Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Interview with Pauline Rendall writing as Paula K Randall.

Pauline has recently been interviewed on another blog: 'Authors interview', regarding her self-published novel, 'Hangman's Wood'.  It makes interesting reading.  Follow the link below for more information.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Sources, ideas and inspiration for historical fiction by Clare Hawkins

Working on a novel over a period of many months often takes me so far away from the initial source of the ‘inspiration’, that it is hard to identify the starting point. However, a little thought and back-tracking about each novel, brings me to the conclusion that my first ideas often arise from random encounters with historical non-fiction.

More than ten years ago, having decided I wanted to write an historical novel, I visited Colchester Central library and poked about in the History shelves. I have little idea why I came away with an armful of books on the Spanish Armada, but I plunged in, discovering the complex political background to the conflict, the strategy of the English navy, and the factors leading to its victory. This was all very interesting, but the idea for a novel that I might be capable of writing, only started evolving when I read about the escape of the defeated Spanish fleet  up the east coast of Britain and the fate of one ship in particular, El Gran Grifon, which was wrecked on Fair Isle.

Now here was a good situation (for a novel, not for the 200 unfortunate castaways, nor the impoverished islanders, of course). According to the sources, the Spaniards climbed from their broken ship on to the island where they were marooned for several weeks. Few details of what happened were documented, though various myths exist, so here was fertile ground for invention and imaginative re-construction. Plot and character ideas started flowing: What happened when the foreign soldiers and sailors landed? How did the islanders greet them? Who were the islanders and how did they live? What fears and tensions might have grown between the two alien communities?  What friendships? What of the privations they would suffer on such a tiny island?

These and many other questions drove me to more focused research, about 16th century peasant life on a Scottish island, the history of Fair Isle itself, knitting, Spanish galleons, ships’ crews, etc etc etc. During this reading, I was madly scribbling notes about my principal characters and soon a version of the romantic historical novel The Salvaged Heart began to take shape.  The central premise and the themes took some time to emerge clearly and the actual writing, with many wrong turnings, re-writes and substantial changes was both fun and a challenge.

Several of my other novels have sprung from a similarly ‘random’ approach.  However, no selection is ever entirely random; choice is based on a range of conscious and unconscious factors such as prior interests, personal experiences, awareness of one’s ignorance, a striking book cover, favoured historical periods.  For my next novel, I didn’t have to read far in The Scottish Enlightenment by Arthur Herman before discovering my inspiration: an account of the hanging of Thomas Aikenhead, a 19 year old student of Edinburgh University in 1697, for blasphemy. Little is known about his background, though his ‘atheism’ is well documented. The religious conflict and the economic depression in Scotland at the period provided a powerful context, as characters in the form of family, enemies and associates of Thomas Aikenhead started emerging from my head. The Darien Disaster by John Prebble, an account of events nearly contemporary to the execution, provided the second large plot element in the novel The Bookbinder’s Daughter.

Frequently, reviews of non-fiction titles spark an interest, which I pick up and explore. Reading historical material, as an inspiration for fictional writing is also for me a thoroughly enjoyable way of filling up some of the huge gulfs in my knowledge of history.  Mostly, however, it is the smaller, often incomplete or barely documented human stories that give me the essence of plot and character, for the type or fiction I write, rather than the large sweep of events social and political, national and international, though the characters’ own troubles and conflicts can be set within these wider contexts.

I have other sources of inspiration too, but those are for another time!
I’d be interested to hear where other writers find theirs

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

New writing at Wivenhoe Station

The Autumn edition of WDTL, a small publication of local writing, is now available at Wivenhoe station. Writers include Elaine Green, Bryan Thomas and our own Philippa Hawley and Pauline Rendall. The leaflet can also be read on the 'Off The Rails Website'  (http://offtherailswivenhoe.blogspot.co.uk/).

