Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 09 2051-2075

30-Sep 12:42 Wednesday

2051 Twenty-five flavours, but only one at a time
2052 Some things you just know, but never know.
2053 Firemen, Policemen
2054 HRT
2055 The elegance of a ploughed field

2056 Knock Knock Jokes for the Damned
2057 I remember you from before you wanted to die
2058 Flower
2059 Knee, back, ear, eyes
2060 Yes, and miles to go, miles to go...

2061 What would I want for my last meal
2062 I would shoot crows, the occasional dog
2063 Another twenty years or loved for a day, then die?
2064 Muttering of surrender in a musty room
2065 Remembrance

2066 The sweet beauty of a homing bullet
2067 Decorating as an act of love
2068 No oath of allegiance, medals in the skip
2069 From now, I think I should wear the clothes of dead men
2070 It's a kettle. Approximately

2071 Beginning, End? It's all middle, nothing of consequence
2072 CRIB
2073 Were fat Boy and Little Boy beautiful?
2074 We will get there, but how we get there should matter
2075 The swollen fear of the slaughterhouse, shit.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 08 2026-2050

28-Sep 13:00 Tuesday

 2026 A Short History of Stupid
2027 From beginnings such as these
2028 TACK
2029 What's so wrong with eating people?
2030 How to talk money

2031 One Day in the Life of Ivan Dennis Prosser
2032 Great Composers and Minor Poets
2033 Game of Drones
2034 A Place of Almost Honest Smiles
2035 On the other hand it was sort of expected

2036 PRUNE
2037 The Early Days in Tredegar
2038 Various Theories and a number of ideas
2039 Conference
2040 A Century of Quiet Women

2041 It's probably a donkey
2042 The truth, or something close
2043 Mr & Mrs Desperandum and the son Neil
2044 Under Milk Wood
2045 And When Did You Last See Your Father?

2046 Hitler's Last Gamble
2047 JC
2048 A Bagatelle
2049 I know, technically, it's murder, but it's FUN
2050 Home Run

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 07 2001-2025

28-Sep 08:10 Monday

2001 Fat chips, a soft-boiled egg, beans
2003 We need to slow down, think, gather our strength 
2004 Crippled
2005 The Tell-Tale Secretions of the Sick Mind

2006  On Sundays, all walking the lake in their best
2007 Hamster, Microwave
2008 You've Got Mail
2009 I have a small problem here
2010 The earth from above, the sweep of light over clouds

2011 As cold as a referee's heart
2012 The way long, lonely and desperate
2013 Montreux
2014 The Miracle of Death
2015 Crystal

2016 Cities Burning, the Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
2017 Rice Pudding
2018 A quiet gathering of compromisers
2019 Dixon of Dock Green
2020 A Thousand Blessings, Effendi!

2021 Charging for Plastic, the Great Fight Back Begins
2022 OTIS
2023 When sex-bots go wrong
2024 The moment we emerge into light
2025 A Valleys Life of Quiet Degeneration

Sunday, September 27, 2015

 Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 06 1976-2000

 27-Sep 08:00 Sunday

1976 The contents of a damp cardboard suitcase
1977 Why I love Denis Potter
1978 Homo Sapiens Paradoxicus
1979 Until I Found You
1980 Picnic in Basra

1981 A Month of Reading Dangerously
1982 How I learned to be stupid
1983 The Forensics of Love & Hate
1984 Complications
1985 Mothers & Daughters

1986 SNOW
1987 A Small Life and Smaller
1988 If perhaps I could have a drink of water?
1989 Lawrence of Belgravia
1990 The last kick of the game

1991 The Return of the Prince of Darkness
1992 Betting the Farm
1993 Smaller than the smallest possible thing
1994 A Suitably English Affair
1995 From a modest beginning towards a spectacular end

1996 Various Somerset Paupers
1997 Beau Geste
1998 An Evening With an Archangel
1999 The Stars in their Courses
2000 A Night in The Pilot

