Page 3 of 6

People Not Characters

Characterisation Part III

Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing: “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” We believe that the destination need not be incredible, but that the characters are indeed the lifeblood of a short story.

We’re wrapping up our Issue 9 characterisation series with some thoughts from Matt Billington on creating “people, not characters”. In Part I, Craig Burnett shared his insights into creating his character Kirk in ‘Seeds’. Next, Alie Benge discussed “borrowing a rib and breathing life” into hers.

Matt’s story, ‘A Use For Everything’ appears in Issue 9. Matt grew up in Rotorua and has spent the last eighteen years playing in DIY punk bands, his current one being The Prophet Motive.  He enjoys reading Donald Ray Pollock, listening to Propagandhi, and lives in West Auckland with his artist wife Kerry and son, Jordan.

People Not Characters

A Use For Everything is my first publication. The protagonist is Jamie, and the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Both are kids.

Before this story came thousands upon thousands of hours of failed attempts at writing characters – tattooed gangsters, overbearing parents, and Double Brown-swilling punk rockers – all crashing and burning under cliché and frustration. Caricatures that sounded how I thought they should sound, and all ended up sounding the same.

A ‘character’ is a portrayal of a person. The stories I love do not have ‘characters’. They have living, breathing people who, fictitious though they may be, are people I feel I know.

Irvine Welsh’s Renton.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant Casey.

Craig Marriner’s Lefty.

Anything by Amy Hempel (her book Collected Stories is writing mastered. None of us will ever be that good).

So my goal is to turn characters into People. People you haven’t met, but People you know.

There are three things I did to develop the People in A Use For Everything. The first thing was to understand who was telling the story, and where and why they were telling it. I imagined the narrator leaning over the handlebars of his bike, eyes fixed on bare toes pushing gravel in wave patterns as he told this story to someone new. He has to tell it because it is something he can’t understand and he can’t digest it.

A Use For Everything is someone talking about something they don’t want to talk about. People talking about uncomfortable events will often avoid them, something us readers do not like. I got around this by using repetitive phrases:

Jamie and the time he did that thing with his penis

It is Jamie I’m going to tell you about though, really

Not long before he did that thing I’m going to tell you about.

This gives the reader a sense of the narrator’s discomfort, while assuring them that we are going to talk about it.

The second thing was language. People telling stories aloud seldom use correct English; kids such as John, Andrew, Jamie, and the narrator would not use it at all. He says, ‘That’s me, John, and Andrew’ not ‘John, Andrew and I.’

How many times have you heard one of your mates tell a great yarn, and you have repeated it and it has fallen flat? Did that mate of yours get his language technically correct, or was his timing and imagery bang on?

The narrator speeds up with longer sentences when he is talking about all the awesome stuff they get up to. He doesn’t need to say ‘this was awesome’ or ‘this really sucked’ because the reader can already tell how the narrator feels by the pace of the narration.

Also, for the first time, I disregarded speech quotations. I originally did this as an exercise to really really really nail down actions to indicate who was speaking – the gulps, the fidgets, the toes-in-gravel, etc. I kept it, because on the page it looks like the speech and actions are one thing, a much stronger visual for the reader who isn’t distracted by pesky “”””” marks and new lines for each part of dialogue. More importantly, it allows the narrator to describe the people around him through his own eyes but using their language, the way kids repeat their parents’ points of view.

And last of all, interior lives. Readers love to know where a person comes from, it explains why they act the way they do. A massive trap for writers is the dead wood of ‘backstory’ that will clutter up your writing like shoes, toys, and school bags left in a hallway. Explaining an action by describing a past experience is tempting, but it risks taking the reader away from the actual events of the story they are reading, and dulling the impact of the ‘present’.

It is more effective to show the reader a side of the Person with something physical. Here is an example, using Jamie: He lived with an uncle he spoke of in words as quiet as breath and as quick as you take a plaster off a scab.

The reader can visualise how Jamie feels about his uncle from this one sentence. It also keeps with the theme of the story (talking about something we don’t want to talk about) and uses a metaphor that relates to childhood (scabs and plasters).

So that’s what I was going for. It worked for these people in this story, it might not work for the next people in the next story. I’ll just have to keep bashing the keyboard and find out. We’re all different.



You can read Matt’s story and more in Issue 9.






Borrowing a rib and breathing life

Characterisation Part II

Following on from Craig Burnett’s post Kirk , and continuing our characterisation series, we hear from Alie Benge on crafting a believable character.

Alie’s story ‘No Church in the Wild’ appears in Issue 9. Alie has lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Tauranga again, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She is an editor for Open Polytechnic, and divides the rest of her time between writing her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both feel equally difficult.


Borrowing a rib and breathing life

You know who a character is when you know what you need them to do. When you know what they’ll do, you’ll need to know why. Create the psychology that leads them to their action, then add some contradictions in their personality, and you’ve done it. You’ve borrowed a rib and breathed life into character.

Strangely, the first glimpse you get of a character is so often their hair colour. I don’t remember too much about the books I read as an 11-year-old, but I can tell you all about their hair; Jessica and Elizabeth’s blonde hair (read: pretty, popular, girly), Kristy’s brown hair that was always in a ponytail (read: laidback, a tomboy). The idea, I’m assuming, is to get straight to the point and efficiently reveal character through appearance, rather than showing over time through action. It’s efficient, sure. But it’s untrue. Real life villains don’t have long black hair and dark features. They’re more orange, if anything.

If you impose a ban on writing about hair, height or crooked smiles to reveal character; if you can’t use words like fiery or stubborn – what is left? Character is not appearance. It’s action. Instead of showing your reader what a character looks like, show them what they do. Trust your reader to make their own judgements.

