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: Fear

Fear, by Dirk Kurbjuweit, is a story of a murder and a marriage and of how far a man will go to protect the foundations on which he has constructed his adult life. Set in Berlin, the protagonist is Randolph Tiefenthaler, an architect living with his beautiful and intelligent wife, Rebecca, and their two young children. Their nightmare starts when they purchase a well located and spacious upper ground floor flat, perfect for family living. Randolph is now sitting at his desk writing an account of events that led to his seventy-eight year old father being imprisoned for manslaughter. Randolph’s father confessed to killing Dieter Tiberius, the tenant of the flat downstairs.

Based on true events, the author has created a thriller that questions how fragile the edifices of civilised life can be, and of the pressures a man feels to be a protector. Soon after moving into their flat, Rebecca starts to receive letters from Dieter. He is watching the family, listening to their movements from below. When the letters become threatening Randolph takes the matter to the police only to discover that no crime has been committed. Dieter’s reaction is to accuse his neighbours of sexually abusing their children.

Randolph writes of his childhood and of the disconnect and fear he felt due to his father’s gun obsession. He is determined to do better with his own children but has allowed his marriage to grow stale. As Dieter’s behaviour escalates Randolph and Rebecca are drawn back together. Their middle class confidence, bordering on arrogance, is pierced as they realise reasonable tactics to resolve the matter are ineffective. If Randolph is to keep his family safe he must consider more radical action.

The voice and behaviour of the narrator come across and honest and reasoned. He is writing to confront the truth which he tells the reader he has not yet fully shared, even with Rebecca. I found it harder to empathise with her. Rebecca had hysterical screaming fits even when her children were at home. For a medical professional this loss of control under pressure seemed strange.

The story though revolves around Randolph, the impotence he feels and the growing realisation that he will need to compromise his valued integrity to deal with Dieter. Despite knowing from the first few pages how things will end, the tension in the telling is skilfully maintained.

Events force Randolph to confront an aspect of himself that he had denied existed. I am curious about how he would cope with that in the afterwards. The child abuse allegation also puts thoughts in his head that he struggles to contain. In attempting to prove innocence his behaviour is affected, as is his confidence in Rebecca.

Each of these strands offer food for thought but it is the basic premise that is the most disturbing. In a civilised society it is assumed that wrong-doers will be punished, the innocent protected. How to define wrong-doing and innocence are perhaps more complex than is generally accepted.

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

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

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

Book Review: Nemesister

Nemesister, by Sophie Jonas-Hill, is the first book in a proposed series of American Gothic thrillers. The story opens in a remote and run-down lodge hidden within the swamps of Louisiana. The protagonist is a young woman who arrives at this place badly injured, with no recollection of who she is or why she is here. In her hand is a gun, in her pocket a leaflet. She can find no other clues to her identity.

As she stumbles into the damp-ridden shack a man appears who introduces himself to her as Red. She is terrified of him but has no idea why. Red offers her water and then a bed on the couch. When she wakes from exhausted sleep he has tended to her wounds. Despite these efforts the woman remains wary. With injured feet and no means of transport she has little choice but to stay. Red tells her that his truck requires attention, that once mended he will take her to the nearest town as she has requested.

Over the course of the following twenty-four hours Red tells the woman about himself. He was a soldier, had a wife, and is at the shack to meet his brother for a spot of fishing. He is not always consistent in what he says. The woman feels a strong urge to escape but when unknown assailants fire shots at the house, the doors are locked and the key pocketed by Red.

The woman’s memory returns gradually with brief flashbacks to scenes that as yet make little sense. It is unclear if she is remembering what happened to her or to others, and who those others are to her. Within the shack are clues, but the more she uncovers the less she understands. Then what happened to her sister returns.

From the first page the tale unsettles. Despite the unremitting tension it takes some time before the flashbacks coalesce and characters gain form and context, enabling greater reader engagement. From here the pace picks up as backstories are presented and woven together. The drip-fed details now make disturbing sense.

The writing is taut and polished. Each of the cast’s true motives keep the reader guessing to the end. Dark and disquieting throughout, this is an intense, compelling read.

