Writers’ Criminal Ideas – developing a short story

I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ because I rarely know.

When I wake, story phrases or conversations come to me out of the dull mist of very early morning. But in respect of this story, I can give a direct answer about my criminal ideas.

Some years ago I was watching the news of multiple shootings in a school by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the media tried to analyse its reasons. Sadly, other such massacres have followed.

As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. I remember several school haters rather than school refusers holed up in their bedrooms after school, keeping themselves separate from family and peers. These boys, and sometimes girls, believed those around them were ignorant of what they themselves knew. Their ‘knowledge’ was of violence, rebellion, conspiracy, retribution. They had dark posters on the wall. Those youngsters, I can’t write about, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that role.

I can’t write about those particular youngsters, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that state of alienation. (This writer’s criminal ideas)

I created a younger boy from another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year.

Later it won a Bloomsbury review after topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that she “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” She went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” She suggested how I might develop it as a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl‘.

I put the story with its criminal ideas to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.  Later I tweaked it and put it on Kindle.

A Boy with Potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. It has elements of horror. It is a story of suspense. Crime is in the background; crime is the threat. Will it be a killer?  I believe there is an appetite for shorter stories, commuter length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words.” (and now it’s in its 2nd, longer, edition of 7,000 words). FREE Kindle this week.

Creating edgy short stories.

I have written a few edgy short stories, and I enjoy reading them. As an example, Hilary Mantel’s story of Margaret Thatcher’s fictional death

It’s the suggestion of outrageous possibility that can make a story  or an image edgy.

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If the first person form is used as a literary device, the narrator of an edgy story is often unreliable, but his or her fantasies around true events don’t make a fantasy for the reader. There can be a self-deception that the reader can assess.What is ‘edgy’ is the uncertainty around what is real, especially if that threatens safety, physical or attitudinal.

Where stories are written in the third person,  the main character does not have to be likable.  It is edgier if s/he’s unlikable yet the reader constructs a sneaky liking for him/her. This makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this jerk?)

images-2The reader does have to be drawn to the main character in some way – horror or outrage can achieve this – what will he do next? But uncertainty and confusion work best.

 

 

The author can shock the reader by reversing all expectations, or make the protagonist cross over some unacceptable line. He may kill but must he debase? He may cheat, but the person who has just saved him, or his own mother?

Edginess needn’t involve extreme sexuality or aggression.  An action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance. It doesn’t have to involve crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can even be shockingly funny.

Assumptions we make when we read a story when reversed, can highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess can produce unease and give rise to questions over morality, practice, managing relationships. A story is satisfying when it is thought-provoking and lingers in the mind after the last page.

I hope I’ve achieved this in my Crime ShortsA Boy with PotentialNot Her FaultHomed banner_new

Character-writing: resources

Writing characters? E.M. Forster admitted that “We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family …”

Perhaps you can’t or won’t do that. As a writer, you will need different resources for bringing your characters to life.

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Character invisible on the stage

You may have access to a group or category of people who encapsulate the characteristics you want for your character. But perhaps the stage is empty . . .

You want to give your character a convincing appearance and a convincing voice. It’s good if  you can summon up a face and voice that is still in your head. But suppose that isn’t the case and you need to create one? You won’t want the fruit of someone else’s vision — i.e. you don’t want to copy a character from a film or tv script.

Feeling stuck? Try these resources:

  1. Documentary films. The British Film Institute site is not just for buying films you’ve missed seeing. Let’s say your character is a steelworker in 1948. You can see a 1948 close-up of steel production to get the manufacturing process vivid and exactly right, take in the working clothes worn at that time (including a man in a suit working with heavy machinery) and hear the tones and terminology of the narrator.

  2. Oral History interviews  are a wonderful source of actual opinions and attitudes. You can hear audio clips of contemporary voices such as those being compiled by the BBC’s Listening Project, or past voices in archives such as those at East Midlands Oral History Archive, or in the US via the G. Robert Vincent Voice Library – a collection from 1888 of voices from all walks of life.   http://vvl.lib.msu.edu.

  3. Online discussions. Say you have never been in your character’s situation.  Find a blog on that subject, then wheel down to the comments: real people reacting to the situation. For instance, unemployment or being cheated by a friend. You’ll not have to guess how it feels. The comments following an advice column, even review sites include personal accounts with the tiny details that will make your paragraphs sing.

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    Pixabay

    Always better to get it from the horse’s mouth.

 

 

Promoting literary fiction on-line

Bookbub promotion: a wise investment?

