Monday, 29 December 2008

Off to see the penguins

Off for a few weeks to see penguins and icebergs, in the footsteps of Shackleton. Hope to return in Feb to the UK. Hope too, that the pic below isnt tempting fate. I gather that was a submarine direct hit.

WOKHOUSE PROBLEMS


Yes, we all have a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs. Did you know stomachs have pits? I know arms, grapes and apples etc do.... but I digress.

Panic at The Fiction Workhouse. Yesterday all the files were wiped out for some reason. Two years' work, near as dammit. Whole libraries of craft articles, stories back to the Stone Age. Arguments and debates, discussion and back patting exercises. Flash section, blast work, all the critiques (thousands of pages) commiserations, all the market info, competition info.

I sat back and thought how much Mac, Mimi, those anon posters who pop in here and preach, and all those who dont like what we do, will love this.

And how much they will HATE that we have the back up files, and can reinstate everything to as it was about a week ago, so I hear from the trusty technical wizards in the team. And actually, even if we didn't, the team would still work to collect together again: new libraries, new craft posts, and the only thing that would disappear would be the poorer stories from a year ago.
Sail on, FW!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

THE NUCLEAR WEAPONS GAME

I found this game while doing some research on the Nobel Prize website.

PLAY HERE


I did OK, but missed Russia. Blast.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

PETER JAMES



I TRY to work hard at my writing. And when I compare myself to some writers, I just know that a lot of what I do is displacement activity.
Peter James is a writer I would love to emulate, for his utter professionalism and the FUN he has with his success. He is A WRITER. I am talking the whole package of his life as a writer. Writing, teaching, touring, publicity, living the high life!

A vast poster on London Underground stations currently advertises Peter’s latest Roy Grace novel, Dead Man’s Footsteps, of which Marcel Berlins of The Times says: “Tense, beautifully paced and excellent on police atmosphere and procedure, Dead Man's Footsteps, Peter James's fourth novel featuring Detective Inspector Roy Grace and the Brighton force, is his best."
I got a little frisson of pride when I wandered past. Not because Peter is a friend…but because this is his second novel to feature my husband. Ahem. Don’t ask.

Peter just telephoned to talk to Chris about something or other. Chris isn’t here, so we nattered instead. And he is calling from his study where he is into editing the NEXT Roy Grace novel. ‘That’s Chapter 24 done,’ he said.

Look at Peter’s website. HERE!

Look at the stuff he puts on there. He keeps a blog. He talks about his readers, the emails he gets, the extraordinary things he does. ( Eg: Dec 16th, about promising to take Geoff Duffield, the Sales and Marketing supremo of Pan Macmillan, to ANY restaurant in the world if he got Roy Grace to Number One on the bestsellers list. Mr Duffield got Roy Grace to Number one on four lists… so Peter did exactly that…)

He celebrates his fans. He knows how important they are. He is so good at signings (I know, I surprised him at a Brighton one before Christmas…), taking time out with every single person, making them feel special.
He talks about his fan mail, copying pieces to his website..eg:

My favourite email of all this year, so far at any rate, is one from a police officer in Brighton, a Detective Constable, who wrote to tell me that he started reading my books after he arrested a suspect earlier this year, and when he was booking him into custody, the suspect turned to him and said, "You know, you're just like a cop in a Peter James novel!"

And the interviews are informative, for ME. I reviewed Dead Simple, his first Roy Grace novel a few years back. In this one a character is buried alive in a coffin as a jape, and things go badly wrong. In one interview about his meticulous research, he reveals how he persuaded an undertaker to let him lie in a coffin, then he asked the man to screw the lid down and leave him in silence for half an hour…. INTERVIEW HERE

He is a brilliant publicist. But he is also a generous guy. Back in March, Peter came to the launch of Words from a Glass Bubble. He had already given me an extraordinary endorsement, something he does not do lightly. He had to go out of his way to get there, as he was whizzing between other engagements… but he came and we had a drink together.

“Thanks SO much for coming,” I said. “This means a lot.”
“No worries,” he said. “I have never forgotten, you came to MY first book launch….”

The latest Roy Grace is coming to Antarctica with me.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Cool nephew!!


I have the coolest new nephew. Meet Ned. Ned Hepburn. Scroll down a bit on the link to his site
SEE HERE!!! and you'll see his Mum, my sister Susie (Doris, on here) with a paper hat.
And go to the links... looks like writing is in the family. And vote. Vote.

STORY ON PULP.NET ETC

A story called Graffiti is up on Pulp.net HERE. Graffiti is the final story in my collection of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble.

When people say 'what's your work ABOUT'? This is a perfect example. It's about how bloody SAD life can be, but it's up to us to lift it, make it MEAN something.

So there.

Pulp.net is entering into a partnership with Costa Coffee and starting a series of short story events in London. The first will be on January 12th at Costa, Piccadilly.

Pulp says this on the website:

Mon 12 January
Pulp Net Short Story Cafe 7-8pm, £5/£3

In association with Costa, Pulp Net launches the Short Story Cafe at Costa Piccadilly

An hour of short stories a month in the comfort of a London coffee-house – what more could you ask for? In the first of this event series Pulp Net presents: award-winning short story author Helen Simpson, story writer and debut novelist Chris Killen, Costa writer-in-residence Davy Spens and Willesden’s finest, Stephen Moran.
Run time: 7.30pm – 8.30pm.
A suggested donation on the door of £3 is requested towards running costs. Note: Places are limited to 40, assigned on a first-come first-served basis from 7.15pm.

I will be reading something at the second of these events, on 9th February. Same venue.. Costa, Piccadilly.
If the ship doesn't go and sink, that is.....

Lower Ground Floor, Costa Coffee, 15 Lower Regent Street, SW1Y

Thursday, 25 December 2008

V's Christmas

Well - it started with a fab meal in London on Tuesday (oysters and sea bass) followed by a group outing to see Bill Bailey.
Unfortunately, you know what they say about oysters... I think I might have actually lost some weight over the last few days.
Still, better enough to have a great day today, and for the sake of the newly enlarged family, here are some pics.
Happy Christmas from Sussex.

Toby giving his old Mum some new music for the car..."Get rid of The Dubliners, Mum..."
Toby and NatsChris
Alex, my sister-in-law, showing us how to get high marks on Guitar Hero!
With Nick, eldest son
Playing 'Cranium' after lunch
My Dad

All the team, Christmas morning walkies Toby and Ian


A bit of karaoke - Nick and my daughter-in-law Nats

Monday, 22 December 2008

SPONSOR A MUM


I'd like to spread the word about a new initiative. Called Sponsor-a-Mum, all the info is HERE on their website.

The founding force is a couple called Antonia and Toby Madden. Antonia 's own Mum, a terrific lady called Jan Newton, died just bfore Christmas two years back. She was a good friend of mine, and my little book is dedicated to her memory.


The two founders of Sponsor-a Mum say this about themselves, and what they are trying to do.

Toby is a professional photographer and filmmaker and Antonia has worked in the charity sector for a number of years. This experience and knowledge developed our passion for equality and human rights and a desire to raise awareness and advocate for those who are disadvantaged, especially in the area of maternal health.

The concept of Sponsor a Mum developed from two things. Firstly, our knowledge of continuing and rising maternal death rates in Africa and Asia ensued our desire to get maternal health top on the world health agenda. Sadly, Antonia's mother Jan died in 2006. The inspiration of Jan and our motivation to change the experiences of many women in the world today, invoked the idea of Sponsor a Mum. We approached a medical research charity, IMET2000 who were very interested in our idea and supported us throughout the trip. We are now part of their charity, receiving financial and administrative support.


Please take a look at the website. I've just watched the film. It is beautiful, and very moving. What a thing to see... just before Christmas too.

Go on................and please spread the word on your blogs.

Thanks

happy Christmas!

PRONOUNCEMENTS FROM ABOVE

(ABOVE WILLESDEN)
Pobably from that small bedroom at the back.

This musing from the reader of the entries for this year’s Willesden Comp. (Nope. Too late. Deadline all gone). Copied from WILLESDEN HERALD, HERE... >


A reading from the book of readings

• Thou shalt not indent the first line of the whole piece or the first line of separate sections.
• Thou shalt not put "The End" at the end.
• Thou shalt not put pictures in the manuscript for a writing competition.
• Thou shalt double-space, not single or 1.5 space.
• Thou shalt leave one inch margins at least.
• Thou shalt not include extracts of text from other sources which perplexeth the copyright lawyers mightily.
• Thou shalt beware of registered trademarks which likewise troubleth the abovementioned.
• Thou shalt not try to portray thine narrator as a great writer reflecting on troubles with latest world publication deal, because forsooth few readers wilt fall for that old trick.
• Thou shalt not submit multiple entries under false identities, which cometh sequentially all with typography of the tribe of Myopia and transparent airs about each, which giveth unwitting mirth to the reader.
• Thou shalt try to go easy on foreign language words or obscure terms which the reader hath to seek out verily in the temples of Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia, lest they be garbage of the devil.
• Accursed be they who include sentences and phrases in foreign languages that the reader hath no competence in, even if thou attemptest to reassure with translations in which said poor reader can have but little faith.


