Saturday, 19 December 2015

Spindles: Stories From the Science of Sleep

I've been dreaming a lot recently. Not sure why... maybe it's mince pies and mulled wines too close to bedtime.

Since researching and writing my story, 'Benzene Dreams' for the latest Comma Press anthology, Spindles, I've become increasingly aware of my sleep patterns and dreams. The book gathers scientists and writers to explore elements of sleep science at the very coal face of new research.

I feel incredibly proud and lucky to contribute to the anthology alongside writers I admire hugely. And to get the opportunity to work with Professor Bob Stickgold on his particular area of sleep research which focusses on the ways in which we solve problems through dreaming.

The collection is supported by The Wellcome Trust.

Read more and get a copy here.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Tessa Hadley at Edge Hill

I'm looking forward to hearing Tessa Hadley speak at Edge Hill Arts Centre on 18th November. I admire her writing tremendously, particularly her short fiction, and really enjoyed the serialisation of her latest novel The Past on BBC Radio 4 recently.

I have been invited to give a short reading at the event from a new collection from Comma Press to which I contributed a story. Spindles: Stories from the Science of Sleep is an anthology partnering scientists with writers to explore scientific sleep research through narrative. To be asked to read a small part of my story from the collection at Tessa Hadley's event is an honour.

For tickets and more information see the Edge Hill website.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

La Nouvelle Espionage

One of my jobs for this week is to compile a killer reading list for the course that I'll be facilitating soon at Creative Industries Trafford.

La Nouvelle espionage course seeks to give writers the opportunity to create and develop a story (or stories) that they can then submit for consideration in the latest writer showcase anthology from Comma Press. Comma are seeking stories with all the tension and compelling mystery of the classic spy genre, but with a redefining of what modern spying actually is... 'from the political to the domestic, corporate to state-sponsored, private interest-led to cellular fanaticism... to meet characters we wouldn't normally meet in a spy story, to find ourselves in settings the genre has barely visited before.' No small task, but one I am sure the writers on the course will tackle head on with lots of inspiration, guidance and support from me and each other.

To be a good writer, you really must must read. I like to think of it as good nutrition. Put quality stuff in and you see the benefits. You feel stronger and better as a writer. When I'm reading, I imagine all the tiny synapses in my brain firing and making new connections and gathering the little thoughts and expressions inspired by others' work into a store to reframe and use in my own original way. Reading also makes me aware of what other writers are doing. What is the zeitgeist? What is sounding a bit cliche and old hat now? What am I reading too much about? What have I not read about in a story? Where are the gaps in which I can plant a story idea and nurture its growth?

The reading list for La Nouvelle Espionage course has been challenging to put together. Ra Page, Editor at Comma Press, has been brilliant in his suggestions. But this is very much a new genre (the clue is in the name!) The very gap in the market is perhaps a reason for its genesis. The best modern example we have come across is Joanna Quinn's 'The War of All Against All' (Beta Life, Comma Press, 2014) an imagining of the 2070 world where everything we do, buy and say, and everywhere we go is known, recorded, trackable and processed in streaming metadata. It is a brilliant and terrifying story. Please do get in touch if you have come across other great examples that seem to fit the bill.

The course is now fully booked up. But there is a waiting list in case any participants drop out. Contact CIT for more details.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Creative writing with Creative Industries Trafford

 I'm looking forward to meeting writers on the Creative Industries Trafford writing workshops starting on Tuesday. The CIT course, in partnership with Comma Press, gives new and emerging writers the opportunity to develop their craft with the aim of writing and workshopping a story for submission to the new Comma Press showcase anthology La Nouvelle Espionage.

At this first session, we will discuss the short story and explore what makes the genre unique. We will think about how we craft short stories and how they work. And we will compile a toolkit of ideas and stimuli for writing short fiction.

When I'm leading a session, I always learn so much from meeting and working with other writers. Sometimes, writing can feel like a very solitary job and it can be easy to get stuck in the same ways of thinking about and processing story. Talking to others about how we write is incredibly refreshing. Where do you get your ideas from? What is your starting point - an image, a moment, a character, a place? By unpicking the tricky knot that is story making, we can learn so much about how we tie it well. Allowing ourselves time to explore those processes, the way we form and sculpt can help reframe the way we work, giving new energy or direction.

