Homemade Weather

We catch up with one of our newest authors Tom O’Brien to discuss his novel, learn about his writing process and find out how the brilliant Homemade Weather came to be.


Homemade Weather started life as a short story that I was never quite able to land and so put aside for years, but kept feeling pulled back to as I felt the core of it was good.

There are many ways of writing a novella-in-flash, and this book is an example of a few of them. It was a partially a deconstruction and rebuilding of a longer piece. As I explored more of Celia’s life, her story opened out. The more I rummaged, the more I found these nuggets I could shape into flash. In some cases, these had an element of story in them, in others I had to work some movement into a vignette. And of course, many couldn’t stand alone at all and had to be folded into other stories or cut. In the end, the original story became the spine of Book 3 of Homemade Weather, while the first two little Books grew on their own.

But while it was partially a job of deconstruction, there was quite a lot of new build too. As I ventured into other areas of Celia’s life, I met characters who didn’t exist in the original story or who were not developed and so on. These characters, and Celia’s relationships with them spurred new stories and/or needed to find ways to be expressed. It was during these processes that Homemade Weather came to life in the way that any piece has to at some point.

That process of deconstruction/rebuilding, as well as making pieces of flash to fill a story need are only a few of the approaches for writing a novella-in-flash. Building out from a single piece of flash, starting a story from scratch, attending to a theme, an idea or an emotion are only a few of the other options available, and in fact the form can be much looser than that.

I tried a similar technique to how I approached Homemade Weather for another novella-in-flash based in this world but this time joining two stories and intertwining them. It was interesting that this next piece refused to take a similar shape to Homemade Weather but still did respond to being broken down into flash-sized pieces. 

If there is a lesson, other than that every story is different, it might be that the more options you give yourself, the more chance you have to allow the story to find the shape it wants to be.


About the author: 

Tom O’Brien is an Irishman living in London. He’s been nominated for Pushcart and Best Microfictions consideration and has flash fiction in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Reflex, Blink-Ink and many more. His novella-in-flash Straw Gods is published by Reflex Press. 

Reviews:

“A beautifully written, deeply satisfying novelette-in-flash that revealed more depth with each read. A master class in both resonance and the use of white space. I could not get this story out of my head. A deserved winner.” – Damhnait Monaghan, novelette-in-flash judge on Homemade Weather 

Retreat West 10th Birthday Anthology

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, but 2022 marks the 10th year since I, Amanda Saint, started Retreat West.

It all came about when I moved out of London to Exmoor and I needed to learn more about writing but couldn’t afford to do the few online novel courses that were around at the time. And there were no online flash fiction courses at all.

So I decided to run writing retreats in holiday homes and bring the writers I wanted to learn from to teach at them. I’d always wanted to do the Faber Academy course with Richard Skinner but it was way out of my league financially (still is!). So over the next few years I invited Richard to teach at several retreats, so I kind of did the course in the end. I brought other authors – including Alison Moore, Paul McVeigh, Vanessa Gebbie and Debi Alper – to other retreats as I loved their work and they taught me more about editing, characterisation, short story writing and flash fiction writing.

I started running flash competitions so that in reading all the submissions I would start to learn more about what worked, and what didn’t, in flash. I invited the flash fiction writers I admired to judge and pored over the feedback they gave to the shortlisted stories they read. And I wrote tons of flash fictions of my own.

When I started doing all of this back then, I never imagined that it would turn into what it is today. And I feel hugely privileged to be able to do this as my job and to be a part of other people’s writing life.

To celebrate the 10th birthday, I am going to publish an anthology of flash fictions in 2022 and submissions are now open. The theme of the anthology is TEN.

The anthology will feature stories from some of the Retreat West Books authors and winners of our competitions over the years: Amanda Huggins, Jan Kaneen, FJ Morris, Jude Higgins, Michael Loveday, Sara Hills and Matt Kendrick. But the majority of stories will come through open submissions.

The anthology will be celebrating all the different ways that flash has developed over the years and there’s room for traditional narrative style flashes alongside the more experimental. Each contributor will receive a paperback copy of the book when it is published and be eligible for consideration in the 2022 Retreat West Awards.

We can’t wait to read your stories and celebrate our milestone with you!

Submission Guidelines

  • Minimum word count: 100 (title not included)
  • Maximum word count: 500 (title not included)
  • Submission deadline: 28th November 2021
  • Submit stories written in English by 23.59 GMT on the deadline date.
  • Please include a word count on the story document.
  • Stories must be your own original work and not have been published online or in print.

