Starting out on your first writing journey?
If you are just starting out to write and self-publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, put some money aside for the journey. After all, if you were about to open a shop, or offer a repair service, you’d expect up-front costs. Don’t expect the writer’s expense to be limited to computer, printer, ink, paper and reference books. Below I’ve listed five essential writing tools. You will be very thankful for these. If I’d known of them when I began, I’d have saved many months of time.
- WRITING PLAN Scrivener software organizes you. Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy. Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out. Yes, you have to learn how but you can use the tutorials, or, easier, buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies where the only tilt at your newness to the application is the occasional very weak (and patronising) joke. When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help.
- EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid This is a comprehensive editor, good to use chapter by chapter so that when the book is finished, your editor and proof reader will have far less work and cost you less. Pro-writing aid surveys your grammar, writing style, (over) use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you are progressing with your book.
- READ GUIDANCE Kindle If you don’t have one, do it now. This cheapest one is quite good enough, clear to read indoors or out. You can download free, or free to read guides for your writing, marketing, style etc. onto the Kindle and have it beside you as you work on your book on your desktop or laptop. That’s so much easier than reading, making notes or trying to remember steps, and then returning to your computer to put it into practice.
- NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, but more likely you will want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images and add text. It’s quick, too.
- FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress.
This advice comes from painful experience. If you don’t follow any of it, the same pain will be yours!
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.
These skilled stories heard by the packed audience at Story Fridays in Bath, UK. My own icy story explored the ultimate chill in a relationship.
There’s a growing popularity for short stories as performance art. Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear, in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, is the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway. The event occurs every second month inspired by a theme. The most recent is theme was ICE.
I was very happy that one of my short stories was chosen: A Fragment Retained, and thrilled that it was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox.
Sometimes it’s better not to read your own story when it’s written in the first person: the association with the writer/reader can distract the audience from the writing itself. More importantly, my story was delivered far more effectively by Kirsty. Why read a mini drama yourself when you can have a professional? You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed the story of a woman trapped into an unplanned conclusion.
This icy story is a mid-point gasp in my (mostly humorous) collection of satirical short stories, Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men. (The companion volume, Curious Men, follows later this year). The story has another name in the book. I tweaked it for performance. It’s often a good idea to make adaptations for stories heard, rather than stories read silently.
Last time I had a story in Story Friday I also enjoyed the advantage of a very skilled actor performing, (Olly Langdon). He memorably brought my character, a WWI POW to life, which would have been difficult for a woman to achieve.
It is nice to connect with an audience through something you’ve written, reading it as if written especially for them. I enjoy doing this when the story is a narrative, but these two stories had a single distressed character and they benefited enormously from the actors’ magic touch.
Stories for performance need such decisions – personal connection with the audience, or making a character more credible?
The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.
I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy. There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.
Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.
It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.
Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.
New book in the Relative Invasion trilogy: IMPACT
Post-war, the fall-out. Book 3 of the trilogy: IMPACT is now available on all e-book platforms. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N759C1Q
and in paperback, from Amazon and bookshops.
The new book is much longer than Book 1 and Book 2, bringing the two boys painfully to adulthood.
Bill’s trials with his cousin, the manipulative Kenneth, continue in adolescence. Kenneth seems determined to grasp every important possession and relationship in Bill’s life. Their rivalry reaches a climax that is bound to be explosive.
This is the layout of the three books:
1937-1940. In Book One, INTRUSION, five-year-old Billy Wilson is introduced to his frail, artistic and manipulative cousin, Kenneth. Against the background of impending war, Kenneth begins his invasion into Billy’s life and the rivalry begins.
1940-1945. Book Two, INFILTRATION, finds the two boys evacuated to the country. Billy finds nurture in his foster home that has been missing with his own parents, and begins to develop strengths of his own. Then a family tragedy enables Kenneth to invade Billy’s life wherever he is. The event will bring changes for both boys that are permanent.
