On your marks… NaNoWriMo!

Glastonbury Tor cr Judy DarleyJust two days until the start of NaNoWriMo 2017. Are you taking part? I love the concept of this word-packed month, of wannabe writers across the world hunched over laptops desperately scrabbling for 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 four 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 and why they are, 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.

If you’re taking part, I’ll raise a glass (or rather, a mug of coffee) to you. Good luck!

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.

How to use myths in your writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

That set me going. 

Fish Man Depicted on Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Explore infinite possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this nourished my fascination for the supernatural.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt by Justin Newland

Build a narrative and characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this and more is in The Genes of Isis.

Justin NewlandAuthor bio

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

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

All images in this post were supplied by the author.

World building with Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueYou’ve probably heard of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinarily successful novel Room. You may have seen the excellent screen adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and featuring Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack.

But until you read the book and, effectively, enter Jack’s mind, you’re missing the opportunity for full immersion in one of the strangest, most complete worlds ever imagined.

It doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t on another planet, populated by peculiar creatures or governed by strange laws, but, and here’s the key, as far as Jack’s concerned it may as well be, except the magic of all these oddities is that they’re the ones he’s grown up with over the five years of his live.

Everything beyond the walls and ceiling of Room is, he believes, outer space.

Jack is an unwavering narrator. His understanding of the small space he and Ma are confined within is absolute. There are a thousand ways to have fun, and enough friends, from Meltedy Spoon to Rug, to keep him from ever being lonely.

Donoghue engages a number of subtle tricks to sweep Jack’s world over and around us. For one thing, apart from dialogue, the whole text is written in Jack’s language. It’s simple enough to understand, but his sentence construction is a little off, and some words are particular to him. Killers, for example, are the painkillers Ma takes for her rotten tooth, the sun is God’s Yellow Face, and sleeping is switching off.

The author builds up the rules slowly, seeding in clues that help us make sense around Jack’s limited understanding.

“Door’s made of shiny magic metal, he goes beep beep after nine when I’m meant to be switched off in Wardrobe,” Jack says, little knowing the horrifying truths he’s letting us in on.

It’s Jack lack of comprehension that keeps the worst elements of his life from being unbearable. To Jack, Room is a safe and magical place, and that makes this book an enjoyable rather than miserable read.

Seen through Jack’s eyes, his world is a place of infinite adventures and possibilities, and Donoghue’s deftness in getting us to swallow this, while allowing us to gradually unravel the darker truths of Jack’s existence, reveals a writer with firm control over her characters and setting. And when it comes to world building, those are the restrictions we need to set our imaginations free to fly.

Room by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador and is available to buy from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene or technique? 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.

Create a setting for your story

Buddhist monks and offerings cr Dipika Mukherjee

Author Dipika Mukherjee tells us how she came to set an award-winning novel in Shambala Junction, India, and advises how we can make setting play a role in our own writing.

One of the nicest perks about being a writer is that it is a great excuse to travel, all in the guise of research. Although Shambala Junction is an imaginary place, writing the novel took me on lovely long train journeys through India.

Mine your own memories

Shambala Junction begins with a rather jinxed train journey for the protagonist, Iris, an Indian-American young woman visiting India with her new fiancée. I mined the memories of my own childhood, especially the wonderful nostalgia of long train journeys from New Delhi Station to Howrah in Kolkata, to write Iris’s wide-eyed enchantment with the ubiquitous details of Indian life.

Every summer, when the heat drove Delhiites to cooler cities, my family would board the Rajhdhani Express for a 24-hour journey with a long halt at Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai in my childhood had makeshift stalls selling colourful wooden dolls; although, it is almost impossible to find these artisans at railway stations anymore, Aman’s stall is inspired by my vivid memories:

He had an array of colorful wooden dolls spread out in front of him on a pushcart: there were dolls with turbans and flared coats playing flutes and dholaks; there were men riding horses with colorful stirrups and dazzling sword-sheaths; there were dancers dancing with the left leg slightly on tiptoe, caught in mid-swirl in the disarray of flouncing skirts.

