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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Ignore The Dull Voice

Confidence is a matter of squashing the inner voice that tells you everyone else is better. It's a tedious voice and best ignored. It is not actually a real voice and has no entity of its own. It is separate from your wonderful brain that is capable of all sorts of things.

So which would you rather listen to?

I am choosing my own wonderful brain, which has a much more melodious voice than the tedious one.

Have confidence in your own self. Don't listen to nagging voices that are unreal and dull. Dullness being the biggest crime of all. After all, you wouldn't stop and pay attention to a person who wasn't there, would you?


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Tomorrow

Tomorrow is another day. That is what you have to say when you think you have become dreadful at writing.

That is how I feel today. But, as I have said many times, you have to keep believing you will make it. There really is no such thing as writer's block. And you must remember your successes and remind yourself that you will do it again soon. Patience is the key. Along with self-belief. Everyone has bad days, moments of doubt and lapses in their self-confidence.

Think about it tomorrow.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Centre Spread

The main body of the action and the development of the main characters takes place in the middle. That's when everything and everyone comes to life. There are diversions and tangents, but they must all be relevant to the theme and also help to move the plot along towards the conclusion.

A lot is said about the importance of beginnings and endings, but the middle is vital too. It's no good having an arresting opening and then it all sinks like an ill-mixed sponge cake in the middle. Then the reader won't reach the wonderful ending. And the brilliant beginning will be forgotten. It's awful to promise much, but deliver little. Far better to have an intriguing start from which a Pandora's box of delights is revealed as you read on, before coming to the great exciting final paragraphs.

When the middle is finished, you might chop some of the opening. It may seem far too banal once you have found out just how thrilling the rest of the story is. However, the writer who plans in advance might be more aware of the forthcoming action, so his beginnings will be more appropriate. But I write as I go, so I never know if the start will be any good until I've finished the middle.

The middle is sometimes frustrating, as you realise there are different ways in which the story can go. I started one that was destined for a women's magazine, but it is now unsuitable for that market because, once I'd reached the middle section, it was off and running in a totally different direction altogether. it will probably be sent to a competition instead.

See where the middle takes you, but never let the interest flag. Adjust the opening to suit the rest. Never forget your theme - that is absolutely essential and will keep you on the right path.




Monday, 2 November 2009

Loose Talk

Why is it that when I'm talking, I can muddle my words, forget the thread of what I'm saying and generally sound incoherent, especially when emotional or uncertain? But writing is different. It flows, ideas are woven in, threads are gathered and tied in beautiful bows and the finished piece is an achievement to treasure.

I suppose it's partly because I know I can change words, delete chunks, swap paragraphs around and cut out beginnings and turn them into endings or make page three into page six if I like. Every letter is malleable. And only by my hand. You can't take things back in conversation with others.

And it's also partly because I'm on my own. No one can chip in, disagree or talk over me. It is total control. The only boundary is my own imagination. And that is one of the few large things about me.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Love Your Successes

Well, you never know what's coming! I returned from a week in Ireland to find a copy of a magazine with my story in it under a new title, two cheques for accepted, yet-to-be-published stories and an email telling me I'd won £100 first prize in a short-story competition! Plus another winning story in the weekly online flash-fiction competition, WriteInvite, that I take part in on a regular basis.

The prizes/income are great, but the thrill of seeing your name there is better! Never give up, because the more you participate, the more chances there are for success. You won't get read just because you write. You must send it out there and let it have the opportunity to be seen. Lots of your work won't be successful, but some will. And it's the successes that count. No one is keeping a tally of near-misses or also-rans. They really shouldn't get you down. Log all the rejections, so that they can be re-marketed. But log the winning stuff too, so you can see at a glance how well you've done.

By the way, the £100-first-prize story I mentioned had been rejected three times before!


Monday, 19 October 2009

The Pressure Is On

I feel under pressure. My stories must now be as good or better than the last one accepted. Otherwise the editor of the magazine who has kindly believed in my writing ability may lose faith! That's how I view it. I don't wish to disappoint someone who has shown such faith in me.

Every story is now cross-examined by my very critical self. It is still my normal self doing the first few drafts, writing happily and from the heart. Then the other half becomes nervous and picks away at them.

When they are sent off, it is with trepidation. I try not to have any hope for them at all. I believe they will be rejected and then, if a lovely email or letter arrives asking to purchase the story, I am insanely happy and completely surprised.

So, don't go thinking it is hard to have received no acceptances at all yet. You are in a good position, because you have everything to play for and nothing to live up to. As long as you persevere, you will get there and that's when it gets hard!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Published!

Today I saw one of my stories in a magazine. I checked some new weeklies in Tesco, flicking to the index just to see if I was there yet, having sold a few stories in recent months. And there I was!

I have to say it was a great surprise and I'm feeling all pleased and motivated to write even more. I've got a lot to live up to now. The pressure is on. Can I repeat this success? I hope so and it makes me more determined than I was before.

So off to work on a new story now without delay!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Mistakes

It has occurred to me that the plots of short stories often rely on mistakes. The main character usually has a conflict, which is resolved by the end, sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not. Sometimes everything is neatly tied and sometimes there are loose ends to give the reader food for thought.

However, these conflicts are often simple misunderstandings, crossed wires, mistakes made by the MC. For example, I have just finished reading a good story in which the MC, a married woman, feels attracted to a married colleague. She makes the error of believing that he feels the same. Carried away, she makes her feelings known to him - another mistake - and is gently but firmly rebuffed. Later she realises her major error was to believe she was genuinely attracted to him. She observes him closely when enough time has passed for her blunder to be less embarrassing. She sees that he is ordinary, mortal, dull even. Her passion was the stuff of a romantic novel or piece of music. Her husband and family are her real love.

This story worked because of the conflict - should she make a play for him or not? But it worked particularly well because of the series of mistakes. I think we like reading about mistakes. They reflect humanity starkly and we can justify ourselves. Aren't we always making mistakes? The awful reality that she cannot hide her awkward error from the man and has to live with the shame strikes a chord with us all. We have all done or said something embarrassing. We share her blushes and feel better about our own.

Allow characters to be foolish. We are all foolish. But how we deal with that idiocy can be inspiring and make an excellent tale.


Friday, 9 October 2009

On Top Of The Spreadsheets

I have devoted a day to sorting out my spreadsheet, which shows all my submissions, with dates, destinations and so on. It includes the dates when competition winners are announced and I noticed this morning that several of those dates had arrived. And I'd heard nothing!

It was disappointing to check through all those entries which clearly haven't made it and colour the boxes red, which denotes 'rejection'. It was a sea of red by the time I'd finished. A River Of Blood! However, I began to shrug off the misery and revel in the prospect of remarketing all these stories that I'd half-forgotten. Some had real possibilities elsewhere. For many, it had been only their first trip out. So there were further opportunities for all of these rejected favourites. I was surprised by how much I still believed in them.

This week, I have also been invited to proof-read a successful story for an anthology, in readiness for publication in the near future. That particular story had had its fair share of rejection too, before achieving this welcome final destination. I am proud of it.

If you retain this pride in your stories and are prepared to keep dusting them down, then they will make it in the end. I have let one or two fester for a bit, having sent them out four times each, but even they will resurface once the right market presents itself.

However, it is only because I have taken a lot of time with my spreadsheet, keeping it up-to-date and tidy, that I can monitor all my stories, especially now there are so many. A system is vital, otherwise you will forget what you have written, where you have sent it, when it winged its way back, when it was accepted, when to expect competition feedback etc. You could even include details such as word-count. I started doing that, but kept forgetting to update it whenever I tweaked a story.

However you do it, on a computer, on paper, a card-index file or on the back of an envelope, make sure you keep on top of it and make it work for you.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Warm

I have just read a story which won a competition twelve years ago. It is technically imperfect. There are some grammatical flaws and some odd syntax. However, this story proves that it is the fiction that matters.

It was so gripping, so warm and led me in so fast that the occasional lapse of punctuation ceased to bother me. I wanted to be right there in the house with the main character. In fact, I was the main character for a while. She had been so well-written that she came to life on the page. It was like a hand reaching out of the paper and pulling me in.

