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


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


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.


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.