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Interview – Lecturer, Editor, Critic, SALT and Granta Author, Jonathan Taylor

jonathan-taylor

 

Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman, 2013 and 2014). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Loughborough with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.

His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

1. Your novels have been published by Salt and a memoir by Granta Books. You also write short fiction. Do you have a preference and how does your approach to each of these differ?

I write in lots of different forms and genres – short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry. Part of the reason is that I get bored easily, and, once I’ve finished something, I want to do something totally different. In the short term, that means something totally different to writing – like getting drunk or cleaning the bathroom. But given that getting drunk and cleaning the bathroom are fairly transient pursuits, I eventually come back to writing, in a different form or genre.

So the short answer is no: I don’t have a preference for any of the forms. In fact, I think our culture overrates novels at the expense of other forms – and that short fiction and creative non-fiction are often unfairly overshadowed by the weird fixation on novels (much as, of course, I love the novel form). Short fiction is actually going through a real renaissance, I think, in Britain – the sheer variety and vitality of what’s being written in terms of short stories is wonderful. It’s much more diverse than it was when I first started writing short stories in the dark ages of the 1980s. As for poetry, I’m sceptical of the ways in which it is both marginalised by our culture, and marginalises itself: too often, it is dismissed as irrelevant to people, and too often what gets lauded within certain enclosed communities really is irrelevant, at least in part. The best performance poets understand this, and speak directly to people (and hence get massive audiences). There are so many ways in which so-called “page poets” could learn from performance poets (and no doubt vice versa). They shouldn’t be separate things.

So I love all the forms I write in. My approach to them doesn’t really differ, in that I do believe, ultimately, that the forms all overlap: short fiction has a lot in common with poetry, especially in terms of style; and, in a theoretical sense, it’s hard often to differentiate creative non-fiction from fiction. Again, writing poetry, for me, arose naturally from writing memoir: poetry is often a kind of fragmented (shattered) memoir form. At base, all forms of so-called “creative” writing are also kinds of storytelling (even lyric poetry, despite what people claim). Homer, after all, was a poet, a musician, a storyteller, a “novelist” (in a loose sense), a performer, and (again in a loose sense) a kind of non-fiction writer (in that he treats the stories as though they are “true”). The same might be said of Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare: these writers do lots of different things at once. And Dickens is actually one of the greatest poets: there are passages of Dombey and Son which, though laid out as “prose,” constitute some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

2. I really enjoyed the short fiction anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud. As an editor, do you focus more on line edits or on content and structure; is there an overall theme that you have in mind?

I’ve edited work in lots of different contexts, but for Overheard I’d selected the writers myself for the anthology (rather than putting out a general call for submissions) so I knew I’d get good stuff! It makes editing much easier, of course, when the basic material is excellent. I’m a fairly “interventionist” editor, which I know can by annoying; but I’d want the same for my own writing. You can’t entirely ever, on your own, make your writing as good as it could be, let alone perfect: I believe you always need external advice and suggestions from someone you trust. Sometimes, as you become more experienced, those critical voices are internalised – so you have editors in your head, as it were.

At the moment, I’ve just started thinking about co-editing a new short story anthology, with the wonderful writer Karen Stevens. The theme came first: we decided (over a lot of wine) that we wanted to put together an anthology of ‘Drinking Stories.’ There are, of course, strong traditions of ‘drinking songs’ and even ‘drinking poems’ in many cultures – but we want to show how there’s also a tradition of stories structured around the pleasures and pains of alcohol. Chekhov famously likened the short story to a shot of vodka – and there’s a real and metaphorical and structural relationship between the short story form and alcohol. There are stories about drinking, and there are also stories which simulate the effects of drinking (including a wonderful passage in David Copperfield). The relationship between storytelling and alcohol goes back to Chaucer and, in other cultures, even further.

Having said that the theme is the starting-point for editing, I think the important thing is to choose a theme in which the writers involved can do lots of different things. The whole point of an anthology is diversity – so you don’t want to make people write in the same way, or produce something uniform. That’s the readerly joy of an anthology, the unexpected, the tensions and conflicts as well as overlaps between the stories within.

