Category Archives: Writing

My Account of Attending an Author Event (or How to Get Drunk and Make Friends in London in Record Time)

So, recently, I entered a competition with Blinkbox Books, for a chance to win tickets to see Caitlin Moran and Kate Mosse in conversation with Clare Balding, at Cadogan Hall. ( They were all promoting their new books: How to Build a Girl, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, and Walking Home.) My chances of winning were very slim, I knew, but hey, as the saying goes, you’ve got to be in it to win it.  Or is it, win it to be in it?   Well, anyway…  I had to think of a question I would ask one of the authors if I ever had the chance to meet them.  I hadn’t read any Kate Mosse (to be perfectly honest, in the past, if I saw her books in a bookshop, I steered clear of them.  Not because I thought she was a world famous model and therefore bound to be a rubbish writer, but because I thought she wrote old-fashioned romances in the style of Catherine Cookson.  How wrong can you be?)

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So I won a prize in a competition, but I think I may have been the only person who entered.

So, there wasn’t any difficulty in choosing who my question would be directed towards.  After reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, I’m a big fan.  I have to say, I’m intrigued by how she has achieved so much personal success so early in life.  My own personality is such that I’m often eaten away by self-doubt, and therefore, many of my personal goals are met with the brick wall of my subconscious telling me I’m rubbish.  Ms Moran, if she had these doubts trying to trip her up, didn’t take any notice of them at all. By the age of 15, she’d already written her first novel, and not long after, was a journalist for Melody Maker.  At the same age, I was dreaming about boys, listening to music, watching a lot of telly, and not much else.  My question to her, if I could ask her, was what gave her the motivation and tenacity to go for the things she dreamt of at such a young age.

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I wanted to be a teenage journalist for a music mag too, but I was too busy watching tv.

I entered the competition through the Blinkbox website and, with my ultra-positive, and totally uncynical personality, expected that would be the last I would hear of it.  I didn’t particularly think my question was original – anyone who’s a fan of Caitlin Moran knows about her early success.  Well, how wrong could you be?  You could have knocked me over with a feather when, a few weeks later, I received an email telling me that I had won a couple of tickets.  At first I thought it was a scam or a trick (Me? Distrusting?  NO WAY!!) , but then realised that no-one but Blinkbox Books knew I had entered the competition.  It was very short notice – four days, which for a very unspontaneous type like me is very short indeed (I was very nearly having change-of-routine palpitations) – and as I’d already arranged a night out with my friend in Manchester, it now had to be rearranged to a night in London (a change of routine and a change in location?  I was pretty certain I was not only going to have to be sponteous, but I might also spontaneously combust.)  Anyway, with not many funds to my name, this would be a discount trip too.  So transport was via National Express, and accommodation was a… er… functional room over a pub. (My husband, when he saw the room, asked if they hired the rooms out by the hour).  Say what you like about me, but I’m definitely high glamour all the way.

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National Express coaches. The only way to travel. And don’t let anyone else tell you any different.

So me and my pal, C, we always treat every night out like it’s our first and our last.  Or we like to imagine that there is a shortage of alcohol and we need to get a stockpile (in our stomachs).  Soon as we dropped off our bags at our prison cell… I mean, hotel room, we were into our going out gear, coating ourselves in another layer of cement… I mean, makeup… and sniffing out where the nearest cocktail bar was.  After a surprisingly uncomplicated trip on the tube, we ended up in Camden and had some very nice Brazilian tapas (only after we’d ordered a strawberry daiquiri and a margarita first, of course).

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It was the heels that stopped us from going shopping, not the massive bottle of wine we wanted to throw down our necks.

 

After the food, we had a bit of time to spare, but going out and looking at the shops was out of the question.  The discomfort of heels, you know?  Or maybe if you’re a bloke, you don’t?  Or then again, maybe you do?  Instead we decided to stay put and order a bottle of wine.  (Let me do an impression here of the Brazilian waitress: *mouth opens in shock*… ‘A BOTTLE!????’  I can only take it she’s not been in Britain long with that reaction.  Does she not realise we’re a nation of binge-drinkers?  Sorry, if I am tarring you with the same brush and you are, as yet, untarred…)

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Before the show, we thought maybe one or two cheeky cocktails to warm us up.

