Sunday, December 21, 2014

Writing Short Stories... A Xmas giveaway!

It's here!

I'm delighted to unveil Writing Short Stories: A Writers & Artists Companion, co-written and co-edited by Courttia Newland and me, and with 20 VERY FINE guest writers in the centre. It's all about writing and all about short stories, from so many angles and perspectives, and with no "shoulds" and no "rules", and perhaps a little ranting (by me) about the "shoulds" and the "rules" that tried to deny me permission in the past. Permission. Something to be given. Yup.

Anyway, to celebrate, I'm going to give away a copy and all you have to do is comment here (by Jan 1st) and tell us who or what gave YOU permission, in some way, in your life. Am happy to post anywhere in the world. Dang, I'm feeling generous!

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and on Feb 25th in London, I'll be interviewing three AMAZING Bloomsbury short story writers - Jon McGregor, Lucy Wood and Eliza Roberston - about that very subject, permission and risk, in their own writings, so do come along, share your stories with us. More information here.

I'm reading at Loose Muse on Wed Jan 14th, at the Poetry Cafe in London, would be lovely to see you there, too!

Don't forget to comment to be in with a chance of winning a book...

Friday, December 12, 2014

This Time It's You

So, enough of the stuff about me - this time it's about you and your stories. I am delighted to have been asked to be Guest Editor at the excellent flash fiction publication, Smokelong Quarterly, for the week of Jan 5th- 9th, and so I will be wanting to read YOUR fantastic flash fictions. No, don't ask me what I like - I have no genre preferences, no length preferences (Smokelong only publishes work up to 1000 words), no style preferences. Grab me, surprise me, delight me.
Submissions guidelines are here - but do wait until Jan 5th if you want it to be me who is reading 'em!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Yes It's All Me Me Me... new poem & new short story

Sorry for the trumpet-blowing, but here it
is - first, I have a new poem in Issue 6, published today, of the delightful Poems in Which, entitled Poem in Which I Learn That Some People Are Better At This Than I Am. It is entirely autobiographical! Check out the whole issue, it's wonderful. 

I also have a new SoundCloud page where you can listen to me reading some of my stories & poems. Any requests?

Talking of listening, this Friday, Dec 5th, I am thrilled to have a brand new short story on BBC Radio 4, About Time - which may or may not be a time-travel-themed romp, but will be read deliciously straight into your ear by the wonderful Stephen Hogan! I went to hear him record it, and he utterly captured the voice I had heard in my head as I wrote it. This is the joy of radio - your characters, who've been rattling around only in your own brain, are suddenly alive and out there, because you can hear them! I hope you like it. Do check out the other two stories on the theme of Slow Rides in Fast Machines, by the amazing Adam Marek and Toby Litt, very different takes! In a thrilling development, all the stories are now available for 30 days after broadcast, thank you BBC.

I will be available to answer technical questions on time travel after the broadcast, should you have any. My pleasure. (Or before the broadcast, of course, if you've already got the hang of it.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Leaving The Line: Images & Words of War & Wondering

Today, Nov 11th, is Armistice Day, and in commemoration I'm delighted to unveil Leaving The Line, the electronic version of the fruits of the WW1 arts collaboration I've been working on for the past year with military historian Jeremy Banning for the Bristol Festival of Ideas. What do you think? I've never really collaborated with anyone before - and Jeremy had never done any creative writing before!

I'm really proud of the set of 12 postcards we've created, with images (some by us) and each with a 100-word short story or poem, 8 written by me and 4 by Jeremy. Between us, we decided to focus on Bristol, on women during the war, on Jewish soldiers, and more generally on giving voice to the voiceless.  The above is one of the 12, we were rather taken with that Flanders cow!

Do leave us some comments on the particular postcard's blog post! The cards are just being printed and won't be for sale, we'll be giving them away, mostly in Bristol since we don't have the budget to send them far...

Monday, November 10, 2014

Litro Flash of Inspiration

So, I am immensely honoured to be the first interviewee of new online flash fiction editor of the excellent online & print mag Litro Jen Harvey, on the A Flash of Inspiration theme - she says very kind words about my flash story, Think of Icebergs, published in Litro in 2010 (oh my, that long ago? I am old!) and then asked me some questions which really got me thinking about my own writing... Do pop over there and have a look, I'm looking forward to the next flashes of inspiration interviews!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

We want your general-relativity-inspired stories!

