Friday, 31 December 2010

So much still to discuss

Back in April I blogged about a visit to my writing mentor and close family friend, Ranald Graham. What I didn't say at the time was that Ranald was dying, of Motor Neurone Disease (MND), an excruciating illness that had killed my father ten years before. Ranald battled the worst symptoms with courage and an appetite for information that defeated the experts in the disease, about which so much remains unknown.

Ranald it was who taught me that writer's block is the alias for a bad idea; that writers would rather be thought lazy or prevaricating than lacking in ideas. It was a theory, a great one. Ranald was a man of theories, of boundless energy and enthusiasm; an hour in his company left your head spinning in all sorts of exciting directions, often concurrently. He had a genius for inspiring those around him, for making life feel like a big adventure with endless questions to be asked and discussions to be had. He's perhaps best known for his TV writing, for The Professionals and The Sweeney, but he also worked in Hollywood, writing the last cowboy movie never filmed and a horror film directed by William Castle, who produced Rosemary's Baby.

I knew Ranald because he was a child internee of the Japanese, one of the children imprisoned for nearly four years at Batu Lintang camp in Borneo. My mother was a year older than Ranald, the pair of them five and six respectively when the camp was liberated by the Australians on 9th September 1945. Ranald was remembered by Nurse Hilda Bates in her diary of the prison camp. There's a decent dedication page on Wikipedia, and links to various obituaries, but nothing that quite captures the spirit of the man.

In Ranald, I lost someone with whom I felt a unique connection, a champion for my efforts as a writer, a role-model and an amazing man. Someone so full of passion and humour and optimism. Someone who gave so much and had so much still to give. His last words to his best friend: "There's still so much to discuss..." He knew how to live. How to really live. What I wouldn't give for an ounce of that joy he felt, and shared. Of everyone, he deserved to live a long life, because he'd have kept on giving - spreading joy and showing the rest of us how to tackle the messy business of living.

To watch a 90 second film about the devastating effect MND has on lives, click here. Please note it is certificate 15. You can learn more about MND here.



Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Big Pulp

Big Pulp's first print edition is out very soon, and includes my short story, Every time's the first. You can order copies here. A Kindle edition is planned, to complete the options for readers. Editor Bill Olver says, 'Thank you all so much for your interest and encouragement as we've made the move into print. We're thrilled with the quality of work that's appearing in our debut edition. We are confident in the quality of the magazine and the talent of our contributors and that makes it much easier to publicize the zine online and approach retail stores to carry us. We're fully behind the magazine and hope you are as proud of it as we are. We couldn't have done it without you!'

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Silver

Yesterday I returned from the snowy North West to the news that my very short flash, Silver, will be published in the New Year issue of Imbroglio Magazine, which has the funkiest and coolest website I've seen. Silver is one of a trio of pieces I wrote to distract myself while waiting to hear from the agent, whom I can now call 'my agent', which is still wonderfully exciting and the perfect way to kickstart the festivities. Here's to a warm, peaceful, happy Christmas, or what you will.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How to get a literary agent (or not)

1. Write a damn good book. (Convince yourself it's word-perfect; show it to no one who might cast doubt on this conviction)

2. Pitch the book to the right agent in the prescribed manner. (Or not. Don't let submission guidelines get in your way; this book can't be pinned down in a paragraph)

3. Practice patience. (Chase after two weeks. That's plenty of time for the book's brilliance to have penetrated)

4. Submit a full ms on request in the prescribed manner. (Convince yourself this is it: your genius is about to be universally acknowledged and rewarded)

5. Accept the rejection with good grace, putting it to one side if necessary until you are in the right frame of mind to read it as the valuable information you need to get better at what you do. (Curse and pity the poor fools who didn't have the wit to recognise genius when they read it; do not entertain the idea that they know more than you do about books and publishing)

6. Start a new book, keeping close at hand the rejection letter that contained vital information about what you needed to do to get further this time. (Start a new book ignoring that ridiculous rejection, which you've torn up in any case)

7. Pitch and submit as earlier. (Give it another shot, possibly mentioning the idiots that turned down your previous work of genius)

8. Accept the rejection with good grace, learning from it all that you can. (Wonder what is wrong with a world that can reject you twice. Storm. Rant. Flounce. Better: do it on your blog, naming and shaming those who thwarted you. Alternatively, curl up in a ball and never come out)

9. Repeat steps six to eight, as required. (Give up. Tell yourself it's because you're too good to get published)


On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be signed by Gregory & Company, a fantastic agency that specialises in crime and thrillers. I had previously submitted three other novels, all of which were read in full by Jane Gregory's team, all of which were rejected with two pages of feedback that helped me to see why they weren't books that could be published easily, or even at all. My fourth attempt needs work, of course it does. But thanks to a brilliant team at the agency, and an editor who knows exactly how to lead a writer through what's needed, I feel enthused rather than daunted. In fact, I'm dying to get stuck into the changes.

'You've been trying us for some time,' Jane said when we met.

'I'm famed for my stamina,' I confessed.

Not to mention bloody-mindedness, but also as it turns out, the ability to listen to what I'm told and to know that a good writer can always - ALWAYS - be a better writer. This was driven home to me when I read Jane's interview for Mslexia, where she talks about what it takes to be signed by her and to make it as a writer.

Keep the faith, take advice from the experts, never give up.



Friday, 10 December 2010

Writing about what we've lost

Great newsletter from Mo Hayder this morning, in which she talks about moving home for the thirty-third time in forty-nine years. Funnily enough, her latest move takes Mo to the Cotswolds, which I left eighteen months ago. "Someone once said that people write better about something when they've lost it," Mo writes, and that resonated with me. The newsletter is all about distance, and altered perspectives, and how these things help us to see our writing in new and exciting ways.

Several of the themes in my current novel are things I've moved on from recently. I won't say 'lost', since they've become part of me, but I've only recently acquired the distance - emotionally - to be able to put them down on paper. As Mo says of her recent writing, it's liberating, but it's more than just that.

Stories that come from under our skin are the ones most likely to get under the skin of others.

I'm looking forward to Mo's new book, The Hanging Hill, set in the city she's just left: Bath. She's certainly picked an adventurous season in which to spend her first Christmas in the Cotswolds. I hope she has a wood-burning stove and a village store.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The truth is out there

Well, the novel is. Following a full ms request, I edited, polished, printed, bubble-wrapped and brown-papered the thing and posted it this morning. I have the usual symptoms: queasy anticipation and mild regret, the latter only insofar as I miss it now it's gone out into the world. I won't say I feel bereft, as that would be gilding the gingerbread, but I am at a loose end. I plan to catch up with my reading, TV viewing and Christmas gift-wrapping, until my head is cleared enough to begin writing something new.

