5th Annual Ted Walters International Short Story, Poetry and Playwriting Competition 2011

Another addendum type post for the day. The writing group I’m going to is associated to this writing competition and asked if we’d promote it. I figured it does no harm to stick it up on the Blog. In summary, there are 3 categories – poetry in any format, short stories of up to 2000 words, and small plays. £4 entry for first submission, £3.50 thereafter. Prize for each category is £200, runner up gets £50, second runner up a £15 book token. Not the prize money associated to the Nobel prize for literature, but £200 is probably more than I’ll make in ebook sales this year…

I have the entry form, and rules, as jpg images and can send them to anyone interested. My email is neil_schiller at hotmail dot com. Drop me a note and I’ll send them onto you. (Obviously, replace ‘at’ with the @ symbol and dot com with .com – I’m trying to evade spambots) 😀

£1 from each admission fee goes to MacMillan Cancer Support. Oh, and deadline for submissions is 30th June 2011.

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Review – Loisaida by Marion Stein

Loisaida -- A New York StoryLoisaida — A New York Story by Marion Stein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a moment, I’m going to say a couple of things about this book that you may or may not believe. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to say them anyway because I’m convinced they are true. We’ll get to that though…

I initially bought this book as a present for someone else. I had no intention of reading it because I thought it was simply a bargain price thriller. Having poked around the Amazon forums for a few months, however, I started to see references to Loisaida which made me think that, actually, there was more to the book than I’d initially assumed. So eventually I gave it go. I read the first couple of chapters and thought I’d maybe misjudged as it came across as a well written, but rather straightforward crime story. However, I then hit chapter three and suddenly it opened out into this unbelievable range of voices, a cast of characters so authentic and distinct from each other that it is hard to believe they were all conceived and written by the same person. There are artisans, junkies, ex-cons, and amidst them all a TV actor trying to become a journalist and searching for his breakthrough story on the lower East side.

There are a lot of characters and you will have to make some effort in keeping up, but believe me when I say it’s worth that effort. In the hands of a lesser writer the different voices would have been in danger of becoming a cacophony, but Marion Stein manages to make them harmonise, with narrative overlaps that never leave you wondering what’s going on. The New York on display here is reminiscent of that of Arthur Nersesian, Jay McInerney, Hubert Selby Jr. It’s rich and evocative and gripping.

Ok, here’s my bombshell. I mentioned a couple of authors above. On the evidence of this book, I think Marion Stein is certainly as good as, if not better, than all of them. I know that’s a big claim when you consider I mentioned Hubert Selby, but I stand by it. All I can say is I enjoyed this book more than ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, I enjoyed it more than ‘Song of the Silent Snow’. There was a vibrancy to the characters in this novel that, in my opinion, Selby never quite matches. I would go so far as to say that if this book had been written twenty years ago, it would now be talked of as a cult classic. It is truly, truly stunning. As I said, you might not believe me, in which case I suggest you try the book and then come back and attempt to tell me why I’m wrong. I’m willing to bet you won’t convince me. A tremendous piece of work.

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What I didn’t say in my review because I didn’t think it was appropriate is that this book depressed me greatly. Not in terms of content, but because it is just SO good it made me reassess the work I’ve put out. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but despite the quality of all the good indie work I’ve read so far I’ve been relatively happy that mine can at least hold its head up with them. This is something else though – it’s in a different league. To use a footballing metaphor, it makes me feel like a Championship player pushing for a play-off place alongside a Premier League star. Which is not a bad thing I suppose: it will probably just make me want to up my game. But what a book this is. If I ever needed convincing there were great authors going it alone, I certainly don’t anymore.

Bestseller Bound

Just a short addendum type post for the day. As a result of talking to my Book Pleasures reviewer, Maria, I’ve joined another interesting writing forum. Part of the casual commitment in joining is to try and spread the word about it, so here we go. It’s called Bestseller Bound and can be found here: Bestseller Bound. Some nice people on there, and I’m always open to finding new places to discuss reading and the perils of self-publishing. Readers are obviously welcome too…

The cult of Cult

At the moment, I’m reading a book I’m really enjoying. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The review will be up in a day or two when I’ve finished it, but in the meantime I was thinking about what I want to say about it in that review, and the phrase ‘cult classic’ has come up in my head.

