The art of foreshadowing with Andés Barba

Such Small Hands by Andes BarbaSuch Small Hands by Andés Barba is an intense, eerie little book that beautifully captures the complexities and conflicts of childhood. Told initially through Marina’s eyes, it begins with one of the most vividly painted car crashes I’ve read, drawing you into the surreal cadence of a tragedy from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl: “The car falling, and where it fell, transforming.”

Before long, Marina learns to recite the appropriate lines: “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.” However, it is as though the enormity of the situation has rendered it inconceivable, so that she utters the words without the level of distress the grown ups surrounding her expect.

Confounding expectations is an enduring trait for Marina, as she goes on to unsettle the girls of the orphanage that becomes her home. Her strangeness is an enigma to the other children, attracting them and repelling them in equal measure.

After her doll is stolen and dismembered, Marina invents a game that the other girls can’t resist. Each night, she chooses one of them to be ‘the doll’, ordering the others to strip the chosen one naked and reclothe her in the scratchy dress allocated to ‘the doll’.

The game is frightening, and yet overwhelmingly alluring to the children. They are repulsed and discomforted, each night both dreading and longing to be selected.

But before Marina devises the game, author Andés Barba inserts a scene that chillingly foreshadows it.

A line of caterpillars, which they’ve been warned not to touch, marches across the playground, Marina, alone as she almost always is, watches the caterpillars with obsessive scrutiny. ”It made her dizzy to think that they were dangerous, that they stung. Marina picked up a stick. She thought of a number: four. She started counting from the head of the procession. One. Two. Three. Four. And the fourth one she jabbed with the stick.”

It’s an act so methodical, and so seemingly callous, and it sends a ripple of shock through the yard. In the second when she stabs the caterpillar, all the others stop moving, a detail that fascinates Marina. “How had the news travelled from one to the next?”

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How to set up a writing school

Rain on window by Judy DarleyThis week’s guest post comes from author, editor and creative writing tutor Ashley Stokes. He explains how he came to launch the Unthank School of Writing, and the challenges of establishing a writing school.

The first ever Unthank School of Writing workshop took place in January 2011 at the York Tavern in Norwich, with five writers and me in the upstairs room on a rainy night. Some I’d taught before in my various guises. Some were new to me. One, Marc Jones, has a story in Unveiled: The First Unthank School Anthology.

That the little school has now produced a book feels like a milestone. We have something solid to present to the world, something that showcases the talent of the writers we have supported. It’s great to have something solid, great for the contributors to have a book to hold in their hands, and great for us as a school because the school was born not out of solidity but uncertainty.

The Unthank School was founded both as an accompaniment to Unthank Books, and as a direct response to the cutting of community creative writing after the 2008 crash.

Several of us had been working as associate lecturers in creative writing for many years. As austerity swept its scythe through the system, the university departments that had provided us with employment disbanded around us (without any warning in some cases). Creative writing in the community was becoming a thing of the past. Believing that writing is for everyone, we didn’t want to let this happen.

Kaunas, Lithuania, River. By Judy Darley

A sense of community

We wanted there to be an affordable option outside of time-consuming MAs and prohibitively expensive courses run by big literary agencies and publishers. Furthermore, we also liked the idea of providing a rolling workshop that would always be there for you if you needed it (unlike an academic course). This came to be. We do have students who return to us after going off to work alone on a draft, who now need some feedback, just as we have students who stick with us all the time to be their continual first audience.

Another thing we wanted to nurture was a sense of community between writers, of all being in something together. Our workshops, whether online or face-to-face tend to be fun, relaxed, intimate, spontaneous. Unveiled is testimony that an international Unthank community of writers now exists, and that’s the most rewarding thing of all.

It’s frequently fed back to us that no one teaches creative writing like Unthank. Although we had all benefited from teaching creative writing for universities and art schools – and many of us still do – we were able, outside of the institutional setting, to ditch elements of university teaching that we felt inhibited writers, namely grading, tick-box assessments, self-reflective appraisals, and too much emphasis on close-reading and line-editing.

Kaunas, Lithuania, River1. By Judy Darley

Finding the focus

Close-reading and editing are important, obviously, but with new writers or writers working on a first draft, excessive comma patrol and quibbling about usage can suck the life out of a promising story that’s not yet found its flow.

Instead, in workshops at least, we focus on storytelling and listening to the writer discuss what he or she intends for the story and helping to shape an unfolding narrative. We will help you write what you want to write, whatever that is, whatever the genre. Unthank’s cure is very much a talking cure and uses the example of the writer’s own work from which to teach. We pride ourselves on being eclectic and responsive. We prompt and pre-empt. We try to make things work for the writers, so their stories realise themselves on their own terms.

