Imagination – the Divine Vision

‘My imagination is a Monastery and I am its monk.’

JHISS week 011Keats’ words to Shelley (as the Romantics caught hold of the concept of ‘imagination’ and ran with it), caught my attention this week as I read an article on William Blake. I, like most writers I would assume, like to think about my approach to writing fairly frequently – the language I use, the point of view I take, the theme I focus on and so on – but above all else, when it comes down to it, pure imagination is key.

Like anything, if over-worked, writing can become prescriptive, unnatural, formulaic… when all it really needs sometimes is a healthy dose of imagination and a little less rule-keeping. I love writing which surprises me, grips me with beautiful language and takes me somewhere I just wasn’t expecting. I enjoy, as I’ve mentioned before, the stream of consciousness type of novel which is, to me, endlessly fascinating in its tangential complexity or straightforward observation. It’s truly imaginative and not just in the story (or as some might protest – ‘what story, it’s just random thoughts!’), but in the languagePicture 1

Imagination of course, shouldn’t just be confined to the plot, but to the essential ingredients – the words. It strikes me that in prose, focus more often goes to story structure whereas in poetry, there’s more attention given over to the words. Each word, to be exact. In poetry, every word must win its place.

IMG_1770Imagination can sometimes be crushed in favour of what’s trending, but why write what people are reading now? Use your imagination and write something that’ll hook them in the future.

Is your imagination a monastery? Do you make it your focus like Keats did?

Do you immerse yourself in all the fantastical, impossible and utterly absurd elements that your imagination throws at you?

And – do you write them down and explore them further, or shut them away in favour of the formulaic and what is expected of the modern-day writer..?

As Blake said: ‘One power alone makes the Poet – Imagination The Divine Vision’.

 

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Knitting words

What is a short story and how long should a short story be…?

IMG_2067‘A short story is a work of fiction, often in narrative format that is shorter than a novel in length but longer than a novella. The elements of a short story are: setting, conflict, theme, character, plot and point of view.’

This is pretty much the first answer I got when I typed the phrase ‘short story’ into Google and I grant you – it’s pretty good as definitions go.

However (and there’s always an ‘however’) – it’s still a little vague and that’s both good and bad if you’re on a mission to produce the perfect short story… In my quest to create an abundance of short stories this year, which is intertwined with my Arts Council funding and my genuine desire to write good fiction, I find myself pondering the art form that is the short story more and more.Arts Council logo

Most short story competitions ask for tales which stand at around the 2,000 – 3,000 word mark and this is what I’d tended to think of when considering the short story form before now. Then I happened across a competition (albeit a pretty high-brow one for the likes of amateur me…), which specified up to 15,000 or so words!

So… What’s a writer to do?!

James Joyce (by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915)

James Joyce (by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915)

I mentioned last week that short stories should stop when you feel they can go on no more, but sometimes it can be tricky to find that point. I finished the draft of a story today (the one which I started last week) and feel I could have gone on, but didn’t want to labour the point. Perhaps I’ll add to it in the edit (I probably will), but as it stands, it’s around the 3,000 word mark, which I’m happy enough with for now. Perhaps it’s because the story I wrote just before it came in at around 5,000 – 6,000 words and now this one feels too short. The message for this particular story however, works better I think in this shorter format, so hopefully it’ll pack more of a punch.

Then there’s the story form. A friend recently commented on a short story they had submitted to a journal, which was rejected, and which had, according to my friend, included suitable scene-setting, conflict and conclusion. This is where I stopped to think.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Writing can be too formulaic and I know there are ‘rules’ to creating the perfect story, but think of Joyce and Woolf, to name but two. I love their meandering tales of rich narrative, which weave in and out of characters’ comings and goings, inner thoughts and emotions, actions and the consequences of these, but which don’t necessarily have a big ‘defining moment’ or ending. They show life, they taper off at the end and I like that.

In fact, I think I tend to write in a similar style – descriptive prose which can go off on a tangent depending on where my character’s thoughts take them. I understand this sort of writing is not to everyone’s taste, but it intrigues me. I like to get into people’s heads and explore.

The beauty of the short story for me, is having the chance to knit together rich, evocative words to create stories of substance, style and intrigue. Not to show all, not to conclude all, but to suggest, to begin to paint a picture and to spark off a sense of wonder and involvement on behalf of the reader. A neat ending can work well of course, but sometimes short stories simply allow you to trespass into the mind of a character; allow you to wander into a scene which is already well underway, and then bid you farewell with not so much as a denouement in sight.

What is a short story and how long should a short story be…?

You decide.

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Writing rules…

With the evenings already beginning to draw in, the wind gently buffeting the house and the rain (oh, the rain) streaming steadily down, one would think it was a day designed for writing. It is August, yes, but a small fire is burning merrily in the hearth and it’s cosy with a capital ‘C’.

The problem is – writing doesn’t always necessarily want to come, even when conditions are as perfect as this. A day for reading, then, and perhaps sketching out a few words later. This will be inspiring and a flurry of writing will follow!

Tree of booksWell, this is sort of how my planned writing day panned out. A few pages were written, yes, some reading was done, but really, the results were not as anticipated. And even reading great stories can sometimes put you off picking up that pen (yes, I’m still physically writing everything before I type it all up!), as you instantly compare your efforts with the book you’ve just put down and then think – maybe later.

However, ‘maybe later’ can easily become a downward slope to writing less and less and soon not at all, so that’s just not an option for me. Besides, writing is fun, even when you don’t always know where it’s leading. In fact, in my case, I prefer it when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I like to follow the pen and edit later. I finished a short story last week (I say finished, but you know I mean the first, written draft…) and when I was typing it up, it changed along the way. A lot. When I re-read it a couple of days later, it changed a bit more and a bit more… I should also add that in my notebook, the final three pages were completely scrapped when I was initially typing it up, as a better ending came to me as I was keying it in. And… it may change again.skelton I love writing, but I also love editing, as the bones of the story are there, but you get to deconstruct them or create new threads, flesh things out and see the story come to life.

So, today, when I wrote a few pages of my next story, I had a rough idea of the framework, but no real idea yet of what would unfold. I have no doubt ideas will come to me while I’m out walking my dog this week, and also, when I’m writing and then editing it.

I think the point is not to panic, but as many another writer would probably also say – to just pick up the pen, sit at the computer and write something. There’ll be days when you won’t write much, or indeed, much of any worth, but there’ll always be something good to come of it.

A – you’ll have written something (and writers write, they don’t just talk about it)

B – you might get the seed of another, better idea from your scribbles

C – you may realise this idea isn’t working, and this is good – no point flogging a dead horse

D – it’s practice for the good stuff – which WILL come

800px-Candle_flame_(1)Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts after a productive(ish) day which I’d thought was destined for greater things. But writing will come when it will come and for me, it’s more often during those odd times of the day, when you go to do something else and pick up a pen instead. When you stand up to go to bed but then decide to flick through your notes and scribble just a few sentences to make yourself feel as if you’d achieved some writing that day… and then end up scribbling into the wee hours.

That’s just how writing goes…

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Blood Entwines

KatherinemansfieldSlowly savouring the short stories of Katherine Mansfield this week, I’ve decided she’s my new favourite writer. As I read more and more expertly written short stories I, in turn, have become more and more of a fan of the shorter work of fiction. They require a different type of writing expertise and although you sometimes want to read more and wish certain stories were full-length books, I’m actually finding that with Mansfield so far, her stories are so completely satisfying, they’re just the right length. For me, anyway, I finish one and happily look forward to the next and if I could achieve that in my own stories, well, I’d be very happy.Blood Entwines cover july 2014

Whilst I’m currently in the midst of writing short stories, a Belfast-based writer who I’ve interviewed a few times now has just celebrated the release of her fist YA novel, Blood Entwines. You can read about her writing journey here on writing.ie and her website is right here. Her name is Caroline Healy and it’s probably a name to remember!

Caroline Healy

Caroline Healy

Writing is a tough gig and those who persevere and see success like this motivate the rest of us and inspire us to keep going. Writers, I find, are an encouraging bunch, and are always willing to offer advice and to support each other and celebrate their respective successes (and commiserate at the countless rejections…), so in keeping with this, congratulations to Caroline on her Bloomsbury book birthday (which was August 1) and keep up the good work!

 

 

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Musing on Mansfield

‘Katherine Mansfield’s claim on out attention rests on the subtlety, emotional depth and originality of her gifts as a short-story writer. [She] brings her imaginative gifts to bear on many kinds of lives in quite disparate settings with an artist’s feeling for the angle and light that would bring her stories to life.’

KatherinemansfieldIt goes without saying that any writer would revel in such an introduction to their work and this is but a snippet of praise for Katherine Mansfield – ‘widely regarded as a writer who helped to create the modern short story’ – in an anthology of her work, which I am just about to read.

You’ve got to love second-hand bookshops and even better – your local Co-op, when it has a table bulging with such books by its tills. If every supermarket did the same, and replaced sweets at the check-outs with books… Well, a thought for another day perhaps.

Anyway, as I embark upon a year of crafting my own collection of short stories (and poems), it’s only sensible to seek inspiration from a few of the greats, and I’m hoping this particular collection will do just that. Short stories weave their own sort of magic and have less space in which to do it, so I think there’s an extra skill in being able to produce shorter fiction.

Points to consider:

  • How much description is too much in a short story?Q
  • How quickly should the pace be set?
  • Are myriad characters better, or are fewer preferable?
  • Plotlines… how complicated should they be? There is the risk, is there not, of cramming too much into a small space.

I’m thinking off the top of my head here and of course, a short story can be long enough to become a novella. It can be anything from 1,000 words to 4,000, six or 8,000 words or more.

Another good question then:

  • At what point do you wind it up?

Well, a story, I believe, will usually tell you when it’s done and if in doubt, wind it up, leave it a while and come back and edit it. Perspective and a little time away always helps.

As I say – I’m musing on Mansfield right now. We’ll see how it goes…

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Chilling children’s fiction?

‘The children felt tremendously excited. At last they were at the very top. Jo carefully pulled himself up the last branch. He disappeared into the purple hole. Bessie and Fanny followed him.

‘The branch came to an end and a little ladder ran through the cloud. Up the children went – and before they knew what had happened, there they were out in the sunshine, in a new and very strange land…’IMG_2234

This extract comes from what was probably my favourite book as a child, and indeed, one which certainly inspired my love of fantasy fiction. It is, of course, from The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton and, to my young reading self, was one of the most exciting stories I had ever read. There was a magical wood where the trees talked to one another in a secret language – ‘wisha, wisha, wisha’ – rabbit paths frequented by all kinds of fairy creatures who held moonlight revelries and of course, there was the Faraway Tree – a gigantic, enchanted tree in the centre of the wood which was home to the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot, Mister Watzisname, Silky the elf and of course, Moonface – guardian of the Slippery Slip and situated just below the cloud which concealed whatever mysterious land was at the top of the tree that day.

Ok, I won’t go on, but it was brilliant.IMG_2232

What sparked this trip down memory lane was reading, firstly, a short piece by Suzi Feay entitled On Re-reading Leon Garfield in the June/July issue of The London Magazine, along with an article in the Guardian about this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize longlist.IMG_2236

In this case, nostalgia for Suzi, as it has been for myself in re-reading children’s classics over the years, proved a pleasant experience – savouring those stories enjoyed in childhood as an adult proving their durability and the skill of the writer. Taking the example of The Ghost Downstairs by Mr Garfield, she writes: I relived my youthful terror all over again at the remembered words: ‘In the cabin, precisely outlined against the leaping flames, he had seen the phantom child! It was driving the train.’

Garfield was himself, a winner of the inaugural 1967 Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize with his book, Devil-in-the-Fog – which brings me to the aforementioned article.

The article, you can read for yourself – there’s no need to repeat its words here – but the question it appears to raise is as follows: Is children’s fiction too dark?

IMG_2238That’s the gist anyway, and the paper points out that this year’s longlist has none of the gloomy, depressing fiction filling other such prizes. Hence my reflections. Children and young adult readers do show a preference for reading dark tales today – vampires, post-apocalyptic worlds, well, the darker the better it seems – but then, haven’t they always? Yet I know that it isn’t just parents’ nostalgia that similarly sees Enid Blyton’s tales of fairies and elves still flying off the shelves. Her stories are more wholesome, yes, but aren’t without danger. It is just perhaps a little bit more obvious that her heroes will always triumph.

As publishers continue to seek out writing that is ‘innovative’, ‘edgy’ and ‘original’, what I think is being hinted at here is – do stories which shock and even disgust readers (again, refer to the article for an example of what they’re alluding to!) necessarily translate as being ‘good works of fiction’, or are they being chosen simply because they offer something which hasn’t been seen before? IMG_2235

Everyone will have their own view on the matter but, upon reflecting on my own reading history – which includes everything from magic to mystery, murder, crime, horror, historical and more, an eclectic mix is surely the best for anyone. It is for the reader to decide what they wish to read – the writer for what they feel inclined to write – but so long as there continues to be a suitable variety of dark and light to choose from then… what’s the problem?

 

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‘Words worth’

An article ‘revealed’ this week what writers, I’m sure, have always known. Most of us earn very little.piggy bank If you want to put an exact figure on it, the average yearly salary for an author was quoted at around the £11,000 mark. The cited research indicated a drop in the number of full-time authors but did, however, offer some hope by way of self-publishing as an up-and-coming ‘tidy little earner’ for those striving to live ‘by the pen’.

This, at least is good, but it puts me in mind of a book I read a year or so ago (and mentioned in one of my very first blog posts) called New Grub Street (by George Gissing). Great book. Look a little closer and you may well ask if anything much has changed for writers struggling to earn a living… On the surface, yes, but dig deeper and decide that for yourself.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl – Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

I spoke with London-based author Cherry Smyth recently, whose novel Hold Still, presents a snapshot of the art scene during the 1800s, namely through the eyes of James Whistler, Gustave Coubert and their artistic muse, Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan. Cherry told me that writing the novel also gave her a chance to highlight the parallels between the art world and women’s place in it then and now – and to show how little things have really changed. For me, New Grub Street, does the same for writers.

However, in my own forays into writing I know, of course, that opportunity abounds, as it does with any craft, if you look for it, chase after it and, well persist. And, as I mentioned before in reference to self-publishing, it’s true that success looks different for everyone. Not all writers write for money, nor feel they ought to. Most realistic writers also know that authorship is always destined to be something they do ‘on the side’ of a more regular job. You don’t have to look far in history to see that lots, if not all, of ‘the greats’ wrote in and around their day-to-day post. Writers have generally always had to expect little in financial return for their work.

Arts Council logoOn a personal note, I’m delighted to report that I am the recipient, this year, of a great opportunity for writers in Northern Ireland, as I have been awarded a National Lottery-funded grant on behalf of the Arts Council NI as part of their Support for Individual Artists Programme. The grant will support me in writing a collection of short stories and poetry and, given what we know about writers’ earnings, it’s very gratefully received.

Those who are trying to earn a living by the pen may rightly feel frustrated at the way in which words are so easily dismissed when it comes to valuing their worth in hard cash, but thankfully for us all, there are organisations like arts councils and the like who understand the effort involved, appreciate the output and are prepared to support writers in their work.

It sprinkles a little gold dust on those quills and reminds us that our words have worth…

 

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