A story that took flight

The following comes with a proviso, or a few.

Firstly, there are going to be spoilers in this so if you haven’t seen The Aeronauts as yet, please come back once you have – I really would love to hear what you think of the film or indeed other films that have inspired you and your writing.

Secondly, I am an inconsistent reviewer. This is mostly because of time (there’s always a more pressing deadline for me to write), or mindset (why-would-anyone-want-to-read-what-I-have-to-say-itis).

Thirdly, I’m not a film critic. I generally leave that up to my brothers who would have much more intelligent (or at least long-winded) things to say no doubt.

But with all that in mind, I realised that it wouldn’t work as a very long twitter thread (often how I share my thoughts about various things that have inspired or fired me up) so instead, the thoughts are going to get put down here.

Neither of us rushed out of our seats, instead we let the credits roll before starting to discuss the experience of the story we’d just been a part of. We came out of the cinema into freezing fog that felt so otherworldly and yet so close to what we had just watched that it gave the right atmosphere to keep up our conversation all the way home. We often talk about the films we see on the way home, but this felt different somehow.

Having recently plotted out my novel, to try and find my way through the story I wanted to tell vs what came out in a few drafts many moons ago, the awareness of the typical story structure was very present in my mind. The joys of being a writer and a critical reader. It tends to mean that I can see where a film or a TV drama is going too, which can spoil the experience somewhat when you’re looking for some kind of escape. The Aeronauts didn’t leave me feeling like that.

Instead I felt taken by the hand, invited into the basket of the balloon to explore with them. I loved how it started in the middle, stepped back for what felt like the briefest of moments to explain how they got there, before continuing. This isn’t a new thing, or something I haven’t seen or read before, but it worked so beautifully.

I loved that it wasn’t a love story. That there were human drivers for the characters, but that wasn’t the end goal. There wasn’t a magic wand for the grief both main characters felt – her for her husband, him for his father, both for not being heard or understood by those around them. Everything was waiting for them when they landed again, but in the time that they rose to the extraordinary height and back down again it was just them.

I didn’t know how it was going to end, and that was a thing of beauty in itself. There were no huge pointers, no over explanation, no over-the-top twist. It unfolded, yet it was no where near as straightforward or plain as that sounds. I breathed a sigh of relief when they landed, I let go of my wife’s hand which was pretty much crushed out of fear for their not getting to earth again, but I didn’t foresee it. It could have gone either way right up until they both were standing (just).

The balance between the two characters was extraordinary. That they were able to save one another (although, let’s face it, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) did a lot of the hard work). That the writers, the film makers/ directors/ producers, the actors, gave enough space for the words they did say and those they didn’t. In a novel or a short story, that space is often more present than in films especially mainstream feature-length, yet it was so important. It felt like we were watching an two-hander play, the intimacy was so immediate – most likely because of the confinements of the balloon itself.

Most of all, that feeling has lasted. Long enough for me to stay up and immediately write this. Long enough that I know I’ll wake up tomorrow thinking about this story. Long enough to think some more research about aeronauts is required because I want to know more. Long enough to understand how I want to write a story as good as the one that we were just part of.

The books your tokens are waiting for

As we all know, book tokens are second only to carefully chosen books, when considering the best gifts one can get. I had planned on putting together a list like so many others to recap on my reading this year to inspire gift choices, but I’m a few days or even a few weeks too late for that. These recommendations are the books I’ve loved this year, the ones Santa was kind enough to drop into my stocking, and the ones I’m looking forward to in 2017. That should be enough to be getting on with…

The one that outshone all the rest: novel category
Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Lorrie Moore has said this debut is ’cause for celebration’, and she’s not wrong. I read an interview with the author, who said that every time she sees the novel in a shop, she wants to rescue Yuki. I thought I understood that feeling, of an author who has put their first baby out into the big bad world. But that wasn’t quite it. Having read the novel, it’s a maternal ache that won’t go away when you see Yuki’s portrait splashed with paint, her unseeing face lined up in rows on a shelf. This is a book of opportunities lost and gained, the chances that you miss or when fate takes your hand and pulls you away. It’s a book of relationships, the hard must haves, the fleeting passions, and unknowing unbound love. As the novel concluded, I cried. Not a solitary tear, but body convulsing sobs. Yuki had got in, and I was with her, with all of the gains and all of the losses. That, is something not many writers can do, but I implore you – take this journey with Yuki. It’s worth it.

Close seconds: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon. Reasons She Goes to the Woods – Deborah Kay Davies. Two very very different child perspective novels which bring light to the worlds we encompass. Read them, they are brilliant.

