Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things - A Critical Analysis of a Short Story

 

Another essay I wrote during my 2nd year Creative Writing Degree. 

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things has been sat stewing slowly in my Compost Heap of ideas for nearly twenty years now, attacked from many different angles but never truly working until recently. In this critical analysis I will look at how I found and researched the story, why waiting till I had developed my skill set to write this has made the story stronger, and finally how I structured the story with book-ended lines of dialogue.


I used the story (WHICH YOU CAN READ HERE) as the basis for my syllabic poem, Sticks! and you can read all about that adventure HERE.

This was a fun story to write, and while there is a strong argument to be made for leaving it with the powerful ending that lingers in the readers mind like a bad smell, there is the possibility of expanding it further into a novel.

 

Finding The Story

Inspired from the true-crime story of Mable Leyshon and her murder by teenager Matthew Hardman in November, 2001[1], I was intrigued by the notion that he believed he was a vampire, and that by drinking her blood he would become immortal. There have been several captivating documentaries about the subject, The Assassination of Mabel Leyshon,[2] The Murder of Mabel Leyshon[3], and The Anglesey Vampire[4] being top of my list. The case also hit terrestrial television, with an entire episode of Killer In My Village[5] being dedicated to the crime. This had a lot more insight, especially from the police investigation point of view, which will prove beneficial should I decide to make this part of my Bloody Ossett! series of crime novels. 


The majority of the research came through reading newspaper reports from the time, which I was lucky enough to still have. There have been some further developments in the case which I have kept up to date with, most notably a chilling article in The Sun[6] which posits that Matthew Hardman would have developed into a serial killer if not captured. As my stories over the last couple of years have developed, I have learnt the valuable need for research, however small. Stephen King warns about going overboard with this, noting that you are not writing a research paper and that the story should always come first[7]. He goes on to say that backstory should remain there, in the back. It is a fine balance but one which has benefitted the story, allowing those few details that help set time and place seed their way into the mind of the reader.


Yet despite all the research, and the strong concept, I was not ready yet to write this tale. It would not be until I took this module and grew a better understanding of short fiction that I felt confident to tackle it.

 

Allowing Myself Time To Develop A Stronger Skill set

This story, like my literary novel The Magpie’s Lament, has sat with me for two decades. I had the need to write a story about an old woman who was killed by a teenager who believed himself to be of supernatural origin. That Stephen King is a big inspiration on my work is obvious, and I felt that I had the kernel of a long story, but I didn’t know exactly how to approach it. Did I want this to be a straight-out supernatural story, or one more grounded in reality? Conrad Jones has written a series of self-published novels which fictionalise several murders, including that of Mable Leyshon in his Anglesey Murders books[8], simply changing the names of those involved but directly chronicling the events. and I didn’t want to do that.


Waiting to write this story until I had the right tools to unearth it has proven invaluable, resulting in a visceral reaction to the short story ending. I’ve not been a huge reader of short fiction, preferring the novel as form. But, as Stephen King states: “[a writer] should write a lot, and read a lot” in order to improve their own skills, and so I read a lot of King’s short stories in Bazaar Of Bad Dreams, and Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On. These two collections were ideal as the story I was wanting to create would be a mesh of crime and the weird.The feedback received from a variety of readers certainly suggests it packs the punch I was looking for, a quality I feel it wouldn’t have had had I attempted to write this back in 2004.


Where once I would have written: 

“…the sensation ran along her arm, making her grimace in pain,”

 

about the feeling of an impending heart attack, by giving myself time to practice, read wider and expand my writing tools results in this instead: 

“…the sensation of ants scribbling across her skin forcing an ugly grimace across Gamma Jacobs face.”

 

I’m not saying it is a perfect sentence, but the alliteration and rhythm is markedly improved, and adds to creating a more atmospheric read.

 

Finding The Perfect Hook

In her essay Structuring A Plot, Kate Ellis talks about her method of pulling all the strands of ideas together into a cohesive story structure[9]. These scraps of ideas might come from newspaper clippings, scribbled notes across numerous notebooks, as well as inspired thoughts as she begins to plot. For this short story I knew that I wanted to open and close with dialogue, book-ending with, hopefully, startling lines that hook the reader at the start, and leave the reader wanting to know more, or at the very least, feeling a little queasy. Again, multiple sources of feedback suggest this was successful. I felt the line: ‘Grab a stick!’ was the perfect place to end the short story, while also leaving me room to breathe more into the tale should I wish. 


Starting the story with a line of dialogue can be risky as the readers know nothing about the speaker or the situation, and that is why I crafted ‘Children shouldn’t play with dead things!’ This not only gives the reader a little unease by posing several questions – who are the children, who is the speaker, and what is the dead thing the children are playing with? – it also foreshadows what is to come later.


