Thursday, 31 July 2008

Ever so slightly bonkers

It's mid-summer in the English countryside. A pensioner in desert campaign shorts worn with knee length socks is judging - sternly - a race between two small boys on pedal scooters over on the village green. Our house smells of manure because it's that time of year when you need the windows open and the farmer needs to plough his fields. What isn't brown and stenchy out there, is much too green. The postman brought a terrific haul just now. Another five copies of the Fish Anthology, which will be winging their way to those who asked. A tin of biscuits from France - yum. And a big envelope with photos and memorabilia from the prison camp, courtesy of my mother's fellow internee. Right, back to work.

Monday, 28 July 2008

More memories

This time a Red Cross photograph taken of my grandparents and mother, to prove how content were the Japanese civilian internees. The crucifix worn around my mother's neck was carved from the Perspex windshield of a downed enemy aircraft. Dutch nuns interned with the civilians carved one of these for each child in the camp. My grandmother told me, years and years later, how she loathed this picture and could not stand to look at it. Because it was such a terrible lie. The look on my mother's face hints at the truth, but barely. She could easily be mistaken for a sulky child made to pose in a dress that was too tight for her. If you click on the picture it will open in a larger version.


I'm wilting, all but. The holiday was lovely, lots of sea air and sitting around in my mother's beautiful garden with cold drinks and books to read. I'm back at work now and it's much too hot, but I'm working on a couple of long-short story ideas, one of which is crime. The other is genre-non-specific and, if I can pull it off, will be the best short story I've managed to date. I'm excited about writing it, just wish I had more time to devote to the task.


On Saturday I met up with four people who were in the Japanese internment camp with my grandparents and mother, near Kuching, 1942-1946. Two of these were brothers in their late sixties whom I've not met before, only seen as small blond boys in photos and film footage from the liberation of the camp. It was an amazing experience to meet and talk with them. On 17 August it will be exactly 62 years since the Australian forces liberated the camp, saving hundreds of men, women and children who would otherwise have been executed under orders from the Japanese. Hundreds more had already died by that time, and some of the survivors would face premature deaths from illnesses, physical and mental, resulting from their incarceration.

My mother is the girl held in the soldier's arms on the left of the photo, with her hand on her head.

Saturday, 19 July 2008


Another flash acceptance, this time for a flash called Porn is like Pot Noodle, from a cool new venue, Red Peter. I can't wait to see how he illustrates the story. Also I get to send a snooty withdrawal notice to the buggers who've had that submission since January and ignored my polite chasing emails.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Off for a week

School's out and the Welsh seaside beckons. I'm taking books, deck shoes, jumpers and a small child.

Back in a week. Bye for now!

Nice news

I've just received two of the fastest ever acceptances, both from a new venue for me, Ink Sweat & Tears, and for stories I'm really fond of.

The first, Passing on (homage to Hemingway), is a modern day response to the famous baby shoes story.

The second, After a long illness, quietly at home, follows a structure whereby each sentence starts with a consecutive letter spelling out F-L-A-S-H.

So two stories, each in its own way a tribute to this terrific discipline called flash fiction. They'll be published as a pair in about a month's time. I'm chuffed to bits.

Thursday, 17 July 2008


Having posted off the novel, I felt a little bereft, so tried my hand at flashing. Six stories of 50 words each, linked to make a whole. I had this idea the link was subtle but visible, without my playing it up too much, so I left it alone to show itself as it sees fit. I trust to this instinct all the time when writing flash fic, but for some reason I lose my faith in it when writing short stories or tackling a novel, falling back on lots of plotting to help me through. I feel I need to loosen up my style.

Many Happy Returns of the Day

To Tania Hershman, a terrific writer whose first collection of short stories is coming out in September, published by Salt.

Have a great one, Tania!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Brown paper packages

Nerves aside, I love this part of the process. Submission! Printing 300 pages, placing them in a clear plastic box file, wrapping the whole package in brown paper with parcel tape cut very precisely, all clean angles cushioned against the vagaries of the postal service. The weighty feel of it in my hands. I might hug it before I send it out there, to the agent, tomorrow.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Rough stitches

As a child I learned to sew using rough stitches, or tacking, to hold two pieces of material together while I mastered the trickier task of small, neat stitches - the ones which would see the light of day and endure the test of time.

The last task of any sewing class was unpicking the rough stitches and removing the tacking thread.

This is the stage I fancy I've reached with the novel. After unearthing all the inconsistencies in plot and character, ironing out the timeline and uprooting typos, I've discovered an almost invisible membrane between the narrative and the reader, a layer of Author that needs peeling away.

At the risk of introducing another metaphor...

You know those plastic covers that come on fancy sofas and which some people choose to leave there, a layer of protection against casual wear and tear by family members and friends? Inadvertantly, I'd left the covers on parts of my narrative, held the action at arm's length not with the passive voice but simply by the unnecessary addition of "she thought", "she felt", "she wondered" or "surmised". I imagine this must have helped to steer me through the intricacies of how the action impacted on my heroine's psychology. They were the rough stitches, my version of those naff plastic covers on the sofa. So now I'm stripping them away, one by one, to allow the reader to kick back and get comfy in the story. Not that it's a comfy read, you understand.

