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In a Van with Chris Fielden

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Christopher Fielden, who is based in Bristol in the United Kingdom, is a prolific writer and blogger and a drummer to boot. He organizes the biennial To Hull and Back humour writing contest and fastidiously maintains a long list of magazines and writing contests around the world for the benefit of writers. Let’s get to know what keeps him running.

T & T: Hello Chris. You’ve done an incredible job in hosting the highly successful To Hull and Back Contest for years. When did you start it? What was the public response in the beginning? We want to know more about your contest.

Chris: Hi Rajib. I started running To Hull And Back in 2013. Because the top prize is a bit crazy, I did wonder if it would be successful, but I wanted to offer something different from all the other writing competitions out there. I’m pleased to say the competition was well received. When it closed for submission in 2014, the inaugural To Hull And Back competition received 94 entries. Since then, it has grown every time it’s been run. In 2019, the contest received 582 entries. This means I’ve been able to increase the prize pot every year and now offer 20 cash prizes. If your readers are interested in learning more about To Hull And Back, they can find a full history and read all the statistics regarding how it has grown here and here.

T & T: Many aspiring writers have benefited from visiting your site while magazine editors get a lot of traffic through you. What prompted you to begin such a venture, collecting details about innumerable magazines?

Chris: When I launched my website back in 2011, I planned to use it as a place to showcase my short stories. As no one had heard of me, the website didn’t attract many readers. At the time, I was entering a lot of competitions and had a large spreadsheet of publishing opportunities so I could plan where to send my stories. I thought other writers might find it useful, so I published it on the website. Over a 6 month period, the page became very popular and started ranking well on Google. This meant I started to receive a lot of visitors to the website and more people were reading my stories. Because of this, I decided to develop the site further and add more resources to it. Now, the website attracts over 300,000 visits a year. You can learn more about how and why I developed the site by reading this blog post, written for Moz.

T & T: New writers, after facing rejection from established literary magazines, turn to smaller magazines who usually do not pay authors. Now, which one is a better choice for the writer— getting some exposure for their works from smaller magazines or will it be money first?

Chris: I think it depends on the writer and the stage they are at in their writing career. If you are new to writing and still developing your style and voice, submitting to publications that don’t pay can allow you to gain valuable experience (working with editors and seeing your work in print), exposure and gain credits for your writing CV. Therefore, unpaid opportunities do have their place and can boost a writer’s confidence, helping them to go onto bigger and better things. Once you become more established as a writer, you should probably concentrate on publications that offer payments. I rarely give my stories away for free anymore and concentrate on paid opportunities. It’s my job, so I have to. Of course there are exceptions – charity publications, educational publications, publications with large readerships that help me gain exposure, publications run by friends and editors who have helped me with my career etc. But I often say no to unpaid publication offers now. I think it is important to place value on what you create. Would anyone undertake their day job free of charge if they were asked to? No. So why should established writers, musicians and other artists? I feel that some people, particularly in the business world, do not value creativity. It’s a shame and something that needs addressing.

T & T: What should new literary magazines do to increase their visibility to the public and become a household brand? How long it usually takes for a magazine to gain public faith?

Chris: They should get themselves listed on my website J There is no real answer to that question. It depends on the magazine, what the editors want to achieve with it and how much work they are prepared to put in. What I can say is that it is hard work to build an audience and it takes time. If you start a magazine or website, don’t expect it to be successful straight away. Work hard and do everything you can to promote it. Then it will grow.

T & T: What is the general tendency of writers? Do they trust online magazines or prefer print magazines instead? Which one would be your choice?

Chris: This is subjective really. I’m a bit old school in that respect, preferring to read physical magazines and books, but many readers prefer digital. As a writer, I simply make sure that I give readers what they want and publish my work across as many mediums as possible – print, digital, audio etc. That way, I reach more people and gain maximum exposure for my work. I advise other writers to do the same. Put the reader first.

T & T: Twist & Twain is holding its first story writing contest. What do you think about it? Any suggestions?

