ELECTRIC DREAMS

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Today sees the launch of a project that’s been brewing for the past few months. It’s an ebook anthology of short stories, and every tale has the same title:

The Casual Electrocution of Strangers

I’ve been working with my lovely writer friends Françoise Harvey and Jane Roberts – together we are Literary Salmon – and we asked nine other writers to contribute tales and then to collaborate on the editing process. To our delight they all said yes, and, a few months later, a sparkling new ebook has been spawned.

It’s been a pleasure helping to bring 12 very different short stories to the world – and seeing how one title can be interpreted in so many ways by 12 different human beings. They say you can never really know another person, but that’s where fiction comes in – it shines a light on what it means to be us, with all our foibles and frailties, and all our strengths too.

And in this age of rampant, abhorrent capitalism in extremis, it’s good to know that open-hearted creativity and collaboration can still – and will – flourish.

The ebook is FREE to download, and there’s an PDF version too. For more details on the project and to get your hands on a copy, click here.

Read it. And if you like it, share it. You never know, we might all learn something about each other…

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UNCHAINED MELODY

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I’ve written before about the pleasure of hearing stories read aloud. You can do this all over the place these days. In London alone there’s the Word Factory, Liars’ League, In Yer Ear and Listen Softly London. And in Brighton there’s Rattle Tales, in Cork there’s The Lightning Bug… and new nights are starting up all the time.

I love going to this type of event. There’s something about hearing a tale being told by a human voice, with a whole room full of people listening as intently as you. I think the connection between the story and audience (via the performer) is different to that between a reader and the written text.

For me, the live experience makes the story more immediate, and the audible reactions of the audience inform and colour my own reactions. It really cuts to the heart of why we tell stories: to communicate a vision of the world in the most direct way possible; these visions may be diverse, but they all explore what it means to be human. And what better way to ponder humanity than in the company of other humans.

As a short story writer, I’ve been considering making the leap from listener to performer. The idea terrifies me though, so I decided to attend a workshop on performing stories, organised by the Word Factory and taught by AL Kennedy.

It was a fascinating afternoon, at the end of which I had:

  • lain on the floor while breathing deeply and trying to sink my body into the carpet;
  • had a conversation with a pillar and a wall;
  • said one line of a Shakespeare sonnet over and over to each of my fellow workshoppers in many different ways to convey a range of emotions;
  • and, of course, performed my story, once at the beginning of the workshop (terrified, knees knocking) and again at the end (less terrified, knees straight, with at least 50% more confidence than I’d had at the start).

It was challenging but also reassuring to do this things in a room full of people all willing each other to improve. Of course, I expected nothing less from the peeps who attend Word Factory events. It’s a lovely community.

Alison (sorry, it feels weird calling her AL) gave practical advice on posture, breathing and how to calm frayed nerves before a reading, but the advice that resonated with me the most was this:

When you write something, you are creating music in the reader’s mind. So, when you perform it, why wouldn’t you sing this music as loudly and confidently as possible? Don’t mumble the story you’ve spent ages writing and redrafting and honing and you know is good:

SING IT OUT.

’Nuff said.

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, why not read one of my short stories? Click on the STORIES tab, or here, and take your pick.

THESE GHOULISH THINGS

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I love a good ghost story, me. It’s a genre with a fine heritage: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw; M.R. James with his genuinely unsettling tales such as Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious; and, of course, E.R. James’s Fifty Shades of Wraith. [Oops, how did that one slip in?]

And then there’s Charles Dickens with The Signalman, Robert Aickman’s abstract and eerie stories, W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw… the spectral list goes on.

So why are people drawn to ghost stories? I think we like to feel that there’s something out there, something other than the material world. For example, ghosts can be memories of people. Among the living, this can be positive, such as a deceased loved one that you feel is still around. My lovely, beautiful mum passed away three months ago, but I still feel she’s here. Not looking down on me exactly, just… around. It’s really helping me to cope with the loss.

But fiction, of course, thrives on conflict, so ghosts on the page tend to bring negative vibes to the story’s protagonist. Feelings of guilt, perhaps, about something the character did, or didn’t do. Or the ghost can simply be a manifestation of the character’s earthly anxieties and fears.

I’ve had a crack at a ghost story myself, which features a character very much haunted by his past. It’s set in a roadside bikers’ caff and appears in an anthology, New Ghost Stories II, which has just been published by The Fiction Desk. There’s eleven haunting stories to choose from, and you can buy the paperback here. (The ebook will be available to unsettle your ereader in a couple of weeks’ time.)

You can choose not to purchase it, of course, and that’s fine too. Except that a person can sometimes be haunted by the things they don’t do. I’m not talking about your good self, of course. No, no. Other people.

Sleep tight, won’t you? See you next time… if you can survive the night. Mwahahahaha…

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, why not read another of my short stories, too? Click on the STORIES tab, or here, and take your pick.

REAL ALE TALES

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I’ve been thinking a lot about pubs lately. Been thinking a lot in them, too. Purely for research purposes, you understand. I’ve been pondering the role of pubs in short stories.

There’s quite a few that I’ve read lately: Fjord of Killary by Kevin Barry, Dark Horses by Claire Keegan, and, of course, Joyce’s Dubliners collection, in which the saloon bars of the capital’s pubs feature heavily. I’d say nobody does pub atmosphere and talk like Joyce; he not only places you in the room, he makes you feel like you’re part of the furniture by the end of it.

So what is it about pubs that inspires writers to use them as a backdrop? I have a few theories, if you’ve the time. You might as well pull up a chair and order a drink while you’re here.

Settled? Good stuff.

Well, for one thing, the pub is an excellent location to place a handful of characters. It’s a confined space, perfect for putting these human beings under a microscope and examining them close up.

It’s a place for telling tales (handy that); it’s a place where characters can let their hair down, loosen up, maybe let the mask slip for a bit.

In vino veritas is certainly possible, as alcohol can loosen the tongue, which can make for some fizzing dialogue. Fictional conversation usually relies on people not saying what they mean, so the delicate battle between a character trying to lie but wanting to blurt it all out after a few pints can lead to some delicious tension in a story.

Also, pubs often seem to be covered in a fine mist of melancholy – and I think melancholy is the lifeblood of a short story, at least the ones I tend to write.

And all of human life can be found in a pub: the bragger, the loner in the corner, the diligent worker behind the bar, the laughter, the tears, the quiet stoicism. The list goes on. No wonder it’s such a fertile theatre for fiction.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts on pubs in short stories. You can test them out, if you like, as my latest story is set in a pub. Coincidence, eh? It’s called The Jigs and the Reels, and you can read it here. Go on, you might as well order another while you’re reading it, and maybe a packet of Cheese and Onion.

Cheers!

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, why not read another of my short stories, too? Click on the STORIES tab, or here, and take your pick.

TOGETHER ALONE

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Writing is a solitary business, on the whole. You sit at a desk, slip into creative mode, and then lock out the rest of the world while you spend time in your own imaginary kingdom. It’s exciting when you’re in full flow, and your characters can keep you company and entertain you, but it can be a touch lonely sometimes, too.

It can get even lonelier if you’re a short story writer. Let’s eavesdrop on one now:

Friend: ‘I hear you’re writing. That’s great! What are you working on?’
Writer: ‘Short stories.’
Friend: ‘Oh… short stories. That’s nice. Ever thought about writing a novel?’

See what I mean?

So imagine my excitement when I heard about an event, taking place in my hometown, which will solve both these problems: the London Short Story Festival. Someone’s already dubbed it ‘Glastonbury for Short Stories’, and that’s pretty much what it is: an entire weekend of events entirely devoted to my beloved form. It’s a chance to learn about, hear, write and share short stories with like-minded crazy people.

And they’ll be workshops with some seriously good writers. I’m doing one with Clare Wigfall on creating characters, and another with Claire Keegan on How Fiction Works. Hopefully some of their magic may rub off on me. I’m going to a few talks, too, as well as breathing in the general air of short storyness that will pervade the building (which, by the way, is Waterstones in Piccadilly, one of my favourite haunts).

It’ll make me feel less like a loon locked in the attic and more like a member of a growing clan, armed as we are with small tales and big ideas. Here’s the website for the festival, which runs from June 20-22: http://www.lssf.co.uk

If you see me, say hello. Or just write ‘Hello’ in your notebook and hold it up. I’ll understand.

Till then…

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab, or here, and take your pick.

KOMPETITION KRAZEE

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Short story competitions are a great way to get another story out into the world; it’s like taking an eager puppy to the park and letting it loose. This time of year sees a string of submission deadlines for big short story prizes – or, as I like to call it, The Attack of the Killer Bs: Bath, Bristol and Bridport. Oh, and another B has landed this year as well: the inaugural Brighton Prize.

