Tag Archives: writing techniques

Blog tour: Greater than the sum of its parts? Assembling a first short story collection

This week I am delighted to welcome fellow writer Anne Goodwin to my blog. Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity launches on Facebook on November 23rd, 2018, where the more people participate the more she’ll donate to Book Aid International. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a particular interest in fictional therapists.

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com
Twitter @Annecdotist.

Here Anne talks about putting her first collection of short stories together for publication.

Many years ago, when I was carving out a space to write fiction, a creative writing tutor recommended I begin putting a short story collection together. Despite knowing very little about publishing at the time, I was aware that short story anthologies are hard to sell in the UK. So I shrugged my shoulders and continued submitting my efforts to individual magazines.

By the time my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published in 2015, I had over sixty short stories in multi-author collections and/or print and internet magazines. I even had a couple in translation – Swedish and Hungarian if you’re wondering – which is yet to happen with either of my novels. But I didn’t consider putting together a collection until my publisher at Inspired Quill suggested it. What writer isn’t flattered to be asked to submit? I decided if Sara-Jayne Slack was prepared to invest time and money in an anthology, I ought to delve in.

It wasn’t until my second novel, Underneath, was published that I had the headspace to revisit my short fiction with an anthology in mind. By then I had around ninety stories – most already published, some still in draft and some doing the rounds – begun over a period of fifteen years. Each having emerged from a separate seed of inspiration, it was a new experience to go back and select a sample not only for their individual qualities but for how they’d fit together as a whole. Like arranging a vase with flowers from different seasons or furnishing a room with both contemporary pieces and antiques.

Or perhaps my stories weren’t so disparate. I knew I kept returning to familiar themes. Perhaps my collection would be like a colour-co-ordinated bouquet. But which colour – or theme – would incorporate the most alluring flowers?

In conjunction with my publisher, I settled on the theme of identity, being broad enough to encompass a range of interpretations around a coherent central idea. How do we become who we are and how that does that change across time and circumstance? How do we manage the gap between who we are and who we would like to be or who others feel we ought to be? How much control do we have over our identity and is it a role bestowed on us by others or something that arises from within? These kinds of questions are consistent with my background as a clinical psychologist. They’re also explored within my debut novel.

After drawing up a list of potential candidates, I set about self-editing. A major difference between this and preparing my novels for submission was that 70,000 words of short pieces contains many more characters and plots than a novel of similar length. What if I had repeated myself? Once the stories were in a single document it was relatively simple to eliminate duplicate character names, but echoes of imagery or phrasing are trickier to detect. Multiple reads and an eagle-eyed editor certainly help.

Following submission, my publisher asked for a statement of how each story fit the theme and a little more editing of some to make that fit tighter. This helped us both develop a stronger sense of what the collection is about and my personal concept of identity as a dynamic process that evolves in relationship with the self and with others. Around this point we also agreed that there was a gap in relation to religious identity (easily filled as I already had the completed stories touching on the topic) and that, although it’s inevitable that some stories would be stronger than others, one, despite perfectly encapsulating the theme, didn’t make the grade.
More detailed editing from my editor followed. The stories having gone through multiple edits already, a few courtesy of the editors of magazines, the collection required fewer alterations than my novels, and definitely fewer passages to cut. On the other hand, some elements of some stories needed a lot more back and forth until they hit the right note.

A satisfying short story depends on nuance; some of mine benefited from a few extra words to hone the resolution while still leaving sufficient space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.

One of the difficulties I encountered in writing my first novel was finding the right structure for the story I wanted to tell. When it came to the collection, while structure wasn’t a problem for the individual pieces, structuring the whole required some thought. In what order should the stories appear to make for the most satisfying read? With a novel, strategically placed crises keep the reader turning the page. But there’s no parallel for this in an anthology. To end one story, like a teasing chapter, on a cliffhanger doesn’t entice readers into the next tale with new characters and setting.

Having already agreed a title change from Being Someone to Becoming Someone to reflect identity as process, my publisher suggested arranging the stories to reflect increasing confidence of the main character in their sense of who they are. Thus the process of reading might follow the process of identity formation, such that the book itself becomes much more than the sum of its component parts. But when the stories weren’t written to illustrate this development, and when most stories contain a process within themselves, a challenge to achieve. Have we pulled it off? That’s for readers to judge.

Becoming Someone published 23rd November, 2018 by Inspired Quill
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-908600-77-6 / 9781908600776
eBook ISBN: 978-1-908600-78-3 / 9781908600783
Author page at Inspired Quill publishers http://www.inspired-quill.com/authors/anne-goodwin/

Facebook launch in support of Book Aid International https://www.facebook.com/events/285314412085573/

Drop in at your own convenience wherever you are in the world, I’ll be here to entertain you from morning coffee to pre-dinner drinks.
The more actively people participate, the more I’ll donate to Book Aid International.


Sugar and Snails promotion My debut novel is discounted to 99p or equivalent (Kindle version) throughout November viewbook at Sugar and Snails

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Nature Writing: Initial thoughts

 

West coast of scotland

Walking the West Coast of Scotland. Research is Experiencing.

Whether it is canoeing single-handedly down the Niger to Timbuktu, or walking the Pennine Way in the ‘wrong’ direction, or exploring loss on the Camino de Santiago, or following in the footsteps of dead poets, or training a goshawk, nature writing appears to be in its prime.

