Wednesday, 12 December 2007

John Irving on the Writer's Craft

Jonathan Tropper - Everything Changes (Review)

Jonathan Tropper's novel Everything Changes opens with an earthquake, and a similar seismic event is about to disrupt the perfect life of Zachary King.

This is what happens. You are about to get engaged to a fantastic girl who is way out of your league but who for some reason is head over heels in love with you. You have a decent job, a rent-free apartment in Manhattan and things can only get better. Except you think you have fallen in love with the widow of your best friend and your long-lost father has just turned up with a constant, Viagra-fuelled erection.

Tropper has been styled as America’s answer to Nick Hornby, and in a sense that’s a fair description. He is certainly very good at the ‘30-year-old male angst’ thing, and everything in this book rings true. If, like me, you enjoyed How to Talk to a Widower then you will probably enjoy this, too, but I was a little disappointed. Everything Changes is a good read but it isn’t quite as funny as Widower when it’s funny, and it isn’t quite as heartbreaking either.

The reason, I have since discovered, is that Everything Changes actually pre-dates Widower and is being released here in the UK some three years after its 2005 publication in the States. Tropper has improved since then.

Having said that, I enjoyed the pacey way Tropper kept the story moving, I liked most of the characters and even though I found the ending a little too syrupy for my taste the twists and turns getting there were neatly executed and often unexpected. If you haven’t read Tropper yet then this is a good place to start. Everything Changes is good, but it’s not quite in the same league as How to Talk to a Widower.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Writers' Forum

Back in June, I was interviewed for an article in Writers' Forum magazine. During the interview, as I mentioned in my blog at the time, I was asked for my top tips for writers. In an effort to avoid all the usual suspects, I resorted to the following running tips:

  1. Run every day, whatever the weather.

  2. Set yourself goals and targets.

  3. Keep a training log or journal.

  4. Run lots of shorter races before you attempt the marathon.

  5. Study the way successful athletes tackle the race.

  6. Join a running club.

At the time I said these all had a direct equivalent in writing, and I would leave it to you to do your own translation. Just in case you didn't quite manage it, the current issue of Writers' Forum has kindly revealed all. You can read my piece on page 27 - including a full running-to-writing translation. There's also a couple of other pieces on running and writing . . .

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Stories for a Wet and Windy Night

To Deal tonight for a meeting of Deal Writers. Despite the wet and windy weather a dozen writers made it, with six giving a reading. I had set the group a challenge inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercise in Style. Here is the scenario, suitably adapted and Anglicised:

The narrator bumps into a long-necked man on a bus and later sees him in a train station in the company of a friend who pins a badge on his coat.


The challenge was to recount the above incident as a brief chapter in a romantic novel, a spy story, a detective story, a western, a Greek tragedy. The writers could choose one or more of these styles, all of them or none.

The six writers who shared their efforts with us took the same scenario in remarkably different directions. We had a crime story, a romance, a comic-thriller, a poem featuring Madonna, and a spy story that morphed into a vampire tale. The winner on the night was a tremendously creative east-meets-west tale set in 19th Century London and featuring Sherlock Holmes and haiku! The odd thing about the six readings was that, although we are based on the south east coast, every one of the writers set their stories in London. Perhaps that’s because Deal is such a quiet and charming place. A peaceful seaside haven would be an unlikely setting for tales of murder and Madonna and vampires and spies.

But not ghosts. If you don’t believe me then I recommend the latest issue of Deal Today, the lifestyle magazine for the east Kent town of Deal. Deal Today is available for the bargain price of £2.00 in all good newsagents and bookshops in and around Deal. Why am I hyping this august publication? Why, because the Christmas ghost story was written by yours truly. Okay, it may not be Dickens, but it’s worth two quid of anyone’s money!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Lishy Writing

I finished the redraft of The Long Week (the novel formerly known as An Honourable Man) yesterday. I’ve cut nearly 4,000 words from it, which was quite distressing at the time but I think it makes it a much better, tighter read. I’m trying very hard to teach myself to RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) everything, leaving things for the reader to work out or just leaving them unsaid.

I’ve always considered the master of concision to be the great Raymond Carver. I read a few weeks ago that his widow was planning to bring out the original ‘unexpurgated’ versions of some of his short stories, unsullied by editorial intervention, and I was eagerly awaiting their publication. Imagine my distress, therefore, to learn from last Saturday’s Guardian that most of the things I really like about Carver's writing weren’t written about Carver at all – they were written by his editor Gordon Lish.

Of course, I knew about Lish’s influence on Carver. I was once told for instance that Lish made him rewrite the 8,000 word A Small, Good Thing which resulted in the 2,000 word The Bath (although I've since learnt that Carver wrote the longer version two years after the shorter story). But I always assumed it was Carver that had penned the rewrites. Now it seems it was Lish all along. I’m pleased to say I’m not alone in feeling somehow let down. Marcel Berlins shares my sense of . . . well, if not betrayal then at least disappointment.

It’s not the fact that the stories are less good, or in any way devalued by not being entirely by the hand of the great man. It’s more that I like to aspire to describing my writing as ‘Carveresque’. From now on, I suppose I’ll have to say it is a bit ‘Lishy’.

Advice from Stephen King

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Good to be Back

I was reprimanded this morning for not updating my blog. Which is fair – I haven’t even visited the site in weeks. Months. But I have good excuses, I think.

First, the Deal Writers anthology View from the Pier was published. This involved a considerable amount of organising as we self-published. But we also received an awful lot of local publicity. I was interviewed by the East Kent Mercury and got a half-page spread with a terrible photograph of me taken with a wide-angle lens. (Wasn’t it Tony Benn who said he hated wide-angle lenses because ‘they make you look like a loony’? Well, he was right!). We had a very successful launch in a bookshop in Deal, and as the East Kent Mercury sent a photographer we managed to get another page of decent publicity. And I’m pleased to say the reviews have been good, too. But the result has been that we have already completely SOLD OUT of the first print run and I’ve just had to order an emergency reprint.

Second, I’ve been rewriting my novel An Honourable Man, changing it from third person to first person – which is a lot more work than you might think. I've also re-titled it The Long Week.

Still no news on the publication of The Belfast Boy. It has been with the publisher – who insists they are still ‘very keen’ on it – for over a year now. I’m told this is par for the course . . .

Plus, of course, my dad died and I’ve been having to deal with the sale of his house and dispersal of his estate.

So I think I have some decent excuses for my absence. But it’s good to be back!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Back to the Drawing Board . . .

My novel-in-progress, An Honourable Man, is about the dichotomy between public and private persona, and the whole novel hinges on an apparent chance encounter. This chance encounter is based on a real-life episode: a few years ago I bumped into someone in my local shopping centre and, after exchanging apologies, realised I knew him from somewhere. He recognised me, too – the problem was neither of us could place the face. We chatted for a while, neither of us revealing we were not sure exactly who the other person was and how we knew each other. Both of us asked quietly probing questions (you know the sort of thing: ‘How are your family?’, ‘Where are you working these days?’, ‘Are you still . . . er . . . ?’). I think we went to school together, but I’ll never know.

In my novel, the chance meeting happens between a man and a woman. The question I asked myself was ‘What if there was a sexual chemistry between them?’ And what if, instead of simply exchanging a few pleasantries, they embarked on an affair? But what if one of them then turned out not to be who the other one thought they were?

This is the sort of thing that can and probably does happen in real life, but I knew that fiction is different from real life in that it has to make sense. So I gave one of the protagonists a motive for wanting to meet the other character, and then made them engineer the ‘chance’ meeting. I also came up with what I thought was a clever device for showing the vulnerability of the other protagonist. I thought it worked okay, and the trusted readers I showed the manuscript to seemed to have no problem with it. So I completed the novel and entered it in a competition run by A&C Black.

The runners-up prize in the competition was a critique from The Literary Consultancy. Although the feedback I received was generally good (‘a readable, pacey piece of fiction’) the reader had real difficulty with the contrived ‘chance encounter’. More importantly, she thought my ‘clever’ device simply didn’t work. It made the character concerned sound ‘more mad than sad’. She said it spoiled the whole book.

