Bristol Still Life

 

A car alarm sounds, an endless soar and dip of electric whoops.

The neighbour’s kids are in the back garden kicking a football around, trundling up the powdery tarmac path on their scooters. They shout and cry and argue in English, their mother chastises in Arabic.

Streets away a road sweeper van hums and whistles, brushes whirring against the pavement, a windy suck of air as it sweeps away polluted dust and grit and unsuspecting invertebrates.

A plane reverberates like thunder; the waspish rev of a moped. Twin sirens – lazy cousins to the car alarm – weave together, fade and grow and fade to nothing.

But.

The sparrows chitter their fussy song and a blackbird answers proud from the chimney top. Leaves stir on the cherry tree, the long grass is a sea of hushes. Rain pitters the roof and a bobble of a bumble bee hums over the raspberry canes.

 

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Writing opportunity: Calling all Wyrd Sisters … and Brothers

 

Now, I know many of you out there are weird*.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, because you’re like me – you’re drawn to reading and writing on subjects from the darker realms of your imagination and that’s great, right?

When you close your eyes or put pen to paper/ fingers to keyboard, you’re mind is not teeming with big-eyed Disneyfied, fluffy bunny fiction, spilling over with love and flowers and happy endings.

That’s not to say everyone your write is a sociopath with a taste for human flesh, but if your characters are good people who rescue small children and help old ladies cross the road, they are made that way so you can do horrible things to them.

Preferably with pits of magma.

And ghouls.

And horned beasts.

Given that you are a fellow twisted soul who needs a creative outlet (and let’s face it, we’d all be very afraid if you didn’t have an outlet), you might be interested in this writing opportunity at The Wyrd magazine.

So if you’re an author or artist who has

a fondness for weird and slipstream themes

Pop along here. Closing date is the end of this month and good luck, siblings.

 

*Of course, if you’re genuinely weird, you’ll spell this WYRD

The worst writer in the world?

 

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

So begins Amanda McKittrick Ros’s novel, Delina DelaneyI found this quote on the Goodreads site with the tag wtf-does-this-mean. And no, I haven’t a clue either.

Now, literary fashion has changed a great deal since Ros published the book in 1898. If he were writing Bleak House (1853) today, I’m not sure even Charles Dickens would have dared begin with a discussion of the grisly London weather, wonderful though that passage is, complete with mentions of fog, mud, umbrellas and a Megalosaurus. Imagine the tattoo of red pen from a modern editor.

‘Never open a story with the weather’ is one piece of writing advice often given. As is the need to trim your prose of flabby, unnecessary words  – edit, edit, edit is our current mantra – and make your writing as clear as a mountain stream to your reader.

None of which seem to have been a priority to Ros.

The writer was famed for her circumlocutory language. When she wrote in her debut novel, Irene Iddesleigh,

When on the eve of glory, whilst brooding over the prospects of a bright and happy future, whilst meditating upon the risky right of justice, there we remain, wanderers on the cloudy surface of mental woe, disappointment and danger, inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery, partakers of the poisonous dregs of concocted injustice. Yet such is life

it probably never occurred to her that she could have said –

Why is it we always feel most fed up when something good’s about to happen?

More was … more as far as Amanda was concerned.

She may have been a self-published teacher from County Down, but that didn’t stop her from imagining “the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen” and that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. One thing she never lacked was confidence in her own work: she once discussed the Nobel Prize for Literature with her publisher, asking “What think you of this prize? Do you think I should make a ‘dart’ for it?”

Some of her best words she saved for her critics, calling them variously,

“bastard donkey-headed mites”

“clay crabs of corruption”

“auctioneering agents of Satan”

“hogwashing hooligans”

“evil-minded snapshots of spleen”

She had a gift for alliteration if nothing else.

What are we, then, to think of an author who – in her last novel, Helen Huddleson – lumbered most of her characters with a fruit-based name (Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, Madame Pear)?

Well, I can’t advise any modern writer to ape her writing style and it seems famous authors would support my decision: the literary group The Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein) held competitions where the winner was the member who could read from one of her books for longest without laughing.

