Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A trio of awesome anthologies

I'm very happy to be blogging about not one but three new anthologies of short stories coming in the near future, and especially pleased to be appearing in each one.

The first is Voices, edited by Sarah Dobbs, "A collection of memoir, poetry, prose and life-writing from new and established authors. All work is set in Blackburn or written by those with a strong connection to the town." My flash, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home, is one of my personal favourites and I'm delighted it was chosen to be part of Voices. You can listen to me reading the flash (and channelling my paternal grandmother's voice) here.

The Monster Book for Girls is being published by Exaggerated Press and carries two of my very short stories, Spirit Level and Don't Give Me That Face. The cover artwork is very cool and the whole concept was inspired by the pre-war annuals which contained wholesome stories for girls. This new anthology does not, but promises to be great fun.

In April 2012, Pangea will be published, being a collection of the best stories from the website, WriteWords. Two of my longer short stories are in this anthology, The Wedding Fair and LoveFM. I'm looking forward to the promotion and launch of Pangea, in Bristol, with readings at Foyle's and elsewhere.

It's great to be in the company of writers I love and admire, such as Andrea Ashworth, Caroline Choille, Joel Willans and Vanessa Gebbie. Here's to a trio of happy publication dates!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Goody bag of books

Back at the end of the summer, when the days were still long and the weather was (almost) balmy, the team in charge of the Harrogate Crime Festival ran a Reader Review competition: write a review of a crime book and upload it to You're Booked, with a prize for the best submission. I entered my review of Luther: the Calling by Neil Cross, a book that terrified me. And last Monday, a particularly dreary day of fog and cold, I received an email: "I am pleased to announce that your review has been selected as the winning entry in our Reader Reviews Competition. Thank you so much for taking the time to write and submit your review. We very much enjoyed reading your submission. Wonderfully written and incredibly perceptive, we thought your review gave the perfect balance of plot summary and personal analysis."

My prize? A goody bag 'jam-packed' with crime books. I call that a result. Thank you, Harrogate team!

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Coward's Tale

Here's some good news to brighten your Monday morning: Vanessa Gebbie's first novel is published today by Bloomsbury. The Coward's Tale is already picking up terrific reviews, including one by A.N. Wilson who calls the book a 'gem'. I've been a fan of Vanessa's short stories since I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of Words from a Glass Bubble, her first collection (Storm Gathering is her second). What's more, Vanessa is truly supportive of other writers and has done much to boost my confidence and keep me striving for better. Congratulations, Vanessa, on The Coward's Tale and so much more. May Ianto find a huge audience, everywhere.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Friction Magazine

I'm very happy to be in the new issue of Friction, alongside Benjamin Judge, Fatin Abbas and others, with my very short story, Silver Print. Friction Magazine and Journal is described by its team as "the new online space for creative writing and non-fiction published by the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts and edited by the students on the MA and PhD programmes in creative writing at Newcastle University". Friction publish a selection of stories, poetry, flash fiction and other creative work that won’t easily fit into categories. I'm very happy that they found a place in issue three for Silver Print. Oh and please remember I'm guest reading all next week at Smokelong Quarterly - see previous post for details.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Guest reading at Smokelong Quarterly

I'm excited to be guest reading at one of my favourite writing venues, Smokelong Quarterly, the week of October 17th. So if you have a story under 1,000 words that you think I'll love, please submit to the magazine following the website guidelines during that week. If you're brand new to the venue, here's the story I had published in Smokelong a while ago. And here's my interview with them. All stories will be read blind, so I won't know whose stories I'm seeing, but you know the sort of thing I love. Dark, funny, moving, character-led, offbeat, horny. Or simply honest.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Yesterday's Man in Stalking Elk

I'm thrilled that my short story about déjà vu, Yesterday's Man, has been published in the third issue of the excellent Stalking Elk magazine, alongside great cartoons and illustrations, not to mention an interview with comedian Robin Ince. The issue is themed, and the content is humourous. But you got that, from the cover, of course.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Post Mortem #1

The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

I thought it would be fun (and informative) to start a series that deconstructs books I’ve enjoyed to get at what makes them so good. This is the fourth crime novel from Chelsea Cain. I have to confess I found her earlier books a bit richly camp for my taste. Her female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, is a classic creation. January Jones (of Mad Men fame) has optioned the rights to play Gretchen onscreen, thereby ensuring her longevity. But I felt a strong impulse to laugh while reading the passages between Gretchen and the books’ hero, Archie, victim of her peculiar brand of perversion. The Night Season is different, in that Gretchen’s taken a backseat to a new story, led by Archie and Cain’s most successful creation, journalist Susan Ward. Archie and Susan make a great team, here against a backdrop of rising floodwaters and deadly toxins wielded by an ingenious psychopath. The book is dark, funny, stylish and seamless. A triumph, in other words. And worthy of analysis, to see what makes it tick so smoothly. Of course, much comes down to personal preference, but I’ve singled out some aspects which seem applicable across the genre.

1. Strong sense of place (which also plays perfectly to the title: steamy streets, falling rain and rising floods, permanent dusk).
2. Clever use of humour, which binds the reader to the author effortlessly and often.
3. Credible characters who spark off one another, coupled with the author’s skill in knowing when to bring the characters together and when to isolate them.
4. Layered tension and rising stakes. The layers come from Cain’s skill at creating intimate threats within a larger picture (in this case, the rising wall of floodwater). And synchronising the threat levels so that we get a real sense of rhythm in the story (see also 6 below).
5. Knowledge that’s imparted to the reader but kept from the main characters, so we know what’s coming even when they don’t. (Which is not to say she gives away the ending, because she doesn’t.)
6. Seamless transference of tension/threat – like a baton being passed between characters and scenes – as one situation is resolved, another takes its place. An incremental tightening of this pattern as the book approaches its first, second and third acts.
7. Tight management of multiple viewpoints to share knowledge between characters, keeping some in the dark at key moments.
8. Avoidance of intrusive flashbacks, but timely reminders of the hero’s fault-lines, at intervals when our fears for him are heightened.
9. Great, visual settings. A derelict fairground. A flooded aquarium.
10. Early seeding of ideas that come to fruition in the climatic scenes, without the need for lengthy explanations during action sequences.

