Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Sanjida Kay

Novel Nights is a monthly gathering of writers, with groups currently meeting in Bristol and Bath. Co-founded in 2013 by Grace Palmer, who is herself a writer and creative writing teacher, the group offers a platform for up and coming authors who may introduce and read from their work. These readings are followed by a discussion with an invited guest who will offer insight into some aspect of the creative writing process.

I previously attended when Jon Woolcott, from independent publisher Little Toller Books, gave a fascinating talk on The Business of BooksOn Wednesday of this week I returned to Bristol to hear Sanjida Kay discuss How to Plot. This subject was of particular interest as the emphasis was to be on writing commercial fiction – genres that are popular with readers and sell in large numbers. I wished to better understand the perspective of an author who started out writing literary fiction but now writes psychological thrillers.

In preparation for the event I read Sanjida’s latest book, My Mother’s Secret. I have previously read three other of the eleven books she has published (these include non fiction – she has a PhD in Chimpanzees) – Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, and from her earlier work, Angel Bird.

The first half of the evening showcased three other writers. First up was Emma Gifford who read from her novel, All Our Possible Futures – a love story with adventure elements that she started on her Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. She recently graduated with distinction and has since completed and edited the manuscript. The story is set in the UK and the Amazon rainforest. It explores the effects of the environmental crisis on a young mother’s mental health.

The second reader was Dave Weaver who has had five novels published by speculative fiction publisher, Elsewhen Press. He has also self-published three short story collections. He offered his thoughts on being published by a small press. The main issues appeared to be the problems of promotion and distribution, which he felt were similar to those faced when self publishing. He did, however, enjoy benefits from being a part of a publishing ‘family’ and the personal attention this offered from the team.

Dave read from his novel, The Unseen – a ghost story with an unreliable narrator who has visions and dreams. The latest of these involved the protagonist’s late wife, urging him to buy a cottage she had wished to purchase. He suffers from guilt following her sudden death.

The third reader was Jen Faulkner who was tutored by Fay Weldon on her Creative Writing Masters at Bath Spa University. The manuscript Jen created was shortlisted for the prize for best submission in her year. Following her inclusion in a subsequent anthology she signed with an agent and is now working with an editor. Writing a novel may be a challenge but is only the beginning of a long process involving much editing and then waiting.

Jen mentioned that she watches many films and learns from how stories are developed in this medium to help her balance structure, pace, tension and drama in her writing. She read from her book, provisionally titled The Cuckoo’s Child, whose protagonist suffers from post-natal depression. The woman is concerned that she is losing her mind, and that those close to her are not taking her concerns seriously. She feels trapped in a life she does not want, feels mounting anger at her baby’s crying, and suffers increasing paranoia.

After a short break it was over to Sanjida who was interviewed by Grace before answering questions from the audience. First though she read from the prologue of her recently published novel, My Mother’s Secret. The cliffhanger she left us on generated a collective exhalation from the audience.

Grace asked, do you plot? 

Humans intrinsically have stories. They understand the need for a beginning, middle and end – the essence of plot. Genre fiction, which includes psychological thrillers, requires tight plotting due to deadlines. Sanjida is contracted to submit one book each year. She explained how she achieves this.

Her idea for a next book is submitted as a one line pitch. If accepted she will then turn this into a half page summary, like the blurb on the back of a book but containing spoilers. From here the story is developed into a four or five page document detailing who the characters are, whose point of view the story is told from and what is going to happen to each of them. An 8-10,000 word draft is then produced which includes every scene from the novel but lacking detail, for example from My Mother’s Secret there were several scenes ‘Adam and Stella get closer’ which obviously needed elaboration. Sanjida has six months to complete a manuscript, including her own initial editing. By putting down 2500 words a day this can be achieved but only if structure and content are already clear. There is no time for major plot revisions so advance planning is necessary. After submission she will receive her work back with suggested changes and have a mere three weeks for rewrites before it goes for copy editing, proof reading and printing.

Writing commercial fiction has its constraints.

Psychological thrillers are about the bad thing that might happen. They are about fear and threat internalised. Each story requires an exciting incident at the beginning to draw the reader in. There then need to be crises to maintain interest. There must also be a satisfying ending that offers closure for the reader.

There are certain obligatory scenes – love interests must at some point get together. There must be twists, turns and reversals, progressive complications. These could be small events that create a major crisis for a particular character. Whatever happens leads to an inevitability that must at some point be addressed.

Grace asked, does setting influence plot?

