Why own books?

I don’t mean why buy books, rather why bother hanging onto them once you’ve read them? Spending lockdown staring at our bookshelves and wondering why we had so many books, and how many we’d actually read, OneMonkey and I had a cull recently.

About a quarter of the books waiting to go

There are piles of books lying around our flat now, waiting for the charity shops to reopen so we can pass them on. They are mainly mine. Books that were my undergraduate set texts more than twenty years ago, second-hand books I haven’t read and can now admit I never will, books I have read but won’t read again. As we went through each shelf deciding which books to keep and which to jettison, it made me think about where I got them and why I kept them in the first place.

When I was a teenager, in fact probably into my early twenties, I stocked up on the books I thought I ‘ought’ to read. The ones I thought might be impressive (to whom?) on the bookshelves in my student digs. With the aid of the new Wordsworth cheap editions and the clearance shelf in Thornes and/or Dillons in Newcastle I got Tolstoy and Turgenev, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. Birthday book tokens got me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (single volume abridged) and some of the optional reading for my philosophy of science modules. I even read most of them. Then I hung on to them for years, no intention of re-reading the ones I’d read, never getting round to the ones I hadn’t. They had become part of the furniture, being packed up and redeployed every time OneMonkey and I moved house (which we did six times in the eleven years after graduation).

Books, as you might expect, are a bit of a Proust’s madeleine for me. With most of my books, I pick it off the shelf and recall its acquisition. Often I get a flash of when or where I read it, if indeed I have. For most of those ‘ought’ books, I got nothing. I hadn’t read them because I got a flash of excitement when I read the blurb in the bookshop, I’d read them because I recognised the title or the author from a list somewhere. With a few honourable exceptions (Tolstoy, for one), I never connected with them. Now I’m in my forties, my hair shot with silver threads that match my glam metal scarves, I don’t care about having Plato or Hume on my shelves. I don’t even care that I haven’t read them (I did try Hume, but his punctuation and phraseology were impenetrable).

Those books joined the popular science books I’d left too long after graduation and didn’t understand, the history books on topics I was no longer interested in or that were written in a dull old-fashioned way. It was easier to ditch the second-hand books, the dog-eared ones I’d rescued from the bin at an Oxfam bookshop I volunteered at many years ago or the ones I’d bought at charity shops or library book-sales. The ones I’d bought new were harder (I paid good money for that!) and the ones that were gifts, harder still.

I find it hard to get rid of books that were gifts, even when they were wide of the mark. I can sometimes pass them on to someone else I know, but to hand them over to a charity shop, not knowing what kind of care they’ll subsequently receive, is too much. Of course, when you’re known to be a book-lover and your nearest and dearest give you books at every available opportunity but you live in a flat, there comes a time when even some of the presents have to go. The books friend T gave me for my 18th and 40th birthdays remain beside each other on the popular science and rock ‘n’ roll shelf (the shelving system only really makes sense to me), as do scattered others, but there are books from friends and family on the To Go piles. The cringing this is causing made me realise that part of the reason for keeping the gift books is so I can hope said friend or relative notices it on a visit and thinks better of me. Even though most of my friends and relatives rarely, if ever, get close to my bookshelves and probably wouldn’t recognise half the books they’d given me.

So we’re back to bookshelves as a means to impress. It made me think of the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility, which popped up at the start of lockdown in 2020 to offer tongue in cheek analysis of the shelves used as background by experts and politicians appearing on the news from their homes. I had a job interview by video call in February and I admit I agonised over which angle to have my chair at. In the end I realised that the books I’d be happiest about having on show (sci-fi and fantasy novels, northern and/or working-class history) were on the higher shelves and I could either do the interview standing up or just not mind. I ended up with Muppet DVDs on one side and a random collection of fiction on the other, most legible among which was probably the Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus (and yet, I did get the job).

How I ended up presenting my shelves

Why own books, then? I reckon they fall into four categories:

  • I (realistically) intend to read them but haven’t yet
  • reference volumes or say, a history book that I’ve read but might want to revisit for a fact or date
  • fiction or poetry that’s likely to be re-read, e.g. a seasonal collection or favourite Terry Pratchett
  • fiction I’m pretty sure I won’t re-read but holds fond memories that flood me when I pluck it from the shelf, possibly because it was a gift

Oh yes, and of course the ones I’d prefer to have as my public-facing background on a video call or author photo, but I’m pretty sure I’m hanging on to them for one of the four reasons above, anyway.

Oddly this is how I’d prefer to be seen. Many of you will be puzzled, I’m sure.

Why do you keep books, if you do? I’d love to know, so feel free to tell me in the comments (or on Twitter @JYSaville)

If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships took me weeks to read despite being magnificent, so I’m hazy on early detail now – blame lockdown fatigue. However, the simple message is: read this book. If you like epic fantasy, or if you like adventurous tales of the high seas, and especially if you like both, you will love this novel. I happened to start reading it the same week OneMonkey and I started watching Hornblower (late ’90s adaptation of some CS Forester books, set in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century) on Britbox, and I realised how nicely they went together.

The Hundred Isles have been at war forever, it’s what they do. The war ships are built from dragon bones but nobody’s seen an actual dragon for generations. Until now. Whoever gets hold of that dragon will have a prize indeed.

That’s the rough gist of the blurb and it was enough to grab me, having never read any of RJ Barker’s work before. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to the inventiveness of this world, however: the myths, rituals and religion; the vegetation, geography and animals. The characters. Oh, the characters: Joron Twiner, Meas Gilbryn, and the gullaime for starters. But it’s so hard to say anything further without spoiling one of the many revelatory moments.

I could talk about the themes of bravery and loyalty, propaganda and political truth, environmental exploitation and unexpected allies. I could mention the fact that RJ Barker is, like me, from West Yorkshire (about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England), though I didn’t find that out until after I’d started the book – an added bonus, if you will. I will note in passing that subtle shifts in language like calling all ships he instead of she, talking about wings instead of sails, and flying the sea rather than sailing, were effective in shifting this firmly into another world. And I will say again, if either ships or dragons are your thing you will love this book.

I had just finished reading the penultimate chapter of The Bone Ships when it won Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2020 and I thought yes, that makes perfect sense. Book 2 of the Tide Child Trilogy is Call of the Bone Ships, which came out in paperback at the end of 2020, and I will be getting it for the Kobo forthwith.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The green writer’s dilemma: a scrap paper crisis

I have a constitutional inability to use paper. Tricky in a writer, you might think. As a physics student in the nineties my back of the envelope calculations were genuinely done on the back of an envelope. I hoarded scrap paper and my flatmates used to add their surplus to the cardboard box under my desk, which went with me when I left. I have three writing notebooks that are actually other people’s discarded desk diaries, bought in a fit of enthusiasm and never used. Or in my mum’s case for the 2006 one, put down somewhere safe and lost until 2008.

Brought up in the eighties by my Nana with her 1940s make do and mend ethos, scared into good habits by Friends of the Earth, I have taken reduce and reuse to heart. Even I, however, print things out sometimes. I cannot, no matter how many times I try, successfully edit a novel on the screen. Something about being able to flick back and forth, put pages side by side, or scrawl in coloured pencil helps me enormously. Short stories, even a novella, I’ve happily managed on my laptop. Novels, no chance. But I’m running out.

My fast-emptying drawers of scrap paper. Yes, the labels are cut out of the backboard of an A4 pad.

I have three novels that I’m working on to a greater or lesser degree right now. There’s the semi-rural fantasy that got me on the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, which I’ve been sending to agents left, right and centre and now want to go back and rework a bit because I’m not sure there’s enough nature in it. There’s the sci-fi noir that I got useful feedback from a small press from around Christmas time, that I want to tweak to address their concerns so I can send it elsewhere with confidence. And there’s the crime novel I got my first ever full manuscript request for last year, which needs tightening up for the second full manuscript request which I got from another small press, who meanwhile gave me helpful feedback on the few chapters they’ve already read. That’s a lot of pages to print out and go through with a red pen.

OneMonkey has often been heard to say I have more than enough scrap paper. Usually when I’m about to squirrel away flyers and handouts while we’re out, or the single-sided descriptive insert from a box of Christmas crackers at a family gathering. In fact when he cleared out his box of MSc notes recently I agreed to be ruthless and not keep every last printout and single-sided form. I ended up with two full drawers and a one-inch thick stack of A4 on the top of the cabinet, thinking it would last for ages. It’s almost all gone.

It occurred to me this morning as I printed out another section of the crime novel (forty pages of single-sided A4 from the drawer) that I’m not replenishing this supply. Given that neither of us has been a student for at least a dozen years we’re certainly not adding printouts of slides, homework questions, instructions for formatting essays. I suspect if we were students these days they’d point us at an online resource anyway. After a certain number of years I used to put bills, bank statements, mortgage letters and the like into the scrap paper box but they’re mostly electronic now, and the few that are paper are printed on both sides. In a way, that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t help me with my printing. Among the sheets from this morning’s session I also had particulars from estate agents from before the days of rightmove, job details from when you sent for an application pack instead of filling in an online form, and letters from the Institute of Physics which have undoubtedly migrated to email.

Before long, I’ll be forced to print out on brand new (recycled) paper, and the only additions to my scrap paper drawer will be the half-sheets from when a chapter ends partway down a page. And the inevitable double-sided printing disasters where I print the second page over the first. It’s going to come as something of a shock after all these years, the demise of my scrap paper printing supply. I might have to delve under the bed to check I haven’t got a forgotten folder of A-level notes I can liberate some homework sheets from.

