Anatomy Of A Short Story

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During the 2016 Easter holiday I read a news story on the BBC website. They have a sidebar for the most clicked and I often look here for short story inspiration because it usually contains some little-known news item that has piqued the public imagination. On this particular occasion, the story that caught my eye was about fifteen severed feet that had washed up along a stretch of coast in British Columbia, Canada. The details were scant but macabre, the first foot was discovered in 2007 and five more appeared on the same coast over the next year, the gruesome discoveries stopped in 2012 and resumed again in 2016 bringing the total number to fifteen. There was speculation that it was a seafaring serial killer, tying chains around his victim’s feet to throw them overboard, theories ran from alien abduction to human traffickers but there was, at that time, no reasonable explanation.

It had a definite Scandi-noir feeling about it that I knew I wanted to explore. I started to formulate a story from the point of view of one of the people who had found a foot. Initially the main character was a woman who was out jogging on the beach with her dog. As I wrote I realised that there would need to be more to it, the main character would need a personal tragedy which added emotional resonance to the initial shock of discovery, so I imagined a partner lost at sea, there being no body to bury giving the protagonist a feeling of affinity to the severed foot, even convincing herself that the foot belonged to her husband.

I have never been to British Columbia so I played with setting the action in Scotland or Ireland but it didn’t feel right.  I have been to Washington State, spending time at La Push on the Olympic Peninsula, you probably know it as a location for the Twilight books and films, it’s desolate and eerie and a lot of things wash up on the shore. I decided to set my story there, it’s only a few miles south of Vancouver Island and I had photographs and memories of walking on the beaches there which made the descriptions easier to conjure. I’ve never been afraid of writing in an American accent, American culture is so familiar to us now and I’ve visited enough times to find it relatively easy to mimic. (Of course I may well get the odd word wrong but a lot of my work is set in the US and I have beta readers who I can ask about Americanisms.) I think as a rule, if you’re not comfortable don’t do it but if you can it’s good to stretch.

The first draft took a week to write. We were on holiday at my Father-in-law’s in Devon and perhaps the change of scene made the words flow faster. About half way through I realised I wanted the couple to be gay. I decided to make the main character a man mourning the loss of his husband who was a fisherman. I wanted to add another level to the story by normalising the couple and placing them out of a city in a remote area. The moment I decided on this it was like a light turning on. I went back over everything and changed what I needed to but deliberately kept the gender of the narrator ambiguous until near the end when he goes to see the local sheriff and is addressed by name. A lot of readers still think it’s a woman even though the name is very specifically male. I find this interesting in terms of expectation – the implication being that I am a woman therefore I have to write about women. I love writing from a male point of view. I do it often and it is very liberating!

Once the first draft was done I did a lot of research. I looked up every article and news broadcast I could find on the phenomenon, there were interviews with the people who had found the feet and law enforcement officials and hundreds of icky photographs. I discovered that most of the feet were found in running shoes, that the ankle was usually bone and the foot still had flesh – it was gruesome and fascinating and provided rich detail for the second and third drafts.

Sixteen Feet

I was really pleased with it when it was done and began sending it off to journals and competitions. Then came the usual round of rejections. On November 9th – two days before my birthday and the day we knew Donald Trump was the next US President – I got a phone call from The Manchester Fiction Prize telling me I’d been shortlisted. If you don’t know, The Manchester Fiction Prize is a big deal, the winner gets £10,000 for a single short story but just getting on the shortlist of six is a major event for any writer. There was a fancy gala in Manchester, I didn’t win, to be honest I don’t think anyone ever expects to win such things, but I did have a fantastic time, a career ambition had been realised and it gave me a huge confidence boost.

The story was published on a pdf on the prize website but I thought it deserved to reach a wider audience. Over the next few years I submitted it everywhere that accepted previously published stories, I  approached journals in all honesty saying it had been shortlisted and appeared in pdf only. I got absolutely nowhere. When my collection, 15 Minutes, came to be published I tried to shoe-horn the story into it, changing some of the details to fit into the theme of fame but it didn’t feel right so I left it out. Thankfully Sixteen Feet has now been picked up by the wonderful Lakeview International Journal of Literature & Arts and you can read it there for free.  I suppose the purpose of this blog post is simply to say never give up on something you think deserves better, eventually when the tide is right it will wash up on shore.

End note – because of this blog post a story for 15 Minutes is now on For Books’ Sake Weekend Read and you can read it here. That’s two free reads from me this week, if you want to read more please buy the book!

