Tuesday, 22 September 2009

It's 4.00am

I've been waking, in a cold sweat, at 4.00am every morning lately. I know it has something to do with Dan Brown but I don't know what, exactly, the connection is. Or I didn't, until I stumbled across this video. Coincidence? No, it's creepy . . .

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Future of (Short Story) Publishing?

I have a friend who cannot persuade the manager of her local branch of Waterstones to stock her collection of short stories. Why not? ‘Short stories don’t sell,’ he told her. Has this man never heard of Alice Munro? William Trevor?? Jhumpa Lahiri??? (I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the very long list of authors who have successfully published short story collections recently). The truth is, despite my misgivings expressed elsewhere in this blog, the short story seems to be enjoying something of a mini-renaissance. And yet there remain few mainstream outlets for the short story writer in the UK (unless, of course, you are already an established novelist).

I was intrigued, therefore, to hear of a new cyber-venture launched in the US yesterday. CellStories.net describes itself as a ‘mobile publisher’. It offers a new short story, every day, direct to your mobile phone (or ‘cell phone’ if you live in the States) - free. The founder of CellStories.net, Dan Sinker, believes print is dead. He also thinks the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle are the modern day equivalent of the laser disc, according to an interview with him in Publishers Weekly. The future of digital reading, he says, is the mobile phone.

Sinker is currently seeking submissions. He is looking for 1500 to 2000-word short stories, personal essays, narrative journalism, creative nonfiction and more experimental storytelling forms – but the emphasis is on story. You won’t get paid, but if you think Sinker is right and this is the future of short story publishing, here’s your chance to be in at the start.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Short Stories: An Editor's Advice

The Atlantic is an American magazine with a long and honourable literary tradition. Founded in 1857 by a group of eminent writers that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the magazine now publishes an annual all-fiction issue. One of the things that caught my eye in the latest edition (available on-line now) was the Editor’s Note, in which C. Michael Curtis explains how he selects the short stories included in each issue from the 5,000 or so submitted by hopeful authors. Curtis says he looks for ‘stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language.’ As for content, he says he prefers ‘stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choice, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify.’

Good advice for any aspiring writer, I’d say. But if that's not enough, check out Tim O'Brien's excellent article on how to write a successful short story, in the same issue. There isn't a magic formula. The essential element, according to O'Brien, is a vivid imagination.

And possibly having a pretend tail . . .

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Vonnegut Advice: Short Stories

I haven’t posted for a while, for a variety of reasons too dull to recount. But I happened across this advice from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut on the rules for writing short stories. According to Kurt, the way to write a good short story is to stick to the following eight points:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist.

7. Write to please just one person.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

‘To hell with suspense,’ he says. Not sure I agree with that last one. Listen to what he says and decide for yourself.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Exhaustion of Narrative

I've not been blogging lately because I've been up to my ears in novel rewrites, etc, etc, but there's an article in today's Guardian that struck me as important. Beyond the silver screen by screenwriter Paul Schrader is (as it's headline implies) primarily about movie storylines and 'one of a set of crises that afflict current cinema'. But I think what Schrader has to say has equal relevance to the written word. Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Writing Process - what it's really like

Is writing a chore or a pleasure? If you are anything like me, then it’s a little of both. At the moment, it seems more like a chore, having to churn out the words, not knowing whether the product will be (a) any good from a literary point of view and (b) any good from a commercial point of view. I’m pleased to discover I’m not alone – there are some fascinating testimonies from a number of writers in today’s Guardian.

There was also an article in Sunday's Observer (in the travel section) on people who have ‘taken the plunge and escaped the rat race’. I thought I was doing that when I decided to throw in my well-paid job and move out into the country to become a ‘proper’ writer. But, like anything, it’s a business. For me, it’s the commercial aspect that makes writing a chore. But, if you are not writing for your readers, who are you writing for? In the Guardian piece, A L Kennedy compares writing to sex – when you do it for pleasure it’s a nice thing; when you do it for cash it’s ‘probably less fun’. I suppose that means that, if you’re writing only for yourself, you’ll probably go blind . . .

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Imaginary Writing Process

This is just brilliant, and exactly what being a writer is all about!

