Friday, 2 April 2010

Weekly News 2 April

Short Circuit Review
A lovely new unsolicited review for Short Circuit, from a Richard Hallows who runs a website and a publishing venture for short stories, and a competition for them too – called Spike the Cat, HERE.
Not only has he left a marvellous review of Short Circuit on his site, he also copied it to Amazon UK. Thank you, Spike the Cat. He says:
“I really can't recommend this book highly enough. I started carrying it round with me and taking it in the car so I could keep reading it. (When parked I hasten to add.) It is that good...”
Check out the link for the rest of the review.

The Fiction Workhouse
This time, the Fiction Workhouse site, complete with all the craft libraries and discussion places, is home to 28 undergraduate students from the English Dept of Stockholm University. It was good to fill the place again. Some neat flash writing has filled the forum with fresh ideas and connections, ready for more formal activities to come, in preparation for my two week stint over there in a few weeks time.

ACE grant.
I had a second meeting with my mentor Maggie Gee, on 22nd March, in London. I know where I am going with the rewrite now, and value her input and thoughts immensely. Those who know me well know I was trying to finish this piece of work for my father- who was brought up in the town in which it is set - to see it published. He has been a great supporter through thick and thin. A gentle, but tough individual now aged 94. Sadly, his toughness is escaping him. He has been diagnosed with short term memory loss, which is unlikely to get better and is causing him and us, great distress. He also has what might be an unforgiving medical condition.
I have had to make some difficult decisions – which in the end, are not difficult at all.
I have called a halt to the rewrite, have stopped most writing activities for the first time in eight years – bar encouragement for the Stockholm students and some accepted invitations - and have written to the ACE to keep them informed. Cancelling the visit to Anam Cara was the only very hard thing I had to do.
It is odd not being a writer any more, for the moment. I am wandering around a bit aimlessly, feeling blank. A writer has to be someone who writes…not someone who thinks about it.

The sweetest rejection...
In case readers of this little blogette think friends in this writing world publish each other willy nilly, which lots do, sadly, it is not always like that, me dears. I had the sweetest rejection today, from the lovely Tania Hershman, fiction editor of Southword.

Lecture, Sussex University.
I have already written the lecture I will be giving to the students at Sussex University later on in May – in case things get more awkward round here. I decided to talk about the real need for contradiction, inspired by Ali Smith and Jackie Kay’s quote:
“A writer needs self confidence and self doubt in the same measure.”

Cultural Tourism/Writing Other
The topic rolls on, in the comments on the post under this one. It seems a balanced debate – until you realise that it isn’t. And probably, it will never be allowed to be such.

Thanks to the younger son who looked after his Gramps here in Sussex by the Sea, we went to the D Day Beaches last week accompanied by Col (Ret’d) Michael Bradley, of the Green Howards. Three days of visits to all the beaches, to iconic places like Pegasus Bridge and Café Gondree (where we had lunch with Mme Arlette Gondree, who was 4 in June 1944), to the cemeteries – Commonwealth, German and American (and noted such vast differences in our approaches to war dead…). But the highlights have to be those moments when Mike took us to farms, fields, copses and ditches, and described exactly what happened there. In that exact spot. By this tree. Including the exploits of Stan Hollis, the only VC of D Day. Marvellous.

Sunday, 28 March 2010


Continuing the Really Interesting Elephant Trap Discussion About Creativity With Or Without White Peacocks Which Was Not Intended To Be A Debate At All, on Sara Crowley’s blog last week, HERE.

Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah adds a considered post to the discussion thread, and finally, we have an actual piece of work to illustrate the issues. Maiba's Ribbon, by meself.
Petina says this:
“the characters were Zimbabwean only because the writer (says) so, even their names were wrong, a sort of pidgin Shona in a country with no pidgin! I was not offended by the stories, but I was amused ... amused in the way I am when I read Dan Brown's plastic characters. My reaction was not about "cultural" authenticity, it was simply a reaction to (…) writing that seemed to want the exotic setting without going for any kind of truth in the characters.”

