Monday, 30 January 2012

SHORT STORY COMPETITION


Just a reminder our 6th annual short story competition is now open for entries (until midnight March 31st).

First prize is a huge £500 + publication. Runner-up receives £100

Entry is £10 (via Paypal), which lets you submit up to 2 stories, as well as entitling you to a free copy of our next issue (worth £10), which will contain the winning story plus some of the best short fiction from around the globe. All entries are also considered for general publication.

If you're not familiar with the journal, do check out our website, where there are samples of stories we've featured, plus interviews with authors of some great story collections. The journal has a strong visual edge, with stories beautifully displayed in their own bespoke chapbook with illustrations.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

'AFTER'

(See 'Before' for context.)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

IS THIS THE S&M EVENING CLASS?

(An old post this, but one, as I begin research for the next book, that resonates.)

Some writers love research; others see it as procedural, essential collation before the creative floodgates can part. As a former journalist, I enjoy the immersion into other worlds, gaining a flavour of lives only previously imagined. I don’t think you can ever research a subject too much. Most of the nascent knowledge won’t grace your prose, but it might inform character in nuanced, unconscious ways. Many authors (Proulx comes to mind) live entirely among the cultures and peoples of their fiction during composition, imbuing them with firsthand experience of such worlds. The temptation, when almost anything can be researched by the click of a mouse, must be to bypass such a naturalistic approach, but you do so at your writing’s peril.

In this novel there are many subjects I had little or no knowledge of, and whereas I began reading about them, it soon became clear I needed to spend time with people who did. One of my characters is a potter. Now I’m sure the wonderful interweb has several million pages on every aspect of ceramics, just waiting for me to trawl through in the early hours. But the time I spent watching someone at a wheel actually making pots, listening to them as they worked, understanding facets that aren't easily delineated, was, I believe, unrivalled. Even the subject matter I felt some small expertise in, I tried where I could to experience first hand.

As for the darker elements of the book, it was certainly tempting to google my way through. Instead, so that I could do my character justice, I sought people who’d gone through what she had. Tentatively I asked for help, and was overwhelmed by people’s bravery and generosity. Asking some of those questions wasn’t easy, but then this business isn’t supposed to be. As a result I feel my character has an authenticity she wouldn’t otherwise have had. She has come to life. She is real.

So whereas we don’t have to trudge to the library for much of our research nowadays, I’d say the next time you’re reading about quantum physics or yoga or S&M or gambling or murder on wikipedia or some such, think about the richness of exposure that will give you. Would a pint with Professor Brian Cox (I expect he's busy, though) lend your research that extra dimension? A week on a yoga retreat? A day in the bookies? (I’ll leave you to fill in the others.)

You owe it to your readers, to yourself, to your story, but most of all to your character to occupy as much of their world as is possible. And legal.

Friday, 20 January 2012

INTERVIEW: CHARLIE BROTHERSTONE

A treat for you today. I asked my agent, Charlie Brotherstone of A.M. Heath, a little about his job, the role of the literary agent and the future of publishing.

"What's this shit, Tom?"

Hi Charlie. Welcome. I'm sure no such thing exists, but can you tell us a little about the typical day of a literary agent.
Hi Tom. A day can range from very mundane to really exciting, which is part of the appeal. A publisher could phone up and make you an offer for a book, or you could get stuck looking for a contract which, after many hours you find was never in the file (often the case). A lottery, but at its best great.

What's the most exciting aspect of your job?
Without doubt the best feeling is telling a writer they have a deal and they are going to be published. When you speak to people they don’t realise that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes before a publishing deal is struck. It’s a genuinely great moment between the writer and the agent, and is a hugely satisfying part of the job.

I'm guessing a love of good fiction is the minimum requisite, but how exactly did you become a literary agent?
I didn’t know such a thing existed until I was at university studying English. I did work experience at a very vibrant company and it seemed like an incredible place to work. A forum for ideas as much as a workplace, with inspiring people milling around all the time. I still find that is the case. The intellectual engagement the job offers is a huge appeal and producing good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a great motivator.

Is there one thing above all else you look out for in submissions?
Not really. The submission process is quite straightforward and the guidelines are clear. People often seem to get them wrong, however, with a bizarrely personal cover letter or a book-length synopsis, or writing a novel that is thinnest layered autobiography, with a fictional James for a real life John, etc.

Working together on my book was a wonderfully rewarding period for me: a fresh pair of eyes, sensing your passion for the novel, a new critical awareness. How do you find the editing process, trying to realise a book's potential ahead of submission? Do writers always agree with your proposed changes?
It’s by far the most rewarding aspect of the job, as my earlier answer suggests. Working together on the novel was a fantastic mutual exchange of ideas. Some writers are more responsive, others not, and usually as an agent you have to gauge the right level. Every person and book is different which is a challenge. Getting on with different individuals is a good life skill though, and mostly authors tend to be pretty nice people.

Do new (and established) writers need an agent to achieve mainstream publication?
An agent without doubt helps and 90% or more of authors have one. In terms of editing they can be helpful, as discussed, but in protecting the author’s interests they are indispensable because they have a long history of doing business with publishers. On the whole authors are totally new to the game and would not consider contractual negotiations part of their (artistic!) remit. There are exceptions. Further down the line the agent is a vital middle man checking on the progress of marketing, publicity and editorial departments at the author's publishers. That’s a very difficult thing for an individual author to do without upsetting relations with a publisher. It is expected of an agent, which is why publishers sometimes don't like us very much. 

Do you still find time to read for pleasure?
Yes, but it’s increasingly difficult! I try to split reading on an e-reader for work and physical books for pleasure but the new Kindle is making that tougher.

There's much debate concerning the future of books, the impact the digital age will have on them. How do you see things going in the near to medium future?
It’s a huge question which dominates most publishing seminars and it’s difficult to make predictions. The ratio of ebook sales to physical will continue to increase (not exactly Nostrodamus), but we are in a reactive state to the market. 1.2 million Kindles bought over Christmas can only mean one thing. Economic decline has been deleterious to the industry and has made an already challenging time very difficult indeed. Publishers are more conservative and are paying smaller advances. The next few years are going to be tough, as they will be in other industries. Whether we need government tax breaks to incentivise authors is up for debate. If we can ride the storm hopefully there will be more prosperous times ahead. Books are so much a part of the nation’s culture that it is abhorrent to think of there being anything other than a thriving publishing industry in the UK, and there are plenty of people willing to fight passionately for it.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

I NAME THEE...


I’m off to London next week. For lunch. And dinner. The former with my editor and agent, the latter with just the latter, who has promised we won’t end up lost in a transvestite bar in Soho this time. Don’t ask. Or, actually, do if you like; he’ll be appearing here soon for an interview.

Mostly, though, we’re going to discuss titles. You know, those things charged with the small task of capturing a book’s essence. Of resonating loudly and beautifully. Of making a bold and irresistible statement that will flourish, emblazoning itself indelibly into readers’ hearts and minds. No pressure, then. I have one or two favourites, ones that, like yapping dogs tugging at my trousers, are sensing the time for a verdict is near.

- Me me me. Pick me. 
- Sorry. It’s been a tough call. I love you all but…

The rest will be taken away and shot. Better get it right.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

SHORT STORY COURSE

Fancy giving your writing a New Year kick-start? A shot in the arm to make 2012 your breakthrough year.

Back, as they say, by popular demand, I am running my 6-week online course The Art of the Short Story (starting in February), which looks at the following elements:
  • A brief history of the short story
  • Narrative voice
  • Leaving space for the reader
  • Characterisation
  • Theme
  • Language
  • Critical analysis and revision
  • Structure and unity of effect
  • Submitting to competitions/journals
The course is demanding – you will need to devote between four and six hours a week to it – but, of course, this can be done from the comfort of your own home.

Drop me a note if this is something you think you’ll benefit from. More details here, where you can see some endorsements from those who took the course last year.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

'BEFORE'


So this is where the next book will be penned. Bit exposed to the elements, I admit, but you have to use your imagination. Because following an imminent erection, a writing den will adorn the bottom of my garden. It will have a small wood burner, gnarled furniture, but mostly solitude. Just the sound of the river and birdsong for company.

As I settle into the hard graft of the next novel, I’m increasingly aware of distractions: a phone call, a visitor, the interweb and all its prosaic lure. I’ve always had an envy for writers who take themselves away, immersing in deepest, darkest somewhere, barely a candle and some stale bread for sustenance, as snow piles up around their cabin, communication with the outside world put from temptation’s reach. The intensity of just them and the book, finally emerging months, years later, bearded (even the women), half their body weight gone, triumphantly holding aloft a manuscript of sheer genius.

And whereas this seclusion is possible for a week or two – plenty of writerly friends book themselves a retreat of sorts – the practicalities of real life prevent it occuring on any grand scale. So I thought I’d bring the retreat to me. A little snug with no phone line, just out of wireless range, no electricity. Accessible in ten seconds. I will go there, a-hum, every day and just write.

So what of the next book? Well, firstly writing to a (publisher induced) deadline is a new experience. Novel #1 was forged amid the luxury of timelessness (other than a self-imposed goal, by way of keeping insanity at bay). I wrote when I wanted to, at the pace I felt like. And so there’s motivation and a little terror the whole way this time. I’m having to revise my idea of discipline and commitment. And for the first time in life, I’m learning to say No.

Coming soon: 'AFTER'

Monday, 2 January 2012

REVIEW: TOUCH


I was slow coming to this. You don’t rush to the book that pipped you to a major literary prize. But then good books have a way of finding you. And so for several nights over the holidays I settled by a fire, with a glass of something, savouring a collection I imagine will become a favourite.

The stories in Touch are bestowed with a poet’s precision. Beautifully crafted worlds, rich with nature’s rhythms, its chords and hues, unspool with a masterly resonance, a cadence that only the sheerest affection for words and their power allows. Meditations on the enduring human truths form, yet never at the expense of the unfurling narratives: familial binds, the gravity of the past, of what can be borne by the heart, and what cannot. Mort is expert in implying something’s presence, in allowing the reader to find their own meaning and hope and delight, to complete the aesthetic journey he so brilliantly sets them on. There is much elegiac here – characters flanked by the ghosts of memory, gripped by loneliness, lives lost to love and the vagaries of fortune – and yet, as with the best stories, there remains a warmth woven through them, an aching beauty, an elegance and grace that is both affecting and comforting. More than that there’s a quiet dignity here.

To read this book is to understand the short story’s potential, its flair to simultaneously give great pleasure and reveal all that is human. I’d wager it’s the best collection of stories in recent years. Probably longer.

You can read Graham's thoughts on the short story in this discussion we had, an interview that led me to Touch.