Saturday, May 31, 2008
Another lovely aspect to this is that I sent a very new story in which I tried a different writing technique/style from anything I had done before. It could be called "minimalist" I suppose - I was inspired by read Roy Kesey's amazing collection, All Over, for review for The Short Review. His writing is very minimalist, dispensing with names, places, making the reader do quite a lot of work. I loved reading them and I thought, well, why don't I make my reader (if there ever is one) work a little? Why don't I try not providing so much background for a change? Seems like someone liked it, at least.
Other nice news just in today: two more of my flash stories have been selected by Rethink Daily, for their short story podcast, Sharp Things. The stories will be recorded by actors and broadcast in July. It's always a wonderful experience for me to hear my stories brought to life, I am really looking forward to it. Two very different short short stories - one involving a creme egg and one a rabbi in Sainsbury's car park. That should whet your appetite!
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The subconscious exists in all the chambers of our world, particularly narrative. Narrative is ancient; human beings have been telling stories for thousands and thousands of years and we have become good at it. What that means is that when I, somebody who just has three score years and ten, and whose imprint on the world of narrative is going to be tiny in the grand scheme of things, when I sit down and start writing a story,there are thousands and thousands of years of narrative that have gone before, and thousands and thousands of narratives that have proven themselves before me. Narrative, of course, in that case... becomes wise. It learns a few things, it establishes protocols, it understands shape, it knows what works.
I love this idea, that we have a narrative knowledge in our genes, that it is passed down the same way as blue eyes or a propensity for maths. That seems to make sense to me - some people are writers, some are story-tellers, some aren't.
We all know it instinctively from when we are in a pub and we are telling an anecdote. Some nights it goes well and some nights it doesn't go so well. Sometimes we are in the Zone and sometimes we are not in the Zone. What do we mean by Zone? It just means that we are tapping in really well into all these traditions of narrative. That's what you hope is going to happen. If you think about it too much when you are writing, which is why the subconscious is so important, it doesn't deliver itself. But when it does deliver itself, it's generous. Narrative is wise and narrative is generous and it comes in on your behalf.This also is something I find reassuring. I know what the Zone is, but to me it had always been something amorphous, I never knew how to conjur it up consciously, or what it meant exactly. Framing it in these terms makes is concrete, and something I can let myself rely upon, knowing that it is inside me somewhere.
....I'd made as a conscious person a bad decision not to have Jesus as a character but Narrative made a good decision and abandoned my bad decision and brought Jesus in. It wasn't as a vicar said to me on a radio show that God was standing on my shoulder as I was writing it, it was the Imp of Narrative. Narrative is playful. And that's what happens.Isn't that a lovely image, Narrative as a playful, generous imp on your shoulder? Thanks, Jim Crace. You can listen to the podcast here.
Monday, May 26, 2008
The author [Hanif Kureishi] also said that when he goes to his desk each morning to commence writing, he thinks to himself: "Why am I doing this? Shall I commit suicide."
Full and amusing article: Kureishi slams creative writing courses
It helps to share goals with my new writing buddy, just the setting of the goals is incredibly useful. I guess that's the kind of person I am. I like lists, I like ticking things off. (I used to want to be a teacher, just for the power to tick! ) And I am learning from Clare, in our third Week sharing goals, to set all sorts of goals, not just Doing goals, but Thinking About goals, Enjoying Goals. So this week I set out to Think about my idea for a film script. I've never written a film script but this idea has been in my head for years, and I decided to just play around a bit to get to know the main character, since I can't hear her, yet. When I write short stories, I generally have quite a strong sense of the characters, but here, which is unusual for me, I have the plot (well, the beginning) and not the voice. I riffed for a while in the 1st person, trying to hear her, and then suddenly something started coming out. Not in the 1st person but in the 3rd person, but there she was. There she was, and all she was doing was waiting for the toast, but suddenly I have her. I feel her.
