Author Interview: CM Taylor on writing within theme, Brexit and his new novel Staying On

It’s great to have CM Taylor back on the blog on publication day for his new novel, Staying On. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this and I stayed up half the night to find out what would happen. It’s a funny and very moving (I cried!) story of a family that needs to face up to its past – a situation that’s brought to a head when Brexit comes along and their life in Spain no longer seems quite so sunny.

Craig, in the teaching you do, theme is a crucial element in guiding the story and the theme for me that came through strongly in Staying On is guilt and culpability. How it manifests, the twisted nature of it that makes people believe different things about the same situation. What made you want to explore this theme in this novel?

Shouldn’t a book in the final instance be about something – have a take on the world, an angle, something to say about how people are, how the world is? That’s what strong theme gives you.

One of the things I write and teach about is the idea that narrative art maps human change, and that characters in stories move from the denial and repression of certain feelings, into the awareness and exploration of those feelings, and then on to acting on them – either positively or negatively.

When you say there’s a strong element of guilt and culpability in the book, it’s true, and that to me is part of character development and theme, of how character carries theme across story, beginning with denial, (“It wasn’t me.” “That’s not how it was.” “It didn’t happen.” “I haven’t got a problem.” “There’s nothing to see here.”), moving into flashes of light, (“Maybe there is a problem.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.” “Maybe there is something I need to look at.”), then into acceptance or conscious surfacing, (“God, I do have an issue here.” “There is something I need to look.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.”), and on into being galvanised, (“I really do need to apologise.” “I really do need to make that clear.” “I do really need to tell the truth.”).

People use denial as self-protection. People lie to themselves about the things which are hardest to entertain. But denial has consequences. If you lie to yourself about one thing it seeps over into other things and leads to moral corruption. As Saul Bellow wrote: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Denial surfaces elsewhere in many negative ways, it squirts out hot and sideways into anger, addiction, failed intimacy, extreme competitiveness, self-harm.

I don’t think that this gap between how different characters see things, or the gap between how a character sees things and how it really was, is necessarily just a theme of this novel, I think it’s a part of every character for me, because it’s part of this journey from denial and repression to acceptance and action. Human change has a pattern and self-deceit is part of that pattern. Guilt is an aspect of repression, and accepting your culpability is a stage on the road to accepting the world as it is.

One of your main characters, Tony, is adept at not saying the things that really matter and putting a brave face on things. Never letting people know what’s really going on behind that bright surface. Did you know when you set out how things would turn out for Tony or did he take you places you hadn’t planned?

As above, Tony – as with us all – is on a journey from repression and denial to (ideally) expression and health. Crucial with Tony on his particular journey is his generation, which is that post-war generation, brought up in a world where emotional connection was scarce and rationed. Imagine being a kid where most adults around you had PTSD and didn’t even know it. Jesus. Decode that. And many of that generation, those post-war babies, tend towards the stoic and repressed. They’re very non-presumptive. Or they can be.

So Tony’s particular brand of suppression is influenced by that generation. That’s in the mix, but then it’s also just him. I know lots of older people, volubly acting out their fear and confusion at the world through anger and nostalgia, but then I also know a lot of older people, like Tony, who radically suppress their own needs – sublimating their impulses and being less clamorous, living for other people. I find it beautiful and generous. That said – and this is the rub of Tony’s dilemma – there come points in life where you need to say, “No. I need something here. I need sustenance and nourishment. I can’t suppress my own needs all the time.”

And that’s Tony’s dilemma, a modest, sweet guy who’d always put himself second, who urgently must realise that if he puts himself second again, then there’s going to be none of him left. That’s hard. Especially when you have no skills, no practice in putting yourself first, and all the social and emotional grooves in your life run against it, run for decades against what you now must do.

All that is in the mix with Tony. I knew he was repressing, and I knew what he was repressing, and I knew that it would have to blossom for him to have his emotional denouement, but I didn’t necessarily know how that was going to happen. I knew the suppression but not the expression. He had that wriggle room.

Tony’s story of dealing with a failing business alongside family dramas is told with humour and at the same time is also very moving, it is sad and hopeful and funny and melancholy, and really very true about what it is to be human today. As writers, this is something we all aspire to achieve in the novels we write so what advice can you give to the readers of the blog on how they can create such compelling narratives within what appears to be, on the surface, just an everyday story of a family.

