Book review – Unveiled

UnveiledThe first anthology of novel excerpts from the Unthank School of Writing was never going to be a straightforward affair. Created seven years into the School’s existence, editors Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver describe the contents as brimming “with storytelling verve, imagination and talent.”

That’s all true, but what strikes me most powerfully  is the immense variety within these tales, crossing time and geographic landscapes while presenting us with a multitude of realities, shared in a diverse array of authorial styles.

The anthology opens with Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men by Nicola Perry. Reading the author biographies, it’s clear Perry is one of the more practised Unthank School alumni, and that experience shines through in this prologue and first chapter.

She opens with words that anchor under your skin: “My mother is dead inside. There’s nothing I can do for her. I am instructed in this from a young age.” Questions bubble up immediately: who is our narrator? How young are they exactly? What’s wrong with the mum? Is she the one instructing her son in this peculiar fact? If so, why? Perry has clearly mastered the art of intrigue, and we’re only 21 words in. Impressive.

Continue reading

Smog – a short story

Taf Estuary, mist photo by Judy DarleyThe old woman has been here every day for a week, eyeing the smog and making notes or drawings in a fat notepad that she holds on her lap.

I’m happy to share the news that my short story Smog, a teeny, tiny climate flash, has been published by Porridge Magazine.

The story involves a swingset, an old woman and a flask that may not contain tea. Read Smog in full here.

Writing prompt – links

Daisy chain. Photo by Judy DarleyI spied this daisy chain on the footpath near my office, curling over the grey flagstones. The petals are already closing up as though nightfall in on its way.

I love that it’s a reminder of nature in the midst of the city, and of childhood in a drearily grown up setting.

Who might have linked these flowers stem by stem? What moment of hurry caused them to drop it? Where might they be now?

And who might find the chain? What thought and action might it prompt in them?

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

 

Join an apocalyptic poetry podcast 

Blurry trees_Glasgow to Oban_by Judy DarleyBedtime Stories For The End Of The World is a podcast series examining the power of myth in a time of political crisis.

As they near the launch of their second series in autumn 2019, they’re seeking 12 emerging poets to join the project.

The chosen rising stars will feature alongside leading poets Malika Booker, Andrew McMillan, Sabrina Mahfouz, Kei Miller, Helen Mort and Jack Underwood.

If selected, you will receive a £300 fee for the commission and for your time on the project.

You’ll be expected to write a five- to seven-minute poem or poem sequence based on a traditional story of your choosing.

As part of this opportunity, you’ll get to take part in a one-day workshop and one-day of recording with the lead artists.

There will also be the opportunity to write for the website, and to participate in readings to promote the project.

The workshops will take place on 1st and 2nd June 2019, and the recording on 27th and 28th July 2019. You will need to be free for at least one workshop date and one recording date.

The Bedtime Stories For The End Of The World team are based in London, but travel costs for writers outside of London are available. “We especially encourage applications from under-represented groups, including women, BAME people and LGBTQ+ writers.”

Applications close at 5pm on Wednesday 1st May 2019.

Find full details of how to apply here.

Guernsey Literary Festival 2019

Guernsey Literary FestivalFancy flitting over to the Channel islands for a long weekend? The Guernsey Literary Festival, which takes place from 1st-6th May 2019, offers the perfect excuse for a peaceful retreat. Over the four days there’ll be creative talks, workshops, film screenings and family story sessions.

GuernseyThe line-up includes an array of expert wordsmiths, including Terry Waite, journalist Lucy Siegle, poet Lemn Sissay, and author Patrick Gale. Libby Purves will talk about her writing and her long career in radio, and award-winning poet, writer and editor Joelle Taylor will shine a light on the art of the poetry slam along with Andrew Hislop and Lawrence Stubbings.

Dr Lucy Christopher, internationally acclaimed academic, teacher and writer of YA fiction, will lead a workshop on developing an authentic teenage voice and offer the chance  indulge in serious creative play.

Other highlights include Lionel Shriver reading from her first ever short story collection, Property.

