I blinked, and half December went

I’ve put some tinsel up, I’ve eaten five mince pies, I’ve tutted frequently at overdone lighting displays in the neighbourhood: it must be nearly Christmas. We even have a tiny sprinkling of snow.

I’ve been quiet for a couple of weeks, mainly because I couldn’t write (or think) about anything much except library funding cuts for a while. A project I’ve been passionate about for some time, which we (three of Ilkley Writers) were about to announce, suddenly has no funding. In a mild panic, I rang the Arts Council for advice about obtaining funding for the project ourselves. Their guidance documents are not the easiest things to plough through and understand, but we haven’t even got that far yet. To register for their online system you need to  give them the details of the current account they’d need to pay any grant into. It can be an organisational account, or an individual’s account, but what it can’t be is a couple’s joint account. Guess what we all have? Not that surprising given that a) we’re middle-aged and in long-term relationships, and b) none of us have steady full-time jobs. “Just open a new account,” says the young man on the phone, as if he’s never had the trial of proving identity and income to a bank that doesn’t want his custom.

It’s not all been doom and gloom, however. I’ve got a new story up at Visual Verse, One Thing At A Time, written from a photo prompt. I had a 25-word novel included in the latest issue of Mslexia, and in further Twitter fiction news this morning I won a competition for a Christmas story:

There’s an anthology coming out this week from Paper Swans Press that has one of my flash fiction pieces in, too (you can pre-order Flash, I Love You! here) so things are on the up, there are more mince pies in the cupboard, and it’s not even Christmas yet. I wonder if Santa does arts funding?

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Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

The pitfalls of story submissions

You’d think after more than ten years of submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies I’d have got it down to a fine art. Satisfied with the finished piece even after you’ve left it alone for a couple of weeks? Great, now slap the right formatting on and send it in, awaiting the inevitable acceptance with your feet up. Five minute job, right? Wrong, particularly if you’re prone to procrastination (most authors) and worried that a submission that fails to follow the guidelines to the letter will send you straight onto a blacklist. How is it so difficult, I hear you ask (pretend you asked). Fellow writers, prepare to nod along in recognition. Readers, let me tell you a story…

I’m not even going to talk about picking the right place to send a story to, that’s a whole different hours-long process. Particularly with online magazines, I can’t always remember where I’ve read something, so even if I think this piece would be perfect for the one that had that story about dancing hippos last month, I’ve still got to find which one that was. Let’s assume I’ve decided, by whatever process, that War Story needs to go to the Bumper Book of War Stories, it fits their requirements on length and subject matter, they’re still open to submissions and they don’t need me to send it through the post (temperamental printer, amazing disappearing envelope stash, and remembering to go to the post office? No thanks). Even if I’ve submitted to them before, I need to check their guidelines because a) they might have changed and b) I might misremember.

Now comes the tricky bit. A few bewildering places don’t specify much other than that it’s legible, so inevitably I spend five minutes looking for the checklist of guidelines I must have overlooked somewhere. Most want 12-point font, the odd few want 14-point, and most want double-spaced. Times New Roman or Courier are the standard fonts, some want another specific font, or don’t mind as long as it’s not Courier. Some want anonymised manuscripts, some want name and address at the top of the first page, with name and page number in the header. Some want a word count at the top of the first page, some want it in the header, some at the end of the story. Some want you to write END at the end. Some want indented paragraphs, some want no indents, just a blank line between. Some want italics as italics, some want them indicated another way.

Some places want a 3rd-person author bio at the start or end of the manuscript, some want it in the cover letter, some don’t mention it at all (and then accept the story, don’t ask for one, and leave you as a detached name with no background information or links. Some even ask for one and then don’t use it). Some want a proper cover letter, some say it’s optional. Then we’re onto how they want it to reach them. The two main choices are Submittable or email. With email there’s then the question of do they want an attachment (and what kind), or the story pasted into the message body, and do I have to lay the subject line out a certain way, e.g. SUBMISSION: JY Saville, War Story. Some places ask for submissions via a form on their website, with all the usual pitfalls there (looking like it hasn’t submitted anything, going through endless rounds of I Am Not A Robot photo-clicking).

Submittable is a bit like Paypal for stories. The writer has a Submittable account, which stores name, address, email address so you don’t have to re-enter them each time. A magazine that uses Submittable for submissions will have a button (like the Paypal button on a shopping site) that lets you upload a file and fill in the title, sometimes a cover letter too. So, I would log in to my Submittable account, state that it’s War Story I’m submitting, upload WarStory.odt (unless they’ve specified a different filename structure, like Fiction_WarStory_Saville.odt) and ignore the optional cover letter box, because I never know what they’re looking for. That sounds reasonably simple, but .odt (open office format) is rarely accepted and I mostly have to convert to .doc or .docx which means headers and footers aren’t always as I expect them to look, and one particular story often acquires a page break. There’s also a problem with Libre Office or Open Office .doc files in Submittable losing the last line, so I have to remember to add blank lines at the end without adding an extra page.

