31 submissions

Well, lately I have just been racking up story rejections. As any fule kno, this is actually good, because it means I am writing and submitting stories, right? Yeah, it doesn’t feel that good though.

So! I have decided to be proactive. I have a bunch of finished stories sitting around which have not been published, some of which I have never even sent out, as well as a bunch which need revision. I write to be read, so I’d really like them to be out there somewhere. And some of these stories mean a lot to me – I’m not saying they’re the greatest stories ever written, but I’m proud of them and I’ve put a lot of work into getting them right. My goal for this month, therefore, is to really try my hardest to find them homes, something about which I tend to be a bit lackadaisical.

Therefore, I am setting myself a totally arbitrary challenge, which I shall dub Andrea Story Submission Month or AnStoSuMo, in a blatant ripoff from NaNoWriMo (which I am not doing, but good luck to all who are). That is, I vow to submit 31 stories to magazines, websites, competitions or anthologies by the end of November.

My rules: I don’t have 31 completed stories, so some will be multiple submissions where allowed. And I’m going to try to make them all worthwhile ones, that is, to places I like, read and actually want to be published by – I’m not that interested in racking up credits for the sake of it, in Random Read By No-one Magazine or ObscureRubbish.com (hey, I could just put them online here if that counted). I’m not saying I expect to be published by the New Yorker or something! Just that I want it to be a place where my stories fit. And most likely, to find 31 places which are currently accepting submissions of a word count or theme which fits a story I’ve written, I’ll have to widen my usual horizons and find some new, interesting publications, so that’ll be all to the good.

I’m also not going to pay competition fees unless it’s a really major competition or in aid of a good charity; I understand why people set these, but I don’t have the cash to do too many and beside, it would go against the spirit of this, which is to fire away so many submissions that I stop worrying about them individually. No watching the email inbox anxiously wondering when someone will reply, no allowing a rejection to cast me down and stop me writing that day, just keep going to meet the target. And surely, if I make 31 submissions by the end of the month, surely I’ll get at least one acceptance? Surely?!?

I’m quite excited about this, let’s see how it goes. Any suggestions of new places to submit are welcome!

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What it is and what it is not

I’ve been feeling a little low about my novel-in-progress lately and couldn’t work out why. I should be feeling really positive: I’ve made more progress with it than anything else I’ve written to date, I’ve had expressions of interest in it and over the last month or so I’ve solved some problems and really settled into a groove with the writing.

And that’s the problem – the book is now, for better or worse, shaped. There is MUCH to do, both in terms of actual writing but also, I’m not saying that the plot or structure or themes are set in stone. I’m sure I’ll change many things as I write and redraft. But in finally pinning down a sense of what the book is about and what its tone is, I realise that that means letting go of some of the things it is not about and all the ways it is not going to be written. And that act of having to choose, of having to settle on certain things, is kind of sad.

When you first come up with an idea for a book, or a story, or even an article, it exists in its most perfect, ideal form. And if you never actually write it, it will always be in that form. But no one will get to read it. So I will try to push on with my imperfect book and let go of its unwritten perfection.

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Retreat, move forward

A cottage on a small island surrounded by sea; no interruptions or tedious chores; just writing and pottering about with the dog and skimming stones and cooking and eating and no phone signal and … bliss. My partner and I were both pretty tired and needed a break. Going anywhere abroad just seemed too much effort (and expense): all we really wanted to do was have time to write. So we did and it was wonderful.

My goal for this unofficial writing retreat was to rework the first part of the book. I know there’s a school of thought that you should power on till the end and then go over the entire first draft, but I felt like a lot has changed since I began, both in terms of how I’m telling the story and also due to what research has thrown up. There were a lot of fiddly problems that were putting me off the whole book because I knew they were sticking out. 

