Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Reading outside your comfort zone

If I go to a bookshop or library I head for the fiction aisles and then search for writers or titles that I'm interested in. I'm happy while doing this to consider new titles and authors. Reading is a passion and a good story is a fantastic source of inspiration and entertainment but if I'm not careful I run the risk of keeping my book choices narrow.

Make a list of all the genres you are drawn to. Mine would include detective stories and mysteries of all types, modern and old school literary novels, collections of short stories and ghost stories of all kinds.

Good as my reading matter sounds I've walked by sci-fi, romance, comedy, plays, crossover novels, graphic novels, westerns and adventure novels. I've by passed hundreds of important characters and denied myself glimpses of life from a view that is outside my comfort zone.

Each summer I busy myself with a few novels that are outside my usual area of reading. Once I read various works by sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin and although they didn't convert me to her work or the genre, I enjoyed them and they informed some writing I did afterwards. I have been reading folk tales and the lesser known novels of daphne Du Maurier, who is in my view the most superb creator of plots.

Sometimes old or forgotten books in second hand shops contain an inspiring point of view and sometimes non-fiction work can be full of interesting ideas and people.

Try this mind enriching activity occasionally. It will definitely inform your writing, it will advance your knowledge of the world of books and you may find a genre that you hadn't previously thought of. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Who are you writing for?

I'm working on two projects at the moment that have given me a lot to think about. I'm happy with the plots and fairly happy with the characters. What is slowing me down is the fact that I don't know who the stories should be aimed at. They could be for adults but they could also work as crossover pieces that appeal to adults and people in their mid to late teens. I have to decide though and in doing so will improve the focus.

It's important to think about who is going to experience your work. For a time, when I was involved in performances of my own work, I found it essential to consider audiences. An audience is made up of people with a whole host of needs and expectations. In order to create a good experience for them it's necessary to present them with those elements of your work that will impress or please them, make them laugh or get them thinking.

Some audiences were noisy and ready to laugh while others contained people who coughed and fidgeted. When my performance partner and I planned sets for a performance we always had a main plan and then a few ideas about what we might do if things weren't going well.

In other words we had to think about who we were performing to. Sometimes we had to be more funny, less funny, more specific, less rude. Sometimes we had to leave stuff out and other times we had to include things.

It all added up to us having a relationship, however brief, with other human beings who were willing to give us a chance.

Writing is the same except you can't see your readers when they are looking at your stuff. Even so, you have to work out who they are and what they already like and what they might like. You have to meet their expectations and also know how to exceed them.

It rings me back to my knotty riddle; in order to do any of these things you have to know who they are. I'm still scratching my head and trying to work that one out. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Poems carved in stone

It seems that poet Simon Armitage has something in common with lawmaker Moses. Both
have had their words carved into stone. I have now visited three of the six stanza stones that are located in the Yorkshire Pennines in the UK. Armitage has taken precipitation in its various forms as his subject matter and written poems that have been carved in rock faces in various parts of the Yorkshire countryside. Each poem can be reached fairly easily with the help of map guides and instructions. Each is in a place of immense beauty.

The poems are tightly written and down to earth with touches of gentle humour. The poetry carving project was part of the Ilkley Literature Festival and it has had a mixed response. Some people regard it as a defacement of places of natural beauty, others love the mixture of art and nature.

I have been with family and friends to three locations that I hadn't been to before and I would like to visit the remaining three. We have read the poems aloud and written our own poems based on the way the day out affected us.

An artist called Pip Hall carved the words and doing so must have been no small feat. The size, scale and angle of the poems must have stretched her physically.

A guide that can be picked up in Yorkshire's cultural spots or read on line has been compiled by Tom Lonsdale to enable people to find the works which are off the beaten track. The walks can be done separately or in one go over a few days. Most are suitable for families but all aren't suitable for wheelchair users or people with buggies and prams. Check the brochure for information

I've written three small poems based on my days out. I suggest you read the poems written on the stanza stones to get an idea of their tone. Then find somewhere near to where you live where a piece of unofficial art has been created. A wall covered with graffiti or a wall covered in posters for gigs. Look for official art in the form of an inscription inside a building or an outdoors sculpture. Read what's written there or look more closely than you usually do. Write a short poem in any style inspired by your experience. Do it in one location or several and see what results can be achieved.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Cut a Long Story Short

Cut a Long Story is an on line book shop dedicated to selling short stories and novellas. A wide range of writers and writing styles make this a fantastic gathering place for people who write stories and people who read them. You can do both, just follow the link below and see how.

