Thursday, 1 December 2011

entering the asylum, then...

 "One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it's always a writing student.The writing courses, particularly when they have the word 'creative' in them, are the new mental hospitals. But the people are very nice" Hanif Kureishi.

While my last blog saw me moaning about rejection, this one is tentatively optimistic (hence the foreboding quote), as I don’t want to get too cocky and curse myself/shoot anybody else.

Firstly, I’ve been accepted onto the MMU Creative Writing MA (after a lovely telephone interview with author/tutor Sherry Ashworth, whose praise of my work was a little over-whelming, albeit in a good way), and have opted for the part-time distance learning approach, starting in January. This means that I’ll begin in the middle of a ‘writing’ module, rather than a ‘reading’ one, and that I’ll have to go into an established group as the “new girl”, introduce myself… and then proceed to criticise everybody’s work, whilst forcing them to read my own. 

I’ve been faffing about for ages with regards to being a postgrad student (mainly put off by the financial implications, and the onus on dreaded literary criticism) and while I did begin an English MA last year, I couldn’t shake the feeling during seminars that I was in some kind of skit that was parodying academia, with Foucault and Lacan and Kristeva and Derrida being chucked about wily-nily, irrespective of the question in hand. Needless to say then, I didn’t last long, and while this short stint was enough to make me reassess my ideas about eventually undertaking a PhD, the other option, the “eye-rolling-isn’t-it-about-time-you-faced-the-horrible-reality-of-being-a-grown-up and got-a-real-job” road, was even more unappealing.

With both options though, I’d find myself thinking things like, “well, after I’ve finished my MA, then I’ll focus on my writing, once my safety net’s in place” (voice of reason?) and stuff  like “I’ll work full-time, get some experience for a few years, then maybe save up enough cash to be able to run off to a Mediterranean island and write a novel in the middle of the countryside and wear a headscarf and ride a bicycle with fresh baguettes in the basket and twinkle my bell at the farmers…”(voice of...something else); but with the goal –“writing”- the only constant in my indecisive mind, I have now decided to chuck all my eggs in one basket (albeit a rusty wire one nicked from Tescos rather than a Provencal hand-woven one) and attempt to combine it all, and begin a Writing MA. 

There’s a lot of criticism about whether or not creative writing can be taught, and the idea of some tortured artist, coughing up blood and ink and penning out their dying thoughts in a freezing garret is the romantic notion of authorship that a lot of people still hold dear (apparent in the undeserved criticism too frequently directed towards creative writing courses), and while I must admit, there is a part of me that does still want to embrace that “ I-WILL-make-it –on-my own!” ethos, and get somewhere without being associated with a specific “programme”; I can’t see how implanting myself amongst a community of writers, and authors, and being given the opportunity to get feedback on my work in progress; and the chance to meet agents and publishers, can at this point be anything other than beneficial. Plus to pass the MA I need to submit an ENTIRE novel, and if that doesn’t force me to finish the one I’ve been working on forever, then nothing will. 

Of course, January is a long, long way away, and my fickle mind may chase itself down another avenue, but for now, I’m excited.

In other news, a short story of mine has been accepted by Mused: The BellaOnline Literary Review, which will be published in December, a cheery tale called ‘Tadpoles’ which is all about catholic guilt, abortions, banshees and childhood gangs.

After months of waiting, I also had two short fiction pieces published on the same day, 'The Day the Merry Go Round Broke Down' at The Pygmy Giant, and 'Tantalus' at For Every Year.

The first one was my attempt to disrupt a narrative by using a jarring refrain to reflect the woman’s inner state (the Looney Toons tune, the title of which is the title of the story); to produce a discordant effect, and to turn the familiar and the homely into something sinister.  I'm not sure where the inspiration came from, but I had some notes scribbled in a notebook about canaries in coal mines, and after writing it I was reminded of the Curb your Enthusiasm 'Nanny from Hell' episode; the one where the nanny has completely lost it after working at Disneyland on the Looney Toons ride for too long. Odd the way that things sneak into your subconscious...

