Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Authors' rules of writing

The Guardian recently asked a bunch of well-known writers for their own personal top ten rules of writing. The results, which you can read here, were fascinating.

Needless to say every writer had a different set of rules and not a few contradicted each other. Some I found myself nodding over, some were completely new to me, some were hilarious and others I didn't agree with at all.

Margaret Atwood's suggestions for writing on a plane journey had me in stitches. Robert Ford was so brusque it was unhelpful. One author banned the use of prologues and another said all similes and metaphors were taboo. These two worried me. Yes, I've come across books where the prologue got in the way of the story and yes, I've read writing that's so full of imagery it's positively puce. But to ban every instance of something risks losing our wonderfully rich language and variety of writing forms.

And the top of the top ten advice? Well, lots of it was good but I think this, from Elmore Leonard, was pure gold: 'If it sounds like writing, rewrite it'.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Author blog awards

Someone has very kindly nominated my blog for this (I'm assuming) new award, run by which appears to be an online resources centre and networking site for writers.

I'm usually rather cynical about these sort of awards, which proliferate all over the net. You can find awards for blogs, e-books, web design... and I can't help thinking they're set up to provide members/publicity for the people running them rather than any real benefit to the nominated sites. It's still very nice to be nominated, though, and I figured I had nothing to lose by signing up.

You can vote for my blog (until 2 April) by clicking the logo at the top left of the post - apparently there are prizes available for people who vote. And thank you for your support!

Monday, March 29, 2010

RIP Tricity Bendix

My trusty friend of a washing machine, which I've had for the best part of twenty years, finally stopped working on Saturday.

It's been a wonderful companion, sticking with me through thick and thin. I got it when I bought my first flat here in Brum. Buying the property had just about cleaned me out (no pun intended) and I had to choose between carpet, or a washing machine. Having survived the previous three years in a rented flat with nowhere to put a washer, I chose the latter and managed on underlay for the next two years.

The machine followed me around the country, first to Loughborough, then back here to Birmingham. It never broke down, it never sulked, it never even thought about not working. I've used it every other day (sometimes every day if the drying weather is good) and it's been just about the most reliable piece of electrical goods I've ever had. But finally, after eighteen years' hard labour, it decided it had had enough. I switched on on Saturday morning to wash a load of towels and... nothing. Not a peep. The door didn't lock, no water flowed, no hum echoed through the utility room. Dead, as they say, as a parrot.

We dashed straight out and bought a new one and I'm sure it will be terrific. It's a washer-dryer for starters so I can get clothes dry in wet or very cold weather. It has a larger capacity and a wider-loading drum so I can actually wash duvets. It comes with all the latest energy-saving settings, and it even comes in a snazzy grey-and-white design.

I shall miss my loyal old Tricity Bendix, though. And I bet the new one won't last eighteen years....

Friday, March 26, 2010


We were hoping to go on that Odeon cinema bus tour I mentioned the other day, but when I came to book tickets I found it had sold out. Either it's too popular or they didn't hire enough buses! Shame, as it looked as if it was going to be really interesting. Ah well, perhaps next year...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Currently working on...

I have two stories on the go at once which is quite a rarity for me; usually I prefer to finish one thing before starting another.

The first story, which I've just finished to first draft, is a shocking little tale of a man's increasingly frustrated efforts at picking up a parcel for his wife at the local sorting office, and the rather drastic steps he takes to provide suitable ID.

The other is a humorous crime story which begins with a man jumping naked out of the cake at a local crime boss's 50th birthday party. A birthday surprise and then some, you could say...

Both are proving tremendous fun to write and I'm hoping once they're done and polished, to add them to a growing collection of noirish/crime stories which I might submit as an anthology somewhere.

Right, back to that birthday cake...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Birmingham Flatpack Festival

Even after 20-odd years living in Birmingham I'm still finding out fascinating new things about the city. Today marks the start of the annual Flatpack Festival, which celebrates all things cinematic.

