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Friday, March 8, 2013

The Inadvertent Playwright

Last weekend I finally got around to watching Cloud Atlas. I say finally, because I’m still none the wiser why we had to wait several weeks for its release in the UK, when it was on in the USA in September 2012. I expect the precise reasons for this are depressingly dull, dry excuses to do with scheduling or budget or whatever, but still: it was somewhat unfair, I thought. Especially as the book was written by a British author and the film had many British actors.

But it was well worth the wait. David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, and Cloud Atlas one of my all-time favourite books. (It’s worth noting he wrote Cloud Atlas at the same age I am now. Makes one sick, frankly.) I like it not only due to its sheer ambition, scope and myriad of genres and themes, but also because it’s essentially six short stories, artfully meshed together. A real genre-bender, and gripping tales to boot.

But what I was really looking forward to, much like I do every time I see a film based on a book I’ve read, is to see the director’s - and the actors’ - own interpretations.

I’ve always wondered what it must be like as an author to have your work given new, independent treatment. Mitchell himself, in the preface of the re-issued Cloud Atlas, puts it well. If I may borrow his words briefly:

"... First off, there’s a primal kick to be had from seeing and hearing your word made flesh... before your very eyes, actors are speaking dialogue you wrote in your back bedroom years ago... all these non-existent people are now real... they find flashes of humour and menace which you never spotted..."
Four days after watching the film - and just as the circulation began to return to my legs (nobody told me it was THREE HOURS LONG) - I got the merest glimpse of what Mitchell must have felt. One of the short stories I wrote last year was a 2,000 word piece called "Me, Robot". It’s a comic, somewhat sad tale of a man who finds himself out of work, cannot bring himself to tell his wife, and decides to spray himself with paint, busking in public as a human statue/robot to top up his dole money. I was delighted when it was picked up by The Fiction Desk - you can read my original blog about it here, or my guest post for them about the background to the story here.

However, there was more to come. Rob from The Fiction Desk sent a copy of the book to the Berko Speakeasy, a Berkhamsted-based theatre/literary group who put on “short story cabarets”. They were looking for stories to perform at their event on the 6th March, and soon identified my tale as one which would work well as a performance piece. I had an email from them. Was it OK to use my story?

Too right it was.

Before the evening, I was eagerly anticipating seeing how my character would be portrayed. Previously I’ve had work read out before, but each time they’ve been straight readings, usually done by and for other writers for the purposes of workshopping or critique. This was the first time I would witness a story of mine read purely for entertainment, interpreted by a proper actor. More to the point, would he dress up?

Completely inadvertently, I had become a playwright. (Well OK, not exactly, but I like the phrase “inadvertent playwright”, so I’m sticking with it).

And what an evening it was. Taking place in the Greene Room of the Kings Arms Hotel in Berkhamsted, the room had been decorated according to the themes of the stories; tiger print tablecloths, flies, a severed hand hanging by the bar. Even the tables had little trinkets related to each tale. (These included dog biscuits, paper flies, pairs of swimming goggles and a tiny pairs of metal handcuffs). For the next couple of hours, the audience of approximately a hundred people were treated to enthusiastic and vividly interpreted tales by Guy de Maupassant, Rajesh Parameswaran, Carys Davies, Toby Litt and Miranda July.

My story was on last. Huge kudos to the actor Will Harrison-Wallace for – huzzah! – dressing the part: he’d actually attired himself in silver clothes, donned sunglasses and painted his face. All because of me. Top marks, that man.

He strode on, sat on a chair (as per the police station setting of my story), then started to read all those words very, very familiar to me, an experience both surreal and wonderful at the same time. Just like David Mitchell had said: I was seeing and hearing my words made flesh; the non-existent person made real. I’ve heard of writing characters which “leap off the page”. Here, I was literally seeing it happen.

My Robot! (Click for more photos).

It’s an immensely satisfying feeling. All writers, I’m sure, want to see their work read, appreciated, enjoyed, understood, remembered. When a piece is published, you hope it becomes all of these things, but of course there is never any guarantee. If you’re lucky, someone may drop you a note online, or be nice about it in a review, but that’s about it. But thanks to Will Harrison-Wallace’s interpretation and the audience’s positive reaction, I was able to witness this first hand.

So, huge thanks to Julie Mayhew and Ian Skillicorn from the Berko Speakeasy, Will Harrison-Wallace for being such a convincing and engaging “robot” (click here to see "Boss Boot Camp", a brilliant short film he was in!), and also thanks again to Rob Redman from the Fiction Desk for publishing it in the first place.


Postscript: the very evening following the Berko Speakeasy, I found out that another of my short stories, “True Colours”, has been selected from hundreds of entries to make the shortlist of the 2012 Ink Tears Short Story Competition. What an excellent week!

Friday, January 4, 2013

To Theme or Not to Theme?

For me, Christmas 2012 was a purple patch for my writing.
(I'll break off here for a moment. Did you know that 'purple patch' is also a literary term? I didn't. I just looked it up. It means 'An overly elaborate or effusive piece of writing'. How appropriate.)
Fresh from my story ‘Me, Robot’ appearing in the latest volume of short fiction from The Fiction Desk (it's called 'Crying Just Like Anybody' and all the stories are excellent - go buy it!), I then had another acceptance. I was in the middle of my work's Christmas lunch at a nearby pub, when I got the email from Litro Magazine to say they enjoyed my short story ‘The Real Miracle’ and wanted to publish it in their next issue. I nearly spluttered Guinness all over my lamb shank. That’ll teach me to fiddle with my iPhone at a social occasion. Still – what news! What a Christmas present!
Litro are both a print and online magazine, primarily publishing short stories but also poems, articles, interviews and artworks. The print issue is free - a neat, pocket-sized thing which you can pick up from their stockists - and with a print run of, apparently, 100,000, to have a story accepted by them was a genuine chin-dropping moment.
Litro are also notable in that each issue of their magazine is centred on a theme. Some magazines and journals avoid themed issues, preferring to keep an open submissions policy, but it does work very, very well for Litro. Over the past couple of years they've brought out magazines on Ghosts, Work, Food, Street, Comics, War and places such as China, Africa, France and Rio. They're absorbing, fascinating and imaginative reads, with their website offering back issues in electronic format, and much more besides.
"The Real Miracle" appeared in an issue with a "Magic" theme. I absolutely couldn't resist having a go. I used to be a very keen magician when I was younger - I performed stage shows, competed with the best young magicians in the country in national competitions, and even made it on telly two or three times - therefore with my story, I was able to draw on some personal experience. Due to this I was hopefully able to convey some authenticity - and of course I didn't have to do too much in the way of research.

Whilst on this occasion writing to a theme worked very well for me - it only took about a week to finish the story to my satisfaction - recently it proved a challenge too far. Over December, I was writing a story with a slipstream, slightly supernatural edge. The brief was "the railway", and had I been able to pull it off, it would have been considered for an anthology which, if past books by the publisher are anything to go by, will be a very fine tome indeed.
Usually when I start writing a story, I finish it. For the first time ever, I gave up. It simply wasn't working. Whether it was clunky prose, ill-considered characterisation, the lack of time I had as Christmas approached, or just my lack of affinity with the railway, I don't know. Probably a bit of all of them, but more, I suspect, the fact that I couldn't think of a good story. I had all year to work on it, all year to research the railway if that is what I needed to actually do. Yet I had to admit this one wasn't going to happen. Just wanting to be published isn't enough. I needed to have a story worth telling.
Was it writer's block? Maybe. But I don't lack other ideas, so maybe working to a specific theme was the wrong thing to try in this instance.
Perhaps I'll come back to it, if inspiration strikes. Maybe it'll prompt me to read a bit about the railway, or about the life George Stephenson.  Something good will come of it. I don't like leaving things unfinished!
In the meantime, there's 2013 to look forward to. I hope to have a few bits and pieces coming out over the next few months, themed or otherwise. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Crying Just Like Anybody

