Tuesday 21 December 2010

Arts' Council Evaluation

I am putting together the evaluation for the AC - I emailed a week or so back and told my contact the news that 'The Coward's Tale', as it now is, has found a great home at Bloomsbury. It is a sobering thought - I was lucky, and managed to secure a grant before the cuts in spending hit - and it was tough enough a year back, believe me. I can't help thinking that my grant was a tiny sum, relatively speaking, and how many wonderful pieces of work would be helped into the world if it was only possible to give a helping hand more often.
Maggie Gee, in writing her evaluation of the mentoring process, made the point that my grant money has enabled her go to New York to research her next novel. So that's two writers helped in one swoop, two pieces of work given a shove into the world.

I didn't have to send these documents in - but because it has been such a successful project, thought it was a good thing to do so. Who is to say - maybe it will encourage a purse string to be loosened a little? I was always a mad optimist.
Anyway, in the spirit of sharing as much as I could on this blog, here is my evaluation paper.


When I applied for this grant to work with Maggie Gee, my manuscript was basically a series of short fictions, all set in the same town, with the same set of characters. I had created a thin and very last-minute ‘linking device’ based on conversations between two characters, and I knew that was patently obvious, and therefore unsatisfactory.
Working with Maggie Gee was marvellous. From the first read-through of the work, she seemed to understand exactly what I was trying to do, and saw some of the seeds of the solution in what I had already created. It was under her guidance and encouragement that these linking sections took on a depth and importance that strengthened the rest of the book, as the relationship between the two characters grew in the most surprising ways. The results have enriched the whole far more than I would have thought possible.
Maggie never told me what to do in terms of the plot. She would point out the issues, and we would discuss the implications of various suggestions, or possible solutions that appeared as we discussed. She wrote extensive and extremely helpful notes for all the manuscripts I sent her, showing me her reactions as an intelligent reader as much as a great teacher.
I learned the importance of creating a narrative thread that pulls the reader through a novel, and that events strung together, even though they are ‘saying something’ cohererent, are not enough.
I learned specific craft skills appropriate for a novel-length work, the necessity for example, to help the reader more than in a short story, especially at the beginning, to identify important characters by using small but definite details. That is a good example of learning to see the work from the reader’s perspective. Maybe it is easier to be more self-indulgent with a short story, but if I wanted to keep the reader’s attention for the length of a novel, I had to learn a few different tricks of the trade. There were plenty of places where the reader’s attention might slip – where I had overdone the descriptions and images, and there was not enough happening. That raised several issues - it was clear that I had overused imagery in places, such that one cancelled out another, and the overall effect was messiness, rather than what I was reaching for. It was marvellous to have those places pointed out – not specifics, necessarily, but passages where the tension slackened.
One very important discussion took place - the most uncomfortable - where the central image, a machine, and a marvellous metaphor, became the target of a possible scythe. This really was my writer's darling - the novel was called 'The Man-Engine' and there were careful descriptions of this device, that got clearer and clearer (at least that was the intention) as the book progressed. But... the book is about the echoes of a mining disaster. It is Wales. And this machine was not in use there. Yes, I could have put in an explanatory paragraph at the end to say I was aware, but this is fiction... but after drafting the said paragraph twenty times, I just couldn't do that. It seemed an image to far, finally. And when I realised that the movement of the machine had given me the structure of the novel - something the publishers commented on in the end, positively - it had done its job.
Did I do everything that Maggie suggested, then? No. For example, there were places where Maggie suggested dropping a specific phrase from the prose, here and there, and on consideration, I left some of them in, because to remove them would have had an impact on the voice and the rhythms. In those instances I tried to find another way of sharpening the experience for the reader in a different way. I think I have learned to listen to my own instincts more. To trust my own skills more than before. The seeds of the main narrative thread were all there – Maggie pointed out the importance of these characters, and their interaction – but also the relative thinness of these sections, as well. I like to think that next time, I will trust the process of creation more, and be able to expand on those things that are important more instinctively.
I learned how much work is necessary to create a manuscript I am really proud of, as opposed to an ‘it will have to do’ creation. I learned that when I thought it was finished, but was a little concerned still about the ending – Maggie picked that up, and I was right to be concerned. I learned that what one thinks is the last of all the many rewrites is never the last. Maybe a work is never ‘finished’.

Overall, as well as having tackled the craft issues necessary to turn a series of linked stories into a novel, I think I am a more confident writer at the end of the mentoring process. Working with Maggie Gee was terrific, and I am very grateful for that opportunity.

Saturday 18 December 2010

A Romantic Longlisting for Sally Zigmond

I’m enjoying myself – today I am waving a bunch of red roses in the ether in congrats to Sally Zigmond, for her news, a longlisting for her novel ‘Hope Against Hope’ (Myrmidon) in the Romantic Novelists Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Goodness me! The full long list is HERE.

Hope Against Hope is on Amazon, HERE

Thursday 16 December 2010

How To Get A Literary Agent, by Sarah Hilary

A couple of years back, I persuaded writer friend Sarah Hilary to come with me to the Fish Publishing award ceremony, part of the West Cork Lit Fest. (What, you haven’t been? Well poor you...) Sarah had won one of the prizes – and I could give her a lift from Cork airport to the lovely town of Bantry. We had a very happy drive, nattering away, and went straight to the library for the opening of the Festival. They’d pushed the moveable shelves back to make room for all the rows of chairs, and I was sitting next to one of the said shelves- labelled ‘Crime’.
‘One day, you’ll have a whole row of books in places like this,’ I said. Because she will. No question. How do I know – well, it’s not difficult – she writes intelligent, intriguing crime novels – good enough to be noticed by a top agent, even in those early days – and was stubborn enough, like Yours Truly – not to give up when it would have been so so easy to.
Getting an agent is tough stuff. Persuading someone that your work is good enough to represent, sell, spend time on, is tough. And giving up at the first fence ain’t an option – if you want to succeed.
So I was very very happy to read on Sarah’s blog that she has been signed – and in her inimitable fashion, she relates the stages of How To get An Agent – HERE!!! And not just any old agent, either... oh no.
Read and enjoy. Especially the bit about not giving up...
Many many congrats to Sarah.

Saturday 11 December 2010


I look back over seven years of hard work, and can see very clearly those turning points where my writing career took a leap forward. (If that’s not too many mixed whatsits…leaping, and turning, whatever next?)
The most important was winning (jointly with Mikey Delgado) the inaugural Willesden Herald Short Story Competition in 2006. I’d not heard of this – but had the details and entry conditions sent to me by various writing friends and colleagues late in 2005 – it suddenly appeared all over the serious short story writers’ networks, and created something of a storm, in a minor way.
Storm? Well, it was a bit different. There was no entry fee, for a start – they were asking for quality work, and had landed a very well known name as final judge – Zadie Smith.
I sent off an unpublished story, and as the guidelines said it did not have to be published by the comp after the judging if entrants didn’t want – that seemed a great deal. What was to lose?

Prize? Well – a mug. Wot, no cash? Nope, not then.

The mug is a much loved thing, and I am very proud of it. Winning the competition started a friendship I value highly with Stephen Moran and his wife Tess, and there was another prize – although I didn’t realise that at the time. Zadie Smith’s judge’s comments – a paragraph about my story.
Being able to quote from such a highly regarded writer was priceless. Worth more than lots of cash. Unquantifiable, actually… suddenly, I was taken seriously.

Why am I banging on about this, now? Because YOU have a week before Willesden Herald Short Story Competition closes this year. Before Stephen Moran reads YOUR story, and if it’s good enough – puts it on the shortlist that goes to the final judge.

This year’s final judge is Maggie Gee. She has a special place in my heart, this lady- she has just mentored me, thanks to the Arts Council, as I struggled to structure a string of short stories into a coherent whole work. She also gave me a generous endorsement for ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ almost three years back, and again – the credibility that bestows on a not-yet-there writer is unquantifiable.

• There is a minimal entry fee. £3.00.
• Your reader loves short fiction with a passion. If it is good enough, it WILL get through.
• If it gets to the final judge, it will be read by an intelligent, lovely writer whose decision and comments might just be a turning point for you in your career, just as Zadie Smith’s were for me.
• What’s to lose?
• What are you waiting for?
• They’ve had 200+ so far – and already, Stephen is shaking his head, slightly. That means,

Willesden Herald and competition details, HERE

Maggie Gee at Contemporary writers, HERE

Friday 10 December 2010

.Cent Magazine Creative Writing commissions...

I can really recommend this commission (or call for subs) to writers. I sent them a short piece a year or so back... the magazine is wonderful. Beautifully produced, huge, thick paper, and each piece of prose has its own page, and illustration. In addition to the contributor's copy, they included a copy of your page - for the wall, a frame for Mum, whatever...
Submissions close on 12th december - here is the original email:

"For those new to the .Cent creative writing commission: the content of each new biannual issue is split up into chapters. For each chapter we welcome writers to interpret the title in a piece of work. Every chapter is introduced with one of your submissions.
For issue 17 the chapter titles are:

Strange Paradises
Everything is Connected
Recording the City

If you’d like to submit your writing then the brief is as follows:

· Strict maximum word-count of 350.
· Submission deadline is Sunday 12th December 2010.
· You can submit poetry/prose/script.
· You may submit to as many chapter as you wish.
· Submissions and work are on an unpaid basis.
· Please state if work has been previously published elsewhere. The work will still be considered however we’d like to know in advance.
· Please feel free to interpret the title however you wish, although it is worth bearing in mind that .Cent will select the piece that best encapsulates the chapter theme.
· The chosen submission will be printed in the issue. If it is yours, we’ll let you know and send you the issue + tears.
· Submissions that are not selected for the magazine could potentially be published on the website.
· .Cent reserves the right to make the final decision.

To submit work:
· Please email submissions to cent.writing@gmail.com by no later than 12th December 2010.
· Please state how you’d like to be credited- your name (as you would like it to appear in print) + mention a website? Or a current project? Perhaps published work? However we can support you.
· Please include alongside your submission your contact details- email, address and phone number.

Website HERE.

And lovely news: my novel 'The Coward's Tale' is to be published in UK (Nov 2011 hardback, and paperback Spring 2012) and USA (Spring 2012) by Bloomsbury. Am thrilled and rather wobbly at the moment. More later.