I'm really thrilled to be part of this fabulous new project, initiated by my friend Pippa Goldschmidt, a fellow fiction writer, poet and novelist with a passion for physics and science-inspired lit in general! We are co-editing an anthology of short stories and essays inspired by Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which has its 100th birthday next year! The book will be published by Freight Books, we have a great line up of fiction writers and physicists - and we have left a little bit of space in there which could be filled by YOUR STORY. Yes, you - no physics knowledge required! Here's what to do:

Open call for contributions to ‘I am because you are’: the anthology of short stories inspired by general relativity
Einstein published his revolutionary paper on general relativity in November 1915 and changed the way we think about the world. He also purportedly insisted that imagination was more important than knowledge – so here's a chance to use yours and borrow from his -  with no background in physics required!
General relativity turns our ideas about space, time and mass on their head. It predicts astonishing objects such as black holes: so compact that nothing – not even light - can escape them. It explains how the Universe started from a hot, dense explosion and has been expanding ever since. And it utterly befuddles accepted ‘common sense’ notions about space and time.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this world changing theory we are publishing an anthology of short fiction and non-fiction inspired by general relativity, which will be edited by Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman. 'I am because you are' will be published by Freight Books in Autumn 2015. Around fourteen authors are contributing short stories, alongside essays by astrophysicists about the impact of general relativity on cosmology, black holes and quantum gravity.
Now we want your short fiction! We have assigned space for three more stories and we’re challenging writers to write a short story of no more than 3000 words - shorter is fine too - inspired in some way by general relativity.
The closing date is 28 February 2015.
Stories should be a maximum length of 3000 words (with no minimum) and written in English.
Stories should be your own work and should not have been published or accepted for publication elsewhere.
Entrants can be of any nationality.
Entrants can only submit one story.
Each story should be formatted as follows:
12 point arial or times new roman, provided digitally as a MS Word, RTF or TXT file.
The front page should include your name, address, email address, phone number and wordcount.
Your name should not appear anywhere else on the story.
Send your stories to us at as an attachment with ‘general relativity short stories’ in the subject line of the email.
Chosen writers will be contacted no later than May 30th 2015 and a the titles and authors of the three chosen entries will be posted on Freight Books' website by 10th June.
Copyright will remain with the authors

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Coupla things

I'm not so good at the blogging anymore, forgive me, if there are any of you still reading this! What's been happening? Well, I've done a redesign of my website, do let me know what you think: Is it clear, easy to navigate, information, entertaining!

Geeks GirlsI am also very proud to have a new story in the Geek Girls issue of Canada's ROOM magazine, in print - that gorgeous thing to your left - which you can also read online, as a teaser to the issue, here. I am most definitely and unashamedly a geek and it is delightful to be recognised as such, and to celebrate geekness in all its guises!

I have also just begun as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Bristol University's science faculties, which means I now spend two days a week - in my own office! - helping science students with any writing for their courses, undergrad and postgrad, in confidential, one-on-one meetings. I've had my first two days and it was fascinating. Mostly I was reassuring those who came to see me that their writing's better than they had feared. A lovely job to have - and I get to pick up a little science, too!

And finally, but not least, I am getting excited about next weekend's Bridport Prize prize-giving, at which I get to bestow garlands on the winners of the flash fiction section, what an honour. I also get to run a workshop and then read with Andrew Miller and Liz Lockhead, the judges of the short story and the poetry sections! Am immensely looking forward to it, and to the company of the wonderful people I know will be there, and those I have yet to meet. See you there! 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Visual Verse

It's a real honour to have been invited to be one of the lead writers on this month's Visual Verse, for which I wrote a poem, Portrait of Couple with Dog. If you don't know Visual Verse, do check it out:
Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words
One image, one hour, 50-500 words.
The picture is the starting point, the text is up to you.
Then send it in to them, and they will publish it! They end up with a fabulous plethora of work all inspired by the same image, such a range, from the funny to the poignant. Go on, try it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Moments of joy

You never know when they will come - sometimes it's that miraculous email or tweet from a stranger saying "I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed your ....". Today it's this blog post on the Arvon blog by one of the fantastic and delightful participants on the Starting to Write Short Stories course I co-tutored 2 weeks ago with Rob Shearman. When you run a workshop, you cross your fingers that, well, someone might get something, anything, out of it. You hope - you try things you've done before, you try new things. But you never really and truly know.

Until someone writes something like this, and it pretty much makes you cry:
" ... By Penrith I’m convinced that after such an intense week I’ll never settle to everyday life again. By Carlisle I start to worry how to break this awful news to my husband. I want to leave everything, turn my back on our previous life and write on an island retreat somewhere. By Motherwell I’m seriously nervous. The week has been truly intense and something in me feels forever altered.

Between Motherwell and Glasgow Central I take out my notebook and work on some of the pieces begun during my Arvon week.  I jot down a few thoughts and as I do I realise what the change has been. Two weeks ago I’d never have scribbled away on a train like this. I might daydream out of the window, passing the time, losing all those thoughts to the air. But now they’ve become a source of stories. Stories everywhere that only I can capture, only I can tell.

As we pull into Glasgow Central I am relieved to find that after all my marriage is safe, my lovely husband need never hear how deliciously unsettling my week turned out to be. But I also acknowledge this new need to make time and space in my day to write.

Because that’s who I am. I’m a writer.

Thank you Arvon.

by Colette Watson, a writer on the Starting to Write Short Stories week at Lumb Bank 4-9 August 2014" (Read the full post here)

Oh, thank you, Colette, for being so amazing and so open to everything, so ready. And thank you Arvon - who did this for me, years ago, and then did it again, and again. And now give me the immense pleasure to be able to attempt to pass some of that on. A joyous moment. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bare Fiction prizes

So, I am one of the short story judges for this fine slew of prizes from the very fine lit mag Bare Fiction. The fabulous Rachel Trezise and I will be reading your short stories, and the wonderful Adam Horovitz is all over the poetry, while the excellent Angela Readman wants your tiny wordthings. Do check out the guidelines here. Really refreshing to see the same amount of money to be won in all categories - nothing privilieged above everything else due to form or word count. Nice.