This was tough feedback to take – after all, the ‘chance encounter’ was the foundation I had built the whole novel upon, and the ‘clever device’ was the key to understanding one of my main characters. But I could also see that the feedback was absolutely right. Problem was, I didn’t know how to make the novel work without that central episode or the insight provided by my device. So I put the manuscript away for a couple of months and concentrated instead on editing the Deal Writers anthology, and on writing a few new short stories of my own. The short stories helped clear my head a little, as well as putting some much-needed cash in the bank!

Now that the anthology has been safely put to bed (I don’t have a precise publication date yet, but it will be going on sale for £3.50 plus P&P in the next month or so) it’s time to dust off An Honourable Man and to hunker down to some serious rewriting. It feels like a massive, daunting task. I think I know how to handle the rewrite, but I won’t really know till I write it, will I?

So, here goes . . .

Friday, 7 September 2007

Deal Writers Anthology

The anthology of work by members of Deal Writers, which I've been editing, is finally completed. It went off to the printers this afternoon, and will be published shortly.


It's been hard work, but now it is all done I'm pretty pleased with the result. More details on the Deal Writers website: www.dealwriters.co.uk

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Grace Paley

Sad to learn of the passing of Grace Paley. A couple of years ago she was due to attend a short story event I was at, but she was too unwell to travel. Instead, she sent a home-made video, which was marvellously inspiring. She will be sadly missed.

Here’s her ‘final word’ from her Paris Review interview of 1992:

The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

You can read the rest of the interview here: http://www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/2028

Friday, 17 August 2007

Anthology Shmanthology

Well, what a busy week I’ve had! Apart from work, which has been going relatively well lately (in terms of output if not income!), I’ve also been putting together an anthology of work by members of the writers’ group I belong to. Deal Writers has been in existence for only a year or so, and while the group includes several established authors and playwrights this is the first time some of the members have submitted anything for publication.

The group decided some time ago that it would produce an anthology, but for months it seemed as though there wouldn’t be enough material and I was seriously thinking we would have to abandon the project. But then just lately I’ve received a flood of stories, poems and articles of a really high standard, and in the end my co-editor and I had to make some tough decisions about leaving out some really quite good stuff simply because we were running out of space (we already have a contract with the printer, so we have a fixed page limit). But the anthology is beginning to look really good.

So - now we know we have a viable publication, the arguments – sorry, I mean discussions – the discussions are beginning about what to call the thing. At least one member objects to the very use of the word ‘anthology’ altogether, on the basis that it’s old-fashioned and would give potential readers the wrong impression of the work. I think they’re wrong, because an anthology (dictionary definition) is exactly what it is. But then I still refer to LP records and frocks and listen to Radio 4 on the wireless.

Anyway, we shall have the, er, discussion at next week’s meeting and hopefully come up with something everyone can agree on.

Yeah, that was a joke.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

What? No Harry Potter?

The long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced last night and, depending on your morning paper, it was either ‘remarkably surprising’ (The Guardian) or contained ‘not too many surprises’ (the Times). Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has immediately been installed as the bookie’s favourite to win the £50,000 prize, and as I’ve only read one other candidate (Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones) I can’t really argue with that.

The list in full:

Nicola Barker - Darkmans

Edward Docx - Self Help

Tan Twan Eng - The Gift Of Rain

Anne Enright - The Gathering

Mohsin Hamid - The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Peter Ho Davies - The Welsh Girl

Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip

Nikita Lalwani - Gifted

Ian McEwan - On Chesil Beach

Catherine O'Flynn - What Was Lost

Michael Redhill - Consolation

Indra Sinha - Animal's People

A N Wilson - Winnie & Wolf

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

David Peace - Tokyo Year Zero (Review)

Tokyo, August 1946.

It’s always hot in this city. I take out my handkerchief. I wipe my face. I wipe my neck.

In a Japan destroyed by war, Detective Inspector Minami from Metropolitan HQ is on the hunt for a serial killer.

I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari.

But in post-war Tokyo, no one is who they say they are.

I bow and I apologise.

Based on a true story, David Peace tries to recreate through a cinematic style the sounds and smells and heat of a war-torn, defeated nation.

Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton . . .

The sound of hammering and hammering.

I’m afraid for me all this hammering home, all these descriptive asides and repetitions, become a bit too much. The book is just too stylised for my Western tastes, I guess, and for me that tended to get in the way of the story. I found myself skipping too many paragraphs to get back to the meat of the story.

I bow and I apologise again.

Peace’s great achievement, though, is in conveying a real sense of time and place. The heat and the squalor and the hunger are almost tangible.

I itch and I scratch. Gari-gari.

But in the end, I found it all rather overwhelming. And the revelation at the end was, to me, a little predictable.

I bow and I apologise again.

This is an interesting book, certainly original, but I couldn’t decide whether it was intended as a clever literary novel or a pretentious crime novel. Either way, for me, Peace hasn’t quite pulled it off.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Do Writers Need Agents?

Last year I sent my crime novel to an agent and in return the agent sent me a very encouraging rejection letter. It more or less confirmed what I had suspected – that my novel was well written but it would be difficult to market. So instead of wasting time and postage costs on sending an unmarketable book to other agents, I rewrote the novel to try to make it more saleable. ‘Make it less gritty’ was the advice I was given.

So I did. Does that mean I sold out? I don't think so. It’s a crime novel, after all – what Graham Greene would have called ‘an entertainment’ – so artistic integrity doesn’t apply!

As I was rewriting, I heard about a publisher who had identified a gap in the UK market and was looking for ‘gritty crime fiction’. I sent my novel off to them, they sent it back asking me to put back in all the stuff I’d taken out, and they are now considering the result. Early feedback was positive: ‘We like it,’ they said. I’m still waiting to hear whether they like it enough to publish it.

Which brings me to my question: Do I need a literary agent? If this publisher likes my novel and offers me a deal, why should I give away 20% of whatever I get to an agent? I’ve heard plenty of stories about authors who don’t have agents, who deal with publishers direct and conduct their own contract negotiations. They seem to do well enough.

On the other hand, what do I do if my publisher eventually decides NOT to offer me a deal? A lot of publishing houses have stopped accepting unsolicited mss from the general public and will only look at submissions from established literary agents.

A fellow writer, himself a well-established novelist, thinks I was crazy not to have gone back to the agent with my rewritten novel, rather than sending it direct to a publisher. Finding the right agent is, he says, far more important than getting your book accepted by a publisher. He says the best thing about an agent is that he or she will know exactly the right editor at each relevant publishing house to approach.

As an example he cited a friend who had a somewhat chequered publishing career. Her first two novels were published by a major publisher who had bigger fish to fry in terms of spending money on marketing. Her agent then got her a better deal with another large publisher, but again her next two novels were undermarketed. Sales were very poor and interest in her waned. Her agent, however, kept faith in her work and last year signed her with a third major publisher. Since then her career has really taken off. Her latest novel is just outside the top 20 fiction list. Without her agent, he says, none of this would be happening.

I have to admit, that's a pretty compelling argument in favour. I guess that’s why it is so hard for a new writer to get accepted by an agent!

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

A Bit of Company

My short story A Bit of Company will be published in the 7th August 2007 issue of Woman's Weekly magazine, out next week.

Mrs Parsons has a visitor, and it isn't the gas man:

I don’t let him come no farther than the scullery though. Well, you can’t be too careful. Mind you, he looks on the level, if you know what I mean. Nice coat. And a proper shine to his shoes. You can tell a man’s character by the shine on his shoes. In my day, if you couldn’t see your face in a man’s shoes you’d give him a wide berth. That’s why there’s so many young girls in trouble these days, if you ask me. No one bothers with shoes any more. They all wear these plimsolls.

Read more in next week's Woman's Weekly!

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Why I Like Storytelling


I quite agree!
With thanks for this and other gems to FOUND magazine.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

It’s a Lottery

There was a lot of press coverage this morning of the prank played by David Lassman, Director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath and rejected thriller writer. Unable to find a publisher for his own novel, Mr Lassman decided to conduct a little experiment. He sent updated versions of three of Jane Austen’s best known works to eighteen leading publishers and literary agents, pretending they were written by wannabe author ‘Alison Laydee’. Guess what? All but one of the recipients failed to notice Austen’s sparkling prose. Worse, they all rejected the manuscripts. Penguin, who only recently republished Pride and Prejudice, described the updated version as a ‘really original and interesting read’ but not right for them!

