Biography – finding a new angle

Richmond bridge postcardIn today’s guest post, biographer Peter Fullagar discusses the value in finding a fresh focus when writing about a well-known figure.

Virginia Woolf is an icon. There can be no doubt about it. She fits into a variety of iconic categories; writer, feminist, mental health sufferer, sexual abuse survivor, LGBTQ supporter – the list is seemingly endless. So how does one attempt to look at Virginia, or rather RE:View her, from a different standpoint when there have been such outstanding biographies and commentaries on her life already?

Virginia Woolf.MS Thr 559 (21), Houghton Library, Harvard UniversityFind a minor point and turn it major

When I was asked by Aurora Metro Books to write a book about Virginia and her life in Richmond, I was thrilled. Having studied much of her work and read her diaries, it was going to be fascinating to delve into her life again. The book accompanies Aurora Metro’s Virginia Woolf Statue campaign to erect the first life-size bronze statue of Virginia in the UK. At the time of writing, there is only a blue plaque to state that Virginia had any connection to Richmond. Even the biographies demonstrate a cursory nod to Richmond and its influence.

In contrast, Virginia is almost synonymous with the Bloomsbury area of London and for being a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of writers, artists and intellectuals. To Woolf fans, it’s no secret that she loved living in the city of London and lived there for most of her life, with fifteen years of it spent at Tavistock Square. However, a quote from the film The Hours had always bothered me:

If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.

I wondered if this was really the reason why Virginia was not apparently celebrated in the town.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Do your research

During the hours of research in her letters and diaries, I could find no reference to the quote from The Hours, so I contacted the writer of the book it was adapted from, Michael Cunningham and also the screenwriter, Sir David Hare.

Sir David’s agent confirmed that the station scene, from which the quote comes from, was largely invented for the screen and in fact, Virginia had never uttered these words. This, then, was the angle which the book should explore. Richmond was integral to Virginia’s life and yet a lot of people didn’t even know that she had lived there. From 1915 to 1924, Virginia and her husband, Leonard, lived in the town, and it was here, I believe, where she truly found her career taking off and the foundation of the Hogarth Press and her short story Kew Gardens were instrumental to her success.

Find the evidence

Looking at somebody’s life from a different angle is nothing without the evidence to support your claims. Luckily for me, Virginia had been kind enough to detail the majority of her life through her diaries and letters, and, although it took a long time and a lot of post-it notes, I gradually found the evidence that she actually did like living in Richmond, contrary to the fictitious quote and popular belief. I think that one of the key things about my research is that Leonard Woolf had written volumes of autobiography, and here I was able to corroborate the evidence from what he had written.

Hogarth House B&W

Hogarth House, Richmond

Broaden your scope

It wasn’t going to be enough just to find a few quotes that basically said ‘I like living in Richmond’, I had to fully explore her life in the town, from demonstrating her feelings with what she did (such as helping to run the local Women’s Co-operative Guild), to her family and servants and the people who came to visit her. Thus, thirteen chapters were borne out of the research and a book was made.

Clinch your conclusion

Ultimately, there was one vital entry in Virginia’s diary that sealed the conclusion. On 9th January 1924, as Virginia and Leonard were preparing to leave Richmond, she wrote:

So I ought to be grateful to Richmond and Hogarth, and indeed, whether it’s my invincible optimism or not, I am grateful.

Peter FullagarAbout the author

Peter Fullagar is a former English teacher turned writer and editor. As well as Virginia Woolf in Richmond, he has a short story published in Tempest: An Anthology from Patrician Press, published March 2019 and two English language exam books with Express Publishing. He enjoys playing the piano, taking photographs and spending time with cats. He lives in Berkshire with his partner. Find Peter at www.peterjfullagar.co.uk and www.twitter.com/peterjfullagar

About the book

Drawing from Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters and other source material, Virginia Woolf in Richmond offers a glimpse of the author and her deep affection for Richmond, as well as the early days of the Hogarth Press, named after the Woolfs’ home in Richmond, and the many influences on Virginia’s mental health and literary output.

The biography recently had a second print run. The hardback version is available from www.aurorametro.com, with ebook versions available from various online stores.

The Virginia Woolf Statue Project continues to raise money after securing planning permission.

All photos in this post were supplied by Peter Fullagar.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Harnessing British Gothic and the New Weird

old_factory_dusty_large_space_emptiness_abandoned_outdoors_empty_oldToday’s guest post comes from author and Bristol Festival of Literature founder Jari Moate. His latest novel, Dragonfly, ventures into the territories of British Gothic and New Weird. Here he explains how he found himself harnessing these niche yet powerful genres.

Some writers are born to a genre, others reject it as formulaic. Some have genre thrust upon them. At its best, genre gives useful shapes and a ready-made audience.

For ages, ‘Literary Thriller’ was as far as I would go, after my first novel, Paradise Now, was tagged as such by a marketing chap at a London Book Fair depopulated by an Icelandic volcano – weird enough, already. I still think the tag is broadly right, though.

Dragonfly - cover art by Joe Burt, Tangent Books, 2018When fellow Tangent author Mike Manson told me that my novel Dragonfly was ‘the New Weird,’ I was puzzled at first, but I quickly took it, like a coat I’d been wearing suddenly had pockets where I needed them. Into those pockets I’ve since added ‘British Gothic’ and it feels like I can finally leave the house with somewhere to keep all my kit!

But why did it feel this way? And what is the New Weird? Isn’t it just a bit… weird? And what’s all this talk of ‘British’ Gothic?

So this is my very rough and ready, personal take on it.

Reorder the world

Have you ever woken from a nightmare, feeling scared to your bones but also renewed, refreshed even, as if the world has been ever so slightly reordered? The deck reshuffled? That, in essence, is the New Weird.

Examples of the genre include the work of China Miéville, beginning with Perdido Street Station and its mind-consuming moths, or his City And The City dramatised for TV in 2018 with its invisible wall no one must breach. Or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and its creepy harvesters. Or consider Neil Gaiman.

