creative writing

Schedule? What schedule?

I blame the heat. Or hayfever. Or insomnia caused by both of the above. Anyway it’s Tuesday and I’m late with this blog post. Think of it as letting the anticipation build, if you like.

Excitement abounds for National Writing Day tomorrow, for which Ilkley Writers are reading new stories about summer and light (it being the longest day) then hosting our first prose open mic.

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I was quite pleased with the flyer I designed

This being us, several of us have eschewed the sunshine and ice cream vision of summer and gone darker. My story, Summer of 96, begins I wore a babydoll dress that night because it was summer, and you know pretty soon it’s not going to end well for someone.

The title of my summer story is of course a nod to the Bryan Adams song Summer of 69, while also referring to the summer I was 17, the age my narrator is, and I wanted the characters not to have mobile phones, and to have to re-tune Radio 1 periodically on a long journey so it all kind of fit. Often, I have great trouble with titles (see title of blog post for further evidence) and seeing the range of titles on the Bath Flash Fiction longlist this morning I realised (again) that this is an area I need to work on.

However, poor title or not, I have (3rd year running!) got a story in the FlashFlood on Saturday for National Flash Fiction Day. You should be able to read mine at about 1.40pm (BST), it’s called She gets it from your side. This one was written as a response to the oft-recited Ernest Hemingway 6-word story about the unworn baby shoes, and is either fantasy or magic realism depending on your views on these things.

Flash Fiction, maps, and a poetry pamphlet

It was the Northern Short Story Festival on Saturday, courtesy of Leeds Big Bookend, and I went along to take part in the Flash Fiction Slam, a kind of competitive open mic. There are lots of photos here on Flickr including an unfortunate/amusing one of me with what can only be described as an expressive reading face on. Masses of variety on show, I was outclassed by Lynn Bauman-Milner doing a dark and intense take on Cinderella while I opted for The Invisible Woman, which you may have read here on Reflex Fiction recently. Neither of us won.

Mark the artist (who’d come along with OneMonkey to be supportive) and I ended up talking to the illustrator Simon Smith for ages. There are photos of that too, if you’re interested. Among other things, Si worked on Stories from the Forests of Leeds with Daniel Ingram-Brown, a genius idea where writers (amateur and otherwise) around Leeds created characters based on area names then developed stories around them. I would love to see a Bradford version (naturally) and if all else fails maybe Mark and I could initiate it ourselves. Hmm…

Coincidentally I was looking at an old map of Haltwhistle this week and the story ideas within the names on that sheet alone were fantastic: Hot Moss, Galloping Rigg, Baty’s Shield, Foul Potts, Clattering Ford, Windy Law, Foul Town, Crooks, New Angerton, Fairy Stairs, Witches House (ruin), not to mention at least 3 castles. I urge you to go look at the fabulous old Ordnance Survey maps there on the National Library of Scotland site, they’re amazing whether you’re interested in history, your neighbourhood, or quirky old places to build a story round.

Lastly, lest I forget, the International Women’s Day poetry pamphlets from Bradford Libraries are out now, with my poem in. Dead excited to get this through the post:

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Autocorrecting my way to poetry

It used to be that I only encountered autocorrect at work, when I sometimes had to use Microsoft Word. Irritating, but infrequent. I didn’t use predictive text on my phone, and I was still on the basic version of my web-based email service (and I tend to write these posts, and many other pieces of writing, in Vim. If I want to get WYSIWYG I go for LibreOffice and so far that hasn’t forced any autocorrect facility on me). Not any longer, however, and it’s providing an ongoing source of fascination.

What is the postcow that my phone’s predictive text keeps insisting I put letters in? Or perhaps the more relevant question would be where is it? Is there somewhere in the world where it makes more sense than a postbox or is it the result of mischievous programmers? When I try to refer to someone as nosy, is the change to norw an attempt to steer me away from being unkind, or does it assume I’m trying to say Norwegian and just haven’t got to the end of it yet? I’m imagining Jesusel, which is the phone’s replacement for the more mundane kestrel, as some kind of avenging angel, but really the bird of prey is by far the more frequent winged visitor to my neighbourhood.

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I can’t believe they left me out of the dictionary

The word marmalade baffled my phone completely and it gave me one of its frequent ‘?spell’ messages. As well as being an item I might conceivably want to ask OneMonkey to pick up from the shop while he’s out, Marmalade is the everyday name of our cat so it comes up in conversation a lot and I had to programme it in. Similarly, for pottering (as in around town, or in the garden) its only suggestion was routering. The stored dictionary clearly isn’t on British English.

