No Time Like The Present Theme for March

Below are two very different examples from our theme for March. It’s always fun to write something and to let loose your creativity.

Sumo Gnome with Tie

Culture Crash

No Tie Like The Present

Karneval is the German religious celebrations leading up to Lent. Karneval starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and runs through Rose Monday, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday on into Lent. The idea was to give up eating anything fatty, especially meats (Carne!) but more importantly, nowadays, it is a time to let your hair down – especially for the women on Frautag, that first Thursday. Apart from women being allowed to kiss any man she meets – if she wants to! – she will also be allowed to cut off the lower end of his tie. Offices are strewn with trophies won by the girls, particularly in Rhineland.

Off With your Tie – Soh dess nay

I happened to be in Germany some years ago, accompanying the Director of Toyota Europe as he visited our factory in Koblenz, this prior to Toyota opening their massive car plant in Derby in 1989. We would become one of their suppliers. I admit timing did not take account of religious celebrations nor the wild women of Koblenz. As the director stepped out of his car, along with his chief engineer, two stunning young ladies, each a good 15-20 cm taller than them, responded politely to their oriental bowing, and promptly cut off their ties – and believe me, they were not cheap ties! The two visitors were utterly horrified. Not a good start to the day’s discussions. It’s a funny thing, but the German factory never did get any orders from Toyota.

Allied Shame at Karneval

On a more sombre note it was on Shrove Tuesday that British and American bombers wreaked havoc on Dresden in 1945. In the following days, the bodies of children were pulled from the ruins still wearing their Karneval costumes. Even in wartime, those traditions were upheld.

Shrove Tuesday Pancake Delight

Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, meanwhile, takes over as the focal point of the same celebrations in many countries of Catholic and Anglican background, where all the fats and butters saved through the winter are used to make rich foods before the traditional fasting of Lent. Most of us are aware of the extent of celebrations of Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and even Sitges in Spain, where anything goes – song, dance and food. The lot!

And in the UK, we make pancakes!

Sotogrande – Too Close to Home

In Sotogrande, the local Anglican minister declared he was going to give up all cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolate for the Lenten period. He was the first to admit he could lose a few pounds or even kilos, and Lent would be a good time to do so. So the Church Fund-Raising committee arranged to cash in on his decision, and from last Sunday, invited the congregation to guess what his weight would be on Easter Day – a prize of an Easter Egg to the winner. That should stiffen his resolve to complete his self-imposed challenge.

On closer examination, the minister was more than a touch outside the limits of a healthy Body Mass Index. Well, I thought, am I any better? Perhaps I too should go on a diet, maybe give up all those goodies as well. But when should I start? Lent has already started. Is it too late?

No. No time like the present!

Geoff Morgan

Ronda Gorge No Time Like The Present

Seat of the Moors and the Christians

No Time Like the Present.

Here am I standing proud and tall, rooted in history. Much could I tell of these lands, of the flora and fauna, of people’s lives and the language of their tongues.

Showboating or Bon Viveur

Why, it was not so long ago that Latin invaded the hills, to the sounds of iron on flint as legions marched on by. Then came the Moors with their strange guard-dogs that were not dogs and are still around today. Christians spoke with trembling voice about those monsters and their powers. Three-meter long devils disappeared into the shadows of camp-fire chatter. People staked their lives on what their eyes beheld and kept listeners spellbound in the power of their words. Call it showboating or bon viveur but not flaneur, too soon for Baudelaire.

When the Sun Orbited the Earth

But what were these creatures that lived when Sun orbited Earth, when Man knew the world was flat? When people rose and slept with daylight. Yes, I talk of a time before sins could be paid for in advance, still in the ever-present truth of wicked Eve and guileless Adam, but with marauding Islam perching on these Christian shores. Bridges could have formed had those followers of Allah and Mohammed not also brought cruelty and chains. For were they not wonderful vintners who traded symmetry and spice, science and secrets?

Myth and Infidel

The first time one of those mythical-creatures was seen was when the sun was setting and tired bodies ached for slumber. Once more these lands had been disturbed by strangers keen to settle and survive. Prepared to trounce all who would dare to send them back across the thirsty seas. Try or Die for what was Life if not pain peppered with pleasure and instinct. Then, as ever, all were gifted with laughter to help them on their way. A lucky few were blessed with time to reflect. It was not they who saw the monsters. Witnesses of those long black serpents were life’s troubled pawns, mouths opened wider than eyes to see snakes float at half the height of a man’s shin. Very Important People could daydream – goblet in hand, shading blurred eyes from the sun whilst drinking red wine gained in trade with enemies. They were genteel in their praise and marvelled at the safe encampments of the Moors whilst trembling from within at knowledge of how cruel could be the fate of the despised infidel.

Boughs for Vows

One such man sat beneath my boughs as almond blossom wafted in the breeze. He grasped at life like an autumn leaf before a windy day. The Moors sought to proselytise and he was quite a prize. He looked with care about him, seeking his chance to flee. It was then he saw the many legged serpent; it was a moving family of mongoose in an unbroken line. At that moment a chink of Hope appeared. Myth became Legend and later generations laughed at their grandfathers’ fears. Through this new found space the unchained man did flee, proclaiming, ‘No Time Like the Present’.

Tracy Thomson

no time like the present

no time like the present

 

 

You’re a Writer – Not an Interior Decorator!

Show the reader everything tell them nothing

Writers Take Them There

Good writers don’t stop the story while describing. Snapchat is here to stay. Twitter, Facebook and What’sApp are immediate and quick. Carpe Diem Writer Dear. 

We want it all and we want it now. Immediate scenes take place before the eyes and are not recounted to a patient audience. We’re still polite, but . . . writers, please.

We reach for the camera on our phones whenever something is worthy of it, sometimes we video it, sometimes click static photos. But that is the test. If we can film it then, by definition, it is immediate.

Sol Stein said: ‘Narrative summary, if written well and briefly, can transport the reader from one immediate scene to another, though this isn’t always necessary. Fiction and reporting have now borrowed a film technique called “jump cutting”, moving from one scene into the next with no transition for time to pass or locales to change. If the scenes must be linked, brief narrative summary can do the linking. How brief?

          Martin double locked his door and went to work. In the office…

“went to work” is narrative summary.’ In short. Get rid, writer.

Editors reject books overladen with static description and narrative summary.

What does “action” mean? Hemingway said, ‘Never mistake motion for action.’

Spiked dialogue is action.

Just as we  don’t put our own thumbs in the photos, (gulp) so too do we need to keep our own voice out of the story. Either it is natural for our characters to say it and the information moves us forward or it is not needed. Do not interrupt the reader by reminding him or her that there is a writer behind the words. They are not reading because of you; they are reading because of the characters you created.

Writer: Cue Action

‘Thibaut Courtois is so tall, he stoops into the room as if expecting the beam to hit him.’

Nanci Kincaid in Crossing Blood  lets the reader experience Skippy’s bravery through action:

Skippy will pick up a snake as quick as he will a cat. He will let one crawl on his neck and down his arm, a black snake, until Roy and me go crazy watching him. More than once he let Roy and me hold one, which we did, but we had to practically quit breathing to do it.’

Add a DumPster FuLL of Stylish ExaGGeraTioN

Kincaid:

‘The worst thing about George, though, worse than his nasty mouth, full of missing and broken teeth, worse than his fleas and sore spots, was the fact that he was missing one eyeball. He had an empty hole in his head. You could poke your finger in there and he wouldn’t even twitch.’

Own Your Tools as a Writer – Five ways to Characterise

  1. Physical attributes
  2. Clothing or the manner of wearing clothing
  3. Psychological attributes and mannerisms
  4. Actions
  5. Dialogue

What makes a character extraordinary?

PERSONALITY! YAY.

Distinctive traits of an individual, made up, adhoc, of disposition, temperament, individuality and eccentricity.

Ooh. So True.

Tracy Thomson 

The Secret About Subtext – Creating Characters To Die For

Dick Tracy and Madonna

Dick Tracy and Madonna

Dr. Linda Seger, an internationally known script consultant, has written a book about subtext and how it strengthens and adds depth to your writing. She says, ‘Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions, . . .Subtext points to other meanings.’ I started to think about how the power lies, like an iceberg, below the surface and how an awareness of this can help us become better writers.

A Walking, Talking, Living Doll

We are familiar with different techniques to create real heart beats in our characters. These personality aids vary from the almost compulsive attention to detail e.g. how Sammy puts water on his toothbrush before adding toothpaste, to the unrounded characters required for cameo roles. Dr. Seger asks us in Chapter 2, to imagine that a character we create is applying for a job in our script. Not everything this person has done goes into the CV, but although some of the traits may stay unmentioned both on the CV and at the interview, in real life they will display themselves in all their resplendent glory and if the character has done their job well, they’ll be visible at work – after safely securing the position.

The Feared Info-Dump when we Get It All Wrong

When I’m creating a character and committing traits to paper I sometimes dump a whole lot of information in the early stages, right at the beginning of the story. I ignore the rule of Show don’t Tell. This helps me dredge my subconscious for who the character really is. This ‘character and plot plan’ works for me, I delete it all on my first edit and the reader never sees the backstory or dreaded info dump, but it steers me to where I need to be. What method do you use? Does it depend on the complexity of the character created? Certainly, there is value in asking and answering questions to create believable characters. After all, it is how we react to things that truly defines who we are.

Attitude Makes us Do What We Do, Say What we Say, Cry When we Cry

Job interviews and journalists interviewing famous people are some of the techniques we use in writing workshops and they help create a more rounded character complete with strengths, weaknesses and occasional full blown dysfunctionality. Another workshop technique is to create a stereo type of someone you kind of know, and then really get to know them by asking how they react in certain situations. This can be done with role plays of famous people and also with real individuals in your workshop once trust has established itself. We also use it with first person Point of View, when our character sees and responds to things in a way that befits his or her character. Woe betide you if having created a certain personality you then have that character do something the reader just cannot believe. Another person could have done it, but not Sammy.

When Subtext Becomes a Cardboard Cut-Out Once More

The power is much diluted when character traits become quick fixes to inject quirkiness and geekiness to suggest intelligence but social awkwardness. Have you noticed how Social Anxiety / Asperger’s Syndrome has become evident in many leading characters these days? It didn’t even start with Sheldon Cooper and the Big Bang. The eponymous Monk got there before him, as did Dr. Temperance Brennan of TV Series Bones and then there was Jerry Espenson of Boston Legal. And I haven’t even got to 2015 yet. Whatever the swamping order, there’s no denying its popularity.

Unique Selling Point  – Say No More

One of the many wonders that sets ‘Breaking Bad’ apart from so much derivative script writing is how a secondary character – the son, Flynn, has mild cerebral palsy and the character is acted by RJ Mitte who himself lives with mild cerebral palsy. Yes, ‘Breaking Bad’ is an education in so many ways. The third season of Orphan Black even pays homage to BB’s plot as if emulating its characters’ craziness were not enough. Sometimes it seems that you need a Unique Selling Point to get published, but thereafter you can emulate to your hearts content. It might pay the bills, but it doesn’t break records.

Adding Subtext to Age, True Desires, Wants and Goals

How do your characters feel about their age? That, according to Dr. Seger, is the key that opens the door for director, producer and actor to walk through and make the script their own. This is illustrated with the BBC’s version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh. Despite all that life has thrown at him, Wallander still feels, he is hanging by a thread, but continues to cling to humanity. It is this, in my opinion, which sets him apart from cynical, hard boiled cops nearing a retirement pension and time to kill in a world without hope, where dreams no longer surface. In one episode, Wallander’s daughter signs him up to a dating agency. His reaction shows us he really wants it, but he would never have admitted to it. He is ribbed for it in the office and ultimately supported and destroyed by his vision of the world. Nevertheless, his vulnerabilities and humanity surface and Wallander and the world survive to live another day.

Everything entwines and it is not the brash that reveals, but the subtleties of subtext that truly define who we are. Not as perceived by the outside world, but as felt 24/7 by us through our inner hopes, dreams and achievements. If we reveal these hidden depths in our characters and bring them kicking and screaming into the world of the written page, then our work is done.

Tracy Thomson

Icebergs in the sun's crepuscular rays

Feedback – and How Not to Be a Slime Ball.

Amazing_Stories_Volume_01_Number_12.pdfIs feedback on a Work In Progress good for you as a writer?

I think the short answer is that it depends on the length of the piece and on what the feedback is. It’s certainly important to provide some kind of context. A novel is long, some 90,000 words. Flash fiction has a beginning, a middle and an end in some 500 words or so. If you have a piece of writing that relies upon previous scenes for context, or sets the scene for a denouement, then you probably will be wasting your time in reading it out. Or worse, it will be commented upon by helpful listeners and the points raised may be like speed bumps or diversions on your writing journey.

Take this example:

The other night, in a restaurant I overheard the following,

‘He’s a right slime ball.’

There’s no denying that it’s been taken out of context. After all we don’t know:

  • Who he is
  • What he’s done
  • His side of events.
  • Who is imparting this judgement – their shared history and back story.

By the way, do you know what a real slime ball is? It is snail vomit. Now, no-one wants to be that . . .be they writer, reader or listener.

When reading out a chunk of writing to others in your group, do yourself a favour and choose something that you think is reasonably self-contained, something that others can follow and hopefully be hooked by.

When it is your turn to listen and you don’t think the dots are quite joined up, consider the effect your words could have. If you have the time, ask to read a little more in private to garner context.

When you have a piece of work in front of you, yours or someone else’s, perhaps consider the following:

  • What happens in the story?

Summarise the plot (the gist of the happenings). Think about what this précis leaves out. 

  • Is the story told in chronological order, or are there flashbacks or flashforwards?

On re-reading, what foreshadowing (hints of what is to come) do you detect?

  • What conflicts does the work include?

Obstacles and ways to overcome them are the lifeblood to many a great piece of writing.

  • How does the writer develop characters?

Is character revealed by explicit comment or through action? With which character(s) do you sympathise? Are the characters plausible? What motivates them? What do minor characters contribute to the work?

  •  Who tells the story?

Is the narrator a character, or does the narrator stand entirely outside the characters’ world? What does the narrator’s point of view contribute to the story’s theme?

  •  What is the setting?

What do the time and place of the action contribute to the work?

  •  Are certain characters, settings, or actions symbolic?

Do they stand for something in addition to themselves?

  • What is the theme?

That is, what does the work add up to? Does the theme reinforce your values, or does it challenge them?

  • Is the title informative?

Did its meaning change for you after you read the work?

Above all, remember feedback is like fuel to a car. Put in the wrong type and the writer won’t get far before spluttering to a stop. Or worse still, they will have to clean out the tank and start again.

Tracy Thomson

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Published Writer – Profession or Vocation?

published writer

I’m not a gambler, but with the top 5% of writers earning almost half of everything, it’s a safe bet that if you’re a writer you don’t earn much and, because of that, writing is not your main source of income, even when you spend most of your time doing it. Is it time, then, to change the job description from ‘profession’ to ‘vocation’?

The Great Pretender

These days, there is not such a wide gap between paid and unpaid. Profession or Vocation. In practice it is no more than semantics. Don’t shelve your dream to get something out there, if that’s what’s been stopping you. After all, most people like to see what they’ve written in print.

If you’ve yet to publish, remember you’ve already done the hard part.  We invest a lot of time and emotion when we write something, and taking the next step can seem almost unattainable. Publishing puts it out there, but you are the one who has created the piece of writing and its your feelings  on the line. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)

The point is, if you write, then you are a writer. And, there is nothing stopping you from getting published – not only a tweet or blog page, but a full blown listing with ISBN number. (If only all of life were this simple.) Vocation or profession, get it out there.

11.5 pro authorsVast Majority Can’t Live Off Writing Alone

In Britain, in 2005, 40% of authors earned their income solely from writing. By 2013, this had dropped to just 11.5%. This is despite being in the throes of a digital revolution. Digital is currently the third most important financial sector for writers – below books and magazines/periodicals, so print still wins out. According to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, (ALCS), ‘Digital opportunities may be out there but authors are yet to receive the full financial benefits of this growing sector.’

Not Yet Published and Wanting to Change that Stat?

Should this influence your decision of which route to take when you seek publication of your work? Broadly speaking, options available are:

  • The Mainstream Big 5 Publishers, (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster)
  • Independent Publishing (Indie), or
  • Self-Publishing

On offer is (i) traditional offset print and digital, (ii) print on demand (POD) with digital or (iii) digital with an option to take up POD at a later date.

The Mainstream Big 5AAMilne

The Big 5 publishers very much dominate offset printing and are assuming a more commanding position in digital output, too, with their own e-book ventures. They are always striving forward. (Take for example Penguin Random House’s partnering with Oyster or Simon & Schuster’s deal with digital content platform Playster). The main point to take from this is that they do not decide whether you get published, just whether they get your book or not.

Independent Publishing

Indie, as its name suggests, is smaller and more flexible. Being independent it can also be more Maverick or entrepreneurial, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are Independent Publishers who reserve the right not to publish your book in printed form, but still define themselves as print and digital publishers. (Although your work may not be sufficiently popular to warrant a print run, other writers on their books may justify the taking of this next step.) Small businesses scale down what they offer in order to survive, as they grow they can afford more risks. If it guarantees their success and creates a respected name by staying digital and you are one of their authors, everyone wins.

It is a curious hedging of bets, to keep the gambling metaphor going, because with POD you arguably need to inform people of the option in order to get the demand and without the orders you have no idea how to predict future sales. Putting your money on the favourite, rather than each way, does reduce your stake and your risk. Then again, how much does it actually cost to publish digitally?

The answer probably depends on the amount of Marketing you commit to. An indie Publisher with a well oiled marketing machine can help a newbie quite significantly. On the other hand, if an Indie Publisher does no more than what you can do, charges you and keeps your ISBN number, then, this may be a Vanity Publisher dressed in Indie Clothing. As in any market, buyer beware.

Indie Digital versus Digi Self-Publishing

The key differences between going with a digital publisher who may never put your books in bricks and mortar stores and doing it yourself are: Digital Book Cover Design, Know-How and Marketing Reach.

(i) Digital book cover design

This can be as simple as selecting a free template from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Their Cover Creator lets you make one based on an image you provide or a selection from their gallery of customisable stock images. After all, how difficult can it be? It’s not going to be printed.

(ii) Know-How

Also potentially as straightforward as following the instructions from KDP. In the past you might have assumed that it would also include editing skills. Not these days. Some digital Indie Publishers do assume editing responsibilities, but not all. Perhaps that is the practical difference between a traditional author/publisher relationship and a hybrid author/solutions provider. Some solutions providers charge to edit the work, some Indie Publishers refuse to accept work that has not yet had that final polish. The overlap is clear. Perhaps the rule of thumb that separated vanity publishers from independent publishers should again be used: Do you have to pay?

(iii) Marketing Reach

This could be the deal breaker. It is something that all publishers now expect their authors to participate in. For example, a Social Media Platform which incorporates FaceBook, You Tube, Twitter and a blog page is apparently de rigueur. Naturally, this can impose seemingly insurmountable barriers for the uninitiated and technophobes, but once set up they can be very easily managed.

Self-PublishingROI 86 again

The third way, self-publishing, is attractive. To quote an online advert for an accumulator, ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to take the money and run.’ And if you are brave enough to assume command and Self Publish you may surprise yourself by your winnings.

The ALCS says, ‘Just over 25% of writers have self-published a work, with a typical return on their investment of 40%. Unsurprisingly, 86% of those who had self-published said they would do so again.’

Smashwords founder Mark Coker says in Publishers Weekly, ‘In 2015, self‑published authors are learning to think and act like professional publishers. They’re embracing best practices, and learning to use professional tools of the trade such as pre-orders, professional cover design and they’re hiring professional editors.’ Yes, professional editors are a must.

Leave ‘Never  Never Land’.

Seemingly, it all depends on a marketing platform rather than technical turf assessments or crossed fingers and a determined look in the eyes of a thoroughbred. Still, what is not known is how much of any platform is random. If you have published once you’ll do it again. If you’ve never tried it yet, now’s the time to join the ranks of published authors and it’s never made more economic sense. All you have to do is press and be pressed.

Tracy Thomson
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What Just Happened? Allusions and Settings are Oh So Character Building . . .

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: DAVID FRANKEL ON THE POWER OF SUGGESTION IN THE SHORT STORY

man shuffling

“In the short story there is no slack. Everything is a clue – a glimpse that hints at something larger. Often, a great deal of the plot is implied and this intensity requires more of the reader. It is a world in which it is impossible to be a passive consumer.

Graham Greene once advised that writers should ‘keep in mind the question the reader is asking.’ For writers of short stories this is doubly important. The tools of omission and implication are not only necessary because of the obvious constraints of length, but can be instrumental in providing the intrigue that keeps the reader involved. This can be especially effective at the beginning of a story where omitting backstory can engage the reader immediately, drawing them into a ‘live’ situation and prompting them to ask questions: why is this happening and what happens next?

Hemingway was a master of this. In many of his stories (two that spring to mind are ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants’) we are pitched straight into the action mid-situation. Description is pared down to a minimum and dialogue is sharp. ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ opens mid-conversation .We read on, at least to begin with, in order to discover who is speaking, and what is going on:
‘“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it the sight or is it the scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.’

In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the subject of the story (an unwanted pregnancy and prospective abortion) is never made explicit. This story is a particular moment in time, convincingly rendered with sparse but vivid detail and dialogue that makes no attempt to explain what is occurring for the benefit of an observer. The real theme is implied subtly. This has the effect of turning the readers into eavesdroppers as the protagonists skirt around the issue. It is our nosiness that makes us listen.

I often think of a short story like a low-budget film where characterisation and a limited number of sets are all that the director has, to evoke a whole off-screen universe. As though we are watching the protagonists through a single camera lens, and from that limited observation we must form an idea of the rest of their lives, projecting out into the world.

A great example of this is ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson. It is a collection of stories about people ‘passing through’, all seemingly at the end of a particular chapter in their life, or at the beginning of one. The collection follows an un-named narrator through a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, each with someone we will never meet again. Because of this, every action they take, every word they speak gains more weight. These glimpses become the evidence on which we will build our impression not only of them but also of the narrator’s world. Even more so than Hemingway, Johnson’s stories pitch the reader in mid-situation, forcing them to piece together what is happening. Unlike Hemingway, Johnson keeps the reader off-balance, never quite giving them all the information they need about the situations the narrator describes. The reader is prompted to imagine scenes that have happened off-screen, as in the story ‘Two Men’.

It begins,
‘I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light.’

What this ‘misunderstanding’ might be is never made clear. Nor, strangely, do we meet the second man promised by the title and the opening paragraph. This feeling that we are not quite being let in on everything makes us want to know more. His endings cut off mid-action too, as if the author is afraid to write what happens next, or the narrator too ashamed to tell. ‘Two Men’, for example, ends with the narrator in pursuit of an adversary.

After breaking into the man’s flat he finds that his quarry has escaped and in the final scene he holds a gun to the head of a woman he finds there:
‘I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down into the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone.
The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug.
“He’s really not here,” she said.
I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.’

It is a powerful ending precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. A short story often works best when it signifies something bigger, when it asks us to imagine the shadow cast by what has happened on the page. In doing this, the short can get away with something that a novel rarely can – it can leave a question hanging, a life unexplored, an idea unresolved, inviting us to extrapolate from what we have read. In the hands of a skillful writer this gives short stories the ability to haunt the reader long after they have been read.”

Blog curated with kind permission from David Frankel, and Over The Red Line.

David Frankel is a writer and artist. His stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine and Lightship Anthology. His work has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and the Fish Memoir Prize.

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A Dog’s View – Paws for Thought

350px-BlackLab2009Dog-biscuit-icon

Some incidentals to start with: My Mistress, She Who Adores Me, is always telling everyone that Labrador intestines are the most robust in the world and should be thoroughly and scientifically investigated. Why? Because these studies would help find the answer of resistance to the most violent of indigestions or accidental poisoning.

