The Sevillanos in his yellow hat

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I spend so much of my time writing. Yet I don’t think I have any photos of myself actually doing it. So the one above is rare indeed. I was on a writing retreat in Spain, in the hills above Aracena. I took this photo as I wanted to work out the self-timer on my new camera. My first effort failed, hence the photo of the empty chair below.

 

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They make an interesting couple. I wonder what I was writing at the time. I looked very focused in that first photo. But perhaps I was just pretending. And look at the second one: an empty chair; an empty pair of shoes. They speak of absence.

The day before, in a cafe in Seville, I took the photo below. An old man dressed head to toe in white linen, wearing a bright yellow hat. He kept a pair of silver pince-nez in a silver box. He read the day’s newspaper intently.

I went to the same cafe the next morning, before meeting friends for lunch and taking a taxi into the hills. He was there again, in the same clothes, reading the newspaper.

I wonder now, was he reading the same newspaper as when I first saw him? It would make an interesting story. The man who reads the same piece of news, every morning of his life. Why would he do that?

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A poem full of holes

home to home

Here’s a quick update about an interesting project I worked on recently.

Writer John Simmons asked me and a few other people to create a collaborative poem on the theme of ‘home’. The idea emerged from a conversation between John and designer Mike Abrahams about a residential property development Mike was working on with Jaccaud Zein Architects.

A big building site would normally be shut away behind a wall of chipboard hoardings. Such a barrier keeps the public safe, but does nothing to engage their curiosity. I know I can’t walk past a development without wondering what’s going on inside. Mike wanted to rethink the traditional screen in a way that would play on this natural fascination.

He came up with the idea of drilling a grid of holes in the hoardings – so people could look through – and then filling some of them with yellow plugs in a way that formed letters and spelled out words. The little plugs are easy to move, which meant he could change the words if he wanted to. Mike and John then decided to create a 12 line poem and to display each line on the hoardings for a month. They then thought of asking 12 writers to produce a line each. At which point I became involved.

There were some interesting constraints. Each line had to be 34 characters so that it fit the space exactly. To give the writing some unifying structure, each line had to start with the word that ended the preceding line, and the whole piece had to start and end with the word ‘home’.

It was great fun to work on. The project attracted some very positive media coverage. Some members of the previously excluded public found the experience so engaging that they moved the yellow plugs to make words of their own – I approve of such anarchic reinvention!

Here’s the poem in full. I wrote the third line.

Home opens up your own vision of possible
Possible dances new beginnings with joy
Joy in your heart tread lightly with love
Love and soft arms that hold us each night
Night rooms of sorrows and ardour speak
Speak dream bright windows to your world
World made divine by the promises we keep
Keep dreams alive and nightmares at bay
Bay of belonging a shared harbour our own
Own part of my restless heart sweet place
Place me in the bosom of this loving house
House me in the heartbeat at heart of home

Apart from myself and John, the writers involved in the project are Faye Sharpe, Sarah Farley, Richard Pelletier, Charlotte Halliday, Tim Rich, Jan Dekker, Sue Evans, John Dodds, Jamie Jauncey and Stuart Delves.

A mad hat, a simple poem

I went to Oxford’s new Story Museum last week for the launch of the 26 Characters exhibition. It’s the product of a great idea: photograph 26 children’s authors dressed as their favourite fictional characters; ask 26 other writers to create short poems inspired by the photos.

I was part of the editorial team that pulled the poems together. And I wrote one myself – inspired by Shirley Hughes dressed as Lady Bracknell from the Importance of Being Earnest. I took my cue from Shirley’s extraordinary hat.

The inspiring hat (on the right)

The project led to a booklet created by Design by St. It includes all the poems, each one illustrated by a different artist. In my case, by French graphic designer Jean Jullien. We had a great write-up in Design Week.

Here’s my poem, which I left untitled. Like all the ones in this project, it is a sestude – 62 words exactly.

Victorian snobbery
flowers quite naturally.
For it’s a fact unarguably true
that I was born better than you.
And my breeding you plainly can see
just look how I imbibe my tea.
Put simply, I simply have class
whereas you are all muck and no brass.
My father was a Nabob of Gujarat.
This hat was a gift from his favourite cat.

The museum people also asked me to write a short essay about a favourite fictional character from my own childhood. I chose Robinson Crusoe. You can read that here.

Jean Jullien’s illustration of my poem

 

Me reading at the launch
Me reading at the launch

Excellent narrative

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I entered a piece in the Labello Press International Short Story Competition last month. I was long listed, and then shortlisted. I didn’t finish in the top three, but I did win an Excellence in Contemporary Narrative Award. I’m happy with that. They will publish my story, The Passenger, in their 2014 anthology, called Gem Street. It’s out later in the year; more news nearer the time.

