fiction

Summer story and science storytelling

As promised last week, here’s a link to my story Summer of ’96 at The Fiction Pool. I wrote it in June for the Ilkley Writers summer-themed evening of readings, as I mentioned at the time. Everyone will get something different from it, such is the nature of these things, but partly it was about it being time to move on, about not fitting but not necessarily seeing that as wholly a bad thing. I left school in the summer of 1996, aged 17, but I assure you I didn’t go to the coast with my friends and the story is entirely fictional (though Benjy has an element of a lad I was good friends with at the time). Though the link might not be obvious the story burst forth from my repeated relistening to Born to Run when I was reading the Springsteen autobiography of the same name, and the length and rhythm of some of the sentences are directly a result of that. They were kind of hard to read out, particularly with hayfever, so I’m glad it’s in print now and you can all read it for yourselves instead.

Another thing you can read if you’re of a mind is an article in the SciArt magazine STEAM special, about Alice Courvoisier and I doing science-related storytelling in York last year (which you may have read about here at the time). STEAM stands for the usual STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) plus arts, and the special supplement is full of people from universities talking about interdisciplinary education. I had a minor moment of excitement at being on a contents list with someone from MIT (you may need a physics background to truly appreciate that).

A dystopian moment for your reading pleasure

There’s a slice of my dystopian imaginings over at Visual Verse, less than 500 words so it won’t take you long and you can read it via this link. I recommend dipping in to the other responses to the prompt photo as well, it’s amazing the variety that one image can spark off.

I don’t have anything else new for you to read yet, but I did have an editor express interest in the sound of the sci-fi noir novel (the one I’m reworking, if you recall) this week. A good sign, and simultaneously confidence-boosting and terrifying. Will the manuscript live up to its description? Only time will tell.

This month has brought a spate of near-miss rejections full of praise, urging me to submit again soon, but ultimately unable to find a home for my stories. The one that included the line This is the best flash fiction I’ve read this year almost made me cry – if I’m hitting the heights and still can’t make it, what chance is there? All is not doom and gloom, however. I have a cliche-ridden 150 word story available for your amusement (story number 16 on this list) as part of a project arising from a recent flash fiction festival which is intended to grow into a charity anthology. I’ve also got a story coming out at The Fiction Pool soon, I will of course give you the link once it exists.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

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).

New story, new author photo

It’s been a while since I had a new short story (as opposed to flash fiction) available, but Letters From the Past is now on HeadStuff in their Fortnightly Fiction slot. It’s primarily about a woman who’s been looking for her ‘real’ father, by which she means the one she shares genes with. It’s also about how genes don’t necessarily make a family, how time passes by quicker than you think, how it’s easy to put things off till it’s too late, and how you can spend all your time searching for something that you had all along. I urge you to go read it. And you can always leave a comment to let me know what you think of it (politely…).

When the story was accepted, they asked me for a square photo. I thought it would be nice to use something a bit more up to date than my familiar Twitter picture, which is from summer 2015 as I recall. I trawled through our photos and realised the ones of me basically fall into two camps: leaning my head on someone (usually OneMonkey but occasionally a sister or friend) or wearing a paper hat at Christmas (possibly also whilst leaning my head on someone). There were two on northern beaches with my hair clearly showing which way the wind was gusting, and one of me surveying the damage when the moor had been on fire (which I wrote about here). I decided to use that, it’s out of date too but it’s nearly a year more recent than the Twitter one.

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A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab

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As soon as I stopped looking for female-authored SF to review I read a cracking fantasy novel which would have counted. Not that I knew the author was a woman until I looked online to see if this was part of a series, and saw her referred to as Victoria. The same article also informed me that she’s American, which explains the sudden mention of ‘tight pants’ which jarred me out of the story for a moment…

This is the story of not just one London but four, one of them being our own eighteenth century version, which is a bit quiet on the magic front compared with the others. Kell is unusual in that he can travel in a carefully controlled way between three of the different Londons, as a kind of diplomatic courier. He’s from Red London, the one with the most fairytale kingdom feeling to it, but there’s also White London which is downright bloodthirsty and dangerous. Hang on – didn’t we say four Londons? As is the way of these things, there’s a London we don’t talk about, a London that collapsed under its own excesses so long ago it’s become a myth. Black London is real though, and it might not be as firmly sealed in the past as was generally believed.

It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but there is a strong female character, nicely complex, and a pretty-boy prince who I found kind of irritating but since I find plenty of real people irritating that didn’t disturb me too much. There’s tension, excitement, natty dressing, magic, and I didn’t once contemplate throwing the book across the room for crimes of mushiness or sentimentality.

Although this is the first in a series, it didn’t feel incomplete as some fantasy series novels do, rather it felt that there was scope for further adventures if we cared to know about them. I liked the world and the main characters so I think I’ll be going back for more via A Gathering of Shadows.

Week 15: Spoken word in Leeds, among other things

The highlight of this week was Friday night at Anything Prose, the occasional poetry-free offshoot of regular open mic night Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. Hosted by Mark Connors, the stand-out performances for me were from headliners Lynn Bauman-Milner and David Williams.

Lynn was introduced as a horror writer and my heart sank, but although one of her stories veered into gory territory, it was so well-written that I barely noticed. The others were unsettling, chilling, darkly wonderful and not what I think of when I think of horror. Maybe I assume horror covers plausible events in the real world, featuring scary evil humans, whereas I’m fine with dark fantasy involving strange creatures and other worlds. Impressively there were T-shirts for sale as well as books. I should have checked the back to see if it had a list of open mic nights and library readings she’s done, in the vein of a band tour T-shirt, but I didn’t.

David read a scene from his thriller 11.59, and as well as brilliantly conjuring up the setting (a down at heel pub, largely populated by steady drinkers) he made me interested in the main character, a late-night talk radio DJ, in a relatively short time. As David Williams seems to write in many formats it was perhaps unsurprising that he’s made a foray into Twitter fiction, with a book collecting 1000 story tweets. He was one of three people during the evening to read some of their Twitter fiction and though I like it (I had my first Twitter fiction published in 2009, long before I was on Twitter) and there were some great examples on Friday night, I find it a bitty experience at an open mic. Reading one or two straight after each other is fine, but a succession interspersed with titles and comments seems to break the flow too much for my liking.

Naturally, I read a piece of flash fiction myself, a response to Hemingway’s famous baby shoes six-worder, featuring mermaids. I was halfway down the half of real ale before I considered it might be detrimental to my performance of a couple of tricky lines, but it seemed to go off OK and I’m looking forward to going to Anything Prose again sometime.

Other events this week included a free webinar on how to blog more effectively (which I’m clearly following to the letter. Er…) and a Twitter fiction competition which was only open to staff, students, and alumni of Edinburgh University, to launch a new journal. First time I’ve used that maths degree in ages. I’ve sent two sketches to Newsjack this week, breaking out of my one-liner comfort zone to write a Yes Minister pastiche and a sketch about Donald Trump (swore I wouldn’t, but he’s proving too tempting). And tonight it’s the penultimate meeting at Chapel FM before this year’s Writing on Air festival. Excuse me while I put my feet up for ten minutes.