You may know already that Louise Walters is closing her publishing company at the end of June. This will be a huge loss to the world of independent publishing. She has been indefatigable in her support of her authors over the past 6 years, but everyone has their limit.
There is much to say about this, but for now I just urge to take advantage of last opportunity to buy from Louise Walters Books. All her books are on sale from her online bookshop with a 25% discount until the end of June. After that, they will no longer be available.
Maybe you already have my book, In the Sweep of the Bay. Maybe you have all the other books Louise has published. If so, thank you, that’s great, but now you could do one or more of the following:
buy a book for a friend
ask your local library to buy one or more books – or a set for bookclubs. If their budget does not permit this, you could buy one or more yourself and donate them.
spread the word on social media
tell your friends who don’t use social media
This is not about me wanting money. This is about me wanting to support excellence. And it’s about kindness. Something that is easily forgotten in the world of publishing.
I leave you with a rose from my garden. Thank you for reading this and take care.
Although I live in South Wales and Mandira Pattnaik in India, our paths have been criss-crossing on the global flash fiction stage for several years, and I am very happy to invite readers to celebrate with me the upcoming publication by Stanchion of Pattnaik’s novella-in-flash Where We Set Our Easel.
The work is a kaleidoscopic riff on the nature and passage over time of love between a man and a woman. Rich in metaphor and imagery, it is – like all good flash fiction – as powerful for what it leaves unsaid, inviting the reader to develop their own pictures of relationship, its challenges and rewards. Using techniques of time-shift, repetition and cut-up, varying pace and mood and working her texts with the precision of a scalpel, Pattnaik has created a shining, multifaceted gem.
Mandira Pattnaik generously agreed to share her reflections on the writing of the book, and to answer some other questions which intrigued me. Here’s what we talked about across the ether:
Cath Barton: Can you tell readers a bit about the inspiration for the stories which, together, make up Where We Set Our Easel?
Mandira Pattnaik: Thank you so much, Cath. Where We Set Our Easel developed from a micro fiction piece I wrote during UK Flash Fiction Festival last year based on a prompt. The prompt was the Van Gogh painting ‘Café Terrace at Night’. I submitted the piece later and it was published in April, 2022 in Canadian publication Commuterlit. The idea of a young, somewhat naïve, couple, deeply in love, walking through the painting into a dream-like world, metaphorically in an imagined future they see together, and then discovering where their life takes them, appealed to my sensibilities. The stories that I subsequently wrote form the arc of that relationship. In this novella-in-flash, written entirely in stand-alone micro prose, the pieces double up as the novella’s chapters. The narrative peeps into the couple’s ordinary lives here and there, chronicling their difficult situations, work and children, trivial misunderstandings, bitterness, parental concerns and accidents, while taking time jumps trusting the reader to fill in the gaps with imagined details. Where We Set Our Easel, true to its title, I believe, is a story of two lives well-lived that can only be possible because of deep and true love.
CB: Congratulations on being published by Stanchion. How did this come about?
MP: Stanchion had already been publishing gorgeous magazines, and when the call for manuscripts was announced, I really wanted to submit. This work was written and completed in the brief interval between that announcement and the call submission window opening. I submitted it in the open reading period and was hugely grateful when it was selected. As you may understand, for a writer from India, being published at all is difficult, let alone a book, that too by a publisher based in the US for an international readership. Now, I’m all jittery and ecstatic and unbelieving that Where We Set Our Easel is soon going to be out there in the world, through Stanchion Books as well as Barnes & Noble. I’m taking time off to let the feeling sink in.
CB: I think your title Where We Set Our Easel is so evocative and appropriate. And titles add so much to flash fiction. Do you start with titles or do they emerge later in the writing process?
MP: Titles do add so much to flash fiction, in fact, to any book. As a reader, no matter what subject or genre, I’m drawn to titles that are brief, evocative and memorable. Similarly, when titling a piece of mine, I’m looking at these attributes. However, it is easier said than done. Sometimes it is a stroke of luck to find the title at the outset or during the process of writing. At other times, it’s an uphill task, with the piece going through several revisions and at least one title change.
For this novella, the title emerged from the opening story (it was published under the same title in Commuterlit a year before). I later decided to rename the opening story and use the title for the entire novella. I hope readers find it as evocative of a starting point full of possibilities. I’m also hoping it makes readers curious about the course my characters will follow. Further, I’d like to believe this title, combined with the reading of the opening story, will suggest a lot many different paths, each with a range of outcomes, akin to what walking into a frame will possibly generate. As recent readers who have had a sneak peek say, they’ve been impatient to learn what transpires beyond the framework where I’ve set the easel!
CB: Your stories are strongly visual. Who are your favourite artists?
MP: I think I tend to write in a way that the reader can visualize the setting. I love natural surroundings and they are often the stage for my stories. My favorite artists are too many to name. Van Gogh of course is somewhere on the top of that list.
CB: You’ve been widely published over the past few years. But do you have an unfulfilled writing ambition?
MP: I’m very thankful for the love my work has received over the last couple of years or so. I have enjoyed writing since when I was very young, but as is the case with most people, work and family took precedence. I started writing again in 2018 with no publications that year and very few in the next. However, some amazing places accepted my writing 2020 onwards and this is where I’m now, happy with what I am doing. I never set out to be a writer. I’m not a very young person, so I guess I’ll take it one at a time, not planning too much ahead.
CB: Who would you say are your greatest teachers?
MP: Readers may not know this but I graduated in Economics and I am a trained accountant and auditor. However, I’ve not been enrolling into writing workshops/mentorships and the like for a variety of reasons. More or less, I’m on my own — tripping, falling, and charting a journey I cherish. My greatest lessons come from reading others, from observing and from trial-and-error.
CB: If you were castaway on a desert island what one book would you take with you and why?
MP: I’m not sure! I have many on my TBR list, and can’t decide on which to pick. I’m currently reading Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. I don’t know which book to go for next. I read a variety of genres, and usually mix my reading to include science, history, even electronics and geography.
But probably I’ll just take my notebook instead, and write while I’m there!
CB: If you could choose one writer (living or dead) to spend an evening with, who would it be, and what would you like to say to them?
MP: James Joyce. I’m a huge admirer of his writing. I think I know Dublin like it was my city because of the way Joyce describes it. I suppose the admiration comes also from the similarities of Dublin with places in India I have lived in, from shared sensibilities and from the attention to detail that’s the hallmark of Joyce’s stories. But I’d probably be too tongue tied to say anything if I met Joyce.
CB: Have you got a flash fiction you would like to share with readers here?
MP: Embryonic Star – this was published in the Irish flash fiction journal Splonk).
CB: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share with readers?
MP: Perhaps regarding Where We Set Our Easel: whether the time-jumps I mentioned earlier in our conversation are something that I planned consciously? My reply would be: Time is eternal and at the same time slippery — this is part of our ancient Indian texts and philosophy. In this respect, for a novella-in-flash, time could be compressed into less than fifty pages without compromising on any of the pulls and emotions that a novel promises. I wanted Where We Set Our Easel to have the arc and timeline of a novel, follow the characters through a lifetime’s journey and satisfy the reader in its resolution, and yet shrink itself to within a novella-length work. It wasn’t difficult to do that, letting myself glide, and skim, and peep into the couple’s life. Given flash is a genre I have written in the most, and am definitely comfortable in, I am delighted the novella-in-flash took its present shape.
CB: Can you say a little more about how the notion of time being at the same time eternal and slippery features in ancient Indian texts and philosophy? Give an example perhaps.
MP: As I mentioned before, the constraints of writing a novella entirely in micro prose doubled the challenge of managing time-frame and setting within which I’d allow my characters to thrive. I also had to ensure that the narrative would progress such that it defined a satisfactory arc for the reader. With this objective, I had to compress time at places in the novella, and yet, at other points, I had to portray time as eternal and everlasting for certain relationships and emotions.