The one that outshone all the rest: short story collection category
A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

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The short story category is always a tough one for me. I’m still writing /editing /rewriting /adding to my own collection, so I’ve found myself dipping in and out of collections over the past year. This collection was a gift last Christmas and it found its way to the top of the pile over the summer. These stories are retellings; subverted, twisted, and yet so close to the fairytales that should make you shiver.’Crazy Old Lady’ and ‘Little Man’ are two of my favourites, but it’s hard to have favourites in a collection of 11 stories that you wish wouldn’t stop at just 11. Even if you don’t like fairytales (what kind of strange creature are you?), try this.

Close seconds: Lightbox – KJ Orr. One Point Two Billion – Mahesh Rao. The Isle of Youth – Laura Van Den Berg. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July. Public Library – Ali Smith. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood. A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin. Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman. Fen – Daisy Johnson. I told you I’d been dipping in and out of collections! All amazingly talented writers. Read them, even if you think you prefer novels (what kind of strange creature are you?).

The ones I have lined up next (aka Christmas Haul):

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The Accidental Dictionary – Paul Anthony Jones. The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises – Brian Kiteley. Angel Catbird Vol. 1 – Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood. Fantastic Beasts: The Original Screenplay – JK Rowling. Autumn – Ali Smith. The Wonder – Emma Donoghue.

 

 

The one you should be pre-ordering now:
Ink – Alice Broadway

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I had the fortune of winning a copy of this book, which isn’t out until February. Order it. Order it now. I believe it will be categorised as YA, and it is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t matter your age, this book will get under your skin and leave its mark. The strong themes of story telling, what we leave behind when we’re gone, and the art of tattooing, make this a compelling read. Leora is a character that may believe she’s yet to be formed, but her sense of self is clear from page one. This is a beautiful unfolding of a life. I’m not sure if there will be more, but I can see this challenging the likes of Hunger Games for its ability to shine a mirror on the world we live in currently for a new age of ravenous readers.

The others I can’t wait for: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Winter – Ali Smith, House of Names – Colm Tóibín.

 

On time, gratitude, and new views

A year ago I let my voice be loud enough to tell the ether that my debut short story collection would be published. Deadlines were placed, my work began. Today, my work continues. The deadlines have moved, publishing schedules being as they can be, and there is now more time. Yet to be Determined will be in your hands in 2018. The irony of the title is not lost on me.

At the moment it is in my hands, but I am not alone. Thanks often comes at the end of the process, but in the steps we take for a book to live in other peoples’ lives, it’s not just down to the author. The encouragement from my friends, writing colleagues, and particularly my wife is not forgotten at any stage. Thank you, you know who you are.

I did not foresee this extra time but I am now grateful for it; the space in which to continue the journey, both for the book and myself. I’ll try not to question talking about this now, and last year, before the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I could try to pass over it, hide. I’m not going to. I will remind myself of the gratitude for the honesty that my writing peers have been kind enough to share; and I can hope that it will helps others as well as myself.

Often the question of ‘right’ comes up – right words, right time, right way. I’m a believer in fate, but don’t always have the patience for it. I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s worth the wait. For example. This. Was. Worth. The. Wait.

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My thanks to Cathy Galvin (that blissful woman on the right who founded the Word Factory) is unending. Not least because she gave me the chance to help Neil Gaiman with his signing, and generally hang around with his amazing assistant Clara before the masterclass.

Being on the other side of the desk with this ‘literary rock star’ gave me a new view of being an author that I am yet to experience. So far there has been one person who took note of my name when I was at the Cinnamon Press fest last year and came up to me to congratulate me on my story ‘Once there was a bear’. I was so taken aback that I quickly thanked her but couldn’t think of the next thing to say. Like a normal person. Neil Gaiman, like many authors of course, has his stage presence – the rock star Neil – which slips into place and off again when he then becomes Neil the writer who still gets excited about seeing the work he is most proud of in front of him. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness that, in someone I am so in awe of.

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So this weekend I spent time talking hard things and writing hard things. I allowed myself to crash into innocence (waking up in a bed full of cuddly toys will do that), enjoyed the sunshine on my face, learnt how to make origami stars (my new stress relief), and dipped into Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. A wise woman (Caitlin Moran) said this of it – and I feel it’s the perfect sum up:

“If this book came to you during a despairing night, by dawn you would believe in ideas and hope and humans again. This is a beautiful, beautiful book.”

Another book to add to your list. If you want to read the Once Upon a Time article pictured, its available here.

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Good things come in…fours?

Seasons, cardinal directions, card suits, limbs… Okay, so I’m scratching around and breaking the rule of three. Normally I happily live by that superstition but you have to celebrate when there’s more good things around. Here are a four great things that I wanted to share with you this week.

