My First Publication

This very short story won third prize in the ‘Room to Write’ inaugural short story competition in 2014.  If you want to read the whole thing it’s on https://roomtowritepublishing.wordpress.com/competition/our-2014-short-story-anthology/

It’s free to download.

It’s an extract from something much longer I’ve yet to finish. I can see flaws  and am itching to edit but won’t. This is what was published.Girls learning laundry work at Saltaire School in the early 20th Century

I’ve edited, couldn’t help myself.

RUBY FLEET

‘I want to keep a photographic record,’ Mrs Stephens says to the visitor, her hand with its soft fingers that have never done a day’s work tight on his arm, digging into the fine wool of his coat. It would be soft to the touch that coat, soft against my skin. Her lips, wet and red, are reaching up to his ear.

‘I want to show how my girls progress.’

She breathes the words. Her eyelashes flutter. Charlotte, her daughter, does it too. It pleases only them and makes them look as if they are about to take a fit.

I am not ‘her’ girl.

Mrs Stephens waves her free arm, the sleeve too tight around her flesh. She tells him what we do, how we work. She doesn’t talk about how the boiling water and the lye that scalds our skin, how our fingers crack and weep, how our backs ache. Her knuckles brush my shoulder as she walks past.

She steers Walter Proctor past the coppers and the pails of water and the mangles. ‘Mrs Conti is an excellent photographer, and, being a woman, she doesn’t engender … excitement,’ she says, looking under her eyelashes, a bead of spittle on her lip. The first time Mrs Conti came she was with her husband, Jack. He has soft brown eyes, a rosebud mouth and a prick big enough to satisfy the oldest whore in Totterdown. We wore ourselves out talking and thinking about him.

Mrs Conti’s come on her own since, pushing that barrow of hers across the city, too tight to pay a boy a penny, stronger than you’d think she’d be. Walter Proctor nods at Mrs Stephens. He must know the patterns on every flagstone for he’s not once looked away from the floor, not once looked at us.

The smell in the room, our sweat, the sour milk smell of the soap, still allows me a whiff of him, coffee, a wood fire doused by water and something sharp, lemons. There’s a heat to him, underneath that buttoned vest and coat. His hands are restless. His neckerchief is so tight against his neck it must hurt. His fingers, long and pale have blunt edges that would press in were he to touch me.

We’ve been sorting the laundry, hiding away the worst of it. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to see the way we stain our petticoats and our bed sheets, to smell the coppery scent of old blood. Mrs Stephens has filled the place with oil lamps. She’s only just had the fires lit under the coppers. The steam from the tubs would make it impossible for Mrs Conti to take a photograph. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to sweat.

I could make him sweat.

‘Dividing the Spoils’

This is the sonnet I wrote for homework on the theme of Divorce. It was really challenging and I could redraft it forever. There are rhymes to be had that I haven’t found. In the process of getting from draft twenty to here I’ve rewritten it another six times. I think I might call a halt here.

‘Dividing the Spoils’

You can have the ponderous furniture,
The weight of that old, brown, inheritance,
And that absurd painting she gave to you,
That you hung above our marital bed
The oven is yours, the freezer my cold self.

I’ll cleft the kettle and halt that last brew.
We can chop the toaster and cleave the fridge.
Let us take a child apiece, the boy mine.
The girl yours to remind you of your wife.
Or will I  use your father’s fine toothed saw
To cut through hair, to rive from brain to groin?
My share will be where the mole marks her cheek,
And his grazed left knee with its star shaped scar

|I’ll tend to the beating of their bruised hearts.

What is a Live Wire? I know now!

I’ve just dashed (yes, I know, FABULOUS word choice) from a LiveWire event for the Dundee Literary Festival. Run by Eddie Small, the event is an ongoing production that showcases the writing of recent and current students, and no doubt a whole lot of other people also but I’ve only been to one so give me some leeway here. And, call me stupid if you will, I was walking home and wondering why in the Hades it was called ‘LiveWire’. It’s live, sure, but there’s no wires. Even the roving mic was just that, roving, and in today’s world of Health and Safety regulations, you can bet your bottom dollar that it didn’t have a wire. Then, as I came home and sat by my computer, I realized that I felt electric. My fingers are actually pulsing as I type this. Maybe it’s because I know I’ll have to do one one day, or maybe it’s the awesome talent I just witnessed that inspired a creative surge in me, but either way I feel electric. And then it hit me. Live Wire, as in the one that’ll kill you if you touch it.

