Thursday, 31 May 2007

Thursday Evening Story Prompts

Parts of Speech

Constructing a Pyramid

Sometimes, you never left


This is the last letter I will write

I carry a dead relationship around everywhere with me

Not a roof, but a field of stars

Seven in the minibus

Watching for Dolphins

Pass the tambourine

A soul detached from its gender

A mouth, crowded with pegs

Skin-tight with Longing

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Prompts for Wednesday

Ashes to Ashes


Under a star-lessened sky

Tree Warden


Tourniquet wrapped so tight, the veins recite epitaphs

Wet Wednesday in Ebbw Vale


Half a sixpence


Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Some story prompts for Tuesday

A shadow will remain

Cinemas use night goggles to nab pirates

Wet, Wet, Wet

Tabitha lives upstairs

In those days when my father was still big

Keeping in Touch

Alistair, Human Calculator

Pure gravy. And don't forget it.

In the Bag

Putting Down the Cat

Multiple Blunt-Force Injuries

She rings me, all night

I have been somebody else all my life

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Some more prompts

Everyone is entitled to his little bit of weirdness

I am uncommonly nervous

That sanity be kept I sit at open windows

Trundling towards Bethlehem

The wrong metaphor for the job

Singing Hallelujah with the fear in my heart

Samantho re the jam

An unwanted gift from an uninvited guest

Try holding on to my arm

Sandal-wearing fat-cats in jazz

Wah-wah pedalo

I want to cover the world in mayonnaise

Phrenology for the anencephalic

Soul scratchcard

Some people are 78% milk

Rabid otter in the bank

Truth, beauty, love: everything else is just Pizza Express salad dressing

The white noise of your friends

If you hate the taste of wine, why do you drink it till you're blind?

She looked just like a Zoom ice cream

An estimated three billion dead.

Some Sunday Prompts

Church Bells and Chocolate

Under the Volcano

Stumbling Block

Brother Poets, Gather Round

Rape and Pillage

Inventing the Hawk

My soul washed by your most precious blood

Rules of Engagement

biros, scissors, combs, odd socks

Diary of an LBD

The Noonday Demon

Thomas the Trencherman

What girls really eat

Salt of the Earth

Each day, eating a little further into the bone

Hydrotherapy for cats

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Alex Places Collection + One Other Hit

TomC places a story for £5 payment (they all count!)

and Alex has just heard that Salt Publishing will be prinitng a collection of AK short-stories

our 91st and 92nd hits of the years


Saturday 26th prompts

All Points North

All quiet on the Western Terrace

I was demoralised when I left Bradford for Virginia

Scalp, cranium, cap, skull, Sheffield, Bradford, Grimsby, Hull

They were tolerably quiet when I preached; only a few pieces of dirt were thrown.

Raving beauties speeding in the little boy's room

The Pearl of India (Curry Yorkshire Puddings - Our Speciality)

Stretched out on a full length snooker table lies a sleeping fireman

The sound of young Huddersfield

Albert Victor Forgets Himself

Two in the morning, the meat wagon waits for its cargo

Joshua Tetley in stiletto heels and pink pyjamas

Micky Smith, the Charlton Heston of the carpet trade

Blues of the second-hand gun

Ballad of Live Aid, hymn of the slave trade

Meat and gravy. Hindley and Brady

Putting lyricism back into lyrics

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Flying Prompts

Across the tops of cities
Angels staggering on tenement roofs
As the city gleams
Beneath defeat's fire
Burning the money in waste-baskets
Cigarette marks on the arms
Cowered in unshaven rooms
Destroyed by madness
Each square of the window's pane
Expelled from academies
Fuck Cancer
Her bleak furnished room
Hollow-eyed and high
Hungry, lonesome, not smelling too good
Is. Because
Midnight at the rolling yard
Nights with brilliant eyes
No absence that cannot be replaced
No one goes into the black house
On a hung out shelf somewhere in Mexico
Paint and alleyways
Rose-gardens, public parks
Saintly motorcyclists
Sank all night in a submarine light
Starving, hysterical, naked
Talking continuously
The best minds of my generation
The Suits, the glasses, the number one cuts
The way a cat walks, knowing
Windows, high, grime-smeared

Beginning Writing 002 Point of View

So heres Number Two in a series of introductory articles

Point of View From My Point of View

As a teacher, as a judge of short-stories and now as an editor-judge with World Wide Writers I'm constantly being reminded of the poor control of point of view ("POV") in beginner and even intermediate writing. I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. I continue to be surprised by what some authors allow to slip into their narratives, how things occur and are "known" to the reader, when really they should not be, how point of view can drift from the murderer to the victim, then float to an overhead shot, then perhaps to the detective ruminating on the crime.

I have never been a great fan of omniscient (all-seeing, all-singing and dancing, anything goes, "I know what's behind that door") viewpoint, but I can acknowledge that some top-selling writers have mastered it. In the hands of all but the best, however, it kills credibility, makes for a weakening of tension and, for me at least, interrupts the fictive dream.

First person, me-me, seems the most natural (it isn't) but is one of the two best approaches when we are in the foothills of writing. Most of us can quickly learn that if we write "I got up that morning feeling like the cast of Rawhide had been rehearsing in my mouth," that we should confine ourselves to the "I", what "I" can see, hear, feel and think. One drawback to the first person (especially in suspense fiction) is we expect the protagonist to survive (he's writing the story after the event, after all)... This can be overcome with a little artifice, but is still a suspense-deadener.

A second problem with first-person (for some readers and writers) is a sense that the author is or might be present (or at least too close) in the text. I, for example, am very uncomfortable writing a first-person sleaze-bag. I couldn't write, say, of rape or child abuse in the first person, simply because I identify strongly with my characters and write "through" them and "as them." Even writing third-person limited (see later) about a police detective, near the end of a novel I virtually AM the detective! This makes for a fun few weeks as my detective is female...

Most myths and folk-tales are not first person -- it isn't the oldest form. Think of the fables, aren't most, like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" in fact delivered in the third-person? "There was a shepherd boy, and he was bored and..."

Third person is probably the most common POV employed in the stories I get landing on my desk. My Caz Flood stories (the first four anyway) were like this, 3rd P-POV and severely limited, so limited that they were virtually first-person but with certain advantages. For example, in Cuckoo, when Caz is attacked and lapses into unconsciousness I can finish the scene:

A red flash of something that felt like sexual excitement passed through her and she realised she was about to die. It felt not even remotely bad. The world was a black circle coming to a point. As the circle closed, she felt the sudden thump of the knife hammering at her chest. She wanted to smile, but instead she went to sleep.

Winter rain rolled over her in the empty street.

Third-person limited allows the "cheat" of the last line, yet allows the writer and the reader to identify with, to empathise with, the main character. Caz is always present, just like an "I" character, and we see and hear only what she sees and hears and nothing else! This has advantages like being able to "follow" through with Caz in her investigations, to keep the tension exactly so... My advice to most writing students would be to avoid omniscient writing until all the other skills of writing had been absorbed and to use first-person where the 1st person POV character was very distinctive, and had a great voice, like here:

In the villages all down this valley, from Senghennydd down to Caerphilly, they call me Ernie the Egg.

I do not mind this, but for the record, I am Ernest Jones, poultry farmer, son of Robert Jones, Deacon, and they are my hens that run amok on the hill above the town. You may eat whosoever's pigs you wish, but it is my eggs that you shall have on your plate if you sup anywhere in the valley from Park Hamlet right through Abertridwr. My eggs is on the plates for most the best part of Caerphilly, too, though I know of some Cardiff eggs there.

Yes, I am rich, and the boys in the villages, and the old men, make jokes about me. Yes, Ernie the Egg I am, and with a few bob, and sought after by the Revenue, too, but I am wealthy by fortunate accidents and hard work, and with the help of God, and because of a great and ordinary man, Meredith Toop Evans, collier, and because I am shot in the neck in the Great War and because I am a failed scholar.

The hens have been my livelihood but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War. That I am not any of these things is an odd thing for me, peculiar altogether, but facts is facts, which is why I will relate my story.

Otherwise, I would always suggest seeing if the story will work in third person, and, if it does, consider how limited you would like that perspective. Totally restricted to the main character you have the intimacy of first person but the advantage of being able to write long camera-shots, and occasional lines where the character is "out of it" as in the extract where Caz falls unconscious.

If you are going to allow more than one third-person viewpoint, take great care. If you dip in and out of more than one person's head, you begin to lose the tensions of not knowing stuff. It can be done but it is a very delicate art and awful when done badly. I'm a very experienced writer and I still try to avoid this.

One common technique is to be limited third-person but maybe write the thoughts of two people, often the detective and the serial-killer. This is so commonplace as to have become clichéd, but can be pulled off. I would personally advise against it. In my opinion, it is far better to increase identification with the protagonist and share his or her troubles and bafflement.

But what I see more commonly is slippage of POV where the writer, knowing everything, forgets that the viewpoint character wouldn't know these things. This is only the briefest of introductions to point-of-view, but always think hard about scenes and test them for "would she know this; would he be able to see that?" For example, in the passage to follow, would a man in a bar know from across the room what the woman is drinking, or would it be better to indicate that he is guessing? This was a student passage.

She immediately sensed his vulnerability and though Jeff was surrounded by other men, drinking and chatting at the bar, he looked uncomfortable and a little helpless. he had noticed her, and while the Friday night jokes of his office mates fell on unresponsive ears he let his mind and occasionally his eyes wander towards this woman. She sat alone at the table nearest the door and sipped a vodka and tonic, returning his furtive glances. Because she was dark and rather quietly dressed she seemed approachable; his wife was a tiresome blonde. Beside her to her left, resting on a chair was her hand-bag, her left hand inside, not rummaging for anything, but just there.