UnveiledWe have become proud of the work that the school produces, impressed by the wit, doggedness and inventiveness of our students. It is this that inspired us to put out a call for submissions for Unveiled.  Unthank Books has carved out a little niche for itself in the short fiction world, most prominently in the form of Unthology, yearly, eclectic, wide-ranging short story anthologies in which the submitted writing finds the theme. That the school should have its own equivalent anthology was the natural next step. We received writing from over fifty former and current students.

The fifteen stories in Unveiled are the ones Stephen Carver and I felt are the most realised, the stories with the most authoritative voices, that demanded that we include them. They all tell you something about what we are about and what we cultivate.

Ashley StokesAbout the author

Ashley Stokes is Head of the Unthank School of Writing and publisher at Unthank Books. His stories have appeared in The Warwick Review, Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review, London Magazine, Staple, and Fleeting, among others. His first novel,Touching the Starfish, was published in 2010 by Unthank Books. Ashley’s short story collection The Syllabus of Errors came out in 2013. He is also co-editor of the Unthology short fiction series and Unveiled, and edited The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, also from Unthank Books. Find him at www.ashleystokes.net.

Read my review of Unveiled.

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 create compelling child characters

Esther 1 by Jayne JosoToday’s guest post author, Jayne Joso, created a complex seven-year-old, Esther, to sit at the heart of her novel From Seven to the Sea. Here she explains how she tackled the challenges of writing from a child’s point of view in a novel for adults.

From Seven to the Sea CoverThis is a book I thought I wouldn’t write until I was 80. Somehow, despite having previously written male characters at the centre of my work, and one as a Japanese male – something I did as a challenge – writing a small girl seemed far more complex for me. Children are amazing, they are so complicated and, at the same time, simple and straightforward in many ways, but what they lack is the vocabulary to describe their lives, particularly their feelings and so it is easy for these feelings, their inner lives, to be overlooked. So, one of the biggest obstacles was to find a way to showwhat this little girl character, Esther, might be feeling since I could not offer her an advanced level of communication and still manage to sustain her as a little child.

I re-read Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’ and Barry Hines ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ – which always makes me cry; and without realising it my fingers hovered over the keyboard. But not for long. I began to write in a way I haven’t done before. Frantically, like a crazed pianist. I wept at moments, but wrote with a fury, with a passion, for 11 hours a day, and my hands would hurt. I felt hungry but slept.

Walking in North Wales by Jayne Joso

 

Gather the character’s cells

The character of Esther had, in fact, emerged after some years of imagining, a gathering of cells, if you like, from here and there. Over time, as I read articles about fabulous women and how they started out, or little girls with particular abilities that showed early on, I think I consciously and unconsciously found little Esther. In many ways, I had most of the story already. I could see it. I could occupy it, feel and breathe it. In any case, I always have the start and the ending at the very least, that’s how I work, I need a strong opening and I need to know where I’m headed.

In a way, all I had to do was give the story to little Esther and let her run with it.

When I came to write, I actually had more material than I used, but that’s usual for me, I am a huge fan of cutting. Apparently, it is more usual for authors to ‘over write’, writing far more than the publisher wants and having to be persuaded to cut this and that, but I am quite the opposite. As I write I realise, no, that is too much, it’s getting too dark and the shape might be lost, for example;and so I omit along the way.

Looking at the sky whilst walking by Jayne Joso

 

Cut to maintain the novel’s shape

The next stage is that I cut like a demon as though I will end up with a short poem and not a novel at all. A short poem is the most wonderful thing, but not when the aim is a novel. So, I have to be careful to be critical when I write and edit but not over-critical. It can become destructive. At moments of indecision or heavy-handed cutting, I find it better to take my hands away from the computer and do something completely different.

Walking is usually the best thing. If possible, it is good to walk somewhere nature-rich such as North Wales or in the mountains of Japan if I am writing there, but I also enjoy pacing, just walking calmly about a room. That too can be enough. I find my rhythm, and lines that I was struggling with decide their position and whether they are needed. That’s a good feeling, as is looking at the sky, cloud watching – it calms my breathing and makes me feel alive, and inspired.

HEADshotJayneJoso CREDIT - Natacha HornAuthor bio

Jayne Joso is a writer and artist who has lived and worked in Japan, China, Kenya and the UK. She is the author of four novels, From Seven to the Sea, the highly acclaimed My Falling Down HousePerfect Architect and Soothing Music for Stray CatsHer literary works are largely concerned with matters of human empathy, issues surrounding home, homelessness; and cultural identity. Joso is twice the recipient of ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND awards to support her writing. She also received the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Award and was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Award 2017. Most recently she gained a small grant from the DAIWA Anglo-Japanese Foundation to continue her research in Japan. Jayne will appear at the Hay Festival 2019 on Wednesday 29 May 2019 at 2.30pm. Find her at www.jaynejoso.uk and @JayneJoso.

