A Brief History of Us

 

When he was asked what existed before the big bang, Stephen Hawking explained that as space and time are curved, somewhat like the earth, you might just as well go to the South Pole and look for a point further south. At the end of the earth, there is no more south. South is meaningless, there. In the same way, it is meaningless to ask what was there before time began.

Some of us struggle to wrap our heads around this just as we can’t conceive of a world without us in it. Before you existed, you simply were not.

My son asks me was he always in my tummy. I start to say no, then hesitate, and tell him yes, in a way, you were. I was born with my thousands of eggs and one of them, one day, would become you. (It will be a much later conversation when he asks ‘How?’ and ‘What did Daddy have to do with it?’)

The answer pleases him – you were always in me – and it pleases me, too. I imagine my ovaries crammed with constellations from which magic would one day explode, in the shape of a boy with worlds in his eyes and so many questions on his tongue.

I also read somewhere recently that when you have a baby, part of their DNA stays in you.

So in a way, I tell my son, you were always in me, and you always will be. Before your time began, and after mine ends, when I will send our sparks into the sky.

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No sign can foretell

There was no warning. You expected one, didn’t you – the solemn chat in the doctor’s office, the fruitless rounds of treatment, the medicines jangling on the counter. Hair falling, body swelling, or shrinking, depending.

Or maybe a different run-up – the sudden grasping pain; the stumble, gazing at lights from a gurney, hearing hushed voices, waking to find you can no longer hold a spoon and fork.

But none of these tried and tested paths were laid out for you. In death, as in life, you had to be different. You went to bed, and positioned your slippers as you always did, in the exact perfect spot so that when you swung your legs out in the morning your feet would find their warm cover.

But the alarm came and went, beeping into empty air.

The slippers grew cold, unworn.

The end.

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Why running a half marathon is a bit like writing a novel

When running (or in my case, shuffling) longer distances, your mind goes to funny places. I recently completed a half marathon and I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, on the similarities between running and writing.

(You could probably argue that writing a novel is more like a marathon than a half, but since I’m never likely to attempt 26.2 miles, bear with me.)

 

There are loads of obvious similarities. It’s exciting at the beginning and at the end, but in the middle there’s just a long, grueling, slog. Sometimes you feel like stopping but you keep going because you’re afraid if you don’t you’ll seize up. There is ALWAYS someone better and faster than you.

 

In case you’re wondering where you are in your own metaphorical race, I’ve created the following handy checklist of symptoms:

 

Mile 1 (page 1)

 

Woo-hoo! We’re off! How exciting! With the challenge of the blank page, the open road, ahead of me, I feel strong, I feel talented, the world is my…oh hang on –

 

Miles 2-3 (first 10,000 words)

 

Wait, this is hard. It isn’t supposed to get this hard this early. Oh shit. I can’t do this. There’s ages to go. Everything hurts. I am useless.

 

Halfway through (30-40,000 words)

 

Oh, the crowds are thinning. I suppose it’s getting a bit boring cheerleading, or asking me how the book is going. My response to both at this point is little more than a wave and a weak smile.

 

Mile 8 (50,000 words or so)

 

I need jelly babies, and I need them now.

 

Mile 10 (60,000 words)

 

Surely this is far enough. I could just stop here, couldn’t I? I mean it wouldn’t technically be a half marathon, or a novel, but it’s a bloody long way towards it and I really ought to get some credit. I have literally no idea how I am going to get to the finish line.

 

Mile 13.1 (The. End.)

 

Thank God that’s over / I’m a hero / I am NEVER doing that again / that was amazing, and so much easier than I thought. Really, what was all the fuss about?

 

Good luck everyone – keep running / writing!

PS Next for me: the Great South Run. I’ve decided 10 miles is my favourite distance. It’s still a challenge but 13 miles is the wrong side of crazy. I always knew I was a novella writer deep down.

 

 

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How to enter a writing competition

 

 

Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*

 

What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.

Shall we get going?

 

For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.

I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.

Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.

 

Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.

It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)

 

Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.

 

A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).

To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.

 

Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.

Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.

 

One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.

Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!

 

 

*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:

HOW TO WIN A NOVEL AWARD

 

The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here:

https://www.creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-competitions/

 

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Pre-loved*

 

Of course, it’s unusual to think about love when you’re getting ready for a car boot sale.

But in houses a mile or so apart, two people are spending a drizzly pre-dawn doing just that.

 

Gemma needs space. And money. She’s clearing out clothes and ornaments and with them, memories. She wonders how much anyone would pay for this empty picture frame, for that unlit candle.

 

David’s dad was a hoarder; he’s the opposite. He gets rid of things regularly on the basis it will be less for others to clear out when he’s dead. He has no idea who it might be doing the clearing out.

 

Gemma has done the work of clearing a house, sifting through the detritus of a life. She’s amassed these trinkets as a result, trying to keep pieces of the people who have gone, a parent and then a partner, shadows of them made out of porcelain and glass. A grief counsellor told her, when she got overwhelmed by all the stuff, to think about what she’d really like to keep rather than what she should throw away. So this is what’s guiding her as she makes her two piles: sell, and keep. White elephants, and treasured mementoes.

 

David categorises his disappointments. He has a spreadsheet to help him do this accurately. There are weightings for different elements.

He’s had five break-ups, well not break-ups exactly, more like let-downs. He gets close to people and they always leave him for the bad boys, the ones who knock them about or just play games, then they come and complain to him about it.

He takes out a black T-shirt from a drawer full of black T-shirts. Black jeans. Black lace-up boots. Life is just easier when everything matches.

David thinks if he does ever go on a date again, he probably shouldn’t mention the spreadsheet.

 

Gemma is thinking about mistakes, and exes, too. After Andy died, in time, she tried to ‘put herself out there’, she really did. But she got mad that you can have what you think is a connection with someone, bond over music, talk about Joy Division and Editors until dawn, but he’ll go all the way with the one who has tight abs, the outdoorsy type who plays hockey and always looks sun-kissed.

The boxes are ready now so she turns to herself. She hates herself for putting on mascara at 6am just to go to the car boot. Why is physical attraction so important anyway? It exists in a weird curve: it grows the more you fall for someone – she distinctly remembers waking up next to Andy, the first time, and ranking him a 7 out of 10; six months later he was 9.5 and pretty much her physical ideal, the blueprint by which all future men would be measured – then over time, it plateaus as you get used to each other and with familiarity their face fails to hold the same fascination. If she could have his face in front of her again, just for a second, she wouldn’t take it for granted.

 

They both pile their boxes, David’s tightly ordered, Gemma’s chaotic, into their boots and drive off, half-watching the sun come up over the farmer’s fields on David’s left, Gemma’s right.

 

****

 

Gemma has been warned what the car boot sale is like – a friend described it as brutal – but she’s unprepared for people swooping like buzzards and fingering her stuff before she’s even got it out of the boxes.

Someone actually tries to buy her flask, even though the cup is right next to it full of what is quite clearly hot coffee. She’s come prepared, because she’s used to all the things you have to do when you’re alone. Like you can’t just wander off and buy a drink, or your belongings will be stolen.

Later, she’ll reflect that she probably should have just taken the money for the flask.

 

David first notices her because she gives a loud ‘Hey!’, which is followed by a yelp from the old man whose hand she has just slapped. ‘You have iPad? iPhone?’ someone is jabbering in David’s ear, and he shakes his head distractedly, as the old man walks by muttering and rubbing the back of his hand. David watches the girl struggle with her folding table.

 

He could bloody well help me, she thinks, instead of just staring. She’s sweating. She isn’t cut out for this kind of crap. She never even usually wears trainers. She likes pretty dresses and proper shoes. She likes 1950s style and she’d hoped her little sale would be a classy affair with a vintage tea-party feel, but she can see as she lays it all out on the camping table with the wonky leg, hurriedly covered with an Emma Bridgewater tablecloth, that it is a pretty sad collection.

The boy – not a boy, she chides herself, stop thinking of them as boys, he’s a man for goodness’ sake – he’s far cooler, she thinks. He’s not looking at her any more. His stuff is neatly labeled in boxes: BOOKS. CDs. DVDs. GAMES. Everything is square or rectangular, the kind of things that are easy to wrap at Christmas. No soft edges or frills.

 

It’s David’s first time at one of these things and he has decided quickly that it will be his last. Obviously he hasn’t come to buy anything. So why exactly does he find himself standing at this girl’s stall, flicking through her books and CDs? (Phil Collins? Ugh. On the other hand, she’s getting rid of it, so…)

He jumps when she appears from behind her car and says ‘Hi!’ He drops No Jacket Required like he was looking at a dirty magazine and his mum just walked in. Not that that ever happened.

‘Er…hi,’ he says. Er…hi? goes his inner voice. Real smooth. She’s got really pretty eyes.

‘Having a good day?’ she nods towards his neat little pile of soon to be ex-belongings, marginally depleted. He shrugs, feels that bored expression take over his face that always makes him hate himself a little bit.

‘It’s alright,’ he mutters, ‘Not my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning.’

‘Did you want to buy any of these?’ she motions to the CDs, which a hand-written poster announces are ‘Only £1 each!’, in flowery letters. Her voice is still bright but he can tell she’s thinking he’s an asshole.

‘God, no,’ he says, and her face falls. ‘I mean. No offence, but…they’re just not my style.’

‘Well, they’re not mine. I mean, they don’t belong to me, not exactly.’

‘How come you’re selling them, then?’ The words are out before he can stop them. Now I’m a rude, nosey asshole, he thinks. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, that’s alright.’ She sighs and picks up her flask. ‘Fancy a coffee?’

 

David. His name is David. That’s about all Gemma has managed to find out about him, but that’s probably because she’s been rabbiting on about herself. She always does that when she’s nervous. He doesn’t really look at her. Is he shy, or just rude? And can she be bothered to work it out, she wonders. Then again, he did come over to her first, and he did go and buy her a coffee when the flask ran dry, asking her to watch his stuff, though he didn’t seem overly concerned about whether it sold, or got stolen, or disappeared into thin air.

She likes him. She hates how she starts liking guys straight away, starts envisaging far-fetched scenes involving long country walks, city breaks, a proposal, a wedding…but usually does nothing to make those things happen.

The initial flow of people has died down and Gemma wonders if there will be another surge or if it’s time to pack up. She looks sadly at her little collection of bric-a-brac. She doesn’t like the idea of taking it back to the house.

‘I think I’m done,’ David says, to somewhere just over the top of her head. ‘I’ll probably just take the rest of it to Oxfam.’

‘Right. Good idea.’ She turns away and tips her remaining items into the largest box, hearing something clatter and smash as it falls in.

 

It’s been a long time since David asked anyone out. On, like, a date. But he likes this girl. Woman, he corrects himself, she’s a woman, come on idiot. Gemma. She talks a lot but she’s honest and sweet and kind of funny. And she really does have nice eyes. And a great smile.

His remaining CDs are all messed up. He doesn’t bother to sort them; he’s suddenly self-conscious and needs to get away. He places them carefully in the box alongside the books he didn’t manage to sell: a guide to the flags of the world, and some cod philosophy book an ex-girlfriend bought him, called ‘Happiness’ (the book, not the girlfriend). He sighs, catches sight of his reflection in the car window. Ageing, balding Goth, he supposes is how you’d describe his look. What would someone like Gemma see in him, anyway?

 

They both sit in their cars. There’s a queue to get out of the field. Gemma glances in her rearview mirror, catches David’s eye, and the first time, he smiles. The second time, he looks away. Neither of them really knows why he does this, what it means.

When he gets home, David will start to reorganize his CDs into alphabetical order and find one that doesn’t belong there. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. When he picks it up, a piece of paper will flutter out: a phone number.

When Gemma gets home, she will just wait.

 

 

 

 

*First published on writers-online.co.uk

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Bells

I don’t suppose my mother and father had bells at their wedding. You didn’t, at a registry office in the early 1970s. My mother didn’t wear white; she wore a cream pant suit with a brown satin blouse, an elaborate pussy bow at the collar. She didn’t carry flowers.

Our first telephone was blood red, with a curly wire and a plastic dial. It was positioned on a sideboard in the hall. My mother sat on the stairs, muttering ‘Ring, ring,’ under her breath. Eventually it did, and her own mother’s voice came crackling through the line. Unsurprising really, since she was the only other person we knew who had a phone, but the delight on Mum’s face was tangible.

There were only two other items that lived on that sideboard: a framed photograph from the wedding, their serious faces gazing out at the lives that lay ahead of them, and a bell-shaped bottle.

Bell’s whisky. A ceramic decanter, in colours of brown and cream, enhanced with gold. As a child I would pick it up, listen to the sloshing of the liquid within, and wait for a chime, a ring, that never came. I still considered it the height of sophistication, and the only alcohol I ever saw in the house apart from Mateus rose at Christmas, in bottles that were also saved and later used as candle holders.

Just because I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Just because there was always liquid in the bell doesn’t mean that it wasn’t often emptied, and refilled. Mum became a near-permanent fixture on the stairs, telephone in one hand, glass in the other. The phone her connection to the outside world, the whisky her way of going inside.

There will be bells at the funeral.

th-3

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Coffee

 

Today I poured cold water on my coffee before hot, and it made me think of you.

It stops it burning, you told me. You had lots of tips like this: chill glasses before white wine, sweat onions slowly.

‘These things take time,’ you said.

Like leaving your wife, I suppose. I believe that’s still in progress.

Brown floaters rose to the top of the cup and wouldn’t dissolve however much I stirred. The romance was short-lived. I poured it down the sink.

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