fiction

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Writing prompts to set you fizzling and end that writer’s block

Published April 23, 2013 by Jill London
Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (Photo credit: thorinside)

While the debate over whether writer’s block actually exists or not continues, the subject of where ideas come from remains of interest to many writers (as a glance through the inspirational writers’ section of any book-store will show). I always think that, when you’re writing stories you are essentially accessing the body of experience that is out there in the world (that you’re a part of), all the personal anecdotes that people have experienced, all the trials and tribulations, and to select from these not just the most entertaining but the ones that speak the greatest truth – that are recognised by any race, gender or era as being empirically true. Looking for material (especially if it’s for short stories or poems) can be helped by looking in the right places. Here’s just a few of the ideas I’ve used in the past, and that I think might work for you if things get a bit, erm, blocked:

  • Inspirational quotations: These are a good way to pick up on universally true themes for your writing. The ones that offer a potential storyline should leap out at you for plot potential rather than being simply inspirational. How about this; “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” – Sigmund Freud. Who (apart from Freud) might say such a sentiment? Why do they feel that way? What’s their story?
  • Famous models: If their words don’t inspire you, how about the famous themselves? What might Hemingway have done on a day off (?), how about Katherine Hepburn, or Elvis? Whatever story you produce can be relabelled and refashioned into ‘a day in the life’ of any writer, actor or singer, or left as is.
  • Problem (agony aunt) pages: These should be fairly obvious in terms of providing an idea for a story, just remember to change the names for the sake of the innocent ;-). You may (or may not) feel guilty about plumbing the pain of others for your personal gain, but just think of it – you may be helping mankind into the bargain by writing about the problem – or maybe I’m covering for you.
  • Dialogue, be it from soaps, novels or song lyrics: Just a phrase now for inspiration (we don’t want to be treading into plagiarism territory here), but sometimes the odd generic phrase will be enough for you to branch off into a completely different (and legal) train of thought.
  • Photos as inspiration: If pictures paint a thousand words…why not use them!
  • Joke of the Day: That funny punch line could spark an idea for a comic piece; remember it doesn’t have to be the funniest joke ever, mildly amusing is fine so long as the story speaks to you and you can back the characters. This offering courtesy of Readers Digest; “I was in the car park when I saw a guy off CrimeWatch who was wanted for several assaults. I punched him and wrestled him to the ground, but the police arrived and arrested me. Apparently, they use actors in the show”. Not sure about the hilarity value but as the potential for a short story? Maybe you could do something with it…
  • Prompts taken from everyday situations: He was left in the lurch, next on the news…, she had an appointment with…, they’re not as innocent as they seem, the payphone was out of order…
  • Phrases, adages, maxims: Waste not want not, a bad penny always turns up, it takes two to tango, no smoke without fire.

But remember whatever ideas come your way, write freely, write with passion and for goodness sake, enjoy it! And it’s over to you! If you’re feeling stuck for inspiration why not try out some of these ideas. Let me know how you get on and I’ll include a link to your work so others can see what you did, a bit like a bloggish fridge door 😉

Keep smiling and stay awesome guys.

 

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Maeve Binchy on what makes a page turner

Published April 8, 2013 by Jill London

Page-turn·er  n. Informal – A very interesting, exciting, or suspenseful book, usually a novel.

Today, in our writers corner is a short video clip of Maeve Binchy speaking about characterization and what makes a page turning story. I think Maeve picks up on some important points here in a nicely succinct and encouraging way.

Pace is, of course, vital to creating a page-turning novel but it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean 100% overdrive at all times. Readers can get burned out. They need peaks and valleys, excitement teamed with periods of reflection or planning when the characters take…a pause. From there the reader is ready for the ride once more. Too much all at once can actually be an enormous turn-off for the reader, who will most likely feel swamped and confused by too much adrenalin in a novel. If you are confused about the idea of peaks and valleys let me direct you to Jack Bickham’s 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes.

When you do write those peak scenes make sure that they are real heart-stopping nail-biters, make your reader hang on your every word and above all be sure that they care about what happens next – that they are vitally invested in those characters. Be sure that you have wrung every ounce out of every scene because it’s all too easy to sit back contented too soon. You, the author, are your protagonist’s worst enemy, don’t give them any easy breaks, throw them into all manner of trouble any time you find the chance. Your reader will love you for it and, what’s more, they’ll be coming back to you for more of the same.

See also: The perennially useful Writers and Artists website on the Seven secrets of writing a page-turner by Emma Bowd.

Do you have a vital formula that you’d like to share for the perfect page turner? How should writers go about dealing with pace in their novels? Your comments are always appreciated.

Increasing the chances – Success with your short stories.

Published April 6, 2013 by Jill London
It's a big market.

It’s a big market.

I thought I’d add a few thoughts today about the nature of success within the writing arena, and how you can best increase your chances. If you are looking to become a novelist, short stories could be a good way to begin. I can’t find the statistics, but I read once that the number of authors who had a novel published (via a publishing house) without first writing for magazines was incredibly small. This could be based on any number of factors, but if we use this as a formula it shows that writing for magazines is a good way to increase your chances as a published novelist.

When you first start writing for magazines it feels as though your chances of finding success are just as difficult as with any big publishing house but in fact it is quite possible to get a hit with a magazine quite quickly if you approach it the right way. Most magazines are actually crying out for writers – usable authors that is. While they receive many submissions, the number of quality authors who stay writing for them tends to diminish as those authors go off to look for more substantial successes with novels. This means that there are many new openings being created within that market and it would be a good idea, wouldn’t it, to try to get in on that opportunity especially considering how it is increasing your chances of a major success in the future.

confusedSo how do you gain a hit with the magazines? Well I use the word hit for a reason, you need to think of it like this: You have a pack of playing cards, you place a glass a few feet away from yourself and you try to get as many cards into the glass as you can. Lots of cards are going to fall on the floor but a few will hit your target. I think you know where I’m going with this. Fact is, to gain hits with the magazines you must submit a lot of work. But whoa there, not just the contents of your bottom drawer, remember what I said about magazine publishers getting a lot of submissions? A lot of those submissions are from writers submitting any old short story they’ve been harbouring in their desk drawer for many years. Not that these can’t become hits but they will need work first (and probably a lot of it).

Check what the magazines are already publishing. I advise you not to be too judgemental here, if you look at what’s out there, and try to reproduce the same effect with your own stories, you will soon find that it’s not as easy as it looks and you will be humbled, which is good. Many people make value judgements about what is quality and what is not. There are some excellent short stories to be found in magazines just as there is some dross lording about in emperor’s clothing on the literary novels lists. Come on, you’ve seen them too. Read what the magazines are publishing and try to write something similar. Note things like viewpoint; first or third person? Is the tone playful, thoughtful, humorous? Look at subject matter, audience, word count – be exacting here, magazines issue guidelines (available on request) on what they will or won’t accept, and you need to pay attention to what they ask for.

For a really useful guide to writing short stories for magazines I would like to bring your attention to a lady who has had a great deal of hits, and most specifically to her guide;della  The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed – Your Quick Read, Straight-To-The-Point Guide To Writing and Selling Short Fiction, available on Amazon. Della Galton has been published in many magazines and is the agony aunt for Writers’ Forum. Della knows what she’s talking about and you would do well to listen. On the subject of success rates Della says on her website: “I sell 40% of my work first time out.  Overall, I sell approximately 94% of the stories that I write.  If I gave up after the first time out, I wouldn’t be able to make a living”. From this you can see that being ready to rewrite a story is vital but it shows you, most encouragingly, that the successes can be many IF you can stomach all those rejections. I think this is encouraging news, how about you?

As a final thought, remember this from Mark Twain; “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay”. There are numerous publishers out there who have little or no cash to invest in you, but who need your writing for their publications. You can happily help each other out till you make it big time. Last of all, if the thought of all those rejections is making you feel down or too scared to carry on trying, think on this formula: Rejections = success (eventually), it’s true if you think about it.

The best of luck to you.

That’s it for now, but if you’d like to see more on this subject do drop me a line. If you have any advice on writing for magazines or any thoughts to add please fill up that box below. I love getting comments from you.

Children’s classic fiction – the favourites, part 1

Published March 23, 2013 by Jill London

Today, in light of my recent post on the Vintage Children’s Reading Challenge, I want to do a whistle-stop tour of some of my favourite classic books and their authors. Just thinking back to these wonderful childhood reads got me all misty-eyed and nostalgic. Some of these books might be new to you but some will no doubt be favourites of your own, either way come with me and take a wander in the dreamy mists of children’s classic fiction.

  1. E. Nesbit – Oh it had to be Edith to start them off. I adored E. Nesbit’s books when I was young and even now if you take a look at books like The Enchanted Castle, or The Railway Children you will find an addictive and entertaining read (not all of these authors have worn as well as Nesbit but I’ve included them for the sheer joy they brought me).  Nesbit wrote some truly great characters in her stories, like the imperious and opinionated Phoenix and the grumpy and evasive Psammead (that’s ‘Sammy-ad’ for the uninitiated) and many fans who read the books as children will even now shiver with horrid delight at the mention of the Ugly-Wuglies. Nesbit was also a fascinating individual, smoking cigarettes and wearing her hair short way back in the Edwardian era, and she brought up her husband’s child (born to his mistress) alongside her own. Her autobiography Long Ago When I Was Young is well worth looking out for. You can catch up online: http://willow.creative-interweb.com/library/book/kids/nesbit/
  2. philippa_pearcePhilippa Pearce – Do the classics get the recognition they deserve? Well, in 2007 a panel of reviewers set out to discover the nation’s favourite Carnegie and Kate Greenaway winners of all time and awarded Pearce 2nd place for Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights was no 1 btw): Not bad going for a book published in 1958. In the novel, as the grandfather clock strikes 13, Tom is transported back through time to to meet his Victorian play-mate Hatty. Is she a ghost, or is he? I loved reading Tom’s Midnight Garden but also A Dog So Small and The Shadow Cage and Other Tales of the Supernatural which features, amongst other creepy stories, a memorable one about a wonderfully unpleasant child-sized mannequin.
  3. Catherine Storr – Marianne Dreams. On her tenth birthday, Marianne is forced to bed with a fever. Unsurprisingly disappointed, she picks up a pencil and starts to draw a house. That night she dreams, and as she does she finds herself transported to the house she has drawn, and the haunting and mysterious world beyond. A fantastic story that has always stayed with me and remains one of my all-time favourites.
  4. L.M_MontgomeryL. M. Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables. In 1868 Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a well-loved classic (and deservedly so) spawning a host of similar books including What Katy Did (by Susan Coolidge and also good) and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  I ate up this series, making it the favourite choice for me above Alcott or Coolidge, and even picked Anne for my youngest daughter’s middle name (it must be Anne with an ‘e’ as you’ll well remember if you read the books). Other fans, similarly inspired by Anne, contribute to ‘an important part’ of tourism in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where apparently her image is on their number plate.
  5. L.M. Boston – Green Knowe series. In his great-grandmother’s ancient house Tolly befriends the spirits of 3 children tied to the house and with them explores the enchanting history of this ‘ancestral home’. For the fourth book in the series, A Stranger at Green Knowe, Boston won the Carnegie Medal, and was a  runner-up for both the first and second books. You can find out more about this wonderful ‘real life’ house here: http://www.greenknowe.co.uk/history.html The Children of Green Knowe was adapted into a BBC drama serial in 1986 and I don’t think the public have stopped pestering the BBC to make it into a DVD. There is a rumour that the original series has been lost, but fear not, you can still catch the episodes on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdhiI8XmJQI . “Green Noah, demon tree, evil fingers can’t catch me!”

As always, if you have any thoughts don’t be shy – share! Do you think Nesbit and Pearce deserve more credit? Or have I missed anyone better? (Part 2 of this feature will be coming soon btw!) Do you have a favourite that needs more praise? Tell us about them! I need lots of suggestions for the reading challenge.

Evertrue – An Underworld Fairytale

Published March 3, 2013 by Jill London

Evertrue cover

Here’s a little taste of my latest book Evertrue An Underworld Fairytale for you to enjoy. Please feel free to leave me any thoughts and comments below.

Early one hot and sunny morning, Franz the tax collector arrived in the hilltop town of Preznova on an urgent matter of business. Everywhere he went people ducked down the cobble lanes that ran between the pretty, clay-roofed cottages to avoid Franz as he stomped by red-faced and wheezing, but Franz was only interested in one person.

“Ah, there she is!” he gurgled with glee. “Dr. Klara!”

A tall, thin woman with a kind face peeped nervously from behind her newspaper.

“Me, sir?” she squeaked. “But we have an agreement for me to pay five tolar a month.”

Had an agreement,” said Franz. “The king has heard you’ve found the Evertrue Emerald, property of his majesty by right of law. You have one week to hand it over or pay the taxes on it!”

“B-but, I’ve no such gem,” Klara gasped in horror. “Perhaps I could explain the king’s error to him?”

The tax collector raised his eyebrows, like two hairy caterpillars rearing up for a fight. “The king doesn’t do errors,” he muttered.

Klara’s daughter, Mila, had been listening to all this with a worried, angry scowl that began around her wide, pale forehead and finished somewhere in the region of her boots. Her fingers curled up into fists and even her toes clenched whenever she saw Franz but even so, she always managed to keep her cool.

“How much money does the king want?” she asked frostily, in a tone that would normally have stopped a rampaging bear in its tracks. But Franz was too thick-skinned for that and he roared with villainous laughter.

“One hundred tolar!” he answered.

“But we haven’t got one hundred tolar,” Mila protested fiercely. “Not even close.”

“I’ll be sent to the debtor’s prison,” said Klara, “and then how will I ever find this money?”

“Debtor’s prison?” said Franz with a smirk. “You haven’t heard the news, have you? The prisons are chock full of people that don’t pay their taxes. Now all debtors will be fed to the ravenous Monger turtles out at Hangman’s Creek.”

Klara turned faint at this news so that Mila had to prop her up on her shoulder and pat the colour back into her cheeks.

“You horrible man!” Mila said to the tax collector. “Don’t you see how ill you’re making her?”

“Hand over the gem then,” said Franz unmoved.

“But I couldn’t possibly get the Evertrue Emerald,” moaned Klara. “According to legend it lies in the deepest cave in the entire system – Malrook’s Lair – and belongs to the devil himself!”

The tax collector leered nastily and bowed very low. “Then might I suggest, madam, you go to the devil!”

With that, he turned and departed, sending cats and mice scampering off in fright as he went.

“We will have to find this emerald is all,” said Mila to her mother. “We know the caves better than anyone, and how difficult can it be?”

“Oh Mila, you have no idea,” said Klara. “This cave belongs to the troll king, Malrook, and is more dangerous than any cave we’ve ever been to. There are murderously difficult caves like the Witch’s Cauldron and Satan’s Staircase to pass. We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

“I could do it, I bet,” Mila began but Klara silenced her.

“Now don’t argue with me, Mila, my mind is quite decided. I shall just have to borrow the money from someone.”

She tried to give Mila a reassuring smile, but Mila knew none of their friends or neighbours would have any money to borrow, especially such a sum as one hundred tolar, and she hugged her mother tightly.

Then Klara felt quite unwell again and she sat down suddenly on a nearby bench outside the local inn.

“I need to give this careful thought,” she said, summoning the landlord. “Run along Mila and play now, there’s a dear.”

Mila needed to think, and a cool head was the best way she knew to settle ideas. The bad news and the heat and noise of the now busy square made her grouchy, so she crossed to the fountain place to cool her face in the trickle of water which bubbled from its ferocious dragon statue.

“We can’t possibly get hold of a hundred tolar,” she said to herself as she tied up her golden brown hair (of which, you must note, she was very proud). “We will just have to find this Evertrue Emerald. There is no other way.”

Just then Mila’s friend Tomas arrived bringing his master’s horse to drink at the fountain.

“What’s the matter?” He asked when he saw Mila’s face. “You look as though you’ve lost five tolar and found a stotin.” And he pulled his best drunken monkey face at Mila and slapped his palms on the cobbles and rolled about the floor.

“You’re ridiculous,” she said, and despite everything she couldn’t help but laugh. Then she told him all about the tax collector’s visit.

“We need to find this emerald,” she ended by saying, “but mother is too ill with worry to go looking. I must go and find the gem by myself.”

“Oh no, you’re not,” said Tomas. “If you’re going I’m coming with you.”

He grinned his bright, wonky grin at her and for the first time that day Mila felt the sun shine a little brighter.

Now, to make matters worse there was one further problem to add, something the king might have foreseen if he’d investigated the Evertrue Emerald further, and that was the importance of the emerald’s name. You see the emerald would only ever be true to its evil owner, Malrook, and would only ever bring bad luck to those who sought it. So now we have a bad situation indeed with a life at stake and a dangerous journey planned, all for the petty wish of a horribly petty man.

 

 

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