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, 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.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

My First Story

To Be With The King is my first ever story, written a whole decade ago. I'm putting it up on my blog now because I know I never will enter it into competitions. Being my first, I am very fond of this story, so much so that I don't care what anyone else thinks of it! Although your comments are welcome, of course.

The inspiration for this story is a gorgeous folk song, Galway to Graceland, by Richard Thompson. Despite originally receiving permission from his music production company to publish, I have left off the lyrics to the song that complete the story and recommend you find a copy of the song instead...

To Be With The King

She dressed in the dark and whispered Amen. The bedroom is moonlight grey but Sally is pretty and pink like a young girl again. She crouches at the foot of the bed, her knees pop and crack under the strain. She slides out her suitcase. Until yesterday, all it had contained for twenty years since her honeymoon were a pair of woodlice shells and a single sock zipped into the lining compartment. There had been no time to wonder what had happened to its partner.

She glances up at Seamus. He lies uncovered and naked despite the night’s chill; turning the quiet night air into noise through his cavernous nose while the vast dome of his belly rises and falls in time. She knows where those twenty years have gone: Seamus swallowed them whole, one by one, gorging himself on them without ever being satisfied. No, she thinks, she won’t miss him and she says under her breath ‘not one little bit’.

The truth was that Sally was in love with another man and everyone knew it. It was Love the night she first caught sight of him at the local picture house; he was larger than life. Larger than her life. She felt like the only woman on earth when he looked at her and he soon became all she could talk about. From the hairdresser’s to the butcher’s Sally would swoon over her lover’s latest movements. Father O’Reilly had sat patiently as Sally had giggled her way through her daily confessions of impure thoughts. His eyebrows, on his otherwise immobile face, often dived down the centre of his nose in disapproval but they had once shot up so far they almost slid over his bald head.

In the beginning, her friends had joked about Sally’s obsession on street corners and over the fences on washing day;

‘Guess what our Sally did today?’

‘What now?’

‘She only wrote to him, told him she’s in love with him and her life would be unbearable without him.’

‘She never did! Mother of God! Whatever next? How did she get his address?’

‘She told me she wouldn’t need one, the postman is bound to know where he lives. She’s a funny one.’

Everyone agreed.

Lately, Sally had begun to think of her house as an ungrateful old relative who creaked and groaned constantly, despite the care she had showed it over the years. Sally knew it would try to interfere with her escape tonight by waking Seamus with its snapping joints and whining hinges. She had practiced night after night, waking the snoring heap at various stages en route but avoided suspicion by blaming a weak bladder. No more practice runs, this is her last chance.

In her stocking feet Sally tiptoes across the bedroom floor on the safe places like she did as a child to avoid the bad luck hiding in the pavement cracks. The wailing door to the landing only squeaks meekly, sedated by a treatment of fat from the Sunday roast. Sally shuts it behind her. On the landing she ties a length of rope to the suitcase handle and lowers it over the banister into the dark hallway below. She stands at the top of the staircase, every stair is prepared to scream out to Seamus but now, taking a deep breath, Sally tucks her skirt into her knickers and straddles the hand rail before inching slowly passed the mute stairs towards freedom.

It was not long before Sally’s friends had ceased to see the funny side and were embarrassed when, for her 40th birthday, she had ‘Elvis I love You’ tattooed upon her breast which, without shame, she showed everyone. Poor Seamus was a laughing stock. Everyone agreed he would have to put his foot down, he would have to show her who was King and so he did. He stopped her house keeping money which she had been spending on records and magazines. On one night the neighbours would talk about for weeks, Seamus threw the TV out of the window when he had returned from the pub to find THAT MAN gyrating his hips in his very own front room. To add insult to injury the ancient television set had created a triple image - Elvis in the flesh and two ghostly companions; it had to go, everyone agreed. What’s more, every time Sally hummed Blue Suede Shoes in absentminded reverie Seamus would reach for his brown carpet slipper.

Very soon Elvis was a dirty word in Galway and Sally was totally cut off from news of her sweetheart. No one mentioned him for fear of undoing all Seamus’ good work in curing his wife’s affliction, even Father O’Reilly offered him wholehearted support and stood Sally at the front of church on one cold morning and preached for three Catholic hours about worshipping false idols. It was for her own good, everyone agreed, despite their pins and needles. The good Father also stopped paying Sally for cleaning the church so that through penance she would also cleanse her own poor soul. Galway severed every link between Sally and her lover but Elvis found a way and every night he came into her dreams singing Are You Lonesome Tonight? and then loving her so tender that she cried out in her sleep.

At the backdoor, Sally slips on her shoes and in to the night, down the network of alleyways that lead to St Catherine’s church. The clock face glows in the moonlight and reads a quarter to two as Sally lets herself into the vestibule. Sally is nervous: she tucks a stray auburn curl under her headscarf, adjusts her horn-rimmed spectacles and approaches the Madonna in pigeon steps like a disobedient school girl. She kneels at Her feet and looks up. She knows Our Lady intimately, she has dusted every nook and cranny for 15 years but notices now that she had forgotten her nostrils on her last visit and the legs of a spider are poking out like unsightly nasal hair. Sally draws out her hanky and wipes the Madonna’s nose, she thinks it is the least she can do, after all she is the only friend she has left. Is she mistaken? Did Our Lady wink? Sally blinks, adjusts her glasses again then looks up for the last time at the stain glass tableaux of the devoted followers gazing adoringly up at The King of Kings with a child in his arms.

