Time Out, Time In

It won’t be news to iPad or iPhone owners, but I’ve discovered the timer function on Siri.  Saying ‘Timer’ in a firm voice into the microphone then have the automated voice answer. ‘OK here’s the timer’ helps me get started with a daily write. I like the way the seconds tick down in large black letters, I like the red line that shows you how much time is left. I like the the timer sound at the end. Mine is like a fading old-fashioned alarm. Very subtle. The cookie monster likes the Siri timer too apparently. And you can get a waiting time playlist should you like music when you write.

Anything that gets me into a regular writing habit is a plus.

I am forever in awe of writers like Eileen Merriman, who is a hospital consultant with a couple of small children and who, I read recently in an interview with her by Bath Flash Fiction Award current judge, Robert Vaughan, on Smokelong Quarterly, still manages to write each day, sometimes for a few hours, getting flash fictions, short stories and novels completed and winning awards.

I have a goal now, in any case. I’ve pinched it from a brilliant article by Kim Liao on going for 100 rejections a year. Clearly, you have to write a lot and send out a lot to gain acceptances. This article has such a positive spin.  Timing myself when I write helps. Since I began the year-of-100-rejections goal a few weeks ago I’ve received at least four of them, but I’ve also had an offer of publication in a lit mag and am waiting to hear from another magazine. Also I sent out about twelve flash fictions to a pamphlet submission slot recently so that could soon nicely increase my total of rejections.

Start rite sandals
I was very fond of these shoes when I owned some.

I’m also currently taking part in another wonderful flash fiction weekend with Word Tango. This time a creative non-fiction course with Pullitzer prize winning novelist and memoirist Lee Martin. Article on memoir writing here. His prompt today at Word Tango about recalling childhood shoes meant I have completed a flash fiction before midday. Yes! And it was an interesting shoe memory. Here’s a picture of the remembered sandals

Should writing fiction be all about fun?

  • Should writing fiction be all about fun – or something else?

Damyanti Biswas

I’ve recently been interviewed by writer Damyanti Biswas, who was one of two writers commended by our judge, novelist and short story writer Annemarie Neary last October, 2015 in the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award. Damyanti’s commended piece, Picasso Dreams’, which Bath Flash nominated for the Queens Ferry Press anthology, Best Small Fictions 2016, ended up being a semi-finalist out of thousands of worldwide submissions. Everyone at Bath Flash thinks that’s a wonderful achievement.

In the interview, now posted on Damyanti’s  blog – daily (w)rite, I said writing should be fun, and she’s suggested other writers comment on that. Should writing fiction  be all about fun? Or should it be something else? My take on the subject follows below. You can add your comments on her blog.

  • Writing is like eating good chocolate…

For me, having fun while writing doesn’t mean staying light-weight, or avoiding emotions. I love the absorption that writing brings. When I’m at the computer or scribbling in a notebook, writing an emotional scene can stir up a whole range of feelings in me. It’s not boring. When I let go I’m often amazed at what ends up on the page. Time flies, drafts of longer stories or flash fictions get written – usually ones I haven’t thought about in advance. This process of allowing ideas, plots, and characters to form as I write is an endless source of pleasure to me, even if the subject matter is challenging. A ‘source of pleasure’ is one of the definitions of ‘fun’. Editing is also satisfying, particularly if I move out of a blinkered fog and notice bad habits, or improve the work by cutting away flab. Writing is like eating good chocolate – you savour the pieces, then stop before you get sick of it.

  • Running writing competitions is very much fun

20 authors from the Bath Short Story Award 2015 in print

Running  competitions, although hard work, is very much fun – particularly notifying winners. Who wouldn’t like informing writers that their stories have won big cash prizes and will appear in print? Reading the huge variety of stories entered to the competitions is fascinating.  And of course, reading is part of writing. I also like supporting writers and other contests via social media, particularly twitter. The amount and variety of interesting and challenging writing on the internet is astounding. It’s fun ferreting it out and promoting the successes of other writers.

  • Send your inner critic on holiday

can't be arsed
Now Jude’s inner critic is on holiday, he can’t be arsed to make unhelpful comments



At Writing Events Bath where I lead creative writing sessions with my friend Alex Wilson, we suggest writers imagine sending their inner critics on holiday. Drawing a cartoon of a grumpy character lounging on a sun bed, takes the sting out of that inner carping voice. Writers love creating first drafts in a relaxed atmosphere.

So what if writing ceases to have any element of fun, satisfaction or absorption? It’s like any other relationship. You probably work on it for a while, then decide to let go. Or you stay with it, knowing that something will change. Nothing stays the same.

Notebooks, handwriting, missing words

photo-notebook coverYesterday, I was lured into a stationery shop by a display of notebooks and pens in the window. It’s a minor addiction – a new notebook makes me  happy. Even though I vowed not to buy more, I couldn’t resist this one with its satiny paper and pictures of leaves. Oh…and I bought a ‘starter’ fountain pen to go with it.

Two things prompted the purchase: reading that hand writing might not be taught in schools as an essential skill and the following widely quoted extract from an article in the Guardian 27th February by the nature writer Robert MacFarlane. Eight years ago he discovered that when “a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published…a sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point,, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail, celebrity.”

