Saturday, 28 February 2009

Sorry, this is not for us, but thanks.

Yesterday, I went through my list of poetry/short stories I have submitted to various magazines, anthologies and online journals. I noticed certain patterns. There are some editors who respond very quickly, they send a short email or letter saying, 'sorry this is not for us, but thanks'. Wonderful. I love these editors. There are other editors who take their time to read submissions, between two and six months. This isn't as ideal, but I am happy with this as well, because they are very clear about this in the 'guidelines for writers' and they send an acknowledgement again, saying 'sorry, this is not for us, but thanks'.

These small acknowledgements, often by email, are really valued. They help me work out whether I am sending work to the right place or wrong place, and also whether I am free to send it out somewhere else. I can forget about the submission, and either soon or eventually the editor will give me a response. It reassures me. It says many things, including 'I have actually read your work', and 'I respect you as a person, enough to give a very small amount of my time to sending you a reply'.

The longest I ever had to wait on a submission was about 14 months. It was a small press that eventually accepted my work, contracted the work, paid me, and put a lot of work into promoting the anthology. 14 months is a very long time, but I was sent several messages along the way, telling me what was happening. It enabled me to make a decision about whether I wanted to wait or not. It also afforded me some respect I felt. The same press had previously taken a very long time with a previous submission which they subsequently rejected, but they wrote me a wonderful email telling me exactly why and giving me feedback about the stories I had submitted.

I even like the editors who write in their guidelines 'if you have not heard from us within two weeks, assume we have not accepted your work'. I can make a note of the date I send a story or poem and then know by a certain date that it has not been chosen. Hurray for editors that have clear guidelines.

My complaint is with the editors who never reply. As though my submission (and me) have been ignored, possibly thrown away without being read, and certainly rejected without me even knowing about it. Some of these editors put 'disclaimers' in their guidelines about 'we are a very small magazine and we don't have time to reply if we do not accept your work.' I have to confess I never send work to a magazine or website that says this, as for me it is about courtesy, respecting the time that a writer puts into their writing and their submission. A brief pre-prepared email that says 'sorry, this is not for us, but thanks' takes less than a minute to send and will encourage me as a writer to a) continue reading their magazine and b) perhaps submit something wonderful next time.

So, I am campaigning for rejections, bring them on. At least we know where we stand.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

short little nothings

I am naughty. I am stealing a lovely idea from stars sliding...

He posted ten titles from a random shuffle on itunes and added a short, mysterious memory associated with the title.

I have taken the first ten tunes on my ipod and used them as a little kicker for some short little nothings.

Because I want to
take your hand in mine, take you dancing in the park.

Sad dress:
the kind you want to burn in a metal bin in the garden.

Burn the witch, tell her that day is night, and five equals all the people that ever loved her, and when you are finished, don’t bury the ashes, leave them out in the rain.

The Hollow Men are the ones who walk through the city at lunchtime, with no time to stop and notice that small bird balanced on the statue’s nose.

On the side-street there is a woman dancing with no shoes on. She seems oblivious to the people watching. Her feet step on glass and bleed onto the cobbles.

Charmer. There is always one man ready to smile at all the women in the room, ready to promise them the moon, and then leave them starless.

Why I was born? I could say many reasons, but I will stick with one. Because there was no other place for me.

Red morning light, a stubble dream, a half-heard whisper.

Fire with fire, that’s what you say, as you throw my favourite books out of the window.

Santa Maria de Feira was the lady who lived opposite. She used to hang her dresses in a line between our houses, let them dry in the tango breeze.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How to Tell Stories that Heal

An unusual day for me. I have been on a workshop called How to Tell Stories that Heal, a day of exploring therapeutic story-telling with story-teller Pat Williams. It has been a day of cross-hatching my seperate lives as social worker and writer, and exploring how I can combine these two parts of my life.

I was nervous actually. These domains and each identity are usually very seperate (almost as though I have two lives). So, this morning as I walked to the venue, I wasn't sure whether I was social worker or writer. I decided to try and be both (not easy, as I see them very much as left brain/right brain ways of being.) But I introduced myself as both and tried to bring together these different identities.

Pat was an interesting trainer. I'm not sure how old she is, but I couldn't help but think of her as a wise old tree. She seemed to contain so many stories from different ages and cultures. She began with the metaphors in the opening lines of Dante's Inferno: 'Midway upon the road of our life I found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been missed.' She shared stories about Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah, Hans Christian Anderson, African folk tales, stories from the Oddysey, the Bible, newspapers, social research and her own examples of stories she has told as a Human Givens therapist.

She is an amazing story-teller, drawing people in to her stories without us even being aware she was starting to tell a story, yet suddenly there we were listening to a tale about a lion, a Persian princess who is anorexic and believes she is a cow, or blackbird that helps a small boy find his way home. It was magical at moments, and quite awe inspiring how naturally she told the stories, the trance that people seemed to be in as she told them.

The whole day was exploring how people can use these stories as healing tools. There were all kinds of professionals there, teachers, therapists, GPs, social workers, support workers, people who work in hospices, psychiatric wards and so on. A real mix of experiences all wanting to use stories creatively in their work, wanting to learn a little of the magic, know how stories could possibly heal.

I learnt, that even though I am a writer, I am not a natural story-teller. We practiced story-telling, creating stories, and responding to people's problems with healing stories. It is not an easy task for a story to just roll from the tongue, to find a story from within my own repetoire. It also felt a little embarrassing or awkward, I think because of my inexperience in verbal story-telling.

When I write fiction, I have the time to research, to play with language and find the right words, to find the story and explore where it is going, how it will evolve. With verbal story-telling, there is a need to bring a story out in the instant, sharing it with others, confidently, in a way that lulls them into the trance of story-listener.

Many stories came back to me from my childhood, stories I read over and over, especially fairy tales, but also myths, stories from well-known books or films. I had forgotten all about the Ugly Duckling, the Princess and the Pea, and a story my dad used to tell me about a fish that got lost and then found it's way home. I think I had forgotten or mislaid my memories of the magic of listening to stories, and perhaps because I don't spend much time with children, my experience of telling these kind of tales needs a little practice.

I can tell stories from real life, of films I have seen, stories from soap operas or news items. But not the magical, the mythical, the dream-like, the folklore tales... It's made me excited to re-discover these stories and read more, perhaps build a repetoire of stories I can use in my work or just to enjoy for myself.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Clare Wigfall

One of my favourite short story writers, Clare Wigfall, has been interviewed in the Swansea Review

She answers some very interesting questions about her collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and the short story as genre. I love this:

'I feel in a way that your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete. I believe this is why the very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. There’s something magical about that.

And here's a copy of my review of The Loudest Sound and Nothing originally published in Transmission.

The breadth of these short stories is breath-taking: Clare Wigfall seems to be able to place a story perfectly in different eras, social contexts and place. She writes authentically in distinct voices and from differing perspectives: the Scottish vernacular of Peigi NicFionnlaigh in The Numbers, the Dallas drawl of Bonnie in Folks Like Us, and the upper class voice of a London socialite in the 1930s in Hero I Have Lost. We are taken to Arizona, Andalusia, an isolated Scottish island, a besieged Paris

Each story is rich with evocative sensory detail. The girl in On Pale Green Walls slips a dead bird embryo into her mitten. Enid Tythe in Norway walks away from her house and observes it from a distance: “there was an oddness to it, a sense of detachment to watching her home javascript:void(0)from such a distance, like looking through the tiny windows of a dolls’ house.” In The Occularists Wife, in Monsieur Pontellier’s shop of eyeglasses “the very air is shot with jewel-like colour”; yet behind the shop “the corridor is dark and the tunnelled effect of the lighted doorway in the distance reminds her of looking down a child’s kaleidoscope.”

I found the whole collection astutely observed. Some details are almost self-contained poems: “She is walking a squall of small Maltese dogs. Johannes counts at least six of them undulating about her feet, their short legs concealed beneath long fur. They remind him of Hokusai clouds, or it could be waves, maybe even snow for a second or two he can’t see them as dogs anymore, only the crash and curl of snow-white surf in a Japanese print.” (The Parrot Jungle.)

Each story opens out slowly as we read it, as though it is happening to us. There are subtle mood shifts, characters observe each other, and small moments are captured between them, very private moments. I needed time for each story to sink in after I read it, as there is so much depth in the writing, and each story deserves to be savoured before moving on to the next.

The Loudest Sound and Nothing is a brilliant first collection from Clare Wigfall, and a real find for Faber. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

a writing prompt

As I was walking to work this morning, I noticed something quite unusual along the side of the pavement.

I thought it might make an interesting flash fiction/prose poetry writing prompt, and I have decided to share it, and offer a 'prize' to the piece of writing I like the most...

A gorgeous hardback copy of Richard Bardsley's Body Parts: The Anatomy of Love along with a copy of my chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands

So, less than 150 words - flash fiction or prose poem - in response to this picture...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Another beautiful short...

I just read another beautiful short at Pygmy Giant. Weird name for a 'e-magazine, a Forum, a poetry slam, or a sticky table in the corner of a dingy pub', which is how it describes itself.

It seems to be one of the few places for British flash fiction... and I love the most recent story on there 'Retrospective with Mum' by Martin Reed. It's achingly sad, touching, beautifully-written, original. It captures the scene, the relationship and the fading character of mum so vividly.

I love finding good short shorts... the kind that makes me feel what I can only describe as a hum inside.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Flax and the process of being edited

As some people know, I went up to Lancaster last week to talk short stories with Sarah Hymas, editor of the next online short fiction anthology by Flax Books Unsaid Undone. I wanted to say something about the process, as I'm finding it interesting. Flax are a very good publisher, (in my limited experience).

My visit to their office was to talk about the pieces, as Sarah had some editorial advice. We went through the five short shorts they have accepted, and to be honest it was so easy, as all of her suggestions made sense - small changes, some grammatical issues, and then one or two cuts. It was straightforward, I said yes, yes yes, and one or two things I came away to think about further. I had no worries about making changes, it all made sense. So the process went very smoothly.

This was similar when Jim Hinks from Comma made an editorial suggestion for my short story Lindy for the short story anthology Brace. He approached me very sensitively, and I just said yes, straight away. No quibbles.

I have probably been very lucky to have good editors.

As well as talking about the work, I was photographed for their website, we talked through details for my writer biography as they include a detailed profile on all their writers, and we recorded me reading one of the short pieces 'Reflections' which will also be on the site after the launch on April 2nd.

It felt very professional and encouraging.

Flax also have a real focus on writer development, so I have been offered a coaching session to focus on my writing goals, what I want to achieve, how, what hurdles I might face, and what help I need to develop as a writer. A great opportunity, that I grabbed with both hands. I'll write about this at the end of the month after my session. It's exactly what I need at the moment. I feel like a baby writer with potential, and this might help me grow in the right ways.

Flax have other submission deadines this year for an online poetry anthology,a bloggers anthology and an audio album. It's well worth considering if you are a writer from NW England. They've done some really exciting projects, including poster commissions (the poster of my short short Okarito is on the right).

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Cella's Round Trip

I've discovered a great online magazine called Cella's Round Trip. There's some great poetry and flash fiction, some of it is brilliant, and each one is matched with beautiful image, be it photograph, artwork, graphic design. In Issue 1, I loved the shorts by Sara Crowley, quite hard-hitting, sad, along the lines of my own writing, yet different. Thought provoking. I also liked the poems by Arlene Ang, which I found bitter-sweet, rich, complex poems. The way she uses certain words together is beautiful I think.

In Issue 2, Frances Gapper's Slippery is a short short to die for, quite beautiful/unusual. Matt Bell's How to watch paint dry is a delight, really sinister, beautiful in the way it skirts around what we want to know about so our imagination can really work on it.

There is so much to love about this newly discovered magazine...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

short short heaven

I have been reading some short short fiction this week. I want to talk about Tania Hershman's beautiful little short in PANK called Missy. She has five pieces in the February Issue but this one really drew me in. Bold start: 'If I had a daughter, this it how it would be.' Then the voice, wow. It is so authentic, yet also surprising, because the character is not what we expect. A wonderful dynamic established between mother and daughter, a hateful, loving, dsyfunctional relationship that we think we understand and then new depths are revealed. A whole past implied. But then knowing that this is all imagined... 'If I had a daughter..' And the pace is wonderfully breathless, yet artfully controlled. All this, for under 300 words. This story is why I love flash fiction.

Another short short... on Expresso Shots by Anthony SidesShot No 22. This time we have only 73 words... exploring the relationships between three people, the narrator, his friend, and friend's girlfriend. what I love about this short is all that is unsaid or implied. I love the strength in the female character, the unacted betrayal of the friend and the phrase 'she can make a long time slide'. A lot is happening in so few words.

I'm also enjoying Fiona Robyn's A small stone which are the smallest most delicious images, glimpses of life. I especially loved this one:
'A snow hill looms from the mist, the horizon missing. Someone's scissors
have cut out cattle shapes.'

I went on my second Paper Planes workshop today... it was a wonderful afternoon. I wrote four very short shorts. I'm quite pleased with them. In one,I invent the three minute silence, another is about a singles night, another about a lonely woman who wants to learn Urdu, and the other has a title I love (stolen from the back of the toilet door in Fuel Cafe Bar)
PO Box 332, Salford. Tell me your secrets, I will respond
Most of my titles are so boring, I love this one. it's ridiculously long, but so perfect for the piece I've written. So tonight, I plan to work on these pieces and a few others I have been writing.

Oh, how much I love writing or reading a lovely piece of short fiction or prose poem.

And then a lovely surprise through the post from Lynne Rees for my prize poem 'Recovery'. It's a gorgeous little notebook that I am going to fill with prose poems. My aim is to write everyday in March. Thank Lynne for the inspiration.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Applehouse Poetry Workshop

I follow a blog called Applehouse Poetry Workshop hosted by Poet Lynne Rees. She sets the most brilliant inspiring poetry exercises, and I found out my poem Recovery is the prize poem for January... how wonderful.

I really recommend the site for her insightful comments on poems, the workshop exercises and her comments on writing poetry, including poetic form.


Here is a chicken coop with no hens.

A burnt out caravan, a tin of gasoline,
a rusting tap, three empty barrels,

standing by a corrugated shed.
Where I can hear a radio

an old transistor’s crackle and hiss.
Nobody is listening.

Cold mug of tea. Worn armchair
Pair of slippers with nobody to wear them.

I sit in the shed and stare out
at nothing, no life that I can see.

Brown furrows where there should be
leeks or carrots or beets.

Not even prickled bushes or squat trees.
Dried earth for miles. Grey sky.

Then, at the edge of my vision-
a dash of colour, a wingbeat.

It’s hard for me to see, but for a moment
on the rotting handle of a spade,

almost breathless, it flits from spade
to rusting tap to the edge of the door,

darts towards me and rests
this fleeting sign of life

on the arm of my chair.

Annie Clarkson

Victoria Wood

I just found this wonderful parody of Brief Encounter by Victoria Wood. So funny.

grit in my eye

Today I was in Lancaster meeting Sarah Hymas, editor of Unsaid Undone about my five short short fictions to be published in this online book.

I am very excited as the book will be launched at the Brief Encounter Tea Room, Carnforth Train Station. Brief Encounter has to be one of my all time favourite films. The Refreshment Room, where Laura and Alec met, reopened in 2003. Oh my gosh, I can pretent to be Celia Johnson with grit in my eye reading short fiction and drinking tea all at the same time. It is my idea of heaven.

The launch will be on Thursday 2 April 7pm, and it would be so lovely to see some friendly faces. I will be reading alongside Brindley Hallam Dennis, Andrew Michael Hurley and Marita Over.