That’s my starter for ten. If anyone else has read and enjoyed The Night Season, please pitch in. Likewise, if you hated it, let me know why it didn’t work for you.

Quick round-up

My review of The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri is up at Reviewing the Evidence today. This was my first encounter with Inspector Montalbano, and I had mixed feeling about it. Nice descriptions of grub, though.

In other news, I have a quick flash with a fairytale theme over at Every Day Fiction today: The Cottage in the Woods may tickle your funny-bone, or so I hope.

And I'm making my debut in Stalking Elk magazine, issue three, with my short story, Yesterday's Man. The editor tells me there's a smashing illustration accompanying the story, so I can't wait to get my print copies.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Voices - new anthology

Lancashire Writing Hub is launching its Voices anthology at the Continental in Preston on September 15th. Kicking off at 8pm, the evening promises to be a blast. Stories by Andrea Ashworth, Martin McAreavey, Gaye Gerrard, Jennifer Palmer, John Hindle, Alan Taylor, Ismail Karolia & me. You can listen to audio recordings, including me reading my flash, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home, here.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Thirteen Hours

I was lucky enough to meet South African crime writer, Deon Meyer, at CrimeFest earlier this year. I asked if he thought crime fiction was by its nature subversive and he said yes, explaining how no one was able to write let alone publish crime under apartheid: 'How could you have a hero policeman under apartheid?'

Meyer also writes short stories and told me a collection should be available in the UK later this year. In the meantime, his Benny Griessel novels are a great way to discover Meyer's writing talent. My review of Thirteen Hours is up at Reviewing the Evidence today. Trackers is his next one.

Plucky young backpacker Rachel Anderson is on the run, from the gang of men who cut her best friend’s throat. In another part of Cape Town, Alexa Barnard wakes from a drunken stupor to find her cheating husband Adam’s been shot dead and she’s the chief suspect. Until Inspector Benny Griessel arrives on the scene; Benny is a recovering alcoholic whose spontaneous sympathy for Alexa nearly results in her death by suicide. As she recovers in hospital, the police begin investigating her husband’s murder and that of Rachel’s best friend. Seemingly unrelated, the paths of the two crimes do cross. It’s up to Benny Griessel to find out how, and why.

Read the rest of my review here.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Shorts and flashes

I've been reading and reviewing a lot of crime novels lately, as my previous blog post suggests. But not just novels. Short stories, too. My review of The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime is just up at Reviewing the Evidence:

Of the many reasons to love short stories, the one that packs the best punch is surprise. A novel might serve up two, or at best three, genuine gobsmacking surprises over four hundred pages. A good short story will deliver at least one, sometimes two. Over a collection like this, that's a minimum of forty surprises.

Find out which story was my favourite, and which was totally bonkers by popping across to read.

In writing news, my very short flash, Spring, is up at new venue The Night Light. It's a terrific site with lovely editors. Do send them your work if you think it's a good fit.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Reviewing the evidence

I love reviewing books. To start with, you get free books. How cool is that? Then you get to spend more time reading, which is great. But best of all you learn about your craft, what works and what doesn't, how to get better. All for free.

My two latest reviews are Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross, and Plugged by Eoin Colfer. I loved both books, for very different reasons. Both are written in the present tense, which doesn't often work but does here, in both cases. That's about the only similarity between the two books. Other than I loved them both.

My Luther review is up at Eurocrime. Plugged is over at Reviewing the Evidence. What have you read or reviewed recently, and what did it teach you about what makes a great story/book?

Friday, 29 July 2011

Binocular Vision

I fell in love with this short story collection by American author, Edith Pearlman. The new issue of The Short Review carries both an interview with the author and my review, described by Edith as 'Sensitive and appreciative - one of the best I've received'. The following is an extract from one of my favourite stories in the collection:
They were drinking gin out of teacups. Mrs. Hasken was placid. Aunt Laurette grinned under her globe of orange hair. Phoebe was currying her skirt with Nancy's comb. They were not aristocracy after all – only stand-ins.
Tip: you can read one of the stories free online by following the link at the end of my review.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Back and Beyond, ShortStoryVille, No Short Cuts

Maybe it's the season, or the determination of creative cheer-leaders, but there are so many wonderful opportunities right now to celebrate writing, and especially short stories. I was lucky enough to be part of ShortStoryVille here in Bristol, which was terrific fun with panel sessions and readings, culminating in the prize giving ceremony. Huge congratulations to Emily Bullock on winning first prize with her story, My Girl. A great write-up of the day can be found over at Vanessa Gebbie's blog.

Meanwhile, anyone who hasn't already signed the petition to save short stories on Radio 4 can do so via the link here. And follow the success of the campaign over on Twitter, where it's spearheaded by Susie Maguire aka @wrathofgod. Over 5,000 signatures and rising all the time!

Back and Beyond is a new publication that celebrates and promotes the arts, culture and heritage in Lancaster, Morecambe and beyond. It combines fiction and non-fiction writing with articles, profiles of local artists and details of projects and organisations.

The debut edition has stunning artwork, poetry, graphics, commentary and fiction. I'm delighted to be a part of it, with my tiny flash piece, Albumen. The magazine can be downloaded free of charge as a pdf and is beautiful new evidence of how creativity thrives and flourishes.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Mauve Throw

Very excited today, as my first ebook has been published! It's a short story, The Mauve Throw, which was commended in the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011. And it's published on the coolest of cool sites, Shortfire Press. Mariella Frostrup gave Shortfire not one but two plugs on R4's Open Book on Thursday, deservedly so. It's a clean, clear, beautifully understated website. With stories, interviews and a blog. I was guest blogger yesterday, talking about the Authors' Awards. Happily, the Society of Authors liked my guest blog so much they asked permission to link to it from their website. So it's all come together rather splendidly. Better still if one or two readers decide to buy The Mauve Throw, which is available for the princely sum of 99pence, for Kindle, iPhone or as a pdf download. I'm donating all royalties to Cancer Research, and Shortfire Press have very kindly offered to donate their profits on the story to the same cause,so please do consider buying the story. Thank you

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Breakfast at Southfork

Just lately I was selecting crime books to review for Reviewing the Evidence, when I heard Linda Wilson, the site’s UK editor, use the phrase ‘Breakfast at Southfork’. She was describing that part at the end of so many books, where the characters discuss the plot. Fans of the TV show, Dallas, may recall that breakfast was the time of day when the Ewings would gather to talk about what was happening in their lives, which served as a handy plot update for viewers. Is a Breakfast at Southfork moment inevitable, or even necessary, in crime novels? I asked Linda along to Crawl Space to discuss the phenomenon.

