The weather forecast is talking about the warmest Easter on record, the news is full of people sunning themselves on British beaches, and the smell of charred meat hangs in the air as barbecues are dusted off and lit for the first time in months. And me? I’m playing Christmas jingles and thinking about tinsel, icy pavements and turkey leftovers. Yes, I’m writing a seasonal story.
The time-lag involved in publishing means that a story with a seasonal flavour has to be submitted six months before. My story has a May deadline, hence my writing about Christmas whilst nibbling on an Easter egg.
The story is for a collection of Christmas stories featuring fictional detectives, and I’m writing a story featuring my PI sleuth, Eden Grey. The story must be set at Christmas and have a Christmas theme. For a long time I simply dragged my mind back to Christmas and compiled a list of things that are typically Christmassy: office parties, buying presents, houses smothered with lights, food, drink, family. Eventually I came up with a theme I could work into a detective story, and that allowed Eden to do all the things she’s good at: surveillance, breaking and entering, and getting into a fight.
Once I’d got the plot, I needed to feel more Christmassy, in the hopes that those sensations would translate onto the page. Here’s how I did it:
1. Playing Christmas music
The neighbours thought I was bonkers, but playing Christmas tunes helped me to think about Christmas and to remember how that time of year feels. Sound, like smell, is wired into memory. Certain songs evoke specific places, people, and events. Even decades later, a certain song will remind me of a school trip to Norway. Writing to a background of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ helped me get into the Christmassy swing.
2. Remembrance of Christmas past
Confession time. I don’t like Christmas much. For me it means other people’s stress, overspending, overeating and general tetchiness. Call me Scrooge if you like, but my Christmas is quiet and simple, and that’s how I like it. The good thing about Christmas for storytellers is it’s usually a time of great tension, and as we all know, stories are powered by tension. At Christmas, everyone is expected to have a wonderful time. If you’re ill, lonely or generally fed-up, that feeling of alienation from everyone else intensifies.
3. What’s the weather like?
Although we often think of a white Christmas, it rarely happens in the UK. Christmas is usually dank, misty, dark and rainy. It’s difficult to remember exactly what the weather is like in certain seasons, so I turned to my journal to remember. Notes about gardening in the rain, slipping on frosty pavements, or unexpected warmth reminded me that winter isn’t cold and rainy every single day. These details gave my prose authenticity.
4. Eat, drink, and be Christmassy
Mince pies have long ago disappeared from the supermarket shelves, but there are Brussels sprouts, turkey, and fruit cake. Plus hot chocolate, hot toddies, and Baileys. Certain seasons have distinctive tastes particular to them, and by experiencing that taste I evoked the season associated with it. While everyone else was sipping Pimms and eating barbecue chicken, I was drinking hot chocolate and eating pigs in blankets.
Writing a seasonal story means being out of synch with everyone else. You have to create a bubble in which it's Christmas, and block out everything Easter around you. The benefit of writing this way is that when winter rolls around, and everyone huddles inside counting down the days to summer, I’m already there, writing six months in the future, glorying in the long June days and toasting myself in the sun.
During the Second World War, posters were put up warning people 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' and to 'Be like Dad - Keep Mum'. The posters were to remind people that they didn't know who was listening - that a casual conversation on a bus could give away where troops were based or ships were heading.
So what's this got to do with writing? Well, loose lips sink ships, and plots, and characters, dialogue, twists, metaphors and settings.
Let me ask you this. When an idea for a story or a novel or a poem comes into your mind, do you jot it down, play with it, write it, rewrite it until it's the best you can make it and then send it off? Or do you jot it down, tell your husband about it over dinner, act out the brilliant bits of dialogue to your friends, describe the plot twists in minute detail to your mum, and try out the comedy on your kids? Chances are if you do, that the story/ novel/ poem never gets written at all, never mind rewritten and sent off.
Bursting Your Bubble
Why? Because when writing is new it's very fragile. That initial idea isn't really an idea, it's a seed. A starting point. It needs nurturing and feeding. How do you nurture and feed? You jot it down, you play with it, you write some bits, you think about it, you leave it alone for a while, you idly turn it over in your mind while cooking dinner.
Talking about it makes it lose the magic. Imagine that idea is a bubble - exciting and colourful and different from every angle, but pass it around a bit and it'll pop. To go back to the seed metaphor, talking about your idea is like digging up the seed every few hours and seeing if it's sprouted yet.