All images in this post have been supplied by Jayne Joso. Headshot by Natacha Horn.

Read my review of From Seven To The Sea by Jayne Joso.

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.

Writerly resolutions for 2019

Spring crocus cr Judy DarleyAs we edge into the greyest month of the year, 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 is continuing 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 I 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 last year. 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 recently 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 six or 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 also 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. This year, as I’ve said, I haven’t made any resolutions other than to keep writing, keep submitting and keep hoping. Actually, I do have two new pledges to stick to (or should that be polish?) – simply to celebrate even the smallest literary successes, and relish writing for its own purpose. Lovely.

How about you?

How to work with an editor

Italian sunset by Daisy McNallyToday’s guest post comes from Daisy McNally, the author of I See Through You, which is hot off the presses from Orion. She provides an insight her personal experiences of working with an editor to prepare her debut novel for publication.

Everyone’s experience of the editorial process is different. This is mine, beginning when I was on holiday in Italy and my agent called. She rang in the evening so I had a glass of wine in hand and was watching the sun disappear into the sea. She said that Orion loved my book and wanted it – but there were some suggestions about plot to run past me. How fantastic – and …hmm. I drank the wine and didn’t sleep!

I SEE THROUGH YOU spineI spoke to the commissioning editor at Orion the next day and any worries I’d had in the night completely disappeared. She didn’t want to alter the tone or the central premise of the book (which to my mind has always been the sadness of unrequited love, and the obsessional lengths it can drive us to). She asked if I’d heard of the term ‘ghosting’, which I hadn’t, but the commissioning team at Orion who had read I See Through You, all remarked on getting the same feeling from the book which reminded them of theirs, or their friends’ experience of being ghosted. Apparently 80% of millennials report being ghosted.

So this was my first taste of publishing being an industry – they’d spotted something in the book that they thought might sell and wanted to emphasise it. Thankfully it wasn’t a problem for me to shift the nature of the breakup from a slow burn out to a sudden amputation – I was writing after all about not being heard and feeling powerless, and confused. Wondering if we have a place in the world without someone we thought part of our future to validate it. It turned out to be the same thing in many ways.

I SEE THROUGH YOU city

Trust the experts (aka your literary editors)

This was before the #metoo movement but my editor was already on to it.  I don’t want to give anything about I See Through You away but there is an unlikely and unexpected female friendship made that wasn’t there before. When the “Dr Foster meets The First Wives Club” slogan was touted, she had me sold.

I See Through You coverI was very fortunate that these suggestions were both things that I agreed with and really enjoyed putting into place. Added to which, I was no longer writing blindly on my own; my editor’s support was constant and she was always there if I needed her. There were two rounds of edits and finally, toward the end of the process, a brilliant freelance copy editor came on board whose input was brilliant.

Up until this point, i.e., throughout the editing process, nothing was ever mandatory and I always had the final say. Then we got to the stage of choosing the cover. I love the cover now but I had a preference initially for a different font and colour (it’s a small thing, I know). And now I had to give way and concede that there were professionals at work here, who understood the market and who they were targeting much better than my inexperienced self. This is what they do, they don’t write books, they sell them. Over to the experts.

So I discovered that the process in its entirety is sometimes collaborative, and can involve several opinions and at the end of the day. Most importantly, isn’t just about the writing. When I wrote The End, it wasn’t – at least not for me. And it was hard work sometimes but most writers know the difficulty and panic that accompanies unpicking material, holding it all together and finally the satisfaction of putting it back in place. It was almost exactly one year between the phone call in Italy and publication day – and another celebratory drink.

Daisy McNallyAuthor bio

Daisy McNally began writing I See Through You on the MA for Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She is currently doing the PhD there and lives in Oxford and Lymington with her two children and partner James. When she’s not writing her second novel, she enjoys reading, running by the sea and going out on the water.

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.

Exploring faith in fiction

Sea Mosque in Jaffa by Ariel KahnAriel Kahn, the author of Raising Sparks, explains how fiction became his medium for pursuing Kabbalistic cats, prayer trees, and speaking silences, and how ideas about faith can weave depth into your stories.

Raising Sparks by Ariel KahnMy novel Raising Sparks is a magical realist love story, suffused with spiritual longing and Kabbalistic imagery. It began in a Suffolk garden. Our second child was due in a month, and my wife and I were on a writing retreat in a little cottage. Sitting in the garden under an apple tree, I watched a cat walk along the wall. It stared over its shoulder, as if daring me to follow. I had the sudden image of a teenage girl following a cat through the busy food market in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. Who was she, and why was she following the cat? I had no idea.