I feel like I had a breakthrough, or rather a series of small breakthroughs. I solved a structural problem that has dogged me since the very beginning and found a way to do so that is a small private joke with myself about it (though no one else should notice). I took an unsatisfactory minor character who has seemed, in her one scene, like a silly caricature and – I think – made her more like a real person. I joined up bits that have been hanging with “WRITE MORE HERE” stuck between them like a temporary hoarding. And so on. I’m really happy with what I got done and it’s re-energised me to carry on. 

Here is a picture of where I sat to write. Spot the small dog trying to lure me outside.

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And when I wanted a break, I’d go and look at this. Are you jealous?

 

 

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In other news, I spent the week before the holiday reviewing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is something I used to do every year, for the full stretch, until it sent me insane. After a break of a few years, I thought I could handle doing just a week … the thing is, at the Fringe, as with everything else, 90 per cent of what’s on is rubbish. Which is why proper reviews by someone with a bit of experience are actually important. But for some reason while I can easily read a bad book or watch a bad TV show or film, and still get something out of it, when I’m stuck watching an hour of bad theatre, I just want to bite my own fist off. Sometimes if you give something a negative review, someone who knows the people involved, or who just enjoyed it themselves, will leave angry comments. I wish I could convince them – and I’m sure this applies to most professional critics – that I HATE not enjoying something to the extent that it deserves a poor review. I would so, so, much rather write positive ones (although writing a scathing review is certainly more fun than writing about something which was okay, nothing special, watchable/readable but not memorable. Those reviews are absolute killers to write). Of course, I am sure I will change my tune if my book gets loads of horrible reviews. I will then declare all the critics to be idiots who didn’t even read it and can’t read properly anyway. 

Some positive reviews: 

Jimmy McGovern’s The Accused, with Sean Bean http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/tv-and-radio/tv-preview-accused-person-of-interest-1-2464089

New play, The Death Of Chatterton http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/festival-review-the-death-of-chatterton-pleasance-courtyard-venue-33-1-2465073

New production of More Light (I loved this play, hadn’t seen it before and now want to know more about Bryony Lavery) http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/review-more-light-c-eca-venue-50-1-2469210

 

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July update

Not too much writing news to report this month, just keeping on going … well, sort of. I have to admit I had a post-Hay Fest slump and took a couple of weeks off, then went to Hawick for a retirement party ceilidh, but I’ve pulled myself together now and particularly looking forward to going away next month for a full-on, no computers/phones/roads week of island isolation up north where my plan is to completely revise the first section of the book and, if possible, also revise a long short story that’s been sitting around for a few months.

I have been doing other work though so here’s a few links:
Book review of ‘Breasts: A Natural And Unnatural History’ by Florence Williams in Scotland on Sunday – interesting popular science book.
Book review of ‘You Came Back’ by Christopher Coake in The Scotsman – lovely new novel.
Non-Olympic telly preview – I made sure to get a dig in at Fifty Shades of Grey.
A piece about the reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom (it has got worse since I wrote that: the latest “are you KIDDING me?” moment is that the supposedly brilliant TV news producer woman somehow is unable to understand basic economic concepts).

Plus a few radio appearances: Good Morning Scotland on the 28th to discuss the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Call Kaye this morning (30th) and on the 15th, the Shereen Nanjiani Sunday morning show – I’ve done tons of radio but never been on this show before. It’s quite intense, because you’re on for the whole hour and the discussions basically cover all the main news stories of the week and the Sunday papers. I really had to swot up, particularly since the other guests (veteran foreign editor David Pratt and former investment banker turned consultant Ian Blackford) are so knowledgeable – bit nervous but I think I did alright, really enjoyed it anyway.