Some describe it as alt-reality or horror-related, eschewing happy or moral endings, although I’d argue its authors have profound morality.

old disused factory stairwell

For me, although I don’t write fully inside the genre, it’s about the freedom to express ideas. So if I say in Dragonfly that a derelict building is coming alive, then I really do want you to tingle with the thought that I mean it, those bricks have swallowed us, or if parrots fly out of derelict ground, it serves a purpose in the story where you, and I, have joined forces to discover something truer than by simply avoiding what ‘couldn’t happen’.

At the very least, it’s a form of playfulness – a reshuffling of the cards. And it feels different from Magical Realism because of its implied threat, or spiritual jeopardy.

Disobey all limits

My writing is often about disobedience – not just about breaking a few taboos, but something harder.

St Paul storm drain_original uploader was Brockert at English Wikipedia. Transferred to Wiki CommonsIn Dragonfly, a working man, a soldier known only as Marine P, returns from a war that’s propped up a world in which the suffering he witnesses – and causes – is crushing him. He can’t see how to disobey it but he knows that he must. He fails, at first, as he tragically obeys orders, wrecking his love-life and running aground on protest politics until he’s homeless and out of his mind.

But then his quest really begins, in a monstrous building with a cook who burns water, a lost map-maker, a heretic chaplain and a fake-tan villain whose sidekick dresses as Red-Nosed Rudolph… The pack is dealt for disobedience – against what people say is possible in life.

We all have times when we want to disobey the limits placed upon us, but how could my traumatised Marine P do this? Exploring this meant taking Dragonfly, beyond Realism. Within its military and political themes there had to be a grounding in some ‘facts’ but it’s not a documentary. It’s a metaphor.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said TS Elliott – so we’ll have a beer, watch the Great British Bake Off, bury ourselves in spreadsheets and bedsheets… or in a book that bends ‘reality’.

Adding my themes of love, addiction, madness and faith, I also needed Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” to hang from the ceiling by its fingernails – while trying not to lose the reader, nor, indeed, the plot. Weird indeed.

Make sure it rings true

All fiction is unreal. But it has to ring true. The fiction I enjoy most gets beneath the skin of life, into its soul, where we may find alarming and alluring shapes. The New Weird tag allows me to bend those shapes as far as they want to go. What decent writing must never do, though, is make those shapes feel untrue.

At times it hatches angels, at times monsters, and truest of all are the angel-monsters.

Which leads us to British Gothic. There are good reasons for a culture to bounce away from demons, mythical settings and so on. But what can result is a version of art using only the verifiable, as if fiction can ‘colour in’ what we might call the priestly religion of our times: the scientific method. But fiction refuses to be governed by those priests. As, I think, does the human soul.

walpole horace gothic 2nd edition

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto 1764 was the first novel to call itself “Gothic” pitching “imagination and improbability” against “a strict adherence to common life,” he said, summoning his ghosts from Shakespeare.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley book coverFor me, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the sharper attack, electrifying British readers against scientific hubris, ensuring the Gothic steamed into the mechanised scientism of the industrial age, its ghostly tales piling up, taking a leisured-class trip with Lewis Carroll’s  Alice in Wonderland before its apotheosis in Dracula by Bram Stoker.

After the real horrors of two World Wars, it feels quiet until Tolkien and non-Narnia CS Lewis refuel it, flying into the Transatlantic jet age with rediscovered Lovecraft, even Vonnegut and Burgess, cruising into Stephen King’s haunted hoovers and now Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, or the masterful Beast by Paul Kingsnorth.

What’s ‘British’ about the Gothic is its rootedness in shadows that need no translation to its natives, but which like the Queen or Chicken Tikka Masala, may need justification to others.

Embrace the Absurd

Talking of others, the Absurd has its impact. Borges, Calvino, Ionesco or Albert Camus spring to mind, especially La Peste: in a merciless universe, a doctor is unable to save a child in a city of rats flanked by a beast – the sea. French Gothic?

The Loney book coverIn Arto Paasilinna’s The Howling Miller, industrialism sparks absurdity in darkest Finland. Forest Gothic? It certainly disobeys.

When the science-priests seem unable to explain our souls to us, in our age of encircling tech and algorithms it feels ok to explore New Weird-leaning representations of who and where we are. Even Crime gets more fantastical, dipping its toe again in the mystery, Nosferatu-like. And Gothic gains energy as Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney steps out of a niche imprint to stand in the English mudflats abandoned by technology, calling to us to be bone-scared of all our absolutism, pagan and otherwise, while winning polite book awards.

If some disobedience is healthy, then perhaps allow the ghosts to step beyond the machine, to speculate and thrill, in new and weird revelations of the flesh beneath. And to ring true.

Jari Moate by Paul BullivantAbout the author

Bristol writer and founder of Bristol Festival of Literature, Jari Moate has been a finance worker, folk musician, soldier in Finland, an arranger of investment into buildings that create social good and, in his own words, “always a writer”. Previous work includes Paradise Now and stories such as This Brick In My Hand, published by various independent presses. His latest novel, Dragonfly, is available from Tangent Books.

Author pic by by Paul Bullivant.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Young adult fiction

Fallen apples cr Virginia BerginAuthor Virginia Bergin writes exquisite young adult fiction loaded with social context and thought-provoking conundrums. In an exclusive interview she explains how she created her latest novel Who Rules The World?, its protagonist River, and her life set 60 years from today.

How did you go about creating River’s world?

In Who Runs the World? almost everyone with at least one Y chromosome has been wiped out by a virus, 60 years before the story – told to you by River, a teenager –  begins.

But what would a world run by women look like?!

