Saturday, 30 January 2010


It was one year ago today I began this blog. Part of my successful Arts Council application commited me to documenting the novel-writing process. I wanted those toying with the idea to get a sense of what was involved, as well as offering advice on aspects of craft, such as dialogue, narrative and exposition.

So far there have been 7,993 visitors (though I expect (and hope) some of you have popped by more than once), viewing a total of 13,598 pages. There have been competitions, interviews, book reviews - but mostly just discussions on this dirty old business of writing.

I am a little behind my target of completing the first draft, but stick with me - I've not far to go. After a couple of weeks of 'leaving it well alone', I'll edit and re-write furiously with a view to submitting to publishers in the spring. Stick around and I'll share the rejection - er, I mean acceptance letters with you.

It's been great to meet so many people - some just passing through, others who've become hardcore stalwarts (cheque's in the post). Writing is a solitary affair, which requires a reasonable level of insanity to maintain over a year. So thank you for all your comments and feedback, and, well, your company really.

Thursday, 28 January 2010


Just found out I made another shortlist, this time for a story from my collection. You may remember this competition from a couple of years ago, when Zadie Smith, the judge that year, controversially decided that none of the stories was worthy of the prize. There was a bit of an uproar, though it struck me as rather a brave decision.

There’s little chance of a repeat this year; that shortlist is as strong as any I’ve seen recently – almost a who’s who of hot writers at the moment – so I’ll rate my chances of a prize as moderate. All shortlisted stories will be published, though, so it’ll be nice to be sandwiched in print with such esteemed folk. And as all writers know, rejection tends to be the norm, so I’m going to enjoy this little run I appear to be on.

It’s got me thinking about submitting stories. I would advise new writers to strike a balance between entering competitions and submitting generally to literary publications. Why? Well you could be a very strong writer but for some reason you don’t write the type of stories that do well in competitions. (This is a whole other post, but for now let’s just say that trends in style and genre and voice, combined with the subjectivity of art might mean you have little success despite creating strong work.) If you regularly submit to journals, you should find a home if the story is good enough and you’ve researched the publication in question. You’re also more likely to receive some feedback if you are rejected, depending on the levels of benevolence of the editor.

Competitions are fickle creatures; like the proverbial bus, you go months without a ‘hit’, then several come at once. But if you’re consistently getting nowhere in them, and your general submissions are roundly rejected, it’s time to look at what you’re doing wrong. Alas, the scope of this piece (and likely this blog for now) isn’t broad enough to explore this. Besides, advice on how to write should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism; the best way, I believe, is just to read the best work out there.

If you're new to submitting work, start with the smaller journals and competitions - entry fees can soon rack up, so find your level and aim to raise it. There are some big prizes out there now for short fiction, some probably pay as well as a book deal. Not that we're in it for the money, you understand.

Monday, 25 January 2010


This article got me thinking about starting this novel – the fear and excitement that swirled in equal measure; the overwhelming nature of the task ahead. Why would anyone, with no guarantee of success, give a year or two of their life to creating a fictional world? (The first ever post of this blog asked this question.)

And now, as I near the end of my first draft, excitement and fear again compete, the former marginally more prevalent. There’s the thrill of drawing all the strands together, a sense (hopefully) that all your research and work have come together into a compelling story – a (hopefully) unique one that did not exist until you decided to write it. Still lingering, though, is the dread that you might not have pulled it off, that it will simply collect dust over the years, sitting accusingly in a drawer, it’s only company the constant stream of rejection letters that highlight its shortcomings.

Someone asked me at the weekend over a pint (it’s the standard retort to ‘I’m writing a novel’, unless you’re Peter Cook), What’s it about? Writers hate this question. I’ve taken to replying, It’s about 300 pages. Then, if they haven’t left, I say in my best Bernard Black affectation, It’s not about anything: there are some characters, things happen to them. Then, as they roll their eyes and sigh, I tend to give them the unabridged version that leaves me feeling empty. Don’t do it. The only time you should tell your story is when you’re writing it. My point here is that a novel begins around something – a fragment of conversation, a newspaper article, a conceit that fascinates you – and grows from there. It will consume you, inebriate you, obsess you. It will wake you in the night, sometimes in resolution, others just in a cold sweat.

Regardless of the levels of fear and excitement, you’ll do it anyway, because you have no choice.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


Just started reading this, though I really don't have time.

It's my wont to get around to much hyped books a couple of years after publication. I'm only thirty pages in, but the thing that hits you from page one, that elusive quality Them What Know always hark on about, is VOICE. Compelling, convincing, consistent and other Cs too probably. Keep coming back to it, but if you forget you are reading, if the author is totally absent and has immersed you utterly into a world you can't bear to leave, then it's a good 'un.

