Thursday, September 29, 2011

Aliens aliens aliens... and Mrs Darcy

There are some books that I know I am going to love reading. There are other books I pretty much know that I won't. And then there are the third and possibly most delightful kind, the unknown unknowns, the ones that come at you from left field and - BAMM - you are smitten! Such a book is one Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens  by one Mr Jonathan Pinnock, just published by Proxima Books, an imprint of Salt Publishing. I thought "mashups", I thought "aliens", I thought, "oh my goodness, no!".

I was wrong.

I giggled. I chortled. I couldn't stop reading. Not only is this an utterly wonderful story and oddly fitting with Jane Austen's characters (Lady Catherine‎ de Bourgh, an alien? Of course, silly me for not knowing that). I can't help but feel that Jane would be quite pleased.

I am delighted to have the, sorry, author here today. Let me tell you a little about Mr Pinnock. He studied Maths at Cambridge University (a fact that endears him to me already, without the aliens). Then, as his bio says, "he drifted into the world of software and has remained there ever since. He has written one book on software development and co-authored a further dozen, most of which are now almost entirely obsolete. In the last few years he has turned to writing fiction and poetry and has won a number of prizes and has had work read on BBC Radio 4. Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens is his first full-length novel."

I already knew I enjoyed Jon's short stories, having (anonymously) highly commended his story, Advice re Elephants, when I judged last year's Sean O'Faolain short story competition and was part of the judging team who shortlisted his story rZr and Napoleon for the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize. It's clear from these that he has a rather wicked sense of humour and a sly wit. So, I have asked him a few tricky questions, on your behalf:

Tania: Welcome, Jon. I recently met a very interesting biologist, Rachel Rodman, who also writes, and she has come up with a whole theory about literary mash-ups, of which I believe your book is one. Her article is published in LabLit. She calls you and your kind (!) "literary geneticists" and, using Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as her example, says: 
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in this sense a genetically modified organism, derived from the ancestral Pride and Prejudice by the introduction of new (genetic) material taken from the unrelated "monster" genre. A small-scale comparison of the two texts supports this idea: all Grahame-Smith's modifications have parallels with genomic modifications performed (or harnessed) by laboratory scientists. Here, I examine six classes (Insertions, Duplications, Insertions with Duplication, Replacements, Over-expression, and Gain-of Function Mutations) of these modifications, and draw parallels with biological examples.
Her thesis is lengthy and erudite! So we will skip to her final thoughts:
These six sections consider only a few of the classes of Grahame-Smith's modifications. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also marked by DNA inversions (in the form of transposed words and phrases), silent mutations (in the form of synonym replacements), and missense mutations (in the form of deliberately misspelled words), and so on. The molecular techniques used by Grahame-Smith have also been applied to other works, enabling the production of a range of genetically modified texts: Android Karenina, The Meowmorphosis, Jane Slayre, and others. These modified texts possess new phenotypes. Some are merely new twists of humor, curious for their own sake, like a mammal engineered to possess fluorescent skin. Others, more utilitarian, render the text appealing to new audiences, like a plant engineered for cold-resistance, enabling it to grow at new latitudes. The success of these variants – some commercial, some aesthetic – sets the stage for a new generation of literary geneticists, whose experiments will force the field in new directions. This new dynamic, converting the writing desk to a laboratory and the classic text to a model organism, may in addition pose its own ethical questions. We exist in a new era, exciting and disturbing, in which neither text nor genome is immutable, and in which humans, armed with new technologies, can force their evolution. [My emphasis]
Any reactions to this?

Jon:  Right, here goes...*deep breath* Firstly, a confession: I've never actually read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was partly because I was miffed about its unexpected appearance at a time when I was struggling to find a way into my own book and also because I didn't want to be accidentally influenced by it. I did feel obliged to refer to it in my book, because it would have felt odd not to acknowledge its presence, and it did provide an opportunity for going off at an interesting tangent with Jane Austen herself featuring as a disenchanted writer of cheap zombie novels. And I swear I never knew there were ninjas in P&P&Z until I read that article, although one of Jane Austen's supposed novels that I refer to also has ninjas in it!

However, having read the article, I am actually quite tempted to buy the book now because it makes it sound like an avant garde literary exercise worthy of Georges Perec or Tom Phillips. I like to think that what I'm doing is slightly different, because what I've written is an entirely logical sequel to the original book, rather than a mash-up of it. I originally described it as the bastard offspring following a drunken one-night stand between Pride and Prejudice and the X Files, which I guess in genetic terms means that it's less the result of gene splicing than the outcome of some dubious experimental breeding programme.

T: Dubious experimental breeding, love it! Entirely logical sequel? Ha! Okay, we'll keep this short: I couldn't stop laughing when I read the book, did you have that problem while you were writing it?

J: You're far too kind! Well, I know you're not supposed to laugh at your own jokes, but I did let out the occasional guffaw, usually when something completely unplanned emerged. Or at one of Lord Byron's double entendres. I have a weakness for those, I'm afraid.

T: And: I know you wrote it Dickens-like (or soap-operatically) in instalments, do you think your process/the end product would have been different if you'd attempted to do it all in one go, whatever that might mean?

J: Good question. It's a bit hypothetical, because I can't really think of any other way to write. I didn't have any sort of plan at all when I started writing the serialisation - although a plot of sorts did present itself once I'd got a chapter or two in. The thought of having a pin board with colour-coded timelines on it - well, it's just too weird to contemplate. Some of my favourite bits of Mrs Darcy... came about because I found myself at midnight on the day before the next episode was due to go live with nothing to publish. However, as a way of working it can be more than a little stressful.

T: Well, stress keeps us going, doesn't it? I say, Whatever works!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jon. To whet your appetite, here's a pic I took of the book in the horror section of Waterstone's in Cork... Find out more, including how to buy it, excerpts and other crazy stuff, at Mrs Darcy And the Aliens and more about Jon and his other writings at

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Less hopeless, thank you

I feel better after writing yesterday's post. It wasn't journalism, it wasn't a post about how to get published/get an agent. It wasn't an objective post at all - it was just about how I was feeling. Several people in the comments thanked me for my honesty and really it was the first time I'd written a really honest blog post for a long time. It has become harder and harder to do that since people are actually reading my blog! (I'm very grateful, don't get me wrong, just a little shy.)

I try to stay upbeat here, but it's hard to be relentlessly positive when that's not what's actually going on. I think perhaps part of the "silence" of the blog title was my own silence about this and now that I've vented, got it out, I feel better. I did worry a bit that I was shooting myself in the foot, if any agents ever read the post that would be it for me. But sometimes you've just got to get it out.

And something certainly did get "out"! Yesterday, a few hours after the post went up and apparently completely unconnected to it, I heard from the assistant of the first agent I wrote to, 8 weeks ago, apologizing for the delay! I think she may have been overwhelmed by the gratitude of my response! So, what can we learn from this? That this agent, at least, is not in the "no response means no" business, and for this I am thankful.No guarantees, but the assistant liked my writing enough to pass them on to the agent.

Okay, that takes us back to some positive news. Here, on this very blog, tomorrow, I am hosting the almost-final leg in Jonathan Pinnock's mammoth "Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens" blog tour! Intrigued? Pop back tomorrow. And huge congratulations to my writer friend M on her book deal (more about that when I am allowed)! Good news all round!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The hopeless hopeful silence

I'm recovering from a packed ten days, first at the Cork International Short Story Festival and then this past weekend at the Small Wonder short story festival. Both were wonderful, but the reason I decided to treat myself and go to both is rather less wonderful. I've been feeling depressed about the short story. Not about the short story itself, good heavens no! How could I, when reading short stories brings such joy into my life and writing them might even have saved my life.

No, I've been depressed about the "business" of short stories, and more specifically short story collections. It's only so much we short story writers and lovers can take of being told the same thing again and again and again... No-one reads short stories...No-one buys short story collections...No-one wants your work.. Oh, I don't like short stories... Then came the BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Reading cuts, which I found out about on my birthday. Charming. Sign the protest petition here. At least the comments by signatories are really heartening.

Then a few days ago someone in the audience at Small Wonder even asked one of the speakers why they write short stories since short story writers are "in the graveyard of writing", or something to that effect. You can imagine how I was feeling hearing that. We're in the graveyard of writing? We're dead? Who's dead? We write for the dead?

My first reaction is, No we're bloody well not, there are thousands of people worldwide who love reading short stories. Maybe even more than that. It was heartening in Cork to meet a wonderful Canadian writer, Deborah Willis, whose first collection was bought by Penguin Canada without an agent and was nominated for the Governer General's Award - and for her to tell me she is under no pressure to write a novel. Of course, in Canada you just say the words "Alice Munro" like a magic password if someone dares to suggest that you "graduate" from the little short story to the mightly novel.

Now, my rant here is not against novels - that would be utterly ridiculous. Some of my best friends are writing novels :) No, my rant here is that writers aren't being allowed to write whatever they want - and, more than that, what they are good at.

Second rant, and this relates to the title of this post and is more personal. I've been thinking it's about time I looked for an agent. I had a few meetings in 2009 when my book was commended for the Orange Award for New Writers, and everyone was very kind but I didn't have anything for them to sell. That made sense. Well, now I am 3/4 of the way through a new collection, biology-inspired fictions, funded by an Arts Council England grant, and so I thought this might be a good time.

I want to state categorically here that I fully expected the "I'm so sorry but we just can't sell short story collections at all right now". I figured there was a 0.0001% chance an agent would buck that trend. What I didn't bargain for was this: silence. Total and utter silence, from three agents. I wrote what I thought was a well-constructed query email, and I had a personal recommendation to each agent through writer friends and another agent. But... I was also completely honest about only wanting to write short stories.

No response. Nothing. And it's been 6 weeks or more...

And then last week I read about the new "no response means no" policy apparently being adopted by a number of literary agents. This equates to: if we don't write back, we don't want you. I am very thankful that I am not alone in find this quite shocking. You don't have a minute to even paste in a form reply saying "no"? Apparently, one agent said she employs the "no response" tactic because she doesn't like dealing with the "negativity" of having to reject people. Oh my.

I'd like to put my Short Review editor's hat on here. We receive a lot of queries asking if we might review a newly published short story collection, many more than we can, in fact, review (which is good news for short story collections). I have a form reply in which the first thing I do is congratulate the author or publisher - because, especially in this climate, I believe every short story collection published is a cause for celebration! I then explain how I will try and find a reviewer but it might not happen. It makes me sad, the number of collections we won't be able to review since we "only" review 10 a month. But I would never dream of ignoring an email. Never.

As editor last year of Southword, I had to pick 6 short stories for the issue. This meant rejecting hundreds of stories - a number of which were submitted by friends of mine. How did I feel? Sick. Because I knew exactly how it would feel to get that email, however kindly I worded it.

But to leave someone hanging, not knowing if the non-response is a sign that there is hope or not, is, frankly, cruel. I think it is deeply uncivilized. And if that agent thinks she is avoiding negative karma by not sending an actual rejection, she is mistaken. She should congratulate and applaud every single person who gets up the guts to write to her. Don't we all know how hard it is to move from "I'm trying to write" to "I am a writer", to take that leap into sending out your work to a publication, to then even contemplate the next step, the possibility of an agent taking you on?

Thankfully, there are a number of agents who have reacted to this "no reply means no" and said that they simply don't agree with this. I think we should vote with our feet - if an agent has a "no reply means no" policy, perhaps we should send them silence first, before they can send it back. And let's give ourselves a round of applause, for just putting ourselves out there.

It's not easy. I am trying to stop worrying so much about the "business" side of all this and get back into the writing. Thank goodness for all the amazing small presses out there who are publishing the books - not just story collections - that are the sorts of things that no-one thinks will sell. They are to be applauded too. As a very wise friend of mine said, mainstream publishing is a bit like Marks & Spencers  - they aren't going to agree to sell a limited edition of your hand-painted belts unless it's a very special occasion. And if what you're creating doesn't even really look like a belt... well then. 

 In the mean time, I'm getting down to some writing. I'm going to stop caring if I'm making the right kind of belts. I'm going to let it all hang out.

I forgot to mention that this also comes after hearing many many stories from fellow writers of non-responses, not just to initial queries like mine, which didn't include an MS, but after agents have requested an MS to be rushed overnight to them, they are so excited about it! And then.... silence. Is this a good way to do business?


I am being told that 12 weeks is about standard for a response time, so it seems I was jumping the gun here. But this isn't just about me, this is about a principle which I do hope isn't becoming the norm. I've just had a response from an agent's assistant apologizing for the delay - it seems it's a complete coincidence that it came today, and I have thanked her profusely for just ending the silence. I don't mind waiting and waiting... not at all, I understand how large the slush piles are. I just needed to know that I hadn't sent my queries into a void! An autoreply, as mentioned in the comments here, would have helped immensely.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Newly published + Kindle Special Offer

While I recover from and gather my thoughts - and my photographs - about the Cork Short Story Festival, here are a few new and rather nice things. It's a bit of a bumper month for me in terms of publication (a bumper year, actually  - this makes it 14 pieces published since January):
I have a poem, Moss, in the new issue of Alba, the Journal of Short Poetry. 
My prose poem, Timeless, written in memory of our lovely Cleo is published in .Cent magazine (Page 13), a stunning fashion mag which also has prose.
My short short story, Waving on the Moon, is in the latest issue of A capella Zoo, a fantastic print journal of magical realist and speculative fiction and poetry, it's well worth grabbing a copy!
I also have a few more stories and prose poems forthcoming in the next few weeks, in SPECS, kill author and Electric Velocipede. I'm immensely grateful too all these wonderful publications and encourage you to support them not just by reading what they publish but by also doing them the honour of sending them your work.

Lastly, Salt are doing a very special Kindle promotion right now which means you can purchase my collection for the Kindle for 86p or 99 cents! You can also buy books buy the Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, and books by the wonderful Wena Poon and David Gaffney, Luke Kennard and others... See the Salt blog for the full list. I don't have a Kindle but if I did, I would be overloading that Amazon whispernet thingy with all my downloads....

Okay, back to sorting out Cork festival photographs. In the meantime, read the blogs by Women Rule Writer, Orfhlaith Foyle, Ethel Rohan at Dark Sky Magazine and the official festival blog.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Watch My Father wanted

While I work on my Cork Short Story Fest Day 2 blog post, here's an interlude: I am delighted to once again have a story in the fabulous Metazen. It's called The Watch My Father Wantedand, in keeping with Metazen's ethos, it's a little wierd. I like wierd. Thank you for listening.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cork International Short Story Festival Day 1

So, I'm here in Cork, again, at the Cork International Short Story festival (formerly the Frank O'Connor International Short story Festival) and I am just so happy to be here! To be amongst like-minded short story folk, listening to amazing writers read their stories and talk about stories - til Sunday night - is just, for me, sublime.

The festival kicked off with the wondrous Helen Dunmore, here she is. (I forgot to take my proper camera, tomorrow's pics will be better, I promise!)

She read a story from her collection Ice Cream,  called The Polish Teacher's Tie, which I had only read a few weeks ago. It was lovely hearing her read it. Just lovely. And she talked about what it was like to win prizes... and not to win prizes! We had a very nice chat afterwards - she is dashing back to Bristol tomorrow, which is a shame, but  - SPOILER ALERT - she is going to be the guest on the Arvon Foundation short story course I am co-tutoring with Adam Marek in Nov 2012, so I just wanted to introduce myself, say hi. I tried not to gush too much! She and I expressed our dismay at the BBC Afternoon Reading cuts  (check out Wrath of God's latest blog post for more on that).

I was thrilled to finally meet my online friend and fabulous writer Ethel Rohan, who is reading at the festival on Friday - originally Irish, she now lives in San Francisco. We have published each other - I chose one of her stories when I edited Southword and she asked me to contribute when she was guest editor at Necessary Fiction, so it is just great to finally meet her and once again have that wonderful experience when an online acquaintance is just as great - if not more so - in person!

And then... the final readings of the evening, by Orfhlaith Foyle and Peter Murphy, Irish writers who knocked me - and the rest of the audience, I think - sideways with their astonishing prose. I felt flattened, in the best way, by their dark and powerful stories. Just astonishing. Seek them out! (You can read an interview with Orfhlaith on Nuala Ní Chonchúir''s blog here.)

Then we, as tradition dictates, retired to the local tapas bar to unwind. I am still wound though! Too much stimulation. Okay, must muster my strength for tomorrow. Check out the Cork International Short Story festival website to see what's in store...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Congratulations to the Sean O'Faolain Prize Shortlistees

MunsterLit has just announced the shortlist for the Sean O'Faolain short story competition -  congratulations to all! Winner announced on Sunday at the Cork International Short Story Festival:

Guy Barriscale (Donegal, Ireland)--'Jamesy'
Jeremy Castle (Tipperary, Ireland)--'The Smallest Window in the World'
P.G. O'Connor (Limerick, Ireland)--'The Haggard'
David O'Doherty (Cork, Ireland)--'Post Office'
Laura Rock (Ontario, Canada)--'Woman Cubed'
Martha Williams (Cornwall, UK)--'Wet Stones'

Monday, September 12, 2011

Brand new short story competition!

Thanks to Women Rule Writer for this one: The Moth-Altun Short Story Prize is a new prize for a story of up to 2500 words. Entries by post or online. There will be one prize of €1,000. Entry fee: €8 Judge: Christine Dwyer Hickey Closing date: 31 March 2012 More details on The Moth's website.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Giveaways and great events

I thought I'd give a plug to a few great things:

Rosa Mira books, the wonderful New Zealand publisher whose Slight Peculiar Love Stories e-anthology includes four of my flash stories, is having an e-book giveaway. Visit their Facebook page for details. It's worth it!

If you're anywhere near Stroud - or could be - check out Stroud Short Stories, a live lit event held every few months. Submissions for the October event close September 18th.

And if you are anywhere near Brighton - or could be - check out this exciting-sounding FlashLit Fiction event from StoryStudio: "Flash fiction night with a digital bent launches at this year's Brighton Digital Festival": Flash Lit Fiction takes place on Sunday 11 September at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar on Middle Street, Brighton, from 7-10pm. Advanced tickets are now on sale £6 from Eventbrite website or more on the door.

Much to enjoy!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Guest editor at National Short Story Week

I am delighted to be this month's guest editor over at the National Short Story Week site. I talk about some of my favourite short stories and story collections and what's coming up (a lot) in the short story world this month. Pop by...