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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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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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What do you gain from reading eBooks?

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I promised to balance a previous post on The Joy of a Bookshop with a look at the advantages of reading eBooks, so here it is. Much as I love browsing through bookshops and holding a physical book, turning its pages and enjoying the cover and the scent of the paper, I am currently reading many more eBooks. The reasons for this are varied:

I can download a sample of a book to see if I like the style and am, therefore, experimenting with new writers more than I perhaps used to. I can take a chance on a writer I do not know and not have to part with any cash until I decide to move on or to download the whole book. This has honestly revolutionised my reading as I download samples as I find them, they are automatically sent to my kindle, and when I am ready to read they are there waiting all in one place.

The price is usually lower, which means that I can download more books and I have never read as many books as I have since I was given a kindle last year. E-books are less expensive to produce and can be sold at a lower price. Although it is not always the case, more often than not the price is a good deal lower. E-books are also encouraging younger readers to pick up books as they are already familiar with mobile devices and tablets, although paperback and hardback books are still more popular with the youngest readers.

I can travel with more books as I can download them and slide a fairly slim device into my bag. Gone are the days when I threw six books into a suitcase and removed several items of clothing, only to then take out four of the books and put the clothes back in. I can now take as many books as I like with me anywhere I go and not worry about bulk or weight. Hallelujia!

I can highlight and annotate the text and see popular sections of a book highlighted by others. The annotation function works well for me when editing my own books but it also gives me a place to make notes when I am reading non fiction, in particular. I can also highlight parts that I want to return to, both with fiction and non fiction. I like to be able to see highlights from others, as it makes the reading more of a shared experience. If you can see what other readers enjoyed it enriches your own experience. Some of the best quotes from books are highlighted, enabling you to skim through them before or after you read and to have them saved for later reference.

I can search for keywords. This is a really useful function of eReaders when you are reading eBooks. It allows you to find passages if you want to go back and check anything or, in the case of non fiction, it helps you to find key points of reference. With fiction, you might want to reread a part which you enjoyed. This can be more difficult when you are turning the pages of a paperback.

The immediacy of downloading an eBook, as opposed to waiting to get to a bookshop, means that you download books which you might otherwise not get around to buying, especially if copies are not available. This is of particular relevance to me as I live in a country where English is not the native language, but I read in English. Instead of waiting to get to a bookshop with an English section, I can download a book within minutes.

These are just some of the many advantages I see but I hope the two will continue to coexist so that readers continue to be presented with a choice. The more ways that books can be put into the hands of readers, the better.

For those of you who enjoy statistics, I’ll leave you with some information from Nielsen who predict that “ebooks will overtake sales of print books in 2014, with total sales expected to rise to 47 million units. This will put total ebook sales 300,000 ahead of their print equivalents and mean that electronic books account for 48% of the overall fiction market.” They also recorded a dip in sales for 2013 and projected a mixed outlook with this information included.

You can read the whole article from Publishing Technology here. The following infographic shows statistics from the US in 2013: libraries-are-forever-972-640x4094                                              dailyinfographic.com, Feb 2013


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Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

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‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 


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The Chemistry Between Writer and Reader

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This is a guest post by Trish Nicholson. I first discovered Trish because of her blog posts on writing and the connection between the reader and writer. Her love of travel resonated with me and her approach is unique. Writing has always been an important part of her life, contributing to columns and features in national media, and books on management, and anthropology. Several of her short stories have won prizes in international competitions and been published in anthologies.

Trish is a social anthropologist and a keen photographer who has worked and travelled in over 20 countries, including extensive treks in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. She has an MA in Anthropology and an MSc in Rural Development. In 1997 she was awarded a PhD from the University of the Philippines for research on culture and tourism in Mogpog, Marinduque Island. Her work has taken her from the UK and Europe to Vietnam, Austrailia and the Philippines where she researched indigenous communities and worked in the Philippines with Voluntary Service Overseas, and on to Papua New Guinea with the World Bank Development Project.

