Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Two videos

First, another piece of video art by the talented Richard O'Callaghan (watch his video inspired by The White Road), this time inspired both by my story I am a Camera (which you can read here) and by Fellini's La Dolce Vita! Who would have thought...

And this, via Sarah Salway, which is wonderful, Kurt Vonnegut's advice on writing great short stories...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Retreating, and bringing it back home

I have been meaning to write about my retreat experience for a while but other blog posts got in the way. Well, I have been thinking about it a lot, as well as those new year's resolutions again, because those 10 days at Anam Cara at the beginning of the month were the closest I have come to bliss in a long, long time. On previous occasions at AC, I have received majorly good news - Salt offered me the book deal there in 2007, I won the Binnacle Ultra Short Comp in 2009 - but those have tended to be somewhat of a distraction from The Work. And the reason I went - with my two great friends, Vanessa Gebbie  (who had just received her own amazing news) and Sue Guiney, was to work. To write. 

It felt like I hadn't done any "proper" writing for months and months. Or perhaps years. I've been reading Paris Review interviews (the latest with Jonathon Franzen and Louise Erdrich), and both were talking about how important it is to have your next project in the works when a book comes out. And I've talked here before about how I most certainly did not have that. I had no clue. I hadn't believed that my book would actually be published, it was utterly unreal, and I had spent the 15 months from book deal to publication mostly holding my breath. I couldn't get down to anything that required concentration - so i set up The Short Review as a distraction. (Ah yes, beware of those "small" distractions!)

That was when I started really devoting myself to flash fiction - it was and is a sort of "instant gratification" for me in terms of the process. It's heady, addictive, for me it happens in one "splurge", on sitting, with some tinkering afterwards but not the same kind of revising that goes on with a longer story, the kind of story you carry around with you in your head for weeks and months. I didn't have that head space, it was filled with ecstatic anxiety!

And then, when the book came out, was that when life got back to normal? Yeah, right. More things to fill your head, namely the question "How can I get people to read it?", which whirls around and around...

So, basically, to cut this very long story short, we three had planned this retreat in August and I was desperate for December to come because, 2 years after publication, I have my Arts Council grant for the Next Book (or Project, as I prefer to think of it in order to psychologically fool myself) but hardly any time or head space to write it. I've been so incredibly lucky over the past 15 months since we moved to England, I have had wonderful invitations to read, meet with book groups, teach workshops, around the country. But for me, if I know on a Sunday that the week coming up includes some kind of event, I feel like I can't relax, can't settle down into my writing. It's mad, I need to get over that. But first, I needed that 10 days to get myself on track.

And get myself on track it did. I was worried - always worried, see?? - that I wouldn't be able to get down to work. I had a commissioned story to write (for Comma Press's exciting anthology of fiction inspired by scientific breakthroughs) which I hadn't been able to physically write due to hand pain. What if that took the whole 10 days? Okay, not the worst thing. But I wanted to do more. 

Let's just say that it couldn't have gone better. The story for Comma, which had been causing me anxiety because it had to be a minimum of 2500 words and the longest story I've written since 2007 is 1500, had been spinning in my head for so many weeks that it all came out. (I had to write it in short flash-like sections and then actually printed it out, cut them up and rearranged them by hand, which was fun and so tactile). First, I was relieved since I was on deadline. Second, I learned I could write something over 2500 words (about one word over...). Third, it was done by day 2, so I had 8 more days to do more!

And do more I did. This involved all sorts of writing related things, from transcribing stories and beginnings of stories from my notebooks to the computer to adapting a flash story into a poem for a poetry competition (thanks, Sue!), and reviewing a fabulous short story collection for The Short Review.  And, much to my astonishment, it resulted in my starting to write something so far out of my usual "comfort zone" that I don't know what to call it! It seemed to be a result of reading 5 books by Fred Vargas in as many weeks. I don't normally read crime thrillers, but was intrigued by Sarah's blog post in October. So I got one book out of the library. And was delighted. So I got another... and another... These books are not just well-written, but they are funny and quirky, no-one says the predictable thing. They are steeped in Frenchness, which is lovely for a Francophile like me, and they are not really about the whodunnit but about the characters, who are singular and fascinating. 

What really inspired me was the humour but also the way Vargas (who is female) uses an omniscient narrator who moves from one character's head to another, often on the same page, and how well this works. I had always thought this would impede flow, I don't think I'd seen it done well before.

Whatever it was, something was released in me, and I have started "something" which is now 3000 words and not yet finished, and dips into the heads of at least 5 characters. And more importantly, it makes me laugh as I write! I have no idea what might happen, if it's some sort of crime thing, but right now I don't care. I occasionally write short stories that make me smile but more often than not they disturb me and sometimes upset me, so this is the most wonderful contrast.