Today, I decided not to revisit what I wrote yesterday. It needs breathing space, but also I want to nurture this yearning I get to write. I am realising that I need to play a bit hard-to-get with myself too. Set up some obstacles so that when I write, I am dying to do it, can't wait, that kind of feeling. So I will build up a little desire before I allow myself to carry on with what I started. In the meantime, I took Vanessa's advice in her article on Story and changed the titles of two of my stories. They were pretty boring - When She Comes, and Drinking Vodka in the Afternoon. She suggested that when judges/first readers are reading hundreds of competition entries,
Make it zippy. The reader might have 50 stories entitled 'The Dream', and one entitled 'Why Cactuses Don’t Work'. Which is going to intrigue more?
I changed the story titles to something I hope is a bit zipper! Then I submitted two stories to the Bridport Prize, one of the most prestigious short story awards, 5000 pounds to the winner. The deadline isn't til June 30th, but I was taking Vanessa's and WomenRuleWriter's advice to submit early, not wait until the last minute. Will I have a better chance? Don't know. I was really nervous doing the online submission. If I leave it til the last minute, I know that once te deadline's past, nothing to be done. I was thinking, Wait a week, what if you want to change it, tweak it? But I took the plunge and sent them off. Never got anywhere with this comp before, so fingers crossed. Another goal ticked. Off to play Scrabulous.
Monday, May 19, 2008
a tiny flash story, Heart, was accepted by Magazine Minima, with suggested edits to cut it from around 50 words to even less, and which I accepted because it's an astonishingly funky online 'zine employing technology beautifully, in my opinion, and I'd love to be in it;
a wonderful email from the editor of Literary Fever saying that she "absolutely loved" my flash, Sweet Music, which is such a wonderful thing to hear, and she'd like to publish it in their Music issue;
a rejection from Flashquake in which two editors' opinions on my story were quoted, one saying "Writing was choppy" and the other that the writing was "intriguing and moving", which I was quite delighted by, because it is not a conventional piece and it was the first time I'd sent it anywhere so to get such differing reactions was somehow appropriate and I was happy someone found it moving;
an acceptance, after almost 7 months, of my flash story Plaits (which won 1st prize in a 300 word flash contest 2 years ago) by Tin Parachute Postcard Review who send their subscribers a flash story on a beautifully-illustrated postcard, and who asked me if, because most of their subscribers are American, I mind changed the title to "Braids" which made me laugh but which I also agreed to because I have run into problems with Americans who think the story is about plates;
a personal rejection from Litro for my previously published and broadcast story, The White Road, in which the editor said they actually were not going for reprints anymore but he enjoyed the story.
So, the ups and downs coming in thick and fast. Personal rejections always make such a difference; form letters are far more depressing. But what's nice is that the disappointment of the rejections is definitely softened by the joy of the acceptances, which never diminishes. It's always a thrill, every time, that someone else actually enjoyed what I wrote, because when I write I write for myself, to amuse myself, and when something is accepted for publication it makes me feel that there are kindred spirits out there, other people who look at the world in the same slightly odd way that I do, and that makes me feel a little less alone in this often-lonely writing business.
To sum up: send out your work, keep sending it out, look for new publications all the time, see what they like, send the right things to the right places, and you will, yes you will, reap the rewards. If I can do it, you can too.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Nadine Gordimer & Amos Oz
This was supposed to be a session on politics and literature - very apt because Nadine Gordimer had been under a lot of pressure not to come to Israel because of the political situation. However, after a bit of interesting talk about when her writing was first banned in South Africa etc..., Amos Oz unfortunately began a political rant about Israel and the Palestinians that seemed more appropriate to an election rally than a Writers' conference. So, end of that session.
