Sunday, 13 April 2014

My other blog - The Sheriff's Wife

...before the Declaration
I have another blog - just for this year. It started on March 24th, and will finish on or near the same date next year. It is called The Sheriff's Wife, for fairly obvious reasons. Glad rags are often called for - see above - however, the Other Half has an official uniform, black velvet, silver buttons and a sword. Am suitably proud, keeping out of the way of the sword. Probably, not a lot of writing will get done in the next twelve months.

Thus far, posts cover the Declaration ceremony, a visit to Gatwick to learn about human trafficking, an interview with the esteemed Other Half, and a brilliant poem by Sarah Salway, commissioned by the High Sheriff of Kent.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sussex Poets

Delighted to have written this one a few years ago. Even more delighted that it won the Sussex Poets Competition, judged by John McCullough


I will write my name with a lump of steam coal
on the side of a lorry parked up at a roadside caff.
Or with raw steel, pig iron, scraped on a fence
newly painted. Or fence-paint itself, stolen,
smeared on a sheet drying on a line,
flapping its pleas to the breeze.
Or in black earth churned to mud 
with water from the outside tap 
that rattles against the bricks. 
Or coded in the click of stilettos
tapping the night away on paving slabs,
like the stick of the blind man who catches
the voice of the marshalling yards carried on the wind,
and hears the clinking of a chain ferry.

Collage made by the Rottingdean Writers Group, who organised the competition

'The Farmyard' by Philip Bentall took second place, and third place was awarded to  'Everest' by Brian Fogarty. 
The winning poems can be read here, on the Brighton and Hove Arts Council website -


Sunday, 16 March 2014

Dan Powell talks about writing to music - and his fab collection of short fictions, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows'

A couple of weeks back, I met Dan Powell when we were both on a panel discussing short stories. I've heard so much about this guy's writing - and I couldn't resist buying his new collection, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows' - just out from Salt. It really is great - but I won't do a blather here, not yet - because Dan's here himself, talking about something I could never do in a million years - writing to music. Welcome Dan!

Dan here - 

Many writers can’t write to music. Not so surprising. The act of writing requires concentration and music can be a distraction. Jonathon Franzen, unsurprisingly, takes his limiting of distraction seriously and writes using ‘noise-cancelling headphones that pipe "pink noise" – white noise at lower frequency’. You might expect musician and novelist Willy Vlautin would use music in his process, what with him being the frontman and songwriter of The Richmond Fontaine, whose ‘alt-country opera’ The High Country was a narrative and musical highlight of 2011, and the fact that he co-wrote an instrumental soundtrack to his second novel Northline. In fact, listening to music while writing causes Vlautin to daydream. In a recent interview he described once trying to write to a loop of instrumental music: ‘It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit.’

For myself, I cannot imagine writing without music. My entire process is influenced and helped along by a various playlists set up on my laptop. The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows were all written while listening to various instrumental artists and soundtracks. That’s the rule for me. The music mustn’t have words if I am to write to it. Other peoples words get in the way when I am in the act of writing. When writing in public I struggle to block out conversation which is why, if you ever see me writing in The Bookstop Cafe in Lincoln, I’ll have earbuds plugging my ears, pumping ambient and drone into my brain to drown out the chatting of the other customers. No offence intended.

The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows, for me, were as much influenced by the music I was listening to as I wrote them as they were by the short stories I have read and loved and learnt something from. Anyone reading the acknowledgements of the collection will see that I thank Andy Othling of Lowercase Noises by name. Andy is a very talented guitarist who, in his own words, is ‘interested in playing as slow as possible.’ He is a generous guy, who gives freely of his expertise on his various websites and blogs, helping other musicians with the technical aspects of music production and promotion on the web. He very kindly allowed me to use his music on my book trailers and his particular brand of emotive, ambient guitar instrumentals is perfect for reading and writing to. Without the music of Lowercase Noises, many stories in my collection would not have appeared on the page in quite the same way. Other artists and bands that fill up my specially created AAA Writing Music genre tab in iTunes are, Oathless, Stars of The Lid (great for writing darker stuff to), William Basinski, Olafur Arnalds, Industries of the Blind, Hildur Gudnadottir, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Explosions in the Sky, and the daddy of them all, Brian Eno. They are all worth checking out if, like me, you need something to fill your ears and free your brain as you write.

Putting together the story collection itself was not unlike track listing an album or crafting a mix-tape back in the good old days before mp3s and playlists. I had to think about how each story fitted within the overall feel of the collection and how it influenced its neighbours. What is great about a short story collection is that the reader can dip in an out, picking on the stories whose titles spark an interest or whose first lines grab at the attention most. Kind of like how most of us experience music now, picking and mixing from our libraries and the various online stores or streaming services. To that end, I’ve put together the following Spotify playlist. It features key tracks from albums I listened to while writing the stories that make up Looking Out of Broken Windows. Think of it as an unofficial soundtrack to the collection. If you like what you hear, you might want to grab a copy and check out the stories these tracks helped onto the page. The list is here:

Music also influences my writing in another key way. Many ideas for stories come to me from song lyrics. Not so surprising this as prose writers have been pilfering from poetry for centuries. While I do read poetry and from time to time something leaps out that I have to ‘steal’ (in the T. S. Eliot sense), I listen to way more music as I race about taking my kids to school and getting myself to work. Quite often a lyric will stick in my head and evoke some feeling or idea that niggles at me until I am forced to write it down. Once it gets me that badly, hard enough to go from hearing the word to noting it dow,  chances are it will make it into a story. The latest song to do this to me is New Ceremony by Dry the River. I won't say which lyric it was that hit me as the story is currently on submission and the words ended up forming part of the title but the idea they suggested sat in my notebook for a year or more before I wrote something. Weirdly, though I didn’t listen to the song while I wrote the story and redrafted it, listening to the track now as I write this I'm amazed at how the tone of the track is somehow mirrored in the feel of my story. I find that a lot with the influence of music on my writing process, this stuff goes deep. The influence is not always conscious but it is always there. 

And here is Dan himself, reading a story for you: 

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 or Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win.. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Notes on a book. Posthumous Stories by David Rose (Salt)

Posthumous Stories is a rich experience. A visual book certainly - filled with (literal) word-paintings. A book of sounds, music, and not. A book of detail, architectural, painterly, botanical, musical - it’s a treasure box in which strange obsessive narrators look up as you pass from their usually left-brained and controlling occupations, fix you with their disturbing gazes, then look away. 
     I read and re read with a sense of intrusion such as one gets when passing a door left ajar, hearing a snip of talk not intended. Or better - as when you can’t avoid overhearing a conversation held in lowered tones, on a train. Captive, intrigued, removed. A delicious intrusion - sense of glimpsing something special, by accident, wry smile playing. Disturbing, certainly. Deliciously. And surreal, I came across many descriptions of how the body responds to machine - car, van, they merge.
 I made notes on some of the stories as I went - so forgive the lack of carefully crafted review. Sometimes, notes is all that's needed. 

A Nice Bucket - 
Sensuality under the surface - in the music, the hints... in the lyrical voice of the apprentice asphalter, in the son’s descriptions of his late father’s reconstructed studio. a darkness, compelling and dual-natured. Goodbad, like so many scenarios in this book. Orwellesque. Magnetic. The asphalters might be doing any old repairing job - but no. Legitimate work, under supervision (even if the supervision is sporadic), and the job - laying speed humps. Slowing things down. A reminder that the best stories, and these really are some of the best, are only appreciated of you slow down, and let them work on you.
...had me thinking, isn’t this why I (we?) read? To enjoy, yes, but to empathise. Consider. Widen. Goodbad. Vicarious experience. To remind myself that beneath everything, everyone, runs such rivers? Not to forget that. Never to take at face value. Respect the possibilities. We are living in glorious metaphor. Perhaps. 

Private View 
The son of an artist is persuaded to write the commentary to a retrospective on his father’s work. Through memories, and almost despite himself, (this reluctance to engage with memory seems to surface now and again) he is almost compelled to do so, even though it takes him on a journey of deepening alienation.I’m struck by this description: “...sliced by black vertical straight lines, regularly spaced, but in each successive work, becoming closer and closer together. The experts talk of a homage to Mondrian or the creation of abstract perspective. I think they look like bars.”Oh OK  - now I’m getting the cover of Rose’s brilliant novel, Vault, also from Salt, and a novel I loved a while back. 
.. clever, aren't I?

Fracturing, isolation, miscommunication. Here, we are island folk. And some are more island than others. 
the big questions - including what exactly, is art? The issue encapsulated by the botanist narrator musing on having to destroy a fungus,  ‘I had to admit to a sneaking regard for the fungal growth – not only its persistence, but its own strange beauty, the subtlety of its opalescent colours, the intricacy of its structure. Are we right, I wondered, to divide Nature as we do?’

The Fall
oh and jokes... many over my head, I’m sure, which is evident -  but a giggle escaped me,  in a crowded train carriage appropriately enough, when I read this:  
“One of the Servants remarked that he thought Auden’s most inspired creation was the Fat Controller “   also this 
"I even used to call her Donna, because she was always รจ mobile.” 
Behind ‘The Fall’ there are echoes of not only Albert Camus, but also George Orwell at several points - a religious guerrilla group made up of Servants initially using art installations to make their point. Achieving the ‘exosoma’ ... 
but I’m afraid lost patience with The Fall. Form overtook story early on, and lost this reader with it.and is it my imagination, but does the futuristic cult-theme arrive again in Clean, with its Vision and Mission meetings, mention of service, and the Intendant? “freedom of spirit depends on freedom of space, freedom of land –”
Something about isolation.  ‘Above me there’s a mile of blue and beyond that an eternity of black, a furnace of ice.”

Echoes of Camus again in Viyborg - a novel - a dead pan outlining of a lyrically written novel - a wry  take on various scenes.
Mind you, what with these installations in fiction and the pieces desccribed throughout, I think I’d like to see Rose's visual art - if he does. Who knows.

The Fifth Beatle
The fab four becomes five, with the reminiscences of the unplanned extra in the iconic abbey road shot - I loved this one. And I didn’t understand one reviewer’s snip about Rose not writing women well. Yes, he does, just not many. Suspect that's what the reviewer meant, there aren’t many female main characters - and speaking as a writer who vastly prefers writing males than females - what’s wrong with that? 
Clean -
'the cause' raises its head again, Regional Intendant looms, and a ‘devotional’ meeting. 
Quotes: Life’s a bitch, but it’s all to plan.’ 

“... below that, to the silken silt where there are no reflections, to the reality of the fish.” 

I feel I ought to be listening to Mahler while reading this - the trouble is, my ears and eyes don’t multi-task. Bach - need to look up Chaconne. What a wealth of architectural detail here... and what a brilliant house - turning things on their heads - kitchen on the top floor, the south wall blank. 
“Holes for doors and windows are the destruction of form’ - Le Corbusier. I lived for a year within a mile or two of Firminy Vert -the  Le Corbusier development, near St Etienne. 
Moller (Muller) House, Prague

Church, Firminy Vert - by Le Corbusier

In Evening Soft Light
The unexplained shower of stones - the wife, novels, reading one page then becoming tired... rather Alice-in-Wonderlandish. Or Through-the-Looking-Glass-ish. One is right. 

A world where there are season tickets for brothels, meters tick in the bedrooms. A world where you douse your e-reader in appropriate perfume - segue into ‘correlating my relationships with my library by sniffing the books for perfume.’ Control, control. And the ghastly but compelling image of a man working out how many books he might read before he dies - a sort of literary actuarial computation.

Who would have the job of reading aloud the minutes of meetings of those in whatever level? Reading to workers at a factory lunch break seems better, until you see the political agenda behind the choice of books. ‘The evening’s theme is the means and meaning of a transparent society....It involves us all. Open government requires openness of its citizenry. We all know the problems we face. Ignorance, poverty, bad manners.’... and then the lights go out...
Description of a story - from the outside, as it is told/narrated. The opening goes like this:“The story begins with a man – we assume him to be Zimmerman – loading an accordion onto a cart, the cart being attached to a bicycle. He loads it carefully, with elastic straps through the handles and hooked to the cart. We gather later it is the last accordion in the country...”and Zimmerman has one of the most perfect endings of any story, anywhere. (Vast exaggeration, but try it. I’m right, aren’t I?)

Terrific use of humour to relax the reader before the ambush. OK, I’ll enjoy, but am still ready for the ambush. “In home, my wife wear burka. They say to me, you Muslim? I say no, she most ugly woman.” 
“...find book, Kama Sutra. But is all dots. How you say it? Braille. I say in shop, is no good to me, is no pictures.” 
Ambush is good, too. :)

The Castle
The hand-made coffin maker, whose masterpieces are meant to echo the life of the deceased...and be buried before anyone’s had a proper chance to enjoy. 
 (Tis always disconcerting to find my name in a story, especially a Vanessa who plies her trade beneath the motto: ‘In constraint lies freedom...’ Yeah right. Even if this is an Oulipian tale, I have to fight against ‘but I never did that...’ which I guess Janes and Sues don’t get bothered by...) 
Loved this description of Eton, it seems rather appropriate:“...however much they try to shrug it off, self-assurance fits them like their handmade shirts. For all their little acts of bohemian defiance, their hands twitch in readiness for the reins...” 
However - and it’s a big however...I do wish there was no explanation of both this story and The Fall, earlier in the book. As Perec said, "The problem, when you see the constraint, is that you no longer see anything else.” Is it a mistake to actively draw the reader’s attention to the game? It was for this one. I see the contraption, the scaffolding, and it masks too much. 

M John Harrison, writing in The Guardian, found both The Castle and The Fall ‘tiring’.
...making it to the end, only to find that this particular end came along in an earlier story... and feeling a bit miffed.  

But Harrison responds to the vast majority  of the pieces here, as I did, with pleasure, recognition, admiration.  “The best of Rose is fragile,” he says. “...retrospective, centred on the characters' recognition that something in life, be it a general condition or an absolutely specific moment, has evaded them.” 
Well, yes. 
 A kaleidoscope. That’s what this book is. And just as with a kaleidoscope, you will meet similar motifs in different stories - music, image, even strange recurring Orwellesque shadowy conductors of life - slightly autistic-seeming, detached, displaced characters, shifting, and tumbling. 
      If there is ever a book you can go back to, reread, assured that you will find something new, or something familiar seen from a new angle you missed last time round - this is it. Who knows. I might even set aside a couple of weekends, go somewhere very quiet, and read the Oulipan bits until they make sense, or I hit the bottle.

Here is a very interesting Q and A with the author, David Rose:  He says at the end that he is no longer writing. If that is so, it's a huge loss to anyone who loves reading. 

His work is great. Posthumous Stories is one of the best reads in a long time - my non-understanding of a few pieces is my issue, not the book's!  Go read it. We could have such an interesting natter...

Poetry, Novel, Retreat at Gladstones,

Catching up, and not sure where to start as so much is going on. Let's start with poetry. 

 First, a rather exciting and not a little frightening invitation to join a wonderful group of poets responding to the Sensing Spaces exhibition at The Royal Academy, then reading our work in situ. The invitation came from Ekphrasis, and the event which took place on 7th March is on the RA website here

Reading in Grafton Architects' installation, RA
Here I am reading in 'my' room, one of the two Grafton Architects' rooms, and the one which inspired me to write a poem called Transfiguration. If I read it once in the event, I read it sixty times, and I probably never ever want to read it out again - but goodness, what a learning curve.  I have had very little experience of reading my poetry at all - once at my launch, once at a little festival in Sussex, once at a charity anthology launch, a couple of times at prize-givings. That is all of five times - and at each of those the audience was fixed. Sitting down. Come to hear the poems. At this event, I had to ambush people, and, as you can see from the photo, they did not always want to be ambushed - but had other things to be getting on with. I now feel I've caught up though, and have the equivalent of at least thirty years' solid poetry-reading experience.
      It caused me to rethink, though - a real reappraisal of what the words are for - my poem was written  in memory of men of the Artists' Rifles, 28th Btn London Regiment, who fell in WW1 - and by the end of the two hours, I was very comfortable walking into a dimly lit space, just telling it to the 'walls' of the installation. They reminded me so much of the memorials to the missing along the Western Front as they must have been before names were carved on the stone. The words of the poem fell down them like the shadows, and that felt absolutely right. If people clapped, as they did now and again, it came as a shock. I aged, I aged...
      Huge thanks to the three Ekphrasis poets, the organisers and designers of the evening: Emer Gillespie, Catherine Smith and Abegail Morley. And thanks to those who read at the same event, but in other rooms mostly - Helen Ivory, Martin Figura, Caroline Davies, Patricia Debney, Maureen Jivani, Tamar Yoseloff, Sasha Dugdale, Edward MacKay ad Robert Peake -  and the work of Ian Duhig was read by actress Gemma Jones.

More poetry, more needing to read -  and the nice news that a poem called Graffiti has been shortlisted in the Sussex Poets Competition. All the shortlisted pieces have been awarded something, no idea what, it'll be lovely whatever.  I'll find out at a ceremony on 27th March, when I have to read again - and this time, I won't care at all.

