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: