Oh. Em. Gee, you need to read some Lucia Berlin

So, Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Picador, 2015) was another of the pile I picked up during my Shrewsbury Book Binge a few weeks ago (#Waterstones you’re awesome)! Never heard of her, but the New York Times calls her a “literary genius” and according the blurb, she’s been compared to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Anton Chekov– put any author in the same sentence as Master Carver, and I’m gonna give ’em a poke.

Berlin is a short story writer who seems to blend memoir and fiction, blurring the line between narrator and author to the point where you accept it as real or not, and don’t mind either way. She’s also, and how can I put this without upsetting the M.A in Creative Writing Set– (Yes, I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing. Stop angsting, I’m not having a dig, honest)– Although she’s clearly highly educated and did actually teach Literature, her stories don’t inhabit that world. There are no polite, well-spoken olive eaters (that was also not a dig at my fellow Lefties, BTW). Berlin sets her stories in launderettes and hospitals and seedy motels with brown walls and grubby sheets, her characters are blue collar, don’t eat well, and drink too much…

And, frankly, it makes a nice change. It kind of feels like we have too few working class, or even lower middle class protagonists out there in Reading World. It’s crap. It means I can’t find characters I relate to (I’m ex-retail, ex-call centre; I live in a 2 up 2 down terrace and drive a £500 car), I want to see more people like me in my fiction, without having to read police procedurals all the time, ta v. much).

So, anyway, what else to tell you…

Lucia Berlin’s writing has a way of getting under your skin, so that her stories, while seeming simple enough on the surface (a woman in a launderette on a Saturday, running out of change for the machine and having to lug her wet bed sheets home, for example), seem to stay with you.

It’s a bit like Carver, but less studied, more effortless. The impression I have of Carver is that each word has been precisely chosen because of its meaning. Berlin is equally precise, but the whole thing feels more fluid– the full impact doesn’t hit you with the final page, but half an hour later when you’re in the bath with your one Big Wine Glass (the other one got smashed and you’re still picking the glass shards out of the bathmat two months later…), and you lie there with the water going cold, thinking, “holy bananas, that’s IT! That’s totally how that feels!”

I could sit here, describing one of her stories to you, but I couldn’t do it justice, and it would sound rubbish, so you’ll just have to go read her for yourself. Now, where’s that Big Wine Glass gone…?

What can I blog about?

So, in my never-ending quest to find Unique Things to Blog About (since cats, politics and #amwriting are all largely taken), I’ve had a bit of a brain wave: short stories! My reasoning being: they’re what I read, and also, (therefore) what I write.

So, here we are, my newestmostfavouritistthing (at least, till I get bored) is What have I been reading this week?!

Part 1: Mariana Enriquez’s “Things we lost in the fire”.

Never heard of her? Well, no, me either, actually, not till I was sloping about in Shrewbury’s branch of Waterstones  a few weeks back and spied it. And this is why bricks n’ mortar book shops still rock, isn’t it? If I’d been trawling through a certain online bohemoth’s virtual shelves, I’d have just been bored with yet more meh! I’ve already read enough of….

So, anyway, I took one look at the cover, saw the words/ phrases, ‘gothic’ and ‘psychological terror’, thought, that’s right up my street, and the rest, as they say, was cliche….

Let me tell you about Enriquez. She’s gothic (duh!), in all senses of the word. There’s an other worldliness to her, partly because her stories are set in Latin America, so the landscape is very different  from the average Crap Midlands Towns that I’m used to: her characters are preoccupied with fears I’ve never had to entertain (personal violence, grinding misery…), the myths and urban legends are new to me, so reading her is like dipping into some strange Lonely Planet Guide of fiction.

But, is it ‘psychological terror’? Well, I’ve not had to sleep with the light on or anything, but I have been left with an unsettled feeling- haunted by all of the horrors she’s left unsaid. Because, that’s what Enriquez does with her writing, she doesn’t take you to monsters, plonk you in front of the big scaries, she more guides you to the room where they’re hiding, let you hear their monstrous scratching, and then abandons you there, and from the door jamb, you might peek and be scarred for life, or you might just decide to turn back having not looked, scuttle away and put the light on instead. But, you’ll still know what you heard and what it could mean. Enriquez is Eraserhead, not the Ring: you’ll feel bothered by it on some level but you won’t be able to explain why.

Another day another competition entry

So, my (latest) cunning plan for World Domination (read: get people to read my stuff) is writing competitions. It’s brutal. Almost as brutal as magazine submissions. In fact, even more so, since you pay for the privilege of rejection.