And just for the memories, here are the final scenes from Brief Encounter. *sigh*

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

25 things about me

1. I make up the words to songs if I can't remember them

2. I always had a secret wish to be one of the Brontes.

3. I often only drink half a cup of tea.

4. I make a mean fruit crumble

5. I am working with an artist on some poetry posters and we have been cutting up words

6. I wish I could work part-time

7. I'm addicted to BBC period dramas, the grimmer the better

8. I talk to my cat all the time

9. Someone once called me an angel of the north and I was quietly pleased.

10. I collect buttons

11. and keep birthday cards, letters, postcards, cinema tickets, newspaper cuttings and photographs in shoe boses on top of my wardrobe.

12. Every so often I have a clear out, which takes me days, and I usually keep a lot more than I throw out.

13. I believe in reincarnation (I think)

14. I love listening to Joni Mitchell, especially Blue

15. The first photograph I ever took was of my grandad's cauliflower

16. I once hit my sister over the head with a rake and she says she still has the scars.

17. Our family love food, and often talk about the meals we've enjoyed and the ones we have yet to enjoy

18. I want to go back to New Zealand, but not on my own

19. I would like to have a collection of short short fiction published by Salt, but I haven't got enough good pieces of writing yet

20 I am reading at the Brief Encounter Tea Room Cafe at Carnforth Train Station on 2nd Apil at 7pm

21. This is very exciting as Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films, and I can pretend I am Celia Johnson having a love affair with an exciting stranger.

22. I believe that kindness is the answer to most problems.

23. I like watching foreign films, especially at the cinema

24. I can sing happy birthday to you in Spanish

25. I love rain.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Poets and Players

Wonderful reading today at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. A Poets and Players event, always wonderfully organised, in the gallery (which I love). They are something of a kind. Today, there were musicians playing very haunting music that filled and echoed around the gallery - violin and tabla. There were readings from four poets: Sarah Corbett, Adam O'Riordan - I really loved the intensity of his poems, he is poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere at the moment apparently - Joy Winkler, who I was on a writing course with once, and she was very funny, and John Siddique whose name I see everywhere on internet and around the city. It's the first time I heard him read, and was very interested, but wanted longer to take in his poems. I want to hear him read again, perhaps for longer.

It was the most pleasant way to spend the afternoon, a free poetry event in one of my favourite venues.

I had a cup of tea and scones with an old writing friend afterwards, we were on the same Arvon writing course eight years ago. I can't quite believe it was eight years ago. That week was a real turning point in my life, at a time when I needed it, and it is most probably the week when I 'found my voice', if you believe in such things. What do I mean by this? I went into the week being very unsure about my writing, not feeling I could ever be a writer, but desperate to try. I can't express how fearful I was, with no idea at all what to expect. The week helped me to form ideas of what I wanted to write about, realise from feedback that I did have some kind of voice of my own, that it was different from other people's on the course, and perhaps I had the potential to be a writer. It was a week where life shifted for me and started me off on the journey I have been on since.

So after the reading, we drank tea, and talked about our writing and what we are working on (and how an MA in Creative Writing with all its intensity affected each of us for a long while after). I finished my MA three years ago, and after so much writing, reading, feedback, I had a long period where it was difficult to focus. It was lovely to catch up with him. I like that we are still in touch after all these years.

Then also I have been working on some reviews. I have two reviews to write for The Short Review, two short reviews of poetry chapbooks for Sphinx Magazine (related to Happenstance poetry chapbook imprint), and one outstanding review for Bookmunch. I might have a rest from reviewing for a month or two after that so I can focus on some of the wonderful books I'm dying to read simply for pleasure... Tania Herschman's The White Road, which I've already had a little sneak into, but want to enjoy properly, and Charles Lambert's Scent of Cinnamon. So many books I want to read...

AND, I have a short story I want to finish, some prose poems to edit, and some ideas that are still evolving. I am going up to meet editor of Flax Books on Friday to discuss the four very short stories that they will be publishing in their next anthology due out in April. More on this later.

And my blogs... I have realised that I haven't properly introduced myself on here, and have just launched straight into writing reviews and other such things assuming that anyone who might read this blog already knows me from my perhaps more personal myspace blog... which I am still keeping up with as well as appearing here. So I apologise and will slowly introduce myself over coming weeks. There is just so much to do and such little time...