Writing advice for the short fiction competitions.

A little writing guide here. It’s not a definitive guide on- How To Write A Short Story. Although, it will give you a few pointers as to what our judges look for when they’re reading entries.

The beginning. Make sure you grab the reader’s attention immediately. You don’t have many words, so use them wisely. Make sure you establish the tone, setting and character as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Character. Yes, this is a bit of an obvious one, but make sure your characters are believable and well-rounded. This seeps into the dialogue they speak, the actions they take (or don’t take), the motivations they have. It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a down-and-out Santa, a middle-aged man looking back over his life, or a flip-flop, make sure their character is consistent throughout.

Plot and conflict. Another obvious one, but you’d be amazed how many stories we receive that don’t even get anywhere near the longlist because, quite frankly, nothing happens. Give your main character a problem to face – and make it one that the reader will care about. Use your 1500 or 500 words to work towards a satisfying ending. Even pantsers can benefit from a bit of planning, and even the shortest of stories can benefit from having the three-act structure applied to them.

The title. Our rules state that your maximum word count doesn’t include the title – so use that to your advantage. Now, we’re not saying that your title can be 200 words long! But a carefully chosen title that really complements  the story and adds a deeper degree of resonance will undoubtedly catch our judges eyes.

The mechanics. Check your spelling. Your grammar, your punctuation. Make sure you manuscript is professionally presented and properly formatted. Yes, it’s the story being told that is ultimately the most important thing, but if there’s only one slot left on the shortlist and two equally enjoyable stories, it’s the sloppy looking document, littered with spelling and punctuation mistakes, that will end up on the reject pile.

The rules. Read the rules… READ THE RULES… READ. THE. RULES.
And then, before you finally submit, go back and read them one last time to make sure you’ve stuck to them. Make a checklist if you have to, and go through it to make sure your story doesn’t fall at the first hurdle.

Artist Date: 4 hours with David Quantick

How to Write Everything is the name of David Quantick’s book. He has years of journalism, screenwriting, speeches and sketches under his belt. From sitcoms to novels. With thirty years’ experience as an award-winning scriptwriter. He is also a self-confessed Hack.

I am reading and taking notes on what DQ has to say to us about writing and how he got to the success he now has.

Chapter 1

The opening is summed up in “the secret to writing is oddly to write.” If you don’t write anything then there won’t be any words. Steven King said something very similar in his book on writing: “I constantly meet people who say they want to write and mentally to myself I say. No you don’t, because if you did, you would”

So I better stop fiddling with the stuff on my desk and get on with it. DQ’s advice is to start write anything. It will be terrible but the words will come and you will get better. Just like lifting heavy weights make you strong; constant word use and reading will make you write your best. So nothing you write is ever pointless. You never know who or what is trapped in your page. If you have an obstacle to your writing use the problem into your writing. It will help you get over it.

DQ tells us; don’t hate deadlines. I recall Douglas Adams in an online video say he likes the sound deadlines make when they fly past. But he is only joking. DQ warns that deadlines are to encourage you; it means that someone cares about you writing. Respect deadlines they are incentive and productivity.

Being a hack is okay if you produce work for someone else. Writers don’t get to be the lead singer very often. Writers are who work to make the actor or singer sound better than the monkey that they often are.

The ability to mimic another person’s voice is essential. You can’t just write from ones’ experience. If that was so than the Aliens movies would have been written by aliens. (Scary thought.) We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, so get over yourself and into your writing.

Chance can make you creative and everyone has different ways to writing.

Chapter 2 is about ideas. Where do you get your ideas? It’s all about making connections DQ tells us.

An idea can come from anything at all. It is not that it may be good or bad, but if you can write it, do it. Like planning a journey; you know the start and where you want to get to you just need to do the middle bit. If you need to borrow a map for your idea to follow, that’s okay. However, generating your own ideas even if you get lost on the way is just more rewarding.

Unless you have never been outside you still have your experience or your imagination. However, you have to be brave enough to cut and chop ideas that are just not working. You just don’t know if it will work until you write it a bit and a bit more. Then take a break. When you come back and read it you can be honest with yourself.

All stories are ‘xxx’ with a twist. So you don’t need to be overly original they just need you or just need it from you.

Borrow what you know works until your ideas strengthen. Take convention and mess with it until you are happy with it. Passing off is not allowed, being inspired is.

david Q

David Quantick

Top Essay Mate

Well its coming to that time of year again. GCSE’s for the UK’s youth meant that today I was helping an English class. With the permission of the author, I would love to share this great essay. The girl has dyslexia, but still managed to get this baby done in the two hours and a bit lesson.

