Writing at the speed of light

carbonaceous chrondite
meteorite

 

SPEED OF LIGHT was the theme for September’s Story Friday evening, held at the cave-like theatre at Burdell’s Yard – in conjunction with A Word in Your Ear

Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.

I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find.  It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.

It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.

Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour  to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.

(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)

I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.

Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.

This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.

Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.

 

 

 

Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

Obsessive women: satirical short stories

 

In this 2nd edition of Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, there are stories short and long about women of all ages, at all stages.

Katie Fforde called the stories “Quirky and Intriguing”. No, they are not erotica. Hardly a glimpse of bare flesh. There is a subtly dark edge to the stories, most of which seem, at first, light-hearted. My intention was for readers to have second thoughts, just after they’ve finished a story.   

There are Kindle and ebook versions while the paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops (ISBN=978-0992716790) and on Amazon. It makes a good present for someone you know, or better still, their husband. A top-100 Amazon reviewer states “. .  . their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki” while another suggests it’s a delight “for both sexes”

During the writing, I imagined being each of these women: aged sixteen, covered with tattoos and lusting for good legs in a man; a shocked and frustrated shopper experiencing a moral dilemma; someone infertile, another overly fertile, a women with a dreadful aversion, someone adored and someone certainly not. I wrote them at different times and in different places, and subsequently forgot them.

The collection began when I came across one story, describing the most neurotic character. I realized I had several stories about women unused in my files. Looking them all out, I discovered their obsessions. I added more stories, coveringimages various kinds of angst. Reviewers converge on the descriptor ‘quirky’.

My other fiction is more serious, but, look, my avatar has two sides. These stories represent my irreverent one. I did enjoy writing them!

 You’ll encounter an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.

New writer? Writing persistence.

Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.

Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).

This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.

What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.dyslexia

On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It could well set you on a good, productive path.

Persistence pays, and King has evidenced this. 

Icy Short Story – performance art

‘Icy short story’ could feature a crime, an arctic setting, or a scientific experiment – even cryogenics.

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?

 

 

Writers, do you beautify your main character?


Prince Albert – Winterhalter

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.

History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.

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.

 

 

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.

9 points on writing edgy stories

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My second post on writing edgy short stories.

Here are some suggestions. (My previous post will add meaning to this.)

1. Write with a clear voice. Not yours, your character’s. It doesn’t have to be first person. You can write third person from the main character’s (MC) point of view. What matters is that point of view, the reader feeling sure s/he is standing in the MC’s shoes.

2.  The reader doesn’t have to like the MC. It is edgier if a sneaky liking for a character makes the reader uneasy or worse. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this baddie I’m reading about?)

3. Short stories can’t cope with having too many characters. The edginess may depend on being in the MC’s head most of the read, so the reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – even horror or outrage can achieve this.

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4. Dialogue has to do its job well and pithily. Every word counts; every unnecessary word detracts. A character merely saying ‘Whatever‘ can give a total feel of his/her reaction, whereas a whole sentence may not.

5.  Structure. If you are working on : 1/5 start, 3/5 middle. 1/5 end, that final fifth must hit home. Either shock the reader by reversing all his/her expectations or let your MC cross over some unacceptable line. It may ‘only’ mean stealing a child’s bike and pretending innocence. However, the ‘journey’ must be there, and it’s vital that whatever happened is some kind of shock to the system.

6.  Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form is usually involved but an action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

7.  The edgy story does not have to be crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can be funny.  It’s no longer edgy for sexual abuse to be involved, not because it’s any more acceptable, but because it’s now hackneyed as a character device.

8.   It is still edgy to nudge into those actions that would be too awkward to admit to a friend. e.g. a friendship established in the first 4/5th of the tale where we worry that this friend is about to cheat or betray. The last fifth reveals that we are wrong. The kickback is that the assumptions we made highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess must produce unease.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first two of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential and Homed. Do let me know if I have.

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