Writing Fiction – the final story

8After eight wonderful weeks, the time has finally come to submit my own short story using the techniques learned along the way. I’ve included the feedback too – warts and all!

My story: Extraordinary Circumstances

Calling an extraordinary meeting of the residents’ association demanded attention and I’d made sure of their attendance with some minor untruths.
Now I watched them. Their eyes glanced up to the clock; left to the window; down to their wristwatches and ended with a unified shake of the head like some bizarre dance routine. Suppressing a snort, I buried my nose in the paperwork on the table before me, enjoying the tension the delay had created amongst them. If tutting and clock-watching were Olympic sports, then this group hunkering towards the back of the room had serious medal potential. But there’d be no podium for them tonight.
Their customary table overflowed with glasses as they refuelled on Rioja and San Miguel in the upstairs room of our local bar. Outside, lamplights flickered into action, coating their corner of the room in a fitting, but eerie glow.

Last year they’d pounced on me like hungry wolves attacking an intruder and I was voted in as president without even knowing their names, let alone their terms. One chap joked, ‘Hey, this one’s still got his own teeth,’ which resulted in uneasy laughter from the pack. Awkward compliments were not their only tactics. A welcoming party three weeks earlier masqueraded as a slick, fact-finding mission. Days later, white-haired ladies presented me with cakes and biscuits. ‘Gluten-free,’ they chimed in unison.
Such a sweet gesture.
Then, old Arthur (I’d been introduced to him as such) knocked at my door, bearing a brass bicycle bell. Another fact gleaned from the party.
My suspicions multiplied together with the gifts, ranging from veggie casseroles to yet more sugary offerings. Well, there’s friendly, and friendly. My ex-wife had befriended the guy next-door. Now they have two kids, a mortgage and a gas-guzzling Lexus.
The woman never understood me.

Days into my term of office, Ralf, a neighbour not of their clan, delighted in informing me that I was not the first to be seduced by their generosity. He implied these random acts of kindness came at a price. My subservience.
Perhaps he was resentful of their camaraderie.
Soon after, a portly man, grey hair fringing his bald head that brought to mind my auntie’s lace doilies, introduced himself as Ron, the book-keeper.
‘I’ve got the accounts sorted. If you’d just sign these cheques…’ he said, thrusting several blank cheques and a silver-nibbed fountain pen at my right hand.
‘Sundries,’ he said, in answer to my unasked question. ‘Won’t have to bother you over trivial stuff then.’ It was a remark delivered by a sergeant-major on drill, communicating orders not to be refused.
Purposely, I took the pen from him with my left hand and signed the cheques with a flourish. The hairs feathered on my arms as I caught sight of his icy glare.
I doubted we’d be friends.

Getting into the inner sanctum of this group proved impossible. Every time I called for a meeting, they’d find some excuse. ‘Not this weekend, we’re parachuting,’ or ‘Can you make it after our jet-ski challenge?’ These pensioners were living life to the full, ticking off goals from their bucket lists. Who was I to interrupt their “joie de vivre”?
But months passed and still I had no idea of how the community accounts operated. I contacted Monica, the community’s Lilliputian legal advisor.
‘Yay!’ she squealed, pulling me into a vice-like hug. ‘At last, a Gulliver to stand up to those silver-haired bullies.’
I towered her by a mere five inches, but as she explained how the community showed clear signs of neglect in spite of vast overspending, I felt empowered to act.
But, what could I do? Their constant excuses to avoid a meeting left me floundering in the deep end of our empty-and-waiting-to-be-re-grouted swimming pool.
Cue Ralf!
Their repeated rejection of his ideas and exclusion tactics saw him labelled a trouble-maker. But he agreed to be my fall guy.
Whilst I appeared to maintain a neutral stance as he pushed for an investigation, together with Monica, we forced Ron to reveal the true accounts. After much finger-pointing and name-calling – mainly at Ralf’s expense – I finally got my hands on that precious information, and the contents only validated my earlier doubts.
A throbbing headache exploded like fireworks across my temples when I read how the community bank account had been plundered: from a healthy high of twelve thousand euros to a miserly eight hundred now.
Where had the money gone? The same question was soon asked of Ron.

