Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Arts' Council Evaluation

I am putting together the evaluation for the AC - I emailed a week or so back and told my contact the news that 'The Coward's Tale', as it now is, has found a great home at Bloomsbury. It is a sobering thought - I was lucky, and managed to secure a grant before the cuts in spending hit - and it was tough enough a year back, believe me. I can't help thinking that my grant was a tiny sum, relatively speaking, and how many wonderful pieces of work would be helped into the world if it was only possible to give a helping hand more often.
Maggie Gee, in writing her evaluation of the mentoring process, made the point that my grant money has enabled her go to New York to research her next novel. So that's two writers helped in one swoop, two pieces of work given a shove into the world.

I didn't have to send these documents in - but because it has been such a successful project, thought it was a good thing to do so. Who is to say - maybe it will encourage a purse string to be loosened a little? I was always a mad optimist.
Anyway, in the spirit of sharing as much as I could on this blog, here is my evaluation paper.


When I applied for this grant to work with Maggie Gee, my manuscript was basically a series of short fictions, all set in the same town, with the same set of characters. I had created a thin and very last-minute ‘linking device’ based on conversations between two characters, and I knew that was patently obvious, and therefore unsatisfactory.
Working with Maggie Gee was marvellous. From the first read-through of the work, she seemed to understand exactly what I was trying to do, and saw some of the seeds of the solution in what I had already created. It was under her guidance and encouragement that these linking sections took on a depth and importance that strengthened the rest of the book, as the relationship between the two characters grew in the most surprising ways. The results have enriched the whole far more than I would have thought possible.
Maggie never told me what to do in terms of the plot. She would point out the issues, and we would discuss the implications of various suggestions, or possible solutions that appeared as we discussed. She wrote extensive and extremely helpful notes for all the manuscripts I sent her, showing me her reactions as an intelligent reader as much as a great teacher.
I learned the importance of creating a narrative thread that pulls the reader through a novel, and that events strung together, even though they are ‘saying something’ cohererent, are not enough.
I learned specific craft skills appropriate for a novel-length work, the necessity for example, to help the reader more than in a short story, especially at the beginning, to identify important characters by using small but definite details. That is a good example of learning to see the work from the reader’s perspective. Maybe it is easier to be more self-indulgent with a short story, but if I wanted to keep the reader’s attention for the length of a novel, I had to learn a few different tricks of the trade. There were plenty of places where the reader’s attention might slip – where I had overdone the descriptions and images, and there was not enough happening. That raised several issues - it was clear that I had overused imagery in places, such that one cancelled out another, and the overall effect was messiness, rather than what I was reaching for. It was marvellous to have those places pointed out – not specifics, necessarily, but passages where the tension slackened.
One very important discussion took place - the most uncomfortable - where the central image, a machine, and a marvellous metaphor, became the target of a possible scythe. This really was my writer's darling - the novel was called 'The Man-Engine' and there were careful descriptions of this device, that got clearer and clearer (at least that was the intention) as the book progressed. But... the book is about the echoes of a mining disaster. It is Wales. And this machine was not in use there. Yes, I could have put in an explanatory paragraph at the end to say I was aware, but this is fiction... but after drafting the said paragraph twenty times, I just couldn't do that. It seemed an image to far, finally. And when I realised that the movement of the machine had given me the structure of the novel - something the publishers commented on in the end, positively - it had done its job.
Did I do everything that Maggie suggested, then? No. For example, there were places where Maggie suggested dropping a specific phrase from the prose, here and there, and on consideration, I left some of them in, because to remove them would have had an impact on the voice and the rhythms. In those instances I tried to find another way of sharpening the experience for the reader in a different way. I think I have learned to listen to my own instincts more. To trust my own skills more than before. The seeds of the main narrative thread were all there – Maggie pointed out the importance of these characters, and their interaction – but also the relative thinness of these sections, as well. I like to think that next time, I will trust the process of creation more, and be able to expand on those things that are important more instinctively.
I learned how much work is necessary to create a manuscript I am really proud of, as opposed to an ‘it will have to do’ creation. I learned that when I thought it was finished, but was a little concerned still about the ending – Maggie picked that up, and I was right to be concerned. I learned that what one thinks is the last of all the many rewrites is never the last. Maybe a work is never ‘finished’.

Overall, as well as having tackled the craft issues necessary to turn a series of linked stories into a novel, I think I am a more confident writer at the end of the mentoring process. Working with Maggie Gee was terrific, and I am very grateful for that opportunity.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A Romantic Longlisting for Sally Zigmond

I’m enjoying myself – today I am waving a bunch of red roses in the ether in congrats to Sally Zigmond, for her news, a longlisting for her novel ‘Hope Against Hope’ (Myrmidon) in the Romantic Novelists Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Goodness me! The full long list is HERE.

Hope Against Hope is on Amazon, HERE

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How To Get A Literary Agent, by Sarah Hilary

A couple of years back, I persuaded writer friend Sarah Hilary to come with me to the Fish Publishing award ceremony, part of the West Cork Lit Fest. (What, you haven’t been? Well poor you...) Sarah had won one of the prizes – and I could give her a lift from Cork airport to the lovely town of Bantry. We had a very happy drive, nattering away, and went straight to the library for the opening of the Festival. They’d pushed the moveable shelves back to make room for all the rows of chairs, and I was sitting next to one of the said shelves- labelled ‘Crime’.
‘One day, you’ll have a whole row of books in places like this,’ I said. Because she will. No question. How do I know – well, it’s not difficult – she writes intelligent, intriguing crime novels – good enough to be noticed by a top agent, even in those early days – and was stubborn enough, like Yours Truly – not to give up when it would have been so so easy to.
Getting an agent is tough stuff. Persuading someone that your work is good enough to represent, sell, spend time on, is tough. And giving up at the first fence ain’t an option – if you want to succeed.
So I was very very happy to read on Sarah’s blog that she has been signed – and in her inimitable fashion, she relates the stages of How To get An Agent – HERE!!! And not just any old agent, either... oh no.
Read and enjoy. Especially the bit about not giving up...
Many many congrats to Sarah.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


I look back over seven years of hard work, and can see very clearly those turning points where my writing career took a leap forward. (If that’s not too many mixed whatsits…leaping, and turning, whatever next?)
The most important was winning (jointly with Mikey Delgado) the inaugural Willesden Herald Short Story Competition in 2006. I’d not heard of this – but had the details and entry conditions sent to me by various writing friends and colleagues late in 2005 – it suddenly appeared all over the serious short story writers’ networks, and created something of a storm, in a minor way.
Storm? Well, it was a bit different. There was no entry fee, for a start – they were asking for quality work, and had landed a very well known name as final judge – Zadie Smith.
I sent off an unpublished story, and as the guidelines said it did not have to be published by the comp after the judging if entrants didn’t want – that seemed a great deal. What was to lose?

Prize? Well – a mug. Wot, no cash? Nope, not then.

The mug is a much loved thing, and I am very proud of it. Winning the competition started a friendship I value highly with Stephen Moran and his wife Tess, and there was another prize – although I didn’t realise that at the time. Zadie Smith’s judge’s comments – a paragraph about my story.
Being able to quote from such a highly regarded writer was priceless. Worth more than lots of cash. Unquantifiable, actually… suddenly, I was taken seriously.

Why am I banging on about this, now? Because YOU have a week before Willesden Herald Short Story Competition closes this year. Before Stephen Moran reads YOUR story, and if it’s good enough – puts it on the shortlist that goes to the final judge.

This year’s final judge is Maggie Gee. She has a special place in my heart, this lady- she has just mentored me, thanks to the Arts Council, as I struggled to structure a string of short stories into a coherent whole work. She also gave me a generous endorsement for ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ almost three years back, and again – the credibility that bestows on a not-yet-there writer is unquantifiable.

