Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Reading the last page first

Ordinarily, I don’t read the end of a book until I have read the rest. It is cheating.

Or at least, that’s what I thought, until today.

I’ve been reading a YA book and the plot is dragging a bit. I’m not crazy about it, but I’m invested enough to want to know what happens in the end. A friend of mine suggested I skip to the last page. Literally, the ONLY circumstance which would force me to read the last page (before I’ve read all the others) is when I am so bored that I just can’t be bothered. My friend, however, confessed to ALWAYS reading the last page first.

“Doesn’t it spoil the whole reading experience?” I asked.
           
Apparently not. He thinks it makes it better. And when I posed this question to Google, I discovered he is not alone. Lots of you read the last page first. And what’s more, studies* suggest it does make reading more enjoyable. The brain may find it easier to process a story when you know how it ends – especially if it is a complex plot – and, it seems that knowing the ending can give plot developments greater meaning or significance. You read with more awareness of the nuances and are better able to contain the emotional experience, keeping it story focused. Also, if you read the end first you know what’s coming so you lessen the chances of being disappointed by an unsatisfying ending.

I’m still not convinced. I want to be there with the protagonist, experiencing her highs and lows and I definitely don’t want to spoil the surprise.

“But hang on,” said my friend. “Just because you know how a story ends, doesn’t mean you won’t still have surprises.”

As a writer, I know this to be true. Good writing is littered with surprises of all shapes and sizes. Surprises up the ante in the plot, test our characters in new situations, they delight us with fresh sparkling prose and play with our emotions. If I read the end of the story first, will I lose all of these things?

No. Obviously not.

And what about those stories which I’ve loved and loved again, knowing not just how they end but all the twists and turns on the way there? Did knowing what was on the last page actually stop me reading them time and time again?

I guess the answer is also no. 

So maybe it’s time for a new approach to reading? Maybe I should start reading the end before I get there naturally? Not sure if I can break the habit of a lifetime, but I think I'll give it a go...

Or should I? What would you do? 

Monday, 13 March 2017

10 Reasons Why Writing is Like Juggling

1. Everybody can learn how to juggle if they want to.
2. To juggle well requires a lot of skill and patience.
3. Watching other people juggle, will help you develop your art and become a better juggler.
4. You also need to practise. Sometimes you will drop the balls and look like a complete arse, but you just have to pick them up and start again.
5. You can juggle almost anything – from raw eggs to flaming spears – but you still have to learn the basics.
6. Throwing the first ball into the air is the easy bit.
7. Catching it is the next easy bit.
8. Keeping all your balls in the air at once is when it gets really difficult.
9. Done well, juggling is a thing of beauty.


Monday, 13 February 2017

Hello Darkness My Old Friend...

I’ve started writing something new. It’s been a while since I did this. Over the past couple of years I’ve been getting to grips with being a carer, and although I did start a couple of ‘new’ things in this time, mostly I’ve been rewriting.

Now, five thousand words into my new project, I remember how easy it is to fail.

I’ve got the story very clear in my head. I’ve written notes about plot, characters, the emotional journey of my protagonist, the sub-plots, climax and resolution. I’ve mapped out a few twists and turns, and some of the scenes are really vivid in my mind. Only last night I was excited about progress and told my partner how confident I was feeling about this one...

And then today, darkness fell. It blurred my vision with stupid details that aren’t important and compelled me to rewrite scenes, adding colour, texture and pointless observations that took me off on various unhelpful tangents. Before I knew it, my brain was tangled, my vision was clouded, and I started to doubt myself.

I’m horrified.



Rewriting or editing before the first draft is complete is a mortal sin. I know this, not just because that’s what every successful author tells you, but because I have a computer full of half-finished/barely-started books that got edited too soon and dug themselves an early grave.

So, enough is enough. I’ve hung up my writer’s hat for the day and sent my critical voice on vacation. Tomorrow I shall return to first draft simplicity and to getting the story out of my head and onto paper. I’ll worry about everything else at some other point in the distant future...   
Writing may well be rewriting, but if you do it too early, you risk writing your precious prose to death.



Monday, 30 January 2017

Forgiving Myself


I often think about the irony of having written a book in which a young girl unwittingly becomes a Young Carer only to find myself some years later, as an Old Carer. It’s not something I planned – not something any Carer plans – but when my elderly dad needed to move nearby, and when his new home in sheltered housing was flooded by Hurricane Desmond, my own life went on hold.

