26 February 2010

Talk Notes - Huntington, York

I want to thank everyone who attended Huntington's Community Centre, York, last night, to hear myself and Penny Grubb speak about our new novels, Torc of Moonlight and Like False Money. It's great to have such a receptive audience willing to ask questions.

We were there to help launch the La Scala Short Story Competition (theme Equestrian & Countryside) and as promised I am posting below the gist of my talk for beginners how to write a short story:

"Anyone can write fiction - it's just a snapshot of normal life with all the boring bits taken out. If you think there'd be nothing left once the boring bits were removed, consider this: the life you write about doesn't have to be your life. It can be the life of...
  • the confident/beautiful/witty/rich person you've always wanted to be (but don't choose a real living person; they won't appreciate it and could sue you)
  • a historical person, real or imaginery
  • a fantasy person - if you are a rider in real life, might your fantasy person ride a unicorn or be a groom for Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged flying horse?
  • you, where something fantastical happens - you find Sleipnir in the stables. How do you hide an eight-legged horse?
Think round the theme. The easiest way of doing this is to create lists: every animal you could come into contact with in the country, people you are likely to meet, people's jobs. Pin it up somewhere you'll see it every day. Cross out those that don't interest you, tick those that you find interesting. Once your lists shrink to a manageable size...
  •  invoke the writer's magic words, What if..? and mark all the problems that might occur.
  • choose a problem, and decide how you want that problem to be resolved for the person - the character - you are writing about: well or badly - never indifferently because the ending has to matter.
  • decide how you want your reader to react: frightened, sad, happy, laughing? This is the tone of writing you will use.
You've now got the story's scenario, the problem, the ending, and you know the type of story you are going to write. It's time to focus on the writing.
  • choose a character and let the reader experience the story through that character's eyes
  • ensure that character has a big problem central to the story - wet feet is not a big problem
  • be spare with description: use only enough so characters aren't moving in a vacuum
  • make dialogue snappy, 2,000 words might seem a lot, but there's not enough space to waffle
  • don't just think visually - readers don't want to watch your story unfold, they want to experience it unfolding. Humans have five senses, so make use of hearing, touch, taste and smell as well as sight
Then go for it! Remember, this is only a first draft so you can make changes later. Even professional writers write several drafts. Get it on paper and then leave it a few days before reading it again so that it settles in your mind. Look at every word:
  • does the story make sense?
  • have you covered all the main points: who, what, where, when, how, why?
  • is the problem big enough?
  • do you feel sad, or frightened, or happy reading it? Is this what you intended?
Be aware that you will never feel that the story is "brilliant" - no writer ever does, not even published writers. We all think we could have done better. Now complete the competition's entry form and send it off.

Then write another story. That's how you hone your writing skills - by practising. Good luck."

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