It’s enough to give anyone the hee-B gee-Bs.

But they’re all great competitions and are flying the flag for the mighty short story form. After all, short stories are the ninjas of fiction: cunning, short on words, and able to deliver the killer blow in the least amount of time.

One good thing about a competition is the deadline: it pushes you to create, to finish, and sometimes you end up with a story you had no idea you would write just a few weeks before, let alone complete and send off. And that’s got to be a good thing.

Also, competition winners and shortlisters get noticed by agents and publishers, and who knows where that might lead? And submitting a story gives you that hope, that aching hope that maybe, just maybe, your story will make it to the longlist, and maybe further still…

And you gotta have hope, intcha? It gets you up in the morning.

The downside, of course, is that this hope might turn to disappointment as you scroll down that longlist and reach the bottom without seeing the letters that make up your name, arranged in the right order.

Bummer.

But then again, after the sorrow comes the spring; there’s always another competition, another journal looking for entries. There’s always hope…

I’ve just sent a story to the Bath Short Story Award, ran out of time for Brighton, and I’ve got stories brewing for Bristol and Bridport. Busy, busy, busy.

The Attack of the Killer Bs is definitely in full swing, and I’m making like a ninja…

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab, or here, and take your pick.

THE CAMPFIRE TRILOGY

Kings Creek Station, Northern Territory, Australia

When was the last time you sat around a campfire? That sense of being warmed along with other people, all eyes on the flames, all ears on the conversation, the tales well told, maybe some songs bashed out on a guitar and hollered by a whole circle of people.

That kind of communal connection with others is often difficult to find in our modern lives. That’s my experience anyway. Especially when the concept of community is being eroded by factors such as council cutbacks and the growth of identikit Tescotowns, where local libraries and community centres are flattened to make way for ‘contemporary lifestyle apartments’.

But lo! There’s some good news, and I’ve found it through writing stories and discovering other people who write stories too, and finding that I can get together with them and… grasp that sense of community again.

One example is the Word Factory, which holds a monthly live event for writers. Established authors turn up, read one of their stories aloud, and then talk about them. Struggling scribes such as myself can get inspired by what they have to say, chat to fellow writers, and generally feel less lonely about what is, let’s face it, a solitary pursuit. You can find out more about the Word Factory here.

The other week I attended one of their events for the first time. I sat in a room with others and listened to Stella Duffy give a warm, funny, exuberant performance of her story. Before that, Rebecca Swirsky had given an elegant reading of a beautifully written tale. Rebecca is currently being mentored by Stella Duffy, and it’s clear she’s receiving some quality advice.

And to finish off the evening there was David Almond, whose tale actually involved someone telling a tale, and whose calm Northern voice drew me in as if he were whispering into my ear – and everyone else’s at the same time. He was then interviewed and gave plenty of hard-won, humble and wise advice, which certainly put plenty of oil in my writing tank.

Three writers, three very different styles of delivery, but all created a campfire in the city, the story and its performance flickering in the centre, a tale well told, and, of course, us… sitting together and feeling that connection, making that circle, even if just for a couple of hours.

So, it seems that there are campfires burning out there after all, even on a cold, rainy night in the city. It’s nice to know.

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab and take your pick.

(Campfire image: © Deephill | Dreamstime Stock Photos and Stock Free Images)

EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

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New year, new stories. I’ve got off to an encouraging start, with a very short story published on the Visual Verse website.

This is a new project where they post up a different image every month, and writers who feel inspired can produce a piece of poetry or prose in response. The only catch is that it has to be between 50-500 words and must be written within an hour. You can read my story here.

The idea behind the site is a great one: it’s about lobbing a big inspiration grenade in your direction and then daring you to respond immediately. I call it ‘Gun To The Head’ writing, and very welcome it is, too.

I say this because I spend a lot of time crafting and redrafting my short stories, so it’s refreshing to just let my mind race and write, write and race, give it a quick polish, and then send it off – all in 60 minutes. It reminds you how much fun writing can be.

You remember that word, don’t you? Fun. It’s often elusive when you’re about to head-butt the desk in frustration, so it’s good to remind yourself that moments of inspiration and the ensuing white heat of creativity can be pretty damn exciting.

What’s that old saying? Writing is 10 per cent inspiration, 90 per cent perspiration. Well, it was time I reacquainted myself with that 10 per cent – and a little can go a long way.

Why not give Visual Verse a try yourself? Your head – and your desk – will thank you for it.