Last night, I attended the High Sheriff’s Cheshire Prize for Literature 2018, and upon listening to the two winning entries, thought to myself, hm…. W-A-Y more literary than my entry (damnit)! Today, I’m working on an entry for Reflex Fiction’s Quarterly International Flash Fiction Competition- by which I mean, today I am finding other things to do to put off the pain of the final edit. Of course, as I sit here, avoiding edits, I’m starting to realise that this may not be the best thing for me just now…

In case you’ve not started down this particular road, let me tell you what it’s like to enter a writing competition.  You find a competition and research it by reading past entries, and you think to yourself, okay, well, some of this is almost-sort-of-not-quite-but-maybe-similar to what I do, and then you rummage through your hard-drive looking for a story of the right length and then spend the next week or two frantically editing and worrying and obsessing to get it just right. Then, you send it off up the chimney and resolve to put the whole thing out of your mind and get on with the collection you’re meant to be working on. Except you don’t, do you? No, you wait, and wait. And while you wait, you obsess. And then you dream…. Oh the things you could do with £1,000 prize money…

And then you don’t see your name on the Highly Commendeds, or the Runners Ups, and you sure as s*it don’t see it on the Winners List, and a little bit of you kind of dies inside. You sit down at your desk, pushing your current Work of Strange and Subtle Genius around like peas on a plate, while your brain tells you (in a whisper that sounds just like THAT maths teacher you had during your GCSEs) that you’re rubbish. And, because you’re rubbish, you put the Work of Strange and Subtle Genius away and go and do something else instead, just to silence your maths teacher’s voice, and distance yourself from the embarrassment of having mentally won and spent £1,000 of glorious recognition. And, because you’re a sensitive little flower, it takes you a good week or so to put yourself back together again- just in time to start all over again.

So, no, that’s enough now, my poor fragile ego won’t cope. Doing well in a literary competition might do wonders for my writing career, but just now, writing will have to be its own reward. So, no more competitions for me.

…After I’ve sent this last story off, of course!

After David


I spend a lot of time in the coffee shop at the local swimming baths. I sip from a bottle of mineral water since I can’t stomach anything else, not with that chlorine cramming its damp fist into my throat, not with that muggy heat.

I sit at the baths because only here can I be sure not to run into any memories of David. It’s what I do: avoid memories of him, us, what we’d been.  The memories encroach, of course, catch me out and I have to pause, force my way past like you would a growling dog, a giant spider. Hurry past, cold heat on my back, waiting for it to catch up. His voice, the way he’d say my name. Pressure of his hand on my back.

The humidity sits on me, heavy and dull, the sounds a swirl. How do  people bear it? You always think of swimming as cool and blue and clean, and yes, the first dive is a relief, but there’s still the wall of bodies and breath to fight through first.  I can never stay long, not with all of these people, all these voices, not anymore. David was right, of course: without him I am nothing.

You see, that day I had washed my hands until the water ran clear. I’d felt strangely numb, as if it had happened so long ago it no longer mattered, as if somebody else had done it to him.

I’d washed him down the plughole, and resurfaced, my lungs gasping.   Then, the weight of it had pushed me back under and I had known, I would always carry him with me, on my skin, in my veins.

Now, even though I know I won’t escape for long, I still head to the pool, each day. I wriggle and worm through the hot fug of the changing rooms to the mercy of the tiled edge.  The lengths spread out, endless, before me: stroke after stroke of warm, pristine green, washing my sin away, and David is just an echo, choked by the chlorine.


(Runner up in The Potteries Prize for Flash Fiction, 2017: https://librariesonline.stoke.gov.uk/iguana/www.main.cls?p=7d3d1c0a-3760-11e5-bfe1-03ba06ef7900&v=7518f5d3-ff5a-471d-8974-6943ec4607d5)


This job’s too hard!

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve done the requisite barest minimum amount of housework (i.e. feel free to eat your dinner off the floor, but don’t blame me if you catch something) and I’m Working on My Blog. This is capitalised because it just strikes me as one of those Herculean tasks I know needs doing, but I put off because even Hercules would get his arse out about making WordPress work…

This wretched site has actually been live (but hidden) for the last 2 years, but has never really worked properly, with posts disappearing, links going nowhere and me sitting in front of it, moving the mouse around desultorily before slamming the laptop shut and going off for a sulk.

So, now The Chap (who, typically, speaks Tech/ Geek/ Pooter) has has intervened and fixed it for me (don’t ask me how, it’s all Dark Arts to me- there was even chanting)! I actually have something I can work with, and I’ve even got Twitter hooked up to it! ( I think, I hope- I did that bit myself, so if it’s not working, tell me).

