Safe Cracking, or How to Write Short Stories without Workshops

Adam Ley-Lange shares the similarities between bank robbing and short story writing.

 

Creative writing workshops were planning meetings for the biggest heist job in history. They were led by someone who’d successfully pulled off a few big jobs in their time, and attended by a group of protégés who were developing some serious loot-grabbing skills of their own. Our target was stories. By pooling our talents we were hoping to walk away with a big enough share of the swag to, if not live out our days in luxury, then at least exist easily for a good long while. Preferably on our own tropical island.

Don’t get me wrong – this wasn’t always an easy alliance. There were plenty of times when we disagreed about strategy. Someone would advocate a bloodless boost, someone else would be in favour of striding in with machine guns and Swiss-cheesing everyone dumb enough to get in our way.

But whilst it was impossible to agree with everybody’s suggestions, what mattered was that each one of our Ocean’s 11, 12 or 13 had a position. If you disagreed with that position, you at least had to work out why. And engaging in such a way meant that you either changed your position, or your original idea won out by proving itself resilient enough.

Post-MA, this is what I find I’m missing the most. After living in a den of thieves for a year, I’ve now got to go it alone. And sure, it was ever thus. The writer is always a lonely thief.

Now that I’m trying to work out how best to proceed, I’ve started imagining myself in a bank vault, standing in front of a safe. It’s one of those black metal strongboxes with a rotary combination lock which you need to manipulate clockwise and anti-clockwise to get it open. Inside the safe is, of course, the story. Open the safe, and bingo, you’ve got your story.

But here’s the rub: there are many different combinations that will crack the safe, and depending on which one you use, the prize inside will change. Prizes range from worthless to priceless.

Chances are you’ll get the safe open pretty quickly, but what’s inside is going to be a disappointment. So you close the safe up again, spin the dial, and start afresh, hoping that this time you might hit on something better.

This is how writing a story seems to work for me now. I’ve got my stethoscope pressed against the metal. I’m straining to listen for the clicks that tell me I’m on my way to opening the door onto something of value. I might have started out listening for clicky paragraphs, but now I’m listening for clicky sentences. When the safe opens this time, the story inside looks a little shinier. On the next run, we’re clicking along with each individual word. The story’s weight in carats increases. The run after that, we’re listening for which syllables make that magic click.

It’s an excruciating process and it takes forever. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, not quite understanding why the armed guards haven’t rushed into the vault, because surely somebody upstairs must have set off the silent alarm by now? But then I have to remind myself that actually there aren’t any armed guards, because the only person I’m robbing is myself. It’s my safe, something in my own head that I’m trying to crack, and time isn’t important. What’s important is inside, and hopefully, when the door swings open next time, it’ll reveal something priceless. 

A Conversation with Camille Parke

When did you start writing?

I didn’t start writing until I was at university, though at the time I only took my academic writing seriously. I love words and have always composed stories in my head. It never occurred to me until recently that I should write them down for other people to read.  As a Social Anthropologist, I put most of my energy into academic writing. Now that I’m no longer working as an academic, I’m learning to redirect that energy into creative writing.

 

What’s your novel called?

Near Miss

 

Tough question: sum up your novel in three sentences.

This novel explores the role of chance, the choices we make, and the unintended consequences of our actions. Through their different experiences, Tiffany, a homeless former Merry Prankster, and Juan, the family gardener, help Tess to navigate a life lived at the margins of reality. There, that was only two sentences!

 

Genre?

Literary book club fiction

 

What are the themes?

Choices, chance, the nature of reality and the randomness of existence.

 

Who is your protagonist?

Tess Quinn at age 12, 22 and 32.

 

Tell us a bit about the setting.

The story is told in three parts. We first meet Tess as a lonely and isolated school girl in 1979 suburban Los Angeles. Ten years later, we rejoin Tess as she graduates from the University of California, Berkeley. The final section takes place in Washington, DC at the turn of the millennium. Each part of Tess’s story is told against an ‘end of an era’ backdrop – the death of the hippie and the economic upheaval of the 1970s; the end of the Cold War in 1989; and the last days of the 20th century.