Jerusalem means a lot to me. I come from an Orthodox Jewish family, and was supposed to be a rabbi. I studied in rabbinical school for three years between high school and university, ultimately deciding that it wasn’t for me, though it left me with a deep love of mystical texts. As the brother of four sisters, these spoke to me because they seemed deeply feminist, with a key motif being that the world was broken because the female element of the Divine, the Shekhinah, had been exiled – it was our responsibility to return her to her Beloved, through being present to the possibility of meaning in each moment. Such a sense of being present would enable us to “Raise the Sparks”, making us co-creators, responsible for healing the world within and around us. Whilst studying in Israel, I set up a writing group at the rabbinical school with my fellow student, Matt Eisenfeld. Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. l was determined that their love and vision would not perish with them. The love story at the heart of Raising Sparks is partly inspired by this couple, and represents my attempt to raise the sparks of loss and love I still feel for these amazing people, a way of sharing them.

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem by Roxanne Desgagnes on Unsplash

Understand language as the tool for creation

Another intriguing strand for me as an aspiring writer was the focus on language as a tool for creation. Kabbalistic texts like the Zohar suggested that the world itself was God’s Language made visible, and that if only we opened ourselves to it, we could hear and experience this language, and even participate in it. My wife is Israeli, and I was brought up speaking Hebrew. The way a Biblical language had been adapted for modern use fascinated me – Amos Oz once said that writing in Hebrew was like playing the piano in the Grand Canyon. For instance, the word Kabbalah, the name for mystical texts, literally means something you receive or are gifted with. In Modern Hebrew, it is the word for a till receipt. This gap between the original resonance of a word and its modern usage fascinated me. Another example is the Hebrew word for electricity, Chashmal. Taken from Ezekiel’s vision of the energy that sustains the universe, it resonates with supressed energy – it literally means the speaking silence. What if someone could tap into that energy, liberate it?

Which brings me back to the young girl following the cat. I decided to go back to Israel for a research trip. My sister in law lives right next to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents, and her garden, overlooking the Jerusalem hills, is a deeply creative space for me. We stayed over there, and I had a dream in which I was the young girl I’d glimpsed in Suffolk. She was standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and all of the paper prayers people had pressed into the cracks between the stones were pulsing like hearts, or sea anemones, crying aloud the prayers written on them. I woke with a strong sense of who she was. Her name was Malka, which meant queen – a nod to the missing Shekhinah, as she would embody the power and potential so often lost in patriarchal societies, and identify articulate those voices that are so often silenced in our society – of the marginalised. She was a secret mystic, able to hear and even manipulate that original Divine creative language. The cat she was following belonged to a legendary mystic. As I wandered the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem, which press in so you feel you are still inside, I realised that she would have to escape this narrow and confining world. Where would an aspiring mystic run?

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Jerusalem Old City. Photo by Arial Kahn

Weave your stories together

The answer seemed obvious. The mystical city of Safed, near the Sea of Galilee, has been drawing kabbalists for hundreds of years. One of the greatest of these was Isaac Luria, the Mozart of the kabbalah, who blazed a deeply individual, hugely influential trail and died young. Luria, also known as the Ari, or Lion, left his family home in Jerusalem in the seventeenth century to study Kabbalah in Safed; he commanded that all doors, which could be portals between one world and another, be painted sky blue.

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Blue door, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

This is still the case today. He proposed the notion of raising sparks I mentioned earlier, and also spoke of the relationship between the two aspects of the Divine within and around us in shockingly erotic terms. One of his students, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a love song to the Sabbath Queen, another name for the Shekhina, in which God “rejoiced with her as a bridegroom does with his bride n his wedding night.” His community would dance down out of the city to the surrounding fields, singing this song, to welcome the Shekhina and the Sabbath. Even today, throughout the world, Jewish communities sing this same song, the Lecha Dodi (come my beloved) to welcome the Sabbath. I decided that Malka’s family name would be Sabbatto, a variant on the Sabbath, linking her to the Sabbath Queen more deeply.

