Monthly Archives: July 2013

Friday Fiction – Him

Well, what do you know? A long time ago, I sent Rochelle two photos I thought she might like to use for the FF prompt. We had one a few months ago and I’d forgotten all about the other. But then this morning, I find people linking to my blog (thank you!) and when I go to check out their blogs – Bam! It’s my photo of a model bee at the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. The bee is probably long gone, but the centre is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.

Him (Genre: Romance)

When we were seven, he was my best friend: we’d hunt butterflies together and search the clover for four-leafers. But puberty drove us apart. He wasn’t my type – bigger and hairier than the boys I liked – and I didn’t think I was pretty enough to be his.

He bumbled into my life again at my parents’ golden wedding. I’d been stung by a thousand others by then and I’d given up on the whole game.

We walked in the garden and lay together among the clover, looking at the stars and talking about finding the right place to spend winter.


Field Notes:

In Canada, it appears to be much more complicated, but in England there are three kinds of stinging insect: wasps, bees and bumble bees. Wasps are nasty little monsters, who will sting you for fun. Bees (honey bees) are industrious and quiet and will only sting if attacked. Bumblebees are fantastic creatures. They are relatively uncommon, seem to love clover even though it’s much less vivid and beautiful than many other flowers and are renowned for being “scientifically unable to fly.”

Thinking about this distinction reminded me of relationships – if one has to kiss a lot of frogs to find a Prince, perhaps one also has to go through a few wasps and honey bees before finding an incredible and wonderful bumble bee.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

Editing – Progress Report

Back in the dim and distant past (January), I put together a plan for editing my first ever NaNoWriMo novel: working title, The Phoenix Fire.

Part of the plan was to spend May – July on a full-scale rewrite, based on the problems I found in the earlier months. By then, I had 60 “scenes” planned out, and needed to add, move and remove text to make the story work. I’ve been posting updates and you may have read that at the end of last month I’d fallen slightly behind, but things picked up in July and there was a bit of slack built into the schedule, so I managed to write the last word of the final scene on Friday 19th. For that, I’m rather pleased with myself.

I also think it’s a good story now. It’s a very different beast from where it was in January, but mostly in a good way. The plot feels much more rounded and the text sharper.

The biggest disappointment, though, is the length. When I started editing, it was over 80,000 words long, and suitable (on that front) for publication as a novel. However, the editing process meant cutting out a lot of fluff, and my writing style is much leaner these days, so the new version hovers at just 50,000.

The bad news is, publishing trends in this genre (mainstream fiction / magical realism) seem to be going long at the moment, which knocks me firmly back into novella territory. The good news, perhaps, is that novellas are on the up. So, I’m planning not to pad the text I’m working with now.

August is all about another read-through with a highlighter pen and a notebook. I’m sort of looking forward to it – hopefully I’ll enjoy it this time around!

How are your Writing Resolutions for 2013 coming along? Have you backtracked or given up, revised your goals or smashed through them? 7 months in, there’s still time to get some decent writing done this year, and to pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve achieved so far


Filed under NaNoWriMo, Writing

Who Said That?

My story for InMon on Thursday raised a great comment from Stuart, including the observation that he’d sometimes struggled to identify who was speaking. The scene involved three girls, discussing the Narrator’s one night stand the previous night, and I know what Stuart means; it’s a challenge I hate as a reader and face as a writer, so I thought I’d stop and deal with it in more detail today.

When I discussed this with my writing group on Saturday, we decided that sometimes it doesn’t matter which friend is saying every single comment – what’s important may just be their effect on the narrator. But as a writer, that’s a really brave call to make. There will be readers who will be turned off the story by this, and those readers might occasionally be the ones who decide whether you get published or not! So, how do we deal with this problem?

The Easy Answer

The most straightforward way to avoid confusion is to use dialogue tags, most obviously “she said” or “said Alice” etc. Whilst it’s good to occasionally mix things up and have someone squeak, shout or whisper, for the most part, writing guides discourage too much imagination on dialogue tags – we read “said” without slowing down, but anything else disrupts the brain’s concentration on the dialogue itself, apparently.

But putting “said Alice”, “said Louisa”, “I said” after every line of dialogue gets a bit tiresome after a while. And most of the time, dialogue tags come either in the middle or at the end of the speeches they refer to – ideally, the reader doesn’t want to wait that long to find out who’s speaking.

Slightly More Sophisticated

It’s a step up from tags to actions. For example: “Who cares?” Alice had let go of the gain control again.

This allows you to identify Alice as the speaker without any sort of tag. The rule here is, one paragraph per person, so if the action is in the same paragraph as the words, it’s done by the speaker.

