Composing Marmara: How to Write a Short Story

Part Three

Previously, on Composing Marmara, I have been describing how I wrote my story, Marmara, the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, starting with a Joan Miro painting and developed later after reading a true story in David Seabrook’s book, All the Devils are Here.

Set Upon by Wolves

In her essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor writes that when a friend of hers stopped writing a novel to work on short fiction, ‘she feels as if she had just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves.’ (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957, page 76 – 77).

Contrary to what Parts One and Parts Two may imply, mostly in 2005 through to 2007 I was preoccupied with a novel, Touching the Starfish. The ‘hankerings’ that would become Marmara occurred only as warm-up work as I concentrated on something else.

Writing a novel is an entirely different to writing a short story. O’Connor, in the same essay quoted above, says ‘it’s a more diffuse form and more suited to those who like to linger along the way; it also requires more massive energy.’

That massive energy burns over a longer period (in my case here, nearly three years). During this longer period, the novel floats you. You lose yourself in the novel. Its little problems and confusions, inconsistencies and absurdities can be sorted out later. It can all wait. It’s always ahead of you, and all the time you’re writing it you think it might just sort everything out for you. You know you’re done with it when you realize it won’t sort anything out at all.

I’d first started to think about Marmara in October 2006 when I’d written about the Miro painting.

On 27th November 2007, I finished the third draft of Touching the Starfish.

On November 29th 2007, I decided to start work on Marmara.

I’d had two days off.

Fleshing Marmara

I say I had two days off, which makes me sound like some sort of bastard love child of Anthony Trollop and Alexei Stakhanov but I didn’t actually start writing the story for a while. In fact, how long it took me to get to the writing frustrated me greatly. I had some sort of ‘frame’ for the story and a few ideas for characters but I didn’t know enough to start writing. I was now going to have to saturate myself in the material. When I was bloated enough I would be able to work it into the frame provided by Seabrook.

Alexei Stakhanov, whose novel "Miner at the Coalface of Being' is at least as good as any of mine.

Alexei Stakhanov, whose novel “Miner at the Coalface of Being’ is at least as good as any of mine.

All I really did on 27th November was make a note to myself that outlined what I felt I needed to do.

“Collate notes/Research/Plan/Saturate/Compose”

(meaning, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing).

On 1st December 2007, I made a list of my ‘thoughts’ for Marmara.

  •  Second person narration
  • Steps/beach
  • Starts with the girl failing to enter the house.
  • Context/backstory. Undressing on beach integrated with scene of seduction.
  • Faded footprints on the concrete remind her that many have taken this path before.
  • Jeremy Trask
  • Mavis
  • The issue is why she does not go through with it.
  • Laughing at Hitler in newsreels.
  • Marmara: The house seems to be the key here. The house will give the story an epicentre.
  • Fascism: The Wrong Dream. His dream is not her dream.
A Very Rough Plan

A Very Rough Plan

This might look like gibberish but it’s part of a sifting process. Some of these points came to nothing (the story didn’t use the second person voice, for example). Some are titbits of information I’d carried around from somewhere (like the knowledge that English cinema audiences wet themselves laughing when Hitler came on Pathe News, ‘chewing the carpet’, waving his arms about like a twat). I also made some probably spontaneous decisions that stuck. The names ‘Mavis’ and ‘Jeremy Trask’ endured, for example. Settling on a story is like firing up a magnet; all sorts of things will stick to it once you’ve committed yourself. The idea of the footprint came not from anything in Seabrook but from a print left by a workboot on a pavement close to where I was living. This would turn out to be useful beyond descriptive or foreshadowing purposes later on.

Having a rant

Having a rant

There is also an embryonic plotplan here, which at the very least gave me something to hang new ideas upon. Given that at this point I could have chucked anything at this story, some idea of line – beginning, middle and end – gave me something by which I could gauge what could go in and what would not aid or enhance the story.

I reread the Seabrook passages again at this point and made a note of anything of possible use. A description of the Naldura house and what it contained prompted another idea. The house had ‘flood-lit tennis courts’. Sounds boring but it would prove to be important in the development of the story later on.

