Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Gold-Starred Rules for Shy Networking Writers

Nina Milton, speaking and reading at the Wells Literary Festival
Blogpost fans who know me personally, would probably say I’m a bit of an extrovert, and can happily walk onto a stage and address a crowd, especially if it’s on the subject of books…especially if it on the subject of my books. 

Click to see more
In public, or among friends, I come across as bubbly, gregarious and confident. But actually, folks, I’m not an extrovert at all. Like many writers who love their own company and that of their characters, I’m actually a bit of a trembling flower. But I can do a conjuror’s magic trick which allows me to walk into a company of strangers and look outgoing, which I learned at the age of fifteen. 

As a kid I was painfully shy, which I blamed on my first name. In an age when unusual names were not common, I was teased mercilessly about mine. My mother had called me Nina – not after the famous Nordic singing duo or the ‘high priestess of soul’, but after her friend’s daughter, who for no reason I can fathom, pronounced the name to rhyme with nine, rather than teen. From my earliest memories, I hated my name. Kid’s called me ‘nine-o’clock instead of Nina Crane, or counted up across the street at me…’one-a, two-a three-a… 

Me at the Carmarthen Book Fair
When I took my first part-time job, I swore to change all of that. I went to work behind the sock and tie counter in a local department store. I was asked what my name was and I simply introduced myself as ‘Nina’  pronounced as in Nina Simone. Now, instead of bizarre and laughable, my name was singular and cool. A tiny alteration in pronunciation which did wonders for my ego, and taught me an interesting lesson…we can pretend to be more remarkable than we really are.

I’m telling you all of this because it’s Christmas Fayre season again, and I’m off to events  all over Wales to promote the Shaman Mystery Series. Last Saturday I was at Carmarthen library to promote my books and myself as a writer.

And on Saturday December 10th, I’m in the pretty town of Llandeilo, at the Llandeilo Book Fair.
Landeilo is tucked at the foot of the Black Mountains in South Wales, not far from Swansea, and is packed with lovely shops, as well as holding a book fair. 

Book events are not only great for selling your books, it’s also a place to meet other authors. I put on my ‘Neena, not Nine-a’ face and pretend to be fearless and undaunted, despite still being that trembling flower inside. To help me, I use my gold-starred rules for shy networking writers, and I'm goint to share them with you!

Here are my gold-starred rules of networking for the writer who is shy at heart. I find they help a lot.

1. Use the four-pronged approach. First brought to the fore by Dale Carnegie, just remember to…
  • SMILE, 

2. Be interested. Being actually interested in the other person stops the stench of desperation coming across and keeps that smile in place…naturally. It will also allow the right questions to pop into your mind – questions like, “what brought you here today” and “what sort of writing do you do”, and remind you to listen to the answers while getting that person’s name into your head (asking for their card really helps!)

3. Have no agenda. This springs naturally from being interested in the people around you. Concentrate on finding out about them, look keen to know more. No one wants to be in the same space as the ‘hard-selling, self-obsessed person’ for long.

4. Sort your plan. This is essential for hiding shyness and projecting confidence. Before you leave the house, get your ‘one minute blurb’ for your latest writing project clear in your mind. Look at my blogpost on elevator pitches to help you with this one. Remind yourself of your particular talents and strengths. It's important to map out what you want to talk about, because (rightly) be concentrating on rules 1-3 may take such things out of your mind. With rule 5 in mind, tell yourself all the ways your writing is wonderful – get your list prepared.

5. Be your passionate self. Having sorted your plan, you won’t need to look pushy because you’ll have more confidence in yourself. You’re smiling, so you’ll already be feeling happier. So now you can drop any artificiality and allow your lovely self to show through and demonstrate what you feel passionate about – I promise you, that’s always a winner. 

Do not say sorry. Okay – if you tip your wine over the books on your neighbour’s table, you might have to ask their forgiveness, but you should never apologise for your writing or make excuses for your books, or admit that you’re not sure how good they might be. Your stories have value. When you sort your plan, put these values in the list. If you are selling your book, whether to a punter or a publisher, do not start with ‘sorry, but…’ That makes it sound like you’re asking for a favour, when in fact, you're offering to show them some marvellous work.

