Book review – The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon

Artificial-Anatomy-of-Parks-coverTallulah Park is the walking personification of the phrase “Could do better.” Aged 21, she’s working a dead-end job, living in a depressing bedsit, and has few if any friends.

Then she receives the news that her estranged father Edward has had a heart attack, and finds herself no longer able to steer clear of the family she’s been avoiding since fleeing boarding school six years before. “I’ve lived like an orphan since I left home,” she says as her father’s life hangs in the balance, “I’ve been completely alone, not counting the others in the hostel, and it’s never bothered me too much until now.”

It’s the “until now” that hints at the heart-wrenchingly vulnerable side to her personality, with an exterior, as one character puts it, “as hard as nails,” but with “a soft centre.” This is a girl who’s learnt to put up barriers, to snap first, ask questions later, even to the detriment of her own happiness.

As the novel unfolds, author Kat Gordon introduces us to Tallie’s sweeter childhood self,  interweaving the versions of her protagonist until the two stories gradually come together to reveal what went wrong in Tallie’s life, and how it could, potentially, come right again.

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How to write a short story collection

Knit graffiti in Arnos Vale cr Judy DarleyToday’s guest post comes from writer KM Elkes and offers an insight into the art of stringing a short story collection together.

Telling people you are working on a novel is easy enough. People ‘get’ novels. Even the least reader-ish person has probably read a couple, either because they were forced to at school or because they were part of Generation Harry Potter.

But a short story collection? Not so much.

Maybe that’s because short story collections are relatively unfamiliar – not so surprising when you consider bookshops force readers into an Indiana Jones-style quest to find them. They lurk unassumingly, a diaspora spread among distant bookcases, waiting for the day when someone has the bright idea to give them a shelf of their own.

But there’s a deeper issue too – even those in the biz, writers and publishers, are sometimes ignorant of what a short story collection really is. Which makes putting one together feel like a Sisyphean task.

Think about it. There’s plenty of advice out there on what makes a good novel – how to write it, pace it, plot it, sell it. But I’ve yet to Google a go-to guide on what constitutes a fantastic collection.

Most short story writers are busy just trying to make each story the best we can. The emotional investment is quick, deep and hard, the art tricky.  It’s only when you come to the point of putting your own collection together that you realise it’s not simply a matter of polishing up your bestest, nicest stories and pressing Send.

What does a short story collection involve? What does it need?

Well, in my opinion, many of the same things that characterise a good short story – unity of purpose and theme.

I’m not talking specifically about some clunky link (hey, watchya know, they’re all characters from the same street!) but something less obvious, spider silk thin at times, but there, somehow.

Runaway by Alice MunroLook at some wonderful collections – Alice Munro’s Runaway; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Nathan Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges; Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan. Whether or not the author planned it, there is a thread that runs through these books, located in place, or in an overarching theme, in the kind of lives they tackle and in that most intangible thing: voice.

Regardless of point of view, tense, sympathetic or abhorrent characters, regardless of timeframe or timeline, great authors have a voice, a way of storytelling that leaves an imprint on their collection.

Think of George Saunders at the frayed edge of satire, or the rich gravy of Saul Bellow’s language, the wry humour of Kevin Barry and Edith Pearlman’s precise concision – all give a shape that is the author’s own.

What can those of us putting our debut collection learn from this?

Being ruthless is necessary, especially with our earlier work. Yes they might have won prizes or been shortlisted for decent competitions, but do these stories fit with our latest work, where a more individual voice is starting to form? Perhaps it’s time for that tricky chat: “Thanks guys, we had fun, but I’ve moved on. It’s not you, it’s me.”

Tough love is also needed for the stories that are up to scratch, but simply don’t fit in. That cracking three thousand worder, which someone said reminded them of Jorge Luis Borges, probably won’t fit if you are building a reputation as the Cheever of Milton Keynes.

Even then, this process throws up fresh dilemmas. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know that the next story you write won’t be the one to top out the collection, the crowning glory that will pull it all together?

This is particularly tricky for me, and, I suspect, many other short story writers because I don’t (I can’t) write with a collection in mind. Story writing for me is a weird alchemy, when character, voice, theme and tone come together through some process that has little to do with the analytical part of my brain.