(We are assured too that these glitches will not necessarily stop a story doing well...but the list is a good thing to have, no?)


Have to say, I agree 100% with the THE END stuff. Heaven's sake. If a short story ends properly, it can't go on, can it, so why should there be a need for TELLING the reader that this is The End?

So unless you are specifically asked to indicate the end (perhaps on an online thing, for example) -a ll you are doing is saying something like this to the reader/judge:

'I am not a very experienced short story writer and I am unsure about this ending. In fact it may not BE the right ending at all. So I have added a few endings, as you will see... and now I've finished, so this is really THE END.'


Might as well type 'The Beginning' at the start, just before the title.


To Mac, who posts that I am being really horrid and nasty to new writers by copying Mr WH's post, and pointing out all this... I don't think so. By the same token, everyone who writes articles intended to give learner writers advice are being nasty. And so are tutors, teachers. All nasty horrid people, for sure.

.
Thanks, Mr W H , for posting the list above. I've added it to the info I hand out when I take workshops.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTHS....

Looking back over the writing year there have been some high spots and some low spots.

Highs would include working with Douglas on the Kafka’s Aunt letters. I have loved that. And the publication of Words from a Glass Bubble, and subsequent nice happenings and some lovely reviews. And focussing on poetry, getting a few small hits with that. And spending time at West Cork Lit Fest, and being invited to Frank O Connor Fest and meeting Jhumpa Lahiri. And my week at Anam Cara. And of course, hearing the brilliant successes of the Workhouse inmates. Fab! And last but not least, my teaching. Especially the residency at Felpham with year 10 students. A real high.



But for the first time, lows have overtaken the highs.
I am severely out of pocket, having lost £600 to the MPhil disaster, plus whatever bed and breakfasts and travel up to Cardiff costs. I have done as many readings as I can possibly do, each one costing train fares and so on.
I and several other writers have been treated appallingly by a local writing association, who commissioned workshops then have not paid us. I am owed a lot of dosh from them, and will not see it.
I have seen my book photocopied instead of being bought, for reading groups.

All this leaves me on a real low, which I can do nothing about, just acknowledge it, and move on. This blog was always about telling the truth and not hiding the bad bits to make myself look shiny when things are not always so.

I am looking forward to Christmas with my family, here. And then a six week break to Antarctica with Chris.

Happy Christmas, Happy New Year. Lots of Good Writing to everyone, and do treat each other well. It's a cold enough world out there.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Round up of 2008, June to September

JUNE

Interviewed a few times. Eric Forbes’ Addicts Guide to Good Books, for one. HERE http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com/2008/05/on-couch-with-vanessa-gebbie.html

Profiled on Normblog. HERE http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2008/06/the-normblog-profile-246-vanessa-gebbie.html

Read at The Needlemakers’ Café,. Lewes, with Poets Catherine Smith and Janet Sutherland..

Dodie’s Gift published again in Litro, and Litro given away with every copy of Time Out. Delighted.

Read in London at Tales of the Decongested, with Jo Horsman.



JULY

Second poem published, Too Late For Fruit, on Alba. HERE http://www.ravennapress.com/alba/issue_17/gebbie.html


Published (among others) Rick Moody, in Tom’s Voice magazine. HERE http://www.tomsvoicemagazine.com/


Attended National Short Story Award breakfast ceremony at BAFTA. Met Clare Wigfall.

Read at Stoke Newington Bookshop, invited by N16 Writers.


A week at West Cork Literary Festival, running a flash competiton, and doing a reading at Bantry Bookshop.

See You Next Tuesday Anthology II published. With a story by moi.

Tao prose poems published in Shadowtrain.

Collection has nice review on The Short Review.

I reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri’s Collection Unaccustomed Earth, on Pulp net



AUGUST

Invited to attend a Brighton Book Group.

Decided to leave my online workplace, The Fiction Workhouse

The Note Takers published on Café Irreal HERE. http://home.sprynet.com/~awhit/gebbie3.htm


Spent a week on Eratosphere as a guest, buzzing them up about flash fiction.


Lunch with David Grubb to celebrate end of tutoring.


Week in Cornwall, end of GCSEs.




SEPTEMBER

Invited to talk to a Tangent meeting, Brighton

A series of coincidences lead me to finding my family, after 56 years out in the cold.

The One World Anthology has now found a publisher (New Internationalist) and we have work from Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adicie and Henrietta Rose Innes together with the original team.

Taking a session at Litcamp in London.


Cork, a long weekend at The Frank O Connor Festival, reading and enjoying the company of excellent writers.


Story in Photojournalism magazine, Foto8

Attended Charles Lambert’s launch, at Ride the Word III, Borders, London.

TOBY MEETS AUNTIE PILL

Sometime last week, I drove to Birchanger Service Station (You don't know it? Wonderful place!) to meet my sister Pill, and we had a superbly unhealthy lunch of burgers and KFC. (KFC and I go back a long way)

Toby met his new Aunt for the first time. We then celebrated with a few hours in Bluewater on the drive back. Never again!!!!

Friday, 19 December 2008

GIFT FROM NEW INTERNATIONALIST

Had another surprise... a desk diary, a 'One World Almanac' from the publisher of the forthcoming One World Anthology, NEW INTERNATIONALIST (NI)! "Thank you for choosing NI to publish The One World Anthology" they say.

Please take a look at what this publisher does. HERE IS THE WEBSITE

HERE is the diary... it is gorgeous. The photography is very very good. My son wanted it, and I said NO. It's mine.

But more than that. THE ONE WORLD ANTHOLOGY HAS GONE TO PRINT!!!!!! We will see advance copies early in the New Year. Wowee.


If reader are interested, NI is a fantastic organisation. Look: from the website:

The New Internationalist workers' co-operative (NI) exists to report on the issues of world poverty and inequality; to focus attention on the unjust relationship between the powerful and powerless worldwide; to debate and campaign for the radical changes necessary to meet the basic needs of all; and to bring to life the people, the ideas and the action in the fight for global justice. The New Internationalist communications co-operative is based in Oxford with editorial and sales offices in Toronto, Canada; Adelaide, Australia; Christchurch, Aotearoa /New Zealand; and Tokyo, Japan.

* NI opposes all forms of oppression. It campaigns for social and environmental justice worldwide, acting as a vehicle for unheard voices.
* NI adheres to the core co-operative values of self-help, responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.
* NI exists to inform, educate and communicate its message and ideals in an accessible style through the New Internationalist magazine, books, internet and other media.
* NI provides a forum for fresh ideas and radical perspectives. We regularly form alliances with likeminded groups and individuals.
* NI is a financially independent company. It does not distribute profits to its members. If profits are earned they are retained and used to further the aims as set out in this statement.
* NI maintains a democratic, co-operative and non-hierarchical structure and operates an equal opportunity policy. Equality of worth, equality of opportunity and equality of voice are central tenets of co-operative membership and we aim to maintain a safe, healthy and non-discriminatory work environment.
* NI is independent of any political or religious grouping.
* NI operates ethically with all employees, outside contacts and in the environment.
* NI is committed to high quality in all areas of work.

Awards

The New Internationalist has been awarded for its excellence in publishing many times since its inception in 1973. NI has also received many accolades from enthusiastic readers, ranging from John Pilger to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

A SONG FOR THE WORKHOUSE

Thia song is for The Workhouse writers, to have a singsong in their breaktime. (30 seconds, at 3.30?)

Sorry for the delay, I had to find a video with pictures for Ethan as he doesnt 'do' words.. (!) For those who do do words, they appear below the video. (including a verse that got deleted due to political correctness... bleedin Ada! Am surprised they didnt delete the whole thing for Anti-Englishness... ha!)

Bring on Max Boyce!



Hymns and Arias
© Max Boyce

We paid our weekly shilling for that January trip:
A long weekend in London, aye, without a bit of kip.
There's a seat reserved for beer by the boys from Abercarn:
There's beer, pontoon, crisps and fags and a croakin 'Calon Lan'.

And we were singing hymns and arias,
'Land of my Fathers', 'Ar hyd y nos'.

Into Paddington we did roll with an empty crate of ale.
Will had lost at cards and now his Western Mail's for sale.
But Will is very happy though his money all has gone:
He swapped five photos of his wife for one of Barry John.

And we were....................

We got to Twickers early and were jostled in the crowd;
Planted leeks and dragons, looked for toilets all around.
So many there we couldn't budge -twisted legs and pale:
I'm ashamed we used a bottle that once held bitter ale.

And we were singing hymns and arias,
'Land of my Fathers', 'Ar hyd y nos'.
Wales defeated England in a fast and open game.
We sang 'Cwm Rhondda' and 'Delilah',
damn, they sounded both the same.
We sympathised with an Englishman
whose team was doomed to fail
So we gave him that old bottle, that once held bitter ale!
He started singing hymns and arias,
'Land of my Fathers', 'Ar hyd y nos'.

