Sewing the Seeds of an Idea: When to Start Planting

Different seed samples await germination testi...

Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.

The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.

The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.

I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.

With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.

corn seedling



I.P. Flash Fiction Piece

Here is my short fiction piece from the Flash Flood Journal

I.P. by F.C. Malby
The cardboard shielded his body from the shock of the pavement beneath his thighs. His trousers alone could not force out the early morning frost. Joe could see his breath disappearing into the daylight with the traffic and the bustle of people, all with places to reach, jobs to begin; lives filled with family, and co-workers. He filled his life with these once. Now it was full of strangers in the street, bodies sleeping on old bits of packaging. Discarded.

She always walked across the street from the bank, eyes focused on the coffee shop behind him. He waited for anyone to notice his hat between his toes – upturned, hopeful.

‘Joe,’ she said as she reached him, ‘can I get you a coffee?’

‘I’ve had one. Thanks.’

She leaned in towards him – her hair curled in bronze spirals, her suit pressed and the brightest of reds – and quietly placed some notes into the hat. Small coins usually clinked as they landed but she gave him notes.

It wasn’t the fresh pressed suits, or the bronzed locks, or the fact that she gave him money that made an impression. She made eye contact. She always offered him coffee. He said no.

As she turned to open the glass panelled door, her bracelet dropped onto the cardboard beneath him, nestling into the crinkled edges like a baby bird sheltering from a storm. He lifted it up but she was gone. In the next few moments the door became jammed open with the force of large numbers of suits either pushing in to the shop for a hot shot of caffeine, or trying to escape with an un-spilled cup. Fish swimming upstream.

Joe looked down at the bracelet, now shimmering in his hand. The initials, I.P., caught the light: Isabel Parker. He remembered his mother’s bracelet because his father had tucked it away into a handkerchief, deep into the recesses of his bedside drawer, and he remembered the look on his mother’s face when he gave it to her, wrapped in red ribbon neatly circling a black box with the silver embossed swirls of a jeweller’s finest.

Isabel Parker didn’t recognise him each morning when she leaned in to give him some notes, and why would she? Separated from each other when they lost their parents, Joe remembers the journey to his new home with the sharpness of an icy dawn.

‘It’s for the best,’ a stranger in a suit had told him. ‘You’ll see your sister when you’re settled.’
He didn’t, not until the day when she first walked into the coffee shop. He had recognised her immediately but he couldn’t share his identity out of shame. Their lives had spiralled in different directions and time had passed. Seeing her each morning was enough.
She emerged from the commotion holding a gingerbread man and a shot of espresso. He handed her the bracelet. Leaning down towards him, she clasped his hand, smiled, then turned away and vanished into the crowds.

FlashFlood Admin at 02:00

1 comment:

Andy19 April 2013 12:56
Great! I love the feeling you create between the characters. I’ve had dealings with a few homeless people, and some of them are rough diamonds. One in particular said his father owned a number of casinos, but I reckon it was one of his ‘taller’ stories.


Lots of Reading: Flash Flood Journal – Short Fiction

National Flash Fiction Day

Issue three of the Flash Flood Journal, an international flash fiction literary journal, is published today on their blog with some wonderful works of short fiction. I would really recommend reading some of the stories as they are varied in topic, style and genre, and are really interesting. My short story, I.P, is also there if you are interested in reading it. Do leave your comments if you enjoy mine or any of the other stories.

Over the course of the next twenty four hours, until midnight tonight, flash-fictions from all over the world will be published online at Flash Flood. This year they are featuring over one hundred stories.

The journal is being published to help launch this year’s National Flash-Fiction Day, which is taking place on 22nd June 2013. It will also take place in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the USA and elsewhere. If you want to join in, you can find out more details about the day in the following places:

Flash Flood website at http://nationalflashfictionday.co.uk
Sign up to the mailing list at nationalflashfictionday@gmail.com.

Happy reading and enjoy the weekend.



Creating Believable Characters

images (3)        images (2)        images (4)


“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.


How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing

I was asked to write a guest blog post on Marianne Wheelaghan’s writing blog which is full of useful writing tips. She teaches creative writing classes at www.writingclasses.co.uk and is the author of two books. I would recommend reading some of her articles and getting to know her on twitter and on the blog.  My post is on How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing. It is a subject which I think is important for writers. Many people struggle with time to read but if you are a writer is is a necessary part of building your craft and learning skills and techniques. Do leave a comment on the post and I hope you find it useful.


Writing, Art and Outlining

Nicholas by Rubens

       Rubens’ son, Nicholas, 1916.

          Elephant by Rembrandt

        Rembrandt’s Elephant, 1637.

