Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 8 - Beat the Block with Anne Stormont

By Anne Stormont
Images by JD Lewis

Can't get started or stalling when you do?

Whether experienced or novice, most writers suffer from the dreaded writers' block at some time.

And it's not really surprising it happens. Writing is hard work. It's a craft as well as an art and it has to be learned, practised and improved.

Writing takes time and effort. The only way to learn it is by doing it. And the only way to practise is by doing it. And the only way to improve is by doing it. Yes, it's great when the creative juices flow, but most of the time it's a case of turning up and persevering. 

The block can be brought on by author fatigue, or by lack of commitment. But it can also be caused by lack of experience, by lack of confidence, or by lack of inspiration.

Its major symptom is procrastination which in turn leads to frustration, and in the most serious cases self-loathing and despair – where that voice inside tells you that you were a fool to ever think you could write – and you are tempted to give up completely.

Beating the block

But please, if you're affected by writers' block, don't give up. There is hope. It is possible to recover and become both creative and productive once more.

And because it can be due to different reasons it follows there are different remedies. So let's take them one by one:

Author fatigue – first of all congratulations for having got started and persisted up to this point. You've most likely been writing intensively – a do-not-disturb notice issued to friends and family – and every possible moment has been spent at your desk. You may well have been enthused, full of ideas and completely committed to your project. But then the well runs dry. Suddenly – or gradually – enthusiasm wanes, focus is lost and ideas dry up. It's time for a complete break, time to replenish.

So, get out of your writing space and re-engage with the world. The natural world is a particularly effective remedy. Going for a walk, run or cycle outdoors really does blow the claggy cobwebs away. And as you focus on the physical, your mind can go off on its own to process, refresh and reboot.

Social distractions are good too. A meal, a drink, and a catch up with the important people in your life also give the creative department of your brain some much-needed downtime. It seems as if switching your focus lets your mind declutter and work on things in the background – including your latest writing project – with no active input from you.

And don't forget to spoil yourself a bit too – take a nap or a nice long bath – or even READ, yes, lose yourself in a good book. It's amazing how after some time away you'll find renewed enthusiasm for the work-in-progress.

Lack of commitment – your writing can sometimes stall because the project you're working on doesn't excite you or seems pointless. In which case walk away. But it may be that even although you're enjoying the piece you're working on, you're still finding it hard to do, or to justify the time spent on it. This is where deadlines come in handy. Competitions are a great way of imposing a deadline on your project and will also ensure you give your writing your best shot. Or, if you share the intended date for the publication/circulation/reading of your story, article, poetry collection – or whatever – with your readers, that will also help you focus your efforts.

Lack of experience – the only remedy here is: get some experience. Yes, you need to be brave. Starting something new can often be scary. But like all journeys, learning to write begins with small steps. You won't have a bestseller overnight – indeed most of us who write will never have a bestseller. But that's okay because you'll have so much fun just writing for the sake of it. So begin small and build from there. Write a short story or an article or a poem. Then do some more. Maybe seek out a local writers group or club you can join where you can share your work and get some support. Consider take a writing class or course, online or in the real world. You could even consider a residential course and experience the joy of such an intense and fully immersive experience. But whatever you decide, do seek out constructive feedback, take criticism on the chin (but not as a personal insult) and aim to improve. 

Lack of confidence – this can be related to lack of experience but it affects established writers too. It can be related to disappointing feedback, a scathing review or the above affliction of author fatigue. But sometimes there is no obvious external cause. Sometimes it's that wee demon inside that likes to taunt us, tell us we're useless, asks us who we're trying to kid.

If you doubt yourself because of some negative criticism of your writing, take a bit of time to get over the hurt and then go back and interrogate the remarks made. More often than not there will be a grain (or more) of truth in that criticism and, also more often than not, you'll see a way to improve as a result. Equally, if you decide that no, the criticism is unjustified then put it aside and move on. Don't let one person's opinion stop you doing something you love.

And don't let the wee demon stop you either. Put it back in its box and turn the key. Then get back to doing the thing that gives you so much pleasure and excitement. Because there's nothing like the exhilaration of being in the zone, of seeing where the story – your story – is going to take you. And if one other person – besides you – also gets pleasure from reading it then it's doubly worthwhile.

