About Me

I write short stories. Some of them are uncanny, some realist, all are rooted in the mundane. I read a lot of speculative, new weird and slipstream fiction. In fact, I read a lot of everything. It's the best way... 

I cut my teeth as a reporter and I believe very much in journalism as a force for good. I was a finalist in the BT Press and Broadcast Awards for my feature writing, and I have an interest in social action media and citizen journalism. I am a member of PowWow Writers' Group, which meets every Tuesday for discussion, readings and feedback

Creationism for writers...

It was the start of a universe... and we all got to be God. Or there was no God, depending on how you look at it.

The London Short Story Festival filled Waterstones Piccadilly with hundreds of tiny moments, explosions in the dark... for that is what a short story is, and that is what ideas are too. Each tiny moment shone bright, at times so bright the white light went to the back of my brain. It happened when I read my own work from Best British Short Stories at the launch event on Friday. And it kept on happening, over and over again, as authors far greater than I read from their work too, were interviewed, gave classes...

Constellations formed, solar systems established new orbits, fragments flew about, and in the whirl of running from one floor to another to catch each session, there was a sense of being part of something big. Enormous, in fact. Infinite even, because beyond the walls of Waterstones, ideas are infinite and the exchange of ideas stretches out in a way that is at once mindblowing and comforting. Being a writer at a festival is all about opening yourself up to what is out there, seeing that it is enormous, and being unafraid.

After an act of creation, or a Big Bang, depending on how you look at it, comes a certain settling into order. This can take some time. 

I watched as people hurtled around, creating a tremendous energy that ran from the basement to airy boardrooms on the sixth floor. I sat in audiences that absorbed panel discussions, readings, workshops and interviews and my mind turned to what would come later.

The feverish taking of notes, the capturing the ‘matter’ for ourselves, the taking it in, the turning it all over... it can be a while before it settles, before it all makes sense.

I filled two notebooks as I listened to Adam Marek, Dan Powell, Robert Shearman, Claire Keegan, Colin Barrett, Jacob Ross, Roshi Fernando, Mary Costello, Helen Simpson, Stuart Evers, Siân Melangell Dafydd, Chris Power, Alison Moore, AL Kennedy, MJ Hyland, and more, talk about the thing they love most, the thing we all love most. Writing.

And what has started to settle, the day after returning home from quite simply the best weekend ever, is this:

  • All writers are beginners. We begin again and again.
  • Exercise the muscle of your mind. Use the equipment. As AL Kennedy said: “It’s the only equipment we have.”
  • Work hard at your writing. Craft it. Kennedy added: “You can write anything. The rewriting is what fires it.”
  • Be careful not to over think. Get stuck in... “I’m not interested in analysing people. I’m interested in being them.” Claire Keegan “Get as close to the skin of your character as you can.” Colin Barrett
  • See what emerges in the early stages, and allow it to form, to gather its own momentum before you pull it to pieces: “The first draft is the back brain in action, the unconscious. The editing process involves the front brain, the conscious plotting side. But the front brain can be the ‘idiot brain’ because it over worries, whereas the unconscious brain doesn’t worry about anything.” Adam Marek
  • Listen to the voices in your head. Listen hard, then follow them wherever they go:“I have to have character first. If they’ve emerged and I have their voice, that’s what determines the emotion, the trackability of it.” Mary Costello
  • Think about voice, point of view, first person, second person, third person... consider them all carefully, and how employing each will achieve different things: “First person is very seductive, it’s a good way to get into a character’s voice, particularly if it’s idiomatic or vernacular.” Colin Barrett
  • Write from the heart: “It’s the truth of your emotion that makes your story sing.” Roshi Fernando. “Bypass the logical part of the brain in your reader and go for the senses, for feeling.” Colin Barrett
  • Consider the connection with your reader, their experience, their investment in your work: “A good book stokes up a private life inside a reader, it brings it alive.” Claire Keegan
  • Be in touch with your obsessions, your desires, and get in touch with the desires of your characters:  “To be human means to have every human desire contained in you, and only circumstance brings it to the surface. None of us knows what we are capable of... Learn the desire of the central character and your eye will follow it. The eye falls on desire. You want to touch it.” Claire Keegan
  • Be disciplined: “With a short story, you have to keep it in the air. It has to be tightly wound, exacting. It has to arrest.” Mary Costello 
  • Be challenging: “One of the things I try to do is challenge our moral compass.” Jacob Ross
  • Be universal: “The topography of the human heart is the same everywhere, regardless of culture and place.” Jacob Ross