That being said. There is one author who can reveal character through appearance. She wrote a little series called Harry Potter. Snape has a dark look, greasy hair, hooked nose. This casts him as the bad guy, and as the reader, we have enough information to make assumptions about him. We know his kind. But, the reason Rowling uses appearance as character successfully is because she uses it to wrong-foot us. She leads us to characterise Snape ourselves, based on his look. But in the end, we see that we were wrong. Who he is cannot be contained within his appearance. It’s what he does, who he loves.

The essence of character is contradiction. Contradiction is what makes them three-dimensional and lifts them off the page. When I was studying short fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), some of the most helpful feedback from my portfolio was that I’d made my characters only one thing. All bad or all good. In real life, people aren’t like this. The most compelling characters I’ve seen in fiction are those that are both good and bad. A character who’s neither could be too passive, a character who’s only one is okay but not so believable. A character who is both is captivating. A prime example is Spike from Buffy and, once again, Snape. What I loved about learning this aspect of characterisation was that it helped me to understand people better, and to see that we’re capable of many conflicting things. Kind and unkind, true and false, good and bad. I saw how people can be at war with themselves, in inner conflict. We wrestle against aspects of our own character, trying to be good and sometimes failing.

The leopard in my story from Issue 9, ‘No Church in the Wild’, is what started the story. When I was a kid and living in southern Ethiopia, we really did have a leopard prowling around our property, making off with our chickens. I dreamt about the leopard every night for a long time. In the dream, my sisters and I would throw rocks at it and run away when it chased us. At the end of the dream I would trip, my sisters would run ahead, I would roll over to see the leopard poised above in the air. In my imagination, she took on a sort of mystical quality, so when it came to designing the character for this story, she brought the weird magic of dreams and memory with her. She became a kind of familiar that went between the Qalichas and the family. So, from the narrator’s perspective, she’s a threat – something she has to scare away. But to add a level of contradiction, she also has a relationship with the leopard. They watch each other, and they understand when the other has ceased to be a danger. If you believe the shadow in the bedroom was the leopard (and it’s up to you to decide) she leaves. The narrator is spared, but it’s a failed mercy because the mother falls sick that night. In her characterisation, I wanted this balance between good and evil, and even the balance of real and imagined, to be ambiguous and in conflict with itself. The balance should shift, as it does in life. And so, life informs art, and art doubles back to hold a mirror to life.


Read ‘No church in the wild’ and more in Issue 9, available now.


Characterisation Part I

We’re into weird here at Headland. We like the oddball characters, the ones that you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but that you’re grateful to have run into fictionally, so to speak. We like the characters that you’d want to be on a long car ride from Wellington to Auckland with, as well. Nice ones, that have interesting conversation. We like old ones, little ones, mean ones, and all of them in between.  We like them when they ring true, and get in your head. Short stories offer a challenge to writers to flesh out memorable characters with a limited word count. We’re really interested in the process that writers go through to create the people/things that drive their stories. We asked three Issue 9 authors to share their characterisation process with us.

We kick off with Craig Burnett,  author of ‘Seeds’, sharing his thoughts on his main character, real estate agent Kirk. Craig’s story is very topical, reflecting some of the themes currently playing out in New Zealand’s rental market.

Craig is a former journalist, who now works for a global politics think tank. He was born in Dundee and lives in south London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has stories forthcoming in Noble Gas Quarterly, Flexible Persona, Fictive Dream and the Glasgow Review of Books. He tweets as @cburnettwriter.



My story is about a young and desperate flat-hunter, who meets an estate agent with a unique, efficient but very morbid business model. Kirk, the estate agent, is a grotesque figure, but hopefully not cartoonish. The whole story springs from the frustrations of trying to rent in a big city, and Kirk has a lot of the traits you might recognise from estate agents you meet in that situation – a sort of bouncy, vacant enthusiasm, and an unsettling tendency to babble well-rehearsed phrases (or even whole speeches). There’s some frustration beneath his patter though, which comes out later in the story.

There is one specific estate agent that came to mind when I was creating Kirk, who I met five or so years ago. He wasn’t terrible, but there was some low-level deception/obfuscation/pressuring. Standard London flat-hunting stuff. He was showing me and my girlfriend round a flat, and said he used to work in finance – but that he quit because he “didn’t want to do a job where people hated him”. If it was a joke it was delivered absolutely deadpan, so hats off to him, but I actually think it was a bit of a defiance thing – daring us to say how much we hate estate agents. I’ve met a few people who work in less popular jobs who do that – “I know what you’re thinking,” kind of thing. We rented the flat, for a year, and just before we moved out he came back with another couple to try to get them to move in. It was weird, watching him show them around. He didn’t say anything awful, but I still felt a bit like I was witnessing a mugging.



I like characters who’ve been shaped by their past and their environment, had it seep into them. With Kirk, you see it in his grandiosity – he spends so much time exaggerating things to his customers, making wild claims and stressing the positives, that he’s lost touch with reality a little. When he says he’s like a counsellor, or a social worker, he genuinely believes that. There’s not much self-awareness, but that doesn’t really hold him back, he just barrels along. He’s Trumpian, in a way – an odd combination of sharp and oblivious that turns out to be very successful, for him at least. Like Trump, he’s always got an excuse in his back pocket, and a way of abandoning responsibility when it benefits him. And of course he’s got the power in the relationship with the flat-hunter too. That’s one of the creepy thing about the story – she knows Kirk’s a bit of a dirtbag, but she also knows that he’s holding all the cards, so she just has to let him say what he wants, however obnoxious or crazy. If you picture a person enjoying that unchallenged position day after day, year after year, you can see how they might get warped a little bit. 

Kirk is almost constantly active – saying banal things, turning the hob on and off, opening and closing the fridge. That’s how he dominates the exchange with the flat-hunter. Neither of them have been in the flat before, so it’s sort of neutral ground, but he quickly fills it with his noise, so she’s on the defensive and a bit bewildered. A writer once told me about the importance of establishing status in your work, and I think that can be really useful.

I work most of my stories from a key moment in the narrative, which could be at the beginning of the action, at the end, or somewhere in the middle. So I picture a moment, then ask myself who would be there, why, how they might have got there, where they’d be going next etc. And hopefully the elements of the story – characters, plot, tone – sprawl out from that one moment, in steps that feels logical or even inevitable. So when I’m writing, I try to let different element story push the process forward at different times, latching onto the most promising aspects – in any given moment that could be some nice dialogue, an image, whatever. My background is in writing and editing nonfiction, and I think that’s given me a flexibility and pragmatism that can be incredibly useful. If you’ll forgive a little preachiness, I get annoyed when writers make the writing process seem overly mystical or inexplicable. I think a lot of people would love to try writing, but don’t see themselves as innately creative. Or they worry it’s a club you need to be invited into.



Kirk came together quite quickly, and immediately felt very solid – picturing him at different points in the story, I knew exactly what he would be doing or saying. Lots of my characters aren’t like that at all. But it’s a relief when they are. Kirk definitely felt like the right man for the moment I’d imagined. He fitted.

I realise I’ve made Kirk sound a bit of a monster. And he probably is. But the flat-hunter’s underlying desperation comes from the fact that there’s a housing shortage – something she, as a middle-class person moving to the city, is partly responsible for, just like I am in London. When pressed, Kirk presents himself as an unavoidable side-effect of these huge socio-economic forces. Of course that’s convenient for him, but just because something’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I write about a lot of slightly macabre stuff, but I think bad people – inherently bad – are very rare indeed. But I also think the world we live in and the choices we make come with a cost, whoever we are. I like uncomfortable connections in fiction, and I think we’re all closer to Kirk than we’d like to admit. 


Submissions close on 16 June for our Issue 10 deadline. Send us your short fiction and creative nonfiction. As you can see, we like interesting characters, so don’t hold back. See our submission guidelines for details.

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?


Headland Co-Founding Editor Liesl Nunns

We love getting creative nonfiction submissions at Headland. We’d love to get more. We’d love to publish more. It’s not a well-known form in New Zealand, with ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ perhaps seeming contradictory. It’s a many-headed beast to characterise, as the genre can encompass so many hybrid forms of journalism, opinion, memoir, travel writing, and review.

Too often at Headland we read a creative nonfiction submission and think, “I would have assumed this was a short story.” Presumably these pieces stem from memoir, but ‘fact’ is not the sole marker of creative nonfiction. That’s just a starting point.

Cliché though this may be as an observation, I shall dare to say that creative nonfiction should speak to ‘the human experience’. It is a fantastic vehicle for taking “here is what I think” or “here is what happened to me” and making connections to those larger ideas, thoughts, and concerns that make up the soup we’re all swimming in. A short story does this well by conjuring up scenarios or characters that leave us as readers with ‘homework’, drawing our own questions and conclusions and making our own cognitive leaps as the story ticks on in our minds. Creative nonfiction is like reading someone else’s homework. It is sitting down for coffee with that brainy, witty, or insightful friend you’ve got, and hearing them talk about something they’ve been thinking a lot about. They’ve actually done a bit of reading on it, done some real research, so they know what they’re talking about; but they’re telling you all about it with that special voice that is uniquely theirs. Yes, interesting isn’t it?

When I think of creative nonfiction I have loved, I think of Eva Saulitis’ ‘Wild Darkness’, as published in 2014 in the American environmentalism journal Orion. A marine biologist and essayist, Saulitis places her own experience of terminal cancer against her observations of death in the natural world. It is a thoughtful and understated piece, with a scope beyond Saulitis’ personal experience: she references and quotes writers and scholars, draws on religious and cultural practices, and includes personal anecdotes from others. She widens the context. She questions herself, “So what?” The heart talks to the brain, as creative nonfiction should.

For the student of creative nonfiction, I would further point to two particular accomplishments of Saulitis’ piece. Firstly, there is a specific timeline, a sense of ‘now’ and ‘the next day’, but it doesn’t march forward relentlessly without deviation or relief. She moves the piece along thematically rather than strictly chronologically, unrolling specific incidents with her wider thoughts then circling back. Most importantly, this temporal structure takes the reader with it effortlessly. Secondly, her use of language leaves you in no doubt as to what kind of writing you are reading. She marries the ‘creative’ and the ‘nonfiction’ seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs rise and fall on a spectrum from academic to poetic, guiding you between memoir and research. She links the personal and the theoretical, eyes each in the light of the other, to reach conclusions that have the unmistakably earthy growl of our common human experience. You’re there having coffee with Eva Saulitis, and she breaks your heart:

Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

Your topic of choice need not have the weightiness of cancer, and you need not be a highly respected marine biologist to talk salmon in the wild. Perhaps you’ve been ruminating on public transport etiquette or reflecting on the formative role that Jim Hickey’s weather reports played in your later romantic relationships. I’d like to read those pieces. I’d love to read those pieces if, in the process, I might learn something or feel something bigger. I’d love to see the “So what?”

That predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel came for Eva Saulitis in January 2016. In ‘Wild Darkness’ she says of her coming death, The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone…For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon.

Good short fiction makes us wonder about, or realise, those things for which we were born, both big and trivial. Creative nonfiction does that too, but it arms our imagination as well as spurring it. It gives you the salmon and the Stanley Kunitz as well as the woman standing on the shore.


Inspired? Our submission deadline for Issue 10 is open until 16 June. Send us your creative nonfiction (and short fiction too!) up to 5000 words. Every submission is eligible for our annual Headland prizes, and we love getting work from New Zealand authors. See our submission guidelines for details.

Extras: Interview with Caoimhe McKeogh

Welcome back to ‘Extras’ where we bring you insights into our current issue. In our inaugural segment, Allan Drew, our regular curator, shared his story ‘Sociology’, a follow up to his story ‘Anthropology’ which featured in Issue 6. Next up was an excellent interview with Issue 7 author Zoe Meager.

Caoimhe McKeogh’s story ‘The Saturday Shift’ appears in Issue 8Caoimhe is 22 years old. She studies English Literature at Wellington’s Victoria University and works in disability community support. Her previous publications include Headland and Landfall literary journals, and she was the recipient of Headland’s 2015 Frontier Prize. We talked to her about her story, what she’s working on, Issue 8 and how her work in disability support informs her writing.


Headland: We loved your story, The Saturday Shift for so many reasons. You bring unsentimental warmth and a depth of reality (especially to your dialogue) that is really special. Can you tell us where your inspiration for this story came from?

Caoimhe: Aw, thank you! I absolutely love “unsentimental warmth” – that’s definitely something I’m aiming for, but I had never thought to phrase it that way. To be honest, the bare bones of this story was basically a diary entry – I had this crazy summer where I was doing two full-time creative writing papers at once at the IIML and also working full-time at a disability care facility. I had to bring in a story for workshopping and had no ideas (or time to think of any) so just wrote down everything that had happened that day at work. Since then, it’s been through a lot of editing – it is definitely now fiction, and the characters aren’t me or my colleague or real clients anymore, but the inspiration was just a day in my life.


This photo was taken by one of the girls I used to support – it is me modeling the commode chair, which is used to shower people who use wheelchairs, and is mentioned in ‘The Saturday Shift’.


Headland: What is your favourite quotation from your story?

Caoimhe: Ooh that’s tricky! And it feels strange to answer, it’s like complimenting myself. Maybe when Jono tells Bethany, “You can be Superman like how I’m Batman!” but Bethany reaches out sideways instead and shouts, “Bird!” Finding a way to build characters who have little to no language can be difficult, but I think Bethany turned out to be rather endearing, and this line shows that she’s a bit sassy too.

An outing with a boy I supported for years (who had very groovy socks) to feed and sing to the ducks.

Headland:  In Lemon (awarded the inaugural 2015 Frontier Prize for best story by a previously unpublished author), your main character is a young child with special needs. You seem to know your subject material and characters well. Given that The Saturday Shift also features some characters with disabilities and the care facility is the setting for your story, are these stories part of a thematic series or larger project? (We hope so.) Can you elaborate on that?

Caoimhe: Yeah, you got me! I’ve planned a novel-length project of interlinking short stories around the disability community, and have slowly been writing them up – Lemon is the first chapter and The Saturday Shift is the third – between them is a story called Lucy that was published in the most recent Landfallit features Lucy from Lemon and Darcy from The Saturday Shift. Later in the book, Adam who was in the background a bit in The Saturday Shift becomes a very important character. I have a terrible habit of filling my life with not-writing-the-book things, though – I did an Honours degree in English Literature in 2016, and wrote nothing but essays all year long. I will try to get back to it – it’s lovely to hear that someone already likes the idea!

My favourite post-it note! This is in Pegasus Books in Wellington. Obviously, it’s just about the section of the bookshop, but I love the idea of writers’ lives starting somewhere specific…

Headland: When we read The Saturday Shift we talked about how well it fitted into the theme we’d inadvertently stumbled upon, on Labour Weekend coincidentally: work. Do you consider this a ‘work story’? Why/why not?

Caoimhe: Oh, definitely, yes. I’ve been working in the disability sector for close to ten years now – I started doing after-school support work when I was fourteen – so to me ‘work’ is often along the lines of what is described in this story. The Saturday Shift is also about the relationship between co-workers, which was a theme that I noticed in the other ‘work stories’ in Issue 8 of Headland too. The place and people and actions of ‘work’ are such a big part of our day-to-day life, and it’s very interesting to hear about other people’s versions of that – I’m fascinated by stories from my friends who work in hospitality, or retail, or labouring … one person’s normal can be incredibly strange and scary to another person, or really intriguing. I loved reading Frank Beyer’s Smashing the Machines in this issue of Headland, because he was describing the day-to-day life of a postie, which is a job I’ve always been fascinated by!

This is a boy I still care for, covering himself in kowhai flowers. My favourite part of my job is when something totally unexpected but beautiful happens, and this was an example of that!


This is me in a care facility very similar to the imaginary one where ‘The Saturday Shift’ is set. (On this particular day, I had been locked out of my house overnight and had to turn up to work in my boyfriend’s clothes.)

Headland: A year on, has being the recipient of the 2015 Frontier Prize affected your writing? How so?

Caoimhe: It was definitely a real confidence boost for me. Lemon was my first submission to a journal, and I was very aware that submissions often lead to rejections – I had steeled myself for plenty of ‘no’s’ before the occasional ‘yes’ might happen. Instead, I got a lovely email from Laura and Liesl saying the piece would be published, and then a couple of months later I won the Frontier Prize. Since then, I have had quite a few ‘no’s’, but I had the confidence to keep going. I ended up with five pieces published in various journals in 2016, and also with the confidence to build on Lemon to start creating the longer work that we were discussing earlier. It also gave me an extra sentence for my ‘author bio’ in journals, which is great because I always have real trouble thinking of anything to say!

The day that the noticeboard at my work had a bit of an existential crisis.


