Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Tough Luck; read an extract on Joanna's blog

My very good writing friend and fellow OCA tutor, Joanna Ezekiel, has just finished reading my latest children's book, Tough Luck, and said she was gripped! She is featuring my book on her blog this month:

Special january feature: Nina Milton

Today we are excited to feature an extract from a new e-book for children by writer and OCA creative writing tutor Nina Milton. It is called Tough Luck, is available here from Amazon, and, in my opinion, is a very enjoyable read, full of links between past and present, and lively characters....

 Read the rest of her post  at:

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Levane and Armitage; enjoying new poems

My blog readers will probably know by now that I love my job as Tutor for the Open College of the Arts; I love all contact with other writers, student, devotee or professional. Woe betide any student that decides to give me a ring; I can talk about writing until the batteries dry up on the phone (yes, it’s happened).
 Karen, one of my OCA students wrote in her assignment commentary recently:
 My tutor feedback was the most inspiring support I've ever received for my written efforts…
 It was nice of her to say this, but I can assure her that she, like many of my students, gives me just as much back in return.  It was what she went on to say that I found the most rewarding, and expanding...
Your comments and suggestions caused me at one point, to just sit for well over an hour trying out different synonyms for just one stanza. Knowing you took my poetry-writing seriously and actually understood what I meant, even when I didn't make it clear, delighted and focussed me…
This is a really important point, about both poetry and prose. Reviewers often describe an author as ‘having seemed to spend time over every word’, and it’s important that new writers take this on board. It’s easy to be ‘lazy’ when rewriting because it can be such an arduous task, but it’s so necessary. Redrafting, taking care with every paragraph or stanza, is a fast learning curve for a new writer; it teaches you a heck of a lot. Karen goes on to say…
I wanted to write something that really made me feel, that produced overwhelming emotion. Two poems I had the pleasure of reading in Being Alive, edited by Neil Astley, published by Bloodaxe Books Limited 2005. The first one was Not the Furniture Game by Simon Armitage.
Here is a taster from that poem:

His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney
and his eyes were boiled eggs with the tops hammered in
and his blink was a cat flap
and his teeth were bluestones or the Easter Island statues
and his bite was a perfect horseshoe.
His nostrils were both barrels of a shotgun, loaded.
And his mouth was an oil exploration project gone bankrupt
and his smile was a caesarean section
and his tongue was an iguanodon
and his whistle was a laser beam
and his laugh was a bad case of kennel cough.
He coughed, and it was malt whisky.
And his headaches were Arson in Her Majesty's Dockyards
and his arguments were outboard motors strangled with fishing line...

Karen wrote... All though the poem I had a feeling of impending doom then it happened, the very last line blew me away. One second I was wondering, the next, tears exploded from my eyes... here are those last lines.

She was a chair, tipped over backwards
with his donkey jacket on her shoulders.

They told him,
and his face was a hole
where the ice had not been thick enough to hold her.

If you’d like to hear the full poem read by Joe Dunthorne, with his comments on it, click to

I liked this poem. Its power is in passionate rhythms and extremely well-placed, clever metaphors. Karen is right, it tells its story by allowing you to tell it yourself. It reminds me (and maybe it’s a dedication to) of an earlier poem by Ted Hughs, Lovesong:

...Her looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbows
He gripped her hard so that life
Should not drag her from that moment
He wanted all future to cease
He wanted to topple with his arms round her
Or everlasting or whatever there was
Her embrace was an immense press
To print him into her bones
His smiles were the garrets of a fairy place
Where the real world would never come
Her smiles were spider bites
So he would lie still till she felt hungry
His word were occupying armies
Her laughs were an assasin's attempts
His looks were bullets daggers of revenge
Her glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets
His whispers were whips and jackboots
Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing...

I think we all get emotional about poetry that works for us; a poem can bring tears more easily then even a romcom and with far deeper reason. Emotion is something that can pass from writer to reader; one of the most important jobs of the writer, really. The thought that something I write might make a reader – far away and at another time – gasp, laugh, shudder or weep is an overwhelming thrill.

