Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Review - The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander, the character who played second fiddle in the first of Stieg Larsson’s ‘’Millennium’’ trilogy, takes centre stage as the eponymous heroine in ‘’The Girl Who Played with Fire’’. Salander is an expert computer hacker. She is also legally incompetent, a vulnerable young person with a history of being abused by men in positions of power over her. But towards the end of ‘’The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’’, the first novel in this series, she secretly stole several billion kronor and the second novel opens with her having left her job at Milton Security and enjoying a globetrotting life of luxury.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of ‘’The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’’, is now a celebrity journalist. His magazine, Millennium, is about to publish a special edition devoted entirely to cracking open Sweden’s sex-trafficking industry. The magazine and an associated book, to be published at the same time, will expose the corruption and double standards within a legal system that is meant to be tackling the problem. But before his colleagues can complete their investigations, Blomkvist stumbles upon the scene of a terrible double murder. At first, Blomkvist himself is a suspect, but soon the fingerprints found on the murder weapon point to Salander, Blomkvist’s one-time friend and lover. The discovery of a third murder victim with close links to Salander seems to seal her guilt.

This is the point where the novel really takes off. . . [Read the whole review on the BookBag Website]

Monday, 24 November 2008

Review – Greed by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, but I had never read her work before. One of her previous novels, The Piano Teacher, was apparently made into a film that won several prizes in Cannes in 2001, but I have never seen it. So I had little to prepare me for Greed, her latest work to be translated into English.

Greed is a kind of modernist crime novel. It is often quite difficult to understand exactly what is going on, but the gist of it is that the country policeman uses his position of male authority to satisfy his greed. This really is a novel about the difference between men and women, in which men are painted as beasts ruled by their penises who are ruining the planet, and women are portrayed as pretty damned stupid for allowing it all to happen. Jelinek (or at least, her narrator) has a low opinion of humankind. It was for this reason, I suspect, that whenever I put the book down I often found it hard to pick up again. There is a story buried away in there somewhere, in the same way as the murder victims are hidden in the woods around the country policeman’s village. There is also a surprising amount of humour in this novel, too. When I did bring myself to return to the book after frequent much-needed break, I usually enjoyed reading it. But only for so long at a time.

You can read my full review of Greed on the Bookbag website.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Society of Women Writers and Journalists

I was guest speaker at the south east regional meeting of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists in Brighton today. I had originally been invited simply to make up the numbers on their ‘panel of experts’ but as the day approached I was asked to speak about my experience as a man writing fiction for women’s magazines. The other speaker was the crime novelist Peter Lovesey. Peter’s first novel was WOBBLE TO DEATH in the early 1970s. WOBBLE TO DEATH introduced the redoubtable Victorian policemen, Cribb and Thackeray. He won the Gold Dagger Award in 1982 with THE FALSE INSPECTOR DEW and in 2000 joined the elite group of people awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award. It was a real honour to share the platform with him.

Peter Lovesey, me, and SWWJ Chair Jean Morris

Friday, 7 November 2008

Deal Writers Anthology Launch


Despite the attraction of Martina Cole reading from her latest bestseller in neighbouring Sandwich, there was an incredible turnout last night for the launch of Deal Writers’ latest anthology, Another View from the Pier. Deal Library was packed, with standing room only for latecomers, and several authors read their work (including yours truly). An extremely successful night.

Copies of the anthology are available from Deal Writers, priced at £4.99 each.

Here’s a photo of me reading a story from the latest Deal Writers anthology

Thursday, 6 November 2008

What is good writing?

Here's the opening of a novel about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while trying to help his patients come to terms with their own problems:

Professor Martin Sturrock was feeling stressed enough already, even before the phone call from Simon telling him Aunt Jessica had died.
Is this good writing? Jenny Diski doesn't think so. It is the opening sentence of the new book by Alastair Campbell, who was once spin-doctor-in-chief to ex-prime minister Tony Blair. (I heard him speaking on Radio 4 this morning, by the way, in the wake of Barack Obama's election, talking about what it was like 'when Tony and I came to power' - but that's by the by). Campbell famously suffered from mental health problems himself, so he should know what he is talking about. But, as Diski says in her very entertaining critique of Campbells' novel in this week's London Review of Books,

suffering and even observation don’t necessarily make a person think and write with more subtlety . . . Subtlety may not be an essential quality in a self-help book, but it goes a long way to making a good novel.
Which is good advice for any writer, I think. Diski goes on to say,
The craft of fiction is not working out a plan that looks balanced on a spreadsheet and then clothing it with words. The trick about writing a good novel is to be a good writer.

I think Sally Zigmond might agree with that sentiment.
I haven't read Alastair Campbell's book, so I wouldn't want to comment on whether the review is a fair assessment or not. But the article itself is a gem in terms of what constitutes good writing. You can read the full text here.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Howard Jacobson at the Folkestone Literary Festival

I’ve had a highly cultural few days. On Thursday evening, the Secretary and I went to see the Donmar production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. The script by Tom Stoppard was a great improvement on the ‘straight’ translation, the set was spot-on, the acting (led by Kenneth Branagh) was excellent. Then on Friday we went to Tate Britain for the Francis Bacon retrospective. I’m not really a fan of Bacon, and the exhibition did little to change my view, but it was good to have seen it. On Sunday, we were due to see Carol Ann Duffy reading just down the coast from me in Deal. But unfortunately the Secretary was under the weather so we didn’t make it.

Yesterday, though, with the Secretary safely tucked up in bed, I went to Folkestone to catch part of the literary festival with my pal Mike. The highlight was undoubtedly the talk by Howard Jacobson.

Jacobson claimed to have been a novelist from the moment he was cast into the world. His father would ask him: So where’s your novel? But Jacobson Senior didn’t get the point. Being a novelist wasn’t necessarily the same as having to write a novel. It was a state of mind; a lifestyle choice. Jacobson Junior avoided writing a novel until he was well into his late thirties.

When he did finally write his novel, it was not the novel Howard Jacobson expected to write. He wanted to be the next Henry James, the next Tolstoy, but instead of writing heavily serious prose, he found he had a natural bent for comic writing. (My own favourite, The Making of Henry, is both witty and wise.)

In discussing the craft of the novelist, Jacobson said he wasn’t a great fan of the plot. Although I agree with his contention that characters are more important, I wasn’t entirely convinced by his argument here. But then, it’s in Jacobson’s nature to be contentious. He is an ex-university lecturer, after all. So although he argued that a reader wanted to know what happens next only because they care about the characters, in doing so he conceded a reader does want to know ‘what happens next’. Isn’t that plot?

He said he doesn’t have much time for J K Rowling or books for children in general. Give them adult books to read, he said. Don’t fill their heads with stories about wizards. What was worse was that these books were read by adults. We don’t read literature any more. Then, in a typically piece of Jacobsonian contrariness, he offered the following quote: ‘History is written by the winners; literature is written by the losers’. He said only losers needed to write (and read) about imaginary victories; the victors had success in real life so didn’t need to fall back on fantasy. Something happens at a formative stage in our lives. If we are losers in reality (e.g. in school sports in his case) we escape into the fantasy of literature. So, people who read (and especially write) are by definition life’s losers (in the nicest possible way!).

There was a lot of discussion about the nature of jealousy, the theme of Jacobson’s new book The Act of Love. The premise is that all men, either secretly or subconsciously, want their partners to be unfaithful to them. The book is also about words, and how words and literature and sex and relationships work. We give names and words to our actions and use the words to justify or condemn those actions. It is the word that distils and describes the action (for example: we made love; we had intercourse; we screwed – different words give a different complexion to the same action). As part of his research into the novel, Jacobson said he went to a sex club to ensure authenticity. It was a tough thing to do, but he went so we his readers won’t have to. And what thanks does he get?

