Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: The Writing Year in Numbers

Completing NaNoWriMo and pushing through the last few weeks of work before Christmas seem to have robbed me of all energy, therefore I present my review of the writing year mostly in numerical form:

2 novels undertaken, one for work, one for... fun(?)

competition successes: Cargo Publishing/Scottish Book Trust's twitter competition, Indigo Ink's Grimmoire Fairy Tales anthology, 5 Minute Fiction's Christmas competition

9 short stories completed: Something New of You, It'll All be Gone Tomorrow, The Gorgon and the Goddess, Ring-a-Roses, The Weeping Glen, Unnamed, Unsettled, The Visitor, The Queen and the Stag

12 blog posts (far better than last year's effort of 1)

63 short stories ghostwritten

179 tweets, mostly about writing

25, 432 words written for NaNoWriMo

77, 159 current length of the complete (in first draft) novel

And now for some New Year writing goals/projects in bullet point form:
  • Rewrite novel
  • Complete more stories for fairy tale anthology
  • Enter more competitions
  • Keep up the Pen Poppers (writers' group)
  • Write more posts for Writers' Block (meta)
Think that's my lot for now. 2012, you've been awesome. 2013, I'll deal with you later.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

An Advent of Stories

Whoever invented the modern advent calendar (I suspect those clever, Christmas-loving Germans) was onto a good thing. Whoever invented the chocolate advent calendar was onto an even better one. And now, the folk at 5 Minute Fiction have come up with an idea that's just as sweet: an advent of Christmas stories.

I've actually been thinking a lot about Christmas fiction recently. I think it's a lovely tradition, obviously made popular by Charles Dickens among others, and it's rather a shame there isn't more about at this time of year anymore. I had a couple of ideas for longer festive pieces, which I hope to write one day, but when I saw this competition - to pen a Christmas-themed flash fiction, the best of which would be displayed on the 5 Minute Fiction website during the countdown to Christmas - I decided to have a go with a completely new idea.

I can't really say too much about it, as it's pretty short and I'm a spoilerphobe. But I was really pleased that 5 Minute Fiction named me runner up in this competition and my story, The Visitor, is now available on their website here.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012: The End

At this stage in the novelling game, I don't anticipate my last scene to be followed by the words 'The End'. It would certainly be nice and neat but, for a story about second chances, it wouldn't work to close with so much finality. Nevertheless, a few days ago, I was sorely tempted to write those two little words at the bottom of the page for, after a month of NaNoWriMo, I had reached The End.

Progress throughout the month: a little hit and miss

As can been seen above on the Bar Chart of Joy, this year's Nano has not been particularly smooth sailing. In fact, I became severely stranded on three occasions both for pleasant reasons - a trip to Amsterdam, the visit of a friend - and a thoroughly unpleasant one - being struck down by an evil time and energy-guzzling illness. Sabotaged by my own body! It was a bit of a struggle, more so than I anticipated, but I did manage to claw back my word count over the last few days and finally finish - hurrah!

Now, after a few days of hardly thinking about writing at all, I think a kind of debrief is probably due on the experience, for which I've come up with the following:

1) The first draft is complete
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I have finished it, just like Joss Whedon told me to. It might be in a complete state, but it's all there, and therefore far easier to work with than a load of blank pages.

2) I have a better grip on the story
I have written this story over several years with months and months going by between bursts of activity. Returning to the plot in such a concentrated way has allowed me to see what works (the settings, for one) and what doesn't (the lack of emotional payoff at the end is currently my biggest concern), and therefore what I need to work on...

3) I have a plan
... Which leads me to the future of the book. I love to organise, and writing is one of those glorious activities that almost always benefits from a healthy dose of planning. It was always inevitable then, that as I was typing furiously to the deadline, my mind would be on the next stage of the process. I already know that the first thing I'm going to amend in the New Year is the opening of the story, which will take place in a completely different location (a wood) and then I'm going to tackle the rewrite chronologically, ie separating out my interlinking 2005/2010 timelines in the hope that I can smooth over all my plot holes and straighten out all my story arcs.

So finishing Nano is not an end - far, far from it. But the point is it's not a beginning either. To quote the mighty Joss once more:
Finishing [...]is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
Which is why, to myself, and only in relation to the first draft, I think I can say it just this once:

The End.
This is the first and last time a post will feature
more than one graph. Promise.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Modern Grimmoire

A couple of months ago, I saw that Indigo Ink Press were running a competition to find stories for their forthcoming fairy tale anthology. This weekend, I received the very exciting news that my entry had been successful, and I am to be published next year in Modern Grimmoire: Contemporary Fairy Tales, Fables and Folklore.

Soon to feature... The Mirror Child
My entry, The Mirror Child, was originally written as a response to Snow White. It features a Queen so desperate for a child that she is tricked by a mischievous fairy, who gifts her reflection - and only her reflection - with a baby.

Originally penned in 2008, The Mirror Child formed one third of a trilogy of fairy tales written for my Creative Writing MSc. The first story in the collection, When Winter was Caught, was published a few years ago in English Digest, a Taiwanese English language publication, as part of my stint as their Overseas Writer. The second story, The Sea-Maid Speaks, was shortlisted for the Chapter One Promotions Short Story Competition and published this year in their anthology, The Beginning. 

So it's very nice to find a home for the third and final story in the collection, not to mention the warm, happy feelings that being chosen for publication brings. Plus, the finalists are invited to a launch party called the 'Poison Apple Ball'. I'm not even sure what this entails, but if by some miracle I can afford a trip to America (or to whichever faraway location it happens to be held), I'll be there with wings on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012: Preparation

As of tomorrow, I'll be taking part in Nanowrimo. To prepare, I have done the following:

1) Read through the existing manuscript
As previously mentioned, my Nano challenge this year is to finish my incomplete novel, at least in first draft. In an attempt to try and remember what on earth was going on in the story, I recently skimmed through everything I had written so far. Surprisingly, I didn't hate it. I didn't exactly love it either, but that's okay.

2) Made a plan
I love planning. If I could get a job plotting books and not writing them, that would be marvellous. Recently, my Geneva writers' group indulged this perversion of mine by promising we could have a 'structure clinic' at some point in the near future, whereby we all help one another put our stories into some sort of order. For me, this is painfully exciting - sort of like a literary Christmas - although I have realised I should probably make a plan for my own Nano project, if I'm going to be bossy about everyone else's.

3) Signed up
Nano has an excellent website, featuring lots of tips and banter, where you can design yourself a fancy profile, with pictures and a novel synopsis and everything. Mine is now up and running here. My favourite thing by far on the Nano website is the Bar Chart of Joy. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than watching the bar chart of my word count go up and up during the month of November - just as nothing fills me with as much dread as getting behind and watching the projected word count get further and further out of reach.

My Novel profile as of 01/11/12 - featuring the Bar Chart of Joy
4) Spread the word
During previous Nanos, I've found it best to tell my nearest and dearest that I'm attempting a novel in thirty days, just so they know why I look so hollow-eyed/unwashed/confused by reality. Better yet is to get them to do it as well. Long ago (May) I made a pact with Miss Joely Badger that we would both do Nano this year. And then there's my Geneva writers' group, some of whom may be attempting it too. As I said in my previous post on collaborative writing: share the writing burden!

5) Tidied my flat
I am notoriously messy and will neglect housework for weeks and weeks on end if I can get away with it (considering my 'studio apartment' in Geneva is probably only slightly larger than a shoe box, this is rather shaming). But when one is in the throes of novel-writing, scrubbing the bathroom often begins to look like an appealing alternative to writing, so that particular procrastination path has been nipped in the bud.

6) Bought a lot of food
The 'Inspiration Station'
- complete with novelty lighting
I work long hours and the aforementioned minuscule apartment has a kitchen which is literally inside a cupboard. This makes me a very lazy cook. I don't even really try: pasta and pesto has become my go-to supper (and believe me, I go to it a lot). However, novelists need nourishment - and Nano novelists cannot afford to be wasting time wandering the supermarket aisles every day. Therefore I have bought myself all sorts of healthy food: smoothies! Bananas! Broccoli! I can't remember the last time I ate broccoli, and I'm not convinced I can recall what to do with it.

7) Bought a lot of booze
As above, but more so.

8) Got in the mood
I've been working on my poor nameless novel for a long time now. Almost five years, in fact. As such, I have a pretty good idea of who will star in the inevitable film adaptation (Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Julianne Moore), what the soundtrack will feature (Israel 'Iz' Kamakawiwo'Ole's Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Portishead's Numb, among others) and have even built up an 'Inspiration Station' of random pictures vaguely connected to the story, so I can't accidentally forget I'm supposed to be writing it. In addition to reading through the manuscript, I have revisited these bookish bonus features - and am now officially In The Mood To Write.

Soundtrack music: Israel 'Iz' Kamakawiwo'Ole's 
version of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'

Friday, October 19, 2012

Collaborative Writing

When I was younger, I imagined writers to be Beatrix Potter figures, holed up in country cottages with animals crawling and hopping (though curiously never defecating) over their work. Throughout my teenage years, my ideal authorial figure became the café-bound JK Rowling (aside from my brief flirtation with Ewan McGregor’s absinthe-soaked scribbler from Moulin Rouge - be still my adolescent heart). But whether they reside in mansions or garden sheds, work with quills or Macs, most people’s image of a writer will have at least one thing in common: they are alone.

Ewan McGregor: making writers look
good since 2001
Obviously there are exceptions, especially in screenwriting, but I think it’s fair to say that most writers are solitary sorts. For many, this is one of the best aspects of the profession, and indeed I have often wondered whether I feel compelled to write because I am a huge control freak/megalomaniac, and it’s far easier to get made up people to do what you want than real ones. And of course, two people sitting in front of a computer/notebook/artfully-battered typewriter are always going to take about eight times longer to produce something because everything needs to be discussed (if I sound disparaging here, seriously - try it and get back to me).

So writing – and by that, I mean the actual typing out/inking down of the words - is mainly a solitary activity, agreed? But the thing is, everything around it - the writing process, if you will - really shouldn't be.

During my Creative Writing Masters in Edinburgh we had to attend a weekly workshop where we both presented our own work for feedback and provided feedback for others in the group. It seems strange to think back on it, two writers' groups down the line, but ahead of that first session back in 2007 I was terrified. Before then, although I hadn't been completely secretive about my work, I hadn't always been entirely willing to share it either. In fact, the whole idea of the workshop was so daunting, I even resubmitted the story I had used for my MSc application, figuring that if my tutors had let me on the course, it can't have been that bad.

Unsurprisingly, I quickly relaxed about it all and, over the course of the MSc, came to learn that giving and receiving feedback was not only very useful, it could even be enjoyable. Sharing the burden of a story is actually a huge relief, and trusted readers can offer a completely different perspective on a tale that has, until very recently, only existed in your head: This idea works, but needs expanding on. That minor character is really interesting - why not give her more to do? If you tone down the description here, it'll make the image more effective. And so on.

I'll save the debate on how useful doing a Masters in Creative Writing is for another day, but I don't think there's any doubt that the workshop experience was invaluable. It inspired me to start my Edinburgh writers' group, WOW (Writers on Wine), which threw booze into the mix, thus making the whole feedback process far easier - and more likely to descend into giggles. In turn, WOW's success prompted me to start my Geneva writers' group, which is currently in its fledgling stages...

So, in summary: writing alone in a garret without surfacing for company is all well and romantic (thanks, Ewan!) but I'm not sure how helpful it is, creatively. Perhaps it doesn't need to be through anything as official as a workshop, but I've found entrusting respected, writerly friends with my initial ideas, my first drafts, my eighth drafts (and having them trust me with their writing in return) is not only far more useful than doing it alone - it's far more fun too.

WOW: Lizzie, Cheryl, Hannah, Cat and me
(don't judge, it was our Christmas meeting)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Novel November

It's all Joss Whedon's fault.

I was just minding my own business on twitter last week, when up popped ‘Ten Writing Tips from Joss Whedon.' Now normally, I take these sorts of lists with a large pinch of salt - especially since I recently read one from a very respected publication that advised ‘always write short stories in the first person.’ Really? Always? However, Joss is different: Joss is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (if you’re eye-rolling, you know nothing and must order your boxset immediately), and Buffy taught me a hell of a lot about telling stories – not to mention fighting the forces of darkness – during my teenage years. So Joss, I would listen to.*

Eagerly, I clicked on the link. This was the first thing I read:
1. FINISH IT
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
I got no further through the list, as by this point I was experiencing a horrible gnawing sensation in my stomach: guilt. For although Joss was primarily advising screenwriters, I could not help but think of my own novel, languishing in a forgotten folder somewhere on my computer, so near yet frustratingly so far from being a complete manuscript. And the more I thought about it, that hateful work that I had banished from my mind for six months or more, the more I... Well, I kind of... missed it.

Oh, I admit it. I wanted it back. For a second, my subconscious went soft and ached to write it, to finish it - and that second was enough for the more businesslike side of my brain to seize upon its counterpart's weakness and go, "haha! Then write it and finish it, you wastrel!"

A timeline of 'the novel' (I hate calling it that, but all my working titles are, frankly, crap):
  • Sometime in 2006: thinking idly about the lack of modern stories featuring fathers and daughters (as opposed to fairy tales, where they're all over the place), I come up with a vague idea about a teenage girl's madcap weekend in London with her estranged, unstable father. 
  • April 2008: during my final term of the MSc, I decide it is an excellent idea to pen this emotionally complex plot - now set in my new home city of Edinburgh - as a novella in three months. Incidentally, it isn't a good idea and there are many tears. 
  • November 2009: due to the MSc trauma, I don't look at the story again for over a year. Then for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I decided to rewrite the whole thing as a full-blown novel. In a month. Somewhat surprisingly, I achieve this - although because a 'Nano' novel is only 50,000 words, the manuscript is unfinished. 
  • September 2010 - June 2011: I workshop a good chunk of the incomplete draft with my Edinburgh writers' group, WOW, until I move to Geneva.
But Joss is right, isn't he? Of course he is. I need closure. How can I edit the early part of the story if the end isn't even written? I need to finish it - and not just for the sake of it, but because over the years it's developed into a story I truly want - and think it's important - to tell:
Fifteen year-old Ruby Chase is devoted to her estranged father, the carefree and reckless Leo. But over the course of one weekend in Edinburgh, they are torn apart by his inability to control his bipolar disorder, and her inability to understand it.
Five years later, they are reunited at Ruby's grandmother’s funeral. The now medicated Leo is desperate to make amends for what happened in Edinburgh, but Ruby struggles to forgive him, caught now between the two Leos: the stable stranger who is offering her a father once more, and the adored, troubled dad she loved and lost.
Looking back at that timeline, it seems I've progressed the most with the novel under pressure: the MSc, Nano and WOW (acronyms seem to help). I was going to do Nano again with a new novel this November, but really what's the point when I have one already 70% finished? So instead, I've decided to come up with my own Nano-inspired challenge whereby I finish my novel in first/second draft. Then at least I'll have a manuscript. At least I'll be able to print it out, flick through it whilst laughing wildly, and scribble this is awful - cut, cut, CUT! all over it in green pen

So yes, exactly one month from today, it's not so much National Novel Writing Month as National Novel Finishing Month (NaNoFiMo? Sounds like some sort of Plasticine challenge). It's going to be difficult and it's going to be liberating. There will almost certainly be more tears.

And it's all Joss Whedon's fault.

Joss is Boss.

*If you need further proof of Joss' genius, watch the above and don't even try not to fist-pump.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Unbound

Stories come in all shapes and sizes. Ernest Hemingway famously penned a tale comprised of just six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

What has always struck (and moved) me about Hemingway’s six-worder is that it is potent precisely because of what is not said and what the reader is left to infer – in short, the old ‘show don’t tell’ chestnut. Going by this principle, I decided to pen my own six-word effort for a twitter competition. This was the result:

Zookeeper missing. Distraught lion loses appetite.

Hemingway it ain’t, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the above six words were to draw me into a far bigger story in which I – or more specifically, my name – was to play a rather large role. 