Lakeview

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Asking For A Friend

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“There’s a famous artist who lives in a massive gated mansion on the edge of our town. He’s very rich and hugely successful, in his thirties, never married. He does a lot of charity work. A year ago a friend of mine, a single mother with a seven-year-old boy, met him at a fundraising event. He was judging the art contest. Her son’s favourite subject was art and he’d entered a drawing. She told me the artist, who we’ll call Trevor, was sweet and soft spoken, always smiling; he took a lot of interest in her and her son. Trevor gave her son first prize in the contest. He said he was very talented for one so young, knelt down so he was level with the kid and gave him a big hug. They talked for ages after that and really hit it off Trevor offered to have my friend and her son over to his mansion so the kid could use his art studio.

My friend told me this over coffee, she was so thrilled for her little boy, her eyes shone with delight, and she said the kid couldn’t stop smiling either. I was pleased for her; she’d had a rough time of it lately, separating from her husband and everything. A few weeks later she told me they’d been to Trevor’s house a lot. Trevor let her son use his pool and he had free reign of the art studio, they would often paint together. Trevor said he was just like him as a child, that he was the best friend he wasn’t allowed when he was growing up.

‘You’re just like I was,’ he said. ‘You remind me so much of me at your age.’

A month or so later I  went round to their house and my friend showed me all the letters Trevor had written to her son, hundreds upon hundreds, enough to paper the walls. Bursting with pride, she showed me the easel, brushes and paints Trevor had given her little boy, all top range, far too much for a seven-year old, they must have cost thousands. Then she showed me the new car he’d bought her, a whole bunch of jewelry, a Rolex, some tiny gold and diamond rings made to fit little seven-year old fingers. She told me they both stayed overnight at Trevor’s mansion a lot, that Trevor and her son lay on the bed together and watched Disney films and ate popcorn.

‘They’re so cute together,’ she said.

Once or twice Trevor had asked that her son sleep in the bed with him alone all night. When she refused Trevor had cried.

‘It’s completely innocent,’ he sobbed. ‘There wouldn’t be anything inappropriate. My parents never let me have a childhood, they just made me paint. Your son is the friend I never had. I love him so much; I would never do anything to hurt him – or any child. You know how much I love children. It would just be movies and ice-cream.’

‘What do you think I should do?’ She asked. ‘He’s like a big kid. I think he’s completely asexual.’

I was tempted to call the police there and then, I told her she was nuts and we had a big argument. I didn’t see her again for many months.  A few days ago I bumped into her at the supermarket. She looked incredibly ill, much thinner with dark patches under her eyes as if she’d been worrying constantly about something.  My immediate thought was that Trevor had done something to her son. Over coffee she told me that she had let her only child share a bed with Trevor but I’d been so wrong, nothing bad had happened. Her son had continued to be friends with the artist. He always wanted to stay at the mansion, nagged her to let him whenever they had a break. He wasn’t scared of Trevor at all in fact they’d grown closer, she really did think that Trevor was just a child trapped in an adult body.

‘But, if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look very well, what’s happened to you?’

She told me that her son hadn’t seen Trevor for many weeks, that there was a new boy in his life now. At first Trevor had the two of them over to his house together but eventually the visits and gifts and days out had tailed off and now he never calls.

‘I feel so sorry for my baby,’ she said. ‘He’s so withdrawn and cries himself to sleep at night. I know for a fact that this new boy stays over at the mansion. I’ve seen his mother in town, parking up her new car, her hair done beautifully, a big smile on her face.’

Tears fell from my friend’s cheeks. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she said, ‘my son is so sad it breaks my heart.’

I comforted her as best I could but as soon as I left her I took out my phone and called the police. I mean, what would you have done?”

 

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone! 2018 was a bit of a trial for me, a year of mourning after Mum died on my 50th birthday in November 2017. The first part was a bit of a blur; my memory of it shaky to say the least. They say you sleepwalk through grief just processing what is necessary to get through the days and I think this is what happened to me.

I do know that a book I had invested years in, both in writing and in getting published and marketed, didn’t sell. This was a major disappointment. Fifteen Minutes was shortlisted for two major awards and got some amazing reviews but nobody bought it. There are many possible reasons for this and sometimes it just turns out this way but throughout 2018 I did feel as though my Cinderella had done all the work and had her ticket to the ball only to be turned away at the door by the bouncers. It hurt – a lot – but I’m bored of feeling hard done to now, so onwards and upwards. Even with disappointment comes knowledge, I know what does and doesn’t work in marketing, I know that it’s not always my fault when things don’t happen, I know that I have done my very best.

As we welcome in 2019, I feel like I’m on the brink of new things. A couple of unexpected mentoring

alcohol beach break celebration

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

jobs have come my way and I have applied to a few funding sources to get my new book researched and finished. The Brighton Prize is taking a break so we can dedicate the year to really putting it on the literary comp map. Next year could be very exciting indeed. This book is obviously the one, third time lucky and all that. Wish me luck and here’s to you.

