THE BRISTOL SHORT STORY PRIZE – We’ve just had the award ceremony for the Bristol Short Story prize where the winning entrants were announced! The winner was Canadian writer, Brent vanStaalduinen for A Week on the Water, second place was J.R.McConvey, also from Canada, for a wonderful political satire, Between the Pickles. Australian writer, Magdalena McGuire won 3rd prize for her story Birthday Bones, which has a brilliant opening line: ‘It was the day before castration day.’ The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 8, featuring the 3 winning stories, plus the 17 other shortlisted stories, is available to order here.
TEN TIPS FOR CUTTING OUT SUGAR – You know how when you really want some chocolate, or a stack of biscuits, the lifestyle columnists’ advice is to, ‘go for a walk,’ ‘drink a glass of water’ or ‘distract yourself’? Frankly, if you want a piece of chocolate, or maybe the whole bar, that kind of notion just isn’t going to cut it. So I thought I’d share with you my top ten tips for cutting down on eating sugar.
It’s more than a decade since I first started researching sugar for my book, ‘Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World’. I realised back then that I needed to eat less sugar – but it’s an uphill task (‘give it 20 min, then see if you still want that chocolate.’ Er, yes.). What’s going to work longterm is retraining your tastebuds so I’m going to share with you some of the things that worked for me.
SEEDS OF CHANGE – Many of our most beautiful plants have come from far-flung lands, brought to us by intrepid Victorian explorers. It was their dare-devil stories that inspired me to write my third novel, The Naked Name of Love, about a Jesuit priest in pursuit of a rare lily in Outer Mongolia.
But I never considered that many of our most brilliant botanical finds made their way here in the hulls of ships as ballast. Ballast – the mud used to weigh down trading vessels when they docked – was picked up from countries all over the world and then dumped near Bristol’s Floating Harbour. And so we ended up with seeds from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean sprouting here in the south-west. Artist, Maria Thereza Alves, has created a a floral tribute to our city’s trading history: on an old concrete barge floating off Castle Park in the heart of the city, she’s planted seeds that reflect the global routes travelled by Bristol merchants.
WRITING SHORT STORIES – I judged the Bristol Short Story Prize for the second year running. This year there were 2,420 entries from all over the world. My fellow judges – agent, Rowan Lawton, radio producer, Sara Davies and writer, Nikesh Shukla – and I read forty stories and chose the twenty that will feature in the next anthology as well as the winner, second and third place.
And today the short list of those twenty stories we chose has been announced!
All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.
I’ve just got back from a long weekend hiking in the Lake District. We were blessed with amazingly beautiful weather for the start of April and climbed Scafell Pike. Not content with that challenge, we zipped up Scafell…and then had quite a long walk with achey knees down a scree slope to get back to Wast Water.
I love walking – whether it’s up a mountain, round a lake, popping to the shops, or up and down Bristol’s steepest hills. So I was interested to read Mark’s Daily Apple blog on Why These Nine Famous Thinkers Walked So Much. William Wordsworth, who famously climbed many of the hills in the Lakes, used his walks to compose his poems – the act of walking was ‘indivisible’ from the act of writing. Charles Dickens found writing quite difficult and used to walk 20-30 miles a day to get some relief from his work. Soren Kierkegaard deliberately used walking to help him mentally compose paragraphs and think through new ideas. He said:
WHAT I THINK ABOUT WHEN I THINK ABOUT HOLIDAYS … – We’ve just got back from our annual spring holiday in Trelowarren, Cornwall. I love holidays! I believe they’re absolutely crucial for boosting creativity. To be honest, I didn’t once think about the thriller I’m writing at the moment – but I hope I’ll approach it with vim and vigour and some fresh ideas when I get back to working on it. What the holiday allowed me to do – by stepping away from my daily routines, minor stresses and familiar environment – was to give me the space and time to think about the Bigger Picture.
Normally I try and read as many novels as possible when I’m away (although that can feel like work!) but this time I read some non-fiction books. I started off with Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, which is about how to be more productive and happier by changing your habits. I loved it so much, I read Rubin’s first book in this series – The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. So now I have a list of new habits to help me Be More Productive and Have More Fun!
BACK TO WORK – The school term has well and truly started. Instead of buying new pencils and a satchel, I’ve redecorated my office. I’m lucky enough to write at home and have my own room: where you work has an enormous effect on your productivity and creativity.
