy for postage, but as luck would have it, they're running a promotion from today until the end of March so you can save 20% off the purchase price by using the coupon code WAFFLESSAY20:

... And, while you're browsing those virtual aisles, giddy with the excitement only cut-price short story collections can bring, perhaps you might like to check out my mate Gavin Broom's collection, A Documentary About Sharks (I reviewed it here)...

... or, if you don't own it yet (how is that even possible?), there's always this one by that Dan Purdue bloke:

A review of Karen's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories will follow in due course.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Review: "Beautiful Words" by Nik Perring

Nik Perring's latest book is called Beautiful Words and is the first in a trilogy that will also take in Beautiful Trees and Beautiful Shapes later in the year. It's produced by Roast Books, who also published Nik's story collection Not So Perfect a few years ago, and who very kindly sent me a review copy.

Anyone familiar with Nik's work either through his books or his stories that have appeared online won't be surprised to learn that he again makes a virtue of brevity. What's more of a surprise is that this latest release is a kind of picture book for grown-ups, lavishly illustrated by Miranda Sofroniou. It's an unusual proposition, and initially I found myself wondering exactly who it was targeted at. Having spent a few days now in its company I'm not sure I'm any closer to determining the specific "type" of reader who will enjoy this, but I'll do my best to explain its appeal.

For a start, Beautiful Words is beautifully produced. As per Not So Perfect, it's produced in an unusual square format (although slightly larger than its predecessor, at around 18x18cm), and its sixty-odd pages are printed in full colour. The palette used is gorgeous and reflects the words extremely well.

The concept is straightforward: Nik works his way through the alphabet, picking a word for each letter and explaining why that word is beautiful. As he writes in the foreword, "Their beauty might be in their construction, or how they sound, or how it feels to say them...", and it's interesting to walk through the collection he's assembled. Some of the words are simple - Kiss, Nest, Reel - while some are much less familiar - Obcordate and Senescence were both new to me, for instance.

Threading through the words and definitions is the story of Alexander and Lucy, although this is only told in brief snatches. Some of the definitions are told from either Alexander or Lucy's perspective. Sometimes their story is a sentence or two at the end. Sometimes they're not mentioned at all. As a result it's a little nebulous - like glimpsing something through trees or from a moving car - and to me it felt like it more set a mood than told a story. But then, that's one of my main criticisms of flash fiction, and if you're a flash fan I'm sure you have your own ideas of how much of the story should be left to the reader.

Like most of Nik's work, there's an undeniable charm to the writing, yet there's a darker edge lurking in the background (perhaps best summed up by the fact that F's word is Fuck - "beautiful because of its power"). Miranda Sofroniou's illustrations complement the writing perfectly, with just the right amount of what I'd describe as a kind of naive whimsy. The words and pictures make the book a joy to flick through, or study in more detail, however the mood takes you.

In the promotional flyer, the folks at Roast Books describe Beautiful Words as "Flash fiction with a factual twist! An ideal gift for a lover of words." - and I wonder if this might be where the book excels. I can see it being given to avid readers who usually power through novels, offering them an excuse to slow down and contemplate the building blocks of language, the words themselves.

And I also wonder why they went with "a lover of words" when they could have used a beautiful word like logophile? Although maybe that sounds too much like somebody who just really loves chopping wood...

Beautiful Words has an RRP of £14.99, but I spotted it at for £8.37, including free delivery to your local independent bookseller. It will be released on 7th April 2014.

"Beautiful Words: Some meanings and some fictions too"
By Nik Perring
Published by Roast Books
64 pages
RRP £14.99

Friday 14 March 2014

After Taking a Month Off

Well, a month off from blogging, at least. I have to admit, it wasn't entirely deliberate. So, what have I been up to?

Probably the biggest news for me is that two of my stories are heading for publication. The first is a reprint of Gecko, my tale of heroic failure that was Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition. That's going to be included in a new textbook (to be entitled "Expression") published by Forum Publications, for second-level students in Ireland. I'm not 100% sure when the book will be published, but it's likely to be within the next couple of months. It's a strange and exciting thought that my story will be used in schools in some way. I'm particularly pleased with this, as I'm very fond of Gecko, and it's an all-too-rare example of a humorous story that's done well in a 'proper' competition, so it's great to see it get another outing. I hope the students enjoy it too.