Sunday, 12 October 2014

In praise of writing groups by Philippa Hawley

I was recently at a drinks party in a village some miles away. It was a lovely gathering of people, all friends of our hosts, but mostly strangers to each other.
You know the form:
‘How do you know Jack and Jill? Are you local? What do you do?’
    I considered my reply options:
‘I’m a retired doctor.’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘I’m a retired doctor and now I write.’
That last one seemed to work. We could either talk about medicine or about writing. Despite the press coverage of a struggling NHS, writing seemed to win in the small talk wars over a glass of Prosecco.
One chap in particular drew me into greater discussion with more searching questions. He was a landscape gardener who a few of years ago had done the same ‘Start Writing Fiction’ module with the OU that I had taken in 2011. He had hardly written since, even though he’d enjoyed the course very much and I asked him why not. He replied that although he had lots of time to think whilst working, he had little time to write, and didn’t really know how continue without the tutor to guide him. He was approaching retirement and felt now was his opportunity to write more, but he needed some stimulation.
I found myself prattling on about writing magazines and short story competitions as a source of inspiration and encouragement. I suggested he wrote little and often to keep in practice even if no-one ever read his words. I told him these were the things that kept me going, along with joining a local writing class and working alongside other would-be writers, who gave support and gentle critique as I built my confidence.
I told him the other thing that can help is to find a writing group consisting of people you trust – people whose opinion you value, who will share their work with you as well as listen to yours, and where any criticism given is constructive. In the discussion with my landscape gardener I acknowledged that writing can be an isolating pastime. Most non-writers are not interested in the minutiae of your writing world, whereas a fellow writer will understand and enjoy sharing thoughts, ideas and problems too. They will tolerate your moments of self-obsessed analysis or times of lack of confidence and self-doubt, just so long as you return the favour. The controlled environment of a well run writing group allows this to happen. I do hope he finds such a group.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Fictionalising the Past


Writing ‘The Price of Surrender’ a novel based on the siege of Colchester 1648

I write popular, ‘commercial’ historical fiction, and although I would love to be able to write like Hilary Mantel and have the credibility of a professional historian, I know my limitations. My key motivation is to write engaging stories that people will enjoy. Any writer of historical fiction, however, should try to recreate, as far as possible, an authentic and believable past.

The origin or starting point for a novel is often difficult to identify. For me, the beginning stages involve groping around for some time, perhaps a month, reading sources, note-taking and thinking. I usually start with reading a popular history text that has grabbed my attention. I have a particular liking for the broad period 1500 – 1800, which I believe is classified as ‘Early Modern’. My other preference is for social history and the lives of ordinary people. The undocumented experiences of ‘insignificant’ people hold more fascination for me than the lives of the privileged, the rich and the powerful. The other advantage of focusing on re-creating the lives of beggars, peasants, tradespeople, servants, craftspeople and the lower professionals is that there is greater scope for invention. These are the little people, mentioned as passing references in large sweeping historical accounts of events, but whose lives, we can assume, would have contained as much psychological richness, joy and tragedy and almost certainly more hardship than the well-documented kings, queens, princesses, lords and ladies of the time.

While reading for another novel, I came across The English Civil War by Diane Purkiss, a thoroughly engaging and excellent overview of the conflicts, with a very human dimension. This led to another, Charles Carlton’s Going to the Wars. Both books are full of ‘triggers’ for potential novels: stories of outstanding bravery and heroism and cowardice, unimaginable suffering, great victories and appalling defeats. However, finding a focus and setting limits are critically important in the development of a story from the stimulus material. In the case of The Price of Surrender, this process was suggested almost by accident, in conversation with Andrew Phillips, an eminent local historian. He told me that no one had ever written a novel about the infamous siege of Colchester, which occurred in the so called Second Civil War. These terrible true events had all the elements of a gutsy tale: violent battles, tensions between the townsfolk and soldiers, bombardments, starvation, sickness, riots and uprisings, then the ignominy and aftermath of surrender and defeat.

That was all I needed to make a start. Thanks to the excellent work of local historians, whose informative secondary sources and analyses of primary sources are readily available, I was able to begin. I started with acquainting myself with the background to the siege and the sequence of events as well as the main ‘players’ in it. Again, it was important to start selecting which real characters might feature in the novel and which events would work well as elements in the plot, to avoid creating an unwieldy mass of information that I was not capable of handling. A bolder more skilful writer might have been able to encompass the worlds of the enemy powers: the Parliamentarian besiegers, the Lord General Fairfax and his forces, set against the besieged Royalists inside the town and the unfortunate townsfolk themselves, the full social, economic and political context. However, my treatment inevitably involved the ruthless selection of material, narrowing and simplification in order for me to create a story that I could handle.This stage of narrowing ran alongside thinking about viewpoints and also the emergence of characters. Decisions had to be made about viewpoints, notably the number of key characters through whose gaze the action would be viewed.

During this reading stage, one man stood out from the rest as a potential hero, in the novelist’s sense of the word. Sir Charles Lucas, is variously portrayed in the sources as a loyal, courageous, honourable gentleman, a skilled professional cavalry commander and a virtuous martyr, or as a brutal, irascible, ruthless and uncultivated soldier. As with many primary sources relating to the Civil War, the views presented are highly biased and partisan. But here was a compelling, contradictory and controversial character. One of the best known portraits of him shows a rather stiff and ‘po-faced’ individual, but betrays a certain vulnerability in his gaze. So, I created a fictionalised version of Sir Charles Lucas, using some verifiable details about him as the basis of his character and imagining the rest, to suit the purposes of my story. 

Next I needed a heroine and who better than the mysterious, unnamed Colchester ‘alderman’s wife’ referred to in one source as having informed the Royalists of a plot against them? Who was this alderman’s wife? Why did she want to save the Royalists? Here was the core of the conflict and tension and a romantic relationship, suitable for a novel in this genre. The story was beginning to take shape but I needed more characters to drive the narrative, create the horror and privations of the townspeople and the soldiers, so I invented a weaver’s family, the Sayers, impoverished neighbours of the more prosperous Wades (Alderman Wade and his abused wife Katherine, the informer). I decided also, to have five main points of view: Charles Lucas, Katherine Wade, Tobias Waterman (a Parliamentarian soldier), Beth Sayer and Jack Sayer, which some might think too many. However, given that the setting was very confined and the time frame too, I felt that readers could cope and that I could show more effectively how different people, on opposing sides and of different social classes were affected by the siege. I was also determined not to take sides.

By now I had filled at least one notebook with character descriptions, relationships, plot drivers and consequences, along with key points and incidents with dramatic potential. For example, there was the failed storming of the town by the Parliamentarian Colonel Barkstead’s regiment, resulting in the entrapment and slaughter of a troop of Parliamentarian soldiers by the Royalists in the town. Other striking incidents, such as the turd fired back over the wall by defiant Royalist soldiers, the desperate break out of women and children and the consumption of horses, dogs, cats and rats by the starving people, were all fruitful material for the structure of the story. 

The style and tone of the narrative were also considerations, once I had started the first draft and I experimented with past and present tense for the main narrative. I settled on the present, with the aim of making it more ‘immediate’, using past tenses for backstory and flashbacks. There was the risk too that the whole novel would become an unremitting tale of misery and suffering, so I attempted to include some more hopeful and light-hearted elements in the form of the Sayer twins’ escapades during the siege.

This is a work of fiction and makes no claim to add to the historical interpretation of the events upon which it is based. I therefore apologise wholeheartedly to historians and other well-informed people, for the liberties taken with the known ‘facts’ and details and for any inaccuracies, which I may have inadvertently included. My hope is that readers will not be offended by the ‘manipulation’ of history and will enjoy the story. Perhaps it might even encourage readers to explore the accounts of the siege and the many excellent histories of this shocking period of British history, as well as exciting an interest in the town of Colchester with its rich and varied past, still present and visible today.


Note: I intend to self-publish this novel in the near future, resources permitting and after further editing and correction.



Asquith, S & Warner, C (1981) The New Model Army 1645 – 1660 London: Osprey Publishing

Barratt. J (2009) Sieges of the English Civil Wars  Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd

Braddick, M J (2009) God’s Fire and England’s Fury London:Penguin

Carlton, C (1992) Going to the Wars: The experience of the English Civil Wars 1638 – 1651  London: BCA

Harrington, P (2003) English Civil War Fortifications 1642 – 1651 Oxford Osprey Publishing Ltd

Henry, C (2005) English Civil War Artillery Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd

Kenyon, J & Ohlmeyer, J (Eds)  ( 1998) The Civil Wars : A Military History of England, Scotland and Ireland 1638 – 1660  Oxford University Press

Purkiss, D (2007) The English Civil War: A People’s History  London: Harper Perennial

Roberts, K & Tincey, J (2001) Edgehill 1642  Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd

Tinniswood, A (2008) The Verneys  London: Vintage Books

Walter, J (1999) Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution

Cambridge University Press

Wilson, J (1985)  Fairfax: A Life of Thomas Lord Fairfax, Captain-general of all the Parliament’s Forces in the English Civil War  London: Murray

Worden, B (2009) The English Civil Wars 1640 - 1660  London: Weidenfield & Nicolson

Whitaker, K (2004) Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle London; Vintage


Colchester and the Siege

Appleby, D ( 1996) Our Fall Our Fame: The Life and Times of Sir Charles Lucas  Newtown: Jacobus Publications

Carter, M (1650) presented by Hedges, J & Denney, P (2002) A True Relation of that Honorable, though unfortunate Expedition of Kent, Essex and Colchester   Colchester: JMH Publications

Cutts, E L (1889) Colchester London: Longmans

Denney, P (2012) The Buildings of Colchester   Stroud: Amberley Publishing

Goose, N & Cooper, J (1998) Tudor and Stuart Colchester : An extract from the Victoria History of the County of Essex  Volume IX: The Borough of Colchester  Chelmsford

Jones, P (2003) The Siege of Colchester Stroud: Tempus Publishing Inc

Marriage, J (1988) Colchester: A Pictorial History Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd.

Morant, P (1748) edited by Appleby, J (1970) The History and Antiquities of the most ancient Town and Borough of Colchester   Wakefield: S.R. Publishers

Stephenson, D (1978) The Book of Colchester  Chesham: Barracuda Books Ltd

Woodward, D & Cockerill, C (1974) Siege of Colchester  Colchester Public Library


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Send us your stories!

Wivenhoe Writers have just taken over production of 'WDTL', a small publication intended to be light-reading, for commuters on the Sunshine-Coast.  We are looking for stories (of 250 words or less) and poems, from local writers, for potential publication.
A link to past publications can be found here:

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Writers' Workshop, an Interview with its founder, Harry Bingham.

A couple of years ago I attended the Festival of Writing at York University. It was a pretty impressive event: well organised, friendly and with an excellent range of workshops. The food wasn't bad, either. As a result of this I decided to use their services for a professional edit of my first novel, and was very pleased with the service, even if it was painful.

Anyway, while wandering around Crime Fest earlier this year I happened to bump into Harry Bingham who set up WW, and so I took the chance to ask him a number of questions. The results are below, as well as some useful links for further reading or advice.  It's quite a long post, but well-worth a read, whether you're an established author, an aspiring writer, or you just like to read.

1     Harry, could you start by telling us what gave you the idea for setting up WW?

Yes, that’s easy! The answer is that a certain retailer once decided not to stock a single copy of one of my new books and my publisher decided it would withdraw all support for that book, no matter that it was in complete breach of contract to do so. That was a financially disastrous outcome for me and made me realise that I couldn’t afford to become too dependent on books or writing as a source of income. I knew that, since becoming a publishd author, I had acquired some skills that would be valuable to others so I thought – this was the original plan – that I’d make a little money on the side offering editorial advice to new writers.

I duly set up a website and started to advertise ... and manuscripts started rolling in. More arrived than I could handle on my own, so I started to rope in other novelists to help. And still more manuscripts arrived. And then people started asking about screenplays and children’s fiction and picture books and memoirs ... and we have ended up with about 80 editors, all told, handling the work that comes in. I had never expected that outcome, but it’s rather as if I sat down on a molehill and woke up on a mountain! (More about our manuscript assessment service.)

2     What came first, the Festival or the editing services?

The editing service was first – and indeed, the Festival almost didn’t happen. For those who don’t know the event, we basically hire all the lecture theatres and York University, plus the 800-seater Central Hall, plus a 400-seater restaurant, plus enough accommodation to sleep everyone who comes. Doing all that requires a huge upfront payment and the big question was – would anyone want to come? Back then, it wasn’t just a question of whether we could get writers there, but whether we could convince agents to make the journey up from London. We took a very deep breath and decided to chance it ... and the first Festival was a smash-hit success and we’ve never looked back since.

3     The Festival’s been going for a number of years, now. Is it always well-attended?

Yes, thank goodness! We get about 400+ people over the course of the weekend. Better still, we get a really high quality of attendees. The very first competition we ever ran was won by a writer called Shelley Harris ... who went on to get an agent she met at the Festival ... and whose book went on to be published by Orion ... and which then became a Richard & Judy Summer Read. It’s stories like that which make agents realise York is a brilliant place to find talent, so they actually ring us up asking if they can come. We get so many agents wanting to come now that we have to turn some away. That just goes to show, first, that agents really do want new writers, it’s not just a closed shop. And second, we do, I don’t know why, attract really good writers. I mean, yes, we can do a lot to help ay writer, but the two key qualities of talent and hard work are ones that writers have to supply themselves.

4     Do you think any sessions are more popular than others?

It’s always interesting to see what appeals. We always have some ‘banker’ sessions that are very well-attended: Julie Cohen on Characterisation, Jeremy Sheldon on Plotting, Debi Alper on anything at all. We also have ‘meet the agent’ panels which are exactly what they sound like – a chance to get face to face with a group of agents and ask them anything at all. We enliven those panels with a thing called Slushpile Live, where agents are presented with actual submissions from members of the audience (an opening page, a covering letter etc) and react on the spot to what they read. Scary for the audience, but a very, very useful exercise!
At the same time, I have to say that we’re very happy to host less popular sessions too. For example, a masterclass on historical fiction or something on how to write good sex scenes might not attract a load of people, but be really crucial for the few who do come. So we try to keep a balance of more generalist sessions and more niche ones. (More about the Festival.)

5     In terms of the editing services that you offer, how do you select editors?

Almost all our editors are published authors – and have published big books with big publishers. Indeed, many of them have won or been short/long listed for some major awards. In essence we want people who have proved that they know what they’re talking about! The one other editorial background we’re happy with is when people come to us who used to be commissioning editors at major publishing houses. They have a different editorial perspective than authors do, but we make good use of both. (More about our editors.)

 6     Do you keep a list of successful clients?

Yes, not nearly as complete as we should have though. You can see the list we’ve got here.

7     Do you really believe it’s possible to teach people to write?

Oh yes, there’s no doubt about it. What we can’t do is supply talent or hard work, but we can help any writer get better at what they’re doing and, if the raw material is there, then we can certainly help guide the author all the way to the hands of a literary agent. I remember one guy who wasn’t very good when he started working with us, but he worked really hard – not just with one manuscript, but with three. The second book was quite a bit better than the first and the third was pretty damn impressive. So much so, that after a couple of drafts of that last book we got him an agent, who was thrilled to have him. That does go to show that these things are learnable.

8     Do you think traditional publishing is on its way out?

Ha! A very big and interesting question. No, I don’t believe it’s on the way out. I think print publishing is here to stay. That said there are some big risks and changes on the way. One of the biggest risks is that the big book chains simply collapse. Waterstones is unprofitable as is Barnes and Noble. If those chains do go, then print publishing looks very different. Plus, what if some big authors start to defect from publishing? These days, that’s a perfectly possible move. It hasn’t happened yet, but if it started to happen, publishers would come under profound pressure to shake things up. I think it’s almost certain that publishing will become a leaner, more streamlined industry in years ahead. (You can read more about my predictions here).

9     I think you only recently began writing crime. It’s a very crowded market, especially for police procedurals. Do you have any advice to give to anyone else just starting out down the crime route?

It is crowded, yes – but then again, the genre shifts books in a way that almost nothing else does. It’s not a bad place to be.
In terms of advice to newbies, I guess I’d have to say that the crucial thing is to find a way to distinguish your manuscript from everything else out there. Let’s say you write a book that’s every bit as good as Peter James’ latest. That does NOT mean that an agent is going to jump on your manuscript. Far from it: Peter James’ readers will read Peter James and other authors of that generation who dominate that particular niche. Your novel will feel like old hat. You simply have to find a new approach, a new idea, a new character, a new theme – something that makes an agent think, Wow! I haven’t seen this before.
And indeed, I took my own advice. Although, theoretically, I write police procedurals (because my protagonist is a police officer), really they’re anything but. She’s utterly non-standard and is perfectly happy to walk very well outside the lines of police procedure when she wants to. She is also in recovery from a strange, but genuine condition called Cotards’ Syndrome, in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead. Now obviously that’s one heck of a premise, the sort of thing which would make any agent go, “Wow, that’s different!” Obviously the execution of the concept has to be good as well, but you do need to start with something strikingly compelling. (more about the Fiona Griffiths series.)

10     When you write, are you a planner or a pantser?

Never heard that word ‘pantser’ before. But I’m somewhere in between. I’ll start off with some ideas, try to work them into something that has spark, and I’ll certainly want to know the shape of my story in its very broadest terms. (In a crime novel: what the crime was, why it looks like one thing to the police, how my protagonist figures out that something bigger and darker is really at play.) But that’s all. I don’t plan every chapter or anything like that. Don’t even come close. For me it’s important to have plenty of creative room as I write. (If you want more on getting and shaping your ideas for a story, try this. For more on plotting, try this and this.)

11      Val McDermid has just said that she doesn’t think she’d be published today? How true do you think that is?

Yes, it’s true – with one proviso that I’ll get to in a minute.
A few things have changed since Val’s day. First, there’s just more competition: more British writers wanting to get published, more American fiction, more fiction in translation. Second, the number of available slots has dwindled. Most big publishers wll have cut their lists by 40% or so over the last few years. They’re obviously not ditching existing bestsellers, which means that the places available to debut authors has shrunk by much more than that 40%. Third, publishers have much less patience than they used to. Ian Rankin only became big with his eighth novel. These days, he wouldn’t have had his contract renewed after book #2 or book #3. Fourth, writing like Val’s just wouldn’t seem fresh today. It wouldn’t seem to offer anything new and agents would – quite rightly – move on to other things.
If all that seems gobsmacking, then remember the proviso: Val is a good writer and she’d simply reshape her work for the market as it is now. She’d find the angle that allowed her to blow an agent and a publisher away ... and she’d get her career off to a flying start, just as she did before.

12     Would you like to add anything else?

Only two things. First, the thing I’m normally asked most about is how writers can find literary agents. There’s no easy answer – because the main thing is that you need to write an AMAZING book – but you’ll find most of my essential advice on that topic here. And if you want an easily searchable, sortable list of literary agents, with loads of data (including photos) on each one, then check out our new site Agent Hunter, which we built specifically in order to make the search process a lot simpler.
Secondly – good luck! I always think that writing that first novel is a desperately hard and scary business. Anyone who completes that ask has my respect. And anyone (I’m looking at you Pauline!) who wins a competition and gets representation from a top literary agency – well, that’s just fab and well done you!

Monday, 9 June 2014

Write-a-thon Competition

I'm thrilled to say I won the 2014 Nibfest's Write-a-thon competition. This was sponsored by agents Watson, Little, and as a result they now want to represent me. Cool or what?

The competition started on the 4th May, when they issued a sentence that we were meant to start the story or novel with. It was 'It was a bright day in May and the clocks were striking twelve'. We then had a week to write 5,000 words. Thankfully I already had an idea that fitted, and had even written a bit of it. Which was a good job, because we only had a week to write it, and Clare and I were in Lisbon for five days of that week!

Still I got it done and sent it off and Wow! Success!

After that I was treated to lunch by two lovely agents from Watson, Little - that's James and Laetitia - and they want to represent me. Of course, I now have to finish the book. A minor detail.

And I didn't even have to write a begging letter or the dreaded synopsis.

You can read an extract here, and there's a link to the whole entry if you want to read a bit more.


Monday, 28 April 2014

NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Clare and I have taken on the NYC Midnight Short Story challenge this year, a competition worth considering if you want to hone your writing skills or be forced to write outside your comfort zone.
 The competition consists of a series of time-constrained challenges which increase in difficulty the more successful you are.  The first round lasts 8 days in which time you are asked to complete a short story (max 2500 words) with a given character, genre and subject.  For example, Clare was given:     
Character: Limousine  driver
Subject: Anger
Genre: Romantic Comedy
In contrast I wrote Historical fiction, about a widow and with the subject of sworn enemies.
If your story is successful, you proceed to the next round (you are competing against around 40 people in your category).  In this round you are given three days to write another story with a new genre, character and subject.
Although the entry fee is quite high, there is detailed feedback given on every story entered.  
Not only does this challenge encourage you write new material to a deadline, but also forces you to use new techniques in your writing, including language and style.  
This can only improve your writing skills in the long run.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Writing Short Stories

I recently attended an excellent two day workshop run by the Writers’ Centre, Norwich
http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/ led by Dave Pescod. The sessions included the presentation of some principles and characteristics of successful stories, with reference to some striking examples, as well as exercises in exploring ideas and writing first drafts, with comments and feedback from Dave and the other participants. A list of valuable resources for writers of short stories  was also provided, including a You Tube video of Kurt Vonnegut talking about how to write a short story.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Show, don't tell - you've heard it all before but what does it mean?

If you've ever been on a creative writing course, or read books on how to edit, you'll have been exhorted at some point to 'show, don't tell'.  In other words, try and make your 'scenes' come to life.
            Look at this example:

Cherie was fuming, too wound up to get on with making dinner. She paced up and down the little sitting room. How dare he! And with that slut, Marcia, who'd been round half the street. Well, she'd show him she wasn't one to be taken lightly. Wait till he got home.
            She looked wildly round her. On the sideboard was an ugly bronze statuette that her grandma had given her. She pictured it buried deep in Kenny’s skull.
            When he came through the door he was as bright and cheerful as usual. Gave her a smacking kiss and asked what they were going to eat. She told him to sit down, that it wouldn't be long. She wondered how she was going to approach it, what the bastard would say. In the end she just came out with it. Told him straight she knew what he'd been up to with Marcia. But he just laughed. Said Marcia had come on to him, that there was nothing in it.
            Enraged, she grabbed the statuette and smashed it down on the back of his head. She saw the amazement on his face, and his mouth open to protest, but her rage took over. All she could see was the infamous red mist, and she brought the ornament down on his head again and again until he lay still.

Now the above gives you all the information you need. It's not badly written and the information contained in the piece is clear. It gives us the details we need and it does it succinctly. In fact, if you read 19thC novelists such as George Eliot, Jane Austen or Henry James then you'll find huge swathes of text written just like this, (the writing will no doubt be of a better quality – it will certainly be more long-winded) and this is how fiction was written then. To be honest, I rather enjoy it. If it's done well it engages the intellect and draws the reader into the author's thoughts very effectively.

Look at this passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Her thought was not veined by any solemnity or pathos about the old man on the bed: such sentiments are easier to affect than to feel about an aged creature whose life is not visibly anything but a remnant of vices. She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone: he was not proud of her and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them.'

But today's readers expect a greater immediacy than that. They would expect Mary's feelings to be shown, rather just be told about them. In fact on the whole, today's readers want to be much more emotionally engaged. This is true of all fiction, novels and short stories included, but it is particularly true if you want to write genre fiction, such as crime, romantic fiction, spy thrillers or historical romances.

Have a look at the first extract rewritten to show, rather than tell, what happened between Cherie and Kenny. (I'm not going to try and rewrite George Eliot!)