As is often the case, it was a simple tale and very little happened. The setting and characterisation were both so strong that the action, the simple giving and receiving of a gift, didn't have to be thrilling or earth-shattering.

These stories which exude warmth are special. So many, including mine, are filled with angst and misery. Often the element of humour is missing, yet it is so good to find yourself laughing out loud at a piece of fiction. It is rather an unexpected feeling when you come across a story that you read with a smile on your face. I must write more humorous tales!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Pushing Hard

Today I pushed and pushed myself to keep writing, even though I was tired and could think of easier things to do. I really enjoyed it once I'd realised that I was actually going to make myself do it. It's a lot nicer than having a separate boss driving you on.

I was so pleased with myself and praised me more than any other boss would have done. I had a very self-satisfied smile on my face throughout the day and hope I shall have many more days like this. It is easier once you've passed the moment where you think you can't possibly continue.

It was good productive work too. Somehow my brain went into a creative overdrive and the ideas were bursting out. Perhaps all the pushing liberates a flow that doesn't get tapped at other times.

So, if you're tired and thinking up excuses not to write, push hard. Chain yourself mentally to the chair and don't stop until you absolutely have to because of other commitments.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Get A Grip!

I was very excited by an acceptance for a story that I had sent out three times. At last it was going to be published and I was excited and delighted. It kept me writing well for the rest of that day. I write best when I'm happy about something.

Then in the late evening I was emailed two rejections at once. I came plummeting down to earth. The next morning, instead of still feeling elated about the sale, I felt gloomy about the other two. It was a glass-half-empty morning.

Then I got a grip. I dusted down the two rejects and tweaked them for a new market. I sent them both off and did some editing. Then, despite the cloud still hovering above my head, I started a new story. Then, as the cloud thinned a little, I chased a story up. Hated doing this, but kept the query polite and brief. The result was a kind reply promising to look into it, followed by a prompt email telling me it was being slow because it was on a shortlist!

The cloud vanished instantly and the day remained very bright indeed. However, I think it wasn't just the good news about the shortlist that helped, although that had a massive amount to do with it, it was the fact that I kept on working, pushing, trying, progressing with my writing. I didn't wallow. Well, not for long.

So the advice is simple - get a grip!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Keeping Going

There are lots of competitions with results due soon. I am hopeful and not a little excited about these, but realise I have to be realistic. I haven't been writing for that long yet, and I'm competing with experienced writers. Although I still stand a chance, and I have had some work published already, there are wonderfully tight, well-wrought stories in these international contests. Many are going to be better than mine.

I'm not being defeatist or over-critical of myself. I'm good, but I need to keep getting better. I read the stories which are selected, those amazing few out of many hundreds, and I marvel at them.

The important thing is to learn what I can from these stories and use it. Clever themes, wonderful characters, smooth plots, solid structure and joyous pacing. I'm going to absorb it all. Then I'll be in with a chance. The work never stops.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Masterpieces

Paintings are very good for igniting story ideas. I have just read a short story based on the shoes worn by a lady in a beautiful painting. The shoes are the starting point and the rest of the painting is featured throughout.

Try looking at paintings. Home in on a small detail and create the story from there. Your words will be like brush strokes, adding depth and colour as you build up the piece. Imagine yourself an artist. Which, indeed, you are.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Always There

I need to be happy to write. But when I'm sad, I anticipate all the enjoyment I will have when I start to write again.

It's essential to have things to look forward to. That's why we plan holidays. move house, celebrate Christmas, visit friends. All these things can give us a lift and cheer us up. Sometimes the thought of them is more cheering than the occasion itself. I like Christmas Eve, with all its magic and secrets, even more then Christmas Day.

So I'm glad to have my writing, because it's always there waiting for me.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Friends Indeed

Try thinking about two friends or relations who are completely different from each other. Then put them together in an unusual setting. So you could have your timid Auntie May with your bawdy old school friend Valerie trapped in a lift together, for example.

You now have two main characters and a problem to solve within a defined space. What more do you need? Just start writing about them, drawing on your knowledge of these people. Change their names to spare embarrassment if you think it's appropriate.

Remember, you don't have to make these people exact copies of their real-life counterparts. No one's going to come and check your work and give you ticks for accuracy. Let your imagination soar. The real-life bit is just to get you started.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Mollie Panter-Downes

I have just discovered this amazing writer. My husband chose her book of short stories as a birthday present forme. It's called Good Evening Mrs Craven and is a selection of wartime stories.

Character is the important thing. She is objective and observant, like the journalist that she was. She is always distanced from her characters and there is no self -indulgence here. There are no first-person narratives. There is a strongly domestic feel and setting, as her characters try to keep going during these difficult years. There is no melodrama or gushing, but plenty of irony and light comedy.

There is realism in these stories, which fits the times so well. War brings a sense of unreality, so her fiction works brilliantly against this backdrop. We are always dealing with the onset or the aftermath of serious events, never with their brutality. There are no bloody scenes. The 'events' are the psychological changes brought about by the anticipation or the after-effects of wartime happenings.

All the pieces are wonderful chunks of home-life and how people reacted, coped, changed and suffered. I love them all and now can't wait to read her peace-time stories too.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Tell Me More!

I had notification that a story shortlisted for a women's magazine had not been successful after all. Fair enough. At least they let me know. I can send it somewhere else. However, what made it a great rejection was that they went a bit further than most. They said that to reach the shortlist, stories had to be of the highest quality. So my story went a long way and was close to being chosen. I was encouraged to keep sending more stories to them.

This is so helpful and makes writers feel motivated to keep going. It is more than a brush-off. Much more. It is the next best thing to an acceptance.

So, rejections can be almost painless if there is some positive feedback on offer at the same time.


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Hang On, I've Got An Idea

Ideas can come from everywhere, literally. Television programmes, radio plays and interviews, conversations, especially overheard ones, people-watching (spend regular sessions in Costa and have paper and pencil with you), long walks, both in towns and the countryside, shopping trips and leisure centre visits, both as participant and spectator.

Always have an eye and an ear open for story material. It's like collecting scraps of fabric for a patchwork bedspread. They don't look like much individually, but each piece helps to make an amazing finished item. The colour or pattern of one square might inspire a theme for the entire bedspread.

So cherish those odd one-liners and chunks of chat or gossip. Note down clothes, colours, perfumes, pie-fillings, sunsets, storms and whatever else you spot on your travels. Then knit some of them together in your stories for a unique style all of your own.

Great things can grow from bits and pieces. So be observant and never dismiss anything as irrelevant. Some striking imagery, born from a casual observation one day, could catch a judge's eye and lift your competition work up higher than everyone else's.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Entitled

Titles matter. Take time to consider them. They are the first thing that the reader will see. It may be that the decision whether or not to like the story from the outset is made upon seeing the title.

One word can be effective, but ensure it is explosive.Two words can be a little dull. Lots of stories have a two word title and often it's a case of Samuel's Day or Autumn Leaves. A bit uninventive.

If you add a third word, it livens up. So you could have Samuel's Magical Day or Red Autumn Leaves. Or make it much more exciting - Samuel's Final Day or Black Autumn Leaves. These last two are more suggestive and might encourage to read on with more interest.

So remember that titles are vitals.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Editing - Pain Or Pleasure?

I have just edited a story destined for The Writers And Artists Yearbook competition. I had left it to fester for some weeks while nestled in the sofa watching Project Runway with my daughters during the wet days of their summer holiday.

Tackling it was a joy. I had been dreading it, because I was pleased with the first and second drafts. That meant I was likely to loathe it third time round. There were certainly plenty of silly things to delete and a scattering of pretentious adverbs to throw out. But, all in all, it was a lovely task, because I still liked the story so much. And it's another story in the pipeline. If it doesn't succeed, then it will stand a great chance somewhere else.