And more than anything, be alive. Live your life. And enjoy the fact that you can communicate what it is to be alive, by writing. As Colin Barrett said, with reference to Joyce (and other big, dead writers): “The one advantage I have is I’m alive, and he’s not.”

We’ll all be dead some day. Make it count. Grab that matter. Form it. Make it into something good. Write that story.

There isn't always room for fun in fundraising...

The organisers of National Mushroom Month have missed a trick. As smokers pledge to Stoptober and drinkers down under promise to Octsober, surely we could all have been looking forward to Gnomevember? Think of the branding potential. A rosy-cheeked fellow astride a mushroom, fishing rod in hand, complete with catchy strapline: ‘Gnome Your Mushrooms’. Or something. What is the point of National Mushroom Month again? Someone remind me.

October was becoming a little crowded. It’s as if all the awareness months are fighting for space in the fairy ring of giving generously. We have Frocktober...wear a hideous dress for ovarian cancer. Or Rocktober...rock out in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Then there’s Choptober...grow massive sideburns in aid of New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake appeal (such japes!) They’ve got it sussed though - the chops can be kept into Movember, which like all the above started Antipodean side. Ah, Movember...when millions of men around the world sport facial topiary, cause their partners no end of irritation (what’s new) and raise millions for prostate cancer.

And what’s not to love? From a fundraiser’s perspective, the commandeering of months, complete with Twitter-friendly hashtag is a genius stroke. Hey girls! Feel left out in the personal grooming for charity stakes? How about Fanuary? Or Januhairy. Just don’t show off your efforts down the pub.

Australia and New Zealand have a lot to answer for, it would seem. How dare they inflict fun on the serious business of fundraising! Oh. I see what they did there. Evermore to be called FUNdraising.

I can feel a Funuary coming on...two months of relentless hilarity spanning January and February. In aid of The Samaritans, perhaps? People need cheering up in the dark months after all.

And raising money for charity should be fun, shouldn’t it? What we are witnessing is no different to Mr Blobby presenting telethons and office workers sitting in baths of custard or baked beans. Because that was funny, wasn’t it? Hilarious.

I’m sorry, but I wince at self-conscious attempts at having fun, and I don’t want to join in. Because for every cancer patient who loves the fact that you are running 26 miles for them dressed as a giant chicken, there’s another who will inwardly groan. Where’s the dignity in dying? Fundraising is becoming one giant mortality meltdown. We are all crapping ourselves about cancer, heart disease and stroke. And so we run about a bit, or dress up a bit, or sprout hair for a bit.

And as a means of raising cash for causes, it is very effective. But don’t let’s pretend that it’s all about having fun. Because it isn’t really. It’s about the fact that we have seen people we love in terrible pain and suffering, and we want to do something to alleviate the pain and suffering of others, including, if we are really honest, ourselves.

And I can do that by direct debit. Then nobody else has to know that I don’t want to die, that I am terrified of dying and that the memory of the final look I exchanged with my father will be with me forever. It was a look that said everything. It said ‘I love you’, ‘I’m scared’, and ‘I’m sorry’. Watching someone die of cancer leaves you feeling so bloody inadequate. Dressing up and having a laugh can make you feel like you are doing something, of course it can. Stopping doing something can make you feel like you are doing something, perversely.

So good luck to all the Stoptoberers and Movemberers. You will raise millions and improve your health by giving up smoking and running marathons. But for me, it will always be October, November and Remember.  Because I miss him most at Christmas.

 

This article first appeared in The Birmingham Post.

Funding the arts: patronage today

There has been an uneasy relationship between artistic expression and money since Roman times. The discomfort felt by writers and artists at having their endeavours presided over by patrons is best summed up in Catullus 49. It’s a sarcastic little poem on patronage and the conventions of ‘liberalitas’ (the giving and receiving of gifts) that deftly mocks Cicero, one of the greatest orators of the day:

O most learned of the descendants of Romulus,
as many as there are and as many as there were, Marcus Tullius,
or as many as there will be later in years,
Catullus gives you great thanks,
the worst of all poets,
by as much the worst poet of all,
as you are the best patron of all.

The content is meaningless, the verse packed with empty superlatives. And that was Catullus’s point. Art beholden to patronage loses its way. Much of the same disquiet is felt in arts circles today. The Roman system may have been replaced by policymakers, objectives and tick boxes but the constraints can be the same. Being reliant on grants and handouts brings with it the inherent danger of dilution or distortion of expression.

At a Birmingham Salon debate in September, Stephen Maddock, CEO of the CBSO and Manick Govinda of the Artists’ Advisory Service debated the intricacies of arts funding in the UK with Liverpool poet Denis Joe. Stephen Maddock said: “The model we work to is part public, part private and part earned income. Securing public funding can be a bewildering process. And it’s decreasing so we have to earn more from selling our work, sponsorship and philanthropy.”

Manick Govinda observed: “New Labour created a Blairite creative economy where everything created was under industrial terms. The growth of Lottery funding led to a centralised philanthropy and art addressing social causes.”

“But those propped up by Lottery funding aren’t talking so much about art. It’s about the need for a cafe, a swish lobby, a great skyline, beautiful views...”

Preparing for Pow-Wow Litfest, a literary event held recently in Moseley, Birmingham, has led us to experience firsthand the highs and lows of the funding trail. Turned down by the Arts Council and Big Lottery, then bolstered by backing from Investec Wealth & Investment, Moseley Farmers’ Market and a host of local businesses, ours has been an interesting journey. And whilst I may agree with Catullus that liberalitas can result in art becoming at best beholden and at worst meaningless, there are certainly more healthy relationships with patrons to be enjoyed.

At the Salon debate, the American patronage system was lauded for its vision and lack of meddling. So often in the funding arena we talk of ‘demonstrable outcomes’ - proof that we are getting some kind of societal return from our collective cultural and artistic life. Funding criteria and impact reports become the hoops that organisations have to jump through, rendering the whole business of the arts a meaningless circus act. That isn’t to say, of course that there can’t be a ‘business of the arts.’ Just one that isn’t wholly reliant on funding bodies.

Arts funding in post-war Britain was born from the conviction that creative expression benefits society. But the dependency culture that has resulted is surely of benefit to no one. And this is where patronage comes in. In America, public and private sources of funding combine successfully with income streams generated by individual arts organisations. The result has been decades of boundary-pushing art, music, literature, theatre and cinema.

The best patron is one who expects little in return – in other words, the philanthropist. The patron who seeks to distort artistic endeavour for their own ends, whether a wealthy Roman or a modern policymaker, is doing the arts a great disservice.

Pliny the Younger, who lived from 61-112AD, was one of the trailblazers for modern systems of patronage. He displayed a steadfast devotion to cultural improvement throughout his life, donating to civic projects, the arts, and individuals.

Pliny entirely funded the building and maintenance of a library at Como. In fact, he donated a third of his inheritance to the town. He put on public feasts, restored temples and gave to philosophers and poets.

But would he have funded the new Library of Birmingham?

As Manick Govinda said of the FirstSite Gallery in Colchester, which apparently has impractical curvy walls that make the hanging of paintings a bit of a challenge: “An experiential culture is propping up the arts. Space seems to be given over to grand buildings, but they can feel a bit pointless. It creates a sense of a permanent art festival from which you cannot escape. Experiencing art is surely more about contemplation.”

Was this an implicit criticism of our new library? Go figure.

