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Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

Monday, 16 January 2017

What I read last year ...

Last year (2016) I read a total of 46 books (includes non-fiction and short story collections/anthologies). This is accurate because I keep a separate notebook to record all the books I read, often with additional comments to remind me of what I loved (or hated) about them. As a writer I agree with Stephen King that you should "Read, read, read" long before you ever start writing, and I thought this was probably about the usual number of books an average reader gets through in a year. So I was shocked by Grumpy Old Bookman's feature in January's Writing Magazine, where he quoted literary agent Jonny Geller telling the Guardian that "... the average person reads between one and five books a year." This was after the Bookman revealed from a report in the International Publishers Association that "British Publishes released  184,000 new and revised titles in 2013", which equates to "roughly twenty new titles every hour." Even if I took up the GoodReads challenge to read 100 books in 2017, I'd still fall well short of keeping up with new books coming out each week. I haven't set any reading goals for this year as I believe reading is something you should want to do, not feel obliged or pressured to do (whether you write for a living or not).

Here's LitPig showing off six of my top reads from 2016. You can see I'm struggling to keep up with current releases as many of these have been out for some time, but often I pick up a book because of a friend's recommendation. Luckily, my friends have exceedingly good taste ...

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel - a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel weaving past and future together with exceptional prose. This is the book I WANT to WRITE!
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier - a retelling of Homer's Odyssey set at the end of the US Civil War (the film with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law does a pretty good job of recreating the novel). Sublime writing and storytelling.
A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install - a charming, gentle and often comic novel. I dare anyone to read this and not fall in love with Tang the robot.
Merivel, Rose Tremain - concluding Robert Merivel's life-story after Restoration set in the reign of Charles II. Sir Rob is one of my all-time favourite literary characters and as with Restoration this is a novel I will re-read many times.
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - master of the 'quiet' novel, Anne Tyler is quite simply a genius.
The Bones of You, Debbie Howells - a gripping, page-turning psychological thriller which I read in one afternoon. Enjoyed this even more because I recognised the local setting, as the author literally lives down the road from me.

Here's a selection of other books I'd enjoyed (in order of reading):
Longbourn, Jo Baker
Tastes Like Fear, Sarah Hilary
Writing for TV and Radio, Sue Teddern & Nick Warbuton
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
The Woman in Blue, Elly Griffiths
Deadly Elections, Lindsey Davis
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
The Ice Twins, S K Tremayne
The Shut-Eye, Belinda Bauer
Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantell
If I were a River, Amanda Saint
Last Rituals, Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Into the Woods, John Yorke
Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig
Lightbox, KJ Orr
The Colour, Rose Tremain
Llama Sutra, Melanie Whipman
Mr Mercedes, Stephen King

Like any sensible control freak I also keep a record on my GoodReads account and often leave review/comments there. Wherever possible I try to upload a review onto Amazon if I enjoyed a book, as I believe that helps the writer just as much as buying their book in the first place.

Did you also read any of the above? What were your favourite reads of 2016? Please share ...

Monday, 2 January 2017

Goodbye 2016 ...