With his tongue firmly in his cheek (or was it?) he claimed that all writers were jealous of each other’s success. When he brings out a novel, he said, he wants it to destroy all other novels. He might modestly say that he hopes his novel joins the Pantheon. Nonsense – he wants his novel to blow away the Pantheon. Jacobson claimed he gets jealous when he hears his wife laughing at the work of another author. It was especially hard for him to bear her laughing at Philip Roth.

Jacobson’s books often deal with Jews and themes relating to Jewishness, but his latest book does not. He was asked why that was. He half-closed his eyes and paused, as if he were giving the question great thought. Then said, ‘Because there are no Jews in it.’

A very funny, thought-provoking talk from an excellent, thought-provoking novelist.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Mondays

Why is it so difficult to make the transition from weekend to workday? It really is like trying to shift your brain into a different gear, and some Mondays the clutch just crunches and grinds and it takes forever to get the creative gear engaged. Today has been a complete washout as far as the Work in Progress is concerned.

Never mind. Here’s a book review to pass the time:

The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts
Most football fans (except my brother, who refuses to have anything to do with anything that has anything to do with the Arsenal) will have read Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s the definitive book on what it’s like to be a bloke who also supports a football team. It’s also quite funny. It influenced every subsequent book about what it’s like to be a football supporter. It also gave birth to a genre of writing that was subsequently termed ‘lad lit’. Despite its imitators, nothing has been as good as Fever Pitch. Until now.

Okay, Dave Roberts may not be in the same literary class as Nick Hornby. But The Bromley Boys (billed as ‘the true story of supporting the worst team in Britain’) is well written enough, and it captures absolutely to a T what it is like to be a pre-pubescent football-mad boy. It is also laugh-out-loud funny. The fact that it is not a book about a top-class football team is a plus point, too. Because Bromley Football Club aren’t big enough to be disliked by supporters of other football clubs the book will even appeal to the most partisan of supporters (like my brother). And, best of all, The Bromley Boys is a hilariously funny read.

Read my full review at The BookBag.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Beginnings and Endings

The latest issue of Cadenza magazine is now out, as you will have gathered from editor Zoe King’s comment on my blog, below. And, as promised in my response to Zoe, I wanted to say something about the feedback on competition entries that she and co-editor Vanessa Gebbie provide in each issue. In her comment, Zoe said that while she agreed that literary competitions were ‘up to a point’ like lotteries, by reading the winning entries in conjunction with the judges’ comments, a writer would be in a far stronger position to do better in future competitions. She’s right. Last year I had a story longlisted in one of the Cadenza competitions. I rewrote it, taking account of the comments in the judges’ report, and subsequently sold the story to a national magazine.

This thing works!

In this issue’s report, beginnings and endings get a special mention. Along with the middle, I find beginnings and endings the hardest parts to write. One of the lessons I learnt from writing for women’s magazines was to get the essence of the story into the opening paragraphs. Often that means cutting away the first paragraphs you write and starting further into the story than you intended. Sometimes, you won’t know how far to cut away until you’ve finished the first draft and know how the story ends. The beginning should pose a narrative question of some kind; the ending should give the answer. Doris Betts said the first page of a story should have a lot to do with the last page, in the same way as the first line of a poem relates to the last line.

Easier said than done, but one ever said writing a really good story was easy!

Oddly enough, a week before the latest Cadenza came out, I gave members of my writing group a copy of Margaret Atwood’s story Happy Endings to study – if you don’t know it I can thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Literary Prizes

I know Zadie Smith doesn’t think much of them, but I quite enjoy the razzmatazz of awards like the Man Booker. Anything that gets people reading has to be a good thing, and anything that gets people reading stuff they might not ordinarily read is even better. [UPDATE: But if you're thinking of rushing out and buying a copy of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger perhaps you should read this post from the Literary Salon first!]

I’m particularly in favour of small literary prizes – especially prizes for short stories. There just aren’t enough outlets for short fiction (as I’ve mentioned recently) so small literary prizes are what my grandmother used to call ‘a real boon’. And the bonus is that, when and if you win one of these prizes, the taxman lets you keep all your winnings. According to my local Revenue and Customs office, literary prize winnings are treated in the same way as a lottery. Which, considering that’s exactly what they are, is fair enough.

I know quite a few wannabe writers who say they never enter writing competitions because they are ‘simply lotteries’. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper (as my other grandmother used to say). But if these writers were to consult the results tables of these competitions they would spot the same names coming up time and again. For example, I heard this morning that I came third in the Wellington Short Story Competition, held in conjunction with the Wellington Literary Festival. The winner, Penelope Randall, had previously been shortlisted in the HappenStance Press International short story competition (I know this because Jo Field, my colleague from Deal Writers, came second in the same competition). Hats off to her for persevering, I say. Her success is a lesson to all those other writers who think there’s no point in entering competitions or, more pertinently, who give up if they don’t win (the competition-world equivalent of the rejection slip). As Churchill himself said, ‘Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. And while writing competitions may be a lottery, like any lottery you’ve got to be in it to win it!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day and to celebrate I've written a poem! It's called Strandgade 30 and it was inspired by the recent exhibition of Vilhelm Hammershoi paintings. Don't worry, I'm not going to inflict the poem on you - I've entered it in the Save As poetry competition. It's not too late to enter a poem or a short story (up to 4000 words) yourself. Go to the Save As website for full details.

Good luck!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Off by Heart

There was a story in the Sunday papers this week that caught my eye. The BBC is organising ‘Off by Heart’, a national poetry recital contest for primary school pupils. Every primary school in the UK can enter a child aged 7 - 11 to compete for the title of UK Poetry Recital Champion. This, it seemed to me when I read it, is a Good Thing. It took me back to my own childhood, way back in the middle of the last century, when learning poems by heart was something kids were expected to do. I’d like to claim I can still recite all the poems that I learnt, but I can’t. But I can still remember quite a lot of quite a few.

Then, last night, I attended the inaugural meeting of the new committee elected to run my writer’s group, Deal Writers. Until last week, I was Chair of the previous committee and last night the new Chair presented me with a ‘leaving gift’ – a bottle of Scotch and a rather wonderful book of poetry. Poem for the Day Two contains 366 poems set out by date, so that for every day of the year there’s a different poem to learn off by heart. Spooky, or what?

So this morning saw me searching through my recycling bin for the Sunday Times review section that carried the story about ‘Off by Heart’, because contained within it were some very helpful tips for learning verse. For anyone interested, you can find the tips here, at the end of the very article by Daisy Goodwin.

My poem for today is First Lesson by the American poet Philip Booth. Maybe when I’ve learnt it I should think about trying to learn a few of my own poems by heart!

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Short Story: Alive and Well?

There’s an article in the latest edition of Writer’s Market UK that grabbed my attention. The Short Story: Alive and Well by Graham Mort claims that, despite being unpopular with major publishers, shunned by the reading public and eclipsed by the novel, the short story is in remarkably good health. I wonder. The article makes much of the ‘burgeoning’ presence on the internet of short story websites. But who reads the short stories on these websites, apart from other writers of short stories? Short story writing might be in good health, but where are the short story readers?