Note here that the piece has not been written deliberately and clearly with alternating points of view, but kind of drifts from one to the other. We can produce different stories by selecting who is the most interesting character to "go with." Should we see him wondering about her, or her wondering about him? Yes, both can be done, but remember to do it well.

I wrote: Choose whose POV, his or hers. That gives emotional control. I'll try not to improve the language and use as many of the original words as possible.


She saw him first, drinking and chatting at the bar, uncomfortable, a little helpless. She immediately sensed his vulnerability and though he was surrounded by other men, she felt he was alone. She knew he had noticed her, and while the Friday night jokes of his office mates rambled on she sensed his mind wander occasionally and his eyes furtively glance her way. That was when she felt for her handbag.

She was sitting alone at the table nearest the door, sipping a vodka and tonic. He glanced her way again and this time she returned the glance, just a flicker or wider eye and raised lashes. She saw him shift slightly so he would be able to look across more easily, then she saw him laugh, a little too loudly, a little too forced.

Because she was dark and rather quietly dressed she knew she seemed approachable. She unclasped her bag. She'd guess - his wife was a tiresome blonde, probably one kid, she'd lost her figure.

Now she had her hand inside the bag not rummaging, just there.


Jeff was surrounded by other men, his office mates, drinking and chatting at the bar, laughing at the Friday night jokes but he was uncomfortable and a little lost. He had noticed the woman almost as soon as he came in. She sat alone at the table nearest the door and sipped what looked like a vodka or maybe a G&T. He had glanced her way a few times, maybe furtively, and she had looked back once with something half-way between a come-on and fuck-you. He saw she had her handbag open, her hand in as if she was rummaging for something. But her hand didn't move. It was just there. She was dark and rather quietly dressed. She seemed approachable. He thought briefly of his wife then dismissed the thought. He looked again at the woman. Her hand was still in her bag, not moving, just there.

See the differences in the two passages? Note also that by choosing one POV we can "sit on the shoulder" of the character: to me, the most natural of ways through a story. And if we have one POV, one character's, it's easier to shape the language and tone of the narrative to approach that of a first-person POV; masculine for a male protagonist, not-so for a female...

Beginning Writing 001

It's occurred to me that some of the articles on here are not all that easy for the beginning writer.

So I thought I'd post some old stuff aimed at earlier birds.

To distinguish these articles from the maybe more sophisticated ones, I've marked then Beginning Writing 001 etc.

So here's my view on Openings. Questions welcome, by email or from a name that's traceable. Anons are ignored.

How to Open Without a Bang

Grab your reader with an opening! Right? Have a man walk in with a gun, set the bomb ticking, the lovers begin to undress? Oh, how many stories I've seen with a slam-bang start like that, and oh, how many have immediately gone to a flash-back, admitted the dream or simply fizzled, spluttered and dribbled slowly away.

The nuclear bomb opening I see as the medallion man of literature, more flash than substance, more likely to lead to disappointment than satisfaction. It's the confident whisper, the self-assured promise I look for, the paragraph which quietly says, "I don't need bells and whistles. Listen, listen." And the story may be so quiet that I have to lean forward. I am tilted into the body of the work, disconcerted, or intrigued by setting, attracted by character or seduced, simply seduced, by the sounds and shapes and meaning of the words.

Saturday afternoon and Dai Griffiths sits with his finger-polished roll-up tin. He is patient, fixated, listening. His tongue protrudes slightly as he makes his careful, half dog-end tobacco, half Old Holburn, delicate, thin cigarettes. It is raining outside the pub and along the valley side snake-terraced roofs glisten. The afternoon light closes.

I want to know. And that's all it takes. Make the reader want to know more.

Rather than use the verb "grab", I like to suggest "tilt". I want to push my readers just a little, not slam them so hard they resist me, but persuade them that this road is interesting, one of ultimate promise. My job (first) is to ensure they reach (and want to read) the second paragraph, that the second begets the third and that the whole of the first page is strong enough to quiet the TV, block out the conversation on the train, or more importantly, wake up that tired editor, that jaded judge.

It was now lunch-time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining-tent pretending that nothing had happened.

"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Macomber asked.

A famous opening from a famous story, Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. What's fascinating about this opening is that, yes, the tilt is there - if someone says "pretending that nothing had happened" you betcha I want to find out what did happen - but look what Hemingway chose not to start with. The story has to flash back (eventually) to an incident of high drama when Macomber panicked faced by real danger. Surely, surely, with such a gift we should start with the dramatic action?

But Hemingway had the drama still to come -- so we await it. He didn't start with something climactic -- after a climax is anti-climax - but promised us at least one. The work shows self-confidence, the ability to present seemingly innocuous events well, but in such a disarming, confident way we simply feel the power to come. But there's more to this opening. It was chosen to guide the reader into what the story was really about, not big-game hunting and cowardice or bravery, but what these things meant to the sexual relationships of the three main characters. By starting with the "ordinary" drinks scene, Hemingway was able to steer us, the readers towards the core of the story. We get to see and feel the coldness and unhappiness of Macomber and his wife -- exacerbated by Macomber's lack of physical courage -- and it's through courage that Macomber eventually gains self-respect and a fleeting but glorious happiness.

So yes, an opening must promise us a diverting story, but also it should be right for the story, not just a good opener but the best, the most apt opener. When we take time to "find" our opener, to find the exact character, setting, tone of voice and point of view, when we wait and let the opener float until it begins to resonate as solid and true, then, often the story falls in front of us like dominoes, sentence after sentence begetting sentence, driven by the feel, the force, the organic predictability contained within the start.

He wondered what the sex would be like. She thought it would be good. When she asked him, "Do you think it will be good, Harry?" he knew it would be great. But that was later.

Sometimes we just know from the opener...

When I began writing I leaped on ideas, rushed to grab a pen or typewriter, and started. More often than not I crash-landed, and even when I did finish things they sucked and didn't sell. Now I've learned a little patience, an ounce of forethought, a few minutes of consideration and now, rather than dive into a story, I'm more likely to climb into a bath, a half-bottle of wine close by, and wallow, body and mind. My story idea may well be weeks, months, even a year old. It has been fermenting in my unconscious, a particularly unsavoury and mixed up place. I went there once, right next to The Old Man and the Sea was Three Blind Mice, a picture of an old girlfriend, the guitar riff from Pulp Fiction and... the rest is censored. But somewhere in the mess there is a story -- at least I hope there is -- and I want to coax it out. If I shout, it will run away, if I do nothing it will sit there, but if I just make little coaxing noises, show I'm friendly out pops an opening, a tone, my protagonist, complete with accent and attitude.

I lie.

The opening almost comes. Here is where I have another glass of wine and top up the hot water. I've learned that if the opening really comes to me, if the character pushes through the fog and steps into my world, if he is ready to live, really ready, not a good one but the one, then I just know, little bells ring, presses run, music plays, the opening resonates, buzzes, sings. The almost openings flutter in an out but the opening doesn't. It comes with a life, a history, a destiny. Truly, getting the exact feel is more than half the story.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily." Absolutely, Gabriel! "In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book." Yes! Yes! "The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be." Smack on! "That's why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again." (Excellent, he should go far).

Yes an opening should interest, tilt us forward, but an opening does far more; it sets the agenda, it makes not just promises to us, but suggests to us how we should react, what mood we are likely to find here, how best we might take on the upcoming dream.

Tom is watching a movie with his mistress when something in the story-line touches him, and breaks through his well-constructed façade. His defenses breached, he thinks of his son and his small daughter. He begins to cry soundlessly. When his mistress realises her lover is upset, she tries to be kind, but her kindness makes the guilt worse and Tom snaps at her. She doesn't understand.

Once there were many prairie dogs and they decided their kingdom was fine and suited the prairie dog way of life. Some prairie dogs were large, some very small, but most of the prairie-dogs were middle-sized and their bark, more a yap, was conservative.

Two openings, but the contract with the reader is different.

I hope my openings are directive. I want them to intrigue and seduce but I want them to channel the story as a whole, to create in the reader a sense of a joint adventure, one of a type. If I'm trying to be funny, I need the reader to be thinking light music, not Beethoven's Fifth. If I want "serious", I don't want him whistling The Birdie Song. Like Gabriel Marquez, my openings take time but they contain the organic nature of the story as a whole, the theme, the tone, where I'm coming from, where I want the reader to go.

Look at the opening to Catch-22.

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. Yossarian was in the hospital with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn't quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn't become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.

We get the main character, the tone, the craziness, the feel, immediately.

Or Cuckoo, mine. (1992)

Cold Monday morning, six o'clock. November. Brighton sea-front had to be grey, windswept and damp. It was, but as far as Caz Flood was concerned, it was the only place, the perfect place to be. Yesterday she had been a beat copper, a woodentop, today she was a DC, a detective constable, and nothing, but absolutely nothing, could stop her now.

Or Brighton again, Graham Greene.

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn't belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.

Or Raymond Chandler.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Oh, I wish!!

Latest Boot Camp Stats

Since the last report another 2007 Virgin has had a hit.

That now means 14/20 have had hits but three of that 20 have only been with us a month and another one has been away all year. So really all bar two Boot Campers are off the mark

00 Calvin (not currently submitting work)
00 Random ????????
00 Bonzo on long sabbatical
00 Bry1300 JUST JOINED















Big Finish!!

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09
05,185 Words May 18 (Long Article)
00.449 Words May 19 (Flash)
00,000 Words May 20 (Satisfied Rest Day!)
02,150 Words May 21 (Story)
01,216 Words May 22 (Flash)
03,215 Words May 23 (Article)

37,515 Words Total 14,515 Words ahead of schedule

1,618 words a day, 7 days a week

07,515 Words beyond monthly target

A Risky Business

I am reading Al Alvarez's "Risky Business", his second set of collected essays (BUY IT!) and have just read his chapter on the concert pianist Alfred Brendel. Yesterday I posted an article "Rembrandt and Raymond Carver" and this morning the Brendel article goes to the same places. I feel an epiphany coming.

