Awesome Indies

aia_webadgeI was very pleased yesterday to receive this badge of Approval for my collection of ironic short stories, Me-Time Tales, from Awesome Indies.

I can officially say that Me-Time Tales, tea breaks for mature women and curious men is ‘Awesome Indies Approved’ or ‘has been awarded a place on the Awesome Indies list of quality independent fiction.’ 3D-PB_opt

 Male/female – perfect to pocket for a holiday, or in the long wait in traffic to get there!

The book gets a badge and my website gets this one. In the spirit of cross-fertilization, I have to admire the design. The watch works suggest that time is not to be wasted (in getting the writing done) and the gold reminds of the gift a worthy worker was given when he retired after a long period of contributing his skills to the firm/organization, or perhaps won a prestigious contract for the firm. I’m all for badges of approval.

In Awesome Indies case, they have a mission.  Two of these aims are to:

Identify and honor independently published books that meet, or improve on, the standard of books published by major mainstream publishers and their imprints.
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Raise the standard of independent publishing,

‘Self-published’ is gradually becoming less of a blight on a writer’s mojo, and with

initiatives such as Awesome Indies, the momentum towards quality increases. We all know that anyone can publish a book, that marketers will promote them as long as there is money in it. This is true of mainstream publishers too. If there is a huge market for an author, publishers will take him/her on, agents will gladly represent him/her.

The organization I am glad, in fact, grateful to belong to is author-member

The Alliance of Independent Authors. This has a wealth of skilled professionals all aiming for a high quality in the writing of fiction and non-fiction, and helping authors in different ways to achieve this. Quality is not just in the writing, but in the presentation of the book. Many writers will bemoan that this aspect takes as long or longer than the writer. More to be said about this in another post . . .

Writing: how to improve your focus

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Samuel Johnson in close focus

It’s commonly mentioned by writers as a problem: keeping focus on the book you’re currently writing. It isn’t just the intrusion of other writing or everyday chores. More than ever, writers blame the ingress of social media caused by two pressures: firstly the attraction of seeing friends’ and family’s daily activities, with consequent need to like, comment, or even worse, engage in a to and fro dialogue; secondly, the constant emphasis on the importance of social media for marketing the books we write.

There is only one way round this problem. Limitation. In the same way that we curtail, if not curb, our pleasure in food and drink in order to escape obesity, we can avoid gluttonous social media activity.

Easiest to restrict family/friends to a time of day assigned to relaxation. Just best not to open those Facebook etc at other times. There’ll always be something to divert you. For marketing, wisest to schedule a set day and time for such work and avoid it at all other times.

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I wonder if Pasternak was having trouble focussing in this picture, or was tormented in sympathy with his characters?

Keeping focus on the book in process does not mean never doing anything else until it’s finished, however. You can take off for a break somewhere entirely different and yet keep your focus on your characters. Keep them and their problems in mind and relate what you hear and see to their situation.

For instance, working on my WWII trilogy, A Relative Invasion, I realised that my protagonist, Billy, had not been punished by his adversary, cousin Kenneth, for a well-meaning interference. Manipulative Kenneth would surely not let Billy get away scot free.  Taking time away from the computer, I set off to wander round an arboretum and get some fresh air (and fresh ideas). On the way, I listened to a radio programme about printing and book binding. The word ‘pigskin’ made me sit up. Of course! The pigs Billy loved had been taken to the abattoir. Kenneth could punish by giving Billy a pigskin wallet for Christmas.

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Van Gogh

The arboretum itself made me realise that I hadn’t included much description of the boys’ surroundings beyond the initial one. How would they react to the countryside when evacuated away from the blackened buildings of London?

I listened to an interchange between some children nearby. The running and quarrelling suddenly stopped when one of them saw a squirrel burying nuts. It was vigorously stamping its feet, or that’s how it seemed to the younger child. She turned to her mother, ‘It’s having a tantrum!’  A lovely moment, and one I could work at for hostility between my two boy characters.

There were other ideas, too, that came from this outing. These could be called ‘writing refreshments.’

I could have taken a break and thought of other things, but keeping my focus on my book didn’t stop me benefiting from this time away from the computer. In fact, I wrote more rapidly once I got home, all the new ideas fresh in my mind. As is often the way, one new idea helped others so that the narrative moved along.

Have any of you gained unexpected ideas through taking a break away from your desk?

Bath Literary Festival, 1. Two authors, two issues.

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New authors might sit back and consider the undercurrent in their fiction. Despite a variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

March 2015. Bath Literary Festival offered its usual treats, the most popular being the talk by Kasuo Ishiguro, booked out within minutes of the programme going live. His first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, has surprised readers by its fantasy genre. Ishiguro suggested that all of his novels had an underflow of unspok

BuriedGianten, part forgotten material.  There may be fantastic creatures in his novel but ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters.

He had given a wonderful one-hour interview on BBC4 covering similar ground, whereas Elif Safak was newer to the Bath audience.