Happy New Year!

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab and take your pick.

PAST-MODERNISM

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I’ve got a new story in the latest issue of Vintage Script magazine, which publishes all things vintage, historical and retro. (You can find out more and buy a copy here.)

The story is called Blue Hat for a Blue Day. I took the title from an old Nick Heyward song, but my tale isn’t based on the song – it’s about a jazz musician in 1950s Soho in London.

I was at my parents’ house recently and told my Mum I had a story coming out that was set in the Fifties. ‘The 1950s?’ she said. ‘What do you know about the 1950s? You must have stolen the story from somewhere else.’

Thanks, Mother.

I guess what she meant was: ‘Why would you want to write about a past you weren’t even a part of, and how would you go about it anyway?’

To answer the second part, it’s that old writer’s trick of researching the subject, coupled with… just making stuff up. (I know. Shocking.)

But the first part of the question is more interesting: why exactly do people write stories set in the past? Historical fiction is probably more popular now than it’s ever been, but what are the reasons?

Maybe in times of social difficulty – recession, job insecurity (or lack of a job at all), budget cuts – we like to escape into the past, which helps us forget about the present for a while.

There’s certainly a case for this in terms of TV programmes. For example, in the UK in the 1970s – during strikes, frequent electricity blackouts and three-day weeks – there were huge ratings for shows such as Upstairs Downstairs, Poldark, The Onedin Line… pure historical escapism, portraying a time when Britain ruled most of the world.

Fast-forward to these recent post-recession years and I give you Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and… a remake of Upstairs Downstairs.

But maybe there’s another reason: some historical stories can reflect and even comment on what’s happening in the present. Take Upstairs Downstairs again. I’d say that programme – with its ruling class upstairs and servant class below – had resonance in the 1970s when, for example, the ruling government clashed frequently with the working class unions. Just a theory.

How about a third theory, and one that I find the most interesting from a writer’s point of view. It’s a phrase: the past inside the present. I’ve no idea who coined it but it’s a good one. It sees the past and the present existing together on a continuum, constantly informing one other, in a kind of never-ending feedback loop.

So why exactly was I drawn to writing about a musician in 1950s London? Well, I saw a documentary about that particular world and it inspired me to write a story. But I’ve seen a lot of documentaries, so why did that one catch my imagination?

Let’s see… I like to play music myself. I was born in London and still live there, and I’ve always found Soho (where my story is set) a bit strange and ‘other’. The area has become far less bohemian in the past few years, but there’s still a vaguely alternative air floating around that maze of streets, a hint of past transgressions still soaked into those bricks. What writer wouldn’t be drawn to that?

But maybe there was other reason – a more metaphysical one – why I started writing the story? Perhaps my subconscious was trying to work through something, and it did this by reaching out to a past that is more connected to my present than my conscious mind can even begin to fathom.

I guess that’s the mystery of creativity, when ideas and inspiration come unbidden and you find yourself drawn to a time you have no physical memory of, yet somehow you have to write about.

Let’s give the process a name: past-modernism. Sounds about right.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of that; all this time travel is playing havoc with my little grey cells.

Till next time… see you in the present. Or is it?

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*  If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab and take your pick.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG STORIES

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I was in New York recently for a few days. It’s such an evocative place: the sensory overload of Times Square, skyscrapers rising into the clouds, yellow cabs gliding along. It almost felt like I’d been there before…

Which, of course, I had, having read countless books and seen numerous films and TV shows set in the Big Apple.

On film, think of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting by Queensboro Bridge at sunrise in Manhattan; Harry and Sally walking among the golden autumn leaves of Central Park; steam rising menacingly from the streets in Taxi Driver

And in books we have Sherman McCoy rattling like a pinball through 1980s Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities; Holden Caulfield on his bewildered urban weekend in The Catcher in the Rye; the unnamed narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s trying to keep up with Holly Golightly as she breezes around the city…

I can’t imagine these stories taking place in any other location, which is why my recent trip often felt more like fiction than reality.

It made me realise how important setting can be to a story, often becoming a character in itself. I don’t think I pay enough attention to this in my own fiction.

And, living in London, I’m not short of inspiration. It’s time to open my eyes and ears a bit wider as I walk to the tube station. Look over there… a single child’s glove sitting on a railing… the queue at a bus stop getting soaked by a passing car as it trundles over a puddle… two pigeons on a swaying telephone wire having a morning natter…

It’s all there. Now where’s that pen when I need it?