Check This Out: Mythos

With me on the blog today is the awesome Andy Murray. If you’re a follower of his blog, City Jackdaw, you know that he’s a poet who released a collection of poems called Heading North, published by Nordland in December 2015. We talked about that here on the blog. Now, Andy is here to talk about the short stories he contributed to Mythos, the second volume in the Northlore series, published by Nordland in December 2016. (By the way, Andy contributed a short story and a poem to Folklore, the first volume of the series.) Stick around after the interview to learn how you can get your hands on Mythos.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Andy: 1. I’m at least six-generation Mancunian. 2. I knew my wife for twenty-six years before we got together. I play the long game. 3. I’m vegetarian. 4. Despite my name, I don’t like tennis!

El Space: What interested you about writing stories for this second volume? When I read the premise, I couldn’t help thinking of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m also reminded of Juliet Marillier’s Bridei Chronicles, in which the author mentions the Picts’ desire to hang on to their religion as Christianity moves forward in the land.
Andy: Well, I knew that the Northlore series was a planned trilogy of books, and being a part of volume one was such a positive experience I wanted to be a part of the succeeding book. Folklore was a great collection of prose and poetry, with something for everyone, and Mythos feels like a step up. They complement each other perfectly.
I’m not familiar with Bridei Chronicles, but I know what you mean about American Gods. The stories in Mythos are arranged in chronological order, in many different locations, and some of them are indeed set in modern America. The premise of the collection is that with the advent of Christianity the old gods knew that their time had come and they withdrew, but they didn’t cease to be. These are their continuing stories.

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El Space: What was the inspiration behind your stories, “Into the Storm” and “Saga”?
Andy: My wife and I used to be foster carers. A private tutor used to visit the house to give extra tuition to a teenage girl who was living with us. Through no fault of her own she had missed out on a lot of schooling and was behind many of the students in her class. In a bid to encourage her English, the tutor decided to set a writing competition for the whole family. My wife was mortified. She stipulated that our stories could be about anything, but had to bear the title ‘Holes’. I came up with a story set in the Somme of the First World War, you know: foxholes, shell holes, etc. But also a depiction of how some people seemed not to be made in the same way as others, as though there were pieces missing from their character and they were riddled with holes. I can’t recall how exactly I put it now, but it was along those lines. Anyway, I had that story lying around, and when I saw the call for submissions for Mythos, I took it and adapted it in a way that fit Nordland’s criteria. ‘Holes became ‘Into The Storm‘.

‘Saga‘ was born on a half hour bus journey from Manchester to my hometown. I was sat on the upstairs deck, daydreaming. This is how I sometimes get lines for my poetry. In my reverie, these spontaneous lines crossed my mind:

She asked me to write a four word love story:
she came home early.
She asked me to write a four word horror story:
she came home early.

I don’t know where this came from. Do we ever, really? But I began to think about it. How ‘she came home early’ could fit both love and horror stories, and what they implied. But, more importantly, I began to wonder about who ‘she’ was who was doing the asking. By the time I reached my destination I had the story finished in my head, but not trusting my memory I jotted down the outline on the Notes part of my mobile phone.

El Space: In a 1957 interview with Truman Capote [photo below] in The Paris Review, Capote said, “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.” How would you respond to this?
Andy: Well, I love Capote, and I know that he was a very disciplined and methodical writer. I’m also reminded of Dylan Thomas referring to ‘my craft or sullen art’. In contrast with these two huge figures, though it may sound simplistic all I can say is that I write the type of fiction and poetry that I would like to read, and endeavour to make them the best that I can.

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El Space: When it comes to short story writing, which comes first for you: a character; a situation/plot; or an image? Any of the above? None of the above? I mentioned image, because C.S. Lewis once explained that the image of a faun with an umbrella came to his mind way before he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Andy: A faun with an umbrella—that’s pretty cool! I wonder if he was on a bus? 🙂 I think for me the gist of the story comes first. I have in mind the kind of thing that I want to say, and in pondering on how to realise this everything else is born.

