How to make the unreal real

The Time Machine by H G WellsWriters are often advised to write what they know. Over time this has become prescriptive: write only what you know. If you are a white, middle-aged man, you can write only from the perspective of a white, middle-aged man.

And yet it’s as reading that we gain access to the interiors of other people’s lived experiences. Why shouldn’t the same be true of writing? After all, isn’t a good imagination one of the key qualifiers for becoming a writer?

Often this requires sufficient research to make our portrayal as honest and respectful as possible. Occasionally it warrants immense leaps of creativity to invent and evoke an experience, and carry our readers along with us for the ride. Surely, our raison d’être is to lead the way on flights of fancy!

H.G. Wells achieved this with ease when he needed to supplement his income as a freelance journalist by writing and selling fiction (now, there’s a flight of fancy!) in 1895.

Ricocheting from an idea already being debated by students at the Royal College of Science that Time represented a fourth dimension, Wells published The Time Machine in 1895. After a rather ponderous start, this novella powers into a dizzy story that seems to draw from impressions of sea-sicknesses, fevered dreams and inebriation.

“The night came like the turning out of a lamp, and in another moment came tomorrow. The laboratory grew faint and hazy, then fainter and ever fainter. Tomorrow night came black, then day again, night again, day again, faster and faster still. An eddying murmur filled my ears, and a strange, dumb confusedness descended on my mind.”

Continue reading

Writing prompt – snow

Snow on shelter by Judy DarleyI love this photo of a shelter covered in snow. It feels like a metaphor for so many things. For one thing, aside from the clumps of snow above, the manmade tunnel leads towards, or away from, beautiful blue skies.

For another, as shelters go, this one is pretty pathetic, mainly due to the fact that its main purpose is not to shelter pedestrians but to prevent us jumping onto the railway tracks below. Any yet, while rain and wind slip through, snow is suspended, at least until it thaws.

What possible narratives does it seed in your mind?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I may publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Curtis Brown Creative courses for aspiring writers

Notebook and pen cr Judy DarleyAs the new year gets underway, why not rev up your writing skills? Curtis Brown Creative, the creative-writing school run by Curtis Brown Literary Agency, is inviting applications for an array of writing courses aimed at aspiring novelists, with London-based and an online options to choose between.

There are also lower-priced online ‘taster’ courses to give you the chance to work out if this is the right approach for you, or if you’re not ready to take on the full time and financial commitment required for their longer courses.

Learn to edit and pitch your novel, or get to the end of that all-important first draft, get insights and hands-on help from successful authors and experienced editors. The creative writing school was launched in 2011 and remains the only one run by a literary agency.

Upcoming courses include the chance to learn to writing and edit short fiction with award-winning short story-writer Cynan Jones, starting on 30th January, and a six-month online novel writing course with authors Lisa O’Donnell and Andre Michael Hurley, starting on 17th February. Deadlines for applying for these particular courses are 27th January for the former and 26th January for the latter.

“I’m proud to say that over the past few years, many of our alumni have gained deals with major publishers,” says Curtis Brown Director Anna Davis. “Some of our former students have written international bestsellers, others have won prizes and several more have gained representation with literary agents and are working to edit their novels for publication. Yet more are still working away, often with the support of their former Curtis Brown Creative cohort. It’s great to see how many of our alumni stay closely in touch with their student groups long after their courses end.– have seen more than fifteen students secure book deals with major publishers and several others find representation.”

Find full details of upcoming courses here.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw attention to? Send me an email at JudyDarley(@)ICloud(dot)com.

Writing prompt – fate

Pebble man by Judy DarleyImagine this strange scenario – amid the pebbles embedded in the top of a low wall, you spy the painted face of a man. It just so happens that this is the visage of a man who will steal the heart of someone close to your protagonist.

Is he to be trusted, or not? How did his face come to be painted onto that pebble? What baggage does he bring with him? Is your character’s friend or sibling or parent or child destined for joy or grief? Flex your imagination and use your literary powers to decide their fate.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I may publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

My new role as flash fiction editor at Reflex Press

Sears Tower bird by Judy DarleyI’m excited to share the news that I’ve been appointed Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Press.

I’ll be managing all the flash fiction submissions submitted for publication on the publishing house’s website. I’ve already received some fantastic submissions and am eagerly anticipating plenty of other mini masterpieces!

