Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sublime Screenplay - "Homeland"

Chris and I have been "Homeland" fans since the first twisty tense episodes were aired in the UK in 2012. The fourth series has just drawn to a close and it's given me much food for thought. So I've taken some time to reflect what it is about this show that I love so much..

The first series of "Homeland" is undoubtedly the best. It towers above similar TV programmes due to two particular features. Firstly, there is the compelling relationship between CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) and Sergeant Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) a marine rescued in Iraq after 8 years incarceration. Carrie's belief that Brody has been turned whilst a prisoner, is the driving force of the story, and is beautifully played by both leads, with the writers stringing out  "is he/isn't he?" for the majority of the series. The tension is compounded by the fact that Carrie is (as her mentor Saul puts it in series 2) "the smartest and the dumbest fucking person" around. She is great at gathering intelligence, building assets and working out what's happening but has a tendency to recklessness that constantly undermines her good efforts. She is also bipolar. Whilst this doesn't stop her from doing a good job, the fact she is hiding from her superiors puts her under  the constant fear of discovery. And her decision to stop taking her meds to clarify her thought processes leads to increasing erratic behaviour. Brody, on the other hand, is shown to be traumatised by his experiences, and has a violent streak, which may or may not have been the result of his imprisonment and torture. Whilst he loves his family, particularly his daughter Dana, he struggles to reconnect with them. And though initially he appears to be telling the truth, we gradually discover there are things about his imprisonment that he is hiding, including the fact he has converted to Islam. All of which makes us root for both of them, whilst simultaneously asking can either be trusted?

The second aspect of "Homeland" that sets it apart is the refusal to simplify the issues it addresses. The show purports to portray a group of patriotic Americans trying to protect their homeland from the evil of terrorism but it rarely sticks to the narrative of Americans good, Islamic terrorists bad.  When we first hear about the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir he appears to be a bogeyman much like Osama Bin Laden.  Yet as the story progresses, we begin to see snatches of the human being behind the atrocities, to understand his world view and what motivates him. We see the impact of some of his heinous acts alongside US drone strikes and botched FBI raids on mosques that make us question the behaviour of both sides. Which is to be welcomed on a mainstream US TV show. It's not a perfect critique, as too often there is an emphasis that American lives are more important than any others, nonetheless we are allowed to see that the "war on terror" leads to all parties making dubious moral choices.

By the time series 1 has finished (in a breathlessly thrilling finale, that had me gasping with relief at advert breaks) some things are resolved between Brody and Carrie, but much is not. Thus the second series is able to develop their relationship further, whilst exploring some key "Homeland" themes - loyalty, betrayal, self-interest, trust - and involve others in the story. We see more of Saul (Mandy Pantinkin), Carrie's mentor; Estes (David Harewood), her boss and former lover; and are introduced to Quinn (Rupert Friend), another CIA analyst with a dark side, as they try to establish what Abu Nazir's next move might be. Unfortunately we also see way too much of Brody's family, who are less interesting (except for his daughter Dana, played by Morgan Saylor). Whilst this series lacks some of the tension of the first season, Carrie's erratic behaviour grates a bit, and there's a very irritating "Carrie-in-peril" section, there is a lot they get right. Violent interrogation scenes and windowless prisons feature prominently, more often in America, than in the middle East  throwing into question America's right to consider itself superior to its enemies. Characters are presented with impossible choices, make decisions with unforeseen consequences, and the narrative twists are often dizzying. The final episode appears to be setting us up for a somewhat improbable happy ending, before pulling the rug from under us with a devastating explosion which calls loyalties into question once more.

Series 3 was bound to disappoint after that. And though it's not terrible, it doesn't really reach the heights of the first two. The best bits are early on. Carrie suffers a terrible betrayal, and she and Brody end up in  hellish situations bringing us back to the theme of what captivity does to a person. There's a phenomenal twist a third of the way through, that changes everything, and Quinn is forced to face up to the amorality of his job when a hit goes spectacularly wrong. Saul meanwhile is facing down political machinations as he tries to stay in position as temporary CIA head, whilst discovering who planted the series 2 bomb. And we have several new "bad" guys to watch out for - the Machiavellian Senator Lockhart, Dar Nadal, the shadowy CIA man in charge of "black" ops, and the Iranian Javadi who replaces Abu Nazir as the CIA's target. All of which is good, as are some of the moral dilemmas we witness. There is one situation in particular that really forces you to question what kind of mission is so important that an individual can get away with a horribly violent murder?  But for a lot of the time it gets bogged down with long subplots involving Dana Brody (it is important we some of her reaction to events of the previous series, but we get far far too much of her). And there's also too much emphasis on Carrie/Brody being in love, which I never really bought and which makes Carrie more erratic and less sympathetic. Thankfully that relationship concludes in the finale, leaving us with the intriguing prospect of a Brodyless "Homeland" for series 4.

I'm pleased to say that the latest series, which has just concluded, was absolutely back on form. Whilst I don't think it can ever get back to the brilliance of the first season this was pretty darned close. Without Brody there's room for Carrie's relationships with Saul and Quinn to develop, and moving the action to Pakistan was a wise decision. Not only does it change the level of jeopardy for everyone, but it really opens up what the show is about.  Post series 3, Carrie has been appointed to be station chief in Afghanistan, where she leaves a hermetically sealed existence in a safe American compound, whilst authorising drone strikes against people on the "kill" list.  Previous events have clearly traumatised her. She is not the emotionally volatile Carrie we've known to date, and seems able to make coldblooded decisions without remorse. She's become so "good" at it that her team call her the "Drone Queen". Even when a drone strike hits a wedding killing several civilians, she seems more intent on finding out what went wrong with the intelligence, than worrying about the victims. It is only Quinn, who knows from personal experience what professional extrajudicial killing does to a person,  who is prepared to challenge her, though she is having none of it.

From this beginning, we follow Carrie, Quinn and Saul as they are sucked into Pakistani politics and find themselves up against not only the terrorists but their supposed allies, the Pakistani secret service, ISI. Apparently Pakistan has complained about this storyline as they feel it unfair in the light of their support for the war on terror. I can understand that, but I do wonder if there aren't some in Pakistan who might feel as these characters do, that the alliance with America has done them more harm than good. And fictionally it makes for an intriguing set up. As Carrie sets up a team to find out what really happened and to hunt down the new "enemy" the Taliban leader Haqqani, we simultaneously see the ISI operatives setting up a counter operation against the CIA, targeting Carrie and Saul along the way. Tasneem (Nimrat Kaur) Carrie's counterpart is shown as an effective agent, working through the weak husband (Mark Moses) of the American Ambassador (Laila Robins).Whilst for a long time we can't work out whether her colleague Aasar Khan (Raza Jaffrey) is to be trusted he emerges as an important figure for Carrie.

Being in Pakistan, we also get much closer to Haqqani then we did to Abu Nasir and Javadi, which allows us to see him in a more sympathetic light at times. We understand he too is working for his "Homeland" (Afghanistan), and we are provided with evidence that the more "bad" guys the US kill, the more enemies they create. Meanwhile, the old familiar themes of self interest, loyalty, betrayal and who you can trust, are played out in different ways with terrible consequences for everyone. The tension builds episode by episode, pushing Carrie, Quinn and Saul to the absolute limit, and testing Carrie and Saul's friendship more than it's ever been tested before. By the time we reach the shocking 10th episode "13 Hours in Islamabad", everyone has been forced to question their actions with Carrie concluding bleakly "We lost". And what's true in the fictional world - Carrie and her colleagues are totally outplayed, America seems redundant in the region, and the Taliban is on the ascendant - also is a reasonable reflection of reality. Just as the series aired,  the US and UK are leaving Afghanistan,  in a much worse state then the entered it in 2001, with very few of the military goals achieved. Given how the media have celebrated the war on terror, it is refreshing to see a mainstream TV show demonstrate how badly the mission has failed. (As a side note, I was also pleased to see this series that the fact Carrie is bipolar is incidental. She is clearly able to hold down an important job which she does well, and it is only when she is given the wrong medication that there is a problem. And that's simply a case of her enemies play her weakness well, which even she admits is what she'd have done too).

