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Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Generating writing ideas with Adam Marek

At festivals and book events the most popular question posed to an author is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' This becomes even more pertinent when the ideas are drying up. Recently, I've hit a block in my writing and the Ideas Fairy has taken a long sabbatical. I've continued editing and subbing work, with some success, but I've not written anything new since February. Consequently, Adam Marek's Masterclass in Generating Ideas (@adammarek) came at the perfect time for me. The workshop was held at the wonderfully named 'The Friendship House' in Lewes last weekend and organised by the talented writer/editor Holly Dawson (she also runs the monthly Lewes Short Story Club @LewesShortStory and weekly writing drop-in sessions).


Adam Marek is an award-winning short story writer with two collections under his belt: Instruction Manual for Swallowing and The Stone Thrower. I highly recommend both of these - his short stories are imaginative, surreal at times and yet still full of heart. As a fan I was looking forward to his workshop and came away enthused, inspired and, most importantly, ready to write something new. By the end of the morning I had a flash story drafted and two more short story ideas begging to be developed.

We all shared where we get our ideas from and the range was surprisingly wide. This is my list:
Reading, TV/Film, listening to the radio (R4 usually), swimming, walking, talking to people (I get a lot of story ideas from non-writing friends), listening in to other people's conversations (admit it - we all do this!), titles first then an idea and 'what if' thinking. Adam gave a lovely analogy of how a snowflake needs a piece of grit or dust to form - short stories evolve in much the same way. Many of my stories grow around a tiny element, perhaps a title or a line of dialogue and then develop from there. Adam recommended James Webb Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas (I've just ordered my copy) which covers a simple 5-step plan for producing ideas. The book is aimed at those working in marketing/advertising/sales but the principles work equally for writing. In its simplest form the technique works as follows:
1. Collate your raw material i.e. see my list above.
2. Look for connections. Get yourself worked up into a "peak of frustration."
3. Put it out of your head. Do something else, something completely different - mundane household tasks are perfect for this.
4. The idea should appear when you least expect it. Mine often 'pop' into my head when driving.
5. Consider and evaluate the idea - is it viable? Critically analysis the idea before you do anything with it.

Going to bed and sleeping on it often does the trick for me, letting my subconscious process the ideas without the interference of that dreaded inner critic. It's the same process as James Webb Young describes.

The final half of our workshop was a series of exercises to trigger ideas. In groups we moved around the room to four different 'ideas stations.' Coming together at the end it was interesting to hear that different stimuli worked for different people. Cutting up columns of magazine text and randomly sticking them together to form new sentences worked a treat for some, but did nothing for me. Whereas pairing up disparate images (photos, postcards, magazine pictures) triggered a complete flash story, which I wrote down immediately. The stimuli that worked best for me turned out to be music. Turns out I share the same taste in film soundtracks with Adam - we're both fans of Hans Zimmer (Inception, Gladiator etc) - and he'd created a loop of three or four different pieces of instrumental music. We had to write down the setting that the music evoked and as I'm a very visual writer I was soon immersed in a whole new world - a sci-fi setting and storyline that I'm itching to write.

I feel happier knowing I now have some techniques to trigger creative thinking. Getting out and meeting other writers on the Masterclass also helped. Being around creative people can only stimulate and inspire you.

Adam and others also raved about using Evernote as a virtual scrapbook. I understand you can use it to store images/website links/notes etc. It's something I need to explore. Does anyone else use Evernote? Would you recommend it? And what techniques do you use to generate ideas?

Monday, 10 April 2017

A slice of heaven

'A slice of heaven' was the original title for my short story that is out in this month's in Take-a-Break Fiction Feast (TABFF May issue), but they've changed that to 'Spoilt for choice.' However, I did notice it's used as the tag line for the story so I shouldn't grumble. I read it again over the weekend and thought what a good story it was, even though I wrote it! Funny isn't it how over time you forget the detail of a story, as I literally could not remember writing most of it. When I re-read it again and compared it to the original I realised they'd tweaked and changed a few things. The wine waiter is now Theo rather than Rene. The milkshake is strawberry rather than vanilla (ok, that makes sense but I love vanilla) and Miss Perkins' perfume has been upgraded from Lily of the Valley to Chanel No 5 (since she was the main character's maths teacher I'm so sure about this change).

The story was originally written early in 2016 for the Mogford Prize, which is always themed around food and drink. Now food and drink are some of my favourite things (you'll know this if you regularly read my posts) and the story was a joy to write. Basically, Aiden finds himself in a classy restaurant where the menu has all of his favourite foods. The waitresses are all the women he had crushes on when he was a boy ... including Miss Perkins and Yeoman Janice Rand from the original Star Trek series. I wrote in Yeoman Janice for my hubby - we're both fans of the original series and hubby had a bit of a crush on her himself. 'Spoilt for choice' is a sweet little tale about cherishing the important things in life. It came nowhere in the Mogford Prize and I put it away. Later in the year I wondered if it would be suitable for TABFF and sent it off with hardly any revisions. It took a few months but then I heard they wanted to buy it. It's always a pleasure to see a favourite story in print and the £250 payment doesn't hurt either!

