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Category: On Writing

dangerous wo(man) – a story prompt that requires a little precarious activity

This was a prompt that was first suggested to me by a tutor at Bath Spa, novelist, critic and journalist Philip Hensher. I used it so much I dubbed it Dangerous Woman.

A woman with red hair walking down a busy street with the overlay " dangerous woman - a story prompt that requires a little precarious activity

Please use at your own risk.

All you have to do is follow someone.

Try to follow them for as long as possible without them noticing you. If you think they are suspicious, follow them for one more road before turning off. Don’t get yourself into trouble, this creative prompt only works if the person is completely unsuspecting.

When you arrive at their destination, don’t stop and study the place, keep on walking. You don’t want to get arrested. Remember, if you use this prompt, the law is not on your side! It is definitely probably illegal.

Try to figure out what their clothes and the way they walk tell you about the sort of person they are. Where might they be going?

If it is early morning, perhaps they are walking to their office? What sort of job do they do? Are they high up in the company or just starting out? Are they relaxed or tense? Do they like their job?

If you are following them in the afternoon, maybe they are going home. Do they live in a flat or a detached house? Are they going home to a family or flatmates? Will they have a home-cooked meal when they get there?

If you are following someone at night? Maybe don’t do that! This is a creative prompt, not a death wish!

I call it Dangerous Woman for a reason – it could be dangerous!

If the person looks dangerous or like they could be up to no good, stop following them. Be aware at all times of your surroundings.

Be aware at all times of your surroundings.

Don’t take unnecessary risks.

Where do they end up?

One of the most interesting things is when someone surprises you and don’t go into the building you expected. Try to think if there was anything in their behaviour or something they were wearing that should have tipped you off to this.

Once you have finished following them, go straight to a table or bench and write the whole thing down as quickly as you can.

Once you are finished, try to imagine how this character will spend the rest of their day or even their week. What would it look like if something interrupted their schedule? How would they react? Write it down.

Some Tips

  • Choose someone who isn’t walking too fast for you. Hurrying down a street after a businessman speedwalking to a meeting is not my idea of a fun morning.
  • If they go into Marks and Spencers, give up the game. That place is a maze and always, in every store, there are at least three different exits. You have no chance.
  • If you have another friend who would understand, text them and let them know where you are and who you are following. Just in case.
  • Practice will help you get better at this. The first few times I tried it I either lost the person in a crowd or was scared I was making them suspicious. It took me a few goes to actually follow someone all the way to their office.

If you liked this, why not check out my double diamond method? It is a much safer story prompt!

how i find inspiration for stories using the double diamond method

The Double Diamond design process model was developed through in house research by the Design Council in 2005 as a simple way of describing the design process. It is a structured design approach to tackle challenges in four phases, Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery.

This is a method I came across at the design agency I work at; it is the way they come up with ideas for campaigns. The Double Diamond encourages you to think wide before narrowing in on an option. I find it really useful when I am writing a story for a competition that has a narrow theme, it forces inspiration and helps me to beat the “blank-page” syndrome.
An image showing the four stages of the double diamond process, Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery

I have tweaked this design tool a bit (a lot) to work for story writing so it goes a bit like this. Let’s start with an example. Here is a competition from a magazine I subscribe to. The theme is food, which is quite broad.


Discover:

Write down everything you can think of that relates to the theme of the story, even if it seems like it might be useless. If a word pops into your head, write it down. I find it useful to impose a five-minute time limit here. Lots of the things you write down will be personal; they will be objects that already have stories.

For example, in the page above, the words Sewen, Spaghetti Bolognese and Mince Pies might not mean much to other people. Why those foods? Well, Sewen is what the Welsh call sea trout and my Dad was a keen fisherman. I was brought up learning how to gut and prepare sea trout for dinner.

Spaghetti Bolognaise was what my mum cooked every time my cousins came over because she knew they liked it, but now they think a visit to my parents’ house isn’t complete without it.

And Mince Pies? Well, my best childhood friend and I would make them every year. I have tried to make them in recent years without her, but my crust is always too hard, or they burst, or just don’t taste right. I cannot make them properly without her.

