Posts Tagged ‘reading’

I admit it – I have neglected this blog quite shamefully and it is almost exactly a year since my last post. Having our house on the market for two years and attempting to keep both house and large country garden under control for viewings took much of my time. But the main reason for not posting was that I had run out of things to say about writing and the writers’ condition. The online writing sites that I have used for the last twelve years or so have fallen into what can only be described as the doldrums and I have perceived a general lack of enthusiasm for giving and receiving feedback in this remote fashion.

That is not to say people aren’t being busy and successful! On the positive side, many members of my favourite site have now been published or have agents and potential publishing deals, so the process of online reviews has clearly been working well. I have had a few small successes of my own, including several shortlistings in Flash500, acceptance of a story into Twisted Tales 2016 and – tarantara – I won the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s Flash Fiction competition, with another story shortlisted. So that was nice! Sadly, the announcement was made at the launch of the Festival and, since I couldn’t be there because of moving house, one of the judges had to read my winning story. But there you go. I’ll be reading both stories at the launch of the anthology on Sunday 20th November, all being well.

The reason for posting now is that I have joined an actual live writing group in my small town and thought it was an opportunity to share this new experience. It’s a five-minute walk to the weekly venue so I have no excuse for not turning up, apart from family commitments, disasters and holidays. I have only been to one meeting so far because of the first of these, but I did do the homework, which is limited to 500 words on each occasion. I had also done the homework for my first meeting: to write a love scene.

My first thought on the subject was – AAARRRGGGHHH! I would never put myself in the position of writing such a thing, especially if it were to contain sex. I don’t enjoy reading sex scenes and I can’t imagine the horror of writing one. But when I had calmed down, I realised that a love scene needn’t contain sex and that many of my very short stories are love scenes of one sort or another. So I wrote a new one and read it aloud when my turn came around. It went down well, with hoots of laughter in all the right places, along with a collective groan at one intentionally sickly bit and even a tear from one member at the end. Who could ask for more? I also got some useful feedback, which I have used to tighten it up for submission to Flash500.

I was very impressed by the general standard of writing – and reading – within the group and all the feedback was pertinent and kindly given. Having become used to somewhat more brutal treatment via online groups, this made a refreshing change. But I do want the truth, 100% of the time. Anything else is of little use, but I must be careful how I phrase any criticisms. Coming from Yorkshire, this isn’t really in my DNA…

So my first experience of the writing group was overwhelmingly positive. My only problem arose during the usual end-of-session five-minute writing challenge. The topic was ‘a message to a particular member who is sick’ and could take any form. The fact that I had never met this person shouldn’t have been the barrier it became, but my mind went completely blank and I didn’t write a single word. The others managed some very entertaining, irreverent and poignant poems and prose and I felt really stupid for not producing anything.

This failure probably wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows how I work. I’m not a jotter or drafter. If I have an idea for a story, I let it grow and develop in my mind until it is either forgotten or emerges fully formed and largely edited after a period of days, weeks or even months. I am extremely intimidated by the idea of writing ‘on-the-spot’, especially when everyone else gets their heads down and starts scribbling. It’s my recurrent exam nightmare all over again! When my turn to ‘show’ came round, I explained my predicament and was met with understanding and reassurance. Somebody said that the group is a safe place in which to try things out and no one should be anxious about any perceived failure, because it is about having a go and gradually building confidence. I hope I fare better on Thursday when the next challenge is set but if I don’t, I’m not going to beat myself up. I’ve managed three lots of homework on a given topic, something that is normally outside my ‘comfort zone’ – note the inverted commas, because the latest assignment is a maximum of 500 words using as many cliches as we can squeeze in. I’m not sure how this exercise benefits our writing but I’ve done it anyway. So I am already stretching myself a little further than usual and if the only benefit to my writing is that I achieve the odd submittable piece, it will be a good result.

I ought also to mention that it is lovely to meet new people and to share an experience, doing something at which we all want to improve. So no minuses, really. It gets me out of the house and away from the computer for a couple of hours and I heartily recommend it. So far…

Watch this space.

If you have any experiences of writing groups you’d like to share, please post a comment. Go on – scare me!

Advertisements

I recently posted a new flash story of 500 words in my online writers’ group and received a number of critiques. These ranged as ever from ‘I really liked this! Perfectly judged,’ to (more or less) ‘I don’t really get it’. This is very much the nature of writers’ groups and is often an indication of the writing styles of other members rather than their ability to offer constructive criticism, but it led me to ponder the issue of ambiguity in fiction.

I love an unreliable narrator – it’s my favourite thing, both to read and to create (see Crossed Lines, Mother’s Pride etc). While it must be quite hard to keep it going over the course of a novel (I’m currently reading Gone Girl and am finding the clues a bit heavy-handed but check out The Dinner by Herman Koch for one of the best examples) it is relatively easy in very short fiction.

Even if I write a story in the third person, I like to create some ambiguity so that readers have to join some dots for themselves. I much prefer this approach when I’m reading someone else’s work rather than have everything laid out for me on a plate, because it then includes me as an active participant in the story and brings the reading experience to life.

But where do you draw the line? What proportion of readers need to ‘get’ it to let the writer know he or she has done enough ‘signposting’? Perhaps I am too cavalier about this, but if only one reader clocks it, I am well on the way to letting the story go as it stands. However, if a critic indicates that a tweak in a particular place will enhance the tension and lay another subtle clue, I am definitely and gratefully up for that.

Last year I parodied the Government’s hideous bedroom tax with a flash by the same title. I set out to be completely ambiguous in an effort to create mystery and humour, and was rewarded by this comment from John Hudspith, writer and editor: The huge level of intrigue and boundless possibility almost made my brain explode, and I just know I’ll have some good nightmares tonight. So thanks for that. As for the title I wouldn’t change a thing. It sits there like the malicious tin opener it really is.’ It was the perfect reaction, yet another reviewer wanted more clues! Which proves that it is down to you to assess and decide which type of reader you’re writing for. The Bedroom Tax was published last year in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Eating my Words but you can read it here. I would love to have your comments if you have a minute.

For myself, physical details are rarely necessary or desirable in very short fiction, where every word counts, unless it has a crucial part in the story. I might mention grey hair or gnarled hands if I want to indicate age, but not so the reader can see a character if appearance is unimportant to the meaning of the piece. The shorter the piece, the more implications each sentence has to carry to earn its place in the whole. Where a novel may take a whole chapter to reveal a critical character trait, flash fiction must achieve the same reader understanding in a couple of sentences. There is no time to dwell on eye colour!

So I will continue to put my stories up for criticism on the understanding that the same people will like them and the same ones will always need a fuller explanation. When those who usually ‘get it’ also need an explanation, that’s when I’ll know I’ve got more work to do. Just because I know what’s going on, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it across. Hooray for second opinions!

In other news, I’m pleased to report that my flash, Message Understood  made the final twelve to be published in this year’s Twisted Tales anthology, so many thanks to the judges. I have also just heard that all three of my 300-word submissions to the Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction anthology will be published! I am obviously beyond thrilled about this. A Stash of Flashes will be available in October and launched with readings in November. More details on that nearer the time.

My reading in Bristol went really well to a packed house and I had lots of lovely comments. I decided on Bye Bye Blackbird in the end, which you can read here.

And that’s it for now. All comments and criticisms cheerfully received!

BristolFlash ReadingsI am really looking forward to National Flash Fiction Day’s Bristol event at Foyles on Saturday 27th June, where I will be reading one or two flashes. I haven’t decided which as yet, but there’s a five minute slot for each reader and it’s up to us how we fill it. One thing I have learned from my reading aloud experiences is that you almost can’t read too slowly, so I may confine myself to one five hundred-worder.

But which to choose? I have had a good couple of weeks with a short-listing (only ten writers long) in the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s flash fiction competition, a current short-listing in the annual Twisted Tales competition, and one of my favourite stories, Countdown, selected for Landmarks, the official 2015 National Flash Fiction Day anthology. I am tickled skinny and that’s a totally painless way to lose weight!

Everyone is welcome at Foyles and it’s free! The coffee bar will hold its usual temptations and there will be lots of chat, both writery and otherwise.

Earlier in the day there will be a free flash fiction workshop upstairs at Bristol Central Library from 13.30-16.30 with Calum Kerr, the Director of NFFD, and Ken Elkes, a prize-winning flash author. It should be fun, whether you’ve written very short fiction before or are a complete beginner to creative writing. The atmosphere will be relaxed and encouraging but you can always go along in disguise if you prefer!

There are many such events planned around the country, so please go and support your local writers. And even become one…

Have a great National Flash Fiction Day, wherever you are!

bookmuseFFoF Front Cover 2014Just a quick update, if anyone’s interested. Last Sunday I read my 300-word story, Care, at the launch of the Worcester LitFest Flash Anthology, Fifty Flashes of Fiction, and was thrilled to find that two of my flashes had been longlisted and included! The other was In Living Memory, which was previously shortlisted in Flash500.

