General Fiction

My new YA!

Dragonfly Girl


Why Not Go To Trial?

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Redbook in the US. I don’t know if I am allowed to post the whole thing on my blog now, but this is the beginning, with a link to the site on which the article is published…. 

A few months after we were married, my husband told me he had a terrible secret. If I’d known this secret, he claimed, I might not have agreed to marry him.

We were in South Wales, settled into a bed and breakfast among the great peaks of the Brecon Beacons, the bed so narrow it barely contained us. I’d never loved anyone as fiercely as I loved my husband — whatever the secret, it could not alter this fact. 

He could barely bring himself to tell me; the shame was so deep he struggled with each syllable. I waited for the awful confession, until at last he explained that when he was a child, he was sexually abused by one of the teachers at his prep school. He’d been eleven years old when it began.

Did he really think such a fact could change anything between us? Why on earth was he ashamed when he’d only been a boy? We talked about it, not all night. And among the many things that were said that night was that it was a very odd coincidence, if it were a coincidence at all, that I had been sexually abused as child, too, though not so young as he. 

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he said.

“It bothered me at the time,” I said. “Not now.”

He asked me how I wore it so lightly. I didn’t know. We’d just had the first of many discussions about what would turn out to be the biggest ordeal of my husband’s life, but I didn’t know that then. I told him it was all a long time ago. 

“Does that matter?” he said. “Don’t you ever want to kill the guy?”


“Don’t you want to see him in prison?”


“Did you want this thing that happened?”

“No,” I said. “Go to sleep.”

A dozen years later, my husband, Alastair, was a complainant in a Crown Court case against his former prep school teacher and won his case against the man who abused him. He served a short sentence, that was all. A year later he was free….Continued here

The Writer's Economy

Stop Writing Your Crappy Bestseller


I remember my mother listing a whole bunch of first lines from bestselling books.


“The primroses were over,” she announced theatrically.


I pretended to understand what she meant. There was a first edition of Watership Down on the table by her typewriter but I’d never read it.


She dipped her chin and looked at me directly. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she said.


It would be some years before I tackled Anna Karenina and I thought she’d come up with this idea herself, so I said, “Are we unhappy in our own way?”


She dragged deeply from her cigarette, exhaled, then swatted at the smoke. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”


I held out an ashtray for the length of ash bowing down from her cigarette and she dutifully tapped. “Mother, I don’t know what you are saying,” I admitted.


“Bestsellers,” she said. “First lines of some of the greatest books.”


My mother knew nothing about fiction. But I knew nothing about anything, so I believed her. For years, I walked around with the idea that bestsellers were great literature and that they sparked from a single mesmerizing first line that signalled an unaccountable genius that would bring readers to their knees.


Perhaps for a time that I am either imagining or that existed for only the shortest of durations, there really was a link between bestsellers and quality literature. After all, not every book on the lists is bad. Not at all.  Plenty of great fiction has hit the New York Times bestseller list and will doso  again in years to come. But her notion of the bestseller, this glamorous other-wordly thing of preposterous beauty was her own invention. Watership Down is a great book but most of the bestselling books of that day weren’t even a patch on Richard Adams.


It took years for me to see that first lines didn’t mean much and that being a bestseller meant even less.  Even an amazing first line like John Grisham’s opening in The Racketeer (I am a lawyer and I am in prison) does not make literature. I am not sure what exactly does makes literature, but I know this: if a writer wants to write a great book, they should not try to write a bestseller. That doesn’t mean they should work hard to write in opposition to their notion of what a “bestseller” is, but that the effort to write commercially detracts from only hope of being an admirable writer.


James Patterson is a huge bestseller.  The man is a machine. He doesn’t write books, he writes lists of books. I hear he’s got a course he’s running, too, so that he can share his magic with all those who wish to be like him and sell a lot of copies.


I ran across what I hope is his worst novel. I say I hope it was his worst novel because it was a miserable excuse for a novel. I hope there are none among his hundreds of publications that are even more dreadful and tacky. I wouldn’t normally pick up a novel by Patterson but I was kind of stuck. I was staying in a hotel in Granada, Spain, and had finished all the books I’d brought with me. I went down to the lobby and had a look at the books left behind by tourists to see what I might find. I searched among the few books in English and it came down to either Patterson or a textbook of Spanish verbs. I tried hard to read about the murder of the beautiful mysterious woman but by the third of Patterson’s very brief chapters, I’d swapped for the Spanish verb book.


Recently, I saw an article that not only described what should happen in a bestseller but how many pages you should write, what gender the protagonist should be and the like. Really stupid facts about recent bestsellers, none of which would help a serious writer complete so much as a decent Post-It note. It wasn’t even an article but more of a chart. A kind of mind-map of the bestseller, laid out for the would-be celebrity writer.