3. Your work has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award and the Saboteur Best Short Story Collection, and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud won the Saboteur Best Fiction Anthology. What do you think makes good writing stand out, and is an originality of style essential?

Oh gosh, I’m going a bit red now. But honestly, awards and prizes – no one can deny that they’re pleasant – but ultimately they mean nothing. They are purely subjective attempts to impose order and hierarchy on a contemporary writing world which (in the best sense) is chaotic and multifarious and packed with thousands of wonderful, jostling books. In a way, prizes can be a way of denying that wonderful multifariousness and diversity, of impoverishing literary culture. I’m not saying that’s what they do – just that that’s the danger of them, and people end up just reading what they’re told (by awards, publishers, bookshops) to read, instead of discovering the huge variety of what’s actually out there, over the horizon. Perhaps some of the best books are over the horizon, out of sight, hidden from public view. One shouldn’t just read what one is “told” to read – one should also read at random, books one happens across, books discovered in corners, books from unfamiliar genres, books with pretty covers or intriguing titles.

Obviously, it’s a big question: what makes good writing stand out? I wish I knew. No doubt, in many ways, I’m a stylist, and I do think “originality of style” is of vital importance, maybe primary importance. Having said that, I’m not sure what “originality” would consist of in that respect. Still, there’s something beautifully musical about good writing – it should sound like music, either out loud or inside someone’s head. Short fiction and poetry in particular are, I think, musical forms at root, using rhythm, melody and interweaving voices (for example, in fictional dialogue) in a way not dissimilar to Bachian counterpoint. For that reason, good fiction (I think – but what do I know?) is a place in which, as Mikhail Bakhtin might have said, different voices, tones, registers meet, interweave and clash.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the writing I love the most mingles comedy and tragedy, horror and beauty, laughter and pathos, sometimes in the same sentence. I’m currently writing an academic book about laughter and its close relationship with horror and violence in the work of nineteenth and twentieth-century writers like Poe, Dickens, Carlyle, Wyndham Lewis, Edmund Gosse, Shirley Jackson.

4. Where did your writing journey begin?

When I was ten I gave up wanting to be a train driver, Prime Minister, astronaut or James Bond and decided to do something much more difficult – that is, become a writer. It was only many years later that I realised – in retrospect – that this was, coincidentally or not, the same moment that my father started getting ill. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and an associated form of dementia. I wonder now if storytelling (and writing) is always about loss, or, to be more specific, always a poor replacement for a something which has been lost. In my case, it was an unconscious substitute for lost memories and histories. This is not to say that all writing and storytelling are forms of nostalgia – just that they are signs of a Fall, a lost world, fracture. That’s why so many writers are in exile, literally or metaphorically. In a wider sense, I think consciousness in general – which is, in the end, a kind of storytelling – is the result of loss, fragmentation, splitting. And that’s why, for many people, their earliest memories involve getting lost, or being separated from their parents. One of my earliest memories is of wandering round a big department store in Stoke-on-Trent, searching for Father Christmas. I didn’t find him, and ended up losing my parents as well. There’s some kind of allegory for life and writing hidden there.

5. As a Creative Writing Lecturer, how much can good writing be taught, or is it more a case of feeding a gift that has already taken root? 

As I’ve said on many an occasion, I believe all aspects of writing can be taught – or, at least, learned, which might be a slightly different thing. I suppose I’m a nurturist, and believe that there is no such thing as a “gift” in writing – nothing, as far as I’m concerned, which might be termed “natural.” This may be different for maths or music, where child prodigies do sometimes occur, but writing is an entirely artificial and learned activity. Hence why there are so few (if any) child prodigies in the field of writing.

Maybe all this comes from my own experience: I learnt to read and write very late (my father thought there was something wrong with me); and then it took me years, decades to develop my writing to the point of it being publishable (whatever that means). Each little step was painfully won. I’m amazed by some of the students I teach, who can write fabulously at 20: it took me years and years of effort to improve. And I’m not the only one – after all, many famous authors took to writing quite late (Joseph Conrad is an obvious example). Writing is crawling. Reading, by contrast, should be effortless: the writer puts all that effort in to make reading a straightforward pleasure for the reader. That’s one of the paradoxes at the heart of writing: writing is difficult, hard-won, in order to make reading a simple pleasure.

