How Much Longer Will We Be On This Page?

100 words per minute

There were words strewn like spilt cereal all over the kitchen floor that morning, piles of subjectivity to be pushed aside before breakfast. Alice, writer or protagonist (synonym), wished she had a cleaner, an editor to sweep aside the superfluous words. It looked like they had been spilling out of the sink all night, and the tap was still running, though it seemed a pipe had broken and was now spurting out only vowels.

Alice sighed. Her kitchen was crowded with verbs, her life so full of action that she hadn’t time for toast, or even a cup of coffee.

Where does the writing want to go?

The writing wants to go on a Caribbean cruise with fine weather, cocktails and dancing on the deck, a jazz band playing every evening. The writing wants to go fishing in a Canadian lake, perhaps meet a mythological sea monster. The writing wants to go to Las Vegas and put clocks in the casinos. The writing wants to go into a diner and order a malted milkshake, perhaps vanilla flavored. The writing wants to find a Ferris Wheel, to stumble upon it suddenly, a surprise elevator to the sky.

The writing doesn’t have a map, a compass or a sense of direction.

The writing’s not sure where to go; it has no idea how to tie shoelaces and step out the door, walk to the metro. The writing would prefer to jump into a taxi. The writing is lazy.

The writing doesn’t believe it’s possible to get anywhere alone. The writing doesn’t believe in itself, but also wants to prove itself. The writing is mad; it’s totally “lost the plot,” they say, and chuckle at their pun. The writing has no idea who “they” are, and is worried, afraid polyphony is attacking, that polyphony has nuclear weapons and need only press a button.

The writing has no idea where it will go, with no plot to support it. The writing is lost, confused, but resolves to grow up later, find direction later, and then decide where to go. For the moment, the writing wants to have fun, simply to li(v)e and have adventures.


100 words per second

Alice flipped through her phone book, trying to find a plumber to fix her tap. The words had flowed down the hallway and were seeping into the living room carpet. She was almost drowning in words, but the plumbers in her phone book were, like most of the population, it seemed, post-modernists.

They looked at the surface:

“Your vision is skewed. Your perception is your reality,” they said, and left what looked like a bill and what was clearly a still-broken tap.

Alice sighed. If she was the protagonist, the center, why was her house crowded with unwelcome words?


Where did the writing go?

The writing tried to go everywhere, but went nowhere, went everywhere, exploded into madness, streaks of color like fireworks. There was a blur of superfluous vowels and consonants; the writing made no words, was no words, was colors and shapes.

The joy of being writing, thought the writing, is in the physical self, in existing concretely, in being tangible!

The writing was the alphabet and the idea, but also not the idea at all, but simply the iconography suggesting the idea to the trained imagination. The writing had no self and yet so many selves it could not count. The writing was youthful, beautiful, fun; there was no need for practicality, only orchids and orcas, orchid orchards, alliteration and senseless, essential imagery. The world fed the writing too much ‘practical,’ but all the writing wanted to do was dance.

The writing knows, intuitively, that the world is secretly enamored of imagery, with the idea of a picnic, everything turquoise blue, in the middle of the night by a lake in the center of Utopia. The writing knows everything and knows nothing. The writing is the wor(l)d.


Words, 100 light years ahead of Time

A street had flooded: a house had filled with words; the window had broken; nouns and adjectives [verb]ed down the hill. Somebody had found on their doorstep, instead of the morning newspaper, the word “constraint.”

There are situations which make you grow and others which reduce you, make you smaller.

Drink Me.

When a room is filled with words, it’s impossible not to gulp some, accidentally. It’s impossible not to shrink, being poked and pulled apart, deconstructed by a sea of words, too small to reach the key, left lying on the table.

It isn’t difficult to become a footnote.[1]

[1]   As Alice awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, she found herself transformed.

Introducing Michael Davis LitroNY Online’s Travel and Lifestyle Editor

I’m very happy to be the new Travel and Lifestyle editor for LitroNY online.  As such, I’m interested more in particularity than in “the sights.”  When we think about places we’ve loved – whether vicariously through literature, art, and film or through firsthand experience – the things that come immediately to mind are the telling details, the locations, activities, and individuals that made an impression.

I like stories that deal with the fascinating aspects of everyday life.  Monuments and attractions are wonderful, but real culture is in life as it’s being lived, day by day.  This is the sort of travel writing I want to feature, writing that provides a fresh authentic look at the world.  I think this brings the world into focus in ways that delight and inspire us to think globally in ways we might have otherwise missed.

This means I’m interested in everything as long as it’s compelling.  What are the drinks that certain places have made famous?  Tell us about them and who’s drinking them now.  What about the global expat community?  That uncle who’s been living in Bora Bora for 17 years with a circle of British, Australian, and Chinese friends he now calls his second family – how did he get there?  How did they get there?

What about the places that tourism prefers to avoid, places we’re told never to visit?  There are unique (even amazing) sides to such places that go unnoticed.  What can learn there?  Tell us a story about them!

How do the locals blow off steam?  What happens, for example, in the Public Gardens of Bujumbura during l’interdict or across the world in Whitehorse, Yukon, during a deep freeze?  Astonish us with the things our fellow humans get up to when they want to play.

I also want this to be more than just reportage.  Good travel writing can be as in-the-moment as it is literary.  I’m not in search of pieces that are lofty or elite (necessarily).  Rather, I think the best travel narratives artfully deal with human life in diverse contexts.  And so we’ll also focus on the arts – the sort of things people happen to be creating in Bangkok, London, or  Greenfield, Oklahoma, pop. 93.

That said, we’ll also pay homage to the literary mission of Litro by inviting established non-fiction and travel writers to contribute small pieces focusing on how they write.  We’ll reprint passages from famous travel narratives of the past.  And we’ll encourage readers to send in questions about particular places in an attempt to see whether existing travel writing speaks to such things or we can’t discover the answers ourselves.

If you love writers as diverse as Paul Theroux, Alfred Lansing, Ryszard Kapuściński, Hunter S. Thompson, William Vollmann, Gontran de Poncins, Ian Frazier, Bill Bryson, Hakim Bey, or V.S. Naipaul, you’ve come to the right place.  If you appreciate these masters of the form and you love telling a great story about the world in which we live, I want to hear from you.


Truth, Memory and Memoirs

When news that cyclist Lance Armstrong had, in fact, lied about doping during his acquisition of professional cycling titles, it wasn’t just news. It was breaking news, each new development was front page, and he was the subject of talk in offices and over family breakfast tables the world over. His story pushed other news articles to the margins. The world didn’t want to hear about Syrian refugees, or government spending cuts, or terrible flooding. The world wanted to know how it was that a man who said he did not cheat, could in fact, have actually cheated. It seemed so impossible that a person, an actual human person, could lie about something like cheating. So impossible, that the world needed Lance to have a special interview with Oprah Winfrey, where he could really get all the truth out, all the truth that had been so clearly tearing away at him for all these years.

After the revelations, people started to get angry. Lance had sold books, that weren’t just books, but memoirs, and told people they were true. He overcame cancer and won all those cycling titles by himself, no doping required. He was an inspiration. The moment inaccuracies in his accounts are discovered, his memoirs are no longer inspirational. All the people who had been inspired wanted their money back, for how could they continue to be inspired by a lie?

Why it is so inconceivable to us that there may be inaccuracies in memoirs or autobiographies? These works are rooted in the memories of the writers behind the words, and don’t we all know that nothing is as unreliable as memory? Memory, surely, is always reconstructive.  You’re always trying to get at some approximation of what went on rather than an exact recording of an event:


“Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.” (Patrick Duff, From the Brink of Oblivion).


Really, what I want to talk about is truth. Everyone has their own meaning and interpretation of it. It’s not for me to say who or what or why or where truth is, but I want to explore our reaction to it. How we respond to truths that we are presented with and how we engage with them, especially in terms of the context in which they are presented to us. Why is it that we are so stung when it is discovered that what we have been told is truth is in fact lie? Conversely, why do we willingly watch, read and engage with fictions and fantasies we know to be untrue, not real and yet that we find emotional truth in?

