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Speaking at Arlingtons

I was asked to speak last week at Arlingtons Bar in Ipswich for a Young Adult Carers book group, run by the Suffolk Family Carers about my short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo, which they had just read. They were an interesting and engaging bunch who clearly loved books. I was welcomed with some fabulous coffee and cake and we launched into conversation about short stories and favourite authors.

The building itself is beautiful. A Grade ll listed building with a fascinating past, it used to be a museum and later became a dance hall. During it’s first years, the museum had as it’s President Revd Professor John Stevens Henslow, who had been Charles Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge University. The British Association for the advancement of Science met at Ipswich and the building was admired by HRH Prince Albert, who became it’s official Patron.

The writer/researcher in me relishes these details!

We began with an ice breaker which had been organised by the staff who run the book group. The answers to their questions helped to steer the session. Most of them wanted to improve their own writing skills and to understand how a story is formed and written.

The young carers were intrigued by the different writing styles of authors: we discussed writing evolving versus meticulous planning. I am more if the former and I suggested that many crime writers fall into the latter category. They were interested to learn that Tolstoy plotted out each character in War and Peace in a chart.

This little side room was our setting for the evening. The walls were covered in old black and white photos of Paris, which we later used as inspiration for our own stories. I read them the opening story in the collection, Blood Red. I enjoy reading stories aloud and when I read my own to a group, I relive it each time. There is something magical about reading to an audience. The topic is quite gritty so I kept my eyes focused on the words rather than looking up. It was a fun evening and I think I learned a great deal from them about the power of words and the ability to escape into other worlds, especially when their own lives can be very challenging.

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Red Beret – Friday Flash Fiction Magazine

I’ve just had a short piece of flash fiction published in Friday Flash Fiction Magazine:

He had seen her the day before, drinking a late and typing on her laptop in a quiet corner of the cafe. She had worn a red beret and a black, high-necked top over blue jeans. Her legs had been crossed, her head turned away from the crowds. Today she looked sad, her typing, faster. He could see the words of an article, for a paper or a journal? Tomorrow she may be here again, maybe not. He walked over to her, sat down and read his paper next to her. Tomorrow she may not be here.

FC Malby

 

 

 

 

 


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Author Visit in School


I was invited into my children’s primary school this week to talk about my books, and writing novels and short stories, and to teach some creative writing in Year 5 and 6. I will load a few photos when I have them.


It was a great experience and the children were a captive audience. They asked some intelligent questions about whether you begin a story at the beginning or in the middle, and how you weave flashbacks into a story. We discussed some of their favourite authors, Jacqueline Wilson being one of the favourites! Many of them enjoyed historical fiction and some had already written their own stories outside school and wanted to talk about the writing process and ask for advice. As a qualified teacher, going back into the classroom felt very natural, but I would recommend that writers speak to as many different audiences as possible. It gives you an opportunity to exercise your public speaking skills for events, like public readings, and it engages people in discussion about books, and encourages young minds to think outside the box.


As an author, you do get asked to speak at book groups, in schools, and in a few months I will be teaching some young adults with mental health issues about writing. Why? Because people want to know about the process, they want to discuss books and share commonalities.


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Speaking at a Book Group

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This morning I spoke at a book group meeting. The members of the group had read my debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, and they invited me to come and speak. They wanted to discuss the writing process and the background to the book.

It was an interesting experience for me as an author and I learned a great deal about what readers want to know. Their questions mirrored many of the reader emails I receive. One of the most interesting questions was, what, if anything, I would have changed about the story. Many readers have said they felt devastated by the loss of one of the characters, which the book group agreed with and they had also felt the same way. This led to a discussion about what captures the heart of the reader and how we become involved in the lives of the characters. They also wanted to know if finishing a manuscript created a sense of loss for an author. My answer was a resounding, yes. It does, it really does. When you spend a few years inside the lives and minds of your characters, closing a door into their world is a bereavement of sorts, even if only fictional.

We covered many areas of publishing, editing, writing, research and whether people prefer ebooks over paperbacks. We discussed the length of the editing process and what happens at each stage of the publishing process at Random House. From an initial idea to the final product, it takes roughly a year to create a book.

They were keen to know the million dollar question (and it is one that is asked most often at literary festivals and in author interviews)….

“Where do your ideas come from?”

While it is difficult to give a tangible answer, because the answer varies from writer to writer, and from story to story, what I can say is that most writing develops from an idea. That idea is often sparked by your own experiences or feelings, or those of others. Every experience creates an image or a thought, every person reveals character traits that can be woven into a fictional character. And in the case of my short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo, I said that some of the stories are purely fictional, while others find their origins in real life experiences.

We discussed the fact that many ideas evolve from a snippet of information or a scene that appears in your imagination. We discussed the creative process and the difficulty of writer’s block. There were many questions and ideas but what really resonated with me was that fact that everyone gleans different experiences from the same story.