A moment of peace and quiet in the IIML workshop room! A very special place to me, and the reason that both ‘Lemon’ and ‘The Saturday Shift’ came to exist.

Headland: What are you working on now?

Caoimhe: There’s the longer work around disability, and then I also have a mess of various things going on … I have two other novels started, and one of those is taking up most of my brain right now, but I’m also planning a children’s picture book, and writing quite a bit of poetry at the moment. In February I’ll be starting three more classes at the IIML – Creative Non-Fiction, Short Fiction, and Screenwriting for Television, so then I’ll be even more all over the place! Finishing things is definitely the bit of writing that I find hardest – there are so many things to try out, and the newest one is always the most exciting. Obviously, the first half of 2017 will be spent starting even more things, but perhaps my resolution for the second half of the year can be to get some stuff finished!

Silhouettes of three children I used to support, hung on the fence of the special-needs school that I worked at for two years in Hamilton.

Headland: Are there any other stories in Issue 8 that speak to you?

Caoimhe: I really enjoyed Issue 8, and the accidental-theme of ‘work’. Coincidentally, I have been off work this week following a minor surgery, and the restlessness and lack of routine that the absence of work has left for me had me thinking about work’s place in my life. I think the story that really wowed me, though, was Sandra Arnold’s When the Wind Blows. It manages to be incredibly detailed and incredibly subtle at the same time, and is so beautiful – it really stayed with me long after I finished reading it.


Thanks so much Caoimhe, for chatting to us about your stories. We loved The Saturday Shift. You can read it in Issue 8.

Who is telling our stories?

Narrative voice: part three

We’re wrapping up ourIssue  8  narrative voice series with Charlotte Rutty. Read previous posts by Sandra Arnold and Emma Robinson.

Charlotte Rutty author of ‘Indian Ocean’  shares her thoughts on narrative. Charlotte is a writer and public radio producer from Maine, USA, where she devotes herself to the causes of climate justice and grammatical correctness. Her work has been featured in the Worcester Journal and on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth.

Who is telling our stories?

When I write the first sentence of a story, it is almost always in present tense. I may switch to past tense later. After all, part of growing up is realising that present tense is not as cool as you thought it was when you were a teenager. Still, present is a good place to start. It feels comfortable and safe.

In fact, I have struggled with past-tense fiction writing for a while now. Writing in the past tense opens up questions of where and when you are writing from – and, for that matter, who you are writing as. Sure, say some writers – they’ve got an answer for that. They define the narrator: it’s the main character, grown up, writing forty years later from a desk at the college where he teaches European studies. It’s the main character’s sister, shriveled and dying in a ranch house where her only friend is a bulldog named Sherman.

But those of us who don’t have an answer? Who is telling our stories? Are we? And why?

Once, they avoided this issue by writing frame stories. Emily Brontë wrote through a housekeeper, as quoted by a young man. Henry James went even further in The Turn of the

Screw, speaking through a dead governess, through a found manuscript, through a curious friend. Understandably, these authors were unsure of the role they played in the production of their own novels. They were anxious to disguise themselves in layers and layers of narrators. If it had just been Emily, daring to tell a made-up story she found so important as to go and publish it, she would have had to address its purpose, its value.

So maybe the present tense feels surer: the narrator is here and now, easy. He relates events as he sees them unfold, like the commentator at a soccer match – he doesn’t need another reason.

I admire writers who, unapologetically, write past-tense, third-person narratives. They refuse to be cowed by the narratorial specter, the shadowy figure who lurks at the edges of their books. And they refuse to be cowed by their own doubts. They might worry that their work isn’t political enough or concrete enough, that it affects nothing in the real world. They might have creeping suspicions that their English degree won’t come to anything after all. Sometimes it might seem to them very bold to ask a reader to sit down and give up their afternoon on the faith that a story will add value to their day. It is bold. But still, they write.

It’s in their refusal to justify themselves that these writers say the most about the value they add to your day.

Read Charlotte’s story and more in Issue 8.

Narrative Voice: Adjusting the shadows

Voice and other questions: Part Two

For our Issue  8 blog series, we are exploring narrative voice. We asked Headland authors featured in our latest issue some questions around narrative voice: do they write with a particular message in mind or greater thematic purpose? Is their writing for art’s sake or do they have another driver? In the first post, Sandra Arnold, author of ‘When the wind blows’, shared her thoughts.

Next up we Emma Robinson,  author of ‘Shelter’: Emma grew up in Wellington and is a graduate of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. In 2015 she completed the short fiction paper at IIML (Victoria University of Wellington). ‘Shelter’ is her first published story.

Adjusting the shadows

The stories I have written share a domestic setting and focus on relationships within families. It might be the family we are born into or one we create with our partner, children and friends.

When I started thinking about this post I remembered that I used to write a diary, the first being when I was about ten years old. My early entries veered between overly descriptive passages about the weather and lists of what I had done that day at school. By my teens I had moved on to what I had eaten, interspersed with rants against a parent, friend or sibling who did not understand. As I got older my diaries became journals with sporadic entries detailing specific “momentous” events. Every January the previous year’s volume was added to the pile stashed in the back of a cupboard.

One winter about a decade ago I hauled out the box containing the ramblings of my younger selves. After four hours of cringing I drove to a friend’s house and fed most of them into her open fire. As I watched my words turn to ash that would later be added to her compost and hopefully assist in the creation of delicious potatoes the following spring, I wondered who all that writing had been for?

I grew up in a family that liked to read. Lugging boxes of books up winding Wellington paths is a signature memory of my childhood and has made “good access” one of the key things I now look for when moving house. There was always a book in our Christmas stockings, a tradition I continue with my partner and my daughters.