The second half of the series is full of thrills, action and violence, so it is a surprise when the finale returns us to the quiet of Washington. This decision has clearly divided the audience, many of whom felt the season came to an end with a whimper. I can understand that. Knowing how often "Homeland" has pulled a dramatic twist out of the closing seconds, I was waiting the whole episode for something horrible to happen. However, the fact that it didn't, doesn't undermine that episode for me. After weeks spent with the characters in danger, and with the knowledge that it all went so horribly wrong, there is something surreal about watching them back home, safe in domestic settings. For me, this is a nice nod to the first series when Brody returns from horror to ordinary life again, and wonders if anything can be normal again.  And it also allows us to take a moment to ask, what was all that violence for? What did it actually achieve? As all the characters reflect on that they are all given the chance to walk away, to take up that ordinary life and leave the horrors to other people. And yet, it is clear from the closing scenes, that none of them can. Whether because of failed relationships, misguided loyalty, self interest, or a desire to "put it right", they are all wedded to the fortunes of the morally ambiguous CIA. Even though they know that means they'll end up doing bad things for good reasons time and time again and make appalling compromises for the sake of the bigger picture, the Agency (much like the Mafia members in The Sopranos or the gangs in The Wire) is the family they can never escape.

"Homeland" can be a hard watch. It takes great delight in building up tension, relieving it, then throwing in something even worse. The violence is uncompromising when it happens, and often makes me flinch. But what makes the show so absorbing is that the story is peopled by such real flawed characters, whose are actions may come from good intent but are just as likely to have mixed motives. I love Carrie, as a strong intelligent woman in a man's world, who likes to think she is doing the right thing. Yet she can be manipulative, selfish, hard hearted, and some of her actions in this series are beyond defensible. Quinn's regrets at his past behaviour have often set him up as the moral hero this season - he has shown compassion and sensitivity and regret for previous actions and frequently suggested he wants out. Then, just as we are thinking what a good guy he is, we notice his instruments for torture laid out ready as he prepares to interrogate a subject. I'm glad we didn't get to see him use them, (particularly in the week when the revelations of US torture were hitting the headlines), yet it was important to show what he is capable of. Carrie, Quinn and Saul are basically decent people who joined the CIA to keep their country safe. Yet they are just as happy to resort to torture or killing innocent people to achieve their aims.  How does that make them any different from Abu Nasir, Javadi or Haqqani? In fact, Carrie's orders to kill are done with just as much a cold hearted calculation as Haqqani's brutal stabbings. Which demonstrates for me how morally confused America has become in the last 14 years.

David Nevin (chief of Showtime the company that broadcasts "Homeland") says the show tries to demonstrate  "how difficult America's position in the world is in the 21st century" illustrating the "complexity of the U.S. position in the Muslim world."  Though at times "Homeland" can be improbable, cartoonish and meandering, and can sometimes fall into the trap of justifying American violence, when it focusses on this aim, through its challenging stories and complex characters, it absolutely fulfils that brief. Which is why I've been watching all this time, and can't wait to see what happens next.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Nanowrimo - one year later

This time last year, I had just completed "Echo Hall" and was beginning the long (and ongoing) slog of looking for an agent. I knew I needed to get on with my next novel, so I decided to sign up for Nanowrimo as a way to get going. Having spent ten years writing "Echo Hall" and knowing my average monthly word count was usually around the 2-3,000 mark, I had no expectation that I might actually achieve the target.  But, I reasoned, if I managed 20,000 words, that would be a very good start.

Much to my surprise, I found myself completely focussed on the 1,700 word/day limit, and completed the required 50K with a couple of days to spare. I really enjoyed myself too. Just throwing words on the page without thinking about them, I freewheeled through to complete a piece of work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end. Inevitably, when I re-read it, I found the majority of those 50,000 words were pretty rubbish with most characters needing further fleshing out. The pacing was completely off and (partly due to the nature of the situation they are in) there were  far too many stultifying scenes of  people sitting by a campfire uttering banalities. I might have won the Nanowrimo prize and written the skeleton of a novel, but clearly, it would need revising.

I deliberately left it alone for a few months, to let my characters start talking to me and explain themselves a bit better. However, the beginning of the year was a difficult time, and it was only in the summer that I felt able to pick it up again. Which initially sent me into a panic. Having decided I had 9 characters who were going to tell this story, I  suddenly saw two other ways I could do it, which would lead to a cast of thousands. I spent a fortnight wondering whether my original idea was strong enough, until I recognised I was procrastinating. I decided to stick to my plan, as my first instincts were good ones, but I soon discovered that the individual arcs were a total mess. Some people had lots happening at the beginning only for their stories to peter out, some had back stories emerging too late only to be resolved in the last few pages. The interconnections between the sections were also muddled and the time line was all over the place. Something had to be done.

So I decided to sort out each individual journey first. There are five parts to the novel, with each character having a chapter/part. I spent a couple of days copying them into another document, to enable me to look at each of them separately. After that, it was time to tackle them one by one. Which has been agonisingly slow so far. Since September, I've been working on the first which and I only completed  last weekend. It seemed to take weeks to edit a couple of pages, as I reworked paragraphs and sentences, over and over again. Then, just as I was coming to the end, I worked out something about the character's past that is pretty crucial to understanding who she is.It makes her much more morally ambiguous, which doesn't quite fit yet with where she ends up, so there's more to do. However, I think I need to look at the other characters now, and save any more changes for the next edit.

It occurred to me that one of the reasons I've been working so slowly, is that I haven't taken time out to plan properly. So this morning, I got plotting...

I still have some gaps, but it was helpful to lay the stories out side by side and start seeing connections between them. I need to add in a time line, particularly taking notice of the tides (the sea is very important in this book). But, I have a draft schematic, which hopefully will get me to the end of this edit...

I'm still not sure on quite a few things. At the moment, all the characters are written in different tenses and persons to distinguish their voices. I have a feeling that's messy and may need addressing. I also have a couple of characters who I absolutely love, but maybe two too many for this book. To cull or not to cull will be a question that will dominate the next few months. And of course, if I do, there'll be some major rewrites to excise them from the text. But it's a start, and one that makes me believe I'm getting somewhere, rather than faffing around in the dark.

Though I absolutely loved doing Nanowrimo last year I won't be joining in next week. I have so much to do on "The Wave", that I can't be  distracted from that goal at the moment. Knowing how long it took me to write "Echo Hall", I won't be making any plans to join Nanowrimo any time soon, but if you're doing it this year I wish you well.

May the words flow freely
May the characters develop before your eyes
May you reach your 50,000 word goal.
And then...let the edits begin.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Keeping Crispin at bay

A new David Mitchell book is always a treat, but one of the particular joys of  the recent "The Bone Clocks" was to be introduced to the character Crispin Hershey. Hershey, a novelist with his greatest successes behind him, is the narrator of the fourth segment of the book, as we follow him from one literary festival to the next. Each experience is more excruciating than the last, as Hershey is forced to continually face the fact his star has fallen. There are better novelists  and more successful writers on the circuit, and they are usually nicer human beings to boot. His self-pity, rage at the critics who he thinks are spiking his career, jealousy of other's success, inability to see his own inadequacies, make for an absorbing study of the worst attributes that exist within every writer. Which made Mitchell's admission at the talk he recently gave in Oxford, that he based Hershey on himself,  both very funny and also rather encouraging.

