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

Verbalised

On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.

Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:

After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:

 

The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.

Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.

After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)

After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow. 

Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.

Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.

Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.

Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.

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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

Dreamfired with Kat Quatermass

Last night was my third Dreamfired storynight, and my second reading in support. It was a wild and windswept night in Brigsteer, but a decent crowd of thirty or so had battled through the rain and sleet. The open mic is always good fun, and I was absolutely delighted to see Trev Meaney again – he’s a dazzling slam poet who I’ve seen in action at Lancaster’s Spotlight. He combines breakneck delivery with great comic timing, and his quick-fire poems never fail to impress. Last night he performed several pieces, including the excellent confessional ‘Lancaster to London’, which looks like this:

I was the last of the support acts. For the first time, I was reading from Marrow (because yes! The books turned up on Thursday. I’ll write more about that in the next post). I read The Black And The White Of It, Hutch and After The Rains – sad, dark and joyful, by turns. It seemed to go quite well – I didn’t fully relax until the second story, but then I started to enjoy it, to really take my time with the words. If I can get to that place at the start of a reading, rather than halfway through, I’ll count that a success. I’d love to perform with Trev’s confidence and flair, but I’m still learning to walk. Running comes with time.

Kat Quatermass – who runs Dreamfired – was the headliner. She performed a startlingly original sequence of contemporary fairytales, couched in feminism and queer culture. It was an excellent show. First she painted a modern city, with an abandoned fairground, pebbledash tower blocks, supermarkets and a polluted river – then she populated it with modern kids, kids looking for ways to fit in, ways to escape – ways to survive. Kat then sent her cast of disaffected adolescents into the gritty, fantastical city, where their stories intermingled with talking foxes, golden birds, the months of the year and Hungarian hag Baba Yaga. The stories chop and change and intermingle, played out in a carnival of urban fairytales. The show was equal parts Neil Gaiman, Brothers Grimm and Arcade Fire’s LP ‘The Suburbs’. Kat’s city made me think of my short story Vanishings – that sense that anything can happen in cities when the lights go down and no one’s looking. She explained that this was a work in progress – she plans to refine and develop the show over the next six months. If last night was anything to go by, audiences are in for a real treat over the lifetime of the show.

All in all, another cracker from Dreamfired. Next up, my 20-minute guest slot at Verbalise

To finish, here’s a picture of Baba Yaga’s hut, which walks around on chicken legs, because Baba Yaga is awesome. This is by illustrator Bojana Dimitrovski:

Baba Yaga hut Bojana Dimitrovski freelance illustrator advocate art

Verbalising

This is just a quick post to invite you – yes, you – along to Verbalise at the Brewery on the 22nd February.

It’s going to be ace. The open mic is already packed with talent – I know that short story guru Brindley Hallam Dennis is coming, and so is my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet, both of whom are exceptional performers. I feel absolutely honoured to have a guest slot, and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into such a long session – I’ve never had 20 minutes to play with before. I’m already planning my stories. I’m definitely going to read Marrow, which is about dubious experiments in home cooking, and Hutch, which is about guinea pigs vanishing from a suburban garden. I’m probably going to read The Black And The White Of It, too. All three are in my flash fiction collection, Marrow, which should – assuming I’ve managed to print it right way up and right side out – be a real buzz to read from. I’m also going to read some new work. I’ve been working on a piece about the dark side of a village bakery competition, and I also want to try running a dozen of my Twitter stories together as a quickfire rattle through relationship disasters. I think I’m going to call that 10 Second Speed Dates, and might even try and read against the clock. If there’s time, I might read a very short flash piece called Real Life, too, which was published by Paragraph Planet last week. I’m going to relish the words – to invest my confidence in these stories I’ve written and endlessly rewritten. After all that time glued to a computer, reading live is where the stories draw breath.

If you can come, it would be great to see you. Compere Ann the Poet tells me that anyone who wants an open mic slot will get one, so roll on up and bring a story…

A quick aside with some good news, too – after a couple of story rejections in January, I’m delighted to have had two acceptances in as many days. I’ve landed flash fiction Circle Stone with the tenth issue of estimable magazine Gutter, and sci-fi short story Patience in an anthology called After The Fall. Go team!

Kicking monsters down the hall

Improving my spoken word performance is an ongoing mission. There’s no substitute for actually reading live, and I have my first two events of the year booked in for February. First up is a support slot at Dreamfired on Valentine’s Day, and then I’m top of the bill (eek!) for Verbalise at the end of the month.