In other news, here’s the info for the writing workshop I’m due to teach next month – please pass on if you know anyone who might be interested.
Writing Historical Fiction – Thursday 23rd August 10am-4pm – Strathclyde University Centre for Lifelong Learning – £30 – 0141 548 2116
Interested in writing a short story or novel set in the past? Whether Ancient Rome, the Victorian era or WWII, each historical period brings its own challenges for writers: how do you convey the way people lived and talked then? How do you choose the right details to really give a flavour of the time? How do you create believable characters and storylines? What resources are available, how much research is necessary – and how much is too much? This class is jointly led by a writer [that’s me!] and an historian [my good pal Dr Ben Shepherd, Reader in History at Caledonian University, author of War In The Wild East and other books], with advice, discussion and exercises used to help you find ideas, get the most out of research sources and write great historical fiction (though many elements will apply to any kind of writing). It is suitable for both beginners and more experienced writers. Strathclyde University Summer Programme online.
There will also be a longer version of the class, with weekly writing critiques and exercises, running at Glasgow University on Wednesday evenings at 6.30pm from 3rd October for eight weeks (details: 0141 330 1835) and again at Strathclyde University from January 2013 (details: 0141 548 5778).
In both terms I’ll also be running literature classes, including Now Read The Book II – the sequel to last year’s book-to-film adaptations class.

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Granta & Hay

Photo by Martinliano

Here is a link to my Commonwealth prize-winning story on Granta. I absolutely love the picture they’ve chosen, the white jasmine emerging from the black background, beautiful, mysterious and a bit sinister – it’s perfect (thanks to Ted Hodgkinson at Granta, who edited the piece). The story was written a while ago now and since I’ve been working on the book version, and doing research, I SO wanted to change so much of it – for instance, Lucy is now from Scotland, which makes much more sense, the father’s history is quite different, the details are much more accurate – but it had to remain more or less as I’d entered it. And it was odd answering those interview questions … particularly as the emphasis (understandably) was on nationality and the idea of Commonwealth. It made me realise that it’s not something I’ve ever thought about much before, in itself, despite considering myself fairly well-informed and opinionated about matters of politics and colonialism. The answers from the other regional winners are very interesting too – as are the stories, which are also up on Granta. I’m really happy to be in their company!

At the weekend I went down to Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, to meet up with the Commonwealth Writers staff who were involved in various events there. Met lovely people, including the thoughtful Emma Martin from New Zealand, who won the Pacific region and the overall prize – her story Two Girls In A Boat is absolutely beautiful – and the charismatic Shehan Karunatilaka, from Sri Lanka, whose book Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize (and sounds brilliant, despite being about cricket, will read it soon). Thanks to all the Commonwealth people and particularly to those of the judges who were there, Bernadine Evaristo, Margaret Busby and Nicholas Laughlin, for being lovely and encouraging. There was a reception and couple of other talks.

with Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Busby


Other interesting encounters: the impossibly glamorous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who arrived in a gorgeous, totally impractical vivid green frock and stilettos, and was so sweet that when she drew a little picture of me in a book (like a child would draw), me and the two adoring blokes with her melted into cooing praise like fools.

With Chimamanda at Hay


A very posh lady, whose identity I never quite got but who had lots of intense anecdotes and seemed to know everyone, who told me a story about hearing ghostly footsteps “when my husband at the time and I were living at Longleat for a while with Alexander” (ie the Marquess of Bath – pronounced AlexAUNNNder). Two very nice writers from north Wales, Mary and Debz, who took pity on me when I was hanging around on my own and were good company. Debz runs Bridge House Publishing and Paws’n’Claws; among other things they publish children’s books in aid of the Born Free Foundation. AND, though it shouldn’t really count as I didn’t actually speak to him, Salman Rushdie who ate his dinner just two tables away from me (I was tempted to do a Bridget and ask him where the toilets were).

