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Friday, 13 December 2013

Eyes Up

I have spent the last four months or so with my eyes down, working on my novel non-stop. Some nice bits of competition news from short stories I entered earlier in the year have been welcome, but otherwise my writing time has centred on my funny fictional family's road-trip. I love them all dearly and hope I've done them justice, but not as much as I love my real family for encouraging me so much.

The ms is out of my hands now, which feels exciting and daunting. I'll just have to hope that an agent likes it enough to take me on. I have had some good feedback when I sent out a tentative earlier draft, but there are never any guarantees. Although I like to remain hopeful, I have absolutely no expectations at all. If it isn't published, then what stays with me is still important - the huge amount I've learned and the masses of fun I've had from writing it.

In a way, I wish I could keep working on it, but the ridiculously small adjustments I was making during the last week have had to stop. I was in danger of terminal tinkering.
I did make some sweeping changes - deleting scenes and axing minor characters as if I had murderous intent and a scythe - but I'm happy that I've polished it as much as I can.

The road-trip is over and the wait begins. I don't know whether to turn to a new novel or short stories first, but I might have a short break before I start and this is the perfect time for that. Wishing all of you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, prosperous New Year during which I shall continue enjoying all your lovely posts and lots more news of your writing successes.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Welcome to Calum Kerr

Writer Calum Kerr, as many of you know, is the mastermind behind National Flash Fiction Day. He is also the author of Lost Property, a beautiful collection of his flash fiction. And today I have the pleasure of welcoming him to this blog to tell us about the stories behind the stories. Over to you, Calum.


A Few of my Favourite Things

Well, hello again.
This is day 27 of my month-long blog tour. If you've been following the posts so far, you know I'm doing this to promote my new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property. It comprises four separate pamphlets, gathered together, and contains stories which span from my first ‘official’ flash-fictions in late 2009, up to the point at which I put them together, at the end of 2012. For this post, I've been asked to pick out some of my favourite stories and talk about them in particular.
First, I’d like to say that this is a horrible job. The stories were ALL chosen because they are my favourites. It’s like being asked to choose between your children. That said, some do have particular tales associated with them, so I suppose I could talk about them. But I need to send a message to all the other stories not mentioned here: ‘I don’t love you any less.’
Okay, with that done, let’s move on.
Now, some of the stories have tales that have already been told on this tour. I talked specifically about the first ones ever written – ‘Salt’ and ‘Pluck’ back on day 7, on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog (http://morenewsfromvg.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/in-beginning-visit-from-calum-kerr.html), and about ‘Who’s The Boss’ on Freya Morris’s site on the 8th (http://freyamorris.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/lost-in-flash-fiction-interview-with.html). Other stories have also been mentioned in passing, and I shall try not to repeat myself and instead pick some other stories.
Four that need to be mentioned are those from which the titles of the pamphlets were taken. My way of building the pamphlets – as I was assembling them from work already done, rather than writing to order – was to pick a stand-out story and then find others that I felt complemented or antagonised that story in some way. I wanted a collection which would circle around and question the central ideas of the title story.
I started with ‘Soaring’. This is a story set in the Israeli city of Holon. I wrote it during a month of my flash365 project when I was using places as prompts. I had asked the then girlfriend of my stepson – who had grown up in Israel – to name her favourite place from her time there. She named Holon and, I must admit, I had to go and look it up, as I had never heard of the place. Wikipedia gave me lots of information, including a detail which caught my eye: the story gardens. I read about them, and by the time I’d finished, the story was ready to be written.
I am rather proud of this story. It is haunting and elegiac in a way that a lot of my stories strive for but rarely achieve so well. I still have no idea what tale the protagonist is going to tell when they raise their hand at the end of the piece, but I find myself wondering about it often. It’s a story which stays with you, and I particularly like that. In the midst of a large collection, it might be too subtle to stand out, but I think it’s one of my best. I chose it to allow other stories to work with it – either extending the elegy, or grounding into something much more mundane.
The second collection, ‘Citadel’, came (as with ‘The Abbey’ which I talked about on Holly Howitt's site on the 23rd (http://hollyhowitt.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/guest-post-by-calum-kerr/)) from a photo posted on Facebook by Vanessa Gebbie. She had arrived in Athens, in her hotel, and taken a photo from her balcony. It was night, but the Acropolis was lit, and seemed to be floating in the air over the city. That was enough for me. Within that one image I could feel all of the mythical Greek gods calling to me. And so the story flowed and the others later came and gathered around its light.
‘Singalong’ is a much different kind of story to the others. It is funny and a bit weird and one that I have performed live on a number of occasions. It involves the spontaneous choral singing of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ in the gentlemen’s lavatory of a pub. For copyright reasons, the lyrics have not been reproduced in the book, but when I perform the story live I break into full song and see if I can get the crowd to sing along. It seems to be one of those songs that all people know the lyrics to – by osmosis, or genetics, or something. I chose that story, partly because it’s great fun, but also because it allowed me to pull together some of the sillier of my stories, and also some of the darker – complementing and antagonising.
The final pamphlet is called Burning. The story of that name is a piece of what Tania Hershman calls ‘lab-lit’, ie: fiction set in a scientific setting; and it does indeed involve ‘love among the Bunsen burners’. However, that was not the core story of the pamphlet. In fact, that group of stories were put together around the story which gave its name to the whole book: ‘Lost Property’. When we appropriated the name for the full collection, we needed to rename the pamphlet to avoid confusion, so we picked ‘Burning’ as it was a one word title like the others, and seemed to work well in conjunction with them.
‘Lost Property’, the story, is not about what you would expect. No left luggage offices or piles of umbrellas here. No, this story was written, once again, as part of the ‘places’ month, and is about the Alamo. Some good research (by ‘good’ I mean more than just Wikipedia) went into this one, and again I'm proud of the tone of the story and its open nature. The stories in this pamphlet were gathered together looking at concepts of both lost and found, circling around this one tale in an attempt to expand upon it.
I could carry on and give you the story behind each of the fictions in the collection, but that would really take too long. And the backstory isn't really important. The stories speak for themselves, they tell their brief tales and then move on, leaving you to ponder. I hope that the collection is a good balance of genres, of styles, of the funny with the sad, of the purposeful with the vague, of light and dark, but I suppose that’s for you to decide.

As a little teaser, here’s the story that you could now say is to the core around which the whole collection resolves itself.

Lost Property
By Calum Kerr

Alamo means cottonwood, is the thought which goes through Pedro’s head when he walks past the slightly slumped former-mission. He thinks of the widely-spread branches, the tree which seems to be reaching for the ground as much as the sky, and knows it is the right name.
He finishes his shift at about one, most nights. With the customers fed and gone, and everything clean and ready for the next day’s service, he finally walks the few blocks back to his apartment, past the historical landmark.
On many nights he stops. There are benches opposite the building for tourists, often weighed down by Pedro’s generous portions, to linger and rest and admire this restored piece of their past.
Sometimes Pedro sits on one of the benches and stares at the walls which are lit into unblemishment by night-long spotlights. Sometimes, like tonight, he walks up to the walls, standing close enough to touch.
Years of money has performed the miracle of removing age and disfigurement. There is little trace of musket fire or barrage unless one knows to look for it.
The Mission of Saint Anthony of Padua, says the sign on the grass. Saint Anthony, the saint of lost things. It seems appropriate to Pedro. So much has been lost in this place: the loss of Texas to the Americans, the loss of lives, and now the loss of a real history in favour of a facelift and a make-over.
Pedro steps back from the walls and looks around at the town. The fighters of that day would not recognise the place of their deaths, not even as a dream.
As he walks the last few hundred yards to his apartment, as ever he holds Saint Anthony in his thoughts, and hopes that what has been lost can one day be found.