It also spawned further ideas for new stories, which is a good tip for fresh ideas - look at all your old stories so far. Take one or two a day. Is there a character you are fond of or a setting which you have conveyed well? Can you use them again in another story? I have re-used a character from my novel in a short story and recreated a setting based very loosely on what I know of North Carolina (which isn't very much). The stories are new, but are inspired by these old friends.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Don't Let It End

I know the exact moment that I realise how much I love a story written by someone else. That moment comes when I stop reading because I don't want it to end.

I pause, then restart, reading more slowly. I savour every word, reluctant to let go, longing to create a story as gripping as this next time I sit down to write. Sometimes I look back at the beginning, in order to keep the end at bay for longer. I work through it again, trying to guess, without actually wanting to, what the outcome will be.

When I reach the end, I hope I won't be disappointed. Often I love it. Occasionally I feel slightly let down, cheated out of my high expectations.

The problem for my own writing is that I race through it when I edit. I feel almost embarrassed, as if this can't possibly be any good. Thankfully I'm often surprised and pleased with it on the whole. I remind myself that the whole point of this is to find mistakes and make improvements. I can't expect the perfection I find in other people's work. I'm always my own harshest critic.

I hope that one day, perhaps after putting a story away for a while, I shall read one of mine and slow right down, putting off the end until the last moment.

Strands

Stories are made of strands. They are woven in a way that may seem tangled to you, the writer, at times. It is your job to separate them satisfactorily for the ending to work. That way, you have a smooth conclusion that sorts out the interwoven, overlapping pieces.

You can keep notes, as they occur to you. Always bear in mind that the story needs to progress, so if a good idea for the plot occurs to you, make a note. It is another strand.

Don't be afraid to have lots of strands. But they must all be essential to the action. Make them work. Make sure they weave together amd leave out the ones that are too tangled to be helpful. Just get the scissors and chop it. Hack it about a bit and keep any interesting messes to look at another time for another story.




Saturday, 5 September 2009

Fitting In

Do you write to suit a particular market or do you write what you like and then see which market the finished story fits?

I tend to launch in and it becomes apparent at some point which market the piece is leaning towards. Then I feel extra confident, because I know where I'm heading. I don't usually decide in advance that I'm going to write a story for a particular publication unless there's a competition with a strict brief about style and content. For example, Writers' Forum magazine have run competitions to write for Woman's Weekly and People's Friend, for example. These are fun to enter for a change.

It adds variety to have rules occasionally and it's good discipline. Then you can enjoy the freedom to write however you like afterwards.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

Overcrowding and Gatecrashers

A simple way to cure a short story of confusion is to kill characters.

If you are in a room full of people at a party, it is impossible to circulate among them all and have adequate conversations with each one. We try at the beginning to do this and then settle for the couple or group with whom we feel most comfortable. Then the party becomes manageable and more enjoyable. You know your company and you care about them because, despite the crowded room, they are all you have. You have effectively blocked out the rest as far as meaningful communication is concerned. You will leave at the end of the evening without having spoken to many of them, but it doesn't matter. They have been busy with their own 'chosen few'.

So if your current story lacks clarity, try ignoring a few people. There may be too many. Two or three is normally enough. If you have more than four, then consider whether that is overcrowding your venue. Could you merge two together? Ditch one or two completely without ruining the plot? Will the reader actually care about all of these people?

Keep any favourites in a notebook or file them for future use. Resurrect them when they can fit in somewhere else.

Make it a select gathering by invitation only. Gatecrashers aren't welcome.


I'm Good

It's a great thing to believe in and congratulate yourself. Praise won't always be forthcoming from others. So award it to yourself. What reason have you got to withhold it?

I may receive rejections. I may experience weeks without acceptances. Without anything. But that doesn't mean I throw in the towel. I'm still good. I'd always rather count my successes and revisit them than wallpaper the room with my rejections. It's best to learn from those and then move on. A rejection is a fresh chance somewhere else.

But I don't want to dwell on rejection today. Today is for remembering that I'm good at writing. I can do it and, more importantly, I love doing it. In fact, I'm brilliant at it and I always will be. Although I look forward to improving every day, I still want to celebrate how good I am now. I don't mean I'll have a party and ask the guests to tell me I'm fantastic. I mean that I will not let myself down with doubts. I will boost my own ego. I do that better than anyone else.

Doubts are destructive. Only listen to them if they relate to whether or not you are actually enjoying the writing. If you doubt the enjoyment of it, then try to decide if stopping would make you feel happier and more free.

If you love it, then keep going. And tell yourself you're good. Don't wait to hear it from anyone else. They're all too busy with their own egos. And rightly so.


Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Writing about Anything

Write letters, lists or just simple nonsense on those days when you are short of time. A few words could provide inspiration for tomorrow. Just jot down your thoughts, feelings at that moment or dreams from the night before.

Your letter doesn't need to be sent and your list doesn't have to be used. In fact, it would be better to keep it all fictitious. That way you are certain to write without inhibition. In fact, the odder the better. Write without shyness or shame.

Then, tomorrow, you will have a way into a new story. It might just be a name or a setting or a paragraph. But any one of these is a start. And a start is all that is needed. Once you have that, you can move on into the story.

Or you might find that you have a trigger for the middle or the ending. Why not begin there? No rule exists that says you have to begin at the beginning.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Chapters

I like chapters. When I read a novel, I like reaching the end of a chapter if it brings me to a momentous point in the story. I can put the book down at this convenient pause and look forward to the next piece of action.

However, I find the start of a new chapter daunting. It is fine if the action does continue from where it paused, but if the setting or viewpoint changes, it can dislodge me and make me feel unsettled until, inevitably, I plunge back into it as if there had been no break at all.

I think this means that new beginnings are difficult to penetrate. I have to get under the skin of the story all over again. Perhaps I treat a new chapter as a complete new story.

And do short stories have concealed chapters? When we construct a fresh paragraph, are we bringing in a change of focus or a new venue or a different direction? I don't think so. I think short fiction has to flow. There is no room for deviation or a sudden new face or an unaccustomed voice. My favourite stories take place in one shop, one cafe, one riverside or one room. There are usually only two or three characters. There is a brief time span - perhaps a day, an afternoon, an hour.

A complete story has no chapters and is not itself a chapter.

More Than Short

I have been thinking about the title of a volume of short stories I bought recently. It is entitled 'Complete Stories'.

I believe that 'complete' is a better description than merely 'short'. Anyone can see at a glance that a story is short. It is clearly not a novel. It has eight or ten or maybe twenty pages, rather than two or three hundred. But that doesn't make it an extract or a chapter of a bigger piece. It must be entire within itself. A miniature novel, if you like.

This is why shorter-length fiction is so challenging. You cannot waste words. Everything counts. You have to entertain as much as a novelist does, but in a much smaller time span. A short piece is often a simple snapshot of the main character's life, but it must still have a valuable opening, tension-building middle and satisfying ending. All in a couple of thousand words or even less.

If it reads as incomplete, then you have not succeeeded, whereas a novel can be incomplete even after fifty thousand or more words. There is still space to move the action on and bring in surprises, even new characters as long as they are not central to the plot. You can write another thirty to fifty thousand words and the lengthof the novel will be acceptable.

But short stories need to be whole within a far tinier margin. It's a massive challenge!


Sunday, 30 August 2009

Writing With Fear

I started a story yesterday with no idea where it would go. It was terrifying. It was a story for the WriteInvite website, which I mentioned in a previous post. There was half an hour to write the story as usual, but I launched in without a coherent thought in my head. I've done this before and I've said that it is better to write straight from the heart without too much thinking.

However, there are occasions when the fear overcomes me and I find I am writing totally blindly. There are no signposts in my head at all and I couldn't see them even if there were. I have no notion of the next word, let alone the next sentence.

But all I have to do is remain positive. I have to know it will work out, so that is what I believe. I don't work hard to convince myself. If I did that, I would be wasting the energy I need to use for the writing. I just tell myself, quietly and firmly, that all will be well. And it always is.

My story yesterday soon took on a shape of its own. I went along with it, stayed with it and focused closely on it for the full half-hour, submitting it with seconds to spare. I let the writing lead me and that's the best way.