6. Can you tells us about your role as co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators? 

I set up Crystal Clear Creators in 2003 with Robin Webber-Jones. It’s an arts organisation which develops, records, produces, publishes and promotes new writing, both for radio and in print. We’ve done a lot of different things with it over the years – run workshops and courses, published anthologies and pamphlets, produced radio dramas and run short-term radio stations. So it’s all very varied. At the moment, CCC is involved as co-organiser (along with Nine Arches Press and the Centre for New Writing) of the bi-monthly Leicester Shindig, an open-mic poetry night which has become quite well known. Otherwise, I’ve had to step back from it for a couple of years – what with twins, a full-time job and my own writing, time is at a premium. Still, we’re hoping to run a new project in the next year or so, and relaunch the whole organisation. It’s a social thing as well: writing can be such an isolating activity, so working with other writers in forums like CCC breaks you out of that. Again, this is another paradox in writing: it’s a displaced form of communication, in which you speak to lots of people, but it originates (by and large) in a very lone activity. You write for readers, but you do so on your own in a shed or in front of a computer. Writing is a kind of displaced social activity – it’s an act of communication, a meeting place, on the page.

 

 

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An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, Editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

short circuit

Written by 24 prizewinning writers and teachers of writing, Short Circuit is intensely practical. Each expert discusses necessary craft issues: their own writing processes, sharing tried and tested writing exercises and lists of published work they find inspirational. Endorsed by The National Association of Writers in Education, it became recommended or required reading for Creative Writing courses in the UK and beyond.

I really enjoyed Short Circuit and can, without hesitation, recommend it to short story authors, whether a beginner or experienced. There is something for every level. While I gained great insight into the workings of the short story from each chapter, it would be difficult to look at each chapter and their author in this interview. I will endeavour to focus on the ones which had a particular impact on me and try to raise some key themes from the collection as a whole. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for taking the time to answers these questions. 

My pleasure.  I am so glad you enjoyed the book. 

Short Circuit is a wonderful collection of thoughts and ideas on the short story from a range of practitioners and experts, how did you go about selecting the contributors and themes?

I was very lucky – between 2006 and 2009 I’d met many wonderful short story writers at competition events, festivals, on the circuit –  and it struck me then that many who do well in the good competitions are well published (quality not quantity), and many also happened to be well-regarded teachers of writing. I knew the book I wanted to create – the book I’d have liked myself when I was starting out. I wanted each writer to share what fired them up most, craftwise, processwise. I had no intention of standardising the voice of the book – it was important that each writer should speak to the reader in their own voice, in their own way, after all voice is so important in short stories too.  I approached the writers I wanted, and they all said yes. They suggested the topics in the main, and there was hardly any duplication. If there were any gaps, I filled that when all the others had finished their chapters. 

In the introduction to the book, you share Tania Hershman’s words that the story will linger in your mind for much longer than it took to read it. This is so true of powerful short fiction. How does the impact that a short story makes on the reader’s mind differ from the longer novel or novella form?

Hard to answer that one in general, as it must differ reader to reader – I can only answer for myself. I think the impact of the strong short story for me (and it only applies to a really good one, I hasten to add) is something to do with the intensity of the whole experience. The compression of the form renders it deeply resonant, if I, the reader, am complicit. I have to be open to the experience, or the story will slide past and won’t do its work. Perhaps the power of story in a novel-length piece of work can lose its physical impact – as the reader has such a long time to get used to the whole world, the journey. It would not be possible to sustain the intensity of a great short story in a novel – either for the writer or reader, would it?  People are always seeking analogies for the experience of short story versus novel – the comparisons I’ve seen most often are physical. A brief intense affair versus a long-standing relationship. I’ll ask a question: Which makes the most lasting impression – which would you retain a specific memory of – experiencing a starlit sky for hours, or seeing a single shooting star? Simple, really. Both are lovely. One burns itself deeper onto the memory than the other.