And lest you think I spend my time only on the judgemental side of the fence, tis not true, because I'm fortunate enough to have had two poems longlisted for a poetry comp, and they will be included in the competition anthology - regardless of what happens next with shortlists and so on, so yippee! I have said it before, will say it again - longlists are not to be sniffed at. As a judge, I know that it's often the greatest leap from large pile to longlist, and the tiniest of steps from that onwards, so I am delighted! Good luck to everything you bravely send out into the world! I would be delighted to read some of it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

That Dark Remembered Day

I am delighted to welcome Tom Vowler back to the blog today, to talk about his brand new novel - his third book - That Dark Remembered Day. Tom was here last year talking about his first novel, What Lies Within, and two years before that to chat about his short story collection, The Method. He's not been sitting still much! Below, we play Word Association, with Tom answering in the voice of his main character. But first...

 Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, called That Dark Remembered Day "a compelling story about damage done, a touching exploration of the possibility of forgiveness and recovery" and Anthony McGowan, author of Mortal Coil, said: "Almost every page has the sort of perfect sentence or paragraph that makes you want to elbow the stranger next to you on the train, point with a stubby finger, and say: ‘Read that. Just read it.'"

Here's a quick synopsis: 

A son returns to where he grew up, where his mother still lives and where a terrible event in his childhood changed the lives of every person living there. As the story unfolds through the eyes of the son, the mother and finally the father, the reader experiences the taut build up to one day's tragic unravelling, and the shock waves that echoed through a once happy family and close-knit community. Will they ever be able to exorcise the damage of that day or do some wounds run too deep?

Tom is giving away a copy to one lucky blog reader - just leave a comment below! Here's a little bit about Tom: " Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010, and his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD looking at the role of the editor in fiction. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel. More at"

To whet your appetite further, here are me and Tom playing Word Association, with Tom answering as Stephen from That Dark Remembered Day:


Sanctuary by the sea.


Betrayed in childhood. Forgiveness sought.


Work, the sea, escape.


Eccentric, avoided.




Father remained there.


Broken forever. New one found.


Buried. Unwelcome.


Cover. Truth hidden.




Daughter. Wife. Hope.

Intrigued? You should be! To find about more about Tom's amazing novel, visit his website. Don't forget - to be in with a chance of winning a copy, leave a comment below. Thanks for playing, Tom!


Friday, July 04, 2014

New story and some poetry news

I'm really thrilled to have a brand new story, "War Games" in the Summer Fiction issue of the Wales Arts Review, published today. It's a story I started in Nov 2012 and finished a few months ago, and I'm so happy it's found such a great home, alongside an amazing line-up: Anna Metcalfe, Jon Gower, Gee Williams, Orflaith Foyle, Lauren Oyler, Joel Smith, Noah Cicero, Mark Blayney, Ric Bower, Craig Austin, John Lavin and Gary Raymond. Check out the magazine here.

I was also recently longlisted for the Short Fiction journal competition for another new story, congrats to the 4 shortlisted writers: Elizabeth Baines, Catherine McNamara, Geoffrey Miller and Graham Mort!

And the past month has been a great boost for a fledgling poet - I had two poems longlisted and one shortlisted for the Wirral Festival of Firsts poetry competition, and my pamphlet longlisted for the Flarestack poetry pamphlet prize. Have been grapping with the poetry "no simultaneous submissions" rules for many comps - someone needs to come up with an algorithm for this! - and sending the poems back out, and out again. For, as I said recently on Twitter, this much I know: if you don't send anything out, magic can't happen. Go on, give the magic a chance!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

National Flash Fiction Day 2014

Great excitement here in Bristol over National Flash Fiction Day 2014, this Saturday, June 21st! Here's what's happening, organised by Bristol Flash, do join if you can:

And the official NFFD anthology, Eat My Words, in which I am honoured to have a very short piece, is now out, the print version is available here, and get your copy of the ebook here. 

Happy National Flash Fiction Day!

Saturday, June 14, 2014


I am thrilled to be on the longlist for the 2014 Short Fiction Journal story comp - my story, God Glows, is one that I started in June 2011, finished two years later, and it is 3300 words long. For me, that's LONG, a bit out of my comfort zone so, as I've said here before, this longlisting, whatever happens next (shortlist announced beginning July) this is a real boost - at the very least, I know that someone liked it and thinks it is actually a short story!