Something similar happened just last year, when The Sunday Times anonymously submitted the first three chapters of a couple of 1970s Booker Prize winners – V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State and Stanley Middleton's Holiday - to agents and publishers. As with the Austen submissions, neither book was recognised, and both received standard rejection letters.

It’s all jolly amusing, I’m sure, to the majority of people. But to a lot of writers it’s all immensely depressing.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Shameless Plug - One-Act Play Competition

This is a shameless plug for Deal Writers' new competition.

THE NEW DEAL THEATRE COMPANY
IN COLLABORATION WITH DEAL WRITERS
ANNOUNCE A

KENT ONE-ACT PLAY COMPETITION

Submissions are invited for a one-act stage play from Kent residents. This must be an original, unpublished and unperformed play to consist of one set, from three - six characters and to be of 30 – 45 minutes’ duration.

PRIZES: 1st Prize: £100, 2nd Prize £50, 3rd Prize:£25

Full details can be found on the Deal Writers website.



THE WINNING PLAY WILL BE PRESENTED AS A STUDIO PRODUCTION BY THE NEW DEAL THEATRE COMPANY.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Penelope Lively - Consequences (Review)

A couple of years ago I did a creative writing course at my local university in preparation for the launch of me new ‘career’ as a writer. One of the things that began to irritate me a little, having spent most of my working life taking practice-focused training courses, was the academic slant to the course (yeah, I know – what did I expect!).

I could understand studying Chekhov and Mansfield if I were taking an Eng Lit course, and I could certainly understand why we needed to be aware of the innovations these writers introduced a century or more ago. But I wanted to study the techniques used by modern writers, authors who were at the top of their game now.

Modern masters such as Penelope Lively, in fact. Lively has been writing for thirty years , and she has produced around forty novels. A Booker Prize winner in 1987, there's no doubt she is a writer to learn from.

So I began reading her latest novel, Consequences, from a writer’s point of view, trying to learn her techniques and how her effects were achieved. From that point of view, I thought her new novel was a master class. In fact, it was so good I couldn’t help forgetting myself, and just reading the book as a reader. I found it completely enthralling.

Consequences is the story of three generations of women, beginning in the 1930s with Lorna, then focusing on Molly in the post-war years and finally rounding off the tale with up-to-date Ruth. But this is no ‘family saga’ novel. The book is about the way time changes perceptions, and about memory and loss.

Lively paints with quick, broad brushstrokes, then suddenly paints in a detail that brings her characters and their emotions to life on the page. The history of seventy years is sketched out in less than 300 pages, and yet you feel you know the principal characters intimately. Lively is a master at telling the reader more by writing less.

There’s a heavy tension hanging over the first part of the novel. Wealthy debutante Lorna’s love affair with struggling artist Matt is brilliantly drawn. The young lovers run off to Somerset to live in Arcadian bliss and a poverty that Lively carefully describes yet still seems idyllic. Baby Molly is born, and you know that in a few years the perfect life of Lorna and her little family will be shattered by war. With the benefit of what we know now, the events are predictable. But Lively’s technical skill in telling the tale makes that predictability acutely poignant.

Molly’s leg of the tale is concerned with post-war austerity and the dawning of the sixties. Everyone is artistic and bohemian, and they are all very nice. When Ruth comes along I thought she might rebel, and for a while it does indeed seem that she will succumb to the lucrative allure of Thatcher’s Britain. She marries, and her husband Peter is the one character we find it hard to sympathise with.

Lively is a master of plotting and structure, and this story is satisfyingly symmetrical. We end up pretty much where we began, and it feels like we have come home ourselves.

This is a novel to be savoured.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Rubbish!

Is any writing wasted? I’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the past few days trying turn an idea into a short story. It began well, on Friday, with the germ of the idea and an opening line. It was the sort of story I was sure I could sell to a magazine. On Saturday I spent the morning working on it in some detail over a large café latte or two in a coffee bar in Broadstairs. I completely rewrote in yesterday, after a day’s reflection, and improved the opening line and beefed up the ending. But today I can see it just doesn’t work. The whole story is based on an idea that seemed brilliant on Friday but that now seems a bit dull. I feel I’ve been wasting my time working on it.

But really I don’t think any writing is a waste. The struggles I’ve had over the past few days trying to convey a certain emotion, or sketch out a sense of time and place, have if nothing else been good mental exercise. There’s an analogy to be drawn with running, but I’m constantly boring people with my running analogies so I won’t labour the point. Other than to say that I feel I’m in a more fit state to tackle my next writing project.

It’s not rubbish. It’s an investment . . .

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Susanna Jones – The Missing Person’s Guide to Love (Review)

It’s going to be difficult to review this book satisfactorily, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I will have to be careful not to give too much away. This is what the publisher says about it:
Isabel, Owen and Julia were childhood friends. But when they were fifteen, Julia disappeared without a trace – an event that had a devastating impact on the others.

Years later, Isabel returns to her home town in the north of England
for Owen’s funeral. She hadn’t seen him since they recklessly burned down the local supermarket together; he was sent to prison and she, just shy of her 18th birthday, to a young offenders’ centre. Isabel suspects that Owen was responsible for Julia’s murder, and she’s hoping finally to find some kind of resolution.

Feeling cut off from her husband and child in Turkey, and awash with unexpected memories, Isabel ventures further into the murky depths of her past. But nothing is as it seems – either past or present – and as Isabel’s world unravels we finally realise the stunning, shattering truth . . .

If you have read either of Susanna’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird and Water Lily, then you will have an idea of the sort of thing to expect. The writing is superb, deceptively simple and with real pace. I had been warned on Wednesday that I needed to concentrate so I made a conscious effort to read more slowly. If I hadn’t I would probably have whizzed through the book in a single sitting, and may have ended up as confused as dovegreyreader. Because – as the blurb says – nothing is as it seems.

I think if you read the book as a detective novel (which up to a point it is, with Isabel trying to discover the truth about what happened to her friend Julia) you should spot the clues to what’s really going on. This is a very clever book by a fine writer.

Up and Running

Back in January I seriously injured my knee through over-training for the Flora London Marathon. I rested the injury for a while and ran again too soon in February and made it a whole lot worse. The result was that I haven't been able to run since. For the past month or so I've been planning to start running again but every time I make a firm commitment to myself the wretched knee begins to hurt again, before I've run a single step!

But today I ignored the little twinges from my patella and set of on a very gentle jog to get started on the rocky road to fitness. The fact it was such a lovely morning helped, too! Within four or five steps my knee had tightened up and was begging me to stop. I didn't, and pretty soon the tightness had gone and I began to enjoy myself again. I even ran further than I'd planned I felt so good. And I'm pleased to say the knee feels fine.

What's this got to do with writing? Well, I always feel that I'm more productive after I've had a run in the morning. And the past week or so in particular I've been very unproductive indeed (which may of course have something to do with The Secretary being away on an island off the coast of Africa!). But I'm sure physical fitness has a positive effect on mental abilities, and I know running gives me the opportunity to mull over an issue I might be struggling with in my writing. So, in theory at least, I should be a bit more creative today.

We'll see . . .

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Brighton

To Brighton last night to attend the launch party for Susanna Jones’ new book, The Missing Person’s Guide to Love. The bash was held at a bar/restaurant called The Terraces, overlooking a wild and choppy English Channel. Lots of local writers, journalists and film-makers who were all very friendly, and a contingent of students from the MA course Susanna teaches on in London. Susanna’s agent, Bill Hamilton, told me the book was intelligent and demanding – the reader has to really pay attention. I can’t wait to read it. In fact, I really can’t wait to read it – I started it as soon as I got home last night. A full review will follow . . .

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Drama Competition


I've agreed to help judge a one-act playwriting competition being organised by a local amateur dramatics company in association with Deal Writers. I met with the other two judges today and we thrashed out the competition rules and began thinking about publicity.


The competition will be open to any amateur playwright living in Kent, and the winner will not only receive a cash prize (we're thinking £100 at the moment) but will also have the opportunity to have her/his play performed by the New Deal Theatre Company. The closing date for entries is likely to be towards the end of November.


Full details will appear on the Deal Writers website shortly.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Haruki Murakami - After Dark (Review)

The first Murakami story I ever read, not very long ago in the grand scheme of things, was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo from his After the Quake collection. I loved it, and I’ve been a fan of Murakami’s writing ever since, but especially his short stories. A few people I know don’t get Murakami – ‘How can you take seriously a six-foot frog as a central character?’ they say. To which I say, ‘How can you not?!’

