Competitive writing – why bother?

At the start of the year I try and get organised; regular readers may remember I have a new (pink!) diary to note deadlines in. There’s a flurry of activity in January, some years it lasts well into February but by March I’m slacking off and then I wonder why I’m bothering anyway.

I’ve entered quite a few writing competitions over the years, and other than coming second in the Morpheus Tales flash fiction competition in 2009  I haven’t had any success with them. I keep coming back to competitions, but I can’t help wondering why, and I find myself leaning towards the idea that it might be the same reason people play the lottery. Yes I’m extremely unlikely to win the Bridport Prize, but wouldn’t it be marvellous if I did.

Quite often there are only a handful of stories mentioned (shortlist, or placed plus highly commended) and only the winner is published, but if the competition is respected enough it’s a good thing to be able to point to on your writing CV. If the prizes have a cash element it’s usually the top three stories only. Entering a competition isn’t that likely to get your writing in front of an audience, or swell your bank balance.

There is something to be said for the discipline of a deadline, however. A magazine, even if it has regular closed periods, will still be there next week or next month when you might have more time. Competitions, in general, are not. This might explain why I intend to enter many more than I actually do, but even so entering competitions probably does coax more work out of me than the vague idea of a magazine submission.

At this point, I should probably grab the pink diary and head over to http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/submission-calls/ to write down some more deadlines.

What’s the collective noun for writers?

I joined a writing group yesterday. Not a comfort-of-your-own-home, mug of tea in one hand, cat on your knee kind of online group like the Telegraph Short Story Club (which regular visitors will know I’ve been a part of for a couple of years) but an actual group of people in a room, talking. Not my forte (who’d have thought that of someone with degrees in maths and physics?), but thankfully the gathering was friendly and varied. There was an interesting mix of poetry, flash fiction, short story, novella, novel and non-fiction works in progress, for children and adults, by those with agents, the published, the self-published, and enthusiastic hobbyists. Some compulsive and prolific, others waiting for that boot up the backside to get going. The aim is to meet monthly and prove to each other we’ve actually written something in the meantime.

I’ll have to stop there because OneMonkey has just declared that the world’s a better place for the existence of Twisted Sister and I need to check if he’s sickening for something…

Spring and surroundings

Spring’s officially here, though we’ve had a heavier frost this week than we had all winter. Naturally, I’m reading a novel set in mountain country when the first of the winter snows are sweeping in and causing problems, but then I have a habit of being contrary.

There has been the odd burst of sunshine lately, plenty of flowers are appearing (mainly purple, in my garden) and the longer days mean it’s not already dark or dropping dark when I get home. It struck me as a good time to have a fresh look at things, while everywhere’s refreshing itself and throwing off the winter blankets.

Tomorrow on the way to work, or while you’re peering bleary-eyed from the kitchen window waiting for the first pot of tea of the day, take a good look at your surroundings. Maybe the winter storms have opened up the view by half a tree, or you’d forgotten there were daffodils on the roundabout. Maybe it’ll make you smile, or bring back memories. Maybe it’ll only remind you of some crucial maintenance you’d been putting off. Hopefully though, it’ll put a spring in your step.

In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard

I wasn’t familiar with the name Robert Goddard and would have been highly unlikely to pick this novel up, left to my own devices. However, that’s what recommendations are for, and on my last trip to the Library of Mum and Dad (like the Bank of Mum and Dad, but easier to come by and more edifying), this was handed to me as a good starting point into Goddard’s back catalogue.

The edition I read (Corgi paperback 2010) would have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a diligent proof-reader; the vast number of typos began to irritate me but thankfully the power of the story drew me on. In Pale Battalions is a finely-paced novel of family secrets, sacrifice and lies, where the nested narratives mirror the nested mysteries. Certainties are periodically overturned. The answer to some burning question swims into view, trailing in its wake a whole shoal of questions of a different hue.

Leonora Galloway is a seventy year old widow taking her daughter to visit a First World War memorial in France in 1986. It is the cue for an unburdening, a lifetime of living within the confines of a web of secrets being cast aside. Throughout the novel there is a theme of withholding information to protect someone, even if they don’t need that protection. What right has anyone to decide when is the right time to reveal surprising truths, and if the revelation comes too late would it have been better not to know?

The bulk of the novel takes place during the First World War, which might make this year a particularly suitable time to read it since commemorations are taking place all around. The quiet dignity of the prose and the unpacking of a mysterious past put me in mind of The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. I think readers of that novel would enjoy In Pale Battalions, as would anyone who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s novels Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

Mixed genre messages – a bad idea?

Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.

Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.

Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?

The North, the working class novel, the iplayer

For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.

The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.

Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.

If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…

Boys Don’t Cry, out of our hands

thousandmonkeys:

I write comics sometimes, here’s a post from my other blog about a project based on our first graphic novel, plus a link to a free copy.

Originally posted on Ostragoth Publishing:

Our first graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, now has a life of its own. Last year a student from Edinburgh contacted us to ask about using BDC as the basis for a project, he wanted to produce an animated version of some sort. Being generally agreeable sorts in favour of educational pursuits, we said yes. I hadn’t mentioned it here because I didn’t know if it would work out and didn’t know if he’d want it broadcast in advance (piling on the pressure, perhaps) but I’ve recently found out he has a blog about the project, which you can read here (he does say nice things about us, but that’s not the only reason I’m telling you. Honest). Interesting to see the thought processes behind it all as it progresses, and the enthusiasm. Also quite entertaining to realise I was wrong when I thought he’d partly chosen BDC because of…

View original 153 more words

Writing on a rainbow

If you’re trying to get into a regular writing habit but you keep running into the ‘yes but what do I write about?’ problem, you need a few prompts up your sleeve. Colour doesn’t work for everyone, but you could give it a try. Specifically, try writing on a rainbow.

Conveniently, there are the same number of colours in the rainbow as there are days in the week, so you can match one with the other and never have to think too hard about a prompt again. You might go with:

  • Monday – the red light district
  • Tuesday – orange squash at a church fete
  • Wednesday – the lemon sweets that always get left till last
  • Thursday – the smell of fresh-mown grass
  • Friday – bluetits jostling on a garden feeder
  • Saturday – a school exercise book with deep purple sugar-paper covers
  • Sunday – crystallised violets on a birthday cake

Or another week might be:

  • Monday – scarlet stilletos
  • Tuesday – a vibrant sunset
  • Wednesday – washing-up gloves
  • Thursday – a green velvet ribbon
  • Friday – a lake on a calm sunny day
  • Saturday – someone coming home with a black eye
  • Sunday – a purple front door on a street of white uPVC

Either try 5 minutes’ uninterrupted writing and see where it takes you, or jot down all the ideas each thing makes you think of. You might get a colourful surprise.

Writing fiction to music

Metal and fiction: two of my favourite things, so you can imagine my delight when I chanced upon Despumation Press. This is a new venture that ‘seeks to champion writing that explores the diverse themes metal customarily addresses using language in such a way as to evoke the feeling of listening to the music’. Sounds cool, and they’re seeking submissions based on your favourite metal song.

It turns out their favoured end of metal isn’t mine (you may recall all that talk of ‘hair metal’ in the past, not a term I’d ever used but it seems to cover a big chunk of what I like. That and NWOBHM of course), so I guess I won’t be offering them my efforts but I did want to have a go for my own entertainment. Or maybe even education.

Capturing the rhythm of a song sounds quite hard and I’m not absolutely sure how to go about it. I’ve read poetry with a definite driving beat to it, so maybe that could be replicated in prose. Could you vary the sentence length, the types of words; get all flowing and lyrical for the guitar solo? Even if you’re not keen on metal you could get a piece of flash fiction from your favourite song (or a novella, if you’re into Dream Theater). One to try I think, and if you have wide-ranging musical tastes the variety of styles could be interesting – maybe you’d have to detail the soundtrack in the introduction, if you released them as a collection. Of course, this assumes you can listen and write at the same time.

Writing a gender bias

Some people have decided to spend 2014 reading only books by women, so The Guardian tells us. Fine, they can do what they like, but they needn’t expect me to join them.

I wrote a few years ago about the (largely accidental) male bias in my reading matter, and I said then that reading only sci-fi written by women would be just as bad as reading only sci-fi written by men. I stand by that now, notwithstanding my more recent post about reading Yorkshire-related books (and I did say then that if I only read Yorkshire-related books it would be weird); an individual choosing to guide their own reading habits by the name of the author, the colour of the cover or whatever other arbitrary criterion is basically harmless, if we assume they’re not maintaining that those books they’ve chosen are intrinsically superior. However, when a group, a journal, a public movement picks up on something like gender, it quickly becomes political.

Back when I was a postgrad I refused on principle to join any female physicist/female STEM network. My gender shouldn’t matter, whether as a scientist or as a writer. I find the idea patronising, as though I might need special treatment, as though I can’t get by on merit. The same goes for writing: what happened to reading the synopsis and giving the book a whirl?

As it happens, I’m reading a book by a female author at the moment (and it’s Yorkshire-related). It is Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and I wouldn’t recommend it; I’m reading it for the machine-breaking (Luddite) theme but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. There are all the sins against Yorkshire accents that I accused Frances Hodgson Burnett of in that earlier Yorkshire books post, plus interminable sentences, seemingly inconsequential asides, French passages my rusty GCSE can’t cope with, and unexplained quotations of whole songs and poems. For a gender-balanced view, I should point out that I abandoned my attempt at reading some Dickens again last year for similar reasons (except the accent thing).

One book by a female author I did enjoy last year was Domestic Manners of the Americans by Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony). She travelled widely in the USA in (I think) the 1820s, when many large cities we’re used to hearing about were still small towns, and she wrote this fascinating and entertaining account of her travels. She comes across as a strong woman I wouldn’t have wanted to get on the wrong side of. Not recommended for any American readers who happen to be easily-offended, however.

First draft excitement

Pretend you’re interested for a moment while I share the excitement of having completed the first draft of Sunrise over Centrified City (the SF noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo). I wrote the final scene this evening and am now bathed in mild elation tinged with regret. The thing about finishing a long piece is, you have to leave behind some characters you’ve come to know deeply. Although as OneMonkey pointed out, it won’t be for long – I’ll need to start typing up (having written it longhand) and then re-drafting in a couple of months. In the meantime I’m marvelling at the accessibility of this achievement. In January I worked on the novel on only 3 Sundays and a Saturday, and produced a total of 10,000 words. Doesn’t that sound so easy to fit around other commitments and general life stuff? I don’t know whether to be inspired, or disappointed that I don’t manage this kind of output more often. However I end up feeling about it, this is only the beginning. The real work begins when I start plugging all the plot-holes with the rewrite, and I can see that taking me all the way to November and the next NaNoWriMo.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time’s Echo is a time-slip novel I read last year, set in both contemporary and late sixteenth-century York. Sparked by a few interesting names and a badly-behaved dog the author came across in court records during her PhD in Medieval History, the resulting novel is a flight of fantasy that feels as authentic and believable as Tracy Chevalier at her best, with enough detail to make the historical element seem well-researched without turning it into a textbook.

Grace Trewe, an independent young woman who’s travelled all over the world, inherits a terraced house in York. She could just leave everything to the solicitor, but on a whim she goes to the house for what’s meant to be a brief stay in an interesting historic town she’s not familiar with, before she joins some friends on another continent. Are her nightmares and strange experiences only a result of having been caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami? For Grace, who’s used to being able to pack up and move on whenever she needs to, the feeling that this time she might not be able to is most unnerving. Meanwhile in the sixteenth century, Hawise (try saying Louisa without the initial L and you won’t be far off) meets a stranger at the market and sets in motion a dangerous obsession that will echo down the centuries.

Time’s Echo is not simply a ghost story (though there is an element of the supernatural), it’s an entanglement of two time-frames. The story explores the patterns in our own lives and through history, the repeated mistakes and the seemingly inconsequential moments on which history pivots. The tension and sense of anticipation are accentuated by the swinging of the narrative between time-frames and there are echoes of some of the sixteenth-century characters and events in the contemporary narrative.

There was an inevitability to Hawise’s story, not least because we came in at the end of it; nevertheless, the final subtle twist was powerful and unexpected. Even when you think you know what’s about to happen, there’s a compulsion to read on just in case it was averted at the last minute. For a nearly five hundred page novel, this was a swift, fluid read and I found myself gripped from quite early on. I would say fans of well-written historical fiction (possibly even historical romance) would enjoy this as long as they’re not averse to a smattering of the supernatural and equally, fans of mild horror who fancy something historical might like to give it a go. There’s also a strong Yorkshire interest, set as it is among the streets of York.

How goes 2014 so far?

We’ve had at least a day and a half to get used to it, so how are we all feeling about 2014? Apart from it being a scary futuristic-sounding year, that is. Broken any resolutions yet? If I’d made any (which I haven’t), one of them would have been to get back into my regular Wednesday blogging habit. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t make any resolutions. (My excuse is that yesterday felt like a Sunday, specifically one of those winter Sundays from childhood – too wet to go walking, nothing on the radio, not much happening in general).

2014 Calendar page

The second day of the year is a good time to take stock. The pressure of day one is off, and real life may well have kicked back in and reminded you of routines and practicalities that just don’t fit with those mighty aspirations of the early hours of the previous day, when the world was bathed in firework-light and glitter. Nearly three years ago (how long have I had this blog?!) I wrote a post about the new calendar for planning my writing year, and if you haven’t read it before you could do worse than nip back and have a look now. This year I’m using a pocket-sized week-to-view diary someone gave me for Christmas (bright pink, but you can’t have everything) and I’ve started off by hatching in each day I’m not at work (in pink pencil, may as well continue the theme). Useful places to go next include the Thresholds list of competition and submission deadlines (I have spotted the odd one where some of the details aren’t quite right but as long as you check out the full details on the competition website you should be fine) and the Literary Festival planner (UK and Australia). In my 2011 post I mentioned Duotrope, which at the time was a free resource but is now subscription-only (I still use it, but it’s not as useful to point you at it as an example) but a quick internet search should reveal plenty of deadlines to be going on with. Right, now you’re ready to panic. Sorry did I say panic? I meant methodically plan writing time, themes, goals and priorities.

Now we’re all organised, everything will be absolutely fine as long as no-one signs up to any free online university courses this year. Ah, wait a moment… More about that, undoubtedly, in a future update.

Looking back on 2013

The year’s not quite done yet but given my recent form, this could well be the last post of the year. What better time to have a look at what 2013 brought?

Strictly speaking it was the last few days of 2012 that brought my e-reader; I’ve had it a year today and most enjoyable it’s been. Somewhere in a post I can’t put my finger on at the moment, I mentioned my epiphany on the e-reader (the Walkman to complement the bookshelf’s LP collection), and I’m glad that realisation came. I’ve read a whole host of books I wouldn’t have got round to in print, at least in part because of their size. Most of them have come from ManyBooks.net, but some were borrowed from the library (Leeds Libraries have loads of new ebooks available, North Yorkshire libraries also provide an ebook service, Bradford doesn’t as yet but has a list of places to obtain them free of charge. Check your local library but remember Kindles don’t work with library loans); I’m already planning my borrowing to brighten up the commute in January.

I seem to have read my traditional mix of SF, Doctor Who novels, crime fiction, writing manuals, and socialist history this year. A bit of Anthony Trollope and a lot of John Ruskin sprinkled throughout. I’ve only put 7 book reviews up this year, but you can read them all here.

My short story submissions and my attendance at the Telegraph SSC have both been woefully inadequate, particularly in the second half of the year, which is not unrelated to my NaNoWriMo effort (still limping towards 40,000 words, thanks). Sci-fi noir, what was I thinking? Actually I was probably thinking how much I’d enjoyed The Manual of Detection, or Finch, or Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series. If you think that might be your kind of thing, check one of those novels out while you’re waiting for mine to be finished (I may be some time).

Back in March I released my first short story collection, The Little Book of Northern Women, which was positively received. It’s nearly sold as many copies as my novel Wasted Years, which had a 7-month head start. In August I tried an audio version of the final story in the Little Book, and I’d still be interested to hear what you think. I might try recording other pieces in the coming year.

Probably all that’s left to do is wish you all a peaceful 2014, and I hope you read some good books and travel to some interesting lands via the power of words.

Where did that month go?

Looks like I haven’t been here for a month, not sure how that happened. No doubt you all missed me and have been waiting for my return (it’s nearly Christmas, I’m allowed to dream). The sci-fi noir novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo (Sunrise Over Centrified City, as its working title goes) reached just over 25,000 words by midnight on November 30th. It’s now creeping slowly to 35,000 and I’m still working away reasonably steadily, still enjoying myself. Maybe that’s how come a month has passed without me noticing.

It is of course the season of mince pies and tinsel which heralds, apart from the imminent arrival of friends and family to scoff the aforementioned mince pies, the end of the year. All those writing goals I didn’t stick to! The craft projects I didn’t complete for the third year running! People I haven’t met up with, places I haven’t been, jumpers I haven’t fished out of the back of the cupboard. Yes, it’s time for the annual wallowing in negativity and despair. However, this is what tinsel was invented for – to shine its purple plastic positivity around the house and enable you to dust yourself off and start planning for the year to come. All those writing goals. And the craft projects I know I can finish if I just find the right time. Now where’s my 2014 calendar?

Mid-NaNo review

Slightly past halfway and I have 14.5 thousand words of my sci-fi noir novel for NaNoWriMo, which is not bad – I won’t get to 50,000 but I wasn’t really aiming to, and the novel is going fairly well (still enjoying myself). I hope anyone else out there still busily NaNo-ing is enjoying themselves too.

In the meantime, while I’m neglecting you all terribly (or leaving you in peace), why not read this gratifying review of KZine issue 6, which included my Self-Aware and Living in Bradford. It may even make you want to go read the magazine.

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.