Setting is important as it mirrors the characters and their actions. In Her Mother’s Secret, Lizzie felt safe in the wide open spaces of the Lake District whereas Emma felt safe in the middle class surroundings of Long Ashton and Tyntesfield (a National Trust property).

Grace asked, with three narrators how do you keep track of narrative arcs?

Prior to writing the detail, who exactly will be in each scene is set out. The secret is revealed half way through but not all characters are privy to this, and that must be managed and developed. There is also a big twist at the end which must remain consistent with what has gone before. Emma and Stella are on the same timeline so were written together, from beginning to end. Lizzie’s chapters were then dropped in as required. Graphs were used to chart emotion and action, with plot points marked. Sanjida’s current novel has ten characters and two points of view. She has added index cards to her process to help keep things in order.

Questions were invited from the audience, one of whom asked about reversals.

Scenes require changes in emotion, a reveal or a twist that the reader won’t have seen coming. It is not necessary to write in acts but reveals must move the plot forward.

How does Sanjida lead the reader to a big twist?

Drip feed information so that the reader begins to guess, hopefully getting it wrong. Set up red herrings. Add innocent actions that can be deemed incriminating. Introduce diversion tactics.

Did a book deal change how Sanjida plots?

Her first book took ten years to write and involved extensive research, including travelling abroad. She then had a year to write the next book so had to change how she worked. She also had to figure out what her publisher wanted – her second book wasn’t. Now she is more savvy, not so much constrained as writing to meet her readers’ expectations. Her publishers are keen that she deliver what her particular readers want, for example she was advised not to kill a character, although putting him in a coma was fine.

Writing can be character driven (they do something which changes the direction of the plot) or plot driven (work that out first and then create characters to fit). What matters is authenticity.

Sanjida no longer has time for lengthy research but has early reader buddies and brainstorms with a police procedural expert.

Why did she switch to psychological thrillers?

This followed a meeting with her agent. They were discussing an idea (from a dream!) and Sanjida was advised to write it. There is also the financial aspect. She no longer has the luxury of spending two years in a library, she has to make money. Literary fiction gives a warm glow in the heart but won’t pay for the champagne.

How does she stop her day to day mood affecting her writing?

Partly to do with deadlines, which can be stressful, but mostly managed by routine and getting into her writing zone. This is not to say she doesn’t procrastinate…

Sanjida works out in advance what her characters need, what they want, how they will change through the course of the story. She finds pictures on the internet of how she imagines they look and keeps that image in mind as she writes. She does not base them on real people, although aspects are drawn from those she knows, including herself, and these are magnified to make them more extreme. She has done the Myers-Briggs Personality Test on some characters.

And with that, time ran out and Grace had to draw the evening to a close. I was grateful for the candour with which Sanjida spoke. I may no longer read many psychological thrillers but I can understand the reasoning behind writing in that genre, and also, of course, why well written commercial fiction remains popular with so many readers.

 

My Mother’s Secret is published by Corvus Books and is available to buy now.

 

The next Novel Nights gathering in Bristol will be held on 27th June. In this talk and discussion, award-winning author Tyler Keevil will explore how music can influence the way writers work, both as a source of inspiration and as a means to help maintain creative focus, and keep a project on track. Further details may be found here.

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Book Review: My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s third psychological thriller. It is told from three points of view and across two timelines, opening with the pivotal event from which the rest of the tale unfolds. Unusually for this genre it took several chapters before I was fully engaged. A lot of characters are introduced in a short space of time and I kept having to flick back to work out who was who. Once I had placed each alongside their contemporaries I was able to settle and enjoy the sequence of teasers and reveals.

There are good reasons why so many psychological thrillers become best sellers. They are engaging, easy to read and offer a puzzle to solve. This book is well paced, smoothly written and typically structured. The settings are brought to life becoming both comforting and threatening as the plot requires.

The earlier timeline involves Lizzie, a young wife and mother who leaves her family home – a remote cottage in the Lake District – for a few days each week to work in Leeds. Here she gets caught up in a violent crime that changes her life. The chapters telling her story explain the before and after of this incident, what she must do to survive and protect those she loves.

The later timeline is narrated by Emma and her fourteen year old daughter, Stella. Emma is neurotic, her instability manifesting in overprotecting her two children. Stella is starting to rebel against the restrictions imposed due to her mother’s condition and her father’s complicity. It is notable that both Stella and her younger sister, Ava, display their own anxieties, likely instilled by the manner in which they are required to live under the guise of keeping them safe.