Yesterday, I went to see my absolute writing idol, Hilary Mantel speak at MMU. She gave two readings and she answered some questions. One of the things she said about the process of writing short fiction that really resonated with me was that because of the nature of short stories, you have to battle the feeling that you are constantly observing the form; the way you are structuring the thing, and that this can be stifling. Her response to how she overcame this was ' to just write it down as if it is true. Then the form will take care of itself.'

This is something I hope to bring to the CIT course and the participants; that we will learn to write it down as if it is true, inviting our readers into the imaginary space we create. I'm really looking forward to getting started.

There are still a couple of spaces available on the course. For more information or to sign up click here. Any questions, please do get in touch!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Creative Writing at Winstanley College

This week I visited Winstanley College, Wigan, to run creative writing workshops with the students taking the Creative Writing A Level.

It is a privilege to work with these students. Winstanley is a brilliant college and the young people taking this A Level gain so much from it both directly, learning and developing their poetics and craft and also through multiple transferable skills including critical thinking, articulation of ideas, writing with clarity and mature self-reflection. It is a valuable and important addition to A Level options. Unfortunately, it is also nationally under threat.

If you believe creative writing at Further Education level has value and worth please do click here to read and sign this petition asking the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP to save the Creative Writing A Level.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Festival Exhibition at Parbold Library

The Parbold Festival Exhibition is now open. Come to Parbold Library to see Sunny the Dragon and some of the stunning creative work produced by members of Parbold community during the festival.

You can also leave your responses, reflections, memories, favourite bits and suggestions for future festivals on a postcard to Tia as part of the exhibition.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Parbold Festival - a Tall Tale Told.

I can't believe the Parbold Festival was nearly a month ago already. It was an amazing event, with over 8000 people visiting, taking part and helping to make it so brilliant.

There was something magical about the whole weekend. I have met and made friends with some incredible Parbold folk.

Here are just a few photographs. They don't do it justice, but they give a flavour of the community story that was performed over the festival weekend.

The crowd gathered in front of the open air stage behind The Railway pub waiting for the storytelling to begin. Children are holding the spirit guide fish that they made at visual art workshops with Andy and Sharon, the lead artists on the project. In the story, the spirit guides help a little girl, Tia, to search for the dragon who is late for the festival.

The story begins - here is local actor and singer Anna Beaumont bringing Tia's character to life, with help from our puppet Walter, operated by local puppeteer Phil King. 

Three writers from the narrative workshops at the library read parts of the story that they have written. Excellent writing and performing from Izzie, Elaine and Lorraine (I wish I had a photo!) They are accompanied by our fantastic narrator Cath Foxon. The crowd listens in awesome silence, utterly compelled by the storytelling. Magical!

 The procession through Parbold begins. We follow Tia and the spirit guides with flags and banners in search of the dragon.

We find the dragon. Tia greets Sunny the dragon and Parbold folk meet her as we make our way back through the village to the stage where the story of Sunny the Parbold dragon continues with a quest for fruit to feed a very hungry dragon. 

On the final day of the festival, it is time for Sunny to return to her home inside Parbold Hill. We send her off with a lullaby and she makes her way back home via the canal. Wonderful boatman Keith, who is moored up in parbold, offers his boat for the job. Sunny is too big to lie across the top so here she is, her head at the front, and (off camera) her tail peeping out of the back of the barge. The bridge and canal bank are lined with Parbold folk waving goodbye to their dragon. A myth, a tall tale, brought to life in people's imaginations. You can see me in this picture (peeping out on the left), holding on to Sunny on the front, with Sharon and Andy. 

It has been an incredibly special project to work on, with a brilliant team of creative people. I feel privileged to have played a part in the creation of a tall tale that we hope will return soon! The Parbold community is something very special and unique with so many talented creative people full of enthusiasm and ideas.

To see more pictures, see the Parbold Festival Facebook page.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Creative Writing at Parbold Library

I have had the loveliest time this week with a fantastic group of writers at Parbold Library.

Over the three sessions we have explored place and character. We have captured our own stories and memories in words and created new tall tales that feed directly into the narrative that I am putting together for the Parbold Street Festival in September.

The writers were brilliant - the sort of creative people who you give a tiny nudge with a starter idea and they are already writing before you even finish explaining. We talked a lot about the process of writing - how our ideas begin to form and the images or words that lead us into our creative practice. It is always interesting to hear how differently our creativity is sparked. Almost everything written in a workshop is, by its nature and due to the time restrictions, just the smallest seedling of a story; the initial burst of energy... although during the workshops, some pieces written did have a feeling of completion about them. I really hope that the ideas and paragraphs begun during the sessions will continue to grow and develop. They deserve to.

I will be weaving the words, ideas and images written during the workshops into the final narrative and some of the participants have agreed to take part in the performance in September, sharing their creative writing on stage. I'm delighted that their work will get the audience it deserves.

 It has been a privilege working with such a lovely group. I have learnt a great deal from them. It has been a joy to share in their creativity.

Friday, 14 August 2015

I spent an afternoon at one of Parbold Festival's visual art workshops this week. It was brilliant.

The lead artists on the project, Andy and Sharon Shaw are not only utterly lovely they are also brilliant and inspiring artists and teachers.

The last time I did anything properly artsy was probably my art GCSE (where I did a charcoal portrait of my friend with an unfortunate bit of shading on the upper lip...) So I was a bit concerned that my artistic contribution wouldn't be very good. But Andy and Sharon demonstrated some art techniques that all the participants, from the youngest child to the grandparents who brought them, could grasp and experiment with. We worked on some flags for the procession, large banners and posters.

It was also lovely to meet Naomi, a fantastic artist who is helping with the project. More on her reflections on art for the Parbold Festival and her own work here.

Here are examples of some of the artwork we produced during the session.

Work-in-progress. This is watercolour and wax on
cloth. Andy and Sharon demonstrated how to colour wash
and blend the paints to create different effects. 
Work-in-progress. The dragon creature. Each
scale was individually shaded during the workshop
by artist Naomi.

The next visual art workshops are Thursday 20th and Friday 21st August,  10am - 1pm, 2pm - 5pm at the WI in Parbold. We will be creating the dragon creature - a massive sculptural structure that will process through Parbold during the Festival. The session is open to 8 yrs and up and will be inspiring for both children and adults. I'll be there - I can't wait!

Monday, 10 August 2015

Creative Writing Workshops at Parbold Library

This week I am leading three creative writing workshops in Parbold Library. Everyone is welcome! And they're free to attend. We will be thinking about tall tales, myths and exploring stories around Parbold.

It will be fun, friendly and creatively inspiring. However you feel about creative writing - whether you're a seasoned writer or reluctant to put pen to paper - we are all storytellers and this workshop will give you the opportunity to explore your own creative ideas and tales. Dates and times for the workshops are:

Monday 10th August 7 - 9 pm
Tuesday 11th August 7 - 9 pm
Thursday 13th August 7 - 9 pm

The writing workshops will feed into the narrative for the Parbold Arts and Street Festival, which is on 4th, 5th and 6th September, when there will be a procession through the village telling Parbold's tall tale, with dancing and music. It's going to be fantastic. Do come along and get involved. For details of other creative workshops you might like to get involved in, see here for a full programme of events. If you have any questions, contact the Chapel Gallery on 01695 571328.

The Parbold Arts and Street Festival is funded by grants secured by Parbold Community Association and WLBC Arts Development.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Parbold Festival Workshops with Beacon Crossing Retirement Community

This week I'm facilitating creative writing workshops at Beacon Crossing retirement community in Parbold.

The stories and ideas that the participants have been sharing are inspiring, thought-provoking and intriguing. The participants are really open to all the activities and we've done a lot of laughing over the last two days. In one of today's activities we used buttons to spark story ideas. We selected buttons from my button box (every self-respecting human should own a button box, didn't you know?) Buttons are like acorns. With some reflection time and conversation, a tiny button can grow into a garment and then a character with a complete life and personality. We talked about who might wear the garment, where the garment came from, how they feel wearing it, where they might go in it... The characters the participants created were varied and wonderfully rounded. Two characters, a naval officer and a dress maker, even began communicating with each other as we fleshed out the start of an interaction between them.

