Monday 30 December 2013

Looking back over 2013

I started to study writing (but not actually doing it) in October 2002. I only started writing writing when I joined a hardworking online writing group in November 2003. Writing is writing, to me. See? Good. 

So. To 2013. Books first. 
One of the joys of working with an indie press is that you can say, ‘Hey, this text book has been out for a few years - I’d like to update, refresh, add some new chapters by fab writers, maybe do a little pruning?’ and they say, ‘Good idea - do it.’
The result is  the terrific second edition of Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Eight new chapters, new intro, sharper all round, I think - although the first edition was pretty good anyway. It’s been a huge privilege to be able to put together the text book I’d have liked when I started this writing lark myself, so thank you Salt Publishing.

So. That was book number five. A recap? Ok. 

1. ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (short stories, published 2008 by Salt), 
2. ‘Short Circuit first edition (2009), 
3. ‘Storm Warning’ (short stories on the theme of conflict, published 2010 by Salt),
4. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ (novel, published in UK in 2011 by Bloomsbury)
4.5 'The Coward’s Tale’ published in USA 2012
5.  'Short Circuit’ second edition (2013)

and book number 6 crept into 2013 as well, allowing me to say I have almost managed a book a year since 2008 as the US version of TCT doesn’t really count.  

6. My debut poetry publication, ‘The Half Life of Fathers’ was published by Pighog Press in November and launched in Brighton. Again, a joy of working with an indie - I was at Gladstone’s Library in September, there was a literary fest, I was reading, and Pighog kindly produced some advance copies. Thank you Pighog. 

It’s a game, all this - a serious one, but a game still. The writing world is full of ‘you must do this, must do that’, and in the end you could spend your days dancing to everyone’s tune but your own. I’m certainly not playing anyone else’s game these days, just mine.
Little Owl, illustration by Lynn Roberts - from 'Ed's Wife and Other Creatures' 

So. Book number 7, and the one I have had more fun writing than any other, is now with my agent. This is the collection of tiny fictions called ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’, beautifully and cleverly illustrated by artist and poet Lynn Roberts. Lynn’s own collection of poems inspired by paintings in The National Gallery is due out in April, and I am hugely grateful to her for going with the flow when I changed the goalposts from ‘about ten’ illustrations to ‘oh they are so good, can each story have a drawing?’ when there are almost seventy stories.  Thank to Lynn!

Anthology publications this year include a story in the lovely Red Room, published by Unthank and aimed at raising funds for the Bronte Birthplace Trust - and a lovely trip to Manchester to read at The Portico Library, staying with Elizabeth Baines. Then there is ‘The Irreal Reader’ a compilation of the editor’s picks from The Cafe Irreal, one of my favourite online journals, together with academic essays on irrealism. 
Theology Room, Gladstone's Library
Going places thanks to writing - I look back with huge pleasure over a NAWE conference at York, two (two!) stays at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat early in the year, during which I was able to focus hard on the two separate strands of the next novel, ‘Kit’. I then put the novel away, letting it stew, until a glorious month at Gladstone’s Library in September, during which I was able to focus on getting a wobbly draft together, with invaluable input from both my agent (thanks Euan Thorneycroft) and military historian Jeremy Banning. Thank you to both. 
Part of The Western Front, at July 1916

Mr Banning led an unforgettable trip to France for what is becoming an annual event - the Writers Pals visit to the WW1 battlefields. This year, readings of poetry by the grave of Isaac Rosenberg, readings in  a sodden Strip Trench at Mametz Wood from 'In Parenthesis' by David Jones, and a walk with poet and friend Caroline Davies from the Citadel at Fricourt down to the Hammerhead were real highlights. As was the group writing every evening by the fire at Chevasse Ferme. Next year’s trip is already planned, and full. Can’t wait! Thanks to all the Writers’ Pals, including Tania Hershman, Sarah Salway and Zoe King. 

A bit of judging, notably the Gladstones Library Flash competition, a panel effort,  with the editors of Flash Magazine (Uni of Chester), was lovely. And a bit of supporting The Bristol Short Story Prize, giving out the prizes and giving a short address - wonderful. Bristol was also the venue for a George Saunders event, during which he was interviewed by Nikesh Shukla, back in May. 

