Thursday, 23 January 2014

Writing - January's best bits

After a pre and post Christmas break I'm back to writing at my treadmill desk, but it's in a new location. We had to move it at the end of November to make space for the Christmas tree and after the tree came down I decided I'd like the desk to stay put, in a corner of the lounge.

At the moment I'm finishing off my PhD and tentatively working on something that *might* be a novel. It's exciting to think about new characters and this time I'm really interested in exploring/employing different structures to tell the story. I need to reread Sarah Waters' The Night Watch to see whether a step back into the past is something that might be possible.

Moving the desk to a new spot seems to have lead to other changes in the writing environment/routine. I've recently decided that I like writing to smells. I acquired three Yankee Candles over Christmas: one smells like fresh laundry, another smells of cherries and the third smells of cinnamon. The cinnamon one is my absolute favourite - it makes the whole room smell like Christmas biscuits.

I have a lovely new notebook (which I bought when I was supposed to be Christmas shopping). It's really soft and bendy and it can squeeze into my bag without getting damaged. Every page has a different colour/pattern. I'm writing a lot of notes at the moment which is unusual as I normally prefer to type things and press 'save.'

After years of putting up with a Blackberry that just couldn't handle the internet, I finally faced the boredom of phone shopping. While messing about in the shop I picked up a Samsung Note 3 to make a joke about massive, brick-sized phones from the 1990s - the joke was on me when I ended up buying the brick, which I now love - it's got a tiny pen thingy so I don't have to do the whole fat-fingers-on-touch-screen thing. I even managed to find a book-ish case (it's supposed to be Little Red Riding Hood). I've started to keep the phone in my pocket while I write at the treadmill because it's got a pedometer and it makes a little trumpet fanfare when I reach 10,000 steps.

And while I'm writing/walking I can hear the lovely cuckoo clock Neil bought me for Christmas, chiming the hour and the half hour from the dining room.

I'm standing on a chair in this photo - the clock has to be more than six feet above ground level so its chains have space to dangle as they unwind. When the cuckoo sings, the little woodcutter chops wood with his axe. It's brilliant. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A new list

Top 10 International Titles to Bookmark in 2014
A Song for Issy Bradley is at number 9 in Random House New Zealand's Top 10 International Titles to Bookmark in 2014. I've read number 1 and number 2 - The Kept by James Scott and The Lie by Helen Dunmore - and I thoroughly recommend both novels.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

MMU Novella Award

Following the successes of the Manchester Fiction Prize, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Campus is launching the MMU Novella Award in 2014. The Award is open to any unpublished novella of between 20,000 – 40,000 words and any entrants in the English-speaking world are eligible. The prizes are £1,000, publication through Sandstone Press and representation by Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency. Novelist Jenn Ashworth will be judging the competition. 

I was asked to write a short piece about my favourite novella for the MMU Novella Award blog. I chose A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Here's an excerpt from the piece: 

xmascarol"A Christmas Carol is a classic ghost story. In the preface Dickens writes: ‘I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.’ The story haunts ‘pleasantly’ because its focus is redemption, not revenge; the ghosts don’t punish Scrooge, they highlight his mistakes and illustrate the inevitable outcome if he should fail to change. It’s a tale of hope and a tribute to the tremendous power of imagination; Scrooge is finally moved to change once he is able to imagine a better way of living. The concerns of the novella – its condemnation of both greed and indifference to the plight of the working poor – remain topical and relevant today."

You can read the rest of the piece here. Other writers will be posting about their favourite novellas in the coming weeks. 

Below is scene from the best adaptation of Dickens' novella, just to put you in the mood. 

And here is a link to the text of A Christmas Carol.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

U.S Cover

Look what I found on the U.S Random House website today.

Isn't it lovely? 

Some of the things I love about it:
   * It feels a bit retro (it reminds me a little of the cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian). 
   * The way the fish is miraculously floating above the bowl (this is important to the story).
   * The fact that the water drops also look like tears.
   * The way the house sits above the water, almost like Noah's Ark. 
   * The blast of light behind the picture which makes me think of a heavenly choir singing.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Shock of the Fall

I haven't read much for pleasure recently. I'm still working my way through my PhD poetics reading list and last week I rather unexpectedly (and possibly ill-advisedly) started writing something that may turn into a novel. Anyway, yesterday I decided to have a little break and I began reading The Shock of the Fall, a book that has been recommended to me on numerous occasions. Within a few minutes there was a problem - I realised that it was one of those books. You know the kind I mean; the ones you prop open with the help of a plate as you make the dinner; the ones you 'accidentally' place next to your laptop when you're supposed to be working; the ones you take with you when you're driving to pick the kids up from school, just in case they come out late and you unexpectedly have a spare five minutes of reading time. 

Last night I went to bed with the light on. I read until midnight and then I played the 'just one more page game' for an hour. When I finally slept, I dreamed I was driving down the motorway, crying – I was dreaming the book.

This morning I took the kids to school and visited my gran. I came home and tried to do some writing but I gave up just before lunch time when I went upstairs, got in bed and finished The Shock of the Fall.


I should say I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I'm not.

So begins an absolutely gorgeous novel. 

Haunted by events on a holiday nearly a decade ago, Matthew Homes writes his life story on a computer at the Hope Road Day Centre, and at home in his flat on a charity shop typewriter, a gift from his Nanny Noo. He includes drawings completed in Art Group, increasingly irritated letters from the Community Care Co-ordinator, helpful diagrams and fragments of confused thought that read like poems. The effect is a collage of a life altered by schizophrenia and debilitating guilt. 

Filer’s touch is light and deft. Matthew’s neurotic mother and heartily chummy father are at once eminently likeable and smothering. Grandmother Nanny Noo is a wonderful character who hauls bags of shopping to her grandson’s skanky flat and makes him feel important by smoking sneaky menthol cigarettes in his presence. The Shock of the Fall won the 2013 Costa First Novel Award. The judges said,' It's hard to believe this is a first novel - it's so good it will make you feel a better person.' It is hard to believe that this is a first novel; it’s such an easy book to settle into, Matthew’s voice is assured, the narrative unfurls with such ease – the right amount of detail at exactly the right time, each ineffably sad moment balanced by lovely touches of humour. When I can bear to part with my copy I’m sending it to my sister. And I hope she loves it as much as I do.

You can find reviews at the TelegraphThe Herald and The Times
Nathan's website is here.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Deleted scenes and characters

I was recycling a massive stack of draft chapters of A Song for Issy Bradley when I came across some early storyboards/outlines. It was really weird to read notes about long-forgotten characters who didn't make it into the book - it was a bit like finding a surprise menu of DVD extras.

I had completely forgotten that the Bradley family (Bradbury at one time - the surname needed to be similar to Brady for a joke about the Brady Bunch that never actually made it into the novel) originally had two extra sons, Samuel and Nephi (both Book of Mormon names, like Alma and Jacob). Samuel and Nephi were obsessed with mathematics and Glee respectively. I had written draft chapters in their voices but Samuel's sections read like a pastiche of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Nephi's obsession with Glee in such a heteronormative, patriarchal family/religion deserved more than a fleeting treatment. There were also difficulties with the viewpoint kaleidoscoping between seven family members - it was too much, Samuel and Nephi had to go.

I discovered that Zippy Bradley's love interest, Adam, was originally called James (which was news to me) and another teenager - Toby - had a storyline that didn't even make it into the first draft of the novel. Even the names of the main characters had changed: the mother of the Bradley family was initially called Ruth, then Sarah, but I subsequently decided against a biblical name, plumping instead for the name that was most popular among my thirty-something Facebook friends: Claire. And Issy Bradley was originally called Sariah, another Book of Mormon name.

At one stage it seems that, having heard about a group of British Mormons who were living polygamously in the 1990s, I considered writing about Mormon fundamentalism and polygamy* (I have no recollection of this idea, but the notes exist and I can see why I found the topic interesting and also why I ultimately decided not to go there). I also found notes (and suddenly recalled buying several books) on OCD and scrupulosity, a psychological disorder characterised by pathological guilt about moral/religious issues.

I was so glad to find these notes/storyboards at a time when it feels as if A Song for Issy Bradley has always held its current shape and dealt with its present themes. That fact that it has changed and evolved is encouraging as I muddle my way through new ideas and outlines. I can suddenly see the missteps and dead ends and there are even some 'left overs' that I may decide to blend into the recipe of novel 2.

* ...'a group of [Mormon] Church members living in Bristol, England, about 200 miles west of London, had interest in both plural marriage and fundamentalist beliefs. Priesthood Council members Joseph Thompson, William Baird, and David Watson, accompanied by Marianne Watson, were dispatched to proselytize the English investigators. Over the space of several years, more than eighty joined the AUB [Apostolic United Brethren] with some of them instructed to migrate prior to the end of 1997 when some catastrophic event was going to occur.' (More here)

Thursday, 2 January 2014


It's the time of year when people make lists; lists of books they read during the previous year and books they intend to read in the next 12 months; lists of resolutions and goals for 2014. 

I was excited to see A Song for Issy Bradley on a few lists: 'Hot 2014 Books' in the Express newspaper, 'Ones to Read in 2014' at The Writes of Women blog and in Chief Executive of the Bluecoat Mary Cloake's 'Ones to Watch'Sweet Home also gets a mention from Dan Powell whose collection Looking Out of Broken Windows will be published by Salt later this year. 

In the spirit of lists (and in no particular order) here are 10 books I especially enjoyed reading in 2013. 

The Land of Decoration    Heft

The Night Rainbow     Longbourn

The Lie    Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Almost English    Amity and Sorrow

Godforsaken Idaho   The Carhullan Army