After Dark is a very short novel, almost an extended short story, so I was sure I was going to really like it. The action takes place over the course of a single night in a city ‘like a single gigantic creature’. During this night we are going to meet nineteen year-old Mari, her sleeping sister Eri, a young man called Takahashi and Kaoru, the retired female wrestler and currently manager of a love hotel, together with sundry peripheral characters. There are all living their lives in the darkness of the night, ‘when everybody’s supposed to be asleep’. It is an alien environment, as alien as being under water.

The novel is narrated in the first person plural, often as if through a camera. We have the characters under surveillance, even the sleeping Eri. At the love hotel, we watch CCTV images of a ‘guest’ who has beaten up a Chinese prostitute and later, on the same screen, watch Creatures of the Deep along with several of the characters. We see ‘weird deep-sea creatures. Ugly ones, beautiful ones. Predators, prey’. Geddit? One of the characters moves from one side of the TV screen to the other, and mirror images remain in the mirror long after the reflected character has departed. This is Murakami, after all.

But I have to say I read the novel with a degree of disappointment. Maybe that’s because of my own unrealistic expectations. I think it just wasn’t surreal enough for me (after a throwaway comment by Takahashi I was expecting a giant octopus to appear – sadly, it never did. Or did it . . . ?). Nevertheless, the story is always interesting and the ending nicely satisfying. I was expecting a truly great novel from one of my favourite authors, but After Dark is just very good.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Arvon Calling

Last year I went on an Arvon writing course in the Clun Valley in South Shropshire and met some great chaps, including my fellow runner Julia Buckley who I'll hopefully be seeing again next week. I'm looking forward to hearing how her own novel is coming along. Julia has persuaded me to sign up to Facebook where I'm sure I must be the oldest person on the site!

The reason I'm hoping to see her next week is that we have been invited to the launch of Susanna Jones' new book, The Missing Person's Guide to Love. It will be good to see Susanna again, too, as she was one of the inspirational tutors on said Arvon Course.

The other inspirational tutor was Courttia Newland, who I was delighted to discover today has been nominated for the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library Award.

Good news all round!

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Daily Mail Book Club: The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

She's known for her gripping yarns, so it's no surprise that Maggie O'Farrell's latest book – about a woman who is locked up in a lunatic asylum – is this month's Daily Mail Book choice. The Mail's Nigel Jones reports here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/books/books.html?in_article_id=464981&in_page_id=1825

Friday, 29 June 2007

Busy Week . . .

It’s been a busy week, working on The Belfast Boy rewrites and still dealing with the probate issues following my dad’s death. But at least I haven’t been flooded, unlike half the rest of the country. Anyway, I’ve finished with The Belfast Boy for now – I’ve made all the changes I think it needs, so now I have to leave it in a quiet dark place to brew. I’ll read it through again in a few weeks, at which time I shall no doubt see a hundred and one new things that need doing (or undoing!).

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to meeting up again with my fellow emerging novelist Julia Buckley. We’ve both been invited to a book launch party in Brighton next week (of which more later).

I heard some disturbing news about a well-established magazine for writers, which I won’t name, from a writer-friend of mine. It seems she sold them a couple of articles, which they published, but when she tried to bank their cheque she found it had been stopped for no obvious reason, leaving her bruised and out of pocket. I’ve had problems with this particular publication myself, having waited six months for payment for a story two years ago. Another friend of mine only got paid for his story when he threatened to sue them. I understand the magazine in question is now ‘under new management’, so hopefully matters will improve. But that’s just another example of how vulnerable we ‘lucky’ writers are!

Monday, 25 June 2007

Writers' Block

A miserable day today – I really struggled to get anything done. The Secretary has swanned off to a Canary island for a fortnight, leaving me sans editorial advice just as I’m getting to the crucial stage of The Belfast Boy. You can’t get the staff these days.

To make matters worse, the postman brought me another rejection letter this morning (very polite, welcoming further offerings, but a rejection nevertheless). I have a Churchillian quote on my office wall: ‘Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm’. It’s meant to help, but some days it just doesn’t.

One bit of good news, though, is that another of my short stories, The Piano Teacher’s Husband, has made the longlist for the Cadenza short story competition. I found the following message on their website:


Due to a record number of entries, results from our March 2007 competition have been delayed, but we are currently working to bring them to you. You can see the longlist here.

Somewhere in there is my story! So that’s encouraging, at least.




Many thanks to Michael Allen for bringing three articles by M.J. Rose to my attention. M.J. Rose describes herself as ‘the internationally bestselling author of eight novels and two non fiction books’, and earlier this year she republished on her blog three articles on the 'luck' required to be a successful writer that she originally wrote for Poets & Writer's magazine in the US. Okay, they have a clear American slant, but they are just as relevant to us Brits. They appeared on her blog on 11June, 12 June and 13 June.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Lloyd Jones - Mr Pip (Review)

On Friday, I was sent a pre-publication copy of Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones to review (oddly, it arrived a week after its publication date). Now, I hadn’t registered this novel on my literary radar for some reason. So I began reading it with no prior knowledge of it, and not knowing what to expect.

The narrator, Matilda, is a young woman from the Pacific island of Bougainville, which not only has the richest copper mine in the world, but is also an immensely fertile source of fish and fruit. In 1990, the government of Papua New Guinea took action against the Bougainville islanders, leading to a bloody civil war.

Most of the story relates to events that occurred on the island during that civil war, when Matilda was in her early teens. The narrative style is deceptively simple. I began reading thinking this would be a straight-forward ‘rites of passage’ novel. In a way it is, but it is far more, too.

The onset of the civil war has resulted in the closure of the school in the village where Matilda lives. To the rescue comes an unlikely teacher. Pop Eye, the only white on the island, a man who sometimes wears a red clown’s nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye along in a cart, steps into the breach. Pop Eye (aka Mr Watts) reads a chapter a day from Great Expectations to the kids, and it is this that not only helps them cope with the casually described hardships (and worse!) of living through the island’s blockade but also opens up their imaginations.

So far, so what? you might think. On a superficial level, this is another novel about an inspirational teacher and the power of books – in this case Great Expectations – to change lives. But the themes and ideas in this book reach much wider than most. On top of that, this is great storytelling. I was hooked. I read this book in two sittings and enjoyed every moment. There is suspense, there is pathos, there is horror, there is excitement – in fact, there is just so much to savour in this book.

There are two pieces of prior knowledge that would probably add to your enjoyment of this novel. The first is at least a passing acquaintance with Dickens’ greatest novel, Great Expectations. The second is an understanding of the civil war that pitched the rebel islanders (the ‘rambos’ of the book) against the government forces of Papua New Guinea (the ‘redskins’). However, neither is essential as the writing is just so damn good!

As soon as I finished it I had to find out more about Mr Jones, so I went onto the internet and only then discovered that earlier this year he had won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Mr Pip. And deservedly so.

Thoroughly recommended.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Oh Well . . .

The Secretary has read the rewrite of The Belfast Boy and delivered her verdict.

She likes it better now, she says. The plot moves along nicely. She really likes the characters.

But the ending sucks. I have tried to follow Wilkie Collins’ advice (‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait’) and left so much to be resolved in the last couple of chapters that it is, apparently, overwhelming.

She’s right, of course (she always is).

So it’s back to the laptop on Monday morning . . .

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Stormy Weather!

Having survived an earthquake here in East Kent earlier this year, last night I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of the biggest electrical storms we’ve ever seen in these parts. Two inches of rain fell on us in a matter of hours and the road outside my house was like a river. In Sandwich, the cattle market and Moat Sole were under water. We lost our electricity supply early in the evening, and it didn’t come back on until this afternoon. Despite that (or maybe because of it) I managed to get a lot of work done today (no email or other distractions!) and I finished the rewrite of my novel The Belfast Boy. All I have to do now is transfer my manuscript notes onto my PC!

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Positive Feedback

The editorial staff at WW sent me a very nice letter they had received from a reader about my story, The Stain (see below). It’s not often I get such lovely feedback:

Dear WW

I had to write to tell you how much I enjoyed the short story "The Stain" by Paul Curd. It was gripping and unusual and I hope we hear from him again.

In spite of intending to contact you many times this is the first time in 20 years that I have written -that's how much this story impressed me!

Thank you very much. I.S.

