Best Small Fictions Nominations 2019

Best Small Fictions Nominations 2019

We are very proud indeed to be publishing so much good work through our competitions and small press. We think they are all great but could only pick five for this so have nominated the following stories and writers that we published in 2018 for the Sonder Press Best Small Fictions.

The first three were published on the website from the themed flash competitions and the other two appeared in single author collections through Retreat West Books.

  • Unforgettable by David Wiseman (read it here)
  • People Math by Sally Lehman (read it here)
  • Somewhere in Dubai, A Maid Considers Colors by Christina Dalcher (read it here)
  • Shrinking Giants by FJ Morris – published in This is (not about) David Bowie (get a copy here)
  • Barefoot Girls and Corner Boys by Amanda Huggins – published in Separated From The Sea (get a copy here)

 

Author Helen Young on the inspiration behind her new novel, Breakfast in Bogotá

Author Helen Young on the inspiration behind her new novel, Breakfast in Bogotá

Set in 1940s Colombia, Helen is actively crowdfunding her novel with Unbound. Here, she opens up about bringing a forgotten city to life and travelling thousands of miles in search of character.

 

Thanks for coming on the blog, Helen. So tell us the all important bit…what’s the book about?

Breakfast in Bogotá is about a broken architect trying to build something new. Firstly, for himself, but then for a nation – or so he thinks. The story begins in post-war Colombia – 1947 to be exact. It wasn’t that much different to Europe then. Everyday people were still reeling from hyper-inflated food and fuel prices, whilst the rich thrived. The novel opens with Luke Vosey, an architect, witnessing something horrific over breakfast in a central city cantina.

Luke has fled his life in Europe and a woman known only as Catherine. He thinks he’s safe in Colombia and out of it, but that’s far from true. He meets a young journalist, Camilo and a draughtswoman called Felisa. Through them, he sees that more people are broken in Colombia than in Europe. Events come to a head with the assassination of the leader of the liberal party on the streets of the capital. Following this, the people tear the city to shreds. That’s a real turning point for Bogotá, and for Luke. Things go full circle for him then. It’s a novel of redemption and learning to look back to move forwards – if he can.

Why Colombia?

I wanted to blow the lid off stereotype and show what came before the drug cartels. About three years ago I was in an area called La Merced in Bogotá and started to pay attention to the mock-Tudor architecture there. It was extraordinary – how high on this Andean plateau someone in the 1930s had decided to build these red brick Elizabethan-style houses. I thought there was something in that. I found the contrast fascinating and it got me thinking about the kind of city that came before the one we have today. Nowadays, the city is polluted and full of high-rise apartment blocks. In many places the past has been erased. It’s a cautious city now – most people still live behind barbed wire fences and with 24-hour security; when you look back at the 30s and 40s, these same streets are sweeping wide avenues with houses and low-level apartment blocks. The assassination of Gaitán on its streets and what this did to the people, how their grief manifested itself (in Bogotá’s destruction), fascinated me.

What did you find when you went looking?

I managed to get hold of some fantastic resources published by the national library in Bogotá. Maps and aerial-photography which show the city before the riots and after. It really helped me to build up a detailed plan of the city in the late 1940s. I really enjoyed laying the tram route (tram cars were set on fire and the lines destroyed by the rioting in ’48) over the modern day road plan and reinstating the grand railway stations and lines (also now lost). All these things exist only as scars on top of the modern city now. Those aerial-photographs enabled me to track the progress of the riots too – to see how far spread it was. Aside from the city centre and those buildings around the presidential palace, the rioters went after buildings they knew were owned by wealthy residents outside of the centre. On the images, you’d have a perfect street and then one house completely gutted. That’s how it was. That’s how broken things had become between the rich and poor.

Why crowdfund?

Why not? Unbound is a forward-thinking publisher who offer authors, like myself, the opportunity to get their words out there. It’s been a real lesson in organisation and personal empowerment to run my campaign. It’s crowdfunding now, if you’re interested in reading it too. A pledge at the following link gets you a copy of the book on publication day and your name in the book. I am working so hard to get this funded right now. I’d invite anyone to join me on this journey back to 1940s Colombia; it’s a real eye-opener, believe me.

You can pledge to pre-order a copy of Breakfast in Bogotá now at https://unbound.com/books/breakfast-in-bogota/

 

Guest post: Laura Laakso – Building Worlds with Words

Delighted to welcome Laura Laakso to the blog today as her debut novel, Fallible Justice, publishes. More delighted than usual as although it’s always great to have first time novelists featured on the blog, this novel was discovered by publisher, Louise Walters, through the Retreat West First Chapter Competition. You can read all about that here.

