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.

Interview with Sanjida Kay #TheStolenChild

Today I am delighted to welcome back to my blog, Sanjida Kay, who is celebrating the publication of her second psychological thriller, The Stolen Child. You may read my review of this deliciously chilling story here. Sanjida kindly agreed to answer some questions which I put together as I read the book. I hope you find her answers as interesting as I did.

1. Publicity for books these days takes many forms. I enjoyed watching the book trailer (see below) and the interview you posted on YouTube about the inspirations for the book (also included below). I know that, amongst your many roles, you have worked in broadcasting. Was it your choice to use these media to promote your book?

Thank you so much for having me back to your blog, Jackie! I’m glad you liked them! I’ve spent years working as a TV director and presenter, so it’s fun to be able to use those skills, particularly in something as creative as a book trailer. Cameraman, Rob Franklin, shot one of my BBC documentaries, and contacted me recently to ask if we could work on a book-related project. Not only did he do an amazing job filming the trailer and the Q&A, he enlisted the help of a drone pilot, Jack Stevenson, who shot some incredible footage of Evie when she’s lost on the moor, wearing only her Frozen dress.

2. I love the jacket design for The Stolen Child and this is brought to life in your book trailer. Did you have any say in the picture used?

It was a shock when I had my first novel published at the age of 25, to discover that authors have NO say in their book covers. I’m so fortunate to be published by Corvus Books, though, as I’ve loved both the book jacket for Bone by Bone, my first thriller, as well as the second one for The Stolen Child. I think their design has perfectly captured the colour, the wildness and the desolation of the West Yorkshire moors.

3. The undercurrent of unease that pervades the story had me suspecting just about every character introduced. Did you know how each their roles would play out when you started writing them?

I had a brilliant brainstorming session with crime writer, Sarah Hilary, when I first came up with the idea for The Stolen Child. She suggested I make a number of characters sound suspicious and I’m glad I did. When I began writing, I knew who would be a suspect, and how, to a certain extent, but I hope I’ve managed to push that sense of distrust all the way through.

4. One of the themes in the book is trust and how fragile it is under pressure. With your imagination, do you ever catch yourself pondering the secrets your acquaintances may hold?

I suppose it’s no great surprise that my PhD was on Theory of Mind, which is essentially how we know what other people are thinking. Apparently, most of us can cope with up to six levels of ‘intentionality’, which could go something like this:

Does she know that I know that I think she’s wondering who else knows what she knows about what her sister believes is her half- sister’s secret?!

So, yes! Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child tap the commonly perceived threat in dark, lonely locations.

5. Has writing such disturbing stories affected the way you react to, for example, looking outside when alone in your house at night with your daughter, or walking in isolated locations?

Like many women, I will often choose not to walk home at night or to go for a run in isolated places because of the potential danger. I feel a lot safer in the countryside than I do in the city, though. But I don’t suppose watching seven seasons of The Walking Dead has helped my anxiety levels!

6. Your protagonist in The Stolen Child is an artist. Have you ever tried your hand at painting?

I took an A level in art, but I didn’t carry on painting for long after that. I’d love to have the time to return to it at some point. Luckily, I’m friends with a brilliant artist, Elaine Jones, and I grilled her on how she paints, as well as how she manages to juggle being an artist, with bringing up two small children.

7. And finally, you mentioned you brainstorming session with Sarah Hilary and thank her in the book’s acknowledgements. Does hanging out with other authors of dark, twisty thrillers affect the way you think?

Bristol is a brilliant place to live if you’re a novelist: it’s full of talented thriller writers, such as CL Taylor, Jane Shemilt and Gilly Macmillan – and Sarah is nearby, in Bath. It’s certainly refreshing to be able to meet up now and again and have an in-depth chat about writing with people who understand what you’re going through and can cheer you along the way. We’re all quite normal on the surface.

Thank you so much Sanjida, I love the hint of suspicion you have left us with there!

Now, doesn’t the book look fabulous?

The Stolen Child is published by Corvus Books and is available to buy now.

 

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.

Author Interview: Sanjida Kay

Launch of Bone By Bone by Sanjida Kay, Waterstones, The Galleries, Bristol. ©Barbara Evripidou2016; m: 07879443963; barbara@firstavenuephotography.com

Image ©Barbara Evripidou 2016

Having read her debut psychological thriller, Bone by Bone, I was delighted when Sanjida suggested we meet for coffee in Waterstones, Bath, earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat and tentatively enquired if she would be willing to be interviewed for my blog. We agreed to make this happen around the time of the paperback publication this month.

In preparation I bought a couple of her previous works and read other interviews she has given. I hope that the questions I have asked offer some insight into the thinking behind the writing of a very intelligent and personable author, who I hope to have the opportunity to meet up with again.

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The central theme of Bone by Bone is childhood bullying. You have admitted that you were bullied as a child at many of the schools you attended. Did your parents ever try to get involved?

First, let me say how lovely it was to meet you in person, not just virtually! Thank you for having me on your blog. Youre right – I went to ten different schools and I was bullied at nine of them. I hated school! My parents didnt get involved, and at quite a young age, I stopped telling them about it. My cousins husband was a police officer, and one time, when he was over from Ireland, he had a wordwith some boys who used to throw bottles at me on the way to school. Thankfully times have changed: parents are more willing to speak up and bullying is far less tolerated. I think the key message for children today is to tell a trusted adult. Bullying, no matter how embarrassed or ashamed you might feel about it, is not acceptable. Its far more likely to stop if you get help.