Cherie fumed. Her breath came in short gasps and she could hear her heart beating.
            'That cheating bastard!' she said to herself. 'And with that slut, Marcia. How could he? What the hell has she got that I haven't?'
            She tried to steady her breathing, which was coming in short, sharp pants. She debated with herself how she was going to bring it up, shove it in his face. With one eye she took in the bronze statuette on the sideboard.
            'Right,' she said. 'Let's see what you've got to say for yourself. Let's see how you feel with that buried in your skull.'
            She heard his footsteps in the hall before he opened the door.
            'Hiya darlin',' he said. 'Good day?'
            'Oh, not bad, not bad.'
            'Dinner ready?'
            'Not yet. Won't be long.'
            He looked at her. 'Something wrong? Your face looks a bit blotchy. You sickening for something?'
            He stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. 'Keep still for a minute, will you. Stop pacing up and down. What the hell's got into you?'
            She looked back at him, her eyes like coals. 'Just one word. Marcia.'
            He stared, and his grip on her shoulder tightened.
            'What the hell are you…?' he began, but then started to laugh. He let go her shoulders and threw himself down into the chair.
            'So you heard. So what interfering old biddy let you in on that?'
            'Doesn't matter. What matters is, why?'
            'Why d'you think?'
            'How could you?'
            'Oh, give over. She was all over me like a rash. She wanted it. I just obliged. Didn't mean anything.'
            He looked up at her, offered his hand. 'Come on, Cher. It's not like you haven't been round the block yourself.'
            She reached out her hand to him as if in forgiveness, but with her other hand she grabbed the statuette and swung it down hard. Blood sprang to his forehead from the gash she'd made.
'For God's sake, Cher,' he managed. 'Be careful.'
            As she swung the ornament again and again she said between gritted teeth: 'And don't call me Cher.'

This time the writer has explored the action and dramatised the incident so that it appears like a scene in a play, showing events as they are actually happening, thus carrying the reader along. The first two extracts are simply recorded events (the first one) or recorded thoughts (the second).

Of course there are times when 'telling' is actually the best vehicle for getting something across. The reader would be exhausted if every page contained drama and conflict, and the writer needs to work at varying the pace as well as trying to put events across dramatically.  But there are other mechanisms, which when done sparingly, can also ensure we are shown rather than told. In fact here is another passage from Middlemarch that uses another technique, that of the internal monologue.

Lydgate, in fact, was already conscious of being fascinated by a woman strikingly different from Miss Brooke; he did not in the least suppose that he had lost his balance, but he had said of that woman, 'she is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished.' Plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.

In my own novel, Hangman's Wood, I use this technique to reveal both the fate of one of the abductees and the state of mind of one of the perpetrators without taking the reader through the incident.

He enjoyed the pleading most, he decided.  That's when you really felt their terror, when you got up close. She'd begged and cried so much he'd actually got bored. Eventually he'd had to stop her babbling, stop her with a good hard slap to her fat, white face. That had put some colour in her cheek. He had hated her whiteness, thought she looked like undercooked pastry.
It had been easy, he chuckled to himself, getting her into her car and then driving it out of the car-park. He'd checked out where the CCTV cameras were the day before and seen they didn't cover the whole of the site. And it was such a murky, drizzly afternoon, dark already by four o'clock, that no-one was going to pay much attention. Just wanted to get in their cars out of the weather. The security guy wasn't doing much, either. Keeping himself dry, Graham supposed. So it had been a matter of minutes for two nice young men to offer to help her put her heavy shopping in the boot of her car, then bundle her into the back.

The reason I chose this method was because at that point I needed to do a couple of things. I’d already described one abduction in dramatic detail, and another through various conversations after the event, so I needed to find another technique to describe this event. I also needed to think hard about the pace of the story, and in fact at this stage I wanted to slow things down a little.
So despite the instruction to ‘show, don’t tell’, it’s also important to vary the method of showing. And sometimes a bit of ‘telling’ enables the writer to vary the pace and give the reader a bit of breathing space. And pace is something I'll look at in another article.

This article was written by Pauline Rendall (Paula K. Randall), and is a version of an article previously published in Ezine magazine. Paula K. Randall