Once I’ve gone through all that and updated my submission spreadsheet, I’ve usually had quite enough and declare myself through with story submissions (until the next time). This is why, despite dutifully noting which markets accept simultaneous submissions, I rarely end up sending the same story to more than one market at once. Despite that, I’d made more than 100 submissions this year by the end of September and I’m still plugging away at it when I’m feeling particularly patient. Here’s to the patience of magazine and anthology editors too, I know there’s usually a reason for the rules (like email subject lines used to filter messages to the right folder) and they’re not just being arbitrary. Except of course the evil ones.

A new story in a new publication

As National Short Story Week hurtles to a close, you can read a new story of mine in issue 1 of The Cabinet of Heed. I’m in good company, with stories in there from Steve Campbell, the editor of Ellipsis Zine, and the freshly Pushcart-nominated Stephanie Hutton. My contribution is called Tom’s Bottom Drawer, and is a fantasy story that sprang from a long-ago conversation with a couple of writer friends about putting a novel away in a drawer and letting it ferment.

Education is about more than getting a job

It being National Short Story Week, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve got… an essay about the purpose of education out today (it’s ok, I’ve got a story coming out at Cabinet of Heed on Wednesday). Regular readers will have experienced my passionate views on education before but I’ve summarised a strand or two in Why bother with education? which is my entry to this year’s NUHA Foundation blogging prize.

The topics this year for the prize were:

  1. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. Do you agree?
  2. “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Camus. Discuss.
  3. Should the role of education be to prepare students for working life, or to broaden their mind?
  4. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” – C.S. Lewis. Discuss.

Since I suggested topic 3 to them on Twitter earlier in the year I had to pick that one really, though I could have gone to town on topic 2 as well. I haven’t read the higher education bits of The Guardian much since I quit the day job a year ago but by then I was already sick of hundreds of comments (and a few articles) that saw university education in particular as essentially pre-work training. Will it get you a job? Will it increase your salary? Is it applicable in the workplace? Never: Will it give you pleasure? Will it widen your horizons and introduce you to new ideas, lead you to make new connections?

I’m not saying everyone should study every available subject and like it, there were plenty of subjects I couldn’t stand at school and wouldn’t study now. I am saying life can be richer if you’ve studied a variety of things, whether through books, BBC documentaries, or a formal course, and that as an added bonus it probably helps you at work too.

The aim of the blogging prize is to spark debate, so go along and read the essays (particularly mine, obviously: Why bother with education?) then leave your own views.

Short Story Week 13th – 18th November #TwitterFiction

Bradford Libraries

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To celebrate Short Story Week we will be focusing on really short stories – Twitter Fiction – It’s great fun and some top authors have even had a go.

Ian RankinI opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.

Tag us in your Twitter Fiction on Twitter @bradfordlibs247 before Monday 13th and we’ll show them on the Big Screen in City Park.

There will also be a……..

Twitter Fiction Workshop
City Library
Saturday 18th November 1pm.

Can you write a story that fits in one tweet? Come and write the shortest stories you can tell. We’ll look at playing with assumptions, reading between the lines, and editing a paragraph down to its essence. Any genre you like,  you can also use pictures and emojis to help tell the…

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Ethically sourced books

I bought my first brand new full price paperback novel in a long time, at the weekend (written by a friend, released by an indie publisher), and it got me thinking about how and where I get my reading material, and whether the author gets anything out of it.

Last week I was discussing e-book pricing with a selection of strangers on Twitter. Sam from Lounge Books pointed out that readers are now used to paying less for e-books than paperbacks:

I then commented that you can’t get second-hand e-books, so for those of us used to charity shop prices, even a discounted paperback price for an e-book can seem unusually high. Libraries, as usual, are the answer – the author gets a payment, the reader gets it for free (covered by some tax they’d have to pay anyway). But do I practice what I preach?

Pie chart of the books read by JY Saville in 2017

If in doubt, make a chart. First I looked at books I’d read so far this year, and where I got them from (strictly speaking Library of Mum & Dad this year actually means Big Brother). I’m only looking at books I’ve read the whole of, so if I gave up on it (like the book I took back to the library on Friday morning after 3 chapters), or read only part of a collection or reference book, it’s not counted. Neither do I count audio books.

What we can see from this is that more than half the books I’ve read so far this year haven’t directly contributed to the author’s earnings. I say directly because you could (if you were grasping at straws) argue that all those review copies generate a review that drums up sales or library borrowing. So am I always this bad?

Column chart of sources of the books read by JY Saville 2014-17

Er, pretty much, yes. I bought a few e-books in 2016/17 because I got a Kobo voucher for Christmas 2015 (so should they all be under gifts?) and I watched for special offers and made that voucher stretch as far as I could. Even the gifts aren’t always bought new, as we often give each other second-hand books in my family (including friend T), though I have bought a few new books to give to other people over this time period. Free e-books are mainly the out of copyright variety though one or two were special offers (and one was a digital textbook that came with an online university course).

In my defence, when I buy second-hand books it’s almost always from a charity shop, so at least some charity benefits rather than a private vendor. And if there’s a copy of a book I want to read available in the Library of Mum & Dad, it would seem rude not to borrow it. I’m not about to give up the thrill of getting books through the post, either, often before they’re out there in bookshops. Maybe I could wean myself off the discount e-books, however, and borrow more from the library, as I understand authors get more cash that way.

A promise to frequent the local library more? That shouldn’t be hard to keep. Who’s with me? Last one to the issue desk buys the tea and biscuits…