I was satisfied and surprised by the finished result. It was a complete tale with a beginning, middle and end. There was ambiguity at the end, but it was still a good conclusion, leaving the reader with something to think about. The opening was intriguing and there was some nice imagery, as well as some humour, in the middle. I was happy with it.

So always accept the fear and stay in the story, letting it form without being distracted by terror!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Families Again

Sometimes momentous events oocur and family life is thrown off balance for a while. I can't write about these happenings at all. It's too current and too raw.

Writers are always being told, "You've got plenty of material there," whenever there's a family upheaval. Not so. It's not 'material'. It's real and it's taking place now.

I rarely bring family trauma into my writing, other than small issues and memories from my childhood. Anything that happens with my husband and daughters is very close to home, it is home, and therefore separate from my fictional world. And that's the way it is. It seems wrong for others to assume that my family concerns are immediate fodder for the next story

Families

Families say and do remarkable things, amusing things, emotive things and, sometimes, exasperating things too. But it is wonderful to note these things down, not just for the purpose of family records, but for your writing.

Keep a book for the purpose and take it everywhere with you. Look at your collection of anecdotes from time to time and you will be amazed at how inspirational they are. I have a daughter who backpacked around eastern Europe with her boyfriend, having adventures; another who comes out with incredibly sweet and funny pronouncements -"A fossil is a memory of an animal who has died." And yet another who asks constantly, "What if...?" Her 'what ifs?' are always far-fetched and convoluted, a great starting point for a story.

These are just a few examples of many lovely family moments/stories which can be a starting-point for fantastic fiction.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Stretching And Shrinking

It is good fun to increase the size of a story. I have changed a 1000-word story to a 1400-word one today and really enjoyed having the freedom to add some fresh details. It is definitely bigger and better now. It was rejected by one magazine, requesting 1000-word submissions, but I spotted the potential for enlarging it to suit another publication.

It was easy to insert a little extra dialogue here and there and all of those 400 words gave the piece more sparkle. After all, I was already very familiar with my characters - they were like old friends - so it was a way of reacquainting with them and extending previous conversations.

It is also enjoyable to shrink a story. I love winkling out the unnecessary words, or even sentences, and tidying the whole thing up. It feels neat and polished. It is also satisfying to check the word count and discover that you have reached the desired total.

Occasionally, I have increased a rejected story, had it turned down again, decreased it for a new market, had another rejection, then re-increased it for a third try!

Never be afarid of stretching or shrinking your fiction. It is a living, breathing, flexible creation. It is not set in stone.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Growing Your Own Tree

Fairy tales are a good place to start if you need plot ideas. I should think most of the basic plots for short stories are contained within the works of the Brothers Grimm.

I have just begun to read The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns. This is adapted from a Grimm tale and makes a wonderful, absorbing story. She has taken the characters and plot from the original and made it her own. However, the setting is different. The atmosphere and tension and pace are her own creation too. It is menacing and macabre. I love it.

There is nothing wrong with using a plot that has already worked well for another writer. I noticed a winning story in a magazine competition, which was very similar to one of my own, a previous winner in the same publication. But I didn't mind. I was flattered. The new story was still the author's work, his style, his choice of vocabulary. He had been inspired by mine, rather than merely copying it. Without doubt, I had been inspired in a similar way when I wrote my story. In fact, I remember well the novel which planted the first seeds.

We all grow our own ideas from ground cultivated by others. But, as long as we choose to use our own voice, the new work of fiction we create will be fresh and unique.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Jumbles

My current story is jumbled. I know what the theme and plot are. At least, I'm fairly sure of those. However, the action is messy and there is confusion in my mind. Therefore, the reader will be puzzled too.

However twisty you want your story to be, ultimately there has to be no lack of clarity. You can leave the reader wanting more, but you cannot leave them with uncertainty. You can lead them down different paths, but they can't be blind alleys. There has to be a main road (your theme) and all the tangent paths leading away from it (your plot) must also allow you back again, however much of a loop they take you on first.

Rollercoasters are a mixture of fun and fear. They throw you around at an amazing pace, but you enjoy them only beacause you know you will be brought safely back down to earth at the end. However many times you get on, you always want to be sure you will climb off feeling delighted with the experience, not left up there, dangling and abandoned.

Stories are the same. Don't leave the reader in a state of neglect and bewilderment.

Tales Of The Unexpected

Out of the blue, an idea can come. And it's very exciting, so keep hold of it and don't lose it! If a plot is floundering or a character is feeling flat, wait for inspiration while you work on other stories. It will come when it's ready. But don't wait around doing nothing. Keep on writing.

This morning, I suddenly realised how to increase the tension in a story. It came to me while I was reading a story that worked well from the tension point of view. As soon as possible, I wrote it down. It doesn't matter that it's not perfect. I can work on the finer points later. The important thing is that it's written down. Had I been out of the house, I would have scribbled a note or used my dictaphone. It involved a character not being where she was expected and then reappearing in an odd place. Doesn't sound much, but makes all the difference in the story.

In fact, I've just given myself another idea, so I'll end there.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Revelation Through Dialogue

In real life, talking to people can be helpful and character-revealing. It is through conversation that we communicate our thoughts and feelings. In fiction it is an incredibly useful device. It breaks up the narrative and adds interest and colour to the story.

For example: 'Marjorie was a kind and charitable woman. She was always helpful to others on the days the mobile library came. Elsie, in particular, relied on her.'

This is handy to know, but dull. Try a piece of dialogue instead.

"Thank you my dear, as always. My legs have got worse recently. Right shaky they are. I couldn't manage without you." said Elsie, relieved that Marjorie was there to help her back down the steep steps of the library van.
"Any time, dear. I'll always wait here to give you a hand. I'm never in a rush, so take your time choosing your books. I look out for the van every week and dash over the road to make sure I'm available"

I prefer the dialogue option, because it shows rather than tells the reader what the character is like. As in real life, it is the best way to communicate.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Conflict

Never forget to think about your plots when you are busy doing other things. I have been watching a film and something made me realise how I could add to the plot of a current story.

There were two sisters in the film as well as in my story. They fell out with each other in a fairly spectacular fashion and it really livened the pace of the film. I felt that my sisters needed to do the same, instead of ambling through the story in a pedestrian way. I'd written them into a rut.

A good row is helpful for allowing home truths and past grievances to emerge. These can round out the plot and heighten the tension. Stories need progression and any sort of conflict leads to an advancement of some kind. The pace speeds up too. Dialogue becomes quickfire. Don't forget to let the characters interrupt each other, as this is always the case in reality. There is less listening and more revelation.

So enjoy a good row!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Jumping In

Do you launch into a story, writing it as you go, without a clear idea of what will happen? I do this and I can't do it any other way. I can't plan it. I make notes as ideas occur, but I have already begun writing the story. The notes don't come first. I like to jump right in at the deep end.

The advantage to this is that you start with the action, instead of writing reams of gradual build-up from the shallow end, dipping your toes in tentatively and running away from the big waves. Crashing into the depths at the start is what the reader wants. It is tedious to wade around on the edge of a story. Especially when it's a short story and you know it will soon be over.

The disadvantage is that it's harder to weave a careful plot and tie in all the loose ends. You write and write and then suddenly realise that you don't know where all this action is going or why it exists in the first place. The story needs rooting. So you have to put your head up above those waves and maybe swim to the shore for a while to regroup your thoughts.

But making plans makes my writing wooden, so I'll continue to jump in.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

What's The Weather Like?

Weather is a dull subject when people make it the centrepiece of a conversation. Everyone has heard a forecast. Each of these differs. So the discussion is pointless and no one really listens. They just choose whichever option they hear first.

The weather will do whatever it decides. We all know the range of possibilities in the UK. It may well rain or at least drizzle. There could be an overcast sky. Ther's an outside chance of sun and a likelihood of wind. Frosts maybe in winter and high humidity in the summer. It's not like Jamaica, where you have a hot sunny day until three o'clock. Then there's a tropical storm with lashings of rain to clean the air. Then back to sun, which disappears abruptly at nine in the evening. It's vague here. Which means conversations about it are trifling.

