Return of the short story

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Stories for a world on the move

It’s common practice for writers to cut their teeth on short stories. In many ways it’s understandable – take a wrong turn on a short story or give birth to a stillborn idea and you can start afresh with a minimum of time and effort down the drain. It’s not like reaching the 45,000 word point on a novel and realising you’ve hit an insurmountable wall. Little wonder shorts are seen as the novelist’s kindergarten.

There are two problems with this view. First, short stories are notoriously tricky to write. Far from being a canvass for the novice, they are the preserve of the master. There are a few to whom it comes naturally; for most it does not. It’s a world in which less is more, where every word is made to count and a single line brings a character or a scene to life.

The second problem, as any writer touting a handful of short stories quickly discovers, is publishers don’t like them. They’re hard to market, and unless an author has a loyal following, they tend not to do well. The mechanics of traditional publishing also work against the short story unless you have a neat collection the size of a novel, whilst the magazine market remains limited.

The digital revolution could change all this. It can’t do much to curb verbosity, but the technology does mean the mechanical restrictions on short stories no longer need apply. Like music, which used to be all about singles and albums – the one feeding off the other – people increasingly download the songs they like and leave the filler. We’re yet to reach the stage where a savvy reader can download an e-book minus the boring bits, but it does suggest the short story could be about to enjoy a renaissance.

Capitalising on this flexibility, Betimes Books is celebrating its first year with Gifts, our collection of Bittersweet Christmas Stories. There’s one by each author on the imprint. It’s a great way to have a look around the list, introduce yourself to some of the writers, see what you might like to explore more of.

Not only can you eliminate the hassle of choosing Christmas presents at a stroke, you can simultaneously impress your friends and family with your exquisite taste in literature…

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Something from everyone – get the limited edition paperback while you can

Gifts is available to read as a free PDF or Mobi, as an e-book for £0.79/$0.99, or as a limited edition paperback for £4.79 directly from Betimes Books.

My novel Francesca is also available there or can be purchased directly here.

 

The perfect Gift for anyone who loves writing

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Take the pain out of giving this Christmas – look no further than Betimes Books’ Gifts

In many ways, it was born out of frustration. Frustration with editors who want the same formulaic junk that sold by the bucketload last year, frustration with editorial decisions being made by accountants, frustration with marketing departments who reserve their entire budget for the same half dozen or so big names, frustration with being constantly depressed by the gloomy state of the publishing industry.

People still like to read good books, don’t they? I know I do. They can’t all want the latest ghosted biography from some C-list celebrity or yet another Andy McNab knock-off.

So I was delighted to join the list of Betimes Books, a new imprint designed to retain the best elements of publishing (good taste, rigorous editing, high production values) whilst taking advantage of the digital revolution that, frankly, caught the traditional publishers napping. I mean, these are the guys who pretty much handed their entire digital content to Amazon on a plate. I don’t see a company like Apple letting that happen.

At first it felt a little bit like being on one of those funky, indy record labels back in the nineties. But then I realised the flip side of having a multi-billion strong global audience one click away meant a whole lot more work to be done. By me. Time had to be carved out for blog posts, twitter, Facebook, new media marketing initiatives; a whole new language and skills set had to be embraced. It didn’t really matter what I thought about these innovations, they were now part of my job description. Bottom line, if I didn’t roll up my sleeves, get over my technophobia and do it, it wasn’t going to get done. The world would continue turning without me and my books.

One of the joys of this past year has been seeing the way the imprint has grown whilst retaining its editorial integrity. The titles are so different, the authors have such diverse experiences and backgrounds, yet there’s a common thread that makes them recognisable as part of a stable. I think it’s the French literary tradition coming out in our founder and editor.

So it seems entirely appropriate that we celebrate our first year with Gifts, our contribution to the new age of literature in the form of a collection of Bittersweet Christmas Stories. There’s one by each author. It’s a really good way to have a look around the list, introduce you to some of the writers, see what you might like to explore more of.

Gifts is available to read as a free PDF or Mobi, as an e-book for £0.79/$0.99, or in paperback for £4.79 directly from Betimes Books

My own novel Francesca is also available there or can be purchased directly here.

Breaking Bad, Orange, Californication… what makes these shows so damn good?

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It’s the writer’s life for me! Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, wrestles with his authority issues in Californication

Fifteen years ago I got rid of my TV. It wasn’t so much individual programmes I objected to, more the insidious effect it was having on my life. Tired, I’d sit down at the end of the day, switch on the tube and before I knew it it was time for bed. Most disturbing of all, come the morning I struggled to remember anything I had watched. Cop shows, news bulletins, dramas, documentaries, they washed over me in a blur.

