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 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


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 apostrophe 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 ' 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


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.