Absolutely. I like the comparison between the starlit sky and a shooting star. Alison Macleod’s chapter on Writing and Risk-Taking encourages writers to take on a little more than they think they can manage artistically. She likens it to driving off-road without a map and suggests writers should never feel sure that they can pull off a short story. I liked this analogy because it is often how you feel when writing a short story, the sense that there are no signposts. How do you handle the risk-taking as you write?

I don’t – I mean, if it is being ‘handled’ then it isn’t risk, really. I think it is that sense of being on the edge, of the possibility of failing badly – which is the spur. Not having signposts is very important – I always wonder how I would write if I knew the story before I started – it’s rather as if I am telling myself the story as I write – if I know it already, why would I bother? I remember feeling ‘this is impossible’ as I was writing ‘Wei Ch’i’ – a very short surreal story in which I was just following an older Japanese man as he returns home at the end of the day to the flat he shares with his wife. He begins to find his wife in pieces, literally in pieces… but it is not horrific at all – rather tender, poignant, matter of fact. Had I stopped because ‘it was impossible’ – a really decent little story would not have arrived. I just had to trust that the story was going somewhere good and arrive there at the same time as the story itself.

Time is a theme which is woven through the book. In your chapter on Leaving the Door Ajar you refer to Dorothea Brande in suggesting that stories are formed in the unconscious mind, and that it is a question of trusting the process. You revisited one of your stories a year later, after a visit to Ireland, and called this a ‘gestation period’ for your story. How important do you think it is to let stories rest a while to enable character to form?

For this writer, it varies story to story, no matter what its length. Sometimes, a story will appear almost fully formed, complete with layers – and others will take a long while. It’s not only a question of character, it’s a question of what the story is really ‘about’ as opposed to the surface events. Perhaps uncomfortable themes take a while to emerge, while easy, uncontentious ones flow in a simpler, faster way. The story which is the subject of my essay in Short Circuit took a while, certainly. Maybe I was avoiding tackling a difficult theme, subconsciously? Who knows. But when I was ready, and it was ready, it came right.

I do know I used to grab hold of a story thought too fast – get it down before I forgot it, or I even shared the idea with another writer – ‘Listen, isn’t this a great idea?’ – and in both instances something was taken away from the work before I let it allowed to develop naturally. Time is probably one of my greatest allies – and at my age, one of my greatest enemies!

Graham Mort discusses the influence of the biblical parables, in terms of their difficult moral codes, and of African stories and oral tradition in his work. He relates the parables to some of the key building blocks in poetry; specifically, metaphor and allegory. How important do you think these influences are on a writer’s ability to develop form in their work, and do you see a link between short stories and poetry?

Well, they were patently very important to Graham in developing his work in all kinds of ways, his development of form being just one. (I know his chapter is about form, but it is so hard to winkle out one element and say what influenced its development to the exclusion of all others, really). For the writer in me,  influences such as the parables are also important and I’m now trying to articulate why. I think its because they are ancient, firstly, and I get a sense of tapping into a stream which underpins the development of the culture in which I exist. Their use of allegory is magical – very potent. Their use of metaphor taught me about metaphor very early on, practically, before it was named for me. Don’t we learn from everything that surrounds us? Surely. 

Do I see a link between short stories and poetry? Yeees, said with all kinds of caveats. It’s trotted out so often, isn’t it – every word counts in both, so there must be a link. Both can be short – therefore there is a link. Hmm. Perhaps the link really lies in the use of metaphor to explore an underlying theme in a short story, and use of metaphor to paint something that might/also means something else, in a poem?  Discuss! 

Great idea. Anyone? Strunk and White’s book, Elements of Style, provides useful advice for writers on grammar and sentence structure. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapter on Language and Style refers to their work and supports the advice on avoiding the elaborate and the pretentious, with the idea of using normal language. She suggests using short, more appropriate wording, according to the piece you are writing. Which books or authors helped you when you began writing?  