In 1938, the story goes, a radio adaptation of H.G.Well’s War of the Worlds read by Orson Wells had people believing, really truly believing, that there was an alien invasion taking place on Earth. It turns out that people probably in fact realized it was what it was, and didn’t descend to panic and terror. It was, instead, a media myth. But our willingness to believe this story; i.e. the story of people believing anything, is perhaps more interesting. We believe quite readily that its possible for people – people like ourselves – to be convinced of a lie. But when it’s us personally who have been had by some hoax or con, we become indignant. We refute the fact that we could have been conned so easily.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, he is being sued for fraud and false advertising amid claims his inspirational books are full of lies. This isn’t the first time a memoir has caused uproar by not being as truthful as people wanted to believe. Think James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. Like Armstrong, he too had to come and make his apologies and unreserved confessions to the almighty Oprah. This wasn’t enough, for there was the matter of money, of course –

“In the aftermath of the Million Little Pieces outrage, Random House reached a tentative settlement with readers who felt defrauded by Frey. To receive a refund, hoodwinked customers had to mail in a piece of the book […] those with paperback copies were required to actually tear off the front cover and send it in. Also, readers had to sign a sworn statement confirming that they had bought the book with the belief it was a real memoir, or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.” (David Shields)

It troubles me that even though people become so incensed by what they see as inaccuracies purporting to be accuracies, lies purporting to be truths, that there are still memoir fictions on every shelf in all the big mega-stores, and people continue to read and believe them.

David Shields notes that “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” It’s this “inventory of sins” that is a little concerning, perhaps. Because it attaches to the memoir genre a kind of voyeurism, a peeping Tom characteristic of wanting to see a person’s dirty secrets. Rather than looking for quality of writing or sentiment or meaning, the act of reading a memoir becomes rather more intrusive, bordering on trespassing on a person’s private affairs.

This, surely, does not give the right to demand accuracies in a person’s memoirs. In the same way as a trespasser wouldn’t demand doors kept unlocked, a reader of memoir has no ground to demand every single truth and detail of another person’s thoughts, actions and past experiences. Not only are these things subject to memory failings, they are also intrinsically a person’s story – told selectively in the way they wish.

Perhaps, we should expect there to be inaccuracies in works so firmly rooted in personal memories. We know human beings can be deceived. We even kind of like the idea, as long as it doesn’t happen to us. If we continue reading and buying people’s memories in their packaged forms, perhaps we should be reminded that memories aren’t the same as the truth. After all, we are reminded on most every novel we pick up that the words we are about to read are fiction and that ‘any similarities between real life events or real people’ is wholly unintentional. There’s no heartbreak in reading fiction. People are happy to enter into an agreement. We all understand that what we are reading may not have actually happened.

But do factual inaccuracies even matter? The great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe wrote, “all stories are true.” This idea is rooted in experiences and emotions that are shared throughout humanity. In so many stories, the key isn’t what is real and what isn’t, but rather descriptions of lived experiences that feel true because we recgonise them. In writing, the use of small, exact, concrete detail can be set beside scenes and so focus on clear moments of dramatic detail to create a real sense of lived experience and risk that feels very true to the senses. In the act of reading and seeing the scenes described, our human senses fill out the rest and make it believable. It doesn’t matter if the stories and scenes are true or not; the impressions and the feelings we have remain. Those feelings and impressions are true and real, because we know without doubt that we truly did feel that way.

Part of what writing and reading is about is finding connections. Story telling was once predicated on physical connection between humans,  the oral tradition of telling stories to one another around a fire. Now, connections are found through recognizing truth veiled by syntax and grammar and language. What lays under the surface are the feelings that we share.  We find truth in writing because ultimately it is communication. When we truly listen to each other, we find this sense of shared connectivity. Because at the deepest of levels we are all the same, we find solace in the same things, find truth and meaning in the same things. We are biologically wired to want to communicate, and yet we can’t just rely on news and facts and reportage to satisfy our needs of communication. Gossip magazines and the news – so inevitably about “power and sports and anger and death” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5) will only go so far. We need other forms that connect us.

As things stand, our culture is becoming more and more concerned with a strange fetishisation of truth and memory and hard fact, rather than being open to other possibilities, other truths, other realities. As Japanese writer Haruki Murikami says of his own writing “I want [it] to be open to all the possibilities of the world.”

This isn’t to say that memoirs are not good stories. If there’s something to it that we recognize in ourselves, then there’s an emotive truth there that is real. But we don’t necessarily need memoirs and inside scoops on people’s private lives and personal histories. If we want a story because it connects with us in some way, then turn to classic works of literature, for here inspirational stories abound. Or to new and emerging writers and artists that are trying to emulate the classics in their own unique way and are creating new perceptions of truths, new realizations of lived experience, and who are trying to do what man has always been trying to do: communicate with other humans and bring us together through stories.

Who the f*** is Alice? Letting Teenagers Loose in a Digital World.

It’s safe to say that the pupils in my class did not like Alice, the eponymous heroine of Kate Pullinger’s digital fiction teaching phenomenon, Inanimate Alice (view trailer here). I know they did not like her because when they were let loose on creating their own episodes with which to continue the series, they all chose to kill, or at least maim her. But before I recall the varied inventions and brutalities enforced upon Alice, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.

Inanimate Alice – which, according to my Dutch colleague, sounds like the brand name for a blow-up doll – is an online digital novel currently existing in four episodic adventures. The narrative is a multi-sensory experience, combining text, images, sound, videos and interaction in the form of puzzles and games. Each episode is set in a different country, and the plot invariably follows the same thread: Alice finds herself stuck in some sort of dangerous predicament, and has to rely on her virtual friend Brad to save the day. There is an element of global citizenship here; by travelling the world she is exposed to a variety of cultures – and the novel can be taught in a variety of countries, since the series is available in different languages. Alice gets older with every instalment, and as she does, the story becomes more complex, more dangerous, and more involving for the reader.

It’s always vital to ask why we are teaching a particular topic, rather than simply choosing something because it looks cool. Why teach Inanimate Alice rather than a play, or a novel? I’d argue that for young teenagers (a class of 13 and 14-year-olds in my case) the combination of multimedia modes helps them develop lifelong skills that they benefit from learning early on. It’s likely that many of these pupils will end up in jobs involving processing spoken language, written text, auditory clues and visual images all at the same time, and this is what Inanimate Alice challenges them to do.

This online series is littered with possibilities. As well as offering us the opportunity to study the writer’s character development, setting, motifs, themes, pace – all the usual suspects when it comes to literary study – there’s also scope to boost literacy skills in listening, making notes, drawing comparisons, discussion, even debating (get a Digital Fiction vs. Traditional Storytelling divide going and watch them go). What we are dealing with here is a resource that is rich in learning, literary and literacy opportunities.

So it’s a great shame that my pupils hated Alice. That is not to say they disliked the medium, or the topic, or the varied activities and discussions we had based around the series. They just didn’t take to Alice as a character. Once we’d watched the four episodes currently available online, I asked the class to use the school’s ICT facilities to create their own Episode Five. They took great delight in making Alice suffer, in a frenzy of impressive bloodlust that incorporated their own text, images and sound effects.

One of my pupils had Alice horribly injured in a car accident and then caught up in a zombie outbreak. Another decided that she would become a gangster’s moll and implicated her in bank robbery. These pupils were at least good enough to keep her alive; in other episodes she was stabbed in a street riot, shot in the stomach, flattened by a bus and eaten by a sinister ghoul in a haunted house.

I’ve tried to figure out why the pupils took such a strident aversion to Alice. It may be because she’s an ultimately passive character – basically at the mercy of her parents and surroundings, unable to do much for herself, and relying on her imaginary friend Brad as a sort of guardian angel to pluck her from the various scrapes she gets into.

This passivity is hinted at in the title of the series. One of the first things I did with my pupils was to figure out what “Inanimate Alice” actually meant. It’s a difficult phrase to unpack. Ultimately we decided that it meant that the character Alice remains frozen online, suspended in time at a given web address, until pupils come along and animate her by starting the series. Perhaps it Alice’s inertia that persuaded the pupils that they should, when the time came, put her to rest.

It’s impossible to talk about Inanimate Alice without mentioning the soundtrack. For something so integral to a multimedia story, the music is wildly irritating. On my first day teaching it, this horribly repetitive drone kept me awake most of the night, reverberating around my head. When audio is used to create sound effects it works brilliantly: footsteps crunching in the snow, creaking doors, rumbling engines. These all work as part of the patchwork quilt which makes the experience so immersive. But the music is, in the main, fairly grating. I thought so. My pupils thought so. A colleague observing one of the lessons thought so. It seems like such a fundamental thing to get wrong in what is otherwise a pretty slick production.

I will be happy to teach Inanimate Alice again. The diversity of learning that can be achieved through the four episodes is staggering, and they are developing another, I hear. That is something to look forward to. When it comes out, however, I will make sure to turn the volume down.

On a Tuesday, Not Writing.

It’s astonishing how much time you can sift away doing nothing. Just yesterday, from your place 6000 miles from home, you told two people on the phone that your writing was going nicely, that it took a week to get the ball bearings oiled, but now you’re on a roll, and things are fine.

And things were fine, yesterday.

But today you woke up feeling a little shitty but not shitty enough to call yourself sick, and it’s raining, and the calendar says it’s mid-spring but you haven’t seen the sun for ten days and you realize you talked about it, that the writing was going well and your first rule is never to talk about it when anything’s going well because it might evaporate, it always does: the fuel pump goes out ten minutes after you’ve said great car, an incisor shatters the moment you finish bragging about not needing to give any goddamned dentist a cent of your hard-earned money, and the living/breathing topics of your writing dry up, dead seals on the beach. But it’s OK—you forgive yourself—you’ll get to it and anyway the dishes need to be done, and then dried, of course, and you need to finish that article on Mailer’s letters to Styron, and then an interview with this writer Kennedy who lives in Copenhagen, a guy you’re sure you’d like if you met him, whom you would drink a couple of beers with in what he calls serving houses, and you think about Denmark, about drinking, remember the Danish man you met in Athens when you were traveling with your wife and kids, who said Come visit if you get to Denmark, and you did visit, and he took you to his wood shop and gave you a carpenter’s plane, an antique—1889, it said—and at dinner he got half-drunk but stayed gentle, and his wife didn’t like his drunkenness so they got into an argument, shouting, the wife asking you Don’t you think I’m right? and this wasn’t Discourse: European we’re talking about, it was her complaining that every weekend he goes out with his friends and they ride the ferry back and forth between Rødby and Puttgarden, all Saturday night into Sunday because they’re in international waters and no state can shut down the bars as they do in their town and because the booze is cheaper, and he just keeps paying for more booze, more rides, and you and your wife wouldn’t take sides and the woman was angry at you for not doing so, she herself drunk now—Don’t you have an opinion, she’d say, not interrogative but accusative, and you hardly knew these people, and you said no, no opinion, and no thanks to their offer of beds, you were all set up to sleep in your camper van, so you slept out in their driveway, the kids tired, quick to sleep, but you and your wife saying What the hell was that about? and laughing, and you got out of there as fast as you could the next day.

You’re still reading the Kennedy article, killing time so you don’t have to Face It, and you remember a cool thing the Dane showed you. You’d worked with wood quite a bit by that time, and remarked on the beautiful finish of their pine floors. Ivory Soap, he said, and explained that you get a box of Ivory Flakes and slowly add water, make a paste, put it on with a cloth, buff it when it’s dry, that’s it. Easy to clean, and when it starts to wear, repeat the process.

Time’s moving on, and this is great, because you’ll have fewer hours to write. This is terrible.

So you check your email, and write a few, one telling Maria the editor that you misspelled S. K.’s name—here’s the correct spelling and thanks, and sorry—and you think of the hero she is, she and Ricardo and Herb, putting out that magazine year after year, poor and staying poor, but true to The Word, their word. There should be a prize, a Nobel category: Science, Literature, and this year’s winner, in the category of Tenacity… and you know that if she came into money she’d just keep doing the same thing, a magazine about poetry—who in this world can imagine such a thing? She can, they can, you think, and the raindrops on the metal ledge outside make you feel inundated, and you think about that, about… what was it—two summers ago?—Paris, Piscine Pontoise, that was the name of the swimming pool just a few blocks off the Seine. You wonder if it has a website, and sure enough, there it is—all art deco, blue water, two stories of blue-doored changing chambers, a roof that retracts on the dozen days a year Paris gets good weather—and you remember that they wouldn’t let you wear your baggy American trunks; they gave you Speedos, and it was a damned good thing you knew no one. Still, it was fun, and that mini-park down from the pool—a solitudinous enclave among stone buildings. You ate a sandwich there.

Time to get a sandwich at the bakery up the alley. The good ones will be gone if you don’t go now. Chicken and sliced eggs and that homemade mayo. Out the door you go.

Back soon, but before eating let’s clean this place up. Put away the dishes. Wipe the counters. And that stovetop—when your wife gets here next week she will not be happy, and wouldn’t it be passive aggressive just to let it go, to have her do it out of her own you-call-it compulsion-but-she-calls-it-simple-sanitation? Buff that baby up now—it’ll just get worse—get it while it’s still easy.

The sandwich, delicious. You finish the Kennedy article (funny, just last night you read a Ted Kennedy article—Kennedy’s father saying There will be no crying in this house, and another scene—very young Ted doing something silly, childlike, and his dad summoning him for a conference, saying I love you and will continue to love you, but I am finding you not Serious, and if you continue to be not Serious, I will have no time for you. I have too many other children who have chosen to be Serious, and it is them I’ll pay attention to

And of course you’re horrified when you read that, but now you wonder if you’ve led a Serious life, if you’ve been Serious—or did you have too damned much fun, too much laughter, too little work?

The night before you were reading about Sam Johnson, a review of a new book about him, and the author talked of Johnson’s prodigiousness—that dictionary! That Shakespeare! Two lives right there, but also, his own copious writings—he who called himself The Idler, ha! You liked how the author of the article marveled at today’s writers, who complain—My novel’s not coming together, I can’t write more than two hundred words a day lately, The writer’s life is so hard—and then, of course, to remember that Johnson, and every other writer until recently, wrote each word by hand, and indeed even with the advent of the typewriter, every draft was done again, and again. Remember those days? Typing it again, again, and making errors, sticking the skinny flat tapes in, backing up the carriage, then typing not the correction but the same error again so that the white paint on the back of the tape would enter that black “f” in finger and you’d go back again, type in the proper “l” for linger? Oh, boy.

And this pale labor you’re involved with, anyway: have you emptied the well? It does give you comfort that on your way up the street for a sandwich you passed a tall young guy, black t-shirt, bread-loaf belly, gold earring, leaning against the building in the rain and making a phone call. You wondered whom he was calling, and why out there in the rain, and that wonder itself gave you hope—you’re still interested in the narrative, the great un-umbrellaed narrative.

So now you’d better get to work. There’s a mockingbird singing, and its subject is you.

Too much of what you fancy…

These days there seems to be a literary prize for everything. Having an argument with another author? Start your own literary prize. Don’t like one prize’s shortlist? Start your own. Are you a company who wants to show there’s a heart beating under that cold hard business exterior of yours? You know the drill.

I’m not particularly bothered by this. To me, the fact that people care enough about books to argue about them is great, and it’s wonderful to be able to acknowledge good writers from all across the enormous spectrum of reading material that we as a nation consume. But I have to admit that although I’m in favour of recognition of real talent, there’s one particular literary prize that has stolen my heart – and it’s one, perversely, that’s not about good writing at all. Praise is all very well, but sometimes writers are sorely in need of some well-timed ego deflation, and the Bad Sex Award, in magnificent style, does just that.

2011’s shortlist was finally announced last week, and it brings together everything I cherish about bad writing: flowery prose, overblown descriptions and metaphors that most certainly do not give the effect that was originally intended. Sad as I am to see that the particular horse I was backing – A. L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book, a true masterpiece of overegged, over-emotionalised and gruesomely over-described sexual encounters – didn’t make it beyond the longlist, a lot of magnificent material did.

This year, the deathless prose on offer includes: “He began yet another eternity of regional body worship”, “I opened my mouth wide and bit into her thigh and I did not hear her squeal”, and “We’re the same organism: some outrageous sea creature”. (Extracts from David Guterson, repeat offender Christos Tsiolkias and Dori Ostermiller respectively). It’s all jaw-droppingly, rib-achingly terrible, and it powerfully reinforces my theory that sex is the one thing that it’s almost impossible to write well about.

Part of it, of course, is the country we live in. Britain is the land of innuendo after all, the nudge nudge wink wink capital of the world and so there is always going to be something in us that needs to giggle at any mention of how’s-your-father. Here, even writing about writing about sex is fraught with difficulties. In that last paragraph I typed the word ‘roughly’ and was then racked with horrible doubt. Suddenly ‘roughly’ stopped meaning approximately and became something you might find in a Daily Mail headline describing a politician’s extra-curricular rompfest.

But there’s more to it than English prudery. Words, when it comes to sex, are so loaded down with association that they become completely unwieldy. When it comes to describing acts of a sexual nature, there isn’t a register in the world that isn’t bound up in entirely un-erotic connotations. Use clinical terms and you begin to sound like you’ve inhaled Gray’s Anatomy; use metaphors and your readers will start to wonder when they wandered into a greenhouse or a larder; use slang and you might be unfortunately mistaken for a 12 year old boy.

And that’s just the words. Sex, whether we talk about it openly or not, has so many emotions associated with it that it’s incredibly difficult not to have a sex scene turn into a festival of alarming cliché. Authors seem to assume either that sex is something so emotionally important that it can only be described as some sort of ultra-serious pseudo-religious epiphany, with ecstatic descriptions of flying and swimming and turning into plant life (and usually all at once), or as a horrific squelchy farce, all wobbling and wincing and noises.

It almost gets worse when writers try to give their sex scene the personal touch. There are many universals when it comes to sex, but what’s certainly not universal is individual preference. This is something that many authors unfortunately fail to realise. Far too often I’ve read a sex scene and been left with the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that I now know what Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis is like in bed. Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that this is knowledge I need.

All the same, though, and for all my griping, I prefer to live in a world with too much bad sex writing than none at all. There’s something very heartening in the Bad Sex Award’s assumption that the average reader’s response to, say, a graphically-described sex scene between two men will be gentle amusement at the author’s awkward choice of metaphor. Not so long ago a more pressing concern would have been when the case was scheduled to come up at the Old Bailey.

Sex has had to quite literally fight its way into literature via a series of astonishingly unpleasant obscenity trials. The one that started it all, of course, was Oscar Wilde’s in 1895, when The Picture of Dorian Grey (which, ironically, does not contain any sex scenes at all) was used to demonstrate its author’s general depravity and particular fondness for Greek sculpture. Most readers have also heard of the trial that pretty much finished British obscenity laws off. Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which more than makes up for Dorian’s lack of sexual content) was first published in 1928 and banned in Britain until 1960, when it spectacularly won its trial, allowing us all to read about Mellors’s pale, scrawny thighs without fear of prosecution. Lawrence, were he writing today, would certainly earn himself a Bad Sex Award or five.

But between those two, in 1927, there was another trial that sums up, for me, the tragedy of literary censorship. It also, ironically, contains what I think is one of the cleverest sex scenes in modern literature, an example of how you can write about sex in a way that’s both sensitive and suggestive, leaving the perfect gap for the reader’s mind (the dirtiest thing in the world) to fill in with whatever it fancies.

The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, is about lesbians. This is fairly obvious. The main character is a woman who has a relationship with another woman. But all the same, The Well of Loneliness is about as graphic as a shopping list. The book contains one sex scene, the scene for which it was charged and found guilty, and in its entirety it reads:

“And that night, they were not divided.”

Grim as the sexual extracts from the books on this year’s Bad Sex Award shortlist are (and they are grim), I think I prefer to live in an age where Haruki Murakami can describe a nipple as “like a vine’s new tendrils seeking sunlight”, rather than one in which seven words, with not a single genital among them, can get a book banned for obscenity. Because I don’t think sex is something adults need to be protected from, and also because that nipple description is incredibly funny.

Robin Stevens

Pippa Gets Published

In the Chinese Lunar Calendar, 2011 has been the Year of the Rabbit, whilst the United Nations designated it the International Year of Forests and the International Year of Chemistry; all very well and good but I would argue, however, that it would be more appropriate to call 2011 the year of the born-again royalists.

On Friday April 29th, the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton melted cynical hearts across the globe and ‘monarchy-mania’ set in: fast-forward a couple of months and the younger members of the royal family seem to have re-conquered the country, regularly making headlines in both national newspapers and gossip magazines. They are stars of countless documentaries and one, albeit low budget, Hollywood film, and influence fashion’s most eminent designers and popular high-street brands. And, if that wasn’t enough, it seems that the royal family are set to make a splash in the publishing world as well, after it was announced today that Pippa Middleton, Kate’s younger sister, has secured a £400,000 book deal with Penguin’s commercial imprint, Michael Joseph.

Unfortunately for the Duchess of Cambridge, all eyes were not exclusively on the bride on the day of the Royal Wedding as April 29th saw bridesmaid Pippa Middleton make a splash almost as great as her sister. If the love between Wills and Kate captured the hearts of the nation, then Pippa’s rather excellent bottom caught their imaginations and she became a celebrity in her own right. The new book will be a ‘how-to’ manual on hosting parties and entertaining. This deal certainly seems to confirm Pippa’s currently immovable position on the celebrity radar.

Despite the recent fawning over the royal family, however, not everyone seems to be happy about Pippa’s publishing success. The main grievance of the global users of the World Wide Web seems to be the £400,000 advance Miss Middleton has secured before she has even written the book. As any writer will know, times are hard and money is tight in the publishing industry, with very few books receiving payouts even close to Pippa’s near-to half-a-million fee. Experienced authors who have been struggling for years, whose ideas are unique and stories sensational can only dream of a pay cheque so large, whilst Pippa Middleton sat back and watched leading publishers engage in a fierce bidding war for the rights to her writing debut, a book that was nothing more than a concept about becoming the perfect party planner. To be fair, Pippa does have an English Literature degree and a background in party-planning, so it would seem she’s adequately qualified to write a book on the topic but, for many people, it’s the fact that her name alone guarantees her success and a smooth ride at the publishers. That the book will probably be a best-seller too might seem a little unfair.

Celebrity authors have become a phenomenon in publishing over the last decade and they can be a force to be reckoned with. As of January 2007, Katie Price’s first autobiography had sold over a million copies, whilst her second autobiography reached number 2 in the hardback charts in 2006. She’s currently on her fourth autobiography, published in 2010. The glamour-model-turned-businesswoman has also branched out into fiction – at least, she works with a ghost-writer – and has published six novels, surpassing even J.K. Rowling in the speed of her UK book sales.

Katie Price is a perfect example of a celebrity having enormous success in the publishing world based solely on her name alone and she certainly isn’t the only one. Madonna, Ethan Hawke, Julie Andrews, Geri Halliwell are all famous names who have penned successful stories whose publication can only have been aided by their brand-like names.

Unfortunately, it’s just the way the world works today and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Celebrity books, whether they are how-to guides or a ghost-written novel, are big sellers, especially around this festive time of year when people are on a mission to find a fitting gift for an obscure relative. Perhaps I’m being unfair and too quick to criticise Pippa Middleton – as I have mentioned a couple of times, the book hasn’t even been written yet. For all I know, it may the best ‘how-to-host-a-perfect-party’ book ever written. And with a launch date set for autumn 2012, the book will come around just in time for my birthday: perhaps I’ll even put Pippa’s party guide to the test and plan my birthday using her expert tips. In my experience, however, as long as there’s good music, great company and lots and lots of alcohol, you pretty much have all the ingredients for a perfect party without Pippa’s help.

Tour de France

The Tour de France is the most sought after crown in the cycling world. This epic race covers 2200 miles, takes 22 days to complete, has men with shaved legs and offers much inspiration for any professional cyclists-come-writers.

When writing it’s always the way that we take inspiration from our surroundings; right now I’m tempted to create an epic novel that highlights the struggle of an unmade bed and half a glass of orange squash. We absorb atmospheres and characteristics of places all the time and sometimes even pop out with a camera, a pad and a pen to try and get a feel for the busy London markets or the local dominatrix dungeon. The Tour de France covers 21 stages, so between cramp, sweating and looking at the person two yards in front of you for a few hours at a time – that’s a lot of possible inspiration.

Naturally the race concludes in Paris. We all know what Paris looks like because they sell pictures of it in places like TK Maxx and it appears on the front of travel guides globally as the must see place in France. On top of this though there’s a lot more little gems that can be found in France that cyclists are hogging and that should appear as a setting for some sort of new age novel involving a pig farm or two.

First of all there is Les Esserts, which is home to a 19th Century manor house. There are also intricate villages and lovely locals to get your imagination flowing. A little further down the route is the stage between Dinan and Lisieux that has a selection of architectural delights, such as an old Gothic church that would be more than at home playing the part of an extra in Dracula. Further on in the race is Aurillac, which hosts the Aurillac Street Theatre Festival, a celebration of everything colourful and fun. With entertainment for everyone there’s sure to be a character you can take on board and turn into the next big serial killer or the one man to save the human race from the octo-baby that was spawned when Jupitar and Saturn collided on a windy day. The festival is sought after by promoters and companies world wide and almost acts as a Cannes for those with an interest in live theatre.

The final destination on the route that I’d like to share is Montpellier on the South coast. Montpellier is littered with festivals of dance and arts, but also has a back garden that leads out on to the Mediterranean Sea. If you’re on your bike, having a stern pedal along and the sun starts to set over the sea then have a look, you’ll probably be writing until the next stage starts.

Obviously I’ve only mentioned a tiny fraction of what’s on view for inspiration during the Tour de France; all you need to do is become a professional cyclist and go visit them, or just check them out. Up to you.

Keith Hodges

NaNoWriMo: Here We Go Again…

If writing was a sport, with a poem being a sprint and a blog article the 400 metres, then doing NaNoWriMo would be the equivalent of running the marathon flat-out from start to finish.

NaNoWriMo, for the uninitiated, is short for National Novel Writing Month, a programme (started in America, hence the ‘National’ part) that invites aspiring writers to sit down, stop whining and write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I took part last year, and I believe my words at the time were: “I promise you now that I am never doing this again.”

I’ve signed up again this year.

My boyfriend, when I told him this, got a hollow look in his eyes and said darkly that he remembered what happened last time. He is, of course, completely right. The ‘novel’ I wrote last November was dire. My plot made no sense, my weeks had ten days, my characters ate five lunches in a row and most of them were called ‘????’. I reached each day’s 1667 word total in part because I was interspersing actual lines of text with panicky sentences like ‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE!’ or ‘WHO IS THIS PERSON I CAN’T REMEMBER’. And yet, when I think back to last November I can’t actually recall how awful it felt. I hear this is why people have their second child.

But this time I’ve decided to go back in with my eyes open, fully prepared. What I learnt from last year is that, while there are some incredibly positive aspects to the project – the sense that you’re part of something big, for example, with a community of like-minded people all around you spurring you on, and also the handy word-count updater for a sense of instant gratification – there are things about it that are extremely problematic, and they all boil down to this: there’s a huge difference between writing 50,000 words and writing 50,000 words that don’t make you sick to look at them.

This important fact is never acknowledged by NaNoWriMo’s organisers. The relentlessly cheerful, prizes-for-all atmosphere that pervades the NaNo website sends the message that not only will you – yes, you –ACHIEVE, you will have FUN while you do it. No plot? No problem! The NaNo executive will tweet you helpful suggestions. Is nothing happening in your scene? How about inserting a cat on a skateboard! Or a bright green squid called Timothy! Or a sandwich made out of clowns! How about teleporting all your characters to the Yukon? ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?

I think this may be the cynic in me, feeling suspicious of organised fun. It always seems as though it might be a trick. But all the same, I think that NaNoWriMo’s approach to writing isn’t particularly founded on reality. While I’m not going to get into the knotty issue of planning – each writer does it differently, and anything from a one-line statement of intent to a 30,000 word soap-opera style précis seems to work for someone – I do think that it’s impossible to get anywhere if you don’t know the world you’re writing in. No matter what your setting is, from Hounslow to the Invisible Planet Grargh, you always need to have some idea of its history and culture. What’s their word for a sandwich? What’s the latest fashion in hats? What time do they have dinner? It’s going to come up, and if you don’t know you’re going to have to spend a lot of time staring blankly at your computer screen until you work it out. That is time, with something like NaNo, that you can’t really afford to waste.

Similarly, if you don’t know anything about your characters you’re going to have to think it up on the fly, your blood pressure rising with each new detail. Inevitably you’re going to say on page 5 that Charles is a small fat boy with yellow glasses and on page 27 that he’s an athletic 17-year-old in a blue shirt, and then you’ll have to go back and change it and all the words you wrote will vanish and you’ll have wasted your morning and the dog will need a walk and your friend will call wanting to talk to you and you’ll remember that you haven’t been food shopping for ten days and then you’ll collapse onto the floor in a heap and cry.

And then, of course, you’ll be behind the deadline, and what you churn out to meet it will be bad. Yes, you’ll be hitting your word count, but you’d also hit it if you typed ‘Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!’ five thousand times in a row. And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with NaNo. As it says in its mission statement, anyone can write a novel, but it takes more than 30 days of hammering randomly at a keyboard to write a good one.

What NaNo can be used as – and what I think it should be used as – is a kick up the backside, a way to start (or restart) a project that’s been ignored for too long, and a stern reminder to lazy writers everywhere that it’s perfectly possible to write a lot of words each day if you just stop watching The Apprentice and sit down in front of your computer. But doing NaNoWriMo the way its organisers recommend is absolutely not for everyone. In fact, if you do it may send you completely insane. My experiences last year taught me the painful lesson that, to actually have fun, you need to go in prepared.

But what do I know? Maybe seat-of-your-pants writing works for you. Maybe I’m just really terrible at thinking on my feet. Maybe the world needs more stories filled with skateboarding cats and clown-sandwich-people who live in the Yukon. And whether that’s the case or not, NaNoWriMo is a celebration of writing, and anything that tells the world that writing is a good thing can’t go too far wrong. So, with that said, here I go again…

Pushing Myself

Pushing myself to try new things is one of the most important exercises as a writer.   For me it is like skateboarding, I spent ages learning how to ollie and it was great, but I had to try something else or I’d have gotten bored of just jumping up and down kerbs.  Pushing myself can be anything from writing a different kind of story, trying a different genre or simply altering the way I physically write.

It took me maybe a year initially to learn how to write in a way that I was happy with, however, after some time I felt the stories I was writing were becoming too formulaic, becoming less interesting.  When this happened first I tried writing in a different way but unfortunately the cycle came round again to formulaic and uninteresting.  I had got into a rut of writing stories in the same kind of format with the same kind of voice and it wasn’t exciting me anymore.  To fix this I deliberately tried writing in different styles.

The most exciting style for me is that of old-school crime writers and hardboiled dialogue.  I got into hardboiled detective novels after watching a fantastic movie called BRICK, incidentally my favourite film of all time.  When talking about the movie Rian Johnson mentioned Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as inspiration and said he told all the cast to read Hammett before shooting.

I thought I would search out some Hammett, along with some Raymond Chandler, and give them a read.  I had never read a crime novel before so didn’t know what to expect but was utterly amazed by them; Red harvest is now one of my favourite novels ever.  The writing is so strong and the dialogue so witty and almost dangerous.  I love how fast paced they are and how each little bit of exposition leads you to think one thing only for the next bit to make you doubt yourself.

The dialogue is what absorbed me most of all, I loved it so much that I wanted to try and write something that I could lend this hardboiled style to.  A few months ago I started writing a story currently called “My Brother’s Tale.”  It is a story written from the perspective of a boy who has been watching too many old Noir movies and is acting like a detective, trying to discover what has happened to his brother.  I won’t go into too much detail but it starts with the line:

“Last night my brother may or may not have killed someone.”

Trying to emulate a very specific style and tell a story not considered congruent with that style has been a significant challenge, one which I’m still not sure works, but it has undoubtedly given me the confidence to experiment further with voices and characters and ways of telling regular stories in irregular ways.

My Current Project

This post has taken a little while to write because it has taken me a while to decide if I should write it at all. I wanted to write about my current project but this week I have felt a little lost about the whole thing. Every time I try to organise my thoughts about it I just get more confused, and it is starting to feel like I’ve gone for a walk in the woods and not only forgotten which way I came, but why I’m there in the first place.

When I decided I would write about the project I also had to figure out how much I really wanted to share. I have trouble explaining this project to friends, face to face, from fear of speaking wrongly and making it sound more or less than it actually is. I also worry that they might not really care about all the detail, and think maybe I should just settle with “I’m writing a book”.

Regardless, I set out to write this post about my book and in doing so found more to worry about.

For now, I’ll start at the start.

Last year I wrote a story called Kiss Like I Cry that was published in a wonderful online lit-mag called The Pygmy Giant. It was a little story about a girl trying to get on with her life while her mother drinks her way through hers. I was really happy with the story and even happier about the good comments I received about it. One commenter said she would be interested to read more about the girl and her brother. This is what first gave me the idea for my current project; a collection of intertwining stories.

Teenagers were a common theme in my writing at the time so I had a bulk of stories and characters to work with already.  Initially I hadn’t imagined any of them for a collection, or even that they would overlap, but when the idea got stuck in my head I couldn’t think of them any other way. Then I started writing new stories for these characters, expanding the overall story little by little, and pretty soon I had a whole group of teenagers with interconnecting friendships and lives.

It has always been important to me, when writing, that the stories can stand on their own, despite the fact that they are intended to overlap. I want people to be able to read one of the stories and not have too many unanswered questions about the characters, but be interested enough to want to read a another story, focused on them. This week I have been going over the initial stories and writing quite a lot of notes and character outlines for those involved. I also finished three whole stories and am really happy with how things are going, however, all the time in the back of my head I have been asking the question: will people care?

Adolescence is a common theme in a lot of writing and myriad masters of the short story have covered it, so why would anyone care about my representation?

In thinking about that question and writing this post I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care. I have become so enamoured with these characters that they have assimilated into almost every story I have written in the last year and I feel like I need to tell their tale before they will leave me alone. I have had a number of the stories I imagine for this collection published already and have received great feedback on them so people do enjoy the stories.

I can’t fully explain how amazing it is to get good feedback from readers but it is a level of excitement that never dulls.  Knowing people like my writing is what gives me courage to keep sending out my work, but it is not why I write; I think I forgot that somewhere along the way and writing this post has reminded me.

I’m in the woods to enjoy myself not so everyone knows I’m here. I write because I love to tell stories, whether I tell them to anyone else or not.

So, while I can guarantee that I will finish this book I cannot say whether I will show it to anyone.


The last couple of weeks have all been about writing and publishing etc, but there is something that is so at the core of writing that I almost forgot about it:  the fact that you actually have to write.

It is great to have brilliant ideas of a comic short story or an intellectual drama or something, but if you fail to actually sit down and write it, what will happen? In my experience you will forget all about the story or misplace that all important note you made a few months ago. In the old days writers had studies or places they could go where they could just write. Hemingway (apologies for always talking about Hemingway) had a little flat in Paris, away from his own living space where he would go in the day to write, away from everything. I don’t have that. I have a notebook, a laptop and worst of all, an Internet connection.

The latter is the most detrimental influence on my life of writing. When I sit down to my laptop to type up a story I invariably get lost in the Internet. I’ll look up a word or check a spelling and then ten minutes later I’m searching eBay for my girlfriend’s birthday present that isn’t for another ten months. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet because as you all know there are so many interesting things to read about, videos of cats to watch and shops to peruse from your very comfortable sofa. The Internet is amazing. Unfortunately the Internet is far too much of a draw for a procrastinator like myself.

A few posts ago I told you about my writing habits during my time in Cambridge, well that level of discipline is almost impossible to maintain in every day life. See, now I have a job and bills to pay and blogs to write and books to read and stories to write and friends to see and it goes on and on and on. So when I sit down to write now I have all these things in the back of my head craving some attention and, when I’m using the very same machine for most of these tasks, it becomes very difficult to maintain control of your disciplined inner-self.

I have heard of a program that can disable your Internet access for pre-set periods of time, I have heard of people going to write in coffee shops and I have heard of people allowing themselves structured breaks for controlled procrastination, so what do you do to avoid distraction/procrastination? When I really need to get something written, I use my typewriter.


Inevitably, every story acceptance is accompanied by multiple rejections; sometimes a story will be accepted first time, sometimes there will be a re-write request and sometimes the story will be rejected over and over again before someone accepts it. This week I got a particularly crushing rejection. Over the last two years I have only received a personal rejection about 5% of the time. Usually all I get is a generic email saying “Thanks, but no thanks”. It is fair enough, I ran my own lit-mag for a year and know that editors only have so much time.

As a writer though you can kind of build a generic rejection message up in your head to read something like: “I’m really really sorry we can’t fit this story in this issue. We loved it, it was brilliant, but I’m going to have to say no at the moment. Sorry” when all they are really saying is “Thanks, but no thanks.” Personal rejections always carry extra weight because they are definite, you are hearing exactly what the editor thought, and even if it is bad news they are giving you something helpful. When I got the above-mentioned rejection this week however, I forgot all of this.

Before I tell you what the editor said, I should say that I do now agree in part with his comments and I am very grateful for his insights. Regardless I was very attached to this story and he was the first person I’d sent it to, which is why I think the rejection somewhat crushed me. Basically this editor felt that most of the characters were flat, the ending was not great and the interesting part of the story was over too fast. I’m not going to lie, it hurt. I read the email over a few times and even copied it into my notebook to look at later when I’m writing other stories. I think the thing that hurt most was that I was so happy with the story.

Fiction is subjective, I know that, I’m certain that something I adore will most likely repulse someone else out there. After reading the rejection a few more times I read the story again, and then again and I started to see where he was coming from.  That is the best and worst thing about editors, they know what they are talking about.  I thought about his comments and came to the conclusion that he was undeniably right in one out of three. Regardless of personal subjectivity the scene that built up most of the story was a little short, and could definitely be further developed in order to bring out more of the story.

Concerning his other comments, I chose to ignore one and kept the ending the same, because that is where I know the story should end, while the other comment was potentially disastrous and needed more thought.  This story is part of my current work, a collection of intertwining stories. Throughout the book, and its stories, some events overlap and a little more information about the characters is revealed in each piece. However, all the stories also stand alone in their own right.

The undeveloped characters mentioned in the rejection are nothing more than background characters, some of which come to the fore in a different part of the book. They are undeveloped because this is not their story. Obviously I tried to make them as developed as background characters can be without taking the focus from the two main ones, but if this doesn’t come off successfully, will the book hold together like I want it to?  I’m still thinking about this one.

Rejection is a part of writing, if your plan is to get published, and sometimes it can be painful, other times not so, but editors’ insights in my experience are invariably valuable. On several occasions I have followed the advice of an editor and revisited a certain aspect of a story, and then that revision sparked something else in my mind which set of a chain of different ideas which, in the end, has made the story one hundred times better. It is for this reason that I remind myself, every time I get a rejection, that editors know what they are doing.

Tales of a Modern Writer – Part Five

Getting published

Towards the end of my time in Cambridge I got the email I’d been waiting and hoping for. The magazine I’d sent the moth story to wanted to publish it. I’m not going to even attempt to explain how amazing it felt to know that not only did someone like my story, but they liked it enough to put money behind it in order to show as many people as possible.

In the same week as this acceptance I had a couple of other, shorter pieces accepted for online outlets and it felt like it might never stop.  In fact, over the next year I had 14 stories accepted and published in various places both in print and online. Then it slowed down, mainly because I didn’t have any stories left. I had spent the whole summer writing stories and then when I went back to university I had no time so I just sent out the ones I’d already written.

Somewhere in the first year of being published I received some advice from a far more experienced writer. She told me that in order to gain more attention and get a bigger readership I needed to do several things;

  1. Submit stories to lots of different places, not to go back to ones who have already accepted my work.
  2. Get a blog and update it every week.
  3. Get a twitter and/or facebook and tell everyone about all my stories and writing and blogging.

Now, over the years I have tried writing blogs and they always fall apart after a while. I always failed to keep regular because I write when I have the time or desire to write. To be honest I’m surprised I’ve managed to keep this going so far. I also tried twitter but I never had anything interesting to say. My second issue is self promotion and my inability to do it.

However, it is the submitting thing that really stuck in my head. It sounded like brilliant advice and I had been following it subconsciously, my thinking was that these places have accepted my work, let someone else have a chance. But after a while I began to think.

I remember reading about writers who were frequently published in this magazine or that anthology and about others who tried to venture out but always returned to a publication, which they totally trusted their manuscript with. I have been thinking on this topic more and more lately.

Going back to my first post I said that good writers are good readers, well, there is another aspect to this. To get published you must send the best story you have to the magazine you know will enjoy it, that’s another piece of advice I was given early on. How do you find this out? You read magazines, thoroughly.

Initially I read widely and often but if I am honest there are only a maximum of five publications that I read with any regularity. Three of which I have been published in since I began reading them. I read these regularly because they publish the kind of stories I like to read and the kind of stories I like to write. All three of these places have wonderful editors, with keen insights, a fantastically supportive readership and a magnificent taste in short stories.

So should I refrain from submitting to these places again, purely because they have already published one or two of my stories?  Should I keep the story I think would be perfect for them until enough time has elapsed since my last submission to them?  Should I send them all of my stories if I think they’ll like them?

What do other modern writers out there do?

Apprenticeship: Part Two

My time spent in Cambridge was a catalyst for more than just improving my writing, it was also an important time for my photography.

I have been taking photos with old film cameras since I was 14, when my Dad gave me his old Russian Zenit to use in art class.  I wasn’t a very good art student – I could barely draw – so my teacher recommended I try taking photos and drawing from them. Instead I just started using the photos as my art work.

That Zenit camera has been close to me ever since and during the summer in Cambridge I found that whenever I went out for walks I would take my notebook and my camera. I started taking photos of things that I felt had an atmosphere, or something of interest, and almost simultaneously to pushing the shutter I would have an idea for a story set in that moment.

Since then the two practices of writing and photography have become entwined in my mind and in the way I create things with them. Using film cameras demands that I take time over composing the shots and then waiting for the roll to be finished and then developed before I can appreciate the results. I usually wait before I have six or seven films before developing them which can take anywhere from two weeks to six months. Leaving such a long time between taking the photo and seeing the results invariably creates an almost revelation-like moment, which is often a starting point for a new story.

This is much the same as how I write. I make notes or observations and sometimes write whole stories then usually leave them for a period to percolate in the back of my mind before revisiting them. Often upon revisiting stories I end up having ideas about edition or composition, but occasionally I have a revelation that utterly changes the course of the story or the main character.

Photography has had a valuable influence on my writing and it is something I would recommend to any other writers.  Sometimes there is that moment or that observation that you know would be great for a story but for some reason the words aren’t happening or you become overwhelmed and are thinking too much about it to get a clear picture down in words.  These are the times that a camera is the perfect back up tool. If you are thinking of trying this I cannot recommend film enough, but if you want to use digital, try not to get too serous about the shot or take too many; just by taking a single photo that you’ve thought about for a little while will lodge it into your brain, even if the photo isn’t wonderful.

The following images have all directly inspired stories which are in my current work; a collection of interconnected stories. They were all taken with film cameras and have had nothing done to them in post production.



All photographs taken by Alex Thornber

Apprenticeship: Part One

I was asked to look after a friend’s house for a couple of months. He lived in Cambridge, a city I had never been to, and he had a garden full of vegetables that needed harvesting. I had been reading a biography of Hemingway, a writer I was obsessed with at the time, and had heard the term ‘apprenticeship’ used to describe his years in Paris. I was at the end of my first year of university and had nothing else to do so I decided to look at a brief relocation and a garden full of vegetables as an opportunity to begin, in earnest, my own apprenticeship.

I packed a suitcase full of clothes and paperbacks, enough notebooks to last the summer, my typewriter and an old bicycle and headed up to Cambridge. I had whole days with nothing to do but sit and write and read. A few days in, I had a system. I would get up and write for two hours, then cycle into town to walk around, go shopping, drink tea and read then head back to the house to write until my girlfriend returned from work. It was a good system and it made me quite prolific; I averaged one story written, one edited and about 20 pages of notes each day.

I used to write full stories in one sitting but after a few weeks of nothing but time, and enough brain space to cope with it, I found I was composing several stories in my head all at once. So I began writing them all at once, in fragments as they came to me, a process that has served me well ever since that summer. I wrote stories about young girls and old married couples and teenaged boys who thought they were cooler than they were. All of these stories had sprung from little observations I would witness in my hours walking around Cambridge.

The main story of the summer however came from an observation I made before I left for Cambridge. Someone had left some water in the bath and there was a moth floating in it. That simple, slightly sad, sight started a story about a little girl finding a moth in the bath and, thinking it was swimming, watches it die. The story follows the father’s reaction to his distressed daughter and the two of them organise a burial for the moth, which in turn causes the father to remember his own father’s funeral.

After finding the moth myself, I had begun noting down some ideas about a girl finding a dead moth and being sad, but it was in the time and space once at Cambridge that this story evolved into the one above. With this story in particular I also honed my method for writing that accompanied my fragmented approach. I began writing and rewriting each sentence or paragraph until I was happy with it, independently from the rest of the story; sometimes it would be right first time, others it would take up to 30 rewrites.

I spent about three weeks working on the moth story, moving phrases and changing words only to change them back again.  Once it was finished I sent it off to a magazine and waited…

What’s in a Pen Name?

In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers call into question the importance of our given prenomens, with Juliet questioning “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Now, although I hate to disagree with the Bard himself, I would argue that names are absolutely crucial to the craft in the literary world.

A great pen name can make the difference between a novel selling or not. Let’s face it, Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski is not as striking on a front cover as his chosen pseudonym, Joseph Conrad. As a name, “Joseph Conrad” packs a punch: it sounds masculine, tough, and well-suited to tales of mystery, murky adventures, and manly imperialism, such as Heart of Darkness.

A pseudonym can act as the final flourish on your story; just like a method actor, you’ve got to keep in character and in tone with your novel as a whole. For instance, Lawrence Block is a fitting moniker for the acclaimed American crime writer who writes about alcoholic ex-cops and gruesome misdoings. It is a name that would certainly stand out on the crowded Crime bookshelf, but for an author of erotic novels, the “Block” is all wrong. It makes me think of an unwieldy concrete slab, or worse, some sort of blockage, which is hardly synonymous with anything even vaguely sexy or arousing. This is probably one of the reasons why Block writes erotica under the pseudonym of Jill Emerson.

Lawrence Block is not alone in swapping genders for different genres. In fact, many female authors choose to write under a male name to avoid being the victim of gender stereotyping. During the Victorian era, when writing was a vocation supposedly designated for men, Mary Ann Evans famously used the alias of George Eliot to ensure that her work was not only widely read by men and women alike but also that it was even published at all. Similarly, the Brontë sisters wrote under Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell in order to conceal their true identity and avoid their work from being disregarded as mere “feminine writing”. Even today, female authors are still disguising their gender by using pseudonyms or initialised versions of their names to attract wider audiences. J. K. Rowling is a perfect example, a gender-neutral name for fear that young boys wouldn’t want to read books written by a woman. More recently, Rowling has hinted that she may select an entirely new pseudonym for her work now that the Harry Potter series has come to an end, asserting that, for her, a “fake name is very attractive”, and would allow her to  “write any old thing I want”.

Pseudonyms certainly give writers some licence, allowing them to disassociate themselves from a previous style of writing and practice another. An author can be extremely cagey about his nom de plume, keeping it a secret and entirely separate part of his career. It’s easy to understand the allure of pseudonyms, if you are an established author looking for a change: you can be anybody you want to be, totally free from expectations about your work and maybe even easing the pressures of being a writer.