For many years I didn’t watch anything at all. At first I missed Formula 1 motor racing, but then the sport went through a dull phase and I forgot about that as well. New interests entered my life; bringing up children, rediscovering reading, going places, hanging out with friends. Although I never embarked on a campaign against the boob tube, I noticed people reacted defensively when they heard I didn’t have one. “Of course, I hardly ever watch it myself, just the odd documentary and the news…” It felt a bit like how people respond if you tell them you don’t drink. “Oh, I only ever have the occasional glass of wine with a meal…”

Although I’ve never bought another television, recently it’s crept back into my life through the back door. For a long time, I didn’t think I was missing anything at all. I’d sit at lunch in the canteen where I was working and listen to people droning on about some banal reality show and think, get a life. The radio and the internet kept me connected with the world, I could find out about pretty much anything I was interested in.

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Don’t try this at home. Bryan Cranston, star of the Emmy winning Breaking Bad

Then I began to hear talk about a new golden age of television, primarily from America. At first I ignored it as marketing hype, but it continued, with intelligent, well respected critics repeating the mantra while they celebrated new shows like the Sopranos and House of Cards. With a broadband connection I was perfectly positioned to re-enter the world of television. Gone was the tyranny of the programme scheduler, intent of keeping me pinned to my sofa while show after show rolled over me between ads. This time I was in control, thanks to innovations like the iPlayer and internet subscription sites.

I started tentatively, with a pilot of Breaking Bad, which seemed to be winning Emmys and getting publicity all over the place. Sixty hours of drama later, bleary eyed from too many late nights, I realised what the critics were raving about. I moved on to Californication. Again, I was utterly hooked. My latest obsession is Orange is the New Black.

All three shows are amongst the best television I have ever watched, right up there alongside British classics such as Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited. Which led me to wonder, what is it that makes these series so damn good?

As a writer, the first thing I notice is the sheer quality of the scripts. They crack along; witty, incisive, penetrating, while the characterisations are astonishingly good. There is no such thing as a two dimensional character, as with real life, everyone has the capacity to surprise. We encounter vulnerability in the worst villains, and our heroes let us down just when we have trained ourselves to rely upon them. The actors are first rate, professional men and women playing a part. For all those weary of Hollywood stars trotting out yet another incarnation of their glorious selves, this is such a breath of fresh air.

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Could jail ever be this hot? Taylor Schilling, star of Orange is the New Black

The extended format of these series is another of its strengths, in that it gives the characters room to breathe, and stories time to develop. Again, it is such a relief to break free from the stereotypical Hollywood narrative arcs. I recently sat down to watch a traditional Rom-Com and fell asleep, it was so dreary, the ending so predictable. Not so with these shows, they keep you on your toes. In many ways they are the modern equivalent of the 19th Century magazine, whose content we have come to know as chapters from classic novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

So, roll on the new golden age. In the meantime, you can purchase my novel Francesca, which is available along with the global television serial rights.

 

 

Flanagan’s Booker win a breath of fresh air

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Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan

There was something particularly heartening about Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win for his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. Here is a writer at the top of his game, receiving one of the most coveted literary awards in the English speaking language, admitting that on completing the book he almost gave up writing to work in the mines of northern Australia so he could support his family.

Although I’ve never met Richard Flanagan, I’ve followed his career, not without a touch of envy, for a number of years. I first came across his work when I was in Tasmania back in the 1990s working on an early draft of a novel I was writing. I was out on some wilderness tracks in the far western part of the state bushwalking with my cousin and some friends, some of whom knew Flanagan from when they had worked together as river guides. We were discussing his novel “Death of a River Guide”, which had recently appeared, and my newfound friends were chuckling at Richard’s acerbic depictions of the gormless tourists who stumbled up the Gordon River in search of authentic wilderness, and the cynical guides who took their money in return for protecting them from the consequences of their ignorance.

Flanagan has always been known for his honesty, and this can make him an uncomfortable and sometimes abrasive companion, both in print and at smart literary events. It’s entirely in keeping with this character trait that he would break British protocol and embrace the Duchess of Cornwall when she handed him a cheque for fifty big ones. It’s an honesty I admire, even though I have to admit I have on occasions struggled with his style, especially when he has veered towards magical realism, a genre I have always viewed as the prog rock of literature.

His acceptance speech, and the press interviews that followed, highlighted the struggle writers face to make a living from their craft. Of course no one made us take up the pen, and most of our community have  ignored multiple warnings from well-intentioned family and friends, urging us to apply our way with words to more secure ends such as the law or teaching. However, it is nice for the setbacks, rejections and humiliations we face on a day to day basis to be acknowledged, and to be reminded that even the best and most lauded amongst us have had their days when they felt overwhelmed by it all and on the verge of jacking it in.

So thank you, Richard Flanagan, for once again speaking the truth as you see it, and inspiring me to pick up the pen for another day. In the meantime, I look forward to getting stuck into “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”.