Chris: Competitions are the same as magazines. They take time to grow and become respected – you have to be in it for the long haul. I think you (Twist & Twain) are doing the right thing with your competition. You offer a generous cash prize with a realistic entry fee (not too expensive). You also offer winning writers publication in your magazine. This is fantastic – a great way to start.

T &T : Britain is the home of some of the world’s finest English writers— Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton and more. Who are the authors presently trending in Britain?

Chris: This article, published in The Guardian, tells you about last year’s bestselling books in the UK. You’ll see that David Walliams has done particularly well. He is a popular children’s author. The top seller is a recipe book. Non-fiction does seem to do well in the UK.

T & T: The UK has also become the home of some Indian writers for a long time now like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth and Nirad C. Chaudhuri at one time. How are Indian writers doing in Britain? Do Britons read stuff written by Indian writers?

Chris: Yes, readers in the UK do read works by writers of all nationalities. Diversity is talked about a lot here, which is good, I think, although we have some way to go. Brexit hasn’t helped. There seems to be a rise in racist behavior and right wing views, which saddens me. That said, I still believe that most of the population here are open minded, good people. That is certainly true of the writing community. You can learn more about British Asian authors by reading this DESIblitz article, the largest and multi-award-winning UK based web magazine.

T & T: What is the condition of the Indian community in the UK? It is said that Indians are mostly engaged in business there? The Hinduja brothers and Lakshmi N. Mittal  and Lord Swraj Paul are one of the richest people in the UK.

Chris: Indians are the largest ethnic minority in the UK. About one half of the Indians in Great Britain are of Punjabi origin. (I got that info from a search on Google). As well as being known for business, Indian food is really popular in the UK. There are thousands of Indian restaurants here, and most of our supermarkets and large stores stock Indian food. You sometimes find Indian supermarkets in the cities too. It’s big business. So I think most British people would probably be more familiar with Indian food than the business side of things, just because it plays a larger part in theireveryday lives.

T & T: Many new writers, after facing rejection, opt for vanity publishers or self-publishing. Do you think this is a good idea?

Chris: It depends on the individual and what they want. Vanity publishing has its pros and cons. I usually refer people to this excellent website that gives an honest and realistic overview of vanity publishing. It highlights the positive and negative aspects of the industry in detail, so writers can research and decide if it is suitable for them and what they want to achieve.

T & T: Don’t you feel that writers, rather than holding day jobs, should stay at home instead and focus on writing only? The more time they are at home, the more they can dream and write. Is it not so?

Chris: It depends on the individual and their personal circumstances. Every writer is different and they have to find what works for them. Personally, I like to have other projects on the go alongside my writing – that inspires me and actually means I write more, even if I have less time. Counter intuitive, I know, but it works for me J

T & T: Writers love hoarding books. Do you have a personal library?

Chris: Sadly, no. I have a large bookshelf, but you couldn’t really call it a library. I would love to have one, though. Maybe in the future J

T & T: Was it your dream to become a writer or was there something else in your mind?

Chris: I simply enjoy being creative. As long as I’m creating something, I feel happy. I guess I’m fortunate because I have writing and music in my life, so enjoy a wide variety of creative projects. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a professional drummer in a rock band. I was fortunate enough to pursue that dream. As I’ve become older, I write more fiction. Now both these passions sit side by side in my life. I’m very lucky.

T & T: Many writers began their literary career by writing poems. How did you take your first steps as a writer?

Chris: I completed a correspondence writing course and then wrote a novel. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best thing to do. However, I learnt a lot from the process and self-published the book (it’s called Wicked Game) back in 2010. After that I concentrated on short stories as they are a lot easier to finish. I also feel I’m better at writing shorter tales. It’s the medium I feel most comfortable with and have enjoyed the most success with.

T & T: Have you read any works by Indian writers?

Chris: Via the To Hull And Back competition and the flash fiction writing challenges I run, I have read stories by writers from all over the world, including India. So yes J

T & T: Every writer has somebody favorite, somebody who influenced their writing in some way. Who are your favorite writers?

Chris: There are so many… Clive Barker, David Gemmell, Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, Roald Dahl, Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. Le Guin to name but a few. I love humour and fantasy. So I tend to be drawn to writers in those genres. Crystal Jeans and John Holland are exceptional short story writers too. They are lesser known, but have both won the To Hull And Back competition.

T & T: Writers need writers. Do you have author friends? How do they help you become a better writer?

Chris: I’m fortunate to have many writing friends. I’m a member of Stokes Croft Writers in Bristol and Clockhouse London Writers. SCW is a critique group, so we all read and review each other’s work. I believe this is a great way of improving your writing. You learn just as much from giving constructive criticism as you do from receiving it. So I’m a firm advocate of writing groups as I think they can help writers develop. My publishing success rate improved greatly after I joined SCW.

T & T: Do you get Writers’ Block now and then? Or can you write on and on?

Chris: I’m fortunate – I don’t suffer from writer’s block. All that stops me from writing is time and the frame of mind I’m in. I find that if I remove all distractions, I quickly enter a creative headspace and am able to write. I have a mobile writing office (a camper van) and when I want to write, I drive to a remote area, usually in the Welsh mountains. There is no phone signal in the mountains. No TV. No internet. So there is nothing else to do. I find that works for me. As with everything creative, it’s down to the individual. You just have to find what works best for you.

T & T: Has your writing journey been a smooth affair? Ever faced flak from your teachers or from any people during your writing process? Is your family supportive of you?

Chris: My friends and family have always been supportive of my creative endeavours, for which I am very grateful. I think everyone has days where they don’t think they’re good enough, or they face rejection, or receive some tough criticism. It’s just part of being a writer. Those that succeed are the ones who learn from every experience (good or bad) and refuse to give up. So no, it hasn’t been smooth, but I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

T & T: Talking about your family, maybe you would like to tell a little something about your background.Do your siblings share your passion?

Chris: My brother is a guitarist and we play in bands together. So yes, he is creative too, but concentrates on music. He’s also a talented artist and web designer. My grandfather was a professional pianist and trumpet player. My mother is a very accomplished flower arranger and has exhibited her work all over the UK and abroad. My father is very creative in business – he has a good understanding of people and how to make things work. So there is a lot of creativity in my family.

T & T: Do you have any particular goal or intention in writing a book, like, say, giving a message to the reader?

Chris: I simply hope to write stories that a reader will enjoy. Escapism is important and I like to use my imagination to try and provide that opportunity – to allow a reader to suspend their disbelief and become immersed in a story. As I write humour, I also hope to make them smile on occasion. And if my writing inspires a reader to go on and create something themselves, then I’m very happy.

T & T: What do you like to do in your free time? Do you love anything else other than writing?

Chris: As I mentioned before, I play the drums and gig a lot, all over the world. That takes up a lot of my spare time. I also enjoy films and spending time with friends and family. And food. I love food.

T & T: Which works best for you— typewriter, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

Chris: Computer. My handwriting is awful – I have trouble reading it. I can type a lot faster than I can write, so I tend to favour that. I also edit a lot, so working on a computer is essential for me. The first draft of a story is rarely good – it takes a lot of editing for me to get it to a publishable standard.

T & T: Who is the most famous person you have ever met?

Chris: I met John Carpenter once. He is the director of Halloween, The Thing and many other awesome movies. I met Philthy Animal Taylor too, the drummer from Motörhead.

T & T: You are planning to open a bookshop. Tell us about your preparations. How is the business in book shops doing in Britain in this age of smartphones and social media sites? Is it a good idea to start a publishing house nowadays?

Chris: Independent bookshops are making a comeback in the UK. More people seem to be supporting local high street communities and moving away from online retailers like Amazon and eBay. Of course, many people still use online shops for convenience and cheap prices, but there seems to be a move back towards printed books and shops at the moment, particularly from middle aged and older people. I’m currently looking at the viability of opening an independent bookshop in Bristol (UK) with my business partner, Christie. There are already a few bookshops in Bristol and they’re doing well. Bristol is quite a big city full of creativity and opportunity. We’re looking at areas where there aren’t any independent bookshops at present. We’re hoping to finish our research soon and start applying for business loans so we can move the project forward. I will let you know if it happens!