It's an absolute joy to be working with this group. They just have the best time sharing ideas and stories and have so much to contribute to the project. I feel like I'm learning a great deal from them. We have our final session on Friday - we are writing a collaborative prose poem that explores what sparks our creativity and using clocks as a stimulus to writing memoir and storytelling. The tall tale that I am curating which narrates the Parbold Festival story, about the dragon that lives under the hill, begins with the ticking of a clock, as the villagers await the dragon's arrival. I am excited to find out what ideas, words and images the Beacon Crossing writers come up with that I can weave into the final performance piece.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Parbold Arts Festival Free Visual Arts Workshops

See below for the full programme of workshops available for the Festival through summer. The visual arts workshops with Sharon and Andy Shaw will be brilliant and a perfect family activity. Hope to see you there! For more information contact The Chapel Gallery, Ormskirk: 01695 571328

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Parbold Arts Festival Free Creative Writing Workshops

I am running a series of creative writing workshops as part of the Parbold Arts Festival: A Tall Tale to Tell. And they're free!

The workshops will be held at Parbold Library. Maggie and the the library team have been fantastic in helping to organise them. Their enthusiasm and passion for literature and creativity is inspiring. The workshop dates are:

Monday 10th August 7-9 pm
Tuesday 11th August 7-9 pm
Thursday 13th August 7-9 pm

Please do come along, if you are local.

I'm really looking forward to the workshops and hearing the stories that the participants create. Workshops, especially with community groups, always feel collaborative. People bring with them all sorts of experiences and perspectives that we learn from as a group. We feed each other's creativity.

Creative writing is sometimes misunderstood. There is often the notion that the best creative writers are the ones that got all the praise and attention at school. The ones that can spell perfectly and understand punctuation rules. Brilliant creative people are often put off creative writing because of these false notions.

During a creative writing workshop, I'm not interested in spelling or the function of an Oxford comma. What interests me is the small details people notice in their everyday lives. That moment they witnessed something that has stayed with them. That particular emotion they experienced that they want to capture in a few sentences because there isn't quite a single word that describes it. A story idea that has been bubbling away for a few years that they haven't quite had the confidence to start writing yet. I'm interested in the fact that if you give a group of people three unconnected words, each person will find links between those words in a unique and intriguing way. That if you ask someone to describe a room they know well, the aspects of that space that they choose to describe or jot down will be instantly emotive. We are all storytellers. And we help each other to bring those stories out. I can't wait to meet the participants who come along. I am looking forward to learning with them.

If you would like to come, or if you have any questions about the workshops, please don't hesitate to get in touch!

I'll post more soon about the free visual arts workshops that are also planned. In the meantime, here is a sketch of the dragon of Parbold Hill by one of the lead artists, Andy Shaw. Andy and Sharon, whose stunning artwork can be seen at their studio in the Millhouse, Parbold, are preparing brilliant workshops to animate the tall tale with puppets and a life sized dragon creature. I can't wait!

'Fruit Dragon' by Andy Shaw @Article fine arts, Parbold

Parbold Arts Festival is funded through grants obtained by Parbold Community Association and WLBC Arts Development team.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Parbold Hill Comes Alive: Arts Festival

Parbold Village is having an Arts Festival. And it's very exciting!

Parbold is a pretty and lively village in Lancashire. It is bursting at the seams with creative talent. The Parbold Community Association and WLBC Arts Development team at the Chapel Gallery in Ormskirk have secured funding for the Arts Festival and I am delighted to be part of the creative team putting the festival together. The lead artists on the project, Andy and Sharon Shaw, known collectively as Article have worked on many community engagement projects and it is a joy to be collaborating with them.

With a choreographer and percussionist also on the team, the aim is to create a performance over the festival weekend, 4- 6th September, that will process through the village and onto an open air stage telling the Tall Tale of Parbold Hill.

A creative writing workshop at Parbold Douglas Academy.
Here, we are creating collage prose poems.
Photo: Andy Shaw @ Article fine arts, Parbold. 
Over the last two weeks of term we've been running workshops in Parbold's two primary schools. I've been exploring creative writing, while Andy and Sharon have been facilitating arts workshops with the children sculpting the figures that will make up the performance. We have been building the story collaboratively with participants as we work together. It was exciting comparing notes with Sharon and Andy and sharing the ideas that the children had contributed. Slowly, the story is beginning to breathe.