Nicole Krauss & Amos Oz
After the previous session, I was a little wary of Amos Oz and his predilection for ranting. But this was a better session in that it was pretty much about writing, despite the always-asked question of Nicole Krauss about how it is to have a marriage in which both are (much hyped, young and successful) writers. (She gave the same answer I am sure she always does - they don't both write at home, and it's nice to have a partner who understands the kind of ups and downs of being a writer). What did come across strongly in this session was a sense that Krauss gave from her use of words like "suffering" and "distress" in describing the writing process that it was not something she particularly enjoyed. She asked Oz, now in his 60s and author of many books, if it "ever got any easier", and he told her that no, it didn't - but qualified this by saying that if you are a writer who is trying not to repeat herself with each book, who attempts something new each time, then it shouldn't ever get easier. There was not opportunity to ask questions (a major flaw in this festival) but had I been able to, I would definitely have asked Nicole why she wrote, since it seemed not to bring her much joy. Of course it is hard, but surely it has to also be wonderful, no? I do wonder whether it is the success of her first two novels that makes it hard - she has a lot of people watching her, waiting for her next book. That can't be easy.
Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer
Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer are often mentioned in the same breath (they have the same, very hard-working, agent in NY I believe) as the voice of the young American Jewish writer (Englander is 37, S-Foer 31). However, to me, as someone who loved Englander's short story collection and could barely get half way through either of S-F's novels, they couldn't be more different and this is a false grouping. Englander and Etgar Keret, Israel's hip young (40) writer of bizarre and wondrous short stories and film-maker, also often appear together, and this is a better pairing, I think, their work being slightly more similar, funny yet dark, tragi-comic, quirky. Here, Keret was the moderator, putting the usual questions to each. What stood out for me was S-F's answer about how he felt about writing. He isn't a great fan of the written word, it appears, he would rather there was a better way to get across the experiences he is trying to convey in his novels. He compared it to a frequent traveller to other countries. He said, "You wouldn't say that this person was excellent at airplane travel, the airplane is just the vehicle". For him, words are a vehicle for ideas. This explained to me why I can't read his books - I prefer writers who obviously are in love with the word, the phrase, the sentence. I am less into ideas than into poetry, music on the page. Interesting how you can be a writer, invest so much time and effort into it, and not be in love with writing!
Niall Williams and Ahron Appelfeld
This, for me, was the highlight of the week. Grumpy after the previous sessions, because of the lack of question time etc..., I didn't have high hopes. I had read Niall William's book Four letters of Love but didn't remember it very well. Aharon Appelfeld is the author of 40 books, and I had heard him tell his story, of how he escaped from a concentration camp at the age of 9 and wandered for several years through the woods of Nazi-occupied Europe until he arrived in Israel alone, an orphan, at age 14. I wondered how these two would interact. At first, it seemed like there might be several awkward pauses, the two men were from such different places (County Clare in Ireland; Jerusalem), different ages (50; 70-odd), but yet as they talked, slowly slowly they learned that they actually had similar writing methods and similar views on writing. Appelfeld is well known for doing all his writing in the same Jerusalem cafe; Williams writes at home. Yet they both spoke of the importance of the music of the words, the rhythm, and discovered that both will sit and almost sing their words to themselves as they work! And when talking about what a writer is, they agreed that it has nothing to do with being published. Williams compared a writer to a chestnut tree: as long as it produces chestnuts, it is a chestnut tree. One year the chestnuts might not be so good, the next year they might be excellent. The main thing is to keep producing. Appelfeld told us how every time he finishes a book, he thinks it is "dreadful", and his advice to the younger writer and the audience, was to put every novel you write "away in a drawer for three or four years" so that when you look at it again "it isn't your book, it is something completely different". I'll bear that in mind!
So, all in all, fairly inspiring week! This week I'll be working on my chestnut production.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Anyhow, WRW has spared me this agony. As she says:
This is a very honest and open competition: there is no team of first readers, the judge reads EVERY story. That is rare, and it means your story has an equal chance with every other story submitted. You are only going to be subject to one person’s taste (mine) so here’s a helping hand. These are some of the things that I’ll be looking for in entries:
• A distinctive tone or voice to the story. I often dislike straightforward narratives unless the language is beautiful.
• I have a weakness for stylish, first person narratives.
• Innovative, considered writing. The language used is equally as important to my enjoyment of a story as the ‘what happens’.
... For the rest of her list of likes and dislikes, read the rest of the post.