Caring for a relative is hard. Even when you’re not actually in their presence they are never far from your mind. And because they are dependent on you, it’s hard to walk away when you need some space or a bit of your own life back. You are constantly juggling their needs with yours.

Consequently, my writing suffered. It’s hard to be creative when your emotional energy has been drained by another medical non-emergency, another shopping trip, a pile of wet laundry, that lost hearing aid, or an update on bowel movements. You can’t just turn off the crazy conversations in your head. And whilst I did manage to carve out some writing time (a couple of hours or a day here or there), my creative flow was missing and it was a real struggle to make progress.

But that was 2016.

And this is 2017. My dad’s not getting any younger, I’m still a Carer, and I need to find a way back into my writing life.

Only £7.99!
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks resurrecting a book I’d mostly written before Dad’s big move north, before Desmond, before my brain was taken up with Dad’s Alzheimer’s, and over the weekend I published it on Amazon

In Your Write Mind is a collection of therapeutic creative writing exercises. I’ve used a few of them this month and I have to say they’ve helped. They reminded me that I’m not a bad person for wanting my life back, that I can still write, and that this is just a phase in my life. It too will pass.

So I’m going to share with you one of the exercises which made me feel a little better and helped me be a little kinder to myself. Have a go, and if you like it, why not buy the book and try them all.

✵✵✵

Exercise 5 ~ Forgive Yourself in a Letter

“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Mahatma Gandhi
~
Forgiveness is about letting go of blame and resentment and implies a willingness to move on. When you forgive, you do not necessarily forget but research shows that forgiving a wrong may make it easier to forget. Those people who cannot or will not extend forgiving compassion to themselves risk increased stress and the possibility of serious health problems. Forgiveness, therefore, plays a key role in emotional, mental and physical well-being. [*]
One way you can help yourself to feel better about past events and behaviours is to allow the ‘past you’ and the ‘present you’ to interact, because writing to yourself is a very powerful way of acknowledging what you have learned in life and how it has helped you to be where you are now.
    • Write a letter to your younger self, beginning Dear Me.
    • If there is a specific thing you want to forgive, acknowledge this in your letter as much as you feel you need to, and tell ‘past you’ that you are happy to let this go.
    • Also tell ‘past you’ what you have achieved in your life, what you might expect to happen over the years and tell them how they got through the bad times and how they enjoyed the good times.
    • Give ‘past you’ the benefit of your ‘what you know now’ knowledge.
    • Tell ‘past you’ you forgive them and remember to send back some love.
Whatever has happened in your past, the simple fact is that you made it through; you are here today, trying to find ways to feel happier. The past is gone. You are in the present.




* There is plenty of research to back this up, for example:
a) Forgiving a Wrong May Actually Make It Easier to Forget | Saima Noreen | Association for Psychological Science,  2014
(http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/forgiving-a-wrong-may-actually-make-it-easier-to-forget.html)
b) Forgive yourself if you want to live longer: Those lacking ‘self-compassion’ get stressed more easily and let it affect them over a longer period of time – leading to serious health problems. | Adam Withnall | The Independent, 2014
(http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/forgive-yourself-if-you-want-to-live-longer-scientists-say-9248685.html)
c) The New Science of Forgiveness | Everett L. Worthington, Jr. | Greater Good Science Centre | University of California, Berkeley. 2004 (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_new_science_of_forgiveness)

Thursday, 14 April 2016

20 Questions to Chris Chocopocalypse Callaghan

Today I am delighted to be able to introduce you to the staggeringly handsome, razor sharp brain and amazing sense of humour* of Chris Callaghan, author of The Great Chocoplot.

(*Disclaimer – his words, not mine.) 

Having been aware of Chris's existence on Twitter for some years now, I was very excited to read his debut novel, picked up by Chicken House at their very first Open Coop two years ago. I devoured The Great Chocoplot in one sitting - you can read my review here - and laughed my way to the end. It’s a wonderfully imaginative middle-grade story which I thoroughly recommend to everyone, but in the meantime, here’s a chance to get to know the man who wrote it...

1. When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve recently found lots of old school books and note pads and it seems that I’ve been writing stories since I first learned to write. There are even stories tucked away at the back of French and Maths books – I obviously wasn’t paying too much attention in class! I had various characters that I’d put into lots of different stories and would write my own episodes of Danger Mouse. Why did I write? I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve always done!