Indie publishing – the good, the bad and the future

When I first started Retreat West in 2012, I had no idea what would happen and that it would still be going 8 years later. I especially didn’t envisage that I would become an indie publisher as I initially started it all as I needed to learn more about writing and couldn’t afford to do courses. So I started running the residential writing retreats and inviting the authors I wanted to learn from to teach at them.

But 5 years after it all began, Retreat West Books started in 2017 with the publication of the first anthology of winning stories in the annual Short Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes we run, What Was Left. Next month we are publishing the fourth anthology, How to Hold an Umbrella, and very much looking forward to bringing you these fantastic stories.

In the three years since What Was Left launched we have also published four novels, a memoir, four short story collections and three charity anthologies that have raised thousands of pounds for social and environmental causes. We won the 2020 Saboteur Award for Most Innovative Publisher, were shortlisted in the 2019 awards, and lots of our titles made the shortlists in other categories and received special mentions both years too. All of this is fantastic and we are so proud of every story we’ve had the privilege to publish.

Despite all of this, we are having to close the door on open submissions and will no longer be directly commissioning any more books. After Jan Kaneen’s gorgeous memoir-in-flash, The Naming of Bones, launches in Spring 2021, we will only be publishing books featuring work that comes through the competitions. 

Selling books is really hard and I have been financially supporting the publications with income from my work as a freelance journalist and from the teaching I do at literary events and retreats. When the lockdown was implemented in March, I lost all my teaching work booked in up to September this year. My freelance journalism commissions fell by a significant amount and I realised how unsustainable it was for me to continue publishing, no matter how much I wanted to carry on. I simply cannot afford it. 

I love what I do at Retreat West and really enjoy running the courses and competitions, which make just enough income for me to justify continuing to do this side of things. But what’s happened this year has really made me stop and think about it all and how much time and headspace I give to everyone else’s writing at the expense of my own.

So while everything, bar the direct commissioning of work to publish, is going to carry on, I am taking some of my time and headspace back. So there will be fewer group flash courses running and hopefully people will do the work-alone options more often instead, as the focus is on generating lots of new work to edit and sub out, and you will still get feedback on stories you create just not the forum option. So the Micro Fiction Month in November is going to be the last flash course with a forum for a good while. 

I’ll be taking on less editorial work too, but am putting together a great team of editors that can do this work instead. So there will still be lots of opportunities to get help to develop your work and get it published through our competitions.

Thanks as always for being a part of our reading and writing community. If you enjoy what we do and would like to support us, please buy one of our books, take out a membership, do a course, or buy me a coffee! It really will make a difference.

Amanda x

Spotlight on Stories

It’s been seven years since Amanda started Retreat West and two years since she began Retreat West Books. In that time more than fifty authors have seen their work published on our website and more than one hundred and twenty in print. That’s an amazing feat(!) and it’s equally rewarding to see each submission process attract a more thrilling selection of writing.

So, since it’s our birthday, and we’re always looking for opportunities to shout about the brilliant authors we’ve published, we thought it only fitting that we use the occasion to shout-out about just a few of the authors and stories published so far.

 


 

 

She told herself she would be happy here this time. The cottage she’d found was down a narrow lane off the coastal road, hunched between sycamore trees in the grounds of a large Victorian house that had been converted into a nursing home. And it came with its own transport – a hulk of a pushbike that had been left in the outhouse by an artist who had lived there before her.
Enough by Amanda Huggins

 
   Amazon  ebook


Amanda’s writing is immersive. Sentences are concise and yet communicate so much detail it can take a moment for your brain to catch up. Whether it’s an observation of a refurbished hotel already curling at the edges (eventually the salt air claims everything back) or the central character, Evie, using a bandages tin from her childhood to keep spare money, every detail in Enough reveals something about Evie, and so we feel we are viewing a complete life.

 


 

 

When Connor was ten years old he hid under his bedcovers while his parents argued downstairs, and read science fiction magazines and advertisements for X-Ray spectacles and jet packs. His favourite was a drawing of a boy strapping on a pair of ankle boots with rocket tubes and coiled springs built into the soles.
Connor and His Amazing Ejector Boots by James Ellis

 
   Amazon  ebook


As someone who sent off for a pair of ‘X-Ray specs’ as a child (and waited for the postman every day until they came) an ejector-booted adventure holds great appeal. A clever use of repetition establishes the central character, Connor, setting the journey off with a pow! And then it progresses so quickly it leaves you breathless. It’s an incredibly touching story and I reread it immediately to appreciate the craft of its storytelling.

