The Fear of No Voice

I’ve heard a lot of publishers and agents talk about this mysterious thing called a ‘writer’s voice’ – even a fair few writers have mentioned it. On a basic level it’s the unique magic that appears in a writer’s narrative – something that identifies those words, strung together in such a way with a certain tempo and beat that means you can say who’s written in within a page or two (sometimes even just a sentence or two!). 

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Often, I am convinced that I don’t have this ‘magical quality’ in my writing. As a writer can you even tell if you have a ‘voice’? Or is it something that other people have to point out for you? If I can’t even identify what it is about my writing that tethers it to me, does that mean I haven’t yet developed a ‘voice’? Can you be a good writer without a ‘voice’?

All these questions and more rattle around my head, forcing out many of the ideas and, sapping my drive, leaving me hollow with the fear of having nothing to offer. I’m sure every writer has felt this way before; early on in their writing journey; in those moments where we doubt our skills; later, when we convince ourselves we can’t write as well as we once did. Fortunately, I’m aware now that such a feeling shall pass; that I will sit down to write one day,  and the doubts will be swept away with a shrug, and I’ll get on with writing regardless.

But we do need to share this fear of having no voice with others. The terror that I lack any distinguishing talent markers in my writing is something I can’t ignore, hoping it will go away. I need to believe that other writers go through this too. Because, after all, if anything could make me feel better – that could jolt me out of this particular valley of doom – it would be to discover that another writer empathises when I own up to my fear that I have no voice. 

‘Voice’ seems like an element in the writing world that you can’t actively search for – an ephemeral being that can’t be seen by looking directly at it. If you do catch a glimpse, perhaps it is then that it turns into fear – because if you’ve found it, you’re always going to be afraid of losing it again. 


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This new collection of short stories features one of my stories – Behind Closed Doors – alongside seven other pieces from brilliant writers whom I met during a Comma Press Writing Course.

It’s a bargain at 99p on Amazon. I promise you won’t regret investing in the stories here; you’re bound to to find something you like.


 

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Head-hopping: What’s your view?

As a new writer the most repeated piece of specific advice I heard was linked to be consistent with your narrative’s point of view. In other words: don’t head-hop. Of course, they also tell you not to break the rules unless you know them.

Over the weekend I was reminded of a book I read a couple of years ago by Patrick Redmond – called ‘All She Ever Wanted‘. At the time, I really liked his writing style. It wasn’t too formal and he made it very easy to get under the skin of the main protagonist – Christina. He’d written it in sections so that, as a reader, you got a clear understanding of her childhood and how the events during it contributed to her adult-self. It was easy to relate to his characters with some degree of empathy because of the way he writes, even though many of his characters aren’t really all that admirable. They’re human – which I suppose is what makes them good characters.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

However, I remember that one of his writing techniques very off-putting. Strangely, had I not been a writer myself I probably wouldn’t have noticed this and would have just taken it as given. But, he switched viewpoints a lot – not consistently, not regularly, but at odd, random intervals. On top of this, toward the end there were recorded interview notes between characters that had never been introduced before and that seemed to just hang in the air, providing vital clues as to the climax, yet somehow taking away from it.

The main story was told in third person, from the view of Christina. But throughout the book there were occasional paragraphs or whole pages told from the viewpoint of others in the novel – Aunty Karen, Christina’s mum, various boyfriends, even the swimming instructor. This provided an, additional, objective impression of Christina so that the reader could comprehend how others saw her and how this developed throughout the novel, but recalling the advice I was given as a fledgling writer, it did frustrate me.

A couple of years on from this experience I’m beginning to see a lot more focus on the unreliable narrator and how head-hopping has begun to seep into established writers’ books. I’ve learnt that, done well, it can create a false sense of certain characters to develop suspense, or encourage readers to challenge assumptions about certain details and lead them to a satisfying climax. I used to be scared of trying this method, because I’d been warned off it by so many well-wishing authors. Yet, now, I’m intrigued enough to start playing around with it, wondering if I can conjure up an acceptable narrative written from more than one character’s point of view.