Iris was enchanted. She had once owned a dancing doll just like that one, a beloved painted wooden thing with a crack in the veiled head, a gift from some unremembered relative in her childhood.

New Delhi cr Dipika Mukherjee

Start with a vein of truth

I started writing this novel after being enraged at the tone of an article about ‘baby shopping’ which was about international adoptions fuelling child-trafficking in India. This is a global problem, not just limited to India, and the trafficking moves from one impoverished country to another as the authorities start clamping down on severe irregularities I wanted the western world to realise that we are all complicit in this, especially by pretending that if poor children are placed in affluent homes it makes the world a better place.

I wrote the first draft in about three months in Amsterdam, then I edited this novel over four years, toning down the rage and making the characters blossom into real people. A novel like this taught me that there are far too many victims in these stories to be a novel about the East vs West or the Consumerist North vs Impoverished South. This story needed nuanced characters, and I was very aware of how easy it was for me, as an author, to have them climb onto soapboxes.

Use your imagination 

So this story shifted, from being based in New Delhi, to an imaginary Shambala Junction, loosely based on Gaya. Gaya is an ancient city and a deeply spiritual place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It has a real hill where the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon and a Mahabodhi temple, and these feature in the novel as well. At the same time, Gaya is also within the state of Bihar, which was at that time considered one of the most badly governed, lawless and corrupt states in India. I travelled to Gaya alone to get a sense of the place and visited the Mahabodhi temple, with its most international gathering of Buddhist pilgrims from all around the world alongside general tourists like me.

Buddha cr Dipika Mukherjee

I also visited the cave with an emaciated Buddha figure; an image rarely portrayed in Buddhist iconography, yet the rigors of attaining Nirvana would certainly have necessitated this condition. It was a startling image; a reminder of the frailty and mortality of all human condition.

The hill where Buddha preached the Fire Sermon was quite a trek, and in the novel, I transmute my experience into the voice of Emily, a Canadian woman wanting to adopt an Indian girl-child:

Emily raised her head. She could see the motley group of children heading for the next tourist bus pulling in. They had no time for play; it was work for them as long as tourists like her showed up. She felt her eyes prickle; so many children with miserable lives. Too many children who could not be adopted into better lives.

Beside a square white enclosure it was all brown on the hill. The rough-hewn rocks scattered on the dusty ground made room for brown shoots to limply wave in the wind. Her skin tingled with a tragic epiphany; on this hill, pregnant with religious history, she could see absolutely no signs of life.

Unlike Emily, I was left with a very happy memory by my trip to Gaya. During my visit to the Mahabodhi temple, as I sat under the Bodhi tree meditating with other people at the site where the Buddha had attained Nirvana, a stray leaf twirled down from the green canopy of the Bodhi Pallanka overhead and fell into my lap. That dried leaf is now framed and hangs in my home in Chicago; I like to think that the Buddha approved this story much before it found a publisher or won a prize!

Author Dipika MukherjeeAbout the author

Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, then published as Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011, South Asia) and Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016, World). Shambala Junction is her second novel and won the 2016 Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). She won the Gayatri GaMarsh Award for Literary Excellence (USA, 2015) and the Platform Flash Fiction Prize (India, 2009). Her short story collections include Rules of Desire (Fixi, Malaysia, 2015) and edited collections Champion Fellas (Word Works, 2016), Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002).

Read my review of Shambala Junction tomorrow.

How to add drama to your writing

Gigi and The Cat by ColetteI recently read The Cat by French novelist Colette. Now, Colette was no slouch when it came to seeding her stories with escalating tension. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, Colette’s most renowned work is the novella Gigi, but for me The Cat far surpasses that tale.

It begins slowly enough with our introductions to Alain and his fiancée Camille; Alain’s beloved rescue cat Saha in the background. As the narrative progresses, Alain’s resentment of Camille’s position in his life deepens. The wedding takes place off-screen, hinting at how little significance this change in circumstance holds for Alain.

