Ever said the wrong thing?

We can’t get it right all the time can we? Especially not me. Nothing I say makes much sense until after about the third rewrite. But there are certain phrases in the English language which we’re likely to get wrong more than others apparently.

A list came out a few years back of the most misused phrases by English speakers in the UK. Here it is below.

1) A damp squid (a damp squib)

2) On tender hooks (on tenter hooks)

3) Nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)

4) Champing at the bit (chomping at the bit)

5) A mute point (a moot point)

6) One foul swoop (one fell swoop)

7) All that glitters is not gold (all that glisters is not gold)

8) Adverse to (averse to)

9) Batting down the hatches (batten down the hatches)

10) Find a penny pick it up (find a pin pick it up)

A friend of mine did ‘damp squid’ only recently – and I could quite see where she was coming from – it just makes more sense. Squib is an archaic word but apparently was a type of detonating charge – like a firework – for use in mining. It set off the blast. So if you got a damp one – no explosion – just disappointment and a bunch of people standing around in hard-hats saying: “Well – that was a bit of a damp squib wasn’t it?”

Personally I’m sure I’m guilty of champing at the bit – chomping sounds like you’ve got it wrong. I also used to say find a penny until I was corrected repeatedly by wiser counsel. But I would still feel more lucky finding money than a pin.

Surely nobody really says ‘Nip it in the butt’ though do they?


Old school exercise books – that’s the first place I used to write fiction – overwrought poems and scraps of prose which never went anywhere much. Then later on I used stationery pilfered from work – A4 sheets of paper which I kept in bundles in supermarket carrier bags.

I’ve written on the odd beermat too when I was younger – scrawling what I thought were witty and incisive prose-poems, which magically transformed themselves by the morning light into drunken gibberish.

I first started buying notebooks because I needed to keep material together properly rather than have it floating around the place where I couldn’t find it when I needed it. By now the notes in these books were the first drafts of proper stories which would later make it onto a file on the computer ready for rewriting into something which made sense. Those first notebooks were the cheapest I could find, gaudy looking tat from pound shops, spiral bound with pages which kept falling out.

Buying the cheapest available was more than just a way of saving money – it was a kind of inverted snobbery – I thought fledging writers who bought expensive notebooks were deluding themselves into believing that the posh book made their writing better. Not me though, oh no, I would rather have pages which fell out and got lost.

These days though, I’m a proper notebook snob. Moleskine I use. They are the preposterously expensive ones which have their own rack in stationary shops. They come with a leaflet full of PR copy which attempts to convince you that they are worth the fancy price tag because Ernest Hemmingway and Bruce Chatwin used to use them when they were adventuring their way round the globe, scribbling down bon mots. I suppose using them is the writing equivalent of buying a certain brand of football boots because Messi wears them.

In my defence I would say – they are the right shape, the right size, they’re light and portable. They feel right and look right. You can use them on the bus without drawing attention to yourself. But yes – they are a tenner a pop – bare minimum – I know, you could get a book with words in for that – you could get my book, when it’s out. Though admittedly that wouldn’t be much use if you wanted to write in it as you’d have to painstakingly Tippex out all the words in it first.

How did I go from the cheapest book available to one of the more expensive? Well it wasn’t an overnight sea-change in behaviour – it came gradually, over a period of years. But I suppose what sparked it was the realisation that, though having a posh notebook definitely doesn’t make you a better writer, having a rubbish one doesn’t make you a better writer either.

My favourite word

What’s my favourite word? I know I asked you that question – but it’s a tough one to answer.

They’re all good aren’t they – words? I mean there’s none of them which hasn’t got its place

If pressed though I would go with pandemonium. Well, today anyway. It’s a real carnival of a word that one – for me it conjures up rowdiness and chaos, but in a cartoonish way – like a circus ring full of clowns.

It has a curious derivation. The word was made up by John Milton for use in Paradise Lost. He created it by clicking together a couple of pieces of ancient Greek – like Lego bricks.

Literally it means ‘all the demons’ which gives it a darker feel than the one it has today where the sound it makes when it comes out of your mouth has trumped its original diabolical intentions.

So there’s mine – now let’s have some of yours?

Words, words, words

There’s a word in the English language for the smell of fresh rain on dry ground, and that word is petrichor. Imagine there being a word for that – isn’t English a remarkable thing?

I love a good word me – but the richness of the language can make  it a heady brew – and often the trick with writing is not what you put in but what you leave out.

I remember in my most recent book The Pick Up Artist – which I aim to have published after Song of the Sea God, at one point in the narrative I used the word melisma.

Melisma, as you may know, is the singing style, much beloved by the late Whitney Houston, in which there is much quavering and warbling around each syllable. Turn on any of the search for a star shows like X Factor or The Voice and you’ll be treated to a whole basinful of melisma. I’d used the word for comic effect to describe someone’s distraught wail and was very pleased with myself.

But both friends who I had asked to read the book and advise me on it struck a firm red line through melisma and then each of them stuck a grumpy note in the margin saying it would not do at all.

The problem wasn’t the word itself but the context in which it was used. The book’s about a young man’s inept search for love. It’s told in the third person – but it’s what’s technically known as a close third – so the narrative voice quite closely matches the moods and attitudes of our hero – and to some extent, gets into his head.

And he’s not the sort of character to be tossing words like melisma around. So it had to go.

What’s more – within a few pages I was at it again. Threnody this time – which is a hymn for the dead. Again I was pleased with myself – again I got a red line and a bollocking – and again my readers were quite correct.  Nice word – but in the context quite wrong.

So sometimes the best word isn’t the most elaborate – but the most apt.

Still, I’m sold on the beauty of words for their own sake and can’t get enough of them. What’s your favourite word?

What’s in a name?

I’ve been having a discussion recently with friends on my facebook page http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100003664421822 about what I should call myself on my book cover. A lot of the other authors whose books are published by Skylight Press have remarkable and eyecatching names whereas Chris Hill is, not to put too finer point on it, a bit dull.

Should I jazz things up a bit? Come up with a strange and wonderful nom de plume which will get me noticed? The facebook crew had plenty of suggestions – everything from customizing what I’ve got in a kind of ‘pimp my name’ style to junking my current, and given, moniker and coming up with something altogether exotic instead.

While thinking it through I stuck my name in Google to see what would come up. Have you ever done that?

It turns out there’s a whole world of me out there. There’s a Chris Hill for all occasions. I’m a soul DJ and a vintage car hire specialist, a basketball player and a Pentecostal Preacher from Denver Colorado.

I play the double bass for Jamie Cullum, I play Rugby League for Leigh Centurions. I’m white Chris Hills and black Chris Hills and young ones and older ones. There seem to be as many female Chris Hills out there as male ones – an actress from Belfast, a head-mistress from Bristol. I’m photographers and engineers and university professors.

There’s a whole world of Chris Hills – which would seem like another good reason for changing my name to something more distinctive.

But despite all that I’ve decided to stick with what I’ve got and have Chris Hill on my book cover.

I would rather like to add an author to the world of Chris Hills who are out there already – to make my mark in what is admittedly, already a crowded field. I reackon there’s room for one more.

The other reason I have for sticking with the name Chris Hill for my book cover is because it’s mine. It might not be very exciting, but it’s me. And if you are going to have a book published then, in the end, you want your own name on the cover.

Commonwealth Short Story Prize

A pleasant piece of news this week – one of my stories has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2012. It’s always a pleasure to have work noticed in this way and I’m certainly grateful to the judges for the mention.

The prize is an unusual one in that, as the name suggests, it’s open to those countries which form part of the Commonwealth. There’s two parts to it – the first is a regional competition, and I understand the UK falls into a ‘Europe and Canada’ region. I’m guessing it’s only the bits of Europe which form part of the Commonwealth – so that would be the UK and, erm, Gibraltar probably. This year all four shortlisted stories from Europe and Canada are from the UK – the Canadians must have been concentrating on novels, as they are better represented in the book prize.

