Tai Chi and Chattering Monkeys

In December I decided to invest in my physical and mental wellbeing and switch to a fancier, more expensive gym closer to home. If there’s one thing I’m terrible at, it’s motivating myself, so having access to a variety of exercise classes seemed like a good idea – once you’re there, you’re committed to an hour’s exercise, and you’re guided, so there’s no standing about and messing around for twenty minutes while you decide what to do next. There is a wide range of class types too, so it’s varied enough to hold my (sometimes fickle) interest.

One of the classes I was especially interested in trying was Tai Chi. I suffer with what my former boss used to refer to as ‘chattering monkeys’ – that constant, nagging voice in your head which talks and talks and never seems to shut up unless you’re asleep, and even then it sometimes finds a way to sneak in. I’d tried yoga previously, and while I enjoyed the physical aspect of it, I found there were just enough long pauses for the voice to weasel in – in those quiet, meditative moments in which I ought to have been focusing on my breathing, or on holding a pose, I was instead trying in vain to quiet the brain-noise: what if this were to happen did you forget to do this thing remember that time two years ago when you did something really embarrassing you need to renew the home insurance what if you get home and everything has been stolen what if you mess up at work tomorrow and get the sack oh no you forgot to buy bread…

You know. Chattering monkeys.

I didn’t know what to expect from Tai Chi. I’ve seen people practicing it in parks; they always look so peaceful and graceful, so co-ordinated. I am none of those things. It turns out that isn’t a bad thing. Tai Chi requires a pleasant kind of concentration; you have to be ready to transition from one move to another in order to maintain the smooth flow of movement, so to a certain extent you must always be thinking ahead. And your movements must be smooth, slow and controlled, so you must also concentrate on the speed of your movement, the control of your muscles (and here I hear my instructor: “When we’re stressed, we speed up. Control your speed. Control your stress.”) You are focusing on form, on the physical reality of each movement, and on the concept which underlies it (‘Crane spreads its wings’, for example, or ‘needles at sea bottom’).

And to do all of this successfully, the brain must be focused solely on what you are doing. Which means there is no room for chattering monkeys. Which means an hour of blissful silence. And this alone means my gym membership has been worth every penny.

Desert Island Books

Here’s a stunningly unoriginal concept: Desert Island Discs, except that instead of eight recordings, you can choose eight books to accompany you. (Mine would of course be packed alongside a very large parasol and a keg of Factor 50 sunscreen – judging by the permanently blue hue of my skin, I was not designed for desert islands.)

My picks are liable to change with the weather, but I have chosen eight books which I always seem to return to, no matter how long I’ve been away, or however many other books I might fall for in the interim:

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Watership Down by Richard Adams: A choice which I suspect will surprise absolutely nobody. Watership Down is such a cleverly crafted story with so many subtle layers – from innovative rabbit linguistics to the ‘story-within-a-story’ construct of El-Ahrairah’s parables. I always quote Watership Down whenever anyone derides children’s fiction as lacking in depth or meaning – there surely cannot be many books out there as rich in meaning, imagination and sheer heart as Watership Down.

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The City and The City by China Mieville: Yes, China Mieville is often too self-indulgently clever for his own good, and he needs to let go of the thesaurus, but my god, can he tell a story. The City and The City is part police procedural, part weird fiction, set in a fictional European city which shares much of its material space with another neighbouring city. The bizarre twist is that it is illegal (and shockingly immoral) for citizens of either city to acknowledge or ‘see’ anything of its neighbour. It’s a story that absolutely has to be experienced to fully comprehend its sublime madness.

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: An uncanny series of similarities between the characters of The Robber Bride and my own group of friends means I am weirdly bound to this book; it feels as though it takes place in an alternative universe in which distant possibilities have played out. It is probably a testament to Atwood’s ability to craft three-dimensional characters that I identify so strongly with them, and with the story.

 

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Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson: Another oft-quoted book, and my most frequent pick for ‘favourite book of all time’. As with Richard Adams, there is nothing patronising about Jansson’s writing; she credits children with the intelligence and the emotional capacity to comprehend subjects as deep as loneliness and anxiety. Jansson’s peaceful summer valley is transformed into a cold, wintery realm which is in turns frighteningly inhospitable and eerily beautiful. And I think I would need that retreat into the cold if I were on a desert island – hot weather and I are uneasy companions.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: I sometimes joke that Rebecca is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, but I think that’s actually a fairly accurate summary of the book. Rebecca is the greatest horror story never to be shelved as horror; the unease blossoms so organically as the story progresses that by the time you realise how profoundly uncomfortable you are, you are almost at the end. A masterpiece of prolonged, wire-taut tension.