Wispa or Blocka Choca?
(Other chocolates are available)
2. What was the inspiration for writing The Great Chocoplot? 
I came up with the word ‘chocapocalypse’ while on twitter as a bit of a joke, but the idea festered away in my brain and I started to write the story. While writing, I remembered a time when I was at school and a new bar of chocolate was released into the shops. It was delicious and quickly became everyone’s favourite. What we didn’t know at the time, was that it was only being tested on Tyneside (where I’m from) to see if people would like it and there were only limited stocks available. It soon started to sell out and the rarer it became the more we wanted it. Until it eventually sold out everywhere! It was the first Chocopocalypse!! Luckily, this trial seemed to go well and a year or so later, the bar of chocolate was released nationwide. You can still get it today – it’s called a Wispa!

3. Who is your favourite character from this book and is he/she based on a real person?
I have a lot of fondness for the Dad. Some people have wondered if he’s based on me. He’s not that bright, but he tries his best – we have a lot in common!

4. What are your best and worst experiences as a writer?
I’m very new to being a published writer and luckily I haven’t had any bad experiences - yet! I had been looking forward to seeing my book on a shelf in a bookshop – I thought that would be the greatest part, but seeing it in the hands of readers is even better.

5. Which chocolate would you most like to be marooned on a dessert island with? (See what I did there?)
Oh yes, very clever! I’m very practical, so my first thoughts would be something I could ration out. Smarties would be easy to divide up and because of their coating might last longer too. My middle name is Bear-Grylls! (It isn’t, by the way.) 

#chocopanicface
6. What if the Chocopocalypse really did happen, what would you do?
I’d panic, obviously. Then I’d collect all the chocolate in the house and keep it safe. I’d even hunt out my wife’s secret chocolate stash. She says she hasn’t got one – but I’m not sure I believe her!

7. Do you write every day?
No. I can go for days without writing anything. But I am ALWAYS thinking about stories. It drives me mad sometimes, I can’t help it! I have a terrible memory for normal things, but I can store characters, scenes and dialogue in my head, no problem. I do most of my editing while doing the dishes and going to the shops. When I finally sit at my laptop, everything is pretty much ready to splurge out.

8. What is your least favourite part of the writing process?
Losing scenes that I’ve worked on and loved for so long. It is a vital part of the editing process, but I never realized until recently how much it hurts!

Clint Eastwood or Chris Callaghan?
9. Who would play you in the film of your life?
Clint Eastwood. I know he’s getting on a bit, but they can do a lot with make-up and CGI these days and I think he is the only actor that would be able to properly portray my cool, tough guy image. Why are you sniggering? 
(How did you know?)

10. What super power would you have, and what would you do with it?
I’d have the power of being able to pick things up off the floor without bending down. I know that might not sound impressive, but I’ve been a Stay at Home Dad for a few years and picking stuff up off the floor is a major part of my job. I’m not getting any younger and my back is getting creakier. I’d happily get stuff off the floor all day long if I didn’t have to bend down!

11. Do you have any unappealing habits?
According to my wife, I ‘snore like a dolphin’! Although, I’m not quite sure what she means by that.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up?
An astronaut. I’d be a bit scared during the taking-off bit, but the rest would be brilliant. Also, due to the micro-gravity in space, everything would float around and I wouldn’t have to pick up anything from the floor – perfect!

13. Do you believe in magic?
I have an engineering and scientific background and am always amazed and in awe of the wonders of the real world. I am a passionate believer in the magic of science. Does that answer your question?

14. Chocolate or wine gums?
Oh no, do I really have to choose? But I love wine gums … and I love chocolate … oh, I love wine gums … can I come back to this one please?

15. Who would you invite to the dinner party of your dreams – and what would you eat? (Ravioli with a slice of cheese?)
Ravioli and a slice of cheese is lovely, but it’s not my favourite. We’d have mince and mash – I ADORE mince and mash. I’d invite Dr. Watson - I’d love to go on an adventure with Sherlock, but I think he’d be an awkward dinner guest! Dr. Watson would be able to tell lots of great stories. Similarly, Arthur Dent from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (my favourite book), I’d love to hear him talking about where he’d been and who he’d met. Another great guest would be Chewbacca – imagine how much fun that would be! Finally, I’d invite either Ant or Dec (not sure which one) because I’d like to see what they look like when there is only one of them.