You see, I have my own internal Crispin, who sits inside me spewing bile most days, even when things are going well. This year, I had my first proper success as a writer. I achieved publication when Gumbo Press published my collection "Rapture and what comes after".  I was and am very excited that my name is finally in print, that people are reading my stories and seem to be enjoying them. But it's not enough. Like Hershey I want more. Because before I wrote a line of "Rapture, I'd been working on my novel "Echo Hall,  a book which took me ten years to complete. And what I want more than anything is for that book to get published. To do that, I need an agent, and despite my best efforts, and some lovely, kind and helpful rejections, I am still to find one. So every time, I read how an unknown author has secured a 6 figure deal, or someone on social media has found an agent at the second time of trying, I have to fight the urge to scream out on twitter, "That's not fair - it's MY turn". Every time a book is published and I read it and find it is every bit as good as the publishers and the agents and the reviewers all said,  I have to stop myself from writing a snarky review that will expose the tiny little frailties round the edges of an otherwise perfect piece of literature. When Crispin is in control, my thought processes are less than edifying.

So I have to work hard to keep Crispin from taking over my life. I have to keep reminding  myself that publishing is a competitive business, and setbacks are a necessary part of the experience. I have to remember  that everyone I have encountered on my journey so far - agents, editors, writers, have been absolutely lovely.  It's not their fault it hasn't happened for me yet. I may have written a book that I love and believe in, but that's no guarantee that I'll find someone who loves it enough, to take a risk on me, and that's how it goes. I have to keep my spirits up with the thought that just  because I haven't found my agent yet, doesn't mean I won't one day.  And in the meantime, I have to keep plugging away at it, taking inspiration from people I know who have achieved success.

I've been thinking about that a lot today because two of my favourite  writing people have had a very good week.. My twin sister Julia William's latest novel "Coming Home for Christmas" has been topping the popular women's fiction charts on Kindle, and also made it into the overall top 100. My friend Anne Booth, meanwhile, has just heard her debut children's novel "Girl With a White Dog" has been nominated for the Carnegie Award. I couldn't be more delighted for them. It's not just that they write great books, work hard and are wonderful people who prop me up on a regular basis. I can be excited because I know it didn't come easily for either of them.

Julia started writing in 1998, when her second daughter was born. She wrote a couple of great children's books which I loved but went nowhere. She acquired an agent, and turned to adult novels. The first was rejected everywhere,, but the second nearly clinched a deal until a book with a similar idea pipped her to the post. It wasn't till 2008 that she finally bagged a publisher, but even then it wasn't all plain sailing. Her first novel did well for a debut, but her second suffered when Woolies went under and half the stock got stuck in warehouses unable to be sold. It took another couple of books for her to  re-establish herself, and even then it has taken seven novels for her to really take off.

Anne had an even rougher ride. She wrote a novel for adults which I thought was great and generated a lot of interest, eventually landing her an agent. We thought everything would go smoothly from there, but for some reason, it all unravelled. She revised and revised the novel, and yet it didn't seem to help and something clearly wasn't working between her and the agent. They parted company a year later, leaving Anne feeling pretty dispirited. But she kept on writing, experimenting with picture book ideas, took an Arvon course in children's fiction and launched herself into a novel about animals in Nazi Germany. I thought it was terrific, but yet again, it did not quite work for the industry. She didn't let that stop her,  rewrote it completely, and  "Girl With a White Dog" was born. Then for as long as it had been going wrong, it quickly started going right. Just after Anne got a couple of picture book deals with Nosy Crow, she found an agent, who eventually landed her a deal for her novel. And ever since she has gone from strength to strength.

I know I can't get rid of Crispin - he's probably there in every writer - but I certainly can keep him at bay. All I need to do, is think of Julia and Anne. All I have to do is remember where they started, the disappointments they had to go through, and where they are now. And remembering that means  I can pick myself up from each rejection, know when it's time to move on from the project that is going nowhere, and make sure I am always creating something new. It's not easy, but as I am constantly telling my kids, life often isn't. And one of these days - when the book I write is good enough, when I catch the right agent at the right moment, when my idea is just what a publisher is looking for - one of these days, that screech of excitement on social media will be coming from me.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Holiday Reads

Just before I went on holiday I posted a picture of my "Books are My Bag" bag crammed filled with books on Facebook. It got a lot of "likes" and a request for recommended reads. So I thought I'd nick the format of Nick Hornby's wonderful book about reading - "The Polysyllabic Spree", and tell you what I brought, read and thought...

What I brought

As usual I was completely over-ambitious and brought far too many books with me. But that's OK, because I always find myself quite contrary on holiday, and sometimes need several attempts before I get the book that totally absorbs me...But anyway  for the record, this was what was in the bag:

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt (which I'd been reading for 6 weeks and was about 100 pages in)
"The Whistling Season" by Ivan Doig  (birthday present from my dear friend Oli, which I'd started)
"Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann(ditto)
"The End of your Life Book Club." by Will Schwalbe (unbirthday present from same friend)
"Leaping"by Brian Doyle (ditto - very generous friend!)
"The Short Stories" Jane Gardam (birthday present from my lovely Chris.)
"Bleeding Kansas" by Sara Paretsky (which I'd picked up in Albion Beatnik, thinking it was a VI Warshawski book & bought because it intrigued).
"The Master and Margarita" Mikhail  Bulgakov (which I started years ago, put down and then lost, so bought at AB)
"Jezebel" by Irene Nemirovsky (bought at AB because I loved Suite Francaise and wanted to try out some more.

What I read.

"The Goldfinch", "The End of Your Life Book Club", "Jezebel". Plus one of Chris' books, "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace, and two Agatha Christie's that Beth picked up, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced". Also "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene which I found in a second hand bookshop in Laugharne.

What I partially read.

Got halfway through, "The Master and Margarita", three stories of the Jane Gardam collection, made a start on "Bleeding Kansas" and "Let the Great World Spin". I didn't start the others. (You see...over-ambitious) Oh and most of Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" which Chris picked up (somewhat surprisingly) at a car boot sale

What I thought.

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt. Ah, "The Goldfinch", I so wanted to love "The Goldfinch" as much as I loved "The Secret History". Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer and seems to be a great human being. But, I just couldn't love this book. It starts off so well too, with Tartt's protagonist, Theo, holed up in a room in Amsterdam, hiding from the police, possibly having committed a serious crime. We then flashback to his adolescence, to the shocking death of his mother (the only person who truly loved him) in an explosion at an art gallery. Theo survives but witnesses the death of an old man, who asks him to take a picture ("The Goldfinch" of the title) - perhaps out of confusion, or to protect it from further harm.  So far, so absolutely wonderful, but after that, for me it went downhill. The grieving Theo keeps the painting hidden, first (I think) as a connection to his mother, and then because he realises he has committed a criminal act as he travels from New York to Las Vegas and back. And the story, for me, becomes bogged down in far too much detail about the next couple of years of his life, before suddenly leaping forward to his adulthood and the events that lead his Amsterdam hotel room. It is beautifully written, and there are some fine descriptive passages, and maybe it's just that I don't really get that interested in books about art or music, but the whole thing left me a little underwhelmed...Looking at the reviews it seems to have divided critics, and same goes for my twitter timeline, so if you love Donna Tartt, it's definitely worth a go (and if you enjoy it, it would be great to hear why, because I really really wish I had.)

"The End of Your Life Bookclub" Will Schwalbe I'd heard about this book, and was intrigued, but probably wouldn't have bought it. So I'm glad my friend Oli gave it to me, as it was a real treat. The book describes the  "End of Your Life Bookclub" formed between Scwalbe and his mother, Mary Anne, as she completes  a bout of chemotherapy, and continues over the next two and a half years till the end of her life. It's a wonderful portrait of a loving relationship between mother and son, how it is possible to live well with cancer, to have a peaceful death and of course the sheer joy that books bring.  It didn't matter that I hadn't read half the books they did, and sometimes disagreed with their conclusions, I just loved their discussions. And it was great how the books they read sometimes reflected the reality of their experience, sometimes were an escape, but always filled both their lives with purpose. Mary Anne leaps off the page as a passionate, political feminist, loving mother, friend, grandmother, wife.  Which makes her inevitable death at the end extremely poignant. It had a particular resonance for me as my own mother died of cancer this year (like Mary Anne, she was brave, funny, and lived her last days with optimism and love) but you don't need to have had that experience to appreciate this book. It's superb and is highly recommended.

"The Pesthouse" Jim Crace I wasn't planning to read this book, because post-apocalyptic fiction is Chris' thing not mine, but he was raving about it so much that when he'd finished, I had to pick it up. And with one fell swoop, I have become a Jim Crace fan, because this book is terrific. It takes place in a future America that for unexplained reasons has lost its technology and fragmented into small rural communities. The novel starts with Franklin and his brother who are embarked on a journey East to escape the continent for the dream of a better life overseas. Franklin's swollen knee means he needs to rest, whilst his brother goes on to the town below. Meanwhile Margaret is infected by a possible deathly disease and is confined to the local "pesthouse" to die or recover. When Franklin comes across her, trying to escape a storm, he is first wary, and then as he realises she is getting better and he is in no danger he helps her recuperate. Slowly they begin to form a tentative friendship, returning to the town when she is feeling better. But it has been swept away in a flash flood that has killed everyone. So they journey east together, encountering fellow travellers, violent slave traders,  devout Baptists and  a houseful of prostitutes on the way. This is a marvellous novel, which captures perfectly the desperation of the travellers trying to escape to a better life, the developing relationship with Franklin and Margaret and the ever present fear of disease and "the pesthouse". It's excellent, and another recommend.

"Jezebel"  Irene Nemirovsky took a while to get into, but it was really worth the effort. The book opens with a quite mundane account of a court case of the  trial of a beautiful rich woman, Gladys who is accused of killing her younger lover. Within the first few chapters the trial is over, and we are then allowed in to the real story of Gladys's life, and the truth behind her relationship with the victim. It's an absorbing picture of a monstrously selfish woman, whose fear of losing her youth and looks drives every decision of her life. It's also a quick read, so a good one for a train journey or when you've a few hours to kill. So yes, that's another thumbs up from me.

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced" Agatha Christie. I hadn't been intending to read these either, but since Beth picked them up, they were a good diversion from the heavy stuff. I'd read Roger Ackroyd years ago, and though I knew what was coming, it was still a good old fashioned murder mystery and it was fun to meet Hercule Poirot again. The second was a Miss Marple adventure I hadn't come across. It was a rollicking read, though you had to blip over the stereotypical jolly upper middle class cast. I didn't see the end coming and as with most Christie's it was quite clever, though Miss Marple's role in the uncovering of the murderer was pretty far fetched.  I was surprised that one female character  turned down a marriage proposal to go on the stage, which was quite heartening really, but generally (as with most Christie novels) the characters were fairly two dimensional. But then you don't read Christie for her character insights but for her tantalising murder mysteries. She's never a challenging read, but always a pleasure, if you like that sort of thing.

"The End of the Affair" Graham Greene. You may remember from reading previous posts that I adore Graham Greene, and this was one novel I'd always intended to read. (I say novel, but actually it's a novella. It's less than 200 pages and I finished it in a less than a day.) So I was very excited to pick it up in Laugharne. Though for once, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. It tells the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is still feeling the effects of the end of his affair with Sarah, a married woman, two years after she abruptly broke it off. When he encounters Sarah's husband, Henry, who believes Sarah is seeing another man, Bendrix hires a private detective to find out, only to discover the truth of the matter is far more complex than he imagined. As usual, in a Greene novel, the characters struggle with their fallibilities (in this case Bendrix' extreme jealousy) and beliefs. And he portrays the triangle between Sarah, Maurice, and Henry, and their various failings very well. What was less convincing for me was the nature of Sarah's growing relationship with God and what that meant for everyone else. It was quite similar, in places, to "Brideshead Revisited", by fellow Catholic, Evelyn Waugh and both novels reflect the way Catholics felt about God, love, marriage and divorce at that time. My Catholicism comes from a different era, so a lot of it I found unnecessarily overwrought, and unlike Brideshead, I wasn't left with much hope at the end. I can't say it's my favourite Greene novel, but it's got an intensity about it that's worth sticking with. And if you can live with the anachronistic approach that runs through it, it is, on balance worth it.

As for the ones not quite finished, "The Master and Margarita" is brilliant and I am really enjoying it (though I have put it down again, so mustn't lose it this time round). "Bleeding Kansas" is a surprise from Sara Paretsky, who I know as the writer of the gritty VI Warshawski crime novels. This book is centred on an isolated mid west farming community, and already has the feel of a tragedy slowly building. It has quite a similar setting to "The Whistling Season", though I'm sensing that's a more optimistic story. I'm keen to finish both to see if I'm right.  The three Jane Gardam stories I've read are excellent, and it's too early to tell what "Let the Great World Spin" is about (though it seems to feature a tight rope across the twin towers). And the Beowulf, though dense in places, and far longer then I imagined (the Grendel story is only part of it), is rich in drama and wonderful language, a nice contrast to the more modern writers.

There you have it. Hope it's whetted your appetite and there are some here that you might read for yourself.

In the meantime I'm heading off for the bank holiday with several of the unfinished books with me. I'll report back when I'm done.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The joys of twitter fiction

It's an exciting year for David Mitchell fans. Not only has he got a new book out, but the usually retiring author has recently ventured into social media and organised a series of author talks in the Autumn. (Hubby and I besides ourselves with the prospect of seeing him in Oxford and I just hope I don't disgrace myself the way I did when I met Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson).  To cap all that, last week, he decided to use his twitter account to tell a short story - "The Right Sort." Twice a day, throughout the week, he posted a section of the story tweet by tweet. And what an absorbing reader experience it was. On the first day, I was around at the right time, and sat with bated breath, waiting for the next tweet to appear on my timeline. For the next couple, I kept missing it, so had to go to his timeline, go back to where I left, and then read backwards up the page. This was fine, but it did mean that I saw some of the more recent tweets first, or overshot and went back too far which made for a dizzying read. Then I noticed his publishers had cleverly organised the tweets in the right order and were posting the story at the stage it had just finished, which made it a little easier and gave me the chance to read from the beginning again. And in the last couple of days I did all three: reading a tweet at a time, reading backwards and forwards and reading all the way through.  All of which added to my enjoyment of the tale of gothic horror that unfolded, whilst enabling me to enjoy the frequent cliffhangers too. Not surprisingly, since this was David Mitchell writing, the story was a fine example of twitter fiction at it's best. The prose was beautiful, and full of rich imagery.  Each tweet was carefully constructed (impressive for someone who does not use twitter regularly), each section well paced, and built up to the next instalment effectively, and the story raced inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. It includes usual wry observations such "Theo Jukes told me, ‘Know what, Nathan – I think we’re going to be mates.’ Right. Know what, Theo – I don’t" and "Another boy around changes stuff. Who’s cooler? Who’s harder? Who’s cleverer? Who’s swottier? I’ll have to work it all out." There's Mitchell's  fabulous wordplay such as his clever use of "The Fox and Hounds" and a very chilling understanding at the end of what the right sort actually means. Throw in a malevolent dog,  a weird mother and son, a creepy house, odd happenings, a hallucinatory atmosphere, a brooding sense of danger and you have a terrific story, that only improves on re-reading. It was an excellent example of twitter fiction and I do hope it won't be Mitchell's last.