The newly weds move in together and muddle along relatively all right, until Alain brings Saha to share their temporary home.

The home, leant by a friend, is in a tall, skinny building the unhappy couple refers to as The Wedge. Their apartment is nine storeys up, and Saha quickly develops a tendency to sit “washing herself at length on the parapet” above the sheer drop.

Initially this behaviour terrifies Camille, but jealousy is a dark and unpredictable thing. Alain’s love-making is “hurried” and “peevish”, while he reserves all his warmth and affection for Saha.

In the first pages of chapter eight, Camille’s thwarted dreams of wedded bliss crack through to the surface. While Alain is out, she and Saha “were resting on the same parapet”, providing Colette with the perfect setting for a truly dramatic scene. “They exchanged a glance of sheer mutual investigation and Camille did not say a word to Saha.”

Instead, Camille behaves as if Saha is not there, perhaps pretending to herself that her “rival” truly does not exist. Yawning, stretching and pacing, she impels the cat to move endlessly, over and over, in the small space they inhabit high above the ground.

After a few near misses, “the cat was looking at Camille’s back and her breath came faster. She got up, turned two or three times on her own axis and looked questioningly at the closed door. Camille had not moved. Saha inflamed her nostrils and showed a distress that was almost like nausea. A long desolate mew escaped from her, the wretched reply to a silent, imminent threat. Camille faced round abruptly.”

As Camille strides to and fro, Saha has continually to dodge her feet to avoid being kicked, or trodden on. Rhythmically, the torture continues, with Camille feigning ignorance while forcing Saha to leap onto the parapet and back to the balcony floor to save herself, again and again.

And, as in any great drama, it is just as Camille is distracted and Saha has a chance to relax that the scene reaches its breathtaking climax.

My copy of The Cat by Colette is part of a volume published by Vintage in 2001, which also contains the novella Gigi. Buy it 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.

The power of reading aloud

Remember Me To The Bees launch photographer Pete GettinsThis month I’ll be doing readings at events in Cardiff and Bristol, sharing flash fictions pieces inspired by art, a short story based on the life of a lady aviator, and a tale prompted by superstition and the sea.

I love doing readings – it’s always somewhat terrifying, but at no other time do you receive such an instantaneous reaction to your work. I even enjoy reading out during sessions with the writing groups I attend. Somehow speaking the words I’ve written gives them life beyond the page, which is, in part, what every written word requires in one form or another.

With works in progress, it also helps me to hear where my writing would benefit from being tightened up or amended in some way. I sometimes wonder if the neighbours are ever puzzled to overhear me reading my latest story or chapter aloud, sometimes stopping mid-sentence as some previously unnoticed clunkiness or typos come to my attention.

If a sentence trips you as you speak it, something’s generally amiss. A few tweaks can smooth out the structure and rhythm, enrich each sentence, and get it closer to the flawless piece of prose or poetry you intended to construct in the first place.

If you haven’t tried it before, I definitely recommend giving it a go, even if it’s just you alone in a forest with an audience of trees. Even better, as one of my friends does, dictate your writing pieces into a Dictaphone or similar and play it back to yourself – you may find yourself cringing, but surely that will be worth it for the enhanced end result.

Time management for writers

quaffleToday’s guest post comes from writer Freya Morris, and offers some golden tips for managing your time and maintaining motivation to get the most from your urge to write.

Time’s a snitch. The golden type, that flies away from you in that awesome game that doesn’t exist – Quidditch.

Picture this: we writers are the seekers, up on our broom (which for the sake of this Harry Potter analogy, I’m going to say is the pen/laptop/whatever), squinting, trying to spot that tiny little glimmer of hope, find the time to write.

We just have to catch it.