All three foods bring back very specific memories of my childhood kitchen.

Define:

Start joining the words together, do any of them relate to each other? Can you see any stories begin to stem from them? Keep going until you have linked most of the words to at least one other word.

Now you can start crossing the words out but don’t rub them out, use a single line through the middle so you can still see what the word says.

Each of the lines I have here in different colours is a different memory or experience, the words fit together to remind me of something. Some of the words fit together in a way I would not have thought about before seeing them on the page, for example, the mince pies and the Welsh cakes my Nan used to make. I circled these in the same colour, as even though the two memories are not directly related, they are both memories from my childhood.

So you can see, this process has brought about many different points of inspiration, just from the second part. However, I can’t just write these experiences down. I need to further develop them.

Develop:

Choose two or three of the ideas and create characters that could live in these worlds. If the idea is a character, create a world that character could occupy. You should think about the conflict of the story at this stage.

For my first idea, I combined the mince pie story with the welsh cakes, as the welsh cakes open other memories, my Nan cooking them before we came over to her house, and when she had important guests she would sprinkle them with sugar.

Deliver:

Choose the most promising idea and write the first paragraph. If it feels right, finish the story. But it has to feel right after the first paragraph. You can’t give up after the second or third, once you commit, finish it. If you get stuck, go back to your original cloud of words and choose a word that didn’t connect with your original idea. Work this word into your story. Edit the story.

Result

This brainstorm session resulted in a story that I entered into the competition above. One of my ambitions for this year is to enter more short story competitions (not hard seeing as last year I didn’t enter a single one) so I am really pleased that this is my second competition entry. I am not expecting anything but I hope to enter at least six more by December.

I really like this other visual representation I found of the Double Diamond.

Note: I don’t use this method every time. Very often a story just happens, I start writing and the plot develops organically, but for a competition that has a very narrow theme, I find this method helps to broaden the story I want to write, keeping it fresh and interesting.

swearing in books – why writers shouldn’t be afraid of swearing

I have written things in my life that have made a lot of people very angry, who have left comments letting me know how angry they are. But one thing that really gets on my nerves are comments about swearing. Here is an example.

“By the way, I would suggest that you try a little harder to avoid foul language if you have serious aspirations of becoming a professional writer. Resorting to profanities is both unbecoming and unnecessary.”

Apart from the obvious grasping at straws from this commenter, who couldn’t find a real reason to disagree with my post, I disagree with this sentiment. I feel that limiting our language and being unable to use words is restricting to us as writers and as such, swearing is wholly necessary. And so I decided to do a little more research into this and explore the world of swearing and writing.

A short disclaimer before you read any further. There’s a time and a place for swearing. In front of children, in a place of work or around people you know will find it offensive (my parents/grandparents come to mind) is not the time or place. The reasons we swear define us as individuals. If you swear only to cause unnecessary offence to people, that isn’t saying very much about you! Swear words are powerful, and we should use them when there are no other words to express our anger.

Some Interesting Facts About Swearing.

Swearing acts as a hypoalgesic. A study at Keele University found that swearing increased pain tolerance and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.

It makes you feel stronger. The same study found that swearing downplays people’s weaknesses to make them seem stronger than they are. Which could be interesting to read into, like, people who swear aren’t as strong as they seem…but let’s face it, when you are really scared or angry, sometimes hiding your weakness does do you some good!

Films with swearing are more engaging. A lecturer from the University of Sydney, Monika Bednarek, examined television hits in the US and realised that shows with more swearing got more hits.

People in the “rising middle class” use less profanity. Medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr explained that they typically swear the least because of the idea that you are in control of your language and your deportment, and therefore are aware of social rules.  The upper classes meanwhile have been shown to swear more as they have a secure position in society, so they can say whatever they want.

Obscene words weren’t such a big deal in the middle ages. Sexual and excremental words were not as charged as people lived in much closer quarters, often sharing the same beds and using toilets at the same time. They were far more open about their bodies and so the mention of them was less scandalous.

So should authors swear?