The festival will mainly be based in Guernsey’s capital St. Peter Port. Venues include hotels, the inflatable Literary Festival Hub and, especially intriguing, Hauteville House, where Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables. Event tickets are bookable at www.guernseyliteraryfestival.com where you can also find the growing diary of events.

Theatre review – Equus

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan, Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Keith Gilmore. Image The Other RichardThere’s an explosive power within the play Equus, currently on stage at Bristol Old Vic. Peter Shaffer wrote it in 1973, inspired by a crime involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses. Why would someone do that? The question resounds throughout the script, again and again, gaining intensity as we learn of Shaffer’s imagined boy’s deep-rooted love of horses.

There’s no doubt that Shaffer was a visionary, and his words hold their own more than four decades on, but the freedom given to English Touring Theatre’s production, directed by Ned Bennett, feels like an intoxication. The resulting creation is a sensuous and cerebral tour-de-force forged in horse sweat and breath.

EQUUSR~4

The set is minimal to the extreme, with three vast plain curtains containing the space, while contributing to the atmosphere of the scenes. At times, figures or props emerge through them, silhouettes of the horses are shown through use of backlighting, and on one occasion psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, performed with startling sensitivity by Zubin Varla, twitches up a section to reveal Alan sitting behind.

Played by Ethan Kai, Alan is a wonderfully complex character. Initially communicating only in advert jingles (sung excruciatingly out of tune), his gradual willingness to open up is believable and moving.

And, yes, there is full frontal nudity. Perhaps, especially following the notoriety of he ‘naked Harry Potter’ production of 2008, if there had not been the audience would have felt short-changed.

What there is not, in this fresh production, are horse masks. Instead the actors embody horses through movement directed with masterful insight by Shelley Maxwell. In the pre-show talk Assistant Director Denzel Wesley-Sanderson and English Touring Theatre Producer James Quaife explained that while they tested masks in the show’s development stages, they decided they weren’t necessary.

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget and Ethan Kai as Alan.

It’s a wise choice, as it ensures no barriers stand between us and the performers. Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nuggets melts from man to horse through subtle shifts in stance. Hands become hooves, and the harrumphs of horses breathing become almost a form of communication. In a sense, it leaves interpretation of the worship elements of the story wide open, adding to the levels of this already richly layered script.

EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

There are moments of sheer magic, not least when Dysart asks Alan, “What’s your first memory of a horse,” and we’re relocated to a seashore via the addition of six sandcastles that slide on stage fully formed. The production leaves it up to us to make sense of what we see. This trustfulness invites us to participate in envisioning the play, adding details and scope from our own frames of reference.

EQUUS. Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard.

Alan refers to horses as slave-gods, and speaks of the remarkable fact that horses allow us to control them when their size equips them to crush us in moment, if they wanted to. This idea of strength in submission pushes us to question ingrained ideas more deeply, a path Dr Dysart leads us further down in the second act as he queries his patient’s madness in contrast to his own perceived sanity. Alan’s confusion and vulnerability acts as a field into which Dr Dysart’s, and our own, can be thrown and examined.

EQUUS_Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart). Image The Other Richard.

Rubin Varla as Dr Martin Dysart

The second act takes things up a pace, as we rocket through revelations or increasing emotional intensity. The play touches on so many themes – devotion, loyalty, passion and guilt are just a few – that by the exquisitely disconcerting finale, you may find yourself ready to interrogate your own heartfelt or socially imposed beliefs.

Equus is on at Bristol Old Vic until at Saturday 20th April 2019. Find details of cast and ticketing here.

All images by The Other Richard.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Writing prompt – delivery

White chocolate albatross egg_photo by Judy DarleyImagine waking to find an expected delivery in your living room – an egg so beautiful and speckled it seems to glow with light and colour.

Could something have crept into your home to lay it? What might hatch from that exquisite shell?

Now hype up the intrigue by expanding the egg to at least the size of your sofa.