No LGBTQ? No entries.

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I’m almost done reading for the Brighton Prize 2018. I’m one of the judges along with ace author Alison MacLeod and literary agent Sarah Manning. There are 10 stories in each category, short and flash, whittled down from over 600, all anonymously, thanks to Prize Director Alice Cuninghame who had the not insubstantial task of co-ordinating everything. It was made slightly more difficult by people not telling us the stories they had submitted had been shortlisted elsewhere but this is a minor quibble. We are writers too so we know how difficult it can be to wait for news of submissions but if you are entering a writing competition please read the rules to save yourself, and the organisers, time and money.

I must say I am impressed by the standard of stories so far, there are a couple that are utterly brilliant and I’m looking forward to discussing who should win at the judges meeting later this month. It’s always interesting to see who favours what. I’ve been doing this for four years now and sometimes arriving at the winners is easy because there is a clear favourite from the off and sometimes it takes hours of discussion. It’s also interesting to see who wins as I don’t know who the writers are until we have arrived at our winners and Alice tells us who wrote what. There are usually familiar names in the shortlist, Rattle Tales regulars or previous short-listees but now we are truly international, it could be anyone.

Writing competitions were making waves on Twitter this week. Some people shared news of a free to enter American flash fiction contest promising cash prizes, who listed this rule in their entry requirements;

‘No swearing, profanity, explicit sexual scenes, graphic violence, LGBTQ’

Obviously it’s nigh on impossible to write a flash fiction without using those letters so they won’t get many entries. Seriously though, how is LGBTQ fiction equatable with graphic violence and explicit sex in the year 2018? Apart from the fact that it reads like a Brighton Prize wish list, how can a modern writing contest get away with a rule like this? Well the answer is that they can’t, not without some serious shade, over on Twitter there was much swearing and profanity (as they are obviously very different things!) and several writers posted the LGBTQ entries they had submitted to the competition. Clearly the organisers can chose to prohibit any type of story they want, it doesn’t say no LGBTQ writers so it’s not actual discrimination but it is de facto discrimination and this is why writers reacted the way they did. Never rile the seemingly placid writing community; our teddy bears have vampire teeth, potty mouths, explicit sexual encounters and a back catalogue of horrific torturous deaths just waiting to be tapped into. Faced with the outrage the competition organisers changed their rules to this;

§  All contests have parameters. We are not interested in the following genres:

§  Stories with swearing or profanity

§  Horrific deaths/torture/horror

§  Romance in general

§  Futuristic stories

§  Sexual scenes

§  Fantasy

§  Sci-Fi

§  LGBTQ – some have asked if they can use gay characters. It depends on the story and how it is written. The judges will make that determination.

There’s no way anything interesting is winning this competition. This level of open discrimination is pretty shocking but not surprising. What did warm the heart was the response of the writing community; people who had shared the comp unaware of the rules soon removed it from their feeds and websites. Big shout out here to The Short Story who tweeted the following offer;

Hi! In light of recent news on Twitter re comps etc., I’m looking for 2 LGBTQ+ writers who’d be interested in reading for a pop-up fiction sub window we’ll be having in early December. Pls email – rupert@theshortstory.co.uk outlining relevant experience & we’ll go from there!

And, newsflash! Writers HQ have just added a new competition in response, specifically asking for LGBTQ flash fiction.

  • This contest has a couple of parameters. We are ONLY interested in the following:
    • Stories with swearing and/or profanity (blasphemy optional)
    • Stories on an LGBTQ+ theme
    • Stories about love, acceptance, charity and grace
  • Entry is FREE (because yay inclusivity), but you are very welcome and actively encouraged to make an optional donation to LGBTQ+ mental health charity MindOut if you can

So you don’t need to enter a creative writing competition with no imagination, go instead to a place of tolerance, which publishes some of the best flash fiction on the planet.

The winners of The Brighton Prize will be announced at an awards event at The Brunswick Pub  on November 18th, 2-5 pm.

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Yes! Vampire teddies are a real thing. Picture, ArtUndead Etsy Store

Views expressed here are my own.

Writing From Memory

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In September I’ll be teaching a writing from memory class at The Older People’s Festival in Brighton. I decided to use memory a basis for a creative writing class because it plays a big part in my creative process. A lot of my ideas come from the surfacing of long forgotten memories. The novel I’m writing at the moment evolved from the memory of a diner in the California desert that I stayed in in 1995. I don’t know why I suddenly remembered, a TV show maybe or my kids asking me about where I’d been in the States. Whatever it was it all came flooding back. When I remember things suddenly like this the memory is very vivid, I not only see it but I feel it, hear it and smell it. The memory of the diner brought with it the scorching heat of the sun, the layer of dust on my skin, the way the sky looked at dawn and the taste of the beer with a lime wedge after a hard day exploring Death Valley. I have been blessed with strong olfactory memory too, I know what the bar smelled like and the oasis, the sun on the car interior, sun cream mixed with the perfume I wore back then (LouLou). It’s the whole package and it has been very useful to me as a writer.

