Thursday 28 April 2011


SHORT FICTION at ANAM CARA 28th May - 4th June
The flights are booked, the car is booked, the ideas are flowing for creative exercises - and I'm told there are a couple of places left.. so forgive me if I put a bit of promo here! Don't read on if you are allergic to shameless adverts.
A chance to explore in depth the craft of short fiction in all its challenging guises, in one of Ireland’s most creatively exciting venues, Anam Cara Writers' and Artist's Retreat. A chance to focus on acquiring skills that will maximise the chances of your work rising to the top and standing out for the right reasons not only in publication slush piles but also in competitions.
This will be a focused, collaborative workshop retreat during which you will create not only complete new work and the seeds of many new stories, but you will also discover tried and tested strategies for editing and revising your existing work to make it as good as it can be.
Although biased towards the art and craft of short fictions, we will also be able to explore the relevance of the craft issues to longer works.

For some idea of how gorgeous Anam Cara Writers' and Artist's Retreat is...this is the view from the back of the house... with a little artist's license!

Link to photos of inside the house itself

Link to photos of the grounds - some of the nooks and crannies you can hide in to write, the waterfall which drowns out all your worries...

Also from the website:
"She is a great teacher, bursting with enthusiasm and knowledge, and I found her supportive and generous..."
Alison Fisher, who went on to win the 2010 Bridport Prize. Which probably had nothing at all to do with working with me...who is to say?

More info from Sue Booth-Forbes, contact links on the website

Monday 25 April 2011


There is such an interesting, very useful, three-part discussion about revision, rewriting, self-editing - call it what you will, on Tania's blog. Many different writers, all saying how they approach this subject. True, it is directed at short fiction - but so much is relevant to longer pieces of work. Inasmuch as my own current work is reaching the end of its preparation process, and inasmuch as it started life as a series of discreet sections, I chime with much of what is said in these discussions - I share many of the processes described.
Here are the links - the posts and subsequent comments are very valuable.
Part I (also available as a PDF)
Part II (Also available as a PDF)
But there are some differences, of course, as there always will be where a group of writers share their processes. In working on each of the separate pieces between late 2006 and early 2010, I started after a while to do a lot of editing as I went, revisiting the work of the day before and seeing things I didn't like, changing them until it felt better... and using those pages as a jump-off point to continue with that day's writing. And I'd often stop, go back over a paragraph, a few lines of dialogue, shake my head and change them. It became a physical process. I could FEEL when the train was leaving the rails - ie its own rails, and being pushed by the writer. That's when I stopped and rewrote.
It was a very different process to writing a stand alone short story, for this writer. When I started 'The Coward' I was a writer who staunchly believed in writing a first draft right through before looking at any of it with a view to revision, as that's how most of my shorter pieces were approached. With some notable exceptions of course...but in the process of this work I changed completely! And, I believe, I saved myself a lot of time - but perhaps that's a different issue? Perhaps the end result would have been the same.

This pic? The stages of revision of the whole manuscript, AFTER the first draft of the novel was completed. Starting in March 2010, finishing in Oct 2010 -re-creation of one character, then plot tweaks, and the all-important structural revision, where I needed to see the whole thing in one spyglass, over and over and over. Then the revisions became smaller, then tinier, a word here a word through for sound - working towards a cleaner and cleaner product. Because that's what it became. Emotion left the room, and only the words mattered. Getting them right. The top few layers are Bloomsbury-led, tweaks and copyediting proofs. The final layer is the uncorrected proof pages recieved last week- and the uncorrected proof book itself, all ready to go out! Very exciting.
It's a salutary thing though. My manuscript was c 250 pages in length. It didn't vary much. The finished book is 380 pages - 130 pages longer - maybe due to different typeface, less lines to a page... ! Even though I feel horror at my use of precious paper in revising here -I don't know how else I might have done it - and I console myself that the pile could have been a lot higher.

Sunday 24 April 2011


I blog about putting together the acknowledgements page for The Coward's Tale, over on the other blog.

Lovely thank you pic from here

Thursday 21 April 2011


I met Tim Love, who I have 'known' for a few years as a colleague online, last week - he forewent a few days with his family at Centre Parcs to come and listen to Andre Mangeot and me reading and nattering at Cambridge Word Fest last Saturday. And I am delighted to be the subject of a rather good interview on his blog, HERE What do we natter about? Could I have done this writing stuff faster? What about teaching - does it hep or hinder? The pros and cons of writing groups. Triffic stuff.
Thank you Tim, very much,

Tuesday 19 April 2011


We’re coming towards the end of a fascinating and rewarding series of discussions on the short story, hosted by Professor Patty McNair of Columbia College Chicago. Who is ‘we?’ – Patty McNair herself, of course, together with Gerard Woodward, recently short-listed for the Sunday Times short story award, Gina Frangello, Dennis McFadden, and me. We discussed the 'why' of the short story, and the 'how', and whether short fiction was a good training ground for the novel, as many CW theorists seem to suggest.

