Welcome to my blog

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

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize 2015

The Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize 2015 is now OPEN! Full details of how to enter can be found here. Submission window closes 30 November 2014. And there is no entry fee.

For the 2014 prize over 4,000 stories were received so you may think what is the point of submitting? But I did enter and my story was shortlisted for UK/Canada region. To be honest I still haven't got over the shock. If I can do it then so can any one of you out there ... go on submit your best story, what is there to lose?

And as a shortlisted writer I was invited to the launch event for the 2015 prize. It was a fabulous evening at Malborough House where writers, agents, publishers and diplomats rubbed shoulders while the wine flowed freely and the nibbles were unusually tasty (and mostly suitable for veggies). Thankfully, I didn't have to attend on my own and first met up with Debz Hobbs-Wyatt (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013) and her writing chum, Paula Readman. You can read a great account of evening on Debz's blog here.

There was mingling before and after the main event, a panel discussion on the topic 'No Laughing Matter? Conflict and humour - is there a line?'. Romesh Gunesekera was in conservation with writers Leila Aboulela, Kei Miller and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It was an entertaining discussion and rather pertinent as Jennifer's 2014 winning story 'Let's tell this story properly' has many comic moments (read it here). Debz and I both discussed how our own shortlisted stories had comic elements, mainly in voice rather than deliberate jokes. Personally, I find it difficult to write any short story without some humour, simply because even in the most tragic moments there is always humour - it's how we survive.

A highlight of the evening was meeting and chatting with Jennifer. Ugandan born but now teaching at University of Lancaster, Jennifer is a novelist and short story addict. She shared how she entered lots of short story competitions and became so concerned about the cost that she now searches out as many free competitions as possible. I have similar worries as the entry fees mount up, so I avidly watch out for the free to enter competitions and these writers always manage to root them out: Patsy Collins, Helen Yendall.

To record the event Debz took this writer selfie of the three of us ... hmm now I'm thinking back to that Scottish play again ...

Tracy, Paula and Debz - from hereon known as The Bridge House Anthologists ... we all have short stories coming out in the 2014 Bridge House Anthology to be published December (more on that in a later blog...)

Friday, 22 August 2014

What are you reading on holiday?

LitPig is stacking his rucksack with holiday reading. With several full bookshelves to choose from it was a tough decision on what to pack, but he's plumped for these (in no particular order):

The Lie - Helen Dunmore
Recently heard Helen talk at Chichester Waterstone's and she signed this copy too! Another friend who attended the same talk reckons this is Dunmore's best work to date.
Helen confessed that she was unlikely to write a final book to conclude 'The Siege' and 'The Betrayal', as the story could never end happily.

Bad Mothers United - Kate Long
We LOVE everything written by Kate Long and this sequel to the excellent 'Bad Mothers Handbook' will be quickly devoured. (Just wondering when Kate will bring out The Hamster's Diary in paperback... though he'd probably use if for nesting material)

The Humans - Matt Haig.
Really enjoyed 'The Radleys' and a writing chum has raved about this one.

The Lie of You - Jane Lythell
The Indoor Writer recently met Jane at a workshop on 'writing radio drama' in Brighton. This is Jane's debut novel, which looks to be an intriguing crime thriller. Can't wait.

Hmm now wondering when LitPig will get time for hill walking - the whole point of the holiday, but then he has to live up to his literary name ...

What have you been reading or planning to read on your holidays? Please share if you've read any good page turners over the summer.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Toil and trouble

At a secret location (we believe it was somewhere in darkest Sussex) three top international super spies met for their annual coven (sorry, that should be convention) to discuss world literary domination. Our agent believed they were posing under cover as writers (who'd fall for that one!) and overhead the dastardly trio discussing such topics as alien abduction (Agony Christie, centre, had the scar to prove it), how to eat a Devon cream tea (the jam HAS to go on before the cream, which MUST be clotted) and murder! Yes, this innocent group of women (don't fall for those smiles) happily shared killing methods and how to avoid the well-worn theme.