 

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Laika by Nick Abadzis: A recent discovery, this graphic novel dramatises the true story of Laika, the Soviet space dog, and is a beautiful and entirely appropriate tribute to this most unwitting of heroes. The inevitability of Laika’s fate makes for a heartbreaking read, and though it is fiction, the notion that someone – anyone – might have cared about her is both desperately sad and a small ray of sunshine in a tragic story.

 

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The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey: I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction at the best of times, and this is a wonderful, intelligent take on the end of the world. It also takes on another beloved trope of mine: sympathetic monsters. Melanie, the titular ‘girl’ (and a literal ‘girl’, not a woman for once!) serves as our eyes as we make our way through a Britain ravaged by a strange and terrifying fungal infection, and we are forced to consider the nature of monstrosity, as well as the very prescient question of whether or not the world will continue after we are gone – and whether it might just be better off without us.

 

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The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King: Another ‘girl’ (and another literal ‘girl’ to boot!) I could have picked any number of Stephen King books for the final slot – I might have picked apocalyptic epic The Stand, which, despite my ‘revolving door’ of favourite King books never fails to wind up in the top 3. I might have cheated and opted for the Dark Tower series. Instead, I’ve chosen one of his shorter works. For most of the book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon leaves us stranded (thematically appropriate!) in the woods with a single character: a nine year old girl. Her struggle to survive and to reach safety is a simple enough narrative, but things become far more complicated (and far stranger) when, overcome with exhaustion, she begins to hallucinate; we are never truly sure whether the nightmarish visions that follow her are supernatural or simply imaginary, but the answer scarcely matters.

 

What are your “Desert Island Books”? Let me know!

[insert pithy title here]

I’m not usually one for formal New Year’s Resolutions, but since everyone else was doing it, it seemed almost rude not to. I’d be telling fibs if I said I had a list drawn up, or a concrete plan for change, but there are a few things I think I should address in 2018.

First: I need to brush up on my Japanese. To this end, I’ve dug out my Japanese for Busy People and Genki textbooks from my Japanese classes, and I’m also making use of the lang-8 account I started and was too scared to use back in 2014. (My fear of Being Wrong in Japanese is still strong, but I also recognise now that if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn. And the Japanese lang-8 users are very gracious in correcting my plentiful errors.) I’m off to Japan in March for fourteen days, and I’d love to have the confidence to communicate – however piecemeal it may be!

Second: Fitness. My arthritic joints aren’t getting any better, and I was recently diagnosed as hypothyroid thanks to Hashimoto’s Disease. Clearly my body is telling me something! I enjoy lifting weights but I think I also need something more structured to encourage consistency – exercise isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I joined a new gym in December and I’ve been trying out various classes. Pilates and Tai Chi are great, and I need to work up the courage to try out the Boxercise class (I fear my woefully low levels of cardiovascular fitness will lead me to collapse and embarrass myself mid-class). And of course, eventually, I’d love to get back into lifting those heavy weights.

Third: Writing goals. I completed my first Master’s essay over Christmas, and it felt very good to get back into academic writing. It helped enormously that the subject matter was engaging (so much so that I actually had to cut out an intended section of the essay because I’d already overshot the word count.) My Spring term module is on ‘The Victorian Fin-de-Siecle’, which is proving to be very interesting already.

(Also: more writing means less Facebook. I’m finding Twitter is my preferred platform at the moment, and I think less Facebook will hopefully encourage more blogging – in English and in stilted, terrified Japanese.)

In terms of fiction writing…I have no project commitments outstanding, so I am in the daunting position of being able to write whatever I feel like. I’ve read some truly incredible stories in the past few months, and intermingled with reader’s joy was a touch of writer’s despair – I’ll never be able to write like this. I am opting to take this as a challenge rather than as a self-rebuke and I hope to up my game this year, and focus on quality rather than quantity. Time will tell if this is a successful tactic, or whether the latter half of 2018 will see me sobbing face-down on the floor by my bookcase and vowing to live a life of literary hermitage. There’s much to look forward to in 2018 from a reader’s perspective (not least Priya Sharma’s forthcoming collection ‘All The Fabulous Beasts‘ from Undertow Publications) so whatever my writing life brings this year, my reading life should be very rich indeed.