I felt under enormous pressure to ‘get it right’. It surely couldn’t be worse than the world we live in now – even if only because people had had the chance to start again! – but if it was significantly better, perhaps even a utopia . . . what would I be saying? That women are BETTER than men? I’ve lived all my life under ‘the patriarchy’, a world in which we’re given the message that men are ‘better’ than women. That’s not true or right – in any way, shape or form – and I had no wish to turn that lie on its head and repeat it.

And there were deeper problems: whatever kind of world I created, I realised I would be in danger of implying that women and men are somehow fundamentally cognitively different when, as far as I know, all current brain research pretty much indicates otherwise – or points at sex differences so minimal as to be irrelevant. And in any case, what would women and girls be like in a future in which our current ideas about gender – as expressed through, for example, family, society and media – have ceased to exist?

Ultimately, all these tricky issues set me free. I couldn’t ‘get it right’, so I didn’t have to! Rejecting any homogenous, universal idea of female, River’s world – which is only one tiny part of this future world – is a mish-mash. It’s a mish-mash of ideas I am interested in, and of conventions and practices that could conceivably have emerged from the global tragedy. That felt very important; whatever you think about this world run by women, there should be nothing in it that doesn’t make sense. It is a world that has arisen out of our world, in which people are still experimenting with new ways of living.

Forest path cr Virginia Bergin

Why was it important to you, and to the story, to create as genderless an environment as possible?

In many ways, there wasn’t much choice about it! As I saw it, with only women left in the wider world, current gender concepts would rapidly dissolve; binary notions of gender died along with most of the men. There is huge diversity in how women live, love (and look), but, most importantly, words like ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ have no real meaning for River beyond ‘person’ or ‘young person’ – until Mason, the boy in the story shows up. He has some shockingly sexist ideas about women (and men).

At times, it was almost impossible to write. It was so difficult to see through River’s eyes, to think through her mind. I had to imagine what a girl who had been raised without our ideas about what it means to be a girl would be like – and, crucially, what decisions she would make when confronted by Mason. Her upbringing enables her to think and act in the way that she does (though it’s still a struggle); the apparent absence of gender in her world is crucial to the plot, which centres, ultimately, on a question of justice.

I noticed that River had a really strong idea about what words relating to Man and Men meant – why do you think it was impossible to make her world entirely genderless?

I don’t think she has a really strong idea – at least not consciously – until Mason’s arrival. Up until that point, how the world was has been ancient history to her, and of very limited interest, but his behaviour is so strange, alarming and threatening to her, all the negative comments and ideas she has ever half-heard about Man and Men come flooding back. This was a deliberate choice in the story; I wanted River to live in a world where memories and experience of Man and Men linger on – and so are passed on to the generations that follow. This was what I wanted to explore: an apparently genderless world in which a gendered world still exists – in education, in culture, and most of all in human memory.

How did you go about testing this when she encountered her first boy?

River knows men and boys still exist, but she would never in her life expect to come across one! The males who escaped the virus were placed in remote Sanctuaries – the nearest one is hundreds of miles from River’s village – and to leave a Sanctuary means certain, rapid death. When she finds Mason in the woods, her astonishment is total. I imagined the thoughts that would go through her mind – ‘This cannot be. It simply cannot be’ – and how she would come to think the unthinkable. In the end, it’s not Mason’s physical appearance that leads her to conclude he is a boy, but his behaviour, and the things he says. There is a terrible match between what she has heard about Man and Men and how Mason behaves and speaks.

Forest cr Virginia Bergin

Why sixty years, specifically, in the future?

I suppose I could have set the story hundreds of years in the future, but I was more interested in what a girl who is almost – but not completely – free from our ‘now’ would do. River has never seen a man or boy before in her life, and nor has her mother (a politician; a respected and trusted Representative of the people) – but River’s Granmumma, Kate, has; she was just a teenager herself when the men and boys died. Kate’s memories, and those of the other Granmummas, play a huge role in the story . . . but her life experiences were (obviously) very different to River’s. I set it up this way to bring the generations into conflict, and to allow some of our current thinking about gender to be questioned from a very different perspective: River’s. She is the future.

What kind of fun did you have with the granmummas in the book, who are today’s teens?

The best fun!

If you’re a teen and you read this story and you identify with Kate: hurray! She’s you – she’s your feistiest, most apocalypse-surviving you – 60 years from now. In fact, most readers of all ages seem to love the Granmummas – and I do too. They’re great survivors, very resourceful people who have lived through an immense tragedy… and yet they really know how to grab joy(And also how to use a mobile phone).

I enjoyed the ecological issues you raised in the story. What made you decide to include this thread?

Hmmm . . . I suppose there was a link in my mind between the patriarchy and capitalism – the source of so much of our environmentally damaging behaviour. In River’s world, ‘The Earth comes first’ (Global Agreement No.1), but the damage has already been done: the climate is unpredictable, creating difficulties for humans and the rest of nature. I was drawn to the idea that the environment would take even longer to ‘forget’ the past than humans. It takes a long time to change and to heal.

Daisies cr Virginia Bergin

What do you hope your YA readers will take away from this book?

A sense of freedom!

Who Runs the World? is an invitation to imagine what a world beyond gender might look like. I’d love it so much if readers did that.

Why is YA fiction such a good arena for this kind of political ‘big questions’ novel?

I think YA fiction can be more honest and direct than non-YA lit. More open. And I think that’s because of the readers. We come up against all sorts of ‘big questions’ – and probably for the first time – when we’re teens, so it feels as though there’s a real hunger for those issues to be explored in literature.

And, for those of us who are no longer teens . . . we were all 15 once. I think, sometimes, it can be helpful to remember what it was like when so much of the world was new to us – and, in the case of Who Runs the World?, it’s precisely River’s being part of the younger generation that enables her to see the world in a new way . . . and I think that might be what we all need right now, isn’t it?

