Thursday, 16 December 2010

Fictions of Every Kind: Hungover & Underwhelmed

Planning is afoot for the next two Fictions of Every Kind nights.

What is Fictions of Every Kind? Well, it's a spoken word night with a DIY ethos, aimed at encouraging writers to bring and share their work, and to come and meet other writers. Every writer knows how lonely writing can be... so come and meet a bunch of other people who spend all their spare time locked in a quiet room, alternately bashing away on a computer and swearing, and making things and people up in their heads.

The next Fictions of Every Kind is on 11th January 2011, at The Library Pub in Leeds. The Library is very near the University, on Otley Road. (Make sure you come to the Library Pub, and not to the actual library. The Library Pub is the one with the bar with all the drinks in it.) It starts at 19.30, and runs till 22.30; please get down early to put your name down for the open mic. Entry is £3.

The night has a loose theme of "Hungover and Underwhelmed", but there is no need for you to stick too closely to the theme if you can't manage it.

As an added bonus, there's going to be a musical treat from 4-part vocal harmony group (BARBERSHOP QUARTET) These Men.

Fictions of Every Kind on Facebook

Hungover & Underwhelmed event page on Facebook

Sunday, 12 December 2010


A couple of months ago, I did a little 'post' about The Print Project, who have a working letterpress in the basement of the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford. Last week I went there and had 'a go' on it myself.

Here are some pictures.

In letterpress, the printing is done using typeface made of ACTUAL METAL. ACTUAL METAL that you set yourself, using ACTUAL HANDS. (I got covered in a lot of ink doing this). In the picture above, you can see the trays full of typeface bits. Above the trays, but just out of shot, there's a little card showing you which letters are in which compartments.

Apparently, once you get used to setting type, you don't need to refer to the card any more, since you get so smart about knowing where the letters are kept. This is not me.... yet. Maybe one day.

This is a line of text. Look at the little metal letters! In between each word, you insert 'spaces'; little slivers and blocks of metal that separate the letters from one another. You have to be super-careful lifting it out of the tray, otherwise the text spills all over the floor and you cry bitter tears of regret, like a big clumsy baby.

This is the line of text in 'the chase'. Its secured into place using 'furniture' (bits of wood) and then tightened up with 'quoins'. It has to go in good and tight, otherwise the letters will fall out when you put the whole shebang in the press (see above, 'crying bitter tears of regret like a big clumsy baby'.) You do not want the letters falling out. Aside from the fact it takes ages to set everything, you don't want to be scrabbling about under the machine trying to retrieve all the bits of typeface. That's like a public safety information video waiting to happen.

This is what it looks like when you set the typeface backwards, like a big bloody idiot. Ahem.

....and this is what it looks like when you do it right!

I had such good fun using the letterpress - thanks very much to Nick for showing me how it all worked, and for helping me get the chase into the machine right. I'm hoping to set some more text and print some more 'words of encouragement for writers' cards in the near future.... watch this space.

In the meantime, you can visit The Print Project on the internet.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Welcome to the Jumble

I was at a jumble sale on Sunday. I tell you this not by way of shaming you with my glittering, exotic lifestyle, but as a prelude to boasting about one of the bargains I picked up.

Amongst the paperbacks of Carol Vorderman's How To Do Sudoku, and a cassette audio book of Women in Love, was this: a large hardback edition of the edited letters of Kingsley Amis, which would set you back over £12 on Amazon. It was hidden underneath a silk peg-bag and an old Dorothy Perkins t-shirt and I nearly didn't see it, except for that my friend Amy was rummaging impatiently through everything in an attempt to find the bargainous, and legendary, 'knit your own monkey' kit.

Amy never did get to knit her own monkey, but I did get this beast of a book, and for a pound only. A POUND! You see? Who says jumble sales are all doddery old ladies and worn-out handbags?

Fictions of Every Kind

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that last Tuesday's Fictions of Every Kind was an unqualified runaway success. There were superb readings from Matt Bellwood, Nasser Hussein, "Dr" Sam Francis, and Mason Henry Summers. Every single reading was amazing, and all of these performers had the audience hanging off their every carefully-chosen word.

There was a set of beautiful music from the very wonderful Invisible Cities, and in addition the standard in the open mic section of the night was especially high. Who knew there were so many talented writers hiding out in Leeds?!

The next Fictions of Every Kind is planned for the 11th January 2011, with a theme of 'Hungover and Underwhelmed'. It takes place at The Library Pub in Leeds, from 7.30 - 10.30 pm, with an entry fee of £3; and if I have anything to do with it, it'll be a devil of a lot of fun.

Watch this space to find out who the guest speakers and musical act are....

Befriend 'Fictions of Every Kind' on Facebook

Monday, 22 November 2010

Hell is other people's music choices...

Lately, mainly because it is colder inside my house than it is outdoors (how can this be?), I've been doing a lot of writing in the local coffee shops. There are many advantages to working in a coffee shop, chief amongst which is that it is warm there, and there is no need to wear fingerless gloves while you type. There are fewer distractions in a coffee shop; your average writer is less likely to procrastinate by suddenly noticing that the skirting boards need ironing, or that there's a mucky teaspoon in the sink that needs washing up right away. In my nearest coffee shops, I can't even get an internet connection. Add to this the frequent availability of coffee and cake, and you have a recipe for excellent writer productivity. In the last week alone, I have finished six novels, eight short stories, and an hundred-line ballad written in iambic pentameter, just by dint of sitting in the nearest Costa. (Only joking.... I don't write poetry).

But srsly though coffee shops of West Yorkshire, what is UP with your music choice? A few days ago, I was rendered rampantly KILLY and ENRAGED by the abuse to which my ears were subject. Coffee shops of the world seemed to have turned to filling their stereos with CDs of pastel coloured, twinkly, no-cunt, irritatingly twee music, designed to offend nobody. There must be a special shop that sells this stuff; I imagine that only coffee shops buy it - for the love of God, I hope that nobody willingly listens to this stuff at home.

This kind of music is meant to promote a self-consciously cool, laid-back atmosphere within the environs. Recently, I've heard versions of 'Tainted Love' sung by a woman with a child's voice backed with what sounded like a music-box, 'Sweet Child O' Mine' gently tickled to death with a xylophone and an accordion, and a version of 'When Doves Cry' played in a jaunty rhythm on a Spanish guitar. I imagine the aim is to reassure your average coffee-shop customer with music with which he or she is familiar, presented in a way that promotes a kind of slow death by passivity: a sort of lift music for the post-modern ironist of the 21st Century, if you will. It's irritating and its twee, and every time I hear one of these dreadful, knowing cover versions, I am filled with an almost uncontrollable urge to punch a kitten to death. And I really like kittens.

Please, coffee shops of the local West Yorkshire area: I AM TRYING TO WRITE A NOVEL AND THIS CAR ADVERT MUSIC IS NOT HELPING.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Jeez, and in the middle of winter, too?

There's only one decent way that any right-thinking person can react to the news of Nathan Bransford's exit from the world of publishing:

For the longest time, Nathan has been astonishing writers and agents around the world with his ability to fit all of the following into the same 24-hour day that the rest of us squander on drinking cups of tea and fannying around on LOLcats: being a top-flight literary agent, writing one and many novels, regularly updating a blog, keeping the rest of us know-nothings up to date on how to write a good query and on what's new in the world of publishing, and yet even so, still managing to be an all-round nice guy. I can't speak for any of the rest of you but I would literally need an extra seven hours in every day even to accomplish half of this stuff (which, incidentally, is what I'm going to be asking Santa for this year).