So it's down to Soho for the night,
to the girls with the shiny beads;
To the funny men with lipstick on,
with evil minds and deeds.
One said to Will from a doorway dark,
damn, she didn't have much on.
But Will knew what she wanted,
aye...his photo of Barry John!

'Cos she was singing hymns and arias,
'Land of my Fathers', 'Ar hyd y nos'.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

THANK YOU WORKHOUSE INMATES..........


COR BLIMEY!

EVEN MORE COR BLIMEY!!!!

I don't know what to say, really, except THANK YOU.

I just opened a big envelope - recorded delivery - a HUGE Chrissie card and a million book tokens, from the lovely inmates at The Fiction Workhouse.

Thanks guys. I will be able to buy a fabulous collection of poetry books... and am so pleased, surprised, and I nearly burst into tears like a daft old bat. What, Moi??

But the nicest thing is what you SAID in the card. I am now going to embarrass you!

All I did was create a workplace, somewhere for good writers to congregate and push each other to do better... YOU do the work. No teaching. I just configured something I thought would be good, and looks like it works. Am delighted. Really delighted.


Here's what you said, you SOPPY LOT.

Thank you so much for everything you have given me this year - not least the encouragement to keep going and keep improving...

Thanks for being a blessing to me...

With your help, it's been a great year.

Thank you for making The Fiction Workhouse the place it is...

Here's to shelves full of books, pages full of words...

I have learned a lot and gotten to know some brilliant and talented folk too...

Thank you for recommending me to The Workhouse. I am learning such a lot from all these wonderful writers..

What can I say? FW changed my life. Thanks...

Maybe we'll see you back in FW?

I wanted to thank you. I've learned so much since joining. All the writers are kind, helpful and gifted...

Thanks for setting up FW, and for providing us with a cool writing space!

Love from all at Fiction Workhouse...

Children used to be sent to The Workhouse because they were paupers. I was, in a way, when I arrived - not quite wealthy enough with language, or confident enough to use it effectively. I was also reclusive and hurt by criticism. Your skill, energy and sheer blunt ballsy attitude to writing has made me rich.

Without you and The Fiction Workhouse I would be a much lesser writer...


OK. That'll do. Get back to work!



(FW is an online space for writers of short and flash fiction who have already amassed some credits in publication or competition terms. It is specifically for those who are stretching their literary muscles. There is NO teaching. It is a collective. Entry is through some door or other. I no longer have the key as I am doing other stuff, but can have a word with the doorman. If writers are seeking teaching/mentoring this is NOT the right place.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Even Snoopy is at it..

I am indebted to one of my favourite blogs for this cartoon:



Thanks, Literary Rejections on Display. HERE

WILLESDEN COMP NEARLY COOKED

This was posted on the Willesden Herald, on Monday, December 15, 2008

Competition update, December 15, four days to go
1,000 people have registered their details, 450 entries have been received, there are four days left to enter and there are stories that demand to be on the short list, whoosh straight past the long list. I don't mean recently received only - some are ones that needed close reading, from earlier. It's going to be a great anthology again, I think (there was none last time - missed a year), but we need a few more of those whooshes.

The upload link will be removed at midnight on December 19th GMT + 12 (to allow for it still being the 19th somewhere in the world). There is no grace period and no email or postal submissions. Don't miss the closing of the stargate ;-).


DETAILS HERE> TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

READING GROUP, LANCING LIBRARY

last night I had a great time. I was invited to attend a reading group organised by West Sussex Library Services, at Lancing. They had read my collection, wanted to meet me and talk about two of the stories.

I love doing this. Not just for the exposure (which is great) but also because it informs me. Lets me know how readers take my'dead baby book'.

Fascinating feedback, over Pringles, mulled wine and iced biscuits. That 'I can Squash the King, Tommo' brought back memories for several. That after reading they couldn't get it out of their heads. They wanted to know how you make characters do that, when some novels you read for days, then can't remember exactly who the players were.

One woman remembered boys playing the squashing pennies on railway lines game in her home town up North. And several boys dying as a result. I thought I'd made it up! Just goes to show, we must read these things - they make an impression, then leave for the depths of the unconscious.

The title story, Glass Bubble, they found easier to read, because of the humour. There was a good discussion about the proximity of humour and grief/sadness. Maybe like love/hate the thing is a circle and they meet somewhere at a point where they are indistinguishable?

Questions and discussion lasted almost two hours... and I thought Id better leave them upbeat, so read them an old story called Naming Finbar, which had out-loud laughter echoing. So that was good. I had to leave my copy of that one... it was to be photocopied for mothers in law, mothers, Irish friends. And that was lovely.

I was a bit disappointed to find that no copies of my book had been bought, though. Apparently the library service doesnt deal with Salt Publishing's distributors. And there was some problem. So they'd all had photocopies of my work to read. On one level, thats fine. I'd rather I was read than not. But then, libraries are about books. And the indie presses are like gold dust. Precious places which, unless they sell books, will go under.

It was interesting to see that there were copies for everyone of the next book on the reading list... Salman Rushdie's latest, bought by the library for the group.

Another ten sold, Salman.....

MOI READING AT SPARKS, BRIGHTON

Meself, reading a flash called Gas Gangrene at the Sparks flash fiction and photography event, held monthly in Brighton.

Weird. Seeing yourself read. Even more weird, hearing the reading style. I say. Oh golly. How naice. Should be read by a bloke, this one.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

ALEX KEEGAN: THE LONGEST INTERVIEW IN THE WORLD, PART THE THIRD

This is the final part of the Longest Interview in the World. True to form, I sent a few queries today, expecting one liner responses. Silly me. The Encyclopaedia Britannica starts here.
However. Let’s put this in context shall we? 20 years since Clapham. A writer who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and has struggled with it on and off ever since. And who acknowledges openly, here, that it still gets him.
One direct result of having this stuff up here, stuff I posted because he’s a good writer who has a book out with my publisher, is that he received hate mail. Anonymous, of course. Jesus, people. (But. Whoever sent the hate mail. A pound to a penny you aren’t, and never will be, a writer. Or even a shadow of a writer.) Pigs Might....

Today, we return to the Collection. To his writing processes. To the themes he explores and why. To a writer’s voice and what that is, what it means for his writing. And yours and mine. But I wanted to start with the flash process. Because he taught me that, and without it, I probably wouldn’t be writing now.

V: You have told me that quite a few of the stories in this collection were written as flash exercises, then edited/expanded. Can you explain the power of writing in this way?


A: Four of the seventeen stories are prompt-driven "flashes" even though one is 3.5K. However these are relatively old stories. I get a lot more finished work from flashes these days. The answer is tricky (in a few paragraphs)

V: Oh dear…
A: I believe almost absolutely that the "only" way to write truthfully is using the unconscious/subconscious. If I am not involved with day to day teaching and "merely" writing then an idea would come (actually idea is too strong, too definite)... a 'THING' would come, an image, a snippet of dialogue, a sudden thought or fear or smell or recollection, a what-if, a line of text, or perhaps a snatch of poetry, even a view, a sunset... something "tweaks" me, or calls to me, or "sticks to the soul"
I've taught that the worst thing to do is to grab at that thing. I could explain but we'd be up to 10,000 words before I got close...
You have to make sure it isn't lost (notebook, but better a whiteboard over your desk) and refuse to write about it. You wake the thought up every day, stir the soul-mix, waiting for the real reasons the "thing" tweaked you to start to gather momentum or react chemically
Eventually the thing swells up and demands to be written, preferably without much conscious thought.
I believe this is much nearer the deep truths in us.

Al the above is fine, but ongoing, teaching (and writing with other writers) how do we get a story out tonight, and how is that story NOT conscious?
Via flashes.
If we have a set of prompts, maybe 12, maybe 20 and we read, react, AND we only have 45/60/75 minutes to respond we don't have time to "consider" and become conscious. Instead we react and often we are wonderfully surprised by the inventiveness of the half-hidden psyche.
I dislike (you could say detest) "conscious, deliberate, planned, "clever" writing. I loathe self-conscious, controlled, titrated language. I believe in blood, mistakes, Freudian connections that intrude, not ones I plan to make.
Every story in this collection was written in one blasted sitting. Only one story I have ever written (and did well) took two separate sittings. Interesting that of all my prize winners this was the one that my editor at Salt DIDN'T like. (Well spotted!)
I believe flashing is a false (but clever) way of mimicking the brewing process that I use when I have lots of time to stew a story. No time, trust the gut - how did THAT connection come? Wow, why that thought, that memory?
When I look at my successful flashes I sincerely believe that I would not have found 2% of them by TRYING. They had to erupt, emerge, explode, swell out, escape. Even if I had found the same ideas/plots "deliberately" I am certain they would have produced inferior stories.
When you interview “me” there’s a problem (apart from me not shutting up.)

V: Hmm. Is that it on flashing? Or is there

A: Nah. There’s more.
I am one thing when writing, say, “From the Tenth to the Eleventh on the Occasion of My Passing.” That is dark, about ‘do not go gently’, very much a man-thing story, heavily poetic, sensual, sexual. That’s me, the writer and the person (if I get the chance!) and it’s me at the junction of sex and death. Eros-Thanatos etc, God, Freud woulda LOVED me!