So don't waffle about weather in your writing. But use it to add mood and atmosphere. Have depressing skies or shafts of illuminating sunlight or biting winds or blankets of snow to create an apt setting. It can help to paint your picture.

But don't have inches and inches of dialogue about weather, unless absolutely crucial to the plot or characters.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Warming Things Up

Life can leave a nasty taste sometimes. World events are sad. Closer to home too, tragedies occur. Friends and families give you shocks, let you down. The answer to this is to write it out.

There is nothing to be gained by giving in to that sense of hopelessness. It wears you down even more. You are going to feel worse than ever. Once you reach the point where you can do nothing to ameliorate the situation, then use it. Pull every bit out. Get hold of the disappointment and wring everything out of it that you can. Emotions such as anger, hatred, rage, despair are going to fuel your writing and inject it with an extra ingredient - passion.

So heat your words with the flames from your soul.


Monday, 17 August 2009

Doubts

Do you ever have doubts about your writing? I can finish a story, perhaps one that I have been working on for ages, and then feel that it is awful. I can see the good parts as merely mediocre and the poorer aspects as complete rubbish. So what happens then?

This is what I do and it works well for me. I put it away for a while and I don't look at it at all. I work on new things - that is vital. Never stop. Don't let doubts about one piece of work poison your creative juices. Then, when I'm ready, I look at it objectively, as though someone else had written it. I revive it. Nothing is ever lost or wasted. I breathe new life into it.

To do this, I cut out bits, maybe removing a character that isn't doing his or her job. I alter the order of events perhaps or change the pace. Speeding up the action can help. I delete a scene or two that isn't helping the plot to progress. I check for long stagnant patches and improve their flow. Often, I add background history to flesh out a character who may appear a little thin.

It's like snipping ragged ends off long-neglected hair. Or tidying up a room after the school holidays. You find hidden crisp packets, ancient mugs, piles of watched DVDs out of their cases. You pick it all up, sort it all into the right places, clean it and air it ready for the new term. It's much the same with writing. And tidying can be satisfying, so don't despair. Once you have launched into the mess and begun detangling it, you will start to enjoy the process very much.


Sunday, 16 August 2009

No Bleating!

People moan. It's almost a hobby for some. They must like the sound of their whining voices, bleating about their writer's block or their lack of time to write or interruptions to their writing time. It's a lot of wasted breath spouting rubbish.

As I've said before, I don't really believe in writer's block. It's an excuse for not letting your mind work. Lack of time? Who ever has enough time for everything? You have to make it. It's not handed to you. Find the part or parts of the day when you can spare time and make sure you actually use it.

Interruptions? Tell people you are busy writing for the next half-an-hour or two hours. Don't respond to any attempts to disturb you, unless it's an emergency. Promise your undivided attention later, when you've finished. Clearly, you have to complete your work-hours or, if looking after dependents, you have to enlist further help before settling down to write. That isn't always easy and occasionally impossible to arrange. But always use your free time from work and the time when dependents are asleep/occupied elsewhere. Use it to write, not to moan. You may not be able to snatch great quantities of time. And it may involve perching a pad of paper on your lap or a corner of the kitchen table. It may mean ignoring the dirty dishes for a while. But do it anyway.

If it invades your sleep-time and you feel weary, so what? You'll just have to be tired for a bit until you can catch up again. Obviously, don't make yourself ill and exhausted, but make what sacrifices you can in order to give yourself the writing time you deserve.

Free time is best spent writing, not moaning.

What Do You Know?

Write what you know is the advice we are given. I'm not sure we should adhere rigidly to this. It is true that we can write with confidence about the things we are familiar with, but it can also feel restricting. Of course we can do research. Then we know about something new and can apply that knowledge to our writing. But what about a shot in the dark?

I wrote a story in a setting that I was unfamiliar with. I'd probably seen a film set there, read a book or two in that location. But it wasn't somewhere I knew. I allowed my imagination to fill in the gaps and created my own setting. Unique, if not completely accurate. But so what? I didn't ever state where it was supposed to be. It's my place. Things took place there that I don't have first-hand experience of either, but the story won a competition. So the characters, plot and setting must have worked well, despite my fumbling in the dark.

So I remain a bit confused about the notion of wriitng what you know. It worries me that writers restrict their minds when planning a new story. If I develop a suddden interest in the Australian outback, even though I have no knowledge of it, I might plough into a story set there. My ideas will come from the smattering of information I possess, plus a tiny bit of research. I still won't know the Outback will I? But my story could still work well.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Be Yourself - It Suits You Better

This advice was given to me once. It was personal advice and nothing to do with writing. I may not have always adhered to its wisdom, but I have remembered it and always will.

It can certainly be applied to writing. Don't try to write in the style of any other author. You won't be paying them a tribute. You will be copying them. You will be ignoring your own voice. Don't. Listen to it. There is no one else like you.

I loathe it when people learn for the first time that I write. Invariably they say excitedly that perhaps I shall be the next Jilly Cooper or JK Rowling or Maeve Binchy. No, I shan't. I don't want to be other people. If I did, there wouldn't be much point in being me, would there?

I admire the authors I have mentioned, and many more, but I can only be myself. That means my work will be liked by some, but not by all. Plenty of famous authors are not universally admired, but that doesn't matter. They have succeeded in becoming writers. That's what counts. But the success would not have come if they had written using the voice of someone else.

When you talk to people, use your own voice. Don't put on a different accent or adopt a vocbulary you wouldn't normally use. I used to accuse my father of having a 'telephone voice'. He always spoke beautifully, but he used a special aristocratic accent on the telephone! It infuriated me, because there was no need! And it didn't suit him at all.

Friday, 14 August 2009

A Splash Of Original Colour

Colour is key to a story. Always add it in. Think how much it flavours your life and let it enliven your stories too.

Don't settle for yellow. What about fresh custard, bitter lemon, morning sun, golden sunset, sun-dried chicks, ripe banana, rain-soaked buttercup, grinning daffodil, saffron-infused rice...

I won't start on reds.

It's so much more vivid to visualise these wonderful images, but don't over-use them. It can get a bit cliched and then loses its appeal.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

What's In A Name?

I love names. I love unusual names. They add something extra and indefinable to a character. They can suggest all kinds of qualities or faults or social status. Even though you might think a name is just a couple of words, a story can be really enhanced if the name is apt.

Rodney Smythe-Harrington is unlikely to be a tinker, but wouldn't he be interesting if that were his occupation? Just as intriguing would be Dave Potts marrying royalty. These stories would be much better than if the situations were reversed for the two characters. Stories should carry an element of the unexpected to keep them fresh and the pages eagerly turned by the reader.

Names should be thought about and enjoyed when the ideal one occurs to you. I have heard some writers moan about choosing names, as though it were a chore. For me, it is one of my favourite aspects of writing. Once I have the name, the character can be visualised. My lovely spiv, Johnny Carpenter. My amazing pub singer in lurex, Clint Hotpants. My suave and sinister Professor Savage. Their names make them all real.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

What's In A Theme?

Theme is vital to stories. It is the link that runs through the entire piece. It is the point of interest. It is what the story is about. If your little girl is invited to a fairy-themed party, you know she has to go complete with shiny dress, wings, wand and sequinned shoes. The theme won't work unless all the little girls turn up dressed in a similar way. Then you have a fairy party. It is incomplete and unsatisfactory if half the guests forget and arrive in tartan frocks or frayed jeans.

With stories, it is just the same. If your theme is passion, then there must be strong feelings and full hearts. If the theme is jealousy, then green-eyed monsters must be lurking. If the theme is the search for happiness, then there must be a lot of looking, maybe some losing and then some finding.

Notice that the theme can be summarised in just a few words. If you have to ponder for ages when asked about the theme of your latest story, then it isn't going to work. You must have a hook that it all hangs on.

My favourite story, mentioned in a recent post, The Necklace by Maupassant, has the theme of pride coming before a fall. Others might say it is about deception being a tangled web. Or it is about dishonesty. Whichever theme you choose, all of these examples have the same thing in common. They are brief.

Try asking yourself what your rejected stories are about. If you struggle to find the reply or need several sentences to explain it, then you know why thoses stories have not yet been successful. Try inspecting them in detail to winkle out the underlying theme or themes. Perhaps you have too many threads in there? Try teasing some out and tidying the story up until a predominant theme emerges.

Do not confuse theme with plot. More of that in a later post.

Keeping Up The Pace

Pacing is so important to a story. If you give it all away on the first page, your story will have less impetus. It will fall flat and wither before the last page. On the other hand, if you wait too long before bringing out the big guns, the reader may have died of boredom before the bullet reaches him.

So give it time to build. There must be a gradual increase in tension. There must be a climax. Always bear in mind, however, that this is a short story. You don't have all that much time for building. You must keep it progressing all the way through from the first paragraph to the last. No stagnant chunks. No wasted words. No dialogue that doesn't actually say anything about the characters. But, at the same time, it mustn't be rushed either.

This is something that comes with practice. Try looking back often at what you have written. Have you given the game away too soon? Keep that bit for later and add more story first. Or have you written too much waffle? Cut it out and introduce some action instead. If nothing is happening, the reader is yawning. It doesn't have to be world-changing action. There don't have to be cannons firing or stallions charging. But there does have to be some sort of progress. Even if it's just an outing to the launderette or a changed state of mind, eg: from tranquil to uncertain or from contented to daunted.

Bear in mind the type of story that makes you switch off and avoid that by clever pacing. Throwing in a bit of unexpected action works well. Surprise your reader and keep him guessing!








Sunday, 9 August 2009

Troubled Times

Writing is the perfect treatment for unhappy times. If you are worried or tense about the unavoidable bleak patches in your life, then writing saves you a lot of hand-wringing and pacing about.

When you write, you inhabit another world. As I said in my last post, you are 'there'. You can take on a fictitious set of troubles. There's no better way to unburden yourself of your own real ones.

So, instead of banging your head against walls, trying to untangle your own dilemmas, you can take pleasure in sorting out someone elses's. Who knows? When you return to the real world, you may feel refreshed enough to see a solution to yours too.


Writing Is Work

Writing is work. People who don't write might think it's easy for us. In fact, some might consider writing not to be real work at all. 'I could do that,' they think. Don't be angry with them and try to defend your work. Just ask them to have a go and offer to give them a critique free of charge.

They could discover hidden talents, which would be very exciting. On the other hand, they may realise that it is much more of a challenge than they thought possible.

The chances are that those who bluster the most about how eay it must be to write, will never take you up on the opportunity.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

From The Heart

Don't sit there forcing ideas to come. All the possibilities are there within you. They will come if you let them. Let your mind relax and write the first thing that comes to mind. It may seem shapeless and even nonsensical at first, but it will take on its own life as you continue, and therefore a pattern that, blurry initially, becomes sharper and well-defined. As long as you don't give up!

Once I won a competition with a story that grew as I wrote it. I lived it. I was there. That's what made the difference. I was in that picture within my mind. Hence I cared about my two main characters. Since it came from the heart, the warmth shone through and brightened the picture that, certainly at the start, was confusing for me. I didn't know what would happen. But, because I continued with confidence, still in harmony with the setting and characters, still 'there', it fell into a neat shape. The pacing was good because I didn't pause to chew my pen or stare out of the window. I stayed in the minute world I had allowed my mind to create.

It all began with a girl in a high rise flat with a runny nose. Not very exciting as it stands. But the key to unlocking the potential of a mundane scene is to let it develop naturally, wholeheartedly. Stay with it and refuse to let it go. This child went on a 'journey' in that flat. The reader saw her thoughts, which I 'showed' rather than 'told'. It was, as with many short stories, a little scrap of time, an infinitesimal fraction of her life, but poignant. She progressed. She moved from one point in her life to another. And she did it because I let my mind propel the action.

Let it grow and be proud of its unique quality. My child in the flat has stayed with me ever since.


Friday, 7 August 2009

Stop!

It's all right to walk away from your writing. Sometimes it's just not going to happen and it's fine to shut down your computer or close your pad.

Do something unrelated and don't do it with a furrowed brow. Try loud music or a long walk. Enjoy yourself. Remember, your writing will be there waiting for your return. That might be in five minutes, five hours or even five days. But it will be there.

It's not like someone is goose-stepping around you with a stopwatch. You are the boss, the manager, the under-manager, the shop-floor worker, the tea-maker, the dinner-lady/man, the cleaner, the secretary and the owner of the whole shooting match.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Coffee Breaks

Coffee breaks are necessary, but you have to make the most of them. Don't swig it while you write. Sit back and enjoy every sip.

This is important because you need to feel that you have stopped, not simply refuelled. All workers need a rest and a chance to think - especially crucial for a writer. During pauses, you can regather your tangled ideas and sort them out, ready to move on afterwards. Give your poor brain a five-minute pause.

Remember to do it at the appropriate moment, not when you're in mid-flow. Savour the satisfaction of relaxing at just the right point. However, leave it at a place where you can easily continue, not at a finished and polished place. It is hard to pick up without one little loose thread to seize.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Luxury Of Time

No amount of time is ever too short. Don't think that just because you have only ten spare minutes you can't write. Not true. I have poured out valuable words in a scrap of time, perhaps aided by the slight sense of pressure.

In fact, if you have hours ahead of you, it can be daunting. The expectation is high. You feel you must produce thousands of words and therefore immediately put yourself under the cosh. Writing shouldn't be like that. When you have hours, you can relax while you warm up and then enjoy the excitement and tension that slowly builds as your story takes shape. So, love the long time you have, but respect it. It is a luxury.

I have mentioned before that we all have our own framework of time in which we can write before we break off for a while. However, just because the time available is less than our perfect quantity doesn't mean it shouldn't be used. After all, something might crop up later in the day to prevent any further writing taking place. Then you will be relieved you used that gratuitous few minutes to advance your story/do some research/edit. It's never wasted.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Finding A Voice

You may think that standing out is not easy. Why should your story demand the editor or judge's attention? It looks at first glance like all the others. Ostentatious fonts and embellishments are frowned upon, so it's actually good to look like the mainstream, but how can yours claim the spotlight?

When you try to join in a conversation with people who seem to be quicker or better than you are at saying interesting things at exactly the right moment, it can be hugely frustrating. They thrust themselves forward, while you struggle to make yourself heard. Then your confidence fades and you settle for the sidelines.

But the great thing about wrting is that you don't have to jostle. All the manuscripts look the same and all are silent until the reader reads them. Yours will br treated equally along with all the others. So all those blustering people who might trample on you in real life can't do so when it comes to the written word.

Writing gives you the same voice as all the rest. So all you must do is make the writing the highest standard you can. Enjoy doing that, safe in the knowledge that, while you do it, no one can shout you down and snatch your words away. The stage is yours.

Maupassant's Necklace

The Necklace by Maupassant is a story I keep reading. It seems perfect as an example of the art of short story writing.

It is concise, sparing in its use of language and well-paced. I feel gripped by it from the outset and the ending takes my breath away every time. There are two main characters, plus a third important one. They are sketched clearly and I have a complete picture of them in my head. Yet there is little time spent on descriptions. It is all about showing. There is little telling.

It has the classic structure of a well-constructed story. One of the main characters has a dilemma. Her husband helps her to solve it. A third party is briefly, but crucially, involved in the solution. A disaster occurs, leading to a downward spiral for the couple's life together. The horror lasts ten years. Then comes the shocking conclusion.

I aim to keep reading it until I learn how to write a page-turner like this. Stunning.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Enrichment

Enrichment is a lovely word. I feel it epitomises the extra luxury you can give your writing.

Look at what you write. Don't settle for dull words unless they suit the mood. Take a good sentence and make it better. Paint it. Sculpt it. Add warmth and colour.