When I teach it is very intense. It's a commonplace reaction for writers on my courses to say their head has been turned to mush. More than one has been nervous about driving home (which is why we always suggest an evening dinner on the Sunday where we just laugh and chill.)

I usually say to writers that immediately after a course (ha, I typo'd CURSE, there!) that they may very well have difficulty writing, and if they do write, the writing may appear to be inferior for a while.

I liken it to going up a difficult, dangerous, mountain. Sometimes the route you are on cannot EVER get to the top. Sometimes you have to climb DOWN a little either to find a new route, or to get extra equipment, or maybe, to talk to a Sherpa Guide who knows the way.

That's only part of the problem!

I often say things like: "You must write totally, completely "on theme" where every word is building in the same way."

But I ALSO say, "But you must ignore the theme! Never write thinking of the theme." and I say, "Get the right characters, and the right opening voice, trust the characters to guard the theme."

But how can I force myself into the strictures of theme at the same time as ignoring the theme?

When discussing the writing art we often have to use the art of writing (I mean beyond competent journalism) to get closer, ever closer, to the meaning we are trying to impart. For example in my article "The Seventh Quark: Finding the story" I wrote that I, "Write with light hands."

What follows might be partly random (I hope so.)

In the Brendel article, Alvarez states, "One of the most important lessons Brendel taught Imogen Cooper was that there is a tension that goes all through a piece of music and never lets up. He used to talk of a long silver cord that one pulls on. "He'd crouch down beside the piano and say, 'Go on, pull, pull.'

Sometimes there is a little kink in the cord but it never sags. There's always a force irresistibly pulling it from the first note to the last."

THINK THEME, and the tension in a good voice.

"He used to say, 'You've got to get the audience from the first note.' I'd say you've got to get them from the moment you come through the door. How you command the space between the door and the piano makes the audience listen in a certain way. They listen with their eyes and their ears."

Think! Think about presentation. Think about fonts, font-size, single, double or 1.5 line spacing, white space for time-breaks, the size and boldness of the title, the use of italics for emphasis. Think how, the moment that editor or judge sits down with your piece. ALL of it matters.

You are trying to create "A mode of acceptance."

Think how the start shapes the whole. That's why I can predict the final score a story is worth from the opening. That is why 99% of editors and judge know as soon as they've read two paragraphs.

But remember I'm really talking about paradoxes in how I say we should write (if we want to write anything worthwhile.) Paradoxes, or apparent contradictions…

Brendel says performing is a risky business and the concert pianist who wants to make a work new each time he plays must live life dangerously. (Alvarez)

"As a performer, I have become aware of the paradox of my profession," Brendel said. "You have to be in control, and, at the same time, lose yourself completely. You have to think and feel in advance what you want to do and, simultaneously, to listen to what you are doing and react to that. You have to play to satisfy yourself and also play so that the people in the back row will get the message." In other words (Alvarez says) the concert platform is where his two worlds of intellectual control and inspired nonsense interconnect."

Are we talking genius here? No!

Of course Brendel is a genius, and Alvarez probably is a genius, but quality craftsmen have to go to this place also, the greatest sportsmen.

We train the body and the mind and then trust the spirit.

I always forget who for sure, but I think it was Harlan Ellison who said we must write and write and write and absorb technique until it runs in our blood.

It is when it's in our blood that we leave room for extra imagination, room for our angelic inner self to speak. Ray Bradbury (I'm pretty sure it was him) said we need to write a million crappy words just to start being a writer. That first million words is our scales, our music theory classes, our hours at the piano, our weekend courses in music, the summer schools, the endless rehearsals.

Then after the million, we start to find ourselves.

We no longer have to think about dialogue, or speech tags, or whether a noun-adjective here is needed for the flow and balance. It is part of us, the hands know where to go. If we apply thought now it's "beyond" it's expressive, it's extra.

Briefly, this is why I believe in the Boot Camp process. I believe that at least 99% of wanabee writers write far too little. In surveys I've done the average for writers at conferences was 147 words a day (and remember they are probably exaggerating their word-counts.)

(See Comment 1)

Stop RIGHT NOW and work out exactly (not roughly) how many creative words you have written this month. It is the 23rd of May 2007. If you haven't written 11,000 words, if you haven't written a paltry two pages a day, what the fuck are you doing? How can you call yourself a writer if you are writing the odd 200 words when the mood takes you?

Don't cheat. Don't cheat yourself. You are the one that gets hurt. What fresh work did you write yesterday? What fresh work did you produce on Monday? Did you have the weekend off? Were you going out to lunch Friday and never got into the mood? Was there a "really interesting" thread on some noddy web-site and you just had to get involved?

My recent favourite in a writing forum not a coffee-shop was "Favourite Handbag?"

Tell yourself the truth.

Officially, Boot Camp, right now, has twenty members. In fact it has 16 active, two away, two starting back in June. Usually you can presume that a couple more away with work or family commitments, illness, holidays and the like.

Yet we have posted 140 stories this year, probably the same amount of flashes and a fair few poems. Every story has been critiqued at least eight times (the average is about nine.) Every day we are arguing about craft, talking creative writing.

But Monday (part) and Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday we WRITE.

Excluding this work I have written

15 Poems (02,692 Words)
07 Flashes (06,211 Words)
04 Stories (07,813 Words)
07 Articles (17,785 Words)

34,501 Words in 22 Days
1,568 Words per day
10,977 Words a week

Today (not yet included) looks like being 3,000 words, an article and a flash.

Now this is not to tub-thump or blow a trumpet over my own hard work. The obvious response (always wrong) in that quantity is achieved at the expense of quality. Not so! Not so! And even if it were so, and from a month's work I got just a single story of quality (I mean real quality) that's 12 great stories a year.

But the millions of words I write have taught me a new language. I can move around tenses and Points of View, appear and disappear as a narrator, do tricks I never dreamt of when I began writing, stuff I couldn't do after five years.

At their own rate, on their own scales Boot Campers are doing the same thing.

They are first learning to speak so one day they will be able to sing.

Singing will mean insight, language, a fresh expression, depth of character.

But what is "depth"?

Quoting Alvarez on Brendel again:

Brendel thinks Beethove's last piano sonata, Op. 111, is a "premeditated conclusion, a last word leading into silence forever."

Discussing a performance of a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Munich Alvarez talked of "depth" and then quoted Isiah Berlin.

"Depth is an odd word. It's a metaphor but you can't translate it into other terms. Depth means penetrating into something very basic in oneself, and touching it, and feeling an electric shock."

At the time Alvarez wrote, Brendel was suffering physical frailties which were beginning to restrict his playing. He was getting old, but still learning.

"One does not stop learning," Brendel said. "I've learned how to control certain silences. They depend not just on what you play but on how you look. After the last chord of Op. 111, I don't move. I don't take my hands away from the keyboard, because directly I stir, they applaud. Each time I play the Beethoven cycle the silence gets longer, because I know how to relate to it. I know how to sit still."

On Sitting Still

I once wrote an article (you can read it at The Internet Writers Journal) called Theme Music: Tone is Not an Accident.

NOW, it's not. But when I began writing, long after I was being regularly published, there was tone over here, character over there, and a bit of plot somewhere if I can just find it, and the all important theme which was down the shops buying cigarettes but would be back in five minutes.

Tone is not an accident, not for an experienced writer. Nor is theme, and yet the best writers, those with the strongest, most gut-wrenching or intellectually invigorating themes, can write without worrying about their theme. How?


When we begin to get a feeling that a story is coming. I should add here I mean real writing not superficial trivia with a "clever" twist-ending, or that womag bumph or intricately-plotted shoot-em-up, or Dan Brown. I mean writing that matters a little, right now, writing that we return to, dwell in, savour.

When we begin to get a feeling that this kind of story is coming, what happens? If you get an idea, a plot-line, some clever tricks to post here and here and here, then I'm sorry for you. Oh, you might well publish. You might even be flavour of the six months, but you won't be writing.

What about the feeling, what about the ache?

What about that sense of pressure, of something deep in you or way back in time, or maybe some part of your life that only makes sense if you don't ask it questions? Don't you want to know who you are? Why you're here?

Don't you want to know what this is all about?

If we use the brain exclusively – I mean the logical left-brain, the bit we plan with, we cannot get "fresh", we cannot get "insightful". Instead we get the same old same old. It might be re-jigged (if we are really crafty) but it's still the same old. The active left-brain doesn't put things together that don't belong together.

The active left, interfering brain doesn't write:

I used to sit in the hall and stare at the geese on the wall, fascinated because one was chipped and had a white chalk beak. I am not sure I know what love is.

Because all those boring shapers, the life-police, told you that plaster of Paris ducks are nothing to do with "love". If you try to write that paragraph it doesn't happen. You have to let a better, more dangerous, more unpredictable person write it.

If we aren't using the left-brain. If we learn to sit still and let things rise up and emerge, those things are always better, truer, than what we do deliberately.

Think, most importantly about the many constituents of an opening. There is a setting, a tone, a voice, a level of complexity of language, a "colour", a timbre, probably a narrator, a character or characters, some air of musicality.

Where did they come from? Did you sit down with a team of advertising executives and Simon Cowell, and "thrash this thing out"?

Did you go to some stainless city office and listen to a Powerpoint presentation on the commercial viability of the darker character?

Or did something come to you?

If something comes to you, just comes, if you have feelings, these are the things, the powerful things that will matter. But you have to stand aside, trust the spirit, allow the souls of your ancestors if you like, allow the angels and demons to create.

Instead off grabbing at, or "considering", instead of planning why not ask (without asking) what's here, who is she, what does she sound like, what language does she speak? Stay low, don't frighten the visitor. She may have been in the dark for a long time.