Then there’s “me” learning to write and writing the crime books. Then, I thought they were just literate crime books, but in fact they reek of sex-death and I’m sure a good critic would see “me” and my voice at work already.

But then I was “alone” writing at home, not interacting on the internet and so on.

A third “me” is me running an on-line writing group, nice and safe (like Boot Camp where I own the keys) and sometimes out there “preaching” until I get booted, usually after about three months.

There might be a fourth me. This me is trying to energise 15-40 writers to get to fucking work so maybe I post a set of prompts, poems, snippets, single “spiky” words… that’s fine, but then I also feel I “have to” write a flash myself to show yes it can be done.

So I mean there’s me writing-writing, fired up with something important (like maybe if I closed down the teaching side and wrote a novel) and there’s the me whose writing is a side-effect, almost an accident of geeing others up.

My “preferred-mode” to generate deep meaningful stories is to take cues like ideas, snippets, photos, thoughts, and “store them” (often a long time) and let the fester. Here I’m priming the sub-conscious until eventually a story “swells” and forces its way out.

Prompts and rapid writing is a “clever” imitation of that process. If we grab at a list of open-ended prompts, especially when many are from poems, we trigger a kind of fast attack into the deeper parts of consciousness.

If you and I read a set of prompts, provided we do not think too hard then we will “go different places” and produce very different poems, flashes or stories. Those ROUTES are out psyches interacting with the prompts. You have a different history, different sensibilities, so jokingly, I might link “raspberries” and “motorbike” and get onto one of my pet tracks (sex-death) whereas you might think of a Welsh childhood, the boy who owned the Triumph, your first crush. The key is being loose and open to the unconscious.

It works, occasionally brilliantly, but would the eventual story be different if such prompts partly-triggered a memory, we wrote something on our white-board and allowed it to stew?

So flashing we get a neat, placeable story, “a first crush”. But maybe the memory is false. Maybe motor-bike man was a rapist or a paedophile or we did something horrible and he died. Such repressed memories aren’t likely to pop out in a 90 minute deadline flash exercise.

So maybe fifty per cent of my work is just work-work. Yeah they are stories and I can place them, but they aren’t always the BIG themes, the deep and heavy. So I guess I kind of keep popping out neat meals with a reasonable sauce, but rarely have the time to prepare a banquet.

My “day-job” gets in the way. In my case it’s writing-related. Maybe think of it as I’m a journalist and rarely have time to write fiction. OK the journalist stuff is OK and sometimes more than that, but it’s not Nathan Englander or Saul Bellow. (pic: Mr and Mrs Alex K at the Salt party, and he seems to have a flying saucer about to enter his head.)


V: If I gave you the opportunity to talk about one more writing thing, what would it be?



A: THEME


When I think “my drivers” there’s an easy answer and a fuzzier, more real one. I now think my main drive is to understand who I am, what I am. I am a VERY unpopular guy, hated in many places and yet I have one desire, to write beautifully, to help others to write as well as they can. Those who have seen that, those who KNOW me, know what I am.
I received an email a few days ago, some sicko telling me I’m fifth-rate and I should have died in the Clapham Crash. Receiving that I realised I still have post-traumatic stress, twenty years on. I couldn’t move for ten minutes. Had the writer been in front of me I would have killed him gladly. I would have squashed him like a bug.
Maybe I am fifth-rate but I’d defy anyone to tell me my story Ballistics is not top-drawer. Do I believe I could write a Booker novel? I don’t think I could, I know I could. But I don’t like a lot of Booker stories, so…
But to write that novel means saying goodbye to a lot of people, and I really mean, “Don’t phone me, don’t email.” I work obsessively, compulsively. I have never touched drugs because if I did I’d be mainlining heroin within a year. That’s why I would never smoke. I’d be an eighty-a-day man if I did. (Yuck!)
You asked me does teaching “spoil my writing”. No it doesn’t, but it gets in the way, takes a mass of time. It’s 12:56 and I haven’t written a word of fiction today (yet).

Not that I wander, eh?

V: No. No. Of course not....

I should be religious. I FEEL religious, heavy, deep, philosophical, wondering. I sometimes think of things I see or hear as “God Leaking,” and earlier, when we talked I tried to articulate this sensation I have that I’m slowly beginning to understand (and that I won’t be allowed to actually get the final ah-hah! moment.

So my drives? I’ll send you a picture, this bright, bright kid (highest-ever 11-plus score recorded in Wales) (98…) then this slumping, frightened teenager… What the hell happened between him and him? I look at these two selves and do not believe they are me. That’s not clever words. I mean that exactly. They are NOT me.


In a recent radio interview they played my voice, some archive. I “knew” it was me, but couldn’t FEEL it was me.
This is where I am now, trying to understand time-lines, destiny, how people become something else, how people who love can be hated, how people full of hate are apparently loved, what “being” is. I have a strong instinct that I don’t have all that long. That pisses me off because I was just about ready to start working things out.

Maudlin fucker.

Whatever I write, whether it’s a simple flash, something comic, or another crime book because I need the money, all that’s underneath (now) is me trying to understand my life, or more fancifully, “life”.

I may or may not be understood. I don’t care all that much, not if I understand a little more.

V: Right. THAT’s the core of it, I think. It’s been said that writers behave like children round their teachers. Treat them like parents. Maybe. Dunno. But what parent sits back and lets their child bugger about wasting time when they know they are doing something so so so wrong? So this one tries to explain. Over and over…. Like the post below. Given for nothing. One of hundreds of articles all over the place. You can agree, or not agree. You can’t take away the passion, can you? And isn’t that what’s missing from SO MUCH WRITING???




I found this great little semi-article on a place called Writer’s Dock. I am copying it here. I doubt whether it will be read there, much. Here, it may be. I am always being asked about VOICE. What is it? and here is an answer.


VOICE and THEMES

John Updike has a cultured, fairly posh American voice (his diction/accent) and is slightly sad/cynical, and dwells on love/non-love marriage screw-ups, death etc. it's "what he is" and how he comes across. His voice.
I am often "dark", lyrical, "catholic", sexual and like prose that flows line Golden Syrup off a spoon. And I like Welsh as a song. I dwell a lot on death, old age, sex. That's my voice. I don't want to tell stories. More I want to understand what it is to be human.
George Saunders is ironic, satirical and has a faux US big-business/mindless voice. he wants to talk about the little man v big business.
Jane Austen is clear, clean, British, precise and genteel, almost accentless and "well-bred" if not "posh".
If people had read a lot of your work, scattered among the words of others, then they pick up your latest, they would recognise it as part of an ouevre, same similar sounds and word choices, same rhythms, same YOU behind it.
Character dialects, patois, accent, "voice" is not the writer's voice.

For me there are two large aspects to voice, one is what you like to say, and the second is how you say it.
If I say he is a dark author, and she writes "light" and then there are two manuscripts without the author's name attached, you would be able to decide which one was written by him, which her.
I like slightly unusual sentence structures. Many writers would not end the above sentence with "which her." I use a lot of emphasis, italics in prose, bold or caps in messages. I'm a very animated speaker. Had I been religious I think I'd very likely have been one of those stentorious preachers in Chapel who cries out, "There is someone here who has SINNED! Cast out the sinner!"

My tribal origins, my religion, my parents, my siblings, Georgie Williams, my best mate, Isobel who kissed me in the sweet shop (even though she was going out with Joesph Healey), my teachers, the Latin Master who still wore classis robes, Mr Fisher who held his trousers up with string and threw chisels, the nuns from my earlier life, Father Maloney the one-eyed priest, Uncle Ed who ran the children's home, my Corporal and Sergeant in the RAF, my kids in a backwards feed, Shakespeare, Dickens, Mickey Spillane and the BBC News have all influenced me, giving me words and sounds and feelings until I have become a unique voice.
That's not pompous BTW, we all have one, if we choose to use it.
And that long para above, that's very "me". I often "list" in stories, use rhetoric tricks (eg the three-mentions trick with the third emphasised, such as I will not lie. I will not lie. I will not lie!)
So a writer who has "settled into himself" starts to have an "ID" (see how often I use quotes!) a sound, a way of expression.
Do we say "he was sat" or "he was sitting"? Do we have a wide vocabulary or a narrow one? Do we use Anglo-Saxon based words, or more Latinate words; a lot of slang or great formality? Do we use contractions or run away from them? Is there a sameness, similar sentence lengths, or are longer sentences interspersed with little "PINGS"?

