Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Sting Inside

On November 27th we met at Rob's house. We did our usual 'any news' around the group and heard that Annie already has plans for her next children's book entitled Lazy Days at the Beach Cafe, Tony has made progress with his article for Mental Health Practice, Chris is considering working on a coffee-table version of Why Don't You Fly, Rob is now a star of Radio 4 and I am about to start work on the re-write of my book. All in all, we are a busy lot. We also discussed Jayne's attendance at our next meeting on December 11th at Annie's house. If an extract from Chris's book doesn't put a new member off then nothing will! Welcome, Jayne.

Rob read a powerful extract from The Sting Inside which was enjoyed by all. It struck me how difficult it must be to aptly describe the horror of an event that is still so vividly etched in our minds. I don't think that anyone could forget the television footage of the attack on the twin towers and the hideous pictures of people leaping to their death. Rob described this so well by focusing on one person, a woman jumping from the tower clutching a pair of high heels. 'Did she think she was going to need them when she reached the ground?' Rob asks.

Annie asked why the woman answering the phone in the Shapiro home hadn't recognised Jay's voice when clearly an English voice would stand out.

Chris and Tony expressed doubt about Rob's use of the word 'we' for Jay and the Sting, the voice of 'guilt'. We understand that the Sting is the narrator but at times the two voices must be separated which then seems awkward. Rob defended his position on this saying they were like Siamese twins dragging one another along.

We all agreed that the piece had a great sense of drama and that the voice of 'guilt' works very well. 'Toast! They're toast, Jay and you should be up there with them.' Tony asked if the voice was English or American and Rob said that he wasn't sure at the moment.

There were some great lines in this. I particularly liked 'There is an absence, the imagined outline of a space filled with sky, where the second tower should be.' This was a gripping read, poignant and powerful. We all enjoyed it, Rob.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Another Cake Episode

SVA Meeting at Chris and Linda's Tuesday 13 November
Blogger: Chris

Annie had intimated that she might be late because of a parents' evening. As it was her writing we were to examine we could hardly start without her, so we talked bollocks for around twenty minutes, guzzled Linda's home-made gluten-free chocolate brownies and slurped tea and coffee until she turned up.


Linda has been perfecting the first two chapters of her novel (provisionally entitled A Head Full of Budgerigars) prior to her final mentoring session with Kathryn Heyman of the Gold Dust Mentoring Scheme. After the final session, which in which she will request advice about approaching agents and publishers, she will be doing a final re-write. She admitted to 'teetering between optimism and realism'.

My only news was that an eagle-eyed reader of 'Why Don't You Fly?' has alerted me to a typo in the final chapter. What should appear as might on Page 267 appears as migt. Although the mistake was absent from the first edition of the book it has appeared in subsequent editions. I will be raising the matter with Pen Press as the error must be down to the printer. Migt might cause the translator for the mandarin version which is to be published and sold in China next year no end of confusion...

Rob announced that he had been similarly traumatised by the discovery of a missing vocative comma in his recently published novel No Mean Affair. The rest of his news was more encouraging. His talk at Solihull Library was attended by only nine people but he sold three copies of No Mean Affair. It is to be followed by a talk to Hagley U3A in March and another session with his publisher at Bromsgrove's Artrix Centre ( Even better, he told us that he will be talking about his novel on the Radio Four programme Making History on Tuesday 20 November An appearance on national radio might provide the helping hand up the ladder we all hope for. Will he be nervous? we asked. He assured us that he would.

Tony handed out copies of his article entitled Treasure and Miracles in 'Deep England' which was published in the Malcolm Saville Society's Magazine. Sadly he didn't receive any payment for an authoritative, well-written and comprehensively-researched article - a matter I feel strongly about. Those magazines and newspapers that depend on submissions should be prepared to pay for them. How many other people work for free?

Annie announced that the Parents' Evening had been 'intense'. She intends to send off her children's book to publishers after we'd all had the opportunity to critique it along with her pitch to agents / publishers - the evening's main business.


Annie's 411-word children's book, entitled Auntie Faye's Beach Cafe, is a wacky poem full of strong imagery. It reminded me of the Dr Seuss books I used to read as a child. Set to the right illustrations, I imagine it would be a hit with children.

I think we all liked the idea. Annie has skilfully crammed rhyming words into single lines (It's in the bay, about halfway, not faraway, so why not stay?), giving the lines their own distinctive sound. A refrain after each verse is intended to encourage the children to join in. In her pitch she describes the section at the end of the book as 'a unique selling point' so perhaps I'd better not mention it here. I imagine it could be used by both parents and teachers.  