I thought it might be useful to mention (and link to) some blog posts and sound advice which I followed as I edited and prepared the ms for mailing. Firstly, this excellent post by Elizabeth Craig on Keeping it interesting, which helped me to focus on those moments when the story might be slacking off, helping me to keep it fresh and the reader engaged. Dmytry Karpov's blog post, Brevity is key, was a good reminder of one aspect in the editing process: getting rid of anything unnecessary. Finally, as I was about to send it off, I came across this insight by Rachelle Gardner, into what might be going through an agent's mind when she reads my ms.

All of the above, by the way, I discovered via Twitter. I wholeheartedly retract my earlier peevishness about the value of this brand of social networking; it's a goldmine. Of course, you all knew that already, but it took me a while to get past my Luddite objections and see for myself. I'm very glad I did. If you have a Twitter for me to follow - your own or a recommendation - please let me know.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harrogate Crime Festival

The people behind the Harrogate Crime Festival have launched a new online community, You're Booked, for crime readers and writers. I'm today's guest blogger, talking about how technology killed the gumshoe detective. Please pop along and leave a comment. Thank you!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Gentleman's Relish

The new issue of The Short Review is online now. It includes my review of Patrick Gale's collection, Gentleman's Relish, which I enjoyed very much. Happy third birthday to TSR, by the way! What a great three years of reviews, interviews and stories.

Patrick is reading one of my favourite stories from the collection, Hushed Casket, at Cambridge WordFest 2010 on 27 November.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Books for everyone

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, here are my recommendations for book gifts. Lots of choices for children, because I'm always buying these sorts of books but don't often see recommendations on blogs like this. The links all lead to The Book Depository. Because I'm a bit cheesed off with Amazon right now, and we all need choices. The Book Depository has great discounts, free postage and a quick service. Happy shopping, and reading.

Mad Men: the illustrated world by Dyna Moe. Why? It has a cut-out and dress-up Joanie doll. Also a guide to dealing with the office emergency of a severed foot. For? Girlfriends, best friends, your gay husband, anyone you want to impress with your wit and vivacity.

Mr Chicken goes to Paris by Leigh Hobbs. Why? It's funny, smart and a bit bonkers. For? Toddlers, parents of toddlers who are counting the weeks until they can take their offspring abroad.

In my Patch by Sara Gillingham. Why? It's cute and tactile, with a finger-puppet mouse. For? Babies, new parents of babies.

Wash this blood clean from my hand by Fred Vargas. Why? It has the most adorable detective in the world, solving crimes that rely on intellect rather than viscera for their impact. For? Mothers-in-law, female friends, anyone who appreciates the finer things in crime.

Dogs don't do ballet by Anna Kemp. Why? It's mad as a box of squirrels. For? Five year old rebel rousers, parents of five year olds who are tired of the pinkness of ballet books.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill. Why? It's a beautiful looking book and an instant classic. For? Mothers, grandmothers.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: the Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinsey. Why? It's a mixture of cartoon and story, international bestseller and very cool. For? Nine year olds with an off-beat sense of humour, kids who moan about school - they'll soon see how good they've got it.

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. Why? It's a dialogue between two of the world's greatest directors, with storyboard-style stills from all the famous Hitchcock films. For? Fathers, brothers, film buffs of all ages.

Mr Gum and the Secret Hideout by Andy Stanton. Why? I defy anyone not to love these books. Wild, wacky and the best fun to read out loud. For? Kids that don't like reading, or being read to. They'll break through the barrier, I guarantee it.

Diary of a Wimpy Vampire by Tim Collins. Why? Because the undead have feelings too. For? Young teens who spend too much time in their rooms. At least this way you'll know what they're doing - reading this book.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

National Short Story Week

I'm very excited to be a part of National Short Story Week, reading one of my stories at Blackwell's in Bristol on Wednesday 24 November. Do come along if you can. Organiser and MC for the evening, is Tania Hershman. Special guest is Vanessa Gebbie.

Blackwell's, Park Street, Bristol

A Celebration of the Short Story

Wednesday, 24th November, 6pm– 8pm


A great short story can do something no other form can. It has been described as "an apocalypse in a very small cup", a complete world that you are immersed in for only the time it takes to drink a cup of tea or wait for a bus but one which may remain in your mind for far, far longer. It can make you laugh or cry, terrify and delight you, all in the space of a few pages - or even less!

Come and celebrate the short story with readings by local writers Tania Hershman, Sarah Hilary, Anna Britten, Louise Gethin, Pauline Masurel, Nicholas Rawlinson, Ursula Wills-Jones, Margot Taylor and Alan Toyne, and special guest, award-winning short story writer Vanessa Gebbie, whose second collection, Storm Warning, has just been published. And read your own stories in the open mic slot, 5 minutes maximum, just turn up and join in the party!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Fred Vargas

A big thank you to whoever it was who recommended Fred Vargas to me. I'm reading her at the moment, This Night's Foul Work, and it's terrific, full of intriguing and appealing characters, not least the hero, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, whose reactions to everything are unexpected and endearing. He's small and vague and really rather wonderful. The first time in ages that I've found a new writer I like in this genre. Fred (short for Frédérique) Vargas is an historian turned writer, with an acute attention to detail, wit and imagination. I'm only a third of the way into this book but already I'm hooked on her unusual eye for character and intrigue. The police call in an archaeologist to help exhume a grave as the soil structure baffles them; the expert digs with his hands and from touch alone tells them how the grave was dug by two men, in turns, with distinctive ways of holding the pick-axe. The whole section was brilliantly done, with humour and cleverness that didn't run to ego. I hope her other books are as good. I've ordered two more, including the one that preceded This Night's Foul Work, as it alludes to terrible trauma for our hero. Can't wait!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Exposure

Isn't the cover great for this new Cinnamon Press anthology of microfiction? The collection includes work by writers from all over the place (and me!).

"Ranging across love, loss, hate, journeys and other oddities these finely written pieces constantly surprise, delight and challenge. With a powerful title piece from Bill Trüb this is an innovative anthology full of difference."

It will be published in November and is available for pre-order.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Who tells your story? POV changes everything

I was interested to read James Wood in the London Review of Books today, on the difficulties of the narrative voice in Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted novel, Room. The story takes its prompt from the real-life case of Josef Fritzel, and is told through the eyes of its five year old hero, Jack. Wood states very lucidly the difficulty posed by this narrative choice, for the author but also for the reader:

"... unfortunately Jack is a child, and unfortunately Jack narrates the novel, and unfortunately Jack is a pretty cute kid, which means that the book itself is never far from cuteness – more Adrian Mole than Ivan Denisovich – which may explain the endorsements of Room provided by sentimental popular novelists like Anita Shreve and Audrey Niffenegger. Where is Mark Haddon’s imprimatur? And of course, a novel narrated by a five-year-old kid stretches to breaking point the already uneasy tension in first-person narration between the supposed orality of the recitation and its actual writtenness."

