Presenting the inaugural showcase anthology from InkTears Press: "How To Begin a Wonderful Life". It features a selection of the choicest cuts of work by the writers Margaret Dakin, Mark Sheerin, Drew Taylor... and me!
Within you'll find four of my stories: "True Colours" (my first published short story, which went on to win runner-up prize in the 2012 InkTears short story contest); "I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw" (the opening story in the seventh Fiction Desk anthology "There Was Once a Place"); "Monty Jackman's Exposition" (runner-up prize in the 2013 Writers' Village Short Story Competition); and a previously unpublished story, "The Edge of Heaven".
Buy it here either as a hardback or an eBook for your Kindle.
Additionally, how can I possibly not mention the other InkTears showcase anthology, released at the same time, "Death of a Superhero"? This one features a selection of stories by Kaya Ra Edwards, Mandy Huggins, Brindley Hallam Dennis, and my occasional partner in adverb-related literary crime, Chris Fielden. The book itself is even named after one of his stories. Buy this one here. Or better yet... buy both!
Last weekend I finally got around to watching Cloud Atlas. I say finally, because I’m still none the wiser why we had to wait several weeks for its release in the UK, when it was on in the USA in September 2012. I expect the precise reasons for this are depressingly dull, dry excuses to do with scheduling or budget or whatever, but still: it was somewhat unfair, I thought. Especially as the book was written by a British author and the film had many British actors.
But it was well worth the wait. David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, and Cloud Atlas one of my all-time favourite books. (It’s worth noting he wrote Cloud Atlas at the same age I am now. Makes one sick, frankly.) I like it not only due to its sheer ambition, scope and myriad of genres and themes, but also because it’s essentially six short stories, artfully meshed together. A real genre-bender, and gripping tales to boot.
But what I was really looking forward to, much like I do every time I see a film based on a book I’ve read, is to see the director’s - and the actors’ - own interpretations.
I’ve always wondered what it must be like as an author to have your work given new, independent treatment. Mitchell himself, in the preface of the re-issued Cloud Atlas, puts it well. If I may borrow his words briefly:
... First off, there’s a primal kick to be had from seeing and hearing your word made flesh... before your very eyes, actors are speaking dialogue you wrote in your back bedroom years ago... all these non-existent people are now real... they find flashes of humour and menace which you never spotted...
Four days after watching the film - and just as the circulation began to return to my legs (nobody told me it was THREE HOURS LONG) - I got the merest glimpse of what Mitchell must have felt. One of the short stories I wrote last year was a 2,000 word piece called "Me, Robot". It’s a comic, somewhat sad tale of a man who finds himself out of work, cannot bring himself to tell his wife, and decides to spray himself with paint, busking in public as a human statue/robot to top up his dole money. I was delighted when it was picked up by The Fiction Desk - you can read my original blog about it here, or my guest post for them about the background to the story here.
However, there was more to come. Rob from The Fiction Desk sent a copy of the book to the Berko Speakeasy, a Berkhamsted-based theatre/literary group who put on “short story cabarets”. They were looking for stories to perform at their event on the 6th March, and soon identified my tale as one which would work well as a performance piece. I had an email from them. Was it OK to use my story?
Too right it was.
Before the evening, I was eagerly anticipating seeing how my character would be portrayed. Previously I’ve had work read out before, but each time they’ve been straight readings, usually done by and for other writers for the purposes of workshopping or critique. This was the first time I would witness a story of mine read purely for entertainment, interpreted by a proper actor. More to the point, would he dress up?
Completely inadvertently, I had become a playwright. (Well OK, not exactly, but I like the phrase “inadvertent playwright”, so I’m sticking with it).
And what an evening it was. Taking place in the Greene Room of the Kings Arms Hotel in Berkhamsted, the room had been decorated according to the themes of the stories; tiger print tablecloths, flies, a severed hand hanging by the bar. Even the tables had little trinkets related to each tale. (These included dog biscuits, paper flies, pairs of swimming goggles and a tiny pairs of metal handcuffs). For the next couple of hours, the audience of approximately a hundred people were treated to enthusiastic and vividly interpreted tales by Guy de Maupassant, Rajesh Parameswaran, Carys Davies, Toby Litt and Miranda July.
My story was on last. Huge kudos to the actor Will Harrison-Wallace for – huzzah! – dressing the part: he’d actually attired himself in silver clothes, donned sunglasses and painted his face. All because of me. Top marks, that man.
He strode on, sat on a chair (as per the police station setting of my story), then started to read all those words very, very familiar to me, an experience both surreal and wonderful at the same time. Just like David Mitchell had said: I was seeing and hearing my words made flesh; the non-existent person made real. I’ve heard of writing characters which “leap off the page”. Here, I was literally seeing it happen.
It’s an immensely satisfying feeling. All writers, I’m sure, want to see their work read, appreciated, enjoyed, understood, remembered. When a piece is published, you hope it becomes all of these things, but of course there is never any guarantee. If you’re lucky, someone may drop you a note online, or be nice about it in a review, but that’s about it. But thanks to Will Harrison-Wallace’s interpretation and the audience’s positive reaction, I was able to witness this first hand.
So, huge thanks to Julie Mayhew and Ian Skillicorn from the Berko Speakeasy, Will Harrison-Wallace for being such a convincing and engaging “robot” (click here to see "Boss Boot Camp", a brilliant short film he was in!), and also thanks again to Rob Redman from the Fiction Desk for publishing it in the first place.
