The Long Road to Oxford

Having been quiet on the writing front due to work commitments, it was a joy to get back into the swing of things on Saturday. First stop was the very first London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadily ably organised by Paul McVeigh and a host of volunteers. Tania Hershman hosted an hour of ‘weird writing’ with Dan Powell, Adam Marek and Rob Sherman which provided food for thought. Then it was up to the boardroom for a workshop on generating ideas with Adam Marek. As I spend a lot of time in boardrooms in my day job, it seemed a bit cruel to spend a lovely weekend day in yet another one but the workshop itself was really interesting. It confirmed some things I think I knew about how I write but also gave me lots more to think about.

Then, I headed off to Paddington aboard a tube that must have experienced the London Blitz firsthand, sprinting like a Michelin Man possessed to leap above the train to Oxford for what proved to be a four hour journey to Oxford, being thrown off at Didcot. Left to fend for ourselves and no taxis for about 30 mins, I went for the bus on the basis, I’d be moving in the right direction. How wrong I was and I arrived in Oxford a broken man having:

1. Toured round an empty industrial estate (Saturday night!!)

2. Visited the village with the most speed humps per 100m in the entire universe (can’t remember, my brain still hurts!)

3. Navigated Abingdon like a Google Maps car (sure we went down every bloody street!)

Eventually I arrived at the Albion Beatnik bookstore in Oxford  at the halftime interval for the National Flash Fiction day event hosted by Virginia Moffatt, author of Rapture and What Comes Next and a member of the Friday Flash community which encouraged me to start writing. Indeed Virginia wrote a lovely blog post about my writing by way of introduction which I really appreciate. I read a couple of stories – ‘A Room With A View’ from the Stories for Homes Anthology and ‘The Last Last Ride’ which is about going round in circles (somewhat appropriate for the evening) then enjoyed listening to some lovely stories from other writers.

Fortunately I’d decided not to travel home that evening and instead settled for a relaxing night in a hotel before hitting Blackwells in the morning (or did they hit me, I’m not entirely sure!). It was a tiring but inspiring day and I am so looking forward now to August and September which will be my writing months for 2014.

Thanks to Virginia and Paul for organising these events and helping flash and short fiction forms of writing gain the respect they deserve.

‘Stories For Homes’ launched on Kindle

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Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I’m not a great fan of Amazon so I’m wriggling in my seat as I write this.

My short story ‘Room with a View’ has been published in the anthology Stories for Home which is now available on Amazon Kindle . For those of you who, like me, prefer books with pages and ink and supporting local bookshops, a paperback will be out at some point in the Autumn.

‘Stories for Homes’ is a project to raise funds for the housing charity Shelter and to raise awareness about the housing crisis in London and beyond (because as some of us know, there is a ‘beyond’). Known and ’emerging’ writers (emerging sounds better than saying ‘unknown’ doesn’t it?) were invited to submit stories of up to 3,000 words on the theme of Home.

The book has had a great start. For those of you who like numbers, here’s the stats:

Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (5 customer reviews) – thank you to the ‘the eternal optimist’ who mentioned my story as one of her favourites.

Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,229 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store), #6 in Kindle Store > Books > Fiction > Anthologies, #9 in Books > Fiction > Anthologies

Naturally I’m really pleased to have been selected for the anthology. I’d love it if you’d support Shelter and even more so if you’d do so through buying the e-book or the paperback.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy the tales from some of the UK’s top short story writers.

Stories For Homes

I’m really pleased to say that my story ‘A Room with a View’ will be published this summer in the ‘Stories for Homes’ anthology in support of housing charity Shelter. As you may know, many people are now facing homelessness as a direct consequence of Government policy and the ongoing economic crisis in the UK. As I was brought up on a council estate (my Dad still lives there), I’ve an appreciation of what’s going on so this is a project close to my heart.

I’d struggled to come up with an idea for a short story right until the final day and was apologising to one of the editors, Debi Alper on Twitter. ‘You’ve got until midnight.’ she said. Actually, I hadn’t. I had two hours before I had to go out. Somehow I managed to think of something that would work and then there was a mad scramble to write and submit it in the time available.