Nice one!

Explore the way poets present their feelings about relationships, January 2014.

The three poems I have chosen to explore are; ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ by W.B. Yeats, ‘Our Love Now’ by Martyn Lowery and ‘Song for Last Year’s wife’ by Brian Patten.

I feel that each of these poems share with us different stages a relationship can face. I enjoy these poems because I can relate to these poets feelings and the expressing of the way they feel about certain relationship. The poets have chosen relevant imagery to help portray the emotional events they are going though. Each poet gives us a different motivation for his connection in the relationship; idolising a new love, a needy and possessive love and a deeply missed older love. All the poets explore their emotional needs for the attachment to the other person and the effects it has on the mind.

W.B. Yeats has the shorter poem, but has the most emotional gravity of my chosen three.’ He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ speaks to me of a man embarking on a new relationship. To me it’s imaginative language talks of the man’s hopes, and dreams with his love. These dreams verse his awareness that in reality he has very little to offer her. Lines one to five he talks as if half dreaming but in line 4 he begins to slow the pace down, readying us for the reality in lines six to eight. Yeats says in line one ‘had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths’ then in line six ‘but I, being poor, have only my dreams;’ as if to say “had I got the world to give you I would but I only have what I hope to become to offer to you.” We all have the best intentions at the start of a relationship and Yeats gives us a beautiful metaphor of how this made him feel. For a poem that is only one stanza of eight lines, he gives a huge amount of imagery. He uses his imagination with brilliant effect. Helping us feel as he did.

Yeast’s declaration of love in the first five lines is full of glorious language, painting us a picture in our minds of how magnificent this love would be if it were tangible. ‘The clothes of heaven’ to me speaks of a highly sacred thing to have ‘Enwrought with gold and silver light’ impresses the image of the sun and moon even the stars. The use of gold and silver to describe the kind of light, lends to the image the value of these precious metals. Knowing how people wish to possess the riches and beauties of gold and silver. Yeats is saying, “This is how much I want to possess her love”.  Gold light like the sunrise and silver light of moon remind us of the heavens. Of how precious natural light is to life on this planet.   We long for the warmth of the sun and revel in the way the moon’s cool light can change the look of things. We look to and wish upon the stars things that are unknown to us or not yet in our life. Yeat’s one line says, “I value her love so highly, it is in likeness to the value of light its self”

Reality begins to creep into our poet’s dream of love. When he talks to us in lines three and four of ‘dim and dark’ and of ‘night and light and half light’ on first reading, it is the many shades of blue that this cloth displays. However, it is also Yeats hinting to the reality that life is not clear. There are highlights and dark times too. Yeats acknowledges this only to say that even in those unclear moments I would still wish to be with you. Line four forces us to slow down reading as Yeats ends his dream with ‘I would spread the cloth under your feet’ meaning; “this is my love for you and it is at your mercy I fall”. To lay something so wonderful and beautiful at the feet of another is an act of submission by our poet. I find it reminiscent of the acts of romance novels; when a gentleman might lay his cloak over the ground so his maiden will not get her feet dirty. A gallant act of love is evidence of how he values her over himself and all other things. Line five ends in a colon to inform the reader what follows explains and describes his thoughts. Yeats list in the final three lines the honesty and truthful facts of his situation. Line six is a dream crushing honest statement ‘but I, being poor, have only my dreams;’ the gravity of his statement brings us out of the heaven down to reality. Yeats tells us that he has very little to offer her. I feel when Yeats says ‘my dreams;’ that he clues to hoping to give her more as he achieves his aspirations over time. It reminds me of a part in Christian wedding vows; “all that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you”. He is offering up all that he has and in line seven spreads this under her feet. In line seven is the act of what he intended to do in line five. He had said ‘I would’ now he is saying ‘I have’. His hopes and dreams he is willing to sacrifice for whatever she wishes of him. In some way, she has become his hope and dream. Yeats ends with a plea for mercy ‘Tread softly’ he asks of her. As if looking up from having literally spread the dreams at her feet he explains ‘because you tread on my dreams’. Yeats is saying “you have the power to crush all that I am and change all that I may become, so I beg you, be gentle” the poet at this point acknowledges how vulnerable he has made himself. We can only imagine what her reply would be.

The poem is a declaration of love and a testimony of how much we are willing to give for the possession of true love.