Have your cards ready. All writers should have some sort of business card. If you already have a book in print, there are fun alternatives, too. I like to use bookmarks, with the covers of my books, a short blurb and my contact details. Other writers use postcards. I have also seen greeting cards using the jackets of novels, but these are too costly to give away and should instead be there to raise revenue.

Try for generosity. You’ll be wanting people to be generous to you, to give your work a chance by stocking, reading it or publishing it! So you can afford to offer something in return, even if it’s only turning up an hour early to help put out all the tables.

Follow the leads. You’ve come home with a dozen cards from other writers, agents, booksellers and publishers. Follow them up, even if it’s only an email to say how nice it was to meet them. Keep those links going, as you never know where they might take your writing. And they'll remind you just how much you enjoyed the event, even though you're a shy networking writer

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Costa Book Awards – the shortlists are out!

Another year, another book prize announced. This is one of my favourite book prizes, which has afforded me unbelievable reading. Novels like The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. 

Costa offers several awards each year, Novel Award, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children’s Book, and Short Story, and I already have several of the shortlist for each of these on my own ‘to read list’. 

I’m keen to get Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve love Tremain since she began to write, which is many moons. She has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I recently read her book Trespass I was thrilled to find she’d written a novel about murder. Was Tremain writing a crime thriller? My review of Trespass can be found here This new novel is set in Switzerland where the second world war is still a long-ago echo coming off the mountains. It’s described as “a striking portrait of friendship” 

There are four books in the First Novel shortlist, but I’ve heard of each of them Francis Spufford is already on the list as Golden Hill became the Waterstones Book of the Month, and Kit de Waal, shortlisted for My Name is Leon is know as a short story writer. But I’d never heard of Susan Beale’s first book The Good Guy and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand. . These are set in the US and long-ago Holland respectively, so on my beg, borrow or buy list they go.

Biography is not my favourite writing form, but this year I’d love to read Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return, It was  five years ago,as tension increased during the harrowing situation in Libya, that I read his Booker-shortlisted novel, In the Country of Men

 It felt a very pertinent and current read at the time, and is partly his memories of his childhood, during the time Colonel Gaddafi's regime took hold in the seventies. A boy of nine watches his father taken away for questioning and does not know what to think, or whom to trust. The novel is writing in such deceptively simple prose, but powerfully examines themes of conflict, family ties, and betrayal.
In the past, the Poetry Award has sent me rushing to read current poets. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees won five years ago, a short book I love to return to. Bees are central in this collection,…bees / are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them … and while doing that recalls bitter memories of what we have lost,This year, it will be Falling Awake  I read first. I’m already in love with Alice Oswald’s poetry, especially Dart, a shape-shifting epic poem about the river Dart, and the people who live around it. In the White Review, Oswald said; I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. You can hear Oswald read here.

Who doesn’t love Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry books? Now she’s on the Costa Children's shortlist with her first novel for older children: The Monstrous Child, described as a black comedy focusing on Nordic myth. This is the one that I want to read, it sounds scrumptious and long-awaited.

I have a very soft spot for the Short Story award, which hasn’t been going for very long, because in its inauguration, my Open College of the Arts student, Guy Le Jeune, came third with his story Small Town Removal, which I’d read in its very early stages. The Short Story Award shortlist will be announced soon, and all the shortlists will announce their ultimate winner on Tuesday 3rd January. From these five the Costa Book of the Year is selected. Fireworks will explode, Champagne will pop its cork and one writer will be very pleased…and a lot richer. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

Patron of Hares, Saint Melangell

I love discovering something hidden and special that I never knew about. So when friends asked me to go with them to the shrine of St Melangell, I jumped at the chance. I’d never heard of this saint, even though she is the patron hares, which are my totem animal

Her shrine is still kept in beautiful condition, in the small northwest Wales village of Pennant Melengells, It's one of the most remote shrines in the UK, located in the Berwyn Mountains. It’s only a short drive from St Mylin’s well, a far better-known shrine to a well-loved saint, who was probably Bishop of Wales at around the time Saint Melegell was born.