If you’d like to help me brace for the shock you can always buy me a cuppa…

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A book about archaeology at Ur

I’ve been trying to use lockdown as a prompt to read the books languishing unread on my bookshelves. It’s proving full of delightful surprises, and is also making OneMonkey and I clear out a stupid number of books – more of which in a later post, I’m sure. The latest discovery is this slim volume, Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Woolley was in charge of British Museum excavations in the 1920s at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq, and this is his account, written in 1929 (though I have the 1952 revised edition, and I think there are modern editions as well).

You may recall I read a book called Footsteps by Bruce Norman last year, about nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological expeditions and the birth of scientific archaeology. This book on Ur was a nice coda to that, being an expedition right at the end of the time period covered in Footsteps. Woolley describes techniques that made me wince, and I’m sure Professor Mick Aston from Time Team would have thrown up his hands in horror at them, but he is using the most up to date techniques available to him and contrasts them with the plundering seventy years earlier which has damaged some of the remains. I mention Time Team not just because I love the programme, but because Woolley’s descriptions of techniques, practicalities and frustrations reminded me of it. It struck me that this swiftly-produced book was the pre-television age version: an insight into the excavations for a popular audience, educating and entertaining in equal measure.

The title is, I believe, a biblical reference which was lost on me, something to do with Abraham. However, I do vaguely recall Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus from primary school religious studies, and both those kings crop up here. As does Hammurabi, whose eye-for-an-eye code of law I remember learning about in history when I was about twelve. Basically, I know more about ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kings than I thought I did, and you probably do too. Not that it matters, because Woolley’s enthusiasm carried me through. The edition I have is 164 pages including the index, which is short enough to be casually and quickly readable. I did get a bit confused about layouts, because there are only twenty-seven black and white photos and a few line drawings in the whole book, but on the whole I got a sense of wonder and discovery as he described unearthing the different layers and artefacts. Amazingly, one of the places they excavated was a museum of antiquities! A site from around 600BCE where objects already at least a thousand years old were gathered as a teaching resource, it seems. A fascinating thought.

Trying to make out details on the small pictures included in this paperback, I wished I could see the objects themselves. He was digging for the British Museum, I realised – they must have pictures somewhere, they’re good at that. What they’ve actually got is a Google street view of the gallery, so you can (if you’re better at controlling street view than I am) walk through the gallery as though you were there. And the same goes for the rest of the museum, I think. I did also discover a British Museum blog post, which I haven’t explored but I think suggests there’s a new online Woolley/Ur resource somewhere. I had a wonderful time spotting objects in the gallery that I recognised either from the photos in the book or from Woolley’s descriptions. To have read about the difficulties of identifying or excavating them gave me much more of a connection than if I’d simply looked through the objects without reading about them first.

Possibly I’m just slow on the uptake and everyone else who’s missing museums has been tripping through the rooms of their favourites in a virtual way for months. However, I realised that in a similar way I could ‘visit’ museums I’ll never get to in real life. It is vaguely possible my London-based friend will persuade me to the British Museum once all this corona-horror is over, but I’ll never go to Cairo or Washington or St Petersburg but chances are their museums have virtual tours too. In the meantime I’ve also discovered, courtesy of OneMonkey, a reddit channel where people post photos of man-made objects, many of them ancient, from all around the world.

So, Ur of the Chaldees has earnt its continuing place on my bookshelves, next to Footsteps. Unusually for my second-hand books I have no recollection of where it came from or when I acquired it. It’s not ex-library, I can’t imagine anyone giving me it as a present, and I can see no evidence of a rubbed-out price from a charity shop. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in the first place, or why I then didn’t read it for years. However, I dare say I’ve appreciated it more after Footsteps than I might have done if I’d read it a couple of years ago so all in all, I’m glad I put it off.

If I’ve helped you discover some wonders you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Short amusing fiction

I have a new story up this week, Silver-Topped Cane at Funny Pearls. They referred to it as ‘bona fide comedy’, so if that sounds enticing, go and have a read. It’s the story of Barry, his flamboyant dream of a more adventurous and creative life, and cruel reality.

This is an actual silver-topped cane I found for sale online

I say it’s a new story – this version is new. I dusted it off recently and rewrote it, but it must be 3 years since I took an earlier, longer incarnation along to an Ilkley Writers critique night in the pub, and it wasn’t new then. I didn’t really know what to do with a funny story. So many places want thought-provoking stories, poetic language, the serious and dark. I write plenty of dark things but now and then I need a laugh. We all do, particularly mid-pandemic if we can manage it. So hurrah for Funny Pearls, a site for humour by women, which has enough short humour to keep you going for a while. Because it’s free to read the writers don’t get paid for their work, so if you enjoy a story consider supporting the writer – that can be as simple as saying you liked it on social media. You never know when the word of mouth chain will lead to paying work.

I’ll give you a brief bit of background and a quote, then you can wander off and read it for yourself. Barry is called Barry because it’s a very Victoria Wood character name, and I’m a great admirer of her. His alter ego J Orpington Spadina was inspired by my flatmates at university twenty-odd years ago: one was from Toronto, near the Spadina subway station. The other thought this was such a pleasing name that in the unlikely event of them writing a novel it would be under the name Spadina – I forget the forename they chose so I made up one with a nice rhythm. It turns out (I looked it up yesterday) that Orpington is actually a place near London. Go figure, as the Toronto flatmate would have said.

If anyone asked – and they were sure to, for what was a silver-topped cane if not a conversational gambit – he would claim to be a poet.

Silver-Topped Cane by JY Saville

If you enjoy Silver-Topped Cane you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Dealing with rejection as a writer

Everyone who’s ever tried to be a writer knows there’s a lot of rejection involved. You might have seen my rejection round-up of 2020 just before Christmas, I’d had over a hundred failed submissions by that point and I added a few more before the year was out. I listed them there as submissions that were ‘rejected or ignored’. I referred to them a moment ago as submissions that ‘failed’. Harsh words, all.

Photo by burak kostak on Pexels.com

Now, it might strike you as odd for someone who works with words, but personally I don’t mind what we call the non-acceptances. I’ve seen arguments for ‘acceptances and declinations’ – you decline a party invitation, you don’t tend to reject it. Though I guess it depends who’s asking. Submittable, one of the most popular submission managers, labels completed transactions as Accepted or Declined. In the common parlance, however, it’s rejections. And it comes with as much psychological baggage as you might expect.

It’s easy to feel like the editor is rejecting your writing, throwing it over as not worth bothering with, even rejecting you, the writer, altogether. Particularly if it’s your third rejection this morning, your eighth from that magazine, and your twenty-third for that story. However, usually – admittedly not always – they are not rejecting you as a writer, probably not really ‘rejecting’ that story. It may be that if you’d submitted that same story for the previous issue they’d have taken it, or they’ll snap up the next thing you send them. In the meantime, here’s a couple of tips from me that might help take the sting out. I might have had a fair few stories accepted now but I’ve had way more than that rejected, so I have useful experience…

Copy the nice bits from rejections into your spreadsheet

What do you mean you don’t have a spreadsheet? If you want to keep track of all your submissions regardless of whether you emailed an attachment, used Submittable, or filled in a contact form on a website, a spreadsheet is the logical way to go. Make a few columns with simple headings so you know what you sent where, when, and what the outcome was. I have a wide notes column at the end, and if I got any personal feedback whatsoever, it goes in there in quotation marks so I know I’ve lifted it verbatim from a response. Even if it’s a standard rejection of the ‘but please try us again’ type, I’ll quote that encouraging phrase. That way, when I feel like abandoning a particular story I can look back through some of the positive responses I’ve got for it – or similar stories – before and take heart. Or if I feel like maybe I’ve lost the knack, I can remind myself of the encouraging things editors have said about recent stories that haven’t quite made it (or that have made it – the excited ‘yes please’ with the reasons why, is a good thing to keep here too).

Screenshot praise for your work on Twitter (particularly from strangers)

This one makes me sound vain, I know. Maybe I am. I’m definitely human though, and flicking through praise for published work perks me up when I’m having a day where I start wondering if I should give up on this writing lark. Friends and supportive acquaintances are likely to have said nice things which, on a bad day, you will convince yourself arose from obligation. This is why I strongly advise you to store away any praise from strangers. You will need to be having a seriously bad, beyond redemption, day to convince yourself that the stranger was being polite or had mistaken you for someone else. I mention Twitter because it’s where I hang out, but comments left on online stories, relevant paragraphs from a review of the anthology you were in, anything that you can look at later that reminds you someone enjoyed your writing and took the time and trouble to say so.

If you’re just starting out, build up a store of these things as you go along. If you’ve been going for a while and you suffer from self-doubt, trust me when I say it’s worth trawling back through the rejection emails to copy the nice bits into your spreadsheet. And if you enjoy someone’s writing, say so – you might not only make their day today, but cheer them up in years to come.

If this has helped, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Wyldblood Magazine issue 1

Wyldblood Magazine is the new bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine from Wyldblood Press. For the writers, it’s a paying market based in the UK. For readers, it’s 11 stories ranging between 4 and 10 pages each, plus an author interview (Tiffani Angus) and some book reviews. The editor Mark Bilsborough was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here’s a quick scoot through what you can expect.

Coal Dust and Shadows by Holley Cornetto is a good old-fashioned eerie story set in a mining town in the USA. An odd girl is rescued from a mine, and seventeen-year-old Preston’s in love. But is this silent girl as innocent as she seems? One of my favourites from this issue.

Thawing by JL George is firmly in the realm of fantasy, set in a world where cold-bringing dragons are feared. A young girl is enthralled by the legend of the ice princess but how close is it to the truth?