• There is a minimal entry fee. £3.00.
• Your reader loves short fiction with a passion. If it is good enough, it WILL get through.
• If it gets to the final judge, it will be read by an intelligent, lovely writer whose decision and comments might just be a turning point for you in your career, just as Zadie Smith’s were for me.
• What’s to lose?
• What are you waiting for?
• They’ve had 200+ so far – and already, Stephen is shaking his head, slightly. That means,

Willesden Herald and competition details, HERE

Maggie Gee at Contemporary writers, HERE

Friday, 10 December 2010

.Cent Magazine Creative Writing commissions...

I can really recommend this commission (or call for subs) to writers. I sent them a short piece a year or so back... the magazine is wonderful. Beautifully produced, huge, thick paper, and each piece of prose has its own page, and illustration. In addition to the contributor's copy, they included a copy of your page - for the wall, a frame for Mum, whatever...
Submissions close on 12th december - here is the original email:

"For those new to the .Cent creative writing commission: the content of each new biannual issue is split up into chapters. For each chapter we welcome writers to interpret the title in a piece of work. Every chapter is introduced with one of your submissions.
For issue 17 the chapter titles are:

Strange Paradises
Everything is Connected
Recording the City

If you’d like to submit your writing then the brief is as follows:

· Strict maximum word-count of 350.
· Submission deadline is Sunday 12th December 2010.
· You can submit poetry/prose/script.
· You may submit to as many chapter as you wish.
· Submissions and work are on an unpaid basis.
· Please state if work has been previously published elsewhere. The work will still be considered however we’d like to know in advance.
· Please feel free to interpret the title however you wish, although it is worth bearing in mind that .Cent will select the piece that best encapsulates the chapter theme.
· The chosen submission will be printed in the issue. If it is yours, we’ll let you know and send you the issue + tears.
· Submissions that are not selected for the magazine could potentially be published on the website.
· .Cent reserves the right to make the final decision.

To submit work:
· Please email submissions to cent.writing@gmail.com by no later than 12th December 2010.
· Please state how you’d like to be credited- your name (as you would like it to appear in print) + mention a website? Or a current project? Perhaps published work? However we can support you.
· Please include alongside your submission your contact details- email, address and phone number.

Website HERE.

And lovely news: my novel 'The Coward's Tale' is to be published in UK (Nov 2011 hardback, and paperback Spring 2012) and USA (Spring 2012) by Bloomsbury. Am thrilled and rather wobbly at the moment. More later.


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Pending...and 'A Razor Wrapped in Silk', by R N Morris

Pending…. (there is some very nice novel-type news on the horizon, of which more when things are finalised…)
But what do you do when you have finished something that took you years to write, when that has been read and loved by more than one great publisher, and you are buzzing about publicising your just-out second short story collection?

One, you get off the planet for a break. I am at Anam Cara, the best place in the world, my writers’ retreat in Ireland. With two great friends also here, who could ask for more.
Two, you also start feeding the empty well, filling up those spaces that feel so raw, after scouring everywhere you can think of inside yourself, to write as well as you can for such a long time.
First task then, was to find a novel to read. I am always reading short fiction, and love it – I wanted a single something to sustain me for longer…Oh there are lots out there, but this had to be something different. I needed the equivalent of a gym workout on my creative places. Then I read a post on facebook, from facebook friend Roger Morris. That's him up there... He is the author of three historical crime novels – and he was asking if anyone would like to read to review on their blogs… perfect.
Now – I don’t read historical fiction. I actually don’t go for it, because much of what I have read is so stuffed with unnecessary research details that these completely cloud the story.
So I was deliberately taking myself out of a comfort zone, and Roger’s novel, “A Razor Wrapped In Silk” which was kindly sent to me by someone at the publishers, Faber, would have to work quite hard to make this Doubting Thomas sink into it.

We are in St Petersburg, mid 19th century. The novel starts in a horrific cotton-mill, in which looming machines clank and roar, and young children are ‘employed’ to work inside the guts of the machines, mending broken threads. We meet a young lad, looking forward to his one joy in life – his after-work school hour, making his way through the misty streets. And he never gets there….
We are then transported to St Petersburg society – a palace, opulent in the extreme, where very different people are celebrating, at a private theatre. The chill and darkness of the fist scenes are beautifully contrasted in the colours and richness of this second…and the blood on the carpet is rich and dark… Unlikely as it may seem, the events that play out at these two very different places will come together as this novel unfolds.

The book’s synopsis is this: (taken from Faber’s webpage, link below)
St. Petersburg. 1870. A child factory worker is mysteriously abducted. A society beauty is sensationally murdered. Two very different crimes show up the deep fissures in Russian society during the late tsarist period. The first is barely noticed by the authorities. The latter draws the full investigative might of St Petersburg's finest, led by magistrate Porfiry Petrovich. 

The dead woman had powerful friends - including at least one member of the Romanov family - so when the tsar’s notorious secret police become involved, it seems that both crimes may have a political - not to say revolutionary - aspect, which takes Porfiry inside the Winter Palace for a confrontation with the Tsar himself. 

The usually incisive magistrate grows increasingly unsure what to believe, who to trust and how to proceed. His very life appears to be in danger, though from whom he can't be sure.

Porfiry Petrovich is a magistrate, inspired by the character of the same name in Dostoyevsky.
I have not read the Dostoyevsky (sorry…) but in Morris’s capable hands he is a richly layered and complex individual, just as this is a richly layered and complex novel, without ever tipping into the self-aware morass of extraneous detail that seems to weigh down other historical fiction that has had the misfortune to be read by me.
I’m not going to give you any plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that I almost missed a train stop thanks to this book.
St Petersburg is a gorgeous place, and a glossy one hiding a dark underbelly, seems to me – I’ve spent a little time there, and know it has many different faces, even now. Morris conjures the city as it surely must have been well over a hundred years ago. He conjures it at a fascinating time, politically, and weaves a complex crime scenario into the tapestry of mist-wrapped streets and gilded palaces.
Having admitted I HATE extraneous material, I was on the lookout. I was watching for anything that held up the story, that didn’t ring right, that wasn’t organic. And after a few pages, I forgot to watch for any of that because it just aint there.
Morris writes fabulously well. The narrative voice is cleverly pitched to evoke a different era – but only just – at no time did I have to make an obvious effort, and it added to the seduction of this reader into another world. And what I wasn’t expecting, was the humour. In places, even though this has very dark shadows, I laughed out loud. It’s a joy to read.
My goodness, I’m glad I answered that facebook post.

The books webpage on Faber’s website is here: http://www.faber.co.uk/work/razor-wrapped-in-silk/9780571241156/

Sunday, 21 November 2010

November November.... you busy month.

What to do when life becomes too busy for blogging – or at least when you’ve got other things to do that are more important. Like what? Well, here’s a short list and quick descriptions.

1) Saturday 6th November – the launch party for ‘Storm Warning’ with squillions of friends crammed into my house. Wine, food and friends, what better combination is there? Delighted to see those who had come from a long way, making the journey specially – Jon Pinnock, Jenny Barden, Margot Taylor, Jo Cannon, Tania Hershman, Carloine Davies, Stephen Moran and Tess, most of whom stayed the night and much fun was had by all in Dormitory Three…

2) The NAWE Conference, in Cheltenham, at the Barcelo Hotel. (National Assocition of Writers in Education) on 12th 13th 14th November. A great few days in the company of many many writers who teach writing in schools, universities and colleges up and down the UK, and abroad. I attend very much as a writer rather than a teacher, although it is interesting to share ideas and exercises. Especially marvellous to attend the workshops run by the senior staff from Columbia University Chicago. A different way of running workshops – coming away from the Iowa model. Very very interesting and felt right to me.

3) Mondays for the last few weeks (four in all) have been poetry days. I have been to Tate Modern each Monday attending the workshops run by poet Pascale Petit. We have worked in the Gauguin exhibition, in an installation by Joan Jonas based on a Grimms Fairy tale – ‘The Juniper Tree’ in the Surrealists, and back last week in Gauguin. We have been inspired to write when the Tate is closed, when we’ve had these marvellous exhibitions to ourselves. Such a huge privilege.