SH: Hi Linda. I love the phrase ‘Breakfast at Southfork’, and have been using it all over the place since you drew my attention to it. When did you first hear it, and what’s your understanding of its meaning in relation to crime writing?

LW: I can’t remember when I first came across the phrase. I think it stems from a TV reviewer’s comment many years ago, when he or she remarked on the fact that Southfork, the Ewings’ massive ranch, only seemed to have one telephone at the foot of the stairs. The same reviewer observed, quite accurately, that breakfast was the time when all the characters sat down and discussed the plot, otherwise known as their latest ‘pra’l’m’, which is what you get if you try to render the word ‘problem’ in a Texan drawl. And anyone who watched the show will know that the Ewings had a lot of ‘pra’l’ms’!

When I started reading a lot of crime fiction, I was soon struck by how frequently authors use similar plot devices to either remind the reader what has been happening or – even more commonly – to make sure that all the elements of the plot are adequately explained in the closing stages of the book.

SH: Can you give some examples of awkward Breakfast at Southfork moments in crime novels?

LW: To be honest, I think all moments like that are awkward to some degree, and inevitably detract from otherwise well-told stories. I recently read Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May off the Rails and, although this was almost certainly the wrong book to choose for entry to this long-running series, I did quite enjoy it. Unfortunately, however, even the explanations at the end didn’t leave me any the wiser about the villain’s motivations. So I suppose the moral of the story here is that if you’re going to use a Breakfast moment, do at least make sure it serves its intended purpose and that the reader ends up suitably enlightened rather than still scratching their heads wondering what’s happened.

A better instance of this, but one that still struck me as artificial was in S.J. Bolton’s excellent book Blood Harvest, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but even so, there was an awkward Breakfast moment towards the end that almost managed to shatter the carefully created tension.

SH: Any good examples, where it works as a plot device? Or should a writer always look for better ways to explain what’s going on?

LW: I suspect I’m more tolerant of it as a plot device in police procedurals where a couple of the investigating officers have a chat and bring each other up to speed with developments on the case. Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner books are examples where a ‘show and tell’ can work reasonably well, but I do still think that the technique is over-used.

Jeffrey Deaver tries to get over the problems in his Lincoln Rhyme series by sharing ‘evidence boards’ with the readers. I will admit to skipping over these most of the time, but I can certainly see their value. At least they give you the option of trying to use the evidence to figure out what is happening, or simply do what I tend to do and go with the flow of the story without thinking too closely about the details.

SH: I’m enjoying Jonathan Kellerman’s Mystery at the moment. Seems to me he serves up Breakfast moments as red herrings in nearly all his books. His heroes, Alex and Milo, are always discussing the plot, usually while eating something (Milo’s got a healthy appetite). But the difference here is that they’re speculating rather than explaining. The device works really well at blind-siding the reader, so we think we know what’s happened only to find out Alex and Milo’s speculation was wrong. I love the layered feel this gives Kellerman’s books. But maybe it takes a master plotter to turn the Breakfast moment on its head?

LW: Indeed. And I also suspect that any regular reader of a series that uses techniques of that sort on a regular basis will soon start to suspect that (sticking with the food theme) they’re being fed a red herring.

SH: When we last met, you mentioned that Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder skipped Breakfast at Southfork entirely. Can you explain how this worked (without giving away the plot)?

LW: I think essentially what she did was pull off a perfect example of ‘show’ not ‘tell’. The last few chapters proceeded at an excellent pace and were very much seen through the eyes of the main characters as everything they’d believed was peeled back, layer by layer, amidst some very compelling scenes. These scenes were uncluttered by explanation, but remained wholly understandable. I felt I was very much in the action with the characters, experiencing the plot developments along with them.

SH: Breakfast at Southfork does seem to be a very popular device in crime novels, from Poirot’s explanations in the library through to contemporary crime. Why do you think that is?

LW: I think, in some cases, it provides an easy way for the author to draw together all their threads and clues that the reader may have missed. In others, it enables them to introduce new material (which I always think is cheating, but that’s another story!) in a way that keeps back ‘spoilers’ until the closing stages. Sadly, it can also be an example of bad or lazy writing.

SH: How do you think most readers feel about Breakfast moments?

LW: I suspect a lot of the time readers are so used to moments like this that they simply suspend disbelief and go with the flow. But I’m also sure that I can’t be the only person in the world who finds moments like this awkward and intrusive. I’m often left wanting to conduct a survey of detectives who investigate murder cases to find out how often the murderer really does sit down for a cosy chat and explain what they did and why they did it. My gut feeling is that it happens far more often in literature than it ever has done in real life.

I’ve certainly become a much harsher critic of the technique since I started regularly reading books for review, which is why I almost let out a whoop of joy when I finished Hanging Hill. It was so refreshing not to have to endure any clumsy explanations.

SH: Makes me think of all those moments in James Bond films where the villain stops to taunt Bond with the awful truth of what he’s done, before conveniently leaving to allow James to affect his daring escape.

LW: Yes, in the same way that the villain so often hesitates before pulling the trigger when ‘our hero’, whoever that may be, is at their mercy, and then launches into a long recitation as to why they did what they did, while the audience groans and yells, “Pull the trigger, you idiot!” It’s the artificiality of it all that gets on my nerves.

SH: Any tips for writers on how to skip Breakfast without starving the reader of plot expo?

LW: Hmm, that’s definitely a tricky one! I think I’d always start with the premise that Breakfast moments should be kept to a bare minimum. Plot developments and character’s actions should be as self-explanatory as possible. Is it really necessary to do an info dump at the end, or could some of the explanation be brought out earlier?