Thank you IS!

Monday, 4 June 2007

Top Tips for Writers!

Believe it or not, I've been interviewed for an article in a specialist writing magazine. During the interview, I was asked for my top tips for writers. That's a tough one, because all the really good tips have already been taken. Everyone knows what they are, even if they don't actually put them into practice themselves.

I realised I learned the most important thing about writing from training to run marathons. I had to adopt a very disciplined approach to my running, and I realised at once the incredible similarities between becoming a successful runner and becoming a successful writer.

So these are the top running tips that I translated into my writing practice:
  1. Run every day, whatever the weather.
  2. Set yourself goals and targets.
  3. Keep a training log or journal.
  4. Run lots of shorter races before you attempt the marathon.
  5. Study the way successful athletes tackle the race.
  6. Join a running club.
I’ll leave it to you to do your own translation!

Friday, 25 May 2007

The Stain

My short story The Stain will be published in the 5th June 2007 issue of Woman's Weekly magazine.

Ann Johnson has a terrible secret.

Her new neighbours seemed friendly enough, but she’d been warned to stay on her toes. Country folk liked to know more about you than people who lived in London. You couldn’t call it nosiness; it was all part of living out in the country, the community spirit. It was what village life was all about. Nevertheless, she knew she had to be careful.

The house she bought was anonymous and unobtrusive, a plain cottage on the outskirts of the village. It was the start of her new life, she told herself as she unpacked her suitcases and put her clothes away in her new bedroom. No more looking over her shoulder. No more living in fear. She felt safe knowing that nobody here knew her. She could start again. As she unpacked she tossed aside the things that could do with a clean. There was still blood on her jacket . . .

Read more in next week's Woman's Weekly!

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Getting Back to Work

It has been really tough to get back to doing some serious work. But life goes on, and I have to earn a living, so today I must force myself to get down to it. But it's tough . . .

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Ernest Curd 1938-2007



What can I say about Ernie? About our dad? He was a big man, built like an old fashioned centre-half. But he was also a kind and sensitive man. And, ultimately, he was a very brave man.

It was just seven months ago, on the exact anniversary of the death of our mum Doreen, that dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer, after months of complaining about a backache that his so-called doctor dismissed as osteo-arthritis.

The prognosis was never good. The cancer was already too far gone. But in the first few weeks there was talk of a clinical trial and a possible wonder drug that might give dad a year or two longer. But there were so many complications that in the end the clinical trial never happened.

I remember just a couple of months ago, after the specialists had told him he had a clear choice, I remember having one of those conversations with him that you might have in a hypothetical way in the pub. Would you rather have a short but relatively comfortable life? Or live longer but with a lot of discomfort? That was the choice dad had to make.

The specialist had said dad could undergo a course of treatment that might keep him alive for a few more months, but with some pretty grim side-effects. Or he could forego the treatment and have a shorter life with less unpleasant side-effects. Dad wanted to know what I thought. What would I do if I were in his position?

It’s easy to make hypothetical decisions, when they don’t really affect your life. Dad had to make the decision in real life. He decided not to have the treatment, and to make the most of his last few months. But even those last few months were cut short.

I went to see him a couple of weeks before he died. He looked well – better than he had looked for ages. He was planning a weekend away in Eastbourne with Brenda. He was in good spirits, looking forward to the break.

Well, dad and Brenda went to Eastbourne, but it tired him out. When he came back, his nurse decided he should be admitted to St Christopher’s Hospice for tests. We were expecting him to be in for a few days and to come back home rejuvenated. But instead he suddenly became very ill, and he died on the 26th of April, exactly seven months from the day his cancer was diagnosed.

So in a few short months, we had witnessed how his health had deteriorated, physically. But his spirit was always strong. And he continued to draw and to paint and devote himself to his art, right up to the end. He died in the hospice with a sketch pad by the side of his bed.

One of the onerous duties that fell to me and Gary and Louise, as dad’s next of kin and executors of his estate, was to write and phone people to let them know what had happened. Everyone who knew him – his neighbours Doe, Alan and Graham; his district nurse Dan, the staff at the Royal Marsden and St Christopher’s Hospice – everyone we spoke to who knew him said what a kind and lovely man he was. I think he brought something special to everyone he met.

We were going through the papers in dad’s studio earlier this week when we came across something he wrote not long ago. At first we thought it was an essay, or a personal manifesto, but it seems to be something he had copied, probably from a book by another artist. It clearly meant something to dad, or else why would he have taken the trouble to have written it all out so neatly? The gist of the piece is in this passage:

When I walk into my studio there’s no doubt I’m spending a day with a trusted friend. Because after all the periods of uncertainties and gloom, mixed with exhilaration and flashes of inspiration, I discovered that really, Art and I wanted the same thing . . .


And the next part is in capital letters, as though this is also what dad wanted.

Art and I wanted the same thing: A PERSONAL AND CREATIVE RESPONSE TO EXISTENCE.


The essay talks about how the artist – how dad – allowed his innermost spirit to perform freely and with no reservations. His paintings and drawings were driven by pure joy. The images he created on a sheet of paper were his personal imprint.

Art, the essay says, is not what is painted but how it is painted.

Dad was a commercial artist for most of his life, but it was only in later years – just recently – that he dropped the commercial side and took up painting for pleasure, and it was then I think he became a true artist.

I think Dad was genuinely happy in the last few years of his life. He found religion after mum died, and I think he got a lot of strength from his God and from the Bible. By then he had met Brenda and her family, and being with Brenda gave another dimension to his life. Then of course Chelsea won back-to-back league titles, and that made him happy. But, just as important I think, he had fallen in love again with Art, and I know that made him more than happy. I think it gave him a sense of fulfilment. It was then that his art began to be his personal and creative response to his existence.

Art is not what is painted but how it is painted. In the same way, life is not what is lived, but how it is lived.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Earthquake!

So there I was, sitting at my desk upstairs in my ‘office’, when I heard what sounded like an enormous lorry approaching. The house began to shake and I thought, that’s a bloody heavy lorry!


The shaking became really bad, enough for stuff on my desk to shuffle about a bit, and lasted for two or three seconds. When it was over I ran downstairs. ‘What the hell was that?’ I asked The Secretary. ‘What was what?’ she said. She hadn’t felt a thing. I began to think I must have imagined it.

Later I discovered there had been an earthquake, somewhere off the coast of Dover. An earthquake! Here in Kent!! According to the BBC News website, the Kent incident is the largest recorded in Britain since an earthquake in Dudley in 2002.

A seismologist from the British Geological Survey said the tremor was around 4.3 on the Richter scale, with an epicentre 7.5 miles off the Dover coast.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Scarlett Thomas – The End of Mr Y (Review)


The End of Mr Y is a clever book full of complex ideas and a running joke about the nature of fiction. ‘I am aware that I’m not in a story’ says the protagonist with no trace of irony. ‘The world doesn’t revolve around you’ says her mother. Oh yes it does. Everything is a metaphor, and there are so many paradoxes, as the narrator says towards the end, you may be in danger of developing a headache. This is a multi-layered book that will entertain you while it makes you really think.

For example, do you believe in telepathy? Consider: this book was made up in the mind of its author, Scarlett Thomas. She gave her thoughts words and committed those words to paper. When you read those words, your mind recreates the author’s thoughts in your own mind. So are you not reading the author’s mind? Isn’t that telepathy?

Okay, let’s forget the paranormal and get scientific. Everything is made up of individual atoms, and atoms are made of smaller particles – electrons, protons, neutrons – which are themselves made of quarks. Things might get even smaller than that for all we know, in the same way that the universe might be even bigger than we think: it might be part of a multiverse. And that’s just in this space-time dimension. How many other dimensions are there?

If all this gets you thinking philosophical thoughts – do objects exist outside of language? what is consciousness? – then this is the book for you. If you don’t understand any of the above then this may still be the book for you, for Ms Thomas explains complex ideas so clearly.

The End of Mr Y is a mixture of Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and an introductory seminar on the deconstructionist theories of Derrida. It’s fantastic - but sometimes too clever by half. Who or what is Mr Y? Or is it Mr Why? Or is this book really about the End of Mystery? Everything is deconstructed and examined, including quantum physics, philosophy and the nature of God and religion. There are so many questions raised by this book. But it’s good fun trying to get to the bottom of them.