Best of luck, Nathan: we'll miss you.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Fictions of Every Kind

November: season of fireworks, dark nights, writing in dark garret rooms wearing fingerless gloves, and of large swathes of people attempting to write a novel in a month. Interesting fact: writing Inception took Christopher Nolan 10 years, while Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight in a matter of 2 months. You can make of that what you will, because I am in no way casting aspersions about the sustained hard work and detailed attention that ought to go into writing a worthwhile novel.

November also brings us the first ever Fictions Of Every Kind night. The inaugural FOEK aims to celebrate national short story week, and it will do it with a wide range of interesting performers - with readings from folk story-teller Matt Bellwood, to hip-hop poetry with Nasser Hussein; cyber-punk and speculative work from Sam Francis, cutting-edge dark science-fiction from Mason Henry Summers, and fiction from me too. Readers, I haven't read aloud to an assembled audience since that unfortunate incident at primary school, and I don't mind telling you I'm a bit scared.

In addition, there's music from the very wonderful Invisible Cities, and an open mic story-telling session at the beginning of the night.

"Where is all this happening?" I hear you cry. "I'm champing at the bit to go to there!"

Well first of all hold your horses, because its not until the 23rd of November. Its at The Library Pub in Leeds, it starts at 7pm, and its £3 in (all this information is on the flier above if you squint your eyes hard enough.)

Hopefully these kinds of shenanigans will become a regular event, but until then you'll just have to content yourself with this one, dear readers. Hope to see you there.

The Print Project, Bradford

Letterpress. I loves me a good letterpress: it makes me go weak at the knees. In letter press, metal plates are used to impress text and ink deep into card. Every single page in letterpress needs to be made by an actual human being, operating several tons of weighty machinery. It's beautiful and it's unique and it doesn't get used very often any more, so three cheers for The Print Project in Bradford who are working hard to resurrect it.

This project is based at the 1 in 12 club in Bradford. The art of letterpress is centuries old, and this lot, Fred Dibnah-style, are doing what they can to keep the skills and expertise necessary to run one alive. With the increasing development of other methods of printing which are cheaper and more convenient, the art of letterpress - which produces something very beautiful and memorable - could be in danger of dying out.

Unlike items lazer-printed or photocopied, the marvellous thing about letterpress is its texture. In picking up a letter-pressed item you can feel, in your very hands, the sweat and skill that has gone into making it. A letter-pressed booklet or flier feels a little weightier in your hands, and with the text sunk and pressed into the card, you can actually feel the texture of the words you're reading with your fingers. (fact fans, this is very much not the sort of thing you can get from an app on your iPhone.... I'm just sayin'.)

At present The Print Project can produce leaflets, stationery, CD packaging, booklets and leaflets, but welcome contacts to discuss other commissions. If you're interested in letterpress, or even if you just have a bit of a 'thing' for different printing techniques, it's well worth a look.

The Print Project's blog
Print Project on Facebook

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Things that go by the wayside for writers

There are lots of things that writers are good at. Sitting still for long periods of time with only their own thoughts in their head for company. Inventing whole new worlds. Making pretend people come to life. Making a reader see a picture in their mind using only a collection of well-chosen words. Typing. Procrastinating. There are all sorts of things at which writers do regularly, and at which only a writer can excel.

But... there are also many things that writers are bad at. When you're busy trying to write novels / stories / terrible pulpy romance novels, there are so many things that necessarily have to go by the wayside. So few of us can make a living from our art that we instead spend our free time holed up in a semi-darkened room with only a laptop, a notebook, and a mug of tea for company: friends, what effect does that have on us? What, in other words, do we 'miss'?

Socialising. My friends still wonder why I glance around shiftily and make excuses when they invite me out. People never understand when you tell them, "I've got to write". "WRITE SCHMITE!" they shout. "YOU CAN ALWAYS WRITE TOMORROW BUT THIS INVITE TO COCKTAILS IS A ONE-TIME ONLY OFFER." Not that it matters, even if you do go out, because the next thing that goes by the wayside in the writer's life is...

Having normal things to talk about. People at work always want to talk about last night's telly, and I DIDN'T SEE ANY OF IT, because I was TRYING TO WRITE A NOVEL. But you can't tell people at work you were writing a novel: they won't understand, and anyway it only makes you look like a pretentious wanker. So instead you tell them, "Oh no, I must have missed it, I was painting the bathroom." And then your workmates think you are weird because you, apparently, have spent every evening for the past 3 years painting the bathroom. "How big is her bathroom?" they must think. "Does this woman live in the Golden Gate Bridge?"

Having normal social skills. You spend your evenings missing conversational telly, and having conversations with imaginary people who, by the way, most definitely did not exist until you made them up. It makes you a bit twitchy when people talk. For one thing, you find yourself mentally editing everything they say; and for another, you start obsessing over whether their character really would say that sort of thing, or is she just saying it to drive the plot forward at the expense of realistic characterisation? Viewing every human interaction as an extension of your plot quandary starts to make you look a bit strange. If you didn't already look strange enough.

Currently Reading

In Pursuit Of The English Doris Lessing
The Complete Maus Art Spiegelman
Twilight Stephenie Meyer (my friend lent me it, and I didn't want to be rude)
Soho Keith Waterhouse

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Friends, who among you has never bought a copy of her own book from Amazon?

Come on, you've all done it at least once. Don't make me feel like a pariah here.

A couple of weeks ago - over a year since first receiving the good news that my words were to appear in print (IN PRINT) in a book that people could BUY - in a book shop - my words finally were printed, and the book that they were in came out, and a copy of it was brought to my door by the postman.

Well, I say one copy. It would be more accurate to say 'a dozen copies', since that's how many author-copies I insisted on the publisher sending. (Thanks, Stu). Because it's never too early to start buying Christmas presents, right?!!

No. I am not going to start giving people a copy of my own book for Christmas presents. What am I, David Hasselhoff? No, the idea was to send them out to anybody who has supported me in the long and torturous road to getting published. Its a road that's taken in a lot of perseverance, a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, lots of blank glassy stares and going red in the face from frustration, and many many tears. The nature of 'help' my long-suffering pals and boyfriend have given me is wide-ranging. It encompasses not complaining too loudly when I take up the entire kitchen table with my notebooks and bits of paper; it includes silently bringing cups of tea when I'm in the midst of a midden. It includes friendly chats and afternoons spent companion-writing around a friend's house. It includes not laughing at things I've written, even the attempts that were very rubbish. On the part of the long-suffering boyfriend, support has included not only putting up with long periods of black, moody silence, lots of shouting and stomping around the house, wiping my face on the cat and crying, but also building me a desk and long-term lending me a laptop to work on.

So there were plenty of people to thank, and I wanted to send each one of them a copy. But guess what? Nobody wanted to be given one. Readers, the support of my nearest and dearest was so extensive that they wouldn't hear of being gifted with a copy of the book; they all insisted on buying one. To this very day, I still have a dozen copies of Even More Tonto Short Stories on my coffee table at home.

The book is also available on Amazon. So I had all these copies on my table, and then allegedly according to the Internet, you could buy it off Amazon. I almost couldn't quite believe it. I wanted to check that it worked. And so, one day (and I am pretty embarrassed to admit it), I bought a copy of my own book.

Unconvinced that there was a book publicly available with my words in it, I clicked "buy", and remained mildly cynical until the day when the postman came to the door with it in his hands. (Friends, don't try this it at home. It probably technically counts as 'shilling'.) Thinking that the whole thing might be a product of my fevered imagination (apparently a necessary trait for authors), I tore the cardboard wrapping off with shaking fingers: and there it was underneath, a thirteenth copy of Even More Tonto Short Stories, to go with the other dozen I still have sitting on the table in my living room....

Monday, 13 September 2010

Let's get lit-ical, lit-ical....

Here's two up-coming literature festivals: Ilkley Literature Festival, between the 1st and 17th October; and the Morley Literature Festival, between the 11th and 17th October. The two towns are within train-catching and bus-catching distance of one another, so if it was your wont, you could watch Will Self in Ilkley and then get the bus to Morley to watch him again. At one or the other of these festivals you can: write poetry with Simon Armitage; hear about Iain M. Banks' new novel from the man himself; hear the best new from emerging writers, courtesy of The Cadaverine magazine at the Ilkley fringe festival; and sing along with John Shuttleworth.

Currently reading

Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
Agnes Grey Charlotte Bronte
The Shooting Party Anton Chekhov

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Thoughts of the day...

I'm still in the enviable position of having plenty of writing time at the moment. I know it's enviable because I told a writer-friend how much I'm getting done at the moment, and his face turned green and he tried to scratch my eyes out, right there on the pavement, in front of the library. The ensuing injuries explain why I haven't had much time to update this blog lately.... sorry.

This week I have mostly been watching (on ghetto Sky+, also known as "Freeview Plus"; apparently kids these days call that "Pov TV", Pov being short for Povvo or Poverty rather than point of view), a show called In Their Own Words: British Novelists of the 20th Century. This is a series currently being shown on BBC4, about writers of the 20th century. It uses archive footage of interviews with the authors themselves, so you get an eclectic mix of writers from Barbara Cartland to Christopher Isherwood and from Jean Rhys to Robert Graves talking about their own work.

It's a fascinating show, partly in terms of the revelations about attitudes of the times in which writers lived (you see Evelyn Waugh being interviewed by a female journalist in the 60s, find out that he only agreed to do the interview on the specification that he was interviewed by 'a pretty gel', and that off-camera he asked the production crew "When is she going to take her clothes off?") but also about the writers themselves. There's much encouragement to be had in the knowledge that even EM Forster suffered from the writer's gremlin. Even after writing some of the finest novels of the early 20th century, books which were critically acclaimed and massively popular at the time, he didn't consider himself to be a great writer. Of his own capabilities, he said: "I don't consider myself to be a great writer because I have only really managed to get down onto paper 3 types of people: the person I think I am, the people who irritate me, and the people I would like to be. When you get to the really great people, like Tolstoy, you'll find they can get hold of all types." It speaks volumes that even a great writer like EM Forster had crippling doubts about his own self-worth.

So I really recommend this series, even if just for the fact you get to find out Top Facts like that Robert Graves mainly wrote I, Claudius to pay off his mortgage.

Currently reading

One Big Damn Puzzler John Harding
The Language of Others Clare Morrall
Blankets Craig Thompson
Shortcomings Adrian Tomine (FIVE BLOODY STARS, although come on Adrian, stop being such a bastard to your girlfriend).

Monday, 16 August 2010

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Have you got a story to tell?

As part of the first ever National Short Story Week in November, I'm in the process of organising an event that celebrates the short-story teller in all of us. After all, there's nothing the British pub-going public like better than a good old yarn, right?!

This event is loosely themed for "Myths and Legends". (Hence the picture of Thor). But you take this theme as lightly as you like: there's no need to get all studied up on Norse mythology before you come, or to know the name of every single Roman God. You will not be thrown out bodily if your story is not to do with ancient myths. Your story could be to do with a myth from your school-days, a living legend you've met, a legend or myth you yourself have created... the theme is really yours to riff off as you like.

Additional musical accompaniment will be provided.

In addition, (although this, also, is not compulsory), you are welcome to dress up as your favourite myth or legend. Whether you're going for Artemis The Hunter or Peter Beardsley, all costumes will be judged as equal, except for when it comes to prize giving at the end of the night when the winner of the costume competition is revealed.

If you've got a story to tell and you'd like to speak at this event, share it! Please get in touch with me at s dot j dot bradley [at] hotmail DOT com.

You can join the facebook event for "Have you got a story to tell?" here.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Even More Tonto Short Stories

Here is a book called Even More Tonto Short Stories. It features one of my very own short stories, and it comes out on August the 5th. It features not only stories from new writers, but more established ones too. You can buy it off Tonto Books, or you can buy it from Amazon.

As you can imagine, this is very exciting news not just for me, but also for my long-suffering boyfriend who I would like to thank for all his patience and help (like that time when he built me a writing desk in the corner of our living room, using just pieces of wood and his BARE HANDS, and I never used it very much, but did long-suffering boyfriend complain? No he did not. No, I don't know why he puts up with it either). Also I would like to thank Pig Destroyer who likes to 'help' with the typing sometim55555555555555es.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Every writer knows the transformative power of books, right? They change the way we see things, open our eyes to others' experiences, and take us away from our own lives. In a spectacularly enlightened move, the state of Texas has also recognised the rehabilitative powers of literature: it is sentencing (GEDDIT?!!) offenders on reading courses, instead of throwing them in prison. The programme is called Changing Lives Through Literature and has reduced reoffending rates from 42% to 19%. Rather predictably, the programme does come in for some stick, but many of those who have attended the programme say it has quite literally changed their lives.

Elsewhere on the internet, Le Rejectionist is running a one-year anniversary uncontest on the theme of What Form Rejection means to me. Fellow bloggers are invited to blog on this topic this Friday, then post a link to their post in Le Rejectionists' comments box. Five specially selected winners will be awarded a mix CD made by Le Rejectionist herself...!

Elsewhere, in real life news: I have a cat to feed, a greenhouse to water, a curry to spice, six Sky+'d episodes of Project Runway to watch, and a novel to write.

Currently reading

The Long Firm Jake Arnott
Scoop Evelyn Waugh

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Get your pen and your tarpaulin: this patch of grass is now your office

The urge to write can bite any time, like a blood-hungry midge wreaking itchy havoc on a set of campers. For your average writer in the street there's nothing worse than being struck with an idea, and being desperate to realize it - but not having the time or paper to write it down. It's the curse that strikes all writers on a more or less weekly basis. It's part of the reason why all writers pockets are full of scraps of paper, scribbled-upon napkins, bus tickets crammed with microscopic writing, and notebooks. You never know when the ideas are going to hit you: that's the devil of it.

Just like that, the desperation to realize an idea can catch us scribbling away in the strangest of places. Anywhere that has room enough for a notebook and pen becomes the writer's office. I admit, I've done it myself, on occasions where that idea just couldn't float around my head a second longer...

On a train. We're not talking 40's style romanticism here. I was heading away for a rowdy weekend of karaoke and booze-facedness that absolutely wasn't conducive to the Big Project I was planning. Consequence: rattling along with my pen in my hand and the smell of catering-car Croque Monsieur in my nose, making strange marks on the page every time the car jumbled over "the wrong sort of leaves" on the track.

Sitting on a wall outside a community centre, in Hastings. Long-suffering boyfriend enticed me into coming away on one of his working trips. He thought I was going to make myself useful: I thought I was going to work on my novel. About halfway through the day, realizing I was holding his flash stand in a sulky and entirely unsatisfactory manner, LSB snapped: "You're no use at all! Go and get on with your writing and stop making my life a misery!" Result! With no way of getting to a lovely warm coffee shop, I instead plonked myself on the nearest wall, pulled my fleece warm around me, and got to work.

Under a tree. I'd read somewhere that CS Lewis used to do this, and so I thought if I did it it would be well literary. However, instead of producing a series of seven children's books that have endured through the ages, I got grass on my skirt and bird poo on my head. It didn't really work out the way I'd hoped.

I know I cannot be the only one parking my office wherever inspiration strikes....

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Progress slow: cats to blame

Good post over on Le Rejectionist about how authors' cats impede the creative process. They are, after all, not interested in whether you get listed for The Booker Prize, or whether your work will end up on future 'A' Level Syllabuses (Syllabi?). All your cat is interested in is where the next can of tuna is coming from.

Currently reading

The Long Firm Jake Arnott

Monday, 28 June 2010

Fantasy part-time jobs for writers

It is a truth universally acknowledged throughout the writing world that no writer ever makes a killing. It's just not a profitable industry, this. Most writers spend their lives hunched bitterly over cramped desks in the corner of their bedroom / living room, cursing the day they ever lifted up that fountain pen, wishing they had taken up economics instead. And then they die, penniless, forgotten by all but a handful of faithful readers, leaving behind debts that run to five or more figures.

So much for making a living from writing, dear readers. But how are we to make our living, if not from the words we produce? All of us, to a man, most have a soul-crushing day job, if not to stop the landlord from throwing us out from under their roofs, carpets and all, but also to provide us with the actual time and material one needs to keep writing.

Readers do not despair, and behold: for I bring you a comprehensive list of the best possible day-jobs a writer can have.

Job one: librarian Most writers write for one solitary reason: words. Words, and maybe books. We love books. They smell funny. They've got notes written in the margins, curved, battered spines, and pages with the corners bent over. Their covers may sometimes look hilariously out-dated, but the words within will stand the test of time. They say what they mean obliquely, with a language unique to each writer, and they transport us away from our miserable little lives, one sentence at a time. Writers love books, they can't get enough of them. What better way to enjoy the company of books than by surrounding yourself with them? (The odd bit of book-stamping and interaction with members of the public notwithstanding).

Job two: Filing clerk The problem with most day-jobs is that they actively take time away from what you want to do, viz. writing. What better way to combine the dual pursuits of earning money to live, and finding time to write, than by finding a job that practically pays you to write your novel? Filing rooms are strange places. Filled with dust and bizarre categorisation systems, the filing room provides the young filing clerk with everything he needs to complete his first magnum opus. The smartest file-clerk arranges his filing-den into a colour-coded, labyrinthine system which nobody else in the building can fathom. This stops anyone else coming up to look for things themselves. The writer & filing clerk has done well: he has found a job that pays him to write, and he won't get interrupted while he's doing it.

Job three: Sales assistant in B&Q All human life finds its way to the hardware store. The young couple in the act of putting up shelves in their new home; the embittered, ageing old couple who no longer have anything to say to each other, buying a shed to enable one of them to escape into the garden. Hardware stores, even more than supermarkets, are a breeder for disagreement between husband and wife. Trawl the aisles of any branch of Sainsbury's Homebase and you'll find at least two divorces brewing somewhere in between the latticed trellis-work and the self tapping screws. No assistant in B&Q could ever find himself wanting for material for the newest novel; and when there's a quiet moment, he can escape to the display sheds in the garden centre section to go and write it.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bridport Prize

It's summer. My car is hot. The dress code at work means no visible tattoos, and therefore long sleeves. While my colleagues drift about wearing cute cap-sleeve blouses, I'm tugging at the neckline of a little cardigan. (But do they have a large tiger crawling up their shoulder? No, readers, they do not. Therefore, on balance, I win.)

Yes, it would be smart to buy shirts. They're comfortable, they're cool. They let the air circulate. But like any other right-thinking individual, I resent spending money on clothes that are only to be worn in the workplace. That, dear readers, is why I rock up at my desk, with oft-worn threads hanging loosely from my elbows, and the seams of my trousers running threadbare at the thighs. I consider it my role in the workplace to play the part of the eccentric, crumpled hobo. This is also the reason my colleagues daily send me hilarious emails saying things like, "Don't worry, SJ, I've got an iron you can borrow".

Instead of buying appropriate workwear, I insist on wearing knitwear, which is also the reason why I come home most days smelling like a teenager after a Motley Crue concert. Summer is less good for writing than winter. The light reflects off your laptop screen and there's less romanticism to be had in writing in shorts and flip-flops than an aran jumper and a pair of fingerless gloves. It's a bit like cheating: if you can't see your breath solidifying in the air in front of you, how can you possibly expect anything you write to be any good? If you write in the afternoons and evenings after work, like I do, it's more or less a given that you can smell somebody's barbeque through the open window. The smell of charcoal and charred meat reaches your nose, and hark! - there's the sound of chinking beer bottles. Who on earth are these people, these so-called "neighbours", and who do they think they are, going around having so-called "fun"? DON'T THEY KNOW I'M TRYING TO WRITE A NOVEL??

All this can mean only one thing: it's Bridport Prize season. This year, there are categories for short fiction, flash fiction (1000 words or less!) and poetry. For those of us who are a bit wordy around the edges, it's also one of the more generous of the short-story competitions word-wise: 5000 words or less! Any subject!! Get your pens at the ready, it closes in two weeks (the 30th June). Judge this year is Zoe Heller.

Currently reading

The Long Firm Jake Arnott
Pratt A Manger David Nobbs
The Corner (yes, still)
When The Door Closed, It Was Dark Alison Moore, Nightjar Press

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Bury your nose in your notebook and pretend you're not earwigging

Bugged blog wants you to listen in on other people's conversations. I want you to listen in on other people's conversations. Why not? I do it myself all the time (don't tell anyone).

Based on the idea that we can find inspiration in everyday incidents, the competition they're running closes on August 15th. Submissions of flash fiction, short fiction, short screenplays, and poetry, are accepted. The only condition is that they must be based on something the writer overheard. (Wait, isn't that all fiction?)

What an ace idea to run a competition with such a widely-themed remit. The competition's open to established and new writers alike, and the winners will be published on their blog.

Get your ear-trumpets out, scribblers: it's overheard conversation season.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Writers In Prison Network

The Writers In Prison Network are currently recruiting four Writers in Residence for new projects in Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions around the country. The writer in residence complements the role of the education departments in the prisons, although is not part of the education department.

Describing creativity as "the only legal way to escape", one of the aims of these projects is to enrich life in prison. Literacy levels amongst prisoners are shockingly low (around 60% of prisoners below level 1 literacy, making them eligible for less than 4% of jobs...), and having access to a 'real' writer enables them to harness some creativity, and learn valuable basic skills, better preparing them for life on the outside.

Applicants don't need to have experience of having worked in prisons before, and nor do you have to be a 'published' writer, although anybody who understands how publishing works and who has at least one article or story published is likely to have a bit more credibility with the prisoners.

The four new projects are at: HMP Castington, a young offenders institution in Northumbria; HMP Drake Hall, a young offenders institution for female foreign national offenders; HMP Hewell, an amalgamated prison which houses prisoners in three categories, including an open prison; and HMP Warren Hill, a young offenders institution in Suffolk.

The working day can be diverse enough to include anything from helping prisoners prepare a weekly newsletter, to helping prisoners tell their life stories in a storytelling group. Some writers in residence run workshops on topics from grappling with the short story form, to developing characters; and one currently-running project has one writer in residence helping prisoners who have written a play to prepare and perform it. So there's plenty to get your teeth into for anyone who really wants to make a difference to peoples' lives through creativity.

More information here and here.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Lesson One: Not to become bitter

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Bitterness, much like eccentricity and corpulence, appears to be somewhat of an occupational hazard for writers. Just as sitting on your rump all day writing is guaranteed to make you fat, and spending whole days inside your own head sure to make you a bit weird, the challenges writers face are likely to make them bitter.

It often begins when writers try to find recognition for their work, only to find themselves competing against legions of other hopeful writers for the attention of agents and publishers. The journey from writing to publishing can be a long one, and in itself this can be a cause of great grudge-bearing even for the best of us. But bitterness does not end once writers publish, and not even when they win awards and become successful: even many of the greats were caught up in long running feuds and sniping that not even their success could ameliorate.

The British writer Anthony Burgess could not bring himself to write an obituary for his contemporary, the writer Graham Greene. Burgess had for years simmered with resentment that Greene was popularly, and critically, considered to be the better writer of the two. This ill-feeling apparently continued for Burgess even after Greene's death, so embittered had he become by virtue of his competitor's success.

And bitterness is not a trait uniquely British. The American writer Truman Capote famously bitched of Jack Kerouac, a contemporary of his with a high daily productivity rate: "He says he writes up to 2,000 words a day. That's not writing, that's typing."

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the tendency for writers to become self-occupied and bitchy. He had recently been on a train journey back from a literature festival, and been involved in a conversation with two other writers. The conversation had in content mainly been critical: of agents, of publishers, and of other writers and their process. He had been struck by how quickly writers become embittered by everything they face. Thankfully, my friend and I have both recently celebrated recent successes, and I hope there will be many more to come: but it seems that even success itself is not a bar to bitterness. My new ambition as a writer, other than producing great work, is to become more stoic...

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Corner

Writing advice is there to be ignored. It's the baying of the overly-prescriptive to the uninformed. I don't like it, I don't agree with it, and I generally find that most of it is fit only to be ignored. To wit, the oft-given piece of advice that no writer should ever read fiction alongside writing fiction, lest the voice of the author they're reading should creep into their own work. It's impossible, it's untenable, and anybody who goes around telling people this sort of rubbish ought to have a quiet word with themselves.

Everybody knows the single most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to read. And I mean, read a lot. We can learn a great deal by osmosis: good structure, tight pacing, believable characterisation. Hell, you can even learn how to write books where a teenage vampire is torn between his love for his girlfriend, and his crushing desire to eat her, if you're that way inclined. And the second most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to write. A lot. Like, every day. So how can both be true? Either you write, or you read, according to this dictum: you don't do both at once. (God forbid).

On the contrary, I firmly believe that any writer who has developed a strong enough voice can read whatever they like, whenever they like, alongside writing. If you choose your books smartly, it's going to help your writing process. Take that, opinionated advice-givers!

At present, I'm working on a ridiculously complicated, and very large, project. Even before beginning, I had a notebook full of characters - and not a weedy little notebook either, I'm talking about the type that's got pouches and seperate sections of coloured and graphed paper, the type that's so big it won't even fit into a handbag - and sheets full of diagrams. This project is so complicated it wasn't enough to draw a simple linear storyline, or even two or three simple linear storylines. What was required was to draw several pictorial diagrams, including Venn diagrams, and spider diagrams, and all sorts of stuff that have left the back pages of my process book looking like something from a very creatively taught secondary school Maths class. The central conflict and deceit is based around three main characters, with two important characters on the periphery around them; and, because of where the novel takes place, there at least another dozen less important characters, without whom the novel could not exist.

It was a doozy to get started. I didn't know where to begin at first. Intimidated by the scale and complexity, I procrastinated rather by drawing several more diagrams than I needed, strictly speaking. This gave me comfort in thinking that I was doing something 'important'. It gave the illusion that I was working on the book, even though I wasn't really working on the book. Anyway, in the end, I ran out of differently coloured pens for drawing the graphs, and realised I could excuse myself no longer. It was time to get started, dammit, and start I must, somewhere or other.

Overwhelmed by the complexity of what lay before me, I stuttered over knowing how to tackle the project. To help me along, I took my inspiration from other works with very heavily populated, complex storylines. I noticed how the writers began somewhere, concentrating on small vignettes of story, little illuminating flashes of character and incident. The scale of the novel was not given away in the detail - the detail was what made the complexity manageable, and the story intriguing for the reader.

Of biggest help in this project has been The Corner (A Year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood), by David Simon & Ed Burns. This is the book upon which the television series The Wire is based. Although the subject matter of it is very different from the subject matter in my project, it has a similar scale of complexity and inter-tangled storylines. Technically, it's not a work of fiction, thus negating everything I have said earlier on in this blog post, but it certainly reads like a novel. Most importantly, despite the scale of it, it is not intimidating for the reader. Thirty pages in, I was hooked. How do they do that? I'll tell you how: with vivid detail, interesting characters, and sympathy. As an aside, I can't advise highly enough that you watch The Wire, all the way from the beginning of Season One, all the way until the very end of Season Five, without missing any out. Do not dismiss this series as "a cop show". It is so much more than just a cop show. Witness:

Only by reading The Corner could I see how to get started on my own project. By noticing how Simon and Burns allow the bigger picture to emerge, slowly, from the smaller details, I was able to let go of my anxiety around writing something more complex than I would usually attempt. This has really helped me get started on my own work. Genuinely, I don't think I could have started it without this kind of 'help'. And that's why, (she said, extrapolating furiously), I'd recommend that others also find things that will help them with their current project. Reading is not only something to occupy your mind in the downtime. Its something that can fill you with inspiration, and knowledge about form and structure.

Currently reading:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami (Can't help myself, this is the fourth or fifth time now)
The Trial Franz Kafka
Arthur and the Women Kingsley Amis
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken Kesey
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Anti-fact of the day:

Arrived home this afternoon to find that long-suffering boyfriend had thoughtfully sieved through the takeaway fliers and useless local-electioneering gubbins that daily come through the door, and put aside the BNP's election flier for me to enjoy when I came home from work. He knows I like this sort of thing. Well done, boyfriend.

Like most right-thinking people, I am against the BNP, and everything they stand for. Readers, I know you do not need me to ennumerate the many reasons why it is wrong to support or vote for the BNP. However, from time to time, when the steam has finished pouring out of my ears, I enjoy reading their policy leaflets, for their tangled morass of bollock-thought, and outpourings of gibberish.

On the one which came through the door today, the BNP are leading with the policy: "Let's look after our own instead of giving China and India 18bn a year to combat the effects of non-existent 'Climate Change'." Leaving aside the (fictional, by the way) figures, it's nice to see that the BNP have expanded their horizons from hating Africans, Muslims, Jews, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, asylum seekers from any nation or continent, and British-born and British-identified ethnic minorities, to include scientists and all of their work. Because after all, who knows better about the effects of man's activities on the environment? Scientists, with their silly white coats, and their fancy ideas, and their peer-reviewed journals, or a bunch of racists with Combat 18 tattoos?!

In the bottom right hand of this flier, there is a picture of Nick Griffin, superimposed by one of Winston Churchill. Whoever painstakingly designed this flier on Microsoft Paint (Windows 92 version) has made attempts to find pictures of both men wearing similar expressions, and sitting in similar poses, in order to alert the idle browser to the similarities between them. As we know (pay attention, history fans), Winston Churchill was a hugely popular statesman who led the country in a troubled time of war, during a time when Hitler's regime threatened to colonise all of Europe. Churchill led Britain to triumph against the threat of fascism, liberating other occupied nations in Europe, and putting an end to Hitler's death camps, in which over six million Jews were systematically gassed and murdered during the second world war. Nick Griffin, on the other hand, is a former member of Combat 18 who has never led anything more sophisticated than a riot at a football match, and a big fat holocaust denier.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

w00t w00t

The lovely InkyGirl quoted me! That's what you get for spouting your opinions on writing, rewriting and planning to anyone who'll listen.


Monday, 19 April 2010

Too many hours spent at the day job...

I dream of the day when, somewhere amongst the cabbages and turnips, a man by the name of Mr Pan-Macmillan, or Mr. Harper-Collins, approaches me in the supermarket, and whispers: "Psst! Hey lady!".

I, not being the kind of person who uses the supermarket as a pick-up joint, would ignore him at first. But the "hey, lady!"'s, and the insistent hissing grow ever louder, to the point where I have no option but to pay attention. And so I say, "What?!" testily, because I am always testy in the supermarket. If the fact I could be at home writing isn't enough to set me off, the people bovinely wandering across the aisles as though they've never used a shop before will.

And Mr Pan-Macmillan, (let's use just that name for the sake of brevity in this wishful anecdote), says, "I've got this advance burning a hole in my pocket, and I'm desperate for some writer to take it."

I say, "How do you know I'm a writer?" and he says, "because your basket is full of notebooks and pens".

In my dream, Mr Pan-Macmillan writes me a cheque there and then, and waves me off home to get on with writing my novel, unencumbered by the travails of having to hold down a day job. [Pedants, I know that no publisher operates in this ridiculous manner. Stay with me here]. He is such a thoughtful man, he even provides me with a long-suffering assistant, whose sole job is to do things that I hate, so that I'm free to write. Poor assistant. Fancy spending your whole day doing somebody else's housework and errands. Sorry, imaginary assistant, for making your life suck.

It's long days at work, and weekends full of commitment that bring me to this sweet day-dream again and again....

Monday, 5 April 2010


Friends, what is the author's best friend? The dictionary? No, friends, not the dictionary. The notebook? No, friends, not the notebook. The long-suffering other half who respectfully stays away while we stare furiously at the empty Word document in front of us, patiently paying the rent while we wait for our writing career to generate those millions of dollars we foolishly hoped for? No, friends, it isn't the long suffering other half. (Sorry, boyfriend.) No, friends, the author's best friend is the calculator, whether it be real, virtual, or internal. Why the calculator? I'll tell you why the calculator.

In days of slow progress, when developments can be measured in millimetres rather than miles, our internal calculator can be the agent of movement. See, today, I got started on the extremely complicated and lengthy Big Project that I have now been procrastinating over for several weeks. In my head, this morning, I heard the once-feared voice of my old University tutor, intoning: "That dissertation won't write itself, you know," and "Believe me, you just need to get started. After that, everything is simple".

I sat down and got to work. Keeping at bay the dark thoughts about the long and arduous task that lies ahead, I got writing. What do you know? Ol' Dr. Fox was right! Once I'd got started, the narrative came pouring out like a lovely, tinkling little stream, only where I say "lovely tinkling little stream", substitute "dark, harrowing, over-emotionally involved narrative that is mediated only by substantial gallows humour".

This is only the beginning, and there's a long way to go. I'm under no illusions whatsoever about how difficult the rest of the project is going to be to write. But I was encouraged by my word count: almost 2,000 words, when I expect the finished book to land at around 100,000. I did myself a small bit of mental arithmetic and worked out, "2,000 words a day? Writing every day? I can get this thing written in 50 days, EASY." (Heh.) It's not true. I most certainly won't get the first draft finished in 50 days. Maybe a hundred... but being able to make a start, and to see the word count creeping steadily up in front of me: that was a big booster, when as recently as only yesterday all I had was fear and paralysing inadequacy. Let this be a lesson to you all, or something.

PS. I have got a "book" coming out soon. (and when I say "book", I mean "short story").

Monday, 29 March 2010

Things: and things.

Things I resented for getting in the way of my writing time last week:

Evening classes It seemed like such a good idea when I signed up for it. "I will learn such a great deal", I told myself, nobly. "The awkward interactions between a group of strangers will be good source material." Well, readers, it wasn't. All it was was the cause of great resentment that I wasn't at home, starting work on a new project. Curse you, thirst for learning: you took two hours away from my writing time this week.

Cleaning the kitchen What's the point? You only have to do it again three days later anyway. You develop good immunity if you never wipe the worktops. Seriously, I read it somewhere on the internet once. Look it up.

Socialising Damn you, friends, for inviting me to things I want to go to. Damn you, and damn you again. That was some fine karaoke, wasn't it?

Crap Tasks Within the realm of Crap Tasks, I encompass such activities including but not limited to: grocery shopping, going to the post office, listing second hand cars on eBay, filling forms in, looking for keys, and the myriad of other little tasks that add up together to waste literally hours of your precious life-span that otherwise could be used for something useful, for example getting started on your next novel.

Currently reading:

Sag Harbor Colson Whitehead (Five bloody stars, readers, five bloody stars)
Dawn Of The Dumb Charlie Brooker
Flying Solo Roald Dahl

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Writer's inspiration playlists!

You know how sometimes your character just won't come alive? When they're hiding cheekily behind gauze-coloured mist, throwin' shapes that somehow look indistinct? You can't make those two central protagonists fall in love like you need them to; you can't convincingly render up the heartbreak, the regret, the emotional reaction to major life events like having a baby, moving house, or getting married? WORRY NO LONGER, for I have created not one, but THREE, inspirational writers playlists on Spotify! (Oh, I am so good to you. I gave up about 4 hours of my writing time in cause of this pursuit).

Just click the links and before you know it you'll be churning out a veritable Mills n' Boon flavoured love-fest / heartbreak odyssey / historic epic. You will need Spotify to run these playlists, which is easily and freely downloaded here

Writer's inspiration: Love

Writer's inspiration: Regret

Writer's inspiration: Life

Interestingly (or not, depending on your perspective), the "love" and "regret" playlists took a lot of evening up. The whole time I was making these, the Regret playlist was almost twice as long as the Love one.... make of that what you will.

Enjoy, there's plenty more where they came from!

Monday, 8 March 2010


Reading Col Bury's post on writing time got me thinking about the extraordinary coalition of good circumstance one needs to write a novel. Seeing as nobody is ever going to come up to you randomly in the supermarket and go, "Hey, here's ten grand, why don't you take a year off to go and get that novel written", CURSE IT, you've gotta do the best you can in the circumstances you've got.

I've been writing my second novel since summer last year, and am now into my favourite part of the process, the rewriting and editing. Do not ask me why I like this part so much. I can only tell you that it somehow appeals to my inner pernickety.

Over the course of the past year, I've realised that being a hobbyist as regards writing is a hiding to nothing. You've got to be serious about it, and you've got to have an understanding and supportive partner (oh, such an understanding and supportive partner). So, with the knowledge gained from my extensive work on the Big Project over the last 9 months or so, here are my findings so far about what you need to write a book.

Time. It's going to weigh heavy on your hours, this writing a novel business. Bank on 1000 hours at least. WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO GET THEM? Maybe they could come out of your social life, or the time your employer is underpaying you to sell your soul to him, or the hours you'd normally spend sleeping. I can't decide this shit for you.

Discipline. To get in front of the laptop when you'd rather be watching Come Dine With Me.

Complete lack of interest in maintaining a social life. People will forget what you look like. People will begin to suspect that you hate them. Get used to it: you're a writer now.

Extremely nice, but long-suffering, boyfriend / girlfriend / wife / husband / partner. Get this: my LSB built me a desk (built me a desk) in the alcove of our living room, so that I'd have somewhere to work, and I spurned it in favour of sitting on the bed upstairs. I've now even spurned that in favour of the newly-spare room. My LSB is not allowed to listen to music, or talk to me, or approach me, while I am busy ignoring him in favour of a bunch of imaginary people. Readers, I do not know why he puts up with it. I can only say that I think he deserves to be canonised. Thanks, boyfriend.

A wordprocessor. Fairly self-explanatory, this.

Notebooks Regular readers of my blog will know that I am (a) a compulsive notebook hoarder and (b) that I'm not in favour of overly-prescriptive writing advice. But my opinion on (b), I think, is changing a bit. I'm coming to the opinion that authors skip researching, character work, and outlining, at their peril. If you don't have a good outline, or strong character sketches at the start of your book, you'll end up with a load of unreadable tosh that no amount of editing is going to put right. Just sayin'.

A kettle. Yeah, even if you don't drink tea or coffee.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

BNP in "being vile fuckwits" shocker.

Here's a heartwarming story for you: the BNP hate women as well as jews, blacks, asians, and all other ethnic minorities! (Way to go, BNP! Where do I sign up??)

In a fabulous new instalment in their "making yourself look like a tit without anybody else needing to make an effort" saga, (other episodes include Nick Griffin saying "there's no such thing as a black welshman", and senior party officials being convicted of race hate crimes), senior party official Nick Eriksen has made moves to alienate women voters with his view on rape. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but the BNP really do have female supporters. There was an ITV2 documentary on them once, called BNP Wives. It was like a less glamorous version of Footballer's Wives, but set in Bolton, and with added doses of Holocaust denial.

Eriksen was outed by a journalist at the Evening Standard, who discovered that Eriksen had been spouting vile views on a far right-wing blog, under a pseudonym. Far be it from me to suggest that BNP officials have to hide their views from the public eye in a pointless bid to try and fool the British public into thinking they're not a bunch of massive racists, but a cynic might think that.

Eriksen's views on female liberation, which include the frankly superb "the vast majority of domestic [assaults] are initiated by the woman" and the opinion that women who want to go out to work have got something wrong with them.... you know, in the head... extend also to the idea that rape isn't all that much of a serious offence - comparable, say, to getting your handbag stolen:

"I've never understood why so many men have allowed themselves to be brainwashed by the feminazi myth machine into believing that rape is such a serious crime ... Rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal."

Eriksen also seems to believe that if a woman is raped by somebody she knows, then that doesn't count as rape either.

If this isn't a good reason for everybody to register to vote to keep the BNP scum out, I don't know what is.

Thanks to Mason Henry Summers for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Good writing advice

The internet is full of writing advice. Much of it is nonsensical, overly-opinionated, and overly-prescriptive bollocks, live, "always use active verbs" and "never begin a sentence with a gerund". So how about some writing advice from, you know, actual writers as opposed to some twat with a computer, an opinion, and an internet connection?

Thankyou, The Guardian, for bringing us Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, a collection of words of wisdom from people who actually write for a living.

Personal favourites:

"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page." (Margaret Attwood)

"Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue." (Helen Dunmore)

"The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page." (Anne Enright)

"Don't be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov." (Geoff Dyer)

And, truest of all...

"Only bad writers think that their work is really good." (Anne Enright).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Reader, I should have married him!: The case of Marry Him! and the disgruntled ex-boyfriend

Dear Ex-Boyfriend,

Here's hoping you have the time to read this letter, because I really want chance to make things right with you. I realise it's been a while since we last spoke. Is it ten years now, or eleven? Funny how the time flies!

Well, you might have heard on the grapevine that I'm still unmarried, and yes, still childless. Those are facts I didn't really notice myself until the other night, hearing the closing theme of Eastenders, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I'm in my mid-thirties! Surely I ought to do something about this state of affairs!

When you knew me, I was still a young woman, still blooming and carefree (oh, so carefree!). I thought that life would be fun forever. I cared little for commitment, instead preferring to spend my time going deaf at gigs, and getting pissed up and drunk on booze. My life was my own to pursue as I wanted, and I thought I could keep it that way forever. I could learn a profession, I thought, and become independent. I could be financially stable in my own right, I could live in a nice house, I could go where I wanted, see who I wanted, and eat what I wanted. I assumed I would write a novel and get a lovely little kitten. These things, I thought in the foolishness of my youth, would make me happy: being independent, and having the wherewithal to make my own decisions.

But time will not relent in its inexorable march, and I am still without a set of wedding photos to show visitors and my puzzled grandmother. Most of my friends are married and I, a fact that became crushingly apparent to me as I last danced to Come on Eileen with a glass of champagne in my hand, am still a spinster: unwanted! Unloved! On the Shelf!

I tried not to let the others see my tears. By that time, they were all doing the conga anyway, and didn't notice when I darted out of the line into the corner of the room to have a little cry. A voice in my head was nagging: "Doing what you want does not make you happy. Financial stability, fulfilling work, a social life: these things will fade away into the yawning abyss of middle age." I don't want to be 45 years old, looking around appalled at the emptiness of my life, and in the state where I no longer have the option of snaring a man because my face looks like an old bin bag.

The next morning, regretful and hungover, I dashed into the nearest bookstore to find an answer to all my problems, and thank goodness I found Lori Gottlieb's book, Marry Him!: The Case For Settling. "I've got to get out of these disgusting habits," I said to myself, "of keeping nocturnal hours and eating ice-cream in the tub. Lori will tell me what to do." Thank goodness, she did. Through the medium of print, I mean: she didn't just suddenly show up and sort me out.

Anyway, turns out I was wrong to keep seeking a man who complements me perfectly, and whom I make happy. Really, what I ought to have done is to marry the first guy who'd have me - which brings us to you, dear ex-boyfriend.

You might remember that you asked me to marry you once and I, full with the arrogance of youth, snorted "No way! I don't want to be tied down!" [I had these stupid ideas about going to University and having a bit of fun. What was I thinking?] I am sorry for that, dear Ex. What I ought to have done is accept immediately, and unconditionally, because, as Gottlieb points out, it doesn't matter if your husband has halitosis, or a beard, or is rude to waiters. What you have to do is compromise. Marriage, after all, isn't about compatibility, or making one another happy: it's about never being lonely again.

On the face of it, I can see why a sceptic might think you and I shouldn't marry. I'm a social butterfly, you're introverted and pathologically jealous. You love listening to Radio 4, and I love watching The Hits! on cable TV. We have so little to talk about that when we were going out together, we literally spent hours sitting in the same room in silence, boring one another to tears. But this is the beauty of settling - you and I could quite easily sweep these minor niggles aside (and they are quite minor, right? What's a lifetime of awkward silences between friends?) and be together forever! That's the beauty of 'settling'. You don't even have to love each other, or even like each other very much. All you have to have in common is the fact that you don't want to be alone!

How about it?


S J (Your loving Ex.)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

I Don't Hate You, It's Just That I'm Writing A Novel

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Writers notoriously have a reputation for eccentricity and bizarre, anti-social behaviour. The late Harold Pinter was notoriously bad-tempered, and how many of us, whose hours are spent in quiet darkened rooms inventing imaginary people, imaginary places, can honestly say we feel completely comfortable when required to socialise with actual people? When I'm dragged out, against my will, of a weekend, I may stand at the party with a drink in my hand, but inside I'm glowering. All I can think is, "You bastards, you took me away from my project." Don't get me wrong, I love it when people desire my company, and I'd hate for my friends to stop inviting me to things. [Please, don't stop inviting me to things]. It's just that my mind is often on the Project: how soon can I decently make my getaway, and get back behind the laptop?

For those of us whose writing does not currently pay, weekends are inevitably the finest opportunity we get for hours of quiet, uninterrupted work. During the week, it's a couple of hours a night at best. At best, and often not that. For there are Crap Tasks to be done, and it is wrong to neglect the other half in favour of a bunch of imaginary people.

So in view of that, I would like to publicly apologise for my behaviour, and explain myself to everybody. I've been acting a bit weird lately, and I think it's only fair that I explain myself, and apologise to everybody affected. I don't doubt that there a lot of people in my life wondering what the hell is going on. Why I've developed all these strange tics, why I barely speak, and why I never go out any more. Wonder no more, friends, for I do not hate you: it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Housemate: I am sorry I disappear upstairs with the laptop every time you want to watch TV in the living room. It's not that I can't bear your company, or that I despair of your choice of TV programme. It's just that I'm writing a novel.

Friend: I am sorry that I didn't come to your gig last night. I know there were bands playing that I won't get chance to watch again in a hurry, and I know it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I'm sorry that we haven't had chance to talk in months. It's not that I hate you, it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Long-suffering boyfriend: I'm sorry that I get all twitchy when I go for too many days without writing, and that I act a bit weird when we spent the evening on the sofa together watching TV. I'm sorry that I've annexed your computer for my own use. I'm sorry for refusing to talk back to you when I'm working. I'm sorry that sometimes I go a bit quiet when I'm in the supermarket sometimes. I'm sorry that sometimes, I go into these long protracted silences when my eyes glaze over, and I appear to be in another world. It's not that I hate you.... it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Saturday, 23 January 2010


New Julian Barnes short story, "Sleeping with John Updike", on The Guardian website.