Tony and Rob expressed concern about the rhythm and scanning of some of the lines and came up with their own suggestions for improvements.

Linda loved the idea and felt that children would really like it, but she also had issues with the scan.

Rob remarked that there was over-use of the passive voice in the pitch, and Tony felt that it was a little too long. Perhaps the biographical details could be shortened. Another way to shorten it would be to drop quotations from the poem - unnecessary for a work of only 411 words.

The overall feeling was that the poem was a great idea that needs only one or two minor amendments to address the occasional problem with scanning. We wish Annie the best of luck with her approaches to agents and publishers and hope that Auntie Faye's Beach Cafe will be the first of many.

The next meeting will be on Tuesday 27 November at Rob's. Rob will be reading and Linda will be blogging.

Friday, 2 November 2012

'You can't even kill yourself in peace.'

Tony's short story Weekend on Call was the focus of our second meeting in October. Nobody could doubt the authenticity of the piece seeing it was biographical inasmuch as Tony is a mental health professional and has plenty of experience of being 'on-call'. We all agreed it was an excellent story with Chris declaring that it was Tony's 'best yet'.

So what made it successful? In our critiques, each of us highlighted the way Tony had used repetition to highlight the drag-anchor effect of being tied to the bleep and the duty-manager's mobile phone. Furthermore, by employing mental-health jargon and mundane examples of the decision-making needed to field the telephone calls, Tony created a black comedy and a descent into inanity that appeared to have only one resolution. However, Tony pulled it back from the brink.

Annie called it 'heartfelt and insightful'. For Linda, the humour was in the same vein as Reginal Perrin and Chris thought it an excellent satire on modern managerial life where 'cover your arse' (Annie's phrase) is the order of the day. Rob congratulated Tony on the choices he had made regarding tense and viewpoint that contributed to the story's success.

Tony was pleased that we recognised it as black comedy and confessed that writing the story had been a cathartic process. He assured us that the effect of being on call was exaggerated for the benefit of the narrative.

I owe the blog's title to Chris who used this phrase to illustrate the predicament of the poor sap who happens to be in possession of the bleeper, the special mobile phone and the notebook on any given weekend.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Linda’s final chapter -- not to be sniffed at

... By now the ferry was almost half way across the Thames to North Woolwich. Maybe he wouldn't turn up ...
Rosewater, pistachios and oranges were the ingredients of Annie's cake. Gluten-free, for the benefit of Linda; delicious, for the benefit of us all.

We had gathered at Annie's to hear the closing chapter of Linda's novel. A few of us found the mood of this final chapter quite different to the rest of the book, compared with other extracts we had read. Rob wondered if the mood was a little too sombre and felt that the reader would want to know everything was going to be all right in the end. The closing scenes take place on the Woolwich Ferry in London. A few of us noticed echoes of Magwitch and Great Expectations in the sinister character of Laros and the atmosphere of the fog-bound Thames. 

Annie found it hard to comment, feeling she had less of an overview of the whole book than other members of the group. Chris admired the sense of ‘pay-off’ (the central character Lily pays off the debt she owes Laros; Linda pays off the debt she owes the reader.) Lily has come full circle -- back in England and broke again but able to make a new beginning. Linda herself was concerned about the ending because, as she noted, people do like a happy ending but people also like a ' lump in the throat ' ending.

Chris was heard to remark, 'I didn't have a problem with the crippled old men and I didn't have a problem with the wheelie bins.' Nevertheless, we learnt that Chris is someone who likes to call a ferry a ferry.

There was an interesting discussion about whether Babe and Darlin’ should be capitalised, and Rob consulted the Guardian Book of English Language, summoning up curious examples like 'You're not my sister, Sister' and ‘I'll ask Dad and then you could check with your dad.’  When Rob suddenly started to sniff and sneeze I began to feel guilty he had so rapidly succumbed to my cold but Annie suspected an allergic reaction to something in her flat. Let's hope he's not allergic to rosewater, pistachio and orange cake. Perhaps the damp London fog of Linda's chapter had chilled him to the bone.

