Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tuffnells' Toffee's for Buttery Fingers

I read Tuffnell's Toffees for Buttery Fingers at Word Soup on the 27 October 2011.  Now that I've come to terms with my adenoidal Lancashire accent & nervous stuttering I kind-of think it went okay...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Quickies: short stories for adults

If you like to raise a little laugh, try dressing as a elderly lady and reading (out loud) a story containing the term, ‘buttery fuck’ - comedy gold.
I know I don’t keep this blog anymore but I need to tell my other reader (if you are still alive) that I’ve done a reading without being sick in a bucket and I’m in print!

On Wednesday 28 September 2011, I read a story called Tuffnell's Toffees at the launch of a book.
Quickies: short stories for adults is an anthology of flash fiction produced by the Flashtag writing collective as part of the Didsbury Arts Festival. The launch was glittery with lollies, wit and innuendo.

The Flashtag writers are  Sarah-Clare Conlon, Fat Roland, Dave Hartley, Tom Mason and Benjamin Judge and and the Quickies stories are written by them and by their invited writerly chums. My virtual friend Ben Judge (now my actual friend, I think, as we met at said glittering event) asked me to contribute a smutty story. I was very pleased and very scared by this prospect. I was scared for two reasons:

1). There was a word limit of 400 words and, as my other reader will know; (alive or dead) my name is not a byword for brevity.

2). I didn’t want Ben to be the only Flashtagger with a duff chum.

With this in mind I wrote Tuffnell’s Toffeees then tinkered, meddled, redrafted, redrafted, got constructive feedback from Sarah Schofield, Valerie O'Riordan and Jenn Ashworth, (thank you folks) tinkered, meddled, redrafted, redrafted. I’m tinkering and meddling still (buttery fuck doesn’t appear in the book, it says buttery fingers in print) - donkey bolted/gate bolted; all that stuff.
Never were 400 words so tinkered and meddled with.
I hope Ben isn’t ashamed (of me, that is - he should certainly be embarrassed by the out and out rudeness of his own stories - one memorable line from his mucky reading was, ‘I tease the length of your dolphinhood…’!)

The glittering launch was grand – Sarah-Clare Conlon provided additional glamour (and a naughty story), Fat Roland snapped on Marigolds to handle the goods and I met many illustrious members of the (I mean this fondly) Manchester Blackwell literary mafia.
I have followed Dave Hartley’s story telling for years and he read a Quickie about Scouts and Guides (a comedy platinum combo).
Thanks to Valerie O’Riordan’s (I hope that doesn’t count as a spoiler) laugh out loud coming of age/aeroplane-sex tale I know how to avoid a kidney infection.
Adrian Slatcher wrote about a club I’d like to visit, just to see; and the word anus in Socrates Adams reading prompted a storm-out by an audience member. Ah, the heady allure of glittering launches.
Some of my other favourites were LJ Spillane, ‘He blinks and inhales like a man who if dressed and unbound, would be placing his hands in his pockets to steady a tremble.’ Daniel Carpenter’s Fetish Collector and Kinga Burger’s unreliable narrator enumerating past liaisons, ‘…therefore, according to the five-second rule, [he] doesn’t count.’
I got a forearm tattoo that said smut! in big puffy letters; sadly it was only a temporary tattoo and had faded to a lovebitey exclamation mark by morning, which was sad, but I’ve come to terms with the disappointment.
The anthology is very, very good and contains amazing stories by Adrian Slatcher, Benjamin Judge, Chris Killen, Claire Massey, Claire Symonds, Clare Kirwan, Daniel Carpenter, Dave Hartley, David Gaffney, Dom Conlon, Emma Jane Unsworth, Fat Roland, Gavin White, Jane Bradley, John Macky, Kim McGowan (me!), Kinga Burger, Laura Maley, LJ Spillane, Lynsey May, Matthew Carson, Nick Garrard, Red Newsom, Sarah-Clare Conlon, Sarah Hilary, Shirley Kernan, Socrates Adams, Tania Hershman, Tom Mason, and Valerie O’Riordan.

It is worth £3.50/£5 of anyone’s lolly fund.
It is available for Kindle and to purchase from Mancheter Blackwell (ignore the Tommy guns, they're mostly harmless) and also from here.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Post Last-post Post

Almost a year ago in ‘A public display of ineptitude’, first open mic slot, being sick in a bucket and Edith Bouvier Beale (see here) I blogged about reading an extract at a Word Soup live lit evening.
I read The Musical Mobile, a story about an unmarried mother in the 1970s trying to stop the adoption of her baby. I made a spectacle of myself by being moved to tears by my own made-up words.
I did not blog about my second try at public performance at Lancaster Spotlight  in Spring. It was soon after my hip replacement operation. I was on crutches, coked-up on painkillers and not answerable for my actions.
Needless to say, exactly the same broken crackly, croaky voice-thing happened in exactly the same place in the same story, only worse – and in front of a far larger audience.
My fine friend, David, and my daughter attended. By good fortune David was busy doing musician-prep things when it came to my slot. He said later that someone told him I’d acted out the piece with emotion. ACTED? Me acted? I’m a librarian for goodness sake. What drugged-up cripple of a librarian in their right mind chooses to act out an emotional story in front of an aghast and squirming audience?
As I hobbled from the Spotlight dais the compere said softly,
‘Emotional stuff.’
Back at seat I put my face flat on the table. A sort-of friend came by and roused me. She said,
‘That was brave.’
See, I can be dim but I know brave doesn’t mean brave in that context. I can’t quite put my finger on what it does mean. Pitiable maybe? Fool-hardy perhaps? Stark staring bonkers? Probably. But, it doesn’t mean brave, that’s for sure.
My daughter asked me, not unkindly, if I was sure I hadn’t given a baby up for adoption when I was a girl, and I’d forgotten.

Anyway. The purpose of this post last-post post is to say I’m at it again. On the advice of said daughter I’m going for something a little more upbeat this time. I’m reading an extract I’ve called Chester Blott Tells a Smutty Story here at Paul Sockett’s Outspoken at Clitheroe Castle on 21 January 2001.

Paul is being interviewed on Radio Lancashire at 3 o’clock on the same day and Jim Turner and I might be reading some work on air.
However, my radio reading can’t be from the Chester Blott extract because it is a bit rude.
I might have to read from the (honest to God made up) adoption story. Just one more time.

So, if you like that sort of spectacle - public displays of ineptitude - you know what to do.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Last Post: How it felt on the day I discovered that I did not have a distinction…

I’d started to believe I would never know my MA marks; and a bit of me preferred it that way – with Schrödinger's Cat and the flask of cyanide snugly boxed up I could imagine whatever I like.

And what I like to imagine is that I’ve been awarded a distinction.

I could have tried to discover the marks – I could have contacted the person who will know or the administrators who frighten me – but that was daunting, and a bit like temping providence.
Then – one Tuesday afternoon five weeks ago – I was in the library and I happened upon the person who will know.
I have been in a dark funk since that day. I saw the term ‘dark funk’ in an article and it is a perfect description of the way I feel; a sad mix of gloom and craven passivity.

One darkening Tuesday afternoon, five weeks ago, I meet the person who will know my MA marks in the library.

It is impossible (for me at least) to ignore the bulky cat-box on the floor between us. So, when we have established how well we both look, I ask the question. I ask the person who will know when we might find out about our marks.

‘The Board met last week,’ the person who will know says, ‘your dissertation is with the administrators who frighten you and ready to collect.’ (she doesn’t actually call them that – I’ve never admitted to the person who will know that I am afraid of the administrators, although she might easily have guessed).

So I walk - limping slightly; the limp returns for the walk - very, very slowly, across the winter concourse that separates the library and the student centre, where the dissertation is ready to collect. The distance is about two hundred yards and the journey takes at least two hundred years. The student centre is jolly with light. Students and tutors, bathed in radiance from the windows, crisscross my path. They are chatting, and frowning and smiling and behaving as if nothing is odd.

I am waiting for the dissertation to be retrieved and there is a tap on my shoulder. It is the person who will know, again.

‘I just thought I would come across and tell you…’

I nod.

‘…we discussed your mark profile at the Board…’

I watch her mouth.

‘…and we decided to award you…’

I wait. It is like the ticking tense pause they do to be cruel on talent shows.

‘…a merit…’

And the cat is on its sad side at our feet. Its eyes are part open but milky-glazed and its body is a stiff as a branch.

‘…well done!’

‘Thank you.’

She speaks on, saying encouraging things about not letting the writing go and about not being disheartened by rejections.
I wonder – 'Is merit what they call a distinction at this university?' I wonder if the cat is merely in a black catty-funk, which would be understandable after being closed up in that nasty box for all those months.
The administrator who frightens me hands me the dissertation and I dare to touch the cat lightly with the toe of my shoe.

‘erm… So – does it go Pass, Merit, Distinction?’ I ask the person who will know.
‘That’s right.’
And there was really no need to check, we all already knew that the poor catty-sod had gone - you have been weighed and proclaimed kind-of ordinary.
I take the dissertation and sit in the disabled toilet and I look at my mark and I try to read the comments. 70%. I clawed my way to a 70% with the dissertation but it wasn’t enough to raise the mark profile.
70% is good. I have done nicely. I should be proud.
I stare at the comments with milky glazed eyes and I ask my self what did I expect.

What did you expect?

A spectacular dissertation mark to raise your mark profile?

An invite from the external examiner to meet his literary agent?

A handwritten request to join a prestigious writers' group?

A special prize?

A big clock?

Well no. Well yes. I don’t know – not the clock anyway, that’d just be ridiculous.

Aren’t you grateful to have passed? To start with you didn’t even know if you would pass.

I was being disingenuous when I thought that - I always knew I’d pass, I always knew I could get a distinction.

And how wrong you were. Why did you think you’d deserve such an accolade, why did you think you’d earned a distinction?

Because I worked a lot, because I tried so hard, because I wanted it – very much.

Ah! So. How do you think it all went wrong? Why do you think you weren’t awarded a distinction?

I don’t know. Maybe because I make fun of people to get cheap laughs?
Maybe because I don’t recycle plastic bottles if they’re oily and difficult to wash out?
Maybe because I added an espresso to my latte without telling the lady at the till?

It’s none of those things, is it?


What about you weren’t awarded a distinction because of these things:
You didn’t make yourself write when you reckoned you were in pain; too weary; you needed to tidy drawers out, urgently?
You sometimes wrote lazy self-indulgent drivel rather than answering the question?
You sometimes cited smartass paragraphs from hard books pretending you’d read the whole smartass book?

Could be... But still, I really did want it – very much.

The person who will know makes such a point of how nicely I have done that, after a day or two, I am able to bask in the assurance that at least no one will have a better mark profile than mine.
Then – I meet the friend whose dissertation mark is so spectacular that it qualifies her for the big clock (were such a thing not ridiculous). And, with a sickening sickness, I realise that there are people with much better mark profiles than mine; that the person who will know followed me from the library to the student centre to save me from myself, to save me from my own stubborn delusions.
The person who will know knows me too well. She realised that when I saw my 70% dissertation mark I would continue to nurse vain hope until the official results were posted. The person who will know opened the cat box and showed me the merit to stop me making any more of a fool of myself. Better for me to be in a dark funk than for students and tutors to see me cutting a confident swath across the light-drenched concourse between the student centre and the library pulling a branch-stiff dead cat lashed to a set of old pram wheels.

I have friends with distinctions and I must be glad for them. I am glad for them, but I wish it was me. And it will always be this other thing now – on the record, on the lips, in the mind, until I am gone. No, even after when I am gone.

So, 70% for the dissertation is good. I have done nicely. I should be proud of myself.

But that is not how it felt on the day that I discovered that I didn’t have a distinction.

ps my friend, Valerie, did her MA at Manchester was awarded a distinction and I am very, very proud and pleased for her!
pps The official results have just been posted and my overall average (by my calculation) is 69.11111111 (the 1s go on for ever).  A number that has a spectacular quality all of its own.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Throttling darlings & it's all over bar the recriminations...

Throttling children or killing babies or strangling darlings (I can't remember the proper term but you get the picture) is when you have to get rid of marvellous bits of your story because they don't work; sometimes because, *little voice* on reflection, they are rubbish. It is very hard and I have not got the hang of it yet.

In the early drafts of my loomidob, The Shoes, (it's called something else now but I'll come to that in the moment) I have my female protagonist, Joan, winsomely swinging her tennis racket as she strides down the hill in the warm evening sunshine after a steamy summer's day. A few weeks later in the story my male character, Senny, attends a testosterone and lager fuelled FA Cup party at his mate Little-Al's house.

When I set out my timeline and desultorily checked a few facts I discovered that FA cup finals are played in mid to late-May. I changed Joan's winsome-walking conditions to a balmy spring evening.

Then, I found out that in 1975 (the year the story opens) the FA cup final was played on 3 May. A few weeks before that Joan would probably have had to feel her way down the hill into town, with tennis rackets lashed to her feet like snow shoes. So that scene had to go, as did several other lovelies.

In my last post I mentioned that I was sick to death of my title, The Shoes. Sick to death to the extent that I wished the title harm. I have renamed my story Doing Without. The term doing without is used by Senny when he is thinking about whether he would have sex with Tabard-Joyce on the cafe table; regardless of her pop-sox and despite the fact that she picks up discarded cold baked-beans with her bare fingers (See? You want to read it now, don't you?)

"Tabard-Joyce unpacks our order from her tray to the table and retreats behind the tall glass counter. Ted follows her form. He is wondering if he can overlook the knee-length nylons and the baked-bean fingers enough to fuck her over one of the tables. I know this because I’ve wondered it myself and we’ve discussed the matter.

I decided it came down to how long you’ve been doing without, but on balance and given the opportunity, yes I would. Ted thinks he’s still undecided, but he definitely would too."

So. There it is. My story is sort-of finished. It also has a form at last; it grew to over 36,000 words so it is no longer a loomidob and now qualifies as a novella. I was quite sad to leave to loomidob behind but that's what happens.

I polished (as they say) 12,000 words and I wrote a 3,000 critical commentary on my writing process and I gave it all in, in duplicate, on Friday 13 August 2010. I have been in stark-staring shock since; I don't know when the results are due and I dare not ask.

I declined an invitation to attend the MA graduation because I am too superstitious. I told the lovely lady who is in charge of Ceremonies that I could not arrange to attend a graduation until I know if I’ve passed the degree. Unfortunately the truth is (and this is shameful) I can't arrange to attend a graduation until I know *miniscule voice* if I have a distinction. There. I've said it. Shameful.

This blog was for recording the progress of my MA in Creative Writing and it is finished now so the blog is finished. Thank you, my other reader, you’ve been lovely, supportive company x

Monday, 17 May 2010

Redraft Eleven as a Rubik's Cube and Setting Fire to Stupid Titles

I am hauling myself bucking and bellowing into redraft eleven of the dissertation story.  I’ve circled it warily for weeks. 

I think it’s reached a sort of Rubik’s Cube stage; the impression that it might be nearing completion is illusory.   This story needs to be pitilessly undone before it can be put together nicely.  I am trying to resist the temptation to just rip the little coloured squares off and stick them back (all curling at the edges) where I think they should go.

To recap for my other reader, the story is called The Shoes and is about a relationship over forty years told from alternating male and female points of view (POV).  Initially, it was to be 2,000 words long.  An earlier post about the process is here.

The story is an indeterminate form; too long for a short story, too short for a novella.  I've termed it a Loomidob for now.

I have written a large chunk of backstory for my female character.  It relates to a time when the girl is trying to prevent the adoption of the child she is expecting.  The extract became a short story called The Musical Mobile (as if I haven’t told you that already). 

My supervisor, The Author who is Writing about Neanderthals, said it is fine for me to write about events that have influenced characters but, to be fair, I should do something similar for my man character.

