Nearly four months since my last post! Ooof. This isn’t a very good blog, is it? Loads has happened, but I’ve been too busy to talk about it — my usual morass of college marking was swamped by the millstone of an Ofsted inspection, and for weeks all I’ve done is stare at assessment forms. Around all of that, I’ve performed some new stories at Spotlight in Lancaster, had work accepted by Jellyfish Review, National Flash Fiction Day and Ghostland Zine, was longlisted for a NFFD contest and am currently shortlisted for a Liars League competition on the theme of Heads & Tails. I’ve written lots of new flash stories and nearly finished what might be another collection, maybe, probably, perhaps. I also read my version of the Hobyahs at Verbalise in Kendal, which went like this:
I love telling that story, and I need a haircut.
Away from writing, Mon and I are now actively collecting the 214 Wainwrights, having climbed Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Coniston Old Man, Illgill Head, Whin Rigg, Castle Crag and Helm Crag since my last post. It’s fascinating trying to decode old Wainwright’s spidery notes. He was barking. I quite enjoy the uphill climbs, and I absolutely love the sense of being atop the hills — the way the ranges link into plateaus, and it feels as though you’re walking on the roof of the world. Downhills are not so much fun, but there’s usually a beer somewhere at the bottom, so all is well. A Wainwright looks like this:
The big thing is the novel, I suppose. When I last wrote about it, it was finished, for the third time, redrafted, and sent away to my excellent agent, who gave me some excellent notes. As always, Sue sees what I can’t, and while she loved a lot about the book, there was a structural issue I hadn’t considered, and it needed sorting. She’s absolutely right about the structure, but I can’t go back to the book. I can’t. This is my third distinct version of The Hollows, as well as countless false starts and variations, and I honestly estimate I’ve written about 500,000 words of this story across about forty different incarnations. It has melted my brain and stifled my imagination. I thought for a day or two about whether I should redraft it again, but honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard. For now, The Hollows is shelved.
Given that it’s swallowed three years of my life, I feel surprisingly okay about putting it away. I did most of my grieving for the second draft, which was the one I loved most. The third draft deals with profound ideas, and is more LiTeRarY, but it lost all the impetuous fun of the second draft — it wasn’t fun to write, and I want to enjoy my writing. It had become such a corkscrew of ideas that I could barely think of anything else, and it was making me unhappy. Since putting The Hollows to one side, my brain has begun to thaw, and for the first time in a year, I’m feeling the fizz of ideas. Until that sensation came back, I hadn’t even realised it was gone.
In a few years, I think I’ll go back to the Hollows. There’s a whole world there, and that world is exciting, but I need a better story to navigate it. I’ve already sketched out the plot for a completely different (and simpler!) version of the same idea, and when I’m ready, I’ll see where that goes. Until then, I need a break from swamps and memories — and instead I’ve launched myself into one of the other stories I’ve had circling overhead. I’m taking the advice of sensei Stephen King, though, and writing this one with the door closed. I’ve learned a lot about getting ahead of myself. I’ve also learned why they called it ‘the difficult second novel’.
Because it bloody is.
That’s me for now. Fail again, fail better, right?
This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?
So here we go; in no particular order:
1. The Visitors being published
The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.
2. The Hollows
In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.
3. Flashtag short short story slam
Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.
Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.
5. The Year Of The Whale
I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.
6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone
Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.
7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library
Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.
One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.
It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.
10. Getting married
Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.
Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.
So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.
Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”
These are the moments we’re working for.
Happy Christmas, folks.
Just a quick note to say that I’ve added an events page to the top of the blog. Hoping to keep this ticking over – I’ve really enjoyed spending so much time this year with Flashtag, Bad Language, Verbalise, Dreamfired and book groups. Good peoples, one and all.