This woman, this girl, this gift is incredible. You ask, how can I not control and yet write a controlled work? Surely it's impossible?

Of course, without help. But you have help. Look! She stands there, slightly bewildered. But all she wants is the tiniest of nudges and she will talk, exactly as you imagined, she will act in a way that always seems right, and because she came without force and emerged as a welcome visitor (from another place in you) she will now look after your theme.

Let me be boringly "straight" for a minute. Presume, temporarily, that what I say is true. We have a feeling about a subject. Maybe it's "something" about the cruelty of childless couples here, contraceptive abortions over there. It feels wrong, somehow but it's not as simple as believing abortion is always wrong, and not merely a rant against God. You feel the complexity of the issue, you almost feel you can express it, but it's so hard.

Then one day an abortion clinic is burned down and a passing child is killed. How confused? Or you read of a child who did not abort and is now a famous concert pianist. Something uncaps the ache. You need to say something.

I realise all this seems vague, but it's only "vague" because most of our lives we deal in greater certainties (which are false) and things which we believe are solid (when they are not.)

If you deliberately "take on" these issues, you are not going to access your deep feelings. You are going to access the front of the drawer where sound-bytes and simple fixes are kept.

I wrote a story once when I realised that my socks and underwear drawers each contain maybe fifty items, yet only the front five or ten are used, washed and re-worn. Think of the back of that drawer. We should be accessing it. Most of the time we live in the nearby, the simple, the quick and superficial.

So, instead of diving in, what happens if you close your eyes and see if anybody walks by? What might happen? A young girl who's pregnant? Her mother who's also pregnant? How about the unborn child or the recently aborted? I have no idea, because HERE I'm conscious, talking to you.

If you relax you might see a red sports car, a Frisbee, a line of Keats, and yet know they all combine and say something about abortion. If you learn to be still, someone will step forward.

If you learn to be still, someone will step forward, and that someone knows your point, she simply knows. If deep in you, despite what you might say publicly, something nags and says "wrong, wrong, wrong" you will NOT choose a real character who argues right, right, right.

Your inner self chooses the vehicle of expression. Think how often, when characters have just come, they feel known to you, like old acquaintances.

When I talk metaphorically I say that these characters are guardians of the theme. If they are spontaneous manifestations then they champion a real theme. If they are forced characters they are crude, obvious vessels for an obvious theme, and very probably the story will read like a polemic.

Damn! It's 12:30 and I have things to do.

OK let's try another tack.

When I see a set of flash-prompts posted that look "clever" and conscious, cold, cute. I expect less flashes to be written and a lower standard of story.

But when I see a load of lines or part-lines from great poems, a few odd break-the-spell words (the more bizarre the better) I expect more stories and better ones. The mere resonance and open-endedness of the poetic snatches seems to "set-off" the unconscious. Something is stirred.

That is, poetry and its effects are disorientating, mysterious, they come at us by entering through the foot or the elbow and bat us round the inner ear because they can. No frontal assault needed.

I believe that it's this subversive, playful, unusual "accent" in poetry that tends to release wilder (from the unconscious) emotions in those who read the prompts. Thus the resulting work is better.

We live in an age where we are inundated by clevernesses, but the very glibness and ease of these cute sound-bytes, the sit-com quips, the quick-fix knee-jerk, the tabloid headline crap (even Panorama cheats now), the pre-planned endings (but if you don't like the film's finish, we'll change it)… an age where shallowness is all. We escape by going under.

Billy Collins said: Poetry seems to provide, more than ever, an alternative to the din of public language (advertising, politics, etc) and a more admirable set of values than we find in consumer-mad society. I read recently about a poetry competition held in Barcelona every year. The third place poet receives a silver rose, the second place winner receives a golden rose, and the first place poet – for having written the very best poem – receives a real rose. So take that, all you fans of bling.

Arthur Polotnik said:

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. You edit to let the fire show through the smoke.

The point of this ramble is that to write about what's burning inside, we need to allow it air, to stand aside and let it burn us up. We have to learn to stand aside, be still, listen. We have to, though, trust our writing ability, which is why we must write, write, write, every day, every week, every month, so we can turn off consciousness. And then:

Somewhere, I know not exactly where, a grey campfire is kicked up, the flames catch again and are let loose. All catches alight.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Rembrandt & Raymond Carver

I am doing an arts course at the moment, and it opens with "art", that is painting. I have been doing the course barely a few days and it's teaching me about writing. And reading.

We were asked to look at a picture by Rembrandt, The Artist in his Studio then asked to write 100 words about it. Now I know what "art" is, right? I've been to lots of exhibitions and walked slowly, respectful, hushed, past pictures hanging on walls. I've looked at pictures before.

But now I had to 'respond". Uh-oh, arty-farty bollocks time. Is it too late to ask for my course fees back?

The picture is interesting, with soft, yellows and fawns and browns, and some nice lighting. (That's more than I would have seen or articulated when walking round a museum or gallery a week ago.)

But what about the perspective? What about the viewer's point of view? What about the lighting? What about the other items? Why are some highlighted more than others? Why this, here, why that? Why is the easel so big? Why show the door?
I started to write (they suggested 100 words) and struggled to keep inside five hundred words (and I'm picture-blind). Once I actually look, tried to see, once I wasn't casual, I kept seeing more and more and more. I began to wonder about the "psychology" of the painting, the fact that the easel dominated the room and the painter, and blocked a doorway.

The point is, Rembrandt could have chosen any perspective, different lighting, different emphases, but when he approached this painting, this feeling he had purpose and intent, or at least a sensibility he was trying to capture. There are dissonances in the way the picture is "read", tensions between the perspective and point of view. The tutor argued that perhaps the point of view of the picture is meant to be that of the person whose portrait is on the canvas. But is it then beginning to ask questions about the process?

The specifics don't matter. What matters is how easy it is to glance or to skim. How different is something when we really, truly, look, when we begin to interact, when we engage the intellect and the soul.

I've written elsewhere that I am still this kind of blind to a very large amount of poetry. I just don't "get it". I stare at pages and steel shutters fall, or worse a little voice starts telling me, "Here we go again, arty-farty bullshit."

I have to remind myself I would have said that about Hemingway or Carver. Hell, I would have said it about 90% of my own work!

Ask yourself this. How often do you read, sort of half-attending, waiting for the moment the story will "hit", catch fire, so you can attend more? And does it sometimes happen, that before you know it, you've reached the end of the text and thought, "Huh?"
Maybe you go back and try again but something has "gone', a thin chord of trust has disappeared and now the story is "just words". You might (if you have to) manage some kind of reaction, "get in the mood of critting" and pretend the story mattered. But what has gone, maybe forever is that chance to get a real first impression.

I remember once, in Boot Camp I arranged a live-chat of Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing". I arrived late, into a whirlwind of "not-sures" and circular arguments. We started again. Two hours later we were still arguing about the first paragraph! It's a very good discussion to sit down with any opening and ask what do we know with certainty or near-certainty, what is probable, what's likely, what's possible? And what is the mood, what's the emotional point of view, what kind of theme is being whispered, what do we know about the protagonists?

At first glance (note glance, and these were good students) the opening paragraph said, "woman orders cake for son's birthday". I argued (and I'm not going to do it here) that the opening did TONS more. For that matter, I said, could we not dispense with the opening paragraph altogether? After all Paragraph Two starts:
She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon.

Isn't that covering all the bases? Isn't the first paragraph redundant?
But this essay is not about the specifics of a Raymond Carver story, nor about a Rembrandt painting. Rather it's about the fact that artists don't do things casually, but for a purpose. They set tone, mood, point of view, both for themselves as a writer (to create a writing mood) and to create a way of responding in the reader, or viewer, what I've called "the mode of acceptance".

In the Open University text I'm reading Charles Harrison writes that viewing a painting and "seeing it" is in part a social agreement, convention, set in a historical context etc.

"I suggest that the ability to draw someone into this agreement is the basic condition required to make the illusion do its work in painting. I would also like to suggest that the establishment of such agreement is the starting point for art considered as a social activity. The form of social activity I mean to indicate is the relationship of collaboration and mutual recognition that is established, via the work of art, between the artist who furnishes material for the exercise of the imagination, and the spectator willing to undertake the relevant imaginative work.

A work of art is like a game – often a very serious game – that is set in play when the spectator's imagination engages according to its rules. Once that point of agreement is reached, endless possibilities are opened up for enriching the illusion and for the consequent enlargement of the picture's possible field of reference."

Now note above that there is work involved. That work may not cause blisters or back-ache but the reader of prose must work at reading, fully getting the text.
Later in the same text, when comparing and contrasting two still lifes, Harrison wrote that each artist was attempting to shape and control the viewer's mode of attention. How close is that to my reader's mode of acceptance?

In a still life there are questions of lighting, closeness, objects depicted (and some, for example the pomegranate often had religious or cultural meaning and were rarely 'just there'). The artist controls the manner in which the objects are experienced.

And of course the good writer "steers" the reader down a certain path. There may be a perceived ambiguity or range of possible responses, but how many are closed off to us, almost without us ever noticing, and how much of that response range is real?

For my sins, I sometimes clash with another kind of reader. This is the reader who says "hit me". He wants every single thing in the story to be instantly there, out front, on the surface and in glorious technicolour. For this reader there appears to be no such word as subtlety, or nuance, and "oblique" in his vocabulary (if he knows the word at all) means "obtuse".

Strange how many of these readers love the crudest, crappiest horror stories!

Am I being "unfair"? Am I arrogant or patronising, or cruel? Do you think I lie? Do you think these people are NOT out there?

Do you think I didn't read like that once and imagine it as the pinnacle of the art?

When I was a teenager I devoured Mickey Spillane books. I adored them.

