the sea in birmingham

I travelled down to Birmingham this weekend to attend the launch of The Sea in Birmingham, an anthology of short stories set in and around the city.  My story is set around some of the city’s hundreds of miles of canals – we have more canals than Venice! That’s a true fact.

I had thought I wouldn’t be able to go to the launch, due to a lack of funds.  But a kind friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) decided to be a Good Fairy and sent me some cash!  In their words, ‘one of the few perks of being a writer is getting to go to your own book launch.’  I was utterly blown away by this person’s generousity, and hope I repaid it in some measure by going along and having a really fantastic time.

It was wonderful to meet some of the other contributors, including those I’ve chatted with online or admired from afar but never met in person.  The event was in Birmingham’s swanky new library, which is a fine and glamourous place, although I’m pretty sure I did manage to lower the tone at least a little.  There wasn’t much chance to explore, but at one point a few of us broke away from the crowd on the way to the studio theatre and got excitingly lost in the guts of the building.  A kindly lady guided us away from the kitchens and other steamy workings, and back to where we were supposed to be.

We sold a lot of books.  I signed my name on a few of them, and learned that I have absolutely no idea what messages to write.  Even now I am cringing as I recall writing ‘Hope you don’t find any dead bodies in the canal’ on a mate’s copy.  This is clearly an Area for Improvement.

After the launch and a few complimentary glasses of wine, I popped in to another launch – this one for Pigeonwings, a self-published collaborative novel by some members of Birmingham Writers’ Group.  They didn’t have free wine, but they did have free salami and haloes.  A few of us sat at the back of the pub and played a giggly game of consequences.  It was rather like old times.

The Tindal Street antho is on sale through Amazon, and you can buy it here.  I’m only sorry I can’t provide the full Officer-and-a-Gentlewoman experience to everyone who buys a copy.  If you can make it up to Edinburgh, I could probably do you a fireman’s lift.

the egg

The blurb about me in the current Interzone mentions this short film from a while back, so I thought I’d post it up here for the curious. It’s based on one of the first decent(ish) short stories I ever wrote, and represents my first short story sale. Actually, this was the little story that could. First of all, it got me a place on an awesome screenwriting course, then it won first prize in a competition judged by Graham Joyce, and then I sold it to a film company. Honestly, watching the film now makes me cringe – for all the  bad writing they left in, and all the bad writing they added along the way. But despite its weaknesses, this story marks the moment when I became a real writer.

The Egg


stop me and buy one


Interzone 246 is out now and contains my grim little story ‘Cat World.’ But even better than that, it also contains stories by Aliette de Bodard, Lavie Tidhar and the brilliant Priya Sharma. So for heaven’s sake RUSH OUT AND BUY A COPY! Even better, subscribe.

While you’re at it, grab yourself a copy of Black Static, which this month has Ilan Lerman‘s very creepy story ‘The King of Love my Shepherd Is,’ along with stories by Nina Allen and Joel Lane. You can thank me later.


and many more

I was well chuffed to see that I’m one of the ‘many more’ in this anthology.


The talented and hardworking Steve Berman told me that my story was a lot cheaper to get than Stephen King’s. (I figured.) Bad Seeds comes out in July, but you can pre-order it here. So, go and do that!


When you write a lot of short stories, your process tends to be mainly thinking, walking, intuiting, imagining – and then writing. Or the other way around. After one, two, or a few drafts, you ask your trusted beta readers to look for all the things that are wrong with your story, and you fix those. It might take a long time or not long at all. You might need to put the story away for a while. You might be working on a story that you don’t quite understand yet, and have to put it away for a very long while. But in essence, the process is simple. You think, write, revise. It’s not hard to keep it all in order inside your head.

Novels are a different kettle of fish. You can’t keep a kettle of fish inside your head. Trust me, I’ve tried.

When I first conceived of this novel, I had no idea how much planning would go into it, and I definitely had no idea how much I would enjoy it, particularly the research. It’s fun! You start to develop a familiarity with the available resources in a particular field, to recognise names and dates, and to feel the beginnings of a sort of expertise that is interesting in and of itself. This is very far removed from academia: it feels practical and urgent. After all, it serves a specific purpose. It’s not knowledge for its own sake, but it connects up a network of ideas and hunches that are part of what underpins your artistic creation.

So, it’s very cool. Even painstakingly setting out a scene breakdown for your entire novel is cool. It’s a fragile, interconnected structure that demands every piece of information find its own rightful place, the place where it can make an impact. Everything has to be proportionate. Everything has to be balanced so that it supports the structure’s internal strength. It’s not ‘plotting’, but a feat of imaginative engineering.

Writing short stories trains you to create work in a certain way. It trains you to focus in on intimate, metonymic images. You become adept at suggesting a whole world from a single moment. But a novel asks you to do something utterly different. It asks you to build reality from scratch. It asks you to create a machine that is capable of generating a whole world. And if you want that world to be strange, if you want meaning to reside in the gaps, absences and interstices of that world (as it does in reality) then you are necessarily working with something complex. You need to develop a sensibility akin to an engineer who knows that if her calculations are a fraction of a degree off, we’re all going to die in a fiery explosion. You have to think it matters.



The whole world looks like sucked candy. Hard candy, pitted with holes, softening under a rough tongue. The cathedral dissolves in the rain, collapses into sludge and drifts in the gutter. The soft gutter. The sticky road.

Gretel breathes. In for a count of three, hold, let it out slowly. It isn’t working. Her feet sink into warm fudge. She panics, she always does, can’t help it. In her deepest unconscious she has never left the gingerbread house. She is still there, licking the walls.

Compulsively, she checks her pockets for crumbs. But she has left them at home, on the instructions of her therapist. Trust in reality, he said. But how can she? Even he admits, the grim Herr Doktor, that reality is a confection, no a construction, no, confection is right; it’s all in their minds, in their mouths, did he say? Reality is a confection in the mouth.

Would it hurt to break off a little in her hand, a little to eat? The soft, chewy corner of a road sign, or the wing mirror of a shiny toffee car. You can’t eat this world, says Herr Doktor, leaning on his striped candy cane. But finally, Gretel thinks, she must. Even this world, dry and hard and sour, metal and concrete and dirt; in the end she will eat it all. Every last bite.

short burst of inspiration

The illustrious and talented Robert Shearman visited us this morning and gave an inspiring talk about short stories. He said some very insightful and helpful things, which I’m not going to repeat here because if you want to hear his great advice you should probably be paying him a lot of money for it. But one of the things I’ll take away from his talk is the way he spoke with such great passion, humour and love about reading and writing short stories. I love reading and writing short stories, too! I forgot how much.

At the moment I’m writing a novel, something which I have failed to do many, many times. This is a big part of the reason I wanted to do a creative writing MA – I needed to make a serious commitment to a major writing challenge. And I’m working on a big, difficult project that I have a lot of love for. I think it could be ace – as long as I don’t fuck it up.

But writing short stories is completely different for me. It isn’t remotely like work. It’s something I love to do and will always do. Maybe I’ll write a string of novels and they’ll all be brilliant and win awards and acclaim, and I’ll retire on my massive earnings and spend the rest of my days quaffing champers and commissioning life-size portraits of myself – the normal writer’s life, don’t you know. Whatever. I’m always going to be writing short stories, no matter what happens next, just because that’s what I love to write.

It’s depressingly easy to get sucked into the world of academia and trying to understand clever things that people say and trying to get people to give you nice grades for your writing. We all lose perspective in the face of that stuff. So it’s great to have someone come along and fire loads of enthusiasm and joy at you. And make you remember why it is you’re doing this in the first place.

present complicated

Let’s skim over the fact that I haven’t posted anything here for yonks, and talk about present tense instead. I am so over my love affair with the present simple. I really wish everyone else would get over theirs, too.

I know why people like writing in present simple so much – it’s because it automatically gives you a ‘voice’, a style. Used in conjunction with short sentences and a few too many conjunctions, it creates the impression that you are actually writing. She looks up. The bird circles, its wings outstretched like grey sails. It soars and dips and lifts upwards and she thinks she can see her own reflection in its shining eyes and beak. Then it poos on her head. (Sorry. I am a child.)

The trouble with this is that it isn’t really writing. It’s a cheat. Sounds poetic and deep and meaningful, but in exactly the same way that everyone else’s present-tense prose sounds poetic and deep and meaningful. It’s a formula. And behind the formulaic prose is hidden, I sometimes suspect, an ignorance of how to write any other way.

It is surprisingly easy to write a short story in the present tense, but I am not sure it is often justified. I’ve written plenty of things that read more or less like the example above, and so has almost every other writer I know. Why? Because it’s so easy! Your writing seems all beautiful and metaphorical, and you never have to sit there and work out why you’re doing it. Why does this need to be told in the present tense? Why am I not using any of the other 11 tenses in the English language? (Or is it two tenses with various voices, moods, and aspects? No need to answer that, grammar police, as I don’t actually care.) And, an especially interesting question: why doesn’t it bother me that my prose reads almost identically to every other writer’s present-tense prose?

People claim that the present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but in fact it does exactly the opposite. It creates an atmosphere of distance, timelessness, fairytale-ness and ungrounded-ness (which are all completely real words, thank you very much.) In everyday life, we use the present simple to talk about things that are usually or always true, facts, things that stay the same for a long time. We might use it to accent a story, or even to tell a whole one, if we are particularly dull speakers, but more often we use it to give instructions, lectures, describe the workings of the internal combustion engine. If you want immediacy in your writing, the present simple will not do. It will bog you down and keep pulling you back to its same voice and everything you write will sound the same as everything else you write and everything else that other people write. It will inevitably fall upon the spectrum of mild to gross pretentiousness. And you will never learn how to control your storytelling using all the tools that are available in the language.

Of course there are stories which demand distance, timelessness etc. But not every story does. A writer has to make choices about tense, not just default to present simple without considering the needs of the story.

Yes, there are a few writers who can make any prose brilliant, and there are several stories written in present simple which I love unreservedly. So there’s no need to accuse me of being some kind of tense-fascist, even though I might be one. Of course there is a place for the present simple in all kinds of prose and poetry. In general, however, I am far more impressed with writers who deploy the full range of tenses, who can use four or five tenses in a paragraph, and who do it so skilfully that you don’t even notice, or you do notice and it makes you swoon. That is hard to do. That takes craft and application and a huge amount of failure. That is a level of mastery to which I aspire.

Feel free to tell me how much you disagree with me in the comments.


Her fingers called her in the middle of the night. The telephone rang – it woke her – and she sat up, blinded by darkness, and reached out her hand for the receiver. Pressed it, cold against her ear. It was them, her fingers. They played Beethoven to her.

It happened every night. In the morning, she looked at her hands and counted the digits and wondered how her fingers could be living this double life. Sometimes she sat down at the piano in the TV lounge and placed her fingers on the keys, but nothing came of that. Only plink plink plink crash, and the shooting pains that went from her fingertips all the way up through her arms, to her heart. Then she would take as many of the prescription painkillers as she dared, laying them out in ranks on her bedside table. One for sorrow, two for joy… a third and a fourth… and then her hands would be completely numb and useless.

Beethoven. It was always Beethoven. She had used to like Philip Glass, but her fingers liked to play the Moonlight Sonata. She knew they were her fingers, because they stumbled in just the places she always had. There was that terrible third. She remembered the sharp rap of her teacher’s voice: Adagio! Adagio! At least that was all over now.

But was it over? Why did her fingers telephone every night? Were they trying to tell her something, and if so, what was it? Sometimes she whispered into the receiver: if you can hear me, tell me what it is you want. But her fingers just carried on playing, on and on, until she either put down the phone or fell back to sleep listening to the music.

no cigarillo

Happy to report that the short story I entered for the mslexia short story competition was one of fifty that were shortlisted this year. It didn’t get placed. But given that there were over 2000 entries, and that this is mslexia we’re talking about – one of the biggest writing magazines with some of the highest standards – it’s not too shabby.

It’s not good enough, though. It’s encouraging, and tells me I’m getting closer to achieving some of my goals – but I am impatient. And competitive. I want to win. And I want it to happen NOW.

I guess the trick is to let those feelings motivate me to improve, work harder, reach more of my potential as a writer. I feel like I’m on the edge of making a leap forward, leveling up somehow, but then I’ve felt that way for a while. For a while I got frustrated about it, wondering what was holding me back, or what I was holding back from my work. But that way of thinking is too self-critical; it just makes everything harder. I prefer to think that things take the time they take. My writing will get better, but I can’t force it. All I can do is stay willing, and keep working.