Another little spur came from the idea of people laughing at newsreel footage of Hitler. I looked up what films were popular in 1939 and rather than let Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz draw my eye, became intrigued by the first Powell and Pressberger film, The Spy in Black (a world war one-set drama about a plot to sink the Scapa Flow fleet, starring top German bloke Conrad Veidt ). I had to buy it on video but I ordered it. I was starting to think that our two characters could go and see this film and maybe witness an audience laughing at Hitler. Basic ideas become ideas for scenes and the scenes can be hung onto the plotline (here in SEDUCTION (flashback)). Watching the film, though would also give me another reference, an idea for another passage within the story.

The Spy in Black

The Spy in Black

I was merely going over the frame I’d already set here. However, it’s much better to throw these things together as rough notes before you start than to write to find them. Writers who admit to have not been hot on planning, keener to let the story find itself thorough composition, say Raymond Carver, also admit to writing many drafts. I don’t want to do that.

Write carefully and one draft is enough, plus a further draft to boil the story down. Stories can be breeze or a grind, but it’s the hold you get on it beforehand that determines this.

The Great Terror

Even so, I don’t want to be doing this approach work. I want to be writing prose. I want to feel that this is getting somewhere, accruing, that I’m riding the tide out. And not writing causes my spirits to plummet. I hit the ground if I’m not writing and even though I have to go through this period of saturation, I don’t want to. If I were writing a novel, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just head on out. But here, looking at a 3000 words max story, after I’d just worked on something 160,000 words long, I was cautious. Moreover, I didn’t feel ready and therefore was feeling scared and bored and useless as well as still worried about my novel, which I kind of missed but also had forgotten writing. Touching the Starfish had been a dark wood. Something about tennis courts and laughing at Hitler were wolves.

One thing I didn’t have a clue about was who were my two main characters, a suicidal girl and a fascist. Who were ‘Mavis’ and ‘Jeremy’?

I’ll come to how I worked this out in Part Four.

The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors

Marmara is the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, published by Unthank Books in February 2013.

To order a copy of The Syllabus of Errors, click here. The Syllabus is also available to download for your Kindle.


Composing Marmara: How to Write a Short Story

Part Two

The Jungle

Last week I started to outline how I wrote my short story, Marmara, the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors. A freewrite from a Joan Miro painting led me to imagine a woman wading out to sea but in a far more northern locale than the painting. Despite being intrigued by this image I had drawn a blank. Sometimes writing fiction is like exploring the jungle. What you think will be a clearing turns out to be a cliff, the lost world high above you, a treacherous climb still ahead.

Going over my journals for 2006 and 2007 I notice many other ideas, some mapped out in expansive archipelagos of sketches, stories I have either abandoned or not yet written. One is a story called The Violet Stockings (I can’t remember precisely what it was supposed to be about, something to do with Egon Schiele); another is The Girl with the Feather Boa, the story of one of Klimt’s lustrous models, elderly now, witnessing the Red Army liberate Vienna (I am still hankering for this one). I also had an idea for a sprawling alternative history novel set in a reality where Britain had lost world war one and been subjected to a humiliating Versailles-style treaty, maybe featuring a character in the same amoral mould as Michael Moorcock’s Pyat (more on this gem of an idea later).


None of these ideas, including the woman walking out to sea, got off the ground. I was not fully committed to any of them. They were hankerings. Sometimes you hanker after a story you don’t have the experience or talent to write. Sometimes you hanker after a story that you think you ought to write, to please certain editors or outlets or mentors or friends, but you can’t escape the prison of your own scruple. Sometimes you hanker after a story that you don’t have the time to research. How come, then, that I did in the end commit myself to the tentatively entitled Jennifer Strides and not The Violet Stockings? In December 2006 I made a breakthrough.

