Monthly Archives: September 2012

Friday Fiction – Gate To Nowhere

It’s Friday again and I’m sitting in my NEW HOUSE watching the cats trying to get used to all the strange sights and smells. They are coping admirably and already trying to get the closets open!

Today’s photo on Madison’s site comes from Sandra Crook, a great writer and regular fictioneer. Do check out her story, and the others linked from Madison’s page. Mine is below, not terribly original I’m afraid – the Muse says she needs sleep and stability to function at her best. And I can’t tell you the end of the story, because I ran out of words! Still, I’d appreciate your thoughts and comments on it.

Stop back next week for my entries into Voice Week – one a day Monday-Friday!

Gate to Nowhere

“Do it,”

“It’s just some old Chinese sculpture. The gate to nowhere.” Al tried to make the quiver in his voice sound like sarcasm.

“So do it. Like you said, it’s just a sculpture, right?”

“Right.” Except the air seemed to shimmer between the gateposts. And even the squirrels seemed to avoid going through.

“I knew it. You’re scared.” Billy stepped forward. “Scaredy scaredy scaredy!”

“What’s it matter anyway?”

“Matters if you’re scared. Matters if I tell Mabel Pritchard you’re too pussy to walk through a gate.”

Al pushed ahead of his brother, closed his eyes and took a step.

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Submitting – British Style

I love a good old home-country writing competition. The deadline for this one is 30th September (Midnight UK time, so watch out North and South American readers!) but it’s only 500 words, so you can rustle that up in an hour or two, right?

The contest comes from Flash 500, a British site with the winner being published in online and print magazine Words With JAM*  The top prize is £300, with money prizes for second and third, and a free book for highly commended entries. The entry fee is £5 for one, £8 for two stories and you can add £10 per story if you would like a critique to be returned to you.

There is no geographical limit on entrants, and entries must be previously unpublished (including online). Check out the website for detailed entry conditions.

Impressively, this contest promises to announce winners within just 6 weeks of the closing date. It runs quarterly, so if you’re not ready this month, you could stop by again in the future.

 

 

* Note that the magazine is also running its own short story comps, with categories for 250, 1000 and 2500 word stories.

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Success or No Success?

Those of you who know me in real life may be concerned that this is becoming an obsession, but I am genuinely intrigued by the success of the British TV show, Deal or No Deal (Note: the US and probably other versions of the show are hideously disappointing by comparison. This is not a post about the value of pretty girls in bikinis prancing about with boxes in their hands).

For those who don’t know, it is a gameshow, in which there are 22 boxes, each with a secret amount of money hidden inside (ranging from 1p to £250,000). The contestant takes a box at random at the start of the show, not knowing how much money it contains. Over a series of rounds, he opens the other boxes three at a time and after each set of three, the Banker (a mysterious man on the end of a telephone) offers to purchase the player’s box for a sum of money determined by the Banker. The contestant can Deal (sell his box for the offered amount) or No Deal (keep playing). At the end of the game, if the contestant has not said Deal, he takes home the amount in his box.

What fascinates me about this, is the success of the show. Most gameshows revolve around a quiz of some sort or a physical challenge which is genuinely diverting to watch. As the viewer, you may enjoy the banter between the hosts (Pointless, Countdown) or between the host and the contestants (Weakest Link) but you watch it to test yourself against the questions or challenges. With DOND, there is “just one question” and although you can try to decide when you would deal, that’s a pretty weak reason to watch the show. But watch it people do. Enough people that it’s been running for 7 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

So why? And what’s this got to do with a Writing blog? Well, to answer the second question first, everything. If an author could keep readers coming back every day for 7 years with a simple list of numbers, wouldn’t we do it? (On the side, obviously, using the money to fund our Art).

Create Lovable Characters

Contestants spend a couple of weeks in the wings before they take The Chair. The audience develops a relationship with them over the weeks; in-jokes and nicknames help to cement this. By the time they take the Chair, contestants already have the TV audience rooting for them to do well.