I’ve never read Strunk and White, I must admit. Are they right all the time? I think I’d be much too ‘aware’ of what they say is right and wrong when I’m writing, and I don’t want that. I want what is right for the piece of work I’m struggling with at the time – it may well not need grammatically perfect prose (if that’s what they advocate…). For me, the story needs to take over – if it all needs to be  in carefully constructed  perfect prose, then so be it – but if it doesn’t,  and has nevertheless been written to abide by all the so-called ‘rules’,  then the prose might stand in the way of the story. I don’t want that. For example – say a piece is written in first person, and the narrator is a young, hardly-educated lad from the wrong side of town. He wouldn’t use perfect constructs in his speech in truth, and if he did in the story, the vocab and grammar would render the character flawed, for this reader.  

I agree absolutely with the advice not to use pretentious words.  How often do I see new writers littering work with writerly constructs, thinking it makes the piece better – when all it does is wave a flag that says “beginner!”

Short or long sentences? Doesn’t really matter – the word that means the most is ‘appropriate’, in Nuala’s advice. Would your character use this group of words, would she think like this? If she invented a simile, what experience in her own life would she draw on?  How would she phrase it – not you, the writer…?

All writers help me. The poor ones make me want to write more appropriately. The ones who create work that makes me forget I am reading help me to try to reach those heights.  William Golding. W G Sebald. And a hundred others. 

vanessa Vanessa is an award-winning author and a freelance creative writing teacher. Her novel, The Coward’s Tale, was a UK Financial Times Book of the Year and Guardian readers’ book of the year. Her stories have been commissioned by the British Council, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and are widely anthologised. She also has two collections: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning. Vanessa’s debut poetry publication, The Half-life of Fathers, includes a poem which won the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry prize. www.vanessagebbie.com


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Interview with Author and 1000words Editor, Natalie Bowers

100words

I met Natalie when my short fiction piece, North Norfolk Coast, was published online in 1000words at the beginning of July. 1000words publishes flash-fiction of up to 1000 words in length, written in response to an image. I have been impressed with the site and the quality of the work for a while. Natalie’s response to my submission was really professional and friendly, and I have enjoyed reading some of her own fiction (more on her work at the end of the post). I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, so thank you for joining us, Natalie, and for answering some questions that I think authors often ask, or want to ask.

When and how did 1000words begin, and what inspired you to start gathering flash fiction?

1000words began in 2012 as part of the first National Flash-Fiction Day. I’d just finished an online flash-fiction course with Calum Kerr, the brains behind NFFD, who’d said he was looking for people to organise events, online and off. I’ve always had a secret desire to run my own fiction magazine, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to start one. I also love photography, so what better way was there to blend my two main interests and fulfill an ambition than by starting 1000words?

 What is flash fiction, for those who are new to the form, and how is it unique?

There are as many definitions of flash-fiction as there are people writing it, but for me, flash-fiction is simply a very short story. Although at 1000words we accept stories of up to 1000 words in length, I actually prefer reading and writing stories no longer than 500 words. When it comes to flash-fiction I like to be punched in the gut. I like flash-fiction to be short, sharp and to take my breath away.

 The idea of using an image prompt from the Pinterest page is very creative. How do you decide which images to use?

I go with my instincts. If I see an image and find myself immediately making up a story, I pin the image. I’ve pinned quite a few of my own photos on our Pinterest boards too, as I always have a camera on me and am constantly on the lookout for story ideas.

pinterest 1000

There is a wonderful range of stories on the site. How do you chose what will be published, and what are you looking for in a piece of fiction?

Again, I go with my instincts. If the opening few lines grab me, I know I’m likely to enjoy the whole piece and will most likely publish it. What I’m really looking for is a consistent narrative voice. It doesn’t have to be a confident voice, but I need to feel as if the narrator is a real person and believes in the story they’re telling. I’m also looking for something special: a surprising simile, a poignant observation, a subverted cliché, an old story told in a new way, or a new story told in an old way. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

Is there anything that will automatically send work to the rejection pile, and are there any submission tips you can share? 

