Tag Archives: writing

A Dish Best Served Cold

Well, my poor old attempt at flash fiction didn’t make the shortlist for the inaugural Reflex Fiction competition. Boo! But on the plus side, I get to publish it here instead. Hurrah!

 

 

Marcus watches as the plate is lowered to the starched cotton tablecloth. F. G. Fotheringale peers at it over his spectacles and scratches a few words in his notebook. The pen moves swiftly left to right, underlining something.

Marcus wonders what it is. “Elegant,” perhaps, or “sophisticated.” But no, knowing F. G. Fotheringale it will be something he’s never heard of, a French term that Marcus would have had to look up to know whether it was good or bad. Not that he’ll need to this time: this review will never be written.

The waiter is at Marcus’s shoulder, presenting his identical plate in precisely the same way, pointing with a neat fingernail to the silky slices of fugu (“prepared with the greatest care by Mr. Blackwood himself”) the glistening pools of plum sauce that Marcus knows already will be the perfect consistency, the delicate shiso leaves adding colour.

The envy tastes like vinegar.

At the next table, F. G. Fotheringale picks up his chopsticks. A few seconds more and he’ll capture a sliver of fugu, dip it in that piquant sauce. How long, Marcus wonders, before Fotheringale’s lips start to tingle, before his vision blurs? Will he look up then and see Marcus sitting there? Will he have time to regret the words that have led to this moment?

“Pedestrian.”“ Prosaic.” “Passé.” Each one an alliterative dagger to Marcus’s soul.

Fotheringale deserves this, and Blackwood too. Walking out like that, as if he owed Marcus nothing. After all those years of training, of patience. Of friendship.

The sous chef had been easy to persuade: a droplet of pufferfish poison added discreetly to Fotheringale’s sashimi. He’s been slipping the mortadella to Maria Blackwood and believes he’ll take over the restaurant when her husband’s reputation is ruined. He’s not the sharpest knife in the block.

Marcus smiles as he lifts his own chopsticks to his mouth. Delicious: he can see why the Japanese take the risk. His eyes meet Fotheringale’s as he chews.

But what is this? The sous chef is at the kitchen door, waving, frantic. Marcus freezes, his chopsticks in mid-air.

He presses a finger to his tingling lips.

 

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Flash fiction – or when size really does matter

flash

So I made my first attempt to write some flash fiction the other day. It was a competition entry – Reflex Fiction’s inaugural contest, which closes for submissions on 28 February if you fancy entering (details here) – and with a top prize of £100, I hoped optimistically to put a dent in the bill for the astonishingly expensive replacement tap I’ve just had to buy for our downstairs loo. Well, you never know. And inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, right?

Except that was my first problem. How do you pick a topic for flash fiction?

The competition in question has strict parameters for word count: no fewer than 180 words and no more than 360. I’d never tried to write a story that short – the first draft of my last novel came in at over 150,000 words, so it seemed likely I’d find this a bit of a challenge.

A few years ago I went along to a London Writers’ Café workshop where the guest speaker was renowned author of short stories, Zoe Fairbairns. The most famous of her works is “Bus Ticket”, and she maintained that successful short story ideas often focussed on a single, small object.

The thing is, “Bus Ticket” is one of Ms Fairbairns’ shortest stories (and I’m far too scared to get her title wrong after reading it). It comes in at 756 words – more than twice the flash fiction limit. And a bus ticket is pretty small – as far as I can remember, anyway; it’s all contactless and Oystercards in London these days.

So how could I downsize from there? A postage stamp, perhaps? A button? Reasonable enough, but if everyone else was taking the same advice, those nice people at Reflex Fiction were going to be reading a lot of stories about philately and dressmaking.

I’m not sure I follow the logic that physical size has to matter here. Surely it’s the size of the idea, whatever it’s based on, that has to be manageable enough for the word count restrictions?

Then I wondered whether genre might be a factor. Would it be easier to pack the drama into a teeny tiny ghost story, say, or a murder mystery?

I tried looking at flash fiction websites to see if there were any themes. And guess what? There weren’t.

There were fantasies, and stream-of-consciousness pieces, and a rather beautiful story  about telepathy.  There were all kinds of different subjects and styles – which didn’t help at all but which was somehow reassuring in a funny kind of way.

At least I couldn’t get it wrong just by picking the wrong topic.

So I had a go, and while I doubt the resulting effort is really going to help with that new tap, I had fun doing it. Watch this space for the results as soon as I find I haven’t made the longlist. And I might give flash fiction another go one of these days – though I will have to live with that Queen song running through my head every time I think of it…

FLASH! Ah-ahh…

 

 

 

Fear of the dark

2017 feels a bit scary.

I don’t make a habit of attributing characteristics to years. It’s not exactly rational. But this time I’m making an exception.fear

Because in important ways, this year is make or break for the Yak household.

I’ve got six months to get Book 2 into a state where there’s some prospect of it bringing in some cash. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be something. If it fails – if I fail – it’s back to the day job. Except that the day job isn’t there anymore, so I’ll have to persuade someone, somewhere that 17 years of making Government policy equips me to do something other than make Government policy.

Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Then there’s the not-entirely-unrelated issue of having a two household marriage. Two salaries and one home, it turns out, was infinitely more comfortable than two homes and one salary. Who knew?

Finances aside, saying goodbye to the Husband as he left last night to return to the Sad Pad where he now spends the working week was hard. Not even the prospect of not having to share the  Waitrose chocolate truffles did much to help. The cats are discomfited by the lopsided parenting. Patsy is anxious and needy, and Poppy is cross about unnegotiated changes to the parental timeshare arrangements.

And that’s before we get to the big stuff. The Brexit and the Donald, and the it’s-OK-to-be-sexist/racist/fascist/just-unkind-because-we-won-and-you-lost-so-fuck-you. And all the sound and fury is bad enough, but what happens when the shit actually gets real?

This doesn’t feel like the way to start a New Year. This should be a time of hope, of resolutions, and fitness regimes and brand new word count targets. So let’s turn that frown upside down. What we need at times like this is a list. A top ten. Perhaps a top five then. Top five reasons for us all to be cheerful.

Here goes:

  1. Difficult times make for great art. Lots of writers hang around here – just think of all the material!
  2. The weather is pretty mild for the time of year. That’s good, isn’t it? Think of the little birds. And the sheep in the fields. And the hibernating ladybirds. (And if anyone knows of any reason why mild winters actually aren’t good news for particular species, please do NOT comment and tell me.)
  3. There’s a new series of Sherlock coming! You see, it’s already better than 2016.
  4. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince and even George Michael can’t die twice.

Ok, top four. Over to you for the fifth. In the words of Ferris Bueller’s teacher, “Anyone? Anyone..?”

 

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

Toddlerville: or Why Writing in a Café Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I wonder… Did JK Rowling have kids?

I am now Living the Dream. By which I mean: here I am, on what to the office-dwelling population is a normal working day, sitting in a café and scribbling in a notebook.

It’s true that I’m doing this in a somewhat self-conscious manner. I’m pausing every now and then to scan the room under cover of sipping my green tea, wondering whether anyone is looking at me. Wondering whether they’re thinking “Look at that woman on her own, writing away in that notebook. I wonder what she’s doing? She looks an intelligent sort. Perhaps she’s a writer?”

The fantasy

The fantasy

But of course, no-one is doing that.

That might be because they have other things to think about, or that they’re just not as nosey as I am, or because actually I don’t look intelligent at all. But the main reason that they’re not looking around full stop is that they’re all engrossed in their children. Those small people who’ve colonized all the lovely places I’d dreamed of idling in looking arty, just as soon as I’d relieved myself of the millstone of paid employment.

I look around the room and every table has a minimum of one babe-in-arms. Most have two or more, surrounded by a hinterland of buggies and bags and bits of plastic in primary colours and scraps of clothing in – I’d be prepared to put money on it – organic cotton. And this isn’t Hampstead or Primrose Hill, for Christ’s sake. This is Lewisham. Where are all the pimps and drug dealers? They’ve been driven out by the bloody parents.

The result is a constant soundtrack of squealing, squawking, burbling, gurgling and the occasional distant bark (we’re in the middle of a park, but the dog owners are keeping a respectful distance). Which brings me back to my original question: did the JK Rowling who sat in a café penning her future mega-sellers have small children?

The reality - only with more chairs

The reality – only with tables

To be clear: I’m not imagining that any such creatures were with her at the time. It takes only a moment’s observation to see that if they had been, her time would have been spent cajoling, scolding, pleading and mopping, not getting Harry, Ron and Hermione to do battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But surely she must have had that talent, peculiar to the parents of toddlers, of blocking out the cacophony they produce?

Did she, I wonder, also have a coffee budget? How forgiving were the owners of that café, wherever it was, unaware of how this daily drinker of single lattés (I’m just guessing here; they might have been cappuccinos) would one day put their establishment on the map?

And do these omnipresent parents have coffee budgets too? Did they take into account in whatever calculations they made about the financial cost of parenthood (assuming that they didn’t simply shout “Babies!” and abandon contraception) the sheer quantity of caffeine they would apparently need to get them through the Vale of Tears that seems to be years 0-5?