Hay Festival Commonwealth Writers

Having booked at the last minute, I was staying in a weird dorm room with 16 small bunk-beds crammed in. Thankfully only two others were occupied, but the 1970s decor and low heights made it feel like a claustrophobic Girl Guides’ trip. I can’t complain about the price though: £22 a night including a great breakfast! The only other thing available was a luxury yurt at £200. And the hotel it was in, while also untouched by the fashions of the last few decades, was the original Baskerville Hall, where Conan Doyle stayed and took the name (relocating the place to Dartmoor). It was a bit out of the way though, down a dark country lane, and it took two buses to get to the festival site. And unfortunately the weather at Hay was bloody awful. The tented village may have kept the rain out but not the cold and wind, so being around there all day was a damp and depressing experience. I’m sure the festival is really good usually (though I don’t get the sense they have as big and varied a programme as the Edinburgh book festival), but I only saw it at its grimmest. And the journey was quite complicated with a succession of dull bus and train journeys – and stop-offs of several hours in Hereford (quite pretty, nice cathedral) and Crewe (incredibly boring and ugly town centre). I came back home exhausted and immediately succumbed to quite a rotten cold. I’ve spent the last few days snuffling and moaning and cuddling the dog. You know, just in case literary success went to my head or anything.

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I won!

To my genuine amazement, my story The Ghost Marriage has been named the winner (Europe & Canada region) of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize!

I am delighted, of course, thrilled that the story is going to be published in Granta online, hopeful that this will lead to ‘Things’ but mostly … relieved. I’ve been calling myself a writer, carving out time to write, sending off stories, going to events, doing readings, boring people by telling them about my novel and generally trying hard to shut down that bit of brain that scoffs: yeah, right. You’ll never do it. And why would anyone care if you did? Winning a prize doesn’t kill off that voice, but it does gag it for a bit. And it’s wonderful to be able to tell friends, be congratulated and feel how pleased they are for me. I am basking, just for a bit, and it feels like those days when you’ve just finished a big piece of work or just sat a test or completed a contract and you’re free, free …

(Yes, I know I still have a lot to write. And I will. It’s a tremendous motivation to revise what I’ve already done and move on)

The list of regional winners – I love how varied we are, from an accountant in Lagos to a Jamaican environmental activist!

Interesting discussion of the prize on Radio 4’s Open Book with the fab Mariella Frostrup.

Official announcement of winners on the World Service’s programme The Strand

More details in Granta. Excuse the dodgy old picture with fringe.

Whee!!!!!

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Commonwealth Short Story Prize

I’m delighted (and shocked) to have been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize!
It’s for a version of The Ghost Marriage, which I’ve been trying to turn into a longer book over the last year, so this is a massive encouragement that I’m working on something which is worth pursuing. I’m so relieved I can’t even tell you.
Since writing this version, I’ve done a lot more historical research and made many changes to develop and expand the book. But it retains the essence of the initial story which I enjoyed writing so much that I didn’t want to leave these characters and that setting.
The prize is open to stories from 54 countries which is amazing: I imagine the entries were incredibly varied so it’s a real honour to be shortlisted. I have to admit, the Commonwealth as an entity is not something I’d previously thought about very much, but looking at the Foundation’s website, they seem to do some great work (there’s also a useful site for writers). They say: “We exist to empower charities, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, trade unions, faith groups and cultural practitioners; the lifeblood of any healthy society. We equip these groups with the tools required to contribute to national and international goals of democracy, good governance, sustainable development and cultural diversity.”
All good things, but the latter I think is something which is particularly in need of celebration at the moment, when “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word in some places and people are either deliberately or thoughtlessly denying the historical circumstances which have made the world the way it is.
My story is all about making connections (Scottish, Chinese, Japanese; men and women; the literal and the metaphorical; the physical and the poetic; commerce, war and Empire; the 19th Century and the 21st) so maybe that’s what made it a good fit for this competition. Or maybe not, I dunno!
I’m looking forward to finding out more about the other shortlisted stories. There’s also a prize for best (published) first novel – anyone read any of them?

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February update

Just noting a few of the writing-related things I have been up to this month (which has also seen a depressing number of rejections – oh well).

On the 13th, I went through to Edinburgh for Blind Poetics, where I was a ‘featured’ performer. Now, I just assumed that the name referred to the venue, the Blind Poet pub, but it turned out that I was the only non-poet reading (and, as well as the fantastic Colin McGuire, there were a dozen or so Open Mic-ers). I felt really self-conscious about this as my stories seemed really long by comparison, but everyone was very polite and attentive. A fun night and met some nice people.