That is good feedback. And an important learning point, among other important learning points - not to trust one’s sources of info on the internet. The names were found on this rather jazzy website HERE which lists Zimbabwean children’s names and their meanings. If they are incorrect, that is bad enough, but if they are ‘pidgin Shona’ that is worse - no wonder Petina laughed. It is sad if there is no other truth in the characters in her opinion - which matters - and as always, this writer will try to do better.
But this raises the question, how accurate do we have to be in general, as writers? Does it matter, in general? If the story worked as fiction for a few editors and their readers, where is the issue? Yes, it matters to me, personally, because I don’t like to get it wrong – but I’m learning, here.
Edited to add: the piece Maiba's Ribbon is leaning very much on those names, to paint character. And if those names are wrong, it might not work. I asked Petina Gappah the obvious question: "Where can I find out the right versions of those names?" and Petina has pointed out that actually Godfrey and Elizabeth would be as authentic, because English is an official language... and that challenges the writer here, to look again, and see how 'authentic' the characters are if I give them those names instead. Hmmm.

A bit of history: This story was published initially on Foto 8 online, (Foto 8 is a photojournalism magazine) to illustrate working with images as prompts for creative writing. It was included in a special series on Notes on the Underground edited by Clare Wigfall. And performed at Whitechapel Gallery last week - I'd forgotten that, couldn't be there...The point is, the fiction convinced well enough, until it hit ‘home territory’. And sure, that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear.
Petina makes the point that the story probably wasn’t intended for Zimbabwean readers – and she’s right, in that it wasn’t ‘intended’ for anyone at all. I saw the photo, knew roughly what the story would be – looked up the names before I wrote the flash. Then I was asked to send work to Foto 8 and so on..
But, and it is a big but - I ask myself the question – would I have sent it to a publication in Zimbabwe? The answer to that has to be ‘no of course not’. Then I ask myself why that is.
There are a lot of questions here, and I don’t have the answers.
• If you are moved by something and seek to understand it - is it OK to try and write a character from another culture, get it wrong unwittingly and hope to do it better next time?
• Is it somehow more ‘respectful’ to assume that you will never get it completely right, that someone will be offended, and therefore you should (as a writer) avoid otherness completely?
• Isn’t it by making mistakes that we learn?
• If we worry about offending, we’d never write anything, would we?
• If we don’t worry about offending at all, are we just being exploitative?
• Where should we worry and where shouldn’t we? Where is the cut-off?
• Are there some mistakes that are less easily forgiven than others?

Clare Wigfall, in her interview in Short Circuit, talks about The Numbers, the short story set in the Outer Hebrides which won The National Short Story Award in 2008. She created a fictive world that worked well at the highest level. Having visited the islands where The Numbers was set, after the story was published in her collection, (The Loudest Sound and Nothing, Faber and Faber), she discovered that in terms of voice, things were not exactly accurate. She knows that geographically, too, there were things ‘wrong’ if one was looking for facts. But, she says, sensibly,
“I never aimed at correctness. I just wrote fiction.”

Sometimes, writing is a minefield. People will be offended, when no offence is intended. How many times have I cringed, when ‘my’ subjects – adoption/abandonment are the most obvious - are tramped all over by writers who have no idea? I may cringe - but I have not been ‘offended’. If the writers asked, I’d give them the facts as I see and experience them. For example, I spent a few hours talking to the author Nicky Singer, researching for one of her novels.
"Other" is part of why we write. There’s something pushing us to make up other people… whether they are people who live our lives, in our homes, lives like ours, or others – I do the latter. And sometimes, as now, you have to stand up and be counted.

If you want to find out more about writing ‘other’, here are two thoughts –Petina Gappah’s course on Writing Other Lives with Faber has sadly come and gone, but it sounded great – maybe they will run it again -
And thanks to N for this great article by black writer Leone Ross on tackling a black main character, (she is black). A black male main character (she isn’t a black male). A gay male main character (she isn’t a gay black male). An American gay black male. (she isn’t American, but Jamaican. She only visited the US once, as a tourist. Florida. Nuff said.)

Cultural tourism. A minefield. And a large one. I hope we are all allowed to walk the edges, if we are brave or daft enough.

Monday, 22 March 2010


Very lucky to be spending a few days visiting the Normandy beaches in the company of Mike, a retired officer from The Royal Green Howards - the only British regiment to win a VC on D-Day.

This is the soldier who was awarded the VC - after being recommended for it not once, but twice, on D-Day. Sargeant-Major Stanley Hollis, VC.
Details of Stan Hollis's bravery can be found HERE - and there is a biography of this extraordinary man - details HERE

Friday, 19 March 2010


Official. Tania Hershman, judge of this year's Sean O'Faolain Short Story competition, gives her backing to very short stories. (see comments thread following this poast) Entries do not have to be right up to the word limit. Tania's own collection The White Road and Other Stories contains 50% flash fiction - and was commended by the judges of the Orange Prize in 2009. I think that could be a useful little himt there - and you heard it here first! Her comment says:
Thanks, V - could I take the chance to say how much I love flash fiction? Please feel free to send very short stories, that would make me very happy!

