Tag Archives: short story

What Does it All MEAN?

Life’s twisting path

(Oystermouth Castle, Mumbles, Wales)

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level fables are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

You’ll find that for your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying universal message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.


Make your lines stand out

Amelia stands out from the line

Amelia stands out from the line

Those new to writing will often fall in love with words and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing negates the impact. Use adjectives but go easy, less is more.

An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence, far too much colour. Each individual image is in competition for the reader’s attention. The result is a confusing clash. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly. Do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. Edit that sentence down.

‘A cloud slugged over the hills,’ has far more impact.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. “A bomb exploded” is more striking than “Suddenly, a bomb exploded”.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


What’s the story, Rory?

I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.

Will I begin it?

That’s all that’s in it.

Irish nursery rhyme.

What’s the story?

Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.

Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

man vs. nature

man vs. man

man vs. the environment

man vs. machines/technology

man vs. the supernatural

man vs. self

man vs. god/religion

Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.

Structure

A typical story structure might be plotted thus:

Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.

Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.

The main character is affected by the disturbance.

The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.

Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.

Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.

These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.

The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.

Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.

The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.

 

A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.

That’s all that’s in it.

 


Character reference

What’s their favourite pizza?

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height, posture and walk.

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

What is their natural scent or preferred perfume or aftershave.

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Hook ’em in…

Your first line is probably the most important in your work. It should surprise and intrigue your reader and somehow give a taste of what is to come. Ideally, it should be unusual or uncanny and most importantly, it should encourage your reader to read on…

A surprise opening in Liverpool…

‘”Damn,” said the Duchess.” is a first line  attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched. Regardless of its provenance, this line is arresting, or was in its day. “Damn” was a pretty raw word in 1920 or so, rarely uttered in front of ladies, not to mind say by one, and then one of high social standing. So, an opening line such as this was written to shock, to intrigue, to grab the readers’ attention and it is a good idea to find one with a similar punch in the modern age.

Thereafter, is often a good idea to follow your first line with a pacy set of three chapters. These are also the showpiece you’ll be sending off to agents and publishers, so make sure they’re written to hook.

Some writers write their last chapter first, so they can figure out their plot, and then leave writing those all-important first few pages until last. In fact, the very last piece of writing they might do is the first line. Therefore, don’t fret over your opening, get the rest of your work down and come back to it later if necessary.

And, take note that just as your first line should reach out and grab your reader – your final line should linger with your reader for sometime afterwards…

 Can you guess which works gave us the following opening lines? Answers below

 

1) ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

 

2) ‘I’m writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

 

3) ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

 

4)It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

 

5) ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

6) ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’

 

7) ‘Mother died today.’

 

8 ) ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’

 

9) ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’


10) ‘
He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.’

 __________________________________________________________

1)      Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.

2)      I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

3)      A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

4)      1984, George Orwell

5)      Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

6)      Ulysses, James Joyce

7)      The Stranger, Albert Camus

8 )      The Crow Road, Iain Banks

9)      The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley

10)   Orlando, Virginia Woolf


Mussels grows Muscles

cro2

Firstly, thank you to all of you for your sympathy and condolences on my sister’s death. It’s been a hard month, but it had its moments of lovely support and family togetherness.

On the day my sister passed away, I got (and missed) an email informing me that a short story of mine had been long-listed for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was then short-listed, and eventually chosen as one of the three stories annually selected for broadcast on the radio station. As Radio 4 receives nigh on 3,000 submissions for this slot, I’m pretty chuffed (and slightly feel as though my sister is looking out for me).

‘Mussels’ is set on the Norfolk coast and follows a year in the life of Triona, an Irish prison tutor settling into her new life in England. The tale investigates how attitudes towards Irish immigrants have changed over the past two generations, and then explores, in this light, the responsibilities the present-day Irish arrivals might have towards other more recent waves of immigrants into the UK, from Eastern Europe and further afield. The story was recorded in June, narrated by Dervla Kirwan (Ballykissangel, Goodnight Sweetheart)  and will aired on BBC Radio 4, August 2nd at 19:45. I hope you can tune in!


I won!

Flying high

If you’ll indulge me… a quick boast post…

This week, my story ‘Grapefruit’ placed first in the Meridian Autumn Competition, and another ‘Two Trees’ was shortlisted for the Wells Literary Festival Prize. And…. another radio drama I co-wrote, ‘Berlin to Balaton’,  has been shortlisted by the BBC… so all in all, it’s been a pretty full on, flying high week. They don’t come around that often, so I’m sure as hell going to enjoy this floaty feeling while I can… : )


The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Me at breakfast, Ireland, September 2012. Am I good or bad?

 

Probably the most common question a writer gets asked is ‘Where do you get your story ideas from?’ Well, from everywhere. From newspapers, from life, from events that upset, move you or fill you with passion, or anger. You can get a lot of good material from bad situations.

As a writer you have a built in advantage over non-writers in that you can put bad events in life to good use. A broken heart can (with some distance from the event) give plot and substance to a short story – as they say, no tears in the writer, no tears in the story. Ditto a betrayal or some such extreme circumstance.

These difficult personal experiences, often awful, also lend opportunity to observe human behaviour in its rawest form – a crucial study for any writer. Take note re who behaves in an altruistic manner (and does that even exist) in the circumstance? Who looks for the easy option? What type of person sticks their head in the sand and hides behind others? Who makes a stand despite risks of personal loss? The answers are often surprising. The meekest are often the bravest, the erstwhile idealistic often less so when faced with a truth that is inconvenient to their own life and circumstance. Bad situations make for rich people study material.

Alternatively, another story prompter is to use the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to a real situation. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins. Apply the ‘what if’ scenario to your personal difficulty and see where it takes you storywise…


Through the Looking Glass

There are writers feel story and character ideas are fed to them from “somewhere else”, a parallel universe perhaps, where these characters and stories truly exist.

 

 

Image

My no. 1 flat in Budapest – photo Nannette Vinson

Clearly, that “somewhere else” is a very vague concept and means different things to different scribes. Nonetheless, writers who hold such beliefs say it is very important to allow your mind to be open to receiving these ideas – wherever they come from.

Personally, I’ve had moments when I felt plugged into a conduit, receiving stories, characters and ideas- though I hesitate to say if this was a spiritual event or just the  way the brain works in creative mode.

And it is a rare enough event – I can never conjure ‘the writing rapture’ but if I write often it’ll roll around every now and again. And when it does, it’s a  magical moment when stories and characters come swimming to me, all done-up, pre-packaged and ready to go.

All we can do is sit down to write every day- most days you’ll get coal but if you keep at it, the diamond muse will show up sooner or later.


Reel me in!!!!

pick me, pick me, pick me! - Shortlisted for the Fish, 2012

Yay, first shortlisting of 2012! I’ve made the Fish Publishing shortlist. No mean feat from around 1,900 entries,  admittedly however, the shortlist is rather a long one with 145 stories to make it thus far (the long list was 550 apparently). David Mitchell is now judging and the winners will be announced on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th to the un-Irish amongst you). Oooo I do like a good win…