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Saturday Prompts

 Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 05
 26-Sep 08:20 Saturday

1951 Nothing will follow, nothing follows
1952 Sandpaper
1953 Deacon William Jones and other such bastards
1954 Stamp through the tulips
1955 Where the rivers meet, before the falls

1956 I dreamt I was Atilla the Hun, for Might is Right
1957 Be patient, your chance will come
1958 CHOKE
1959 The aesthete, the asexual
1960 I will need to go to Wales

1961 The susceptibility of the egg
1962 His father murdered for a living, but was kind
1963 How clouds drift in, kindly at first
1964 All the fun of the fair
1965 POLIO

1966 The Oxford Companion to Discarded Poems
1967 The Last Cuckoo
1969 A Peculiar Singularity
1970 There must be a way through: I can feel the light the other side

1971 In the name of austerity, I sentence you to death
1972 James James and Billy Williams
1973 Conference
1974 This is my best, my very, very best
1975 I have shaken off my family like a snake's rotten skin

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

And More...

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 03 1901-1925

 23-Sep 09:10 Wednesday

1901 For each of us, this is the last migration
1902 TANK
1903 This is important, but I don't know why
1904 Snakes
1905 There was a fire in my head, lights, steam

1906 Her name was Angelina and she only ever wore white
1907 BLOCK
1908 The rain began while we were sleeping
1909 EGG
1910 I feel myself stronger as my limbs fade away

1911 I was five and he was six, you know...
1912 Monumental
1913 Eggs to steal, flour to find
1914 We need ladders; I have rungs
1915 Sweet the dull sounds of evening falling

1916 Lilac Rising
1917 I will hide on a small island until people forget me
1918 Poem by an Old Seaman
1919 The Art of Hospice
1920 A man called Drake sleeps below

1921 TRAP
1922 Four in the morning, Christmas Eve
1923 Eleven ways to dilute hope
1924 She is plump enough for a farmer's bride
1925 1918

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

More Prompts

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 02 1876-1900

22-Sep 09:10 Tuesday

1876 7:08 From Parkway
1877 All the Princes, their entourages...
1878 Postcards From BalloonLand
1879 Now they are concrete, etched into time
1880 Don't Touch Me There!

1881 One night, I went out, thinking the world ran in lines
1882 Closing Date
1883 The Singing Bird dies just as badly
1884 Dr Fitzhugh
1885 The Puppy

1886 Tom, Dick, and Harry
1887 Last night the dog and I talked about your shadow
1888 SCUD!
1889 "And I will wear my trousers rolled"
1890 One is Enough

1891 True is good, true is indefinable
1892 Tom & Jerry
1893 Seven-Forty-Seven
1894 The Interview
1895 Something by Browning, or Yeats. Eliot

1896 Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet & Watch
1897 If I knew I would tell you, if I really knew I would lie
1898 Table Nineteen
1899 Lucy, Lucy and the Magic Daffodil
1900 Double Glazing

Monday, September 21, 2015


I have been asked to judge the next two Annual SS Competitions for Sentinel, 2015, 2016.

A few dozen moons back I judged a quarterly competition and was agonised to discover I could not find six worthwhile stories. I managed a 1-2-3 but I knew I was pushing things to talk about "recommended" or "highly-recommended" works.

After all, if I DIDN'T "highly recommend" a story (as in, Hey Jane, read this story...") how could I, in all good conscience, give it a PRIZE as HC?

It was a difficult time for me but luckily, Sentinel's Editor stood by my decision. I did not expect the above recall.

There is an article of mine, "The Disease of Competence". If you are going to enter Sentinel's Annual SS Competition, I suggest you read it.

The Disease of Competence

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing JournalApril 2006

Competence. I am choking to death on competence. I am being tortured by ordinariness, battered into submission by beige words on fawn pages, by magnolia writing. One sound fits all. 