 

Library Friendship

Friends of British LibraryThis to me is the most wonderful of gifts. My parents purchased this for me for my birthday at the start of February. Having enjoyed the last exhibition on the Gothic Imagination, and the current one on the anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, the prospect of a year of opportunities there does make me extraordinarily happy, along with the chance to make the most of the member’s room when a spare seat in a peaceful place to write is needed. If you want to find out more, visit http://support.bl.uk/.

The Tiniest Literary Magazine 

Matchbook StoriesThe latest issue (number four) of Matchbox Stories arrived exquisitely packaged up from Book Ex Machina. I will be honest, this was an on a whim purchase but I’m so pleased I did. The four tiny stories by Ali Smith, Etgar Keret, Marti Leimbach and Frances Gapper are brilliant. Full of wit and wonder, these micro-tales left me thinking. Thinking of all the possibility there is in so few words, and the power that can be contained in no more than five sentences. If you’d like your own set then visit their site here.

Sublime Beginnings

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Photo credits: James Lawson http://www.james-lawson.co.uk

Word Factory‘s year began on Saturday. Although Marina Warner could not be with us, and we all send our best wishes to her, the evening was a wonderful start to the year. I’ve written about how proud I am to be a part of Word Factory before, and although I have had to step away to concentrate on my collection in the past couple of months it still continues to be a great source of community, understanding, and inspiration. If you haven’t been before do let me know, I’d love to introduce you into the family.

Beautiful Monsters

Mslexia 69I have been subscribed to Mslexia for a good few years now. I’ve seen them refresh their design before to ensure they stay engaged with their readership and this one is no different; beautiful inside and out. It offers features which cut into what the industry and writers are thinking about, how-to advice from exercises to inspire to ways to reconnect with your writing and reading communities. The showcased stories are always worth reading – this month, Ana Salote’s left me chilled as the layers of meaning sunk in. Their website is also a mine of information so pop along and find out what you’re missing.

 

 

Dear Library

 

This is one of my prized possessions. I’ve wanted to share it and my letter to libraries for a little while but today is the right time.

Happy National Libraries Day!

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I’m not sure what day or year I was given this, but I do remember it.
I remember the librarian saying this is yours.
I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility – I would be responsible for the books I borrowed, it said so on the card.
I remember the day that I realised that I could read the smaller books on the grey metal shelves rather than the bigger books wedged in colourful hand-height wooden boxes.
I remember reading competitions in the summer holidays that encouraged me to lie in the sun and read all day.
I remember late fines because I didn’t want to give certain books back.
I remember reading books on all the things I couldn’t dare to ask about.
I remember the first time I moved from the children’s section into the corridor between there and the adult part of the library. This in between space would now be called young adult. I think I may have read every book on those shelves.
goodbonesI remember finally looking on shelves I had bypassed for years for another Margaret Atwood book because I had craved more after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at A-level. It was this book which would become the first short story collection I asked for as a present because I had taken it out of the library so many times.
I remember hours lost and so much gained.

All of this in one building. A million worlds. I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. What I understand about myself, the world, my past and my future, would not be possible without libraries.

I first wanted to write a post about my relationship with libraries since I listened to Ali Smith talk so animatedly about her own relationship with libraries just after new collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, came out in November. In the time that it took her to write and collate these stories, seven years, over a thousand libraries have gone. It is a fact that never ceases to astound me.

I could be called a hypocrite. I don’t visit my library as often as I could. The one in my small town is tiny but serves the community very well. I do however have cards for libraries in three counties now so I have access and I know how important access is to so many of us. I am lucky that I can afford to buy as many books as I do. I am immensely proud of my own shelves at home. But I see libraries in new ways now. It has always been a place to ‘be’ and I do use them for writing as well as reading but now I can see how it will shape new lives in my life. From the sing-alongs on a rainbow of carpet with my best friend and her little one, to the conversations with my 12 year old god-daughter about the books she is exploring whilst we educate each other on the great and good of various canons.

The #libraryletters are flying in now, but my favourite so far is Meg Rosoff’s which the Guardian featured in their article yesterday. Please feel free to share your letters in the comments.