In late February there was a rather glorious lit fest in Oxted, Surrey.  The programme included a short story panel chaired by Alison MacLeod, and panellists Tom Vowler, Dan Powell and Jane Gardam. I ended up as a panellist as Jane G was unable to come - and we had a terrific evening. I wrote to the orgaisers afterwards, saying that the way they had looked after us all was exemplary - Oxted ought to be the standard by which other lit fests are judged. We were dined, wined, our travel expenses covered, and we were paid!  The following day, Tea with VG - and a lovely event at which I talked and read for a while then enjoyed eating cake while signing books and trying not to get icing on the clean pages...loved every minute. The whole programme is here:

Further back in February - and Gladstones'! I spent a glorious whole ten days at Gladstone's Library, head down, finishing the next draft of the novel, which is now with my agent. Fingers crossed that there are not masses of revisions to do - I feel the need to get on with something else now. Gladstones' was just as wonderful as it was last September.

I'm going back in September to Gladfest, and can't wait - will be running an interesting event too, a discussion/workshop on creating/running a successful writing group.
      Did a post for their blog while I was there - on what it's like to write there when you are not a writer in residence. Follow the links round the website to find out about the wonderful things that this place puts on.

I went to Verdun on a battlefield visit - but I think that deserves its own post in due course.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Sue Guiney and her second Cambodian novel, 'Out of the Ruins'

   So often, when people ask where I get inspiration from for a particular piece of work, I look at them blankly - because I don't know. Sometimes, I do know, but only well after the event. My first novel, for example, was a sort of hymn to a place I loved as a child but it was only well after it was finished did I recognise this. 
  Friend and colleague Sue Guiney, however, knows exactly what inspired her second novel, because... well... I'll let her explain for herself. It also has to do with a rather special place. Welcome, Sue. 

Sue Guiney

 Hi all. I’m thrilled to be able to tell my story here, mostly because it all happened by surprise – I fell in love with a place I knew nothing about. In 2006, we went on a family volunteer trip to Cambodia. We crisscrossed the country’s dirt roads, building houses in poor villages and working with children. It was to be one of those “learning experiences” for our teenage son, but I was the one who was changed.
A street in Siem Reep
I never wanted to write about Cambodia, but after my first novel was published, I knew my next book needed to be set there. In 2010 A Clash of Innocents, the first of a series of Cambodia-inspired novels, was published. End of story? No, because I decided I wanted to bring the fruit of that inspiration back to the people who inspired it. But how? To be another volunteer didn’t feel like enough. Then a friend told me about Anjali House (, an educational shelter for street kids in Siem Reap, and I knew I had found my answer. Under their auspices, I founded a Writing Workshop for teenagers.

I teach them to write poetry and stories in English, we publish a literary magazine, and hold launch parties where the kids read from their work. I now run this program three times each year, once on-site, the other times via the Internet. Each time I go, I stay longer --  now that the kids are all grown up (not to mention a very supportive husband), I have the freedom to do that.. Very soon, I’ll be going back again, and this time I’ll be staying for two months! 
    But before I go, there is another bit of excitement happening, and that’s what really brings me here today.
The second novel in the Cambodian series, Out of the Ruins, is now being launched by my publisher, Ward Wood (  People responded so well to the first book that I was urged to keep the feisty narrator, Deborah. I did, but this is no longer her story. This is set in another city, Siem Reap, with new characters and new challenges. Out of the Ruins begins with one Cambodian doctor’s frustration over how the poor women in his country are dying needlessly. He reaches out to friends to help him create a new clinic for the local villages around Siem Reap’s world famous temples, and they answer his call. Irish Dr. Diarmuid arrives with his English assistant, Dr. Gemma, and Canadian administrator Mr. Fred. Together they create a place where the poor women of Cambodia can find the basic care that so much of the world has long since taken for granted. The young and ambitious Cambodian Nurse Srey acts as interpreter and doorway into the trust of the local community, but her idealised view of Western medicine will be seriously shaken.
    In this novel, tradition collides with science as East meets West, and though the doctors are all too eager to help, they have much to learn about their own personal demons in this desperate and seductive society.
Research for this book took me to the parts of Siem Reap where middle-aged Western women are not supposed to go – tucked away corners full of karaoke bars and brothels. I saw some horrifying things, and all of it has found its way into the novel. But it has all also found its way into my heart, and so I keep writing, and I keep going back. 
    You’ve been a part of this journey from the start, Vanessa, and I thank you for that!  And thanks to all your followers for listening. I hope some of them will come along, too. 
Congratulations, Sue!

