Shanta Everington on her new book of life writing

Trigger warning: this blog contains sensitive information about adoption, surrogacy and egg donation.

I am thrilled to be published this month by Routledge with my life writing book, Another Mother Curating and Creating Voices of Adoption, Surrogacy and Egg Donation.

What do you think of when you imagine a ‘mother-to-be’? Is it a woman in skinny jeans checking her phone, waiting to hear if her surrogate has gone into labour? Is it a woman answering a social worker’s questions as she is assessed for her suitability to adopt? Or an egg donor whose genetic child will be born to and raised by another family? Contemporary explorations of motherhood have primarily focused on the biological mother raising the child she gave birth to.

Another Mother Curating and Creating Voices of Adoption, Surrogacy and Egg Donation gives voice to women who become mothers through the routes of adoption, surrogacy and egg donation, and their silent partners – birth mothers, surrogate mothers and egg donors – whose stories remain largely untold. 

The book is based on a life writing research project, which I undertook for a PhD in Creative Writing with the OU, graduating at the Barbican Centre, London, in March 2023.

The project was inspired by my own experience of adopting my second child. To help me make sense of my own journey from secondary infertility to adoption, I was consumed by a need to read diverse reflections and representations of mothering. Jackie Kay and Jeanette Winterson have published highly moving accounts of the adoptee’s experience (Kay, 2010; Winterson, 2011). Yet the voices of adoptive mothers – and indeed birth mothers whose children are adopted – are largely absent in literature. As are the memoirs of surrogate mothers who give birth to children for other mothers to raise, and egg donors whose genetic offspring are out there in the world with other families. I decided I wanted to write their stories.

I knew this would be a complex project involving nuanced ethical and artistic considerations and decided that doctoral study would provide the support and rigour required. The research was supported by the OU Human Research Ethics Committee. Building on the work of oral historians, I interviewed six women, drawing on a range of interdisciplinary approaches. The research presents the stories of (all names have been changed): Alison, a mother via egg donation and adoption; Charlotte, an egg donor; Rubi, who became a mother through surrogacy in India; Robin, a surrogate mother; Lorraine, an adoptive mother of two who was adopted herself as a baby; Margaret, a birth mother in her seventies who gave her baby up for adoption fifty years ago. My responses to the interviews, and my own personal experience of pregnancy loss and adoption, offer a seventh voice.

The first interviewee, Alison, showed me an embroidered quilt that her mother-in-law created to tell their family story — a pocket of a toddler’s jeans, the ribbon from a present, etc. This notion of the quilt, a tapestry, a rich woven artistic product encompassing different images, threads and stories became a metaphor for the way the project unfolded, combining different voices, registers, stories and forms. Working with the interview material, I produced a body of life writing – a literary tapestry – as a hybrid form of curated material (edited interviews and selected quotations from published work) and created material (poetry, reimagined scenes and lyric essay), accompanied by a critical meta-narrative.

The experimental form builds on the work of others, particularly: Tony Parker’s oral histories (Parker, 1972), Bahktin’s ‘heteroglossia’ (Bahktin, 1982), Roland Barthes’s ‘structural portrait’ (Barthes, 1977), Carolyn Ellis’s ‘autoethnography’ (2003), David Shields’ ‘collage as an evolution beyond narrative’ (Shields, 2011) and Jo Parnell’s ‘literary docu-memoir’ (Parnell, 2019).

The experience was transformative, as a writer and a mother. The process changed the way I approached life writing: I learned that editing interviews is a creative act, allowing patterns, motifs and themes to emerge, while revering the interviewee’s individuality and personal diction. Colour and texture were added through my creative responses.

On a personal level, as a biological and adoptive mother, I undertook the process of researching and writing these mothers’ stories as a quest to deepen my own understanding of what it means to mother a child when your child has another mother (through adoption, surrogacy or egg donation). Undertaking this research helped me to expand my own understanding of the complex and evolving landscape of motherhood through adoption, surrogacy and egg donation. Ultimately, I hope the book will help readers do the same.

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Novelised memoir published under pen name

Recently I’ve published Only Hummingbirds Fly Backwards under the pen name of Rosie Parker. This is because it’s a change from my usual genre, and also because it’s a novelised memoir.

The novel took me many years to get to this stage, as I struggled to find the right form in which to publish this story of a young man who goes out on his motorbike one sunny April’s day, has a freak accident, and is changed forever. Loosely based on my own brother’s brain injury, I wanted to fictionalise it so that I could write in a more honest and authentic way than if I was constantly worried about what our parents, or his family might have to say!

I’m very proud of this novel. Indeed, Lola Jaye, the prize-winning author of Attic Child, said: “Rosie Parker has woven together a poignant tale of heartbreak, love and loss – done so with her familiar mix of warmth, humour and empathy.”