Well…that depends. Are you writing for children or young adults? Then definitely not! It won’t even get published. Are you writing literary fiction, or historical fiction? Again, might be best to stay clear, unless your character has a really good reason. Are you writing new adult, detective or war novels? Go for it! Swear and cuss.

Basically, what I’m saying, is do what is right for your audience, for your character and for your genre. But most importantly? Do what is right for you! I personally am a huge fan of swear words and I am writing a new adult book about a girl in her mid twenties who is a compulsive liar. She swears. A lot. But there are characters in the book who don’t swear at all, and as I am writing in third person limited, the only swearing is in dialogue. Otherwise, I write “Erica swore”.

How to swear in novels

  • Generally, I would advise you to limit swearing to dialogue. If you are writing in first person, you will have more leeway with this rule, as basically the whole book is a dialogue with the reader, the character has to come through with every word. But in third person, the narrator is another character, but really should be an invisible character. If the narrative is too colourful, it will jolt the reader out of the story and they will remember they are not in the book.
  • Stick to your guns. Lest you end up like poor Norman Mailer, who, on the advice of his editor, changed the word fuck to fug throughout his book, The Naked and the Dead. The book was about men at war, and so the word “fug” occurred a lot. This gave rise to the anecdote about the time Tallulah Bankhead met Mailer and said, “Oh, you’re the man who can’t spell that word.”  If you are going to include swear words, include swear words. Expect criticism, and then brush it off. If they don’t like the swearing, they probably won’t like other themes that a swearer is likely to have introduced in their novel. Write to please one person, not the whole world.
  • Don’t feel pressured into swearing. You must be true to yourself, if you dislike swearing, don’t use it, even if your main character is a street hardened drug dealer. It will come across as disingenuous, because swearing, my friend, is an art!

Some of my favourite quotes about swearing

“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.”
Mark Twain

“How do people, like, not curse? How is it possible? There are these gaps in speech where you just have to put a “fuck.” I’ll tell you who the most admirable people in the world are: newscasters. If that was me, I’d be like, “And the motherfuckers flew the fucking plane right into the Twin Towers.” How could you not, if you’re a human being? Maybe they’re not so admirable. Maybe they’re robot zombies.”
Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down

“Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words.”
Bill Watterson

And my absolute favourite? From a children’s trilogy I thoroughly recommend-

“Charlie wanted to swear. ****, he thought, remembering how his father had told him that one reason you shouldn’t swear is because then when you really need a strong word to express a strong feeling you would have none strong enough left.”

Zizou Corder, Lionboy

Happy swearing everyone!

finding a good writing group – five questions to ask

Writing groups can be really great, or really really awful! I should know, I have belonged to several that fit into these categories! One of them kickstarted my writing career and was amazing for me at that stage, another only had one meeting before the entire thing fell apart. I am currently a member of one Transnational Creative writing group (which is the bee’s knees), one online writing group with some people from my MA in Creative Writing, who are now spread out across the world, and tonight I am going to a brand new writing group! Which I hope will become a regular thing!

So how do I choose a writing group? Here are the five questions I ask myself when I am looking for a critique group.

1.  Do they write the same sort of thing as you?

I have belonged to groups in the past that advertised as general writing groups but definitely had a preference for poetry. At the time this was great for me, it introduced me to the wonders of open mic nights, and I still regularly write poetry as a part of the Poetry Rehab 101 hashtag. But if you’re trying to get feedback on your novel and everyone else is reading performance poetry, you’re going to feel like a right tool reading 1000 words of prose. The group I am going to tonight are prose writers, they were set up a while ago but have just started advertising on Meetup, and from reading the bios of the other members, I see that many of them are working on novels.

But if you’re trying to get feedback on your novel and everyone else is reading performance poetry, you’re going to feel like a right tool reading 1000 words of prose.

The group I am going to tonight are prose writers, they were set up a while ago but have just started advertising on Meetup, and from reading the bios of the other members, I see that many of them are working on novels.

