Thursday, 27 April 2017

Retiring from Writing Would Mean Retiring From Life - Andrew Crofts

People around me seem to mention the word “retirement” a lot, asking one another when they are thinking of taking the plunge. I’m keeping a low profile because I am not sure that, as a lifelong freelance writer, I completely grasp the concept.

Retire from what exactly?

If I wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea for a book, am I going to turn over and go back to sleep rather than follow the train of thought to wherever it might lead me?

If someone emails me from some distant and mysterious land, inviting me to travel to them to hear their story with a view to ghosting for them, am I going to decline because now I am “retired”?

There are aspects of writing which become increasingly tedious with age – typing mainly - but then sitting on a ride-on lawnmower can become tedious after an hour or two, as can sitting in a coffee shop with a newspaper or staring out to sea from a tropical island paradise. None of these things do I particularly want to give up.

What exactly is “work” anyway?

Is raising children or caring for an elderly parent work? I think so.

Is commuting on a crowded train for hours every day work? Most definitely.

I guess if you hate your job then retirement is an attractive option, but are there any freelance writers out there who really hate their work that much? They may have grown tired of dealing with publishers, but now they can bypass all that irritation and publish themselves. They may have grown tired of sitting at screens, but most of us are willing to pay that price for as long as our backs and wrists hold up to the repetitive stresses and strains. Maybe they want more time to indulge in hobbies and interests, but ever since I left school I have been following wherever my interests lead me, while trying to make enough money to keep the family fed and warm, so no change there.

To contemplate retiring from writing seems to me to be the same as contemplating retiring from life, and I haven’t yet fixed a date for that one.  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Out of the Mouths of Actors: Dipika Mukherjee Discovers the Magic of Audible Books

On March 28, 2017, Audbible release Ode to Broken Things as an audiobook, but before that, they sent me a link to an excerpt on SoundCloud.
Ode to Broken Things is my debut novel. Like a jealous Mum, I wanted the book to stride into this new audio world with intelligent self-conviction but I definitely did not want it adopted by a mentor so fabulous that it would forget its roots and my vision.
So the first time I listened to Ode To Broken Things—if it can be called “listening” –  was in the shower, with the sound partially drowned by cascading waters.
Okay. So I am a writer who NEVER reads her books once they are published. When I am called upon at literary or talks to read excerpts, I discover cringe-worthy writing hiding in the recesses of my beloved passages. I am glad that excellent editors comb through my writing, because when I am done with edits, all I do is binge-watch Hallmark movies and Bollywood escapism for weeks, completely disengaging my brain until I am ready to do words again.
I imagine that all writers are uncomfortable with their words made flesh, but the first time a German filmmaker showed an interest in my novel, underneath the excitement was the thought, How are they going to cast for a book that is set in Malaysia, has speakers of Malaysian English, Indian English, American English, and native speakers of Bengali and Malay? Ego reared a great ugly head, knowing that I, the creator of this world nurtured in my mind for over a decade, will see this story implode in the hands of another artist.
Cue the entrance of Audible, purveyors of brilliant Audio Books around the world, who bought audio rights to Ode to Broken Things. Then they cast British actor HomerTodiwalla to read the book I had written.  
A word about the fabulous staff at Audible; they are wonderful to work with and as soon as the audio rights were in their hands, they offered me free audiobooks to check out their system and double-checked that I could access books in the UK and the US. They just weren’t interested in my input on who should be cast to read for my book.
So when the Audiobook was released worldwide on March 28, I, along with millions of people, (ok, more like a few hundred people) heard this book at the same time.
Most people probably heard it before me, because as you already know, I listened to it in the shower.
My publisher, Repeater Books in London, have been most excellent with the editing and distribution of this book; I do very little but show up for events, so the fact that the audiobook would be good should have been self-evident. But I am a sociolinguist by academic training and like most researchers and teachers of language I knew all the things that could go wrong with pronunciation and articulation.
If they had got me involved with Central Casting, I’d have whipped out a real shibboleth to sort out the Malaysian English speakers from others.
The first time I listened to Homer reading, I was startled by the mispronunciation; Malaysian English is not Indian English, and the ubiquitous lah in Malaysian English does not take a pause before articulation, but tags on happily to words for emphasis (Ok lah, said as one word, can emphasise agreement, frustration, amusement, and a host of other human complexities). Malaysian English is also idiosyncratic and very very funny, especially when Antares describes it. 
But then, Homer started to weave his magic. As a professional actor, he knew where to pause breathlessly and where to raise his voice just so. The section on the hunt for the Kajang terror with the soldiers weaving their way through the dense undergrowth of the dank rainforests grew sonorous with the whisper of leaves and the chirp of wildlife. There is a nuanced lilt to his voice when he takes on the persona of the aged grandmother, Shapnasundari, which I, as an author rushing to finish reading and sit down again, will never be able to replicate on any stage.
All of my worries about my Singaporean and Malaysian buddies listening to this and saying Rubbish lah! melted away as Homer’s voice filled my ears with words from succeeding chapters. I know from teaching English that very few people distinguish varieties of Asian Englishes clearly enough to be disturbed by anomalies in a particular type, and this audiobook, available in the US and UK for western readers, is unlikely to disconcert.
Besides the story is still mine, still intact, still good...and much enhanced by the talent of the actor reading it aloud.
I have used this old Bengali proverb in Ode to Broken Things but I am recycling it again: 
Gacher theke phol mishti
Sweeter than the tree you plant is the fruit it bears.
P.S: I still have a few free US & UK codes to giveaway for reviewers who want to review this audiobook; write to me here

Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016) and is available as an Audible audiobook in the US and the UK. Shambala Junction, her second novel,won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016) and was released in the US in April 2017. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Technological Eavesdropping by Susan Price

Spoken into a mobile phone by a young woman pushing a baby in a pushchair.

No idea what the 'it' was that he wouldn't let her have. Or where she got this strange idea that 'he' could stop her from having it, whatever it was. But she let everyone within earshot know about it as she passed. There's the start of a story here.

     I love technology. It's technology that allows me to bring you this blog and it's technology that now allows me to overhear the snippets of other people's private lives on a regular basis.
     I offer them here as a public service to writers who're looking for something to, perhaps, kick-start a story.

I overheard this in a pub. No surprises there. The speaker stood nearby, trying to hide his phone in his jacket and mutter into it, but growing louder and more impassioned as he went on. I may not have all of the conversation word for word but I have the gist - and he really did say, 'You Jezebel.' I know because, when he did, Glenfiddick came down my nose and the waste of good whisky has engraved it forever on my heart.
     It's cruel, I suppose, to make a mere blog out of his heart-ache - but aren't we always making use of other people's - and our own - heartache? If you haven't got that core of ice in the heart, don't become a writer.
     And it was his choice to hold the conversation with Jezebel in public. He could have had the conversation elsewhere. For my part, I couldn't not hear and I couldn't even move away because the pub was so crowded. And, yeah, right, of course I would have moved away if there'd been more space. The late Patrick Campbell said that his aunt would often shush him in public because she was so intent on listening to the conversation in another group. And he himself, he admitted, was so given to eavesdropping that his elbow would be almost on another party's table.

I'm also reminded of Joe Orton, a writer I greatly admire. The
Joe Orton, Wikipedia
people in his plays say things like, "I had no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion." (Said by a woman on discovering her husband dressed as a woman.)  And, "Every luxury was lavished on you - athiesm, breastfeeding, circumcision. I had to make my own way."

    When he was accused of writing stylised, unrealistic dialogue, he denied it. Listen to people, he said. Listen to the way they actually speak, at the bus-stop, in the shop-queue. He reckoned that he wrote very realistic, everyday dialogue.
     It's not only a great waste and pity that Orton was murdered at so young an age - it's absolutely tragic that he died before the invention of the mobile phone, which would have given him so much material to work with.

The above was overheard, just the other day, in a bus-stop. I never got to hear why the cat couldn't be impregnated now ('tho I was agog) because the bus came and interrupted the conversation.

You could mix the characters together, fit them all into the same story. Is 'Jezebel' the young woman with the pushchair, after she's got fed up of not being allowed things? - But that's easy stuff. Who owns the cat and why can't it be impregnated now? What is the cat's job and what is it that Mum must do because this dislikable cat is doing its job? Somebody, please, make up an explanation. 

But since technology isn't everything, here's a couple of traditional earwiggings of the kind that Patrick Campbell and his aunt enjoyed.

The above was overheard in the bar of a rather posh London hotel (well, posh for me anyway) where I was attending some Royal Literary Fund do.
     And, below, overheard one late night, in a bus-stop.

Mix them in with Jezebel, her ex, pushchair girl, the young casino worker, his mum and the cat. I challenge you.

 I think Orton would have appreciated the politeness of the exchange - politely enquiring what's going on in the friend's life now, reminiscing a little about past shared experience, and politely enquiring about the friend's family.
     And, as Orton himself said, "It's all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is present at the conception."

Susan Price is a writer for children and Young Adults.
Her book, The Ghost Drum, won the Carnegie medal.
The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Both are currently under film option.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Those nitty-gritty details - Jo Carroll

I'm known as a travel writer. So writing a novel - and then having the temerity to publish it - has been a bit of a learning curve.

As a travel writer I try to bring the tiniest details to life: the harrumph of a hippo or the strength of the tiniest dung beetle. Deafening tropical rain. Equally essential are personal reflections on daily challenges that may be so very different from those I find at home, such as night buses and street food. And then there are the minutiae that I don't write about, like the toilets.

Which is the link (believe it or not) to my novel, The Planter's Daughter. Sara left Ireland during the famine, to live with an aunt in Liverpool. From there she headed for Australia, ending up in Hokitika - a gold town in New Zealand. These are the bones of the story - a bit like the bones of a travel book. But I needed to know more about the homes she lived in, the food she ate, how she kept clean. Okay, not much of that ended up in the novel, but it was still something I needed to know.

And the aspect that exercised me most was ... toilets. Especially in New Zealand, where she lived in an old fisherman's hut on the beach. No doubt the old fisherman widdled in the sea. But I could hardly have her lifting her ladylike skirts among the crabs and seagulls.

These days, we don't shy away from most bodily functions. It's ok to write about hernias and menstruation. Scenes in public toilets are used as a way of two characters sharing information with each other and the viewer or reader without anyone else knowing. But the rest of it ... well, it's not really a story, is it. The trouble is, when I'm watching a film, I can't help wondering about the heroine who is stuck on a ledge fighting off the bag guys for five hours. How come she never says, 'Hang on a minute, I'm just nipping off for a pee.'

You might wonder if there is anything interesting to say about toilets. And it may be my background as a travel writer (all travellers have toilet stories) that leaves me wondering about something so mundane.

How did I solve Sara's toilet challenge in New Zealand? If you really want to know, you'll have to read the book! (Here it is on Amazon.)

And yes, I do know that 'nitty' (in the title if this post) is Geordie for toilet.

If you want to know more about me and my writing, you can find it here -

Sunday, 23 April 2017

On the Architecture of Gardens by Lev Butts

My mother wanted me to be an architect when I was kid because I liked drawing and had what she called an "eye for detail" since I had once included every board of our hardwood floor when I drew our living-room. I'm not sure why she decided on an architect for my profession instead of an artist, but I am assuming it was because architects make decent money and most artists do not.

Much to her chagrin (I assume) I became a writer and a teacher (and thus doubly cursed to make less-than-decent money). While I'm not entirely sure when I decided to be a teacher (I always wanted to be a writer), I remember distinctly when I chose not to be an architect: As soon as I realized there was math involved and a whole shit-ton of work.

Pictured: My mother's ideal son.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem at all working long and hard at something I care about. I just didn't care about designing buildings.

I just wanted to draw stuff.

I am reminded of my mother's dashed hopes and dreams for me because I spent a goodly portion of this past week talking with four authors (Michael Pitre, Scott Thompson, Richard Monaco, and Cherie Priest) about our writing processes and a quote by George R. R. Martin:

This conversation began when my school hosted Pitre as our resident author for this month. While he and I were talking in my office, this came up and we discussed what kind of writers we were. Pitre sees himself as an architect. He planned out his novel from the start: figuring out how many words it would take him to tell his story, then how many chapters he'd need, how many words per chapter, and even the chapter titles, before he ever put pen to paper with his story.

Scott Thompson, too, considers himself an architect. He plans "carefully" before he writes, generating "thousands of words of notes for each novel" before he begins typing.

I, on the other, hand see myself as much more of a gardener.

Don't laugh. Gardeners are brave, steadfast, and true.
Just ask Sam
I see myself as doing very little planning beyond a basic plot idea or character note. I rarely outline beyond rough notes that are almost immediately discarded. I like this kind of writing because it gets me to the fun stuff, the actual writing, sooner. It also makes it much easier for me to allow my characters to dictate the plot development. I don't have to feel like I'm herding cats when the story goes in a completely different direction than I imagined.

Richard Monaco, too, is a gardener. For him the story isn't even his story; it's his characters'. "I'm just the amanuensis for my characters," he claims. "They tell me where they want to go and I write it all down."

And some writers, such as Cherie Priest, do not have a preferred writing method and may flip back and forth between the two. "It depends on the project," she explains, "because some require more structural pre-planning than others."

In truth, I suspect most writers agree with Priest: writing technique depends on the project.

Architectural gardeners, or maybe gardening architects.
However, there is a third category of writers, that need discussing. This type of writer believes that he or she is a gardener, and too often looks patronizingly upon architects. These people often sneer at the architects copious notes and outlines and drafts and maps. They claim that planning a book drains creativity, that they need to just free-write and let their creativity flow and not worry about confining their art in outlines and rules.

However, this is idiotic advice.

Like architecture, gardening takes planning. You have to know where and when to plant corn and soybeans and melons and tomatoes. Floral gardens require knowledge of when particular flowers bloom and what color they will be. The gardener needs to arrange these seeds in specific places so that when they bloom they will be pleasing to the eye.