 

 

 

 


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What we can learn from Beauty and the Beast About Plot, Tension and Obstacles

 

Disney’s much hyped adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was released at the weekend. The film broke box office records with an estimated $170 million, making it the seventh largest opening weekend of all time. It’s a story that engages your emotions and keeps you hooked to the end. I was discussing the film with someone today who wanted to go and see it. She said it was her favourite fairytale and we were talking about what makes this particular story stand out. It occurred to me that part of the pull is the constant tension throughout the story, the conflict of interests, and the fact that the Beast is somehow flawed as a love match for Belle.

We all know the plot – an arrogant young prince and his servants fall under the spell of a enchantress, who turns him into the Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast’s castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his servants, Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation.

There is a tension between Gaston’s claims that he will marry Belle, and her desire for independence and dislike of his puffed up ego. Part of her appeal is the fact that she doesn’t want a relationship and is a strong and independent girl. She loves books, loves her father and, unlike the other girls in the village, refuses to fall for Gaston’s false charm.  There is a tension between either Belle or her father being held prisoner in the tower.

There are obstacles in the way, in the form of wolves, Gaston, the villagers when they storm the castle, Belle’s need to rescue her father, and the Beast’s appearance and initial hostility. Every time you come up for air, another obstacle presents itself. Life can feel like this at times, but it is used as part of a plot to ramp up the tension and keep the viewer engaged and rooting for the main characters.

The fact that the Beast sees himself as unlovable and flawed because of the curse put on him, appeals to us because most of us feel flawed in some way, however big or small, aware of our less-than-perfect self. Yet, he wins her affection despite his appearance, which has kept him in his tower. It is in part because of this that we want their relationship to work.

I want to leave you with one of the highlights of the film…the library!

Beauty and the Beast

 

 


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Rock Pools

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‘Look, a starfish, bright orange. Look at it.’ Sophie points to the ripples in the rock pool, her pigtails drop down over her cheeks, cover the freckles that have faded in the sun. ‘Billie, look.’ He is further from her, closer to the shore. He jumps across the rocks, one leg followed by the other, to where she is crouching down, pointing.

The wind stirs up the water. It is difficult to see beneath the surface. He scrunches his eyes almost shut, but not quite. ‘It was there, I promise,’ she insists, but he is unsure, wonders if it was worth the distance. He had been disturbed from scooping up mounds of volcanic sand into a cracked blue bucket that he had found outside the barn this morning. He had wondered if it was there to be used or whether he should have left it alone. There had been lots of old deck chairs lined up against the stone wall, the wood frames held together by sun-bleached fabric a few rips and holes. They had looked as though they were waiting to be used or restored. Nothing looked as though it had been let out for some time and he had decided that the bucket, at least, deserved some time at the beach. There hadn’t been anybody about to ask… Read the rest of the story online in Vending Machine Press

 


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Author Interview – Nick Black

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Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including Open Pen, the Lonely Crowd, Severine, Funhouse, Firefly, Spelk and Litro.  They’ve also won various flash contests and been listed for the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize.

1. Your short fiction is intense and atmospheric, what do you think draws a reader into a moment in a story?

I think the right entry point is essential.  I read some advice once to try chopping out your story’s opening when revising, which has often been a wise move for me.   It might take a few lines or paragraphs for the writer to find their feet, feel where they’re going, but the good stuff (for the reader) might not start until that’s done. Start the story there. You don’t always need a lead in. Get in quick with a good hook.

I think a strong premise can be as important as beautiful language, much as I love the latter when used well.  I read a lot of chin-strokingly admiration-worthy zingy lines and images these days but don’t see as many big short stories that I’ll remember… the next day. I read an Arthur C Clarke story one time, when I was 13 or so, that I can still remember to this day.  I could paraphrase the plot now and it would still stand up. Roald Dahl, Somerset Maugham, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Kipling, du Maurier… they could write stories like that, too.  I’d love to be able to do that, come up with plots strong enough to work re-told, even with all the original effort and style and craft taken away.  Which has wandered a little away from your question, sorry.

2. What inspired you to write and do you have any key influences?

I had a hugely encouraging English teacher at secondary school who’d make me read my stories aloud to the class.  Every weekend we were set Creative Writing homework and I’d churn out three, four times as many pages as we were asked to do, my own takes on Stephen King, the ‘Dune’ books, Ray Bradbury, the Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video… A few years later, I studied English and American Literature at university, mostly the latter.  As far as short stories went, this meant ‘The Complete Stories’ Flannery O’Connor, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Sherwood Anderson, Ann Beattie’s first collection ‘Distortions’, Bukowski ‘The Most Beautiful Woman In Town’… Also Hemingway’s short stories and ‘The Stories Of Raymond Carver,’ those two were ruinous for my own writing for years.  I started stripping out everything I possibly could, but it really didn’t suit me, and I ended up barely writing at all.