One day The King was dead. Sallys the world over wailed, tore at their hair in grief, set up shrines and began to flock to Graceland but our Sally had no way of knowing. Seamus wore the smug smile of a victorious lover, the corners of his mouth pushed upward by the news that filled it. But instead of spitting it out he savoured it, rolling it around his mouth like a bully with a stolen sweet. His tongue tingled with the delicious anticipation of revelation but it was not long before he could take it no more, after all Seamus had needs, everyone agreed. Sally had been saving herself for Elvis for so long and now her true love was food for worms, Seamus saw his chance. Spurred on by a night in the pub with his friends, he staggered home with a tingling in his loins, practising the Presley hip thrusts they told him were guaranteed to turn his wife’s knees to jelly. It couldn’t fail; he was so confident in fact he had made a bet with sceptic Billy O’Connor on his success. He found Sally sitting at the kitchen table, spelling out Elvis with the peas on his plate of cold dinner which scattered all over the table as he pushed it aside. He opened his shirt and thrust a hip in her face. Nothing. Not a bloody flicker and certainly no flush of lust. He belched to clear his throat then slurred tunelessly in her ear…We can’t go on together with suspicious minds…and something ignited in Sally’s eyes, she whispered;

‘We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out because I…’

Seamus looked behind him because Sally seemed to be seeing straight through him to someone else.

‘Bloody hell fire woman, what are you whittering about?’

‘Why can’t you see what you’re doing to me?’


‘You can’t see these tears are real, I’m crying, we can’t go on together with suspicious minds.’

Sally was singing now and the penny dropped.

‘Bloody hell fire woman’ he growled as he reached into his pocket for his secret weapon, he held out the tabloid clipping heralding: THE KING IS DEAD. Her singing stopped and his grin spread to reveal his remaining teeth that were sunk into his gums at angles like miniature, neglected headstones. He stooped to look her full in the face, breathing death on to it. Having dealt his blow and seen that the spark had been extinguished, he dragged his stunned prey up the stairs. First thing the next morning, Seamus hammered on Billy O’Connor’s door to collect his winnings.

Sally kisses the Madonna then finds her way through the gloom to the vestry where Father O’Reilly keeps the coffers which are swollen by the new roof appeal. Sally lifts the velvet bag of coins and notes and bites her lip. Doubt washes over her but as she decides to replace the bag a voice whispers to her in a familiar soft Southern drawl;‘Darl-in, it’s yours. Uh huh. It’s back payment, your penance is over.’ He is right, it is just enough to cover her unpaid wages. Sally lifts the bag again and it feels lighter now.

Seamus opened one eye. Something wasn’t right. Breaking the crusty seal on his other eye with a fat finger he saw very clearly that something was wrong. Where was she? He called once and waited. Nothing. With every step he took and door he opened, the house found its voice and it cried ‘She’s gone, she’s gone’. In anguish he looked out of the windows front and back and replies ‘gone where? gone where?’.

From a distance St Catherine’s clock face watched. Before her hands had turned a full circle, news of Sally’s disappearance had been passed over the walls and around the tavern tables of Galway, each storyteller adding a new twist to the tale. Within weeks it had passed from speculation to folklore and, on the rare occasions Seamus was not in the pub, some even sang…

(To find out what they sang, download Richard Thompson's 'Galway to Graceland' on i-tunes).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Two new discoveries...

1. It's great to see publishers showing the love for the short story and my new favourite is Harper Perennial whose site,, delivers one short a week, free.

2. You know something's in trouble when it's deemed worthy of its own charity. The short story, by some people's reckoning, is endangered but thankfully through - a nonprofit 501 (3)(c) - you can have a short story posted to you by snail mail every three weeks. Great for junkies like me who need a constant supply and don't much like reading shorts online.

The best thing about both these publishers, is they take submissions from just about anybody...

Subscribe to both these sites folks (see links) and get your regular diet of shorts started.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Tense Moment

As a writer, one of the creative choices I've found hardest to make is which tense to use.

I'm trying to finish a story I began sometime ago that has been sitting around for too long. The Perfect Lodger began as a first person past but following the first overhaul, this changed to third person past. Now I'm trying to decide if it would, in fact, be better told using third person present...

If anyone's reading this, I'd be grateful if you could read the following openers and tell me which works best. Is one more engaging than the other? Or, do you think the story might be better off as first person?! VOTE NOW - it's over to you.