How To Kill Your Idea
Your brain will get bored with the idea if you talk about it. While it's new and fresh, it's exciting. It's yours to discover. The more you keep it secret, the more energy that idea has, the more it will grow, and the more you'll want to write it. You'll write it because you need to know what happens next.
Tell other people about it and they'll soon take the magic away, often unintentionally, sometimes not. Comments like, "Hm. Interesting" don't help you to keep the excitement alive. Nor do, "Is that character based on me?", "What will the kids think?" or "What you need to do is ..." Talking about a partly formed idea is the swiftest way to kill it.
People rarely laugh at the hilarious bits until you've written them and worked them. Scraps of dialogue are flat if taken out of context. All of this makes you despondent. When you go back to your notebook it's just a heap of words scribbled down. The gloss, the intrigue, the possibility have all gone.
So when it comes to writing, when that brilliant germ of an idea strikes, remember the advice on the War posters, and 'Be Like Dad - Keep Mum'. Keep it a secret until you've worked and polished that piece and it's as good as you can make it - then you can tell people about it.
I've been writing for a long time now, and inevitably have made many mistakes along the way. I don't mean stuff like using too many adverbs, or characters changing eye colour half-way through a story, (though I've made plenty of those mistakes, too), I mean mistakes in how I approached my writing and built on success.
So here are the things I've done that I wish I hadn't:
1. Writing a whole novel longhand
I'm an old fashioned type of writer in that I find my thinking flows better when I write longhand. All my notes are written longhand, and every short story starts life as a first draft in handwriting (sometimes fountain pen, sometimes pencil, sometimes purple felt tip, depending on my mood). And every novel is planned out longhand, then I write straight onto my laptop with my notes beside me.
It's a system that works for me, so what was I thinking when I decided to write a complete novel in longhand? Sheer madness. I have huge lined notebooks filled with writing, 100,000 words in total, some of which is illegible because when I write I write; the words fall over each other and come out as a scrawl.
I tried to type out this novel and gave up. It was too dispiriting. I also tried to dictate it using voice recognition software, but I didn't have the patience to train the software and it wasn't expecting the er...gritty nature of my writing. And so the book languishes in an unfinished, unloved, and incomprehensible state.
2. Not following up on success
When I was new to sending work out for publication, I was very bad at following up on success. I'd send a story to a magazine, get an acceptance, and then wait several months before I sent another one. I felt as though I didn't want to bother them again too soon.
I know now that what I should have done is immediately write another story and send it in, reminding the editor they'd just accepted a piece from me. In waiting, I let the relationship go cold, so each time I sent in a story, I was starting from scratch. Having a relationship with an editor doesn't mean that they'll accept everything you send, but it often means they give you some feedback if they reject a story, or let you know what kind of material they're short of. Invaluable industry insider information, in other words.
3. Giving up too soon
I recently counted up how many full-length novels I've written in total. It came to 15. Four have been published, and another is with a publisher, but that still leaves 10 full length novels (including the monster in long-hand) that are hanging around doing nothing. Some of them are definitely apprentice pieces - novels I wrote to learn how to write novels - and should never see the light of day because they're not meant to. You don't show the world the scribbles you do when you're learning to draw.
But some of them are not apprentice pieces and have been sent to agents, publishers or competitions at some point. Where I went wrong was I didn't send them out enough. One novel got great feedback from agents and publishers, though was never published: what I should have done was take heart from this and keep on sending it out until it had been to every single potential publisher or agent. Apparently the book 'The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' went to 99 agents and publishers, and only went to the final one, which published it, because the author wanted to make it a round 100.
Sometimes writing really is a numbers game.
4. Telling other people what I was writing
I put my head in my hands when I think of the times I've shared my precious, fragile ideas with someone who then reacted in a sarcastic/ non-committal/ hurtful way and the blasted idea popped and was gone. These people don't have to be your worst enemies, either, they're often the very people who you think would support, encourage and nurture your writing ambitions.
Ideas are fresh and full of energy when they're in your head. They're also pretty good once they're on paper and you've rewritten them a few times. But when they come out of your mouth for an audience that doesn't understand, and frankly, has their own issues with your writing, then they fall stone dead.
If people ask me about my writing now, I do a little mysterious smile and say, 'It's fine, thanks', then change the subject. They can read it when it's ready (i.e. published).