SUBJECT MATTER

Does a writer write Chick-Lit? Does he or she like immediately consumable stories so light you can't read them outdoors? Does he like to write in a way that requires a second read? Does he write a single layered work or one that has a readable first layer but hidden depths? Is he ironic or sarcastic, sad or happy, optimistic or despairing?
All these I mean in an "overall" way. if we look at my last 100 stories and someone else's last 100 stories, each would entertain in a different way.
You might say, "I read Tomkins when I need to cheer myself up. I can't be doing with Kafka. Two days of Kafka and I'm looking for a rope."
The point is that the writers have an overall feel about them, a mood created, a subject matter debated.
I am fascinated by the meeting of sex and death (eros-thanatos) and I'm striving, reaching-for, and I think a lot of my work is "achey" with a sometime spiritual undertone full of destiny stuff, fatalism, a slow fall away to a dark ending. Another writer might be seen as "always full of the joys of Spring" whereas one of mine character would tell her to wake up and smell the coffee!
Within a single writer there may be a lot of variety of voice, or not. All Agatha Christie's sound the same? All Dick Francis books do!
We might, because of mood or subject matter, try to write happy when we are fundamentally sad, or write dark when fundamentally our outlook is usually rosy. But chances are a skilled reader would still "spot" us. There'd be something that you could boil down to that is me, or you, Raymond Chandler, or Saul Bellow, or Carver, and as said above, Hemingway.

You walk into a bar, and over the various sounds, you hear a voice telling a joke, or having an argument. Even before you're close enough to actually recognise the specifics of his voice (little v) something in the music and weight and lilt of that voice says to you, "Oh bloody 'ell, Bill's off on one again!' Bill signs his speech but doesn't know it. We sign our stories, and may or may not.



THE END

Monday, 15 December 2008

NEEDLEMAKERS WRITERS- A belated post! And an introduction to a poet called Clare Best.

Needlemakers Writers held their third event last Thursday. An evening of prose and poetry in the Needlemakers cafe - a good atmospheric venue for such things. Great food and drink on offer, books a vailable, and Skylark - the lovely place that said yes to stocking Words from a Glass Bubble - still open for a wee bit of Christmas shopping.

(Actually I was sort of involved in starting this series of events...There was a get together of writers at a place called The Garden Room Cafe, thanks to the lovely Cynthia Parrott (who wouldnt die for a name like that?).. meant to be a Lewes book launch for Bubble, but instead I wanted to just have a celebration of WRITERS and WRITING so did so and we all read stuff and didnt launch anything... but some of us stayed behind to talk about organising reading events, possibilities...
)

This from What's on in Lewes: Three Lewes-based writers, two novelists and a poet, read from their latest works in the Needlemakers’ Cafe. Clare Best is the poet; her collection ‘Self Portrait Without Breasts’ has been short-listed for three awards, and she’s working on another, too. ‘Treasure Ground’ is based on her experiences during an innovative writing tenancy on an organic farm in the Lincolnshire Fens. Susannah Waters combines running Paddock Productions (which organised the recent opera ‘The Finnish Prisoner’ in a disused warehouse on the Phoenix Industrial Estate) with writing novels; her latest, Cold Comfort, was a ‘Book of the Week’ on Radio 4, and deals with the subject of climate change. She’ll be reading from her new novel. Irving Weinman, who teaches an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex, is the author of five novels; the latest, Stealing Home, came out in 2004. His next novel, Wolf Tones, is released in the spring.

But I'd like to add a wee bit about the poet, Clare Best. It is so easy to turn aside from work that deals with personal physical issues. Why? because so often they can come over as self indulgent, maybe uninteresting even, except to the family of the writer.

Not this one. Clare's reading has to be one of the strongest and most moving I have heard. The work is straight, honest, searing... and funny, poignant, full of those little things that say 'this writer is a REAL writer. Not a sham'. You could have heard a pin drop (sorry for the cliche) and for good reason. The words were too good to miss.

Clare inherited a particular gene which gave her a high chance of developing breast cancer. So she opted to have her breasts removed as a preventative measure. She also decided not to have reconstruction, but to be honest and live with her different shape. These poems have been shortlisted for several prizes (see the bottom of the post), and deal with very searing moments. And very tender moments, as she charts her journey through poetry.

The touch of the young male doctor, just before she slipped under the anaesthetic. Her son, seeing her new body, telling her she was 'even more beautiful'. A trip to an Anne Summers shop to buy nipples. 'I've lost mine...' and most poignant of all, intimacy. Memory of sex, with breasts. Loss.

Am I allowed to say that she looked stunning? Little, blonde, sparkling in a pink glittery dress (for Christmas, she said) and silver tights. A very gutsy, talented Christmas fairy, who writes like a giant.

Clare sent me the details of the prizes and so forth. As Catherine Smith said when introducing her, I too hope this collection is picked up fast.

---------


Clare says:

The collection 'Self-portrait without Breasts' is still work in progress (begun a year ago), but groups/sequences of poems from the collection have this year been shortlisted as follows: Writers Inc Writers of the Year Award, the Templar Poetry Competition, and the Cinnamon Press Poetry Award (in this I reached the final four). Poems from the collection have so far been published in the Templar anthology 'Buzz' and are forthcoming in the Cinnamon Press anthology 'The Sandhopper Lover' due out in I think March 09, and in Smiths Knoll magazine (also to be published spring 09). Another of the poems was highly commended in the Essex Poetry Competition recently. And, just heard - 'Countdown' has been accepted for publication by Magma no 43 (March 09)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

THE LONGEST INTERVIEW IN THE WORLD. PART THE SECOND.



Today, the longest interview in the world (which Alex Keegan said this weekend he could have made even longer, but he was thinking of the readers) deals with his teaching. And Bootcamp. And far more importantly the driving beliefs behind both.
I have this theory, see. I think IF potential members of BC knew the reasoning behind the tough regime, they would get on faster, better. Less kicking. So maybe, just maybe, this is A Good Thing. And all that Jazz.
But first… I asked about his own writing processes. And got it wrong, naturally…

V: You say that to look too closely and deliberately at your own creative process stifles the very thing you want to encourage... you have to get these glimpses out of the corner of the eye. To look at them head on is like looking Medusa in the face.
A: Hmmm, did I say that? Oh dear. I ALSO say, examine, theorise, criticise, wonder, per-at, experiment, consider, "try to work out how" BETWEEN stories but when WRITING stories we should not care at all, and write drunk.
When writing we should let go and allow our unconscious free-rein and presume that the craft technique we have absorbed will apply itself automatically.
So it's not true (these days) (for me) that self-examination interferes with artistic process.
It MAY BE that it does temporarily for writers. It may be that they slip backwards for a while, but the more we understand about CRAFT, about the process, the better (ultimately) we can become
Do you remember my "John Aldridge Story"?

V: Football?!
A: Yup. I used to tell the anecdote of a footballer John Aldridge who came to Newport County. He was a natural, scored goals for fun. Newport County signed him. He went straight into the first team, raw as hell, scored about eight goals in 6 games, but then (we thought "why?") he was taken out of the first team and stuck in the reserves for six months "to learn how to play football."
When he got back into the first time he was rubbish. We all said, what have they done to Aldy?
The next season he was the hottest striker outside the top division, we were promoted, won the Welsh Cup, got into Europe... Two seasons later he transferred to a bigger club and then on to Liverpool and became an International player, then a successful manager.
He is the striker with the best overall record EVER

HERE is the point. Raw talent LOOKS good but it isn't remotely enough. It has to be allied with fundamental training, long hard lessons, growing experience.
Aldridge lesson ends.

Sometimes, we can "do something" but if we don't know HOW we do it, how do we know we can REPEAT it? If we examine and discover how we do things, what we do, for a while we may get too conscious... but once we get over that hump
we move to a higher level, and now this natural, random, insecure skill is solidified and enhanced.

V: I have an article somewhere. Hang on. Look, in 1066, a wet Wednesday it was…you said this:
"I know what I think. I just dont know how to express it. I don't have the tools, or the mathematical formulae, or the wondrous machines to reveal that there are quarks... I don’t have the mind that can deal with the idea that we, human beings, are almost toally space. ... nothingness across which darts energy.I know what my Spanish lady means. I can see her, feel what she is doing, sense the pain (and the beauty). It's just that when I look straight at it, my life gets in the way."

A: That's different Van. Are we confusing different things here?

V: Oh quite possibly.
A: I thought you were asking about examining CRAFT. To which I say yes, we must, because it is NOT mystical. But examine "the story I want to write" and I kill it because then I unleash the left-brain, consciousness, plotting etc.
So what is your question? About examining craft, technique, ways of expression, or "looking to hard at what I want to write today"? They are quite different. Look:
"I know what I think. I just don’t know how to express it….”
That is. I can sense, feel, smell "the area' (and the fuzzy - feeling I wish to express) but neither the precise thing "in a nutshell" or the precise route I will take to express it. BUT MY TECHNIQUE I KNOW. IT'S BUILT-IN AND I DON'T NEED TO THINK ABOUT IT NOW.
I don't have the tools, or the mathematical formulae, or the wondrous machines to reveal that there are quarks...
Again this is story. Like how hard is it to describe what love is, but we can write stories AROUND love and about love -
I don’t have the mind that can deal with the idea that we, human beings, are almost totally space. ... nothingness across which darts energy.
Again this is result, not the craft that gets me there.
I know what my Spanish lady means.
Yes, I mean I can sense the way she embodies my thoughts
but I dare not ARTICULATE them.
I can see her, feel what she is doing, sense the pain (and the beauty). It's just that when I look straight at it, my life gets in the way."
Yes, but "my life in the way" doesn't mean the craft gets screwed up! It means, if I remain semi-conscious, I am able to surprise myself but I still sound like me.
However, looking to hard causes me to become directly aware of the ideas and then I start to consciously adulterate the work, imaging readers, editors, how this might have been done by others.
I end up writing a pale imitation rather than something bloody.