But then, back then, the idea that say, Graham Greene, could matter, that any serious author could matter was ridiculous to me. I was a simplistic, crude young man who wanted everything instantaneously. I was waiting for fast food to be invented. Gimmee, Gimmee!

Now (and I am still, relatively, a Phillistine) I want to understand. I want to know about my humanity, about what might lay outside it or beyond it, or inside it and hidden. I want to discover what it is to be human, what the journey means, why things happen.

And that is not "in your face" and never will be. The trivial imbalances that lead to great tragedies, physical and mental, can be small and seem trivial or inconsequential (yes I know that's self-contradictory!) Going there, to the heart, to the moment, or to be where revelation appears, well that requires some sensibility or sensitivity. Describing it, must almost by its nature demand great care, subtlety and the lightest possible touch.

But if I as an artist, to get through your defences and touch your soul, need you to feel light and shade and texture, to sense perspectives and point of view, to bring to the table history, convention, awareness, and religious significance or irony, or humour, or a consideration of unusual juxtapositions… If I expect you to develop a certain receptiveness, and to look, and look again, feel and feel again, think, and think again…

Should I write dirt, muck, mud, soil, or earth? Are they the same?

In Carver's A Small Good Thing the mother always refers to the boy as "the child". Was that accidental on Carver's part? Why not "my little boy" or "my boy" or "my son"?

Have YOU ever referred to one of your children as "the child"?

What does Carver create when he has the woman say this?


Taking My Own Advice

Have sent in my Bridport entries five weeks before the closing date!!!

I sent two poems NINE weeks early

Have had a crack at Yeovil's "Opening to a Novel" Comp and basically sent something to any comp with a prize of £150 or more.

I've started subbing poems (but I don't feel lucky) but if I don't sub I'll never know...

The point is, you have a hit rate, 1 in 3 or 1 in 5, even 1 in 10

So if it's a horrible 1/10, sub ten times!

Do that every week and you will have a hit a week.

My personal psychology seems to allow for a hit rate of 1 in 3. I can live with 1 in 4 but anything much worse and I find myself banging out a few flashes to slightly lower targets "just to cheer myself up"

But if I score 1 in 3 this year I'll have about 80 hits (work it out)

Someone said in BC, "You're hot this month AK"

But I'm not. I was hot TWO MONTHS ago when I managed 65 subs.

Art is wonderful. I like to think that sometimes I manage it.

But underpinning art is solid craft, basic rules, and fucking hard work.

And when it's written, re-written, polished, GET IT OUT THERE.

You shouldn't have anything merely "languishing" on you hard disk. Put it to work!


Fifteen Days of READING!

Well I've hit my 30K a month target for three consecutive months now and I've had a subbing binge to beat all subbing binges (I had too much good stuff just sitting on my PC) and now I'm going to have 14-15 days of reading, reading reading.

I have to read my own five novels cos I'm planning a new run-ot for Caz Flood

A Wild Justice

I bought the rights back on these a while back so you won't find them in the shops, but I have paperback copies of C, V & K and hardbacks of RZ & AWJ...

Also taking

Three plays by Brecht and a book of his writings on drama;

The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1;

Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry;

The Man Who Went Into the West (Biography of R S Thomas)

Sophie Scholl & the White Rose (about resistance to the Nazis)

and a TS Eliot Biog

of course all the above is bollocks to make me look intellectual

Really I'm just taking a carrier bag full of chick-lit and a few womags


Bridport Prize. A Tip!

Enter NOW

Don't leave it to the last minute.

Get 1-2 stories in this week (better chance of a good read) and then maybe send a 3rd or 4th in 10-14 days time.

Use the pull of the biggest-best prize for less-piublished writers to make yourself write something fresh


A Couple More Hits

Two BC Flashes make the next SlingInk Anthology


ANON anon anon anon

I mentioned "anon" yesterday.

I've stated from the outset that I'll delete anons, that if people want to debate, and not merely be nasty for the sake of it, I'm delighted to debate my take on writing, creative-writing, the teaching of creatiive writing, the Boot Camp ethos and so on.

My writing stands up. My teaching stand up.

I'm proud of the achievements of Boot Campers and ex Boot Campers. Another exBCer won a very nice national prize yesterday.

So healthy debate is fine. I love it.

But the vast majority of "Anons" have a reason to remain anonymous. They are cowardly, destructive and are not interested in debate. They are interested in wars and carnage.

Anyone can apply to be part of this blog and post to it. But then we have a name and if they become destructive I can remove them. In Boot Camp we simply will not have flames. We talk craft impersonally, objectively and we do not tolerate anyone or anything who does not believe in that.

If they want vitirol there are places where that can be got for 10p a pound. If they want recipes and cuddles and gargantuan praise for getting a flash into an appalling zine run by someone on the same list, there are plenty of places like that too.

But HERE? This is MY territory.

Any unbiased reader can see our results, read the articles, flashes, shorts, hear about the prizes. No anonymous tosser is going to mess with that.

I recently set the board to moderated comments because I was spending too much time deleting idiots. Yesterday I mentioned that since then there had not been a single anonymous comment.

Today there was one from "Zoe" saying only that one of the anonymous comments (unspecified) was hers (or his). Perhaps that comment was an innocent one, but how would I know? And was "Zoe" traceable? Nope.


I have now heard by email.

The Devil Works For BT

No school run today (he thinks Hooray!) so instead a BT engineer calls...

Did this happen to Shakespeare?

Nedder Mine. Another flash completed.

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09
05,185 Words May 18 (Long Article)
00.449 Words May 19 (Flash)
00,000 Words May 20 (Satisfied Rest Day!)
02,150 Words May 21 (Story)
01,216 Words May 22 (Flash)

34,300 Words Total 12,300 Words ahead of schedule

04,300 Words beyond monthly target

I need to be ahead because I know I have a very difficult five weeks coming up. Really I should call it a target of 6) by the end of June, 25,700 to go (but that would make me miserable).

Tuesday's Prompts

A bunch of horsemen asked his name
A catastrophic kiss
A drum taps
A week without a moon
All catches alight
and again by the Saturday boat.
and boarding in rooms.
and I have calculated that absolutely nothing would be saved
as it may become very difficult and precarious
At present I am particularly concerned
by sub-letting the flat (furnished)
For the heart to be loveless
for the Wednesday boat
from America to England.
I am sick for want of sleep
I have ordered a night off stars
I shall write this letter now
I should like, if it were possible,
I think if you can spare the money.
I was never bewitched in adolescence
I wrote to ask you last week
In the field two horses
In view of the present circumstances
It would be a safeguard,
Kick up the fire, let the flames break loose
Let the wheel spin out
to have a year's rent now,
Let us kiss, then
over possible interruption of the mails.
See a girl dragged by the wrists
Supposing that we ran short
The blood unfurls itself
to send any communication
The details of his own defeat and murder
The moon is full tonight
The rent has got to be paid, anyhow
This miracle of glass
whether you could send six months rent.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Friday's primaries Roundup

7 stories, one withdrawn early (4 crits)

6 stories required 48 crits.

51 crits received by 23:00 Monday (one hour to go)

182 Discussion posts (26 posts per story average)

Whatever Happened to Anon?

I miss anon.

Strange how, when we insist on a traceable email address, or moderation, anon disappears.

Why is that, I wonder?


Lack of credentials?

Asylum has cut web access?




I was looking for something else and stumbled on this.

I make no great claims for it.

I'm not a poet and I am still trying to understand how a poem works. But this one I like.


Tell me the truth about sex, Jackie,
Tell me
the truth
about sex, tell me Jackie, the truth
about me, and sex, about me and sex
Jackie, the truth.

You've told me facts,
you've done it all,
three in a bed, you, another girl, a guy,
you, two guys,
but tell me the truth about sex, Jackie,
not facts.

I can't tell you truths,
I know no truths
I think it's true, I know
but what I know are facts
my mistakes are always one at a time.

I can talk about truths and think
about true things
(not including being true)
to you
but truths from me, they're facts
and it's the truth I need
so tell me the truth about sex, Jackie.

Over the Borders

Interesting exercise this morning.

I'm having to read some Brecht, so I thought I'd drop off at Borders after the school run, take a browse.

But I arrived at 08:40 with twenty minutes to wait. I had my lap-top with me, and the morning prompts printed out so I started a story. Borders opened 18 minutes later. I went in, found a few bits and pieces on Brcht, bought them, the went upstairs to Starbucks, got a latte and then continued.

I finished the story (2150 words) went downstairs again, asking about a book I'd heard about on the radio (no joy) then went out to the car in time for the ten o'clock news.

So I wrote for pretty much exactly an hour, no email pings, now web, and managed 2,150 words. That's a short novel in a working week! Food for thought?

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09
05,185 Words May 18 (Long Article)
00.449 Words May 19 (Flash)
00,000 Words May 20 (Satisfied Rest Day!)
02,150 Words May 21 (Story)

33,084 Words Total 12,084 Words ahead of schedule

03,084 Words beyond monthly target

PS, it might be argued that these are just words (ie crap) and will not sell. Time will prove that not to be the case.

Just remember this list and we shall see.

Adjectives & Modifiers
Fucking Adverbs
More Stats on Openers
Under the Ribs
Mining Love
Her Red Dress
This is My Daughter
A Brother Hanged (not the actual title)
Broken Shadow
The Road Below
Formerly Known as Prince
As She Walked Home
Brighton, December
John Mole
Drowned (not the actual title)
Before the Closure
Evan's Leaving
Am I Ready Yet?
School Dinners
A Moorhen
The Early Retirment of (not the actual title)
Museum (not the actual title)
The Wall (not the actual title)
Sliding (not the actual title)

Where I haven't given the actual title it's because the exact title would give away the identity of the writer in a comp (or in Boot Camp). I expect to place at least 80% of the above.