Option A:
“The seaside,” Lola said. “I want to go to the seaside.”
Having mistaken Saturday for a school day, Lola was dressed too early and she sat at the kitchen table, scowling into her pastel-coloured cereal with a ferocity that could have boiled the milk. Her ears, which poked through her lank black hair, were bright red.
Her mother squealed, clapped her hands together and sang, “We’re off to the seaside!” over and over. Kerry, her thick hair tied back in a bunch of curly brown twigs still frayed with sleep, was still in her pink-hearted pyjamas and fluffy grey slippers, like two chinchillas squashed by the soles of her feet.
On the other side of the kitchen Carla was sawing through a fat log of fresh bread. She had been fooled into her suit by Lola who had knocked on her door at 8am needing help putting her school uniform on the right side out. Carla had been wardrobe mistress since Monday when, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic fall-out, Kerry lay buried beneath her duvet while Lola sheltered under an occasional table. It had been left to Carla to coax the child out, dry her eyes, get her dressed, pack her lunch and walk her to school.
Unable to endure the punishment any longer, a day out of Lola’s choosing was Kerry’s latest peace offering. The month before, it had been a pair of rabbits. They were never allowed in the garden but given the run of the hallway, showing their boredom by stripping off the first half-foot of wallpaper, nibbling the skirting boards and scattering little brown balls across the lino. Carla had kept a dustpan by her door and a stoic silence, but ranted about the situation to her colleagues who agreed with her: Lola was one spoiled brat.

Option B:
“The seaside,” Lola says. “I want to go to the seaside.”
Having mistaken Saturday for a school day, Lola is dressed too early and sits at the kitchen table, scowling into her pastel-coloured cereal with a ferocity that could boil the milk. Her ears, which poke through her lank black hair, are bright red.
Her mother, sitting opposite, is delighted and begins to sing, “We’re off to the seaside!” over and over. Kerry’s thick hair is tied back into a bunch of curly brown twigs and she’s still in her pink-hearted pyjamas and fluffy grey slippers, like two chinchillas squashed by the soles of her feet.
On the other side of the kitchen Carla saws through a fat log of fresh bread. She is also dressed, fooled into her suit by Lola who had needed her help putting on her school uniform on the right side out. Carla had been wardrobe mistress since Monday when, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic fall-out, Kerry lay buried beneath her duvet while Lola sheltered under an occasional table. It was left to Carla to coax the child out, dry her eyes, get her dressed, pack her lunch and walk her to school.
Unable to endure the punishment any longer, a day out of Lola’s choosing is Kerry’s latest peace offering. The month before, it had been a pair of rabbits. They aren’t allowed in the garden but are given the run of the hallway and show their boredom by stripping off the first half-foot of wallpaper, nibbling the skirting boards and scattering little brown balls across the lino. Carla keeps a dustpan by her door and a stoic silence, but often rants about the situation to her colleagues who agree with her: Lola is one spoiled brat.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Truth is funnier than fiction

The following hilarious excerpt from a genuine debate in the UK's House of Lords shows why fiction is so damn difficult. No writer could make up either this dialogue or these names...

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the administration is fully aware of the problem with mice in the Palace of Westminster and is taking all appropriate measures to minimise their numbers. We retain the services of an independent pest control consultant and a full-time pest controller. The current focus is on poisoning and trapping, blocking of mouse access points, and more frequent cleaning of bars and restaurants to remove food debris. This programme was intensified over the February Recess and fewer sightings of mice have been reported since.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I thank the noble Lord for his reply. How many calls have there been to the mouse helpline? Has the accuracy of that information been checked, given that the staff report seeing mice on a daily basis at the moment in the eating areas? Has consideration been given to having hypoallergenic cats on the estate, given the history? Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning. Finally, does the noble Lord recognise the fire hazard that mice pose, because they eat through insulating cables? It would be a tragedy for this beautiful Palace to burn down for lack of a cat.

The Chairman: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I cannot give an answer to the number of calls made to the mouse helpline-if that is its title. I suspect that it would not be a good use of resources to count them up. But I am well aware of the problem of mice, as I said in my Answer. It is something that we take seriously.

As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed-I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.

Lord Bradshaw: I have spoken continually to the staff in the eating places in the House and I acknowledge that there has been some diminution in the number of mice around. But could I press the noble Lord, because further action needs to be taken? I know that this is an old building, but mice are still here and we are talking about places where food is served. I have no magic solution, but perhaps the consultant who is being employed might have some answers.

The Chairman: My Lords, I am well aware that there are still mice around. I saw one in the Bishops' Bar only yesterday evening. I do not know whether it was the same one that I saw the day before or a different one; it is always difficult to tell the difference between the various mice that one sees. We believe that the problem is getting better. Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer. As I speak here this afternoon, the Bishops' Bar and the Guest Room are being hoovered, so we can get rid of the food scraps from lunch. If you were a mouse, you would rather eat the crumbs of a smoked salmon sandwich than the bait. Therefore, we want to remove the crumbs as quickly as possible.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Why should I and noble Lords trust the Executive to deal with mice when they cannot deal with the economy?

The Chairman: My Lords, I do not actually deal with the economy. I am glad to say that that would be above my pay grade, whereas trying to deal with the mice is probably just about right for me.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was in total ignorance that there was anything of the nature of a mouse helpline until this Question Time. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us what helplines there are for Members of the House on other issues that we do not know about?