V: Right. I get the difference…OK. You teach every day, whether face to face or online. Boot Camp Keegan, your online teaching presence, started many years ago and you have passed on what you know to hundreds of aspiring writers. Can you say something about all this? I do wonder about how teaching affexts ones own processes.
I certainly know a very well known poet was offered a teaching role at a prestigious University, and turned it down because he knew it would mean death to something. Any comments?

A: That might not be the same thing as (for example) me running `Boot Camp or being involved recently in "Tough Love Central" on Writers Dock. We don't "go to teach at a university" and merely teach.
There's paperwork, admin, politics, ass-kissing, travel, exams, paper to mark
boundaries we have to stay inside. Fer God's sake we have to WASH and get dressed to teach in class. It's basically "a day job" and probably very restrictive, so I can understand the poet's hesitancy.
OTOH it might mean EATING, and eating is good for long-term writing.
In BC I can, if I choose, say sod it for a few days. I don't. But I could.
V: That confuses me. I love 'teaching' or facilitating. It is a great buzz creatively for me, as well as (hopefully!) for the students. A: For me it varies. It can be a grind, sometimes, (especially when the gang won't work, won't crit, won't sub, or when 1-2 people get resistant and argue (in a bad way...) But generally, the "buzz" (from a good group working hard) is great.
About this bit: You teach every day, whether face to face or online. Boot Camp Keegan, your online teaching presence, started many years ago and you have passed on what you know to hundreds of aspiring writers. Can you say something about all this?
WELL, here and there I've mentioned Boot Camp. I first went on Compuserve, a total innocent abroad, and within weeks I found what I've found ever since: Most people do not want to hear the truth about their work, they want you to lie to them and puff them up.
Most people don't want to WRITE, they want to "be writers" (not the same thing) and that means to "be an author" of "whatever will place, anything, I don't care..." Of course it wasn't long before I was "in trouble" hated by a significant some, loved by about the same number. If I found a corner to work, talk, crit, as nearly always happens, a couple of dozen would arrive in the same corner. Amazingly outsiders would visit just to tell us we were being cruel and horrible to each other!!
I set up the rudiments of what became Boot Camp because I was working what seemed like 25 hours a day, critiquing stuff for free 1-2-1, explaining for free 1-2-1 and repeating myself ad infinitum.
If I could crit a story and everyone see, if I could explain and everyone hear, that would be better. Might people be worried about “going naked” (ie writing from somewhere deep inside)? I fixed that by having anonymous stories.
I had always thought critiquing was very selective, bitty and often "a cheat" and so I wanted ALL critiquers to HAVE to critique the opening, characters, dialogue, voice and so on and in order to make critiques more clearly comparable.
I created the "GRID" a marking system for each element (presuming all other elements are "par") so that it became possible to note (say) "the story is generally X but see how everybody scores dialogue low?
It's a lot more complex than that and "gridding" can be very subtle, but the system worked and has been improved over a decade of critting. My basic attitude is write-write-write (pause) submit-submit-submit. In that pause is critiquing, but here is the bit that nobody gets.
I DON'T BELIEVE IN WORKSHOPPING. I THINK WORKSHOPPING SUCKS.
I LOATHE WORKSHOPPING WITH MY HEART AND SOUL, just like I think
many Creative Writing MAs and MFAs produce soulless work

V: Yep. I know that workshopping drives you batty. I get that, but I don’t think as you say, may people see the issues. Can you explain a bit? I think people see 'workshopping' as a good thing.
A: A typical workshop gets a story with the author known. There are a number of comments with "thanks etc" (and explanations of the text) batted back and forth, and then SUGGESTIONS TO FIX. You sometimes see the story being doctored in response to every critique. YUCK! A camel is a horse that was workshopped. Workshops produce stories-by-committee.
What I say is Don't improve the story. Improve the WRITER.
I ask for a story (at least a flash) once a week, and I say "I do NOT care about your story. YOU should not care about your story. Your stories are mere material to learn from. They are crit-fodder. Yes, you'll produce stories and send them out and publish, but the purpose is NOT that, you could burn every story one month after it was written, and that would be fantastic. WHAT WE ARE WORKING ON IS YOU!
I can help you fix a story (I do, sometimes) and you might place it... but how much have I changed YOU? Now instead imagine you critique twenty stories this week (to a system) and a dozen people do the same, and we do NOT agree to disagree. We do NOT say "it's just taste"
We ARGUE. If you say "The Gem" scores 125 (A prize-winner) and I say it's worth 80 (beginner) we must FIGHT. Argue our case, refer minutely to text until we either persuade others or change our minds.
One WEEK of such activity will grow you more than having ten stories doctored by a teacher.
Now, here's the good bit. Time and again students say that while ripping into "The Gem" and spotting cliches, bad grammar, poor word-choices, imperfect rhythm (or whatever) THEY REALISE THAT THEY HAVE DINE THE SAME THING.
Now which is better? I point out an error, you fix but don't REALLY learn, Or YOU point out errors and realise your own mistakes yourself?
Do I need to go on?

V: Not really. But I suspect…
A: Boot Camp is rarely large... averages about 20 souls, about half of which are beginners. We've published what must now be thousands of times and had probably 500 prizes. I keep a careful count of FIRST prizes, and Boot Campers, while still in BC, have had 131.
Example BCers have won Lichfield four times, had two 3rds and a 4th... BCers featured so often in City of Derby they made me the judge this year.
I have been accused of crowing. OK. No problem. I crow. I'm proud of the system, proud of the people, proud of how hard they work, and proud when results prove that what I say works. This interview made me go and try and check how many novels and SS collections Boot Campers and ex Boot Campers have published. I know of at least TWENTY novels and 7 collections, four at least went on to college, a CW MFA, two CW MAs with distinction, two starting MPhils, on PhD, and at least six becoming editors, many to teach CW.
And coming full circle, back to "Can you teach Creative Writing" AND "Are there rules, principles, ways of doing..." Answer: it's all yes-yes-yes and any established author who says there are not rules is a liar.
I do not say you can take any individual and teach that person to become good enough to win the Booker Prize but you can take any person of average intelligence, if they have "the ache to speak" and train train train them, first to lose the basic errors. Learn crisper language, lack of redundancy, understand rhythms and the colour of words. Learn what a stereotype is. Lose them. Learn what a stock character is. Get rid of them. Learn the 7 basic errors of dialogue. Stop making the errors. Learn that cheap twist-endings are naff. Stop writing them, and so on.
If a writer writes error-free the work is close to publishable. Now we need to understand what we ADD to stories. Colour, character, resonance, importance, "theme", "napalm"
good pacing, a language that "sails". Most can get this (even if it takes a couple of years`)
and they can publish steadily without being a spectacular success.
After that it depends a lot on what is "in us" or psyche, fears and dreams but even that can be taught. We can be taught to read, to use imagery, to use prompts, especially poetry and music, or to "visualise".
And what do I get? Well the small remunerations are just that, small, but the kick I get from seeing a Boot Camper publish well or win a prize is immense. I did this for seven years for zero payment. I did it because I love writing, and writers, especially beginners.

V: What about you? I have read that some writers find teaching hinders the development of their own writing.
A: This is interesting because I've seen "both sides" of this.
First, let me say I do not believe in Writers Block as an actual thing. We can be a little under the weather, recharging, a little depressed, not in the mood, VERY depressed or have life-matters that overwhelm us making writing difficult, but some mystical "thing" I do not believe it exists. (Also, occasionally we are getting ready for a tough journey and packing important supplies...)
Because I am ruthlessly honest I have, over the years fallen foul of the pack and ended up booted off various sites. But the fury, the frustration has motivated me almost beyond belief. In one case, where I was trying to pass on what I knew (not formally teaching) and being flamed mercilessly I posted that I would write a serious piece at least one every three days for six weeks (14 pieces) and that I would place the majority of them. Four of the best stories I've ever written were in that grouping (Jacob Perry, From the Tenth to the Eleventh, Rainbows, Miguel Who Cuts Down Trees (a First Prize) ) and there were other very decent stories and two more prize-winners, four articles, all sold twice, a total of seventeen publications.
Of course I was writing, AND critiquing, and battling an assortment of territorial morons.
So there, "teaching" (by example) was energising.
But once I was asked to judge a short story competition and foolishly I said I would read ALL the entries (about 300.) They were so BLAND and similar and joyless that I felt myself screaming. The sheer volume (I swore I would read from first to last word) depressed me incredibly - maybe there were other things going on in my life though - and after I had finished I found I couldn't write for about six months.
Answering all this is tricky because we'd need to define teaching, for one thing.
In Boot Camp, one thing I stress over all else is PRODUCTION (and then rigorous examination.) I might say "a story a week" and show that is a trivial task by writing TWO stories a week. When I hear moans my reaction is always to over-produce to prove a point. For example just this weekend, when nobody was submitting I "took on my group of 24 and said I would sub twice the total THE GROUP managed" That is I was subbing at fifty (FIFTY) times their average individual rate. Result? I have 40 items out there knocking on doors.
I do not think teaching "hinders my development". It gives me LESS time (of course) and sometimes I feel overcome with selfishness and a sense of mortality and I want to pull away and look after ME, get six novels out and try to win a Booker.