My friend Vanessa has also been blogging about what she looks for when judging various competitions, you can read her post about the Cadenza comp here and about the Fish One Page short story prize here. Thank you, WRW and Vanessa, for your honesty and transparency about the process, may this encourage more judges - it would be to their advantage, too, I imagine, because WRW , having stated her personal preferences, should receive more of the kinds of stories she likes. I hope she will keep us updated.
Monday, May 12, 2008
So: we're into our second week, and the first week was great. My first goal was to set myself a writing schedule, so I created up a new Google Calendar for my writing, and laid out a daily, two-hour block of time for writing. Writing time isn't just for writing, it's for writing-related activities - submitting stories, following up on submissions etc..
And it worked well - if I was out I felt like I had a meeting to get to I couldn't be late for, with myself. What was also good about this was that I got rid of the guilt feelings of not writing, and there was a division between writing-time and non-writing time. This felt good, it felt like I was making writing more like a job. Yes, I thought. This is how it's supposed to be.
Now it's Week Two and questions are starting to arise. I sat down today for my two-hour writing time and I felt like I didn't want to be there. I felt antsy, irritated. I didn't want to write. I didn't want to edit anything, to revise. I didn't want to submit any stories. Suddenly this felt like a place I had to be instead of a place I wanted to be. I lasted an hour and a half, much of it playing Scrabulous and sending Short Review-related emails. Then I gave up and went and made cupcakes.
So, here's my question. If you are writing a novel, you have what to work on day in and day out. You have a need for quantity, you have to put in the time. And probably you have to do this every day to keep up momentum, although I don't know, never having written a novel. But - and it's a big but - what if you're a short story writer? Do you have what to do day in and day out? As opposed to with a novel, a short story can be any length, and more importantly, a short story writer needs more than one idea. A short story writer needs to "come up with" lots of ideas for stories. Not all at once, but every now and again. And the way I have been operating uptil now was that ideas would bounce around my brain a lot, first lines would appear just as I was falling asleep at night, and I didn't write them down but I played with them in my head. My head was the place a lot of the writing happened. If the idea vanished after a day, I'd let it go. Only the characters, the openings that were persistent, that knocked and knocked, get to the next stage of making it to the computer screen.
I like this method. And, more crucially, this isn't something I can force. If I force it, it comes out clunky. It's me trying to write a story instead of me writing a story. You see the dilemma.
How do I reconcile my desire for a routine, for structure, with respect for this whimsical, could-strike-at-any-time creative process, what is often called being in the Zone?
Of course, the real hard work, the revising and working on the first draft of a story, does require setting time aside for. This is the hard graft, this is nothing really to do with the Zone, this is me with my analytical hat on, my editor hat. This is the vital other half of the writing process.
Any other short story writers out there with suggestions? I don't want to abandon this new-found routine, but I don't want to get myself so irritated that I am not writing. Help!
Friday, May 09, 2008
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Monday, May 05, 2008
As editor of the Short Review, one of my tasks is to assign each collection that we review to one or more categories on the Find Something to Read by Category page. I decided from the outset that books could appear under more than one category heading, because it didn't seem to make sense to confine them to only one: Horror, say, or Mystery. There are funny gritty stories, quirky horror, magical realist crime stories, anthologies that contain a whole wealth of different types of writing.
Recently this has led me to think about "genre" fiction: what is it and why do we need this distinction? I am new to science fiction - having been a fan of Star Trek as a kid - but reading two books recently for review, the Logorrhea anthology and Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space, have opened my eyes to what the genre is and what it isn't. It isn't necessarily aliens, starships and space wars. It is often highly imaginative, magical and what some would call "literary fiction" (another genre... more on this in a later blog post.)