Enrich your language with the magical vocabulary you have at your disposal. I don't mean use three or four adjectives in a row. I don't mean pepper every sentence with superfluous adverbs.
I mean that you should lavish your work with the best words you know, carefully chosen for their beauty and fit.

Just like the perfect dress.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Why Was Mine Not Chosen?

If you don't achieve a placing in a competition, then don't waste time feeling disappointed. Start looking carefully at the winning stories. Read them, study them, think about them hard.

Why were they chosen? I'm not saying you have to like them. It is very subjective for us all, writers and judges alike. That is clear from the fact that you can have a story rejected by several publications/competitions, but snapped up by the next one you try. What one person loves, another might loathe.

But, like them or not, you have to accept that the winning stories must be very publishable. They have been chosen. They are outstanding. They are better than everyone else's entries, including yours. Another judge on another occasion might have included yours, but this time you didn't score as high as the selected few who were placed. So it is vital that you study their work and find out why.

Look at the opening, the portrayal of the main characters, the way the plot has been woven, the use of language, the dialogue, the 'show don't tell' factor, the ending. What was the theme? Can it be summarised in a few words? That is often the key to a good story. If you have to wonder what it was all about, then it doesn't work as well.

Now look at the story you entered. How does it measure up? Then work on any improvements. Some will be immediately apparent. Do your rewrite. Then send it off somewhere else as soon as you can.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Flash Fiction

Every Saturday, I write a story in thirty minutes for a Flash Fiction website. There is a choice of three themes and a fee of three pounds. Once the fee is paid and the theme selected, the rest of the half-hour is pure writing.

The advice is to write straight from the heart and not to sit there pondering. Thoughts won't count unless you convert them into words. The story can be any length you like. This is usually pretty short because of the limited time, but some fast typists manage an impressive amount. Brevity, however, doesn't count against you.

The focus I feel during that time is intense and exhilarating. I am almost always pleased with the result. The exercise is brilliant for ensuring you craft a great beginning and a perfect ending. These seem even more important than usual in such a short story. You don't have long to make your mark.

Of course the middle is vital too. There has to be a progression for the main character and some sort of dilemma to sort out, just as in any short story. The MC has to move forward towards a credible and satisfying conclusion. Quite a tall order for a tiny tale.

I love 5.30pm on Saturdays. I love the challenge and the thrill of the writing, never sure what kind of story it will be. I have written crime, comedy, tragedy, romance, domestic and surreal. I never know what will be on my screen at 6pm.

The submissions are read and whittled down to a shortlist of three by the following Wednesday at 5pm. The un-shortlisted entrants then vote for their favourite. The winner, who receives a cash prize, is announced on Saturdays just before the new competition begins.

I have won a few times and been runner-up on a few occasions as well. It's quite an honour, because lots of talented writers take part and the standard is very high. I keep all my stories and often expand them to submit elsewhere. They are like miniature works of art when they turn out well.

It's a fantastic brain exercise, because you have to think so quickly and there is no opportunity for procrastination. The site is WriteInvite.com and I highly recommend it.




In The Car

Driving is a good time for plots. I can think without my mind wandering. It is always my time for 'what ifs?'.

If a plot is stagnating a little, the car is a good place to revive it. Maybe it's just the changing scenery or the drone of the engine, but something appears to unleash the creative flow quite well. The only snag is remembering it afterwards. Fortunately, my car trips tend to be short local ones and, when I stop, I write things down. It's a good excuse to go into Costa and have a lovely drink at the same time.

So this is why it is always a good idea to have a notepad and pencil. I have also got a dictaphone, but nothing beats the scribbled word on a page.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Notes

Have a notebook and immediately write in it all the odd or funny things people say, as well as your own thoughts and observations.

These oddities will be very useful sources of inspiration. You might not quote them directly in your writing, but they will be springboards for all sorts of ideas.

Make good use of them when you need a bit of help. Leaf through them from time to time and just enjoy them. These little unrelated scraps will prove invaluable to you.

And I'm not releasing any of mine - they are too precious. Find your own and keep them close to you.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Being Bold

Being bold with your writing makes it better. Never write with the thought of someone reading it. it will inhibit your words and block their flow.

If an idea seems odd, illogical or insane, then use it. Don't hold back. Keep writing while the boldness is in you. It will be amazing to read back later. You may tweak and trim it, but at the very least, you will have the germ of a very productive piece of work.

If an idea seems a bit dull or tired to you, then it probably is. So play with it. Like a cat with a mouse, give it a gentle push to see how it moves. Then play with it some more. Then watch. It may start running. Don't let it go. Stay with it. Follow its progress and keep pushing it to its limits.

However bizarre, however many strange tangents have developed, don't be intimidated. These are your thoughts. They will become your unique story. Different from the pack. Original.

So start pursuing them and don't give up the hunt. Everything you are going to write is waiting for you to be brave and get the words written.

Apostrophes - Catastrophes

Despite so much talk about them and their correct usage, apostrophes continue to be misused. I see them everywhere, even in literary magazines and websites.

Why is this the case when the rules are so simple?

An apostrophe can show possession, eg: John's shoe; London's historical buildings; the peacock's glass eye.
If the word is plural, put the apostophe after the 's', eg: all the actors' voices could be heard; The Mothers' Union.
The exception occurs when the word is already a plural. Then you keep the apostrophe before the 's', eg: the children's coats; the men's room.

An apostrophe can also show omission, usually the omission of a letter. So, when 'it is' becomes it's, the apostrophe is simply showing where the omitted 'i' used to be. 'Hadn't' has lost an 'o' and so on.

The confusion seems to creep in with 'its'. This is a word in its (!) own right, without an apostrophe. It shows possession again, eg: I love this pink rose because of its beautiful scent.
If I had added an apostrophe, the sentence would have been nonsense, because it would have read: I love this pink rose because of it is beautiful scent.

Possession or omission. It's as simple as that. Isn't it?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Thrill Of The Wait

When you start writing stories, it is tempting to wait for news before sending, or even before writing, the next one. Don't. Keep writing all the time. There's no point waiting. It might be ages. It's the writing that matters.

If your sent story is rejected, you won't have any other irons in the fire. If it is accepted, you won't have anything fresh to offer to keep up the momentum. Not writing will make your brain stodgy. You need to keep it working.

Waiting for news is way more exciting when there are twenty or thirty stories/poems out there. Remember it can take months for a reply, so, even when you have sent out lots of work, there will be weeks when you have no news at all.

So maximise your chances and make the wait fun by sending something as often as you possibly can.


Saturday, 25 July 2009

Writers' Block?

What exactly is writers' block? Surely there is always something to write about? If your current story/novel/poem feels a bit trapped in your head and no decent words are flowing, then just write about anything.

There is the room you are sitting in, the table you are working on, the noises inside or outside your home, the aroma of the coffee you have just made, the colour of the skirt you are wearing or the scaly skin on your elbows. What'e wrong with a few words about you and your surroundings? It seems banal, but it will get you started. One idea leads to another.

So, if you are describing a colour, for example, you will think of other things in that colour. A sky-blue skirt could conjure up a summer sky. That might mean an old-fashioned day at the seaside with donkeys and ice-cream or an exotic break in the Maldives. That could go on to beach entertainment or palmfuls of sun-lotion. That could turn into the secret life of the Punch and Judy man or oiled bodies scattering from a tropical storm.

Memories, dreams and plans will spring up in your head. Characters will enter your mind as you create the setting. Just don't stop thinking. It's taxing work, but it will put words on the page.

Afterwards, you may reject what you have written. So what? At least you have been working. Your work will have set new thoughts into action. You might not use those new ideas until the next writing session, but they will be there waiting in the wings.

Your mind will stagnate only if you don't use it. Not everything you produce has to be brilliant, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't produce anything. As a result of today's ramblings, you may find you have tomorrow's masterpiece.