Similarly, little things are what make readers love your characters. Mr Darcy is not drop-dead gorgeous, but his character is so well-developed by Jane Austen that he has women all over the world swooning by the time he makes a move on Elizabeth Bennett.

And a Hate-able Villain

The Banker is nothing more than a black telephone. He is deliciously cruel to the contestants and the whole audience loves to hate the Banker. He is the enemy, the obstacle the contestant must overcome, the challenge they must beat. This programme could easily have been run with a computer making the offers, but if it had, I don’t think it would have been half as successful.

Focus on the obstacles your characters have to overcome. There may not be a villain we can boo, but there must be something your characters are up against, in order for the readers to really root for them.

Keep Raising the Stakes

At the end of the first round, most players  have at least some of the mega-high boxes and at least some of the very-low ones left available. Although the values available in the game can fall, the emotional value to the player is always kept high, the offers are always a careful balance between the risk of winning less and the chance of winning more, and the longer the game goes on, the higher the probability of taking out the remaining big numbers.

The received wisdom in plotting is to simply keep raising the stakes, making the obstacles bigger, the threats greater and the dangers more … err… dangerous. However, I think even if some of the events in Acts 2 and 3 are lower value, the characters’ reactions to them can make them higher stakes. If you lose your wife and mother in Act One, losing your dog in Act 2 might seem like a lower value obstacle, but what if the dog was the only thing you had left to live for? Value is in the eye of the beholder.

When world-building, don’t get too hung up on set-dressing

The set of DOND is a pretty basic box with a few flashing red lights for the Banker’s calls, a screen in the middle to show the boxes still available, and a big black telephone with an old-fashioned cord. It’s basic, it’s cheap. And no-one gives a damn.

A lot of writers agonise over having their readers smell and taste and hear the world the characters are living in, and description definitely has its place. The Bronte sisters couldn’t have lived without it (they certainly couldn’t have produced stories long enough to be called novels!). But if the story is good and the characters are good, the setting is less crucial. In fact, if you spend too long on setting, readers will get bored and move on.

Focus on Details instead

Although the set is simple, DOND plays on some superstitions and rules that have grown up with the game. For example, if you open the box with the 1p inside, you have to go to the front and share a celebratory kiss with the contestant; boxes 22 and the “newbie” (the latest future-contestant to join the game) are cursed and likely to ruin your game. These weren’t programmed in by the makers of the show, they have evolved over time, but they form part of the show now and add to the richness of the viewing experience.

Instead of a five page description of the world your story is set in, focus on a few crucial details. Make them something the readers can latch onto, make them realistic but also unusual. Then make sure they remain consistent however complicated the rest of the story gets.

 

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Friday Fiction – Breaking the backs of angels

It’s Friday again! this week has rushed by, and I can’t believe it’s already time for 100 words in response to Madison‘s prompt, this week photographed by Lora Mitchell.

I looked at this picture briefly yesterday and a few ideas came to me then, but this morning, one phrase came to mind and I felt I had to use it. Just for the record, the views of characters in this piece are not necessarily my own and it is not intended to be incendiary.

Breaking the backs of angels

“I’m praying for you,” she said, locking her eyes onto mine so that there could be no mistaking her vigour.

I thanked her. I don’t believe, but if it makes her feel better, what’s the harm? My brother doesn’t agree.

“There she goes again, breaking the backs of angels. How can people be so credulous?”

“Religion’s been around for millennia, Jacob; it’s still more popular than atheism, even in this information age.”

“Doesn’t stop it being wrong. If I were God, I’d come down here and tell them all to take charge of their own lives, instead of bothering me.”

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Inpiration Monday – Borrowed Heart / Waiting to Live

Another Thursday, another story inspired by BeKindRewrite’s Inspiration Monday thread. This time I managed to get two of the prompts in, which is something I rarely do. It’s also quite a personal piece, because I had a condition a few years ago that made me have to fight for each painful breath. I’ve tried to capture something of that in this piece although with a different POV and a much more severe medical prognosis.

I’d love to hear what you think of it.