Teaching always takes a place at the table. Workshops have been great, giving the odd talk also great, especially to writing students at Lancaster and Brighton Universities- but the best thing this year has been mentoring. This was a  professional working relationship brokered by New Writing South, and it was a huge privilege to mentor a terrific writer for nine months, a novelist who wanted to pull together a collection of short stories. Tick! 

A good year - now on to 2014. What am I most looking forward to? Finishing ‘Kit’ and thus getting the renowned ‘dreadful second novel’ everyone waits for, out of the way. Having 'nothing' on my plate for a while while I think about what I really want to do next, creatively. Readings and other events already organised include Oxted Literary Festival in February, another exciting gig in London in March. A ten day novel-finishing (please!) retreat at the unparalleled Gladstone’s Library also in February, and poetry poetry - I’m exploring being mentored, myself - very exciting. Definitely off to Ireland in October for a week’s poetry at Anam Cara. A weekend at Cambridge with SWWJ in April, also judging a competition for them, on the theme of war, off to the brilliant International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna in July, and judging a short fiction competition for Cinnamon Press later in the summer- I will be busy. 

I wish everyone who reads this a very Happy New Year. Lets hope it brings fresh ideas, the calm to explore them, a few exciting storm clouds punctuated by flashes of brilliance. 

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Jo Derrick - and Twisted Sheets

I am really delighted to welcome Jo Derrick to the blog today, for a natter. Delighted for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which that she was the first editor to take a punt on a new writer, and give her her first ever publications in print, in the sadly no more QWF - Quality Women's Fiction. Those first steps are so important - they can make or break, and I have a lot to thank her for, boosting my confidence when it was really needed. 

Jo has won many many prizes for her own short fictions. She has just published them as an e book, Twisted Sheets, and you can find a link to purchase the e book at the end of our natter! But first, I was thrilled to have a conversation via email. And to be able to persuade her to let me share one of her flash fictions with you. So - read on, then enjoy a taste of her writing!

You were the first to publish me in print, Jo, in QWF - always hugely grateful for that. You started Cadenza, and now you are running another small mag, Yellow Room. Why do you do it, with no funding, isnt it stressy? 

I remember publishing your stories in QWF so well, Vanessa. They really made me sit up and take notice! Running a literary magazine like The Yellow Room is stressy! It's so much more difficult these days when you're in competition with e-zines, online mags and websites featuring short fiction. Not many people can be bothered to order and pay for a print magazines, so that it's very difficult attracting new subscribers. Print and postage costs have risen hugely in the past few years, and it's almost impossible to break even financially. If it wasn't for the competitions I run twice a year, then The Yellow Room would have gone under months ago. My aim was to publish two print magazines per year, but I have only managed one per year for the past two years simply due to cash flow problems. I've also noticed I'm sent far fewer submissions than in the past and now I'm almost exclusively publishing the competition winners and shortlisted stories, so the magazine is evolving into a competition anthology. I'm hoping to get someone else on board so that I can focus more on my own writing in the future.

What do you look for in a submission, or a competition entry? What is it makes you sit up and get a bit excited about a piece of work?
Originality - not necessarily originality of theme, but there has to be something about the quality of the writing that stands out. It's a bit like the dreaded 'X Factor' in that you recognise star quality when you see it. Use of language is very important to me - far more important than plot, for example. I also favour character-led stories. I know from reading the title and the first paragraph of a story whether it's going to be something I like. Quirkiness. Something different. A story has to resonate and speak to me. It has to tug on my emotions. 

Your new collection, tell us about that.
I like to think the stories have an edge to them. Some are erotic, others are verging on crime stories. I like writing from a male viewpoint and often from a child's viewpoint. Sex, death and rock n' roll feature quite regularly! My characters are often outsiders whose lives are blighted by tragedy. However, there is very little sentimentality. My writing  has been described as 'full of sensitivity'; 'constantly intriguing'; 'clever and poignant'. The stories in the collection have all either been published, shortlisted in competitions or have won prizes. Actually, I think there are a couple of exceptions. I put the collection together a year or so ago and entered in The Scott Prize. I didn't get anywhere, but, undaunted, I sent it to The Cinnamon Press who were looking for nine new collections of poetry and prose for their 2014 list. Unfortunately, I didn't make the final nine, but I received a lovely email to say they'd had over 2,000 submissions and mine got very close to being accepted. This gave me faith in the collection, but I didn't know where else to send it. I understand that publishers aren't keen on short story collections (Salt is probably an exception) and agents are only interested in 'the novel'. I was persuaded by members of my local RNA Chapter to publish an e-book, as it's so much easier to do all the formatting etc than it used to be.