Back in July this year, something really rather splendid happened. I had one of my short stories accepted by The Fiction Desk. I remember precisely where I was when I opened their email: I was in Seoul, South Korea, having just got back from visiting the highly fraught but extremely interesting Demilitarised Zone on the border with North Korea. I had just flopped down exhausted on my hotel bed, took a deep breath having been shepherded about with military precision for most of the day, clicked on my iPad, opened my email and there it was. An acceptance!  Two worlds had collided. For a few brief moments I didn’t know who or where I was.
It’s extremely gratifying to be published not only in a real, tangible, walk-into-a-shop-and-buy book, but also to be featured by this particular publisher. The Fiction Desk is one of my favourite publishers of short stories. I’d read their three previous volumes, extremely impressed by the fresh and imaginative writing, the assortment of styles, the thoughtful way they’d been curated, the mix of established and new voices, and the classy, professional way the books actually looked.
The new volume, the one to feature my story, is called “Crying Just Like Anybody” (named after the title story by Richard Smyth) and is due for release around 20th November. It’s been a bit of a wait for it to come out, not least since my acceptance was back in July, but I gather a large part of this delay has been finding the right stories to feature. That, and I personally couldn’t begin to imagine the work involved. But it’ll be well worth the wait. It’s available to pre-order now.

Sort of related to this: I had a rejection letter from another journal this morning. Now this, of course, is par for the course. It’s a fact of life that writers have their work turned down, in journals, in anthologies, in competitions. So, ho hum: never mind. But here’s the weird thing: it was my first ever rejection letter.
Now, that’s not to say that everything I’ve ever submitted before has been accepted. No way – I’ve had loads of misses, far, far, far more than acceptances. But how strange that this place was the first to write to me specifically to say “no thanks” (and very polite they were too). Usually I find out I haven’t got anywhere by logging on to a publisher’s website, with the list of successful stories featured, and I’m not among them.
But with “Crying Just Like Anybody” coming out in just over a week, it’s impossible to be downhearted.
I may even frame it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Short Stories - Reading, Writing, Submitting...

Further to my previous blog post, I should add – and it’s a point long overdue – that I also write short stories because I love the form. To read each one is to enter a new world, with its own complexities of character and situation, concentrated all within a twenty minute read or less. They can be as absorbing, if not more so, than many full length novels.
This year I have been greedily gobbling up as many as I can find – in anthologies, websites, magazines and journals – so much so, in fact, that I wonder whether I should give each one time to settle in my mind before moving on to the next one. A good short story should indeed be powerful: capable of packing a full punch that any good novel would be capable of, but within only a few thousand words. The test for me, I think, is how much I can remember of it two to three days after finishing, and whether the emotional ups and downs, or conflict, of the story has stayed lodged in my consciousness. Thus maybe a little ‘absorbing’ time after I finish each one may be in order. If I can withstand the temptation, that is…
One thing I don’t want to do here is to analyse, at least any more than my somewhat unoriginal attempt above, what makes a good short story. It’s been done so many times already, not least in the prefaces of the various anthologies I’ve been reading, that this overdose of advanced literary theory has made my head spin. Character driven vs plot driven; implied vs explicit; the power of words left unsaid vs too much information; what makes a cliché and how to avoid them; using metaphor to discern the difference in style and technique between short stories and novels; even line graphs to illustrate plot arcs. There’s so much that’s been said that I don’t think I could add any more.
As a writer, I’m still trying to find my way. Admittedly, this is mostly by making mistakes and learning from feedback, either from my writers’ groups or from competition/rejection post-mortems. Also, of course, from reading, reading, reading, and seeing what other writers are doing well and how I can learn from them – plus comparing and contrasting the different anthologies and competition results to see what one editor/judge may like. What do they think makes a good short story, as opposed to another editor/judge?