In contrast to Yeats’s “love” the poem ‘Our Love Now’ by Martyn Lowery, is about a possessive love and the poet wishing not to surrender it. Both poets plead with a lover to have a commitment and be in her life. Lowery’s poem can be read as a conversation where he says and she responds of as a rant where he argues and she defends. The outcome is the same; their love is ‘forever dead’. I like how having the two sides’ converse gives the poem a very real modern relationship feeling. Even as I read it, I can hear the two sides in different voices. The poet has been cleaver to write the stanzas in two columns so we can see and read, “I said” vs. “she said”. From the first glance, this gives us a sense of the void between them in the poem/relationship.

Lowery gives an unpleasant use of physical damage in his representation of the love. ‘Cut’, ‘scab’, and ‘red burnt flesh is ugly’.  Therefore, I wonder if the poet’s character has not abused his lover and is wishing to fix the damage. Yet there is no apology in any of his stanzas, only a plea to stay. Line two, his first comment ‘wounds heal in time,’ tells us straight away there is damage to this love. By line four he expresses the want for them to become whole again and gives the metaphor that like cuts mending, a relationship can also mend in the same way. Her response to each of his stanzas however is cool. Each time she takes his analogy and gives him back the cold reality. In lines nine to eleven ‘it is not the same. There is always a scar, a permanent reminder.’ She is saying that they will always know what happened and it will forever be in her mind. She ends that stanza with ‘such is our love now’ and if you’re reading the poem as a conversation, you notice he had said relationship yet she called it love. The refrain ‘such is our love now’ belongs to the woman in this poem. For me it is her cool response and “broken record” technique that affirms in my mind the theme of Domestics Abuse. It’s very clear she wishes to leave but she is avoiding making him angry. She does not say what he has done, nor does she give any passionate response. For me the line ‘a numbness prevails’ sums up the tone of her stanzas. Reacting to him with numbness and distance is a natural defensive thing to do. Especially in a heated or emotional conversation.  This compared to his opposite stanza saying ‘in time it will disappear’ and his despraite rant ‘such is our love, such is our love’ he has taken her own words to use against her. You can hear how much more emotional he sounds compared to her. The poet chooses to use words like ‘soon’ ‘before long’ and ‘in time’ to give us the impression that the character believes he has done nothing of any lasting damage and that this, is merely a momentary “blip” to love.  In contract, the poet uses words for the women that are “ever sure” sounding. In each of her stanzas she says about the damage: it is ‘permanent’, it ‘prevails’, it ‘will be’ and is ‘forever’ so.  In the fifth stanza, especially I find it shows the thoughts clearly. He sees that there is no difference to the love now than what was there before. He tells her ‘it is always the same’ and it is ‘you’ who ‘feel different’ not me.  To me this sound of a person trying to shift the blame over to an other. In her response I like how she answers that now ‘changes must occur’. Saying in her own way that from this point, things will not be the same. The effect on the poem at this point is that she has made her decision. He is then forced to acknowledge her feelings in his following stanza. As I read on from line 34 it feels that her character is getting stronger. The female character is more sure of her decision to walk away from the relationship. His last words to her are a metaphor about how being in an abusive home. It is like being in the centre of a tornado. He acknowledges her fear and his anger saying ‘raging storm’ and line 40 ‘ The storm is frightening’ he still tries to dismiss its effect by saying ‘it will soon be gone’ . The character is implying that even if he gets angry and even if he scares her it does not matter because it only last for a while. He does not believe this is enough of a reason to end the relationship and that she should forget about it instead or learn to live with it may be.

He uses emotional blackmail by involving others to the argument ‘People will forget it ever existed’ I believe he is saying, “Ignore what your friends and family tell you to do. They see you hurt now but they will forget about it, you should forget about it” furthermore I think that when he speaks about the damaged trees outside in line 39, he is referring to family like “family tree”. The fact that Domestic Abuse can ruin and divide families. As well as crush, the individual works well in the form of this metaphor. Often abuses will use an individual’s fear of what people might think of them. They can use family and children as reasons for staying together. The female character cleverly answers that even so ‘it leaves damage in its wake’ regardless of whether she stays or goes the damage ‘can never be repaired’  she explains that ‘The tree is forever dead’. To me this truly represents the magnitude of how damaging Domestic Violence and Abuse is. It is so detrimental to the people involved that the damage is done instantly, and remains a permanent fact. Her words ‘forever dead’ signals her final decision is made. She wants to break the pattern of abuse and so the poet signals this by breaking her refrain in the last line. The absence of the word ‘now’ from ‘such is our love now’ has a powerful effect on the poem. You can feel the completion of the conversation. You know that this love is now dead.

My final poem, ‘Song for Last Year’s Wife’ by Brian Patten. The poet is writing a daydream. About a man who has woken to another day, without the love of his life. She had left the year before and he misses her greatly. Its dreamy half-awake feel is different to Yeats’s “dream”. Patten’s character is also waking to an unhappy reality, but his is from a dream based in memory and not a dream of love. The poem looks at the man’s plea to poses the love again. The feeling of owning the other person is hinted at in the lines 11 to 12, ‘Love had not the right to walk out of me’. The personification of love leaving him is his wife leaving him. He disagrees with her reasons because he says, “she has not the right”. The tone and conversation like qualities of this poem are similar to ‘Our love now’ but Patten’s character is more mournful because the relationship has been over for a while.

The whole poem is to one person. He opens with her name, like this is a love letter ‘Alice,’ he says with familiarity. We can assume that this must be the name of last year’s wife. The title, and line nine suggest to us, this character has a new wife or partner. He seems unhappy in this relationship. His description of a morning kiss from her is hardly romantic. ‘I wake with another mouth feeding from me,’ sounds more like breast-feeding a child. This new love only reminds him more of what he has lost. The man feels drained of joy and the tone of the poem reflects this beautifully. This poet adds imagery of winter to concrete the depressed emotion of the man. ‘earth’s still as hard, the same empty gardens exist’ and ‘winter, its isolation from other seasons’ creates a sad and lonely picture of this man in the light of cold winters morning, lay half awake thinking of Alice. He has a heart of icy emotions damaged by the loss of Alice; he misses her like missing the warmth in winter. The poem moves like the train of thought a person might have. Wavering from the man feels of self-pity, to his thoughts of Alice in the present. The poet’s use of commas slows the reading down. We almost lumber though trying to make it to the end of a sentence. The poem is all in one stanza. The poet has done this to add more effect to one stream of thought; we can see it and feel it on the page. Lines six and lines 22 to 24 the man wonders if Alice thinks of him too. He wants to know has she notices it’s their anniversary? For me when he says ‘I imagine you waking in another city, touched by this same hour’ he is wondering if she too might feel the loss of their love. He is pleading with hope she still thinks of him too. We know that this is unlikely to be the cases. The man has ‘sent our spies’ and they return with news of how ‘your body’s as firm, you are as alive, as warm and inviting as when they knew you first’. Alice is much happier now out of the relationship. The words ‘knew you first’ give us the clue that she is as well as the start of the marriage. A younger more alive Alice has returned to form. I feel sorry for the man but resent his manipulative way of getting information. He is too proud to face her himself. He would not want her to know how sad he is without her. So proud, that he pretends to be happy with a new love, secretly he is mortified by the loss. ‘So ordinary a thing as loss comes now and touches me.’ The man feels the loss of Alice so much that it has become an everyday thing an ‘ordinary’ part of life for him. He sometimes forgets even that she has gone like this morning. Line 19 ‘sends me your ghost to witness when I wake’. Is he mistaking his new wife for Alice? Forgetting in this dreaminess, she has left him. He is haunted; stalked by the love that he once had with her. It is gloomy and bleak. I am guessing it might even be Christmas time in the poem. The use of winter and that somebody came to visit, asking about Alice during that visit. This suggests the type of visit you get from more distant friends and family around Christmas. The type where you talk about family you have contact with over the year. The man resents that there is no change to his feeling even a year on. Line 8 ‘as if nothing special had changed’ and lines 12 into 13 ‘A year now. So what? You say.’ highlight this. He cannot escape the feeling of loss. Reminders of Alice trigger the painful thoughts each day. In order to survive the character becomes numb to life. He is bleak and miserable like the weather. Numb by cold and numb by hurt. Patten has great ability to create this atmosphere and even though it is a truly despondent poem, I like it.

The poems all deal with the problem that love is not a tangible item. We cannot give it like a gift or posses it like a present. Yet we all feel it is ours and we give it to others. Relationships require love of different depths, but we have not a scale or measure to set requirements too. All three poems are great examples of how love and relationships are personal and defined by the individual. They show how people value different acts or evidence as quantities of love.

For me ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’ by W.B. Yeats is the most effective. I adore this poem. It is so effective with amazing images and cleaver structure. The depth of the words becomes greater each time you read it and for a poem of only eight lines… genius!

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