29 November, 2013

An Angst Canon

Two articles about book lists have caught my eye in the last couple of weeks. Firstly, this article from the BBC about whether there is an "angst canon" of books that teenagers love to read, featuring main characters who are alienated by society.

You can buy me on Amazon. (Or your local bookshop!)
Books included in this list are The Ousider (Albert Camus), 1984 (George Orwell), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) and The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger), among many others. The idea is, of course, that teenagers are drawn to these books as they struggle to find their own place in society, making that shift into adulthood. Perhaps these books are accessories - designed to say something to the world about who we are by the fact we read them. I'm not sure. I read these books (except for The Outsider) as a teenager because they were on a book list, and the only one I liked was 1984. But if teenagers are using good literature to express themselves then three cheers for them, I say!

Which books spoke to you as a teenager?

Secondly, the 2014 list of books to be given out on World Book Night was released last week. I won't talk about World Book Night here because I've done that before, but I always love to see which books are going to be distributed for free among communities that might not have much access to books. I've only read four of this year's list, and only heard of one other. I'm getting behind in my literary knowledge!

I've read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Whatever it Takes, After the Funeral and Short Stories. I only read Whatever it Takes in order to review it for Good Housekeeping and I have to say I didn't think a whole lot of it. The plot was engaging enough, but maybe I was put off by the fact that by page 16 the characters (almost none of whom were that likeable) hadn't just spoken to each other but they'd grunted, whispered, commented and goodness knows what else. The other three though, I really enjoyed.

How many have you read? Any recommendations?

Me too!
  • Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch
  • Four Warned - Jeffrey Archer
  • The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne
  • After the Funeral - Agatha Christie
  • Short Stories - Roald Dahl
  • Confessions of a GP - Dr. Benjamin Daniels
  • Hello Mum - Bernardine Evaristo
  • Getting Rid of Matthew - Jane Fallon
  • Theodore Boon - John Grisham
  • The Humans - Matt Haig
  • The Perfect Murder - Peter James
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
  • Today Everything Changes - Andy McNab
  • Geezer Girls - Dreda Say Mitchell
  • CHERUB: The Recruit - Robery Muchamore
  • Whatever it Takes - Adele Parks
  • Black Hills - Nora Roberts
  • The Boy with the Topknot - Sathnam Sanghera
  • Gorky Park - Martin Cruz Smith
  • 59 Seconds - Richard Wiseman

26 November, 2013

Taurus by... Everybody!

Welcome to the final part of my 12-part Zodiac Blog Series. On Tuesdays in autumn I posted a story or poem each written especially for this blog by a different author. Each piece of writing took one of the signs of the zodiac as its inspiration. For the full list of participants - from established authors to first-time writers - plus links to previous stories and poems, please visit the Zodiac Blog Series Page.

Following 11 successful weeks my final author has gone missing in action! After eager enthusiasm for the project I never heard another word from her, despite a few attempts to make contact. It was a particular shame as she had chosen the one sign of the zodiac that several people wanted to do. But we will not be defeated!

Following the outstanding critical reception of my masterpiece A Cautionary Tale for Zombies, I thought I would round off the series by offering an overview of the 11 completed pieces of work, under the pretence that it is a good substitute for a story about a bull (this week was meant to be Taurus). I've been so delighted with the range of stories and poems we've had over the last three months, and amazed at the generosity of the authors who donated them - thank-you so much! I've had a lot of fun reading and posting your work.

It's not too late to go and read any story you haven't read yet and leave a comment for the writer. I'm going to leave the series page up for another few months. I'd love to know which your favourite tales were (other than Taurus obviously - I think that's a given!). Leave a comment below...

We started with a story of a real-life Cupid,
Distracted for a second; did something rather stupid.
There there was the tale of a man who cloned his wife.
But three's something of a crowd when it comes to married life.
September finished up with the thrill of the chase:
Poetry's youthful passion; love's true embrace.

Two felines were the stars of October's opening tale,
But which one was at home, and which one was in jail?
When a dead crab and a mad woman were found in the hall,
Was it a joke to tell your friends? Or the apocalypse for all?
Arriving at the theatre we found an actor in the wings,
Time creeping ever on as he nervously waited to sing.
Our next man controlled himself as much as he was able,
But who could resiste the lure of the whiskey on the table?
Sign language was our theme at October's grand conclusion:
A futuristic glimpse of education without exclusion.

November started with a pun (or two, or three, or ten)
Along with a sheep and a mountain, and bucket loads of zen.
Now, have you ever wondered what it's like to be a fish?
If you have, our tenth tale, splashed down to grant your wish.
House-hunting was the setting for a not-so-innocent tale.
What was odd about that fountain? Why was the house for sale?
With crime, romance and drama, autumn was nearly full,
There was just time left for Taurus. But that was a load of old bull.

And that's all, Folks!

22 November, 2013

Quotable Friday (19)

A special anniversary quotation today. No, not the epic 19th Quotable Friday celebration, but the commemoration of an important date. 50 years ago today, the world lost a great man. He died before his time. Known affectionately as Jack to his closest friends and as a genius to many, his influence continues to be felt half a century after his death. I am talking, of course, of CS Lewis.

CS Lewis's death (like that of fellow-writer Aldous Huxley) went largely unnoticed at the time, occurring as it did on the same day as a rather famous assassination. But I'm pleased to see there have been some attempts to commemorate this great man this year. By coincidence I happen to be reading the new biography of Lewis - CS Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet - by Alister McGrath at the moment. It's a little academic, but I'm enjoying it.

I've quoted from Lewis's wonderfully witty Narnia books on the blog before here and here. So today I'm going for something a bit different. I've always been charmed by the friendship between Lewis and another great writer, JRR Tolkien. How wonderful that these men were friends! Anybody who knows much about CS Lewis will know that Tolkien ("Tollers") played a important part in Lewis's final acceptance of Christianity. For that reason, Tolkien can be said to have played his part in the writing both of the Narnia series and all the theological books CS Lewis went on to write following his role as "the wartime apologist" for the BBC.

Not everybody might realise that CS Lewis was just as crucial in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. This is what dear JRR had to say about it in a letter to Rayner Unwin after Lewis's death:

"The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] is not "influence" as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my "stuff" could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to conclusion."

All writers need a CS Lewis! Imagine if he hadn't encouraged his friend to continue with his "second hobbit book". Encouragement is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone - whatever stage they're at.

Now... points to anyone who knows JRR Tolkien's first three names without looking them up!

19 November, 2013

Aquarius by Kirsten-Valerie Nott

Welcome to Part 11 of my 12-part Zodiac Blog Series. On Tuesdays in autumn I'm posting a story or poem each written especially for this blog by a different author. Each piece of writing has taken one of the signs of the zodiac as its inspiration. For the full list of participants - from established authors to first-time writers - plus the posting schedule and links to previous stories and poems, please visit the Zodiac Blog Series Page.

For our penultimate week, we have a story inspired by Aquarius by Kirsten-Valerie Nott.

Kirsten is a 22 year-old Christian who lives in York. She loves reading, writing, drinking coffee and much more. She's been writing as long as she can remember but has never entered any competitions and this is her first published piece! She is about to return to university to study English Literature and Creative writing and hoped that the Zodiac Challenge would be good preparation. I'm sure she'd appreciate any encouragement or advice fellow writers can give! You can catch up with Kirsten on her blog.


The Water Carrier

The house was a large, old red-brick, with crumbling corners and ivy growing all over its façade. It had large, wooden-framed sash windows with most of the glass missing. The door was huge and heavy and though it had been painted red, the paint had mostly peeled away to show the dark wood underneath. There were several roof tiles missing and one of the chimney stacks was cracked and leaning at a rather precarious angle. The estate agent placed the large, old-looking, brass key in the lock and, with some difficulty, turned it. He pushed open the heavy door which issued a horrible high pitched sound. 

Inside, the house was dark and smelt of dust and earth. With all of the broken windows, it had been open to the elements. It would need a lot of work. The estate agent fumbled around for a light switch. There was a click, but they remained in darkness. Clearly the electricity was a little temperamental. The estate agent then made his way through an archway, indicating that the young couple viewing the property should follow. The room they entered was lighter, due to the sunlight coming in through the large windows. It was a sitting room, with a high ceiling and was still mostly furnished; though the furniture looked rather old and battered.

As they wandered from room to room, all high-ceilinged, filled with old furniture and with wallpaper peeling from the walls, the estate agent explained that the property had been empty for a long period because the previous owners had often gone away to Africa to work as aid workers with Water Aid. On their last trip out there, they had gone missing and had never returned. They had had people taking care of the house during the times when they were away, but when they had been reported missing, the staff had not bothered returning. The estate agent shad had difficulty selling it due to its size and location and the amount of work that needed doing to it. 

By the time the estate agent had finished talking, they had reached the back of the house and were standing in a long, thin, galley kitchen. There was a small door in one wall. Light streamed through the windows in the top of the door, though it faced the middle of the house rather than the outside of it. They slid back the bolts and pushed the door open. It opened onto a small square patio of off-white flagstones. The space was mostly empty but for a small fountain right in the centre. In the middle of the fountain stood a stone figure; a girl. She wore what appeared to be rags and had no shoes on her feet. She was carrying, on her shoulder, a large water urn, presumably where the water flowed from when the fountain was working. At the foot of the fountain was a plaque that read simply, The Longest Journey.

15 November, 2013

An Agent - One Year On

It's been a year since I received a glorious e-mail from an agent concerning my newly-finished novel: "I've read the full MS now... I think it's tremendous... I'd very much like to take you on." Less than a month after finishing, and with another agency also interested, it was a bit of whirlwind time for me. But what happens after the whirlwind dies down? I thought it was time to update you...

You can read all about how I came to be represented by David Haviland at The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency here. Since then, I've been mostly silent on the subject of that first novel - The Art of Letting Go - and for a good reason: there's been little to say. Yet.

After meeting David and signing the agency contract, I spent a few months re-writing TAOLG based on David's feedback, and on working with him to put together a proposal package (sample chapters, short synopsis, detailed chapter breakdown, marketing ideas....). David started submitting the MS to editors at publishing houses in March - about 8 months ago.

At first, even receiving rejections was exciting. Unlike submitting to agents, most publishers offer a sentence or two of feedback, rather than standard rejections. Here were professional publishers discussing my work with an agent - who'd have thought it?! I knew the chance of a publishing contract was still small - an inexperienced, young author writing general (rather than genre) fiction, with a book that is a psychological exploration of human interaction, rather than an action-packed romp - but I was hopeful and, despite the lack of contract so far, I still am. I still believe in it. I know of authors who had a publishing deal within a month of getting an agent; but I also know a few authors who have taken a year or more to get a deal. And I also know authors who never sell their first book but for whom it opens a door to getting their next book published.

I could write a detailed post about the rejections I've received but I suspect it would be rather like writing down dreams: dull and pointless for the reader! To summarise it instead, I would say I am pleased with my rejections so far. That might sound odd - it's easy to feel embarrassed at the lack of an immediate publishing deal - but with one or two exceptions, the response has been positive. People have said nicer things on rejecting this novel than they have on awarding me short story prizes in the past! Among other things I've been told:

It's a shocking story, told with confidence and verve... a sense of darkness lurking below the surface of the narrative...
The layering of the story is deftly handled and navigated. A compelling novel.
It has a powerful sense of place and careful attention to humanity.

And in case that sounds like showing off, I will remind you that all this is in the context of being rejected! I am still waiting for somebody willing to give it a shot among the famous names and boldest thrillers. From the more, shall we call it 'constructive' feedback I've just finished writing yet another version of the novel (number six, if you're counting) and we are waiting to see what happens with that. But to avoid this blog post becoming an essay of epic proportions, I'll leave telling you what else I've been doing for the last 8 months for another time (not just refreshing my e-mail inbox, I promise).

For now, here are some things I've learned this year:

  1. Progress is not linear. Two years ago I had a great year - winning several short story prizes. Last year seemed slow but ended with an agency deal of my dreams. This year I've mostly just put words on paper. Just because you are going in the right direction doesn't mean you are going there fast! None of those hours trying to herd words are wasted.
  2. I can write. Several editors have described my writing as beautiful or told David they think I'm talented. I remind myself of this when it seems nothing I write is any good. I am not a polished writer. I am not a genius. I have so much work to do to even be publishable let alone worthy of attention. But I can write. In fact, my biggest comfort has been that the criticism has been for technical stuff (e.g. plot structure) - stuff writers can (hopefully) learn - whereas the praise has been for the writing itself - much harder to learn.
  3. Writing is subjective. Things that one editor loves, another hates. My characters have been criticised and complimented. The quirky structure of my novel has been praised as skillful and called a mess!
  4. Being open-minded is everything. Not only must a new writer be willing to change their precious manuscript, but dreams must be flexible too. I do possibly have a chance to be published by a good-quality, professional digital publisher. It could get my book out there quicker, possibly sell more than a traditional deal would and get over that first hurdle in publishing. I haven't thought about it much yet, but I am determined not to dismiss it only because it isn't the sort of deal I've dreamed of at night!
  5. It's easy to forget the positives. A rejection is negative, even if the editor says lovely things. BUT if they have said lovely things, they're not lying. I tend to forget the praise in the despair. Add in the hormonal free-for-all that is pregnancy, and teacups can be filled with tempests if I'm not careful!
  6. I want this book to be published. Yes, I want to be published one day. More than that though, I want THIS book to be published. I still love it and I am willing to work as hard as I can - listen to any advice - to bring it to life. Hell, I've written it six times already - why not 10?!

What have you learned from a bumpy journey, you might never have learned from a smooth road?

12 November, 2013

Pisces by Joe Hickson

Welcome to Part Ten of my 12-part Zodiac Blog Series. On Tuesdays in autumn I'm posting a story or poem each written especially for this blog by a different author. Each piece of writing has taken one of the signs of the zodiac as its inspiration. For the full list of participants - from established authors to first-time writers - plus the posting schedule and links to previous stories and poems, please visit the Zodiac Blog Series Page.

This week's story is inspired by Pisces and is written by Joe Hickson.

Joe obligingly allowed me to post his story a week early to give the last couple of writers a bit more time to finish their work. So give Joe a little round of applause at your desk before reading on...

Joe works on a computer all day but doesn't normally write joined together sentences. As a programmer he spent a long spell not writing anything outside the third person, since before starting his university degree. He started writing a food blog about 18 months ago before switching to join up with his wife, Jenny, on a joint project blogging about all the projects they get up to in the house. This is his first attempt at creative writing of this sort. Joe has been a Pisces since birth and found inspiration in science and nature for his story.


There is nothing but dark and light. It comes slowly at first, like a cold winter refusing to surrender its icy grips. Gradual awareness arrives, there is more to the long gaps in the dark than just light. It fluctuates and ripples, occasionally guttering as a candle on a summers night. An instinct to twitch, to escape from the spectral shadows, that is all consuming. Hide. Shelter. Seek refuge. Beneath a great fortress there is peace, where there is a slight calm and safety. But still there is a tether, a cumbersome life giving link. It restricts, it slows, it hinders. Hunger comes and the fortress diminishes. Moving out the tether is no longer there. Freedom to move, to stretch, to grow.

Restlessness. Things are changing. Home no longer feels right. Something indefinable. An itch that can’t be scratched. The pace increases. Open spaces expand. Suddenly salt courses over the taste buds. Oh sweet salt. Powerful motions propel ever onwards. Further. Deeper. Darker. The great celestial source of light is weaker here, swallowed in the gloom. New sights. New sounds. New feelings. Giants pass on the edge of detection, engines add their din over nature’s perpetual cacophony, and pressure constricts every surface. This is where destiny leads.

A yearning for home. It comes to everyone eventually. A longing for the familiar, comfortable places from childhood. Tension builds. The time to move has come. Expectation, anticipation and stress all add their notes to the harmony. Bodies jostle. Skin hits skin, hits stone, hits nothing. Great claws rent the air and teeth snatch at pink flesh. Scales from fallen comrades rush past in the current. Home is close, its taste grows stronger. Others fall by the wayside. Strength fades but it is complete. The calm at the end of the storm welcomes with its cool embrace. Exhaustion overcomes and for the final time light loses its battle with dark.

07 November, 2013

Christmas Gifts for Writers and Book-Lovers

Back in March I wrote a post about The Literary Gift Company and some of the wonderful things they sell. As we are approaching Christmas - or at least, the Christmas shopping season - I thought I'd help you out again with five more ideas of what to get the special writer in your life. [I'm not one to drop hints but, following my last post, one of my lovely blogging friends did send me one of the gifts I mentioned, and I received another couple for my birthday. Just sayin'.]

I've tried to pick five different websites this time - though many of the gifts can be found on many of the websites and each site is worth a good long browse! With each, I've also included another gift found on the same site. Any of these tickle your fancy?

For the arty one. Set of three cool prints of authors. £35. You can choose which three you have from: Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsburgh, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde. By Lucy Loves This at Not On The High Street. Also available: 642 Things to Write About Journal (notebook full of great writing prompts). £17 by Deservedly So.

For the perfectionist. Grammar Grumble mug (one of a set of six). Teach people to talk proper as you drink. £7.95 (whole set is £39.95). From The Literary Gift Company. Also available: adult and children's book cover t-shirts, such as this Charlotte's Web one. £19.95.

For the tea-lover. Novel Teas - individual teabags of English Breakfast Tea, each with a literary quotation. £7.90 for a box of 25. From Writer's Gifts. Also available: Shakespeare's Insults A5 notebook (because what says Christmas more than a book covered in quotations such as, "The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes"?) £4.50.
For the dreamer. Secret Garden necklace - a key and a rose, accompanied by the quotation "If you look the right way you can see that the whole world is a garden." £14 from Literary Emporium. (This is one of an extensive set of necklaces each with a quotation from authors as varied as Edward Lear, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll.... and many more.) Also available: iPhone case with JRR Tolkien quotation, "Not all those who wander are lost". £14.

 For the reluctantly modern man (or woman!). Ted Baker Typewriter laptop case (takes up to 13" screen). £29.99 from Book-Ish. Also available: Penguin Pencil Box (with pencils). £5.99.

05 November, 2013

Aries by Iain Pattison

Welcome to Part Nine of my 12-part Zodiac Blog Series. On Tuesdays in autumn I'm posting a story or poem each written especially for this blog by a different author. Each piece of writing has taken one of the signs of the zodiac as its inspiration. For the full list of participants - from established authors to first-time writers - plus the posting schedule and links to previous stories and poems, please visit the Zodiac Blog Series Page.

This week we have a story by Iain Pattison and inspired by Aries.

Birmingham-based Iain Pattison is an expert in the craft of writing and seIling short stories. He is the author of the best-seller, Cracking the Short Story Market. A prolific short story writer and competition winner, his work has been published on both sides of the Atlantic, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and appeared in a raft of popular magazines. When he's not penning quirky tales he's a busy competition judge, creative writing tutor, script doctor and appraiser. As an Aries - March 27th if anyone wants to send a card - he says he just had to "grab the ram". It may result in a court case...

You can find Iain on his website, Twitter and Facebook, or you can read his stories for yourself by clicking here.


Ram-a-Lama Ding Dong!