But I do admire her no nonsense attitude towards critics, the absolute faith she had in her own work and the way she was prepared to defend it.

In these days when most authors are loathe to get into online arguments with readers over snippy critiques or even outright, troll-like oceans of bile, Ros reacted to a poet’s criticism of her debut novel by printing a 20 page rebuttal in her follow up novel.

No shrinking violet, our Amanda.

So if I think she was deluded in her own talents, she had more self-belief than most of us.

And that is definitely something to aspire to.


What do you think of Ros’s verbiage? Do you agree with the critics or do you long for a time when the circumlocutory phrase was en vogue? Are you tired of this demand for tough edits, long for the return of purple prose?

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/apr/19/worst-novelist-in-history

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_McKittrick_Ros#cite_note-Words_To_Remember-6

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/01/was_amanda_mckittrick_ros_the_worst_novelist_in_history.html

Terrifying photograph and author interview : The People’s Friend

 

This is week sees the final instalment of my serial The Mermaid of Mortling Hall in The People’s Friend magazine and what a lovely experience it’s been, from the writing and drafting of the story under Alan Spink’s steady tutelage, to kind comments of support from family, colleagues and blogging friends.

As a finale, Alan emailed me and asked if I’d like to give an author interview on the magazine’s blog, so if you’d like to learn a little more about the story, about my writing habits – and see a terrifying extreme close-up of my toothy mug – then pop along here.

Many thanks go especially to all bloggers who left encouraging comments and to all those who bought the magazine – your support has been amazing.

 

On Sale Now : The Mermaid of Mortling Hall

Just a reminder, dear ones, that the first part of my serial, The Mermaid of Mortling Hall, is on sale now in The People’s Friend magazine.

If you’re unsure if you have the right issue, look on the cover where you will see my name!

And readers in Australia and New Zealand needn’t miss out, for The Friend is available where you are too.

Do pop along here and share your thoughts on the story and if you’d like to read about its genesis and how it rose from the dead, go here.

 

 

 

How a drowned story came back from the dead

Back in 2015, The People’s Friend magazine launched a serial writing competition to find new authors.

Now, the ‘Friend’ is a bit of a legend as far as I’m concerned. It’s been published by DC Thompson (the same company that publishes the equally legendary Beano) for years, it’s been in existence since 1869 and is one of the few weekly magazines in the UK that still publishes fiction. It’s certainly one of the few (perhaps the only) that has a generous ‘open door’ policy for debut writers, where many magazines are closed to those who haven’t previously worked for them.

So filled with excitement at the prospect of breaking into the tricky WoMag (Women’s Magazine) market, I crafted my three part serial.

Set in the Regency period, it had a brave heroine, a sinister boathouse, a hint of romance and a long buried family secret. I wrote, I polished and slid the first instalment into the post.

I waited. Didn’t hear anything. Waited some more. Still didn’t hear anything. As the day  drew close for the magazine to announce the winners, doubts began to bubble to the surface. Perhaps the writing wasn’t good enough. Perhaps the themes were too dark. Could I do this writing thing at all?

Still, despite my misgivings, come the big day, I checked online, because maybe, just maybe …

I read the list of winners. My name was not there. I read the list of honourable mentions … nothing. It was with a heart of lead that I accepted the fact that all of my hard work, my proofing and editing and extra proofing were to no avail. The ‘Friend’ did not like my story. I licked my wounds and – as we writers must do – tucked the disappointment away and moved onto the next project.

Almost two years later, the story was still languishing on my laptop, unfinished, neglected. I’d looked at the file a few times, thinking I should delete it, clear some space for an idea with potential – after all, where else was I going to sell the story?

Then …

One day last July, I opened an email. At the top was the dictinctive red and white masthead of The People’s Friend. Dazed, I read the note. It was from Alan Spink, a member of their Fiction Team. Alan wrote that although my story didn’t win the competition, they felt it had potential to work for the magazine and would I like to write it up?

Well, what do you think I said?

Within a few weeks, I had the first draft complete and after more rewriting with Alan’s wonderful guidance, the serial was ready to submit to the editor. Now, the wheels of fiction turn slowly, but last November I had the news –

The editor loved the story and it had been accepted for publication.