An acceptance is always good but it comes as a nice boost to my confidence and I’m looking forward to seeing the final collection. I’ll publish more details when I get them.

As a teaser, here’s a short excerpt:

From our window, you can see the pier and sea. There’s a film called ‘A Room with a View’ and that’s what we have. Except it isn’t ours. It belongs to the hotel we stay in now. Most people think living in a hotel by the seaside would be fabulous, like being a film star, but there’s nothing good about living here.

Snow Angels

FLASH MOB 2013  is a hybrid competition/blog carnival to celebrate International Flash Fiction Day on June 22nd. Here’s my entry.

Snow Angels

The constant hum and buzz of the city is replaced by distinct sounds, a door slamming, children laughing.

‘Come and make a snow angel with me, Granddad. I’ll show you what to do’. Sophie pulls Patrick up from the bench by the hand and leads him over to an undisturbed spot in the communal garden, pointing to the ground. Patrick lies down cursing his ageing bones. He closes his eyes and moves his body but to another voice.

The trees are glazed in white in the warmth of a winter sun. He is a young man, here with his unit marching to battle. The children play in the soft powder of last night’s snowfall. Patrick watches them for a while then gestures to a pretty girl with long black hair, eight maybe nine, to let him join in. His arms and legs move slowly pushing the snow aside to her instructions even though he cannot tell what she is saying. He feels the sun on his face and for a moment, the fighting is forgotten. Afterwards he divides his chocolate ration between the children, slipping the young girl an extra piece when no one else is looking. Then he gathers his troops and sets off for the front.

The soldiers come back the next week, fewer in number. The snow and the people have gone. All that remains are the smoldering remains of what was once a village.

His granddaughter is shaking him now, crying out his name. Patrick opens his eyes and smiles back at the frightened child standing over him, whispering words of reassurance. He struggles to his feet, wiping his tears with his scarf as he does. He reaches into his pocket for chocolate and breaks off an extra piece for her.

Two Worlds

A Friday Flash, this story was highly commended in a National Flash Fiction Day competition on the 1000words site Feb 2013. 

Two Worlds

‘More plates, I need plates. This is a restaurant, not a take out.’

‘Yes, Chef. Right away Chef.’ Yes Chef, no Chef, Kiss my arse Chef.

Greg stared out of the kitchen window above the sink, his hands continuing to work on autopilot. He could see the lights of the Piste Bullies high up on the mountain bashing down the snowfall of the last twenty four hours.

‘For God’s sake, what do you call this? Do it again. Focus on what you’re doing or you’re out of here!’

‘Yes Chef, sorry Chef.’

Greg hit the take off point fast, twisting to his left as soon as his skis hit the air. As the skis came towards the vertical, he pulled his left arm back increasing the speed of rotation. On his first turn, he stared into nothing but sky. On his second, he could see the town nestled in the valley below as the sun sank behind the mountains. He watched for a second as he fell towards the ground then pushed out his skis to absorb the energy as he landed, then set off down for evening service. Down here nobody, up there a King.

That Voice Again

Another Friday Flash, this story was published on the Flashflood April 2013.

That Voice Again

 This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Potters Bar.

Anna rested her head upon Dave’s shoulder as the train pulled into the station. The platform looked busy for a Saturday morning, more like rush hour.

The doors opened and the people streamed on board.

‘There’s seats over there.’

Dave winced. No doubt who it was. He hoped she’d sit somewhere else. Some hope.

This train is for Kings Cross calling at Finsbury Park and Kings Cross only

‘Hello Dave. Fancy seeing you here. Hi Anna.’

‘Hello Sadie.’

Dave felt Anna’s grip tighten on his hand and her fingernails sink into the top of his palm. Anna said nothing but now sat bolt upright. The two women glared at each other. Dave expected to see a layer of frost form on the carriage window.

‘Oh, this is Steve, by the way,’ said Sadie.

Dave thought about shaking hands but then thought better of it and nodded at him. Steve nodded back. He knew who Dave was and was determined to keep out of the conversation if at all possible.

‘So how have you been, Dave? Haven’t seen you for ages.’

‘Yeah, I’ve…we’ve moved’ said Dave.

‘We’re engaged.’ Anna unclasped her fingers from his, held her hand out, wiggling her fingers and smiling without baring her teeth.

‘Oh congratulations, how lovely. Steve and I were thinking of moving in together, weren’t we Steve?’

Steve nodded. Poor sod, thought Dave. At first it had been great until he and Sadie moved in together. He’d soon found out that Sadie couldn’t do anything without starting an argument. Dave sometimes wondered if Sadie could argue with her own shadow. Still Steve looked a patient man. He’d need to be.

This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Finsbury Park.

‘I expect you need to get off here, Dave. I know you have that thing of not wanting to look at the Emirates.’

‘He’s fine, chirped Anna ‘and besides we need to go to Kings Cross anyway, remember?

Dave stared at Anna. What the hell was she playing at? Of course, he wanted to get off here and why did they need to go to Kings Cross? Anna stared back defying him to argue. ‘Yeah, ‘course I remember.’

This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Kings Cross where this train will terminate.

The group settled into an uncomfortable silence. Dave stared out of the window and glared at the stadium as it approached. He hated Arsenal but he knew Anna hated Sadie more so he kept quiet. He looked back towards Sadie and then back to Anna. He knew this would ruin the day. Anna would be monosyllabic most of the day and there’d be an argument on the way home over something trivial.

This is Kings Cross where this train terminates. Please remember to take all your belongs with you when you leave the train.

No choice, thought Dave. No choice.

The Last Last Ride

It’s been ages since I posted a Friday Flash story. This story was longlisted in The New Writer Poetry and Prose Competition 2011. 

The Last Last Ride

IMG_7090 You’d stay on this small roller coaster ride all summer long if you could and if I were a rich man, I would let you. Is it fun riding around in circles? You’re only nine; of course it’s fun. Most things are fun when you’re nine, except doing your homework, tidying your bedroom and going to bed when you’re told! But going round in circles, that’s real fun.

Another ride? OK.

I’ll take some more photos for your Mum. For me too, but I won’t need to look at them. I’ll remember this moment like it was yesterday. Last year, you were losing your baby teeth; the Tooth Fairy had deep pockets. Now you have a beautiful wide smile. One baby tooth hangs on stubbornly but soon that will be gone and then that smile will be perfect. You’re not a baby any more, except to your Mum. You’ll always be her baby.

It’s a quiet day and the operator lets you go round an extra couple of times. I’ve lost count now. You never grow tired of this ride. Your Mum can’t understand the attraction but I understand much better than you think. I never grew tired of the ride when I was nine. My ride was different; a fairground carousel in a Northern seaside town with beautiful carved wooden horses painted in garish colours taking part in an imaginary race. Each horse would pull ahead then fall behind whilst I clung on tightly to my charge, looking out for my mother and father. They stood together patiently as I sped by, going round in circles, smiling and waving at a happy little boy that would soon grow tired of such childish things, who wanted to grow up too fast. It was a lifetime ago but yesterday too. I wonder what they were thinking then? Now I’ll never know.

IMG_7085Another ride? Last one, OK? And then we’ve really got to go.

At the end, you run straight past me towards your mother. She looks tired and distant but, as you approach, her face lights up as she listens to you, all breathless and excited. You grow more like her every day. You look to me for signs of weakness and plead for a ‘last last’ ride. You pull a sad face then flash that smile, not sure which tactic will work best. You know I am the verge of giving in but I smile and shake my head. It’s time to leave.

It’s getting late and your Mum’s tired, but the nine year old in me wants to say yes. I wish we could stay, that the ride could go on forever.

I wish for a ride when the world wasn’t on my shoulders, when I didn’t disappoint, when time didn’t matter and going round in circles was just fun once again and not a punishment. I want that ‘last last’ ride too.