Please be vigilant and watch out for these plotting scoundrels, they could appear in your area at any time. No village teashop is safe. KJ Rolling Pin (far left) regular appears under a pseudonym in popular women's magazines pretending to write short stories, as does her arch rival Agony Christie. Whereas the infamous Hilary Mantelpiece (right) masquerades as a writer of quirky flash and short fiction. Don't be fooled! These are dangerous individuals - they will assault you with publication statistics without hesitation. If spotted then approach with caution, but only if you are prepared to endure several hours of rejection rants, which can turn nasty ...

The truth is stranger than fiction.... or is it? If your like your fiction to be well-rounded, you might like to read my friends' accounts here and here for the whole story.

The photograph above was taken (at great personal risk) by our agent G (his real name can't be released for his own safety). However, G was later seen leaving the establishment in the company of Agony Christie ... hmm could he be a double agent?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

One month to go

Hysteria Writing Competition 2014 closes in one month on 31st August, so you still have to time to enter. This year there are 3 categories:
Short Story - can be up to 2,000 words in length on any subject relevant to women except erotica and horror.
Flash Fiction -  can be up to 250 words in length on any subject relevant to women except erotica and horror.
Poetry -  up to 20 lines in length on any subject relevant to women except erotica and horror.

Also note: The competition is open to female writers of any nationality writing in English.

And importantly you can now enter and pay online.

Full details of entry fees, competition rules and prizes (very important!) here.

The Indoor Writer was the winner for the 2013 competition with 'Fibonacci's Tree'. 
She's hung up her laptop for this one and has jumped the fence to join the judging panel, along with some great writing names.

The winning and shortlisted stories from 2013 are published in the Hysteria2 anthology, available here and on Kindle.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The girl with the painted face - Gabrielle Kimm

Please welcome our guest author the talented Gabrielle Kimm (photo below - looking very thoughtful) who has taken time off writing her fourth novel to come along and chat to LitPig.

Gabrielle is the author of three historical novels, all published by Little, Brown. She lives and works in West Sussex with her two daughters and a (very) elderly Lakeland Terrier. Gabrielle Kimm is one of two new Royal Literary Fund Fellows at the University of Chichester and also teaches English part-time at a small Performing Arts school.

The Girl with the Painted Face is set in Modena, Italy, 1582. Where a young orphaned seamstress, Sofia, is falsely accused of stealing from a client. She's quite an innocent but thankfully is taken under the wing of a troupe of travelling actors, called the Corraggiosi, and finds herself falling for one of the group's most talented performers, Beppe Bianchi. At the heart of this novel is a charming story of first love and sexual awakening. I found Beppe and Sofia's developing attraction, and friendship, engaging and believable. Unfortunately, Sofia's beauty attracts the unwelcome attentions of an aristocratic bully. His murder is immediately blamed on Sofia, and she is arrested by the local militia. The actors seek to prove Sofia's innocence and we soon discover there are quite a few suspects ...
This is an excellent mix of romance and murder mystery, enhanced by the wonderful setting of Renaissance Italy evoked, as always, with genuine love by Gabrielle. I'm a history fan and really enjoyed learning about the actors and all their traditions. The Commedia dell’Arte is a form of theatre I'd never heard of before but now intrigues me. If I have to air any grumble it would be that I wanted to spend more time with the actors, a delightful mix of characters - so maybe there is material for a sequel here, please Gabrielle ...
Q. I've absolutely loved reading all your novels, Gabrielle, and one reason is the setting of Renaissance Italy. I've read a lot of historical fiction set in Tudor England so it was refreshing to read about a similar period but with an Italian backdrop. Where does your fascination with Renaissance Italy originate from?
First of all, thank you so much for having me on your blog! The reason that I’ve set my books in 16th century Italy is very simple – it’s all down to one person: Victorian poet, Robert Browning. The inspiration for my first book, ‘His Last Duchess’ was Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’. This extraordinary poem is narrated by a sinister Renaissance aristocrat, who admits (seemingly without remorse) to having had his first wife permanently silenced because she annoyed
him once too often. It struck me with the force of a well-hurled grenade one day, whilst preparing a set of lessons for a GCSE English Literature class, that the back story to this poem would make a fabulous novel and I spent the next few hours madly scribbling down the bare bones of what quickly became my plot. 
At the time, I had no idea the poem was based on historical fact, and only thought I would be interpreting Browning, rather than history. But, as it turned out, early research for the book led me to understand that the duke in Browning’s poem is in fact Alfonso d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara, and that Alfonso married Lucrezia de’ Medici in 1559, and that by the end of 1562, the poor girl has vanished from the records and nobody knows how. Some sources reckon she was tubercular and that her demise was natural and inevitable; others suggest something like anorexia, but by far the majority (including Browning) are convinced that the duke had a hand in it. As I couldn’t find a definitive answer, the only solution was – to write one myself!
Given the facts of the case, I clearly had to set this first book in the era and setting in which the historical reality played out. My second book, ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, features a secondary character from the first book as its central protagonist, so I stayed put in 16th century Italy, and then my publishers asked for another – and I was of course happy to oblige!