So time is important, to allow things to accrete. Maybe the key to creating a short story collection is the key to all writing – keep going, get better at it, read stories by people who are better than you, learn from them, accept your failures, don’t get carried away with your successes, rinse and repeat.

Eventually you may begin to ‘feel’ a group of stories huddling together. You sense a deeper resonance coming through, common themes being explored. You think – and this is as important as anything else – of a title that makes things tick.

Good advice is hard to come by, but fresh perspectives (note the plural), might help you push to keep creating new material or re-think existing work.

All of this points towards a simple fact – creating a short story collection is also about growing up as a writer, reaching a maturity which enables you to fathom how stories hang together, the palette you work with, the themes which gnaw at you and how that is not such a ‘bad thing’.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you. For now.

Author KM ElkesAbout the author

KM Elkes is an author, journalist and travel writer. He has won the Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was one of the winners of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer short story prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize 2015. His work has appeared in various anthologies and won prizes at Words With Jam, Momaya Review, Writing WM, Bath Short Story Award, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He blogs at www.kmelkes.co.uk and tweets via @mysmalltales.

KM Elkes will be sharing more of his writing expertise at free flash fiction workshops taking place at Bristol Central Library for National Flash Fiction Day (this Saturday!), along with NFFD director Calum Kerr and prize-winning author KM Elkes. The workshops take place from 1.30-4.30pm. KM is also taking part in An Evening of Flash Fiction, from 6pm at Foyles Bookstore Bristol, along with a number of other writers, including Zoe GilbertKevlin HenneySarah Hilary, Freya Morris, Grace Palmer, Jonathan Pinnock, and, well, me.

A flash flood this Saturday

Flood cr Judy DarleyMy story On The Rocks is getting another outing this week as part of National Flash Fiction Day’s FlashFlood event.

National Flash Fiction Day is on  Saturday 27th June this year, and the organisers plan to flood the internet with flash-fictions. I’m pleased to say that my story ‘On the Rocks’ will be published on the FlashFlood journal blog at around 9am (BST) on 27th June 2015.

Stories will be posted at flashfloodjournal.blogspot.co.uk throughout National Flash-Fiction Day, so do pop by to take a look!

Writing prompt – orange segments

Orange segments cr Judy DarleyFlavour, along with smell, is one of the most evocative sense. For this week’s story, poem or work of art, start with the simple idea of focusing on a particular taste, such as a firm, tangy sweet segment of orange, and see where it leads you.

If you create something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Wear Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo broochHow stunning is this wry little Frida Kahlo brooch? It’s created by Jennie Walker of www.alittle-vintage.blogspot.com and I think it’s irresistible!

“The Frida brooches are very special – they’re one of my absolute favourite things to make, I love seeing how the faces turn out and what expression they might have,” says Jennie, who makes them from vintage fabrics, felted wool rug, little beads and many, many tiny stitches. “The free motion sewing really makes them one of a kind, I don’t program a pattern into the sewing machine. They are all done free hand.”

The brooches are available from Jennie’s Etsy store, where you can also find her other fabulous creations.

 

Lifework with Yurim Gough

yurim-gough-korean-ceramic-artist-two-women-angle-viewWho says drawings need to be done on paper or canvas? Korean artist Yurim Gough has found clay to be the perfect medium, much to her own surprise.

“It was always my dream to be an artist, but in my own country I never even touched clay,” says the former fashion designer, who moved to Bristol eight years ago in search of a new creative direction.

In fashion design Yurim experimented with a multitude of materials, but says it took five years of exploring “new mediums for my art, such as wood-carving, before I found that the feeling of clay told me that it was my thing to use. In fashion design I took great satisfaction from realising my imagination, and the attraction of clay is in being able to achieve that same satisfaction.”

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Since early childhood, Yurim has “always been drawing. I was looking for a long time for what I could do that would make me the most happy, and since the drawing had always done this, and now the clay did too, it just happened that I brought these two things together.”

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It was a visit to “a reclusive local pebble beach” that helped realisation dawn. “I was playing with the stones, drawing on them with a pencil for fun and making up stories.”