Congrats to the whole longlist! Here it is:

‘Lucy’ – Dallin Kapp
‘The Glover’ – Graham Mort
‘The Line’ – Dan Moreau’
‘Finish with the Rose’ – Perry Glasser
‘The Haughty Corpse’ – James Lark
‘The Butterfly Collector’s Wife’ – Holly Dawson
‘The Empty House’ – Jill Widner
‘The River Troll’ – Alison Fisher
‘The Seven Pathways to Resettlement’ – Andrew Neilson
‘God Glows’ – Tania Hershman
‘Critical State’ – Osama Ammar
‘Feathers’ – Ben Cribbin
‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’ – Catherine McNamara
‘Looking for the Castle’ – Elizabeth Baines
‘Dragonflies’ – Geoffrey Miller
‘Borders’ – Angela Sherlock
‘Flipsy’ – Sean McArdell
‘Obsolescence’ – Joseph Mackertich
‘Au Naturel’ – Sara Mae Tuson
‘Thirteen Lies’ – Anne Corlett

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I'm really honoured to be featured on my fabulous friend and poet Julie Maclean's blog, with two (or perhaps three - you'll see what I mean) of my poems - yup, one has line breaks. I know. Daring, eh? I've been doing quite a lot of that recently, really enjoying myself! It's wonderful to attempt something new, scary too but it keeps me on my toes.

I've been reading loads of poetry too - here are a few recent favourites:
Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich
The Colonel by Carolyn Forche
Stars and Planets by Norman MacCaig

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Update, deadlines, appearances, chattings

Okay, people, the deadline, May 31st - is fast approaching. I am deeply honoured to be the judge of the flash fiction section, but I would be even more deeply honoured to be given the privilege of reading your flash fictions. So please please send 'em! 250 words maximum, no minimum (wow me in 50, I know it can be done...): first prize of £1,000, second prize £500, 3rd prize of £250, 3 supplementary prizes of £25.  Details here >>

What else is upcoming? Well, on June 21st I get to do something immensely exciting, which is to chair a session on surreal and weird short stories with three of my favourite writers at Spread the Word's inaugural London Short Story Festival: Adam Marek, Dan Powell and Rob Shearman. I will be interrogating them fiercely about the what, why and how of it all, and they will be sharing their work and their thoughts about it all with me and, by extension, you. Come! Find out more here >> 
Then, later that same day you will find me celebrating flash fiction at the National Flash Fiction Day event in Bristol. More details on that soon!
And I will be playing Word Association with Tom Vowler as part of the blog tour for his new novel, That Dark Remembered Day, on July 10th. Find out more about the tour here >>
And then I'm presenting an academic paper and then I'm off to Vienna and ... ok, enough excitement for one day. Going to go do some writing now. 

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Happy book birthday to me!

Wow. My Mother Was An Upright Piano, my second collection of fictions, is two years' old today. It was published on May 3, 2012 by Tangent Books. I hadn't thought I was going to do anything about the birthday, hence writing this at 11.07pm! But I feel like I want to say something. Something short, which is in keeping with the book's contents and with my general writing ethos. I am very grateful. That's what I want to say. It was always my dream, from childhood, to have my name on the spine of one book. I get it on two books (although, actually, my name couldn't fit on MMWAUP, a warning to those of you choosing lengthy titles!).

But on a serious note, having a book at all was never something I believed would really happen. I think I thought it was only something other people got to do. Just like I think I thought that being a writer was somehow only something other people (maybe the ones with the degrees in English rather than Maths and Physics) got to do. And here I am, doing it. Every day, almost everything I think about, everything I do, has something to do with being a writer. (Yes, even you, Twitter). How wonderful, miraculous, awe-inspiringly fantastic is that? I get to be a writer, I get to spend time with other writers, I get to write and to talk about writing. And - more often than not these days - I get paid for it. It's my JOB.

I won't go on. I'll only say again that I feel grateful, and immensely blessed. Dare to dream. It's worth it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Why send your work to overseas lit mags?

I have an article up now on The Review Review - a fantastic resource of news, links and articles about literary magazines whose newsletter is really worth subscribing to. Becky asked me to write about setting up ShortStops and when i thought about how to make it appealing to non-UK writers and readers, I realised that the issue of submitting your work outside your own national borders was one that had played quite a major part in my own writing life. Here's a snippet:
When I was finally ready to send my short stories out, I thought first of all the American lit mags I'd been introduced to and loved. I was quite surprised to find (this was a while ago, remember) that many of them weren't set up for overseas submissions – there was much faffing around with postal subs and self-addressed envelopes/postal orders – and when I queried to ask if I might send stories by email, they seemed surprised to hear from a non-American. Surprised and yet delighted to help – some even changed their submissions guidelines to accommodate me and any other non-US-based writers.
Read the rest of the article here >> and check out ShortStops, of course!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The WoMentoring Project Launches!

I am so thrilled to be involved in Kerry Hudson's amazing initiative, The WoMentoring Project which launches today! Women writers offering free mentoring to other women writers - nothing brings me more joy than helping others with their writing in any way I can. What's it all about? Here's more...


The WoMentoring Project exists to offer free mentoring by professional literary women to up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

The mission of The WoMentoring Project is simply to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. The hope is that we’ll see new, talented and diverse female voices emerging as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

Each mentor selects their own mentee and it is at their discretion how little or much time they donate. We have no budget, it’s a completely free initiative and every aspect of the project - from the project management to the website design to the PR support - is being volunteered by a collective of female literary professionals. Quite simply this is about exceptional women supporting exceptional women. Welcome to The WoMentoring Project. 

Why do we need it?
© Sally Jane Thompson
Like many great ideas the WoMentoring Project came about via a conversation on Twitter. While discussing the current lack of peer mentoring and the prohibitive expense for many of professional mentoring we asked our followers - largely writers, editors and agents - who would be willing to donate a few hours of their time to another woman just starting out. The response was overwhelming – within two hours we had over sixty volunteer mentors.

The WoMentoring Project is run on an entirely voluntary basis and all of our mentors are professional writers, editors or literary agents. Many of us received unofficial or official mentoring ourselves which helped us get ahead and the emphasis is on ‘paying forward’ some of the support we’ve been given.

In an industry where male writers are still reviewed and paid more than their female counterparts in the UK, we wanted to balance the playing field. Likewise, we want to give female voices that would otherwise find it hard to be heard, a greater opportunity of reaching their true potential.

© Sally Jane Thompson
In an ideal world we would offer a mentor to every writer who needed and wanted one. Of course this isn't possible so instead we've tried to ensure the application process is accessible while also ensuring that out mentors have enough information with which to make their selection.

Applicant mentees will submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about how they would benefit from free mentoring. All applications will be for a specific mentor and mentees can only apply for one mentor at a time. Selections will be at the mentor's discretion. 

Find out more here:
and follow the project on twitter

Monday, April 07, 2014

And the winners are...

Yes, you are all very clever, I was in Reyjyavik, Iceland, - and it was COLD! So, picked by a random number generator, the winners of the 8 books and lit mags are:


Dear all, please email me your postal address, to taniah(at)gmail(dot)com and I will dispatch your goodies at random!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Guess Where I Was and Win Books & Lit Mags!

So, I had an idea to free up some of my bookshelf space while filling yours! I was on holiday last week and thought I'd run a little competition - guess where I was from the pictures below and win books! It seemed apt to give away a copy of my 1st collection, The White Road, and I thought I'd also send your way some of the contributors' copies of the wonderful anthologies, lit mags and books on creative writing that I've been honoured to appear in.

I will send all books except the heaviest one anywhere in the world - and will divide the books randomly up between all those with correct answers - and resort to hat-picking if there are more winners than books! Here's what you can win:

The books are: The White Road (by me, Salt Publishing), Writers & Artists Yearbook 2014 (very heavy so can only afford to post within UK), Short Circuit: A Guide To The Art of the Short Story (ed Vanessa Gebbie, Salt Publishing -1st edition), The Binnacle Ultra-short issue 2013, Exposure anthology (Cinnamon), The Lion and The Aardvark anthology of 21st century fables (Stone Skin Press), Winter 2012/2013 issue of The Stinging Fly, and the brand new issue #58 of Magma poetry journal. Loads of brilliant reading.

I was staying in the capital city of the country, so to be in the running for a free book, please leave a comment with the city and the country! Here are your picture clues, some of which are pictures from a day trip I did out of the city:

You have until Wed April 2nd to guess, leave a comment below. Come on, help me free shelf space...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dan Powell Tells Us About Writing & Place

I'm delighted to welcome Dan Powell to the blog today - he has just given birth to his first book, the short story collection Looking Out Of Broken Windows, published by Salt, who shortlisted the book for their Scott Prize - and you can win yourself a copy, more on that below. Congratulations, Dan. It is an enormously fine collection, for which I provided him with the following quote:

‘Short stories are portholes allowing us to peek – and, with great stories, step – into other worlds. Dan Powell’s broken windows are not themselves flawed or malfunctioning, rather doorways into the fraught and fractured lives of others. Powell’s mischievous imagination takes him wherever he pleases and where it lands he weaves story so tightly, so compellingly that you are held. Not constrained by the real, Powell uses surreality and magic – a wheeling-dealing cancer, unborn twins scanning their parents-to-be, a self-starting fire – to illuminate truths with poignancy and humour, paying subtle homage to the short story masters who inspired him, from Kafka to O’Connor and Carver.’

Dan is here today to give us a peek into his writing life by answering my writing&place questionnaire. First, here's a little about Dan:

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

At the end of this blog post is a fabulous and unique video trailer of Dan reading an excerpt from one of his stories! Before we get to that, here's what Dan had to say on writing & place:

Tania: Where are you? 

Dan: I live in an old farmhouse in the midst of the Lincolnshire countryside. The nearest market town is Horncastle, the antiques capital of Lincolnshire. The stories in Jon McGregor's short fiction collection, This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, are all set in Lincolnshire, with one even set in Horncastle itself. I bought and read the collection just after we moved here. A great way to experience the stories, surrounded by the places that inspired them. Our village is really just a street and a small, disused church, surrounded by pastureland. It's a wonderfully quiet part of the world, perfect for writing.

I am very lucky to have a study in this new house, it’s only a box room, just big enough for a desk and a few book shelves, but it is wonderful to finally have a room in which I can shut myself away to write. It even has a window overlooking the surrounding fields and in the summer evenings I sit there watching the house martins that nest in the eaves darting back and forth outside.

