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Interview with Author and 1000words Editor, Natalie Bowers

100words

I met Natalie when my short fiction piece, North Norfolk Coast, was published online in 1000words at the beginning of July. 1000words publishes flash-fiction of up to 1000 words in length, written in response to an image. I have been impressed with the site and the quality of the work for a while. Natalie’s response to my submission was really professional and friendly, and I have enjoyed reading some of her own fiction (more on her work at the end of the post). I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview, so thank you for joining us, Natalie, and for answering some questions that I think authors often ask, or want to ask.

When and how did 1000words begin, and what inspired you to start gathering flash fiction?

1000words began in 2012 as part of the first National Flash-Fiction Day. I’d just finished an online flash-fiction course with Calum Kerr, the brains behind NFFD, who’d said he was looking for people to organise events, online and off. I’ve always had a secret desire to run my own fiction magazine, so this seemed the perfect opportunity to start one. I also love photography, so what better way was there to blend my two main interests and fulfill an ambition than by starting 1000words?

 What is flash fiction, for those who are new to the form, and how is it unique?

There are as many definitions of flash-fiction as there are people writing it, but for me, flash-fiction is simply a very short story. Although at 1000words we accept stories of up to 1000 words in length, I actually prefer reading and writing stories no longer than 500 words. When it comes to flash-fiction I like to be punched in the gut. I like flash-fiction to be short, sharp and to take my breath away.

 The idea of using an image prompt from the Pinterest page is very creative. How do you decide which images to use?

I go with my instincts. If I see an image and find myself immediately making up a story, I pin the image. I’ve pinned quite a few of my own photos on our Pinterest boards too, as I always have a camera on me and am constantly on the lookout for story ideas.

pinterest 1000

There is a wonderful range of stories on the site. How do you chose what will be published, and what are you looking for in a piece of fiction?

Again, I go with my instincts. If the opening few lines grab me, I know I’m likely to enjoy the whole piece and will most likely publish it. What I’m really looking for is a consistent narrative voice. It doesn’t have to be a confident voice, but I need to feel as if the narrator is a real person and believes in the story they’re telling. I’m also looking for something special: a surprising simile, a poignant observation, a subverted cliché, an old story told in a new way, or a new story told in an old way. It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

Is there anything that will automatically send work to the rejection pile, and are there any submission tips you can share? 

There’s nothing that will automatically send work to the rejection pile. If I decline to publish a story, it’s usually due to a combination of factors such as an inconsistent narrative voice, unnatural sounding dialogue, cliché imagery or plot or over-explaining (not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination). If a story has a lot of grammatical mistakes and doesn’t look as if it’s been proofread properly then I’ll probably turn it down, as it’ll be too much work to prepare it for publication. One of the biggest turn-offs for me, though, are stories with a twist ending where the twist hasn’t been sufficiently foreshadowed or where it’s been so obviously sign-posted that I’ve guessed it before the end. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one I struggle with myself.

Tell us a little about yourself and your own writing?

I’ve always written stories in my head, if not on paper. I remember writing and illustrating a book for my little brother when I was about ten. It was a complete rip-off of the children’s TV series Jamie and His Magic Torch, but I put my heart and soul into it! In my early teens, I graduated to Star Wars fanfiction, but I didn’t write much at all in my late teens and twenties, I was too busy with school, university, work and then babies – I did science A-levels, a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, taught for a few years and then gave it all up to raise two lovely children. I’d had depression and anxiety after the birth of my daughter in 2005, and the doctor advised me to find something with which to occupy my brain. Writing seemed like a good idea, so in 2007, after a bit of dabbling, I took The Open University’s Start Writing Fiction Course, and I haven’t really looked back since. I’ve written quite a few short stories, but flash-fiction is where I feel most at home and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a fair few pieces published here and there. Right now, I’m working on a collection of summer-themed flash-fictions and in September (if I get enough punters) I’ll be teaching my first ever writing course in the adult education department of my local secondary school. Bit scary!

Are there any short fiction authors who are a particular inspiration? 

Loads! I have a ‘Recommended Reading’ page on my website where I list lots of my favourite authors and stories, but if I had to name just a few, they’d be: Calum Kerr, Nik Perring, Kevlin Henney, Shirley Golden, Cathy Lennon, Lorrie Heartshorn, Angela Readman, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx and Kate Atkinson. These are the people whose work I rush to read. (That was more than just a few, wasn’t it?!)

