Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Cheshire Literature Prize

It took my Christmas-fuddled brain a while to work out the meaning of the lovely letter from the Judging Panel Chair at the Cheshire Literature Prize but my entry was one of the top 25 shortlisted from over 260 entries and, as such, will be published in the Prize Anthology. The winners was Tessa Sheridan - congratulations, Tessa! - whose story lends its name to the anthology title, Zoo. I'm chuffed to have made the shortlist for this prize for those with a connection to Cheshire. I was born and raised there, before leaving to do my degree down South. But I'm a Northerner by nature, and I love to write in a Northern voice when the story suits, a silly example being this nifty flash. My paternal grandmother was a Lancashire lass, whose father owned a meat and potato pie shop in Bolton, the earnings from which paid for a whole street of houses, named Meat and Potato Row. That's Northern royalty for you. In fact my grandmother (golly, would Alan Bennett have loved to spend just ten minutes listening to her talk about her neighbours) was the basis for the main character in the shortlisted story. A tribute I like to think she'd have enjoyed. God bless you, Nan-Nan.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas

It's been a funny old year, hasn't it? But, hey, there's a whole new decade waiting around the corner. I'm told we must call it Twenty-Ten and not Two Thousand and Ten. Is this correct? In which case why aren't we right now in Twenty-Nine? Or are we? Dear me, these things are tricky. In any event, thank you to everyone who takes the time to read this blog and to comment and to read my stories when I link to these. I hope you have wonderful Merry Christmases, and that the new decade brings everything you hope and wish for.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Love is a Colour, Green is a Taste

I'm flashing at Pindeldyboz today, with this piece I wrote a while ago. Love is a Colour, Green is a Taste is... a little kinky, with a twist at the end, but it feels seasonal for some reason. By way of complete contrast, Water's Edge, is at EDF today. A sad story but uplifting, I hope. Grateful for all comments, as always.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Wouldn't it be lovely if this rain turned to snow?

I know, I know. It would be lovely for about three hours and then I'd be complaining about how to climb the hill for my latte. But some of you are lucky enough to have the first snow of Winter already (and did you see the photos of Babbacombe last week?) so it's time for me to break out my seasonal joke. It's surreal, almost Dali-esque. I first heard it from a six year old.

Q. What did one snowman say to the other?

A. "Can you smell carrots?"

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cinnamon Anthology, and the Pushcart Prize

Lovely news today. The editors at Cinnamon Press have selected my flash story, I cannot carry a tune, for inclusion in their next anthology, Exposure, due out in September 2010. They had over 4,000 submissions, so the odds of being chosen were slim. Congratulations to everyone who was successful in having a story selected, including my good friend (and neighbour!), Tania Hershman. I'm really looking forward to reading the anthology when it comes out.

The acceptance from Cinnamon came hot on the heels of the news that the editors at Prick of the Spindle have nominated my flash, Flood Plain, for the Pushcart Prize. I'm honoured they chose me for one of only three fiction nominations in 2009. Thank you, Spindle eds!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Aesthetica Contest

Congratulations to the winners of the 2009 Aesthetica Creative Works Competition: Shadric Toop (Artwork), Louise Beech (Fiction) and Sally Spedding (Poetry). They will be published in the Creative Works Annual, available in Borders (and, I hope, elsewhere given the bad news about Borders that broke this week).

I was lucky enough to receive a Commendation for my entry. The editors sent a lovely email: "Your work was highly commended by the judges. This year we have done something new in the Annual, and created a Commendations List. Your name and the title of your piece The Pheasant Feather Hat are listed on this page. There were only 50 commendations per section, so this is a great honour."

Over 2,500 short stories were entered, a tremendous number for any contest. I'm really looking forward to reading the winning story.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Count us in moons

This morning I got an acceptance for the last unpublished flash in my folder. Yikes. I'd better write some new ones. I totted up, and this latest will be my 100th flash to be published. Yikes again. Did they all go to good homes? Well, maybe not all. Would I rewrite any if I had the chance (or the time)? Yes, nearly all of them. But there are maybe a dozen of which I am unreservedly proud, ones that connected with the reader. Which is not to say I regret sending any of them out into the world. The process of subbing and being rejected is essential, I think. Writing is a solitary art but we get better by engaging with our readers. I couldn't keep my flashes unread any more than I could keep children in an attic; words need a turn in the real world of reading, a rough and tumble, the chance to have the edges knocked off them. It's how stories grow and get better.

So I'm going to celebrate my 100 as a piece; we've grown up together.

According to the Scoville Scale charting the comparative heat of chillis, at 100 we're a Peperocini, or Cherry Pepper. In Bingo Calls, we're Legs Eleven (11) plus Dirty Gertie (30) and a Brighton Line (59).

In champagne nomenclature, we're half a dozen Balthazars plus a Jeroboam, or simply five Nebuchadnezzars.

As an American banknote, we'd feature the portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

As a Euro, our colour is green. Our Roman numeral is C. Our Dewey Decimal Book Classification is Philosophy. Were we a Poker Hand, we'd be 25 Royal Flushes.

In Canasta, we'd be Going Out. Count us in decibels, and we're Firecrackers. Or, as a Haydn symphony, we're The Military (in key G).

We're equivalent to 10 Greek Aceana in length, and 20 bushels (measured in man loads) in weight.

Count us in moons, and we have 5 times the number of Uranus; 50 times more than Mars. But we're only one tenth the size of the number of sweetbreads aboard the Titanic.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Nothing that meets the eye

The new and excitingly revamped issue of The Short Review is out, which is fantastic news for lovers of great stories, small but beautifully formed. Was it Jaffa who once pointed out, 'The small ones are more juicy'? Well, it's true. Lovely, tasty, tangy selection of colourful tales to choose from, including those by Patricia Highsmith which I was delighted to be able to review. All sorts of exciting developments here, including local publishing ventures and prospects to flash in my city's favourite magazine. A proper update soon, I promise.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Dig the dead

Lovely news to start November! My flash, Dig the Dead, is the inaugural story at Left Hand Waving, a brand new sister site to Right Hand Pointing, who published my story, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home, last month. The editors, Dale and John, emailed about the new site yesterday. It celebrates 'first person stories of approximate truth'. Dig the Dead is just that, about my experience of losing my father to Motor Neurone Disease and the strange funeral service that followed. It seemed to fit the bill for Left Hand Waving, so I subbed it and received an almost immediate acceptance. The fastest turnaround for publication ever, I think, and a welcome way to start a new month when I shall be trying hard to fit writing into my new working life.

Exciting developments with regard to local publishing connections are afoot, and I hope to be able to update here soon. It's all happening and my feet haven't touched the ground much in the last six weeks, nor have my fingers been at the keyboard. Nevertheless, after a brief spell of feeling utterly overwhelmed and exhausted, I am on a new high energy regime which is paying dividends in terms of my mental stamina as much as anything else.

All those of you desk-bound with a need to energy stimulus, I can recommend Graze, who mail out neat little weekly boxes of delicious healthy snacks, such as Razcherries (dried cherries soaked in raspberry juice) and honeyed nuts. I have an endless supply of promo codes entitling new users to a first box free of charge, if anyone would like to sample one. Just shout if you'd like to get snacking on good brain food.

Drinking lots of water, walking whenever I get the chance, as much fresh air as I can get into my lungs every day - it's all paying off. I'm feeling razzed!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Energy tips, please!

