10 February, 2017

Flash 500 - Winner!

I am so delighted that my story, Everything After Now, has won Flash 500 for the fourth quarter in 2016. Flash 500 is, unsurprisingly, a flash fiction competition with a word limit of 500. It runs every quarter and has been going for eight years, which means they regularly receive hundreds of entries every quarter from across the world. And I won!

This was an incredibly special win for me. I spent almost all of last year slogging away at the second draft of my next novel, snatching moments to write during my boys' nap-times or between putting them to bed and doing the housework in the evening. I didn't have time to write anything else and I really missed short fiction. By mid-December I was done with my novel but we were fast approaching Christmas with the all the time-sapping chaos (and joy!) that comes with it. Eventually, I managed to snatch a few hours in the week between Christmas and New Year to write Everything After Now. I probably spent no more than about three hours on it from first word of the first draft to final submission - definitely the quickest piece I've written. To have won such a big competition feels incredible. I'm very grateful!

Everything After Now is written in the future tense. It's something I've never done before and I've been meaning to experiment with it for years. I didn't want it to be a gimmick, however. I only want to write in the future tense if the story demanded it or I knew it wouldn't work. One day while I was walking with my one year-old asleep on my back the first line, "Tomorrow they will laugh about this." came into my head. Almost instantly the whole premise of the story appeared with it. That's rare for me. Maybe even unique - I certainly can't remember having such a clear idea come so fully-formed before. Which is why I was able to write it so fast!

I have entered Flash 500 three times. First time I was shortlisted. Second time I came second. Now this. I guess I should stop entering now!

If you have five minutes to read my story, I'd be glad to know what you think of it. You can find it here.

21 January, 2017

Photo Post - My Life in Books

If you're reading this post, chances are you love books. And if you love books, I guess you might have a lot of them around your house?

I have mixed feelings about hoarding books. On the one hand, I grew up in a house full of books which meant I read widely (something I'm keen for my kids to experience too), and I love to have permanent reminders of all the literary journeys I've been on around me. On the other hand, I rarely re-read books and I don't like clutter. So we are not one of those households with books piled everywhere, but we certainly do have quite a few. Here is a sneaky peek at my life in books...

This is our fiction bookcase. On the top shelf we have some weighty classics on the left (Ulysses and War and Peace, the complete works of Jane Austen etc.) Most of the shelves are full of more modern novels. Towards the bottom we get more into genre: crime (including excessive numbers of Agatha Christies), thrillers, even the odd bit of horror or sci-fi. And we finish, bottom right, with short stories. Or we're meant to. The bottom shelves get rearranged by toddlers most days.

Our other two sets of shelves are mostly non-fiction. The shelves on the left of shot have children's fiction on the top and then mostly contain tonnes of OS Explorer maps, walking guides and photo albums. The shelves in the centre of shot contain all sorts of non-fiction: Christian books, travel books, books of knitting patterns, poetry, humour, books of quotations. We have a lot of CS Lewis books (including the Narnia series, which are of course ficiton but we wanted to keep all his work together). We also have a good whack of...

 ...Bill Bryson books. I adored his work as a teenager and his Short History of Nearly Everything remains one of the most fun and accessible pop science books I've read. Which brings us neatly on to...
...our science books! We have quite a lot of popular maths and science books. Here are a few. Anthropology is my specialist subject so a lot of books reflect that. Sapiens is our newest one and I haven't read it yet.

Once we get past the main bookshelves there are still more books scattered round our house.

In the living room I have a shelf of books that are "work" books - books I have written or contributed to, or that are about writing in some way, including the classic On Writing by Stephen King.

On my desk I always have a pile of books that are helping me with my latest project. In this case, my novel-in-progress involving Shakespeare and the language of flowers!

I have a big stack of recipe books inside one of our kitchen cupboards. These are the ones that stay out on the shelf at the moment as I use them most often. Every household should have a copy of the Good Housekeeping cookery book! The box on the left is full of recipes I've pulled from magazines. I love to cook!