Friday, 14 September 2012

On Borders (No, not the defunct bookshop)

SVA news section:
  • Sadly, Clive has decided to leave the group. He may possibly return in the future but in the meantime we wish him well.
  • Annie has written the text for a children's illustrated book and hopes to submit it to a specialist agent shortly.
  • Tony is working on more mental health articles for specialist magazines.
  • Linda is at the literary equivalent of the marathon runner's 'wall' with her novel. She is being nurtured through this by her mentor from Gold Dust. Linda worried all of us by retelling the advice she has been given that a rewrite should be exactly that - a full rewriting of the whole book not an edit or selective re-drafting.
  • Chris's publishers for Why Don't You Fly? have sold the Chinese rights and the initial print run is 12,000 copies! He also has an essay being published in New Zealand. Chris always was a globe-trotter.
  • Rob is working on the final edits for No Mean Affair. He gave as an example that the one-page sex scene has been edited down to three lines and Linda remarked that this would be much more realistic.
Politics raises borders and economics demolishes them
In the main part of the meeting we critiqued another extract from Chris's project, Karl Marx and Careful Driving. Linda, employing the 'feedback sandwich' praised the piece's flow and informative content but she is still doubtful about the density of parts of the philosophy. Tony noted the excellent aphorism: Politics raises borders and economics demolishes them, and Chris modestly owned up that it was all his own work.Tony and Annie spoke with high praise about the vivid descriptions and clever technique in the driver experience sections and Rob joined them in saying that the philosophical content is much more easily understood now Chris has relegated Marx's turgid text to the footnotes.
At some stage during the discussion, we compared the progress of crabs and their sideways scuttling with chessboard bishops and their diagonal peregrinations.
In response, Chris gave a short account of the opposed philosophies of Plato and Marx - the all-powerful state versus the no-state. He continued to the end of our allotted time with an explanation of the irony that the Russian cold-war system was Platonic rather than Marxist and we left the meeting with Annie's yawns ringing in our ears. (She was forgiven, this being her first week back at work as a schoolteacher.)

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Al Fresco at Tony's

Rob and Clive were absent for this meeting of the SVA due to other engagements, so there were only the four of us. Remarkably in this vile summer the evening happened to be quite pleasant so we accepted Tony's invitation to hold the meeting in the garden.

We exchanged news over the usual cups of tea and chocolate biscuits. Tony has been on a short holiday to the Peak District. Always one with an eye for an opportunity to earn some extra cash from his writing, he sent a review of the hotel to Lonely Planet magazine, which apparently pays contributors handsomely. Annie has suffered an injury to her leg by running backwards in long grass in flip-flops while trying to fly a kite - we've all done it. Linda and I reported that we spent a week camping with friends on the Long Mynd and it rained almost continuously. We went home a day earlier than planned.

Annie read the first chapter of her book, which hasn't yet got a title. It is a book written for children. The ambitious idea is that it combines a fictional story for entertainment with a mathematics text book for instruction. We all felt that it was a great idea but we were a little unconvinced about the execution at this very early stage.

Tony felt that it was engaging, insightful and had flashes of humour, but outlined some areas of concern. He felt that a balance would have to be struck between pleasure and instruction and was concerned that some of the vocabulary was a little difficult for the age group at which the book was directed. Stretching children's vocabulary by introducing the odd word that might be new to them is all very well, but it can't be allowed to spoil the entertainment. He suggested that writing a blurb for the back cover might help Annie get a feeling for the correct tone or pitch of the book.

Linda expressed concern that the story wasn't one that most kids would want to read because the main characters were too, well, nerdy. They needed to be more cool. A book directed at real children needs to be about real children. Like Tony, she felt that words like 'conundrum', 'conceit', 'prowess' and 'scribe' might not be understood by ten-year-olds. However she did like the idea of the book.

I felt that the idea was a little like Sophie's World, a bestselling book by Jostein Gaarder directed at teenagers. Sophie's World combines a fictional story about a schoolgirl with a text about philosophy - the idea to entertain and instruct. I think that with any such endeavour, the balance between fiction and text book, entertainment and instruction is crucial and must be very difficult to bring off. I suppose the idea is ultimately to make mathematics fun - and if Annie can succeed in doing that she'll have her own bestseller.

It certainly provided us with plenty of food for thought. There was no early finish, despite the reduced attendance, and it was getting dark when we finally adjourned the meeting at the usual time of around 9.30 pm.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Gobbledegook, Plato and the Nobel Prize

This is a slapped wrist blog. One which I must back date to the 12 June 2012. We met at Rob's house and Chris was reading.

The meeting started with the most amazing relevation. We discussed Chris's full name: Christopher James Aston Smith and asked if Aston was due to a footballing affiliation. Chris replied that it was after Great Uncle Frank. Francis William Aston, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1922, no less.

A quick search on Google gave the following information:
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1922 was awarded to Francis W. Aston "for his discovery, by means of his mass spectrograph, of isotopes, in a large number of non-radioactive elements, and for his enunciation of the whole-number rule".

This explains shows where he gets it from!

We moved onto Chris's extract from KM&CD.