The twitter competition in question was organised by Scottish Book Trust (SBT) as part of  their ‘It Will Be All Write On The Night’ project. Described as ‘a storytelling experience with a difference,’ SBT had challenged three of their New Writers Award winners to pen a story in weekly instalments for the final night of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF). In addition to this, each chapter was to be influenced by prompts from twitter and Facebook, such as book spine poetry or a favourite piece of artwork.

I admit to only vaguely following what was going on when I entered the competition (and if I haven’t explained it very well, there’s more info on it all here) but I was nevertheless thrilled when Cargo Publishing declared my story the winner, and thus the next prompt of the project. Well marvellous, I thought, eagerly anticipating how that week’s author, Kirstin Innes, would be slotting lions into the tale. Only, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. For when the next chapter appeared on SBT’s website, I discovered it wasn’t just my six words that were woven into the story, but my name too.  

I can’t really go into it too much without spoiling the story (which I really recommend reading, starting from the bottom of this page) suffice to say that what was emerging by the time we got to Kirstin’s Part Five was the tale of a rebel movement’s struggle against an oppressive regime – a rebel movement now named ‘the Amanda Block.’ 

He was as surprised as I was.
I have to confess: I panicked. Seeing my name like that was so strange, so unexpected, I didn’t know what to think. Fortunately, after a soothing conversation with SBT’s Writer Development Manager, Caitrin Armstrong, and a thorough reread of the work so far, I began to gain a bit of perspective. What was going on, I realised, was something rather special: a big, bold story was being created, not just by one author, but three; not just from one idea, but from multiple prompts and multiple medias. It was, in fact, exactly the kind of experimental and collaborative approach to storytelling that I’m keen on. And when I looked at it like that, I was keen to be a part of it too. 

“We have a few ideas for the night itself,” Caitrin explained to me. “We wanted to have posters with ‘the Amanda Block’ on them and – I’m not sure you’ll go for this – but we were thinking of putting it on badges too.”

Posters? Badges? I should point out at this juncture that Caitrin assured me my name would not be used against my will and it was my decision as to whether it be included at all. Going away to think about it, however, I found myself reflecting that this was the last night of the Edinburgh International Book Festival we were talking about, where an exciting narrative featuring my name was nearing completion. How could I not agree? I gave her the go-ahead, badges and all.

So to the night itself, which miraculously coincided with my summer visit to Edinburgh. ‘It Will Be All Write On The Night’ was to be EIBF’s last ‘Unbound’ event (if EIBF is, by day, a bespectacled, buttoned-up nerd, then Unbound is the moment it ruffles up its hair, throws its specs aside and orders a vodka or three to wash down all that literature). I had been told that, aside from getting up on stage and reading all of six words, I could sit back and enjoy the show. But that didn’t stop me from being a little apprehensive, especially as the section of the Spiegeltent in which I was sitting was dubbed 'the representatives of ‘the Amanda Block’'.

I needn’t have worried. Because despite the posters and the badges bearing my name - yep, there really were posters and badges - the evening was, of course, not about me. It was about the writers and it was about the story, which once more I really urge you to investigate (I have come to the conclusion it’s Margaret Atwood meets Cloud Atlas with a bit of The Hunger Games thrown in - and if that hasn’t made you want to read it, I don’t know what will). And it was about expanding that story too for, as a final challenge, Kirstin and her fellow New Writers, George Anderson and R. A. Martens, were asked to complete it that very night using prompt words from the audience (deliberately difficult words, it emerged: scunnered? Unicorn?) But they rose to the occasion magnificently and their fitting final chapter can be read here.

So, in the end, it was more than all right on the night. After a few gin and tonics, it seemed perfectly normal to me that tables and people were festooned with ‘the Amanda Block’ badges. Besides, by that point I was far more interested in the brilliant – if rather madcap – tale that somehow belonged, at least in part, to everyone there that night. The authors had triumphed, the challenge had paid off, and it was all so much fun – just as storytelling should be. 

Plus it’s not every day a rebel movement is named after you…

I got to keep one.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stranger Magic

This August, I was fortunate enough to find cheap(ish) plane tickets to Edinburgh – no mean feat during festival time – so last weekend I went to visit friends, family and, of course, The Edinburgh International Book Festival. As both a past employee and a paying punter, I have always found plenty of inspiration amongst the tents of Charlotte Square, and this year was to prove no exception.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the events for which I had booked tickets had a distinctly fairy tale flavour. First up was Marina Warner who, as her website describes, is a ‘writer of fiction, criticism and history: her works include novels and short stories, as well as studies of art, myths, symbols, and fairy tales.’ I’m most familiar with Warner's literary criticism, especially her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, and I owe her a debt of gratitude, for her writings have been invaluable essay-writing resources during various university fairy tale/children’s literature courses.

Marina Warner was at the festival to talk about her new book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. I’m afraid I can’t say much about the rather weighty tome itself, as I was forced to leave it in Edinburgh to read another day, rather than argue with easyjet as to whether or not it counted as a separate piece of hand luggage. But I do know that, as well as dissecting The Arabian Nights, the books sees Warner retell some of the more significant tales, as well as discussing the nature of magic itself. As the blurb explains: Magic is not simply a matter of the occult arts, but a whole way of thinking, of dreaming the impossible. As such it has tremendous force in opening the mind to new realms of achievement: imagination precedes the fact. 

At a time when I think many are far too cynical about the imagination, I find this both intriguing and inspiring. And as Warner pointed out, even the NHS/children’s literature section of the Olympics Opening Ceremony proved how much we still identify ourselves by stories and magic (and oh, wasn’t it just so wonderful? JK Rowling reading from Peter Pan should have been preceded by some sort of warning - I was in pieces by the time the Mary Poppinses flew down. Click  here to revisit.)

In person, Warner did not disappoint. Sporting magnificent pink tights, she gave us a condensed twenty-minute lecture at breakneck speed on the subject of Stranger Magic which, apart from anything else, made me envy the students who have her full-time. She then led a fascinating discussion focusing on The Arabian Nights more generally, in which I was particularly interested to hear that the female protagonists of the tales are apparently a little more cunning and resourceful than their Western counterparts, Cinderella et al. Warner is obviously staggeringly knowledgeable about her subject - I think of myself as an amateur fairy tale enthusiast, but I had to concentrate to keep up with all the vast and varied sources which she referenced – and it sounds clichéd, but I really could have listened to her all evening. Instead, I shall have to make do with the book – and perhaps revisiting The Arabian Nights for myself.

Sticking with fairy tales and magic, the following day, my friend Laura (Anderson, of Miss Read ) and I went to see Susannah Clapp at the Book Festival, where she talked about her role as the Literary Executor of the late Angela Carter and her new book, A Card from Angela Carter.

Angela Carter was novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and – unbeknownst to me until this event – a burgeoning poet. She is perhaps most famous for her use of magical realism and her retellings of fairy tales, particularly in The Bloody Chamber, which for many (including me) makes her something of a literary deity. To expand any more on my love of her work would descend into much embarrassing gushing, which is also the reason that I approached this event with some trepidation: when you admire someone’s work so much, it’s almost unnerving hearing about them as a real person, lest they disappoint you. 

Fortunately, we were in safe hands with Susannah Clapp who is, it should be noted, hugely successful in her own right: as an editor, co-founder of The London Review of Books (through which she met Carter) and now a theatre critic. As Carter’s Literary Executor, she was very forthcoming with anecdotes about the woman herself (including a very funny account of her indomitable habit of pausing during speech) and throughout the hour she built up a very vivid picture of the woman behind the words. Of course, it is not necessary to know what an author is like to enjoy her work, but it certainly is interesting, especially when it is someone you hold in such high regard.  

Laura and I were at the front of Susannah Clapp’s signing queue after the talk, and I managed to snatch a few moments’ conversation with her, which was lovely. She seemed genuinely delighted that I had studied Carter and I even managed to tell her of my recent experiments with ‘voice’, using Wise Children as a point of reference. I now cannot wait to get stuck into A Card from Angela Carter, a unique biographical work presenting Carter’s electric personality through the postcards she sent to Clapp over the years.

My all-too brief chat with Susannah Clapp, as captured by Laura

Since these two wonderful literary events, my mind has been awhirl with thoughts on fairy tales and storytelling, and particularly storytelling women. I think there is a strange kind of magic to stories and, without getting too tenuous about it, it’s stranger magic too. For these are storytellers - from Shahrazad to Carter, from the anonymous scribes of The Arabian Nights to many of the authors who have moved and enthused me – that I won't ever meet. But then, that doesn’t make these strangers’ stories any less powerful. And if that’s not a kind of magic, I don’t know what is.

Magic: Marina Warner reads from The Bloody Chamber

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Beginning...

… Is the title of a recently released anthology from Chapter One Promotions. It features the winners and runners up of the International Short Story Competition 2009, including my piece, The Sea-Maid Speaks. The link is here. (I am not sure about the cover. I have already likened it to a still from a 1970s sex education video).

Obviously, this is completely thrilling; to be published not only in a proper book, but under my own name too. The Sea-Maid Speaks is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-wrenching and frankly pretty disturbing The Little Sea-Maid (if you’re only familiar with the Disney version, you’re lucky). As can be ascertained by the year of the competition, this anthology is rather late, and thus the story feels a little stale to me now. However, despite any reservations I may have about its quality in 2012, I have to admit that it was something of a breakthrough when I penned it during my MSc. I remember very clearly feeling that, for the first time, I was digging deep, taking a risk, and writing in the way I had always wanted to. In short, it helped me find my voice (ironic, as the tale centres around the eponymous sea-maid’s inability to speak).

For that reason, the title of the anthology feels rather apt - for both the story and for where I was when I wrote it. That definite article makes all the difference, you see: not just a beginning, but the beginning.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A New City of Literature

In 2004, Edinburgh was declared UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature.’ According to their website, ‘[t]his permanent, non competitive title bestows international recognition on Edinburgh and Scotland as a world centre of literature and literary activity.”

When I arrived in 2007, I was unaware of its UNESCO status, although my reasons for moving there were entirely literary, as I was heading to the University of Edinburgh to undertake an MSc in Creative Writing. Not that a huge amount of thought had gone into my university city of choice: I was conserving wildlife in the Tanzanian savannah when I made the fateful decision (but that’s another story…) and in the end my choosing Edinburgh came down to some familial ties and the still-fresh memories of the previous madcap summer spent in Scotland’s capital training to be an EFL teacher. Yet despite my rather flippant method of picking its university, and my ignorance of its UNESCO status, it was not too long before I worked out that Edinburgh - and its literary scene – was something rather special.

The aforementioned website will explain far better than I the many organisations and activities which put Edinburgh on any booklover’s map, not to mention all of its literary alumni (including two of my biggest inspirations, JK Rowling and JM Barrie). All I can add is that I have always thought that the city’s literary achievements owe a debt to the place itself, for there is something about the atmosphere of Edinburgh that is so very stirring: from the gothic Old Town closes to the genteel grid of New Town streets, from the looming giant of Arthur’s Seat to the refreshing vistas of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh feels like a place steeped in stories.    

For exactly four years, Edinburgh became my city of literature too. As well as the MSc, I worked at Waterstone’s, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, most recently, I volunteered with Scottish Book Trust. I also set up a writers’ group, read my work in public for the first time, was shortlisted in competitions, started a novel, launched a freelance career… In fact, barely a day went by when I wasn’t engaging with literature in some way and, while that perhaps says more about me than it does the city, the point is that Edinburgh made it easy. Quite simply, it inspired me.

But all good things must come to an end - at least for a little while - and since September 2011, I have been based in Geneva, after accepting my Literary Consultant position on a permanent basis. This time around, I’ve been a little more active about ascertaining how much of a ‘city of literature’ my new home is and, despite Edinburgh being a hard act to follow, Geneva is so far proving a worthy successor.

For starters, I am in good writerly company. Within a few days of being here, I realised that Mary Shelley famously conceived Frankenstein in the ghost story session with Percy, Lord Byron et al just across Lac Leman. But then there’s also the fact that George Eliot stayed a few streets away from my apartment, and Jorge Luis Borges lived just two doors down (and might well be the ghostie I’m convinced is haunting me at night).

Like Edinburgh, Geneva is a city of great importance but modest size, which is nice and unintimidating for this West Country girl. It is surrounded by glorious countryside, specifically the lake and mountains (and – sorry Edinburgh – features far better weather in which to enjoy them). Generally I find the natural world not only exhilarating but hugely comforting too. Perhaps it is my overactive imagination, but I like to know where my exits are, so I can make a quick getaway should the apocalypse come (unlikely, in a country not exactly famed for its war-mongering).
So I can scribble outside, but Geneva also caters for my predilection for writing in cafés, despite the fact that almost every coffee establishment in the city offers table service, and not necessarily very welcoming table service at that. Thank goodness, then, for Boreal Coffee Shop, which boasts excellent beverages, a particularly fine New York cheesecake, and friendly staff who leave you alone. Although I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of Macs its customers owned (all the apple logos glowing at me upon entry made me wonder if I had stumbled into a kind of futuristic electronic orchard), I quickly came to realise that Boréal was the natural home of writers and students, and definitely a place I could be productive – just as long as no one gives me the Wi-Fi password.­­*

Finally, and most importantly, amongst all the corporate and banking bods, I have been lucky enough to find some wonderfully creative people in Geneva. I am fortunate that, through my work, I get to chat to writers all day, but outside of the job too, I have met many interesting, funny and admittedly rather bonkers individuals. They have encouraged me to write, read, enter competitions, raise my online profile, and as a result I am even on the brink of setting up another writers' group.    

So far so good, Geneva. So far so good. 

Inspirational: view of Geneva from Mont Saleve (I took the cable car).
  
*(The original and best writing café, as far as I’m concerned, is Boston Tea Party, in Exeter. I spent a lot of my formative years nursing marshmallow steamers in there – just try it – as I scribbled away, pretending to be JK Rowling.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Three Steps Forward

At the risk of sounding like one of those ‘Review of the Year’ programmes (you know the sort: they splice together footage of mildly interesting events from the past twelve months and invite d-listers with nothing better to do to tell us how very fascinating/funny/tragic/unacceptable it all was) I’m going to try and summarise my year in writing. For I’ve neglected this blog for six months and, certainly writing-wise, rather a lot has happened.

I’ll start with my writer’s group, WOW (Writers on Wine). For the first half of the year, it was an enormously encouraging way to get stuck into the first big edit of my novel – and an opportunity to read some fabulous work by my contemporaries. Sadly, the WOW members are now somewhat scattered, with Lizzie and I having both moved away from Edinburgh, and I miss those evenings very much – both creatively and socially. However, I hope that one day we can share stories and drinkies once more, and until then I cannot thank my girls enough for giving my novel a good kick up the arse

Yes, I’ve moved from Edinburgh, which was a wrench - a huge wrench, in fact. I lived in Edinburgh for exactly four years, during which I made wonderful friends, had wonderful experiences and, for the first time, felt like a real writer. Yet when I was offered the Literary Consultant job in Geneva (a freelance version of which I have been doing for a year or so beforehand) it came at the perfect time. The UK seems to be full of doom and gloom at the moment, especially in employment terms, so it wasn’t too hard, deciding to escape to the land of Toblerones and cuckoo clocks to be paid to write.

As though I didn’t have enough on my proverbial plate with a new job, the move to a new country and trying to master a new(ish) language (how I can be so criminally bad at French after five years of it at school, I have no idea) I decided to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again in November. As strange as it might sound, I don’t particularly like the writing part of constructing a story. I love the ideas stage, I enjoy tinkering around with a text once it’s on the screen, I adore scrolling through a lengthy document and marvelling over how many words I’ve written, but actually bashing out the first draft… meh. I can take it or leave it. The advantage of Nano, in which you have to do a ‘barf draft’ of 50,000 words in a month, is that the initial writing part is over nice and quickly. In a year of scribbling that has felt quite serious at times, with editing my novel and doing a Proper Grown Up Writing Job, Nano gave me the opportunity to pen a silly story about dancing, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

So there they are: three steps forward, no steps back. Never one to be completely satisfied, I would have liked to have done something a bit more substantial with my novel… But hey, there’s always next year.