Then I Came Upon Something that Actually Happened

I was reading David Seabrook’s book about Kent, All the Devil’s are Here (recommended by Luke Haines in an article in Uncut magazine), a psychogeographic and underworldly trawl through the county that takes in TS Elliot writing The Wasteland in Margate, a nineteenth century murder that could have provided the source material for The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Charles Hawtry’s drunken rampages around Deal, all tiptop English stuff, murky, seedy and weird.

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook

In a chapter about Broadstairs I read about a house on the cliffs, formerly the residence of Lord Curzon and the inspiration for the house in The Thirty-Nine Steps that was owned in the thirties by a Nazi spy.

Seabrook writes:

‘But then I came across something that actually happened out there one night in the summer of 1939. At eleven o’clock on 16th July a teenage girl tried to kill herself by walking out to sea; but at the last minute she lost her nerve and began screaming. Police officers arrived at the headland and came down the steps to find the girl being lead out of the water by a North Foreland employee. She said later that she didn’t know why she had done it. She was very sorry.

There was much head scratching over this girl in court. She was frequently out with young men at night. On one occasion she had been out for two nights, and was discovered by the Deal police. Her home life seemed fraught, and though her parents reluctantly agreed to take her back the Bench decided that an approved home would be more suitable. At sixteen years old she stood in court and heard her own suicide note read aloud. “Dear Mother, please don’t be angry, but I can’t stand it any longer. The world is against me. I am going to end it all. I am going to Hell where I belong . . . I never tell the truth. I am so very wicked.’

It’s that man again.”

(David Seabrook, All the Devils are Here, Granta, 2002, page 92)

But then I came across something that actually happened, writes Seabrook. So had I.


Straightaway I made a connection between the events described by Seabrook and the woman walking out to see in codename Jessica Strides. During the hankering phase of a proto-story, you are often waiting for a dialectic; for something new to hook into the story, for the two of these ideas to make a third thing possessing an extra-dimension. In this case, I was suddenly free of the problem I’d so far encountered, that of cliché.

Initially, the vanishing point for me was the suicide note read out in court (how cruel to have your suicide note read out in court?). The wording moved me, articulated feelings I could relate to. It suggested that a profound rejection or betrayal was behind the girl’s action. Like Seabrook (“It’s that man again”) I was spinning a spider’s web that connected the girl with Tester, the spy who owned Naldera, the house on the cliffs.

Naldera in Broadstairs

Naldera in Broadstairs


I now had something to work with, to fill in. The story had a frame: the night the girl tries to end it all. Without a tight frame a story can sprawl and lack tension. The girl now had a motivation, and importantly for me, is disabused, shorn of an illusion. This is an arc of sorts. Moreover, it now had a setting in time and place. Plus, I had a useful source book and knew enough about the period to feel confident that I could pull it off. The story that had started with looking at Miro had taken yet another turn.

The moral of the story here is don’t rush into an idea. Wait for the dialectic (and of course, if you keep a notebook, you should have many ideas that can intersect with one another). By March 2007, the story’s proto-working title had become Starless and another dialectic had occurred. The idea about the Treaty of Versailles being inflicted on Britain had been incorporated, to be used as some sort of aid to seduction by the fascist who snares our wayward girl.

Sometimes your glimpses grow into stories. Sometimes your novels are smelted down into paragraphs.

Even so, I was still some way off embarking on working title Starless and would, given its period nature, have to do some research. This research will be the subject of next week’s blog.

The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors

Marmara is the ninth story in The Syllabus of Errors, available from the Unthank Books Online Bookstore, Amazon, The Book Depository and all good bookstores.

The Syllabus of Errors is also available to download for your Kindle or iPod, iPad or iPhone

I Remember Nothing

Thanks for everyone who came to see me and other Unthank writers read at Live Lit Lounge at the Birdcage in Norwich last night. Thanks also to Catherine Woodwood for organising the event, which was great fun despite the sweltering night.

I read from a story in The Syllabus of Errors called I Remember Nothing, and from a new story called Inversion.


The Syllabus of Errors.

The Syllabus of Errors.


For anyone who could not make the event, here’s the extract from I Remember Nothing I read last night (I’m hanging on to Inversion for now).