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El Space: What was your introduction to writing?
Andy: As a child I loved books, and loved writing too. My primary school teacher expressed concern to my mother one parent’s evening about the type of books that I read—James Herbert, Stephen King. But I later learnt that that same teacher used to pass my stories around the staff room for the other teachers to read. On my last day, before leaving for high school, she wrote in my autograph book ‘I hope you manage to get a book published one day‘. I tried to track her down recently to present her with a copy of Heading North, but was unable to find her. I’ve not given up, though.

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El Space: What will you work on next?
Andy: I’m actually on the second draft of a novel at the moment, provisionally called ‘Seasons On The Hill‘. It is about life on a northern housing estate, as seen through the eyes of different, interacting characters. The estate in question is actually a fictionalised version of where I live. Although none of the characters are based on real people, many of the situations involved really happened. Maybe with a little embellishment. Part humour; part tragedy. The stuff of life, yes?

El Space: Yes! Thanks, Andy, for being my guest!
Andy: Thank you Linda for this opportunity. As I saw someone comment recently upon one of your posts: you’re such an enabler!

El Space: Aw. I’m just glad people want to stop by here. 🙂

If you’re looking for Andy, head to Facebook and his blog.

You can find Mythos at Amazon. But one of you will find it in your mailbox or on your tablet. How? Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner TBA on February 4.

Mythos cover from the Northland website. Other book covers from Goodreads. Truman Capote photo from biography.com.

Fantastic Four

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The “fantastic four” as perhaps you’ve never seen them. They’re willing to fight crime. But I’m not sure how effective they will be at it.

When I asked a friend the other day for advice on my WIP, she reminded me of the rule of three. What’s that? Wikipedia says:

The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.

Perhaps that accounts for the large volume of trilogies out there. And nursery rhymes, folktales, films, and books like:

• “The Three Little Pigs”
• “Three Billy Goats Gruff”
• “Three Blind Mice”
• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
• The Three Investigators series

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The Three Musketeers (Dumas)
Three Times Lucky (Turnage)
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time (Mortenson)

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Three the Hard Way (1974 film)
¡Three Amigos! (1986 film)

But I think we’ve all been disappointed by a trilogy or two at some point, haven’t we? Maybe the first two books or movies were good. Yet the disappointment we felt at the close of the third—the crucial one—made us wish we’d never started the series in the first place.

Still, I’ve enjoyed stories with the rule of three firmly in place. Aladdin had three wishes. Macbeth consulted three witches. Cerberus had three heads. Three princes set out on a quest to free an enchanted princess.

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Um, this does not count as the rule of 3. But it’s fun all the same.

Though I appreciate the rule of three, I’m partial to the number four for a number of reasons. As a kid, I read the Fantastic Four comic books. (Yes, I’m looking forward to the reboot of the movie franchise.) I was born in the fourth month. I enjoyed The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle. A four-book series of mine was published ages ago. (Now out of print. That’s the downside of publishing, kids. Stay in school. Don’t do drugs.) The character Four (below left) in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth is hot. And though we usually associate three ghosts with Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he actually talked to four ghosts, if you count Jacob Marley. But Dickens followed the rule of three with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

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Yet as fantastic as four is, I can’t say I’ve deliberately put four of anything in a book with the view of making it funnier or more satisfactory. I’m hesitant to do so unless I’m certain that what I’ve added is organic to the story, and not just a plot device. Because that’s the thing about rules sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes, they’re just gimmicks that get in the way.

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Here’s where I confess that I’m toying with the idea of adding a fourth main character  to a young adult novel I started last year. I had hopes of making it work with three perspectives. The rule of three, you see. Months ago, I put that project down in favor of the one I’m working on now. But a fourth character’s perspective keeps coming to mind, one begging to be explored. Who knows? Four might be the charm.

Do you follow a rule in your writing? If so, how has a writing rule enhanced your story?

In honor of four, here’s “The Four-Legged Zoo”—a Schoolhouse Rock video:

Christmas Carol scene from iam2.org. Book covers from Goodreads. Number 4 from raggedglories.blogspot.com. Rules of Anime 3 from gabriellevalentine.synthasite.com. Fantastic Four comic from comicmegastore.com. “Fantastic four” photo by L. Marie.