Happy New Year to all followers! I hope 2017 has started well for you. LitPig has a feeling in his trotters that 2017 is going to shine brightly for us all. I'm still pondering on writing goals for this year and to be honest I can't commit to anything until I've met Wendy for our first planning session, which is an annual tradition I look forward to. But before setting out new goals it's wise to revisit the year just passed. I've focused on five topics for 2016 ...
1. The year of two novels
I started and finished first draft of my new crime mystery novel (with a supernatural edge) within 6 months, then went on to complete re-writes and edits before the end of the year. A number of literary agents have called in the manuscript, but I've yet to receive a positive offer. The same novel was shortlisted for the Festival of Writing (FOW) Best Opening Chapter competition and also reached the final stages for Flash 500 Novel competition. I also sought advice on my first novel (contemporary upmarket fiction) from a book doctor (editor) at the FOW. She 'got' the novel and made some very positive comments on my writing, yet suggested as it was a 'quiet' novel it was unlikely to attract the attention of an agent seeking a commercial debut. Consequently, I've decided to rest the first novel and focus on securing a deal for the crime novel. Let's see what I can achieve in 2017 ...
2. Queen of the shortlists
From my tracking spreadsheet I've counted up 67 writing competitions entered (13 still being judged), some were FREE to enter but many required an entry fee. I did make the podium for several competitions earning a total of £180, which didn't cover the costs. However, I came very close and feel I deserve to be crowned Queen of the Shortlists for 2016. Here's a sample of shortlists I made it on to: HE Bates, Soundworks audio Play, Exeter Story Prize, Brighton Prize, Words With Jam, National Flash Fiction Day Micro and the Willesden Herald Prize. I failed to get anywhere with: Bridport, Bristol, Bath or Bedford competitions, so maybe in future I need to avoid any beginning with B. I was delighted to make the long list for Thresholds Feature competition (essay on Roald Dahl's collection The Umbrella).
3. Publications
For once I earned more from sales of short stories to magazines/anthologies than from competition prizes. One top moment was seeing my story Footprints (with an original illustration) in Popshot magazine (read more here). Other stories have been published in Willesden Herald New Short Stories 9A box of stars beneath the bed, Rattle Tales 4, Day of the Dead (Black Pear Press) and Take-a-break Fiction Feast. I was very pleased to be part of Suzanne Conboy-Hill's initiative Let me tell you a story - you can read more here.
4. Outings with writers
After completing my MA in Creative Writing I wanted to continue investing in my writing education and decided one way was to attend as many events as I could. The wonderful benefit of this is meeting new writers and in 2016 my circle of writing friends has expanded to include some lovely and talented people. I realise that I'm now keeping in touch with writers I met from every event I attended, which included: Paul McVeigh's Killer First Chapter Workshop, The Beach Hut Writing Academy's Write on the Beach conference (read more), Winchester Writers' Conference, Festival of Writing, Lewes Short Story Club, Vanessa Gebbie's short story workshop at Railway Land (read more). I also read at Rattle Tales back in February and got to the prize giving events for Brighton Prize (oodles of bubbly!) and Willesden Herald Prize. A real treat was the 1-day Masterclass in Advanced Structure with John Yorke at the London Screenwriter's Festival (read more). Every quarter I try and get to Melanie Whipman's Live Lit events in Surrey (read more), where there's always a great bunch of people eager to hear short stories/flash/novel extracts and poetry read aloud by the authors. And I got to meet a virtual friend for real in beautiful Bath - read more here.
5. Academia
Last but not least I graduated (with Distinction) from Chichester University with an MA in Creative Writing. And I count my blessings every month when I get together with my workshop group - I met them all on my MA.

What are you proud of achieving in 2016? Please share, we all love to hear good news and success stories.

Monday, 19 December 2016

This writing life

This writing life can be wonderful ...
moments of success come like shooting stars and always deserve celebration.

This writing life can shoot that star down ...
when rejection emails pop into your inbox (usually on a Friday afternoon) and competition stories fail to get a mention, then a stock of chocolate always helps.

This writing life is made bearable ...
by those who love and support us at home.

This writing life is only possible ...
because of our writing chums. Claire Plaisted has written a beautiful post on how 'Supportive writing friends are like lighthouses', and says it so much better than I ever could here.  I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my collective lighthouses: Richard, Bea and Zoe. We meet once a month to share and review work, to cheer each other when there's success and to let each other rant when the writing life gets tough - and there is always cake.

Finally, I'd like to especially thank my constant lighthouse: Wendy. Her beacon of good advice is always shining. When I have good news or bad, then Wendy is the first to hear it, usually first thing in the morning via WhatsApp. And without her I'd probably be ready to give up this writing life ...

