Leave a Comment · Posted on August 25, 2015
I’m always very happy to have the very lovely Kate Long here. One, because she’s unquestionably one of the nicest people I know in writing (her post on loving words is brilliant) and, second, because it usually means she has another book out – and that is always a good thing because her books are brilliant.
A little while ago she published Something Only We Know and I thought that the perfect opportunity to invite her back to talk about how it came across and the themes it deals with. It sounds good, as you’ll see…
“Researching a serious illness is always a challenge. I knew from accounts I’d read in the past that anorexia nervosa is a complex and painful condition which can last for years and, in extreme cases, prove fatal. But I also knew that a lot of sufferers recover – to a degree. The grip of the condition loosens, even if it never slackens off entirely, and life shifts into better balance once again.
Much has been written about teenagers experiencing the fiercest phase of an eating disorder. There’s less, though, about what happens later on in life, when those teens become adults with wider responsibilities and a different range of pressures. It so happened that, during a writing course, I met a woman whose daughter had been through just such an experience, and she was keen to tell me what had happened. She spoke with great frankness and courage about how hard it is to watch someone you love suffer in that way, and what kind of questions you ask yourself as a parent. Are you to blame? Was it the way you brought her up? If she loved you, surely she’d eat? If you loved her enough, shouldn’t you be able to cure her? A few months later she introduced me to her daughter, now a mum herself, who bravely explained to me what the illness had been like ‘from the inside’.
And so began the idea for my novel Something Only We Know. Helen, aged 30 and a recovered anorexic, is not the narrator. The story’s told from the point of view of her 23-year-old sister Jen, who describes what it’s like for the family to have to work around Hel’s domestic rituals. Their mother watches nervously, in case the illness seems to be taking hold again, and Jen sometimes feels she herself might as well be invisible. But at the same time she loves her sister, despite the frustrations. Aren’t all sister-relationships complex and contradictory, to some degree?
‘What would you say was the main thing you discovered about anorexia from writing the book?’ a fellow author asked me a few days ago. I told him: ‘That it’s no one’s fault.’ And it seems to me, it’s a crucial message. Towards the end of the novel, where Helen’s mother admits she always secretly believed Hel could control her condition, Helen tells her, “Anorexia’s a full-blown mental health disorder, not an exercise in family-hating bloody-mindedness. Don’t think it had anything to do with you.” That final understanding between them allows Helen to step away from her parents, and in turn allows them to let her go.
I never set out to write an “issues” novel. The characters came to me themselves, with their pasts and baggage in place. But I owe a debt of gratitude to the real-life friends who generously let me into their own experiences, and helped me shape my story.”
Something Only We Know is published by Simon and Schuster and is out now.
2 Comments · Posted on August 17, 2015
Paul! Welcome to the blog, finally. I know we’ve been talking about doing this for far too long and that we’ve not is mostly my fault. But we’re both busy, right? How’ve you been? What have you been busy with?
Howdy, Mr Cool! I’ve been good. Been a busy year so far. The second London Short Story Festival not long over. A trip to Mexico with the British Council a few weeks back and promoting the novel. Getting shortlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize was pretty amazing.
You have a book out. What is it? Who’s it for? What’s it about?
The Good Son is a coming-of-age tale set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1980. It’s about a 10 year old boy during the summer holidays between the primary school he loved and secondary school he’s dreading. It’s about just how far we are prepared to go to protect the ones we love. It’s for anyone who likes their stories told with pace and humour, who likes to see how people are shaped in the most extraordinary circumstances and what it means to be human, in all its complexities.
How long was it in the writing?
On and off over 10 years. I lost the finished novel once when my hard drive got corrupted. Gutted, I left it for a long time and had to start again from my notes. I left it again when I gave up writing for a while, finally pulling it out of drawer about 3 years ago and doing a final major rewrite. That’s the version that got published.