 


 

 

What a stupid name Minnie is though. She said it’s short for Minnesota, because that’s where her parents told her she was conceived. He said this was cute but it’s gross that her parents told her that, and even grosser that she told him. However, it’s funny that a lot of his friends call him Mickey, so this is a date for Mickey and Minnie. He’ll use this joke tonight.
When Mickey Met Minnie by Matt Batsman

 
   Amazon  ebook


When Mickey Met Minnie takes us on a Tinder date at Purity, a new age eco restaurant where the waiters choose the food for its patrons. It’s both hilarious and filled with infectious joy, as we see the contrast between two drastically different characters of whom I would happily spend an entire novel in the company of.

 


 

 

Soon after moving in I learned that I could never rely on the house to maintain its equilibrium. Some days it was petulant beyond belief. As long as I made it the centre of my world it gave me its best. But whenever I tried to introduce change, for example, the time I brought the kitten home, it sulked. Light bulbs blew. The windows stuck. The washing machine broke down. In the end it was easier to comply.
House Rules by Sandra Arnold

 
   Amazon  ebook


Sandra’s writing is humorous, strange, poetic and often dark. This one reminds me a little of the writings of Shirley Jackson and gripped me from the start as a jealous house grows increasingly possessive of its owner’s attention. What struck me about this story, is the ease and speed in which it brings you into the fantasy and then like a whirlwind, carries you along, putting you right there in the house, instilling you with a sense of claustrophobia.

 


 

 

Nights have been the hardest since Jim passed, but Tony always seemed to be awake and happy to chat online. We had so much in common. Soon we were messaging daily. Long streams of conversations. We clicked.
Gristle by Angela Clarke

 
   Amazon  ebook


Angela’s story plays with expectation masterfully, dropping glaring warning signs that has the reader shouting at the page while frantically reading on. The recently widowed protagonist embarks on a new love affair and we spend the story waiting for the impending doom as she carries out the sale of the family business and makes plans to emigrate to America with her unlikely lover. To say any more would be to spoil the fun but there is plenty to be had in this engrossing caper.

 


 

 

She always aimed for the fresh snow, to be the one to make the first impression. Her platforms lifted her above it, and I followed in the marks she made. I wanted to be in all of her steps. The snow kept coming but it had no idea where it was going. It was as if pieces from a blank canvas from the past had come to settle in the present, lost, mistaken. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bunbury snow days by FJ Morris

 
   Amazon  ebook


I’ve heard Freya’s writing described as being like popping candy in your mouth. It’s visceral and like Bowie himself, unique and authentic. Bunbury Snow Days captures the poetry, strangeness and longing that Freya uses as her building blocks. Seek her writing out for its unique voice.

 


 

 

Within a year they were gone, abandoning all that remained. It was an act of betrayal for which Hannah has never been able to forgive herself.
An Entry in the Yellow Book by Dianne Bown-Wilson

 
   Amazon  ebook


The story begins by presenting the reader with a mystery. What secret is the narrator (Hannah) keeping from her friends, husband and children? As Hannah makes plans to carry out her secret mission, the story builds suspense, revealing a major event in her life matter-of-factly but with great impact. Then as we finally uncover the mystery, it takes a delicious turn and you’re left with one of my favourite feelings as a reader: wow, how did they do that?

 


 

 

If her husband couldn’t send money next month, if Johnny didn’t recover, if it didn’t rain soon…
Thirst by Lorraine Wilson

 
   Amazon  ebook


Thirst is a story of desperation and what you will and won’t do to protect your family. All too familiar struggles are presented, such as dealing with an unsympathetic official, following rules designed to make sure the people most in need of help can’t get it, neighbours abandoning homes, people chasing rumours of work almost as hungrily as they’re chasing the rain and refugees lost in their own land. It’s alarming and compelling story.

 


 

 

‘When he was young, Abraham Lincoln described himself as ‘a piece of floating driftwood.’
I’m like that all the time.
Ten Things I Can Tell You About Abraham Lincoln by Veronica Bright

 
   Amazon  ebook


Two things in particular stand out about this story of a schoolgirl studying Abraham Lincoln. The first is how expertly each snippet of information about Lincoln reveals something about the central character, whether about her life or the world she inhabits. The second is how the story slowly reveals information about her family situation. We learn she’s taking care of ‘little ones’ before discovering they are her step-sisters, and she likes her stepfather but there are hints that he’s not the perfect father figure. Great storytelling!

