Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Thomas Hardy vs the Walking Dead

Hot on the heels of my unexpected reprint request and Fiction Desk prize comes some more good news: I won the 2013 New Writer microfiction competition! Hooray!

I'm very pleased about this as it's a competition I've entered several times over the last few years (usually just in the short story category) and was beginning to think I'd never even land a spot on the longlist. The best part is that as well as a cash prize, I'll have my story printed in the magazine. Print credits are something I'm determined to get more of this year, so this is a very welcome addition to the growing publication pile (if three things can legitimately constitute a pile?).

My winning story, So the Dead Rose from the Grave, is an odd little piece, a zombie story entirely lacking in gore or horror, and I thought I'd use this post to talk a little about the inspiration behind it. The story evolved out of an exercise a few friends and I do on an occasional basis in a group over on the writing forum Chapter 79. It's an informal arrangement, but generally the idea is that we each post a short piece of writing to the forum, and then are randomly allocated one of the pieces to work with. There's no set rules to how we respond to the trigger piece - we could write about what happened next, or retell the story from another character's perspective, or just take an image or line of text that stands out and go off on a complete tangent, whatever feels right at the time. Usually we submit pieces of our own work, but occasionally we'll use a poem or the first paragraph or two of a book pulled at random from our shelves.

Late last year, I found myself allocated Thomas Hardy's poem, The Walk. I didn't find the words themselves provided much in the way of a trigger for a new piece, but the slightly detached, melancholic tone of the poem seemed a more promising angle. Particularly the second verse, which seemed to me to suggest that whoever the first verse was addressed to had died. My thought process basically went along the lines of Death... The Walk... The Walking Dead! I'd been watching a fair bit of the zombie-filled TV series back then. But, with the mood of the poem still in mind, I decided my zombies would bring with them, not blood-lust and terror, but a kind of sadness. Their resurrection would be a warning, not a danger, to the living. But would anybody listen?

And so the tale took shape. At the end of the exercise, I had a short story I was pleased with. It got a good response from the other members of the group, and I decided it was worth taking further. So, a few edits, a trim here, a bit more meat on the bones (so to speak) there, and I had something ready to send somewhere. I picked The New Writer competition - and if you want to know what happened next, go back to the beginning of this post and try to pay more attention this time.

So the answer to the question, "What do you get if you cross Thomas Hardy with The Walking Dead?" appears to be, A prize-winning short story. Who'd have thought it? I hadn't really given the process of combining two such disparate ideas much thought, until a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Adam Marek's utterly brilliant "sketchnote" of The Evolution of an Idea. His argument (and it's a convincing one) is that ideas combine in a similar way to atoms undergoing nuclear fusion - two unrelated concepts, if you can mash them together with sufficient force, will combine. The energy of the collision pulls in other ideas, images, and triggers a sort of creative flow, that the writer then has to work into a semblance of order in order for it to be accessible to everyone else. It's a fantastic way of looking at the creative process, and describes exactly what happened with So the Dead Rose from the Grave. Do go and check it out.

If nothing else, it explains the enduring appeal of those "It's X meets Y" potted descriptions of film/book plots. The prospect of a combination of two unlikely, even opposite, concepts catches our imaginations and draws us in. I'll certainly be looking out for more interesting collisions in the future.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories

Back when I was a newbie at all this writing stuff, just a fresh-faced slip of a lad (well, okay, I must have been about twenty-six), I joined the BBC's 'Get Writing' website. A lot of people know about this and remember it fondly, so I won't go into all the detail here. Suffice to say it was a writing forum where you could post your work and the community of writers would respond to it, and it was pretty much the perfect way for somebody like me to dip my toe into the world of short fiction.

Within a few months of signing up, I was approached by a small group of writers who took this exchange of work and feedback to a whole new level. I was flattered to be asked to join them, as well as slightly alarmed and apprehensive about what I might be letting myself in for. At first, it was a bruising experience. I learned there were bits of my stories that didn't work, or that went on too long, or sections of dialogue that were unconvincing. The key thing about this feedback, though, was that it wasn't delivered with an aim of scoring points; nobody was trying to force anyone else to write the way they did, or bow to their superior knowledge of how fiction works. It was honest and constructive criticism from people who loved stories and understood that paying close attention to how other writers worked could improve their own skills. Once I'd got used to the idea, my writing came on in leaps and bounds.

One of the writers in that group was Karen Jones. I've always been a fan of Karen's writing, and I'm not alone - over the last few years she's notched up a healthy crop of publications and competition results, in  places like Mslexia, The New Writer, Menda City Review, Flash500, Leaf Books, Spilling Ink, to name but a few. Now she's compiled the pick of the crop into a collection of short fiction called The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories.

I've ordered my copy, and I'm looking forward to reading it. If you like the sound of the book you can find out more here (worth a click just to find out what Tracy Chevalier - yes, the Tracy Chevalier - had to say about the title story). If you fancied getting your hands on a copy too, you can buy direct from Karen herself, or head over to Lulu. It'll be available on Amazon in a couple of weeks or so.

Lulu can be a bit pricy for postage, but as luck would have it, they're running a promotion from today until the end of March so you can save 20% off the purchase price by using the coupon code WAFFLESSAY20:

... And, while you're browsing those virtual aisles, giddy with the excitement only cut-price short story collections can bring, perhaps you might like to check out my mate Gavin Broom's collection, A Documentary About Sharks (I reviewed it here)...

... or, if you don't own it yet (how is that even possible?), there's always this one by that Dan Purdue bloke:

A review of Karen's The Upside-Down Jesus and Other Stories will follow in due course.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Review: "Beautiful Words" by Nik Perring

Nik Perring's latest book is called Beautiful Words and is the first in a trilogy that will also take in Beautiful Trees and Beautiful Shapes later in the year. It's produced by Roast Books, who also published Nik's story collection Not So Perfect a few years ago, and who very kindly sent me a review copy.

Anyone familiar with Nik's work either through his books or his stories that have appeared online won't be surprised to learn that he again makes a virtue of brevity. What's more of a surprise is that this latest release is a kind of picture book for grown-ups, lavishly illustrated by Miranda Sofroniou. It's an unusual proposition, and initially I found myself wondering exactly who it was targeted at. Having spent a few days now in its company I'm not sure I'm any closer to determining the specific "type" of reader who will enjoy this, but I'll do my best to explain its appeal.

For a start, Beautiful Words is beautifully produced. As per Not So Perfect, it's produced in an unusual square format (although slightly larger than its predecessor, at around 18x18cm), and its sixty-odd pages are printed in full colour. The palette used is gorgeous and reflects the words extremely well.

The concept is straightforward: Nik works his way through the alphabet, picking a word for each letter and explaining why that word is beautiful. As he writes in the foreword, "Their beauty might be in their construction, or how they sound, or how it feels to say them...", and it's interesting to walk through the collection he's assembled. Some of the words are simple - Kiss, Nest, Reel - while some are much less familiar - Obcordate and Senescence were both new to me, for instance.

Threading through the words and definitions is the story of Alexander and Lucy, although this is only told in brief snatches. Some of the definitions are told from either Alexander or Lucy's perspective. Sometimes their story is a sentence or two at the end. Sometimes they're not mentioned at all. As a result it's a little nebulous - like glimpsing something through trees or from a moving car - and to me it felt like it more set a mood than told a story. But then, that's one of my main criticisms of flash fiction, and if you're a flash fan I'm sure you have your own ideas of how much of the story should be left to the reader.

Like most of Nik's work, there's an undeniable charm to the writing, yet there's a darker edge lurking in the background (perhaps best summed up by the fact that F's word is Fuck - "beautiful because of its power"). Miranda Sofroniou's illustrations complement the writing perfectly, with just the right amount of what I'd describe as a kind of naive whimsy. The words and pictures make the book a joy to flick through, or study in more detail, however the mood takes you.

In the promotional flyer, the folks at Roast Books describe Beautiful Words as "Flash fiction with a factual twist! An ideal gift for a lover of words." - and I wonder if this might be where the book excels. I can see it being given to avid readers who usually power through novels, offering them an excuse to slow down and contemplate the building blocks of language, the words themselves.

And I also wonder why they went with "a lover of words" when they could have used a beautiful word like logophile? Although maybe that sounds too much like somebody who just really loves chopping wood...