The chart was  appalling for many reasons, not least of which is the idea that if you want to be successful you need to be commercial. And that this goal should be in mind from the very inception of the work itself, rather than at publication when sales and marketing teams include you in their plans to promote your book. I have no objection to authors pushing their own work once they’ve written it–that’s part of the game. But to fashion your writing to what you believe to be the fashion is vulgar, debasing, and not the work of serious novelists.


I hate this way of thinking. I hate it even more than I hated hearing a student at Oxford University where I teach writing, announce on the first day that one of her goals was that by the end of the course she would make a living as a writer. I made everyone uncomfortable by responding that this wasn’t a goal she was likely to achieve or that is even worth trying to achieve. It isn’t that one can’t make a living as a writer, but that if that is your goal, you are already admitting that the quality of your work is not the most important thing. The work is second to a living, or third to fame, or fourth to inciting envy among peers. Whatever it is, the notion of “success” has nothing to do with the quality of your work. That is what you are saying.


I find it worrying that people who purport to be serious writers think that success is measured by advance figures or bestseller lists, rather than looking at the work, itself. I recognise that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a means of measuring quality. Little (nothing?) apart the words on the page genuinely indicates value. However, the scary thing is how quickly writers are willing to capitulate to what they perceive as “the market.”  In the face of demands from publishers that their books make money, writers are willing to do whatever they have to in order to create a bestseller, even studying inane absurdities like what gender the protagonist is, how long the books is, and what happens by page 25 or page 35 or whatever inanity you care to focus on.


Am I just being stodgy and old-fashioned to insist writers put up some resilience and stop trying to appease the notional “market”, a market that has behaved unpredictably for as long as books have been published? Admittedly, it can be discouraging to good writers to see mediocre books being lauded, but I’ve long grown used to that. You will, too.


I feel we writers should have more spine when it comes to our work. We should have more dignity than to chase bestseller lists. It’s fine to do so once you’ve written a novel you are proud of, but the idea of fashioning the entire thing in an effort to create the next “big” novel, or “breakthrough” novel, defeats the purpose of being a writer in the first place. Surely, writers are meant to create something more akin to art than advertisement.


When I think about the great Russian artists who continued to paint in a manner true to their vision even as Soviet authorities condemned any art that lacked “revolutionary spirit,” I marvel at today’s writers easy capitulation to the toothless threat of “the market.”  I think of how the Slovakian journalist, Pavel Licko, risked his life to smuggle Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to the United States while, these days, writers surrender to an idea of what the “market demands” as though the market has guns and bayonets and firing squads.


So, what should you do instead of trying to be a bestseller? Read quality. Become ruined by good works so that you can’t possibly put up with much of what sits on the bestseller lists. Stop wanting to be a celebrity.


The first thing is to attend to is the work. The second thing is to attend to is the work. The third thing is…that’s right. The work.


And don’t worry too much about the first line either, because the first line, even if it is a good one, is just a party trick.

Writing Advice

Let’s Talk About Writing Well

I wish people would stop trying to use metaphoric language and sound “writerly”. It’s wrecking many otherwise good books. I might not have read Patrick Barkham’s beautifully delivered history on badgers, BADGERLAND, had he continued with the clumsy attempt at sounding like a writer that he demonstrates in it first paragraph. Here, for example, is one of the few weak sentences in his otherwise admirable work. He writes, “The sky was mad with stars and the bare branches were bullied by the wind that blew in from the east.”


He means his view of the stars was unimpeded by clouds and that the wind was so strong he could hear branches above him. He wants us to know it was nighttime, and that he was outside on a cold March night to look for badgers. I get that. Of course, I do. And while the sky was certainly not “mad” with stars and his personification of the wind as a bully sounds like what we were asked to write back in school when we were made to list “vivid” verbs, it is not a crime to write like that. Or rather, the only crime he commits is against his own book, which is far too good to have such amateurishness on its first page.


It’s only a sentence. And Patrick Barkham doesn’t write like that, at least in the rest of the book. His work is full of fascinating history, both personal to him and general about badgers. His grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, was a great fan of badgers. “She had a skull on her sideboard and a special badger gate in the dry-stone wall between her garden and the wood.” This is wonderful writing, not because of how the words form on the page (though this, too, matters) but because Barkham has picked out details so specific about his grandmother, so aptly demonstrating her love of badgers, that I believe him and feel that within this brief glimpse of the late Ms. Ratcliffe I’ve momentarily viewed a vital, intimate part her personality generally reserved only for those who had been close to her, who perhaps had spent their whole lives with her. In other words, I feel privileged as well as informed. I feel part of things in BADGERLAND, and sink deeper into its world.Screenshot 2016-08-28 10.49.23


If you want to know how to write well, this is it. This is it. Writing well isn’t about vivid verbs or clever adjectives. I am not opposed to metaphorical language. Imagery can describe more accurately and set into motion the completion of an idea or object or emotion for the reader, the effect being to enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand, and to deepen her  thoughts about it. When Barkhan describes the badger’s face, with its two black stripes, as a “fright mask”, I understand exactly what he is talking about and think newly upon the face of the animal. I’m grateful for his artful use of language; I am enriched by it.


However, if you are stuffing your sentences full of unnecessary imagery or metaphor,  you are either burying what is worthy of telling or have nothing to tell in the first place. Writing well is about what you say and what you leave out. It is about having something worth telling in the first place and then determining to deliver that thing accurately and economically. This is what Mark Twain said, of course, when he wrote, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out all the wrong words.”  We laugh about this, but it is a serious point. Get rid of the garbage and write accurately. Let your subject be illuminated by the writing, not obscured by it.


I don’t want to pick on Patrick Barkham or BADGERLAND. If I wanted an example of a misguided use of metaphorical language, I could just have easily chosen a sentence or two from one of my own books.  I only mention BADGERLAND because the first paragraph really did put me off of this beautiful book. Everything that followed that first paragraph wowed me.  He is a wonderful writer who knows his subject.   If you love countryside, have an interest in British wildlife history, or just like badgers, buy this book. I loved it and I bet you will, too.


Meanwhile, in your own work, notice when you are leaning on language to carry you around and away from the thing you ought to be clarifying for the reader. Don’t fluff it. Go back and look, then look again. Feel around for the right words; discard all others.

The Writer's Economy

Editors Vary


People working within the publishing industry just don’t understand each other.


In the July 26th issue of The Bookseller, Katy Guest, editor of Independent on Sunday’s books pages from 2009 until the paper closed earlier this year, made the point that former literary editors like herself ought to be valued by publishers.


“The closure of newspapers and books sections spells trouble for publishing, then, but I can see one silver lining: all the brilliant people who are now available for work as editors. Publishers ought to snap them up, because a former literary editor is exactly the person to help you make great books and sell lots of them,” she wrote in an article entitled “Critical Re-Thinking”.


After all, literary editors have spent years trawling through thousands of books, can spot potentially big titles, and have tons of contacts and friends in the media.  “What we’re really good at, though, is editing: thoroughly, sensitively and in a hurry, whether the writing is by a Booker Prize-winning author or an unheard-of amateur with a good idea,” Guest explains.


I can’t disagree with her, though I noted that Guest’s notion of editing was not exactly the sort of editing required of authors of book-length manuscripts. I had only a slight unease with Guest’s confidence in this direction, but a commenter on the article felt very strongly that literary editors aren’t an obvious fit for publishing houses.


“Book editors understand how to write and edit short non-fiction pieces. They know how to read books and to give readers their very educated opinions about the merit of books. They have a finger on the zeitgeist of book industry. But understanding the mechanics of stories is a whole different ball of wax,” wrote Colleen Subasic in a comment to the article. She admitted that Guest and literary editors like her would have “an edge on the common man” but felt Guest might be missing a number of necessary skills to be as valuable an editor for a trade publisher as was claimed.


I assume this is the Canadian playwright, Colleen Subasic, speaking; and she makes a fair point. She may be right that literary editors are mostly, if not exclusively, familiar with short non-fiction pieces and that they may need additional skills to become editors of book-length manuscripts.


However, I feel there is enormous value in what a literary editor (or former literary editor) such as Katy Guest can offer authors, even without practice in working with longer texts. One imagines that the experience of literary editors would give them a “helicopter view” of how a particular manuscript might fit into the world of books (and especially where and how to market a title). I can imagine such a person being an excellent acquisitions editor who would know how to champion his or her authors’ works in-house, as well as pull a few favours from the depleted pool of employed literary editors and book reviewers still lucky enough to appear in our national papers and journals.


Not all editors are alike. And this is my point: we authors believe that every other editor is like our editor, and they are not. Some editors line-edit the work thoroughly and some do not. Some are great at rallying the whole publishing house to get behind an author and some are not. Some push a book’s marketing and some leave that side of things alone. My point is that there are many different kinds of editors and no single editor does it all.


I imagine that literary editors would be very valuable to publishers. From what pool do publishers draw book editors at the moment, anyway?  I think I’d be looking for people like Katy Guest rather than the latest graduate whose experience in the industry consists of internships underwritten by their parents (admittedly, I am a parent who underwrites my child’s own career in the arts). Ideally, I’d take both the graduate and the former literary editor, of course. But in these difficult publishing days, how would I pay them?