There’s nothing that will automatically send work to the rejection pile. If I decline to publish a story, it’s usually due to a combination of factors such as an inconsistent narrative voice, unnatural sounding dialogue, cliché imagery or plot or over-explaining (not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination). If a story has a lot of grammatical mistakes and doesn’t look as if it’s been proofread properly then I’ll probably turn it down, as it’ll be too much work to prepare it for publication. One of the biggest turn-offs for me, though, are stories with a twist ending where the twist hasn’t been sufficiently foreshadowed or where it’s been so obviously sign-posted that I’ve guessed it before the end. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one I struggle with myself.

Tell us a little about yourself and your own writing?

I’ve always written stories in my head, if not on paper. I remember writing and illustrating a book for my little brother when I was about ten. It was a complete rip-off of the children’s TV series Jamie and His Magic Torch, but I put my heart and soul into it! In my early teens, I graduated to Star Wars fanfiction, but I didn’t write much at all in my late teens and twenties, I was too busy with school, university, work and then babies – I did science A-levels, a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, taught for a few years and then gave it all up to raise two lovely children. I’d had depression and anxiety after the birth of my daughter in 2005, and the doctor advised me to find something with which to occupy my brain. Writing seemed like a good idea, so in 2007, after a bit of dabbling, I took The Open University’s Start Writing Fiction Course, and I haven’t really looked back since. I’ve written quite a few short stories, but flash-fiction is where I feel most at home and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a fair few pieces published here and there. Right now, I’m working on a collection of summer-themed flash-fictions and in September (if I get enough punters) I’ll be teaching my first ever writing course in the adult education department of my local secondary school. Bit scary!

Are there any short fiction authors who are a particular inspiration? 

Loads! I have a ‘Recommended Reading’ page on my website where I list lots of my favourite authors and stories, but if I had to name just a few, they’d be: Calum Kerr, Nik Perring, Kevlin Henney, Shirley Golden, Cathy Lennon, Lorrie Heartshorn, Angela Readman, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx and Kate Atkinson. These are the people whose work I rush to read. (That was more than just a few, wasn’t it?!)

Friends of 1000words are flashandzoom, Paragraph Planet and Stories with Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?

flashandzoom is a photography and poetry project run photographer Jaime Hill and a writing pal of mine, Zoe Mitchell. The aim of the project is to provide a fresh perspective to photography and poetry, and to create art that reaches people on a number of levels. It’s been a bit quiet of late, but what they’ve produced in the past has been beautiful.

Paragraph Planet publishes a 75-word paragraph (fiction and non-fiction) EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, which is an amazing feat. You can also read author interviews and there’s a sister site called ‘Writing Workout’ where writers can do all sorts of writing exercises. I’ve had a couple of pieces published on Paragraph Planet and intend to send more soon.

Stories and Pictures is a site that brings writers and artists together in collaboration. It’s chock-full of beautiful stories accompanied by beautiful pictures. Some of the stories have been inspired by pictures, and some of the pictures have been inspired by stories. I’ve had a story and a photo published there too.

  natalie 2 Natalie Bowers, along with Heather Stanley, is the editor and publisher of 1000words online flash fiction magazine. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. Natalie has a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, and has taught Science and A-Level Biology. Her short stories have appeared in print and her flash-fiction has been published in various online journals. You can find a list of her publications on her blog, and she is a fellow Ether Books author. You can follow 1000words on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Away What Doesn’t Work

shoes

I have a pair of shoes that are so comfortable I hardly feel I’m wearing them. But they are falling apart, to the point that they really need to be thrown out. This morning a new pair arrived at the door. I ordered online to save time shopping, and to spend more time this week writing. I opened the box, unwrapped all the paper, et voilà – a new pair of shoes. They were different, except for the fact that they were actually the same! Yes, I ordered the same pair. So the first pair presumably once looked much like the second, although I can’t remember them ever looking that fresh and zippy!

I tried on the new pair, shuffled, took them off and tentatively put my feet back into the old pair. But something stopped me: a voice inside my head that said, ‘You’ve just ordered a new pair. Why are you going back to the old ones? They need to go in the bin.’ Hmm. I took them off and tucked them away. They have yet to reach the bin. As I type, I’m wriggling my toes inside the new ones. When I look down they look great, but they are not as comfortable. ‘It’s OK,’ I tell myself. ‘You’ll just take time to get used to them. Keep them on.’