Monday, 23 February 2009


There’s something peculiar about the business of writing, about the way the need to write is so overwhelming and yet is sometimes so difficult to execute. I’m feeling overwhelmed at the moment - too many unfinished Works in Progress on the go at once. I can't seem to focus - my concentration flits from project to project. The Belfast Boy, my novel that was 'accepted' by a small press publisher three years ago but was never published, needs to be revised and updated. Kickback, the novel I wrote last year and that The Secretary reckons needs a lot of work on its plot, is nagging at me to be rewritten. And I have any number of short stories in need of a sharper ending, waiting to be sharpened. You would think, wouldn’t you, that a reasonably successful short story writer (who is also a - so far - unsuccessful novelist) would concentrate on finishing a few more short stories. But instead I’m bogged down in another new novel.

Why? You might well ask.

It’s a mystery.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Robert A Heinlein’s Rules for Writing

When I was a teenager, I read almost nothing but science fiction (as it was then called), having been hooked first by H.G. Wells and subsequently John Wyndham. One of my favourite American SF authors at the time was Robert A. Heinlein. A few years ago, I tried rereading one of his tomes (which I remembered as being a sharp and thoughtful satire) and found it was practically unreadable. But I was nevertheless interested in his ‘five rules’ for fiction writing, which I recently discovered and which I think still hold true. I know a lot of pretty good writers who have never been published either because (a) they are afraid to send their work out into the Big Wide World, or (b) having done so once, and having received a rejection slip, are afraid of being twice bitten. This post is for them.

Although I’m not sure I agree with Rule Three, here are HEINLEIN'S FIVE RULES FOR WRITING:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Costa Book of the Year 2009

Having just had one of my short stories rejected by a magazine because ‘It’s just too far-fetched, I’m afraid’ it has come as some surprise to learn that Sebastian Barry has won the £25,000 Costa Prize for his flawed novel The Secret Scripture. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed most of The Secret Scripture and heartily recommend it. The writing was sublime (you can read my four-star review on The BookBag website here). But I thought the ending was so far-fetched it was, quite frankly, ridiculous. The Costa judges agreed with me. Matthew Parris, the judges’ Chair, said the panel ‘agreed that it was flawed, and almost no one liked the ending, which was almost fatal to its success.’

Last year, the Willesden Herald famously decided not to award a prize in their international short story competition because none of the entries were quite good enough. Their decision caused a storm (especially among some entrants) but surely they were right – if none of the stories were flawless then none of them deserved a prize. So my question is, Should a prize as prestigious as the Costa be awarded to a book that everyone agrees is flawed?

Just a thought.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Review - Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

I read a couple of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels a year or so ago, and I resolved at the time to get hold of a copy of the first in the series. I forgot, until the recent TV series starring Kenneth Branagh. As it happened, two of the three novels they dramatised – Sidetracked and Firewall – were the two I had read. I really enjoyed the TV series, so I decided to buy a copy of Faceless Killers. There was none to be had. Then, just before Christmas, Vintage reissued their flawed version, repackaged and repriced.

The gist of the story, taken from the blurb, is as follows:

One frozen January morning at 5 am, Inspector Wallander responds to what he believes is a routine call out. When he reaches the isolated farmhouse he discovers a bloodbath. An old man has been tortured and beaten to death, his wife lies barely alive beside his shattered body, both victims of a violence beyond reason. The woman supplies Wallander with his only clue: the perpetrators may have been foreign. When this is leaked to the press, it unleashes racial hatred. Kurt Wallander is a senior police officer. His life is a shambles. His wife has left him, his daughter barely refuses to speak to him, and even his ageing father barely tolerates him. He works tirelessly, eats badly, and drinks his nights away in a lonely, neglected flat. But now, with winter tightening and his activities being monitored by a tough-minded district attorney, Wallander must forget his troubles and throw himself into a battle against time and against mounting xenophobia.
I really enjoyed this book, although I found I was less interested in the crimes as I was in the relationships Wallander tried to repair, attempted to form and usually messed up along the way. I liked the view of Sweden it portrayed, warts and all, and sometimes I liked the way Mankell examined some of the social issues (but not always – the debate on immigration he has with a woman he should be seducing didn’t quite ring true, for instance). Although this first outing for Wallander is never as good as his later appearances, it is still better than most police procedurals and definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Cadenza Magazine

I have referred several times on this blog to the excellent literary magazine, Cadenza. Sadly, I learned today that as the result of a dramatic decline in the number of subscribers, and the subsequent impact on the magazine’s finances, the 19th issue of Cadenza was unfortunately the final edition.