The Writer's Economy

The New Freelancers


Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported that fifty-four million workers in the US are now freelancing for a living. The word freelancing, traditionally associated with writing and journalism, now extends to any job a person does as an independent contractor for a firm. Sometimes called the “gig economy”, or “agile talent”, freelancers come into a firm to conduct any kind of work – often technical work, research, or some sort of limited management function – and then they leave. They are paid for their work but with no further promise of employment once they’ve completed a project. They are not given any assurances, have no employee rights, no pension contributions and cannot expect any professional development or mentoring.


Writers are very familiar with “agile talent.” It’s how we get to write an article for The Sunday Times without actually having a job there. We pitch articles or get assignments and we know that after our 800 words delivered by Thursday, we have to look for another gig. My mother freelanced; I freelance. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the practice of freelancing. Until now.


From the point of view of big firms, “agile management” is a great idea. In their book, Agile Talent, Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood describe the growing need for companies to “have expertise on tap” but also the problems inherent in the practice of temporary hires in which the expert is treated as separate but not equal, and most importantly, extremely expendable.


The global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Bob Moritz, told the FT’s Ben McLannahan in March 2016 that this new brand of freelancers allows him to “bring in the right talent in the right place at the right time.” What he didn’t add, however, is that the “talent” is a person, and that this person is not given any employee rights or benefits, let alone ongoing professional skills development, and that it is often this shift of responsibility that makes agile talent so valuable to an organization.


Nonetheless, Moritz sounds convinced that the “talent” wants it this way. “We know when you look around the world, that an increasing number of people will want to be more of an independent contractor than a full-time employee,” he said. Deloitte reports that as  much as a third of America’s workforce is now working as “agile talent” or “super temps”.


Nobody has to convince me of the advantages of working for oneself. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ve even freelanced for professional services firms, though not PwC. However, working as an “independent contractor”  is not unusual for writers.  Writers have been “agile talent” for publishing houses forever. That’s just the way that the publishing business operates.  I write a novel on spec, the editor either wants it or doesn’t want it (and is usually under no obligation to accept it), then makes an offer.  With very few exceptions I’ve only been offered single-book deals and for wildly different sums.


This financial arrangement is acceptable to me because, I suppose, I’ve always imagined that the financial risks of writing fiction must be borne by the novelist. We produce something with a value that is difficult to define, hard to signal to the market, and about which opinions vary tremendously. Also, the publishing house is investing in us, in our books, and in our careers. There is a deal defined by cash and commitment. The publicists and marketing people work hard on the novel’s behalf. If the book is published well it is a good deal for the writer. Of course, if the book is published badly, and the publishing house does not put enough effort into it, it is always the author who is blamed.


With businesses now defining themselves not by what they produce but by the solutions they provide (the company that makes my dogs’ food does not sell dog food, but solutions to my dogs’ hunger), the solution my novel can offer might be to help people think about a subject in a new manner, or about their own lives in a new manner. Novels feed a kind of cultural appetite.  In contemporary business parlance, I don’t sell novels but solutions to cultural hunger.


But it turns out there are a lot more novels out there than there is hunger for them, which is why my book has to be just that little bit better, or my publishers marketing of it has to be better, or I just need raw luck. Usually the last.


I might like it to be different. I might like more job stability, financial stability, a sense of being part of a larger organization and team, the feeling of being valued by my colleagues on a regular basis instead of every few years when I bring out a book (unless they reject it, which is always a possibility, in which I feel terrible). It would be great to be groomed for success the way I imagine that executives are taught, to be taken by the hand by a publishing house and given advice on how to conduct myself during interviews, speak on television and radio, how to build networks, or make good relationships with key media figures. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s not the way publishing works.


If I wanted stability, if I’d wanted continued professional development, I’d have to go into a different profession, a more stable profession. If I didn’t want to have to always be pitching, selling and looking for the next gig, I’d have traded in my jeans and kitchen office for a crisp suit and a job at an international professional services firm, a place like PwC. After all, it is an enormous, profitable firm, the most prestigious accounting firm in the world.


Oh, except maybe I wouldn’t. Now that companies like PwC are building their “Talent Network”, so that they don’t have to offer anything more than short-term contracts, it seems that a “regular job” is becoming a rare thing, indeed. And being a writer has become no riskier than any other profession.