The Chairman: I rather hope that we do not have too many other ones. I was not going to advertise the existence of the mouse helpline, although it was advertised some time ago. Indeed, I invited Members of the House to telephone when they saw mice. The trouble is that when the person at the other end of the helpline goes to check this out, very often the mouse has gone elsewhere...

Sunday, 22 August 2010

I Don't Believe It!

Thank God for BBC Radio: without access to it on the internet, I might go mad here in the US where news media is so excruciating. This weekend I listened to a great Radio 4 documentary feature on Les Bouquinistes - the 100's of second hand booksellers that line the Seine. The reporter told a story of an American woman visiting Paris who perused the books and was delighted to find a book she remembered as a childhood favourite, long since out of print. Full of nostalgia and keen to buy it, she opened the front cover to find the price and found her very own name in her very own handwriting.

I immediately considered writing this as a short story but then began to worry that, as fiction, it would be considered too contrived, too coincidental to be believable and the power of the story will be destroyed. I could only get away with writing about the American and the Bouquinistes if I added 'Based on a True Story' - a subtitle used to prepare us for the unbelievable. Tolerance for the unbelievable seems so much greater in non-fiction.

I find this somewhat depressing. All non-fiction formats - from newscasts to fashion adverts to autobiographies lie to us: they are fiction masquerading as fact. One fifth of the US population believes Obama is a Muslim because the conservative media has inferred it over and over until fiction festered into fact. No doubt, Glenn Beck's inevitable memoir will convince us all he isn't, in fact, the devil incarnate.

A close friend once refused to read any fiction because 'there are too many facts in the world' and too little time to waste on frivolity. Happily, he's seen the error of his ignorance and is now a passionate writer of fantasy fiction with an appreciation for literature. Although he would never admit it, he would probably agree with me that fiction, especially in this day and age, is becoming the bastion of 'truth'. Fiction is open about its fabrication and lies without hypocrisy and as a result the truths within (by which I mean universal truths about the human condition) can be told.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Short & Sweet

"Congratulations! You've won first prize in the Twisted Tails Short Story Competition (Spring) . One hundred euros will be sent shortly to your PayPal account..."

Never have two sentences given me more joy.

Now I can call myself a writer!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Close Encounters

I've read a lot of books about writing over the years. Some are essential technical reading, like Strunk & White's The Elements of Style but others are a bit hit and miss. However, I can heartily recommend the book I've just finished: Reading Like a Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose.

The book is all about close reading and looking at the choices writers make regarding words, sentence structure, paragraphing, character details etc. It's great to read a book for writers that doesn't throw out rules but looks at what works and, quite often, what works goes against the received wisdom you'll find in a lot of writers' self-help books.

I learned a lot from Prose, more in fact than I learned about close reading while doing my English Literature degree. As far as I recollect, we didn't do much close reading on the course - having to get through 6 books a week prevented that. Instead, we were encouraged to look past the words to the socio-economic meaning, as if the beautiful rows of flowers were not as important as and the soil and the gardener. Authors created 'discourses' not 'narratives', apparently.

This concept was not one I'd been used to prior to University. I remember sitting wide-eyed throughout a lecture in which The Wizard of Oz was deconstructed by our gay lecturer in a way that would've finished off my straight-laced grandma who can take or leave all films except this one. A lot of people - my fella included - would say such interpretation is ridiculous but what I learned from my degree is that interpretation is not about what the reader/viewer takes out, it's about what they put in. And thus, post-depression, The Wizard of Oz can also be read as an allegory about economics. That said, I wish there'd been more close reading at University. But now I am trying to become a writer, I will be taking close reading more seriously and I am currently studying (rather than reading) The Poisonwood Bible and thanks to Prose's book, it's a doubly useful experience.

With an hour to kill a few weeks ago, I wandered over to the SF Library curious to see if any self-help books existed specifically for the short story writer. I typed "How to Write Short Stories" into their computerised catalogue and there it was - a book written by Ring W. Lardner in 1925 with that very title - so I ventured up to the antiquities section to view it.

It wasn't quite the instruction manual the title had implied: it was a collection of Ring's shorts with an introduction. But the introduction delighted me because it was hard to tell if he was being serious or sarcastic in his advice. Because of the age of the book, his stern face in his photo and my largely unfounded assumption that sarcasm is more common in modern comedy, I assumed his advice was given in all seriousness. That was my University training talking. However, if this assumption is correct, the following passage is absolutely hilarious:

"The first thing I generally always do is try and get hold of a catchy title, like for instance, 'Basil Hargrave's Vermifuge', or 'Fun at the Incinerating Plant.' Then I set down to a desk or flat table of any kind and lay out 3 or 4 sheets of paper with as many different colored pencils and look at them cock-eyed for a few moments before making a selection.
How to begin - or, as we professionals would say, "how to commence"- is the next question. It must be admitted that the method of approach ("L'approachement") differs even among first class fictionists. For example, Blasco Ibanez usually starts his stories with a Spanish word, Jack Dempsey with an "I" and Charley Peterson with a couple of simple declarative sentences about his leading character, such as "Hazel Gooftree had just gone mah jong. She felt faint."
Personally it has been my observation that the reading public prefers short dialogue to any other kind of writing and I always aim to open my tale with two or three lines of conversation between characters - or, as I shall call them, my puppets - who are to play important roles. I have often found that something one of these characters says, words I have perhaps unconsciously put into his or her mouth, directs my plot into channels deeper than I had planned and changes, for the better, the entire sense of my story."

On close reading, however, we can see sarky-pants Ring is, in all likelihood, having a laugh - although whether that's with us or at us is still not entirely clear. While remaining humourous, close reading makes the piece far less amusing than our original interpretation. So there. Perhaps close reading isn't such a good idea after all...

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

BritWriters Award

At last the list is out.  And I'm not on it.  

There were only six on the list so I'm not too surprised.  Who knows what the judges were really looking for?  I am surprised, however, to see one finalist with a piece entitled The Short Story - if i'd have been a judge - based on the title alone - that one probably would've fallen at the first hurdle.  But that's just bitterness talking!  

No, not really.  I'm not fussed, honest.  It was my first competition and it was a huge one at that. Plus, if my stories are good enough (and they fit the criteria exactly) one of them will get published, one fine day.  

Saturday, 19 June 2010

On Leaving The Comfort Zone

To be true to my word, I am reporting back on my first writing foray into an American setting.  I am pleased to say the story, Gator Joe & The Mosquito, was at least a success with its first four American readers.  There are some minor language tweaks (here football is played in games, not matches) but there was not a sense that I'd done the literary equivalent (in reverse) of what Kevin Costner did in Robin Hood.  Despite the good reception, I was still worried the story would be, at best, fraudulent, or at worst, a betrayal.  But, with the help of a couple of real authors (not pretend, like me) I was able to kick both those insecurities into touch.  

First up - Brian Moore.  I am, in effect, self-exiled from my country of birth (where my heart is still) and it felt like high treason to depart from the British setting and sensibility, as if I had begun to abandon my heritage.  So,  it was comforting to read this by the Irish author-in-exile [my additions in brackets]:
" life in exile has forced me to become a literary chameleon.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me had I not left Ireland, had I continued to write based on the world I was born into...I will never know what I may have lost by self-exile...[However, if] the story is fiction[, it] can never be true, but to succeed as art it must inspire belief.   And so, for me, fiction is not the story of my life or the lives of people I have known.  It is a struggle to write [stories] which will in some way reflect my own experience through the adventures of my characters, novels which permit me to re-examine beliefs I [still hold and perhaps] no longer hold and search for some meaning in life."
In writing more expansively than about my native Britain and my own (rather limited) life experience, I may find something more universal to say.  

With regard to fraud, like many other new writers, I had taken the adage - write what you know - rather literally, I think.   But writer Hilary Mantel's opinion on this subject changed all that:  "I would say my first book shows the cramping futility of that neat little adjuration to 'write what you know'.  I'd rather say, write to find out - write to see what you know.  You may surprise yourself." 
Britain and Britishness will remain a thematic thread throughout my work as I grow as a writer, I am certain of it.  But, I am truly beginning to appreciate my separation from my roots because it has resulted in a burgeoning sense of artistic freedom.  Having finished my American tale, I have already moved onto a new story, which represents another departure: a move away from my preference for realism (often gritty) into the realm of sci-fi.  In my story Apogee, I will be attempting to move beyond Britain, beyond America and go to the Moon...  

To publication and beyond!  

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Best Laid Plans

Well.  That didn't work.  In my last post, I proclaimed I would plan my next short story before I began writing in the hope it would shorten the overall process.  

I am here to tell you, it doesn't work.  Not for me, anyway.  Oh well, I tried.

I dutifully plotted my latest story, Gator Joe & The Mosquito, scene by scene.  But the minute I began, a new character came out of nowhere and totally took over and the treatment went out the window.    The problem I found was that in finding ways to show - rather than tell - I introduced a character as a device, found I liked him and before I knew it a whole new strand of the story emerged.  

I realise now my plan was foolish because creativity doesn't flourish when it can't flow freely - a wild river's course is more interesting and beautiful than a system of canals.  I also realised I enjoy being taken by surprise by my writing and letting it carry me off down random tributaries - an appropriate analogy given that the new story is set in the Louisiana Bayou.  

Any avid readers will be surprised by this.  In a previous post I declared that all my writing was very British but I thought I would take a break from High Tea and crumpets.  I will report on the successes and failures of this new venture in a forthcoming post - at least that's the plan but don't hold you breath 'cos we now know how bad at planning I am.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Scene it, done it

Taking a leaf out of my-friend-the-screenwriter's script, I am going to tackle my next short story in a scene by scene fashion.  I never plan out my stories.  I begin 50% with a full start-to-finish outline in my head.  In the case of the other 50%, I know where to start and hope that an ending will emerge during the writing.  It's the latter variety that end up with 7 or 8 versions before I'm happy.  What a waste of time and I ain't gettin' no younger.   

So, I'm going to experiment with a scene by scene treatment for the next story.  The scene synopses will set out the action against what I need to convey about the characters and the theme.  Only when I've worked out the story will I decide how to tell it i.e. tense, perspective, scene order. 

I am also going to attempt character profiles before I get stuck in too.  Not all of this information will make it in but I want to see if having fully rounded characters from the start helps the story-telling process or restricts it.   