After flinging the contents of our bottle of wine down our necks at record speed, it was time to make our way to Sloane Square.  I’ve never been to Chelsea before but even with the reality-enhancing effects of alcohol, I knew that the people around me wore more expensive clothes and had more expensive hairdressers than the likes of me and C.  There were a lot of shawls, thick knits, and tartan.  For a minute, I thought I’d landed in Scotland.   (Thankfully, the lack of bagpipes gave the game away).  Anyway, before anyone could see that poorer people had landed in town, we legged it over to Cadogan Hall, hoping they’d let us in before they realised we’d travelled down on the National Express bus.  Fortunately, we did get a pass in, despite the fact the guy in the booking office was posher than the Queen.

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No sign is needed here. You know where you are because of all the tartan and shawls.

After we’d got our tickets (amazed that our names were on the guest list and it wasn’t actually an elaborate hoax…  I see conspiracy theories where there are none on a regular basis), we headed straight for the bar (well where else do expect – have you seen the title of this post???)  Fortunately, the girl at the bar was a little less posh than the other people we’d met, so probably didn’t mind that she was serving us a large serving of wine out of plastic glasses (Plastic glasses?  What the hell?  I thought we were in Chelsea?)  She also didn’t seem to mind that we ordered another large (plastic) glass of wine for the interval, or that even before the show had started, that we had finished our first (plastic) glass and were going back for seconds.  I have to say, Chelsea really went up in my estimation when it was time to go into the show and you were allowed to actually TAKE DRINKS INTO THE AUDITORIUM!!!  O-M-G, I was in heaven.  I would certainly be coming back to this particular theatre again, but next time I would wear a shawl (and possibly some tartan) so I didn’t feel such an outcast.  But first, all that wine was going right through me (Sorry – too much information… right?)  I needed the toilet.   Imagine my shock when I was directed to the ‘CLOAKROOMS’.  I couldn’t get my head round it – Chelsea is so posh that bogs are called cloakrooms.  (To be fair – if I have to be – there were cloakrooms down there too.)

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It’s so posh in Chelsea, the toilets are called CLOAKROOMS!

The show itself – through my drunken haze – was absolutely fantastic.  Clare Balding (who was doing the interviews… AKA plugging the second of her autobiographies) did pretty well with the comic banter.  If I wasn’t getting her new book for free (which was part of the prize, along with Kate Mosse’s and Caitlin Moran’s new books) I’d likely go out and buy it myself. Fortunately I don’t have to, though as they still haven’t arrived,  I’m now starting to wonder if that bit was the scam? (No, not suspicious at all.)

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I swear this is a picture of my legs during my teenage years. Even the ladder in the tights is the same.

Well, much as it may surprise you, the non-model Kate Mosse (who came onstage to the tones of Kate Bush wailing Wuthering Heights) doesn’t write romantic fiction.  She writes amazingly (apparently – I don’t know yet, I haven’t read anything of hers yet, but will do… she did a sterling job of selling it to me)  written literary fiction with feminist themes: strong women that go on adventures, that aren’t victims, and that are self-reliant when seeking success (ie. aren’t dependent on men to help them get on).  Themes that are right up my alley.  Oo-er.

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Can’t wait for my free copy to arrive. If it ever arrives!!

I would like to tell you that I remember lots about this interview but as you can imagine, with all the wine in my belly, arteries, and virtually every other part of my body, I was ten sheets gone to the wind.  All I know is that it must have been good, because my friend C, who didn’t have a clue who either of these authors were before the show, absolutely loved it, and wanted to get up and applaud (on several occasions).  At the time, I compared it to seeing the most famous, best band ever in an intimate venue, and C agreed.  But then we had both been drinking for at least four hours.

During the interval, we went back to the bar to collect our pre-ordered drinks.  I don’t know how I was still standing at this point, but I was, and I was coherent too (at least in my head).  I had a brief (blathering) conversation with a woman about thinking Kate Mosse was a romantic fiction writer, but I think I terrified her with my overconfident (drunken) banter, and she made her excuses and left to go to the ‘cloakroom’.  We took our drinks in for the second half (did I tell you YOU CAN TAKE YOUR DRINKS INTO THE AUDITORIUM at Cadogan Hall?) and got talking to the women sitting next to us on our row.  They were both dressed in matching green (they looked very nice, but like they may have been anticipating attending a mermaid’s convention, or were hoping to be extras in a reworking of Robin Hood).  We had a little chat about our misunderstandings of who Kate Mosse was (a recurring theme, it seems – I now feel like sending her a letter).