I have also given an interview for the RNA writer’s blog where I discuss why and how I wrote this novel:

Rosie Parker – Only Hummingbirds Fly Backwards

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Patrick Wright on his new poetry collection Full Sight of Her

‘These are love poems at their most intense. Poems that celebrate the beloved as an artist with an alchemist’s imagination and bide closely to her through illness in such a deeply affecting way that as a reader, I felt her loss as a palpable ache. The backdrop of this collection is seaside clutter and the impossible metaphysics of plastic chairs, beachside cafes and a dark sea that threatens at the edge of everything to drown even daffodil light with its shade.’

So writes Helen Ivory, in response to my debut poetry collection, Full Sight Of Her (Eyewear, 2020).

Many of these poems were written after my beloved’s passing, in June of 2017. In fact, most were written long before she was unwell. Now as I read them back, the poems, arranged roughly in chronological order, offer a narrative arc of foreshadowings, premonitions and omens; there are also call-backs to previous losses. I have been left wondering if we were precognitive in some way, and surreptitious knowledge of the future was playing itself out in a series of psychodramas. Later, I became aware of the Cassandra Complex: to be cursed with a vision of the future and to not be listened to. Mourning is foreseen as though a script was written. Clues of what is to come are there, in plain sight, though they cannot be easily voiced – as is the case in ‘What You Call Your “Winter Mode”’:

I think of your blood, your bowel, your mother
‘like this her age’, juggling Naproxen and Co-codamol.
I think of your liver, think of your organs, think
still of your brain in its skull as you sleep;
I think of your sunken eye sockets,
the flight of your face in dream.

This collection provides only a perspectival and partial truth. The moments of bliss are usually not represented here. They were elsewhere, and joy had no reason to be recorded. The poems refer not to what’s noticed in the daylight, waking hours, rather to night thoughts and dark mirrors that betray what’s repressed; a compartmentalised darkness that allows the rest of life to be liveable. As John McAuliffe writes, ‘Patrick Wright’s moving, powerful Full Sight of Her takes its reader to fearful, anxious places, describing love and care which come under terrible pressure.  Wright’s bereaved, often bereft poems find words to protect the self, this lover who must become a “widower, prizing thumbnails” in the book’s densely visual poems, a man for whom even the “town scenery is full of tears”. Throughout, Wright finds forms which offer some protection for the bare feelings and memories the poems navigate, stanzas and shapes which mean that, as he writes, “I proceed on the basis of metaphor” even as he knows that he must “wear the scar.”’ Likewise, for Gail Ashton, ‘the sensual, anatomised poems … travel through interior and external landscapes, “the body’s catacombs”, to track apparitions, hospital wards, the night terrors of illness. These places where “the joke begins to wear itself thin” nevertheless brim with light, colour, scent. At once loss and redemption, its song of “I” to “you” is almost unbearably intimate and always extraordinary. In this heart-aching collection Wright is “faithful all along” to lyrical form and its “limitless repertoire of love.”’

The spaces depicted are fraught with introspection: they’re hotel rooms, bedrooms, waiting rooms; spaces of domestic anxiety and tension. Later poems address illness, loss, and grief more directly; they churn up past traumas and ask metaphysical questions – such as ‘The Waiting Room’:


Upstairs, she starts her chemo; down here it’s limbo.
Down here, an anteroom where outpatients mingle.
Everything tinged with the unreal:
from plasma screens to the walls and the vending machine –
its crisps and sweets glint with surplus significance
The nurse offers me watermelon, hands me Allsorts;
the nurse smiles like no angel, a smile unreadable.

Upstairs, a cannula’s attached to her arm. Assistants whisper
and carboplatin gets pumped through the heart’s blood
to zap the cells gone astray since surgery.
Here that’s about all I know, with uncertainty.
No one talks, not even couples beside each other
in the bucket chairs.
Though the ghosts in the empty ones talk. They talk to me.

The final few poems are perhaps the most harrowing: the speaker lost in a state of numbness and dissociation. ‘The End’, for instance, is replete with images of apocalypse and nihilism:

With the close of a hospice door, clunk of a saloon, tyres
on gravel: an ending if ever there was one. Let us slalom
round statues of Mary, grottos in grounds, funerary fetishes.

Let it end with handed-over possessions, towels, slippers,
photo off the wall (she never saw), smell of softened linens,
folded neatly with inventory, for no-one especially.

Ask for no heroes, villains, nick-of-time pliers on wires,
no H-bomb to defuse on the horizon. Ask for nothing
as the sun pops, extinguishes. Let it end as a balloon.

Let the chauffeur pull unsmilingly through the driveway.
Let the leaves fall sometimeish in September.
Let unhappy accidents happen on dual carriageways.

These are by no means ‘garden-variety elegies’ as Maggie Smith has observed in the Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 anthology. They reveal a range of psychological complexities – often directed to God or the nature of human suffering. Here I have tried to bear witness, stricken at times with guilt about potential voyeurism, to the limits of love and pain. This has been done, though, with the hope that the journey – my Via Dolorosa – will connect with readers or provide solace for those who’ve lived through similar grief.

As a whole, the collection is described well by Patricia McCarthy, who observes: ‘This powerfully moving, even harrowing, collection cuts to the very heart of loss. Yet it also celebrates a very special, strong, sensuous love that over-rides mental illness, an age-gap, and eventual physical illness, leading to the slow death of the beloved. These poems, while honouring his lover for her talent as an artist, her femininity and eccentricity, do not shy away from the graphic. They explore, analyse and sensitively articulate, through startling vivid images, often impressionistic and surreal, a whole world of time present and past, urban landscapes, seasides, claustrophobic interiors, ghosts, different kinds of sight and the liminal, questionable borders between dream and reality in a recognisable world of medicines, mobile phones and selfies. The haunting final elegy unites all the previous poems and demonstrates achingly “the price of love”. This is a poet to watch.’

Patrick Wright is an Associate Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University.

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Angel Fur from Fact to Fiction

Csilla Toldy writes about the creative process of fictionalising in her short story collection Angel Fur and other stories

Thirty one years ago I watched the Berlin Wall being demolished, and relished in the global euphoria that signalled the end of the Cold War. The Iron Curtain had a personal significance in my life and I was happy to witness its destruction. I fictionalised aspects of my defection from Hungary in my writings and many of the stories included in my collection “Angel Fur” are based on facts I heard during my childhood, or based on research into the lives of people whose personal stories touched me in some important way.

My growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Socialist Hungary was a somewhat schizophrenic experience. I suppose, I was imbued with my mother’s fear, and her bedtime stories about her childhood during the Second World War and the Stalin Terror in Budapest. As a young girl she watched the Arrow Cross soldiers taking Jewish people to be shot into the Danube, and Pest being carpet bombed by the Allies. She was terrified when Hungarian Nazi soldiers threatened her pregnant aunt, telling her that she would be pushed into the line with the Jews, for showing compassion. My mother believed that by telling these stories to her children, she could stop history repeating itself. She inspired me to research and write about the actress Katalin Karady’s life who saved Jewish children, in “Kata’s Ark”.

Hungary was ‘liberated’ by the Russians and after a while my mother accepted this, too, even though she had to hide together with all the other women left behind, trying to avoid being raped by their Russian liberators.  My maternal grandfather had served as a field nurse on the Russian front and was interred for three years as a war prisoner in Siberia. On his return to Hungary it became clear that he had not only contracted TB but also Communist Propaganda. His advice to his children was to join the Communist Party, for he had seen how Stalin treated his own people if they disagreed with the doctrines of his regime. Joining the party was a survival instinct, but it also resonated with a sense of social justice they shared, having come from a working class background.

On the paternal side, my father was always critical of the regime and my mother’s party membership, calling her a “sheep”. The analogy came to him naturally. I am sure that he had never read Animal Farm. It was first serialised in Hungarian in 1978 in a samizdat magazine. As a silent protestor behind the closed doors of his home, my father never joined the party, not even the trade union.  I followed in his footsteps, when I was old enough to make up my own mind. Outside, in the street my father was quiet and aloof, while my mother was bubbly and open, yet her cheeriness always felt somewhat false. I was much older when I found out about my great uncle who had been taken from a tram for telling a ‘joke’ about Rakosi – the Stalinist leader of Hungary in the nineteen fifties. Uncle Endre became one of the disappeared but people knew that he must have been beaten to death in a cellar with his body never found – this was a treatment so many suffered during the terror years of the Stalinist ‘purging’. So, my mother knew how to behave in public and this might have still influenced her when we were travelling to the kindergarden on a yellow tram in the nineteen sixties. There was always a tension between being “outside” and “inside” and ultimately, people kept to themselves and to their families. My memory of travelling to the kindergarden is speckled with my mother’s outside stories. During her trip to Moscow, sponsored by the Trade Union after her first husband’s death she saw Lenin’s embalmed body laid out in a glass coffin, just like Snow White in my fairy tales. The most intriguing detail for me was the fact that Lenin’s beard and nails were still growing. This old childhood tale inspired the opening flash fiction piece “Necrophilia”, about Lenin’s barber. One of the inside stories is “The Joke”, in which I was trying to imagine how my uncle felt in his last hours in that cellar before he died.

While in Germany it was a double line of heavy concrete walls, the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary was a parallel running high electrical fence that enclosed a 300 feet wide stripe of a  ‘no-man’s land’, layed with mines. Many people died trying to get over this, but in Yugoslavia the Iron Curtain was perforated with many holes and it was much easier to cross. This was all we knew when we ventured on the journey with my boyfriend, shortly after my eighteenth birthday. He had more reason to leave than I, for he had been enlisted. My reasons were partly emotional and mostly ideological: the constant pestering by the police, and the general cruelty and disrespect of the basic Human Rights, especially the Freedom of Speech. My boyfriend, like many other young men of his generation had staged fake suicides in public toilets to be exempted from military service, and I fictionalised the witnessing of these in “Freedom”. 

