The best place to start this blog lark is with a quick explanation of its title - why 'Scallops'?  
It came to me in a dream:  short stories are like scallops!  Similes and metaphors don't usually come to me in my sleep, I wish they did,  but on this occasion  I had watched rather too much of Hell's Kitchen before bedtime.  At some point, the wannabe chefs had competed to free perfect scallops from the gelatinous mass inside the shells. Craggy-faced Gordon was not pleased if any scallops had been spoiled in the process which, of course, most were.

A short story should also be small and perfectly formed:  it is the result of the skillful cutting down of a large, slippery concept in to a small, firm morsel of art.  As a writer still learning her craft, I know how easy it is to mutilate a good short story.  But I am hoping I'll get better with practice and - fingers crossed - that'll happen before my face turns too craggy...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Auntie's Short Stories

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Godbless BBC Radio 4. And I'm not the religious type, but it truly is a saviour for us Brits abroad. Anyway, check out the readings of the shortlisted finalists of the National Short Story Award 2011:

I've just listened to Rag Love by MJ Hyland, a tale of two lovers with a plan to have sex on a luxury cruise liner.

As a listener, I was underwhelmed. The characters and their relationship lacked depth, their 'plan' was trite, the ticking clock didn't generate enough tension...and my biggest issue was the bland description of the luxury liner. "A perfect blue rectangle" described the pool and "two chairs and a glass coffee table" described the penthouse. There were several other examples too dull to remember. And, for something set in Australia and in the 1960s, there wasn't enough detail to justify these setting choices. My final thought is that the story didn't contain anything especially profound in the words or the theme, I thought - it had resolution but no resonance, for my taste at least.

But the esteemed panel of judges saw something in it I didn't. Unfortunately, there are no comments about the story from the judges, so I guess we'll never know what floated their boat.

p.s. 'Auntie' is the nickname of the BBC. Ain't that quaint?

Monday, 12 September 2011

How can it be September already?

This year is going too fast. I need to pick up the pace if I'm going to amount to much in 2011...

Since my last post, progress has been slow with perhaps only one new story completed and another under construction. The two are intended to be companion pieces, in fact. They are written in a way that means they can be read in isolation of each other, but the second story is also written to add a surprising twist to the first. A fun exercise, for sure, but I've not yet given a publishing strategy any thought. Do I send them off individually, or as a pair?

Also since my last post I have joined a new writing group. This one meets every two weeks and has 9 members. We each read submissions ahead of time then spend our meetings talking about the pieces purely in terms of what we liked and what could be developed. Simple. And a lot of fun. As a writer, I believe groups like this are less important for the feedback received, than for developing key critical skills. Writers who don't like to fraternise with other writers in this context are missing the point.

At the last writers' meeting, I presented a prologue and the first half of a chapter for a novel. Yes! A novel. But NO - I am not abandoning the short. I also hate people who think of shorts as merely a means to a more commercial novel-writing end. My novel is a long term project with currently no end in sight and I'll need to keep writing shorts to keep me sane as I go along. We'll see how that goes.

My job - which I wanted because it was part-time - has been full time (more or less) since I took it on last November. But last week I told my boss last week that I would be doing part-time, or she can find a full time replacement. A hard thing to do because I like my job and my boss but I need more time for writing, end of.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Avuncular Success

It's been too long. Sorry for the extended absence and shameful lack of blogging. Yes, work has been getting in the way - but that's no excuse.

I have been recently inspired to pull my finger out but none other than my very own Uncle Allan. Twenty years ago, he and his wife conceived an idea for a novel - rooted in their love of North Wales and fascination with its slate mining heritage. Today, they have written six novels in an epic saga spanning a century - from 1900 to, I think, the present.

Allan, who had never written a word of fiction before this project, began to attend a writing class a few years ago. It was funded by MIND as a way of keeping older people's grey matter active (not that Allan needed much help there) and was run by a well-meaning academic in his thirties who advised Allan that he'd get nowhere without an agent...

Well, long story short, Allan has been offered a publishing deal from a well-known publisher based in Cambridge for his second (I think) novel in the saga. As I type, he's frantically working with an editor and the company's marketing department to release the book later this year. And he has another publisher interested in the first in the series!

Hurrah! I love it when people circumvent the established order. It gives us all hope that we won't all necessarily have to pay through the nose for an agent and that, these days, talent and ideas can speak for themselves.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Piano Returns

A few blog posts ago ('Piano Envy'), I talked about a wonderful short story of a man who throws his piano into the sea. So I was delighted to see on the BBC News website this week that a grand piano had mysteriously turned up on a sand bank off the coast of Miami.

The short video showed people speculating who put the piano there but I prefer to think it's the piano from the story. It's travelled around the world on the ocean currents and it's tired, it wants to settle down, it wants to be rescued from the sand bank, restored, and to return to a family home. I'm almost tempted to reclaim it myself...if not in reality, in a sequel to the original story.

But we all know most sequels are no good. If only the writer of the original were still with us...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Oh to be Rich!

If I were wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, the first luxury I would afford myself is a personal hairdresser to give me the Liz Lemon look everyday. But I recently met a man whose first luxury was to set up his own publishing company dedicated to publishing his own work. After working in venture capital for his working life, he's decided to spend his millions in his retirement on his dream. Nice.

I went for a job to be this guy's PA and it was an oddly tempting proposition - a $80-100,000 salary for arranging international 'pilgrimages' to meet interesting artists. But after 2 interviews with two members of his team and one interview with the man himself, I wasn't offered the job.

After about 5 minutes in a room with him, I decided the job was not for me anyway. Apparently, writing for 15 hours a day makes a person rather hard to warm to and he was plainly not interested in me. I made a point of emphasising my love of social realism and of British Working Class literature and that, I expect, ended my chances: I am not someone a rich guy who's writing about himself and spending his fortune on himself can identify with!

Meeting him confirmed what I suspected when I read his writing: he is a very aloof individual. I know a lot of writers are isolated but the best writer is a people person, who can empathise with others to create powerful stories. Perhaps, therefore, the more appropriate adage is not 'write what you know' but 'write who you know.'

But good luck to the guy. He believes in his work and he's able to live his dream, something all us writers would love to do. However, at the end of the day money can buy you fame, but it can't buy you talent and he will only succeed if he can show others his talent is as significant as his bank account. I'll be following his publishing venture with a lot of interest, and just a little envy.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Work, Write Balance

Urgh. I knew this would happen. Having a job really gets in the way of writing! I started a part-time job three weeks ago, working for a lovely non-profit in San Francisco. It's great and it's certainly nice to be earning again, but I have hardly any time to devote to my writing now. I foolishly thought a part-time job would be fine. However, I find it almost impossible to write when I know there's some work to be done and, in a non-profit, there's ALWAYS work to be done.

Now's the time to take the advice all professional writers give. Make time. Find a slot in the day and stick to it, give it your full attention, everything else can wait. For me, it'll be first thing in the morning, before I've had a chance to check my in-box. If I wait until later in the day, it'll never get done.

But it's not all bad. The big advantages of working are the people you meet and the stories you uncover. I'm looking forward to gathering some more life experience I can use in my fiction. I worked at all sorts of hell-holes during my student days. I squeezed peaches (sending the soft ones to street markets, the firm ones to the supermarket); I packed bottles of cooking oil off a conveyor belt; I cored lettuces in near freezing temperatures; and I folded surgical gowns at a hospital laundry. All the details of these ordeals are filed away in my brain and will be put to good use. The jobs I had after graduation weren't nearly so interesting but the job I have now will introduce me to all sorts of people in all sorts of life situations.

My bloke says I should quit my job if it really gets in the way. He's a rare gem of a man and I'm lucky as lucky can be that he is a successful artist: he knows what it's like to live the dream and to have people back you up. He expects a lot of me - more than I expect of myself - which is a good thing because you work so much harder when someone's counting on you.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Stitch in Time

As a reader I am gratified by well written books. However, as a writer I can be gratified by a badly written one. I know how uncharitable that sounds, sorry.

As a reader I read Sarah Waters's Affinity and was blown away by the writing and the narrative twist. As a writer, I've just read her more recent novel, The Night Watch and was greatly irritated, mostly by the narrative.

The story goes in reverse chronology starting with 1947, then 1945 and finally 1941 and I couldn't help wondering if this was nothing more than an attempt to make it more interesting. In the right order, it would have been a very unremarkable story indeed. The frustration was that we meet the characters at the end of their development arcs and, quite frankly, none of them were very likable. I wasn't so bothered about how they got to the positions they were in as how they would get out of them.

A good story is seamless, smooth and tight like a pair of silk stockings; the writing so good it is nearly invisible. The Night Watch, however, is a roughly knitted jumper that starts out full of holes and loose ends, then unravels with each section until the narrative threads end up in a jumbled heap.

It's good to know the masters of the art drop stitches from time to time, just like us apprentices.