Watch out for the tag / action distinction so bemoaned by writing coaches. You can speak and smile, for example, but you cannot smile a speech. Compare the punctuation in:

“Have a biscuit,” Evan smiled.

“Have a biscuit.” Evan smiled.

The first version implied that Evan smiled the words, which is impossible. In the second, someone says the words (and because it’s in the same paragraph, we can assume it’s Evan) and Evan smiles.

Top Marks

The fanciest way to distinguish between speakers is through character. In a super-short story like Thursday’s, that’s not so easy to do, but it’s a skill I definitely need to work on even within those boundaries, and in a longer piece it’s imperative.

The goal is for the reader to know your characters so well, they know who is speaking from the words they say. Think about your favourite book or TV show. If I gave you a few lines from it, you’d probably be able to tell me who is talking.

This is another danger zone: take it too far and the characters become wooden or caricatured. But there’s definitely a happy medium. I struggled to differentiate Louisa and Alice on Thursday because I made them so similar. Of course they are similar, they are friends, of the same age, living in the same place. They have shared idiom and experiences. But even when we lived on top of each other at university, my best friend and I didn’t speak exactly the same way. I’ve been with my husband more than a decade, but he and I are definitely distinguishable in the way we speak too.

So if I were to go back to Thursday’s story and improve it, I’d work on the girls’ characters some more. I’d find the differences between Alice and Louisa in particular, and the Narrator too, and I’d bring them out better in the dialogue.

A note on duologue

All the above still works, but if there are only two people speaking, it’s a little easier. As long as you punctuate and paragraph correctly, the reader can follow the exchange like a singles tennis match between them, with just the occasional tag to orientate us occasionally so we don’t get lost and have to count up half a page.

Sometimes, you can be sneaky and put names into the speech instead. If Sarah and Pete are talking and someone says “What do you think, Sarah?”, we know it must be Pete. But in real life most people rarely actually say each other’s names out loud, so use this sparingly. And still aim for top marks where you can.

I once wrote an entire 7000 word story as a duologue between a brother and sister. There was not a single word outside the quotation marks: no tags or actions, just the words they spoke, like a radio play. But for the most part (not entirely, it still needs work), I think you can tell who is speaking because of a combination of the other tricks mentioned here.

If you’re working on a story right now, how do you make it clear who’s speaking?



Filed under Writing

Inspiration Monday – The Man With No Name

Steph’s prompts for InMon this week had the exact opposite effect of the Friday Fiction picture. I was almost immediately struck with a fully-formed idea for a story. It’s quite long, for which I hope you will forgive me, and comes with both a MATURE CONTENT and a COARSE LANGUAGE WARNING. Please be advised not to read this story if either is likely to upset you. It’s some way outside my normal remit, so I’d love to here your feedback – good and bad – on how it’s gone.


The Man With No Name

 “You brought him home?!” Alice squealed and slid down on the sofa towards me.

“That’s not the worst part.” Louisa loved knowing something about me before my sister. She took another chocolate from the box on the table and sat back.

“There’s nothing worse than that. She brought him home!”

“So you say.”

I watched them, passing my news back and forward between them, waiting until they let me speak again.

“This guy approached her with the most outrageous chat-up line ever and she brought him home!” Alice wasn’t going to let that go in a hurry.

I could see Louisa’s brain moving behind her eyes. She was desperate to ask about the chat-up line, but to do so would be to give away the high ground. She’d been there when we woke up this morning; that was her position of power. But she hadn’t been there when he appeared last night, and Alice had.

I came to her rescue. “It wasn’t the most outrageous chat-up line ever. That would be like ‘Do you want to see my collection of iguanas?’”

They both looked at me with a mixture of pity and condescension that made me want to leave right there and then.

“That wouldn’t be outrageous,” Louisa said, “Just crap.”

“Promise me, if anyone ever opens with that, you’ll pepper spray him,” Alice warned. “I’ve got to take care of my little sister.” She loves that – eighteen minutes and she’ll be rubbing them in forever.

Now they were united, Louisa clearly felt more at ease. She leaned towards us, elbows on knees. “So, come on, what did he say?”

“He said…”

I interrupted her. This was my story. “He said ‘So, are you going to take me home then?’ It wasn’t that outrageous.”

“Do you fuck on first dates?” My sister was squealing again. I gave her the same sign to cool it I’ve been giving since my first hangover, after our sixteenth birthday: I reached over and hit her on the arm.

“Shut up.”

“Will you two stick to the story?”

“OK. So, he said that and obviously I thought he was a cock, so I ignored him.”