Worth noting to myself, because I wasn't aware of the habit as I was writing the first draft. Nor did I spot it on a quick first read through. I feel I'm learning to critique my work far better than I was once able. At least I hope so.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008


I'm just back from Bantry, still on a high from the amazing buzz that was the Fish Anthology launch. I had an incredible time, more socialising in two days than I usually do in a year and every minute of it a joy. The people are fantastic, the organisers especially. Big shout out to Clem Cairns, and Lorraine and to Jock. You guys are just so lovely. And the writers! The writers were terrific. It was such a warm experience to spend time with other people who are working on novels and stories, writers on the cusp of big things and those who've made it. Never mind the wind turbines on the horizon, you could have powered a small town with the enthusiasm and adrenalin that was generated in just 24 hours. And I was only there for one whole day, the Monday. Lucky lucky people who were staying for the week. The buzz was building and could only get better.

Highlights? Well, of course the launch ceremony on Monday night when I read my winning story. I had a couple of dry runs in my room, and it went off well on the night. Several people came up afterwards and said they thought I'd read it beautifully. One lovely lady with a two year old in tow said it was her favourite story of the whole night. I was just bowled over by the reception to it. I was asked to sign a few copies of the anthology, which was such an incredible feeling, to be a part of something so big, so important to the writing world.

I stayed up past midnight both nights, for the bedtime story sessions, which were open mike with people reading poems and stories, including the collaborative flash story led by Vanessa Gebbie with a new 100 words added by a different writer every night.

On the second night, after a champagne supper with Vanessa and six other writers, all wonderfully warm and funny women, I was stopped by a lady on my way out of the hotel at just gone midnight. She congratulated me on the win and asked me lots of very serious questions about my writing, what I was working on and who I was reading. I was fairly myopic with fatigue by this stage but still buzzy, and we talked about Patricia Highsmith and Lizzie Borden and so on. I found out later she was an agent, which made me wish I'd given more intelligent - or at least coherent - answers to her questions.

I must mention Vanessa Gebbie's reading of the winning one-page story, an incredible story by Michael Logan. I'd loved the story when I read it in the book but hearing Vanessa read it out loud was a real treat, an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world. I hope she will record the reading and send a copy to Michael because it really is something special.

Thanks again, Vanessa, for encouraging me to go to Bantry. I had the best, most amazing time. I'm now planning all the stories I will enter for the Fish 2009 contests in the hope of making it over to Ireland again next year.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Fish Anthology 2008

Scroll down the right hand side of my blog and you'll find a photo of the front cover of Harlem River Blues, the new Fish Anthology being launched in Bantry on Monday 7 July. I'll be there for the launch, reading my story, Fall River, August 1892, which won the Criminally Short Histories Award. Another of my stories, The Eyam Stones, was a runner-up in the Short Histories category and is also in the same anthology. The first story is about Lizzie Borden (tiny extract under the cover image on the right, below). The Eyam Stones is about the village in Derbyshire sacrificed to keep the Black Death contained. I visited Eyam shortly before writing it; one of those have to write stories.

Because of the two stories, I get stacks of free copies of the Anthology and have earmarked a big handful for family and friends, including anyone reading this who'd like one. Go on, it'd give me a buzz to sign one for you!

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Crime pays

I've just listened to John Banville on Open Book, Radio 4, talking about the differences between writing literary fiction and writing crime. Interesting debate, plus an interview with Irvine Welsh about his new book, Crime. Well worth a listen.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

And breaks

I meant to say how right it felt that immediately I finished writing (see previous post) the heatwave broke and rain sheeted down. I opened all the windows afterwards and the house smells of blown roses and wet grass.

Novel update

I've finished writing. 99,000 words. Tomorrow I will print it off. On Sunday I shall fly with it to Cork. And red pens. Lots of red pens.

Refresh, Refresh

I'm reading this collection of short stories by Benjamin Percy, with the aim of reviewing the collection for The Short Review. I won't spoiler that review, but here's some interesting stuff from the author about his approach to writing fiction. He says, "I try to write at the same time in the same place every day. You must condition your imagination, in a Pavlovian way, to salivate. My mind is comfortably empty and humming in the morning, so I hunker down with my cup of coffee, and the bell rings, and I’m off. There are no tricks to what I do, really. Planting my ass in a chair everyday is about it. And not checking my email, not answering my phone, not getting up for a break when the writing gets difficult. Talent matters, but discipline matters more, I’ve discovered. I always begin with the image. If you think about writing as a subject, most of us are trained, from grammar school through college, to write thoughts. That, after all, is the essence of the essay: here is what I’m thinking.

"Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. And I don’t want my audience to sit and ponder their navels. I want them to feel. I want to drag them down the rabbit hole. I want them to be alive twice: once in their world, once in the world of the page. How do I try to accomplish this? Through imagism. Every moment in my stories I can imagine happening as if a film reel is turning slowly in my skull. My job is to replicate that with ink and paper. Which ain’t easy."

It's not easy. I know because it's precisely what I'm attempting right now for the closing scene of the novel. Reading these stories was like taking a masterclass in technique, and receiving an endorsement for the power of this sort of writing. Just what I needed at this moment in time.

Some of the compliments I cherish most about my writing are those that describe it as "cinematic" but there's always the niggling doubt about the balance between language and the visual. Benjamin Percy talks about harvesting a middle ground between genre and literary fiction, bringing beautiful language to strong plot and vice versa. It's all in the balance, and the mix. Ah the thrill of hearing another writer articulate what you feel most strongly. You can't beat it.