This is just a quick post to invite you – yes, you – along to Verbalise at the Brewery on the 22nd February.
It’s going to be ace. The open mic is already packed with talent – I know that short story guru Brindley Hallam Dennis is coming, and so is my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet, both of whom are exceptional performers. I feel absolutely honoured to have a guest slot, and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into such a long session – I’ve never had 20 minutes to play with before. I’m already planning my stories. I’m definitely going to read Marrow, which is about dubious experiments in home cooking, and Hutch, which is about guinea pigs vanishing from a suburban garden. I’m probably going to read The Black And The White Of It, too. All three are in my flash fiction collection, Marrow, which should – assuming I’ve managed to print it right way up and right side out – be a real buzz to read from. I’m also going to read some new work. I’ve been working on a piece about the dark side of a village bakery competition, and I also want to try running a dozen of my Twitter stories together as a quickfire rattle through relationship disasters. I think I’m going to call that 10 Second Speed Dates, and might even try and read against the clock. If there’s time, I might read a very short flash piece called Real Life, too, which was published by Paragraph Planet last week. I’m going to relish the words – to invest my confidence in these stories I’ve written and endlessly rewritten. After all that time glued to a computer, reading live is where the stories draw breath.
If you can come, it would be great to see you. Compere Ann the Poet tells me that anyone who wants an open mic slot will get one, so roll on up and bring a story…
A quick aside with some good news, too – after a couple of story rejections in January, I’m delighted to have had two acceptances in as many days. I’ve landed flash fiction Circle Stone with the tenth issue of estimable magazine Gutter, and sci-fi short story Patience in an anthology called After The Fall. Go team!
Improving my spoken word performance is an ongoing mission. There’s no substitute for actually reading live, and I have my first two events of the year booked in for February. First up is a support slot at Dreamfired on Valentine’s Day, and then I’m top of the bill (eek!) for Verbalise at the end of the month.
As well as actual readings, I’ve started looking for workshops. I attended a great Spotlight session in Lancaster with Brindley Hallam Dennis last year. He set the class the truly startling task of having other people read our work. My workshop partner went through my flash piece Marrow at a third of the pace I usually do, really savouring the words, and she made it three times better. That was an important lesson. I’ve also taken a huge amount from veteran performer David Hartley’s tips for spoken word.
I watch a lot of readings, both live and online, to see how other writers project and present their words. I’ve seen some great stuff, and some terrible stuff. This performance by Shane Koyczan is absolutely, completely, one of the very best. I’ve listened to it a dozen times, and it grows ever more wonderful.
Obviously, the end of every year gives pause for reflection. For me, this used to manifest itself in a range of Top Tens – films, albums, books, gigs – but these days I don’t really do enough of any of those things to justify it. So here’s my combined Top Ten of 2013 instead. They’re not in order.
Securing a publishing deal with the wonderful Quercus Books has been one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me. I’m still waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under my feet, but until they do, I’ll keep enjoying every moment of this exhilarating, terrifying, extraordinary rollercoaster. I feel bowled over by the support for my writing, even as I feel a massive weight of pressure to deliver. I started the year with a manuscript called Riptide Heart; I finished with a rigorous redraft, now called The Visitors. Working with Quercus editor Jane Wood has made my writing tighter and my story much stronger. It has also given me a real hunger to push on with my work – I now have half-a-dozen novel ideas clamouring for my time.
This wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of my awesome agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and the support of my amazing partner Monica. That brings me to the second thing on the list:
2. New work from Monica Metsers
While she was pregnant, and in the first year of Dora’s life, Mon took time away from her painting. 2013 was the year she really started again, and the results have been amazing. She has a solo show in London next year, and as well as a few smaller paintings and a range of drawings, she’s made these two stunning large-scale paintings, which I think are amongst the best work she’s ever done:
BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES BALLENA Y GEISHA
2013 also marked our five-year anniversary – it’s been a blast.
3. Performing live
I’ve never been good at public reading, and this year I set myself the challenge of improving. I went on to read my work twice at Spotlight in Lancaster, once at Kendal’s Spoken Word, once (performing from memory) at Dreamfired in Brigsteer, and once at the Flashtag 2013 writing competition in Manchester, where I won second place. My confidence grew with each reading, though I still feel I’ve a way to go.