But of course, David Mitchell didn't invent the form. Lots of writers have been playing about with twitter fiction for some time. Joanne Harris has been posting her #storytime for ages, and they are always great fun. Here you can read the cautionary tale of the Lacewing King who really should have been careful what he wished for, and which comes with a great last minute twist. Apparently Harris sometimes loses followers during #storytime which I find bizarre - her stories are so entertaining  I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to stay to the end. (Besides what  did  her followers think would happen when they followed a writer of fiction who enjoys playing with ways to tell stories?) But twitter fiction doesn't have to be  a long story -The Guardian has a regular feature of asking famous authors to write a story in a single tweet. You can find some brilliant examples of their concise storytelling here. In fact twitter fiction is so popular it even has its own online festival, twenty four hours of tales told tweet by tweet.

I made my first foray into twitter fiction in 2010 with this early Friday Flash. Like many writers I'm very interested with the impact that the internet has on our lives. This story started from the thought that while social media can connect us, we can never really know what is going on for the people we interact with. I envisaged a character continuing to tweet trivia even during a personal tragedy. I wanted readers to wonder why was she doing this. Was it because she was cold, shallow, or so overwhelmed that she couldn't really function except through talking to people she didn't really know?  I wrote the story backwards, as if the tweets had appeared on a real twitter page, and for simplicity only showed the protagonist's answers to her fictional twitter friends, so the reader had to work out what the other person's original tweet had been. It was my hope that readers would read back to the start, and then read from the bottom of the page up, and by doing so, they would read  between the lines and start asking questions about who this woman was and why she acted the way she did. It was only partially successful,  as whilst most readers applauded the effort, most were confused (as you can see from the comments section!). I worked hard on dealing with the criticism, re-writing the story as "Following Miss Piggy's Timeline", which was subsequently accepted in a pamphlet to accompany this wonderful exhibition (check me at 4:56 looking at the room made of books, I'm the one with the glasses). Unfortunately space was tight so the edited version was equally baffling to lots of my friends but the lovely people at Blank Media got what I was trying to do, so that's OK.

After that, I was possessed by the idea that it would be fun to do something live and interactive on twitter. And so I came up with "Some Days in the Life". I fixed on a celebrity obsessed Mum,  Ally - twitter handle - The Derby Diva, whose relationship with her son was fractious, due to her over-protectiveness, his selfishness and the girlfriend he loved but she hated.  I fixed on the weekend of her son's 18th birthday as an opportunity to tell a story in real time, and I invited people over twitter to join in, by either developing a character I'd created or making one of their own. I pitched the idea to the Twitter Fiction Festival 2012,and though it was rejected, I had by that time got enough participants to go ahead and so we ran it that weekend (November 29th - December 1st 2012).

In order to make the whole thing a bit more believable, I invited people to set up their twitter accounts early and start interacting before the proper story started. This allowed a bit of back story to build up, but also  helped people get comfortable with their characters. If I'd been very brave, I would have not let on that this was fiction. However, I decided it was fairer to make it clear what was happening by announcing each time we were about to run the story, via my own timeline, and to ensure the twitter profiles made it clear our characters were fictional.  Even so, I managed to get a tweet back from a radio show, from a comment my character made, and they clearly thought Ally was real, so it shows how easy fiction and  life can merge.

And so to the weekend itself. I sketched out a rough plot before we started, shared some information with some people and some with others. I wanted people to react to events in real time  and the surprise factor was on occasion really important. I split the weekend into chapter blocks that ran for about an hour, and then we kicked off.

We started with Ally's son Jack, known to her as Lazy Boy (beautifully written by my sister Julia Williams) receiving birthday presents as both of them posted about it. Ally was totally unaware that Jack was following her and making snide comments, though all the others knew this secret. As the morning progressed, the other characters began to comment. Fitness Dee, Ally's best friend, was full of joy and great health advice. Rosie Collyer and Beverley Sharpe, created alter-egos on their real timelines, to create new personas of Ally's loud and lairy pub friends, winding Jack up with their fake cougar tendencies. (They were incredibly convincing and very funny, so goodness knows what their real twitter followers made of it). Miriam Morell came in as Gabrielle the girl Ally wished her son would choose, whilst Daine Salmon gave Jack back up as a twitter friend from the  States. And my friend Anne Booth appeared every so often as herself, trying to encourage everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.

Over the course of the weekend there were drunken fights, jealousy, a dangerous ex of Jack's girlfriend stalking around, a hilarious subplot involving the cougars, and Fitness Dee's husband,  as Ally and Jack were variously at odds and making up with each other. As things became more and more strained, Ally turned her phone off and retreated to the TV to tweet about I'm a Celebrity and The X Factor, and thereby missed her son ending up in hospital on the Saturday night, while he pleaded with his mother to get in touch.  The fall out from that led to a fraught birthday party on Sunday, much enhanced by the surprising addition of Granny May, an invention of my sister Julia, who suddenly arrived and took over. By Sunday tea time, things had deteriorated so badly that Jack and Ally were left wondering would they ever speak to each other again, paving the way for a make or break final chapter on Sunday evening.

I have no idea if anyone other than us actually followed what was happening, but it was a lot of fun to do. And it was surprising how tense I found myself becoming at various points of the story. I was also shocked at how outraged I was when Granny May started taking Jack's side against Ally, almost screeching at the screen you don't know what it's been like here. Caroline admitted she was equally upset when Ally, cold-shouldered Dee on the Sunday morning for not letting on Jack was on twitter, whilst Julia was pretty cross with me that I wouldn't allow Courtney, Jack's girlfriend any mercy.  All of which goes to show that it probably isn't a good idea to mix one's real and fictional lives too often.

It did get a bit messy at times, with people tweeting over each other, and at the Sunday party tweeting so fast at each other, that several contradictory things kept happening. It was also quite hard sometimes to remember that we were all supposed to be socialising,  so it was a bit strange that we were tweeting to people in the same room, rather than always commenting on the action. But a coherent narrative did emerge, and though it's nowhere near as elegant as Joanne Harris or David Mitchell (who I suspect spent a long time honing those phrases), I think it stands as a fascinating experiment. I hope it says something about families, and modern life, and how social media can sometimes expose far more of our lives than we might imagine. (And as a side note, I found myself obsessively following I'm a Celeb and X Factor tweets, so Ally could comment. Without watching either programme, I correctly predicted the winners, which says something, I think!) After it was done, I tidied it up and if you are interested you can see the results here. (Don't be fooled by the high level of visitor numbers though, I think Scribd gets spammed a lot!)

I sometimes read articles bemoaning the damage the internet, on-line shopping and e-books have done to fiction, and they always make me smile a bit. Because, whilst it's true physical books and novels have a lot of competition these days, sometimes that competition allows writers to play with new forms, and new ways of interacting with readers, and that's got to be a good thing for readers and writers alike. And whilst my preferred medium is always the book, and my preferred form of fiction, the novel,  twitter fiction has enhanced my experience as a reader and a writer. For, that reason alone, I am glad it is here to stay.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Celebrating Writers - Happy Birthday Julia Williams

When I recent celebrated some of my favourite flash fiction writers on this blog it occurred to me that I have never officially celebrated my favourite commercial fiction writer and lovely twin, Julia Williams. So it being our mutual birthday, it seems only fair enough to devote today's blog to her.