When Is It Time to Get a New Pair of Pants?

The other day I contemplated my sparse wardrobe. What sparked this contemplation? The fact that I was about to walk out the door and noticed that the pants I wore had a hole in the inner thigh. Whoops. See, this comes from dressing in the dark again. A bad habit. I had to back in the door and get out the sewing kit.

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Um . . . I don’t wear pants like this!

Back in my undergraduate days, I would have walked out the door uncaring. But now that I’m a professional, well, it’s just not done for me to go to the grocery store with a big ol’ hole in my pants.

So, when is it time to get a new pair of pants? The answer might seem like a no brainer to you. But when you’re on a limited budget, the answer is not as clear cut. I have to ask myself, Can I afford to buy a new pair? Can I make the old pair last by repairing them? But the pants are starting to look like Frankenstein’s monster with crooked stitches on top of crooked stitches—the results of past repair jobs.

By now you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about. Pants? Who cares, right? But I can’t help likening my pants predicament to a writing project, since I’m a pantser (heh heh). See, I’m working on a short story to submit for inclusion (hopefully) in an anthology. The short story form is especially challenging for me. If you read “The Arf Thing,” you know that Val Howlett excels at it, and works hard at her craft. She discussed her work ethic here. And fellow blogger Phillip McCollum is another advocate of the short story, as you can see if you read his blog.

Two years ago, I wrote a short story that I’m now revising. I didn’t want to submit it with a big ol’ plothole in it. The problem, a friend pointed out, is the lack of a clear story arc. But yesterday, as I wrote and rewrote, I wondered, Am I sewing crooked stitches on top of crooked stitches as I fix this story? I was sorely tempted to bail on the story.

So, today I ask myself, (1) Am I content to whine about how much better at short stories writers like Val and Phillip are? (2) Have I really put forth my best effort into making the arc of the story clear? (3) If I have, and the story still isn’t working, is there a better story for me to work on? In other words, Is it time for a new pair of pants? I can tell you the answers: (1) Normally, yes, but I’m trying to get over that. (2) No. (3) No.

I chose this story over another, because the other story was a discarded chapter in a book that I thought I could pass off as a short story. Ha, ha! A definite no-no according to the submission rules! The story I’m working on actually is a short story. So, heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s back to work (on that story) I go. One thing I’ve learned from Val’s example: don’t shirk hard work. (Hey, that rhymes!)

How do you know when it’s time to get a new pair of pants?

Pants from easleys.com.

A Writer’s Process 9(b)

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We’re back with the always-leave-’em-laughing Shelby Rosiak. Grab a bagel and get comfortable. If you missed part one of our discussion on humor in writing, please click here. Up to speed? Then, let’s do this thing!

El Space: What advice led you to the biggest writing breakthrough recently?
Shelby: A. M. Jenkins told me, “Step away from the computer and try writing by hand,” and that has made the biggest difference in my writing career. I feel more free on real paper, less inhibited, less judgmental. I can cross things out, write in the margins, make notes to myself, repeat myself. You can’t delete if it’s on paper, and deleting is a single line strikethrough, not completely missing from the page.

Stipula_fountain_penI have several different notebooks going on, so I’m not hugely picky about paper, but I almost always write with a fountain pen. There’s something about connecting liquid ink, delicate nib, to paper that is unique to a fountain pen. If you’ve written with one, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then try one! I’d say about 90% of my work is done on paper and then transcribed to the computer (the boring part).

El Space: How do you balance humor and seriousness in your work in progress?
7172060Shelby: I asked Alan Silberberg this exact question about his novel Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, which is a hilarious story of a boy coming to terms with losing his mother, a decidedly unfunny topic. He said, essentially, that you just go on instinct. I think that’s true as well, but I think the balance is really struck in the revision process. You have to think, Is this the character or is it me? Have I created this situation only for the punch line? Feedback from my critique group and classmates helps tremendously in finding that balance.

