When did you last go on a people-watching date?

Do you ever go to a cafe, or sit at the station waiting for your train/bus, and just watch everyone else? This is generally considered ‘people-watching‘ and I love it. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of other people that fires up my imagination. Observed idiosyncrasies that might be ingrained habits or a nervous tic, and overheard snippets of conversation give rise to potential scandals and plots.

The great thing is that anyone can do it, anywhere they are. It can be something planned – just find a spot in a cafe somewhere – or it can be a spontaneous decision to simply fill time whilst waiting in a queue at the supermarket, for example. Alternatively, if you’re a homebody, like me, it can be fun to switch on the T.V. turn the volume off and find an unfamiliar show or film; watch the characters, see what you can find out just through noting how they move and their facial expressions when they speak.

Sometimes, when indulging in a bit of people-watching, I can feel like a spy on a covert mission, trying to identify the villain! It’s addictive once I start, and occasionally I can get fixed on a single person and their behaviour and determine their entire life story. When I make the effort to sit down and observe people I notice things I would have missed before; the way a woman bites her lip whilst on her phone, or the tapping of a man’s fingers on his train ticket and the bounce of his knee.

I’ve never been caught people-watching, but I tend to have a number of tactics to ensure this doesn’t occur. I pretend to read a book or a newspaper, surreptitiously peering over the text at people as they come and go. This also works with a laptop – meaning you can keep notes straight into a document. If you’re a veteran, and use this method, you’ll likely use a wing-dings font so that no-one else can look over your shoulder to catch you ‘spying’!

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Mobile ‘phones are also excellent camouflage when people-watching. We’re a society of bowed heads now, with so few people bothering to look up over their screens. Tapping out notes on a phone app can work like a charm; you’ll appear so engrossed in your texting that you’ll fit right in!

As to why I’d recommend people-watching, well, other than being a fascinating anthropological exercise it’s great for building a foundation of observations that can be used for character work. Noting the look of certain people – a long, ski-jump nose on one, while another has eyes set deep in his face – and then combining these to describe an individual character can work really well. Then there is the scrutiny beyond the behavioural features : jut why is that man tapping his ticket and bouncing his knee – is he late? Has he had too many cups of coffee? Is it the first symptom of a disease like Parkinson’s? Delving into the why of the particulars of people’s habits can be a fab way to develop a character.

Then, there can be further character work surrounding how they may feel about the features and habits they’ve been assigned. Has our hero decided to swear off alcohol and the jitters are the first sign of withdrawal? Does he believe he can stay sober, or will he slip into the first pub he sees? What’s his motivation for getting sober – will he be a father soon and he wants to be a good role model for his son? Or does he need to stay sober for his job, as he’s on his last warning?

Once you’ve started asking these questions a story is likely to emerge somewhere, somehow. Usually I’ll get embroiled in these during my people-watching session, and the moment I’m more interested in my story than I am in the crowd around me I know I’ve got the start of something I need to focus on.

Have you got any tips for people-watching? When was the last time you spent time really examining the people around you?

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Tackling the Competition

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Writing competitions. If you write and want to get your work published this is one of the first routes into authorship. There are some writers who excel at applying their material to the various competition topics out there, others still who tend to focus on particular genres or types, and then there’s me. I’m great at identifying opportunities that different competitions offer, in fact, I have a list of the ones I’d like to enter for the next six months sat above my desk as I type this. Yet, despite my superb organisation skill I still struggle to ever write something that I can submit.

But, not anymore. I’m determined to write at least something for as many of them as I can. My target is 50%, and considering there are an impressive twenty-eight competitions listed and I haven’t yet got a solid entry for any, I’d better get started! Here are a few of the techniques I’m going to use to help prompt my efforts:

Take it from the top
          If ever I’m struggling with a competition theme I know all I really need is a first line to help start me off. Problem is, I usually don’t have one. So I’ve got a nifty way to negotiate a way around this issue: I borrow someone else’s line.  Photo by Thijs van der Weide on Pexels.com
It’s simple enough – just go to a book on a shelf and pick any line from any page. Usually I’ve determined a page number and line number already, so I don’t end up in the land of procrastination by searching for the perfect line for a story I have no idea for. But, if you’re so indecisive and can’t even decide on a page or line number, choose the date – page 11, line 6 for example; or the year – page 20, line 18. So long as you pick a different book every time, you’ll have a unique first line.
After that it’s just a case of matching it to the competition theme. With a first line and a genre, I usually find the story is already there waiting and it’s just a case of teasing it out. Often my mind automatically link these things together and, suddenly, a narrative appears.
Tip: Don’t keep it as the first line, it’s just a prompt. Make sure to edit it out if you submit; you’ll likely find the resulting story needs a new opener anyway.

