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

Blood red cover final

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

Bird cover
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.

First Drafts

writer's notes

The previous post about blogging received a record level of traffic and an unprecedented response, given this blog’s short life span, so I’ll come back to it and write more on the topic soon. It is clearly a subject that people feel strongly about and I had not realised the level of passion and dedication behind so many blogs.

First drafts is the issue I’d like to tackle today.  I am in the stage of the first draft of my next novel and I have been thinking about the changes through each stage of writing up to final publication. There is something unique about a first draft; a freshness, an expectation, a certain level of hope.

The first draft is the place of mountain peaks and valleys, it is the place of the Eureka moments and the what ifs, it is the place of ‘first thought’ excitement and of apprehension, the place of originality and of doubt.

In writing your book for the first time, before you go through rounds of editing and rewrites ad infinitum, there is an enthusiasm about where you will take the reader, in fleshing out your characters and plot, in travelling to new places. There is also an apprehension surrounding your words; questions, doubts, fears. Will I be able to keep up the tension and the pace? Will people want to read it? Will I be able to finish it? Is it going to be too long/short? Did I choose the wrong topic/genre/setting? Do the scenes link up? Is there enough cohesion and consistency?

There are endless questions that seek to counter balance the moments where you get lost in the the sentences, your fingers running away with themselves, tapping furiously at the keyboard and you forget to eat.

What is it about first drafts that make them so enticing, yet so difficult to wrestle with? Give an artist a blank canvas and paints, give a singer a microphone and close them in to a sound proof recording studio, give a dancer a stage and a preview audience. There will always be fears surrounding your ability, your audience’s reaction, the longevity of your career (if you are thinking long-term). All art forms are highly subjective, creating a range of responses. I recently scanned some well promoted and popular books, only to find a great and confusing diversity of reviews. This, I think, reflects the fact that no two people will love the same books, music or art. Although there are varying levels of skill among writers, the result, as the publishing industry well knows, can be unpredictable.

How, then, do you wrestle with the first draft to produce your best work? I have struggled with nagging thoughts of what people will think when they read it, much more so now than with any of my short stories or my first novel. I think it is partly down to the fact that there is more pressure with each book that you write to make it better than the last, to keep up reader interest, and to prove that you want to be able to keep writing. There are several people in publishing who are waiting to read my current novel and, whilst it is encouraging, it is also nerve-wracking. When I self-published my previous novel I had complete control over the process and the outsourcing; the deadlines, the cover design, the editing, and it felt safe in many ways. Now I feel a sense of pressure and, sometimes, of impending doom. I have felt paralysed by the need for the first draft to be perfect and to be commercially viable. The truth is no first draft will ever be perfect and nobody can predict what will sell.  Whilst I have been surprised by the sales of my first book, I am under no illusions about the state of flux in which different types of books remain.

My response  to these doubts when they creep up on me, as they always will, is to write as though noone will read it. That’s it. It’s really that simple. Write your book without wondering how good it will be or if it will sell. Imagine that it will never be read and write it for yourself. You do need to be aware of your audience when planning, but I have found that since I made the decision to stop thinking about reader response and beyond, I have moved from writing around 500-800 words a day to up to  2,000 or 3,000. I know it won’t happen every day but it is liberating and freeing. So, here’s to days of carefree writing before you apply a scalpel to the parts that you won’t need, before you carve and sculpt your work. Here’s to writing for the love of writing.

Photo credit: A Leonardo da Vinci notebook with diagram of a potter’s wheel, c. 1508-1509. Flavorwire

The Darker Side of Life: Reality and Fiction

crime scene

I was planning to write a specific post for today until I read the news this morning. I was horrified by the graphic nature of the news that a baby had been flushed down a public and filthy toilet in China. Although this is not the first time it has happened, this seems particularly horrific because of the fact that the baby was alive and had sustained a fractured skull. The weakened cry as it was eventually cut free reduced me to tears. I won’t add a link as not everyone will want to watch, but the video and images are all over the news so you won’t need to look far to find it.