We’ve had a tablet computer for a while now, handy for web-browsing and music but not much else. On there, I’m forced to use the allegedly advanced version of the email software, which includes it trying to give me three words I might be struggling to type. Since I would be happier if keyboards were generally like the ZX Spectrum‘s tactile loveliness, I don’t get on well with touch screens and I’m all for shortcuts to save me typing each individual letter. However, when it doesn’t suggest David even when I’ve typed Davi so far, and at every instance of Christmas it tries to get me to use Christian instead, it’s not much help. I do seem to have taught it OneMonkey, however (don’t ask me how) which it now proffers at the most innappropriate moments.

I had an impulse to try poetry using the tablet’s email suggestions, selecting the one in the middle of the three (which I assume is the one it considers most likely) every time I began to type the next word or, even better, when it suggested a follow-on word immediately. Here’s what happened when I tried I wandered lonely as a cloud (by typing on successive lines I, W, L, A, A C then choosing the middle of the 3 words till I’d had enough):

In the first time to the first time to the first time
With the first time to the first time
Line of the first time
And I am not the first
A copy of the first

A writer could have a lot of fun with that…

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Things of mine you can now read

I have new flash fiction over at Visual Verse, where each month’s submissions are prompted by a picture. Mine is called A Splash of Unexpected Brightness, in which a depressed young artist does a nice thing for his friend and she doesn’t quite see it that way.

I also reviewed a book called Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, over at The Bookbag. It’s quite short and not much happens but it’s nice on atmosphere and detail and a snapshot of criss-crossing lives in a restaurant that’s about to close down. Remember, you can see all the books I’ve reviewed there by going to the reviewed by JY Saville page, so if you’ve got overlapping taste in books with me, you might find something there that interests you.

New flash fiction and a review

My just missed the long-list entry to Reflex Fiction’s first flash fiction contest is now up on their site. It’s less than 500 words long, it’ll take you a couple of minutes to read so what are you waiting for? It’s called The Invisible Woman, and I wrote it after going to a literary event with a writing chum – we were both introduced to someone, and a while later they could remember my name but not hers. Why does no-one ever remember my name she complained when we were out of earshot, and a story idea was born. She is not called Catherine, or Emma, or Diane (or Sue, Caroline or Jo, for that matter) and I have no idea if she has a sister.

While you’re in a reading mood, I’ve got a new review up at the Bookbag, for a historical crime novel called None So Blind by Alis Hawkins. It’s set in West Wales in 1850 in the aftermath of the Rebecca Riots, and is pretty tense and nicely done. I’ve written a few stories now with Luddite themes, and I keep toying with the idea of using some of my family history research to write a novel set around Drighlington amid the Chartist riots (I was thinking of making it a detective novel too) so this has given me some further inspiration. Don’t hold your breath though, I’ve got a few other novels to finish/redraft yet (I’m struggling through a major edit of the sci-fi noir one at the moment).

Science writer for hire

I had a revelation recently: I haven’t lost my love of physics, it had just faded for a while, and that being the case I could potentially combine science with writing.

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Because I loved the one on the left and have never been able to get rid of the one on the right

I do write sci-fi, you can read some of it in the Cracks in the Foundations collection (which also contains fantasy stories), and I’ve continued to read it even in my science-free years but I’d got out of the habit of reading popular science books or New Scientist and it hadn’t occurred to me to write factual science articles. Until now.

Last summer I did a story and science evening with Alice Courvoisier for the York Festival of Ideas and helping Alice put together her relativity presentation made me realise I was still fascinated by physics. For the last few months I’ve been giving private tuition in GCSE physics (with occasional forays into maths and chemistry) and loving those moments where understanding dawns. My don’t-inspect-too-closely analogies are definitely improving. Considering all this, when I say that I finished reading an interesting and well-wrought popular science book on the same day as I got an email from a MOOC provider (you know I love my free online university courses) advertising a science writing course, you’ll have guessed that I signed up immediately.

I’m hoping to get some science-related writing published soon. If anyone would like to point out any opportunities or offer work along those lines, the usual methods of communication apply (@JYSaville on Twitter; jy at ostragoth dot co dot uk; or leave a comment here and mark it private so I don’t let it through moderation).

In the meantime you can read my review of Marcus Chown’s book The Ascent of Gravity here at The Bookbag.