On this topic, I was delighted to read this in today's Guardian Books Blog:
OK, I admit it, sci-fi is boring. After endless Star Trek re-runs, innumerable badly scripted Hollywood movies and a thousand video games with pixel-deep narrative, the once wondrous ideas of sci-fi have become yawn-inducing. Fortunately for me, beyond the world of tedious mass media sci-fi, lies the exciting world of literary science fiction or "SF" constantly producing new ideas to satisfy my hunger for wonder. Now a radical sect of SF writers and critics claim that SF needs to abandon all those wondrous ideas, and concentrate instead on the everyday and the mundane. All hail the Mundane Revolution!This "radical sect" has a blog: Mundane-SF, which has actually been in operation since 2004 (the website it initially pointed readers to seems to have disappeared). The blog is comprised, in great part, of reviews of what it calls "mundane science fiction", science fiction which, in the words of Guardian blog writer Damien G Walter, eschews
powerful myths like faster-than-light travel and alien civilisations, myths that have been much overused and have no basis in scientific fact ... in favour of scientific realities like biotechnology or environmental change.
This is pertinent to the world of the short story because, says Walters,
Where literary fiction has long since abandoned the short form in favor of the fertile intellectual territory of Waterstones 3 for 2 tables, SF has continued to value short fiction as the arena where the genre innovates and evolves.Readers will now have a chance to judge Mundane Sci Fi for themselves: the latest issue of British sci fi magazine Interzone, due in shops on May 8th, is the first Mundane SF special issue. But the most important point, for me as a reader looking simply for great short stories, is Walters' summing up of these stories:
The effects of climate change and the potential wonders and horrors of bio-technology loom large, as does the impact of the internet on politics, society and the individual. But very real, very human emotion lies at the heart of these stories, conveyed with a sense of literary style that puts most literary fiction to shame....A wave of technology promises (or perhaps threatens) to effect such enormous change that the next 20 years will make the last 100 look positively sedate in comparison. Mundane SF is the literature exploring how those changes will change our lives, and for all of us living through them it should be essential reading.The point is - these are not just "science fiction" stories for fans of the "genre" - these are great pieces of writing for anyone who loves short stories. Why should SF fans be the only ones to enjoy them? Step outside your "genre" box, readers, and get stuck in to some great stories. The Fix's review of the Mundane SF special issue is here.
1. Freshly made hummous
2. Setting myself a writing schedule and sticking to it (for one day so far)
3. Sitting in the car as it goes through one of those fabulous car washes that always makes me think of a certain scene from Ally McBeal! (See the scene here. Over 18s only.)
Saturday, May 03, 2008
The Frank O'Connor Short Story Prize, one of the most prestigious in the short story world, with an annual award of 35,000 euros to an author of a short story collection, has just announced their 2007 longlist. Huge congratulations to my fellow Salt authors Vanessa, Elizabeth, Carys and David. My publishers, Salt, actually have 8 collections on the longlist - out of 14 British books longlisted, an amazing achievement
Quite a few of the authors whose books are longlisted have been reviewed by The Short Review or are in the process of being reviewed, so do go and check out the reviews (links below) and find one or two you might like to read.
THE LONGLIST FOR THE 2008 FRANK O'CONNOR SHORT STORY PRIZE
IRELAND (5 authors)
BRITAIN (14 authors including 8 authors from Salt Publishing)
AUSTRALIA (4 authors)
NEW ZEALAND (4 authors)
USA (8 authors)
Friday, May 02, 2008
This is after several weeks of digging and redistribution of soil around the flower beds. J is out there digging as we speak (I am cooking dinner, we are fitting into gender stereotypes for once).
The aim is to remove the whole "rockery" (for rockery read "pile of earth filled with many annoying small stones"), level the ground, and cut down that (small) tree you see to the right of the picture. Then the shed should fit nicely in here and actually be a larger working space then my current study area - with a Door. Yay! I can't wait! Although when it is there, then what will my excuse for not writing be?
The news is that I didn't win: neither the Fish One Page short story prize - though I did make the shortlist of 24 stories chosen from over 900 - nor the StoryQuarterly Love Story contest. Congrats to the winners of both - the StoryQuarterly contest winner, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, had a special resonance for me. She taught me on my first writing course at the Iowa Summer Writers Workshop ten or so years ago. She basically led me through the process of writing my first ever story, complete with dialogue, flashbacks, beginningmiddleend. That changed everything for me. So, congratulations Elizabeth, I owe you a lot. I hope you do something nice with the $2500!