The second publication comes as a result of winning a runner-up prize in The Fiction Desk's Flash Fiction Competition last week. My story The Guy in the Bear Suit, an odd and hopefully creepy tale of long-forgotten misdeeds coming back to haunt somebody, will appear in a forthcoming anthology alongside such writers as Nik Perring and Cindy George, who wrote a story about rollercoaster fanatics I particularly enjoyed in an earlier TFD anthology, Because of What Happened. If you're not already familiar with TFD books, they're well worth checking out - nicely put together and an interesting mix of styles and subjects.

This prize represented my first result (of any kind - I've been without a shortlisting, a longlisting, anything) for well over a year. It's true I did a whole load of other stuff, including moving house and doing a lot of day-job gubbins, so the number of competitions I entered did drop off considerably, but I don't think the quality of what I was sending out had dipped. Time will tell on that front, I guess; if I can home some of last year's stories I'll know I was just unlucky. If I can't, well, hopefully getting a prize at The Fiction Desk signals that I'm climbing back out the other side of this apparent slump.

In more mundane news, I've been up to my neck in the novel. This is the unglamorous side of writing, the hard slog when day after day the wordcount creeps up but you never feel like you're actually making any progress. It's been hard to keep on track, and I've had to grit my teeth and watch some very enticing competitions slip by, but my more disciplined approach has paid off: I've written another quarter of the book over the last three months. If I can keep the momentum going, I'll be on track to finish the first full draft by the end of March. Early April at the latest. Words can't express how much I'm looking forward to being able to type "The End" for the first time. Many redrafts and edits lie ahead, I'm sure, but from that point on, I will at least be able to claim that I genuinely have written a book.

And now, for no reason other than the fact it's getting spring-like outside and I've been out and about getting to grips with my new camera, here's a photograph of a slightly pensive-looking squirrel:

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Gone BookCrossin'

BookCrossing is an international scheme to encourage people to share books with strangers. It's an interesting idea, so I thought I'd give it a go, by releasing "into the wild" a couple of copies of my short story collection.

In terms of my reading habits, I seem to be fairly unusual amongst my fellow bookworms in that the majority of the books on my shelf are ones I haven't read. I mainly buy paperbacks, and once I've read them I don't usually feel a particularly strong urge to hang on to them. If I've really enjoyed a book and think I'm likely to re-read it, I'll quite often track down a hardback copy (almost always second hand) as a 'keeper', but most of the time I like to pass them on, either by giving to a friend who I think will enjoy them, donating to charity, or selling through a site like Green Metropolis.

BookCrossing is another way of passing books around. You can give books you've finished with to friends and family, but the main aim of the scheme appears to be to encourage people to send books indirectly to strangers, by leaving them on trains, in cafes, in doctors' waiting rooms and on park benches (weather permitting, of course). Turn the world into a library, they say. Which sounds like a nice idea.

I have a few printed copies of my collection at home. Although I'd dearly love for some wonderful person to buy them from me, I suspect that would take more promotional effort than I have time for at the moment. So I thought I'd put a couple of them to work, heading out to find their way in the world and possibly winning over a few more readers as they go. I registered with the site, took out two BCIDs (the unique numbers used to track the books) and printed up some stickers for the front cover and first page of each copy. Then it was a matter of finding somewhere in my hometown of Leamington Spa suitable for their "release". I chose a busy coffee shop in the centre of town and one of my favourite pubs.

The BookCrossing concept obviously relies heavily on serendipity, in that the person who finds the book will be somebody interested in reading it rather than a jaded coffee shop employee who'll throw it away or - perhaps worse - lock it up in a lost property cupboard, never to be seen again. Also, the website only really comes into its own if people can be bothered to register a "found" book, otherwise nobody gets to see the journey.

I hope fortune smiles upon my books and whoever ends up picking them up will decide to give them a go. If you're one of those somebodies, I hope you enjoy the stories. And please don't forget to pass them on afterwards!