The Butcher’s Dog by Peri Dwyer Worrell is a light-hearted tale of animal experiments, narrated by the dog of the title. Who is really in charge in this human-canine relationship?

A Gleam of Gold by Dorothy A Winsor is a fantasy tale in a land where magic is seen as barbaric. We meet Jarka as he begins to learn the mastery of his magical skills. This reads like a selfcontained excerpt from a longer story, there’s definitely a sense of a fully-formed world out there with a past and a future.

Bargaining with Frogs by Stephanie Kraner is a fun take on the frog prince fairytale.

Et In Vanadia Ego by Rosemary Sgroi is science-fiction. In a society geared for cyclists, where energy is currency, a young man has fallen in love with a woman from Vanadia, the last outpost of capitalism.

Little Escher by Robert Borski. Is there more to a little boy’s drawing ability than his father thinks?

A Murder of Crows by Jacey Bedford is a gripping story with a noir edge. Anka works for the Port Authority, basically she’s a cop, and having just lost an apprentice she’s determined to go it alone when her greatest foe shows up in the city. My personal favourite, I think, and anyone else with a fondness for William Gibson’s style will probably also love this one.

The Paint-Over Artist by Mark Rigney is sci-fi initially feeling like fantasy. A secluded authoritarian state, and the woman whose job it is to paint over graffiti and subversive slogans. Another favourite of mine.

Souls of Smoke and Ash by Sydney Paige Guerrero is set in the Philippines and nudges into vampire territory without the gore. It’s a compelling character-driven tale of betrayal, teenage identity and loneliness.

The Klizzys by Bonnie West is a sad and unsettling tale of a grieving child and imaginary friends.

The stories range in tone from light-hearted to dark and tense, and cover sub-genres across the speculative spectrum. Not every story will be to everyone’s taste, and it’s skewed towards fantasy but only because the submissions were, I think – if you want to redress the balance submit some good sci-fi, or nudge your favourite sci-fi short story writer to do so. Wyldblood magazine has the potential to become one of those broad-taste SF mags like Interzone, where you know you’ll find stories of a certain calibre and there’s sure to be something to entice you, even if you won’t like every story in every issue.

The interview with Tiffani Angus was interesting and really made me want to read her novel – my To Read list just keeps on growing. Threading the Labyrinth is essentially about the garden of a large English house, over several centuries. She gave some insight into the amount (and types) of research involved in writing real history with fantasy and time travel elements. The editor then rounds out the issue with a few book reviews – most of them seem to be books that didn’t quite satisfy him! However, he gives the sort of detailed reasons that should help you work out whether the book still sounds like it’s your cup of tea.

It would be nice to see some commissioned artwork in the magazine but I know that racks up the costs so maybe it’s unrealistic at this early stage. It can enhance a good SF story though. I guess you’d expect that viewpoint from the founder of International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Issue 2 is due out mid-March as print, pdf, epub and mobi editions. You can buy individual print or electronic copies or take out a subscription at the Wyldblood website, individual copies are also available via Amazon.

January’s over. Has your resolution fizzled?

We’ve reached the end of January and if your new year’s writing resolution has hit the rocks you’re not alone. As anyone who’s ever done NaNoWriMo can tell you, it’s possible to sustain feverish wordcount-building and dedicated writing time for a month if you live alone, or with understanding types who’ll let you slack off the housework. Eventually, however, normal life creeps back in. Particularly in 2021, the unappreciated sequel to the year from hell. It probably doesn’t help that you or those around you (or in the media) are coming to the end of their own challenges like Dry January or Veganuary, or the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. So, what to do?

It’s worth stepping back and taking another look at your writing resolution. Did you feel like your brain was turning to mush and you wanted to get creative? Did you dip into some online writing workshops during last year’s lockdown and want to make more of it this year? Is it an old habit you want to reawaken? Do you already write and the resolution involved finishing a novel, submitting more stories, writing a set number of words a week? Get specific, and then dig down to the intention.

Now think about why you’re faltering. Be honest – only you need ever know this reason! Have you lost momentum? Do you feel like you’re floundering? Have you set an unrealistic target? Have you set the wrong kind of target? Are you less than enthused by your creative efforts? Have you fallen out of love with your novel?

You wanted bitesize but you don’t like the taste

For example, you may have wanted to take up the haiku a day habit one of your friends acquired last year, because you feel like it’s an easily achievable way to stir up your brain. Only it turns out you don’t really like haikus, and counting the syllables is fiddly and you always go wrong in the third line. So why not try another daily short piece of writing? One creative paragraph, or a tweet-length story. Write down or compose in your head or say aloud a descriptive sentence. You can keep it straightforward, make it start with a particular letter, or play with alliteration as OneMonkey and I sometimes do while waiting for the kettle to boil – e.g. chicken cat food might be described as perfectly packaged processed poultry for picky pussycats (yes, that’s a real one of ours…).

Use objects around the house as prompts, like tins of cat food, or look for pictures online – beware procrastination here. Write a weekly rainbow: Monday=red, Tuesday=orange etc. For word-based prompts there’s #vss365 which is a Twitter-based daily story prompt – write a tweet-length story incorporating the word they give you. You can join in on Twitter or keep it to yourself if you prefer. You could sign up to Merriam-Webster word of the day emails, or visit the Collins dictionary word of the day and you might learn something as well.

You’ve run out of steam

I always have a burst of energy, confidence and enthusiasm for writing at the start of the year. There’s usually a BBC script deadline and the Northern Writers’ Awards deadline in the first couple of months, and the time off (and mince pies) over Christmas seem to give me renewed determination. I submit, often to schemes, magazines or commissions that could be seen as ambitious or totally out of my reach depending on your point of view. Then I lose a bit of momentum and start questioning my plans, and nothing I write seems quite up to scratch.

If this is where you are, you might have picked the wrong project to write. Or the wrong time to write that project. There is no inherent ‘failure’ in that. Try putting it aside for a while and working on something else. Try approaching it obliquely, maybe doing writing exercises but always using the characters from it or the world it’s set in. I have never got on with character questionnaires but some people swear by them. If you haven’t written an outline of your story, try that. If you’re stuck on your outline, try diving into a scene. Maybe a novel is not for you and you were happier when you wrote poetry, or vice versa. Maybe you’re not having as much fun writing as you expected and you’d be happier reading a book or watching some finely crafted TV drama instead. There is no ‘failure’ implicit there, either.

Assuming you do want to keep going, accountability can keep you on track so tell a friend, colleague, parent or whoever will radiate vague disappointment if you confess you haven’t stuck to your plan. Ask them to ask you how it’s going every week, or every day if you can stand it. I’ve seen people commit to tweeting their wordcount daily, so their own shame keeps them going (can backfire if you hit a blip). A writing group might also keep you on track. There are various write-ins going on online, for instance Northern Writers Studio has a weekly session which is free during lockdown I believe, where everyone turns up and writes at the same time – you don’t have to be based in northern England to take part. Or have a go at Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Bootcamp, daily audio tracks to listen to including a period of silence to attempt the exercise. I tried it last year and enjoyed it but I only got to week 4 because by then I was firing on all cylinders again and eager to get back to my project.

Approach February with a calendar and pen

Don’t underestimate simple motivation techniques. Reward yourself with a chocolate biscuit or ten minutes on Twitter. Keep lists. Make colourful spreadsheets. Write on calendars which might be going cheap by now, or draw your own grid to colour in – look at habit trackers in general for inspiration. Ideally you want to stick to achievements, so when you’re sagging you can go, ‘But look how many submissions I’ve made, words I’ve written, days I’ve done some writing on’. You can also use calendars to mark on goals and deadlines but beware of unrealistic goal-setting and too many story competitions you won’t enter, as that can make you feel like a failure.

You’re under too much pressure

Maybe you’ve read the writing habits of successful authors and thought you needed to get up an hour early and write a thousand words before breakfast, or on Boxing Day you managed 500 words while everyone else watched a film so that’s the daily goal you set. It’s hard to write every day when you have other commitments. Even if you manage every day you might not manage the same time of day and you might not manage much. Every sentence you write this week is a sentence that didn’t exist last week. Sentences build up, slowly but surely into paragraphs and then longer stories. Recalibrate your expectations. Tot up what you’ve written, not how much you missed the target by. Nearly four years ago I wrote about the pressures of a rigid target, it’s probably worth a read. Have a think about the goals or targets you set. Did you set a daily wordcount goal when what you really wanted was to write every day, or to get a first draft finished by your birthday? You could try Sarah Rhea Werner‘s podcast Write Now, I think she presupposes that her listeners are trying to write around day-jobs, family life etc and she is quite gentle (and currently doing write-ins of the kind mentioned above). She also writes and stars in a superb sci-fi drama called Girl in Space.

You don’t know what you’re doing

Most of us are winging it most of the time. So on the one hand, don’t worry. On the other, it’s always a good thing to learn new skills. Is there really some aspect of writing that’s holding you back or are you just nervous? There are so many free resources out there if you’re moving into a new area this year, for instance plays, sitcoms, or novels. A quick search should turn up articles, videos or podcasts that might help. There’s an abundance of courses you can pay for and instructional books you can buy, too. Chances are it’s not really that you need to do a course about endings in short stories, however, you might just need to keep trying, keep reading other stories and working out what you like about their endings, and then try some more. However, January is not the only time you can start a new habit so by all means go off and learn how best to approach a screenplay and then come back to the ‘write a page of my screenplay a day’ in March or April. Or mid-February, it’s entirely up to you.

In conclusion then: work out why you’re grinding to a halt; remember what you were really aiming for when you made this writing resolution; figure out if you want to carry on; recalibrate for February if you do. Best of luck!