These third writers are not gardeners no matter how often how loud they claim to be. They are random strewers. Artistic beauty does not generally arise by happenstance.

The effects of gardening (left) vs. the effects of random strewing (right)
Proponents of random strewing almost always fall back on the idea that the sole purpose of writing is to express yourself. This is more purely the realm of journaling, however.

Yes, there is a certain amount of self-expression in any writing, but it is not the purpose. In truth, no one buys a book by an author they do not know because they are curious about how this stranger expresses him/herself. The purpose of writing (at least for an audience) is to tell a good story well. Even poetry, perhaps the most expressionistic form of creative writing we have, is not ultimately about self expression as much as it is about using an experience (preferably one common to most readers) to express universal truths or ideas.

In short, if your experience is not applicable to the stranger reading your work, you are not writing for an audience. If the purpose of a piece is solely self-expression, it is not, in fact, writing; it is instead narcissism.

This is not to say you cannot begin from a place of self-expression. You can, and most writers do, I suspect. However, you cannot stop there. Planning and organizing, drafting and revising, are the processes by which we take our own personal concerns and make them applicable to others. They are the necessary components of that take narcissistic self-expression and transform it into universal comprehension.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Name Game: short stories need good titles too.

Ali Bacon
 writes and performs short stories
Much ink is expended and tears shed over choosing the title of a novel – that perfect hook to grab you more customers – or any customers. But what about a short story? I used to think those weird and wordy titles appearing in the shortlists of writing competitions were a bit of an affectation. Do we need the title to be almost as long as the thing itself?

However, having read submissions for a number of short story events and as co-judge of a local short story competition (yes, I am knee deep in short stories!) I am revising my opinion. A short story, by definition, has to pack a punch in a restricted number of words – in the case of flash fiction even fewer words. Not using the title to contribute to that punch seems like a wasted opportunity and although I haven’t ruled out any story because of its title (yet!) I’ve been disappointed by the number of short stories that fall short in this respect.

Still available!
But what makes a good short story title? I’m not sure but I always know when I’ve found the right one. Conversely, if I feel there’s something wrong with my story title, it’s often a signal there’s something wrong with the story.
I’ve been trying to firm up my opinions and have looked at a couple of short story collections in my possession (our own Flash in the Pen 2 and A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, published last year for National Flash Fiction Day) as well as my own ‘oeuvre’ (!) to see if there are any rules about what works for me. I haven’t added author names here but do investigate each of these anthologies for some brilliant writing.

So what about the titles?
Single word/concept titles are risky, but of course it all depends on the word. The Interview works, I think because it’s an emotive concept and one which puts questions in the reader’s mind – what kind of interview? – are we going to hear about the interviewer or the interviewee? The Jumper is also quite intriguing, and Sunday Morning can evoke such a variety of scenes and emotions I’m interested to explore. Park Bench with all its potential for an interesting meeting or interaction also works for me. But a single word can sound merely descriptive of the plot, telling too much about what’s going to happen – answering its own question if you like. Using a single Christian name or X’s Story also feels like a cop-out unless it’s a name with a great sound (see below) or special resonance.
An unexpected combination of words is a good plan, and I was pretty happy with my Mouse Years (the age of a mouse and the period of time when it lived with the human protagonists). Serious Music is also good, but beware of having something that jars too much or in an effort to be eye-catching just fails to make sense.
An action as title will have its own dynamism – I like Preparing for Winter and The Door Closes or When She Was Good - which of course is part of a well-known saying. It’s fine to use memorable phrases and quotations, as long as they fit the bill and assuming there is a degree of ambiguity or irony in what follows. Beware of puns or wordplay that might give away the plot, although I admit I do like Fears of a Clown in the way it turns the usual saying on its head. 
And of course you can simply steal your title from an existing song, book or poem as titles are not covered by copyright except in some very particular circumstances. But be careful not to disappoint on your 'version' of  someone else's favourite.
Final point for now is that titles should sound good, which is why I like I Go on the Morrow to Murder the King, or A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture – rhythmical and surprising. I’ve just written a story called The Children of Osipovici simply because I liked the sound of it and wanted it to be the title of something!

Great title!
Looking at these fairly obvious suggestions, it seems to me that giving a name to a story is not so different from naming a novel. The title needs to be memorable and can do this by posing a question, suggesting an ambiguity, or playing on a familiar phrase or concept - some do all of these at once. And try to make it easy on the ear. In short it must call to the reader  - and then of course, it has to follow up on its promise!

Next time you write a short story, imagine it as a book, lying on the bookshop table.  What would you like to see on the cover? A good short story takes a lot of effort to write. Don’t sell it short by skimping on the title.

Ali Bacon's story Silver Harvest has just been published in the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Anthology. You can see the titles of some of her other stories on her website here and here.