Not Chris Callaghan
16. Do you have any unique talents or hobbies? (Dancing obviously.)
Ah, so you’ve heard about my reputation as a dancer. I am very good. I’ve had to think long and hard about this and, to be honest, I’m struggling to come up with an answer. Although, while I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve managed to balance three massive American marshmallows on my chin. So there you go!

17. What are the best and worst jobs you ever had?
Being a Stay at Home Dad and having such an involvement with my daughter’s childhood is the best job I’ve ever had. The worst? While I was in the Royal Air Force in Scotland, we would spend a lot of night-shifts defrosting the taxi-ways ready for the jets. We couldn’t use salt or grit because it damaged the aircraft – so we used frozen pig urea (wee). When you’ve shoveled that all night in the wind and snow, it gets up your nose, in your ears and even in your mouth! Nasty!!

18. Do you have a bucket list? And if so, tell us something that’s on it.
I’m afraid not! I don’t look too far into the future. When I left the Royal Air Force I was given the present of a back seat trip in a jet fighter. I looped-the-loop at 600 miles per hour and I’ve just had a book published – these are the kind of things I suppose people have on their bucket list. I’m happily married and have a wonderful daughter – I know how lucky I am and don’t want to be greedy. Although, I’d like a new mobile phone – mine doesn’t keep its charge anymore.

19. If you could say thank you to someone, who would it be and why?
My mam, who unfortunately isn’t with us anymore. I didn’t say it enough to her.

20. What can we expect from you in the future?
As I’ve said, I don’t look too far ahead. I genuinely don’t know. I’ve got tonnes of ideas, but if this turns out to be my one and only published book, then I’m more than happy with that. I intend to enjoy my time as an author, regardless of how long or short it lasts.

Can I go back to Q.14? I’ve decided on chocolate. Definitely. No, hang on … wine gums are the best … no, chocolate … oh, this is torture!




Okay... you can have one of each.
Thanks very much, Chris. You've been very entertaining. 

If you want to find out more about Chris Callaghan, take a look at his website, or find him on facebook, twitter and instagram.

And if you want to read The Great Chocoplot (you do, you really do) you can buy it from all good book shops!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Chocopocalypse is Nigh...

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
   
The Chocopocalypse is less than a week away and Blocka Choca bars will soon be history...

What would you do if the end of chocolate was announced? Cry? Panic buy? Eat nothing but chocolate until it’s all over?

Yes, me too... but in Chris Callaghan’s wonderfully imaginative and hilarious story, Jelly (aka Jennifer Wellington) refuses to take the news lying down. Not only is chocolate at stake here, her family’s livelihood is threatened, as is the future of her hometown, the famous chocolate producing Chompton-on-de-Lyte.

Jelly starts to question the people around her (notably Mrs Bunstaple, Dodgy Dave, and last but not least the everso villainous Garibaldi Chocolati) and sets up a scientific experiment to prove or disprove the chocolate prophecy.

This is an adventure story with a difference. It’s funny, clever and full of gorgeous characters you care about. I loved Chris Callaghan’s hilarious human observations and the utter lack of seriousness in this book, and I laughed out loud many times. Sadly, my own children are no longer young enough to read to, but I’m going to hang onto it just in case I ever have grandchildren! (Assuming of course, I don’t go down with a-lotta-choca-litis in the meantime.)


Monday, 29 February 2016

What to do with your short story next...

This one's a winner...
even the dog can't tear himself away.
So, you've written a short story and you're very proud of it. You'd like to get it published...

Here are just a few ideas for publication and competitions.

Centum Press was launched this year (2016) as a new publisher that produces short story and flash fiction anthologies. They will pay each author royalties for his or her work.
They are looking for short stories and flash fiction between 500 and 1,500 words. 

Independent publishers of new short fiction.
Looking for short story submissions for publication in their anthology series; about people and places, rather than about writing itself.
Stories between 1,000 and 20,000 words in length; most of the stories they publish are between 2,000 and 7,000 words
They pay £15 per thousand words for stories they publish
£3 submission fee

This short story magazine welcomes short stories from new and established writers. 
Critiques offered on all unsuitable work (FREE for annual subscribers). At least 72 pages in each issue.
Stories should be no longer than 3000 words.

Comma publish an annual anthology. They are looking for stories between 1500 and 8000 words, usually with a theme. See website for requirements.

No cut off date. All types of story are welcome.
Three prizes every issue, of £300, £150, and £100
Stories MUST be between 1000 and 3000 words
Entry fee is £6 or just £3 for subscribers | Optional feedback for just £5


Closes 14th March 2016. For writers of all levels, writing stories on any subject, in any style.
1st prize £2,000, plus a week's writing retreat at Anam Cara and a day with a Virago editor
2nd prize is £500 | 3rd prize £250 |Three other finalists will each receive £100
All six winning stories will be published in the June issue of Mslexia.
2,200 word limit

Closes 31st March 2016. All types of ghost story welcome. But we may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore!
Prizes of £500, £250, and £100
Entries between 1,000 & 7,000 words in length; longer or shorter entries will be disqualified.
Entry costs £8 

Closes 31st March 2016. Crime fiction/crime short story competition for previously unpublished writers. 
Prize: a week-long writing retreat at West Dean College, editorial feedback and six months mentoring from a Myriad author. 
Up to 5,000 words 
Entry fee: £10

Closes 31st March 2016. Competition for unpublished writers - theme of ‘An Extra Day’
Prize: £100 plus trophy
Stories of up to 2,500 words 
Entry fee: £5

Closes 15th April 2016. A new competition open to black, Asian, minority ethnic writers living in the UK and Ireland. “We want to read your story, whatever it may be.”
Prize: £1,000, and publication on the Guardian website.
8,000 word limit  

​Closes 30th April 2016. Stories may be on any theme but only humorous stories will be eligible for the Trisha Ashley Award.
Prizes: £500 + trophy | £150 | £100
In addition, The Trisha Ashley Award for the best humorous story:  £200 + trophy 
Winning and short listed stories will be published in an anthology.
10,000 word limit. There is no minimum word count.
Entry Fee: £10​

Closes May 1st 2016. NO THEMES | NO GENRES! “We’re looking for imaginative, surprising, absorbing and beautifully written stories that bring characters to life and elicit an emotional response from the reader; in short, well written tales that will appeal to both the head and the heart.”
Prize: £150, publication in the summer issue and on the website, and promotion on Shooter’s social media. |The runner-up will receive £50, publication on Shooter’s website, and promotion on social media. |All entrants will receive an e-copy of Shooter’s summer issue.
5,000 word limit | £7 entry fee

Closes Tue 31st May 2016. Highly prestigious award 
Prizes: 1st £5,000 | 2nd £1,000 | 3rd £500 | Highly Commended 10 x £100. 
The top winning short stories will be published in the Bridport anthology. The winning stories and shortlist will be read by leading London literary agents with a view to representing writers. The top thirteen eligible stories are submitted to the BBC National Short Story Award (£15,000) and The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (£30,000)
Word limit: 5,000 words (no minimum). Title not included.
Entry fee:  £10 for each short story submitted.

Closes Tue 31st May 2016. Prizes: 1st £1,000 | 2nd £500 | 3rd £250 | Highly Commended 3 x £50
The top winning short stories will be published in the Bridport anthology... (as above)
250 word limit
Entry fee:  £10 for each short story submitted.

Closes 31st May 2016. WWJ are looking for the most captivating first page of a story. Entries can be from a novel published, unpublished, a part written novel, or simply a first page written purely for the competition. Entries will be judged anonymously.
Prizes: 1st Prize - £500 | 2nd Prize - £100 | 3rd Prize - £50
Up to 400 words
You can submit more than one entry.  First entry submitted is £6, and £4 per entry thereafter.

Closes 1st November 2016. Theme: 'Fear'
Prizes: £100 | £50.00 | £25.00  
The winning entry will appear in the winter edition of Scribble, which will be published during December 2016
Maximum length: 3000 words.
Entry Fee: £4.00

If you know of any more, please feel free to post them in the comments below. 

Happy writing, and GOOD LUCK!

A short story!

Here's a short story which was inspired by my day with Clitheroe Writers Group

My story ideas were chosen at random, and had to include:
1. A disabled suicide bomber
2. A voice coming from a can of beans

It's fair to say I wasn't delighted by this brief, but when I sat down to think about the possibilities, the following questions helped to stir my creative juices...