Finally, there are the boys' books. I have a two year-old and a one year-old, both of whom LOVE books. The one year-old maybe loves them a little too much - a couple of times a week I usually have to get the sellotape out. We buy and get given new books all the time as well as always having a stack of library books. We must have getting on for 100 or so including all the collections. My favourites to read are Julia Donaldson, Quentin Blake, Jeanne Willis and Lynley Dodd, but the boys go through phases. Our two year-old will get fixated on Alfie or Apple Tree Farm for weeks at a time. At the moment our one year-old has an obsession with a book about a jellyfish running a rocket plane company. Within a few minutes of them finishing breakfast this is a bird's-eye view of what their bookshelves look like...

We are trying to teach them to be tidy but it might be a long process! For now I am just glad they are living in a house where books play a major part of every day. 

What does your life in books look like? Are you a horder or a pass-it-on-er?

30 December, 2016

2016: My Year in Books

I don't get half as much time to read as I'd like to these days. I used to read four or five books a month (which I know is still paltry by some people's standards!). The last couple of years have been quite different. My aim this year was to read at least 16 books. And I did - just!

Listed below are the books I've got through in 2016 in the order from the one I enjoyed most to the one I enjoyed least. For each one I gave a mark out of ten for how much I enjoyed reading it. The quality of the writing obviously had a big effect on my enjoyment, but there will always be some stunning books I don't get on with, and some less-stunning ones I get hooked on - so it's definitely not a mark of how "good" they are! Have you read any of these? What did you think?

  1.  Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 10/10
  2.  The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger 10/10
  3.  The Moth - Various Authors 10/10
  4. I See You - Claire Mackintosh 10/10
  5. The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards 9/10
  6.  Before I Go to Sleep [audiobook] - S.J. Watson. 9/10
  7.  The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness 9/10
  8.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson 9/10
  9.  Going Out - Scarlett Thomas8/10
  10.  Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides 8/10
  11.  Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell 8/10
  12.  Sacred Treason - James Forrester 8/10
  13.  A Grandmother's Tale - RK Narayan 7/10 
  14.  Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain - Barney Norris 7/10
  15.  Stone Mattress - Margaret Atwood 7/10
  16.  The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro 6/10
  17.  The Way Back Home - Freya North 6/10

In addition to these I read a couple of non-fiction books, including a glorious collection of CS Lewis's essays. (Actually The Moth is a collection of real-life stories as told at live story-telling events in the USA. So technically it's non-fiction, but as fact is often stranger in this case, and certainly as wonderful, I've included it in this list.) It's good to see all the books written out like that as it makes me realise the width of my reading. I didn't read any old classics this year but my list includes historical thrillers, modern crime novels, "literary" novels, both Indian and Canadian short stories and Young Adult Fiction.

My biggest disappointment of the year was The Buried Giant. Ishiguro's Booker-winning novel, The Remains of the Day is the best book I've ever read so I looked forward to reading his latest work. It was beautifully-written of course, but I didn't really enjoy it at all. It was all a bit too weird and mythical and I felt like it was trying to be poignant rather than actually being so. However, that did make me read Never Let Me Go by the same author and that proved to be my favourite book of the year. So some good came of it!

What were your top reads of 2016? Did you get any good books for Christmas?

13 December, 2016

Summer or Autumn?

It appears I have created the literary equivalent of #thedress. Do you remember the dress I mean? The one which went viral after a group of friends realised some people saw it as black and blue and other saw it as white and gold. Well, in the first paragraph of my novel, I have written a sentence which has split my readers into two camps: those who think my book is meant to be set in summer and those who think it is meant to be set in autumn.

Here is the offending sentence:
"It was one of those autumn days that had lost its way and ended up in summer."

The confusion came to light when I saw I had a negative review on Amazon. "This one lost me on the first page when scene setting, the day is first described as autumn and a paragraph later as June." I was baffled. I had to re-read my opening paragraph to see what the reviewer could possibly have meant. I then posted the sentence on Facebook to ask people which season they thought I was referring to - assuming everybody would tell me that the reviewer was being silly and it was obvious which season I'd meant. 