4) Judging the NYC Midnight Flash Challenge. Over the last couple of months this challenge has been running with several hundred entrants, gradually being whittled down as each round passes, to the final 25. I’ve just read and enjoyed the last pieces of work, and have my fingers crossed for one of two stunning flashes to win the overall prize of $1500. Its been fascinating. And a handy bit of cash before Christmas.

5) Spent an evening talking about short fiction to the lovely and welcoming Uckfield Writers.

6) My own writing – it has all been poetry. I have started the next novel – but its not easy to focus until I know what’s happening with the first one…

As we go into National Short Story Week, my week looks like this:
Tuesday 23rd:
Brighton launch for ‘Storm’ at Nightingale Theatre, 6 pm, with two fantastic professional actors (one was in Coronation Street, I gather) doing dramatised readings of three pieces from the book. I appear to be the only event in Sussex, which Im sure ain't right!
Wednesday 24th:
Train to Bristol, and a marvellous event, reading at Bristol Blackwells, 6.pm, a special event for this special week, organised by Tania Hershman, with Margot Taylor Anna Britten and Sarah Hilary among others. Staying over.
Thursday 25th:
Train back in time to go out to Lewes Live Lit in the evening to see some short stories by Catherine Smith turned into plays
Friday 26th:
Up to see Susannah Rickards at the Claygate Short Story Festival, where I’m leading a flash workshop in the evening. Staying over…
Saturday 27th: drive home, pack, and train to London to see Sue Guiney. Large glass of red wine on order! Staying over… (I feel like a real sofa-surfer…)
Sunday 28th: Off to Heathrow, and a flight to Cork - Anam Cara for ten days… with Sue, and Tania … and we will have earned it!

Don’t Forget…

FISH SHORT STORY COMP- (If you come second, you win a week at Anam Cara plus spending money!) Get in there. Details HERE http://www.fishpublishing.com/short-story-competition-contest.php

Oh and, talking of Anam Cara – I am running a week-long short story workshop there next May.
Details are:

Short Fiction: So Much More Than It Seems...

One-week Residential Workshop Retreat

Arrival: Saturday, 28 May 2011

Departure: Saturday, 4 June 2011

A chance to explore in depth the craft of short fiction in all its challenging guises, in one of Ireland's most creatively exciting venues. A chance to focus on acquiring skills that will maximise the chances of your work rising to the top and standing out for the right reasons not only in publication slush piles but also in competitions.

In the company of a well-published, multi-prize-winning short storyist, who is also an experienced tutor, this will be a focused, collaborative workshop retreat during which you will create not only complete new work and the seeds of many new stories, but you will also discover tried and tested strategies for editing and revising your existing work to make it as good as it can be.

Although biased towards the art and craft of short fictions, we will also be able to explore the relevance of the craft issues to poetry, prose poetry and longer works.

For this and all other info, Anam Cara website is HERE http://anamcararetreat.com/

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I am tempted not to post this...

As I say - I am tempted not to post this, but I shall! A writers fellowship, at the Arvon centre in Scotland, near Loch Ness.
One whole month, from 1st - 27th March 2011 - a whole month to write - at the most stunning place. A small stipend, travel expenses covered. And the wonderful and not so onerous task of a few sessions at local schools to spread the word.
It is called the Jessie Kesson fellowship, and it is worth finding out about her.
Details for applications HERE.

Novel update

OK - novel was sent to my agent a fortnight ago, and I had a lovely message a couple of days back to say that he loved it. That he did not want any revisions, and he's going to send it out.
I am surprisingly calm about this, and being very businesslike, putting literary CVs together, and having to reformat the file.
Wot? reformat file? Entire novel? Aye - this wally had only sent him a document with all the markups showing! I am a hopeless techie-person as anyone who has worked with me can attest. So I had a play with Word and sent it backwards and forwards from laptop to PC a few times until all the markups disappeared. Ahem.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

1st November news and sports round-up.

Storm Warning

Is here! My copies have arrived for the private launch party next weekend, and over half are sold already. Thank heavens – nowt worse than an old fart of a writer with old cardboard boxes full of unsold books in the garage.
I have organised absolutely nothing for the book – apart from a lovely offer of a blog visit from a writing friend – yes please! And any other offers?
It must be quite strong stuff – well, it is about war, and echoes thereof… a nice lady neighbour told me she started it and had to stop, it was ‘too strong’. Ah. Well, it is not called ‘Storm Warning’ for nothing. It is meant to make you stop and think. Er… not just stop…oh well. You win some you lose some.

There will be a public launch on 23rd November at The Nightingale Theatre,
Brighton, courtesy of New Writing South, at 6.30 pm flyer here:

I’m also sharing a launch in Ireland on 6th December at Anam Cara Writers and Artists’s Retreat with Sue Guiney and her marvellous new novel ‘A Clash of Innocents’.

It’s that Bridport Time again!

Where to start? Firstly, congrats to Alison Fisher, who has won the 2010 Bridport Short Story comp. £5000 for a short story, ain’t bad. I saw Alison at Small Wonder Festival a month ago – she turned round from the row in front, and whispered, ‘Do you remember me? I came to one of your workshops…I’ve just had some lovely news…’
Nah – I’m not saying it was the workshop that made her win it. But it might have helped a little on the way, ‘Writing for Competitions’ it was called…Must run that one again and charge a mint and a half. That was the two weekend workshops the organisers managed never to pay me for - a couple of years back… see other blog for gory details. (!!) Nice to know something good happened…
And congrats too to Claudia Abbott (Claudia Boers) for her finalist place, and look forward to reading these stories in the 2010 anthology.
Congrats too to those writing friends, colleagues and so forth including facebook mates, who were short-listed for story, poetry or flash. Carys Davies, Joyce Russell, Jon Pinnock, Sheenagh Pugh, Wena Poon, Valerie O’Riordan, and I’m sure there are other lovely writers I’ve missed out.

It’s all down to hard work, much of this… hats off to all. All the info is here

Judging Flashes
I am one of the judges for a flash challenge … quite a big one – its still under way so I wont post links. It is extraordinary to see how many pieces come in at 999 words (limit is 1000), and how many are seemingly unedited for bagginess. Makes me realise yet again just how difficult writing a good flash actually is.

Article on Flash Fiction at Essential Writers

I have been discussing flash fiction in a series of Q and As for the lovely site Essential Writers – the result is here: What is it, how did I discover it, how to write it, where to publish, and lots more.

"A Clash of Innocents" by Sue Guiney
The husband and self went to a marvellous book lunch, at Asia House HERE to celebrate and wish God Speed to A Clash of Innocents by writing friend Sue Guiney. I have the book all signed and waiting on top of the pile. But all indications are that it is marvellous and vibrant read, thought-provoking too. You can read about it on the blog tour discussions all linked on Sue's blog HERE, and on the publisher's website. Ward Wood HERE.

Teaching at Exeter and Ipswich
Early October saw me up in Ipswich at the rather gorgeous University Campus Suffolk, teaching a large gang of terrific creative writers. The workshop focussed on character, and we had great fun as fresh and interesting characters rose up through the fog to take us over. Marvellous stuff.
And I visited Exeter Writers a few weeks later, my old stamping ground, as I was brought up nearby and went to University there…we had a fab afternoon’s workshop, again on character but with a different slant, over three hours. Exeter Writers is a focussed and hardworking group, including many well-published and prizewinning writers. They run a short story competition – and having worked with them for the afternoon, I reckon they will be very tough but fair judges.
Exeter Writers Short Story Competition HERE:

Novel Update
The manuscript has been sent to my agent, finally. Its had a long gestation and birthing process, this one – light and dark – some bits have won competitions, bits have been written between late 2006 and late 2010 in Ireland (mainly), England (with difficulty) Scotland and Wales, one bit had an unfortunate experience, some bits make me laugh, others make me cry. I still shake my head at the brain that produced some of this work, forgetting it is mine… The whole is still a matter of bemusement – the opening line (which then led me to the themes, the title, characters, and some storylines) appeared over a cup of machine coffee in a garage, while reading The Daily Mail (never!) waiting for my car to be serviced. Such a romantic process, writing.
In the end, its been a fascinating old journey. It has been an enormous privilege to be awarded an Arts Council grant to work with the gloriously clever and generous Maggie Gee to polish and finish the work. I now wait to see what my agent thinks, fingers crossed – I feel it is now time to get on with the next project. Although it is only sensible to expect to have to do more on this one, if ….