To see the world in a new way…

Virginia BerginAbout the author

Virginia Bergin’s debut YA novel The Rain (titled H2O in the US) was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in July 2014, and was followed by a sequel, The Storm, just seven months later in February 2015. Who Runs The World? came out in June 2017. Her agent is Louise Lamont at LBA Books. Virginia has a background in psychology and enjoys like science, archaeology, nature, art and walking. Find out more at www.virginiabergin.com

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Virginia Bergin.

Virginia will be on the panel of Stories of Strong Women, taking place at the Spielman Centre, Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bath Road, BS4 3EW on Friday 20th Oct, 1pm-3pm, as part of Bristol Festival of Literature.

Read my review of Who Rules The World?

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

How to confound categories

The winding mechanism on a lock gate by Kate Dunn

As authors we’re often asked to define our writing genre, but is this always the right option? Today’s guest post author, Kate Dunn, thinks not.

An article in the Kirkus Review about my new novel The Dragonfly mentioned that it is difficult to categorise, something that I was rather pleased about as I was keen not to bend the integrity of the story to fit into a particular niche.  It is an unusual tale.  Its two central character are a middle-aged man, Colin, and his nine-year-old French granddaughter Delphine, who are thrown together after the death of Delphine’s mother Charlotte.

To divert her from her sorrows, Colin decides to take her on an extended trip on his little day boat, the Dragonfly. Having these two protagonists at the heart of the novel already creates certain tensions – they come from different generations, genders and countries; they don’t even share a common language, so there is plenty of scope for conflict here and therefore the potential for drama.

Locate the emotional truth

I set myself more challenges than perhaps I meant to with these two. Neither Colin nor Delphine come from worlds which particularly chime with my own and I find it very difficult to account for their origins and evolution: they made themselves known to me.

What I’m trying to do in creating characters is to locate the emotional truth in each of them. That seems to dictate how they speak, how they think, how they behave and I guess there is a certain universality in the emotions all of us feel – the author’s job is to make these individual and particular to each of her characters. I’m slightly superstitious about analysing whatever it is that happens during this process, in case it stops working!

The book has two different locations: firstly, the achingly beautiful canals which wind through the Burgundy countryside in France. My husband and I are lucky enough to have a little river boat which we keep on the French waterways.

We have had rather more adventures then I would like: it turns out that as a sailor I have a very low threshold of panic and an over-active imagination – not good for boating but quite productive in terms of writing fiction, and I have certainly drawn upon some of our scrapes when plotting The Dragonfly.

Colin’s boat is based on one we saw moored in a marina – it was absolutely tiny and a middle-aged man and his granddaughter had been sailing on it together for thirty-six days.  That got me thinking…

The boat that inspired The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn

The boat that inspired The Dragonfly

Draw from unconventional experiences

The sub plot of the story takes place within the four walls of a prison cell in Paris where Colin’s son Michael is awaiting trial for the murder of Delphine’s mother, living in close proximity to his villainous cellmate Laroche while attempting to come to terms with recent tragic events.

One of my first jobs was working as a solicitor’s clerk and occasionally I had to visit prisoners on remand in Brixton prison – seeing the conditions back then had a huge impact on me and certainly informed the writing of these scenes.

My years spent in a particularly grim English boarding school helped as well: the place was spartan and institutional and the iron bedsteads (complete with horsehair mattresses) had Kent Summer Prison stencilled on them. It was a brutalising regime and left an indelible impression on me, which I think also may have influenced my portrayal of the dynamics at play in my Paris prison.

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnI wanted Colin and Delphine to begin their adventure together from opposite poles in order to create enough space for them to reach out to one another.  To increase their stress levels, I decided to place all of my characters in situations where space is the one thing that isn’t available to them:  Colin and Delphine are on a small boat, and Michael and Laroche are confined to a cell.

My hope was that in setting up these polarities within the story and putting my characters in a pressure-cooker situation, I would maximise the opportunities for narrative tension: there is plenty of warp and weft in the novel. There are all kinds of contrasts at play that might not have been available to me if I had confined myself strictly to one genre.  A thread of domestic violence runs through the book, posing some tricky questions: can a victim ever be complicit in what happens to them? Does the fact that somebody commits a violent act preclude them from being otherwise decent and well meaning?

These are issues I wanted to explore, without necessarily coming up with answers – I’ve left that to the reader to decide.  Although the central theme is serious, there is lots of humour in The Dragonfly, which provides another source of structural tension.  The fact that the story straddles different genres and can be read as a mystery or thriller, a family drama, a love story, an adventure full of mishap and misjudgement or even a road trip, is an expression of all the contrasts and contradictions that define it.

Kate-Dunn-writer-authorAbout the author

Kate Dunn comes from a long line of writers and actors: her great-great-grandfather Hugh Williams was a Welsh chartist who published revolutionary poetry, her grandfather, another Hugh Williams, was a celebrated film star and playwright, and she is the niece of the poet Hugo Williams and the actor Simon Williams.

Kate has had six books published, including novels Rebecca’s Children and The Line Between Us, and non-fiction books Always and Always – the Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams and Exit Through the Fireplace. Her novel The Dragonfly was shortlisted for The Virginia Prize for Fiction.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Kate Dunn.

Read my review of The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Exploring experimental poetry

Sunset by Nikki DudleyIn today’s guest post, author, poet and editor Nikki Dudley talks us through how her new collection Hope Alt Delete came about, why she loves to write experimental poetry, and how her words became part of the Blackpool Illuminations 2016.

I’m generally fascinated by language: how people received it; how the words we use can change how people perceive us; misunderstandings and errors, and the crossovers between languages and different sounds. I particularly like to use a kind of homophone style and break up words to make the readers think about how easily words can be misconstrued and how the individual syllables can be separated and made into something else.

I hope different readers let their minds drift in different ways, and take an active approach to reading my poems. There’s no right answer about where your mind is supposed to go.