5. Not resubmitting
Similarly to the first point, when I started submitting writing I tended to think if a story or article wasn't taken up by the first magazine I sent it to, then it was rubbish so I abandoned it and wrote something new. When I started entering writing competitions, I found to my astonishment that a story that has gone absolutely nowhere in several small competitions is perfectly capable of winning a big competition, and that if a story is rejected several times it doesn't mean it won't find a place somewhere, some time.
I make out an index card for each story I write, including the title, word count, and where I've sent it. This helps me to keep track of where I've sent it. I often also pencil in a number of alternative places to submit it if it gets rejected. This isn't looking on the black side and expecting it to be rejected, but a way of saying to myself that there are plenty of opportunities for each story, and a knock-back doesn't mean the end.
Over to you - what's the most important thing you've learned about your writing? Let me know in the comments below.
I’m planning a new writing project at the moment, and it’s at that delicious stage of quivering on the edge of my consciousness, a blur of colours and half-formed characters; some scenes that are sharp and clear, some that shimmer with possibility, a whole lot more that are just a scrap of intention. While I’m brewing the ideas, I use lots of different stimuli to help the ideas to form – visiting possible locations and taking lots of photographs; acquiring objects that will keep me literally in touch with characters and places; eating and drinking the things my characters eat and drink; and putting together a playlist.
I use my playlist to conjure up a particular period of time or to evoke a place, to create the emotion I'm writing about, or simply to get me in the mood for writing. I asked some writer friends if they also use music, and they all said, yes, they use music to enhance or create mood while they're writing. If you've ever cried listening to Tavener, or found yourself jigging in your seat when Shania Twain comes on the radio, then music could help your writing, too.
Imagine your story or novel is being made into a film. What sort of music will be playing in the background at different points? What will be the theme tune for each of your characters? Choose music that moves you, that makes you dance, sing, cry, reflect. Play this while you're writing, or in preparation for a writing session. Music that spooks you, cheers you, or that simply has memories for you is good, as you have an emotional connection with it that will come out in your writing.
I like to compile a playlist for each book I write. I have a theme tune for each character, and several pieces that reflect the emotions in different parts of the novel. I also have themes that reflect the way other characters feel about each other. For example, my private eye heroine Eden Grey has the theme tune of Billy Joel's 'She's Always a Woman'.
I put all the tracks onto my MP3 player, go out for a long walk with my headphones on, and when I come back my brain is thrumming with the atmosphere of my novel. I find I get into the writing much more easily and the words flow better when I've primed myself with music first.
I also like to ask myself what sort of music each of the characters in my books listens to. Do they chill out with some smoky jazz, or get churned up by Beethoven? Finding your characters' musical tastes can get you into their heads, and then their thoughts, desires and fears are only a semiquaver away.
What’s on your writing playlist?
We all have days when the brain is sluggish, inspiration has gone AWOL, and the words simply refuse to flow onto the page. On these occasions help is at your fingertips, with a range of apps aimed at writers. The major benefit of these apps is that you only have to carry your phone and you have access to inspiration whenever and wherever you need it.
Below I discuss the apps I use to spark ideas and to get into the mood for writing. Just to be clear: all the apps are free (though some may offer in-app purchasing), and I’ve not been given any incentive to review them.
These are the ones I use regularly:
Brainsparker is a general creativity app to help you think through a problem and come up with a range of different solutions. It generates a phrase or picture at random for you to mull over and inspire new insights on the problem you’re facing. For example, a picture of a clock might encourage you to revisit the timeline for your project or consider if you’ve allowed enough time to complete it. Phrases such as ‘reverse your priorities’ encourage you to stop thinking about the problem that’s on your mind, ask yourself what your priorities are, and what would happen if you focussed on something else.
I use Brainsparker whenever I feel stuck on a writing project, or if I feel stuck in life. For example, today Brainsparker offered me the advice ‘stop thinking, start doing’, which reminded me that it’s easy to get stuck in weighing things up and trying to second guess what the outcomes might be, and actually it’s best to simply get on with things.
Paperblanks gives you a journal prompt in a range of categories such as ‘just for fun’, ‘travel’, ‘personal/introspective’. An example of the last is ‘A time when I felt really brave was …’ An example from the category ‘Story a day’ is ‘Eureka, she shouted. I’ve finally found it.’