I think Wood makes a very good point. Even if our primary interest in the story is its psychological impact on the hero, the narrative doesn't quite capture - convincingly, consistently - the extent of that impact. Because no 5 year old can be expected to articulate an experience of this kind, let alone in a manner that extracts the nuances and the socio-political subtext which would have made this a richer, more thought-provoking work. I absolutely understand Donoghue's attraction to the subject matter, as a writer, but I wonder if she took the easy route through, by avoiding anything approaching an adult commentary.

The narrator in The Lovely Bones is older, and manages to combine a childish wonder with an emerging adult instinct for danger and despair - we don't lose anything by seeing the story through her eyes. In any case, Sebold's novel is not (to my knowledge) based on a real-life crime. The prude in me (if that's what it is) wants to demand that fiction inspired by real-life crime takes its responsibilities very seriously, thinks about what is important in the narrative, what responses readers should feel, the questions we should ask about a world that contains this kind of crime. I don't believe this was ever going to be possible through the narrative POV of a 5 year old, and I wonder whether Donoghue believed it to be possible.

Ultimately, I think my disappointment with the novel is its light-weight treatment of what is a deeply disturbing and morally challenging subject matter. I'm not squeamish but even if I was, I wouldn't want my reaction to a story inspired by the crimes of Josef Fritzel to be "Aww, how sweet!"

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

This time of year

I'm always at my best in the Autumn. All the things we're meant to feel in Spring - refreshed, awake - I get at this time of year. Plus I love the colours of Autumn, and the textures (nubby tweed and Shetland wool and frothy alpaca...). Oh and there's Christmas at the end of it all, which still manages to make me happy and not frazzled, mainly because I avoid the high-end trappings and concentrate on indulgences, curling up with good books and people. I feel I might start writing something new (a short story, maybe a flash) in a week or so. But for now I'm reading (Toby Litt) and walking and enjoying having not very much to do and the space in which to do it. Happy Autumn, bloggers!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

What's a little sociopathy between friends?

Those of you in London may have spotted these Wanted posters, advertising a new marketing strategy on behalf of Jonathan Kellerman's publicity for his latest Alex Delaware novel, Deception, which I enjoyed recently. I've been a fan of Kellerman's books for a few years, working my way back through his Delaware series to its beginnings. Alex is a child psychologist turned police consultant, not always a classic hero (in some of his earlier adventures the tormented machismo got a bit much for me, I must admit) but when he teams up with LA homicide detective Milo Sturgis (a big smart slob of a man, who happens to be gay), well then I find the pair of them pretty much irresistible.

Kellerman specialises in plot AND character, rather than one or the other. He plots and sub-plots like a crazy demon plotting machine, but it's his characters and descriptions of the murky corners of LA that make him so readable. Detail upon detail, all sewn together beautifully, nothing spared or wasted. I like his books from the late 80s and early 90s, especially. Some of the more recent ones had been pared down rather too much for my taste, with the banter between Milo and Alex reduced to shorthand. It makes sense, after all the groundworking in the early stories, but I missed the richness of the prose and dialogue. But Deception is a return to top form, complex and twisted and oh-so-dark.

I was intrigued to be emailed about the viral marketing campaign around the book. Here's what the strategists had to say:

"The lead character in author Jonathan Kellerman’s series of crime novels, has been brought to life online with a call to fans to help ‘solve’ the murder at the heart of his latest book, DECEPTION... Delaware and Detective Milo Sturgis must enter the cutthroat world of private education to seek the killer of Elise Freeman, a teacher who may not be all she seems. Once again they must delve into the darkest recesses of the human compulsions and seek the truth against fierce opposition, even from within their own ranks.

"For the paperback launch of this murder mystery, published by Headline, the fictional psychologist has been brought to life on Twitter, Facebook and via his own website so that fans can get to know the man behind the Ph.D. To help solve his most complex case yet, Alex Delaware is turning to the public to help uncover a killer. Delaware will give fans access to information about his current case, including exclusive evidence from the crime scene.

"Campaign posters on the London Underground, based on a traditional ‘wanted’ poster, call for help from the public to assist in solving the murder by directing them to Dr Alex Delaware’s website, either online or via mobile. Once there, a criminal empathy test allows fans to find out which type of criminal they most identify with, to help Delaware understand the criminal mind and the types of crime people are most likely to commit. Participants then also feedback to Delaware on key pieces of evidence and their understanding of events, based on their criminal affiliations.

"This is the first time that fans will be able to interact directly with the book’s leading man and this campaign takes this interactivity to a whole new level: readers actually get to become part of the crime-solving team as Delaware searches for insights into the murderer (or murderers) he is chasing.

Commenting on the new campaign, Vicky Cowell, Marketing manager at Headline Publishing Group, said: “Bringing Alex Delaware to life online is a very bold step and one which we think fans will really get behind. The chance to interact with Delaware is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity... As fans know, Delaware doesn’t like to work in isolation and getting outside opinions on the crime will really help him to form his views and catch the killer.”

"Delaware will also interact with fans via his Facebook and Twitter pages and call for insight from them to help solve the case. To watch the film, view the evidence and interact with Delaware, visit: http://www.alexdelaware.co.uk/


I guess I really should join Twitter now, shouldn't I?

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE

Perhaps I'd better not join Twitter, since the "Criminal Tendency" test at Delaware's site says I'm a sociopath:

"People are an alien species. You’ve never understood them and find relating to them almost impossible. Social graces, morality and even common decency are all foreign currency to the sociopath. There is only one setting for you; ice cold."

Yikes.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

Seán Ó Faoláin Commendation

Congratulations to the winners of the 8th Annual SOF Contest! I'm heartily chuffed that my story was Highly Commended.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

8th Annual Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition 2010

Congratulations to everyone on the shortlist, which has just gone up on site here. I'm thrilled that my story, "You would feel your heart fall over", is up there with the 22 selected stories from over 800 entries. It started life after I heard a group of elderly women mourning a friend who'd just moved into a care home: 'I couldn't do it. I have my own chairs here.' There is much more to the story than the chair, but it's the central image, the point where the story begins and ends. I enjoyed writing it. To see it on the shortlist is very exciting.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Book swap, anyone?