For the record, my book is indeed set in June. When writing that sentence, I meant to convey that the it was an autumn-like day (cloudy, cool, threatening rain) that had showed up even though it was summer. I thought that was clear. In the sentence the day ends up in summer - that is its final resting place: summer. The first two people to comment on Facebook however, agreed with the reveiwer - they thought it was autumn! I was pretty gutted about this. It wasn't just any line in my book - it was a line in the very opening paragraph; the fourth sentence of the whole novel. Of all the things I have ever written in my life, the opening paragraph to the opening chapter of my debut novel is probably the thing I have sweated over and re-written the most. 

A lot of people got invovled in the debate on Facebook. In the end there was a big majority who agreed with me that the sentence meant that the scene was set in summer, but there were still at least five people who read it as being autumn.

Of course, I could have written a much clearer sentence. "It was an autumnal day, despite actually being early summer." Or, "It was a grey summer day." However, as a writer I don't want to write flowery, over-the-top sentences, but I also don't just want to state bland facts. There was one person who thought the sentence was good at least! 

I'm not entirely sure what I can learn from this incident. Maybe somebody needs to make a piece of ambiguity software we can run our work through. Safe to say, I'll be checking the opening paragraph of my next novel even more carefully. I think perhaps though, the whole episode can be summed up in four words: win some, lose some. Oh, and I still can't see that dress as black and blue, even though I know that's exactly what it is.

01 December, 2016

Draft Two - Check!

I have finally finished the second draft of my novel-in-progress. I'm hoping it will eventually become my second published novel, Novel2 if you will. But that's still a long way off...

It has been three years and three months since I started working on this novel. In the past, a couple of drafts might have taken me six to eight months to crank out. This time however, I was somewhat waylaid by having two children (17 months apart) and being a full-time mum. Having abandoned the first draft before having my eldest son, I started again when he was six months old, then started AGAIN four months later when I realised I was writing my way into a dead end. I just about managed to complete the first draft a week before my second son was born in August last year. After that it got busy!

I started writing this draft in May, hoping - but not really believing - I could do it in eight months before the end of 2016. Well, guess who's feeling smug now? I have finished one month early, despite a slow start and weeks when the ill/stroppy/not-at-all-sleepy boys took up most of my writing time.

I don't know if this is going to be a great - or even publishable - book. It's certainly not polished yet. I might have several more drafts to do before it's even anything close to a satisfying novel. But I'm proud of it. I spent the first six months after Boy2 was born, working on getting him to nap regularly. It meant I never got a break, but it DID mean that eventually I got to the stage where both boys napped at the same time. I was so tempted then to use those precious minutes of silence to relax or at least get a start on housework, but I made myself write. Every afternoon nap pllus two evenings a week I'd sit at my desk and put those words down.

There are tonnes of writers out there who give up an hour of sleep, or their office lunchtimes to write their books. I have a newfound respect for them! To write and write and write, regardless of whether I'd had only four hours sleep the previous night and how late I was going to have to stay up doing housework that night because of it, was tough. I had to learn to write in a way I wasn't used to - picking up Novel2 in an instant, and leaving it again mid-thought when one of the boys woke for the afternoon. And you know what? I enjoyed the challenge. I had a lot of fun writing this, I really did. I feel as my characters and I have come through a battle together!

So what now? I am currently reading Novel2 through and doing a very light edit - continuity stuff and double-checking facts mostly. I expect that to take only a week or two. Then I will send it to my most trusted readers for their verdict and then (gulp) to my agent to see what he thinks. There is of course always a chance that nobody will like it and my agent will think it's terrible. I'm not sure what I'll do then. But unless and until that happens I am going to wallow in the contentment of having completed another novel draft. It won't just be wallowing though. I'm going to write other stuff. Glorious, beautiful other stuff! I've missed writing short fiction so much over the last eight months and I can't wait to stretch my writing legs and give a new mini-project a go!