Friday, 6 April 2007

McEwan's pebbles back on Chesil Beach

I couldn't believe the fuss made about Ian McEwan's 'revelation' earlier this week that he had taken some pebbles from Chesil Beach and kept them on his desk to inspire him as he wrote his latest novel. Apparently, taking pebbles from that particular beach is a criminal act, and McEwan could have been fined £2,000. (I bet his publicists were happily balancing that against the amount of free publicity his admission had generated.) Anyway, he has now returned the illegal pebbles to the the beach - and hopefully to the appropriate place (which is important - if you read the novel you'll understand why).

So this afternoon I'm off to Sandwich Bay with the armful of pebbles I've 'borrowed' over the years.

Or maybe I should keep them on my desk until after my next novel On Sandwich Bay is published?

Thursday, 5 April 2007

An Honourable Man

I had good news in my email inbox today. My novel An Honourable Man was one of the 100 winners of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2007 novel writing competition announced today. The link below has more information and the full list of winners.

http://www.writersandartists.co.uk/default.asp?id=8

Three overall winners, who will have their work referred to a top literary agent, will be announced on the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook website in July 2007. Meanwhile, I'm off to celebrate!

Monday, 2 April 2007

Ian McEwan - On Chesil Beach (Review)

I’ve been a fan of Ian McEwan since The Cement Garden. Since then, he has been getting better and better, each new book a major event. His latest novel is about the same length as his first, not much more than a novella, but it really is a little gem. Over the years McEwan has matured into a truly great writer, technically brilliant as always but with a growing sense of affection for his characters. In On Chesil Beach he condenses two lives into a single evening – a single episode, almost. So much happens in that episode – each of the characters being transformed by it, growing up, becoming different people. McEwan has captured the essence of what it is that makes us what we are and set it out on the page. It’s heartrending in places. I finished the book in a few hours and I wished there had been more. Brilliant!

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Stef Penney - The Tenderness of Wolves (Review)


The Tenderness of Wolves was the 2006 Costa Book of the Year, apparently a better book than William Boyd’s Restless. As I loved Restless I was really looking forward to reading this.

There’s a murder at the heart of the book and the plot revolves around the quest to find out who really killed the trapper Laurent Jammet. The story is told from the different points of view of most of the different principal characters (and there are quite a few) but the only first person narrative is that of Lucy Ross, the mother of the main suspect. Everyone in this book is a long way from home. Everyone is lost, often literally. Everyone is looking for something (and it’s often not what they think they are looking for). This is a story about love.

The Tenderness of Wolves is a tremendous first novel. The writing is assured, it’s a decent story well told, and the sense of place (which every reviewer has remarked upon) is breathtaking. The atmosphere of the isolated town of Caulfield, full of exiled Scots, is beautifully described. Although I wouldn’t describe it as a ‘gripping’ read, there’s an underlying sense of unease running throughout. Overall, given all the hype surrounding this book, I have to say I was a little disappointed. But I think that’s because my expectations were raised a little too high. This is a very good book.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

British Book Award Winners

The winners of this year’s British Book Awards, have just been announced:

Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfield
Book of the Year: The Dangerous Book for Boys
Author of the Year: Richard Dawkins for The God Delusion
Children's Book of the Year: Flanimals of the Deep by Ricky Gervais
Crime Thriller of the Year: The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin
Popular Fiction Award: Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes
Newcomer of the Year: The Island by Victoria Hislop
Biography of the Year: The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay
TV & Film Book of the Year: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
Decibel Writer of the year: Jackie Kay
Sports Book Award: Steven Gerrard - My Autobiography
Lifetime Achievement Award: John Grisham

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Reginald Hill – The Death of Dalziel (Review)


Although I’ve followed the adventures of Dalziel and Pascoe on TV, this is the first Reginald Hill book I’ve read (sorry, Reg). It’s alleged that, unlike Colin Dexter with John Thaw’s Morse, Reginald Hill does not approve of Warren Clarke playing Andy Dalziel in the TV adaptations of his novels (he isn’t fat enough to play the Fat Man for a start). Hill denies it, of course (or at least he denied it in a recent interview I read), but his latest book represents a formidable challenge to the TV adapters. For the eponymous hero spends most of the book lying in a coma in intensive care, until finally . . .

Well, the clue is in the title. Of course Dalziel won’t die, you’re thinking. Will he? I won’t give away the ending, but I have to confess I was shocked.

The story isn’t your usual police procedural type of tale. It is a story with a complex plot about an extremist plot against extremist plotters, with a multi-layered counterplot. The introduction of the Security Services adds to the mix and takes the story off in unexpected directions. It’s a book about belief (in truth, in God, in self, in right and wrong) and about identity and division (Yorkshire/Lancashire, Anglo/Asian, Christian/Muslim, cops/spooks). The novel is perfectly structured, but it’s the development of the characters (especially Peter Pascoe without the support and guidance of the comatose Dalziel) that brings the story to life.

Perhaps it’s because Dalziel plays such a small part in the book that Hill feels he has to transfer his characteristic language to Pascoe. It’s interesting watching Peter Pascoe gradually stepping into the Fat Man’s role. By the end of the book, the transfer is almost complete, with Pascoe beginning to speak like Dalziel.

Maybe Ellie was right, because the Fat Man wasn’t around, he felt it necessary to speak his lines. [p.309]


Then, a little later:

Whoops, there he went, slipping into Fat Man terminology again. [p.321]


Even Pascoe starts to struggle with his identity in the end – ‘Who is me?’ he says on page 367.

How clever is Hill being? Is he deliberately aping television here? For I couldn’t help thinking of the way Colin Dexter’s Sgt Lewis, nice-but-dim happily married sidekick, has since Morse’s death been transmogrified by television into a lonely and bitter widower with a sudden Morse-like penchant for alcohol and a previously concealed sharpness of mind. You might almost think Hill is taking the micky out of Lewis.

But this book is also, it seems to me, a direct challenge to the television people, daring the adapters to try and adapt this one. And reading novels like this reminds me why I will always prefer a good book to most of the stuff on the telly – even Dalziel and Pascoe.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Hot News from Today's Bookseller Magazine!

I saw this in today's Bookseller:

Daily Mail launches a first novel award

23.03.07

The Daily Mail has teamed up with Transworld Publishers to launch the Daily Mail First Novel Award. Transworld will offer the winning author a publishing contract of £30,000 and publish the winning book in April 2008.

The award will be judged by bestselling Transworld authors Joanne Harris and Lee Child; Jane Mays, the Literary Editor of the Daily Mail; Benedicte Page, the Book News Editor of The Bookseller, and Francesca Liversidge, Senior Publishing Director of Transworld.

The award will be for an original, previously unpublished début work of fiction on any subject or genre, from romance to crime, science fiction to adventure. The closing date for the competition is 2nd July 2007.

"We are delighted to be working with the Daily Mail on this exciting new venture", said Francesca Liversidge, "and we look forward to discovering an author with real bestselling potential. Securing that all-important first publishing contract can be fraught with difficulties and we hope this initiative will provide an opportunity for new talent to reach the marketplace."

Book


The link to the details of how to enter is here.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Louis de Bernières' Advice to New Writers

Here's some good advice from Louis de , author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birds Without Wings:

What advice would you give to new writers?
Don't be at all hesitant to exaggerate and tell lies. People get trapped by stories which usually happened to themselves or to people they know, and they feel obliged to tell the truth. To tell it as it was. But the important thing is to know how to change the truth to make it a better story.


It's taken from an interview in The Guardian. You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Playwrighting Course

A colleague of mine sent me the following details:

Dealing with Writing is offering two weekend playwrighting residencies during the year.

Dates: Friday May 11th - Sunday May 13th and Friday September 21st - Sunday September 23rd

All writers with an interest in the craft are welcome.

There’s a lot more info on the Dealing with Writing website: http://www.dealingwithwriting.com/

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Dependable Readers

Browsing through the latest collection of Paris Review Interviews (what a wonderful thing the Paris Review is! Shame it’s so expensive in the UK) I found this exchange from the interview dated 1977 with the great Kurt Vonnegut Jr:

VONNEGUT
. . . Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks . . .

INTERVIEWER
. . . If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?

VONNEGUT
There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.

INTERVIEWER
So–?

VONNEGUT
I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare cheque.