The Writer's Life

Author Interview With Fish


My son gets into the car with a large frozen fish in a blue bag. He explains it is for a Sudanese dinner which involves frying just this kind of fish (what kind of fish is it ,exactly?).  That might be all right, the frozen fish and the Sudanese dinner. He regularly buys teff flour to make injera, the bread one finds in Ethiopia, nori to roll sushi, and rice noodles for his Chinese food. Buying unusual food for exotic recipes is perfectly normal in our household, except tomorrow I have an interview with a major national newspaper and they are coming to my house, which will now smell like fish.


It’s hard enough to be interviewed at home when you live with four dogs, two budgies that fly around in the room we euphemistically call my son’s “office” (it is more a language laboratory/aviary) and a pasture of sheep and old horses. Also, when the house is crammed with books, musical instruments, electronic equipment, and all my daughter’s art supplies and canvases. This is the trouble with a household of creative people: we have a lot of stuff, are messy, have no patience for ironing, no aptitude for tidying.


My daughter’s sense of colour and space is so sophisticated she won a scholarship to one of America’s most competitive computer animation schools—but her bedroom looks like a what is left when teenagers at Glastonbury festival finally decamp. The art supplies take up one side, books she refuses to pass on to others or store in the attic are on the other. In between you’ll find rail tickets (she collects them), playbills (she collects them, too), dirty clothes, clean clothes, wrapping paper, coffee mugs,  uneaten food, receipts, coins, unpacked suitcases, a wolf costume, running shoes, paper flowers, a werewolf mask…


I can close the door to her bedroom, but what about the giant frozen fish? I tried defrosting it in the fridge overnight to contain the smell, but this morning it is still a big fish-ice cube.


“When will it be ready to cook?” my son wants to know. He’s bought all the trimmings that go with this dish, including ful medames, a special bean.


“After the reporter leaves,” I say, though I can’t decide if a defrosting fish is worse than a recently fried fish. “Oh, and the photographer.”


I have an image of the photographer searching the house for someplace suitable for a photo shoot and finding nothing. The house is a boring, modern, relatively compact four bedroom thing of no special appeal to most people, though I love it.IMG_2045


I love it but…I know it is weird. For example, next to the antique walnut upright piano with the terrifying cherub face I cover up (the piano with it’s scary cherub was given to my husband by his uncle) is a life-sized dalek, made by the same people who make daleks for Dr. Who. The dalek is enormous, with its strange egg beater-like arm and plunger arm and metallic paint. You might say, “Oh, please Marti stop complaining. Just get rid of the dalek and get your living room back!


But I like the dalek. I like all the clutter of my household, especially the four dogs with their four beds and all their colourful bowls and leashes. I like the free-ranging budgies that perch on my son’s shoulders as he studies Amharic or Chinese or whatever language takes his fancy. I like the bouzouki he rarely plays and the guitars we both play. I like the djembe drum—brought from Africa—and which I’ve placed kind of where you would put a side table, if I had such a thing as a side table.



But the fish. I don’t like the fish. I keep passing it in the kitchen, wondering just how bad it will make the air. I keep thinking the interviewer will forget all the questions she had about my novel and focus on the fact I have an exotic, defrosting, stinking fish in the kitchen, that this is the atmosphere in which I construct my narratives.


I can’t even bring myself to take a photograph of the fish to show you—it’s that bad. Fat, sad, frozen, dead fish. It is difficult enough for a vegan like myself having a corpse defrosting in the kitchen. I somehow feel that if it weren’t for the fish the interview would go well, but with it anything could happen.


Let’s just hope Nick doesn’t start frying just as the interview begins…

Blogs About Dogs

Good Writing Companions



I am in my office, a rectangle with room only for a desk and some books shelves. A big window overlooks the front garden where messy bushes lead to a tall, blue fir. The office is cluttered with books and boxes of equipment, stacks of paper, a saddle I need to sell. There is a card someone sent me for my birthday last year, too pretty to throw away, my daughts paintings and the glazed tile my son painted in primary school, a mother bird with her chicks beneath a rainbow.


The floor is alive with dogs–at my feet, curled around my chair. They sleep as I type. While I prepare a class for next week they wait and snooze, their paws twitching in their dreams as though they are running. It occurs to me all my life what I’ve really wanted was this: to sit in a in a room not unlike this one, surrounded by books and dogs.


My parents loved dogs and we always had three or four in the house. I grew up with legends about our dogs: the Great Pyrenes who followed my wandering baby brother down the road and protected him from anyone who tried to approach, the fabled labrador who it was said saved my father from drowning as a child, the ugliest puppy in the world taken off the street by my father who was known for saving strays, perhaps because once long ago a dog saved him.IMG_1410


Arriving at an art gallery, I was the child who searched for the King Charles Spaniel at a regent’s feet, or for a Pekinese hidden in the the sleeve of a member of the Chinese Imperial Court. I don’t remember a face, much less a name, but I always remember a dog. I will say to my husband, “You know those people with the Newfoundland?” Or, “you know that lady in your office who brings the Dachshund with her to work…?”


I’m wondering if the real reason I became a writer was so that I could be alone, but not really alone, because I don’t particularly like solitude. I read a biographer’s summary of  another’s life, observe through the poet’s eye, follow the story of another fiction writer, all while not having to actually be with people, at least those outside my family, very often.


It isn’t as though I don’t like people–I do. Meeting me, you’d never know what an introvert I am. I’m funny and quick and deeply interested in everything around me.  But I’m fueled with adrenaline, hyped up on nerves. I dread parties and book launches and anything that involves standing in a room full of people with a drink. Afterwards, I recount all the stupid things I said, the names I forgot, the awkwardness of it all. I really wish I could take Rohypnol after parties, especially publishing parties, so I could forget what happened.


I just adopted two beautiful sheltie dogs. Some people worry greatly over a new pet joining the household, but I take this in my stride, with little concern.  The shelties came to me under sad circumstances but have been received into my home with such joy. My children adore them; my husband is surprised by their soft nature. My resident dogs don’t seem to mind. I love seeing four dog beds spread over the kitchen and hallway, four bowls sitting on the draining board, four leashes by the door. If I am not with them, I am thinking of them: my new pack.


I punctuate my day with the chores we (that is, my dogs and me) do together. There is “the presentation of the morning,” when I open the door and they bound outside to the garden. There is the eagerly awaited breakfast which they eat with such gratitude.  There is the daily bundling into the car to take my son to school, then off onto heathland for a good run among the gorse and pathways. There is the grooming and dinner and treats and chew toys.



Anyway, I’ve deterimined that dogs improve my writing. Writing is about habit. You make it your habit to sit down each day. You make it your habit to dream about the work when you are not actually at your desk. And it is about discipline. The single best tip you can give a budding writer is this: SIT IN THE CHAIR.


And If every time you got up from your desk four dogs got up with you, you’d soon learn to stay seated—which often means stay writing.

Writing Advice

Learn to Write Flash Fiction


The novelist and short story writer, Jayne Anne Phillips, stated that flash fiction taught her how to write.


Phillips began as a poet but discovered through flash fiction what she describes as “the poem inside the paragraph.” In these “one-page fictions”, as she called likes to describe them, she unlocked the secret to the best of fiction writing: the way in which a paragraph, so common in form, so seemingly pedestrian and innocent in its undecorated form, can be “secretive and subversive.” Almost anything that a poem can do, a paragraph can do, too, without the adornment of the broken line or couplet. Short fiction is a powerful form and the shortest of it a good place to learn the might  of that power.


There has been a lot written about the distinction between flash fiction and narrative poetry. Even so, it isn’t always clear what difference is. Obviously, in fiction we see paragraphs and dialogue while poetry is all about stanzas and broken lines. Those who care to categorize the two mostly settle on the idea that the primary goal of piece of flash fiction is to tell a story while the primary goal of a poem is to explore an idea.


I am not sure I agree. Plenty of poetry tells a story. Lots of short fiction, especially post-modern fiction, is more interested in ideas that narrative. Is it important that we know that a piece is a flash as opposed to narrative poetry? To me, no. We don’t have to diagnose a piece like a medical condition. We just have to read it and decide whether it was worth that effort.


To try to teach flash fiction is to try to teach quality, itself. I don’t know why I’ve agreed to such task but next week I will arrive to Oxford and give it my best. Like all good fiction, flash begins as though you are already reading it, the flow of the story launched with such smoothness and precision that you don’t realise you are even in the story until you are already away with it.


With my own fiction I aspire to make it seem both effortless to write. I don’t want it to be work. And while longer narratives require writers to attend to boring logistics—establishing names and ages and all sorts of information—as artfully as we can, a flash piece is free from such burdens. Flash should be pure pleasure, the words entering us, as Jayne Anne Phillips describes, “…right into the vein, into the blood, so to speak, of meaning…”


John Gardner speaks beautifully of the importance of maintaining the uninterrupted dream in fiction, this idea that we writers must provide the reader with an experience that takes them out of their reality and into our work’s reality with as little disruption as possible. Anything that interrupts the dream must be culled. Awkward sentences are not “bad” because they are awkward but because a reader has to labour  in order to understand what is being said, which distracts from the fictional dream. Punctuation doesn’t matter because the teacher tells you so but because its use will contribute to the reader’s overall experience.  We all know from Lynne Truss’s book, Eat, Shoots & Leaves, that commas can transform everything. Even a misspelled word makes us remember all over again that what we are writing is fiction. Punctuation is part of the overall delivery of the story in dreamlike form—that is why it matters.


What are the tools to writing good flash fiction, other than keen perception, a facility with language, excellent judgement, a sense of timing and narrative and the story inside the story? I can’t really give students any of these tools, though I can nudge them a little until they discover them for themselves. However, I can tell them to keep a notebook. So, in this blog I will reveal the first tool to writing good flash: use a notebook and keep track of small things.


Stuart Dybek explains how important a notebook is in a piece he wrote called “Great Thoughts.” A notebook captures  “fragments of dreams, memories, which are usually only the fragments of events, and other fragments: images, lines of dialogue, quotations from books…”, a place to put all the little details we pick up that, upon closer examination, have meaning. These small fragments are so important.


I am currently reading a book called Family Life by Akhil Sharma. It is a wonderful book, has won all sorts of awards including the International Dublin Award for fiction. I’ve only just begun, but the first pages are so many of tiny fragments filled with meaning, I can’t wait to read more: how the narrator remembers his life in India in which his mother and he carefully sliced wooden matches in half to make them last longer, how they saved the cotton inside jars to make candlewicks. These details are gems, but if we look around in our ordinary lives, lives that doesn’t always feel very interesting, we can usually find something of note.


For example, as I am typing in a village cafe on this June morning, there is a blind woman in a wool coat, her labrador in a harness by her knee. She is speaking loudly to the cafeteria manager. “How did that dog get away then on the common?!” she begins. “People and their dogs! I’ll tell you it gets up my nose!” Every word is amplified, huge, as though being blind means she has to permeate a barrier with her other senses, which I guess is the case.  What else is happening around me? A middle-aged man holds his phone at different angles, trying to read messages without glasses. Outside, a guy with crowded tattoos, a roll-up between his teeth,  a coffee in his hand,  parallel parks his goods van, then chucks the roll-up, still lit, out the open window onto the sidewalk.


Write it down, write it down. Not every detail is important but get in the habit of writing it down anyway. And remember this: when you are not writing, you are often still writing. When you attend to small matters, like matchsticks and cotton balls, the meaning often magnifies on the page.




In my house, next to the kitchen phone, among the important items we don’t want to lose—keys, phones, ID cards—is a photograph of a handsome young man wearing a blue t-shirt and smiling into the camera. Behind him is a canopy of summer trees and the English sky coloured its typical sheet-metal grey. I visit his photo as though it may need some of my attention.I notice the smile all over again, and remember  him all over again: as a newborn floppy in my arms, as a five-year-old with his stack of Lego, as a young adult laughing at a picnic table in our garden, surrounded by family on an ordinary spring day.


Since his funeral last Thursday I am visited by thoughts of the beautiful wicker casket covered in flowers in which he was carried, solemnly and with great care, through the ancient church with its vaulted ceiling and dark pew benches below pretty stained glass. If you ask me how I feel about the death of this most beloved boy, I can sum it up in a these words: He was twenty-four.


That is enough information for you to know just how great a robbery was his death. And that something rare and terrible has taken place after which recovery cannot be complete.


If you have no idea what I am talking about, if you’ve never felt a heavy loss of a dearly loved child (I must make clear that he was not my son, but my friends’ son), I envy you. If you’ve never stood in a place of shocked speechlessness and horror and the fear of the future, which seems to hold nothing good anymore, nothing to reach for, I envy you.


Not all of us have these experiences: to wish you could sign away your own life in place of another, to be willing to follow even the most ludicrous, irrational faith if it holds a piece of magic that will save your child. Not all of us have had reason to stay up nights researching, then typing out what you hope aren’t hysterical-sounded messages to experts in a field of medicine you now wish you’d studied just so you’d know more about your child’s condition. Thank God, these experiences are rare.


I don’t envy those who hold lucky tickets or are among the world’s super-rich, or Booker prize winners, I envy those whose children are healthy and well. I envy those who have not sat in the specialists’ offices or spent every penny on medical consults, or hoped and prayed and bargained and pleaded. I remember wishing so much that my own child was ordinary and that I could count myself among those gifted ignorant folks who do not endure diagnoses or burials. My own son, still alive, thriving despite predictions, his unusual brain in turns both a gift and a curse.


T.C. Boyle has the most beautiful story, Chicxulub that brings the reader as close to an experience of such loss as can be rendered imaginatively. It won’t help to steel you for the moment that it is your friend or husband or wife or parent or child. It can’t make pain lessen.  It’s just a story.  But it is so unflinchingly and unforgivably accurate, depicting what parents feel through the darkening hours of fear, and that final, dreadful verdict upon a child they’ve loved more than they thought would be possible before bringing her into the world. It is as close to being there as you can be without being there, if you know what I mean.