I’d like to think that I could wait them out; that if only I ordered another tea, then another, and perhaps another, eventually – as well as needing to find the loos – the parents would leave, taking little Matilda or Moses to baby massage, or baby yoga or baby cross-country skiing, and the space could once again be used by people higher than 2 feet tall, speaking at a volume that wouldn’t trouble a jet engine.

But the hope is a vain one. There is a never-ending supply. No sooner does one group depart than another arrives to take its place, clad in the same clothes, talking about the same things, taking the same supply of toys and soft-covered books and plastic bottles from the same bags hung in precisely the same way from the handles of the same buggies.

This is their world, and I am the interloper. I feel like Neville in I Am Legend (the book, not the film – damn you, Will Smith). Joining their ranks is unimaginable. I have only one option.

Next time, I’m bringing headphones.

Fermez les yeux and brace for impact

I’m so excited today I can hardly string a sentence together. And that would be ok, because what I’d really like to do is to cut the prose and list, shamelessly, the places you can see my book online.

That’s MY BOOK.

My. Book.

Oh, but you’d be interested to take a look? So kind of you to say so! I don’t want to bore you. And I won’t be offended if you don’t click on any of the links. Though the cover art really is quite fab. Intriguing, even. Just the right sort of thing for a thriller.

Well go on then, you’ve twisted my arm…

Fermez les yeux 

Just - aggghhhhh!

Just – aggghhhhh!

Didn’t I say it was in French? Ah well, they have excellent taste, the French – everyone knows that. The Germans too – there may be a post on that subject coming up in, say, July or so.

So… here it is, at long last. I have the artwork and a publication date – 10 February – and in the next day or so I expect to get my hands on the book itself. That’s a real live, honest-to-goodness book, with an actual cover, and a spine, and pages with words on them. My words.

Not that I’ll actually be able to understand many of them, it being in French and all. I only have a GCSE and my characters don’t spend all their time telling each other what their name is, and that they live in London, and asking if they could they have a white coffee and a ham sandwich, and what’s the best way to the post office.

But still. They’re my words en français. At least I hope they are.

I’ll be honest: alongside the excitement, there’s more than a hint of trepidation. One part of me understands that this is a first book being published in translation. That it’ll be a pebble dropped into the ocean of new books. That it’ll be a struggle to get anyone to read it at all.

I know all of that, and it doesn’t matter: I’m still ridiculously happy to think that my characters will be let out to make their way in the world. At the same time, I feel the first faint stirrings of obsession and paranoia.

They’re feelings that aren’t entirely unfamiliar.

Because there were times when I hated this book. When I was so sick of rewrites I felt I knew every single word off by heart. That I felt like I never wanted to look at it again. It brought me some of the greatest highs of my life (getting an agent; hearing that the big five were taking it to acquisition stage) and some of the biggest disappointments (none of the buggers were offering).

After a while, the disappointment faded. I appreciated what I had – a brilliant agent who was passionate about my book and who’d given it as good a chance as it could ever have got; a deal for the French rights with an established publisher; the idea for the next book and a glimmer of an idea for the one after that. I might not have had Euromilions-winning levels of good luck, but it was definitely five-lotto-numbers-and-the-bonus-ball territory.

All my passion for Waking Sara – for that’s what it was called back then – both love and hate, subsided into a gentle affection. I looked back on the days of the rewrites with a head-shaking fondness. I regained a sense of perspective.

Until now.

The release date is 10 February (just in case you didn’t get it the first time). That’s a whole 24 days away. And yet – someone has already given it three out of five!

I mean, I suppose it could be worse. I think I’d rather have a boringly middling mark than out and out disdain.

I think.

But couldn’t my unimpressed reviewer even had added a few words of explanation?! I mean, that book was the result of three years of my life! But no, he/she (or possibly even the default setting on a computer programme somewhere – I live in hope) has just given me my mark and got on with their life as if it doesn’t matter. Hmph, I say. Hmph.

And then there are the discounts. Not that I mind them in themselves – €15.90 is a lot of money for a paperback novel – but it’s the indecent haste of it! My poor little book isn’t even out and it’s having 5% lopped off its price without so much as a by-your-leave. It’s as if it’s already on the way to the bargain baskets! (Mind you, though, it is a bargain. So if you want to brush up on your French…)

And then the final indignity. Amazon, whom I once bravely defended on this very site, have got my name wrong. How they’ve managed this, I’ve no idea, but I can say with absolute certainty that I have never, ever been called Clarence. Not even in a French accent.

Anyway, if you or anyone you know speaks French/would like to speak French/ knows someone called Clarence, there’s a book out next month you’d absolutely love.

The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.