An author should have enough self-awareness to know what they’re actually doing when they embark on a scene like this. And to stop and think whether it could be handled differently. Does the conversation at least sound natural? Is it in character for the villain to suddenly come over all loquacious? Look at what you’ve written from the perspective of a reader or, better still, get someone else to look at it for you. No matter how well you pull it off, a Breakfast moment will still be in danger of standing out like a sore thumb.

SH: At the Hay Festival, Mark Billingham said that US publishers request a Breakfast Moment page at the end of his books, to explain what happened. So maybe it's not always in the hands of the author.

Thank you, Linda. I really enjoyed that. Finally, if we were eating Breakfast at Southfork rather than talking about it, what would you order? I’d be tempted by pancakes, I think.

Linda: I’d always go for the full English any time! If I could have that in Dallas it would definitely be a bonus.

I was talking with Linda Wilson, UK Editor, Reviewing the Evidence

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Authors' Awards 2011

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting outside a French wine bar in Shepherds Market with the redoubtable Anna Britten, sipping HUGE glasses of white wine (we asked for spritzers but they decided we needed something more) and waiting to pop along to the Cavalry and Guards' Club on Piccadilly, to celebrate the Society of Authors' awards for 2011. As soon as we arrived, I was whisked off to have my picture taken (such a nice photographer, told me my hair 'was a bit funny at the front' and to 'look a bit happier' before clicking away) and returned to Anna's side, as dazed as she was to see how many amazing stars were in the room with us. Lady Antonia Fraser, Wendy Cope, Shirley Hughes, Simon Brett, Lindsey Davis, Joanna Trollope... But the lovely organisers still took the trouble to make me feel special. The nicest part of the evening was being told: 'We love to celebrate writers!'

So I guess I should say why I was in such esteemed company. My short story, The Mauve Throw, received an Honourable Mention in the Tom-Gallon Trust Award, a short story competition for 'traditional rather than experimental stories'. The winning story was by Emma Timpany. Mine was 'Also admired and enjoyed', as the judges put it. Sadly I didn't get to meet the judges, Jane Gardam and Jacob Ross, on the night. But I thank them for their time and for choosing my story alongside the ones by Emma, Miriam Burke and Gregory Heath. Congratulations, all!

My lovely editor, Stephanie, was also there, for moral support. We got the chance to chat about the edits I'm working on for the novel, which was great. And Anna Britten was the perfect guest, keeping me company on the train journeys and being just as star-struck as I was. Thanks, Anna!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

ShortStoryVille.. on air

I enjoyed talking short stories on BBC Bristol's Sunday Show this morning, with Joe Melia, judge and organiser of the Bristol Short Story Prize, and the brains behind ShortStoryVille, an exciting event being held at Bristol's Arnolfini Arts Centre on Saturday 16 July. If you'd to hear Joe and me talking about what's so great about short stories, you can listen again here. We come in around 45 mins into the show, just after the travel news. It was a wet walk to the BBC's studio, but worth it to chat about Hemingway, and breaking the rules of short story writing, and flash fiction too.

I pledged to read from my new short story, Udambara in Barrow-in-Furness, at the July event. I can't begin to cover the ways in which it's wonderful to live in a city where short stories are celebrated in so many different and cool ways.

In other news, my tweeting of a daft remark by an actor on Radio 4's Loose Ends 'went viral' as they say, with many people pitching in to agree what tosh it was to say "Women don't read crime fiction". I'll be blogging about this at more length soon. Suffice to say, according to my bookshelves, I am a man.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Short Story Month

I'm thrilled that two of my stories have been chosen by readers as part of the 102 Story Links in Honour of Short Story Month, in the company of such great writers as Vanessa Gebbie, Amy Hempel, Ethel Rohan, Tania Hershman, Gay Degani, and Anton Chekov (no less). Many many thanks to the crew at Flash Fiction Chronicles for compiling the list, providing the links and posting it for short story lovers everywhere.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Tweet a Crime

I love Twitter. You meet new friends, you share ideas, you support each other through ups and downs. And, if you're lucky, you win great stuff. Last weekend I went to CrimeFest thanks to the generosity of Rhian Davies, who tweeted a spare ticket from a pair she'd won. And next Friday, I'm going to the Hay Festival, on a golden ticket, thanks to winning Headline's #TweetaCrime contest. The aim was to tweet a famous crime book or movie in under 140 characters. Mark Billingham (Sleepyhead) and Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl) did the judging, and will read my winning tweet live at their Hay session on Friday 3 June.

Better still, the other winning tweeter, Rin Simpson, lives in Bristol, is a debut crime writer, and will travel with me to the Festival! I'm taking my ten year old along too, with a pal, so they can sample the brilliance that is Andy (Mr Gum) Stanton and other family-friendly fun on the day. Everyone's a winner!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

On the beat

My social diary, until recently, was so empty that when I opened it at random, tumbleweed rolled out. However, the fates have combined to present me with several exciting opportunities to leave my desk and venture out in the wide world. It all kicks off tomorrow, when I head off to CrimeFest in Bristol, mixing with the creme de la crime of writers including Peter James, Deon Meyer, Belinda Bauer and Natasha Cooper. And I get to spend time with my fantastic editor, too. After which, I will be heading up North. I'm thrilled to be on the shortlist for the Flash Mob writing competition, reading my story, Hoochy Coochy Man and the Wagon of Rhymes, at the Dulcimer in Chorlton on 26 May. The event is being broadcast live on ChorltonFM and, most excitingly, I will finally get to meet the marvellous Nik Perring. In June, I'll be up to London for what promises to be a absolutely tremendous evening (more about this later). In July, I'm reading at ShortStoryVille, back in Bristol. If you're able to come to any of these events, please drop me a line as I'd love to meet you.

