Know Your Enemy

I’ve just been emailed the list of all the contestants for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. If I wasn’t nervous before – which I was, actually – I certainly am now. Here’s the dirty dozen:

Ros Ballinger
Ailish Breen
Joe Daly
Joy France
Abi Hynes
Thomas Jennings
Mark Powell
Mark Mace Smith
Trisha Starbrook
Sarah Stuart
Simon Sylvester

Geriant Thomas

Joy France read at the open mic before my Verbalise guest spot, and she was amazing. I saw Ros Ballinger read some blinding poems at Lancaster Spotlight last year, and she was also very good. I know Mark Mace Smith and Trisha Starbrook by reputation – Trisha won last year’s slam, having never read in public before, and Mark is a noted slammer and favourite of my friend Ann The Poet. Some online stalking reveals the others to be an intimidatingly talented bunch of comedians, poets, theatre performers and practiced improvisers. Oof. We’ll be paired at random in the first round, reading a 150-word story head to head. The audience votes for their favourite to proceed into the second round. Round two cuts six readers with 200-word stories down to three, and the final trio read a 250-word story for top spot.

In the last week, I’ve written five or six new flash pieces, though none of them are quite right for the slam; they’ve either been too short or too long. I’m struggling especially with the first story and that 150 limit; I have a multitude of pieces of that length, but most are either abstract or downers, and I want something both bawdier and more focused for the slam. While I’m really happy with the story I’d read if I made it to the final three, getting through rounds one and two is becoming a real worry; it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about. I’m sure the right ideas will come, but I wish they would hurry up.

If you want to see me drop like a domino – and who wouldn’t? – the slam costs a measly £1 and should be a blast, so no excuses. Here’s the skinny:

slamdango

Not right not writing

I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.

I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.

I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.

What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.

Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.

Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?

The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.

Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.

Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man:

scare crow

Slamadangadingdong

Like some crazy storytelling masochist, I’ve signed myself up for the Flashtag short short story slam. This is another level in terms of live performance – take a look at the highlights reel from last year to see a far more explosive, intimate and vociferous gig that I’m used to:

I think I’m going to write some new stories for this – I have something involving a hat in mind for the third round, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far, but I’m not really happy with any of my other shorter pieces. I have work that is elegiac or lyrical, but none of them feel quite right for the slam. That gives me five weeks to write two new pieces with teeth. When I get knocked out, I want to go down swinging.

rocky-balboa

Borderlines & The Writers Quarter

I’m delighted to share the news that Brindley Hallam Dennis has decided to organise a festival of writing in locations throughout Carlisle this September. Rather than traditional book festivals, which sustain the celebrity of authorship, Borderlines will celebrate writing itself, using workshops, readings and guerrilla flash fiction to connect reading and writing.

Given the location, this is especially exciting for Cumbrian, Scottish, Northumberland and Lancashire writers. I’d love to take part – I like the idea of celebrating writing for writing’s sake.

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The marrow

Here it is, folks. After all those late nights of InDesign tutorials, Photoshop forums, calculations, colour swatches, dimensions, budgets, cursing, blurry vision, uploads, downloads and even a little bit of writing, Marrow has arrived. I’m delighted with the print quality – thanks to Inky Little Fingers for a really good little book. Recycled paper, yo.

Marrow is a collection of 28 flash stories ranging from 13 to 1,000 words. Around half have been appeared elsewhere – in Gutter, Fractured West, Valve, Flashtag, Paragraph Planet, Causeway, Smoke, Dark Mountain and others. The stories feature fighter pilots and guinea pigs, wishing trees and wet weekends, untuned pianos, tattoos, voodoo, daydreams, ink and avocados. There are private eyes and talking poppets – lions and lemons – selkies and tsunamis.

I’ve done this so I have something to share at readings – something to hold in the hand. It feels slightly surreal, but good. If you’d like a copy, get in touch. It costs £5, plus another £1 for UK posting. If you’d like to buy one, mosey over here.

Thanks to everyone who helped me out with advice, proofing and redrafting. Couldn’t have done without you.

marrow stack

2013 and all that

Obviously, the end of every year gives pause for reflection. For me, this used to manifest itself in a range of Top Tens – films, albums, books, gigs – but these days I don’t really do enough of any of those things to justify it. So here’s my combined Top Ten of 2013 instead. They’re not in order.

