Friday, 5 November 2010

Competitions and Short Story Season

Good news on the edit-for-the-competition front: got the manuscript down below the 80,000 wordcount limit and only lost one chapter, leaving the finished version #2 ending exactly where it was originally intended to end and leaving me already one completed chapter into Book 2 - and I'm actually really happy with the final version of Witherstone, so that can't be bad!

(-and thanks to A. J. Duggan for such helpful advice & support on the To Edit or Not To Edit question, Prince of Denmark, eat yer heart out. Oh yes, you already did.)

Managed to get it in the post in plenty of time before the competition deadline too, so all-in-all, a job well done.

So now what?
I'm already off to a cracking start with Book 2, and keen to get on with that now to stave off the prospective silence emanating from prospective publishers and competition judges, but I'm also enjoying getting involved with the forthcoming Short Story Season (short stories being my main focal point before I wrote the book) and have crazily replied to a fabulous offer from poet Max Wallis to apply for a slot on his somethingeveryday site...
As this will involve writing er, something every day, and this is what I try to do anyway, it seemed like a great idea at the time I said yay, but the question I'm now raising with myself is whether that something I pen every day is something I'm happy to share with at least 5,000 people (Max's site has that many followers and has received 60,000+ hits in just 8 months...) and I think the answer is probably no.

So, motivated by Max, I'm now aiming to write one GOOD short story every week for Short Story Season - kicking off with the week of 16th November when the Lancashire Writing Hub are running a Word Soup Short Story Night and publicising their Short Story Competition, and typing furiously right through National Short Story Week 22nd-28th November, and rounding off with National Short Story Day on 21st December when LWH will be publishing the winning story from their competition on their website as part of a collaborative Short Story Day project with Comma Press, Flambard Press, Iron Press, Route Publishing, Cadaverine and Mslexia.

By my reckoning, I should end up with 6 good short stories under my pen by 21st December. Well, 6 short stories, anyway.

So, am I planning to send off one of these Short Stories to the fab Lancashire Writing Hub Short Story Competition?
Why not? Because I'm one of the judges, groan...

Some really good news on the topic of writing competitions though is that my talented daughter was a runner-up in a recent Bloomsbury Short Story Competition, so at least someone in the house can write GOOD Short Stories! Congrats HB, for a job well done! ;o)

Word Soup Short Story Night The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston PR1 8JP;

Lancs Writing Hub Short Story Competition deadline 10th December, winner published online 21st December;

National Short Story Week 22nd-28th November,

National Short Story Day website & facebook page.

Friday, 15 October 2010


Now here's a question I've been wrestling with for the past few weeks: what price artistic integrity?
Which leads to the next question - why do I write? - and leads to a basketful of other questions, all raised by one simple but rather thorny issue - wordcount.

Leaving aside the resounding silence following the submission of the completed book to Publisher #1, identifying the next publishers on the list to be graced with my submission raised a persistent problem - wordcount. A typical submission criteria required by those publishers most suited for my book often includes a maximum wordcount, which Witherstone in its final and unabridged form exceeds by quite a bit...
...and having in those same few weeks been persuaded by an insistent writer colleague to enter Witherstone into a certain competition, the questions have been compounded as there is of course a maximum wordcount for said competition which comes a good 2 chapters before the end of the book.
A serious (and I mean serious) edit of the whole manuscript in the subsequent weeks has got it down pretty impressively, losing some bits n bobs but keeping the story & its integrity intact & something I'm still happy with - but still way over the submission criteria.

So what next?

Don't bother with said competition & publishers with maximum wordcount criteria? That's certainly an option, but I do actually want to get it published. And I console myself that if I did manage to get Witherstone published, and it sold well enough, then said publisher would be happier for the subsequent books in the series to be a little longer (eyes glancing at ever-increasing girth of certain well-known series for younger & cross-over readers as each book came along as I speak...)

So, currently tinkering with earlier parts of the story as alternative endings - not such a major problem in a significant respect as the earlier finish would merely mean that the excised two chapters or so move to the beginning of Book 2 instead, and there are a couple of really good places Witherstone itself could finish quite well. And it would be foolish to ignore a goodly batch of potential publishers, and a relevant and prestigious competition.
But. Where it finishes at the moment is the best one. That's why it finishes there. The alternatives all have merit, and merely mean that the next part of the story begins in Book 2 instead of ending Book 1. But. Still BUT. That's not how I want it to end. And that's not how my daughter thinks it should end (she was gasping for Book 2 as soon as she put down Book 1, which is, of course, exactly the effect we wish to create). And the book itself thinks it should end there too.