Please don't tell me to lag my pipes. I don't need those sorts of tips. What I need is ways to make myself feel like less of a zombie (I love zombies but I don't want to feel like one; I want to be the zippy-on-her-feet heroine who's handy with a shovel and stays alive). Healthy breakfasts? Exercise? I'm walking to work twenty minutes, briskly, every day, but once there I'm desk-bound. I have a latte most mornings, and would consider cutting back on that if it would help (caffeine, qua caffeine, feels necessary but it doesn't seem to wake me up). Does drinking water have any effect other than making trips to the loo necessary? (At least it would get me up from my desk.) Should I be munching seeds? But would I then have to check my teeth every two minutes for what's lodged there? As you can tell, I'm flagging. Any and all tips most welcome.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Best of Every Day Fiction Anthology - NEW

You may remember me asking you to vote for your favourite out of four of my stories which were being considered for publication in this new anthology. The lovely news is that I don't need to disappoint anyone - all four have been chosen by Every Day Fiction's editors. The View from Olympus; Kanti chooses Santa; Tuesdays and Thursdays; Revenge of the River Gods. I'm thrilled. Huge thanks to everyone who showed support. The anthology will be out in a few months, simultaneously in paperback and cloth-bound with a dust jacket. I have last year's anthologies and both are beautiful, real trouble taken by all involved to produce the best possible books.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


The October issue of PANK is now up and I'm happy to say it has two of my stories, My Camel Spits in the Sand, and a little further down the same page, The Catwalk is a Landing Strip. Please do pop along and read. I'm chuffed to bits to be a part of PANK.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Some writing news

Every Day Fiction has my flash, Invisible Mend. A funny little story that started life in a writing forum. I do hope you'll enjoy reading it. I've seen the page proofs from PANK for my two stories coming out in the October issue. I'll post links when they're up. Finally, and most exciting of all - LITnIMAGE's editor, Roland Gioty, has nominated my story, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton, for Dzanc's Best of the Web Anthology being edited by Kathy Fish and Matt Bell. I'm absolutely chuffed to bits about this. Thanks, Roland!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Connecting with the reader

Interesting, isn’t it? How as writers we rarely talk about our readers. Do we think about them enough? I’m not sure. Do I? Let’s see.

Of course in one sense I’ve always thought about my reader. I’ve imagined the thrill of having my words read by a stranger. I’ve craved an audience for my words, reading aloud to my little sister when we were children and lately falling into the thrall of internet writing, beguiled by the illusion (only sometimes a reality) of a ready-made audience waiting on my every word. But it’s only now, writing for business in my new job, that I’m really aware of giving the reader the attention he/she deserves. Because there is no way around it in copywriting. No hiding behind the words. No ‘this is just for me’ comfort-zone. I have to focus 100% on my audience, from start to finish.

Funny, though. That it should be as a copywriter I am most keenly reminded of the essence of storytelling: to create a dialogue, a conversation, and to keep it going. Understanding the reader’s hopes and fears. Manipulating the same.

Authors are, I think, allowed to take cautious pride in our powers of manipulation. Of course we must try to use those powers for good. But which author doesn’t feel a chill of delight when we set up an expectation only to dash it, or when we blind-alley the reader, or unmask a hero as a villain (and vice versa)? A healthy streak of sadism never hurt a good writer (goodness knows we need it to balance the masochism we practice, wittingly or unwittingly, in pursuit of being published).

Hooks. Twists. Surprises. Shocks. All story is conflict.

We’re taught these lessons from the very start. We’re not at war with our readers, of course we’re not. Rather we’re colluding with them. Taking them on a journey that pit-stops in places of danger, delivering vicarious thrills and frights as well as quiet moments of enlightenment, and perhaps joy. Even something as cosy and comforting as a light romance will sign-post disappointments and set up bush-tucker trials for its heroes and heroines before they reach their happy destination. In fact, by using ‘even’ at the start of that last sentence I am probably doing writers of genre fiction a disservice; they never stray far from the path of delivering the reader what he/she wants. By contrast, some literary fiction can feel as if the author has forgotten such a thing as a reader exists, other than as a plebian nuisance the author must endure en route to a prize ceremony or two.

“Words are dead until they’re read.”

This is a quote from John Simmons, a terrific business writer who has much to teach writers of fiction, at least that’s how I felt reading his book, We, Me, Them and It. However much we love our words, they only come to life when they’re read by someone else. The words are the dry ingredients but it’s the reader who brings the hot water, reconstituting our words into something which should, if we’ve done our job right, satisfy the appetite that brought the reader our way in the first place.

We hope to engage the attention and affection of our readers. Business writers work from this as a first principle. Maybe fiction writers should, too. Or more of us should more often, anyway. Simmons said something else that resonated with me.

Every time we engage with the reader we set up an expectation
As writers of fiction, we have the luxury of being able to pervert the expectations we set up. Most business writers can’t risk doing this. Although there are examples of copywriting coming close. Carlsberg’s Probably is a great example. Because what it’s actually saying, of course, is Definitely. The copy colludes with the reader. It shares their sense of fun. It’s self-deprecating; perverting expectations of brand advertising to plough a fresh furrow to its audience’s bloke-ish hearts.

As authors, we can pervert expectations but we must never lose track of them. If we do then the dialogue is broken; the reader trusts us a little less. If necessary, be boring and keep a list at the end of every chapter (or paragraph, in a short story; or word, in a flash piece). Ask yourself,

What expectation have I set up here? How I will deliver against that expectation in order to keep this conversation going with the reader?

Looking at lessons from business writing bibles may seem trite, or distracting, or vulgar. Perhaps we just prefer to think we’re better than that. Subtler, cleverer, more devious or more honest. We’re artists not exploiters. And yet - look at this list of key requirements from Simmons’ book on the power of words:

Be honest; Be distinctive; Be appropriate; Be consistent; Be personal

All right, so it’s not exhaustive. But it’s a damn good starting-place. And I don’t think I’ve seen it described so succinctly in any of the many books I’ve read about writing fiction. It had to come from a book about business writing. Didn’t I say it was funny?

I’m able to appreciate, finally, completely, why so many plots in fiction are linear, or simple, or both. And I see that it is because a novel’s density, its depth, ought to come from its interaction with the reader, not from the way it deploys words or even ideas. A reader’s expectations, and a reader’s responses, are complex enough. If we are always writing towards the reader’s hopes and fears, needs and wants, then we will write stories with real resonance and depth. The reader, after all, came to us because he/she wanted the same thing we want when we write: to make a connection, hopefully one which will last; certainly one which will enrich, while it lasts.

Of course the Simmons list above isn’t complete, for writers of fiction. I want to add,

Be surprising

For starters. I’m interested in the ‘rules of thumb’ other writers would add. And the lessons you’ve learned from unexpected sources? Please share...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A new month

I do like October. Everything's another colour, the light is different; it's impossible to look at things the way you did in August, or even in September. The sun on the water of the river takes me to work and back again. I'm busy, very busy, but it's good. I'm thriving, and hope you are all doing the same. Little to report otherwise, unless it's that I have a flash coming up in Every Day Fiction in a week's time. I'll post a link when it is up. Poetry, perhaps? I love this one by Charles Simic.

On the first page of my dreambook
It’s always evening
In an occupied country.
Hour before the curfew.
A small provincial city.
The houses all dark.
The storefronts gutted.