Then I went the other way after discovering Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow, and I started writing long multi-claused sentences with – to me interesting, to everyone else unreadable – syntaxes and rhythms.  My friends would tell me they’d enjoyed what I’d shown them…. but that it was slightly hard work.  I’ve tried wearying people less in recent years.

At the end of the day, I’ll always credit Stephen King and Ray Bradbury for torching my fuse in the first place.  They both talked about the thrill of getting early stories published in magazines, being paid for their crazy fever dreams, and that seemed so exciting, and possibly one-day do-able…

3. Do you have any advice for new writers who are wanting to submit to literary magazines and writing competitions?

Definitely do it. Success, if and when it comes, is the best fuel! For a long time, I was writing a story a year, if that, for friends and family until I was flicking through GQ magazine in a supermarket one day and saw they had a short story competition. I wrote something, sent it in, ended up shortlisted and printed in a little pamphlet they produced.  The following year, I saw another competition advertised I’m not even sure where, wrote a story, etcetera etcetera, and ended up at a launch party for the Spread the Word Prize, now the London Short Story Prize, as one of the shortlistees.  I spoke to a few people who asked about my writing habits before telling me theirs, and I was really embarrassed to confess to my one-story-a-year sloth, so started writing more, and submitting more.  You wouldn’t even be sending me these questions if those two competitions hadn’t woken up my teenage dream.

Advice? Not that I’m in a position to give any, but from my experience…  Accept that you’re going to get a lot of rejections and no-shows. A lot. Don’t take it too much to heart, these judgements are entirely subjective, and that same piece may well succeed elsewhere.  Or at the place you try after that. Or the one after.

Find out what the people you’re subbing to seem to enjoy.  Competitions can be an expensive hobby so, unless you’ve got unlimited funds, target them well. I’m still trying magazines and competitions that are well above my punching weight, so this is a lesson I’m still learning.

Try and identify what your strengths are and work on them, make them work for you. I have a friend called Kate Jones, for example, who writes incredibly fast but her stories always come out well shaped, well proportioned, everything in the right place. CG Menon’s a writer who somehow manages to pick words that almost audibly pop off the page.  I wish I knew how she did that!  I’d rip it off faster than a plaster! Sara Lippmann’s an American author who sneaks readers into her characters’ privatest desires and feelings to an almost uncomfortable degree – I’ll read anything by her. So, see what you can bring to the table that other people aren’t already, and write what you want to read, that other writers are failing to supply.

Finally, be prepared to fall off the horse. Get back on the horse.

4. How did you find it speaking at the London Short Story Festival and how valuable do you feel it is to do readings and speak as an author?

It was in the beautiful art deco foyer of Waterstone’s Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, though, so people were wandering past, looking over. One gentleman stopped and stayed for the whole thing, and spoke to me afterwards…  I really enjoyed the experience, even if ‘I was invited to read at the first London Short Story Festival’ sounds more impressive without the full facts. I did my second reading, for Open Pen, just over a week ago, to a bar full of people half my age, … which ages me…. and it was interesting to see which parts of a story I thought I knew ‘worked’, and which lines maybe weren’t as funny as I’d thought they were. I though that might have been down to my delivery.  I might slap my thighs more next time.

5. You spoke at the festival about your favourite American authors. Can you tell us more about them and what you think is different stylistically?

I was interviewed by a two-person roving camera crew, and on the spot named a lot of American authors… I think there are cultural differences, – or certainly have been, until recent years – where America has a tradition of Creative Writing courses we simply didn’t have in the UK, affecting the sorts of stories being produced.  I went to the University of East Anglia, late ‘80s, which I wanted to go to because they had this country’s first Creative Writing MA programme.  Now I was the first member of my family to study anything beyond secondary school, so I didn’t have a clue what the difference between a BA and an MA was, suffice to say the closest I got to the Creative Writing programme’s Malcolm Bradbury was holding a door in a corridor open for him once.

I did take an undergraduate Creative Writing module for one whole term, and the interesting thing was that 99% of the class’s students were American.  I don’t know if nobody else fancied it, or didn’t take it seriously. Anyway, whether it’s because more American writers have done such courses, analysing writing, having theirs tested and supported and hot-housed in that kind of environment, or if it’s a difference in national psyche, personality, but American short stories often feel far more ambitious, confident, visceral, uninhibited, rude,energised, sexualised, hyper-clever, super-steroided…  Which can be daunting if you want to submit to US magazines or competitions.

6. Is there a short story that you return to and why?

For ruthless efficiency and memorability, ‘The October Game’ by Ray Bradbury.  For its elegance and tenderness and incredible dialogue, Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’.  Somewhere between the pulpy cheap nasty thrills of the former and the wit, sophistication and emotional depths of the latter you’ll find the story I’m always aspiring to write.

7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.

Sometimes I’ll think of an old song and it’ll come on the radio within hours or even minutes of my thinking of it. I can’t control it or make any money from it, or impress anyone but myself with this wild, mysterious gift, but I hope I never lose it.