News update: Laika nomination and Locus review

I discovered this morning, browsing Twitter (as you do), that “Looking for Laika” made the longlist of nominees for the British Science Fiction Association Awards! It’s a pretty full list of nominees, with some quality stories on there, so it’s pretty awesome to have made the longlist.

And “Naming the Bones” has been reviewed by John Langan in the January edition of Locus Magazine. He had some very nice things to say about it, and I’m thrilled that my first ever review in a print magazine is a good one. (Having a book of mine appear in a print magazine – and Locus Magazine, no less! – is a bit of a ‘bucket list’ ambition for me!)

Not a bad way to start 2018!

the end (of the year) is nigh

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I suppose it’s something of a writerly tradition to have a Year’s End blog post, which usually necessitates that you have actually done something (or things) worth blogging about. And in fact 2017 has been a reasonably eventful year, all things considered.

I began the year with forest-green hair and the publication of a short story imminent – “Sun Dogs”, which was published in Shadows & Tall Trees 7, alongside such excellent stories as V.H. Leslie’s “Shell Baby”, Manish Melwani’s “The Water Kings” and M. Rickert’s “Everything Beautiful is Terrifying”.

Speaking of Shadows & Tall Trees – I only got one tattoo this year (boo!) but it was a good one. Courtesy of the excellent Marcus Ottner, a tattoo to commemorate both Richard Adams and my first ever published short story, “Red Rabbit”:

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In March, I went to Prague (see top photograph), which was my only adventure this year, but a good one. Prague is beautiful – the kind of city you can walk around over and over and continually discover new things. Besides which, the food is excellent, and inexpensive, and what more can you ask for, honestly?

After many years of being a wrestling fan I finally got to see my first ever wrestling shows – WWE at the 02, and Ring of Honor/New Japan at York Hall in Bethnal Green. I’ve always been a little reticent in talking about my love for wrestling because a) I’m a grown adult and b) people tend to be dismissive of wrestling, as a rule (“you know it’s fake, don’t you?” they say smugly as they launch into another episode of Eastenders, or Game of Thrones, or whichever completely nonfictional form of entertainment they’re into.) And it was great fun. Two very different shows, not least because of the sheer difference in scale (York Hall is a little bit smaller than the 02). I definitely want to see more shows in 2018, budget allowing. (And unlike gigs, my sad arthritic knees get a rest because you’re seated for the show – I’m getting old.)

In July my debut novella ‘Naming the Bones’ was launched at Edge-Lit alongside fellow Dark Minds alumni Mark West’s collection. I blogged about it earlier in the year, but it still blows my mind a little to think that there’s a book, which I wrote, that is (theoretically) sitting on people’s shelves. I will forever be grateful to the people at Dark Minds Press for giving me this opportunity – and with any luck, it won’t be the last time I have an actual, honest-to-god book out there, in the wild (next stop: Waterstones. Reach for the stars, innit?)

There was also Fantasycon, this year in Peterborough, which I have also blogged previously about (and which remains the source of some of my absolute favourite memories of the year.) I’m very much looking forward to Fantasycon 2018, where I suspect I will have to up my hair game significantly.

I had two more short stories published this year (“In The Marrow”, in the anthology Impostor Syndrome, and “Looking for Laika” in Interzone) bringing the total to three short stories and one novella. I’m aiming to exceed this total next year, which means I need to get my arse into gear and get writing. Not the easiest thing in the world when you’re also studying for a Master’s – my first essay is due in two weeks and I’m about a fifth of the way done with it. It’s a bit of a culture shock, writing essays when you’re so used to making shite up for the bulk of your writing output. Suddenly you have to use ‘citations’ and ‘references’ and you have to justify what you’re saying and ‘a monster did it’ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Other things from the year: I learned to knit (sort of – I’m still rubbish). I started sewing sock dolls (mostly of Overwatch characters and Jim McLeod):

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I started to learn how to garden, but need more practice and more motivation. Mr M and I booked a holiday to Japan for next year, which is in fact rapidly creeping up on me and I realise I have forgotten almost all of the Japanese I diligently learned for my first trip to Japan in 2013. So there’s yet another thing to add to my to-do list for 2018.

