fiction

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

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Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

All good things must end

Tomorrow, after eighteen months of having as much time as I want to write, read and mess about (I mean, network) on Twitter, I start my new day job. Four days a week for the next couple of years I’ll be commuting again, which at least means guaranteed regular reading time on the train. I guess I’ll be reading more, writing less, maybe submitting fewer stories, and definitely spending less time on Twitter. Seems like a good time to look back over the last 18 months and see if I achieved anything.

Cover of Ellipsis Zine: One

One, from Ellipsis Zine – I’ve got a story in here

I set out with the intention of editing Sunrise Over Centrified City in a proper focused way. Eventually I did (it’s called Lachlane’s Centrified City now) and so far I’ve had it rejected by one indie publisher and entered it for a competition. Along the way, I won a 3-chapter critique from Claire Dyer in a Mslexia Max subscribers’ monologue competition, so having already had a good go myself I sent Claire the first 12,000 words or so of my dystopian detective novel and got loads of helpful advice back, which put me on the right path for another round of editing.

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The novel I started writing on that first day of unemployment is now at around 35,000 words. I’m so determined to get it right that I’ve trashed whole sections of it and had days when my wordcount spreadsheet has a negative total for the day. An extract of it got me selected for the Penguin Random House WriteNow initiative though so clearly someone saw potential, and I got useful feedback from Mikaela Pedlow at the insight day in Newcastle so I hope I’ve strengthened the novel since then, even if I haven’t lengthened it as much as I’d have liked.

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Souvenir of WriteNow

I have written tens of thousands of words of fiction (and a few thousand of non-fiction, not including the blog) but as it’s not all in one project it’s not easy to see how much there is. If you glance down my publications lists, almost everything published between November 2016 and April 2018 was written or heavily redrafted during my – shall we call it a sabbatical? That’s included Twitter fiction (I even won a couple of competitions), flash fiction and short stories which have been published online, in magazines and anthologies, and I recently had my first flash CNF (creative non-fiction) published at Ellipsis Zine.

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The study, decorated with encyclopedia pages

I didn’t just sit in the fully-redecorated study and tap away at the laptop in isolation. All that time on Twitter included getting to know some fabulously supportive writers (the flash fiction crowd in particular are like a big extended family) and I joined the working class writers’ collective set up by Carmen Marcus and wrote her an article about getting comfortable with my accent. I’ve done storytelling with Alice Courvoisier and we’ve got another event planned at this summer’s York Festival of Ideas. I organised my first open mic and the story I wrote to read at it went on to be published at the Fiction Pool. I also read at other people’s events, and at a joint Ilkley Writers and Wharfedale Poets evening at a local pub.

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Me looking pompous in a pub

I made a radio programme last year with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York which sadly isn’t available online any more, then I co-wrote a radio drama called Lavender Ink with Roz this year. I even wrote a blog post for the New Writing North website about how we did that one and I remain highly excited at having my name up there (if not quite as excited about the photo. Must practice looking less gormless in front of cameras).

Script of Lavender Ink by JY Saville and Rosalind Fairclough

It hasn’t been a continuous year and a half of excitement and success. There have been projects that fell through due to funding scarcity, places I never quite felt ready to submit to, people I never quite plucked up the courage to contact, articles I didn’t pitch, stories I didn’t write (or finish redrafting). I had about 150 rejections plus a couple of magazines went silent after I sent them something (next issue failed to appear, tweets dried up – Ligature Works, for instance). As I write this during the week of the 9th April, I’m waiting to hear about more than fifteen submissions.

As I look back over what I’ve done since I quit my last day job, some of it seems so long ago. Real life intervened occasionally: domestic crises, family illness, my dodgy back and related muscular problems (relics of a slipped disc about 4 years ago) but on the whole I did a fair few things I wouldn’t have done if I’d been at work. More to the point, at least I tried it instead of maybe regretting not trying it, later on. Immense thanks to OneMonkey who agreed to a scarily large slump in household income for six months (yes, the timescale grew once I got going) and made me hundreds of cups of tea when he was working from home and I was utterly focused and paying no attention to my surroundings. I wanted the new day job to be less than full-time so I could carry on a bit of this writing life I’ve grown accustomed to, and I’m not saying I definitely won’t take another sabbatical when my two-year contract’s up, but for now I’m reining back.

If you have a passion for writing (or anything else that might benefit from some dedicated time) and you think you can possibly economise, compromise or otherwise rearrange your finances so you can take some time out to focus on it, I can recommend at least having the conversation (with your spouse, your boss, or someone whose advice you trust). If I hadn’t mentioned it to OneMonkey, my sabbatical would never have morphed from an idle dream to eighteen months of reality. And after the tight budget of the last year and a half, the prospect of a second regular income in the house is making us feel filthy rich.

But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

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.

In which I share my enthusiasm for Neil Gaiman

My well-thumbed copy of Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

Despite loathing English literature as a school subject I have written an actual essay about a couple of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, with quotes and everything. The lovely people at Thresholds, the home of everything short story, have published it so you can read it on their website. It’s called A Kind of Magic, and I’ve been intermittently singing the relevant Queen song all week.

If you’ve been around for a while you know I love comic fantasy (and Douglas Adams, and indeed Neil Gaiman) so it’s not surprising that both stories are in that genre. I am still writing the stuff, it’s just that with such luminaries to compare myself to I rarely find my own work up to my required standard. I had a comic fantasy story published in Bards and Sages Quarterly a few (seven!) years ago, so you could buy a copy if you want to know what mine looks like when it hits the target.

Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.