We Brits don’t seem to much like the shorter form, preferring to read a novel (if we read anything at all). At best, we see the short story as a stepping stone – a practice ground for a writer who really aspires to being a novelist. This is a mindset that comes through in Graham Mort’s Writer’s Market article, advocating as it does the short story as ‘an ideal apprenticeship for writers’. ‘The novelist who has developed a track record of publishing short fiction,’ he says, ‘is far more likely to command the respect of a literary professional’. True. But if writers themselves treat their own short story collection as nothing more than an apprentice piece how on Earth can they expect the short story form to command the respect of their readership?

As a writer of short fiction myself I have often peered longingly across the Atlantic to a land where the short story is appreciated for what it is, a unified distillation, rather than always as a poor relation to the more expansive novel. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that writers should demand better readers, and he has a point. Having read three tremendous short story collections this summer by the Americans Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff it made me wonder whether one of the reasons why the US produces such great short story writers is because Americans respect the short story. Valerie Shaw once pointed out that the novel and the short story are separate entities which share the same prose medium but not the same artistic methods, something American readers seem to understand. I’m afraid we Brits do not.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Writing Competitions Ending This Month

Mainly for the benefit of the members of my writing group, but for anyone else who may be interested, here is a list of some 18 writing competitions (poetry and prose) that have closing dates this month. Happy writing – and good luck!

Prose

H.E. Bates Short Story Competition 2008 – up to 2,000 words on any subject. Closing: 6.10.08. Prizes: £200, £150, £100. Entry Fee: £3. Website: http://litnorthants.wordpress.com/opportunities/

Tall Tales & Short Stories Competition – between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Closing: 15.10.08. Prizes: £350, £150. Entry Fee: £5. Website: http://www.felicityroberts.co.uk/tlc/storycompetition.htm

Bookworms Short Story Competition – up to 1,500 words. Closing: 27.10.08. Prize: £100. Entry Fee: £5 (includes crossword book and entry form). Website: http://www.beanpolebooks.co.uk/comp.html

Criminal Tendencies Short Story Competition. Crime stories of up to 3,000 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prize: Publication in the Criminal Tendencies anthology. Entry Fee: £5 (includes a donation to the Genesis Appeal). Website: http://www.cremedelacrime.com/criminal.htm

Sunpenny Christian Writers Competition – up to 3,000 words with a Christian theme or message. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £100, £50. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.sunpenny.com/competitions/Oct2008/christianwriters-oct2008.html

Sunpenny Open Writers’ Competition – up to 3,000 words on any subject. Closing: 31.10.08. Prize: £150, £75. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.sunpenny.com/competitions/Oct2008/open-oct2008.html

Southport Writers Circle Open Short Story Competition – for unpublished stories of up to 2,000 words on any subject. No entry form needed. Entrant’s name should not appear on the story. Include a separate cover sheet with the title, word count and your name and contact details. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £150, £75, £25. Entry Fee: £3. Entry Address: Short Story Competition, Southport Writers Circle, 16 Ormond Avenue, Westhead, Lancashire, L40 6HT.

Speakeasy Open Creative Writing Competition – up to 2,100 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £125, £50, £25. Entry Fee: £5. Discounts apply for multiple entries. Website: http://www.mkweb.co.uk/Speakeasy/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=58082

Ballista Open Short Story Competition. Ballista is a magazine that publishes tales of dark fantasy, the supernatural, modern horror, the paranormal, and all things macabre and bizarre. To enter the contest, submit a suitable story of up to 3,500 words. Closing: 31.10.08 Prizes: £60, £30, £20. Prizewinners will be included in Issue 6. Entry Fee: £4. Website: http://www.mucusart.co.uk/short_story_competition.htm

Dark Tales Autumn Short Story Competition – up to 3,000 words. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £250, £50, £25. All shortlisted entries published in Dark Tales. Entry Fee: £3. With tick-sheet critique - £5. With full critique - £15. With full critique and post-critique therapy in secure institution - P.O.A. Website: http://www.darktales.co.uk/

Short Story Radio Competition – up to 3,000 words Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - Your own website worth £250, your story professionally recorded by a British Equity actor and broadcast on Short Story Radio, plus 5 CD copies of your story for personal use. Three runner-up stories will appear in the online Short Story Magazine and their writers will have a web page profile on the Short Story Radio website. Entry Fee: £8. Website: http://www.shortstoryradio.com/


Poetry

Debt Free Poetry Competition. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes : £300, £200, £100. Entry Fee: None - free to enter. Website: http://www.talkaboutdebt.co.uk/community/2008/09/debt-free-poetry-to-inspire-action/

Poetry Society National Poetry Competition – up to 40 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £5,000, £1,000, £500. Entry Fee: £5 for the first, £3 thereafter. Website: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/competitions/npc/

Ragged Raven Poetry Competition – of any length on any subject. Closing : 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - £300. Runners-up (4) - £50. Entry Fee: £3 each, £10 for four. Website: http://www.raggedraven.co.uk/competition.htm

Speakeasy Open Creative Writing Competition – for poems of up to 60 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £125, £50, £25. Entry Fee: £4. Discounts apply for multiple entries. Website: http://www.mkweb.co.uk/Speakeasy/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=58082

Leaf Books Poetry Competition – of any length on any subject. Closing : 31.10.08. Prizes: 1st - £200. Runner-up - ten pocket-sized Leaf Books. Entry Fee: £3 each, £10 for four. Website: http://www.leafbooks.co.uk/New/For%20Writers/CurrentCompetitions.html

Black Horse Poets Open Poetry Competition. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £100, £50, £20. Entry Fee: £3 for the first, £2 for the second. Two further entries free. Details (send sae): The Competition Secretary, 25 Wycliffe Street, Ossett, West Yorkshire, WF5 9ER.

Cannon Poets Silver Jubilee Competition. Poems on the theme of Play between 20 and 40 lines. Closing: 31.10.08. Prizes: £150, £80, £40. Entry Fee: £4 for the first, £2 thereafter. Website: http://www.cannonpoets.co.uk/16901.html

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Too Good to be True!

Like quite a few people, it seems I was taken in rather by the wonderful opportunity (see previous post), an opportunity said to be supported by the Arts Council, for unpublished authors to get into print. So taken in, in fact, that I spread the word amongst the members of my writing group and posted the details here on my blog. I am therefore extremely grateful to Jane Smith (a) for her helpful comment on my blog and (b) for giving other bloggers permission to reproduce her own post on her wonderful blog How Publishing Really Works.

This is what Jane wrote.

The UK-based writers’ website, YouWriteOn, is offering publication by Christmas to the first 5,000 writers who submit their work. That’s right: 5,000 books. By Christmas.

Writer Beware has already blogged about this in an article called 5,000 Writers. Unsurprisingly, Writer Beware has come down pretty heavily against the scheme. I’d also advise everyone to steer well clear of this, for all the reasons that Victoria gives in her article and a few more besides.

If you think that this will be a route to a commercial publication, think again. These books are going to get no editorial screening, editing, sales, distribution, marketing, or promotion; there’s a significant doubt over what the writers will actually earn; and by signing up to this scheme, writers will lose the first rights to the books involved, and so make it far less likely that they’ll ever manage to sell them to a commercial, mainstream publishing house.

Regardless of the sales talk I’ve read on YWO, publishers are usually only interested in acquiring first rights to a book: if it’s already been published, in whatever form, then those first rights are gone for good. Lynn Price, the rather perky editorial director of Behler Publications (a very well-regarded independent press in America) has blogged about this in some detail: you can find her post by following the links here.

If you’re determined to give up those precious first rights then bear in mind that this deal does not appear to give you anything more than you’d get if you directly approached Lulu, Lightning Source, or any other POD printer, and had them produce your book via the POD route. You download your book; you sell your book; they print up what you downloaded and send it out. Doing it yourself via a POD supplier gives you the opportunity to correct and amend your book’s text, cover and layout at any time, and at no cost to yourself—something you’ll not be able to do via YWO.