I’m sure that it’s something that can be developed. People often say they don’t remember things well but if you break things down into their constituent parts it makes it easier to create a whole multi-sensory experience. I help out at an annual enrichment week at my local 6th form college, one of the exercises we do is to hand out old fashioned pick and mix sweets and ask the students to eat one and think about all the sensory qualities, taste, smell, texture, to eat the sweet slowly and silently and then to write down everything they have experienced eating it. They are then asked to write a short piece based on the sweet. More often than not the writing uses childhood memories, thoughts of grandparents, of being kids in the school playground, summer holidays, Christmas stockings and from these specifics come empathetic fictions because characters are developed that share the root experience of eating the sweet. Try it, you’ll be amazed what comes to you.

You can do something similar with songs. I sometimes get asked about music that has influenced my writing. I use music a lot when I’m writing, I’ll obsessively play songs over and over to really get the feel of them in my words particularly if they offer insight into a character at a specific moment in their journey. Where I might differ from the way others use music is that I like to listen (and watch) on Youtube. For me experiencing it this way means I get to see as well as here and this means I can fully experience the music with the character. As an example in 15 Minutes there is a story about a teenager seeing David Bowie on Top of the Pops for the first time in 1972. I watched that video over and over, noting everything I could about the sights and sounds of it, the way Bowie looked and sounded, the way it was filmed, the lighting in the studio. I was a child in 1972 but my sister loved Bowie and I remember TOTP being like that. Experiencing the song this way brought a whole new layer to it one that plays extremely well with people who experienced it at the time.

My lovely Irish Aunt Anna died on Monday, just a few months after my mother. She was a great age and was a very cheerful and happy person. I wanted to remember her in this way so I dug out some old photographs and looked through them with my son. They were taken in 2009 when we had taken Mum to Donegal to meet up with my aunt and her brother. The photographs were on a disc and, in this age of digital immediacy, we probably hadn’t looked at them since they were taken. My son was seven at the time, he hadn’t thought about that holiday for years but looking at the photographs he could remember it really strongly. He remembered the vast and deserted beach and the terrifying experience of being chased by cows, the walk from the house to the shore and his little brother toddling around getting into mischief. It’s amazing how much he did remember from a couple of photos. Again a fully sensory set of memories came to me. I remembered the house we rented as if it was this summer, I remembered the buffeting winds on the coast and the smell of salt in the air, that I went for a long walk on my own, because I could walk then without crutches and because being the mother of two lively boys meant I needed a couple of solitary hours in the quiet almost meditative atmosphere of the Donegal coast. I remember my 20 year old niece welling up because the  really very good chocolate cake (as described on the menu) we had in a restaurant on out last night would not be bettered in her lifetime. I could use any one of these memories in a creative piece, long or short, because they are suddenly so clear in my mind, each one triggering another. I’ve been writing notes about it to use at a later date, making sure to get down every detail. Like my recollections of the California desert I may not use them for years. I’m pretty sure that when I do return to them it will be for something completely unrelated to family history but the characters that will come out of them will be all the more believable for emerging from real life experiences.

Welcome To Britain

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I wrote this after a discussion at a recent meditation class. It’s just a bit of fun but seems appropriate to post on the day that the giant Trump baby makes an appearance at the ‘it was never a state visit, protests don’t bother me – FAKE NEWS!’

CHERISH

The white room is in the city but surrounded by trees that filter out the sound of traffic. Birds sing from their branches and the leaves rustle in accompaniment. The white room in the city is quiet save for this natural music and the soft in/out breath of those assembled for weekly lunchtime meditation. The meditators sit in ordered rows on institutional burgundy chairs but are all shoeless, their bare soles placed square on the floor. Some – the ones who look lithe and carefree – bend themselves with ease into the lotus position on the pale carpet, hands on knees, their backs pole straight. In the white room in the city, three golden Buddhas look down with benevolent smiles on the faithful, offerings of saffron-coloured flowers at their feet, goldfish bowls of crystal water, smoke rising from incense and candles.

In the white room in the city your back is already beginning to hurt as you close your eyes, lulled by the soft monotone of the leader. You lose her words for a moment as you consider how a Scottish accent is now almost a pre-requisite for guiding meditation. All the leaders lately are Scottish. It’s getting boring. You imagine a Geordie one or an Aussie like the one you have set for Siri.

‘Feel the breath on the in.’ She intones, ‘and then on the out.’

You concentrate on your breathing, your nostrils tickle and you have to hold your breath to smother a sneeze, letting out a loud exhalation that causes the person next to you to shift in their chair.

In the white room in the city the leader tells you that this meditation is called Cherish Others. You think of Madonna and the long hot summer of 1989, when you ran through the warm waves on a Southern Indian beach and didn’t actually need daily meditation to free your spirit but did it anyway because the instructor was a cute Canadian called Brad. Every night the two of you danced to Madonna on the shore in the moonlight as the wind caressed the palm trees. It was your song.  Brad’s lips tasted of salt. In the white room in the city you wonder what happened to your long lost lover and almost sing along to the song in your head.

When we cherish others we cherish the universe. If you wish peace for the person sitting next to you it has a knock on effect, spreading love throughout the world.’

The beach and Brad disappear, leaving you in the white room in the city surrounded by a collective unconscious but totally alone. Perhaps you will go back to India this year. Perhaps you will look up Brad on Facebook. There can’t be that many of them. You remind yourself to concentrate really hard on the in and out of your breath.

‘Everyone in the world just wants to be happy. Everyone in the world just wants to be happy. Pick someone to wish happiness on. It could be your boss or a neighbour, someone who has upset you, someone who makes you angry. Our own anger is damaging to us. By wishing that person well instead of ill we heal ourselves and the world.’

In the white room in the city you think about wishing your boss well but the thought of him brings to mind the sensation of his hand on your arse and the promotion that passed you by a few days after you told him you were reporting him to HR. You feel anger building in your stomach.  There is a loud rumble and your mouth waters at the thought of the spinach and beetroot quiche you will all soon have for lunch.

‘If we can learn to wish our neighbours well we ourselves will be at peace’.

In the white room in the city you think about your neighbour and the constant, bone-shaking  ‘music’ which gets turned up when you knock to complain.  You think of the dog poo on the path, something you suspect to be intentional but something you can do nothing about without more abuse. Instead of wishing them peace and happiness you wish that the ugly squat dog will turn on his keeper, and you imagine slashing teeth and saliva and buckets of blood. You smile as you hear your neighbour’s screams. Get him off me! he shouts at you. Sorry you say, can’t hear you – your music has made me deaf. In the white room in the city you allow yourself to smile.

‘When we cherish those who have done us wrong, the burden of hate is lifted. Forgiveness is like a warm healing light.’

In the white room in the city you try to cherish your ex. You know you should wish him all the happiness in the world. You were not a good match. He is far better off in the flat he shares with the woman who was your best friend until he sent you a text message meant for her. The wedding date is set. They didn’t invite you but all of your friends are going. You find yourself wishing that masked men will break down their front door and take them hostage, torture them in indescribable ways and then blow up the house – including the traitorous pug Mr Biscuits, who you used to walk every day when your ex was ‘working’ and who you now blame for your expanding waistline.

You heart rate increases and your realise you are panting rather than breathing. More than the average number of meditators seem to be shuffling in their seats, maybe it’s not only you having a hard time finding someone to cherish.

‘Calm,’ soothes the leader, picking up on the distraction. ‘If you find you mind wandering come back to the breath, feel the cool air entering your nostrils and the slightly warmer air come out. Send a cherish wish out to your chosen person and hold it deep in your heart.’

For fuck’s sake! You can’t think of anyone who won’t make you forget how to breathe. Mother? Not since the argument about your driving. Sister? Not since she commented on your expanding waistline. You grapple feverishly with your thoughts, suggesting and rejecting recipients of the cherish wish. You are a terrible person.

‘If everyone cherished everyone in the world, there would be no more war.’

The breathing throughout the room settles into a symbiotic rhythm. You relax your shoulders and let yourself float, breathing in and out with one face in your thoughts.

In a pushily decorated room in a white house, thousands of miles from the white room in the city, sits an old orange man. His hair matches his skin, his eyes are slits and his jaw is set hard, lines scrunched across his forehead as he listens to his advisors. The press he still trusts are assembled, a bank of photographers ready to capture the historic moment. The old orange man is about sign an order that will tighten the country’s borders. One of the results of the order will be the enforced removal of children from ‘migrant’ parents. They will be placed in detention centres, separated and alone. Babies as young as 3 months old will cry for their mothers and be fed formula to quiet them before being shipped off to adoption centres. Five year olds will be locked behind bars, with a bucket for a toilet and a foil blanket for warmth. Most will never see their parents again, mobile phones will be confiscated and children’s names will be lost, the cost of reuniting on deportation will too great for the world’s most civilized nation. Families will be buried under red tape and poverty.