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The ladies next to us in the theatre shouldn’t have been exercising in the aisle, but they were wearing the right outfits, so what the heck.

Caitlin Moran, (whose arrival was accompanied by a now forgotten soundtrack – my brain, swamped with alcohol by this time, has erased that memory forever) promised us as soon as she arrived on the stage that there would be a lot of swearing and we should excuse her language.   As a result, I got seriously excited, expecting a verbal furore.  Disappointingly, by the end, much as I enjoyed the interview, I felt I didn’t get one.  Maybe it was the wine creating a fog between me and the stage (er, I think this is a given), but the only word that had any potential shock value was masturbate.  (Though it wasn’t really shocking.  Not to us.  We’d all read How to be a Woman and we knew what it was and that women did it.  Everywhere.  Even if they pretend not to.)  I know it wasn’t just me who reacted like this – it was mentioned later by our green goddess neighbours that they, too, were dismayed by the lack of Caitlin Moran induced commotion.

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If i become a famous writer, I want to look just like Caitlin Moran.

You can’t blame Caitlin though – despite the lack of swearing.  During the entire interview she was witty, eloquent, entertaining and frank (I can remember that much).  Probably, the main problem was, we were all already (off our heads and) in love with Kate.  Especially me.  Kate and me were going to go off and get married and have babies together.  Whatever her feminist principles.

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If only they’d let me in at the stage door, I could ask her to marry me.

Well, after the show, it was kind of like ‘What now?”  Nothing was going to live up to the adrenalin high I’d experienced in that auditorium.  Not even another trip to the cloakroom.  Fortunately, one of the green goblins (okay, I’m running out of green analogies) beside us asked us if we fancied going for a drink with them.  They made a vow they wouldn’t allow us to go anywhere with orange people in it (apparently there are lots of these in Chelsea – most of them with tartan shawls).  Probably this was because orange and green don’t mix.   I don’t know why they asked us to go out – I can only assume it was the fact they were as drunk as us, and therefore didn’t notice we were swaying.

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With all the tartan and shawls in Chelsea, they really should combine the two. The look would become all the rage.

Anyway, we both said yes – very eager to drink even more wine, but this time with company.  I was nervous.  Even with a shedload of dutch courage, and a big gob, I’m basically a shy person underneath, so I was wondering what on earth we were going to talk about with these complete strangers once our excitement over the show had dried out.  I needn’t have worried (though I did, quite a lot, when they led us down a very dark back street.  But it was okay, they were simply leading us to an old-fashioned pub that sold very nice Sauvignon Blanc with mad, eye-dazzling, Wilton carpets – and not an Umpa Lumpa in sight), the four of us got through two bottles of wine over the next couple of hours, and found out a lot about each other.  (Funny how much you share drunk that you’d never dream of when you’re sober.)  Trouble is, I was past the point of remembering any of it.

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Shix more bottlesh of Sav Blanc, pleashhh, and we’ll be on our way.

Green Goddess Two accompanied us on the tube, which is a good thing, as by this time my brain cells were melded together into one unusable lump, so I’d forgotten how to read the Underground Map.  Hey ho.  Thank God for green angels in disguise.  Once we left her (in a mad rush at Euston) we then messed everything up by going the wrong way, realising, and heading back to where we should have gone in the first place (which was stay on the train we were on with Green Goddess Two).

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Eventually we got to our destination at about 1am (God only knows what time we set off from Sloane Square), and we decided, unwisely, on some takeaway from the only open place on the street.  It had a picture of a pizza in the window, and we both fancied pizza.   ‘Can we have a pizza,’ I asked.  ‘We don’t sell pizza,’ was the reply.  ‘Don’t sell pizza?’ I slurred (well, actually, in my head, I was perfectly clear, but come on… let’s be honest here).   At this point I leaned out of the door and pointed to the poster, ‘But there’s a picture of one on the window.’  I thought I made a good argument.  Which I won.  But still, didn’t get any pizza.  Or a decent explanation.

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YOU DON’T HAVE PIZZA??? What kind of pizza shop is this?

