All posts by jenniferkoliver

Speculative fiction writer and web designer based in the UK.

New Published Story: “Shuffle” by Jennifer K. Oliver

Hi everyone. I thought I’d take advantage of the blog and announce my short dark fantasy / horror story “Shuffle” has just been published at the wonderful Kaleidotrope magazine in their summer 2015 issue! I am beyond thrilled. The story is available online for free here:

Shuffle,” a 3300 word post-apocalyptic story about a dead thing reclaiming its life and realising perhaps death is better.

I hope you enjoy.

Author Interview: Tony Benge

Tony Benge has been writing plays on and off for twenty years. He has had plays commissioned by the Library Theatre Manchester, Contact Youth Theatre, Salford Metropolitan Borough, Radio 4 Drama, Oldham Coliseum, and Lifeline Manchester, plus four short audio plays for Manchester Open Learning. He is also a trained Drama therapist. And he was kind enough to answer some questions about writing for Storyslingers.

Hi, Tony. Thank you for talking to us. First, please tell us about what you write, and what you’re working on at the moment.

I write plays for performance. I’ve just complete a first draft of THE COLOUR OF GRIEF a play about combat veterans in an art therapy session in which the Combat Veterans Theatre in London have expressed an interest.

Do you plot your stories, or are you more of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Can you tell us about the process of beginning a story?

Ideas come mostly from what I know, feel and see. For the COLOUR OF GRIEF I used my training as a drama therapist and much earlier as a painter.  I was also inspired by seeing the Lee Hall play THE PITMAN PAINTERS.

Is there anything you particularly find challenging when working on a new piece?

Trying to make sense during that early oceanic state when loads of images, hunches, possible characters, scene fragments, snatches of dialogue/monologue often bizarre which plague me while I’m trying to sleep.

How do you manage your creative time alongside your work/daily life?

Writing is predominantly my daily life.

Criticism is virtually impossible to avoid when you’re putting things out for public consumption. What are some of the toughest criticisms you’ve dealt with, and how have they helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?

Many years ago having just had my first play professionally performed in Manchester and receiving an enthusiastic response, I sent an extended version of it to the Royal Court in London. Their verdict: It will take you a long time to write a proper drama. Yes of course it hurt but I still wrote what I thought were plays and they still got professionally performed. But I also now know exactly what the Court meant and I’m still trying to write a really proper drama.

A lot of new authors go into writing and publishing wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the industry is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems from the outside. What are some of your biggest disillusionments with writing and/or publishing?

The certain knowledge that there are so many far more intelligent, skilled, talented AND MUCH YOUNGER writers than me out there … damn it!

Tell us about some of your biggest influences? Which writers have inspired you throughout your career, and what lessons have you taken from their work?

Changes all the time depending on what I’m reading. Currently it’s PIAF by Pam Gems which I’ve only just started as research preparation for a play I’m planning.

And finally, what’s on the creative horizon for you? Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?

Currently very enthusiastic about a Wiltshire artist whose short but exotic life might just make a play. But it’s very early days and may come to absolutely nothing.

Thank you so much for your time!

Author Interview: Sue Ashby

Sue Ashby is a writer, playwright, script writer and also co-directs the Dorset Writers’ Network which aims to support and encourage writers from across Dorset. She was recently kind enough to answer some questions for us at Storyslingers.

Welcome, Sue! First, can you tell us about what you write, and what you’re working on at the moment?

I have written poetry, short stories (children’s story published by Scholastic in WOW 366 anthology), and a teenage novel unpublished because there’s too much sex in it! My first love was playwriting and I had 4 Afternoon Theatres BBC Radio 4 transmitted, episodes of Families and Coronation Street, was a story liner on Families, and had 10+ plays produced for professional theatre in and around Manchester.

Currently I am writing Bride Ship, a full-length play about the forced emigration of young women to British Columbia during the 1862 recession to provide wives for prospecting gold miners.

Do you plot your stories, or are you more of a seat-of-the-pants writer? Can you tell us about the process of beginning a story?

As a former TV storyliner I do plot my dramas and also plotted my novel although it was very much visually/location-led. Often with a short story I know I have a limited word count so a tight structure is important. I love it when characters in a drama start to take control and take me somewhere I hadn’t dreamt of going…

Is there anything you particularly find challenging when working on a new piece?

Giving myself enough time for total immersion. Finding characters’ voices. Writing for theatre requires big bold images and working towards those moments is always a challenge.

How do you manage your creative time alongside your work/daily life?

I work hard raising funding for various organisations like DWN and Juno Theatre. so sometimes I’m up against a deadline which takes my eye off the ball.

Criticism is virtually impossible to avoid when you’re putting things out for public consumption. What are some of the toughest criticisms you’ve dealt with, and how have they helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?

I prefer to use the word ”feedback”. Having belonged to many writers’ groups over the years I have greatly benefited from being part of a reading and writing community. I have experienced nothing but creative growth from working with producers, directors, dramaturgs and my MA group at Bath Spa. Of course it is important to give fair feedback from a position of goodwill and wanting to support other writers – e.g. saying what works in the piece before what doesn’t.

A lot of new authors go into writing and publishing wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the industry is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems from the outside. What are some of your biggest disillusionments with writing and/or publishing?

It has got harder over the years to sell plays or get commissions – as the business became more and more producer-led. (I had a lot of success in the 1980’s through to 2000 mainly in Manchester, the North West and Northern Ireland.) That was very much to do with a writer-led community that was well-resourced by North West Arts. Now I’m finding a resurgence of that energy in writing for theatre in Salisbury and surrounding districts, supported by theatre practitioners in the south west. I’m very committed to theatre because it gives that opportunity to write, get a group of actors together and just do it either at the developmental or completed stages. Somehow writers can be more in control. Just as we can through self-publishing e-books.

Tell us about some of your biggest influences? Which writers have inspired you throughout your career, and what lessons have you taken from their work?

I’m a great fan of YA fiction – David Almond, Julia Green, Linda Newbury (YA writers). I recently saw amazing plays by prize-winning women playwrights Lolita Chakrabarti, Lucy Kirkwood, Lynn Nottage & Jessica Swale. Juno Theatre is an all women’s theatre company redressing the imbalance of women in the theatre (writers, designers, directors); only 17% of plays produced in London are by women (even less in the provinces).

You are one of the founders of the Dorset Writers’ Network, an invaluable project to writers from all walks of life in the Dorset area. Care to talk a little bit about it? How did it come about, and what have been some of the highlights in running the DWN?

I ran a project called Making Connections: writing for health & well-being where I set up three workshop sessions in 15 different venues across Dorset – many in rural communities. And out of this came a core of writing groups who wanted to carry on running their sessions after receiving some training. Then we got £10K from the lottery and spent a year running networking sessions to find out what members wanted, three training days and lots of author events always with the emphasis being experiential.

Highlights: A Publishing Day in Dorchester, workshops with Nell Leyshon & Sarah Duncan which were so well attended, working with two groups of young adults with learning disabilities for the first time and loving it, and seeing so many groups take off (often for different reasons – friendship, therapy, developing writing skills to the point of publication) and still together today.

And finally, what’s on the creative horizon for you? Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?

I’m getting my play Bride Ships out there soon and if no-one takes it up I’m planning to go to Edinburgh with it next year. I’m completing a two-hander and sending that out and writing short plays for various theatre and fringe events.
Plus getting the next DWN development – Dorset’s Digital Stories – on the road.

Thank you so much for chatting to us today!

If you’d like to find out more about the Dorset Writers’ Network’s upcoming events, check out their blog.

The (Vast) Difference Between a Critique and an Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help author see where a story might still need work.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique:

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit:

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1) How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2) Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

On Countersinking: Showing and Then Telling

This is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that can clog up a story. The article was written with sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A few years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn, and to track our improvements. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors, full of excitement and dreadful clichés, lacking finesse and attention to detail but having so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time and spending an afternoon with the kid version of yourself, entertaining and not a little eye-opening. I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do falter occasionally, and often stumble upon it when reading other people’s work.

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

And here is what’s happening:

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and then telling”. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody is urging someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but even pro authors are prone to do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, reads clunky, and makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky countersinks. And if I find any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings. 🙂 

Literature & Lunch at Clayesmore School

Clayesmore School in Iwerne Minster is hosting its annual Literature & Lunch on June 25th 2014. This year’s guests include historian David Starkey, children’s author Ali Sparkes, poet Tim Liardet, sports writer Brian Scovell, and three Old Clayesmorians – Financial Modelling consultant Jack Avon, PhD student and Shakespeare expert Thomasin Bailey, and curator and cultural historian Dr Augustus Casely-Hayford.

Tickets are priced at £35 per head, and this includes three talks, coffee and pastries on arrival and two course lunch with wine.

Literature & Lunch is always popular, so book soon via the Clayesmore website.

Choosing Character Names: Fun, or a Total Nightmare?

Character names can be tricky fishes. Occasionally you’ll think you’ve got the perfect name for your protagonist, only to get halfway through a story and realise that the name no longer suits them. Names can be used to stunning effect, evoking images, sounds, and even themes. They can hold meaning, both hidden and obvious, or they can be so generic that they don’t stand out at all.

But it’s a fine line between picking a name you want, picking a name that fits the character, and picking something that’s not going to jar or distract readers.

We’re often advised to avoid names that are too out there, absurd or overly complex, and just plain impossible to pronounce. But occasionally a story will call for the wacky. A good example of this is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where you can find names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast. And that’s OK, because it’s a space comedy whose ethos is the pointlessness of trying to make an impact in an unfathomable universe–absurd names are the least of these characters’ problems. The thing is, those names probably wouldn’t work so well in a contemporary romance or a period drama like Downton Abbey.

And then there are names that try just a little too hard to make the character sound cool or edgy. If you’re writing an action thriller, calling your ex-marine protagonist Rock Stoneblast might draw more snickers than anything. Actually, a while back Sky compiled a list of 20 Mental Movie Monikers, worth checking out for the lols.

Sci-fi and fantasy fall victim to impossible character and place names more often than most other genres. This is where you get your L’kazyx’hiqxues from planet Xzerquee’h’ex or somesuch (which is probably in the Pzzy’awxze’a galaxy). These monstrosities can be enough to make a reader quit early on. There’s also the issue of people who read out loud to themselves or read stories to other people, and don’t forget audiobooks.

When I pick names for my characters, the first thing I do is check their meanings on Behind the Name, just to make sure I’m not making any unintentional faux pas. The nerd in me quite likes it when an author gets clever with name meanings. You never know, there might be a reader who looks it up and is surprised to find the meaning has a connection to the characters’ backstory, attitudes, etc.

You also need to be mindful of when your story is set and which names were popular at the time. Putting a Beyoncé in 17th Century rural England probably won’t fly with the history buffs. 😉

There are tons of excellent sources for names, if you’re really stuck. With a little patience, you can generally find good stuff in the phone book, movie or TV show credits, even graveyards (creepy, I know, but sometimes you have to get creative!). And there are the online venues Baby Names, The Internet Surname Database, Random Name Generator, as well as Behind the Name (linked above). And a silly one, Name Generator Fun.

So how do you go about naming your characters? Do they walk into your head fully formed with a name, or do you begin with a name and build the character around it? Do you struggle to find fitting names for your chars? Have you encountered any memorable names from books/TV/movies that you want to share? I’d love to hear them!

(This entry was originally written for and posted to the Get Your Words Out community on LiveJournal.)

Planning For A Writing Life

There are loads of reasons to be a regular writer. Writing regularly makes you a stronger writer. Writing regularly makes you a more focused writer. It helps with memory and recall, and with spelling, grammar and punctuation. It can be rewarding. It provides structure. It’s brain exercise, and that can only be a good thing.

Trouble is, it’s not always easy to get into the swing of regular writing. I’ve struggled with it in the past, and I still do. We all have down-times. Things happen in everyday life that are our of our control, and sometimes writing is simply impossible. Once you fall out of your stride, it’s damn hard getting back into it.

But there are things you can do to ease you into a writing life. And if you plan to have a writing career, you really can’t afford not to write regularly.

A lot of people write either to a word count or a set time per day.

Start small, aim for something reasonable like 250 words per day. Young adult author Holly Black breaks down how she wrote her bestselling YA novel (part three in a trilogy) Black Heart here. In her post, she shows her daily word count for the four months it took her to write the book. Most are quite modest—sometimes she writes 300-400 words a day, but she writes regularly and so she’s able to finish a first draft efficiently. A lot of people aim for more than 250-500 words per day. If you can manage 1000 words, in two months you’ll have a novel. I know, it sounds easy when put like that, but often it’s far from easy. It’s not impossible though.

There are a couple of extra things you can try if you’re finding it hard to write daily:

First, figure out your optimal time to write. Some people are morning brains, and some are evening brains. There will probably be a time of day when you’re more productive—the creativity flows much quicker and more fluidly. Experiment. See what feels comfortable. You might also find that there’s no real optimal time, and even snagging an hour or two here or there is difficult. But if you really want to be a regular writer, you’ll find time. You’ll steal it. You’ll catch it in a dark alley and beat it up until it works with you.

Second, you need to find your Cave. This can be literal or figurative. My Cave is really my MacBook—as long as I have it, I can generally sink into my stories and get lost. If there are noises around me that I can’t ignore, I’ll plug in my headphones and listen to instrumental music. Or just plug in the headphones and not listen to anything (those little earbuds are great for noise reduction). But if you need a physical Cave, try to find a space where you’re comfortable to write. It doesn’t have to be a silent, candlelit room in a secluded Buddhist monastery high in the mountains of Tibet or anything—a lot of people love writing in busy coffee shops, or with the TV blaring background noise behind them—but it does need to be somewhere you can get lost in your ideas and story. If there are distractions at home, try taking your writing elsewhere. Pop out for half an hour and write on a park bench, or at an internet cafe, a library, a bar, at a friend’s house, wherever. I’ve known so many people who sneak daily writing in at their non creative-writing day job (naughty! But awesome!).

And sometimes it’s just really hard to start your daily word crunch.

There’s a fantastic exercise in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron called ‘The Morning Pages’. This is where you write three hand-written pages, every morning just after you wake up, of literally anything that tumbles out of your brain. It doesn’t have to be fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense. It should be stream-of-consciousness. You can write about what annoyed you at work the day before, or your reaction to a stupid comment you read online last week. You can imagine the last thing you ate and describe all the flavours and textures you remember. Write a list of chores and how you’ll go about them. Write about how irritating it is to have to get up and write three pages every morning. You just write those three pages. They’re just for you, not for anyone else. It clears your mind of all the crap you carry around with you throughout the day. Julia Cameron says: ‘ The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery.’ It won’t work for everyone, but it might for some.

Personally, I think the most important factor that keeps me on track with writing regularly is having an idea or set of characters that I love to bits. I must love my idea and my characters so much that to spend a day apart from them causes me angst and jitters. If you don’t love your idea, you probably won’t love the time you need to dedicate to it to getting it finished.

This is very long-winded, but I know what it’s like to want to write so desperately and then talk myself out of it for some reason or another (self-doubt, time management, tiredness, Skyrim, etc.). When I’m in the groove, there’s nothing like it. Productivity and creative movement feels great.

And I think writers should be able to feel great every single day. 🙂

Developing Characters, Part II

This is a follow-up post to Developing Characters, Part I.

I’d like to go into more depth on character voice and how to develop it. I can only speak for the way I do it; some of these methods might not work for others.

Years ago, when I was trying to strengthen my character voices, I would watch/read/listen to stories that had solid, distinctive characters and take note of the rhythms and phrases those characters used—not only in their speech, but also in their internal monologues. There are subtle differences between “Please make me a cup of tea” and “So are you gonna make me some tea, or am I gonna have to do it myself?” — the latter is wordier, yes, but the voice is more distinctive. Voice (dialogue and thoughts) doesn’t need to be spectacular in early drafts, but how characters talk and think should be considered at some stage during editing.

Here’s a trick to see how distinctive characters are: take a scene or chapter where there’s interaction, and select only the dialogue. Paste the dialogue into a fresh document without any speech tags, names, or other identifying descriptions. Read through it, or have someone else read it, and check where the voices merge or sound too similar. Is there confusion as to who’s speaking? If yes, either try loosening up one of the voices or make it more formal. Give one of the characters a verbal tick (like the tendency to say ‘you know?’ at the end of some of their sentences), or a light accent (though use accent carefully) and then re-read it. Better? It should be.

Another way of tempting out voice is figuring out how your characters feel about what’s happening. This will inform their attitudes and moods, and consequently what they’re saying and how they say it. Have them react, let them feel, give them passion and the ability to speak up. Let them tell lies. We all do it. An angry character might speak faster in short, snappy sentences, and they might swear or exaggerate, whereas someone speaking calmly and formally might use longer, more complex sentences and have a precise thought process.

Listen to conversations on the street, in your workplace and at home. I’ve mined real people I know for turns of phrase and verbal ticks. But also remember to look for people who are more guarded, who speak neutrally and try to maintain status quo—often you can have fun with a conflicting internal dialogue and thought.

I mentioned in the previous post shoving characters out of their comfort zones, and this also goes for shoving them at other characters. Bring in the type of person they despise, or someone they’re intimidated by, or someone they’re attracted to, and see how it changes what they say and how they speak. Character/character interaction drives plot and gives scenes energy. If everybody gets along all the time, dialogue can become lifeless. Even if your characters are friends, have them disagree regularly, or give them a rivalry that you can mine for little tensions.

IMO, most importantly, you’ll only get to know your characters well by writing them. Outline and do questionnaires and mind-map them, too, but they have to act and react to really shine.