Congratulations, Sue, on all your hard work, and on the publication of 'Out of the Ruins'. See you at the launch party.

Out of the Ruins can be found in both ebook and paperback on Amazon, the Book Depository, and in bookshops within the UK. You can read more about me, my novels and poetry, and about my work in Cambodia on my website 

Monday, 30 December 2013

Looking back over 2013

I started to study writing (but not actually doing it) in October 2002. I only started writing writing when I joined a hardworking online writing group in November 2003. Writing is writing, to me. See? Good. 

So. To 2013. Books first. 
One of the joys of working with an indie press is that you can say, ‘Hey, this text book has been out for a few years - I’d like to update, refresh, add some new chapters by fab writers, maybe do a little pruning?’ and they say, ‘Good idea - do it.’
The result is  the terrific second edition of Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Eight new chapters, new intro, sharper all round, I think - although the first edition was pretty good anyway. It’s been a huge privilege to be able to put together the text book I’d have liked when I started this writing lark myself, so thank you Salt Publishing.

So. That was book number five. A recap? Ok. 

1. ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (short stories, published 2008 by Salt), 
2. ‘Short Circuit first edition (2009), 
3. ‘Storm Warning’ (short stories on the theme of conflict, published 2010 by Salt),
4. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ (novel, published in UK in 2011 by Bloomsbury)
4.5 'The Coward’s Tale’ published in USA 2012
5.  'Short Circuit’ second edition (2013)

and book number 6 crept into 2013 as well, allowing me to say I have almost managed a book a year since 2008 as the US version of TCT doesn’t really count.  

6. My debut poetry publication, ‘The Half Life of Fathers’ was published by Pighog Press in November and launched in Brighton. Again, a joy of working with an indie - I was at Gladstone’s Library in September, there was a literary fest, I was reading, and Pighog kindly produced some advance copies. Thank you Pighog. 

It’s a game, all this - a serious one, but a game still. The writing world is full of ‘you must do this, must do that’, and in the end you could spend your days dancing to everyone’s tune but your own. I’m certainly not playing anyone else’s game these days, just mine.
Little Owl, illustration by Lynn Roberts - from 'Ed's Wife and Other Creatures' 

So. Book number 7, and the one I have had more fun writing than any other, is now with my agent. This is the collection of tiny fictions called ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’, beautifully and cleverly illustrated by artist and poet Lynn Roberts. Lynn’s own collection of poems inspired by paintings in The National Gallery is due out in April, and I am hugely grateful to her for going with the flow when I changed the goalposts from ‘about ten’ illustrations to ‘oh they are so good, can each story have a drawing?’ when there are almost seventy stories.  Thank to Lynn!

Anthology publications this year include a story in the lovely Red Room, published by Unthank and aimed at raising funds for the Bronte Birthplace Trust - and a lovely trip to Manchester to read at The Portico Library, staying with Elizabeth Baines. Then there is ‘The Irreal Reader’ a compilation of the editor’s picks from The Cafe Irreal, one of my favourite online journals, together with academic essays on irrealism. 
Theology Room, Gladstone's Library
Going places thanks to writing - I look back with huge pleasure over a NAWE conference at York, two (two!) stays at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat early in the year, during which I was able to focus hard on the two separate strands of the next novel, ‘Kit’. I then put the novel away, letting it stew, until a glorious month at Gladstone’s Library in September, during which I was able to focus on getting a wobbly draft together, with invaluable input from both my agent (thanks Euan Thorneycroft) and military historian Jeremy Banning. Thank you to both. 
Part of The Western Front, at July 1916

Mr Banning led an unforgettable trip to France for what is becoming an annual event - the Writers Pals visit to the WW1 battlefields. This year, readings of poetry by the grave of Isaac Rosenberg, readings in  a sodden Strip Trench at Mametz Wood from 'In Parenthesis' by David Jones, and a walk with poet and friend Caroline Davies from the Citadel at Fricourt down to the Hammerhead were real highlights. As was the group writing every evening by the fire at Chevasse Ferme. Next year’s trip is already planned, and full. Can’t wait! Thanks to all the Writers’ Pals, including Tania Hershman, Sarah Salway and Zoe King. 

A bit of judging, notably the Gladstones Library Flash competition, a panel effort,  with the editors of Flash Magazine (Uni of Chester), was lovely. And a bit of supporting The Bristol Short Story Prize, giving out the prizes and giving a short address - wonderful. Bristol was also the venue for a George Saunders event, during which he was interviewed by Nikesh Shukla, back in May. 

