- Proverbs. These could be described as themes for stories in a line. For example, there are countless stories to come out of the saying "the love of money is the root of all evil". You can prove the saying true or use your story to prove there are exceptions to the rule but there are lots of possibilities here.
- Themes from songs. Listen to your favourite songs and work out what the theme is and write a story to that theme. Love is the obvious one but there are so many connotations of love. As well as the obvious romantic stories, how about a love story that isn't a romantic one? What about the kind of love that inspires bravery and so on?
- Overheard snippets of conversation! You won't be able to use the actual conversation itself. It is what led up to it that holds all the possibilities for story writing. This is because so often what you actually hear is to a specific situation and you want more flexibility than that. But overhearing, for example, a couple badmouthing another couple can lead you to write stories about whether they are right to do this, wrong to do it, what the comeback is and so on. (There should be comeback!). Do this couple usually badmouth others and, if not, what led them to do so now?
- Headlines. Again you can't use the specifics. (You don't want to be accused of libel for one thing and that would be a risk, no matter how small). What you can do is take the basic headline and work out lots of different ways as to how and why this headline was generated. Then pick the one you like the look of and write it up. Again, you are using the headline as the theme and so what you create should bear no resemblance to the actual story you read in the newspaper/heard on the news. Only you should know the original inspiration behind your tale. Your characters and the situation you put them in, based on the theme here, will make the story your own.
I find ideas for stories (and indeed blog posts!) from a wide range of sources. Some I use are:-
I love the one line story idea as, not only are they fun to come up with, there's nothing to stop you from using them to create a much longer tale. I often find the one-liners very useful for beginning flash fiction pieces. Some one line stories for you (and genders are up to you, I tend to swap between the two):-
Hope you get some great stories from these!
When writing, do you “see” images or “ hear” voices first?
I hear characters speaking. I think of my creative mind as being like my parents’ old huge television set where the sound came in first, followed by the pictures, you had to give it time to warm up before getting those pictures and sometimes you needed to give the box a clout on the side to make sure the pictures did come through. To date I have not yet had to whack myself around the head to force through my “internal vertical hold” but I suspect that may only be a matter of time!
Having said that, I think hearing voices is great for dialogue writing and you can get a good idea (though not always the right idea) of how someone looks from how they sound. Most of the time you’ll be on the right lines but there will be an exception to the rule that stumps you from time to time. Seeing pictures I suppose could give pointers as to how someone is likely to speak but doesn’t allow for people who’ve “bettered” themselves (or are putting on a false front).
I think finding the characters' voice is the most important thing and for me hearing the voices is more important than instantly being able to see in your head what they look like. All of my characters are an amalgam and I find knowing how they'll speak, what their general attitude to life is shapes how I write about them far more than their appearance. Having said that, with my rebel fairy godmother I knew she was going to be stubborn and brave. I used those traits to work out she wouldn't wear what was expected traditionally for someone of her ilk so then deduced what she would wear and from there it was easy to "see" how she looked.
How do your characters react when facing something new? Do they rise to the challenge or does having to do things differently flummox them? Are there any physical/psychological reasons for them reacting the way they do? There are, after all, many conditions where routine helps the person concerned enormously so any variant to that is not going to be welcome.
How do we as writers react when facing something new? I'm at the start of the road where I'll be promoting my book, holding signings and so on. Looking forward to all of this a lot - should be interesting. Am also a little apprehensive about it given this is completely new territory. But I will resolve to learn from the inevitable mistakes and enjoy the process.
Do your characters need to "talk themselves into" doing something new? Does it work? Does the something new become a new routine thing and so the character finds it easier to accept and to adjust to over time?
Living in a magical world comes with its own regulations to stick to on pain of death or transformation. Some of the rules in my magical world are:-
What I Love about Writing
I have to write. I cannot imagine a world without books and I’d like some out there to be either written by me or to have a contributory story/poem/limerick from me in them. (Pleased to say that is now being achieved, especially with the publication of From Light to Dark and Back Again, my debut flash fiction collection).
I like to play my part in adding to the great pool of stories (I see it as a kind of thank you for the stories I enjoyed when I was a child and still enjoy). Writing adds to literature. Helps it not to die. I’ve always found it easy to think of imaginary characters and it makes sense to get them out of my head and put them on to paper and see what happens. And if I can get the stories published (a kind of vindication, something every writer craves), then so much the better.
I love the feeling of a story coming together as I work towards getting the first draft down (which improves as I complete the first edit, which is where I remove unintentional repetitions and so on). I also love that moment when I know I have done all that I can at this particular stage on a piece of work and I get it out in the post or by email. Course the best moment is when that piece of work is accepted for publication! A little bit of validation goes a long way and I’ve found others have read things into my stories I hadn’t realised were there (but in a good way, they’ve seen depth I hadn’t realized I’d put in!).
