Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

Visit the writers' development service I co-run at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

About Me

My photo
Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring. In addition, I co-run The Writers' Shed, a service for writers, at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

Thursday, 19 October 2017

What Publishers Want

This morning I'm sifting through interviews with publishers and editors to see what gets them excited. Straight from the horses' mouth, as it were. And since that is a betting term, it's quite apt because everybody, whether publisher, author or reader, is taking a gamble on whether this book is going to prove a winner.

Publishers are looking to sell books. We're talking large numbers of sales that bring in a healthy profit. They're panning the slush pile for story-gold. So far, so obvious. When it comes to your novel submission, publishers are inundated with potential books in a given genre, all written to a certain standard. What makes yours stand out from the crowd? To take a bet on backing your book, publishers want to know that readers are going to be excited by it, will be recommending it to their friends, will be coming back for more. So what are those elusive qualities that drive a runaway success for a novel? In listening to industry professionals, I'm finding certain themes recur.

'Say what you want about some popular authors or creators: they know how to move someone. To get people to keep turning pages. Keep buying books. Keep telling friends about them.'

Dan Blank, founder of We Grow Media

So we all want that emotional hit when we've invested time in a novel – it has to get under our skin and, as Blank says, resonate. It stays with us afterwards, that emotional echo of a book we loved, even if it's disturbed or perplexed us. Personally I want a story that leaves me shell-shocked but not in an obvious, manipulative way. But there's that page-turning quality as well. A book that's made me hungry, that's kept me up at night because I can't sleep not knowing what's happened to that character I've grown to care about and worry about.

'All right, so I want an original voice. Now that’s different from an original story, because I really do believe that old saying that there’s only seven stories in the world — there might be more, hopefully there are. But, it’s not that you always have to completely come up with a new storyline, but you do have to have a new way of telling it. Your unique voice, as a writer, has to come through, and I have to engage with that voice. It has to draw on my emotions, one way or the other... it has to be something that is confident enough that it draws me in and it’s a really well-managed tool to tell the story. And stories are really important to me, so it has to have a story that I can think about while I’m doing the washing up. It has to linger in my head...'
Bernadette Foley, Editor & Publisher at Hachette, Australia.

Foley touches here on another elusive quality: narrative voice. The voice of a book is its personality. It's a voice whispering in your ear – as intimate as radio, even more so because it's right in your head. And the narrative voice embodies the story. It grows out of the story, it's the only way to tell that particular story. As Foley says, 'well-managed tool to tell the story.' This might be the voice of a character-narrator or it might be the voice of a landscape of events or all of those. But when you hear it, it casts a spell and you're hooked.

'Because I’m only sent a chapter, and you can tell in a chapter, it’s essentially, maybe it’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for either really good raw writing style, that I think will have a great story. Or if in my dreams, a manuscript arrives, or a chapter arrives, and the narrative voice is really distinctive, and the reader has, I just really want to keep on reading… So narrative voice is probably the most important for me...When you’re reading, observe the craft of how the person, how the author has set up a great narrative voice, how they’ve developed characters, whether the characters are likable... You know, just look at every aspect of the craft. How they’ve moved their plot along, the structure, and so on. So that’s my first thing. Read a lot, and read for the craft... Go back to your favourite novels and look at why they are so good.'

Louise Thurtell, Publisher at Allen & Unwin

Thurtell hones in on the impact of narrative voice but she also advises writers to study the structure and pace of the novels they admire. It's that page-turning quality again we're looking for. A while back, I picked up the American classic novel Moby Dick. I knew that the subject matter really appealed to me. He's got whales, icebergs, the wild landscape of Newfoundland and its surrounding oceans, the story of men locked in a boat for years on end and an obsessive captain driven by a desire for revenge. Perfect book for a long winter read. When I read the opening page, the first person narrative leapt out and seized me. 'I could follow this narrator to the ends of the earth,' I wrote on Facebook. But then ten chapters in, we were still marooned ashore while the hero negotiated his way onto a whaling ship. I have to confess, I floundered, I ground to a halt. I will get back to Moby Dick, honest, I'll stock up on rations and hunker down for the duration. But as a reader in the 21st century, like the rest of us, I'm looking for the storytelling to have that page-turning, can't-put-it-down quality. And as a novelist, that's a challenge I have to meet myself.

So here's a group of publishers in 2015, talking in The Guardian about books they did publish and why they were successful. You'll notice the same themes coming through:

'Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates takes the form of a letter from the author to his teenage son. Along with his powerful, personal and provocative history of race in America, Coates also shares his hopes and fears for his son’s future. Rarely are such “urgent” books written in such mesmerising prose.'

Hannah Griffiths, Publishing Director, Faber
'Drugs, dubstep, eco-terrorism, racial politics, failing marriages, birding, sex (in a canoe), the nuclear family: it’s all here. As the New York Times said: “You don’t read Nell Zink (The Wallcreeper) so much as step into the ring with her.” She is a total one-off, a wild voice out of nowhere which seems to have no precedent. We will be hearing much more from her over the coming years.'
Nicolas Pearson, Publishing Director, 4th Estate
'Claire Fuller’s rich and humane Our Endless Numbered Days introduces us to Peggy, one of the most vivid child narrators I’ve encountered. Abducted by her survivalist father to live in a remote forest cabin, she seeks escape through music, nature and books. It is a dark and massively suspenseful story which abounds with references to fairytales.'
Juliet Annan, Publishing Director, Fig Tree/ Penguin

An urgent book in mesmerising prose, a one-off wild voice, a vivid child-narrator and massively suspenseful story. We'd all love to have written those books - but how? The Writers' Shed notes that precisely these qualities are often talked about but rarely taught. That's why the first Masterclass in our new series will address Narrative Drive & Narrative Voice. We hope to drill down to the techniques that can make your book stand out from the heap on the slush pile table. And have your readers celebrating the book they couldn't put away. To find out more, pop over to The Writers' Shed and take a look. You'll find other free resources there on the shelves too.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Jewellery-Box of Story

Short on words, long on lasting impressions. This I think is what we're looking for in a good short story. That they drill down deep into our imagination, suggesting themes, vividly realised worlds, character secrets, at a level somewhere below the surface of the text. So we the readers are drawn into using all our intuitive resources to excavate their meanings. And when we find ourselves down there, the emotional clout of the story is so much more because we have constructed it with our own memories and feelings, our guesses and hidden knowledge of the human heart.
Well that is what we hope for. I'll admit I find short stories devilishly difficult to write but worth the hard sweat when I finally make it through my usual fog of doubt to shape something that works. If there was a formula, I'd apply it every time but each story is a new journey with its own demands. However I'm always more than happy to read other author's tips.
Jacob Ross is a man who knows his craft and in his introduction to the Peepal Tree Press anthology Closure, says: 'Humans have always valued the short story as a way to make sense of the world, and their place in it.' I love reading classic short story writers like Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov but reading contemporary anthologies is key to learning how storywriters are making sense of OUR world right now. And that means language and form are being stretched in new ways to evoke that.
Award-winning writer Rebecca Burns offers her own tips in a forthcoming anthology by Dahlia Publishing. Burns was a judge for the Leicester Writes Short Story competition 2017. She identifies several winning factors in these stories: the ability to 'make time stand still'; 'a killer first line' or alternatively plunging the reader into 'a fully-formed, fleshed-out world'. She addresses the crucial economy of the short fiction form - in maybe 2000 words, the writer needs to find ONE moment that can illuminate all the pressures acting on a character. And vivid settings and rich backstories need to be sketched in just a few sentences.
Since I have two stories being published this month in different anthologies, I'm reflecting on what I've learnt so far about crafting these short-form tales.
  1. I'd agree with Burns about the compression of storytelling. And I think my own stories have benefitted from getting shorter so that my focus has to get much clearer. My story in the Leicester Writes anthology is just 1,705 words. That took a lot of whittling down but the editing is like sculpting the story with a chisel to get a sharper, cleaner outline. This is where the sweat and tears comes in.
  2. That 'moment' has to reveal the main character's essence but the story also needs a click, a definite sense that at one point something has changed or been realised. It mustn't be so elusive that the reader misses that heartbeat. I don't want my reader to feel the ending was too obvious but neither do I want them to wonder what on earth it was all about.
  3. We're working in miniature here, like crafting jewellery. Or more like the jewellery-box because structure is the mechanism of a short story. It has to deliver. In my story 'Switching Off the Metronome' I gave myself 4 scenes to plot the twists and turns of a crime-story. I was delighted then that judge Nina Stibbe commented on how the narrator wrong-footed her as to the guilt of my protagonist: 'She leads you this way, then that ... (until) with only a few sentences to go, she's switched it all around again. Brilliant. Powerful.'
  4. None of this matters if you haven't got a compelling character with something to lose at the centre. I don't mean your protagonist has to be sympathetic. In my 'Metronome' story, the narrator may or may not have committed a terrible crime. But short fiction brings us very close in to a character and unpeels tightly-wrapped layers. I do character quizzes and such-like to learn what their values and quirks are, before and sometimes during the writing. A local writer I much admire, Bead Roberts, used to say; 'Put your characters up a tree and stone them.' This is when we really see what they're made of.
  5. Then it's a case of rummaging through the tool-box of story. Setting is often a good trigger for me in bringing a story to life. 'Metronome' is partly set in a police-station - I borrowed freely from TV dramas and a few Google pics. And I wanted to capture the atmosphere of those tense police interrogations in my dialogue. But in another story 'Red Feet', inspired by the fairy-tale 'Red Shoes', it was more about weaving a pattern of imagery that played with the colour and dance motifs and Gothic allusions. Different elements come to the fore in different stories.
Anyway I'm rather pleased to find my characters in such interesting company in these two anthologies. The Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2017 Anthology Vol. 1  will be launched on Friday 30th June at the 2017 Leicester Writes festival. If you're a writer of short fiction, do yourself a favour and book in for the workshop with prizewinner Catherine Menon at 3pm earlier that day.
My other story appears in the recently released Mrs Rochester's Attic, a gorgeously Gothic anthology from Mantle Lane Press. Billed as 'Tales of Madness, Strange Love and Deep, Dark Secrets', it's available in hardcopy, Kindle edition or as an MP3 download for the ridiculous price of 79p. Now that's really cutting it fine.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

