Monday, June 22, 2009

Ritual and Rules?

I have just written 600 words, and it's 11.27 am. For me, that's huge! A good day. And I am thinking about ritual, because on my last day here at Anam Cara I realised that I sort of set up a ritual: breakfast, walk down to the river, sit for a while thinking about what I might write, or thinking about something else and waiting for it to come, it arriving, and going back to my room to write it - and writing it while also playing at least one game of online Scrabble (Wordscraper on Facebook) which helps me not get stuck. (I did this except the day it rained so heavily I couldn't see the garden at all.)

Sounds easy, no? It made me realise that I haven't had a ritual until now. Since we are moving countries in August and I don't know where we will be living, can I come up with one that isn't place-specific? What are your rituals? I'd love to hear what other people do.

And rules, do you have any? Apparently, Rick Moody has 14 of them, as he detailed in a recent interview in Night Train:
1. Omit Needless Words
2. Sacrifice Your Modifiers
3. Consider the Rhythm
4. Replace "To Be" and "To Have"
5. Simplify Tenses
6. Avoid Alliteration
7. Rethink Abstraction
8. Spill Your Parentheses
9. Use Figurative Language Sparingly
10. Engage All Five Senses
11. Cut the Last Sentence*
12. Read the Passage Aloud
13. Put the Draft Away
14. Do The Above Fifteen to Thirty Times
I don't quite understand number 4 - does it mean you can't say "I used to be..." or "I used to have.."? Or that you can't say "I am going..." or "I have done so much"...? Not sure what number 8 means either! read the full and great interview here.

Rituals? Rules? Tell us!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bigger Picture & Guardian Weekend Short Story Competition

I had hoped to be able to announce some lovely news here but it isn't public yet so will have to rein myself in! The good news is that my week here at the Anam Cara writing retreat, which draws to a close tomorrow, has helped enormously, as I hoped it would. Not in terms of writing reams of words, but in turning what I had seen as a strange mess of vaguely connected bits and pieces about my character, into a much more coherent whole. I have around 10,000 words and can see some kind of sense developing across them, an arc, which, not a novel, I think I will call a "story", which may be book-length, slim or slightly wider. Clear? Yes, I thought so. Anyhow, structure has fallen into place, interestingly non-linear, and some themes are emerging which are signposting me onwards. So: direction. What more can a writer want?

I did write several thousand words this week, bits of them for this story, some poems and a few flash stories, which is great, of course. But to now know what I am working on, the Bigger Picture, is what I have been waiting for for two years. I have another meeting with an agent in a few weeks to talk more about this project, will keep you updated.

In the meantime, here's a short story opportunity I came across - for UK residents only (sorry!):

Are you a budding writer? This year we're inviting readers to submit stories to Guardian Weekend's annual summer fiction issue, published in August.

When choosing the winner, the judges will be looking for the most original, gripping and well-crafted piece of writing.

Submissions can be on any theme, must be previously unpublished and no longer than 2,000 words.

The stories will be judged by authors William Boyd and Julie Myerson, and the winning story will be printed in Weekend magazine alongside others by established authors. Five runners up will have their stories published on the Guardian books website, at

Send your story by 10 July to Short Stories, Guardian Weekend, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or Please include a phone number.

Visit the site for the terms and conditions. Good luck!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Source of Lit: Billy Collins

I am coming late to poetry, as I near my 40th year, but boy am I glad I am coming to it at all. I just read American poet Billy Collins' 1998 collection, Picnic, Lightning, straight through, sitting here on the couch with a view of the Irish sea through the window. Billy Collins has visited Anam Cara several times, and he is often talked about, so I picked this off the shelf to see what the fuss was all about.

I have never laughed out loud while reading a poem.

Several times.

"Astonishing" is a word I might use. Plain, clear language, and a sense that the line breaks are absolutely the most natural thing in the world, that perhaps this is the way he thinks in his head, this is the way he - and maybe we - all talk. Natural, clean, clear, witty, wise, moving.

A poem about the Victoria's Secret catalogue, entitled Victoria's Secret. An excerpt:
And occupying the whole facing page
is one who displays that expression
we have come to associate with photographic beauty.
Yes, she is pouting about something,
all lower lip and cheekbone.
Perhaps her ice cream has tumbled
out of its cone onto the parquet floor.
Perhaps she has been waiting all day
for a new sofa to be delivered,
waiting all day in stretch lace hipster
with lattice edging, satin frog closures,
velvet scrollwork, cuffed ankles,
flare silhouette, and knotted shoulder straps
available in black, champagne, almond,
cinnabar, plum, bronze, mocha,
peach, ivory, caramel, blush, butter, rose, and periwinkle.
It is, of course, impossible to say,
impossible to know what she is thinking,
why her mouth is the shape of petulance.