I read some wonderful stories this year. Chief among these would be three short stories: “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends” by Gwendolyn Kiste, which appeared in Black Static 58 and is surely a shoo-in for the BFA award for Best Short Story in 2018 (Last year I championed Georgina Bruce’s “White Rabbit” and I was right, so I have form here!) “Skyshine” by Carole Johnstone, also a Black Static story (#60) and, again, a dead cert for awards in 2018. And “Four Abstracts” by Nina Allan, which appeared in New Fears (and was the best of a truly excellent collection.)

There were many others, too. Aliya Whiteley amazed me with her strange and brilliant novella “The Beauty”. Tracy Fahey’s “The Girl In The Fort”, a wonderful coming-of-age story. “What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking“, by Mark West struck such a chord with me that I chose to read it aloud at our joint book launch in July. “The Weight Of The Mantle” by Laura J. Moody, which is not your typical superhero tale and carries with it a very real emotional depth. I’m only partway through Malcolm Devlin’s collection “You Will Grow Into Them” but it’s already a standout (Devlin also wrote one of my very favourite stories – “Five Conversations With My Daughter (Who Travels In Time)” which, if you haven’t read it, you absolutely should.) I haven’t been able to read nearly as much in the latter half of 2017 as I would like to, thanks largely to university (and James Joyce’s Bloody Ulysses) but I have earmarked Kit Power’s new collection, and I wait in giddy anticipation of Priya Sharma’s collection forthcoming from Undertow Books, which is going to be something very special.

So that was 2017. 2018 is imminent. No doubt there are some brilliant stories I have forgotten to mention, some life events I have neglected to mention (or perhaps deliberately omitted). But, onwards, because time waits for no man, and it sure as hell isn’t going to wait for me, no matter how nicely and politely I ask it to.

Wishing all of you good health, happiness, and good reading. Happy New Year!

 

How I came to write short stories

It occurred to me the other day that I have been a published writer of short stories for six years now. I’ve been writing for far longer than that – since I was very young, in fact (my first poem was written at 6 years old. My mum still has it.)

My ‘journey’ (god I hate that word) from casual word-wrangler to actual ‘writer’ (if not full-time writer) is probably very unremarkable. At some point in my early/mid 20’s, I joined a writer’s forum called Absolute Write. As is the total mundanity of this action, I can’t even remember why I joined that forum – I had no realistic aspirations of actually being published at this time. I suppose I just thought it’d be nice to be around other people who found making things up to be a fun and satisfying diversion.

Then I wrote a story. It was a post-apocalyptic short story set in south London. I titled it ‘The Only Living Girl In New Cross”, because I’m terrible at titles and Carter USM are much better at it. I posted it on my blog. The thought of submitting it for publication never crossed my mind. Until I got a message from a fellow AW user – a somewhat gruff but ultimately friendly message – enquiring as to why I was posting work on my blog instead of sending it to publishers?

This opened up new possibilities. It seems odd to think of it now, but although I’d always harboured dreams of being a writer, I’d never really thought about it in practical, realistic terms – the actual business of being published, of finding an audience. It all seemed like the kind of thing other people did; not me, with my weird ideas, and my weird little stories. Who’d want to read those? Still, I was intrigued. So I took the AW’ers advice. I sent “The Only Living Girl In New Cross” to Black Static. And I waited.

It was rejected. Oh well.

It was a blow, and I was discouraged. Of course I was. I put that story away and I resolved not to look at it again. In fact, I no longer have a copy of it anywhere. In retrospect, I think it’s better that way. We’re all entitled to misfire, especially on your first attempt. But – and this is important – it wasn’t a waste of words, or of time, or of effort. You learn from every story you write. (You learn from every story you read, too, but that’s another post entirely.) People talk about ‘honing your craft’, the way you might hone the blunt edge of a knife: every story you write sharpens the blade a little bit more.