My own novel Francesca, which is also a tale of love and war, though set in East Timor in the 1970s, can be purchased here.

War is over… not quite yet

You hear it everywhere as we approach this time of year – in the shopping malls, on the radio, the optimistic crooning from John and Yoko’s classic: “War is over, if you want it”. Seems like we don’t want it, or not enough anyway.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recorded history when someone, somewhere hasn’t been fighting, killing someone else. Some months ago the British Army thought 2015 might be the first year in a century when it wouldn’t be involved in a conflict somewhere. With events in Syria, Iraq and Iran unfolding as they are, that hope looks less likely by the day.

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Image courtesy of soldiersmediac

It’s easy to get war fatigue, to throw up one’s hands in despair and tune out of it all. For me, it’s the civilians caught up in war, especially the children, who haunt me most. Here’s an extract from my novel Francesca, shortly after the heroine’s home town of Dili, capital of East Timor, was invaded by the Indonesian army just before Christmas 1975…

“Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.
She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.

Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.”

Excerpt copyright 2014 Donald Finnaeus Mayo

You can buy a copy of Francesca here

Indonesia remains true to form over French journalists in West Papua

 

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West Papua, part of Indonesia, and the neighbouring independent Papua New Guinea

News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.

Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.

Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well known because the Indonesian government managed to shut down the province, denying access to the Western media or anyone else who might have been inclined to stir up trouble. For years Indonesia was able to engage in a cruel policy of suppression that by many estimates cost the lives of almost a third of the Timorese population. Eventually they could no longer stave off the inevitable and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.

Part of the reason I wrote  my novel Francesca, which is set around the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was that so few people had heard of this country and its struggles. It seemed evidence that the strategy of shutting down a troublesome region, denying access to outsiders and keeping a tight grip on the country’s internal media, worked. The thinking went that if no one knew, no one could complain, and no one would try to put a stop to it.

So I am curious to see how effective this policy will be in the age of social media and instant global communications. In one sense there’s no excuse for ignorance. Anyone with a search engine and the desire to know more can get an update on the fate of Dandois and Bourrat in seconds. The question then becomes, does anyone care, and is anyone going to do anything about it? Or is the information overload just too overwhelming, a couple of lone crusaders competing for our attention against vaster tragedies in Syria, Gaza and Iraq? Are there times when too much information is even more effective than too little?

My novel Francesca is available here. In the meantime you can follow the fates of the French journalists on twitter at #dandois and #bourrat

 

 

 

The gourmet art of slow fiction

 

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A feast for the senses. Image by roland

Talking to a writer acquaintance recently, I was shocked to discover that a bag of potatoes can spend longer in a supermarket’s grocery aisle before hitting it sell-by date than many new novels are allowed to linger on the shelves of your local bookstore. Unless it’s the latest Stephen King or John Grisham, there’s nothing unusual about a book being given a fortnight to sink or swim before being shoved aside by the next round of releases, to be despatched unceremoniously to the pulping machines for recycling, perhaps enjoying a new incarnation as a latte cup holder.

It’s not just the time a book has to capture the public imagination that’s shrinking. Our expectations for books themselves are changing. Fast-sellers, fast-backs, in the world of fast fiction it’s all about speed, with the emphasis on the hook. No hook, no sale – to an agent, a publisher, a distributor, a reader, anyone really.

Forget about gently easing your reader into a story, if you can’t find a way to pull them in within the first few lines, you’ve lost it. What every publisher seems to want are the compulsive reads that will be gorged in a couple of frantic sessions. It’s a world in which “I couldn’t put it down” is taken as the highest form of praise.

But when you do actually put it down, exhausted and bleary eyed at three in the morning, how much of what you’ve read can you remember a few months, or weeks, later on? Did it cause you to change the way you think, about anything? As a result of reading it do you view the world, or even a tiny part of it, differently? Will the characters remain with you as you mull over the dilemmas they faced, the choices they made?

Whether it’s on the train to work, in an airport lounge or stretched out in the sun on holiday, fast fiction is the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s value meal. Little wonder the slow food movement, created in Italy as a reaction to the global homogenization of our eating habits and spread to encompass areas as diverse as parenting, fashion, photography and yes, even ageing, should reach the world of literature.

The philosophy of the slow movement is described by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.”

Where better to practise such an approach than wrapping oneself up in a really good novel? Essentially, this is the literary equivalent of a gourmet meal, the difference between settling into your table at Manoir de Quatre Saisons for a 13 course Chef’s extravaganza and grabbing a Big Mac and large fries on the go. Both will fill your belly, both will alleviate hunger pangs. There all similarity ends, with the reward for patience and perseverance over instant gratification coming in a slow after burn, with characters and stories you find yourself thinking about long after the dénouement has been reached.

My novel Francesca is available for purchase, and can be enjoyed over several sittings.

Bon appetit!