“Holy sh-“
His Most Exulted and Celestial Reverence the Dalai Lama slapped his hand across his mouth just in time to prevent a string of obscenities turning the Tibetan air blue.
Blinking, he rubbed his eyes unable to accept what he was seeing. Instead of a benign, portly man with bulging stomach and holy aura, the statute that had just been unveiled was an animal – a towering 20-foot woolly vision with horns.
He gazed darkly at the beaming young monk leant against the plinth of his creation, clearly delighted at the results of his six month labour.
“Whaddya think, chief?” he urged. “Isn’t it great? Isn’t it just what we need to bring in the punters.”  
The Dalai Lama wanted to answer “I can’t believe it’s not Buddha” but had an eerie feeling he’d heard the phrase somewhere before. Instead, he spluttered; “But, it’s a .. a… sheep!”
Screwing up his face, the monk nodded. “Technically, yes. But it’s actually a ram. Much more impressive.”
His holiness’ various lives flashed through his mind as he tried to recall what he’d ever done to deserve this. His orders had been clear – build a new religious edifice to boost the dwindling numbers of pilgrims making the arduous climb to the temple high in the Himalayas. Create something traditional; signalling that this was a place to seek enlightenment, inner knowledge and spiritual peace. He hadn’t mentioned anything about livestock. 
“It’s in your honour,” the monk explained. “I researched your Holiness’ birth chart and discovered you are an Aries. Hence the ram…”
For someone who was supposed to be at one with everything, the Dalai Lama found himself at sixes and sevens. It was all too much. It was difficult to be sure – all the monks looked identical with their shaven heads, bare feet and orange robes - but he had a horrible feeling it was the same initiate who’d suggested a range of Buddhist t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like:
Reincarnation: in my next life I’m coming back as evaporated milk!
Keep Karma and Carry on Meditating!
When you get angry, stop and count to Zen!
Nirvana – you’ve heard the music, now try the state of mind.
He knew he should be furious, but reminded himself forcefully that the demented disciple had meant well. Besides, he suddenly had an idea of how he could rescue something from the mess.
“Fetch me some paint,” he instructed. “And rollers, lots of rollers.”

Several hours later, His Most Exulted and Celestial Reverence smiled serenely as he surveyed pilgrims making their way upwards – hundreds of them – all attracted by the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the top of the newly glistening statute.
The yellow hued ram was gaudy, admittedly, but he knew once word spread the curious would be – he allowed himself an inner chuckle – flocking to see it.
It just went to prove the golden rule of all faiths, he mused wisely – if you gild it, they will come…

01 November, 2013

A Cautionary Tale for Zombies

Today is All Saints' Day - the day after All Hallows' Eve. Over on Simon P Clark's blog he has spent the last couple of weeks bullying encouraging people to write Halloween stories of any length, but particularly of exactly 1031 words. 1031 being shorthand for October 31st, for those of you who are feeling slow today. (Simon is in fact British, but lives in the USA so we can forgive his wonky date structures. Besides, writing a 3110-word story would've been much more arduous.)

I genuinely didn't have time to write a proper short story, despite Simon's wonderful contribution of flash fiction to this blog a few weeks ago. However, he made me feel guilty enough about this, I did spend the best part of one lunch-hour last week coming up with a shorter story for today instead. So you can pop over and read a collection of Halloween tales on Simon's blog and then you can read an All Saints' tale right here. I warn you though, this is pretty serious stuff. If you know any zombies who might be tempted to stay out past Halloween, I beg you to share this blog post with them.

(I was trying to write a tale of 111 words to fit in with today's date both sides of the Atlantic. I couldn't. So this is 222 words. Yes, including the title and the final parentheses. No, of course I didn't give it a ridiculous title to make it exactly 222 words. What sort of shoddy slapdash writer do you think I am?)

Sean, Who Thought Not Going to Bed Was Funny But Found Out It’s Really Not Funny At All If You Happen To Be A Zombie.

Sean was an almost-perfect child –
He wasn’t loud, mad, bad or wild.
He’d just one flaw (it has to be said):
Sean would never go to bed.

On All Saints’ Day, when they’d had their fun
And the Undead New Year had just begun
While his Zombie pals returned to the grave,
Sean laughed and said, “I’m feeling brave!

“I’m off to mock vampires, turning to stone,
And terrify old ladies who live on their own.”
What he couldn’t have known (but should have guessed)
Is that on November the 1st Saints come off best.

Down they came to eat up sinners,
With cheese graters, knives and salad spinners.
They swooped Sean up with the Hound of Hell
And made him in to a béchamel.

So next Halloween, if you’re a ghost or a ghoul,
Try to remember this one simple rule:
Be sure to be back in your grave by dawn,
Or you’ll end up in lasagne, just like Sean.

(Leave a comment below – tell me what you think:
Is this story wonderful? Weird? Or does it simply stink?
And if you think this tale just isn’t gory
Head to Simon’s blog to try another story.)