I took the opportunity to see an exhibition at the Albertina Gallery in Vienna at the weekend. It is part of the Hofburg Palace and was built during the Hapsburg dynasty. The building itself is beautiful and the exhibitions are varied and interesting. While also viewing an exhibition of black and white landscape photos and an Impressionist exhibition, it was this temporary exhibition of Rubens and Rembrandt which caught my eye and got me thinking about outlining. 

I love art and can happily while away hours in galleries given the opportunity. I have painted a great deal in the past, but setting up a canvas and oils takes time and space so I haven’t painted for a while. These drawings are a collection of 170 pieces of Dutch art and were penned or (penciled) at over a period of time, but in the 1900s, drawing was becoming an art form in its own right, as opposed to being used as a preparation for larger paintings.

Outlining is an important part of the writing process and, as I wandered around the gallery gazing at the drawings, I was struck by the similarities between the two forms: Writing and Art.

Writing and Outlining

Many would argue that writing needs an outline, although not every writer works this way, and that it is an important part of the process of your work. I recently wrote a post on structure and plotting.

Outlining your work can be really helpful and speed up the process of novel writing, avoiding the need for major editing towards the end. An outline is a sketch, if you like, for the finished painting and an image of how your story will hang together, how it will look in the final stages, with its cover.

Art and Outlining

Although these sketches in the exhibition were mixture of both drawings in their entirety and preliminary sketches for a finished painting, I thought about how an outline is needed in both cases. If you look closely as many impressionist paintings, you will see the outline drawn or painted onto the canvas before the layers of oil paints are added with a brush or a pallet knife.

This process is similar to the layering effect of writing a book. You begin with the bare bones and the image in your mind, and then go back and add detail, scene setting, character idiosyncracies, plots twists and, in some cases, flashbacks.

The similarities between outlining in art and writing interweave in a way that clarified the process for me in writing.

Do you outline? If so, what are your methods and do you have a clear idea in your mind of where you are going? Can you see the finished picture?


Writers and Their Creative Spaces

Some of you may have noticed the blog header change. It is a photograph I took of  W. H. Auden’s desk and typewriter at his summer house in Kirchstetten, Austria, not so far from where I live. The previous header was an image of his bookshelves which are upstairs in his study. I visited Auden’s summer house last Autumn, just as Take Me to the Castle was about to be released and just as I began to creep into the world of social media as a writer. If you searched for F. C. Malby prior to September 2012, you would not have found a thing.


W. H. Auden’s study in the upper rooms of his summer house – Kirchstetten, Austria.

I have been interested in writing spaces for a while for several reasons:

They form the inspiration for the work of each writer, whether the space is a small desk in the corner of a room, a pocket of a cafe, a library, or a large wood desk in a grander room. Writers are natural sponges of their immediate surroundings – the views, the conversations, small objects or buildings. All of these things help to form the ideas which swirl around in our minds.

They are a slice of history. Visiting this beautiful house in a remote village, where Auden penned gems such as Stop all the Clocks, I felt a sense of anticipation as I scanned his bookshelves, coffee pots, vodka bottles, memorabilia, even his slippers left by the chair. It was almost as though he could have walked into the room at any moment. Everything he read and used has been left as it was and turned into a small museum. I sat in the chair by the desk and looked out of the window wondering what he might have thought as he looked out towards the woods.

The books say much about the author. Auden had a small selection of his own books in amongst shelves of writers such as Wodehouse, Shakespeare, Twain, Waugh, Keats and Golding, as well as a collection of atlases and books on psychology and philosophy. I looked at the books closely because I believe that what each writer reads will influence his or her writing and style to a great extent.

I have been to the Isle of Jura on the West coast of Scotland but have yet to visit the rented house where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty Four.  He apparently worked without electricity or running water on a remote end of the isle.

If you are interested in finding out more about writers and their creative spaces, I have a board on Pinterest of well known writers, with many in their work environment.


Agatha Christie’s study

louis de berniers

Sebastian Faulks’ garden work space


 Jane Austin’s tiny walnut table

Agatha Christie surrounded herself with art. I also find art galleries a source of inspiration for some of my writing.

Beatrix Potter surrounded herself with animals as she wrote and illustrated her famous Peter Rabbit books.

E. B. White worked in a boathouse. Imagine the waves lapping against the boathouse walls as he wrote and a view into a horizon where the ocean meets the sky.

Sylvia Plath took her typewriter in the great outdoors, sitting on a stone wall with her typewriter balanced on her lap.

Louise de Bernieres writes in a shed in the garden over looking a vegetable patch with a view of pheasants, listening to music.

Sebastian Faulks uses a small room fifteen minutes from his house. He has a small cameo of Tolstoy that he bought in his house in Moscow and a bronze relief of Dickens. For each book he invokes a sort of patron saint. For A Week in December it was George Orwell.

Jane Austin worked on a fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod, which must be the smallest table ever used by a writer. She established herself as a writer whilst working here after a long period of silence. Her early novels had been written upstairs in her father’s Hampshire rectory.