The second story I wrote was called “Red Rabbit”. The title came before the story did: I had this indelible image in my head of a red rabbit’s face, in the style of The Black Rabbit of Inle from Watership Down (an image which has always stayed with me, the way things that scare you as a child tend to do.) It was set in America, in a part of the world I had never been to (and again, this is another post entirely, but – YouTube, Google Maps, Flickr – all invaluable resources in bringing alien locations to life.) This time, I asked a few fellow writers to cast their eye over it before sending the finished version out into the wild. (Not everybody feels the need for a second opinion, or a beta reader, and that’s perfectly fine. I always feel better about a story when someone else, who isn’t in my head, has had a look and weeded out some of the bollocks – especially given my prolific overuse of semicolons.)

I sent it off to Shadows & Tall Trees. And, to my delight, it was accepted. My first ever short story in print. Occasionally, I’ve been asked how I got published, and my honest answer is – I don’t know. Right story, right place, right time. I think, sometimes, that’s all there is to it. You can’t predict it, or make it happen. You just have to write the best you can, and hope someone is receptive to it. I’m lucky enough that somebody was.

Much like tattoos, short story publications are addictive. Short stories themselves are addictive. They’re less consuming than novels, but mean just as much, to the writer and hopefully to the reader too. A short story is a visit to another world, and sometimes that brief excursion can give you an experience that the prolonged inhabitation of a novel cannot. (Not to say I dislike novels – I love them. I just have a real fondness for the short story form, and the things that can be achieved with it.)

Since then I have dedicated a ludicrous number of hours to writing short stories. After “Red Rabbit” came “When Charlie Sleeps”, which was an exercise in going for broke in the weirdness stakes. After initial publication in Black Static, it was picked up for reprint in Best British Horror 2014. My second published short story. I’m yet to repeat that feat, but even if I’m never picked for a ‘Year’s Best’ again, I can still be proud of that achievement.

The raised profile of “When Charlie Sleeps” led to me getting to know many of my fellow writers and peers, which led to a few anthology invitations, which led to “Ptichka”, a story I am very proud of, and which was nominated for a British Fantasy Award. Again, if I never repeat this feat, at least nobody can take that away from me.

These things tend to be circular. The more you write, the more you improve, the more you (hopefully) publish. The more you publish, the more people come to know your name, what you’re capable of. That’s not to say it’s plain sailing: I’ve still got rejections coming out of my ears. That never stops. But knowing you can do it gives you the drive to keep doing it, even when it feels pointless, and you’ve amassed so many rejections you’re thinking of changing your middle name to ‘Failure’. And every acceptance could be the last one you’ll ever get. I think a lot of writers will understand that feeling. But you keep going, because the stories keep coming, and you can let them pile up like a snowdrift but sooner or later, someone – be it a gruff stranger on an internet forum, or your own internal monologue – will ask you why you don’t just give submitting a try.

What I Read In October (which wasn’t for uni)

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Okay. So I actually only managed to finish one non-university related book in October. But – what a book.

There are nineteen stories in total, all of them good, some of them incredibly good. The book opens with a strong offering from Alison Littlewood, whose story ‘The Boggle Hole’ is unexpectedly melancholy – to great effect. ‘The Fold In The Heart’ by Chaz Brenchley (who I had not previously heard of, and whose work I will be actively seeking out) is an eerie and beautiful story about abuse, and about love. ‘Departures’ by A.K. Benedict is clever and imaginative, and totally believable even in its surrealness. Kathryn Ptacek’s ‘Dollies’ is skin-crawlingly weird, while Christopher Golden’s ‘The Abduction Door’ masterfully evokes the breathless panic of a parent in search of their lost child, though the story takes a bizarre turn you might not expect – so much the better, in my opinion. Stephen Laws (who I still credit as giving the most incredible reading I’ve ever heard – his story, ‘The Slista’, read aloud at the Best British Horror 2015 launch, was utterly captivating) once again proves his formidable ability with ‘The Swan Dive’.

But, to my three favourites: Carole Johnstone, who is fast becoming one of my favourite writers, knocks it out of the park with her tense, suffocating tale ‘The Eyes Are White And Quiet’, which leads you sightless and bewildered on a strange, dark journey. ‘The House Of The Head’ by Josh Malerman is weird in all the right ways – a haunted doll-house sounds almost trite but I couldn’t stop reading until the very end. And ‘Four Abstracts’ by Nina Allan, who I believe is a true master of the genre, and whose ability to evoke authentic, tangible emotion even as she weaves uncanny strands into her narrative is unparalleled.