As a poor substitute, I ordered a chicken kebab and chips.  Now I don’t know what your idea of a kebab is, but mine is greasy meat and salad and sauce wrapped up in a flat bread of some description.  Oh no.  In the pizza place that doesn’t sell pizza, it was some kind of unidentifiable greasy (at least that bit was right) meat strips plonked on top of chips, with a garlic/chilli sauce combo on the top.  You can imagine what it looked like.  If I’d been more sober, I would have complained.  (Who am I kidding?  If I’d been more sober, I wouldn’t have been in there in the first place). As it was, I took the lid off my food trying to examine said weirdness, only to drop half of it on the floor.  To be fair, they wouldn’t let me clean it up.  I don’t know why.  Possibly the fact that I would have made even more of a mess than I’d already made.  If that is possible.  Probably.

Anyway, somehow, we staggered back to our bleak little room in the bleak little hotel (even our drunken haze didn’t rosy up the place), with the duvet covers that looked like they’d come out of the room of a teenage boy from the middle of the nineteen eighties.    I only hope they’d been washed, because if they did belong to a boy from the middle of the nineteen eighties, I didn’t want to imagine what substances might be on them.  It didn’t seem to concern C.  She got into her pyjamas, and fell face down onto her pillow and didn’t move – I’m not even sure she was breathing – till morning.  I was still hungry because I’d lost half of my evening meal on the floor of Kebab House, so made my way through the Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs that had been left on our pillow, crunched the contents of a small box of Crunchy Nut cornflakes, and then ravaged the four coffee biscuits left by the kettle.  I also made a cup of tea that had a nice greasy film floating on the top.  I still drank it though.  Obviously, I would.  The whole night was based on drinking everything that was put in front of me.  Why would I end that now?

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I was very suspicious of what might be hidden in that busy blue and green pattern.

So did I learn anything from my author event?

Yes.

If you want to remember anything worthwhile for your writing blog, stay away from alcohol.

 

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Filed under author event, competition, Writing

When it Comes to Imagination, it’s Horses for Creative Writing Courses…

Last time, I talked about whether good writing could be developed with the help of a writing course.  This time, I’m focusing on one writing course in particular:

Help!  My writing’s in a rut!  How do I dig out?

Okay, so maybe you like writing and you want to improve?  Or maybe you want to write, but you’re not sure how to start? Maybe you don’t have access to a local writing group, or maybe you do, but it’s just not working for you?  Maybe you’ve been considering doing a writing course, but haven’t got around to it yet?  Maybe you’ve heard good and bad reports about them – there’s so many on the web it gives you a headache to choose?  Maybe you feel you haven’t got the time, or maybe you’ve heard they’re expensive, and you think they’re not a financially viable option for you?

Decisions!  DECISIONS!!  I don't want to be a grown up.

Decisions! DECISIONS!! I don’t want to be a grown up.

Whatever the reason, you can tie yourself in knots, so sometimes, it’s good to have someone else’s opinion.  Someone who’s done a course already, who’s soared the highs and survived the lows.  Yes, you’re right – that person’s ME!

When I was researching my options, it was around the time that university fees had gone through the roof, and I was an indecisive mess (something you’ll quite frequently witness if you know me well) until I stumbled across the York University online creative writing course.  (Yes, it’s a mouthful, but really, once you get over the hurdle of the tongue-twister, you won’t be disappointed).

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When you said I could tie a cherry stalk with my tongue, you didn’t say THIS would happen!

So, what’s it all about then?

So, practically speaking, the course is set into five modules, which are taken flexibly over three years:

  1. Core Module – an introductory overview of fiction, prose, scriptwriting and critical analysis;
  2. Critical Analysis – looks at what successful writers incorporate into their writing and what it achieves;
  3. Fiction;
  4. Poetry;
  5. Scriptwriting (including scripts for radio, film and stage).

The cost of each module, and the accompanying books, won’t break the bank (between 2011-2014, the cost was approximately £200 per 11 week module.)

How was it for you?

Overall, I absolutely loved it, though there were some peaks and troughs, and yes,  it improved my writing no end.   Not just my writing, but my confidence too.  From completing the first module, I’ve shared things I’ve written with anyone who’s interested (as well as anyone who’s not).  I’ve posted on writing platforms, entered competitions, submitted to magazines, became a staff reviewer for Readwave, and also, have been asked to contribute to short fiction website Storgy.