In Safed, I visited the ancient synagogue in which Luria prayed. On the ceiling were trees. Many Trees. As I looked up at them, they seemed to spin in place. The Tree of Life is a key symbol in Jewish mysticism, suggesting the relationship between the human and the Divine; a tree has its roots on earth but reaches up to heaven, drawing sustenance from both. The Kabballah sometimes describes an inverted tree, the heavenly twin of this one, with its roots in heaven, its branches reaching down towards earth. Malka would see this tree, and variations of it throughout the novel, charting her development and growing self-confidence. I thought about Malka coming to Safed. Where would she go? I saw the way tourism had appropriated the creative energy of the original kabbalists, and domesticated it. What if she were to fall in with a cult, in which these erotic texts were manipulated to take advantage of the cult members? That word for electricity, Chashmal, is seen as hugely dangerous in the Talmud and mystical texts – if you speak it the wrong way, you might get burned up. Could Malka use this word, and what would happen if she did?

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Western Wall, Israel. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Use your fiction to examine questions

My literary quest was becoming a series of questions I wanted my writing to answer. If she were to go on the run again after Safed, I thought she would follow the blue all the way to the sea. This time, she would be running from the sense of her own power she had uncovered in the cult. She should go to Jaffa, the port where Jonah fled God’s word, and where Andromeda was chained to the rock in need of rescue.

Jaffa is fascinating, a deeply Arab city that is often attached to its larger neighbour, Tel Aviv, granting it a secondary status, though it is ancient and complex. It is full of symbols of the mingling of voices and cultures, like the Arab-owned Abulafia bakery which was closed on all Jewish festivals, and popular with people of every background and ethnicity. Abulafia was also the name of a famous Spanish Kabbalist of the thirteenth century. Was it a coincidence? Kabbalists themselves often argued that there was no such thing as coincidence, only singns we needed to learn how to read. My wife and I ate at a fish restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith, which trained Jewish and Arab street children to work in restaurants, much like Jamie Oliver’s Thirteen. I thought of the wonderful herb garden owned by Yotam Ottolelghi’s family, and of his eponymous restaurant, set up with Sami Tami, his Palestinian business partner. I imagined Malka sleeping rough on Jaffa beach, and getting picked up to work in a similar restaurant.

As I walked through the streets of old Jaffa, I suddenly saw an orange tree floating in the air just ahead of me. I checked that my wife could see it too. It turned out to be an artist’s installation by environmental artist Ran Morin. It felt like another sign. What would this symbol mean to Malka and her fellow trainees? Perhaps, suspended between past and present, they would find new ways of being and seeing, connecting across class and culture.

Ariel KahnAbout the author

Debut novelist Ariel Kahn is a prize-winning writer and academic. He initially trained to be a rabbi in Israel, where he discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. He has won the Bloomsbury New Voices competition, the London Writing Competition, and came runner-up in the national Pulp Idol Fiction competition in 2017. Ariel has an MA in African and Indian literature and a PhD in Creative Writing and currently lives in North London. Raising Sparks, published by Bluemoose, is his first novel. Buy it from your favourite bookshop, online from Amazon, or from Book Depository.

Read my review of Raising Sparks by Ariel Kahn.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Ariel Kahn.

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@iCloud.com.

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How to handle a multi-person narrative

Image2 by Ewa DoddIn today’s guest post, debut author Ewa Dodd talks us through the challenges, and delights, of tackling a multi-person narrative in your fiction writing.

The idea for The Walls Came Down came to me quite suddenly when reading a Polish magazine article one idle summer afternoon in Warsaw. A grainy photograph of a crowd at a football game caught my eye. The poor quality shot looked like it has been enlarged many times, and the editor had placed a red ring around something in the far right hand corner of the image.

I peered at it closely. It looked like two people, one much smaller than the other, walking to the exit hand in hand. It was possible that the larger one had grey hair, or was wearing a grey-coloured hat, but I couldn’t make out any further details. To my surprise, the article revealed that this still from the footage of a 1987 football game formed a key part of the evidence of a child’s abduction. The child (now an adult), had miraculously been found more than fifteen years after she’d disappeared and had lived a seemingly uneventful life in another part of the country with people she believed to be her parents.

I read the article out to my grandmother. ‘That would make for a very interesting novel,’ she said, before getting back to peeling the potatoes. Later that evening, I opened my laptop and began to write. I changed the setting of the event and the gender of the missing child, but the premise remained the same. Of course, a great story is nothing without a good narrator and for the weeks that followed, I puzzled over the protagonist. Should it be the missing person? Somebody involved in the search? A casual observer loosely linked to the incident? After much internal debate, I ended up with three distinct voices.

But how do you handle a multi-person narrative? Read on to find out.

Image by Ewa DoddEnsure each small story feeds into a larger whole

Each of my protagonists has their own unique story to tell, but I had to be careful to ensure that they all furthered the broader narrative. I frequently checked that every chapter left the reader guessing about how the different pieces slotted together.