And to contrast this with the poem My Life:
I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene.
I couldn't put the book down, I was mesmerized by the simple way Collins, who was US Poet Laureate from 2001-3, seemed to be just documenting his life, listening to jazz, writing, looking around him, and yet at the same time uncovering fundamentals and presenting them in a completely original and unique way.

I was particularly moved by his poem Lines Lost Among Trees, which is an elegy for the poem that came to him "while walking in the woods/with no pen/ and nothing to write on anyway":

They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic

I devised to hold them in place -

What writer doesn't know that feeling of having written something in her head, at night (as often happens to me, whole stories unfolding) and then, too lazy or tired to get up and write it down, hoping, hoping, that it is still there, in the morning or when you get back. But no, it's gone.

Reading his poems both demystifies poetry as something incomprehensible and high fallutin', and mystifies in the sense of inspiring awe at how he performs this magic using small words, words we know, strung together with such apparent ease. Oh, I know it's not easy, I know very well that these were not dashed off of an afternoon. But to make it look so. That is the art. That is the mark of astonishing talent. I am off to order some of his books myself. More on him here.

A little stroll for some inspiration & a delight at the end of the day

After breakfast this morning, which was, for me, terribly early, (8.30... please don't laugh) I went for a wander at the bottom of the garden, asking my main character what she might do next. I've written two and a bit short stories about her, but if this is going to be something more - a linked collection? - I enjoy following her around but don't really know what the "bigger picture" is.

Yes, this is at the bottom of this garden. Nice, eh? I strolled, and wandered..

Over the bridge and around.
And then I sat here on this flat rock by the river, trying hard not to think about it directly, not to stare at my character until she gave it up.... And a glimmer. Something beginning. So I walked a little more, slipped in some mud, and by the time I surfaced in the neighbour's garden and scurried quickly back into ours, I had the idea for the scene, something utterly surprising to me, so I went back and wrote it.

Still don't know what came before or what might come now, but I guess I just need to trust that she'll show me. It's hard not to be nervous that there won't be a bigger picture, but I do seem to have an end story. And tonight, the five of us - four writers and Sue, who runs Anam Cara - sat around the fire (yup, June in Ireland) and some of us read out some work. I read out the 2nd story about this character, which I wasn't sure stood alone, but since only Sue knew the first story (I finished it when I was here 2 years ago), I was interested in their reaction. It seemed good, they said it definitely stood on its own. Not succeeded in publishing it anywhere yet, but I will keep trying!

And then, as I headed to my room, I thought my "surprise and delight me" request of the day had not been answered, but at two minutes to midnight I received THE most surprising and delightful email! Suffice it to say, it's writing-related, and it involves a competition, but can't say what yet. Grinning from ear to ear! Not sure I'll get much sleep between now and 8.30am tomorrow (today). But for good reason!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Designed to make you green

Just in case the last pics weren't enough: Anam Cara writing retreat, ladies and gentlemen.

View from the back garden

I believe I mentioned that there were others staying here...

And, most importantly, my great writing assistant and inspiration: Jack

I've arrived!

I'm here! At the Anam Cara retreat in West Cork, Ireland, a writers' heaven. This is the view from my bedroom/workroom window, over the front of the house. Luckily, I am facing this way, because the view from the other side of the house, of rolling green hills down to the sea, is far too distracting. I arrived an hour ago, we had lunch, and I've just set myself up.

This is my third visit here and each has been momentous: on the first visit, in 1999, I wrote my first short story. At the beginning of my second visit, in the delightful company of James and Vanessa, I received the email from Salt, the one offering me a book deal for The White Road and Other Stories. Suffice it to say that I hardly got any writing done that week, just stared out of the window, this dazed grin on my face! I have no idea what this week might hold, but as you can see, it has a lot to live up to!

It is wonderful to keep returning to a place where you have been before and measure your progress. When I first came, I felt so young, I didn't call myself a writer, I had no idea what I was doing, how I might do it, if I wanted to. The second visit, in 2007, I had given up journalism to be a full time writer six months' before, but had no real idea of how things might proceed. Well, "things" seem to have gone rather well, since I am here, with several copies of my book, feeling very much a writer, an author, confident enough to feel that I can write whatever I want, the world is open to me. It's both exciting and daunting!!