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Jane Davis recently ran a Bookbub promotion. Jane is a successful indie author and member of ALLi whose first novel, Half-truths and White Lies won the Daily Mail First Novel Award in 2008. She has written six further novels, each of them in the genre of literary fiction. They have earned her a loyal fan base, especially after An Unknown Woman was named Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust. But like all authors, she has to market and promote her books.

It is well known that Bookbub is the most effective of all promotion sites. Thousands of downloads follow the one day of a Bookbub listing, but getting a book listed is notoriously difficult. And expensive. It costs hundreds to donate a book – even free – to a potential thousands of readers. No wonder that millions of authors turn to other promotion websites. There are myriad on-line writer advice sites recommending that authors do this, with a consequent rise in websites providing promotions. Not surprisingly, with multiple sites promoting the full gamut of genres, the result is lower effectiveness and fewer sales.

Despite Jane’s existing success, it took several attempts before Bookbub accepted Funeral for an Owl for promotion. Often book promotions are for genre fiction. Would Bookbub work well for literary fiction? This was Jane’s question. Her partial answer she generously shared with fellow ALLi members: the results of her Bookbub promotion: costs and benefits.  (One of the advantages of membership of ALLi is the access to this inside information.)

JaneDavis       Jane’s results are particularly useful because:

  • many website posts that quote results are averaging outcomes from several genres among which literary fiction may well be the least represented.
  • Those ‘sold a million after promotion’ success stories often relate to self-help books (often about self-publishing!);
  • FREE e-books are now expected, encouraging myriads of downloads that are never read. Jane’s data inlcuded the number of reviews that followed: i.e. proof that the book had been read.

Once or twice I have looked up the ratings for books cited by promoters as examples of phenomenal sales after exposure on their site. Once the sales day is over, the rating has slumped to very low.  This does not seem to be so severe a case with Bookbub, probably because the audience is already targeted to its preferred genre. For instance, two weeks or more after the promo on Amazon.co.uk Funeral for an Owl’s best rating was as follows:

Yes, it would be nice to be at number 1, but it is sales that matter and these are by no means all that Amazon use to decide on ranking. One of Jane’s goals was to increase the number of people on her mailing-list, people who would be interested in buying her books. This goal was achieved as result of the Bookbub promotion.

It seems to me that literary fiction is the last to benefit from on-line promotions. This may be because its readers are those most likely to prefer a physical book and most likely to keep it, re-read it, lend it, pass it on. Jane has her books in print too . . .

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey and is the author of six novels. The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section.

You can find her at:

 Website: www.jane-davis.co.uk

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage   Paperback-iphone-FB-AD

Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/

 Or get an eBook of her novel, I Stopped Time, by signing up to her mailing list at www.jane-davis.co.uk/newsletter

 

 

 

Writer blogs and their lifetime

FdeTroyLectureMoliere

Some few years ago I began my first writer blog:

http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com. But I didn’t want to show myself– I let my characters do the talking. Sadly, the characters didn’t live up to the image of Moliére’s group above.  It was more like this on the left. womensclub

I had just published my collection of satirical short stories and I wanted a writer blog that would speak about them, but one that would stop short of marketing. In that respect I fully succeeded; I talked about all the characters, it was humorous, and it didn’t market. I doubt if I sold one copy of the book as result of that site.

But I did have fun and, it seems, this writer blog appealed to the Ukrainians who followed every post(!) The characters became real, including one with a fish phobia, another who could only operate from a chaise longue, and one who was worried about her husband lurking near, ready to snatch her back from her recent liaison. The characters took over the blog completely, writing the dialogue including blistering criticism of me, their author. They started a literary criticism group, discussing each others’ tales. That was extremely unedifying and more than a tad bitchy. Altogether, this wasn’t an author blog, it was a characters’ blog. There was even an intruder, Russell, a character from one of my as-yet incomplete novels.  It’s always good to have an outside perspective on things, isn’t it?

I have just written the final post on this blog. It’s had nearly 23,000 visitors but it’s run its course. The book, Me-Time Tales,  is in its second and expanded edition with new stories, additional characters. Kindle_Cover_opt I need to spend time writing on this blog, and on the author website (http://RosalindMinett.com) that, very belatedly, I am preparing.

I have said Goodbye today to my quirky blog giving this representation of one of mymattress characters. She was moaning that I hadn’t included the new characters from the 2nd edition so, as a swan song, I mentioned her and two others (rather miserable characters).

Now to the serious business of writing. The site you are on is straightforward if far less creative than fictionalcharacterswriting. I learned a lot while blogging on there. But I am not recommending such a time-consuming exercise to new writers or any writers, unless as an alternative to doing Codewords or Adult Colouring.