Friends of 1000words are flashandzoom, Paragraph Planet and Stories with Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about each of them?

flashandzoom is a photography and poetry project run photographer Jaime Hill and a writing pal of mine, Zoe Mitchell. The aim of the project is to provide a fresh perspective to photography and poetry, and to create art that reaches people on a number of levels. It’s been a bit quiet of late, but what they’ve produced in the past has been beautiful.

Paragraph Planet publishes a 75-word paragraph (fiction and non-fiction) EVERY SINGLE DAY of the year, which is an amazing feat. You can also read author interviews and there’s a sister site called ‘Writing Workout’ where writers can do all sorts of writing exercises. I’ve had a couple of pieces published on Paragraph Planet and intend to send more soon.

Stories and Pictures is a site that brings writers and artists together in collaboration. It’s chock-full of beautiful stories accompanied by beautiful pictures. Some of the stories have been inspired by pictures, and some of the pictures have been inspired by stories. I’ve had a story and a photo published there too.

  natalie 2 Natalie Bowers, along with Heather Stanley, is the editor and publisher of 1000words online flash fiction magazine. She lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. Natalie has a degree in Biochemisty, a PGCE in secondary science education, and has taught Science and A-Level Biology. Her short stories have appeared in print and her flash-fiction has been published in various online journals. You can find a list of her publications on her blog, and she is a fellow Ether Books author. You can follow 1000words on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Why Bother With Social Media?

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Social Media: A phrase that strikes up a series of emotions in each one of us. Some people enjoy using social media sites, thriving on the information they can gather and the contact with others, while others avoid it through fear or a lack of time or motivation. Many people have a love/hate relationship with it. Why does it cause so much consternation, when the aim has always been to connect and to share information? Each site takes time to navigate and to get used to, much like a new relationship or friendship in some ways! At first you post and respond to others, gradually gaining the confidence and understanding of how it all works. Each site has a different character and set of expectations. You step up your communication, post, wait, wonder. Sound familiar?

The earliest forms of social media were not electronic, but took the form of cave paintings. These were the earliest known signs of humans trying to communicate, to leave their mark. Now, we leave our mark, our knowledge and some of our personality, on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr or other blogging sites. We strike up connections with others and share information, often collaborating in a way that would have been difficult before the age of social media.

So, why take the time to engage with social media?

1. You meet an amazing range of people, both within and outside your field of expertise.

I have met some fantastic readers, writers, bloggers, editors, agents, marketing experts. Meeting people within the fields of writing and publishing have helped me to learn about the industry. Other authors have been a great encouragement to me along the way (which is something we all need). Readers have contacted me through my website and found me on other social media platforms. If they enjoy your work and like who you are as a person, chances are they will want to engage and follow what you are up to. I have also gained a great deal from others outside this group. I follow journalists and people who are interested in some of the things I enjoy outside writing: music, art, travel and skiing.

2. Sharing resources

The online community are a generous bunch! I find that people share information on writing competitions, tips on writing and publishing (both self-publishing and traditional publishing). It’s also a great way to find out about writing courses or retreats. I first heard about the Arvon Foundation through Twitter. They offer residential writing courses with a range of authors who teach specific courses throughout the year. Interviewing other authors on your blog and hosting posts is a good way of networking and sharing new work with your readers. You can also approach other bloggers and offer to write posts on their blogs (see my post on Optimising Facebook on 30 Day Books).

3. Finding books

Many people share books they have read and enjoyed. There are a few editors whose tastes are similar to mine and I almost always enjoy the books they suggest. Book bloggers are a great resource, reviewing books and giving honest opinions on popular or recent books, and often on classics I might have missed. I also review books as well as hosting interviews and posting about writing. Literary salons and author events in bookshops are also advertised on social media sites. Don’t miss these if there is one near you.