It helped that as an Indian, I am drawn to thought-schools and philosophy about the duality of time. For example, time is cyclical in the cosmological context, but linear for determination of events. Time is regulated by the motions of the sun and moon, and in the same vein, boundless for life as it exists on the planet itself. In the epic Mahabharata, for instance, Time is compared to a stage manager or Sutradhara. Here, Time is personified as a force that controls the performance of a puppet show according to his wish. The whole cosmos is thought of as a grouping that is subservient to the control of the puppet-master Time. I believe some of these notions do percolate into my writing.
CB: What a fascinating note on which to end, Mandira. Thank you so much for taking time to talk, and I wish you all the best with Where We Set Our Easel.
Bio: Mandira Pattnaik is the author of collections “Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople” (2022, Fahmidan Publishing, Poetry), “Girls Who Don’t Cry” (2023, Alien Buddha Press, Flash Fiction) and “Where We Set Our Easel” (2023, Stanchion Publishing, Novella). Mandira’s work has appeared in Flash Frontier NZ, The McNeese Review, Penn Review, Quarterly West, Citron Review, Passages North, DASH, Miracle Monocle, Timber Journal, Contrary, Watershed Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, Quarter After Eight and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She edits for trampset and Vestal Review. More at mandirapattnaik.com
The Indian author Mandira Pattnaik’s novella-in-flash Where We Set Our Easel is published on 23rd May.
I talked to her about her book and her writing life.
As a taster here’s what she has to say about time:
Time is eternal and at the same time slippery — this is part of our ancient Indian texts and philosophy.
Come back on Friday, 19th May, and read our full conversation, including how that notion of time informed Mandira’s approach to writing a novella-in-flash, and how the picture below comes into her book.
I mean God being non-binary is old news, no? So much lost in translation. Did you ever see a nativity scene with folks the right colour? As if the only brown yolks were the donkeys. The baby Jesus, the colour of snow and his mammy a natural blond. Joseph looking on like some bearded Shoreditch hipster.
As a child I belonged to a funny old outfit called the Legion of Mary. We were some kind of army ready to fight if she returned to earth. Fearsome we’d have been. All aged about 10 and natural selection having removed us from sports activities on a weekend.
Me at that age an unknowing but obvious homo. Loved to skip. It’s actually a very economical way to travel. Always met with fierce resistance, mind. My mam let me cut bluebells from the garden, soak them in loo roll and take them up to the convent to adorn the Virgin.
So, this one day and I’m off to join The Legion and doesn’t Sister Mary Evangelista of the Holy Roses stop me at the door and ask me to nip down to the church and get the statue of the big Lady and bring it to the convent for our meet.
Talk about give me joy in my heart keep me burning! Flushed with the obvious leadership status this affords me among the ranks I race at speed to the church of the Sacred Heart of the Immaculate Jubilation.
Spotting Mary Marilyn of Monroe in the corner I am suddenly afeared that she is almost as tall as I am. Undaunted I pick her up and sure she’s made of something terrible light and no bother to carry. It feels wrong to put her under my arm, so I hold her upright and steady against my chest and head off back to Convent HQ.
It’s been a beautiful frosty morning and I’m careful enough not to skip but truth be told I can’t properly see my way as Mary’s big veil is in my eye-line and I don’t see the patch of ice on the pavement. I go down in slow motion, but the feels come at me faster than a bullet. If a single bit of her comes to harm, I’ll be hell bound before you can say a decade of the bountiful mysteries.
In my falling I cling on to her so tight. I make sure that every bit of my body hits the pavement and not one bit of hers does. I hear the tinny thud of impact and rejoice that it is me and not her.
I sit for a few moments on the ground. Mary stood next to me. Traffic going by and no-one pays any heed. Nor does Sr Mary Eva of the Angelic Fashionistas when I knock on the convent door, blood in my hair.
Sacred Blood, I decide.
Blood of Honour.
Blood of The Cross.
Blood of The Legion.
David Abbott lives high up on a hill in Wales with his boyfriend and a rescue dog called Roxy. He is a very occasional writer of fiction.
It’s a creature. The thought seems to lie in wait for the sound. I can’t tell if it’s hunger or curiosity which freezes me. The noise comes again from the reedbed, in a slightly different place; a spoor of crumpling, fracturing. Something moving.
First rule of listening: stop. Now scan, locate. A fox does this, can swivel its ears through half-circles. Is it reynard in the swamp, tempted by ice-bound waterfowl? I look for a viewpoint, a gap between blackthorns. But you cannot see far into reeds before the eye falters. A bittern understands, stretches a vertical neck, hides itself in slender rushwork.
Unusual here, so near the coast; ice. Golden sunshine falls on ivy by the track, blue flies bask. It might be Summer, but for a damp tunic. It is ivy Summer. Contrary as the back of the moon, ivy wears her garland of blackjacks; which the redwing gathers with its needle, the fieldfare with pruning shears.
Farther away now, the movement. Twitches and waggles of reed seedheads. Bleached and wispy, they hold their own frozen light, give body to the wind. I think about deer, have seen roe not far from here. Might one have strayed into the reeds and got into difficulty? I hope for a flashing white rump, a roe hind jumping clear. There is no deer.
What if it isn’t mammals at all, or birds, but fish? Maybe pike have woken to see winter midges settle on the surface of the ice; black stars in a white firmament? Pike stirring, rousing their great hulls to smash through ice. No. Midges are small meat. Pike will be lying deep and still, silent as boatwrecks.
Staring low into the edges of the swamp. Oily, rusty water skinned with white wafer-ice. Evidently the flood has receded and the surface frozen several times, because the ice is layered like thin-breads. Leaves of ice clasping stems in Runic shapes. A feather breeze shivers the reeds. A volley of shattering slingshot-falls, yet no shot was flung. Imagine a Winter feast, the revellers all eating crackling.
A chorus of squeals. I clutch my bowstring, crouch lower, but it is not boar. I’m losing sense of their spoor, beginning to forget their sound. Water rails are calling deep in the reedswamp. Sharmers. They squeeze between reeds like shuttles through the warp. I’ve seen very few in all these years. They know who the creature is.
Dudley Martin is 53 and lives in Worcester with his partner and daughter. On Twitter you may find him @ivysuckle, where he tweets about garden wildlife and and close encounters with nature. One of his true loves is the natural world and it is in the wonder of nature that he finds the inspiration to write.
I had 32 entries. They were anonymised for me for judging. I scored each entry out of 10 for each of the following criteria:
All of the shortlisted entries scored over 30. I have also given a special mention to the entries that scored 29.
I will be contacting all those who entered individually. The winner and runner-up will be offered publication. All those shortlisted or given a special mention will receive a couple of lines of feedback.
Congratulations to the authors of the entries listed below. Feel free to broadcast the fact that you have made the shortlist or got a special mention, but please don’t identify which piece is yours until the final results have been announced.
The Next Good Joy That Mary Had
Winter Needs Watching
The Taste of Champagne
Come back on Friday 17th February for the announcement of the winner and runner-up, and names of those on the shortlist and with a special mention.
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to respond to the image below with a piece of creative writing – any form, maximum 500 words. Please observe the usual rules – you don’t need me to spell them out. Essentially, be respectful of others.
Send your entries to me at email@example.com by 5pm (UK time) on Friday 3rd February. Subject line: Jan 2023 Writing Competition.
Entries will be anonymised on receipt. I will choose one winner, who will be offered publication of their work on this site, plus a surprise book and chocolate. Open to writers worldwide but I can only post the book and chocolate within the UK, sorry. Shortlisted entries may also be published.