Teaching always takes a place at the table. Workshops have been great, giving the odd talk also great, especially to writing students at Lancaster and Brighton Universities- but the best thing this year has been mentoring. This was a  professional working relationship brokered by New Writing South, and it was a huge privilege to mentor a terrific writer for nine months, a novelist who wanted to pull together a collection of short stories. Tick! 

A good year - now on to 2014. What am I most looking forward to? Finishing ‘Kit’ and thus getting the renowned ‘dreadful second novel’ everyone waits for, out of the way. Having 'nothing' on my plate for a while while I think about what I really want to do next, creatively. Readings and other events already organised include Oxted Literary Festival in February, another exciting gig in London in March. A ten day novel-finishing (please!) retreat at the unparalleled Gladstone’s Library also in February, and poetry poetry - I’m exploring being mentored, myself - very exciting. Definitely off to Ireland in October for a week’s poetry at Anam Cara. A weekend at Cambridge with SWWJ in April, also judging a competition for them, on the theme of war, off to the brilliant International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna in July, and judging a short fiction competition for Cinnamon Press later in the summer- I will be busy. 

I wish everyone who reads this a very Happy New Year. Lets hope it brings fresh ideas, the calm to explore them, a few exciting storm clouds punctuated by flashes of brilliance. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Jo Derrick - and Twisted Sheets

I am really delighted to welcome Jo Derrick to the blog today, for a natter. Delighted for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which that she was the first editor to take a punt on a new writer, and give her her first ever publications in print, in the sadly no more QWF - Quality Women's Fiction. Those first steps are so important - they can make or break, and I have a lot to thank her for, boosting my confidence when it was really needed. 

Jo has won many many prizes for her own short fictions. She has just published them as an e book, Twisted Sheets, and you can find a link to purchase the e book at the end of our natter! But first, I was thrilled to have a conversation via email. And to be able to persuade her to let me share one of her flash fictions with you. So - read on, then enjoy a taste of her writing!

You were the first to publish me in print, Jo, in QWF - always hugely grateful for that. You started Cadenza, and now you are running another small mag, Yellow Room. Why do you do it, with no funding, isnt it stressy? 

I remember publishing your stories in QWF so well, Vanessa. They really made me sit up and take notice! Running a literary magazine like The Yellow Room is stressy! It's so much more difficult these days when you're in competition with e-zines, online mags and websites featuring short fiction. Not many people can be bothered to order and pay for a print magazines, so that it's very difficult attracting new subscribers. Print and postage costs have risen hugely in the past few years, and it's almost impossible to break even financially. If it wasn't for the competitions I run twice a year, then The Yellow Room would have gone under months ago. My aim was to publish two print magazines per year, but I have only managed one per year for the past two years simply due to cash flow problems. I've also noticed I'm sent far fewer submissions than in the past and now I'm almost exclusively publishing the competition winners and shortlisted stories, so the magazine is evolving into a competition anthology. I'm hoping to get someone else on board so that I can focus more on my own writing in the future.

What do you look for in a submission, or a competition entry? What is it makes you sit up and get a bit excited about a piece of work?
Originality - not necessarily originality of theme, but there has to be something about the quality of the writing that stands out. It's a bit like the dreaded 'X Factor' in that you recognise star quality when you see it. Use of language is very important to me - far more important than plot, for example. I also favour character-led stories. I know from reading the title and the first paragraph of a story whether it's going to be something I like. Quirkiness. Something different. A story has to resonate and speak to me. It has to tug on my emotions. 

Your new collection, tell us about that.
I like to think the stories have an edge to them. Some are erotic, others are verging on crime stories. I like writing from a male viewpoint and often from a child's viewpoint. Sex, death and rock n' roll feature quite regularly! My characters are often outsiders whose lives are blighted by tragedy. However, there is very little sentimentality. My writing  has been described as 'full of sensitivity'; 'constantly intriguing'; 'clever and poignant'. The stories in the collection have all either been published, shortlisted in competitions or have won prizes. Actually, I think there are a couple of exceptions. I put the collection together a year or so ago and entered in The Scott Prize. I didn't get anywhere, but, undaunted, I sent it to The Cinnamon Press who were looking for nine new collections of poetry and prose for their 2014 list. Unfortunately, I didn't make the final nine, but I received a lovely email to say they'd had over 2,000 submissions and mine got very close to being accepted. This gave me faith in the collection, but I didn't know where else to send it. I understand that publishers aren't keen on short story collections (Salt is probably an exception) and agents are only interested in 'the novel'. I was persuaded by members of my local RNA Chapter to publish an e-book, as it's so much easier to do all the formatting etc than it used to be.