Karen chose a second poem to write about in her assignment commentary;  The Simple Truth by Philip Levane, the American poet laureate. She says...I couldn't fathom the first stanza. Then I read the second. From the sentence “Can you taste the words I'm saying?” my tear ducts and sinuses tingled and my arms erupted in goosebumps as I flashed back to the alcoholic suicide of my stepmother. I sobbed out long and loud then, making the connection between the simple flavour of boiled salted buttery potatoes and the simple truth of a lost loved one and words never shared.

Now, Levane is not a poet I’d read for a long time, so I Googled The Simple Truth. Here it is:

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

This is a magnificent poem. Levane brushes with darkness; just subtle hints the dark furrows…and… gathering for the night… There is humility about him, as he recognizes the astuteness of the woman who sells him his potatoes, and the beauty of simple fare. But the magic is the transformation of all that, the laying out for the reader of the simple truth that comes to him through these experiences. I also loved the shape of the poem; the way its stanzas are joined by the two words Some things. The poet reminds me a bit of Walt Whitman himself, who often compared nature with his own though processes as in I saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.Whitman is in awe of the solitary nature of the oak and takes home a sprig of its leaves:

...Yet it remains as a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

I was so impressed with Karen’s discovery of Levane’s poetry, I searched from more to enjoy
and came across Call it Music and Gin. You can hear Levane reading his work at

 Thank you Karen, you’ve widened my enjoyment of American poetry and given me a lot to think of!

 walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,

when suddenly he took my left hand in his

two hands to tell me it all worked out

for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,

maybe he knew how little time was left,

maybe that day he was just worn down

by my questions about Parker. To him Bird

was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note

going out forever on the breath of genius

which now I hear soaring above my own breath

Sunday, 20 January 2013

New Publishing Deal for Nina Milton

I’m delighted to announce that my first adult crime fiction novel, In the Moors, will be published in late 2013. 

This will be the first Sabbie Dare Mystery - but hopefully not the last. Set in Somerset, the story revolves around Sabbie Dare, a 28 year old Shamanic therapist, who lives in Bridgwater. She sometimes wonders what she’s doing in this ancient market town, offering complementary therapies and living with a low carbon footprint – she’s a city girl at heart, a party animal of mixed race and lost parentage.

Sabbie wakes up one morning from a nightmare to find it’s come true – a fox has raided her chickens – she supplements her earnings with a bit of self-sufficiency. She’s hoping that new boyfriend Ivan will help her repair the hen house, but he’s more keen on shooting the fox.

She’s expecting a client at 10am, but a Detective Sergeant arrives instead. Reynold Buckley is seems to be the archetypal humourless, if slightly maverick policeman, and their relationship begins like an upmarket cocktail – bitter and full of ice, but with a sparkler fizzing at the edge. He clearly thinks her profession is ‘mumbo jumbo’, and assumes she will tell him everything she knows about her client, Cliff Houghton, who is at present being questioned at Bridgewater Police station. Sabbie, refuses, but is shocked to find Cliff has been arrested in relation to the discovery of a child’s body buried in the wilds of the Somerset Moors. 

So shocked, in fact, that Sabbie decides to fight for Cliff’s innocence...even though investigating this dreadful crime will lead her into life-threatening danger...

I’ve been offered a contract with a very established publisher, Llewellyn Worldwide. To quote their mission statement;  

For more than 100 years, Llewellyn has published books on metaphysics, astrology, magic, spirituality, alternative healing, and associated new age topics. 

Llewellyn’s fiction imprint Midnight Ink, publishes a wide range of books on crime, and I’m now lucky enough to be one of their writers. I’m very proud of this development in my writing career and excited to think that everyone will soon be able to read about one of my personal favourite characters, Sabbie Dare; she’s got a big personality and a lovely nature, but underneath there is a darkness that sometimes overwhelms her.

