Saturday, 1 December 2012


Creating a real character is the ‘golden fleece’ of story telling. Once we believe your character(s) are living, breathing human beings, or any other life form, as Mr. Spock might put it, we engage with the character and the story you are telling us, preferably through a series of hints, not labels. Ian Fleming never describes James Bond, he is defined by his actions and reactions; these are the key attributes we need to get him/her/it stepping around our imagination, forming the impression you intended. Allowing us to feel our way into the story, rather than showing us a 48-sheet, full-colour illuminated poster.

Using Fleming’s Bond again as an example, if we are employing the same character in a series of different stories, we need to start hinting at their ‘back story’. Slowly we find out where they come from. Why he fears women, why she never wears red etc etc. They maybe part of the sky in the jigsaw, but they all need to be put in place to complete the picture and underline our belief.

Helping us define our character are other props such as habits, clothes, newspapers they read and little quirks like a penchant for Deer-stalkers, though not a literary figure Colombo’s raincoat tells us masses about his character. Plus of course our character(s) need to talk, so why dialogue can be difficult at the best of times, to keep him in character over a series of stories is vital to us believing in your creation. So we need to establish their voice, and stick with it,
it is both what they say and how they say it.

If all this is teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, a pastime I have never indulged in myself, I apologise. I think this is me thinking out loud, trying to get to grips with my Comanche Joe character and make you all believe a talking dog in the wild west smacks a wee bit of the truth. If I don’t believe in him why should you? If we don’t believe in any of our characters, why should the reader, and, at the risk of sounding like Rhet Butler, give a damn? 

Stephen Wright

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Weekly Exercise

A new week and another new exercise to tax our collective imaginations! Each Saturday, whoever has the chair sets the group a writing task, to be completed by the following Saturday. These exercises may require that at some point in the piece, a particular word must feature, such as precious. Or, it may be that the piece must begin with a particular phrase, such as, Jack raised his rifle and pointed it towards the cigarette glow, or even end with one: a cold shiver ran down his spine. But these are not the only possibilities and  there are plenty of  books available which have short exercises to stimulate creativity.
The word count may vary from one hundred to two hundred words and all pieces are read out at the beginning of the morning and critiqued. The word count really focuses the mind, so that every word counts: a good discipline for every writer. Anyone who lets their pen run away with them, has to have the work critiqued as their main piece, which isn’t good news as you then have to make a choice as to which you want critiqued more : that or your main piece. It also implies a certain level of trust and integrity: not saying, “Oh, I’ve done one hundred and fifty five words,” when the word count is closer to three hundred!

We all have our preferred genres: science fiction; romance; light comedy; dark romance; general non- fiction and military memoire. However, these little exercises have encouraged members to step outside  their comfort zones and write pieces they previously might never have considered: sharp pieces of flash fiction good enough to win competitions; longer short stories  submitted for publication in magazines.

From my own point of view, there is no doubt that these exercises have helped me to explore ideas and develop as a writer. Much to my surprise, they have given birth to an alter ego, Vera, a northern woman of a certain age and disposition. Whilst I’m doing the housework, my mind disengaged, somewhere in there lurks the task of the week, floating around, working its magic in my subconscious, until Vera springs forth with yet more ideas on life.

In fact, much of my work of late has had its genesis in these little exercises conscientiously completed to meet deadlines. Being in a group also helps as there is that little added pressure of doing something that others think is original, amusing, sharp, and  well plotted. However, not all of us have the time or opportunity to join a writing group, but that’s no reason why you can’t exercise those writing muscles by trying to write short pieces based on words plucked at random from a dictionary. Go on. Do it. You might surprise yourself.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Show not tell

Good writing has an effortless flow. The reader subconsciously responds to its mood and style. Once the ideas start to come, the key is to translate these into words that take the reader along. But in any good novel or short story a reader must be sufficiently immersed in the scene, character and plot to forget that they reading. They must be there as a witness not a distant bystander.