One of the highlights this year is a bus tour around three gems of the Odeon cinema empire. The founder of Odeon, Oscar Deutsch, was born in Birmingham (Balsall Heath, to be precise) in 1893 and the early cinemas were all built in the West Midlands in the high art deco style of the 1930s. Over the years the lavish interiors have been toned down (they used to have glamorous uniformed usherettes as well as carpet, chandeliers and potted plants) but the buildings themselves remain as landmarks in many places.

As well as the tour (more details here if you're interested!) English Heritage have a complete collection of photographer John Maltby's pictures of every Odeon cinema in the UK. You can see the photos at the English Heritage viewfinder site - just type 'Odeon' into the search box.

Friday, March 19, 2010

My books for sale at Created in Birmingham

Those nice people at the Created in Birmingham shop have agreed to stock both Radgepacket Volume 2 and Radgepacket Volume 4, since both have a story by a local author (ie, me!) in them.

I'm absolutely delighted about this, because it gets the Byker Books name out to a whole new audience (and let's face it, there aren't too many independent British publishers taking the sort of dark, gritty urban fiction that Byker like), and also because it hopefully gets *my* name out to a whole new audience. This is the first time I've had physical books for sale anywhere except the internet and it's rather nice to think that people will mooch into the shop and be able to pick up and browse my work.

CiB have asked for a few more details including business cards to hand out, and a display card with a few details about myself, so I shall be beavering away on those over the weekend.

For those of you who want to check the shop (and my books!) out, it's on the upper level of the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham city centre, between the main entrance (with the bull statue) and Debenhams. It opens from 11 am each day, it's full of exciting local artwork, and the staff are very friendly. What more could you want?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Minotaur story finds a home

I had some great news from QueeredFiction yesterday - they've accepted Unravelling the Thread for their 'Love & Fables' anthology.

The story is a total romp, loosely (okay, very loosely!) based on the old Greek legend of the minotaur. In this case, when Theo's sometime-girlfriend Ariadne thinks there's a monster in the Coseley Manor maze, she sends him in to Deal With It. Never at his best in adversity, Theo surprises even himself - and is rewarded with Beauty of a different kind on the way to tackling the Beast.

The anthology is currently slated for publication in June/July of this year, but as usual I'll post more details when I have them so don't forget to check back from time to time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A story in how many words?

I got chatting to a fellow author on Saturday who said he'd been trying his hand at a new challenge - flash fiction that's only six words long!

It seems almost impossible to tell a story in only six words, but he explained that if you got it right, it could be very effective, especially in comedy work.

Never one to turn down a writing-related challenge I decided to have a go. I'm used to writing flash and have managed stories of only 30 words before now, but six is something else again. And... I failed. At least for now. I managed one piece that was ten words long, which I'm actually rather proud of, but I couldn't have reduced it to six if it'd stared at it till Doomsday.

It was fun trying, though, and something to drag out and look at again in the future. I suspect it might be useful for prodding my brain into action when I've hit the latest brick wall.

And the ten word story? Well, I might be persuaded to post it on here in a week or two, if you're all very very nice to me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Radgepacket 4 available now!

In case you hadn't already noticed from the sidebar (-->) Radgepacket Volume 4 is now fully available to buy.

This one is bigger and better than previous volumes, with extra stories in place of the interview and contest that have appeared before. Now there are 22 stories by 22 different authors, all of them dark, gritty and urban but most of them with a quirky element of gallows humour.

My own story, Lemon Sour, is loosely based on an incident from my childhood - although I swear the sort of revenge the main character takes never even occurred to me! Jenny isn't a very nice person; I can't think where in the darkest recesses of my mind she came from. However, I was trying to suggest the way that (sometimes minor) childhood humiliations can end up scarring people for life.

The paperback is available to order from either Byker Books or Amazon, for the very reasonable price of £5.99 (not bad for all those stories...). For more details including a point-of-sale link and an excerpt from the story, please hurry along to the Lemon Sour page on my website.

And if you do take the plunge, I hope you enjoy my story and some of the other sly, wry and downright naughty stories in the book.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Back from Newcastle

We had a fun, if exhausting, time in Newcastle over the weekend. The train journey went very smoothly, the only problem being that the heating controls got stuck on the way up and our carriage was absolutely boiling. It took three separate requests by three separate passengers over two and a half hours before the staff got the problem fixed, by which time I was a dripping wreck! Not what you need when you're attending an event an hour after arrival.

