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.

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Shhh. Top secret plans afoot.

Okay, so it might seem like I’ve been ignoring you all for some time, or more to the point ignoring this blog, but there are lots of secret squirrel plans coming together whilst I piece together my short story collection.
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Most secret (not so secret anymore) is the news that I’m becoming part of Team WHQ. I’ve spoken highly of Writers’ HQ in the past (used to be called Brighton Writers, until they decided to take on the world). From July I’ll be running monthly retreats in Cambridge – so get signed up here for when all the details are confirmed when you’ll get official type invites with discount codes and everything!

It’s also worth knowing that I’m running short story workshops at the Evesham Festival of Words on Friday 30th June, and at the Jersey Festival of Words at the end of September – so I hope to see you at one of these events too.

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.

 

 

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.

Let the title do the talking*

12 short stories. For you to read. Now. Get electrocuted.

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I am so proud to be involved with this project. With thanks to Fran for inviting me and all her hard work alongside Jane and Bernie. They are super stars and this is the first of many for Literary Salmon.

Did I forget to mention, read the collection now.

*if the title doesn’t work, then the praise and inspiration should! Find out the full story on Twitter – follow the salmon.

News. Of the big variety.

My debut short story collection will be published.

There. No messing about. No, what should I say. No, it’ll be small – nothing to worry anyone about. No, looking at my feet. Because essentially that has what I have been doing for the last couple of months.

The details, which will be fleshed out over the next year or so, are that it will be published by Liquorice Fish (whom I have spoken of in previous posts) who continue to provide a wonderful home for my short stories.

And now I am getting very excited about it. Not least because I just told Ali Smith. And she grinned and gifted me the title of my collection.

In truth she wrote down the words I gave her, when I floundered over what I had been considering as possible titles in the small hours between sleep. And you know what, this is perfect.

Yet to be determined (for those who can read Ali's handwriting)

This is happening. To the people who I have should have told by now, offline, please forgive me.

Lost Voices: Published!

When I found out that ‘Once, there was a bear’ was a winner in the Lost Voices competition and would be joining six other works in the anthology pamphlet, my first thought was that I had almost got my wish to be published before I turned 30 as it was due out in March. But I was very happy to know I would be published at some point in the very near future.

Lost VoicesFor my birthday I disappeared up to North Wales to relax and write. On the way home, I switched back online and found that the anthology had actually been released a day before I turned 30. I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since.

I have received so many wonderful comments about the story, and I love hearing from my family and oldest friends when they’ve received their copies.

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I’m so proud to be part of such a wonderful anthology; beautifully edited and designed by Adam Craig. Which leads me to the next bit of news. I have been invited to submit a story for Liquorice Fish’s anthology Past Tense which is being created in honour of Cinnamon Press’s 10 year anniversary. ‘Fallen’, a micro fiction, will be part of a pamphlet anthology of 10 stories from past and present Cinnamon Press writers. Past Tense is due to be published in November.

If you’d like a copy of Lost Voices or to find out more about Liquorice Fish visit the Cinnamon Press site.

Finding my voice with Liquorice Fish

Liquorice Fish, literary imprint of Cinnamon Press, have lfish_logo-300x300announced the winners of their ‘Lost Voices’ competition and I’m very pleased to say I’m one of them!

My short story, Once There was a Bear, will be alongside six other works in an anthology which will be published in Spring 2015. All the authors’ work are described here along with details of the commended and highly commended entries.

I’m thrilled to note that the anthology will also feature a preview of Vanessa Gebbie’s next work. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures. This will be the second Liquorice Fish publication;  “a striking, surreal, and poignant collection of micro-fictions” written by Vanessa and illustrated by Lynn Roberts. As someone who is constantly inspired by her work, I really cannot wait for my writing to be with hers in the anthology.

Liquorice Fish is a “new imprint from Cinnamon Press to promote the innovative and idiosyncratic in contemporary writing: writers who are passionate and committed to finding an individual voice and approach to their writing; who are restless and want to explore the many possibilities inherent in language and the written word; or who wish to celebrate and extend the vibrant and varied traditions — and anti-traditions — that emerged during the 20th Century but which have been too often marginalised and belittled by the world of corporate authorship.” Find out more on their website.

Once There was a Bear has been described by Liquorice Fish as “the fabulous and mundane exist side-by-side in this delicate short story from an up-and-coming young British writer.”

I can’t tell you how chuffed those words make me. 2015 is going to be a very good year and this is just the beginning.

Short stories are for life…

…not just for National Short Story Week.

I love that we as a nation give time for a whole week to encourage young readers and writers to get involved with the short story form. As the week comes to a close, I wanted to share some favourite links that I hope will give short story lovers resources to keep them going for the next 51 weeks.

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You may have noticed this blog can be sporadic. Mostly, and with great joy, Word Factory is to blame for this. I am involved with this amazing team who every month for almost three years have provided short story salons, masterclasses and workshops to writers and readers of London. So when you can’t find me here, I’m normally over on the Word Factory site – where you can find videos of all of the readings, a wonderful monthly round up of opportunities that Paul McVeigh sources, as well as profiles for over 70 short story writers.

shortstopsShort Stops is a resource website for anyone who loves short stories. Brain-child of Tania Hershaman, this site is the home for everything connected to the form – live events like Word Factory, publications like Bare Fiction and Lighthouse, and a very long list of short story authors.
If you haven’t already, I suggest you connect with Tania and Short Stops on Facebook and Twitter to keep in the know of all things short story.

sssAnd as it is Sunday, it is only right that I mention Short Story Sunday. This new online publication which has been running since the start of November. Already there have been three wonderful stories published and I can’t wait to see what will come next.

There’s so many more I could mention – but please do post in the comments if you’d like to share you own favourites.