Thursday, September 30, 2010

What's so special about 1st October? A giveaway.

Tomorrow's the 1st October and it's a very special day for me. It's the day that my novel Too Many Magpies will be exactly one year old, and the day that my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World will be three! It's also the day that the first ever edition of The Birth Machine (which is being reissued by Salt on 1st November this year) was published. (See sidebar for pics and details of them all.)

So: to celebrate this extraordinarily special day in my life I'm giving away two copies of each of those books (The Birth Machine will be sent once it becomes available, which shouldn't be long now.) I'm announcing this today as I'm off to London in a short while and won't be back until later tomorrow.

If you'd like to be entered in the draw(s) for a copy of any or all of these books, just leave a comment specifying which ones(s) you'd like to be put in for. Remember - not long to Christmas, and they make not bad presents, though I say it myself!

And the reason for my trip? Another book launch: Sue Guiney's intriguing-sounding book A Clash of Innocents with which she will be visiting this blog on October 1oth.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A cost of publicity

Flow charts, schmo charts. Today was meant to be a really good writing day according my chart - Didsbury Arts Festival reading over, no publicity work to do. Huh. When I woke up this morning the adrenalin was still flowing, and I found it impossible to settle back into the novel, and then at lunchtime I crashed and have since felt exhausted. Just one of those subtle ways in which publicity efforts disrupt the actual writing....

Reading for Didsbury Arts Festival

What's enough to scare the pants off a writer about to do a reading? For one thing, being billed on a Monday night when no one goes out, for another being scheduled for the start of a festival before the whole thing has built up (and with a shorter festival period for publicity opportunities), and finally having a group of real-life scientsts turn up to hear you talk about the theme of science (and magic) in your work.

Well, all three conditions were in place last night, so you can guess how nervous I was altogether. But goddamit, something magical did actually happen: people showed up, and every seat in the room was taken, as you can see from the pic above (I couldn't get everyone in as the circle went behind me)! And the scientists were more than positive: they said that they felt I'd hit on some really important issues about science in my writing, in particular in The Birth Machine, which is now reissued by Salt. It's a long time since the book was first published but the scientists said that the issues are extremely current. After my reading there was a very lively discussion, as the pic shows, and I think nearly every person in the room contributed.

So it turned out to be a really good evening, and this was in no small part due to the ambiance of the venue, the beautiful Georgian house in which Judith and Bill Godfrey live and run the Manchester Language School, and to their wonderful attentiveness as hosts. They were so intent on setting out things exactly as I wanted it, and even troubled to light candles in the room where we served drinks. People kept turning up and saying, 'What a lovely house!', and so indeed it is, and I felt very lucky to have it as my festival venue. Thanks so much to Judith and Bill, and also to festival organiser Maria Stripling and all the other festival workers, and many thanks to everyone who came and contributed to such a lively night.

I'll be having two official launches for The Birth Machine re-issue, one in Manchester on Wednesday 27th October, 7 pm at Waterstone's Deansgate, and another in London on Wednesday November 10th 6.30 pm at Blackwell Charing Cross Road.

Moor Cottage

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pics from Didsbury Arts Festival

Some more photos from Didsbury Arts Festival. Nick Royle reading yesterday afternoon from his bird stories and some of his audience outside Fletcher Moss cafe (where the RSPB was founded), and the Tibetan dancers and musicians who followed him.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Novel progress and Didsbury Arts Festival

Well, I must say the safety-net of my flow chart has been working brilliantly. I've been spending no more hours than usual on my novel but they have been very productive, even in the run up to a big publicity push, because I've had peace of mind for those few hours each day, knowing I'll still get everything done. I am though now in the full flow of the centre of the novel, with the characters long set up and the structure long established and lots of things falling into place, so I'm not sure it would all be working quite so well if I were at that early stage when you have to juggle so many possibilities in your head...

It's all been a bit stalled since Friday evening, however, as the Didsbury Arts Festival is now upon us. In fact, the art previews started on Thursday evening, but I missed the first one - Phil Portus's lovely photos of France at the Cafe Delice: I got the time wrong, and turned up at 6 just as it was finishing (but then I was just emerging from great immersion in the novel, and not quite yet connected back with the real world). Here's a sample:

I managed to make the next preview, on Friday evening, at the Feel Creative Gallery, where more of Phil Portus's photos were on display along with those by Martin Malies, Ray Grover, Ged Camera, Jo Kaberry and Sharon Hibbert. A really good exhibition, one of which - Phil's photo of the Cherry B swing singers below - had been in the Royal Photographic Society Exhibition.

There are exhibitions of artwork all over Didsbury, in many shops and businesses (list via this link), and the festival is extremely lively. Yesterday morning, outside the library, I caught the very funny outdoor theatre Fairly Funny Family and their Cheesy Trailer

and a team of Eastern European dancers (I don't think they were actually Eastern European):

In the afternoon, I popped up to the open-air events at Parsonage Gardens to hear Linda Chase read some of her great poems between various musical acts, and in the evening I went down to the Albert Club for a short while to catch a bit of Mish Mash, the cabaret that my old writing friend Julia Brosnan is in, but unfortunately I had to leave before she came on.

And in between all this, I kept slipping home for brief periods to work on my own reading and talk for Monday night at Moor Cottage (7 pm), where I'll be concentrating on the themes of magic and science in my work (oh, and I popped into Oddbins for the wine I'll be providing!) - although I have to admit I did bump into my colleague and fellow Salt author Adrian Slatcher, who will be reading at Pizza Express on Thursday, and ended up gassing over wine in Saints and Scholars, so I'm sure you can guess I haven't got my plan quite sorted yet, leave alone touched the novel...

Today I'm off up to Fletcher Moss Gardens to hear Nick Royle read one or more of his bird stories, as he did last year, at 2 o'clock outside Fletcher Moss Cottage where the RSPB was born, and kick off a whole afternoon of outdoor events there. The weather's cold but it's lovely and sunny, as it was yesterday, so it should be good...

And this evening I hope to get up to the Didsbury pub to hear Conrad Williams, who has just won the British Fantasy Awards, read from his novel Blonde on a Stick (7.30 pm).

Other literary highlights are:

Salt poet Steve Waling and Edmund Prestwich at the library (unfortunately they clash with me at Monday 7 pm!)

Poets John McAuliffe, Rachel Mann and Annie Clarkson at the Northern Lawn Tennis Club on Tuesday, 7 pm

An evening of readings from Nick Royle's short-story chapbook press, Nightjar, again at the Northern Lawn Tennis Club, Wednesday, 7 pm

Cath Staincliffe talking about her latest novel The Kindest Thing at the Didsbury Pub, Thursday 7 pm.

Cath clashes with Adrian Slatcher and James Davies, but I won't have the agony of choice as I can't go to either, unfortunately. I am doing something exciting, though: that's the day I'm off to London to the launch of A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney, who will visit this blog with it on October 10th.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Birth Machine at printers!

The reissue of the The Birth Machine approaches, and I'm told that it's now at the printers'!

Too Many Magpies is also on another printing, and also due back from the printers any day now, with the three tiny typos I found corrected and a nice new quote on the front, I'm told.

Now I think I may be too excited to go off and clean the toilet ready for the new writing group which my reading group has decided to form...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sean O'Faolain commendation

I'm thrilled that my story 'Falling' has been Highly Commended in the Sean O'Faolain Competition.

It's one of the series I'm writing on uncertainty, and since it deliberately breaks one of the hallowed rules of fiction-writing by playing with the 'is it all a dream?' notion, I'm really pleased that the judge saw what I was doing and saw fit to endorse it in this way!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading group: Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi

Jenny suggested this 1991 book in which a stalked woman, Bella, turns stalker and takes revenge by killing a series of woman-abusing men.

It led to a pretty rowdy meeting in which there was a lot of interrupting (and objections about interrupting) and I don't remember a particularly coherent thread of discussion, more a series of statements of opinion and remarks.

Jenny said it's her favourite book ever and that she often re reads it. She loves it for its political message about masculinity, and she particularly loves the language which is both poetic (in its stark repetitiveness) and funny (there's a lot of narratorial punning) and it always makes her laugh, although she doesn't like the end quite so much, as she finds that disturbing. She feels that it's a book that was really written out of its time, and that it may have had more impact if it had been published in the seventies or eighties.

Some people were looking a bit dubious as she was saying all of this and then there were one or two doubting questions, none of which I can remember, before Jo said strongly that she didn't like the book at all; she had found it utterly horrifying - that moment when she smashes the first man's head with a hammer, all those horrible details, ugh (and Jo put her head in her hands), and how on earth could Jenny find it funny?

People pointed out that it was full of puns, though most people, especially Hans, thought they were groan-worthily awful, and Hans quoted perhaps the worst, the narrator's comment: Ask not for whom the Bella tolls. Clare said she had found Bella's own repartee (in the various conversations with men she has throughout the book) witty, although I said I hadn't been that comfortable with it, finding it rather forced. Trevor said that he had thought the humour was great - the book had been a great read - and one thing he really liked about the book was the way it shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, sometimes even halfway through a sentence or paragraph. This point wasn't taken up, but in retrospect I think it was a significant observation since the book is enacting and playing with a shifting of viewpoints and identities by moving Bella, the femme fatale, into the avenging central position usually held by a male character.

John commented that Jenny's response to the book was a rather sociological one, and Jenny agreed and said it was bound to be, as she is a sociologist. I then said that the problem is that you need to bring to the book those sociological understandings and read it as an iconic parable about masculinity, a tongue-in-cheek subversion of film noir. Interpreted in that way the book is brilliant. The trouble is that if you don't look at it in that way - and clearly some people hadn't, and indeed I hadn't, either, when I first started reading it - then you have a reaction like Jo's. I said that my problem with the book was in fact the jokes, though Trevor objected to my saying that there were jokes, so I probably should have more accurately referred to the jokey, punning tone. I found that it distanced me from Bella's plight as a victim at the start of the novel and at most of the points where she was threatened by the men. In fact, I usually have a problem in any writing where violence is treated with any kind of comedy. In direct contrast to Jenny, I found the end of the novel far more persuasive, when the jokey tone is dropped, which allows you to identify with Bella under threat. It seemed to me that while the satirical aspect of the book is consciously political, it's less politically dynamic than the later moment which has the power to move the reader on a deeply emotional level - indeed, it is the power to move emotionally that is the political power of fiction, in my opinion.

Jenny then told me to let someone else speak and went on to say more herself, but I was too shocked at being accused of hogging the debate to grasp what she then said, although I think this was when she objected that she could identify totally with Bella's sense of threat at the start of the novel.

People asked Hans what he thought, as so far he hadn't said much, and he said that he'd had a problem with the novel because it seemed to imply the feminist statement that he'd heard only recently, that all men were rapists. Jo joined in and agreed and reiterated how horrible she had found it and also questioned the morality of it, since the protagonist only took on the characteristics of men that the book was meant to be critiqueing. I said I was interested to hear Hans's view, as my problem with the kind of feminist strategy this novel employs is that, by seeming to imply that (ie that all men are rapists), it alienates men. Jenny explained that that notion had come from Susan Brownmiller who hadn't meant it literally (although it was true that other feminists had interpreted literally): Brownmiller was saying rather that all men were in a position to rape. I agreed and said yes, all men have the choice to use their masculinity against women, a choice women don't generally have, and what this book is doing is pointing that out by turning it all on its head. Jenny said, rightly I thought, that the book is not about men but about masculinity. You are not meant to identify or sympathise with Bella in her scourges; you are simply meant to see that she takes on masculinity (and I can see that this is the point of the distancing humour).

At this point people seemed to me to begin to become more positive towards the book. Clare said that she had found it very engrossing and that it read like a poem and an allegory or fable, and also that it was rather like a Greek tragedy, and people agreed. Someone pointed out that not all the men in the book are masculine and rapists or killers, and someone else, I think John, pointed out that it is the two who are not who give Bella both permission to take on masculinity and the phallic means of revenge, the flick-knife and the gun. Ann pointed out the strange stilted and artificial flavour of the meeting with the first of these, the maimed Iranian counsellor Nimrod, and it was agreed that this was a deliberate setpiece in which he operated like a kind of fairy godmother, granting Bella her wish.

Jenny and I pointed out that throughout the book Bella addresses a darkening series of male abuses of women, beginning with the voyeur and ending with the serial killer. John commented that Bella progresses through various states of revenge, moving from the status of victim to avenger of her own wrongs, through superhero saviour of another woman, to finally saviour of all women by despatching a serial killer. Someone picked up on the title of the book, Dirty Weekend, which refers to the fact that Bella's revenges take place over the course of a single weekend, but which as Jenny said usually implies a sexual coupling (thus graphically illustrating the conflation of sex and violence in masculinity). I said yes, that connection is borne out by the fact that in the final scene Bella's attack on the serial killer is narrated in terms of sexual congress.

Someone demurred that it was hardly realistic that Bella was able to do some of these things: there she was suddenly able to drive a car (the phallic symbol she steals for herself from her abuser and drives into him) like some kind of pro. But others of us said, It's not meant to be realistic (and, in a pointed reference to its fim-noir subversion, the narrative consciously states that this scene happened like something out of a film).

At which point Hans said he was starting to think better of the novel...

Ann said that her main thought was that Jenny was right in saying that the novel was of an earlier time (even than its publication), and that our attitudes to the problem of masculinity/femininity, and our ways of addressing it, are now more subtle.

Finally, Trevor said he thought it was wrong to put all these feminist and so forth interpretations on the book: as far as he was concerned it's just about people, and a really good read.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Going with the flow

Think the flow chart may be working after all.

I had a very productive morning's work yesterday, and then, because, according to the flow chart, I had only one small thing to do for publicity the same day (the publicity blurb for Deansgate Waterstone's who are hosting the official Manchester launch for the reissue of The Birth Machine - see sidebar), I was able to take the afternoon off with a completely free conscience, and I properly relaxed for once. Previously, I think, I'd have felt compelled to get on with some of the many other publicity tasks ahead of me, as I'd have thought of them as piling up not yet done, rather than knowing that each one has its thought-out appointed time for completion. Either that, or I'd have forced myself to take time off but would have spent it worrying about the jobs not being done and failed to relax properly.

The really great thing about a flow chart is that it makes plain that there really is free time, and that you can take it in the knowledge that there will still be time to get everything done, and as a result you can relax properly when you do.

And I slept right through last night...

It's mad, really, that I haven't done this before, especially when one of my jobs once as a teacher was helping children to plan their study schedules...

Had a slightly curtailed writing morning today, though, as I went to distribute some posters for my Didsbury Arts Festival reading. Seems daft, I know, to take up writing time doing something I could wander around doing any other time, but I'm told the Library do their notice board once a week, on a Monday morning, so I had to get in there early today if I wanted my poster to be up the full fortnight. And Monday morning's really the best time of the week to go round the shops with posters, when the shopkeepers are just sitting there waiting for the week's custom to start, and happy to have any diversion.

So yesterday I'd say it was 5 to writing, 1 to publicity, and today 2 to writing and 5 to publicity (since I'm about to go out and do some more distribution).
Working out fine so far, on average.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Killing or saving your darlings

Here's one reason why writing takes time:

There is a scenario, a single scene, with which I have been obsessed for years. I've had several gos at writing it: it's been a short story which I've tried at least twice to write and then abandoned. Somehow it kept coming out in a style that just wasn't me, really: too realist, somehow, with too much of a self-conscious moral which I didn't believe anyway, not really, it seemed somehow forced and fake. And the whole thing seemed thin, didn't have any real substance.

But it kept bugging me. Something about it must be important, after all... And I started to think that what was wrong was that the incident was not so much too flimsy as the tip of an iceberg of issues that the short story form hadn't been able to accommodate. It was, after all, I began to think, a scene from a novel.

So there it was in the first draft of my WIP. But there was still something wrong. It kind of floated, separate from the rest of the story, as a flashback, and again something wasn't gelling. And writing the second draft didn't change that. When I came to this third draft, I considered leaving it out altogether. It was just a darling that needed killing, after all, wasn't it? It didn't really move the plot along; it was just a nice little set piece with some good images which, let's face it, held up the action.

Yesterday morning I reached the section of the novel where it was included, and was prepared to cut it. But no, I couldn't: it just resonated too strongly for me. But then I had a problem deciding on the new order of events for the whole section, and I knew that this particular scene was at the heart of the problem. I made my decision but by the end of the day I didn't have that satisfied gut feeling you have when a piece of writing works. Today I came to type up the section, and I saw that indeed the order was wrong: that particular scene needed to come much nearer the beginning of the section.

And guess what? Moving it there, and the rewriting that that required, suddenly revealed to me the true meaning of the scene, a meaning that had previously been hidden from me, and which makes the scene after all utterly central to the novel...

It's because of this sort of thing that I always say: even when you cut things, always be prepared for the possibility that you'll need to put them back in...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trying to keep the balls in the air (and the knots out of the stomach)

Well, that's not worked out perfectly so far: last night I woke up with the realization that I'd left something off the flowchart that was meant to save me sleepless nights thinking about all I had to do for publicity and trying to remember it. And I couldn't get back to sleep...!

Sue Guiney, who has a new novel coming out this month with new independent Ward Wood, has said on my Fictionbitch blog that she is planning to take a whole year off writing in order to promote the book, A Clash of Innocents, and maybe that's the only sensible way to go. But having done no really solid and sustained writing between the publication of my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World in October 2007 and April this year when I got down to work in earnest on my novel in progress (with the publication of Too Many Magpies in between last autumn), I've decided that I really can't afford to stop altogether for the reissue of The Birth Machine next month. For one thing, if I did, I'm sure I'd lose the thread of the current novel. If at all possible I'm going to try and keep going while simultaneously working hard on the publicity.

So how's it going, you may wonder? Well, yesterday and today I managed two solid mornings of work on the novel from nine in the morning till one-thirty, and later yesterday I fulfilled the requirements of my flowchart by designing posters for my Didsbury Arts Festival reading and talk on 27th September and creating a Facebook event for it. (Today I'll have spent a good chunk of the afternoon getting back to blogging.) Can't say, though, that yesterday was easy. Although it's true that I'm at a tricky point in the novel, where I'm juggling several threads (and trying to make it look seamless and simple), I can't help feeling that the peace of my Wales retreat, where the connections and sequences seemed just to present themselves to me, would have been more conducive, and that there I'd have had to wrestle with it all less hard. And it's a point in the novel where I'm alternating between two different time levels and different psychic states for a character (while again trying to make it seamless) so it's taking a lot of mental and emotional energy.

And then, quite honestly, after a morning of doing that, I could hardly face sitting at the computer and designing the posters, a job that in other circumstances I can really enjoy, and I really had to force myself to do it. And I'm not sure I had the proper concentration. I thought I'd finished, and, in a hurry to get the job over with, I printed them out before realizing I'd left out some vital information, and will have to print them again...

By then, 4.30, I'd really had enough of the computer and just couldn't get my head around any more publicity collation and blurb, and anyway we needed food for the evening meal, and I'd promised myself a proper break and some exercise (because in the last couple of years glued to the computer I've got so unfit), so out I went shopping and walking. When I got back, I felt refreshed and was keen to get creating my Facebook event, but by the time I'd done that (and had a stupid problem loading up the image) it was 8.00, and we still had the evening meal to prepare and eat, and I still hadn't been on Twitter properly, as I'd intended. Just as I thought I'd finished, a nice email came through from Waterstone's Deansgate about my official Manchester launch for the reissue on 27th October, asking for some publicity blurb, which I really appreciate.

Meanwhile all the time at the moment there's the great mound of washing, including bedding, which we brought back after several weeks in Wales without a washing machine, into which I have to keep trying to make inroads. As for reading, that's confined to half an hour in bed at night: in Wales I finally began reading properly Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy, and was really enjoying it, but have had to abandon it for the moment for the book we'll discuss in the reading group next Thursday. This once-voracious reader is now getting about 10 pages read a night...

We don't go out much nowadays, and I guess it's no surprise. And I'll probably forever regret confessing this, but quite frankly when there's so little time in the day, showering and washing your hair begins to seem like an expenditure of time you simply can't afford...!

The glamorous life of a writer, eh?