Huddersfield Literature Festival

Fact fans, the Huddersfield Literature Festival is 5 days long and starts on the 10th March. You're going to want to go to this because it features Simon Armitage, flat of vowel and tasty of words, Jeremy Dyson of The League Of Gentlemen fame, and many others. It is also fully endorsed by Patrick Stewart off Star Trek, who is honorary patron of Huddersfield University. The festival features, among other things, "poetry karaoke" and a "Manga masterclass". I do not know what either of these things are. I'll tell you one thing for sure, though: those bods at Huddersfield University sure know how to run a world-beating festival. Last time I went to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, I heard so much fascinating new music, I almost went home and threw my entire CD collection away, so tarnished did it appear by comparison. True story.

The Grist Anthology, the result of last year's short story competition, will be launched at the festival. Winners of the currently-running short story & poetry competition on the website could also be included in this book! The closing date is February 12th, and you need to be succinct (upper word limit, prose, 1000 words; poetry, 10 lines). So be quick and be sharp, and good luck to everyone who enters.

Currently reading

White Teeth Zadie Smith
Broken Glass Alain Mabanckou
The Kid Dan Savage
Boy Roald Dahl
After The Fireworks Aldous Huxley
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Let's start a revolution!

, originally uploaded by lakash.

So yesterday, I was complaining about the lack of breadth in beauty ideals, and how images of women in the popular media conform to a ridiculously narrow ideal. And then today, I was "browsing" the internet, and I found this flickr group, Revolution of Real Women! How do you like that?

Friday, 15 January 2010

Why are you hitting yourself?

A couple o' months ago, I wrote a piece about unrealistic beauty ideals and what they do to women's self-esteem, called Hands Up If You Feel Ugly. I did it because the current prevailing definition of sexy is too thin, too young, too inoffensive, and quite frankly, too super-bloody-lame.

There's a uniformity to the look. It's unattainably thin, but it's also - somehow, inexplicably - got knockers. It's got clear, glowing skin, and a perfect, cute little button nose! And most "how do they do that?!", it's got no scars, no floppy bits of skin, and no bruises. It's like the most popular girl from your secondary school all over again. She's better looking and has a better life than you, and she's taunting you everywhere you look, and selling everything from chocolate to cars.

There's only a certain amount we can do if we want to be free of these images. You can stop buying magazines, and if you really wanted, you could stop watching telly. But for God's sake, what sort of a society would we be living in if we were only allowed to enjoy entertainment if we were willing to pay the price of feeling dreadful about ourselves?! Come on, people. Wouldn't it be better if the general rule were to populate the worlds of advertising and television with people who looked like real human beings? Real human beings are great. They come in all shapes and sizes. Lots of them are sexy and beautiful in unexpected ways, they have personality and vigour, and they don't look like they just stepped out of some bizarre heavily airbrushed nether-world.

Unattainable beauty ideals have shocking knock-on effects for your average woman in the street. Looking at them every day - which you could only not do if you wore a blindfold everywhere you went - makes us feel fat and ugly by comparison. We come to hate our own bodies, and we don't feel sexy. That, friends, puts us off getting naked in front of our husbands and lovers. Who in their right mind wants to live in a world like that? DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING!

In an interesting twist upon Big Corporations Doing Evil Things That Are No Good, [past examples include killing third world babies with formula milk, and shooting anyone who joins a trade union], Dove have set up the Susie Orbach-instigated campaign for real beauty. Part of this campaign involves using a wider range of body types and beauty ideals in their advertising, and education work in schools to improve body image in little girls. There's a short film on their website about how girls and women develop skewed ideas about beauty on their website here.

In other good news, the Liberal Democrats called last year for a ban on heavily airbrushed images, arguing that they are bad for women's mental health, and that they put pressure upon women to live up to unrealistic beauty ideals. [The libs would also make it easier for small venues to get a license for live music, and abolish Council Tax, so vote for them. DO IT!].

Wouldn't it be great to see loads of sexy girls and boys of all shapes and sizes in the public eye? For every Eva Longoria Parker, a Nigella Lawson; let's have more pictures of big girls eating cake, and more images of older women looking pleased with themselves. Let's have everybody feeling good about themselves, and a chocolate fountain on every corner. Let's make sexy older, let's make it more interesting, and best of all, let's make it bigger.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Interesting article in The Guardian about how e-publishing could overtake the traditional ink and paper publishing format, given the right software.

Its an interesting idea, in which the reader can create 'playlists' of novels they like, in software akin to Spotify (the music streaming software). You know why this wouldn't work, though? Because books aren't the same as a three-minute pop song. You can't listen to a book in under three minutes. You can't divide your attention between reading a book, say, and crossing a road. What's the point of creating a 'playlist' of novels? It's not like you can flick between one novel and the next. You'd only get confused about the plot.

You know what would be a really great piece of software for voracious readers? A piece of software more like radio. Using Lost.FM radio, music fans can 'scrobble' (brackets: 'find') bands similar to their existing favourites. How could would that be if it existed for books?!! I would love to use a piece of software that recommended authors to me that wrote in similar styles to the ones I already enjoy. Existing recommendation systems are clunky at best, or embarrassingly wide of the mark at worst. I'm talking to YOU, Amazon Recommends. A Quiver Full Of Arrows, for me? Really?!

I can't be the only keen reader who'd love to be able to get personalised recommendations for new authors, recommendations of authors she's actually likely to enjoy. I would buy this software, for sure.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Snow day!

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Well, we've had the shortest day, according to reports, but according to me, the mornings appear to be getting darker. How do they make that work?

This morning, I was up and at 'em before the sun had risen. In the glow of the street light, I could see snow falling. Great, heavy, juicy globs of snow, a dozen snowflakes clumping together like heavenly muesli. I thought, "Should I go to work? Will I get stuck?" This was the question I mulled over my tea and toast, sitting at the kitchen table. It was coming down the whole time I chewed on my toast, and was still the one I considered while I held Pig Destroyer up to the window to show him the snow.

Long Suffering Boyfriend came down the stairs as I was checking the news. The journalist, apparently unable to get anywhere with her crew, was forced to make news by hi-jacking a poor old lady in a nearby house. "Are you cold?" she asked, in desperation. "How do you stay warm?"

"I wear lots of layers," the old lady twitched. "And I bake cakes." She helpfully held up a fruit cake to the camera, to better illustrate the point.

"You might get stuck if you go out," Long Suffering Boyfriend said. "There are about six inches of snow in the street."
"Make sure you wear boots with good grips," the TV journalist was saying. "It's treacherous out there." Grinning, she held up a pair of ski shoes, pointing at the sole.

I called my office, and unbelievably, some sucker was at work. Having secured myself an Emergency Snow Day off, I sneaked the heating on, and sat down with Pig Destroyer on my knee to get to work on the Big Secret Project (approximately 6,000 words left to go, dear readers!). But the day seems wasted to use entirely indoors, and so after a big chunk of work, we strapped our boots and our gloves on, and went to take some pictures.

The streets were quiet: no kids throwing snowballs, and only one snowman. There was nobody in the park, leaving me the welcome opportunity to tramp through ten inches of fresh, crunching snow. I had my photo taken next to somebody else's snowman, and wrote half the first verse of 'Ding Dong Merrily On High' in the snow in someone's windscreen with my finger.

As I write, its still coming down: tomorrow might be another snow day....