As he lifts his pen with a flourish the old orange man feels a great rush of well-being. His whole body glows from within. It’s as though a giant pair of hands has scooped him up and is swaying him gently to and fro.  The sensation takes his breath away. He closes his eyes and is transported back to the family home in Queens, to the small square of grass that served for a backyard throughout his first four years. Birds sing and the sun beats down. His mother sets up a sprinkler and he runs back and forth with his siblings through the cooling shower, surrounded by a prism of refracted light. His mother sits on a lawn chair under and enormous hat and watches her children, a smile spreading across her face. Soon there will be hotdogs and cola for tea and when his father gets home he will carry his youngest son up to bed and tuck him into freshly laundered sheets as sleep takes him instantly and he floats on the conscience-free clouds of a child lucky enough to be born into a privileged family.

The plush room in the white house is silent. The assembled hold their breath in anticipation. When the old orange man opens his eyes, the tears collected behind his eyelids spill over and fall onto his cheeks, streaking his tan. He knows in his heart that he has felt the hand of God; the universe has spoken to him and told him that all men feel water drops through dappled sunlight in the same way. He sighs, brushes away the tears with the back of his hand and signs the order anyway. Blinded by the staccato flurry of camera flashes he feels his jaw tighten.

In the white room in the city the leader tells you to relax your concentration and, when you are ready, to open your eyes. The room is filled with sighs and clicking neck bones. Everyone is smiling. Some people hug each other.

‘Thank you,’ you say to the teacher as you leave. ‘I really feel like I made a connection there.’

Namaste,’ she replies, bringing her hands together and bowing her head.

trump-blimp

Last Chance To Enter The Brighton Prize!

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As a director of The Brighton Prize I have the good fortune to act as one of the judges every year. The prize is open for international entries of short stories (between 1,000 and 2,000 words) and flash fiction (up to 350 words). It’s always exciting to see what stories arrive through the inbox and there are always some truly world class entries. We like to see stories that are a little bit out of the ordinary, that look at the world in a different way, through different eyes. We also love a laugh and rarely get sent anything funny so if you have something that will make us guffaw it might be worth sending it – comedy is a difficult write though.

This year my fellow judges are author Alison MacLeod (previously long-listed for the Man Booker and currently shortlisted for The Edge Hill Prize) and literary agent Sarah Manning

On what she looks for as a judge Alison says: ‘In a great story, I love to see a writer’s understanding that seemingly small dramas can reveal the profound stuff of life; that ordinary events can reveal the extraordinary.  Melodrama swamps a short story of course. If a story is about the extraordinary or the fantastical, I want to be shown the ordinary human truth within those events. I love a confident prose style. whether the language of the story is gritty and stark, or lucid and clear, or rich and rhythmic. I want the voice of a story to draw me in with its quiet force or alternatively, to grab me and say, ‘Listen… This story matters.’

Sarah says: ‘I am excited to be a judge for the Brighton Prize and am looking forward to discovering new voices. If the main character jumps off the page and has a clear goal which keeps me reading, then I am hooked no matter the genre!’.

And me? ‘I want to see stories that linger long after reading. There has to be something new and original, an authentic voice, a subject no-one has thought of before. Be as ‘out there’ as possible but keep it simple. The story should be suitable for a public reading and should therefore be easy to follow. I love cinematic writing; I want to be immersed in new worlds. Writers need to show that they have paid attention to detail too. I don’t want to see any silly mistakes as I’ve got to edit the stories for publication!’

The winners and short-listees of last year’s prize were all offered publication. There was a prize-giving in Brighton in November, a launch at Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh, an event at Brighton Fringe Festival and our Flash Fiction winner Haleh Agar was published in Viva Brighton a local magazine with a circulation of 26,000.

All this AND big cash prizes!

You’d be silly not to enter. www.brightonprize.com

Brighton Prize Poster 18

 

Hip Dysplasia Awareness Month

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June is Hip Dysplasia Awareness Month. I was born with double hip dysplasia. Around one in a thousand babies have some degree of hip dysplasia at birth. Some cases are related to breech birth and other physical factors, some are genetic.  The standard tests at birth are based on a manual rotation of the baby’s hips, if there’s an audible clunk the hip is unstable and it is an indication of possible dysplasia. The tests originated in the 1950s and are still used today. However it’s a bit hit and miss, it depends on the practitioner and the nature of the dysplasia, bi-lateral is often missed because there is no discrepancy in leg length to complement the click test. Put it this way, mine didn’t show up and there was no click with my son either who had the test in 2002.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if that test had been positive. Infant dysplasia can usually be cured by the wearing of a harness (The Pavlik Harness) in the first few months of life when the bones are soft. This painlessly holds the hips in place, deepening the socket, and most people need no further treatment once this is completed. Yes the baby screams when it’s first put on but then they scream when they have their nappy changed so you can cope with it. Believe me this minor and short lived discomfort is nothing compared to what happens if the condition isn’t caught early.