Reading at Bristol Blackwells
On 24th November, 6 pm to 8 pm, with Tania Hershman, Anna Britten, Margot Taylor and others. There is also an open mike slot afterwards… rollup!

WordAid poetry anthology for Children In Need
"Did I Tell You..? 131 Poems for Children In Need" is here:
Poems from all sorts. From somewhat brilliant ones like Andrew Motion and Catherine Smith and Clare Best and Sarah Salway, to a very short one from me, which starts with the immortal line:
“There’s a chest she had. ‘Breasts’ they were called…”! Lock me up someone. (No – that’s not part of the line….)

And 50 Stories for Pakistan is also here.
All profits will go to helping the foood victims of Pakistan. From the same big hearted editor who put together 100 Stories for Haiti. Never heard of that one? HERE. Go Get Em.

Friday, 1 October 2010

SMALL WONDER FESTIVAL and a small bit of poetry news

The Small Wonder festival celebrating the short story is the literary festival William Trevor loved: “The best literary festival I have ever attended,’ he said. He was there a few years ago – this year, there were others, and it was marvellous stuff. Highlights for me included Adam Marek’s and David Vann’s event, with readings of two of the shortlisted stories for the Sunday Times Short Story Competition. And two talks, one on D H Lawrence, by David Constantine, and one on J G Ballard. And A S Byatt in conversation, and and and… of course, being up there myself with my lovely talented friend Tania Hershman. Here’s some pics taken by Axel Hesslenberg, official photographer of the event.

Poetry news:
I sent a few poems to Bridport this year. Why? Dunno. I like to support, I think it is a smashing competition and have great respect for it, the organisers, the readers, who all work so very hard, to raise money for the Bridport Arts Centre. I didn’t win anything, not unsurprising – but I did, joy of joys, get two poems onto the shortlist. Now that shortlist is anything but short, but given the thousands of entries, (last year, over 8000 poems) there must be something OK with them. Trouble is – I have NO idea why they made it. Or what was wrong with the ones that didn’t…

Novel news:
Maggie and I met last Tuesday - I'm unhappy with the ending of the novel, and she agrees. So... Im still working on it. Plod, plod plod...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


It would seem a long time since I did an update. So, an apology to my reader, and an even bigger one to the lovely Adnan Mahmutovic whose blog tour I have completely mucked up… but I am hoping he will visit very soon to talk about ‘writing other’ in his great novel, Thinner Than A Hair (Cinnamon Press)

Ten days was spent at my gorgeous writing retreat, Anam Cara in West Cork, Ireland, working all hours on the novel, adding new passages, deleting others, going through with a toothcomb and reducing wordcount by about 5k, and beginning a sentence by sentence out-loud read through for sound and rhythm.
This stay was funded by my ACE grant, for which I am eternally grateful.
Work continued when I got back, until I had the manuscript as good as I could get it for the moment, ready to go to my mentor Maggie Gee for her final read right through, which will be happening as we speak. I am due to meet her on 21st, or thereabouts, to hear her opinions of all the work done over the last three/four months.

Those who know about ‘100 Stories for Haiti’ will be familiar with the lovely Greg McQueen and his initiative to pull writers together to produce an anthology of little stories with big hearts to help raise funds for the Red Cross. So far, it has raised over £4000.00, and is still selling well. If you haven’t got a copy… why not?!
Now he’s doing another… ‘50 Stories for Pakistan’, again, an anthology to raise funds for the Red Cross as they battle against the odds to help the millions who have lost homes, family members, in the floods.
The cover has been finalized. An image by photographer Daniel Berehulak, which Greg saw recently… and owned by Getty Images. They have generously said it can be used by Greg for this marvellous initiative.
He emailed me yesterday and asked if I’d consider writing the introduction to this anthology. That’s such an honour, and of course, I didn’t need to think about it. Greg sent me the cover image, and I wrote the intro there and then, from the heart.
Here’s the info for any writers who would like to submit work, on Greg’s own publishing website, Big Bad Media: (They will be publishing the book!)

SMALL WONDER FESTIVAL – Charleston, East Sussex 22 – 26 September
Having been a faithful attendee for the last four years, having enjoyed workshops with luminaries such as James Lasdun and Esther Freud, and listened to some fairly amazing writers expounding on their work – William Trevor, Colm Toibin, Beryl Bainbridge, A L kennedy, Janice Galloway, Helen Dunmore, Yiyun Li… and many many more, I am so looking forward to speaking there myself, on Friday 24th!
The super-talented Tania Hershman and I are reading and talking about flash fiction – a first for Small Wonder. Very exciting! Here’s the detail.
You can read the programme for yourself, but I would point out the appearance of Adam Marek on Sunday 26th - a stunning writer, one of my favourites, and a most generous contributor to Short Circuit – Guide to the Art of the Short Story.

The last few months have been fairly frantic, working hard to finish the novel – and I hope it is almost there. I keep waking up with thoughts such as, ‘I could just add this, or that, or that…’ and suspect there is no end to that process.
I am coming towards the end of my funding from the Arts Council – the manuscript has now been sent to Maggie Gee for a final full read-through of the revised manuscript, with many many tweaks and deeper revisions suggested in the course of my mentoring by this generous writer.
I have learned such a lot. Part of the grant requirement is that the recipient keeps a close record of learning as a result of the activity – and that is a long, long essay! I will be sharing most of it here as and when.
Anyway, Maggie is due to give me feedback on Tuesday 21st, I hope – and I will find out at that point just how close it is to actually being finished.
But I also know, I think, what I would like to tackle next, in terms of a longer work… and it has come out of a scene in this novel, so we’ll see.

Which brings me to RECYCLING.
No, not milk containers and newspapers, but work. Someone asked the question on a forum the other day, something like, ‘Is it Ok to reuse your own work…’ – and I remember wondering that same thing not so long back.
But the novel itself has come about because of one single chapter, which as a short story, won a decent prize. The 3000k story set the tone, the themes, the setting, and introduced a type of character…for a whole novel.
That short story came out of a single scene, c.1100wds, which as a much shorter story, won a small comp a few years beforehand. I wove a more complex story round a scene…
That scene came out of a 450 wd flash piece written in a timed exercise on a writing forum. I worked on that flash, found the characters fascinating enough to concentrate on more.
We create, we reuse, we expand, we change about, we make some of our words work very hard for us. Other words, we let them go after a single outing, and enjoy that as well. At least, that’s how I work!

I am still writing poetry. I am still reading poetry. I am still trying to fathom what it is, exactly. Some poetry moves me, makes me want to read again, and again. It holds more than the words. It makes me want to write. Some feels clever-clever and ‘exclusive’…
And extraordinarily enough, even though I have asked some very excellent people what makes a ‘good poem’ as opposed to a ‘poor poem’, the answers I get are very non-committal: ‘You have to work that out for yourself…’ being the best.
Hmm. Anyone else prepared to stick their necks out to let me know what a good poem actually IS? A definition in a line or two, please.
See, if I am told I have to work it out for myself, all that means is that I sort out what I like to read, as opposed to what I don’t like. Doesn’t mean it is GOOD, does it? And I’m struck by the vitriol with which the poetry community seems to treat its members… ‘Mine’s better than yours and x is a wally’ seems to rule. But if no one will TELL us what is ‘better’ then all I am left with is a cohort of writers who think they write best because they think they write best and their mates agree because they write best as well.
Anyway. In an attempt to carry on writing what is no doubt not-good – I am joining Pascale Petit at Tate Modern in October, for a six week course, finding poems from art. And I’m off to Anam Cara again in December, and may well concentrate on the poems that bob up during that six weeks….making a pamphlet! Wheee!! I shall call it “Fine Art. If that’s OK with you…”


Fish Short Story Competition
Competition Summary 2010/11
Opens ........................... August 2010
Closing date: 30th November 2010
Results announced: 17 March 2011
Anthology published: July 2011
Judge: Simon Mawer
The winner and nine runners-up will be published in the 2011 Fish Anthology.
First Prize - €3,000 - (of which €1,000 is for travel expenses to the launch of the Anthology.)
Second Prize - a week at the Anam Cara Writers' & Artists' Retreat in West Cork's Beara Peninsula, with €300 traveling expenses.
Third Prize - €300
All those who are published in the Anthology will receive five complementary copies.