If I’ve helped you get back on track you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Giordano Bruno as a fictional character

Back in the Before times, when I browsed charity shop bookshelves regularly, I kept spotting SJ Parris novels and thinking for a moment they were CJ Sansom novels. That’s probably the intention behind the fonts and general vibe of the covers. Eventually I picked one up and discovered that they seemed to be sixteenth century spy thrillers, rather than the sixteenth century crime of Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series, and parked the knowledge for later. I have a history of getting confused by the subtleties of spy tales. However, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the series as the central character was Giordano Bruno.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of physics you’ll have come across Giordano Bruno, the mad monk. I talked about him briefly in my dash through celestial mechanics at York Festival of Ideas in 2018 because in among some of his more outlandish theories he suggested things that turned out to be true. Here’s what I said about him, in my section on challenging dogma:

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after 7 years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, though before long most of his worldview replaced that of medieval Christianity. He wasn’t an astronomer, his theories were based on neither experiment nor observation, he dealt in philosophy, really, though I’ve seen him described as “a renegade monk” which conjures up an interesting image. He often comes between Copernicus and Kepler in history of science books, but that’s the benefit of hindsight again. He suggested that the earth moves round the sun and that the sun moves; that there’s no such thing as a point absolutely at rest; that the stars are at vast and various distances from the solar system and that they are themselves centres of comparable systems; that the universe is infinite and can provide no criterion of fixity, and that our solar system is in no sense the centre of the universe. Which, as you can imagine, kind of annoyed the church who liked the idea that Man was special. Anyway, alongside all this fantastic stuff, way ahead of its time, he also had some strange ideas in the same way as Kepler and his mysticism or Newton and his alchemy. So was Bruno a crank with some lucky guesses or an insightful thinker? And would you have known what to make of him, without several centuries of hindsight?

You can see why I might be interested, then. And why I couldn’t resist a book of three Giordano Bruno novellas by SJ Parris on offer for 99p when I was browsing the Kobo store for new reading material at the start of January.

The first story, The Secret Dead, is set in 1566 when Bruno is 18 and has recently taken his vows, and contains both a murder mystery and the dangers of exploring science when the Inquisition are on the prowl. It was a bit gruesome in the dissection scene – remember, at the time scientists didn’t stick to what we think of as different disciplines – but I zipped through it. It felt close to being a Shardlake-Cadfael mash-up and I enjoyed the first-person perspective on the hypocrisies of the church.

I ran out of steam during the second one, however, The Academy of Secrets, set when Bruno is 20. I think there are several reasons, some to do with reading it as an e-book and some to do with Bruno as a character. I’ve come to realise how much I rely on the blurb on the back of a paperback, which of course is missing from an e-book, though I could go to the website and read it there. I take my cues on what to focus on from what is deemed important enough for the paragraph on the back cover. So I’m wondering if the incident I’ve just read is an aside, a sub-plot, or the main thrust of the novella. And because I don’t know how far through that story I am (I can never remember how to set a bookmark so I can get back to where I just was, so I don’t want to check the contents list and lose my place) I don’t have the cue from page-count either – if I’ve got two pages left that’s very different from having fifteen pages left. Though I haven’t read an awful lot about Bruno, he’s cropped up now and then from my undergraduate physics days onwards and I’d formed some kind of idea of him that doesn’t match this rendering. From these stories, Bruno is being played by a young Rufus Sewell in my head – a handsome philandering youth who is also interested in forbidden scientific writings. I had always thought of him as an austere solitary thinker.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is Bruno’s youth, and not having enough story to get my teeth into. Both of which would be solved by reading the first novel, Heresy, which is set in 1583 so would make Bruno 35. The novella and a half (or maybe three-quarters) that I’ve read so far are well-written, and I imagine fans of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series would find much to interest them. I may well come back to the novellas, and dip into the first novel, when I’ve severed Giordano Bruno the fictional character from my idea of Giordano Bruno the figure from the history of science.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Light reading for the new year

I’m determined to write more book reviews and recommendations this year. I’ve persuaded myself that they needn’t be full-on 600 word reviews with references to previous works and links to where to buy them. I still might help someone find a good book to try, by writing a paragraph or two about why I did or didn’t enjoy it, and who it might appeal to. So here we go for the first two books I read in 2021, both of which were short and (to a greater or lesser degree) humourous: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Tales From the Folly by Ben Aaronovitch.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was on my To Read list because of the Backlisted podcast about it. I jotted down after listening last year that ‘apparently it’s quite PG Wodehouse’ and what with it being set (and indeed written) in the 1920s I was looking forward to reading it. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Marilyn Monroe film of the same name but I only have vague recollections of a long-distance boat trip, I certainly don’t think the film follows the story of the book closely. While it has some laugh out loud moments and some flashes of great satire, this novel is not in shouting distance of the same league as PG Wodehouse. It’s written as a diary by dim-but-scheming gold-digger Lorelei, who has the ability to wrap any man around her little finger and make even the meanest English aristocrat dip into his wallet to procure her some expensive trinkets. I found her writing style tiresome after a while – beginning most sentences with ‘so’, scattering ‘I mean’ everywhere, and spelling the odd word wrong e.g. landguage. Lorelei and her wise-cracking friend Dorothy leave New York for an adventure in Europe, financed by a gentleman of Lorelei’s acquaintance, naturally. A series of amusing escapades follow, and Lorelei somehow manages to get out of all the scrapes she gets herself into. Readable enough, short, and very much of its time. I think if you enjoy the Mapp and Lucia books (which I didn’t) you’ll enjoy it more than I did. There is a sequel, I believe, but I’m not about to seek it out.

Tales From the Folly is a Rivers of London short story collection from 2020 and is strictly for the fans. As I understand it, this is a gathering up of all the short stories that Ben Aaronovitch has written for special editions of his novels and novellas. Each one has a short (paragraph-long) introduction saying when it’s set and what prompted it. The first half of the book is stories from the point of view of the main character Peter Grant, and the rest of the stories are centred on other characters. I’ve read all the Rivers of London novels except the latest one, plus one of the novellas, and I still had trouble remembering what some bits referred to. There was a whole first-person story from a minor character’s point of view, and I spent most of it trying to work out who the character was (no name being mentioned for a long time) and then trying to remember where that name had cropped up in the novels. That said, if you are already familiar with Rivers of London you’ll enjoy these extras and there are some good stories and interesting ideas here. I thought the Peter Grant stories worked better than the other characters, on the whole.

It’s no coincidence that I chose short, light-hearted fiction to start the year. I’ve seen people setting themselves reading challenges for 2021, and declaring that they’ll be reading outside their comfort zone, reading difficult books, reading a certain proportion of books by this or that category of author. I didn’t read as many books as I expected last year. I started a few and gave up, I took weeks to get through some, I had long periods when I didn’t seem to be able to read at all. Some of that is the lack of commuting (which is where I did most of my reading for the preceding 2 years) but the disruption and worry that lasted through most of 2020 played its part. I generally read for pleasure. I don’t want to read ‘difficult’ fiction now I’m in my forties, though I might have thought I was ‘supposed to’ when I was younger. Even if I pick up non-fiction, I choose books I think I’ll enjoy if I’m intending to read the whole thing rather than dipping in here and there for research. So my declaration of intent for 2021 is to read whatever the hell I fancy, and if that means sticking mainly within SF and crime (or SF-crime, like Rivers of London) then so be it. My dad tells me that fantastic fiction is useful for finding similar authors, if you’ve exhausted the back catalogue of your favourites.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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2020: a year of not much reading

The traditional look back over what I read during the year just gone, as an excuse to round up the reviews I wrote, and provide a few mini-reviews of the books I didn’t review at the time. I only read 20 physical books in 2020, most of which are pictured below, split into non-fiction and fiction. I also read 14 e-books and listened to 4 audiobooks, but for various reasons the audiobooks never get counted in any of my totals. I read even fewer books in 2020 than I had in 2019, and as I noted a year ago, 2019 was my joint-lowest book-tally of the decade. The proportions were broadly similar though: about two-thirds of it was fiction, just over half the fiction was sci-fi and fantasy and just over a third of it was crime. Some of it was both.

An eclectic selection of non-fiction I read in 2020

As you can see from the photo above, my non-fiction reading was pretty wide-ranging. I started with the pair of Simon Armitage books my sisters bought me for Christmas 2019. In Walking Home, Simon Armitage (now the poet laureate) walks the Pennine Way in the reverse of the usual direction, starting in Scotland and ending up near his house in West Yorkshire. It’s an entertaining journey through the north, sometimes walking with friends, sometimes with strangers and sometimes alone, but each night doing a poetry reading in an attempt to pay for bed and board. Walking Away is a similar format a couple of years later, but this time he’s walking in an unfamiliar part of the country, the south-west coast. I didn’t enjoy Walking Away as much, partly because I got the sense that he wasn’t enjoying the trip as much. He comes across as almost mourngy at times – his back hurts, his feet hurt, he’s not in the mood for a reading, he’s not enjoying the company of the strangers who’ve come to walk with him – and the book has a faintly dissatisfied air like a contractual obligation album from a band you used to like. If you’ve enjoyed any of his prose though, give Walking Home a go.

Common People is a collection of short memoir pieces from known and hitherto unknown writers from working-class backgrounds, several of whom I chat to now and then on Twitter, which gave it an added thrill for me. There are a variety of tales in there and I recommend it whether you think you might recognise any of the experiences in it or not. Maybe particularly if not. The Kinks book was heavily class-based too, but definitely for the Kinks fans as you need a certain level of familiarity with their early albums.