'And Still I Rise': HIDDEN FIGURES Review

Sometimes you have to admire the maths. What a finely tuned script this was from Allison Schroeder, delivering uplift or burn-up at exactly the right moment in a beautifully predicted orbit. So here comes the man holding out a chalk to NASA's 'smart girl' Katherine, posing a test. It's a visual motif that recalls the day her elementary schoolmaster demonstrated his faith in her latent genius for numbers. Turns out you can make quadratic equations look elegant on a blackboard and make jotting sums look like the breakout action of a heroine. You've seen the trailers, right? She smashes it out of the park and no-one in the auditorium is going to begrudge the inevitability of that victory.
Equally impressive were the calculations behind intersecting stories of three remarkable women embodying different talents within the sprawling NASA machine of 1961. The gifted mathematician Katherine Goble calculating the trajectory of America's first astronauts. The natural engineer MaryJackson working in a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, once she's battled the segregation barrier at  night-school. And the 'coloured computers' unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan who has the foresight to teach herself a new computing language when NASA invests in an IBM. She actually invents a job not only for herself but her entire team. If Civil Rights protesters outside are facing dogs, water cannons and live rounds, she too displays courage in the face of career death when she insists 'we come together or not at all'.
The pay-load here is that this mind-boggling story is TRUE. I've been researching a book about the Space Race for some years now and I'd come across one article about one of these pioneering women. So I was blown away by the sight of that room full of 'coloured computers' and how integrated these women were into the NASA story. How on earth did they get access to colleges and university degrees? We glimpse in the film the support of their community and families helping power their journeys and they way the women looked out for each other within the corridors of NASA. This is a key theme of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly which inspired the film. Likewise this feel-good vehicle fresh out of Hollywood gains real buoyancy from warm-hearted performances by actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle MonĂ¡e.
But beyond the 'Hidden Figures', we are clearly supposed to be rooting for the US of A and Kennedy's project of beating the Commies to the Moon. Kevin Costner's earnest gum-chewing chief has a big speech about how the winners of the race get to make the rules for what happens in space. There's an implication that NASA is strictly about the science where the Ruskies are all about spying and nuclear war-heads. And so here comes JohnGlenn, a blonde cowboy in silver-suit, flashing smiles straight out of a 1960's toothpaste advert. Gagarin by comparison is an uncomfortable historical footnote that cranks up the narrative pressure.
No matter that this is a country which treats its black citizens as untouchables, a point made by the separate 'coloured coffee pot' Katherine's white-male colleagues introduce into the Space Task Group room. (A lovely supporting role here for The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons as the sour-faced Head Engineer.) Yes, there is grit too in the tank along with a ton of sugar to fuel the combustion needed. But it could certainly have explored more the racism within and without NASA. The movie's story arc gives the impression that once Kevin Costner has wrestled the 'Coloured Bathroom' sign down with a hammer (an entirely fictional scene), discrimination was dumped in the bin for good.
Overall the relentless upwards trajectory of the narrative sweeps away any close interrogation of that history. Pharell Williams has spoken of the challenge to match the 'ascension' of the women and his poppy soundtrack does just that. It propels our emotions bang on target. My advice is – don't fight it. Strap yourself in and relish the G-forces of optimism and indignation. Personally I enjoyed the ride so much I postponed a comfort break indefinitely in sympathy with Katherine. And that's gotta be worth a few stars in any review.

Friday, 24 February 2017

A Portal of Worlds

Beyond the heavy wooden doors, oaken floor-boards are greyed by age and the walls clad in dark green enamel tiles. Downstairs doors swoosh open like a Tube carriage to reveal locals sat at computer booths along the wall. But I am drawn to the magnificently curving staircase with its stone-flagged steps and wrought-iron balustrade, topped with brass railings worn smooth by a century's hands. It's as generously wide as the idea of the building itself and as I ascend, my boots send out a satisfying ring on stone. This echoing atrium reminds me of all those Victorian libraries, favourite haunts of my childhood, Hogwartian portals to multiple worlds.
Today I am visiting that rare beast, a public library that has survived numerous culls by the Philistine hordes of government. What tugged me back to explore Leicester's Central Library was a rather lovely event staged by librarians there last week, one of a series of Write-On readings which are celebrating local writing. On a rainy Monday evening they welcomed us in to hear readings from Dahlia Publishing's shortfiction anthology, 'Lost and Found'. I was hugely impressed by this series of events showcasing Leicester authors. It's hosted by the Library on a ZERO budget but with lashings of goodwill. A really good turn-out despite the deluge outside and they made us very welcome with tea & biccies at half-time too. They have more readings planned and it's a great initiative for booklovers and writers to be supporting. And now there's an excellent review by literary blogger Emma Lee
So a week later I am ascending to the realms of  Literature, History and Non-Fiction though I find Newspaper collections, Maps and Musical scores here too. This upper floor is wrapped in a warm hush. No 'SSH' signs - just the quiet of minds absorbed in discovery or work. I wander off for a browse and find an excellent section on Writing Craft, next door to a more comprehensive Poetry section than I've seen in any bookshop. They even have a copy of my first book Firebridge to Skyshore which is rather thrilling because in a way it all started here. In libraries where a shelf-lined maze of learning and legend devoured the hours like a Narnia adventure. Installed in a comfy chair, I spend a very happy, productive afternoon, thumbing through chapters and stitching characters for my latest fictional venture. Next week I've promised myself I'll root out my old library card and become a Borrower once more ...

Meantime my current bedtime reading is Neil Gaiman's 'Odd and the Frost-Giants', a perfectly-formed icicle of a book. The hardback features an original children's tale by Gaiman and gorgeous illustrations by Chris Riddell encrust its pages or open picture-windows framed by silvered carvings. Gaiman's language probes the narrative with all the delicacy of that icicle. His hero, a gawky 12 year old boy with a winning smile and broken leg, is named Odd for the 'tip of a blade'. His companions are grumpy Norse gods who've been magicked into a depressive bear, a conceited fox and a monosyllabic eagle. The frost-Giant has eyes 'the colour of lake ice just before it cracks and drops you into freezing water'. Its shaggy mane has the tortured forms of a frozen waterfall I remember from Iceland. His breath is frosty steam for a voice 'like the howl of winter wind'. Beyond this enchantment of place, Gaiman's tale delivers wit, peril, humour, ingenuity and just a smidgen of sadness. It's a book my younger library-immured self would also have adored.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Trainspotting's Return Trip

“Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here.You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
Aren't we all, Sick Boy? Personally I'm finding the tug of 80s songtracks and period movies irresistible. Recently it's been anything with David Bowie in, especially that 1983 Vamp Noir THE HUNGER with Bowie and Deneuve slinking around to the throbbing wail of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi is Dead". Today's matinee at the Phoenix Arts Centre was T2 TRAINSPOTTING, simultaneously a 90's throwback and a 'now' movie for our out-of-control Noughties.
Genius. So funny and raw and sad and sordid and soulful and crazy and swaggering too. The original T1 cast obviously relished getting their teeth into these mid-life stranded characters who launched their acting careers. Ewan McGregor and Johnny Lee Miller may be on a sabbatical from Hollywood but it's Ewan Bremner - wrestling his face and body into so many quirky grimaces - who's the pulsing heart of the thing, dodgy deathwish notwithstanding. The women are largely wry onlookers as the men lug around their backstories in a battered carry-all. Even an incandescent Begbie can't get it up these days.
I relished the flashbacks to the gory 'glory days' of Trainspotting 1 and even their 70s childhoods. Also loved the soundtrack stuttering into brief silence early on for a nod to David Bowie. And the rainy Edinburgh cityscapes oozing more with melancholy than menace. Then screenwriter John Hodge's 'Choose Life' rant in the middle is a glorious throat-clearing gob of invective. But still the film fizzes with a kind of joy too, from the sly humour to the gorgeous photography and punchy songs that keep on coming. Like Renton's bedroom bop to his old LPs in the final trippy shot, Danny Boyle has still got the moves.
I wondered if T2 would disappoint after the break-out originality of the first film. But Boyle proves the sequel was more than a cash-in on 90s nostalgia. Irvine Welsh, whose later novel 'Porno' was raided for the new script, believes they've actually surpassed the first film. And the photo above certainly does it justice. Just compare it to that cocky fuck-you 1996 poster. 'First there's an opportunity - then there's betrayal.' Are you ready? Here comes the crash.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Venus Unshelled

For a feast that feeds the eye and ear in equal measure, it's hard to beat the unique fusion of performance poetry and figurative painting in Lydia Towsey's show THE VENUS PAPERS and its companion Scott Bridgwood exhibition. For one night only we enjoyed a consummate storyteller and a ravishing smorgasbord in one building. Throw in the wine and cupcakes and it was practically Dionysian.
Credit: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/the-birth-of-venus-by-sandro-botticelli/
At the exhibition preview, there was plenty of time to immerse ourselves in the intimate and sensuous world of Bridgwood's nude sequence. I can't remember such a compelling 'muse' narrative since I came across Andrew Wyeth's Helga paintings. My favourites here were probably the earthy brown 'boxed-in' series but I also loved the cool aqua blue in certain paintings. And how the figures morph from charcoal sketching to broad-wash strokes to knots of solid flesh that insist on their female presence. The exhibition is open till Sunday the 12th February at the Attenborough Arts Centre on Lancaster Road Leicester (or take a peek at Bridgewood's on-line gallery). Gorgeous work.
Credit: Ambrose Musiyiwa & http://www.renaissanceone.co.uk/events/ 
Credit: Ambrose Musiyiwa
Meanwhile over in the theatre Lydia Towsey was impish, seductive, sad, satirical on the turn of a verse-line in her VENUS PAPERS show. Her deft performance took in a range of characters but we were always rooting for her modern washed-up migrant Venus. I loved the props - an ingenious pink plastic sculpture strung with light-bulbs to serve as her Botticelli 'Birth of Venus' shell; a pop-up book with scenes from Renaiisance art to Tabloid headlines; and then there were was musical accompaniment, clever sound effects and slapstick murders from her two accomplices David Dhonau and Ola Szmidt. It was a magical hour, an odyssey through memory and contemporary urban landscapes with a woman wholly in command of her craft. The show came courtesy of Renaissance One but Towsey's accompanying poetry collection from innovative indie press Burning Books is also well worth seeking out.
It's a while since I've been up to the Attenborough Arts Centre for an event. Sitting in the Princess of Wales Hall always makes me nostalgic because one of my very first shows, 'Stories Drummed to Polar Skies' was staged here. It's a great venue with decent stage, intimate but properly theatrical, and ideal for a poetry performance event like Towsey's. I was delighted to also visit the new Gallery extension which provides much-needed exhibition space for visual art in Leicester. Bridgwood's canvases of his Venus muse had room to breathe here and performance and painting spoke to each other throughout the evening in teasing allusions. Delicious.