I have a few stories for sale on the site and look forward to involving myself more. Hope to see some of you there.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Characters - we need them

I've just taken part in world book night again. I've added a link so that you can see what this fabulous initiative is all about. I've been involved each year in the business of giving out books to people in order to encourage a love of reading. This year I chose to distribute M.C. Beaton's Quiche of Death, the first in a series of books about an unlikely detective in the shape of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR Guru.
The book could be categorised as cosy detective in terms of genre. It is a light and humorous read with an interesting central character. Agatha Raisin is in her fifties, a bit grumpy and solitary in her ways and often ungenerous in her thoughts. She has good points and bad points and the author allows some delicious insights into her ungenerous points of view. The most important feature she has is that of the tenacity to make her a good amateur sleuth.
I was impressed with this character and the twenty or so kitch and funny novels that have been woven around her. The detective genre lends itself to characters who can appear time and time again in  a number of mysteries. Readers love to catch up with someone who feels like an old friend.
In the television series the part of Agatha Raisin is played by a glamorous woman. In the book she's well dressed but somehow plain and matter of fact and I wondered how much she resembles the writer.
Can you think of a fantastic character to hang twenty novels onto and have fans begging for more. Wouldn't it be wonderful? A writer's dream.

To make a start at finding your character think of someone you know, maybe even yourself, who has the power to drive a story along. Consider the following to help you shape the character further.

Is s/he modern or traditional in habit and dress?
Does s/he have strong views or liberal views on life issues and politics?
Is s/he religious, or lapsed in religion or a pagan?
Can your character cook?
Who are they friends with?
Have they or are they married? Just once or are there a few ex spouses?
Who are the members of their family?
What environment are they in and does this provide the potential for many stories?

Please do have a go and come up with a prize winning character with whom you can share your writing room and grow rich. 



Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Fantastic endings.

I've been teaching creative writing for many years and in that time countless people have told me that they've thought up a fantastic idea for a novel, story or play. Very often these ideas are fantastic to the point that I wished I'd thought of the myself. I have such ideas myself. Superb locations, three dimensional characters and a plot with more that its share of twists and turns.

No one has ever approached me with a fantastic idea that comes with a satisfying, well thought out and unexpected ending. An ending, yes, but something memorable? That's a lot harder.

Have you ever spent time reading a story, watching a film or play and been disappointed at the the way things turned out? I suspect we all have. Have you ever read a book and felt that the writer concentrated more on the first half of the book, the half that got your interest, than they did on the second half?

We end up coming away from these experiences feeling let down and possibly avoiding anything else by the writer whose ending wasn't up to much.

I've just read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

What fantastic plotting and planning has gone into this piece of work. Before I got to the ending I made a couple of predictions about what it might be. I was wrong and the ending she gave had both a sense of finality about it and a sense of implications for the future.

When I wrote my play Have I Enough for BBC Radio 4 the producer didn't like the last couple of sentences that formed the ending and asked me to come up with something more pleasing. I didn't have a plan B and so came up with a technique for getting ideas from nowhere that I call wracking my brains!! I'm also a great list writer and so I made myself write a list of five suitable endings. Not an easy task.

Are your story endings as breathtaking as your opening lines? If not, why not?

Have you -

Spent more time on the beginning than the ending.
Focussed your attention on how it starts but not how it ends.
Forgotten your audience.
Failed to plot thoroughly.
Considered all the ways in which the story might possibly end.

Why not dig through some of your work. A piece that you're not quite happy with or that has been rejected. Re-write the ending. Doing that will involve some re-writing throughout but it might eradicate an ending that's not surprising, too predictable, not worth waiting for.

To strengthen your endings

Make sure you know what your characters want - do they get it? do they get something better, worse? Understand the big things that they want, such as a perfect partner/job or a car. Also understand their small needs such as good coffee, restaurants that don't have carpeted floors, clothes that flatter their body shape.
Make your characters three dimensional and complex so that you have plenty of material to work with.

And when you've done that....read Gone Girl for inspiration.


Friday, 17 April 2015

Book Stash

The picture above is of one of my book stashes. It's in a cupboard above my bed and shows only a third of what's in there. I have stashes all over the house and only buy books at the moment if they will be useful to me at work. The rest I borrow from the library or buy at charity shops and return. I have lots of books and tidy them regularly with a view to throwing a few out...I find throwing out very difficult.

It occurred to me that I could simplify this situation by writing a one paragraph summary of the content of each book. 

Fortune Hotel, for example, is a book of urban and edgy short stories about travel. I read it once in a while and an entry in a book of book outlines might read

Short stories about the terrors experienced by unthinking westerners who blunder into the unforgiving worlds that rely on income from tourism.

If I did this for every book I could clear my house of clutter and concentrate on the joy of empty spaces.


Pick ten of your books and summarise them. A couple of paragraphs is more than enough. Use the paragraphs to prompt new ideas for articles, poems or  short stories.