'Tantalus' is part of Crispin Best’s project, For Every Year, where basically you pick a year, and write something about it.  It’s still ongoing so any writerly types (or even if you're not) get scribbling! (I think it’s up to about the 1670s now, so there's plenty left to choose from). I went for 1669, the year when Mt Etna erupted most magnificently, and where the lava flow apparently stopped at the gates of the Benedictine monastery. This bought to mind ideas of culture vs nature, male abstinence vs female sexuality, the demonisation of female sexuality; fate and desire and repression and liberation, but the story is basically one of a monk getting his face blasted off by a volcano.

As for new writing, the last few weeks I’ve mainly been re-writing the same few pieces that I can’t quite get to work, but my most recent google history includes: sobriety medallions, gothic names, Grand Guignol, the Song of Solomon, Mark Anthony, Roman baths, ghost trains and paper dolls.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Michel Faber 'The Crimson Petal and the White' Review

The Crimson Petal and the White
Michel Faber
Canongate Books Ltd; 2002
(and recently adapted by the BBC)

At 800 plus pages, and with my increasingly picky post-English degree brain mainly edging towards short stories (still traumatised from the horrors of trying to plough through six novels a week, obviously), I wasn’t certain that I’d make it to the end of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, but I did, and I absolutely loved it. It's quickly leap-frogged its way into my "favourite -books- of- all- time- list", and while I could rave about it for hours, I'll try and stay succinct. 

The big slab of a book is perhaps unsurprisingly set in the Victorian period, and is suitably Dickensian with its evocative descriptions of London- its prostitutes, orphans and slums; its philanthropists and criminals; its aesthetes and decadents and its lunatics- but its post-modern/post-feminist knowingness gives the entire novel a voyeuristic edge; a sly wink through the keyhole that subverts the traditions that it continues. Critics are quick to note that this is “the novel Dickens would have wrote had he been allowed to speak freely” (Katherine Hughes, The Guardian) and while I do feel that a great deal of my enjoyment did come from my familiarity with Victorian novels (after studying both the Victorian period and the Fin de Si├Ęcle as an undergraduate), and recognising the stock characters/tropes -and observing Faber’s take on them- The Crimson Petal is so well-written and the characters are so perfectly constructed that aside from all of that, it’s still a fantastic read.  (Even if you aren’t, like me, still a bit of a goth who gets unduly excited about foggy, cobbled streets and corsets and feels all light-headed at a Bill the Butcher type moustache and a top hat).

The novel follows Sugar, a “surprisingly” erudite and resourceful teenage prostitute, who dreams of writing a penny-dreadful tale that charts her adventures/misfortunes, and which sees her/ her heroine taking all kinds of bloody revenge on her clients.  After a fortuitous meeting with William Rackham, a privileged idler; a dandyish figure masquerading as an “author”, but who is nevertheless the heir to a perfume company, Sugar becomes the object of his infatuation, and her attempts to fashion a new life for herself, “to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can”, then begin.  This relationship runs central to the story, but there are subplots aplenty, from William’s brother Henry’s tormented relationship with Mrs Emmeline Fox, where his lust for her and his religious leanings are at odds; to William’s cossetted wife Agnes’ increasingly mental instability and her attempts to regain some emotional equilibrium; to Sugar’s relationship with William’s daughter, Sophie.  

The novel, as expected from a neo-Victorian tale, is of course open to all sorts of interpretation and literary criticism, but I tried to keep those student tendencies under control (the ones that annoying note all the possible psychoanalytical/ Marxist/ structuralist etc readings in every single utterance), and focus on the style instead, which is simply wonderful.  I was a fan of Faber’s anyway after reading his short story collections The Fahrenheit Twins and Some Rain Must Fall and other Stories, (all suitably other-worldly and unsettling and gothic) and his writing here is so accomplished, and his prose so sensuous, playful and inventive (and darkly humorous), that 800 plus pages just wasn’t enough. This review probably hasn’t done the book justice (as I’m aware that I should really be finishing a story, and I’m not the best journalistic writer, so I’ve linked another review at the bottom for anybody interested) so, in short: I recommend it.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A ratio of failures.