 

What was your favourite part of the MA?

Reading my fellow students’ work and listening to their feedback on mine. I found it incredibly stimulating to be surrounded by such talented people. Being a party to their creative process fed positively into my own. It was my most productive period in recent years.

 

What are you reading right now?

I just finished reading The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. Not something I would have chosen myself, but selected by a member of my book group. After a bit of difficulty getting into it, I found I really enjoyed the story and characters, especially Eli. Didn’t like the ending, though.

 

Name some authors that have a similar style to yours.

I am a big admirer of Donna Tartt. A tutor once compared my style to hers. I was very flattered.

Why We Love to Write – and Read – the Magical Worlds in Fantasy and Sci-Fi

Danielle Wrobel shares her thoughts on why we love all things magical and out of this world. 

Follow Danielle @DanielleWrobel

 

I began to write with wizards and spaceships. More wizards than spaceships, but I managed to feature both: how else would the wizards be able to fight the aliens? They also contained far more bloodshed and tragedy than was entirely healthy for a child still in primary school to be imagining, especially in such detail. To all my doomed heroes: I’m sorry.

Astonishingly high character attrition rates aside, those early stories were full of possibilities. Perhaps overly so, in retrospect. But it is this aspect of science fiction and fantasy that has attracted me to the genre. It presents us with possibilities. Alternative worlds—whether they’re populated by grim-faced knights, super-intelligent clouds of gas, or even just humans who struggle with nosy neighbours that have five legs instead of two—ask us the same question: what if?

As writers and readers, we all have our own responses to this question. But asking the question itself is important. Science fiction and fantasy kindles our curiosity, and encourages us to look at our own world differently. We might see dragons in the contrails of planes, or super-intelligent AI in our smartphones.We might hope, in vain, for our invitation to study magic (I’m sure it was just lost in the post).

We might, too, look at our own world in comparison. I’ve read enough weird fiction to be glad that every time I eat a bowl of cereal it doesn’t dissolve into the table, or turn into a parrot that feeds off of happiness. I’ve also read enough medieval-analogue fantasy to appreciate the lack of a feudal system, and enough dystopian science fiction to hope that something similar doesn’t ever return.

Science fiction and fantasy has a long and fine tradition of discussing issues by providing a different context, from The Blazing World to The Left Hand of Darkness, Discworld to Kindred. It’s almost like a magic trick, the mundane kind. The author distracts with a showy magic system, or a detailed description of how anti-gravity works, and then, when you finish reading, you find yourself thinking differently.

This shouldn’t detract from the fact that science fiction and fantasy is also immensely fun. It is possible to twist every rule, from physiology to gravity. Sometimes these are discarded entirely, sometimes they are adhered to in inventive, unexpected ways. And with such possibilities ahead, every writer’s story is uniquely fantastical.

 

Plume Anthology MA Creative Writing 2017 Bath Spa University features a variety of extracts with a touch of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Ariel Dantona She Tore

Andrew Harris The Prince of the Great Oak Tree

Dan Archer The Book Max

Danielle Wrobel Sickle Way

 

Advice on Finding an Agent from Nicholas Herrmann

I was lucky to find an agent quite quickly after the course ended, and I’m currently embarking on their suggested edits before the book is ready to be sent out to publishers. It was all a bit of a surreal whirlwind, but I did take a few things away from the experience. None of this is a science, and a lot of it will be common sense, but maybe there’s something useful here for anyone beginning the process of finding an agent.

 

Be ready

Most agencies only want the first few chapters and a synopsis to begin with, but make sure the whole manuscript is good to go. Although the average response time is around four to six months, this is by no means a concrete rule, and it could end up being much, much quicker than that. You don’t want to be in the position where you have to spend a weekend panic editing in an anxiety fuelled frenzy because someone has got back to you and you haven’t finished editing the end of your book yet (trust me).

 

Do your research

This is kind of an obvious one, but I think part of the reason several agents requested my full manuscript was because I did my homework. Find out who represents your favourite writers. Find out who’s particularly interested in the genre you’re writing. That book that everyone mentions when you tell them about your own – who represents that author? I was also fortunate to be able to ask people in the industry, including an agent, to recommend some names to me. If this is an option, do it – there are lots of agencies out there, it can be hard to know which the good ones are. Make a strong list of around five to eight people, then go for it.