I use Paperblanks each morning when I do my writing practice. This is my equivalent of a musician practising scales and arpeggios: a warm-up simply to get words on the page. Sometimes it leads to a story but usually not. I use Paperblanks in two ways. Firstly, I simply copy out a random prompt and start writing and see where it leads me. I might find myself writing about a memory or I might find myself making something up. Secondly, I use it in the persona of one of my characters, as a way to get deeper into the character’s life. So if the prompt is ‘My favourite way to keep warm in the winter is …’ I write as though I’m the character. It’s been really fruitful to use it this way and I’ve got deeply into a new character I’m creating.
Fast Fiction Prompts
Fast Fiction Prompts generates a random character, setting and plot, and the challenge is to incorporate all of them into a story. Today’s random selection was: a werewolf, at sea, and a character’s video game addiction saves the world. The fun here is in stretching your imagination to find a way to include these disparate elements. Again, it might lead to a story that you can send to a competition, or it might not.
I use this app for a bit of fun and for the challenge of seeing if I can get all the elements into a story that sort of makes sense. It encourages me to write outside my comfort zone – I’ve never written a story about a werewolf and maybe once I get started I’ll find out I love writing about them. I use this app mostly as a writing warm up, or on those occasions when I have a vague sense of wanting to write ‘something different’ but no ideas about characters or plot.
Coffitivity is an app that provides background noise to your writing. Many writers like writing in cafes and find the bustle conducive to creativity. For those days when you can’t get to a café, Coffitivity provides the background hum of chatter, coffee machines and crockery. There are three settings in the free app: morning murmur, lunchtime lounge and university undertones. They’re all slightly different so you can find the right pitch and level of noise to suit your writing.
I use Coffitivity when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the thought of writing, the days when ‘writing’ is too big and scary and I need to convince myself I’m actually just playing with words. Sometimes I put the radio on in the background and persuade myself that I’m just doing a bit of scribbling whilst listening in. Once I’ve got the first sentence down I find I don’t hear any more of the radio but get caught up in what I’m writing. I get the same effect in cafes, and Coffitivity replicates that sense of not ‘writing’ but ‘scribbling in a café’ that helps me overcome the sense of overwhelm and get some words down on paper.
These are my favourite writing apps and how I use them, but there are hundreds of writing apps available. I’d love to hear which apps you use to get writing, overcome blocks or find inspiration. Tell me about them in the comments below.
How is your relationship with your writing? Is it loving, warm, and based on respect? Or is it turbulent, suspicious, and leaving you unsatisfied? Here’s a quiz to help you find out:
1. It’s your writing time. What do you do?
A. Whatever I feel like that day – a poem, a song, a story. Or I might do some sketching instead. Or go for a walk. Or plant some seeds.
B. I stare at the novel I wrote 3 years ago and wonder if I’d be better off focussing on a short story instead.
C. I quickly read through what I did last time, check my notes, and get cracking on my current writing project.
2. How often do you send work out?
A. Depends. I might dash off a poem and send it to a competition, or I might write a letter to the editor, a recipe, a filler, a tip and send that off, if the mood takes me.
B. Sometimes. I tend to submit several stories in a month, then go 6 months without writing or submitting anything.
C. I have a regular schedule for writing and submitting work, and have a target goal of 10 pieces of work out for consideration at any time.
3. What’s your writing ritual?
A. I don’t have one. If I have an idea I might scribble it down and work it up then send it out. Or I might not.
B. I make sure the house is spotless and that there are no dishes in the sink. I clean my desk, answer emails, and check Twitter until I feel inspired before I start writing.
C. I make a cup of coffee and light a scented candle and then start writing.
4. Where do you go for an artist’s date?
B. Coffee shop
C. Local museum
5. How often do you think about giving up writing?
A. Never – I’m not that bothered about it.
B. Frequently – is it supposed to be this hard?
C. Sometimes – but then, who doesn’t?
Now tot up how many As, Bs and Cs you have.
Mostly As – FLIRTY
Writing – you can take it or leave it. You flit from one thing to another, trying all different genres and types of writing, but not committing to any one in particular. You write if the mood takes you, and if not, you’re happy to paint, swim, dance, or do whatever takes your fancy in that moment. Deep down you secretly yearn to see your name in print, one day.
TIP: If you want to see your work published, pick the style you enjoy the most, read widely within it, and devote time to polishing your best piece before sending it out.
Mostly Bs – STORMY
Writing – you love it and you hate it. It’s wonderful when the words are flowing, but that seems so rare. Usually you’re staring in despair at what you’ve written wondering how the idea that was so magical in your head can be so flat on the page. Secretly you wonder if it’s this hard, are you meant to be a writer at all?
