Thursday, 26 February 2009

IT'S COMPETITION TIME

To mark the 936th visitor to this blog, and to thank you all, especially those who’ve left comments, I’m running a little (free) competition. First Prize (okay, the only prize) is a copy of this short story anthology, which features, among others, pieces by Luke Kennard, Wendy Brandmark and your humble blog host.

To win, all you have to do is write the best six-word story. Harder than it sounds. Here’s a few to get the creative juices flowing.

I’ll announce the top three in a few weeks, posting a copy of Riptide to the deserved winner.

Email entries to ‘tom vowler at hotmail dot com’ (no spaces), or the brave can leave as comments.

Closing date: March 21st. Good luck.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

READ AND WRITE


I know writers (honest), especially novelists, who steer clear of (other people’s) fiction when working on a book. Their concern would be unconsciously borrowing ideas, perhaps a phrase, even just a word. Others are content to read work significantly dissimilar to their own, reducing the likelihood of such purloining. This is not something I’m able to do, though. The fiction I tend to want to read is inextricably bound to my own aesthetic output. I can’t imagine it being any different. The books that thrill me as a reader, inspire me as a writer. To not indulge myself with a few literary novels each month feels unnecessarily monastic to me. I can’t imagine (insert musician of choice) not listening to any (insert related musical genre) whilst making an album.

I’m just going to have to trust myself.

Thoughts?

(And look out for a competition coming here soon. Win a holiday for two* plus a fine collection of short fiction. *This first part is likely untrue)

Saturday, 21 February 2009

REVIEW: CHEATING AT CANASTA

Last year two books roused that oft-dormant thrill elicited from reading storytelling at its brilliant best. This novel was one; the latest collection of short stories by William Trevor the other. I’d heard of Trevor – a friend had been pushing Lucy Gault onto me for ages, but – whether a faint memory of playing canasta with my grandfather as a child inspired it or not – I began with this collection. Over the next six months I read (virtually) everything else he’s written, such was the impact of these stories. Indeed, the opener, The Dressmaker’s Child, is one the most powerful I’ve read, but I can think of few collections where one or two stories aren’t somewhat mediocre, propping up the gems around them. And yet each story in Cheating at Canasta is masterful.

This should come as little surprise. Trevor is regarded by many as the greatest living short story writer, a claim I find hard to dispute. His work inevitably draws comparisons with Chekhov, as well as Hemmingway and Joyce. Like Chekhov, Trevor describes ordinary, often bleak worlds populated by everyday characters whose lives are transformed by quiet, smouldering epiphanies. The stories linger in the mind, indeed haunt, long after reading, a quality that, for me, alludes to excellence. I have no idea if the term exists, I presume it must, but on the rare occasion I now read beautiful, sublime prose - exceptional storytelling that captures perfectly the nuances and poetry of human behaviour - I refer to it as Trevorian.

The Times had it spot on: ‘Stories suffused with radiant and effortless majesty; a comprehensive ease of speaking about spaces in the human heart and mind that remains out of reach for most writers.’

Thursday, 19 February 2009

IT'S TIME

I can hold back no longer. The stabilisers are off, the armbands deflated. It’s time to start actually writing. I’d allocated several more weeks to research, character development, plotting…but the creative juices need releasing, lest they leak and stain the carpet. Or worse, turn rancid. Or worse still, dry up.

There comes a point where the obsessive nature of research can feel like progress itself, when in fact not a single word of fiction has been written. I find the desire to explore every facet of every character and possible event like a drug that needs consuming in ever greater amounts to satiate. It can become a cosy distraction, much like writing a blog.

And so today is the day I start to WRITE this novel. There are still gaps in my knowledge that will need filling, plot points to resolve, voices to find, but from now every writing day shall produce the minimum word count of 1,000 – modest, yes, but it’s one I work well to, and it is only a minimum. Failure to achieve this will result in severe self-flagellation. Indeed, you can check up on me with the word count bar over there on the left. Feel free to flagellate me also if necessary.

And so, off I venture into the murky, lonely and absurd world of writing a novel.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

WHAT'S IN MY TOOLBOX?

I don't mean to imply that I have a 'problem', but I have worked hard today and therefore deserve a beer or three. Or a (large) glass of rioja. But, to my horror, the cupboards are bare. Nearest pub is, oh, too far on a winter's evening. I feel a Richard E moment coming on...

Monday, 16 February 2009

VERISIMILITUDE: I SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH...

Fact, they say, is stranger than fiction…and there’s a very good reason why. Give 6.8 billion people an infinite number of potential actions and some bizarre, incredible outcomes will result. Just because these events don’t stretch our credulity to its extreme, does not mean they can fit blithely into a novel. I’ve seen rejection letters that go: Love the style, great characters…but some of the events are a little implausible. No they’re not! says the disgruntled recipient. Look, they happened here, then, to so and so, see.

