I’d like to recommend…

I’ve just been on a journey backwards and forwards in time between 1936 America and Manila in 1902 and 1936 thanks to William Boyd’s, The Blue Afternoon. It was quite a trip, all in all. Some stories the reader just hitches a ride on the words and enjoys the passing scenery. Not this one. I’ve been kept involved all the way, guessing about connections and murders, taking a new view of history, working out what’s going on, and why, and trying to second-guess how.

I’ve stood at the shoulders of an architect and a surgeon as they worked. I’ve experience the blue afternoonthe joys, frustrations and passions of different kinds of love and loss and colonial life. There was so much story in this one short novel it would be difficult to write a summary without giving away the plot, so I’m not going to attempt that. You can find one somewhere else, if that’s what you’re after. But my recommendation, whether you’re a reader or a writer is to try this novel yourself.

I’ve not read any thing else by William Boyd, so I can’t draw comparisons with his other books.  I can only say that here, I find good writing.

What do I mean by good writing?  Well look at the first sentence.

I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mild mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky a pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, when I asked my father what it felt like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living human flesh.

It’s a little long by some standards, perhaps, but look what Boyd does with it.   Besides giving us a situation, a setting and an atmosphere, it gets me asking myself, who is remembering, and why do they want to know about ‘living human flesh’?  I’m only an inch into the text and I’m already preparing to turn to the next page.

I like a lot of things about this story.  Take, for instance, weather and scenery. Los Angeles, 1936, ‘was cloudy and an erratic and nervy wind rattled the leaves of the palmettos that the contractor had planted along the roadside.’ In Manilla, ‘Cruz’s house was a substantial stone building with a tiled roof, hairy with weeds, and a saffron lime wash on the walls which was flaking and dirty.’  It’s economical.  There’s just enough of a word picture for me to create the image: not so much that I’m struggling to construct an exact replica.

Go back to that first sentence again and look at how he constructs his images.  Ever heard of a ‘smirched‘ day before?  I haven’t, and yet put it with foggy, and I think I understand exactly what he means.  Like the wind in Los Angeles, which is not just ‘erratic’, it’s ‘nervy’.  This is what we mean when we talk about keeping language fresh in our writing.  I don’t think it’s forced, and it doesn’t need to happen in every paragraph, or even chapter.  Its effect is made, at least in part, because it is unexpected.

For me, ‘unexpected’ is the key to my enjoyment of this novel.  The story unravels slowly, truths are teased out by our narrator, and, for the most part, delivered in such a way that I do not feel cheated: by which I mean that the author has not manipulated events to achieve his goal.  Here, the twists in the plot felt feasible rather than engineered, even when they were surprising.  They arose naturally as a result of the characterizations.

Here’s a story with some big events in it.  Things that told clumsily could have looked contrived and ridiculous.  Instead, there was a sense of inevitability about the way they unfolded and the final denouement.  I don’t think I can give a higher praise than that the ending surprised, pleased and stayed with me, long after I’d closed the covers.

Write Something Sensational.

I’ve just found five old diaries in my desk drawer, while looking for sellotape.  I can’t claim to rival Oscar Wilde, I’m afraid.  The dated pages only record appointments or occasionally, report on the weather, there’s nothing to rivet a casual browser.

diary 2But these are Mslexia Writer’s Diaries, so each week of appointments is faced by a blank page, and on those I’ve made all sorts of contributions.  There are notes about books I’ve heard will be good reads; over-heard snippets of conversation; ideas for new classes and writing exercises; ideas for stories and workings for plots and short pieces of free-writing, as well as quotes from reading or listening and reflections on classes.

I’ve never managed to keep a regular diary for more than a month or two, but a writer’s diary, that’s something different.  I may not be able to tell you what I had for lunch on any given day, but I remember that I found that quote about Marxism, on the page facing 16th May 2011, while I was waiting for a job interview in a converted Baptist chapel in the city.

The room, at the top of the building, was painted eggshell blue and had only one small round window.  Through it I could see blue sky and hear children playing at the school along the road and seagulls.  There was only just space to move between the filing cabinets, desks and fridge, because most of the floor-space was taken up with boxes of papers.

The job was a fill-in, to keep the classes going for another month before the building was sold, and despite the clutter of test-papers and work-sheets, the building already felt abandoned.  As I swiveled on an office chair, waiting for the manager to sort-out a problem at the front-desk, I picked a history book off his bookshelf and found, as I so often do when browsing reference books, that it was relevant to something I was working on then (Martin Chuzzlewit that term).  So, by the time Henry came back to talk to me I had filled a page of my diary with the quote and my thoughts, and forgotten my nerves.

No, not sensational, I agree, as it stands.  Yet there are a mass of connections I can take from that one rather small page of notes.  It stands for two classes of students, a building, a business, bankruptcy and it’s fall-out, politics, reprisals and bitterness and a hot summer in the inner-city.

Alternately, from another diary I could describe the Cirencester road on a wet February morning because of an interview that caught my attention on Radio 4 as I was driving to a class, or I could remember the way I felt at a funeral in 2009, because I asked the organist for the list of hymns he played in the minutes while we waited for the service to begin.  Looking at that list, I remember not just the man who tried to teach me piano when I was twelve, but also the neighbour we had just lost and a time when I played whist with her, and the way her kitchen smelled of warm milk on frosty mornings.

From BBC History Magazine, pages of Humphrey Newton's notebook - 1497 - 1517

From BBC History Magazine, pages of Humphrey Newton’s notebook – 1497 – 1517

So for me, these diaries are not just collections of notes, or lists of appointments, they’re storehouses of connections to events and days that happen as much in my head as they do on the page, and now I’ve found them again, perhaps I should do them the justice of making space for them next to my other books for research.

Yes, they’re highly personal, and will never occur in that way to another reader, but perhaps, after all, they are in their own way, every bit as sensational as the diary of Cecily Cardew.

And, one last thing, five diaries?  Where did all that time go?

Brave Worlds

best new sci fiI’ve been reading of other worlds for the last two weeks, dipping into The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15.  For those in the know, that means I’ve actually been looking back, as the fifteenth Annual Collection was published in 2002.

It was a second-hand impulse buy that I regretted as soon as I got home, because there was no shelf space for it – at 702 pages, this really is a mammoth book. Something needed to be read if I wasn’t going to start heaping books on the floor.

Given the technological advances of the last eleven years, I assumed that most of the twenty-six stories would seem dated.  This meant firstly, that my new book was not something to leave sitting around on a shelf much longer, and secondly, that it would probably mean a speedy skim reading, so I could recycle it straight back to the bookshop and solve my space dilemma.

What was I thinking?  Well probably of something much simpler than this selection of writing.  Stories, perhaps, predicting how science will advance.

Remember 1983?  No, that’s not a typo, I mean the year.  I’m thinking back to how we anticipated the convergence of reality with the fictional world George Orwell created for Nineteen eighty-four.  There was even a new film of the book made, released in 1984.  As we headed for December 31st 1983, didn’t we get a little bit caught-up in that analysis of what had come true and how far from an Orwellian world we were?  Phew, we thought, at least we haven’t turned out like that: at least we still have some freedoms, and aren’t we lucky, really?

Because the thing I always forget about sci-fi, is that the science is just the icing.  The real body, the ingredients of the cake, are the characters we identify with.  A science fiction does not necessarily need masses of technology.  What most of the stories in my Mammoth book offered were the eternal stories of love, loss and hope.  They came in unfamiliar shapes and often bleak landscapes but they played out familiar human scenarios.

new scientistSo were they dated?  No.  Perhaps in another ten years some of the ideas will seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure that matters.  I’m still re-reading HG Wells and John Wyndam, and they’re playing on our TVs and radios every so often, despite having been overtaken by many advances.

So what makes a successful Science Fiction story?  Perhaps it would pay us to remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory about the suspension of disbelief.  He suggested two key ingredients for tellers of fantastic tales,  ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’. It seems to me that most of the stories in my Mammoth book were about semblances of truth, most of them hard, and dark.  Warnings perhaps not of the dangers of technology, but of our own natures.

These are not just stories for teenage geeks, they’re something we might all benefit from trying out once in a while, as readers and as writers, because they epitomize that fundamental question of the fiction writer, What if..?  Perhaps, for those who long to write of injustices, social or otherwise, it might be worth thinking about describing the world to come if you really want us to notice the here and now.

As to the Mammoth book, I think I will pass it on, but I’m going to look out for another one, so I’d better get reading a space onto my shelf after-all.  It’s just one difficult decision after another here.