Its a collection of prizewinners - can you list them?? 
There are too many to list here, but I can mention a few. The most recent prizewinner is Colours Fade to Black and White, which came 2nd in the 2013 Greenacre Writers Competition judged by Alex Wheatle. Three of the stories, The Black Queen, Smile For The Camera and Black Jacks and Sparrows did well in The Whittaker Prize 2012 and I came Joint 2nd overall (there are 6 Rounds in total). The Cleansing won book prizes in Alex Keegan's From the Ashes Competition way back in 2000. Four stories, The Fledgling, Skin and Bone, Alopecia and A Stray Dog and Surfer Boy all won 1st Prize in the Live Write Invite competitions and other stories in the collection came 2nd or 3rd. Camels in A Field won the 4th Round of The Word Hut Competition last year and Thomas Stofer, a literary agent at LBA, got in touch on the strength of that saying he'd like to read my novel. Getting Off Her Chest was Highly Commended in The Wells Literary Competition and was also longlisted in The Fish Prize. At the beginning of the collection, I have listed all the details of publications and prizes.

why did you decide to self publish as an e book?
I touched on this above. I didn't see the point of the collection sitting languishing in a folder on my computer, when it could be being read and possibly earning me a few pennies! It was a spur of the moment decision to publish it via KDP after I'd had a couple of sloe gins on Thursday! It was amazingly easy to publish, as I'd previously proofread the collection and it was the best I could make it.  I was astonished when it appeared on amazon for sale within a couple of hours! I had a wonderful virtual launch party on Facebook on Friday night and I'd sold a lot of copies by the end of it. The collection reached the dizzy heights of #19 in the Bestselling Paid Short Story Kindle Chart by midnight on Friday. I guess I e-published, as I wanted a bit of exposure and wanted to take my writing to the next level. It would be wonderful if a publisher took an interest in the collection and published it in print form. 

What next?
I'm already planning another short story collection. Although I've written a novel (and I'm now working on a new draft), it's not quite ready for submission to agents and I continue to write short stories, as that's what I love writing most! I'm still entering competitions and hope I'll have many more prizewinning stories for readers who enjoyed Twisted Sheets.
Thank you so much for chatting to me, Vanessa and for having me as a guest on your blog!
Jo x x x 

My pleasure!

Jo's collection of prizewinners, Twisted Sheets,  can be bought from Amazon,  here:

Follow her on Twitter @yellowjo

and a treat: with Jo's permission here is one of her flash fictions, Sounds of Darkness - First published on Flash Flood Friday , 12th October 2012 


Until my last wife, I was happy.
Until my last wife I drank four pints of Adnam’s ale every night in The Old Ship Inn. I’d then amble out into the night and watch the pewter-coloured sea roll and heave like an old drunk.
“Lean into me, old friend. We can beat the wind,” I say to Arthur, who has been in the pub since five. 
The beach has virtually disappeared and what’s left of it is uninviting; too wet, too grey, too slippery.
The old and the ancient emerge from the dusk. The Victorian hotels frown down upon the beach like proud patricians.
We light a fire on the beach. When it dies and night sweeps over us, we move on, staggering like old tramps towards the town. 
“Listen!” says Arthur and stops us both dead in our tracks. “Hear that? That, my boy, is the sound of darkness going.”
I nod sagely. “Yeah, man. Darkness. Always goes eventually,” I say weaving my way along the main road.
“Fancy a last one in The Dungeness?” Arthur asks, fishing in his pockets for the last of his cash.
I grin. “Sure thing.”
We approach the bar. The landlady gives us a look that could kill. She’s about to call last orders. 
“What’s it to be?”
We order whiskies and carry them to a table near the window and sit in silence before knocking them back in one hit.
Each summer, every summer, last summer. It’s the same routine.
We go back to Arthur’s flat. It’s not sex, nor love, although body fluids are involved. It satisfies. It’s good. 
Later, much later, I stagger out into the dawn, before the beach tractors trundle down the sand ready for the day’s work.

One man sings, another man cries.