Want some quick reads?
Try my short story collection, out now!

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Memorial-Tree-other-short-stories-ebook/dp/B07F1T7H98


 

Watching you; Watching me

As writers we often make observations of other people to help inform our craft. I like to people-watch whenever I get the opportunity – standing in a queue, waiting for a train (which is happening more and more frequently of late), or even sat at my window peering over my neighbourhood. These snippets of time allow me a great deal of insight into how people behave. The way they stand, if they fidget, and their quickening facial expressions. I don’t know if it’s the writer in me, but I can’t help putting thoughts in their minds when I observe people like this; I have no idea what their true situation may be, yet I can easily make one up.

Still, despite this habit of mine, I very rarely consider what others may observe of me if they were to turn their gaze my way. Would they see a woman in a rush, because of my long, confident strides; or a day-dreamer, lost in the thoughts beyond the furrowed brow? Even now, as I type, I wish I could see what someone else would see if they were looking this way: my pursed lips, slightly narrowed eyes and square-set shoulders, the distant sound of tapping keys as I write the new bestseller*…A pause, then a slight smile, perhaps a bittersweet sigh. Would my observer perhaps consider me a romantic, sat here at my desk writing romance novels*?

We so often look out at the world that we forget it is looking right back at us. Certainly as a writer, using my skills to scrutinise others, I have rarely considered how another author might describe me during their own people-watching time. I’d like to think they’d make me into a strong character, someone who has struggled but fought to get out of the other side; not a weak woman, whose indecisiveness has led her to live a life she isn’t quite sure she really wants.

Perhaps these are the characters we really write – the ones we do and do not want to be. The observations we make of others allow us to hide them beneath facades and behaviours uncommon to ourselves, yet ultimately the inner workings are surely all our own. They are, after all, imaginations from our own mind. Imagine writing a novel where you made all those decisions you never really considered before – the ones you were too afraid or ashamed to make – what kind of novel would that be? What kind of character might you turn out to be in the end?

So the next time I’m out and I have a momentary interlude in my day, rather than watch the people around me, perhaps I’ll reflect on what it is I am currently portraying to the world; am I the me that I want to be? Or could someone write me differently?

(*fiction comes so naturally, I can barely see a world where my writing is considered ‘romance’)

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How do you want a reader to feel?

Whenever I open a book to read for the first time I have a great sense of anticipation. Will this be my new favourite read? Will I be able to close it half way through, or will it keep me gripped until the end? Very rarely do I ever consider, ‘how will this book make me feel?’, and yet by the time I close the covers this is thing that stays with me – the feeling, the emotions that I’ve just experienced, the journey that the author has taken me on.

So, how do they do it? Speaking from my own experience of writing, it wasn’t until I understood what my values were as a writer that I began to even consider this question. Usually I just wrote my stories as they poured from my head onto the paper/screen. At that time the words were mostly for me, I hadn’t even considered a reader. But, as I began to share my work, and saw the response it would get from family, friends and those in my writing groups, I realised that as a writer my aim was to get people to stop and reflect.

I am, by nature, a fairly reflective individual myself. I like to analyse the ‘why’ of things, but while I enjoy doing this I don’t really want it to appear in my writing. Early on, it was identified by my critique partners that I tended to repeat myself in my writing. I didn’t trust the reader to determine what I was trying to communicate; mainly because I wasn’t truly clear on what it was I wanted to say.

It was then that I started to pay attention to what other authors were saying, not through the words themselves but through the emotions their writing provoked in me. Crime, in which I felt concern for the characters, or confusion at the murderers; Romance, even when I knew characters would end up together I would despair at the idiocy two people could demonstrate; Psychological Thrillers,  where I wouldn’t be able to stop reading because I needed to know what happened next – all of them, inciting curiosity but not all the same type.  It was then that I realised the reason we read isn’t because we want new stories but because we are seeking out new experiences.