Luckily our hotel was only minutes from the station so I was able to freshen up before we headed out to explore the area and find the venue of the book launch. Newcastle looks to be a much more historical place than I'd realised; within minutes we'd discovered a section of 13th century town walls and a medieval friary, as well as Chinatown and St James Park (the Newcastle football ground). The book shop, The Back Page, was very close to the stadium; hardly surprising since it's a sports-lover's dream, stuffed to the rafters with football books, football dvds and football memorabilia, some of it quite rare. It made a fascinating backdrop to the party.

The launch itself was great fun; seven or eight of the authors came along and we met the editor (who grew up on the Byker estate in Newcastle, hence the publisher's name); discovered more about Byker Books' history; and chatted about our stories, writing and life in general. I picked up my contributors' copy of Radgepacket 4 which has more stories than previous volumes and looks great value at only £5.99. More of that later...

Since we both love Chinese food we couldn't resist dinner at one of the many buffet restaurants along Stowell Street? Lane? - huge choice of dishes and absolutely delicious. The highlight for me was jelly and fruit for dessert since I'm still a kid at heart!

Yesterday we had the morning to kill before our train back to Brum, so set off to explore the rest of the city including various shopping centres (they're strung out like washing on a line); the famous Grey Street with its statue of Earl Grey (of tea fame); and the river with its impressive gaggle of bridges, and a craft fair along one bank. Newcastle is obviously a vibrant city filled with music, culture, creativity and nightlife; in fact I don't think I've ever seen so many nightclubs per head of population - there were simply hundreds! The downside to that is a slightly higher than average amount of antisocial behaviour, with gangs of people shouting all night, broken glass and vomit everywhere, even early on Saturday afternoon. Highlights including seeing a curlew at close quarters at the edge of the River Tyne, and finding a lovely statue of a man with some pigeons in the Eldon Square shopping centre (you can see a pic of it here).

We were really glad to have seen the place at last, as we've been promising ourselves a visit for years. It's a long way to travel from Brum (three and a half hours each way on the train) so combining the trip with the book launch made a lot of sense.

Friday, March 12, 2010

One day to go...

Don't forget - it's the Radgepacket 4 book launch at The Back Page in Newcastle upon Tyne from 3-5 pm tomorrow (Saturday 13 March).

I'll be there. Will you? ;)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Line of Beauty'

I bought this book a few years ago, soon after watching and enjoying the tv series based on it. Too soon, really - I spent most of my time comparing the book to the series and it pulled me out of the 'story' and made it very difficult to focus. Eventually I gave up and stuck the book on the shelf, and I only picked it up again the other week... and promptly wondered why on earth I'd waited so long!

The book is terrific. Quite possibly Hollinghurst's best, and that's against some pretty stiff opposition. Set in the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher, mobile phones, consumerist excess and yuppie-dom, it tells the story of Nick Guest, a young gay man who gets himself invited to live with his university friend Toby's family. Toby's father Gerald is an up-and-coming politician in the Thatcher government and his mother Rachel is an upper-class heiress. Nick, who is obsessed by beauty in all its forms, is swept off his feet by their attractiveness, their wealth and their social standing. At the same time he explores his own sexuality for the first time with affairs with a black council-worker and the son of a middle-eastern millionaire. Needless to say the course of true love does not run smooth and Nick learns the hard way as his lovers succomb to drug addiction and AIDS, and his new family prove to have their own skeletons in the closet.

There is so much going on inside the book - so much detail, so much humanity, so many themes, that I hardly know where to start. In particular I love the dry sly humour - the millionaire is clearly modelled on Mohammed Al Fayed, for instance - and the dialogue which conjures up so skillfully the brittle brilliance of the decade. Although the downward spiral of Nick's life takes on a tragic tone it's never overdone and the ending is just ambiguous enough to leave Nick, who's lost everything, with a flicker of hope for his future life.