There are loads of great countryside walks we can take just by stepping outside our front door, so when the weather’s good, we make the most of it and get out and about. We also have a massive garden here, which feels even bigger with the views of the surrounding fields. Great for the kids. Lots of space to play in. In the summer heritage aircraft fly overhead, and throughout the year we get the odd fighter jet from the RAF bases scattered around the county, all of which my boys love, obviously.

T: How long have you been there? 

D: We moved here last August, when we returned from spending seven years or so living in Germany. It was only on coming back that my wife and I realised quite how much we had missed being in the UK. Simple things like browsing English bookshops and being able to buy good old fashioned Fish and Chips still feel like a real treat. We had put off coming back for a year or two and now I wish we had come back sooner.

T: What do you write? 

D: Up until now I have mostly written short fiction. My stories tend to move between gritty realism and magical realism with most of my latest work landing somewhere in between, bridging the gap between these often opposing approaches to story telling. A fair few people have commented on how my writing seems to pull off what they thought of as two conflicting and incompatible styles of writing in the same piece. My debut collection, Looking Out of Broken Windows, is made up of the best of my last five years or so of short story writing and I am already knee deep into a follow-up collection, with about seven or eight stories done.

I am also writing a novel as part of my MA Creative Writing studies. The deadline is this coming September and I am currently on target to finish. Writing the novel has been a massive challenge and a very different writing experience to writing short stories. I have enjoyed the challenge of the novel but I my heart belongs to short fiction.

T: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write? 

D: Places which resonate with me tend to end up in my writing but often long after I have left there. In 2008 and 2009 we spent some excellent holidays in Highcliffe, on the south coast of England. The coastline there is striking, half of it landscaped the other half scarred by cliff-slips and eroded shores. This setting features in a few of my stories; Third Party, Fire & Theft in the collection is set in part in the public car park outside The Cliffhanger cafe their, while Rip Rap, recently shortlisted for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, is set in a fictitious version of one of the holiday camps set along the eroding cliff faces that stretch of to the east. More recently we spent a few holidays visiting various parts of Denmark and it’s wide skies and lengthy coastlines struck a chord with me. The notes I made in our holidays there are just starting to find their way into becoming stories.

That said, moving to Lincolnshire has had a real impact on my writing though, and it is the first place I have lived in that I have consciously tried to write about. The landscape moves between the sweeping hills of the Wolds and the broad flat farmland of the south of the county. The last few months I have been working on completing a draft of my novel, the final third of which now features a section set in a Lincolnshire village not unlike the one I am living in. I feel like I am starting to really understand how setting can be an integral part of my fiction. It is starting to move more to the fore of what I write. Looking back at the stories in the collection I can see this process actually began a while back with stories like Third Party, Fire and Theft and Storm in a Teacup. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the local area and hope it continues to inspire me.

Thank you, Dan, we hope so too! And talking of Storm In A Teacup, Dan has kindly made this teaser for us, listen to him read an excerpt:

Don't forget to leave a comment here for a chance to win a copy of the excellent Looking Out Of Broken Windows, which you can read more about, as well as about Dan himself, at

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Some thoughts on story, plot, life and philosophy

I haven't done this for ages, this blogging thing. It seems that Twitter has satisfied my need to express myself, in tiny chunks. Or maybe I was only thinking in tiny chunks. Anyway, there's something that's been mulling around my head for a long while and I think the time has arrived for me to try and get it down here. I, as often happens, plan to figure out what I think through the writing of it, so this may be less than coherent - but whatever happens I probably won't edit it much because this is my blog, not an essay or an article, so I'm allowed to waffle and ponder! I welcome your comments, thoughts. I am expecting to raise more questions than answers.

I am already being an unreliable narrator because I have been doing a substantial amount of writing over the past few months, I wrote around 50,000 words as my half of the forthcoming Book of Short Story Writing: A Writers & Artists Companion  - co-written and edited with Courttia Newland - that will be published in December. Yes, you read that right, I, the short story writer, the flash fiction writer,  wrote 50k words, and in about 8 weeks. I didn't know I could do that. But what made me able to do it was the fact that it was about what I love - short stories and writing. What I hadn't expected was how much I would learn about myself through the writing of it, and not just about my own writing. I think I may have learned about how I can best approach this thing called life, too.

What prompted me to start writing this tonight (who knows when I will finish it) was going to see the National Theatre production of the play War Horse which was shown in a local cinema. National Theatre Live, it's called. I'd heard brilliant things about the play. I vaguely knew the story - there may be spoilers here, so look away if you haven't seen it - boy and horse form strong bond, horse goes off to WWI, boy goes off to WWI in search of horse. So, what do we want, what are we rooting for? For the boy to find the horse, of course.

Now, we get onto the technical stuff. The way I see it, there are two things at work here: plot and story.

Plot = boy meets horse. Boy loves horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again.

That plot (especially if you substitute other things for "horse") ain't new, right? So why, when I was 100% sure that boy would be reunited with horse, was I weeping at the end? Actually, I started premptively tearing up in the first half. Why? What was going on here?