Beautiful Words has an RRP of £14.99, but I spotted it at for £8.37, including free delivery to your local independent bookseller. It will be released on 7th April 2014.

"Beautiful Words: Some meanings and some fictions too"
By Nik Perring
Published by Roast Books
64 pages
RRP £14.99

Friday, 14 March 2014

After Taking a Month Off

Well, a month off from blogging, at least. I have to admit, it wasn't entirely deliberate. So, what have I been up to?

Probably the biggest news for me is that two of my stories are heading for publication. The first is a reprint of Gecko, my tale of heroic failure that was Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition. That's going to be included in a new textbook (to be entitled "Expression") published by Forum Publications, for second-level students in Ireland. I'm not 100% sure when the book will be published, but it's likely to be within the next couple of months. It's a strange and exciting thought that my story will be used in schools in some way. I'm particularly pleased with this, as I'm very fond of Gecko, and it's an all-too-rare example of a humorous story that's done well in a 'proper' competition, so it's great to see it get another outing. I hope the students enjoy it too.

The second publication comes as a result of winning a runner-up prize in The Fiction Desk's Flash Fiction Competition last week. My story The Guy in the Bear Suit, an odd and hopefully creepy tale of long-forgotten misdeeds coming back to haunt somebody, will appear in a forthcoming anthology alongside such writers as Nik Perring and Cindy George, who wrote a story about rollercoaster fanatics I particularly enjoyed in an earlier TFD anthology, Because of What Happened. If you're not already familiar with TFD books, they're well worth checking out - nicely put together and an interesting mix of styles and subjects.

This prize represented my first result (of any kind - I've been without a shortlisting, a longlisting, anything) for well over a year. It's true I did a whole load of other stuff, including moving house and doing a lot of day-job gubbins, so the number of competitions I entered did drop off considerably, but I don't think the quality of what I was sending out had dipped. Time will tell on that front, I guess; if I can home some of last year's stories I'll know I was just unlucky. If I can't, well, hopefully getting a prize at The Fiction Desk signals that I'm climbing back out the other side of this apparent slump.

In more mundane news, I've been up to my neck in the novel. This is the unglamorous side of writing, the hard slog when day after day the wordcount creeps up but you never feel like you're actually making any progress. It's been hard to keep on track, and I've had to grit my teeth and watch some very enticing competitions slip by, but my more disciplined approach has paid off: I've written another quarter of the book over the last three months. If I can keep the momentum going, I'll be on track to finish the first full draft by the end of March. Early April at the latest. Words can't express how much I'm looking forward to being able to type "The End" for the first time. Many redrafts and edits lie ahead, I'm sure, but from that point on, I will at least be able to claim that I genuinely have written a book.

And now, for no reason other than the fact it's getting spring-like outside and I've been out and about getting to grips with my new camera, here's a photograph of a slightly pensive-looking squirrel:

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Gone BookCrossin'

BookCrossing is an international scheme to encourage people to share books with strangers. It's an interesting idea, so I thought I'd give it a go, by releasing "into the wild" a couple of copies of my short story collection.

In terms of my reading habits, I seem to be fairly unusual amongst my fellow bookworms in that the majority of the books on my shelf are ones I haven't read. I mainly buy paperbacks, and once I've read them I don't usually feel a particularly strong urge to hang on to them. If I've really enjoyed a book and think I'm likely to re-read it, I'll quite often track down a hardback copy (almost always second hand) as a 'keeper', but most of the time I like to pass them on, either by giving to a friend who I think will enjoy them, donating to charity, or selling through a site like Green Metropolis.

BookCrossing is another way of passing books around. You can give books you've finished with to friends and family, but the main aim of the scheme appears to be to encourage people to send books indirectly to strangers, by leaving them on trains, in cafes, in doctors' waiting rooms and on park benches (weather permitting, of course). Turn the world into a library, they say. Which sounds like a nice idea.