Emma works at a bakery and there are many descriptions of food, not something I have an interest in but likely to appeal to certain readers. Her husband, Jack, attempts to impose his healthy eating ideas on his family. He has provided them with a lavish home and likes to keep it and its residents in a manner that suits his ideas of beauty and order. This is a loving family but one that relies on a strict code of parental control.

Much of the story is set in and around Long Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol. The descriptions of place are rich – aesthetics are held in high regard.

Emma’s story begins with a chance encounter with a man from her past. She arranges to meet him at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near to where she lives. Stella notices a change in her mother and decides to investigate. What she discovers threatens their carefully cultivated stability. Alongside this, Stella enters into a relationship with a boy at school. She and her mother try to guard their secrets, not easy in a family used to strictly monitoring all activities.

Despite correctly guessing the various reveals in advance, this was an enjoyable read. That is not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles – such as the dual mention of the Moorside power plant, which seemed unnecessary, and the changes in wording when the prologue is retold. These are small details though in what is a well crafted addition to a popular genre. Fans of domestic noir will likely enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.

Book Review: Bristol

Bristol is an anthology of experimental prose poetry from the wonderfully subversive publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, under their DW Cities imprint. Created in collaboration with an array of literary groups, each book in the series is accompanied by a local event held in the city featured. Like the writing, the idea may be innovative but it is satisfying that such a venture is made possible by supporters and contributors. The literary world benefits from original thinking.

This slim title contains diverse work from six writers. It opens with a concept piece from Sarer Scotthorne which I interpreted as a commentary on the effects of zero hours contract relationships. There is a feeling of risk and disconnection – of those who sign up being expendable. Hours are described as ‘missing’, method as ‘island gropes’ or ‘into a kind of abyss’. It is strangely disconcerting.

Vik Shirley offers a series of poems on celebrity (Betsy) and their varied acolytes (vigilantes). Betsy is a has been whose continued fame relies on her intense following. They demand certain standards for inclusion and have become a power in themselves. The real Betsy is no longer needed for the vigilantes to continue as influencers.

David Turner sets his pieces in the Tate Modern and provides an entertaining alternative commentary on famous art installations. They are playful in their treatment of the conceits and rage of well known artists and their work.

Paul Hawkins’ contribution is more opaque. I took from it a cynical despair at continuing demand for vanilla living and writing.

“the world is full of climbers
putting the win on instagram

hucksters pumping sherbet after sherbet
of effects into the stratosphere

balm ready
going super soft option for the whining win”

Lizzy Turner opens with a quartet of diary entries highlighting the problems of living with anxiety. She then blacks out increasing sections, thus bringing to the fore the ongoing darkness of such a condition. It is a powerful evocation.

The final contributor is Clive Birnie whose bio explains he works with appropriated text. His six interrelated poems are about deals and money-making. Their protagonist, The Lemon Squeezer, is a ‘cease and desist investor’. There is mention of disgrace and deteriorating conditions, of catastrophe ‘becoming commoditised’ – advise given:

“A fool should sell himself, while
he still has something left to sell.”

One of the difficulties of reviewing experimental writing is a concern that my interpretations may be wide of the mark intended. Such is the risk taken by any writer publishing their work. As a reader I enjoyed unpacking this collection. It benefits from rereads and offers much to consider.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the editor, Paul Hawkins.

Book Review: Sight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“how simple things would be if only I could know myself or others; […] but instead there is only this excavation, a digging in the dark: precarious, uncertain, impossible to complete.”

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, demonstrated her confidence and competence as a writer of innovative, piercing fiction. In Sight, her debut novel, the clarity and conviction of her prose is again in evidence. Written mostly in the first person, with occasional digressions to explore the histories of key medical advancements – x-rays, human anatomy, psychoanalysis – it reads as an intensely personal, non linear series of reflections. It is a search for knowledge, an attempt to make sense of the most challenging emotions – the multifaceted viscerality of love, desire and grief.

The story opens with the narrator “pregnant again”, watching through a window as her toddler daughter, and partner, Johannes, play in the garden. She feels the distance between them, a distance that she recognises will increase as her daughter ages. She understands that this is as it should be, that a child should be raised able to one day cope without parents.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of the novel. The reader is offered snapshots of the narrator’s childhood, of time spent with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst who had raised her child alone. It was only later that the narrator came to understand that her mother was also a daughter, and that the grandmother was trying to help and protect her, especially when the mother’s errant husband finally left for good. At the time the young girl felt resentment that she was being kept from her loving mother by a grandmother who required the child to accept more independence.