The two authors had ‘burying’ in common. Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, uncomfortable events in history more easily ignored if historic artefacts were not preserved.

medium_01-elif-shafakSpeaking fluently, extemporaneously and passionately in her third language, Safak also had amnesia on her mind, collective amnesia, for so much has been suppressed. The role of the woman, the existence of minorities. There is little urban memory, so that residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. Shafak mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey, which is why she loves London. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

As a lonely child, Shafak found the books she read more real than the Turkish world around her. The questions she asked, the situations she wrote about, caused social bullying. She was spat at in the street, prosecuted for her first book, and her work came to the world in translation.

Shafak gave the listeners an insight into the current Turkish situation that was far more powerful than a description of her latest book (The Architect’s Apprentice, out late April).  It was a talk which had the full hall flocking to her queue as soon as her event ended.

‘No,’ she advised a questioner. ‘In the evenings, the streets (in Istanbul) belong to the men.’

Istanbul

There was a parallel with Ishiguro’s talk. Ishiguro had rebelled against being an author who ‘explained Japan’ to other audiences. (He has lived in England since childhood). Safak had ridden the salt water of being a female author in a patriarchal society, so that the ‘wonder’ of her success appeared to be solely that she was a woman.  Both authors wanted recognition for the content of their novels, not to be defined by the stereotype.

But the real highlight of this literary festival came in the smaller room, the salon, with a smaller quieter audience, many of whom were deaf. London-based artist and writer Louise Stern grew up in Freemont, California, and is the fourth generation deaf in her family. Her debut novel ‘Ismael and His Sisters’ is set in a Mexican deaf community and is an extraordinary analysis of the way we experience the world and the barriers we build out of language. She hardly talked about her book, but about communication. It was very powerful.

That is the subject of my next post.

Short Story Winners

Review of the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2014

Ken Elkes

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I suppose that once a long list of good stories becomes a short list of the best, the final ranking is always personal rather than definitive. However, choosing from this short list must have been pure pleasure. From the winner to the brave and successful one-page story writer, there are no duds in the anthology. I review seven.

The artist for the excellent and imaginative cover of this anthology, Elinor Nash, also gained first prize with The Ghost Boy. A young accident victim retains an understanding of emotions and a strange insightful sensitivity although few other functions, Nash uses the 3rd person narrative voice to display Jake’s thoughts. He hears surrounding domestic sounds in colour (synaesthesia) “lemon yellow whooshes” and “the indigo velvet spiral of the drill”. He is painfully aware of the effect of his changed life upon his family. The imagination involved in perceiving this tragedy from the victim’s point of view probably nailed this story as the winner.

I really enjoyed Roisin O’Donnell’s, Under the Jasmine Tree, commended, because of the several levels of meaning. This story presented the reader with an original topic although the theme of reunion between mother and adult child, long separated is not entirely new. Requited but fated love is signalled by the description of the loved-one’s voice “clear as water and rocked with the rhythms of the sea” that contrasts later with it “rough as sea-spray” because he’s choked by what he’s done, what he’s caused and by his vocation. The sad acceptance of her situation is portrayed with due weight, her final decision symbolised by the permeating perfume of Jasmine.

Another commended story was ‘It’s a Girl’ by Lisa Harding. This was an even heavier theme, the trapped immigrant finding that begging is more successful with a puppy than a baby. This woman without adequate means of communication has a life of misery doled out by her keeper. Well written but a doleful tale.

Two stories used the well-worn theme of the holocaust. Cleverly written, but again very depressing, was Anne Corlett, the local prize winner’s story, The Language of Birds. The main character, beleaguered by her past, maintains her heavy lie and turns her painful thoughts to the sound of bird song. Each song represents another aspect of the story and leads to a conclusion that seems only fit.

The Crust, by Mona Porte, has a Jewish painter irritated at his father for allowing the Nazis to steal his paintings. The family meet the awful fate of Jews and the painter is reduced to starvation in a camp. For me, this was the weakest story because too much was told through dialogue as if readers had not come across this topic before. However, the use of the crust as an irritant, on several levels, was clever as was the twist at the end.

The third prize winner, Alex Hammond, had a more direct approach with No Man’s Land. A boy in Spain is making his own replica of the bunkers and dugouts, but needs help in making mud given the dryness in Spain. He appears to be more in tune with the dreadfulness of the battlefield until the end of the story makes the situation clear. I thought this fresh, competent writing with no wasting of words.

Lastly, the second prize winner,

with A Beautiful Thing, Kit de Waal, Unknown

gained my admiration for writing something uplifting. It’s my belief that this is harder than writing tragedy. The story twists the reader’s expectation in a new direction. I loved the detail of the expensive spats leading to a brave foray into new territory, with unexpected and heart-warming results. The style of writing reminded me of Marquez. I’d read this author’s work again.