I have a few printed copies of my collection at home. Although I'd dearly love for some wonderful person to buy them from me, I suspect that would take more promotional effort than I have time for at the moment. So I thought I'd put a couple of them to work, heading out to find their way in the world and possibly winning over a few more readers as they go. I registered with the site, took out two BCIDs (the unique numbers used to track the books) and printed up some stickers for the front cover and first page of each copy. Then it was a matter of finding somewhere in my hometown of Leamington Spa suitable for their "release". I chose a busy coffee shop in the centre of town and one of my favourite pubs.

The BookCrossing concept obviously relies heavily on serendipity, in that the person who finds the book will be somebody interested in reading it rather than a jaded coffee shop employee who'll throw it away or - perhaps worse - lock it up in a lost property cupboard, never to be seen again. Also, the website only really comes into its own if people can be bothered to register a "found" book, otherwise nobody gets to see the journey.

I hope fortune smiles upon my books and whoever ends up picking them up will decide to give them a go. If you're one of those somebodies, I hope you enjoy the stories. And please don't forget to pass them on afterwards!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Print vs. Online

Once you've written something you want to share with the world, you're faced with a choice. Do you aim to put it online, taking advantage of that unlimited audience and ease of sharing via links on social media and the like - or do you send it off to a print publication, with all its old-fashion prestige and the undeniable thrill of seeing your work in actual, proper ink?
Which is best? As Harry Hill says, There's only one way to find out...
Until recently, I've always favoured getting things published online. I'll admit it, it feels good to put a link on Facebook or Twitter and have friends and followers click through to read the story. I like the fact that it's 'out there' - sometimes just for a while, sometimes much longer - and virtually anyone might stumble across it. It's all part of the platform we writers are supposed to be building. I treat online publication like having a publicly accessible CV - people who've enjoyed one of my stories can come to this site and read several others, without having to pay a penny. I don't actually know if anyone does this, but the possibility's there and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

With print markets, it's difficult to know whether the reduced exposure is worth the increased prestige. There's the question of economics, in terms of who among my potential readers would go to the trouble of buying a print-only magazine - which in many cases, once you pay for postage, can cost a lot more than a paperback book from your local Waterstones. There's also the problem of targeting the right markets for your work - it would cost a fortune to buy an edition of a good selection of literary magazines, and chances are many of them would be a disappointment in terms of (a) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to read, and (b) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to write. It always seems strange that so few of the more established magazines don't offer any kind of free sample (like an ebook or PDF version of an old edition), so that writers - and readers - can see what they're getting before they submit (and perhaps even subscribe - I'm all for supporting small press magazines, but not when I've no idea what they print!).

I've also focused almost exclusively on writing competitions. Some writers baulk at the idea of paying an entry fee (though not all competitions charge them), others find the whole concept of 'competitive' writing a bit distasteful. I can see where they're coming from. However, I've always seen competitions like doing an exam, while submitting your story to a magazine (whether print or online) is more akin to coursework. Submit your work to an editor, and if it's almost but not quite there, you'll probably get a chance to tweak things and generally knock it into shape. With a competition, you only get one shot at it - so everything has to be perfect: your characters, plot, pacing, language, beginning and ending, spelling, grammar, it all has to mesh precisely. It's a good test of your abilities, and the deadline provides all the motivation you could wish for to get on and write your masterpiece. Also, with a competition, there's no rejection to worry about. You get placed or you don't; nobody emails you to say your story isn't up to scratch. For some writers (i.e. me) that's a distinct advantage.

But, after a year when my competition mojo appeared to desert me, I've been reassessing my stance on this. Some of the very big story competitions (the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Competition, both run by Booktrust) essentially say your previous work doesn't count unless it's been in print, and when you look at the biographies of the people who do well in the major contests, very few (if any) mention online publications, whereas some of the more established print markets crop up time and time again. So I'm convinced the general consensus is that print still rules the roost, and if I want to continue to develop my writing I'm going to need to try harder to get some stories into one or two of those magazines.

This doesn't mean giving up on competitions (the Bridport and Bristol short story competition winners are printed in beautiful anthologies, after all) or online markets, but it does mean trying to widen my horizons in terms of where I look when I have a story ready to go. Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources online and elsewhere to help identify potential markets - for instance the brilliant Short Stops, or Thresholds, or any of the many online lists other people have put together. I don't have any particular targets in mind, but if I score any hits, you'll be the first to know about it.

How do you decide where to send your writing?