We meet Joanna for the first time in 1988 in Warsaw, when she is four years old. She discovers that her twin brother Adam has gone missing in the crowds during a protest that they have both attended with their mother. At first, she firmly believes that he will come home, but days, weeks and months pass and there is no news of him. She refuses to give up the search and uses her job as a journalist to keep the story in the public eye.

Matty is a young city slicker, set on a route to becoming a successful investment banker with a six figure salary and a mansion in one of the posher suburbs of London. On the surface he has everything, and is envied by most of his friends. But there’s something that gnaws away at his subconscious, never allowing him to fully relax into his success. An unusual news story about a plane crash in Russia spirals off a chain of events, which leads him to question who he is and where he has come from.

We first meet Tom when he gets a diagnosis of liver cancer by his doctor, having noticed some worrying symptoms, including huge weight loss. Tom has recently retired from forty years of hard labour, and the unfairness of the situation hits him with full force. Lacking any immediate family to look after him, he goes to nursing home, to live out the last months of his life amongst other people suffering from terminal illnesses.

It’s fairly apparent from the outset how Joanna and Matty’s narratives tie together, but my aim with Tom was to keep the reader guessing for longer.

Image1 Ewa Dodd

Make each voice distinct, and work out a backstory

I realised early on that in order for the three protagonists to be believable, they would each need a highly unique voice. Before I properly began writing, I wrote a rough backstory for each character and even sketched out what they looked like.

Joanna shares many of the traits of determined and successful young women that I know, but she has additional, almost super-human resolve to continue pursuing what she believes, whilst everything implies that she should give up.

Matty was a complex character to create, as he is so multi-dimensional. Superficially, he is cocky, confident and not always likeable. But on another level, he is burdened with a deep anxiety about having lost his true identity. When writing his sections, I based his narrative on the experiences of people who have lost their memory and the heart-wrenching emotions associated with slowly regaining these.

I found Tom’s character very difficult to bring to life, as I’d never previously written from the point of view of somebody both male and of a very different age to my own. What was most challenging was convincingly conveying the pain, fear and devastation that come with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, and here, I am deeply indebted to a number of brilliant and talented people who were brave enough to write about their experiences of exactly this, including the wonderful Kate Gross.

Ewa DoddAbout the author

The daughter of a bookseller, Ewa Dodd has been writing since she was young, starting small with short self-illustrated books for children. More recently, she has delved into novel-writing, and is particularly interested in literature based in Poland, where her family is from. The Walls Came Down is her first published novel, for which she was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize for Fiction. Buy it from Amazon or from Aurora Metro.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Ewa Dodd.

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@icloud.com.

Seeding unease into your writing

Birdcage Walk by Helen DunmoreHelen Dunmore will be sorely missed by her readers, and by the writing community. She was an expert in writing richly layered narratives in which the past gains a pulse and history breathes.

In Birdcage Walk she explores a particular period of unrest, the time of the French Revolution, and the uneasiness this upheaval nurtures in England. More than that though, she narrows the focus to a particular couple in Bristol, property developer Diner and his young wife, Lizzie.

In a beautifully written scene full of enticing textures, we go with Lizzie to meet a seamstress who has made a dress for Diner’s former wife, a French woman named Lucie. Through this encounter, sliver of ice is inserted into Lizzie’s understanding of her husband, through the dress his first wife never had the chance to wear.

“The dress was as tall as I was and the silk rippled as it might ripple when its wearer walked in it. The grey was very light, almost silvery in colour.”

The seamstress tries to persuade Lizzie to have the dress altered to fit her, but Lizzie is unnerved by the idea: this is a dress that had been fitted to Lucie, a woman she knows almost nothing about, other than that her husband adored her, and that she is dead.

“‘A tuck here and there. Your arms are longer than hers. I can let it out, or inset a lace cuff…’ Her fingers were coming after me, prodding me as she measured me by touch. I pulled myself free.”

The intrusiveness of the woman’s actions, coupled with the subtle evocation of Lucie’s presence in that very room three years before is almost suffocating. More unsettling than that is the realisation that Lucie had this special dress made for a particular occasion, yet had never collected it, despite having paid.

“‘The dress was ready for her by the Wednesday. I would have sent it round but I had no direction for her. I expected her all that day and the next but she never came.’”

Diner has told Lizzie that Lucie died while visiting family in France, but Lizzie can’t shake the feeling that to have left so abruptly, forgetting her dress and missing the engagement she’d had it made for, the pair must have quarrelled.

For who could possibly abandon such a dress otherwise?

The sensuality of that gown and its silk imbues the page as Lizzie reaches out to stroke it. “It sent a shiver through my flesh. How soft it was. The sheen was like the bloom on grapes, which might be rubbed away with careless handling.” These carefully chosen words seem to me to carry the faintest suggestion of a threat. “Lucie had touched it too, like this. She had thought of how she would wear it and be beautiful in it. We were not alike, because I would never wear such a dress. For the first time I felt no jealousy towards her. She had died instead and been put away six feet deep in the French soil.”