I Remember Nothing

“When Mr Paul Fischer of number 76 Yewlands died, an article in The Sentinel, the local paper I used to deliver after school presented strong circumstantial evidence that he had, in fact, been Martin Bormann. Until forensic scientists proved that rather than manage our sub-post office for forty years Bormann had been buried under the Lehrter Bahnhof in West Berlin, I lived with the guilt that I had delivered a low-quality free newspaper to Hitler’s feared private secretary.

The Fischer/Bormann Scandal was not unusual in the little Surrey town that I now call Banberg. Back then The Sentinel’s resident Simon Wiesenthal also exposed a Mr Harry Glass of 28 Buff Avenue as Hartwig Glassman, a guard at the Flughelenlager Concentration Camp. Nothing was ever proved, though extradition proceedings reached an advanced stage in the case of Mr Teddy Hummel, accused by the same troublemaker at The Sentinel of being a willing participant in the 1942 Józefów Massacre.

I never saw or met any of these men on my round. All I remember of 76 Yewlands is that the crazy paving looked like the patterns on the skin of an adder. In Buff Avenue, the swathes of pampas grass would hiss in the breeze. Glass’ house, I think, was the one with the rotting pink porch and the dog inside which always howled. I have no idea where Hummel lived, behind which mock-Tudor facade or pebble-dashed bungalow he hid his secrets, if he had secrets, if he was who they said he was.

It was always quiet back then, especially after school, when the shops began to close for the evening and the pubs hadn’t yet opened. When I was fifteen, one afternoon a week I trudged the streets carrying a fluorescent orange sack stamped with The Sentinel’s logo. I would start at the edge of the Common and look back for luck at the turrets of the disused mental hospital that peeped over the tops of the fir trees. Marching up and down the gravel drives of the Victorian villas that bordered the Common it was easy to imagine that you were in a science fiction novel. The human race had mysteriously vanished, except for one resourceful and charismatic boy. In the overgrown garden of a thirties semi on Upton Lane I remember the feeling of trepidation when the gate cracked shut behind me and I faced a house with windows so thick with dirt that a walled-up cube of darkness seemed to glimmer through puncture marks in its casing. If I saw a Range Rover parked in a driveway, its roof encrusted with bird droppings, possibly in the shade of a leylandii hedge, maybe somewhere like Stoneleigh Drive, I would picture its owner staring out to sea from a cliff-top café. Nothing would remain to suggest that he’d been there beyond a pocketful of change abandoned in a saucer. I had already realized that in Banberg everyone has something to hide.

Years later, long after I’d left, a Banberg resident was arrested for shoplifting in the nearby town some call Slutsk. He turned out to be a Serb wanted for war crimes in Croatia. Allegedly, he’d captained a militia that tortured civilians during a raid on a village in the self-proclaimed breakaway Serb Republic of Krajina. Neighbours reported him to be ‘remarkably quiet and polite.’ A Croatian government statement said, ‘We are grateful for his capture, although it is true that we did not have [Banberg] on our radar as a possible hideout.’

This last statement struck me as profoundly naive. Banberg was the first place I would have looked. They don’t call it Little Paraguay for nothing.


I Remember Nothing


Sometimes, like in the interview I recently gave to a Saturday newspaper, I like to joke that when I was growing-up in the self-proclaimed breakaway Republic of Banberg (a puppet state that in the mid-eighties flourished briefly in territory between the southern rim of Greater London and Old Surrey) we English were second-class citizens. We had to sit behind the Germans at school and because of them were deprived of certain recreational facilities and study options. My lack of sporting prowess and my near-ignorance of the sciences can be attributed to these disciplines being considered ‘German preserves’.

At the time, though, my problem was not the diktat of an imposed Teutonic hierarchy. My problem, at the start of my fourth year, was Peter Morrison, the new Scottish kid who in two terms had already carved out a reputation as something of an enforcer. My crime: posh voice and being a spaz on a level even lower than the obvious greasers and bookworms. I know now that due to the Highland Clearances and something to do with the imperialism of the Queen’s English, bullying me was a heroic act of post-colonial resistance. I would later come to feel sorry for him; at least I’m wise enough to know that I have to say this now. I must tick this box or appear unsympathetic, still at heart a Banberger. The day I first met Mr E was the day Morrison ambushed me after school on Senlac Road.


I blame the Walkman. It was a grey plastic thing the size of half a brick, a free gift when I’d opened my first bank account that I could squeeze into my blazer’s side-pocket. The orange foam headphones no doubt helped Morrison sight me from a distance. I was walking beside a high wall. The overhanging branches of apple trees swayed in time to a track from Ignite the Seven Cannons. I didn’t have a hope of hearing him come up behind me.

When my chest hit the grass verge a harsh click snapped in my ear. My first panicked thought was not that I might have dashed a hole in my trousers again but that the Walkman had broken. I’d also dropped my school bag. It was standing bolt upright in the gutter. As I reached out for it something pressed down on my ankle.

‘Alright there, Bridesheid Revisited. Gizzus a listen.’

From my low-down angle his cheekbones seemed even sharper than usual. His face tightened further as he forced his basketball boot down on my ankle.

‘Is that electric jazz-funk you’re listening to, Bridesheid?’

Mums with pushchairs and girls from the grammar school ambled past us. Dog-walking pensioners strolled on the other side of Senlac Road, probably veterans of Anzio and Tobruk (maybe not these battles actually; this was Little Paraguay after all). None of them seemed to notice a lanky monster about to break my leg in two.

‘C’mon, Brides, gizzus the funk.’

I didn’t have the funk. The funk – all that Shakatak and Shalamar stuff – was music for boys who already had girlfriends. He knew that I didn’t have the funk. I knew that this wasn’t about the funk. Earlier, in the first history class of the new term, Mr Priskin, after the Kenneth Williams impressions had died down – the Jazz Funkateers had recognized that his right ear was newly pierced – taught us all about the political upheavals that beset the early years of the Weimar Republic. With what seemed like great sadness he’d explained the failure of the left-wing Spartakist Rising and with great relish the defeat by general strike of the nationalist Kapp Putsch. He described with weary contempt the Freikorps as irregular paramilitaries no better than hired thugs and racist skinheads. He seemed to scowl at Morrison; and I for some reason, for no reason, sniggered. Afterwards in double Geography, Morrison stared me out while everyone else was trying to distract Mr Jagger with questions about solar flares and the political flare-up caused by the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour.

‘Don’t be scared, Brides,’ said Morrison. ‘No worries if it’s only Electro.’

‘It’s Electro,’ I spluttered.

‘Good stuff, Brides. You’re a good man, really you are. Here.’

The pressure lifted from my ankle. He held out his hand, which seemed to be offering to pull me up, but instead it flashed into my pocket to grab the Walkman. When I struggled to my feet he was exploring its panels and buttons with his fingers like he’d never seen one before. He flipped the catch and grimaced, as if inside I’d hidden a picture of Mr Priskin. I had a reputation as Priskin’s pet that no one, not even the other grease-worms like Mellis and Woods much admired.

‘Hey, this is not electric jazz-funk, Brides,’ he said. ‘Absolutely hunacceptable.’

He threw the Walkman high in the air. The headphones and their lead trailed after it like a kite’s tail until the whole contraption dipped. From somewhere behind the apple trees came a thud and a tinkling of plastic. Morrison then picked my school bag from the gutter and sent it over the wall in a similar arcing trajectory.

‘Run along and do your homework, Bridesheid. I’ll collect it in the morn.’

I watched, sweating murder as he loped off down Senlac Road.