I wrote about Footsteps when I read it, and gave links to scanned-in copies of the original memoirs on archive.org, which is also where I found an excellent account of the Luddites around Cleckheaton. You might be surprised at the local history books or niche memoirs you can find there – have a nose around if you have even the slightest interest in history beyond the national level and the famous names. I also listened to the audiobook of Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, via the library and the Borrowbox app. Lara searches the tidal Thames for historical artefacts and I found her account fascinating despite my unfamiliarity with London. I suspect I missed out on great pictures though so if you have the chance, get hold of the actual book.

I reviewed An Indifference of Birds a few months ago – highly recommended for the interested amateur birdwatcher, particularly urban-based. I haven’t reviewed English Pastoral by James Rebanks because I don’t know where to start but I think it should be read by every politician, everyone on the board at supermarkets, and everyone who has the luxury of choice when it comes to food (by which I mean, their first priority isn’t maximum nutrition per pound due to their tiny food budget). James Rebanks is a Cumbrian farmer and in this book full of love and a sense of responsibility, he looks back at the way his grandfather farmed, where it all went wrong in his father’s generation, and how James and his children might be able to start putting things right. It talks about soil health and the downward spiral of artificial fertilisers, but also about the land and the wildlife, and it’s written beautifully. In a similar vein but with a different focus is Wilding by Isabella Tree, which OneMonkey and I listened to (again via the library). I started out bristling at these entitled aristocrats but it is a fascinating account of switching from intensive farming to a system that’s more in tune with nature, and I learnt a lot about counterproductive government incentives for agriculture.

Some of the fiction I read in 2020. Mostly I read e-books

Now to fiction. I did read a few physical books, as shown in the photo above. Mainly they were second-hand copies that were already on the To Read shelf when lockdown hit, a couple were ordered via Hive (which supports independent bookshops) or the Waterstones site. Mostly, however, I read e-books: a couple via the library and Borrowbox, some direct from small publishers, several from Kobo (since I have a Kobo mini), and one out-of-copyright downloaded for free.

I did an SFF round-up in the summer, gave a quick recommendation of Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston, and individually reviewed The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Big Sky was the fifth in a series where I’d read the preceding four, and there were a few similar continuations during the year (by Tad Williams, Reginald Hill, Georges Simenon, CJ Sansom, Vic James, Jodi Taylor) so I don’t think I have any more reviews to give. I will, however, mention the audiobook of Early Riser by Jasper Fforde. A standalone novel, this is set in an alternative Wales where Tom Jones is still known for Delilah, but most humans hibernate every winter to avoid the arctic conditions. Nothing is quite as it seems, and poor Charlie Worthing’s about to get caught up in a winter nobody wants to experience, least of all him. The level of detailed imaginative brilliance was breathtaking but the reading by Thomas Hunt gave it an extra dimension and I’m glad I listened to the audiobook from the library (so we could both ‘read’ it at once) rather than read the book.

I’ve already read two books in 2021, reviews to follow shortly, but if I just helped you find your next book to read you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Reflections on rejections in 2020

I have an 87% rejection rate this year so far. Wow.

Inspired by Katie Hale’s recent post I thought I’d summarise my 2020 experience as a writer through submission and rejection stats, in case it’s comforting to fellow writers or interesting to readers. It should be noted that my 28-hour-a-week day-job ended at the end of March, after which I threw myself into writing as a distraction from the news and it all got a bit feverish for a while. I calmed down as the year went on.

As I write this in mid-December I’ve made 140 submissions. That includes 32 short stories/flash, 7 pieces of creative non-fiction, 5 novels, and 13 scripts. I’ve pitched articles and applied for commissions (unsuccessfully so far), sent pieces to journals and anthologies, entered competitions, sent partial or whole novels to agents and publishers, sent scripts to BBC opportunities or open calls, and probably more besides. I’ve heard back from 125 of those (or the ‘if you haven’t heard by…’ date has passed) and 109 of them, that’s 87%, were out and out rejections or silence. For context, in 2019 I made 39 submissions and had a 90% rejection rate, so this is an improvement of sorts. Still, that’s a lot of rejection for one year, particularly when it’s already pretty shabby. Until April I was still getting 2019 rejections trickling in too.

On the plus side – and I really do want to focus on plus sides this year – that’s sixteen times in 2020 when I got an acceptance in a magazine, or won a competition, or someone asked to read the rest of my novel after they’d read the first 3 chapters. I’d never had a full manuscript read before but by the end of this year I’d had three small publishers express interest in reading from chapter four onwards, two for one novel, one for another. One of them has since said no, but the other two are technically still potential acceptances [Late edit: a second no, but with helpful feedback]. I have seen two actors take on my monologue scripts and bring them to life wonderfully, and this month I found out a short radio drama of mine will be recorded next year as one of the winners in the Script Yorkshire competition.

Even some of the full-on rejections have had silver linings. I have received ‘encouraging’ rejections more times this year than ever before, including those form rejections that ask the writer to submit again sometime. Before this year I dismissed those as mere politeness that costs the editor nothing, but I’m coming to understand that in general they do mean it and when I get a rejection like that I feel pretty good about it now. I’ve also received some more concrete near-misses – thank you to all the editors who took the time to give me even one line of feedback. It’s still frustrating to know a piece didn’t get accepted because someone else had already sent a similar topic, or they were put off by that one line I wasn’t sure about and should have taken out (ask me to change it – I’d probably be happy to! I know, I know, you don’t have time for the extra emails and not everyone would take kindly to the suggestion, but a girl can dream).

I made 35 quid from writing this year, one payment on publication for a story accepted last year, one payment on acceptance for a creative nonfiction piece due out in 2021. Unfortunately I’d already spent 26 quid on competition entries and submission fees. The monetary gain wasn’t much but I’m finishing the year with twelve stories, sixteen scripts and two novels, either written from scratch or finally finished or substantially reworked in 2020. I’ve started another couple that have potential but aren’t quite there yet, too. The astute among you will notice that I wrote more scripts than I sent out (partly confidence issues, partly not finding a suitable place to send it) and sent out more stories than I wrote. I have stories I absolutely believe in that I wrote years ago, and while some people might say it’s time to put them away, I’d point to the story I had published this year that I wrote in 2013, and the novel I got my first full manuscript request for, which hit the end of its first draft in 2011.

So what can we take away from this? Persistence and self-delusion are useful traits in a writer? Maybe. I’ve written stuff I’m really proud of this year, and I hope some of it’s made people think, and some of it’s given them a laugh in this bleak year. I’ve had my confidence boosted in some areas (scripts and novels) and it makes sense to concentrate on them next year. I’m also intent on applying for grants for the projects I want to do, instead of letting all the bureaucracy put me off as I have this year. Let’s hope 2021 is better than 2020, and may you read as many good books as you need.

Here’s a quick run-down of what you can read or watch from me this year:

Starting in April there was I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a dark comedy monologue produced by Slackline Productions, directed by Callie Nestleroth and starring the fab Susannah May. Watch it on Youtube (and catch up on the whole Slackline Cyberstories series while you’re at it, there are some under-rated gems in there) and you can read a bit about it here.

In May there was a short comedy monologue as part of the Rapid Reel challenge. I wrote about taking part, and you can watch A Ferret Too Far, admirably portrayed by Alan Cammish on Twitter here.

May also saw the Dortmund leg of the Leeds-Dortmund 50th anniversary town-twinning, for which I wrote Upstairs Left (flash fiction on living in flats, on this page: https://leedsdortmund50.com/the-work/open-writing) and a prose poem which you can hear me read at https://dortmundleeds50.de/was-uns-verbindet/ (click on the cherry blossom photo).

In June I had a splurge of fiction: light-hearted gay romance Evidently Lovestruck at Truffle magazine and angry pandemic-inspired Twelve Weeks’ Rest in the first issue of Untitled:Voices. You can read a bit about them both here. I also had prose poetry at FEED, Eyes Front.

In October Secret Attic shared my 1980s flash Stolen Warmth, about being a kid & thinking your parents are just being mean when they won’t put the heating on, and Ellipsis Zine printed my flash memoir Dream On in their eighth anthology, You, Me, and Emmylou which you can buy here.

Issue 14 of Confingo came out last month, which you can buy if you’d like to read a dark story of mine called 24 Years, 361 Days (they’re the ones who paid me – thanks Confingo!). And if you enjoyed any or all of that, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

Merry Christmas!

Disconnected from popular culture: 2020 special

I’ve mentioned before how I’m adrift from popular culture and the majority experience as portrayed in the media. I haven’t owned a TV since March 2002, I don’t read tabloids, wear make-up, follow fashion, or own a car or dishwasher. Ordinarily it means I don’t always get the references on Radio 4 comedies – I haven’t seen the advert or sitcom they’re referring to, or I haven’t experienced the frustration they’re talking about since I don’t own a smartphone. Trivial stuff, on the whole. At its worst it makes me feel old, that I’ve been left behind by modern life, but then I see some spat on Twitter and I’m glad I’ve never bothered to find out who Kim Kardashian is. I shrug and get on with it. 2020, however, is a different matter.

This year of turmoil is the ultimate in ‘all in this together’. As a human being, never mind a writer, I should be carefully observing all these changes to everyday life so I can look back on this notable, disruptive year. The insidious little things like adding ‘mask’ to the leaving-the-house checklist, or ‘you need to unmute’ becoming a kind of catchphrase. And yet, largely, I’m not experiencing them.