One reason I’m fond of this story is that I wrote it on my Dark Angels masterclass in Oxford. I think most of it came together at two o’clock in the morning, after a day visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum, a curious place full of intriguing objects. The display case focused on ancient writing instruments was especially interesting, and I can see now how the idea of primitive symbol-making bubbled up into my story. Fascinating how the imagination works.

 

My rooms at Merton College, Oxford, where I wrote The Passenger
My rooms at Merton College, Oxford, where I wrote The Passenger
The Pitt-Rivers Museum is full of this kind of thing
The Pitt-Rivers Museum is full of this kind of thing

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Tools of the trade
Tools of the trade

 

 

Talent + effort = success

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What kind of effort does it take to get a first collection of stories published? There’s no one better to ask right now than Dan Powell.

I’ve been a fan of Dan’s writing for a long time and he’s done me the honour of beta reading some of my stories. So I was delighted when he was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize and even more happy when the good people of Salt decided to publish his debut collection – Looking Out Of Broken Windows – which you can buy now.

But before you dash off to order Dan’s book, scroll down and learn a bit about the secrets of his success. I wanted to hear about the nuts and bolts of his writing world – the tricks and tools. So I threw him some questions.

Spoiler alert: success like Dan’s involves a lot of hard work and dedication. But I guess that’s no surprise.

1/ Dan, I’m obsessed with writing routines. Have you got one? What would you like to change about it?

My writing routine has to fit around my part time teaching work and the full time care of my three children, the youngest of whom is only three years old. On days when they are all in school or nursery and I don’t have to teach, I am at my desk as soon as I get back from the school run and I stay there until lunch, breaking only for coffee. This is when I’m at my freshest, so I tend to focus on my work in progress. After lunch, I work through until 3pm when the school run starts again. This slot is usually reserved for editing and the like. In the evenings of those days I blog and read through the day’s work.

If I’m called into work writing time is lost so I claw back as much as I can from the evenings and try to grab a few hours at weekends. My wife and extended family often support me by taking the kids off my hands for a few hours.

As sunrise is getting earlier now, I’m planning to try and get into the routine of rising early to write for an hour or two before the kids get up. I’m not a naturally early riser but as the final deadline for my Creative Writing MA looms, I know I will need to get some extra time from somewhere to whip the novel into shape. Here’s hoping I can haul myself out of bed.

What would I change? Like all writers, I’d like more time to write.

The Dan himself
The Dan himself

2/ I love data. I track my daily words in an Excel spreadsheet. How do you keep on top of your writing productivity?

I write pretty much all my drafts in Scrivener these days and it has a handy target and progress tab that allows me to set a word limit for a piece, which I can then use to set a daily target by inputting a deadline for myself. I find that the deadline is more important to me than a specified word count. I usually set up a project so that the deadline requires me to write about 500 words a day. I usually write more than the limit but 500 words or thereabouts feels like enough of a chunk for me to feel pleased if I complete it. For my novel I kept a journal in Day One (the mobile app) and I jotted my daily word count in that along with my thoughts on the day’s writing. A spreadsheet would have been more useful for tracking trends.

Bluebird. Aaaah
Bluebird. Aaaah

3/ Pen, pencil, yellow paper, 3×5 cards, laptop? What are your writing weapons of choice? How do you decide what to you use when?

My MacBook and the Scrivener app is my main writing tool these days. My iPad has been essential since I bought one back in 2012. It isn’t always practical to lug the laptop about so I make sure I have reading material and a section of whatever I am working on sitting in the Cloud so I can work on the go. I am often hanging about waiting for kids to come out of school clubs or have a lunchtime to myself when working so having something with me to work on is essential. Like many who use Scrivener, I can’t wait for the iPad version with Cloud syncing to finally see release.

I have loads of notebooks. My diary has a week to a page with a facing notebook page and that goes with me everywhere. It has deadlines and notes on whatever I am working on. It is also my main place for jotting down ideas when they come. I have a notebook in the glove compartment of my car, one in the pocket of my raincoat, one on my bedside. That way I never am never to far from a pen and paper.

I also have a typewriter in my study. That gets a run whenever I have the time and a project that I want to write more slowly. It’s a 1950s Bluebird and I picked up on eBay for a fiver. It needed a little TLC but it types perfectly now. I love the sound of it and the way it slows down the process. You have to think harder when working on the typewriter. I also have a portable Corona Zephyr that I can take on the move, if I feel like living the hipster cliché. It’s much lighter than the Bluebird and has a funky, Seventies design feel to it. I have written first drafts of the last few short stories on these.