I am on a street corner
Where I shouldn’t be.
Alone and coatless
I have gone out to look
For a black dog who answers to my whistle.
I have a kind of Halloween mask
Which I am afraid to put on.

Charles Simic, “Empire of Dreams” from Selected Early Poems. © 1999 by Charles Simic

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Creativity and the writer

I started a new job on Thursday, and I'm loving it. It's a writing gig with a crowd of creative people who are enthusiastic, talented and appreciative of what I bring to the mix. The place has a real buzz, not just busy but switched-on. My feet haven't touched the ground since I got there but it feels good, such a great move for me. I hadn't realised how much I needed to be working with other like-minded people, how much creativity breeds creativity. I'm being stretched, flexing new muscles in my brain, all to the good. Plus, at a very basic level, I'm quicker, smarter, lighter on my feet than I've been in years. The office is filled with natural light, there's a huge kitchen/living space with sofas and cupboards full of Alphabet Mugs. The bathrooms have Cowshed products to keep everyone's hands in great condition. I feel I'll be nurtured here, and pushed in new directions. I don't yet know how writing the novel will slot into the new schedule but I do know I'll make it slot in, and that the people I work with will be cheering me on every step of the way because they live and breathe and love creativity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Right Hand Pointing

I'm very fond of this site, with its cool colours and graphics. So it makes me happy that they have published one of my favourite flashes, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home. I wrote this for a challenge set by Tania Hershman (Hi, Tania!), who required consecutive sentences beginning with letters which would spell out FLASH. Instead of restricting my narrative flow, I found this challenge liberated a story which found a very special place in my heart. Thanks, Tania, for this and the opportunity yesterday to talk writing for three hours - bliss.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Bristol Review of Books

It's official, I've 'arrived' in my new home city. The editor of the Bristol Review of Books, on seeing this sample of my writing, called it a 'fabulous piece' and asked permission to publish it in his magazine which is distributed in its thousands to bookshops, museums, libraries and coffee shops in Bristol and beyond. I was fortunate enough to get the centre-spread in the magazine, plus a mention in the Editor's column and on the front cover. I'm truly pleased the story is getting more exposure and reaching a wider audience.

"Sarah Hilary throws light on forgotten barbarity at the end of World War II. Sarah weighs the human cost of propoganda in wartime and offers hope that human spirit, and morality, can overcome tyranny." Stephen Morris, Editor

You can view the piece as it appears in Bristol Review of Books by clicking on the link above and then choosing the option to download and open the document.

This piece of writing first appeared in Foto8 Magazine in Spring 09

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Thumb Measure

I was looking forward to reading The Lovely Bones, after finishing Sebold's other novel, The Almost Moon. I admit I was expecting it to be a stronger novel than Moon, if only because of its stellar success as on the bookshelves. For my money, Moon is the better novel. And I think it's about structure, about the place where my thumb rested in the book as I was reading. I haven't considered the significance of this Thumb Measure before, but I thought about it all the way through Bones. I was partly judging the success of the story on how comfortable my thumb felt while I was reading. The Thumb measure is about whether what's happening on the page feels right in terms of how far I am into the book. Will I read on? How soon is it due to end and is there enough story left to satisfy my expectations as as reader?

Moon is told in real time over a day and a half, punctuated with flashbacks. The Thumb Measure felt exactly right, all the way through. When I reached the mid section of the book I felt that I was halfway through the story. The problem I found with Bones was that it could have ended a third of the way through and I wouldn't have felt cheated. The ending was absolutely implicit in the first three chapters of the book. We knew what had happened to the heroine and we knew who did it. The fact that the heroine was in heaven seemed somehow conclusive to me. She was happy there, if unresolved in her feelings towards those on earth. But the ending - her ending - had been reached. The heroine's journey was done. I could not shake that idea no matter how much deeper I ventured into the story.

The Thumb Measure continued to feel out of whack as I read on. And to complicate matters Sebold deployed an ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card: the supernatural. This wasn't a genre novel, her deployment of the supernatural was pragmatic, but she reached for it a little too often for my liking, as a way of avoiding any more complex reasoning or plotting. Let me give a couple of examples. The heroine's father suddenly starts to suspect a neighbour of being his daughter's murderer. This conviction comes from nowhere and arrives ready-made, absolute and unshakeable from the second it hits him. Sebold seemed to be implying that the ghost of his daughter made a gift of the knowledge, but for me it didn't ring true, not quite. I felt as if I'd watched a magician's trick and knew I'd been 'had' but the sleight of hand was to be accepted on all sides.

The ultimate denouement depends on this belief in the supernatural. The heroine's final adventure was like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which robbed it of the quiet dignity I was anticipating from Sebold's lead-in to the moment. And now for the big finale..! The impetus behind it seemed to come from a different genre, one where Love Conquers All and teenage girls have dreamy moments of wonderful fulfilment. Yeuch. The vengeance against her murderer was similarly affected by reference to the supernatural. I cringed when I read it, because it seemed such a pat answer, a sop to the reader's need for a tidy ending. And yet there were moments when Sebold seemed determined not to give us that, when I was certain her message was Life is Messy; Live it. The contrived neat endings felt all wrong to me.

(And what of poor Ruth, the girl used like a glove and cast aside with barely a word as to how her life panned out, and Buckley with his Drumkit that Resolved all Problems? These loose ends bothered me even more given how tidily Sebold finished off other strands in the story.)

One thing I will say is that the cinematic impact of the story was immense. It was full of scenes which will film astoundingly well. And perhaps that was always in the back (or front) of Sebold's mind as she wrote. For me, these set pieces served to highlight the holes elsewhere, as if we were expected to be so dazzled by the spectacle of what was in front of us at any given moment we wouldn't stop to question how it fitted into the overall arc of the story. Onscreen there's no doubt it will work well. In my hand, with my Thumb Measure judging the progress and pace of the story, it fell short of my high expectations.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Sheep are the new Penguins

It may be the Welsh in me but I love this new company, Herdy. They're making woolly rugs and throws and also has the best mugs, notebooks, keyrings and coasters. The Herdybanks are delightful. My Penguin mugs may have to move aside to make way for Herdy. Or maybe I'll mix them up, Penguin mugs on Herdy coasters, writing with a Penguin pencil in a Herdy journal. So many possibilities. What do you think? Is it time for Penguin to push off, or is Herdy a flash-in-the-pan rather than an instant classic? Or am I being woolly-headed and a bit bonkers?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Confidence and the writer

If it seems I've been blowing my own trumpet a bit loudly of late, please let me explain. This has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with attempting to boost my confidence, a writer's most fragile asset. Mine took a serious drubbing recently and if I've resorted to roll-calling every small success it's only because I need to feel I'm making progress, no matter how minor it might seem to the rest of the world. The real success story has been my new routine of rising at 6am to write for two hours every morning. This has meant the new novel climbed to 22,000 words in two weeks with the result that it now feels like a novel and not a series of randomly related words under a title I keep changing. I'm not saying this first draft is great or even good. I'm under no illusions about the hard graft which lies ahead. But I've turned a corner, got stuck into something new, started over. Alongside this, the small successes themselves count for much in terms of my confidence; they validate my decision to pursue this craft. Perhaps they shouldn't. Perhaps the craft ought to be enough in itself. But I can only rely on my own judgement up to a point. After that point, I need other people's judgement. I am selective in how I respond to this. I don't ask friends or family to pat me on the back. Nor do I hold all editors in the same high esteem, but I am getting better at telling when a judgement is sound. This too is all about confidence.