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is published by Hutchinson, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Investigating authorial voice

Italian Alps pic cr Catherine McNamaraCatherine McNamara is the author of short story collection The Cartography of Others. In today’s guest post, she urges us to consider the moral implications of the voices we choose to assume for our fiction.

One of the first questions I was asked when my debut collection Pelt and Other Stories came out concerned the opening story Pelt.

Pelt is narrated by the feisty pregnant Ghanaian lover of a German man, who wants to keep him from falling back into the arms of his ex-wife. Kurt is wracked with guilt. His petite, commandeering wife is in town for a conference. I won’t tell you how that story panned out, but being asked with what permission I assumed the voice of a young pregnant Ghanaian woman made me feel a little uncomfortable.

Author Catherine McNamara

Whose story is it anyway?

It’s true I had lived in Ghana for nine years. The characters were influenced by people I’d lived with and come upon, and I’d thought that the young woman’s voice was the vehicle of a valid story that dealt with jealousy, guilt and sex. I’d also carried several children and been through marriage havoc. I knew the environment intimately, and all of these elements combined to produce a story I felt like telling. But I wasn’t a Ghanaian woman. So was it theft? Did I have a right to invent this woman’s story?

In my new collection The Cartography of Others, which I am currently funding with Unbound, similar situations with ‘voice’ crop up several times. In The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him, a South African advertising executive is sent up to Ghana to manage a local office, where he discovers, among other unsettling things, a corpse in an Elvis shirt and an American employee who sleeps with her dogs. In The Healing of Santo Boateng, a West African migrant is tossed off his bicycle while riding home from work in northern Italy. And ignored. In The Cliffs of Bandiagara, a West African photographer considers his craft, and the viability of the love story he has embarked upon with a European journalist.

Statue pic cr Catherine McNamara

Consider your motives

In all three cases, the thoughts of an African male are conveyed. Whether ‘voice’ is effective or not must be judged by the reader. But whether a ‘theft’ is involved must be addressed by the writer. Is the story designed to use the situation of the character, without authenticity and empathy? Has the author been responsible and written with respect?

These are tricky waters. In all stories, we writers impersonate others, steal from people we know, and from our own experiences. We use locations we know to carry our stories. We instil our inventions with real truths to make them resonate. When we fail, we write within clichés and our work feels borrowed or cheapened or exploited. When we succeed, our stories transcend categories and speak with clarity and allure.

Vineyard pic cr Catherine McNamara

In The Cartography of Others there is a raft of stories with voices from different countries and social environments. A Ukrainian woman is judged by an English woman, a boy reacts to a car accident in the north of France, a man’s violent upbringing is assuaged by a ballerina. We meet a man whose mother has been killed in the Italian Alps, and a young woman whose eggs are being harvested for her infertile aunt. While the locations used are often places that I know well, each character is an invention that must transport the reader into the realm of storytelling, and I hope that the voice of each story bears its own truth.

If you’re interested in reading more, do consider pre-ordering a copy of The Cartography of Others at unbound.com/books/the-cartography-of-others. Or come to Italy where I live for a writing retreat, a hike in the Dolomites, an opera night in Verona or a wander through Venice speaking about short stories.

Catherine McNamara portraitAbout the author

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and ran away to Paris to write but ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. She was recently named in the Wigleaf Top 50 and was a finalist in the Royal Academy/Pin Drop Short Story Award, and shortlisted in the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Short Story Competition and the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition, among others. Her work has been published widely. Catherine lives in Italy.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Catherine McNamara.

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 use myths in your writing

Sphinx, Egypt, by Justin NewlandIn today’s guest post, author Justin Newland talks us through the ancient stories that helped to inspire his novel Sources of the Genes of Isis.

I guess I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I wanted to explore our origins. Where did we come from? How did we get where we are today? I wanted to conceive a story that offered the discerning reader a different entry point to these age-old questions.

I began by looking through the glass darkly into the past. I quickly ended up in Ancient Greece, and eventually in Ancient Egypt, the earliest recorded historical culture.

The Ancient Egyptians also imagined their origins though creation myths, of which one is the myth of Osiris. He was king to Isis’ queen. But Set murders Osiris, dismembers him and distributes his body parts all over Egypt. Isis gathers them together, miraculously brings him back to life, and bears him a son, the hawk-headed Horus.