Competition Summary
Closing date: 20 March 2011
Results: 30 April 2011
Judge: to be appointed.
The winner and nine runners up will be published in the 2011 Fish Anthology.
First Prize - €1,000 plus publication in the 2011 Fish Anthology.
Nine runners-up will be published in the Anthology and will each receive plus five complementary copies of the Anthology.
All winning authors will be invited to the launch of the 2011 Fish Anthology. This will take place during the West Cork Literary Festival in July.

Poetry Contest Summary FOR 2011
Closing date: 30 March 2011
Results: 30 April 2011
Judge: Brian Turner
Poetry Contest Prizes:
A First Prize of €1,000 to the winner plus publication in the 2011 Fish Anthology.
The best ten poems will be published in the 2011 Anthology and each poet will receive five copies of the Anthology.
All winning poets will be invited to the launch of the 2011 Fish Anthology. This will take place during the West Cork Literary Festival in July 2011.

For full details off all these competitions, the rules and entry guidelines, see FISH website.

ASHAM AWARD for new women writers *DEADLINE 30 Sept
For the first time since the Asham Award began in 1996, there will be a theme to the competition. Entrants are being invited to write a ghost story (which can be set in the past or the present) or let their imaginations run really wild, and go Gothic. 

Asham 2010 sees the start of our partnership with Virago Press, and with one of our greatest storytellers, Sarah Waters, among the judges, we’ve set the mood with a few lines from her latest novel The Little Stranger.
Sarah will be joined by Lennie Goodings, publisher of Virago and by novelist and short story writer Polly Samson.Polly will also contribute to the anthology, along with Naomi Alderman, who won third prize in the 2004 Asham Award and the Orange Award for New Writers with her first novel, Disobedience. Fellow contributors are Kate Clanchy, who won the 2009 BBC National Short Story Award and Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, winner of the 2009 Guardian First Book Award.

For full details see the ASHAM website.

‘Spread the Word’, London – Win £100 for your flash fiction -
Spread the Word has teamed up with StorySlam Live for their next PenPals networking and showcase event for young writers aged 18 – 30. Wednesday 6 October, 6:30pm – 9pm | Bethnal Green Working Men's Club | £7
Come and hear fresh new storytelling and share your words with other young writers. What do you have to say about the city you live in? What does this sprawling metropolis mean to you? Bring along your story, max length five minutes, on the theme of London.
Eight entrants will be chosen at random to read in front of a panel of judges, their favourite will receive a prize of £100

Inkspill Magazine
Inkspill is holding its first Short Story Competition with a total of £100 in cash prizes to give away. There is a reduced early entry fee if you submit your entry before 1st October! The three winning entries will be published in an upcoming issue of the magazine, as well as earning some cash.
However, ALL entries will receive a short critique, so even if you don't win, you'll get a little something.
Since they're a small press publication, writers have a much better chance of winning. To raise the £100 needed for prizes, Inkspill Magazine only needs 20-34 entries (20 at £5 a pop, and 34 at the reduced early entry fee of £3). If there are more entries than that, the prize money will increase!

So they're offering:
- a reduced early entry fee
- good chance of winning some cash
- increase in prize fund with enough entries
- a free critique with every story
What more could you want?
Please feel free to help spread the word, and check out the INKSPILL website for more details.

Voila mes amis. A la prochaine....

Sunday, 1 August 2010



Crystal Clear Creators, an arts organisation devoted to developing, producing, publishing and promoting new writing, (and funded by a grant from Awards for All (National Lottery funder) is pleased to announce Hearing Voices, a new literary magazine. The magazine is now open to submissions.

Hearing Voices is a triannual magazine of poetry and prose by new, up-and-coming and established writers. The magazine will initially run for a year, and hence include three issues. Each issue will be edited by a guest editor, who will provide feedback on ALL submissions, whether or not they are accepted. Each edition of the magazine will have an ISBN and be professionally designed and printed.

Submission Guidelines
If you would like to submit poetry or prose to Hearing Voices, please send your work as an email attachment (MS-Word document or similar) to cccsubmissions@hotmail.co.uk.

• include a short (three-line) biography about yourself in the email or on the document.
• send no more than three poems for each issue of the magazine. Poems should be no longer than 60 lines each.
• send no more than one piece of prose (fiction or non-fiction) for each issue, of no more than 1,000 words.
• Please do contact the editor on the email address above, for further information.

THE 2010 ASHAM AWARD for New Women Writers
Think ghost. Or think Gothic. The Asham Award
celebrates its new partnership with Virago by
inviting writers to explore the unknown.
Take your cue from Sarah Waters, one of this year’s
judges, and conjure up a ghost story from the past –
or the present. Or let your imagination run wild and go
Gothic. The choice is yours.
• The Award is open to women writers who have not yet
had a novel or a collection of short stories published.
• Stories must not exceed 4,000 words in length.
• The twelve winning writers will be notified in March 2011
• the first, second and third prizewinners will
be announced in September 2011 at the Small Wonder
short story festival at Charleston, East Sussex.
• All twelve will be published by Virago in the Asham
anthology, alongside specially commissioned stories
by Naomi Alderman, Kate Clanchy, Petina Gappah and
Polly Samson.

Friday, 16 July 2010


It is a while since I posted an update.

Things are fraught with my father, who is losing his grip on what’s what frighteningly fast. We are close, and have been all my life – it is rather hard. I haven’t felt much like bouncing about. The black dog follows me around quite a bit. However, Dad has a full time live-in carer now – so technically at least, I can get on with things. I see him or talk to him most days. There you go – it’s life.
If anyone has a relative who is going downhill mentally like this, there is a wonderful book entitled “Contented Dementia” which was recommended to me by Tania Hershman. I would like to pass on the recommendation, wholeheartedly. What it advises is counter-intuitive… but works a dream.

A few congrats and general nice things… to Jo Cannon for her forthcoming debut collection, which I will talk about when I can upload a cover image. And to Jo Cannon again, for her short listing for the Brit writer awards in the short story (adult) category. To the aforementioned Tania, for all the wonderful things that are happening, richly deserved… go to her blog for regular updates. To my friend Minnie as in Minniebeaniste for her lovely blog and occasional email natters, which are much enjoyed. I don’t visit regularly enough, but here is one blog that ought to win something… superb writing, fascinating topics, I always come away refreshed and fed. To Carys Davies for her stunning win at the Olive Cook Short Story award run by The Society of Authors, and to Susannah Rickards for her runner up place. Amazing achievements.

Novel Update.
I’m back on track, although there is a constant sadness behind what I do – editing or fresh bits and bobs. The novel was written for my father, really. I suppose I ought to have got on with it a bit faster. He won’t know it when its done, I suspect, although occasionally he looks at me sideways and asks how it goes.
However. Onwards and Upwards. It is currently sitting at 101, 500 and I need to cull 5000 wds, somehow. The novel now also has a new title.
Funny thing, the central image of the work has now been dropped, at least as an overt thing. And I realise the image as metaphor was just guiding me as I wrote… and it has been a fabulous guide. Here’s to Victorian machinery, and here’s to the next piece of work in which it will no doubt appear.
The whole manuscript has now been edited, format-wise, to get rid of too much white space (hard – I work with white space a lot, and in a short story it may work, but in a first novel, maybe not…). About one third of the book (c.34k wds) has been change from present tense to past. And other far more creative and important revisions are under way as well.

Arts Council Grant.