Monday, 18 January 2010


Not my genre, but a (small) fascinating insight into how a successful writer goes about his work.

Friday, 15 January 2010


Short FICTION is now welcoming submissions for its fourth annual competition. Writers without fiction book publication (of novel or short stories) are eligible. The winner will receive £300 plus publication in Issue 4 of the journal. Entries must be of previously unpublished work (in magazine or online). There is no theme restriction or limit on words. Entry is free (one story only please). The deadline is March 3oth. Stories to shortfiction2010 at googlemail dot com

Good luck.

Short FICTION is the literary journal with a visual edge. Dedicated to publishing the best contemporary short stories, each of our 192 page issues presents 15 or so writers in individual chapbooks of space with lead-in bespoke illustrations. A fine-art centrefold marries text and image in glossy colour insert. We’re supported by Arts Council England and award-winning contributing editors including Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, and Toby Litt. Published annually in September, we accept general submissions from 1st September until 30th March each year.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


(No full reviews until I've finished my first draft.)

I like quiet books, ones that unsettle, get under your skin unseen, unnoticed. Mohsin Hamid's second novel is a story simply and subtly told, yet with no absence of pace and tension. Voice is probably the single most important factor for me when reading - can I trust it, give in to it? Is it compelling, plausible? Does it make me forget I'm reading? - and that is the case here. Themes of love and loss abound, but mostly this is a story about cultural identity and its blurring. I've considered for days whether the author pulled off a satisfactory denouement; I think he did, just. See what you think; at a little over 200 pages, you'll read it in a few days.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


Some lovely news yesterday. All things being equal, I make the odds 3/1; might be worth a pound.

I worked hard on this collection, tinkering, sculpting. It began life as my MA dissertation, doubling in size and, I hope, quality over the next year. I still maintain writing a good short story is as hard, if not harder, than a novel – though obviously not in terms of stamina.

Salt’s commitment to quality over commercial literature is admirable, and I wish them every success in 2010. Even if I don’t make the last four.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Joined a book group this week. Not content with having several hundred (long) short stories to appraise, a novel to finish, and a whole shed-full of too-big logs to chop up before we freeze, I thought I’d risk letting someone else choose how I spend some time.

I was in one many years ago, which was much more about the quality of the wine than any literary aesthetic. Typically, we’d line up to briefly laud or chastise the book, the only person who’d bothered with a close reading would attempt a solo deconstruction, while the remainder of us got, well, sloshed. I nearly left after having to read this first up. Aggghhhhh. I think my opening comment was, ‘I’d rather eat petrol than have to read that again,’ which sort of set me up as the overly harsh critic. It got a lot better, however, and I enjoyed many a novel I’d not have gone near otherwise.

This current one looks a lot more promising, kicking off with this wonderful Marquez. My only reservation is that I’ve seen the film, which was good, but for me that’s usually the wrong way around. It’s going to happen again next week when I watch The Road having yet to get around to the book.

Anyway, I’ve promised myself to enjoy other people’s selections, whatever they may be, conducting discussions with both reverence and compassion. Unless someone tries to sneak a Dan Brown in. They wouldn’t, would they?

Anyone got good / bad experiences of such groups?

Monday, 4 January 2010


You submit a story to a respected literary journal, one that receives upwards of 600 in a reading cycle. Somehow you don’t read the standard yet polite rejection sent a month or so later, and email the editor thusly:

Any blood news on my story yet Limey’s [sic].

A further rejection is emailed, along with general advice that such approaches are unlikely to win favour or encourage the editor to read your further (also poor at a glance) submissions.

I’d like to publish the response but there may be children reading.

Yes, it’s frustrating when you don’t hear back, sometimes ever, regarding work. Even a standard rejection feels like a personal affront. But abusing those you hope will publish you always strikes me as a curious and rather doomed tactic.

Saturday, 2 January 2010


Hands up who's indulged a little too much. Thought so. Well, after you've joined me in making new belt holes, how about a literary challenge to purge yourselves? If you're writing something, why not commit to an extraordinary level of output? Say, double your usual. Treble. Perhaps break the back of that tricky section you've been putting off for ages. Give yourself a target: 30,000 words by March 1st; that's only 500 a day. Or four short stories.

Or if you're not writing anything, how about a grand reading adventure? A novel a week.

I've long since stopped making facile resolutions regarding health and fitness; I know I'll be back in the pub(s) by next weekend, however much I vow not to. I'll almost certainly have a Madras on Friday. But it's a good time of year to make literary aspirations. Write them down, where you can see them. Even if you fall off the wagon after a few weeks, you still have a lot of work to show for it.

I'm going to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of January. There's a post-it note on my notice board telling me as much. Then I'm going to edit it to an inch of its life.

So get up an hour earlier, go to bed an hour later. And just write. Until smoke issues from your keyboard. It's the only way.