Melengell lived in the 7th Century CE, in what then would have been an independent Wales, still more Iron Age than Medieval. The Romans had long gone, and the old, local tribes called refi had taken over the rule of the land once more, led by a warrior aristocracy. The people would have spoken Old Welsh and held that powerful blend of belief; Celtic Christian, fused with a remaining underbelly of pagan belief, still clinging around the edges of this new religion. They'd only recently been converted to the powerful message of this still-new faith by saints like David and Mylin.

The tarn of Llyn Cau
We arrived at the youth hostel, for our one night stay in Dolgellau, which is sheltered under the most southern tip of the Snowdonia mountain range. 

 Rising above us was Cader Idris. Myth and legend have echoed around this high peak  for many a century and began with the fabled Welsh book of folklore, The Mabinogion. It’s said than anyone who falls asleep for the night at the foot of the Cadir Idris wakes, the following morning, either dead, mad, or a poet. We were about to lay our heads down is just that place, and I was hoping to wake with the latter quality!

The following morning (seemingly neither dead nor mad), we motored northeast to the village of Pennant Melangell. The far west of Wales possibly still looks, in places, very much like it did when the saints and the war-lords ruled the head and heart of early Wales.  As we travelled, my friends told me what they knew about St Melangell. 

She was the daughter of an Irish monarch, who had determined to marry her to a nobleman of his court. The princess fled from her father, across the Irish Sea, and took refuge in the isolated Tanat valley. She lived as an anchorite, walled into her shrine for most of fifteen years, without seeing the face of a man. 

The legend has it that one day Brochwel, prince of Powys, was hunting a hare with his dogs. In its desperation, the hare found this beautiful young lady wandering through the countryside, and took refuge under her cloak. The pack of hounds refused to go anywhere near the saintly Melangell, some howling and turning tail, some whimpering and lying down before her feet.

The prince was amazed to find a virgin of surpassing beauty, engaged in deep devotion, with the hare he had been pursuing under her robe, boldly facing the dogs. The Prince gifted her the valley of Pennant Melangell and she lived there, offering sanctuary and retreat to all who came.  She founded an abbey on the spot, and died abbess at a good old age.  Her tomb was in a little chapel, or oratory, adjoining to the church. 
I loved the carvings inside the church, especially the 15th Century oak screen with carvings that tell the story of Melangell and Prince Brochwel, and a fabulous series of stone carvings of the hare by the sculptor Meical Watts. 

But what we’d come to see, and be tranquil within, was the 12th Century shrine of Saint Melangell. Its stones are carved with Romanesque and Celtic motifs, and it contains what is said to originally have been the saint’s cell bed. Bones said to be those of the saint were deposited within the shrine. This was all were reassembled in the last century but it took a lot of fund-raising to eventually get the entire thing to be re-erected in the chancel at the back of the church. 

The church is now a Grade-I listed building. But more interesting to me, is that it sits in what is believed to be a Bronze Age site. In fact, Neolithic bones have been found on the site, which shows, as often is the case, that this sacred place had been used throughout time. I was overwhelmed by the ring of yew trees, planted before Christ was born, by people of the Iron Age...local druids, perhaps… These surround the churchyard. I spent a lot of meditative time in both saint's shrine, and under the trees, too.

Southey, when he visited the church in the 19th century wrote; 

And now I shall tell you why
It was proper that I 
Should go thither to spy
The place with mine own eye.
Tis a church in a vale,
Whereby hangs a tale,
How a hare being pressed,
By the dogs and much distressed,
The hunters coming nigh
And the dogs in full cry,
Looked about for someone to defend her,
And saw just in time
As it now come pat in rhyme,
A saint of the feminine gender.

To be honest, I don't think he'd had enough opium, that time…maybe he failed to sleep at the foot of Cader Idris!