‘Holiday assignment: a questionaire for modest story-tellers.’

See how many points you can score in this self-measurement test…

Question 1.


Are you going to do anything with that story you’ve written?  You know, the one at the bottom of a box/drawer/file list, where you put it some days/weeks/months/years ago.  You edited it, and made it work, you might have shown it to a friend who said they liked it, maybe two or three friends.  Then you put it away.

Question 2.

Why?  Was it really enough to know that your friends think you should be published?

It’s all very well being modest in some circumstances, but not with fiction.  I’ve just put on my pink tweed skirt and the frilly shirt like my infant school teacher used to wear, and I’m about to use my Joyce Grenfell voice, so I know you’re going to take notice of what follows.  Besides, you can be sure we’ll go over this again sooner or later.

small_2711240606Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.

Question 3.

Today we’re going to take out that piece of writing, dust it off and read it again, as if you’ve no idea who the author is.

Done that?  Good, now answer the following, truthfully:  Did it grab your attention from the first line?  Did it keep you reading all the way through?  Would you like more stories from this author?

Or are there a few changes you need to make?

Not many, I’m sure, perhaps a clumsy metaphor to trim, a repetition that nags, or line that just isn’t really necessary.  You know, the kind of niggling details that require the view of a fresh honest eye.

Question 4.

Actually, on the whole, you’ve surprised yourself, haven’t you? Bin modesty for the moment, doesn’t that story work well?  I bet it says more than you realised at the time.

Question 5.

So, why is it in that drawer?small_6059284197

Look around you, people are getting published every day.  Some have agents and advances and contracts with the publishers; others self-publish and a lot of us send our work out to magazines and competitions – yes, it is a bit of a lottery, but have you never bought a ticket?  Not even a raffle ticket for a hamper?

Well this is a bit less of a gamble than any of those.  Why?  Because writing competitions and submissions are not about a machine flicking up a series of random numbers.  Unlike the lottery, in this game there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of getting on the long list, and the first is in attention to detail.

Question 6.

You didn’t really think that having a good story would out-weigh sloppy presentation, did you? I suspect most of us have at some point.  Sadly, that’s far from the truth.

The first thing you need to do when sending work out, is to make sure you fulfill the entry requirements for competitions or submissions. Read them through carefully, because there are often variations on particulars.  Those in the know say that there are always manuscripts that don’t get read because the author has laid their text out wrongly.  So nitpick your manuscript and you’ve already increased your odds of getting noticed.

Along the same lines, is the advice to print-out a pristine new copy for each submission, if it calls for hard-copy.  Find another way to pay your dues to recycling, if this offends your principles.  Tired pages, especially with dog-ears, do not inspire the reader with the same confidence a well-read book might.

Question 7.

Okay, so one set of judges or editors may not like your story.  Then again, how will you know if you don’t submit it?  The real trick here, is to spend some time on research.  It’s been said before, but I’m happy to repeat this.  Check out who the judges are, and what sort of stories won or were placed in previous years.  If there’s nothing on the internet, buy or borrow a copy of the winning stories or a previous publication and read it through.  Be honest, are these the sorts of writing that you feel at home with?  Then what have you got to lose?

Some entry money, maybe, although there are still a few free competitions about. Other than that there’s only printing and posting, and if we’re talking short stories here then neither is so very much.  Over a year it would probably add up to less than you would spend if you did play the lottery every week.

Question 8.

You’ll probably have some rejections.  Most of us do.  Is it worse to receive a polite rejection-letter or to reach the results date and find that you’ve not made it to the long-list?  Who can say?  One way to alleviate that pain is to submit multiple stories to sites, comps and calls from magazines – just note that I’ve said ‘multiple stories’ here, not the same story to a variety of outlets, unless the submission guidelines allow that!

For each submission, make a note of the long/short-list announcement date in your diary, then forget about it.  Go away and write another story to submit somewhere else.


Question 9.

On the other hand, you could just leave your story in that drawer, but if it is finished, I’ve a final question:  Why would you?

Photo credits:

typed page – http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/93821727/

Blackboard – photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lapstrake/2711240606/”>Tom Gill.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Drawers photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/caliorg/6059284197/”>cali.org</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Typist from: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/spike55151/32374451/”>spike55151</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;