Authors’ stimuli: preparing for that blank moment

PERFUME                                 SMELL                            STINK

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In a previous post I suggested that, at the point of urgently scribbling down that new idea, it may be worth exploring what actually prompted it.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. I believe it is much harder to ‘dream up’ an olfactory experience than a visual or auditory memory that might affect the character in your story. For  a visual stimulus we have Art to display ideas, perspectives, narratives, symbols.  We have Theatre and Radio to present ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_opt

There is no equivalent for smells. The writer may sit, pen raised, summoning up exactly the right sound or sight to cause his hero to pale with emotion, and the reader to imagine this accordingly. Far more difficult to write more than ‘the smell/scent/perfume/stink of’ (whatever) caused the emotional impact. How much of a struggle to work out what might have been recorded in long term memory.

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It might be a good idea to be prepared for that blank moment. Perhaps the answer is to note down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant, listing the source for each but avoid the obvious like dog poo. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a down-at-heel great aunt; the scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs.

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With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you. Easier then to strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Literary competitions

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Short Story competitions

COULD YOU BE A WINNER?

I think winning stories have to capture the heart as well as the attention of the judges. I’ve rarely read a winning story without feeling I know why it was chosen. Usually the setting is striking, the structure is very satisfying, the ending unexpected and the main character convincing. I’m saying nothing out of the ordinary, I know, but it’s as well to have these features of winning stories in the back of your mind as you start to write yours. Some writers give up competitions at the first or second failure to get on the shortlist.

However, some rehash their stories or even leave them as they are and keep submitting them to different competitions, on the basis that ‘liking’ a story and finding it surpasses other good entries is very subjective.  

I reviewed one winner, Anne Corlett, on a previous post (See Review: H.E.Bates winner)  Her story is well worth reading for that structure, setting, believable character (s), and unexpected ending, a thoroughly satisfying read. 

It is not always previous competition winners or successful journalists turning to fiction who win. There have been some notable first timers who have run the contestants out of the ground. The main thing is to have a go. The writing towards winning is good practice, and you can regard it as just that. Robert the Bruce would have been entering every competition until chosen, egged on by his spider. So, try, try, try again if you haven’t been successful so far.

These competitions have April deadlines.

APRIL

11 April — Litro magazine Theme: Augmented Reality Max. length: 3,000 words
26 April — Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition Theme of Conflict 
30 April — 13th International Short Story Conference Story Contest fee: €10 (theme: The Braids of Identity) 
30 April — The Bristol prize   any subject. Max. length 4,000 words
30 April — E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest 
30 April – Fiction Uncovered 2014 
30 April — Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 
The more entrants, the more money to finance the next competition. Let me know if you are one of the short-listed or even better.

A Rich Read: writers’ ideas.

fountainpenpaperWhat prompts a writer suddenly write down an idea? Authors of any genre – there’s a lot going on when you write.When you think you have an out-of-the-blue idea and must just get it down, more likely the germ of the idea, even if it’s caused by something just noticed, has an appeal that lies in some unconscious association. That is, past experience will affect the particular event observed, aurally or visually. Why notice this (length of someone’s thumb), rather than that (choice of tie)? Did you know that subliminal exposure can influence preferences? Even patients with amnesia can demonstrate affective preferences without remembering any encounters with the objects of their affection (Johnson & Multhaup, 1992). But the experience of preferring one stimulus rather than another is conscious. As a writer, you are aware of ‘the good idea’ or the urge to write down something noticed or experienced, (conscious preference) without recognising that some original strong, possibly emotional, experience sparked your attention to or your ‘preference’ for a particular stimulus. What one person sees and immediately focuses upon may be ignored by another. kaleidoscopeEvery scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory and visual stimuli. At a party, Jane’s attention may be drawn to a particular blue-grey dress. She says, when asked afterwards, ‘I don’t know why I remember that dress. I didn’t even particularly like it.’  But in fact it’s the same colour and texture as a dress worn by a shouting aunt in a long-ago quarrel. Her focus of attention means that she fails to absorb the content of conversation in the nearby group. Derek, beside her, has his eyes on one speaker whose gestures irritate him. He can’t say why. If he’s a writer, he may think about why, worry away at the conundrum. Sometimes it is possible to dredge up the original stimulus. A writer may go back over and again over his/her thoughts about an experience such as those above. Occasionally, the origin emerges and it is usually a very satisfying feeling even when the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. Why is this unconscious layer of memory part of the human experience? It has a social, a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) from our very early days we must attend to and perceive the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behavior.  In unconsciously absorbing tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities, there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. Moreover, when a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why s/he has focussed on that detail in the chapter, but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues. Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904 A character may be softly rubbing the edge of a desk as some significant news is given him. The reader enjoys noticing this detail and absorbing it as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read. I have written about auditory and visual stimuli here. Olfactory stimuli is another matter. It is commonly known how certain smells activate long-forgotten memories in the most vivid way. I will write about this in another post. This is the first of several pieces relating to the cognitive process in writing.