The techniques to achieve this are too wide for a blog post and if I had mastered them I would be off to another book signing rather than writing this. But there are a few prompts and self-reminders which I’ve found helpful when hacking my way through the chapters and a few of them are here for the Phoenix October Post:

‘Show not tell’ is an essential component to avoid being a ‘gumboot’ writer. Avoid going out in the mud with your size tens and ‘telling.’ Show it – the reader wants to see. They need something to do and will lose their appetite if you constantly spoon-feed them.

Imagine that you are sitting watching your chapter/scene on a cinema screen. Is it clear in the readers mind? Apart from the dialogue, films can’t tell you anything, it’s all visual and therefore shown. Look at your hero by the window in the corner. You’ve just told us he’s afraid. On the screen he’s trying to light a cigarette with his shaking hands and keeps glancing out of the window. Write down those clues in facial expressions and actions that show the emotion instead of telling it. The reader will engage and get closer.

The dialogue and action is crucial to a scene on screen, just as it is for the writer. If three people are standing like stuffed dummies in a room, however good the dialogue is, dummies are exactly what you see on screen, and exactly what the reader will see unless you animate the scene by showing.  A brushstroke of description and then action as you go along is enough to set the scene off against the characters. Sit in your Pullman seat (the one with the big square arms and crisp edges) and listen to the dialogue; look at what your characters are doing. If neither cuts it on screen, then they won’t cut it for your reader.

The film you are watching is often full of panorama and detail. The writer needs to temper this so that the reader does not get overload and indigestion. Succinct ‘show’ and a steal on mood can be helpful. Music does this in the cinema; the writer has the more powerful tool of words.

John LeCarré invokes mood in Smiley’s People and gives the reader enough description for us to fill in the gaps. 

“The gates opened electronically and beyond them lay mounds of clipped grass like mass graves grown over.  Olive downs stretched towards the sunset. A mushroom-shaped cloud would have looked entirely natural.”

Here the devil is in the detail and not overdoing it.

Describing your characters you see on screen can be tricky because it’s easy to slip into cardboard cut-out clichés. ‘He was a tall dark man’; ’she had long fair hair.’ The character actions and dialogue will help create a picture beyond the basic visual, but the writer can give more by approaching it from a deeper subtler ‘show’ angle that the film cannot portray. In The Shining Stephen King describes the hotel manager:

“Ulman stood five feet five, and when he moved it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all plump men. The part of his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problem to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly. This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel. Perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.”

There is a mix in the extract above that takes the writing to another dimension and draws the reader closer to Ulmann as he works. 

These are only my thoughts. You are telling a story, so don't be afraid of telling part of it. Rules are there to be broken, but making the majority of the writing vivid and powerful by showing will keep your reader with you.

 Keep writing.

Keith Morley

Saturday, 1 September 2012

I’m no Luddite

I’ve had computers since the days of the ZX Spectrum – mine’s still in the attic (its rubbery keys gathering dust) and I remember MS-DOS. I’ve gone through ‘Dial-up’ and come out the other end with my nerves in tatters but nevertheless I launched myself happily into the broadband zone.

The next step though has me standing on the edge, like a scaredy-cat on the high-diving board above the deep end at the local swimming pool.

So many electronic tools seem to have arrived all at once that I’m out of my depth. There’s ebooks and Kindles. There’s iPads (I always have this urge to capitalize that ‘i’ when it’s at the beginning of a sentence. What’s the etiquette?) and their apps. Dare I jump in and buy another machine? They’re expensive and do I need another computing device when I already have 3? 

But I know an excuse when I hear one and thanks to the Phoenix Writers I’m on the verge of flexing my knees and leaping out into the unknown. There’s no pressure, but I don’t think I’ll be able to slipstream in the wake of other members for much longer without going for it. If nothing else, I’m too nosy.

The future of publishing is a big pool. A big interesting pool. A big interesting pool that’s changing shape daily. Do I want to be part of it? Yes, please! And I know just the people who would be only too happy to help me.

One of the Phoenix Writers, Mary, has published a collection of comic pieces on Amazon (Kindle edition). Why should I not follow suit? Mary had help from another member of the group and I’ll never forget her delighted smile when she saw the finished product for sale (only £2.96).

I’ll have no qualms about accepting help when the time is right and if I’m successful, it’ll be because I’m standing on the shoulders of others. That’s how the system works.

Glenise Lee