But it’s still not perfect. I once wrote a short story—I know you’ll remember this one, L.—about a vegetarian zombie named Trixie.

El Space: I do! An absolutely hilarious story.
Shelby: The piece was intended to be purely absurd. I just let loose and tried to be as funny as possible—Trixie missing half her face and holding a bag on Sun Chips, a zombie with his head under the Slurpee machine at 7-Eleven pouring it directly into his mouth—and while I put structure in the story, I would say about half of the workshop group didn’t get it. Many mentioned that they wanted more motivation. I was like, “Dude, the main character is RUNNING FROM ZOMBIES! What better motivation is there?”

Face PalmEl Space: I remember that discussion. I did a couple of facepalms at some of the comments.
Shelby: Others wanted more character development, still others wanted more of what you’d find in a traditional story. Part of me was thinking You’ve totally missed the point, but at the same time, you can’t exactly affect a French accent and decry, “You don’t understand my art!” A reader’s reaction is always legitimate, and it was a good exercise writing that story where I really wasn’t able to find that balance for some people.

One more piece of advice I got from A. M. Jenkins—well actually, this was more life changing than the one I mentioned above; can I change my mind?—came after she read dozens of pages of my work and finally said, “Stop being funny—it’s holding you back from your best writing.” That was a huge revelation for me, since part of me thought that funny WAS my best writing, and it took that to see that I was capable of a lot more. It’s easy for me to hide behind the humor. I don’t have to take risks; I don’t have to feel vulnerable. But that’s not what good writing is about. Once she pointed that out to me, I think my writing drastically improved, both the serious AND funny parts.

El Space: Glad you had that breakthrough! I see what you mean by life changing. But now, I’m dying to know: what books do you find funny?
project-jackalopeShelby: More than books, I tend to find authors funny. In YA, definitely Libba Bray (all of her work), John Green (all of his), and Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian); middle grade would be Roald Dahl (a serious master of humor), Louis Sachar (Holes), Alan Silberberg (Milo), Emily Ecton (Project Jackalope), M. T. Anderson (the Pals In Peril series); picture books—Mo Willems (Pigeon), Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back); adult—Christopher Moore (Lamb), Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and many others that aren’t immediately coming to mind.

Actually as I’m coming up with this completely off the top of my head, I’m noticing that nearly all are male writers. I wonder why that is? THAT would be an interesting topic to look at!

It sure would be! Alas, we’re out of time! We’ll have to talk about that another time. I’ve enjoyed this discussion immensely. Thank you, Shelby!

If you have questions for Shelby about her process, would like to share a joke, or mention a book you find hilarious, please comment below. Thanks for stopping by. On your way out, you might watch out for those banana peels on the floor. I hear they’re very slippery.

Project Jackalope cover from the author’s site. Other book covers from Goodreads. William Riker and Jean Luc Picard facepalm from onlyhdwallpapers.com. Fountain pen photo from Wikipedia.

Check This Out: The Arf Thing

Today, I’m talking about short stories with another friend from VCFA, the awe-inspiring Val Howlett, whose story, “The Arf Thing,” has been published here at Lunch Ticket. Val’s story also won a coveted scholarship at VCFA in 2011! So go on. Read it, then return here!

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El Space: Congratulations, Val! Please tell the readers about yourself.
Val: I have lived in five different states in my adult life; I studied fairy tales in college; I’m very close to my three younger siblings; and my girlfriend is also a writer.

El Space: How about a brief synopsis for those who haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing”?
Val: “The Arf Thing” is about the “bullying” of a boy named Adam Mavis, told through the perspectives of seven people at Adam’s school.

El Space: What inspired you to write it?
Val: I wrote the story in late 2010/early 2011, when a string of “gay” teen suicides started a conversation about bullying in the media. I put “gay” in quotes because in some cases, we don’t know if the victims were gay; it was more that much of the harassment they experienced were attacks on their sexual orientations.