Harry Potter golden snitch

I’ve been looking for the golden snitch for as long as I can remember. I stayed in my first full-time job for about three months before realising that I was nowhere near it. In fact, my head wasn’t even in the game. On my lunch breaks I read about playing, or caught up on the results of other writers who had caught the snitch hundreds of times before me. But this was getting me nowhere. So I worked out that if I went part-time, I could earn the same about doing an admin job and actually put pen to paper during the rest of my time. And so I did.

So you’d think that going part-time would be it, right? Game over. Snitch caught. We can all cheer. YAY! Go Gryffindor (or whatever your house of choice is).

Wrong.

Going part-time was like standing in the arena, broomless and without a clue how to play the game. I was in it, I caught glimpses of the snitch, but all I had really achieved by going part-time was space. By not grasping ahold of my broom and training, the arena soon filled with distractions: family, housework, chores, DIY and whatever. And in all this crap – the snitch could hide forever.

And it still does. Every day, it’s like playing a game of Quidditch and so many things get in the way of me catching that snitch – mostly, myself. Here are some things I’ve learnt in training along the way.

bludger

Beware the Bludgers

Rejections – they happen often, and most of the time you can dodge them and carry on. But the odd one here and there will smack you right in the face and throw you off your broom (ie – pen/laptop/whatever). But remember, it’s only temporary. The game is still playing, the snitch is still flying. You’re just floored for a bit. It might be a longer game than usual – days long – but someone has to catch the snitch before the game can finish. Make sure that it’s you.

This is where it’s probably good to get some Beaters on side, ‘Champions of You’ that can bat away any Bludgers coming your way. So stop playing Quidditch alone. Find your Beater today. They will greatly increase your odds of catching that pesky snitch.

Quaffing the Quaffle – scoring points and jumping through hoops

For me, this is all the stuff that I do that isn’t writing but supports my writing: social media, blogging, this very post, readings. Hit those Quaffles and score some points, but don’t forget to block some too when it’s stopping you from focusing on catching the snitch. The Quaffle gets you points, but ultimately, it doesn’t win you the game. Be your own Chaser, and your own Keeper.

Harry Potter brooms

Training 

Get on your broom regularly. Find out the best techniques for you. Find your heroes and read about them. Exercise – literally. Blood flow is good for the brain. Have specific goals, for now, next week, next year. (Listen to your own advice Freya.)

Once you catch that snitch, you’ll be thinking about the next game, and sometime you won’t catch it as often as you so desperately hope to. So if you want to survive being a writer, you got to know why you’re playing the game in the first place and enjoy it.

The hardest part for me is the first step, the shoe-tie, the picking up of the broom, the pressure on the pitch. And that… well I’m still learning to overcome. Any advice, especially HP related, do share!

Freya MorrisAbout the author

Freya Morris was named after the great explorer, Freya North, and lives up to her name by exploring other worlds in her imagination. For her flash fiction, she won the Yellow Room Flash Fiction Competition and came runner up in the Greenacre Writers Competition. Her short stories have been published in: Litro’s Friday Flash, Short Story Sunday, Nature’s Futures section, Popshot, and National Flash Fiction Day Anthology ‘Scraps’.

NB: Thanks to JK Rowling for providing the source material for Freya’s analogy. Freya has obtained permissions for all images used in this post.

How to write a short story collection

Knit graffiti in Arnos Vale cr Judy DarleyToday’s guest post comes from writer KM Elkes and offers an insight into the art of stringing a short story collection together.

Telling people you are working on a novel is easy enough. People ‘get’ novels. Even the least reader-ish person has probably read a couple, either because they were forced to at school or because they were part of Generation Harry Potter.

But a short story collection? Not so much.

Maybe that’s because short story collections are relatively unfamiliar – not so surprising when you consider bookshops force readers into an Indiana Jones-style quest to find them. They lurk unassumingly, a diaspora spread among distant bookcases, waiting for the day when someone has the bright idea to give them a shelf of their own.

But there’s a deeper issue too – even those in the biz, writers and publishers, are sometimes ignorant of what a short story collection really is. Which makes putting one together feel like a Sisyphean task.