From the Munster Lit website then:

The Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition is an annual short story competition dedicated to one of Ireland's most accomplished story writers and theorists, sponsored by the Munster Literature Centre.
First Prize: €1,500 (approx US $2000) and publication in the literary journal Southword.
Second Prize: €500 (approx US $650) and publication in Southword.
Four other shortlisted entries will be selected for publication in Southword and receive a fee of €100 (approx USD $130).
There will be a long list of twenty entrants published.

Judge: For 2010 Short Review founder and editor Tania Hershman.
Tania Hershman, a former science journalist, is the author of The White Road and Other Stories, (Salt Modern Fiction, 2008) which was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her award-winning short stories, one of which has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, have been widely published in print and online and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Tania is founder and editor of The Short Review, a journal dedicated to reviewing short story collections. Her website is and she blogs at TaniaWrites

Thursday, 18 March 2010


Erika Wagner’s article in today’s Times begins with the immortal words,
“Last time I checked, there are a lot of books about Asian sisters didn’t really count as literary criticism.”

Said by Daisy Goodwin, one of the judges of this year’s Orange Prize, who is fed up with reading novels concerning the exploits of Asian sisters, this made me laugh. It comes a couple of days after the debate opened up by Sara Crowley, albeit unwittingly, on her blog, (HERE and the post above this one) about ‘cultural tourism’. Sadly, people seemed intent on being grievously offended in that discussion, and needed to wave their subtexts in the air.
The Times, brave souls, risks the wrath of the ‘grievously offended’, and pokes fun at the current fashion for books peopled by Asian sisters. And there are obviously rather a lot about. Must admit, I hadn’t stumbled over any, yet, and The Times doesn’t exactly make me want to seek them out, either.
But the article moves on, far more interestingly, to why novels that make the reader laugh, are not winners of the literary prizes, when they are good stuff, well written, and hard to get right.
Daisy Goodwin:
“I think the misery memoir has had its day, but there are an awful lot of books out there which had not a shred of redemption in them,”
That is thought provoking. So much is in the eye of the reader – plenty of intelligent, astute readers loathe McCarthy’s The Road, and find it unremittingly bleak. I didn’t – I found it a hymn to the human spirit, tenacity in the face of annihilation. But there you go – it takes all sorts, thank goodness.
Wagner says:
“Comic novels — let’s call them terrific novels that happen to be funny — tend to fall through the cracks, especially where prizes are concerned. Publishers have to choose which books from their list to submit for a prize such as the Orange: is a book that makes a reader laugh really worthy of a prize?”

The article, HERE, makes good reading. And concludes with a list of Erika Wagner’s top ten comic novels:
Erika Wagner's Top Ten comic novels:
What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Headlong by Michael Frayn
The Believers by Zoe Heller
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Moo by Jane Smiley
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I could add anything by Tom Sharp, Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Any more?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


I was sent a total of 34 stories, all writers' names removed. They arrived on the day after I got back from Ireland, in early February, having just completed the first draft of the novel. The entire longlist. My wonderful job was to read these stories, selected by the readers of TNY from hundreds of entries, choose three winners, some 'highly commended' and some runners up.
This is what I did. I opened the parcel and sat with the pile of stories, all paperclipped together, on my knee. And I flipped from story to story, reading the TITLES and the FIRST LINES only. If my interest was piqued, out that story came, put to one side. I read those first.
I started three piles.
1)YES, a definite maybe.
2)MAYBE, a definite re-read.
3)NOPE, sorry, not this time.
When every story had been read twice(it took a week or so) and allocated to a pile, I took a break. Left them for a few days.
I then took the NOPE pile and over two days, read them all again. And again. And shifted a few stories up to the MAYBE pile.
Then I did the same with the MAYBEs, shifting a few stories up or down as necessary. Then the YES pile, again, making each one work hard, to convince me it was in the right place, by now, or down it went.
I ended up with five stories in the YES pile. And over three days they shifted position on the dining room table, until three separated themselves out as the top three.
But what a top three. They are so different. Chalk and cheese. Apples and bananas. Toffees and mintoes. Gin and beer. How to decide? Here, breaking each one down by craft element helped hugely. And - I'm putting this bit in bold - in the end, it was a sci-fi story that came out on top. Which gives me a real buzz! It is a terrific story.