I listened to Lionel Shriver read Chicxulub for the New Yorker podcast. As Lionel did during her rehearsal of her reading, I welled up through the build-up of the narrative, and cried at the end, not for the fictional characters within its pages but for all those real life daughters and sons whose loss brings a kind of annihilation.


Writers matter to us all because the unearth aspects of our everyday lives that deserve our reflection and attention.  Words honour loss. Words honour the dead. Words don’t make it any easier, but at least give a structure to our feelings that offers the illusion of safety within the chaos of our emotions. Writing brings alive memory. Just blogging about this boy I loved–and who was so loved by his family–allows me to hold him in my mind once again.


Writers can scare you to death without even trying.  Chicxulub will unsettle you, will bring into an uncomfortable space. It will surprise you–everything about it speaks of the strange mixture of inevitability and surprise that makes up our lives. Everything about the story screams warning, warning warning….How does one set about writing a story like that?  I don’t know and I write all the time. It is just what happens, or can happen.


Be brave: read the story.



The Authors Guild has joined the Writer’s Union of Canada in celebrating why writers matter this week. If you use #WhyWritersMatter in tweets it will help tell everyone how you feel about them.



The New Yorker & Me


The New Yorker has always worried me. When I was younger and only aspired to be a fiction writer the New Yorker was perhaps too far a reach for me.  I had no reason to fear it, and yet there was something too highbrow, too glamorous about it, a national showcase of short fiction. I dared not touch it.


Except I did. When I lived in America I spent time with the stories in the New Yorker each week in what I hoped was a rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer. I often read other articles, too, loving them and fearing them at the same time, because of course the world of the New Yorker was not my world. Even when writers wrote about the kinds of places I worked—convenience stores and mall cafeterias—they were depicted in a manner that made such ordinariness seem exciting. A crappy employee locker room at Hot Shoppes with its blocky punch clock on the wall and yellow light above the bench seats where you changed into the uniform, would have been rendered in such a way that it had a lustre I had not experienced in my real life as a bus girl.  The day my sister’s toe was squashed and she had to go to bed for days, lying on he back with the giant toe outside the bed clothes, the toenail slowly blackening and coming away, would have been some beautiful portrait of rural Maryland.


But only in The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.


The New Yorker cleaned up squalor, made it magically beautiful or at least very cool. Reading The New Yorker had a lingering effect on me. After time in the public library, its pages spread out on a laminate desk, my mind transformed everything around me to fit into its prettified frame, as though seeing everything in my regular life with New Yorker eyes. For a little while anyway.


Let me tell you: nothing is interesting about shift work or a car that will not—cannot—pass an annual inspection, or the humiliation of the worst haircut ever at the ten dollar shop—except when such dreaded inevitabilities of life show up in the New Yorker. There, they are art. As for getting a story into The New Yorker, I would have loved that, but I couldn’t understand how they chose their stories, why this instead of that.


Not every story was to my liking—too long, too boring, nothing at stake, who cares?—but I looked for what others might admire. Anyway, who was I to assess? I did not live a New Yorker life. I read the New Yorker—good God did I—until I moved to the UK in 1990 and The New Yorker cost too much and wasn’t stocked in local libraries. I still got hold of copies…I’d been poor long enough to be thrifty. But my reading of the stories became spotty, late. I lost sight of my rigorous program of self-improvement as a writer and had babies, writing at nap times and between loads of laundry.


This is not a complaint. My happiest times ever were reading to my infant children, singing to them, rocking them. Along with some other wonderful and famous writers, Richard Ford contributed a list of his advice for writers to become successful. His number two was “not have children”. I got news for Mr. Ford, whose work I greatly admire and who has been in the New Yorker many times, you’d trade your Pulitzer for a child in a heartbeat if you ever knew what you’d missed.

But they are very messy, children. Nothing like The New Yorker.


So imagine how spoiled I feel now that The New Yorker has podcasts available for free. It’s too much for me. Every day is Christmas. I can hear Andrew O’Hagan read Edna O’Brien, or Allan Gurganus read Grace Paley. The reading of the stories matters immensely. In fact, I rather prefer listening to Kevin Barry than the story he read, which was Brian Friel’s “The Saucer of Larks.” I don’t know whether up and coming writers know what a gift we have in being able to access great work for free (once you’ve bought the computer, that is) but if the combination of podcasts, public domain writing, youtube readings, and poetry just everywhere all over the net doesn’t make for a renaissance in literature, I don’t know what does.  I love literary festivals but just switching on the internet can bring you a festival in a morning.

Though I am still somewhat cowed by The New Yorker.