There are a bunch of (old) blog posts stored on here, and I’ll probably chuck a couple of short stories on here if I can’t find a publisher for them, so pop in and have a look.

So, here we are, I’m starting to act like a Proper Writer. Next up, those little business cards that every other writer seems to have on them. Oh, plus writing! I should be doing that too…. Damn!

On the benefits of a broken telly

Our television is broken, or, rather, it’s not completely kapputt, it’s just a bit knackered (the volume stops working when we change channel, so we have to switch it off and on again; the aerial’s a bit wobbly as well, so if it’s raining, we can only pick up ITV and some rubbish Freeview channel).

I should buy a new one, in fact people beg us to, and one friend, who cannot live without his 40 inches of flat screen action (heh heh)!, night after night, keeps offering us the 36 inches he has just replaced with the 40 inch monster goggle box, for free.

While I’m at work, dog could sit in and bulk watch Homes under the Hammer and Jeremy Kyle all day instead of distributing the contents of the bathroom bin all over the stairs, destroying the butter dish and snagging the defrosting bread off the counter to scarf.

On nights when I’m home alone, I could while away the lonely boredom with a documentary on BBC 4. With a working telly, we could stream box-sets from Amazon, enabling me to keep up with water cooler conversation about the latest season of zombies/ gangsters/ bikers/ fake-medieval fantasy. So far, however, I’m resisting, and the reason is this; I don’t like losing time.

Time is a strange beast, it moves with the agonising slowness of a snail at some points, and yet at others it can rival a roadrunner for miles eaten up. My working days are sloths but my evenings and weekends are cheetahs on kawasakis, particularly when there’s a TV involved. What is it about the television that enables us to pause thought, feeling, consciousness (until the ad break or the end credits, at least, and even then we’re not quite free and can be pulled right back in by the next thing on, even if it’s rubbish)!

On days when I’ve watched the news, then left the telly on in the background for an hour because X-Files (or, whatever) is on at nine so there’s no point switching it off, I go to bed feeling wired and when I arrive at work the next day i feel as if I’ve only just left, I haven’t done anything in between, I have been like a toy, switched off at the power button until I am next needed, held in stasis.

Conversely, when it’s raining (or windy, or the snow is of the wrong type), and my TV aerial is sulking, I do strange things, like pick up a book, maybe my journal, even. I poke around at ‘that’ story I wrote last year but which has never worked but fixing it always looked like too much like hard work. I play a CD I’d forgotten about and am transported back to when I last heard it and it sparks something in my brain. Or even, I just lie on the sofa, feeling spare, and boredom is, I think, the key to writing.

So, the telly is staying broken. I am forever destined to shout ‘don’t spoil me!’ When work conversation moves from office gossip to last night’s episode of whatever I’m three seasons behind on. It’s better than the alternative.

(Originally published August 2016)

Oh, the horror! The horror! (Or, meeting The Editors)

So, I’m writing a book. Well, no, actually I’m compiling a collection of short stories to make into a book. It’s a whole new world of terror, my friend.

I’ll probably be able to blog endlessly about this heroic journey, but today I’m going to tell you about the first of the terrors: my first editorial meeting. It’s held, as I’m sure a great many small press editorial meetings are held, in a coffee shop. My editors who I will call Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg had already read through the twenty or so stories I planned to include in the collection and were there to give me their initial thoughts.

Now, I’m no stranger to critique: I’ve had well-meaning friends tell me nothing happened in my stories, but that they didn’t know how to fix them; I’ve had pages and pages of edits emailed to me by shadowy internet beta readers; I’ve been a member of Renegade Writers for almost two years, and believe me, those guys don’t mess around! But, until now I hadn’t ever been faced with the tough love of a pair of editors, and it is tough, let me tell you. A combination of uncomfortable  school open evenings, job interview feedback sessions, that moment someone tells you you’ve been walking around with your skirt tucked in your knickers; the oh god, find me a shovel and help me dig embarrassment of learning that the boy you’ve been unsubtly throwing yourself at just isn’t that into you…

I came home, curled up on the sofa and wailed ‘I’m a hack! I’m never writing again, take this pen off me now!’ at anyone who’d listen. Fortunately, no one did and so I’m now working slowly through my homework- my list of editing tasks:

Story 1 finishes too abruptly

And so does Story 2

And Story 3.

Story 4 is crap, so bin it.

The logic of story 5 makes no sense.

There wasn’t enough texture to Story 6

Or enough conflict in Story 7.

On the face of it, fixing all of this is pretty daunting. But then, as I work, I’m starting to realise, the stories in need of the most work are the earlier ones, the ones I’ve never really looked at after that initial draft, never edited properly myself or brought to the writing group. Actually, when I look at it objectively (or as objectively as I’m able when it’s my babies being criticised, damn it!), once I’ve got past the personal sense of embarrassment at getting something wrong, that editors meeting was not like looking in a mirror: I don’t always like what I see, but overall, it’s nothing a bit of work won’t fix, nothing I can’t live with. Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg were just facets of my own good sense telling me what I already knew but didn’t want to face. Everyone should have a set.

(Originally published September 2015)

Say it again with feeling

I remember having a short story flung back at me with the comments ‘this character is completely lifeless, I don’t know what she feels or why she makes the decisions she makes, and I don’t care about her.’ Harsh? Possibly. Fair? Definitely.

My character was living alone in an isolated house, and convinced she was being stalked by a stranger she had seen. The character was young and fanciful with an overactive imagination and I wanted to have her feeling instinctively that she was being watched but doubting her feelings as hysteria. It had the potential to be highly charged, full of fear, paranoia, panic, suspicion. Trouble was, I had no idea how to write those things, the only things that scared me were spiders and exams I’d not revised for.

Years later, that story since shelved, how can I get around the problem of writing about extreme emotions without seeming trite or overblown? How do I write about events I have never experienced, without getting it hopelessly wrong? I’m trapped, it seems, unable to write because I felt unable to write convincingly about the things I wanted to write about. I needed to be able to show my reader why my character didn’t just knock on a neighbours door, phone the police. I needed to show, not tell my reader about her sense for the dramatic, her almost willing the stranger outside to be something terrifying. I needed to show that my character felt she was partially to blame for her situation, to show that it was a silly game gone horribly wrong and got out of hand.

Years later, I read about an exercise in a writing book. The exercise was about writing freely and unconsciously, being able to write emotions by actually experiencing them in a (relatively) safe and controlled manner. I say ‘relatively’ because I think it can have a major impact on you, so tread carefully.

I was asked to pick a childhood memory, sit back and visualise it, using each of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. I made notes using short sentences in the present tense. I wrote for about fifteen minutes and at some point, I ceased to be in my house, sitting at my desk, I was actually inside the memory. I felt the heat of the sun on my face, drying the sea water, the sway of seaweed over my toes and the way the sea was colder on the bits of my flesh my swimsuit did not cover. Gradually, through focusing on each physical sensation, I started to also experience the emotions I had felt at the time- not as memories, or words or thoughts, distant and analysed and thought about, but as real as my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the dread of what was below the surface of the water, the sea creatures threatening my toes. I felt the embarrassment I experienced at being too scared to go deeper into the water, to where my father was standing.

After that experience, I found I could recreate it for my characters.

I’ve not re-read that initial story- that’s one for another time, but I was able to create the sadness, anger and loss a father might feel for his dead child. And when I re-read that section of a story, it finally rings true, without triteness or purple prose.

Try it, but take care: there be monsters…

(Originally published August 2015)

Write what you know

Write what you know, they said. So, let me tell you a story.

One night, returning from the writing group I attend, I saw, through the windscreen, an elderly gentleman keel over backwards in the street. His body hit the pavement with curiously little sound. Thin, silver haired, normally straight-backed; I recognised him from the aisles of my local supermarket. I saw him, my boyfriend saw him and we immediately stopped.

When we reached him, the man was trying to raise himself from the ground. Confused, probably shocked and certainly embarrassed, he tried to wave off our concern. It was nothing serious, just an old injury to his back, his legs– sometimes it came back. He just wanted to get home. He didn’t want us to take him. I had no idea if he was afraid we might try and rob him (unlikely, we’re a pair of Converse-wearing, green-tea-drinkers). But then it occurred to me that he might be worried we’d interfere, cause him bother. I tried to reassure him that if he would allow us to drive him to his street, we would park nearby and we wouldn’t try to come in.

Sitting in the back of our car, his long, silvery hair fanned out around him, his thin shoulders hunched, he was a pitiful sight. He didn’t smell unwashed, boozy, or of anything else unpleasant. His clothing was neat, clean and pressed, and probably dated from some time in the Seventies: a short khaki, belted mac; shiny brown shoes and nylon slacks– possibly even an original pair of Farahs.

I wondered who he belonged to, if he had ever belonged to anyone.

On one of the less salubrious streets in the town, all run-down terraced houses and bumper to bumper parked cars, I knew his house immediately. No lights left on, the net curtains hanging limply, a mouldering colour that had never been white. I knew that there would be no wife and no grandchildren.

We helped him out of the car, his thin legs wobbly from the short ride. As agreed, we didn’t see him inside. We didn’t feel comfortable just leaving him on the pavement, so I asked if it would be okay if we sat in the car and waited until he was inside before we drove off.

‘As you please,’ he said, waving it off like he didn’t care one way or the other. He struggled with his keys, but finally, his door swung open and he shuffled inside.

Perhaps we should have phoned someone, I don’t know. He had been well-turned out and for all we knew, his home might in fact have been a well kept flat in the back, unseen from the road, rather than that dingy looking hole with the mildewed curtains.

I have not seen the gentleman in question since that night, though, and I have no idea how he is faring. I like to imagine his little black and white cat waiting moodily for his return. I like to imagine him making tea with his late mother’s tea service, nibbling on two Bourbons precisely placed on a side plate as his feet find his slippers. I imagine him slipping a record from its sleeve– Martha Reeves, perhaps– humming as he guides the needle into the groove. I imagine him warm and content in a room he papered long ago for his mother: a rambling rose pattern, still holding up well.

I imagine all of this and I don’t dwell on what I should have done differently. I imagine this and I write it down for you to read. Because I am a writer and that is what I know.

(Originally published July 2015)

How not to write

When our writing group, Renegade Writers, decided to start blogging, the original idea was that everyone would have something wonderfully clever to say. When my turn came up,  I hit a bit of a wall. Unlike many of the others in the group, I’m not a published author. I don’t have a pile of completed stories to send out to publishers and competitions, or a folder filled with rejection letters. I haven’t even figured out what genre I’m writing, yet. In fact, the only thing I rank as an expert in is what not to do.  So, here it is, the advice you never asked for.

One: put writing at the very bottom of your ‘to do’ list. Leave it until you have absolutely
nothing else to do. Instead of writing you might do a bit of research, compose some tweets, tackle some editing, or have a bit of a think. If you keep the idea of writing as a wistful daydream rather than a pesky reality, you’ll never fail at it.

Two: re­-draft everything you write. After churning out 40k of trash, don’t go back through it with your red pen and make it better, just start again. From scratch. (With the 40k of trash sitting next to you so you can peek at it, feel like a loser, and go do something else instead).

Three: leave your latest idea for a novel until you’re a good enough writer to do it justice. While you’re waiting for this spontaneous change in your brain chemistry to occur, sit around bemoaning the fact you never have any good ideas; or obsessing over the brilliant idea and how unfair it is you’re such a hack.

Four: since your last story idea was a bit on the long side, you are obviously a novelist, so
there’s no point in trying to write anything else.  If it’s not a novel, no one will read it anyway (Raymond Carver? Never heard of him).

Five: experiment with grammar. It’s a bourgeois concept, anyway.

Six: tell no one that you write. This is the best way to avoid difficult questions, although it will make water-­cooler conversation a bit ‘awkward’,

‘What cha get up to this weekend’?

You can always ‘fess up about what you’ve been doing with your time when you’ve finished your Breath­ Taking Work of Subtle Beauty (having undergone that spontaneous change in brain chemistry I mentioned earlier).

Seven: ignore all advice. You know best, you’re the genius here, damn it!

Eight: give up. Seriously, just stop right there. That tutor on a certain writing course, who told you to go and do something else instead, is an expert­­- he’s been published, after all.

Remember, publishing deal= godlike status.

But anyway, it turns out I do have one piece of helpful advice in my arsenal, and gaining it required Buddha­-like calm, Ninja­-stealth and the dedication of a Jedi knight­­ so pay attention at the back.

Three years ago, I was being intravenously fed with drugs that made me both bald and pukey. And, because injury ain’t no fun without a good insult, these drugs also affected my writing. The words were there on the page, and so must have vaguely resembled the ideas in my head, but they were alien, wrong and about as meaningful as a helping of word­-salad. Honestly, it was as if some strange creature had kept into my head and was controlling my pen hand.

It was that moment in a super­ heroines life when she realises she has squandered her super power, and this super ­heroine had never been more terrified in all her lycra­rocking, crime­fighting, death-defying days.

If I couldn’t write anything, what did that make me?

I lay there (in my slanket) and I contemplated a story-­free life. I would go to spa days and have my nails shelaq’d. I would spend hours wandering around Ikea, and worry what the car I drove said about me.

I would be just like everybody else.

Well, the kryptonite has (mostly) worn off now, and I’m back to having stories in my head, rather than fluffy white light and the sounds of the sea. I’m fairly relieved, and trying to make up for lost time.

So, at least one useful thing has come out of all this meandering. If you write, maybe you can be writer. But nothing lasts forever, so do it while you can.

(Originally published July 2014)