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.