On being a letterer*

*no not the comic book kind. My kind of letterer. Deal.

Today I have written three letters, the first ones for a while. It takes something out of me, which I can’t always tap into or give. I hadn’t noticed when writing one or two a time, but when I wrote four one Saturday, I realised how much energy was going into each one. Just as much as a story. More maybe. They quite often become more personal that I aim for, especially knowing that there won’t be a response. I often get more philosophical than I mean to too, but somehow that can make me work out what is buzzing around my head in that unreachable space. The process is a little like meditation.

Letters

I started writing letters for From Me to You in March. I already sent irregularly timed letters to friends which is why Alison invited me along to their letter writing workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. Working with From Me to You, I often write to complete strangers who are currently dealing with cancer. This was something I wish I had done for loved ones in the past but these letters have provided so much that I couldn’t have foreseen.

When you’re ill and dealing with the onslaught of treatment, having some escape is vital. You may not have the energy to read a whole book, or the conversations you have with friends may have a habit of coming back to your illness and the limitations it can bring. I have written about my fears around depression, and I can only relate in that way – having never had cancer, but there have also been frank conversations with loved ones who have had cancer who didn’t want to talk about themselves but wanted to hear my stories about my day, or what I was passionate about right in that moment.

So that’s what I try to share with the recipients of my letterees (yes, I just made that word up. If you can be a letterer – I know it’s not the right context, who cares – then you can be a letteree). At first I used to try to justify why I was writing. I felt selfish because I couldn’t ask and listen to what was happening with them, until I realised that was part of the point. This way, the letteree gets to access a whole other life in a moment. Occasionally From Me to You send me the name and a little info about someone who has been nominated to receive letters. I’ve been writing to one man for a little while now, and it was so rewarding to hear that what I’m sending is making his days easier and making him smile. We both have a love for Marvel so I’ve been sharing my theories about the current Netflix series and the latest films. It doesn’t have to be Plato-level philosophy!

The fact that I get something from it also feels selfish, but it’s a thought I’ve learnt to put aside. I give more than I would if I were just making a monetary donation, and instead of a sticker or a badge I get some insight back. If it’s not something that person wants to read, I can’t stop that or fix it – but there is something beautiful about the serendipity of just sending words out into the wider world. That in turn has helped me relax about the stories I write and where they will end up finding homes. See, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

If you’d like to find out more about From Me to You, and how you can become a letter writer (or letterer in my world), then visit their site.

Advertisements

On time, gratitude, and new views

A year ago I let my voice be loud enough to tell the ether that my debut short story collection would be published. Deadlines were placed, my work began. Today, my work continues. The deadlines have moved, publishing schedules being as they can be, and there is now more time. Yet to be Determined will be in your hands in 2018. The irony of the title is not lost on me.

At the moment it is in my hands, but I am not alone. Thanks often comes at the end of the process, but in the steps we take for a book to live in other peoples’ lives, it’s not just down to the author. The encouragement from my friends, writing colleagues, and particularly my wife is not forgotten at any stage. Thank you, you know who you are.

I did not foresee this extra time but I am now grateful for it; the space in which to continue the journey, both for the book and myself. I’ll try not to question talking about this now, and last year, before the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I could try to pass over it, hide. I’m not going to. I will remind myself of the gratitude for the honesty that my writing peers have been kind enough to share; and I can hope that it will helps others as well as myself.

Often the question of ‘right’ comes up – right words, right time, right way. I’m a believer in fate, but don’t always have the patience for it. I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s worth the wait. For example. This. Was. Worth. The. Wait.

20160525_211625.jpg

My thanks to Cathy Galvin (that blissful woman on the right who founded the Word Factory) is unending. Not least because she gave me the chance to help Neil Gaiman with his signing, and generally hang around with his amazing assistant Clara before the masterclass.

Being on the other side of the desk with this ‘literary rock star’ gave me a new view of being an author that I am yet to experience. So far there has been one person who took note of my name when I was at the Cinnamon Press fest last year and came up to me to congratulate me on my story ‘Once there was a bear’. I was so taken aback that I quickly thanked her but couldn’t think of the next thing to say. Like a normal person. Neil Gaiman, like many authors of course, has his stage presence – the rock star Neil – which slips into place and off again when he then becomes Neil the writer who still gets excited about seeing the work he is most proud of in front of him. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness that, in someone I am so in awe of.

20160605_181032

So this weekend I spent time talking hard things and writing hard things. I allowed myself to crash into innocence (waking up in a bed full of cuddly toys will do that), enjoyed the sunshine on my face, learnt how to make origami stars (my new stress relief), and dipped into Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. A wise woman (Caitlin Moran) said this of it – and I feel it’s the perfect sum up:

“If this book came to you during a despairing night, by dawn you would believe in ideas and hope and humans again. This is a beautiful, beautiful book.”

Another book to add to your list. If you want to read the Once Upon a Time article pictured, its available here.

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Good things come in…fours?

Seasons, cardinal directions, card suits, limbs… Okay, so I’m scratching around and breaking the rule of three. Normally I happily live by that superstition but you have to celebrate when there’s more good things around. Here are a four great things that I wanted to share with you this week.

 

Library Friendship

Friends of British LibraryThis to me is the most wonderful of gifts. My parents purchased this for me for my birthday at the start of February. Having enjoyed the last exhibition on the Gothic Imagination, and the current one on the anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the prospect of a year of opportunities there does make me extraordinarily happy, along with the chance to make the most of the member’s room when a spare seat in a peaceful place to write is needed. If you want to find out more, visit http://support.bl.uk/.

The Tiniest Literary Magazine 

Matchbook StoriesThe latest issue (number four) of Matchbox Stories arrived exquisitely packaged up from Book Ex Machina. I will be honest, this was an on a whim purchase but I’m so pleased I did. The four tiny stories by Ali Smith, Etgar Keret, Marti Leimbach and Frances Gapper are brilliant. Full of wit and wonder, these micro-tales left me thinking. Thinking of all the possibility there is in so few words, and the power that can be contained in no more than five sentences. If you’d like your own set then visit their site here.

Sublime Beginnings

Word Factory
Photo credits: James Lawson http://www.james-lawson.co.uk

Word Factory‘s year began on Saturday. Although Marina Warner could not be with us, and we all send our best wishes to her, the evening was a wonderful start to the year. I’ve written about how proud I am to be a part of Word Factory before, and although I have had to step away to concentrate on my collection in the past couple of months it still continues to be a great source of community, understanding, and inspiration. If you haven’t been before do let me know, I’d love to introduce you into the family.

Beautiful Monsters

Mslexia 69I have been subscribed to Mslexia for a good few years now. I’ve seen them refresh their design before to ensure they stay engaged with their readership and this one is no different; beautiful inside and out. It offers features which cut into what the industry and writers are thinking about, how-to advice from exercises to inspire to ways to reconnect with your writing and reading communities. The showcased stories are always worth reading – this month, Ana Salote’s left me chilled as the layers of meaning sunk in. Their website is also a mine of information so pop along and find out what you’re missing.

 

 

Resources that rescue

This afternoon I’ve been lured into the depths of the internet whilst working on the next stages of some new stories. Normally I would later bully myself, as many of us do, on the procrastination of this act. Should I really be watching these videos, reading these articles, when I should be writing? Today, however, I am going to celebrate this wandering off the page and onto the screen.

As may be obvious now, I am obsessed with fairy tales, myths, magic realism; their function and imaginations. They feed my work, and free my mind. If I’m not reading stories then I am often dipping into the theory that works to bring further understanding to these tales.

Whilst reading an email from the London Review Bookshop (one of my favourite places), I came across their YouTube channel and the video of Edmund Gordon introducing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This of course led to the leapfrog onto other videos and I found this video which has delighted me this afternoon whilst thinking on my stories.

I desperately wanted to go to this event last year but it sold out very quickly, so I’m thrilled that the British Academy have shared it in full on their channel. It might have been naive of me not to have already made the most of these resources, but it is something that has rescued me today.

If this introduction to fairy tale and Marina Warner’s expertise is something that interests you too, then you might like to come along to the Word Factory events next month where she will be leading a masterclass and then reading at the evening salon on 27 February.

Waiting for stories to fly

Most short stories take time to write. The one I have finished a new draft of this morning as evolved over the past year. A year of thinking about it, writing it in part of another story, and then thinking about it a bit more. And a bit more. Then playing, seeing it from another view until the story I was trying to tell, became the story I am telling.

It is only an initial draft. It has gone through another filter by my reading it aloud to my wife, who I am grateful to have in so many ways but this morning mostly as my first reader. An honest first reader really helps. Then it will be off to the critique group I belong to who will give their invaluable feedback. After any further redrafting with my editor, its next journey will be as part of my short story collection.

I am an incredibly impatient person when it comes to myself, my work. Allowing my stories time feels like an impossible task. But when it works, when it clicks into place, it feels like how I imagine these Jackdaws feel.

 

The story is about a Jackdaw among other things.

What I’m really linking… 25th August 2014

The reading one(S)

beautiful1I am one story away from the end of Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. I’m late to pick up on how challenging, honest and brutal Hall’s stories can be but I am savouring every one. Difficult to do as a short story fiend but this is a collection worth time.

stonemattresshowtobebothAdding to my reading excitement, two of my most favourite authors have new books out this week. Ali Smith with her Booker short-listed How to to be both, and Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. You know where to find me on Thursday when these hit the bookshelves.

The Philosophical one

weareverbsWhilst considering my next moves for my first novel and the second one which is becoming louder, I’ve been delving into philosophical discussion on how we develop as writers and as humans. We are Verbs is my favourite so far.

The writing one

wt-circleThis week I’ve been taking part in The Write Track‘s trial of audio writing exercises. Led by novelist and top creative writing tutor Julia Bell to work out if writers find audio exercises useful, the idea is to take exercises out of the classroom and into people’s lives as they live them, kind of like a pocket writing coach. Soon their the goal-setting community for writers will be launched online – if this trial is anything to go by, this will be an exciting community to be involved with.

I would love for find out what is inspiring you at the moment – please use the comments box for links and feedback.

What I’m really linking… 10th August 2014

For the past year, although I haven’t been blogging, I have been inspired by so many articles etc online. I have tried to share these via social media which of course moves quickly and I have a collection of links that may benefit other writers, editors and readers too. Book Riot has a great weekly post, Critical Linking, which I love. What I’m really linking is born from reading this and wanting to do something regular and useful with this blog.

I would love for find out what’s inspired you this week – please use the comments box for links and feedback.

The writing one…

PM Scare 2Meet the instant gratification monkey and the panic monster. It’s very likely that you have your own, but this made me smile on a day when I let my monkey go for a wander when I should have been writing.

It won’t help that this became a useful blog addition.

The political one…

_Bad-Feminism--Is-There-Really-Only-One-Type-Of-Feminist--1 (117x110)I stumbled across this a couple of months ago. I like the comparisons it brings to the table in one place and shows up the media led bickering that goes on with feminism on what is wrong and what is right.

Not sure I’m with Moore on the feminist party ideas she’s come up with since but hey.

The science one…

tear1-620xTears are like snowflakes – every one is individual. But even more interesting is thow tears carry the human experience, looking different for every emotion expressed. I hope to eventually use this in a story.

The Topography of Tears is just beautiful.

The Cute one…

SAABbookI am a little bit in love with Jackie Morris’s bears. Stumbling across her artwork on Twitter led me to learn that she is the cover artist for Robin Hobb’s books as well as a writer and illustrator of many children’s books.

Jackie reads Mary her story. There is even flying bears on her blog.

The reading one…

Carys Bray’s debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, pulled me into the lives of the Bradley family. I couldn’t stop reading it. That’s not a cliché, I promise. I really did have to find out what happened to them all. Watch this Word Factory video to get caught up with them too.

Six steps to writing freedom…

…could have been an alternative title for the writing workshop with the award-winning writer Simon Van Booy that took place at The Society Club last Sunday afternoon.

As a writer and workshop leader I have taken and led many workshops to hone my own and help others hone their craft.

This intimate and intensive half day workshop allowed four writers five hours of insight into the practice of writing and how to push that towards the business of writing; a goal few writers (statistically) reach.

Simon began by exploring our personal goals. We were writers from different backgrounds and experience levels, but with the common goal of moving ourselves and our writing further along.

Simon led us through the six steps below, which he assured us would ensure freedom from ‘writer’s block’.

  1. A place to work
  2. Medium and conditions of writing
  3. Stimulating reading
  4. Inspiration boards
  5. Setting time
  6. Sketching

Sounds simple, deceptively so. These are the kind of steps you learn at the beginning of a BA in Creative Writing however it was refreshing to take the time on a Sunday afternoon, with Simon’s guidance and the supportive discussion with the group, to re-evaluate.

I realised how easily I developed habits that had been, and could still hinder my writing. Moving house meant that my writing space had stopped being exclusively mine which soon became an unconscious excuse. Challenging books had permanent fixtures on my shelves that stood unread, and procrastination or laziness often led to ignored opportunities for writing time.

We then moved to the topic of continuing to be inspired. Simon throughout the afternoon recalled his own experiences with his mentor and other writers; quoting writers, philosophers and more to illustrate the points being made.

The one line that truly stuck with me, was his own;

“not being inspired is often referred to as writer’s block”.

We discussed the different ways one can be inspired and how to use the little ways to reenergise our writing. Patience and mindfulness with the everyday is a critical part in this process but can be easily forgotten.

Which led us nicely into exploring sketching. Carrying a notebook everywhere is something many writers swear by (or swear when they don’t have it and are without the means to record thoughts that float away the instant they sit down to write). It allows us to pick up and record all the details that hit us on an emotional level, those sparks that hopefully will burn into story form. By taking the time to daydream and observe, and by giving up the idea of how we should feel, sketching can provide your own way into the unknown.

Next we discussed how to write your way into your own voice. Simon provided invaluable hints and tips before he spoke more about exploring form (short stories vs novels) and how our writing develops over time (a constant learning process).

Together we all dug into the trenches of writing – the detail in technique and style, why tenses and perspectives work for some characters but not others and the understanding that editors are the ones that can assist you in the removal of the scaffolding around your writing.

The conversations opened up to include Carrie Kania, Simon’s agent at Conville & Walsh, in the discussion on the business of writing providing us with the chance to ask questions and learn about the publishing industry first-hand. Coupled with Simon’s generous guidance, Carrie’s honest advice on working with small publishing houses, when to contact agents, and how to deal with contracts, were what made this course.

Although at the beginning of the workshop I had considered what I might learn, I was happily surprised at how taking this time to reassess has given me a new outlook in my writing practices and how I can continue to develop. Sometimes it can be as simple as retaking those first six steps.

More information:

Simon Van Booy was born in Great Britain and now lives in Brooklyn.  He is the author of The Secret Lives of People in Love, Love Begins in Winter (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award) and the novel, Everything Beautiful Began After.  His latest novel is The Illusion of Separateness.  His essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and ELLE Men, (China), where he has a monthly column. He has also written for the stage, National Public Radio, and the BBC.  Simon teaches at SVA in Manhattan, and is involved in the Rutgers Early College Humanities Program for young adults living in under-served communities.  In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, an organization which helps young people build confidence in their talent, through annual writing awards. He was a finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, and his work has been translated into more than fifteen languages.