Reaching freedom after defecting was nothing like the ideal, though. In my story, “Mother’s Words” a Polish girl finds it in a refugee camp in a similarly disillusioning form.  

I was numb for many years and was completely disappointed with both systems, yet I learned that most of the population, including my family, had been conditioned to put up with them. They were the happy prisoners on the other side of the Iron Curtain, like my fellow refugees nurturing the hope of a future, happy life on this side in the camp in Germany. People who knew how to manipulate the system enjoyed liberties that others could not. In my flash fiction story, “Howl”, about a pack of wolves, I played with this idea taking it a bit further into the future. 

I was numb for long, not only because of the traumatic experience of the escape, having made myself homeless, but also because of the guilt about leaving my family behind. Yet, nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother tongue. I spoke a few European languages well enough to get by, and enjoyed reading works in original, but the language of my heart, Hungarian, the intimate melody of my childhood was muted, and for good as it seemed. You think in your mother tongue for a long-long time until one day images take over and then suddenly you have a choice – which language would describe it best? Now I write in English and sometimes translate my own work into Hungarian for reading events, but always with a certain dread of censoring myself. – This could have been my inside story, but here you are.

Csilla Toldy is a tutor on A215 Creative writing. Her book is published by Stupor Mundi.

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Laundry, Littleness and Lyricism: Writing Therese, by Sarah Law

I have had the great honour of seeing my collection Thérèse: Poems published this month (September 2020) by Paraclete Press, a US publisher with a small but striking poetry list, including books by Scott Cairns, Sophia Starnes, and (forthcoming) Laura Reece Hogan. Thérèse might seem like an odd choice for a twenty-first century poetry project, so I’d like to explore my reasons for writing about her – if indeed ‘reasons’ are to be found.

Thérèse Martin (1873-97) was a French Carmelite nun who died young in the small Normandy town of Lisieux. Although she lived a brief and decidedly unremarkable life, she was canonised in 1925. Those of you who were brought up Catholic (I was not) might associate her with somewhat simpering art and statuary, and an equally simpering spirituality. Her life and writing were presented through a decidedly saccharine filter for at least the first half of the twentieth century, and indeed images of Thérèse as an anodyne rose-clutching nun still widely persist. But through all the years I have heard and read about her, something has caught at my wayward heart, for want of a better way of putting it. A couple of things finally prompted me into engaging with Thérèse in the way I knew best: writing poetry.

I do have a bit of form in writing about spirituality. I have a longstanding connection with Julian of Norwich and the Julian Centre in Norwich where I used to work, and have written essays and lectures about Julian, and a poetry collection about her fellow medieval Norfolk visionary Margery Kempe too (in Ink’s Wish). Three years ago, I set up and edit Amethyst Review, an online lit journal for new writing engaging with the sacred. But I also have a background as a bit of an experimentalist in poetry (including two collections with Shearsman) and still like to read, write and generally encourage innovative work.

So why Thérèse? The first aspect of Thérèse that interested me was the wealth of detail available about her constrained life. A writer herself, her own memoir (The Story of a Soul) records many luminous incidents which lend themselves to poetry. The smallest of gestures, images and experiences are there to be pondered over, such as Thérèse’s description of once taking the elevator, as a teenager in a Parisian hotel, or of being splashed with dirty laundry water later on in the convent. Both of these moments became prompts for poems.

These are hard days:
the sodden sheets, robes, scapulars
are scrubbed with salt and ash

and now need rinsing,
rolling, beating, rinsing again,
in the convent’s wash-house pool.

(from ‘Laundry’)

Thérèse herself was fond of the word ‘little’ and to me the relatively minimal nature of lyric poetry felt a good fit for reflecting on her life – small and constrained in outward form, but pointing towards a much larger dimension through its necessarily careful use of line and phrase. Thérèse is also, famously, a saint of simplicity (she once claimed that reading weighty spiritual texts just gave her a headache) and so I sought a simplicity of style, consciously diverging from my poetic approach to the eccentric Margery Kempe. Thérèse cherished humility but was also ambitious – for example, despite the gendered restrictions of her era, she harboured longings to be doctor, priest, and missionary; she was good-humoured and sweet-natured, but also a tough mentor to the other novices – and I found myself caught up in paradox as I considered her life. And while she is sometimes thought of as childish, the way she bore with her own illness and periods of despair was gritty and heroic. I struggled with whether and how to depict this in poetry, wanting neither to minimise her trials, nor become what Heaney might describe as an ‘artful voyeur’ of the suffering of another. In the end, I just wrote the poems that wanted to be written.

Little Lamp

Little lamp, whose wick
she pulls up with a pin

flickers in the dark night,
is a little spark

in which she kindles
a few more little words,

little glass inkwell
in which she spits

to make the blackness
last a little longer

lets her write
her little scraps of faith

traced with ink and blood
in the dark June nights.