I don’t cry easily so it took me by surprise. I still feel a sense of grief over the complete abandonment of the mother. Although I know that life has elements of evil (look no further than the recent and brutal Woolwich killing), and that humans are fallible, and sometimes mentally ill or disturbed, or just desperate, but my response made me think hard about the difference between the darker side of life in reality and in fiction.

Take Me to the Castle, my debut, was a literary historical fiction novel, set within the framework of the politics of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. One of the earliest books, which totally gripped me was John Buchan‘s The Thirty Nine Steps. I was given it with a collection of other penguin books in my early teens and the suspenseful journey through Scotland’s wild moors of Richard Hannay, who is on the run from the police after finding a dead body in his flat, kept me turning the pages at breakneck speed. It inspired in me a love of suspense in a good story. I have recently read quite a few crime and literary crime fiction/psychological suspense novels, and I have pondered the difference between the world you inhabit in a book and the world that you wake up in every day.

With fiction there are usually rules and expectations with certain types of books. You look at the cover, the genre, the author and the blurb, and it gives you a hint of what to expect. If you read chick lit novels and do not like horror, you might avoid books with darker covers and bold print. If you enjoy sci-fi and do not like literary fiction, you might avoid the pastel covers with possibly a booker prize winning author’s name across the front. These are crude and basic descriptions but you can see what I’m getting it. Readers come to a book with expectations. They do not expect a gruesome death in a romance novel or a historical drama in a dystopian book. There are, of course, genre cross-overs and new authors breaking the rules and these are continuing to increase. Agents and editors use the term, ‘genre-bending’ to describe these books.

In fiction the darker side of a story is contained within a world with defined boundaries and, although you can become completely absorbed in that particular world, you emerge with the knowledge that the events are fictional and are not directly related to your life. With the exception of fiction novels set within the framework of specific times in history, a fiction novel is just that: FICTION. It’s effects are deep but are limited to the confines of the world the author has created.

In life, the reality of crime and the darker aspects of human nature have no boundaries. The news seems increasingly more shocking and gruesome, although much of this is down to the changing nature of journalism. It would seem that our world is growing increasingly colder and more dangerous, from the point of view of what we read in the press. My husband, however, who is a crime specialist in the field of research and policy, assures me that the world is becoming a statistically safer place. The global homicide rates are lower now than they have ever been. I won’t quote sources as that is his arena, but the issue of what I saw this morning reminds me that the darker side of life in reality does not hold the boundaries that we see in fiction and is often much harder to deal with.

The framework that exists within fiction (as a safety net for some readers) is not apparent in life and the shocking news that we read about often leaves us with deeper fears than the books that we choose to read.

Photo credit: http://www.officialpsds.com

Fact and Fiction: How to Weave Both Elements into a Good Book

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle,  was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.

Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:

Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.

Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.

Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.

What is the best way to weave the two together?

It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.

Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.

Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.

Why will this work?

Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.

Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.

Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.

Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:

Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.

Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?

Book Review: The Pre-War House and Other Stories

50fac95bde404 (1)

I have eagerly awaited the publication of Alison Moore’s debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. As regular blog readers know, I am an advocate for short fiction and I read and write as much of it as time allows. It’s a real joy to be able to review this collection of short stories.  I was kindly given an advanced copy by Salt Publishing, for which I am very grateful. The Lighthouse, Moore’s debut novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and I read it in one sitting. I hoped for the same emotional tension, her attention to detail, and a surprising climax in her short stories, and this collection did not disappoint.

The short stories in Pre-War House are drawn from a selection of magazine and anthology publications over a period of twelve years, alongside new and recently published work. Moore’s stories have been shortlisted for more than a dozen different awards (see below) including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013 for this collection.

The stories are evocative and often sinister, honing in on the details of everyday life with extraordinary insight into human nature and the many fears, often unspoken. Moore has a great sense of control over her prose, her language is understated and therein lies the power of her writing. She uses words which evoke a sense danger, of loss or unease.