What if the bomber drops the can and runs? What happens to the voice inside?
What if he can't open the can?
What if a customs officer confiscates the can?
What if the voice in the can gives him away?
What if he is scared to die?
What if the voice is a ghost from the past?
What if the voice is his conscience?

Having thought about the possibilities of the story, I felt a little less daunted by the brief.
And this is what I wrote...

O is sweating. Like, really sweating. Drenched armpits, face shiny, hands clammy. He didn't think he'd feel this way. The big neon sign tells him the train is being prepared for boarding. He has a ticket, paid for in cash. No seat. No identifying marks. Even his mother wouldn't recognise him behind the dark glasses, with the white stick and stupid old man clothes they made him wear. 

He's twenty two for fucks sake. 

You'll be fine, they said. Getting your end away with all those virgins, just seconds after... Really? That quick?

But he trusted them. He never liked the way they swore black was white, and the way they seemed to forget that things didn't always turn out the way you expect. But he trusted them.

He grabs his rucksack. Watches people waiting for the train; his train. Families with little kids, an old man with a hunch back just like his granddad, a woman with a dog in her handbag, business men, a nurse with a washed out look on her face and greasy hair, still wearing her uniform...

His heart beats so hard in his chest he's scared it will go off before the rucksack. And then suddenly, pangs of hunger grab him. Is it hunger? It must be. His guts are grumbling, talking out loud, drawing attention to him.

An announcement: "FIVE MINUTES TO BOARDING."

His eyes are everywhere - that's why he wore the dark glasses. But people are still looking at him, or listening. He has to move away. There's a shop. Don't go in shops, they said. No human contact, they said. And he knows he shouldn't, but he stands up and limps towards the Spar.

"THREE MINUTES TO BOARDING."

A kid on a scooter scoots past. Nearly knocks him over. O watches the kid scooting up and down, up and down, and remembers when he had two working legs. They can do miracles with prosthetics now, but what's the point? It'll all be over soon.

Then a woman calls, "Tommy, come here. We're getting on the train in a minute."

And this kid, Tommy, is like clapping and cheering and he's so damn excited. Has he never been on a train? O remember his first time. The way the cows and sheep whizz past. The way you get a table with your seat. The way the ticket man lets you clip your own ticket...

For fuck's sake. Stop thinking.

"TWO MINUTES TO BOARDING."

Stomach still rumbling. Churning. O goes to the shop, buys a can of beans and a can opener. Pays cash. Doesn't make converstaion.

"ONE MINUTE TO BOARDING."

He opens the can, and that's when he hears the cry. He looks up. Thinks, it's the kid, but the kid is gone; queing up at the gate with his mum, and the old man like O's granddad, and the woman with the dog, and the nurse.O looks around. There's no one else close by.

He hears the cry again. O looks at the can. The voice is coming from the can. For fuck's sake. I'm losing it, he thinks. He knows.

Don't do it, says the voice in the can. You have a life to live, a family to raise, dreams...

And O knows that voice. He's heard it before. It's a woman. His mother? His sister? Gran? Or Aunt?

"THE TRAIN AT PLATFORM SIX IS NOW BOARDING."

There is a rush through the gates.

O looks at the can, and knows what he has to do.



Short Story Starters

When we write stories we think in terms of Character and Conflict, and how these inform Plot.

At my recent Short Story Writing Day with Clitheroe Writers Group, we did the following exercise to find inspiration for our stories.

1. Write a list of characters who have some sort of conflict in their life; perhaps in their personality, their job or their environment. 

2. Write another list of unusual or difficult situations which a person may find themselves in.

3. Pick one random thing from each list (or get someone else to do it for you). This is the basis for a story. 

4. Now, write a list of about 5 'What if' questions? These will  help you think about the possibilities for the story you are about to write. 

5. I suggest a cup of tea at this point, to give your ideas time to gel, but after this short break, sit down and write. (Remember it is only a first draft - you have time to polish afterwards.)


Clitheroe Writers enjoying their tea break 
CWG writers came up with some wonderful ideas and very unexpected stories. The thing about this exercise (especially if you do it as a group) is that it forces your imagination to work outside the box and think of stories you wouldn't normally dream of writing. My own particular story on this day was about a disabled suicide bomber who heard a voice coming from a tin can, which was definitely not something I would normally have tackled. But tackle it I did! You can read the first draft here...

If you would like to have a go at this writing exercise, here are some of the ideas we came up with in Clitheroe. Feel free to use all or some of these, or invent your own.