Isn’t that what’s it’s like with writing that doesn’t work? Some of it is scruffy but comfortable. You cling on to it in the vain hope that it might work, but you know deep in the pit of your coffee-and-biscuit-filled stomach that it won’t. You know the reality is that you will need to cut, ruthlessly, until your work is, in places, almost unrecognisable. You will need to throw away the holey parts, the frayed edges, the parts with missing pieces that will never be filled.

It’s amazing how much emotion or sentiment is attached to some pieces of work, which is why you need good beta readers and good editors and an open mind. As you write, and as you reread, you have to develop the ability to see your story through the eyes of someone with no emotional investment in your work, someone who is prepared to throw out the parts that you want to keep. It is possibly one of the toughest parts of the process. Sometimes whole stories need to be thrown out, sometimes its beginnings or endings and sometimes it might just be sections.

What can you throw away that isn’t working? What can you cut to make your writing tighter?


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Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner


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Step Away From The Vehicle

Step away from the vehicle – and put your novel in a drawer

step away

This is the final piece of advice I wanted to share with you from Zadie Smith in this series on writing wisdom.

When you finish your novel put it in a drawer for as long as possible. A year or more is ideal, says Smith, but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work lies in the fact that you must become a reader instead of a writer. Smith says that there have been many times where she has sat backstage with a line of novelists at a literary festival, all with red pens in hand, frantically editing their published novels so that they might go onstage and read from them. Unfortunately the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is apparently two years after it is published! And ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood are distressingly obvious to you as a writer.

Several years previously, when the proofs arrived, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they have read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get into the head of that smart stranger and forget you ever wrote that book.

Personally, I left my novel for three months and began a Masters in Theology. Needless to say, the theology fell by the wayside once I picked up the book again, cut out a whole family, added two chapters, released it into the hands of my editors and completed the edits once they had finished their job. You don’t need to change course or take up something new, but at least begin some other writing and let it rest.

Here are some of my previous articles which you mind find helpful for editing your work:

https://fcmalby.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/3-things-to-remember-when-editing-your-book/

https://fcmalby.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/editing-and-ove-ruse-of-words-make-each-word-count/

https://fcmalby.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/one-of-the-most-effective-ways-of-editing-your-work/

 

Some interesting articles on leaving a gap between finishing your book and editing your work:

http://www.wiseinkblog.com/planning/at-first-draft-the-6-minimal-steps-to-revising-your-manuscript-before-submission/

http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/wgf-revision_excerpt

http://www.write4kids.com/feature4.html

http://theliteraryhub.blogspot.co.at/2011/10/top-10-tips-for-revising-your.html

http://www.scriptmag.com/features/rewriting-is-writing (this advice is for screenwriting but it applies equally to novels.)


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Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Having spent months editing Take Me to the Castle I have missed the writing process, which is what writers love. Editors scour written work for grammar, punctuation, style, consistency. Publishers focus on pulling a book together professionally and marketing it to readers. Writers love to craft novels and stories. I think we come unstuck when it is time to take a scalpel to the writing and cut out or change words, re-read, re-write, and change any inconsistencies. So I decided to take action and write some short stories and flash fiction. This has served two purposes – It has given me the opportunity to write in a shorter timescale than I would a whole novel, and it has sharpened my skills as a writer. I will keep you posted on the release of these. My aim is to publish an anthology in the future, with a collection of short stories and poems.

I have had some communication with the lovely Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She says that she began her journey into writing by writing short stories, and that it tightened her style and honed her craft. I had already read ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Salt Publishing, and loved it. So I set to work on short story writing and have also written flash fiction, generally under 350 words. For the writer it teaches you to keep the essence of your story within limited boundaries, and for the reader it is a pleasure to read something which is short and intense – like a good espresso!

Before I get back to my coffee, I just want to leave you with an exclusive short story by Hilary Mantel, The Long QT. It is striking in so many ways. Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with reading or writing short stories and flash fiction? Do you prefer these styles of writing to novel-length work or vice versa? Have your say and feel free to share any of your own reading or writing experiences with short stories or flash fiction.

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