Once I have a first draft, I record myself reading it using Garageband. I do this firstly to hear the story as I edit. You hear every mistake when you play the recording back. I record each section of a story separately so that, once I have each section in Garageband, the viewer shows each section visually. This is a quick and clear way to see the structure of the story, which sections take up most space, which are dominating the story, and which might need extending. Sometimes I use the floor to do this. I type up the story onto the MacBook then print it and lay the whole thing out on the floor to see the overall shape.

Zephyr
Did you think a Zephyr was a car?!?

 

4/ You are going on a two-week holiday with the family. The suitcase is stuffed to bursting. What one essential bit of writing kit do you sneak in when nobody is looking?

That would have to be the MacBook. Everything I need is on the hard drive of my silver machine. I would be lost without it. For this reason I back up obsessively both on the cloud and off.

5/ You meet a hopelessly blocked writer who can’t think of anything to write about and is desperate to kick start her creativity. You give her one tool and one piece of advice about how to use it. Explain your choices.

Since having the kids I have never had writers block. I simply don’t have the time to be blocked. I either write in the few hours before the kids get home/wake up or I get nothing done. So to answer you question, I’d loan your hypothetical writer my very real and time-consuming children. I guarantee, after a week, she’d be cramming as much writing as possible into every precious minute she has to herself.

6/ Step into my time machine and journey back to your childhood. There is one writing-related tool you want to own again. What is it and why do you want it so badly?

I kept a notebook in my teens full of pages of bad poetry and bits of short fiction. I regret ever chucking them out. I am sure the stuff in there was execrable but it would be great to have them to look back on and laugh at. I now keep all my notebooks and drafts just in case I ever need them.

7/ Get back into the time machine, Dan, because now we’re going to the future – 2024, to be precise. The writing tool you’ve been dreaming of for years has just come onto the market. What is it and how will it help you?

I used the Hemingway app the other day to edit a short story. You basically paste your story into the editor and it tells you how to improve the piece using Hemingway’s prose and rules for writing as the software’s guide. It was a surprisingly fun way of working and I think my story has ended up much improved. Taking this idea to an extreme, I would love to see this app taken to its logical conclusion: a virtual Hemingway (or any other great author) who works through your prose with you on a one to one tutorial style basis. The chance to talk stories with a virtual Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov and get input on a work in progress would be ace.

LOOK, FREE STUFF…

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of his blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment here on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 – or you can Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Scrivener contents of LOoBW
Scrivener in action. Click if you need to see it bigger

 

 

Hearse rake the coals of my heart

The 26 Words exhibition – “exploring the DNA of language” – opened in London last week. Among the works on display was the piece that I made with Mark Noad, inspired by the death of my mum earlier in the year.

Here’s the project in a nutshell: Take 26 pairs of writers and artists – one for each letter of the alphabet – and challenge them to make something inspired by a random word that starts with that letter. My letter was H and my word was Hearse.

I was a bit nervous about going along to see my finished piece on the opening night. I mingled busily, grazed on wine and crisps, took my time looking at other people’s work, and put off the moment when I’d have to go over and actually look at mine.

But it went very well. Someone whose views I value a lot said it was “brilliantly clever and profoundly moving”. A few other people said they were touched by it. And a very nice man called Jerome liked it so much that he got his wallet out and bought it, there and then.

The show – with fantastic work from 26 other writers – is at the Free Word Centre in London until January and then goes on tour. But in the meantime, here’s my bit. It’s called “Hearse rake the coals of my heart”…

The piece we made

And if you can’t read the words…

Hearse rake the coals of my heart

More wanted
Never agreed
Everything regretted
Nothing said beautifully
Lived inconsequentially
Failed completely.
Listen.
Love.
Remember this need.
You cry: please…

Please cry
You need this
Remember, love
Listen completely.
Failed inconsequentially
Lived beautifully
Said nothing regretted
Everything agreed
Never wanted more.

And here’s the story of how I wrote it (you can read Mark’s side of things here):

My word, Hearse, was chosen for me on the day my Mum died. She had a massive brain haemorrhage at home and never woke up. I appreciated the irony of the coincidence, as my Mum would have done, and decided not to ask for a different word.

Initially I thought I could put my Mum out of my thoughts and write something hearse-related that had nothing to do with her. It didn’t seem fair to dump all my grief onto Mark, my collaborator. And my Mum’s death was the last thing I wanted to write about, or even think about.