Once I realised this, I started looking at my own stories and discovered that while I had themes of death, memory, loss, and regret the emotions that I was attempting to evoke were nostalgia, sentiment and reflection. I want my readers to take a moment of pause, to release a breath and recognise that invaluable space between the life of the character and their own. Sometimes I want them to feel surprise – because who doesn’t enjoy a little twist in the tale? – but still, I typically try and include an undercurrent of tranquillity in the majority of my writing.

Of course, now I understand what it is I want readers to feel I can play with it a little. I can manipulate my writing more fluently to explore how I might be able to shift my readers’ emotions. If nothing else, my own comprehension of how I want a reader to feel has expanded my writing repertoire and that’s only a good thing.



Interested in being one of my readers?
You can find my collection of short stories on Amazon.

Copy of The Memorial Tree Banner

Challenges of a disability (or two)

It’s no secret that I live with two debilitating conditions, both of which are currently without a cure and have very little medical understanding for cause. M.E. and Fibromyalgia are difficult to manage because they are so fluctuating. I consider myself lucky enough to be able to work part-time and still enjoy many activities that others with the same diseases cannot. Yet, there are still limitations I have to consider; some of which impact both my motivation and ability to write.

What are they?
M.E is also known as ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, although fatigue is not the only symptom it is usually the most persistent. If you’re healthy, the best way to empathise is to recall a particularly busy couple of days – when you’ve barely had chance to sit, eat or think properly; you go home, exhausted, and then to bed. The next day you wake up feeling refreshed and go about your day as usual. But, imagine waking up as exhausted as you went to bed. Not, just the next day, but the one after that and again after that. That’s pretty much how M.E can feel: relentless.
Fibromyalgia is just as bad, if not worse, as it is a chronic pain condition. That deep, uncomfortable ache you get when you have flu – the real flu, not just a terrible cold – that’s as close as I can get to describing it. Everything hurts, all of the time. If I stay in one position for too long, I get stiff and find it difficult to get going again yet if I move too much the pain worsens. It’s a careful balancing act as to managing the symptoms.
Of course, there are many more symptoms of both conditions – headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, mind fog…the list can be endless, and so each day is potentially a mine-field of side-stepping the symptoms to try and live as much life as is possible without waking the ‘beasts’.

If you want to understand how this impacts on my daily life read ‘The Spoon Theory’; this is a simple analogy based on a physical number of spoons that someone is given (let’s say you have 12), and then you talk through your day, and each time a unit of energy is used (to brush your teeth, make breakfast etc.) a spoon is taken away. Most people never get to the part where they leave the house for work – which is why so many sufferers of M.E. and Fibromyalgia are either house-bound, or even bed-bound. We get a set amount of energy per day, and once it’s gone our choices are limited to borrowing from the next day (but leaving us with less choice tomorrow) or to stop and rest. Sometimes, not the easiest decision to make when people around you have expectations.

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The Consequences of Daily Life
I feel lucky – because I’ve managed to get to a point in both illnesses where I am pretty good at listening to my body and balancing my life with my conditions. It’s not luck, really, it’s been mostly trial and error; sometimes it still is. I have a job where I work Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays so that I can have rest days in between. Sometimes I push myself when perhaps I have to go in on a different day – and end up working Wednesday and Thursday. I pay for it, though. Usually by being forced to stay in bed, or on the sofa, with the option to do very little, if anything. It’s not relaxing, it is being sick – though they seem to look the same to most people when you have to do it every other day. Rest is pretty much the only thing that I can do on these days; and sometimes it takes longer than I anticipate to recover. There is no normal. One day I could push myself and the payment could be an extra day resting, but there is an equal risk that the payment could be a week’s worth of rest. It’s like living with a vicious debt-collector who is never satisfied with what you have.

Being a Writer
So, how does this impact on my writing? Well, for a start it’s difficult to feel motivated when your body is screaming out in pain and in desperate need of sleep – even when it is unrefreshing. I have problems concentrating, especially for long periods of time – so gone are the days when I could sit at my computer and write for hours on end. The most I can manage now is about an hour before the words on the screen start to jump about, my hands get unbearably sore and the headache sets in.