“Ignored him,” Alice said, “I’d have slapped him.” She’d dropped maybe three decibels and half an octave. I hit her again.

“I ignored him and went to the bar. But he followed me. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘You’re here because you’re looking for someone to go home with, same as me.’ I didn’t answer. ‘And we could spend the evening bumping and grinding here with all these sweaty bastards, waiting until we’re drunk enough for you not to care that I sound like a bit of an asshole. Or, we could just get on with it and have some fun.’”

Louisa hadn’t moved from her interrogation. “So you agreed? On the back of that flimsy argument?”

“No. What do you take me for?”

“Nothing. But you did end up bringing him home.” Louisa and I have shared flats for nearly four years, and lived in close proximity for three years of university before that. She knows exactly how many notches are … or rather aren’t … on my bedpost.

“So she comes to me and says we should get outta there,” Alice said.

“I did. And my caring supportive sister says…”

“’No way, Jose, there’s too much talent here. Just tell him to go fuck himself.’”

“Fair point,” said Louisa. “Joe’s is a decent joint on a Saturday and you’d paid to get in.”

It’s nice to know who your friends are. “So I head back to the dancefloor, get into the music, try to forget about the guy and about my ever-supportive sister.” I shot her a glare. She’s immune to them and just poked me with coral pink toes.

“And then I end up pulling this cute bloke from the army and that’s the last I see of her,” said Alice. “For the record, by the way, I did not take him home. One of us has to maintain the family’s reputation.”

Louisa caught my eye and we both collapsed at once. Alice pretended to be offended for all of three seconds then joined in. My sister’s bedposts would both be sawdust if she bothered notching them.

“Aw, shut up. Tell me what happened after.”

“All I know is, I get up in the night to take some more painkillers,” began Louisa, who’d cried off last night because of her period, but seemed much better since she’d switched from paracetamol and bed rest to Cadbury’s and me-bashing. “And I find the hallway strewn with clothing like something out of Indecent Proposal.”

“There was, like, one shoe.”

“And a shirt. A man’s shirt.” She raised an eyebrow.

“Hardly makes me Sharon Stone!”

“Who cares?” Alice had let go of the gain control again. “How did you get from ‘Go fuck yourself’ to ‘Come fuck me’?”

“I don’t really know,” I admitted. “He came back and started talking more normally. We just got chatting, and then kissing, and then…” I wanted to make it sound persuasive, but my brain wasn’t playing along.

“And then she brought him home and fucked him!” Louisa’s outburst rivaled any of Alice’s for volume, although she would never match my sister for squeak.

“Can we use another word?”

“No!” They both yelled at once.

“This isn’t Jane fucking Austen!” Louisa added. “And you still haven’t told her the worst part.”

“Tell me the worst part.” Alice was sitting up now, her back against the arm of the sofa and her feet digging even more into my thigh. The thigh that had been wrapped around him just a few hours ago, I realised. It was weird, how distant a memory it felt and yet how fresh at the same time.

“She doesn’t know his name!” Louisa threw a chocolate into the air. It missed her mouth, bounced on her cheek and hit the floor, ruining her commanding moment.

Alice stared at me with new-found respect, covered by a look of extreme scandal. “Is it true?”

“Because obviously that’s the worst thing here,” I said, feeling my cheeks prickle with heat.

“I expect him to forget your name,” said Alice, “But he’s only like the third guy you’ve ever slept with. You can’t forget his.”

“I haven’t.”

“So what is it?”

“I don’t know. He never said.” I whispered it, wondering why this of all things should be the point I was ashamed of.

“He never said!” Louisa was catching Alice’s habit of echoing things she found extreme.

“He’s probably a Norman,” said Alice, as though that explained it.

“Or a Brian,” Louisa agreed. “I wouldn’t tell people if I was a Brian.”

“What’s wrong with Brian?” Louisa doesn’t know, but Alice’s first boyfriend was called Brian. She’s never quite got over him.

“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t think he’s ashamed of his name. He just didn’t say.”

“So. When you were fucking him…” She caught my eye. “Sorry, when you were making love to him, what were you screaming?”

“I wasn’t…”

“She was.” I can always count on Louisa to back me up. “I can give you a sodding transcript.”

“I don’t think you need to,” I said, glaring at her. She’s immune too. I need to get lasers fitted to my eyes.

There was a moment’s silence: deafening compared to the conversation before it. I tried to think of some way of changing the subject, but this one was too novel for either of them to let it go. I took a handful of chocolates and waited for the next question.

“Did you give him your number?” asked Alice, eventually.

“If he gave you his, you could save it under The Man With No Name!” Louisa shrieked at her own joke. I pulled my phone off the table and stuffed it into my pocket. Later, I changed his entry to “ZZZ”.


Filed under Inspiration Monday, Writing

Friday Fiction – Looking up, looking down (again)

Well, Rochelle, you certainly know how to challenge us. This week’s photo from prodigal fictioneer Doug is stunning, but it really didn’t inspire the muse. Lots of thoughts went through my head about it – the boiling clouds, the black / white distinction (and various bad jokes about shades of grey), a great chasm between where one is and where one wants to be – but none of them led to a story.

Then, as so often happens when I’m stuck, an idea came to me while I was rocking Sebastian to sleep. And here it is. The only problem is, I’ve used this title before. Your critique and comments are always welcome, any suggestions for another title are also invited this week.


Looking up, looking down (again!)

“Reckon my Milly’s up there now with him, playin’ her harp to your Frank.” Walter smiled.

“Then she’s wasting her time. Frank’s deaf as a door!” Joan dabbed away the tears with a clean corner of his handkerchief. “But thank you.”

“Feel any better?”

“A little. It’s nice to think of him looking down on me.”

Walter paused, then went ahead and said it anyway. “Didn’t say nothing ‘bout lookin’. Heaven’s above the clouds, right?”

“I suppose…”

He put a hand on Joan’s knee. “Well, have you seen the weather? We could do anything we like and they’d never know.”


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

Including Backstory

Ah, the old dilemma. You need to introduce your characters, give us some important bits of their history, but without taking attention away from the exciting things happening in the here and now of the story. I’ve heard it said that if your second scene occurs before your first in the timeline, you opened at the wrong place. To some extent, that’s probably true, but it’s a delicate balance to open in the right place in the action but also at a catchy place to hook your readers.

Even when you’ve found the perfect opening scene, you will need to show some degree of history for your characters. There are lots of ways to do it, but here are three useful options to give a different feel to the piece, or to mix things up if you’ve always found yourself doing it the same way.

Let’s say someone breaks into the home of our main character – Lee. His reaction to this is heavily influenced by the fact we’ve decided his father beat him as a child. You could start the story in his childhood and show it, but in most cases that’s going to be too early. Instead, you could employ one of the following methods.

  1. Exposition:

Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. It had taken him a long time to equate “home” with safety. As a child, home had been a place of violent tempers and creeping around; of trying to avoid his father’s eye and, worse, his father’s belt buckle. Now, in his own home, and with his own son asleep upstairs, Lee felt those terrors again, but this time, he was the one with weapon in his hand.

  1. Flashback:

Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. He skipped the seventh step – a habit which moving house hadn’t cured. He was eight years old again, creeping through the house to avoid catching Daddy’s eye, disturbing Daddy’s game, feeling Daddy’s wrath. At the bottom, he stopped, listening for Daddy’s shout: “Get in here,” but it didn’t come. He felt the cold metal in his hand and he was an adult again, defending his wife, his son, and the first place he had ever wanted to call home.

  1. Reference:

Lee crept down the stairs, his heart thumping in his ears. He raised his son’s baseball bat above his head as he reached the bottom step, just as he’d seen his father do so many times with that battered old belt. Lee wasn’t going to be a victim any longer. His father was dead, God rest his flea-bitten soul, and there was no one left who could put Lee in his place. Least of all some junkie looking to pay for the next fix.


How do these different options make you feel? Which do you prefer? Are there other contexts in which another might be better?


Filed under Writing

Not now, not never

Ah, English language, I’ll never not love you.

Negatives are powerful things. “No” is one of the first words we learn to understand as babies (apparently) and is one of the things which protects our identity and independence as we get older. Yes is often easier to say, it makes you a follower; No makes you stand out.

Negatives can have positive synonyms, but while the information they convey can be identical, the weight and feel of the message changes. Sometimes dramatically. Compare: “I will see him next year” with “I won’t see him until next year” or “I’m leaving him behind” with “I’m not taking him with me.”

Double negatives are often frowned upon and frequently misused, but they are an enriching part of English idiom too. To understand the technical meaning of a double negative, you can just take them both out, but the richness comes because it’s so more complicated than that!

“I ain’t never eating brocolli again,” technically ought to mean “I am always going to eat broccoli” but of course it doesn’t. It’s an emphatic way of saying “I’m never eating broccoli again” with a hint at the geographical or class origins of the speaker.

Conversely, there’s a line in “The Wizard and I” from Wicked which goes “no father is not proud of you”. This time, it’s technically correct. The double negative is used to mean “Your father is proud of you”, but the use of the double negative gives a clear image of the emotional state and history of the character. “Your father is proud of you” is pretty neutral, whereas the line as it is used is loaded with emotion – the singer’s father isn’t currently proud of her, she resents this and dreams of a world in which things are different.