I can recall more or less precisely the moment when I put aside the textbooks on how to write and learned to trust my instinct. I had listened to enough of the right people saying enough of the right things (and sometimes enough of the wrong things) for me to know when I was on the right track. I realised that I could trust my instinct rather than the opposite. But it doesn't take much to knock that confidence for six, even now. I try not to molly-coddle it too much. I make sure I expose it to knocks which will test it for soundness, the way an expert in fine china will ring a bell with a flick of her fingers to be sure it isn't hiding a hairline crack or three. I'd prefer it didn't get whacked by a hammer, but I don't hide it in bubble-wrap on the top shelf.

I have started to sub to big places, punching above my weight when I can, always raising the bar. But I also sub to venues I've come to trust and like. I hoard the small successes because they give me the confidence to keep punching higher up. Let me give you an example.

A week ago I was despondent about my writing. In a mood that was nine parts masochistic, I subbed a story in anticipation of a rejection. It hit. And another, which also hit. I took my courage in both hands and pitched an idea to the editor of a magazine. It was a cold pitch. I sent him a sample of my writing, the non-fiction piece about my mother's childhood in a prison camp. The editor loved it, asked permission to publish it. And now I'm going to have a headline feature in a respected print magazine with a wide readership in my new city where I'm trying to make my name as a writer. I won't say any more than that until it's published, and I do realise I've come full circle back to my own trumpet, but the point I'm trying to make is that confidence begets confidence. Hoard ye small successes while you may, if I can say that without sounding all hey nonny and a bit insane.

A last word to the lovely Jennifer Stakes, whose blog Writer in the Wilderness invited readers to nominate a collective noun for synopses. I suggested a SOD IT! of Synopses, and Jen was kind enough to award me a beautiful virtual espresso cup as my prize. Perfect for that first strong cup of coffee at 6am. Thanks, Jen!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Burial of the Bells

I'm lucky enough to be Read of the Day over at Every Day Fiction today with my flash, Burial of the Bells, another story inspired by the Far Eastern prison camp where my family were interned during the Second World War. This started life as a story written for a quick challenge over at the Fiction Workhouse earlier in the year. A fellow Workhouser, Joel Willans, has a story at EDF later this week. The editors, Camille and Jordan, do a terrific job of choosing stories and encouraging writers. If you've not checked out the site recently, you should. And please pop across today to read Burial of the Bells. You can rate it out of five stars (point your cursor at the star you think it deserves, from 1 to 5, then click). Better still, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Junkyard sheriff

For the past week I've been on a strict routine for the new novel, rising at 6.30am and writing for two hours before the rest of the house is awake. I'm at the stage where what matters is getting black on white, putting in the hours until I have the story lodged so firmly under my skin I'm dreaming of the characters and can't wait to get up and at 'em. For now though I will admit it is hard work, especially the early rising. This morning there was an exciting bit of news to reward my bright start to the day. Prick of the Spindle announced the results of their Fiction Open Competition, and I received an honourable mention for my story, Junkyard Sheriff. Congratulations to the other honourable mentions and of course the winners who were Peter Weltner, JA Tyler, Jennifer Weathers and Amie Heasley. Follow the link for the full list. Everyone on the list will appear in the signature print edition. Now, no excuses, it's Novel Time.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sebold, Shute and Shriver

I've just finished reading The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold and have found my reaction to it intriguing. I think I would classify it as literary crime, if only because it involves a crime. It reminded me in parts of Sex Crimes by Jenefer Shute, a favourite writer of mine. Both stories are told in the first person by women who have committed terrible crimes. Both stories use flashback to draw the reader gradually into the past, the unfolding of which provides an explanation for the shocking "conclusion". Shute's book does it better, despite the naff title she chose to give it which must have turned off swathes of female readers and picked up several unwanted male ones (I like to think they got a hell of a shock reading about the crime in question). Sebold's book lacks the disciplined structure of Shute's. The flashbacks are not given to us sequentially and I found at the end that I had a very muddy idea of why things happened the way they did. In part, I'm sure, this was deliberate. Sebold is writing about mental illness and she wanted to do justice to the lack of black and white, the toxic melting pot of need and resentment, love and hate. I enjoyed turning the pages of the story but at the end I felt disappointed, overall and in one particular instance. I'll come to that particular in a moment.

My reaction to The Almost Moon was a little like the frustration I felt after finishing We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Both books are page turners, Shriver's relentlessly so. She uses every trick in the plotter's handbook to keep us reading despite the increasingly disturbing subject matter. At the time of reading, she had my undivided attention. The book gripped me, completely. It was only afterwards that I started to resent the manner and extent of her manipulation.

Sebold, it seems to me, wants to "explain" the awful mess at the end of the story by telling us that everyone in the family is insane, to one degree or another. The mother, the father, the daughter. There is no-one to "blame" or, rather, everyone is to blame. It felt to me like a get-out-of-jail free card, rather than a truthful telling of the complexities of her subject matter. It was a compromise, a very flat one. It also raised the question why two people diagnosed with severe mental illness should decide to try and raise a child. Perhaps the questions I am asking are pedantic, but that's the territory you tread if your novel earns the peg of "crime". You may play in the shadows, in the shades of grey, but ultimately there must be an iron core of logic, of black and white.

Shriver's story has an even more fundamental flaw. She spends half the book telling us how much her heroine hated getting pregnant, resented every second of her motherhood, failed to connect to her monstrous offspring. In the second half, this mother decides to have a second child. There is no explanation as to what on earth persuaded her this was a good idea. The second child is a pathetic, pliable female with Victim written right through her. The only purpose of this second child, as far as I could tell, was to provide yet more weaponry in Shriver's war of manipulation. Great trick for a crime writer, this. You see it all the time, most especially in that sub-genre I've heard called 'Brutalise the Girl' (with good reason). I kept on turning those pages, to the very end. But my lasting impression of the book was one of resentment, anger even, at the heartless way in which Shriver deployed her craft. As a thriller, it worked. As a work of literature, it failed. Because Shriver broke her own rules, dodged logic in pursuit of effect.

Of the two books, Sebold's is the better, I think. She remains true to the core of the story, which is concerned with the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. In order to arrive at a variety of peace between these two, Sebold sacrifices the sanity of the father, an act which removes from the mother the blame for his death. Too neat, to my mind. Better had the daughter been forced to reconcile her muddled emotions for her mother, blame being a part of these emotions. By pointing out too clearly the MC's inherited insanity, Sebold then removes the need for a proper conclusion. The reader is left with nothing but the sense that all of life is struggle, which is a foregone conclusion after all.

Shriver's crime was cruder. She took the main ingredients of a great thriller and put them all together, hoping we'd forgive the lapse in logic because the second child is such a TERRIFIC victim and gives us such excellent TWISTS towards the end of the story that of course she HAD to exist in order to serve exactly such a purpose! This, I think, is both arrogant and lazy. Another get-out-of-jail free card but this one stinks because it's so unforgiveably cruel. My overriding impression of Shriver is that of a great manipulator, not a great writer. Of course it didn't help that I went on to read her re-issued earlier novel, about tennis players, which was quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Double Fault, it's called. I won't link to it because, trust me, you do not want to read it. Apart from anything else it features some of the worst sex writing in the world, all about musty jockstraps and the like. Brrr.