1945-1951. Book Three, IMPACT. In July, with the VE Day celebrations fading in memory, Bill is torn from the foster home he loves to return home. Reluctantly he faces a dirty and destroyed London in company with Uncle Ted, who is home from the war safe, but so odd and uncommunicative. Bill must share his Wandsworth home with manipulative cousin, Kenneth. The adolescent boys’ rivalry intensifies as Kenneth intrudes further, insinuating himself into relationships, toying with his friendships and betraying his secrets. A drama is inevitable. Can Bill deal with the dreadful fall-out?
IMPACT should appeal to all those who have made a fatal mistake and must live with the consequences.
PLEASE DO REVIEW ON AMAZON AND GOODREADS. Thank you.
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.
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?)
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.
Each time I finish a short story . . .
I get a tremendous sense of self completion. It’s transitory: I will be rewriting my short story soon. Although the satisfying sense has gone by my first edit, this ‘completion’ sense doesn’t occur at all when finishing a novel. The process of beta-reading, editing, proof-reading that lies ahead is so lengthy that it’s more like beginning an uphill journey than reaching the top.
Recently I was asked about my process of writing my Crime Shorts, so I thought beginner writers might be interested in my answer. It begins with a voice or a sentence followed soon by the speaker. The situation that causes the sentence follows, and the story stems from that.
Once an idea comes I can become too involved in one aspect to pay due attention to other important elements that go towards making a good story. In the case of Homed, I was totally immersed in developing the voice of a none too reliable narrator. (These characters appeal to me.)
Deep into my narrator’s account, at about 2,000 words I realised that I had too many characters. Even without assigning them names, they would crowd my story. I doubt if a story of under 5000 words can work with more than three characters.
I sat back and re-thought the story. Where was my character at the beginning? How many places and situations could he refer to? As with characters, not too many, otherwise the reader would become confused. How could I best lead up to the climax? Had I laid down a hint near the beginning so that the end had validity? Had I described sufficient of the scenes for them to be visualised?
After these considerations, I rewrote the story. Bearing the number of characters and locations in mind, each had to be written as seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, he had to credibly remember each one.
I hope I succeeded, but if I haven’t, you can let me know. In the case of my first Crime Short, readers suggested I continued his story and made it a novel. Perhaps I will come back to that story again if its feral narrator refuses to let me go.
If you’ve like this post, please do share it.
Writers are always advised to be clear about their book’s genre and to concentrate upon a target group for it. Fantasy stories, for readers of fantasies, sci fi for sci fi readers, and so on. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to please an audience of one genre with your book in a totally different one? That would be a real achievement. I suspect that multiply-awarded Wolf Hall has not managed this. However, it can happen.
Let’s take music as an example. I’ve never liked jazz, despite the fact that my eldest is a musician playing both classical and jazz. It irritates me, the extemporisation on a theme. Simple soul, I want the theme, please. But then one day the Hot Sardines came on the radio and converted me. For those non-jazz lovers, this is a band that has put on wild live shows all around New York City – and now much further in the world.
I was chatting to a young teenager who had only ever read Harry Potter for his leisure reading and was forced to read ’The Scarlet Pimpernel ‘ as curriculum work. Reluctantly, and after much grumbling, he ‘worked through’ the book and came out a convert to historical fiction. ‘I really reckoned the French Revolution and the scheming. Cool. I’m into it now.’ Mightn’t he have been easier to motivate if the cover hadn’t been the one shown below right?
The fact that this series had a very wide appeal is demonstrated by the very different covers, presumably targeting contrasting reader groups. Here are just a few. On a bookshop table, each would likely attract very different shoppers.
It makes you think, if you’re a writer yourself, doesn’t it? It is pretty easy to change a cover and re-upload your title, or to have several covers showing for sale. A number of long-standing successful novels have two or more different covers.
Here’s one of John Wyndham’s, again likely to appeal to different audiences:
Of course you need a title that doesn’t confine you; ‘Lolita’ or ‘War and Peace’, for instance.
Otherwise, one advantage of being an Indie author is that you have control over your own covers. Almost worth avoiding mainstream publishing for that fact alone?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Always better to get it from the horse’s mouth.