Swanwick, Set Backs, and Favourite Writing Tips

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Back to business then and I’m working on a short story that I hope will go in for a fairytale competition.

I drafted this on the train up to Swanwick (what ELSE are three hour train journeys for?!😁} but, for once, need to add to the story to get it to the required length. This won’t be a problem. There was one scene I had wanted to expand but hadn’t, because I was wary of the word count. So it looks at if I might to get have my cake and eat it here after all (though I expect the overall cake will still need a darned good edit once done!).

I’ve got other pieces to type up which I hope to do over the next few days and I’m happily reworking my novel too. So busy, busy, busy, and all of it fun and that’s a very nice position to be in. Am grateful for it too. Doesn’t always work that way.


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I read at the Prose Open Mic at Swanwick this year.  Great fun!  Many thanks to Geoff Parkes for the photo.

Ironically, for a week associated with stories, I didn’t get to read many while away at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. By the time I got back to my room most nights, I was far too tired to read much.

Buzzing with ideas and taking in so much from the different courses does that to you! So one of the things helping me with the “come back to earth again blues” is returning to my book pile, which includes some lovely new additions, thanks to the Swanwick Book Room!

How do your characters handle setbacks? Do they bring out the best or worst in your creations? Or do your characters need time out before coming to terms with what’s happened and then moving on? If they have a sidekick, do they react in the same way? Do differences of opinion here mean the end of the partnership or it going in a direction neither had anticipated at the start of the story?

Whatever you choose, have fun with it, but just as we’re prone to strops when life does not go our way, some of our characters at least should reflect that too.

Favourite writing tips I’ve learned so much from over the years:-

1. Edit on paper. You miss things on screen.

2. Read widely (in and out of your genre and include non-fiction too).

3. Put work aside for a while before editing it so you can read the piece with fresh eyes.

4. When facing a deadline (competitions etc), take away a week to ten days from the official date. That way you still have a few days to get your entry in if the piece takes longer than you think to complete. (And it often will).

5. Read work out loud. If necessary record yourself and play it back. This is really useful for hearing how dialogue sounds especially. Golden rule here: if you trip over it as you read it, so will your readers. Time for the red editing pen again!

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Be open to finding sources of ideas for any kind of story in places you don’t expect to come across them.

The reason I mention that is because I had great fun with an exercise set in Simon Hall’s A to Z of Novel Writing at Swanwick recently and know I’m going to get a flash fiction piece from it.

Another exercise from the same course looks like it may become a longer short story and I am looking forward to writing these up soon.

Neither of these exercises were specifically set to generate flash fiction or a short story (as the course name suggests!!) but when you can see where you can adapt something for a form in which you are already writing, go for it. You have nothing to lose.

How do I know when a piece I’ve drafted will make a flash fiction story? It’s not just down to the word count. What I’m looking at is the impact of the story.

If I feel that impact will be strengthened by adding to it, then I will and often these pieces end up being standard length short stories (which I usually then put into competitions).

But often I will feel a piece has a powerful impact at a couple of hundred words and I will leave it at that. I focus on editing the piece then and fine tuning it so that impact is as powerful as I can make it. Then those pieces go on to Cafelit, the online magazine, and/or are put into the collection of flash fiction I’m currently working on. Sometimes I’ll put them up on my website too.

The nice thing about flash is it is easy to share on a site. It literally doesn’t take up too much room, is read easily on screen, and I’ve found before that the best way to describe flash fiction is to read some out/put some up for people to see for themselves.

One of my favourite techniques in writing flash fiction is to take a first person viewpoint and let them lead the reader up the garden path so to speak.

In Health and Safety I start with my character letting you know they road test products. By the end of the story, you find out that my narrator has glossed over their actions in an attempt to justify what happened as a result of them.

Not so much an unreliable narrator, more of an embarrassed one who wants to try to save some face! Good fun to write though…

I love writing stories from the viewpoint of characters who were “overlooked” for the starring role in the traditional fairytales. My first published story was A Helping Hand in Bridge House Publishing’s Alternative Renditions anthology and told the Cinderella story from the viewpoint of the younger Ugly Sister. Great fun to write. Sympathetic to Cinders? What do you think?! But it is great to turn a tale on its head like that. Do give it a go.

I also love those minor characters in a story that can’t be the lead but who still have a vital role to play in it. From The Lord of the Rings you know from the outset the focus has to be on Frodo, but Merry and Peregrin are great fun and do come into their own much later on.

So how can you make your minor characters interesting and fun to follow? Humour is great here, especially if the lead role, as is the case with Frodo, have a burden to deal with and where light relief will be welcome. Get your minor characters right and you will create wonderful subplots, which add layers to your story. They give added reasons for your readers to keep reading, which after all is the objective of a good story!







One thought on “Swanwick, Set Backs, and Favourite Writing Tips

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