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.

A million histories

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I absolutely love this: the British Library have just released a million historic images under Creative Commons, meaning they are free to download, copy, modify and use for any purpose, which is just amazing. You can browse their Flickr stream right here. I can drift through thousands of pictures without getting bored; it’s an endless stream of other worlds, of curiosity and of wonder, brought to life in pencil sketch, wood cut and sepia. I’ve already found images I’m going to use on the cover of Marrow. That stream is unbelievable treasure.

I’m just blown away at the scale of the archive they’ve made available. The variety of images is wide enough to be near enough limitless. It has extraordinary potential for artists, writers, historians and internauts of all kinds. What an amazing resource for the world.

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A century of…

I realised, after posting this video about a ballerina dancing on butcher knives, that I’d hit a hundred posts on the blog. A century is still pretty arbitrary, really, but it’s as good a place as any to stop and think about why I keep a blog.

I started writing the blog six months ago to track the progress of my novel. The book was called Riptide Heart, back then. It’s now called The Visitors, and it will be published by Quercus Books in 2014. All that has happened in the lifetime of this blog. I’ve tracked my highs and lows and uncertainties throughout the publication process, from finding an agent (a year ago) to signing the contract (last week).

As well as the novel, I’ve written a lot about reading my work live, and the struggles I’ve had with my nerves. Each of my various readings has been painfully revisited, but that return has helped me filter and understand the experience. I’ve also explored my decision to gather my flash fiction into a collection, which is called Marrow, and will almost certainly be self-published, and teaching myself InDesign to lay it out professionally. (More on this soon! As I approach the end of my redraft and clear my backlog of film jobs, I should have the time and space to push ahead and get this wrapped up and printed.) I’ve posted published and unpublished flash fictions, and talked about my writing processes. I’ve written about my film work, and catalogued some of the things that I find inspiring or magical. I’ve posted galleries of the threshold spaces I’m so obsessed with.

All in all, then, my blog has ranged far wider than I ever thought it would. More than anything else, I’ve been surprised at how personally I’ve addressed some of these subjects. When I started, I expected the blog to be fairly analytical, for want of a better word; dry, professional. But in struggling with my live performance readings, and in wrangling my novel redraft, I’ve found myself at times alarmingly open about how I feel about my work. I like that the process of writing has taken me in that direction quite organically.

One of the joys of using WordPress is browsing through the stats, which tell me what brings people to the blog, what they look at, and often where they come from. I’ve had visitors from as far afield as Mozambique and Mongolia, searching for everything from devil dogs to gay porn. (Hopefully not everyone will be as disappointed as those two internauts.) I’ve had a week without any views, then hundreds of visitors the day Neil Gaiman retweeted this post about libraries. Have a look at this screen grab and see if you can guess which day that was:

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The two things that bring people to the blog most often are on the periphery of my interests; this post about a nursery rhyme and this post about a WW2 fighter pilot preserved in a peatbog. People have searched for Bancree, which is the fictional Scottish island I created for The Visitors, and for novelist friends like Iain Maloney and Ali Shaw. Lots of people come to the blog looking for information about my agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and my publisher, Jane Wood at Quercus.

More than anything else, though, the blog is for me. It’s how I filter my ideas and monitor what I’m doing. Writing about my life is what I need to live my life.

Loki

Well, that’s my first Dreamfired done and dusted. It was a really good night – more people need to know about the Storynights.

First up was banjo virtuoso Bill Lloyd. He’s a legend in Cumbria and the north, and he didn’t disappoint, starting with a haunting ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, and segueing into a range of folk songs from America and Ireland. My storyteller uncle Rich Sylvester had the next slot, relating an anecdote about exploring the London Olympic equestrian venue at midnight with a bellyful of Russian beer. It was very funny. Rich is an extremely affable raconteur, and his stories are always engaging – I haven’t seen his work for a few years, and it was great to be part of the audience.

I was on after Rich. I’d decided to get into the traditional spirit by performing without notes. In the minutes before going onstage, my nerves were worse than ever, but I settled fairly quickly.  I read two stories I’ve been practising lately – Circle Stone and The Lion Tamer’s Daughter.  I stumbled once in Lion Tamer, and for a moment I thought I would go entirely blank – but I recovered, found my place and delivered the rest without a hitch. Circle Stone is an extremely quick flash piece of only 75 words, and it’s surreal enough to counter the darkness of Lion Tamer. The two work well in combination, but I’m going to semi-retire them now. They’re both destined for my flash fiction collection Marrow, and I’ll try and get them published elsewhere first, but I’ve read them a lot recently, and it’s time for some new material. On reflection, though, the reading went well. I don’t think I’ll make a habit of performing without notes, but Dreamfired was a perfect place to give it a whirl.