It’s interesting to see how opinions differ. One judge of a recent short story competition bemoaned the entrants who tried to do ‘too much’ within a mere three thousand words, with the fast pace leaving him exhausted (sure enough, the winning stories were all tales where, to be quite honest, nothing much happened at all – and therein lay the art of them).
Yet, another anthology I’ve been reading (namely, "Stories", edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio) worked to the brief that each story should make the reader ask themselves "And then what happened?" To my mind this implies the opposite; they wanted page turners, ergo, a bit of pace and, dare I say it, action. OK, they were skilfully done, and each one works perfectly within the short story form – but I wonder whether any of them would have been rated in that aforementioned competition.
That’s not to say one’s right and one’s wrong, of course. As a previous commenter on my blog has mentioned, if you’re a writer and wish to be published (or win a competition), it’s about targeting your story to an editor or judge who may actually like it. If that needs research, then so be it – i.e. if I see a competition, recognise the name of the judge, know his/her style or the sorts of stories he/she’s rated in competitions before, then I’ll have a much better idea what to submit of my own. Likewise, with anthologies, having read volumes of them over the past few months, I have (I hope) a fairly good idea of the kind of stories which may go down well in those volumes, and will target them accordingly.
I hear a lot about competition judges and anthology editors who complain about submissions written by authors who have clearly never read anything in their catalogues before. And – I will hold my hands up here – this would have been me, in the distant past. Crazy, rookie mistake – and not one I will make again.
This more considered approach is starting to pay off, both in terms of confidence in my own writing and acceptances, which is slowly but surely creeping upwards.
I’ve listed here some of the publishers of short story anthologies I’ve been reading and enjoying over the past year – all are quality and well worth checking out. For the purposes of brevity rather than more Luddite tendencies, I have only mentioned those which are available to be perused as those satisfyingly tangible pre-Internet binded papery flappy things – otherwise known as ‘books’. (Although a few are available for your Kindle, or what-have-you.)
If you have any recommendations for me, please leave a comment!

Competition anthologies of prizewinners/shortlisted entrants from the Bridport Prize, Bristol Prize and Willesden Herald
Not read yet but high on my shopping list: prizewinning anthologies from Biscuit Publishing and Fish Publishing

Monday, July 23, 2012

Writing Competitions - Hit or Miss?

When asked why I wrote short fiction, I always say three things:

1) It’s great practice – far better for a budding writer to make mistakes on an imperfect short story, than spend months to years on a poor novel

2) With a short story, you may actually get the satisfaction of finishing something! (Which is not to say short stories are easy – they’re a very different discipline to novels and certainly not easy to do well – perhaps a topic for another blog post…?)

3) With a ‘catalogue’ of short fiction under your belt, it’s a way to build up a profile – especially if you can get some competition wins to add to your CV.

Competitions, then. Winning them (provided they’re reputable ones of course!) is a sure fire way to critical acclaim, wider attention and, in most cases, publication of the winning story. What’s not to like?

Over the past year or so I’ve tried my hand with a few. Usually, of course, I’ve failed to make any mark whatsoever. This is par for the course: rejections are part of writing, as any writer (or wannabe writer) should know. I’ve worked out, as a rough guess, that the chances of making any kind of win or placing in any given competition is 1%.

For example, a short story competition may receive 500 entries; they’ll be a 1st place, 2nd place and three honorary mentions, so 5 ‘hits’ altogether. A more prestigious competition may receive 5,000 entries; a published shortlist of 50 will typically be drawn up. Again, 1%, give or take. I suppose that’s down to your own definition of ‘competition success’, but personally I would regard any placing as a result.

Possibly it’s a crude way of looking at it – some will be more, some will be less - but this percentage for a competition ‘hit’ seems about right to me.

In short, getting anywhere in competitions is extremely hard – you really do have to be at the top of your game (plus, inevitably, enjoy the merest smidgen of luck). Across the Internet there are a number of worthwhile sites which give tips for competition success – here is a good set of guidelines for how to maximise your chances of winning competitions, and this is a good one, advising of ways to select the most worthwhile competitions out there.

We may as well be honest – failing is not a nice feeling. It means somebody out there doesn’t like your work (or like it enough – but of course the paranoid fringes of the imagination will always swing toward the former). It’s also a constant reminder that there are writers out there ‘better’ than you.

In an ideal world, this kind of competitiveness would not even exist – writing and storytelling, in and of themselves, need not necessarily have a competitive edge – but for those who want to eventually be published, this is the world we live in. Entering, and failing, competitions enables the rapid growth of a thick skin.

Yet it’s worth remembering a few things (and it’s something I always have to consider after my latest unsuccessful attempts).

Firstly, all judges on writing competitions are subjective. Sure, they may have certain criteria for which they’ll award marks – such as plot, character, voice and pace – but how they’ll judge those are very much up to them. The writer Julian Barnes, current winner of The Booker Prize, referred to the very same award a few years back as ‘Posh Bingo’.

Of course a writer will clearly maximise their chances by submitting a brilliant piece of work, but it’ll still be at the mercy of the whims of the judges. Pleasing a fellow scribe with your wordplay to warrant a prize should be satisfying if it happens, but if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be cause for too much crushing disappointment. Other readers, those reading your work without a score system in mind, may well have completely different views. There’s something to be said for gut instinct and liking something just because!

Secondly, failing to win a competition – especially if the contest’s judge gives you feedback – is a superb way of identifying the weak points of your entry and making subsequent improvements. Earlier this year I entered one story in three different competitions simultaneously; it failed to get a placing in any of them. I came back to it a month later and re-read the opening paragraph.

The extent of its dullness was breathtaking to behold; how it managed to get past my own ‘quality’ control check before submission is something I’m chalking down to essential experience. Nobody else would have been compelled to read on, not least by busy competition judges; I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even make it past the first fifty words and in the whole thing went into the shredder. Whether or not it will now win a future competition is a moot point: at least it is better for having been through the critical mill.

Thirdly, competitions really should not, in my opinion, be the be-all and end-all for aspiring writers, just as they are not for established authors (refer again to Julian Barnes’ comment about the Booker Prize for a case in point). They’re one way to build up an author’s profile, but they certainly shouldn’t be the only way.

Anthologies, story slams, literary festivals, magazines, publishers and good old fashioned networking are but a handful of the other ways a writer can bring their work to wider attention. Although it can be argued that all of these things too have the element of competition (in that only what is deemed the very best work will suffice), at least they may not necessarily have the same constraints, or the all-prevailing feeling of being ‘judged’, that a competition may have.

It’s possible that some writers out there do regard winning competitions as an ‘end’ rather than a ‘means’ – fair play to them if so – but that’s not something I personally want to get into. The reason for this, in my own mind, is simple: I want my own good writing, if it is indeed good enough, to be rewarded, full stop – not good ‘competition’ writing, if such a thing can exist. If I am to tailor my work with a specific prize in mind, surely the only person I would be rewarding is myself, and not the reader. Surely keeping true to your own voice should come first: if it’s any good, it’ll get out there somehow.

Having said all the above, and speaking personally for a moment, I was very pleased to be awarded an honorary mention for one of my short stories in the May 2012 competition on Five Stop Story.

They’re a great site where new and emerging authors can submit their short fiction (readable in five stops on the Tube, hence their name) – ten are selected every month for publication on their webpage and their very neat iPhone/iPad app.

The reason I am particularly taken with this lot is that unlike various other competitions for writers (where I sometimes wonder who else is going to read the results other than the writers themselves), this service is designed very much with readers in mind.

You can read my story, as well as the winner, runner up and all the other mentions, here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blog rebooted

Earlier this year I had an entertaining time launching this blog, more as an exercise to see whether I could do actually one. Subject matter encompassed social media, magic, television, trolling, language learning and one entry on creative writing.

Oh yes, and shampoo. (Thanks to Dear Customer Relations who posted my open letter/article on their fabulous website here).

I have decided, in an attempt to swerve this blog away from the fate which awaits 95% of such sites within their first three months (i.e. disuse and oblivion), that it shall no longer be a miscellany of my random thoughts and interests.

To be honest I've probably already covered most of my main interests in the few blog posts I've done so far, and as for random thoughts... well. I suspect at any given moment I have thousands of them, but not many are liable to be blog-worthy. That's the problem with keeping a "random" blog regularly updated: the small issue of finding subject matter notable enough to warrant comment.