What I have been advised that I need to do:
See what techniques real authors use to get around the problems I am experiencing.
Signal temporal and narrative shifts more effectively.
Give my man more substance, more backstory - even if it is never used.
Sort out continuity and cohesion problems and research facts instead of guessing stuff.

During the wasted weeks when I’ve felt shitty and I haven’t felt able to write nicely I’ve been: 
speaking to real authors by email; 
thinking about my male character and trying to work out why he doesn’t seen authentic.

What I’ve read:
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (a get-better present from a really good friend)
Black Rock by Amanda Smyth
The Leaping by Tom Fletcher
Housekeeping, Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

What I’ve learnt:
Real authors make themselves write however shitty they feel because they can edit and redraft weak work but they cannot edit no work.   Real authors write a lot of stuff that never sees the light of day in its original form.

That I have to stop being resistant to signalling narrative shifts.  In The Leaping, Tom Fletcher alternates between two narrative voices and he signposts each change with the narrators name. It works very well.

I have to stop being resistant to naming my characters; it isn’t enigmatic, it’s pretentious and irritating.

I am going to have to write a lot of backstory for both of my characters and then jettison most of it; the piece is now over 17,000 words long and my word limit for assessment is 12,000.  17,000 (and growing) is really unwieldy; I forget where stuff is and my style has evolved as I’ve been writing so there are big discrepancies in technique.

I need to avoid sentimentality and cliché by recalling my own honest emotions rather than writing what I imagine a pretend person (who is inevitably more sophisticated than me) might do and feel.  A line from Anne Tyler’s book The Amateur Marriage brought me up short. 
The extract is set in the US in the1960s.  A mother has just discovered that her runaway daughter is in hospital in San Francisco, which is thousands of miles away from where she and her husband live.  She telephones her husband at work:
‘We have to go, you have to come home, how will we get there? …… We have to buy airplane tickets, how do people do that?’ 
Which I think is exactly how a real person might respond in the circumstance.  That is how I would respond.

I need a timeline to give me an overview of the structure of the story and to highlight irregularities or sloppiness. For example, I realise that I've written about a Harvest Moon in May, and I refer to a general election in 1974 that didn’t happen until 1976.  
Also I’ve made the male character’s father a socialist refugee.  Because my grasp of history is poor I don’t know which European countries generated socialist refugees around the time of WW2, or whether they were likely to arrive before, during or after the war.

Part of me thinks that this is my made up world and it doesn’t matter what I make up.  Part of me knows that if I were an examiner I’d throw a script across the room for slapdash fact-finding.

What has happened:

I am sick to death of the title, The Shoes. If I could set fire to that stupid title, I would.  If I could hang it, draw it, quarter it and put its head on a stake outside the city walls, I would.

I have given my characters names, Joan and Senny (short for Senacerib).

I signal narrative shifts CLEARLY.

My characters have more substance; transpires a high proportion of them were bed wetters (really!) No idea this has happened and I might have to rethink it -  but what can I do? Maybe noctural enuretics do clump clammily together for comfort. 

I am still finding it much harder to write the male point of view than to write the female point of view.

I listened to Michael Portillo’s Democracy on Trial on Radio 4.  Michael’s father is Spanish, a Labour voter who came to the UK just before WW2 as a refugee.  Hurrah!! Senny’s dad is that thing too!

What is still to do:
Ensure that the characters’ POV are distinctive, consistent and emotionally honest.

Ensure that the characters’ POV change and age as they do.

Write, edit, write, edit, stop being a wuss, write, edit.

Thank you to David Wright for my photograph of a wistful Rubik’s Cube (I knew David would had a Rubik’s Cube to photograph for me because he can do them very quickly!)  
David and his band The New Zealand Story are at Spotlight on Friday 21 May 2010, as are many other splendid people. Look Here for details.

I’ve got these books still to read:
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (a get-better present from someone Very Fine)
Antwerp by Nicholas Royle
Not So Perfect by Nik Perring (both get-better presents from myself)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Interview with Tom Fletcher

 There is an interview with Tom Fletcher, author of The Leaping, on the Lancashire Writing Hub blog 

(it is a very good new novel)
More information  about and links to interviews with Tom here