TIP: Build a more stable relationships with your writing by setting aside 10 minutes every day just to play with words and see where it takes you. The more regularly you can do this, the less you’ll despair at writing a rubbish first draft.
Mostly Cs – MONOGAMOUS
You have a solid relationship with your writing, including regular dates and a plan for where you’re heading. You have the occasional blip but quickly get yourself back on track. You’re dedicated to a single genre, and work conscientiously on a single project until it’s completed before starting another.
TIP: If you’re feeling stifled or bored from time to time, experiment with other forms and genres, just for variety. Your writing will benefit from the change and will recharge your enthusiasm.
What’s your writing relationship style? Let me know in the comments below.
Writing always evolves as it progresses: characters change eye and hair colour; names change; subplots develop; you decide the whole thing belongs in a different time period or setting. It’s tempting when you realise something needs to change to go back and correct it from the beginning of your manuscript: that way you can progress knowing that all is in order. However, there are a few problems with this approach:
1. It takes longer to nail down a first draft
A first draft has lots of energy as it’s the draft where you’re discovering the story as you write, and that gives it momentum. If you go back to correct whilst writing the first draft, it’s easy to lose that sense of excitement and the energy in your writing will fade.
2. You get fed up
If you constantly go back and edit things whilst writing the first draft, you can easily start to feel bored. This is because you’re going over the same material time and time again. If you feel bored, it’s very hard to crank out that first draft – writing becomes a chore, not a pleasure.
3. You’ll probably change your mind again
When you write a long piece, such as a novel, there are hundreds of strands you need to keep track of and ultimately tie together into a satisfying story. Change one bit, and you have to change other bits. Then if you decide actually your first idea was better, you have to go back and change it all back again. This all takes time, it’s tedious, and you’re more likely to lose patience with the whole thing and give up.
Here’s a technique that I use in my own writing which ensures I get the first draft written quickly, I keep track of all the changes I need to make, and without spending precious time going back and editing. I use a technique called writing ‘as if’. It works like this. Imagine I’m writing a novel about someone called Dora who lives in 1900. Part way through writing, I think it would be more fun if she was called Edna and lived in 1920. Obviously, I can do a ‘find and replace’ for the name change, but there are huge implications for the story in changing the time setting. Instead of going back and making all the necessary changes, I simply type in capital letters across the page:
FROM THIS POINT ON DORA = EDNA
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN 1920
To make it stand out all the more, I often make the font larger, and colour the text in red. I then carry on writing AS IF I have gone back and made the changes. In other words, I write the rest of the piece with the character called Edna, and set in 1920, with all the implications associated with that change. I also make a note in a notebook I keep for editing purposes, describing the changes I’ve made and jotting down what I’ll need to attend to when I come to rewrite.
It means that I can keep on writing without having to stop, go back, and make changes, and it means I know where to focus when it comes to the rewrite: tackling all those notes made in my editing notebook. If I then change my mind again later on, I simply write:
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN FRANCE
make a note in my notebook, and keep on writing, as if I’ve gone back and made the changes.
I’ve found this technique helps me to keep writing without feeling bogged down, and without worrying that I’ll miss something. By jotting all the changes down, I keep my mind clear for writing, instead of trying to hold all the changes in my head. It makes both the first draft and subsequent rewrites much smoother and faster.
Try it, and let me know how you get on!
I’ve talked before about the importance of having a routine to your writing: a set time of day when you write, writing in the same place, and writing in the same way, all of which serve to invoke muscle memory and get you into your writing session more quickly. Writing rituals are a way of reinforcing your writing routine, but they also act on your emotions and can help you to overcome writers’ block.
Writing rituals include anything you do when you’re writing that don’t relate to the writing itself. Rituals could be lighting a scented candle, the clothes you wear, music you play in the background, what you drink while you’re writing. For example, I like to put some scented oil in a burner, have the radio on low in the background, and make a cup of coffee in my special mug, and use the fountain pen my grandmother bought me, when I’m writing. I know of another writer who paints her nails bright colours. Others wear business clothes; some do their hair and makeup; some have a lovely china teapot that only gets used when they’re writing.