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Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

Friday Fiction – No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems

This week’s prompt for FF comes from An Elephant Can’t. After last week’s fairly literal take, I’ve gone right off the deep end this time – kudos and gratitude to Rochelle for continuing to challenge me every week. If you’ve got time, do head over to her blog and take a look at the other stories linked there.

In the meantime, enjoy mine…


No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems

She’d always dreamed about it: knee deep in the sea; pina coladas on the rocks and absolutely nowhere to be. The songs of escape tempting her regularly on her daily commute.

In the end, it had been so easy. Leave the car – with the keys in – on a busy street. Leave the apartment door open. The only really tough bit had been parting with her housemate, Alfie, but he’d find somebody else’s window box to nest in soon enough.

When the money ran out she’d have to decide what to do, but until then she’d gone coastal on them all.


If you’d like to share some of the music from Jess’ daily commute, have a look here, here, here and here. If you don’t like country music, don’t click on those links!


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

A “No post today” Post

Operation Pull-Up-The-Floor begins today, so my internet access is likely to be patchy this week, and my time-to-post even more so. Hopefully I’ll still manage the regular schedule, but if not, see you next week!


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Filed under Uncategorized

In Mon – Paper Lies

Oh time, where have you gone? Today, the answer is in brushing up my first contest entry in months. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, here’s my contribution for InMon’s latest prompts. I’d love to hear what you think.

Paper Lies

The dead, of whom we must not speak ill, do not reserve the same courtesy for us, it would seem. My Uncle’s Will contained rather more diatribe against the family than it did bequests. And it’s unduly hard to argue with a dead man; he always seems to have the last word.

My wife was a cruel and unfaithful woman. She had a string of affairs with all sorts of people, most notably my brother, William. For this reason, I have left nothing to either of them, nor to the son who most likely shares no more of my genes than do my nephews.

We all sat round the table, listening to the reading. I tried not to look at my father, but in avoiding his eye, caught my aunt’s: wet and sunken, with something that looked like pain but could have been guilt.

On which subject, I hold those two louts entirely responsible for the downfall of the family business. Lucky I got out when the going was still good – before they ruined everything my father had worked so hard to build up. Nothing for Peter or James.

I thought of the long hard hours my brothers had put in, attempting to shore up the mess Uncle Pete had left behind when he retired. Debts renegotiated and paid off steadily, complaints handled and resolved. I knew a lot about it, having done a lot of the admin for them in my spare time at weekends and holidays.

The Will continued, naming and shaming every member of the family, and a fair few close friends too, with these paper lies. Each one, flimsy and unsubstantiated, yet impossible to disprove.

“His illness took away his reason,” said my Aunt, when the lawyer paused for breath. “Please, don’t judge Pete by these words. He was a kind and loving man before the stroke.”

Of course, that wasn’t really true either. Nobody could have blamed her if she had cheated on him – my Uncle was a bitter man long before his brain function gave him any excuse to be.

“There is one bequest,” said the lawyer, clearly trying to get through this unpleasantness and leave the family to our grief.

In all the blackness which pervades this family, one light shines. One star brings hope for the future. Her beauty, in person and spirit, her kindnesses and gentleness; her strength of character and peace of conscience are an emblem for us all. I leave my entire wealth and possessions to my niece, Ariadne.”

The whole room turned to look at me. Their faces were a mixture of shock and annoyance. How had I, little Ariadne, escaped the wrath of Uncle Pete? And what was I going to do with an estate worth over fourteen million dollars?

“I’ll share it, of course,” I said weakly, hoping to prevent the anguish of the family turning on to me. “He wasn’t in his right mind.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” said my mother. I knew what she was thinking, of course. That first lie – my father and my aunt – it had sewn a seed in her mind. She wanted to hate Uncle Pete, but now she couldn’t be sure. That’s what I mean about dead men’s lies.

“You must do what you think right,” said Father. “The Doctors said he was sane when he signed it, so the Will stands.”

“It does indeed,” said Uncle Pete’s lawyer, standing up and obviously hoping to escape now that the reading was done. “Plebney and Blake would of course be delighted to continue to assist with the estate in any way you wish.”

I looked at my aunt. She hadn’t moved. Hadn’t even looked at me since the bequest was announced. She was staring at her fingers, resting on the table, as though somewhere there she might find an answer to all her questions. I walked over and took her hand. It was cold and unresponsive in mine, as though she had died with her husband.

“Think of all the things we can do together,” I said, without really knowing what I meant.


Filed under Inspiration Monday, Writing