I had previously read When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, and reading it again provided the same sense of threat and menace through the tightly written sentences as they wound their way towards an uneasy ending. There is something inherently satisfying in reading a story of this quality which makes you catch your breath as you turn the pages.

Overnight Stop left me gripping my seat as I read in disbelief. The plot lends itself to a novel length prose and this is no mean feat for a short story. This piece is a perfect example of Moore’s ability to play with your emotions and draw you in to the scene with frightening reality.

Seclusion lulls you into a false sense of security before packing a punch towards the end. The insight into one life is portrayed with telescopic accuracy.

Sleeping Under the Stars brings in details of Stargazy Pie, Liqourice laces and kirby grips with a layered story of the difficulties of fractured families. The ‘goosepimpled arms’ give a sense of foreboding, and words such as ‘queezy’ and ‘sickening’ provide a parallel for the emotional distress involved in the story.

Many of the themes centre around family, relationships, loss, and uncertainty. Some of the stories create a sense of claustrophobia as the characters become trapped in situations beyond their control. Each piece has its own unique style but the thread weaving through the collection is an intangible sense of anticipation. It is a delicious read and, having read some of the stories a few times, it is something I will keep going back to. A remarkable debut collection which comes highly recommended.

‘Overnight Stop’ (The Lampeter Review issue 7)
‘Sleeping Under the Stars’ (The Nottingham Short Story Anthology 2012)
‘A Small Window’ (The Warwick Review vol.6 no.4)
‘Jetsam’ (Ambit issue 211)
‘Seclusion’ (Paraxis volume 4)’If There’s Anything Left’ (The Yellow Room)
‘It Has Happened Before’ (Shadows & Tall Trees issue 4)
‘Trees in the Tarmac’ (The New Writer issue 112)
‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’ (The Screaming Book of Horror, 2012)
‘Small Animals’ (Nightjar Press, 2012)
‘The Yacht Man’ (The New Writer issue 111)
‘The Smell of the Slaughterhouse’ (The New Writer issue 111; Best British Short Stories 2013)
‘Glory Hole’ (The Lightship Anthology: 1)
‘The Egg’ (Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds, 2011)
‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ (Nightjar Press, 2010; Best British Short Stories 2011)
‘The Pre-War House’ (The New Writer issue 103)
‘Static’ (Manchester Fiction Prize 2009)
‘Monsoon Puddles’ (Quality Women’s Fiction issue 43)
‘Helicopter Jean’ (The New Writer issue 53)
‘Wink, Wink’ (Creative Writers’ Network magazine)
‘Humming and Pinging’ (Marches Literary Prize anthology 2000) 

Short Story Publications

This is just a short post with some news, written mainly because of several messages I have had from people about short story writing.  I am hearing from an increasing number of authors who enjoy writing novels, but feel intimidated by short stories, or worry that the form is so different that it would be hard to adapt to the change of style and, obviously, the length of prose.

I published a post on short story writing earlier this morning which might be useful, and I wanted to let you know that several pieces of my short fiction have just been published online. They have all been written in the past six months, so I am fairly new to the form, but it is clear to say that I am hooked. Please let me know how you get on if you decide to try writing any short pieces. I would love to read them.

I normally only send publication news to those on my mailing list but, if you would like to read my published work online, you can find Berggasse 19 in The Puffin Review and I.P. in the Flash Flood Journal (many of you will have read it from an earlier post.)

I am also excited to be able to tell you that Ether Books have just this week published four pieces: Confessional, The Edge of Wandsworth Common, Tomatoes and Thicket, and Un/wanted. These can all be downloaded, free of charge, to your phone.

 

 

What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction

Stack of magazines

When I first started writing seriously, all I wanted was to publish a novel.

I thought my intentions were honourable—that I wasn’t just another wannabe with dreams of making it big—but there was always that little part of me that still wasn’t ready to put in my dues.