For information about St Melegell's church and shrine, Click here for website

Monday, 7 November 2016

Creating Great Character Voices; Barbara Kingsolver's The Poinsonwood Bible

In the summer of 1959, the Price family carry everything they need on a lumbering plane and fly to the Belgian Congo to take up a missionary post in a village called Kilanga on the Kwilu River.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, (1988), follows three decades of their lives in postcolonial Africa. This, her fourth book, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. 
Barbara Kingsolver spent time in the Congo as a small girl "We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era," she says. For Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible is an “allegory of the captive witness. We've inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by
pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”

Writers talk a lot lately about ‘personal voice’.  Creating the voice of characters (often called 'persona') who feel realistic, authentic and engrossing is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Kingsolver says,… “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people…” It is, she adds, a "powerful craft; there's alchemy…"
Kingsolver has five independent and distinctive voices within this book. Each female member of the family narrates their story in turn. The magic trick Kingsolver achieves as a writer is to make their voices entirely original and independent of each other. When I read the book, this was the remarkable thing that struck me hardest. It was as if Kingsolver truly knew the five women whose stories she will tell.

Nathan Price is a fanatical missionary, with a rigid but simplistic religious code. Although devoted to saving souls, he’s abusive to his wife and daughters.
He first encounters the Poisonwood tree – the bangala – in his garden. Ignoring warnings from locals not to touch the plant, his arms painfully swell. But he has linguistic difficulties with this tree, too. In the native language the word "bangala" can mean "dearly beloved" if spoken slowly. If said fast, it means Poisonwood Tree. Nathan’s unwillingness to learn anything about the language is a symptom of his general cultural arrogance. On a weekly basis, he preaches that Jesus is a poisonwood tree which can cause intense pain and even death. His congregation sniggers, but Kingsolver seems to be saying that in the hands of people like Nathan, religious beliefs are poison, and that his missionary zeal did cause intense pain and even death.

The four daughters in the novel echo my favourite childhood read – Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (also loved by Kingsolver, of course!). In the erstwhile novel, the lives of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth are investigated deeply, especially their relationship with each other and their parents. In The Poisonwood Bible something similar, but darker and more penetrating, is explored
Orleanna Price married Nathan Price when she was seventeen and gave birth to three children in the space of two years. As they are shunted about the missionary world, she loses her spirit. By the time we meet her on the plane to Kilanga, it seems to me she’s entirely a passive vessel for her husband's will – although she hates the Congo.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason...The breathing of monkeys. The glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains...The forest eats itself and lives forever…
Rachel is her first-born daughter. From the extract below, which comes early in the novel, we can tell that Rachel is an unadulterated egomaniac, just as her father is, except she’s focused on the state of her appearance and her comfort, not her soul.
.…Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we set foot. We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned a big old prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove God had ensued us here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people surrounded us – Lordy! – in a chanting broil. Charmed, I’m sure. We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating [sic]bodies. What I should have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads…
Only slightly younger, and very gifted, are the identical twins, Adah and Leah. At birth, the left side of Adah’s body was paralyzed. She limps and is almost speechless, but her mind is acute, and it’s through her voice that a considerable amount of the book’s political scenes are related.
Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about...but mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as ‘Tata Price, you have trop de jolies filles – too many pretty daughters…Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: Kulwela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife. 
‘‘One of the girls, you mean,’ Mother said. She pulled on the nape of  Nelson’s T-shirt, extracting him from the stove so she might speak to him face to face. ‘You’re saying Tata Ddu wants to marry one of my daughters.’…
Compare this voice with that of  Adah’s healthy twin sister, Leah…
I prefer to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, burning the trash and weeding, while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such. Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father would bring over seeds in his pockets; Kentucky Wonder beans, croookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. We planned to make a demonstration garden from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle; an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes…
Ruth May is the youngest of the sisters, nine years junior to the twins. She is an impish child,  easily able to get into trouble. Kingsolver concentrates on penetrating the little girl’s mind, so that, although her thoughts are lisping and playful, we can glean a lot of the story's subtleties from her voice…Sometimes you just want to lay on down and look at the whole world sideways. Mama and I do. It feels nice. If I put my hed on her, the sideways world moves up and down. She goes; hth-huh. hth-huh. She’s soft on her tummy and the bosoms part…Sometimes I tell her; Mommy Mommy. I just say that. Father isn’t listening so I can say that...
Each voice has a further distinctive aspect. Ruth May invents her own language, Adah can read backward, Leah uses language to mimic her hero father, and Rachel consistently and unapologetically ‘malaprops’ her words.
When I opened the book and been to read, I imagined this would be a story about four young girls battling against their father’s growing madness and the alien world they’ve been thrust into – Little Women for the 21st century. But the story moves on and on…Ruth May dies from a snake bite and Orleanna finally musters the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters, although for the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt. Meanwhile, her surviving daughters flourish, in various ways.                                                                                                                      Although idealistic Leah worshiped her father, unlike him she is intelligent and compassionate. The realities of the Congo wears away her strong Christian faith. She marries a local man and throws herself into the fight for African independence. Rachel, you won’t be surprised to hear, chases  her dream of wealth and beauty. My favourite sister, Adah, has a surprising outcome, turning her life around after facing death one night. The three girls go in very different directions, but each of them remains haunted by their early life in Kilanga.
Go to Kingsolver's website to find out about her other books