With no receipts to explain the outgoing payments, we were forced to scrutinise the figures further and a disturbing pattern soon surfaced. The dates matched those of certain spectacular activities that Ron and his merry posse had bragged about. I recalled having been impressed by their antics, that was until I realised where the money had come from.
With Monica’s help, I cancelled the outstanding unused cheques and called an extraordinary meeting. Following Ron’s subsequent disappearance, I convinced the rest of the group to attend, assuring them there were no allegations directed at them. Indignant huffs and cries of, ‘It was all Ron’s doing anyway,’ came as no surprise.

The other residents took their seats and the air in the room grew thick with voices. The committee shrank into their well-worn seats as the newcomers drowned out their mutterings with good-humoured banter. It promised to be a lively affair.
A strange blue light invaded the room and below us a commotion could be heard before heavy footsteps pounded the stairs. These late arrivals formed a blockade across the single exit, only allowing the diminutive Monica to squeeze through.
‘ Over there, Officers.’ She waved her manicured hand at the corner table where my inebriated neighbours glowered, open-mouthed. The policemen slapped the cuffs on and guided them outside to the waiting black van. Inside I recognised Ron’s bald dome.
Monica winked at me, acknowledging her own personal triumph.
‘Now, Mr. President,’ she said, ‘We have a community to rebuild.’

REVIEW ONE

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the character portrayals?

I loved the descriptions, and admire you for writing like this. e.g. ‘Their eyes glanced up to the clock; left to the window; down to their wristwatches and ended with a unified shake of the head like some bizarre dance routine.’ That’s great and amuses me enough to want to read on. ‘If tutting and clock-watching were Olympic sports, then this group hunkering towards the back of the room had serious medal potential.’ is in the same vein, and really good description. There’s no problem with this, but there isn’t one character that stands out. In fact I don’t really get to know a lot about individual characters. It is more of a group thing – the character of all of them that I am getting, which is quite clever. For instance, they’d never got time for a meeting because they were too busy off jet-setting pensioners. I get a good impression of the group.

Were there any very clear, or any confusing, elements of the story which related to approaches taught on Start Writing Fiction?

This is an amusingly written short story. I had to read twice to see who exactly had been taken off by the police, and now I see why they are jet-setting pensioners. I get the feeling that Lynne is an established writer (and a quick check on Google confirms this). I think you might have written like this before the course anyway as your style is excellent and individual.

Did the story have a plot, causality and conflict? How did it engage you?

It engaged me because of the style of writing. Plot was fine, but simple. But with writing like this you definitely want to carry on. Getting a feel for the characters involved and the amusing way in which the story is told means that the plot doesn’t even have to be that strong. You can enjoy the pleasure of reading this kind of writing style for its own sake.

REVIEW TWO 

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the character portrayals?

This was a great read with humour and a lively cast of characters. The main character was the narrator trying to put order into the chaotic accounts of a community of fun-loving retirees. The narrator has an ex-wife and this is one of the very few details we learn of his (I presume) background. He must be as old as the others judging by the joke about his teeth. It didn’t strike me as important to give him more portrayal. His character comes across through his thoughts and actions: honest, organised, determined and thorough. It is unclear why he was elected by such a reluctant bunch who seem happier living life to the full. The character portrayals mainly focus on the cast around him as he perceives them and they are brought to life with great humour and attention to small details.

Were there any very clear, or any confusing, elements of the story which related to approaches taught on Start Writing Fiction?

The story is rich in detail and creates a very vivid picture of the scenes described. I see evidence of summary (e.g. the beginning); appearance (e.g. reference to white-headed ladies) and successive scenes so a combination of approaches mentioned during the course. The story is clear and had a great pace.

Did the story have a plot, causality and conflict? How did it engage you?

The story had a clear plot (trying to sort out the neglected and misspent finances of a bunch of pensioners), causality (some underhand dealings had been going on) and conflict (getting the attention of the community and not giving in to their attempts to pressurise him). All in all a humorous account that I thoroughly enjoyed and was engrossed in. It was visual and justice was done in the end with the culprit taken away.

REVIEW THREE

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the character portrayals?

I think this is really clever, entertaining writing. The characters were neatly portrayed. Even though a lot of the characters are a group- you get a sense of who they are and what they are about. The main character, i feel is known by his actions or inactions.

Were there any very clear, or any confusing, elements of the story which related to approaches taught on Start Writing Fiction?

I did have to read carefully to get the set up by I feel it was well explained and was entertaining. as the audience you were brought into the action and could see it unfolding from the main characters point of view.

Did the story have a plot, causality and conflict? How did it engage you?

Yes. There was a plot and conflict. It was humorous and developed around the main character, even though the plot was in action before he arrived. I wanted to find out what happened and I was waiting for something sinister to happen. I enjoyed your story – it was engaging. Thanks

So, here it ends. I’m a chuffed with the feedback and can’t wait to get stuck into The Nasrid Charm again – there is so much still to do, but I have more tools available to me now.

See you soon 🙂

Merry Christmas 

Writing Fiction – the value of reading

7The value of reading novels and short stories

A writer has permanent access to the best teaching: in novels and short stories. In terms of technique, nothing is or can be hidden: it’s all there on the page. It’s up to the person reading as a writer to ‘unpack’ how a novel has been made.

Starting out, and throughout a writer’s career, seeing how other people do things is invaluable. Writing without reading is to write in the dark: it might work, but it’s an unnecessary handicap. Being well-read isn’t just about quantity but more a question of immersion, and familiarising yourself with how books feel. Reading is another way of developing the ‘habit’ of writing.

Books are a great comfort to any writer: you can see how others have faced the same problems you face. When you’re reading as a writer, even people’s ‘mistakes’ are invaluable. If you think a book doesn’t work, just articulating why will be useful.

Editing

Editing your writing is very important – some would say the most important aspect of writing. It’s often said that anyone can write but only writers can edit. Once that you have written your first draft and left it to settle for a while, you will need to go back and reflect on what you have written, and make changes accordingly.

  • Don’t be afraid to cut large parts of it if necessary.

  • You might find that when you have got into the story you can go back and cut out the opening sentences. Some openings may well have been used as a way to get into writing the story, or a particular passage, but the story might be more vibrant and enticing without them.

  • Remember that you are aiming to develop a character who is complex and not too predictable.

  • Remember that you are aiming to make the story as interesting and intriguing for the reader as you can.

  • Reflect on all your reading and any tricks or techniques that you see in the novels and stories that might help you.

Also reflect on the reading you’ve done that displays techniques and approaches that don’t seem, to you, to be working.

Writing book reviews

Noticing details about the construction of language, plot and story in what you read will help form your own writing taste and style. Note why you like or dislike about the books you’ve read; what you think works or doesn’t work. This ongoing engagement with your reading will feed into your writing practice. Even the simplest observations might be valuable. For example:

  • How long is the short story or novel?

  • Are there chapters? Sections? Parts?

  • If it’s a short story, how is it structured?

  • When and where is it set, do/how do these things appear to matter, and how are they conveyed?

  • From whose point of view is the story being told? Is it the story of one, or more than one of the characters?

  • Is there dialogue? If so, what does it contribute to the story? What does it tell you of the characters?

  • Is the language modern, plain, elaborate, colloquial?

  • Are there short or long sentences?

  • Are the sentences ‘properly formed’, or broken down? For example, ‘Get this. Bravery. That wasn’t even in it. Heroism? Maybe that was nearer the mark.’

  • Would you say that the story was a ‘page-turner’?

  • Is it full of ‘researched facts’?

  • Is there much ‘internal’ psychological or emotional detail, or is most of the novel or story taken up with ‘external’ events or description?

  • How do you learn of the main characters?

  • Are the minor characters sufficiently clear or too flat?

  • In your opinion, is it clearly aimed at a certain type of reader

Writing Fiction – Layout

6Layout

To see how fiction layout works, check out the books on your bookshelf. Notice how the paragraphing and dialogue are formatted. This will give you a general idea but it is worth remembering that the work you submit to publishers and agents should be formatted slightly differently.

Here are some general guidelines (some of them might be superseded by specific formatting requirements requested by particular editors, publications or competitions – and some may differ in different countries; these are guidelines for the UK).

Besides helping you to produce readable, uncluttered manuscripts, this will get you into the habit of presenting your work as required by publishers and any critical readers who may offer feedback:

  • Number your pages. This is normal, professional practice and makes it easier for your reader to refer to particular points when giving feedback.
  • Give your story a title.
  • Use double-line spacing.
  • Set margins at each side of at least 3 cm (in most cases, this is the default setting).
  • Don’t justify lines to the right-hand margin.
  • Use a 12-point standard serif font (i.e. Times New Roman or similar), especially when submitting paper copy. Some online submissions now require sans serif font (i.e. Arial).
  • The first line of every paragraph should be indented, with the exception of the first paragraph in each chapter or section.
  • Generally, there should be no line space between paragraphs, except when a line space between paragraphs is used to indicate a section break (i.e. a change of scene; a viewpoint switch; or some time has passed).
  • The first line of the next paragraph following such a line space should not be indented.
  • Asterisks can be used to draw attention to a significant section break but shouldn’t be overused.

Readers will have big problems and potentially get very confused if the layout isn’t clear. Before you get to the editing stage with your story, check that the format and layout of your piece is readable and that you have followed all the guidelines on layout.

Writing Fiction – Characters

5Round and flat characters

Stereotypes can be helpful when we start thinking about creating characters. But developing characters, giving them unexpected contradictions and conflicts, helps to create characters that are living people, not just types or caricatures.

But what about minor characters? How deeply do peripheral characters have to be imagined? Do all characters have to be rounded?

Flat characters have few traits, all of them predictable, none creating genuine conflicts. Flat characters often boil down to stereotypes: fat, doughnut-eating cop; forgetful professor; lecherous truck driver; … shifty-eyed thief; anorexic model.

Using these prefab characters can give your prose a semblance of humor and quickness, but your story featuring them will have about as much chance of winning a contest as a prefab apartment in a competition of architects. Even more damaging, you will sound like a bigot. As a writer you ought to aspire toward understanding the varieties of human experiences, and bigotry simply means shutting out and insulting a segment of population (and their experiences) by reducing them to flat types.

Discussing how stereotypes or flat characters might be made more round can be interesting, not least because it can open your eyes to how stereotypes are commonly perceived and how perceptions can be subtly altered.

The challenge now is to write your stereotype in a more complicated fashion.

Write a brief scene, around 300–500 words, in which you portray a character in a complex way, going against the usual expectations for such a character.

My scene: The lollipop lady who loves banger racing at the weekends.

Steady rain dropped onto the conservatory roof as Valerie retrieved her fur-lined boots from the rack near the back door. Adjusting her hat so that the yellow peak protected her rimless glasses from the downpour, she grabbed her lollipop stick and strode purposefully down the water-logged path. Winter mornings were the worst, yet the greetings from the little ones would lift her spirits and make it all worthwhile.

Her pitch was only five-hundred yards from her front door and already a few children stood at the side of the road.

“Here she comes,” yelled one of her regulars, a bespectacled boy wearing a Minions high-visibility coverall on top of his duffle coat.

“Morning Mrs. Val,” said the blond-haired twins in a sing-song voice as she neared them.

“Good morning boys and girls. How good of you to wait for me. This road is busier than ever when it’s wet, so well done to you all.”

The five- and six-year-olds from the local primary school beamed at Val and then tugged on the sleeves of their respective parents.

Valerie stepped into the road, her lollipop stick charging ahead as she slowed the traffic to a halt. Tyres slipped in the wet conditions, spraying passers-by with a fine mist of cold, dirty puddle-water. The children laughed, but Val waved a wagging finger at the motorist. “Watch your speed young man,” she shouted over the high-pitched hubbub. “Better to arrive safe and late, than not at all.”

The children joined in with a chorus of “Speed kills, so kill your speed,” and trotted out into the road as soon as Val gave the signal.

Once everyone was safely across, Val waved the kids off and proceeded to cross the road again, halting the cars once again. A familiar face appeared through the window of a trendy Citroen, its yellow colour matching Val’s waterproof coat. “Hey Val,” a forty-something woman shouted, “great weekend at the track I hear.”

“Hello Shelley, yes I set a new lap record for the over-60’s, although my poor Gwinnie suffered a bump or two. She’s in the garage now, having a paint job. She’ll be as good as new come Sunday.”

Writing Fiction – What is plot?

4What is plot?

The novelist E.M. Forster (1927) explains this very clearly. He describes a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’ and a plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.’

For example, ‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.

This is because there is a reason given for the queen dying. In a story, someone dying is not in itself interesting. It is the reason for the death that fascinates the reader, especially if the reason is connected with something that has happened to, or been done by, another character.

Readers are well tuned to guessing and imagining causes just from the details they perceive in the story. With this in mind, even the smallest recorded observations can be relevant.

Write a story based on this:  ‘A woman on a bus today carried her Pekinese dog inside her handbag. It had a red bow on its head that matched her sweater.’

This short description of a real person could be the starting point for a fictional character. Imagine:

Who might she have been?
Where was she going?
What did her appearance suggest about her mood or state of mind?
How old was she?
How did she live?
In answering these questions you start to build a concrete sense of character. You start to get a story.

Developing your plot line

Developing the detail of your character will help you arrive at your story. And discovering causality – what causes your character to do things or to be the way they are – will give you plot. But how do you develop that plot?

Returning to the example: ‘A woman on the bus today carried her Pekinese dog inside her handbag. It had a red bow on its head that matched her sweater.’

Now consider:

Why was she on the bus?
Why did she have the dog and where was she taking it?
Why did she look the way she did?
Why did the dog have a red bow?
These are not scientific questions: if you wanted to know the correct answer to them, you would have asked her. They are matters for your imagination. Answering them will give you a plot.

My story:

As the bus neared, Joanie threaded her scarf through the straps of her bag, tickling Nina under the chin, “No yapping till we get off,” she whispered. After showing her pass, she took a window seat. Dogs weren’t allowed on public transport during peak hours, but it was only a short trip through the village to the shopping centre.
The photographer’s booth was open and a stream of mums with prams and buggies passed through its blacked-out curtains. She joined the queue, tutting at the noise, and checked on Nina, “Good girl,” she said, “show these noisy brats how to behave in public.”
Once in the booth, and ignoring the giggling and whispers from outside, she sat down and carefully lifted Nina from her handbag. Joanie kissed Nina’s tiny head and adjusted the red bow that matched her own sweater perfectly.
“Ready when you are, young man,” She said to the photographer, “and please close your mouth. Don’t you know it’s rude to stare.”
“B-b-but, this is a Mother and baby competition,” he stuttered, hiding his laughter behind his hand.
“I’m aware of that. I am a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and this little darling is my baby. Now take the damn photo. I haven’t got all day.”

Photographs taken, Joanie left her name and address for the magazine company to contact her later. The rules didn’t stipulate that the baby had to be human, at least they should give her credit for originality. And if she didn’t win, the photos would make great Christmas cards to send to her daughter in Australia. It had been ten years since she’d last seen her in person, and her darling Pekinese, Nina, had truly become her family. “But, I think we’ll stop the matching outfits,” she said removing the red bow from Nina’s head. “There are too many critics these days. Mind you, some of them could do with a makeover.” She laughed, put Nina into her bag and headed for the bus-stop. “I’ll drop by the butchers on the way home, we’ll have sausages for tea.”

 What if?

In the example possibilities of how and why the woman happened to be on the bus with her dog, we are asking a question which is essential for writing fiction. This question is – ‘What if?’

Asking ‘What if?’ can help you to get from having an idea about a character you want to write about to developing a plot. For example, you might ask:

What if at one time the straight-laced schoolteacher worked in the circus?
What if that charming woman in the sweetshop poisoned her neighbour’s cat?
What if tomorrow I inherited a million pounds, and then what if the next day I lost it?
What if the characters are not as they first seem?
This ability to ask ‘What if?’ is a habit that can easily be learned. It adds causality and richness to your characters as well as helping you to form a plot.

Update: The Nasrid Charm

The-Nasrid-Charm-Cover-2015I’ve been a little obsessed by learning new things lately, and some of the courses I’ve been taking have been writing related (honestly!)

An Open University course on writing fiction (which I’ve been featuring here) has led me down a research path for The Nasrid Charm (as well as giving advice on building characters, setting, voice and the dreaded editing)

Enough to keep me busy revising the story before my new courses start.

 

I’ve signed up for a couple of other courses that I feel will add some ‘zing’ to my novel:

  • Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain (to help with setting, time and place)
  • Magic in the Middle Ages – which speaks for itself.

As a result (these don’t start until Spring 2016) I’ll be editing most of the book and will complete a final draft in May 2016 – still in time for the scheduled publication.

That’s it for now!