So I began on safe ground, researching the etymology of my word. A hearse was originally a framework for candles that hung over a coffin. Its root is in the Old French herce – a long rake or harrow. That gave me a line, “Hearse, rake the coals of my heart”, which eventually became our title.

Next I discovered hearse-owner clubs, watched promotional videos for funeral industry trade shows, thought about roadside memorial shrines, marvelled at the literalness of the German word for hearse – Leichenwagen, corpse wagon.

Bewildered by the possibilities, and with a deadline looming, I decided to give myself a constraint. I would write a palindrome – a string of words that can be read backwards as well as forwards. This was tricky, but fun. I was pleased with the result.

But I decided it wasn’t good enough. It just didn’t say anything. And I had a nagging sense that I was avoiding what I really ought to be writing about. Then I noticed that the word I’d been trying to dodge – mum – was itself a palindrome. That seemed like a sign to carry on, and to dig deeper.

So I started again. I wrote mum in the middle of a big sheet of paper and built a new palindrome around it. I wanted that central word to be a turning point. Everything leading up to it would be in one voice, with one meaning; everything afterwards would mean something very different.

This was hard and painful. I wanted to write something that was about loss and regret and love and forgiveness. It would be inspired by my mum, but I wanted to leave room for other people to relate to it in their own way.

Before Mark and I agreed the final text, we both felt one last change was needed. The word at the centre of the piece, around which everything revolved, had to go. For me it was a painful cut, but also a release. What remains can stand on its own.

A sneaky shot of someone looking at Hearse…
Me with Jerome, who bought Hearse… (hence I’m smiling)

Plant life

My main contribution to the gardening at home is to cut the grass and dig holes where I’m told to. But I enjoyed the ceramic flowers I found on a summer visit to the Botanic Gardens in Ventor.

Frances Doherty‘s pieces were strange, unexpected and beautiful. I particularly liked the simple words that came with them. A glimpse of the story behind each work made for an engaging encounter.

“Scruffy” hydrangeas…

While cycling in Holland…

Scarlet poppies…

From another inspiring cycle with friends…

Frances wasn’t the only person planting pleasing words in the Ventnor garden. I think this is the best “sorry for the mess….” sign I’ve ever read.

How to find story ideas

Where do I get my short story ideas from? Mainly I just make them up. But once in a while I’ll find something like this, an item in my local newspaper.

What makes this the germ of a good story? For me, it’s not the fact that this arch criminal was trying to escape the police in a kayak, or that his desire to start a new life in France was so spontaneously random. No, it’s the fact that he was wearing a child’s life jacket.

The strange power of the pen

Every year, when I take a summer holiday, the first items to go into my suitcase are always the same. I pack my notebook, a spare notebook, my pens, spare ink, a few pencils – my writing tools and accoutrements.

And that’s where they stay – in the suitcase.

I always think that when I’m away from the daily routine, when I have spare time in abundance, I’ll get lots of writing done.

Actually, I don’t get lots of writing done. I don’t get any done.

But that wasn’t quite true this summer. I did sit down for ten whole minutes in August to make a few notes about a woman called Dora.

Dora owned the house we were renting on the island of Brac, Croatia. She came by one day to drop off some clean sheets and we got chatting.

She told me how she’d bought the place as a ruin ten years ago. Originally it was a mill. Her husband renovated it as a hobby. His day job is teaching maths.

She’d lived in this village – Bol – all her life. Her husband came from Murvica, a hamlet along the coast that only recently became accessible by road.

I decided to ask Dora about something that had been puzzling me.

The five-minute walk from our holiday house to the sea goes past a derelict modernist hotel. It looked to me like a prime piece of property, ideal for investment. (And Bol is a classy beach town that’s had plenty of money spent on it since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.)

How had the hotel got into such a mess, and why had nobody fixed it up?

Dora’s English faltered at this point.

The problem had something to do with a dispute between the Catholic Church and the state, she explained in a vague way.

One of them owned the land – I couldn’t quite understand which – and the other was blocking its redevelopment.

“Before they were ok, now they are like this,” she said, punching one fist with the other.

I asked why, but she changed the subject.

I had the feeling that our conversation about pool maintenance and how many towels I might need had strayed into territory she found uncomfortable. It’s easy to forget; 20 years ago the people hereabouts were shooting their neighbours.

It interests me that I scribbled down some notes about our chat. I’d say that I pressed Dora to talk about something she was reluctant to discuss because I’m naturally curious. (Although my wife says I’m just nosey)

But I wonder, was I subconsciously driven by all those unfilled notebook pages? Even when the pen stays in the suitcase, does it still exert a strange power?

Not the best place in town

Even worse inside