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Autumn Poems

Autumn moonlight--
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut. 

–– Matsuo Bashō

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō, had been in my bookcase for several years, and every now and again, I’ll bring it out, read a few more of his wonderful haiku, and find myself inspired to write some of my own.  Bashō was born in 1694 and became a teacher, but loved to wander throughout Japan, far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. I understand that lust for walking constantly towards the horizon, but I’d rather wander around my mere half acre, enjoying what we’ve created, dreaming my dreams, and planning the next garden jobs. 

When I turn to haiku, it’s often because I’m being influenced by the seasons, their turning and changing.  

Pagans celebrate autumn as the season of harvest – from the time of golden wheat and barley, through the last of the green beans and courgettes, to apple-picking and beyond, all the while trying to catch and enjoy the last temperate moments before winter. We start the season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' off by celebrating Lughnasadh, move through the autumn equinox,  and complete our autumnal journey by bringing in the 'bleak, wailing winds' of winter at Samhain .  

In our garden in West Wales, we've had fifteen consecutive golden autumn days, warm sun on our backs as we sweep up the fallen leaves. It's been so balmy, the final flowers are still blooming, and that sent me out with my camera. I had to capture those last, fine moments of autumn.

But it's a busy time, with all that chutney to make, all those beans to freeze, and my writing has become, short, sweet and to the point.

Autumn is the perfect season for haiku, those beautifully tight and rounded gems which originated in Japan, and here are some offerings for autumn days.

This robin, trilling
While the earth is temperate,
Knows of hard winter

The ash bucket's full.
Still warm from evening's fire.
Fruit trees gave their all.

The song of a bird
Perched free in his blue-gold cage,
His heart has filled mine 

Fairy mist, surging
last night from the vale below. 
Now, trees drip like rain.

Rosa Rugosa,
The syrup tastes of summer,
Keeps our colds away.

Midnight silent chill. 
In the branches, an owl,
white from moonlight, watching.

Seven am, the sun's
First rays at the horizon.
Cold now, winter, soon.

Monday, 10 October 2016


The modern short story is one of the great art forms of the last hundred years. I read them all the time, especially online and on my kindle, and I’ve won prizes for my own short stories. Now I’m ready to write another – and I'm preparing by reading shorts stories all over again.

I’ve been writing a novel, the 4th in the Shaman Mystery Series, published by Midnight Ink, and I’ve finished a good draft. I always recommend that writers put their work away, let it rest, once you’ve got a draft that’s holding together. Bringing it out and reading it again a week, or even a month later, really helps you see its flaws…and meanings. Luckily, I’ve got Lisa, my agent, who is reading it for me.

