How to write a themed short story collection

FJ Morris This is Not About David Bowie giveawayJPGToday’s guest post comes from FJ Morris, flash fiction writer extraordinaire and author of the short story collection This is (not about) David Bowie. Here she shares her seven top tips for putting together a successful themed short story collection.

I’m a big fan of restrictions. They force you to be more focused and more creative. That’s why I wanted a central idea or concept for a collection. It wasn’t until someone asked me to write a chapbook that the idea struck me like lightning from the heavens. Permission had been given. David Bowie had spoken.

My flash fiction collection ‘This is (not about) David Bowie’ isn’t about him, but it’s inspired by his music and art, and that title was one of the first things I came up with. The collection would never be about David Bowie, but about us. I was drawn to the same themes, the same topics, and had the same upward stare towards space that David Bowie had. I didn’t really see it at the time. My subconscious made those connections for me.

So with 20/20 hindsight, here are my tips on putting together a themed short story collection.

1 Get inspired

When you choose a theme or concept, it really needs to get you excited. It should be an ‘Aha’ moment. Angels should sing. Clouds will part. Ideas will begin to flood in. It should make you glad to be alive. Because it’s about the things that matter you, the song in your heart will sing and shout when the connection is made to the right idea. You may not fully see why at first, but you’ll see and feel its impact.

2 Live in it

Whether that’s through music, art, reading, rolling around or just stewing in thought, spend time dreaming. Let your dream state surround you so that it seeps into your subconscious. When you come to write, it’ll be there, bubbling away.

My best stories popped up when the theme was held in the peripheral of my vision. I’d start with an idea, a Bowie starting point, and then let it grow.

3 Have courage

Not everything you write will or should make the cut. But write it anyway. Every act of creation is an act of courage, of love. Leave fear and doubt at the door. Show up for yourself and only yourself. Embrace the mess that you’re about to create, because it should be wild. That’s what growing is all about.

If Bowie can teach us anything, then it’s to be bold with ourselves. Take those risks.

4 Think outside the book

Break outside of the box. It wasn’t until I had some distance and came at it again that I could look at the collection differently. I stopped looking at it as a book and started seeing it as an album. I needed to add more to it: rhythm, bass lines, movement, tempo, volume changes, signalling.

It was Bowie’s music and a booked called The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Morena that helped me envision a different sort of collection; one that would mix short stories, Bowie quotes, flash fiction, plays and poems. Like an album, I wanted to give people a sense of journey, and a sense of order, mystery and growth on their way through the collection. Quotes from Bowie act as sign-posts of what was to come.

It was Bowie who gave me permission and inspiration to do more than what was expected – to go beyond the conventional.

5 Question everything…

It’s important to ask yourself some difficult questions: What is the point? Why does this matter? Why should it matter to anyone else? Why am I doing this?

Each time I went back to the drawing board, I went back with a critical eye and questions. Have I been true to Bowie, true to myself? What doesn’t feel right?

One thing I really noticed on the last round was that I had some missing voices, some missing stories, including one on friendship and one about fatherhood. So I went back in.

6 Let go

FJ Morris collection book trail

You will never know when to let it go. Someone else will make that decision for you because of time or opportunity. Recognise it. Embrace it. There’s more I could’ve done with my collection; more I could look at, rewrite, redo, reimagine. That’s the wonderful thing about creativity – it doesn’t finish, it evolves with you.

This collection will forever be a snapshot of a time in my life, and it should stay that way – flaws and all. Art is not about perfection. It’s about being human and being true to who you are.

7 Have fun and ignore what doesn’t serve you

FJ Morris This Is Not About David Bowie

Throw out any rules or advice or tips (even these here) if they don’t serve you. Give yourself permission. Give yourself time.

This is supposed to be fun. Enjoy every minute of creating it. Embrace who you are and how different you might be. What makes you different will make your writing different too, and that really is something to celebrate and get excited about. Follow what’s in your heart.

In the words of David Bowie: I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.

FJ MorrisAbout the author

FJ Morris is a proud Bristolian and award-winning author. Her collection This is (not about) David Bowie was published by Retreat West Books in November 2018 and received a special mention in the Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection in 2019.

She’s been published in numerous publications in the UK and internationally, and shortlisted for a variety of awards. Recently, you can find her stories soaring the skies thanks to a short story vending machine in a Canadian airport, and gracing pillows in a hotel in Indonesia. You can also find her stories in Bare Fiction, Halo, The Fiction Desk, Popshot, National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, and many more.

All gifs via GIPHY.

Read my review of This is (not about) David Bowie by FJ Morris.

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 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.

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.

On your marks… NaNoWriMo!

Painted desert, Colorado cr Judy DarleyIt’s less than a day until the start of NaNoWriMo 2018 on 1st November. Are you taking part? I love the concept of this word-packed month, with ardent writers across the world hunched over laptops sweating out every last drop of inspiration..

I know plenty of writers this enforced period of productivity really suits. For some folks it seems to be the ideal way to stoke up ideas and get them to catch alight on the page.

For me, the beginning stages of novel-writing are all about thinking ahead, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do some speedy planning even as you begin to write. After all, what else are you going to do when waiting for buses, in post office queues and doing the washing up?

Here are my top five preparation tips to ensure you make the most of this exceptional month.

1. Form a vision of the story you’ll be aiming to tell, with the beginning already shaped in your mind. If possible, do the same for the ending. Having an idea of the finale you’re working towards will mean you’re far less likely to veer off track!

2. Spend some time considering your characters – working out who they are, how they think, what their goals are, how they might help or hinder each other.

3. Know your setting. This is one of my favourites, particularly if it offers a valid excuse to meander in a much loved wilderness or similar.

4. Pick out a few dramatic moments your plot will cover and brainstorm them, then set them aside. Whenever your enthusiasm wanes over the intensive NaNoWriMo period, treat yourself by delving into one of those to reinvigorate your writing energy.

5. Finally, make sure you have plenty of sustenance to hand. For me, the essentials are coffee and chocolate. What are yours?

In 2017 more than 26,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month. If you’re signing up, I raise a glass (or rather, a mug of coffee) to you. Good luck!

Writing prompt – found

Goblin by Judy DarleyImagine, a small stone goblin appears in a forest.

Where did it come from? Did someone leave it there? If so, why?

Imagine, one day the goblin disappears as mysteriously as it arrived.

Where did it go? Did someone take it? If so why?

What happens in the time these two events? What will happen next?

Puzzle out the answers to each of these questions, even if you don’t intend to share them all with your readers. Just knowing them will help to give your writing clarity and depth.

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.

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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.

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.

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.