As I dip into the English literary journals, and those American ones I can easily access, the short-story seems to come to me now, as a painful, plain, dull vanilla. I see, eat, feel, and read the blind, bland and automatic, the five-thousand-word sound-byte, the "Yeah?" stories, the so-fracking-what stories, the smooth and empty. 

I received a journal not so long ago and the four prize-winning stories were so similar that I cut and pasted the four opening paragraphs and posted it to my writing group as a single opening. The group thought the opening "quirky" but not one group member recognized that here there were four separate writers. About two years ago, I took the two opening paragraphs from an edition of a well-known literary magazine and asked a group of writers to decide how many different authors there were here. Many thought two, some thought three, one thought four. There were eleven. Eleven. And every author either had an MFA or taught on a Creative Writing MFA. 

About six or seven years ago, we were moving house as my wife had a new job. I had been writing full-time for four years and had managed to sell five crime novels, but I'd moved into serious short fiction. I wanted to change direction so much, I thought a year on a creative writing masters might help. As much as anything, I wanted a wall between my old writing identity and my new one. 

I don't want to talk much about the MA itself (but it was disappointing and I mentioned the blanding, do-it-the-corporate-way atmosphere in my article "The Novice Screenwriter Refuses to Conform") but I do want to mention my two projects. 

The academic coursework was comfortable but the bulk of the final grade was based on Projects A and Project B. 

Project A was the aspiring writer's first attempt at a novel, a screenplay, or a set of stories. The idea was simple. Submit A and then respond to the feedback with Project B which was worth a full 50% of the course. 

I was writing, and growing. I knew just how many secrets my published writing glided over and I decided to write a piece where I derided my own stories, attacked the author for his cowardice. What was there on the page was passion, language, heat, an attempt to access the truth. 

The feedback was a near-yawn. Why was I bothering with this post-modern self-analysis? B. 

I had been disappointed by the tutors. I had realized that standing up for principles could mean failure. So for my final project, I simply removed all the fresh, passionate, profane, self-investigative work, and trotted out a nice easy set of short-stories. 

The result? I graduated with a distinction! 

I cannot stress enough how easy it is to publish ordinary work and how much harder it is to get into print with anything that tries to reach a little further. My experience on the Bath University Creative Writing MA was a perfect example. Give them easy and the applause will come. 

But to what depths are we slowly but surely spiraling down? Where do the next set of editors come from if not the current MFA and MA courses? We must surely be creating a world where the bland lead the bland. 

In an essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote: "I wish to state my great unease toward the very nature of such classes… too many students can glibly discuss Mimetic Strategy of Narrative Dislocation but are tone-deaf to the euphonies of prose and are incapable of lucidly communicating a smell or a texture." 

Later she wrote of her fear that university writing programs might be "shooting out, with the speed of tennis-ball machines, a new breed of fiction-scribblers who are groveling for the glitz of being labeled creative writers." 

"These misguided souls might merely be mastering the technical tricks of the narrative trade and barking them out like contestants at a dog show, with an eye to marketability." 

All the above is true, but add into the mix the following experience and the revelations of two editors. I have twice been rejected by one magazine which paid &5 per thousand words only to then place the story for &1,000 in a prestigious competition. In both cases the rejecting editor mentioned that she loved the stories but that the readership "would not wear it". 

Let's not mince words here. This editor openly admits to using inferior material because that's what the readers want! We have discussed this many times. The editor freely admits that this is a sad fact of life. If she goes for anything more serious, she loses subscribers. The result is that the best stories in the magazines are pseudo-literary, always comfortable and "easy reads". They slide down with barely a thought, and taste sweet for seconds. Then they are forgotten. 

Consider this, reader. You pick up a literary journal. Do you simply read it, that is from start to finish, or do you own it and maybe skim, or glance at the beginnings of each story in the hope that something will bite you? If you went to your bookshelf now and counted how many stories you have glanced at, how many you have actually read would you, like me, discover you read less than ten per cent, and that many of those are disappointing? How often are we hit in the gut by writing these days? 