Its a collection of prizewinners - can you list them?? 
There are too many to list here, but I can mention a few. The most recent prizewinner is Colours Fade to Black and White, which came 2nd in the 2013 Greenacre Writers Competition judged by Alex Wheatle. Three of the stories, The Black Queen, Smile For The Camera and Black Jacks and Sparrows did well in The Whittaker Prize 2012 and I came Joint 2nd overall (there are 6 Rounds in total). The Cleansing won book prizes in Alex Keegan's From the Ashes Competition way back in 2000. Four stories, The Fledgling, Skin and Bone, Alopecia and A Stray Dog and Surfer Boy all won 1st Prize in the Live Write Invite competitions and other stories in the collection came 2nd or 3rd. Camels in A Field won the 4th Round of The Word Hut Competition last year and Thomas Stofer, a literary agent at LBA, got in touch on the strength of that saying he'd like to read my novel. Getting Off Her Chest was Highly Commended in The Wells Literary Competition and was also longlisted in The Fish Prize. At the beginning of the collection, I have listed all the details of publications and prizes.

why did you decide to self publish as an e book?
I touched on this above. I didn't see the point of the collection sitting languishing in a folder on my computer, when it could be being read and possibly earning me a few pennies! It was a spur of the moment decision to publish it via KDP after I'd had a couple of sloe gins on Thursday! It was amazingly easy to publish, as I'd previously proofread the collection and it was the best I could make it.  I was astonished when it appeared on amazon for sale within a couple of hours! I had a wonderful virtual launch party on Facebook on Friday night and I'd sold a lot of copies by the end of it. The collection reached the dizzy heights of #19 in the Bestselling Paid Short Story Kindle Chart by midnight on Friday. I guess I e-published, as I wanted a bit of exposure and wanted to take my writing to the next level. It would be wonderful if a publisher took an interest in the collection and published it in print form. 

What next?
I'm already planning another short story collection. Although I've written a novel (and I'm now working on a new draft), it's not quite ready for submission to agents and I continue to write short stories, as that's what I love writing most! I'm still entering competitions and hope I'll have many more prizewinning stories for readers who enjoyed Twisted Sheets.
Thank you so much for chatting to me, Vanessa and for having me as a guest on your blog!
Jo x x x 

My pleasure!

Jo's collection of prizewinners, Twisted Sheets,  can be bought from Amazon,  here:

Follow her on Twitter @yellowjo

and a treat: with Jo's permission here is one of her flash fictions, Sounds of Darkness - First published on Flash Flood Friday , 12th October 2012 


Until my last wife, I was happy.
Until my last wife I drank four pints of Adnam’s ale every night in The Old Ship Inn. I’d then amble out into the night and watch the pewter-coloured sea roll and heave like an old drunk.
“Lean into me, old friend. We can beat the wind,” I say to Arthur, who has been in the pub since five. 
The beach has virtually disappeared and what’s left of it is uninviting; too wet, too grey, too slippery.
The old and the ancient emerge from the dusk. The Victorian hotels frown down upon the beach like proud patricians.
We light a fire on the beach. When it dies and night sweeps over us, we move on, staggering like old tramps towards the town. 
“Listen!” says Arthur and stops us both dead in our tracks. “Hear that? That, my boy, is the sound of darkness going.”
I nod sagely. “Yeah, man. Darkness. Always goes eventually,” I say weaving my way along the main road.
“Fancy a last one in The Dungeness?” Arthur asks, fishing in his pockets for the last of his cash.
I grin. “Sure thing.”
We approach the bar. The landlady gives us a look that could kill. She’s about to call last orders. 
“What’s it to be?”
We order whiskies and carry them to a table near the window and sit in silence before knocking them back in one hit.
Each summer, every summer, last summer. It’s the same routine.
We go back to Arthur’s flat. It’s not sex, nor love, although body fluids are involved. It satisfies. It’s good. 
Later, much later, I stagger out into the dawn, before the beach tractors trundle down the sand ready for the day’s work.

One man sings, another man cries.