Go to to learn more about Midnight Ink, and watch out for developments with my own book here on my blog!

Monday, 7 January 2013

A. S. Byatt; Quote of the month

My latest short stories are in here

A.S. Byatt wrote...A good short story knows its ending before it is begun, it is always working towards its end”… This may sound impossible to live up to, but she softens the blow a little… “A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end…

I’ve always loved Byatt’s novels, grabbing each one as they come out. She has an understanding of humanity that grounds them, and an understanding of the wider world and the human condition that exults them. But on my last birthday, someone kindly gave me The Little Black Book of Stories. I’d never encountered Byatt’s short stories before (maybe I hadn’t been paying attention), but I loved these; they were brilliant microcosms, a little spooky, funny in places yet very dark, and written with a slanted clarity that was haunting. As a writer of short stories myself, I loved the way she creates hers. Writing, as I do, between 3000 and 5000 or so words, it becomes crucial that I think of an individual story as whole. I try to sum up what I’m trying to say, and find the core of each story as I write it. At some stage, I somehow manage to transform an amorphous idea into a story. Don’t always know how this happens, and at the beginning of each new story, I can hardly believe I managed it before! At that stage, at the beginning, I find it useful to think of ‘unity’. In The Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt’s story final story is called The Pink Ribbon. I didn’t like this title, and I think, having read the rest of the stories and loved them, I skimmed it a bit. But recently I went back to it, and found its meaning, and was blown away. 

I could see how Byatt’s comments I requote above which talk about rhythm ‘reaching ahead’ is very clearly demonstrated in this story. I feel that rhythm is connected to the voice you wish to use to tell your story, the structure you’ve chosen and the language and style you use, as well as the depth of character you achieve and in The Pink Ribbon, A.S. Byatt initiates a powerful rhythm in her first scene, with memory, intense description and intimate action. Her language uses the rhythm of repetition, especially of colour and pronouns and names. Her structure, at this stage, is to create long paragraphs by using indirect, rather than direct speech, a pattern which is only broken at the very end of this extract, which is the opening passage of the story:

He held the mass of hair – long, coarse, iron-grey – over his left hand, and brushed it firmly and vigorously with his right. It was greasy to the touch, despite the effort he and Mrs Bright had put into washing it. He used an old-fashioned brush, with black bristles in a soft, coral-coloured rubber pad, in a lacquered black frame. He brushed and brushed. Mrs Bright’s black face smiled approval. Mrs Bright would have liked him to call her Deanna, which was her name, but he could not. It would have showed a lack of respect, and he respected and needed Mrs Bright. And the name had inappropriate associations, nothing to do with a massively overweight Jamaican home held. He separated the hair deftly into three strips. Mrs Bright remarked, as she frequently remarked, that it was very strong hair, it must have been lovely when Mado was young. ‘Maddy, Mad Modo,’ said the person in the wing-chair in a kind of growl. She was staring at the television screen, which was dead and grey and sprinkled with dust particles. Her face was dimly reflected in it, a heavy grey face with an angry mouth and dark eye-caverns. James began to plait the hair, pulling it tightly into a long serpent. He said, as he often said, that hairs thickened with age, they got stronger. Hairs on the nostrils, hairs on the heavy chin, grasses on a rock-face.
Mrs Bright, who knew the answer, asked what colour it had been, and was told that it had been fine, and coal black. Blacker than yours, said James Ennis to Deanna Bright. Black as night. He combed and twisted. So deft, he was, for a man, indeed for anyone, said Mrs Bright. I was trained to do it form myself, said James. In the Air Force, in the War. He came to the tail of the plait, and twisted an elastic band round it, three times. The woman in the chair winced and wriggled. James patted her shoulder.  She was wearing a towelling gown, pinned with a nappy-pin for safety. It was white, which, although it showed ever mark, was convenient to boil, in case of accidents, which happened constantly, of every description.
Mrs Bright watched James with approval, as he came to the end of the hair dressing. The pinning up of the fat coil, the precise insertion of thick steel hairpins. And finally the attachment of the crisp pink ribbon. A really pretty pink ribbon. A sweet colour, fresh. A lovely colour, she said, as she always said.
‘Yes,’ said James.
‘You are a real kind man,’ said Deanna Bright. The person in the chair plucked at the ribbon.
‘No love,’ said Deanna Bright. ‘Have this.’ She handed her a silk scarf, which Mado fingered dubiously. ‘They like to touch soft things. I give then a lot of soft toys...