Writing was a means of expression but not one I considered sharing. I saw myself firstly as a performer (studying acting at Toi Whakaari) then moved behind the camera to directing and production work. Yet I carried fragments of stories in my head for years. The persistent nagging of these incomplete tales led me to apply for the short fiction paper at IIML (Victoria University). The trimester spent on the course gave me the confidence to continue. It also unearthed a desire to take my writing out of the hidden notebooks and find a form that I could share.

I began to jot down these ideas and images. Walking to school, new Roman sandals rubbing at your heels. Your cousin says that the sound you hear, the whine of wind through overhead power lines, means it’s earthquake weather. Boarding the last bus outside the Mr Wimpy burger bar on Willis Street. A girl leans her head against the window and rides the bus to the end of the line. She walks slowly up the street to where her mother is not expecting her.

During the IIML course some found their way into my portfolio and have since been refined. Others are waiting to be carved out. The insistent ones are like Wellington’s southerlies finding any exposed skin, and when you try to wrap up and ignore them they morph and burrow into your stomach causing a dull ache. At some point it becomes easier to allow them the form and structure they crave. The process moves from bloodletting to something more akin to an archaeological dig. I sift through the facts as I know or imagine them, then listen for where the story wants to take me.

To answer one of the questions posed by Headland, I don’t start out with a particular audience in mind or a message I’m trying to express. The characters in my current stories are all searching for a place they belong but this wasn’t something I deliberately set out to explore. When I started writing Shelter it was in the first person from Lily’s perspective. William Brandt (IIML course convenor) suggested moving the story to a third person narrative. Changing the perspective allowed me to shift the focus and write a stronger story.

The process of editing and rewriting which led to the changes in Shelter is similar to the way I develop a photograph. The first draft is what I capture “in camera”, the editing is processing. Adjusting the shadows, deepening saturation or lifting the clarity can all improve the image, while cropping allows you to choose what your audience sees. The adjustments and corrections are no less important than the instinct to click the shutter at a given moment.

You can read Emma’s story and more in our current issue.




Narrative Voice

Voice and other questions

For Issue 8 we’re exploring narrative voice. We asked a couple of Issue 8 writers some questions about their ‘voice’.  Do they write with a particular message in mind or greater thematic purpose? Is their writing for art’s sake or do they have another driver?

First up is Sandra Arnold,  whose story ‘When the Wind Blows’ is featured in Issue 8: Sandra is the author of Sing No Sad Songs (Canterbury University Press), Tomorrow’s Empire (Horizon Press), A Distraction of Opposites (Hazard Press). She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. She was the recipient of the 2014 Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Writers Residency, the winner of the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition, short-listed for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, and was on the Honourable Contenders List for the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack, Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South and Headland. She was a finalist in the 2016 The Short Story Flash500 competition, long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier competition, and Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Short Shorts competition.


Narrative voice

My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. Some of my short stories are set in the Arabian Gulf where I lived for a year and saw ancient buildings buried by the desert wind, and in Brazil, where I watched wind-fanned grass fires disfigure the Cerrado. In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer, uprooting trees and sucking moisture out of the earth. During one such blistering wind, I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, the following quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls: ‘The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.’ Soon after, I read Jan DeBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world and how they affect the inhabitants and the landscape. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind I wrote the short story that appears in Headland 8, When the Wind Blows, which deals with the effect a prolonged nor’wester has on several families who live on the Canterbury Plains.

Castle Rock, Canterbury

When I was 12 I watched a film on television about a herd of wild horses galloping through the surf. The film was in slow motion and I was mesmerised by the way the horses’ manes and tails caught the sunlight and sea spray, and the way light and shadow turned their eyes into dark hollows. As soon as the film finished I ran up to my room to write what I’d seen, thumbing through a dictionary to find new words to help me express my awe. I kept coming back to this story over several years, polishing and re-writing until eventually, six years later, I submitted it for a college assignment in creative writing and received a Distinction. That’s when the idea of becoming a writer seemed less nebulous.

My love of language grew from my father’s storytelling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands. When he exhausted his store of tales about the places he’d seen I gave him the titles and themes of stories I wanted him to make up. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though the career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my late teens I read my way through the Brontës, Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf. In my twenties, I taught, travelled, married and wrote, mostly poems I had no intention of showing anyone. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.

My first novel, A Distraction of Opposites, published in 1992, also excavates beneath the surface. What began as an image of a big black spider lurking in the centre of a web became a metaphor for how people can become trapped in sticky situations. The novel examines the world of the subconscious in parallel with the conscious and the story is narrated by the female protagonist trapped by the ‘spider’, a mentally unstable male. I completed this novel while holding the inaugural Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary. My second novel, Tomorrow’s Empire, explores the rise of a religious fundamentalist in Turkey and the culture clash between East and West. This novel took ten years to write, off and on, as I needed to do a great deal of research and travel through Turkey. It is narrated through the voice of the Turkish male protagonist and was published in New Zealand in 2000, two years after the Iranian President Khatami declared he no longer supported the killing of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, though the fatwa would remain in place. The previous ten years had seen book burnings in the UK and bombings and killings elsewhere. Sensitivities about Rushdie’s book still ran high. When my publisher tried to have Tomorrow’s Empire published in the UK, not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful.


Queen of Sheba’s Palace

A year after Tomorrow’s Empire was published my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22. She died 13 months later in 2002. In the year following her death I could no longer read or write or listen to music. In 2003 my husband and I decided to change our environment and the opportunity came to live and work in Oman for a year. It was a good decision and I filled notebooks with the characters we met, the situations we found ourselves in and the beautiful lunar landscape of Oman. We returned to New Zealand via a short visit to Brazil, a country we’d lived in a few years earlier. Back in New Zealand I completed, with High Distinction, a Master’s degree in Creative Writing through CQ University in Australia. Some of the short stories which resulted from this, set in Brazil and Oman, were broadcast on Radio New Zealand and one, The Stone, was included in The Best New Zealand Fiction, Vol. 4. This story was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.


Found by Chris while sitting in the sea at AsSeif exactly 2 years after Rebecca died.

My reading at that stage consisted solely of books about grief and I found that although there was no shortage of literature on grieving young adult death from suicide or accident, young adult death from cancer was so rare that there was very little material available. I thought that writing my own book might go some way to filling that gap. Because of the amount of research necessary it made sense to tackle the subject as a doctorate. I completed my PhD in 2010. The creative non-fiction part of my thesis, which details my own experience of parental bereavement, was published in 2011 by Canterbury University Press as Sing No Sad Songs. After producing several papers from my exegesis and attending conferences delivering them I was finally able to move on from this topic. In 2013 I began writing a new novel and completed the first draft while I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writing Residency.


The Selwyn River

When I finished the final draft of this novel in mid-2016 I discovered the New Zealand flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier and its store of beautiful short narratives. I loved the use of language in many of these stories and the way so much could be implied in so few words. I decided to set myself the challenge of writing in very short forms. Flash fiction generates a continuous flow of ideas and I have found it to be excellent discipline for writing longer pieces too. Looking at the flash fiction and short stories I have written over the past few months I see that many of them deal with loss of various kinds, but also suggest new possibilities. The ideas for these stories come from diverse sources – newspaper articles, fragments of conversation, images, memories – but some appear perfectly formed, apparently out of nowhere. An example of this is The Gatherers in Headland 7. This appeared one day as I walked by the Selwyn River with my dog. The sky was vivid blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. These things filled my mind. And The Gatherers arrived.

Read Sandra’s story and more in Issue 8 available now.


This is how it ends

Let’s Talk About Endings: Part Two

We are continuing our discussion of endings for our Issue 7 series. Regardless of whether you have a preference for the way stories end, we can all agree that the way short stories draw to a close is important. The feeling that the reader is left with, and the impact of the work often rests on the final sentence or paragraph. We often talk about the endings of the stories we receive (thank you, keep them coming!). Occasionally we receive stories that end abruptly, or with an out of context dramatic flourish, or introduce new information that causes the reader to go back thinking that they must have missed something earlier. Stories don’t have to end with drama. Nor do endings have to tie everything together neatly. But we do like an ending that is in keeping with the work, and leaves the reader wanting to think about the story, with an afterglow of sorts. It’s a lovely feeling when a story lingers, no matter the subject.

Previously Andrada Coos, author of ‘Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye’ noted in our previous post: “You have to at least see the shore to find some level of satisfaction when you finally reach that last line. And if a writer has the power to land you safely on a new coast at the end of their work … well, that is what I call fine writing.”

We’re lucky to have Carolyn Gillum, author of the haunting flash piece ‘The Anagram Man’ featured in Issue 7, wrapping things up with her own take on story endings.

Carolyn was awarded the 2016 Winston Churchill McNeish Writer’s Fellowship to travel to Arctic Norway to complete her first novel. Her work was Highly Commended for the 2016 Yeovil Literary Prize, shortlisted for the 2015 Flash500 Novel Competition, and longlisted for the 2016 Bath Novel Award. Her flash fiction has also been longlisted for the 2016 Fish Flash Fiction Contest and Flash500 Competition.She is based on Waiheke Island.



This is How it Ends


Or is it? Maybe it’s like this. Or this. Hemingway famously wrote forty-seven endings to ‘A Farewell to Arms’, and no wonder. A great ending illuminates the whole story, it gives meaning to what comes before. A writer needs to get it right. Get it wrong, and – well, a bad ending is like a burst lightbulb. And who hasn’t wanted to smash or gnash something after reading an unsatisfying or clichéd conclusion? Such was the genius of the Twistaplot and Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth. Not only did the reader get to go back, choose a different path and reach a more riveting finale, but writers got a chance to use all those endings.[1]


Yet, surely there is more than one great way to end a story? In an interview with The Missouri Review, American writer George Saunders described handing his creative writing students a Vonnegut story, truncated by three pages. He asked each of them to write an ending. Apparently even his poorest students came up with ones that impressed. “The ending of any story,” he said, “is just a kind of flourish. It’s the first two-thirds of the story that really matters.”

But flourish or not, it’s Elizabeth Bowen’s famous advice that endings should be unexpected, yet inevitable, that rings truest to me. Great endings linger. They make you want to go back, sift for clues that foreshadow that inescapable end, uncover hidden layers of meaning. One of reasons I’ve read ‘The Great Gatsby’ so many times is because of Fitzgerald’s famous last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A hauntingly poetic way to release the characters into the reader’s imagination, it simultaneously implores the reader to return to the start. The end of ‘The Great Gatsby’ echoes the end of the beginning, where we first met Gatsby and the green light of his doomed ‘orgastic’ future.


It’s unsurprising then, that the end is often where writers begin. Thriller writer Richard Condon says, “I always work backwards. Everything the characters do, how they react, where they go, what happens to them—is all focused and channeled to how they end up.” Toni Morrison says, “I always know the ending. That’s where I start.” Of course readers also start with the end in mind – they read to find out what happens.

When it comes to writing short fiction, I too begin at the end. It’s usually the nucleus of my idea. The story begins when I ask: Why? How? I knew the ending – and the title – of ‘The Anagram Man’ before I knew the story. I’d been thinking about cultural appropriation and identity when the idea came to me. Anchored by the title, the end of ‘The Anagram Man’ signalled like a reverse-purpose-lighthouse as I wrote, helping me navigate the story.