Secondly, Thérèse is one of the earliest saints to be photographed. Alongside Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, she is the best-known female saint of the nineteenth century partly because of the photographic images that remain. Many of these were taken by her own sister Céline, after she too became a nun. Photography in the 1880s and 1890s was a laborious process, requiring nine seconds of exposure and hours of subsequent darkroom development, yet Céline still managed a variety of memorable shots featuring or including Thérèse – some are sombre and posed, others capture the otherwise hidden happiness of a women’s community at work and recreation.

Some look at the camera in its box,
as the slow photo’s taken,
their eyes meet ours across

more than a hundred sepia years
and they darn and daub, and smile
at long-gone comments.

(from ‘Recreation in the Alley of the Chestnut Trees, 1895’)

Finding all of the extant photos of Thérèse online a few years ago led me to dwell on them and to some extent in them, caught by their simultaneous alterity and familiarity. I found myself drawing on the poetic practice of ekphrasis, feeling my way to a balance between visual description and imaginative reflection. I’ve even been able to include a few of the photos in my book, thanks to permissions from the Archives and Office Central de Lisieux.

I was fortunate to be invited to submit my manuscript to Paraclete’s poetry editor and have been impressed by Paraclete’s careful editing and production process. My hope is that the collection works both as a biography in verse, and as a gathering of individual poems that each seek to say something about Thérèse’s life, time, and paradoxical sanctity. 


The snow she’d always loved –
delicate and white,
winter blossom, heavenly
host melting on the tongue;
each communion unique
and given freely – so
she dared to pray for snow
to mark her vows, prayed to be
given to the cold; resolved
to the filigree of soul-work –
dissolved at the ushering
of the sky’s breath.

Dr Sarah Law is a tutor for the Open University’s MA in Creative Writing. Follow her on twitter @drsarahlaw

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‘A dress for Kathleen’: family history in text and textiles

Every family has shadow people, the ones who slipped out of the story too soon, leaving a blank space where they should have been. In my father’s family that person was his sister Kathleen. She died after falling from her bicycle on her way home from work in December 1939, just a few weeks short of her fifteenth birthday.


Kathleen had stayed late that evening at the linen mill where she was a trainee typist, before setting off to cycle the six miles home on a dark country road. It was the wartime blackout laws that were her undoing. Cyclists were obliged to shade their bicycle lamps so that enemy aircraft couldn’t see the light from above. With only a feeble beam shining on the patch of road directly under her front wheel, Kathleen had no chance of seeing the local farmer making his way home on foot. She swerved sharply at the last minute, fell from her bike and suffered a catastrophic head injury. She died two days later without regaining consciousness.

Writers like to impose pattern onto the muddle of experience, to shape the arbitrary into a narrative arc. I wanted to do something different for Kathleen. What if, instead of writing about her, I made a gift for her? A way of honouring the short time she had and mourning the many years she never saw. I imagined a different future for her, one where her supervisor had let her leave work fifteen minutes earlier or made her stay ten minutes later that wet December evening in 1939. Or where the farmer had been delayed in setting out for another half an hour. A future where that quiet, disastrous collision had never happened, and Kathleen had cycled safely on home. In that future she’d have celebrated her twenty-first birthday by having a dress made. It would not have been extravagant – simple cotton, no doubt, but pretty enough to wear to a dance. And that is how ‘A dress for Kathleen’ began. I would make a dress for her. I would tell her story in stitch.

DressSewing requires concentration and attention to detail – it can’t be done mindlessly. It’s absorbing, but at the same time seems to open up a breathing space in the mind where ideas come out to play almost unnoticed. Textile craft speaks to the human need to make. Anything we make with our own hands carries with it a story.

The dress I made for Kathleen tells her story both in form and words. The dress itself is made from linen woven in the mill where she worked. The dressmaking pattern is from 1946, the year she would have turned twenty-one.

I wanted my Kathleen to be alert to the world around her – its smells and colours and tastes. So I began to write fictional fragments, imagining her journey to and from work that summer of 1939, inventing her memories. Then I stitched the words onto the dress.

Writing in stitch was a laborious, time-consuming task. The words became a physical thing as well as a symbol or signifier. The dress was in my hands every day, and I came to know how the fabric responded, how best to work with it. There was a sense of connection – communion, almost – that doesn’t happen when writing with any other media.

Dress close up

In addition to the words, I embellished the dress with various images, printed onto silk: old family photographs, a picture of the house where Kathleen grew up, my grandfather’s army record, pages from the linen mill’s order book. The back skirt of the dress has a map of the district stitched on it, based on an Ordnance Survey map from 1900. Finally, I appliquéd the whole garment with scraps of vintage floral cotton-linen fabric – the sort of fabric Kathleen might have had made into a dress.

So the story is made of linen. It’s compact and unassuming, like the young woman it was made to fit, a young woman with the slim waist and narrow back of her wartime generation. It’s embellished with scraps and fragments – words, pictures, maps and absences. There are loose threads and frayed hems, because Kathleen’s was an unfinished story. I once read that when a person dies young, they cast a shadow across all the years they should have lived, and it’s true that the pain of Kathleen’s death is still felt – albeit faintly – within the family. But ‘A dress for Kathleen’ is not about shadows. It’s about life, in all its quiet glory.