Byatt continues in this slow, absorbing rhythm relating James’ day through the first third of this almost 10,000 word story. James goes out, while Mrs Bright cares for Madeleine, and purchases a soft toy for his wife, although it’s clear that the choice is not quite kind; its name is Dipsy and it is...slightly  bilious green... 
It is then that Byatt introduces a new rhythm, and a catalyst to the story. Finally, evening comes, Mado is in bed, and James is quietly reading Virgil.  A late night ring on the bell takes James to the door, where a young girl in distress is standing, begging for escape from a pursuer. Against his better judgement, he lets her in:

She was wearing black shiny sandals with very high, slender heels. Her toenails were painted scarlet. Her legs were young and long. She wore a kind of flimsy scarlet silk shift, slit up the thigh, with narrow shoulder straps. It was a style the younger James would have identified as ‘tarty’ but he was observant, he knew that everyone now dressed in ways he would have thought as tarty, but expected to be treated with respect. Her hands, holding her head, were long and slender, like her feet, and the nails were also pointed red. Her face was hidden by a mass of fine black hair, which was escaping out of a knot on the crown of her head...

James offers her water, then whisky, and it is at this point that Mado appears, cowering and gibbering...‘Get that out of here,’ said Mado. ‘That’s a wicked witch that means bad for us all  –’

Once his wife is back in bed, the girl asks him about Dipsy:

‘She likes red,’ said the visitor, picking up Dipsy. ‘You could have got the red one, Po, but you got this bile-coloured one.’
‘I did it for myself,’ he said. ‘A harmless act of violence. It does no hurt.’
The young woman swung away from the chair, leaving doll and ribbon in place. 
‘Dipsy’s a daft word,’ she said.
‘Po’s even nastier,’ he said defensively. ‘Potties it means. Pot-bellies.’
‘The river Po is the River Eridanus, that goes down to the Underworld. A magical river. You could have got her Po.’
‘What is your name?’ he asked, as though it followed, a little drunk, mesmerised by the flow of the red silk as she paced. 
‘Dido. I call myself Dido, anyhow. I’m an orphan. I cast my family off and names with it. I like Dido. I must go now.’
‘I’ll come down with you, and make sure the coast is clear.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’
He wished she would, but knew she wouldn’t.

However, the reader might guess that she will return – the word magical has already been used. They might already be wondering if this girl is James’ imagination, or a phantasm from an earlier time in his married life. They will have spotted the fact the girl’s hair is black, and coiled on the top of her head. James thinks that the name she gave herself had come out of his own reading, along with her knowledge of the classics. Dido was Queen of Carthage, and died for love of a man. 

Later, he’s visited by a memory of Madeleine as a young girl, unpinning her hair... She had always demonstrated a sturdy, even shocking, absence of the normal feminine reticences, or modesty, or even anxiety. She loved her own body, and he worshipped it... 

James and Mado become unsettled, and when Dido arrives a second time, bearing a gift of a red Po, he’d been in the act of torturing Dipsy with his wife’s hairpins. They begin to talk, and it’s clear that Dido can recall his wife’s memories, which releases further memories in James’ mind. Finally he confronts his own truth:
I know what you are telling me,’ said James. ‘You must know I’ve thought about it.’
‘You don’t do it, because you would be set free yourself, and you think that would be wrong. But you don’t think of her, or you would know what she wants. What I want.’...

