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Which Books Would You Take With You if the House Burnt Down?

A dramatic title, isn’t it? Inspired by a wonderful post I came across this morning from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog, entitled The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire, it wasn’t so much the eye-catching title which caught my attention so much as the photographs: images of people’s treasured possessions, from camera lenses and photographs to pets, cigars and underwear! One six year old boy added a Lego helicopter, a great choice. What I found intriguing was the inclusion of many books in people’s in people’s collections. A literature teacher from Germany had included her Great Aunt’s violin, along with two letters, a journal, a New American Standard Bible, Rilke’s Book of Hours and T.S. Elliot’s Collected Poems. Popova’s own collection includes a 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse, and a 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round. It made me wonder which books I would take with me if I had to leave in a hurry. In an age of eBooks many of us still treasure rare or familiar paperbacks and hardbacks, books with inscriptions or notes, books with illustrations and photographs. I have compiled a collection of books:

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It’s quite a mix of authors, fiction and non-fiction. Each book has its own reason for sitting on the pile, each book its own place in memory.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first book I couldn’t put down. I had finally found a book which kept me up at night until I had read the last page. Originally published in 1915, this spy thriller is set in the wild mores of Scottish, a place which holds great memories and partly the reason for the story’s resonance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot: On the eve of World War I we meet Richard Hannay, bored with his London life until he finds a body in his flat. Before long, Hannay finds himself in possession of a little black book that holds the key to the conspiracy, and on the run from the police. The books has inspired many films and plays since, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic adaptation. Read it!

The Alchemist holds its place in my mind for the very reason that my husband read it to me on our honeymoon. This is not a regular occurrence but it is a memory I treasure. Set in the exotic locations of Spain and the Egyptian desert, Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek treasure. The otherworldliness of this story, with its magical realism and folklore, inspires you to dream and to think beyond the boundaries we create in our lives.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories was given to me by a dear friend with an inscription in the front. It is a 1964 reprint. Hemmingway’s short stories are raw and sharply observed.  I think that’s all I need to say.

Samson Agonistes might seem an unlikely choice, but this battered version has been on my bookshelf since my schooldays. Milton was taught with great enthusiasm by my English teacher, and at a point where I began to understand the many layers within a text. My copy is full of notes in a variety of colours with underlining and asterisks. I will hold on to this one.

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W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry forms a part of my long history of collecting poetry. I have been fascinated by poetry since childhood, and Yeats is a writer whose work I enjoy because it is mystical, melancholic and full of questioning. The first line of To A Young Beauty is a great example of his style:

“Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?”

W.H Auden Poems selected by John Fuller is here for the same reason, although he is possibly my favourite poet. Most notable for Funeral Blues, beginning with Stop the clocks, his lesser known works are just as lyrical and beautifully crafted. I really enjoy the wit and irony which runs through much of his writing. Epitaph on a Tyrant is scathing and applicable to any dictator you choose to name.

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.”

Love and Freedom is a book I have mentioned in a previous post, so I will just say that I am so glad it is back in print. A rare gem that was originally used for research and has become one to keep. This memoir set in post-war Prague is electric; a beautiful, honest account of a life lived under communism.

The Essential Tales of Chekhov was also a gift and has an inscription in the front. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s stories. They need no explanation but this collection is really good. Edited by Richard Ford, is comes with a lengthy introduction on Why We Like Chekhov.

George Orwell Essays has been added to a list which is reasonably filled with non-fiction as well as fiction. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I almost prefer his essays to his famed 1984 and Animal Farm, to hear his unfiltered thoughts, than through the lenses of dystopia or allegory. I haven’t yet read his other fiction novels, so I should reserve judgement. His essay, Why I Write, might appeal to writers. He has also written on Kipling, Yeats, Tolstoy and Wodehouse, which I found interesting. He has bravely covered many political topics, although I think he would rather call it honesty.

Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderful find. I discovered it whilst searching for Christmas presents last year. It is a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children. They were released posthumously and received a warm response from critics. It has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and the illustrations are inspirational. 

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Short Story Writing

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I am in the thick of writing short stories and I really enjoy the punch that you can use to mould a high-impact piece of writing. Last night I read the new issue of Paraxis, a wonderful online publisher of short stories, and I was impressed by the range of prose delivered and the tension created in each short story. This current issue 04 is a publication of the works of both developing and established writers and the combination gels in a surprisingly smooth run of stories:

Seclusion

by Alison Moore

Looking out of Broken Windows
by Dan Powell

Saving Face
by Emma Seaman

The Rat-catcher
by Lorrie Hartshorn

Defacement
by Stuart Snelson

The House in the Woods
by Emily Cleaver

Dan Powell’s metaphorical cracked window panes were still on my mind this morning. The other stories had a similarly disturbing effect. Good writing, writing which lasts, leaves you feeling changed, it forces you to see the world through a different lens and nowhere more so than through a short piece of fiction.

My personal preference is for literary fiction, as that is what I immerse myself in when I read and write, but I was given Ian Rankin’s collection of short stories, Beggars Banquet, for Christmas. In a disturbing and gripping set of stories he covers stories of Edinburgh’s underworld to startling effect. It is important to read outside your genre and read widely, so my repertoire of books is expanding. There was an interesting review of Rankin’s collection on Amazon from a reader who does not usually read short stories who said it was like reading a whole novel in a short story.