I have a handful of recently-read crime novels that need good homes. Free to whoever asks first, or has something comparable to swap. There's a whole slew of Georges Simenon Maigrets; The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black; Genesis by Karin Slaughter; Jonathan Kellerman's Rage, Obsession, and Blood Test; Land of the Living by Nicci French, and Murder in the Latin Quarter by Cara Black. All in perfect condition.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Red meat, leafy greens and Sherlock

I'm on a quest for iron-rich foods, prompted by my GP. Apparently it wouldn't take much to tip me into anaemia. So I shall be after the darkest of dark chocolates, the reddest of meats and possibly some buttered spinach with nutmeg and ground ginger. Yum. Thus fortified, I hope to get back the attention span necessary to see the rest of the novel through. In other news, I've been enjoying Sherlock on BBC1. The final of three episodes is tonight at 9pm, but it's all available on the BBC's iPlayer via their website. I'm a huge fan of the Holmes stories, and resisted watching this "modern adapatation" at first. But the use of Victorian locations around London, the score, the editing and lighting - it's all beautifully done, suspended at the exact spot between light-hearted tribute and dark pathos, thanks in huge part to Martin Freeman as Watson, a performance that's worthy of a BAFTA for my money. He's funny, compassionate, quiet, observant, interesting and layered. Everything you could want in a hero. Benedict Cumberbatch is suitably insufferable as Holmes, but it's Freeman who steals the show. Do watch this, if you aren't already hooked.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Getting the measure of good crime writing

A short but interesting write-up in the Telegraph today, following the Harrogate Crime-Writing Festival last week. It seems some crime writers are getting the wind up about just how serious the genre should be. To try and compete with literary writers, or not? To connect with readers, surely? The joy of 'making stuff up' versus the urge to write home truths drawn from real life. As the Telegraph puts it: "the pleasingly dissonant sound of writers singing from many different hymn sheets".

For my money, good crime writing gets under the skin of real people, based in the real world. At its best, it gets deeper under that skin than other genres. But there's the temptation to flirt with the grotesque - to reach new heights (or depths) of depravity - to shock the reader in ways they haven't been shocked before. Taken to an extreme, this can fracture the connection between writer and reader; it takes a highly skilled writer to hold our attention while turning our stomachs.

I'd rate Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs above just about any other in this regard, although it's interesting that what engaged most readers - and the author himself - was the human relationships at the heart of the story and not its serial killer with the dodgy personal habits. I'd also point out how much more I enjoyed Mo Hayder's recent novels to her earlier ones, where the shocks came thick and fast but the characters cried out for a deeper exploration - which, in the case of Jack Caffrey, she served up in the later books, in spades.

Crime writing which relies heavily on shock value, on excessive brutality or grotesquerie, usually strays into farce. I'm not saying brutality isn't a part of reality, of course it is. But if the reader can detect the sweat, blood and tears of the writer in the effort, it severs the link, takes us out of the story into boggling at the craft beneath.

A good friend told me recently she'd given up on 'hardcore crime' after reading a particularly bloody and bizarre passage which had the opposite effect to that intended by its hard-working author: it made her laugh. Not because it was funny, but because she could sense the effort which'd gone into its nastiness. 'This,' she could clearly hear the writer thinking, 'is the stuff to give 'em!'

Yep, I had a similar reaction to Mo Hayder's Pig Island. But by the time she was writing Skin she'd put the shocks (and the laughs) in their place; Skin is a terrific read, exciting and haunting, funny and tragic. Balance is everything, and Hayder's got the measure of this now.

Natasha Cooper wrote a great piece around this topic, a couple of years ago, but her words have stood the test of time. Read her advice on the Dangers of Crime Writing here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Nuala Ní Chonchúir's You

I’m very happy to welcome Nuala Ní Chonchúir on the latest leg of her virtual book tour. Born Dublin 1970, award-winning fiction writer and poet Nuala lives in County Galway. Her novel You was published by New Island in April 2010; her third short fiction collection Nude was published by Salt in 2009; The Irish Times called it ‘a memorable achievement’. Nude was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Nuala is fiction editor of Horizon Review.

I’ll begin by saying how much I enjoyed You, which is a tough and touching story of family life in extremis, told through the eyes of a canny ten year old girl. Chock full of colourful characters, the story takes an unflinching and often funny look at adult dilemmas and tragedy, as seen by a wondering (and wonderful) child. It’s a terrific read, the sort you can manage in one sitting but which stays with you long after that. Go, read! I asked Nuala about the three aspects of the novel which intrigued me:

You is told through the eyes of your ten year old heroine. Was this a conscious decision you took at the outset, and how hard was it to stick to that voice exclusively? Were you tempted at any point to show us, for example, the mother's side of the story? What do you feel to be the advantages and disadvantages of telling a complex, adult story through the eyes of a child?

This novel grew from a short story and I never start anything (stories, novels, poems) in what I would call a conscious way. I don’t take a decision – I just start to write, usually, because a first line pops into my head, and it has a voice that belongs to a character, and I just run with that. So this girls’ voice emerged very strongly, in the second person, and I was enjoying her voice so much I just kept writing and writing. I soon realised it was turning into a novel and I wanted to keep going.

It was always going to be the girl’s view of the world – not her mother’s – though it is the mother’s story, really. I liked the challenge presented by telling difficult things from a child’s point of view. That’s what I love about a long piece of work: all the questions and problems that get thrown up that you have to solve; I find that thrilling and mildly excruciating at the same time.

As for advantages, well, the reader has to guess at what is really going on because the child narrator can’t always see the truth in things, though my character is quite sharp.

Disadvantages? Erm, I can’t think of any. Telling from the POV of the child is a plot device like any other. It’s enormous fun. I used to go around thinking ‘Oh, yes, she’d look at x this way and y that way’ purely because she is ten years old. It maybe removes me – the adult writer – from the piece a bit more. And that’s good, I think.

Water is very important to this story: the Channel that the children cross, and especially the river, which feels like a character in its own right, both benign and threatening. Do you live near water, and what is its significance to you as a writer?
I grew up beside the river Liffey in Dublin. The physical landscape of You is the landscape of my childhood. The house on the river, where the family in the novel lives, was my friend’s house. The river was hugely important in my childhood: we paddled, swam, fished, floated and boated on and in it; we were familiar with its wildlife: swans, herons, ducks, otters, kingfishers, fish. We were warned away from it because of drownings that had happened but we were drawn to it.

My first collection of short stories The Wind Across the Grass was full of water, specifically the river I grew up beside. When you live that close to a river it influences you: you see, hear and smell it every day. You talk about it with you neighbours: ‘The river’s high today’ or ‘The river’s low today’.

I think childhood is a huge influence on what we write anyway and the river was such a part of mine it couldn’t help but show up.
What was the starting point of the story? Was there a key image or idea that it grew from, and how did you set about shaping that idea into the final story?

Well, the voice of this spiky, sensitive girl came to me and she had a troubled mother. I tend to write to tell stories to myself, so I’m not a fan of plotting and planning. I just start to write and see where it leads me. During that journey I think a lot and ask a lot of questions. What if this happened? Or, for example, what if so-and-so had this profession, how would that shape him as a character? I deliberately made the sinister character Kit a butcher, to give him a semi-violent edge.

Setting is also hugely important to me and it occurred to me early on that I could set this story in my home-place and so all the physical locations were to hand in my head, so to speak. And the river became, as you said Sarah, another character in the book.