1. Getting a book deal with Quercus

Securing a publishing deal with the wonderful Quercus Books has been one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me. I’m still waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under my feet, but until they do, I’ll keep enjoying every moment of this exhilarating, terrifying, extraordinary rollercoaster. I feel bowled over by the support for my writing, even as I feel a massive weight of pressure to deliver. I started the year with a manuscript called Riptide Heart; I finished with a rigorous redraft, now called The Visitors. Working with Quercus editor Jane Wood has made my writing tighter and my story much stronger. It has also given me a real hunger to push on with my work – I now have half-a-dozen novel ideas clamouring for my time.

This wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of my awesome agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and the support of my amazing partner Monica. That brings me to the second thing on the list:

2. New work from Monica Metsers

While she was pregnant, and in the first year of Dora’s life, Mon took time away from her painting. 2013 was the year she really started again, and the results have been amazing. She has a solo show in London next year, and as well as a few smaller paintings and a range of drawings, she’s made these two stunning large-scale paintings, which I think are amongst the best work she’s ever done:

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES                                                          BALLENA Y GEISHA

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES   ballena y geisha

2013 also marked our five-year anniversary – it’s been a blast.

3. Performing live

I’ve never been good at public reading, and this year I set myself the challenge of improving. I went on to read my work twice at Spotlight in Lancaster, once at Kendal’s Spoken Word, once (performing from memory) at Dreamfired in Brigsteer, and once at the Flashtag 2013 writing competition in Manchester, where I won second place. My confidence grew with each reading, though I still feel I’ve a way to go.

I also attended a spoken word workshop run by the excellent Brindley Hallam Dennis. One of the activities he set has changed everything: he had other members of the workshop read our stories. The lady who read my flash piece ‘Marrow’ performed it at a third of the pace I do. She relished every word, and it was three times better as a result. I haven’t performed since then, but I’m going to practice reading with that sort of gusto at the next opportunity. I’m booked in for a 20-minute slot at Spoken Word in February, and I’d like another couple of events under my belt by then. My goal has evolved a little, too: what I’m aiming for now is something closer to outright performance than simply reading. That will come with confidence, and confidence will come from practice.

4. Seven Seals – Plan of Salvation

After a whopping 18 months, I finally finished making this music video for amazing psychedelic synth punks Seven Seals. They’re an extraordinary band, and it was an honour to be involved. They’re working on new material, which will hopefully be available in 2014 for their ten-year anniversary gigs.

 

5. Amy Hempel – The Dog of the Marriage

Quite simply, the finest collection of short stories I’ve ever read. Hempel’s writing is so sensitive, so honest, that it infuses her stories with devastating grace. Unmissable.

6. Les Revenants

This French drama is the best thing I’ve seen on television in years, remarkable for its intrigue, restraint and power. It delivers on every level, exploring an extraordinary narrative without needless exposition to unravel the mysteries of the Returned, all of whom are troubled in different but connected ways. The locations and cinematography are stunning, while the soundtrack by Mogwai is my album of the year. There’s a startlingly surreal lucidity to the conclusion, and I think they could have left it there; but I’m delighted to see a second series in the works. Here’s the trailer for season one:

In TV terms, an honorable mention also goes to Game Of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister might be the finest character ever committed to screen, and the Red Wedding haunts me even now.

7. Success for friends

It’s been a good year for many of my friends and peers, too. Iain Maloney landed an agent and a book deal with Freight, Kirstin Innes found an agent, Anneliese Mackintosh got a book deal, Kirsty Logan landed a book deal and won everything in the world. Friends Andy and Gemma had a baby boy called Miles, and Ali and Iona had a little girl called Inka. There have been a lot of richly deserved congratulations this year. Good work, team.

8. Cats

Yup. Two of them. I wasn’t sure, at first, but then we met these two cats in the Wainwright Animal Rescue Centre, and it was an easy decision. They came to us with the names Remus and Teddy, which we’ve kept. They’re brothers, about three years old, and half-Persian. They’ve been an amazing addition to our house. They are incredibly relaxed and friendly, and they actively seek our company. That’s especially welcome when I’m having a writing day alone at home.

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9. Holiday in France

We were overdue a break, and this fortnight in France was exactly what we needed. We camped in half-a-dozen places, the best of which was Green Venice, a vast network of canals, ditches and overgrown waterways, crawling with vines and willows, alive with dragonflies and katydids. It was an extraordinary landscape. I read more in that fortnight than I’d managed in four months. Best of all, the holiday gave me enough mental space to plan my next novel, which will be called Grisleymires. That’s now blocked out on Scrivener, waiting for my next writing day.

10. Another year with Dora.

In their first year, babies are basically little puddings. Awesome little puddings, but puddings nonetheless. In their second year, they gather the basic tools to discover the world. And in year three, that toolkit expands exponentially; physically, vocally, intellectually and emotionally. Going through that with Dora has been nothing short of a joy. Seeing the world through her eyes has made me reevaluate so many things for myself. Her conversations leave me in stitches, and everything about her makes me smile. And she hasn’t been to A&E this year, which I consider something of a triumph. Though there’s still a week of 2013 left.

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So that’s my Top Ten. It’s been a good year, and 2014 is alive with possibilities. I might even pop some resolutions up in a few days.

Some strange alignment of the stars

mic-teal

I’ve booked an open mic slot at Lancaster’s Spotlight club next week. Mon’s driving, so I can even have a couple of ales. Happy days.

I haven’t totally settled on what to read yet, but I’ll probably try a new story from my flash fiction collection-in-progress, Marrow. There’s one about home cooking that I’d like to run past an audience, and another about guinea pigs that needs a first outing. I won’t have time to read both, but I’ll read one and save the other for when I try – again – to attend the Brewery’s open mic in August.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to make it to the Brewery. It’s one of my favourite pubs in Kendal, and it’s where we watch movies. I probably go a few times a month, but I haven’t managed to read at the open mic night for three years. Probably no coincidence that Dora is two and a half, come to think of it. Some strange alignment of the stars always seems to prevent me attending – something always comes up that means I can’t go. I’m determined to make it down at some point in the next few months, as reading live is becoming so much more important  to me, and I want the practice.

Three years ago, before the fates decided I couldn’t go back, I read a short story about a WWII fighter pilot called ‘The Matador’. It was my first ever open mic. I was sick with nerves, but it went quite well, and it gave me the confidence to go on and read in Edinburgh and Glasgow for Words per Minute, Cargo Publishing and Gutter. I don’t think I’ll ever be totally secure in my public reading, but I’m improving all the time, and I’m enjoying it more with each performance.

All these open mics are building up to October, where I’ve landed a support slot for one of the Dreamfired story nights in Brigsteer. I’m reading in support of Emily Parrish and her retelling of the Loki myth. It should be an amazing night. To get into the storytelling spirit, I’ve decided to drop the notes and perform my work from memory. The thought makes me a little nauseous, even four months distant, but I think it’ll be a good thing to do. I’ll be reading ‘Gumbo’, which was published in the first issue of Fractured West. It’s one of my favourite stories, and fun to read aloud… though I doubt it’ll feel very funny when I’m performing without notes to an audience.

Back to Lancaster and the Spotlight Club. It’s a great line-up: amongst others, poets Trev Meaney and Nick O’Neill are headlining, and there’s music from experimental ethnomusicologist Deep Cabaret. Hopefully old friend, talented multi-instrumentalist, New Hawk and haikuist Rich Turner is coming along for a beer, too. He’s a good friend of ours, but we haven’t seen him in a year, because he has an amazing daughter, and we have an amazing daughter, and all children are black holes for time.

Anyway, it’s going to be a fantastic night. If you want to hear me read a story about guinea pigs and then crumple like a cheap suit, head down to the Storey Institute in Lancaster from 8pm on Friday 19th. See you there. Buy me a beer.

Short Short Story Slam: 28 June 2013

More great flash fiction events in Manchester…

#FLASHTAG

Story Slam socialThe Flashtag Writers’ will host a live literature battle for Didsbury Arts Festival where you, the audience, are the judge.

In the Short Short Story Slam, a panel of plucky contestants will take to the stage with their best very-short stories, battling other fiction-writing foes in a series of tense but hilarious head-to-heads. With voting cards under their seats, the audience decides who stays and who is deleted… there can only be one ultimate Short Short Story Slam gladiator of grammar.