Then, having given my decision to Merric Davidson of The New Writer - the fun of waiting to find out the names of the entrants - knowing that I would recognise lots of names - the town of the short story is a very small one. It is not even a town, it is a village. You can't do anything without the neighbours knowing!
Anyway - here are the names of the stories, and the names of the marvellous writers who wrote them. Many congratulations to everyone - I enjoyed them all.

SHORT STORY category
1st Judi Moore The Dark Side of the Moon
2nd Gill Belchetz Out of Holbeck
3rd MP Stanley Construction Over Water: An Elegy for Wanda

Highly Commended: Gabriela Blandy Borrowed Light; Hilary Fennell Not Like Us; Susannah Rickards Mudlarks.

Runners-up: Sophie Coulombeau Church Going; Caroline Freeman The Ginkgo Tree; Jacqui Rochford Red; Sharon Zink The Log Flume.

Longlist: Joanna Campbell, Paul Curd, Sarah Evans, Suzanne Ferris, Lynda Fletcher, Clare Girvan, Ghislaine Goff, Rhonda Grantham, Eliza Hawkins, Jonathan Haylett, Helen Hogan, Liz Hobbs, Helen Kitson, Nancy Le Nezet, Rebecca Mayhew, Kenneth McBeath, Teresa O’Brien, Ali Pardoe, Iain Pattison, Glenn Price, Eira Reed, Frank Talaber, Nemone Thornes, Mark Wagstaff.

Finalists: Tina Aidoo, Robert Atkinson, Gill Blow, Cyril Bracegirdle, Jo Campbell, Rebecca Camu, Jo Cannon, Thomas Croger, Franca Davenport, David Gibson, Jenny Gordon, Barbara Henderson, Anthony Howcroft, Karen Jones, Cliff Kitney, Hilary Lloyd, Ann MacLaren, Nina Milton, Prue Phillipson, Julian Ruck, Joanne Rutter, Aoo Sanusi, Adrian Sells, Fleur Smithwick, Chip Tolson, Nicholas Underhay, Judy Walker, Lisa Weir, Laura Wilkinson.

And yes, it is weird, seeing names of people I know in there. The standard, as they say, was very high, unsurprisingly.

So what was I was looking for? Not much - a good story, told well. A story that held my interest. Great characters, of course. Originality, quality of writing, and something that wouldn't quite let me go when the story ended.

Monday, 15 March 2010


According to Publisher's Weekly, Sarah Salway's new novel Getting The Picture, is rather good stuff. So after reading their review, here's a little comp to win a signed copy!
Publisher's Weekly say this:
Getting The Picture refutes the adage about old dogs and new tricks in this breezy epistolary novel set in a British retirement home. Not that the residents of Pilgrim House don't know plenty of old tricks already: Salway's appreciation of her characters is refreshingly nonpatronizing—her oldsters have rich and naughty pasts, but live in the present, very much alive and eager to gossip, conspire, and seduce... relationships and characters evolve nicely in this lighthearted novel about family and lovers and the not-so-lighthearted secrets that separate them.

Sarah is a simply great writer. And something of a rarity, a generous-hearted one. (Although ALL the writers who read this blog are the same, right?!) Her chapter in Short Circuit is terrific, an object-lesson in finding inspiration. And she is running a mini-comp to publicise her new novel - about love in an old people's home...Yes! Can't wait.

What you have to do is this. Find/remember/the best quote you can about love and old age. And send it to Sarah at sarahsalway - at - or visit her blog HERE and even HERE at the relevant post - add it into the comments. Who knows - a signed copy of this book could be winging its way to you soon.
I thought I was being dead smooth, adding my own fave quote, which I thought was by T S Eliot. Apparently, it is also by several others... and what I hadnt noticed was ,its also Sarah's own fave. So no book for me then. (grump.)
"Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young."
It’s on a scrap of paper on my wall, scribbled as being by T S Eliot – but it isn’t! depending on who you believe, it is either by A. W. Pinero, Benjamin Franklin or even Dorothy Fisher! Hmph.
Anyway. Can I suggest, if you don't win - get your own can send you one - HERE Salway is a special writer. But don't take my word for it - Neil Gaiman says so. Look:
“Sarah Salway is an astonishingly smart writer. Her fiction is always beautifully structured, touching and clever. She manages the trick of creating characters you care about in stories you admire. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
—Neil Gaiman

(The Publisher's Weekly review of Sarah's new book is is Copyright of Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.)