The inner monologue by which the story is told may be introspective but the author demonstrates her ability to articulate the essence of emotion without hyperbole. Even when recounting the long months leading to her mother’s death and her subsequent grief – a time when she spent day after day in the Wellcome Library – she is seeking an understanding of how she reacted to events.

“The things which I learned without noticing all through that year recur to me still, those images from medical textbooks, the bodies dissected or described, the case notes and the cabinets and all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves, and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key”

The narrator is “young, adrift, bereft” when she meets Johannes. After a time, the possibility of having their child is considered. The narrator desperately wants to be a mother but fears that this is for selfish reasons rather than for the benefit of the being she would create. She also fears the inevitable changes motherhood would bring; the uncertainty of what she would become and how she would cope with this. Johannes is supportive, willing to accept whatever she decides but requiring that a decision be made to end the unsettling prevarication.

After her mother died, the narrator disposed of her possessions. She retained memories rather than mementos. Pregnant, watching her daughter she ponders:

“I wonder what they will keep of me, later; what off-cut memories will remain to be re-stitched, their resemblance to myself a matter of perspective. I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused.”

The depth of feeling and insights offered into the distances that exist in even the closest of relationships make this an intense, compelling read.

Any Cop?: The writing is rich yet pithy, the story stark in places yet emotionally resonant.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: What Happened To Us

What Happened To Us, by Ian Holding, is a slow burner building to an intensity that lingers beyond the final page. Set in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in the tinderbox of an approaching election, the narrator is a young man recalling a pivotal few weeks in his life when he was thirteen years of age. Danny is a privileged white kid, heavily influenced by parents who are resentful at the changes being made in a country that no longer protects their interests. Although vaguely aware of the issues they must now face, the teenager is cosseted by an exclusive community that eschews its darker skinned neighbours.

The story opens with Danny cycling near his home making a nuisance of himself. He recognises that his actions are childish. He is bored and irritated by a relentless heatwave. As he makes his way back to the large, gated property where he lives with his parents and older sister, Rebecca, he becomes aware of three men heading in the same direction. He is agitated by the thought that they seek retribution for his recent foolish behaviour. When the gate bell rings while he cools down in the back garden swimming pool he ignores it, fearing a reprimand he prefers not to face.

Danny’s family life is happy and largely carefree. He harbours the usual teenage angsts – an increasing interest in girls, how he appears amongst his peers, irritation at the demands made by his parents – but with a stable home life is shielded from wider worries. He shares porn clips in a WattsApp group with friends from his expensive school, plays FPS games on his Playstation, messages the girl next door who he occasionally crosses the wall to meet in secret. It is a life of braais and tennis club and family time, a routine made comfortable by the oft berated staff who live out of sight at the edge of the garden.

The first hint of unease caused by the trio of overall clad men is followed by further phantom ringing at the family gate and then a suggestion by a coloured classmate that Danny’s father is in financial difficulties. What transpires is that the government is threatening to confiscate the business assets of the white community. Danny’s father is attempting to counter this by partnering with the classmate’s father, a wealthy banker with powerful political affiliates.

With all this in the background, and the heatwave exhausting the close-knit community, Danny’s home is broken into while the family sleep. Locked in his room for his own safety, the boy can only guess at the nature of the invasion. The fallout is a fracturing of everything on which his easy life has been based. Added to this is Danny’s unspoken guilt. He fears that the attack, which has left his sister traumatised, is the work of the three men, and that he is to blame.

The unfolding story is skillfully written with a continuing ramping up of tension. In the aftermath of the robbery, Rebecca is the family’s main concern. Danny’s parents are unmoored by their inability to protect. Their boy is sidelined. His coping strategies are harrowing. His determination to somehow help leads to a devastating conclusion.

Contemporary Zimbabwe with its beauty, heat, widespread poverty and political difficulties is sympathetically evoked whilst acknowledging the challenges faced by all who live there. There is selfishness and racism, corruption and violence, children being raised to perpetuate their parents’ prejudices. The voice of the narrator comes across as authentic, a recognition of the difficulty adults have communicating with young people, and vice versa. The tale offers a window into the psychological damage caused when property cannot be protected and personal safety is at constant risk.

This is a powerful, haunting novel in which setting and culture are key. The heart of it though is a wider perspective on the side effects of conflict and political upheaval. It is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.

Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.