Fear not, I am still writing short stories, working on my Arts-Council-funded project inspired by the biochem lab I am in and the 100-year-old biomathematics text book. The retreat helped me figure out what I have already done and where I might be going. I just really hope I can hold onto even 10% of the feeling I had there - with nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do, not even make meals or feed the cats or even talk to anyone during the day - then I might be able to keep this up. I have my new study set up in our new house  while we consider options for my writing shed (when the freeze is over) and in it I have a single bed donated by a friend (thanks, Alison!) because I learned at Anam Cara how important it is to have a horizontal option in my writing space. I get all my best ideas at night, in bed, so why not try and simulate that at other times?

I am, once again, as I did last year, I am trying to cut down on online distractions. I have a note stuck up on the wall above my desk with a list of things I musn't do ("check Amazon rankings", "check website and blog stats")... and so far, today, I haven't done any of them. It's a start. Yes, I've played online Scrabble, but I still stick to my conviction that that does actually help the writing. Time will tell!

Anyway, Happy New Year of Writing to you all, I look forward to hearing great news from all of you, dear blog readers, thanks for being here, whether I know you're here or not. Feel free to say hello!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sean O'Faolain Winner and Finalists in New Issue of Southword

For your holiday reading pleasure, the new issue of Southword journal has just been published with the winner and finalists of the Sean O'Faolain short story contest which I was honoured to judge this year. (See the final results here). The winning story is Eddie by Nikita Neilin and in 2nd place, No Angel by Bernie McGill. I hope you enjoy them, and the four runners-up, as much as I did!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

National Short Story Day in the UK

I think you know how I feel about short stories... so no need for another post here in honour of National Short Story Day today, (21st December is the shortest day of the year) - extolling their virtues! Instead, I direct you to the brand new issue of The Short Review for ten collections to start with, and to the Short Review blog, where there's a lovely widget showing you all the @shortstoryday activity on Twitter, recommendations of stories etc..., freely available even to those of you who haven't discovered the joys of twitter.

Happy National Short Story Day! Find out more about the day here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wellcome collection guest blog

I am planning a longer blog post about my retreat experience, which was heavenly, but for the moment, a few links:

Part 2 of my guest blog post on science-inspired fiction is now up on the Wellcome Collection blog, (part 1 is here). If you don't know the Wellcome Collection, it is a brilliant place in London, a "free visitor destination for the incurably curious, exploring the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future." My guest blog is about examples of "SciLit" that I like, what works for me and what doesn't. A taster:

The first fiction inspired by science that I came across, and still my favourite, is Einstein’s Dreams, by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. Published in 1994, this could be described loosely as a novel-in-stories, an imagining of what Einstein might have been dreaming about as he was formulating his theory of relativity. Each chapter or story conjures up a different theory of time – it moves slower at higher altitudes, disorder decreases with time instead of increasing, it works in a groundhog-day fashion where people are doomed to repeat the same day again and again. Einstein’s Dreams is not only thought-provoking but beautifully written...
Read the rest here.

Huge congratulations to my friend Sarah Hilary who has acquired a top-notch agent! Read her very insightful blog post on how to get an agent... or not. Really good advice, especially about perseverance and accepting critique. Heed it well.

More soon...!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Menage a Trois: Part 1

It's wonderful having friends who are writers, sharing experiences, celebrating the good things and commiserating about the hard times. So first, some celebration: I am delighted that my great friend Vanessa Gebbie's first novel, The Coward's Tale, will be published by that venerable publishing house Bloomsbury, in the UK and the US, with hardback coming out in Nov 2011! Thrilling news and inspiring for all of us, it is a beautiful, poetic book, it's fantastic that a major publisher sees its potential for capturing a great readership. Congratulations!

Now, what is the title of this blog all about? Not just there to catch your eye... I have two writer friends, Sue Guiney - whose most recent novel, Clash of Innocents, was published in November - and Lauri Kubuitsile - Botswana-based author of 13 books - who are very prolific, writing all sorts of things, and a few months ago I thought I'd ask them how they did it. The 3-way conversation was fascinating, it went on and on... So we thought we'd split it in three parts and host a third each on our blogs, all on the same day - and also as part of Sue's virtual book tour. Hence: menage-a-trois. Right? Before I launch into my first third, here are their bios:

Sue Guiney: I'm a writer of fiction, poetry, plays. I'm a teacher of fiction, poetry, plays. Born and raised in New York, I've made my life in London with my husband and two sons.

Lauri Kubuitsile: I have 13 published books, including three books from my Kate Gomolemo Detective series. My children's book Mmele and the Magic Bones (Pentagon 2008) was shortlisted for the African Writers Prize (UK) and has since been chosen as a set book for all primary schools in Botswana.My short stories have won numerous prizes.In 2005, I was among three writers shortlisted for our national, biannual prize for creative writing the Orange/Botswerere Prize. In 2007, I took first position for the same prize.

And here's what we talked about. There'll be a link to Part 2, on Lauri's blog, at the bottom:

Tania: Hi Sue and Lauri. Tell us everything - everything - that you write!

Thanks so much for asking me to take part in this, Tania. So to begin, some may say my writing is all over the place:
Short stories
Magazine articles
My blog (of course)
Endless emails
Good morning Ladies,
Oh my- this might be a bit of an embarrassment showing explicitly what a writing whore I am but here goes:

Adult short stories
Short stories for kids
Detective novellas
Romance novellas
Adult novels
Children’s books
Magazine articles
Newspaper articles-primarily science and health
Newspaper column on writing books and publishing (this is new)
Radio educational programmes (science, maths and English for primary)
TV scripts- drama series for private production company and HIV/AIDS NGO
Science textbooks for primary and junior secondary school
English textbooks junior secondary

I think that’s it.
Tania: Wow! I had no idea that you were both so amazingly prolific. Ok next question, feel free to take your time with this:

2) How do you know what you're going to write before you start? Is it a conscious decision or not? Is it for some forms and not others?

Hi Guys. This is fun. I think I may be different from Sue as I must make a living from my writing, I must have a monthly income of a certain amount from writing. My husband is a government school headmaster (translated as low paying) and we have two kids. I need to work. I don’t want to take a day job. I want to earn my share from my writing. I know it is politically incorrect to say that I write to earn a living, but that’s it. Keeping it real- as it is.

I have two adult novels I wrote with no market in mind- I just wrote them- they sit unpublished and will likely remain there unless I break out and then conveniently die. From that experience, I know I don’t like writing that doesn’t get published. I view it as a failure (normally) or as a lesson when I’m being kind hearted.

So having said that, I always know where I’m going when I start. I don’t always know which publisher I will send to, or contest, or magazine but I know if I am writing a romance or an adult novel or a children’s book; I know if it will be genre or literary. I am an anal Capricorn – I plan most everything in my life, and after those first two ‘organic’ novels I decided I was going against my innate nature to do otherwise with my writing. Occasionally I will tweak something afterward to have it more streamlined for a particular mag or publisher that I eventually choose. I usually start with an idea that stews in my mind until it gets the right amount of ‘tension’ behind it, but when I get to work at the computer,  I know already what I am writing.
Hi Guys.  I’m back!
First, I want to say that I  think Lauri is amazing to be able to reliably have a monthly income from her writing.  That is something I have only dreamed of...I don’t think it is “politically incorrect” at all to say that you write for a living.  It is what I aspire to.  I am very lucky in that my family does not rely on me for income.  To be honest, if that was the case I’m not sure what sort of writing I’d be doing at all.

But as far as knowing what genre a new piece will be, like Lauri, I know at the start.  An idea will come to me, and the form it will take will come along with it.  With poetry, I do tend to sit down with my “poet’s head” on and think, “ok, it’s time to write a poem. What will it be?”  But with other genres, the piece itself will dictate the form.  For example, plays will grow out of a very visual kind of imagining.  Although all my writing, including poems, seems to originate with character, in a play I imagine that character in a specific space like a restaurant or a sitting room, whereas fiction places the character first and foremost in time.  When I write a story, the time is compressed, as in a day or a few hours.  In a novel, time expands to cover a series of months or a year.  Certainly, there have been great novels that take place in just one day (ie Joyce’s Ulysses). And there have been many short stories that cover an entire lifetime.  But for me, so far at least, fiction examines how a character evolves over time and the breadth of that time period helps to dictate the form.    But to be honest, I have recently found that the more pieces I have written and the more pieces I am trying to find a home for, the more I need to think about how much time I myself have.  Do I have the time or energy to begin to write something that I know can’t possibly take me less than a year or two to finish, like a novel, or should I wait before taking on another task of that magnitude and use my time to work on shorter pieces?  For the first time in my writing life I find myself in precisely that position right now.  I presently have a novel, 2 plays, a short story and a poetry collection “out there.”  I know all of them will eventually need revising and reworking.  So I’m holding off beginning the new novel I have in mind until most of what is already out there is really finished.  So I suppose I’m saying that the more writing becomes a business for me, the more I put brakes on myself and steer myself towards one genre or another, depending on outside unrelated factors.

Yes, this is fun.  Lob us another one, Tania!

Tania: This is fun! And very interesting. Is there anything you'd like to ask each other while I am formulating my thoughts?
...carry on reading over at Thoughts from Botswana>>>>