 


 

Did you enjoy our journey through some of our published works to date? If so, check out the full stories and support an independent publisher. And please share this on social media, if we sell some books, we’d love to turn this blog into a series and get the opportunity to talk even more about our brilliant writers and their work!

Guest post: Jonathan Pinnock – Arc of a Writer

Hello! For today’s guest post, we welcome Jonathan Pinnock, to talk about his third novel, ‘A Question of Trust’. Jonathan also provides some great insights into world-building, the story arc and writing a series.

Arc of a Writer – How to Create a Series

Be careful what you wish for. I wrote my second novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE, on the Creative Writing MA course at Bath Spa University. Towards the end of it, I began to realise that I wanted to continue writing about this bunch of characters who had emerged over the last year, so I changed the ending to make it clear that there was more to come.

So it was that, after a few hiccups, I ended up signing a contract with Farrago Books, who had been set up specifically to publish series of humorous novels. This was massively exciting for me, as I’d always wanted my own series. I think it was mainly the matching covers that I was after more than anything else.

But like I said, be careful what you wish for, because the contract that I had just signed effectively stated that I had around six months to write the sequel. It’s also worth bearing in mind at this point that I had absolutely no idea what the sequel was going to be about. All I had was a vague idea that at the beginning of the book, the main protagonist Tom’s girlfriend, Dorothy – who he’d finally got together with at the end of the first book – was going to disappear in suspicious circumstances, leading him to wonder who he could trust.

Fortunately, I’d just read a book about the strange, mad world of crypto-currency, and it struck me that this was a rich field to explore, if only I could find the right angle. Then I realised that the whole supposed point of Bitcoin and all the rest was to set up a banking system that no longer relied on trust, and suddenly I had a theme, and indeed a title: A QUESTION OF TRUST. I was beginning to get a feel for where it might be heading. But how was it going to fit into the series?

When you’re writing a series of related books, your main challenge is how you treat your readers. Do you insist on them reading the whole lot from Book One, or do you let them join at any point – always hoping that they’ll go back to the beginning, of course? I decided to make A QUESTION OF TRUST as standalone as possible, but I also wanted to reward readers of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE by giving them a sense of continuity and development. If there’s some kind of series story arc, however tenuous, it gives a sense of ownership which – I hope – engenders loyalty. This meant that I had to include the occasional quick recap of the events of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE for new joiners, although I don’t think they’re particularly intrusive, and to be honest, they probably serve as helpful reminders to the regulars.

As an example of what I mean by continuity and development, I saw a couple of opportunities to work on a couple of favourite minor characters from the first book. First of all, there was Ali, a feisty, sweary software developer who’d previously stolen every scene she was in. I really wanted to do more with her, and the absence of Dorothy gave me an opening, especially if I contrived to have her thrown together in a confined space with Tom, who she really, really hates. At the same time, I also thought it would be fun to get her into a relationship, just to watch her trying to play at being a nice person, so I made that happen as well.

The other character from the first book who became very useful was Tom’s hopeless ex-hippy father, who I realised would be exactly the kind of person who’d fall for crypto and get ripped off. This gave me the perfect route into the main storyline, although things inevitably turn out to be a whole load more complicated.

I also spotted an opportunity to do a bit of world-building. Now that’s something that people tend to associate with fantasy novels, but it applies to any type of novel or series of novels. (As an example, one of the best examples of world-building I’ve ever come across is in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir comic detective novels.) One of the features in the world of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was a group of internet conspiracy theorists called the Vavasorologists, who were obsessed with the lives and strange deaths of the Vavasor twins, the Archie and Pye of the title. In A QUESTION OF TRUST, we actually meet some of them at a Vavasorologist convention, with all the weirdness that entails.

So writing a series of books presents new challenges but also offers unexpected opportunities. On the one hand, you have to deal with the constraints of the story arc, but on the other hand, you have a collection of ready-made stuff you can use to build on and move forward. I’m now engrossed in writing the third book in the series, THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS and of course I’ve got material from two previous books to work with now. Writing a series is so much fun.

***

Thanks, Jonathan! Interesting to see how ideas develop and expand beyond a single novel and which story threads get pursued.

About the author: Jonathan is the author of several books, including the novel MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS (Proxima, 2011), the short story collections DOT DASH (Salt, 2012) and DIP FLASH (Cultured Llama, 2018), the poetry collection LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF (Silhouette, 2017), but for the time being he’d most like to be known as the man behind Farrago Books’ Mathematical Mystery series of comic thrillers: THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE (2018), A QUESTION OF TRUST (2019) and THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS (TBA). His website contains loads of interesting and unexpected stuff and can be found at www.jonathanpinnock.com.