I also attended a spoken word workshop run by the excellent Brindley Hallam Dennis. One of the activities he set has changed everything: he had other members of the workshop read our stories. The lady who read my flash piece ‘Marrow’ performed it at a third of the pace I do. She relished every word, and it was three times better as a result. I haven’t performed since then, but I’m going to practice reading with that sort of gusto at the next opportunity. I’m booked in for a 20-minute slot at Spoken Word in February, and I’d like another couple of events under my belt by then. My goal has evolved a little, too: what I’m aiming for now is something closer to outright performance than simply reading. That will come with confidence, and confidence will come from practice.
4. Seven Seals – Plan of Salvation
After a whopping 18 months, I finally finished making this music video for amazing psychedelic synth punks Seven Seals. They’re an extraordinary band, and it was an honour to be involved. They’re working on new material, which will hopefully be available in 2014 for their ten-year anniversary gigs.
5. Amy Hempel – The Dog of the Marriage
Quite simply, the finest collection of short stories I’ve ever read. Hempel’s writing is so sensitive, so honest, that it infuses her stories with devastating grace. Unmissable.
6. Les Revenants
This French drama is the best thing I’ve seen on television in years, remarkable for its intrigue, restraint and power. It delivers on every level, exploring an extraordinary narrative without needless exposition to unravel the mysteries of the Returned, all of whom are troubled in different but connected ways. The locations and cinematography are stunning, while the soundtrack by Mogwai is my album of the year. There’s a startlingly surreal lucidity to the conclusion, and I think they could have left it there; but I’m delighted to see a second series in the works. Here’s the trailer for season one:
In TV terms, an honorable mention also goes to Game Of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister might be the finest character ever committed to screen, and the Red Wedding haunts me even now.
7. Success for friends
It’s been a good year for many of my friends and peers, too. Iain Maloney landed an agent and a book deal with Freight, Kirstin Innes found an agent, Anneliese Mackintosh got a book deal, Kirsty Logan landed a book deal and won everything in the world. Friends Andy and Gemma had a baby boy called Miles, and Ali and Iona had a little girl called Inka. There have been a lot of richly deserved congratulations this year. Good work, team.
Yup. Two of them. I wasn’t sure, at first, but then we met these two cats in the Wainwright Animal Rescue Centre, and it was an easy decision. They came to us with the names Remus and Teddy, which we’ve kept. They’re brothers, about three years old, and half-Persian. They’ve been an amazing addition to our house. They are incredibly relaxed and friendly, and they actively seek our company. That’s especially welcome when I’m having a writing day alone at home.
We were overdue a break, and this fortnight in France was exactly what we needed. We camped in half-a-dozen places, the best of which was Green Venice, a vast network of canals, ditches and overgrown waterways, crawling with vines and willows, alive with dragonflies and katydids. It was an extraordinary landscape. I read more in that fortnight than I’d managed in four months. Best of all, the holiday gave me enough mental space to plan my next novel, which will be called Grisleymires. That’s now blocked out on Scrivener, waiting for my next writing day.
10. Another year with Dora.
In their first year, babies are basically little puddings. Awesome little puddings, but puddings nonetheless. In their second year, they gather the basic tools to discover the world. And in year three, that toolkit expands exponentially; physically, vocally, intellectually and emotionally. Going through that with Dora has been nothing short of a joy. Seeing the world through her eyes has made me reevaluate so many things for myself. Her conversations leave me in stitches, and everything about her makes me smile. And she hasn’t been to A&E this year, which I consider something of a triumph. Though there’s still a week of 2013 left.
So that’s my Top Ten. It’s been a good year, and 2014 is alive with possibilities. I might even pop some resolutions up in a few days.
It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:
I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.
I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:
Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.
Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:
“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”
Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:
Engines of Thought
by BigCharlie Poet
There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor
The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor
The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor
They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor
But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor
And here’s my response:
Books Like Grains Of Sand
The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.
It led her to a door.
“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.
In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.
“All of them?” she whispered.
The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.
“All of them,” it said.
It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.
Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.
She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.
“But where to start?” she murmured.
She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.
The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.
In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.
She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.