4. It keeps you up to date with what is going on in the publishing industry.

Within the publishing industry I have learned a great deal from people like Jane Friedman (former publisher of Writer’s Digest, who writes about the future of the publishing and media industry), Porter Anderson (journalist and publishing consultant) and The Future Book, a blog founded by Sam Missingham (formerly working for The Bookseller Group). If you are interested in a traditional publishing deal, social media sites are a good way to find agents who might be a good fit for your work. Follow the #askagent hashtag on Twitter for agent tips and #MSWL for individual manuscript wish lists. If you are self-publishing, there is a plethora of blogs and sites with all the information you will need.

5. It helps to develop your writing skills on many levels.

Blogging is a good extension of your writing. I wrote a post on blogging with a list of resources. It helps you to learn how to engage readers and to put forward your ideas in an interesting way. This is particularly useful for non-fiction writers who might need evidence of a platform before approaching an agency, and to connect with readers of your particular subject area. As far as fiction is concerned, there has been advice not to write about writing, but I find that these posts have a high level of engagement and readers often write to tell me that these have been helpful. I would run with what works, what you enjoy and what helps others. Social media is an important place to be a helpful resource for others. If you use Twitter it will keep your writing to a succinct 140 characters! This can be a challenge if you tend to over-write or over-describe.

6. You are available for people to contact you and find out about your work.

I have deliberately left this point until last because promoting your work should not be your primary focus on social media. It is called ‘social’ media for the very reason that you interact with people respectfully and share your ideas. If you are interesting and thoughtful, and readers like your style, they will often then look into your work. But you would not sit in a cafe or a bar with a friend saying “Buy my book, buy my book.” So, don’t do it online. It is one of people’s greatest bugbears. Leave an option for people to sign up to your newsletters and to follow your blog posts. I promise you this is enough. No one likes a hard sell and if you treat social media with the same approach as a double glazing salesman, you’ll get the same response.

What are your thoughts on social media? Are there sites that you use more often and why? Are there some sites you haven’t yet got to grips with? Share your ideas. I’ll leave you with some interesting stats:

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Finding New Books…

reading                                                           bookshelfbookstore.blogspot.com

It’s not always easy to find books that you will enjoy, and very often I have set a book aside to come back to or have left it all together, and not without a sense of guilt. How do you find the books that you will really enjoy?

I enjoy browsing through bookshops, second hand and new, and finding an author whose work I haven’t yet delved into. I generally go by the blurb and the first few pages. The cover less so; I have learned over the years that the cover will not always give me an idea of what to expect. Some of the covers that have been less appealing to me have been those of books which I really enjoyed, and vise versa.  The old cliché rings true for me with books as well as for all of the other implied judgements we make!

I do look at Amazon’s recommendations, although they sometimes recommend my own work! I look at the emails they send and the recommendations on the site itself. They often give an accurate representation of my tastes.

I really appreciate recommendations from friends and other authors and will try both established authors and debut novelists. Don’t forget that every author was new to the craft at some point. We often cling to the authors we know and love but can miss some fantastic books if we don’t branch out. I have learned who to trust as far as book recommendations go and it has certainly expanded my horizon. Reading widely is important: push the boundaries and try a new genre, read something you ‘would never read’.

I read a lot of book blogs and there are a selection at the end of a previous post on blogging. Book bloggers are a fantastic way of finding new books and getting an overview of new releases, and sometimes classics I’ve missed. Their summaries are often more helpful to me than the reviews on various books sites.

Literary Prizes flag authors who I might not otherwise have found, this includes short story awards as I particularly enjoy reading short stories and collections. There are many book prizes, but if you find the ones that suit your tastes you can find some wonderful books.

I often find books on Pinterest, which I pin for later and I can go back to the list on my to-be-read board later and take a closer look to see if it is something I want to buy and read. It’s a great way of seeing the covers in a larger format and reading reviews.

Libraries are a good way of finding books, especially out of print editions. Having a library card is also a fantastic way of encouraging children to read.

Finally, bestseller lists. I left this until last because I don’t always love the bestsellers, and people’s tastes vary, but going to the bestseller shelves in bookshops and looking on-line will give you an idea of what’s popular. Moods and genres shift, and there is a wave of psychological thrillers. I have found some great books this way. Amazon has a list of kindle bestsellers. I have linked the fiction page, but you can find almost anything. I you are looking for a particular genre within fiction, the links are on their sidebar. Most of you are familiar with this but it’s worth a reminder.

What have you discovered that surprised you? Any recommendations?

Reading_in_the_Bookstore                                    www.fotopedia.com

 


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Creating Believable Characters

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“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.


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5 Ways to Write More Effectively

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W.H. Auden’s Desk (copyright F.C. Malby)

I know there are many lists of ‘to to-dos’ and ‘not-to-dos’ for writing and endless amounts of advice, but I just wanted to add a few things which I have found really helpful (some of them dietary!)

  • Write first thing in the morning if you can. I know that people work to different schedules and many people are writing around full-time jobs and some, well into the night. If you have the time, though, I think the mornings are a time when your mind is fresh and uncluttered from everything you might have read on email, twitter, facebook, and the news. Interestingly, I have heard several writers this week saying that they are pulling back from the internet because it is hampering their creativity (but that is another post all together).
  • Cut out caffeine for a while. Yes, I really did say that. I know it sounds like a lot to ask and, believe me, I LOVE coffee but before Christmas I was feeling tired and lethargic and I realised that I was drinking far too much coffee in the form of very strong nespressos. I’m now having a detox for a few months and it really does help. I can only do this because I know that it won’t be forever. I wake up feeling less tired and my mind is much clearer. The difference to my writing output is phenomenal. Since the New Year, I have written 9 short stories, 9 pieces of flash fiction, and mapped out the next novel. I drink peppermint tea and water and I can’t tell you how much it has helped. Getting enough water is really important for brain function. When I teach, I can spot the children who haven’t had a drink in the mornings. They can’t focus.
  • Have a rough plan of where you are going. Whether you are a detailed planner or are more relaxed with your writing, it helps to know where you are heading for the day/week/month. I carved out time during January and February to write short fiction and have achieved my goals. Your targets can be large or small, long-term or short-term but I would encourage you to make some goals rather than to drift through the days.
  • Use visuals to help with details of characters and settings. I use mood boards and Pinterest to give me the fine details, especially for short fiction. See the article I wrote recently on using Pinterest to help your writing. To be able to see images, beyond what is already in your mind, can give a fresh perspective and trigger new ideas.
  • Take a break. You can’t really focus for more than 90 minutes without loosing a certain amount of efficiency and concentration. Some people use timers but you’ll have a clock on your screen/wrist/wall, so make sure that you get out of your seat and move around. It will get the blood flowing to your brain and your muscles, especially the leg muscles which have been squashed into a chair for longer than they were designed to handle.


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Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?


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How To Use Pinterest To Improve Your Writing

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When I write I have the scenes playing in my mind like a film scene and I need images for inspiration. Whether imagined or actual images, I need to ‘see’ the characters and the setting and buildings. I hit gold when I started to use pinterest as I am a highly visual person. I love art and photography, so this sight has an almost magnetic quality about it for a mind which soaks up the visual world.

I began using pinterest to ‘pin’ my ideas and create the atmosphere that I needed in order to write some of my scenes. I have added a clip of the board for Take Me the Castle to the beginning of this post but you can see the whole board here if you are interested.

You can also use scrivener, but I find pinterest quick and easy to use. There is a plethora of images already posted by others which you can search for, or you can pin your own images from any website by pasting the url, or add your own file.

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Why and how does this help?

Some writers use prompts or music to help them to write. Jane Friedman has written a good article on prompts and Roz Morris has a blog about how writers use music to build their stories. If you are a visual person a collection of images can spark new ideas or link a character’s responses to his or her environment. It can help to put you in the scene and to think about how the characters will respond to a cliff edge, or a towering building, or a dark room.

According to neurolearning, ‘brainstorming activities of visual thinkers may be more productive if right hemispheric strategies of brainstorming and organization (mindmapping, doodling, free association, analogies) are undertaken. In fiction writing, often the most powerful writers are good at plumbing the strengths of both the right and left hemispheres.’ As a qualified teacher I can attest to the fact that children who are visual thinkers and learners engage more readily when the right side of their brain is stimulated with images and free drawing and mapping. You might be interested to know that most writers are in fact right brained, they use the right side of their brain to engage creativity more than the left side.

I would encourage you to have a look at pinterest and try pinning some images. I also have a board with writing quotes and information and boards with portraits and travel, which help to get the ideas flowing. Let me know if you have any other ideas for visual inspiration.