Hollinghurst seems at times to be gleefully breaking all the usual writing rules. He uses 'tell' rather than 'show', especially when describing characters' emotions, and he manages to set an entire novel in the 1980s without mentioning a single person, piece of music, book, television programme or event from that time (with the obvious exception of Mrs Thatcher herself). And yet the sheer brilliance of the writing, and the everyday details of the characters' lives, bring the decade to vivid life anyway, so it hardly matters.

All in all it's a wonderful piece of writing and fully deserves its Man Booker Prize.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Created in Birmingham

To my shame I've only recently discovered Created in Birmingham, the blog for all things (and people) creative in Brum. It looks as though I found it just in time, though, because shortly afterwards they opened their first ever store, in the main Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham city centre. They're initially there for a period of 6-8 weeks and will decide whether to continue the venture after the 'trial' period.

It's a wonderful space, right up on the top deck between the main entrance and Debenhams where it should catch lots of passing trade. Dave and I were in town yesterday morning and found it was open on Sundays, so we called in and were really impressed with the quality of the products being sold. There's everything from buttons and badges to large-scale artwork, via music and t-shirts with trendy designs, and most of it is very, very good. And the prices didn't make us blink, either. We treated ourselves to a signed limited-edition print by Jo Ruth of the famous Iron Man statue on New Street (by Anthony Gormley of 'Angel of the North' fame, no less) and were delighted with it. We'll definitely be popping back from time to time to check out any new stock they've had in.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Date for your diary

Radgepacket Volume 4 is due out any day now from Byker Books, and the launch party is all set for Saturday 13 March. And I'll be there! This is my first ever book launch and I'm glad it's for an anthology rather than a standalone book because the editor and several other authors will also be there - there's comfort in numbers when you're shy.

There'll be drinks and nibbles on tap, there may be a reading from the book, and I and the other authors will be available to chat about our stories and writing in general, and sign copies of the book.

So, if you'd like to meet me and get my autograph for your collection, come along to sports bookshop The Back Page in Newcastle on Saturday 13 March between 3 pm and 5 pm, and prepare to have fun. The shop's full address (including post codes for those of you programming satnavs) is 56 St Andrews Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5SF. I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wet start to the month

And for once I'm not talking about the weather.

Yesterday I noticed the faint sound of dripping in our lounge, which is quite an achievement since there shouldn't be any water in there. Further investigation revealed a leak from a pipe in the bedroom, where we had an old washbasin taken out and the pipes capped off. The plumber hadn't done a very good job of the capping and one had split, causing water to percolate through the ceiling and down the lounge wall, where it was gathering behind the lining paper and then dripping onto the skirting board.

Needless to say the worst part was right behind a large bookcase so half way through my lunch I had to leap up, clear all the books off their shelves and hump the bookcase out of the way before I could get busy with mops and towels. And of course we had to turn the water off at the mains, and had one kettle-full to last us all afternoon and part of the evening.

Dave called out an emergency plumber who arrived, finally, at 7pm (they're run off their feet with all the burst pipes etc caused by the cold weather) and fixed the leak. Rather amazingly, he only charged us £40 which is a far cry from emergency plumbers we've had before who seem to charge by the minute. Many thanks for a great service, Dynorod, we'll be using you again. If we have to, which I rather hope we don't...

Now we just have to wait for the plaster to dry out before redecorating in the lounge. Luckily I was thinking about a change of colour in there anyway, but I could have done without the drama!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Oh my aching bones...

We came back a day early from our holiday in the Lakes because we had a tai chi session booked for Saturday afternoon. Dave's tutor had organised a workshop with a Chinese organisation who promote qigong for health around the world. They hadn't come all the way from China just to teach us, of course - it was part of their general UK tour - but it was still something of a coup as the two ladies were very senior and at least one had represented China in contests at international level.

The session was three hours long and completely exhausting. Qigong is the least martial and least 'physical' of the tai chi disciplines - very graceful and flowing - but even so you end up using muscles you've never come across before, and learning fourteen new moves in one afternoon was pretty tiring too. But it was all absolutely fascinating, especially as the main tutor explained the health benefits of each and every move - sometimes in surprisingly frank detail which left the translators blushing! I came away feeling stretched (think: Ioan Gruffuds' character in The Fantastic Four) but happy.