Because my day-job contract was about to end anyway when lockdown hit in March, I spent eight days working the day-job from home. Eight. During the mad scramble phase where we knew certain systems wouldn’t work and we were leaving some complex tasks ‘until we got back to the office’. It felt like a crisis and an intriguing novelty at the same time, but it also felt temporary, for my colleagues as well as for me. I never had to face the realisation that we wouldn’t be going back to the office anytime soon, or the protracted loneliness of interacting with colleagues in a work context but not getting to natter to them in the kitchen anymore. I didn’t even have the forced jollity of a morale-boosting quiz night in Microsoft Teams. All I had to do was accept that my rainbow striped mug was out of reach on a desk that was no longer mine and my leaving drinks weren’t going to happen, even the ‘come back and have a proper goodbye in the summer’ version. And since I’d been planning on taking the rest of the year to concentrate on my writing I haven’t (yet) had to look for jobs during a time of major redundancies, or do an interview via Zoom, or be a new starter when everyone’s working remotely.

OneMonkey worked from home most of the time pre-pandemic, so we’d been expecting to be at home together most days from April onwards. We’d worked like that before, when I took my previous writing-focused break (Nov 2016 – Mar 2018). It’s been weird not having one day a week where he’s in the office so I’m not tempted to wander into the next room and chat when I reach a tricky plot knot, but not that far removed from our plans. We don’t have children so we never had to juggle any of this with home-schooling or try to explain to a toddler why they can’t go to the park and play on the swings. Because neither of us had unexpected downtime, we didn’t bake sourdough or take up new hobbies, and I haven’t caught up on classic books I’d been meaning to read, in fact I’ve read less than normal.

I didn’t have a camera on the computer I was doing my day-job from so I never took part in a video meeting while worrying about my PJ bottoms becoming visible if I stretched. My laptop doesn’t cope well with playing video, and the tablet we have only seems to consistently pick up my mic if I’m in a Zoom break-out room with fewer than 4 participants so I’ve generally avoided events on Zoom that aren’t simply presentations. Against my better judgement I’ve signed up for the odd one that requires interaction, then got frustrated as I can only make myself heard intermittently, and can’t type on the chat fast enough to take part in the conversation. I have never been interrupted by a pet or family member wandering into shot, oblivious.

The big one I’m missing out on is the mask. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been mixing indoors without one, I mean I haven’t been anywhere. I’m easily flustered and my dodgy back means I often can’t carry much shopping, so back in early March when we decided it was fairer on retail staff if we didn’t shop as a pair (before that became the rule) it fell to OneMonkey to do all of the grocery shopping. He took photos of the empty shelves to show me because I thought all the talk of panic-buying was exagerated nonsense. Mid-April I walked down the local high street for the first time since lockdown and marvelled at the Easter displays fading in shop windows, beneath posters still advertising events for March. It felt weirdly post-apocalyptic but on the plus side it was possible to dance along the main road watching red kites soar overhead, a road that’s normally hard to cross due to the amount of traffic – unless it’s shut for the Tour de Yorkshire.

I took the phrase ‘non-essential’ to heart, and decided when the shops re-opened it wasn’t worth risking passing the virus around just because I fancied buying a new notebook or browsing through the books in a charity shop. I don’t even know if you were allowed to browse through the books in a charity shop. This is the kind of detail I’ll be unaware of if I choose to set any fiction in this pandemic era. I haven’t been to a city since March 16th – I haven’t been anywhere I can’t reasonably walk to. I have no pressing need, and our local council has been consistently advising that public transport should only be used if unavoidable (remember, we have no car). I get claustrophobic just thinking about being on a train for half an hour with a mask on, anyway. Consequently I haven’t seen the changes wrought by remote working except through photos online. Neither have I had socially-distanced meetings with friends or family, or been inside a pub or restaurant under the new guidelines. I don’t know how people have been behaving, how you choose your pint from the selection of guest ales, what the new signs look like (are they using signs or is it gaffer tape on the floor, or a system of roped-off areas?). I don’t know the new retail etiquette, or if there is any new etiquette, how people queue when they can’t get close, how conversations arise if everyone’s wearing a mask.

So as usual I’m listening to Radio 4 comedies and either not getting the references at all, or recalling an article I’ve read about it in The Guardian. But somehow it doesn’t feel as trivial as usual. In one way, the writer way if you like, it feels like a missed opportunity to observe a (hopefully) temporary phenomenon. On a human level I also feel guilty that I’ve largely dodged this, like I’m shirking some kind of responsibility. It also serves as a reminder that Radio 4 comedies with their white-collar Zoom-laden rule-of-six vibe haven’t been reflecting the experience of everyone. People who have been working as normal in supermarkets, hospitals or factories for instance, or were living under tight restrictions in the north even before the new all-England lockdown. Like my sisters, whose situation as undervalued ‘key workers’ inspired me to write the short story Twelve Weeks’ Rest during the first lockdown. And I’m not saying Radio 4 is always entirely middle-class and London-centric, but that does make the times feel somehow more normal.

If you enjoyed Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can always buy me a cuppa…

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An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, in paperback

I don’t often review non-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed ‘nature writing’ before, partly because I’m not sure how much of my audience will be interested and partly because I don’t feel qualified, somehow. I wanted to share this book, however, because I feel like it’s the most accessible nature book I’ve read.

An Indifference of Birds proclaims itself ‘Human history – from a bird’s eye view’ and in less than a hundred pages it rattles through a series of good turns and injuries we as a species have (mostly accidentally) done to birds both in general, and for specific types, times and places. In the process it lobbed handfuls of fascinating facts at me (which I then lobbed at OneMonkey), turned my perspective upside down and made me think hard about our place in nature. Which, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about a fair bit anyway.

Lockdown, we’re told, has made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more. Indeed, the BBC6Music breakfast show has a new nature-lovers’ segment, so mainstream has our Attenborough-fuelled appreciation become. No better time, then, to read this book. I will confess that Richard is a friend of a friend, which is what made me aware of the book’s existence but I’m glad I read it and I urge other interested amateurs to read it too.

I mentioned that ‘nature-writing’ can sometimes seem daunting, lots of technical terms for glacial valleys or Latin names for plants, or it’s written by someone who goes into raptures about trees while I’m sat here thinking trees are nice and everything, I love walking among them but is there something wrong with me that I don’t look at a 900-year-old oak and swoon? Richard’s book glows with enthusiasm, here is a man who clearly loves his subject and appears to know what he’s talking about, but he uses Latin names only about twice in the book where he needs to make a point, and if he uses a technical term he gives a simple gloss for the uninitiated. White-tailed eagles, we’re told, are ‘broad-spectrum feeders – they’ll eat any old shit’. This is the level of technicality I can deal with.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of Richard Smyth’s short stories (some of which can be read at his website) and this book is also in a deceptively simple, readable style with occasional flourishes that leave you smiling. He makes the point in chapter 2 that our destruction of habitat isn’t solely down to late-stage capitalism and corporate greed, we’ve been doing this for centuries, and I love the way he says we’re ‘perfectly capable of wreaking handmade artisanal havoc at a community level’. That nudge to step back and think about what exactly the problem is and are our ‘solutions’ sensible recurs through the book.

I happened to have started listening to the audiobook of Wilding by Isabella Tree the week I read An Indifference of Birds and I once went to a talk about rewilding by George Monbiot, so I have a passing Guardian-reader’s interest in the topic. OneMonkey and I have had the odd conversation along the lines of ‘yes but returning to which state of nature – 500 years ago, a thousand?’ but I haven’t seen that problem articulated before. Richard makes the point that it’s tricky to talk about re-introduction of anything, as everything else in the ecosystem (including people and their habits, dwellings, waste) has changed in the meantime, and he raises some interesting moral questions about wiping out non-native species.

In short, if you want to find out some interesting things about birds ancient and modern, admirably contextualised, and be made to view the birds in your garden/town/city differently, and possibly be alerted to to the difficulties of noticing and stopping gradual changes (be it biodiversity loss or climate change), read this book. And if anyone knows of equivalently accessible volumes on other aspects of the natural world, let me know.

You can find out more or buy the book via the publisher.

If I just helped you find your way into nature-writing you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Universal Basic Income and Creativity

Ten or fifteen years ago OneMonkey and I were in the pub with a few friends and one of us (probably OneMonkey) said wouldn’t it be a great idea if the government gave every adult £12,000 a year and then we wouldn’t have to have all the bureaucracy of benefits, and everyone would have a safety net. None of us at that point had come across the phrase Universal Basic Income (UBI) but that’s what we discovered it was called a few years later when we started to see it mentioned here and there.

This week the Lib Dems have voted at their party conference to campaign for UBI in the UK, and last week Leeds Council (which covers the area where my siblings and several of my friends live) agreed to ask the government if they could host a pilot scheme. You could argue that this doesn’t mean much when the Lib Dems have so little power, and a few councillors in Yorkshire being on board doesn’t mean it’s going to take off, but with Nicola Sturgeon also speaking in support of the idea back in May, and South Korea considering it, it does feel like this is gathering momentum.

There are many arguments for (and against) UBI, including in an interesting-looking Pelican book from 2017 by Guy Standing (Basic Income : And How We Can Make It Happen) but I’m going to concentrate on what I see as its potential to support creativity. Although there are many people who manage to write novels or start a design business alongside full-time work that pays the bills, they often have to work themselves into the ground or sacrifice quality time with friends and family as they do it. And there are many more who don’t manage because they can’t carve out the time or don’t have the energy after work, or can’t afford to risk any outlay.