Simon Hart (a.k.a. BigCharlie Poet) and I have taken on a challenge. We thought we’d each try writing a piece inspired by the same picture and see what we came up with. We’ve had a week or so to work on something; Simon’s poem is called ‘Empty’, and my story is called ‘If All We Ever See Is Cathedrals’ (which I pinched from a Paddy Garrigan lyric I can’t stop thinking about). Paddy sort of makes an appearance in the story, too. Sorry, Paddy.
This is the picture, which I found on Pinterest:
And here’s Simon’s response to it:
by BigCharlie Poet
He stands alone inside the ruined shell
Watches the water flow in a place that once, he thinks, housed God as well
And he tries to convince himself that he is at peace
That he is free from everything, has achieved a release
From the torments of his daily life
The soul destroying work, the unfeeling distant wife
But there is a feeling he cannot seem to shake
Like someone is encouraging him to return to a state
Of conciousness, where he needs to open his eyes
Where he needs to breathe again, before his body dies
So he dulls the uncomfortable feeling by watching the water flow
Sees the plants as they find a way to grow
Through the abandoned cathedrals fallen floor
“Sam! Wake up…” this time he’s sure
That the prescence is more than just his mind
Is positive that someone is trying to find
A way to break into this place of calm
Where God heard raised to the Heavens many different psalms
“Open your eyes for me Sam!” he hears the voice again
And as he hears it, he notices the light shine through the pane
Of glass flash so brightly that it causes him to stumble
“C’mon Sam! Open those eyes” the voice now a calm but insistent rumble
The next flash of light brings a jolt to his chest
He sees briefly a world he thought he had left
He tries to return to where the calm water is flowing
But with each passing second he knows he is going
Back to a place he can’t seem to escape
He wakes to the question “Sam, what did you take?
What did you take, Sam? I need you to say,
Was it pills that made you this way?
If it was pills, can you give me a nod?”
And as his head moves he thinks, “why not this time, God?”
And here’s my response:
If All We Ever See Is Cathedrals
by Simon Sylvester
It was no more than a hairline, running between two tiles, but as the year progressed, the fracture spread into a delta and ran between the squares of the mosaic. Father Garrigan glared, then called in builders. They lifted the mosaic for restoration, and discovered a network of cracks hidden beneath the rotten grout. Upon closer examination, damage was found all over the cathedral. Uneven lines formed between the huge, half-ton coins that split the annex from the nave. By the end of that autumn, it became plain that the pillars were subsiding.
The Father stood in his cathedral, framed by the huge window arches. Surveyors and scaffolders scurried around him, making ruin of the House of the Lord. The cathedral was closed for a fortnight, and then for six months – and then for a year. Whenever repairs were completed, new faults were discovered. One night, while the foundations were being electronically monitored for vibrations, the floor fell in. Father Garrigan found the cathedral exposed from the sepulchre to the vaulted dome. There was a stream running directly through the building, bubbling up from between the broken flags. The cost of repair became prohibitive. The building was condemned and desanctified. The builders withdrew. The cathedral was abandoned.
With time, slates began to slide from the rafters and shatter on the rocks. Birds and bats roosted on the lip around the dome. A tapestry of moss explored the walls, creeping into alcoves where statues used to stand. The light shone green with algae, and the cathedral dreamed to the music of the stream. Everyone had gone.
Almost everyone had gone.
Louder than ever, now, Father Garrigan hears the voice of God. It echoes from the walls. It sounds like water, and it sounds like the wind. It sounds just a little like laughter.
On Friday 11th October, Dreamfired takes over Brigsteer village hall for a night of traditional music and storytelling. I’ve managed to land one of the support slots for headliner Emily Parrish, aka Scandalmongers. She’s retelling the classic Norse myth of Loki, the trickster and troublemaker at Odin’s court. Her show has received amazing reviews, and I’m really excited about seeing her perform live.
I’ll be reading two short pieces I’ve been practising live – Circle Stone and The Lion Tamer’s Daughter. I wanted to get into the spirit of the night by performing from memory: no notes, no paper. Reading them at Spotlight and Spoken Word has been good for practising their delivery. I already know Circle Stone by heart, and I’m four-fifths of the way there with Lion Tamer. The prospect of reading live is not yet as scary as it will be on Friday afternoon.