Stay right behind the eyes of your characters and process what events mean for them. There are high stakes in everyone’s life. Success, failure, love, rejection, hope, desire. Are people going to get what they want? Are they going be rejected and not get what they want? Are they going to learn or keep making the same mistakes?

The trick to making an ostensibly everyday story compelling is to dwell on the internal, on the emotional stakes at play. The word, “No,” might be a single word of dialogue externally, but internally it might mean, “Everyone always says no to me.” Or it might mean, “I am never going to get what I want.” Or it might mean, “Right, I had enough of people saying no and now I’m on the march.”

The key to rendering everyday situations into dramatic material is to dwell behind the eyes of the protagonist of the scene, to show the emotional stakes, and to show at what point this person is in the development from repression and denial to expression – to show how does the moment charge that journey. Does it crush them into further repression? Push them over into expression and self-activation?

What is at stake? How does it move the journey? Find that and you have found drama.

With Brexit coming very soon this is a very timely story but the politics of the situation are largely irrelevant in this family’s life as they face up to the past in order to discover if they can have a happier future. Do you think despite the large role politics plays in the collective psyche, mainly due to the way it’s presented in the media, that this is true for us all. That it’s the human stories that go on irrelevant of what the politicians are doing, that really matter to people? 

Well Brexit gets things going, because the book is about a British expat couple in Spain who wonder if they might get kicked out. One of them, Laney, wants to stay in Spain, and one of them, Tony, wants to go home to England. And Brexit puts pressure on that, because Tony is emboldened from his meekness by the situation with Brexit, whereas with Laney her reasons for wanting to stay now appear more flimsy and unlikely. So, the larger political situation acts as a trigger for the internal repressions of the main characters, plus it brings to the surface the subterranean conflicts locked into their marriage. It brings things to the boil.

As to whether it is more human stories that really matter to people, well the book-reading public is a broad church, and political non-fiction is selling well, while political fiction – which is hard to do without coming across as hectoring or didactic – can sometimes do well. So, I think some people want work which is in-tune to the internal verities of love and relationships and self-development, whereas others seek more politically-attuned work. Personally, I want both.

But a strong aspect of the art of the novel is its ability to offer a sense of human closeness, and I strongly wanted to tell a personal story about Brexit, away from the headlines and the slogans and the politicians, to show how normal folk trapped in a normal situation were being affected by a broader political situation, and how crucially it mapped onto issues with their own pasts, and their own relationships. So, yes, I focused on the personal, the internal, because I believe that is the strongest suit of the art of the novel. Though as I say above, seminal political fiction has been written – it is just most obtrusively political fiction is sophomore and partisan and dull.

Now that Tony and Laney’s story has gone out in the world, what are you writing next?

Oh God, this question. It may make me cry.

Well, in no particular order, I’ve just finished the final draft of a TV pilot based on one of my novels. And I’ve been commissioned to co-write a movie which I can’t really say too much about, so I’m tucking into the first draft of that. And I’ve had interest in republishing a couple of my early novels, so I just spent a few days giving them a haircut, purging them of juvenilia, before sending them out. Then, because I’ve got a book coming out, I’m writing blog posts and articles.

And yes, by now you can see that I’m avoiding the real intent of the question. I’m repressing the truth through guilt! And there’s a reason for that. I’m developing two novels simultaneously, and I haven’t worked out which one I want to lead with. One is a character-led thriller series, quite socially realistic, and the other is a stand-alone tech thriller, more heightened, but again character-led. I’m flip-flopping between these two and am not sure which one of these two works of fiction will emerge as my next book, to be quite honest.

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Thanks for giving us this insight into your new novel and your writing tips, Craig.

Keep up to date with Craig’s many writing project on his website. Get your copy of Staying On on Amazon or Waterstones.

 

 

 

 

Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Frozen Music by Marika Cobbold stars Esther, and I liked her a lot. She is a prime example of the 3 Cs of Character, which is one of the characterisation tools I use in my teaching and is a good way to get to know the people who take root in our heads a lot better.

Essentially, Frozen Music is a girl meets boy story but it has got a lot more to it than that. As a character study, and great example of how to bring emotional resonance to your writing through character transformation, it doesn’t even really matter that there was a romance alongside that too. Although I am partial to a good love story – as long as it doesn’t get too sentimental then I run a mile!

So what is Esther’s character like? She has always been very serious with a very well-developed, some might say over-developed, sense of right and wrong and no time for the middle ground. But this is just an attempt to find order in what for her is a confusing and chaotic world filled with people whose morals and priorities she just can’t understand.

Working as a journalist she takes up arms in defense of an elderly brother and sister who are going to lose the only home they’ve ever known as it stands in the way of a new opera house development. It’s this crusade that finally makes her realise that things in life are never as black and white as they seem.

What I liked so much about Esther was that she was flawed, a social misfit, intense, righteous and neurotic. But at the same time she was very funny, loyal, kind, sincere and filled with integrity.

As writers, we need to recognise that as much as we may love, or hate, the characters we are creating they can’t just be all good or all bad. They need to have a bit of both to make them real.

Writing exercise

Create a character that has the same traits as Esther that I’ve listed above. Write a pen portrait of them then write another piece from their POV when they have been confronted with a situation that makes them take the moral high ground.

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Get more help to create your own unforgettable narrators in our Creating Complex Characters Masterclass.

Next up in this blog series, is Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. Previous posts are:

  • Adam in The Imposter by Damon Galgut – read it here
  • Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – read it here
  • Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister – read it here
  • Dolores in She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb – read it here

 

 

If you sign up as a Retreat West Author Member you’ll get weekly emails with four writing prompts, writing advice, inspiration and motivation to help you create great characters and great stories, as well as whole load of other great stuff to get you writing, learning and submitting more. Get info here.

 

 

Paisley Shirt by Gail Aldwin – my review

A Paisley shirt.

I can’t say that I read a lot for short stories, as all too often I find them unsatisfying, a canapé when I’m starving for a roast dinner. I do have a theory that the best film adaptions for books or stories are always of short stories, precisely because their brevity leaves room for the film maker to expand, where as with a novel, any adaption is by it’s nature an act of sever editing and so pretty much always unsatisfying, so I confess I do tend to read short stories as if they are always a prelude to something else, a foundation rather than a completed thing.

A Paisley shirt is different again, as this is a collection of stories so short that to begin with, I was rather bemused by it. The stories seemed to flicker past me so rapidly it was as if a collection of flip books has been shuffled together, and images from unrelated stories were jumping and flashing at me without connecting. People came in, conversations were overheard, one even seemed to be a page taken from an out of date breastfeeding advice book, but I couldn’t seem to get hold of any of it in my head.

Then I think I realised about half go the way through, that my entire approach to the issue was wrong, that it was indeed not them, but me. I’m so used to devouring big chunks of writing, of pushing the tiny window I get these days for reading, that I was galloping when I should have been slowing down to take a better look. It was as if I was reading for a deadline, treating the stories as if they were part of a whole, where as of course the opposite is true.

This is not just a veiled excuse to my dear Amanda as to why it’s taken me so long to write this review – well, it is a bit – but it’s also my best advice to all my dear readers who want to give the collection a go also – slow down. Instead of ruddy treating the collection as if it was some overly wordy novel to get through looking for a punchline, I made myself read only one story a night and actually stop and think about it. Instead of a moment plucked from others, each one then crystallised into it’s own thing, it’s own little gem.  In doing slowing down, I was given the chance with each to glimpse something intricate and strange, a little world complete of an in it’s self. Some did leave me hanging, make me want to push back and rewind to find out more, but again, if you give the stories time, if you stop and think, thy do give you more.

The most effective was the little trio around a chocolate raisin, the first of which baffled me until I read the third two days after, when I was doubly chastened and chilled to the bone by it, heart breaking all together I was haunted by my own dismissiveness and made guilty by it. It deals with a dark subject, and I realised the intense cleverness behind the structure, one which made me initially dismiss what was happened as so many victims of abuse are to easily dismissed by people on the outside of their situations. It really pulled me up and made me think how clever it was that not only had the author told me a story, they had made me feel the story in a way I really wasn’t expecting.

So, please do give this collection a go, but I strongly suggest you treat it not as a packer of biscuits but a box of chocolates, allow yourself one a day, even the ones you’r not sure you’re going to like; then take a moment, savour and close the lid until tomorrow. You find, I hope, as I did, that the experience of each lingers much longer than some works ten times the length, and will hopefully agree with me that this is a beautiful collection of narrative haiku, repaying you three-fold the moments it take to read each one, both devastating and amusing in equal measure.

