FJ Morris is the author of ‘In a Small Pond’, a short story we published in Issue 6 of Firewords. Since then, she has published a brilliant collection of her own and in this article she shares some thoughts on how she managed to succeed.
Record-breaking: How to write a collection
In November last year, my collection ‘This is (not about) David Bowie’ was released into the big-wide-world of books. There are so many inspired ways to put together a collection, but just for the record, here’s mine.
Find your melody
Two years ago a hero died. But for me, his inspiration, his voice, and his presence seemed to come alive the very moment he stepped off this planet. I had wanted to write a collection for a long time, but was looking for something central to hold them together; a sun for my stories to spin around. But every concept I’d had up until that point only sparked a few limp story ideas.
Then Bowie died.
It was like watching an explosion. A supernova. Huge ripples echoed out. His impact on people rang out. People were crying for him, writing about him and what he meant to them. David Bowie was more than a person. He was a feeling. He was a song in people’s hearts. He gave people permission. He allowed people to express themselves. To be experimental. He embodied everything I wanted to do. That’s when I felt it sing to me, when lightning struck, and I began to chime-in by writing a collection inspired by David Bowie.
Be a cover artist
Front covers are hugely important and so are titles. In email marketing they tell you to spend 80 percent of your time on the subject line because this will determine whether someone even opens the email. It’s the same with books. ‘This is (not about) David Bowie’ was actually one of the very first things I came up with. It inspires intrigue and begs the question: ‘Well if it’s not about David Bowie, then what is it about?’
Even though the collection was inspired by him, it was always going to be more about us than it could ever be about the man who called himself David Bowie. The idea of our relationship to well-known figures fascinates me. So I never saw it as writing about David Bowie, the person. I was more interested in how the world saw David Bowie, how they owned him, and why. Like a music album, the title became a promise to the audience about what to expect on the inside.
Track order: Think outside the book
After I’d written a first draft, I only had the melody. It wasn’t until I had some distance and came at it again that I could look at it differently. I stopped looking at it as a book and started seeing it as an album. I needed to add more to it: rhythm, bass lines, movement, tempo, volume changes, signalling.
It was Bowie’s music and another booked called The Voyager Record that helped me to envision a different sort of collection; one that would mix short stories, Bowie quotes, flash fiction, plays and poems. Like an album, I wanted to give people a sense of journey, a sense of order, mystery and growth on their way through the collection. Quotes from Bowie act as signposts of what is to come. It was Bowie who gave me permission and inspiration to do more than what was expected, to go beyond the conventional.
Break the record: whose listening?
Genres evolved to help readers find the books they enjoy: fantasy, sci fi, historical fiction, romance, etc. But what if you want to do all these things like I wanted to? I had to shake up my thinking. I had to go outside of fiction and into the world of music. Bowie let me cross genres. Bowie had found my people. He had created his own genre, his own audience.
I wanted to reach people like me; people who felt like outsiders. I wanted to speak into that feeling we all have, that we are not doing or being enough. To speak to that feeling inside that we could be so much more, that we could break free of our boxes. I wanted to find the stories that Bowie inspired. I wanted to shine a light on humanity in all its imperfect splendour.
So who do you want to speak to? Who will be listening? Why? And where can you already find them? Maybe they all shop at Aldi, or hike, or can be found on gaming sites? Go wide and tap into a tune.
The bridge – What’s at the heart of it?
Sometimes, it’s only on reflection that you can see what it is that you’re trying to say. I knew a lot of things, but I didn’t know what I was trying to say until writing the blurb for the book. When I stood back, I saw there were underlying themes and messages coming through. Ones inspired by Bowie, but mostly a sort of joint recognition with Bowie about life. I had been going through a lot of changes, a lot realisations at the time, and I don’t believe in coincidences. There is a reason why I chose Bowie over anyone else at that time, and that’s because he spoke to me. I needed him.
I didn’t plan it, but ultimately, when I sat down and thought about what each story was saying, it was glaringly obvious. This collection was about permission to be ourselves; our flawed, messed-up, beautiful-selves. Something Bowie was able to do time and time again.
It was something that I was learning for myself. Something I’m still learning – to be okay with being imperfect. I had wanted to be a hero too, superhuman, and like Bowie, I had come to accept that what really matters is being true to who you are. And that is an ever-evolving journey of discovery.
So if you’re thinking of writing a collection – be inspired beyond the world of fiction, look all around you, find that song in your heart, and sing it loud.
FJ Morris is an award-winning writer from Bristol and Assistant Editor of Fiction at Bare Fiction Magazine. Her collection ‘This is (not about) David Bowie’ was published in November 2018 by Retreat West. She’s been published in numerous publications in the UK and internationally, and shortlisted for a variety of awards. www.freyajmorris.com