Here is a series of links to the articles - all absolutely fascinating, from practising, well published short story writers, some of whom do a lot of teaching of this thing called writing.

HOW THE SHORT STORY?? “Do you decide to write a short story, or does a story decide to be written?”
Prof Patty McNair herself said,
“HOW the short story? WRITE the short story. Then REWRITE the short story. And WRITE it again. James Thurber said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” I’ll second that and raise him: “Don’t get it right, just get it written, and THEN get it right.” That’s HOW.”

Gerard Woodward
“Memory and extended memory offer a bewilderingly, near infinitely vast amount of potential subject matter. There can never be any excuse for not having anything to write about – writers’ block is just a kind of narcolepsy brought on by an inability to deal with the vastness of one’s extended memory, either through fatigue, lethargy or depression.”

Dennis McFadden
“Does writing a “successful” story have anything at all to do with creativity? I think not. Creativity does, however, have everything to do with how the short story... When we wonder does the author decide to write the story or does the story decide to be written, is the story willed into existence or is it a matter of spontaneous combustion, doesn’t the answer depend upon just how creative that particular author is?”

Gina Frangello
“short fiction is a trickier paradox. The writing is even more “channeled” through the writer—even more intuitive, obsessive and raw because it remains fresh, is not stretched out over years but rather over a few days or weeks—and yet because of the length the writer is permitted fewer digressions, fewer missteps, wherein every word must be crucial and resonant. This would seem hard to swing when the story is writing you! But perhaps the reverse is true. All work—novels or stories—will be revised and edited by the writer once the first draft is complete, and I’ve often found that the stories that simply pour out in one or two sittings require surprisingly less editing than those that I really pondered meticulously over a long stretch of time.”

“I write in a state of ‘knowingness’ – ‘awareness’ – but I do not plot. When I get towards the end of the first draft, I can ‘see’ the ending, with little detail.”


Patty McNair "In the early 1980s, I found this little book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I know you know it. Raymond Carver. And regardless what you think about Carver or that literary generation’s minimalism or Gordon Lish or any of these things, I am not afraid to admit that these stories opened up a world to me. They were manageable (some no longer than those tiny stories in my SRA books long ago) and moving. They were brutal and they were fearless. I didn’t know that stories could do that. I didn’t know you could tell these things, say them out loud."

Gerard Woodward
“I began to see that one couldn’t approach the short story with the same imaginative gear of a poet or novelist, you had to have the unique, special, short story head. Without this apparatus you were unable to see either the potential for short stories in the world around you, or to write them.”

Dennis McFadden
“In the end, it probably comes down to goosebumps....On the other hand, much as I enjoy novels, I don’t recall a single goosebump ever caused by one...”

Gina Frangello
“The short story is an incredibly diverse form. It combines the best of various other literary art forms.”

“Who needs mind-altering substances when you have stories? Do novels do that quite so well? Mostly, no. because the author is doing the filling of the world for you, to a large extent. They are making you live the dream they had themselves. Whereas with a good, well-written story – it plants seeds. They grow inside you.”


Patty McNair "I hate this idea. I hate the idea of making a whole class out of little, tiny stories. Of teaching students to write short. (As though people who text and tweet and blog and shorthand through most forms of communication need us to encourage them to keep it short!)
Okay, don’t get me wrong. I love the perfect short-short. Adore it. Think “Bucket Rider,” by Franz Kafka; “The Porcelain Doll,” by Leo Tolstoy; “The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin; “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway; “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid. These are stories I turn to often, stories I learn from and I use in teaching. I have my own short-short stories, too, in The Temple of Air. “The Joke.” “Deer Story.” “Hand Thing.” But you know what? I had to write hundreds of pages in order to write these two and three page stories. I had to write long long long in order to really do the short-short thing." ARTICLE HERE

Gerard Woodward
“I think it is a big mistake to think of the short story as a practice ground for the novel, a stepping stone towards the longer form. This is because the two forms tend to work along opposite lines of force to achieve their effects. The novel is all about filling big narrative spaces, while the short story is all about suggesting those spaces and using the restrictions of space and time to powerful effect.”

Dennis McFadden
“Unquestionably. Undeniably. Until the cows come home. Bear in mind, however: the novel is every bit as much a training ground for the short story."

Gina Frangello "...While much can be made and dissected of the difference between the story and the novel, the real difference here—the essential difference—has to do with what a writer wants out of his or her career vs. what the market wants. The short story can be mere “training ground” for the novel if the writer sees it that way. However, such writers should keep in mind that writing a novel is no neat guarantee of selling a book for good money at a big New York house either. Deciding to write “to the market” is a risky endeavor..." ARTICLE HERE

“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, when they finally do, I wonder if they might write a better novel than they would if they were not short story writers first.”


Saturday 16 April 2011


Today was green rooms, and seeing fleeting glimpses of faces that looked rather familiar and important - but might just have been passing traffic wardens. Today was meeting poet and short story writer Andre Mangeot with whom I was sharing an event at the Word Fest, and enjoying nattering very much both during the event, and after over lunch in the garden. Although our work is very different, we seem to be exploring similar themes. There was a good audience, lots of faces, lots of listening and lots of questions. Andre read extracts from two stories in his second book of fiction, 'True North' - a marvellous collection in which the reader is transported to many different countries as Andre explores themes of betrayal and identity and the fragility of dreams. I read 'Letters from Kilburn' from 'Storm Warning' - it seemed to go down well.

Today was saying hello in person to the 'crabbit old bat' Nicola Morgan, whose blog Help! I Need a Publisher is a must for all aspiring and not-so-aspiring writers..., and finding out that she didn't seem crabbit at all - her event preceded ours, in the Cambridge Union Dining Room - a nice sized room, with atmosphere aplenty. And today was meeting up with writer, poet and IT guru Tim Love whose Litrefs blogs and archives are a goldmine of info on all aspects of the written word as far as I can see, who came to the event and with whom I spent a happy hour on a guided tour of Cambridge after lunch. Thanks Tim! And he's already blogged about the event - see link back there!
Today was also having a guided tour of Audley End House on the way back. Altogether a good day.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

BOOK REVIEW - New Short Stories 5

New Short Stories 5 – the twelve finalists from Willesden Herald 2011.

This is a strong collection, and for anyone who wants to see what sort of stories make it to the final cut in a really worthwhile short story competition (as opposed to the other sort...) it is a necessary purchase, I’d have thought. But even if you are just in it for the read, there is something here for everyone.
This year’s final judge was Maggie Gee – she says this of the pieces she chose:
“Every human type and taste is here – sad, funny, fresh, sharp, gripping, sour and sweet – delicious small mysteries ...”

This year’s winning story, ‘Out of Season’ by Irish writer Mary O’Shea, is simply the best short story I have read in a long time. It is difficult to think of another story with such delicate tracery, exploring quite so unflinchingly a difficult subject that is mauled so often by lesser writers. That tracery may be delicate, but it is iron-wrought and beautiful in the real sense of the word. This story is at the same time poignant - achingly so, but with not one scrap of sugar or sentimentality - and absolutely uplifting. This is what short fiction is about. This is by a master of the form.

‘Apartment’ by Y J Zhu is one of two equally placed runners-up. Zhu, ‘a native of Beijing China, who now lives in San Francisco’ gives us a closely observed tale of time passing, time past, and asks the question ‘where, and what, and above all with whom, is ‘home’?’ The other is ‘Homecoming’ by Alex Barr, who now lives in west Wales. Interestingly, this is another story about belonging, or not – and asks similar questions to Zhu’s story, although the setting, Manchester, is more familiar.

The nine other stories are worthy finalists, and a strong field created by some real rising stars. In no particular order then - There is the hugely poignant ‘Gusul’ (a washing ritual, for the dead), by the Swedish-based Bosnian writer Adnan Mahmutovic - a story I know well, and find more moving each time I meet it. There is the spare and enigmatic writing of Teresa Stenson - whose previous successes include a Bridport prize - in the marvellous ‘Blue Raincoat’, the shortest story here at less than four sides, and one of the most intriguing. There is A J Ashworth’s extraordinary, exciting and memorable ‘Overnight Miracles’, a psychological drama/sci-fi mix about a woman desperate to recover what is lost. There is the harrowing but beautiful ‘The Bedroom’ by Michael Coleman, who seems to have packed a novel’s worth of experience and emotion into a few pages. And David Frankel’s ‘The Place’ with its marvellous voice and vulnerable main character, keeps on intriguing long after it is read. There is another vulnerable character in Emma Martin’s ‘Victor’ – making this reader wonder if strong beliefs make people easy targets. All these stories are thought provoking – raising questions, asking the careful reader to look again at what seems ordinary. Adrian Sells has a look at the onset of Alzheimer’s in the closely observed and sensitively written ‘Thingummy Wotsit’, and Angela Sherlock’s ‘Set Dance’ is gentle, very well observed, well voiced, and very funny, as it follows two middle-aged Irish farmer brothers to the fair, in search of women. Lastly, and not least, and at almost thirty pages, by far the longest piece of work here: ‘Dancing with the Flag Man’ by Nemone Thornes – a dark coming-of-age piece.
There is indeed something for everyone – this is a very good collection, putting many anthologies in the shade. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 12 April 2011


On the trail of cyclical events, I stumble over the four seasons. It is hard not to, especially living where I do - the seasons are defined, each has its own characteristic colours, sounds and smells.
Some people like the definite seasons – summer or winter. When you know where you are, unless nature plays its ever-increasing tricks on you. Summer is usually warm. Ish. Winter isn’t. And some, like me, prefer the in between seasons, spring and autumn. When things are more fluid, the edges are blurred, when temperatures are not so predictable but there can be pleasant surprises. And conversely...
But this is not a diatribe on the seasons, weather-wise. Not really. It is to do with cycles of creativity.
Perhaps each of our creations goes through its own cycle. Perhaps it begins in winter when there is little or no growth, when you can see nothing moving, and all seems dead. And, like winter, perhaps there is something stirring beneath the surface...
Maybe whatever it is pushes through finally in its own springtime. When it is strong enough to be considered, looked at. When it is new and fresh, and brave, and won’t leave us alone, even if we wanted it to.
Perhaps in its summer, it grows fast. Maybe its colours and scents deepen and become richer. Now is the time we know what we are doing, where it really has taken off, and follows its own paths. Maybe in the heat of its creation it grows untidily and will need pruning.
And it is in the autumn, when it is ready – after trimming, and shaping, when the fruit is ripe and ready to harvest.

And when it is, oh doesn’t the creator feel empty, and tired? And doesn’t each creation take its own time, and grow to its own rhythms?

Monday 11 April 2011


This is the final jacket for 'The Coward's Tale', thank to the genius and patience of Holly MacDonald, Assistant Art Director at Bloomsbury.
if you compare it with the version on the right, play spot the changes! The characters of the little boy (Laddy Merridew) and the old chap on the left (Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins) have been tweaked several times, until they felt right.

Friday 8 April 2011


New Short Stories 5 - the 12 finalists immortalised in print - 'Every human type and taste is here - sad, funny, fresh, sharp, gripping, sour and sweet - delicious small mysteries that suddenly reveal their secret hearts.'

Smashing event, as always, held this year at Willesden Library Centre - and even more special this year because Maggie Gee (she of the rather lovely quotes on books...) was the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition final judge. And even more special again because the line-up is truly international - look -
1st Prize:
"Out of Season" by Mary O'Shea (Ireland)

Equal runners up:
"Apartment" by Y. J. Zhu (USA/China)
"Homecoming" by Alex Barr (Wales)

For the complete list of finalists, all of whom have their work in this year's anthology - please see The Willesden Herald itself HERE-
And, if I may- it was even more special again, because Liar's League and WHSSP had teamed up. Six of the finalists had excerpts of their work read/performed.

I was there pretending to be my friend and colleague Adnan Mahmutovic, whose very moving story 'Gusul' (washing) was a finalist - but he was teaching in Stockholm, so sadly couldn't be there. Smashing to see lots of writer-type friends there, and to meet some new faces (facebook faces!) especially the uber-talented A J Ashworth, whose story excerpt, dramatised by Sarah Le Fevre, kept the room totally silent and spellbound. And even though I know Adnan's 'Gusul' well, I found the excerpt, (dramatised by Elizabeth Bower) incredibly moving.
All three of the winning stories had excerpts dramatised. So when the decisions were announced in true MG style, giving careful generous validation to each and every writer - we felt as though we knew them already - and worthy winners they are too.
Off to the pub afterwards... 'Oh alright, just the one G and T then...' and lots of natter, networking, and absorbing talk to Nick Rankin (Mr Maggie Gee) about his latest book - on the Royal Marine Commandos, due out from Faber in October. And the one before that, Churchill's Wizards, about subterfuge and camouflage in conflict... perfect. Amazon had a bashing this morning.

Thanks to all the Willesden crew, smashing event. And thanks to Lane for a rather lovely B and B experience.

Tuesday 5 April 2011


We picked up the trail of the Swansea Pals Battalion (14th Battalion, Welch Regiment) in the tiny village of Septenville - little more than three or four farms on a side road - where they were billeted on 1st July 1916. As we approached the village a male hen harrier rose from the furrows on our right, disturbed by the sound of the car. The old brick barns sat exactly as they were almost a century ago - it did not take much of a leap of the imagination to see the bricks a brighter red, the pointing clearer, and to see the battalion - the officers settling down to supper in the farmhouse, and other ranks eating supper in the farmyard- washing under the pump, arguing over the best corners in the barn. Taking the chance to write a letter home.
I spent five days in the excellent company of military historian Jeremy Banning, following the progress of the Swansea Pals Battalion through the battlefields of WWI. I wanted to literally go where they went, stand where they stood, see the roads they marched along to the front, see where they fell. From Septenville to Rubembre. From Rubembre to Herissart...Franvillers on 3rd, Heilly... Heilly was the site of a large casualty clearing station, the wounded brought from the front by train, ambulance.... And up the rise is Heilly Station cemetery. Men were dying too fast for the gravediggers to keep up. Many graves are home to three bodies. I couldn't help wondering if the Pals saw, heard, smelled the chaos.
       There was no rest for the Pals at Heilly. Orders came that the 38th Div would relieve the 7th, and on they went to Fricourt. The Citadel. 5th July, 6th July. On the 7th July they were in the support trenches here, the final training - and suffered the loss of four officers, accidentally wounded whilst practising the throwing of percussion bombs. I wonder if they also knew that those in charge higher up had been sent home, following the failure of the first wave of attacks here?
Their objective, and ours, was this irregular patch of woodland, this nearest section called the Hammerhead, and the stretch running away to the left. It was attacked by the Welsh over 7th to 12th July 1916 - but the attacks before the Pals got there had not been a success.
       Jeremy and I stood on the ridge at Danzig Alley Cemetery, looking down on the village of Mametz, and the wood that bears the same name, over to our right in the gloaming. It was cold. The Swansea lads moved up to the front line, White Trench, on 8th July 1916. The attack was planned for the following day, as we ourselves would visit tomorrow. In the end, the attack was delayed by twenty four hours, and I can imagine the tension, as those who chanced a glimpse of the terrain looked across open ground to where it slipped away in a thirty foot 'cliff', down to the open wide space (now a series of open fields) they would have to cross to the trees, where the enemy was waiting.
       This is from Wikipedia - inaccurate I think, plus ca change - I believe the fighting concentrated actually in the wood itself, but you get the idea:
The 10 July attack was on a larger scale than had been attempted earlier. Despite heavy casualties the fringe of the wood was soon reached and some bayonet fighting took place before the wood was entered and a number of German machine guns silenced. Fighting in the wood was fierce with the Germans giving ground stubbornly.
The 14th Welsh (Swansea) Battalion went into the attack with 676 men and after a day of hard fighting had lost almost 400 men killed or wounded before being relieved
Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams*

Today, the wood is privately owned, and there are man-traps deployed as it is used for hunting. We weren't meant to be there, and I was apprehensive - appropriately. We slipped and half-fell down the 30 ft 'cliff' from White Trench to the field, and after a few moments consolidation, walked fast straight ahead, taking care not to step on the crop. Reaching the edge of the wood, we did not go too far in.
      There are many hundreds of bodies still in Mametz Wood, in two mass graves, according to those who know. Their names are on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
       This is from an account from Pte Sweeney, 1st Lincolnshire Regt.
"In Mametz Wood there are not hundreds of dead, but I should say thousands as it is very big. When we started attacking this wood the trees were so close as they possibly could be but you should see it now, you can see straight through it quite clearly."

Mametz Wood today. The firing pits and rough trenches can still be seen.
Over the five days, we stood in many cemeteries now tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, marvelling at their beauty, their peace. The endless stories, if you listen to the breeze in the willows, the names, dates, inscriptions. The brilliant white of endless headstones against the green of the turf - the flowers from our little islands. Aubretia, tulips, Christmas Roses, Daffodils. But no cemetery was as beautiful as Mametz Wood with its wood anemones and early bluebells. And, where German machine-gunners and snipers had hung from their ropes high in the trees, where the Pals got caught in a bombardment by our own artillery, and where there was carnage - the low mist lifted to show a sky reaching almost to the ground, glimpsed between new trees where the wood was narrowest, several generations on from their splintered ancestors, growing up from a carpet of stars.

One of the bodies never found is that of the young runner, Watcyn Griffith, Private 26402 17th Bn., Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was the younger brother of Wyn Griffith who wrote ' Up To Mametz Wood'. We went to find his name, at Thiepval. And we did. But he's there in the wood somewhere, with many of my Swansea Pals, who over the five days of my visit, I came to think of as 'my boys'. Is that daft? I doubt it. Most of them were younger than my own sons -and it felt good to be with them for a while.

*Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams is the property of Swansea University.