Joy France read at the open mic before my Verbalise guest spot, and she was amazing. I saw Ros Ballinger read some blinding poems at Lancaster Spotlight last year, and she was also very good. I know Mark Mace Smith and Trisha Starbrook by reputation – Trisha won last year’s slam, having never read in public before, and Mark is a noted slammer and favourite of my friend Ann The Poet. Some online stalking reveals the others to be an intimidatingly talented bunch of comedians, poets, theatre performers and practiced improvisers. Oof. We’ll be paired at random in the first round, reading a 150-word story head to head. The audience votes for their favourite to proceed into the second round. Round two cuts six readers with 200-word stories down to three, and the final trio read a 250-word story for top spot.
In the last week, I’ve written five or six new flash pieces, though none of them are quite right for the slam; they’ve either been too short or too long. I’m struggling especially with the first story and that 150 limit; I have a multitude of pieces of that length, but most are either abstract or downers, and I want something both bawdier and more focused for the slam. While I’m really happy with the story I’d read if I made it to the final three, getting through rounds one and two is becoming a real worry; it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about. I’m sure the right ideas will come, but I wish they would hurry up.
If you want to see me drop like a domino – and who wouldn’t? – the slam costs a measly £1 and should be a blast, so no excuses. Here’s the skinny:
Like some crazy storytelling masochist, I’ve signed myself up for the Flashtag short short story slam. This is another level in terms of live performance – take a look at the highlights reel from last year to see a far more explosive, intimate and vociferous gig that I’m used to:
I think I’m going to write some new stories for this – I have something involving a hat in mind for the third round, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far, but I’m not really happy with any of my other shorter pieces. I have work that is elegiac or lyrical, but none of them feel quite right for the slam. That gives me five weeks to write two new pieces with teeth. When I get knocked out, I want to go down swinging.
On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.
Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:
After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:
The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.
Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.
After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)
After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow.
Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.
Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.
Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.
Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.
Last night was my third Dreamfired storynight, and my second reading in support. It was a wild and windswept night in Brigsteer, but a decent crowd of thirty or so had battled through the rain and sleet. The open mic is always good fun, and I was absolutely delighted to see Trev Meaney again – he’s a dazzling slam poet who I’ve seen in action at Lancaster’s Spotlight. He combines breakneck delivery with great comic timing, and his quick-fire poems never fail to impress. Last night he performed several pieces, including the excellent confessional ‘Lancaster to London’, which looks like this:
I was the last of the support acts. For the first time, I was reading from Marrow (because yes! The books turned up on Thursday. I’ll write more about that in the next post). I read The Black And The White Of It, Hutch and After The Rains – sad, dark and joyful, by turns. It seemed to go quite well – I didn’t fully relax until the second story, but then I started to enjoy it, to really take my time with the words. If I can get to that place at the start of a reading, rather than halfway through, I’ll count that a success. I’d love to perform with Trev’s confidence and flair, but I’m still learning to walk. Running comes with time.
Kat Quatermass – who runs Dreamfired – was the headliner. She performed a startlingly original sequence of contemporary fairytales, couched in feminism and queer culture. It was an excellent show. First she painted a modern city, with an abandoned fairground, pebbledash tower blocks, supermarkets and a polluted river – then she populated it with modern kids, kids looking for ways to fit in, ways to escape – ways to survive. Kat then sent her cast of disaffected adolescents into the gritty, fantastical city, where their stories intermingled with talking foxes, golden birds, the months of the year and Hungarian hag Baba Yaga. The stories chop and change and intermingle, played out in a carnival of urban fairytales. The show was equal parts Neil Gaiman, Brothers Grimm and Arcade Fire’s LP ‘The Suburbs’. Kat’s city made me think of my short story Vanishings – that sense that anything can happen in cities when the lights go down and no one’s looking. She explained that this was a work in progress – she plans to refine and develop the show over the next six months. If last night was anything to go by, audiences are in for a real treat over the lifetime of the show.
All in all, another cracker from Dreamfired. Next up, my 20-minute guest slot at Verbalise…
To finish, here’s a picture of Baba Yaga’s hut, which walks around on chicken legs, because Baba Yaga is awesome. This is by illustrator Bojana Dimitrovski: