Tag Archives: writing

New Term, New Thinking, News papers

The start of the academic year is an important time of year in France, as I recall, where it’s marked on the calendar as “La Rentrée”. It’s celebrated as a new time, a new start, a time for resolutions, a blank page. Writers can use this time to get work flowing, to launch a new project. The challenge is to find inspiration – however, prompts are always at hand.

Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can even see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Of course, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from your own subconscious.

Hopefully, you don’t have to have damp patches around your writer’s garret. Yesterday’s newspaper will fulfil a similar role. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you start to play with it.

Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to news stories. 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.

The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.

Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.

Reddit and gossip sites are wonderful wells to explore for story. Don’t neglect True Crime mags. One of the best tips I ever received as a writer is “don’t be a snob about where you get your story”.

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Is This The End?

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A wise writer once said that editing your manuscript is like putting and octopus to bed, no sooner do you get one tentacle all tucked up than another escapes. You’re checking your structure, your character development, plot, sub-text, dramatic action, theme, language, proof-reading and layout. However, you can also spend so long at the various tentacles that what you’re actually doing is delaying the send out. That’s fear. Don’t be a slave to fear. The following check list might help you decide if your cephalopod is properly tucked in and done:

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!


But What Does It All Mean?

Use of theme in creative writing:Seven Deadly Sins Theme Question> Gluttony is Good? Gluttony is Bad? (particularly cupcake gluttony).

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 the stories 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.

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 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.

Pride is Good? Pride is Bad? What’s Your Take?


You Are Here

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

And a surprising literary setting can make your story all the stronger. Agatha Christie stories work so well because in every quaint vicarage with its lace table cloths, jam, Jerusalem and glasses of sherry – there’s a body under the table.

A New York Street

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

A picture from home… A cave. Dunmore East. Co. Waterford, Ireland.


And your point is…?

If you fly into the sun…

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 the stories 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.

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 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.


My Grandma Always Says…

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The graveyard is full of indispensable men. 

Writers worth their ink need to be making some point with their story. By that, I mean your tale ought not be solely just a boy-meets-loses-regains-girl trip.

Beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your comment on how humanity works, or doesn’t. It is a writer’s (or artist’s) job to present the human condition as they interpret it. It isn’t meant to be heavy and scary, I’m simply suggesting that once you’ve written your story, or even just have an idea for one, you should sit back and consider what it could be saying on a larger, universal scale.

A good way to understand this concept is to consider Aesop’s Fables. Each one is a tale that could be enjoyed on a superficial level by a child, yet there is a deeper meaning, or moral, which endeavors to teach the child some universal truth about life, ie being slow yet determined is often better than being hasty and fickle (Tortoise and the Hare).

A good place to seek inspiration is a list of proverbs. A proverb is usually a metaphor and encapsulates in simple terms, a lesson from the common experience of humanity. Here’s an exercise that might get you going: sit down and have a think about the specific meaning of the following and then go freewrite a story illustrating this philosophy.

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

The belly has no ears.

Trees don’t grow to the sky.

A dumb priest never got a parish.

The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

The squeaky door gets the oil.

 

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Strike a Pose with your Prose!

Learn to edit your literary work with Sue Healy.

HEY LONDONERS! If you or anyone you know has a book or short-story or similar that they wish to whip into shape before submitting to agents, editors, publishers and the like, sign up for my City Lit course. Every Friday, from Sept. 29th.

writing woman


Look Ma, It’s Spidergram!

Spider grams – a source of ideas…

Write a word in the centre of the page then think of a word that you associate with the first word.

You might start with “coal” and you might associate “fire” with “coal”. Then think of what you associate with “fire”, perhaps “passion”. Link these three words with a line. Return to the original word and think of another association and make a second branch. “Coal” could prompt “miners’ strike” and then maybe “Margaret Thatcher”. Again, link these words. Repeat this action. Perhaps coming up with “coal”, “canary”, “dead singer” and so on and so on.

Now study all the associations you’ve come up with, you’ll probably be quite surprised at the diverse words on the page. Spidergrams allow you to make creative and often intriguing associations.

Occasionally, you’ll find that you’ve mapped out an entire story by doing a spidergram. Often, writers will do a spidergram and then take the words and freewrite a story with them. Spidergrams can be a rich source of ideas.

Do your own spidergram using one of the following words as a nucleus:

1)       Family

2)       Friendship

3)       Fame

4)       Rivalry

5)       Getting older

6)       Conflict


Morning Inspiration

my bedroom in the morning light….

ok, ok, it’s that of some bint called Ephrusi de Rothschild of Cap Jean Ferrat – but same thing…

It is said that the closer the brain is to the sleeping state, the more creative it is. For this reason, many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write.

The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And just to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

So, I guess the point is that different times of the day work for different people and it is really of no consequence whether you are a morning, day or night writer. What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Find whatever works for you.


Are you for real?

I’m not making this up!

 

 

Writing from fact, using a real event, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader, so they say.

 

Writing from fact does have its downside, however. Firstly, a straight account is reportage, not fiction so you must add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction.

 

It is important to get to the crux of what your story is ‘saying’ and make sure your narrative never loses sight of this point and – so, even if when you were all driving to the hospital, Brad told a joke so funny you’ve just got to mention it. No, don’t mention it. Stick to the point of the story – the story is the hospital, remember, not Brad’s unrelated joke.

 

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

 

Another issue with writing from real memory is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

 

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others….