On your marks… NaNoWriMo!

Painted desert, Colorado cr Judy DarleyTomorrow marks the start of NaNoWriMo 2019 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.

New to the concept? It’s pretty simple really. As they state on the NaNoWriMo website: “On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.”

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 2018,14, 527, 438 words were logged across the globe as part of National Novel Writing Month. If you’re signing up, I raise a glass (or rather, a mug of coffee) to you. Good luck!

How writing connects us across cultures and borders

Sydney Harbour Bridge by Annee LawrenceIn today’s guest post, Annee Lawrence, the author of The Colour of Things Unseen, examines the power of fiction to transcend borders and offer insights into communities and landscapes other than our own, with positive outcomes.

Map for Pakdhe Daliman and Uncle John 2012 acrylic on canvas 150x180cm by Ida Lawrence

Map for Pakdhe Daliman and Uncle John by Ida Lawrence

In this painting, the Australian-Indonesian artist Ida Lawrence uses maps and constructed letters to two uncles, one in Australia and the other in Indonesia. One letter is inviting her Uncle John to travel from his village in south-western New South Wales to meet and visit her Indonesian family in their village in Central Java. The other is addressed in Indonesian to her Javanese uncle, Pakde Daliman, inviting him to visit her Uncle John.

Different forms of address are used in the letters which give directions in Indonesian or English on how to get from their respective villages, onto the plane, through customs, what to expect to see along the way, how to get to the other’s village when they arrive at the airport. The tone of the letter to Uncle John is colloquial and even cheeky, while the letter to Pakde Daliman begins with enquiries about her uncle’s health, her aunt, the rice crops, and other family members.

A further painting will offer cross-cultural tips to her uncles and, in a corner of this painting, there is a story about a time in 1921 when the female ancestors on both sides of her family met up in Broome with their respective women’s groups for afternoon tea and swapped recipes and handicrafts made in their respective villages. Ida Lawrence is my daughter.

Volcanoes above the clouds over Java. By Annee Lawrence

Volcanoes above the clouds over Java by Annee Lawrence

Use fiction to encourage understanding

Prior to writing the novel The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro Books, UK 2019), I wondered why Australians in particular have such little knowledge or even curiosity about Indonesia – the largest of its close neighbours –– and its remarkable history, peoples, cultures, and art; or about the ways in which their respective histories overlap and interconnect.

There are not many Australian novels set in Indonesia, and some poetry, but when I began looking at the novels I found that, even in those that were well written, the Indonesian characters were often portrayed as devious, unknowable and shadowy. They had little or no agency.

The plots seemed to always involve an Australian journalist, tourist or business person arriving in Indonesia and, by degrees, being damaged in some way. They rarely spoke Indonesian, or any of the other local languages, and their cross-cultural understanding remained limited as they were plunged into culture shock.

This led me to consider the way literature – like the media, and perhaps also like the way histories are presented and studied – contributes to and reinforces the demonisation of certain others. Could a different kind of literature contribute to a more respectful engagement between people and countries, and within countries?

View from Borobodur by Annee Lawrence

View from Borobodur by Annee Lawrence

Contribute to ideas of engagement

In my case this questioning is certainly linked to my daughter’s father and his extended family being Javanese, and to having family and friends in Indonesia and in the Australian-Indonesian community in Sydney.

THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN coverIn The Colour of Things Unseen, my protagonist Adi leaves his family and small village in Central Java to travel to Australia to study art at a Sydney art school. He arrives in early 1997 and later that year Indonesia is hit by economic crisis and collapse. Then, in May 1998, the seemingly entrenched thirty-two year old Suharto dictatorship, in whose shadow he has grown up, collapses and is replaced by a democracy.

Adi comes of age in Australia. As a student he has a foot in both places, but when he marries and becomes a permanent resident his ties to family and village seem to loosen. Fifteen years later he returns, and he finds the place both familiar and strange, but also connected in diverse and surprising ways with art and artists of the region and the world.

The question that arises is what difference this will have on him as an artist living in the present time. And what of his relationship to place as he begins to respond to the shadows and concerns of what was hidden from view in the nation’s history that was fabricated and taught to him at school.

Sydney Harbour Bridge2 by Annee Lawrence

Sydney Harbour Bridge by Annee Lawrence

Make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange

When I came to write this novel I had in mind readers who were Indonesian and non-Indonesian and my aim was to make what was strange familiar and what was familiar strange (to the reader). Above all, though, I was interested in the questions: What is an artist? What can art do? Why does it matter? Can it expose us to new ways of connecting with the unfamiliar and the strange, and with the parts of our respective histories that remain hidden or disguise our links to the histories of others?

I also wondered whether there is a role for all kinds of artists including writers – in a world of disruption, displacement, and the politics of borders, wall building, exclusion and suspicion – to shed light on an imaginative blurring of national borders and boundaries that can show us a plurality of being and cross-cultural connectedness that we have yet to learn to fully recognise and peaceably live alongside.

Annee Lawrence, authorAbout the author

Annee Lawrence’s debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen, is published by Aurora Metro Books (UK, 2019). Annee has worked as a tutor, writer, editor and community development worker in women’s health, disability rights and a range of social justice issues. Her research interests include the way identity shape-shifts in an unfamiliar place and culture; ethics, aesthetics, alterity and form in the cross-cultural novel; and Australian-Indonesian cross-cultural connection. She completed a PhD in creative writing in 2015 at the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney.

Annee lives in Sydney and has published in Griffith Review, New Writing, Hecate and Cultural Studies Review. In 2018 Annee was awarded the inaugural Asialink Tulis Australian-Indonesian Writing Exchange which was funded by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and hosted by Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud.

All photography in this post is by Annee Lawrence.

Read other writing masterclasses in the SkyLightRain Writing Tools series.

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?”

Continue reading

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.

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.