Monday, 5 December 2016

Writing 30 flashes in 30 days

At the beginning of November I set out my challenge to write 30 pieces of flash fiction in 30 days - my own mini version of NaNoWriMo. What I hadn't thought through was having to come up with 30 unique story ideas, that was the real challenge. Well reader, I did it. Now I have 30 new flash stories to work on or even expand into longer pieces. I'm very happy with that. As you can see the whole experience has wiped out LitPig ...
And for all the obsessives amongst you here are the stats:
30 flash stories completed, a total of 7,560 words
Smallest = 11 words
Longest = 1,000 words
1 competition win: Write Invite 'Off the grid' (12 November), read it here
1 story on Paragraph Planet 'Backstroke' (75 words)
3 stories longlisted (to date) on Ad Hoc Fiction
9 other stories submitted to competitions/open windows, including: Tears in the Fence, The A3 Review, Blink Ink magazine, 1000 words challenge, Just Write, Retreat West ...
3 drabbles (100 words exactly) ready for Reader's Digest 100 word story competition

December I'll be working on some of these flash stories and taking time out to catch up on reading. Currently, I'm enjoying Melanie Whipman's new collection Llama Sutra. I hope she'll be on the blog in the New Year to talk about her writing and the collection.

Did you set yourself a NaNoWriMo writing challenge for November? How did you get on?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Short Story Masterclass with Melanie Whipman

I met Melanie Whipman during my MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University where she's an Associate Lecturer. She is currently completing her PhD there and her debut short story collection Llma Sutra (published by Ink Tears Press) is now available. When it comes to writing short stories then Melanie is an expert so I was really looking forward to her Short Story Masterclass, a day devoted to the art of the short story.
The Masterclass was held at Lingwood House, Churt, in Surrey (see photo right) - a perfect rural location for a day of writing. No traffic or noise distractions, just a lovely garden to explore if we needed
inspiration. Attendees started arriving for 10am and we soon knew a little about each other before Melanie reigned us in to focus on short stories. Up until lunch we discussed what makes a good short story and also considered the importance of character versus plot. There was work to do and an interesting exercise involving all five senses, later developed into exploring a character. All of the group had the makings of a short story from this short writing exercise - I was very impressed at how effective it was.
We rested our writing brains over a tasty lunch of home-made quiches and salad, followed by pudding and coffee. Coffee and tea (and biscuits) kept us well nourished all day. The afternoon session allowed us to consider the importance of setting in the short story. We then worked through several writing exercises using setting and character mood. Many of us returned to the characters we'd created in the morning to further expand their stories. I'm not usually a fan of writing to order and often hit a blank with 'on the spot' exercises, but I found Melanie's techniques worked for me and I ended up with several pages of prose that I can develop further (and have done so post the class!).
Ring fencing time to focus a day on short story writing worked for me and I left feeling motivated and re-invigorated to get writing short stories again. With the added bonus of the bones of a new story beginning to emerge after the writing exercises. The setting was idyllic. The atmosphere relaxed, friendly and encouraging where everyone got the chance to share their ideas and thoughts. There was no pressure to read out any of the work from the exercises, but our group were all happy to do so as it felt like being amongst friends. Interestingly, not all the group wrote short stories and all of the content and exercises made sense for longer fiction too - so I think we all got a great deal out of the Masterclass.
Melanie is running this Masterclass again (January 2017) and other writing workshops are scheduled, full details are on her website here. Once a quarter she organises Live Lit evenings at The Hollybush, Frensham (Surrey), where I often read along with other writers (prose and poetry). These are always fun evenings, read more here. Hope to see you there one evening! The next one is 21st November ...

Melanie Whipman is a writer and lecturer who specialises in the short story form. Her fiction has been broadcast on Radio 4, has won various literary prizes and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. She runs creative writing courses in Farnham, and is an Associate Lecturer and PhD student at the University of Chichester. She is also Commissioning Editor for The Story Player. 
Her debut short story collection ‘Llama Sutra’ is due out in November with Ink Tears Press.
You can find her at www.melaniewhipman.com, and can order her book here: http://www.inktears.com/book-llamasutra/
You can also join the launch for Llama Sutra - a joint launch party is being held with Joanna Campbell for her collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Full details on Facebook here.

All photographs provided and reproduced here with the kind permission of Melanie Whipman.