Parbold has a very particular geography, nestling against a large hill. A dragon-creature myth is emerging from this geography. The dragon lives under the hill and comes out every year. I have been exploring this idea with the children. What does the creature look like? Is there only one of it? What does the creature do when it comes out each year? What kind of character is it? How does the creature perceive Parbold landmarks - the canal, the windmill, the railway station...? How does it interact with the villagers?

The schools have been brilliant. It is clear that Parbold community really values the arts. Both schools are vibrant and creative places and the children were keen and ready with ideas for the tall tale. It has been a delight to work with the pupils and staff.

The work they produced creating their own tall tales and myths about the dragon creature and with Andy and Sharon, forming the sculptures, feeds directly into the performance and will also be part of the exhibition that will follow for the rest of September in venues across the village.

There will be free workshops open to all in the community over the next couple of weeks in both art and creative writing. More on this soon.

The Festival is happening on the 4 - 6th September. There will be lots of different events to get involved with. More details soon!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: The Trouble With Flying and other Stories (Margaret River Press)

My review of The Trouble With Flying (Margaret River Press), edited by Richard Rossiter and Susan Midalia is available on The Short Review.

A collection of evocative and diverse stories set across the equally diverse Australian landscape. This anthology gives a unique flavour of a country rich in culture, personality and resonating metaphor.

Friday, 26 June 2015


Over the last few weeks I've been reading and listening to stories on MacGuffin; a new self-publishing platform for short stories and poetry. Produced by Comma Press, it is a kind of literary jukebox and free to use. Available at the moment in beta version, the full launch will be happening soon.

There's already a large amount of content on MacGuffin, with the opportunity for writers to add their work to the site. It is brilliant to see classic works by writers such as Chekhov and Joyce sitting alongside acclaimed contemporary writers like David Constantine and Zoe Lambert, as well as new voices and emerging writers.

All the stories are available as both text and audio. Users are encouraged to interact, rating the text and audio pieces and adding hashtags to help other users find and categorise the content. Using the keyword search is a fascinating way to bring up a whole spectrum of work and encourages users to perhaps read something by writers they may not have come across before.

Each story also has an analytical breakdown showing how many readers and listeners have rated it, where they are located and if/at what point they dropped out. This might sound a bit brutal but actually it isn't. There is no explicit judgement attached to this data and so it enables readers and writers to look at writing subjectively. If there are correlations in the reader dropout data does this mean the story needs to be strengthened at certain points, edited and made more arresting or actually does this confirm that this narrative demands a bit more from the reader?

My favourite MacGuffin discovery? A brilliant writer that I was previously unfamiliar with; 'Something for Nothing' by Larissa Boehning, translated from German by Lyn Marven, is evocative and transfixing. MacGuffin is the perfect forum for discovering writers, whether well established and just new to the reader, like Boehning was for me, or new voices on the literary scene to take note of and champion.

Have a go with the beta version here. Read the The Guardian review of MacGuffin here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Barrow Rapture

The Barrow Rapture is an interactive story told through text and illustration. The protagonist is a soldier returning to Barrow with a guilty burden and a pocketful of unanswered letters.

'That was when you started to feel as if there might have been something else wrong; something beyond the wrongness that was putrefying inside you, and that you had travelled to Barrow to try and excise, one way or the other. Something external, as well as internal.'

The Barrow Rapture by Beth Ward

The artists behind The Barrow Rapture are Curious Tales writers Jenn Ashworth, Brian Baker, Tom Fletcher and artist Beth Ward and it is funded by Lancaster University.

The reader decides where to go at the end of each short section, in a sense collaborating with the three writers and artist exploring text, image, story and place to construct the narrative. It's a bit like a more beautifully wrought, grown up version of the Choose Your Own Adventures books you might have read as a child. Does this comparison sound disparaging? I hope not - I loved those books - despite the naff writing and the risk of getting stuck in an endless narrative loop, the second person voice and the opportunity to choose safe or subversive directions for the protagonist made the Choose Your Own Adventure stories come alive. They felt three dimensional, a web rather than a narrow thread. The Barrow Rapture does this too - artfully, poignantly, elegantly - and so much more.