My dysplasia was diagnosed at the age of three. My mother noticed that I ran everywhere on tiptoes rather than walking and fell over a lot. There was a trip to the GP.  I was told to walk across the surgery waiting room after hours so he could see me walk. This is probably my earliest memory; I can still see the spider plants in the sunshine on the window and smell the plastic chairs and my Mum’s perfume. From here it was referral to the hospital, almost immediate double surgery and six months in a half body cast. This was the 1970s, parents weren’t allowed to stay with children in hospital, it was strictly visiting time only – imagine how traumatic that is for a three-year-old. They let me out still encased in plaster, I had to crawl to get around. It was summer, I was often overheated, and the cast itched unimaginably. I had to be held over the toilet whenever I wanted to go. My Dad made a ‘concord’ out of wood on wheels that I used to propel myself around the house and garden. I remember going really fast and flying of it a few times. When it was time to remove the cast I screamed my head off. It was terrifying, the technician tried to use and electric tool which to me it felt like torture, the noise was unimaginable and it was coming for me and my legs.  Thankfully someone suggested cutting it away with shears and I could handle that with lots of soothing from Mum and Dad. My legs were withered and scaly. I had to learn to walk again. The treatment didn’t work and by the age of five I had to have more surgery.

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This was the drill for the next twelve years, surgery, learn to walk, hips dislocate, surgery, traction, learn to walk… I had my last childhood surgery at seventeen. As you can imagine I had a lot of scars and not a lot of self-esteem. School sports were a nightmare. Intimate relationships were difficult. I was not alright. Luckily I had a very supportive family and I met my husband at a young and he has been amazing. I’ve had therapy though, to work through some of the childhood traumas. This month of awareness has been very difficult for me because it has brought a lot to the surface.

As an adult I had a fairly normal life until I reached my late twenties, then came the arthritic pain. It was almost overnight. Remember how one minute Andy Murray was playing world class tennis and the next he was limping off court? That’s what it was like. One day fine, the next not. I struggled on for a few years but then I had a baby. A big bouncy baby boy. The pregnancy was really hard. I could barely walk by the end. The birth even harder, you can’t get into many positions when your hips don’t work. I had my first Total Hip Replacement at the age of thirty-four when my son was eight months old. The arthritis was ‘about as bad as it can be’. Two years later I had another, then another baby. You can do almost anything with this condition but it is very hard work. People don’t know you are suffering and most ‘hippies’ pretend they are okay because they just want to be like everyone else. I’m at the stage now where the original replacements have loosened and need redoing. I suffered a severe break around the implant a few years ago and that leg has never been the same. I am tired almost all the time. Sometimes something as simple as standing in the same place for ten minutes results in the need to lie down. I envy people who can easily do sport, who can go for long walks in the countryside without feeling it for days afterwards, people who are thin and lithe and straight-backed. I do what I can, I swim and use the static bike but I have very weak muscles in my pelvis so everything is a struggle.

My oldest son, Noah, didn’t have a positive clunk test but I knew he had it. I took him to a cranial osteopath for gripe and he told me the left hip was out. We went back to the hospital and demanded an ultrasound based on family history. It came back positive. Noah went kicking and screaming into the Pavlik Harness. After crying himself to sleep the first day he slept for 24 hours. The second day he was his normal self. He learned to crawl with the harness on and when it came off it didn’t stop him walking at the normal age. What it did do was ensure that the socket formed properly. After three months he didn’t have to wear it anymore.

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Noah with his Dad, Pavlik Harness visible.

I’m writing this for two reasons. When I posted about June being hip dysplasia awareness month on Facebook, two friends said they’d had it as a baby and one said one of their children had it, add to this the three people I knew already with the condition. It’s a lot more common than current levels of awareness would suggest. If you are about to be a parent or have just had a child and have any hip dysplasia in your family insist on an ultra-sound for your new-born, even if they pass the manual test. You might not even know there is familial dysplasia; it might just be an Uncle who limps because one leg is shorter than the other, a grandparent who had a hip replacement at a young age, whatever doubts you have act on them. An early ultrasound is much better than years of surgery. Secondly, many adults have slight dysplasia that hasn’t been diagnosed; problems only arise in later life. If you have deep hip pain after walking or sporting activities get it checked. There are lots of things you can do to slow the arthritis caused by dysplasia, there are special exercises, diets and supplements, aids like knee braces, footware. Don’t ignore it because that way lies years of crippling pain and inevitable replacement surgery. If in doubt – check it out.