This is the essence of the the short story. It should be a complete story in somewhere under 5,000 words. Many are a good deal shorter, but never lacking in impact, never leaving the reader wondering about the rest of the story, apart from to search for meaning and to think about where the characters have been and how they will be impacted by an event or a ending.

Fish Publishing, who publish anthologies of the works of international emerging writers and poets, describes the writing of short stories as being, ‘a glance at the miraculous. Joyce used a religious word. He called his stories ‘epiphanies’. A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realization. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb. There is a record by the American singer Tori Amos called Little Earthquakes. That’s a good metaphor for a short story. Often, a good short story will be a little earthquake.’

In an Introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days & Other Stories,
Joseph O’Connor says this about the writers of this genre:

What kind of strange creature is a short story writer? I must confess that I don’t know. A high priest or priest of art? A wounded soul who can’t understand the real world and thus feels a need to re-invent it? A moralist? A Spinner of yarns? An entertainer? A prophet? Probably all of these things. Possibly none.

The single fact I can be sure about is this: writers are watchers. The one and only thing they have in common is an ability to look at the everyday world and be knocked out by it. Stopped in their tracks. Startled. Gobsmacked.

In an Introduction to the 2003 Fish Anthology, Feathers and Cigarettes & Other Stories, Pat McCabe quotes Frank O’Connor in saying that the form is as close as you could get to the lyric poem:

Henry Thoreau said that it didn’t have to be long but it would take a long while if you wanted to make it short. What was he saying this about? About the form we know as the ‘short story’. Everyone over the years has had something to say on the subject. For V S Pritchett it was an athletic form. If you got a good start you could sprint to the end, unlike the nineteenth-century novel. For Frank O’Connor, it was the closest you could get to the lyric poem, in that the novel requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

Katherine Ann Porter wrote her stories in one sitting. Or so she said. But then writers say all sorts of things. Another thing that was said about the form – and I think it’s a good one – can be attributed to William Trevor. That it’s the ‘art of the glimpse’. Meaning that if the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story tends more towards impressionism. It is an explosion of truth and its strength ought to lie in what it leaves out as much as what it puts in, if not more.

As an aside – Just after I finished writing this post I discovered Charles May’s post on The Secret Life of the Short Story. In it, he discusses the work of  Alice Munro and William Trevor, two of the greatest short story writers in the world today. Munro has been compared to Chekhov. You can read a post on Chekhov’s short stories if you are interested.


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Chekhov, Short Stories and Goals for 2013

This year has been a whirlwind of editing, marketing and publishing for me, a year where I started to build a platform and an internet presence as a writer – something which is a necessity for both traditionally published and self-published writers. It might sound familiar to many of you, but if I tell you that for the past five years I have been tucked away writing, with no sign of my name on Google and no contact with other readers and writers, you can imagine how much things have changed.

I winced at the thought of loading my photo and sharing ideas from my heart about my passions, and what I enjoy reading and writing. I shuddered at the idea of my thoughts being public, but what I have discovered is that the relationships you build online overtake any fears. The people I have met here, on facebook, twitter, and goodreads have been interesting, inspiring, and encouraging. These are all people who are passionate readers, a range or writers over all types of genres, and marketers with a vast experience of online communication.

So, now that we are nearing the end of 2012, I have been thinking about my goals for 2013. I haven’t had time to come up for air but my mind is always full of writing ideas and next steps, it is constantly wanting to create.

Having spent several years crafting ‘Take Me to the Castle,’ a novel which I am pleased to release, with the kindle version on special offer over Christmas and the New Year, I now want to spend next year reading and writing short stories and flash fiction. I wrote many of both types of story as I neared the end of the edits of my book, as I was craving some writing time. Editing and writing are two entirely different processes and I defy you to find any author who prefers editing to writing. The first draft goes through many many changes and morphs into a different form to the original version. This is a good thing – first drafts can sometimes miss essential ingredients, have too many unnecessary words, or just not be tight enough for a compelling story.

Short stories and flash fiction:

I found in these a style of writing which suits my writing. I love the condensing or framing of a story into 350 words or 3000 words. You can create so much suspense and exagerate themes in a way in which they would be lost in a longer piece of prose. I read many different stories, mainly short stories, and wrote many which I will be publishing next year.

I wanted to share with you two books which are on my table to read over Christmas and into the New Year:

Image I love Chekhov’s short stories, they are powerful, full of enticing detail, and captivating. His literary genius is timeless; he wrote in a way that makes his tales just as readable now as they were in the 1800s. Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story author. As a doctor, also, who helped the poor, he was disturbed by the darker aspects of society. His father was a tyranical figure, and this has cast its shadows in his writing. I have already dipped in to ‘The Essential Tales of Chekhov,’ and am hugely enjoying the stories. There is a really interesting account of his life in the Guardian if you are interested in further reading…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/06/anton-chekhov-short-stories

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In time for this year’s National Short Story Week, ‘Overheard: stories to read aloud,’ was released. It is edited by Jonathan Taylor and, wrapped within it’s beautiful cover, are a collection of stories from over 30 of the UK’s most popular storytellers, including Louis De Bernières, Blake Morrison, Kate Pullinger, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Adele Parks and Hanif Kureishi.

I bought this as it was released in November of this year, as I really enjoy reading books by Louis De Bernières and Ian McEwan. It is now tucked it away for the cosy (post editing) winter evenings.

So my goals are to read and write many short stories in the coming year. What are your goals for books to read, or ideas to write?