And finally – Lack of inspiration – you want to write but you've no idea what to write. This is where writing exercises come in handy. So let me leave you with a few:

· Take the first sentence of chapter six in the last novel you read and write a 500, 1000 (or more) word story with it as your starting point.

· Get a photo of a person in e.g. a magazine advert (not someone famous or who you know) and write about them – their dilemma, or their life story, their job, their crime, their secret...

· As for the prompt above but use a picture of a place.

· Write about the first house you lived in, or the first film you saw, the first book you read – say what it meant to you and why.

· Choose something from the natural world – e.g. a starling, a river, an oak tree, or an object – e.g.paperweight, teddy, photo. Or choose an action – e.g. swimming, climbing, driving. Or choose an emotion – e.g. anger, sorrow, joy. And let that choice be your starting point for a short story, novel, poem or opinion piece.

So what are you waiting for? Go on kick the block aside and get writing!

Anne writes contemporary women's fiction. She has published two novels so far Change of Life and Displacement and her third novel Settlement  – a sequel to Displacement – will be out at the end of August.

Anne's novels have been described as thoughtful, grown-up fiction where the main characters are older but no wiser and feature characters who face challenges that involve love, loss and some of life's biggest questions.

Anne is a Scot, living in the land of her birth. She's a retired teacher and when she's not writing, she's a compulsive crossworder, yoga practitioner, avid reader, keen walker and gardener. She also loves spending time with friends and family – especially her two grandchildren.

Anne has travelled all over the world and her visits to the Middle East in particular have inspired her most recent writing.

She can be a bit of a subversive old bat, but she tries to maintain a kind heart.

Twitter: @writeanne

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Creative Kicks – Week 7 – Creating Literary Devices with Jerome Griffin

By Jerome Griffin
Images by JD Lewis

Breaking the mould is the holy grail of writing. Finding expression like nobody before. Standing apart from the crowd.

 It’s possible, certainly, but not probable. Chances are, if you think you’re a unique voice, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Somebody somewhere has done it before.

Like the magic rule of three.
You say something, explain it, and then qualify it.
Just like the examples above.

So maybe you should set your sights lower. Aim for something more achievable. Less ambitious.
Like world peace. Or an end to global poverty. A cure for death.

People have become used to the rule of three. Now if you stop at two it feels unfinished.

On another note, more than three appears clumsy. Like the writer is struggling for clarity. To find the right words. Labouring the point. Going on and on and on.

Like that really.

As I say, it’s the magic number. The rule. The law.
But the rule of three must have started somewhere. Somewhen. Sometime.
And then it grew into the norm. This literary device. This catchy conjuror.

Thankfully there’s always someone out there hell bent on destroying the norm and poking a finger in the eye of comfortable predictability and nothing will stop them from finding their grail, so they toil and they toil and then they toil some more in search of inspiration with perspiration to break this new mould that society has cradled to its bosom so vigorously that it’s in danger of suffocating the creative spark that fuelled the imaginative inferno in the first place, and of course, they’re too late because society’s yearning for its warmth has already snuffed the fragile flame and what was once a creative beacon lighting the path of the future has been rendered a spent torch sucked dry by the very ones who sought to breathe eternal life into its core and suckle on its power, which means that nothing is new or unique or original anymore, but society thirsts for new and original and unique, and is wandering in a desert wilderness that tortures and torments even the strongest minds until they lose their ever more tentative grip on reality, and in tandem with their desert wanderings, their minds wander a metaphorical barren wilderness until they spew unchecked, unfettered, uncensored, unadulterated, raw beauty onto the world and now there is no editing because to edit would be to tarnish and destroy the creative seed that has been sown in this raging, ranting, rambling cacophony of literary noise: a noise of beauty, of fury, of power, of essence, of being crackling with electric energy, thrumming with pulsing rhythm, soaring with eagle grace, shining brighter than a galaxy of stars, soothing the soul in the warmth of its embrace and penetrating the heart easier than a baby’s smile.

And so the stream of consciousness is born. And it’s new and unique and original once more.

Until it’s tired and old and not new. Not unique. Not original. Just same same, not different.

So the quest begins for another new voice. Another new sound. Another holy grail.

And the quest will continue forever, because as soon as something new is found, it’s not new anymore.