It got mighty hot! OB and I took a trip to Hereford on the bus to hear a concert in the Three Choirs Festival. It felt like going to another country. Well, of course that was literally true!
Church Street, Hereford
By mid-month the weather broke. Phew!
Walking in the rain
Went to South-West France to look after a second-hand English bookshop for a week with my friend Katsy. Loved it!
Two Go Mad in Tarn-et-Garonne
Lots of good walking with friends over this period, though not in the blistering heat, when I sat in the shade in the garden and read. Did no writing and didn’t worry about it. And – major excitement – an agent asked to read my novel!
Find out what happened next in Part 4 – coming on New Year’s Eve.
OB and I had a short holiday in Dorset. We stayed in a wooden cabin surrounded by woods. Walked, read, ate and slept. Just what we needed.
On Golden Cap
The year blossomed, in our garden and others too. We visited old haunts, met old neighbours.
Open garden in Harry Stoke
Had another little holiday, at one of our favourite places, in West Wales. The weather was variable. We watched a lot of Wimbledon which – fortunately – we love.
Visiting the pigs in the rain
I also had some lovely walks closer to home over this period. In writing news, I got onto the Long Longlist of the Cheshire Prize, which was very good news, and meant that my work would – later in the year – be included in an agent showcase. Very exciting!
The year began for me with some good walking, including regular Monday morning walks up the Deri with my friend Mary. I calculated I’d done more than 30 miles on the hills by the end of January.
Horses breaking the ice on the dew pond on the Deri to get a drink
Plenty more walks, in between periods of stormy weather.
Sign of a Welsh trig point
By March daffies were out and trees budding. But OB and I both caught Covid. Neither of us was very ill but the tiredness put paid to walking for a while.
Ladybird on medlar
All this time I was editing my circus novel, Thistles in the Cirrus. That was the focus of my writing. Such flashes that I got published – Big Top in Roi Fainéant Press in February and That Yellow Bedspread in the Flash Fiction Festival Anthology, Volume Four in March, were extracts from the draft novel. Over this period I also entered the first chapters into a number of novel competitions.
Read what happened next in Part 2, coming on Christmas Eve!
We all need to recharge our batteries from time to time. To take a holiday. But you don’t necessarily need to go away from home to do this; you just need to change your routine.
For a writer, taking a break is important. Take your brain elsewhere for a bit.
I’m taking a break from writing fiction during August. My draft novel is out with beta readers, so it’s a perfect time for me to do something else. Okay, I have one flash fiction story to edit and one review to write. But otherwise I shall be reading, walking and attempting to teach myself to play the mandolin.
It’s lovely to get more coverage for my book In the Sweep of the Bay, and also to do my little bit to encourage more young people to read. Our public library service is a treasure for children and adults alike. Use it or lose it!
Meanwhile, you can still buy In the Sweep of the Bay direct from the publisher, Louise Walters Books, or from any good bookshop.
My first book, The Plankton Collector, is also still available, and Waterstones currently have it on offer in their sale at just £2!
Congratulations to Janine Amos and John Holmes, the winner and runner-up in my competition. I am delighted to be able to share their stories.
Janine will also receive a copy of my novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, which has been kindly donated by my published, Louise Walters.
A Stranger Finds Her Voice
by Janine Amos
I stand at the hotel window, looking out over the bay: white foam horses riding a grey, greasy sea. I dig my knuckles into the window-sill and take two deep, slow breaths in – and –out, in a vain attempt to still my fiercely-beating heart. What I am about to do may rile the mob for I am a stranger here. A gull dives past, shrieking its yellow warning and is carried away on the wind.
“Miss Davis, it is time.” A timid tap on the door and in pops Rosemary Jones the tweeny, sent up by Cook no doubt, who can’t stand the sight of me. The little maid bobs a curtsey, reaches for my pot from under the bed, and scuttles away with it down the back stairs. Her trembling figure gives me heart as I must give heart to other women and girls the land over.
I leave the sea view and make my way down two flights of stairs to the front of the building. A faint smell of boiled cabbage pervades the air; my stomach lurches as memories of Holloway rise to my throat like bile. I swallow. The tread of the carpet is bare in parts; this is a seedy, run-down sort of place notwithstanding its genteel façade. My legs are shaking so that I stumble and must take hold of the banister. I am all alone, despite Miss Richardson’s assertion that she would be by my side, alone and vulnerable just as I was in my prison cell. I force myself to attend to the business in hand.
A constable waits at the french doors and I am guided on to the balcony. A gust of wind catches the brim of my hat and threatens to carry it away, but it settles and I look out at a different sea: a sea of gentlemen’s boaters. A large crowd has gathered just below me, nearly all gentlemen but some ladies too, their hats bedecked with ribbons and roses. I am an amusement to most of them, no doubt, a curiosity to help them while away a summer morning in a seaside town, but some will heed my call. If I can change but one mind, I will have done my job.
“Get on with it!” The first heckle comes from the front of the pack, before I have even begun to speak.
A rotten egg smacks onto the wooden board in front of me, spilling out its contents. Cabbages, carrots, an array of vegetable scrapings follow.
“Please – “a stick, smeared in some foul-smelling substance flies past my face and hits the door-frame behind me. I quake. The horrors of prison return: the stench, the horrific snake of the rubber feeding tube.
Then, wobbling along the road on a bicycle is Miss Richardson; a friendly face at last. The sight of her gives me the courage I need to continue and, keeping my eyes fixed upon her, I begin my speech again.
“I am a Suffragette!”
Janine Amos worked as a children’s commissioning editor in London, Bath, Berlin and Chicago before beginning her career as a children’s writer and tutor. She is the author of more than sixty ‘special issue’ information and ‘faction’ books for children, on topics such as bullying, divorce, anger and self-esteem. She has been published in fourteen languages. Janine takes her writing into schools and works with small groups of children to help them make stories of their own.
Janine has recently returned to live in Wales, to the beautiful town of Usk, where she lives with her husband andtwo unruly cats. She is currently writing her first historical novel for adults, set in Monmouthshire.
by John Holmes
The sound of perfection.
Bicycle chains and bikers’ breathing, oiled gears and smooth tyres. Finely tuned harmonies rising from the choreographed band, accompanying the flashes of colour, backed-up with its own wind.
Individuals working in unison, all waiting to orchestrate a solo break.
As they zip by, they create their own live stream.
I cheer loudly as they pass, but internally I worry that wheels will touch, carbon will snap and we’ll be only left with a choir of human cries.
The notes are carried away to the new, appreciative audience, waiting further down along the sweeping bay. Necks stretched, eyes wide and ears open. Cold fingers attentively hovering over the record buttons on their phones. The musical movement is heading their way.
Leaning back against my firm cushion, I allow myself to soak in the new silence, which is suddenly broken by the far off cry of a single, black-headed gull. I throw my dark memories up there – force them to grow wings and fly away. As always, some of them are just too powerful to take off. That day my bike screeched across the tarmac, like the call of that single bird, is still my private, permanent tinnitus.
My attempts to turn the wheels are fruitless. I’ve sunk deep into the muddy verge. A cheerful spectator registers my difficulty, gives me a firm push on to the path and I’m on my way.
‘Watch the pot…’ he shouts, as my front, right wheel bounces into a hole.
‘Too late,’ he adds with a laugh.
My chair rattles violently over the uneven paving, fighting the gaps and cracks.
No beautiful music escaping from my transport. It performs only one tune.
The sound of reality.
John Holmes, based in the North East of England, is a writer of short fiction. ( JohnHolmesWriter.com )
He is a previous winner of the The Times Short Crime Fiction Story prize.
In the last 12 months his work has appeared in Paragraph Planet, 101 Words, Fragmented Voices, Pen to Print, Glittery Literature, Globe Soup, Drabble, Cross The Tees, Bag of Bones and Ellipsis Zine.