I get it now.

We’re approaching a nervous section of the course. The place in the movie where the sea starts to swell and some screenwriter adds a joke to the movie like, “Hey guys, hope we don’t sink,” while he washes his hands in a sink. And then, because the movie is called “Sinking Ship” or “Titanic 2” we all know exactly what’s about to happen. That ship’s not arriving in any port, any time soon (insert dirty joke here). I spoke last week about it, and I’ll continue doing so until they’re over – assessments are coming. But, unlike last week, I am more confident. I’ve had formative feedback on a review I submitted – the main critique being “be less catty” – and I’ve had a one on one meeting with Kirsty. So I have followed Gail’s advice and removed certain phrases from my assessed review on The Girl on The Train that poke fun at Paula Hawkins cameo being removed from the film adaptation of her novel. So far, so good.

It is from my one on one with Kirsty, however, that the true pride of this week lies. I submitted a rough sheaf of five pages of manuscript for her perusal to begin working on my portfolio for the end of semester one. I shall keep most of what she said confidential, as I am too cowardly in the face of fate to jinx the most exciting part of what we discussed, but I would like to share a short extract from one of the homework exercise she gave us.

 

The kitchen is his favourite room of all. A fridge and freezer stand side by side, the top of the fridge more yellow than its brother. There is no work surface. No unit. So the fridge must suffice. Gentle yellowing is an easy price to pay. Another bare light bulb swings from a pendulum coated in cooking grease. But the room is large, the window larger still and so it swings on unnoticed. Its early evening. The sun hasn’t set yet. And so the window is alive with honey light, seeping in through the glass and coating every surface of the kitchen. Checkered linoleum, a burnt kitchen table – scarred with the mark of an incense stick let to burn for too long – and a dull green microwave that, only in this light, looks like it’s worth a million bucks. He stands there. In the honey light kitchen. And wonders how he came to be so lucky. Many flats have kitchens only half this size. Cracks in the ceiling are nothing compared to the gloriousness of standing here, right now, in the warm sunlit air. The window sits slightly open, just a crack so that cat can’t stray too far out, it’s too high and he may fall, and a breeze weedles its way in – no doubt jealous of the boy’s dumb grin. It notes the disheveled pajamas hastily thrown on between the bathroom sink and here, and congratulates itself on being incorporeal, unneeding of such mix match clothes. It stands beside him, that jealous gust of wind, and basks in the sunlight of another day endured. The boy feels it with him but says nothing, not wanting to scare it away. Instead he sniffs, in between tears, at the fragrant vanilla that gently wafts around them both.

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I once quit my job and spent every penny I had on trying to get my first novel published. It didn’t work. But now, as I discuss my work with other writers and explain the heart of what I’m trying to write, I feel that little bud of a daffodil – the flower of hope and Spring – unfurl after a long Winter of disappointment. This piece if about me, about what a place I know, and it’s the heart and bones of who I am. A boy in his pyjammas thankful to still be alive, to still have hope and to still be writing.

Assessments are coming…

…see what I did there? #GameOfThrones

 

It’s week five. As in, we’ve been doing this for five weeks already. And something peculiar has happened. An extraordinary, miraculous thing has occurred. I feel confident in my writing. I feel different to my undergrad degree, I feel like I am paying attention and learning. My exercises in class are not always spot on, but I never feel a need to preface it by saying “I don’t think it’s good.” That’s not to say those that do should be herranged in the foyer of the Dalhousie Building as faux writers deserving only humiliation. All it means is that, in a room full of people I admire for their talent, I don’t feel out of place. And as someone who always feels out of sync with those around him, that’s a big deal.