Guest post: Stephanie Percival – Where DO you get your ideas from?

Hello, and a big welcome to Stephanie Percival, for today’s guest post! With the launch of Stephanie’s third novel, ‘the matter,’ she provides some insights and tackles the BIG question. Over to Stephanie…

Where DO you get your ideas from?
An author’s guide to creating novel ideas.

The title of this blog post is a question a friend asked me after I’d published a short story on my web page. That story was inspired by a TV documentary which I wanted to respond to.

More recently I’ve had to consider the question again.

When I got a date and place for the launch of my latest novel, ‘the matter,’ I was delighted and excited. It seemed a long time since the start of the process. In fact I had taken the first chapter to a writing retreat in early 2015 and after positive feedback worked hard to complete it.

The novel centres on 11 year-old Simeon Isherwood, who has a genetic disorder. This makes him unable to communicate. His scientist parents have the opportunity to let Simeon undergo genetic replacement therapy. After making the difficult decision to go ahead, the results are not quite as expected.

As I started the process of how to introduce ‘the matter’ at the launch I realised it was going to take a bit of thought.

I have published two other novels, ‘The Memory of Wood,’ and ‘The Kim’s Game.’ However, ‘the matter,’ developed in a different way.

For those first two novels, the starting point had been a definitive moment when ‘the story’ emerged.

For ‘The Memory of Wood’ I‘d been having a drink in the bar of a hotel and heard about the legend of the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots descending the staircase. The book’s theme centres on this tale.

The trigger for ‘The Kim’s Game’ was meeting a person who’d had a leg amputation. Thinking about the character took me on a path of ‘What else has this man lost?’ The answer: a relationship, his mother, his home…and these losses reminded me of the memory game I had played as a child, which we called ‘Kim’s Game.’

Rather than a single occurrence or character ‘the matter’ evolved gradually. Because though the story centres round Simeon and his parents, there is another character, a mysterious ‘entity.’ As I considered how it sneaked in, I had a memory of visiting a science exhibition back in 1973. On a screen was a visual display of an atom: the nucleus central and electrons moving around it, a bit like moons orbiting a planet. This was a time before the World Wide Web, mobile phones and even calculators. I was just starting my secondary education and it was a real eye opener.

The thing that still amazes me was the amount of space between those subatomic particles. And I think that must still underpin my world view. There is a lot of current research into dark matter but it remains a mystery. In fact, scientists can only account for 5% of matter in the universe, the other 95% is dark matter and dark energy.

The other strand of the story is Simeon’s operation. This theme for the book developed after I met an eight year old girl with a terrible genetic disorder. Again I asked the question, “What if…she could have an operation that would cure her?” and then “What if…that operation changed her, so though considered a success by the medical world, she was unhappy at becoming a different individual?”

The “What if..?” question is one that most of us will arrive at when developing a new idea for our writing. But some subjects though triggered by a recent topic or occurrence may actually go much further back to a previous event, a character that made an impression on us, or a strange tale that piques an interest.

Wherever they start, I sense they have something to do with the space between the atoms somewhere in the depths of the neural circuits in the brain. And just as I get dizzy from thinking about Infinity, this is also another topic that gives my brain ache…just where do those words come from? So I can’t fully answer my friend’s question but I hope ‘the matter’ is thought provoking and pertinent to the world today. The publisher, Cinnamon Press says it…‘is a unique and headspinning speculation.’

P.S. If you are concerned that ‘the matter’ is some kind of pseudo-science book, please be reassured…in fact it begins in the jungle of ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!’ (Don’t let that put you off either.)

***

Thanks, Stephanie! Ideas can materialise all at once or nurtured over time, but best founded in real life experience. For more about her writing and blog, check out her website, here.
About the author: Stephanie always intended to write a novel, but it wasn’t until 2004 when she was shortlisted for the BBC End of Story competition, that she believed it might be possible. That was the motivation to develop a novel, ‘The Memory of Wood,’ and self-publish it in 2011.

Her work has been shortlisted and won several competitions and her second novel ‘The Kim’s Game’ was published by Cinnamon Press in 2017. A novella titled, ‘the matter’ is to be launched in April 2019.

Stephanie is a member of the Creative Writers @ Museum, in Northampton, near where she lives with her husband. When not writing, Stephanie works part-time for her local NHS service as a podiatrist.