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Read all about it
          One thing I like to do is to find a news story that fascinates me and think of a character who might have been influenced by it. What was their part in it? How did it impact their lives? What if they’d reacted differently – would it result in a different news story?
The great thing about this is being able to delve into a character that already has a story written. I know what happened, now I just have to figure out what this character’s part was in it and how they felt about it. This leads to a really strong character piece that often has a believable quality in the story because it’s taken directly from life.
Sometimes I try to limit myself to stories that link with the competition theme: so if it’s travel story I look in the travel section of the newspaper, or a story about weather I search for storm related news. But, you don’t have to do it this way: sometimes the most interesting stories comes from the unexpected places.

Start with a secret
Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.comI love a story with a secret. Even better if it’s one I never saw coming. So if I have a particular competition theme that’s troubling me I brainstorm what secrets I can associate with it. Summer Garden? What if it’s a hidden garden, only certain people can access or see? Or is it a location for some illicit liaisons? Even more worrying, what if someone is planting poisonous plants in this garden to commit a murder?
All of a sudden there are lots of stories to tell, and plenty of ways to tell them – do you tell it from the point of view of the gardener, or the lover, the murderer or the victim? What if you could tell it from the perspective of one of plants?

Just jump in
          Finally, if I think that I’ve got enough time I just put my butt in the chair and write. Usually it’s only loosely related to the competition theme, and typically if it is related it’s probably something that a hundred other writers have already tackled. But, if I keep writing and follow the thread that each word and sentence produce I’ll eventually come up with something that makes me raise an eyebrow and think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.
Once I’ve got that tiny germ of an idea I run with it and see how far I can get. It takes up the most time, but it’s produced some of my favourite pieces of writing and ones that I’ve been praised on by some of the readers. Sometimes, though, I can forget how fruitful this method is. I just need to trust my own imagination and let myself explore the possibilities before I settle on a story idea I can be really proud of.

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Do you have some techniques or methods for tackling competition themes? Share below in the comments, or tweet me

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From one story to another

It appears that my blogging challenge has fulfilled its purpose: I am writing again.

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Yesterday I sat down and drafted a short story I have had on my ‘explore this‘ list for some time. It is a sequel to a story I wrote in 2015 called ‘The Memorial Tree’, which came 2nd place in a Culture Shots competition for employees of The University of Manchester. The Memorial Tree will be included in the short story Ebook I’m currently planning, it’s less than a thousand words long and if you’d like to check it out before my publication you can do so here.

However, there is a line in this story that I knew led to a sequel as soon as I’d written it:

“Perhaps one day soon there shall be another tree growing next to this, but it shall not be I who plants it.”

As I was going over the text for the Ebook I was reminded of my intent to write the story this line has to tell, and finally I have. It may only be a first draft right now, but as I wrote it I could feel the passion for it rise in me. Amazingly I even shed a tear or two as I wrote it; because I feel for these characters – as brief as their stories may be – and I am responsible for crafting a lifetime of emotion for them.

This is what I wanted. I needed to rediscover my mojo, my muse, my passion. Drafting the sequel to The Memorial Tree has demonstrated that it’s still there and I am able to access it. The commitment to write a blog post every day was just practice to get back into the habit. Sometimes that’s all we need to pick up where we left off. This is what I’ve wanted to do all my life – writing is who I am at the core and I’ve neglected this part of myself for too long. Time to get my butt in the chair and just write, because I can now recognise my love of writing and what it brings me. Writing energises and enriches me, and somewhere along the line I forgot this. Not anymore. Now is the time to be dedicated and persevere in order to achieve that dream of being a published novelist. Watch this space!

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Blog a Day in May

So, I did it. Every day this month I have shared a little something with the world through this blog, writing each day and committing to a challenge that I wasn’t sure I’d accomplish. Yet, here we are. I persevered even through the failure of my laptop hard drive, using my ‘phone as a substitute, and I learned a number of things throughout the month:

It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.
On days where I opened up the screen for a new post and I had no idea what to write, I turned to places like Pinterest for inspiration. I often took the first thing I saw and ran with it, but this scenario didn’t occur as regularly as I assumed it would from the beginning. In the end, I simply wrote about life that was right in front of me as it happened. And I think it helped me make sense of the world I’m living in, allowing me to voice a few of the thoughts that usually race around in my mind never to be released.