Postscript: the very evening following the Berko Speakeasy, I found out that another of my short stories, “True Colours”, has been selected from hundreds of entries to make the shortlist of the 2012 Ink Tears Short Story Competition. What an excellent week!
For me, Christmas 2012 was a purple patch for my writing.
(I'll break off here for a moment. Did you know that 'purple patch' is also a literary term? I didn't. I just looked it up. It means 'An overly elaborate or effusive piece of writing'. How appropriate.)
Fresh from my story ‘Me, Robot’ appearing in the latest volume of short fiction from The Fiction Desk (it's called 'Crying Just Like Anybody' and all the stories are excellent - go buy it!), I then had another acceptance. I was in the middle of my work's Christmas lunch at a nearby pub, when I got the email from Litro Magazine to say they enjoyed my short story ‘The Real Miracle’ and wanted to publish it in their next issue. I nearly spluttered Guinness all over my lamb shank. That’ll teach me to fiddle with my iPhone at a social occasion. Still – what news! What a Christmas present!
Litro are both a print and online magazine, primarily publishing short stories but also poems, articles, interviews and artworks. The print issue is free - a neat, pocket-sized thing which you can pick up from their stockists - and with a print run of, apparently, 100,000, to have a story accepted by them was a genuine chin-dropping moment.
Litro are also notable in that each issue of their magazine is centred on a theme. Some magazines and journals avoid themed issues, preferring to keep an open submissions policy, but it does work very, very well for Litro. Over the past couple of years they've brought out magazines on Ghosts, Work, Food, Street, Comics, War and places such as China, Africa, France and Rio. They're absorbing, fascinating and imaginative reads, with their website offering back issues in electronic format, and much more besides.
"The Real Miracle" appeared in an issue with a "Magic" theme. I absolutely couldn't resist having a go. I used to be a very keen magician when I was younger - I performed stage shows, competed with the best young magicians in the country in national competitions, and even made it on telly two or three times - therefore with my story, I was able to draw on some personal experience. Due to this I was hopefully able to convey some authenticity - and of course I didn't have to do too much in the way of research.
Whilst on this occasion writing to a theme worked very well for me - it only took about a week to finish the story to my satisfaction - recently it proved a challenge too far. Over December, I was writing a story with a slipstream, slightly supernatural edge. The brief was "the railway", and had I been able to pull it off, it would have been considered for an anthology which, if past books by the publisher are anything to go by, will be a very fine tome indeed.
Usually when I start writing a story, I finish it. For the first time ever, I gave up. It simply wasn't working. Whether it was clunky prose, ill-considered characterisation, the lack of time I had as Christmas approached, or just my lack of affinity with the railway, I don't know. Probably a bit of all of them, but more, I suspect, the fact that I couldn't think of a good story. I had all year to work on it, all year to research the railway if that is what I needed to actually do. Yet I had to admit this one wasn't going to happen. Just wanting to be published isn't enough. I needed to have a story worth telling.
Was it writer's block? Maybe. But I don't lack other ideas, so maybe working to a specific theme was the wrong thing to try in this instance.
Perhaps I'll come back to it, if inspiration strikes. Maybe it'll prompt me to read a bit about the railway, or about the life George Stephenson. Something good will come of it. I don't like leaving things unfinished!
In the meantime, there's 2013 to look forward to. I hope to have a few bits and pieces coming out over the next few months, themed or otherwise. Stay tuned!
Back in July this year, something really rather splendid happened. I had one of my short stories accepted byThe Fiction Desk. I remember precisely where I was when I opened their email: I was in Seoul, South Korea, having just got back from visiting the highly fraught but extremely interesting Demilitarised Zone on the border with North Korea. I had just flopped down exhausted on my hotel bed, took a deep breath having been shepherded about with military precision for most of the day, clicked on my iPad, opened my email and there it was. An acceptance! Two worlds had collided. For a few brief moments I didn’t know who or where I was.
It’s extremely gratifying to be published not only in a real, tangible, walk-into-a-shop-and-buy book, but also to be featured by this particular publisher. The Fiction Desk is one of my favourite publishers of short stories. I’d read their three previous volumes, extremely impressed by the fresh and imaginative writing, the assortment of styles, the thoughtful way they’d been curated, the mix of established and new voices, and the classy, professional way the books actually looked.
The new volume, the one to feature my story, is called “Crying Just Like Anybody” (named after the title story by Richard Smyth) and is due for release around 20th November. It’s been a bit of a wait for it to come out, not least since my acceptance was back in July, but I gather a large part of this delay has been finding the right stories to feature. That, and I personally couldn’t begin to imagine the work involved. But it’ll be well worth the wait. It’s available to pre-order now.
Sort of related to this: I had a rejection letter from another journal this morning. Now this, of course, is par for the course. It’s a fact of life that writers have their work turned down, in journals, in anthologies, in competitions. So, ho hum: never mind. But here’s the weird thing: it was my first ever rejection letter.
Now, that’s not to say that everything I’ve ever submitted before has been accepted. No way – I’ve had loads of misses, far, far, far more than acceptances. But how strange that this place was the first to write to me specifically to say “no thanks” (and very polite they were too). Usually I find out I haven’t got anywhere by logging on to a publisher’s website, with the list of successful stories featured, and I’m not among them.
But with “Crying Just Like Anybody” coming out in just over a week, it’s impossible to be downhearted.
I may even frame it.