But apart from all of those issues, which most writers with any experience of proper, commercial publishing could spot from a mile off, I’m just flabbergasted at the idea of one person (because as far as I know, YWO is a one-man team) coping with downloading 5,000 books onto a POD server in time for Christmas. Even if YWO ignores its own submissions deadline of the end of October and starts downloading the books right now, there are only about ten weeks to Christmas; so that’s 500 books a week, or 100 per working day. The last time I downloaded anything to Lulu it took me a couple of hours to get the text formatted properly and the cover on right: assuming that there’s one person at YWO working an eight-hour day, taking no breaks at all, then they’re going to have to download one book every five minutes. I just hope they have better bladder control than I do.

Remember: it’s better to not be published at all than to be published badly. You only have to speak with people who have been skewered by Publish America, or some of the other vanity presses, to discover that.
So – be warned. If something seems too good to be true it usually is.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

YouWriteOn.com - Too Good to be True?

NB - PLEASE READ THE COMMENTS BELOW BEFORE DECIDING WHETHER TO RESPOND TO THIS YouWriteOn OPPORTUNITY!

Arts Council funded YouWriteOn.com will publish the first 5,000 writers who contact them for Free - Fiction & Non-Fiction

To participate follow these 2 steps:

1) Email youwriteon@googlemail.com, and inside your email add your name, address, telephone number, book title, genre, length of your book, and a synopsis up to 50 words

2) YouWriteOn will contact the first 5,000 people who email them by 31st October 2008. Your book will be ready to order by readers as a paperback by Christmas. Open to UK and US residents.

YouWriteOn.com - Free Publishing Aims
YouWriteOn's declared aim is to give the opportunity to new writers to help create success for their books. Since YouWriteOn began in 2006, they have seen their authors achieve success through both mainstream and alternative publishing. This summer’s member successes include a six figure publication deal with Random House for Caligula author Douglas Jackson, and member Keith Mansfield achieving a three book deal with Costa Award winning publisher Quercus with his children’s novel Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London. Many other YouWriteOn writers have received rave reviews from fellow writers and readers onsite, and having a book available to order gives new writers an added opportunity to try to achieve success.

Books will be available to order through the YouWriteOn website, and members will be able to get in touch with readers and reviewers who have enjoyed their book excerpts on site. YouWriteOn authors will receive 60% royalties for each copy sold to the public, compared to 12 to15% royalties that authors usually receive through mainstream publishing. Your book will be of the same quality as a bookstore paperback. You retain all rights to your book at all times. Open to UK and US residents only.

If you achieve success with your book and a publisher offers you a good deal, you can take up their offer straight away without any obligation to YouWriteOn.com. In Autumn 2007, YouWriteOn published Bufflehead Sisters by member Patricia J. DeLois – available to order online as a paperback - and the successful author achieved a 2 book deal with Penguin this summer. This was after bookstores contacted them so that they could stock the novel, and after thousands of online sales through them. Publishing is completely free through their setup process when writers send them their completed books.

Should you wish to potentially achieve a much higher readership through being available to order through all major booksellers throughout the UK and US, such as Waterstones, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and WH Smith's, then you can do so for £39.99 through YouWriteOn's separate partnership with Legend Press. Legend Press has been shortlisted for five publishing and business awards over the last 18 months, and in 2008 one of their titles Salt & Honey by Candi Miller was named as one of World Book Day's 'Top Ten Books to Talk About'. You retain all rights to your book. Email YouWriteOn@legendpress.co.uk to take advantage of this offer. Open to applicants of all nationalities.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Carol Ann Duffy comes to Deal

Split the Lark Poets

PRESENT

CAROL ANN DUFFY
Tickets £12. 00 (no cancellations )
Sunday
2nd November 2008
7.30 – 9-30 pm

Town Hall,
High Street,
Deal,
Kent CT14 6BB


Wine and Nibbles will be served

TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS
EMAIL LIZ TURNER: lizturnerdeal@hotmail.com

Monday, 22 September 2008

SAVE AS POETRY and PROSE COMPETITIONS (2008)

POETRY
Deadline: October 31st 2008
The inaugural Save As poetry competition is for poems on any subject with a maximum of 40 lines. Entries limited to 3 poems per entrant. Judge: Lynne Rees.
There is a £2 per poem entry fee (£5 for three) and there will be a cash prize for the top three entries.
Winner will be announced in November and will automatically go into the Save As anthology.
Entries can be either hard copy or electronic. If submitting hard copies either hand them to Luigi at a Save As workshop or post them to:
Luigi Marchini, 35 Spillet Close,Faversham, Kent ME13 8QP
All hard copies should be totally anonymous but should be accompanied by a separate sheet piece of paper with name, contact details and title of poem(s).
Electronic copies must be sent to saveas@hotmail.co.uk and headed as "poetry competition".
Payment for electronic or hard copies must be sent to Luigi Marchini at the above address - cheques must be payable to ‘Luigi Marchini’.
PROSE
Deadline: October 31st 2008
The inaugural Save As prose competition is for short stories on any subject with a maximum of 4000 words. Entries are unlimited. Judge: Patricia Debney (Canterbury’s poet laureate).
There is a £3 entry fee for each piece (£8 for three) and there will be a cash prize for the top entries.
Winner will be announced in November and will automatically go into the Save As anthology.
Entries can be either hard copy or electronic. If submitting hard copies either hand them to Luigi at a Save As workshop or post them to:
Luigi Marchini, 35 Spillet Close,Faversham, Kent ME13 8QP
All hard copies should be totally anonymous but should be accompanied by a separate sheet piece of paper with name, contact details and title of piece(s).
Electronic copies must be sent to saveas@hotmail.co.uk and headed as "prose competition".
Payment for electronic or hard copies must be sent to Luigi Marchini at the above address - cheques must be payable to ‘Luigi Marchini’.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Stubborn Mule Orchestra

To Deal Library last night to attend a performance by the Stubborn Mule Orchestra, a trio of local poets who recently collaborated in the self-publication of a rather good collection of poetry. There was a good turn out for the event, which was held in the gallery, a corner of the building set aside for displays of work by local artists. Gary Studley, a member of Deal Writers as well as SMO, Canterbury Poets, Save As and several other local literary groups, emceed the evening.

First off was Luigi Marchini with three poems from the SMO collection including David (Before Goliath), a poem that effectively distils both the sense of Biblical destiny and the poet’s trepidation at opening the show: - today is that future./I rise to meet it/lyre in one hand/sling in the other.

Chris Hobday then read three of his poems, including the excellent Swamp Work, about the process of writing poetry: With a shovel and a good arm/you can shift the leathery top-slop/and get underneath, like a peat bog. Reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s Digging, but without the Irish accent.

Then Gary performed his three poems. Of the three, Gary is the more confident performer and his poems are better suited to performance poetry. They are, perhaps, less subtle than those of his two colleagues, but in the delivery they acquired a gutsy passion. The highly personal Dear Grandad, Wish You Were Here is case in point: on the page it seems a peculiar piece; in performance it sparkles.

During the interval, members of the audience were challenged to write a poem of their own, inspired by several ‘unusual’ objects brought along by members of SMO, and quite a number did so. The second half of the evening was then a repeat of the first, with each of the SMO members reading three poems, but it was finished off with poems from the floor.

A good evening of contrasting but always entertaining poetry. Copies of the Stubborn Mule Orchestra collection are available at £4.00 from the following bookshops in Canterbury: Blackwells, Christ Church University Bookshop, Castle Arts Gallery. They are also on sale in Deal (including the public library) or direct from Luigi: luigimarchini@hotmail.com.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Photocall

The East Kent Mercury will be writing a feature for their next edition on Deal Writers following the success of our anthology View from the Pier. As a result, all the group members who contributed to the collection were summoned to the bandstand on Walmer Green, overlooking the Channel, for a photoshoot with the Kent Messenger Group photographer. While we were posing, friends and family were also snapping, and this shot is probably the best of the bunch.

Back row, l – r: Venita Dickens, Jane Clarke, Jane Findley, Harry Harris. Front: Anna Hannah, Ros Beresford, Paul Curd, Bettine Walters, Lorraine Lloyd.

A few copies of View from the Pier are still available from bookshops in Deal and Sandwich, or can be ordered through the Deal Writers website. Our new anthology, Another View from the Pier, is due out in November.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Success on a Plate

This time last year I was cursing the time I was spending editing an anthology of work by my writing group, Deal Writers. It seemed a lot of hard work for little reward. But in the end, it was worth it. View from the Pier, as we called it, was eventually published in November last year. It was so successful it had to be reprinted by the New Year and is still selling well.

Now I have learnt that View from the Pier has been awarded the Denise Robertson Silver Trophy for the best group anthology of the year. The award was made by the National Association of Writers Groups at a Gala Dinner in Durham. Sadly I couldn't be there, so the presentation was made to me this morning by my postman. What a fantastic surprise.

Naturally enough, everyone at Deal Writers is thrilled and delighted to have won this award. View from the Pier was our very first publication, and for it to have come first in such a highly-regarded national competition is an honour for everyone involved. It just goes to show what good writers we have here in East Kent!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Writing like a painter?

Last week, The Secretary and I went to the Royal Academy to catch the Vilhelm Hammershøi exhibition before it closed this weekend. Hammershøi is best known for his sparse and enigmatic views of the interior of his Copenhagen flat, often featuring a woman with her back turned to the viewer (the model was usually his wife Ida). The exhibition, 'The Poetry of Silence', was the first British retrospective of the Danish painter whose paintings are full of emptiness (and if you think that’s a contradiction in terms then you should take a closer look at his work). Hammershøi's ‘trade mark’ includes a restricted, almost monochromatic palette and an uncanny sense that all is not as it seems in his pictures. What at first sight appears naturalistic turns out, on closer examination, to be ambiguous and not quite right. Uncanny, in fact. I found myself standing in front of the paintings with the hairs on the back of my head bristling. And it made me think how great it would be to write stories the way Hammershøi painted pictures. Does that make sense?


Take this painting, for example. A woman sits alone in an empty room. From her demeanour, it appears she is reading or sewing. Through an open door right in front we can see an interior of more empty rooms and open doors. Why is she sitting so close to the open door? Is she waiting for someone and, if so, who? Why is there an empty chair behind the door? What is going on here?

Hammershøi never explains. To him, the narrative of a painting was less important than the atmosphere – an atmosphere of silence, of subdued lighting, of subdued colours – a sense of unease. In a gallery packed as full as a London tube train, I found myself being drawn into these pictures of silence and emptiness, as if into another world. Just like a first-class short story, a Hammershøi painting refuses to explain its meaning immediately, but demands that you stop, look and think, and then look and think some more.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Bettine Manktelow

To the Sandwich Bookshop this afternoon, for a special guest appearance by local author and fellow Deal Writer, Bettine Manktelow. Bettine was appearing as part of the Sandwich Festival and read from her new collection of short stories Mostly About Men. There was a fair turnout for a mid-afternoon, mid-week literary event, and after Bettine’s reading there was a lively discussion about the difficulties of publishing short stories in this country. Copies of Bettine’s collection, priced at £4.99 (paperback) are available from the Sandwich Bookshop and several outlets in Deal, or can be ordered through the Guilton Press website.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Review - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer


Juliet Ashton is a successful writer, author of the popular Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War column in the Spectator. But now it is 1946 and the war is over, and Juliet wants to put Izzy behind her and write a serious book in her own name. The problem is she has no idea what to write about. Then she receives a letter from a pig farmer on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a man called Dawsey Adams, who has acquired a second hand book by Charles Lamb that has Juliet’s name and address written inside the front cover. Dawsey is writing to Juliet because he loved the book – it helped keep his spirits up during the German Occupation – and he wonders if she knows of any other books by Charles Lamb. There are no bookshops left on the island, you see, since the Germans left. In passing, Dawsey mentions in his letter the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which came into being because of a roast pig they had to keep secret from the Germans, and Juliet is intrigued. Why, she writes back, did a roast-pig dinner have to be kept a secret? How could a pig cause them to establish a literary society? And, most pressing of all, what is a potato peel pie?

I found this book a joy to read. An old-fashioned epistolary novel, it is told entirely through the letters written between the characters, which in itself makes it light reading without being lightweight.

Read the full review on the The BookBag website.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Review - The Drop-Off by Patrick Quinlan

Smoke Dugan, one-time bomb-maker for the mob, is on the run. It's not easy to keep a low profile when you've got your girlfriend (Lola), her best friend (Pamela) and a retired professional assassin (Cruz) with you; and if you're carrying $2.5 million in cash, you can be sure the people the money belongs to won't let the trail go cold. The tiny Caribbean island of Saint Mark's seems a safe bet, but that's reckoning without the unexpected presence of ex-Navy Seal Stone, an old enemy of Cruz. Stone has heard of the massive finder's fee placed on Cruz's head by Big Vito back in New York, so he's very motivated. Soon the rest of the mob is on the way and the scene is set for a game of cat and mouse amid the palm trees and on the high seas.

Well, that’s what the blurb says, anyway. It also says that author Patrick Quinlan is a writer who weaves together elements of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Get Shorty. He is certainly a writer who is doing his damndest to be as cool as Elmore Leonard used to be (some say still is). There’s a lot to commend in his writing, that’s for sure. But I wasn’t entirely won over by his latest offering. But the book does have humour, some exciting set-pieces and a good deal of stylish violence. If you want a book to take away on your holidays and read by the pool with a Mai Tai or two, then this book is as good as any.

You can read my full review on The Bookbag website.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Mostly About Men

To the Lord Nelson Hotel this evening for the launch of Bettine Manktelow’s collection of short stories, Mostly About Men. Bettine is a founder member of Deal Writers (in fact, the whole thing was her idea!). It was therefore disappointing to see so few members of the group there. Despite that, there was a good turnout, especially among local thespians (Bettine is a renowned playwright). Copies of Bettine’s collection, priced at £4.99 (paperback) are available from all three bookshops in Deal, or can be ordered through the Guilton Press website.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Review - Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut


I have been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut since the early 1970s. I still have the old paperbacks – Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5. There was something about his style, and especially about the things he had to say, that was refreshing and new. But he began to go off the boil, or fell out of style, and I stopped reading his books around about the time I stopped buying Crosby, Stills and Nash LPs. For me, Breakfast of Champions was both the last decent book he wrote, and the first of the stream of below-par books that followed. I just checked my bookcase – Slapstick in 1976 was the last Vonnegut book I bought, and the ancient bookmark stuffed midway through shows I never managed to finish it. And I had problems trying to finish his ‘new’ collection, too.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve previously unpublished short stories and articles. The collection has been compiled posthumously by his son Mark Vonnegut, ostensibly as a tribute to his late father and to commemorate the first anniversary of the author’s death. But these stories are a poor epitaph for a man who was once a great writer. The further I read, the weaker the stories became. Maybe it was because I had already got the point right at the start, but the stories seemed to become increasingly predictable and, well, a little embarrassing. There is a reason why these stories could not be published during Kurt’s lifetime.

In his introduction, Mark Vonnegut asks of his father, ‘How could he get away with it?’ A question he might well redirect towards himself for bringing out a collection that, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, should have remained unpublished.

For a fuller review of this book, go to The Bookbag website.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Cadenza Magazine

I've mentioned (in passing) the excellent Cadenza magazine elsewhere on here, and it seems to be going from strength to strength under its new(ish) editor Zoe King (who took over from John Ravenscroft a year or so ago). You may think I'm only saying that because two of my stories have been long-listed in Cadenza's latest short story competition (hurrah!). But take a look at their new blog. It's worth it just to read Zoe's feedback on the sifting process for the short story competition. She makes three specific points about the stories that she and her fellow judges felt didn't make the grade. First, there were some good stories that didn't quite work because they were let down by their endings. Second, there were well-written pieces that didn't have any forward momentum (what Zoe calls a 'motor') - there was, she said, no rising and falling action. And third, there were stories where the idea was good but the execution let them down.

This seems to reflect my own experiences (and my own rant here a few weeks back). It also, to a certain extent, supports my view expressed last week that these are technical issues that can be taught and learnt. Zoe referred to good stories and well-written pieces that failed for technical reasons relating to the craft of creative writing, not the element of creativity itself.

Which is one of the reasons why one of my writing buddies and I have set up a new enterprise, Word Fountain. Our aim is to help writers improve their craft in an informal, fun way. We don't promise they will acheive fame and fortune - we have no plans to become one of the 'new mental hospitals' that Hanif Kureishi railed against recently. We're running our first event in August - and we're accepting self referrals!

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Teaching Creative Writing

I used to believe that writing was an innate talent and that good writers were born, not made. I also used to believe, encouraged by my grammar school English teacher, that I was a good writer. I dreamt of being the next George Orwell.

But when I left school I was discouraged from airy-fairy dreams of being a writer by my level-headed careers master, who gently pushed me towards ‘office work’.

I was taught a lot of different ways of writing during my office-based career:

- I was taught how to write business letters and internal memos.

- I was taught how to conduct an interview and how to write case notes.

- I was taught how to write minutes of meetings and briefing notes and reports.

- I was taught how to write policy documents and guidance notes and official directives.

I was taught well, yet if I did all these things well it surely wasn’t because of my training. It was simply because I was a natural-born writer.

Wasn’t it?

All the while I was working at my day job I was scribbling away at appallingly bad one-draft novels that deservedly never saw the light of day. They were terrible. I knew they were terrible, but try as I might I couldn’t put them right.

I began to become despondent. If I was such a good writer, how come my fiction writing was so bad?

Then four years ago I bit the bullet and enrolled on a creative writing class at my local university. I was taught to actually do the things I already ‘knew’.

- I was taught to shape and plot a story.

- I was taught to create realistic characters.

- I was taught to make these characters speak believable dialogue.

- In short, I was taught the craft of creative writing.

Even before the course was finished I’d had my first short story published.

I’m not suggesting the course taught me to be more creative or inventive as a writer. No more than a painter is made more of an artist by being taught to mix colour or which type of brush suits which type of paint.

But I am suggesting that teaching the craft of writing can help unlock innate creativity.

So I guess to that extent I should disagree with Hanif Kureishi when he said last week that such writing courses are 'the new mental hospitals'. Having worked in mental health care, I was intrigued by this analogy. It seems the reason for this headline-catching assertion was his belief that ‘creative writing courses set up false expectations that a literary career would inevitably follow’.

To that extent, I think he has a point.


Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Ten Shilling Note

My story The Ten Shilling Note has been published in the 27th May issue of Woman's Weekly, out this week.



"The ten shilling note fluttered down like a large brown moth, then it swooped under the table where the boy was sitting cross-legged, fluttered again one last time, and finally came to rest on the linoleum floor beside his knee.

The boy held his breath. He looked at the ten shilling note, then at his mother’s unmoving American Tan legs. She was standing at the kitchen table, counting out the money she had saved in the tin from the dresser. The boy was sitting under the table pretending it was the Blitz and the bombs were raining down. When the bomb hit their house the ceiling would collapse, but he would be the only one to survive, safe under the heavy kitchen table. Ka-boom!
All this and some great cake recipes too! Rush out and buy it now . . .

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Pounding at the Gates of Literature

After yesterday's posting (which I'm afraid turned into something of an essay) I reread a story by an American writer who seems to be little known here in the UK. Richard Brautigan was big at about the same time as Crosby, Stills and Nash and in my longhaired youth he seemed to be the literary voice of my generation. His short story ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ is set in 1952 and is about a kid who owns a typewriter and is therefore employed by a ‘trailer trash’ couple to type up the novel that the man is writing and the woman is editing. The plan is they will each get a third of the royalties from the novel. The story ends like this:

There were about twenty-five or thirty pages of writing in the notebook. It was written in a large grammar school sprawl: an unhappy marriage between printing and longhand.

“It’s not finished yet,” he said.

“You’ll type it. I’ll edit it. He’ll write it,” she said.

It was a story about a young logger falling in love with a waitress. The novel began in 1935 in a cafe in North Bend, Oregon.

The young logger was sitting at a table and the waitress was taking his order. She was very pretty with blond hair and rosy cheeks. The young logger was ordering veal cutlets with mashed potatoes and country gravy.

“Yeah, I’ll do the editing. You can type it, can’t you? It’s not too bad, is it?’ she said in a twelve-year-old voice with the Welfare peeking over her shoulder.

“No,” I said. “It will be easy.”

Suddenly the rain started to come down hard outside, without any warning, just suddenly great drops of rain that almost shook the trailer.

You sur lik veel cutlets dont you Maybell said she was xxxxx holding her pensil up her mowth that was preti and red like an apl!

Onli wen you tak my oder Carl said he was a kind of bassful loger but big and strong lik his dead who ownd the starmill!

Ill mak sur you get plenti of gravi!

Just ten the caf door opend and in cam Rins Adams he was hansom and meen, everi bodi in thos parts was afrad of him but not Carl and his xxxx dad they wasnt afrad of him no sur!

Maybell shifard wen she saw him standing ther in his blac macinaw he smild at her and Carl felt his blod run hot lik scallding cofee and fiting mad!

Howdi ther Rins said Maybell blushed like a xxxxx flouar while we were all sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.

One of my favourites!

Monday, 19 May 2008

A Shot of Vodka

What is a Short Story? You might think this is a stupid question, but I’m not sure enough novice writers give the matter sufficient thought.

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), the great exponent of the short story V.S. Pritchett described the form as independent of the novel thus: ‘the novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely’. Anton Chekov once described reading a short story as ‘rather like drinking a glass of vodka’. It should be quick and sharp and hit you with a kind of shock that makes you see the world in a new way, if only for a short while.

Pritchett agreed, suggesting that the short story should be a ‘glimpse through’ resembling a painting or even a song which ‘we can take in at once, yet bring the recesses and contours of larger experiences to the mind’. During the twentieth century, Pritchett thought the short story writer had become ‘less bound by contrived plot, more intent on the theme buried in the heart. Readers used to speak of “losing” themselves in a novel or a story: the contemporary addict turns to the short story to find himself.’

Pritchett went on:

Many of the great short-story writers have not succeeded as novelists: Kipling and Chekhov are examples and, to my mind, D.H. Lawrence's stories are superior to his novels. For myself, the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse – yet is not 'poetical' in the sense of a shuddering sensibility. Because the short story has to be succinct and has to suggest things that have been 'left out', are, in fact, there all the time, the art calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer's concealed discipline of form. The writer has to cultivate the gift for aphorism and wit. A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation - as in Lawrence or Faulkner - frequently the celebration of character at bursting point: it approaches the mythical. Above all, more than the novelist who is sustained by his discursive manner, the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once not only by the novelty of his people and scene but by the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design: for what we ask for is the sense that our now restless lives achieve shape at times and that our emotions have their architecture. Particularly in the writers of this century we also notice the sense of people as strangers. A modern story comes to an open end. People are left carrying the aftermath of their tale into a new day of which, alarmingly, they can as yet know nothing.


Margaret Atwood has said that she feels uncomfortable when asked about what constitutes a ‘good’ story. She avoids making lists or devising rules for stories. ‘We don’t judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair.’ I think that’s fine if you’re an extremely talented and experienced writer like Margaret Atwood. For those of us not (yet) in that league, I think it’s important to stick to the knitting – to follow the rules until we are experienced enough to know when to break them. And there are rules – and the more ‘commercial’ you want your fiction to be, the more important it is to follow them.

For example, I would suggest the key components of a good short story are:

- A good idea that provides an insight into the human condition
- A small group of believable characters
- A convincing background
- A good opening
- Conflict
- Suspense
- Structure (i.e. a beginning, a middle and an end)
- A satisfying ending

‘A short story is always a disclosure,’ said V. S. Pritchett in the above quote. James Joyce referred to this as ‘epiphany’, a moment when a person, an event or a thing is seen in a light so new that it is as if it has never been seen before. Someone in the story, usually the protagonist, then has to deal with (or avoid) what has occurred. The character may meet the change head on, or they might try to behave as though everything is the same as before. Either way, the disclosure or epiphany cannot be ignored by the reader. Check out, for example, Chekhov’s ‘Let Me Sleep’ or Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Revelations’.

Edith Wharton called a volume of her short stories Crucial Instances. A good short story should show us a character at a crucial instant in their life and trace the effect of that instant upon them. That, I think, is something every aspiring writer ought to keep in mind.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Review - White Nights by Ann Cleeves

A guest at the opening of a Shetland Isles art exhibition breaks down in tears as everyone else looks on in embarrassed horror. Jimmy Perez, on his first real date with one of the artists, Fran Hunter, helps the man to his feet, feeling it is his duty as a policeman to do so. The man, who is English, claims to have no memory of who he is or why he is there. Perez thinks that it has something to do with the light, the fact that the sun never quite slips below the horizon even at midnight. Here in the Shetlands they call it the 'simmer dim'. Everyone in the Shetlands goes a little crazy at this time of year. In the morning, though, the Englishman is found dead, hanging from the rafters of a fisherman's hut.

Who is the mysterious southerner? Why was he found with a clown's mask over his face? Why had he tried to ruin the art exhibition opening? More importantly, who strangled him and then tried to make the death look like a suicide? There are so many questions, but one thing is certain: there is a killer at large in the small island community of Biddista, and unless they are tracked down soon they will surely strike again.

Read the full Bookbag review here.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Review - Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi

A psychoanalyst hides a terrible secret as he struggles to deal with changing relationships.

Dr Jamal Khan is a successful psychoanalyst but he is approaching a difficult age. His son Rafi will soon be a teenager and they will soon no longer be able to greet each other by touching fists and exchanging the traditional middle-class greeting, ‘Yo bro – dog!’ Already, the twelve-year-old hides his head when he sees his father. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother Josephine, from whom Jamal separated eighteen months ago, has a new boyfriend.

Jamal has to come to terms with these life changes while hiding a terrible secret. He is a man who deals in secrets for a living yet he himself is haunted by one of his own. His career as a reader of minds and signs began with a brutal act of violence – a murder which resulted in his first love, Ajita, going away forever. The book opens on the anniversary of these traumatic events, and as the story unfolds the past will be coming back to prod at his conscience. Ajita will return from her thirty-year exile, and one of Jamal’s accomplices from that fateful 1970s night will also turn up looking for some form of retribution.

Read the whole of my review on The Bookbag website.


Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Booker

The shortlist for the Best of the Booker, a one-off celebratory award to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, was announced today.

The six shortlisted books, chosen from the list of 41 Booker Prize and Man Booker Prize winners, are:

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995, Viking; paperback Penguin)

Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988, Faber & Faber; paperback Faber)

JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999, Secker & Warburg; paperback Vintage)

JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (1973, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback Phoenix)

Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974, Cape; paperback Bloomsbury)

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981, Cape; paperback Vintage)

The shortlist was selected by a panel of judges - the biographer, novelist and critic Victoria Glendinning, (Chair); writer and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, and John Mullan, Professor of English at University College, London.

The winner will be chosen by the public and you can vote here for your favourite 'Best of the Booker' novel.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Writing Competitions

I've been a little 'under the weather' and haven't been able to write a thing for over a week. I'm pleased to say I'm on the mend, and to help get me back in the swing I've been compiling a summary of all the future competitions I’m aware of – one, some or all may be of interest.

Closing in April

Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.
Closing: 28.4.08.
Prizes: £1,000, £500, £250.
Entry Fee: £5.
Details: Click Here.

Ware Poets Open Poetry Competition.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes: £500, £200, £100. Redwing Sonnet Prize: £100.
Entry Fee: £3 each or four for £10.
Details: Click Here for a pdf download.

Ver Poets Open Poetry Competition 2008.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes: £500, £300, £100. Young Writers (16 to 21) - £100.
Entry Fee: £3 each, four for £10, £2 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

Templar Poetry Pamphlet & Collection Competition.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes (3): £500 plus publication in pamphlet form.
Entry Fee: £18 per collection.
Details: Click Here.

Southport Writers Circle Open Poetry Competition. For poems of up to 40 lines.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Humour Prize - £50.
Entry Fee: £2.
Details (send sae): Southport Writers Circle Poetry Contest Details, 32 Dover Road, Birkdale, Southport, Merseyside, PR8 4TB.

Pulsar Poetry Competition.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes: £125, £75, £50.
Entry Fee: £2.50 for the first, £1.50 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

Earlyworks Press Sixty-Word Sagas.
Closing: 30.4.08.
Prizes: £60, £30, £10.
Entry Fee: £3. Details: Click Here.

Closing in May

Ledbury Festival Poetry Competition.
Closing: 1.5.08 (5pm).
Prizes: A writing course at Ty Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre for Wales. 2nd - £250. 3rd - £150.
Entry Fees: £3.50 for the first, £2.50 thereafter.
Details: Click Here .

Edwin Morgan International Poetry Competition.
Closing: 1.5.08.
Prizes : £5,000, £1,000, £500. Runners-up - 2 @ £50.
Entry Fee: £5.
Details: Click Here.

Countryside Tales Article Competition.
Closing: 1.5.08.
Prizes: £50, £25, £15. The winning entries will be published in the mag. Entry Fee: £3.
Details: Click Here .

Virginia Warbey Poetry Prize. For poems of up to 40 lines.
Closing: 19.5.08.
Prizes: £800, £350, £200.
Entry Fee: £3 each or £12 for five.
Details: Click Here for pdf download.

Segora Short Story Competition. For stories on any theme, of between 1,500 and 3,000 words.
Closing: 29.5.08.
Prize: £100.
Entry Fee: £5.
Details: Click Here .

Yeovil Literary Prize.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: Novel - £1,000, £250, £100. Short Story - £500, £200, £100. Poetry - £500, £200, £100.
Entry Fees: Novel - £10. Short Story & Poetry - £5.
Details: Click Here.