This is a story of life and death, procreation, rebirth and the struggle for power, all of them archetypal themes. And the basic ingredients of the myth are not a bad template for a novel: start, weave the threads, spread them far and wide, then collect them altogether, breathe new life into them for a pulsating climax.

That wasn’t all. Many great men have set their feet upon the path to Egypt: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte. It was the first and oldest civilisation, and therefore influenced everything that followed. The first in any field always does. In this respect, Egypt is the Mother and Father of all things.

That set me going. 

Fish Man Depicted on Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Explore infinite possibilities

Next up, I discovered legends from other ancient cultures that mentioned cross-breeding between species, of mixed genetics, and hybrids. The apocryphal The Book of Enoch spoke of the Grigori, or ‘fallen angels’, who came to Earth and mated with ‘the daughters of men,’ spawning the Nephilim, an antediluvian race of giants. The Epic of Gilgamesh talked of strange beings such as fish-men, who came ashore for the day, and returned to the sea at night. Even today, you can see a stone carving of such a creature at the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut behind the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. (see above)

These and other sources fired my imagination. What if these ‘fallen angels’ manifested in human form and settled in Ancient Egypt? What if antediluvian genetics were unstable, in that the normal bindings that prevented the existence of crossbreeds had become loosened, spawning mixed genetic creatures and humans with the head of animals?

The germ of the idea for the novel was born: an alternative genesis of the human race.

Interwoven with these threads was esoteric information about such concepts as the astral light and the akashic record, referenced by the Theosophical Society and, more recently, the Emin Society. They conceived of the akashic record as a compendium of thoughts, events, and emotions encoded in a non-physical plane of existence.

This is where I derived the name for the novel’s heroine, Akasha, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘aether’ or atmosphere.

Also mooted was the astral body, a sort of personal spirit entity, which could leave a person (usually during sleep) and travel the astral light, there to explore the akashic record and so re-live any event or person from any time in history. This is what Edgar Cayce, an American mystic, claimed to have done. His profuse and profound writings speak of the time before the Flood.

All this nourished my fascination for the supernatural.

Doris Lessing’s Shikasta contained some original and interesting ideas about how humans may have lived in the times before recorded history.

I got the name Samlios, where the Akasha is born and where the initial action of the novel unfolds, from Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.

Then the Flood. Where did that fit into the story? Now, think about it for a moment. If it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, how did all that water get up there in the first place?

What about this utterance from the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts‘I shall cross the great lake in the sky and return home to my double on the sun.’

More recently, Old Mother Shipton, a Yorkshire prophetess, coined her answer: ‘Beneath the water, men shall walk. Shall ride, shall sleep, shall even talk.’

What if the waters were already up there in the sky, and the earth had shrunk like a dried prune, leaving the remaining oceans on narrow and shallow sea beds?

Another element of the world of The Genes of Isis was taking shape.

Egypt by Justin Newland

Build a narrative and characters

With two main sources, I needed two protagonists, one to speak for the humans, and the other for the angels, whom I called the Solarii. I envisaged the embryonic human race as blue-blooded, gentle folk, and kind. The Solarii on the other hand, were drawn as severe, powerful and dedicated.

A comparison of opposites yielded a girl and boy, young and old, Akasha and Horque. The main characters took shape.

The Genes of Isis cover by Justin NewlandThen in the novel, I twisted another Biblical weave: instead of having the Jews as slaves to the Egyptians, I conceived of them as willing helpers and servants.

When I started work on the novel, I began with the idea, a rough storyline, giving me the destination. Then the characters emerged out of the plot and suggested parts they could play. Sometimes I heard their voices when composing the dialogue. Sometimes my imagination revealed things about them, like what they carried in their pockets.

I found my characters crouching behind the plot lines, emerging out of the shadows of the narrative, and in the great halls of the unconscious (yes, even in dreams).

Looking so far back into pre-history, there was an abiding sense of peering into a dark timeless abyss, and where sometimes, as Nietzsche predicted, the abyss stared back. That was unnerving. Especially as most of what I was researching had no fixed points, no salient facts on which anyone agreed.

Then again, it did leave plenty of room for the imagination.

All this and more is in The Genes of Isis.

Justin NewlandAuthor bio

Justin Newland lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills, in Somerset, England. His short stories published in anthologies: The Fool of Abbot’s Leigh in Hidden Bristol and Fisher of Men in North by Southwest. Vallum Hadriani is published in The Dark Half of the Year, a collection of ghost stories by the North Bristol Writers.

Justin’s debut novel, The Genes of Isis, is published by Silverwood Books. It’s set in Ancient Egypt, and draws on two main sources: the myth of Osiris and the story of the flood in the Book of Genesis. Find out more at www.thegenesofisis.com.

All images in this post were supplied by the author.