Litpig says: we've read both of these - they are cracking reads and highly recommended. Links to where you can obtain all of Gabrielle's books are at the end of the blog ...

Q. In 'The Girl With The Painted Face' we learn about the Corraggiosi, a travelling troupe of actors (performing in the traditions of Commedia dell' Arte) through seamstress Sofia's innocent eyes;  like us she knows nothing about their world. I was fascinated by the traditions and rituals of the actors, can you share how much research you undertook to get inside this type of theatre and how you went about it?
It was great fun!  When I’m not writing, I teach – English and Drama – so as you’d expect, I’ve done a fair bit of acting and directing along the way. I had thought for some time that it would be fun to write about actors, but had presumed in my ignorance that, as in England in the 16th century, women’s parts in plays would have been played in Italy by boys. Given that I write for a women’s fiction imprint (and they like their novels to have strong female leads) I presumed that my plot possibilities in this area would be limited – until I chanced upon an article about a woman called Isabella Andreini, who was an extraordinary Renaissance actor and writer. I discovered to my surprise that unlike in Puritan Britain, in Europe, women played an equal part in theatrical enterprises alongside men, as writers, actors and directors.
I wondered first if I would have the fascinating Isabella as my central character, but decided against in the end, because I realised that I wanted my heroine to know as little about the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte as my readers probably would – so that they could learn alongside the character, if that makes sense.
Commedia dell’Arte is a very physical form of theatre, and the more I read, the less I felt able to depict it in writing. Knew I’d have to find out ‘how to do it’ by actually doing it myself. So, scouring the internet (as one does) I came across a website for a theatre company called The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company – who are, as their website proudly proclaims – a modern Commedia dell’Arte troupe. I emailed. Could I, I asked, possibly come and sit in on rehearsals, eavesdrop on a workshop, talk to the actors, find out what it’s like to put these traditions into practice?
The director of the troupe emailed back by return, hugely enthusiastic at the idea of sharing his love of the traditions with a writer.  He was, he said, in the area the following day – would I like to meet for a drink and a chat?  I grabbed at the chance, of course, and began an extraordinary journey of discovery, which ended up involving, as well as copious emails,  practical workshops (huge fun but exhausting!), attending rehearsals, helping set up the traditional staging, and generally immersing myself in the life of a travelling theatre company as far as I could.
(The Rude Mechanicals tour across the South of England every summer – their shows are amazing!  Check out their website - http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk)