After me came a poet, whose name I didn’t catch, who read some playfully nostalgic pieces; and then a story about a 21st century Grim Reaper. Bill Lloyd returned to round off the first part of the night with another couple of songs – his cover of Frankie’s Gun, which I absolutely love – it was Bill who introduced me to the music of The Felice Brothers – and one of his own compositions, a haunting Armenian lament.

This is what Frankie’s Gun looks like:

After the interval came Emily Parrish, aka Scandalmongers. She walked onto the stage singing and beating a drum, and launched without preamble into the Norse creation myth. Her show explores the role of Loki, the trickster god, and all his jealousies and cruelty and fun. What made the show all the more remarkable was the way she entwined Norse mythology with her own childhood. The transitions between the Cotswolds and Asgard were frankly astonishing – from the top of a perfect climbing tree to the horrors whispered into Baldr’s troubled brain. It was lyrical, visceral and intense, and it left the audience stunned.

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Loki comes highly recommended from me – catch it if you can.

Thanks, too, to Kat Quatermass, who organises and hosts Dreamfired. Lovely to meet her after months of email contact. I’m definitely going back in November to catch Peter Chand performing Grimm’s Sheesha.

What’s next for me, then? I’ve been thinking about my novel edits for a week or so – a process I refer to as ‘brewing’ – and I’m almost ready to start work. I mentioned in a previous post the structural changes I need to make, and my uncertainty about how to make some of those changes. That has passed. I now know where that character is going to enter the story. Although it means a lot of work, I feel secure in the knowledge of how to do it, so a lot of that worry has eased.

My next booked reading is at the Brewery’s Spoken Word night in February, though I’ll try and land a few more open mic spots before then. Stay tuned. And go to Dreamfired.

The horizon

What a couple of weeks. The start of college has been a bit rough, but we’re getting there. I’m spread fairly thin at the moment, and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting much done… but in the background I’ve completely redrafted my flash fiction collection Marrow, so that’s ready for typesetting when I find the time to get to grips with InDesign. Paragraph Planet published a 75-word story from that collection last week, too, which is pretty cool. I’ve also redrafted the longer short story I talked about in my last post, and started blocking out my new novel in the excellent Scrivener.

Even more exciting, Riptide is beginning to gather pace. I’m expecting notes from my editor this week, so I can start work on what should be the final draft, and I’ve just had a sneak peek at a rough of the cover art, which is scintillating. While I’ve been so busy drowning in real life, just trying to stay afloat, seeing the cover has been a timely reminder of what I’m working towards. The artwork is simply perfect, but I’ll wait for a final version before I share it.

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The 200th Spotlight Club in Lancaster is looming on the horizon. It feels like only last week I was reading at their open mic night. I’m excited about performing there again, and hopefully catching up with old friends Rich Turner, Dan Haywood and Paddy Garrigan (pictured above) – Paddy’s playing out the night, which should be a blast. I have two or three new pieces lined up. I’m going to start with a short story about guinea pigs, and finish with a very short 75-word piece about avocados. I think there’s probably time for another story in between, but I haven’t decided what just yet.

After Spotlight comes the Brewery open mic, if I can get a spot, and then Dreamfired in October. By happy coincidence, my storytelling uncle Rich Sylvester is up from London that night. I don’t get to see Rich very often, so if we’re organised enough, I’ll try and knock up a quick video of one of his stories.

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To Do: Part Two

Okay, back to work. College returns in three weeks, which feels frighteningly imminent. I’ve films to finish for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Three Dimensional Tanx and Seven Seals, some short stories to write, the Riptide edits to complete for Quercus, Scrivener to learn, family and friends coming to stay, a log store to build, readings to practice, paperwork as deep as my hand, and Marrow to edit and complete.

Head down. Press on. Fail better.

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In the Spotlight

Last night I read two stories at the excellent Spotlight Club in Lancaster. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the heat, it was a fairly sparse audience of only twenty people, but the wealth of talent was inspiring. I’d booked one of the open mic slots that open the show. The first two performers were Edward Fahey, reading from his novel The Mourning After, and poet Simon Hart a.k.a Big Charlie Poet. I was on third, and read two new short stories – one about home cooking gone wrong, and one about living in an umbrella. I’m pleased to say they went down fairly well. As ever, I felt wretched with nerves. When I’m reading live, I can feel my pulse pounding in my stomach, beating so violently that I’m certain people will notice – but then, when I’m settled, I start to enjoy the reading, to relax into the story and to remember why I wrote it in the first place. Reading aloud is engrained in my writing workflow. When I’m writing, I constantly read my work aloud, lips moving nonstop, speaking and repeating the phrases, looking for the way the words flow best, seeking out an organic rhythm to the story. It’s thrilling to take that back to a stage and a microphone. I’ll never be as good as performers like Alan Bissett, but I’m starting, at last, to really enjoy reading live.