At the moment, per story I spend about 40% of my time in production and 60% knocking what I've written into shape in post-production.   If this experiment pays off I'll be spending perhaps 40% in pre-production planning, 40% in production and 20% in post.  And, with luck, the overall schedule will be shortened so I up my productivity overall.  I'll let you know how it goes...

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

brief update...

...since my last post, I've found out that the initial number of entries has been whittled down to 150-200 per category (about 1000 overall).  So, I'm up against up to 199 others.  Not bad!  But hardly a done deal.  Final shortlist announcement will come on June 14th...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

High Hopes

I'm pretty excited.  I received an email today informing me that I am through to the third round of judging for the BritWriters' Awards!  I'll be going into the final round to choose the finalists for the Awards in July but all I know is there were 21,000 entries.  I don't know what the second round was whittled down to or, indeed, how many competitors I have in the third.  I don't even know which of my three stories is in the running - although I did get the same email twice so maybe there are two??  All I do know is I am pretty excited.  

Just to be a finalist would be brilliant - I don't necessarily want to win.  But there'll be agents and publishers at the awards and so just being on the programme would be a huge benefit.  

So, at this time, Elevenses, Skin Deep and Boxed In are shelved until early June when I'll find out if I've made it to the final and if i'll be invited to the Awards at the O2 in London.  Fingers, toes and all other appendages crossed.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Speak no evil, hear no evil

I've met a lot of odd bods in my time and an alarming number of them were writers.  A large proportion of those have been screenwriters (excluding, of course, the supremely talented fellow blogger on  I was so disappointed to find Charlie Kaufman - genius author of the Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine scripts - to be someone I would avoid at a dinner party rather than invite to one.  But, let's be honest, many great works of art are born of some level mental or personality disorder.  

The disorder all artists share - especially writers - is chronic insecurity.  My writing is no good; it doesn't speak to people; it doesn't convey what I wanted to say; it's just not original enough.   

Yes, yes, yes.  We've all been there.   Who said it should be easy?  Who said everyone should love your writing?  Personally, I hate Jane Austen - what a yawn fest - but I accept others adore her stories.  You can please some of the people some of the time.  Twas ever thus.

But misery loves company.  That is why, perhaps, there are so many groups out there promising constructive peer group support for writers - all of which are mostly attended by new and unpublished authors looking for validation.  I was that person and may be again, so I'm not criticizing anyone, but this Meet-Up advert is a classic example of the problem:

San Francisco Writer's Community Positive Feedback Group

-This is a positive feedback critique group.

-Hear what is good about your writing so you can do more of it.

-Get the exact type of feedback that you want.

-This group is for people committed to helping each other and improving their own skills on an ongoing basis.

I may be unfairly judging this group (I haven't been) or misinterpreting the advert, but it seems to be a general slap on the back type of shindig.   Of course you don't want people to be rude but if you can't take the heat, get outta the kitchen, right?  How is hearing what you want to hear going to help?  New writers need tough love if they're going to make it so they need to hear it straight, from the very start:  this is good, that is bad, this has potential...but keep up the good work comrade!  

In all critique, some comments are just trivial fluff but others are made of more valuable stuff.   As a new and unpublished writer myself, I've found that one of the skills I've had to learn from scratch is how to identify the good feedback from the bad (a more in-depth exploration of what I mean by good feedback must wait for another post).  All writers need to grow a thick skin as quickly as possible.  As for my own skin, it may not be paper thin anymore but it's still some way from being the rhinoceros hide I need.  So bring it on: all comments welcome.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Pillars and Bricks

I don't know what compels me, but I always make the mistake of reading my first draft to my fella, which invariably he loves.  But then I blow it later by reading him the latest draft, which invariably he hates and - for someone so easy going - he gets quite cross.

This happened again on Sunday over a very late lunch at Lori's Diner.  After some heated exchanges and much emphatic waving of french fries, he cooled down enough to explain his frustration rationally.  

His analysis was this:  the 'creative dump' of my first draft produces a story with solid pillars but some unrefined brickwork.  In subsequent drafts, instead of tinkering with the bricks, I tear down everything and start again. What I end up with is a technically well-constructed facade that masks what has ultimately become a flimsy story.  Somehow, in the crafting process, I destroyed the interior strength that existed in the initial rendering of the story.

The story that prompted this outburst is Guinea Pig.  Swallowing my pride and admitting he was right,  I went back to rediscover what it was that drove the story in the first place and in doing so realised the subject matter had darkened with each draft.  It's not supposed to be a pleasant story but it had become too dark and the theme of acceptable cruelty was too hard to see.  So I knocked out a lot of bricks and voila!   Restoration complete.  And, like all good restorations, its true to the original but greatly improved.

I just hope it stands up to scrutiny from his Lordship...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Piano Envy

Anibal Monteiro Machado's short story, The Piano, is as near to perfect as a short story can get. In my humble opinion.  It is precisely the kind of story I wish I was accomplished enough to write and  I encourage you all to seek it out.  