Characters...
1. Child, who cannot swim 
2. An alcoholic, with OCD
3. Teacher, who shoplifts 
4. A disabled suicide bomber
5. A child who thinks he can fly
6. Zookeeper, obsessed with celebrity 
7. Barber, who sees ghosts 
8. Chef, with emotional incontinence
9. Grandma, with a guilty secret
10. Nurse, with a phobia
11. Father, who longs to dance
12. Priest, who cannot forgive
13. Little girl, with a broken gun
14. A jealous housekeeper
15. A passive aggressive bank manager
16. A very tall pot-holer
17. Lollipop lady, with Tourettes
18. Ambulance driver, who thinks he is a vet 
19. Builder, who writes poetry
20. A school teacher who is part alien
21. A butcher who hates his wife
22. A writer with a dictionary phobia
23. An out of work mercenary
24. A lingerie model with a large pimple on her bum
25. A father with a secret
26. A politician with morals
27. A little boy with a superpower
28. A mother who longs to parachute
29. Identical twins with narcissistic personality disorder
30. A sailor who gets sea sick

Situations...
1. Mistaken identity
2. Being stalked
3. Caught in a snowstorm
4. Applies for a job s/he is not qualified for
5. The house is flooded
6. A sink hole opens up
7. Wakes up in the wrong bed
8. Gets stood up
9. A body falls from a motorway bridge
10. Forgets their money
11. Tied to the railway track
12. Takes responsibility for a crime they didn’t commit
13. Wears the wrong shoes
14. Finds a head in the fridge 
15. Builds a giant sandcastle
16. Slides envelope under the door
17. Steals an umbrella
18. Trapped in a lift
19. Caught eating in the library
20. Pulls out the wrong plug
21. Laughs at a funeral
22. Hooks a briefcase from the canal
23. Eats the wrong cake
24. A voice coming from a can of beans
25. Falls inappropriately in love
26. Sees themselves on the news
27. Stands on a cliff edge
28. Finds the neighbours dog is dead
29. The boat leaks
30. Caught masturbating by someone they know

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Writing Short Stories - The Alphabet Challenge

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to Clitheroe Writing Group to lead a day of short story writing. We talked about what makes a good short story and came up with a few ideas, but we also agreed that there was no absolute right or wrong way. Short stories come in all shapes and sizes and different stories work for different readers.

However, one of our warm up exercises was the alphabet challenge...

Write a story in which each word begins with a different consecutive letter of the alphabet, beginning with 'a' and ending with 'z'. (You can use connectives and conjunctions and anything else to make the story work, but keep the word count to a minimum. Your story will be a minimum of 26 words long.)

Of course, everyone could come up with 26 random words without connection, but when you do this exercise you realise you are driven to think in terms of a character (of some description), that something needs to happen to change this character (conflict), and that we have an inbuilt need to think in terms of plot. It's a tall order with such a restictive brief, but incredibly, there were some rather good stories which came out of this.

Arthur Baxter's cat delivery enterprise flourished...

Mostly, we agreed that a short story should have the same elements as a novel (ie. plot, story arc, conflict, character development and transformation) but be significantly shorter and less complex than a novel. A short story is a snapshot of a life – rather than the whole of it, and generally the plot revolves around one conflict, one (or two) main characters, and be told from a single point of view. It is usually set in one place and covers a short period of time. Also, a short story should begin as close to the climax as possible, and equally important, it should end as quickly and efficiently as it started, often with a twist.

I don't think we agreed on description. My pesonal view is that description slows down the action, but not all group members agreed with me ... and some of their descriptive passages were simply lovely. As mentioned earlier, different stories work for different readers.

As far as length goes... stories of 20,000 words are short compared to a novel, and I have seen several reference to short stories up to 10,000, but I think an upper limit of 5,000 fits the criteria (one main character, one conflict, a snaphot of life etc). As far as lower limit goes, we are looking at anything from 140 characters up. Flash fiction stories don't typically exceed 1,000 words. Micro fiction stories are sometimes defined as having fewer than 300 words. Drabble fiction stories have fewer than 100 words; Nano fiction has fewer than 55 words; Twitter fiction, aka twitterature, has 140 characters maximum...

It seems to me, that a short story is pretty much whatever you make it... but you still need characters, conflict and plot. 

Want some more inspiration? Read my next post for some story starter ideas...