It took a year to write the novel and I had no idea as I went along what was going to happen or how it would end. That exploration of the story for myself is a big part of the joy of writing for me.

Thanks, Nuala. The exploration aspect certainly came across beautifully in You. I look forward to reading where the journey (and the joy) takes you next.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Supporting cast

I do love it when things come together, and in unexpected ways. I blogged a while ago about finding an elusive character (my creation) in an earlier story, Here She Is. I've just discovered someone I thought was a bit-player, quietly in the background, is one of the major characters in my novel. How this character will feel about being dragged from obscurity into the limelight, I don't know. Perhaps he/she liked being a bit-player. Or perhaps he/she will see this as the big break every actor craves. In either case, it's a turning point for the plot and one that liberates other characters to behave as they please, rather than trying to fit my machinations.

To be clear: I had no idea this character would be The One. I did not write him/her to fit that mould, or not consciously. But now I come to look at him/her I find that all the facets are there, everything I need in terms of motive and opportunity. The smallest tweak and it falls into place. At least I hope so. I'd better get writing and find out.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Bad! science

I enjoyed listening to Blinded by Science on Radio 4 earlier this week, Tania Hershman stealing the show with her flash story and discussion around the benefits of bringing art and science closer together. But it got me thinking, tangentially, about Technology and the Whodunnit.

I read a fair amount of crime fiction, as you may imagine, since I'm writing a crime novel. One of my favourite authors is Jonathan Kellerman, who manages to write compelling characters, intricate plots, superb locations and surprising crimes. He's been at it since the mid-80s and is still going strong. His early novels are good but for my money he hit his stride in the mid-90s. His recent books, from 2000 onwards, aren't a patch on those written ten years ago, at least I don't think so. Part of the reason for this is that he's pared down his style to such an extent that it sometimes reads as if he's summarising instead of telling the story. The bigger part of the reason, though, is that his detectives "benefit" from modern technology. Not just forensics (Kellerman loves to bash the CSI school of police science) but everyday technology.

Mobile phones are the worst offenders. Every character always knows where every other character is at any given time. They can call for back-up, or just to pick the brains of a colleague. It's good to talk, apparently. Personally I preferred the days when the hero could become perilously isolated, his call for help delayed in transit or thwarted by a vandalised phonebox.

Then there's the research angle. Kellerman's hero is brilliant at hunting down clues, extrapolating, following his nose, trying out angles. Or, you know, putting words into Google and, erm, instantly eliminating multiple avenues of investigation. He used to risk his neck doing this stuff, now the biggest threat is RSI.

There's your detective novel done for, right there. RIP gumshoe hero.

Now I'm no Luddite. But sometimes I surprise in myself an idle wish for a satellite serial killer who will do for modern technology what the Millennium Bug was meant to do. Just, you know, so my heroes (and those of others) could have something more exciting to do all day than go online and run up a massive Orange network bill.

I wonder if this thought is behind the recent fascination with historial crime? A return to the good old days when heroes could be baffled and blind-alleyed, and had to work their socks (or clocked-stockings) off to get their man? I expect so.

The silver lining, as I see it? Logically, since modes of investigation are becoming limited and less random, that which differentiates one author from another and one book from the rest, should be characterisation.

You can lead a man to Google, but you can't make him think. The way in which he does that is in the hands of the author, regardless of who owns the network.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Proper words in proper places

If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing (Kingsley Amis)

Every word written is a victory against death (Michel Butor)

All romances end in tragedy. One of the key people in a romance becomes a monster sooner or later (David Cronenberg)

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia (Kurt Vonnegut)

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people (Thomas Mann)

I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another (Brenda Ueland)

I never want to see anyone, and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write (P. G. Wodehouse)

Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats (Howard Aiken)

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what he thinks about dogs (Christopher Hampton)

It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends (Samuel Johnson)

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style (Jonathan Swift)

Over to you!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Short Review

The new issue is out! Always a cause for celebration, each edition of The Short Review is packed with interviews and reviews of short story collections, classic, contemporary - you name it, it's here. I'm looking forward especially to reading the reviews of Richard Yates' Collected Stories, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Maile Meloy. My review of Grace Paley: The Collected Stories is also in this new issue:

Monday, 21 June 2010

The unreliable narrator

Love her, or hate her? (Or him?) For myself, I love an unreliable narrator. I've recently re-read two first-rate examples, both by Jenefer Shute. Life-Size is a politically-astute, fiery and controversial story about a young woman in the grip of anorexia. Sex Crimes is a terrific thriller about an older woman's brutally destructive relationship with a younger man. Both books are told in the first person by a narrator whose perspective is skewed, almost fatally so, but such is Shute's skill as a storyteller that the reader is never too far from the truth no matter how the narrator might dodge or conceal it. In each case, these are amongst the most exciting and compelling stories I've ever read, poetically told, unsparingly bleak, ultimately rewarding.

A more subtle version of the unreliable narrator can be found in Helen Dunmore's Talking to the Dead, where the reader only starts to doubt the narrative after several chapters, by which time we are so wedded to it that it becomes an exercise in detection to separate the strands of what we are being told and what is not being said. It then becomes almost a competitive sport, as the reader and narrator race to the finish, each with their own piece of the puzzle that will - together - solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

Dunmore talks of this bond between the author and reader as a ‘very deep form of play’. She likens the reader response to that of a person watching a film, viewpoints changing as the camera draws back or closes in. ‘Language has a very powerful sound texture’ she says, enabling the author to capitalise on people’s familiarity with the visual medium of film.

So, do you have favourite examples of unreliable narrators? My list would have to include Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Please recommend your favourites, as I would love to read more of these sorts of stories.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Piecing together a secret past

This story fascinates me. Helen Dunmore drew my attention to it when I interviewed her recently. The E-Puzzler is a piece of machinery being used to "reconstitute" the shredded Stasi files: 45 million documents evidencing the East German secret police's activities prior to 1989, a time when it's estimated there was one police informer for every seven citizens.

"In some ways the E-puzzler works like a human doing a jigsaw, only much faster and without the benefit of a box-lid to show what the puzzle should look like. First, the fragments from each bag are smoothed out and fed into a large scanner: not just ordinary paper but carbon paper, photographs, microfilm, newsprint and folders. The unique characteristics of each piece — shape, colour, font, texture, handwriting, paper-type, edges and thickness — are stored digitally. Using an algorithm, the computer groups together similar fragments to reduce the “search space”, and then locates pieces that join up by matching the different characteristics. The task was made slightly easier by the fact that the Stasi rippers tended to bundle the scraps from sets of files into a single bag."