I am glad I let this story stew for so long as it has benefited from the extra time for research, growth in the craft and a growing respect for the short story form. I feel I have matured as a writer over the course of this module which has resulted in a stronger story.

 



[1] Helen Carter, Vampire Killer Must Serve 12 Years. 2002. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/aug/03/helencarter [Last Accessed: 03/03/2021]

[2] Top Assassinator Documentary, The Assassination of Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9hcQP_bbJ0 [Last accessed: 17/4/2021]

[3] Mollie Westbrook, The Murder of Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfPi16pty2s [Last Accessed: 3/3/2021]

[4] Ellie Shaw, The Anglesy Vampire | True Crime https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a7ncQE82lM [Last Accessed 15/4/2021]

[5] Murder Crime Documentaries, Killer In My Village – Mabel Leyshon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TubYt6zzJTw [Last Accessed: 10/2/2021]

[6] Maloney, A. BLOOD LUST: Teen ‘Vampire’ who cut out a pensioner’s heart & drank blood from a saucepan ‘would have become a serial killer,’ says cop. The Sun. London. 19/04/2020. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11419233/teen-vampire-matthew-hardman-kids-who-kill/ [Last Accessed: 14/04/2021]

[7] King, S. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. London. Hodder & Stoughton “…remember you are writing a novel, not a research paper.” And “…research is backstory, and the key word in backstory is back.” p.277

[8] Jones, C. The Anglesey Murders: A Visit From The Devil. 2019. Amazon.

[9] Ellis, K. 2020. Structuring A Plot Howdunnit: A Masterclass In Crime Writing. London. HarperCollins. p.156: “But when it’s time for me to start work in earnest, I gather these nebulous thoughts and get them into some sort of order.”

Friday, January 7, 2022

Hobeck Books Signs up three Louise Miller books


Without burying the lead, I signed a three book deal with the fantastic Rebecca Collins and Adrian Hobart who make up Hobeck Books. The first of the Louise Miller novels, Dirty Little Secret, will be published in May 2022 with the second in the series, From Sorrow's Hold, released later in 2022.

The third book, Cut and Shut, is currently being written and research for books four and five is underway.

To say I am thrilled and excited by this development is to put it mildly. I was extremely dejected following the books initial publication and subsequent fallout; a long held dream had been tarnished by what was a shoddy product, and a few people told me it would be hard to come back from that. I looked at going the indie author route myself, but this book and its series needed a publisher behind it and so I started the long process of submitting to agents and some publishers, this time those with a proven track record.

Several people had suggested I get in touch with Hobeck and so I sent off an email explaining the situation I was in. I'd caught them just as they were coming to the end of a submission window and they were happy to take a look.

Let's cut forward to four months later and the thrill and excitement began with an email from Rebecca and Adrian saying they would love to have me onboard and publish my books. We then talked over Zoom about the book and my plans for the series and here we are today, with the announcement being made.

You can read the official press release here: HOBECK BOOKS

I am so pleased and thankful to Rebecca and Adrian for bringing me into their family of authors, and excited about their plans for the Louise Miller books. I can't wait for you to read them.

Dirty Little Secret will be released in May, with From Sorrow's Hold shortly after. The third book, Cut and Shut will be delivered to Hobeck in April - there is no release date to be revealed yet.

Cheers - JP

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Sticks! - For The Love of the Syllabic

This is another essay taken from my 2nd year degree.

I was initially nervous after making the decision to take Poetry. I have never read poetry and till this point, had little time to waste deciphering the author’s intent, and quite what she meant by “the heart beats at morning breeze.[1] I had already convinced myself that this would be a dry class, one that I would probably lose interest in very quickly. I was also scared that it was beyond my reach, that I wasn’t intellectually strong enough to tackle the subject.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong – on all counts. 

I quickly became enthralled by how important poetry, both the understanding and writing of, could impact my prose fiction. In a search for better clarity about poetry, I came across a wonderous explanation of the poem. In his note to Louis Untermeyer, Robert Frost describes a poem in such a vivid, visceral way, that I could see how just how important this class could be to my prose fiction[2]. The small exercises we were tasked to do thrilled me and I found my prose fiction growing stronger as word use, language, rhythm and pacing all took on new, unexplored meanings in my own search for fulfilment, “the emotion finding the thought and the thought finding the words” as Frost put it.

The Syllabic Poem

I have fallen in love with the Syllabic poem, and the act of creating it from a piece of prose. My first attempt at this, Bilbo, received some very encouraging feedback, which actually surprised me, but has spurred me on to continue this style, which is a blend of my fiction writing and my growing love for the poem as form.