Pliny was rich and well-connected and it seems from his letters that he wanted to use his wealth for the greater good. This surely rings true in today’s climate as arts organisations fight over increasingly diminishing funding pots. Perhaps a more entrepreneurial spirit within the arts, coupled with generous and non-interfering support from outside is the way forward.

But what an ancient Roman would have made of the relentless carnival that is arts funding in Britain today, I’m not too sure.

 

This article first appeared online at The Birmingham Post

Writing away...

Nicholas Royle’s first words to me are 'That’s quite a handshake...' and I reply, without thinking 'Yours too. Ow!' I should have left it there, but no. First day nerves being what they are, I add 'My son’s PE teacher did that to me once. Ow!'
We are gathered in the lounge at Lumb Bank, one of several Arvon centres scattered across the UK where writers go on retreat to be taught by some of the biggest names in the industry. Nicholas Royle, successful novelist, editor (Alison Moore's 'The Lighthouse' made last year's Man Booker shortlist), senior lecturer and King of Short Stories is, without doubt, one of the biggest names in the industry. He looks at me, bemused. “Tea?” he asks. He pours the tea. Tutors and students all muck in together at Arvon.

I like firm handshakes, even bone-crushing ones. I like the feeling that a person wants to connect, to make a bond. It’s why I myself give firm handshakes. I form a positive first impression of Nicholas Royle and his fellow tutor Claire Massey, and try not to worry about what they think of me. Later, outside, Royle observes that there’s usually ‘one nutter’ on a creative writing course and looks at me in a slightly expectant way. I reassure him that it won’t be me. I later worry that on finding there are no nutters on the short story course, it must be me.

No, I’m the scatty one. The one who locks herself out of her room five minutes after arriving, wandering barefoot on the landing as other students arrive. They look at my feet and smile politely. I really don’t want to start my Arvon experience by drifting around the house like a loon looking for one of the ladies of Lumb to let me back into my attic (“Ah, so Virginia Woolf!” I exclaim on being shown it, then wish I hadn’t because I sound like a nutter). There I am, shoeless and clueless. Will I become known as the ‘barefoot writer’ I wonder? No. Just the part-time piano tinkler probably. There are three pianos at Arvon. I play each of them in turn, and decide I like the one in the barn best. I am sure everyone else likes the fact I like that one too. It is furthest away from the main house.

The first night dinner is a convivial affair. My fellow students are lovely. I am seated next to a Mslexia prize winner. That’s exciting. I blogged about Tamsin Cottis only weeks ago. One writer, Pam, has travelled all the way from Australia. Another, Simi, a fellow journalist, has come from Bahrain solely for Arvon. She is jetlagged and her leg cramps up during the round of introductions. I admire her dedication to the short story form and as the week progresses I admire her writing too.

Having signed up to make fish pie on Friday (students cook for each other...it’s cosy like that) I wander around the gardens for a bit. I am hit by the beauty of the wooded hill opposite Lumb Bank, and hit the next instant by a great sadness. The poet Ted Hughes lived here for a time, and as I look out over the valley I feel moved, ridiculous though it sounds. Sylvia Plath is buried in Heptonstall churchyard, half an hour’s walk away.  I take my new Australian friend to Heptonstall later in the week. Neither of us is particularly into the Cult of Plath, though I do have a deep admiration for some of her poetry. There's a pot of pens at her graveside. We resolve not to look at the folded up notes tucked here and there. Back at the house, I take a look at Hughes’s handwritten poems, which line a wall of the dining room. I love his later wife Carol’s generosity to the Arvon cause. They helped start everything, in a way, leasing Lumb Bank to the foundation.

And Arvon is everything everyone tells you it is. It is secluded, tranquil, beautiful, inspiring. The short story course leads to some really great work being produced, and the people are without exception kind and funny and clever. Nick (by now we are calling him Nick) and Claire are fabulous tutors. They engage us in exercises that free up our minds and allow writing to emerge in an exhilarating whirl. They confirm there are no nutters on the course. I am relieved, though only because I know, in secret, that I am the nutter really. I just hide it well.  M John Harrison pays us a visit one evening, and reads us his latest short story. It’s out in the autumn. It blows me away. I return to my room and write something straight out at one in the morning. Inspiration is an incredible force. The next morning we discuss the poached egg vortex over breakfast. M John Harrison can be a bit like that.