 

 

Photos © PDomican LRPS

‘The Drowning of Arthur Braxton’ – Book Launch

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Last Thursday (April 11) was the launch of Caroline Smailes’ new novel ‘The Drowning of Arthur Braxton’ published by Friday Project at Belgravia Books in Ebury Street near Victoria Station.

I first came across Caroline  as a contributor to the 100RPM project last year and she’s always one of the nicest people on Twitter. However until Thursday, we’d never met in person. She’s really just the same in ‘real life’ (people on Twitter tend to be) and it was a pleasure to catch up with someone who is always  encouraging and full of fun.

This is the second time I’ve taken photos at a book launch, the first being ‘The Night Rainbow’ by Claire King. It’s not that easy. Much as I love books, they provide a distracting background and it’s difficult to get well composed photos in such a confined space especially if, at this shop, there’s no vantage point over the floor space. It really is a case of gaining experience, taking plenty of photos and learning from mistakes.

Having said all that, I’m quite pleased with the full set of images from the night.  The author tends not to see a lot of the event as they’re the centre of attention, which is nice in one way but they don’t get much of a chance to see who’s there and what else is going on so it’s good to get shots that capture the feel of the evening.

Needless to say it was a lovely relaxed evening, helped by wine and cake. It’s always great to meet new people especially those who were just names on Twitter before. The only frustration I have is seeing afterwards that someone you know from Twitter was there and you didn’t recognise them from their avatar!

I haven’t started the book yet. I’ve read Caroline’s other work which has that gritty but also humorous feel to it which reminds me of growing up in the North and it has received critical acclaim so I’m pretty confident that I’ll enjoy it.

Thanks to Caroline, her publishers and Belgravia Books for hosting a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

p.s. If you ever get the chance to visit, this is a wonderful independent bookstore. Not an inch of shelf space is wasted and it’s a great place to browse and buy.

Living without Amazon – How’s that working for me?

I joined Goodreads last weekend. Yesterday it was taken over by Amazon. I can’t say I was chuffed.

I used to be a real fan of Amazon but over time I’ve come to realise I don’t like Amazon’s current business practices. It boils down to this. You get a cheap product very easily and with fast service but everyone else helps pay for the discount whether that’s a reduction in the author’s royalties on a published book, corporation tax forgone which would have helped someone vulnerable in society or a small business paying tax being squeezed by Amazon on their margins.

[Update 17/5/13:Amazon paid just £2.4m tax on £4bn sales in UK last year. They also received £2.5m in Government grants!]

That’s just my view. Amazon will say, well you know what they’ll say. There’s lot of information available in the public domain if you want to read up about it.

You may agree with all that or you may not. I decided to make a change and move my custom away from them. I started in a small way last year. However my New Year’s resolution was not to buy anything from Amazon unless it was a ‘necessity’ or it was only available via them. How’s it going? The answer is surprisingly well but with a few lapses and a couple of grey areas!

The Lapses

I strayed. I was ill for most of January and February and only left the house when necessary.  So, before I got fully into my stride and started exploring alternatives, I bought some ebooks to read, a Stofen omnibounce and a stylus for my iPad partly out of my own lack of understanding of the product and an inability to find a sensibly priced equivalent elsewhere. Amazon was just easy and convenient especially when feeling like death! Having confessed my sins, I’ll move on.

Non Book Stuff

Generally, within 5-10mins, you can find anything that is sold on Amazon at a similar price elsewhere but anything which falls under the category ‘cheap s*** from China’ takes much longer to source.

Both Jacobs and Jessops went bust last year and the pro dealers don’t discount so, for camera equipment, Amazon was the next logical choice in terms of convenience and service. I used a Canon forum to ask for a reliable alternative. They found me one that was cheaper than Amazon!