Story is the stuff that is wrapped around Plot to make you FEEL something. This plot happened to have a story wrapped around it that involved war, friendship, family, reconciliation. But you can see how this plot could have had maybe an infinite number of stories - the boy could have been living on Venus and the horse might have been a robot horse that turned evil, see what I mean?  What made me cry wasn't, clearly, the surprise and joy that, oh yippee, boy and horse are beautifully reunited. It's because I cared - about the boy and about the horse. They'd become real to me. I empathized.

This, says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, quoted in an article I read this week on Brainpickings, is the power of story:

As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. 
I want to stop to clarify something for a moment: When I use the word "story" I am definitely not just referring to the short story, or even to fiction. I have been writing poetry now for the past few years, tentatively at first, but in the past weeks much much more. And what I am discovering is that through poems I am able to write about my own life, my experiences, directly in a way that I can't through fiction, it has always made me deeply uncomfortable. Something about what I think a poem is - something about the language and the rhythm - is allowing me to "storify" real experiences enough to banish that discomfort with autobiographical writing. And, as several people mentioned to me this week, no-one else will know which parts of what I write are taken from my own life and which are not. 

I read the most fantastic interview yesterday in the New Yorker with American writer Lydia Davis, Long Story Short. She writes what she calls short stories -often very very short -  but which other people sometimes try and call other things, and, thrillingly, she won the 2013 International Man Booker Prize. I have been a fan for several years - she has a new collection out this year, get hold of it.

Anyway, back to the interview. What struck me most forcefully was how Davis seems to have "trouble" stopping herself turning everything she writes into a story. The article starts:

Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote.  

The interview, Dana Goodyear, says Davis' stories "have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn't call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word 'story.')" Goodyear doesn't explain what these deeper associations might be, but perhaps what I'm writing about here is touching on it.

Then, (spoiler alert) the article ends thus:

"I have to guard against the tendency - I could make anything into a story," Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. "I was trying just to write instructions, you know, 'My notebooks should go here,' ... But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated and too irrational. ... I didn't really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor".

This tendency to create story/narrative even when we really don't want to, although maybe not as extreme as Davis, speaks to something I've been wondering for a few months now - how do PLOT and STORY relate to our "real" life? I've been formulating a sort of new philosophy: what if everything that happens to us, all external events, objects, people, is just plot, it has no inherent story at all? We are the ones who wrap it - or a series of events - in story, to make it fit a pattern, to try to understand it, to help us make choices for the future. In short, we need stories in order to try and deal with life's uncertainty. 

But - and it's a big but - if we're the ones telling the stories, can we just change the story we tell about a particular plot? And it it possible to have plot without story? (Scarlett Thomas' excellent novel, Our Tragic Universe, really inspired me, with its thread of the storyless story.) By which I mean something that is fairly akin to Stoic philosophy and/or Buddhism - some/all of the stuff that happens doesn't actually mean anything, we give it meaning and then we feel something about the story/meaning we have given it.  That feeling might be sadness, happiness, fear etc...

What I've been attempting to do over the past few months is try a new approach - notice what stories I am starting to create about things I actually don't really know about (what's going on in other people's heads is really the main thing), and then think, Do I need that story?

What I want to do is ditch the stories I tell myself that create stress. Sounds simple, eh? It's not. Clearly. Otherwise we'd all be doing it. But I am getting much better and faster at noticing when a story is starting up. Mindfulness, right? (Learning to meditate 11 years ago was a great thing, although bloody hard to actually put into practice, I've found).

Another thing I've been thinking about is our tendency to want to persuade people of our stories, because we are pretty wedded to them. And I'm noticing that a little more too - I can say to myself "That's X's story, which is great for them, they can have that, but I don't have to take it on." Now this is MUCH much harder than it sounds. I keep finding myself stuck in other people's - or society's - stories. Society needs its stories too - and conveys them to us through adverts, say, and other media, of course. (see excellent book and blog, Rewriting the Rules, for more on the difficulty of being in conflict with society's stories). They are all around us. I passed an antismoking billboard on my way home today and it's the campaign that has a child talking to a parent who died from lung cancer, wishing they were still around. Not just "Stop smoking - it's bad", but a fully-formed story.

If it is possible to have storyless plot - stuff happens - is there plotless story too, something that makes us feel without in some way "happening"? I've been thinking about this too (yes, I think a lot. A lot.) I think music is plotless story for me. My favourite song makes me instantly happy, can completely change my mood. But is it an event, per se? Perhaps all art is plotless story in this respect? Is art's "aim", if it has an aim, to make us feel something? (Regarding "making yourself happy", an interesting TED talk on "synthetic" versus "natural" happiness).

I think I should wind up now, I have a lot more thoughts, this is very much a work in progress (perhaps for the rest of my life), and I am very conscious of not wanting to try and persuade any of you to "take on" my story about story. All I will say is that I seem to have managed to dampen down my stress-creating mechanism considerably. I have found a way and a language that speaks to me - the language of fiction-writing, of plot-and-storyness.

It seems my own stories, and my own writing, have been telling me something it has taken me years to listen to. My own work has become more minimalist and surreal over the past few years, and I have felt for a long time that I was giving the reader more authority over the story, I wasn't demanding it be read a certain way. I was letting go, saying, Here, take it, make of it what you will.

I think that's what I'd like to do in my life, too. Loosen my grasp. If we are all storifying creatures, I won't try and stop it, but it helps me to notice it. To say, Oh look at me and that story I am starting to tell myself about X! And it often now makes me laugh, the amazing stories I started weaving around the most tenuous of plots! What an imagination we have!

Do you have any thoughts on this, anything comments, any critique? I welcome it, as I've said this is work-in-progress. Let's discuss!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Guest post: Yael Unterman on Writing & Place, The Hidden of Things

I am absolutely thrilled to welcome to the blog today my great friend and wonderful writer, Yael Unterman! Yael and I go way back - all the way to 1998, when I was also living in Jerusalem, and we can honestly say that Shakespeare brought us together -  in more of a practical rather than literary way which I won't go into here! Since then, she and I have both seen our names on the spines of two books - Yael's first book is a biography of Professor Nehama Leibowitz, a fascinating teacher and Bible scholar. And she's here to chat about her brand new book, her first short story collection, The Hidden of Things: 12 Stories of Love and Longing (Yotzeret Publishing, 2013).

I asked Yael to complete my Writing&Place questionnaire, knowing that, as a fellow immigrant, where she is has had an impact on what she writes, and I thought it would be interesting for all of you. Before we get to that, here's a little info about Yael:

Yael Unterman was born in Jerusalem, Israel. She grew up in Manchester, England, and returned to Israel at the age of 18. In addition to spending several years on advanced Torah studies, she earned a BA in Psychology and Talmud from Bar Ilan University, an MA in Jewish History from Touro College, and an MA in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University.  The many hats she wears include:
  • Poet
  • Author
  • Actress
  • Life Coach
  • Teacher & Lecturer
  • Translator & Editor                                                                
  • Bibliodrama Facilitator
  • Coordinator, Cardozo Academy Think Tank
Boaz the Sagging Tree
Tania: Where are you?
Yael: I’m in Jerusalem, in the southern neighbourhood of Katamon, populated by a high percentage of English speakers and of singles. My bedroom window looks out over a fruit-tree-filled organic garden. Two fir trees outside my window make a nice perch for small blue-breasted birds. I named the trees Yachin and Boaz, after the two bronze columns at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple (not sure why they gave names to columns, but it makes me smile…). Sadly, in a recent heavy snowfall, one of Boaz’s branches snapped and he is now sagging badly.

T: How long have you been there?
Y: I grew up in Manchester, but have lived in Jerusalem for all of my adult life. Though I do speak fluent Hebrew, I admittedly live in a bit of an English-speaking bubble, and also I travel abroad four or five times a year. This means that I am not fully immersed in the local life here, though I feel very connected.

T: What do you write?
Y: Though my first book was an academic biography of a famous female Bible teacher, I’ve always adored fiction, so I’m delighted that my second book is in this genre: The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing, published December 2013. The first few stories were forged in the crucible of the Shaindy Rudoff MA programme for Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. Take-no-captives feedback was the norm, and I learned to pull up my writing socks, producing some interesting but fairly flawed first attempts. After the programme’s end, new stories continued to emerge, crystallising around an image, a character, a fragment of thought. Within three years or so, I had put together a collection of interlinked stories with recurring characters – Jewish twenty- and thirty-somethings searching for love, identity, and transcendent meaning, in Jerusalem, London and New York. The book is both tragic and comic; the characters range from noble to downright nutty.
After hiring and then parting from an agent, and searching for a good couple of years, I was fortunate to find a publisher. This book has been over nine years in the works and I can’t believe it’s finally out.

T: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?
Y: In major and obvious ways. For my first book I was able to interview dozens of people who knew the subject of my biography personally – she lived in Jerusalem. For The Hidden of Things, many of the stories are set in Jerusalem, with the characters being Jewish young adults from countries such as England, South Africa and America who have gravitated to the city for its special brand of spiritual life and its nature as a singles mecca. They suffer from the dual challenges of being immigrants and the exhausting dating system, endlessly searching for someone to make a life with. I know this world intimately, belonging to it to a large extent, and my characters are composites of myself, friends and what I invented from my murky mind. Other social groups in Jerusalem make brief appearances in the book and there are hints to the conflicts taking place between religious and secular, Arab and Jew in the region. But this is not a political work, it is about ordinary people trying to make sense of things that refuse to be nailed down easily.

Thank you so much, Yael! You can find out more about The Hidden of Things: 12 Stories of Love and Longing by clicking the title, including excerpts and information for where to buy the gorgeous paperback or the instantly-readable ebook (yes, I am trying to come around to ebooks, I really am! Sigh.) I highly recommend Yael's wonderful stories, whether or not you are or have ever been single, whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you've ever been to Jerusalem or fancy going. What is more human, more universal, than love and longing?