Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Scarecrow: Out Now

Back in February, I wrote that one of my stories had been accepted for World Weaver Press’ latest anthology, Scarecrow. Today, I am delighted to announce that this short story collection, edited by Fae’s Rhonda Parrish, has been released.

First of all, here’s a description of Scarecrow, from World Weaver Press’ website:

Hay-men, mommets, tattie bogles, kakashi, tao-tao—whether formed of straw or other materials, the tradition of scarecrows is pervasive in farming cultures around the world. The scarecrow serves as decoy, proxy, and effigy—human but not human. We create them in our image and ask them to protect our crops and by extension our very survival, but we refrain from giving them the things a creation might crave—souls, brains, free-will, love. In Scarecrow, fifteen authors of speculative fiction explore what such creatures might do to gain the things they need or, more dangerously, think they want.
Within these pages, ancient enemies join together to destroy a mad mommet, a scarecrow who is a crow protects solar fields and stores long-lost family secrets, a woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and another becomes one. Encounter scarecrows made of straw, imagination, memory, and robotics while being spirited to Oz, mythological Japan, other planets, and a neighbor’s back garden. After experiencing this book, you’ll never look at a hay-man the same.

My tale in this anthology is called Only the Land Remembers. It tells the story of Grace, a girl who volunteers to be the ‘Scarecrow’- a protector figure who must ward off the ghoulish ‘Crows’ that are haunting her town. Below is a short extract:

The Crows are gathering. 

Grace is curled up on the window seat upstairs, her arms around her knees, her fingers picking at the loose hem of her sleeve. This is the only spot in the house where she can watch them; it is just high enough to see over the town wall.  
They are smudged in the crisscross of panes, the glass distorting the almost-human shape of them, so that if Grace moves her head even a little, they seem to lurch from side to side. But even blurred those dark spirits are unmistakable, and she knows that, for now at least, they stand perfectly still beyond border.   
It calms her to sit here, taking stock of them: three by the gate, eight in the orchard, the rest away in the fields. Yesterday, there were two dozen; now she counts twenty-nine.  
After a while, her vision relaxes and she leans forward, a cold kiss lingering where her brow touches the window.  
‘Shoo,’ Grace whispers, her breath fogging the glass. ‘Get away. Shoo.’

I’d be lying if I said this had been an easy story to write. The plot changed significantly from my initial ideas, which is unusual for me, as I’m a compulsive planner. The number of drafts I struggled through, not to mention the endless hours I spent writing them, doesn’t really bear thinking about (a shout out goes to Joely Badger here, who unpicked the plot with me on multiple occasions, and never grew tired of my asking, ‘But what if…?’).

Needless to say, it was a huge relief to eventually wrestle my thoughts and ideas into a story I was pleased with, and when I received the postcard from Rhonda telling me I’d been accepted for Scarecrow it definitely felt as though all of the effort had been worth it. So today, as I look back on the whole experience - and I look forward to reading the rest of the anthology - I can't help but feel especially proud to finally see Only the Land Remembers published.

Scarecrow is available to buy as a trade paperback direct from the publisher, or as an ebook from the usual suspects. More information can be found here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Newcastle Writing Conference 2015

Just over a week ago, I attended the Newcastle Writing Conference 2015. Organised by New Writing North and hosted by Northumbria University, it was a thoroughly informative and inspiring event - one I have thinking about ever since.

The day kicked off with a storming key notes address from YA author Meg Rosoff, which was a great ice-breaker for the conference, mainly because Meg is such an entertaining speaker. She brought a lot of laughter to the lecture hall as she told us exactly why she hated her former profession of advertising (it involved instant tea granules), her habit of getting fired from almost every job she’s ever had, and how her first novel – a pony book – was rejected for containing too much sex.

The talk concluded with Meg urging us to think of our brains as colanders: almost everything slips through, but once in a while something especially memorable or interesting gets stuck. When writing, she advised us to consider the contents of our own individual colanders: ‘None of it is the same as anyone else’s,’ she said, ‘and that is your strength and your weapon.

After a panel event about social media, we split off into breakout sessions. I had chosen How to Pitch Your Work with Steve Chambers, mainly because the idea of talking about my novel-to-be terrifies me. In fact, what I really liked about Steve was that he didn’t deny that pitching was an unpleasant business, though as he reminded us, ‘You don’t really have a choice.

A few pieces of advice from that session that really stood out for me:

  • Build your pitch around the main character – people are interested in people.
  • Pitch it like you’re talking to a mate at the pub.
  •  It isn’t about the novel’s themes or issues - or why you’re writing it - it’s about telling the story.
  • Focus on what is unique about your story. 
  •  Not everyone will like your ideas, and that’s okay.
  •  Don’t lose confidence, and keep pitching – you will improve.

I also found that Steve, who is the Programme Leader of the Creative Writing MA at Northumbria University, had a lot of writing wisdom to share, not all of it related to pitching. In fact, my notes are full of his offhand little gems, one of my favourites being, ‘You can’t help the kind of writer you are, because who you are keeps coming out of your work, in your voice.’

In the afternoon, I opted to attend Meet the Agent with Jo Unwin. Much like my attitude to pitching, I find the prospect of one day attempting to find an agent rather intimidating - they are, after all, the gatekeepers of the publishing world. Fortunately, Jo turned out to be very friendly, eager to explain what her job entailed, and full of advice on how to approach an agent. Of course, a lot of information about submitting work can be found online – and it varies from agent to agent – but I thought I’d record just a few of Jo’s many wonderful tips below:

  • The biggest agents in the business might not have space for new authors, but it’s a good idea to approach their assistants, who will be looking to expand their client list.
  • Mention a personal connection to the agent if you have one. This might be meeting them in person, but could just as easily be watching them talk at events on YouTube etc.
  •  Have a good sense of the book you’ve written. Pitch the nugget of your story in your covering letter – and be specific, so it’s memorable. ‘Don’t tell me it’s about innocence and loss,’ Jo advised. ‘Tell me it’s about a mother whose daughter was lost at sea.’
  •  Your covering letter should be serious, demonstrating that you’re a ‘career writer’ – i.e. someone who has been writing for a long time and is committed to a future in the profession. 

The conference concluded with a fantastic panel event called What’s Hot and What’s Not with Jo Unwin, Francesca Main (Picador), Rachael Kerr (Unbound) and Anna James (The Bookseller). It was great to hear about these women’s respective roles in the publishing industry and their current projects, not to mention the many, many book recommendations they had (my bank balance is about to take a serious hit).

As for the question posed by the name of the panel, although the speakers could identify current themes in publishing (nature writing is ‘having a moment’, women’s voices are popular) they cautioned us against chasing trends, because tastes inevitably will have changed by the time a book has been written and published. Instead, we were simply urged to write the best, most important book we could.

I found this point - which had been repeated one way or another throughout the conference - oddly reassuring. Obviously, writing a high-quality novel is no easy task, but given that the rapidly-evolving publishing industry can sometimes seem like a confusing sort of place, it’s a clear objective – something to get on with. 

In fact, Meg Rosoff summed it up nicely right at the beginning of the day, when she related what her agent had once said to her: ‘Forget about being a good girl and doing it the right way, and [write a book] as fiercely as you can.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mslexia Short Story Competition

I am delighted to reveal that one of my short stories, 'Still Life Moving Fast', has been named runner-up in the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2015. It is available to read in the summer edition of Mslexia magazine, which is out now.

For those who don't know, Mslexia is a fantastic publication 'for women who write.' Like the recent Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, it aims to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry - in fact, the current issue discusses how men still dominate the top jobs in publishing. (The Guardian also just ran an article on how books about women are less likely to win literary prizes, which mentions Mslexia's research. Click here for more).

As I've said before, writing can sometimes be a lonely, unrewarding business, so it's a real boost to be acknowledged and published in such a well-respected magazine. Furthermore, judge Alison MacLeod had some lovely things to say about 'Still Life Moving Fast', including calling it 'visually delicious', which is something I may well quote until the end of time.

In addition to work by the winners and finalists of the short story competition, Issue 66 (Jun/Jul/Aug 2015) of Mslexia is chock-full of news, features, reviews, interviews and much more on the subject of writing, books and publishing. If this sounds like your thing - and you want to read 'Still Life Moving Fast' - do chase down a copy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coming Soon: Scarecrow

I am totally thrilled to announce that one of my stories, 'Only the Land Remembers', is to be published in World Weaver Press' latest anthology, Scarecrow.

Rhonda's postcard
Scarecrow is being released at the same time as a companion title, Corvidae, so it will be very interesting to see how the stories in each have developed around the theme of these two old foes. And now, both tables of contents are available over at editor Rhonda Parrish's blog (she also put together Faeso I'm delighted to be working with her again). Scarecrow can be found here, Corvidae here.

I learned this happy news by email, but a few days later a handwritten card arrived from Rhonda, confirming my story's place in Scarecrow. Considering I mostly receive bills and leaflets from Domino's through my letterbox, this was a lovely surprise. I like to think the card was delivered - all the way from Canada - by some kind of corvidae. If I squint, I can just about see the beak marks...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading Review 2014

For me, 2014 was a pretty respectable reading year. I achieved my Goodreads Challenge of finishing forty books, I discovered some exciting new authors (especially Helen Oyeyemi and Evie Wyld), and I even managed to make it through some non-fiction. On my travels, I had the time to tackle a few tomes (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), whereas later in the year when I was busier I sped through shorter novels (Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva). With only one or two exceptions, I enjoyed everything I picked up – I certainly identified some all-time favourite reads. So below are just a few of the books that especially stood out for me last year.

Best non-fiction: Gossip From the Forest by Sarah Maitland. Maitland's exploration of Britain’s forests is fascinating in itself, but the magic really happens when she connects natural history with the history of fairy tales, and uses what she’s learned to inform her own creative writing.

Best short story collection: The Rental Heart and Other Fairy Tales by Kirsty Logan. There’s been a lot of buzz about Logan’s debut collection - rightly so, as far as I’m concerned, for her short stories are dark, dreamlike and beautifully-crafted. I devoured them all in just a couple of sittings, not because they were easy reads, but because – like faerie –Logan’s world was difficult to leave.

Best children's/young adult book: More Than This by Patrick Ness. I’m reluctant to choose Ness for this because I picked him last year too, but his writing is so bold and unique that I simply can’t resist him. I’m also reluctant to say too much about this story, because the way it unravels is completely unpredictable and best appreciated without so much as a sniff of spoilers.

Best classic: Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Why haven’t I read this before? It really is a great book, mainly because Anne Shirley is such a fantastic character. As my pal Joely Badger pointed out, Anne is very much a contemporary of Richmal Crompton's (Just) William, in both her earnestness and her knack for getting into trouble. A lovely read.

Most disappointing book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work, especially Stardust, Neverwhere and his short stories. His ideas are big, his writing is clever, but I thought the plot of this one was rather muddled, even dull.

Best reread: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and 3/4 by Sue Townsend. After the sad news of his creator’s passing, I revisited Adrian Mole last year, and found his adventures just as bittersweet, just as awkward, and just as likely to cause ugly snorts of laughter as they ever were.

Best book: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. I’m not sure where to start with this one. In fact, at some point in the near future, I’d like to write a proper review of it, because Alameddine has given me such a lot to think about - both as a reader and a writer. So for now I’ll try to keep it short. Hakawati is the Arabic word for “storyteller”, and this is a book about stories. On the surface, it tells the tale of Osama, the grandson of a hakawati who returns from the US to his Lebanese homeland after the civil war. But woven within that story are countless others, ranging from the ‘real-life’ tales of Osama’s family to the fairy tales, folk tales and even religious tales told by the hakawati himself. It’s such a rich and complex structure, so inventive and entertaining, that you can practically sense Alameddine’s glee as he tests how far he can push the boundaries of his novel. I thought it was superb, and there’s no doubt it’s the best book I read last year.

I would, however, also like to mention The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, for they too completely captivated me. Now I write this, I wonder whether I enjoyed these books so much because each of their authors – like Alameddineapproached their respective plots in an original, playful way: Miller’s was a retelling of the Iliad, Fowler revealed hers from middle to beginning to end, Wyld related half of hers backwards, while Atkinson told different versions of hers again and again.

So I suppose, if I've learned anything from my reading habits of 2014, it’s that I like a juicy structure; a book that not only tells a good story, but tells it in the best possible way. It’s a discovery that I’ll be keeping at the back of my mind when deciding what to read in the future, and also one I hope will give me more focus when it comes to my writing.