The first part of The Mermaid of Mortling Hall will appear on 3rd February this year and the story runs for three weeks.

Now, I’m not sure what lesson we can all learn from a story that seemed to be dead in the water, for which I had lost all hope, that will have taken almost two and a half years from its conception to publication.

I’m not trying to fill you with false hope that a story or novel that seemed a no-go will suddenly be plucked from the slushpile and published. In my experience, when most stories are rejected by a publication they stay rejected.

But success can come when you least expect it and through surprising avenues and maybe, finally, it’s just the right time for the Mermaid to swim.

One thing’s for sure. As writers we should never give up, we should keep honing our craft, keep learning, keep improving, keep seeking feedback, keep sticking our backsides to the chair and our fingers to the keyboard.

And if we do that, well, we might just win out.

 

 

 

The Captive River

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Image: Pixabay

 

Released from the house, from fairy lights and the pressure to eat more sugar, I wander up the hill, supposedly to buy bread and milk, but really to escape and breathe air that doesn’t smell of pine and cinnamon and the vinegary tang of last night’s red wine.

I’m disappointed.

There’s no ice out here, no sparkling clarity and breath-fogged air – a midge cloud batters my face, warmth collects uncomfortably under my coat and the Christmas gifts of hat and gloves have to be stowed in my shopping bag before I’ve taken twenty paces.

The supermarket is a five minute walk from our front door ‒ down the winding slope of the burial ground, past the last two remaining gravestones, commemorating an engaged couple who slipped beneath the choppy waters of the Severn on a pleasure cruise over a hundred and fifty years ago.

But I need to be in the world for longer than the graveyard will give me, so I turn up Dunkerry Road, towards the council flats and the playground painted with purple galaxies and flaking stars. In a couple of days’ time, the pavements will teeter with recycling boxes, dreary with crumpled wrapping paper, shedding spruce trees with ribbons of tinsel still clinging to balding twigs. But not today. Today, let’s pretend Christmas is still with us, before midnight on the 31st murders the season for good.

Back down another hill, past that mysterious heap of blackened banana skins that’s grown every time I see it, a fresh yellow caste added to its peak every day.

Crossing the road by the station, I zigzag through the steel bars that keep out bikes and joyriders and I’m in Cotswold Green. It’s not ancient, never a medieval focus for May poles and summer fetes, but an absence, a hole created when wartime bombs levelled a terrace of houses that no one had the energy or focus to rebuild once the skies went quiet.

I keep clear of the grass, cautious of what dog walkers haven’t bothered to clear, though we clambered the slopes in August to pick blackberries for a crumble and there’s a sloe bush somewhere, though it’s hard to remember exactly where in the tangle of thorns.

On the tarmacked footbridge I stop to look at the Malago River running beneath. Barely a river, more a brook, sliding over a bed of concrete slabs and energy drink cans. It’s tamed, this stream, culverted in parts, encased on one side by a Victorian sandstone wall, girders spanning the water to stop the blocks slipping down the bank.

I’ve read a plaque, a website ‒ something ‒ that says the Malago was once a danger to those terraced houses, before they were turned to brick outlines in the grass. There was a flood, people stranded – drownings. Hard to imagine the river had such power – now an irrelevance, caged and subdued to allow first the railway, then the road to dominate it.

A train clanks close by, halts and clanks again, a crocodile of coal carts bumping behind. A blackbird flies low above the water, chip-chip-chip and back up into the trees.

There’s graffiti on the bridge – sprayed by whoever created the muddy path that disappears beneath. SECRET HQ it reads in garish tangerine and I hope it was written with irony. I imagine the hidden space under the tarmac, under my feet, and think of dripping water and trolls and the excitement of being able to watch passers-by without being seen, avoiding thoughts of nitrous oxide canisters and cigarette butts and I don’t want to think what else is really there.

The rain plops loudly on the drum of my umbrella and I know I’ve been too long, that I’ll be missed, that strip lights and packaging and canned music wait for me in the supermarket and I that can’t avoid them.

But for a little while, the green corridor of the river belonged to me and the sparrows and that was enough.