But today is all about the wonderful world that Laura has created for Fallible Justice. I was completely gripped by this atmospheric novel and I wouldn’t usually be remotely interested in a novel that features magic. But after reading the first chapter in the competition, I knew that this was going to be a novel worth looking out for. So, over to Laura.

Building Worlds with Words

World-building is a little bit like Marmite; writers either love it or hate it. Those who love it can have the habit of going overboard with details. A friend of mine used to write detailed treatises on the economics and politics of a world in which he set his Dungeons & Dragons campaign. We, the players, were expected to read them, but I don’t think any of us did. Why? Because the information was only interesting to its creator.

The above, I think, sums up perfectly world-building in novels, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, where the setting is not given. Every author has to find that balance between revealing enough to give the reader’s imagination wings and boring them to tears with the municipal facilities of a city the characters briefly visit. This is something I’ve been mindful of in recent years, given that my debut novel, Fallible Justice, begins a paranormal crime series Wilde Investigations.

Unlike Marmite, I love world-building. I could spend all day imagining different races and settings without ever getting bored. In fact, I’ve done just that on many occasions. But when it comes to my current novel series, I view world-building as part of the overall puzzle rather than a separate element. It’s a thread woven through the story instead of the scenery in the background.

When I began planning Fallible Justice, the original idea dictated the setting for the story. The plot hinged on otherworldly beings called the Heralds of Justice, who were capable of looking into a person’s soul to determine guilt or innocence, but also on modern technology. It made sense to settle for London, given that it is a city I know well. I never sat down to figure out the world as such, all the details grew organically from the plot. When I needed a group who were the keepers of peace and summoned the Heralds, it made sense to call them Paladins of Justice. I needed a degree of separation between the magical beings and humans, so the City of London borough became Old London, where the magic users live. The ruling class became Mages and my main character’s apprentice a Bird Shaman whom all pigeons adore.

The term magical realism seems like a contradiction, but I was always clear on wanting distinct consequences for the use of magic. It was also never going to be a solution to everything. Magic can’t heal a genetic illness any more than it can remove terminal cancer. The dead can’t be brought back to life. As enchanting as magic may be, the setting is rooted in the real world and no amount of power can replace antibiotics, mobile phones or public transport. There must also always be a cost associated with magic, both in terms of casting it and its consequences; the greatest example of this is the fact that the penalty for murder committed with the use of magic is death. And pushing your power to its limits means risking not just your magic reserves but your life.

Once I began writing Fallible Justice, I used one rule to guide my world-building: if it’s not relevant to the scene, don’t put it in. Thus I explained what Shamans were when the reader first meets Karrion the Bird Shaman, but the fact that Shamans can take animal companions didn’t come up until my main character, Yannia, met one such animal. The first chapter begins with Yannia channelling her power. In that way, the reader gets to experience what Yannia can do long before I give a name to what she is. But in that first chapter, I also began setting down Yannia’s limitations. She may have magic, but that doesn’t make her omnipotent. In fact, I believe she’s so relatable as a character because she’s deeply flawed.

As much fun as world-building can be, it must all be in service of the story. The story needs the world to provide context for the events and the characters’ actions, but the world is only relevant within the framework of the story. Striking a balance between the two means transporting the reader to the pages of the book and allowing them to live the story for themselves.

***

About the author: Laura is a Finn who has spent most of her adult life in England. She is currently living in Hertfordshire with a flatmate who knows too much and their three dogs. Books and storytelling have always been a big part of her life, be it in the form of writing fanfiction, running tabletop roleplaying games or, more recently, writing original fiction. When she is not writing, editing or plotting, she works as an accountant. With two degrees in archaeology, she possesses useful skills for disposing of or digging up bodies, and if her
internet search history is anything to go by, she is on several international watch lists. Her debut novel, Fallible Justice, will be published in November 2018 by Louise Walters Books and the sequel, Echo Murder, in June 2019. They are paranormal crime novels set in modern day London, but with magic, murder and general mayhem, and they begin the Wilde Investigations series.

You can keep up with Laura on the following social media pages:

      

And on her website: https://lauralaaksobooks.com/ and her author page on Goodreads.

The book is available in paperback and ebook from the following:

Louise Walters Books   Amazon UK   Amazon.com

 

 

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.

***

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.

***

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