"A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason." -Margaret Atwood

The past week is probably best defined as “the week of lovely rejection.”  As much as you tell yourself that rejection is the rule, and acceptance is the exception, blah blah blah, it’s still annoying to wake up to an inbox full of template forms telling you that they liked your work (lies) but that it doesn’t stylistically fit their aesthetic (softening the blow), and signing off with wishes of luck in placing it elsewhere (good luck with THAT!) and a “but please send more!” (more lies).  The bits in parentheses, of course, may be neurotic fretting rather than fact, but still, getting rejected is shite. (Although this site did make me feel better)

This week, however, several journals sent personal, constructive replies; The Red Penny Papers standing out as being particularly "lovely" as they took the time to explain their selection process and were completely complimentary and encouraging along the way...whilst tearing my literary dreams to shreds, of course. Kind of like getting a lollipop when somebody’s wrenching your stitches out; but one that really did sweeten the process. Melodrama aside, I have noticed a new steeliness creeping in with regards to rejection; and whereas before I’d want to drink vodka and sob and eat jumbo bags of wotsits and delete my entire hardrive of the drivel that’s filling it up, before it can violate any other editor’s poor eyes, I now critically assess what can be altered, and search the market more extensively, to make sure that if I submit it again it's going where it fits in, stylistically or otherwise. Which can only be a good thing.

Aside from the rejections, I had a flash fiction piece short-listed for a competition, and got the first proof and glimpse of the cover for the upcoming Spilling Ink Anthology that features a short story of mine. This book will be available on Amazon.  I say that calmly, now, but the thought of it makes me ridiculously over-excited, as for some reason it seems that having something on Amazon is the ultimate validation for days spent slumped at the computer.  I'm sure it will wear off.  Although maybe not before Christmas, where every lucky family member will get a copy instead of fancy chocolate or Baileys or bubble bath from Boots.  Joy and peace to all. 
The preparation for publication also gave me another chance to practise the requisite third person bio that editors insist upon, and that I seem to find near impossible. Sum yourself up in 50 words, and be interesting, without making yourself sound like a dick. Nicola Belte lives in Birmingham. Thrilling.  Nicola Belte likes Victorian teapots and collects postcards of freaks. Woo, how quirky am I?! Nicola Belte works as a barmaid while waiting for the world to acknowledge her literary might. Pretentious idiot. It's...tricky.

Right, to press on then in the hope of procuring more “lovely rejections.”  I’m currently working on about five different stories, which hopefully will be up on here soon, and are maybe best summed up by my google history of the past few days: furry fandom, Japanese girls names, 12 step programmes, sword swallowing, obesity, senile dementia, mammoths, Tyburn tree, Roman emperors, yeti slippers. 

Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bugs and Beginnings

So, I'm starting a blog...but where to start?

Right at the beginning? My first memory of anything “writerly” (which is the purpose of this blog, after all) was standing up in junior school assembly, when I was ten, as the head-teacher read my poem to the entire school. The one about the poor, thirsty beetle, who, in parched desperation, scurried into a fizzy drinks bottle, couldn’t get out, and died; sated, but alone.  Despite my almost evangelistic use of the word “why?” throughout that particular composition, and my scathing, veiled attacks on litterbugs, I’m sure all my classmates were much more distracted by their own numb bottoms or nostril cavities; and that they spent their lunch break chucking coke cans into bushes and killing all manner of innocent insect, heedless of my words.

And I’m not sure that much has changed.  The writing process is still accompanied by that curious blend of pride and mortification that I felt in that musty assembly hall: I am a creator! I create nothing but shit. I want to show the world! You mustn’t read it, it’s awful. I’m amazing! I’m useless. Etc. Plus with everybody seemingly blogging, or tweeting, or facebooking; and thousands of  literary e-journals and stories jostling for attention -amidst all the other immeasurable online distractions- I’m not sure if I’ll be able to command any more attention than I did that morning; when even I was more interested in seeing if the girl with the weak bladder would piss herself again during hymns.

But I’ll try.  This is then my attempt to “seriously” write and see what happens.  I’ve linked my fiction that’s already been published (as yet scarce, I know, so I’ve added “forthcoming” publications to make me feel better, and because I’m impatient and publishers take forever to get stuff into print), and hopefully as I keep bombarding and practising and adding material, the site will start to take some kind of shape.  Aside from the creative element, there will probably be bits thrown in about the writing process, book and film reviews, the odd rant, and should I get upto anything more exciting and note-worthy than sitting in my pyjamas and staring at a screen all day, then that may sneak its way in too. But they'll be no more about beetles. Probably.