Linda thought the extract contained lots of interesting ideas but felt that there was still a problem with flow. She also accepted that although Chris was reading Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance during the journey that she didn't necessarily think it was wise to include too much of it in this book.

Tony enjoyed the daydreams of philsophising and the madness and sanity within the piece.

Clive was on top form and contributed some fantastic one-liners into the mix:
'I don't know if it's you or if it's Plato but it's goobledegook to me.'
'I don't think you can start with Plato; you should start with an amoeba.'

Rob commented on the high standards of writing but felt that links between sections were still missing. He requested more details about the trucking.

I found the piece to be thought provoking and challenging and for the first time I felt that most of it was just about within my grasp.

And so onto the news...

Rob has submitted a short story to the Bridport Prize.

Tony has also submitted a short story 'A Game of Chance' to the Bridport and is busy combining two hefty articles on mental health practice into one 5 000 word article.

Linda has had a month off from her mentoring.

Clive, I'm afraid that my notes are a little sparse here and I have you down as: met a bloke, eggs.

I submitted three pieces of flash fiction for the Bridport Prize.

Sorry to all for the delay.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Galileo, Pavlova and Generic Nouns

Rob didn't mention his publisher, honest.
'Mmm! Delicious Pavlova, Annie.' Rob fluffed out a cloud of meringue powder with the capital 'P'.

Chris, Clive, Linda and Tony were too well brought up to speak with their mouths full and allowed the unctiousness of the cream to engulf the fruit and meld with the sugar creating a mellifluous juxtaposition of flavours. They emitted a choral, 'Mmm!' of agreement.

So started the second meeting in July. Only when the serious business of making inroads into Annie's confection had finished did we pass on to news:

•    Clive has been too knackered to write more than the two pieces he put before the meeting.

•    Rob gave advance information on 'Bewdley Book Week' in October.

•    Chris's talks about Why Don't You Fly continue and he sells circa 10 books at every event.

•    Linda is on track to present another 10,000 words to her Gold Dust mentor.

•    Tony gave out the deadlines for the '3 into 1'  and 'Falling Asleep' short story competitions.

•    Annie is hoping to enter the Myslexia children's book competition.

Clive read two short stories he has written as possible competition entries. The shorter of them described an imagined visit of Galileo to a Cardinal and, in an understated way, dealt with the likely effect this would have on the Church. The second was about a boy's friendship with a damaged First World War War veteran.

Except for the minor corrections – missing or redundant hyphens appeared regularly – Clive's writing emerged largely unscathed. We all agreed that he writes excellent prose with interesting flourishes that add colour.

Our critiques focused more on the authenticity of the pieces with some feeling that the Cardinal was too gentle and his reaction too accepting. Others liked the characterisation and the philosophical resignation of his response.

In the longer story it was the parents' reaction to the boy spending his time with the 'Wild Man of the Woods' that prompted discussion. Were they being naive or were they more accepting times? As far as this piece was concerned, all agreed that it is unnecessary to label the first section of a short story, the 'prologue'.

After Clive's spirited response to some of the suggestions and a reminder from Tony that all critiques offered are merely opinions to be accepted or rejected by the writer, the discussion moved on to the use of upper case initial letters a generic noun is used instead of names. We all agreed that we knew the rule as far as parents are concerned: eg  My mum said, 'Sit down, Dad'.  But what when the usage is less commonly seen? The clearest direction I could find is that a generic noun used instead of a name is always capitalised. 'Are you all right, Son?' 'Bless you, Child.' Sister Ignatius pointed at the line of sisters and, singling out me with a glare, said, 'Come here, Sister.'

And Rob never mentioned his publisher, not even once. Honest.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Patchwork, Quiche and Mordant Humour

For the second meeting of June we met at Chris and Linda's. Chris, however, was nowhere to be seen and Linda explained that he was off gallivanting in Germany. Also conspicuous by her absence, was Annie who has temporarily succumbed to the delights of patchworking and has not yet worked out a way of being in two places at once and combining her patchwork group with her writing group. All part, I suppose, of life's rich tapestry.