Well, maybe I'll get on top of it all. After all, I know I'm luckier than a lot of other writers, who have 9-5 jobs and young children or other caring responsibilities...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Is a flowchart the answer after all?

Well, my retreat is over and I'm back in Manchester and ready for the onslaught of publicity with launches and readings for the reissue of The Birth Machine (details of the three public readings can be seen in the sidebar here). Must say that as soon as I got back my head started filling with all the attendant stuff that in Wales I was able to suppress, and last night I woke up with the sudden thought of things I had to do, and then couldn't get back to sleep for worrying that I'd forget them - and thinking of more, of course.

So today I decided to make myself a flowchart, something I haven't done since I was running the short-story magazine metropolitan, in the hope that I would lose no more sleep and that this time publicity wouldn't interfere with the headspace I need for the novel in progress. And I do seem now to be solidly psychologically grounded in the novel after spending several weeks with it exclusively - in spite of last night's tossing and turning, I managed to write for the whole morning today without being distracted once by thoughts of other things.

Well, we'll see how it goes...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Bookersatz review of TMM, and getting studied.

Horrible weather today - huge winds sweeping the trees outside the house - but it's still a lovely day: in fact my day has been made by Helen Hunt on Bookersatz, who has reviewed Too Many Magpies and really likes it, concluding:
Too Many Magpies is an incredibly thoughtful novel and as such will appeal as much to the mind of the reader as to the heart. I definitely recommend it as a book to lose yourself in.
If you haven't already read it and this whets your appetite to do so (which of course I'm hoping it will!), I am very pleased to say that the book is at this very moment being reprinted again, and copies will be available direct from Salt sometime this week. Meanwhile Amazon and The Book Depository have copies.

Helen says that she'll also be publishing a review of Balancing on the Edge of the World by another of her reviewers. Speaking of which (ie stories), we were driving along in the car the other day, all packed up like sardines, and someone said, 'Oh by the way, my mum is teaching one of your stories this year.' The story is 'Compass and Torch', which is included in Balancing, and is on the new AQA GCSE syllabus beginning this year. It's such a funny feeling: once upon a time there I was teaching schoolchildren with the stories of famous writers, and now here I am with one of my stories being taught by others. And so strange that something quite so personal as a product of one's own imagination can become part of something quite so public and institutional as an exam syllabus, with people sitting poring over it and devising questions about it for others to answer, as if it's no longer anything to do with you... And especially when it's set on what the family call 'the Compass and Torch walk', the mountain walk here in Wales that triggered the whole idea of the story for me...

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Coming to an end and starting again

More great blogs in Wikio's September top 20 UK Literature blog rankings, as previewed by the wonderful Cornflower, who comes in at #2. This blog is amazingly still hanging in there, in spite of the fact that it's been so sadly neglected recently due to novel immersion and poor internet connection - thanks so much to those who are still tuning in! I hope to have normal service resumed in a few days, when my retreat will come to an end. I do feel sad that this quality time with my novel will soon be over - and which I know I'm really fortunate to have had - but at the same time I'm itching to get back to society and being once more in proper communication with everyone.

Ordinary life is already creeping in: this week I had an urgent e-mail order from Bertram's for the second edition of The Birth Machine, the revised edition I published myself. And what do you do about that, when you are your own publisher but you're away, and although you always keep a few copies of your books in the back of the car, you have only two of that edition of that particular book with you because anyway you more or less consider it off the market and out of print, since a lovely new edition is due from Salt this autumn? Suggest they wait until copies of the new edition are available at the end of September, you might say (and I did). But no, the order's too urgent, and you have to find an old jiffy bag somewhere and sellotape it up with the two copies and a promise to complete the order when more copies are available (ie when your partner finishes painting the outside of the family house on the mountain and you can both go back to Manc).

And speaking of family, I even had a break from the novel this week, as other family members joined us, and we went for very long walks. Here's a sunset we saw one night on the beach (horizon's not very straight!)...

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sean O'Faolain Short Story Competition.

I am thrilled to learn that one of my new stories, 'Falling', has been shortlisted for the Sean O'Faolain short story competition. Congrats to my fellow short-listees.

The shortlist here.