Shute, now. Does not put a foot wrong. Her heroines are never likeable, the things they do are often abhorrent, but they are consistent. Shute is honest in the way she deals with the characters, and her readers. Her Life-Size is excellent, and Freefall also. Neither is a crime novel.

Sebold, I will read again. I have reserved The Lovely Bones at the library because I want to see how she executed that story. And I like her writing very much. Not as much as Shute's, but very much.

In the meantime, bliss! I am reading Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid. Not a crime in sight, and I'm loving it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Synopsis - made you duck!

For many writers, Synopsis is a dirty word. And who can blame us? We're regularly told we can't sell a book without one, by people who in the same breath say writing a synopsis is harder than writing a novel (it isn't and if it is, you're doing it wrong). Most agents insist on a synopsis. Some insist it fits on one page which adds to the stress. To top it all, sooner or later we find out from a published friend that most agents and publishers don't even bother reading the damn things, or certainly not until they're read enough of the manuscript to be interested in the broad story outline.

I put the phrase 'the dreaded synopsis' into an anagram engine and it fed back Depressant Hid Sod Ye. Which... doesn't really help with the point I'm about to make. I'm going to show you how to use the synopsis as a weapon to scare the gremlins away from your writing life (rather than allowing it to become the biggest gremlin of all).

I've just spent two hours putting down a synopsis on one page which has clarified for me the central issues and theme of my current novel. More than that it's trimmed off all the fat, shown me what doesn't belong and what jars. It's shaken everything into place, preparatory to the hard work of writing the story.

This post I wrote gives you a more detailed account of how I approach this kind of synopsis, but in essence the process works like this:

1. Aim for a synopsis that fits on a single side of A4 (around 800 words). Make it have a beginning, a middle and an end.

2. If, like most writers, you have preconceived ideas of 'your limits' (those little voices in your head telling you you can't write conflict or action or pathos) - ignore them. This is absolutely key. Shuck off all your expectations, free yourself from worrying about how on earth you're going to write this story. Tell yourself the synopsis is not for a book you are required to write. Rather it's a book you'd like to read. Nothing is impossible, no parameters, no comfort zone, just the need to tell a story which grabs the reader and carry him/her through to the very end. This means intrigue, excitement, menace, tension, action - the whole works.

3. Cheat if you like, give the synopsis a blazing ending that subverts the assumptions you started out with. You can go back and fix the inconsistencies later. Or change the ending altogether.

4. Think in three acts, each with a climax. This will force you to concentrate on the necessary momentum and narrative progression.

5. When you have a synopsis which makes you sit up straight, THEN you can start expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter plot. If you need one.

It works, it really does. Two hours after starting out, I know which characters have a firm role in this story, including one about whom I harboured serious doubts. I was able to see that a plot angle I was contemplating was over-blown and sat too dramatically with the rest of the plotting. So I changed it, re-tuning to the right frequency. That alone has saved me hours of re-writing at a later date. I now feel ready to get stuck back into the writing. No more gremlins just the hard slog of getting black on white.

So there you have it - my top tip, for what it's worth. Would anyone like to share theirs?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Reader, I rogered him

It occurs to me that only women have Guilty Pleasures. Men have Appetites (to the extent of that being a legal defence from time to time). Not only must we feel guilty, as a sex, about our pleasures but there is a clear hierarchy of guilt. We are encouraged to indulge our loveably weak natures when it comes to chocolate, shoes, shopping and so on. You can see how Chick Lit took off, can't you? Sex, qua sex, is not generally encouraged unless one has the ditzy ineptitude of a Bridget Jones, who is surely the prime example of how a woman might 'fall pregnant' (presumably she slipped and landed on his appendage). Women who read and write pornography (or to give it its Sunday name, erotica) are as a rule positioning themselves beyond the pale pastel paintbox of Chick Lit, entering an altogether darker arena. I do wonder, though, whether the chocolate and the shoes and the shopping would be quite so prevalent were we to allow women a genuine indulgence, even if only once a month. Shocking of me to suggest it, I'm sure, but there we are. Anyway, enough stirring at the murky waters with my dirty stick, have a little light porn to start the day. Nothing too scary, mind. It is Tuesday, however, and "erotica" has such a bad reputation. I prefer to call this porn. Just published (and paid for) by Big Pulp. A flash called Every Time's the First. Oh and it's gay porn. I'll get my coat, shall I?

Friday, 14 August 2009


This week I have been mostly tackling... eggs. Our new home requires building work, which has cleared out our little all aka the nest-egg. Which is a shame but we survive. I have written a new short story which features a man who smells of boiled eggs and baby lotion. That's two new stories in August so far, not half bad considering everything else that's going on here, the scramble for the summer holidays and so on. I am hatching a plot for a freelance project which I am hopeful of cracking soon.

Enough of the egg analogies, you think? Oh wait, there's one more. Yes, it's our old foe, head-lice. One trip to the swimming-pool and the blighters are back. Not to worry, lotions have been applied and combs wielded, appeasement offered in the form of the Beano. All sorted. Now, where did I put those tasty soldiers..?

Eggstra, eggstra, read all about it! The new issue of Yellow Mama carries my flash about Lizzie Borden, who whacked a few eggs in her time, I'm sure. Fall River, August 1892, won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Award and was first published in the Fish Anthology 2008.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Contests, Subbing and the Real Thing

A quickish round-up, this. For those of you waiting for news of the Commonwealth Short Story Contest, they've notified all winners and will be posting the lucky names on their website in September along with details of the 2010 contest. If you ain't heard, in other words, you (like me) didn't make it this time. Luckily those lovely people at PANK leapt in to make me feel better by snapping up two of my stories, including My Camel Spits in the Sand (which was shortlisted for the Fish One-Page Prize under a different title). The editors wrote: "These stories are awesome. I'm so excited you sent them our way. We would be thrilled to include them in a forthcoming issue of PANK online, most likely November or December." That was a 24 hour acceptance - another reason to say Thanks PANK!

Given the huge number of US run writing contests out there, I was very happy to discover some new (to me) UK biased ones. Including the Cheshire Literature Prize, exclusively for those of us with a connection to Cheshire. Huzzah! Nik, you'll be entering this one, yes? Who else is eligible? Their word limit is 1,500 (short for a story, long for a flash), but it's prompted me to write something new which is great. I've got an idea for a story I'm going to try out here. Note: the website is in the process of being updated but if you email they'll send a pdf of the details.

Moving a little to the west, there's the Rhys Davies Competition, exclusively for Welsh writers. Their website has an excellent selection of links to other contests, see the right-hand bar for details, some with associations to Wales, others not. Lots of poetry contests, too.

With so many contests feeing the life out of the art (£20 for an entry! £15 is too rich for my blood), it's good to see Aesthetica Magazine offers two entries for £10. And Willesden Herald is sticking at £3 an entry (details tbc). Heck, if you're quick, there's even a free to enter tiny flash contest from MiniWords with £250 in prize money.

Finally, does anyone have an inside track on whether or not Salt are still running the Scott Prize? I'm assuming the answer is Yes as the details remain on their website. And, yes, it's £18 to enter but then they have to read 45,000 words not a piffling 2,000.

Friday, 7 August 2009


I'm delighted to report that my flash, The Rocket Laundry, is the new Featured Story over at Wigleaf. I love this site! Oh and they have a postcard from me, too. Colour me chuffed.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

In collaboration with...

This is a tough time for writers, no doubt about it. I know at least two published authors who are struggling with sales and new deals and with agents (not to mention editors and publishers and, yes, readers) whose expectations don't chime with their own. The industry is undoubtedly hauling in its horns. It depresses me whenever I see agents advising new writers to compare their writing to that of one or more published authors, as if only by slotting neatly into the marketing machine can a new writer hope to be published. I know there are agents who specifically state that they don't want such comparisons since they are seeking a New Voice, but these seem to be a shrinking minority; more and more we are being asked to Fit In, to Conform. I appreciate exactly why this happens. The marketing machine is a large and greedy piece of equipment, geared to make publishers less nervous about taking a punt on new names. But I wonder if it isn't partly to blame for the trouble (recently highlighted around the blogosphere) that some writers have in respecting the boundaries of our art. If publishers want the next Dan Brown (gawd help us) then an ambitious writer might be forgiven for doing his or her damnedest to produce such a thing. Whither originality, then?

So much that I have heard of late has served to put me (and, I'm sure, a lot of you) off writing as part of a group. It seems to suggest that we'd all be better off back in our garrets, lonely as heck, hunched over our manuscripts, guarding our work as if our lives depended on it (as, indeed, our livelihoods just might). I'm not saying this is an over-reaction, because the depth and breadth of the damage that's been caused is such that any other response may actually be worse. I don't have a magic formula (sorry!) but I do have a bit of personal experience I'd like to share.

I fell in love with writing precisely because it was a solitary art. I shared a bedroom with a younger sister and writing was my way of stealing a little time and space to myself. That said, from the start I liked an audience for my writing, and would read my stories to my younger sister who, bless her, was always enthusiastic to hear more of my tales of winsome boy spies (of course I didn't know then that they were winsome; I fondly imagined the pair to be sterling examples of machismo). I continue to write such stories to this day. It's my way of relaxing my writing brain in-between the serious business of composing novels. And I have an audience for my spy stories, a loyal core of readers whose enthusings and stamina spur me on to write more and better. My spies are no longer winsome and my plots are a thousand times better. I write on-the-wing, no overall structure in mind, posting in chapters and using the feedback from my readers to help me shape the story as it unfolds. This is an amazingly fruitful way of working. My readers ask questions, of me and my characters, they make suggestions and requests - I thrive on the interaction. I have even written long sections in partnership with other writers, to whom I entrusted my characters (somewhat jealously, I must admit) because the enjoyment (and the constant surprises) outweighed the weird sense of invasion I felt at the outset. I suppose what I'm saying is that collaboration can be good, as long as everyone respects the boundaries and one another.

Secondly I should like to say that I never expected to derive any enjoyment from any aspect of writing other than the pursuit itself. I thought my happiest hours would be those spent alone, creating worlds and people to dwell therein. Had anyone told me that some of my golden memories would come from group activities with other writers, I'd have thought them barking mad. It was the loveliest surprise to discover just how fun I could have in the company of those who, like me, had chosen the solitary art (if you'll pardon the pretension). Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of Vanessa Gebbie (among others) I will always cherish the time I spent in Bantry last summer at the West Cork Literary Festival. And to think I'd always fancied myself as the misanthropic type!

I think it's one of the hardest things for a writers to do: to reach out to others and involve them; to share your most jealously guarded hopes and fears (a writer's raw material, in other words). Trust is a very tricky commodity for a writer. Perhaps this is why it hurts so much when that trust is breached. And why it means so much when it's extended in our direction. I remember telling a fellow writer (much older than myself, an uncle in effect) a smashing idea I had for a spy story. Almost the first thing he said to me was, 'Don't tell ME! I'm a writer! Don't ever share your ideas with another writer!' He was half-joking, but every writer reading this will know what he meant.

The lessons learned in the last few weeks drive home just how much courage and heart it takes to trust ANYONE else with our time and our ideas. I applaud those who are able to do this. They are a rare breed and deserve our support and thanks, because without them we'd all be garret-bound. And think how lonely that would be.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


My flash, Taking the cinder path down to the sea, is published in the new issue of WORD RIOT. It's great to be a part of this terrific mix of flash, stories, poetry, interviews and reviews.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Strictly Writing

I am the guest blogger at Strictly Writing today, with a piece about discovering family history and writing in extremis. Please do pop along and read, and comment if the mood takes you.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Have you ever..?

I'm about to go away for a few days - offline - and have raided the local library for reading matter to keep me occupied as the weatherman warns it's going to pish down. I've already started Run by Ann Patchett, and I'm loving it. Then I have The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold, and Salt River by James Sallis. Plus, to re-read, The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, whose earlier novel, Carol, I gave up on after part one. I hate to give up on a book but I found the characters so uninteresting and the whole enterprise indulgent, especially when compared to the terrific discipline she demonstrates (and inspires) via Ripley. So - what are you all reading? And have you given up on a book recently (or ever) and if so which one and why? I'd love to know.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Best of Every Day Fiction 2009

It's that time again when the lovely people at EDF start thinking about publishing the Best of Every Day Fiction, for the 12 months from September 2008 to August 2009. I have several stories that might be eligible for inclusion, depending on the editors' preferences and the strength of feeling from readers, which mostly means the stories have to be nominated for inclusion. I'd love your votes, if you have the time and inclination. Below are links to the stories eligible for inclusion in the Anthology on the basis of when they were published in EDF. Thanks for your support!

The View from Olympus

Kanti chooses Santa

Tuesdays and Thursdays

Revenge of the River Gods

And here is the link to the page where you can nominate one or more of the above for inclusion in the Anthology. If you do happen to read the stories I've linked to, and you like them, please rate them in the stars that appear immediately under the stories (hover the mouse pointer over the star of your choice, e.g. five stars if you love it, one if you don't) and click.

NB: There are many great stories to choose from by writers like Gay Degani and Anne Brooke, among others. I've nominated a couple of my favourites and will continue to trawl the archives at EDF for other stories I'd like to see in the new Anthology. It was a genuine privilege to be part of the first EDF collection, which was beautifully published in both hard and paperback

Monday, 20 July 2009

Death, the Pill and putting grief aside

It's a little over nine years since my father died of Motor Neurone Disease. He was 60. The diagnosis had come a year earlier. It started with a lack of strength in his left leg when he walked my grandmother's dog. Then he began to experience muscle weakness in his left arm and in his hands. For a long time before this happened, he had suffered from mental vagueness, a tendency to smile at all and sundry in lieu of engaging with them. His father had died of dementia. In my father's case, the MND expert was emphatic: you cannot have MND and dementia; MND does not effect the mental capacity of the brain. My father's increased vagueness during his illness began to seem like an undignified surrender to the disease. Why was he not railing against his fate? Or seeking ways to surmount it, or at least confront it? Why did everything seem to provoke this same sad smile of acceptance? I don't know. Except that I suspect he was suffering from dementia, either aggravated by or in partnership with the MND. Had the expert admitted to that as a possibility, it would have spared us all an extra quota of frustration. In any case, he died within a year of the diagnosis.

Despite his vagueness, he was an enthusiast who could speak for hours and knowledgably of Tudor history, cricket, Top of the Pops circa 1973. He held strong views on subjects others might dismiss as trivia. He had an opinion, often heated, on just about everything. He was, incredibly perhaps, an optimist.

I was two months pregnant when he died, and hadn't told him in case it upset him to think he wouldn't live to see a new grandchild. I was numb with new hormones. Three months later, my surrogate uncle died. It was expected, as he'd suffered a stroke and a bad fall some time before the stroke that killed him.

Then, when I was seven months pregnant, my grandmother died very suddenly. I didn't take the news well. Left to my own devices I would've gone into full grieving mode. I did in fact lie on a stone floor and wail at the ceiling. Which scared everyone, myself included. But I was about to have my first child; I couldn't have a meltdown. I put the grief to one side.

Now, nearly nine years later, it is still coming out. A little at a time. Some days I don't think about it at all. Other days I can hardly function because of it. Added to which, since giving birth, I have been prey to what I am told are 'perfectly normal hormones' which would be fine had I, for instance, ever experienced PMT before the birth of my child. As it was I glided through puberty on the wing'd feet of The Pill, which suppressed I suspect all sorts of chemicals with which my body now delights in tormenting me once a month and often more frequently (well, it's making up for lost time).

I have done some things I am not proud of in the last nine years. I have avoided thinking about the three deaths that came so quickly one after the other. I have avoided grieving. I have given in to rage against nothing and no one in particular, without seeking a proper cause for it. I have hurt some of the people I love, and others whom I hardly know.

On the other hand, I have raised a happy child. I have made my mother's welfare a priority. I have survived, which in itself seems a minor miracle when I try for a proper perspective on that period of time when I was so far from myself that it's extraordinary I never called out for help, in panic if nothing else.

In conclusion, I am a work in progress. I have no salient lessons to offer, expect perhaps to say that if you have grieving to do - do it. Give yourself space, even just a little at a time, five minutes every other day. Happy memories; it doesn't have to be Grief with a capital G. Give thanks for what you had, and for what you have. Get help if you need it, and be patient with yourself and others.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Originality in writing

There are some excellent discussions going on today around the subject of plagiarism, what it is, what it isn't and how to avoid it. Rather than attempting to replicate, I will point you to a selection of the best, beginning with How Publishing Works, which links to other blogs including Sally Quilford's thought-provoking piece at Quiller's Place which discusses, among other themes, how fanfiction fits into the debate. This is a topic close to my heart (I once wrote a published letter to Mslexia about it) and it was great to see Sally tackle it so sanely. Try accusing Susan Hill or Jean Rhys of plagiarism, and see how far it gets you. I'd like to raise a glass to the best fanfiction writers out there - you make my life better and brighter, so cheers!

Now I'd like to talk a bit about originality, because it's one of the things that impresses the socks off me as a reader and a writer. I've been an avid reader since I was six and have read a fair few books in my time. This makes me sympathetic, to an extent, with theories that there are only ten plots in the world (or is it five, or three?) but nothing beats the buzz of discovering stories which feel brand new, stories that come at you from the angle you least suspect and stay for a long long time. I'm not talking about the weird and wacky so much, although I am partial to the imaginings of Jennifer Pelland, whose collection I read for The Short Review. I'm talking about stories whose plots may be as old as the hills but the telling of which is fresh and vivid and generous in the way that the best writing can be generous - a gift to the reader. And a gift to the writer.

Wait, am I straying back towards that plagiarism discussion? What about the rule that says you mustn't read other people's stories when you're writing your own, in case you inadvertantly allow it to influence what you're writing? I hate that rule. It's daft, and insulting to a writer's intelligence, as if we're wayward children incapable of admiring a toy without breaking it, or as if we're unable to retain two or more strands of information in our heads at any one time. If we're good at anything, as writers, it's working with threads - holding each one separate from the other as we weave a story together. If I read something original and I love it, it inspires me. Sometimes, yes, it daunts me. My imagination can feel fallow or inadequate besides these giants of ideas. But the overriding impact is one of renewed enthusiasm for my craft. I wouldn't stop reading for anything, least of all while I'm writing when I need that enthusiasm the most.

So here's to the giants of ideas, the writers who have inspired me most recently and those who've taken up residence in my head (and my heart). Just a shortlist for now, although I may add to it over time:

The White Road by Tania Hershman

Some New Ambush by Carys Davies

Uncle Fred by P G Wodehouse

Life-Size by Jenefer Shute

Oh and most of Grace Paley, Muriel Spark and Helen Dunmore. Some of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mervyn Peake, Nabakov and Nancy Mitford.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


My flash, A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton, is online now at LITnIMAGE. My debut in this venue, and Roland (editor) has been so enthusiastic throughout the process, telling me today that several of his friends have said they love the story. I'm so glad I wrote this (inspired by my new city) and subbed it to LITnIMAGE.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful

1. Good Things happening to Great People: Tania Hershman won the Grand Prize at the Binnacle Contest - huge congratulations, Tania! Editor's Choice went to Vanessa Gebbie, and honourable mentions to Nik Perring and Anne Brooke, among others.

2. The Weather breaking to Rain: this makes me very happy. It meant we were able to extend our riverside walk to two hours on Friday evening, with a pit-stop for bread and olives (and a chocolate mousse for the child) in a lovely riverside venue.

3. Things for Free in our New City: two very different but equally splendid houses to visit, right on our doorstep, giving us a genuine idea of how our 1760 place would have looked in its day. Then, walking home and finding the child hungry, popping into the riverside venue and being handed a huge loaf of ciabatta 'on the house', as they were about to close for the day. As the child put it: "A whole ARMFUL of free bread!"

4. Shutters and wallpaper: the bedrooms in our place still have the original shutters with iron bars, which is wonderful enough, but even better are the variegated layers of peeling wallpaper in the recessed portions of the wall where the shutters fold when open. There are at least four different layers of paper, floral, colourful, very old. I must write a story about the four generations that chose the papers and hung them here.

5. Reading: Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water. Dry as tinder is Tom Ripley, and Highsmith's prose to match. Of course this makes it all the more explosive when it Goes Up. I'm still trying to work out how such very dry writing can grip the reader so thoroughly. Really, it's not the sort of writing I enjoy, at all. But I keep reading her books, for the craft as much as anything.

6. Writing: It's coming, slowly. I have a handful of flashes coming out over the next few weeks, at venues including Wigleaf, LITnIMAGE, Word Riot and Big Pulp. Oh and a guest blog over at Strictly Writing at the end of the month. Best of all, I'm working on the new novel, at last.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton

I'm celebrating! I wrote my first piece of new fiction since moving home, the writing of which was a milestone in itself (and the story was inspired by my new location, which makes it important in a different sense).

I subbed the story to the editor at LITnIMAGE, who'd read and rejected (quickly, positively) a handful of my other flashes just recently. This being something brand new, I thought I would try it out and it was accepted just a day after I wrote it: 'We think your story is a wonderful addition to our upcoming issue and are very pleased for the opportunity to showcase your work... It's a beautiful and moving piece.'

I'd like to nominate the editor, Roland Goity, for one of Vanessa Gebbie's Best Editor Awards. His response time was super-fast and his comments unfailingly civil and encouraging. He took the trouble to suggest some small changes to my work but made it clear I had the right to accept or decline these as I saw fit. Best of all, he didn't mind me sending fresh flashes by return email for his consideration. Thank you, Roland, you made my morning with the acceptance of A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Yellow Mama

My flash about Kate Webster, the last woman hanged at Wandsworth, is published in the latest issue of Yellow Mama. This is one of a handful of historical crime flashes I've written. If you're interested in how (or why) I like writing this sort flash, there's a blog about it here.

Sister Morphine

I'm reading this book at the moment, by Catherine Eisner, published by Salt. If anyone else has read it, please can you explain why Salt call it a "novel" rather than a collection of short stories? I don't see how it can be a novel, as it consists of individual 'case studies' of women with mental health issues. I have read about a third of the way through so far, and there is no connecting thread between the individual accounts, or none that I can see. I know there is sometimes a stigma associated with selling short story collections (and this is a debut collection), but since Salt is a great champion of the short story, I can't think they would fall into the trap of believing readers would be put off by the tag 'short stories'.

Please don't misunderstand - I'm enjoying what I've read so far (although I do feel some of the stories are over-written and the individual voices don't always shine through). I just don't see it is as a novel, and wonder why Salt do.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Thursday last week

The sun has shone nearly every day since we moved, which has been very jolly and made a trip to the coast great fun this weekend. I am perverse, perhaps, but my favourite day was Thursday last week, when it rained. We'd been walking by the river every evening in the good weather but on Wednesday I wimped out because the heat and sun was getting too much for my Saxon blood. On Thursday, the rain came and I was happy. I walked up the hill through the squares and gardens, smelling roses and hedges, wet grass. The whole world just washed - you know that smell? I bought a cup of excellent coffee and walked with it to the highest point in the city to see how it all looked, newly clean. The trip restored my equilibrium. I came home ready to write, made copious notes for the new novel, cleared the clouds from my head. Today the sun is back and just as bright. I'm glad because it's the weekend and we can pooter along the coast road, do some more discovering. But I can't wait for the next rainy day.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


Well, I'm here in the new pad. Nearly all the unpacking has been done and it already feels like home. I've yet to get into my stride with the new regime for writing but that will come. For now I'm enjoying being here, in a two hundred year old apartment filled with light and character, hearing seagulls instead of sparrows, walking up the hill for a coffee in the morning, strolling by the river at the end of the day. It feels expansive, and liberating. I'm the happiest I've been in a long time, lighter on my feet, brighter in my mind, everything sharper and cleaner - in focus. Thanks to everyone who sent good wishes and cards for the move.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


I haven't found writing easy over the last few weeks. So it was great to get an almost instant acceptance for a piece I wrote recently, Taking the cinder path down to the sea. It will appear in Word Riot in July.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Don't Twitter, SHUSH

Dear me, I love Hugh Laurie. Interviewed by Jonathan Ross on Friday night, he maintained his dignity, was humble and funny and gently wary of Ross (in the manner of an intelligent man confronted by a small, sly snake of little brain). Asked whether he was on Twitter, Hugh replied, "No, I don't Twitter. I Shush." Finger on lips. "Shhhush. I belong to the Silence Network." On his physique, having to keep in shape for House: "I'm whip-cord taut." On his approaching fiftieth birthday: "Thanks, thanks. Shucks. It was nothing."

This man has talent by the bucket-load. As fans of House will attest, his acting is a revelation, subtle, layered, always surprising. Plus he can write. And he's funny and smart and humble. Not to mention the fact that he's musical, can play piano, guitar, harmonica - you name it.

I'm in awe of multi-talented individuals. As someone who's still mastering her one talent, I envy those who combine literary skill with artistic ability. My writing buddy, Gay Degani, is an artist and makes fabulous jewellery on the side. Pat Jourdan, whose short stories blow my socks off, is an artist of the Liverpool school.

Hats off to the multi-talented. And long live the sublime Mr Laurie.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I've just received my first Foto8 subscriber response to A Perspex Crucifix. Jerry Barnett, a talented photographer, wrote to say:

Hi Sarah, I'm a recent subscriber to 8 magazine and read your article "A Perspex Crucifix" today. I'm not normally a magazine reader, being more of a photo-and-news junkie, but this is one of the best short pieces I've read in ages. Being of Jewish background and my grandfather having served in the RAF while his friends and relatives vanished across Europe, I share a fascination and personal involvement with the legacy of the war. Thanks, Jerry

As Jerry and I discussed, there must be many people of our generation who are custodians of family history which needs to be kept alive. It was really good to hear from one of them, via the column in Foto8. I hope the story will reach (and touch) many more.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Rainy Pavements Review

The new issue of The Short Review is out, which is great news for lovers of short stories. It includes interviews and reviews of collections by Ali Smith, Barry Graham and Pat Jourdan, whose Rainy Pavements I enjoyed reading (and reviewing!) very much.

In extremis

I've had my fair share of experiences lately which have shaken my faith in human kind, most recently the shock discovery that someone I trusted and liked has been ripping off other people's work and entering it in contests under his own name. Almost worse than this is the failure by the contest organisers to disqualify him when evidence is produced by the victims of his plagiarism. The writers whose work has been stolen have effectively been victimised twice: once by the plagiarist and then again by the contest organisers who have treated their complaints with indifference at best, contempt at worst. It leaves a terrible taste in my mouth. These contest venues have been struck off my list for subbing in the future, which is a shame because one of them had commended my work in the past, but how else are we to show these people that we have standards and expectations as writers?

Moving on to some pleasant news, I was invited to produce a guest blog for Strictly Writing, a lively and thriving site with contributions from editors, agents and writers. I'll post a link when my guest blog is up there. This assignment inspired me to do a little more research into my family history, which led me to the Changi quilts, an astounding piece of evidence to restore my faith in humanity. Click on the image above for an enlarged version in which you can see details.

These quilts were worked by women interned in Changi jail in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion. Each woman worked a separate square, embroidering a picture or words. This did more than alleviate the boredom of internment. It provided evidence that the women (and their children) were alive; the finished quilts were sent to the military hospital at Changi Barracks, where many husbands and fathers were held. Apart from being a vital means of communication, the quilts are works of art, beautiful and poignant. Examples can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, and at the Australian War Memorial Museum, Canberra.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A Perspex Crucifix

Thanks to the editor of Ink, Sweat & Tears (thanks, Charles!), the column I wrote for Foto8 Magazine can now be read online. It opens as a pdf via this link.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The week that was

What a week! So many of my writer friends scored successes, including the publication of new texts (shout out to Nik Perring), the high ranking of existing books in Amazon league tables (shout out to Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie) and first place in the WOW (Women on Writing) Awards which went to Gay Degani for her great flash, Beyond the Curve. Congratulations to all. Each of these writers takes his/her craft seriously, devotes time to getting better and to getting noticed by the publishing world (a notoriously hard feat for new and emerging writers), so be inspired by their example, as I am. Oh and buy a book from Salt Publishing - you can't go wrong with their list. I've just ordered Some New Ambush by Carys Davies. Support the independent publishers, because they support us.

In my own small way I made a leap this week. Nothing as amazing as the successes above, but I wrote a piece of original fiction, my first in a couple of months. It's a tiny piece, just 200 words, and it's a long way away from my comfort zone, but I'm pleased with it and with myself for achieving it. It came to me while I was driving to my mother's, and I had to keep repeating it in my head until I was able to grab pen and paper and get it down. It's called Hoochy Coochy Man and the Wagon of Rhymes. Even the title is unlike me. I take this as a good sign, a fresh green shoot after a hard frost.