It might be interesting to find out what happens when the schedule goes awry as mine has…as my novel revisions and polishing are being done thanks to an Arts Council Grant for the Arts. When I had to stop working to the initial schedule, I contacted them immediately, and they were marvellous, and gave me an extra few months to complete the work. You need to keep to a timescale, or you don’t get the final 10% of the grant.
So, if this happens to you, get in touch with everyone who is mentioned on your grant paperwork, as soon as possible, as well. All the people who are helping, doing final readings, lending support in kind, etc. etc. Keep everyone up to speed.
I’m due to go to Anam Cara for the week or so paid for by the grant, in August. That’s great, but before then, I want to get at least 50 pages back to Maggie Gee for her wisdom and experience to comment on before then.
I hope to come back with a tighter manuscript, with all those little loose ends snipped off.

Short Story Collection. ‘Storm Warning’.
I’m not in the mood to put a collection of funnies out there, so ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’has been taken out of the new collection, due out in November. It is now a collection of stories about war and other conflict. How it affects people during and after, often for years. Two thirds flashes and one third stories, including the Fish prizewinner from last year – the title is ‘Storm Warning’, and Chris at Salt has produced the most stunning cover. Endorsements from generous lovely people like Rusty Barnes, Peter James and Tania Hershman. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.

‘Ed’s Wife’
This collection of micro-fictions is under consideration with another publisher – who cant publish at the moment due to the recession – but is hanging on to the project so the door isn’t closed, yet. That’s lovely.

Filling the well…
I remember being advised to take time out when you felt drained, and read, or listen or watch… so that’s what I’ve been doing, whilst keeping up the novel-editing schedule successfully.

Two plays
Among the lovely things I’ve had the privilege of seeing include two plays put on by Curving Road, courtesy of my friend Sue Guiney and The Curving Road team. ‘Dig’ by Anam Cara colleague John D Smith was wonderful, and we had an Anam Cara alumni get together to watch … John over from the States with Paula his wife, Tania up from Brizzle, Sue and self… and terrific to see Sarah Salway too, - all at The Old Red, theatre above a pub.

Three operas.
Firstly, tickets magically appeared free and at the eleventh hour, for the best opera this year at Glyndebourne. Billy Budd, by Benjamin Britten. Really stunning, moving and unforgettable.
Next, Zaide at Sadler’s Wells – an early half-finished opera by Mozart, duly finished off by Ian Page, founder of Classical Opera. Lets put it this way… the singing was great. The orchestra was wonderful, music wonderful. The set was Guantanamo Bay on a bad day. The acting, also Guantanamo Bay on a bad day…and the story – I wouldn’t have bothered if I was Ian Page. Mozart knew a dud when he saw it, that’s why it was unfinished…
MacBeth at Glyndebourne – as I write. Off this afternoon to see/hear this extraordinary production in which the witches are a whole mass of women, some dressed like Myra Hindley, according to some reviews. We’ll see.
Whatever – opera has something – is it the crossover of words, visuals music? The knowledge that it is happeneing in that instant?

I’ve often wondered why I find film so unsatisfactory. I think its because there is nothing risky about it. (apart from financially of course)… its filmed a million times if necessary, to get it right. And the dialogue is often so unreal… but that’s another issue.

Another play…
Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, at Manchester, the culmination of the loveliest few days in the company of Elizabeth Baines (a marvellous hostess) Tania H and Carys Davies.

I did have a lovely surprise – a poem called ‘Spilled Peas’ came in the final 40 out of 1095 entries, at Ver Poets, judged by Gilliam Berkeley. No prize, but publication in the anthology… so runner up, I guess, with a good cohort, and my first poem in print. I attended the adjudication event in St Albans, and enjoyed my first poetry reading event where my reading took less than a minute!
I sent a few poems to Bridport on the wave of Ver Poets euphoria, which has now passed well and truly and that decision now feels rather silly, despite a ‘first timer’s luck’ longlisting a couple of years ago.
It’s nice to work with Caroline Davies via email on our poems – I enjoy that very much.

Reading at Small Wonder Festival
Absolutely delighted to be reading at Small Wonder in September – more on that as and when.

That’ll do. Happy writing. Pics to follow.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


Well, the book below will appear if the publisher does not under before November. Salt is in trouble again, and asking you to buy Just One Book. This is me doing my bit to help spread the word, because quite apart from 'me me me' here, good independent publishers are like hens teeth. I'd like to see them survive. This is the message from the Director, Chris Hamilton-Emery, taken from the publisher's website.
I hoped I’d never have to write this note. The recession has continued to have a very negative impact on sales at Salt and we’re finally having to go public to ask you to help support us.
Our sales are now 60% down on last year and have wiped out our grant and our cash reserves as we continue to market and publish what we can from what we believe is a great list. We’ve plans in place to help secure the business from November 2010 — though the books we’ll be publishing won’t deliver any real revenue until 2011. We’re sorry to ask, embarrassed to ask, but we need your help to survive until then and if you were considering purchasing a Salt book, we’d dearly love you to do it right now. We’ve less than one week’s cash left.
If you can help us, please do two things:
1. Buy one book from us — we don’t mind from where, it can be from your local bookstore (they need your support, too), it can be from Amazon or the BookDepository. It can even be directly from us. But please buy that book now.
2. Please tell everyone you know to do the same. Buy just one book and pass it on.
You can visit our Website right now, simply go to
and buy JustOneBook.

Remember too, that every book you buy gets a raffle ticket in our Big Summer Raffle — and you could win one copy each of the next 20 books we publish from 1 September.
Join us on Twitter and help spread the word.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

"Too Many Magpies", among other things

Too Many Magpies, among other things – an interview with novelist, dramatist and storyist Elizabeth Baines

Life throws up strange and seemingly unlikely parallels. How can a potentially fatal fall possibly have anything to do with the work of a gifted and versatile writer?
I stayed with Elizabeth recently. The evening before I arrived, she’d caught her heel in the carpet at the top of a steep flight of stairs and she had fallen, somersaulted, tumbled and finally slid on her back, head first, down the whole flight, hitting her head several times on the wall, on the stair edges, the banisters, and finally cracking it on a heavy piece of furniture at the bottom.
I asked her what she recalled of the accident.
“I felt no pain at all,” she said. “It was like being suspended from life. I couldn’t see, didn’t feel anything. I remember thinking ‘Ok, so that’s probably it now.’ And then when I lay at the bottom I couldn’t shout to John, I just thought as I lay there, ‘Oh shit. I never got to finish the novel’”
Elizabeth is and has long been, a very serious writer, totally committed to her craft, and even at that point where her life was meant to be flashing before her eyes, (that’s meant to happen, isn’t it, when you die, or nearly?) her work was uppermost in her mind. So I asked her if she has seen images from her work, past or present, as she fell.
“The world of my current work was uppermost,” she said. “But I don’t really see my work in terms of images.”
“OK, so how do you see it? Do you see it thematically? Do you see the broader picture – what you want to say? What IS the new novel about?” I do not mean what is the plot, what happens, but rather what is it in her own values, beliefs, preoccupations, that is guiding the work…?
There is a pause.
“it is about falling,” she said. “A man is trying to make something of his life, from bad beginnings. He has to cope and react to sometimes bad events in his life, so falling through life is the best way I can describe it. He falls through life but bounces back over and over.”
Elizabeth said she was trying to put herself in the head of this character – but I suspect she didn’t intend to go so far as to physically fall herself. (!)
Elizabeth is at the end of her hospital-imposed ‘Watch yourself in case your head falls off’ 24 hours. She’s aching all over, but OK, thank heavens, and this is meant to be (like most blog tour stops) a few questions about her latest novel out with Salt Publishing, Too Many Magpies. We seem to have strayed off-topic. But have we??

“K, so what would you say Too Many Magpie is about” I ask, again not meaning the plot. Again, she thinks for a moment.
“It is about our relationship with reality. How we think, perceive, interpret. I’m asking the question: ‘Should we see life empirically, or act on intuition?’ I look at how the way we think affects relationships. How our pasts shape our present…”
She stops. “Actually. The new novel could be said to be about those things as well.”