Instead, I shall publish the occasional feature on the trials and tribulations of being a writer still riding the slope of a learning curve, both in terms of laying the words on the page, and - oh, the ambition - getting published. It shall probably detail my attempts, so far unsuccessful, to build upon my one modest competition success in April 2012.

Hence the re-design, re-naming and re-boot. And I'll lose the Latin posting titles... I suspect I baffled more than intrigued people before. But I'll use "Verba Volent, Scripta Manent" as the title of this one... I think it's appropriate!

In the meantime, I’m off on holidays for two weeks. Read my travel diary in South Korea and Japan here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Creative writing - and the importance of feedback

Verba Volant, Scripta Manent = "Spoken words fly away, written words remain"

This is my first entry for a while - not out of lethargy or laziness, but more due to a pressing need to work on other stuff.

After some modest success with my first published piece of fiction this month (see my website for details), I have largely been working 'offline'. Not, as you may think, proactively writing, but more a case of removing words I've already written. Such a thing has a name - 'editing', not surprisingly - perhaps a more appropriate term could be 'quality control'. Having said that, my own preferred term at this precise moment is 'gigantic pain in the backside'; yet, needs must. It can take significantly longer to successfully edit than it does to write the thing in the first place.

My story which appeared in Writers' Forum this month was the seventh, possibly eighth draft, to exist. Its various revisions were partly down to my own re-reading and re-thinking of its plot and structure, but mostly as a result of constructive feedback from other writers.

I'm a member of three different writers' groups in London (see below for links), all of which are extraordinarily helpful. The idea, generally, is that a writer reads aloud some of their work to the rest of the group (or, in one specific group I attend, someone else will read aloud your work for you, in order for the writer to take a more passive role). People will listen, notes will be taken, questions will be asked about character, plot, pacing, style and voice; grammatical mistakes and word duplication will be highlighted. Sometimes an active debate will take place regarding the theme or meaning of the story; it's oddly satisfying to witness your own work being disseminated like it would be at a book club. Yet on one recent occasion, when one of my stories was read out to a group, it was figuratively torn to shreds - in the nicest possible way, you understand. They picked holes in every aspect of it.

Which was brilliant. Getting the support and suggestions of fresh pairs of eyes is an essential part of the process. Some aspects of what I often hear at these groups, usually to do with plot or not-quite-fully-developed characters, would never have occured to me. As someone who is so close to the work, receiving the considered opinions of like-minded third parties is not just a luxury, but a necessity.

Frequently, I agree with the feedback I receive; other times, not. Yet whether the writer agrees or disagrees can be a moot point; the underlying premise is that the writer is able to regard their work in a different way, and either makes appropropriate changes or sticks to his guns, having diligently considered all points of view.

Such feedback, for me at least, has never been nasty and negative, and nor should it be; it is the writing that is being criticised, not the writer. Every input I have received, and indeed given, has been made in the right spirit, and taken as such. Writers, on the whole, are a mutually supportive bunch, and enjoy being part of a creative process. Unfortunately at some of these groups, people have turned up, read their work aloud, visibly bristled with indignation at the comments and observations that have been made, and never returned. It's a terrible missed opportunity for them. I've even heard of one occasion where a young lady, after one creative suggestion too many, left the room in floods of tears.

I would tactfully suggest that these people are maybe not cut out for it, and certainly in no place to be approaching literary agents or publishers where critical appraisals and demands for edits are not only commonplace but par for the course. (To that effect, writers' groups are good practice). I would propose that a group consisting entirely of sycophants - or, on the other end of the scale, heartless critics - would not be truly productive and effective, and not representative of the literary world out there. If anyone goes along expecting only fulsome praise for their literary masterpiece, I have my suspicions they're not in it for the right reasons. Granted, the first time one does it, it can be hard to take, possibly even a bit nerve-racking - but the results are worth it.

My own task now is to review and amend some of my as-yet unpublished work and make it the best that they can be - and this would have been significantly harder had it not been for my writers' groups. If anyone reading this is into creative writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, blogging and anything else which involves laying down the written word, please do seek one out - and good luck.


London Writers' Cafe

Westminster Writers' Group

Camden Creative Colony