Heaving myself onto the top of the wall took three quite painful and humiliating attempts but there was no way I could go home with a grazed cheek and no school bag or really expensive free Walkman. With one leg hanging down on either side I paused to make sure that I wasn’t about to drop into a pit of slavering attack-dogs

(Little Paraguay, remember). Away from the trees a lawn sloped gently down towards a house. A patio and wicker chairs were set out in front of french doors. Beyond the trees, where the slope began, there stood an old man in a white shirt. My school bag lay at his feet. The pages of my French textbook and other papers rippled on the grass. He was holding a piece of paper in his hand, a map Mr Priskin had given out earlier. The old man looked over to where I was perched on his wall. He must have realized that he was being watched. This is how I came to meet Mr E.

I was afraid, even though I knew that he might well be more scared of me than I was of him. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He maintained a rigid, composed stance, the paper now rolled in his fist.

‘Can I come down and get my stuff?’ I called out.

He merely nodded. My ankle throbbed as my shoes hit the dirt. I approached him with what I remember now as a crab-like, hunched walk, my only thought being to regather my things and get out as quickly as possible. I kept my eyes fixed to the ground and scanned for the Walkman. The back panel had detached. The cassette lay close to an herbaceous border. I picked up the parts onehandedly and rammed them under my armpit. Half-crouched, I started to scrabble around for the papers and books in a hopping toad-like way.

‘I don’t think you intended to throw your own possessions over my wall, young man,’ he said. There was an accent, though not a strong or harsh one.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Really sorry. Sorry to bother you.’

‘You know who did this?’

‘I’m sorry, really sorry, I’ve said sorry.’

‘Hey, calm yourself. You shouldn’t let others push you around.’

I stuffed the last of the papers into my bag and took my first clear look at him. He was much taller than me, taller even than Morrison. A halo of pale sunlight flamed around his hair. He had a lot of hair for a man of his age, much more than any of my elderly relatives, and his suntan made his skin seem as thick as the brown paper we used to wrap our textbooks.

‘Quite an ordeal, eh?’ he said.

‘It won’t happen again, I promise.’

He was still holding the map, Mr Priskin’s map, Europe in 1919, a duplicate machine job with the old pre-war borders in red and the post-Treaty of Versailles frontiers in indigo-blue. That map had already showed me wonderful countries that would never exist again, like Latvia and Estonia, and obscure and exotic nations like Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia (all shaded with left-slanting blue stripes). I’d already memorised the territorial trades and annexations: South Tyrol to Italy; Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium; Memelland to Lithuania. To me, sitting in that class earlier, at the front and itching to ask a question, the map described a charged, alluring continent. I wanted to be on the ground there, to witness and record. I wanted to belong in that Europe. I wanted to own it.

For a moment it didn’t look like the man with the white hair was going to give me back the map, so I wasn’t even going to own that. He held it up to me with his thumb over the top left-hand corner, somewhere East or West Prussia-ish.

‘There,’ he said. ‘That’s where I started.’”


The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors


The Syllabus of Errors: Twelve Stories of Obsession, Loss and Getting in a State, featuring I Remember Nothing, is available from Unthank Books, Amazon, all good booksellers and to download for your Kindle.

The Saboteur Awards 2014

I’ll be at the Saboteur Awards in Oxford on 31st May, where Unthank BooksWords and Women: One, edited by Lynne Bryan and Belona Greenwood has been shortlisted in the category of Best Anthology. There’s just about time to vote for this if you’ve read it.


The event will be held at the Jerico Tavern, Walton Street, Oxford, OX2 6AE. They will be a book fair, including an Unthank Books stand, from 1.30pm, where Unthology 5 will be available and Unthank’s publisher Robin Jones will be available to talk books.


I’ll be reading from The Syllabus of Errors  sometime between 3-4pm.

The Syllabus of Errors

The Syllabus of Errors

If you’re in Oxford, do wander by and say hello. Tickets for the awards ceremony in the evening are available from Sabotage Reviews.


Last week, to celebrate the publication of Unthology 4 Unthank Books offered you all previous editions for Kindle at the special price of £1.99.

This week, to celebrate the launch of the Unthank Books website, THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS by ASHLEY STOKES  is now  also available for Kindle for £1.99.

This is a proper winter read, I reckon.


The Syllabus of Errors.

The Syllabus of Errors.