These days the trend is towards open-plan offices but research shows that they have an adverse impact on your output. It sounds obvious, but the best office is one where you are physically and psychologically comfortable and which functions well for all the tasks you’re assigned. Dr Craig Knight, a psychologist from the University of Exeter, says that designing your own workspace can increase health, happiness and productivity. He adds that plants boost creativity by 45% and productivity by 38%. Fortunately, I love plants!
SARAH HILARY ON HER DEBUT CRIME NOVEL – Sarah Hilary is having a moment, or rather several, rather fantastic moments. Her debut crime novel, Someone Else’s Skin, published by Headline in the UK, and seven other countries worldwide, has been chosen for Richard and Judy’s autumn Book Club. Her second novel in the Detective Inspector Marnie Rome series is due out in spring 2015 and Sarah is currently working on her third and fourth novels.
The Times describes Someone Else’s Skin as:
SUGAR: THE BOOK I WISH HAD CHANGED THE WORLD – There is something sweet and sickly in the air.
It’s ten years since my book on sugar, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, was published. Next week I’ve been asked to open a conference at Bristol University on sugar – covering many of the topics I wrote about, from the evolution of sugar cane through to its effect on our health – although I’m expecting the academics at Bristol, a decade since I researched the subject, to have far more insightful things to say.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE II – If writing dialogue set right now in the real world is difficult, writing historical dialogue is even harder. Surprising as it sounds, you don’t want absolute accuracy. The deeper into the past you go, the less likely it is that anyone living today actually knows how anyone spoke and the chances are, we wouldn’t understand them anyway.
What you do want is readable dialogue that carries information, advances the plot, indicates relationships, conveys character, mood AND is authentic. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set around 1860 on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, where my English protagonist, Emily Harris, has been forced to live by her American husband on a slave plantation. Emily is based on the real life actress, Fanny Kemble, who wrote a diary of her experience on St Simons Island.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE – Walter: Castor beans.
Jesse: So, what are we going to do with them? Are we just gonna grow a magic beanstalk? Huh? Climb it and escape?
Walter: We are going to process them into ricin.
Jesse: Rice ’n Beans?
Walter: Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison.
Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. If you sit in a cafe and transcribe a conversation you’ll see that people don’t talk the way they do in books and films. They are not eloquent, they have accents or dialects, they use slang, jargon; their speech is repetitive, circular, they stick in redundant words like like, you know, I mean; frequently they don’t say what they mean or what they truly want to say. Quite often they’re not listening but waiting for a gap in the conversation to speak or are simply talking over the other person. Equally, you don’t want to write dialogue that’s stilted or reads as if it has been written down, rather than spoken but you do want to capture the essence of how a particular character speaks. It’s tricky! Continue reading
DOES THE TRACY ANDERSON METHOD WORK? – It was 10 am in Brazil and a sweet voice thick with sleep answered. It sounded as if I had woken her up after a hard night and, of course, I had. As Madonna’s personal trainer on the star’s Hard Candy tour, Tracy Anderson had probably had a late one. This was 2008.
Now the trainer is a star in her own right. I was supposed to be interviewing her for The Independent newspaper, but even back then my editor declined because she was too much of a celeb. Shooting to fame after she sculpted Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, she now owns a chain of gyms, has designed a line of workout gear, masterminded a food programme and produced a fitness programme (The Tracy Anderson Method) followed by millions. She’s developed a workout machine, a workout for men, teenagers and pregnant women; there’s a juice line in the pipes, detox weeks, hair salons, wellness shakes; she’s far too busy to actually train celebrities herself. Continue reading
WORKING WITH A FREELANCE EDITOR – I’ve been the fortunate recipient of an Arts Council grant to fund me whilst I write my fifth novel. One of the brilliant aspects of the grant is that I have been able to hire a freelance editor to read the latest draft of my work in progress. I was lucky enough to work with Ali Reynolds, who was an editor at Vintage, Random House, before moving to Bristol and starting up her own company, Arc Editorial, which specialises in freelance editing and mentoring.
You might think there isn’t much need for an editor prior to getting your book published and it is not cheap (although it’s incredibly good value for the amount of time and expertise you receive) – but in my experience, it’s invaluable. I’ve had two 2 book deals with publishers (John Murray and Black Swan) and am now between contracts – so I don’t have the luxury of working with an in-house editor. As Ali says:
GOOD READS 2013 – When I was the TV reviewer for BBC Wildlife magazine, the editor would not let me write a review about a bad programme. It was less than honest and made for duller copy. However, I am taking a leaf out of her book as I’d love you to spend the Christmas period being transported by wonderful books and giving them as gifts to others. Here is my selection of the books I’ve liked best this year.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey has to be the perfect winter present with its hauntingly beautiful descriptions – ‘She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting…’ – and its poignant relationship between Jack, Mabel and the child they believe they have created out of grief and longing and snow.