We followed Linda's suggestion of doing our  ‘news round-up’ first, before hearing and critiquing the extract in question, on the very sensible premise that it is hard to read aloud whilst drinking tea and eating lemon drizzle cake. My own news was that my submission to the FutureDaze anthology of young adult science-fiction had been unsuccessful; BBC Radio had also at last made a decision to reject my short story The Idea of Marmalade and, despite not having won their 100 word story competition, Reader's Digest had said they would love to publish The Storks of Valladolid on their website. Rob told us of his success in the Winchester Writers’ Festival competition. The Sting Inside was highly commended in their ‘opening of a novel’ section while Rob's story The Reflected Woman came joint third in the short story category. Clive had also had some success with yet another recipe accepted for publication in Take a Break magazine. They used to say real men don't eat quiche but I'm sure Clive’s Quiche with a Kick will turn out to be the exception that proves the rule. Linda has been completely absorbed in the task of producing 12,000 words of her novel every month to meet the unrelenting requirements of her author’s mentoring scheme. Despite this tough schedule, Linda'smentor has told her thatshe thought her writing had ‘improved in leaps and bounds '.

All of Linda's hard work was in evidence when she read her chapter describing the experience of seeing the sights of America with some very difficult relationships in tow. You could certainly feel the heavy-heartedness of the narrator and her desperate attempts at levity which make for an entertaining read but one where the reader is fully engaged emotionally with the plight of the characters. Interestingly, Linda was apologetic about it being so ‘downbeat’ but, like me, Clive found it full of mordant humour while Rob described it as exceptionally well-observed, with a pervading sense of ennui and yet bursting with humour. We all agreed that calling a central character Mathaios was probably asking for trouble as, each time the reader saw it on the page, (s)he would wonder how the name should be pronounced and this ran the risk of seriously interrupting the flow. Rob mentioned the value of having some more relaxed passages in the novel and Linda agreed that it was important to pace the narrative and have little ‘pools’ for reflection. Her mentor had also stressed the importance of ‘framing’, by which she means that every scene and every chapter must be rounded and have goal/conflict/resolution and beginning/middle/end. For now we had achieved the meeting’s goal, without excessive conflict and had brought things to a resolution, from a beginning of refreshments and news, through a workshop bit in the middle, to a convivial end -- until the next meeting of the Severn Valley Authors.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Men only

Our meeting on Tuesday, May 22nd, at Tony’s house, was, if nothing else, innovative: (comma to word ratio 1 : 2.8 so far) alfresco, all male, half the membership absent and over by nine o’clock.
Rob read ‘Great-uncle Hymie’s bequest’, telling the story of Jonathon, whose father has recently died. Jonathon is shocked by his lack of feelings towards his father and later, lying awake in bed, is reminded of Great-uncle Hymie’s death and his strange bequest to all the family – a clothes hanger. Jonathon, disturbed by his memories, gets up, finds the hanger and imagines Hymie’s presence. A conversation ensues between them about the quality of the hanger, attention to detail, and duty. Jonathon falls asleep and when he awakes to return to his bed, experiences a sense of despair.
Tony was spell-bound by the story, finding it resonant, compact and a carefully-crafted description of grief, with the clothes hanger playing a totemic role. Clive was at a bit of a loss, feeling that the story comprised two stories melded into one, and unsure as to its message. Was it, perhaps, about grief, or was it about Jonathon’s feelings of guilt at his loss of Jewishness? Both enjoyed the language – “…could pick a snag from such a finish…”, “…despair rising into my mouth like heartburn…” and suggested some punctuation changes.
Rob felt that he had failed to convey sufficiently strongly the idea behind the piece, which was Jonathon’s guilt at his loss of the culture of his forbears, and confirmed that the story comprised an extract from his novel to which he had added and moulded new material.
News was swiftly put aside after Clive confirmed he had none, Tony was awaiting the BBC et al., and Rob had entered four competitions, three in Winchester and the Bridport. He had done more work on his novel, five hours that very day, though complained at having been obliged to eschew the sunshine for his ‘foetid’ office because his laptop screen is illegible in bright light: is there an answer to this problem?
On behalf of Annie (who was quilting), we jointly presented the news that her Malvern escapade had gone extremely well. Tony remarked that ‘As you read it’ was a rubbish name and wondered why Malvern Theatres didn’t publish the stories in a small booklet and give the proceeds to charity. Rob and Clive agreed and recommended he suggest that to them, which he said he would. 
As the evening hurtled towards its close, Clive suggested we need an AOB as the last item of our meetings and Rob and Tony agreed that a set closing time of 9:45 p m would be desirable. It was still light when we left.
Next meeting at Rob’s house on June 12th, story by Chris, blog by Annie.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Prosecco and lemon cake, emerald rings and grumpy bakers

