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I have to confess that I actually don’t have any words to explain how amazing this feels. Just a huge, enormous grin that can probably be seen from space. ūüėÄ

Oh oh oh – and the links to buy it, of course! It’s available direct from the Salt website, and also for pre-order from Amazon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas. xxx

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So as it turns out, I have a short story accepted for this month’s issue of Beat Magazine. I didn’t even know in advance that this one was coming*, so it was a lovely surprise when it flashed up on my husband’s Google alerts**.

A lot of you will already know that November is National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo. The idea is to write 50,000 words in a month, which in theory will then give you the germ of the Next Big Thing in novels. (In theory. I have also seen December referred to as “NaNoReMo”, or “National Novel Rejection Month”, in which agents and publishers have to clear their slush-piles of all the badly-written first drafts sent in at the end of November.)

I’ll admit that when it comes to NaNo, I have yet to come to terms with my fear and desire. Part of me wants to do it, because I hate turning down writing challenges. Even the gorgeous little writing seeds that appear like small, magical presents on the #amwriting hashtag make me feel guilty when I don’t act on them. The guilt of not taking up the challenge of producing fifty thousand words in a month and validating them on the NaNo website can make me break out in a cold sweat.

I actually did NaNo once, and I even hit the 50k target. Unfortunately, the words I wrote were so utterly horrible that I managed to almost destroy an idea I’d been gently nurturing into existence for about two years. So great was the train-wreck that was my NaNo project, it’s taken me another two years to go back to it and start work again. This involves binning off every single word of the original manuscript, and re-writing the entire thing from scratch at a more sensible speed. From this, I have taken the painful lesson that, as a writing tool, NaNo does not work for me.

But then you get to November and it feels like the whole world’s doing it, and they’re all working insanely hard, hitting their daily targets, while you plod slowly through the editing of one novel and rack up another few thousand words on another, and feel a vague sense of non-achievement and failure to participate in the prevailing zeitgeist, and…you know?

This year, I managed to find a compromise. I didn’t do NaNo. But I did find a writing buddy on Twitter (his name is Ed Fraser and his pleasingly eclectic blog is here). We decided that instead of one novel, we’d go for a target of six short stories.

Sometimes, every word of a story is about as hard to get out of your brain as your teeth are to get out of your jaw. Your characters won’t talk to you and your setting doesn’t look right and nothing about it turns out the way you want it to. Sometimes it actually feels as though you are physically wrestling with the text, rather than just attempting to get it down on paper.

Sometimes, you conceive the belief that your words are actually fighting with you. They are not your friend; they do not want to play nicely. Instead, they would much prefer you to go away and leave them alone and get on with something dull but useful, like folding washing or something, while they lie on the sofa and watch cartoons with their mouths open. (I think I’m still talking about words here. It’s possible I’m now getting them confused with “my children”.)

Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes, it just…happens. The only limit on how fast you can turn your story into reality is how fast your fingers can move. Stephen King has found the perfect image for this in the title story of his brilliant collection, “Everything’s Eventual“; he calls it the “river of fire in your head”. That’s exactly how it feels. The river of fire is rare. Most of the time, you’re writing without the help of the river of fire; most of the time, you have to make do with hard graft and bloody-minded stubbornness instead. But when you get one of those days, nothing beats it. The river of fire is what writers pray for.

“Shaggy Bear Story” was the first of my collection of six. One more is finished, one more is in the works, and three more are little more than vague floaty ideas that I am attempting to pin down, so I think it’s fair to say I am going to crash and burn in a fairly drastic fashion on my six-in-a-month target.

But on the other hand, NaNo finished on 30th November. The new issue of Beat Magazine, complete with “Shaggy Dog Story”, hit the virtual stands on 1st December. So maybe just for once, I am being a little bit efficient after all?

* Of course I was aware of having submitted to Beat, and was very very keen to be accepted – I just didn’t know in advance that they’d decided to go with my submission. Definitely the very best sort of surprise.
** This is the traditional way for me to find out anything. All marriages have their own unique dynamics and traditions: in our house, the rule is, I always know stuff second. Also, he is in charge of putting the bins out.

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I have the final cover artwork for New World Fairy Tales. This is it. This is how my book is going to look when it goes out into the big, bad world.

There’s a comforting feeling of shared-experience about this moment. All published writers, anywhere, ever – the great ones and the terrible ones and the ones in between – have been where I am right now. We’ve all had that same feeling, the one that’s not as negative as fear and not as confident as excitement, knowing that for the very first time, our words are about to become a commercial object. A thing people will pick up in shops and buy. Something, in fact, that people are expected to pay money in order to own.

That’s the real test of whether your writing’s any good, I suppose; whether someone will actually pay money for it.

And everyone around me is so excited for me! I’d always secretly assumed this would be a private moment, with meaning only to me and maybe my immediate family. But as it turns out, all my friends and acquaintances are thrilled for me as well! Even relative strangers, overhearing discussions in the school playground or in supermarket queues, burst impetuously into the conversation – “You’ve got a book coming out? That’s so amazing! Congratulations! What’s it called? When is it published? What’s it about? And where did you get the idea?” And then, the lovely but sadly unlikely prediction; “You’ll be the next J K Rowling.”

Of course I won’t, and I know I won’t; but that’s okay. I’ve got my ambitions, but setting the bar at “I want to be the next Jo Rowling” is about as realistic as “I want to win the lottery five weeks in a row”. Here’s what I’d like to achieve. I very much want to live up to the three generations of published authors in my family who’ve gone before me.

My great-grandfather William May, who was a Methodist minister with a late-Victorian-size family to feed, wrote a seemingly endless series of didactic semi-tract-like books for use as study-guides in Sisterhood meetings. They were about a middle-aged unmarried woman called Mary-Martha (d’you see what he did there?), and the moral lessons which could be drawn from her life-experiences. Surprisingly, they’re much better than I’ve made them sound. Sometimes my brother and I hold late-night readings of them, and fall about laughing at our long-gone ancestor. Meanwhile our spouses look at us and then at each other, and eventually leave us to get on with it and find something less ludicrous to do instead. Of course, the Mary-Martha series is long out of print, but I still have a few of them, and they turn up in charity shops and on AbeBooks from time to time.

And once, in his heyday, William J May filled an entire shop-window. A whole window-display, just of his words! We have a photo of it somewhere. I never met you, William, which is probably a good thing, since I suspect that much about my life would scandalise you to your bones. But you set a good standard. You were a working writer. You found a niche, and you filled it. Your words made your family’s life far more comfortable than it ever could have been on a Minister’s stipend. In that sense, I’d like to follow in your footsteps.

My grandfather – not William May’s son, but my mother’s father, Jack Fyson – wrote short stories as a sideline from his life in the Merchant Navy, and then his second life in his family’s printing business. This was back in the days when newspapers printed short fiction, so his work was even more ephemeral than William May’s. All we have now are a few crumbling newspaper cuttings. But I’ve read and loved those stories, and I remember sitting on his knee and hearing him talk about writing, and wanting to do the same. Furthermore, Jack Fyson’s work was good enough for Leslie Charteris to refer to his short stories as a model in his book on the craft of writing.

Grandpa, you were a devout atheist, so I know that you – like me – firmly rejected the intellectually dubious comfort of believing that the dead watch over the living. But I wish, so very, very much, that you could have been here to see my short stories in print. If by any chance we’re both wrong and there is a part of us that goes on, I hope you’re watching me now.

Finally, my dad Jonathan May. Dad, you were brought up by two of the loudest, most opinionated matriarchs it’s ever been my privilege to know, in the shape of my grandmother Mildred and her older sister Anne. It’s no surprise to any of us that you grew up to be rather quiet, since you – like your father – can surely have never managed to get a word in edgeways. When you were working as a Rig Medic at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster, and you answered that desperate radio call for everyone with a smidgen of medical skill to get the hell over to Piper field right now, and you and so many others worked through the darkness and the smoke and the flames and the unspeakable horror to save the lives of sixty-one men, it didn’t surprise us that afterwards you only told us the bare facts of what it had been like. Instead, you stayed up late into the night for months and months, and wrote your story into a novel. When Carol Blake agented it and Hodder and Stoughton published it and we read it, we all cried. From your Amazon reviews, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. One day, dad, I’d like to write something as moving as your account of what that night meant to you.