How far should we write for our own pleasure? One successful marketer, MaAnna Stephenson, has recently stated that before even writing a book she would carry out her marketing exercise: appetite for such a book, pitch, response, audience and so on.

Oh dear. We writers know what we should do but we just carry on writing the stuff in our heads. Our silly heads?

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Strengthening your writing via stimuli.

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Writing stimuli. What gave you that sudden idea that made you urgently scribble it down? It’s worth exploring.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. But it’s much harder to ‘dream up’ a smell that might affect the character in your story, than it is a sound or sight.

When we’re stuck for ideas for a visual stimulus,  Art can provide perspectives, narratives, symbols to enrich our writing.  For auditory stimuli, theatre and radio present us with ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_optThere is no equivalent for smells.

So having found the right sound or sight stimuli to cause your hero to pale with emotion how to find the right smell/scent/perfume/stink to cause emotional impact? Leave aside the obvious triggers: magnolia, blood, excrement, cabbage (who wants to write hackneyed stuff?). Will the character stop short as spinach fumes enter his/her nostrils, or candy floss?  What particular scent might have been recorded in his/her long term memory?

skunk_opt

You can prepare for that blank moment. How about noting down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant? List the source for each. This will make you rack your brains, and may well summon up incidents that you can use in your story. Add any smells that you already know act as powerful reminders for you – and write down why.

A scent for one person may be a stink for another. One perfume might raise very different memories for two different characters. Identifying that memory can enrich your story line. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a great aunt, but Debra of pass-me-downs when she was young.  The scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby, but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs. They find themselves quarrelling . . .

TapirAtSDZ

With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you.  Strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Title Optional

Struggling to find the right title?

A writer recently remarked that she had difficulty in thinking of titles. I thought I’d concoct a list for beginner writers allowing use for different genres. Let me know if you like this kind of post. It can be taken seriously or not. Who knows, one of these may spark the next novel for someone. These titles are intended for you to make your own associations (and stories). I had fun.

 

One day too long

Caught in Time

Idyll in Back Alley

Plenary Session

Forbidden Journey

Is There Hair on my Burger?  (or their hair – works as well)

fur burger

An Intricate Endeavour

It Takes Time to Jam

Black is the New Grey

They never called me Edna

Not Everyone Marries in a Cathedral

Blogging To Bliss

Entropy

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, I CAN DO MORE. (But I should be finishing my next chapter).

Winning Writing

Persianmss14thCambassadorfromIndiabroughtchesstoPersianCourt

This lovely image is Iranian.

I like playing Scrabble, but I’m not competitive. The challenge presented by the board in hand and the variety of options, limitations placed upon moves is sufficient. Sometimes the layout feels like an art form. It’s fun to enliven the game further by restraints such as allowing only nouns related to e.g. writing, for words of 4 letters or more. Going to an event based on competition would spoil the enjoyment completely.

It seems that the lack of competitiveness has a worthy origin.Chess_Players_of_Haft_Awrang

Chess is thought to originate in India, before the 6th century AD and then spread to Persia, pictured here.

Chess reached Southern Europe via Arabs and Muslims, and by the 15th century it had evolved into its current form.

The “Romantic Era of Chess” was characterized by swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, brash piece sacrifices and dynamic games. Winning was secondary to winning with style and the focus was upon artistic expression. I’d loved to have been an audience then before the style changed, in the 19th century, to one of technical mastery and long-term planning.

In presenting our fiction to the world we writers are exhorted to use multiple techniques to gain sales.  Innocent days of creating the best that our talent and art form allow, end. Months of miserable media-bashing follow. What contrasting activities, what different emotions!

Reading about the origin of chess brings similarly opposite emotions to reading self-help books that teach tricks of beating algorithms or garnering a following. It’s these books themselves that sell in huge numbers, their authors then ‘teaching’ a system to all other writers on the basis of this ‘sure’ success.

How sad.  William Boyd, Anne TylerKasuo Ishiguro novels, say, may have comparable Amazon sales rankings with a very badly produced book on Twitter techniques. Even the most reputable newspapers may show best-selling books for their Top Twenty rather than a list of most highly regarded fiction.

Swashbuckling attacks on the media, clever combinations of layered promotion, technical mastewinningry of marketing ploys and long-term planning of a marketing campaign is what sells books and makes a winning writer. Thank goodness that reputable writing competitions rely on writing judges, not the amount of ‘votes’ an entrant can grab via social media. Nowadays, all of us writers are pushed into this.

I wonder whether a ‘romantic era’ for art forms will ever return.

A Rich Read: writers’ sudden ideas.

A SUDDEN IDEA –

ideaBoy
Deviant Art

What prompts a writer to suddenly write down an idea? Author – there’s a lot going on when you write.