We met at Annie's where the story under discussion was Clive's offering The Emerald Ring. Reaching new heights in the refreshments department, Annie regaled us with prosecco and home-made lemon cake. This was by way of celebrating Annie’s success in being selected to read one of her stories at Malvern Theatre next week as part of their As You Read It evening. We all look forward to Annie's performance and wish her all the best for Thursday.
Clive read The Emerald Ring with gusto – a curious and compelling tale which left us all wondering how much of it was true family history and how much of it pure fiction. Like Wuthering Heights and Robinson Crusoe the kernel of the story (as recounted in the carpenter's tale) is given an added air of verisimilitude by being a story within a story within a story. Rob commented that he wondered whether this was a well-told tale woven around a nugget of truth, and alluded to the genre of creative non-fiction. Linda said how much she loved the carpenter's tale at the heart of the story and really wanted it to be true while Chris admitted that, if it were pure fiction, he had been completely taken in.  We all agreed with Chris that the 18th-century language was so convincing it almost had to be true. Singled out for particular praise was the comment, attributed to the Truro magistrate William Fletcher: ' ... ofttimes the repast was unrecognisable to me though, judged by taste, it was invariably fish and when distinguishably not fish, then the taste was yet fish...’
So, how much of Clive’s story was pure fancy? Clive explained that Lily Brydges really was his grandmother and the parts referring to her were all true. The wrecking of the fleet was also a true story around which Clive had embroidered The Emerald Ring. Fundamentally the story was genuine, but Clive himself was the author of both William Fletcher's statements and the carpenter's tale embedded within it. It seems Clive reads Samuel Pepys's Diary every day for fun, so much so that he appears to have absorbed the language of the late 17th and early 18th century.  If this continues, he may insist we refer to him as Squire Eardley.
 In our news roundup, Annie has of course been practising reading her story out loud in readiness for Thursday. Chris managed to sell out Stafford Gatehouse and sold 31 copies of Why Don't You Fly? to the enthusiastic audience. Linda continues to work on her novel and is trying to get the chapter lengths down to 1,500-2000 words as her mentor suggests this is a more suitable chapter length for a book with such commercial potential as Linda’s. Rob was feeling more discouraged with his work in progress but has managed to sell eight copies of Olympic Mind Games to a local school that is using it as a ‘reader’ for Year Six children. Clive has had further publishing success with a recipe for Cinnamon Crumb Cake in Take a Break magazine. With the popularity of The Hairy Bikers (pictured), we did wonder whether Clive might be cooking up a plan to launch himself as The Grumpy Baker.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Pater familias (in absentia)

Arthur Koestler, who was so taken with the subject of coincidence that he wrote a book about it (The Roots of Coincidence), would have been intrigued by our ‘Absent Fathers’ evening at Clive’s house on Monday April 2nd.  Our own pater familias, Rob, was in London meeting American friends and the resulting quincunx was regaled by Annie with three pieces of flash fiction, in each of which the absent father was the crucial figure. In the first piece, admittedly, the father was only absent in the sense of being sub-human – he was portrayed as a squalid, malodorous and repulsive kiddy-fiddler. The second died in a pool of his own vomit outside a kebab shop and the third had absconded with his neighbour’s wife, leaving his own wife and daughter facing the loss of their home to the mortgagee. When Clive suggested that Freud, in the light of these stories, might have wished to discuss with Annie her relationship with her own father, we learned that all the tales were based on the experiences of three of Annie’s friends.

Possibly due to a rather puerile sense of indiscipline induced by Rob’s absence, there was initially an inordinate amount of end-of-term-style giggling but we were soon sobered by Annie’s desperate tales. 

The Leopard
‘Seedy, grubby and sordid’, this was not an easy piece to enjoy, in Tony’s view. Chris congratulated Annie on her skilful handling of the disgusting, while Linda liked the authentic feel of the piece and Clive appreciated Annie’s use of synecdoche. All were agreed that the dialogue was stilted but that the ‘sofa springs groped her flesh’ was a vivid metaphor, especially Linda, who admits to a thing for anthropomorphic imagery. Offered in both first and third person versions, the piece was preferred in the third person by a margin of three to one.
Unity Street
The first paragraph graphically portrays a low-life street in a town centre; the images made this story Linda’s favourite. Tony’s understanding of the story was enhanced once he learnt that a pavement pizza is a euphemism for vomit. Clive and Linda both thought that there was a problem with the time sequence.
The Sleigh Ride
This was Tony’s favourite: poignant though a little confusing. Linda, too, had to work hard to ‘get’ it and suggested Annie was demanding too much of the reader – this points up one of the difficulties of flash fiction – but felt it to be potentially a good story.

Annie was pressed for time in submitting these three pieces of work, which perhaps accounted for any lack of polish, some stilted dialogue and questionable punctuation but all the pieces were felt to have merit and to have been generally well-written.