Having a writing ritual helps to remind your brain that it’s writing time now so better come up with something to write about. They also remind you that you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to write. Writers commonly suffer from anxiety about their writing: am I good enough, what if my writing’s rubbish, who am I to try to write? Writing rituals can send a powerful message that you’re worth it – worth the posh cup and saucer and the handmade biscuits; worth the makeup that makes you feel a million dollars – and worth the time and effort you’re putting into your writing.
It’s very easy for writers to put off writing: to get time and space for writing often means negotiating with others and insisting that your needs are just as valid as others’. It’s hard to do that if you have nothing to show people yet, especially if you’re feeling a little uncertain about your work. Small yet frequent acts of self care can help to combat that uncertainty and give you the confidence to stand up for your writing. Whatever makes you feel pampered or special will do it, whether it’s using the best cup or putting on a slick of red lipstick before you start writing.
These small habits are reminders to yourself that you deserve this time and space for writing, and help to transform writing time from a chore into a treat. It’s easy to see writing time as work – there’s a natural anxiety about whether the words will come at all, and if they do whether any of them will be useable. But if you set up the session with a series of rituals that nurture you, the session is less fraught from the start and becomes less about the words per se and more about you nurturing a need within yourself.
To me, the best rituals work on different senses: the lingering fragrance of a scented candle reminds you throughout the day how you’re moving forwards with your writing and staying committed to it. The flash of brightly coloured fingernails over the keyboard makes the words dance. Music can heighten the mood you’re creating within your writing.
Over the years I’ve known and worked with many writers. Here are some of their writing rituals. If any of them appeal to you, why not adopt them and see what effect it has on your writing?
• Playing music in the background
• Lighting a scented candle
• Painting their fingernails
• Putting on makeup
• Wearing their favourite clothes
• Flowers on their desk
• Using a special cup and saucer
• Making a ‘proper’ cup of coffee
• Making tea in a china teapot
• Drinking a delicious blend of herbal tea
• Sitting in the chair that has the view of the garden
• Eating a posh biscuit
• Doing yoga before writing
I’d love to know about your writing rituals. Tell me about them in the comments below.
My short story ‘Cat Chat’ is published today in the People’s Friend magazine, and in this post I’m going to write about where the idea for the story came from, and how I adapted and shaped my initial thought into the finished piece. Like many writers, I’m quite shameless about pinching stories from my family and friends. Often someone will tell me something and I’ll mentally file it away thinking, ‘I can do something with that.’ The ‘thing’ they’ve said might be a phrase or a comment, or it might be an anecdote. I never use other people’s stories in the same format they told them to me: I strip down the idea to find the bit that captured my imagination, then I play with it until I get a story, so the final story bears no resemblance to the original. This is how I did it with ‘Cat Chat’.
My family is one of pet-talkers: people who act as ventriloquist for the dog or cat. Maybe you’re one yourself, or maybe you’ve come across people like that, people who put on a special voice for the dog and conduct a conversation with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re talking to themselves. Maybe you think it’s cute; maybe you think they’re bonkers. Anyway, in my house we talk for the cat. If you’re not sure what people actually say when they talk for the cat, here’s a typical exchange between me and my cat, Harriet:
Me: Look at that cute dog on the telly.
Harriet: I don’t approve of dogs. They’re not as good as cats.
Me: It’s a clever doggy, doing tricks.
Harriet: See what I mean? You’d never find a cat doing that. Imagine working for a living! Cats are far too clever.
When I met my husband, and he first heard me talking for my cats, he thought I was bonkers. Fast forward a couple of months and not only was he also talking for the cats, he’d adopted his own special voice for doing so. We were talking about his first reaction to hearing me talking for the cats when I realised there was a story in it.
Firstly, I needed a conflict. As it was a story about talking for a cat, there had to be a talker and someone who found it weird. And because I love writing stories for the People’s Friend that involve a grandmother and granddaughter, I went for those characters and had the grandmother as the cat-talker and the granddaughter worried about it. Now for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks off the story. As the granddaughter has known about the cat-talking all her life, why does she suddenly find it weird? Answer: she’s a teenager who’s just got a boyfriend and is worried what he’ll think about it and is scared he’ll dump her. To up the stakes and to add a touch of humour, I made the grandmother very gentle and the cat a bit of a thug:
“How’s my best boy then?” asked Nanna, bending to stroke Bandit.
“Alright, old girl. Where’s me grub?” said Bandit, in a low, gravelly voice and distinct East End gangsterish accent.
“You hungry, my poppet?”
“Starvin’! Me stomach finks me froat’s bin slit,” said Bandit.