So I can relax, write a short story. Frankly, I find this almost as difficult as writing a 100,000
word novel. Make no mistake, the great modern short story is not a doddle, and I’ll need all the motivation I can get. There are books out there with realms of advice…introduce your character, initiate action, get a satisfying end…but  none of that feels very real, written blankly like that. What I need is inspiration, and the best always comes from the great writers themselves. I find if I immerse myself in reading short stories, in no time at all, I’m soon desperate to start my own – not because I’m copying what I’ve read, but because all their varied ideas will have percolated like magic into my imagination.

So here are seven wonderful stories, each with their nugget of gold, seven revelations which are also fundamental axioms of short story writing. I’m going to make new beginnings with them, and I hope you can do the same.

AXIOM ONE: take a scientific theory and play with it.
Bradbury adopts a theory that was still developing at the time he wrote this story – chaos theory, often called the ‘butterfly effect’…the flapping of a butterfly in one part of the world might create a hurricane on the opposite side of the globe. However, this term was actually introduced in the 1960s, while The Sound of Thunder was first published in 1952. Bradbury uses a golden, prehistoric butterfly to demonstrate how time travellers drastically change the future, so it may be that the term come directly from this story. Here, we meet the big game hunters who are after Tyrannosaurus Rex:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker's claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.
Ray Bradbury’s  A Sound of Thunder  from R is for Rocket, (New York: Doubleday, 1952)

AXIOM TWO: Use a real person, place or incident to kick-start your story. 
Jeffrey Ford’s inspiration for his story about Emily Dickinson comes from something he read in her correspondence; “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none.” Ford says…I imagine the “terror” Emily refers to is her experience that plays out in my story. After mulling it for a year, I’ve imagined she decided to capture it in that famous poem…Because I Could Not Stop For Death…

Viginia Woolfe
Writers often use famous people in story. Hilary Mantel recently wrote  about Margaret Thatcher, and Virginia Woolfe, whose essays and journals offer rich pickings, has been constantly purloined. There’s nothing wrong with using real people or events, or lifting ideas from poems, or even stealing other writers’ characters, so long as you give them new life. But do check for copyrights to work before actually quoting from a writer. 

In Ford’s story, the terror Dickinson wrote about becomes a brush with Death, who wants her to help him take a little boy kept alive by witchcraft:

The boy turned at the sound of his mother’s voice, and Emily desperately tried to stifle her astonishment, knowing her life depended on it. Still, an expression of awe escaped her lips, and she instantly recovered by turning the sound into the boy’s name. “Arthur, I’m Emily and I’ve come to keep you company.”
His complexion was tinged green and there were scabs and oozing scrapes across his cheeks and forehead. The whites of his eyes were yellowed and the pupils faded to white. Behind his crusted lips, his teeth were brown pegs. He looked to his mother and grunted. Cautiously, he left his chair and stepped across the room to hug Sabille’s legs.
Emily lowered herself on her haunches to the child’s height. The boy smelled like a muddy streambed, and there was something shiny dribbling from the side of his mouth. “I’m Emily,” she said again. She reached out to take the child’s scabbed hand, but at the last second he drew it quickly away. His sudden movement frightened her and she reared backward, nearly falling over. As she stood, he opened his horrid mouth at her. A second later, she realized he was laughing.
A Terror by Jeffery Ford

AXIOM THREE Keep the timeline as tight as you can.
The breadth of a story may run over a longer time period, but it’s better to use flashback and start very close to the end, rather than plough through all the backstory. If your story has too much breadth, maybe you should be writing a novel.

In Mysterious Kôr, two lovers, Pepita and Arthur, wander through London in wartime. There is a rare lapse in nighttime bombing, and the moon is out, changing everything. They imagine another in a fantastical place, where they could actually be happy. In reality they have to sleep in Pipita's lodgings, chaperoned by her friend, Callie. In the story, we move in time and space through what seems eons, while only one night has passed. When consolidating time and space in this way, take a tip from Bowen and get to the heart of characters by using symbology. Moonlight permeates and penetrates the entire story,  meaning different things to different characters:

