Reading in Manchester

Next Monday, 25th April, I’ll be reading averboset live literature night Verbose, at the Fallow Café in Fallowfield, Manchester.

Okay, nothing special so far – but I get to headline with two lovely poets, Anne Caldwell and Evan Jones.

Anne is currently a  Literature Programme Manager for The British Council, which perhaps makes her sound very important. Good. She is.  She’s also a dashed fine poet, and will be reading from her brand new collection, Painting The Spiral Staircase (Cinnamon Press).

Evan is Canadian, which doesn’t matter in any way except that it gives his voice that beautiful Québécois intonation, and gives his poetry a similarly melancholic and introspective tone. And it’s about time he brought a new book out, since it’s been four years since Carcanet published Paralogues.

I think – and this is only a guess – that I’ll be reading a story called ‘Safety Measures’, though I’ll need to check the timings. I hope so, though, as it’s going to be published  in issue 4 of The Bolton Review, so the publicity should help. I understand that some of the other nine published and up-and-coming poets and prose writers performing might also premiere work from The Review, ahead of its launch next Wednesday.

Since being relaunched in January 2015 by Sarah-Clare Conlon, Verbose has welcomed such luminaries of the North West literature scene as Jenn Ashworth, Elizabeth Baines, Sarah Butler, Aisla Cox, James Davies, David Gaffney, Jim Hinks, Sarah Jasmon, Tom Jenks, John McAuliffe, Ian McGuire, Fat Roland, Nicholas Royle, John D Rutter, Geoff Ryman, Graeme Shimmin, Scott Thurston and Emma Jane Unsworth. Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Alison Moore has also read.

What I’m saying, in a roundabout kind of way, is that if you fancy coming along to say hello and to hear some excellent live literature, then I’ll see you there – the  Fallow Café, 2a Landcross Road, M14 6NA. Free entry, and doors are at 7.30pm. See


Of Competitions and Competition

“We regret that your story has not been successful on this occasion.”

…as familiar as the rejection slip or email. So I didn’t get short-listed for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize . This is not a surprise, of course. Nor is it particularly disappointing. “We again received nearly 4,000 entries,” they tell me, so the chances of making the 26-strong short-list were somewhere in the region on 0.0065%.

3974 of us didn’t make the cut. That’s a lot of competition to handle. I’ve dutifully entered the BBC/National Short Story Award, with similar expectations of greatness being thrust upon me – I have no idea how many entries that will have received, but the odds must be equally long. And this is basing the chances purely on mathematics, rather than aesthetics; should I worry about whether the stories I’m entering are any good, given the weight and strength of others’ work? No, better not to, for that way lies a falseness that ruins the point. Far better than I should simply write them as well as I can, because I need to tell a story, and leave the judging to the judges.

I’ve entered other competitions, too, and over time won a few of them – smaller ones, where the odds may be higher and the returns lower but the feeling of reward is just as great. Nothing will stir you to break that empty page more than having a stranger say they like what you do. We should all enter these competitions and ignore the ‘big’ ones, that can look after themselves.

Focus instead on the regional, the collective, the festivals…they need our help to survive and to promote what they do, to make voices heard, to give space in which those voices can speak. Let’s celebrate the small and the innocent, where writing happens not to make money or create fame but because it needs to, because expression is all we have, and if from time to time our writing is noticed then that’s good too. At least 3974 other people should all be feeling the same way today.

The Morning Will Allow

Cristina is asleep on the wrong side of the bed. The rain falls like lights or echoes. In the morning she will wonder if she dreamt at all, will make breakfast for Richard then wait for him to come home again at lunchtime. She was surprised at how eager and conciliatory the school had seemed, happy to accept him back, almost apologetic for his leaving. “Schooh,” he says, and “Itahien.” She will wait at home for him. Evian is too busy, too filled with potential. The tourists are returning, with strange, tourist voices.

She is on top of the covers in her bathrobe. The sheets have lost the smell of her husband. Two towels are making the carpet damp. Bulbs are still on in the bathroom and on the landing, shining a slither into Richard’s quiet room. A lamp on her bedside table illuminates the fragments of water still in her hair. On her left ankle there is a small strand of dried blood and the skin on her thighs is waiting for moisturiser. Somewhere in her sleep is the memory of tears.

Not You, Not Yours

There’s no real reason why you decided to write a second-person narrative. It just came to be that the idea you had, and the story you wanted to tell, needed to be told in the second person. That’s fine. It happens.

But then what do you do? How do you go about addressing the story to someone imaginary? Indeed, are you even writing to that person? It’s not simply a case of changing he or she or I to you, not at all – the work needs to be created with that specific addressee at the forefront of your mind, the focus of all the words and phrases and sentences. And who is this ‘you’, anyway? Are you writing to the character, whomever that may be, or are you talking directly to the reader, whether real or imagined, an individual or a collective entity?

There are things to consider, then. There’s the narrative voice, the pace, the extra dimensions of invasion or a skulking, insidious engagement with what might be private and intimate. There’s the locus and focus and hocus pocus of your point of view, hiding somewhere between over the shoulder and inside the brain, both limited and wide, both homo- and heterodiegetic, depending on the moment.

And there might be other choices, if you want to make them: you can step into and out of the story, commenting as much as you direct; you can infiltrate the most interesting corners of your character’s psyche and see how they react to what goes on around them; you can relate their perception to your own, or vice versa, stealing from them or yourself to fuel emotion; you can project yourself into their stories, responding, interpreting, recreating.

So many considerations to follow that first one. You chose to write a second-person narrative, to tell a story in that particularly instrusive way, with all its inherent complications and technical difficulties. Tell me again, why did you do that?

Of Sermons and Silence

I shouldn’t be surprised when I notice the persistence of the written word, and of language itself. It’s something we all use all the time, naturally, and it’s the medium in which I’ve chosen to try to express myself more than any other. Even these words, sent off to into the great wild to make their way on their own, will carry a force and a diligence greater than that which I gave them, or intended them to have.

They’ll live on, it seems: recently I’ve had some interesting comments and messages, both here and on Facebook, about words that I wrote a long time ago. And then, so unexpectedly that it made me squeak out loud, I was told that my novel had been referred to in a sermon about the power of silence. Those ancient words of mine, printed in black and white, then given colour in a sermon.

There have been some more reviews, some appreciative and complimentary, some less so, and so far the book’s sold more than I thought it would. But now it’s been used in a sermon…how do I know this? Simple – the vicar in question blogged his sermon, as he always does. A piece of oratory, crafted with rhetorical skill to be heard and received directly, is then sent off to its own wider world, and that world interacts with mine. Needless to say I’m now reading these sermons regularly, and you can too, at

So our words outlive us – or outlive the directions we gave them, for sure. I shouldn’t be surprised, yet when you think how many words are sent off on missions every second, it’s still enjoyable to see and hear them coming back to say hello once in a while. I recommend you tell yours to stay in touch next time they leave home: you’ll be glad to bump into them again someday, if only to remind yourself why you sent them out in the first place. And if you’re worried that you won’t like what you once said then listen to the persistence of the sermon, and only use words when absolutely necessary.

Of Cheques and Balances

springLast spring, shortly after my story, “Borders”, was published in issue 299.2 of The North American Review, I received a cheque through the post as payment for the rights to use the work.

It’s an odd thing, being paid for writing stories. It’s the same when I get royalty statements from my publishers for my latest novel, released last November. I know that I don’t write for money, naturally, but at the same time I feel that I should get paid for what I do – or, that literature has a value that needs to be measured somehow, and one of those ways can be pecuniary.

But it shouldn’t be. Art exists to make us realise what it is to be human, not to make us a financial profit; the profit we make is primarily cultural, and this exchange is the payment that artists get. It takes time and effort to produce work, and that time and effort needs rewarding: some say that reward should be in cold, hard cash…

There are various reasons why I choose which publications to submit work to: it might be that the magazine is particularly well-respected, or is international in scope, or is connected to a particular publisher or target audience. More often than not it’s simply because I prefer the style, content and editorial nature of one publication over another. ‘I like the work in here,’ I say to myself, ‘and I want my work to be in it too.’ It’s that simple.

Note that not one of these reasons has anything to do with payment, or not financial payment, anyway. The rewards I get for having my work published are cultural and artistic. If I wanted to survive only on the money I get paid for writing then I’d be writing advertising copy or promotional blurb for a living – the writer who survives on their creative output is a rare beast indeed.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It means that folk (such as me) write because they want to, and write what they want to, rather than trying to second- or third-guess the demands of the market. Isn’t that how art exists, and why? Or am I just incredibly old-fashioned about this? Yes, I’d love my latest novel to sell a million copies, win all the awards going, and for me to be pestered to option the film rights, but it’s not going to happen and I’m fine with that. That’s not why I wrote it.

Similarly, I didn’t write “Borders” just to get it published in The North American Review and cash that cheque. I wrote it because I thought I had something to say, quietly, about leaving and returning, about being allowed to choose how to live. Once the story was finished I then thought about having it published – this story was that rarest of exceptions, the one which gets accepted by the first publication you send it to, and I was and am thrilled and honoured by this. I got to see my story in print, in a very good, very old, well-respected, influential and consistently interesting magazine. Do I need any more payment than that?

In front of me now, because I’ve just dug it out from my desk, is that same check that was sent to me when the story was accepted. Since I live in the UK it’s hard to cash a cheque in US dollars. It’s not a big check, either. And with so many magazines struggling to survive it seems kind of inappropriate to take payment beyond free copies or a subscription.

And besides, that’s not why we write. I’ve got the check to look at, if I want to, to tell me that someone thought my work was worth paying for. As an incentive to keep writing, that’s pretty good. When the cheques and royalty statements start adding up to the thousands, I’ll start cashing them. Until then, that fact that publishers and editors are willing to pay me, merely by considering the work for publication, is payment enough, thanks.

Great Writing 2015

Logo Sign

Just a few days until this year’s Great Writing conference – it’s odd to think that we’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve been actively involved in the organising, arranging and running this beast for the last eight years.

For the last four years it’s been held at Imperial College, London – which is one of the reasons that the range of countries represented continues to grow – this year we can add Brazil, Malaysia and Portugal to the ever-increasing list: we really must get a map sorted out so that we can stick pins in it to represent the many, many fine folk who’ve been and the many wonderful places they’ve come from.

Last year’s conference was an absolute cracker: many thought it the best GW ever, so this weekend’s fun has a lot to live up to. There are still a few places available if you want to attend – see for more details, or to register, but you’d better be quick.

For some reason I’ve managed to give myself the really difficult task of presenting for twenty minutes with no preparation – I’m part of a panel talking about plagiarism, process and pedagogy, so I’m deliberately aiming to steal, borrow or ‘be influenced by’ the words of my fellow presenters, and see what happens. It could be a disaster…but the GW folk are all fine, cheery people, so if it all goes pear-shaped then at least they’ll be supportive, and comment on my bravery/follishness. We shall see.