The girl is determined that her boyfriend won’t ever meet Nanna, and Nanna is equally determined to meet the new boyfriend to give him the once-over and make sure he’s good enough. So there was the set-up. All of them nice characters but with genuine conflict arising from their personalities. Next I had to increase the conflict.
I like to vary the sources of conflict within stories, so if the inciting action comes from outside the main character (from another character or from a situation), the next conflict comes from within the character herself. In this case, I made her feel terrible guilt at wanting to keep Nanna and the boyfriend apart. She loves her Nanna, yet is embarrassed by her, and feels terrible about it. I twisted the knife a little to increase the conflict and (hopefully) get the reader to ask ‘How is this ever going to be resolved?’ by adding a scene where the girl tries to talk to her mother about her concerns:
That evening, in the car, I said, tentatively, “Mum, do you think it’s odd how Nanna talks for the cat?”
“She’s always done it.”
“I know, but is it weird, do you think?”
“Her mum, my grandma, was just the same,” Mum said, indicating the turning into our road. “I asked her about it once and she said her grandmother was just the same.”
Great, so it’s hereditary.
Mum pulled up outside our house and tugged on the handbrake. She glanced across at me. “Why? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, it’s just … I wondered what other people might think.” The blood flooded my cheeks as I said it.
“Stuff what other people think,” Mum said. “Come on! Homework, then dinner.”
Next I had to figure out how to resolve this. There are a few rules with story endings: they can’t come about by chance or fate, they must be the result of the character’s own actions, and they must be in character. I normally sketch out as many potential resolutions to the story as I can and then see which one is most natural but least likely to be spotted in advance by the reader. Keep them guessing to the end if possible! In this story I gave the grandmother a sore throat and the granddaughter speaks for the cat on her behalf, resolving both the original conflict (what will the boyfriend think about Nanna speaking for the cat?) and the emotional conflict (the guilt about feeling embarrassed).
If you’d like to read the whole story, it’s available now in the People’s Friend magazine dated 10th February, 2018.
OK, I admit it. My secret vice is watching crap TV. You know the sort of thing – programmes that are evidently low-budget, involve supposedly real people in real situations, on during the day time, and that make the mind boggle that such people exist. The kind of programme you don’t admit to watching even to your best friends. The sort of programme some people pretend they’ve never even heard of. Programmes that leave a warm hug of schadenfreude behind. Addictive, enjoyable, totally veg out crap TV that is surprisingly good for writers. And if you’re still not sure which programmes I’m talking about, I mean Botched, Tattoo Fixers, Secret Eaters, any programmes about doing up or selling houses, Bridezillas, Don’t Tell the Bride, any programmes where angry brides/ dance instructors bitch-slap each other, Wanted Down Under, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Crap in the Attic (sorry, Cash in the Attic), TOWIE, Real Housewives of Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard of, Posh Pawn, and anything that involves people with no brains and too much money spoiling pets/ children/ cars/ property.
Now before you come over all ‘you’d never catch me watching rubbish like that’, one, I don’t believe you – we’ve all been caught watching Hoarders at some point - and two, crap TV has a lot to offer us writers. Here’s how:
1. It’s all about conflict
When I teach writing workshops and explain that the energy in a story comes from the conflict, often people think that conflict means fighting, and that characters should be squabbling all the way through. Conflict actually just means anything that stands in the character’s way, whether it’s missing the bus, a letter not being delivered, illness, lack of self-belief, or getting soaked in the rain.
Crap TV is full of conflict. Take Secret Eaters (known in my house as Secret Scoffers), one of my favourites. In it, people who are overweight keep a food diary in which they record everything they eat. The diary always shows that they eat nothing but carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, a team of private investigators has rigged up their home with CCTV, they follow them every step they go, and log every single mouthful. Low and behold those mouthfuls turn out to be cake, chips, pizza, beer and kebabs. Confronted by their own self-delusion, they instantly mend their ways and drop a stone in two months.
Here’s the conflict: wanting to lose weight but being unable to do so, and unable to see where you might be going wrong. Deluding yourself that you eat a healthy diet and ignoring the fact that biscuits still count even if you eat them in secret. Being confronted with your own bad habits. Being followed by a private detective.
Or how about those ‘My house is a tip but I can’t understand why no one wants to buy it’ shows? The people are desperate to move, have had the house up for sale for years, and no one has put in an offer. Along comes Mr or Ms Expert on Selling Houses, who instantly spots that they have Grandad stuffed and on display in an armchair in the sitting room. “Do you think the fact your dead grandfather is in the house might be putting people off?” the expert asks.