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Where’s the bridge? You said there’d be a BRIDGE!!!!

Yet, while it was money and time well spent, I have to admit that there were moments when it felt like an ordeal that was never going to end (though, fortunately, I’m not one for giving up).  Maybe all courses are like this?   As you reach the last few miles of your journey, the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away.

It made me think, whenever we do anything, there’s often a downside.  In fact, there’s very little that’s all good or bad, but it’s useful to know, before you commit, the advantages and disadvantages of this type of course:

Bloody brilliant!

Firstly, there are a lot of reasons to sign up for the York Uni online course:

  • The knowledge of an experienced tutor, who teaches at a degree level, but gives you the support that suits your ability.
  • Flexible learning.  An online course means you can do the course whenever you’ve got time rather than having to attend timetabled classes.
  • The certificate was far less expensive than a degree, though the course was still taught to an extremely high standard.
  • Suits writers of all abilities, from novices to the more experienced.
  • Invaluable feedback and support from tutor and peers.
  • Connections made with like-minded people that continue beyond the course.
  • The focus on fiction/poetry/scripts gives you a strong understanding of all types of writing, regardless of your main interest.  For example, the concrete imagery in poetry, and the scene-setting and dialogue in scripts, create a better understanding of writing good prose.
  • The end of module assessments give you a clear indication of your current writing standard, your strengths, and where you can improve.
  • Lots of inspiration for writing new material.
  • You don’t have to do every module.  If you want the certificate, you have to complete the whole course, but it is possible to do the fiction, poetry, scriptwriting courses individually if you so wish.
  • You can do the course from anywhere in the world, so you’re not limited by location or travel. (Though getting hold of resources, or watching the recommended programmes etc, could be more difficult).

 

And is there a shit end to the stick?

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Like everything, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  Here are some of the negatives – or rather, the aspects of the course that affected me negatively.

  • It’s time consuming.  You need at least fifteen hours a week for all the reading, writing, research and critiquing required for the course.  Tough if you’ve got other commitments.  I found it took me much longer.  But I’m a slow reader and a slow writer.
  • Some of the course members do not get as involved as others which can be frustrating. (If you’re anally retentive like me and expect everyone to put in an equal effort).
  • Sometimes the sheer amount of critiquing required can be tiresome – I found by my fifth module it became more of a chore (though my personal commitments changed too, which put more pressure on my time).
  • Completing the many course exercises means you have a lot less time for writing for pleasure.
  • With an online course, you miss the joy of knowing people individually; a personal relationship; putting a face to a name.

Enough whinging!  How was it overall?

Though there might seem to be a lot of negatives, there are definitely far more pros than cons.  I certainly don’t regret doing it, and if I was in the same position, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  The course was invaluable to writing improvement, and I felt fantastic when I finished it.  What an achievement!

Bleurgh!  I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Bleurgh! I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Also, I’ve developed continuing relationships with some of the course members – we continue to critique each other’s work and offer friendship and support.  They are my safety net when I don’t have anyone else to turn to. (Not many within my family and friendship circles are interested in writing, so it can be a lonely business, especially when you’re feeling insecure – and it’s likely you’re in the same boat too).

In the future, I’m intending to do a Master’s, but at the present time, I’m all coursed out.  For now, I’ll keep on writing, but I’ll write for me, take some risks, and send off more submissions to competitions and magazines.

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I better get my hat back. I’ve got a big head, and I look stupid if it doesn’t fit.

And remember – all writing’s good, whether you do a course or not.  Practise is practise, so keep at it.

You know you want to.

Obviously this is all my opinion.  There are lots of good courses out there, but as I’ve had no experience of them, I can’t tell you what they’re like.  If you’ve taken part in a writing course, please stop by and let me know your experiences, whether they were online or on campus.  I’d love to hear.   Or maybe you don’t think they’re necessary. I’d like to hear what you think about that too.  

 

 

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You’re a god of writing. Or are you?

Talented writers? Are they born or developed? Some people might say, if you have to go on a course to learn to write, you’re never going to be any good.

Questions are often raised as to whether writers needs to do a creative writing course in order to learn the basics of good writing. The view many people take is that, where creativity’s concerned, you’re either good or you’re not, and if you fit into the latter category, no course is going to give you a talent you weren’t born with.