Yurim is entirely self-taught, developing her skills through “concentration and repetition. I went to lots of life drawing sessions on and off for a period of almost 20 years.”

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To create the ceramic bowls and other objects that she likes to draw on, she explains, “I hand-mold the pieces, then they are bisque fired, then I draw in front of a live model with ceramic pencil.”

Following this, the artwork is glazed then fired. “I then apply gold lustre and fire again.”

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Through combining her ceramics with her beloved drawing, Yurim says she had something of a breakthrough. “I have never rubbed anything out when life drawing, because there is not enough time,” she says. “One day I was drawing and made a mistake and in frustration, I crossed strong lines through the attempt. It made me feel so free, I suddenly realised that this was me, and carried on. I also found that drawing like this, I could focus in a way I had not been able to before.”

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The result is a sketchy, vibrant style crammed with vitality. Her figures are gorgeous but imperfect, just as we are – in fact, their stunning beauty lies in their imperfections.

Being in front of a living, breathing model has an impact too.

“I love the human energy giving me craziness, sadness, happiness and other feelings – it is different every time.”

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They fizz within their stillness, seemingly holding in emotions evident in their posture, and where their tensions lie, with Yurim’s lines emphasising this with powerful understatement.

The restrictions imposed by a life class drives her productivity, that, “and wanting see what the result will be. Living in my country, and working in fashion, I never had any time. Coming to Bristol things slowed down and I realised what I could do with limited time. In life drawing, you have a fixed time limit for the pose but you have to slow down and see what comes out.”

Find more of Yurim’s work at yurimgough.com and shop.theotherartfair.com/artists/yurim-gough.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing prompt – fishing

Fishing competition cr Judy DarleyI spotted these people fishing the day away on a recent visit to Clevedon, near Bristol. I’m always intrigued by the satisfaction fisher folk seem to gain from the quietness and the water and skies they gaze into. Part of me wonders if the catch is secondary – just the excuse.

What do you think these people are really up to? What are their aims for the day, opposed to what they tell their families? Are they really competing to catch the biggest fish? And, even more intriguing, is that actually a hula hoop in the lower lefthand corner?

Write a story puzzling it out.

If you turn this into a short story, or know the real answers to these questions, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. You could see your words published on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – Walking Away by Simon Armitage

Walking Home by Simon Armitage“There’s a sameness to this kind of walking, with the corner of my right eye always full of the blueness of the water and my left always full of the greenness of the land.”

So writes Simon Armitage shortly into the follow-up to his troubadour travelogue Walking Home, in which he hiked the Pennine Way. In Walking Away, Simon is again travelling without a penny to ease his way, instead relying on his poems to secure bed and board, plus the funds for the occasional ice cream, by reading his work to enthralled and occasionally bemused gatherings between Minehead and The Scilly Isles.

It’s a pleasingly audacious idea – a challenge to himself to discover whether or not poetry has a relevance in the present day. Almost every evening he gives a reading, in part to see who will attend, and after each event a large sock is left out which attendees are invited to drop donations into, not all of which turn out to be monetary.

Armitage is a hugely likeable fellow, with a keen eye for the gentle absurdities of the world, making each step of the way a delight. He notices things many of us might overlook, so that his commentary is peppered with oddities such as “wilfully quirky signposting”, lanes “so upholstered with spongy luminous green moss it has the appearance of a sea bed or coral reef” and, as the tide rolls in, moored boats in the bay “stirring and righting themselves like horses after sleep.”

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Reading at Novel Nights

Novel Nights March 2015Very excited to announce that I’ll be reading from my novel Ghosts in the Eaves at Novel Nights on Thursday 25th June.

I’m part of the first half, along with authors Christie Cluett, JNick Edwards, Susie Nott-Blower and Steph Minns.

In the second half, literary agent Kate Johnson from Wolf Literary Services (based in New York and Bristol!) will be present to answer questions about submissions, pitching or anything else you want to find out about gaining representation in the literary field.

The literary night takes place from 8-10pm at The Lansdown, Clifton. Hope to see you there!