Saturday, 24 July 2010


I’m off to read at Port Eliot this weekend, then to laze in Provence for a fortnight, where I’m told unlike ours their summer is still occurring.

And so a generous and well organised blogger would have prepared lots of useful and entertaining posts, scheduling them to appear in his absence

So instead, and especially if you are new here (a very good welcome to you), may I direct you the way of some (I hope) interesting pieces and conversations from the past eighteen months.

Here’s an article on dialogue. And something on characterisation. Looking at creative writing courses, do you think people can be taught to write? Why if poetry doesn’t come like leaves to a tree, it probably shouldn’t come at all. A quick flash from a master. Some writerly rules. Can you name these first lines from classic books? On rejection. Finally, here’s a review of my favourite book of recent times.

So, until my return, happy penning.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


I've no idea what happened to the first seventy two.

In an attempt to kick-start the writing day, a good tactic can be to leave composition mid-flow the day before. Not easy to do, but if you can stop mid-sentence/scene, this can save you that agonising period in the morning when your cursor blinks mockingly whilst you tidy your desk again.

But my own favourite is writing a sentence or two, in context, that are so appalling, so excruciatingly cliché-ridden and clumsy, I am forced from any inertia into rapid rewriting, and thus the day begins. Try it.

Monday, 19 July 2010


If you’re in London over the next few weeks, this is showing at the Young Vic. Apparently, McDonagh wrote it in eight days, astonishing if true. We studied it on the MA, looking at in-yer-face theatre. I read it, alone with a glass of wine, in one sitting, and it’s nothing short of brilliant. By turns horrific and hilarious, it launched McDonagh into the big-time.

There’s also a salutary learning to be had here. As an unknown McDonagh moved to London with a burning ambition to be a playwright. He submitted eight (I believe) full-length plays to the BBC, all of which were rejected. Many would quit there, safe in the knowledge they’d given it their best shot, before sidling off into a nine-to-five. Beauty Queen was his ninth.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


I’ve blogged a bit about where folk buy their books, a subject close to most writers’ hearts, and, increasingly, to their pockets. In the past I’ve stepped out of Oxfam, smug in my ability to spot barely-tarnished literary classics for £1.99; market stalls always have a bargain or two; I’ve even (permission to impart violent gestures my way granted) purchased a novel from that supermarket. I pop into the last High Street chain occasionally, browse Amazon, and for maximum feel-good points I use my local indie. Book buying patterns are shifting hugely, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to consider the impact I have, as a consumer, on the literary world.

Some of the aforementioned outlets have done very well during the recession, others, like most of us, have had a torrid time of it. My publisher especially have weathered their share of turbulence – if you followed their plight last year, you’ll remember the JustOneBook campaign that turned their fortunes around.

And now, as the tough times (hopefully) play themselves out, Salt are expanding, embracing the new challenges publishing faces, yet are still struggling through this rocky period. Of course I have a vested interest here: if Salt go under, my book doesn’t see the light of day. But it’s about something more than that. The smaller, independent publishers tend to solicit work based on quality rather than immediate commercial value. Their critical faculties are attuned to literary splendour, bringing you, the reader, wonderful, avant garde voices – beautifully written books that the chains and supermarkets wouldn’t touch. Once they are gone, so has your choice.

So I ask you to have a look at their wonderful website, adorned with stunning covers, that encase some of the finest contemporary writing you can find. I can only speak for the books I’ve read, but if you want brilliant short stories, you could do worse than start here, or here, or here. And for some remarkable, prize-winning poetry I suggest this.

Buying just one book, from Salt’s site or one of their titles on Amazon, will go a long way to ensuring their continued success.

Monday, 12 July 2010


Gather round and welcome author Adnan Mahmutović, who is stopping by as part of his blog tour to discuss his latest book, Thinner than a Hair.

Adnan is a Bosnian Swede, an exile who teaches literature at Stockholm University.

I asked him about the book and a little about how he works.

Hi, Adnan. Thanks for visiting.

Hi, Tom.