There have been a number of reports in the last few years on diversity in the arts and what most of it boils down to is a narrow cultural presence in gate-keeping roles, dominated by wealthy middle-class white people. It takes time to build up a career, roles are often freelance and low-paid, and it’s not easy, probably not even advisable, to try without the safety net of money in the bank or someone who can bail you out. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had some kind of safety net so that if they had the talent they could try and make it as a composer or musician or writer without having to worry about getting a second full-time job to subsidise the first? Or waiting, as many working-class writers do, until they’ve built up their pot of savings in middle-age or beyond.

It’s not just the arts. I did an interesting MOOC recently on Innovation which advised trying and failing, and learning from that failure (to their credit the course leaders did acknowledge that what they were suggesting wasn’t viable for everyone). Sound advice in terms of avoiding procrastination and finding out what doesn’t work quickly, but again you need a safety net. There are undoubtedly many inventions and innovations being thought up and dismissed all round the country because of a lack of money for a prototype, or time to develop the idea, or both. Most people can’t afford to plough a couple of thousand pounds into a project that might fail, or one that might take a while to take off. Many people can’t even afford to plough a tenner into a writing competition they probably won’t win (which I’ve written about before).

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that money buys you time, money gives security and peace of mind, and it’s hard for many people to be creative in snatched half-hours while they’re worrying about putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their head. UBI isn’t the only solution, I’m sure, but it merits a serious conversation at a time when the logic of the market and the chancellor’s assistance only for ‘viable jobs’ means theatres and music venues are closing down and creatives of all sorts are having to turn their backs on the work that they’re good at, that fulfils them, and that gives other people pleasure – we’re all reading or watching or listening to creative output during this pandemic. If you haven’t thought about UBI before, have a read and a think because someone will probably be asking your opinion on it as a policy soon.

While UBI is still just talk, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

Tippy the triceratops is a detective at the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. In fact he is the agency. Another world-weary private eye with a hip flask, battling his way through cases in the imaginary realms of the Stillreal. Another day, another Friend in need of his help. But wait – was that an actual death he just witnessed? An idea killed forever, never to return? This is an unprecedented situation for Tippy, but then this is an unprecedented book.

I bought this novel on a whim in the early days of lockdown, browsing the Angry Robot ebook sale. Noir starring a cuddly toy triceratops – it sounded mad enough to be bordering on genius, which turned out to be a fair assessment. Basically it’s set in the Stillreal, a place populated by ideas that are so real as to have become embodied in a separate existence. Some of them are things like discarded novel ideas, which you’ll be comfortable with if you’ve read Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, others are imaginary friends like Tippy and his pals in Playtime Town, or personified nightmares.

I should say at this point that if you’re out and out cynical this book is not for you. Tyler Hayes himself calls it ‘hopepunk’ (like cyberpunk but fuzzy?). I like my hard-boiled detective stories, but I also like Paddington Bear. Tippy is a hard-boiled detective as imagined by an eight-year-old, so that hip flask is full of root beer, his wisecracks are pretty tame, and he feels physical pain if someone says even a mild swear-word nearby. At the same time, it’s definitely not a children’s book, there is trauma and deep sadness, tension and death, but also friendship and love and yes, hope. As Tippy might say, it will make you feel all the feels.

My only slight quibble I guess is the way Tippy worries about invading personal space, and asks everyone he meets for their preferred pronoun – to me that doesn’t gel with either world-weary private eye or eight-year-old, but then I was eight in the 80s and things have changed since then, so maybe I’m out of touch. The world and its rules seem so well thought out as to be complete, I had total confidence and belief in the Stillreal as a place as I was reading. It is the most inventive book I’ve read in a long time (and back in July I thought The Interminables was original, I’m just being spoilt this year) and I would love there to be a sequel. You can read an excerpt on the Barnes and Noble blog and then buy it direct from Angry Robot.

If I just helped you find your new favourite fantasy novel you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Looks like it was 12 years ago tomorrow when I had my first flash published. Still feeling vulnerable with every publication. BB brought up the Goon Show script about 2 weeks ago. Basically, not much has changed (though I hope I’ve kept on getting better at flash fiction. I didn’t even know that was what it was called, back then)

The tip-tap of monkey keyboards

This morning I was woken from my peaceful, if overlong, weekend slumbers by an excited phonecall from One Monkey’s dad. Being retired and having broadband, for the last two weeks he’s been checking 365tomorrows eagerly over his morning coffee, and this morning my story appeared. That woke me up about as quickly as a cold flannel to the back of the neck, and before I was even tea-and-croissanted the message had been passed along to my parents and siblings. Big Brother (the sibling as opposed to the shadowy authority figure. Although…) facetiously asked if I’d had a call from a publisher yet, though you could tell there was a bit of pride there by the way we quickly established that my writing is partly his fault: we used to act out Goon Shows from my dad’s books of the scripts, and BB (as we may as well call him, if…

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Inclusion and diversity in books and publishing

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Yesterday I went (via the power of Zoom) to a panel event at the first under-represented writers’ festival from Untitled Writing – you may recall I had a story in their first journal a few months back. The theme of the panel was What We Need To Do, i.e. how do we get more/better representation for those writers we currently don’t hear much from. Hosted by Ollie Charles who co-founded Untitled Writing in 2019, the panel was made up of Abi Fellows (agent at The Good Literary Agency), Andrew McMillan (poet and lecturer), Yvonne Battle-Felton (author and lecturer), Paul Burston (author, journalist, founder of the Polari Prize), Nelima Begum (from The Literary Consultancy), and Ben Townley-Canning (poet, editor of fourteen poems). Interestingly – and not to take away from any of the discussion, particularly since I’m about to argue we don’t need like for like representation – that’s 3 middle-aged gay white men on a 6-person panel, no mention of disability until the audience questions, and only a brief mention (from Abi in the context of having children) of caring responsibilities. More of all that anon…

Ollie began by mentioning the recent report from Spread the Word and Goldsmiths, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing – if you haven’t read it, give it a look, they make recommendations as well as spelling out the problems. However, as Yvonne pointed out, in the eight years since she moved over from the US to the UK there’s been plenty of robust research but nothing much has changed as we (by which I mean UK writing and publishing as a whole) don’t seem that good at translating it to meaningful actions.

One of the stumbling blocks, which the Spread the Word report mentions and which Paul brought up in the discussion, is relatability. The publishing industry in the UK, which is predominantly white, middle-class, and London-based, have a sort of default reader/book-buyer in mind who is female, white, middle-class, and probably London-based. If this reader doesn’t ‘relate’ to the characters in a novel, the idea goes, then they won’t buy it. Sounds reasonable, until you realise that by ‘relate to’ the publishers seem to mean ’embody’.

I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that it’s insulting to readers to suggest they can’t relate to characters from vastly different backgrounds from them, but it’s still used as a publisher’s excuse for not wanting to take on novels with gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc main characters, which often equates to not taking on gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc writers. Andrew (representing the strongly-accented north on the panel, as well as gay poets) likes to point out on Twitter that 83% of the English population lives outside London. And yet we’re all expected to want to read London-set books.

Having said all that, I also agree with Andrew’s point that it can be restrictive if a writer is expected, even allowed, to write only about the subject that makes them a minority. While it’s entirely natural for the main characters in your novel to share your background, your disability, your sexuality – that is, after all, the easiest way to make sure you’re fully inside that character’s space and representing it to the best of your ability – it should also be possible to write outside of that. Andrew pointed out that his latest poetry collection is heavy on gardening, now he’s middle-aged, and Paul’s current novel has no gay characters because that’s what he felt best served this particular plot. That is their choice and their prerogative. Paul should be free to write gay characters in his novels without publishers thinking it makes it a niche ‘gay-interest’ novel, and also free to not have any gay characters without then being seen as short-changing people who he’s been marketed to in the past as a ‘gay novelist’, or as doing it to blend in (somehow letting down fellow gay writers). I’ve seen BAME writers in particular who are damned as niche if they want to write about their own background, and damned as somehow ‘not BAME enough’ if they don’t. This is one of the obstacles we need to get past.

Despite, as I mentioned at the start, there not being what you might call a full range of minority interests on the panel, there was a wealth of understanding and I think this is a key point. Everyone is an individual, people have different intersections and different priorities – their class might feel more of an issue than their sexuality, for instance – so it’s not necessarily about finding someone who has the exact same problems as you, it’s about finding someone who understands there are barriers and is willing to listen to what yours are and help you get around them.

Yvonne talked about feeling unwelcome at certain events, not necessarily because of who she was – as a black American woman in the north of England she said she wasn’t expecting to run into anyone quite like her – but because the events were not welcoming, seemingly to anyone. I know exactly what she means, and I also know that feeling of being made to feel like you do belong, you are meant to be there, regardless of who else is in the room – those are the best kinds of events, and given the prevalence of imposter syndrome in all kinds of under-represented writers, it’s that kind of generally welcoming atmosphere that we should be aiming at.

On a related note, Paul mentioned the reduction in the number of editors and agents from working-class backgrounds he runs across now, compared with say twenty years ago. In itself this doesn’t matter, but when they don’t get your characters and therefore assume no-one else will, even though you know that anyone from a similar background to your own would recognise those types of characters immediately, it becomes a gate-keeping problem. Replace working-class here with BAME, disabled, any other under-represented characteristic and you begin to see why it’s so hard to break through, particularly with novels. The number of agents I’ve either crossed off my list or approached with extreme caution because of their English degree from Oxford, or their alienating London life as evidenced on social media, is ridiculous. They are the single person who gets to say whether a novel even gets as far as a publisher, most of the time, and if they don’t click with characters who aren’t like people they know in real life, that’s a whole swathe of novels they’re rejecting straight away. It makes me wonder if there should be slush readers from different backgrounds you could go through instead – this manuscript has faithfully represented Cumbrian farmers and anyone in the rural north will recognise these dilemmas, I endorse it for the agency…

It can take a long time to build up a career, or break through. I think I’ve said before how wrong it seems that there are so many age based opportunities, as though if you’re over 30 you’ve missed the boat. Many people don’t have the confidence, or the leisure, to write until later life. A lot of attention (and prizes) go to debut novels, so it can feel like you only get one shot at success. Andrew said that writers need ‘the gift of time and patience’ from editors, and I think he’s right. If you have an illness that ebbs and flows, if you have caring responsibilities, if your day-job has peaks of overtime or exhaustion, then you’re not going to be able to write steadily and progress smoothly, either.

