Excellent narrative



I entered a piece in the Labello Press International Short Story Competition last month. I was long listed, and then shortlisted. I didn’t finish in the top three, but I did win an Excellence in Contemporary Narrative Award. I’m happy with that. They will publish my story, The Passenger, in their 2014 anthology, called Gem Street. It’s out later in the year; more news nearer the time.

One reason I’m fond of this story is that I wrote it on my Dark Angels masterclass in Oxford. I think most of it came together at two o’clock in the morning, after a day visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum, a curious place full of intriguing objects. The display case focused on ancient writing instruments was especially interesting, and I can see now how the idea of primitive symbol-making bubbled up into my story. Fascinating how the imagination works.


My rooms at Merton College, Oxford, where I wrote The Passenger

My rooms at Merton College, Oxford, where I wrote The Passenger

The Pitt-Rivers Museum is full of this kind of thing

The Pitt-Rivers Museum is full of this kind of thing

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Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade



Rubbish writing makes a connection

I’ve spent a lot of time editing other people’s short stories this week. It’s not something I’ve done before and I’ve learnt a lot from the process.

I’m part of Throw Away Lines, an inspired project from 26, the organisation that celebrates creative business writing. Andy Hayes is the evil genius behind the venture. He’s a writer obsessed with scraps of paper that he finds on the streets of London, and he has quite a collection.

Each piece carries some scribbled words or, in one case, a drawing. Some are evocative – the first draft of a will. Others are banal – a random list of chocolate bars. The project: take 26 writers, give each of them one of Andy’s scraps, and tell them to use it as inspiration for a short story of 1500 words or less.

My job is to edit seven of the stories. This was a worrying prospect: what if someone sent me a real stinker? What would I do with it? Luckily, the quality has been incredibly high. I’ve been able to spend my time helping authors to improve stories that were good to start with.

A question I’ve asked some of them is: what are you trying to achieve with the story? Now, as a reader, that’s not a question you get to ask. The story is what it is; you like it or you don’t. You can’t ask the author to explain anything, they aren’t around. But as editor, I get an Access All Areas pass, a peek behind the scenes. I get to look at how the writer is trying to make a connection with me, the reader.

Exploring this “connection making” process has been fascinating. There have been stories I’ve loved, but for reasons the author didn’t intend. One piece involved a passionate affair, or so I thought. But that character imagined all of it, the author told me. Does that mean I misread the story, or that it failed? No. It just means the story is ambiguous, and that’s one reason it works so well. It allows different readings; readers can connect to it in different ways – in their own ways. That’s a good thing.

Efforts to pin down meaning, to control the way a piece of writing connects with the reader, are often futile. Every reader will make their own connection to the story, based on who they are, how they’ve lived, what kind of mood they’re in.

When I read the first of the published Throw Away Lines stories, Eating for Two, by John Simmons, I thought of a stone cottage on a windswept highland, a wood-burning stove, a roomful of sozzled writers. None of that is in the story, but I heard John read his first draft in that room, with those writers, when I was away on his Dark Angels writing course, in Scotland. Reading the story connected me to that evening.

The second story in the series, The Coming, by Linda Cracknell, reminded me of John’s fellow Dark Angels tutor, Jamie Jauncey, for the peculiar reason that it contains the line, “You’ll have had your tea?” In the same stone cottage, or maybe in London a fortnight before, I heard Jamie conclude an anecdote with those words, which he spoke in the voice of an inhospitable Scottish landlady. It connected me to the songs Jamie sang us after dinner most evenings.

Those two connections are mine alone. The authors of those stories couldn’t have known they would speak to me in this way. It might annoy them: you’ve missed the point entirely, they might say. But their writing allowed me these connections, and I enjoyed it all the more as a result.

I find it easier to write, and to make my writing available to readers, when I accept the fact that they will connect with it in their own ways, they will make of it what they will. For a story to work in the way I want it to, I will try to guide them down a particular path, but if I am behind them pushing and shoving at every corner, that’s when the writing fails.

I’m wondering what this tells me about my business writing. The corporate world is terrified of the unexpected connection, of leaving readers space to bring their own meaning. There must be a clear message, the conclusion of a logical argument. It’s as though every reader has the same tuning fork inside their head, and all we need to do is hit it hard enough. So meaning has to be nailed into place, with plain, unambiguous words. I know that’s what we need sometimes, perhaps most of the time, but surely not always?

A bit of rejection can do you good

Here’s another piece of good news I want to mention. I’ve finally had a story accepted by Metazen, the international literary magazine based in Canada.

I say finally because they’ve rejected two of my stories so far this year. This is a case of third time lucky.

Having a story turned down is never pleasant, but in this case their kindly worded rejections inspired me to try harder. When I sat down to submit the original draft of the piece they finally accepted I took a last look at it at realised that, no, it just wasn’t quite good enough.

The story was solid and people had already said some kind things about it. There was a strong central idea, the right degree of cleverness, all that sort of stuff. But the language just wasn’t working as hard as it needed to.

There were weak metaphors and sections that dragged. I started editing and began to notice other flaws; and there wasn’t enough room for the reader to step in and do their share of the work. I ended up rewriting most of it.

I’m particularly happy that the story they’ve decided to publish is Eggbox Eyeballs.

This is the piece that I performed as street literature recently. I worked with a group of other writers to find a way of presenting this piece live: knowing I’d be sharing the story with them was another reason for revising that inadequate first draft.

It pleases me that one short piece of writing can appeal to bemused pensioners on the streets of an English seaside town and literary connoisseurs on the far side of the Atlantic.

The story will be out in November.

Competitive story reading success

Well, I have now taken part in my first ever competitive story reading event, part of the Electric Lantern Festival. The exciting news, for me, is that I came second. I’m rather happy about that.

It was an odd experience. I arrived at the Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, was allocated a number and told where to sit in the auditorium – in the front row, with all the other writers. There were seventeen of us taking part. We took the stage in turn, did our stuff and sat down again. I was number five.

There seemed to be a real mix of first-timers and seasoned performers. Everyone gave a good reading of their work and the standard was very high.

When it came time for the judges to announce their decisions, it didn’t occur to me that I might have placed anywhere. I was confident in my story, and the reading went well enough. But would anyone else like it? I didn’t have much humour in my piece; there was no twist in the tale. And it was very short – 90 words or so against a limit of 250 words.

The third prize was given out and then the judges began to talk about the story that came second. I should have taken notes here. They said something about excellent metaphors, tight writing, building sense of horror, a “proper short story”. I remember thinking, that sounds like a good piece. And then they said my name.

Winning a prize was a wonderful surprise, and I need to think of an interesting way of spending my £25 (yes, that’s £2.50 a word!). It was nice, too, to meet some other writers and hear them say positive things about my story.

But it was particularly pleasing to meet a man and his young son who had come along for a tour of the theatre and were nothing to do with the flash event. When they heard there was going to be some sort of story reading competition, they decided to hang around and listen. They sought me out afterwards and I had a great chat with them both about reading and writing.

The judges made diplomatic comments about how hard it was to choose between my story and the one that took first prize, but when I say that I’m pleased Ellie Stewart won it’s not just an effort to be gracious in defeat. She is a really talented writer and poet. You can read her winning story, Zombie Ward, on her blog. I’d also recommend Witch – telling a fairy tale from the perspective of a minor character is a common workshop exercise, but Ellie does it just brilliantly. Her poems are also wonderful, especially the ones about her mother.

As for my story, it is about to be published in the excellent Flash magazine, so I don’t want to put the text here just now. But you can hear me reading it in this short film.

Taking literature to the streets, man

It’s good to step outside of one’s comfort zone occasionally, and I will be a very great distance away from mine next week.

I’m “performing” a short story at the Herne Bay Festival. That is not the scary bit. I have done a few readings before and enjoyed the experience. But in the past I was mainly talking to an audience of arty writerly types: they knew what to expect from me; I knew what to expect from them.

It will all be very different in Herne Bay. I’m working with what is euphemistically called a “found audience”; I’m doing my stuff on the pavement, for however many passers-by I can persuade to listen. They might enjoy it. They might stand and jeer. There might be no audience at all.

My piece is called Egg-box Eyeballs. I describe it thus: “A man plans to bake the special cake that will make his girlfriend love him. At the supermarket, shopping for ingredients, he finds a new pair of eye balls in an egg box. He uses them to see everyone’s secrets, but sees more than he wants to.”

I’m working with a group of brilliant local writers as part of the Reauthoring Project. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come and check me out. I need all the support I can get. I’m doing my thing on Saturday August 27 at 12pm, 2pm and 3.30pm.

The photo above shows me at a workshop to devise my performance, pondering what on earth I’ve got myself into. (That’s a tennis ball at my feet. I found it kicking around on the floor and it became the creative spark that unlocked my performance idea)

And here’s me checking out the “venue”: a wooden shelter on the seafront at Herne Bay.