On the 16th, I read briefly at the Love Words event at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland).

On the 25th, the anthology A Thousand Cranes was officially launched at an event at the Arches, part of the Margins festival, reading my story The Unbeaten Track. Helen Sedgwick, Iain Paton, Raymond Soltysek and Katy McAulay also performed and a number of other people from Glasgow Writers’ Group who have stories or poems in the book were there too. It was a surprisingly good turnout (oh, the relief – at one point only 12 tickets had been sold) and quite daunting facing an audience in the large space of the Arches theatre. Some of my friends who don’t normally come along to literary events, along with my partner’s parents, came to support me, which was lovely, and afterwards we drank much wine in the bar. So that’s the anthology now officially out, complete with its foreword by Alex Salmond, and if you could possibly buy a copy that would be very nice (all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross).

Finally, I went to London for four days this month, piggybacking my partner’s work trip and taking advantage of the free hotel room! An aside: I got the train, he got a BA flight and we left the house at the same time but I got to the hotel by the Barbican literally two minutes after he did … Anyway, my purpose in going was not just to have a Me Party like Amy Adams & Miss Piggy in The Muppets film, but to do some research for my novel in progress.

I had a brilliant time at both the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum (looking into accounts of sea voyages between Britain and China in the mid-19th Century) and then at the British Library Reading Rooms for various other matters. I am a complete library geek and this was my idea of heaven; I’d visited both places before but there was something really exciting to me about getting a Reader’s card and being able to request material from their stacks, waiting for them to be delivered, taking copious notes in pencil (no pens allowed) in the wonderful quiet atmosphere. Absolutely my idea of the perfect London trip (I also saw a great Dickens exhibition) and it has reignited my love for this project.

I’ve been working on it for a while but I feel that I finally have the shape of the story clear and have enough general research (I will still need to check various specific things as I go along) to really achieve what I’m trying to do. Getting the balance right between researching and writing the first draft has been interesting and has thrown up a lot of issues about writing historical fiction. As a result, I’ve put together, with my mate the historian Dr Ben Shepherd, a one-day workshop which will run at the University of Strathclyde on August 23rd, where we’ll be discussing that very thing (more details to follow).

Overall, quite a productive month really (I’ve also written a new, long short story and several thousand more words of novel). I hope this doesn’t sound like showing off; for me, I have to keep note of the good things as a counterbalance for the inevitable crappy feelings that I’m way behind, I keep being rejected, other people are better etc etc. Got to accentuate the positive, talk myself up (to myself) – that’s what Miss Piggy would do.

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They don’t make ’em like that anymore

Have you seen The Artist yet? Being obsessed with old Hollywood, I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations, but I really enjoyed it – like the films it emulated, it combined joyful elements with a good dollop of genuine angst. I miss that combination in films today. Comedy-dramas (or ‘dramadies’) are usually neither particularly funny nor actually dramatic.

Anyway – and happy new year, by the way – after the film I kept wondering about its characters and came up with a few SPOILERY ideas about where the changing trends of 20th Century Hollywood might have taken them after the end of the film. For some reason, I really enjoying coming up with plausible, fake movie ideas; a while ago I wrote a similar short story about an elderly star of the old studio system. Think I’m working towards something on this theme but not sure what it is yet. Here’s my unofficial sequel to The Artist: please let me know if you can identify any of the little in-jokes about classic movies …

After ‘The Artist’
After their first musical together was a smash hit, Peppy and George went on to enthral audiences throughout the 1930s with nine more, each with ever more glamorous outfits, spectacular settings and glorious dance routines, which provided escapism during the Depression. Although it was acknowledged that their dancing was not quite as good as that of Astaire and Rogers, fans loved knowing that the charming relationship between them was mirrored in real life (the pair married the day after their first film was released).