Below the moon, the houses opposite her window blazed back in transparent shadow; and something - was it a coin or a ring?- glittered half-way across the chalk-white street. Light marched in past her face, and she turned to see where it went: out stood the curves and garlands of the great white marble Victorian mantel-piece of that lost drawing-room; out stood, in the photographs turned her way, the thoughts with which her parents had faced the camera, and the humble puzzlement of her two dogs at home. Of silver brocade, just faintly purpled with roses, became her house- coat hanging over the chair. And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified the lateness of the lovers' return. No wonder, she said herself, no wonder - if this was the world they walked in, if this was whom they were with. Having drunk in the white explanation, Callie lay down again. Her half of the bed was in shadow, but she allowed one hand to lie, blanched, in what would be Pepita's place. She lay and looked at the hand until it was no longer her own.
Elizabeth Bowen, Mysterious Kôr, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen Vintage Classics

AXIOM THREE: Find the right Point of View.
Going for the Orange Julius is my all-time favourite short story set in a mall. It’s the story of Carrie, who is being looked after by her grandmother right now. Prepubescent Carrie is the narrator, an essential factor in the success of the story. Choosing the right point of view is a crucial decision; although this story is almost as much about ancient loose woman Grandma, it would be very different if it had been narrated by her. Note here, how Goldberg uses repetition to get close to Carrie’s young mind:

It’s not about looking good. If you’re just looking good, you’ll probably be able to get a cone or a soft pretzel, but definitely not an Orange Julius.
“Carrie,” Grandma says to me as we walk into the mall, “are you feeling like a lady?” The ceiling of the mall when you first walk in has mirrors on it, so you can see yourself and whoever you’re with.
“Yeah, Grandma,” I say back. “I’m feeling like a lady.”
Then we both look up at the ceiling so we can see each other and Grandma says,
“Well, here we are, two ladies going out to see the world.”
Grandma only wears real gold and keeps her cigarettes in a genuine leather cigarette pack holder…
Myra Goldberg, Going for the Orange Julius,  Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery,  Bloomsbury

AXIOM FOUR: Go for as few characters, in as few settings as possible.
Typically, an effective short story won’t be able to develop more than two or three main characters. There isn’t room to describe a load of different landscapes, or get into the heads of a dozen characters. If you’ve recently started a short story that you’re having trouble completing, check this axiom right away. Cutting down on any unnecessary characters, especially those that don’t work for their fictional living, and concentrating the story into a single place, may be exactly what your story needs to save it from the waste bin.

Ted Hughes was a poet who knew how to create an aura of mystery, and in this short story, he gives us lyrical prose, a single, enigmatic setting and strong imagery, but he also builds huge dramatic tension in a realistic tale. The lexicon is simple and the symbolic use of nature versus humankind has been done many times before, but this is a most powerful story, with only two characters; a man and a majestic, but frightening horse:

A wave of anger went over him: anger against himself for blundering into this mud-trap and anger against the land that made him feel so outcast, so old and stiff and stupid. He wanted nothing but to get away from it as quickly as possible. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.
Over to his right a thin, black horse was running across the ploughland toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good.
From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the horse ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.
Ted Hughes, The Rain Horse, first published in Wodwo, but now available online at

AXIOM FOUR: Never use more than one plot arc.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a short story must have a complex plot with a twisty finish that keeps the reader guessing. It can have that, but presenting big, intriguing plots is a job for the expert. Most short stories stay simple, because the bedrock of a short story is simplicity. Never introduce a second or sub-plot, and never try to introduce more into the story than its word count can hold.
In Why Don’t You Dance, almost nothing really happens, and what does happen is shown in real time with a distant point of view, which forces you to make up your own mind, checking the story for symbols and subtleties. A man is drinking whisky as he tries to sell his house furniture in his front yard. A boy and girl pass by and get interested in the sale of goods.  The man offers them whisky and  demonstrates his items for sale, the bed, the TV, the record-player. He puts on a record and suggests they dance. After a while, the man dances with the girl instead:
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” said the girl.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”
He felt her breath on his neck. “I hope you like your bed,” he said..
The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer. 
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
Why Don’t You Dance by Raymond Carver from What We Talk about When We Talk about Love Vintage Classics

AXIOM FIVE: Start with a bang
The opening must compel capture the reader’s attention, establish where you’re taking them and make them long to know what happens next. On the other hand, summing up the story to come is usually a bad idea. 
Of course you want a great opening paragraph, but don’t get bogged down with it. The first lines are the most difficult so get past them as best you can and write on. You can’t really tell what your first lines should be until the story is complete and then you’ll know if that first paragraph was always perfect. If it’s not, work on it. 
The first sentence in a story can vary enormously, depending on the mood, tone,  style – even genre – you want to impart. It might be zany, intriguing, enchanting or a simple, uncluttered statement. It might be long, convoluted, or intense, even abrupt. In his collection  Under the Dam, David Constantine demonstrates just how varied the first para can be. The Loss starts like this:
Nobody noticed. Apparently they never do. Or if they do, the Misunderstand. It might be one of those sunder pauses – a silence – a gap – and somebody will say: An angel is passing. But it is no such thing. It is the soul leaving, flitting ahead to its place in the ninth circle.
The LossDavid Constantine Under the Dam, Comma Press
Two words in the first sentence, 52 overall. In total contrast, In Another Country, a story recently turned into the film, 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, directed by Andrew Haigh, the first paragraph takes up the entire first page. You can hear the story read by the author at 

AXIOM SIX: A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end.

So said A.S. Byatt in the Sunday Times Culture section, and she amply demonstrates what she means in every short story she writes, often using magical realism. Allowing a story to follow its natural direction, to speak for itself, to drive towards its inevitable end, prevents the reader breaking off and putting it down. A short story is defined by being able to be read in one sitting, and that’s what you want, an unputdownable story.  In A Stone Woman, an elderly woman needs an emergency operation:

…She heard the creature moaning. She tried to telephone the doctor, but the thing shrieked raucously into the mouthpiece, and this saved her, for they sent an ambulance, which to the screaming thing to a hospital, as it would not have taken a polite old woman. Later they told her she had had at most four hours to live. Her gut was twisted and gangrenous. She was number and bandaged, and drifted in and out of blessed sleep.
The surgeon came and went, lifted her dressings, studying the sutures, prodding the walls of her belly with strong fingers, awakening sullen coils of pain somewhere in the deep…
The Stone Woman  Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt Chatto & Windus.

The constant, driving rhythm is particularly needed in this story, as it’s quite long, and ignores axiom four, moving in time, place and character, but always rhythmically pulling you along.

AXIOM SIX: Be sure there is a Core Emotional Truth

Core Emotional Truth –  CET – is a compact summary of the deep core of what you’re saying through your story. It should be attempted in a single abstract sentence. In other words, the CET of, say, A Christmas Carol, would not be…"Scrooge learns to be a better person when he’s visited by the ghost of his partner"…That’s more of a ‘blurb’ really. The CET might be…"only by understanding ourselves can we truly empathize with others"…or possibly…"Being mean and cross will never make you happy". Writing your CET is amazingly revealing and can help whittle all those disparate thoughts down to a single essence. If often helps open and lift your narrative, so you can write from your heart.

When reading, it’s easy to spot a story with a deeply meant CET. Katherine Mansfield is particularly adept at understanding the emotional core of her own stories, and often uses an epiphany to demonstrate this. Miss Brill overhears a throwaway sneer about her fur necklet which tears down the fantasy she’s invented about her life, changing her perspective:

     But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room - her room like a cupboard - and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill, Penguin Little Black Classics. Read it here –

Axiom number seven is probably the most important of them all, partly because the time to write it is when you have finished at least a single draft. Doing this gives you the chance to subtly change the work once you’ve searched out the CET, to give it a core strength. At the same time, you can check through the other axioms…and read another short story. Scroll down my Facebook page Kitchen Table Writers to find links to many of the great recent short stories you can read for free online.
I used the Core Emotional Truth to complete my last published short story, The Library at Alexandria, From  UNCHAINED (Tangent Press), an anthology celebrating the 400th anniversary of Bristol Library, and I will try the method again,  following all my axioms as I write my next short story. What this space!