 

In an article in The Guardian published in March 2015, Jamie Doward, argued that nature writing is the vogue, the ‘new’ literary phenomenon. He suggested that the recent trend is for nature writing to move away from descriptions and facts about the environment towards meditations on consumption, on finding more meaningful ways of living and on the values of our current society. He questioned whether the genre has moved too far away from being about the natural world.

The definition of the genre of nature writing includes anything from field guides to human attempts to engage with wildlife to voyages of discovery such as those mentioned above. However, it seems, we humans inevitably end up writing about ourselves; the natural world becoming a reflection of our own preoccupations or emotional state. As ever, humans find the most intriguing story to be about themselves.

We don’t all have the capacity or the time to set off on grand adventures. But we can become inspired by roaming through our own patch of nature. It doesn’t have to be expansive, or particularly wild, to fire the imagination.woodslakesJune16

Five tips for nature writing:

  •       Engage with nature, open our senses and our observational capacities to what is around us. Walk mindfully.
  •       Be curious about everything.
  •       Research – good researching is experiencing not just reading about a subject.
  •       Read examples of the genre. Good writers are good readers.
  •       Move from the specific of our own experience to a general mediation or reflection. In general, the idea is that nature has something to teach us.
  •       Have a sufficient grasp of the facts in order to be able to be relatively knowledgeable about plant life, animals, social and geological history.
  •       There’s no need to romanticise, it is the grit which creates the pearl.

 

Reading & Writing Poetry: Sarah Askew

I am delighted to welcome Sarah Askew to my blog, with her poem, ‘Not A Minute’s Silence’.

Not A Minute’s Silence
A muted explosion
of stamping feet
on sticky floors.
Mouths shriek

against my ear plugs.
Ten seconds of madness
to honour the silence
of Monday’s voiceless concert-goers.

The walls shake around me,
inside me. I felt
the reverberations, the impact,
three days late.

 

Sarah explains the naissance of her poem:

I wrote this poem in response to the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017. Just a few days after the attack, my partner and I had tickets to another concert at the O2 Academy Bristol, which still went ahead despite the increased terror alerts, but with extra tight security.

So there was a highly loaded atmosphere, not to mention the incredible heat wave that had descended that Spring, and the place was packed. The walls were sweating, shoulders and elbows jabbed, and leather clad behinds refused to budge. At one point I attempted to find the bar for a drink but was soon forced to retrace my steps as I could wade no further through the immovable wall of bodies, faces invisible to me in the dark.

And then the singer, outspoken as she is, invited the crowd to take part in, not a minute’s silence, but ten seconds of madness, in memory of the victims from Manchester’s concert. They had gone out that night, she said, to have fun. We were asked to honour them, not with silence and sadness, but with noise and madness; to make up for the fun they never got to have. The band counted us down, and the foot-stomping, hand clapping, cymbal-crashing, vocal-wailing began.

I hadn’t realised quite how anxious I had been about attending the concert until I was stuck in the middle of such chaos. And then it occurred to me: what must it have been like for those people in Manchester – in Paris, in London, in the middle of any terror attack – to be in the eye of such a storm of noise and panic and confusion. The chaos surrounding me was safe, controlled, expected. Theirs had been dangerous, sudden; fatal.

And, despite the fact that I was very much in my own bubble- ear-plugs in, eyes closed, feelings (up until this point) about terrorism in general, pretty much on mute – I found that I was crying. Relief, sadness, fear, shame, all washed over and through me and I remembered why I myself had given up singing with a band just a few months before: I hate chaos.

When I reflected upon this (uncharacteristic) flood of emotions at my poetry group the following Monday, this poem arrived…

Sarah (aka The Pocket Poet) is an award-winning poet and writing for wellbeing enthusiast based in Wiltshire. She has lived with various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and OCD for as long as she can remember and has always used writing as a therapeutic tool to promote self-awareness and self-expression. She runs writing for wellbeing workshops for groups and individuals and also offers a bespoke poetry writing service for those looking to give a personalised poem as a gift.

You can find Sarah at:
http://thepocketpoet.weebly.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThePocketPoet

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahthepocketpoet/#

Exploring Creative Non-fiction

For various reasons, these several weeks I am not focusing on my novels. So I have been playing around with ideas which lie more in the ‘creative non-fiction’ category. I’ve always written (and had published) non-fiction pieces and have even strayed into academic non-fiction with various research articles and my book Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment (https://bit.ly/2HC5xvd).

This time I’ve been doing a lot of meandering around topics such as: walking, nature and writing; the body and writing; and women’s biography. The result is many notes, but nothing entirely nailed down.

‘Walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge, it is itself the means of knowing.’ Thus wrote Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways (Penguin Books, 2012, p.27). I feel the same about writing. If I write freely enough, allowing the pen to scrawl (and usually I do need to handwrite for this type of writing) I will discover what I did not know I knew. But sometimes in the writing I become stuck and then I will walk. Walking attentively, walking mindfully (open to myself, the nature around me, and myself in the world) will shake free the words and notions which have become snared.

This was written during one of my explorations:

Biography, body, map, walking, writing

My biography is written into my body, a map of past delights, of past misdemeanours, of past wrongs, of forgotten memories. I forgive my body for its inconveniences. I am journeying each day along my life’s path – partly unmapped, the end uncertain. Walking is putting one foot in front of another. Writing is putting one word in front of another. Neither can be done in theory. Both bring understanding in the doing.

Are you interested in creative non-fiction? What would be your writing tips?