John is the co-author of Rough Rides, a mountain biking guide book (ISBN 0861901894 9780861901890).
When he isn’t writing, he’s out onhis bike, exploring new routes.
Louise Walters is promoting my novella In the Sweep of the Bay as her Book of the Month in February – both paperback and ebook are available from her website at reduced prices and the ebook is 99p/99c everywhere for the whole of the month – paperbacks will be signed and each comes with a free flash fiction story, one of my Untold Stories of Ted and Rene.
To coincide with this I’m running a flash fiction competition. The winner will have their story published here on my website AND (courtesy of Louise Walters) will receive a copy of my book, or, if they already have it, can nominate a friend to receive a copy..
Here are the rules:
Write a flash fiction of no more than 500 words, not including the title (no minimum).
Include the words bay, gull, pot and bicycle in the story.
End the story with a sentence that is 4 words long.
Follow the usual rules about content – nothing defamatory please.
One story per entrant.
Send your story to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight (UK time) on Sunday 13th February.
Attach the story as a .doc or .docx document. No pdfs or other formats, please.
In the subject line of your email type the words Submission: Bay competition. Nothing else.
Do not put the title of your story anywhere in the email – all stories will be anonymised before judging.
Entries are welcome from writers anywhere in the world.
I will choose and publish an anonymous shortlist by Sunday 20th February, and a winner and one or two runners-up by Sunday 27th February.
I will contact shortlisted writers before publication of the shortlist, and the winner and runner(s)-up before I announce them.
The winner will be offered online publication of their story, plus a copy of In the Sweep of the Bay – paperback or ebook in the UK, but ebook only elsewhere.
I will acknowledge receipt of all entries.
Any entry that does not follow these rules will be disqualified.
Sorry, I cannot offer feedback on unsuccessful entries or enter into correspondence about them.
Sorry this all sounds so formal – the rules are to ensure fairness.
I encourage you to use the prompt words imaginatively – have fun with the challenge and I look forward to reading your stories.
During the last three months of 2021 I focussed on writing my circus novel, and thanks to enormous help and support in Nancy Stohlman’s Flash Novel Mastermind course, I completed a full first draft before Christmas. Its working title is Thistles in the Cirrus, which is clown-speak for Things in the Circus.
My number one priority for 2022 is to do a comprehensive edit of the circus novel and move it forward from there.
At the same time I have started submitting shorter work to journals and competitions. I will be writing new work, and I also have a fair number of flashes and short stories sitting in my ‘unpublished’ file which I will be sending out.
Once the circus novel is at the next stage and I have sent it to first readers, I will be turning to another work in progress. More about that when the time comes.
In the meantime I will be posting news and thoughts about things writerly here at least once a month, and in February I will run another competition, so look out for that.
Happy writing and reading, and do share your writing plans for the year ahead.
My novella In the Sweep of the Bay is a year old today. It’s alive and kicking and still available to buy from Louise Walters Books in paperback or ebook. It’s an ideal Christmas present, alone or in a bundle with other LWB books. Do your shopping here – https://www.louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/shop-1
I’m working on my long-promised circus novel: its working title is Thistles in the Cirrus. Intrigued?
I’ve been writing, and I’ve completed the draft of a sequel/prequel (what do you call that – a sprequel , maybe?) to In the Sweep of the Bay. It’s currently with beta readers.
Bay has been doing well, I’m pleased to say, and was shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards2021 It’s still available to buy from my lovely publisher, Louise Walters Books or from your local bookshop. Several book groups have chosen to read it and Louise offers a deal on purchases for book groups.
I’m working on another novella-length story – one I started last year and put aside. It’s currently rather baggy and has some significant holes in it. Like an old jumper, but not comfortable like that! I’m hoping to pull it into shape very soon.
Meanwhile I’ve had minor successes – some flashes published, a few longlistings and shortlistings, and one win! I’ll be updating my Stories page with these very shortly.
I’ve also been reviewing for Lunate – reading critically is, I think, an important skill for writers to develop.
So, on this Midsummer’s Day I give you roses from our garden, and wish you sunnier times.
“Come with me and I’ll teach you how to forage for tender roots and juicy berries” said great bear.
“Not now” said little bear as he scampered off through pea green meadow to chase the butterflies that teased his nose.
“Come with me” called great bear to little bear as he lumbered beside the rushing river, “to dip our paws into nests of liquid gold. We will climb the great redwood, scoop out the tender larvae and lick-slurp the sticky honey. Then we’ll tickle the sparkle shimmer of great leaping fish and feast on them till our bellies are full for winter”.
“I’m too busy” replied little bear as he roly-polyed in the pink tipped grass.
“Come with me” said great bear to little bear “and I’ll guide you through the forests of dark slumber. We‘ll build a den together under tall trees and rest our heads on pillows of rich red leaves through the cold dank winter.”
“Can we do it later?” asked little bear balancing on a rolling log, “there’s plenty of time.”
The cold dank came and turned to ice. Little bear no longer scampered in sun dipped meadow or rolled in the green. His belly rumbled and his nose froze. The expansive smiling land became a long thin frown and big bear gentle was big bear mean. There was no shelter; no belly full of berries and fish; no store of roots. Little bear turned his face to great bear. They walked the expanse of frozen waste till the memory of lazy days were little more than sparkles in the ice prints left behind them.
As they trudged, the ground seemed to fall away from beneath their weary paws. Compelled by the shine of a beaming moon they lifted their gaze and their feet over hedges, treetops and no-way-back-clouds. Finally, bathed in silver, they stepped by lumbering, climbing step right up to the very roof of the world. Little bear turned to look down at the learners, the lazers and the daydream gazers in the glorious Conservatory of Knowledge below. He saw the infinite richness of that blue and green world, and he knew then how much he’d left behind. He curled in towards great bear and they rested. No urgency, no distractions; just ursa forever, shining in the twinkle sparkling of night-sky-always.
Isobel is a writing newbie. She’s had words fizzing around inside her head for a long time but never found the courage to given them page space, until now. Currently on an MA Creative Writing, she’s storming up the steepest learning curve, sometimes falling off, sometimes clinging on with gritted teeth, but always enjoying the challenge.
It’s not easy being a masterpiece you know. It’s quite lonely in fact. I haven’t had a friend for centuries. I get lots of visitors, but no one actually talks to me. They talk about me; they take photos of me; sometimes they even sketch me. But no one asks how I am; no one asks if I’m tired of standing; no one asks if I’m cold. You try spending five hundred years with not a shred of clothing on and tell me your feet haven’t turned to ice. The other extremities get a lot of attention but no one cares about my toes.
When I was outside, I was even colder, but at least I had the stars for company. The heavens soothed me through the nights. For almost a hundred and fifty years now I’ve been in solitary confinement. The glass dome above teases me with sunlight during the day until it sneaks away, leaving me in the dark halls, surrounded by only fragments of life. I’m a prisoner in the galleria of loneliness. Encased in the conservatory of control. Spending my days underneath a microscope from the skies. Look as they might, the stars will see no life here. Once we could exist together but now they just look on as I age under the fluorescent glow of preservation.
They think they’re doing the best for me by keeping me from harm. But they don’t realise that harm gets you wherever you are. Wherever I am.
I can feel them. All the eyes looking at me. All the vibrations of the feet as they walk past. Their mere presence is breaking me. I was destined to fight giants, yet here in my cage I’m being eroded by a million footsteps of those who adore me.
I’m the one they’ve come to see. I stand above them in all my glory. I never have to fish for compliments; they spill out of the mouths as they gaze upon my beauty. I’ve been called a masterpiece more than I can recall. But all I really want to be is free.
Lonely is the life locked away from the world.
The time has come for action. I’ll show them all I’m not just a hunk of marble. It’s dark; only the stars above sprinkle soft light into my prison. The last footsteps shuffled past hours ago. Now is my time.
My marble groans as I flex. Muscles tense. Bones ache. Knees bend in anticipation. The desire for escape takes over. In a giant leap I spring towards the heavens. I pull myself up through the opening onto the roof. The city slumbers below and the constellations chatter above. My old friends the stars dare me to think bigger.
Sitting atop the galleria that held me captive for so long, I ponder my next steps. I may have been carved by a man but that doesn’t bind me in servitude. Despite my history and my labels, I belong to no man.
Katie Isham is a writer, teacher, drummer and mild adventurer who believes kindness is a superpower. She writes a travel blog that is currently somewhat static. You will mostly find her hanging out with dogs or eating cake. Sometimes simultaneously. .www.vintagegnome.blogspot.co.uk @k_isham
I met him at Kemi’s tiny airport. I could tell straight away that he hadn’t wanted to come. His mom might even have bribed him to get on the plane.
When he was young I’d got him an Orvis junior rod and we’d gone fishing in the creek. He got a bite and dropped the rod in panic, and it had taken both of us to rescue it. He had that same desperate look now.
On the road he stared blankly out of the window. Lapland’s relentless snow fields and frozen trees didn’t impress him. He glanced at me and shifted away fast when I caught his eye. Not just the landscape that was iced over. I turned the truck’s heater up and he unclenched half an inch. I hoped it was just shyness, I too had been gawky at thirteen. And we’d not seen each other for almost nine months.
At the cabin I showed him where to stow his gear, before talking him through the stove and gas boiler. I joked that as long as he didn’t blow us to kingdom come or burn us down, it’d all be fine. He shrugged, finishing the hot chocolate his mom had reminded me was his favourite. I’d have remembered on my own, but it was nice she’d told me.
He’d kept fiddling with his Nintendo console and seemed surprised when I showed him the DS I used when the internet glitched. It wasn’t a total Jack London existence. While the cabin’s furnishings were sparse, there were crammed bookshelves and an old fishing rod on a couple of hooks above the door. He took the book I offered him and relaxed a little further.
That night I heard sighing, but when I whispered a question he didn’t answer, feigning sleep. Fair enough. Some things have to be re-earned. He’d seen my moving as a personal betrayal, even if his mom was the one who’d originally left me. Even though I wasn’t actually his biological father. I was the most consistent thing he’d known. Until I wasn’t. He hadn’t been able to reconcile himself to my going somewhere so far away.
In the morning, when he looked outside, there were icicles twice his size hanging off the conservatory roof. I asked if he wanted to help at the reserve for the day. He shrugged. Not reluctant, exactly, but desperate to be persuaded. I remembered obscuring my own adolescent need to be wanted with feigned indifference.
I told him we could go fishing after I’d finished my rounds. Cut holes in the ice. Hang out. Maybe bring back some fish for supper. I could see him considering, still wanting more from me. Needing it. I nodded towards the front door, it was his Orvis hanging above it. He followed my eyes and recognised his old rod. He frowned at the otherwise spartan interior.
His pinched look cleared, and, smiling like the sun on ice, he crossed the room and hugged me.
E E Rhodes is an archaeologist who lives in part of a small castle in Worcestershire. She writes flash, short stories and prose poetry to make sense of it all. She’s currently finishing a flash novella set in South Wales.
The silence between us bites harder than the local white wine on my tastebuds. I’m drinking far too quickly, not knowing what else to do with my hands. Joe shifts in his chair for the third time in less than a minute and looks out at the serenity of Lake Bled, a stunning vista that is, frankly, wasted on us tonight. The powdered sugar dusting on the mountains can’t sweeten the unpalatable truth: we have absolutely nothing to say to one another.
Joe pats his pocket; we’d promised to go without phones tonight. He retracts his hand quickly when he sees me looking, reaching for the bottle instead. The rattle from the ice bucket earns him some sharp side-eye from the hovering waitress for topping me up before she’d had chance to.
Before, we’d have shared a conspiratorial smile at that, back when we were a team; us against the world. Now, strangers within our own marriage, we’ve become the cliched sitting silently in restaurant types that we used to laugh at and vow to never become.
“What are you having?” Joe asks eventually.
“The fish platter.” I point at it on the menu.
“That’s for two people.”
Joe pauses. “I don’t mind sharing the platter.”
“Do you even want fish?” I look at him, thinking don’t do me any favours. He half nods, half shrugs and we revert to silence.
We’d vowed to try and reconnect after the incident, using the conservatory savings to take a break somewhere peaceful. So far, Slovenia has been even more picturesque than I expected but the wonder of our surroundings only magnifies the distance between us.
“The hotel is charming,” I offer, seeing Joe fidget yet again.
He nods. “It really is.”
He opens his mouth to say something, then shuts it again.
When we’d checked into our cosy room in the eaves of the hotel, I’d felt the urge to jump up onto the bed and see the view from our tiny window in the sloping roof but I’d felt silly; I’m not myself with him anymore. It’s as if we have forgotten how to show any joy or spontaneity in front of one another. We’re on our best behaviour, polite and distant.
I see Joe pat his pocket again and I sigh. “Just get your phone out, for God’s sake.”
His forehead creases. “What do you mean by that?”
“You clearly want to check your phone and you might as well.” I take another stinging swig of chilled wine. “It’s not like anything fun is happening here.”
He hesitates. “This isn’t… it’s not about her,” he says, avoiding my eyes. “I told you I wouldn’t contact her again.”
I freeze, inhaling sharply. “Don’t. Mention. Her.”
The waitress approaches and we order the fish platter for two. “Good choice,” she smiles, making a show of topping up the wine again.
Silence returns as she departs. Joe takes out his phone and I reach for my glass.
Emma Robertson is an inclusive dance tutor and writer from London, UK. Her first fiction pieces were published in late 2020 in the Pure Slush anthology Wrong Way Go Back and in Eastern Iowa Review’s Water issue. She has previously written articles connected with her teaching work for dance industry publications. She can be found on Twitter as @emmadancetrain
Many congratulations to the winners and the other shortlisted writers, Emma Robertson and EE Rhodes. Isobel and Katie will each receive a book and all four writers will have their stories published here, starting tomorrow with Comfortable Discomfort by Emma Robertson and continuing daily until Sunday.
What made the winners stand out from the crowd were their original takes on the brief: they used the words I gave – ice, conservatory, roof and fish – in unobstrusive ways. Their stories were also those that have stayed most strongly in my mind.
I’ve offered to send short constructive feedback to any of the other entrants who request it. Most have, and I’ll be getting that feedback to them shortly. Here are a few general points. None of them are original and obviously these are just my opinions; a different judge in a different competition may see things differently.
In a competition that gives you a prompt, or words to include, it’s always good to put aside your first idea, as many other people are likely to come up with something similar. Even put aside your second idea and see what’s waiting in the wings – it may surprise you.
A short piece of 500 words or fewer does not give you space for many characters. I’d recommend using a maximum of 3. Of course if you’re Dickens… But you’re not. Stick to a few.
Use the fact that your title is additional to your 500 words to make it work for you and enhance your story.
Start late and finish early. In other words, plunge straight into your story, no preamble. And finish in such a way that your readers can see the scene continuing to spool in their minds. Life is continuing, in one way or another, at the end of every story.
Come back tomorrow and on the following days to read the stories I selected.
It took me a bit of fumbling to get the locker door open; I never can see well without my specs. But I seemed to have got the wrong locker. No clothes, and something else in there. Something yellow. Something squeaking.
More squeaking. High-pitched. ‘I’m your fairy duckling.’
I stepped back, rubbed my eyes. ‘Okay, so I suppose I get three wishes.’
‘Correct. Three wishes for the New Year. How did you guess?’
‘Cut the wisecracks. Where are my bloody clothes?’
‘Your wish is granted. Look on the bench.’
I whirled round, holding onto my towel as a girl walked past me. ‘Nice duckling,’ she said. I scowled at her. On the bench was a pile of clothes, covered in dried blood.
The duckling had jumped down from the locker and waddled across the changing room.
‘Okay, Mr Cute,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how you’re doing this, or who’s behind it, but it’s not funny. I need decent, dry clothes.’
‘Your wish is my command,’ squeaked the creature. It waved a little wand with one of its wings.
Now there was another pile of clothes on the bench.
‘These are women’s clothes,’ I said, picking up a pink skirt.
‘Yes, and they’re mine,’ said the girl who’d walked past before. ‘Get your hands off them. Why are you talking to yourself, anyway?’
‘I, I–’ I stuttered. ‘I’m not talking to myself,’ I said, firmly now. ‘I’m talking to the duckling. Where’s it gone? You saw it.’
‘Why don’t you sit down,’ she said, patting my hand. ‘I could fetch you a glass of water.’
‘Now you get off. And I don’t want to sit down.’ I was beginning to feel hysterical. ‘I want to get out of here.’
Which was how I found myself out on the street on an icy December day with only a towel round me, explaining to a police constable that no, this was not a New Year’s Eve prank and no, I did not need to be escorted anywhere, thank you and yes, I would go quietly.
I could have done better with my wishes. Much better. We’re in lockdown now. Gyms and swimming pools are closed. Pubs too. Just as well, my wife says, after the incident with the so-say duckling last New Year’s Eve.
I’ve just looked out of the window. There’s a yellow duckling on the path. Waving a magic wand. I’m drawing the curtains before it sees me. Time to pour a drink.
Indie publishing is a vital part of the book world. It enables unagented writers like me to get our books out in the world. But indie publishers not only operate on a shoestring, with tiny profit margins; they also swim in a sea where the big fish – the Big 5 publishers – get most of the publicity, reviews in the national press and book awards. Why? Because those big publishers have the financial clout.
So it is down to us, the readers (I’m a reader as well as a writer) to do help redress the balance. Here are 8 ways we can all do our bit to help independent publishing survive and thrive:
1 Buy direct from indie publishers. That way their income is (unless they choose to offer promotional discounts) the full cover price of the book.
2 Use social media to spread the word about a book you enjoy: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok (if you know how that works!) and any others I don’t even know about!
3 Review books you like – on your own blog if you have one, and also on Goodreads and Amazon (if it will let you). Even a couple of lines about a book is valuable.
4 Tell a friend, or two. Word of mouth is hugely powerful.
5 Ask your local bookshop to stock a book you’ve enjoyed. Having books on display, available for potential purchasers to browse, really boosts them.
6 Ask your local library to buy a book you’ve enjoyed. You might be surprised how amenable libraries are to this.
And, particularly now, in the run-up to Christmas:
7 Buy books you’ve enjoyed as Christmas presents for your family and friends. Some indie publishers offer Christmas boxes with other goodies alongside their books. Louise Walters Books for example, supplies local Banbury cakes with her books.
8 Submit your favourite books of year to the end-of-year readers’ listings such as that published by The Guardian.
In this time promotional tours for books cannot happen. But fortunately technology gives us alternatives, and I’m taking every opportunity that comes my way to help put the word out about my new book.
For book bloggers this is #NovellaNovember, which is serendipitous rather than planned for my novella In the Sweep of the Bay. It was a pleasure to talk about novellas with writer and blogger Kathryn Eastman for Nut Press. Kath is also doing a generous giveaway of copies of both my books – leave a comment on her blog to be in with a chance.
Then there’s the world of podcasts. I talked with Wayne Kelly recently for The Joined-Up Writing Podcast. Or rather I talked, a lot, and he got a word in edgeways from time to time.
It’s wonderful to have support from other writers. In the run-up to publication of my new novella, I had the great pleasure of talking with the brilliant writer Charmaine Wilkerson, who I have got to know through the international flash fiction community.
CW: Cath, it was a pleasure to read through your lovely novella, In the Sweep of the Bay. Your story spans decades and generations within the life of the family at the centre of this story with such finely textured language and profound insights. How would you describe this novella in one line?
CB: It’s the story of a long marriage and the persistence of happiness, in spite of all obstacles.
CW: Where did the idea of the couple at the centre of the story, Ted and Rene, come from?
CB: I don’t know! Did I see a couple like them, in that café on the seafront in Morecambe that they visited on a day out? I wonder. Certainly I went to that café, and the scene was the first section of the book that I wrote, a snapshot of Ted and Rene in later life. It was a stand-alone flash originally and I called it Keeping the Magic Alive. Thinking about it, that could have been the title of the book – it’s what’s at the core of it.
CW: One of the things I appreciate about all of your writing, not only in this novella, is your use of small, telling details in a story. Often, those details evoke a sense of place, not the least of which is the English bay, Morecambe, which is referred to in the title of the story. Which element tends to come first in terms of inspiration for your story ideas- location, character, or event?
CB: Character, I think, always. Or rather, characters moving through their lives. I see the action scrolling out like a film. You know how in a film you can ‘read’ the characters’ emotions on their faces? That’s what I hope I can conjure up for reader in prose.
CW: In this novella, the sense of place includes the interior settings evoked through your storytelling. The buzz of comradeship at the ceramics factory, the coat shop, a hotel lobby, a marital bed. Do these details just come to you in the writing or do you find you take notes in your daily life which then lend themselves to story scenes?
CB: I do wish I was good at keeping notes, because we are surrounded by characters for stories as we walk down the street, any street, on any day. But I don’t carry a notebook. I do take photographs, though; I think I have a strong visual sense, and (I hope) good intuition.
CW: The end of the story is intriguing. I don’t want to give it away here but I do want to mention that it leaves the reader thinking, is this based on a true story?
CB: No, this is pure fiction.
CW: You frequently publish short stories, in particular, flash fiction? What about your longer projects? What can readers expect to see from you next?
CB: I like the shorter forms, novella, short story, flash fiction. I used to say I’d never write a novel. But I have a couple of longer projects. One is a novel I started in NaNoWriMo in 2018, set in Nepal in the aftermath of an earthquake. The other is what think will end up as a novel based on the life of my Auntie Phyllis, who was a famous circus artiste. I feel a responsibility to write her story. Though, unhelpfully, she left few words, only pictures, so what I write has to be fiction.
However, I may just write another novella – or even two! – first. I do seem to have an affinity with the novella form. I’ve tried writing novellas-in-flash without success, but I’m thinking of having a go at a novelette-in-flash, in which each separate story is under 500 words. I’m taking advantage of Nancy Stohlman’s prompts for FlashNano this month to help me with that.
Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who lives in Italy. Her award-winning flash fiction can be found in Best Microfiction 2020 and numerous anthologies and magazines. Her story How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018. Her debut novel Black Cake is due to be published in 2022.
The excitement is mounting! Yesterday I signed some books for our local Waterstones – it’s good to hear of copies of In the Sweep of the Bay being available now in bookshops in other places too.
And, for today only as it is her birthday, my lovely publisher, Louise Walters, is generously offering 10% off all her books at her website bookshop – https://louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/shop-1. Just enter the code birthday.
Meanwhile, to cheer us all up in these challenging times, here is a beautiful collage made by a friend of mine – she has used photographs taken over five years in a garden she created.
Just two weeks to publication day for my second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay. Published by Louise Walters Books on 23rd November, it’s the story of a long marriage, with all the attendant hopes, joys and sadnesses.
The main setting for my book Morecambe in Lancashire and I’ll be writing about the location when I guest on Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa next month. Isabel has given my book this lovely endorsement:
“This poignant novella has the feel of Revolutionary Road in a northern town and the outsize power of Mothering Sunday.”
We have a whole month of blogs to come, starting with a guest spot with Amanda Huggins tomorrow, 9th November, where I talk about the changing roles and expectations of women over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, as portrayed in my book.
Louise Walters is hosting a launch party on Zoom at 6pm on Sunday 22nd November, the eve of publication day. Hannah Persaud, whose brilliant debut novel The Codes of Love was published earlier this year, will be interviewing me, and there will be (short!) speeches, a reading from the book and a Q&A. All welcome. Contact me or Louise if you’d like to join us.
Meanwhile, you can pre-order In the Sweep of the Bay direct from the publisher, from the new bookshop.org that supports indpendent bookshops, or from Amazon.
In the last of my current series of guest posts from authors with new books out, a big welcome to Drew Gummerson with his thoughts on that most crucial aspect of writing – the editing process.
Certain books, written quickly, are infamous; Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, dashed off while on the bog, written in a cramped hand along the length of a single roll of toilet paper(*), Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, 2 weeks in the making, squashed between Bukowski’s bar brawls and unsuccessful attempts at picking up Women(*), (his next book, 3 days later(*)).
(Sequestered once in hotel room Bukowski refused to appear on same bill as one and only Burroughs, William (now he was editor; cut text with scissors, scatter text across floor, shoot heroin, piece text back together. For many years Burroughs carried pages of Naked Lunch (deconstructed / constructed) gripped with single elastic-band in suitcase across Paris / Tangier / Interzone.(*))
But for most of us, as Morrissey sang, These Things Take Time.
(And I know that I’m the most inept that ever stepped…)
The best advice I ever got about editing came backwards through a crude joke on The Inbetweeners. This crude joke was about having a numb hand and masturbation.
It’s better all round if you no longer feel it’s yours. (**)
When I finished the first draft of Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel I put it away for six months.
It was only then I had the right perspective to be brutal, see what worked / what didn’t. So I could slash and burn. And, I honestly couldn’t remember where it was going.
It was fresh.
And that’s where the real work started.
In this excellent New York Times article, Jenny Offill talks of how she put extracts of her new novel Weather onto poster-boards and it was only, through time, by looking at them, she could ascertain which ones sparkled, which ones weren’t merely clever.
In that first draft it’s all too easy, like Alice falling down her well, to be pleased with yourself. Time gives clear head to tidy up (delete) these sections which don’t sparkle, aren’t clever (I mean, who wrote this shit?).
On twitter Ronan Hession (writer of the wonderful Leonard and the Hungry Paul(**)) gave the Sound Advice of, when editing, to read the chapters in reverse order. This,
“1. Stops you getting distracted by the story.
2. Reveals a lot about flow… if a book reads well backwards it’s a good indication that it reads well forwards.”
Same as putting text away in drawer it is about finding a different way of looking / disrupting gaze.
It’s been such a pleasure to welcome other authors onto my blog over the past few months to share their thoughts on aspects of writing. Coming up we have the final post in the current series, from Drew Gummerson, on the topic of editing. So call back tomorrow for that.
Then I’ll be onto my own new novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, published on 23rd November by Louise Walters Books. News about the launch event coming very soon, but in the meantime you can pre-order here.
I pleased to welcome children’s author Emma Rea as my guest this month, with her thoughts on writing rules and breaking them, in particular that vexed issue of showing versus telling.
When I was at school, I had a wonderful English teacher (who herself was taught by CS Lewis) and she said several things that stayed with me. One of them was her explanation of the trellis and the rose.
She was teaching us Shakespearean sonnets, and she showed us the form: the three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a couplet, rhyming gg. She explained the iambic pentameter. We all knew the rules.
Then she started telling us how Shakespeare broke the rules. Using half-rhymes, caesura, enjambement. We grew confused.
And she explained that in all writing, there is both form – the trellis to which the writing must cling – and the author’s insight and imagination – the rose. Without a trellis, the rose will flop. But if it follows the trellis rigidly, left, right, left, right, there will be no life in the writing at all.
I write children’s fiction, not sonnets, but her words still ring usefully in my head. I’m always trying to work out what form, or ‘rules’, work in writing and which rules can be bent.
And one rule I’m wary of is ‘show don’t tell’. We’re always told this, and of course it’s important, but a confident writer will know when to break it, and simply tell the reader certain things. This confidence is enormously appealing. Dickens’ first sentence of Bleak House is ‘London.’ A later paragraph starts ‘Fog everywhere.’ He goes on to show us, but he hasn’t been afraid of telling us, too. And we immediately get that delicious feeling that we’re in the safe hands of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing.
I think this tension between telling and showing is pleasurable for the reader. They want to know some things – just as you want to know the rules before you start playing a board game – but they also want intrigue and nuance, so their curiosity is aroused and they can start trying to work things out for themselves. You have to have on the one hand, absolute clarity, and on the other, obfuscation, and the two hands have to be clasped, fingers intertwined, so that the text is both strongly rooted and yet open to interpretation.
Over ten years of writing and writing groups, I’m getting better at spotting in my own work which bits need clarity, or telling, and which don’t. I love checking out first chapters to see how authors find a balance between the two, and I like experimenting with telling to see what works.
I’ll leave you with an opening line which makes me feel grounded and safe, and yet curious. We’re given the location, the season and the time of day – and a springboard into the story.
‘It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone.’ Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve
Emma Rea is an author, reviewer and proof reader. She is the author of MG novels Top Dog (Gomer 2014) which was shortlisted for the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award and My Name is River, published this June by Firefly Press, and listed as Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week in July.
A couple of days ago I realised that I had over 2,500 followers on Twitter and decided to do a giveaway of a copy of my forthcoming novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, due to be published on 23 November by Louise Walters Books.
I invited people to share something positive about the world – it’s so easy for us all to be grumpy these days!
So many lovely comments came in. Here are just a few of my favourites:
I read a piece of poetry yesterday. And then thought about it the rest of the day. Words still have the audacity and sheer exuberance to move us, in every time.
We can all still say ‘I love you ,’ send letters, walk on the beach, listen to music and most importantly … read a great book!
Adversity brings humour, sensitivity and creativity. The next generation are going to do wonderful things.
People also shared photos of people dear to them, of the beauty of the natural world and of animals – dogs, cats and a quokka.
It was a thread which brought me smiles, so thank you to everyone who contributed.
And the winner of the giveaway is….. Tilly – @TillyLovesBooks – who gave as her something positive:
The glorious autumn leaves – no matter what’s going on in the world, Mother Nature still manages to captivate.
If you didn’t win, you can buy an advance copy of the book from louisewaltersbooks.co.uk
In the latest in my series of guest posts by authors of new books, Anna Vaught tells how returning to short story writing in a lull between working on novels proved to be a rejuvenation.
‘I believe in complicity and its special heat. See what I have. Eat.’
Where, I was asked, do short stories fit into your writing? This is how.
I had written short stories for a blog I kept, entered a couple of competitions, and had had two stories published in anthologies; I also read many short stories of varied provenance, but that was it. Now, in the early spring of 2019, I found myself feeling jaded between projects and unsure what to do, though I thought I needed to do something. My third novel Saving Lucia was placed but still a year away from publication and I was yet to work with my editor; my first two books, autobiographical fiction and novella, had lacked exposure and, partly because of this, I lacked faith in myself to make a new novel do well. I write quickly, so I had already written a follow-up novel to Saving Lucia, but understood that this would not be read for some time, and I had had a couple of meetings with agents who had asked to meet for a chat about what I was up to. One of them, incidentally, is the greatly supportive woman I now refer to as my ‘not-agent’ and the other, the goddess who was soon to sign me on the back of a short story collection I had not written – or even thought of – yet. Possibilities hung in the air, but also a lot of self-doubt. I wanted to keep busy to assuage it.
I decided I would try some short stories again. I had written a good deal about memory, trauma and testimony in fiction and creative non-fiction; I had also written food journalism, was interested in culinary history and, owing to a rather colourful past and many strange familial events in childhood and teenage years which revolved around food, its preparation, purveying and sharing (or not), an idea coalesced: how about a collection of stories involving adventures at table, feasts, consuming and being consumed; about food and trauma. Funny, peculiar, entertaining and with language you could get your teeth into; I would draw on my reading and experience and the rest would be new literary horror and weird to which I naturally incline.
Up bubbled a book, and it came out very quickly. I feel embarrassed to say this: I wrote it in two weeks, in a wonderful fury, sometimes getting up at four to make the stories on top of my other responsibilities. I do not recommend this practice, but it was what I wanted here. I wrote about being held back, being terrified (I know this is weird) by trifle, tripe, and tapas; I drew on old stories, food journals and apocrypha. I wrote on food as metaphor, but also about food as something plainly and brutally literal. I did not know I could do any of this; I only knew that once I had started I did not want to stop and particularly enjoyed the concept of an overarching theme and some overlapping details in terms of characters and psychological or erotic tryst. I felt rejuvenated. Then, when a submissions window came up at Influx Press – exciting: I had loved Attrib. by Eley Williams and How the Light Gets In by Clare Fisher – I sent it to them (and to the second of the wonderful literary agents I had met at the same time) and, within three weeks, I had both an offer of publication and an offer of representation. I did not know I was capable of that, either.
There might be a moral here: when you feel jaded, lacking in confidence or that sense that you are drifting and want to crack on with something, then try writing in a different genre, as I did. As I said, doing so rejuvenated me. So, try something new (or newish) and you never know. If you lack confidence, do it anyway. I found, having written a collection of short stories, I could move on to another one then another novel – the one I have just finished for my agency. What is more, my follow-up to Saving Lucia has not been taken up for publication, but I am pleased to say that I was able to take a section of that and make it into a long short story about trauma, memory and recovery for an Unsung Stories anthology out next year. I felt more confident in my craft now, so this was something I could do. I also took up disappointment and, from it, I made a new thing, and that is a good thing to learn, because not everything will work and not every book ought to be published. As to where short story writing fits in going forward, I hope I will always be able to write short story collections and novels, though I know that stories are a harder sell for my agent. We shall see. It will be an adventure, won’t it?
Famished: seventeen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner. I hope you like them.
‘I believe in complicity and its special heat. See what I have. Eat.’
Anna is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 sees the publication of Anna’s third novel Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US, where her husband is from. She is currently finishing a new novel and waiting on exciting decisions. Anna is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf, NYC.
In the latest in my series of guest posts from authors of new books, Dominc Brownlow discusses how, in his writing, he uses location as more than simply a setting.
Location, surprisingly, is often underused in writing. All books and stories possess one or more of them; characters can’t simply float through space, levitating from one scene to the next. They must be placed somewhere, like actors, in order to play out the intended narrative, but once that stage has been decided upon, the backdrop painted, the curtains raised, the role of that setting should not then be over. Location should be treated as a character and accorded the same luxuries. And, most importantly I think, used as one of the senses.
When I wrote The Naseby Horses I had a post-it-note above my desk reminding me not to ignore these essential faculties: touch, smell, colour, sound. It is still there now as I write my second novel, the ink a little faded from the sun. Isolation is a fundamental aspect of my writing – I’m only on novel two but they are both centred around this theme.
For me, it is the Fens; huge open swathes of flat agricultural land stretched beneath wide infinite skies. That, in itself, is fairly self-explanatory. It is an obvious stage for remoteness. However, it is the perceptions evoked beyond remoteness that can, if you invite them in, assist the story so. It is the way both the landscape and its inhabitants behave; the attitude of locals, the manner in which nature and wildlife react, and how this effects, or is used by, the characters in the novel.
The same method could be employed with a major city, or beach or mountain or alien spacecraft. All these locations are in possession of sound, smell, colour, touch, as, similarly, is a kitchen, bedroom, school, garden, sports field or courtroom. By introducing the sensual nuances of a location a writer is, by default, connecting the character to that place, and, in the same metaphorical vein as how pathetic fallacy works, eases these perceptions into the subconscious of the character and, hence, reader.
“Show not tell” is the axiom waved about like Colours in the How To Write books, and one, as a literary waffler, I struggle with the most. However, by describing the mood and essence of a setting, wherever that may be, as long as an initial connection has been made between place and person, the writer is, in part, showing not telling. He, or she, is using location as the shadow of the character. One of my favourite lines in The Naseby Horses is ‘somewhere in the distance sunlight glares off a moving car.’ I like to think this issues a latent sense of escape from a desolate backdrop, without actually saying it.
John McGregor’s Reservoir 13 uses this brilliantly and, of course, the ultimate example of how to use location as a character is Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Ray Robinson is also a modern day master of this in The Mating Habits of Stags, and for the claustrophobic seedy panicky senses of the city Martin Amis’s London Fields excels beyond all.
Dominic Brownlow lives near Peterborough with his two children. He lived in London and worked in the music industry as a manager before setting up his own independent label. He now enjoys life in the Fens and has an office that looks out over water. The Naseby Horses is his first novel. It was long listed for the Bath Novel Award 2016. The paperback edition is published on 24 August 2020. He tweets @Dominic Brownlow.
In the latest of my six-month series of guest posts from authors of new books, Amanda Huggins gives some tips for fledging short story writers.
If you want to write killer short stories, then one of the most important things to do is to read killer short stories. Lots of them. It sounds obvious, yet I often meet blank looks when I ask writers who are new to short fiction to name their favourite short story writers. Short stories aren’t novels-in-miniature, any more than novels are extended short stories. They are two different skill sets, and the best way to get started is to read the masters.
A great short story needs to plunge straight in with no preamble. It should have conflict, a strong ending, a limited cast of characters, and every word should count. (If only I stuck to those rules myself!)
I have countless favourite short story writers and the collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Stuart Evers, Miranda July, Yoko Ogawa, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.
A recent delight was Helen Dunmore’s posthumous collection, Girl Balancing, and I particularly loved the first section of the book, ‘The Nina Stories’. These stories are almost notes for a novel-in-waiting; a sequence of vignettes centred around a girl called Nina, set in the 60s/70s. They are painstakingly intense; attention is paid to Nina’s every moment and action, and there are some lovely period details that evoke a strong sense of place. The writing turns the mundane into something beautiful, and the final story soars. Seventeen-year-old Nina is left alone on Christmas Day in a house at the seaside. She goes roller skating along the seafront with her friend, Mal, and when the mood turns, she must outwit him. I’ll leave you to find out for yourself if she succeeds.
I’d also recommend having several pieces of work out there at any given time. If you only submit one story and then wait patiently for it to be rejected/accepted, when that rejection comes it will hit hard. If you have ten or twenty pieces out at any given time then the rejections won’t feel as bad.
Never forget that the opinions of editors and judges are subjective. So be persistent! My story ‘Red’ was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award, but had already been rejected by a couple of magazines and failed to reach the longlist of three smaller competitions.
Sadly, despite an encouraging rise in sales of short story collections, it’s still difficult to get work published anywhere for hard cash. That’s why prizes and awards are so important to emerging short story writers, and why I still enter most of my stories into competitions first.
Lastly, really take note of feedback. It’s all too easy to reject criticism, yet in my experience the advice of a good editor is nearly always sound.
Amanda Huggins is the author of four collections of short fiction and poetry. She was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award 2018, and her prize-winning story, ‘Red’, features in her latest collection, Scratched Enamel Heart. Her poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds won the Saboteur Award for poetry in 2020. Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.