So the regional judges will choose a winner from the shortlist of four, one of which is mine, and that winner will get a prize. Then it’s on to the second stage where the winner from our region is judged against the other winners from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific to win the first prize.

Chair of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Bernardine Evaristo said, “The high quality and variety of international stories on this shortlist is fantastic. To read them is to be immersed in a wide range of cultures and situations, and to be persuaded by superbly-crafted narrative voices, different ways of seeing and being, suspenseful dilemmas and intensely-rendered emotional experiences.”

My story is called Like a Heart Maybe, but Cold, it’s about an adolescent boy whose parents seem to be on the brink of a divorce. It’s unusual for one of my stories as there’s not much humour in there. I usually chuck in a few jokes to lighten the load and many of my favourite authors are those who mix serious content with a humourous narrative voice.

But short stories are a place for experiment, at least for me anyway, and when I wrote this one I was feeling that maybe I should try to do without the jokes – just to make sure they were not becoming too much of a prop.

It will be interesting to see how it does. I don’t hold out any great hopes – there’s a decent prize on offer so I would expect some serious competition – and, in this case, that competition really does come from all over the world.

The full shortlist, and indeed the shortlist for the accompanying book prize, can be seen here http://tinyurl.com/coa6d9s

What my book is about

Since the reason I’m here is to advertise the existence of my forthcoming book I thought I’d better tell you what it’s about – and the most simple way to do that is to show you what the publisher says about it. This is the blurb written by the guys at Skylight Press to describe Song of the Sea God:


Along with the strange flotsam of the sea, the aptly named John Love drifts in on the grey North Sea tide to grace a remote island off the English coast. The stranger, both bedazzling and unnerving, effects an immediate messianic glow upon the bladder-wracked community of odds and sods, making disciples of the most unlikely characters. Chris Hill’s visionary and delightfully bizarre novel reads like the gospel for a neophyte religion spawning in the sea foam among strange goings-on. It examines how destiny is the result of the collective will, especially among tribal folk who forever yearn to conform to ancient cants and creeds.

Song of the Sea God comes from both the ancient incantations of history and mythology and the awkward cadences of the modern age. The plot is riddled with humour and pathos, which will delight fans of the contemporary British literary novel.  With rich symbolism and delicious twists of irony, Hill takes the reader on a microcosmic wild ride in a story told by a mute that starts in a pub called The Vengeance.  Along the way the reader is treated to a feast of psychotic musings that somehow manages to include miracles, Tip Rats, plastic ducks, the life of pebbles, and a Diary of Stools.

ISBN: 978-1-908011-55-8

They make it sound quite good I think. I’m particularly glad they have recognised the humour in the book in that description of it, as well as the darkness. I was going for a mix of both I would say.

If you are interested in Skylight, and would like to see more about who they are and what they publish, you could do worse than take a look at their website here: http://www.skylightpress.co.uk/


Hello world!

Hi – this is my first post – and it’s a curious feeling, writing something and pinging it out into the ether. In the past when I’ve written things – for newspapers, story anthologies and so on, I’ve more or less known who I was writing for – who the audience is. This feels different in so much as it is for everyone and no-one.

In the past it has never occurred to me to write a blog – or be on facebook or on twitter. I’m doing all those things now. It’s basically because I want to do the best I can for my novel – Song of the Sea God – which is due out in Summer 2012 through the independent publisher Skylight Press. I feel I owe it to the publishers, who have had faith in me and my work, to do the best I can to promote the book. But I also feel I owe it to the book. It’s a piece of work I believe in and which I think deserves to be read. I certainly don’t think that about everything I write!

As I say, I started taking part in these social media activities because I had a specific reason for doing so – but I am finding out that there are lots of spin off benefits. On facebook, for example, I’m chatting to people I haven’t spoken to in years – old friends who I lost touch with because that’s what happens in life but who it’s a great pleasure to catch up with again. I’m also meeting new people – there and on twitter, who are writers, or who care about writing, and that’s a great pleasure too.