Category Archives: Fiction

SHARKS IN YOUR HEAD

When an idea has been living in your head for a long time and you sit down to write it, but find you can’t, don’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that you’re suffering from writer’s block.

sharks

What may be holding you back from writing might well be fear. But fear of another kind. Fear that you won’t get it right. Fear that you haven’t quite got character X’s arc down pat, or fear that your sentences won’t be as crisp on paper as they are in your head. Welcome to analysis paralysis. It’s a curse and it’s a significant reason why so many writers don’t pick up their pens or don’t finish their stories.

 

It’s a good idea to let the little fish of story ideas swim about in your head for a while so that they grow into bigger fish from complimentary ideas that come from rumination. But you don’t want to overthink the story ideas to such a degree that you’ve overfed them into monsters before you even get writing.

 

Writing is an organic process, don’t kill that little fish by over-feeding it. As soon that small fish starts swimming about in the sea of your mind, start writing. Let it swim where it will, don’t try to direct it. Think balance. Think a little bit of structure and a little bit of spontaneity, you might give the fish a tank and a few toy castles to swim through, but you can not determine whether it will suck on the sides of the tank for a week or if it will dive in and out of the bits of seaweed. Likewise, let your story grow organically.

 

Often when we overthink a story, it doesn’t grow into our idea of what we thought it was going to be. While it’s all good and well to know your genre, have a strong cast of characters, and an exciting plot, don’t over-plan. Sure, you want to know where you’re going, but be open to surprise. A surprise in the writer will stimulate a surprise in the reader. Readers are smart and they don’t like predictability. If they wanted predictability they’d be doing maths. They’re reading because they want to be taken on an adventure. If you don’t go on an adventure, how can you expect them to enjoy the ride.

 

Some writers report that they knew the beginning and the ending of their stories and the middle just happened. Other writers get heart palpitations at the very idea of not being in full control. These are the control freaks and they suffer the most from analysis paralysis. Of course you can plot out every single scene of your story, but if you don’t allow for the creative inputs that come during writing, you’re going to short change not only your readers, but yourself as a writer. Don’t be a slave to your story, instead, think of writing as taking your story’s hand and walking along the road together to discover where it is that you want to go. There is nothing more stifled or strangled than a story that’s forced in a certain direction.

 

There’s no place for the analytical mind in the drafting experience. In those early drafts where you just want to get the story down, it doesn’t matter if you have lapses, inconsistencies, crappy grammar, or two characters with similar names. Just allow your thoughts to put themselves on the page. Once you’ve got down a basic draft, the revision can begin, and that’s when you get to invite your analytical mind to the process. Revision is where you can deepen characters, tighten the plot, and correct your abhorrent spelling mistakes.

 

How can you force your analytical brain to take a step back during the creative process? If analysis paralysis stymies you during the pre-writing phase, stop trying to get it all write. Make notes of your ideas, it doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, don’t judge them, just get them down. Research if you must, but avoid becoming so overwhelmed by information that it smothers your idea. Research shouldn’t be evident in your story, it should inform your story.

 

Most people claim to suffer from analysis paralysis once they start writing and get frustrated that they’re not getting all the stuff into the story, or that as soon as they put down a word they start judging themselves. Try these remedies. If you type your draft on a computer then set the font to no colour and just allow yourself to write whatever comes. Not being able to see what you’ve written allows your brain to face a blank welcoming page instead of a critical one staring back at you with errors. If you write long-hand, tuck a piece of carbon paper between two sheets and write your story with a pen that’s run out of ink so that you can’t see what you’re writing. Afterwards, when you’ve got the whole story down you can go back and revise on the carbon copy. By freeing your mind from judgement you can allow your creative mind free reign, and let your story find its natural form, and avoid analysis paralysis.

 

 

 

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THE WRITER’S PORTABLE MENTOR BY PRISCILLA LONG – A REVIEW

longI own about 300 books on writing, including the much-touted “On Writing” by Stephen King, but “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long is the single book that belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. While Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, and Julia Cameron talk about the head-stuff of writing, Priscilla Long talks about the actual nuts and bolts that are required in a writer’s toolbox. There are no gimmicks in her book either. This is a practical text-book, if you will, about how to become a craftsman. After all, that’s what a writer should aim to be – a craftsman. It’s suitable for the novice writer and the advanced writer because the skills that Long suggests writers need are applicable at whatever stage a writer happens to be at.

 

Long discusses the importance of reading, and while all readers read, virtuoso writers re-read. Long guides readers through reading to develop craft. It is only when we learn to dismantle great stories that we find the tools that will develop our own stories. Long’s style is accessible and the advice she offers is practical and enormously helpful.

 

The importance of grammar is given an ample amount of attention. Sentence types are elucidated upon to improve a writer’s range of skill in sentence structure. The importance of metaphor and simile are explained. Long has a knack of making the reader want to immediately pick up a pen and start practicing. Which brings me to practice.

 

Long promotes writing practice, after all, writers write, and Long suggests keeping a writing practice notebook where all that practice takes place. That’s nothing new, you say. You’re right, it isn’t new. Dorothea Brande promoted practice pages/morning pages in the 1930s, long before Julia Cameron came along with The Artist’s Way. What is new, is that Long doesn’t want the writing practice sessions to stay in the notebook, she wants them to be purposeful at the outset, and then for them to be transcribed into the appropriate project at the end of the writing session. Long encourages writers not only to write, but to write with the intention of publication, and her proposed strategy elevates the practice of writing practice.

 

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is one of those books you won’t take off your desk. When you’re stuck, you’ll return to it again and again to seek out one of Long’s practical suggestions to assist you. If you read only one book on writing craft, this should be it.

 

SHORT STORY COURSE

BRIEF ENCOUNTER – SHORT STORY COURSE

Successful short story writing is a mixture of ability and technique. The “Brief Encounter – Short Story Course” will teach you how to develop your skills and improve your chances of becoming a published writer.

The course will cover: Planning, writing compelling openings,  constructing key moments, satisfactory endings, allowing characters to reveal your plot,  creating 3-D characters, effective dialogue, establishing viewpoint, creating credible settings, the importance of drama and conflict – all the building blocks that develop good writing.

Date: Saturday, 1 December 2012

Time: 09h00-15h00

Place: Bedfordview/Edenvale, Gauteng, South Africa

Cost: R1200 includes manual, tea and light lunch.

Contact Isabella at isabellaza@hotmail.co.uk to book your place.

Writing Workshop Weekend – Namibia

Namibian Creative Writing Weekend

Join Isabella Morris for a weekend of creative writing workshops in the beautiful city of Windhoek in Namibia.

Date:   1-2 October 2011

Venue: The Language Laboratory, Windhoek, Namibia

Time: 09h00 – 15h00

Cost:    R1500 for Travel Writing on 1 October 2011

R1500 for Masterclass in Fiction Writing on 2 October 2011

Each course includes tuition, exercises, a workshop manual, a snack, refreshments and lunch.

Course excludes flights and accommodation.

Award-winning writer Isabella Morris will lead participants through two exciting workshops:

1. Travel Writing Workshop.

2. Master Class in Fiction Writing which includes: Creating Characters with Emotional Depth, Multi-cultural writing,  Sex-writing in Fiction, and Turning Notebook Scribbles into Stories.

During the course participants will engage in exercises that will encourage them to explore their writing in new ways. The course is designed for anyone who has an interest in improving their writing and is keen to engage in experiments in telling.

Info & Bookings: Please contact Isabella Morris at isabellaza@hotmail.co.uk or +27722084357

Bookings close 20 September 2011.

‘Desert’ or Desert?

My usual rule is: If I’m not into a book by page 25, I put it down and give it to the first person who expresses interest in reading it. The last book I put down was Stieg Larrson’s Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. But last night I broke that rule, I’m now on pg 88 of Desert by JMG Le Clézio, and I don’t know why.

The family is watching Avatar, for the second time, and that’s another rule I seldom break – I only watch a movie once. But back to Desert. I took the book outside, it’s a glorious summer evening, the crickets are chirping, the bullfrogs are boasting, and the garden has sprayed herself in the luxurious scent of yesterday, today and tomorrow – the perfect evening to sit outside and read. I find my marker and read – another ten pages of description of the desert.

My friend Lauri doesn’t like too much description about setting, so she might want to pass on this book. After the ten pages I close the book, but keep my finger in pg 88. I love the characters, but hell, there’s only so much of desert description one can take. In This Blinding Absence of Light, Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of Moroccan prisoners who were held inside six-by-three-foot cells in the Moroccan desert for decades. Now I would have expected Jelloun to give writers a lesson in 100 ways to write about the desert; but he didn’t. Le Clézio on the other hand gives nothing but page after page of description of the sand.

So why am I still reading, if the sand is getting in my eyes? I look at the cover; this is what it reads: ‘A writer of something akin to genius.’ Sunday Telegraph. Desert. J M G Le Clézio. Winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature.

What am I missing here? I think, as I consider putting the book on the give-to-friends pile. I could weep with frustration. I have never faced this dilemma; I’m an easy chuck girl, yet here I am hanging on to the damn book, unable to put it down, yet unable to continue reading it.