But sometimes I can get jaded or see a pile of truly awful beginner stories and think, "Oh God how steep is this road?" I want to find gems now and again just to lift my spirits (see later.) But I have to tell myself one thing. "We were all beginners once. We were all crap once." I give a talk called "Could Do Better" where I read my REALLY old stuff, stuff that would make milk curdle and cows barren. (As an aside it annoys and saddens me that so many "famous authors" like to pretend they were always wonderful, that it is just a gift. It isn't.
I used to have a signature on line that read something like: Beginning writers are like babies. Let's face it, sometimes they are UGLY. But look what they can become!"
It's remembering this that keeps me going. I have seen "hopeless cases" go on to win good first prizes. Often the 'awful" writers are the ones who work and work and work to succeed.
But we get stars too, many of them. Lexie Fox started with a blow-away story that went on to win Momaya. You moved steadily and produced some great work and eventually Prizes and your own collection. A quiet little lady called Monica Ali started posting these lovely stories about immigrants lost in a new land, one so special I sent it to Atlantic Monthly and told my editor there, "This lady will be a star, publish her now." They declined at the time. More fool them!
There are many other fine writers who have passed through BC. Some are proud to acknowledge it, some like to pretend they never had to learn their craft. We have had 131 First prizes from Boot Campers while they are Boot Campers, dozens more after they have moved on. Twenty novels and seven collections that I know about (with more in the pipes) and at least six BCers have become editors of journals. Their successes help me to keep grinding on AND the thrill when there's a big success motivates me to get up earlier, stay up later and write.

V: Any more on teaching, specifically?
A: One thing I meant to mention was that in my opinion I DON'T "learn from my students". I think that's American-led bullshit!
Like top Brain surgeons learn from the interns? Right.
But often, (I said this in an article once) having to answer a difficult question makes me examine what I do and how I do it, and I often articulate insights, things that were always fuzzy before.
Because I do not believe that art is something else, because I believe (and surely we can prove) that art is just out there on the continuum from bad craft thru good craft to great craft, then comes art - self-knowledge of my CRAFT can never hurt me.
I teach thinking, testing, wondering, examining analysing, critiquing BETWEEN stories but when we WRITE stories, we just do it "drunk".
In a recent group situation someone suggested that people write TO and FOR the grid. Part of my answer was,

When I write there are no grids, no critters, no publishers, just me, and a very sexy female (also me) I'm writing for and trying to seduce.



V:Right. Fantastic, answers, and thank you for doing this. If people can be bothered, this is not only a great insight into one writer's processes - it is also a text book in its own write. Or something.

Next up, in a couple of days: Some questions on the forthcoming book. And details of a writing retreat.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

SPARKS, DECONGESTED ANTHOLOGY II, SALT PUBLISHING AT HORSE HOSPITALS, TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS AND LOVELY WRITERS WHO DON’T GIVE UP


Lots to catch up on.

First I read at Jo Horsman’s Sparks event, in Brighton, on Tuesday. I read Gas Gangrene (Here, on Eclectica), against a photographic backdrop supplied thanks to Chris Cooke whose work can be found at: http://www.no-sugar.co.uk/
Thanks Chris! perfect.

Sparks is a great little event. Flash fiction, photography, great atmosphere, nice pub downstairs for nattering afterwards. New Sparks blog HERE

Then last night, I kicked off the launch of the Tales of the Decongested Second Anthology, at Foyles, Charing Cross Road. Fab event, wine flowing, and the book looks wonderful. Work by Toby Litt, moi and many others. I read my story… ahem: How Claude Romarin Lost the Buttocks of Celestine Bigorneaux. EXCERPT HERE
Mad, you say? True. How true. It is only Genius at work. I had several nice people saying the reading was good. (French accent, hammed up something dreadful… but I love that story so there!) Lovely quality book, inside n out.

Then I charged down Underground tunnels (I hate Tube journeys and am frightened of them. Was attacked once yonks ago, and the fear never quite…)

Shut up woman. Off to The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, near Russell Square Tube. The Salt Publishing Christmas bash. I arrived late of course. No stairs to the first floor room which was a real live Horse Hospital… so a ramp for the horses…and a short story in progress … dying parent.

Feeling suitably Christmassy (not, as hadn’t yet had drink), it was great to see Mr and Mrs Alex Keegan for three seconds, (he of the vast interview currently running on a blog near you.)…then had great time nattering with Elizabeth Baines, Jane Holland, Vincent de Souza, Jay Merrill, Isabel Dixon, Mr and Mrs Salt and the Saltettes. And loads of people I sort of recognise from the website… but didn’t know them. Am not much cop at introducing s elf.

I bought a squillion books. Or at least four.

The charming poet Mr Vincent de Souza came with me down the ghastly tube tunnels all the way back to Victoria. He is GREAT. Has plans for creative writing that include bikers… and readings, maybe, and all sorts.

Train to Gatwick. Drive the rest. Late. V tired. Wrote up workshop notes for today before bed at 1.00 am.

This morning….Second part of two part Brighton workshop for local writing association who has not yet paid me for the last two sessions I did for them, so I will not be advertising them again…. Or working for them again. I d asked for a cheque to be left. It wasn’t. Poo. Bah.

And there was a RTA on the A27. I got stuck for 30 minutes, while the police cleared what looked like a really nasty event. Rain. Wind. Old persons sort of car on its side. Smashed windows. Shopping bag and cardigan in the road.

Late at the workshop venue, and found to my joy, a note pushed through the door… phone number and ‘We’ve gone to Bills’. (Local superb coffee joint). And my writers had not given up on me despite pouring rain, and cold and wind. THAT is staying power!

We worked until 1.45… and had a great time. I think… a good strong group. I brought home two pieces of work intended for comps, read and took phone calls in the last hour from the writers, for final polishing.

Maybe I will write tonight. When I’m tired. I did get two poems started earlier. I need to do a screen off half hour when I’m well n truly knackered, I think.

(PS IF the writing association who has not paid me yet is listening... writers have bills to pay, just like you. I am out of pocket to the tune of tens of pounds, petrol, car parking, the sweat of my brow. Thinking. Paper. Printing. Plannning time. This is appalling disrespect.. seriously.)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

BALLISTICS. An Interview with Alex Keegan

Part 1 of The Longest Interview in the World....

Because I am interested in what makes us who we are. And because of this man’s writing, which has to be among the best I know. Here’s the start of a long exchange recorded thanks to email over the last few weeks, with a short story writer whose collection is on the chocks with Salt Publishing…


FRIDAY 12 DECEMBER....
If you walk along Windmill Road, by Spencer Park Battersea, on top of the railway embankment, you may notice a small stone memorial. It’s a bit faded now, there are weeds. Lichen is beginning to take hold, like it was a gravestone.
At 8:10 am twenty years ago today, three commuter trains were involved in what is now known as the Clapham Rail Crash. Over 30 dead, over 500 injured, said the reports… and the numbers of dead as a direct result of the accident rose over the next few days.

One man who walked away with minor physical injuries after helping others at the crash-site was Alex Keegan. Then running a successful computing consultancy, he was on his regular commute from Southampton to visit a client in London.
For a week or so after the event, all seemed fine. Then one day Post Traumatic Stress hit, and a chain reaction of interlinked events resulted in his life being changed completely.
Alex had always wanted to write. And out of the mental chaos came the steadiness and drive to write a novel. Cuckoo, a Caz Flood crime thriller, published by Headline Books, was nominated for an Anthony award. It was followed over the next few years by four more in the series. Alex then switched to serious short fiction and has now amassed over 300 publications, many competition successes, he writes how-to articles, edits, is a regular judge for writing competitions, and is also well known as a no-nonsense creative writing teacher. His online writers’ forum, Bootcamp, was a formative place for me some years ago.
Alex’s collection of prize-winning short stories, Ballistics, is published in time for Christmas, by Salt.
He agreed to talk honestly for this blog about the crash, his writing, his teaching, his philosophy about writing and the rest…


V: I was wondering... you have always described the Clapham accident as a pivotal occurrence, one that changed you, your direction. How exactly?

A: Well, not dying, seeing the carnage, made me realise what a pile of crap working for the man was. It hit me: I have to die. I want to have done something



V: What was your job back then?


A: After graduating as a mature student (Liverpool BSC Psychology) I drifted into Computer Sales and then computing and eventually set up my own consultancy working for large corporates and McLaren Cars.
One contract was with the computing arm of a major bank and involved me in commuting to London from Southampton.
I LOATHED it. I loathed the dirty, crushed, money-grubbing soulless "everything" of it. I knew I was in the wrong place, but when a car is moving...


V: Do I remember rightly that there an element of coincidence in someone else being in 'your' usual seat on the train? Did that set up a feeling of being given a second chance?

A: The whole story is quite long. Yes, I very much think, "God missed!"
I always travelled on the train in the same seat in the buffet. There was a table with one seat opposite two. I would board at Southampton Parkway and rush to get this seat so I could scribble away or read (with nobody next to me.) One particular lady would often sit opposite with a TOME of a book and instead talk about nothing all the way with an unlit cigarette in her mouth. She was killed in the crash and I only knew her first name.
But the day of the crash I was so late I didn't even buy a car-park ticket. The train was already in and I dived on at the back.
I was walking up through to the buffet when someone I vaguely knew offered me a seat. Instead of actually saying, "NO THANKS." I made the excuse that I was going to the buffet. "Oh," he said, "Get me a coke, would ya?" I was too embarrassed to say I wasn't coming back.
I went to the buffet and someone was in "my" seat opposite the lady with the big book and the unlit cigarette. The buffet bar was closed (the attendant had arrived late for work and missed the train!) so I went back to the offered seat. The buffet was destroyed in the crash with many killed there. I think I would have been killed, and this is very strange to get hold of.
Maybe it's a second chance feeling, but I still feel a kind of guilt. I was involved in clearing the road and then in the physical rescue. Behind us (there were only a couple of passengers who did anything) they whisked away a trainload of people (I don't remember that at all) and then suddenly it was strange, unearthly, quiet, empty. As the emergency services became numerous we climbed up the bank and walked away, totally lost, very, very strangely affected. We saw a pub and headed there. That was when the cameras and reporters jumped us.
I'm being long-winded here to try to answer the second-chance question. I have videos of me then appearing on TV. There's this skinny guy, full of life, fit as hell (I was a distance runner) wearing expensive clothes, but also bloody with a partly patched-up head. I don't recognise him. I look and I see someone else. I really do. What I am now, what I do now feels like an alternative timeline. Sorry if that sounds dramatic or BS but when I look and think, I am literally disturbed by it.


V: Why did you see 'writing' as 'doing something'? How much of that 'doing something' is the fiercely honest teaching you do, and often get no thanks for?
A: Being genuinely close to death, seeing death, wondering about death, changes one's attitude to the use of one's life.
For that reason I hate waste, hypocrisy. I hate the way we cruise, wasting time. I believe that most of us only LIVE for 1% of our time. That's a tragedy.
I had always written, wanted to write, wanted to say something, wanted to be heard. That core feeling was always there but I was badly-read, left school at fifteen, was untutored, unmentored, alone in a desert for years, and how-to books seemed facile or gibberish.
And like so many starting out, I thought "Science Fiction", "Thriller", "Sexy stories", "twist-endings". You see, then, though deep inside what was driving me was WANTING TO WRITE it didn't manifest that way. It came out as WANTING TO BE A WRITER.
The first is about truth, passion, pain, going naked. The second is about wanting kudos, to be on the shelves. The first is hard, the second is just more forgettable paper.
Mentally in the year after Clapham, a huge piece of me felt as if it had gone off somewhere. I don't mean the following exactly but it was almost like my soul had floated off or that I HAD died. I felt like an automaton. I sought things that made me feel but the intensity would make me cry. I didn't want sex. I wanted to make love, and for a while, every time I did, I cried afterwards.
The intensity of how I saw everything, felt everything was scary. I just needed to do something that mattered and mattered to me. (I should say at this point, that this looks a lot more neat than it was at the time.) I was mostly OK for about four-six weeks after (except for high emotionality and a freaky body-awareness) but then in January, during an interview I "cracked" and began to cry. It was like being punched hard in the gut. Then PTSS overwhelmed me. I couldn't concentrate, rarely finished a sentence, was very "emotionally labile"... I had been in systems design/programming and became unable to do it.
All my contracts ended, no new ones came. (I was a mess) and the whole pack of cards fell down. So a lot of these "threads" were tangled. I doubt those who knew me then would see what I've written above. Much is retrospectively explained and clearer now than it was at the time.


V: Can you say something about how you turned the trauma into creativity?

A: I didn't. I just stopped chasing money and gave my soul a run out (it took a while to come back to life). In one of the stories in this collection, Spectacles, Testicles, a hard-nosed sales-manager is going to work:

Tom has come down to breakfast psyched up, ready for one more week as a sales manager. He is glass and steel; he is cold and hard. He is not a poet or a writer of prose this morning. He is neither warmth nor wood, nor grass, nor water and he is not heart, and not soul. Instead he is what he thinks he must be; hard-headed, get-ahead, efficient.
Susan should have tried this move after Tom's Sunday run when she knows he is always mellow and at his most receptive, not now. Tom knows his next move is to be angry, so he picks up the stuff and manages not to say anything else.


V: Was there a sense of reason, planning? Moving (as you said recently somewhere) towards exploration of the unexplainable.

A: Not for years, but as I approach the inevitable I describe it more and more as "beginning to understand". I have this deep feeling that it's all a kind of joke and you suddenly get (if you look), the answer, and then the lights go out.
Just before the end of consciousness, there in the dark you think, "Oh, fer fuck's sake"


V: I'm going to play Devil's advocate here. If the responses in you to the Clapham disaster come down to responses to a random event with no meaning (I take that is what you mean by, 'Oh fer fuck's sake’) or worse... a random action by some all-powerful prankster little better than yer average teenage lad, that belittles the humanity of it all.

A: No! I MEAN, even though I'm not religious (but I'd love to land on my head and wake up "believing") and I'm very unsure that there's a God - as I age I keep thinking I am getting more and more insight into "what it is", this life, living, being. I have this ironic, black-humour thought that there IS a God and the moment you "get it" you die, and that when you "see the light" it's all so incredibly obvious. (A bit like finally understanding ‘theme...’)


V: Difficult question: You were raised a Catholic. You sometimes refer to it in your work. How much if at all, does that underpin your response to the Clapham disaster? Many will have forgotten it, many will have been severely damaged by it. You've turned it into a positive.

A: No, I don't think "I" turned it into a positive. I think, for me, I got (cliche-alert) a wake-up call Right now I'm in financial stress, worried, blah-blah, but I feel so much more WHOLE. But I can't say I took a tragedy and made a positive from it. It's more like that falling on my head I mentioned earlier. I'm not the bloke who smashed his knee in Clapham. He's a cousin of mine on the bad side of the family.
I don't know if "Clapham" or dying, or thinking about dying, has anything directly
to do with my childhood Catholicism. I should write a poem: "They fuck you up your priest and nun..." but I do believe life has WEIGHT and life has resonance.
I believe it is there ALL THE TIME, every second, 24-7. We just get distracted or lazy. I forget who they were but two famous poets/writers met at the bedside of a
critically-injured or seriously-ill writer friend. The setting was awful, sad, tragic, but then one of the two spotted a droplet of orange liquid (body-fluid?) caught in sunlight, exquisitely beautiful, and told the second who also felt the wonder.
It's there in a bread-roll, it's always there, but we rush by. I wonder if religion (some religions) are about loving bread ?
Maybe fine art is the real religion?
(PS and this is important. A LOT of my work is NOT "fine-art". That's because
as a side-effect of my teaching-encouraging, I bang out OK work to show we
should write-write-write. Sadly, the OK stuff places a lot easier than the art.)


V: Explain? Why should fine art be so, any more than fine searches for knowledge, science?

A: Well maybe science would be the same "thing" (something like religion) TO A SCIENTIST But the science, while fascinating, is outside the self. It's all why-how-what, discovering life, but for me writing is all about getting closer to understanding and forgiving me, my parents, the system, the horrors as well as the beauty.
If I may get clichéd again, when we ask "What's it all about? What's it all FOR? in my case it's trying to understand my essence, my why, my what.
When an incredible painting touches us, where's the hit? It isn't in the head is it? We feel it in the gut or the chest. It's EXPLAINING something deep down. Mostly we can't understand the message, the explanation, but we sense we have moved infinitesimally towards the truth.
When that happens with a story it's almost sexual but more so, it's like heat passing up from the gut.
Yesterday, in a silly flash, I wrote this:
You know why we have a navel? Are you going to say “umbilical cord”? Nope. Wrong! When we are made (from clay) and we’re lined up, God comes along and prods us in the stomach, “You’re done! You’re done! You’re done!”
And that, until I was thirteen, was the absolute truth. I realised that I still "believe" that silliness, even though I now understand biology. I find that incredible. My mother is here, still, telling me this truth.

PS Don't expect a string of logical connected sentences from ME!


V. I won't.
Thanks Alex. I think that’ll do for now. On Sunday (14th) I’ll post the discussion on your teaching, on the infamous Bootcamp, and allied subjects.