The setting, Barrow, becomes a character in its own right. There is beauty and resonance in familiar places, an aesthetic delight in the mundane or downright ugly  - multi storey carparks, working men's clubs, rundown terraces... I find these liminal, abandoned or unexplored places fascinating and this narrative takes the reader right through them, offering choices at each juncture. Where do you want to go next? The caravan park? The cinema? The town hall clock tower? It is like exploring a map in the most wonderful way.

In real life, we don't think or talk in straight lines; often we skip back and forward, one thought or idea connecting with another, creating a network. Conventional fiction (if you'll excuse that ham-fisted term), even writing that plays with timescale and linearity, often relies on a structure of cause and effect. One incident leads directly onto another. In reality, human motivations are usually influenced by several factors; some that we are aware of, some we might be able to discern if we stop and think about it, and others that are completely hidden from our understanding. The Barrow Rapture explores this multifaceted approach in both its narrative bites, eschewing plot progression for a more organic reflective tone, and its flexible structure, allowing the reader to navigate the story according to their choices. The reader is intrinsically part of the tale; not just simplistically selecting the next location but in the questioning process of why we make the decisions we make. The story is going to be subtly different for each reader both during the interaction and also how they reflect back on it afterwards.

Thematically, however, I think the experience will sing for every reader of loss, death, memory, searching and love. It will also resonate with anyone who has revisited somewhere that they once knew intimately - how memory and reality are often out of kilter; at once completely familiar and foreign. Although the context is vastly different, it made me think of George Bowling revisiting his childhood places in Orwell's Coming Up For Air. It also reminded me of forums such as this one, where urban explorers upload images of abandoned places. The Barrow landscape is saturated with emotions; living memories running through each natural curve and architectural detail.

Beth Ward captures this in her haunting, dreamlike artwork; the dark kind of dream that you only recall hours after waking. The sort of dream that takes a familiar moment, a train station underpass or a narrowing hallway, and twists it.

 My only critisicm would be that the story is over too soon. Hungry for more, I went back to the beginning and explored all the routes I could have taken. But I would happily have navigated the first time for a lot longer.

To read more about the experiment see the Curious Tales page here, and a blog post about the project from Jenn Ashworth here.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Clever Girl

At a function recently someone asked me what I do for a living. I explained to them in a few sketchy details. Someone responded with, "Yes, she's a very clever girl." A couple of other people chipped in and agreed that I was indeed a very clever girl.

I'm thirty three.

Had I been a bloke, aged anything over 18, I suspect they would not have referred to me as a very clever boy.

It was meant affectionately. It was supposed to be a compliment. I know this. I know, like and respect the people who said it. But this isn't the first time as an adult I've been referred to as a very clever girl. Is it indicative of a societal tendency to acknowledge and praise women who are academically interested and striving towards challenging goals, while simultaneously (whether consciously or subconsciously) applying caution that we don't overstep narrow, imposed gender stereotype? Is it the implication that my cleverness is limited to the fact that I'm female by gendering the sort of clever that I am? And then further reducing it to the level of a girl; a child. I can't just be called clever, or a clever woman (or even, at a stretch, a clever lady *shudders*). The girl aspect limits me somehow to something quantifiable. Non threatening, with all the ghastly baggage of gender stereotyping that that carries. Ugh.

Am I reading too much into a very misguided compliment?

Whatever. It may well happen again sometime and I will have to decide whether to make a scene over a thoughtless attempt at a compliment or just smile and let it go.

Either way, I will hold dear to this image from Jurrassic Park; the ranger who mutters the phrase ironically in the moments before his raptor death. Whatever gets you through.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


I am delighted to have a story in the latest edition of Synaesthesia Magazine.

Synaesthesia publish prose and poetry with some element of synaesthesia about it; the fusion of two or more senses, i.e. taste has colour or sound might be textural. Each edition has a theme, this time the theme is EAT.

My story, Honey Fungus, is about a woman who forages for a masterchef.

There are some beautiful responses to the submissions theme in this edition. My favourite is Dinner Invitation by Kendra Kopelke.

Read the magazine here.

For news and future edition themes click here.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Hearing Voices

How do writers create believable characters?

This week I've been planning a creative writing session to help students explore this.

And then, in perfect serendipity, I listened to BBC Radio 4's Open Book discussing character voice this week. You can find it hereJennifer Hodgson has interviewed over 100 writers to research how they hear and write their characters. She found that many "couldn't even begin to write the character until they'd heard their voice." And that very often the narrative process "began with a voice." It's intriguing and worth listening to. Jennifer Hodgson has written an article for the latest Mslexia issue which explores her fascinating research a little more.

Today I've been working on a new short story. Do I hear the voices of my characters? Yes, I think so. I know the tone of voice my protagonist uses when he feeds the cat and how he answers his phone and what he says to JW's on the doorstep. I know the things he mutters in his sleep and how he would react if he was caught up in an armed robbery. I can imagine all of these things although none of them actually occur in the narrative. As I'm writing a story, I mentally place my characters in positions outside of the text and see how they react. If they can 'live' like this off the page then I hope that they come across believably within the story that I'm telling.

One character in this story, however, isn't even 'real'; my protagonist has an imaginary friend. Am I filtering him through the main protagonist? I ought to be, because the imaginary friend doesn't 'exist' except through the protagonist's imagination. Effectively, he is just another layer of him. The imaginary friend should be sought through him, in every way, as he creates him. But the imaginary friend character didn't come into being after my protagonist became fully rounded. If anything he came first and the protagonist was the one who followed.

Are you still with me...?

Another thing... The imaginary friend is mute, so I don't hear his voice at all. But I have a complete sense of him through expressions, body language and physicality. I know how he would make a cup of tea. I can picture how he would hang out washing, lift a car bonnet, respond if he saw a child choking on the bus. Again, he does none of these things in my story. But the fact I can picture it perfectly reassures me that I know him well enough to hopefully be believable. I wonder if he should solely be an extension, a projection, out of my main protagonist. He does the things that my protagonist longs to do - mischievous, deviant acts. But I think I also see him as a person in his own right. I can imagine him existing even if the protagonist did not. Should I be so aware of him, as an entity outside of the protagonist? I don't know. They are, after all, just different sides to the same character, existentially compartmentalised. A bit like a ventriloquist and their dummy. Except I'm operating both.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Lover

I really know I shouldn't... but I can't help being a bit into the whole Valentine's thing.

What I'm loving this year.

1. I will be spending Valentine's Day with four of my favourites - Mr S, my brother, sister-in-law and their gorgeous dog, Stella.

2. We will most likely be in a pub drinking beer and spotting the annual-one-night-out couples gulping soup self-consciously in the dining area. Then we will go home to play Cards Against Humanity.

3. I will be critiquing manuscripts from the students on a short story course I'm leading, which is a genuine delight and pleasure. I feel really lucky to be working with such a fantastic bunch of writers.

Ebb and Flo Bookshop, Chorley
4. Finally, this Valentine's Day, I'll be wishing I lived just a bit closer to Ebb and Flo in Chorley. This fantastic independent bookshop is offering blind dates with books. This taps right into my happy place.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone x

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The long and short of it

I have been reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch for over a month now and I am still only half way through. I am a stupidly slow reader. Although, to be fair, it is 864 pages long.

Generally speaking, I'm enjoying it. But I wonder whether it goes on, just a bit, in places?

The writing is beautiful and evocative. The scene near the beginning in the art gallery is particularly powerful. But could the whole book have done with a hearty edit?

There is one particular tic that's been getting up my nose. Phrases like 'We always...', 'We sometimes...', and 'Often we'd...' seem to crop up fairly regularly. I don't like these generalised flashbacks. It feels a bit sloppy. I want to see a scene in which the regularity or repetitious nature of whatever it is they are doing is shown rather than told. I think it is partly because in everyday life, when someone says "we always do this/that..." it often means they've done it twice, or even only once but like to be perceived as the type of person/couple/family to often do that thing, whatever it may be. I don't trust it.

A single set scene, crystal clear with everything the reader needs to glean the surrounding story from, is so much more powerful. And Donna Tartt writes this kind of scene so brilliantly throughout the novel that these broad stroke flashbacks feels unnecessary. Like I'm being stuffed with story.

Perhaps my reaction stems from the amount of time I spend with short fiction - reading it, writing it, editing it - where every sentence, every word, has to work and where the best stories don't rely on generalised flashback (or, more and more I'm finding, don't rely on flashback at all.) I've just reworked a story that I wrote a long time ago and found myself hacking away at the ugly flashback scenes, to tighten the prose.

This week I'm also reading an Everyman collection of Russian short stories. In contrast to Tartt's weighty Russian equivalents, such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, these bite sized stories demonstrate that size isn't everything. With short fiction, it is so much about what you leave out, the unspoken moments, that gives a story its punch. Tolstoy's 'Korney Vasiliev' gives the life story of a man's undoing in just over 20 pages. Gogol's 'The Cloak' explores class, status and society through a man's need of a coat. These narratives leave something for the reader. It is the sealine viewed longingly through coin operated binoculars, rather than an overwhelming tidal surge.

Friday, 23 January 2015

This week I read Poor Souls' Light, a collection of seven winter ghost stories by independent publishing collective Curious Tales.

I'm hugely late to the party on this one (nothing new there!) The collection came out well before Christmas when I bought it as a gift to myself. I've been saving it until I could consume the whole book in one sitting, which probably isn't the recommended way to do it unless (like me) you enjoy steeping in that unsettling feeling genuinely frightening stories can give you.

All seven stories draw inspiration from Robert Aickman. My favourites are probably Alison Moore's 'The Spite House' and Jenn Ashworth's 'Dinner For One'. But there really isn't a weak story here.

The artwork on the cover and accompanying the text is by Beth Ward. The dark, shadowy images are the perfect companion to the written narratives.

Read more about the fantastic team behind Curious Tales here. You can buy a copy of the book or the art prints here.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Agenda

Today I received an unsolicited phone call from a company offering me PPI compensation. I get a lot of calls like this, despite being on the TPS list. If you work from home you probably will, too. You will also understand how annoying they are. Mr S suggests I just don't answer the phone. But as a freelancer, if a number comes up that looks halfway legit, I kinda have to answer in case it's work related.

I've had various strategies for getting rid of these people. I went through a phase of just being Very Angry at them. I'd demand to speak to their line manager. I'd demand to be taken off their records. I'd tell them how Very Angry I was to have had my working day interrupted. I would finish the call feeling rattled and Very Angry for quite a while. And then, because I'm generally not good at being Very Angry, I'd feel guilty about my behaviour; embarrassed at how I'd spoken to a fellow human who was just trying to do their job.

My next tack was simply to hang up. But that felt incredibly rude, too. The passive aggressive sort of rude.

So I decided (and this seemed like a perfectly obvious next step at the time) to make gentle animal noises down the line until they went away. Generic bird sounds or what I describe as the Lonely Cat.

Then I realised that it was weird. (I gave it to a character in a story to do and understood via third person quite how sinister it was.)

In my fiction writing I've been thinking a lot about dialogue and how to make it feel authentic. Every character in a story needs an agenda all of their own, ensuring that no character is simply a foil to get some point across for the other. The things they say will lean into their own agenda. The dialogue that I admire most from other writers is the dialogue that tightly pits characters' agendas at each other. Both have something they want, both will only shift so far before they start tugging in their own direction. This works most effectively I think when the desired thing is in some way not altogether known to them - when it's subtle or cerebral. For example, the stilting dialogue between the man and woman in Hemingway's Cat In the Rain.

So today when Kevin rang me from Pearl Refunds, with a very clear agenda for helping me reclaim PPI, I decided I had quite a different agenda. He had interrupted me mid sentence on some new writing set in woodland. So I asked him about his favourite animal. I asked him if he liked squirrels. He wasn't sure about squirrels so I explained a bit about them. Bushy tail, acorns etc.

He said "snails?"

So we had a bit of a chat about snails. Snails were more his thing, after PPI, of course, which he mentioned again.

But I was persistent about the squirrel agenda. "They were in decline," I told him. "But they seem to be making a comeback."


"No, squirrels."

After a bit he sighed and said, "Mrs Schofield, do you want PPI?"

"No," I said.

We politely said goodbye. It all felt very civilised.