What I Loathe about Writing
I loathe those moments when you can envisage the scene (your outline is also clear) but somehow the words do not flow as nicely or as well as you’d like them to. I’ve come to the conclusion this is natural. We’re human, not machines, so there are bound to be days when this happens and I’ve learned to keep writing.
I loathe the fact that my toner cartridge always runs out half way through a print run and you don’t spot it in time to cancel the rest of the print (well I rarely manage it anyway). I dislike it intensely when people dismiss the importance of books or try to imply writing is easy (overlooking the fact it takes dedication, patience and persistence).
I also loathe it when I’m writing well but time gets in the way.
I love producing stories that work, that are entertaining and I’m always thrilled when I’ve had feedback saying the tales made people laugh. In a bloody miserable world, it is good to make people laugh with a lighthearted story. Therapy for me as well as my reader I think.
I like to think of myself as living proof the above phrase, especially when it comes to writing, is so important.
I've been writing for many years (and actually wanted to be a writer longer than that. Why is it so many writers have this experience? We say we want to write yet it takes us a while to get around to it!).
But it has only been this year, I've had my first book From Light to Dark and Back Again published. It has only been within the last couple of years or so I've been blogging (particularly for Chandler's Ford Today). And it was way back in 2009 when I had my first short story, A Helping Hand, published by Bridge House Publishing in their anthology, Alternative Renditions.
I can't tell you how many rejections I had because I didn't keep all the slips but am sure I could've papered a room with them! I also expect to get more rejections in the future. It happens.
But without getting my work out there, putting my hat in the ring so to speak, I would never have been published at all.
Biggest thing I have learned? Not to give up! Also when submitting work for competitions etc, where it has been possible to get feedback, I have gone for that option. You can be too close to your own work to objectively see what is wrong with it (the key usually to working out why it was turned down).
When told to jump, metaphorically speaking, how do your characters react? Do they do so? Do they ask "how high"? Do they refuse (and if so, why and what are the consequences?). The answer to the title will reveal a lot of what your characters are like. Can they withstand pressure? Do they "suck up" to authority or are they brave enough to criticize it when it needs it?
Have your characters always been determined (or not as the case may be) or have they learned to develop some backbone? Are they vulnerable to being put under pressure because of their loved ones or friends? What is their personal breaking point? And how can the character's enemy exploit this for their own ends?
With my debut flash fiction collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, I am, with my publisher (Chapeltown Books), thinking of press releases etc. Indeed an extract from the one for the book is:-
Allison Symes’ debut collection of flash fiction From Light to Dark and Back Again
A selection of short snappy tales which will have you on the edge of your seat. There are short and longer tales on themes from fairy stories with a twist, to the supernatural, at times pleasingly humorous.
The above sums up the book beautifully.
When it comes to your fictional world, what kind of press/media exists there? Do writers seek to promote their work as we do here on Earth or is creative writing of any kind banned? (Writers can be dangerous people - we deal in ideas and there are so many regimes that do not welcome this. One of course could be the fictional world you're setting up so think about how that regime would issue news, suppress anything it didn't want coming out and its relationship with the media on your world).
Are there journalists risking life and limb to bring the truth to the people or have the regime been more subtle than that? If your media is giving the people a diet of celebrity gossip and tittle-tattle, are the people intersted in serious journalism (and was that something the regime counted on? It would be a good way to bury truth).
Now that From Light to Dark and Back Again is out there, I'm on a new side to writing for me - that of promoting the book. Glad to share news of a specific Facebook page for the book. Visitors very welcome!
But how about your characters? What new ventures do they undertake? Even the most reluctant hero has, eventually, to accept the quest and to go on a venture which is totally new and alien to him. (I couldn't have blamed Frodo Baggins for wanting to stay in The Shire in The Lord of the Rings but it is just as well he didn't).
When a new venture is in the air, so to speak, how do your characters react to it? Do they welcome the prospect or begrudge, even fear, the inevitable changes this venture will cause to their lives? Fear can and does make people behave in strange ways. Does this happen to your characters or do they recognize this and accept they have to "face the fear and do it anyway"?
I suppose one of the trickiest things a writer has to get right is finding the time to (a) write, (b) promote what they currently have out there and (c) keep seeking to develop (including networking and exploring opportunities coming your way).
If you're a non-fiction writer as well (as I am), you have another balancing act to get right - the amount of time you spend on fiction and non-fiction respectively.