Firstly, can you tell us a little about the book.

Thinner than a Hair is about a feisty Bosnian girl Fatima and her attempt to retrace her steps, or rather missteps, and understand what led her to prostitution in Germany. The book doesn’t fully deal with prostitution, but the historical circumstances which seem to have pushed many Bosnian girls in that direction. Most importantly the book depicts the margins of a war, not just the clichés and the official facts we are served in history books (the sanctioned ways of presenting tragedies). One reader wrote on Amazon that she liked how I depicted the boredom in the life of a refugee.

Like all my stories, it is a kind of farewell to refugee nostalgia, a way of dealing with the survivors’ guilt that many Bosnians feel in diaspora. Fatima has survived a war, but the inner struggles have not stopped for her.

Who will it appeal to?

While I didn’t think about it so much to begin with, I see that it appeals to a rather wide range of readers, from young adult people who can identify with Fatima’s coming-of-age story to older readers who perhaps better grasp some intricacies and subtleties of the lives I dramatize.

What came first for you, the story, the characters, setting?

I began with the character of Fatima, or some image of her, but then she changed, grew up. I’d say she was shaped by the story just as the story arose from her character. What I mean is that Fatima’s story is conditioned on the history of the Balkans. Her story cannot but be a (hi)story of Bosnia, or rather she cannot but be in conflict with this history. Now, while the historical setting is the major factor in her development, we unmistakably see how she paints a particular and peculiar picture of her history.

The setting, which took shape as I went along, became a hybrid of several different places in Northern Bosnia. The readers probably won’t notice this, but I feel I need to mention it. The narrative is quite realist, but I decided not to stick with any one place. I combined different places, as if they were not adequate to begin with, as if no one place could host Fatima’s complexities.

What aspect of writing do find most rewarding?

It has to be the moment when I can feel that the characters seem independent from my personality, my character, me as an author. They never are, of course, as John Fowles has taught us, but still, there’s that moment when I know that Fatima’s voice is not mine. There’s something liberating in that.

Are you a great planner, or is writing something more spontaneous?

Not a big planner at all. Once upon a time I took a creative writing course (and didn’t finish because the teacher vanished into thin air). On the course, we talked about preparation, mapping, profiling, kind of literary CSI, or no, more like a crook that plans a heist. Doesn’t work for me. Once I start working, nothing goes according to plans. Again, it’s liberating. When I’m writing, things happen. Planning tends to kill the flow, that’s why I’m a bit stuck now, because I planned too much. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”, maybe this applies to me too.

Can you offer three bits of advice for someone who’s started (or wanting to start) writing a novel, but is overwhelmed by the stamina and time required.

I must tell you I don’t much fancy giving advice, even though I’m a teacher. I guess it’s individual what works for what person, motivation-wise, but I guess if you have a story you feel you absolutely must tell, there’s no stopping you. If you don’t, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing it in the first place. The time is of course always an issue. We all have other jobs to support our families. Still, having little time may be good. When I had all the time in the world, I hardly did anything. I’m sorry, I’m not being really helpful. What I want to say is that if you have a compelling story to tell, you’ll be working on it every second of your everyday life, while walking to the bus stop, sitting on the toilet, you know.

Many thanks for your insightful and interesting answers. Good luck with the book.

Thank you for having me, Tom.

Adnan left Bosnia and settled in Sweden in 1993. After a few years in a small South-Eastern town, he relocated to Stockholm to work as a personal special-needs assistant. This employment of thirteen years financed his further studies in English literature and philosophy. In May 2010 he was awarded his PhD in English literature. He has published a collection of short stories and poetry, [Refuge]e, and two novellas, Illegitimate and Thinner than a Hair. His website can be found here.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


Well, here it is. The cover for my collection, due out in early November. What do you think? As I alluded to below, it could yet change. I really wasn’t sure about it at first – an author will have their own ideas, which whilst being considered by the publisher, may not work in reality. But the more I’ve sat with this, the more it’s grown on me. Dark, provocative, in parts salacious, it conjures up much of the collection, particularly the title story. (That’s not to say there aren’t tender and comic tales among them.)

Salt have a deserved reputation for producing wonderful covers. Anyway, I’ll let this sit with me some more before deciding. You can leave a comment below, or on the book’s Facebook page. Would you pick it up from a shelve? Read the back? Delve inside?
(Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Sunday, 4 July 2010


I regard myself as a charitable reader, in that I don’t often give up on a book, unless it’s wasting my time. At worst I’ll give it a hundred pages. So I’ve no idea why I put this one down one day a month or so ago, reading four or five other novels, before picking it up again. I remember being stunned by the quality of the writing, aware I was in the hands of a master, but something gave. I was appraising some 600 short stories at the time, so perhaps my mind was geared to the shorter form.

Anywho, as intended, I got back to the last 200 pages today. Now, it takes a lot for fiction to unsettle me, perhaps one or two books a year will really get under my skin, where not only am I in awe of the writing, but the story has got me by the throat, or balls, or other appendages, to the extent where I’ve forgotten I’m reading and am simply experiencing a remarkable book.

As I’m probably one of the last people to get around to reading this, I’ll keep the review brief. Part psychological thriller, part philosophical inquiry, Shriver’s narrator, through epistolary means, recounts the fifteen years or so of her son’s life before he massacres nine classmates, an English teacher and a caretaker in the school’s gymnasium. We learn Eva’s near absence of maternal instinct is exacerbated by a son who, from a remarkably young age, demonstrates a propensity for acts ranging from the mischievous to outright malevolence. Ultimately the reader is left to determine what part, if any, Kevin’s parenting played in his nature, which, if you’re interested in, what can feel (in more benign circumstances) a trite debate, will prove intriguing. As a story, you’ll need to get beyond a couple of sticking points to reap the book’s full rewards. For one We Need To… will feel overwritten for some, as Eva, in increasingly macabre hindsight, deconstructs every facet of Kevin’s upbringing and the familial dynamics, not to mention cultural and social influences. And some will find Kevin almost absurdly precocious, a caricature that, fortunately, bears little relation to any children we’ll come across. But once you accept these, you’ll be drawn in to a voice so compelling, so controlled and masterly, and a story that subtly gathers pace until, in the shocking denouement, you simply cannot draw breath as the final events are told.

Kevin (and perhaps Eva) are two extraordinary characters you won't forget in a hurry.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


I like to think I almost never choose a book solely based on its cover. Or its title. But what do I know about the unconscious machinations of my mind? Consciously, at least, I let the judgements of people / reviewers I trust persuade me. And a piquing blurb can swing it, too.

But I’ve seen some beautiful covers in the last couple of days, coupled with wonderful, evocative titles, which have given me a new insight into why we buy / read the books we do. Now writers, typically, are rubbish when it comes to covers, which is why publishers allow them some input into this creative aspect of production, while reserving the right to tell them they are wrong when they say it’s not for them. This is because the writer is too close to their work. They’ve spent a year or two on the bit they’re good at, and so, naturally, want the window to their magnum opus to reflect what they see as its aesthetic essence. (They may even have, during composition, rewarded themselves at the end of another long day’s rewriting the middle section with fantasies of seeing a very particular cover on a shelf in a particular bookshop.) The publisher, though, wants a cover that, frankly, leads to sales. And so the negotiations begin.

I got to see the cover for my collection (due out November, folks) a couple of days ago, and whilst the image was strong and provocative, it wasn’t, of course, quite what I had in mind. Now, whilst the publisher should stick to publishing, the writer to, er, writing, an author has to, if not be overwhelmed with love by their cover, at least have strong platonic urges for it. And so my kindly and much over-worked publisher is going to produce something else for me.

Next time you’re tome browsing, step back and try to observe the processes at work. Why does a cover draw you in / repel you? Can you picture the covers of books you’ve loved ten years after reading them? Would you buy a recommended book even if the cover / title was a stinker? I’ll post my new cover up anon, so be gentle…