Think about it. There’s plenty of advice out there on what makes a good novel – how to write it, pace it, plot it, sell it. But I’ve yet to Google a go-to guide on what constitutes a fantastic collection.

Most short story writers are busy just trying to make each story the best we can. The emotional investment is quick, deep and hard, the art tricky.  It’s only when you come to the point of putting your own collection together that you realise it’s not simply a matter of polishing up your bestest, nicest stories and pressing Send.

What does a short story collection involve? What does it need?

Well, in my opinion, many of the same things that characterise a good short story – unity of purpose and theme.

I’m not talking specifically about some clunky link (hey, watchya know, they’re all characters from the same street!) but something less obvious, spider silk thin at times, but there, somehow.

Runaway by Alice MunroLook at some wonderful collections – Alice Munro’s Runaway; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Nathan Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges; Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan. Whether or not the author planned it, there is a thread that runs through these books, located in place, or in an overarching theme, in the kind of lives they tackle and in that most intangible thing: voice.

Regardless of point of view, tense, sympathetic or abhorrent characters, regardless of timeframe or timeline, great authors have a voice, a way of storytelling that leaves an imprint on their collection.

Think of George Saunders at the frayed edge of satire, or the rich gravy of Saul Bellow’s language, the wry humour of Kevin Barry and Edith Pearlman’s precise concision – all give a shape that is the author’s own.

What can those of us putting our debut collection learn from this?

Being ruthless is necessary, especially with our earlier work. Yes they might have won prizes or been shortlisted for decent competitions, but do these stories fit with our latest work, where a more individual voice is starting to form? Perhaps it’s time for that tricky chat: “Thanks guys, we had fun, but I’ve moved on. It’s not you, it’s me.”

Tough love is also needed for the stories that are up to scratch, but simply don’t fit in. That cracking three thousand worder, which someone said reminded them of Jorge Luis Borges, probably won’t fit if you are building a reputation as the Cheever of Milton Keynes.

Even then, this process throws up fresh dilemmas. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know that the next story you write won’t be the one to top out the collection, the crowning glory that will pull it all together?

This is particularly tricky for me, and, I suspect, many other short story writers because I don’t (I can’t) write with a collection in mind. Story writing for me is a weird alchemy, when character, voice, theme and tone come together through some process that has little to do with the analytical part of my brain.

So time is important, to allow things to accrete. Maybe the key to creating a short story collection is the key to all writing – keep going, get better at it, read stories by people who are better than you, learn from them, accept your failures, don’t get carried away with your successes, rinse and repeat.

Eventually you may begin to ‘feel’ a group of stories huddling together. You sense a deeper resonance coming through, common themes being explored. You think – and this is as important as anything else – of a title that makes things tick.

Good advice is hard to come by, but fresh perspectives (note the plural), might help you push to keep creating new material or re-think existing work.

All of this points towards a simple fact – creating a short story collection is also about growing up as a writer, reaching a maturity which enables you to fathom how stories hang together, the palette you work with, the themes which gnaw at you and how that is not such a ‘bad thing’.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you. For now.

Author KM ElkesAbout the author

KM Elkes is an author, journalist and travel writer. He has won the Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was one of the winners of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer short story prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize 2015. His work has appeared in various anthologies and won prizes at Words With Jam, Momaya Review, Writing WM, Bath Short Story Award, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He blogs at www.kmelkes.co.uk and tweets via @mysmalltales.

KM Elkes will be sharing more of his writing expertise at free flash fiction workshops taking place at Bristol Central Library for National Flash Fiction Day (this Saturday!), along with NFFD director Calum Kerr and prize-winning author KM Elkes. The workshops take place from 1.30-4.30pm. KM is also taking part in An Evening of Flash Fiction, from 6pm at Foyles Bookstore Bristol, along with a number of other writers, including Zoe GilbertKevlin HenneySarah Hilary, Freya Morris, Grace Palmer, Jonathan Pinnock, and, well, me.