When your idea appears ‘out-of-the-blue’ , more likely the germ of the idea lies in some unconscious association. Past experience affects the significance of something that appears novel, something just seen or heard or half-remembered.

Why notice say, the length of someone’s thumb, rather than their choice of tie? Subliminal exposure can influence kaleidoscopepreferences. Even patients with amnesia may show that someone/something is emotionally important to them, without remembering ever encountering these objects of their affection.

The reason for the significance of the idea is unconscious. But the emotional experience is conscious.

As a writer, you are just aware of ‘the good idea’ and the urge to write it down. But every scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory, olfactory and visual stimuli.

At a party, Perry can’t relax because of the scent coming from the candles. It brings on some very uneasy feelings connected to – what? If only he could say why.   aroma

Jane focuses on a woman’s blue-grey dress. She doesn’t know why. She distorts its appearance later in a story. Long forgotten, Jane’s shouting aunt was wearing such a dress during a traumatic quarrel.

Derek, beside her, is irritated by the gestures of another guest. He can’t say why but worries away at the conundrum. He may dredge up the original stimulus.  If so, that is very satisfying. Catching the germ feels good even if the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. catchingball

This unconscious layer of memory has a social and a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) is useful, often vital. From our very early days we must attend to the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behaviour.  I remember saying something cheeky as a small child and peering at an adult to work out whether their mouth bore a smile or an annoyed grimace.

We unconsciously absorb tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities; there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. When a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues.

Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904 A character may be softly rubbing his eyebrow as he reads. The reader enjoys noticing this detail as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read.

© Copyright 2015 Rosalind Minett

The posts on this blog are the original work of Rosalind Minett. If sharing or quoting, please credit the author.

The detail in writing fiction

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Jonathan Wolstenholme “The Collector” 2005

It is often the tiny detail that remains in the reader’s mind and catapults him into the imaginary world the writer tries to create.

I’ve used Jonathan Wolstenholme‘s painting to portray a focus on detail. Minute detail is the interest in another post featuring cross-fertilization.

The collector uses detail to identify his butterfly, the artist and dancer attend to detail to create a new perception or meaning, and the writer can produce significance and emotion through tiny touches of detail.

It was while watching the DVD of Room on the Broom with little people that this post suggested itself. In the delightful children’s book, a dog, a cat, a bird, a frog in turn ask for a place on the witch’s broom in return for finding her lost items. But the DVD adds a layer to the original. After the cat is installed, it suffers jealousy when the witch takes on new passengers. All this is conveyed silently, by a raised eyebrow or a turned-down mouth, the invention of the animator. The book is satisfying enough to the child (theme: one good turn deserves another) but with the added detail of the cat’s facial expressions, the child’s own difficulty in sharing or accepting a new sibling, is illustrated safely. An added layer is given to the story.

In an expensive perfume, it may be one drop of a rare plant essence that makes it unforgettable (perhaps irresistable).

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival,  a flowing wordless narrative about emigration, is chockful of meaningful detail. One example: leaving his country, the emigrant says goodbye to his loved ones. Tan portrays this by a close-up of the hands clasped, the next when loosened, then the fingers leaving those of the others; a tremendously evocative set of images. This is detail that resonates with the reader. Another graphic artist might have left it to the hug or sad face.

pavlovaTurning to dance,  the delicacy of Pavlova’s left arm makes this pose arresting.

true blood

The drop of blood changes perceptions and significance in this book cover for True Blood.

In textual works, small detail can hit the heart-strings. I’ve tried to do this in Intrusion (Book 1 of A Relative Invasion). Seven-year-old Billy is on the station platform without his parents. As other evacuees are hugged goodbye, a wind from the oncoming train lifts Billy’s name tag against his face, and lets it fall again. (A moment of hope that the exodus won’t happen, thwarted.)

Kate Atkinson’s heroine in One Good Turn breaks an established routine of breakfast by eating the remains of a packet of chocolate digestives with her coffee, and on the peach sofa in the living room. This little detail implies rebellion against her absent house-proud husband.

When in Brick Lane, Nazneem, poor, in an East End flat, gives money for a charity that has touched her lover’s emotions, she gets it from a tupperware box under the sink, a telling detail.

I’ve been arbitrary in my choice of examples. Many writers boost the crises in their plot , but it’s these little details that can give satisfaction during and after the read. This often doesn’t happen with a wholly plot driven novel.

It’s like the difference between eating a large pizza, and a meat and two veg  meal. We may feel full initially but the protein makes the sense of satisfaction lasts so much longer.

Intrusion and Infiltration. Impact out in summer 2016.

ARItrio