The blurb calls Desert a ‘masterpiece’; I love north Africa; my husband recommended the novel. Omigod! I am at a loss. I’m not feeling this book; but I’m feeling maybe something will happen if I persevere. So, to persevere or not to persevere? This is when I wish I could speed-read.

The blurb is what appeals to me when I buy a book. If a blurb offers the kind of read I’m looking for I will buy the book. Neither personal recommendations nor reviews are what I base my choice on; I’ll certainly read the blurb of a recommendation or a review, but I won’t blindly buy the book because tastes in books vary. Buying a recommendation is a bit like buying silver eyelashes because they looked great on a friend at a 70s party – they are not going to look the same on you, in the harsh light of day.

My moods also dictate book purchases. Sometimes I am in the mood for scandalous love stories, and at other times I cannot get enough of Elizabeth George or Ruth Rendell’s mastery of the suspense genre.

I would never dream of buying a book just because the writer is award-winning; but I am more likely to buy a Picador title than another one, if I have a choice. Picador delivers almost every time – they publish the type of books that I like to read.

But my dilemma remains – do I finish reading Desert or do I desert it? What makes you keep reading and what makes you abandon a book?

El Gouna Writers Residency 2010

I’m really pleased to be attending this residency. It’s my first residency and I’m looking forward to engaging with writers from other parts of the world, and having a full month to just write without the distractions of daily life. I am grateful to my family for agreeing to live without me for a month 🙂

“El Gouna is a unique fully developed town on the Red Sea, acknowledged for preserving local traditions and culture throughout its 20-year existence. This can be seen through its multicultural living community, international school, international university campus, church, mosque, museum and all other locations where residents can encounter traditional Egyptian architecture, and customs.

A few years ago, El Gouna celebrated the opening of El Gouna Library, a branch of world renowned Bibliotheca Alexandrina and home to one of Egypt’s six “Culturamas”.

Aiming to expand our efforts in cultural enrichment and hoping to make El Gouna a platform for literary exchange, El Gouna offers the first Writers’ Residency Program in the MENA region intended to provide writers with a wide variety of exciting and inspiring life experiences to feed their art and help develop valuable projects.”

http://www.elgouna.com/writers-residency/default.html

The Stories We Tell and Those We Don’t

I remember standing in a bank queue with my two youngest children when they were about six and seven years old. The queue was long and there was an elderly man standing in front of us; I can still smell the grease in his hair and see the dandruff embedded on the neck of his brown jersey; he turned to me and we had a conversation about his war experiences. In no time at all, it seemed, we’d reached the front of the queue; the electronic board above the teller station beeped and the man proceeded to Teller 5. My son tugged my sleeve and I looked down at his earnest blue eyes. “Do you know that man, mommy?” He asked; I had to admit that I didn’t. My children were perplexed that a stranger would share his story with me and as explanation I told them that my mother had said I would always hear the life-stories of people because I had a face that strangers trust. I now know that if I don’t want to hear every stranger’s life-story, I follow my husband’s advice and avoid eye contact.

Seeds of story are scattered everywhere and often I scribble down a word or a phrase or impressions in my notebook that I overhear or observe. Goldie stood sobbing in her bare feet, wrapped in a pink gown at a phone booth in a hospital waiting area. Natalia confided how her sister wouldn’t eat broken food – crumbs of crisps or biscuits. Michelle told me she was heartbroken when her next door neighbour stopped playing with her; Michelle’s mother tried to cheer her up by saying, “You’ll be friends again once she’s stopped being Jesus’ new best friend.” Carrington told me how he spent a summer in Harare converting the school playground into a golf-course and how thirty boys played golf with one broken golf club. Each of these incidents are seeds that I have been able to use as starters for my short stories.

Other stories are delivered to me – sometimes with the written permission from people to tell them. An immigrant wants me to expose corruption at a world-renowned medical training institution. It is an alleged tale of academic corruption, mining-bosses, xenophobia and American spies. A lady once phoned to say that she had the solution for South Africa’s political problems – God had given it to her – and she wanted to relay the solution to Thabo Mbeki who was the South African president at the time. There are of course legitimate people who contact me from time to time, and after deciding not to take on their stories, I have, with their permission, passed them on to colleagues who were more inclined to their stories, or who had the necessary expertise to write them.

There are stories that I know would be delightful to use as the foundation for my own short stories, but I have chosen not tell them and the reasons vary. These stories are usually very intimate and while they would offer great scenes for my fiction, my friends would recognise themselves in an instant.

It would appear then that I sometimes feel conflicted about what I do and what I don’t write. I guess I don’t want to be a peddlar of someone else’s pain. I can write about painful issues, but I can’t insert the real stories of friends and family because then it would cause pain for them. That said, I do admit to having included personal impressions in some stories or articles that have hurt some of the people I love and I’ve had to apologise for that. Choosing what to write then is quite a delicate balancing act. Yes, writers should be able to write uncensored, but then they must be prepared to pay the price of that choice.

At present I’m writing an inspirational biography. I was genuinely surprised that I was awarded the contract because I had researched and written a paper on biography during my masters degree, and I had been quite turned off the genre because it is such a contested genre and there are too many agendas to be served – at least the writer’s and the subject’s. The only reason I agreed to write the biography was because it is not intended to be sensational – I don’t want to dish up dirt on anyone. I’m writing the biography because the intention is to serve as an inspiration to youth who badly need role models and hope for a future that they might not be that hopeful about. That said, it will not be a sanitised piece. The hardships and the experiences of the subject will be discussed, but not in the Hollywood-Tell-All exposé way.

One of the major issues for writers is that of making choices. We all have to do it, and we all make different choices and these choices result in a wonderful diversity for readers.

(Image: The Storyteller 2 – produced here with permission by the artist Jamie Winter)

Survival Kit for Romance Writers

lichtenstein-roy-the-kiss-iv-99414091Every romance writer needs a survival kit to help them out when they find themselves in a romantic writing drought.

1. A great memory of a first kiss.

I kissed Michael over the handlebars of his Chopper bike. He smelled of chlorine and he tasted of oranges. The memory of a first kiss brings back the tingly sensations that you have to relate in your love story every time your characters kiss.

2. A vine of jasmine outside their writing room.

The surprising hint of a delicious scent titillates the senses and awakens your response to sensational writing. Make sure your readers are as sensually aroused as you are by including sensational details.

3. A bottle of their favourite male fragrance.

Does he smell of pine or moss, does he exude a woody scent or a mature scent that reminds you of pine cones crackling in the hearth? Make his scent attractive and alluring; make it so your reader also wants to rip his clothes off.

4. Chandeliers and long white curtains that billow in their writing room.

Crystals catch and deflect the light and creates a sense of luxury. Long white billowing curtains adds to that full sensuality.

5. A day alone with love songs playing loud.

Play your love songs from morning til night on full volume, choosing the sad ones for the “we’re destined to never be together again” moment.

6. The handkerchief you kept from your first breakup.

That handkerchief you kept has got salt crystals on it from all the tears you shed. Cry all over again and tell your readers where it hurts.

7. Calendar of male pin-ups.

You know you’ve got a favourite part of the male anatomy – share it with your readers. Is it that delicious line that runs down his tummy separating his abs, or is it the hollow in his throat above his massive pecs?

8. Catalogue of dates.

Make a list of great places to spend a date and then keep them on file so that you’ve got a brilliant candlelit dinner in a nature reserve or an evening star-gazing when you need it.

9. A best friend.

Best friends always offer a shoulder to cry on or great advice. Turn to her or him when you’re not sure what your characters should do.

10. A great relationship.

You can’t write about one if you haven’t had one. Use the highest and lowest parts of your most sizzling relationship in your stories to create a believable romance that your readers will enjoy.

2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award finalists announced

sapen1The South African Centre of International PEN (SA PEN) is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award.

The award for original short stories in English by African authors attracted an unprecedented 827 entries, 625 of which met with the rules of entry. Just under 200 stories were longlisted, and 34 stories were chosen as finalists by the PEN Editorial Board comprising Shaun Johnson (Chair), Anthony Fleischer, Justin Fox, Harry Garuba, Alistair King and Mary Watson. Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee is currently judging the shortlisted stories and will choose the winners of the first (£5 000), second (£3 000) and third (£2 000) prizes. The winners will be announced in May 2009. (Details regarding the announcement will be posted on www.sapen.co.za in due course.) The finalists’ stories will be included in an anthology of new writing from Africa to be published later this year.

The writers and their stories to have been selected as finalists for the Pen/Studzinski Literary Award 2009 are:

Ken Barris – The life of Worm; Nadia DavidsThe visit; Ceridwen DoveySurvival mechanisms; Joan du ToitAn informed decision; Graham Ellis – No match for Fanie Smith; Rosemund J Handler – Strident night; Jeanne HromnikLove In troubled times; Karen JayesWhere he will leave his shoes; Suzanne JordaanBeulah; Bobby JordanMetalhead and Situation Orange; Chisanga Kabinga – Display cabinet; Ken N KamocheA kiss in Nanjing; Yvette KrugerWhat I wore; Lauri KubuitsilePulani’s eyes; Beatrice LamwakaThe star in my camp; Jennifer LeanTo each his own; Irene McCartneyPauline’s ghost; Jenna MervisThe lives of dogs; Kirsten MillerOnly in art; NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo Snapshots; Wame MolefheRainbow-coloured dreams; Natasha MoodleySpirit of Madala; Isabella MorrisBluette; Kyne Nislev BernstorffThe last supper; Naomi NkealahIn the name of peace; Maik NwosuIn Leopardville; Tolu OgunlesiRiver Falling; Omolola Ijeoma OgunyemiArea boy rescue; Andrew SalomonA visit to Dr Mamba; Alex SmithSoulmates;Dineke VolschenkGlorious wounds; Phillippa Yaa de VilliersKeeping everything the same; Hayet ZFlypapered days

The PEN/STUDZINSKI Literary Award has replaced the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award and aims to encourage new creative writing in Africa. It is open to all citizens of African countries writing in English, and offers talented writers on the continent an exciting opportunity to develop or launch a literary career. www.sapen.co.za

email: rudebs@icon.co.za

Ready, steady… win!

win1Contests are a fabulous way to announce your presence on the local writing scene. If you are placed in a contest, it helps you to establish a writing cv or bio that many publications require and it also boosts your confidence. Not having a publishing record can be intimidating for beginner writers, but don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. A story well told will be enjoyed by an editor or contest reader.

WHICH ONE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

It is important to be selective about which contests you enter. Without diligent research you could end up sending entries that don’t comply with the rules. If a publication says they only want fiction entries, then that is all they want. They will summarily reject poetry and non-fiction entries, no matter how brilliant they might be. A recent local contest received hundreds of entries, but about a hundred of them were rejected because the entrants did not comply with the rules. If a rule states that you have to be a citizen of Burramunga to enter, then that’s the rule, don’t waste your time or the contest organisers’ time by submitting anything to them.

RESOURCES

If you’re serious about entering contests then you need to establish which ones are suitable for the genre that you write in. Good resources can be found in comprehensive listings in publications like The Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market UK available at good bookstores, and obviously, the internet. Many writing sites have a listing of writing contests.

PLAN

The best way to ensure that you enter the competitions that you are able to comply with, is to have a Contest Plan. In November/December every year, I spend about a week researching contests online and in the Writer’s Yearbook and Writer’s Market. I make a list of those I want to enter by listing them according to the earliest closing date. I cut and paste the submission rules of each into a Word document entitled Contests 2009. At the beginning of every month I see what’s coming up, trying to read three months in advance. If I feel that there is a contest I want to enter then I print that contest’s details and put it into the plastic folder. Date order is essential because at a glance I am able to see what’s coming up. Being forewarned, so to speak, gives me time to consider what story I would like to write, it also gives me a chance to check through unpublished work for a suitable story. This list is invaluable and can be added to throughout the year if new contests appear. It also provides a template for the following year.

KEEP A SEPARATE FOLDER

I have a plastic see through box where I keep all research material, contest rules and drafts of competition entries, this cuts out the confusion of having to remember where I have filed an article or an idea.

JOT DOWN IDEAS

In the plastic folder I keep a notebook for ideas that I want to jot down. An idea don’t remember itself, if you don’t write it down, consider that idea a cigarette that you enjoyed, but once it’s gone up in smoke, you can’t reclaim it. If all your ideas and rules and research are centrally located you won’t waste time.

TRACKER

If you’re going to be a serious contest entrant then you need to keep track of which submissions you’ve made to which publications. Many contests do not accept simultaneous submissions, i.e. it’s not protocol to send the same entry to several competitions at the same time. Knowing where your stories are is essential. A good idea is to download manuscript management software. The best tracker that I’ve found is SAMM which is completely free and downloadable at this link. It’s fabulous because you can customise it according to your needs and it’s unobtrusive. You can enter all your manuscripts, you can enter markets and market types. It’s a no-fuss application that will alert you with follow-ups if you so require.

CHECKLIST

Before you send your entry, make a checklist from the rules sheet. Have you double-spaced your entry? Must you include your name on the manuscript or mustn’t you? Have you included your contact details? It is so easy to avoid silly mistakes by using a checklist, but remember to be flexible because different contests have different criteria, some want three copies of an entry and others require only a single copy. Some contests allow email entries, others do not. Make it your business to establish the rules for your checklist.

Good luck.