Heather Richardson is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing

See more about Heather’s creative writing and visual art on her Instagram accounts:


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Writing for the Ear and the Rise of Audiobooks

As a writer with a background in radio, I’m really excited by the rise of audiobooks. The market is growing in double digits each year, and publishers are commissioning audio original fiction. More and more people are listening to books, and even calling it ‘reading’.

Writing for Audiobooks Jules Horne Method WritingAnd although the change is driven by cutting-edge technology, it’s paradoxically taking us right back to the days of campfire storytelling. The spoken word, rather than the written word, is gaining ascendance. Writing for performance is jostling with writing designed for the page. And this will inevitably have an impact on how writers write.

Some writers are already geared up for this realignment. Either they’re already experienced in script, radio or spoken word, or they’re a writer who naturally has a voice-first writing or editing style. Philip Pullman, for example, has talked about the musicality of writing and how he feels the shape of a sentence before he knows what’s in it. Many writers read their work out loud to get a sense of its music. Poets are often used to performing their work and gauging how it lands aloud.


A studio of one’s own?

But many writers aren’t tuned in to audio-first writing. They may not even realise it’s different to writing for the eye. And if they’re hoping to produce their books in audio format, they’ll struggle, unless they learn a few voice-first techniques.

I’ve trained in radio writing, including news and features, and had several plays and stories on BBC Radio. I also perform spoken word and music. So it was time to pull together some of the techniques I’ve gathered on the way.

Writing for the Ear: Audio-First for Flow and Impact is about the art and craft of writing in an audio-friendly way, and how to adapt your writing for audiobook production. Some of the concepts are intuitive and based on the ancient art of rhetoric. Some come from music – the idea of upbeats and pulse, for example. Others come from performance and are about flow and landing. Still others come from psychology and theories about engagement.

Here are some key concepts to start you thinking:

Writing as script

Once your novel is handed to a narrator to read aloud, it becomes a script. You are now a scriptwriter. Embrace that mindset shift. When you read your work aloud, don’t just mumble it into the page. Perform it, even just to the room. This is very different to an interior read.

Writing for an audience

Not just a reader – an audience. The Other is a condition of performance. A living, breathing person will physically experience your work. This, too, is a mindset shift for many writers used to an interior way of working and thinking. There are fewer places to hide.


It takes time to tune into the spoken word and different voices. Transitions need to be far more carefully handled, as listeners don’t have the luxury of flicking backwards on the runaway train that is audio. Signposts are paramount.


Actors and comedians often talk about whether a line lands. This is about how it hits the audience, and about rhythm and salience. In poetry, you’ll think about line beginnings and endings and making the most of those prominent positions. In audio, you need to do the same. Elements that are just about findable in a torrent of prose will disappear in an audiobook, unless you give them listening space.

Audio-first writing

There’s lots more to consider, including how to handle arcs, spans and flow, and techniques radio writers use for number-heavy and visual material.

But for a real test of your writing in audio form, you need to actually record your writing. It’s best to do this before you go to the expense of hiring a studio. It takes a couple of days to record a 50k novel, so you want to be sure your writing is ready. Use your phone and listen back. Some writers swear by using a text-to-speech narrator to get the necessary distance from their work.

And even after you’ve carefully edited your work, you’ll always find further blips during recording. Some things will turn out surprisingly hard to say in the moment. Others won’t land clearly. Collect this mark-up as you go, as a separate editing pass. It can usually be fed back into your manuscript. A kind of audio-first proofing!

The first few times you do this, it’s a lot of work. But over time, your ear gets tuned into the audio-first way of writing and editing. You no longer need to make so many adjustments. And your editing skills improve no end, because anything baggy or unclear will be obvious.

Or, you could go the whole way and write audio-first. In other words, write the book-script, record it and then publish the print and ebook. I think more and more writers will do this, and that’s how I wrote this book. It’ll be interesting to see (and hear) how it affects writing style in years to come.

Jules Horne teaches on A363 and the Open University MA course, A802 and A803. She lives in Scotland.

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Moscow and the 1970s – researching the novel – Sarah Armstrong

All novels need research, but some need a bit more research than others. My third novel, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, is a cold-war story of a young British embassy wife, Martha, who lives in a communist apartment block in Moscow. I had to discover as much as I could about Soviet Moscow and the 1970s before I started writing. I have never been to Moscow, and don’t remember much of the 1970s, but both the place and time were interesting to me, and that is essential for researching any project which might take a year, or more.

IBook cover: The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt started off with a broad overview of the USSR and the period, 1970-1980, reading a range of historical and political texts, as well as books written on and by those who spied for and against Britain and the USSR. Memoirs written by visitors to Moscow were especially useful for giving me everyday details I could include, but once I’d chosen the year there were other ways in which my research became more targeted. This is where the Open University library came in.