For further information on hip dysplasia visit http://livingwithhipdysplasia.com/ and https://hipdysplasia.org/

Sign the petition to improve child screening in the UK https://www.change.org/p/implement-scanning-for-all-uk-newborns-babies-for-hip-dysplasia 

I’ll be blogging throughout the month about this.

Starlings Reborn

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I’m on Brighton Pier in the half term holidays. The skies are white with low cloud and there’s a sea mist blowing in but it’s warm enough to be outside so I’m sitting at one of the tucked away tables by Horatio’s Bar. Their playlist is quiet enough to ignore as are the distant screams of children as they hurtle through the air on the twirling aeroplanes of the nearest ride. My youngest and his friend are finally old enough to go on rides on their own so I’ve got them all areas wristbands and have settled down for a couple of hours of writing.

Brighton Pier has a lot of memories for me. I came here as a kid then brought my kids and since I started writing it has always inspired me and often features as a setting in my work. It’s a haven for detail; competing, smells, sounds, lights, people of all types from babies in prams to pensioners with walking sticks, smiling children hopped up on sugar, hungover stags and hens, parents, grandparents, teenagers trying to be cool. I had a little walk around the hidden bits, the alleyways between the rides, the end behind the Turbo, because that’s what I did when I was writing my first book, Starlings. I’m feeling nostalgic. Starlings is entirely set in Brighton. I wrote it when I first moved here and it helped me get a handle on my new home, I wanted to really get into the nitty gritty of the lesser-seen aspects of a British seaside town, to explore it as I would a character. Brighton has a personality that changes day to day, very different in the height of summer to a rainy day in December. I spent a lot of time seeking out the more unusual locations or looking at the well-known ones from a different angle. One of my proudest moments was at an event when a Brightonian reader exclaimed surprise that I wasn’t born and bred because I’d got it spot on.

The reason for all this nostalgia is that Starlings will very shortly be out of print. I bought the remainder paperbacks from my publisher and I’ll be getting all the rights back very soon. This makes me both sad and hopeful. Starlings was my first book and I had no idea what had to be done to market it to readers. For me it was a huge achievement that it was published at all but I’ve always thought it didn’t live up to its full potential. I’d like to give it a re-edit and a cover make-over. I have plans to publish a new edition paperback and release it on ebook and I know a lot more about publishing now than I did then. It’s seven years since it came out, my publisher, Revenge Ink, was a gutsy little maverick trying to showcase the type of books being ignored by the mainstream (if anything this situation has got worse and the industry has got more blinkered in what it chooses to publish). I am forever grateful to Revenge Ink for trying, for taking on my little book because they really understood and believed in it and we part on very good terms.

People still buy Starlings, they come up to me at readings and say they’ve just discovered it and ask why I was so mean to Barney. I’m asked to local book groups on a regular basis and it’s still in the Brighton books section of the city’s bookstores. I’ll be peddling the ‘limited edition’ originals at book fairs and market stalls until I run out (or hell freezes over). If you want a signed copy, personally dedicated by the author email me at erinnamettler@gmail.com or look out for me at car boot sales, a copy is yours at the knockdown price of £5 plus p & p.

This is the last bench in Brighton. To the left of it are the rickety legs of the Mousetrap. At the height of summer they rattle constantly under the weight of the mouse-shaped cars that whizz along to the screams of happy tourists. On this day they only shudder slightly in the wind.’ 

Now we’re off for fish n chips.

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The Playboy And The Bog Man

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My essay on Margaret Atwood’s short story The Bog Man was a runner-up in the Threshold’s Feature Writing Competition. I am very happy with this – I specifically set aside some time to write for this competition this year and it really paid off. The story was published in Playboy in 1991 and I speculate on why Atwood would have accepted the invitation to do so. You can read  it here

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I’ve got a busy week. There is a wonderful Rattle Tales show at Brighton Fringe on Wednesday, hosted by brilliant poet Deborah Turnbull and featuring a fantastic line-up of authors. If you’ve not been before you should go – like bedtime stories for adults in a candle-lit bar with wine!

On Saturday I will be at Wordstock at Brighton Open Market. A free all day literary event with publishers, authors, spoken words groups and workshops. I’ll be wearing my Brighton Prize and Unbound hats on the day and it looks set to be a great event.

On Saturday evening it’s the Saboteur Awards. The awards got a great write up in The Independent a couple of days ago and were described as, ‘here to shake up the literary establishment’. It certainly needs a shake. I am very excited to have been shortlisted and want to thank anyone who voted for 15 Minutes! Producing this book was one the hardest things I’ve ever done and it’s very nice to see it getting some recognition. I’ll keep you posted!

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sabotuer-awards-literary-prize-festival-poetry-spoken-word-indie-publishing-sabotage-reviews-a8345536.html