One of the other challenges is that I can’t really write to a set routine. It all depends on how I feel on any given day. Sometimes I can manage a couple of 45m-1hr stints, other times I can barely use a keyboard or hold a pen. I tend to know I’m struggling when I start to lose the thread of what I’m trying to write. I start sentences, and don’t know how I was going to end them.

Possibly the worst symptom, from a writer’s point of view, is the mind fog. This means I often lose words; I have to stop writing and google the word I want. I know that I know the word, but my brain just won’t access it. (I had to do it with debt-collector in the previous section). Sometimes I get the wrong word, so I have to remember to edit particularly carefully. And, the one that drives me insane, is that I’ve lost my ability to be a grammar-Nazi. I am one of those people who hates seeing ‘there’, when someone should have written ‘their’, or ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’. But now I do this regularly, and it drives me up the wall to find such mistakes in my writing when I know the difference and never used to make these mistakes.

It’s not easy to be a writer. It’s also not easy to have one, never mind two, chronic conditions that fluctuate on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis. Trying to be a writer AND live with these conditions is particularly difficult. I tend not to remember this. This is my life and I go about living it the best way I can given that circumstances that I’m in. Yet, sometimes, it’s worth it to stop and take stock of the individual challenges we all have to face, because we are following our dreams in spite of these circumstances, and we should be applauded for this.


Want to help me achieve my dream? Consider supporting me by buying my short story collection, The Memorial Tree, only £1.99 for seven short stories.


Deconstructing the Book Lover

Well, since I’ve been trying to promote my own book [if you missed the launch of my short story collection, The Memorial Tree, last week where were you?!], I’ve been considering what it is that makes us love the books we rave about. Isn’t it every authors dream to hear readers say that they enjoyed their story, believed in their characters, and admired their effortless writing style? As much as I like sitting at my desk and making things up there’s something magical about discovering that someone has been moved by the words that I’ve put together. I’ve already been lucky enough to receive a 5* review for The Memorial Tree, and I’m so grateful that this reader took the time to mention how she felt the stories were well written and had her hooked!

So, what is it about certain books that pull us into the story and keep us reading? To try and work this out, I’ve looked at five books I absolutely love – all chosen for their very different styles – and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

  1. Little Women, Louise May Alcott
    Typically, I am not a fan of the ‘British classics’, but this American one totally has my heart – as many of you who may have followed me for some time already know. Her characters are so well sketched and go through such mesmerising changes, that I almost believe I grew up with Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth, and Laurie myself! I must have re-read this more than twenty times, and each time I sob, laugh, and smile with wistful joy at their lives. I find Alcott’s writing plain and honest, and as such believable, so I immediately cherish their family and the ways they try and do good.
  2. The Gideon Smith Series, David Barnett51qwuh6qsbl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Steam Punk. I thought it was a flash in the pan and didn’t pay it much notice until David attended one of our events for Huddersfield Literature Festival (he was actually seconded in when another guest became ill, so a bit serendipitous considering I’ve become a massive fan of his work!). I think I bought the first one because David was so warm and friendly during that event and I wanted to support him as an author. Thankfully I dived straight into his book and barely looked up until I’d finished. Then it was a painstaking wait for the second and third titles each to be released. These stories aren’t just Steam Punk mixed with a bit of historical fantasy, they’re purposefully reminiscent of the old ‘penny dreadful’s and provide a raucous adventure of alternative British Empire in the 19th Century. Fun, fast-paced, and with surprisingly sympathetic characters it’s difficult not to be impressed by how well the author deftly plots his way through so many action-packed scenes. I loved the series so much, I recommended it to my Dad – and he’s now just finished his second read of all of them!
  3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
    I was ‘forced’ to read this for my A-Levels, but was eventually pleased to realise that I had judged it far too quickly. I didn’t appreciate the narrative drive utilised by the Captain’s letters to his sister, then Frankenstein’s account, and then the creature’s story, followed again by Frankenstein and then the Captain’s final letter. But, after reading it again, I now see it as an ingenious way to lull the reader into accepting the horrors that follow with a suspension of disbelief, allow Shelley to practically have us believe that these things really, truly happened – or at least could happen! If at any point you’ve tried reading Frankenstein and didn’t finish, give it another go – I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
  4. The Princess Bride, William Goldman [*spoiler alert about the book!]172955164How many people knew this was a book before the movie in 1987? I hadn’t heard of it until my OH – when we first met – said how much he loved the movie. Of course, I discovered it was based on a book and immediately chose to read this before watching it, and I’m so glad I did! The thing I love the most about it is not the adventure story (which my OH is drawn to), but rather how much William Goldman completely swindles his readers – not just about the fiction of his grandfather reading him only ‘the good bits’ – remember Colombo aka Peter Falk as the grandfather? – but of the sequel: Buttercup’s Baby. The final section in The Princess Bride book is the first tantalising chapter of this ‘novel’ where Fezzick jumps off a cliff with the aforementioned baby. My OH was devastated when he discovered that no such book exists, or will ever exist, and that even Goldman’s foreword is all part of the fiction he built up around this story. I suppose I didn’t help matters when I laughed at his disappointment and called Goldman a genius, but to be able to carry off such a convincing fiction – that has to be great writing.
  5. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough
    I remember discovering this in a bookshop whilst I was at university and devouring it in a single weekend. I called up my Mum – also a book lover – and raved about it thinking she’d be delighted I’d found such a gem. How foolish did I feel when she admitted she had read the book years earlier when it first came out in the late 1970’s?! Not only that, but there had been a popular miniseries all about it! Granted, I was disappointed by the TV miniseries but I still adore the book. I’m not usually a family saga type of person (Little Women excluded) but, again, I was drawn into the narrative, and started to almost admire the characterful ways of Meggie, and then the fate of her children. Such a sweeping melodrama can only be successful if you create realistic and likeable characters, I think – because you have to be able to root for them across the length of their entire lives – or, rather, an entire book. I think McCullough did this really well, alongside the beautiful description of the Drogheda outback farm where Meggie grows up and meets Father Ralph. Such complex characters can only be built up through time, and in The Thorn Birds I never felt the story dragged. If anything, I never wanted it to end.

Through these five – quite different – books I’ve realised what I love most are character-driven stories that teach me something about the human condition. I want to put down a book and feel that I’ve learned something about the characters, whilst also recognising something in myself that the story has touched upon. What I need to see for a book to interest me enough to recommend it is a character journey – those characters I start the story with should have changed by the end. I like my novels to be meaningful in some way – even if only to me – and to convince me that they could be real, even if they’re fantastical.

Perhaps that’s why I write the fiction I do: this is probably the way I want my readers to feel too. They do say, write the book you’d love to read, after all.


Want to know if my fiction IS like this? Why not download my short story collection from Amazon? You don’t need to own a Kindle – most phones and tables have a kindle app that you can sign in with using your Amazon account. If you do decide to purchase, once you’ve read it – please leave a review if you can.

Publication Day: The Memorial Tree and other short stories

It’s finally arrived; after three months of debating and editing and proofreading The Memorial Tree and other short stories is now available to purchase over at Amazon! It’s odd to think that at the end of March I was halfheartedly planning a search for further agents to whom I could send out my novel, and here I am today with a collection of short stories published by my own hand (and the help of kindle direct publishing).

The collection is technically the result of a challenge: I was on a consultation with a productivity coach and, as I spoke about my writing and desire to return to it after a break, she asked why I hadn’t self-published anything. I honestly couldn’t think of a reason why not, outside of fear – which is never a good reason not to do something! So we set it as a goal for Quarter Two – Publish an Ebook of my short stories – and here it is.

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Publishing it, however, appears to have been the easy bit.

Now I have to publicise it; so I can make it known to the world and share these stories with as many readers as I can. This does not come naturally, as I’m sure many authors would admit – after all, we chose writing as a solitary pursuit, spending time with imaginary people rather than real ones. But if my writing career is going to be a successful one then promoting that which I write must be a part of it.

So, here’s five reasons why you should read The Memorial Tree and other short stories

  1. Because if you love stories, you will find seven of them in this collection all exploring loss and what it means
  2. Each story captures a moment, a particular feeling, or a realisation that – I hope – will make you reflect on life and leave you with a sense of introspection 
  3. It’s only £1.99 – less than a cup of coffee in a cafe!
  4. At least one of the stories will capture your emotions and move you 
  5. You’d like to support me as a writer in living my dream

So, are you convinced?

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Buy The Memorial Tree and other short stories

 


I’m hoping to announce some more exciting news very soon. Want to be the first to hear about it? Join my Enewsletter list for exclusive glimpses into my writing life and be the first to know when and where any of my work is published.
Plus you’ll get the chance to win FREE copies of my Ebook and additional material – just like lucky subscriber Alan Gaskell who recently won my subscriber competition for a copy of The Memorial Tree and other short stories.

Publishing my Ebook

So, this week will see me publish my first ever collection of short stories as an Ebook! How exciting is that? It’s taken me a long time to get to this point and I’ve amassed such a collection of writing that it seemed only right to share some of them with the world. So, on Sunday 1 July The Memorial Tree and other short stories will be available from Amazon at the very reasonable price of £1.99. It’s taken some preparing, so here’s how I’ve planned the first Ebook in my publication journey…

Stories
Obviously one of the first things I had to do was choose which stories would work in a collection together. Initially I was looking at three sections with varying lengths of story – flash (under 1,000 words), short form (1,000-3,000 words) and long form (3,000+). I had at least 2/3 of each, but it began to seem quite unwieldy and there was no real central theme tying them all together.
In the end, I looked at a selection of my favourite stories – the ones that I felt were really worthy and close enough to ‘publishable’ as they would ever get – and found that they had a lot in common; they all explored loss, remembrance and nostalgia. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given my preference to kill off my characters (see this post here if you didn’t already know this about my writing!), but it was nice to see that link thread its way through all of the stories.
There’s only one new addition to the collection, and that is the sequel to the title story – The Memorial Tree. As I shared recently there was always a line in this particular story that niggled at me, suggesting there was another narrative that was waiting to be told. So, to end the collection I decided to write it. If you want to know how it goes, you’ll have to buy the book. 😉

Cover
© Luke GleadallI had no idea how to tackle this, but I’m fortunate that I have a very tech-savvy fiance who is quite creative when it comes to images and photography. He was already familiar with a couple of the stories and their imagery, so I gave him a brief, explained the theme of the book and left him to it, wondering if his vision matched my own.
Then, on his day off from work he put together this beautiful cover for me. I think it perfectly demonstrates the themes and has the added bonus of visually representing three out of the seven stories. I’m really pleased with its simplicity and colour palette, but I hope you like it too! After all, the cover has to convince an audience that they want to read these stories over the wealth of other material out there!

Launch
Now, this was the one thing I neglected to consider when I set out to publish an Ebook. Writing the stories is within my comfort zone; convincing people that they want to pay money to read them is definitely way out of it!
I’d promised myself that publishing the Ebook would be my ‘Quarter Two’ goal for the year, so it was originally on my radar to publish in mid-June. But, as usual, life got in the way and things got pushed back a little. Still, I don’t want to start the second half of the year attempting to catch up with a goal I’d set at the start of it. So, I’m making do with a condensed launch that will see the release happen on 1 July.
As such, here’s all the important information you need to know about the release of my first collection of short stories…

  • Subscribe to my Enewsletter list before 30 June  and you can enter to win a FREE copy of The Memorial Tree and other short stories
  • Pre-orders will be available on Wednesday 27 June – to coincide with National Writing Day (when else should you celebrate writing a collection of short stories?)
  • Official release date is Sunday 1 July and the initial price will be £1.99

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I’d love it if you could support me by purchasing a copy of the Ebook – and hopefully you’ll enjoy it enough to leave a lovely little review on Amazon to help other buyers make their choice.

Here’s hoping that my first collection won’t be my last!

 

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.

creative smartphone desk notebook

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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