Jo tells us how she moved from writing her prize winning story in her head while driving, repeating the words out loud and then shaping the story on the page later. A busy writer, with all sorts of projects on the go, she is drafting a second novel with an interesting theme about survival in an apocalyptic world, has given herself the challenge of making 100 submissions this year and also co-runs the inspiring Writers’ HQ which gives opportunities, encouragement and support to writers from all backgrounds and income brackets. Whenever she’s lost for inspiration in her own writing, she always returns to Shakespeare and points out that reading Shakespeare, or “Shakey P” as she calls him “will tell you everything you need to know about writing”. Her other great writing tip for those wanting to enter Bath Flash Fiction Award is to find the “fundamental nugget of human truth in a story; something that resonates with a reader, almost on an unconscious level.” I am sure Shakespeare would have agreed with that.
- On your blog you say that you wrote your wonderful first prize-winning story in your head while driving and shaped it at home. Do you often begin stories in your head?
I tend to work in quite a patchwork way; I’ll get snippets of ideas here and there and gradually put them together to create something coherent, but it’ll often begin with a random fleeting thought. I make a lot of story notes on my phone throughout the day, so my notepad app is full of disjointed, non-contextual excerpts and sentences that will hopefully someday turn into stories.
For this particular story it was a little bit different because it began as a list of seemingly disconnected items which slowly took shape in my head as I drove along. I had to repeat each item over and over so I wouldn’t forget them (white horse, baby seat, fox-ochre, plastic bag) before frantically copying it down when I got home. By that point I’d worked out a general idea of structure and tone and then spent about a week trying to bring it to life.
However, I usually take the complete opposite approach when writing flash or short stories and just jump straight in with nothing but an idea and a blank page. I find free writing the first draft helps to get out all the fluff and unnecessary bits and then you can focus on shaping and pruning. Planning in my head is normally reserved for longer work, such as novel plotting, which I daydream about whenever I have a moment of downtime – driving is a good one, as is washing up, or any boring, menial task. I also like to run through scenes in my head when I’m trying to get to sleep, replaying them over and over until they’re vivid enough to write down.
- I believe the things lost and found which you describe in this piece (and the emotions implied that go with them) will resonate with many people and the list says a lot about our lives in this century. How did you make your final selections of things for the story?
The list was much, much longer initially, as I expanded out my original ideas and played a sort of word/thought association game with myself. Then it was a case of curating all the items into something that told a story and wasn’t simply a string of disconnected ‘things’. I had to cut a lot to keep it under 300 words but the limitation was a good thing, I think, as it forced me to let go of lines that were only there to look pretty and failed to offer a deeper meaning.
I’ve always felt a little jolt of unease whenever I see a lonely shoe by the side of the motorway. Was it left behind after an accident? Or the result of a prank, thrown from a speeding window? Or maybe just a bit of fly tipping? When you’re driving along you only get the briefest glimpses of things, but there’s always the hint of a story behind each one, no matter how mundane. Cataloguing my drive home made me think of all the little moments and memories that flit past and are immediately forgotten – a bit like watching your life flash before your eyes. And that’s where the structure began to come together; there’s a very loose chronology in the story that reflects that, starting with the baby seat and ending with the angels of death.
As I edited the story I also started to notice a sort of conflict between the natural and the man-made. None of us belong on or beside the road – it’s a very alien, transient, liminal space. Travelling so fast is so unnatural and a thousand potentials for a life-changing (or life-ending) moments pass by in an instant. By the end of the story I wanted the reader to feel as if they’ve been driving all night and have reached at that weary, dreamlike state where speeding along at eighty feels like floating.
- You write longer form fiction as well and your novel White Lies won the Luke Bitmead prize in 2014 and is published by Legend Press. It sounds like a fascinating read. Again many people are likely to resonate with its portrayal of dementia, old-age and family secrets. Are you writing another novel at the moment? If not, what are your current writing projects?
I’m in the drafting/editing phase of my second novel which is set after an apocalyptic flood and focuses on a twelve-year-old girl surviving alone in an abandoned block of flats. A bit of a departure from White Lies, though I’ve found the same themes cropping up again in different guises. This one’s all about faith in humanity (or lack thereof) and coming of age in a life-or-death situation.
I’m also getting back into writing and submitting more short fiction this year after a two-year break doing a Master’s degree in Shakespeare and theatre. I’m rather optimistically aiming for 100 submissions in 2018 as part of a challenge set by Writers’ HQ. The aim is less about seeking publication and more around producing good work and getting into the habit of sending stories out regularly. Though winning the Bath Flash Fiction Award has been a pretty incredible start to the year!