Rob had emailed prior to his departure that he had none. Clive has been stung into action by his chagrin at Rob’s earlier suggestion that his muse has deserted him and begun what will become either a ‘short’ or a ‘flash’. Linda has spoken recently to her Muse and been told that chapters need to be between 1500 and 2500 words. Linda’s were originally written at around 2000 and her mentor asked her to increase to 3000 (which she did) and so is now editing down to where she was in the first place . . . Chris, who seems to be on a roll, delivered another successful talk in Solihull to a National Trust audience of around 80, of whom 19 purchased a copy of his book, Why Don’t You Fly? He has also heard from the New Zealand outfit that they intend to include his work in their Less Flying project. Tony has entered a Bristol competition, as well as the Malvern As You Read It, and brought to our attention a Worcestershire Life magazine short story competition arranged in conjunction with the Worcester LitFest. 500 words, Lisa Ventura judging, a prize of some sort. Tony also talked about a publisher (Saskhet? – doesn’t google) who is looking for recipe novels based on having fun cooking. I might have misheard that: check with Tony. Annie wrote and staged a show at Northwick Primary School which was performed on two afternoons and one evening. Attendances were good and the show was much enjoyed, with some people actually laughing at the jokes (comic timing is not a skill commonly found in seven-year-olds).

Next meeting at Annie’s, Clive reading, Tony blogging, date not yet agreed but not, ideally, the 16th or 17th.

Clive Eardley
April 6th, 2012

Friday, 30 March 2012

From a Patio on another Planet...

By 7.30 on Monday 19 March four members of the Severn Valley Authors were sitting down to coffee and cake in Welch Gate. No Tony or Annie, who are never late, and we began to wonder how we were going to manage a meeting in the absence Tony, who was supposed to be reading his latest short story. Ten minutes later, however, they turned up. Their uncharacteristic lateness had been due to Tony driving to Rob’s house by mistake, and after a hard day at school, Annie had been too exhausted to notice.

Tony’s short story, entitled The Limit, was excellently written and an enjoyable read. There was much to admire in the authoritative description of a career in journalism, the expert and easy treatment of dialogue and the following delicious metaphor in the opening paragraph: In the grey-blue flesh of the evening sky he watched an aeroplane make a peach-coloured incision with its vapour trail. The cut quickly healed itself as the trail evaporated and Richard smiled to himself. 
                Tony cunningly managed to sustain the readers’ interest by keeping the location of the main character nicely ambiguous until the very last word of the piece, at which point the reader realises with a jolt that Richard Wycherley is reminiscing over his career as a newspaper reporter from his patio on another planet
                Most of the discussion surrounded the problem of the time over which the events had taken place. Rob pointed out that the main character, given his whereabouts, had to be reminiscing from a time in the fairly distant future; yet, as a budding journalist, he had interviewed Spitfire pilots – the youngest of whom would have been around 85 years old by the year 2010. So if Richard Wycherley was reminiscing from a patio on another planet, it couldn’t have been too far in the future, for he wouldn’t have survived that long. If he’d been born in 1985 he’d have been 25 in the year 2010. The narrative excludes the possibility that he’d retired or was even considering retirement, so it seems unlikely that Richard was relaxing on his patio on Planet Zog much later than 2050 - and we all felt that the idea that people could be drinking wine on their patios on one or more planets in less than 40 years time was a little far-fetched.
                Stretching Annie’s credulity was also the fact that Richard could lean back in his patio chair at the same time as reaching for the wine glass at his feet.
                Clive (who enjoyed the quality of the writing but shared the general confusion about time) remarked judicially that you probably could if you were pissed. He should know.
                Exercising his right to reply, Tony stated that two thirds of the story could have been set in the present. The exercise became a game to see how long he could keep the reader wondering where Richard Wycherley was doing his reminiscing.

General News:

Rob announced that he had abandoned his efforts to get literary festivals interested in his talk about the background to his novel-in-waiting No Mean Affair. No doubt they’ll change their tune when it gets published. He is writing a new short story for the Bristol competition and has entered the ‘As You Read It’ short story competition, along with Tony and Annie. Winners will be invited to read out their stories in at the Forum Theatre in Malvern on 17 May. Tony has already booked tickets and we decided to make it an SVA day out. Linda was feeling under pressure because her computer had expired and she was having nightmares getting used to the funky new red Toshiba lap-top - with a mentoring session with Kathryn Heyman looming next week. Clive stated that he had no news and had become so outraged by British politics that he didn't even feel able to blog about it. A shame - Clive's recent blogs on current events have been excellent and insightful and wouldn't be out of place in a newspaper column ( Personally I've always found any powerful emotion, whether positive or negative, provides a terrific incentive to write.