As I said before, Elizabeth is a prolific, serious writer. In addition to Too Many Magpies, which came out from Salt Publishing in 2009, they are soon to publish one of Elizabeth’s most iconic works which is frequently recommended reading for Women’s Studies courses. ‘The Birth Machine’ will come out in its original format later this year. The original publishers insisted on a format change to ‘The Birth Machine’ which drove a coach and horses through her careful crafting of the premise,. And thanks to Salt, the book will be as it was intended. I can’t wait to read it.
In ‘The Birth Machine’, childhood events are woven into a frame in which the wife of a doctor experiences the birth of a child…but again, there are real parallels with the themes of her later work. Exploration of how we think. Our perceptions of reality. The tension between subjectivity and objectivity, broadly speaking. The main character becomes imprisoned in a situation where she is merely an object. The professional’s view of her labour is contrasted with her own, and the two realities, both valid, are very different. ‘The Birth Machine’ was and still is, an important novel – groundbreaking, and subverting the contemporary systems. Have those systems changed that much? Read it to find out!
But back to her fall. Elizabeth’s overriding concern when she really thought she would die, was for her work. “I have nor finished my work”. And the issues that preoccupy her are still fuelling her genius.
I asked her next to what extent she is aware of this. To what extent the consciously plans her work to reflect her passions. I am interested in ‘Too Many Magpies’ in particular here, as it was actually written very differently to the others – very quickly – 8 weeks from start to finish.
“I have a consciousness of the issues when I write,” she said, “but for me, writing has to be done in a daydream state, so as I actually write I am immersed in it and largely unaware of extraneous events.”
However, she also goes on to say that the issues in ‘Too Many Magpies’ have preoccupied her for years, so in effect that novel has been ‘cooking’ for a very long time. I ask what memories she has in particular of relevant preoccupations.
“I remember sitting at the table for meals with my parents, listening to their conversation. My mother was a literary person, and yet was very grounded in reality. My father, an engineer, was her opposite. A scientist who was drawn to intuition, to mystery, instinctive behaviour. There was a real reversal of stereotypes here, and I would ponder all that. I think then, when I was trapped at home with small children, I would ponder the issues again, a lot. I suppose that’s how ones values are set down – and ones patterns of thinking. “Too Many Magpies reflects the contrasts in my parents’ ways of thinking, very much.”
“Did you have a resolution in mind as you wrote it?” I asked.
“Not at all. But when I got to the end of the novel, I found one. And it summed up my own values in this regard very well.”
“And those are?..”
“That one has to be open to potential, to possibility.. Rationality is necessary of course – there is no point in blind belief in magic and so on – but you have to remain open to the possibility that exists in things we have not discovered. Or thought of. That there are more things to consider, beyond the boundaries of our experience. The ‘Unknown Factor’ that the husband in the novel, refers to. He is not a typical scientist. The stranger ‘is’ luck, happenstance, magic… saying all will be well if you ditch your concerns, and believe…”
Suspension of worry. Of suspicion. Just as Elizabeth, as she was falling, was, despite physics, suspended literally, for a short while, and also suspended outside her life, and outside self. As she said, “I felt no pain, could not see, could not speak.”
And this is so similar to how being a writer suspends you, both from life, as you get into the daydream state necessary to create, and also suspends you from society, to s certain extent, unless they understand, empathise, can share what you do and are. In Elizabeth’s case, her daydream state is so almost-total that many times she has not heard the phone or the doorbell, or even her husband John coming into the study – until he puts a hand on her shoulder.
“I have surrendered to something else.” She says. And this resonates the themes of much of her work – our relationship with actuality.
I asked her, finally, about the Baines canon, and whether she sees a progression in her work, a journey.
“I think so,” she said. “I see myself moving towards a fuller examination of the issues that interest me, in ‘Too Many Magpies’. In some of my stories and in ‘The Birth Machine’ I examine oppositions. ‘Too Many Magpies’ is more of a synthesis, a more complex mix.”

I felt that Elizabeth had not looked as closely as this before at the drivers of her creative genius, and I hoped I hadn’t rattled her. But she seemed fine, smiled, got up from the table and put the kettle on to make us a cuppa. And as I watched, she took her hand off the handle of the kettle, and rubbed one of the growing bumps on the back of her head.

Sunday, 30 May 2010


I am delighted to welcome the hunky and smashing Nik Perring to the blog today, to talk about flash fiction, and in particular his wonderful collection, 'Not So Perfect' out on June 2nd, from Roast Books.
The book is absolutely gorgeous. And that is just the outside. Inside, you will find some of the best flashes I have read in a while - Nik has really mastered the form and uses it to engage our emotions, to explore what relationships are and do - through the most unlikely events. I love it, and happily endorsed it. And I'm now playing hostess, and passing round tea, toast and cupcakes to the visitors...
So. Sit down Nik, and sit down, book, and here are a few questions for you.

1) It is some years since you wrote 'Last Night I Met a Roman'. People often ask me, 'how did you come to write flash' - which is closer to short stories than a novel - even a novel for children... can you attempt to chart the journey from novel to flash in yourself as a creative being?
Hi Vanessa. Thanks for having me here!
It IS some years since I wrote the children’s book! Five years I think, which have gone in a flash!
I think I’ve always naturally tended towards the short form and in all actuality I think I was writing flash fiction before I was even aware of the term. When I first decided to try and be a writer the pieces I’d write were often in the 800 – 2000 word bracket which, I think, even then I’d have classed as a short short story. I still do.
The big moment for me came when I read Sarah Salway’s ‘Leading The Dance’, which is a brilliant collection. Something clicked and I realised that I could write the kind stories I wanted to write and, more importantly, that there was an audience for them. I spent a fair amount of time in writing groups and heard far, far too often that ‘nobody publishes or reads short stories’ so it was a big, big moment.
Then came the really important moment. I read Aimee Bender’s ‘Willful Creatures’. That was an electrifying moment. Seriously, after one story I had to close it and take a deep breath. It was almost like the lightening hitting Frankenstein’s laboratory and bringing the beast to life. I felt at home and comfortable and knew then, with certainty, that it was short stories I loved and short stories I wanted to write. I read Etgar Keret shortly after that, and doing that confirmed everything. So, from then on I was a short story writer.
And as for flash – I’ve been saying this a lot over the past few weeks – I genuinely believe that a story is as long as it is; sometimes that’s short and sometimes it’s long (a novel). I don’t ever consciously set out to write a piece of any given length, it’s just my stories tend to be shorter.

2) Can you say something about the challenges of getting flash fiction right? And how would you answer someone who says there isn't room in such a short wordcount to tell a satisfying story?
As I said, a story’s as long as it is, so for someone to say you can’t tell a satisfying story in xyz amount of words is either talking nonsense, or hasn’t read much short fiction (though I would accept that short fiction’s not for everyone, in the same way as certain genres don’t appeal to everyone).
I think that the trick of getting flash right is the same as getting ANY story right: we need good characters, conflicts and good story telling. Maybe with flash we have to get to the point quicker, though I would say that all the writing qualities present in a good novel should be in a piece of short fiction. Except length!

3)If you were asked to do a short workshop on writing flash fiction for complete novices, how would you begin?
With a cup of tea.

Oh good. Another slice of toast? Jam? And what then, with the workshop, I mean!
Then, then I’d try to get those attending to think about moments. Because, in short fiction that’s what we’re (mostly) dealing with. I think it was Elizabeth Baines who said that ‘a short story is a moment magnified’ (or something similar) and I love that. So yes, moments, points of change, places in people’s lives where something important/interesting/terrifying is about to occur.