I wanted it all, and I wanted it right away.

Then, something life-changing happened. An opportunity fell into my lap. I was asked by the publisher of a print magazine (who had been following my blog) if I would consider submitting a short story to their next issue. I hadn’t had much luck with my previous attempts at publishing short fiction, but I thought I’d give it a try.

A Writing Revelation

In order to be sure I was writing something that wouldn’t be rejected, I read and deconstructed a lot of short stories, listened to them on podcasts, and spent a painfully long period of time perfecting my piece. I really began to appreciate the things that short stories do best, and in the process of writing that story, I fell in love with short fiction.

My piece was accepted. It was then nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and later it was included in an anthology.

All of this changed the course of my writing forever. I put the novel aside for a while and focused more on short fiction. I still received plenty of rejections, but the acceptances became more and more frequent. Now that I’ve tackled some of the smaller indie mags and mid-range university journals, I have a much better chance of breaking in to some of the larger, more well-known publications.

And that could have a huge impact on my ability to write, sell, and market a novel.

If you consider yourself strictly a novelist, have you given some thought to whether short fiction can help you achieve your goals? Or, have you dismissed it as something that’s ‘just not for you’?

Consider:

1. Reading short fiction can make you a more knowledgeable writer.

You know how sometimes you hear the same authors’ names over and over, but have no real concept of who they are or what they write?

Short fiction gives you the opportunity to experience the work of some great writers without the commitment of reading through weighty novels each time. You might yawn at the prospect of reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, but you can still get to know his work by reading the short piece “Agreeable” (which is actually an excerpt from the novel, but it stands on its own). You have no time or inclination to push through Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or The Handmaid’s Tale, but in half an hour you can read “Stone Mattress.”

Reading short fiction offers an opportunity to become more widely read in less time. There are plenty of short fiction collections at your local library, and thousands upon thousands of stories available free online.

Start today: For one week, read a short story per day. You might do this during your lunch break or before bed, or you can even download an audio recording and listen to it while you exercise or commute to work.

Here are some stories I’ve enjoyed recently:

2. Writing short fiction can make you a more accomplished writer.

Writing short stories requires economy with words and focus on technique. Think—maximum learning experience with minimum time commitment.

Taking the time to write short fiction, set it aside, and polish it, all give you opportunities to work on your craft and get used to the feeling of completely finishing a piece of writing.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from writing short stories is the art of subtlety: how to be less obvious with symbolism or themes, how to choose subtle titles, and when it’s better to leave things unsaid.

Short fiction teaches you to make each word count, and that’s a definite advantage in writing a novel, especially when you need to hook your reader from the very first page.

Start today: Read the following first short story lines and use each as a starting point to create a piece of micro or flash fiction:

  • “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” (“Man and Wife,” by Katie Chase, The Missouri Review)
  • “For weeks, the rumours circled into town as if carried by wind.” (“Viaticum,” by Lauren Groff, Open Letters Monthly)
  • “What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility.” (“A Lovely and Terrible Thing,” by Chris Womersley, Granta)

3. Publishing short fiction can make you a more marketable writer.

With a portfolio of published work to my credit, when I do have a novel ready to submit to literary agents, my query letter will sound more confident and experienced than it would have a couple of years ago.

Getting your work published in just a few respectable journals can be a real asset to you as a writer. It shows you’ve put in the time to learn and practice your craft, and that you have the tenacity to keep submitting until you find a home for your work.

If literary fiction isn’t your thing, many popular authors are just as active in writing short stories (think about Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Neil Gaiman). For whatever genre you love, there are short-form markets to match.

Start today: Start a spreadsheet of places where you can publish short fiction. You’ll probably want to start with ones that don’t charge reading fees, do accept electronic and simultaneous submissions, and publish work similar to your own writing. Continue adding to the list as you come across new venues. When you’ve polished either one short story or a suite of micro/flash fiction, you’ll already have a tailor-made database of markets.

This post is reblogged from Writer Unboxed, written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman.