The Short Story Mix-Tape

By Foday Mannah.

They often say creative writing takes inspiration from true life events. Take for example the story which I read in a Newsweek article under the headline  EBOLA’S SHUNNED HEROES: THE WOMEN BRINGING UP THE BODIES IN SIERRA LEONE. When the epidemic hit the home country a few years ago, a select number of women bucked cultural trends which dictated that women should have no part in such a grim task. These women however reasoned that the dignity of female victims should be respected and as such it was only fitting that fellow women were involved in preparing them for burial.

Which got me thinking. What if one such woman became the protagonist of a short story? In essence the subject matter was worth exploring in fiction; what remained was ensuring that the narrative did justice to the issue. Which got me thinking of how to write a worthy short story.

I’ve often heard that with the short story, a key component is “economy of detail”; the writer has limited space within which to develop plot, setting, characterisation and theme. I’ve also heard that all good short stories should feature “one major event which significantly influences and affects the protagonist.” I’ve also heard that the most important component of any good short story is “the hook” – an effective opening that captivates and engages therefore compelling the reader to stay. Another key consideration is the use of time. Does the short story stretch over a significant period or is the narrative constrained to say for example a single experience in a single day? And then of course, several writers suggest that there must always be an element of conflict in all good short stories.

Which had me thinking that a good strategy would be to “listen” to a mix-tape of my favourite short stories which I have read and taught through the years. Anthony Horowitz’s Monsters subtly explores family conflict over a single Halloween evening before reaching a shocking climax. I definitely recommend Monsters particularly as it represents a masterclass in the development of setting and characterisation alongside plot.

And then there’s also the question of narrative voice – who tells the story? Do I use the first or the third person? Bernard Mac Laverty’s Father and Son is a brilliant example of the effective use of narrative voice as it features both a father and son alternatively narrating segments of the story in short bursts, again building up to a memorable climax. Another strength of Father and Son is the claustrophobic setting which has the protagonists living under one roof whilst remaining riven by demons of their collective pasts.

And there are the stories that deliver a dilemma in the very first line, an example being Chimamanda Adiche’s Sola which explores political oppression in The Gambia and opens with the line “Sola has disappeared.” Or a real favourite with the pupils, Janice Galloway’s Mary Moon and Stars, which opens with “Mary Moon peed the floor first day of school.”

But again do we have to have cold water to the face in the very first line of the story? Valerie Thornton allows the narrative to marinate in her story Sharon, the Ferryman’s Daughter, which dedicates a whole page to presenting Sharon as a sympathetic underdog with circumstances stacked against her before allocating her a boyfriend, a plot point which drives the rest of the story. Malorie Blackman’s Alone Together similarly takes time to establish character before presenting a dilemma in the second part of the story – a disillusioned teenage boy who finds himself in an awkward situation with his best friend’s mother.

And how long does a short story have to be especially if the writer is not constrained by a word count which is often the case for writing competitions?  Again, variety abounds in this respect. Alice Walker’s The Flowers although just over a page in length is brilliant in its thematic depth and aptly delivers the grave circumstances faced by a child in the American Deep South. Another brilliant example is Zadie Smith’s Mortal Terror, handed to me by a work colleague a week ago, which features a supernatural entity that preys on women; an apt metaphor for issues in contemporary times and no doubt brilliant to analyse in a critical essay! Then there is another favourite, Alan Spence’s Gypsy which stretches almost to novella proportions in its examination of bigotry and bullying amongst Glasgow school boys.

All of which leaves me to conclude that there is no one specific blueprint to writing a short story. Perhaps it makes sense to just start typing and see how my narrative unfolds. After all there’s always the good old editing process. 





When is it Right to Co-author a Project?

By Alexa Padgett
This question has been on my mind for months. There are a couple of genres I’m interested in pursuing, but I have no current readers in those markets. Plus, everyone is doing it (writing with a partner) and seems to be putting out work faster and with better results—hey, two authors to market one book is synergistic.
But…the idea of writing with another person is daunting. I have my idiosyncrasies; habits in the way I build and craft characters and arcs—as do most other authors. All of which makes finding the right partner even more critical.
How do you do this? Not quite sure just yet. A friend co-wrote a novel with a new writer to help build his career. That was kind of her, and she’s happy with the result, but she felt like it took a lot of mentorship and effort—both emotional and temporal.
A friend of mine found her writing partner at a group she joined a year ago. It’s for science fiction authors—an area of interest she’d long wanted to pursue, though the closest she’s come thus far is a popular fantasy romance series. They met; they clicked; they have a killer story premise that each will write from one of the leading character’s point-of-view.
This second method seems a much better option for a balanced workload. But the key to any of this—just like in finding a trustworthy critique partner—is working with someone you trust and respect. And who trusts and respects you. That should be obvious. I hope it is. Just as I hope its tantamount in your mind when searching for a crit or writing partner. Similar voice, similar styles are nowhere near as important as respect for the story you’re creating and the other person’s capabilities.
My point is this: I’ve had some opportunities to work with other writers. To date, I’ve turned them down because they just weren’t right. Trusting that gut, knowing the importance of finding synergies and mutual satisfaction—that’s the key to this messy creative process. (And, I think, to remaining friends at the end of it.)

My New Title is “Writer”

By Lu Anne Stewart

For much of my adult life, I have dreamed of being a full-time writer. I worked for seven years as a newspaper reporter and editor, then spent many more years in public relations, where I had the chance to write everything from a Harvard Business Review case study to a speech for an NFL player helping to launch a new charity. Interesting, challenging work, but the writing was only one piece of it, and I longed for time to write the growing list of stories rattling around in my brain.

Like so many other writers, I worked on fiction in my “spare” time, rising early to carve out an hour to write before I headed off to my job, writing on weekends, taking vacation days to attend writing workshops. I was encouraged by the dedication of other writers with a day job, like John Grisham, who wrote A Time to Kill while working full-time as a lawyer.

Now, I finally have my chance. I’ve left the workaday world to launch my own adventure as a writer—fiction, freelance writing and some journalistic work, too. I’m looking forward to that first time I meet a new person and, when they ask what I do, I can simply say, “I’m a writer.”

This new season of life reminds me very much of those heady days just after graduating from college, when the future lay ahead like an open door into a secret garden, filled with every possibility imaginable and waiting to be explored. At the same time, I’m keenly aware that I have no more excuses for not writing.

I’m reminded of a friend’s story from his college days. He was telling his English professor how much he loved to write and yearned to be a writer, and the professor looked at him squarely and said, “Oh? What have you written today?”

My friend stuttered, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet today…”

“If you love to write so much, why are you denying yourself that pleasure?” the professor responded.

Fair point. Now that I have this freedom, I am determined to put every available moment to good use. My current project, a novel about an idealistic young reporter in the post-Watergate 1970s, is in the final editing stages and I’m eager to send it out into the world. An idea for the next novel is germinating. I have some short story drafts to go back and polish, and there’s even a completed screenplay for a film about a time in the not-too-distant future when we’ll be able to take a pill to halt the aging process. Maybe it’s time to dust that off, too.

All of these drafts and ideas are starting to look less like failed attempts and more like possibilities waiting to sprout in that secret garden. It’s time to go to work.



Honing my craft among friends

There is no better home for an author of children’s literature than the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I was reminded of that at the recent Florida regional conference, @SCBWIFlorida. As a middle-grade and young adult fiction author, it was wonderful to meet members of my tribe—those who share a passion for telling stories for young readers. Founded in 1971 by a group of Los Angeles-based children’s writers, namely the terrific Lin Oliver, who shared her wisdom with us, the non-profit SCBWI is the only professional organization specifically for those writing and illustrating for children and young adults in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television and multimedia. 

The SCBWI acts as a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people.  There are currently more than 22,000 members worldwide, in over 70 regional chapters writing and illustrating in all genres for young readers, making it the largest children’s writing organization in the world. The Florida chapter is particularly active, with some 43 events planned for 2018 alone. It wasn’t difficult to attract several terrific editors and agents to the conference in Miami this past weekend. The professionalism of SCBWI members is always a draw for industry people, but I’m sure Miami’s weather in January was enticing, too. Continue reading

Spending time with friends

I first met Janie Juke in February 2017.  I was walking my Scottie dog, Hamish, along a Spanish beach and she came into my head.  But back then I didn’t know her name, I didn’t know that she would be a mobile librarian and I hadn’t met any of her family and friends.

Since then Janie has become a friend.  I have discovered a little of her likes and dislikes, her fears and insecurities.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know her dad, Phillip, who is a blind physiotherapist and her husband, Greg, who is her soulmate and stalwart supporter.  But I’ve still got a lot to learn about Janie and about my writing craft.

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction will understand that moment when your character takes on a life of their own.  As an author you think you are in control, but once the words start to appear on the page, you discover that you are not.  Well, that’s how it feels to me.

So far, Janie has had two major adventures.  In The Tapestry Bag, Janie is desperate to track down a friend who has gone missing.  By solving that mystery she realises that she has skills as an amateur sleuth and in the early chapters of Lost Property she is surprised to learn that those skills can earn her money.  Just like many young families in the 1960s (or now, for that matter) any opportunity to bolster their financial coffers is grabbed with both hands.

3D 006 sml

The Janie Juke mystery series is set in the late 1960s.  I have loved the chance to look back at that era when The Beatles were breaking the mould of popular music.  Medical advances were coming thick and fast.  Attitudes were changing to sex, crime, women’s rights and family life.

In Lost Property Janie meets Hugh Furness, a Second World War RAF pilot.  She learns something about life during the Second World War, and the years immediately following it.  Researching this era has given me a taste for it and I’d like to spend a bit more time with Hugh.

So what happens next?  Well, I know there is a lot more I have to learn about Janie and her family and friends.  I’m pretty certain she is going to take me on more adventures and I hope you will come along with me…it’s going to be a busy 2018!


Keep writing about what you love

By Deana Luchia

A year ago, I never imagined my first non-fiction book (Happy as Harry) would be published. I  had written a book I needed for myself –  tips and advice on staying positive, being happy and fighting the blues, and it was narrated by one of my gorgeous rescue dogs, Harry. Somehow I had found an agent who liked my manuscript enough to call me about changes she thought I should make and that, in itself was the most exciting news: An agent liked my book! I didn’t dare hope or think that it would go any further because, like all writers, I know how hard it is, how so many things need to magically align, to even get a look-in with a publisher.

But my agent did find a publisher, Headline Home, and they were enthusiastic about my dog book and amazing when we met at their offices in London (with my dogs, Harry and Dottie, in tow). And so they published my book in November!

The whole thing has been a wonderful experience. And I use it to motivate myself when I’m struggling to sit still at my computer or unsure that I’m on the right track: Keep going! Keep writing! Keep writing about what you love! Continue reading

Poems from a Polar Night

The Last Glimpse of the Sun before the Long Polar Night, Qaanaaq, Greenland, 2011)

The clock is ticking before the publication of my second short story featuring Constable David Maratse from East Greenland. I have made a point of including poems from the collection called Isblink, by Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen (1872-1907), to set the scene. He died leading the Danmark Ekspedition in 1907, and his poems from a previous expedition help frame my stories. But, I don’t want to talk too much about Ludvig, as Sarah Acton – resident poet – and I have exciting news about him to be announced at a later date. Rather, I want to talk about containment. Continue reading