Storytelling on the Bus: Planning

So you’ve got an idea for a short story. You’ve pre-planned. You’ve researched extensively (?). Surely the next step is to start writing the thing, no?

You are significantly more likely to abandon your piece if you try to convert what are reasonably dry notes into a juicy narrative – sometimes that gap is just too big to bridge. I try to overcome this by free writing planning. I find this quite a liberating experience; I am writing without rules, without grammar, without the hassle of having to structure or pace or preen. If a lightning piece of dialogue comes into my head, down it goes on the page. If I want to write a detailed description of a nineteenth century blackhouse, I can. This is brainstorming – letting my writer’s mind take me where it wants to go. Consequently, there are some real gems formed in this process. Below is my free planning for Meeting Margery Mercer:

 

Meeting Margery Mercer

Here is an example of stream-of-consciousness writing. I am telling the story as I would to someone sitting next to me on the bus. Planning in this way takes the trepidation out of starting to write in earnest – the story has already been written once. Although the first opportunity to form a narrative curve, I find planning more useful if I stick to a few simple rules.

 

  1. Limit your time writing. This isn’t the time to focus on grammar, syntax etc. This is where your narrative arc is honed. Does the story work? Could I tell it to a friend on the X95 from Edinburgh to Galashiels? If not, it probably is too dense to work as a short story.
  2. Organise your work into paragraphs. Although seemingly contrary to free writing, this proves useful if I want to move paragraphs around or play with plot later on. It also makes the plan easier to work from when writing your first draft.
  3. Bear in mind that this is your first opportunity to fuse your research and pre-planning. Strategically placed nuggets of research within your plan will add authenticity to your writing, whilst avoiding research overload (a mistake I have made in the past). Less is more here. The aim is not to prove that you know your subject matter inside-out, but to entertain. If your plan is groaning with the weight of statistics and historical anecdotes, then your full-length draft certainly will be.

 

Once your scaffolding is complete, congratulations – you have a narrative in front of you! Next is the hard part – writing it properly and writing it better.

 

For more insight on my writing process, see the following…

 

Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation

A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning

Exploration and Sterilisation: Research

 

Successes and Failures

The vast majority of authors fit their craft around jobs, family, homemaking, and other commitments. Anyone who expects to write in blissful solitude at a sprawling desk with coffee steam curling into the ceiling fan above them will be swiftly disabused of such fantasies. A more common tableau is stealing half an hour at the end of a stressful day to write on the sofa with Peppa Pig ringing in my ears and my three-year-old’s legs entangled in the laptop cable. Most of the time it’s not a glamorous hobby. Most of the time it’s a grind.

 No matter how many times you remind yourself that rejections are part of the game, that it’s not personal, that even Hemingway’s writing was initially dismissed, it still hurts. It should hurt; you’ve invested time, effort, and passion in your work. All of which makes it important to celebrate when things do go right.

 In the last month I’ve been lucky enough to have short stories accepted in Soft Cartel, Penny Shorts, and Shooter magazine. Two of these are paying magazines, which makes it all the sweeter! Doubtless I’ll have barren spells again. Those rejection slips and oh-so-close emails will disappoint time and time again, but it’s important to remember the successes.

The Decent Thing

Good morning readers,

my latest short story has been picked up by the fine folks at Penny Shorts – quite the honour! Unlike most short story websites, Penny Shorts pay authors for their work whilst keeping content free for readers – a trait worth encouraging, don’t you agree?

Read it here

https://www.pennyshorts.com/stories/sci-fi/the-decent-thing/

and please let me know what you think of it.

Also of note is the fact that Penny Shorts are offering £50 for the best review of a short story submitted by the end of May. Find out more at https://www.pennyshorts.com/news/

Tide

via Daily Prompt: Tide

Evening folks,

a bit of flash fiction on the theme of ‘Tide’…

 

It creeps away from you, the tide. You can watch it for hours, a serene lead grey, but turn for a minute to look at the darkling room behind you and it has cringed away, eager to avoid watching eyes.

Bore tides, neap tides, rip tides, brown tides, semidiurnal tides. I can watch them all from my boathouse, glass of red in my hand and the gas heater humming away at my side. The cold is starting to edge in from across the bay.

It was a spring tide that brought about my undoing. Out beyond the pier the tide went, out beyond the rockpools, out past the moored sailboats. It had been a dog walker who found her; it’s always the dog walkers, isn’t it? There had been phone calls, more dog walkers, fishermen, and finally the police with their bright jackets and crime scene tape. There had also been the first knock on the door. No, I didn’t know who it might be. No, I hadn’t seen anything suspicious.

They’ll be back of course, once the DNA tests results are in, once the facial reconstruction posters are pinned upon lampposts in the village. For now, though, it is just police tape guttering in the sea breeze and men in white masks digging before the tide turns again. I sit back in the rattan chair before pouring myself another glass.

 

***As always, delighted to hear any feedback! The featured image is a beautiful boathouse on Loch Tay, Scotland***

Book Review – Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor

Harper Collins

GBP 8.99

‘There were dreams about her walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs, rising from the dark grey water with her hair streaming and her clothes draped with long green weeds.’

Reservoir 13 is Jon McGregor’s fourth novel. It is extraordinary.

Rebecca Shaw is thirteen years old when she disappears on a family walk on the moors. Walking behind her parents, one minute she is there, the next she is not. Villagers rally around to search for the child, fanning out around the reservoirs and prodding through the undergrowth.

It is tempting for the reader to slip into the whodunnit mind frame, but that would be to miss the point of McGregor’s narrative. The girl is not found, not after a week, not after a month, not after a year. What follows is a forensically beautiful exploration of grief seen through the lens of a small village. The inhabitants move on, as they must; teenagers mature, marriages dissolve, and feuds escalate. All of these events are however set against the backdrop of unresolved tragedy.

McGregor uses beautiful, simple language. Huge, rambling two-page paragraphs do not serve to stilt the pace, but rather build a rhythmic, seasonal repetition. Each chapter starts at the new year bells. We follow a plethora of characters through the rural year, their tribulations interspersed with updates on badgers, foxes, bats, and swallows. This relentless changing-of-the-seasons heightens the tension of the piece and mimics the small-town claustrophobia threaded through the novel. What is left unsaid is as important as what McGregor chooses to commit to copy. Characters’ motives are often left only partially explored, tantalising the reader with the question ‘could it have been him/her?’

The time frame in which the novel is set in allows McGregor ample time to develop his characters. This development is particularly poignant in the case of the four teenagers who were briefly friends with Rebecca. We watch them dream, stumble, and finally accept their differing roles, becoming accustomed to grief and guilt in their own ways. The greatest achievement of the novel is to lull the reader into equating characters’ idiosyncratic worries and tribalisms with an undoubted tragedy. People move on; they must, and as such Rebecca fades into the background of village life, swallowed into folklore like so many other events.

A novel like no other I have ever read, and one which will stay with me.

For other book reviews featured on my blog please see

A Gentleman in Moscow

The Underground Railroad