Friday, 26 June 2015


Over the last few weeks I've been reading and listening to stories on MacGuffin; a new self-publishing platform for short stories and poetry. Produced by Comma Press, it is a kind of literary jukebox and free to use. Available at the moment in beta version, the full launch will be happening soon.

There's already a large amount of content on MacGuffin, with the opportunity for writers to add their work to the site. It is brilliant to see classic works by writers such as Chekhov and Joyce sitting alongside acclaimed contemporary writers like David Constantine and Zoe Lambert, as well as new voices and emerging writers.

All the stories are available as both text and audio. Users are encouraged to interact, rating the text and audio pieces and adding hashtags to help other users find and categorise the content. Using the keyword search is a fascinating way to bring up a whole spectrum of work and encourages users to perhaps read something by writers they may not have come across before.

Each story also has an analytical breakdown showing how many readers and listeners have rated it, where they are located and if/at what point they dropped out. This might sound a bit brutal but actually it isn't. There is no explicit judgement attached to this data and so it enables readers and writers to look at writing subjectively. If there are correlations in the reader dropout data does this mean the story needs to be strengthened at certain points, edited and made more arresting or actually does this confirm that this narrative demands a bit more from the reader?

My favourite MacGuffin discovery? A brilliant writer that I was previously unfamiliar with; 'Something for Nothing' by Larissa Boehning, translated from German by Lyn Marven, is evocative and transfixing. MacGuffin is the perfect forum for discovering writers, whether well established and just new to the reader, like Boehning was for me, or new voices on the literary scene to take note of and champion.

Have a go with the beta version here. Read the The Guardian review of MacGuffin here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Barrow Rapture

The Barrow Rapture is an interactive story told through text and illustration. The protagonist is a soldier returning to Barrow with a guilty burden and a pocketful of unanswered letters.

'That was when you started to feel as if there might have been something else wrong; something beyond the wrongness that was putrefying inside you, and that you had travelled to Barrow to try and excise, one way or the other. Something external, as well as internal.'

The Barrow Rapture by Beth Ward

The artists behind The Barrow Rapture are Curious Tales writers Jenn Ashworth, Brian Baker, Tom Fletcher and artist Beth Ward and it is funded by Lancaster University.

The reader decides where to go at the end of each short section, in a sense collaborating with the three writers and artist exploring text, image, story and place to construct the narrative. It's a bit like a more beautifully wrought, grown up version of the Choose Your Own Adventures books you might have read as a child. Does this comparison sound disparaging? I hope not - I loved those books - despite the naff writing and the risk of getting stuck in an endless narrative loop, the second person voice and the opportunity to choose safe or subversive directions for the protagonist made the Choose Your Own Adventure stories come alive. They felt three dimensional, a web rather than a narrow thread. The Barrow Rapture does this too - artfully, poignantly, elegantly - and so much more.

The setting, Barrow, becomes a character in its own right. There is beauty and resonance in familiar places, an aesthetic delight in the mundane or downright ugly  - multi storey carparks, working men's clubs, rundown terraces... I find these liminal, abandoned or unexplored places fascinating and this narrative takes the reader right through them, offering choices at each juncture. Where do you want to go next? The caravan park? The cinema? The town hall clock tower? It is like exploring a map in the most wonderful way.

In real life, we don't think or talk in straight lines; often we skip back and forward, one thought or idea connecting with another, creating a network. Conventional fiction (if you'll excuse that ham-fisted term), even writing that plays with timescale and linearity, often relies on a structure of cause and effect. One incident leads directly onto another. In reality, human motivations are usually influenced by several factors; some that we are aware of, some we might be able to discern if we stop and think about it, and others that are completely hidden from our understanding. The Barrow Rapture explores this multifaceted approach in both its narrative bites, eschewing plot progression for a more organic reflective tone, and its flexible structure, allowing the reader to navigate the story according to their choices. The reader is intrinsically part of the tale; not just simplistically selecting the next location but in the questioning process of why we make the decisions we make. The story is going to be subtly different for each reader both during the interaction and also how they reflect back on it afterwards.

Thematically, however, I think the experience will sing for every reader of loss, death, memory, searching and love. It will also resonate with anyone who has revisited somewhere that they once knew intimately - how memory and reality are often out of kilter; at once completely familiar and foreign. Although the context is vastly different, it made me think of George Bowling revisiting his childhood places in Orwell's Coming Up For Air. It also reminded me of forums such as this one, where urban explorers upload images of abandoned places. The Barrow landscape is saturated with emotions; living memories running through each natural curve and architectural detail.

Beth Ward captures this in her haunting, dreamlike artwork; the dark kind of dream that you only recall hours after waking. The sort of dream that takes a familiar moment, a train station underpass or a narrowing hallway, and twists it.

 My only critisicm would be that the story is over too soon. Hungry for more, I went back to the beginning and explored all the routes I could have taken. But I would happily have navigated the first time for a lot longer.

To read more about the experiment see the Curious Tales page here, and a blog post about the project from Jenn Ashworth here.