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Yes, we all came out of the womb knowing how to do this. It was very painful for our mothers.

This is pretty unfair. Some might even go as far as to say it’s downright snobbery. Obviously, there are many writers who are naturally talented. They seem to know without thinking, what constitutes a good plot, what image will be most powerful, how to create natural dialogue that delivers most impact to the reader. Writers like these have a natural capacity to write from an early age, and they develop their skills through sheer hard work. As a result, they have little truck with writing courses. Who can blame them? They did it all themselves, so you should too. However, the way I see it is, these writers also have a natural confidence that drives them, and not all of us are that lucky.

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Do not interrupt. Genius at work. Any noise will cause his head to implode.

When I started to write, (after years of procrastination, and gazing at books I loved, thinking ‘I can never write like that’. I was right – I couldn’t, so instead I learned to write like myself) my prose-style was initially so full of holes, an elephant could have fallen through. My inclination was to over-explain everything, and I also found that my love-affair with language created an over-elaborate and flowery effect that was off-putting for the reader. This didn’t mean I was a bad writer – what I had in common with more accomplished writers was a love of books, a love of words, and a compulsion to write, that gave me a great starting point – but I clearly had a lot to learn.

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Popular writing mistakes.

Joining a writing course made me realise that there is a type of ‘science’ to good writing (a science, however, that does not have a ‘one rule fits all’ formula. Writers all have their own styles that these ‘scientific’ theories should not inhibit, but should instead, work alongside). Some people are aware of this ‘science’ instinctively, but many are like me – they need to learn how it works.. Once I learned what constituted good writing, I could apply this knowledge, and my writing improved significantly (though even now, beyond the course, I’m still learning and improving, and happy to do so.)

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Weirdly, staring at all these scientific numbers and symbols isn’t helping to get my novel moving along.

But of course, be warned. Doing a course by itself will not make you a good writer. You’re not going to improve if you’re not ready to change. You have to be prepared to take on the advice of others, you have to be ready to work hard, and you have to be open to adapting your writing. There’s a phrase that purports writers as the ‘god(s) of (their) own work’. This basically means that, whatever anyone else says, you are CREATOR, and so any final decision-making regarding your story is up to you. What it doesn’t mean is: ignore what everyone says, and don’t change a thing.

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Don’t you DARE tell me what to do with my story!

Being a GOD OF WRITING means a writer should take any constructive criticism and use it wisely. The critiquer isn’t always right, but then neither are you. You should think about what you were initially trying to achieve in your writing and how the constructive criticism fits within that framework, then change your writing based around your own view and theirs. Sometimes your initial idea is not going to work, and you might just have to give up on it. Your story might turn into something else entirely (this happens to me on a regular basis). It doesn’t matter – creativity has no boundaries. So what if your story isn’t how you intended, as long as it works in the end? Remember, your reader’s enjoyment is far more important than your initial idea or your ego.

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THIS ISN’T HOW MY STORY WAS MEANT TO GO!!!!!! *head explodes*

Okay, back to some sanity.  In the next blog post, I will be looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the creative writing course, and the one I enrolled on in particular.

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Filed under Creative writing, Writing, writing courses

Writing Reality: Using Synaesthetic Imagery

Great article about using the concept of synaesthesia in writing. It’s something I’d never considered, but now I’ve been introduced to it, I wonder how it managed to pass me by as a writer. It’s a very effective way of getting across complex images. Fantastic.

celenagaia

There’s nothing I love more than to watch for the signs in life. Subtext, subtweet, crossed-wires, imagery, symbolism. In particular, the metaphor can create a beautiful path of words, drawing comparison between one image and another, so that the audience might walk to find themselves at a new truth, a fresh abstract landscape, rather than the tired old concrete definition of some reality.

Synaesthesia – “the transfer of information from one sensory modality to another”, or mingling of the senses – is often used to enhance imagery in writing. We find examples of this every day – “a bitter wind,” “a blue sound”, “a black funk.” As sense-imagery can be a vital part of drawing the audience into a scene, allowing them to experience what the narrative POV does (directly or by proxy), it stands to reason that the use of synaesthesia – the mingling of senses, or connecting…

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I’m Not Hungry Thanks

What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed?  Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Or do you lie?

As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion.  If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task.  You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect.  The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced.  Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving.  I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices).  They call out:

You can’t tell them the truth.  

You’ll hurt their feelings.  

And then they’ll be upset.  

And you know who’ll be to blame!

YOU! 

When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say).  The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).

It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:

  1. throw up;
  2. hide under a blanket;
  3. run away

I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction.  I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)

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She wished she’d got some net curtains. She was sick of every Tom, Dick and Harry looking in when they walked past.

or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).

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She knew she shouldn’t have left that open invite on Facebook.

Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear.  My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me.  I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.

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This circus trick course wasn’t all it was made out to be.

It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them.  The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:

  • Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
  • Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
  • Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing.  I could go on).
  • It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
  • Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer.  You can always leave a few out.  The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it.  It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.

Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again.  Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.

So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.

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Tell me what the pros of writing are again?

Those two positives I mentioned earlier?  Those are the bread.  And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling.  You’ve got that, right?  The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow.  You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)

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Mmmm, Warburtons. My favourite. What did you say that brown stuff was? Marmite?

before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth.  (Do you need some water?)

It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh.  Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful.  What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.

So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)…  Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.

And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.

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Not that I’ll be eating that bread after I know what’s been on it.

 

 

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Sally-Anne Wilkinson’s New Short Story – The Birdhouse

My latest story on the Storgy website, with the stunning photography of Tomek Dzido as inspiration.

THE BIRDHOUSE

by

Sally-Anne Wilkinson

Stepping from the bus onto the estate, I smell bacon frying.  It’s years since I left, but nothing’s changed: the houses, clean and neat, overlook characterless gardens, and the street itself is airless; stagnant with marriage, kids, invisibility.   The bus drives away, and I’m abandoned with my rucksack, heavy on my back.

I look at the house.  Karen’s car is parked in the shared driveway.  She offered to pick me up from the station, but I said no.

‘Suit yourself.’

I see a bike, flung carelessly, to the right of Karen’s car, and I laugh, a small, indiscernible sound.

‘Seems to me, Charlie, you think the world owes you a favour.’

‘What -?’

‘Your bike. On the drive.’

‘Dad – I wasn’t…’

‘Money Charlie.  Hard-earned cash.  Bike’s aren’t free, you know?’

‘I -‘

‘You can’t look after anything – ’

‘Dad – I…

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Sally-Anne Wilkinsons’ New Short Story – Bring Me My Shotgun

Here’s my latest story on the Storgy website. The readers chosen title this time was Bring Me My Shotgun.

BRING ME MY SHOTGUN

alleyway

This was the best Christmas present Kevin ever received.

Even better than the Superman costume when he was ten.  Though that outfit didn’t survive long.  Not once Shaun Peterson got his hands on it.

Avoiding Shaun at school was a skill; one Kevin thought he’d perfected, until that Friday.  It was dress-as-you-like day – though Kevin was the only one to turn up in fancy dress.  All the others kids simply wore their favourite clothes, having long outgrown the concept of imaginary play.  At least in public.

Intrigued by an eruption of noise, a passerby stumbled upon a chanting mob of children in a back street.

‘Hey,’ he yelled.

Spotting an adult in their midst, they scattered – leaving behind a tiny figure, spread-eagled on tarmac in skin-tight red and blue.

‘Oh my God, Kevin,’ said his mother, when he hobbled into the house.

She surveyed…

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Interview: Interactive Short Stories and Tomek Dzido’s new STORGY

Amber Koski interviews Tomek Dzido about his creation Storgy, short stories and films.

Words, Pauses, Noises

STORGY, at its core, is about engaging readers and writers in one thing: creation. But what founder Tomek Dzido has done to widen audience involvement is pioneering. STORGY – “Where Short Stories Surface” delivers on its motto. Readers vote on title choices, the contributors have a week to compile a story and the readers, again, select their favourite story to be transformed into a short film. 

Words, Pauses, Noises welcomes fellow MA Tomek Dzido to chat with Amber Koski about STORGY – an innovative, interactive, bridge building storytelling machine that will (and has) changed how stories are told and how readers influence and engage with them. 

STORGY Interview with Tomek Dzido

By Amber Koski

How did the idea for STORGY come about? 

I wanted to create a literary magazine which focused specifically on the short story and enabled writers to share their work with readers who equally adore the…

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Sally-Anne Wilkinson’s New Short Story – Send Her Away

Here’s my most recent short story, Send Her Away, on the Storgy website. It’s a five minute read, and I’d love to hear any feedback.

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Beech-woods-Surrey_g

Send Her Away

You stand hidden in a doorway, your breath rising, a phantom on the frosty air.  You watch another, similar doorway, dimly lit by streetlamps further down the road.  On its step rests a holdall, the zipper slightly open.

It’s the zipper that draws your attention.   It reminds you of the sighs and murmurs of trees.  Above, colour creeps back into the soup of the sky – first a muddy sludge poisons the purity of the black, and gradually, an angry shade of red bleeds onto the horizon.  You are reminded of the red handprint on your leg.  You were less than the height of the kitchen table then, but the sting lives on.  There were many more handprints – bright, livid – but they never hurt as badly as the first.  You shake the memory away.

Your attention is drawn back to the gap in the…

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Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Four

So, in parts 1-3 of ‘Confessions’, I’ve covered the pitfalls of writing a first novel, how to avoid falling foul of ‘writer’s confusion’ (that’s my own phrase, thank you very much), and how to stick to the target of completing your novel.

Today’s blogpost is brought to you with the collaboration of fellow writer Tom Benson, and the number 4 (that’s Part 4 to you).

With a little help from your friends

Recently, I approached Tom Benson, self-published author of Ten Days in Panama and Beyond the Law to ask if he had any useful tips for helping with the novel-writing process.   He said that, for him, making use of certain tools and ideas makes the whole concept of writing much simpler.  He passed on this list, which he produced during the writing of his novels, which I thought you might find it useful too:

*Make a simple timeline, whether it is set as days, months, years or whatever suits you best. A timeline combined with a synopsis is a real asset from beginning to end.

*Cast of Characters may sound obvious, but keep it handy:

    It will help avoid the duplication of names or similar sounding names.

    It will also help to remind if a character appears once for no good reason – get rid.

*Zodiac signs book. If you haven’t got one, it’s a useful tool for ideas on characteristics, personal likes, dislikes – and even star signs.

zodiac

*Baby names book. A good one will give a range of nationalities.

*The Yellow Pages is good for both names and trades/professions.

yellow-pages

*Body Language book. Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, fingers crossed.

body-language

*An atlas.

*Fashion Catalogue. In case you’re no good at putting together an outfit.  (Though remember, don’t describe too much of what your characters are wearing.  Your reader doesn’t care.)

*Be aware of the ‘chewing gum on the mantlepiece’. This is where the writer makes a mention of something, (like the aforementioned chewing gum), but it serves no purpose in the story, and is only mentioned in one scene. It could be a person, a vehicle, animal, anything. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – leave it out.

chewed gum

Big chewing gum on big mantlepiece (outside)

*Page Numbers from the outset. They work in your favour in two ways:

    As a navigational aid when editing on screen.

    As a navigational aid when you’ve printed off several pages or a manuscript for editing.

*Obtain a perpetual diary. You can use it to define any date with the correct weekday.

*www.historyorb.com is a great site for checking out information.

*Consider writing the beginning and end, then work on the rest. It may work for you.

*Know every detail of your main characters as if they were real. You won’t be telling everything, but you must know everything.

*If you intend to use a location in the past, double-check its situation/condition at the time.  I had to alter a date, because a meeting place I used was closed for refurbishment when the two characters would have met there.

If you want to check out more about Tom, his e-books are available on Amazon, or you can view his website at www.tom-benson.co.uk and his blog at tombensoncreative.wordpress.com.

From my perspective, I particularly like the idea of the zodiac signs book, the body language book, and the baby names book.  I spend too much time fretting about names, and gestures, and characteristics when I’m writing.   These are great tools which will surely help.  I’d also say that when you’re flicking through the books, they’ll also generate ideas for future characters.

So, stop distracting me.  I’ve got a novel to finish

My own novel is approximately half-way there, though I’ve got lots of concerns about how I’m going to tie up all the individual strands and subplots together.  It’s in my head – can I get it onto paper?  Will it all fit neatly together? I’m putting all that to one side for now, though.  The writing’s the focus.  Improvement later.

In the meantime, I hope that both mine, and Tom’s, experiences and advice will help you with your own novel writing.

I’ll let you know how I get on with the second half of my novel, which will (hopefully) be finished in December.

Watch this space.

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