 

2. Do they read the work beforehand or will you be expected to read out loud?

There are advantages to both, but as I want to work on my novel, I want a group that will read the work before the meeting. However, my first ever writing group read work out loud and I learned that it is a great way to self-edit, as well as gaining confidence in a really important skill you will need as a writer.

The group I am going to meet tonight normally swap work beforehand, but as this is the first meeting with lots of new members, we are taking a short piece of prose to read out loud tonight.

 

3. How long has the writing group been meeting?

Again, pros and cons to both. If a group has been meeting for a long time and you are the newcomer, they will know each other’s work and will already have a routine. If it is a new group, there might not be a clear leader, there will be no ground rules, but they might be more open to suggestions.

startup-594090_1920

And two questions to ask on the night –

 

4. How experienced is everyone in this writing group?

Do they know what they are talking about, or is it a group of people all struggling together. It can be great to have friends to struggle with, and depending on the stage you are at, this could be all you need.

But if you are in the final stages of editing your novel, maybe you want some experienced collaborators who will tell you exactly why that third chapter isn’t working. If you are the most experienced, you may end up taking on a leadership role. Would you mind this?

Another point to bear in mind is that other people, if not as experienced, may not know how to give constructive feedback. A group with no constructive feedback is not a critique group.

 

5. Will I be able to get on with these people and be around them for an hour every week, plus be in their heads for two hours when reading their work?

I saved the most important question for last. Writers come in many shapes and forms, and just because you want to be writers, doesn’t mean you are all going to end up best friends.

I am lucky, the two critique groups I currently belong to consist of my very best friends, but in the past, I have had to give feedback to people that I don’t like, to people that probably don’t like me, and perhaps the hardest, people I have absolutely nothing in common with. Sometimes this can be good because you can be deadly honest and not care if you are ruining a great friendship in the process. Just ask if you can handle the same deadly honest feedback in return!

 

So to sum up, I think the most important question, the all-encompassing question, is “What do I want to get out of this writing group?” All other questions stem from this. Once you have answered this question for yourself, don’t stray, writing groups can be a great help, but if they aren’t right for you, they can be a huge drain on time and money.

show, don’t tell? sometimes not …

Show, don’t tell? Well…yes. Sometimes, some people really do need this advice. And sometimes it is received well. 

But also, no. Because most of the time I see this advice, it is misplaced.

In my opinion, ‘show, don’t tell’ is the laziest advice anyone can give to a writer.

It normally stems from a lazy teacher not trying very hard to help a lazy student. It is targeting the symptom, not the cause of a much deeper problem.

Sometimes this advice will just lead to drawn out, “flowery” prose. Sometimes, it leads to a paragraph or more on how a character is moving from one side of a room to another. The worst outcome is the intrusion of clichés which can make a reader cringe so badly they actually end up feeling the very opposite of what the writer intended.

Let’s look at this in greater detail.

  1. Telling a reader the about a person’s character.

Take this example.

“Fiona was a loud person.”

If Fiona was truly a loud person then this would become clear throughout the book. We can just cut this sentence out. However, if we were to tell a new author to show, not tell, what would come back might be something very much like this :

“Fiona volunteered at an animal sanctuary, she fed meals to the homeless at Christmas, she always bought a copy of the big issue and she was polite to her in-laws.”

This short sentence took me about two seconds to read, and in the middle of a book, it is really not enough to identify Fiona as being a loud person. And it is filled with clichés.

It has probably had the opposite effect on you as a reader. If you are anything like me, you are thinking, “I hate Fiona”.  Not the effect the writer was going for.

This is what I mean by targeting the symptom, not the cause.

If you are merely telling your reader the character’s personality and qualities, in truth, you don’t know who that character really is!

If you truly want the reader to believe that Fiona is a loud person, you would need to show both her action and other people responses to them, and maybe any consequences that arise from her being loud. But this really would take more than one sentence! The reader would need to get to know her, and then have to decide that, generally, she is loud. So you need to know everything about Fiona.

But what if we were to tell the reader? Can we do that?