As well as actual readings, I’ve started looking for workshops. I attended a great Spotlight session in Lancaster with Brindley Hallam Dennis last year. He set the class the truly startling task of having other people read our work. My workshop partner went through my flash piece Marrow at a third of the pace I usually do, really savouring the words, and she made it three times better. That was an important lesson. I’ve also taken a huge amount from veteran performer David Hartley’s tips for spoken word.

I watch a lot of readings, both live and online, to see how other writers project and present their words. I’ve seen some great stuff, and some terrible stuff. This performance by Shane Koyczan is absolutely, completely, one of the very best. I’ve listened to it a dozen times, and it grows ever more wonderful.

Inky Little Fingers

Okay. Steady breathing. I’ve finally sent Marrow off to the printers. It’s a nerve-wracking process, especially for a first time. I’ve gone with Inky Little Fingers on the recommendation of Flashtagger Fat Roland. If it goes wrong, I’m blaming him. 

Early in the process, Inky Little Fingers estimate the thickness of the spine from the number of pages involved. That measurement (in this case, 5.6mm) needs to be factored into the dimensions of the custom document created for the cover. Then, when you upload the cover art and contents, they generate an online proof for a final check. I was extremely relieved to see that my measurements were right, as I was certain I’d get everything horribly wrong and have to start again. Then I paid for 100 copies (which didn’t hurt too much, because I’ve been saving for this for a year) and submitted the final order. So there it is. Out of my hands, and into the production queue. The next step is a box of books turning up in a week or so, just in time for my spoken word support slot at February’s DreamfiredI’m looking forward to reading from the book, rather than from the tatty shreds of paper I keep in my back pockets, all crisscrossed with notes and late amendments. I’m also terrified that I’ve missed something really obvious and the cover will be printed upside-down. Something abominable is bound to happen. 

A couple of people have asked if I’m going to have a launch for Marrow, but I don’t think so. It was never supposed to be a big deal – just something to sell at readings, and something to teach me new skills. I’ve learned big chunks of Photoshop and InDesign over the last few weeks. And it’s been fun to oversee the entire process, too. I’m already drafting the next collection, which I think I’m going to call Real Life, after a story about checkers.

Here’s the final version of the Marrow artwork, with front and back covers.

Marrow full cover low-res

 

Odobenus rosmarus

I found this picture of a walrus skull (odobenus rosmarus, according to my friend Ross) in the British Library archives, cut away the background, made it black and white, lifted it into InDesign, added the background colour, changed the transparency mode so the skull turned shades of blue, found and added the fonts, and exported it.

If you knew what you were doing with Photoshop, this would probably take you about four minutes. But I don’t know what I’m doing, and it took me all night.

ALL BLOODY NIGHT.

Anyway – this is a first draft of the cover of my flash fiction collection Marrow, which I’m going to self-publish in the next few weeks. I’d appreciate any thoughts, positive or negative, about the design. I want something lean, but is it too simple?

Marrow final cover PDF1 crop small

The Blog Tour – answers

I was delighted when Elizabeth Stott invited me to follow her on the blog tour. I’m a fan of Elizabeth’s writing – I bought her short story Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers from Nightjar Press last year, and was engrossed in the tense, almost existential body horror she conjured in a few short pages. A lot of Elizabeth’s work generates that sense of claustrophobia – another of her stories, Mrs Wetherby, delivers simmering sexual tension amongst uptight ex-pats in the setting of a baking Gulf. Have a read – highly recommended.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for the invitation – here are her answers to the blog tour questions – and here are mine:

What am I working on?

More than I can handle! Foremost is new novel Grisleymires. Whenever possible, I’m trying to guide my rare writing days towards this; it’s the story of a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them. It’s set in a huge swamp, which is great fun to write, and I’m really excited by the characters and how they’re evolving. The issue is finding time to write around my other projects. I’ve been working on a novella called The Year Of The Whale for about five years (though I haven’t touched it for the last two). That’s about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s about 20,000 words finished, with only another 5 or 10k to go, but novels are taking precedence. I’d love to finish it soon, though – my partner Monica wants to make a series of linocut prints to illustrate it, and I think that could look fantastic – something like Alex Garland’s novella The Coma.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to my first flash fiction collection, Marrow, and starting to draft the second, which might be called Real Life. Around all this, I’m periodically developing my future novels – I already have plans for another four or five after Grisleymires. I’d love to write more often, but I struggle for time around my teaching and film jobs.

The final thing I’m working on is the copy edit of my first novel, The Visitors. The editor’s notes are due back next week, and I’ll need to go through those slowly and carefully (and with flagons of cider, according to Ali Shaw).