Blackpool Illuminations 2016Let your themes choose you

When I was putting Hope Alt Delete together, I pulled together a lot of work – some old and some new. I noticed some themes running through a lot of the poems: hope, home and a sense of misunderstanding. It was kind of reassuring to see that I’m the same person I was when I wrote the older poems as some of the essential themes have stuck in there but I think I’ve changed too, so some edits were necessary.

Sometimes the misunderstanding stems from me, hence the playing around with words and sounds, yet other times, it’s the confusions and frustrations that occur in everyday communication with others.

As for the idea of home, I think it’s something I’ve always been fascinated by; your roots, where you identify as your home, whether you can have different homes and whether you class somewhere as home for a particular reason.

Lastly, in relation to hope, I’ve always been a realistic but hopeful person. That’s where the title came from. Instead of pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete to terminate something and start again, I wanted to put some hope in there too – even if you do have to start again, all is not necessarily lost.

Submergence4

Identify your poetic intentions

I really like experimental poetry and sometimes the nature of it is that it’s more random. However, usually there are hidden themes as well. I think themes are good if they are more naturally occurring but the poet can obviously dictate them too by constraining themselves with certain devices to dictate how they write, for example only writing at night or writing in a certain location.

Sometimes I think themes tend to shine through no matter what you do, unless a writer is deliberately trying to edit themselves out of the writing process. So, is it important? Yes and no. I think it depends on the writer’s intention and how they want the audience to receive their work.

For me, of all my themes and despite all the terrible things that happen to us personally or that happen all around us on a daily basis, the main thing I wanted to put out there was hope.

Submergence5

Understand what works for you

I wish I could say I was really organised and had a routine for writing but creativity comes to me in waves. Sometimes I can’t stop writing things down and other times I can’t put two words together it seems.

I usually get an idea stuck in my head and just have to write it down and then once I start going, it just flows out of me. I’ve been writing some found poetry lately though so that’s been good in terms of having a starting point. In the past, I’ve also used different methods to help me write, such as writing whilst doing another action (inspired by the Fluxus movement of artists, composers and poets), waking myself up at night and other silly things like that.

I also like to put tragedy and comedy side by side, which hopefully can be reassuring in a sense for readers, as it kind of reassures me! Another thing I like to do is to break up the flow of sentences sometimes, as life is never completely flowing and I quite enjoy the natural connections your brain makes and then contradicting them.

Keep an eye on what’s out there

I had a chapbook published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press previously in 2010. At the time I believe they were looking for submissions. I keep an eye on experimental publishers as I work on an online magazine, streetcake, myself. It’s good to keep the links updated on our site and see what else is out there. Also, I enjoy reading KFS’s other publications.

I sent my Hope Alt Delete poetry collection to Alec Newman, the editor, a while ago and he said he wanted to publish it. In the end, he actually featured my poem Ctrl+Z – along with nine poems by other poets – as part of the 2016 Blackpool Illuminations. He is subsequently publishing the collections of all ten poets.

KFS are one of the best experimental poetry presses around and Alec is also a lovely guy. He really helped me with the formatting of my poems for my chapbook in the past. What’s great about KFS is that they obviously love what they do – they work hard at getting experimental stuff out there. There are more experimental poetry outlets nowadays but that wasn’t always the case.

Hope Alt Delete coverCelebrate being seen

Hope Alt Delete is supported by Arts Council England, which gives a kind of seal of approval to the writing. Funding like this is absolutely essential to poetry. Although there are poets, editors and publishers working hard all over the shop to get writing out, it’s still a tough medium to sell and get people reading.

Council England fund various projects that present poetry in new and innovative ways. For instance, featuring poetry as part of the Blackpool Illuminations was fantastic because lots of people who don’t tend to read poetry read some as they walked past, therefore new audiences were reached.

Getting people to see things in a new way is one of the best things about life and writing, so anything that helps with that is vital in my view.

Nikki DudleyAbout the author

Nikki Dudley has published two novels, Ellipsis (Sparkling Books) and Semblance (CreateSpace). Her chapbook, exits/origins, and her first collection, Hope Alt Delete, are both available from Knives Forks and Spoons Press. She has been published widely online and one of her poems was featured in the Blackpool Illuminations 2016. She co-edits streetcake magazine, which publishes experimental writing bi-monthly. Find out more about what Nikki’s writing.

Read my review of Hope Alt Delete by Nikki Dudley.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Learn travel writing

Manukan beach, BorneoIf, like me, you’re prone to keeping travelogues whenever you skip out of town, why not have a go at turning your holidays into magazine features?

Tina Walsh is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience of writing about travel for publications such as TIME, the Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Express and many more.

She’s leading a five-week online travel course, providing an insight into what travel editors are looking for from freelance journalists and offering tips on how to sell your stories.

What does it cover?

* How to find engaging story ideas
* How to write a pitch
* How to structure your story
* How to get invited on press trips and organise your own trips

The course is suitable for beginners and more experienced travel writers looking to brush up their skills.

Start dates are ongoing, so you can sign up whenever you’re ready and complete the course in your own time.

Taking part costs £250 (inc VAT) for five individual one-hour sessions. It could be the start of a brand new career, or at least add a new string to your writing bow.

Find full details at tina-walsh.com.

The why, what and how of writing poetry

Coriolis Effect by Sarah Dncan

Coriolis Effect by Sarah Dncan

Poet Paul Deaton explains how he came to write Black Knight, his debut poetry pamphlet for Eyewear Publishing’s Aviator Series.

Writing for me has been an intuitive adventure. It first kicked off when I was a teenager; the need and struggle to place myself and where I was; to find something in my life to hold on to. Sounds a bit dramatic, but that was the genesis.

Why I write

Words can offer us a means to place ourselves within our own worlds, when perhaps you don’t feel well placed. Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis calls this a “sacred place, where I allow myself to express my true feelings.”

Poetry offers this self-private room, where words are the outlet and the poems can find balance, meaning and say things that might seem ordinarily, in one’s daily life, unsayable. The words become a mirror to your life.

Talking specifically about my pamphlet Black Knight, all those previous years are in it – many, many years of clandestine writing.

It started taking real shape around eight years ago after I’d done an adult learning poetry course through Bristol University with Totnes poet Julie-ann Rowell. That was actually the point when I started to take my own writing seriously, because someone else, who I respected, took it seriously.

I’ll use that word again and I realise now, without good mirroring it’s quite easy to neglect those things we might have a talent or gift for.

The course in 2008 with Julie-ann was a moment of change. Finally I took some self-responsibility towards my writing. Sadly, I’ve been very good at self-sabotaging, a bit of an expert, which is, to put it another way, and again drawing on poet Gwyneth Lewis from her Sunbathing in the Rain, “I do have a responsibility for the maintenance of the gift.” Previous to 2008 I’d never quite respected my responsibility towards the gift. I’d let the writing flounder as much as I’d let it happen.

Black Knight really is the result of me responding to the ‘call’, and finally embracing it and actually working at it before it’s too late to do something about it.

I decided I couldn’t carry on letting it sleep lifelessly in me and then die. The poems for Black Knight come from this period when I started to graft and push beyond beginnings. It was about the writing and also a personal thing, a statement and a commitment saying this is what I’m about.

In that sense I think the pamphlet is declarative. There’s a new relationship hidden in there too amongst the scenery and also an acceptance of bloodline; a painful one with my father.

Parallex by Sarah Duncan

Parallex by Sarah Duncan

What I write

In terms of themes, the collection draws on two preoccupations or prisms; relationships and then my deeper sense and need for geographical topographical location which draws on a sense of place and the natural world. For me there is very much an interaction between the two, but this subject matter hasn’t been arrived at deliberately. It’s just the way it is for me.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing deliberate poems. In a good way, the poems happened inevitably, which I think is in line with what Seamus Heaney says; you’ve got to write without self-consciousness.

The themes, though, are just a reflection of a sensibility I have that comes to light sometimes, of being alive in the natural universe.

I find the natural world a huge store for correspondences and I’m curious about the interplay between the private subjective and this huge living cosmos, the universe, of which our consciousness is a part.

Like I say, it feels like a sensibility. I try and stay open to that, both of my own processes as a human being and the bigger on-going processes of sun, Earth, seasons, plant, bird life and so on happening around me and outside my back door.

In this way I try and keep the pores open and take it all in – Blake’s idea that we should “see heaven in a wild flower.”  I feel whole as a human being when the two can be brought together in some way; can touch and spark, when the psyche can find those images ‘out there’ in the natural world that can name its sense of itself and the interplay ‘of the big’ that sometimes we can feel a part of.

Undertow detail by Sarah Duncan

Undertow, detail by Sarah Duncan

How I write

In terms of structuring the pamphlet, it was a case of reviewing quite a strong period of new work. It was a bit like I had in my creative garden a load of fallen leaves and I just went about gathering together the ones that seemed most beautiful.

In that sense I wasn’t really writing for the pamphlet – in fact, after having got nil response after a few years’ attempts at pamphlet competitions I’d given up thinking about pamphlets – and this probably helped. I was just writing poems and trying to get them published. And thinking that maybe one day I’d go for the pamphlet or book.

But actually I wasn’t in any rush. For me, when the poems started to get published I worried less about the need for having a pamphlet. Publication felt like its own reward. So Black Knight is really just a bundle of closely connected fallen leaves pretty much off the same tree; that new relationship and the death of my father.

I’m delighted it’s here though, and delighted to be part of Eyewear and Todd Swift’s Aviator Series.

My full-length collection A Watchful Astronomy comes out with Seren next year, and will extend on from this starting point. And some of the poems for that book have moved on too, just as I have.

Paul DeatonAbout the author 

Paul Deaton’s poems appear in The Spectator, PN Review, The London Magazine, The Dark Horse Magazine, Gutter Magazine and anthologies. His debut poetry pamphlet Black Knight was published by Eyewear in March 2016. A Watchful Astronomy will be published by Seren in 2017.

All images in this post (other than the pic of Paul) have been generously supplied by Sarah Duncan. Thanks Sarah! Find more of Sarah’s art at print.sarahduncan.net.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

How to turn memories into memoir

Giraffes, South Africa Image cr Toko LosheIn a special guest post, author Toko Loshe guides us through the thorny issue of turning real, raw and emotional experiences into a memoir.

Life in Africa was not easy, with hurt, anger and revenge rampant all around you, yet the little Zulu girl, her swollen tummy hiding strings of brightly covered beads wound around her waist, was giggling. Playing hide and seek behind her mother’s legs as she bargained for some small fish we had kept for bait. Bargaining for life, for just another day before hunger gripped again.

The little hands reached out as the fish were gently laid in them. A tear ran down her mother’s face as she bowed with thanks, and the little girl’s face beamed with joy – a smile just visible through the hard crust of snot running from her nose, as a raspy cough gurgled up in the tiny chest.

Xhosa Lady, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Stay true to yourself

Having a balanced view of your life is always a challenge. It may be riddled with personal hurts and experiences. Specifically when loved ones are still around, you might ask yourself whether there’s any point in dragging up that old stuff again. “Move on, stop being a victim,” a little voice in your head keeps telling you.

“We all went through it,” your siblings, children and partners may warn you. “If you mention that I will never forgive you. Do not under any circumstances include my name in your story.”

Worst of all, your own little voices may be telling you: “For God’s sake, nobody wants to read about that.”

Wrong, many people may want to read about that. In fact, many readers are looking for answers, to their own torments and hoping to see that someone else understands. They may hope that reading a story of a hardship or emotional upheaval similar to their own will help them to make sense of and cope with it.

Fountain, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Let the memories flood in

Don’t get me wrong, you must have shades of light and dark in your writing, and a good story should have more light than dark. The light side of your life is there hiding behind your emotional scars that you have not allowed to heal. You will be amazed how those memories will come flooding back once you allow them to.