The workshop took place at The Society Club; ‘an independent bookshop, gallery and members club for the literary inclined. Set in the heart of Soho, The Society Club is a unique bookshop, gallery and cocktail bar. It’s elegant and welcoming like a Bohemian sitting room.’ To find out more about their events and when to visit, take a look at their fantastic new website.

Carrie Kania is an agent at Conville & Walsh and co-owns the bookstore The Society Club. Formerly of New York, where she was the Publisher of Harper Perennial and It Books, she now resides in London with her puppy Foxy Beckett. She is also a Consultant Editor for the Word Factory and is involved with the judging process of The Word Factory Apprenticeship.

Word from the Factory floor

Today I was high fived by Deborah Levy.

That is enough to describe how I am feeling, even at almost midnight. I want to tell you why and how this came to be. Word Factory. Two exceptional words when placed together and carried by the wonderful founder, Cathy Galvin.

Word Factory is so many things and will become so many more, but at the core it is a literary salon that concentrates on short form fiction which takes place once a month in The Society Club in Soho, London. Around that, the team at Word Factory (and I am honoured to say that I am part of that team as an associate editor) strive to bring news of the short story to writers and readers in the form of video, articles, networking…the list goes on. Condensed, we love the short story. We also love writers and we are writers. If you want to get to the heart of the reasons behind the Word Factory and what it will become then please read this fantastic article by Cathy herself.

I stumbled upon Word Factory. I will call it fate because things have happened in ways I cannot begin the fathom but I am just grateful for them. I found myself surrounded by a high percentage of my past and present writing colleagues who seemed to have gathered in yet another twist of fate. More obviously, they just know how good Word Factory is at presenting the very best writing and bringing together wonderful people. 

I was hooked and came along to the next few Word Factory events before jumping on the chance to become one of the team. Since then I have been involved with supporting events both in London and now Leicester, maintaining and helping to shape the future of the website and this weekend I got the chance to be part of the latest Word Factory Masterclass.

Everyone who signed up for the Masterclass weekend knew it was going to be good, great even. With the line up of Adam Marek, Julia Bell, David Vann, Alison Moore, Carrie Kania, and Deborah Levy it was destined to be amazing. We arrived at Birbeck’s Keynes Library following a Friday night spent at The Hauntings, a Word Factory salon run from Earlsfield Cemetery – betwitching readings that continue their spell on us provided by Adam Marek, Alex Preston, Tania Hersham and Stella Duffy.

The masterclass started with Adam leading us through dream confessions, exercising ill-paired combinations and then circuit training through word cricket, blackout techniques well as musical and pictorial exercises. After a much needed lunch break, our refreshed brains were then expanded by Julia’s exploration of time management in fiction. Closing off the day, David taught us how style is a choice and that generosity in characterisation is worth the challenge it presents.

Sunday began with Alison showing us how are word choices can provide deeper context to the truth at the core of our stories. The readings in this session were outstanding, the group providing support and inspiration to one another. After lunch in the winter sun, Carrie navigated us through the truths and myths of publishing and working with an agent, with dry wit and much appreciated honesty. Finally our weekend was concluded by a session commanded by Deborah who assisted us in finding our voices and to express our strengths and weaknesses in writing. This allowed us to take control, reclaim our work and ensure that our strengths and weaknesses are no longer a secret to ourselves.

And so, where I began we can conclude. Perhaps what was not expected was how we surprised ourselves. By the end of the weekend, I certainly now know more about myself as a writer and about how I am going to continue my writing journey with even more skills and experience.

Word factoryDeborah and Alison will be reading at Word Factory on 30th November at The Society Club, alongside Michele Roberts and Dave Lordan. With hope, there will be further master classes in 2014, and if you wish to find out more and get tickets to the salon on the 30th then sign up to the newsletters on the homepage to get the latest news from Word Factory. Come on in and join us on the factory floor.