Leaf Books Micro-Fiction 2008 Competition. Up to 300 words.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: 1st - £200. Runner-up - Ten Leaf books. All selected entries will be published in an anthology.
Entry Fee: £3 each or £10 for four.
Details: Click Here.

Alexander Cordell Literature Competition . Write a children’s story set during the Industrial Revolution in the South Wales Valleys.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: £500, £300, £150.
Entry Fee : £3.
Details: Click Here.

Biscuit Publishing Poetry, Flash Fiction & Short Story Competition.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes (in each category): 1st - £1,000 or your poetry/prose collection published with 75 free copies. 2nd - A one-week Writers’ Retreat holiday at Talbot House, Flanders, with £200 expenses. 3rd - £200. In addition, seven runners-up receive £25.
Entry Fees: Stories - £9 for the first, £3 for each additional. Poems - £9 each for the first three, £3 each after that.
Details: Click Here.

City of Derby Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: £500, £250, £150.
Entry Fee : £4 for the first, £3 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

City of Derby Short Story Competition.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: £500, £250, £150.
Entry Fee: £4 for the first, £3 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

MiniWORDS 2008.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: £250 in each category.
Entry Fee: None - free to enter.
Details: Click Here.

Earlyworks Press Open Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prize: £100.
Entry Fee: £3.
Details: Click Here.

Frogmore Poetry Prize.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes : 1st - 200 guineas, plus a two-year subscription to The Frogmore Papers. 2nd - 75 guineas. 3rd - 50 guineas.
Entry Fee: £2.
Details: Click Here.

Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.5.08.
Prizes: 1st - £250. 2nd - £100. 3rd - £50. Winning and commended poems published in an anthology.
Entry Fee : £3 for the first poem, £1 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

Closing in June

Poetry London Poetry Competition.
Closing: 2.6.08.
Prizes: £1,000, £500, £200, and 4 x £75.
Entry Fee: £4.
Details: Click Here.

Dawntreader Poetry Awards.
Closing: 5.6.08.
Prizes: £75, £50, £25.
Entry Fee: £3 each or £10 for four.
Details: Click Here.

Bruntwood Playwriting Competition. For full-length plays over fifty pages in length and over an hour of stage time.
Closing: 13.6.08 (6pm).
Prize: £15,000. In addition, if the play is produced the writer will also receive a percentage of box office receipts.
Entry Fee: None - free to enter.
Details: Click Here.

Manchester Cathedral Interfaith Religious Poetry Competition.
Closing : 30.6.08.
Prizes: £300, £150, £75. First prize winner will earn the title ‘Manchester Cathedral Poet of the Year 2008’.
Entry Fee: £3 for the first, £2 thereafter.
Details: Click Here.

Poetry Writers’ Yearbook - Poetry Competition. For poems of up to 30 lines on the theme of Desire.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: 1st - £300 or £500 worth of A&C Black books. The winner will be published in the Poetry Writers’ Yearbook 2008.
Entry Fee : None - free to enter. Only one entry allowed per person.
Details: Click Here.

Writers’ Bureau Poetry & Short Story Competition .
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: Stories - £1,000, £400, £200, £100 and 6 x £50. Poetry - £1,000, £400, £200, £100 and 6 x £50.
Entry Fee: £5 .
Details: Click Here.

The Bridport Prize. One of the most prestigious writing contests in the literary calendar.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes (in each category): £5,000, £1,000, £500. There are also ten runners-up prizes of £50.
Entry Fee: £6.
Details: Click Here.

Cinnamon Press Short Story Award
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: £100 plus publication.
Entry Fee: £16. This includes a copy of the winners’ anthology.
Details: Click Here.

Cinnamon Press Novel /Novella Writing Award.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: £400 and a publishing contract for the novel.
Entry Fee: £16.
Details: Click Here.

Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Award.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: £100 plus a publishing contract for a collection of about 60 poems.
Entry Fee: £16. This includes a copy of the winners’ anthology which is usually prices at £8.99.
Details: Click Here.

Words Magazine Short Story Competition. For up to 2,000 words on the theme of Christmas.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prize: £100. Winning entry and commended entries will be published in Words magazine.
Entry Fee: £2.
Details: Click Here .

Keats-Shelly Prize 2008.
Closing: 30.6.08.
Prizes: A total of £3,000 to be divided amongst the winners.
Entry Fee: £5.
Details: Click Here.

Closing in July

Hay on Wye Short Story Contest.
Closing: 19.7.08.
Prizes: £400, £200, £100.
Entry Fee: £6.
Details: Click Here.

Countryside Tales Autumn Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.7.08.
Prizes: £50, £25, £15. The three winning entries will be published, and others may be considered.
Entry Fee: £3.
Details: Click Here.

Wells Festival International Short Story Competition.
Closing: 31.7.08.
Prizes : £500, £200, £200.
Entry Fee: £4.
Details: Click Here.

Wells Festival International Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.7.08.
Prizes: £500, £200, £100.
Entry Fee: £4.
Details: Click Here.

Highlands & Islands Short Story Association Competition.
Closing: 31.7.08.
Prizes: £300, £50, £50.
Entry Fee: £4 each, £10 for three.
Details: Click Here .

Closing in August

Torbay Open Poetry Competition. For poems of up to 50 lines.
Closing: 15.8.08.
Prizes: Adults - £700, £300, £150.
Entry Fees: Adults - £4 each £10 for three, £20 for six.
Details (send sae): Poetry Contest Details, The Administrator, c/o The Mount, Brixham, South Devon, TQ5 8QY.

Essex Poetry Festival 8th Open Poetry Competition.
Closing: 30.8.08.
Prizes: £500, £200, £100. Runners-up - £10 in book tokens.
Entry Fee: £3 each or £10 for five.
Details: Click Here.

Closing in September

Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition.
Closing: 30.9.08.
Prize: £100 and first place in the anthology.
Entry Fee: £5 for up to 4,000 words; £10 for 4,000 to 8,000.
Details: Click Here.

Closing in October

Ragged Raven Poetry Competition.
Closing: 31.10.08.
Prizes: 1st - £300. Runners-up (4) - £50.
Entry Fee: £3 each, £10 for four.
Details: Click Here.

Closing in November

Scribble Annual Themed Short Story Competition. The theme is Brief Encounter, in up to 3,000 words.
Closing: 1.11.08.
Prizes: £100, £50, £25.
Entry Fee: £4.
Details: Click Here


GOOD LUCK!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Photographs


A picture's worth a thousand words. There's a few thousand more here.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres

In A Partisan's Daughter, the latest offering from Louis de Bernieres, we are presented with two narrators. The first, Christian (Chris for short), seems to be writing now (i.e. in the early 21st century) about his relationship at the end of the Winter of Discontent (i.e. 1978-79) with the eponymous partisan's daughter, Roza. I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes he begins, and then admits that people would disbelieve it.

Chris describes the loneliness of his life at the time, married to the 'Great White Loaf', an insipid Englishwoman with skimmed milk in her veins. This is his excuse for stopping his car one day to pick up a prostitute standing on a street corner in Archway. There is a misunderstanding: Chris asks her if she has the time and she replies, in 'quite a strong accent' that her watch has stopped and Chris realises he has made 'a horrible mistake'. Roza asks him to give her a lift home, and on the way she tells him that once she used to be a bad girl, and her going rate was £500. She invites him to call back one day for a coffee.

And so begins the odd-couple relationship between a forty-something travelling salesman and a twenty-something 'fast-talking Scheherazade'. This beautifully written book works on several levels, and it had me entranced from the first page. Read my full review on The Bookbag website by clicking here.