Telling stories became a part of me when I was living in South Africa. Whenever a topic was highlighted in the media, I would remember another time when just such a thing had happened. Sometimes it made me sad that society was not learning from their mistakes. Every story will trigger a memory, no matter who you are or where you have been, no matter what life you have lived.

These memories that linger can be the foundation of your story, but remember that yours is just one of many. Even within your own family, each person will have their own version with its own little twist. Tell is as you recall it. Don’t try and make everyone happy by telling it their way, unless of course it is also your way and a shared experience with the same recollection of joy, love or horror. Be true to yourself.

Don’t shirk from the uglier truths

Creating a vision in the mirror of a perfect life, this is the story that you tell people. The lies we tell ourselves are much worse than the lies we tell others. Cracking that false image, be it yours or someone else’s close to you, is extremely painful.

Start with the good life, the fun things and the love that may not always have been expressed yet deep in your heart you knew it was there. That is the depth of your story. The ashes of your life. Pull out that love, display it and talk about it by bringing out the love in your mother’s eyes as she tucked you in while smiling through a split lip and bruises around a swelling cheek, as she managed to kiss you on your forehead.

River, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Identify your message

There is joy and love in my story, yet I was very aware of the desperate battle of survival many families faced around me as they tried to keep themselves and their children alive. Ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” What is the message you are to put out? Behind all good stories is a message as you invade someone’s space and get into their head.

Tell a love story with love – say it, feel it and most of all mean it. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to say how much you loved someone, how they made you feel. If it is a romantic part of your life, when you were in love for the first time, even the first time you experienced sex in a loving union, try to summon up what you were thinking and how your emotions were in a turmoil with these new feelings.

Choose your starting point

Decide where you are going to start your story, then create chapters by the turning points and changes as your story evolved. Where were you? What did you look like at that particular time, and most of all, what were you thinking? This is you, this is your story. Even if you stole the rosary beads from the bibles in the church on Sunday and feared that God would never forgive you!

There will be many ups and downs in your life, you must display them all as you seesaw through your chapters bringing each episode to a climax before moving on to the next. Most of all, you must enjoy your writing, it will not be easy and there will be tears both of joy and sadness. Write those feelings down.

About the Author

Toko LosheToko Loshe lived in South Africa during some of the most turbulent years in the country’s history. Born in 1944, Loshe experienced racism, political unrest, violence, and social upheaval as South Africa’s divisions grew deeper. Her new book Shades of Africa is an intensely personal account of the dangerous world in which she lived. The book has been described as “a photo album in prose about the brutality of life in British South Africa.” Loshe now lives in Australia.

Writing as therapy

Southbank cr Tom GreenThe idea of therapeutic writing certainly isn’t new. Done for yourself it can help you to understand what you’re experiencing on an emotional level and find coping strategies. Done well, and engaging imagination and narrative, it can result in a publishable work. This week’s guest post comes from Will Green, the author of Default Setting, an unflinching fictional account of a nervous breakdown. He tells us how his own mental health issues drove him to write the novel.

Mental health issues affect one in four people. I have experienced such issues since I was a teenager; namely Clinical Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Taking regular medication kept me on a level playing field for a while but during my 20s things took a turn for the worse; I self-harmed, abused drugs, and drank excessively. That was how I dealt with my feelings and it went on for years before writing found me.

A lifeline to sanity

Writing became a form of therapy for me. It was something I did to help me process what I was feeling. An emotional blowhole through which I maintained a lifeline to sanity during some of my darkest days. In fact, it was a psychiatrist at my local hospital that first suggested I should try writing things down.

So I did. I kept a notebook to write down little stories about how I felt. Sometimes it was the laying bare of autobiographical facts, and sometimes I would twist the story to fit my own acceptable version of reality. It was all just part of a coping strategy. I never had the intention of writing a novel. I wrote for myself and I wrote to let go.

Will Green cr Tom Green

But as anyone who has suffered any form of mental illness will tell you, there are up days and down days and as such my actual creative output was sporadic and usually in short bursts. Sometimes I would go weeks and even months without putting pen to paper but there would be something that always dragged me back to it.

It was my brother Tom who first believed I could write, and he encouraged me to make something of it. Looking back, that was the first step I took towards writing Default Setting.

Mile End Hospital cr Tom Green

Don’t expect a miracle cure

Writing was by no means a miracle cure to end all of my mental health problems. It was one of many factors, along with family and friends, regular medication, counselling, hospitalisation and support sessions that helped me get better, and continue to get better. But I cannot overstate how having this outlet gave me a bit of purpose. Something to focus on. I started looking at situations differently, imagining how I could write about them.

It detached me from the overtly emotional response I was having to my life. I got so into it that I even started to carry a notepad around with me everywhere I went. As my interest in it grew it became more important for me to make it as good as I could. I felt that if I could actually do this and turn all my negative energy, heartache and depression into something good it would make sense of it. Of all of it.

And that’s something I held onto. The shift in my mindset from scribbling down notes to producing a full novel allowed me to start to let go of some of the things in my past.

The completion and subsequent release of Default Setting allowed me to finally lay to rest a particularly dark part of my life. I clearly remember how I felt as I watched promotional shots being taken of the book. It was like I could finally let go.

Mile End Tube station cr Tom Green

Default Setting chronicles a period of the protagonist, Edward Staten’s, life as he descends into alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm and ultimately a nervous breakdown. Those of you who are familiar with London you will recognise places and details as you follow Edward’s journey.

Opening up can be scary

Default Setting front coverI think the toughest part of the process was actually telling people about it and making it available to read.

When I got the call to say that it was now available online at iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Kobo it felt like I was coming out – sharing something with the wider public as I never had before. Very unnerving. I remember the anxiety I felt just before posting the status update on Facebook and Twitter that informed all my friends and family in cyberspace that Default Setting existed.