I leave Lumb Bank with a sense that something has clicked. I feel excited about my writing and about the prospect of being published. I hope to be published. I believe I will be published. Then, on arriving home, all the doubts set in again, and I realise it is only the daily discipline of writing that will keep that particular wolf from the door. I can hear Nicholas Royle, Claire Massey and M John Harrison saying, 'Just get on with it, for God’s sake.' They are right.

Arvon offers people the chance to really connect with their creativity. It has been helping writers and reaching out to young people through the medium of creative writing for 45 years. And for a week in May it helped me too, more than I could ever have expected.

Give It Time...

One of the main differences I have found in making the transition from writing journalism to writing fiction is the importance of the 'slow cook' approach.
Knocking out a double page spread on deadline is a valuable skill, and one that ensures fear of the blank page will never be a problem.
But stepping away from copy is a luxury few reporters can afford. Putting a story on hold for a while, turning down the heat, walking away... all of these are unthinkable in a newsroom, just as 'knocking out' a short story should be unthinkable to the writer of fiction. It is the act of coming back to a piece of writing afresh that enables the polishing process to begin, and the time that has elapsed will give the necessary objectivity on your return.
Basil Bunting wrote seven key points for young poets on the back of a postcard, so often was he asked for advice. The final two points are pertinent here:

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

I have found this to be sound advice where writing poetry is concerned, but also more recently in my short story endeavours. I actually prefer to leave a poem for a good month. Striking out words comes more easily when you are returning to something with fresh eyes. And so it goes for short stories, although I tend to leave these for a couple of weeks or so.
The editing process can only begin in earnest when you have divorced your mind from the preoccupations of the first draft. In a sense, you are returning to a piece of writing (or a poem) with the editor's hat firmly on. Every story or feature in a newspaper will have been looked over by at least two other people. Writers should seek to establish a similar workflow. The views of a respected peer are of great value once the first draft is on paper. Join a writers' group or get networking to find the best people you possibly can to offer critiques. Always allow some time to elapse before returning to your writing, especially when working alone as you will more easily be able to adopt the editor's role. Some writers find editing their work very difficult. I have been surprised, as someone who used to check over other people's words on a daily basis, at how hard editing your own writing can be. Objectivity is key, and leaving well alone for a bit helps enormously. When you return to your work you will notice how phrases you were originally unsure about will leap off the page, clamouring to be changed. Little details you never noticed whilst you were wrapped up in writing the thing will also emerge, and mistakes will be easier to spot too.
You may find you need to extend dialogue or ramp up description in places, but with short stories generally less is more, and the editing process, as for poetry, should involve a large amount of paring down.
You may find you have to rework the beginning, or indeed the end. Feedback from a fellow writer is especially useful here.
Bunting also advised young poets to 'fear adjectives; they bleed nouns' and to 'jettison ornament gaily but keep shape'...again, because of the economy involved, these are sound observations where the writing of short stories and flash fiction is concerned.
So, whilst my mission remains to crack on with my short story writing and put the best ones forward for publication or as entries to competitions, I am aware that nothing should go off in a rush. Nothing, in fact, should go off before it is at least a month old. And for a former journalist, that's really quite something.

Writing about writing...

when I should be writing. Yes, I know. But having done my head in compiling a shiny new Twitter feed comprising several hundred literary bods, publishing houses, organisations, prizes, festivals and so forth, I decided well, to hell with it, why not start my own blog?

I am building a short story collection with a view to getting myself an agent and hopefully getting published. I am attending an Arvon short story course in May. I'd like to get on the Arvon mentoring scheme. Short stories are my passion. So this blog will be about my own progression as a writer, and I will share thoughts on my favourite authors too.

I'll also be keeping an eye on literary events, including PowWow Litfest 2013, which I am proud to be helping to organise again this year. Here's a recent blogpost at the PowWow site on entering competitions...

I love books. I love writing. I hope to share the love!