Wandering alone down the  lanes of my girlhood and on through pastures or by the river in the  1950s and 60s, I frequently  saw, heard, smelled, tasted or touched all of the plants, birds and animals named in this deleted list. At the age of eight or nine they were  part of my everyday world. And I loved the names – catkin, acorn, adder, ash – repeated them like spells.

When I first joined a creative writing group, the tutor,  novelist and poet Lyndsay Clarke, advocated  using Anglo Saxon words as much as possible  Several of the deleted words, like ivy and cowslip and adder are  Old English in origin.  I learned these words when I saw the living things  in their natural landscape, so for me their meanings are multi-layered. The dictionary ‘replacements’ are hard-edged and airless. They don’t  belong in any specific environment.

So, what about hand-writing ?  I have always enjoyed using a pen on paper and making letter shapes that are uniquely me. At school we had ‘penmanship’ lessons – joined up rows of ‘p’s or ‘s’s in long patterns. It wasn’t a waste of time. I can’t think how it would be even now. Learning cursive script established me in a particular way. It’s obvious that a person’s  identity is embedded in their handwriting. As a young child, I observed that my best friend’s writing had an entirely different character from mine.  Seeing the way she formed shapes when we sat together learning  how to write, helped me recognise her individuality.

My neighbour just received a letter from her twenty-five year old son and she told me that reading his handwriting was an entirely different from reading an email. Immediately, she wanted to write a letter back.  Most people who receive personal letters like to keep at least some of them. You can’t unfold an email in years to come, smell the paper, study the writing and remember the person in the same way. I treasure a letter from my mother written before she had a stroke. Afterwards, with reduced motor skills, her handwriting became pinched and cramped, her identity shrunk, along with the space in her hand writing.

photo notebook insideBuying the notebook and the pad was a small act of defiance. I’ll write draft stories in it with my loopy, untidy script, naming adders, acorns, beeches and bluebells, kingfishers and newts. No  bullet  points, no celebrities.

Heart Strings – writing emotional fiction

Carrie Kania, literary agent for Conville and Walsh and short-list judge for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award says this about submissions and short story entries: ‘Make me cry – if one sentence gets me, that’s it.’ Bath Short Story Award Judge 2015.

There’s a couple of sentences in Elinor Nash’s short story, ‘Ghost Boy’, winner of the Bath Short Story Award, 2014 which had me reaching for the tissue box. The narrator, a teenaged boy disabled by a bike accident, suggests how different members of his family relate to him now he is brain damaged. He’s can’t express his thoughts and his sensations have merged. Wanting to ease family tension, he attempts to sing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, a song he now loves. His Dad joins in with him usually. But then –

‘Sometimes, though, Jake’s Dad wouldn’t join in singing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ but would leave the room. On one occasion he stormed out of the house and was gone a whole day and night.’

However much he tries to overcome his feelings, he finds his teenaged son’s reduced state unbearable. It is not clear whether Jake realises why he has left and that’s the power of the sentence of course – what is left unsaid.

The last paragraph of Kit de Waal’s story ‘A Beautiful Thing’, second prize winner in the Bath Short Story Award 2014, is similarly poignant. The story is about the narrator’s father’s first day in this country as an immigrant and it ends like this:

“He shook my hand for the first time and held it awhile

‘And don’t be angry. If you look, you will always find a beautiful thing.’

‘From the doorstep I watched him go. I saw him hunch and shiver, check his watch, turn up his collar and heard above his soft whistle, the ringing of his boot tips on the wet English street.”

It’s the combination of dialogue and character observation that moved me. The father makes a big impact throughout the story and particularly here, at the end. Kit’s debut novel, ‘My Name is Leon’, has just been taken on by Viking and Publishing Director,  Venetia Butterfield, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’ I can’t wait to read it.

The collection of brilliant stories, ‘Young Skins’ by Colin Barrett, winner of The Guardian First Book Award amongst other major prizes was one of my favourite reads last year. All the stories in this collection are memorable for their emotional resonance. ‘Calm With Horses’ is one of those stories, where, although the protagonist is violent – a murderer in fact – it is possible to feel deeply for him and the tragedy of his life. Colin Barrett achieves this by describing the character’s life trajectory, his relationship with his disabled son, the bleakness of his surroundings and relationships.

When I’m emotionally involved with characters it’s as if they become part of my life. In ‘The Goldfinch,’ the controversial Pullitzer prize winning novel by Donna Tartt – the least finished book of 2014 apparently – I felt the jolts in Theo’s life as if I knew him personally.

Similarly when reading ‘Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young, which I have written about in a different post on this blog, the losses of the characters became my losses too. Most recently I’ve read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ Antony Doerr’s New York Times best selling novel and finalist in the US National Book Award whom I interviewed on the Bath Short Story Award site.

A summing up sentence from the description of the book on Doerr’s site says his novel “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another” .That’s a moving theme. It’s desperately sad how Werner, one of the young protagonists fails to support his friend for fear of the consequences. Although unable to make amends to this friend, he redeems himself by saving another.

Finally, I recommend listening to an interview with novelist and short story writer, Paul McVeigh on writing emotional fiction. One of things, he talks about is the importance of becoming aware of what resonates for you emotionally when you are in the company of others. You can then write from this place. There are many other gems in Paul’s heart-felt account of his approach to writing.