Despite the complimentary glass of wine I was very nervous and black spots started to appear on the page as I was reading. It was a good job I knew it by heart! It was a good event and I was very impressed by the standard of writing and reading. It was also nice to meet some writers I had met before, and a couple with whom I had communicated on social media. I also have another nice book to add to my collection.

I had not really intended to enter the Words with Jam Spoof Genre Competition but the afternoon before the deadline an idea popped into my head, which I wrote down and sent off with no thought of winning, since my usual style is to agonise for weeks over a single word or phrase. Anyway, I didn’t win, but was a runner-up, which meant my crime spoof, The Pot Thickens, was included in the Bookmuse Journal, and a lovely little book it is too.

So that’s about it for now. I hope to get back to hosting Guest Blogs in the New Year, so if anyone has something interesting to say on a personal writery theme, please get in touch.

listen_with_mother2-229x300Some of you (though perhaps not very many) will remember this introduction to Listen with Mother on the BBC Light Programme back in the 1950s. Listening to stories on the radio, at bedtime and in the classroom, was (and probably still is) an introduction to literature long before we read it for ourselves. We learned how to sit still and focus; how to imagine ourselves in another world; how to suspend our disbelief.

I can still remember the frustration I felt looking at a storybook and being unable to decipher the letters. So each night, when my father read me the latest installment of Rupert Bear in the Daily Express, I insisted on studying the words so that I could match them to what he was saying. Soon I could tell if he was trying to cut corners and read the short verse instead of the much longer prose! These experiences translated into an insatiable appetite for fiction, long and short. But for reading, not writing. That came much later.

Although I speak the words aloud when I write (and often suggest to writers whose work I am critiquing that they do this to check the dialogue, sentence structure and clarity) the idea of reading to an audience was unthinkable for many years. All my life I have shied away from public speaking (which rather scuppered my early political ambitions) and always insisted in being on the production side of school plays because, although I knew how a role should be played, nerves would have strangled the words before they ever came near to being spoken.

So it was with great trepidation that I agreed to read my prize-winning flash fiction Mother’s Pride at a flash slam on National Flash Fiction Day in Oxford two years ago. The closer the date drew, the more nervous I became and every day I had to force myself not to pull out. But my husband came along for support, there were a couple of faces I knew from the internet, and everyone was very friendly. They were also, I realised with relief, at least as nervous as me. So I sank a glass of red wine and got the job done, and it was fine – even quite good! I can’t tell you how proud I felt when other experienced readers told me they would never have known it was my first time.

My second public reading wasn’t such a success. It was at the first meeting of Southville Writers, in a Bristol pub, and the background noise made it impossible for me to tell whether I was speaking loudly enough. Turns out I wasn’t! No one had any idea what my story was about until they read it afterwards.

My third venture was last Saturday in the Bristol Foyles, at an event organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers, where a mixture of poetry and prose was read over a five hour period. It was great to hear poetry read by the poet not in that monotonous, dreary way it is so often presented (think of Roger McGough on Poetry Please). This was real and vibrant and the writers knew exactly how to get the best out of it. I learned some valuable lessons about pacing, expression and delivery during those few readings, which I was able to use a short time later.

There were long breaks in between sections for chat and I had fun catching up with a couple of regular live performers I had met before, whose names (Pauline Masurel and Kevlin Henney) invariably crop up on shortlists and as winners of short fiction competitions. By the time my name was called I wasn’t too jittery, despite the large coffee. It went well, although I had a last-minute panic over differentiating between three separate voices, even though I’d practised and practised. I more or less pulled it off without stumbling and this time I knew everyone could hear because I had a microphone!

Again, the feeling of achievement was immense and I am now looking forward to my next performance – a reading of my 300-word story, Care – at the launch of the Worcestershire LitFest Flash Fiction 2014 Anthology in November, with much less fear. I’m hoping it gets easier every time, but I have a feeling I’ll always be grateful for a swift glass of wine beforehand.

As a listening experience, I can’t recommend live readings too highly. I find that hearing the words the way the author intended gives an extra depth to the story or poem and recreates that feeling of being immersed in another world that Listen with Mother gave us. In an age when it is all too easy to skim the surface of experience on social media, electronic games, film and television, this is a real treat. Please, if you see an event near you, do go along and support the writers. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did!

***

If you have any tips or tricks for live performance, I’d be very glad to hear them. Please leave a comment below.

 

My humorous flash, The Farcebook Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, made the long list of Flash500 this quarter but not the short – my first submission not to do so. It isn’t deep or moving, it’s just a bit of fun, but I hope it gives you an idea of my views on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I use Facebook and Twitter, but I do think they encourage narcissism and superficiality in a world that doesn’t need any more of that. And don’t get me started on ‘selfies’…

Anyway, I hope it gives you a bit of a chuckle this fine Monday morning. You can read it here. All comments welcome.

BSE2013Some years ago when self-publishing ebooks was still new, I decided to give it a go. I’d wasted years sending novels out to agents and publishers and getting nowhere. I’d had short stories published in magazines and anthologies and some articles and poetry accepted but, apart from one book (The Man with the Horn) which was taken on by a small press, my novels never managed to find homes. Though agents said they liked my writing and often made suggestions for commercialising them, none of them was willing to take me on. I watched my life slipping away while my books languished unread.

Venturing into the ebook market changed all that. I now have readers – not huge numbers but better than none – and I get some small recompense for my literary efforts.

Formatting and publishing ebooks involved a learning curve but fortunately for me, not a steep one. I already knew the basics of using Word and how to layout documents; I knew a fair bit of HTML and I had a general grounding in IT. Formatting the ebooks still required a little trial and error but I soon learned by my mistakes. Before long I was up and running and checking my sales every five minutes.

In those early days I did my own proofreading – something I also do for others – and since I had a basic understanding of Photoshop and design, I created my own covers. Indeed, I did everything myself from writing the book to banking the US cheques. (Amazon now pays directly into a bank account, so at least that bit of faffing about has gone.) I was confident enough in my ability to offer to assist other people in getting their ebooks published.

So, if I was managing by myself, why did I decide to join an author collective?

I had been sending my new book – Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion – out to agents but again I had no luck in getting anyone to sign me up.  Hoping this would be my breakthrough novel, as I felt it was the best work I had done so far, I longed to see it in paperback format not just digital. I wanted to possess the real artefact to hold in my hands and caress.

Self-publishing a paperback is both easier and harder now than it used to be. Easier because the processes become more and more user-friendly as time goes on; harder because the marketplace is swamped, the Amazon algorithms are less favourable to independent authors (unless you first sell vast amounts of books), and it’s a struggle to make the book visible to readers. There is also still some stigma attached to self-publishing actual books – I believe this is because sometimes those books are not well made, not vetted in any way for mistakes and the covers look homemade. The thought of producing a paperback all on my own was daunting.

Enter Triskele Books.

I already knew the women who set up Triskele (JJ Marsh, Liza Perrat, Jane Dixon Smith, Catriona Troth, Gillian Hamer) virtually from online writing groups and I went on to meet them at a couple of their book launches. I knew their writing and they knew mine. They had produced some excellent books housed in droolworthy covers. By the time they broached the subject of my joining them, I had already decided to approach them. We came together at exactly the right moment.

Joining Triskele Books meant I no longer had to do everything myself. The cover of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion has been created by Jane Dixon Smith (herself a Triskele founder, writer and professional designer), the proofreading has been done by Perry Iles of Chamberproof, and I’ve had input, advice and encouragement from other members of the group.

Mistakes in an ebook can easily be rectified: typos and formatting can be put right; a bad cover can be changed for a better one. When it’s a physical book though, any overlooked errors are there until the next printing and are often costly to correct.

coverIf I had tried to do everything myself the final product would not have been as polished as it is going to be. When going it alone there is always the temptation to cut corners. Any cover I might have designed would not have been as sleek and professional as the one Jane has created. Left to my own devices I would not have sent the manuscript off for a final proofread – and it would have been the worse for it. I would not have made the cuts and rearrangements which were suggested by members of the team.

Triskele has its own website, blog, bookclub, Facebook and Twitter pages and, because there are several people involved, a wider reach when it comes to gaining readers. Their books look highly professional and can stand alongside traditionally published books with their heads high. There is quality control regarding both form and content – they lend their name only to books that are well written and that ultimately look great.

I’ve always been a loner and, like Groucho Marx, wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member, but in the Triskele collective I believe I have found a group of like-minded writers. The collective is composed of talented individuals who have come together to create a greater whole.

I am honoured to be among them.

***

Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, a novel about a woman’s search for a missing manuscript and subsequen disorientation, will be available as an ebook in August/Sept 2014. The paperback will be available shortly thereafter. The Man with the Horn, a novel based on the myth of Dionysos, is being re-edited and will be available as an ebook soonFor more information visit Barbara Scott Emmett’s blog or follow her on Twitter @BSE_Writer.

Don’t Look Down, a thriller set in Germany, The Land Beyond Goodbye, a novel set in the Australian outback and Drowning: Four Short Stories are all available as ebooks.