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I believe all writers differ from others – that’s part of the wonderful polyphony of writing. As soon as a writer begins to speak in the first words of their own voice, they’re different. Genres are useful for sifting and gathering – I use genre far more as a reader than a writer.

That said, I guess I’m moving increasingly towards low fantasy. That’s where I can best tell the stories I want to tell. If my stories are in any way unique, it’s because of the themes I work in and the juxtapositions I explore. When I walk through woodlands, I worry about velociraptors. When I visit London, I imagine minotaurs haunt the Underground, dodging Tube trains as they roam beneath the city. There are doppelgängers watching from rooftops, waiting to make the switch. There are secret societies of pigeon fanciers that keep the internet alive, and kelpies working for the local council. I try to infuse my work with the same sense of magic I find in the world. I think every writer tries to do that. I’m interested in memories, and walking, and the idea of threshold spaces. I’m interested in myths and especially in folk tales. I’m interested in the breakdown in gender and what it is to be alive. Ultimately, though, lots of writers are interested in those things. What makes my work different is that it’s mine.

Why do I write what I do?

Writing brings me comfort through escapism, I suppose. I’m an army brat – we didn’t settle in one place until I started secondary school in Inverness, and I’ve often struggled to feel at home. Books and stories have been havens for as long as I can remember, and it was probably only a matter of time before I tried to create my own. As for the actual topics I write about – that’s evolved wildly over the six or seven years that I’ve been writing fiction. I started with experimental, deliberately obscure literary pieces, aping the styles of challenging writers like Hubert Selby Jnr and William S. Burroughs. After finishing my first attempt at a novel, which took me to some personally unpleasant places, I started to rediscover my love of stories that took me on adventures, rather than stories that were flayed to the bone. I reread David Mitchell and Sarah Waters and Jasper Fforde and Neil Gaiman – and I realised that those were the worlds that sang loudest to me. And so I started again, near enough, finding new ways to tell my stories. The more I’ve worked in this vein, the more I’ve enjoyed my writing.

How does my writing process work?

My ideas tend to arrive as acorns – I stumble upon them everywhere, buried in mud or blown into gutters. Some of those ideas never escape my notebook – and others explode, branching and sprouting into completely new directions. I can’t explain how an idea arrives already fully formed, but my best stories are already bristling with life. They evolve as I write. I know I’m working with strong characters when they start doing things I don’t expect; when it becomes inevitable, no matter what I’ve planned, that they’re going to do something else.

Landscape and place are important to the way I work – I like those strong characters to be in landscapes that I care about, so the air fills my lungs and I can feel the ground beneath my feet. In good locations, the story is a drop of water, taking the most organic route to ground. Place is as important to me as character, plot and emotion – when I write, I try to keep all those strands of story entwined together. Writing is a holistic process, following disparate elements all at once. That’s one of the things that makes extensive redrafting so hard. It’s easy for the fabric of the story to become tangled. When my stories are in a muddle, so am I.

Because I have so little time to work, I tend to write in fierce bursts. If I’m on a roll, I can manage more than 10,000 words a day, but that’s rare. A good writing day is 2,000-3,000 words I’m really pleased with. When I’m not writing, I think about my work constantly. I’m often awake at night, staring into darkness, tracing my way through story strands, trying to work out where they run to, where they meet. More often than not, I fall asleep without working it out – but sometimes I have to turn the light back on and write them down.

I’m also an helpless tinkerer. I can’t let go of my stories, and I return to them obsessively – even years after they’ve been published – to develop the story and tweak the prose. My flash fiction collection Marrow is typical of this – of the 28 pieces, around half have been published elsewhere – but in preparing the collected manuscript, I’ve spent months compulsively redrafting them. Some no longer bear any relation to the original. I can’t help myself. That tweaking and revising comes into first drafts, too. My stories are probably one third writing, two-thirds editing.

Another of the keys to my workflow is reading aloud – as I write, I constantly read, lips moving, shaping the phrases to find the most organic flow, and then reworking it on the page. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, that’s my first suggestion. Nothing has done as much for developing my work as reading aloud. My second suggestion is to carry a notebook. You never know when those acorns will tumble from the sky.