Just to add to the excitement, the event also includes the grand results of the Didsbury Arts Festival Twitter fiction competition (launching on June 15th).

Join us for the contest of a lifetime!

Date: Friday 28 June 2013
Time: 8pm
Venue: The Albert Club. Didsbury
Admission: Free
More details: Here.

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Les Malheureux in Kendal

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I popped out last night to see Les Malheureux (a.k.a writers Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney) performing at the Lakes Alive Mintfest fundraiser in Kendal Town Hall.

It was a brilliant little show, with Sarah-Clare reading flash fiction accompanied by David’s Wurlitzer-style noodlings and extremely funny PowerPoint presentations switching slides in the background. The stories were fantastic – by turns poignant, reflective and darkly comic.

I especially loved the story about Eggborough power station, where the narrator paints the chimney stacks – and ‘Little Jan’, which is a perfect slice of poisonous office politics.

It was also great to see Sarah-Clare and David so soon after Flashtag – with the swifts soaring overhead and the sunset tinged pink over the Lakes, we had a balmy chat about day jobs, notebooks, Italy, the amazing Scottish literary scene and the quest for decent pubs in Kendal. (If you want an answer to the last point, there are three: Burgundy’s, the Brewery, and the Rifleman’s Arms.)

Before they turned up, I sat scribbling in my notebook. After a mini-brainwave about the protagonist in my new novel, I now know what she’s called and what she does for a living; and that in turn revealed another layer to the story which I’m really excited about. I also worked through some potential titles, though nothing stuck. I’m going to be flat-out on film jobs and college for the next month, but I’m starting to assemble more notes and ideas all the time.

Flashtag at The Nook & Cranny

Mon and I drove down to Manchester on Wednesday night for the live final of the Flashtag writing competition. Flashtag Writers are a five-strong collective of flash fiction devotees, organising and performing their work across Manchester, the northwest and beyond. This writing contest was part of Chorlton Arts Festival. Downstairs at the Nook & Cranny pub was the perfect place for my first reading in three years – small, close, and dark. It reminded me a little of Twin Peaks. I think the brightest thing in there was my shirt.

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With eight writers on the shortlist, four Flashtaggers (plus a few of Benjamin Judge‘s excellent ‘Very Short Stories About Very Good Writers‘ read out in his absence – check out the blog – they’re brilliant. My favourite so far is Haruki Murakami…) and headlined by yer actual flash fiction titan David Gaffney, there was an astounding breadth and depth of storytelling on offer. I’m consistently delighted with the sensations and stories that can be conveyed in remarkably few words: Allie Rodgers gave us a dystopia without printed books; Dale Lately perfectly captured the melancholy of an empty nightclub after hours; Sarah Butler told the tale of a girl who lived on a bus stop. Michael Conley read my favourite story – ‘Looking for an Astrolabe’ was perfect flash fiction, bundling the profound into the darkly comic. David Gaffney’s piece conjured an infestation of acoustic singer-songrwriters, and blamed it all on Badly Drawn Boy. I also loved the work of Flashtaggers Sarah Clare Conlon, Fat Roland, Tom Mason and David Hartley.

I was the last of the shortlisted writers to perform, and – as ever – I was terrified. But the reading went quite well, the audience were very generous and it left me craving more live events. Despite the fear, I always end up enjoying myself. I’d like to think that a few more readings might settle my nerves, but maybe they’re there to stay. Ach weel.

Up against consistently strong competition, I was genuinely blown away to be awarded second place for ‘This Kitten I Knew‘. That was really humbling. I was delighted that Michael’s ‘Astrolabe’ won first prize – it was easily my favourite on the night, and I feel honoured to come second against such a great story.

More than anything else, it was truly uplifting to have some social contact centred around writing. Facing a late drive back to Kendal, we couldn’t stay very long, but it was a real thrill to stop and chat with the audience, the Flashtaggers, the shortlistees and Mr Gaffney. It’s strange, sometimes, to live in relative isolation halfway between the vibrant literary scenes of Manchester and Glasgow. Nights like Wednesday help me remember that other people are excited by stories – by writing and reading.