Yep, from the nerve-shredding cliffhanger to the sinister smoking gun, from unfathomable hyperbole to terse understatement, and from harmonious juxtaposition to conflicting oxymora, we all love a well developed literary device. And writers love nothing more than creating their own. So, here’s a couple of tips on how to do so.

1. Turn things upside down. Instead of using a cliché that everybody knows change it around. For example, in Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk took an everyday expression and simply changed the delivery. Everyone is familiar with the term “to sleep like a baby”. In the story the protagonist suffers from insomnia until he attends a support group, at which point he proclaims: “Babies don’t sleep this well!” Its effect delivers instant impact and the reader sits up and takes notice, whereas they might have glossed over the tired old original cliché.

So, your exercise here is to take old proverbs, sayings and clichés and change their format. Some examples as follows:

• If this is all fair in war, I’d hate to see what happens in love.
• This has gone way beyond tough and the tough have yet to get going.
• All the flies are on him.

For a bit of variety, throw in a little opposite:

• If at first you don’t succeed, maybe failure is your thing.
• What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…said nobody ever with a bad back
• He leapt into inaction.

2. Keep to what you know. It’s a well known fact, by those who know it well*, that writers write from experience. There’s nothing clumsier than an author stumbling blindfolded into alien territory. Staying in your comfort zone is the best way to explore outside your comfort zone. As an exercise, write down some every day terminology used in your other/previous careers and play around with them.

For example, in My Better Half the protagonist works in advertising and employs a tool used by market researchers as follows: “If this product were a car, what kind of car would it be?” He brings this into his thoughts at different times throughout the story and varies the delivery.

For example:
 • If my company were a disease, what disease would it be?
• If I were a Shakespearean character I would be Hamlet.

So, let’s take a quick look at other jobs:

• Shop assistant – Management don’t care. To them I’m not a human, just a barcode.
• Shop manager – The customer is always right, especially when they’re wrong.
• Accountant – That’s a moral victory on the credit side of life’s ledger.
• Bartender – Everything he says is BS – Barfly Stupidity. 

Well structured literary devices add so much to a writer’s style and set them apart from the crowd. And all you have to do is look at things from another perspective. Go on, that diem won’t carpe itself!

*Thank you, Robert Rankin, for that wonderful example of the now legendary running gag literary device.

Jerome Griffin is the author of two novels – The Flight of the Earls, an historical fiction set in Ireland over 400 years ago; and My Better Half, a contemporary story set in London.

In 2014 Jerome launched Short e Publishing, which produces short contemporary fiction. Jerome has since gone on to publish two Short e stories: Divorcing Mum and 33rd County. There are many more in the pipeline from Jerome, as well as a number of other authors, under the Short e Publishing banner.
Jerome lives in London with his wife, Elaine.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

First Page Competition 2018 - THE RESULTS!

Owing to the volume of entries to this year's competition, we're a little later than we'd hoped in releasing the results of our First Page Competition 2018 and we thank you all for your patience. Congratulations to everyone who entered, the overall quality of entries was very high and judging was incredibly difficult. In no particular order, here is our longlist, shortlist and winners ... [JD Smith - Editor]


An Entry in the Yellow Book by Dianne Bown-Wilson
Beneath the Apple Blossom by Kate Frost
Bloodlender by Zoe Perrenoud
Fall of Meredith by Alison Woodhouse
Gospel of Eve by Nastasya Parker
His Lie Her Lie by Abby Davies
Mot and the Gates to Hades by Julian Green
The Bicycle Project by Michele Ivy Davis
The Days Have Worn Away by Gill Darling
The Gatherer of the Dead by Julian Green
The Immortalist by Tracy Fells
The Stillness by Louise Cato
Uncle Raymond by Rue Baldry
Under the Lighthouse by Rowena Cross
What’s In a Name by Vanessa Horn
Yesterday's Love by J A Silverton


A Woman Walked into a Life by Francesca Capaldi Burgess
Better to See Him Dead by Amanda Huggins
Born From Red by Stephanie Hutton
Civil War by Tom Szendrei
Don't fear the Rapper by Andy Smith
Handle with Care by Beth Madden
Independence Day by Rod Cookson
Sweet, Bitter Spring by Mark Robberts
Sisters by Alan Veale
Treasure in the Tidelines by Jess Thomas
Up She Rises by Damhnait Monaghan
Weaponised Skeletons by Kate Lowe
Where the Mermaids Go by Pat Black


First Prize £500
Málenki Robot by Mary Cohen

Second Prize £100
Handle with Care by Beth Madden

Third Prize £50
The Diarist by Julia Underwood

Judge’s Report by Jane Davis

The last writing competition I judged was for ‘vignettes’, not a term I’d stumbled across before. The premise was that anything went, provided that the entire piece came in at under 15,000 words. Soon it became clear that I wasn’t being asked to judge like with like. Poetry collections were pitted against novellas. I am fairly confident that I picked the right winner, because that strange and wonderful piece called The Walmart Book of the Dead has just been made required reading at Princeton University.

When Words With Jam asked me to judge their First Page competition, I assumed (foolishly) that the process would be simpler. After all, I write novels. I know exactly what first pages must deliver:

The language must speak to me.

I should be transported to another time or place.

Questions should be planted in my mind and I must be emotionally engaged and invested in finding out the answers.

I must want to know more about the characters.

Key themes should be introduced, either familiar themes (in which case they must be handled in an original way) or unfamiliar (in which case the quality of the writing will have to carry me through).

I should understand what is at stake.

I must be able to see that the content has the potential to be developed into a novel. And that’s the difficult part of not judging a whole. I don’t know for sure if the rest of the novel has been written, if the first page is part of the Work in Progress, or if the story exists only as an idea – although I can take an educated guess. If the novel is complete, the first page will have been revisited, revised and rewritten. We will be parachuted into the action at a particularly compelling part of the story. It will be apparent from the way in which the author introduces their first character (a fully-fleshed person) and their themes (an original take). Many of my early drafts of first chapters don’t feature in the final versions of my novels. But there are many ways into a story and you need to write first chapters that end up on the cutting-room floor to work through the creative process.

More important is the question, ‘Do I believe every word that is written on the page?’

I can say with absolutely no hesitation that my winner is Malenki Robot. I loved the premise – a very precise set of instructions (‘Bypass the beggar woman who sleeps in the gutter on Kairaly u. Watch out for the pothole.’) – and our character, who goes to the assignment but does the very opposite of everything he/she’s been told to do. It’s a confident beginning. I am expecting something dark, quirky and original, most probably although not necessarily crime. There are hints that the author isn’t writing in his or her first language (references to a ping pong racquet rather than a bat), but it could be that our narrator is a foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I simply don’t know – the point is that I really, really want to find out.

Fourteen remaining entries. My second and third choices will be the result of painful and slow elimination. I cannot claim that this stage of judging is ever entirely fair. Twelve green bottles have to go. Several entrants have used the theme, ‘new beginnings’ and so they feel ‘samey’. Several start quietly with beautiful prose, but hold back on the promise of what is to come. One totally wins me over with the first paragraph but then introduces language that completely turns me off. I have no way of telling if this has been done deliberately (in which case it was one hundred percent effective and I owe you an apology). And now there are five. All completely different.

Perhaps I’ll feel more decisive after lunch.


I’m wracked with guilt, having whittled the shortlist down to three. But I still have one more to lose. I write my notes in the hope that this helps with the final elimination. It does.

In second place is Handle With Care. A classic dilemma. You’ve fallen in love with the wrong man, but you’re trying to be a good mother, so you have to put your children first – or do you? Original use of voice – this woman isn’t going to take things lying down, so plenty of scope for conflict. I can see that Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car will be the soundtrack the film version.  

In third place is The Diarist – someone has just killed someone, the police are arriving and she has a diary which must be hidden, we assume because it reveals her guilt. Some wonderful imagery – the corners of the night porter’s newspaper wafting in time with his snores. Tension extremely well-handled.

Congratulations to all who entered. I especially want to commend Civil War. The writing was totally authentic. I believed every word. The reason I eliminated it was because, rather than a set-up for a novel, it was a complete piece of writing in itself. 

First Prize £500
Málenki Robot by Mary Cohen

‘Head towards the Jewish district, through the park with the broken streetlamps (don’t get mugged).

‘Bypass the beggar woman who sleeps in the gutter on Király u. Watch out for the pothole.