Link to the full article from The Times, 22 March 2010

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Helen Dunmore

I'm re-reading my favourite Helen Dunmore novels at the moment, rediscovering the pleasure of reading pitch-perfect prose shot through with a bitterdark strand of realism, whether crime, thriller, tragedy or history. I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen last week, for a piece which will appear in the autumn issue of the Bristol Review of Books. It was fascinating to discuss fiction with her, including the nuances of character, the need for distinct voices and what Helen calls 'the role of the dead in the lives of the living'.

Of her novels I would particularly recommend Talking to the Dead, which is set during a heatwave one summer as a family regroups and falls apart after the birth of a new baby awakens memories of an old death. Your Blue-Eyed Boy is the book of hers I've read most often, and it still grips me. Set by the sea, it's another but very different story of the past returning to haunt the present. Every character is credible, layered and complex. I haven't read much of her poetry but would like to. Can anyone recommend a good starting-point?

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Ice Cream

You know how it is when you discover a book and want to buy half a dozen copies so you can send one to each of your closest friends so they can share the discovery that's too good to be kept to yourself? That's how I feel about Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore. It's not a new book, first published in 2000, but I've just read it for the first time; short stories I want to share.
The next day, when the sun was high, I went back to the lilac bushes. There was no sign except a patch of trampled grass. I pulled down a branch and buried my face in the cones of flowers. The smell of the lilacs went through me as if my blood was carrying it. Strong, sweet, languid, yet fresh as water.
Delicious stories, each one different, several worthy of re-reading. Dunmore is a wizard at writing flavours, scents, food and nature; every page is spiced with sensory experience. There are stories to sink into, to drift away with. Warm stories, and cool ones, and some that are downright icy for when the summer gets too hot. Perfect!

Friday, 28 May 2010

Re-entry

For the past two months I've been up to my neck in the new novel, writing around 4,000 words a day, living and breathing and dreaming my characters and plot. Now, as the first full draft is nearly done, I'm experiencing a period of mental readjustment that I'm sure is entirely usual but with which I could use any tips or advice on offer. I'm grieving a little for my characters, not wanting to say goodbye, which sounds like twaddle but doesn't feel that way. I've become horrible misanthropic these last few days, aware that I'm about to enter a phase which requires I stop holding the rest of the world at bay and rejoin the human race. Does anyone have any recommendations as to the best way to go about this? I'm not a very sociable being at the best of times; my instinct is to withdraw and spend time alone but I sense that's not what I need (although, oh! for a week in a faraway spa, all by myself). Exercise, diet and/or mental stimulus suggestions would all be most welcome. Thank you!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bristol Short Story Prize

The longlist for the Bristol Prize has just been published, and I'm thrilled to find my name among so many I know and admire, including Frances Gapper and Elizabeth Baines. Now I must do my best to forget all about this and concentrate on other things, namely the novel. A good friend of mine and a great YA author, Elizabeth Wein, wisely said that wishing or hoping too hard for a thing often scares it away. Much better to enjoy the moment (only 40 entries out of nearly 1,500 made it to the longlist) and forget all about it.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Glass Woman Prize, and Asham Award

Flash fiction has another notch in its bed-post today, as Julie Innis' Sanctuary has won the Glass Woman Prize. Congratulations, Julie!

That's the short short story. The longer one is that I hit 60,000 words with the novel, today which feels like an important milestone. I still haven't re-read any of it and don't intend to until I've reached a first full draft, hopefully by the end of this month. It feels good to be a full-time writer again.

Back to the short stories, because I want to say how much I enjoyed Average Sunday Afternoon by Pat Jourdan, which includes a marvellous flash fiction piece called Miss Haversham Reconstructed. Wonderful, impish and so true.

Finally, the Asham Award is about open for business and this year there's a theme. Ghost, or Gothic. I have something to send to this - hurrah! The entry fee is £15 - boo. That makes it one of the most expensive contests to enter in the UK. Ouch.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Two schools of thought

Opinion is divided on this one, and I'd be interested in people's preferences. When you're writing, do you also take time out to read? Or do you prefer to keep the two separate? I know some writers who find (or just fear) they'll lose their own voice if they're writing while reading another author. I can understand this. But, on balance, I prefer to take the risk. Chiefly because I get so much out of reading, it inspires me, it fills out the world I need to inhabit as a writer, while writing.

During the last ten days I've written the first third of a new novel. I've been writing four or sometimes five hours every week day, an average of 1,000 words per hour. My routine goes something like this: 9am walk for an hour (my incentive is an excellent takeaway latte, at the top of a gruelling hill) while "watching" the next scenes in my novel running like movie reel in my mind's eyes; 10am write for three hours; break for lunch and read for an hour and/or make notes towards the novel; 2pm write for another hour. After the school run, I go offline, tidy my notebook for tomorrow so I know roughly where I'm starting from. Then I read, for a couple of hours at least.

I find the keeping of notes very helpful. I don't re-read what I've written the day before, unless my notes dictate a light edit. But mostly I concentrate on moving forwards, getting it done. I find reading essential. It flexes a different part of my brain entirely. It makes me think about what works and doesn't work in novels, structurally perhaps more than in terms of the words themselves. But when I say that during the last ten days I've read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore, and AL Kennedy's Day, it's probably apparent that I'm not reading around any one topic, or looking for exact inspiration. I'm just closing the circle, surrounding myself in words because this is where I want to be right now. Where I need to be.

Do I worry that my novel will end up owing too much to these other authors? That my voice will be drowned out? No. I'm on my guard against it, for one thing. And it's good for my writer's ear, I think, to hear other voices than my own.

But what do other writers think? How do you complete the circle, when you're writing something new? What rituals and charms do you put in place, to stay focused in the right way?

Friday, 23 April 2010

Bin around the block

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend time with a good friend of mine, a great writer who's worked in Hollywood, among other places. I've always found his company inspiring. Yesterday we talked about Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy, the Scottish tradition of pedantic prose, and the 'sharpening pencils' stage of writing.

'There's no such thing as writer's block,' my friend said. 'There's just bad ideas.'

You know, I think he's onto something. If an idea fails to grip you as a writer, you will find it hard to write, just as you will if it's too slippery or evasive to pin down. We usually prefer to blame our own procasination or laziness rather than admit it's not a good idea. Sometimes we cannot see it's a bad idea until we've written it through, put it down in black and white. But if we're making lots of excuses along the way, to avoid the writing of it, the chances are it's just not a good enough idea. Bin it, and move on?

This has been my personal experience recently. I was struggling with an idea, telling myself I lacked the self-discipline or the time to work on it. Making excuses not to write. Then I had a better idea - one that feels a thousand times clearer and brighter - and I'm having no trouble at all. When I'm not actually writing it, I'm thinking about it, I'm researching and making notes but I'm not avoiding the task ahead of me (I know what avoidance feels like, so I can say this with certainty). And it has at its heart a genuinely good idea. A small nugget that means a huge amount. The idea is good enough for me to see just what was at fault with the previous idea, where its weakness lay.

I wasn't blocked; I was in need of a better idea. Thank goodness I found one.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

And cut

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the BBC made grown-up television dramas that used a scheduling formula which allowed, roughly, an hour per episode. This was because the BBC, unlike all other UK television channels, did not carry advertising.

Now the BBC has long been in the business of selling its dramas overseas, with mixed success. A few years ago, this policy became more aggressive; they got better at it, started making serious money from the sales of rights or - more usually - the formulas for shows like Life on Mars.

Serious money. So much of it that now the BBC appears to be deploying a scheduling formula which specifically accommodates the advert breaks preferred in countries like the USA, where TV dramas live or die by their ability to attract and retain advertising. Advert breaks aren't necessarily the enemy of TV shows, but ask any ITV producer who's seen his or her audience flip channels in an ad break and never return, and he/she will tell you - you'd better give your audience a damn good reason to return at the end of the ads, or to endure attempts to be sold Maltesers and car insurance while waiting to find out whodunnit or whowonit.

Which brings me to the editing in the current series of Ashes to Ashes. The odd stop-start, cliff-hanger-every-six-minutes style of the show, so different to the original Life on Mars. Why? Because they're selling the show to networks that have to give airtime to advertisers, that have to prove to advertisers that the show can sit comfortably as a showcase around the screentime the advertiser is purchasing?

This is not a rant. It's an observation. Watch any episode at random from the early series of Spooks, or Life on Mars. Then watch a recent episode. It's not, as I first thought, about the shifting age demographic and the notion of attention-deficit-programming. Or not only that. It's about breaking a show into chunks around which audiences can become the consumers needed to finance the networks who are broadcasting the shows.

It's not a rant but I do think it's a shame. Good TV drama, like a good book, has its own pace, its own rhythm. It should build, in layers, over time. Not panic and pant its way to conclusions against the clock.

If anyone reading this has the inside story, please share?

Monday, 19 April 2010

Too Much Happiness

My review of this latest collection from Alice Munro is up at Critical Literature Review today. Please, if you've read the collection, shed light on the notes at the end of Wenlock's Edge for me. I'd be very grateful.

"a Munro-patented confusion of conflicting emotions that draw their credibility and their power from exactly that confusion"

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Fish One-Page Prize, and Beautiful Blogging

First, many thanks to Jen at Writer in the Wilderness, who nominated this blog for a Beautiful Blogger Award. I'll attempt seven interesting facts about myself after sharing the jolly news that my two entries to the Fish One-Page Prize have both been shortlisted. And I almost didn't enter anything for this prize this year! Results on 30 April, yikes, but I'm happy just to have got this far. Now for the interesting facts...

1. Circa 1975, my school was on TV in a children's pop show hosted by Ed "Stewpot" Stewart called 'Give us a song' or something like that. My one and only TV appearance.

2. I hail from the part of Northern England where Alan Garner wrote his stories of wizards, which is now over-run by WAGs.

3. Linked to fact #2, at the age of six, I ran away from home for half a day with my older brother, to one of the old caves inhabited in Garner's stories by wizards. I spent some time sheltering in a cave during a thunderstorm while my brother 'foraged for food'. The rain put us off, however, and we trudged home with our tails between our legs.

4. My Great-Great-Grandfather worked in India and vanity-published a book of poetry, which I look at from time to time, wondering about my writerly heritage. It is possibly the reason I have never tried my hand at poetry.

5. Linked to fact #3, several of my Great-Great-Aunts were half-Indian and I have distant relatives living in India today.

6. I worked for a short while at ELLE magazine when Sally Brampton was Editor.

7. I've been on a nuclear submarine, and once spent the night in Prince Andrew's room.

I'm nominating the following for a Beautiful Blogger Award:

Gay Degani Words in Place
black white bliss
Wild Writing the Edge

Monday, 12 April 2010

Solva, sun and plotting

I'm just back from the best holiday ever in Wales (St Bride's Bay, Solva, St David's), sea and sun and sleep. I feel better than I have in months. Does anyone here know Solva? I didn't, before this holiday. A tiny working harbour where you can eat freshly caught lobster and crab, buy beautiful pottery and rugs, or just walk until the harbour beach meets the sea, at sunset.

It was in Solva, and on its neighbouring beaches (including the spectacular Druidston Haven which has a waterfall at one end), that I ruminated on the new novel, plotted a lot of it and began to feel it getting under my skin.

The chief sensation I have at the moment is of holding a fledging bird in the hollow of my hand. I must take great care not to crush it. I know roughly what I must do to see it thrive. I'm marvelling at its fragility (and mine), and its power (and mine).

Hurray for holidays! So, how the heck are all of you?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Friend or foe?

I started writing something new yesterday. It wasn't what I intended to write yesterday. It was the start of a novel I was excited about writing, oh, about three years ago. What I wrote (1,000 word opening scene) wasn't in the style I would have chosen, three years ago. It was better. It might even be pretty good. Am I excited about it, however? No. Instead I am vaguely anxious about continuing with it, even opening the word document and looking at what I wrote yesterday. I feel as if my equilibirum has been unsettled. Threatened.

This isn't what I planned to write, when I was able to return to writing full-time. I had a plan, for goodness sake! I had notes - reams and reams of notes - character studies and character arcs. I knew where I was headed with it. This new thing? The cuckoo in my writer's nest? (Or is it a stork?) I have next to nothing. A one-page synopsis I wrote three years ago, to structure the story in my mind. No character studies. No plot, as such. No notes!! Just this threatening... itch. This idea that I could write this and it could be good, better than what I had planned.

Trouble with an itch? You scratch it, it might go away. Or flare up into something horrid.

Shouldn't I be wildly excited about writing something new? Isn't that a vital ingredient? Or, at least, hug-myself-in-secret excited?

I do feel just like a mother bird, who returns to her nest to hatch her egg and finds someone else's egg there instead. Should I settle and see what hatches? That's what happens in nature, yes?

Has anyone else ever experienced this sense of feeling threatened by what they're writing? Is it a danger sign? Should I step away, or hang around for what happens next?

Added: Usually at this time on a sunny morning, I am writing to the sound of seagulls outside. This morning, it's wood pigeons, and blackbirds.

Friday, 26 March 2010

My week in words

Thank you to everyone who sent kind wishes and congratulations on the Sense Award, including Pat Jourdan, an Irish writer whose stories I love and reviewed here. Even Pat's emails are wonderfully written: 'Dear Sarah - hooray! This is how life ought to be, writing doing something for other people AND the writer being celebrated. Congratulations. And Miriam Margolyes has such a gritty-with-honey voice too. These bright milestones (well, they do certainly gleam in the sunlight) make up for all the other times when we think we are mad to be going on writing.'