Meg Rosoff
To Whom It May Concern:

Welcome to the library
where
no one will tell you what to read
or tell you what to think.
No one will bother you
Or bully you.
No one will require a report;
you don’t have to revise.
You can spy
Draw a picture.
Or sleep.
You can write.
Or wander.
Ask advice
ask for help
think anything
everything
or nothing at all.
No one will stop you.
No one will even try.
Meanwhile
a book
over there
on a shelf
will be glancing at you sideways
getting up the courage to
ask you out
make you laugh
make you cry
make you fall in love.
I’m trying to write a book like that now.
In a library.
Love,
Me

Resources that rescue

This afternoon I’ve been lured into the depths of the internet whilst working on the next stages of some new stories. Normally I would later bully myself, as many of us do, on the procrastination of this act. Should I really be watching these videos, reading these articles, when I should be writing? Today, however, I am going to celebrate this wandering off the page and onto the screen.

As may be obvious now, I am obsessed with fairy tales, myths, magic realism; their function and imaginations. They feed my work, and free my mind. If I’m not reading stories then I am often dipping into the theory that works to bring further understanding to these tales.

Whilst reading an email from the London Review Bookshop (one of my favourite places), I came across their YouTube channel and the video of Edmund Gordon introducing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This of course led to the leapfrog onto other videos and I found this video which has delighted me this afternoon whilst thinking on my stories.

I desperately wanted to go to this event last year but it sold out very quickly, so I’m thrilled that the British Academy have shared it in full on their channel. It might have been naive of me not to have already made the most of these resources, but it is something that has rescued me today.

If this introduction to fairy tale and Marina Warner’s expertise is something that interests you too, then you might like to come along to the Word Factory events next month where she will be leading a masterclass and then reading at the evening salon on 27 February.

Waiting for stories to fly

Most short stories take time to write. The one I have finished a new draft of this morning as evolved over the past year. A year of thinking about it, writing it in part of another story, and then thinking about it a bit more. And a bit more. Then playing, seeing it from another view until the story I was trying to tell, became the story I am telling.

It is only an initial draft. It has gone through another filter by my reading it aloud to my wife, who I am grateful to have in so many ways but this morning mostly as my first reader. An honest first reader really helps. Then it will be off to the critique group I belong to who will give their invaluable feedback. After any further redrafting with my editor, its next journey will be as part of my short story collection.

I am an incredibly impatient person when it comes to myself, my work. Allowing my stories time feels like an impossible task. But when it works, when it clicks into place, it feels like how I imagine these Jackdaws feel.

 

The story is about a Jackdaw among other things.

Short stories are for life…

…not just for National Short Story Week.

I love that we as a nation give time for a whole week to encourage young readers and writers to get involved with the short story form. As the week comes to a close, I wanted to share some favourite links that I hope will give short story lovers resources to keep them going for the next 51 weeks.

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You may have noticed this blog can be sporadic. Mostly, and with great joy, Word Factory is to blame for this. I am involved with this amazing team who every month for almost three years have provided short story salons, masterclasses and workshops to writers and readers of London. So when you can’t find me here, I’m normally over on the Word Factory site – where you can find videos of all of the readings, a wonderful monthly round up of opportunities that Paul McVeigh sources, as well as profiles for over 70 short story writers.

shortstopsShort Stops is a resource website for anyone who loves short stories. Brain-child of Tania Hershaman, this site is the home for everything connected to the form – live events like Word Factory, publications like Bare Fiction and Lighthouse, and a very long list of short story authors.
If you haven’t already, I suggest you connect with Tania and Short Stops on Facebook and Twitter to keep in the know of all things short story.

sssAnd as it is Sunday, it is only right that I mention Short Story Sunday. This new online publication which has been running since the start of November. Already there have been three wonderful stories published and I can’t wait to see what will come next.

There’s so many more I could mention – but please do post in the comments if you’d like to share you own favourites.

What I’m really linking… 25th August 2014

The reading one(S)

beautiful1I am one story away from the end of Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. I’m late to pick up on how challenging, honest and brutal Hall’s stories can be but I am savouring every one. Difficult to do as a short story fiend but this is a collection worth time.

stonemattresshowtobebothAdding to my reading excitement, two of my most favourite authors have new books out this week. Ali Smith with her Booker short-listed How to to be both, and Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. You know where to find me on Thursday when these hit the bookshelves.

The Philosophical one

weareverbsWhilst considering my next moves for my first novel and the second one which is becoming louder, I’ve been delving into philosophical discussion on how we develop as writers and as humans. We are Verbs is my favourite so far.

The writing one

wt-circleThis week I’ve been taking part in The Write Track‘s trial of audio writing exercises. Led by novelist and top creative writing tutor Julia Bell to work out if writers find audio exercises useful, the idea is to take exercises out of the classroom and into people’s lives as they live them, kind of like a pocket writing coach. Soon their the goal-setting community for writers will be launched online – if this trial is anything to go by, this will be an exciting community to be involved with.

I would love for find out what is inspiring you at the moment – please use the comments box for links and feedback.