I said in a previous post that I seem more drawn to books, music and films that sit outside the mainstream. In fact, if something proclaims itself to be a ‘cult book’ or a ‘cult movie’, the chances are I’ll be all over it like a rash. On reflection, I’m not sure why this is. I suppose there is a part of me that clings onto that teenage fixation with finding things of quality that other people around me haven’t discovered yet. How great was it at 16 to discover a band that none of your mates had heard of and then be able to nod knowingly 6 months down the line when everyone was listening to them? I don’t think that’s all there is to it though. I know people who do that and just bide their time until the thing they’ve found becomes popular then denounce it as it’s no longer underground or cool enough for them. I’m not like that – I think it’s quite childish to be a slave to your perception of yourself in that way.

Let’s take a film analogy. How many films come out in a year? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t watch as many as I used to, but looking back over the ones I have watched, it’s the independent movies, the small budget American films, the French films, the Japanese ones – these are the things I tend to hold in high regard. Very few oscar winners. Why? Because the ones picked for the oscars tend to be the ‘worthy’ films, the ones about big hollywood stars playing someone with a disability, or adopting disabled kids from a war torn country, or struggling with a fatal illness. Nothing wrong with these subjects as such, but for me it gets a bit tiresome being hit over the head time and again with the same message. For me, literary prizes work on the same sort of principle. None of my favourite authors have really won anything of significance, and I’m not sure whether that’s because they deal with the wrong subjects, or they’re too subtle in their approach, too localised – or maybe they just swear too much.

I was talking to a few people at the writing group the other night and we got around to books we like and the struggle to find things that interest us. It is a problem. I remember when I was 17, doing A-Level English and the teacher told us to go out and start reading. He suggested a few authors for us to look at. Most of them were the ‘top 12’ writers of the time – Winterson, Amis, Rushdie etc. I read almost all of the Martin Amis back catalogue and came to the conclusion that, actually, I didn’t like him. He irritated me. His books were trite. With Winterson I liked Oranges are not the Only Fruit, thought The Passion was ok and then got tired of chasing her up her own backside after that. Rushdie – well, I liked Midnight’s Children but by then I was learning a lesson about recommendations and had already started off on my own haphazard path and never bothered to read anything else by him. By sheer floundering around I struck on Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski, Brautigan, Kesey, Carver, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Heller, London, Welsh, Nersesian, Eric Miles Williamson, Hunter S. Thompson, Jay McInerney, Murakami, Camus, Celine, Nelson Algren etc. etc.

Undoubtedly, these writers made more of an impression because I discovered them for myself. But how I wish someone had provided me a reading list of these guys because I only discovered half of them by accident, and I’ve probably missed just as many again. Waterstones used to have a ‘cult fiction’ section in their stores. They stopped doing it, probably because it was deemed a niche idea, but I miss it so much because it was the only tangible thread I had to find the kind of thing I like. Luckily, the Kindle seems to have provided some sort of an alternative, because now there are a lot of writers, similar to those above (in some cases obviously not as good – yet), who are self-publishing. Maybe it is a niche – certainly there are enough people on Amazon forums bemoaning the rise of the indie authors – but for me it’s great. If some of my favourite authors were writing now I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t get a publishing contract and I would only be discovering them via 70p ebooks. Yes, there’s dross there too, and I think I’ve probably been lucky in my choices (although those choices have been strongly scrutinised and, I’d like to think, wisely made). If the book I’ve almost finished (Loisaida by Marion Stein in case you’re interested) is anything to go by, some of these writers are going to be the future of cult literature, I’m willing to stake my reputation on it.

Fear and Loathing in Liverpool

I’m noticing a pattern starting to emerge. Two Tuesdays ago I went to this new writing group, read a short 100 word story to the group (badly), had about 5 pints and spent Wednesday hungover. Yesterday I went to the next meeting of the group, read a longer 2,000 word piece to the group (not quite as badly), had about 7 pints and have spent today hungover. (I also have some kind of bug, so not feeling too clever today). Next week I’ll probably read out half a novel and drink enough to get me admitted to the emergency room.

What is it about writing and substance abuse? I don’t get inspired when I’m drunk, but somehow, feeling sorry for myself the next day always gets me working on something. Bizarre. Maybe self-pity is the key to it all.

The group use weekly prompts for us to come back with something written around that subject. Last time it was advertising and I came back with half a short story about someone working in the arse end of advertising, starting to get a bit older, frustrated that the younger generation have different values than he does. It went down quite well. This week the theme is hedonism and I intend to work this into the second half of the story. It’s an interesting challenge writing on demand in that way. I like it. I wrote the 100 word story mentioned above because of a prompt on a writing forum. I wrote some micro-fiction in the same vein, and my story ‘Ice Cream Man’ was from a prompt – although admittedly it was to write a horror story that featured an ice-cream man (don’t ask) and I obviously strayed more than a little from that idea.

Most of the people in the group write poetry. I’m not a huge poetry fan, but I have to admit that some of them are pretty good. A lot of witty, whimsical stuff, a bit like Roger McGough, but perhaps better in some ways. The thing that stunned me last night was one of the guys who does this – and he really is good at it – admitted he’d never read any poetry before and in fact doesn’t really read much beyond the odd footballer biography. My god. How on earth he’s developed the ability to write so well when he’s never read anything to base his ideas and style on I don’t know. It’s a bit like a blind kid painting a cathedral (to reference Raymond Carver).

There’s also a guy there who is primarily an artist and he is doing something really interesting in the next month or two. He’s running with a project called ‘Free Art’ and is placing around 50 or so pieces of his work out around Liverpool for people to just take. Before I had the collection together, some of the stories in Oblivious were put out in a free literary journal thing that we, in fact, left lying around Liverpool for people to just take. So you can see why I have an affinity with the idea. He’s putting together a website for the project now so as soon as he has it up, I’ll post a link on here to it.

Well, the hangover is wearing off, but I just ate 2 profiteroles before realising the cream inside them had gone off. So expect the strange bat like creatures to start descending on me at any moment…

Goddamn Typos

Goddamn it (and other less PG rated expletives), someone pointed out a few typos to me today in ‘Oblivious’. I was pretty certain the text was ok as well. Shit shit shit. It was only a relatively minor issue – in 9 instances throughout the book the full stop was after the speech quotation mark instead of before it (it was right 243 times). Even the proof-reader didn’t spot that one. But what a pain. I’ve already amended and uploaded the text for the ebook, now I need to do the same for the paperback.

Obviously, I have no problem with it being pointed out to me, I’m glad it was in fact. But there’s me poking fun at people who can’t construct a sentence and I go and let that slip through. What an idiot. I feel suitably humbled.

But this leads me onto something else I wanted to talk about. As I often do, I was poking around forums and writer’s blogs and ended up on Lexi Revellian’s blog. I haven’t read her book Remix yet, though I probably will because it’s been so successful I want to see for myself how good it is. However, something on her blog caught my attention. She uses an application called Autocrit. I’d never heard of it before so I checked it out. Essentially, it’s a piece of software that analyses your text based on a few simple rules and highlights potential problem areas.

My first reaction, rather predictably, was ‘how in the hell can an application tell you whether your writing is any good or not’. But, of course, it doesn’t do that at all. What it does is to just flag a few things that might not be immediately apparent to the naked eye and allows you to make a judgement call on them. It’s a tool, just as spell check and grammar check in Word are tools (the latter of which I often ignore as I tend to deliberately break grammar rules). For example, if there are an inordinate amount of adjectives or adverbs, it tells you how many. If there are re-occurances of a single word over and over, it tells you that as well. Lexi talks about it helping her smooth out ‘road bumps’ in her text, eliminating ‘word echo’ and ensuring that the reading experience is as seamless as possible. I have mixed feelings about the app but I’m seriously impressed with the time and dedication she obviously takes crafting her work. It’s probably no coincidence that her book has been enjoyed by so many people.

Damn those 9 full stops, damn them to hell. I’ll be more diligent next time around – ninety read throughs rather than a mere eighty five – I can tell you that for nothing… I think I need to take a leaf out of Lexi’s book (no pun intended).

Why on earth would you want to write a book?

I was watching the lottery show last night, willing my numbers to please come out this time, and I caught some of the game show they wrap around it. The couple on it seemed nice enough, and they won £25,000 which is a good return for them I guess. The bloke mentioned it now allowed him to take a few months off work and write a book, and I was literally shouting at the TV “DON’T DO IT. DON’T DO IT”. He’d be better off spending the money on smarties.

It’s a nice romantic idea isn’t it? Get some money together, take some time out, write that great novel that’s trapped inside yourself. I’ve entertained the notion myself in the past. But finding out what the reality is would make me think twice about taking a risk on my actual job to write instead.

I’m not saying I no longer want to write, I do. In fact, I’m now more determined to keep writing than ever before. But I’ve long given up the notion that I might be able to make a living out of it. Maybe this guy on the lottery show is fully aware of the pain he has ahead and he wants to do it anyway, but I suspect not. He struck me as the kind of person (as most are, as perhaps I was) who thinks as long as he can get the words out, the rest will take care of itself. Luckily, I had no such delusion when I went into this. I read an interview with Joseph Heller once who said that he still had to work for several years in his real job after Catch 22 came out, and if the author of one of THE great twentieth century novels, a book that eventually went on to sell over 2 million copies no less, had to do that, then what chance did I have? I know Stephen King can now sell a few thousand books on the first day of release – in fact he could probably sell a few thousand copies of his telephone message book if it included a Tower in it – but it wasn’t always that way for him either. He still taught English long after the first few books were out.

So why on earth would anyone want to be a writer? There’s probably not going to be any money in it; there’s certainly no fame in it (despite their little dust jacket photos, most successful authors can probably walk down any street without being recognised); and you put all those hours and hours into writing/rework/editing so someone can potentially spend an hour or two grappling with the first few chapters and a further ten minutes writing a bad review that sinks you forever. I’d suggest you would have to be deranged to think this is a good use of your time. 98% of books published sell less than 500 copies. I saw another figure yesterday which suggested most self-published books sell less than 75. What do you do with figures like that? Well, what I do is ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.

My primary reason for writing is that it’s something I can do, and something I’d like to think I’m not too bad at. I’ve got some good feedback on my first book, so hopefully I can build upon the sales and exposure of this and push on with the next. I’m planning to just keep going until I run out of steam. I doubt I’ll ever be a household name, I doubt I’ll ever break into the ‘modest’ sales bracket even. But what I do know is that on the days when my job is driving me to drink (or hard drugs), I at least have something I enjoy doing to stop me from drinking bleach. For some people it’s golf, for some it’s sticking little ships in bottles. For me it’s throwing words onto a page and rearranging them into a semblence of order. Does that make it a hobby then? Probably. If you don’t make your living through something, then technically, isn’t that a hobby? You may be an aspiring musician, you may play gigs five nights a week in the local pub and make fifty quid a time, but if you have to work in an office or a pub to pay your rent, then you’re not really a musician (yet) are you?

As a cautionary tale to the bloke on the lottery show – I once saw an episode of Grand Designs where someone even went so far as to build himself a house in which to write his book. An entire goddamn house. (Why he couldn’t write in his flat I’m not entirely sure – a computer and an imagination doesn’t tend to take up that much space in my experience). Four years on he had a nice house and a book that sold about a copy a month. Don’t give up your job mate, please don’t. By all means get that story out onto paper and join the virtual asylum with the rest of us, but you may well start to miss those plastic potted plants and pleading with the office manager for an extra pack of post-it notes when you’re banging your head on the doors of endless agents and publishers or compulsively checking the sales reports on the Amazon platform hoping beyond hope that someone, somewhere, might have parted with 70p on your behalf…