Bio:
Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife -  the writer, Kath Kerr -  their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Property-Calum-Kerr/dp/095769850X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372940684&sr=1-4 or direct from the publisher, Cinder House, at: http://cinderhouse.com/product/lost-property-by-calum-kerr/. The individual e-pamphlets which make up the book are also available via Dead Ink at http://deadinkbooks.com/archives/category/ebooks


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Lurking and Hopeful

I am sorry I have neglected my blog. I have been writing non-stop, but have become so immersed in it that a great many other things have fallen by the wayside. I haven't read as many books as I would have liked, although I have loved Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth, The Pre-War House by Alison Moore, One Day by David Nicholls and an old favourite, After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard. That is quite a few, but covers the last three months.
And when it comes to sorting out our garden, which resembles Passchendaele at the moment, I have been burying my head in the sand, or in the wasteland to be more precise.
It is in dire need of some tender loving care. In fact, it is in need of total rescue. We were keeping chickens, but sadly a fox came one night and managed to wrench the catch off the coop. We have decided not to keep chickens anymore. We had already replaced several of them and made the coop more secure. But it is impossible to outsmart this fox. His lurking presence (I have come face to face with him at dawn) and his arrogance - digging a lair under our neighbour's tree where he calmly washed himself after his midnight banquet - make him too much of a threat. And our cats are terrified of him so it makes no sense to present him with an open invitation to a chicken-dinner.
Our chickens were free-range and uprooted every single blade of grass, leaving us with a huge sea of mud. In this quagmire we have some quite beautiful tall and elegant flowering things that my husband calls weeds. And the bane of our life - trillions of baby ash-trees. As soon as we pull one out, another thirty grow in its place.
However, I have not picked up a rake or a hoe yet. I have ignored the problem and stayed indoors writing instead. I have been writing novels and one is making its way around agents at the moment. I have had some encouraging comments, but no takers yet. One agent asked to see the full MS and was very excited about it. You can imagine how overjoyed I was. But she decided in the end that it was not right for her list. However, she did say she was sure she would see it on the shelves of the bookshops and would be looking forward to that day. That was massively exciting for me, one of those really helpful sorts of rejection that gives you a ray of hope despite the fact that you're being told no.
Another agent liked it, but did say it read like a threaded-together collection of short stories. And that was helpful advice too, because I could see exactly what she meant. It really is the hardest aspect of novel-writing to get right for me. I need to establish a stronger narrative drive that thrusts through the entire book, rather than treat each chapter as a separate story. I don't believe I've got the hang of it yet, but I'm trying my best.
In the meantime, I have won the local prize in the Bath Short Story Award, which was a huge surprise and a lovely reward for the hard-working story I submitted. It had already been rejected several times, but I couldn't quite lay it to rest. It was lying on the ground, battered and bruised, but with its legs still kicking in the air. So it went to Bath and that was the result. There's always hope for everything. If it hadn't done well there, I would have continued picking it up, dusting it down and giving it another push out of the door.
I was also overjoyed to achieve both a second place and also a runner-up place in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition. William Trevor is my favourite author, so I couldn't resist it. Once again, one of those stories was a perennial wallflower that someone has finally asked to dance.
Two of my very short pieces are included in Scraps, an anthology of flash fiction masterminded by Calum Kerr. His book, Lost Property is a wonderful collection of eighty-three stories and he will be my guest on this blog on 27th July.
I have temporarily called a halt to writing my long short stories for Woman's Weekly Fiction Special. I have truly loved writing those. Seeing them in print with those gorgeous illustrations they always provide has been the most wonderful experience and also a dream come true. From the moment I started reading  my mother's magazines when I was still very young, I was burning to write a story and see it published in those pages. Sometimes I can't quite believe I have managed to achieve it. But each one takes quite a long time to create and edit. I lose my way with the novel if I break off for a couple of weeks to write short stories again. But I really do miss writing them and hopefully I'll go back to them soon.
I have finished a novella which is currently in a competition and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for it. And I'm now halfway through a new novel. But it's reached a stage where I can see flaws appearing. I thought I'd avoided them, but they are coming back to haunt me, like those stains on the carpet that you think you've rubbed out, but you've actually rubbed them in. And they work their way back up through the pile. You walk into the room and there they are again. They have just been in hiding, lurking there all the time. Rather like that fox, expectant and patient. Or those stubborn little ash trees in the garden.
And as for me, I'm not at all patient and I'm not really all that expectant. I am just hopeful. x

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Reality Award



Thank you to Hayley, who has nominated me for this gorgeous Reality Award. 

Here are my questions and answers:


If you could change one thing, what would it be?



I would bring back my daughter's horse, Stitch. He was a little mad. The moment he entered a field, he and my daughter became a joyful cloud of dust.