“But this is our house!” they cry. “This is how we like it.”
A painful amount of time later they are finally forced to concede that if they want to sell, their house has to be how other people want it to look, stuffed Grandpa is put into storage and magnolia is slapped on the walls. An offer comes in immediately.
Here’s a conflict that we’re all familiar with: wanting to move home but something’s in the way, whether it’s not being able to agree with our partners on what we want; not being able to afford a deposit; not being able to sell our current home. In a twist on the ‘not being able to sell’ theme, I once wrote a story based on my parents not wanting to sell their house. They'd put it up for sale but changed their minds, and persuaded the neighbours to behave objectionably every time someone came round for a viewing until they could take it off the market and not incur the estate agent’s fees. True. My reworking of this heart-warming tale appeared as ‘The Noisy Neighbours’ in That’s Life Fast Fiction Australia. My mother thinks I ought to give her the money I earned from it.
2. It shows you how other people live
Crap TV gives amazing insights into how other people live. Not just in a Jeremy Kyle ‘do such people really exist’ sort of way, but a ‘how much money have they got and why are they spending it on that’ sort of way. If you don’t know what it’s like to have an unfortunate tattoo, but have a character in your novel who is just that sort of person, watch Tattoo Fixers and you’ll get more than enough inspiration. If you don’t know what it’s like to have a gormless boyfriend, watch Don’t Tell the Bride.
Crap TV also shows you what people aspire to. Take Escape to the Country, possibly the best satire on the middle classes. In it, people with an astonishing amount of ready cash decide they’d like to swap city living for life in the country. They come up with a wish-list for their perfect property, and for every single one it goes like this: detached with character features; at least four large bedrooms; a large country kitchen (a kitchen the size of a football pitch will still not be large enough – how many friends do they have?); huge entertaining space; a cottagey feel; at least eight acres for bees/ chickens/ llamas/ vegetable plot.
And then there’s the glimpse into people’s homes, the stuff they have around them, and the way they live. If you need descriptions of interiors, head to crap TV to see how rooms are arranged, how ornaments are displayed, kitchens are used. Our friends tend to be similar to us, so when we have a character who’s totally different we can be at a loss to understand how they live. None of my friends are mega-rich housewives, but crap TV has plenty of them happy to show off their furniture, clothes, make-up and daily routine if I ever need to describe it in a story.
3. It gives you ideas for stories
Although a lot of crap TV is stage-managed, you can still find inspiration for stories there. I’ve already mentioned my story about selling houses, but I’ve also written and published a story based on Don’t Tell the Bride (it was called ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and was published in the People’s Friend magazine). Watching the programme, I wondered what it would be like in real life (as opposed to TV life) if a girl couldn’t plan her own wedding and her fiancé had to do it. My story had the conflict of not knowing what he’d choose for the big day, the disappointment of seeing the dress he’d chosen, and the surprise ending, but steered clear of the money being spent on a lads’ week in Vegas, uncontrollable crying, and threatening to call it all off.
I have also written and published a story inspired by Antiques Road Trip, in which someone accidentally buys a very valuable antique at a car bootsale, and have drawn on the many programmes about people trying to eat healthily in a short story about how food and feeding people means different things to a mother and her daughter, published in Take a Break Fiction Feast as ‘Don’t Make Them Fat, Too’. That wasn’t my title, I hasten to add: the magazine made it up, changing it from my suggestion of ‘The Food of Love’.
The way I approach crap TV if I’m looking for inspiration is to imagine what the conflict/ problem would look like in a normal person i.e. not someone who’s been put into a set-up and had their lines scripted for them. Then I try a few reversals, so If the show is about twenty-somethings, I imagine a seventy year old in that situation. A grandad who gets an unfortunate tattoo? Then I think about telling it from a different perspective. What does the tattoo fixer think about the grandad? What does his granddaughter feel about it all?
Crap TV is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and let’s face it, we all need some time when we switch off our brains and just wallow in other people’s problems and silliness. But if you get caught binge-watching Botched, you know what to say. “Oh this, it’s research. For my writing, don’t you know.”
Time for you to fess up. Let me know in the comments below which TV shows you’re strangely addicted to, and whether they’ve inspired a story.
Happy writing and watching,
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.