Monday 13 January 2014

Print vs. Online

Once you've written something you want to share with the world, you're faced with a choice. Do you aim to put it online, taking advantage of that unlimited audience and ease of sharing via links on social media and the like - or do you send it off to a print publication, with all its old-fashion prestige and the undeniable thrill of seeing your work in actual, proper ink?
Which is best? As Harry Hill says, There's only one way to find out...
Until recently, I've always favoured getting things published online. I'll admit it, it feels good to put a link on Facebook or Twitter and have friends and followers click through to read the story. I like the fact that it's 'out there' - sometimes just for a while, sometimes much longer - and virtually anyone might stumble across it. It's all part of the platform we writers are supposed to be building. I treat online publication like having a publicly accessible CV - people who've enjoyed one of my stories can come to this site and read several others, without having to pay a penny. I don't actually know if anyone does this, but the possibility's there and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

With print markets, it's difficult to know whether the reduced exposure is worth the increased prestige. There's the question of economics, in terms of who among my potential readers would go to the trouble of buying a print-only magazine - which in many cases, once you pay for postage, can cost a lot more than a paperback book from your local Waterstones. There's also the problem of targeting the right markets for your work - it would cost a fortune to buy an edition of a good selection of literary magazines, and chances are many of them would be a disappointment in terms of (a) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to read, and (b) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to write. It always seems strange that so few of the more established magazines don't offer any kind of free sample (like an ebook or PDF version of an old edition), so that writers - and readers - can see what they're getting before they submit (and perhaps even subscribe - I'm all for supporting small press magazines, but not when I've no idea what they print!).

I've also focused almost exclusively on writing competitions. Some writers baulk at the idea of paying an entry fee (though not all competitions charge them), others find the whole concept of 'competitive' writing a bit distasteful. I can see where they're coming from. However, I've always seen competitions like doing an exam, while submitting your story to a magazine (whether print or online) is more akin to coursework. Submit your work to an editor, and if it's almost but not quite there, you'll probably get a chance to tweak things and generally knock it into shape. With a competition, you only get one shot at it - so everything has to be perfect: your characters, plot, pacing, language, beginning and ending, spelling, grammar, it all has to mesh precisely. It's a good test of your abilities, and the deadline provides all the motivation you could wish for to get on and write your masterpiece. Also, with a competition, there's no rejection to worry about. You get placed or you don't; nobody emails you to say your story isn't up to scratch. For some writers (i.e. me) that's a distinct advantage.

But, after a year when my competition mojo appeared to desert me, I've been reassessing my stance on this. Some of the very big story competitions (the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Competition, both run by Booktrust) essentially say your previous work doesn't count unless it's been in print, and when you look at the biographies of the people who do well in the major contests, very few (if any) mention online publications, whereas some of the more established print markets crop up time and time again. So I'm convinced the general consensus is that print still rules the roost, and if I want to continue to develop my writing I'm going to need to try harder to get some stories into one or two of those magazines.

This doesn't mean giving up on competitions (the Bridport and Bristol short story competition winners are printed in beautiful anthologies, after all) or online markets, but it does mean trying to widen my horizons in terms of where I look when I have a story ready to go. Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources online and elsewhere to help identify potential markets - for instance the brilliant Short Stops, or Thresholds, or any of the many online lists other people have put together. I don't have any particular targets in mind, but if I score any hits, you'll be the first to know about it.

How do you decide where to send your writing?

Friday 3 January 2014

Free Books - Still a Hard Sell?

For the whole month of October, I made the electronic version of my collection of short stories, Somewhere to Start From, free. All people needed to do was log in to Smashwords, input the discount code, and download the file to their computer or e-reader. It turned out to be a far from irresistible offer. Here's where I think I went wrong.

Also available in paperback
I didn't expect a huge response, to be honest. The book's been available for a while, and in some ways it's probably close to the end of its shelf-life. However, it's been a remarkably quiet year for me (in terms of publications or competition results), and I'd picked up another couple of hundred followers on Twitter since the last time I did any significant promotional stuff. Plus I still haven't managed to inflict a copy on everyone I know in the real world, so I thought it was worth another go.

