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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Short Story Publication - Dear Violet

At the end of last year I was delighted to be awarded third prize in the Fabula Press Aestas 2015 competition. My story has now been published as part of their winners' anthology and is available to buy online for just £5.99.

'Dear Violet' is a story that came to me when I heard about a postbox that hadn't been emptied for years and started wondering about what kind of letters could've languished in there. I received some fantastic feedback from the judges and it's really been a pleasure working with the editor getting this story ready for publication so thank you to Fabula Press for that. I haven't had chance to read the other stories yet but there are some interesting titles in there and I'm sure it's going to be excellent.

You can buy the anthology from Amazon here.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Book Review: Wild at Heart: A Life by Suzanne Rodriguez

Natalie Clifford Barney was at the centre of decadent Paris in the opening decades of the 20th century. In this biography, Rodriguez examines the life of a controversial woman, famed more for her scandalous affairs with women and her literary salon than her own literary pursuits.

Barney is one of those subjects it's difficult to like. Rodriquez doesn't flinch away from examining her flighty nature and the selfishness that permeates the book is a bit overwhelming at times. However, it's balanced out by her generous acts and determination to help fellow writers in various ways. It creates something of a contradictory human being and that, of course, rings completely true.

Born into a life of privilege, Natalie Clifford Barney defied expectations by refusing to settle down and marry. Instead, she embarked on a series of intense love affairs with women from an early age. She didn't believe in fidelity, though, which caused problems with some of her more important relationships, In truth, it becomes a bit dizzying and her treatment of some of her partners doesn't portray her in a positive light.

It's easier to be impressed by her literary salon and the spasmodic efforts she put in to championing various writers and artists. The names peppered within this book read like a who's-who of the 20th century artistic scene with Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ford Madoz Ford popping up. One of the most laudable of Barney's endeavours was to host nights specifically for celebrating women such as Gertrude Stein and Anna Wickham, one of the first attempts to draw attention to the achievements of women when men were getting most of the glory. The most amusing anecdote in the book comes via the retelling of Barney's single, disastrous meeting with Marcel Proust. It's worth reading just for that.

Barney's lack of application to her own literary talents is frustrating. Editing wasn't something she was interested in, meaning that her potential was never fulfilled. For me, anyway, this was one of the things that annoyed me about her and I was left wondering what could've been if she'd been forced to write to earn her living. However, that would've negated a lot of what made Natalie Clifford Barney who she was.

In the end, Rodriguez manages an intimate yet unflinching portrait of a flawed woman of privilege. The portrayals of American high society and Parisian life are evocative of a lost age and, overall, this is an excellent biography of a woman who, nevertheless, I couldn't bring myself to like.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some Tentative Goals

So, here we are, six weeks into 2016 and I'm finally getting some goals sorted in my head. Things are still bumpy but I'm feeling ever-so-slightly better. At least I've got my motivation back, even if I've accepted that I need to stop pushing myself quite so hard and give in to the frequent necessity to burrow away and hide. Fortunately, I've mastered the art of relaxation. Way back before Christmas I got a new bed and reorganised my room. It's now much more comfortable and devoid of 'proper' work. I sit up there listening to music and watching my water-effect speakers, colouring, reading and writing fan fic. It's a little retreat and I'm building something of a postcard collection on the walls - John Atkinson Grimshaw and Rita Hayworth - brilliant bedfellows.

These are tentative goals centred on a couple of areas of my life that I have control over. As things stand, I have a trickle of money coming in from freelance writing and tutoring work. It's not a lot but enough to cover my meagre expenses and ensure I can still visit Create for my afternoons of writing. I need to work on my long-term plan but, really, thinking along those lines was proving unhelpful so, for the time being, short-term goals are best.

  • 'Max' Fourth Draft - I've had fun and games with this one in the last few months (see here and here) but I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It knows what it's doing and my aim is to finish the fourth draft by the end of February. It's currently at 43,046 words and I've got clear plans for the rest of the draft. It's half-editing and half-rewriting huge chunks but I'm confident I can make a huge dent in that in the next three weeks. 
  • 'Danni' Seventh Draft - I stopped mid-draft last year, having done most of the difficult rewriting but I'd gotten bogged down with the close editing. This one's at 54,342 words and it's reasonable to say I could complete it by the end of March. 
  • Other Novel Drafts - There are nine of these in various stages of rewriting. I listed them comprehensively last July when I was in a better frame of mind and I think the order of priority probably still sticks. If you add in my aborted NaNo project, 'Jess', then that's actually ten and that's a bit scarier. Optimistically, I'd like to work on four of them this year - 'Liz' has a complete plan and needs the second draft completing, 'Izzy' and 'Vic' need the second drafts planning and writing and 'Kathy' is a fragment of a first draft that needs rewriting in first person and completing. We'll see. If I can keep myself in the writing zone then anything's possible.
  • Short Stories - I didn't submit any short stories in the last three months of 2015. I've already taken steps to remedy this and submitted three in January whilst devoting more time to my short story writing, rewriting and editing processes. I've got a little notebook that lists which stories are at what stage - 'Ready', 'Final Touches', 'Line Edits', 'Rewriting in Progress', 'To Rewrite' and 'Unsure'. Currently, I've got four that are ready to submit and three more that are nearly there. It's time to go through my list of magazines and competitions and find some appropriate venues and, if there aren't any right now, they'll pop up eventually. I'm not putting a figure on the number of stories I want to submit or write but I do want the list to be moving. 
  • Academic Work - Now, this is where I'm completely at sea. I'm deliberately not attending conferences this year as I just can't do it and my academic work's stalled somewhat. I've got one half-written paper, plans for several others and I wanted to rewrite and edit two chapters of my thesis to submit to journals. So what happened? Well, my anxiety kicked in. The fact that it's a year ago this week that I submitted my thesis isn't helping, nor is the fact that my certificate arrived in the post this week. I couldn't make it to graduation because of, yep, anxiety so it doesn't really feel as though I've achieved anything. Actually, it feels like a colossal waste of a chunk of my life right now. I have no idea what happens next with my academic work but the frustrating thing is that I still have ideas for papers and the desire to research. I'm a contradiction.

Anyway, with a bit of luck I'll manage to pull at least some of this off. I nabbed myself a cheap gym membership to get me out of the house and filled a playlist full of cheesy pop like Steps, SClub7 and Boyzone to get me through it. About a third of the songs on there are by The Nolans (and, as I'm typing this my iPod's thrown their 'Song Sung Blue' at me from over 8300+ choices) so at least I can have some fun whilst exercising. There's something especially amusing about listening to 'Don't Make Waves' whilst on the rowing machine - or is that just me? 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Book Review: The Complete Package by Ann Roberts

The Complete Package tells the story of Lenny Barclay, mayor of a sleepy Colorado mountain town, who hasn't been able to pick herself up following the death of her partner. Estranged from her son and having let her business go to pieces, nothing seems to touch her any more. When a corporate planner, Sloane, arrives intent on changing the face of the town forever and buying her business, Lenny gets a bit of her bite back, but it turns into far more than a professional battle.

As a romantic read, this one ticks most of the boxes. Lenny and Sloane develop an entirely realistic antagonistic relationship and both are difficult to like at times. There are some genuinely funny moments - for instance, the log incident - and it builds to a satisfying romantic resolution that doesn't dodge the issues of the two characters. Equally, the use of location in this novel is superb. The landscape is integral to both the plot and Lenny's characterisation and it's definitely another character in itself, maybe the most important one. Something else I liked was the twist towards the end, entirely in keeping with Sloane's character.

However, there were aspects of this one I didn't like and they're probably more personal preferences than anything else. I'm not a fan of giving animals viewpoint chapters in the middle of adult novels and those chapters took me out of the narrative a little. Similarly, some of the sex scenes might've been indicative of character but they took time away from other things in the book I found more important.

Ultimately, The Complete Package, is a nice, easy read that deals with universal themes of grief and greed. It might build to a expected conclusion but it's nice getting there. For all the emphasis on Lenny in the narrative, though, it's Sloane who's stuck with me since I finished this book.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

One-In One-Out

Don't you just love it when a writing project develops legs and waddles in a completely different direction to the one you'd carefully plotted out for it?

Back in November, I wrote about the perils of naming a walk-on character in the fourth draft of my current WIP. One of my protagonists had walked into a cafe and started chatting to the owner. It's very unusual for me to actually want to write heterosexual romances into my novel drafts but these two just clicked. So I began hastily thinking about rewriting that protagonist's arc a little bit. Fine. It was going to be tricky but I could do it.

But something else was niggling. My other protagonist becomes embroiled in a fling halfway through the novel that doesn't add much that couldn't be taken on by another character. The more I thought about it, the more I had to concede that my novel was operating a one-in one-out policy of its own accord and I'd be foolish to argue. For all the good reasons it threw at me to bring in Ed, there were correspondingly sound ones to remove Selina.

This character extraction is proving a little trickier. I've been working from a heavily marked-up third draft with notes that are now completely obsolete as I rewrite entire scenes from scratch. To combat that sensation of being adrift, I've created a chapter check list about what needs to be added/removed in each chapter. Once the fourth draft is done some earlier chapters will need ironing out to remove stuff that's now irrelevant. Yet it's all perfectly doable.

The fourth draft's currently at 31,170 words and I'm making slow and steady progress. I'm labouring under the assumption that the novel knows what it's doing. Let's hang onto that for as long as possible, shall we?

And the good news? At least I'm writing again.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Classic Film Review: The Dark Mirror (1946)

The Dark Mirror stars Olivia de Havilland as twins Ruth and Terry Collins. A man is murdered and the woman suspected is Ruth. However, thanks to some complex legal wrangling, neither she nor her twin sister Terry can be convicted of the crime because no one knows which of them did it. Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) is determined to solve the case and asks psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliot (Lew Ayres) to work out whodunnit.

My Olivia de Havilland education is sadly lacking with The Dark Mirror only my third film of hers (see reviews of Government Girl (1943) here and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) here). However, it's not as though I'm unaware of her excellence and maybe her centenary year is the right time to delve further into her career. Certainly, she is the reason why The Dark Mirror is so interesting. The psychological discussions seem a little dated now but the nuances of character that de Havilland brings to both women are excellent. She plays a nice woman and an evil one with such subtlety that, even when you're clued in on what's going on, it's a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. It's not difficult to see how the special effects of de Havilland playing both parts was managed but it doesn't have to be complex, it just has to work, and it does. If you didn't know there was only one actress involved, I doubt you'd be able to guess.

It's an atmospheric film and I'll admit I was getting nervous the closer I got to the end. There's a twist that I was both expecting and hoping for and the reasoning behind the murder comes across as refreshingly human in the end. Ultimately, I was gripped by this one and my tiptoeing into the films of Olivia de Havilland is going well.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Farewell 2015...

You know, every year I seem to write in these posts that things got worse when I thought they couldn't. Guess what? Yeah, same goes.

Quite frankly, I'm a mess and there's no way of fixing me. Thanks to my anxiety, my world has continued to shrink all year until I'm capable of doing very little beyond sitting in this chair. That makes a celebration of 2015 a little redundant and it certainly doesn't bode well for 2016.

So, yes, I finally completed my PhD in 2015 but so what? It's not like I can do anything with it. I can't apply for the jobs I want or volunteer for teaching experience so, essentially, I've wasted my time.

People in my life like to point to the PhD as a sign of success in the same way they talk about the short stories victories I've had this year and the fact that I twice stood for local election. What they don't seem to understand is that it's all pretty irrelevant when you can't build on it. After all, the intention wasn't to get a new certificate to brighten up these four walls.

And what about the writing? Well, back in July I wrote this: But so I can write - so what? That makes no difference to anything, it changes nothing. The things I can't do are weighing down the scales on the other side and I'm not making enough headway with my writing to keep me afloat. So...what? Well, I don't know. It still stands. Writing is one of the only things I've got left but I can barely bring myself to focus any more. The sad thing is, there are all these stories I've written or partly written and I'm the only one who can work out how they should ultimately look but I can't do it. I've been writing primarily for myself for a while now but maybe there just comes a point where happy endings don't come easy. And my characters... Well, they deserve happy endings.

Ultimately, I don't think this is my fault. I tried this year and I pushed myself hard. People who suggest otherwise don't know a thing about it. The things I can't do are the things other people do without thinking and it isn't just vague anxiety stopping me - it's acute and it's debilitating. Faced with that, what do you do?

There won't be a traditional companion piece looking forward to 2016 because I can't write one. However, I do have some positive memories of 2015 before things got quite this bad. Viva day was enjoyable, as were London and York, plus all the afternoons spent with my nieces watching Disney films on repeat. Election night was great and I met some wonderful people this year, both politically and otherwise. Thanks to them, primarily for putting up with a hell of a lot of rubbish when other people wouldn't have bothered. Have a little Carol Burnett from me...