Julia and I were born to write. From an early age, we loved nothing more than creating and acting out stories with our siblings and our best friends, the Laws. When no siblings or friends were about, we always had each other to bounce off, and once we learnt to read and write, there was no stopping us. I have a vague memory of at least one summer holiday spent making little books, though I have no recollection what we wrote since they have long since been chucked away. But I can remember that we were inspired by the books we loved: fantasy, magic, boarding schools, orphanages,action adventures all fuelled our imaginings. We wanted to be CS Lewis, Enid Blyton, Joan Aiken, Malcolm Saville all rolled into one.  By the time we were dreamy sixth formers, studying English Literature with the incomparable Sue Brown and Keith Ward, and encouraged by our lovely English teacher Dad, we were determined to be the next Brontes.

Then, somewhere along the line, the dream faltered. While I found myself immersed in a career in social care, Julia joined the world of publishing, first in production, and then in her perfect job as commissioning editor for Scholastic Children's Books. She was a fine editor, who was eventually responsible for managing the prestigious Point lists (Horror, Romance, Fantasy, Crime) and commissioning the brilliant Sterkhalm Handshake by Susan Price, which won the 1999 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. It was an exciting time, but there wasn't much space for writing fiction. It wasn't till Julia took a career break with the birth of her second child, that her writing self was at last able to emerge.

And it wasn't easy. Having young children allows you a lot of head-space to think about writing, but not much time to actually do it. But over the next few years, as her family grew to four, and she also cared for her in-laws, Julia kept going. She wrote two great children's books (one about a fairy community living on ley lines, the other a fantasy based around Chislehurst Caves) found herself an agent,  but couldn't get a whiff of interest. Somewhat to my surprise, as I'm not that into romantic fiction, she joined the Romantic Novelist's Association, took a number of courses, and absorbed all she could from their mentoring programmes. She wrote another book (I can't recall its title, but remember a memorable passage where her hero and heroine had to rush their child to hospital with an asthma attack), but couldn't sell it. She wrote a second, based on mothers coping with the school run, only to miss out when another author got a book deal with a similar idea. At last, after nine years of hard work and determination never to give up, she finally got the two book  deal she deserved, with the (then new) Avon imprint at Harper Collins. "Pastures New", the story of a grieving widow learning to find love again, was an instant hit when it was published in 2007, and she has never looked back. "Strictly Love" followed in 2008, a hilarious account of couples meeting on the dance floor as they deal with the fall out from a Z list celebrity law suit. A year later she began her Hope Christmas trilogy (a town based on our Mother's home Church Stretton), as she detailed perfectly the reality of keeping romance in a long term relationship, with the fine and funny Last Christmas. This was followed by my personal favourite, "The Bridesmaid's Pact" which puts the romance in the background as she explores the lives of four childhood friends growing in understanding through various fallings out and reconcilations over the years. In "Summer Season" a neglected garden becomes the vehicle for a developing romance. "A Merry Little Christmas" returns to Hope Christmas for another slice of real life marriages, dealing with teenage pregnancy, accidents, and raising a disabled child, with aplomb. Whilst alast year's "Midsummer Magic" updates "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with verve and panache.

I have to confess that before Julia wrote her books, romantic fiction was the last thing you would get me reading. And it is still true that I am often more drawn to her non-romantic relationships (such as between Amy and  her elderly neighbour, Harry in "Pastures New", the friends in "The Bridesmaid's Pact",  all the parent/child relationships in the Hope Christmas series). But Julia is  a fine writer, with great heart and a wonderful sense of what makes people tick, so though romance may fuel her books, I am always absorbed into her novels which are  great page turners, and emotionally satisfying. She is also adept at making readers think about wider issues as she lets her stories unfold. "Strictly Love" is very funny about compensation culture and the trivia of celebrity. "Last Christmas" is just perfect on the struggles of modern family life. And her forthcoming "Coming Home for Christmas" covers saving the environment and challenging social care cuts (much to my delight, there's even a bit of direct action).   And she's done it all while raising four beautiful daughters, caring for her mother-in-law till she died, and freelancing.

In addition to doing all that, Julia has also been a great support for me, giving me helpful advice and encouragement at every turn. Most recently, she did a wonderful job editing my flash fiction collection, ensuring it was in pristine condition when I submitted it to Gumbo. I know she's quietly supported a number of writers she's worked with on writing courses, and I do hope she'll develop this side of her work in future. And I am also very pleased to see she  hasn't given up on children's books yet either. She's started a great series on dragons, which really deserves to do well.

So happy birthday dearest twin, thanks for all the publishing tips and support for my own writing. Most of all, thanks for the pleasure you give me and all your readers with the wonderful stories you tell.

Here's to many, many more.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Guest Post - Marc Nash "28 Far Cries"

Marc Nash was one of the first friends I made via Friday Flash. As I said in my recent post, I love his work, and his unusual take on the world. I also love the way he plays with language, structure, and the very basis of story. When I started writing flash fiction, it didn't occur to me that I might put a create a collection, so I was very impressed when Marc started putting his together. And when it finally crossed my mind last year that I could do something with my pieces of flash fiction, he was enormously helpful and provided excellent advice about self-publishing. I'm not very good at that sort of thing, so I was grateful to find Gumbo Press to do it for me, and was  delighted to discover that Marc's 3rd collection was accepted at the same time as mine. I read a number of the stories in "28 Far Cries" when he published them as Friday Flash,  so I know this will be a great read. I'm so pleased that he is here tonight to tell you a bit more about them...

I am always looking to tell stories in a different way, other than those of beginning, middle, ends. So in this my new collection of flash fiction, I have two stories without characters in them at all. One is like a landscape painting, but with markers of time passing etched across its man-made fabric, while the second is delineated by the changes marking a human body under duress. The final story in the collection doesnt have any sentences or paragraphs. It is formed of two columns of single words that can be read either down or across to determine the relationship of the two distinct voices. 

I love playing with language, particularly drilling down to the DNA of words, that is the very letters that form them. So in the story Type-O Negative a woman is exposed to radiation, but instead of developing a superpower in comic book tradition, Isotope Girls words mutate one letter at a time with hilarious outcomes. In the story Ur, Um, the first human language from which all others stemmed, the so called urlanguage, is resurrected when one morning a man wakes up to find he can speak it. Everyone thinks it sounds familiar to them, but no one can quite understand him. Then the politicians get involved in laying claim to him

If there is a theme to most of the stories, it is that many start from a consideration of the human body. Ageing is a motif, so that Staring At The Sun originates from my own developing of floaters in the eye, Nocebo is all about the difficulty of taking pills and Nemesis sees a superhero face his greatest foe, his body empowered by radiation but also set for mutiny by the radioactive mutation wrought. The Idea of A Man takes three iconic images of the dead, a body preserved from Pompeii, a Bog Body and a dead soldier from Desert Storm and probes our fumbling need to deduce their stories from the fragments they leave behind. We end up imposing narratives and lives on these people which they in all likelihood never have lived and through that I question our reflexive urge to form stories.  

 And for a bit of light relief, there are two stories involving extra-terrestrials visiting earth. In No Laughing Gas Matter the Nitrous Oxide exhaust fumes of their space ships reduces humanity to subjugation through laughter, with a surprising cohort of mankind coming to the rescue of our species. While in The Interplanetary Flรขneur, an alien observer tries to read our communications emblazoned in T-Shirt slogans.
So there it is. Some among the twenty-eight stories in this my fourth collection of flash fiction, all beautifully presented by Gumbo Press who are also publishing Virginias debut flash collection with which Im delighted to be alongside on the same roster. Virginia, thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my book and may we both help establish Gumbo press as a really important literary imprint.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Celebrating Flash Fiction - Calum and Kath Kerr

I have managed to celebrate two male and two female writers this week, so it seems only fitting to conclude with a married couple, Mr and Mrs Flash Fiction themselves (the Brangelina of the short short story).