I want to read work that moves me, startles me, and, most of all, makes me think: ‘Wish I’d written that!’ A skilful flash fiction writer can condense a whole novel into a paragraph, and leave you feeling you’ve absorbed a whole novel in a few moments. I’m hoping to discover entire worlds coiled into a few carefully chosen words.

Find full details here: https://www.reflex.press/introducing-our-new-flash-fiction-editor-judy-darley/ 

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2020 Short Story Competition

Beautiful skies, Victoria Park cr Judy DarleyThis annual competition is one of my favourites on the literary calendar. There’s no theme for you to base your story on – all you have to do is make sure you’re registered with the website www.writersandartists.co.uk, that the subject line of your email reads ‘W&A Short Story Competition 2020‘ and that you send it to waybcompetitions@bloomsbury.com.

Your story must be no more than 2,000 words long. The closing date for entries is midnight on 13th February 2019.

The winner of the competition – along with two runners-up – will be announced on the W&A blog pages in March 2020.

Entry is free, but don’t forget to register before submitting your story. Continue reading

Writing prompt – shrine

Shrine by Judy Darley2I encountered this shrine in a Thai jungle.

Consider the scene of devastation. Who might have placed the shrine here, and why? What were they guarding against, and what could have resulted in this disarray? What spirits might linger here?

Weave a myth of good versus evil or ancient values versus new, and see where you end up.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonI have a stubborn streak that makes me shy from the books that hit mainstream esteem. Part of me wants to seek out the underdogs that will really benefit from the boost of a review. However, My Name Is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman whose childhood placed her squarely in the camp of underdog, with a level of poverty that Elizabeth Strout paints with visceral skill, rendering it utterly relatable without oiling the hinges with sentimentality.

Throughout the novel we are entirely within Lucy’s head, seeing her experiences through her own eyes. At times her memory is uncertain, in the way that all childhood memories are to a degree, but because she doesn’t view her early years as pitiful, neither do we.

We join Lucy during an extended stay in a New York hospital following an operation to have her appendix removed. Lucy’s long-estranged mother arrives to keep her company, and the pair drift through anecdotes from the past, while Lucy observes her mother with a fond yet wary eyes. It’s an interesting set up, made more complex as Strout parkours into Lucy’s future, where she is taking a writing class and the novel, or rather Lucy’s memoir, is taking shaping. The opening line forewarns of this chronological fluidity: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”

Strout is an agile and fearless writer, freerunning between past, present and future in a way that sharpens our understanding of Lucy’s nature, as well as the backdrop of her life in Amgash, Illinois and New York at the start of the Aids epidemic, when yellow stickers were placed on the hospital doors of patients suffering from the virus, and outside “gaunt and bony men continued to walk by.”

We learn that Lucy is the youngest of three children in a family once so poor that for a time they lived in a garage, that she was aware from an early age of her differences compared to the other children (“We were outcasts”) and minds this less than her older sister does, and that as soon as she can read she takes refuge in fiction.

We know that her parents punish their children for crimes such as lying or wasting food, but that they, particularly the mother, also on occasion hit out “impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our blotchy skin and sullen dispositions.”

Yet she feels a great fondness for that childhood and her family. “I missed my mother, I missed my father, I suddenly missed the stark tree n the cornfield of my youth, I missed this all so deeply and terribly.”

Lucy, like any of us, is complex, contrary and swirled through with emotions built on experiences, deprivations and desires. She sees her good fortune in having moved on from the meanness of her beginnings, but argues, if only in her head, with those who believe she came from nothing: “No one in this world comes from nothing.”

This is a novel that will deepen your empathy for others, while impressing on you the value of compassion and forgiveness, as demonstrated by Lucy. It’s a story that is relatable at the most innate levels, and one that will give you hope that however dire things seems, a bit of courage and obstinacy might just carry you through to something brighter.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin Books and is available to buy here.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Enter the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize 2020

Bud. Photo by Judy DarleyThe Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize 2020 invites entries from women over the age of 21 who have written a novel “that marries literary merit with unputdownability.”

The closing date for the competition is 12 noon on Friday 17th January 2020.

The judges say they’re equally open to literary fiction and genre fiction, as well as to young adult fiction and children, providing they are primarily word-based.

Your submission must be previously unpublished, and you must not have had other full-length novels published. However, having short stories, poetry, non-fiction or picture books published previously does not exclude you.

To be considered, you need to submit the first 40-50 pages of the novel via the online form and a three to five-page synopsis of the remainder.

The entry fee is £12. Sponsored entries for low income writers are available.

All shortlisted entrants be offered a one-to-one consultation, editorial feedback and advice on the marketability of their work from PFD literary agency.

The 2020 winner will receive a cash prize of £1,500.

Shortlisted applicants will also be invited to the prize-giving drinks reception and awards ceremony where they will have the chance to meet. Industry representatives.

For full details, visit www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fictionprize/how-to-enter, and make sure you follow the competition Terms and Conditions.

Before entering, read these tips.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw attention to? Send me an email at JudyDarley(@)ICloud(dot)com.

Writerly resolutions for 2020

Spring crocus cr Judy DarleyI publish this post every year, but I find it always fills me with hope and determination. As we edge into the greyest month of the year and a brand new decade, this feels like the ideal time to take stock and see what’s working or not working in your creative life.

But this I mean not necessarily whether you’re creating and selling more, but, rather, whether the moments you can find to write, paint or whatever continue to satisfy you, and whether you feel you’re making progress, whatever that may mean to you.

Before continuing, I must confess, I rarely make new year’s resolutions as such. To me, they seem at best like a form of procrastination (‘oh, I’ll start doing that in Jan’), at worst a way of setting yourself up to fail. But it is a good time to look at how your life is going and see if there’s anything you need to change to stay on or get back on track.

It’s also a fab way to lay the foundations for a new habit that will pay dividends in years to come. Here are three that have served me well in the past.

1. Write whenever you can find the time

In 2012 I set myself the challenge of writing at least one short story every month, which is something I did without fail every month until 2017. I found it a great way to keep those creative muscles taut and ready for action 🙂

But it was also a demand I couldn’t keep up with in 2017, as family calamities and new work commitments ate into my time. With writing such an ingrained part of my everyday life, however, I discovered that whenever I did find time to write creatively, whether that was a flash, a poem, a vignette, or simply editing a chapter of a novel in progress, I emerged feeling brighter and lighter and a little bit sunnier.

It’s a fuel that keeps me going even when I don’t have the chance to spend as much time dreaming up new characters and worlds as I like. Writing sustains me in a way I’ve only gradually come to understand.

2. Submit regularly

A few years before that I set about ensuring I submitted at least four works of creative writing somewhere each month, which I also continue. The challenge was flexible enough not to cause undue stress (some months I submit all four pieces in the same week then forget all about them for the rest of the month, other months I’ll find I’ve submitted eight by day 30), and also ensures that whenever I receive a rejection, part of me breathes a quiet sigh of relief – now I can send that piece off elsewhere to fulfil part of the current month’s quota.

It helps me stay positive, because for every rejection, there’s a healthy handful of tales still out there dreaming big dreams. And when I get an acceptance, it’s a lovely surprise, because by continually sending out creative pieces I’m never quite clear what’s out there, and therefore not too focused on any one thing.

Which brings me to the third resolution.

3. Stay organised

Around the same time I started sending out four and more stories each month, I set up a simple spreadsheet to help me keep track of them all.

This helps my writing in two ways, firstly, by ensuring I know what I’ve sent where and whether they’ve responded, and secondly, by distancing me from the process emotionally.

By transforming all these acts of hope into columns and rows, I save myself from heartache. Each time a email or post out a piece of writing, I enter its name into the spreadsheet along with the details of where I’ve sent it and the date. Then, when it comes back, I colour that row according to the response – one colour for ‘no thanks’, one for ‘no, but positive feedback’ and one for ‘yes please!’

It all provides an immense sense of productivity, without too much effort at all, which in turn helps me stay motivated. And I’m happy to say that over the years the colour dedicated to ‘yes please’ is infiltrating the worksheets more and more.

4. and 5. Finally, pledge simply to celebrate even the smallest literary successes, and relish writing for its own purpose. Lovely.

What works for you?

If you’ve made a resolution to have your writing read more widely this year, you might be interested to know that SkyLightRain.com welcomes input from other writers. I’m always happy to receive suggestions for reviews and features, as well as creative pieces produced in response to writing prompts.

Every piece published includes an author pic and bio, with links so that people can find out more about you.

If you want to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter @JudyDarley, or send me an email at judydarley(at)iCloud.com.