I remember being frustrated by the simplicity of the media rhetoric following those tragedies. There was a lot talk of our nation’s “bullying problem” and our schools’ tolerance policies for bullying. Not that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for prohibiting harassment in their classrooms—they absolutely should.

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But I think harassment is more complicated than that. Particularly in this case, when the very media that discusses our country’s “bullying problem” is at the same time perpetuating the cultural assumption that homosexuality is shameful and attack-worthy by portraying gay and trans people as caricatures or not portraying them at all.

I should probably stop and get to your other questions. Clearly, I could go on about this for a while. But all that stuff was bubbling up in my brain as I wrote “The Arf Thing.”

El Space: Understandable. What’s challenging or exhilarating about short story writing?
Val: The room for experimentation is exhilarating. A lot of narrative techniques that could grow tedious over the course of a novel are exciting and interesting in a short story.

What’s challenging is there’s no room for excess—you want every element of your story to serve the effect you’re trying to create at the end. I’m long-winded, so my short story process is to write a lot, and then cut, cut, cut.

El Space: Which authors get you pumped up?
Val: Francesca Lia Block and Kelly Link. Also Laini Taylor’s story “Goblin Fruit” in Lips Touch: Three Times. All three are young adult writers whose stories are full of juicy prose and strange otherworldly tones. And they all deliver those punch-in-the-gut, tears-in-your-eyes endings that great short stories are famous for.

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El Space: In an article in Publishers Weekly entitled “The State of the Short Story,” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated:

[W]hy do so many readers and critics today seem to divide their time between novels and essays—those first cousins of the short story—and leave short fiction alone?

What can be done to draw more attention to the short story?
Val: It’s no secret that a very small percentage of our population reads short fiction. I am fully aware every time I am working on a short story that I am shrinking my potential audience. It makes me a little sad!

I’m going to gear your question to YA short fiction in particular, because that’s the kind of story I have experience writing and trying to submit.

One problem with YA short story visibility is there are barely any journals that publish specifically YA content. I can only think of six journals off the top of my head. And you have to wonder how many actual teenagers read those publications.

So there need to be more publications that feature YA short fiction. Also, more attention should be given to those publications by educators and librarians—possibly in the form of yearly short story awards, like the awards offered in the scifi/fantasy community.

El Space: Great ideas! Stein also stated: “You can’t relax and lose yourself in a short story. Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention.” Would you agree or disagree?
Val: I think Stein does a pretty good job of discussing that elusive, nebulous concept that short story writers and critics have been trying to explain since Edgar Allan Poe: that the experience of reading a short story feels different than reading a novel.

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While I definitely have “lost myself” in short stories—forgotten everything around me, became immersed in the story’s world, all that good stuff—I like the idea of “bringing you up short” as a way to describe that jolt you feel at the end of a good short story, the way it leaves you thinking about the whole piece for an hour or for days.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Val: I keep returning to the advice my VCFA advisor, A. M. Jenkins, gave me last year, which was to not compare yourself to other writers because it’s a waste of your finite writing time.

As a slow writer, it can be tempting to watch my grad school colleagues submit their novels and see it as a sign of weakness that I’m not doing that yet.

But then I admonish myself in a Jenkins-esque way, saying—probably out loud because let’s be honest—“You could use the time you’re spending thinking you’re not good enough to actually write something! And you should be writing, because you’re slow!” Seriously though, everyone’s process is different. It’s good to remember to accept your process and give it hugs every once in awhile.

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El Space: Any advice for those who want to tackle the short story?
Val: Don’t assume that just because it’s a short story, it’ll take a shorter amount of time to write. It took me four full months to write a draft of my most recent story. And that draft was a radical revision of a story I wrote four years ago.

El Space: What do you plan to tackle next?
Val: My goal for the summer is to finally pump out a full draft of the novel I’ve been working on forever, called Underdog.

Thanks, Val, for being an awesome guest!

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If you haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing,” don’t miss out! Click here. Questions for Val? Please comment below.

Book cover from Goodreads.com. Poster from zazzle.com. Poe photo from Wikipedia. Book hug from cathryno.global2.vic.edu.