By the way, this particular eggs-ample (sorry, couldn’t resist!) is a white chocolate confection apparently resembling an albatross egg.

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

The 507 micro fictions I have read

Dinefwr water meadows. Phot by Judy DarleyRecently, in a little under two days, I read and digested 507 micro fictions. Some of them I returned to and chewed over multiple times. In the two days after that, I set aside more than stories until I’d selected the 25 tales that have… well, yes, cast ripples.

The 507 specimens are 100-word stories submitted to the National Flash Fiction Day competition, which I was lucky enough to co-judge. On the morning after the contest closed to entries, I opened my inbox to find a fat document brimming with them all, ready to read at my leisure.

Well, not at my leisure, but it was a Saturday and I had almost an entire free morning in which to luxuriate over the carefully crafted creations.

During the first day I soon built up a rhythm that swept me along. As I swam through the compact fictions, I developed a labelling system of Yes, for the ones that stopped me in my tracks, Maybe, for the ones that snagged my attention at all, and No, for those that, I’m afraid, I felt I could remove without too many qualms.

By the end of day two I’d completed my second reading of all surviving stories, and was down to around 130.

Day three saw me whittle these down to a scant 61.

Patterns began to emerge as my brain sorted them into a series of recurring themes. I and my fellow judges, Angela Readman, Diane Simmons and Kevlin Henney, each attended dozens of funerals, including a high number where the chief mourner was also the murderer. We spent time in hospitals reeking with antiseptic and regret, waded through the mud of a multitude of wars. We met ghosts, unhappy children and cheating lovers in their droves.

We visited far-off planets, encountered people contemplating violence to themselves and others, and grazed our knees on numerous allegories and analogies. We bore witness to sensual and sinister moonlit cavorting. On at least three separate occasions we were told of the pain experienced via injury done to a twin. We eavesdropped on #MeToo revelations and felt the heat or skin-creeping chill of first times. These echoed narratives made our jobs a fraction easier, as we sought as the best of one type or another and used these to narrow our choices.

The process taught me to recognise a number of important things.

  • Word play is good, but not enough. For me a story needs to have heart too
  • A twist in the tail really needs to be handled with skill so as not to become an irritant
  • In some cases, even a 100-word story can have too many words
  • In some cases, a story trimmed down to 100 words can lose all meaning
  • Titles matter. With only 100 words to play with, the title offers precious opportunity to set the tone, and even layer in background information
  • Last lines matter. Somehow, they are the pebble that really casts a ring of ripples that will draw readers back to your story time and again.

To reach the small sum of 25, we each had to extricate and wave sorrowful farewells to some truly outstanding works. One I removed on day three continue to wriggle in my mind with such insistence that I retrieved it on day four and included it in my 25.

Once we’d ordered our 25 choice according to  preference, Santino Prinzi, the competition coordinator, correlated these, reissued the shortlist of 26 and asked us to narrow these down to our top ten. At this point, certain stories really began to shine.

I have emerged from tales breathless with wonder. It’s been an incredible, exhilarating journey, every step of the way.

NFFD 2019 logo

Now we have announced our winners and high commendably micro fictions, all of which will be published in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology 2019. There are some absolute stunners among them. Huge congratulations to these final ten, as well as everyone who reached the shortlist!

Being a co-judge of the NFFD completion 2019 has been a privilege. more than that, it’s been an education that’s spurred me on to aspire to write deeper, write truer and uncover more through my own writing.

A perfectly crafted paragraph is a powerful thing.

Writing prompt – fruit

Tomato. Photo by Judy DarleyDo you ever find it hard to believe that a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable? By this logic, how can we know that a dog is a dog, a pigeon is a pigeon or that a rock is a rock (and not a tortoise)?

Take this idea further and question all of your surroundings, piece by piece. Or consider this rather beautiful tomato and imagine it being extremely large, or yourself extremely small, and see where your mind carries you. If you want to go the other way and picture yourself being extremely large instead, go ahead. I won’t judge, promise.

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

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.