So... not a fun pun but rather ironic all the same. Do I write for its own sake or write to be published?


Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Finally: Have. Sent. Synopsis. And. Three. Chapters. To. a. PUBLISHER...!

At last. FINAL final edit finished after daughter (finally) got The Book and was allowed to read it. Only three and half months after I "finished" it in time for her birthday in April and then wouldn't let her actually read it until I'd done a "final edit"...

Her patience is astounding, and the good news is she loves it - you might think "well, she would say that," unless you know my daughter! She had a couple of useful suggestions to make (enhancing a paragraph on the first page to make it longer and have more impact, and one or two other tweaks for clarity, but nothing major, and rewriting those small sections at her suggestion while sitting beside Skrevatn lake near Fyresdal, Norway, wasn't exactly a chore either.)

Got back from Norway at the end of August and had to hit the ground running at work, but the new resolution of keeping working hours within sensible boundaries and treating the writing as my other job is already paying off as Monday was spent identifying some of those few-and-far-between publishers who DO accept unsolicited manuscripts and actually sending the synopsis and the first three chapters off.

I'm not actually expecting to hear anything back as the poor Readers are probably desperately trying to find the matches so they can burn their way out from under the daily avalanches but at least it's now Out There in the world.

Next job? Identify a few more places to send it as the rejections/deafening silence start rolling in, and finish the fine-tuning for the overall plan (which has undergone a few shifts since writing Book One) and settle down with the inkpot for the first serious work on book two... so roll on Friday!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Short Story Published! - woo hoo!

Well, how proud am I? Published in a real book and everything! With real writers!

My short story Dragon has been published in Word Soup: Year One, an anthology of Lancashire writers selected by Jenn Ashworth, author of A Kind of Intimacy.

My fellow writers in the anthology are Tom Fletcher, author of The Leaping, Nicholas Royle, author of a number of books including Antwerp, much published Lancastrian poet and short story writer Sarah Hymas, author of Host amongst others, A J Duggan, author of Scars Beneath The Skin, Peter Wild writer, and editor of Before The Rain and other anthologies, Mollie Baxter, writer and musician published all over the place, Norman Hadley, published poet and prose writer, Socrates Adams-Florou, blogger and writer, Sandy Calico, blogger and writer, and Rachel McGladdery, Garstang poet.

For more info on the book, see the Lancashire Writing Hub.

Galvanised into activity this morning, by this step into being a Published Writer, I'm keen to press on with the seemingly never-ending "final edit" of Witherstone, so it's out into the garden with an extension lead and the laptop to type away within smelling distance of the bee hive, replete with fresh wax combs and the busy drone of my busy bees, storing nectar...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Writing it Large!

Woo! Seeing ma wee wurrds Writ Large in the side of public buildings in Preston - and later tonight in Lancaster - is really cool...

...and finally makes it sink in that I'm about to be Published! In a Real Book!!! Woo hoo!!

I've made it into the Lancashire Writing Hub's first full publication - Word Soup: Year One - alongside such cracking Lancashire talent as...

Tom Fletcher (author of The Leaping), Sarah Hymas (Lancaster Poet), Nicholas Royle (published loads of novels including Antwerp, and runs his own printing press Nightjar), Rachel McGladdery (Poet and a super shiny star*), Norman Hadley (poet, author, and designer of enormous engines by night), Socrates Adams (award-winning blogger and writer whose emails never fail to calm stressful moments with his insistence that everythingisfine), Sandy Calico (blogger and writer of short fiction and super shiny star*), Peter Wild (writer and editor and co-author of 'Before The Rain', published by Flax), Mollie Baxter (writer and co-author of 'Before The Rain' who "finds that the act of writing is best approached by stealth"), and A J Duggan (author of Scars Beneath The Skin and, he tells me, a New Novel...!), and cool "Outsiders" photo-documentary dude Garry Cook.

The final choices for the successful authors in the publication was Jenn Ashworth's - author of A Kind of Intimacy - the kind of book that makes you look at your neighbours with a leetle more caution (though I'm more unsettled by the feeling that it isn't me who lives next to Annie, it's my neighbours...)

Check out the book launch at The Continental in Preston on Tooosday 22nd June - a Word Soup special!

Published!!! RESULT!

Friday, 30 April 2010


Well, I "finished" the first full and complete good draft in time for my daughter's birthday - but I haven't let her read it yet because I'm still editing.

So she's diligently reading her other birthday presents without complaint, which I think is down to her innate kindness and understanding, rather than a happy-to-put-that-off strategy...