I write in sessions each evening and spend, say, one session carrying out admin tasks related to my writing, another working on my social media and website posts, and the rest on whatever fiction or non-fiction project has the greatest priority. (This is where deadlines can be really useful, funnily enough. They make you focus on the task in hand!).
How do your characters find the time to do all that they have to do? Are they good at managing their time? Does time itself work in the same way as it does for us (and, if not, what are the differences)?
I find the proverbs are really useful for giving me themes for stories. From time to time, I will look through the collected book of proverbs I have and sparks for possible stories are nearly always generated by reading a few of the sayings. One will then stand out especially so I go with that one. Also proverbs are really good to help generate ideas if you are just having a brain storming session.
I think there is so much truth in the proverbs that any story using one of them as a theme will convey something of that truth to the reader.
A lot of the proverbs will also generate character ideas. For example, the saying the love of money is the root of all evil conjures up for me characters who show that saying to be only too true. They will be weak, greedy characters whose greed gets the better of them.
So use the proverbs. There are so many to choose from, story ideas are bound to occur. Give it a go.
The title of this post isn't a commentary on the kind of day I've had today, honestly! But being dropped right in it can reveal a great deal about what your characters are really made of (and I've been surprised sometimes by the results). Characters can indeed react the way you think they will or show they are capable of greater depth and responses than you perhaps first thought of when you outlined them.
You can also have fun by dropping your characters in it directly, of course, but then other characters can do this to them too. Look at the motives for someone doing this - revenge, just want a laugh etc etc. Do your characters respond well to criis moments? How do they handle situtations like these?
Stories are crammed full of "and what next" and the answers to that. Character A did this, that happened as a result and then what they did next was.... etc etc. Indeed without the "what next" there is no story.
If you are thinking of or are writing a story/novel series, that "and what next" question needs to be answered in depth for each of your characters to ensure you do have enough material to draw on to write about them convincingly for the next short story, the next novel etc. The world building needs to be able to withstand questions about it. People need to know how it works, there are no "gaps" to bring the whole "pretence down". I've found asking myself questions helps me flesh out what I want to write.
Writers, especially those aiming for publication, have to ask themselves this question regularly too. It is the way to review where you are now, where you would like to get to, how you are progressing and what you could do now to push that progress onwards.
My favourite writing pointers are:-
Life has a habit of throwing things at you where you have to learn to sink or swim. I find one of the worst things in life is having to deal with a situation (usually a crisis one) and not really knowing what to do for the best. Yes, I ask for advice (and indeed general help) but that feeling of helplessness, of wondering all the time if you're getting it right is an awful one.
How do your characters react when they face a situation they don't know how to handle? Who do they turn to for advice and why? Is the advice good? If your characters don't know what to do initially, do they fall to pieces or are they determined to find a solution/do their duty no matter what? I find the latter type more interesting as they will respond to conflict and attempt to resolve it. Things simply won't just wash over them. And characters that try to resolve their own problems show determination, grit, stubbornness, all of which I find interesting traits to write about.
I like the American (I believe) saying that "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Do your characters do this? What about those characters who are irked by the positive thinking shown here? What stops them from dragging others to their level? Plenty of story ideas there!
I like editing. I love the joy of creativity when writing a blog post or story but there is always a certain sense of relief when I have something "on paper" (most of the time these days it's on screen!). I learned a long time ago it pays to write the piece and edit separately. For me, I have to have written the piece to be able to judge it objectively. I have to see it as a "whole".
I have three basic edits. I tend to get the spelling and grammar errors sorted out first (there are always some, especially if I'm writing quickly). I don't dislike doing this but it is my least favourite editing task so I am glad to get it done. I also check for context here. Spell and grammar checkers are notoriously bad for not being able to pick up on that. I see them as useful tools but a guide only. Nothing beats the human editor (and I can think of two people I know who would say "quite right too" - my editors at Chandler's Ford Today and Chapeltown Books!).
The second edit is for checking the story or article makes sense, that it is conveying what I want it to (and in the case of characters, they are coming across the way I intended. This doesn't always happen, sometimes the characters surprise me and I discover aspects to them I hadn't initially thought of but developed as I was writing the piece. I always check out where those developments go - they are almost always better than the initial idea but I have had to write myself into the character more to discover these developments!). But at the end of this edit, everything has to make sense. There must be no loose ends.
The third edit is "bringing it all together". This is where I check any additions to the plot/piece make sense, blend in seamlessly (so only I, and possibly my editors, will know those bits were added in and where!) and that I am happy to submit it. (This involves a final spelling/grammar check but the bulk of this was done on the first edit so this aspect here does not take long and acts as a failsafe for me to make sure I didn't miss anything).