I first came across Calum in 2011 when I saw he was touting the idea of a National Flash Fiction Day. I was quick to sign up and thoroughly enjoyed myself, so have been a big fan ever since. I soon noticed that he and Kath were doing really interesting things, like setting themselves challenges to write a flash fiction story every day for a year. I didn't catch all of them but the ones I did were excellent, meaning that this collection is well worth a read.

Since then, they continue to be busy writing. Calum has been particularly prolific as he has set himself another challenging writing task of writing a flash fiction collection every month (doing pretty well too) and published a fine "how to" book about flash fiction.

They've also  set up Gumbo Press which publishes a regular ezine,  small e-books and has recently branched out into flash fiction collections (including my own!). They're a young company but you can already predict that they will do well.

In addition Calum teaches, and of course continues to direct NFFD which grows bigger and better by the year, and so it's great to be celebrating his and Kath's work today.

I've only shared a few of the writers I've come across (and haven't even started on my overseas friends) just to give you a flavour of the wonderful talent out there. But I hope it's whetted your appetite and whether you follow #nffd today, or #fridayflash or just branch out and explore other places where flash is being produced, I hope you find stories that will make your day.

Happy Reading Y'All!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Celebrating Flash Fiction - Icy Sedgwick

Icy Sedgwick is another writer I met through Friday Flash. I always enjoy her stories, particularly because of the ease with which she jumps genres: horror, fantasy, gothic, westerns all come very easily to her pen.

Icy's stories are so varied, you never know where you are going, but you're always entertained by the resolution. In  "Wake Me" a group of commuters are intrigued by the man who regularly sleeps in the corner. Whilst "Footsteps" is an unusual take on the nervousness we can all feel alone, late at night. "Allergy" is fine piece of historical fiction, where the heroine's allergy has a deadly consequence. Whilst "Psychic"ponders whether it really is an advantage to be able to read minds. And in "The Numbers"mathematicians around the world obsessively solve equations without realising their true purpose.

In addition to her flash fiction, Icy has also published two novels: "The Guns of Retribution" a Western, and "The Necromancer's Apprentice", a horror fantasy, both of which have featured on her blog.

Icy used to post at "Icy's Blunt Pencil, but she's given her site a makeover. Her new look website, "Icy Sedgwick's Cabinet of Curiosities" is a delight, and as well as fiction writing, also features many interesting essays. Please do go and visit, enjoyment guaranteed.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Celebrating Flash Fiction - Peter Domican

I met Peter two years ago on National Flash Fiction Day at the flash fiction slam in the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford. I have a feeling I'd already spotted some of his Friday Flash stories, because I remember being pleased to meet him, but we've been sharing stories and conversations about Spurs, politics, Nordic Noir and the wonders of the Gladstone Library ever since. Peter is another author I really enjoy. His stories are subtle, full of heart and emotion, capturing the important moments of life. Here in Snow Angels a little girl's desire to play in the snow has an emotional resonance for her grandfather. Whilst That Voice Again published in last year's NFFD flashflood is a perfect description of the awkwardness of bumping into your ex. And The Last, Last Ride ,shortlisted for the New Poetry and Prose Award 2011, is a beautiful reflection of how growing up limits life's pleasures.

What I like about Peter's writing is that he is a real master at keeping things short, and it is not surprising his work has been featured in a number of anthologies including ‘Pay Attention: A River Of Stones’, ’100 RPM – One Hundred Stories Inspired By Music’, the second ‘Friday Flash’ anthology, ‘A Blackbird Sings’ and Sixwords Online Magazine. I also love his non-fiction posts on his blog, thoughtful pieces driven by his innate empathy and humanity. I am so delighted he's coming to Oxford for the Evening of Flash Fiction on the 21st June. If you're coming along, I can guarantee you'll hear some great stories, and if you're not, please do check out his blog.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Celebrating Flash Fiction - Mazzz in Leeds (Maria Protopapadaki- Smith)

I love being part of the Friday Flash writing community, because it is filled with fine writers, who are also up for mutual support. One of these is Maria Protpapadaki-Smith, who I first met on twitter as @Mazzz_in_Leeds. I've enjoyed her work from the off. Mazzz's writing covers fantasy, gothic, sci fi, horror, is often dark but also very humane. For a long while, we used to joke that each story always had to feature at least one death, though these days she seems to be a bit more mellow. But her characters always die with a purpose and she has a lovely way of turning a story on its head.
In Audience, she describes a father's emotions watching his daughter's killer face the death penalty. In The Shepherd's Daughter,  the parent's are so full of pride for their daughter they completely underestimate the power she wields . And here in "Witches Brew", a husband learns the hard way to be careful what he wishes for.

I don't really read horror stories, but Mazzz is so darned good that I'll read any she writes - a recent story  Viral being a case in point. But she also writes with real heart as in this tale of Survivor's Guilt. She hasn't got a collection together (though I hope she will one day soon) but do go and have a look at her blog and check out her archive. I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Celebrating Flash Fiction - Marc Nash

I encountered Marc Nash back in 2010 when I first joined the Friday Flash community. I quickly spotted a writer with a fine sense of wordplay (as shown in this story Pelvic Floored , brilliant title and the joy of that last line). I soon discovered that he loves to experiment, moving from light to dark with ease and telling urgent stories that matter, and always looked forward to his weekly posts. Not surprisingly we quickly got talking on twitter, where we found we have many common interests and ever since, we've enjoyed sharing and reading each other's work.

Marc is a very different sort of writer from me, and his work can, at times, be quite challenging. But I love the originality of his writing and the humanity of his characters, even when he is at his bleakest. I also enjoy the way he crosses boundaries,  as evidenced by this his partnership with Pixel Pixie Design to tell his story Just Aphasia Going Through through kinetic typography. It was great on his blog but fascinating like this.

Marc blogs at Sulci Collective, where he will also share his thoughts on music, politics and writing in general. He has an interesting take on the world, so is always worth a read. He is also extremely prolific and has self published two  flash fiction collections 52ff and 16ff. And I'm pleased to say that his next collection "28 Far Cries" will be published by Gumbo Press in time for National Flash Fiction Day so we get to be with the same press too.

Marc is a fine novelist and his self published books A, B& E, Not in My Name and Time after Time are all available to download on Kindle.

I'd hoped to lure him to Oxford for NFFD but alas! Bristol got him first. Next year maybe.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Plug of the Month - Rapture and what comes after by ...Me


If you paid attention to this blog post from earlier in the year, you may have noticed I was putting a flash fiction collection together. I had intended to make it my first foray into self publishing (thanks to great advice from Marc Nash and fine editing from my twin Julia Williams) but then I saw a call for submissions from Gumbo Press. To my delight, Gumbo have taken it on. "Rapture and what comes after" will be available on Kindle and Print on Demand just in time for National Flash Fiction Day.

The collection consists of fifteen pairs of stories, many of which were first posted here as part of "Friday Flash".   Each story is a reflection of the experience of love, with the part one stories telling the more positive side of love, and the part two stories giving a slightly darker view. Each pair of stories is linked in some way, either through character, theme or motif.

I'm so pleased that this collection is being published. I'm even more pleased that I didn't have to do it myself as I'm just not very good at this sort of thing. Thanks so much to Calum Kerr from Gumbo for his hard work and encouragement. He managed to juggle putting this together with planning for NFFD, teaching creative writing and writing his own collections. He even did the beautiful front cover - how does he do it?

And talking of NFFD, I've decided to use this blog to celebrate the wonders of flash fiction, so over the next few days I'll be promoting the work of some of the fine flash fiction writers out there.

Happy Reading Everyone.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

It's only money #fridayflash

It's only money.