The story is about a family man who must sell an heirloom piano to make space in his house for his daughter and husband-to-be's conjugal bed.  He puts an ad in the paper and several potential buyers show up but are unimpressed by its quality.  Resigned to the fact the instrument has only sentimental value, the man offers it to his cousins as a gift but they politely decline.  Finally, frustrated but determined to do the right thing by his daughter, he recruits a team of local boys to carry it to the sea.  The local people are horrified that such an object is being discarded but none of them are willing to take it in, and the police want to charge him for illegal dumping.  Eventually the piano is taken off by the sea. 

I won't spoil the ending, in case you find the story.

So what makes it so damn good?  Well, here are just three reasons:
a.  The story is a perfectly balanced and subtle blend of the comic and tragic.  We really feel for the man's disappointment in finding out that his beloved family heirloom is nothing more than a heap of junk.  And the process he has to go through to get rid of it is funny and touching.  

b.  The personification of the piano is brilliant.  I found myself as desperate as the protagonist for it to be saved by someone, anyone.  By the end, it really feels like he's euthanizing an old relative.  With his skill, Machado shows us the ultimate superiority of the written word.  It is impossible to imagine how the piano could be so well humanised by any means other than  words.  It would take an exceptional director to effectively put this on screen or on stage.

c.  Freedom is the big theme in this story but it's totally unobtrusive.  The story is set against the backdrop of WW2 which has compressed the world and curtailed the freedom of all its inhabitants.  In the end, we sense that the piano is in fact fortunate:  it can float free and its parts can travel wherever the currents take them.  It is so difficult to have a big theme and not let it get in the way of the storytelling.  In the anthology where the story appears, the editor claims the ending is weak (dismissing it as O'Henry-ish) but - in my view - the neat, humourous ending is a strength.  It prevents the big theme, which becomes apparent towards the end, from hijacking the story for its own political ends.  As it is, Machado has given us enough to ponder, if we so choose, without ramming it down our throats.

It's this last point that makes me envy Machado's prowess.  I like themes but seem utterly unable to avoid bludgeoning my reader over the head with them; as my trusted friend and psuedo-editor is always pointing out.  I'm patronising apparently, unable or unwilling to trust my reader to make connections or reach their own conclusions.   On these grounds, my editor has - quite correctly - told me to give my story, Boxed In, a complete overhaul.  Fortunately, I have Machado's model of near-perfection to help me out.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Sunshine State

Here in England, Spring is late: the coldest Winter for 31 years has kept the blossom and daffs at bay.  The clocks go forward this weekend and still the Spring is reluctant.

There are a million reasons to miss England when I'm in my adopted California but the Winter is not one of them.  I've been here since March 4th and, as much as it pains me to admit it, I find it too difficult to write here.  And one of the major reasons is the weather.  

I've certainly been more productive in my writing than I've ever been since moving to San Francisco.  The sunshine is great, obviously, but even the rain there is more inspiring.  When it rains, it really pours:  American weather is more dramatic, her skies more variable. 

So, since March began, I have written nothing creative at all.  And I never write anything when I am visiting home - whatever the season - but the odd thing is, back in San Francisco, I find it almost impossible to write about anything other than England.   The language, themes and characters of all my stories are quintessentially British.  It's as if my nationality is a prism and when the Californian light shines through it on to my page,  all the wonderful colours appear; colours that are invisible to me here.  

I'll be back in San Francisco in April and I can't wait for the sun to shed new light on my most recent trip home and bring on the Spring.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The curse of King Lear

I studied English Lit at the University of Sheffield.  I was probably the most highly strung student on my course, I'm sure of it.  Exams were my biggest source of anxiety but the coursework terrified me too.  

An essay assignment would be issued and the very next day I would begin wandering through the library stacks in a trance (this was in the days when URLs were as lengthy as Paradise Lost) hunting for pearls of wisdom I could scatter among my otherwise bland analysis of whatever masterpiece we were studying.  I wrote up my research long hand (too poor to photocopy) and when that was done, I'd begin drafting, then endlessly redrafting - also all in long hand (the computers were booked up for weeks).  I always finished my essay early but I would tinker and tinker until the words looked foreign to me, right up until the deadline.

Imagine my horror, then, one day I was standing in line to submit my essay on King Lear when a friend pointed out I had spelled his name wrong...and how had I spelled it?  With a goddamn 'h'!  King Bloody Leah...I had just an hour to return to the computer suite, wait in line for a terminal, correct my manuscript, wait in another line for the print out, race back to the submission point.  The self-loathing was - and still is - beyond description.

That incident has scarred me for life.  I have nightmares about submitting essays to this day and I graduated 12 whole years ago.   Now every time I write something, I get an attack of OCD.  Everything from birthday cards to official correspondence and, now I'm a writer, all my submissions to competitions.   I would rather not submit any of my work that spend another day like today, checking and rechecking everything I might have misspelled.  When I am in this state, nothing looks right - even my name on the manuscript.  Lornah.  That's right, isn't it?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Balloons On The Wind

At last.  I have a story submission plan for February to April.  My mind was hopelessly boggled by the sheer number of journals and magazines for short stories out there.  And then it hit me:  I don't subscribe to any of them.  Here I am, knocking 'em out and itching to be published, but what am I really doing to support the short?