T & T: You are also a drummer. Maybe you would like to tell us something more about your musical career, the singers you adore. The Beatles is the only British group who was known even in villages in India. The Beatles were quite a phenomenon then.

Chris: I’ve always been a fan of rock music. I do like The Beatles and other bands from that era, like The Rolling Stones. My personal favourites are AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Motörhead. I play drums in lots of bands. The one I do the most work with at the moment is called Little Villains. I also gig regularly with a 1970s cover band called Three Day Week. You can find out a lot more about that in the music section of my website.

T & T: You have a passion for biking. You own a Harley Davidson bike. Do you ride often, travel long distances?

Chris: The weather in the UK isn’t great, especially in the winter, so I don’t ride as much as I’d like to. However, I do ride often and regularly go on biking trips to Europe. And of course, I ride to Hull every year, as part of the competition I run. So I do undertake long rides. I love it. Riding a motorbike clears my mind and gives me a real sense of freedom.

T & T: Tell us about the book event you recently attended and the studio you visited in LA.

Chris: I was in LA recording Little Villains’ third album. We were there for 3 weeks and recorded 30 songs. By chance, I saw a post on Facebook from an author I know via my website called Geoffrey Graves. I’d never met him in person, but saw that he was reading at an event at Book Soup, an independent bookshop on Sunset Strip. So I went along. I also met another UK writer at the event who I also knew via my website but had never met, called Jennifer Meyer. I guess the planets aligned on that day or something. It was great to attend the event and meet them.

T & T: How is your book Alternative Afterlives doing in the market?

Chris: It’s doing well, thank you. Alternative Afterlives was published by Victorina Press – an independent publisher based in the UK that follows the principles of biblio diversity – last November. It has already been awarded the title of ‘Award-Winning Finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2019 International Book Awards’, sponsored by American Book Fest. It’s also won Cover Wars, an award for book covers. I’m entering it into some more competitions at the moment, hoping that will gain the book some more exposure. The opportunities for short story collections are limited, but I’m doing all I can to work with the publisher and promote the book. If any of your readers are interested, they can learn a lot more about Alternative Afterlives here.

T & T: What motivated you to dabble in literature? Since when have you been writing?

Chris: I started playing around with stories as a child. I was lucky to have an inspirational English teacher called Miss Gudgeon. She always encouraged me. Later in life, a friend of mine was involved in a bad motorcycle accident. I used to visit him in hospital regularly. Due to the severity of his injuries, he was often asleep or unconscious. He had a crash diary next to his bed so that visitors could leave him messages if he wasn’t awake. I used to write stories for him in the diary. That got me back into writing regularly. I guess it proves that good things can come out of bad situations.

T & T: Where did you attend school and college? Did you attend any creative writing course?

Chris: I attended Slade Road Primary School in Portishead, near Bristol. Then I went to Gordano School for my secondary education, also in Portishead. I went to Filton College in Bristol after that and studied computing. But most of my education came from playing in the band. I like to say I went to the University of Rock and Roll, which basically means I’m not particularly academic. I did well at school, but didn’t really excel. I did a correspondence creative writing course with the Writers Bureau, which was excellent. Since then, I have learnt in a hands-on manner – by writing and engaging in the writing community. I feel that is the best way to learn – get out there and just do it.

T & T: Any regrets in life?

Chris: None.

T & T: And last, what is your take on Twist & Twain? Any suggestions for improvement?

Chris: I think you’re doing a great job with Twist & Twain, especially as it is a project of passion run with limited budgets. You do a lot for new writers, which is great. It would be nice if you could start doing a print version of the magazine and I hope you will move towards that in the future. But I appreciate that takes time. I wish you the very best of luck with your journey towards success

T & T : Thank you, Chris. It was a pleasure talking with you.


Rajib Das

Rajib Das is the Founder Editor of Twist & Twain

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