But even the most unlikely events in fiction, once occurred, should have a vague sense of inevitability about them to the reader. A character can’t suddenly behave in a fashion contrary to her nature simply because I need her to. Things don’t just happen in fiction, not even in existential literature. Ridiculous coincidences and obscure ironies should ring alarm bells; unless they serve a specific purpose, they are lazy, likely there for your convenience. A reader has to invest a lot, so for your story to hold persuasion, to fully engage them, suspend their belief, events must resonate not so much with the real world but with the one you, the writer, has created.

If the reader doesn’t believe the character would cheat on her husband, join a cult, drink drive…at that particular time, you’ve lost them to implausibility.

Much of this can be avoided by careful and diligent character development, as mentioned here. As for events themselves, never assume that because something happened in the real world, that it is just as likely to happen in yours. I tend to recoil when people say everything in life happens for a reason, but in fiction it must.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Asking a complete stranger for their (unpaid) help can be a little difficult. I'm getting better at it, but - whether emanating from some childhood fear of rejection, I'm not sure - it doesn't come naturally. As I've alluded to before, I find it essential to know as much as possible about a subject before I write about it. And so, bristling with my usual trepidation, I sent an email winging across the Atlantic asking someone I've never met or spoken to, if they would kindly talk to me about something deeply personal and likely upsetting. A couple of hours later, a reply offering just that and more.

Thank you, Louise.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

IN SEARCH OF SNOW AND GRAVESTONES

If snow won't come to me...Honestly, not a solitary flake in Plymouth this year. Plenty, though, up on the Moor, where I spent today taking photographs of the prison (only later realising this might look a little suspicious).


Built in the early 1800s, Dartmoor Prison is a foreboding sight, its austere granite exterior tempered little by the beauty surrounding it. Home to French prisoners in the Napoleonic war, as well as American POWs, it was rebuilt in the 1850s to house some of the country's most notorious criminals; conditions were regarded as the harshest in England. Those lucky (or foolish) enough to escape, usually perished in the peat bogs or the severe weather. If you made it off the Moor, you were usually recaptured and flogged. One account tells of convicts making skeleton keys out of bones from their food. Another of a man who fled a chain gang amid warder gunfire, apparently aimed so as not to be fatal. The report states: 'The captured convict was severely injured, having received several shots to the head.'


I took the above picture in the churchyard behind the prison. The gravestones are those of convicts who died during the prison's early days. Some have initials and dates, others are just plain.

For my next research trip, I just have to work out how to break into a prison.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

COMING SECOND

I have a habit of coming second. Good in, say, the London Marathon; not so in a boxing bout. (I’ve never done, and never likely will, the former, but did come second a lot in the latter.) If not second, I’d just miss out on the prizes, in other words doing very well but, in my mind, not well enough. It started to irk me when this life-long pattern continued into my writing career: second, and ultimately failure, in applying for my MA bursary; fourth and second in writing competitions; just missing out on the top five of the Macmillan / Richard & Judy 'How to Get Published' competition (46,000 entries). It began to hurt. Was I the literary equivalent of Tim Henman? I did finally win something last year: a short story competition. I was shocked and overwhelmed. Incredulous. Other successes followed. And so today, having made the long-list of 15 in the Willesden Herald competition (which received 645 entries), I was disappointed to revert to form and miss out on the prizes.

It then began to dawn on me how strange a concept writing to compete with others is. Judges of fiction (of which I’ve been one), are given a batch of entries, a long-list, all of which will be strong. Most, if not all, could win, and it becomes largely a matter of individual taste. The point I’m making is not an embittered one, more to reassure writers who feel dejection (all of us at some point) at just missing out. If you’re consistently getting to long- and short-lists, you’re writing exceptional fiction. Judges’ whims are impossible to predict. Your story may not be a 'competition piece'. It will almost certainly find a home in one of the many esteemed literary journals if publication is the goal, rather than winning prizes.

(I’ll discuss writing competitions at some later date: their fickle nature, the revenue they generate, what judges look for.)

So, unless you’re lying prostrate on the canvas at the feet of your opponent, coming second is good.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

GOING NATIVE

If I'm writing about something, I like, where possible, to have direct experience of it, otherwise I'm essentially writing about someone else's view of it. In this short story of mine, a character is beaten up, so, during its composition, when a night was several beers in, I asked a friend to give me his best shot. Annoyingly, he did; I have the missing tooth to remind me.

For this week's research I'm concentrating on how to throw and centre clay on a potter's wheel, as well as how to escape from prison. Luckily, a good friend is a ceramicist, but I'm going to have to work a little harder for the latter.

All this got me thinking how far other writers have gone in the pursuit of research:

"We've got the boat and the zebra, Mr Martel, and the hyena and orangutan. But the Bengal tiger is proving trickier."