Back to Spotlight: the open mic slots were followed by ‘ethnomusicologist of the imagination’ Deep Cabaret. He conjured incredible sounds from an apparently homemade instrument of wood and wire wrapped around a tin can (Steve Lewis, the man behind the music, has since been in touch to reveal that it’s not a DIY contraption, but a Delta Wedge, and manufactured right here – although it is based on the homemade instruments of early Bluesmen). With this extraordinary device, Deep Cabaret explored the music of a fictional world based on the fantastical fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. It was a truly original and engrossing performance.

Rosa Lucy Rogers followed with a series of haunting, abstract poems exploring emotional and physical space. Then came multi-slam-winning performance poet Trevor Meaney. He kicked off with a piece about Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce entitled ‘Baby you can drive my car’, which gives you an idea about his work; excellent and very funny. Short story writer Scott Hammell gave us a dying man’s last moments, before veteran punk-poet Nick O’Neill delivered his tight, intense rhymes, taking on big themes with disarming simplicity.

The night was finished by acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter David Kelly. There are some guitarists who seem in total mastery of their instrument, knowing exactly how it works, never out of control for even a moment – David was not one of those guitarists. He was the sort where the guitar seems to play him, using him as a fulcrum, his body all angles and awkwardness, legs twisted against one another, tapping out mad rhythms, shoulders hunched, head down. It was brilliant. His voice had a raw, urgent quality, and his songs were a little James Yorkston, a little Conor Oberst, all cracked and lo-fi, thrilling and real. I’ll definitely be keeping an ear out for more of his music. I can’t find a website for him, but he looks like this:

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As we made to leave, the organisers asked if I’d come back to read again in September. Spotlight has been going for 17 years, and September will be their 200th show. I’m honoured to have been asked, and I gratefully accepted the invitation. I’ll have a 10-minute slot, so I can try a slightly longer story – but I’ll definitely be reading a variety of pieces again, too. Hopefully my DIY flash fiction collection Marrow will be ready by then. I’m delighted to have been invited back, and it was a great way to finish the show.

On the streets outside, Lancaster felt like London, the streets buzzing with people. We walked back to the car through one of the glorious Mediterranean nights this heatwave has delivered: warm, soft breezes, and dim bands of blue to the west.

Some strange alignment of the stars

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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.

The Lion-tamer’s Daughter

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Back from a grand night at the Dentdale Beer & Music Festival, unpacked with a mild hangover, wrote a new short story about a lion tamer and completely rewrote an old story about a boy who climbs lampposts, then cut both stories into my flash fiction collection ‘Marrow’… which leaves me just about ready for a bruising week of marking, course planning, meetings, filming, editing and building a fence. See you on the other side. Hopefully.

To Do

I haven’t been writing very much lately. I’ve been too busy with real life, scrapping my way through end-of-year marking for my film students and working on videos for Kendal College and Cumbria Wildlife Trust. I’ve still some way to go, and there’s plenty more to do – my Dad’s popping up to help me build a fence, and I need to build a log store. But hopefully the end is in sight. Most important, I should be getting Jane‘s notes for Riptide in the next few weeks, and then I need to work my way through that final draft.

For a bit of a change, I’ve been using the odd evening to (slowly) teach myself the basics of InDesign, trying to put together a booklet of my flash fiction. It’s no big deal – twenty-five stories between 50 and 500 words, provisionally entitled ‘Marrow’. I’ve also booked in my next two readings – first for the Spotlight open mic in Lancaster in July, and then as a support slot for Dreamfired in Brigsteer in October. And in the background, I’m reading and researching towards my next novel; quietly brewing on the story, blocking out the plot. I still have some narrative strands to tidy up, though I know where the book will finish emotionally.

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For the moment: research. I wrote about rediscovering P.V. Glob’s The Bog People a few months ago, and I’ve finally had a chance to actually read the thing. For a 1970s archaeological review – even one designed for jumblies – it’s surprisingly well-written. Some of the bog bodies have held astonishing secrets in their graves. One poor woman was staked down with crooks and buried alive. A man was stabbed through the heart, smashed on the head and strangled. It’s all great stuff for the novel, generating context and building ideas. By happy coincidence, one of the jobs I’m doing for Cumbria Wildlife Trust is on wetland restoration, so I’ve been spending some time ankle deep in peatland. I need some more books, and I’d like to take trips to fen country at some point.

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It’s a thrilling stage, all the researching and blocking and plotting, preparing the ground before the hard work starts. I learned a lot from writing Riptide, and I’m excited to start work on a new book. Just need to clear away the hundred other things on my To Do list, first.

It hasn’t been all work. Friends Steve and Clare took us to Chester Zoo yesterday. We went straight to the orangutans, and spent a gloriously peaceful 20 minutes with them before a dozen school trips caught us up. Dora especially loved the bat enclosure, a vast warehouse where the bats swoop and skitter in artificial night. This morning we’re off to Dentdale Music & Beer festival, too. I’m going to take my story dice and drink ale.