My second editor ran a small literary magazine for a few years and has recently had to close the print version and fall back on web-publication. Why? 

Her answer confirms the first editor's knowledge of the market. Each time this editor published anything more serious, she lost subscribers and in the end the losses became too much. 

Is this merely sad, or is there something a little more worrying underfoot? If an aspiring writer today goes to many of the little British magazines, he or she will not find stories with meat, will not find Carver or Englander. If Vladimir Nabokov wanted to place his stories in the British Small press he would fail. 

But does this matter? Well, it matters if, when the writer is starting out, he is led to believe that what publishes is this thin, far-too-easy, vanilla-languaged, forgettable stuff. It matters if nowhere there is a Nabokov, or Brodkey or Marquez. 

I believe we have developed the literary equivalent of Chick-lit. Let's call it Lit-Lit. It's a lightish general fiction with the faint whiff of better writing. It's easy to absorb, often solid, and often contains one flourish, often a good opener, or a neat closing paragraph. 

I see a mechanic at work, not an artist. I see an MFA graduate with a set design, a reasonable premise, a text with the errors flattened away, then, after some blue-pencil remarks from a tutor (who graduated himself just ten-fifteen years earlier), has managed to bolt on a few sparklers, enough for publication. The circle is not only complete, the walls are built a brick higher, and just a little thicker. And the new writer sees what the new writer must do to be published. 

I open the latest copy of Best American Short Stories (BASS) and read the first work. Does it move me? Does it shake me? Does it knock me off my feet? Does it make me care? Do I read the story, ache, feel profundity or wonder a little deeper about life? 

No. And not only "No" but even "Not at all!" 

This must worry me. It should worry us. Though I recognize, of course that it would be easy to dismiss the flaws as mine as a reader rather than say the story is bland, goes nowhere in particular, has no language of extra significance, no deep or rare emotion. It's "just another one" just another BASS story. 

I never miss a BASS. I want to know what is considered the pinnacle of US short-story writing in the year. And I have read, on occasion, superb works. But it's the general sense of the humdrum, the forgettable, the prose equivalent of the very, very minor poets who reach these "heights". 

Mary Yakuri Waters' story "Rationing" was published by the Missouri Review, then selected by Katrina Kenison, then further, it was picked out by Walter Mosely 

When Kate Kenison mentions the story in her prologue, note the dizzy excitement: "in 'Rationing' a young Japanese man's deeply-felt admiration for his self-sufficient father inhibits him from ever expressing his true feelings, until it's too late." 

What strikes me here is the flatness, the "Yeah, right!" and when I come to the story I am again struck by the ordinary, the flat, the near-essay feel of steady, dull prose. It is certainly tidy and it's certainly error-free, but where in the piece is any sense of newness of a freshness or true insight? 

I read the story of Saburo and his father. I read it again. I read it a third time, and even on the fourth read, desperately searching for a reason it is one of the best twenty stories published in 2002, I cannot find one. 

When I teach the short-story, if a student rates language above par I ask them to quote that language to excerpt the prose and discuss where the piece works at a higher level, why they enjoyed it, or were moved. Do I go through this story and find myself underlining words? Are there patches where the English rises above the ordinary, even as far as "nice"? Not to me. It seems to read like a slow-moving, slightly stodgy, essay, nothing so much wrong, as simply lacking anything extra. 

There is no va-va-va-voom. It's safe. It's boring. The whole piece reads like the story we have in our collection when the publisher needs just one more. Sorry, but if there is greatness here, I cannot see it. It's another example of so-so, me-too, do-I-really-care? writing. 

I never read the author's comments on a story until I am almost done with it. When I read Waters' comments I was not surprised to see it was a story out-of-the-drawer. That's exactly how it feels, a story which never really worked and still doesn't work. Sure, it's solid, sure it's publishable but isn't there supposed to be something more? Are we not meant to feel joy, or shock, or be so immersed in a wonderful vision or beautiful prose that we are transported? Are we not supposed to "carry" a good story with us for a long time? 