It also felt apt that Headland asked me to write a post on endings just as I was coming to the end of my Winston Churchill McNeish Writer’s Fellowship – a trip to Arctic Norway to complete my first novel. I’d been pondering endings for weeks, trying to uncover one that was right for my work. But it felt like sailing toward an ever-moving horizon, tacking this way and that, staring into the unreachable distance; as futile as waiting for the summer sun to set.

When Swedish writer Cecilia Ekbäck struggled to uncover the ending to her book ‘A Month in the Midnight Sun’, an artist friend told her to trust the process. “And then,” she says, “as I came to the ending, it was just there for me to write. It was not more complicated than that.”


 So it was perhaps inevitable, if unexpected, that this was also how I discovered the ending to my own novel. It was late summer and the sun had begun to nudge the horizon when I gave up the search. Because endings are also about letting go; and when I truly trusted the process, when I let go of unrealistic, unworkable ends, I saw the lighthouse had been there all along, signalling patiently through the mist. And finally I knew: here it is, this is it, this is how it ends.

[1] In a literary twist on this concept, a 2012 edition of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ includes all of Hemingway’s forty-seven endings.


Read Carolyn’s story and more in Issue 7!

The End

Let’s Talk About Endings

Oh, endings. That tricky final paragraph or two of a story, that can tie things up for the reader, click the last piece of the puzzle into place, gently ebb away, or entirely unravel the story. You can insert any other outcome here. The point is endings can really affect the way that we respond and feel about a story. How stories end is something that we pay a lot of attention to, and discuss frequently as an editorial team. As readers, we’ve all read a story that we were really feeling, right up until the last paragraph to suddenly find something entirely new and unrelated has occurred, or the whole story abruptly ends. Leaving us with more questions than answers. And we’ve read stories with endings that made our hearts sing, and there is a good kind of quiet that hovers over the piece after it is done.

We were really curious to hear what a couple of our writers from Issue 7 think about endings. First up we have Andrada Coos, author of ‘Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye’: Andrada is a graduate of Brunel University’s Creative Writing program, studying under the excellent Fay Weldon. Originally from Romania, she has been studying and working abroad, in Europe and Asia, for over 7 years. She recently won a literary debut contest (Incubatorul de Condeie 2015) in her home country and hopes to publish her first novel this year. Her short stories have been published in the Pins & Needles Literary Journal, Suspense Magazine, on the Juke Pop Serials and Short Bread stories websites and read at Liars’ League Hong Kong events.


The End

To me, both as a writer and a reader, endings have always been about harmony and an unnameable feeling of elation, as if you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and a great sigh, shuddering with the pent-up emotions of a literary journey escapes you when you reach that final phrase. The end.

Many books have endings that function as epilogues rather than the ultimate climax, but I always found works that finish on the greatest reader engagement to be the most memorable. At the same time a bad ending can ruin a story especially when it seems to lead nowhere except a point past which the author appears to have lost interest in his or her own creation. As a reader, it makes you feel cheated, as if the writer tricked you into investing time and emotion in a story only to leave you stranded in the middle of the journey. You have to at least see the shore to find some level of satisfaction when you finally reach that last line. And if a writer has the power to land you safely on a new coast at the end of their work … well, that is what I call fine writing.


As for myself, I tend to write stories in two different ways: one starts from a simple idea that I develop as I go along and naturally reach the culmination of, and the other is when I already know the beginning and the ending and I just have to fill in the blanks. But knowing where you’re going before you start can be a curse, especially since, as your story and characters take a clearer shape, you often come across inconsistencies and you may find difficulties in shifting the momentum of the story towards your initially desired conclusion. That does not however change the destination, but makes for a more exciting exercise in creativity.

I think endings are very important and when I sense that one is weak and lacks impact or meaning, I feel like my story is incomplete. Like a disharmonious symphony someone forgot to strike the cymbals at the end of. In this way, I suppose, for me, endings have an instinctual rather than a rational element to them. Because of that, once I’m satisfied with a conclusion, I’m unlikely to change it.


It is not uncommon that I am asked to elaborate or change one of my endings. I remember the first story I ever published in a local newspaper in my hometown; the editor took it upon himself to add an additional explanatory phrase at the end of my story without consulting me which, needless to say, my 14-year-old self did not appreciate. It made me feel like the story was no longer truly mine. I’ve also had the misfortune of missing out on publishing opportunities because editors asked me for the meaning of an ending and found that my explanations were far too removed from their own conclusions and therefore changed their perception of the story completely. That being said, sometimes editorial comments have helped me realize there was a better, earlier point to conclude a story and maximize its impact, everything after it being nothing more than unnecessary excess.

The truth is I am sometimes deliberately ambiguous when I write an ending. You will find this to be true of Mr Tanaka Says Goodbye, the story that appeared in Issue 7 of the Headland journal. This is sometimes due to a problem I keep stumbling across as an author. I tend to fall in love with my characters as I write them. Most advice about writing you’ll read will tell you things like “kill your darlings!” but I often find that even if I have decided on the death of a character as I start to write a story, I falter in going through with it when it comes down to it. How can you kill a friend? So what’s the solution then? Most times that death is essential to the story and cannot be eliminated as a plot device. What I usually do is I put the fate of the character in the hands of the reader. I make endings that are interpretable based on a reader’s level of optimism. That way, the character is like Schrödinger’s cat, alive in the minds of some, not so in the minds of others. Although I often find that it frustrates readers and their immediate reaction is to write to me and ask: but what really happened? I never tell them, I just ask them what they think and then agree to it.


Read Andrada’s story and more in Issue 7.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2020 Headland | Copyright Policy

Website design by Number 6 Labs Ltd ©