The next meeting will take place on Monday 2 April at Clive’s. Annie to read, and Clive to blog.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

John Clare on grammar

At SVA meetings, we often spend quite a bit of time discussing the finer points of grammar. Part of our critiquing of one another's work involves close scrutiny of the nuts and bolts of language but perhaps we worry too much sometimes. A propos, I was amused to come across the following unrestrained opinion, expressed by the great English poet John Clare: 'Grammar in learning is like tyranny in government — confound the bitch I'll never be her slave'.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A New Chapter

The meeting started with the news that a new chapter has started in Rob’s life. Rob has become a granddad. Daisy was born on 27th February and weighed 8lb 4oz. Many congratulations.
We met at Rob’s house on Monday 5th March and read Linda’s piece. It started with the most fantastic quote: ‘Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies for instance’ John Steinbeck

Rob described the writing as poetic. Chris praised the fantastic detail, good dialogue and descriptive flair. Clive had enjoyed the piece so much that he had also passed it onto his wife, Marilyn to read, who had also enjoyed the piece. Tony liked the phrase ‘houses clung to the cliffs like barnacles.’ There was also a super description of the Midlands as ‘a place of averages and in-betweens’. I particularly liked ‘gauzy perfumed roses climbed the walls, dusty pink like snatches of petticoat.

Linda must be commended on her writing. Everyone agreed that it was evocative and carefully crafted. Well done, Linda, this project is definitely taking shape before our eyes.

During the news section the group talked about the Malvern Theatre Writing Competition – ‘As You Read It. Stories are submitted, the winning entries are selected and the authors are invited to read their work to an audience. Several members of the group are interested in taking part in the competition.

Chris reported that he had a talk coming up in Bromyard. Clive had no news to report. Rob reported on the latest communication from Lisa Runions of Cornwall and District Writers’ Circle. Tony’s news caused much amusement. Tony has been trying to write a blog about a book that he has not got around to writing. He has accepted defeat on both the book and its blog. This has allowed him to clear his mind and he has written a song that he was very pleased with and it only took him four and a half hours.

Our next meeting is on the 19th March where Tony will be reading his piece.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

We are all philosophers now

Spot the philosopher
SVA member Chris has cycled the 16,500 miles from Bewdley, Worcestershire to Beijing. His next, equally daunting, challenge is to complete the Careful Driving Trilogy in which he charts the journeys, physical and mental, that a truck driver takes as he steers his juggernaut across Europe.

We have seen only glimpses of Chris's work-in-progress but it is enough for us to wonder at the audacity that compels him to undertake this gargantuan task. Given what he has achieved in the past we have no doubt he will bring the cargo home with aplomb.

In the extract under review, the truck driver crosses Germany while musing on how Plato's tri-partite class structure and his 'once upon a time' miracle have echoed down the centuries.  As usual, Chris's prose was virtually beyond reproach with only one 'fail' in Linda's obsessive bad-hyphen hunting and a mild rebuke from Tony regarding his 'tic' of inverting sentences so the reader embarks on them not knowing their destination.

The challenging nature of the philosophical content was a concern. Chris defended his position citing that the development of his arguments and their repetition will facilitate understanding. Nevertheless we all felt that he should not forget the limitations of his target readership – the great unwashed British public.  In Tony's words, the book must not fail the Costa coffee shop test. He suggested that Chris should beware of the 'authorial voice' and ensure the reader is always firmly either in the cab alongside the driver or in his head.

Annie and Linda observed that this will help drive (pun intended) the narrative along and ensure that the transitions from corporeal to mental journeying (a concern of Rob's) would not be 'sleeping policemen' in the reader's path.

In SVA news we learned that:
·         Tony is creating a new blog that will be a mental health discussion and ideas forum
·         Linda has submitted a further 10,000 words of her work-in-progress to her Gold Dust mentor
·         Annie is reading the 2011 Bridport Prize anthology
·         Rob has entered his second novel in the Dundee International Prize
·         Clive has unearthed a W Somerset Maugham book of essays that includes a treatise on the short story
·         Chris's recent speaking engagements in Kidderminster and Stroud were both sell-outs and resulted in the sale of 35 copies of Why Don't You Fly.

But the most telling moment of this meeting, in my opinion, came when one of our number dropped into the conversation, 'I was reading Cicero the other day'. It attracted not a flicker of scepticism or curiosity. This is the intellectual plateau SVA exists on following our immersion in Plato, Marx, and the World of Ideas.