DiAmaya Dawn, in her article Syllables and Syllabic Verse[3] discuss the many varieties of syllabic poem, showcasing the extreme versatility of this form, and the near limitless ways it can be applied. From the Haiku, Senryu and Cinquain form to the Tanka, Dodoitsu and Etheree, there are many variations the form can take, each with their own unique limitations and requisites.

What really appealed to me was the way in which the syllabic poem would emerge. Taking a piece of prose fiction, we were to identify strong lines, and then impose the syllabic structure upon it. I found this intriguing and extremely rewarding as it had a very clear schedule I could apply to further exercises outside the classroom.

Starting with the piece of fiction itself, I would then spend time finding those lines that told the story or moved the plot forward. Once isolated it was the next task to start editing these down into the line/syllable/stanza form as decided upon.

This had the feel almost of screenwriting, breaking the piece down into acts, scenes and beats, finding a unique rhythm to the story within a set sequence of guidelines.

Sticks!

Sticks! is a syllabic poem taken from a section of a short story I’ve written, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (CLICK TO READ THE STORY).

What I love about this form of writing poetry is the merging of fiction and poem to create a new narrative within several constraints of syllable count per line, and line count per stanza. To limit the length of the piece in order to focus the power of the story, I will also limit the number of stanzas. Being a tabletop gamer for many years, I roll dice to generate these randomly – D6 (six sided)+6 for number of syllables; D6+2 for number of stanza lines. A D20 (twenty sided) will determine the number of stanzas, totally throwing myself into a structured chaos of creativity or childlike play, to paraphrase Hemingway[4].

For Sticks! I will create a poem of 8 syllables per line, 4 lines per stanza and a total of nine stanzas.

What I love about this style is looking at prose in a new way, with an extremely restrictive structure imposed on the piece to come. This really focuses me on word choice, the power of the sentence and conjured imagery, while maintaining a cohesive narrative that remains true to the original piece of writing. It is a fine juggling act which can be overwhelming at times as I try to get the balance between all the needs of the poem just right.

This is a great exercise to invoke when it comes to writing longer pieces, as the same factors can be considered. I really believe that this has helped my prose writing immensely and it will be an exercise I continue to repeat on each new piece of work.

Finding the Rhythm

In an online article by BBC Bitesize, they discuss the rhythm of poetry, taking what I had already learned and expanding this into areas of iambic pentameter and metrical patterns of dimeter, trimeter and tetrameter, all multiples of the standard metrical foot[5].

At one time I would have found such discussion irrelevant and dull, but with this new appreciation of the form, I can look at this and apply it to my prose fiction.

Moving Beyond

These exercises have been extremely challenging, and the reason I took this module – to stretch myself beyond what I feel comfortable with in terms of my writing. To that end I have started to research syllabic-timed languages (Japanese initially as this also ties into my growing interest in Japanese folktales and short fiction) as well as poets who have dabbled with the syllabic verse such as Dylan Thomas (In My Craft or Sullen Art), Marianne Moore (No Swan So Fine) and Robert Bridges’ (Testament of Beauty).

As I move into my third and final year, I will be taking Advanced Poetry, once again stepping outside my comfort zone. Or as Japanese poet Basho, says:

 

“On a journey, ill;

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields.”[6]

 

STICKS!

Wow. He stands on the garden path

The hastily thrown newspaper

still in the flower bed beside

Gamma Jacobs, face down. Crooked.

 

Her head up. Disjointed angle.

Arm outstretched. Wrinkled skin. Fingers

slick with gathered dew. Skirt hem high.

Black slipper hung. Desperately.

 

Dead old woman. Silent and still,

eyes never moved from the body.

Sally gasped. Karl’s soft sigh of worry.

The silent street. They were alone.

 

Ian so captivated by

Gamma Jacobs head. Sightless eyes,

Shapeless form on hazel surface.

Ian smiled with truth. “Get a stick.”


[1] Mousumi Guha Roy, The Morning Breeze. Best Poems Encyclopedia https://www.best-poems.net/mousumi_guha_roy/the_morning_breeze.html [Last Accessed: 17/4/2021]

[2] Robert Frost, The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. Holt Reinehart, 1963. “A Poem… begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”

[3] DiAmaya Dawn, Syllables and Syllabic Verse. 2020. Lit Up. https://medium.com/lit-up/syllables-and-syllabic-verse-56ffed3dccb8 [Last Accessed: 14/4/2021].

[4] Quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[5] BBC Bitesize, How To Understand Rhythm in Poetry https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zmbj382/articles/zmpxbdm [Last Accessed: 10/4/2021]

[6] Basho. Taken from Hoffmann, Y. (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing


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