Work is busy, which means I'm getting little time for the editing, and I keep waking up in the early hours mumbling "the painting!" or "the window!" or "the oven!" as some hidden extra-bit-I-need-to-do-to-The-Book emerges from my subconscious. Weird this writing lark, isn't it.

So today is a Writing Day, but first I have to go and help some bees settle in at the bottom of my garden with a nice feeder sloshing with sugar-syrup, and then meet the designer Helen Ashworth for lunch - Helen designs and makes the most fabulous bags and cushions and notebooks using old letters and postcards as templates and uses old fabrics - which makes it sound as though I move in very elegant circles but really Helen and I both worked together in a library once...

... and then I'll get on with the editing.

Helen Ashworth "Vacances" purse, picture courtesy

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Book is Finished!

- well, finished the first full draft anyway.

Having said that, I don't do "rough" drafts at all but work and work at each section until it's as good as I can get it before I can move on to the next bit. Then the next time I'm working on it (in those snatched moments of calm between working at my real jobs and living in a somewhat lively household), I re-read the preceding section, inevitably tweaking and editing while I do, then move on to the next...
...although my writing tends to move into my head so that I'm thinking about it while eating, sleeping, and washing up and that's often when the next bit starts to take shape - and when the not-previously-spotted mis-shapen nature of what has already been written raps me sharply on the skull too so that I have to revisit it for a rewrite.

So now the first book in the Witherstone series, called, er Witherstone surprisingly enough, is now a complete 13 chapter - 150 pages of A4 - book which only needs a top-to-toe edit to get rid of those irritating little typos and writer's tics which you can't see for toffee when they're on the screen no matter how many times you read them, but jump up from the page and blow raspberries at you as soon as they are printed on real paper.
Weirdly, each chapter seems to have ended up being roughly the same length as one another, although this wasn't intentional, so that's either good fortune, a sign of sheer writerly brilliance, or, as I suspect, an indication that I've done something terribly wrong...

The first port-of-call with the book is my harshest critic - my daughter. I wrote the book for her and managed to get it into its current "finished" state in time for her Birthday on Friday 16th, although having looked at the first couple of chapters since it's been in complete paper form, I desperately want to edit out those irritating typos first! - if she'll let me... My Writing Day is coming up on Thursday so fingers crossed she won't have finished her current read by then and I can sneak her Birthday Present off for a quick editorial first.

Having said that, I'm not sure I'll ever feel that it's really finished - I'm a real devil for picking at a piece of writing and have to tell myself that if I'm at the stage where I'm spending more than 20 minutes dithering about whether to use "said" or "whispered", I have Finished.

Probably one of the most interesting things about the book is that the germ for its inception all began with an encounter in my brother's garden shed last summer - with a hoard of spiders. When I asked my daughter to design a book cover for it though, she came up with a great picture with no spiders in it at all...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Goosebumps of the Literary Kind

Literature is a strange space. The arrangment of words on a page can leave you laughing, crying, gasping, breathless. The first words on a page can pour through your eyeballs and be scorched into your brain forever.

One of the most remarkable opening moments of a novel I've ever come across is Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces. My friend Julia held it out to me in the University library and whispered 'I've bought this as a birthday present for Ria. Do you think she'll like it?'

I glanced at the Prologue quickly: a suggestion that the novel is based on retrieved texts - 'memoirs, diaries, eyewitness accounts' or perhaps is one of those other lost stories 'concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken' - hidden during the Second World War. It sounded interesting.
I turned to the first chapter, read for less than five minutes then packed up my half-arsed essay and went down to the bookshop and bought the book and took it home and read and read and read.
Years later I use different sections of the opening pages of this novel when talking to my own students about literature and memory and questions of truth, literary criticism and literature itself as a kind of archaeology, the strange place of literature where we can tell the untellable, speak the unspeakable, examine our humanity, and the way in which the words on a page can burrow into your brain and seep into every pore of your being so that you carry that arrangement of words around inside you for the rest of your life.

Time is a blind guide.
Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin's wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.
No one is born just once. If you're lucky, you'll emerge again in someone's arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.
I squirmed from the marshy ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road, six hundred cockleshell beads around his neck, a helmet of mud. Dripping with the prune-coloured juices of the peat-sweating bog. Afterbirth of earth.
I saw a man kneeling in the acid-steeped ground. He was digging. My sudden appearance unnerved him. For a moment he thought I was one of Biskupin's lost souls, or perhaps the boy in the story, who digs a hole so deep he emerges on the other side of the world.

You can click on this link to read reviews of this novel on Amazon.

In this novel, Michael's uses poetic language to examine the profound impact of loss, the importance of remembering, and the redemptive power of human love. In part she does this by defamiliarising the murder committed in war in ways which lose none of the horror whilst at the same time foregrounding the enormity of what is lost - those unique and individual lives, the lives of the survivors, and humanity itself. Her use of language evokes similar layered depths of love, humanity and ethical truths as Michael Ondaatje, another writer who just about blows you away with the intense beauty of his language; both writers, for me, poetry in motion.

It's true to say that I'm one of the readers of Michael's novel who finds it in some senses a novel of two halves, preferring the first half, Jakob's half, to the second half of the book overall, although that isn't to say the second half isn't well worth reading because it is, and Anne Michaels' truly beautiful use of language permeates the whole book, but I guess what I'm saying is that the first half of the book has lodged itself in me - has "entered me through my pores and been carried through my bloodstream to my heart" to paraphrase Michaels.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

rock pool

seaweed courtesy of - images - 851606

Robert couldn’t wait to get out of the car. He jiggled up and down in his seat, his face close to the window so that he didn't miss a thing.
‘Can we get out now? Are we parked?’
‘Just wait. I need to get a ticket’ said his mother, and she undid her seatbelt and opened her door.
‘Can I come too?’ he asked, but she slammed the door shut without answering and walked across the car park. Robert craned up to see where his mother was. She was at the ticket machine. She was coming back to the car. Excitedly, he undid his seat belt and picked up his overstuffed rucksack from the seat beside him and tried to open his door, but it was locked.
‘Mum! Mummy! I can’t get out!’
‘Just wait!’ she said as she opened her door. She peeled the backing off the ticket, stuck it half across the back and pressed the ticket to the window. She slammed her door shut again and opened Robert’s door from outside.
‘Don’t go running off as soon as we’ve crossed the road.’
Robert held his mother’s hand as they crossed, trying to stop his rucksack from banging into his leg as it hung awkwardly from his other hand. When they reached the pavement, Robert tried to run onto the sand but his mother kept hold of him.
‘You’re hurting!’ he said, trying to free his hand.
Just wait!’ she hissed.

Robert looked at the curve of the sandy beach with the huge boulders all along one side, tumbling down towards the sea. The sea. The tide was out past the rocks and some children were already down by the rock pools, their fishing nets waving as they ran from pool to pool. Their voices sounded far away and Robert felt as if he would never get there. He looked up at his mother. She was slowly surveying the beach. She let go of Robert’s hand and started to walk the other way, away from the rocks. Robert walked behind her, awkward in his shoes in the soft, dry sand. He watched it dust up onto his shoes and socks as he walked. There were tiny stones and shells lying in dry waves along the tide-line, framed by parched seaweeds which stretched away in long, tangled mounds across the sand.

After walking an endless way along the beach, Robert’s mother finally stopped and started to unpack her bag. She unrolled her beach-mat, took off her sandals, sat down and stretched out her legs. She began to unscrew the top from a bottle of sun-tan lotion. Robert watched her, trying to wait until she was ready to let him go, but his impatience butted in.
‘Can I go to the rock pools now? Please mum?’
She waved him away without looking up.

Robert fumbled with his shoe-laces and impatiently prised his half-unlaced shoes off his feet. His socks quickly followed and his feet found themselves at last in the hot, loose sand. He opened his rucksack and emptied it beside him. He left the plastic spades, picked up a small bucket and started to run across the soft sand. It was hot and soft but rough on his bare feet. Sand-shrimps jumped out of the tangles of seaweed as he quickly picked his way across them. As his feet met the smooth wet sand, he ran faster, his footprints lighter behind him slowly darkening as the water reclaimed them.

As he reached the rocks, he slowed. Walking as slowly as he could force himself, he reached the first pool. He looked into the water and the sun rippled across the sand at the bottom. A dart of movement. Fish. Robert held his breath and slowly crouched down to see. Tiny fish, the colour of sand, swam without moving in a patch of sunlight. Robert slowly let out his breath and watched them, their tiny fins blurring like wings. He gently eased the bucket into the water towards the fish. At the last moment, the translucent creatures darted away, but when he pulled the bucket back towards him, he saw that one fish was hovering in the water of the bucket. He carefully sat down with the bucket in his hands and watched the fish. It was so transparent he could see its darker organs through the skin. After a while, he slowly got up, lowered the bucket back into the pool and encouraged the tiny creature out towards where the other fish had swum.

Robert walked from pool to pool, his shadow following him. He saw the small empty skeleton of a crab, moving gently to and fro in the soft motion of the water. Feathery fronds of bright green weed held motionless in the smaller pools amongst mop-headed bladderwrack. Red anemones on the submerged rocks glowed like rubies in the deeper pools, and black sea-snails glided silent tracks across the sand at the bottom. He stepped into the warm water, watching the sand rise in slow little puffs around his feet.

Further on, surrounding a huge rock which jutted out of the sand, was the biggest pool yet. It was deep, and deeper still where the sea had excavated around the base of the grey-black stone, the pool sloping down into the shadows where long strands of reddish seaweed floated out like underwater hair. He stepped into the pool, and a shimmer passed across the surface of the water. Looking down into the water, he saw more of the tiny transparent fish, hovering in the long red strands of weed which floated out from the deepest part of the pool.

He slowly walked down the sea-carved slope into the deeper water and let his fingers float in amongst the fish. The fine strands of weed caressed his fingers, clinging slightly to his skin. His toes sank into little clouds of sand, and he saw a silvery sheen behind the flowing weed, stretching right along the underside of the rock.

Robert leaned in more closely, adjusting his head to avoid the glare of the sunlight on the water, and in the shadow of the rock he saw a long fish tail, longer than his own legs. His eyes followed the tail back up towards the long strands of seaweed, where the scales gradually evolved into silvery skin. The mermaid’s arm moved gently in the motion of the water, fingertips caressing the tail, its scales shimmering in silvery rainbow colours where the sunlight found them. Behind the floating hair, which still tugged gently at his fingers, a silvery oval slowly resolved itself into a face. The mermaid’s dead fish eyes were open and staring blankly, while a tiny transparent fish nibbled at the still, grey lips. Robert tried to untangle his fingers from the mermaid’s hair. His feet were held by the shifting sand, and the mermaid’s dead fingers brushed against his feet as he struggled to get away. Freeing his feet and hands at last, he stumbled from the water, fell to his knees and was sick into the wet sand.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

the hill

photo courtesy

The wiry grass glittered with diamonds in the clear crystal light. The hollow of her footsteps amplified the silence as she climbed, and she looked up the hill to where the green grass clung to the luminescent body of the rock, poised in its reach. The wind whispered around her, and breathed the new-born smell of heliotrope onto her skin. She inhaled its breath, her heart lifting, and trod the echo of her boots into the earth.

An exposed hawthorn stood silently, clasping the rock above her, where the skin of turf was thinning. She stopped for a moment, and a coil of air exhaled a breath of decay from the ground at her feet. A tangled scrap of wool and tiny bones lay rotting in the early morning sun. The heap stirred, the wind in its wool, mingling its dusky air with her breath. She turned away and carried on up the slope. As she neared the hawthorn, the silence was startled by the song of a blackbird pouring its golden enchantment through the air from the bony web of thorn, shimmering with endless points of light. The bird paused and looked back at her for a moment before continuing its clear, thrilling rapture. As she resumed her journey, the sparkling song washed over her, and her heart beat its tune.

As she climbed steadily higher, the wind’s murmur was becoming cooler, and the clear blue air was beginning to dissolve into a grey mist, gradually thickening around her as the hill became steeper. The grass was thinning, finally giving way completely to cold stone as the barren rock emerged beneath her feet. She stopped and turned, leaning her back against the cool granite, and felt herself alone on the hill.
Time was getting on. She turned back to the rock and climbed, the only sound carried on the sigh of the wind was the resonance of her footsteps into the stone. Her body pressed into the hill as she sought for any relief on the rock to which she could cling, and the rock steadily lifted her higher into the darkening clouds beginning to mass over her. The wind was hurrying her now, swirling its cool insistence against her neck. She shivered, pulling her collar in tighter against it.
As she finally emerged from the lee of the hill, the wind’s urging suddenly became a roar, pulling her clothes out from her body, screaming her hair into its mouth. Her cry was dragged out of her mouth whu-uff, and behind her, the wind cried O God! to the sky.

Great swathes of rain began to move across the dismal clouds, a huge bolt of cloth slowly unravelling in the wind. A thousand beads of rain wept into her face. The torrent of water soaked through her clothes in seconds, immersing her skin, and her heart ached suddenly for the blackbird’s song, far behind her now, flowing endlessly from the shimmering branches of the past. For a moment she thought she could almost hear it, echoing through the air which surged and howled around her. She closed her eyes to keep the song within her as she leaned against the hill.

Clasping the pale granite, heart pounding with the rain, she spread her fingers wide, roots tapping into the rock. Shimmers of rain clung to eyelashes, and skin of wet stone. As the sky slowly darkened into night, scraps and tatters of cloth flapped wildly, before breaking free and whirling away into the roaring silence.