Now settled in New Zealand and writing full-time, Trish combines her passions for anthropology, stories, travel and photography by writing creative non-fiction, which she describes as: “professional research and experience narrated by a storyteller, whispering in the reader’s ear as they walk beside me.”  Thank you for your post, today, Trish:

Each piece we write is a creative expression from a specific moment and place within us, a unique presence, and I suppose we shouldn’t have favourites but most of us do. While writing Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, the chapter that brought me the most pleasure, and the greatest challenge, was Voice, Language and Dialogue. Although the whole book explores in various ways the relationship between writer and reader, this chapter stretched me to explain how that chemistry works through their distinctive voices.

Voice in literature is a fascinating subject rarely written about in depth, perhaps because it is one of the most elusive concepts in writing technique, so I am happy to accept C. F. Malby’s invitation to share with you how I visualise that relationship.

Everyone has a voice – the expression of who we are, our persona – but it’s not quite as simple as that because we are complex beings. We present ourselves differently to the various people we relate to – spouse, sibling, colleague, local librarian – not only in the things we talk about, but the words we choose and the gestures we use. We have a multiplicity of voices – what I have called a ‘chorus’, a personal ‘madrigal choir’.

Our writer’s voice is expressed most distinctly in the style of writing and the kind of stories we write, but also in the characters we create. We choose which of our voices to use for a particular piece, but for our characters, we have to become sufficiently familiar with them to write consistently in their voices – represented not only in dialogue, but in thoughts, actions and body language because these are all parts of voice.

Developing a character’s voice is a deliberate and careful act for which we draw on our own chorus as well as on our observations and general experience. None the less, both character voice and writer’s voice are partly subconscious and reveal aspects of the author’s persona; a feature picked up by a reader who brings his or her own ‘madrigal choir’ to the relationship and creates an individual interpretation of the story.

Among our friends and acquaintances, even people met for the first time, we recognise that we enjoy listening and talking with some more than with others, and we appreciate them in different ways. We may find what they say more, or less, interesting, but their ‘voice’ as we perceive it, also indicates their attitude towards us. Some people call this personal ‘vibes’. They can influence our thinking and even our feelings about ourselves in a similar way to a story that relates to our own experience.

Perhaps because of the permanency of the written word, this effect seems even stronger in the relationship between a reader and a writer when they meet in a story. Each reader responds emotionally in a different way, both to the author and to the characters, especially when an author allows readers to use their imagination rather than feed them with every detail.

But when I read a novel, I want to identify with the characters, not with the author. This is the crux of what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’. By showing character through all the aspects of character voice – thoughts, dialogue, gestures and actions – a reader can engage with them; if we are told these things directly, the author’s voice predominates and gets in the way.

Whether a work is fiction or non-fiction, readers react to an author, and create their own interpretation of a story, with the voices they bring to the reading. In Inside Stories I discuss this and other aspects of creative writing in greater depth, using short stories as illustrations because the voices are often louder and clearer in the intensity of literary short fiction.

As writers, we choose the voices we use to create a particular story, as readers we complete it through our own voices – and in each cases, it is achieved both consciously and subconsciously. This chemistry between writer and reader arising from prose is at the heart of writing, whatever the genre.

inside storiesInside Stories for Writers and Readers looks at the creative process for readers and writers and offers a unique insight into the different themes of writing and reading novels, short stories, fiction and non fiction.

You can connect with Trish via twitter or her website and find her other books here.


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So When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book, Then?

I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.

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If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.

“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.

“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.

“Must have been a lot of work.”

“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”

“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.

“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.

“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.

Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.

And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.

But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.

We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.

So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”

calum-200x180   Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.


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Two New Short Story Publications

It has been encouraging to receive such a positive response to my first published short story, The Bench. Take Me to the Castle is continuing to sell well, both in paperback and eBook formats. Several readers have been asking when the next short story will be released. I am pleased to announce the publication of two short stories: BLOOD RED and BIRD. You can download copies by clicking on the images on the side bar at the right. Here is a little information on each one.

Blood Red

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This short story set in India reveals the hidden tension in the mind of a young boy as he has to let go of the girl he loves for an unknown young bride chosen by his parents. But as the wedding day approaches, will he be able to follow his parents’ wishes in the face of his passion and quiet desperation?

Bird

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A caged bird, an aging mother and a family loss that noone will talk about. This short story delves into the pain and longings of a girl caring for her mother with an insight into the world through her unspoken wishes.