April has started well with several bits of good news and you may have heard me shouting on Twitter and Facebook about this: Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlisting for UK and Canada category, click here to read more. I'm incredibly honoured to have a story on this prestigious shortlist (it's also my second shortlisting, first in 2014) and am now nervously waiting to hear if 'The naming of moths' makes it through to the next stage.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

(Writing) Time in your head

I've been away from the blog for some weeks and sadly not because I've been busy writing. In February my mum passed away suddenly and I quickly learned there are many things to sort out when someone close dies - and there is no time to really process there are no longer in your life. Consequently, my head has been crowded with other tasks other than writing. I've been back home for several weeks and starting to get myself into a rhythm again, though mostly editing and subbing work rather than creating anything new.
A poet friend, Zoe Mitchell, reckons the writing well can get depleted and sometimes you need time out to let it refill. She advocates lots of reading, watching films and TV, going to the cinema and theatre to help the process - I'm up for all of these. Another friend is a keen runner and always claims no matter how long the distance for a run or walk what matters is 'time on legs.' I like that idea and believe it applies to writing too.
I don't seem to suffer from writer's block, when I need to write then I can always get on with it. My problem is a block of ideas - when there's nothing in my head then I can't write. I need the idea to be almost fully formed before I start. I often work through stories or chapters in my head while doing other stuff, such as washing up, ironing, gardening and my weekly swim. Running isn't good for writing as my village route is a mixture of road and woodland, so I need to concentrate on my feet and not tripping up! Walking is brilliant for plotting and spending time in my head. We're blessed with living in a beautiful part of West Sussex and walk on the South Downs. I often go out with hubby and sometimes we like to chat - he works from home and sometimes has programming problems he wants to talk through, as I used to manage programmers/statisticians I actually can follow his conversation (and sometimes help), but mostly he wants to talk something out. But there are times when we both agree we just want to walk and think. This is perfect for me to spend quality time in my head. On a long walk back in January a new story came to me. I was able to write it over the next couple of days and submit it to a competition. Incredibly, that story 'The Gingerbread Fox' went on to make the final 16 of the 2017 Mogford Prize (worth £10,000). It didn't win but just goes to show what can be achieved when you allow yourself writing time in your head. Above is a photo of Ferdinand the fox (he visited our garden all last summer), the handsome inspiration behind the story.
The universe has been kind to me in the last few weeks, bringing good news of writing success. What I need right now is simply to day-dream, so if you catch me staring off into space then remember I'm actually spending valuable time in my head ...

Monday, 16 January 2017

What I read last year ...

Last year (2016) I read a total of 46 books (includes non-fiction and short story collections/anthologies). This is accurate because I keep a separate notebook to record all the books I read, often with additional comments to remind me of what I loved (or hated) about them. As a writer I agree with Stephen King that you should "Read, read, read" long before you ever start writing, and I thought this was probably about the usual number of books an average reader gets through in a year. So I was shocked by Grumpy Old Bookman's feature in January's Writing Magazine, where he quoted literary agent Jonny Geller telling the Guardian that "... the average person reads between one and five books a year." This was after the Bookman revealed from a report in the International Publishers Association that "British Publishes released  184,000 new and revised titles in 2013", which equates to "roughly twenty new titles every hour." Even if I took up the GoodReads challenge to read 100 books in 2017, I'd still fall well short of keeping up with new books coming out each week. I haven't set any reading goals for this year as I believe reading is something you should want to do, not feel obliged or pressured to do (whether you write for a living or not).

Here's LitPig showing off six of my top reads from 2016. You can see I'm struggling to keep up with current releases as many of these have been out for some time, but often I pick up a book because of a friend's recommendation. Luckily, my friends have exceedingly good taste ...

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel - a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel weaving past and future together with exceptional prose. This is the book I WANT to WRITE!
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier - a retelling of Homer's Odyssey set at the end of the US Civil War (the film with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law does a pretty good job of recreating the novel). Sublime writing and storytelling.
A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install - a charming, gentle and often comic novel. I dare anyone to read this and not fall in love with Tang the robot.
Merivel, Rose Tremain - concluding Robert Merivel's life-story after Restoration set in the reign of Charles II. Sir Rob is one of my all-time favourite literary characters and as with Restoration this is a novel I will re-read many times.
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler - master of the 'quiet' novel, Anne Tyler is quite simply a genius.
The Bones of You, Debbie Howells - a gripping, page-turning psychological thriller which I read in one afternoon. Enjoyed this even more because I recognised the local setting, as the author literally lives down the road from me.