Half-way through the story, there is a paragraph where Saburo has a recurring dream where he thinks he's racing in the 800 when in fact it's a 400. I wrote in the margin, "Meaning?" 

But of course, the story had 800 metre racing highlighted earlier, then at the end we get the final metaphor. Saburo's clich├ęd chest pain as his father dies "reminded him of track days: anguish escalating unbearably in oxygen-deprived lungs, the blind rush down the home stretch on legs that were too slow." My first thoughts were, "The tutor recommended a solid threaded metaphor. Is this an MFA graduate?" 

The story is one of the best twenty in the whole of the US? Really? 

The story is competent, but competence is a disease. I see ordinariness exalted, I see reader-votes for dross, I see the brave editors going out of business and other editors thriving by giving writer-readers more of those stories just one per cent better than the rest, the comfortable, the solid, the unmoving. 

When Flannery O'Connor said, "Any idiot with a nickel's worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact so many people can now write competent stories that the short story medium is dying of competence." she may have been slightly defeatist, but then she was only looking from the angle of the creative writing courses at university. 

If we now add in the fact that many MFA graduates are published, that MFA graduates become editors, become teachers on further MFA courses, that editors who go for broke often go broke, it's a deeply sick, sad spiral of false fulfillment. 

Francine du Plessix Gray argued that we must keep our sentences erotic, our sentences euphonic, full of tonality and rhythm and avoiding all those tired phrases we see too often. She wrote how our stories must open in a way that promised to seduce, that intrigued, whispered like a lover. She said we should strive for muscle, for power, to make things throb, and she said we must rebel against the tyranny of the genre. She was right, she is right, but my fear is that "the genre" is also now "the market" and the genre is also the supply-line, and the judges are steeped in the genre, and the whole is one sorry, bland, self-perpetuating, mutual admiration fest.

Some News

Update on Me

I have been away in Malaysia and Australia, returned with an infected ruptured ear-drum and almost complete deafness in one ear, poor hearing in the other.

The antibiotics upset me too, and the last thing I've wanted to do is write. However, October is another blast so I started "ramping up" Sunday 20 September. No doubt the next ten days will be erratic, but I should be ready to blast and (hopefully) not feeling sick, in pain and jet-lagged.

Boot Camp Blast Update

Boot Camp has had 2-3 successful "Blasts" this year and we are holding another in October but pushing on towards the year-end trying to create a lot of drafts and submittable work.

It remains the case that almost without fail, the work which goes on to win prizes is the work written, not carefully, meticulously, over weeks, but work "blasted out" and then edited (often minimally).

I believe in deep thinking, theory, argument, criticism BETWEEN stories, but that we must WRITE DRUNK, let go, "care less" and Just Do It!

The prizes that keep mounting suggest this is a good way to work!

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 01 1851-1875 21-Sep 08:45 Monday

Sep-Oct Ramp-Up 01 1851-1875 21-Sep 08:45 Monday

1851 Where I was born. Not where I lived. Not who I am.
1852 The Dead Centre
1853 The taller soldiers with the deeper march
1854 When meadows shone
1855 Once for others, now for myself

1856 We wait still, patiently, for the promised blood
1857 Deaf
1858 No longer under sky, no longer looking out to sea
1859 Dumb
1860 Beneath my bedroom light, outside, where dark creatures shuffle

1861 Avocado and Bacon
1862 Trees left, trees right, some dark, some light
1863 A Gorge, Cold Water
1864 Once we were all young and easy, never believing this
1865 Apollo 13

1866 Where Billy and I used to go
1867 Tea, then out with the wick
1868 How the cold breathes art upon the leaves
1869 Naked
1870 There is a moment when darkness changes

1871 The finality of a certain kind of no.
1872 A snuffle, a tired knock at a door, a bottle rolling
1873 CORK
1874 Driving slowly to eke out their time
1875 This is what we disremember