For office supplies, I’ve gone through old Amazon receipts and noted who supplied what e.g. inkjet cartridges. Using online tools and my business experience, I can make an educated guess about whether I’m happy to trade with them directly . Most companies seem happy to supply direct (although they might have a minimum order) and have a shopping cart or take orders over the phone. The prices are similar to what you’d pay on Amazon but of course the company makes more direct profit which is then subject to taxation. I’ve had no problems with anything so far.

Published Books

Published book purchases are easy. I won’t buy from supermarkets who are just creaming off on the bestsellers but there are loads of ‘real’ book shops more than happy to take your money. The chains e.g. Foyles, Waterstones offer a comparable service to Amazon but you can also order through a smaller shop. It probably won’t be in stock but if you’ve a To Be Read pile, a few days wait isn’t going to be too much of an issue.

Now I’ve built up my TBR pile, I’ve started to use the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (they’re about to open a new Children’s bookshop in Brookman’s Park). They offer free delivery on orders over £5 and a free out of print booksearch. Tim and Simon are nice guys, love books and put on interesting events in their shop (I’ve written about the Tracey Thorn event previously). I can give them my money or reward the Finance department of Amazon for their ability to minimise tax. It’s an easy choice. Other enthusiastic bookstores are available.

To be clear, there’s plenty of choice still available to book buyers. There’s absolutely no reason to buy a physical book from Amazon if you don’t want to. It’s just laziness or impatience on the part of purchasers (myself included) helped by many authors and publishers on social media who just include a link to Amazon without suggesting any other alternatives.

Published Ebooks

This is a more difficult area but other platforms and devices are available. The problem is availability and promotion. Publishers seem reluctant to make the effort to offer and publicise ebooks on different platforms. Amazon are really good at physical distribution. That’s hard to replicate due to capital costs but they’re also trying to dominate the market for ebooks to deter competition in the future. They’re succeeding but I would have thought a group of programmers with some backing could develop a publishing platform to compete with Amazon fairly easily. It’s an area I’ll confess I need to learn more about.

To be honest, I liked ebooks (especially when I was ill) but moving back to physical books has been enjoyable nor is it much more expensive except for the crazy 99p (or 20p!) promotions which Amazon use to try and stimulate the market for e-readers purchases.

I don’t believe it’s right that Amazon can set prices for Kindle independent of the publisher. However to be fair to Amazon, authors and publishers also have a choice of how much to promote the offer on Amazon when their book is being reduced to a lowball price so it’s a a grey area for me. Money is tight for everyone and if an author/publisher  is inviting you to buy it and they’re the ones who’ll suffer on the royalties, then it’s a bit rich of me to say don’t!

Personally I think it’s more about the big picture so I’m clenching my teeth, trying to ignore the lure of a cheap book and think about the people on benefits being targeted which could have been paid for through corporation tax. As a ‘leftard’ (I was called that this week), it makes me feel better.

In summary, I’m not sure why Amazon should control the ebook market in years to come. Personally I’m happy to read real books in preference to ebooks (for as long as they’re printed) but it’s more of a worry for the industry to let a company that just wants to flog ‘stuff’, whatever stuff it is, have such a dominant position.

Self Published Books and Ebooks

I have more sympathy with self published authors who don’t have the resources of a publisher or might not have the knowhow to publish on multiple channels. They do however have a choice of whether to go with Amazon or not and how they set their own prices. My general principle is to ask the author if an alternative exists and if not, I’ll make a decision and order via Amazon if I’m really moved. I tend not to buy fiction unless it’s by someone I know but mainly work related ebooks which often are free (as they promote the author’s professional career). I think I’ve downloaded five or six and paid £1 for a couple of them. It’s another grey area, I’ll admit.

Is it possible to live life without Amazon?

The short answer is yes provided you put in a modicum of effort and learn a little patience. I’m comfortable overall with my personal choice and would encourage others to give it a go

I’ve diverted about £450 so far from Amazon directly to UK retailers. This includes books, camera equipment and office stationery. I’m not sure how much Amazon would take out of that and I’m sure the FD of Amazon hasn’t noticed me yet, but if more people do that, it’ll make a difference.