4) When I teach flash, I often use the wonderful piece by Tania Harshman, 'Plaits', and suggest the students take the premise, and go off on their own journey to create something allied but different. Which of the stories in 'Not So Perfect' might you use to inspire your students? And why?
I LOVE Tania’s ‘Plaits!’ And I’ve used that when teaching too!
Which of mine would I use though? I’m not too sure. I suppose it’d depend on what point I was trying to make. I’m a big fan of magic realism and of making the impossible seem familiar, so perhaps ‘My Wife Threw Up A Lemur’ or the fire-breathing woman in ‘Not Nitro’, or maybe ‘Kiss’ about a man who tells his flowers secrets.
I think the thing I consider most important when teaching is encouraging (or even allowing!) people to write their own stories. They need to know they have the freedom to do that. They need that Aimee Bender moment.

5) Which is your personal favourite flash by any writer at all, out there in the world - and why? tell us why it is so good.
That is such a difficult question to answer because there are so many! I will have to give you a bit of a list!
Breaking The Pig by Etgar Keret would be near the top, because it’s just beautiful. Probably perfect.
For showing us what we are as human beings, and for being funny and for just joyous storytelling and clever use of language and honesty, ‘The Meeting’ by Aimee Bender, which you can listen to HERE.
But there are SO many more. Pretty much anything the above two have written. Neil Gaiman’s Babycakes is brilliant too.

6) And which is your personal favourite in Not So Perfect, and again, why?
I couldn’t possibly pick one. I like them all and all for different reasons. ‘Seconds Are Ticking By’ I like because it was so easy to write – it came out pretty much fully formed and was published in the brilliant SmokeLong Quarterly. ‘Pacifier’ was like that too. I’ve a soft spot for ‘Kiss’ because, despite being really, really difficult to write, it came out well in the end. I tried and failed to write Shark Boy many times over a period of months so making that something I’m pleased with and proud of is good.
But, right at this moment, (and it’ll change tomorrow) I really like ‘In My Head I’m Venus’.

7) The book is a beautiful object. How important do you think it is for a book to be something of beauty, as well as containing wonderful stories, and wonderful writing, of course?!
Well, what’s inside any book, its words, are by far the most important thing. By a long way!
That said, books should be things we enjoy holding and they should be something we enjoy looking at. One of the reasons I wanted to be published by Roast Books was because of their commitment to making books that are as beautiful as objects as they are good to read.

8) can you say something about plans for exploiting the digital explosion, with Not So Perfect? Seems to me the collection seriously is 'Perfect' for reading off screens of all types.
Well there is an eBook version. Actually, that’s how the illustrations inside the book came about – they were going to be an extra you could only get in the eBook. After we’d seen them there was no way they weren’t going to be in the paperback – I love them!
So, yes, you can read Not So Perfect on whatever reading device you like: Kindle, Sony, etc etc. And you can even read it on your PC if you want to, by downloading the programme from amazon’s US site.

Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. Not So Perfect, his debut collection of short, short stories is published by Roast Books on June 2nd. Nik blogs here (http://nikperring.blogspot.com) and his website’s here www.nperring.com.

Thanks Nik, so much, Not So Perfect, by Nik Perring (in case you'd missed that bit - is out on 2nd June (in case you;'d msissed that bit) from Roast Books. Check it out HERE

And watch out for the next stop on the blog tour, at Tamia Hershman's blog, on 1st June, HERE

Friday, 14 May 2010


Greg McQueen, a writer living in Denmark, was moved when he saw the Haiti earthquake disaster playing out in the media. He decided to try to do something to help, and hit on the idea of an anthology of short short (1000 wd max) stories to raise funds for the Red Cross and its efforts in Haiti. Six weeks later, not only was there an e-book, but a paperback. Just after that, a selection of stories were recorded for iTunes. The following video is a memento of the highlights in Greg's own journey - six weeks from recording a call for submissions, to opening the box...
On 10th June, there is an event hosted by Waterstones, Brighton, starting at 6.30 pm. Many writers whose work was selected for this project are gathering to read a selection of stories. The books will be available for purchase.
If you can't get there and would like to support his project, please consider buying the anthology direct from the publisher, Bridge House, HERE. I believe at least £6.00 goes to the charity from every purchase.
It is available from Amazon, HERE and can be ordered from any good bookshop, if they aren't stocking it already.
The e-book is available from Smashwords, HERE. - together with the option to 'buy for nothing' and donate separately.
There is also an audiobook produced by the BBC - 'Stories for Haiti' includes 20 selected pieces from the anthology recorded by professional actors and is available on iTunes and Audible.com.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


First, a marvellous-sounding writing holiday, in the beautiful Loire valley, France. The Circle of Misse has organised courses on writing and gastronomy, led by experienced and gifted tutors, and their website HERE describes the writing courses thus:
The Ultimate Writing Holiday. Past participants say we should call our creative writing courses bespoke because they felt like everything was tailored specifically for them. It was and is. From one-to-one tutorials with award-winning writers to feedback from our resident writer/editor to beautifully prepared meals to satisfy every taste, we make these holidays into what one participant called “a life-changing experience that yields much.” Key to this experience is our intimate course size, never more than six participants. So come accelerate your writing journey with us in the stunning Loire Valley.

Writing colleague Nicholas Hogg – check out his website HERE is among the tutors on what looks like a varied and exciting series. He is leading two courses here– one on turning travels into words, and the other, a writing ‘bootcamp’. Nick’s own motorcycle journey across the emptiness of the Australian outback ended in a crash but inspired his first novel 'Show Me The Sky'.

STOP PRESS! Special discount of 35% if you book quoting V.G.DISCOUNT before May 31st.

Next, The Asham Award for new Women Writers goes Gothic! This biennial competition for short stories opens for submissions in June. This year they are theming the award, going into partnership with Virago, and asking you to pen your best ghost story or ‘go Gothic. Check out their website HERE from next week for further details. I’m really looking forward to joining the team of readers/longlisters for this one. Should be good!

Next, a new website is being launched on May 27th, in London – a real treasure trove for writers. Deadlines for magazines and journals calls for submissions, and competition closing dates, links to them all, a forum where you can interact with other writers and polish your work. The website is live and growing HERE: www.winningwriters.org.uk. From the website:
Exciting news! We can now confirm that the party to celebrate the launch of Winning Words will be held on Thursday 27th May, at Miss Q's bar in Earls Court Road, London SW5.

I’ll be there, giving a some tips on entering short story competitions, and answering as many questions as are fired. There will also be the chance to buy Short Circuit at a discount.

Saturday, 1 May 2010


I am spending a fortnight teaching Creative Writing in the English Department of Stockholm University. I have two groups of students, mostly drawn from departments other than English - many of whom are not studying anything within the Humanities, and want to explore something creative out of sheer interest. I run The Fiction Workhouse, an online workspace for writers, and for a month before arriving here on 23rd April, those students who wished had a chance to write stories and flash, a chance to look at critiques done in an analytical way, a chance to discuss the craft of writing- an ice-breaker.

Stockholm is a gorgeous city - I am very lucky to have this opportunity. I am finding the teaching tiring, but when possible, I am out walking, soaking up the atmosphere. The Old Town is lovely - narrow streets packed with shops and restaurants, galleries and homes. The sea is everywhere - but there is no smell of the sea. Without looking at a map you'd think you were on an estuary, in a city built on a hundred islands. The Baltic Sea is very diffferent - and it has its advantages - the Vasa, flagship of the Swedish Navy, which sank in 1628 and was raised in the 1950s - is all but perfectly preserved. No sea worms to eat the timbers. The seven-floor Vasa museum has to be one of the very best I have visited.

I teach for two-hour seminars, given to two groups. So the outline is delivered twice in the same day - but each session ends up very very different, thanks to the different writers in each group, naturally. The reasons for writing, for reading, ways of creating vibrant characters, character voice and writer's voice, structure, the use of language in character - opening narratives and and closing narratives have filled this week. We've also talked at length about the pros and cons of 'writing other', with some hilarious results in the writing exercises that followed. It is hard to tease out one topic without referring to others - the vast net of craft that holds up a story. Each session begins with a fast writing exercise - an opportunity to stretch the creative muscles without planning - there have been some amazing results - it is a real joy to listen to the stories that rise up. Pic- Faris Mahmutovic playing in the Old Town