As readers, however, do we feel cheated by authors using pseudonyms? Many of us loyally follow our favourite authors, buying all their books and reading their interviews in the press. To then discover that they have an utterly different name under which they write feels a little akin to discovering your partner has a secret other family. It doesn’t seem fair to keep devoted readers like us in the dark. We want to celebrate the work of our favourite authors and often want to read anything they’ve written. Perhaps we may even be persuaded to read a genre we normally wouldn’t consider if we found out that our literary heroes were trying their hand at it. Some writers may have taken it too far: the great Donald Westlake, who is best known, under his own name, for the crime caper novels featuring the largely unsuccessful thief John Dortmunder, also wrote as Tucker Coe, Timothy J Culver, Curt Clark, Samuel Holt, Richard Stark, Allan Marshall and others. Furthermore, as a writer, surely writing under a different name prevents the pleasure of having something successful and creative being associated with you. I know my mother would be most put out if I wrote an award-winning novel, only to disguise my identity and give all the credit to an imaginary, faceless moniker called Jane Bloggs.

Whether you agree with the use of pen-names or not, undoubtedly they are here to stay. Often the pseudonym and the book become so interlinked that many of us aren’t even aware when a false title has been used. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Sam Clemens?  1984 by Eric Blair? The use of Mark Twain’s and George Orwell’s real names looks strange indeed, even as if they were imposters.

So what do you think? As a writer would you consider a pen name or would you rather keep the one you were born with? For those who are intrigued by the whole business of pseudonyms and nom de plumes, there is a fantastic website where you can use a random name generator to create possible combinations for your alias, even allowing you to choose the origin of the name, like Irish, English, African, or from mythology. I spent a good 20 minutes playing around with this generator and coming up with some great aliases. So, in a few years, when you see a best-seller by Eseld Sigrún, Mara Marquita or Indonea Lee, you’ll know it’s me.

Putting Pen to Paper

The first stories I tried to write and the book that started it all: continuing the brief history that foretells the work I am currently writing.

One night I couldn’t sleep, I wrote three stories. One long, one short and one vignette, though I didn’t know that was what they were until much later. Much later I also realised that at the time of writing them, I knew nothing about writing. The key to this realisation was in the endings, which also ties into the book that made me want to write seriously; Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. The basic point is that I had no idea how to end a story without killing all or at least one of the characters involved.

The first of the stories I wrote was about a young boy finally telling a girl he’s known all his life that he loves her. They go out for a drive and crash and the girl dies. The second was about a boy who stumbled upon an old man who gave him lots of wisdom and then proceeded to die on a park bench. I tried to stop killing but whenever I did the story felt unfinished.

A few weeks later, my girlfriend’s little sister had heard that I was trying to write short stories and gave me Carver’s Short Cuts. I read the book pretty quickly and was immediately struck by the wonderful nature to the writing. It was honest, simple, realistic and overall thoroughly entertaining. The thing that really made an impression during my first collision with Carver though, was that stories can end without death or severe maiming.

Carver’s stories are magnificent and reading them instantly made me think about writing differently. I initially thought that stories would have to contain all the information a reader could want including back story and internal emotions like something out of Proust. But Carver taught me that stories can actually have little in the way of detail and still be just as absorbing; it is the holes he leaves that allow the reader’s imagination to seep in and when that happens you invariably get sucked in.

After reading Short Cuts, I went out and bought as much Carver as I could find and I began writing stories without endings, sometimes without beginnings too. Admittedly they weren’t that much better overall but I had made a change and a few months later I started my apprenticeship; a summer of nothing but reading and writing, during which I wrote my first published stories.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

For many writers, winning an award will be the crowning moment of their career: much needed proof that all the sleepless nights, hours of hard-work and effort spent editing and re-editing the same sentence was worth it. We’ve all heard of – and perhaps lusted after – the big awards: the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Whitbread (Costa) Awards and, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature. But not all literary awards are as prestigious as these and, indeed, rather than celebrate beautiful works of fiction, some awards do the unthinkable and applaud bad writing.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual tongue-in-cheek award that pokes fun at the more serious and weighty competitions, such as the Man Booker Prize. Started in 1982 by Professor Scott E. Rice at San Jose University, the contest calls for writers “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”; in short, their writing must be deliberately awful. The prize is a ‘pittance’ – as should be expected for a bad writing contest – of $250.The award’s namesake is Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who, despite being very popular in the 1800s, finds himself ridiculed today as being a writer of very florid and horrid prose, such as the infamous opening to his 1830 novel, ‘Paul Clifford’:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest has proved to be immensely popular, with many writers eagerly taking up the challenge to flaunt their most flowery and clumsy fiction. Indeed, the competition has had so many superb entries that in recent years they’ve added prizes in different categories such as adventure, crime and romance, as well as a grand, overall winner. Everything we are told to avoid as writers, all the bits we edit out with shamed-faces after re-reading our work are embraced by this competition, with frankly hilarious results. You can read some examples of the ‘Lyttony of Grand Prize Winners’ here, although my personal favourite is from this year’s winner of the ‘Romance’ Category, Ali Kawashima: “As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest is not the only faux-literary award. The popularity of the competition has since spawned the ‘Lyttle Lytton Contest’, which rewards bad opening sentences with fewer than 25 words, inspiring such gems as “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” Other notable spoof awards include the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year, The Golden Bull Award and, another personal favourite of mine, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Personally, I think contests like these are fabulous. They remind us not to take our writing, and ourselves, too seriously all the time and, in a profession where there can be a tendency towards pretention, they create a little light-hearted humour. My heart goes out to poor Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, however, who would have had no idea that he would become the poster-boy of dodgy prose for future generations. But if it’s any consolation to the ghost of Bulwer-Lytton, we must admit that many of us are guilty of writing sentences just as alarming and, unlike the entries for these competitions, we, too, might be entirely unaware of their clumsiness.  I was horrified to discover that in one of my own journals from when I was 15, I had written the opening line “The melancholy wind roared down the chimney, causing the flames in the fire to leap up and spit hot embers onto the wooden floorboards” which shamefully, it seems, is not that dissimilar to Bulwer-Lytton’s own, much-maligned “It was a dark and stormy night…” I’m cringing even now.

To Write, First One Must Read

I’ve written a few blogs before in recent years on different topics and the thing I’ve always found difficult is starting it off. Do I do the whole, ‘Hello reader, I’m going to talk about…’ thing or do I just start it and hope my readers don’t feel like I’m being rude by not addressing them? I can never decide, so this time all I’m going to say is: This is a blog series about being a modern writer, by a modern writer. I’m currently writing a collection of short stories and I’m going to start at the beginning.

To write, first one must read.

I never really read much as a child. I only started reading because of boredom. I was 18 and working in an off licence in which no one ever shopped. I’d spend most of the time sitting on a wonky stool staring out the window from over the desk, hoping for someone to come and break the monotony. Some of my co-workers did their college work, some did origami and one or two read. Inspired, I went to town before one particularly long shift and I picked up the cheapest book I could find and threw it in my bag for work.

To write, first one must read.

At work I started reading what turned out to be The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It was wonderful and remains a favourite to this day, but looking back it seems Kundera did far more than entertain me for a few shifts; he started my literary education.

A few pages in, I stumbled on some words I didn’t know. I was worried that I had picked utterly the wrong book but I persevered. I kept a little piece of paper as a bookmark and systematically noted down any words I didn’t know in order to learn them. The paper filled up pretty quick with words I now scold myself for not having known; words like ‘semantic’ and ‘quandary’ and ‘irreparable.’ I’d go home and look up the words and write down their definition. After a little while they began to catch. I found I would start using words like ‘assimilate’ and ‘supplant’ in my everyday speech. The more I read, the better my vocabulary became.

When I first started reading I had no aspirations to become a writer, I was simply passing the time and appreciating the words and the worlds sculpted from them.  However, years later when I started writing, I was given a piece of advice that many writers have either given or received: to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. After that I stepped up my literary education. I started reading slower, taking in all of the detail, and tried to observe and understand the construction behind the architecture of the stories. My reading turned to study.

Looking back through my old notebooks now they are littered with words I needed to learn alongside my own writing as I spent hours reading and writing, emulating the writers I loved, trying to find the way I liked to write. I can track what books I was reading by the style and sentence structure of what I was writing at the time. With every book I read my style changed as the great writers I was reading influenced me.

There was one book that had more influence on me than any of the others, the book that made me want to take being a writer seriously. That book was Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts and it is a different story…

Alex Thornber