I surprised myself.
Many days I wrote more than I intended. What started as a quick visit to make that day’s mark on the blog usually developed into a solid diversion from whatever I had planned immediately afterwards. Cups of tea went cold. The dog got restless. My fiance had to be patient, unable to press play on the series we were watching because I ‘just have to finish this’. The words sucked me in and while I’d only have thought to write a sentence or two, my over-writing self kicked in and it became a post fat with text.

I enjoyed it.
It sounds odd to state it so blatantly; as why would I start the challenge if I didn’t think I’d enjoy it? Well, I committed to it because I wanted a way back into the blog. I wanted to be writing something everyday and I was struggling with fiction. I wanted, in essence, to have written. It wasn’t about enjoyment or attracting an audience: it was a challenge to see if I could write everyday – and I can. Not only that but I’ve proved to myself that I like it. The passion for it is still there, lurking in the shadows waiting for me to put in some legwork to coerce it back into the light. Writing isn’t the chore I had labelled it.

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My current blogging corner

I reconnected.
I haven’t blogged for so long I assumed I would have fallen out of favour and off the radar. But no, I recognised many of the user handles that have been liking my posts, and even reconnected with one or two via Twitter. I’d forgotten the camaraderie that exists online, but I’m grateful for it. So, thanks goes to you – the audience who have travelled this month with me through these posts. In many ways the simple act of knowing there are people out there reading is reassuring; this is something that my current fiction is not rewarded with.

I want to keep blogging…
After all this, the challenge has encouraged me: I want to keep on blogging. Probably not everyday – but regularly; once a week perhaps. It’s time to rejoin the #MondayBlogs tribe again methinks. And I’m smiling just thinking about it, even though I have no clue what the next blog post will be about.

How to handle the bad stuff…

This struck a chord with me today. There is something about realising the part we play in our own self-destructive emotions and our responsibility, not just for how we act, but also how we respond to the world around us.

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When we get angry, or sulk, or even resent other people for what they have and we don’t, then this is a choice we ourselves make. It took me a long time to learn this. Negative emotions such as these may serve an immediate purpose (to identify emotional needs that might be present/lacking) but they need rarely be a sustained response.

It’s easy to get bogged down in frustration and hold onto feelings instead of releasing them. This is perhaps where blame comes in. Often we latch onto external reasoning for why we continue to experience festering emotions. But, if we allow blame to melt away and understand the role it plays in keeping us in a continuous state of bitterness we can realise that, sometimes, our reactions are within our own control. This can be particularly powerful when you’ve spent your life as a slave to such negativity.

Being a Planner

I am an excellent planner. I can plan almost anything and I adore it. The issues arise when I have to stop planning and actually start doing. In which case, I’m pretty good at small persistent action…unless I have to stop to re-plan, which happens a lot. Because, well, let’s face it, it’s always easier to plan to do something rather than actually do it.

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This is the current case with my writing. I’m still “planning” to release an Ebook of short stories by the end of the month, although I have no clue how to put together an Ebook or how long this process takes. That’s because I’m still only planning it. I have, I am pleased to say, identified the stories I’d like to include and am in the final stages of tidying them up to send to a friend to check over. After that, well, I’ll need to put some more thought into that because I really have no idea what happens next.

I know I’ll need a cover; my lovely partner has agreed to help with that given his skill in Photoshop etc. He’s already got a pretty good idea once I showed him an image of what I thought might work and the themes that run through the stories.

I am aware that the text will need formatting in the right way. I’m not sure what that is either, yet. And I need to do some research on what platform I might use to create and distribute the Ebook.

I’m beginning to think it might not be achievable in a month…unless, of course, I plan it well. And planning is within my skillset, as I said. However, once I’ve planned it, then comes the hard part: doing it. So I know I need to plan out small, consistent steps to help me accomplish my goal, and that if I do genuinely want to get this Ebook out by the end of June then I need to do that which I plan. I have to commit. I have to stay motivated. I have to remember why it is that I started all this in the first place.

Planning is all well and good, but it’s only acting on that plan that will ever see your dreams come true.

Did you know…?

…Today is apparently National Hamburger Day?!

I was just scrolling through my Pinterest feed, in a moment of procrasta-boredom (I think most of my life is spent being bored while I try and avoid actual tasks), and this blog caught my eye. It’s a whole list of National Days for the year!

I can’t believe I missed some of these! I mean, who wants to miss National Wine Day on the 25th May? Or National Fudge Day on 6th June? And apparently Donald Duck even gets his own day!? Granted, these are American, but I could adopt these I think.

There is this site for UK Days, which reliably informs me that World Hunger Day and the start of National BBQ week fall on the same day – today, in fact; which seems a bit odd to me. Not quite as odd as “Put your pillow on your fridge” Day, which seems to be happening tomorrow…

I feel like there should be some potential in someone writing a book, or having a TV show, where someone celebrates all of the strange National Days for a whole year and what affect it would have on their life. It would be comparable to the Yes Man franchise, or such like. Anyone willing to give it a go…?

When to stop reading?

I’m an avid reader, but when do you stop reading a book? How do you decide that it’s just not the story, or characters, or writing for you and close it up and never pick it back up again?

I can admit that, sometimes, when I expect to struggle I carry on reading regardless. I had to accept that this would be the case with Middlemarch, which I recently finished reading. The language and sentence structure and general style of writing was so different in the nineteenth century. But once I got past the first hundred pages, I was hooked.

I ended up adoring this book, unwieldy and complex as it was!

I’ve tried some Ebooks too – by new authors – in an attempt to support my fellow emerging writers. But if there are spelling errors, or the point of view alters half way through a paragraph, or they contradict themselves within a few pages, then I have to give up. Irritability takes hold and I can no longer connect with a story, no matter how good it might have been.

However, I’m now reading a novel by an established author. There isn’t anything wrong with it as such, I just can’t quite get on with it. The characters are flat somehow, as though they have no depth because they are keeping things too close to their chests. Some of them are unlikable, such as the husband who refused his wife a chance at a career but took one for himself based on the conditions he told her were unaccepptable, not to mention that he blatantly cheats on her.

I was confused from the prologue, as from 2014 it jumped back to 1975 and currently I’ve just started a chapter from 1940. I’m less than fifty pages in. I don’t think it would be so bad if it was from a single character’s point of view, but there have been at least four: one of which, in the prologue, doesn’t even seem connected to the story!

I’m on the brink of removing my bookmark and moving onto another novel. But then I consider that this is a top bestselling author and there must be a good story here… somewhere. Yet, should I read it even if I don’t care about the characters whose story it is?

Part of the process…

I had an idea today. One that has been used before, that I probably won’t write as a story or even attempt to draft. But, I had one.

It’s been a while and when I got over the initial shock of realising that my brain was turning over a plot, considering characters and thinking about a sting in the tail type twist, well, I was pleased. The thought of sitting down at my desk and writing doesn’t make me cringe as it has for a few months. I haven’t been able to visualise the image of me writing, not with any passion or verve. Now it’s beginning to emerge again. I smile when I imagine a story starting to form as I type the words. I sigh contentedly with the thought I could make characters manifest on a page, with pasts and passions as complex as real people.

So it may not be me actually writing as yet, but it feels closer than I’ve been in a while. It’s comforting to know I might be back on track, and reassuring that this may all just be part of a process.

Dreaming with Disabilities

I’ve always been open about my condition in an effort to make the people in my life better understand why I can’t do certain things, or how it will impact me if I do. But I know many more who prefer not to talk about it, or keep it hidden because they feel weak, or ashamed that they have an invisible illness; one that gives the impression that all is fine but that will rob you of any dignity once you have struggled through an event.

I don’t know why I feel the need to share how ME/Fibro changes the way I live my life. Probably because it’s easier to let work colleagues know that my memory is so shocking that if they don’t see me write something down it isn’t going to happen (no guarantee there either I’m afraid!). I don’t want to have to explain each sickness absence when I’m too exhausted to clamber our of bed, or why I need to block out office conversation with my earphones. It’s simpler to have it out in the open and allow people to accept that although I look ok, I’m really not.

Someone recently said to me that, by writing, I could inspire others with similar struggles to live their dreams too; that it’s always easier to push yourself to accomplish a goal when you know it can be done, and I could help demonstrate that it can be done. Regardless of if I could inspire, I have to do it for myself. I want to be a writer and be published and live the life I dreamt up when I was twelve years old. That life didn’t include two devastating disabilities, but whose dream would? But that doesn’t mean it’s not still in reach.