She won't miss it. She has so much, she probably won't even notice it's gone. I  consider this as I finger the notes in the purse she left open on the glass coffee table. They are crisp, laundered, recently extracted from the cash machine on the high street. There's two hundred pounds in here, several hundred more in the tin in the sideboard. Kept in the house, in case of emergencies. Though, this might not be quite the emergency she had in mind.

It's only money.

She doesn't really keep track of it, anymore. She doesn't need to. It's a long time since the days when rooting through her purse meant looking for coins to pacify the electric meter. The good old days before she met Him - the man who gave her all of this - the house, the clothes, the endless crock of gold. The man who made her happy, so she said,  too caught up in emotion to consider my thoughts on the matter. My happiness didn't come into it.

It's only money.

She's said it more than once since his untimely death. She used to love spending it, but now she just draws it out and sticks in the tin. Where it sits, depreciating in value, whilst she mourns her lost love in the shrine she has made for him. Gazing at photos on Facebook, rewatching their wedding DVD, clutching his old pyjamas, as if that could bring him back. Forgetting she has a daughter who still needs her, with problems of her own.

It's only money.

Yet if I asked her, she would deny me. She would say, with her sad, scolding smile, that it is for My Own Good. That she knows what I'll spend it on, and she's not going to let me Throw My Life Away Anymore. I suppose I can't blame her.  I've ruined too many nights, spoiled too many parties, fouled up once too often, to convince her that this time is different. This time, I am in real  need. This time, her money could literally save my life.

It's only money.

She doesn't want it. She doesn't need it. She won't notice it's gone. I could leave these crisp notes in her purse, to rot alongside her in her mausoleum of self pity, or I could, rip them out, crumple them in my pocket and put them to good use.  I think of her upstairs, wallowing in her widow's weeds, and decide that my need is greater. I'm sure she'll be angry for a while, once she realises, but she'll come round in the end. She always does.

It's only money, after all.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Roll up, roll up - National Flash Fiction Day - June 21st

I am simultaneous excited and terrified to announce that I am organising my first ever literary event for National Flash Fiction Day.

Lovely Denis at the wonderful Albion Beatnik  has kindly agreed to let me host an evening of flash fiction at his shop. It would be terribly tedious if it was just me, so all flash fiction writers, whatever your experience are welcome to come and read. This will be a chance to showcase your work and celebrate the wonders of the really short, short story.*

21st June 7.15pm for 7.30pm start at Albion Beatnik, 34, Walton Street, OX2 4AU, Oxford.

£2 for participants, £3 for audience.
If you'd like to take part, please email me at Virginia.Moffatt@ntlworld.com and tell your friends as it's always preferable to speak to a crowd :-)

* Maximum word limit 1,000 but I won't be checking! No poetry please.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Plug of the Month - Girl With A White Dog by Anne Booth

I am SO delighted to be announcing this plug of the month. Tomorrow my lovely friend Anne Booth will be publishing her children's novel Girl With A White Dog. I've been privileged to watch the development of this story over the last eighteen months from first draft to publication and it's a great read. Not only does it provide a moving account of a young girl's attempt to understand her grandmother's past, but it also highlights an issue close to my heart - the rise of disablism in the UK and the need to challenge it. I'm totally biased, of course, but this one is highly recommended.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Guest Post - My Writing Process, Blog Tour - Judith Heneghan

In my blog last week, I posted on my writing process. I'm delighted to offer this space to my guest, and lovely friend Judith Heneghan, a wonderful writer, teacher, friend. Over to you Judith!

I’ve been invited by my dear friend and fellow writer Virginia Moffatt to contribute to this blog tour and she has very kindly agreed to host me on her site.  I have to admit, though, I feel a bit of a fraud.  At the moment I’m not doing much writing.  As with many writers, my need to earn a living means I talk about writing an awful lot, as a creative writing lecturer at the University of Winchester and director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival www.writersfestival.co.uk. 

But the actual act of writing?  What, real writing?  Uh…

So here are my answers to the four questions I’ve been asked.  I’m going to have to dig deep!

What am I working on?

That kind of depends on timeframe.  I write lots of nonfiction for children and this year is no exception with two series to complete before September.  I am absolutely committed to excellence in nonfiction for young audiences and I’ve written nearly 50 books now but that’s not what I’m going to talk about here because usually I write nonfiction to a very tight brief from the publisher.

A while ago I finished a children’s novel called Ruthie Bow and the Lady Spirit Detective about which I care passionately but it has not yet found a publishing home.

Then there are the pieces of short fiction I write whenever I’m pushed to do a reading at the University or with the Hyde Writers – a group of wonderful novelists, poets and critics who support each other locally.  My last two pieces were called ‘Mole’ and ‘Snegurochka’ and I had some fun with them.

Yet what really fills my head and my heart at the moment is a novel for adults that is starting to take shape in frustratingly short fragments on the page.  The novel is set in Kiev in 1993.  Current events in Independence Square have gripped me and horrified me over the past few weeks, but I’ve been trying to find a way to write fictionally about Kiev for the past decade and I’m reaching back to a time shortly after that initial declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when journalists held their breath but for ordinary Ukrainians, so little had changed.  The novel is told from the point of view of an English woman who goes there with her baby and the woman is like me, up to a point, as I lived there with my journalist husband and our baby son from 1993-94.  It is a story, imagined, about the interrelatedness of people I glimpsed but rarely spoke to, lived next door to but never shared a meal with.  The boy who spends his days rollerblading across the floor of the apartment above.  The caretaker who sniffs an empty box of imported After Eights she’s retrieved from the bottom of the dump bin.  The white goods importer with the Astrakhan hat who wants to give this nervous young mother a washing machine.  I want to write about moral ambiguity, about history never being finished, about the ownership of apples and a desperate obsession with the novel Jurassic Park.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Genre is an interesting question when it comes to my Kiev novel.  I think I absorb a great deal from the fiction I read, in terms of structure, brevity, dialogue, what isn’t said and so forth.  I suppose where I hope it might differ is that while it is about motherhood (many kinds) it isn’t merely ‘domestic’ in that unfortunately pejorative sense.  Domestic can be, and often is, universal.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about what interests me.  That’s about it!

How does my writing process work?

I wish I could say something sensible here.  Zadie Smith, in her brilliantly titled book of essays Changing My Mind, divides writers up into two kinds: micro managers and macro planners.  I always thought I was a micro manager.  I’d start with very little idea of where I was going, discovering the story as I went along but never able to progress until I felt that the last sentence I’d written was as good as I could make it.  Now I’m not so sure.  The switch to writing a novel for adults means I’m starting all over again and I find it quite terrifying!  Nevertheless, with this novel I do have an ending.  The final pages are already real for me, so instead I find myself writing out of sequence, creating small scenes as key moments form during that marvellous thought factory, the daily dog walk.  I’ve not settled on tense, or voice, or even point of view yet, and this is quite a different way of working  and one that I wouldn’t, on the whole, recommend to my own students but then I’ve never been much of a believer in writing ‘rules’.  That’s why we have drafts.

I like to think I’d be more productive if I had a weekly word count to hit.  I’d love a magical shed like Joanne Harris, or a deadline to hurtle towards.  Instead I write fitfully, slowly, over months and years.  It’s not good, but I tell myself this is infinitely better than never writing at all.

Oh, and oddly, I type straight onto my laptop.  I’m left-handed and never really learned to hold a pen comfortably!

Next week I’m passing the blog tour mantle to Claire Fuller, novelist, sculptor and long-time friend whose debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, publishes next year under Penguin imprint Fig Tree and around the world.  I feel privileged to have read the manuscript – taut and subtly terrifying.  Also quite beautiful.  The novel to read in 2015.