Non-Fiction

During my career I've been a reader for a London literary consultancy giving in-depth critiques on genre fiction, taught workshops and creative writing classes, and written several series of how-to articles for the UK writing press. 

Writing Prompts - Within this site are a series of writing prompts - follow THIS LINK for the full list.
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Reading A Writer's Mind: Exploring Short Fiction 
- First Thought To Finished Story

"...a writer who shows rather than tells how she approaches her craft ... would recommend to anyone interested in the creative writing process..." 

"...not a theoretical guide that will bore you ... a uniquely written practical guide..."

When I was moving my writing from hobby to career, the advice most often received was “study the stories of the greats”. This advice I found worse than useless. How could I understand how these writers produced their fiction if all I could see was the finished product? Writers’ manuals highlighted elements needed to produce good fiction, but not how to implement these elements on the page to get the desired result.
   Despite successfully moving my hobby into my career, this lack of basic resource for beginners haunted me. I always felt that if only I’d been able to access a detailed explanation, years of trial and error would have been erased from my learning curve. 
    Much later, when I became a tutor in face-to-face creative writing classes and then for a distance learning college, I realised that beginners were still floundering the way I had. By that point I had over seventy published short stories to my credit, and I knew how they’d come into being. It is this knowledge that has been distilled into Reading A Writer’s Mind: Exploring Short Fiction – First Thought to Finished Story.
    From initial idea, through the story itself, to a commentary explaining the decisions made during the writing, the book offers a unique insight into my creative process, setting a path to follow and showing the tools to use.

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Specially for #SampleSunday, here is the Table of Contents listing and an excerpt from the commentary for the opening short story Shared With The Light.

"Shared With The Light"
Mainstream, 4,200 words. Present tense, first person male viewpoint.
How to build a story from a character. Lyrical narrative versus terse dialogue. Using Tone as a descriptive tool. The importance of interrogating the initial idea.

[Excerpt from the Commentary following the story]

If the Adult Education group picked a busker, why did I pick a saxophonist? Because a colleague of my husband’s played a saxophone in his spare time, which is true, but not notable enough to fix itself in my subconscious as possible writing material. I knew this man ‘in passing’ as shy and unassuming. Seeing him play in a pub was a revelation. With eyes closed he began making love to his saxophone from the very first note, and he had no idea that he was doing it. That is notable writing material.
    Having a piece of notable writing material lodged in my subconscious does not immediately lead to a story, even when dredged up some months later by the requirements of a group exercise. Questions needed to be asked and decisions made. Time to call upon the writer’s chattering friends: who, what, where, when, how and why.
    Why decide my busker should be male? The real-life saxophonist was male, but I’m female. Isn’t it given wisdom to write about what you know? I wanted the character to be vulnerable, at some sort of turning point in life. Vulnerable females are ten-a-penny. A vulnerable male holds more intrigue for me as a writer, probably because I’m female.
    Why was he busking? Busking on the way up a musician’s career is fairly normal, so I decided he was busking on the way down, or was at the nadir attempting to get his life back together.
    What had happened to him to cause this? Pass. At this point I’d no idea.
    Where was he busking? Somewhere warm, yet I wanted the weather to be bleak to resonate with his mindset. In the city near where I live, close to a modern shopping mall, is a late 19th century domed arcade. The difference in the acoustics of the two venues is spectacular and, as the story is about a musician, I chose the better acoustics. I decided it would be raining, hence pushing shoppers into the arcade, but why would he be there on a wet day, why would they be shopping on a wet day? Because it was the countdown to Christmas – the when. And that was the setting of the opening scene decided.
    What type of music was he playing? A saxophone is not a normal instrument for a modern boy band, it is an instrument of a session musician, but I didn’t want the character to be an also-ran, I wanted him to be a fallen star. It is here I should mention that what I know about music, or the playing of any instrument, can be written large on the reverse of a postage stamp. Not so much write about what you know as write about what can be learned. Time for a bit of research.
    A query about saxophonists to a record-listening associate pointed me towards jazz, and a comb of the jazz CDs in the library not only established that saxophone solos were a recognised part of the form, but that there were different types of saxophones. Those CD jackets also provided music titles, and listening to those CDs provided tonal background – which tunes were jumping, which were lazy, which were duos. A book in the children’s section named the parts of the instrument and explained how it was played. I could run with this research. My character was definitely playing jazz.
    So who was he? I didn’t want him to have been an international recording star, but I wanted him to have been far enough up the scale to be recognised and his talent acknowledged by an aficionado – and it was at this point that the person who would speak to him stepped into my mind. I knew that he – another he – was an aficionado, someone who had been brought up on the music and was also a musician, but in a lesser way – a younger self.

Teasing out the facets of a leading character and the main thread of a storyline is often this step-by-step tapping at the coalface with a bent spoon – it can take hours, or days, or weeks – and then, miraculously, perhaps inspirationally, the face is tapped as before but this time the coal not only crumbles, it packs itself into containers, lifts itself to the surface, finds its own customer and delivers a profit, all in the taking of a single breath. In that breath I knew, just knew, that the younger self would be playing in a venue that had been a favoured spot of the lead character, that they both lived only for the music, that they would be sharing the same problem except that the younger self would be barely aware of it – alcoholism (note the early line … the familiar smell of strong mints overwhelms me) – that the chain of events the meeting triggers would lead to a life or death decision by the lead character. And I knew which he would choose.
    Having all the facets of the storyline unfold at once did not mean that the story as read unfolded at the same pace. There were other decisions to be made, starting with Viewpoint.
    First person viewpoint was chosen because I wanted to get under the skin of the main character. I wanted to feel his every worry, see others as he would see them. I wanted him to have suffered so much in his recent life that he was not only alone, but distrusted others to the point of paranoia.
    The choice of Tone aided this. I wanted his outer world to be depressing so as to feed his poor self image, the two acting one upon the other in a vicious circle. Tone comes across in the choice of words and phrasing. Taken singly the reader could step over each without conscious thought, but by loading certain paragraphs with negative images the tone becomes unremitting: dimly litlate night shopping is a killertakings will dive like a suicide from a bridgethe man from pest controldead rat somewhere
    For the character, the one thing that was safe, that was comforting, that he could rely on, was his music. It is his reliance upon his music to the exclusion of all else that determines his thought patterns, and thus the technical use of symbolism and alliteration that I, as the writer, use to bring those thought patterns to an acceptable reality for the reader. His dialogue might be short and terse, but he notices the little things – the white trainers with the blue bindings, the lack of water puddled around them – and any noise is mentioned in terms of musical references – man shouts violence in stark bass tones. These are decisions which help give the character depth and create a sense of unity in the text.

[excerpt ends]