Monday, 16 May 2011


I'm very excited to be part of the official line-up for ShortStoryVille at Bristol's Arnolfini on 16 July. Panel discussions with Sarah Salway, and with Tania Hershman will be highlights of the afternoon. I'll be reading at the end of the day, in the section titled 'Choice Cuts'. The Bristol Short Story Prize crew are leading the way in new and innovative ways of enthusing readers about short stories, involving local schools and artists to make the event visually exciting and truly interactive. I can't wait!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Telling stories

I'm reading a lot of non-fiction just at the moment, partly as research for the new novel. At this early stage, when I'm seeking ideas to engage with, research takes the form of standing before the relevant library shelves and plucking at random those titles that catch my eye. I thought I'd blog about a couple of my recent choices, because they're great examples of how two different writers use different skills to bring very different stories to life.

The first is Sally Brampton's Shoot the Damn Dog: a Memoir of Depression, in which the former editor of Elle magazine recounts her experience with severe depression and its treatment. Brampton's style has been described as both 'candid' and 'brutal'. She pulls no punches in telling us how she descended into, and climbed out of, a subterranean depression. It's not an easy book to read; I cried every couple of pages, usually when she grazed the nerve of my own experience with depression, or spoke of her fears and hopes as a mother. One chapter, describing her relationship with her father, was uncanny. I became convinced while reading it that my own father, who died of Motor Neurone Disease, must have had undiagnosed Asperger's for most of his adult life. Brampton has said that she wanted to short-circuit the stigma that surrounds most discussions of mental illness. She did more than that, in my opinion. She took us straight to the heart of her story, so close it hurt to read the words, like touching a raw wound. When she diverted the story to talk impersonally about medical history, for example, it was a relief, a chance to regroup. Why read something that is so upsetting? Because I felt a deep connection to the text. And because I don't believe that the best writing should be easy on the reader. It should enlarge our experience of the world. This book does that.

The Eye: a Natural History by Simon Ings presents a very different challenge. Its author is a science writer, and science has never been my strong point. I felt a daunting distance from this subject matter, as if I was squinting at a night sky in the hope of observing patterns. But Ings is a smart guy; he's a storyteller. He slips in his science under the guise of adventure, intrigue, conflict and action. Did you know that each of us began life as a cyclops? Or that we learn to see not with our eyes but with our hands? I'd thought this book was going to be a struggle, worthwhile but work. In fact it's fun. Ings takes considerable care to tell us a series of stories which bring us as close to his subject matter as Brampton's painful first-person account brings us to hers. I'm going to re-read this slowly, with my notebook at hand. But first I'm going to zip through it, enjoying the ride.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

It's alive! Tapping the rich vein of horror

Before you head behind the sofa, let me say this isn’t a blog about horror fiction. I’m not the best exponent of that, as I don't read or write much in the genre. Instead, I’m going to blog about horror as a flavour, a spice to add to the mix of any fiction you may be writing or contemplating writing.

Adding a dash of horror is a worthy tradition in literature; the Brothers Grimm were writing about cannibalism a century before Thomas Harris gave us Hannibal Lector, and it’s hard to beat the Room 101 rats in Orwell’s 1984 for nail-biting nightmare potential. Crime writers have known this trick for decades: how to season their stories with a dash of darkness. Arthur Conan Doyle served it up in spades: from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Creeping Man.

Contemporary crime writers use horror to great effect. Mo Hayder’s Tokaloshe in Ritual and its sequel, Skin, is a great example of how a skilled writer can weave a disturbing sense of the supernatural into hard-hitting crime stories.

Fred Vargas has given us immortal ghosts, werewolves, plague rats and vampires. Enough supernatural horror to satisfy any aficionado, but Vargas does a very neat line in explaining everything in rational terms in the end.

Horror tends to work best when it’s used sparingly, to make a moment visceral, bring it off the page. Try to sustain this sort of shock value and you run the risk of numbing your reader’s responses. It’s the way we’re made. Our brains filter out familiar scents to keep us alert for the smell of danger. A surfeit of horror tends to force the reader to look away or worse, to laugh in order to relieve the tension.

The best writers know this and will provide a little light relief along the way so that you laugh in the intended places (usually right before they make you jump a foot in the air). The very best exponent of this is not a writer but a film director: George A. Romero. Zombies can be funny, but watch out for your feet and elbows.

It’s the same rule that applies with pacing, or erotica for that matter. A glimpse of the monster under the bed (or in it) is more effective that a lingering twelve page forensic examination. Plant a seed, refer to it often enough to make sure it doesn’t die in the reader’s mind, prepare them just enough for the moment when it will bear fruit. Then – let them have it.

It doesn’t need to be raw gore, either. In fact some of the best horror only hints at what lies beneath, letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

There’s a little horror lurking in everyone’s imagination and the reader’s imagination is among the most powerful tools a writer has – learn how to engage that (and to manipulate it) and you’ll be onto a winning formula.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Keep the Mythic Distance

The new issue of The Short Review is just out, full of treats for short story lovers. My review of Warren Bull's Murder Manhattan Style is there, as well as an interview with Warren. Other reviews include The Biting Point by Catherine Smith, and There Is No Other by Jonathan Papernick, reviewed by Tania Hershman.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Old Enemies

Dobbs serves up deft, evocative descriptions of international locations, from Christmas in London to Trieste via Switzerland and Zimbabwe. And a great cast of characters, including pompous, fearful politicians, a suave American presidential advisor and (best of all, for my money) a wily old Irishman with a fine line in banter and bitterness.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this new thriller by Michael Dobbs, published by Simon and Schuster earlier this year. I know Dobbs best for his House of Cards triology, so brilliantly adapted for television with the magnificent Iain Richardson in the lead role. Old Enemies is part of a different series by Dobbs, featuring soldier-turned-politician, Harry Jones. With Dobbs' signature wry angle on politics and masterful plot twists, it makes an enjoyable read. My full review was published by Euro Crime, and is also up at the Harrogate Crime Festival website.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Back to my roots

First, some terrific news from Writers for the Red Cross, who raised over $30,500 in disaster relief. I was proud to play a small part in this success, as it was the Red Cross parcels of medicine and food that kept my mother and grandmother alive to see the liberation of the Batu Lintang prison camp by Australian troops on September 11, 1945. By some strange karma, most of my writing news at the moment has roots in my family history. My links to the North-West of England, specifically Cheshire and Lancashire, prompted me to submit stories to a new anthology and an established international Flash magazine. The latter, published out of the University of Chester, carries my flash, 'Bait for the Big White', in its April edition. And a very short flash of mine has just been accepted for Back & Beyond, the flagship publication for Made in Lancaster. Beyond this, I've had two flashes accepted for the Monster Book for Girls, another new anthology. And I'm in awe of the beauty of .Cent Magazine, which has illustrated 'My Camel Spits in the Sand' for their Strange Paradises section. The guest editor is Minnie Weisz, whose wonderful photography can be sampled here.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Published by Penguin

Well, after a manner of speaking. My interview with Helen Dunmore, which appeared in Fringe Magazine recently, has been republished on Penguin's website at the request of their Publicity Director. Helen is the site's Author of the Month, and she liked my interview enough to send it on to her publisher, who decided Penguin's readers would like it too. So here it is, in situ, for the whole of April. Along with Helen's recommended reading, reviews of her latest books and reader commentary.

Friday, 25 March 2011


In the last two weeks, I've twice celebrated the power of inspirational writing. First, I dropped a line to the manager of Underfall Yard in Bristol, to thank them for the impetus behind my short story, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton, which won the Sense Creative Award 2010. I'd just heard that the boat I saw being built at the yard, the boat that stars in my story, had been launched. She goes by the name, Edith Gray. The yard manager said how good it was to know that their work inspired people, and to tell me that Edith Gray is named after his aunt, in her 90s, who is going blind. My story is about a deafblind boy. Blindness is also a theme in my novel. How strange that things worked out the way they did, and how apt.

Not so long ago, I was lucky enough to spend a morning in a favourite coffee shop in Bristol, interviewing novelist and short story author, Helen Dunmore. Part of this interview is now up at Fringe magazine, where Helen talks about her latest novel, The Betrayal, about historical fiction vs faction, and the need for vigilance in our dealings with the state. Helen's writing has long inspired me, and it was such a thrill to be able to ask her about her books and stories.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Writers for the Red Cross

March is Red Cross Month, and I was very happy to be asked to participate in Writers for the Red Cross, to raise funds and awareness for aid initiatives around the world. It's particularly poignant and apt that I was able to participate in help for Japan at this terrible time, given my family history which was the impetus for this blog post, What the Red Cross means to me. Please check out the rest of the site for details of auctions, events and fund-raising projects to support the important work of the Red Cross.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Four times I didn't get an agent & one time I did

I promised I'd blog about the road between here, and here, answering specific questions along the way such as Q. How did I choose which agents to approach? Q. What was my approach pattern? Q. How long did it take the agent to get in touch after I submitted the novel? Q. Any magic tips? So, here goes.

First Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's getting close to Christmas 2006. I've just finished a crime novel. It's my first attempt at the genre. Full of the novice's confidence (I don't know any better, yet), I decide to pitch to the biggest crime agent in the UK. I follow the submission guidelines to the letter, send the first three chapters by email, and pretty quickly get an email back, from the agency's editor. The action of the story doesn't start quickly enough, I'm told. Thanks, but no thanks. That novice's confidence hasn't quite left my system, so I pick up the phone and call the editor, and we chat and I persuade her to give the full manuscript a go.

Lesson #1: Don't always take No for an answer. If I'd put a red line through this agency at this stage, and moved on to my second choice, I might still be looking for an agent today. However, this goes hand in glove with:

Lesson #2: The agent is always right. She always has a point. You may not agree with it. But you ignore it at your peril. Because here's what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The editor stood by her first impression, and she was right to do so. I was given an A4 page of invaluable feedback, and was asked to send my next book to them.

My next book? I was wiped out from writing this one. Could I really write a second? How long would it take? It took twelve months.

Second Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's Christmas 2007, and I'm ready to send my second novel in search of an agent. This time I decide to share my eggs between two baskets, and add a second agent to my hit list, someone recommended by a friend. I follow the guidelines, email the opening section, and quickly get two requests for a full ms. This time, I think, I've cracked it. I don't hear back from either agent for some weeks. Then an email from my first choice: She likes what she's seen so far, can she have a little more time to finish it? Of course. I'll wait. That confidence is creeping back up.

Lesson #3: Never wish too much for something. Try to put it from your mind. You should be thinking about the next writing project, in any case, not indulging in fantasies about this one.

The verdict from the first agent? Not this novel. Maybe the next one. I'm still processing this when I get a call from the second agent. She likes a lot of what I've done, but I've over-complicated the plot, pursued too many tangents, not tied down the core adequately. Could I simplify things, rewrite, tighten, sharpen? And send it to another reader at the agency, for a fresh pair of eyes? Of course I can.

Lesson #4: The agent is always right. Oh, wait, that was Lesson #2. Well, it's an important lesson, so maybe it needs learning twice. Because this is what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The other reader still found it too complicated, not linear enough. Maybe the next book?

At this point, I felt like Alfred Molina in Prick up Your Ears. You can find out what I mean, here, which also includes an autopsy from this latest agent rejection.

Still reading? Then it's time for:

Third Time I Didn't Get an Agent: February 2009. I've done it again. Written something new. Subbed the front end, received a full ms request, tried to keep my hopes under lock and key. One thing I didn't appreciate fully at the time, but for which I am boundlessly thankful now, was that I had a dialogue going with the biggest crime agent in the UK. Her team (the best in the business) had read the full ms of every crime novel I'd written. Her editor (about whom Val McDermid recently said, '(Her) instinct for story is second to none') was helping me to get better at what I wanted to do. None of this would've happened if I'd struck this agency off my hit list because of that first, or any subsequent, rejection.

Lesson #5: If you're lucky enough to catch the eye of an ace agent, don't shoot yourself in the foot by thinking rejection now means rejection always. If an agent is taking the time to tell you, at length and repeatedly, what is wrong (and right) with your work, then use that. It's gold dust. You can make beautiful things from gold dust.

Where was I? Oh, yes. What happened next.

Fourth Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's another No. It's two pages of detailed A4 reasons why it's a No. It's an offer to read whatever I do next. Not now, but next.