Oh and I always, always, always edit on paper. You miss things on screen. I have no idea why it is but just know that's the case. Besides I think there is a pyschological element here in that when editing on paper, it feels like "proper editing".
One of the great joys of inventing your own world in which to set your stories is you get to make up the rules but the important thing is to be consistent. Some world building ideas from me include:-
My Chandler's Ford Today post this week will be about a Storytelling Festival (which I feel is a wonderful idea). What role does storytelling have in your fictional setting? Who are the story tellers? Are they honoured like bards used to be? Or are they treated with suspicion because they are literate and the majority of the people are not?
A good narrative voice makes all the difference to how a story comes across when spoken out loud. And reading your own work out loud, as part of your editing regime, will show up where your story telling, especially dialogue, needs further editing.
Then there are the characters who love to tell tall stories.... How do other characters react to this? Do they like this or are they irritated by it? What is the person who tells the tall stories hoping to get out of this?
Some pointers as to how you can tell your characters willl grip your readers:-
If you are finding your characters encourage this reaction, then brilliant. Your characterisation is strong, they really are seeming like real people to you. If not, flesh out your characters more. Drip feed information telling the reader what they like and. Show us what they dislike and so on. Good luck!
This is one of my favourite questions to use when I'm having a brainstorming session every so often. I use such sessions to generate story ideas, ideas for my Chandler's Ford Today posts and so on. I make myself think outside of my usual comfort zone and it can also be used to ask yourself really awkward questions of your characters. Put them through the mill. You will find out more about them than you realised you knew doing that. Questions like this bring out all sorts of things from the sub-conscious!
What if a character you thought was capable of doing X suddenly isn't? What would bring about that change of attitude? Religious conversion? Someone talked them out of whatever the proposed action was? What if the more magic you use, the quicker your death would be as it drains you? That would encourage your characters to use non-magical means to solve their problems (and almost certainly would lead to more interesting ideas than just calling on your fairy godmother to bail you out).
You can apply what if to yourself too. What if Plan A for my writing doesn't work out? Switch to Plan B! What is Plan B? Go and look at other forms of writing out there, different to what you currently do, and explore possibilities. Have fun doing so. I did this and I ended up writing flash fiction. I now have a published flash fiction collection so be open to possibilities!
One of the great things about writing is that writers don't stop learning. All writers want to improve what they do all the time (whether it is to increase the chances of being published or because they simply want to make what they write as good as they can make it and do so only for their own pleasure). So writers learn craft techniques, chat to other writers and learn from what they've learned and, of course, read widely to absorb how work is laid out and so on, as well as increase knowledge. (Also hopefully reading other books, of whatever genre including non-fiction, will spark off story ideas for you).
Then there are the writing courses, the how-to books and the conferences. Learning is good for us. I know I will sometimes stop and realise I'm picking things up as I read about them, even though I haven't consciously picked things up.
I mention all this as I had a wonderful cyber launch of From Light to Dark and Back Again (Chapeltown Books) yesterday and learned lots from it about what worked, what fell a bit flat and so on. I hope to write a future Chandler's Ford Today post on this at a later date. (I've also shared the link to the Kindle edition of the book, which is currently on offer at 99 pence (UK)).
So turning to the other side of the coin and looking at our characters again, do they keep learning or do they keep on making the same mistakes? How do they learn? Do they share what they have learned with others? Is knowledge kept from them? For characters to really resonate with readers, they have to grow and develop so your characters must be learning (sometimes it can simply be discovering what not to do!).
(OA huge thank you to Chapeltown Books/Cafelit for hosting this event and guiding me through the process. Debut book = debut cyber launch! This was enormously useful and I learned a lot from it. We sold copies of From Light to Dark and Back Again as well, which is great. (I am never quite sure what to expect in this area on any author's online launch event. My attitude was to share more about who I am and what I write and any sales would be a bonus - it seemed to work!).
I shared writing tips, how I got into writing flash fiction, I shared some of my favourite tracks (all stories in song), I got discussions going on things like favourite times of day for writing and so on. Thank you to all who came and supported it. Naturally I shared links to my websites, including this one! I hope to write a future Chandler's Ford Today post on today's events and what I would do differently another time/do the same etc.
Above all thank you to Chapeltown for being so supportive of flash fiction and short story writers. It's great to have a voice. Do support your independent presses as much as you can. They give writers from a wide range of backgrounds a chance to get their work out there and it is not unknown for them to find someone who then attracts the interest of the traditional, bigger publishers. Above all, they help give variety to the publishing world, which is more crucial than ever given the reluctance of the bigger firms to take a chance on unknown writers.
(And I loved the virutal food and drink too. It is just as well pixels have no calories!).
I'm Allison Symes and write fairytales with bite, especially novels and short stories.