As well as being a writer you’re also the director of the London Short Story Festival (I really must get down for that one day!) and associate director over at Word Factory. Could you tell us all a little bit about those.
Word Factory is pretty special. Founded by Cathy Galvin, co-founder of The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, it brings together the best short story writers in the country to read their work every month. There’s always a fascinating discussion with authors on the craft of writing and a masterclass to learn from the best.
The London Short Story Festival has quickly established itself as an important date in the literary calendar and has gone from strength to strength. Gathering authors from around the world for a weekend of celebrations on the short story form the audiences have come from as far as Australia this year.
I’m curious – how does being involved in projects like those affect your writing? Are you able to keep them all separate, or are they a little more linked than that?
I had a very honest conversation with myself earlier this year. I love building platforms for writers, programming and creating things from nothing BUT it turns out this impulse comes from the same well and my writing. I’ve realised that if I’m to write another novel or finish this collection I’ve been tinkering with, I’m going to have to make big changes. I think I’ve already begun.
Your one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to write a good story would be…
Read a lot. It’s important to learn from the masters but also the new voices. Try writers outside your culture and comfort zone too.
What’s next for you?
I’ve taken August to read. I’m enjoying picking up books that aren’t for work. In September I’m off to Cork International Short Story Festival and Wroclaw Short Story Festival in October. But the big thing is to start writing again after such a long break. Scary stuff.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the invite.
Paul McVeigh was born in Belfast where he began his writing career in theatre. He moved to London where he wrote comedy shows, some of which appeared in London’s West End. Since turning to prose, his short fiction has been published in journals and anthologies, been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and read on BBC Radio 5. Paul is co-founder of London Short Story Festival and Associate Director at Word Factory, the UK’s leading short story salon.
His debut novel The Good Son was published in April 2015 and has been called ‘Outstanding’ by Toby Litt and ‘A work of genus’ by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler. It has just been shortlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize.
Leave a Comment · Posted on August 14, 2015
Leave a Comment · Posted on August 10, 2015
When I first put these up, a few years ago now, they went down very well. So here they are again – a few tips on writing good short fiction.
Short Story and Flash Fiction Tipss
Here are my tips for anyone wanting to write a good short story or piece of flash fiction:
Start where the story starts, not before. If I was telling you about a fantastic hotel room I’d stayed in I wouldn’t start by telling you about booking the tickets to get there (unless the story was about booking the tickets and ended in the room).
Take out everything, every word, every sentence, every character that isn’t absolutely necessary.
Similarly, only use the right words. Sometimes people do just ’sit’. Or ‘run’.
Make sure your characters are believable. What they do, or the situations they find themselves in, may be unlikely and fantastical but the way they react to them has to be something that readers will believe.
Be suspicious of anything you think is clever. The story comes first, the story’s what people should notice, not the writer.
Write for you, but spare a thought for the reader too.
Don’t overdo it. Big words are fine if they’re the right ones. Same with descriptions.
Say what you want to say in the simplest, and most effective, way possible. In other words: get to the point.
Aim to be brilliant.
Don’t expect it to be easy. Or quick. Be prepared to work hard.
Don’t be afraid of rewriting. In fact, embrace it; it will make your stories better.
Don’t expect to get it right the first time. You have total control of what can be changed. (I often find also that if a story wants or needs to be changed, then it’ll let you know.)
Trust your instincts. If you suspect something’s not working then it probably isn’ t.
Don’t be afraid of putting a story away for a while. Sometimes stories, and your head, need space.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Nothing’s wasted. It’s better to try something new and fail (and perhaps learn something) than to play safe all the time.
Most importantly: BE BRAVE. You have an imagination, use it. Write the story you want to write, write what you think’s good and interesting, even if that means not sticking with the norm. Different, if done well, can be brilliant.
And read the greats. See how they do things. See why they’re the greats. Even if you don’t like them you might find something in them that’s very useful.
12 Comments · Posted on August 5, 2015
Over the past couple of days I’ve ended up doing a lot of waiting. Over two hours in a train station on Sunday and in a hospital all afternoon yesterday (don’t worry, I’m fine). And, being as I usually have no time to think about much at all I used that time, waiting, to think.
At some point I was thinking about what it means to be writer. What people might think that means Vs what it is. I said on Facebook, almost in passing:
Writing advice: be a writer because there are stories you need to tell, not because you want to be a writer. Stories come first, always. Especially before us.
Writing is pretty simple when you look at it for what it is. You make stuff up and write it down and wing it and work hard at making it into something worthwhile. And then, if you’re lucky, someone else enjoys it or buys it or publishes what you’ve written.
You will only ever be a writer if you let stories, or poems, or whatever it is you write come first. It is not about you. Not about you being ‘a writer’. And even if it was wouldn’t you rather be known as that person who wrote the brilliant BOOK than Bob the Writer.
I never did this job for admiration or to look cool or interesting or bohemian or clever or anything like that. Fortunate really because I don’t think I could carry any one of those things off. I like stories. I like telling stories. They are important – they’re culture, they’re identity, they’re education and freedom and escape. They’re fantasy, they’re comfort. They’re microscopes, flies on walls, excuses – they’re things to talk about at work. They’re anything you want them to be. And I love that I’m lucky enough to be playing my own small part in all of that.
So the motivation for writing (in my very humble opinion) should be story. Maybe it’s one that’s inside us and is dying to burst out. Maybe it’s something we want to explore. Maybe it’s answering a question or maybe it’s asking one. Maybe it’s because we love to make characters up, to hear their voices, to see something new. It doesn’t matter. What matters, over and over and over is story – and that desire and that respect to appreciate it and to get it out in the best way we can and not being egotistical enough to let us stand in its way. It shouldn’t be because we want to use ‘writer’ as a tag. (And I do meet those.)
Back to being a writer then. Here’s the thing. Sometimes, it’s the best damned job in the world. We get paid to make stuff up and we get to have our names on book covers and sign them and read from them and feel important at events and seem interesting at parties (not that I’m ever invited to any). We are lucky.
For me, one of the genuinely best things in the history of anything is when I hear I’ve made a stranger cry through my stories (and hopefully not because they’re shit). That I’ve been able to affect anyone that much through something as simple as through a bunch of well-ordered words is a brilliant feeling. It means I’m doing my job well.
But that is only such a tiny little part of the job – sometimes it’s a bit pants and tiring and frustrating and poorly paid and really, really hard. Those good bits only come once we’ve been lucky enough to have written something good – and I worry, sometimes, that that’s the bit that gets overlooked.
I can get a bit suspicious of people who want to be a writer because they think it sounds interesting (or will make them sound interesting). Often it is interesting. Often I’m not though. Often I’m a bit boring. And that’s not a criticism. I think I spend more time doing dishes than writing some days.
What’s interesting, for me at least, is looking at how the process of writing doesn’t really change. For me, it’s pretty much as fun as it was when I first started out, and just as difficult too. I think I worry more about my stories now when I’m shaping them and I’m not sure if that’s because my standards are higher or because I’ve had more experience or, most likely, because I’m still terrified that, one day, I’ll be found out as someone who makes stuff up and writes it down and wings it as best he can – because that’s all that writing is, really. But that process is still the same – and it’s the same for me, ten or eleven years on from first being published to anyone just starting out.
If you want to get into this game you only need a few things. You need good ideas, your own good ideas. You need to be able to make them into good stories. You need tenacity and a thick skin because not everyone will like what you do and you need to remember that that’s fine because you don’t like everything everyone else does and it’s nothing personal. Integrity and passion are good things to have too. You need to be professional. And you need to remember that there are people like me (and many far better people) waiting to champion you and to help because WE CAN NEVER, EVER, HAVE TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF TO CHOOSE FROM. Believe me, if it’s good there’s room for it. It’s not a competition. Don’t ever think that just because mine’s published yours won’t be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (if they do they either don’t know or they’re trying to be clever).
So there you have my rambling, tumbling thoughts on things. And stuff.
So some advice again, from someone who works hard winging it and pretending to know what he’s doing and who you should probably never listen to even if your life depended on it…
Basically: write for your stories, not for yourself. And mean it. Really mean it. The rest will come.
Leave a Comment · Posted on July 31, 2015
Just a quick post today.The week after next, starting August 11th, I’m running a four day long project for younger writers (8-11) at Sheffield Central Children’s Library and there are two places left and I’d love it if they got filled. So do spread the word if you can.
Here’s the flier.
The following week I’ll be doing the same at Bollington Library and there are, as far as I know, a place or possibly two still available (we’ve had a holiday cancellation) and it’d be fab if we had a full house there too.
And after that I’ll have a couple of months to write and to teach and to appear at places (more on that soon) before Beautiful Trees is released. I’m excited about that. An awful lot. And I’ll be able to confirm the release date very soon. Watch this space.
2 Comments · Posted on July 28, 2015
I finished a couple of things last week. The first was the final proofs for A Book of Beautiful Trees, due out later this year. I’ve said it a few times already on here but I am genuinely so proud of it and with 100% bias I can happily say that it is stunning. I am excited about it (and terrified that I’m the only one who’ll like it) and, really, I’m just looking forward to it being out there so people can make their own minds up.
After I proofed I was proud.
And then exhausted.
And I birthdayed too because the other thing I finished was my 33rd year.
I got a card.
There was cake.
And, later, sushi.
And I had a lot of birthday messages. And I mean a LOT. Thanks, so much, to everyone who was nice to me and to everyone who spent it with me. I’m just glad it’s out the way for another year because, believe it or not, I can get a little grumpy when it comes to getting older (as those close may tell you – I must be very lucky that they put up with me).
And now I’m firmly back in work mode. There are books children have written to be produced and books that adults have written that need editing and I am all over it.
2 Comments · Posted on July 21, 2015
So, since the turn of the year I’ve been working in Rotherham (among other places), for the brilliant Writing Yorkshire, looking after the Young Writers’ Group there when Vicky, who usually runs it, has been off. And I’ve loved it. It’s a top group and super-talented too and, now everyone’s broken up for the summer, I’m really missing it and them (hello, everyone!).
Charlie, one of the group’s members, had a couple of stories accepted while I was working with the group and, you know, that is such a big deal and it’s one of the best bits about doing the job I do (doesn’t do my ego any harm, either, knowing I’ve helped). I remember, very clearly, my first acceptance back in 2003 (I think – okay, maybe I don’t remember it all that clearly). It was a feature on local Arthurian legend and it went in a county magazine and that was the moment I felt validated as a writer – the moment I felt like I really could do it. I think I cried. I know I’ve still got a copy of the cheque framed somewhere. I was in my very early twenties back then, not in my teens. Yes, I’m a bit jealous.
And yesterday Charlie got in touch to let me know that the issue the story’s in has gone live. It’s in Bunbury Magazine (Oscar Wilde reference?) and it’s brilliant, and I’m certainly not just saying that. IT’s the sort of piece that I’d have loved to have received when I’ve judged competitions and edited for places. Go and see for yourselves. Bunbury are doing that cool thing where you pay what you think it’s worth so you’ve no excuse.
And well done, Charlie.
Leave a Comment · Posted on July 20, 2015
Nice to see one of the courses I’ll be running for children over the summer at Sheffield Central Children’s Library featured as news earlier. There are still places left (not too many) so do get in touch if you’d like to be involved.
In other news, I’m still very busy. Lots of editing has been happening and I’m about to take a look at the latest round of proofs for my next book (which is why this one will be a pretty short post). More soon…