I’ve just submitted (well, Poppy handed it in for me as I was working and prescribe to an “oh sweet Jesus that’s for tomorrow” method of handing in my work, despite doing it days before) five pages of rough draft work that may or may not evolve into a 6,000 word portfolio for the end of semester one. I’ve chosen to work on the two areas I hope to develop on this course: horror and historical fiction. Although my novels are Young Adult Fantasy works, the daily five fingered exercise of Kirsty Gunn’s division and the in-class exercises, I feel, are helping me in leaps and bounds better explore my worlds on the page – instead of merely describing them. I don’t just want to be a fantasy writer though; I have many ideas that don’t quite fit with that genre. Ideas I want to explore.

My horror piece is perhaps more ‘creepy’ than horror – for now. It’s about a manic depressive boy who lives alone and spies on his neighbours to feel part of something other than his own illness. He doesn’t do it for perverted kicks, simply to feel included. But when he is confronted about his behavior, he is told that he and “the dirty old man” he lives with better stop it before the neighbours call the police. “But,” the boy says, “I live alone.” Chilling, right? I’m unsure whether I’d like to develop that story further, or look at a short story collection in which the ‘dirty old man’ and his ‘dirty family’ all stalk different people. Initially, when I first looked at this course, I hoped to develop this idea of the boy who lives alone into a play – but maybe that will come at another time.

The second piece I included I think I would prefer to keep for my dissertation at the end of the year. It is a fictionalized account of Eva Braun in which I work to tease out the woman behind Hitler’s empire. Her ambition, her fears, her normalization of her boyfriend’s evil, her exclusion from the other Nazi wives and, ultimately, the extreme power she held over her boyfriend’s decisions right in the last throes of his terrible war. I definitely think this would work well as a novel, and it’s something I will keep on the back burner, ready to cook through when my time comes. When my proficiency at writing is higher than it is now.

Lastly, a quick little scribble at the bottom of the page, I am thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year. I did it last year (though in Oct for the extra day) and got 57,000 words done of a novel called Cetilla. I flat lined at the last hurdle, but I wonder if it would be worth trying again this year? Maybe. Whatever I decide, I’ll keep you updated.

 

And so, for now, au revoir and goodbye for another week!

I don’t understand… but I’ll make sure I do (one day)

Perhaps what I’m getting most from my fellow students is that they think I have a tremendous amount of confidence. And that’s true, I guess. But only because I know there’s a world full of people just waiting to not believe in you, if you give them the chance. Which I don’t. They’re easy to spot, as often they are walking around with the shards of their own broken dreams littering their sensibly priced fleece. I’m a believer, a hoper, and an ardent follower of my dreams, but that doesn’t always feel like confidence, it doesn’t mean I am not fully aware of my shortcomings. And this week proves that point spectacularly.

IMG_6613            I have a reading list as long as an escapee toilet roll that my cat has decided is more entertaining than an episode of FRIENDS, and all I can think of is how woefully under equipped I am to properly appreciate these novels. I’m a lazy reader. I want to be entertained. To fall into a world so unlike my own and feel for people that exist only in my heart. I was discussing today with the wonderful Poppy how, if an author doesn’t explicitly state what they mean (she cried hysterically), then I probably won’t get it. Many a paragraph has been read and re-read because I can tell there’s something there I’m supposed to be picking up, some morsel of information that the entire plot hinges on, but often, I just can’t. And so if the book doesn’t flow with a good story, then I just can’t immerse myself in it. Technical brilliance or no.

It could have been that I never paid enough attention in English class. I didn’t want to know what an adverb was, I wanted to see one being used. I wanted to run before I could walk. Laborious reading of heavy texts may have instilled within me an aversion habit, and for that, I certainly do not blame my English teachers. But I better understand the rowdy kids that never paid attention in History class now. Because nothing is more boring than something we don’t understand. The Sound of Fury by William Faulkner is one of those books for me, the technically brilliant ones whose composition changed the way we write and read. Decry me as an indolent fool, as that may be what I am, but the constant time jumping just threw me for six, right out of his own novel and into the more forgiving arms of Philippa Gregory. I feel stupid as I type this. I feel like an indolent fool. I couldn’t read Wuthering Heights during my time in China, I don’t always fully understand what Shakespeare is on about and Jane Austen is synonymous in my head with Keira Knightley. I want to understand. Truly, I’d love to type to you all as a master of Chaucer and Twain, a veritable encyclopaedia of prose composition and poetic metaphors. But I’m just not. I like stories. I write stories. I’m not an English student, I’m a book reader. But that doesn’t mean I won’t ever be.