Andrew mentioned patience as well as time. You may not know ‘the done thing’ if you don’t know anyone in the business – I’ve submitted scripts to various BBC opportunities over the last five years or so, diligently following the templates on the BBC website. I did wonder how someone reading the script was supposed to know to read a particular character in a Geordie accent, but nowhere on the template was there a place to put that kind of information and I decided it must be considered amateurish to do so, like sprinkling it with too many parenthetical instructions. An acquaintance with Radio 4 experience kindly offered via Twitter to look at one of my scripts recently and his first comment when I emailed it to him was about the lack of a voice list – how was he supposed to know what register each character was speaking in? I had applied to the BBC’s Galton and Simpson bursary that week, with – you guessed it – no indication of how the characters in my sitcom spoke, and I felt wretched and like I’d wasted yet another opportunity.

Writing and publishing, in fact the arts in general, can seem like a bit of a club sometimes, one where knowledge of the unwritten rules is used to screen applicants. What’s wrong with transparency? Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a useful guide to applying for arts funding, aimed at working class artists but really for anyone lacking relevant experience, and there’s a new list of successful funding applications so you can go see how it’s done. There are all sorts of highly specific things to master, like synopses and covering letters, and it’s no use saying ‘write it like you’d write any other business letter’, when some of us have never written a business letter. Setting out requirements clearly, giving examples, is helpful to everyone unless you really are trying to keep out the plebs.

Coincidentally yesterday, Frances Ryan had written an article in The Guardian about the need to ‘make room for disabled authors’ which I finished reading moments before I entered the Zoom room for the under-represented writers’ festival. That, I guess, is why I particularly noticed there being no mention of disability during the main panel discussion. Frances Ryan uses a wheelchair, and that’s the first and sometimes only thing people think of when they think disability. We’ve made the conference wheelchair-accessible therefore we’ve ticked accessibility boxes, we’re welcoming disabled writers. In reality it’s a vast area: mental illness, hearing or sight loss, dyslexia, mobility problems, chronic pain, things that are made obvious by a walking stick or hearing aid or can be completely hidden to anyone you don’t choose to confide in, things that are always there or that come and go, things that affect your ability to write itself and things that affect only the necessary extras like festivals or agent meetings.

Because of musculo-skeletal problems stemming from a slipped disc more than 5 years ago, I sometimes struggle with a half-hour train journey or can’t face the prospect of sitting in an unsupportive conference-room chair for an hour and wouldn’t want to have to stay overnight in a strange bed, but other times I’m fine. I never tick the ‘yes I have a disability’ box. I don’t like Zoom but I can’t deny that it’s allowed me to attend all sorts of events in lockdown that I wouldn’t have otherwise been to, and that’s the case for many other people whose disabilities or lack of train fare or caring responsibilities (or all three) normally stop them from travelling long distances. I wouldn’t want Zoom to become the only way of doing it, because some people manage better face to face and not everyone has suitable equipment but it should surely become part of the toolbox, there should be no excuse for saying if a writer can’t get to London for a meeting they must forfeit this opportunity.

There is no single solution, is what I’m saying. Except trying to be inclusive. Listening to people say what their barriers are, and trying to take away as many of those barriers as possible. So fair play to Untitled Writing for trying to prompt another conversation, and for giving under-represented writers a voice, even if they can’t pay them. Their deadline for issue 2 of Voices is September 11th, details are on their website.

 

If this post has made you think, or you enjoyed my story Twelve Weeks Rest in Untitled:Voices issue 1 you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

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Big Sky is Kate Atkinson’s fifth Jackson Brodie private detective novel, and if you haven’t read the first four I’d recommend heading there first (Case Histories from 2004 is the start of the series). Partly because they’re good books so why not, partly because characters from the past turn up in Big Sky and while I don’t think a Brodie novice would be totally flummoxed, there’s definitely deeper satisfaction to be gained if you’ve been there before.

If you are new to Jackson Brodie, don’t expect much sleuthing. He is, if not quite the world’s most feckless detective, at least the luckiest. He doesn’t so much go out and find answers as stumble across an answer while he’s looking for something completely different, and possibly even fail to recognise it as an answer for a while. My dad and I both read this in the same week – he got it out of the library ebook system after I mentioned I’d finally got round to buying it – and I wondered aloud if Brodie did any proper detecting at all in this one. My dad leapt to his defence and pointed out one thread that counted as such, but still, even by Jackson Brodie standards he’s something of a bystander in this story.

The novel makes for grim reading. And yet with Kate Atkinson’s usual lightness of touch and wry humour I found myself smiling more than I would have imagined, given the subject matter. There’s a tangle of historic child abuse cases, present-day grooming on the internet, and people-trafficking. All set in Yorkshire, mostly at the coast. The cast of characters is varied and nuanced (and tellingly detailed), and it’s not always easy to pick out the good guys and the bad guys. As ever with Jackson Brodie novels, coincidences and connections abound – if you’re new to the series, be prepared for pretty much anything that could be connected to be connected.

In the background of all this is Jackson’s feelings as a father having had a fall-out with his grown up daughter, and currently in charge of his adolescent son. How the world has changed, how old he feels, how nostalgic. And how some things don’t change. He’s suffused with as much melancholy as you’d expect from a middle-aged divorced man who’s a fan of female country singers, but overall the book has an air of hope. Well worth a read, which I guess you’d expect me to say since I’m such a big fan of Kate Atkinson but start at Case Histories and you will be too.

 

If you found this book recommendation helpful you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Lost knowledge as the start of a story

In a wooden box in my flat, with the birth, marriage and death certificates of my Nana’s parents, plus assorted ration books and the like, is a leaflet on the benefits of tripe. I haven’t investigated it thoroughly, as a long-term vegetarian frankly I don’t want to know, but I’ve left it there on the basis that it’s where my Nana put it and there must have been a reason.

I thought about that last week when I was searching through a tin of brooches. Mostly cheap trinkets from my childhood – a leather elephant, an enamel cat, a fimo Christmas pudding a friend made me – but there are a few I inherited from my Nana. Most of them are cheap trinkets too, but I guess she kept them for sentimental reasons so in the twenty-two years since her death they’ve been in my tin. Some of them may have been made by my mum, she did make jewellery before I was born, and I’m guessing the thistle emblem’s from a holiday in Scotland but I don’t know or at least can’t remember if Nana told me. And now there’s no-one to ask, my mum’s dementia having made her an even more unreliable witness than she used to be.

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A random selection of my brooches

The tripe leaflet looks like it was distributed to post-war housewives. It was probably on the kitchen table when Nana last had the rest of the paperwork out of the box and got shuffled into the pile by accident, stowed away for forty years until I unpacked it and wondered at its significance. But because I don’t know (will never know), I keep it. Just in case. If I was curious enough I could research its origins, see if it was indeed released the month that Nana’s mum died, but I’m not so I haven’t. It just sits there, along with a pencil that presumably suffered a similar fate.

As a person who lives in a smallish flat with belongings stretching back five generations – and thank heavens my 3xgreat grandma only left one book that was a prize from the temperance society, unlike my great-uncle’s bungalow-filling library that’s split between my dad and I – I curse these accidental inheritances of unknown provenance. I’d love to be able to clear out with a clean conscience. As a writer, on the other hand, they’re great inspiration.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, which I reviewed at the Bookbag when it came out, is all about researching the history behind a mysterious object that is unexplainable after someone’s death. In this case it’s a charm bracelet belonging to Arthur’s wife, and through it he makes connections with people, and finds out about parts of his wife’s life that he never knew about. There’s so much scope for stories in that kind of situation: an incongruous object that you can’t quite marry up with your memory of its owner; an object you feel you ought to have seen but never have; an object that could change your opinion of them. Certainly an object you wish you could question them about.

While Phaedra Patrick got a whole novel out of it due to each charm on the bracelet having a separate history, short stories might be easier to sustain. Flash fiction lends itself particularly to focus on a single object, its significance and maybe a dance of dialogue around it. Think about who a character might ask about this object – could it help bridge a longstanding rift or reconnect them to a distant cousin? Does the character immediately know what the object is? Is it the object itself or where it appears to have come from (maybe where your character assumes it has come from)? Is there a deeper secret behind it like a relative that’s never mentioned, or is it more face-value like the dead person was once a member of an orchestra and your character never knew? Is the truth of the object uncovered or does it remain a mystery but allow your character to do something/meet someone in the meantime? Do they decide that after all, the leaflet about tripe was just a leaflet about tripe?

I wrote a short story a few years ago called Letters From the Past (which you can still read online for free) which used a similar idea, but discovering letters hands a bit more of the story to you – it’s usually much more about the secret and the fallout, the re-evaluation of the past, rather than working out what the discovery is or means. I think it’s a much more interesting and original exercise to use an object that tells you nothing, so go away and try that and see what you come up with. Not tripe, I hope.

If you enjoyed Letters From the Past or just want to help me brace myself for a good declutter you can always buy me a cuppa…

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