The advent of war changed things, of course. Both stars were regulars at the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen, while George in particular – greatly affected by the invasion of his native France – threw himself into supporting the war effort, tirelessly touring the country to promote war bonds and making many overseas visits to entertain the troops. He left little time for acting, but did appear in a few patriotic films, most notably A Vichy Affair, in which he played a heroic French Resistance fighter who refused to betray his comrades under Gestapo torture, declaring: “I won’t talk!” George was also the original choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, but withdrew due the impending birth of his and Peppy’s first child.

After two more children, Peppy revived her acting career post-war with roles in 1940s melodramas, such as George Cukor’s The Ones Left Behind, about a war widow struggling to raise her family, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. George, meanwhile, gave a strong performance in film noir Trouble Is My Business, surprising critics who did not expect the song-and-dance man to be convincing as a hard-drinking private eye. The actor explained he’d drawn on his own dark period for inspiration.

In the 1950s, cinema faced a new challenge: television. Peppy was quick to jump on the bandwagon, appearing in several teleplays including Paddy Chayefsky’s Mary, about a middle-aged spinster. George, however, regarded TV as a fad which would soon pass and refused to be involved, leading to another dip in his career as new film stars emerged.

But eventually he reconsidered and joined his wife in a very successful sitcom, Life With The Valentins, which ran for some years. While clearly modelled on ‘I Love Lucy’, it had a twist in that it was George who often found himself in embarrassing situations, to be rescued by his more sensible spouse. The couple’s three children joined them in the show and episodes often concluded with the family united in song.

By the 1960s, tastes had changed again. Work dried up for Peppy and she devoted more of her time to charity work, especially for animal rescue organisations, as she wanted to ensure that all pets would have as long and happy lives as their own dogs (all descended from Uggie). After playing Doris Day’s mother in Love, Set And Match, Peppy recruited her to the cause and influenced her lifelong devotion to animals.

While out of fashion in the US, George had an unexpected renaissance in France, where Cahiers du Cinema had long championed him as an early auteur because of his film Tears Of Love. As a result, he appeared in several French films, including a popular spy series based on the OSS 117 novels, in which he played N, the head of the secret service. The couple’s children Michel, Jean and Berenice were now grown up and had formed a music group, which had several hit records during the Summer of Love.

Peppy and George were unexpectedly back in the limelight themselves after appearing in the disaster film Airport 1974. They played a former Hollywood golden couple, divorced years before, who are brought back together as they struggle to survive a plane crash. Audiences were charmed to see them reunited on screen for the first time in 25 years and their careers were both revived. They continued to work mostly on the small screen, with many cameo roles in popular series including The Streets Of San Francisco, Columbo, Quincy, Dallas, Falcon Crest and others.

In his last years, George was retired, although he did make a cameo appearance in Indiana Jones And The Fountain Of Youth, at the special request of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were both great admirers of his early work. Midway through the film, Indiana is given a potion which temporarily ages him into an old man, played by George – but, thanks to special effects, he was still able to outrun, out-jump and out-fight his fiendish opponents, giving audiences one final chance to see him in daredevil mode.

Peppy was very grieved by her husband’s death in 1985, but took comfort in her children and grandchildren (who included a rising Brat Pack star). She continued to work, with her long-running TV series She Sang, Murder!, about a former chorus girl who encountered, and solved, crimes wherever she went. Shortly before her death, she was awarded a honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar and gave a touching speech, accepting it on behalf of her late husband – because, she said, “he taught me that a star has to have something that no one else has”.

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Recent articles

The Scotsman now has an Arts Blog (at long last) – here is a silly thing I wrote for it: Shane’ll Fix It & Other Strange TV Ideas.

I don’t normally put my articles up here but while I’m here, a few more seasonal ones:

How Charles Dickens trademarked Christmas.

Why this series of Strictly Come Dancing offered light relief.

And from last year, a piece I really enjoyed researching about
Christmas in Scotland over the years (can’t link direct, but scroll to Page 28-31; note that the system takes a minute to load).

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