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