 

This is  link to Amazon, where you can buy your own copy of Paisley Shirt

The Word For Freedom Anthology Contributors

The Word For Freedom Anthology Contributors

 

We have now made a decision on the stories that came through the open submissions process for The Word For Freedom charity anthology, which is raising funds for Hestia; and are also delighted to reveal the fantastic cover donated by Jennie Rawlings at Serafim Design. Out thanks go to Isabel Costello for donating her story, The Word For Freedom, which was chosen as the title of the collection as it sums up the ethos of it so perfectly.

I want to thank all of the writers who sent in an story for consideration. We really appreciate your generosity in being willing to donate your words to this anthology. Sadly we can’t include them all, and many of the stories that have not been selected are great and we’re sure they will find a home elsewhere.

The decision about what to include has not just been guided by the quality of the story but also by the feel of the anthology as a whole. We have included a wide range of stories with different premises and themes to ensure that the collection has a good balance in content, tone, style, word count, etc.

We are delighted to include the following writers and stories in this collection:

  • Brick by Rachel Rivett
  • Cover Their Bright Faces by Abigail Rowe
  • Counting For England by Christine Powell
  • Enid Is Going On A Journey by David Cook
  • My Mother Left Me For A Tree by Rosaleen Lynch
  • The Servitude Of The Sudaarp by Taria Karillion
  • Not Our Kind Of Girl by Anne Hamilton
  • One Woman, One Vote by Sallie Anderson
  • Out Of Office by Emily Kerr
  • Relevant by Anna Orridge
  • Sayyida by Katherine Blessan
  • The Colour Of Sunflowers by Kate Vine
  • The Mermaiden by Dane Divine
  • Those Who Trespass Against Us by Julie Bull
  • Women Don’t Kill Animals by Carolyn Sanderson

These stories join donated ones donated from several authors:

  • Tiny Valentines by Angela Readman
  • Below the Line by Victoria Richards
  • The Second Brain by Cath Bore
  • Myopia by Sophie Duffy

We have more stories to come from Angela Clarke, Anna Mazzola, Helen Irene Young and Karen Hamilton.

Delighted too (actually hugely overexcited!) that the amazing author, Marian Keyes, has also agreed to read an advance copy and provide an endorsement for us.

We’re very excited about these stories and the wonderful collection we’re putting together to support Hestia. Keep an eye out for more details of the anthology itself and bookish events we’ll be doing with Hestia both live and on podcast.

 

 

Separated From The Sea Art Competition

We’re super excited about our latest publication, Separated From The Sea by Amanda Huggins! It’s a stunning collection of short stories and flash fiction centred around the theme of being away from the sea. It’s been getting a great response, with fab reviews all over! And we’re so excited, we’ve come up with a pretty special (and totally unique!) competition. We’re giving away a piece of photographic art to celebrate Amanda’s beautiful piece of written art!

1st prize

The overall winner will receive this one-of-a-kind photograph, showing a very different landscape to the ones featured in Amanda’s book. Professionally printed to highest standard (with UV protection) on aluminium plate metal, it’s approximately 40cm by 40cm. The gorgeous painting effect was created by using a long exposure and shaking the camera. And it looks wonderful hanging on the wall! The image is shown at the top of this page, and can be seen in more detail through a video posted on our social media accounts. The artwork is not available for sale ANYWHERE and (we think) makes for a pretty amazing prize!

2nd prize

A runner up will receive a copy of Amanda Huggins’ first book, Brightly Coloured Horses! The flash fiction collection comprises twenty-seven tales of betrayal and loss, of dreams and hopes, of lovers, liars and cheats. The cover also features arkwork created by Amanda Huggins herself.

What you need to do

To win either this one of a kind photograph or a signed copy of Amanda’s first book, Brightly Coloured Horses, you just have to buy a paperback copy of Separated From The Sea and post a photo of it on one of our social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook or Instagram). Alternatively, you can add a comment below (with a pic) or email us at competitions@retreatwest.co.uk

We’ll choose two people at random to receive either the photograph or the book free! Make sure you post your photo by 23:59 on Tuesday, 31st July 2018. We’ll be announcing a winner soon afterwards! Please note: the winner will be asked to provide proof of purchase.

Make sure you purchase a paperback copy!
Separated From The Sea is available here:
Amazon | Waterstones | Foyles | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository

Please share

We’re hoping this will reach lots of people, so please spread the word (!) by sharing this blog and the video on social media. If we’re successful, we may run similar promotions in the future and you’ll get a chance to win more goodies!

Good luck in the competition, and remember, win or lose, you still get to keep Amanda Huggins’ beautiful book!

One last thing…

If you’re able to, we’d love you to post a review to Amazon… As an independent publisher, it really helps bring much needed attention! And Amazon will promote the book if it receives enough reviews.

Guest post: Mark Brownless – The Hand of an Angel

Today it is our delight to welcome Mark Brownless to our page as part of his blog blitz for ‘The Hand of an Angel’.  This “shattering medical thriller with a heart-stopping climax” is his first novel and we’re keen to find out all about it.

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Hi Amanda! Thanks very much for having me along to talk about my book, The Hand of an Angel.

Hi Mark, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. Can you tell us what inspired you to explore the concept of killing yourself temporarily to try and find out if there is an afterlife?

In the 80s, as a nerdy teenager, I was always fascinated by unexplained phenomena, things like alien abduction, Bigfoot and near-death experience. So, when I started writing I had the idea of someone looking back after a near-death experience, and how that might shape their view of the world from now on. But the subtext is all about reality. What did they see? Was it real, or a construct created by their oxygen-starved brain? These are common themes throughout the book.

In one of the first creative writing classes I ever went to the teacher said that there is always some element of autobiography in the first novels we write. Do you think this is true of yours and if so, which elements of your life can be found in this novel? I’m presuming you haven’t tried to see if there is an afterlife!

No, quite right! The story mentions that seeing the afterlife, whatever it might be, is a one-way trip, so I haven’t been there as yet!

My mother-in-law was glad that the children of my main characters, Tom and Sarah, were both boys, otherwise she would’ve felt that they were too similar to my wife and I. Tom and Sarah aren’t us, however, but they don’t feel like characters I created, either. They feel like real people to me – I like a quote from Stephen King that says that he doesn’t create characters, he just tells a story about people that already exist – and that’s how I think of my characters.

When did you first start writing fiction?

Very recently. About three years ago I read a post-Fleming James Bond novel which I hated with a passion, because it wasn’t anything like Bond. I suppose I could’ve written a complaint letter, but I sat down and wrote four chapters of a ‘proper’ Bond story. My wife and I were away for the weekend at the time, so it was a little tense when I spent the whole weekend writing rather than spending time with her! Immediately after that I just started writing a conversation between two characters that became a pivotal moment in The Hand of an Angel.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

I guess my favourite author is Stephen King. I grew up with his books – Carrie, The Shining, and more meaningfully for me perhaps, The Stand and It. I also need to mention the late James Herbert, and even Guy N Smith, the latter who wrote Night of the Crabs, which led me to the former’s The Rats and The Fog and then Stephen King. I love Bernard Cornwall’s historical fiction and this has influenced Locksley, my Robin Hood short story series. Now I read so much diverse stuff that it’s hard to pick a favourite, but recently I’ve loved CJ Tudor’s The Chalk Man and Stu Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

What is the book you wish you’d written and why?

That’s hugely difficult because I’ve read so many great books. I guess if you wanted to create a legacy for yourself, as well as being successful and recognised you would want to be influential. So in genre fiction terms, you can’t get any more influential than The Lord of the Rings – there’s so little fantasy that isn’t influenced by it in some way that to have been the imagination that created those worlds and the possibility for others, is extraordinary.

Are you working on your next novel now? If so can you tell us anything about it yet?

I’m working on the second instalment of my Robin Hood short story series, each episode is being released on a monthly basis and should be available for pre-order by the time you read this. As for a full length novel, as you alluded to earlier, I’ve allowed my childhood to influence me and I’m writing a horror story set in a quiet fictional village. Once again I’ll be looking at people’s perception of reality – this time with their memories of childhood – coupled with another unexplained phenomenon in the form of spontaneous human combustion. It’s called The Shadowman and I hope it will be available by the end of the year.

Thanks Mark for talking with us today!

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‘The Hand of an Angel’ is available now for £6.99 on Amazon

You can also find our more about Mark and his writing on his website

 

Mark Brownless lives and works in Carmarthen, West Wales. He has been putting ideas on paper for some years now but only when the idea for THE HAND OF AN ANGEL came to him in the autumn of 2015 did he know he might be able to write a book. Mark likes to write about ordinary people being placed in extraordinary circumstances, is fascinated by unexplained phenomena, and enjoys merging thriller, science fiction and horror.

Mark is also fascinated by myths and legends such as those of Robin Hood and King Arthur. This has culminated in the release of his short story series, Locksley, a Robin Hood story, which will have new volumes added each month.