Limiting the year of publication when searching key words and phrases gave me access to contemporary materials, and raised ideas I hadn’t considered. In the novel, Martha is struggling to make sense of the restricted world she finds herself in, and is relieved to meet Eva, an ex-British citizen who has renounced her nationality to live in Soviet Russia. Finding out that not only were pets popular, but that 1973 was the year that the first dog owners club was set up in Moscow, the Moscow Association of Amateur Breeders, led me to give Eva her dog which made her more accessible to Martha. I had imagined Soviet Russia to be a place where pets were a luxury, and these answers to questions I didn’t know I had proved very important to my understanding of the place.

I was also fortunate that this particular place and time was caught on tape and photographs and I could watch tourist information films and snippets from television news reports. I also found sites which detailed daily reports on the weather in Moscow, calendars, sunrise and sunset times, music, propaganda posters, contemporary Russian and British novels, as well as modern British novels set in Moscow in the 1970s. I looked at the influence of space travel on Soviet designs of everything from matchboxes to samovars to vacuum cleaners. Ex-CIA maps revealed the huge amount of green space within the city, so I printed some out as well as other images as ways to visually ground myself in the setting, and then started to collect metal Soviet badges.

Knowing a place and time isn’t just about understanding what happened there. It is also about understanding the weather conditions, the clothes and the food. My research of Moscow started with a few stereotypical ideas (that it would be very cold and concrete and fearful) only to have all of my assumptions challenged. The environment, the heat and the dogs all enhanced my discovery of Soviet Moscow.

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt is available from Hive as an e-book and a hardback:

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Tutor Nessa O’Mahony writes about her new crime novel The Branchman

Most people know me as a poet. I’ve been writing poetry since the early 1990s and have been lucky enough to have books published with a fine poetry press, Salmon. But I’ve always been interested in stories. Many of my poems had a strong narrative thread; I explored family history, in particular the exciting life led by my maternal grandparents during the first quarter of the 20th century. Granddad fought in all the conflicts of that period, from World War 1 through the War of Independence to the Civil War. My grandmother lived through that brutal period, and saw many acts of violence in her own home town of Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. Poetry allowed me to get inside the heads of these characters via dramatic monologue; I enjoyed the compression that the poem required, and the tension with the expansiveness that storytelling called for.

But the more I researched my grandfather’s life, the more I read of the chaotic period that followed Civil War and the early years of the fledging Irish State. Essentially Ireland was in a limbo where war had petered out rather than ended, and many people hung on to the arms they’d been using during the war. Added to that were the tens of thousands of men made redundant by the National Army, many of whom had no work to go to. The recipe was civil disorder on a massive scale. So it struck me forcefully that there would be a terrific novel, or series of them, to be written about extraordinary period when people were emerging stunned, brutalised and shaken by a decade of violence. I looked on the shelves of bookshops and libraries, but couldn’t see anything. There have been some wonderful examples of Irish historic crime fiction in recent years, but they were either set earlier (Conor Brady, Kevin McCarthy) or later (Joe Joyce, for example).

So I decided to have a go. I’ve spent my life teaching students that we should learn through practice, so that’s what I set out to do with my first crime novel, The Branchman. I began at the beginning – well, first let me stop and wind back a little earlier to when it really started. I began with books. I grew up reading crime – Agatha Christie was my teenage obsession – and I’ve always loved the TV police procedurals on the Morse / Endeavour / Lewis model. I love character-driven mysteries, where we discover the truth at the same pace as the protagonists.

So back to my second beginning, when I signed up for a crime-writing course being taught by Louise Phillips at the Irish Writers Centre. Over ten weeks, Louise taught a room crammed with crime fiction enthusiasts the basics of narrative, structure, building suspense and creating character. Some of the principles I was already familiar with, having taught fiction for a number of years, but the specific requirements of crime-writing were new to me. So too was the practical advice on how to write a novel, bit by bit. As a poet, I’d always been overwhelmed at the scale of a novel; used to writing in short bursts, I couldn’t imagine having the stamina to write up to 100,000 words. But Louise sensibly pointed out that a novel grows; if you write 500 words a day, in six months you’d have 90,000 words and more. Louise handed us out a grid marked out in days and weeks, and invited us to put in our daily word count. For a literalist such as me, that was all the encouragement I needed. I proudly handed in my weekly word count, and by the end of the course I had more than 15000 words written.

Sustaining that momentum in the weeks and months after the course proved difficult. A jobbing writer, I had assignments to mark, courses to teach, life to live; the sorts of excuses we all find ourselves making. And yet I didn’t want to waste what I had already done, or stop thinking about the story and characters I had already been imagining.