I have to admit that the odd good old vomit has always been my answer to all that life can throw at me in the way of my rather disgusting, yet splendidly greedy eating habits. People tend to forget that we are like the newly overweight and no longer nomadic North American Red Indians*, in that we, like them, no longer have to search and forage endlessly all winter long in the icy and inhospitable weather of, in my ancestors case, Labrador of the Far Northern reaches of, um l’m not quite sure of its exact geographic location, can anyone help me out here?? Canada?

Anyway here we are, and I am, in the warmer climes of Europe. We remain nevertheless programmed to instinctively be always on the lookout for the slightest morsel which will add to our fat reserves. To cope with and to survive long cold winters in the land of our Sires of yesteryears. Subsequently we eat copiously and, some would say, greedily the slightest tit-bit which comes within our range whether it is our allotted meal time or not. (The indigenous** North Americans have given it the marvellous term “snacking.”) Thus, whether I have just eaten 5 minutes ago a huge meal of meat and veg and juices, the instinctive need is to carry on snacking. That is before She Who Adores Me yells and yanks me away from whatever delectation I have had the good sense to sniff out and attempt to devour without it touching either side of my mouth. Does she not realise that I may not get to eat again until the spring when the snow melts? Who could argue with the Labradorean logic of it all? Well, I ask you, who?

To tell you a little about myself is to impart that my breeding is ancient and impeccable. Simply tons of my nearest ancestors have come from Queen Elizabeth 2’s own breeding lines (Sandringham). Thus I have the most robust hips, quarters and a rather fab, though I say it myself, sprinter’s backside. (Oh you know, muscular and round). To the utter delight of She Who Adores Me, who has been a racehorse owner and knows a good rear end when presented with one i.e. mine! My cousins are various shades of black, yellow and chocolate. I am of a deep black. I started life in Wales, with my sister Mason. Oh by the way I’m called Fortnum. I do apologise most profusely for not introducing myself to you. And your name is?. . .

Excerpt from THE LIFE OF FORTNUM (LABRADOR, FEMALE AND GORGEOUS) by Deborah Camp-Simpson

    * Political incorrectness from Fortnum.

** Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Good girl.

Images: Dog Biscuit by Tommy Kronkvist, “BlackLab2009” by Erikeltic at English Wikipedia.
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When Work Loses Fizz… Just Add Thizz…

There is a MOOC being run by the IOWA Writing University and Jonathan Lethem gave a talk that I have abridged below. The full version is available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QOnEumMvjk It’s all about how when work loses Fizz just add causality.

‘First of all… a lot of the stories that interest us, a lot of the novels that interest us, fundamentally take two unrelated things, two autonomous ideas, situations, possibilities, and shackle them. And in many ways this initial impulse can seem quite arbitrary, because what you’re taking are things that aren’t necessarily related, and you’re placing them together, that’s the juxtaposition. What takes this operation from being something…sort of abstract or absurd or pointless is the second term of my concept, and that’s the causality.

So what’s causality? Causality is basically the word “because,” … the stakes of the story are going to relate the two things urgently and extensively.

So what do I mean by this? I’m going to give you an example from my own writing. When I conceived the book Motherless Brooklyn, which is a novel about a private detective who has Tourettes…it’s also very much about my own childhood in Brooklyn and growing up in a certain neighborhood at a certain time and place. In some ways it felt as though two different books were announcing themselves to me simultaneously. But rather than resist that, or sort the two out, or think they were incompatible, it seemed to me my funny, sort of willful, post-modern conceit about the detective with Tourette Syndrome, and my intimate, confessional, passionate love letter to the city where I grew up could be combined, and ought to be combined, and not only shouldn’t I do them at the same time, but that I was going to make it seem necessary…I was going to make it seem urgent and obvious in a way that the only place that this detective with Tourettes could tell this story, the only place he could have come from, was Brooklyn. And, you know, once I make this assertion…so I’ve got my juxtaposition, right? Tourette Syndrome, hard-boiled detective story, and the autobiographical material, this really involved setting, time and place, that mattered enormously to me…the public schools I went to, the streets I walked, the slices of pizza I used to eat on Smith Street…the things that reminded me of growing up in that place, and that I suddenly wanted to say a lot about.

So there’s the juxtaposition, I mean, you could even argue that it was a triple juxtaposition because, you know, what are hard-boiled detectives and Tourette Syndrome doing together? But anyway, so I smashed these things into one project, and then I’ve taken the next step, I’ve inserted the causality, I’ve said… he becomes emblematic to them of Brooklyn, he seems to them to exemplify something that’s already true about this place, which is that language is exploding everywhere, that because of the varieties of classes and cultures and races that were all living together in Brooklyn, and the kind of frenetic, sardonic, intense, and sometimes very insulting street language was typical…that his Tourette Syndrome just seems like Brooklyn raised to the nth degree.

things that you wouldn’t think of as being compatible or coexisting or related to each other have been electrified, like the parts of Frankenstein’s body by the bolt of electricity.

I’ll give you another example outside my own work, one of the most grandiose, of course, is totemic book of modernist genius, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes Homeric myth, takes Odysseus wandering home after the Trojan War and relates it to the events of a day in a neighborhood in Dublin. Now, you know, we take this for granted now…of course, well it’s Ulysses, those things belong together, but when Joyce conceived this they had no relationship, it was the bolt of electricity that he flowed between them that made them into one unified thing forever…and now we take it as a commonplace thing that these things are married together.

Where do writers get their ideas? Was it the character or was it the setting? Did you think of the voice first or were you more concerned with the plot and set pieces? Were you thinking about a theme or were you thinking about things in your life, people you wanted to write about? The answer is almost always, when you press a writer and they have time to expand on what they were doing, the answer is always more than one, it’s always both. And I think that you can seek this doubleness, … in your own… unfinished stories, … if moved into a conjunction with these other things, it might suddenly become something.
…I want you to look around for things that … haven’t become stories…aren’t active on their own, and try taking more than one of those and just relating them. …juxtaposition…causality.’

Go check out the MOOC, it’s GREAT

Tracy Thomson

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‘Fetch, Boy’ How not to lose your VOICE when editing.

Dexter Petley

Take your time

The second blog of the month is by Dexter Petley, a successful author who also works as an editor and adviser for new writers.

Amongst his acclaimed works are a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). He’s a regular on the cult website www.caughtbytheriver.com

TIME AND MOTION

Time is the novel’s greatest enemy.  The time it takes, the time it occupies and even the time it represents.  We often read that so and so is a “full-time” writer.  And then we read their novels and wonder why, therefore, they didn’t take that luxury of available time to get it right instead of rushing it out.  I don’t know if it’s rat-race ethics or just the cruise control on the Microsoft treadmill, but when I urge clients to take their time on the re-write they seem to hear a starting pistol.  Three weeks later, whizz-bang-pop, they send me a wonky new version that’s still smoking.

There are very understandable reasons for attempting to write faster than your own shadow.  Encouragement is a wonderful thing.  It’s a life-saver to the struggling writer.  When it appears, we tend to think of it as fickle, ephemeral, a light which will fade.  Struggling writers are not used to attention.  So when we get it, we act like dogs chasing a stick.

In my own apprentice days I too was eager and trigger happy.  I can categorically say it got me nowhere.  It merely rejected the encouragement given by ignoring the details, the small print, the wisdom.  I had all the time in the world too; in the 1980s you wrote novels on the dole, hammering holes in scrap-paper on great iron framed machines. 

Time has not changed; the time a novel needs to be written doesn’t change.  Whatever you hear, the ability to rattle off twenty-thousand words a day is no more useful than being a pie eating champion.   What may have changed is that today we can write at miraculous, reckless speeds.   But it’s like writing on a simulator.  Cut and paste is an illusion.  When I say re-write, I mean word by word, sentence by sentence.

Why, when much of the novel might remain unaltered?

Well, the same reason a singer performs the whole song night after night.  Voice, and because there is no short cut to the whole story.

In the typewriter age we had no choice.  It was an honest job, typing; we sculpted those damned novels with bleeding fingers.  But the beauty of it was the focus and concentration to be had; the intimacy we had with our text.  The tactile engagement we had with our craft.  We felt like writers, not IT users.  That craft, the progress of it, was visible and satisfying.  I fear that’s missing these days.  You’re supposed to be writing, but between sentences there’s shopping on Ebay, someone’s cursed Youtube link, an email to read…  In other words, it’s not just distraction, it’s squandering the writing time.  It shows up in the finished work.  Making up time with cut and paste or a few days spilling the midnight oil is no substitute for the slow fuse, the whole song. 

Re-writing a novel from scratch is to reclaim it.  Just fixing the leaks doesn’t prevent it caving in later.  In typewriter mode (unplug the bloody modem at least) you recover the voice, and control the dogs pulling at your leash.  Suddenly a year is well spent.  And it should be a year at least.  Good fiction needs time in the bottle before drinking.  That time includes, just as essentially, time off; time for gaining distance and a cold heart, or just forgetting.  It takes me between 5-10 years to write a novel.  In that time there might be 14 drafts of the word for word kind.  Each novel leapfrogs over the other, so one novel finally come out every four years. 

The simplest advice is often the best: don’t ignore professional advice for a start.  Take your time.  If you haven’t time, all the more reason.  I know many writers have full-time jobs or demanding commitments which make writing time a rare luxury.  The temptation to be over-productive is an attractive one.  It so easily becomes a race with time.  When a novel is finished, no one will praise it because you bashed out the first draft in 3 months and the re-write in a week.  Remember, a novel is a two headed monster.  The first breathes white heat, sleepless nights, death-pacts with the muse.  The second is a cold blooded surgeon, a waiting game, the playing hard to get.  Successful writers have two heads; they’re the difference between interesting and great.

Dexter Petley

Reblogged from http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/time-motion-by-dexter-petley/
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“She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

She's not a stranger; I've read her book

She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book

Our guest blog this month comes from Caro Clarke, author of ‘Furry Dice Chewing Gum’. She reflects upon the writer’s voice and what makes us who we are. As they say in Thailand, ‘Same, same but different…’

Writing: It’s Personal

‘When I was a girl, back in the time of cave painting and discovering fire, I learned penmanship, and the teacher expected all of us to write our letters exactly the same. And yet, graphologists say that our handwriting reveals who we are, the aspects about ourselves that we know and don’t want to tell, or aspects we might not even know. We cannot help revealing ourselves in what we shape with our hands and minds, and why shouldn’t we? Isn’t penmanship the way we communicate ourselves to the world?

 

As with handwriting, so with fiction writing. When we tell stories, we are not just telling a story, we are telling our readers about ourselves. One of the reviewers of my first novel let me stay in her house while she was away. She had never met me (we arranged it via email) and, when her friends said, scandalised, “You’re letting a stranger stay at your house?!?” she replied “She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

 

When we find out that the author of a particularly beloved novel was not, in fact, a lovely person, I think we sometimes question our faith, but often we decide that the author’s “better angel” did exist, but only existed when he or she was writing. I have known writers of very moving or funny books who were dull or morose in real life — until they did something (shelter a moth from harm’s way, suddenly cap a joke) that revealed the secret angel of their nature, that wellspring from which their books flowed.

 

We write who we are. What we choose to write is shaped by more than the specific inspiration (that headline, that family myth, that half-memory), but by the complete connection of ourselves to our world. This is something that we can’t help doing and what we must do. We must be ourselves, must be true to ourselves. The world doesn’t want another Atwood or Patterson or Lethem, it wants something new — and we are that something new.

 

What we bring to a story no one else will bring. We are each of us unique, and unique always sells. As a former fiction editor, and as someone who has worked with literary agents, I constantly said, and heard said, “What’s different about this? What’s its USP (unique selling point)?” It was never just the amazing plot-twist or the unusual setting or the brilliant evocation of time, but what I can only call “personality”. The book “had” something. It wasn’t a pile of paper, it was a creation.

 

I am not convinced by software programmes that will “teach you to write.” They might teach you to structure and improve sentences, but they can’t bring creation to a story. They can’t make the best-structured narrative come alive. Only your mind can do that. Only your heart can do that. How you write might be unusual. I know an author who writes on sticky notes in very tiny letters. He finds it easier to do micro-writing and then use a wall to assemble his book. I know another author who plots for two years, and then writes one single finished draft in three months. A friend of mine will only write in certain kinds of notebooks (unfortunately, these come from France, so how lucky that his books sell well).

 

I would worry if there was only one way to write. That isn’t how anything works, except perhaps for robots putting silicon chips into a hard drive. There might be a “best way” to brush your teeth or to apply bathroom tiles, but not when it comes to tapping into the mysteries of creation. I have mentioned wellsprings. I believe that we each have our own depth of wisdom, joy, anger, bitterness and fear that we draw on, only half-consciously, when in the grip of our story. How can that ever come forth in the same way from every heart and mind?

 

How we write is an expression of what our books will be. I myself write my first two or three drafts in pen in notebooks. I then type in, amending as I go, and then grind through a number of drafts either on-screen, or in print-out, hand-writing changes and typing them in after every go-through. I have done as few as four drafts, and as many as fourteen. Whatever it takes to make it right. And I think my stories reflect this. They are considered. They are (I hope) thought through. They are certainly felt through. They might not be great stories, but I have had readers’ comments back, and it seems that I connect in a particular way with particular people. That’s all I ask.

 

Would my way of writing work for anyone else? Yes, I’ve met many writers who find that the book becomes itself, creates itself, only in the last few of its many rewrites, but this is because that’s who we are. Our books are good on the little details, the small touches, because we work at that level. Others don’t sweat that small stuff; they do the sweeping narratives, the sagas, the larger-than-life characters, because that’s who they are. Even if they seem small on the outside.

 

Nobody is small who wants to write. Nobody can be small when they want to reach out to the world with a story in their hands, that thing that might become eternal, as Homer’s stories, as Shakespeare’s as Twain’s, have become immortal. How can it be taught, this impulse, this need to create? Like water from a high source, it will come down the mountain and cross the valley by the path it wants to take, must take, to reach its sea.

 

Who are you? What makes you write what you write? What makes you write how you write? Whatever it is, if you are producing living creations, then it is right for you.

 

And who cares about your penmanship.

www.caroclarke.com

© Caro Clarke All Rights Reserved.
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