Q. One of my favourite characters from your first novel 'His Last Duchess' was the courtesan Francesca. She then returned to take the lead role in your second novel 'The Courtesan's Lover'.  Are there any characters you loved writing that you long to return to and write more of their story? (Can I drop in here that I also loved Francesca's castrato servant, from 'The Courtesan's Lover', as a character...)
It was strange, how Francesca ended up as the central character of the second novel. I hadn’t planned it at all – she just wouldn’t leave my head! As I finished writing ‘Duchess’, I was happy to leave my characters to get on with their lives – I’d completed what I wanted to do with them, and I knew they’d manage without me. But Francesca wouldn’t stay in the shadows.  I found myself thinking about her, wondering where she was and how she was coping, and a need to tell her story in more detail began to obsess me. 
I have to admit that I do love Modesto (the castrato servant) too. He came from nowhere in the writing of that book – I hadn’t planned him – and he’s remained as (I think) my favourite of all my characters.  He’s so stalwart and kind and loyal and funny, and so damaged from what happened to him in his childhood – he broke my heart as I wrote that book! I have planned a sequel to ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, and I will write it at some point and Modesto will definitely figure large in it (along with Gianni, the seventeen year old who shatters Francesca’s complacent confidence), but I’ve been struck with a need to tell a different story just now, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. 

Q. I had a surreal experience recently when the main character of the novel I'm currently writing sat down opposite me on a train journey - he was the spitting image! The poor man must have wondered why the woman opposite kept sneaking glances at him. So when writing your novels how do you picture your characters ... do you have a strong mental image or perhaps use picture/photos or even think of specific people of actors?
I had an experience like yours, while writing ‘His Last Duchess’! I was on about the third draft of the book, so had established the characters in my head, when I went to the cinema with my children. A trailer came on for a film about the Brothers Grimm, and a woman walked onto the screen and it was Francesca! I almost gasped. It turned out to be an actress called Monica Bellucci, of whom I had at that time never heard, and she was SO like my mental picture of Francesca it was quite surreal.
Yes, to answer your question, I do have a very clear mental image of my characters, though I don’t look for photographic references. When they crop up, they can be fun, but the characters exist in their own right in my head, and I don’t feel the need to reinforce that.
Having said that, one very strange thing happened, also in the writing of ‘Duchess’.  I had always thought that if anyone ever wanted to film the book (well, one can always dream …), I would want Ralph Fiennes to play my duke (photo left). Just that – a thought. Then, well into the writing of the third or fourth draft, I came across a portrait of Alfonso d’Este (see right) that I hadn’t seen before, and … well, what do you reckon? A likeness, or what? It was almost uncanny!

LitPig: the Indoor Writer adores Ralph Fiennes and he would be a perfect Alfonso! And yes the likeness is uncanny ...

Thank you so much for having me on your blog – it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you.

LitPig: thank you, Gabrielle for being such a wonderful guest. We can't wait for the next book to come out, so please can you now get back to writing it!

Here are some links to where you can obtain Gabrielle Kimm's novels and learn more about her and her writing:

His Last Duchess  http://tinyurl.com/3bl3sg3
The Courtesan’s Lover  http://tinyurl.com/d3u8abl
The Girl with the Painted Face http://tinyurl.com/p86zxah
Facebook: Gabrielle Kimm
Twitter:  @gabrielle_kimm

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A poetry interlude

Now the MA course is on summer break the Indoor Writer was free to attend her poetry group's monthly workshop earlier this week. The theme was 'sound waves' and explored how words and sounds are used in poetry. One optional exercise was to write something in the style of Michael Ondaatje's poem 'Sweet Like a Crow' (if you don't know it then listen to him reading it on this clip, it is a terrific fun piece). If you recognise his name you may know it from the best-selling novel (and film) 'The English Patient'. Writing a list poem is wonderfully liberating. Have a go and let your imagination wander wherever it wants - it's a great exercise to help with prose too.

If you're interested here's the Indoor Writer's poem:

Maternal Thoughts From Abroad

Your voice sounds like candyfloss, pink fluffed with sucrose glitter,
like the golden crackling of creme brulee
like an angel singing in the bath
like someone drowning in kittens,
naked and doused in double cream.
Like a zealot on speed
with a belly full of hot fudge brownie.
A nightingale warming up behind the bike shed.
The vicar's tart on a Saturday night
chanting blessings in the confessional.
Like a blackbird singing on a sixpence
eating bread and honey
like chocolate melting on meringue,
where butter wouldn't.
Like the sound I heard in my own sweet voice
when I called my mother after the forbidden rave
to reassure all was fine and dandy,
the house definitely not trashed into smouldering shame.