Monday 21st Flash Prompts

Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks hares and pheasants


And the widening river's presence

A glove, unnoticed, on a floor

And residents from raw estates

Dark suit, white collar

Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers

The curative qualities of nothingness

From the window, a strip of an allotment

A Fiddler in the Street, a Man With a Guitar

His clothes hang on the back of the door

Home is so sad.

He liked a lot of gravy

I sometimes walk my alligator, around the park, it's always empty

This is how it ends, sliding quietly

The Cemetery Song

There is never, quite, nothing

The words escape the book, fly like bees

Devoutly Drenched and Thinking of Jesus

I was late getting away

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Sunday Prompts

"What on earth..?" Sister Irene looked up when she heard cheery whistling and heavy footseps on a metal ladder.

The English couple had checked out of the room that morning, so Anna was due to give it a thorough clean and change the linen.

The squeaking infiltrated my dreams and, when I opened my eyes and glanced at the bedroom clock, I saw it was four a.m.

There as no one who could quite match up to our mother. She was tall and blonde and wore polja-dot dresses with full-circle skirts.Carol McClatchie lifted the lid on her tub of face cream then let out a scream. A fly lay writihing on its back, legs flailing in the air.

"Hi there. D'you mind if I put my piano outside your shop?"

There were dog hairs on the cheese. I smile as I remember.

Penny dug her spoon into her desert, watching as chocolate cream oozed over a delicious mixture of nuts and sponge, and thought that she'd never felt less like eating chocolate in her life.

As Pam turned onto the M11 she forced herself to concentrate on the drive ahead.

She skips in front of me, carefree, happy, just as a five year old should be.

Peggie bit her lip in irritation as Sam leaned forward to turn up the sound of the television.

Matthew knew something was wrong as soon as he walked into the kitchen. Usually there were signs of activity - music playing, a pot simmering on e stove, the table laid for supper.

Sarah regretted slamming the front door as soon as she was through it, but she knew she couldn't go back. An ultimatum was an ultimatum, after all.

Jamie lay beneath the plum tree and watched Sally through half-closed eyes.

Valentine's Day will soon be over, thought Maria. It had always been her dream to run a successful restaurant and, by the looks of things, her dream was coming true, right before her eyes.

I can do this. I know I can. So why does that insistent little voice in my head keep nagging away at me?

I don't think of myself as old at all, but it's funny how time catches up with you, so that you find yourself saying, "When I was a girl," in an ironic way and the twenty-somethings you work with nod seriously, instead of smiling at the joke.

At half past nine on Monday morning, Jack gathered up the Sunday papers and headed for the potting shed. He loved Mondays.


Openings from Woman's Weekly Fiction Special Issue 50 (£1:75) which I thoroughly recommend you all go out and buy

Primaries Update

10 AM Sunday (36 Hours)

007 Storieswere originally posted

002 Stories cleared from Primaries

005 Stories to be cleared

039 Critiques

124 Critique-Posts and two HOT threads!

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Not Stopped Yet!

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09
05,185 Words May 18 (Long Article)
00.449 Words May 19 (Flash)

30,934 Words Total 11,934 Words ahead of schedule

00,934 Words beyond monthly target


I was watching as my father shovelled snow, watching my mother as she, in turn watched him, her face, the cruellest lips, blue in their tightness, the eyes fixed, but he would do it.

I saw them, beleaguered, padlocked, married. Saw them up through the weight of infliction, their horrendous mutual flagellation, such good Catholics, together until a death did them asunder. By Father Maloney's Glass Eye, or she would swing!

My father shovels snow and would shovel snow forever. I think about the shovelling, think that the third oldest profession is shovelling shit.

For we do never covet. Not my neighbour's wife, not her breasts, not her warm tongue, for Thine is and this fucking isn't, and though shalt shovel.

I try to imagine her, that neighbour. She does not even bother to undress properly, they do not, instead released in a glory of wanting, human rather than machine they rage into each other but it is pure love. They seem so pleased with themselves over there. He is shovelling but I am hard with the thrill of my father's pleasure when he stops, brings a hand to his head, collapses. And I notice the pause in my mother, the satisfaction, before, the wife, she reacts: "Your father!" A heart attack. It was the first gift he ever gave her.

Afterwards, after the hole dug through the frozen earth, after the dark fell and there was never, I left. I walked in the cold, a filthy cold, found a café and sat with a cup of hot soup, steam on the windows, a faint smell of rancid margarine somewhere.

Behind the counter, she was pretty, working for her father. Her name-tag said Juliet and when I spoke to her she laughed and mentioned balconies, but no Romeo. I must have said something for she said, "Julie's on the balcony, Romeo's gone clubbing," but I understood her smile. She did not know it, but she was thinking of shovels.

My mother, widow, will design isolated beaches for men to lie in the sun for fifteen minutes, fully-dressed in city suits and bowlers. As a special concession they may put down their umbrellas and close their eyes.

The husband negotiates love routines with a wielded Black & Decker. Inside he is a primitive but he has forgotten that some trees echo of forests, and the silent valleys ache with ancients walking. They walk in him.

Here a husband puts up shelves, but there he cracks, hisses, spins and jumps, drills into a skull. Now I am cold again. I sit on this ledge, people who were me pass underneath. Julie is on her balcony waiting. I am not coming.

449 Words

Saturday Morning Prompts

And then the dark fell and there was never

It was the first gift he ever gave her

She does not even bother to undress properly

They seem so pleased with themselves over there


My neighbour's wife, her breasts, her warm tongue

Some trees echo of forests

Valleys ache with ancients walking

The suit beach, better than nudists

A cup of hot soup, oxtail, tomato, steam on the windows

I sit on this ledge, people who were me pass underneath

Beleaguer, padlocked, married

Julie's on the balcony, Romeo's gone clubbing

The third oldest profession is shovelling shit

Love routines with a Black & Decker

Me and my hoods

Now he hisses, spins and jumps

Father Maloney's Glass eye

I was watching as my father shovelled snow

Five More Hits!

Four articles accepted for The Internet Writers Journal

One third place for Fleur, Charnwood Arts

23 hits in 19 days in May

Taking total to 87 Hits for the Year, $3,433

This Weekend's Primary Stories

Seven in, by 10PM Friday two cleared already

The others 3-3-2-2-1 crits each (12 Hours)

Friday, 18 May 2007

Monthly Target Achieved

I wanted to hit my word-count targets by Wednesday 23rd...

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09
05,185 Words May 18 (Long Article)

30,485 Words Total 12,485 Words ahead of schedule

00,485 Words beyond monthly target

Turned Out a Nice Day!

A little hit for me (always welcome) and $25 but followed by two more reported hits and another $25

Our tiny band of hard-workers have had 18 hits in May, an average of 1 per day

83 for the year $3,393 in payments.


065 RVJ HR'd at JBWB
066 Joel in Shimmer
067 Cally HR'd in Twisted Tongue Comp
068 Joel at Smokebox
069 MJH places at Thieves Jargon
070 Jason Jackson in Leaf Anthology (1)
071 Jason Jackson in Leaf Anthology (2)
072 Claire in Secret Attic
073 Alex Poem in Poetry Monthly, June
074 Caroline wins Blaenau Gwent ($170)
075 Lexie poem in Poetry Monthly June
076 Alex's Tomatoes in Espresso Fiction ($30)
077 Alex's Zombies in Espresso Fiction ($30)
078 Cally story at Word Riot
079 Caroline in June Poetry Monthly
080 DMW gets a story int June Flashquake ($25)
081 Caroline had HR at JBWB Spring (overlooked)
082 Soccer, Cake for RVJ in Flashquake ($25)

Boot Camp Publications 2007

Three more (Word Riot and two in the H E Bates Anthology)

takes us to 41 for the year

Interesting that the print proportion is much much higher

Thus year to date

21 Web
20 Print

Thursday, 17 May 2007


Too Many Dead Poets, Not Enough Wine


I am as silent as a sign


When I woke up, my house was in a cloud

The Fanny-Fart Symphony

Sometimes I think I see you

Once I saw a golden retriever that looked at me sadly. I thought, you?

Major Minor and his Aide Corporal Punishment

Snow, slowly rising, whispering

I love her like an old coat

The sky is late today, grieving

When I grow up I would like to be alive

No wonder he left the kitchen drawer ajar

Look at me now mother, your awkward lump

First rehearse the easy things

Three Flash Sessions Tonight. JHere's Number One

Pairs in Black & White

A potato

Dark, and the lights are out in all the houses


We will know where they are by the absence of trees


Rain washed over her body in the empty street

Message to the dying

For comfort on bad nights, a map of Middle England

I am not scared of scissors

in a bright hospital you offered your death to me

Something about hay, and summer

I am pushing stones

Marriage is a black pot on a stove

I can balance like this for hours, and whistle

Don't get struck by lightning

How do I get there from here?

Each morning the tyranny of the blank screen assaults me anew. I imagined it would get easier to write, the more of it I did, but the opposite seems true. And then I read that a woman who has produced a hundred and sixteen novels and twelve thousand short story collections has to ‘relearn’ how to write every single day. This is terrifying news. If it’s this hard now, after just a couple of years, what chance do I have after ten, twenty years? How can I avoid being anything more (and probably a lot less) than a sentient jelly?

There are some techniques I use to slap my muse to life each day, sometimes a strong coffee will do it, other times a certain song, loud on my headphones. Occasionally it’s a poem or short story, but often, as soon as I start to read something, the thought of trying to produce something myself flaps out of the window and away up the hill.

I have tried writing on a series of topics over several days, in order to have something guaranteed to write about the next day. The most successful of these was my ‘country’ series where I wrote down everything I knew about particular countries, whether because I had visited them, or because I had never been there and wanted to find out what I could make up. My ‘food’ series was not bad (the crayfish entry was memorable); my ‘building’ series, however, was largely a waste of time. I discovered I know next to nothing about architectural features. But in every case I found myself ground down after a while, it felt too much like routine.

I have tried writing a novel (without having an idea for a novel); I've tried daily flashes; I've tried John Gardner’s writing exercises; I've tried automatic writing; I even went through a phase of forcing myself to think of an opening sentence in the time it took me to brush my teeth, with predictable consequences which my dentist was delighted about – still I’m here, today, unable to think of a single goddam thing to write about, filling my notebooks with yet more what-shall-I-write-about-today verbiage. Garbage. Verbigarbage.

Every single day I go through this vaguely psychotic process. Part of the problem is, I have no idea what I’m working towards. There are no signs of progress, no one saying, you’re on the right track, just keep going like that and you’ll get there.

In any case I’ve decided today: enough is enough. Once and for all, I am going to find a foolproof way to get myself into writing mode each morning, some technique to wake up the writer part of me long enough to produce something, even – especially – when I’m not in the mood to write. No more ‘what shall I write today?’ entries in my notebook.

This might have to be quite drastic. It doesn’t matter. Desperate times and all that. There must be some infallible way to access that weird floaty mood I’m in after a strong coffee or a pint of beer, or after reading something striking or hearing some good music, that mood when I can actually write and not care about what I’m writing.

The trouble is (more analysis! shut up already!) I’m a slightly different person each morning so I don’t know what is going to inspire me that day. I have witnessed this phenomenon in my five-month-old daughter, who by all accounts has pretty similar days and nights – naps and meals at certain times, the same songs, the same books and stories, the same toys – and yet one morning she'll wake up with the joys of the season running through her veins, and the next will be as grumpy as a February afternoon on a disused pier in Norway. As Jonathan Franzen put it:

"He had good days and bad days. It was as if when he lay in bed for a night certain humors pooled in the right or wrong places, like marinade around a flank steak, and in the morning his nerve endings either had enough of what they needed or did not; as if his mental clarity might depend on something as simple as whether he’s lain on his side or on his back the night before, or as if, more disturbingly, he were a damaged transistor radio which after a vigorous shaking might function loud and clear or spew nothing but static laced with unconnected phrases, the odd strain of music."

That sounds about right. As if, not only will a piece of art move one person and leave another completely cold, but also, a piece of art may move a person on one day, and leave that same person completely cold on another. Which suggests that we are different people every day. This is doing terrible things to my sense of identity. Maybe I should change my name each morning? It makes me think of that most absurd and meaningless of questions, where are you from? Somerset, I say. As if that tells them anything at all. What a random fact to know about a person. Where am I from? I’ll tell you where I’m from: a slightly fitful night where I dreamed of canoeing to the North Pole in hiking gear with my Dad and then I woke up with pins and needles in my left foot. Hey, come back here, I was talking to you, you in the hat and the striped scarf, running up that hill, little stick man you are, little Irish stick man it sounds like, I’m going to run after you to find out where the hell you hide at night, breaking my radio, sowing my dreams with images of walking boots - you can leap over that 1000-mile-wide ravine if you like but you can’t hide forever, you little leprechaun stickman with electricity hair, I’m going to catch hold of you and tie you up in my office and feed you prawns until you squeal your secrets...

Right then. How the hell did I get here from there?

Another Brilliant Day

I must be due a slump but I'm grabbing this while I can!

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)
02,410 Words May 17 (Story, Poems) 13:09

25,300 Words Total 8,300 Words ahead of schedule

Thursday Prompts

It started near the primary school

I said to the Mrs, "That's bloody odd."

I have bought an iceberg

The policewoman who told me you had died was very pretty

One of my children asked me who I was

In a past life I was a boring fucker

When making love to a chicken you have to watch out for eggs

My chess board has all black squares, yours white

A Page Four Girl

This having to pay to die, what if you're broke?

I buy ladies' earrings and throw odd ones in corners, knickers under the bed

King in the Land of the Last Biscuit


Eleven bar blues

Jeffrey Archer's Hooker? I ad 'er…

Three soft-boiled eggs? The last one's always hard.

Wife-Printed Toilet-Paper

Moi, the Unthinking Man's crumpet

Jerry Mander, Builder

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Woooooo Hooooo!

a 5,000 word Day!

01,375 Words May 01 Tuesday
01,023 Words May 02 Wednesday (Flash & Poem)
01,157 Words May 03 Thursday (Long Poem etc)
01,052 Words May 04 Friday
01,000 Words May 04 Friday (EDIT, article drafted 15:49)
00,600 Words May 05-06 (Two Poems)
02,621 Words May 08 (Article)
00,738 Words May 08 (Flash)
00,988 Words May 09 (Flash)
01,227 Words May 10 (Story)
01,736 Words May 12 (Article and Poem)
01,583 Words May 13 (Article)
01,900 Words May 14 (Article & Flash)
00,890 Words May 15 (Flash)
05,000 Words May 16 (Long Story and Article)

22,890 Words Total 6,890 Words ahead of schedule

Something Different

There are about eighty prompts for me to post tonight (for up to four sessions).

Here's the idea


Choose 3/4/5 numbers between 1 and 164.

Do this 1-2-3-4 times depending on how many sessions you are going to do.

Cut and paste ALL the prompts to a Word file and then select Format-Document-Layout and Line Number-Continuous (not per page) so all the lines now have a number.

Now read ALL the prompts but you must use one of your selected numbers (and others as you fancy)

Spend at least five minutes "living with" the prompts. read them top to bottom, bottom to top, paly around, combine etc


A black dog

A drizzle glazes the museum entrance

A surprised wreck, a sad sinking

And when each man has given up chasing flies

Angel A

At the end of this sentence, rain will begin


Bless This House, brass

Can it be right to give what I give?

Chestnuts on a shovel

Cold Iron Rail

Days of Wine & Roses

Each family will pay one thousand dollars

Faint photographs, lives history

Five Old men

For a second I looked back into the city, down through the smoke.

Go From Me

Granted, you are dying, but

He – for there could be no doubt about his sex

He gives his daughter shells

He sat on a cold bench, trying to be younger

He was quietly American, not so much a pig

Her voice had the gutturals of machine-guns

His body was as thin as a reflection

Hotel Unthinking

I am a snake, slowly shedding my life

I am burned black by a million sins and sun

I am not me. I do not close this door

I found my pity, beneath some books

I heard them marching the leaf-wet roads of my head

I lift my heavy heart up

I reads once that all revolutions start small

I thought once, how he had sung of the sweet years

I was smoking my pipe

If I lay here dead?

If you were here, wishing, lying on these sheets

In those first years

It is spring, moonless night in the small town

It's possible that Hell is a suburb of Cairo

Oh my love. Yes. Here we sit.

One day I awoke, a yellow star grown on my breast


Passing by my wife's car

President George Brown

Punctually at six o'clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue

She never gave a lock of hair away

She was as beautiful as stone in the sunrise

Silk, umbrellas, avarice beyond

Smelling Almond Polish

Something primal

Tanner Hop

The Bella Archipelago

The big guy wasn't any of my business

The biggest TV in the World

The clouds lifted slowly from the ridge of the mountains and the dawn rim appeared.

The fierce full moon

The letter came just before noon, special delivery.

The maid brings me a lamp

The Malpases had moved in the day before

The melancholy of Sunday

The Merrimac River, broad and placid flows down to it.

The priest, barely glancing at the two penitents

The Problem With Jack Harvey

Then all the nations

There was a black car following.

This fucking driver is getting on my tits.

Three Ducks in the hallway

To begin at the beginning

Town & City

Trees air-brushed, leaves added

Video night last Monday.

We are only ever one step from the gutter

We were sitting in a room at the Berglund.

When the heart creaks like cottage-wood

Where are your monuments, battles, martyrs?

Winter branches

With two double bourbons in him, he sat in the final departures lounge at Miami

Airport and thought about life and death.

I have been in love twice. I have married four times. I do not know how to make these things coincide

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods

The naked man who lay splashed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Under the Ribs

I read an easy-to-read "small" poet-published poem in Boot Camp this morning and posted a reply. It's OK but if this was a story it would be TMAWIA . It's one totally accessible, instant, obvious observation and question. I mean how long does it make us think? We have it and have forgotten it in five seconds.

But then I realised that there are many stories where something like this happens. (It's slightly longer-timed in the story but that's a word-count thing more than anything else.)

They get in, get out, and barely create dust. A week later you cannot remember the plot, theme, character, but more importantly, the emotions, the weight, the smell have disappeared.

But my reaction to the poem is whispering something to me, something like my "napalm" idea but not quite the same.

This: when you want to convey into the reader a certain set of emotions, it is not only the semantic content you have to think about, but the musicality, tone, pace, pacing etc. Part of the reader is hypnotised.

Some musics stick, get under, start to burn, some just bounce off.

Worse (and this is only a partly-formed idea right now) some use a cheap trick to get, not under the skin at all, but into some cheap hotel in the head where all the responses are well-known and we are too lazy to walk out in the rain, get wet, risk getting mugged, because across the street is a place that's alive-alive-alive and the Devil drops in on Thursdays.

What I will say next, may or may not be connected to my thoughts above (but that's the point really, should all connections always be the perfectly crisp, neatly-packaged ones that don't unhinge us?)

Yesterday, scouring second-hand bookshops for biographical stuff on T S Eliot (and when I quote him I might be able to show how some lines go straight up under the ribs) I picked up, for a throw-away pound, the stories of Sean O'Faolain. In the foreword to his collection he says:

"I must, if only in my defence, tell the reader of this volume that it opens with three stories from my first collection, Midsummer Night Madness and that although I have chosen them because I like them very much they contain things that make me smile today – and yet I have been unwilling to rewrite them. I should like to explain why.

They belong to a period, my twenties. They are very "romantic" as their weighted style shows. I should have to change my nature if I were to [rewrite and] change the style, which is full of romantic words, such as dawn, dew, onwards, youth, world, adamant or dusk; of metaphors and abstractions; of personalisations and sensations which belong to the author rather than to the characters.

They also contain many of those romantic words "and" and "but", which are words that are part of the attempt to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given. Writers who put down the essential thing, without any cocoon about it, do not need those "ands" and "buts". The thing is given and there it lies; whereas the writer who luxuriates goes on with the echoes of his first image or idea.

His emotions and thoughts dilate, the style dilates with them, and in the end he is trying to write a kind of verbal music to convey feelings that the mere sense of the words cannot give. He is chasing the inexpressible. He is interested mainly in his own devouring daemon. He is, as I was in my twenties, drowned in himself.

French writers, on the other hand, often spoil their stories by adding too much analysis in their obsessive pursuit of clarity at all costs.

Hemingway is the real man. He writes short sentences because with his genius for seizing on the essential he can also seize on the simple image to convey what he wants to say. If we sometimes think that he is saying something obvious that may well be because only a man of genius can see and say what, once he has seen and said it, we flatter him by thinking of as obvious."


I'm not sure if I needed to drift into discussing Hemingway but it seemed polite to allow Mr O'Faolain to finish his page! From here on I'm on unsteady ground, trying to write an article while at the same time, trying, for myself, to articulate what I'm feeling. I'm well aware that I could write the article, "discover" and then edit it to death until it actually looks like I'm expert and always was. In fact I was expert before I was born.

This is a complex thing. It's to do with many things and they are not all concrete; language, pace, pacing, the removal of the author, obliqueness, appeal to memory and myth, allusion, language again, tone, voice, the colour of words, rhythm (as emphases, rise and fall, musicality, tone) all these things can combine to direct the story "underneath and inside."

We have all heard the person who cannot tell a joke well. It's not the joke, it's the way yer tell 'em. So we know the delivery is part of the meaning.

A good poet is a good poet, a great slam-poet is a performer. Many poets and writers cannot read their own work well, some are brilliant speakers and enrich the poem beyond what we can see on the page. I think it was Eliot who on hearing Yeats read a poem said to fully understand them, to completely feel, you needed to be Irish, speak as an Irishman, know and feel Ireland's history. I've probably made that up, but I don't care.

If I write, "Married and not even pregnant, there's posh for you!" that is so Welsh I can see red shirts at The Arms Park, miners clopping home along black streets, wives with arms folded standing in doorways. For all I know that might have originated in London's East End, or in Newcastle or might have been invented on the stage, but my reality is I hear it from my mother's mouth and the voice, the lilt, the wry commentary open up all my Welshness, the different sensibilities of a South Walian and alter my experience.

This is even wilder, crazier, when I remind myself my mother was Irish!

I think most writers understand the nature of the woman's magazine story, the "womag" story. As an email correspondent wrote; "They are trilling, shallow, meaningless. They avoid the uncomfortable core of human existence and even when "an issue" is raised it is dealt with in a blink of an eye, simplistic, no ripples, no complexity, no doubt."

Now look at the phrasings of some womag stories.

Things were different for Jimmy at Grandma and Grandpa's house.

It all started when a job came up at the local school.

I finally found a recipe I could understand.

She was worried that he wasn't settling in to school as he should.

"This looks like a nice little pub," said Fred.

What is missing here? Why do we instantly know that the piece will be lightweight, that nothing will hurt? Note how the words are from the first 300-400 words of the average vocabulary, the phrases are simplistic and/or clichés, that nothing remotely surprises or challenges. Nothing gets "fired off by connection" here, there's no sense of place, no colour in the expression. It's ersatz, terribly bland.

Could this ever get under the skin and move someone? Ummmm…

We just know the moment we look at lines like these that nothing of importance could ever follow. It's mindless. Trivial.

I'm trying to explore the idea that when we watch TV, or see a film, or read a book, or read a short-story or a poem we either open up in a real, slightly-dangerous, exposed way (inside us there are many mansions) or we simply deal with the piece like that cheap hotel. We know all the tricks, every push-button, chuck it here, oh right, got that.

The cheap hotel has been tarted up lately. Next to the womag ballroom, and The Mills & Boon Lounge there's the chick-lit bar. What matters here in the land of no challenges, the place where the biggest surprise you'll get is that oh-so-recognisable twist at the end is that everything is safe and you will never have to think.

Clichés and stereotypes, stock characters, stock scenes, obvious dilemmas stand in the doorway of the cheap hotel. You don't even need to go all the way in! At least there's Horlicks and Seroxat, pillows...

Am I wickedly cruel to include chick-lit with womag? After all there's no questioning the writers show more skill, greater variety. Yeah, maybe. I could vomit reading some womag stuff and the best of chicklit isn't that bad. We rarely get "scared Johnny" on his first day at school who turns out to be the headmaster!

To be fair my correspondent did say Chick-Lit was Layer 2, but she also said: Sex and Shopping and nothing else. It's mechanical, obvious and clichés door-to-door.

But I'm not here to give you that. The content is not really my point (well it is but we are talking about delivery.) Again it's the mechanical nature, the fact that you can cut and paste language from different authors and it's seamless, almost impossible to spot. Though I'll admit this fiction at its worse is better than womag (and at it's rare best shouldn't be lumped in the chicklit bucket at all) the vast majority of it still abounds with stock phrasing and the language never surprises. It's de-languaged to the point of banality, triviality. Even if there is a decent story somewhere in there, the story stands alone, set aside from the delivery. The delivery is THE STANDARD delivery for "all chick-lit. The language doesn't matter.

We get more of the obvious lines, lines that do almost nothing, lines that are "chat" writing, stuff we hear in the office. She beamed. "You're a love." "While I washed the dishes." "She raised her eyebrows but said nothing." "Dave went to the back door for a cigarette." "I've had ironing up to my eyeballs." "I ached to phone him."

Are there "OK" stories? Sometimes. But everything, or almost everything is so superficial. "Upset" is throwing myself on the bed and beating the pillow and screaming bastard. And of course it's just upset, not grieving or suicidal, or frightened, or really worried. Do you think she's already read the last few pages and she knows Prince Harry is there?

My problem with all this sort of fiction is its glibness, its triviality, it's quick-fix nature (but that's not the point) and the fact that the language also gives off the boy-band, girl-band, washing-up advert level of language. There's no variety, no charm, no individualism in the diction. The next word is always the obvious word and probably a cliché.

In poetry too we start out with (though I shouldn't say "poetry") the verses inside birthday cards and then the glib dum-dee-dum awful rhymed stuff we see in certain quarters. We can dismiss that but above this level there are published poems such as the one that triggered this article where they're "OK" but are simplistic, relying on a neat closing couplet (the equivalent of a twist-ending) say, a neat expression for loneliness but the journey there is nothing more than thinking, OK, but your point is? And then we get the point and go, Oh, yeah, I suppose…

But if I read Eliot:

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon

I feel things, all the foggy things ever, all the smoky things, all my Decembers, everything. Something here reaches into me straight away.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Sure I see the obvious, remember dads and Granddads on Barry Island beach, blokes with knotted hankies on their heads (do they still do that now?) and all those Barry or Porthcawl outings, sand and fish and chips, but I also feel an ache, some old bloke, just feeling it savouring the experience of age.

The difference is these lines are three-dimensional, they can contain as many meaning as we want them to.

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways

Same thing. I love the language, the difference, the surprise in the words but what they illustrate isn't singular, it sets off thoughts, links, memories

It isn't "cheap-and-cheerful" writing I despise, it's its homogeneity, the way "writers" prostitute themselves, fall into line, go with the flow and take out every last vestige of originality of thought just to be published.

This is from a novel-in-progress called The Bella Archipelago. The guys have invented a writing machine:

Maybe this gets close to what I see as the problem.

We were half-way through our second tumbler when I asked Jeremy what could IMARITA do with other texts. Could it work on stuff already in print? How would it deal with his namesake's work, for instance?
"What d'you have?" Jeremy said, so I leaned over, closed my eyes, did a lucky dip off my bookcase, and came up with Germinal.
"Try Zola," I said. "I'll read it out to you."
Jeremy grinned and began typing.

On a pitch-black, starless night, a solitary man was trudging along the main road from Marchiennes to Monstsou, ten kilometres of cobblestones running straight as a die across the bare plain between fields of beet. He could not even make out the black ground in front of him, and it was only the feel of the march wind blowing in great gusts like a storm at sea, but icy cold from sweeping over miles of marshes and bare earth, that gave him a sensation of limitless, flat horizons. There was not a single tree to darken the sky, and the cobbled high road ran on with the straightness of a jetty through the swirling sea of black shadows.

Good old Emil! I'd forgotten the miserable bugger. At the end of that first paragraph I thought maybe I'd read him again.
"What setting?" Jeremy asked.
"What's the range?" I asked back.
"You can have straight-through, no changes, and there are twenty down-grades from there. The first ten take us down to zero, then we have minus settings."
"Try five," I said.
Push. Brzzt, phmmmm.

It was pitch-black as the man walked alone along the road to Monstsou, The icy wind blew across the beet fields and the
stranger bowed his head low towards the cobblestones at his feet.

I could live with that. It wasn't Zola any more, but not criminal.
"Try two?"
Brzzt, phmmmm.
It was a dark and stormy night.

"Minus two?"

There he was out in the dark and miles from town. He couldn't see his hand in front of his face! Oh boy, he'd done it this time!

"Minus Five?"

It was dark and windy as Johnny walked to town. "Oh, what a fool I was!" he thought ruefully. He should have listened to Jenny. "Look before you leap, John Watkins!" she had warned him forebodingly.

For now I'll have to rest my case, But I'm only warming up.