 

The pitch

Another obvious one, and by this stage I’m sure you know to keep the email short, list your relevant achievements, include a sentence about why you’re contacting this particular agent etc. etc. But one thing I think did make a difference for me, was a short paragraph about the writing I like, with four or five concrete examples of books and authors. I avoided comparing my work with anything else, but I found that it was useful to build a picture of my influences and interests, and therefore the tone and style that the person was about to read. When I eventually met with agents, all of them were excited about at least one of the books or authors I had mentioned. Remember, agents are book-lovers too – if you’ve done your initial research, this step might help someone get excited about the potential and scope of your own manuscript.

 

Keep them posted

If you’ve initially sent out to eight agents and one requests the full manuscript, email the other seven. They’ll most likely make you a priority if they learn that someone else is interested. Likewise, if someone wants to meet, tell the others, and let them know when you’ll be in town.

 

The meeting

Know your book inside out. For one thing, this avoids any awkwardness when you’re asked a particular plot point of character motivation and realise you haven’t thought it through. But you also need to be clear on what you want from an agent, and your own vision for the completed book. You need to find someone whose vision aligns with your own, who gets what you’re trying to do and will help you achieve it. Ask questions. Quiz them. Take your time to be sure, because this person will be your first proper editor. I don’t know who said it – probably someone famous and dead – but the author-agent relationship is like a marriage. It should last a long time, hopefully for the length of your career. It’s sacred. Don’t rush in. How do they see the book? Do they get it?

 

Rejoice!

You’re talking to an agent about a book that you wrote. They’re interested! That’s a huge achievement. There’s no need to be nervous – it’s kind of the agent’s job to lead the meeting and put you at your ease. If you find that you’re the only one coming up with things to say, and the conversation keeps drifting away from your book, maybe they’re not the right fit. But also remember the best meeting might not necessarily mean the best agent. Sure, you get on well, but that’s only half of it. Will this person be attentive, supportive and champion your book? Can you get a sense of what they’d be like in a negotiation? Will they push you to be a better writer?

 

Write Good

I suppose this is my first point again, but phrased differently. At the end of the day, an agent will approach you based on the strength of your writing. If your opening chapters work, everything else should eventually fall into place. So take your time to get your sentences, and all those other things, as good as they possibly can be.

A Chat with Mike Manson about Writing and the Innocent Abroad

We sat down with Mike Manson to discuss his novel and why he writes.

 

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

My first novel ‘Where’s My Money?’(Tangent Books) was selected by BBC TV as one of their Books that Made Britain.

When did you start writing?

A long time ago, just after I left university. I’ve been writing ever since. I started writing history but had trouble sticking to the facts.

Why?

I noticed a friend of mine who was a writer seemed to be very attractive to girls.

What’s your novel called?

Down in Demerara

Tough question. Sum up your novel in three sentences.

Man suffers an existential crisis. Gets lost in the rainforest and discovers himself (for a while).

Genre?

Literary fiction/bookclub

What is your cosmic statement? 

It’s an unequal world but we all want the same things.

What are the themes?

Innocent abroad; unrequited love. Globalisation and the destruction of the rainforest – and its effect on the indigenous peoples.

Who is your protagonist? 

A thirty-three-year-old labour market researcher on the verge of an early life crisis.

Tell us a bit about the setting.

Guyana – a tiny country in South America. Most people think it’s in Africa. It’s very off the beaten track. When I was doing research there I noticed Bear Grylls’s signature in the visitors’ book of one jungle lodge I stayed in. Says it all, really.

What was your favourite part of the MA?

Having the luxury of a year to concentrate on writing. My manuscript tutor was Fay Weldon. I couldn’t have asked for more.

What classes did you take?

I studied poetry, as I knew nothing about it, and had avoided it since schooldays. I feel I know even less now. Also a module on place – I’m a bit of a psychogeographer.

What are you reading right now?

There’s a whole pile of books by my bed including two by Colin Thurberon, as I’m planning to travel to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Also, the collected Bertie Wooster on my Kindle.

What famous authors have a similar style to yours?

I’d love to think Geoff Dyer, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Coe.

If you were to compare your novel to another[s], what would they be?

Adrian Mole meets Heart of Darkness.

 

An Interview with Kate Venables

We sat down with Kate Venables to discuss her literary book club novel and why she loves writing.

 

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself

I’m a doctor. Although that seems very normal to me, everybody on the MA seems to think it is interesting.

When did you start writing?

I’ve always written – journals and poems on paper; stories in my head. But I started writing regularly and productively when I dropped from full-time to part-time work in 2012.

Why?

I just love words. I’m a bookworm. Now I see myself as constructing little ‘boxes’ in words – crafted objects I hope people will enjoy.

What’s your novel called?

The novel I wrote at Bath Spa is provisionally called ‘Lifelines’, previously called ‘She’s Nice’. I’m currently working on a memoir based on my father’s life called ‘A First-Class Man’.

Tough question. Sum up your novel in three sentences.

Nick and Jane’s marriage ends when Nick leaves for another woman. After a long recovery, Jane finds tentative happiness again. Years later, Nick’s mother dies and things fall apart for him. He turns to Jane but she rejects him.

Genre?

Literary fiction/book club

What is your cosmic statement?

Our families of origin cast a long shadow.

What are the themes?

Family; parents-and-children; betrayals

Who is your protagonist?

Main protagonists are Nick and Jane.

Tell us a bit about the setting.

The medical and medical research world in London.

Who/what are you reading right now?

Francis Spufford! Great writer.

What famous authors have a similar style to yours?

Helen Dunmore is an inspiration.

If you were to compare your novel to another[s], what would they be?

Carol Shields Happenstance looks at a marriage from the points of view of each protagonist which is something I am trying to do in ‘Lifelines’.

An Interview with Jay Millington

We sat down with Jay Millington to discuss his novel and his experiences on the MA.

 
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself

Though I’ve been known as Jay since junior school, my first name is Jan (Cornish version of John) and my middle name is DeLank, the nearest river to my first home. It’s a tributary of the River Camel, so I count myself lucky.

When did you start writing?

In the mid-nineties I dated a librarian while sharing a house with Jonathan Taylor (now a published author and lecturer in creative writing at Leicester University) and flirtation with books became love. I knew that one day I’d be an author, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that I finally put pen to paper and wrote 30 Something, a novel about a group of mates who rob a bank for the fun of it.

What’s your novel called?

Q Equals Three to the Power of n

Tough question. Sum up your novel in three sentences.

Superstitious professor gains an author as an imaginary friend, gets into trouble with the police and stumbles into the cross-hairs of an aristocratic family, for whom murdering alphabetically is a rite of passage. When his story doesn’t end well, he demands a re-write. When the film rights are sold and Hollywood wants a musical, the author gains a superstitious professor as an imaginary friend…

Genre?

Literary / postmodern.

What is your cosmic statement?

Just because you’re not paranoid, it doesn’t mean you’re not being followed, but you can always change the ending if you’re buddies with the author.

What are the themes?

Isolation, paranoia and circumstantial evidence.

Who is the protagonist?

Professor Adrian Qualtrough, a Manx, superstitious, 42 year old known as ‘Q’

Tell us a bit about the setting?

Mostly present day Bristol, plus Sheffield and the Isle of Man.

What’s it’s Unique Selling Point?

A comic, postmodern thriller with story, character and metafiction blended to perfection.

What was your favourite part of the MA?

Gaining the confidence to go where my imagination took me.

What classes did you take?

My workshop tutors were Samantha Harvey and Gerard Woodward and my manuscript tutor was Nathan Filer. I took Modernism and Postmodernism with Gavin Cologne-Brookes, and Writing and Politics with Tim Liardet.

Who/what are you reading right now?

I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood and am reading her collection Wilderness Tips, because we’re looking at short stories in my writing group. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is lined up next…

What famous authors have a similar style to yours?

A tutor suggested my manuscript is a ‘Kafkaesque detective story’ with ‘shades of Pynchon and others’. My influences include Ben Lerner, Paul Auster, Italo Calvino, Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Barnes and Jennifer Egan.

If you were to compare your novel to another, what would it be?

My novel has a format of short, titled scenes like Tibor Fischer’s ‘The Thought Gang’ to drive the narrative forward and hint at Q’s emotional state.

The Shortlist for the Janklow and Nesbit Prize

We are thrilled to announce the shortlistees for 2017’s Janklow and Nesbit Prize.

This year the list numbers twelve incredible writers. It’s needless to say, but everyone who entered the prize was a very strong contender. We all experienced first hand the beautiful, humorous, heartbreaking and wonderful writing of our fellow students. It’s also important to note that poets and short story writers can’t enter the prize, but the shortlisted manuscripts did number memoirs and novels.

Val Ormrod, Deb McCormick and Morag Shuaib have all written memoirs.

Chrissy Jamieson Jones, Nicholas Herrmann, Madeleine Streater, Clare Gallagher, Rosemary Sharratt,  Claire Kendall Muniesa, Charlotte Packer,  Madeleine Dimitroff and Molly Aitken are all novel writers.

Congratulations! This is so well deserved.

So what kind of writing will you find in this talented group? Well, the shortlisted manuscripts are a diverse stack.

Val Ormrod’s In My Father’s Memory is a moving account about caring for a father with dementia. It is written with humour, heart and breathtaking descriptions.

Deb McCormick’s An Ancestry of Dolls Inside examines the beauty and darkness that dwells in family relationships. This literary portrait made us laugh and cry in equal measure.

Morag Shuaib writes an exquisite memoir of rediscovering a connection with nature. The landscapes are vivid and the prose is rich and engaging.

Chrissy Jamieson Jones’ Fast Forward, Stop, Rewind a blazing story of one woman’s life journey charting a childhood in Manchester, life as a London artist and onwards to the crashing conclusion in New York.

Nicholas Herrmann is repped by Euan Thorneycroft at A.M. Heath. The Light Factory is set in Birmingham seventeen years after a super-eclipse that never ended. It is written with skill and many flashes of brilliant ideas and prose.

Madeleine Streater’s The Be All and End All is written with breathtaking confidence in the first person voices of a family of children dealing with the death of their mother and their new life at a former sheep station in Australia.

Clare Gallagher’s The Leapling is a story written with humour and tenderness. Nigel is a soon to be divorced insurance broker on a journey to becoming a life model. It’s sprinkled with the best Northern Irish flavour and has tears of laughter to many of our eyes.

Rosemary Sharratt’s For One, Long Beat takes us into the story of twenty-two-year-old Bryony who is accidentally pregnant. A complex and multi-layered novel written with a vivid style.

Claire Kendall Muniesa’s In the Midst of Life is the story of a fatal car accident and the family’s lives that have ricocheted off it, with flashes of brilliant realism and stepping into the eloquence of magical realism.

Charlotte Packer‘s You Don’t Know Me is an epistolary novel about a marriage crisis. Emma writes an email to her husband’s lover. Slowly, over the course of many emails, the story of her marriage, the affair and its aftermath, unfolds. It is a beautiful examination of love, intimacy, shame and reconciliation.

Madeleine Dimitroff’s The Mother-of-Pearl Opera Glasses is the tale of Maria Meara, a waitress who is spun into a world of cultural, culinary and educational offerings. Soon everything spirals away from her. The complex and layered relationships of this novel are described with beauty and a light touch.

Molly Aitken is our lucky winner. She is repped by Hellie Ogden at Janklow and Nesbit. Dark Lights is about mother and daughter relationships and coming home. It journeys from a blustery island off the west coast of Ireland to the snowy heart of Canada. Read Molly’s blog about the win here.

Writing any long composition is a massive walk of faith. The road is made of sweat and tears and small flashes of inspiration.

Everyone who studied the 2015/16 MA has written a wonderful manuscript. You can get brief glimpses of these in our anthology Plume.

We’ll leave you with some wise words of Stephen King’s, “Books are a uniquely portable magic”.

We hope you enjoy Plume.