It was like handing over all the skeletons in my closet to anyone that was interested and packaging it as one neatly presented download. However, the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive with it currently having an average 5-star rating on Amazon. People are describing Edward as being engaging and easy to connect with. Reading reviews like this mean so much to me as Edward Staten is a character that has helped me deal with deep seeded psychological issues. His experiences reflect mine and hearing that so many people can identify with him made me feel that I wasn’t isolated and freakish. Everyone, to a degree, can associate with feeling down and trying to deal with bad things that happen to them.

The response to Default Setting has shown me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my illness, but proud that I have come through it. I am truly grateful to everyone who has supported this project.  I hope that publishing it makes the issues it focuses on less stigmatic. Remember, the stats say one in four right? So if you don’t suffer yourself you will almost certainly know someone who does….

Will Green authorAbout the Author

Will Green lives in London, which is the backdrop for his debut novel Default Setting. With 1 in 4 people suffering from some kind of mental health problem and suicide remaining the biggest killer of men under 50, this work of contemporary fiction, based on his own experiences, is both relevant and topical. It is available through a distribution deal with Help For Writers as a download for £2.99 on iTunesAmazonGoogle Play and Kobo. Will has committed to making a donation to a mental health charity from some of the profits made on the sale of the book.

Rewriting urban fantasy

Avon Gorge Bristol cr Judy DarleyThis week’s guest post comes from author L.E. Turner and explores how you can give old genres fresh blood.

Writing can be daunting. There’s always the worry that everything has already been done and there is no way to create something original that will capture the imaginations and interest of the readers.

Feedback I’ve received many times regarding About the Nature of the Creature is an expression of surprise that I’ve managed to do something new and fresh with vampires and werewolves. If I’m honest, it was quite by accident that I ended up writing a novel that puts a fresh twist on a well known and popular genre. I say it was by accident because when I started writing I didn’t set out purposely to do something different – it just happened.

Although that was the case with this work, it is something that I am keeping in mind whilst writing the two remaining volumes in this trilogy, and is something other aspiring authors can think about when writing in a genre that has been extensively covered, especially since moving into the mainstream in the way we’ve now experienced with vampires and werewolves.

About the Nature of the Creature coverI started writing About the Nature of the Creature in 2002 when I was studying for my undergrad degree in Archaeology, and between studying, working and redrafting as I matured as a person and writer, it wasn’t published until 2011. Even so, the basics of the story and characters were there from the beginning. This is especially true of the origins I use, giving vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures and elements a mythic root in ancient history. These origins came to me in an inspiration from my university studies and I ran with it, happy to have stumbled onto something different from the usual Transylvanian, diseased or religious roots of these creatures.

In recent years we’ve seen huge successes from the likes of Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series, to name but two, and in the Young Adult genre via the Twilight Saga and its subsequent imitators. When I compare About the Nature of the Creature to these as examples, I can see some clear differences. I describe my novel as a gritty British urban fantasy with elements of gothic horror in order to highlight the aspects in which it differs and these have met with positive feedback from readers.

Avon Gorge Bristol cr Judy DarleyFind the right setting

  • Think carefully about your setting and chose something that feels right for the story
  • Don’t chose a setting just because you think it will appeal to a wider readership

The setting is important to all stories, whether a type of location, specific town or city, or just to create a necessary atmosphere. Most well known urban fantasy novels are set in the United States. I have read several in the genre that are written by non-American authors who have chosen to set their stories in either specific or non-descript US towns or cities, which can have the feel of trying to appeal to the widest readership rather than be necessary to the story.

Some of the best urban fantasy and YA stories I have read from British authors in the last couple of years have been set in the UK, and if anything this makes them stand out from the bevvy of US set stories.

Arnos Vale gravestone cr Judy Darley

Know your origins

  • Try to find a new slant on an old myth or take it in a new and unexpected direction
  • Create an entirely new, well researched, myth

A lot of urban fantasy focuses on well trodden myths that dates back over a century in fiction covering vampires, werewolves, zombies, and general dystopia. Often it can be hard to find new ground, or at the least cover old ground in a new and original way. I was fortunate with About the Nature of the Creature to be inspired to create a whole new origin and history for vampires and werewolves based on my personal and academic knowledge of ancient history.

In the last few years I have read some very good books that have done just this – breaking from a traditional or popular culture view of the subject. I have also read some that have fallen slightly short, and the reason for this has been a lack of research. A good idea, especially one historically based, cannot always stand on it’s own – it needs to be backed up with fact (historical or scientific for example). Even fiction as fantastical as urban fantasy should be grounded in enough cause and effect reality so as not to jar the reader.

Experiment with your genre

  • Think about setting your story in a completely different genre
  • Blending genres can give a new angle on known genre tropes

A good tip for any writer is to keep reading! Read widely and often. Although you should never copy anyone else’s ideas, you can often find inspiration from other genres that will take your story into a new direction. With About the Nature of the Creature I always wanted to blend together two stories – the then and the now. When writing, it felt quite natural for the ‘then’ to fall into historical gothic fiction, and the ‘now’ into modern urban fantasy. Arguably many stories do this to a degree – maybe there has been a murder mystery involved or combines strong horror elements – but there is still plenty of scope out there. I haven’t yet read a zombie apocalypse story from the point of view of the Mob yet, have you?

Author L.E. TurnerAbout the author

L.E. Turner lives in Bristol, the setting of her first novel About the Nature of the Creature, in which she turns the city into a home and haven for a variety of supernatural creatures. She started writing stories in small notebooks at the age of six and struggles to go a day without writing, whether fiction or blog post. She has a BA and MA in Archaeology and has previously worked in museums and heritage. She describes herself as a nerd, feminist, performer, blogger and slightly surreal writer of urban fantasy, gothic horror and science fiction. She is currently working on the sequel to About the Nature of the Creature and regularly posts short stories on her blog, leturnerwrites.wordpress.com.