He was also a gentleman.

On a long family walk, with my daughter riding him, my elderly mother was tiring. She said we should all go on ahead and wait for her at the end.

But after a few minutes, Stitch stopped. He looked round at her. And refused to continue until he was satisfied she had caught up.


 If you could repeat an age, what would it be?   



I loved them all, although I wouldn't choose to be in my teens again. I think I was exceptionally selfish and pig-headed. Really rather horrible. So I'd quite like to repeat it, as long as I could change my ways!

I liked being newly-wed in my twenties. I loved having three children in my very late twenties/thirties, although I would have started younger and had four if I had my time again. I felt like the granny of the school playground, being almost fifty by the time my youngest daughter was leaving primary school.

I started writing seriously at forty-nine, so the last few years have been amazing too.

I like it all really. All the different decades have been incredible in their own way.

As Keith Richards said, It's good to be here. But it's good to be anywhere.


What one thing really scares you?



Becoming blind.

I'm not expecting to. But it's something I fear.

If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?



Truly, nobody else at all. I'm the luckiest woman on earth. I just have to think of my three girls.


And now I'm getting all emotional.


Thank you for the lovely award, Hayley. x


Sunday, 20 January 2013

First Drafts

In response to the lovely awards from Rosemary and Wendy a while ago, for which I am very grateful, thank you, I thought I'd post my seven things about writing a first draft. I am interested in the different ways writers approach this.

1. I type the first draft on my laptop. It can take a week or so for a longish short story.

2. I don't read through it each morning. I just look at the last hundred or so words to check the sense and spot any errors, then carry on.

3. I can't leave spelling or grammar mistakes for the second draft. I have to correct as I go. 
    I always give it a title, but this will probably change, maybe several times, before submitting the story.
    I might also change the names of the characters if they don't feel right once I've become better acquainted.
    The only thing that never changes is the theme.

4. I break off to carry out any research required. I can't go on unless I know I've incorporated all the facts.

5. I don't read it until it's essentially finished. I print it out and take it somewhere I can read it out loud and make corrections in the margin in red and green pen. By the end, the sheets of paper are smothered in notes and crossings-out and asterisks and footnotes. It can take ages and at the end there is more pen than print.
    I have difficulty reading my scrawl, especially if I don't start the revisions straightaway. Sometimes it's a very simple word or two, but it can take an age to work out what it says. Yet when I have written myself a very cryptic message, hoping I'll understand myself when the time comes, I nearly always remember what I meant.

6. I transcribe all the changes onto the laptop, including further, spontaneous ones I might add to the ones already scribbled on the print-out.

7. The chances are high that by this stage, I've begun the first draft of another story. 

How do other writers approach the first draft?



Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Brazening It Out

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and that all you hope for this year will happen.

I don't make any special resolutions at this time of year, but that might be because I seem to make them every day. It's like a fast-flowing river of good intentions. The trouble is, the current sometimes rushes along while I'm gripping to a tree on the bank, listening to the roar of the water.
I've tried to avoid the despair that can result from my own plans leaving me stranded, with a greater degree of success in recent months.
I'm taking one project at a time and letting it reach a good point before turning to others. I'm learning to listen to my own stories and wait for them to be really finished before submitting them. I'm thinking about them hard before I let them go and have developed a warier eye for errors or dull sentences or lack of actual story. I've been reading more than ever and analysing sentences to find out why they are there and how they work. Mostly, I've been working out how to improve. And most important of all, I've remembered that it's all about loving the words.
My novel is with an agent now, after reaching the top ten of an independent publisher's competition. I was so relieved someone liked it and offered encouragement that I thought I'd give it a try.
Writing the covering letter and synopsis was harder than fiction, but in the end, I decided to just keep it brief and honest. Submitting it felt toe-curling, like dreams where everyone in the butcher's shop turns to look at you and you realise you're just wearing a vest. I felt exposed and silly, imagining that first chapter being glanced at with derision or, worse, boredom. But I should probably consign my over-excited imagination to writing, rather then manipulating real-life to suit the flagging ego.
And actually, I don't think we feel that much embarrassment in our dreams. There's a lot more brazening it out.