 

Catching Breath

If you’ve never watched someone you love fighting for breath, you can’t begin to imagine how it feels. You dare not drag your eyes away in case they lose the next battle, in case that rasping desperate sound is the last rasping desperate sound you ever hear. It doesn’t even occur to you that everyone else breathes quietly, or that the first time you heard that the troubled breathing you wanted never to hear it again.

But hope. That’s the thing. The greatest blessing of humanity, and sometimes its greatest curse. To go from hoping she’ll breathe normally again, to just hoping she’ll breathe again, to just… Hope without knowing what you’re hoping for.

And now I have a new hope and it’s almost too much to bear. She’s waiting to live again. Someone else’s hope died today, but sometimes hope is competitive and I can’t grieve for them when I think of the borrowed heart that will make her live. That will take her breath away and give it back a hundred times stronger. That will allow me to hope once more to hear the last of those desperate painful gasps.

You think I am selfish. That I should think of the dead and the grieving. That I should be grateful, humbled, sorry. But you’ve never watched someone you love fighting for breath; you can’t begin to imagine how it feels.

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Following up or digging deeper

It’s been a while since I featured any writing exercises or games on a Monday and I know they used to be popular. One which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is BeKindRewrite’s “Voice Week” which takes place in the first week of October. The idea is to write the same story five times, each using a different voice or point of view. You can find out more, and join in, here: http://voiceweek.wordpress.com/

I’ve decided to participate, probably using the story I wrote for Friday Fictioneers last week, because I feel it lends itself to further investigation, and Voice Week feels like one way to do that.

There’s another way, however, and that’s today’s game. Short stories – and flash fiction in particular – often invite the reader to make their own interpretation and impressions about what’s going on, what’s just happened, and what happens next. Among readers, it’s pretty common to see comments along the lines of “please write the next scene,” or “you could turn this into a novel”. Of course, the key to good short fiction is to tell a whole story within the confines of the piece, but that doesn’t mean these commenters have missed the point. After all, where does a story begin and end? And what is the story without a background to shape the character’s situation and the future to shape their hopes and fears?

So here’s the latest writing game, and it’s one I plan to work on sometime when I have a week to dedicate to it: Take a short story or ideally a piece of flash fiction that fired your imagination, but left you with unanswered questions. It could be your own, or someone else’s (provided you get their permission and give proper credit to the original author). Write up to five different scenes from either before or after, which give the answers to some of the questions raised, or shed more light on the characters’ motivations, personalities or behaviour. These scenes could show what happens immediately before or after, or they could be separated by vast swathes of time and space. They could feature the same characters or other people. And they can definitely contradict each other.

For example, if I took A Mother’s Legacy as my starting point, I could write two scenes from immediately before – one showing a political catastrophe which causes the Mother to need to escape the country quickly; the other showing that the narrator is manipulating her mother to take control of the family inheritance. Then I could write one scene from years before, echoing this one but with Mother taking her daughter to the shore for some alternative purpose, perhaps a pleasure trip on her birthday. Finally, I could write 2 scenes set after the original story, one showing the narrator (this time a son) taking his mother to a literal boat which promises safety, and the other making it clear that the whole story is metaphorical and the mother is dying.

 

If you take a stab at this, whether now or in the future, I’d love to hear how it works for you, and to take a look at the results if you choose to blog about them. Feel free to post thoughts, suggestions or links below.

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Friday Fiction – A Mother’s Legacy

Another gorgeous picture for the Fictioneers this week, today’s courtesy of Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Thanks to Madison Woods as usual for hosting.

My response is a bit of a mystery even to me, this week. I’ll leave you to decide where the characters are going and what it all means. As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts and critique is always welcome.

 

A Mother’s Legacy

She knew the path so much better than I, yet I was leading. She had guided me all my life, but now I was ahead.

She was staring into the trees, and I noticed what had caught her attention – a spider’s web, vividly picked out of the darkness by the crystal moonlight. And in the very centre, a tight ball of inhabitants, ready to hatch.

“She’s given them everything,” she said, unable to look away. “Will it be enough, my children?”

I tucked an arm underneath hers, blinking away tears, “Of course, Mum. Let’s get you to the shore now.”

 

 

 

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