To assuage my guilt I immediately subscribed to Zoetrope's AllStory: a quarterly mag of shorts published by Coppola's company based here in San Francisco.  I am also on the elist for Narrative.  But I just can't afford to buy all the publications I might want to submit stories to.    
But the best way to contribute is by entering the competitions and paying the fees, which - I assume - is a major income stream for periodicals.

Trying to choose the 'right' competition is, however, pointless.  As far as I can tell, it would be as effective - and certainly quicker - to close your eyes and point randomly at the long list of options.  
But, I am nothing if not methodical so I've drawn up my own crass selection criteria:
  • How much does it cost to enter?  If it's more than $20 there's no chance...unless the fee is value for money.  For example, if you submit to The Pinch Journal you get a year's subscription thrown in.  Or, in the case of BritWriters, you can submit as many pieces as you like for one fee.
  • Is the competition okay with your story being submitted elsewhere at the same time?  I have 5 stories I want to get out in the short term and I want to give them maximum exposure. 
  • Does the magazine/journal/competition look professional?  They say don't judge a book by its cover but there are lots of websites promoting competitions that look like they were created by an elderly student at a community college and, sorry to say, they just don't look credible. 
  • Is there a cash prize?  I know.  It's mercenary of me but - honestly - I just want to break even. On competitions alone, I'll be spending over $100 in the next 3 months and that's a projected total of at least $400 for the year.  The BritWriter competition's top prize is £10,000.............excuse me, I've dribbled on my keyboard.
  • Is there a theme to the competition that one of my stories fits?  This year, the RipTide International Short Story Comp is looking for 'cross-over' fiction that appeals to 12+ as well as adults.  This could be a great opportunity for my allegorical folktale The Empty Tree, which might struggle in a contest for purely adult material.
So.  There are 8 competitions between February 26th and April 30th, starting with BritWriters.  Now all I need to do is take a deep breath, stop my obsessive tweaking and send the stories off.  I do have a psychological problem with this.  It feels a bit like writing a note, tying it to the string of a balloon, then letting it go.   Once it's out of my hands, it starts to look so small and insignificant and I wonder if it will make it as far as the thousands of others like it.  And if it reaches anyone, will they be sufficiently moved by my words to return my note with some kind words or their own?  Or will my note just be discarded and my balloon burst?  Well, who knows, so here goes...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

End Game

While researching potential publishers of my stuff, I came across this from Comma Press:  "Short stories are all about their endings.  A short story IS an ending."  

This was not a pleasant revelation after having redrafted the ending to my story Boxed In for the sixth time...

I've always had a problem with endings.  And not only my own.  I am disappointed, at least 50% of the time, in the way films, novels and short stories are concluded.  A bad ending can make you feel manipulated, patronised, cheated or even angry (which is nearly always the case in book to screen adaptations) and a bad ending can undo all the joy you felt for 90% of the viewing or reading experience.  

But endings are so bloody hard.  

My own opinion is that the short story ending is to be satisfying but unfinished - an etiquette similar to the consumption of a posh meal.  A story will be effective and impressionable if it leaves the reader salivating for a little more.  But getting the right balance between starvation and over indulgence is tricky, at least for me.

As for Comma Press, on reflection, I disagree with the second part of its statement.  A short story could also be a beginning or a middle too, but only if you see a short story as being a scene lifted from a longer story.   I don't (and I don't think Comma does either - I've merely interpreted their statement out of context as a means to an end, so to speak).  The short story, at its most powerful, is an entity in its own right that should be allowed to float free of an inferred linear narrative.  If more people could enjoy shorts this way, perhaps they would be less niche.

The first part of Comma's statement, however, I agree with.  Now excuse me while I get on with draft seven...

Monday, 1 February 2010

My first public reading

In January last year, the fabulous Becca Mordan - Director of London based Scary Little Girls Productions -featured my short story, Skin Deep, in a programme of new writing.   The wonderful thing about it was that it was read by an actress, whose interpretation gave it a whole new dimension for me.  I was able to sit back and enjoy the audience's response, while listening closely for blips in the rhythm and vocabulary that only appear when someone else reads your work.

But last week, read my own work in public for the very first time.  And it was terrifying...but equally exhilarating.  The event was called "Burn Your New Year's Resolutions" - its theme being sexual misadventure - and it was organised by Speckled Egg Studios.  It took place on two nights at Good Vibrations in Berkeley and San Francisco.   I'm not sure if I was more intimated by the size of the audience or the size of the dildos on display...Anyway, I read Emily Bronte Would Think This is Weird, a story told in 1st person by a 14 year-old girl who's in an odd relationship with a dead author and a bad relationship with a Heathcliff-esque boyfriend.

Foolishly, I invited my fella and some close friends to the first night.  I say foolishly because it added to my nerves but I knew I needed the practice.  In the end it was fine because I was able to hide behind my young narrator wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt that said; "Being this cute is exhausting".  I'm not sure how I would feel about reading a 3rd person story - I imagine it'd be harder to distance myself as the author from the content, and I would need a t-shirt that said; "Being this self-conscious is exhausting"...