[any parents reading the above may recognise that moment when you hear in your offspring's voice the unbearable sweetness of deception ...]

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Short stories on the radio

We were at the first ever London Short Story Festival on Sunday, held at the fabulous Waterstones in Piccadilly (worth a trip to London just to wander around this bookshop & it has wonderful cakes in the basement cafe too ... we recommend the beetroot & chocolate cake). It was a terrific event organised by Paul McVeigh and Spread The Word. I've been following Paul on Facebook and his amazing blog (which is essential reading if you enter writing competitions or looking for short story outlets, click here) for some time and he is genuinely enthusiastic about short stories, also a really lovely gent.
During the day we were delighted by readings and talk from so many short story writers, too many to mention, but the Indoor Writer was really excited to get to hear: Stella Duffy, Alison Moore, Tom Lee, MJ Hyland, AL Kennedy and Helen Simpson (she has nearly all of Helen's collections on her shelf).
One of the most informative talks was 'Short Stories on the Radio', involving Stella Duffy and Di Speirs (BBC R4 Producer responsible for selecting and producing stories for R4's short story slots, she's also a judge in the BBC National Short Story competition). Clare Wigfall read an extract from her BBC Short Story Award winning story 'The Numbers' and Lisa Blower read an extract from 'Barmouth', which was shortlisted for the same award in 2013. Stella Duffy read several extracts from short stories of hers that had been aired on R4. The Indoor Writer listened carefully as she's keen to learn what makes a short story perfect for radio and clearly a distinctive single voice is key.
Di Speirs talked at length about what she's looking for in a story suitable for broadcasting on R4, here are her top tips:
R4 slot is 13mins 20 secs so max of 2,000 words for reading aloud. Ideally aim for 1800-1900 words.
Make every word count. (Di said the story needs to 'go on a diet' - we'd liked that)
Try for one voice, monologues work well, and avoid or keep dialogue to an absolute minimum.
If more than one character then ensure the voices/dialogue are distinct and different enough for an actor to distinguish them when reading.
Don't underestimate the intelligence/cleverness of the listener.
Start with a strong opening to hook in the listener (as they are likely to be doing something else whilst listening to the radio), but don't make opening too complicated.
A linear story works well. Avoid time jumping if possible or keep to a minimum
Avoid using young voices. It takes a long time to bring in actors <16 years old. (Probably best not to have a child's voice for this reason).
Don't rant or use your story for a political platform.
Pay attention to the slot when stories are broadcast. Some are afternoon slots while others later in the evening - be sensible about content. For either slot avoid excessive swearing, sexual content or generally unpalatable subjects.
Edit and edit before submission - it's a highly competitive market so don't give her an excuse to drop a story through poor editing.
LISTEN to what is broadcast!

Di also recommended writers check out their local BBC radio stations which may produce and broadcast short stories, as many are keen to use local sources. Also try approaching local production companies which work with the BBC. But she did warn writers not to submit stories 'on spec' to the BBC, only send where there is an open submission window.
In reality a lot of the short stories broadcast are commissioned, so you need to catch her eye in other ways. That's why it's important to shout about any short story successes or publications.

Annually the BBC open a submission window for new writers to send in short stories for radio. This is called 'Opening Lines', look out for the next window which should open up fourth quarter of 2014. The BBC's Writers Room detail all open opportunities, so sign up for their newsletter. Recently our writing chum Wendy Clarke learned she had made the longlist for 2014 opening, which was wonderful news. So clearly Wendy has a good idea of what it takes to write a story suitable for radio. (It was a terrific story).
If you are keen to have a go then there's another opportunity to have a story produced and aired on R4. Again with thanks to Paul McVeigh: Sweet Talk Productions seeking short stories for radio, with deadline of 18 July 2014. You can submit 2 stories of 2000-2200 words in length. Click here for full details.

The Indoor Writer has an idea stirring for a story for radio. All she has to do is get on and write it! No excuses ...