It’s not done well. In fact, it’s done infrequently and frequently badly. Science in fiction. I’m not talking about non-fiction books dealing with science or science fiction, which has to have, at least, a modicum of science as a given, but science in your common or garden novel.
Science has a lot to offer: we are talking subjects as diverse as environmental destruction,
quantum physics, particle physics, nanotechnology, neurosurgery, psychopathy and molecular gastronomy – all at your disposal as a writer. We are talking of characters who
could be Brian Cox, Robert Winston, Craig Venter or Bill Gates. Maybe even, dare I say it, a female scientist. So you could have scientists as characters, science as a theme, science as the subject of the novel – and this is at a time when science in movies is big business (Another Earth, After Earth, Gravity, Contagion).
YOU THINK IT’S ABOUT SEX … – Review of The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
I hated The Gathering. I could see why it sold a scant handful before it won the Orange Prize. But The Forgotten Waltz is something else: a wonderfully written, acerbically-witty, literary page-turner. It’s a tale of adultery set against the rise and smash of Ireland’s boom period.
‘If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive…The fact that a child was affected meant we had to…follow through.’
The premise is simple, but like a rough-cut gem, it is polished and polished until the conclusion shines, multi-faceted, so sharp you might bleed. Gina Moynihan thinks she is happily married to Conor Shiels, until she meets Sean Vallely.
A MAGICAL MODERN FAIRY TALE – Review of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child is the strange and magical tale of a middle-aged couple who, in 1920, leave their gentrified lives for the wilds of Alaska. Jack and Mabel, grieving for the loss of their stillborn child and unable to bear the gossip about their childlessness, wish to begin anew – perhaps purge and punish themselves – when they settle along the shores of the Wolverine River.
They are neither practical, nor young, nor strong and they struggle. In a rare moment of levity, Mabel and Jack build a snow child in their yard, adorned with a red hat and mittens. In the morning the hat and the mittens and, indeed, the snow child, have disappeared.
CREATING CHARACTERS II – Is your character based on a real person? This was the first question from Richard Beard, director of The National Academy of Writing who chaired The Writers’ Conference, organised by freelance editor, Ali Reynolds and held at the Bristol Festival of Literature last week. Patricia Ferguson, author of The Midwife’s Daughter, and I were discussing characterisation.
My protagonist, Emily Harris in Sugar Island, is based on a real person – the actress Fanny Kemble. This was a bit of a mixed blessing as there was so much information out there already about Fanny, numerous biographies and the diary she wrote, which I used as the basis for Sugar Island. I did change her personality a bit, partly for the purposes of the story and partly because I condensed the action down to a year and a half instead of it taking place over half her lifetime, so Emily remains a young woman throughout the course of the novel. It was a relief when about a third of the way into writing the novel, Fanny finally became Emily, and her husband Pierce, truly became Charles, in my mind.
GO BRISTOL! – We’re on holiday this week. In Bristol. Where, er, we actually live. I’ve been planning on writing about what a great place Bristol is and how everyone should come and hang out here for a bit – so at least I’m following my own advice. For once.
Bristol is a beautiful city, tall, honied stone Georgian houses and candy-coloured terraces, bisected by two rivers with nature-rich pockets, such as The Downs, home to the Bristol whitebeam and the Bristol onion, which are found nowhere else. It’s a city founded on the wealth of the slave trade (part of the inspiration for my non-fiction book, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, and my latest novel, Sugar Island) and is today a contemporary home for world-class grafitti and culture: The Bristol Festival of Ideas runs all year round, my other favourite festivals are The Bristol Festival of Literature, The Affordable Art Fair and Bristol VegFest.
EDITING MY NOVELS – Writer Isabel Costello kindly asked me to write a guest post for her blog, The Literary Sofa. I hope you have a chance to read some of her other posts, all highly informative with some interesting tips.
I had the unfortunate fortune to be barely edited when my first two novels, Theory of Mind and Angel Bird were published by Black Swan. Fortunate, because editing is a painful process, especially when the person who is paying you is pointing out your shortcomings. Unfortunate, because it gave me the misguided impression that writing a novel is all about the writing. As Ernest Hemingway said, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ For your work to shine, you need to write, rewrite and then get some help!