Friday, 24 July 2009

How To Write While The Cat Scratches

Sit down and get on with it. Don't be distracted by the ironing, the post, emails, scratching cats, passing cars, dripping taps or dusty ornaments. All of it must wait until you have done something with your latest story. Actually, it is very stressful to ignore the post, but if you can steel yourself to do it, you do actually forget all about it. Then you have a nice surprise when you finally stand up and wander to the hall and see it lying on the floor.

I mean it. Don't be distracted. Not by anything. Tell yourself that all the other things can wait. Set time aside to do them when you finish. Then you won't let them nag at you.

If you know you can write non-stop for three hours, then do the other things in three hours' time. If you like to write for twenty minutes and need a break, then you can fit other tasks in at that point. But do your twenty minutes, without distractions seeping in, first! The writing time is yours to choose. Don't feel you have to do the same as anyone else.

Writing is what you love, after all. How hard can it be to stick with it? Just find your time limitation and use it. Then enjoy the other things until it's time to return to your writing. And return with a smile, not a grimace. Look forward to the immense satisfaction you are going to feel at the end of your writing day.

Otherwise, don't bother. Just do the chores instead and shout at the cat for scratching. The day will be emptier, less colourful without your words, but if that's what you prefer, then it's up to you.


Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Little Things

Details matter in a story, but it is important to be sparing. Huge blocks of verbose description shut the reader's mind down. Metaphors are essential, but need to be clever and original. Better to include one memorable simile in a story, one that catches the reader's breath, than pepper it with tired phrases. Some of those are worthy, but overused, and no one will enjoy them.

Take time when you are writing to stop and think about a face, a smell, a moonbeam or a knee. Let other thoughts merge with the object/sense/person you are describing and let something amazing lend itself to your description.

For example, my current favourite author, Barbara Comyns, describes a woman's face as '...like a melting strawberry ice-cream, rather a cheap one.' (Our Spoons Came From Woolworths). The ice-cream, soft, pink and oozing, creates a perfect picture of a soft fleshy woman. The addition of '...rather a cheap one' is brief, but blistering. I love it for its scantness.

The Boredom Of The Beginning

Can you keep a fruit bat in the parlour and will its vomit stain the carpet?

I have finally discovered that it is perfectly acceptable to discard my original opening to a story. Who cares? I can always keep it in a separate file if I don't want to lose it.

The chances are that your first opening paragraph is tentative, feeling its way into a story that doesn't exist yet. It may not capture the essence or mood of the main characters or guide the reader into their world. It may contain too much scene-setting, when those details should come naturally, scattered throughout the main body of the piece. It should be stunning, thrilling, maybe comic or even tragic, possibly a question or an exclamation. But whatever it is like, it should pose enough mystery and spice to draw the reader in.

Sometimes I think my stories don't 'get going' until the second or third paragraph. So I like to remove the opener and let the story begin at a more exciting moment, right in the thick of the action. Hence the fruit bat vomit. Explanations can come later. Engaging the reader can't.

So let your fruit bats fly freely.


Monday, 20 July 2009

The Power Of The Paragraph

Paragraphs can lift a story. I am put off by long columns, endless passages, stretched out over whole pages.

Breaks are good. They add to the sense of the plot, the development of the main characters and the structure of the piece.

When I see a poem, I lose interest if it is one seamless swatch of words. I enjoy the cut-up effect of stanzas. It is the same with stories. Sometimes the gaps are a clean scissor-chop, ready for a flash-back or a progression or a change of scene/mood. Other times, they feel ragged, bringing in sudden storms and violent twists in the action.

When I check the appearance of a story or poem, I find that playing with paragraphs and stanzas can improve, even clarify, the piece.


Sunday, 19 July 2009

Endings

Perhaps an ending should be a bit like a beginning. The reader should feel that there is more to be said. We should finish the story wanting more, yet not feel cheated of a full and rich outcome. There should be loose ends to give us something to think about, but not so loose that we wonder what point there was in reading the story.

For writers, it is a skill that is worth acquiring, since an ending can often 'make' a story. If I find myself thinking about a story long after I've read it, then I can be sure it had a good ending.

'At The Launderette' by Sarah Barr in issue two of the Yellow Room magazine is a story I cannot forget. It has many other qualities of course, but its excellent structure, including a good ending, made it linger long in my mind.

The Joy Of The Long List

My name was included in the long list for a short story competition. It is a joyful experience to see your own name there. So often you enter a competition and nothing happens. You wonder whether your entry came close or was miles wide of the mark. There are sometimes critiques offered at a small extra charge and I might treat myself to some of those in the future. It's helpful to get feedback and removes some of the doubts about the story that inevitably form in your mind.

But this time at least I know that I came in the top twenty entries. I wasn't in the final ten, but I have the satisfaction of knowing I reached a position between eleventh and twentieth. Hopefully, although I don't know how many entries there were in total, that means I did quite well.

The other good thing is that the story is now free to be sent elsewhere, since only the ten finalists will be published. The fact that it was longlisted means I have extra confidence about its potential. It will do well somewhere. The longlist has filled me with renewed confidence!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Barbara Comyns

I have just discovered Barbara Comyns and I love the way she writes. I have bought all her novels and intend to read them all by Christmas. They are so readable that I finished the first one in record time. I was inspired by the simplicity of language, coloured by the occasional stunning metaphor.

She is one of very few writers who can make me laugh out loud. I can hardly wait for the next opportunity to sit down for the next chapter. She writes about tragedy in a matter of fact way, embellished with humour, sometimes pretty black. She makes ordinary things leap off the page. Amazing.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Sitting On It

It works better for me to write fast-ish and then leave the story for a day and go back to it. It's surprising how many new ideas and tangents I can find for the plot and characters. Then I leave it for a day or two again and return to it, amazed at how many errors and dull sentences and extravagant adjectives there still are. Then I leave it a week or so and back I go again until I'm sure that it can't be improved anymore. I also feel a bit tired of it by then, so fear that I won't continue to do it justice.

I am always horrified by the thought that, when I first started, I would submit second, even first drafts! I am criminally impatient and have had to curb that to such an extent that I am now enjoying the new-found skill of PATIENCE!

Sitting on things is fun! I still don't always hang on to them long enough, but will keep practising!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Reading For Inspiration

I love reading and I try to do it purely for pleasure. But now that I want to write, I read books in a more critical way. I don't mean that I turn my nose up at imperfections or sit here sighing and tutting. And I certainly don't think I could do any better!

But I do re-read the parts that amaze me with their genius. I then dream about the day when I can write as well as that. I study good opening lines and muse over perfect endings. I look hard at wonderful metaphors or beautiful phrases.

Sometimes I forget to focus on the story line as a result of this. I think I should read each story twice - once for the enjoyment of a good read and once for motivation for my own writing.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Airport Music

I think Brian Eno's Music For Airports is good to play while I'm writing. It's unobtrusive and innocuous. It does all sound a bit the same, but, for that reason, blends well into the background. There's something warm and comforting about it, but it sometimes feels a little spooky too. This can be inspiring. It makes me think of all sorts of people rushing about, making sure they reach their different destinations. Holidays, business, family reunions, escape...all very motivating stuff.

And, as I write in the kitchen, it's better than listening to the fridge humming all day.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Red Cross Of Rejection

Teachers used to put red crosses by mistakes and they don't do this any more. A pity, I think. Crosses are disappointing, but we learn more from them than we do from the ticks.

Perhaps growing up with my fair share of red crosses means rejections of my fiction submissions are easier to bear. I know that I am not being criticised personally, but that my work is unacceptable for a good reason. Or for several good reasons!

Unacceptable work doesn't mean bad work. It means that it isn't required by that particular publication at that particular time. They might want the next piece of work you send them. Or the piece of work will suit another publication.

I have had stories rejected twice, but snapped up the third time round. So there is always a market somewhere. You just have to keep trying.

It is also good to look carefully at the story again before each submission. There may be some glaring mistakes when you look at it again.

It's a shame that editors can't put a few red crosses on and then we could see clearly, after the initial pang of disappointment, where the faults lie. I don't mean grammar/spelling mistakes, but areas where the story falls flat or confuses the reader.