What a good idea! I would vote for a political party that had such a proposal in its manifesto. I think every person who is IN work should also be required to provide their employer with a book review as part of their annual appraisal or pay review. I would also support:
- Travel discounts for passengers reading books
- TV licence discount on proof of purchase of at least four books per year
- A Winter Book Allowance to all pensioners
- A Summer Book Allowance for all holidaymakers
- Applicants for passports to recite from memory at least one poem

Monday, 19 March 2007

Ann Cleeves - Raven Black (Review)


This novel won the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger for 2006. It is the first Ann Cleeves book I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It’s a neatly constructed crime novel, perfectly paced and beautifully written – the psychological crime novel meets the old-fashioned whodunit.

The novel begins at New Year in the Shetland home of elderly Magnus Tait. A few days later an incomer to the island, Fran Hunter, discovers the body of teenager Catherine Ross in the snow not far from the old man’s house. The islanders believe Tait had murdered a young schoolgirl, Catriona Bruce, eight years before and are all certain who must have murdered Catherine. Thrown into this psychological mix is Jimmy Perez, the lonely detective assigned to the case. Jimmy is ‘emotional incontinent’, and you would think he would have trouble suspecting anyone of murder. And yet, slowly but surely, he uncovers the strained relationships and hidden secrets that lead him to the killer.

The sense of place is tremendous – the cold and the isolation are tangible. And the author has captured perfectly the sense of a community seemingly united but with tensions and divisions just below the surface. There are echoes of the cult movie The Wicker Man, with the outsider policeman coming to Shetland to solve the murder against the background of the forthcoming Up Helly Aa fire festival.

There is a fairly large cast of characters, and therefore many suspects, but Ann Cleeves draws each of them well, giving them unique voices of their own. There are clues and red herrings, and I enjoyed trying to solve the mystery before Perez finally discovers the identity of the murderer. And despite my amateur sleuthing, I was completely wrong and satisfyingly surprised when the killer was revealed. The identity of Catriona’s killer is also uncovered (I got that wrong, too!) as the novel reaches its satisfying climax.

There are three more novels promised in this series, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one hopefully later this year.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Harlan Coben - The Woods (Review)


‘The past was coming back. All of it. The dead, it seemed, were digging their way out of the ground now.’

Readers familiar with Coben’s earlier work (particularly other stand-alones such as Just One Look) will recognise the device of having something from the past, seemingly dead and buried (quite literally in this case), coming back to disrupt the present comfortable life of the protagonist.

In The Woods, the event from the past happened twenty years ago, when four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night and were never seen again. Only two bodies were ever found. Now, it seems a newly-murdered man may have been one of the teenagers whose bodies were never found twenty years before, something that could have repercussions for everyone involved.

It all feels cosily familiar Coben territory. He even gives another run out to homicide investigator Lauren Muse and PI Cingle Shaker, a couple of characters from his last stand-alone (The Innocent). This means he doesn’t have to work too hard at rounding them off. Trouble is, I didn’t feel he’d done too well with rounding off his principle characters, either. Paul ‘Cope’ Copeland in particular never really comes to life for me. I don’t believe him when he does something quite early on in the book which affects everything that comes after. Only a fool would make the decision Cope makes, and yet Coben paints him as a smart cookie with a political ambition. Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true.

Cope is also a single parent, struggling to be a half-decent father to his daughter. He himself had ended up being a lone child living with only a father. Understandably, perhaps, Coben doesn’t have enough space in the plotting of this novel to fully develop Cope’s struggle to balance fatherhood with his career. Which is a shame, for as the plot unfolds the theme of fatherhood is significant.

The plot is, as usual, full of twists and turns – although this time out I saw quite a few of the twists coming some way off. Does that mean I’m just getting used to the Coben style, or is Mr Coben simply running out of steam? He has certainly flogged this plot device, of the past coming back to bite the backside of his presently comfortably-off characters, if not death then certainly to within an inch of its life.

And yet.

Despite the sketchy characters, the familiar terrain and the occasional implausibility, this novel WORKS. In the end, I couldn’t put it down. Even when I guessed most of what was going on I still couldn’t put it down – just in case I was wrong.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

June English - The Sorcerer's Ark (Review)

June English’s work has been compared to the poetry of Thomas Hardy for its range of mood and for the way she writes unflinchingly from experience. High praise indeed. But her poems are probably more accessible to the modern reader, and they have a personal directness that is all part of her unique voice. The touching humour of poems such as Make Do and Mend and Backside Up is counterpointed with the poignancy of poems such as Gathering Lilac and The Tree That Isn’t There:

Sometimes I stand at the bus stop,
near the beech tree that isn’t there,
listening to the wind that doesn’t stir,
waiting for you to arrive on a bus
that doesn’t come this way.

There’s Hardy-esque dialect (albeit Yorkshire) in poems such as Proper Peaky and Hearts and Flowers, and some vivid wartime memories – Home Front and Dover – 1940 for example. You could say there’s something for everyone – and like the poet’s Bunny Girl, you’ll keep finding bits of yourself, scattered among these pages.

The Sorcerer’s Ark is the second collection of poetry from June English (her first collection, Counting the Spots, was published by Acumen in 2000) and a fine collection it is, too. It spans a lifetime of experiences and emotions, with poems that are written with vivacity and honesty. I defy you not to be touched by them.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Help! Anyone Work in a Hotel?

Any hotel workers out there able to help me? I need to know, for a project I’m working on, what the shift pattern is for hotel staff in the UK. Specifically, when does a receptionist come on and go off duty? Is there a standard pattern or does it vary from hotel to hotel? Would it be possible for a receptionist to be on duty at 7.30pm and also be working at 11.00am the following day?

Also, when would a duty manager come on and go off duty?

I’d be very grateful for any help anyone can give me!

Monday, 19 February 2007

Radio

I heard one of my short stories being read on the radio this morning. It was quite an experience – unlike having a friend read it. It was almost as if someone else had written it, it sounded so much better then I remembered it. And then the reader got to a bit that made me squirm, it was so badly written! It’s funny, but that passage had seemed fine on the page. Hearing it on the radio it sounded pretty bad. A good lesson there – always read your stuff aloud before you send it to an editor – writing that seems fine when you see it can always be improved when you hear it!

Friday, 26 January 2007

Pictures and Words

One of my short stories was published in a magazine today, and the illustration that goes with it is excellent.

I’m well pleased – I always think the size and quality of the illustration the editor gives you is an indication of how good they consider the story to be. So a full page full colour picture has made my day!

Thursday, 25 January 2007

An Honourable Man

This morning I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for the past two and a half years. It feels like a huge load has been lifted from me. I should put it away now and give it time to settle, but I have a deadline to meet so I started redrafting it straight away. It’s very depressing – I can already see so much of it needs to be rewritten completely.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Brighton Rock

I started re-reading Brighton Rock today. I always think of it as one of my favourite books, but I realised almost at once that it’s been a long, long time since I last read it. Although I know the beginning by heart I soon came to a part that I did not remember at all, as though I were coming to it fresh. It’s so good when that happens!

Saturday, 20 January 2007

The Lay of the Land

I finally finished reading Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land today. It’s been a bit of a slog at times, but I enjoyed it while I was reading it. Someone somewhere described it as ‘expansive’, and I guess it is. It’s certainly very good writing, and in lots of places it provokes deep thought. I think that’s why it has taken me so long – one of the reasons, anyway – to finish it. I don’t think this is as good as The Sportswriter or Independence Day, but I would read it again and I recommend it both for its prose style and for its insights into the Human Condition. The downside of the book is that the narrator is so ordinary (boring, according to one reviewer) that, even though I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, once I’d put it down I was never desperate to pick it up again. But then, in my defence, I have been wrestling with writing/editing two novels of my own just lately!

I know writers who say they can’t read while they’re writing anything. But surely, as writers, we’re always writing something (even if it’s only in our heads). I have no problems with reading while I’m in the middle of a writing project. But I guess it’s each to their own.

I was supposed to run today, but the knee is still sore. Or is that just an excuse?

Friday, 19 January 2007

More expense

Last night my laptop packed in again. It had been fine all day, although I had been afraid to switch it off just in case, and I backed up everything every five minutes or so (very tedious). But after a break to watch the evening news, I returned to my desk to find the wretched thing had broken down irretrievably. Nothing on its screen but a dull grey blankness. I tried running the recovery disk, but even that wouldn’t work. I decided to leave it till this morning (sometimes a little peace and quiet seems to help it recover). Alas, this morning there was no improvement. I persevered, but I couldn’t bring it back to life. I’m now on the lookout for a very cheap replacement . . .

Meanwhile, my injured knee feels a lot better today – no pain, just some stiffness – so I’ll be back on the run tomorrow.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Please donate!

The London Marathon is just three months away this weekend, and I'm still some way off my target fundraising amount.

This year I'm running for Macmillan Cancer Support. When my mother died of breast cancer in 1998 her last days were made more bearable thanks to the care she received from a Macmillan Nurse. Now my dad has cancer, and he too is receiving invaluable support from Macmillan nurses.

Please dig deep and sponsor me online.

Donating through the Justgiving site is simple, fast and totally secure. It is also the most efficient way to sponsor me: Macmillan Cancer Support will receive your money faster and, if you are a UK taxpayer, an extra 28% in tax will be added to your gift at no cost to you.

So please sponsor me now!

Many thanks for your support.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Blank Screen

It was very hard today to revert back to writing new material for the work-in-progress after being in editor mode for the past two days. But I slogged away and eventually managed to grind out my morning’s quota. Then, as my knee is still sore, I skipped today’s run and drove to Tesco instead (such excitement!). When I came back, though, my laptop had died. It’s been playing up for a while, being temperamental, but this afternoon it refused to do anything. It powers up okay, but the screen stays blank. Nothing happens. So I phoned a local computer engineer, who didn’t hold out much hope for it. Maybe I could claim a new one as an allowable business expense? Spent the afternoon comparing prices of new laptops, which of course meant I did no actual work.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Deadlines

Phew, what a day! I was up till 1.00am last night working on the crime novel, then again all day today, typing away till my fingers bled. Didn’t manage to run (which is okay, because I’ve strained something in my knee and could use a rest) and finally got the novel revised and emailed off soon after 4.00pm. Finally ate breakfast/lunch/dinner at 6.00pm, feeling a real sense of accomplishment. I love having a deadline – there’s nothing like it for forcing you to pull your finger out!

Monday, 15 January 2007

Revision

I emailed the publisher that I’d sent the first three chapters of my crime novel to back in October, just to check my manuscript hadn’t got lost. They emailed me back to say they liked it, and wanted to see the whole novel – could I email it to them? Well, I would, I thought, if only I’d finished it! I’d left it languishing in a drawer with handwritten amendments and crossings out and arrows all over it. So in a panic, I dusted it down and started revising the damn thing. I should be over the moon, but instead I’m busting a gut and burning the midnight oil trying to get it into shape. There’s a lesson here – never listen to colleagues who tell you there’s no point working on the full ms until you know you’ve got a publishing deal. I’ll know better next time.

Flora London Marathon Training 15

Felt really sluggish this morning, but actually the time wasn’t too bad. When I ran in Hyde Park on Saturday I did a stupid thing and decided to play football with a fallen chestnut casing – and pulled or tore something in my right knee. Nothing much, and I ran on, but today I was really feeling it, and the knee stiffened up after today’s run. Doh!

Distance: 5.6 miles Time: 42:00

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Training

I didn’t run today, but instead spent most of the daylight hours on a train – either stuck on a tube (signalling problems) or a South Eastern overland service (scheduled track maintenance) – getting back to the east Kent coast. Earlier, The Secretary had told me my beard, which has got very grey of late, makes me look old. First thing I did when I got in was shave it off.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Football

The Secretary came with me to Stamford Bridge, where we met my brother and watched Chelsea win 4-0. How can such a high score line result from such a dull game? The Secretary said she didn’t mind – she enjoyed the spectacle of the Big Match. She asked if I preferred the modern, comfortable, all-seater stadium to the terraced ground I used to come to as a kid, when the only seats were in the rickety old east stand. No contest – the terraces were much better! Even without cover (except in the Shed) the atmosphere in those days was fantastic. ‘Where were you when you were sh*t?’ the opposition supporters were singing, as usual, today. I was standing pretty much where you’re all sitting now, I thought, cold and wet, watching my crap second division team getting beaten by some equally crap second division team. But before that we had the Docherty era of the sixties, then the great Sexton side of the early seventies. And we were pretty good to watch under Vialli, too. Sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t better to be entertained than to win. Wouldn’t it be great to have both!

Flora London Marathon Training 13

I stayed with The Secretary up in the Smoke last night so this morning I had a reminder of what I left behind when I moved out to the sticks. First, there was the sheer number of people - and so many of them puffing on cigarettes - that I had to weave past on my way to the park. Then there were the smells - fried food, traffic fumes, fags (obviously), women with too much perfume (I'm more used to cow pats and slurry now!). And then there was the deluge of other runners in Hyde Park. I soon got reacquainted with the London way of avoiding eye contact as we passed each other. It's so rare to meet another runner out in the east Kent countryside we practically hug each other! And then I got lost (twice) in Notting Hill Gate running to and from the park. So taking all that into account, I was well pleased with my time this morning.

Distance: 7.5 miles Time: 56:26

Friday, 12 January 2007

No Work Today

I overslept this morning, having slept like the dead after yesterday’s 14 mile wind-resisted run. So I’ve been behind all day. I had a meeting this morning with a couple of writer colleagues (a playwright and a children’s writer) and we agreed to continue to meet up regularly to critique each other’s work in progress. But with that and my recovery run and the fact I had to travel up to London this afternoon, there wasn’t much sign of any work in progress. But I’ve already met my output target for this week (in terms of quantity if not quality!) so I can take it easy for the weekend.

Flora London Marathon Training 12

A recovery run today, nothing too strenuous. And a good run it was, too. The wind has dropped to a ‘stiff breeze’ and the distance was a breeze after yesterday. I took a slightly different route, down a narrow country lane I’d never been down before, and found myself seemingly in the depths of the wild Kentish countryside – a rural idyll. And only two miles from my village . . .

Distance: 4.4 miles Time: 34:56

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Work in Progress

I had a very productive day writing today. I’m really glad I decided to set up a dedicated writing space for myself, it’s really paying dividends. The novel is coming together nicely, and I’ve got to the stage where the end is clearly in sight. Technically, this will be the second draft, but in reality it’s only the first draft. I’ll explain. About a year ago, I showed an extract of the first draft proper to The Secretary, just to get her initial thoughts. (The Secretary is a great ‘reader’ because [a] she reads voraciously – fiction of all genres – so she knows what’s good writing and what’s not, and [b] despite our relationship she is brutally honest. Generally, writers know better than to show their work-in-progress to their nearest and dearest – they either say it’s great even if it’s crap, or they do say it’s crap but can’t be more specific.) Anyway, The Secretary thought the extract of the first draft I showed her was ‘all right’ and gave me some really helpful comments. In particular, she really liked one of the characters. I mean, she REALLY liked him. She thought he was great. The only problem with that was the character only had a bit part in the novel as a whole. So I re-read the extract I’d shown her, then I read a part where this character didn’t feature, and I could see The Secretary was absolutely right – the parts with this guy in were much better. So – I completely rewrote the novel to give this particular character a starring role. Which means I have a completely different (but hopefully better) novel. And the first draft is nearly finished. Hoorray!

Flora London Marathon Training 11

I nearly didn’t run today, the winds are so strong. But the forecast said things would quieten down a little, temporarily at least, in the early afternoon. So I set off at noon. I was doing my long run today, as I’ll be seeing The Secretary at the weekend, and don’t want to be wasting two hours of our time together with running when I could be with her (lying in bed with the Sunday papers, basically).

Unfortunately, the weather forecasters lied. My long run took me along the coast, from Sandwich to Kingsdown and back. It was so windy the cross channel ferries weren’t even operating (they were all parked up in the Downs) so I must’ve been crazy to have run. The wind was a gale force easterly, with gusts up to 70mph that kept threatening to blow be into the sea. It was a real struggle to exceed walking pace (or even to move in a forward direction sometimes!) but I thought that, as I was running an ‘out and back’ course, it would be much easier coming back. It wasn’t. I was completely and utterly ker-nackered by the end. My overall time was meaningless: there should be a way of measuring effort – I felt as though I’d run a full marathon. Once I’ve recovered I’ll probably think today’s was a damn good session, but right now I just think the whole marathon thing is a crazy idea!

Distance: 14 miles Time: 2:09:36