The story is left satisfyingly open. After Dido leaves, Mado and James watch Teletubbies on the TV...They lay down to sleep like nodding ninepins, each snoring his or her differentiated snore. Nighttime, Teletubbies said in the mid-Atlantic motherly voice in the cathode tubing. Night, said mad Mado, more and more angrily, night, night, night, night, night. 
‘Come to bed,’ said James, very gently, adjusting the pink ribbon. 
‘Night,’ said Mado.
‘Just for a rest, for a while,’ said James.

This line ends The Pink Ribbon from Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt (Chatto & Windus, London, 2003) But it didn’t end it for me. Like all good short stories, it is a ‘moment of illumination’ - i.e. a very short moment that illuminates a longer, and grander drama. Byatt leaves us with so many alternatives; 
Did James invent Mado entirely, so he could justify what he wants to do, that is end his wife’s sad life? 
Or did Mado construct her, to bring James to the conclusion he couldn’t reach without her help?
Or is Mado real, a sort of ‘genuine angel’ (we’ve all met them, haven’t we) - someone who turns up in our lives just when we need then to.

I think Byatt wanted us to decide this for ourselves, and to think deeply about what she is ‘telling slant’ (to quote another great woman writer, Emily Dickenson), and be able to raise the disturbing questions about ending the life of someone who cannot ask you to do this for them. Euthanasia can only take place when the person wishing to die has left instructions, or give direct instructions. Even so, in Britain, this act still stands as murder or manslaughter, but in the case of the sort of killing we might be looking at in The Pink Ribbon, by law this certainly wouldn’t be considered euthanasia. So Byatt brings in a massive subject, one that is debated hotly in general society, and encapsulates it into a tight little story that takes only a few days to run out by concentrating on just a few, brilliantly-drawn characters. 

I think this is genius.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Winning Writing Competitions...and losing them...

My good friend Joanna Ezekiel, has just won the Ryedale Poetry Competition 2012. It t really deserved to win. Beautiful imagery and the rhythm is wonderful, with surprising little rhymes. 

Here is her poem


I’ll want my navy frock that sweeps the knee,

vermilion lipstick, brogues; today, you wait

in dishwater civvies, whistle, scuff gravel

at a corner baked with salt and rubble

where, underfoot, streets are thin gravy:

blood, energy, khaki have streaked into the sea.

When I read your telegram, I remembered

how caramel bubbles, then hardens.

Bittersoft edges burn my fingers.

Now I plunge through daylight’s

sifted sugars, towards you: rinse out

the unwound clock, cobwebs,

simmering next-door-neighbours,

chicken bones that boil too soon.

This is what the judge, Andy Humphrey, had to say it;
'Homecoming, the First Prize winner in the Adults’ competition, is a particularly clever poem because it never actually tells the reader what it is really about. It relies entirely on imagery to tell the story behind the poem. The poet paints a domestic scene: cobwebs, caramel, a lady putting on lipstick. An unwound clock, thin gravy and chicken bones suggest a time of austerity, perhaps wartime; references to telegrams, blood, khaki and “civvies” lead the reader to the realisation that the lady in the poem is waiting for her husband or lover to come back from military service. Every image in the poem hints at the emotions that the narrator is keeping bottled up; but at the end, the reader is left guessing, just like the narrator is.'

Huge congratulations, Joanna. Meanwhile, I have a cautionary tale to tell about sending out stories. Sometimes I send out a story before I'm absolutely sure the previous submission is a rejection; I'm just impatient...and I don't keep notes as well as I should...because I'm an airhead, probably. So I've just found that the story I've been contracted to have appear in the next Chuffedbuff Books anthology (You, Me, and a little bit of We), had also won first prize in the Rubery Short Story competition.  I had the nasty shock of receiving a plaque and and cheque for £500 in the post, which of course, I had to send back, because I had contravened the rules of the competition. 

I've learnt my lesson. I will be far more careful with my submissions in future...but honestly, one just never thinks one will actually win, does one?

The anthology from Chuffedbuff Books will be out soon, but In the meantime, the start of the story is included on my Published Stories Page.