By dumb chance, my storytelling uncle Rich Sylvester is up in the Lakes for a workshop that weekend, so he’s coming along too – and I’ve just discovered that legendary Cumbrian singer, songwriter and banjo maestro Bill Lloyd is playing as well. It’s a blinding line-up, and I feel a little overawed to be reading at such a great event. I’m looking forward to sharing my stories, then sitting back with a beer to enjoy a great night of tall tales and folk music…
I performed four stories at the 200th Spotlight Club in Lancaster last night, and it was great. I’ve talked before about how nervous I get before a reading, and yesterday was no exception; I spent the whole day oscillating between calm and stomach-churning tension. It’s always terrifying to put my work before another person: the fear that they’ll hate it never goes away. I get worried whenever I show a new story to Monica, who is always my first reader, and I’m just as nervous when I send it on to Sue and writer friends like Iain Maloney and Steven John Malcolm. Any happiness at having a story published is matched by the anxiety that people will realise I’m making it up as I go along.
Performing live takes those concerns to a different place altogether. My heart thrums in my solar plexus, and my throat goes tight. Last night was the biggest audience I’d ever read to, of fifty or sixty or seventy people, and I was scheduled quite late on the bill. As the night rolled on, more and more people joined the crowd – and the more nervous I became – not least as the bar was set extremely high right from the first performance.
Big Charlie Poet (a.k.a. Simon Hart) kicked off the open mic with an extremely brave, extremely good poem about bullying. I really like Simon’s work and I’ll definitely try to catch him again. I also really enjoyed Ros Ballinger’s poems – tight, witty work about one-night stands and more.
After the open mic came musician Kriss Foster & Friend. All I knew of this act was that Kriss wore a homemade leopard onesie – it turns out they are Lancaster’s equivalent of Flight of the Conchords. They combined a great stage show with three songs about our wee corner of the north-west, and had the audience in stitches. Their first song was from the point of view of a taxidermied seabird in Kendal Museum:
Then came the tragedy of a blind date gone wrong in Rivington motorway services, before they finished with a love song to Morecambe. Brilliant.
They would have been a hard act to follow, so I’m glad there was an interlude before the next slot. The first performer after the break was Italian poet Carla Scarano. Her poems about portraits married intricacy to power – and the last two, about Francis of Assisi and Beowulf, were simply magnificent.
Then it was my turn. On Mon’s suggestion, I started with the Lion Tamer’s Daughter, and I’m pleased to say it went down quite well – I followed with The Black And The White Of It, then Hutch, and finished with new flash piece Circle Stone. I had twelve minutes, which is probably the longest slot I’ve had to work with. About halfway through I was surprised to realise that the nerves had gone. The good reaction from the audience helped, without a doubt, and gave me greater confidence in my stories. That in turn helped me relax and enjoy the reading, and I think that improved my performance. I don’t know if there’s some secret to starting a reading with that attitude – I suspect it needs to be earned at each new event. Anyway – I loved it. It was my best reading by a mile. If anything, it made me want to write more flash fiction for live events.
I was followed by performance poet Miss P, who managed to combine memory and incisive observation with humour and relentless energy. It seemed to be a bittersweet show for her – she’s moving to Oxford, and this was her last gig in Lancaster. Large sections of the audience had come to support her, and the reaction to her work was explosive and good-humoured.
Paddy Garrigan finished the night with half-a-dozen of his excellent songs. I really like Paddy’s stuff, and it was so good to see him live for the first time. My favourite song was loosely about cathedrals – or, more accurately, our notions of what makes something important. I can’t find it online to share, unfortunately, but it was sumptuous. If I can track it down, I’ll update the post; for now, here’s another of his gigs, playing ‘Where Do The Dead Go When They Die’ with his full band:
Thanks go to compere Simon Baker, too. He was a generous and very funny host. There was a great atmosphere around the occasion of Spotlight’s 200th event, a real sense of community and history. I’m always impressed at how eclectic the performers are, and it’s an honour to be part of something so embracing. It reaffirmed to me how important it is to share my work with others – to validate what I do away from a computer screen.
I signed up to compete at their annual Slam next month, so I’ll be back to Spotlight in October. I haven’t done a slam event before. Hopefully I won’t disintegrate. Each of twenty contestants has a three-minute slot. It’s not a lot of time, but I already have a few ideas brewing away about how I can make best use of it…