Lesson #6: The agent is always right. Oh, and being bloodyminded goes with the territory. Ultimately, only one person can ever say No to your writing, and that's you. If you're prepared to keep trying, to keep writing, to make friends with failure and get better at what you want to do - it will happen. Because here's what happened next:

In March 2010, I started writing something new. I wrote every day for five months, often as much as 4,000 words a day. I didn't stop. And at least once a week, every week, I referred to the three letters I'd had from the agent, telling me what I needed to do more, or better. Apart from this, I put thoughts of agents and publishers out of my mind.

Lesson #7: Writers write. The rest of it comes later.

In November 2010, I emailed the agent and asked if I could send her something new. She said Yes, please, of course. I sent her the first section, and her reader requested a full ms. Within a week, I received an email from the agent's editor (whose instinct for story is second to none) telling me that the reader's report was very encouraging and asking for an exclusive until the agent and editor were finished reading it.

Lesson #8: There's an etiquette to agent submissions. It might differ between agencies, but learn the rules and follow them. It's only polite, and professional.

It got to the end of the week during which I knew the editor had been reading the ms. On Thursday afternoon I began telling myself it was a No. Too much wishing, remember? And then:

First Time I Got an Agent: At 6pm on Friday, the editor emailed. I'd done a great job with the ms, she said. It was controlled, surprising, compelling, dark and clever. Could I come for a meeting next week? Of course I could. At the meeting, I was offered representation, and asked to do something. Can you guess what? I was asked to rewrite the novel. Well, in parts. And of course I did just that. Have just finished with the rewrite, in fact. It will go back to the agent in the next week. After that, well, watch this space.

In conclusion? It only takes one agent, one time. But it might take four books. Still, you're a writer. You want to write a hundred books. Four is nothing. Right?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Voices, writing contests and thresholds

With thanks to Sarah Jane Dobbs, who has posted a great interview with Joe Melia of the Bristol Short Story Prize over at Thresholds. The second part of the blog is my thoughts on how to write stories for contests. There's also an audio recording of me reading my flash, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home, which will be published and illustrated in new anthology, Voices, later this year. (I borrowed my NW accent from my paternal grandmother.) So, for tips on entering and winning writing contests, check out the blog, which includes some exciting news from the Bristol Prize people.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Food for thought

Here's a thought-provoking blog post from the abundantly talented Vanessa Gebbie, who asks whether a two book deal is always a good thing. Vanessa, whose novel The Coward's Tale will be published by Bloomsbury in November, links to some great observations by agents and writers. Do take time to go and read the post and the debate arising from it. As Vanessa says, it's intended to make writers really think about their processes, what we're comfortable commiting to, and what we want and hope to achieve from our writing.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Right here

I'm going through a wishing phase: I wish I was in Paris; I wish I had a shed to write in; I wish the weather would improve. But this morning I made myself remember: three months ago (and for five years before that) I was wishing I was exactly where I am now. Making changes to a novel that had secured me a leading literary agent. This has been my wish for so long, I'm still pinching myself that it's real. And, yes, I've swapped one hurdle for the next; I'm not resting on my laurels here. But for all I'd like Paris, and a shed, and sunshine, I have the thing I've wished for hardest and longest.

So, I'm going to put together a blog post about how I got here. Five Times I Didn't Get an Agent, and One Time I Did. Or something like that. I'm going to try and extract the best lessons I learnt on the path from wishing to having. To which end, please let me know what you'd like to hear about. Maybe my approach pattern to agents? Maybe my writing process? How I took the good advice along the way and used it to get better? The times I nearly gave up, and the reasons I didn't? How it felt when everyone around me seemed to be moving forward and I was getting nowhere?

Anything at all that you're curious about, please drop me a line. I want this blog post to be of use and value to others. And to be entertaining, of course. It wasn't all blood, sweat and tears. Often I smiled at my own obstinacy, or arrogance. I learnt to take myself and my endeavours with a huge pinch of salt. Maybe that's part of the winning formula? Other writers please chip in!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

An Illuminated Land

Artist Colin Halliday has a new exhibition opening at GXgallery in London, 5-23 March. Colin's cityscapes include the triptych of Battersea Power Station reproduced in my bannerhead. His latest work features luminous country lanes, fields and seascapes. I love this oil on canvas, Harbinger. To see more of his work, visit Colin's website. Gxgallery has an interesting write-up of Colin's work so far, and details of this new exhibition. I hope to attend the private viewing, not least because Colin's painting always inspire me to write.

Friday, 11 February 2011

From a friend of mine

Q. How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb?
1st draft: Hero changes light bulb. 2nd draft: Villain changes light bulb. 3rd draft: Hero stops villain from changing light bulb. Villain falls to death. 4th draft: Lose the light bulb. 5th draft: Light bulb back in. Fluorescent instead of tungsten. 6th draft: Villain breaks bulb, uses it to kill hero's mentor. 7th draft: Fluorescent not working. Back to tungsten. 8th draft: Hero forces villain to eat light bulb. 9th draft: Hero laments loss of light bulb. Doesn't change it. 10th draft: Hero changes light bulb.

Green for Go

Before I was signed by Jane Gregory, just before Christmas, I'd been casting around for writing tasks to keep myself busy and distract me from the worry of waiting to hear whether this time I'd done it, written something really good. Now all that casting is coming back to me, in the form of requests and offers to take on writing tasks, large and small. Given that the rewritten crime novel is going back to my editor mid-March (and given there are no guarantees in this world), I can and should pursue some of these offers. But how to prioritise?

a) The money-makers?
b) The ones that might raise my profile in the right places?
c) The ones I can't resist and would enjoy?

Logic says a). Ambition says b). My heart says c).

Although a bit of my heart also says b) because I've been wanting this for so long it's an emotional as much as a rational sensation. In the next week or so, I must make decisions and prioritise. This will mean saying No to some people, which I hate doing. But I don't want to keep anyone hanging on, because it's unfair and unprofessional. I know, I should be so lucky to be in this situation, right? But remember, no guarantees. I'm not 'there' yet.

As far as the novel goes, I've also been prevaricating, but only in one regard. I have a character who, like all my characters, consists of layers and shades. This character might be ninety per cent decent, ten per cent rotten. Or the balance might be skewed slightly further the other way. I've been putting off deciding, because I love ambiguity and I also have a soft spot for a rotter. But this morning I decided which side to come down on, for the reader's sake. Because ambiguity is all very well, but clarity is the order of the day when you've reached the last dozen pages of the book. I won't tell you which side I came down on, but a decision was taken. Now I have to follow it through and smooth out all the places where it was unclear, polishing until I'm done.

Then there's the chapter told out of chronological order, which might work better if it's put into chronological order (or it might not). I'm going to cut and paste that into a new document and play with the ordering, see what shakes out. And then - and then! I might be close to being ready to print it out for the next full read-through.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Murdoch Mysteries

I was in the library in Bristol last summer while a scene from this TV crime series was being filmed outside. The series set in Victorian Toronto, but clearly Georgian Bristol made a decent stand-in. Lisa Faulkner (Spooks) stars alongside Thomas Craig, with newcomers Paul Rhys (Luther) and Victor Garber (Alias). "Based on the award-winning novels of Maureen Jennings, Murdoch Mysteries uses real historical developments in the field of forensic science interwoven with fictional stories of devilish cunning." The fourth series begins on Alibi on 15 February. You can win tickets to an exclusive preview screening on 10 February at the Soho Hotel in London. For your chance to win, unlock this page and crack the code therein. Good luck!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Back in August 2009, it was reported that Mike Nichols was to work on a film adaptation of Patricia Highmith's thriller, Deep Water, with the help of writer Joe Penhall, who wrote the script for The Road. Since then, things have gone very quiet and I wonder if the project has been shelved. If anyone knows for sure, either way, please drop me a line. I've just finished reading Deep Water, and would easily rate it as one of Highsmith's most successful thrillers. It's told from the perspective of cuckolded husband, Vic Van Allen, pillar of his small community, publisher of obscure texts and keeper of snails. As with Tom Ripley, Vic's eye-view on the world is peculiar, to say the least, but we're drawn to it, because Highsmith is so consistent, careful and credible as a storyteller. Which is not say that her stories are always credible, rather the way in which she tells them is so coolly finessed and acutely focused that we never for a second doubt the authenticity of what we're reading, no matter how far her heroes might stray from what the rest of us consider acceptable or even usual behaviour. At one point in the story, Vic is observed by a psychologist, who pronounces him schizophrenic. As readers, we accept both the diagnosis and Vic's plausible amusement at it.

None of the tension sits on the surface. Highsmith rarely uses confrontational situations or action sequences to heighten our sense of fear or excitement. What she does is to painstakingly lay out the facts for our consideration, leading us all the while further and further into the nightmare and towards a conclusion that's unguessable and yet entirely convincing, the only conclusion we would accept, in fact.

We don't race to get there. This isn't a book we can't put down. In fact I recommend putting it down often, to allow time to assimilate the information. The tension comes from the control Highsmith exercises as a writer. A control she exerts over the reader with a cool, almost documentary prose style that tricks us into thinking we're not 'transported' or 'hooked'. Highsmith was smart enough to know that she didn't need to 'transport' the average reader anywhere; all the tension and horror she needed was right here, inside our heads. Bubbling away inside our small communities, like the one which supports Vic Van Allen right up until the final, shocking parting of ways.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Getting my hands dirty

I'm making what feels like good progress with the novel rewrite, and thought I'd share something of the experience, new things I've learnt, old things I've ditched, or done differently. The first thing to say is what a difference having an agent and an editor makes! Not just because they've armed me with a blueprint for what needs to change, but because they so clearly have faith in my ability to do this. Too often in the past I've lost faith or enthusiasm at this stage in a writing project. Sometimes this is because I can't see what's wrong with a story or how to put it right. But it's usually got more to do with the fact that I need independent, expert validation of the concept and its execution. I'm fortunate enough to have that validation this time around. It's freed me from my usual diffidence and dithering. I'm swiping the red pen through swathes of text. Liberating? You bet.

In the past, my approach has been... cautious, to say the least. I liked to write out, in detail, notes for what I had to do and how I'd do it. If I made too mistakes on a page of notes, I'd tear it out and write it again, more neatly this time. I would sometimes transpose the same notes from one Moleskine to another, partly because I believed that the repeated act of writing the notes would help the sense to seep into my head and my hands, making the eventual typing of it more powerful. This time around, I sped through, scribbling brief notes that prompted me to remember where new stuff needed to go. I did it quickly because I wanted to maintain momentum. I knew I could go back and fill in the gaps later.

One of the chief challenges of this rewrite was completely changing a character. Age, name, motive, personality, all had to change. But the action taken, which propelled the plot at a vital moment in the story, had to remain the same. So in effect I was retrofitting character to action. One thing I learnt is that you can't create a character in notes alone. I made copious notes over the Christmas break, as to what and who and why this character would be. But it wasn't until I started writing the character's debut in the story that I really understood the voice and what it meant for who this person really was. Accept no substitutes, for black on white.

Some of my old habits have remained. I am still filling - and refilling - the manila Moleskines. I review them each night, re-reading what I've written to see if it fits with what I've done in the ms that day. But I'm learning to trust my instinct, which is essential for a writer. If I have a vague feeling that something isn't - or is - working, then it probably isn't, or is. This is the biggest difference for me, this time around. It's an instinct that needs honing, probably always will. But I trust it. And that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A year in books

So which new titles are you most looking forward to in 2011? I can't wait for Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to land in London, in the new Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place, due out in April. After London, our hero heads out to Serbia, on the trail of vampires. Vargas knows how to keep her readers entertained, without a shadow of a doubt. Also out in April is Mo Hayder's new book, Hanging Hill, not a Jack Caffrey novel but it sounds very interesting. Jonathan Kellerman has a new novel out, Mystery, at the end of March. In the meantime, I have Joan Schenkar's biography of Patricia Highsmith to get through. At just over 700 pages, it should keep me busy. Let me know what you're hoping to read in 2011.