- You also co-run Writers’ HQ which offers many opportunities for all levels of writers – online courses, retreats if different parts of the UK, face to face meetings, free opportunities. On the website, you write up events in a very fun and appealing way. Can you tell us more about this enterprise and why you decided to get it off the ground?
As skint working parents struggling to find time and space to write, we set up Writers’ HQ as a bit of an antidote to the often elitist or inaccessible side of the literary community. It can be very difficult for writers to find support and creative writing courses that fit around work, life, kids, study, disabilities, or whatever else they’ve got going on. A lot of the writing retreats and workshops we came across were either too expensive or just impossible to factor into our other responsibilities so we decided that affordable online courses and one-day retreats would provide a much-needed alternative. With the help of an Arts Council grant, we wrote over 200,000 words of practical advice on novel plotting, editing, short fiction, getting published, characterisation, and writing a first draft. Our courses are available individually or via subscription (like Netflix for writers!) which gets you over £800 worth of writing courses for £30 a month. We’re also currently working on setting up pay-it-forward and bursary schemes for those who can’t afford membership, and we regularly run free online workshops and webinars.
But the best thing about Writers’ HQ is our writers. Over the last five years we’ve built up a massively supportive community on and offline, with countless students getting published, winning competitions, and landing agents. Our MO is essentially to take the fear and doubt out of writing, to acknowledge that the process can be hard, frustrating and full of angst, and to encourage people to prioritise their creativity instead of shoving it to the bottom of their to-do list (our tagline is ‘stop f**king about and start writing’). We also swear like sailors and have an addiction to stupid gifs, so our content will hopefully make you laugh as well as get you writing.
- You work as an editor too – is that a service you offer to fiction writers?
I love editing other people’s work – so much easier than fixing your own writing problems… But most of my focus is on Writers’ HQ at the moment, so I’ve had to cut my freelancing right down. However, we’re hoping to set up a critique service via WHQ this year to help writers develop their work, so yes, watch this space!
- Do you have a muse that helps you to write? A pet, a person, a place, a passion maybe…
My muse, if I have one, is a bit of a shapeshifter. I get obsessed with things quite easily and will spend months (or years) researching a certain subject, or immerse myself in a video game and play it until my Xbox explodes (true story), or set myself a mission to read every book by one particular author one after another. On a literary theme, my most influential passion is probably Shakespeare.
About five years ago I spontaneously bought a book about his ‘lost years’ (the time between leaving Stratford and making a name for himself in London) and became utterly and completely consumed with everything Shakespeare. I’d never been all that interested in Shakespeare in school or college but suddenly it all made sense – I was so hooked I ended up finishing a long-abandoned degree in English Lit and went on to take an MA in the subject. Reading Shakespeare will tell you everything you ever need to know about writing – from structure to conflict to drama to characterisation to subversion to word choice to rhetoric to the benefits of slipping in a filthy pun wherever possible. Whenever I’m lost I’ll always return to Shakey P for inspiration.
- A nosy question. Where and when do you write?
I have a little office in our spare room that I share with my husband, who’s an artist. Unfortunately, since my working medium is a lot more portable I often get kicked out whenever he has a commission and it quickly becomes a death trap of oil paint and turpentine. But I’m not that fussy about my writing space – I’ll hop from café to café in town or set myself up on the sofa with headphones (essential with the kids around) or head to the library. My main problem is my terrible, terrible writing posture, which turns me into some kind of hunchbacked T-Rex after a few hours. I should really set up a standing desk.
As for when, I don’t have a regular routine as such (the perils of working from home/for myself) but I’m most productive when I manage to write in the morning before I’ve got distracted by work/life/the internet. I used to work late into – or all through – the night but having two kids put a swift stop to that practice.
- Finally, can you give us a piece of writerly advice for those wanting to enter our Award, with its 300 word limit.
If I’m honest I was really shocked to have won because my story doesn’t technically feature a central protagonist, and most of the prize-winning stories I’ve read over the years tend to be very character-based, or focused on some kind of distinctive emotion. One thing we bang on about a lot at Writers’ HQ is finding the ‘fundamental nugget of human truth’ in a story; something that resonates with a reader, almost on an unconscious level. I think if a story really says something about what it is to be human – whether that’s achieved within a tiny vignette or over the span of a character’s lifetime – then you’re half way there. And when it comes to flash, brevity and focus is key. You don’t have time to waste words, but if you can layer up the meanings in each sentence you can turn a 300-word story into something much bigger. My favourite stories let the reader fill in the gaps themselves.