Monday, 7 November 2016

30 days of Flash

November is NaNoWriMo month when many writers set themselves the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel. I actually did this (and met the target) back in 2011, but swore NEVER AGAIN for various reasons. There seems to be more and more alternative November challenges popping up: a poem a day, 50,000 words but all on short stories etc. One that caught my interest is on Facebook: Flash Nano 2016, where a group of writes have set out to write one flash story a day.
October turned into a writing fast for me, not by design, yet somehow I slipped into a limbo state as I waited for feedback on my crime novel. I'd planned to start other projects and simply failed to get anything off the ground. On 1 November I was determined to write something. ANYTHING. I strapped myself down and managed a new 500 word story. The next day was my monthly goal setting session with writing chum Wendy and I had to come up with a November goal - particularly since I'd failed to meet October's target. Foolishly I made a snap decision and told her I would join the Flash nano challenge and write a new flash story every day: 30 days of Flash!
'So,' said Wendy, 'you've had a complete block on ideas for October and now you're going to need 30 different ideas - one a day - to meet this challenge?' (OK, she may have been a little blunter than this in reality).
'Yes,' I replied, beaming like a madwoman. 'It's going to be fun!'
And it has been tremendous fun. It's only day 7 of the challenge, but I have written a unique new story every day so far. I'm treating this as an opportunity to try out genres I never usually write ie horror, scifi etc. I'm also experimenting with word count from 50 up to 500. On the plus side I should end up with 30 new pieces which I could submit or perhaps adapt into longer stories. The ambitious side of me is already planning a new challenge: to place all 30 pieces. I may not confess that one to Wendy ...
If you fancy writing some Flash and are wondering about opportunities for submissions then here's a short list of some of my favourites - all FREE (there are hundreds more & competitions too if you have the time to search them out):
Blink-Ink - 50 words
Paragraph Planet - 75 word stories
Readers' Digest 100 Word story - closes 20 Feb 2017
Spelk - up to 500 words, submissions open again mid November
Smoke Long Quarterly - up to 1,000 words
http://www.smokelong.com/Jellyfish Review - up to 1,000 words

Watch out for National Flash Fiction Day in 2017 which runs competitions and opportunities for publication. Left is the 2016 anthology A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, which includes 2 of my flash stories ...

Monday, 24 October 2016

Short story success

Most of this year I've been immersed in finishing my second novel and sadly have spent little time writing new short stories. This hasn't stopped me continuing to submit to competitions, magazines/journals and anthologies - thankfully this diligence has paid off in the last few months. October saw the publication of the HOPE themed issue for  POPSHOT magazine (you can buy it here), which includes my dystopian short story Footprints. I highly recommend this magazine (subscription is only £10 per annum) as each story or poem is beautifully illustrated by a specially commissioned piece of artwork. My story has a wonderful full page illustration by artist MIKE LEES (see above).
My success with POPSHOT is a story in itself as I've religiously sent stories to each open submission for the last two years. Perseverance does find it's own reward in the end.
I've also been lucky enough to have short stories on several competition short lists. I was particularly chuffed to make the final seven for the EXETER Story Prize (see results here), because the inaugural winner was my writing pal Richard Buxton. Richard is a member of my writing workshop group (we meet every month to review & critique each other's work), a talented writer of both fiction and non-fiction and a master storyteller. We were hoping that I'd bring home a second trophy for our group to admire, but sadly my story didn't make the top three.
Another example of perseverance is the BRIGHTON Prize (read more here) organised by Rattle Tales. This is the third year I've entered (for short story) and was delighted to make the final eleven of the shortlisted stories. The prize giving is on 28 October in Brighton, where I'm looking forward to meeting many of the other short listed writers and chatting over a glass of something chilled. My story will also be published in next year's Rattle Tales anthology.
On Friday I learned more good news. Another competition I've pursued for several years is the International WILLESDEN HERALD Short Story Prize, coveting the highly desirable Willesden Herald mug (first prize plus bottle of champagne). My short story is amongst the final ten short listed and will feature in the next anthology (read more here).

I may not make the podium for either of these latter competitions but that's not the point, making the short list for prestigious competitions is all good publicity for your writing. At least for a couple of days your name can be circulating on Twitter and Facebook etc. I make no apologies for shouting about success. A little buzz can't hurt and it helps to make up for the weeks/months when all you hear is rejection and 'not quite right for us'.
Have you had any good writing news lately? Do share!