So, now it’s my turn. My turn to wait for the presses to roll; my turn to wait for those precious author-copies to drop through the letterbox. My turn to wait and see if anyone actually buys my work, my turn to wait and see what they make of it when they do.

William, Jack and Jon, this is my ambition. I want to live up to you.

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My short story “Edin-Burrow” has just been published online by the fantastic literary magazine, “The View From Here”. Hooray!

“Edin-Burrow” evolved from an extended version of a game of Consequences with a very dear friend in America. At the time, I was mostly interested in learning to speak American as part of the “New World Fairy Tales” project, and he just wanted to write cheerful Kick-Ass-type nonsense with a friend. So we took it in turns to write episodes of a ridiculous comic-fantasy story that began in the wall of the hero’s house and ended up in a pitched battle involving vampires and massive birds (that’s birds as in “really big avian creatures”, not “large British females”). Unsurprisingly, as of the time of writing this piece of magnificence remains unpublished.

As I recall, we spent most of this story just massively showing off to each other, deliberately leaving impossible cliff-hangers that the other one then had to resolve, implying an increasingly complicated and often contradictory back-story for the hero and introducing ever more outrageously stupid characters.

And then, about halfway through, I suddenly had one of those inexplicable moments where somebody else leans over your shoulder, takes hold of the end of your pen and forces you to write something entirely different. For no reason I could ever get to the bottom of, our smiling-idiot hero turned to camera and poured out a dark, tortured story about the time in his life he was most ashamed of.

It had so very little to do with anything else in the story that I nearly didn’t send it, but in the end I just wrote, “Erm, don’t know where this came from but, erm, here it is. I think there might be something wrong with me, actually” and pressed ‘send’.

The response was kind and lovely*, and encouraged me to work Jack’s unexpected sidetrack into a finished short piece. I decided to make him a stand-up comic because I’m fascinated by the disturbingly close connection between stand-up comedy and personal trauma. I once saw an interview with Sarah Millican where she said she became a comic after her personal therapist said to her at the end of a session, “You do know this is actually a stand-up comedy routine, right?” I’m very, very glad Millican has taken up comedy as a profession, because she’s brilliant. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it must feel to know that even your therapist is laughing at the traumatic ending of your marriage. That uncomfortable tension between comedy and confession felt like exactly the right kind of space for Jack to share his story.

One of the things I love about “The View From Here” is that they illustrate the fiction they publish. Like most writers, there’s nothing I love more than knowing that someone out there understands what I was trying to do. Having a stranger quietly choose exactly the right images to highlight the key moments of your story is an incredible feeling.

So, yeah; that’s “Edin-Burrow”. I’d love to know what you think of it. As far as I can tell there isn’t a feedback mechanic on “The View From Here”, but if you’ve got any thoughts you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment on here instead. And do check out the rest of their published pieces as well. I’m in some fantastic company.


*Like his response isn’t engraved on my memory. What he actually said was, “Holy shit, you are a genius and I am not worthy”. Clearly not true. But that’s the kind of feedback that stays with you.

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Here’s an old advertising joke for you.

Question: How many creatives does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Fuck off, I’m not changing a thing.

I told this joke to a good friend of mine, whose professional background happens to be in the creative industries. I told him this joke as a comment on how unreasonable we can all be when our work is being critiqued by others – even though it ultimately leads to a far, far better result. As we say in Yorkshire, he looked at me gone out, and said, “No. Just – no. Don’t let them touch a word. They’re your words. You’re the expert. Your publisher’s job is to package and sell. Let them change the frame. But not the picture.”

I was touched by his faith in my work, but I’m convinced he’s dead wrong.

Editors are vital. When editors cease to matter, book quality drops. We all know this, but I think I have a case study which actually proves it. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King – of his sustained craftsmanship over an enormous, epic career, and of his frankly slightly scary work-ethic. But if I go back to the eighties and compare the books he wrote as Richard Bachman to the books he wrote, during the same time period, as Stephen King, the Bachman books are orders-of-magnitude better.

Also – Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” versus “The Love Machine” and “Once Is Not Enough”, and the camping chapters in “Deathly Hallows”.

I don’t know this for sure, but I have a theory that King, Susann and Rowling reached a point where they were so famous and successful they were able to resist the editing process. Or possibly their editors stopped trying quite so hard – because really, everyone was going to buy the book anyway. Whatever happened, the net effect was that, without brilliant editing, their books stopped being the genre-defining works of their generation, and merely became pretty damn good.

To offer a slightly frivolous analogy; I am, by a country mile, the person who spends the most amount of time dealing with my hair. I wash it; I blow-dry it; occasionally I even style it. But I know perfectly well that if I wander down the road to my hair-dresser, she will instantly have it looking twenty times better than I ever could. Sometimes what we need is not intimate knowledge, but professional expertise. Whose work doesn’t benefit from someone whose entire professional career is built on a deep and profound understanding of what good writing looks like?

Editing makes our books better. I passionately believe this.

But – having sweated blood to edit “New World Fairy Tales” down from its original 56,000 words to my closing position of just under 51,000, and having pressed “send” knowing fine and well that the brief was for collections “in the region of 45,000” – I’ll admit was still scared of the editing process.

I know my faults as a writer. Left to my own devices, I ramble and I over-punctuate. My own first edit always consists of fixing these two issues, at least as far as I can. But that’s always the sticking point, isn’t it? When you send off your manuscript, it’s as good as you can make it. You have reached the point where you, at least, can do no more. For it to get better, the only way forward is for someone else to take over.

I knew this right up to the moment when the edit file actually arrived in my in-box, at which point I instantly panicked about what I might find. I was assaulted by vivid memories of the many, many creative teams – oddly-dressed, eclectically-named, angry and defensive, treading the fine line between Saying What They Thought and Not Upsetting The Client – whose work I had cheerfully tweaked in my brand’s favour over a fifteen-year career in marketing.

Oh my God, I thought, staring madly at the email. I am now officially about to transform into that foldy-arms madwoman who won’t listen to reason.

Of course, as it turns out, Being Edited was exactly what my manuscript needed. Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt took my rampaging punctuation in hand, reining in my excessive love for ellipses (which I sort of knew about really) and my over-use of the Oxford comma (which I didn’t). She also deleted one entire story; a simple but brilliant solution to the fact that I was six thousand words over the limit. Instead of the death-by-six-thousand-cuts I had been dreading, I had a clean amputation, which leaves an economically-viable collection and maybe even a potential nucleus for a future follow-up. Here’s hoping, anyway.

The best part; my work has been turned from a manuscript into a book. It looks like a book. It’s in a proper book font (Bembo 12 and 13.5). I actually get chills down my spine when I read it.

My book is better for being edited. My book is better for being edited. I always knew it would be, but now I believe it as well. The difference between what your head knows and what your heart feels is personal experience.

Now, if I could only get over my fascination for commas, and ellipses…

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So the thing is, when I originally wrote New World Fairy Tales, they were written as presents for friends and family, and for the sheer pleasure of writing them. Although I entered them into the Scott Prize, it was a big surprise to me when I made the shortlist. And until the moment when they announced me as one of the winners, I never expected the Fairy Tales to actually be published.

But of course, that didn’t stop me from picturing possible book covers in my head.

Despite never expecting publication, I had some very definite ideas about what I wanted my won’t-ever-actually-be-needed book cover to look like. It would have a slightly faded, muted colour-palette, in greens and golds and pinks and browns. There would be some sort of striking central image, although I was rather hazy on what that image might actually be; but it would be definitely something that was at once beautiful, retro and faintly disturbing. The title would be in a pretty, curlicued font, and the whole thing would have a vaguely antiquey feel. Best of all, it would have My Name at the top. In BIG letters.

At the risk of making this whole entry sound like a bad magic trick, I can confirm that until this moment, I have honestly never told anyone about this. My vision for the cover of New World Fairy Tales has never left the confines of my head.

And then, the draft cover – my draft cover – the draft cover for My Book, the book I never thought would actually be published, but loved and worked on anyway, just because it made me happy – arrived on my Facebook feed. And here it is:

I actually burst into tears when I saw it. It’s not often that life turns out exactly the way you dreamed about it, but this definitely one of those times. I can only conclude that somebody at Salt is psychic.

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The Scott Prize  is an international competition for a first collection of short stories by a single author, run by the renowned independent publisher Salt Publishing.

For the last year or so, I’ve been working on New World Fairy Tales¬†– a collection of seven short stories based on tales from the Grimm brothers’¬†Kinder und Hausmarchen, re-told in contemporary American settings. They were originally written as Christmas and birthday presents for a group of seven much-beloved friends and family.

OMG! I made the shortlist!
So in March this year, I was thrilled to discover that New World Fairy Tales had¬†made the shortlist. Because this is the twenty-first century, I found out this out in what is clearly the only proper way to learn anything these days, which is to have someone you’ve only met once tell you via a comment on a mutual friend’s Facebook feed. I think we were discussing cake recipes or trolls in the attic or something, and then my once-met friend-of-a-friend suddenly posted the following:

“PS are you the Cassandra Parkin who’s just been nominated for the Scott Prize? If so, congratulations!”

So I went to the Salt blog, and, blimey – I had made the shortlist.

A Hundred And One Things To Do While You’re Waiting For The Announcement To Be Made

On May 9th, possibly the longest day of my life so far commenced. I waited as patiently as I could for the announcement, but I’m really not very good with patient, so this was “patient” in the very special sense of “haunting the Salt blog, muttering, eating stuff and pressing F5 a lot” . Having been caught napping on the shortlist announcement, I was determined that this time at least, I was going to be the first to know what was happening.

Hours passed. F5. F5. F5. Several boxes of raisins. F5. F5. F5. F5. Prawns in filo pastry. F5. F5. F5. Fruitbread. F5. F5. F5. Elderly chunk of marzipan found in the back of the cupboard.  F5. F5. F5. F5. F5. F5. F5. F5. Nothing.

I went out for a long walk, just me and the sunshine and my BlackBerry. Browser Рfavourites Рblog.saltpublishing.com Рrefresh. Nothing. Repeat for about five miles. Still nothing. Finally return back  home to continue stalking activities.

F5. F5. F5. Fourth Diet Coke of the day. F5. F5. F5. Oh my GOD, it’s a new post. Here we go. Take a deep breath…remember, it was an honour just to be shortlisted…

…and…it’s not the shortlist. And I have no more reserves in me. This is honestly all the cyber-stalking I am capable of undertaking. If I keep doing this I may actually die from the pain of anticipation.

Now what happens?

So I went to the supermarket, and did the shopping, and came home. And just as I was unpacking the yoghurts, my lovely husband rang me, and said, “You’ve won.” He’d been keeping a sneaky eye on the Salt Twitter feed, and had exited his meeting at maximum velocity to tell me the news.

So, in November 2011, New World Fairy Tales will be published. And I feel like a proper writer at last.

 


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I’m one of the ten contributing authors to Legend Press’s 2010 “Short Story Re-Invented” collection, Ten Journeys.

My first time in print! I suspect it’s deeply uncool to be as excited about this as I am, but since I have spent my entire life being deeply uncool, I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me too much.
Legend Press are a fantastic new Independent publishing house, and it was a great experience to work with them.

So, what’s it all about?

The latest in the acclaimed Short Story Reinvented Series, 10 Journeys offers a unique array of poignant journeys both literal and psychological. Evocative and highly engaging, the stories transform everyday accounts into the most accessible yet powerful collection possible. Presenting a host of talented writers, each story compares and contrasts to encapsulate the individuality of short fiction. Sometimes dark and stimulating, other times charming and simply beautiful, these stories illustrate a portrait of unexpected wealth in ten bite-size chunks.
The collection features 10 talented authors: Guy Mankowski, A.J. Kirby, Dave Foxall, Cassandra Parkin, Josie Henley-Einion, Paul Burman, Anne Devereux, Ari O’Connell, Brendan Telford and Alistair Meldrum.

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