***

So there we have it. If anyone’s still reading, these are some of the things that go into my work. I’m now passing the baton on to David Hartley and Iain Maloney, who’ll publish their blog tour answers on Monday 3rd February. In their own words, they’re a bit like this:

David Hartley is a story botherer and blog tickler based in Manchester whose debut collection of flash fiction ‘Threshold’ was published by Gumbo Press precisely a year ago. He is one fifth of the writing collective Flashtag and can be regularly seen haunting the open mic stages of the North West. He blogs at http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets at @DHartleyWriter

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Komaki, Japan. A widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, his debut novel, First Time Solo, a story of World War 2 RAF pilots and jazz, will be published be Freight Books in June 2014. He blogs at http://iainmaloney.wordpress.com
Thanks for reading.

Resolve

I’ve always been a little dismissive of New Year’s Resolutions, because if I want to make a change in my life, that can happen any time I choose. That remains true, but there are things I want to do differently going into 2014. Post-Christmas binging is a natural place to draw a line and make a start, and I quite like the idea of formalising the changes I want to make. So here’s what’s going to happen this year:

Exercise

Because I don’t really do any, other than the odd Lakes walk and the exhaustive mania of teaching. I’ve already started walking the 2 miles to work – which I enjoy for the headspace as much as the activity – but I miss my bike and I miss my climbing. So I’m going to start cycling the long way to work and back. That’s only about 6 miles a day, so it’s not a great deal really, but it’s more than I’m doing at the moment. I’m also really keen to get back to my climbing. When I lived in London, I climbed four or five times a week. Now it’s four or five times a year. I’m going to start going for a few hours at least once a week. That, supplemented by some pull-ups at home and the cycling, should be steps in the right direction. I might even join Mon for the odd yoga, too.

Writing

The best I can hope for here is more of the same, I think. I crave more time to write, but the day jobs don’t allow it. In a good week, I get two days and two nights on my stories every week. Within that, I have specific aims for 2014. First and most important, I want Grisleymires finished in a year. This is a big ask, but it’s well planned, I’m excited by the story, and I can do it if I work hard. Research trip to the Fens in January!

Second, I want to have my flash fiction collection Marrow typeset and printed by the end of February. I’m reading at Spoken Word at the Brewery on Saturday 22nd, and I want it in my hands by then. This isn’t as big a deal as it seems; the stories are written and redrafted ten times over, and having typeset it once already as practice, I know glimmers of InDesign. With some guidance from knowledgeable friends and a few late nights, I think I can send the manuscript off to Inky Little Fingers in a few weeks. I’ve already saved most of the £225 it’ll cost to print 100 copies, so that’s not going to hurt my wallet too much.

Third, I want to keep on performing. 2013 was a turning point for me in reading my work aloud, and I want to push that as far as I can. Reading live brings an entirely new aspect to the way I write, and this is something I want to keep developing – pushing towards more theatrical performance where my confidence allows it.

Fourth, I want to submit my work to more competitions. I’ve never entered any of the big short story competitions before now, and I’m going to try and start this year. And I want to write new pieces, too, if the ideas keep coming to me. I’m not going to rehash old stories. I’ve pretty much drawn a line under my older work, but for two particular pieces: the excellent people at Comma Press have been considering my short story Every State In America for their delayed Reveal anthology for a couple of years. They’ll have first refusal on it for as long as it takes; being published by Comma would be an incredible honour. The other piece is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short, which is perhaps three years old and freshly redrafted for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines strand. That’s ready to go when the submission window opens in January.

Fifth, I want to finish Year Of The Whale, my long-running novella about a whale beached in Morecambe Bay. It’s been work in progress for three or four years, and it’s overdue. But writing resolutions one through four come first.

That’s lots of resolutions wrapped up in two strands, really. Writing and exercise. I’m only going to buy the time for everything else if I start saying no to low-paid film jobs, so I’m not doing any freebies/cheapies this year unless they have a clear benefit further down the line. I’m also going to try and rein in my irrational compulsion to reply to emails RIGHT THIS SECOND. I just don’t have the time. Most of the email I receive can probably wait until I’m ready. The point of all of this is to spend more quality time with Mon and Dora. Unless deadlines get in the way for either of us, we’re generally good at keeping weekends as family time, and I want that set in stone. There are a host of other things I can do towards this – less time online, for a start – and turning off the computer on free evenings. I want to read more, too.

I guess I’ve picked out goals, rather than resolutions, but it’s all the same in the end. I haven’t kept a blog to monitor resolutions before; I’m curious to see to whether writing about my success or lack thereof will impact on my success or lack thereof. Gazing into the void and so on.

2013 was a great year in many ways. Here’s to 2014, people. Be safe, be happy. Here’s a 1921 picture of a cat and a goblin in a tree:

goblin