Here's a selection of other books I'd enjoyed (in order of reading):
Longbourn, Jo Baker
Tastes Like Fear, Sarah Hilary
Writing for TV and Radio, Sue Teddern & Nick Warbuton
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
The Woman in Blue, Elly Griffiths
Deadly Elections, Lindsey Davis
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
The Ice Twins, S K Tremayne
The Shut-Eye, Belinda Bauer
Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantell
If I were a River, Amanda Saint
Last Rituals, Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Into the Woods, John Yorke
Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig
Lightbox, KJ Orr
The Colour, Rose Tremain
Llama Sutra, Melanie Whipman
Mr Mercedes, Stephen King

Like any sensible control freak I also keep a record on my GoodReads account and often leave review/comments there. Wherever possible I try to upload a review onto Amazon if I enjoyed a book, as I believe that helps the writer just as much as buying their book in the first place.


Did you also read any of the above? What were your favourite reads of 2016? Please share ...

Monday, 2 January 2017

Goodbye 2016 ...

Happy New Year to all followers! I hope 2017 has started well for you. LitPig has a feeling in his trotters that 2017 is going to shine brightly for us all. I'm still pondering on writing goals for this year and to be honest I can't commit to anything until I've met Wendy for our first planning session, which is an annual tradition I look forward to. But before setting out new goals it's wise to revisit the year just passed. I've focused on five topics for 2016 ...
1. The year of two novels
I started and finished first draft of my new crime mystery novel (with a supernatural edge) within 6 months, then went on to complete re-writes and edits before the end of the year. A number of literary agents have called in the manuscript, but I've yet to receive a positive offer. The same novel was shortlisted for the Festival of Writing (FOW) Best Opening Chapter competition and also reached the final stages for Flash 500 Novel competition. I also sought advice on my first novel (contemporary upmarket fiction) from a book doctor (editor) at the FOW. She 'got' the novel and made some very positive comments on my writing, yet suggested as it was a 'quiet' novel it was unlikely to attract the attention of an agent seeking a commercial debut. Consequently, I've decided to rest the first novel and focus on securing a deal for the crime novel. Let's see what I can achieve in 2017 ...
2. Queen of the shortlists
From my tracking spreadsheet I've counted up 67 writing competitions entered (13 still being judged), some were FREE to enter but many required an entry fee. I did make the podium for several competitions earning a total of £180, which didn't cover the costs. However, I came very close and feel I deserve to be crowned Queen of the Shortlists for 2016. Here's a sample of shortlists I made it on to: HE Bates, Soundworks audio Play, Exeter Story Prize, Brighton Prize, Words With Jam, National Flash Fiction Day Micro and the Willesden Herald Prize. I failed to get anywhere with: Bridport, Bristol, Bath or Bedford competitions, so maybe in future I need to avoid any beginning with B. I was delighted to make the long list for Thresholds Feature competition (essay on Roald Dahl's collection The Umbrella).
3. Publications
For once I earned more from sales of short stories to magazines/anthologies than from competition prizes. One top moment was seeing my story Footprints (with an original illustration) in Popshot magazine (read more here). Other stories have been published in Willesden Herald New Short Stories 9A box of stars beneath the bed, Rattle Tales 4, Day of the Dead (Black Pear Press) and Take-a-break Fiction Feast. I was very pleased to be part of Suzanne Conboy-Hill's initiative Let me tell you a story - you can read more here.
4. Outings with writers
After completing my MA in Creative Writing I wanted to continue investing in my writing education and decided one way was to attend as many events as I could. The wonderful benefit of this is meeting new writers and in 2016 my circle of writing friends has expanded to include some lovely and talented people. I realise that I'm now keeping in touch with writers I met from every event I attended, which included: Paul McVeigh's Killer First Chapter Workshop, The Beach Hut Writing Academy's Write on the Beach conference (read more), Winchester Writers' Conference, Festival of Writing, Lewes Short Story Club, Vanessa Gebbie's short story workshop at Railway Land (read more). I also read at Rattle Tales back in February and got to the prize giving events for Brighton Prize (oodles of bubbly!) and Willesden Herald Prize. A real treat was the 1-day Masterclass in Advanced Structure with John Yorke at the London Screenwriter's Festival (read more). Every quarter I try and get to Melanie Whipman's Live Lit events in Surrey (read more), where there's always a great bunch of people eager to hear short stories/flash/novel extracts and poetry read aloud by the authors. And I got to meet a virtual friend for real in beautiful Bath - read more here.
5. Academia
Last but not least I graduated (with Distinction) from Chichester University with an MA in Creative Writing. And I count my blessings every month when I get together with my workshop group - I met them all on my MA.


What are you proud of achieving in 2016? Please share, we all love to hear good news and success stories.