So I resumed my daily schedule, getting up at 5.30 (thanks, hormones, for that extra time gained) and working to produce at least 1,000 words each day. By the following spring, I had a complete first draft. Then, two things happened, one unfortunate, one incredibly fortunate. I’d given the first draft to my brother, who had a friend who was an avid reader of the sort of book I was trying to write. He’d passed it on and promised to revert with feedback. Time passed, and there was no word. When I finally followed up, he airily mentioned that it hadn’t held his friend who’d given up after 60 pages. I discovered this on the first day of a writer’s retreat where I’d planned to spend the time redrafting the novel. The reader’s response devastated me; I sat surrounded by proof pages and crushed ambitions.

The fortunate thing happened on the same day. I was contacted by a wonderful writer, Ferdia MacAnna. He was calling about something else entirely, but I took the opportunity to vent my distress. He offered to read the offending 60 pages and, when he contacted me a short while later to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the whole draft, making very constructive suggestions for improvement, I knew I’d found a trusted editor. I’d also re-found my confidence.

With Ferdia’s advice I completed three further drafts, and by the Autumn of 2017 it was ready to send out. I began the task of researching the names of agents and publishers, feeling that UK big names were the place to start. Not surprisingly, I got very little response (only one agent replied of the three I’d identified). Crestfallen yet again, I began to wonder if the type of novel I was writing (a historic crime fiction set in the post Civil War period) was more suited to the Irish market.

At this point, fate intervened once more. I got a phone call from the publisher, Alan Hayes of Arlen House, who I had worked with on a critical study of Eavan Boland that I’d edited alongside Siobhán Campbell. He asked how the novel was going, and I told him. He offered to read it and, a few months later, told me he’d loved it, and would be happy to publish it. That simple.

Though of course nothing is ever that simple. As anyone who has published a book will know, getting it out there is just the start of it. It’s a constant challenge to get readership, to get space on those bookshelves I pored over looking for the sorts of narratives I wanted to read. I’ve had a great word of mouth response from initial readers, and amazing support from festival organisers and libraries (note to new writers – it’s always worth directly emailing librarians to ask if they’ll stock your book – they often will). So the story is still only beginning for me and for my Detective, Michael Mackey. How long it will last remains to be seen.

The Branchman, by Nessa O’Mahony, is published by Arlen House. It can be ordered online via Book Depository

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Crossing art forms – dramatic techniques and fiction writing

One especially rewarding aspect of the Open University MA course in Creative Writing is the chance to make a sideways swerve into another writing form. So, for example, poets can try their hands at fiction for a term, and non-fiction writers discover the different rhythms and possibilities of scriptwriting.

As a fiction writer turned playwright who’s also had a go at song lyrics, this cross-genre exploration is dear to my heart. Each writing world has its own concepts, and I’ve learned so much from each.

In particular, dramatic techniques from live drama have transformed my relationship with writing and editing. Concepts such as beats, reversals, ritual, status and transformation; thinkers like Stanislavski, Goffman, Berne and Bachelard have so much to offer fiction writers, especially when it comes to shape and deep structure. After years of evangelising about the powerful concepts of drama to writers of all persuasions, I decided to compile them into a book.

dramatic-techniques-jules-horneDramatic Techniques for Creative Writers covers the ground I wish I’d known about when starting out as a playwright. It’s an eclectic mix of techniques to power up your writing and make your storytelling bolder, more engaging, and more compelling.

Why are dramatic techniques so powerful? Because they’ve been test-driven for centuries in front of unforgiving live audiences. They’ve passed many other filters, too, before a word you’ve written reaches an audience – actors, director, producer and your own experience of living, breathing language in the amplifying echo chamber of the rehearsal room. So as a playwright, you undergo (in some case, endure!) full-on, experiential, fast-track learning about flow, rhythm, engagement, and so much else.

Here are a few of the dramatic storytelling tools I’ve drawn on in my fiction:

Spatial thinking

How do you establish your written world? Is it inside or outside your narrator’s head, or somewhere between? What broad brush-strokes are needed to make the context clear?

Transformations and reversals

In a story, something changes. On stage, that change is made visible. From… to… creates a strong narrative shape. How can you use transformation to create a bold story?

Powerful images

The central images in some of Shakespeare’s plays – Juliet / balcony, Hamlet/ skull, Bottom/ ass’s head – are so clear and simple that they translate into any culture, yet resonate with great complexity. Is your core visual image just as clear?

Performance as metaphor

Erving Goffman’s work shows how an audience makes people behave differently, responding to status, complex social roles, forming tribes, and so on. How can this be used to add layers and tension to your writing?

Dramatic actions

Characters with burning desires that are thwarted create knotty emotional complexity and strong stories. How can you use Stanislavski’s ideas on impulses and motivation to give your characters momentum?

Aside: it’s true that not all fiction writers need or want to use these techniques. Fiction can live in different and subtle spaces of the mind, and has its own concepts and creative vocabulary. But dramatic techniques read at a distance, and I find them a great help with bold writing decisions, especially when structuring a scene or mapping a story.

Jules Horne teaches on A363 and the Open University MA course and lives in Scotland.

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