“Fiona was a good person. She volunteered at an animal sanctuary, she fed meals to the homeless at Christmas, she always bought a copy of the Big Issue and she was polite to her in-laws. She did everything a good person was supposed to do. So when she was arrested, everyone was surprised.”

Okay, so now this is a bit more interesting. Here we have told the character something but it has turned to be false. So this gives us our first rule of telling not showing.

  • You can tell the reader something if it turns out to be untrue.

Okay, enough of the saintly Fiona, let’s move on to somebody else.

2. The character moved from A to B or did some other mundane action.

“Ali made a cup of tea.”

Ok, so if we were to tell our writer to show not tell, this sentence would be incorrect.

Let’s explore it. How do we show Ali making a cup of tea?

“Ali pulled a mug from the cupboard and put a teabag in it. When the kettle had boiled he poured the water over the top and let it brew for a few minutes. Finally, he pulled the teabag out using a teaspoon and added some milk.”

According to our show, don’t tell rule, this second sentence is better than the first. Personally, I feel both are pretty bad, neither belong in a story, but if I had to choose one? I would pick the first in most situations.

Nope, the second isn’t terrible. But is it necessary? That depends on the book.

A description like this could really work in some stories. If Ali was an investment banker who lived the same routine every day, only to show up to work and the entire building had disappeared, we could have great fun with a description of the tea making process.

“Ali pulled a plain white mug from the cupboard and added a Twining’s Tea Bag. When the kettle had boiled, he waited five seconds and then poured the water into the mug. He stirred the tea bag three times, let it brew for two minutes and then removed the tea bag. He finished by adding exactly two millilitres of milk.”

Great! This passage has told us about a mundane action but it has also told us something important about Ali, he is a perfectionist. We might even be guessing he has some sort of compulsive disorder, but we haven’t been told any of this. With a little tweaking this passage could work for lots of characters: a secret agent who has a penchant for perfect tea, a witch who believes that a tiny bit less milk will offset the effects of the special blend of tea or a chemist who is so used to measuring things out that he does it all the time.

But remember- if we show every action in this much detail, the reader doesn’t know where to place importance.

On the other hand, if you are merely telling your reader every single action, instead of describing the important actions, we have found our cause.

You don’t know what actions are important to your overall plot/character development/guiding question.

How do you know?

Rule number 2 of tell don’t show:

  • If a mundane action can show something interesting about a character, then show it. If it just serves a purpose in filling some time or moving your character, try to tell it in the shortest possible way.

So what should we be telling new writers?’ 

My friend (and fellow writer) Catherine Taylor has this advice:

“Make the reader feel what you want them to feel, but don’t tell them what they should be feeling.”

This, I feel, covers the very basic message of show, don’t tell, for those few occasions it is actually useful. As for the rest of the time? Find the cause. Here’s how:

  1. What sort of person is this character. If you don’t know them, you can’t describe them to your reader. Even if you are not a planner, you should know at least the following five things before you start to write:
  • What do they like to do?
  • What are they bad at?
  • Who do they hate?
  • What do they secretly fear about themselves?
  • Why do you, as the writer, like/dislike the character?

Answering these questions will make you think about lots of other aspects of character, and if you have all this down on a page, you will be able to describe your characters to the reader without being clumsy or superficial.

2. What is this paragraph for? What is this sentence for? What is this word for?Editing is your friend. It is perfectly OK for your first draft to be filled with sentences and paragraphs about the message you think you reader should be taking away from your novel or poem. It isn’t ok for your last draft to have anything like this in it. So go through the book and label every single paragraph with the things the reader should be taking away from the writing and make sure your work isn’t being lazy.

3. Know the difference between lazy and pragmatic. Lazy writing can be solved with the above exercises. Pragmatic writing is wholly necessary. Above all, you are a storyteller. People need to understand what is happening in that story the first time they read the paragraph. If they can’t, don’t be surprised if they don’t turn the page.

Do you have any tips on how we can solve these problems of lazy writing? Or are there any writing “rules” that annoy you every time someone preaches them (normally with a smug, “I’m better than you” face)?

Let me know in the comments below, and hit me up if you want any more blogs on a specific topic!

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