You have spoken publicly of identity, how it is formed and how it changes as you grow. How has your experience of being bullied affected what you have become?

I recently gave the keynote speech at Sidcot Quaker Schools first Peace Festival, which focused on the nature of identity. Many young people dont know who they are yet (probably something we all struggle with a bit!). I feel that identity is partly formed by who you love and who loves you – your family and friends – as well as your culture and environment. But it does change and you can shape your own identity yourself. I love this quote by Dr Seuss, the well-known author of books like, The Cat in the Hat:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I dont believe that bullying makes you a stronger individual in the end. It is psychologically damaging. Being bullied changed me for the worse and for years affected my relationships, particularly with men. I always chose the wrong guy! But then I had a couple of years of therapy, and now Im married to a kind, gentle, strong person.

For Bone by Bone you changed your author name. What prompted this?

My previous books are more literary and the last two are also historical. My publishers asked me to change my name to separate those novels and my non-fiction books from my thrillers (the next one, The Stolen Child, is due out in spring 2017). They wanted me to keep my first name, though and since there arent many British novelists called Sanjida, its relatively easy to work out who I really am!

You are a science writer who presents and directed science and wildlife documentaries for the BBC. Your previous books included a great deal of scientific content. Was it an active choice to tone down the science when writing Bone by Bone?

Im fascinated by science, particularly the natural world. My first degree is in zoology and my second was a PhD on chimpanzees. The main character in three of my previous novels is a scientist. But I chose not to have a science theme running through my thrillers, mainly to make them more accessible. Thats not to say that I wont return to science at some point or that science cant be exciting or mainstream. Even in Bone by Bone bits are inspired by my background and love of nature – Lauras mum, for instance, is an anthropologist based in Namibia, and that came out of field work I carried out on baboons!

You have set the book close to where you live, painting the nature reserve in particular as oozing menace. Do you feel safe when, for instance, out running in your neighbourhood?

Thats good, thats what I was aiming for! The urban nature reserve near where I live feels like a lovely oasis to me but I do feel unsafe running in the city, particularly when its dark. What frightens me are out of control dogs and dangerous humans.

In Bone by Bone, Autumn and her mother have recently moved cities and are still trying to settle. You were moved around a great deal as a child. Do you look back on this as a positive experience or would you have preferred more stability?

Ive reacted against being moved around so much as a child by desperately searching for somewhere to put down roots! Ive lived in or near Bristol almost my entire adult life. But I have itchy feet. Im always planning to move house (maybe I could go to LA? Or Cornwall?) or thinking of my next holiday!

And finally, you are donating a percentage of your profits from Bone by Bone to the charity Kidscape, which works to promote the anti-bullying message and shine a spotlight on child protection issues. What made you choose that particular anti-bullying charity to support?

Some of the other charities around support adults who are bullied too, and whilst thats worthy, I wanted a percentage of any money Bone by Bone makes, to go directly towards helping children. I approached Kidscape because I like their ethos: the charity seems to me very much about empowering young people and giving them concrete tools and the support they need.

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My thanks to Sanjida for answering these questions. I eagerly await the chance to read ‘The Stolen Child’ in 2017.

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‘Bone by Bone’ is published by Corvus and is now available in paperback. You may read my review here.

Book Review: Bone by Bone

bonebybone

Bone by Bone, by Sanjida Kay, is a skillfully written exploration of the insidious damage caused by bullying. It is a tense and somewhat bleak tale with its portrayal of the helplessness and isolation of the protagonist, and the difficulty of protecting a child within the constraints of the law.

Laura, a recently divorced single mother, has moved to Bristol with her nine year old daughter, Autumn. Both are missing their friends from London. Laura chose their house based on its proximity to a well regarded school and its size as she wishes to establish her own business. Unbeknown to her, Autumn finds the creaks of the old place frightening and dislikes having a bedroom so far away from her mother’s.

At school Autumn is just starting to make a few friends when an older boy takes notice of her, mocking her name and insulting her looks. When her drawer is filled with slugs she tells her teacher that he is to blame, an accusation that is dismissed as implausible. When Laura finds out she promises her daughter that it will be sorted, a promise that cannot be kept.

As any parent will know, schools have many discontented parents to deal with and cannot police the behaviour of every child all of the time. Laura sees how unhappy her daughter has become and is determined to help. Her attempts to do so escalate the problem. The boy is spoken to and he takes out his anger at this on Autumn. When Laura comes across a group of his friends surrounding her daughter she loses her temper.

The law rightly protects children but knowledge of this gives the savvy power. With the explosion of mass internet usage, a medium which many do not yet comprehend, there is also scope for cyber bullying. Laura’s priority is to protect her child but Autumn understands that each time her mother acts the situation worsens. She believes the cruel taunts and blames herself.

The story is told from both Laura’s and Autumn’s points of view. It is frustrating to read as it is so plausible. The author has done a stirling job in dragging the reader inside the minds of all involved. The alpha mummies close ranks, the gossips are fed, the children follow the herd. Malevolence oozes from each page.

The denouement is tense and terrifying. Laura feels driven to consider ever more extreme measures. Her desperation is palpable.

A tightly written thriller that gets to the heart of issues too many must face. An accomplished debut and a haunting read.

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