‘If you are offered directions, do not accept. Do not tell anyone where you are going.

‘Székely u. is “dog district”. You may find yourself tailed by anything up to twenty strays. Walk quickly, but no sudden movements. Do not stroke or feed the dogs.

‘There is no marker on the bar. Look instead for a lit window and keep an ear out for music. You should hear jazz. If you don’t hear jazz, it’s a bad time, come back later.

‘Front door is always locked. Use window instead. Be sure not to break anything on your way in.

‘No eye contact with anyone until you’ve ordered. Acceptable drinks to order: beer. Do not ask for whiskey, gin or rum.

‘You will meet a man named Thovas, usually found at the bar or near the window. He will have a racket in his pocket and will most likely be drinking beer with a slice of apple.

‘He will offer you a game of ping pong. Do not accept.’

I strolled in through the window and ordered myself a whiskey.

Thovas was easy to spot. He sat by himself and the bare bulb overhead fell on him like a spotlight. He had half a fruit basket floating in his beer.

He sensed me immediately as I approached and his neck snapped upright. His face was wrinkled but alert. Electricity flowed from his eyeballs. I wondered if they were hooked up to the lighting in the joint.

I gestured towards the racket protruding from his coat pocket. His eyes grew an extra 60 watts.

‘Ping pong?’ He asked.

I nodded.

Second Prize £100
Handle with Care by Beth Madden

The first night police showed up at the house we’d just moved in. My teapot was on the table, porcelain gleaming in a nest of newspaper and curls of used tape. I knew jack about tea. Only that you drank the stuff. But I did know I wanted that pot. A handful of hints two Christmases past was all it took for Dad to shell out its disgusting value in cash. But I couldn’t reach the top cupboard. I had to wait for Mitch to ramble home from his snack run. The police waited for him too.

He got off with a fine. No conviction recorded.

They came again a few months later. Up to my elbows in suds and second-hand cutlery, I yelled for Mitch to get his arse out of the garage. ‘You wanna tell me why Barry’s here?’

‘Popped by for a visit?’

Oily rag stuffed in his jeans, Mitch brewed Barry a cuppa while Constable Burke scouted out zip-lock bags. I blathered at her nonstop. Guess I was never much for tension.

Mitch got an order, community-based. He never shirked an appointment, ever ready to piss on cue. I lived on pins, my only prayer that he’d piss clean.

But the law came by again. We had a casserole in the oven. The dish burnt and battered by decades in their honorary grandma’s kitchen, I turned down the heat and packed the kids off to their room for homework.

‘What’s Barry want Mitch for?’ my eldest asked, eight and uneasy. I told him not to worry.

‘Mitch isn’t the one with a spelling test tomorrow, love.’

I smiled, a painful postscript left unspoken: not a written test, anyway.

The dirty sample breached his order. He got imprisonment. ‘I don’t want to see you here again,’ the magistrate warned, suspending it. Mitch’s fervent nods swung on a hinge. And the cops were back before long. This time Dad’s old slow cooker bubbled and steamed. They’d learnt dinner was when to catch us.

‘Sorry, April,’ said Barry, smacking Mitch on the shoulder. Then he steered him out the door. Again.

Barry liked Mitch—Mitch made it hard not to. The officers smiled at him like a family who treasured their beloved black sheep.  Our tidy suburb’s obliging problem child. He was such a lovely guy. And he was mine. But I couldn’t take much more of this. 

Third Prize £50
The Diarist by Julia Underwood


Nearly home.

Her boots crunched in the snow as she hurried from the Underground station, pulling her coat collar up around her neck against the chill. Her laboured breath fogged the air.

It was terrible, but he’s dead now. It’s over.

An empty, brightly-lit bus trundled past in stately silence; not a night to be out. The plane trees stood like sentinels at the snow-muffled kerb. The buildings’ lights created pools of gold on the white mantle.

Careful not to slip; disastrous. No-one must see me.

In minutes, she was climbing the steps to the flats. Bert, the night porter, snoozed at his desk, an Evening News folded across his face, its corners wafting in time with his snores.

She crept up the carpeted stairs. The noise of the lift with its clanking gates and grinding mechanism would wake him.

Reaching her sanctuary, she leaned against the closed door out of breath and with her heart pounding so hard it vibrated throughout her body. Her mouth was dry as a husk. She removed her coat and boots, put them to dry and made tea, her hands shaking.

In the bedroom she changed her clothes and then snatched the blue leather diary from beside the bed and took it into the living room. No point in turning on the television; it was almost time for closedown. Her terror abated, replaced by relief and even serenity.

Opening the diary’s shattered cover, she perused the closely written pages. Memories stirred emotions that she thrust aside. The handwriting, initially neat and controlled, had gradually deteriorated. In those last tortured months, when she poured such hatred and misery into the book, words became knotted and mangled, devouring the pages until, in the last paragraphs, they stopped in prosaic finality. She slammed it shut.

Mustn’t waste time. Hide it where no-one will look.

A car drew up outside. Doors slammed. Several pairs of feet crunched up the steps. The car’s light flashed blue, slicing the icy air and reflecting on her curtains. A pause, and the lift rattled to the second floor.

Bert will have woken for them.

Panic. She spun around, seeking a hiding place.

She lifted the sofa’s front legs and, her supple wrist twisting unnaturally, thrust the book up deep amongst the springs. The seat dropped to the carpet, the fringe trembling as it settled.
Then the doorbell rang. 

Well done to our winners. We'll be in touch in due course to arrange your prize money. JD Smith - Editor

Friday, 27 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 6 - Stoking the Creative Fires with Rebecca Lang


By Rebecca Lang

I run a fortnightly writing group. We, each of us, write different things – fantasy, memoir, crime, lit-fic – but all struggle with the same challenge: procrastination.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in ‘analysis paralysis’, where you can over-think yourself into a corner to the point where you write nothing at all. You know what I mean – you’re so full of ideas you don’t know where to start, so you don’t. You become the antithesis of a writer, which, by the way, my thesaurus confidently tells me is a reader!

Of course, most writers are readers as well, but if there’s no writing going on in your life then it’s hard to confidently refer to yourself as a writer. Let me help you remedy that situation the best way I know how, by challenging you to write something from nothing, using some tried-and-true creative tools.

Meme or Writing Roulette – Have you ever played Meme or Writing Roulette? You randomly select a meme (a humorous or thought-provoking image, video, or piece of text) and use it as a mental springboard into the deeper recesses of your imagination: your subconscious. It’s essentially a writing prompt, and thanks to the magic of sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest or search engines like Google, you can call up a host of choices using rather obvious search terms such as ‘writing roulette’.

Another great way to find inspiration is by actually typing in ‘writing prompt’ and select ‘images’ from the Google menu, whereupon you’ll be inundated with colourful and eye-catching scenarios, crafty phrases, and fantastical possibilities. These clever prompts have been dreamt up by other writers and editors to help you generate the first lines of your story.

This may seem like a very obvious source of inspiration, but the wonderful thing about using prompts such as these is that they use the element of surprise. Suitably startled, your brain is immersed in the creative soup that is your subconscious mind, leaving behind the restraints of your day-to-day critical, conscious thought processes. Happy day-dreaming!

StoryWorld Cards – What’s this? Witchcraft?! Well, the StoryWorld Cards created by Caitlin and John Matthews could almost certainly be modelled on that fortune-teller’s favourite, the old Devil’s Picture Book, also known as Tarot cards. Aesthetically rendered and rich with symbolism, StoryWorld Cards and their ilk act as a visual passport to your imagination, allowing you to access the dark, deep waters of your subconscious.

Sadly, the publisher stopped printing the StoryWorld Card decks (which feature many themed decks: faeries, haunted houses, adventures), so whatever remaining decks you see for sale represent its final print run. Our group loves the ‘three-card draw’, where you have to make up a story using elements from all three cards, and also the single-card challenge, where everyone uses the same card to inspire their story.

I’ve seen other inspirational decks pop up in recent times – including the Writer Emergency Pack and The Storymatic, to name a few - and they all play the same role in stimulating your creative juices. If you can’t lay your hands on a fancy deck, use some clever targeted searches on Google, Pinterest or Instagram. A visit to your local library can provide a similarly unpredictable and inspirational ‘old school’ experience by pulling books off shelves and opening them at random pages.

Story Map – This four-panel sketch is actually an idea I borrowed from a UK writing workshop, the exact source of which is lost to me in the mists of time and the Internet. It’s also of immense appeal to people like myself – visual thinkers who engage in a lot of doodling and spend far too much time blissfully zoning out to pretty images online.

The Story Map, as I’m calling it, is a great kickstarter for shorter writing projects – whether they be competitions or flash fiction – and as initial templates for much larger works. The Story Map forces you to focus on key elements: location, character, action and – crucially – an ending! You can read more on this approach below.

Deadlines – My father used to spend a lot of time quoting Parkinson’s Law to me when I struggled with writing essays, invariably leaving my assignments until the night before they were due. His variation was ‘work expands to fill the allotted time’, but the accepted quote as written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson himself is ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ In other words, if you have two weeks to write an essay, it takes two weeks; if you have one night, it will take one night, and so on. This explains how, seemingly against all the odds, I still managed to pass English.

The Oxford Dictionary defines time as ‘The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.’ But as writers (including Parkinson) know, time is really elastic. It can speed up, and it can slow down. Occasionally it can seem as if it has stopped altogether, usually when you’re stuck on a plot point or you’ve entered that spiritual and physical void of unspeakable boredom that seems to consume all creativity, what writer Douglas Adams called the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

We know we can mark, measure and muse over it, but when we harness this mercurial motion with the power of deadlines, we can all briefly master time.

Chris Baty, the founder of the popular National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), a challenge in which writers strive to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, knows about the power of deadlines. ‘A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form.’ Word! Someone give that man a cup of tea! Wait, don’t – you’ll only distract him. He has his own stories to write.

Deadlines, as Baty rightly points out, can be a galvanising force for writers. Don’t fear deadlines, use them to their full potential as motivating goals. Think of your deadline as a Harry Potter-style ‘Time-Turner’, a device that will help you travel to a future state where your story has been fully realised and written. Deadlines deliver rewards.

So where does this leave us, friends? Optimistic? Inspired? Ready to pick up your pen or hit the keyboard? I hope so.

Here’s a short exercise combining all of the above tools to help send you on your way.


1. Deadline - Set your alarm and give yourself 20 minutes. It’s okay to cheat, I often hit ‘snooze’ and give myself another five to 10 minutes.

2. Inspiration – Use a meme, writing prompt or a StoryWorld card or similar as a starting point. Google is also your friend here! The words or images don’t have to represent THE perfect idea, just start writing.

3. Story Map - Take a blank piece of paper and divide it into four quarters by drawing two intersecting lines. In the first quarter, write a location for your story and draw it (it could be a map of a place, a house, a tree, a planet – be creative!).

In the second quarter, imagine your main character and sketch something representative (it could be a person or maybe an animal).

In the third quarter, illustrate an action – it could be someone doing something (perhaps exciting) like driving a fast car or running, or an event taking place.

In the fourth quarter, think of your ending or resolution and draw it as best you can.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, these are just markers for your story. Using these four sketches as a guide, and your StoryWorld card or meme/writing prompt for further inspiration, write down the bones of your story. Be as descriptive as possible.

The words or images from your meme, writing prompt or StoryWorld card don’t have to represent THE perfect idea. Your Story Map isn’t set in stone. These things are catalysts for the ideas process, so just start writing and marvel at your rich and marvellous imagination as characters and scenes tumble forth.

Depending on how well your ideas have formed and how quickly you write, using this method you can, on average, pen between 400-600 words in less than half an hour. Not bad from a standing (or sitting) start. Happy writing.

Rebecca Lang is a writer and editor based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. She runs a lively fortnightly writing group, Novels by Night, and writes when and where she can – mostly on the train. She is the author of a series of novellas including Army Dreamers and For Fear of Little Men, and the editor of several anthologies including a collection of soon-to-be-published ghost stories, Dark Spirits.

Twitter: @rebecca_lang

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 5 - Creating Characters with Clare Flynn

Creating Characters that Readers Care About 
By Clare Flynn
Photographs by JD Lewis

Whether you’re a daredevil seat-of-the-pants writer who sits down with a blank page and lets the story unfold, or a meticulous planner and plotter who knows in advance what will happen in every chapter, there are times when a character will surprise you. What? You might say, I’m the author, I’m in control! But that’s not always the case.

Why do characters have a nasty habit of running off on their own – sometimes in a different direction from the one we intended, leaving us lolloping along behind them? Well, it can be a sign that they are living, breathing people who have a clearer idea of their own destiny than the plot structure imposed on them – or it could mean they aren’t yet fully formed.

One way to find out, is to know your characters as well as, or, given that self-knowledge is rarely a strength, better than yourself.

A fundamental element of story, from Shakespeare to Star Trek, is the concept of a hero’s journey. One of my favourite expositions of this is shown in this short clip from Kurt Vonnegut

So, what are your characters’ journeys? The start point is getting clear on what each character’s role is in the story. The main character or protagonist (MC)? – the central focus of your story – the hero on his or her journey. The antagonist? – whether well-intentioned or plain evil, they are out to foil the MC’s mission. A minor character? – if so, what is their role in the story and relationship to the MC? For the purpose of this post I’m going to focus on the main character – as if you get that wrong you’ve lost your reader.

Exercise 1

Answer these questions about your MC (it’s a good idea to do them for the antagonist and supporting characters too).

· What’s their role in the story?

· What do they yearn for? This is fundamental! It’s what drives them and sends them on their journey

· What do they look like? Whether you include these details in the book or leave them to the reader’s imagination is irrelevant – YOU need to know this – and this goes for all of these questions!

· A brief pen portrait of their personality – just a few sentences

· What’s their occupation?

· Do they have any habits or mannerisms?

· What’s their background? (history, family, location, backstory)

· What are their internal conflicts? What causes their angst? Their dark nights of the soul?

· What are their external conflicts? Who or what are the source of these?

Exercise 2

Once you’ve done that, here’s another exercise. This time write freely in the voice of your character filling in the blanks. Don’t stop to think – just get it down on paper, preferably by hand.

Let me tell you who I am ––––––

As well as all that, what you really need to know about me is ––––––

OK confessional time here, what I really want is ––––––––

I’d be able to have exactly what I want if only ––––––––

Don’t tell anyone, but what I dislike most about myself is ––––––––

My life changed forever the day –––––––––

The worst thing that ever happened to me was –––––––––

The best moment of my life was –––––––––––

Exercise 3

To get right under the skin of your characters, give them the Spanish Inquisition.

You can use The Proust Questionaire ,

or any online personality test

or do what I did when I was writing The Alien Corn and needed to reconnect with the characters in the previous book, The Chalky Sea, and use the excellent one JJ Marsh wrote about here, or make up your own.

I recently did an online course with a university on outlining (I was trying to move from being a seat-of-the-pantser to a plotter). One of the exercises was to fill out a very comprehensive questionnaire in the voice of your main character. Many of the participants found it difficult, if not impossible, to answer as their character rather than as themselves. That’s fine if you’re writing a memoir, a fictionalised account of your own life, or are transplanting yourself into your novel as the main character Hey, why not live vicariously? You too can swing through Amazon jungles or live as a Trappist monk. But in most cases your characters are NOT you and you need to get to know them better than you know yourself.

Most of the questions in a questionnaire may seem pointless – I’ll never use it in my book, you say. But you’ll be surprised at the gems you uncover that can add colour and shade to your characters. Think of characters as being like icebergs – the biggest part is hidden from view but it’s what gives strength, power and presence. A character who only consists of the words that make it onto the page is going to be thin and insubstantial. We are all what we lived in our pasts – a complex construct of past slights and injuries, compliments and excitements, moments of joy and sadness.

Some of the areas to think about (not an exhaustive list) in forming your characters are –

· What is their backstory?

· Voice and manner

· Tastes

· What do they dream about?

· Quirks and behaviours

· Skills and aptitudes

· Fears and desires

· Strengths and weaknesses

· Formative experiences

· Friends and enemies

My last top tip is, having done all the exercises, print them out and keep these together as a reference document to inform your writing. Or if you are paper averse, save them in a folder where you can easily refer to them as you’re writing. If you ever feel “stuck” a dip back into the folder can produce rich pickings.

Author of seven novels, Clare Flynn writes historical fiction with a strong sense of time and place and compelling characters.
After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting company for 15 years and now lives in Eastbourne where she writes full-time – and can look out of her window and see the sea.

Clare’s latest novel,
The Gamekeeper’s Wife, is available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon
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