Part of coming here is definitely about Sue, who runs the retreat and is far more than that, she is a great friend to writers and artists, and about the other people who are here, of whom I am sure I will write more later. On the subject of community, I read a great article in the Observer yesterday about four communities of artists and writers around the world, not official communities but friends who happen to all be in the same field. The section on the four female Hollywood screenwriters really touched me:

Deep in a canyon in the Hollywood Hills live four female screenwriters, each in their own home, with a dog. They meet up practically daily for a meal or a work session with their laptops. At night, they hit the town, turning heads as they party hop, sometimes on a red carpet. The glamorous posse even have a name. They call themselves the Fempire. It sounds like fun and games - the boozy, all-woman answer to those close-knit gangs of Hollywood boy-men captured on screen in television shows such as Entourage and in reality by Apatown, Judd Apatow's clique.

But these women are serious and usually quite sober. They can command up to seven figures to write a movie that makes it to the big screen, with big stars and box-office clout - even during the economic crisis.

Perhaps even more extraordinary, they actively support each other in a cut-throat, male-dominated industry without a shred of jealousy.
This is what I want, this is what I am searching for, this is an enormous part of the reason why we have decided to move from Israel to England. Yes, writers write alone, but without a community, it is a very lonely life indeed. As I said in an earlier blog post, I feel as though, after 15 years in Jerusalem striving to be as Israeli as I could, when I took the decision to write fiction full time I re-Britishized. Being in England, surrounded by English speakers, I feel English again. I look forward to finding my writing "buddies" - many of whom I have online already and am very grateful for - and building that community.

Alright, enough blogging. Time to write.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Poet Too? Maybe.

I've had a lovely week (what day is it today?) travelling around with J, from London to Cambridge, cross country to Cornwall and the gorgeous and organic Bangors B&B which ticked every "perfect B&B" box, from the views to the food, the fabulously friendly proprietors to the 3-week old kittens (missing them terribly). We are now in the Brecon Beacons, which is absolutely stunning, and a surprise is planned for tonight, can't tell you anything about that yet.

Internet access has been sporadic and brief, snatches here and there, but to my delight when I logged on a few days ago, I have had a poem accepted by Contrary magazine, a (paying) online literary journal I greatly admire. This is an enormous thrill, mainly because I have only been writing poetry for a few months and frankly had no idea if I was being utterly presumptious in calling it "poetry" at all. An acceptance by a poetry editor tells me that maybe I am allowed to call it that!

So, a problem. On my website, my tagline is:
"Tania Hershman. I write. Stories."
Well, umm, I have also adapted two of my stories into short plays and one into a radio play. And now... poetry. So, what do I put?
"Tania Hershman. I write. Stories. Poems. Plays adapted from stories."
Not quite so snappy. And if I just put
"Tania Hershman. I write."
it's too general, the easily-distracted surfer visiting sites for a micro-second (yes, I mean me too) might not take the time to find out what it is that I write.

Suggestions please! It's lovely to have this kind of existential dilemma, I never imagined myself writing anything other than short stories. I am really enjoying poetry: I have stopped writing flash fiction in an attempt to wean myself off the instant gratification that comes from writing a complete story in 20 minutes and allowing me to work on longer pieces, but poetry is different, lovely, allowing for something odd to emerge, but not, it appears, interfering with my story-writing in the way that flash did. It's as if I have it in a different compartment, it is a seperate thing. Anyone else feel like this?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Orange Prize "Forgets" It Ever Remembered Short Stories

When I was one of two authors commended for this year's Orange Award for New Writers, I was stunned. To be singled out, together with the 3-book shortlist! I didn't even know The White Road and Other Stories had been put forward. And while this was something that was very hard for me to internalise on a personal level, not being one of those who thinks her stories are better than anyone else's, it was instantly obvious to me what a wonderful thing this was both for short story collections and for small independent publishers. All around me were novels and mainstream publishing houses. And there was my little book!

There was already a slight tinge here because in the press release announcing the shortlist, C E Morgan and I were commended with wonderful words but our books were not mentioned. Had people seen that something which had "and other stories" in its title was being given a special mention, what a boost this would be!

The Award for New Writers is for: "all first works of fiction, including novels, short story collections and novellas, written by women of any age or nationality and published as a book in the UK." In the Award's first year, in 2006, Nell Freudenberger was shortlisted for her story collection, Lucky Girls. The following year, Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers made the shortlist. Since then, no story collections have been shortlisted. No novellas have even made it to a shortlist.

I went to the Orange Prize ceremony tonight full of joy: joy at my book having been given the kind of attention I never dreamed of, and more than that, joy at the spotlight being shone on short stories. First, I was pretty surprised by the event which was less a literary celebration than a party where the champagne flowed and pretty young things in very short skirts hung around and chattered amongst themselves. Here and there were well-known faces, but it wasn't quite what I was, perhaps naively, expecting. And it wasn't really a celebration of literary fiction: the awards part of the evening was done in less than half an hour, a very quick affair - no readings from any of the books, no taste of beautiful words to whet our appetites.

Of course, I had hoped that C E Morgan and I would get a quick mention. After all, Kate Mosse, co-founder of the awards (and the only person to say the phrase "short stories" all night) talked about how the New Writers Award was to give writers with potential some recognition, a little (or quite big) push. The Award's judges had thought we deserved a little bit of the fairy dust, right?

Nope. One of the judges talked about the judging process before announcing the winner, mentioning that there were 80 books that she and her fellow judges had to choose from. I waited, breath held, as she talked about what a shame it was to whittle it down to three. Three? I thought. But... but... We had been forgotten.

And not only that. When she talked about how she had read the 80 nominated books during her work trip in Africa, she said that the 80 "first novels" had really kept her going.

I felt like I had been slapped in the face. A double blow. Was mine the only short story collection in the 80? I highly doubt it. But we had been "disappeared", swallowed up. You remember us... and then we're gone. We're too short, perhaps. Too slight in comparison. Maybe it is about everything we - and the poor forgotten novellas - are not. How hard would it have been to have taken that extra 30 seconds... to have remembered?

I was deeply upset. I was nearly in tears on the bus home. But not for me. This has already given me a boost, taken me to a new place, gained me entry to rooms I would not have been allowed into. But in this week when my wonderful and tireless publishers, Salt, are desperately trying to survive and are forced to beg people to buy Just One Book, when those who seek great writing should be flocking to Salt and all the other independent publishers out there - in this week, what would a mention have done for them? What could it have done? There were journalists there, I could have talked about Salt, this would have been a story, something a bit different in this world dominated by novels and large publishing houses.

Don't think for a moment I begrudge the novels anything. I have read one of the shortlisted, The Personal History of Rachel Dupre, by Ann Weisgarber, and it is beautiful, powerful. I love great writing, however it comes, in whatever shape or size. But don't mention us, don't look for one second into the corner that short stories are so often made to sit in, don't shine that light and then so rudely turn it off, turn your back. It is as if you never noticed us at all.

What all this makes me wonder is why - when it is hard enough to try and compare one book with another and to call one the "best" - we writers of short stories and novellas allow ourselves to be packaged together with the novels? Short stories should stand alone, or, at the very least, put us with the poets, please. We shouldn't have to compete in this way. Don't make us think we're important, and then so clearly show us that you really don't care. It's cruel. It really is.

Griff Rhys Jones boosts Salt

How wonderful, the week after I watch his great program on Why Poetry Matters, here is Griff himself:

Griff Rhys Jones

Griff Rhys Jones says:

“Support the good work here. Don’t let Salt fall. If the recession is going to take things down, let it be motor manufacturers, let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we don't have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt. I think I can be a little more forthright than Chris and say ‘Just six books’. Buy dozens why don’t you? It’s a great list. And apparently you will help the economy in many subtle ways too complicated for studious folk like us.”

Thank you, Griff!!

I am in watery London sunshine, enjoying being reunited with J and hanging out in much cooler weather. Tonight we are very privileged to be attending the Orange Prize awards ceremony, sharing oxygen with such luminaries as Marilynne Robinson, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel, Home, and Ann Weisgarber, author of the wonderful The Personal History of Rachel Dupre, shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers, the award that the White Road and Other Stories (or me, not sure which!) received a commendation for. It's lovely to be going and not to be anxious about winning anything, just to be purely delighting in being there. Will be putting on my posh stuff, and trying not to do anything silly at the champagne reception! Details to follow....! Link


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New issue of The Short Review

I'm popping off abroad today, but in the meantime, why aren't you reading? New issue of The Short Review is hot off the press today - with this issue we welcome TSR's new deputy editor, Diane Becker, very glad to have her!

And in a bumper issue this month (well, ok, it's the same size, but packed with goodness!)....Reviews of:

(click on the pic to read the review)

as well as interviews with Matt Bell, Mathias B. Freese, Josephine Rowe, Anne Donovan, Barry Graham and Pat Jourdan. Could you want more? I don't think so.