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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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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

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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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Step Away From The Vehicle

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

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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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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?


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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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