I can’t fill my boots with cheap books anymore. However this has forced me to think more carefully about the books I want to buy and to seek out quality via fellow writers e.g. Tania Hershman has given me some recommendations on flash and short stories. The process of selecting, buying and reading books has become less mechanical and more enjoyable so overall I think I’m on top.

The one thing that has surprised me most in this journey is not the laziness of the consumer which is understandable (as I demonstrated) but the willingness of the traditional publishing industry to go along with Amazon having seen the (now smaller) music industry follow an equivalent digital path. The motives of publishers will be financially driven and I don’t know enough about publishing business models to understand whether there are genuine reasons to go along with Amazon to the extent they do or whether they’re just sleepwalking? Perhaps others could comment?

This item was amended 17/5/13 to include Amazon’s latest sales and tax payments.

The Peculiarly British Bedsit Disco Queen

isbn9781844088669-detailAfter last night’s event, I now have a vision of someone in their early thirties moving next door to Tracey Thorn. After six months their friends ask them about the neighbours.
‘Tracey and Ben, they’re really nice.’
‘What do they do?’
‘Dunno, really. I’ve never asked.’ And so the next time they meet, the neighbour asks what her what she does for a living.
‘I’m a musician’ she says
‘Anything I’ve heard of?’ asks the neighbour not really interested in music, expecting that she might play third violin in an orchestra occasionally.
‘Probably not, I was in a band called Everything But The Girl.’
‘Oh right, ok then’ the neighbour replies and moves the conversation on, only to Google it a few few hours later. ‘Oh f***!’ says the neighbour as the Google search comes back on screen.

Of course, everyone of the sixty odd people crammed into The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green knows who Tracey Thorn is and they’re all here tonight to hear her talk about her autobiography ‘Bedsit Disco Queen – How I grew up and tried to be a pop star’ which is a funny, candid and compelling account from childhood in Hertfordshire to becoming a Marine Girl, meeting her husband Ben Watt and how, as Everything But The Girl, they went on to make nine albums and sell nine million records (during the course of which Ben developed a life threatening illness), through to her semi retirement to raise a family and her first post EBTG solo album.
Tracey opens by reading a piece of the book about meeting and playing with Paul Weller. It’s funny and self deprecating but it’s an interesting passage about how we feel awkward when we meet our heroes (see later) but also how, even so early in their career, fellow musicians held EBTG in such high regard. The main act is an interview with rock critic Pete Paphides. It’s a fascinating interview covering her career, the history of British music and the pressures of the record industry.
A few times she uses the phrase ‘peculiarly British’ as she talks about situations such as touring where every meal is prepared for you, yet you crave for something different but are afraid to make a fuss for fear of offending anyone or being called a diva and how they reacted finding out that the laundry bill in the Fours Seasons in LA was more than the entire recording budget for their first album. If we were in America, there’d be whoops and cheers at the mention of Paul Weller, George Michael or Massive Attack. But it’s a book shop in North London and there’s just people listening quietly and respectfully as we British tend to do.
At the end of the evening, there’s a book signing and I take my place at the end of the queue. I ought to tell that I’ve loved her work ever since I first heard ‘Eden’ in 1984. I ought to say that ‘And I miss you (like the deserts miss the rain)’ from ‘Missing’ is perhaps the most perfect line from the most perfect song ever written about losing someone you really love or the fact that ‘Oh, The Divorces’ makes me well up ever time I hear it. But I don’t say any of  that because I’m peculiarly British too and saying that that would just make me look a complete idiot. So instead I say something inane. She smiles politely, signs my book and probably thinks I’m an idiot anyway. I have my excuse. I’m a fan and, despite all her down to earthness, she is and always will be the Bedsit Disco Queen.

Thanks to The Big Green Bookshop for putting on this event. Amazon run huge distribution warehouses and sell books alongside printer cartridges and garden furniture. Tim and Simon love books, run a bookstore, put on events for booklovers and and sell books. There’s a world of difference.

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