The demise of Cadenza is a sad loss, not only because it is one less market for writers but also - and more importantly - because it is yet another door closed to readers of quality short fiction. Hats off to Zoe King, the editor and publisher of Cadenza, for keeping the magazine going for as long as she did (even subsiding the cost herself of late). It will be sadly missed.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Review - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith was the first book I read this year. I didn’t quite get round to getting a copy when it first came out, despite it being the first crime novel to have been longlisted for the Booker prize in 2008, and receiving rave reviews. But I finally bought myself a copy from the terrific Harbour Bookshop in Whitstable over the Xmas break. And a very good read it was, too, and not only because of its unusual setting (Stalinist Russia). The story begins with a prologue (although Smith doesn’t call it that) set in the harsh Soviet winter of 1933. Two brothers from a village were all the food ran out some time ago set off to hunt for a domestic cat they have spotted. One of them ends up being hunted instead. The action then switches to Moscow in 1953, and our ‘hero’ Leo Demidov, who is an officer in the MGB, the state security force, is detailed to convince the family of a dead child that his death must be a terrible accident, contrary to the evidence that it was a murder, because there simply is no crime in Soviet Russia. Leo’s conscience pricks him, but he knows that the whole family is at risk of arrest if they persist in their claims that a murder has been committed. He is a fundamentally good man, but he is part of a fundamentally evil system.

This is one of the outstanding strengths of this novel. Not only does Smith paint a brilliantly evoked picture of the Stalinist Soviet Union, he uses his hero to explore in more detail how the State controlled the lives of ordinary people. It is like Orwell making Winston Smith a member of the Thought Police. Smith (the author) manages to capture the overwhelming sense of day-to-day paranoia in Stalinist Russia and the effects this has on love, friendship and trust, the way it can so easily turn them into hatred and betrayal. Leo’s nemesis, Vasili, is a perfect example. His admiration for Leo (possibly verging on a necessarily suppressed homosexual desire, punishable by death in Stalin’s Russia) turns to vicious hatred.

Thanks to Vasili’s betrayal, Leo is exiled with his wife, Raisa, to a bleak town in the Urals. Here, Leo learns not only that his wife does not love him, but she only married him out of fear and now despises him. With everything now out in the open, Leo must somehow live with this new knowledge. Meanwhile, he stumbles across another dead child, a murder and mutilation similar to the one he covered up in Moscow. Leo discovers that children are being killed and mutilated across the country, but because they are never reported as crimes the perpetrator can never be caught. Working outside the law, Leo is determined to track down the murderer and bring the killings to a halt.

The plain simplicity of Smith's prose drives the narrative relentlessly forward. As Leo pursues the killer, pursued himself by Vasili, the novel works brilliantly as a tightly-plotted thriller. But it also works on a different level, with its examination of a totalitarian society and its effect on human relationships, and I for one am not surprised that this book was a contender for both the Booker and Costa prizes. Reader, I loved it.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year

A new year calls for resolutions. Mine, as usual, is to strive to write better prose. I had fallen into something of a rut of complacency towards the end of last year. I’d had considerably more short stories published than the previous year (thanks to my marvellous agent), and although the small press publisher of my novel The Belfast Boy had folded before the promised publication I had another novel ‘in the bag’ and was feeling pretty confident that one of these literary masterpieces would soon be snapped up. I sent The Belfast Boy to a couple of agents and, while their feedback wasn’t entirely discouraging, none of them seemed keen to snap. It seemed there was something missing from my novel, but I didn’t know what it was. So I decided I needed some disinterested expert advice, and just as I came to that decision I received news that Claire Wingfield, a freelance editor, had recently established a literary consultancy that (for a fee) would critique my work. So I sent off my manuscript to Claire and received exactly the kind of honest, impartial advice I needed. Her comments were invaluable not only for the specific piece I had sent her, but also to the other novel I had been working on. As a result, both that novel and The Belfast Boy have now been ‘parked’ while I contemplate. The big question I have to ask myself is whether I really want to invest the time and energy that writing a new novel requires when I have so much more success with writing short stories.
Food for thought . . .