I didn't take a screenshot of the book's page visits and downloads statistics, so you're spared another graph. Suffice to say things got off to a good start, with plenty of visits spurred on by people retweeting my initial link to this blog. Five copies were downloaded within 24 hours, which seemed like a good start. But from then on it was a case of diminishing interest, with fewer visits each day and the occasional spike when I tweeted about it or put a post on Facebook. Downloads cropped up sporadically, one or two at a time. Overall, I think the number of e-copies I 'sold' was in the low teens, so hardly a runaway success.

But... all of it was useful, because I feel like I have a better insight into how a successful promotion might be managed. Most of this is probably common sense, and anyone with any marketing experience will probably roll their eyes at how obvious this all is, but here are the lessons I'm taking from this:

A month is too long. If you're promoting something, you need to instil a sense of urgency. Your potential customers should feel like the opportunity to grab the glittering treasure on offer is fleeting. That initial spurt of attention might be all the interest you get - so don't give potential customers three or four weeks to think about whether they actually want the book. Because by then something else will have come along and they'll have forgotten all about you.

A quid off is not the bargain of the century. The ebook version of STSF has always been priced at 99p (or thereabouts). I've never been sure if this is too cheap or whether it's a sensible price for people who stumble across my work somewhere and might fancy reading more. I'm not trying to make a living from the collection, so my aim was to price it at a level appropriate to the possibility of an impulse buy. Still, I think making an already very cheap thing free was never going to trigger a torrent of downloads - chances are the majority of people who were interested in buying it wouldn't have been put off by having to shell out a pound.

Nobody knows who I am anymore. I, or at least my writing, was not particularly visible during 2013. With only a couple of stories (which I'd submitted in 2012) going online in the early part of the year - and only one of those featuring a link to this website - I've not done a great job of bringing my work to the attention of new readers. Success begets success, and with almost nothing new of mine making its way into the world, it's understandable that my offer didn't cause much of a stir. A few more published stories, even a competition shortlisting or two, might have helped ensure people thought my work was worth reading.

A few tweets do not a 'campaign' make. There's little more annoying than a Facebook or Twitter account that does nothing but pump out promotional tweets for the owner's latest book. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but only a small proportion of those who bother to read your output on social media are actually going to be interested in reading anything else you've written. I'm possibly over-cautious in this regard, worried about annoying my followers and friends, and the half-dozen mentions I made over the course of the month weren't enough to ensure a good cross-section of my online following saw at least one of the links. I didn't update the blog very often, and I also did nothing at all offline to promote the book, which ought to be an important part of any successful publicity campaign.

Everyone else is doing it. Seriously, is there anybody out there who isn't promoting a book? Mine was just another, fairly feeble, voice in a sea of thousands, all shouting more or less the same thing. I didn't give much thought to how I would make my offer stand out from the crowd, I didn't tie it in with any particular event, in short I didn't make it seem unique or relevant - two factors I'm sure would have helped convince people it was worth taking a look.

People are lazy and suspicious. This may seem a harsh thing to say, but I think it's true - to some extent, at least. One thing I noticed was that although the entire book was available without charge, people were still downloading the free sample (effectively the same as Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature). I was wondering why this was - if you were interested enough to read the first few pages, why not have the whole thing if it didn't cost you anything? Then I realised - you can get the sample without opening a Smashwords account. This made sense. I don't like joining new sites, so I try to limit it to occasions when it's the only way of getting something I really want.  Most people I know have never self-published an ebook, and so have never heard of Smashwords. Were potential readers worried about signing up to an unknown site? Concerned about ending up on a spammy mailing list? Did it all seem too much hassle? I suspect that unfamiliarity played a part - things might have been different if I'd made the book available on Amazon, which most people don't necessarily like but at least know and trust.

So, although it was a long way from an unqualified success, it was a worthwhile experiment. Plus, two reviews appeared soon after the end of the promotion (although I think only one was directly linked with the giveaway). A glowing one from Shirley Golden, and a more reserved one from Paul Isaac. As ever, I'm very grateful to both these readers for taking the time to review my book, especially considering -as Paul points out on his blog- how difficult (even nonsensical) it is to attempt to rate a collection of stories when they differ wildly in tone and genre.