Kristie Lagone, editor of Literary Fever, Brian Lister at Biscuit Publishing, Ra Page at Comma Press and Roland Goity at LITnIMAGE all sent warm words, too. Not to mention friends and family. (My mother's so proud and I'm not too old to appreciate the pleasure of having made her feel that way.)

Today, I'm restarting my full-time life as a writer. For six months I've worked hard elsewhere, but today it all begins again. Writing, full-time. It gives me courage and makes me glad, to know that so many people share in this adventure - and so generously. And now, as Pat Jourdan says, 'Back to the drawing-board with you for more.'

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Miriam Margolyes reads my story!

The most exciting news from last week: I attended the Sense Creative Awards at the Geffyre Museum in London on Thursday. Sense is the UK's leading deafblind charity and the Awards celebrate writing by the deafblind as well as writing about the condition. I was privileged to hear some inspirational pieces written by the most amazing children and adults. Miriam Margolyes read various extracts - and the whole of my shortlisted story, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton.

Without exception this was the most thrilling experience of my writing life to date. Miriam is a terrific actress and didn't so much read as perform my story, wonderfully. I had goosebumps as I listened. To hear her announce I was the winner was... just so special. When I thanked her for reading so wonderfully, she said, 'Thank you for writing it so wonderfully,' and my day was complete. Such an amazing award to win, a real honour. I feel blessed.

Sense's PR team are hard at work already, sending a press release to the local media in which they quote Miriam as saying, 'My work is about bringing to life the words on a page. These are powerful words that speak volumes about the very difficult challenges that deafblind people face every day. There’s a compelling quality that draws in the reader and gives voice to these challenges.'

The event was filmed and I've been promised an MP3 audio file of Miriam's reading, which I will post here in due course. For now, colour me very, very happy.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

What's your strategy?

It's that time of year when some of the biggest writing contests open for entries including, of course, the Bridport Prize (accepting flash fiction for the first time). Then there are impending deadlines for the Fish One Page Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and then Exeter, Yeovil - the list goes on. All of which has me thinking: what's your strategy for deciding which contests to enter and what influences that process?

Do you, for instance, consider the odds?If you're a newish writer do you tend to enter smaller contests and build up to the bigger ones? If so, I admire your pragmatism; I could never resist jumping straight to the big fish (in this case Fish itself, where I got lucky in 2008).

Bridport is a longer shot than ever with a 40% increase in entries for 2009: 17,000 entries, including poetry! I wonder, was this the result of Ali Smith's judging role, or could it be that the exchange rate made Fish seem more expensive than ever to enter? (Terrific prize money, of course.) To what extent does the entry fee affect your decision to submit to a certain contest? At all? Somewhat? Only in relation to the prize money?

Does the choice of judge make a contest more (or less) attractive? Does it influence your decision at all? I know I've sometimes thought (no doubt wrongly) that a particular judge may or may not like my writing because of the impression I have of the judge's own writing, or taste.

I also wonder how far the marketing of a contest matters, in the scheme of things. There are some amazing sources out there - I'm thinking in particular of Sally Quilford's Writing Competitions Calendar - but what else should contest organisers do to attract entries? Does it help when the judges blog about what they like? When contests offer a critiquing service (usually at an extra cost)?

I'd love to know what other writers think about this subject. Is entering contests a big part of your writing life? It was a huge part of mine a couple of years back, but now I've drawn my horns in (partly because entry fees add up, partly because I'm taking longer to polish stories). Do share!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Little Episodes

Here's an important thing: a venue that supports people living with depression. Little Episodes exists to 'help de-stigmatise depression and promote compassion and understanding', and is supported by Mind, and by the Little, Brown book group, among others. Check out their website as they are doing some amazing things, with some significant talent. I especially like the K's artwork. I was touched and honoured to have a story chosen for their next anthology, Back in 5 Minutes, which will be launched in London in February. They are open for submissions all year round, and invite artists, writers and creatives to send material here.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Sense Creative Writing Awards

I've been on a couple of shortlists lately, but this one is special. Sense is a charity that campaigns on behalf of deafblind people. In March this year they will host an award ceremony at the Geffrye Museum where Miriam Margolyes will read excerpts from the winning stories. I've been shortlisted in the category, 'writing by any individual on the subject of deafblindness', for my story, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton. There are four awards for writing by deafblind people, and I'm excited to hear the winning pieces.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Happy St Hilary's Day!

Reputedly the coldest day of the year, and a time for feasting on a Roman scale. I'm all for that while this pesky snow lasts. I feel I should celebrate as 'Hilary' is my adopted pen-name. I took it in memory of my Great-Aunt, who was born Edna Hill but was known to all her friends as Hilary. I never knew her, but I've read her letters to my Great-Uncles, including one that begins, 'Dearest Chucky, when will you gladden my eyes with the sight of you?'

Hilary was elder sister to my grandfather, Stan Hill, who died in Batu Lintang POW camp. After the war, Hilary emigrated to America, where she was headmistress of Nightingale Bamford School in New York. She married a New Yorker, Basil, Robillard, and they lived a rare old life from all accounts, in an apartment on East 92nd Street, members of the Cosmopolitan Club and a dashing pair about town until poor Hilary was diagnosed with cancer, from which she suffered for a long time before dying in her early fifties.

Here's to Great-Aunt Hilary, and to feasting.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The heart of a story

Happy New Year! I'm late to the party, but I've been enjoying catching up with people's resolutions, all of which seem very sane and sensible. Realism is the order of the day, as I've been reading around. Who says creative people have their heads in the clouds? In fact that's probably one of the silliest myths about artists of any kind. Who gets their hands dirtier with the messy business of life than artists, of every kind? But this isn't a rant. It's a celebration. Of stamina and staying-power and sheer bloodymindedness.

Over the past few weeks and months I've come closer than I've been in ten years to giving up 'this dream of writing'. Not that it has ever felt like a dream. Ref my earlier point about mess. Then I spent a few quiet hours with some great books (I'm reading more of Alice Munro, and discovering Raymond Carver), and in my own company, asking myself questions (gently, rather than the interrogative, reproachful angle I tend to take) and I reached a conclusion that's helping me find my focus again. I'd strayed too far from the heart of what I was trying to do. In a couple of specific cases I'd been trying to tell a story from entirely the wrong perspective, in the wrong way.

I knew these were good stories, but I was beginning to think I was not the person to be telling them. Well, over the last three days I've written a clean draft of one of these - a short story that's been part of my life for years, to which I feel a debt that was probably putting too much pressure on my instinct as an artist, skewing my approach to it. I've written a clean draft and I think it's good. Too soon to say that for sure, but what I can say is that it's the closest I've come so far to telling the heart of this story in the way it deserves to be told.

In addition to this I've got a little project going on which is just a tickle at this stage but a very exciting one. I feel like a writer again, and it feels good.