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

Book Review: Exquisite

Exquisite, by Sarah Stovell, is a deliciously disturbing psychological thriller centring around two women. It employs familiar tropes such as troubled childhoods, the unreliable narrator, and an ill advised affair. Yet it rises, indeed it soars, with a use of language that matches the title. Beneath the beauty of the descriptions, the subtlety of the prose, an undercurrent of menace pervades every twist in the tale.

Bo Luxton is an established author of best selling books. She is married to Gus, twenty-two years her senior and retired from his successful city career. They have two young daughters and live in a beautiful house near Grasmere in the Lake District. Bo has worked diligently to achieve this settled life after a difficult childhood from which she ran away when she was fifteen years old.

Alice Dark is a twenty-five year old English graduate whose life has stalled. She is living in a damp and dreary bedsit, or at her boyfriend’s equally squalid shared house, in Brighton. When she is accepted onto a residential creative writing course in Northumberland, to be run by the famous author Bo Luxton, she is inspired to seek change.

Bo likes to take waifs and strays under her wing. She sees something of her younger self in Alice who spent part of her childhood in care and whose latent talent Bo now wishes to nurture. With the older woman’s encouragement, Alice starts to believe she could write the book she has dreamed of creating.

Bo and Alice form a connection on the writing course which they continue to develop via email when they return to their respective homes. Then Bo invites Alice to visit her in Grasmere. Gus is wary of their burgeoning friendship and voices his concerns but to no avail. Bo tells Alice he becomes jealous when she offers her loving care to anyone but him.

Each section of the book opens with an update from a woman serving time in prison. The reader knows that the story being told is leading to this. The subsequent short chapters are written from either Alice or Bo’s point of view. Overlaps create doubt as to whose version may be complete and true.

The tension builds as the protagonists find themselves backed into corners. The final page provides a memorable end to what is a satisfying, chilling denouement.

A tightly constructed, beautifully written, impressively unsettling psychological thriller. For fans of the genre this is a must read.

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

This post is a stop on the Exquisite Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Exquisite is published by Orenda Books and will be available to buy from 15 June 2017.

Book Review: The Stolen Child

The Stolen Child, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s second psychological thriller. Much as I enjoyed her first, Bone by Bone (which I review here), in this latest work she has upped her game. An underlying darkness pervades every page. I needed to know what happened next but at times had to pause, so acute was the tension.

The protagonist is Zoe Morley, an artist and mother of two. Seven year old Evie was adopted as a baby; two year old Ben was a delightful surprise for a couple who had given up hope of birthing a healthy child themselves. Zoe’s husband, Ollie, is a hard working accountant. The long hours he puts in at the office in order to provide for his family are resented by Zoe who struggles with the demands of parenting alongside her desire to further her artistic career. She feels that Ollie does not take her work seriously as it yields little additional income for the family’s material needs.

When Zoe discovers that Evie has received cards and presents from someone claiming to be her real daddy she is concerned and aggrieved that Ollie will not offer her the comfort and support she craves. He is angry but does not share her feelings that their position in their daughter’s life is threatened.

Zoe’s attention is fragmented between her work, a demanding toddler, and a daughter who is starting to question her place in their family unit. Zoe is also dealing with the distraction of another artist, a sculptor named Harris, who pays her flattering attention and supports her work.

In the small town where they live Zoe has plenty of options for childcare. Evie and Ben are regularly looked after by professionals, friends and babysitters, giving Zoe time to walk the moors for inspiration and then to paint. She trusts these people with her children, until her world is turned upside down and inside out when Evie disappears. Suddenly everyone she knows, including Ollie, is under suspicion.

As the police investigate, personal secrets threaten to derail trusted relationships. Zoe’s devastation at her loss is compounded by feelings of guilt and anger at her husband for not being more present. As days pass and progress appears to stall in the search for her daughter, she takes matters into her own hands.

The writing is taut and visceral. I did not warm to Zoe but empathised fully with her pain. The events related tear many lives apart, not least the children’s. Trust is shown to be such a fragile thing.

This is an emotive and disturbing tale presented with compassion and skill. A thriller with soul and depth that I recommend you read.

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