I’m just beginning to read His Bloody Project by Graeme MaCrae Burnet and I am IMG_6631terrified I won’t get past page 65. However, there’s something pleasant about this anticipation, this fear, which is reminiscent of starting university way back in 2011. Leaving my comfort zone. No excursion beyond our limits, beyond our little kingdom of safe words and experiences, ever leaves us empty handed. As I listen to the advice of wiser readers, their suggestions my compass pointing North, and begin my journey down a reading list I’d have never thought to venture down, I know I’ll find some skills, some techniques, and some pleasure that I can bring back to my safe space. And hey, who knows, maybe I’ll even find a new favourite along the way. And maybe, just possibly, I may even understand what they’re saying.

 

 

 

Today, I finished…

We read an extract from Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter in class.  The words leapt from the page and slapped my face.  ‘Read me, read me! You know this!’ they cried.

I bought the book.

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I started reading.

I cried, several times.  I laughed, so loud on the train that people were staring at me.  I did their thinking for them.  ‘Look at that sick weirdo, reading a book about grief and laughing. Tut, tut, tsk tsk.’  I smiled and kept on reading, lost in the words and the feelings once more.

I finished the book today.

I am afraid to write about it.  I am not ready.  I look at Facebook.  I make a cup of hot, sweet tea – writer’s fuel, that is.  I look at Facebook again, mindlessly scrolling up and down, minutes dissolving into the ether of useless information.

I finished the book today.  My blog post is due tomorrow.   I must begin writing.  Just write.

Music will help.  I make a playlist.  I take a photograph of the book for the blog.  Break up the text with pictures.  I capture another image, of the book I have finished on top of the other books I have yet to finish, but would find easier to write about.

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It is 10.47 am and I haven’t eaten a thing.  I grudgingly make brunch, accompanied by yet another cup of tea. I look at the writing table I have set up.  Maybe I should hand write it first I muse, and rummage around for my notebook and pen.  Is everyone’s writing process like this?  Maybe there’s an image for that?  I google ‘the writing process’.

Writers pie chart

Twitter distracts me further.  I throw my phone down on the table in frustration and consider taking a hammer to it.  Instead, I pick up my pen and finally begin to write.

So, here we are.  I finished the book today.

Max Porter artfully uses dark humour in his description of looking out from a maelstrom of grief, setting the scene with a series of detached observations.  I have been a central character in that parade, surrounded by family, close friends, part-time friends, strangers, wannabe friends, and drama-by-proxy addicts, tripping over themselves to dole out advice or share personal experiences that have, frankly, fuck-all to do with anything you are feeling.

Porter shares the circus of it all with stark honesty, harnessing the spaced out feelings of the first few days perfectly. Grieving feels like being ripped out of your own life and plonked on an empty stage in an empty theatre, to star in an absurd play.  The audience float around outside the theatre, whilst the you that everyone sees smiles weakly, nods, croaks thanks.  The unseen, simultaneous roles of you respond quite differently, often with a great deal of swearing and, an occasional punch in the face.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a fractured account of shared experiences written from multiple perspectives in a myriad of ways.  The writing style achieves the feeling of making complete sense, whilst making no sense at all.   Crow, our antagonist and hero rolled into one is invited in, yet invades the remains of this family.  Throughout the narrative, Crow hops and darts around the boys and the father, tormenting and saving, hurting and healing.  He pecks at the darkest parts of humanity and is the father, the boys, grief, anger, hope, the past, the future  – a black mirror in which to view ourselves as we truly are.  I found this book easy to read, drinking in all its darkness and light.  Heartfelt honesty and clever imagery paints an emotive masterpiece that is accessible to all, whether you have been cast in the death show or not.  You may finish this book, but it will not be finished with you.

Books end.  Grief does not.  I finished my blog post.

ENDS

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