Friday, 10 April 2015

classes for writers

My creative writing class will run again at Oldham Lifelong Learning Centre in Oldham. It starts again on Friday 1st May (10am - 12noon) and finishes on Friday 6th June. It's six weeks only with a break in the middle for half term. 
A variety of topics will be looked at with the aim of getting pieces written and using them to learn from.
Enrol at the central library in Oldham. Costs depend on income. Phone 0161 770 8029 and ask.

Writing and selling short stories for women's magazines. Saturday 26th September 2015 at Waterside Arts, Waterside Road, Sale, Manchester M33. £35 for a day long workshop - 10 - 3. A focussed look at what magazine fiction editors want for their readers.

Creative Writing in business situations. Two hour sessions or day long workshops in which creative writing is used to aid fresh approaches to situations in workplaces. Designed to address the requirements of participants and organisations. Ask me for details.

email me at carmen_walton@hotmail.com   

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Time to write plays

The last time I posted I was extolling the virtues of the pint sized play. Since then I have discovered that my own competition entry to The Irlam Fringe Festival has been selected for production, along with five other plays. It's called Large White Loaf and a Tin of Rice and is about a fragile love triangle. I'll tell you more about the process as it happens.

This is a pleasing result for me as for a while I've only been able to write and sell short pieces. A fifteen minute play is fifteen pages long, so while it's not huge it's still an advance in  terms of developing plot and characters. 

Time has been an issue for me and is for a number of writers. I'm in the middle of everything and I only get writing time if I'm careful with my time in general. Here are some of the ways that I have created time to write.

  • Get up earlier than everyone else in your house in order to have peace in which to write.
  • Go to bed later than everyone else ....
  • Reduce or cut your tv viewing / computer game playing / surfing.
  • Improve the way your writing is organised so that if you get some unexpected free time you don't waste it looking for your work or trying to remember where you were up to.
  • Reduce your involvement with high maintenance situations. These are different for everyone but for me they have been people who talk about themselves/family/colleagues all the time and people who are chaotic, People who offload or stay on the phone too long / outstay their welcome. This makes me sound anti-social and I'm not. A little often is fine and I like to meet up with people for lunch or coffee. Sometimes. 
  • Too many possessions can be high maintenance as they have to be stored, used, washed, kept in good repair. All things that take up time you could spend writing.
  • Don't put pressure on yourself to keep your house sparkling and your washing gleaming. Good enough is good enough.
  • Keep cooking simple unless there's a special occasion.
  • Gardening, if you have a garden. Keep it simple and realistic. Keep on top of it.
  • Keep paper and pens with you so that you can write in down time such as waiting in your car to pick someone up, having a haircut, waiting to be seen for appointments, lunch hours at work, bus or train journeys.
  • Be organised. Have places for things that can get lost such as keys and phones. Looking for them wastes time, is stressful and can make you late for your plans for the day. Go shopping with a list so that nothing is forgotten and you don't have to make several journeys. Keep a diary so that you can see where you are and what opportunities to carry out your business exist in that area. Don't visit somewhere twice when once will do.
  • Delegate some jobs if you can and accept the offerings of others rather than expecting them to do things to your standards.

And then, with the ten minutes here and half an hour there that you've saved....get writing. 

Why not try one - or both - of these quick fire, time based writing exercises?

1. Set your clock for one minute and use those sixty seconds to write a stream of consciousness on the subject of time passing.

2. Write a list of all the things that have wasted your time. Can you see the makings of a poem in this list?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

fantastic short plays

My good friend Jenny Roche  jennyroche.co.uk is a mine of extrememly useful information. She has reminded me that the JB Shorts event is almost upon us. It's the 13th season for this event and I would recommend it.

You get to watch about six short plays that have been written by people with television experience and are performed by superb actors. The whole night with a pint of lager and a packet of nuts isn't much more that a tenner. Money well spent.

Shorts and short plays are terms now used to describe what was once known as a one act play. They are often shown in a group and set in pubs and bars in front of non- traditional theatre audiences. It's live entertainment that doesn't cost too much and is accessible.  

If you can't get to the JB Shorts night in Manchester which is on from 14th-25th April then go to something similar.

To get tickets go to wegottickets.com/jbshorts

To see some fantastic short plays that are 10-15 minutes long read the book published by the pint-sized play initiative.  pintsizedplays.org.uk   It's full of sharply written stuff. Better still go onto their website and have a look at the competition they are running until May 2015.

If you're good with dialogue and can stretch your imagination to make a pub bar feel like an Elizabethan street (for example)  with no props then you'll love the challenge.

Thursday, 19 March 2015


What's a stereotype? Are you stereotypical? Is it a derogatory term or a useful one?

I don't think I am easy to stereotype but I was chatting to a man once who nudged me into a stereotypical position by asking me if I was going shopping. I am female and in some quarters people believe that women enjoy recreational shopping. I don't.
Scottish and Yorkshire stereotypes include frugal and dour sorts. Aren't black people supposed to be good at sports and singing? And accountants of any origin are likely to be boring.
While I don't dismiss stereotypes I think it's useful to consider how a character is portrayed. It might not work to have a nursery nurse with an abrupt manner, a dark side and no patience but you might be able to create a vicar who is free of the tea and cake, church fetes and overt politeness without her losing her integrity.

I've identified a group of people who are often stereotyped. Try identifying those attitudes and characteristics that are used to typify them and then create a character who doesn't fit the template.
When adjusting the stereotype don't head for the polar opposite. Look for subtle characteristics somewhere between opposite ends of a spectrum.

Have a go.

School teacher.


Social worker.


Plastic surgeon.



Dinner lady.


Office worker.

You might find that you are liberated by tweaking stereotypical expectations or you might come to the conclusion that they exist for a reason. It depends on what type you are.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Diary writing

I've just finished reading Any Human Heart by William Boyd. (Thank you Roy for loaning this book to me. I finally got around to it and enjoyed every page).
The book takes the form of the diary of Logan Mountstuart from boyhood to old age. It is meticulously thought out so that it is clear to see how events in one part of his life have an impact on what happens to him at another stage. As in all lives. It is the story of a life that has contained tremendous high points - he meets Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway - and terrible lows - his experiences in WWII were bleak.

It's a big book, as a lifetime diary would be, divided into phases of life. Boyd seamlessly grows and ages a man in front of our reading eyes so that each phase of his life and his means of expressing it rings true.

Using the form of a diary enables characters from different times to communicate their story in one book, it allows for times when nothing happens and in the case of Any Human Heart it gives readers a view of someone's un-edited thoughts. A diary can juxtapose two or more different voices and can provide insight into real thoughts and opinions that contrast with what a person says and portrays.

Could you write your life story or anyone else's in the form of a diary?
Can you identify some other amazing works of fiction that have been written in the form of a diary?
Write a food or mood diary for yourself this week.
write a diary entry that sets out what you did on a particular day. Make sure you include your inner thoughts and motivations. It is the anomalies and flaws in characters that make readers bond with them. Reveal yours to show the different sides of your nature.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Animal Voices

I'm reading War Horse by Michael Morpurgo at the moment. It's one of those books described as a crossover book because of its appeal to younger readers as well as adult readers. I'm enjoying the book and find it full of emotional detail as well as factual and historical information. Every once in a while I have to brush aside the little question mark that, for me, hangs over stories told in animal voices.
There are other famous examples of animal voices such as in Watership Down, which is also an emotionally vivid story, and also a crossover book. A look in the bookshop or library would reveal dozens of books written for children, using an animal protagonist. And there's the film Babe, whose pig protagonist has put some people off bacon butties forever.
If you look at the writing requirements for various women's magazines they don't want stories told in the voice of an animal. Perhaps they believe that finding out the protagonist was Snowy the owl all along weakens the potential and the integrity of the ending. Perhaps for them animal endings have been overdone.
Where do you stand on animals as protagonists? Animals who recognise makes of car and military uniforms? Animals with opinions?

As an exercise, write two or three opening paragraphs of a novel about a family from a rural community in the voice of an animal that they own.

Write the same piece again from the point of view of a human being that is close to the animal and can judge the motives for its behaviour.

Is it something you could get used to?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Art as a writing prompt

I'm running a writing group at Oldham Lifelong Learning Centre at the moment. It's a fantastic building that contains a library, theatre, IT suites, gift shop, cafe, classrooms and several galleries with permanent and visiting exhibits.

I will be going into the galleries with the group in search of inspiration. This is something I've done many times in many galleries and the results have always been fantastic.

Why not try it. I went with some writers to the LS Lowry gallery in Salford. The day was good and the gallery was filled with people of all ages sprawling and writing and drawing as they looked at the paintings by L S Lowry.

We used a prompt to create some pieces. We found a painting or exhibit we liked - an outdoor scene. We wrote about how the scene appeared at various times of the day. For example if we looked at a picture of a woman pushing a pram in daylight, we imagined why she might push it at night in the dark, how she would feel. Some paintings were of night time scenes and we imagined what the area would be like in the day.

Have a go at this. Look for images on line or call in to your local gallery.

Write a story, a poem or a monologue. 



Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Omens and superstitions

I run a craft / textile class and recently we had to move from a building we've used for a long time and liked, to a building in a different area. It was necessary as money had to be saved and our new home is well run and pleasant. However since we started in January someone has been violently ill in class and another has wept. Alarmingly, I showed someone how to do a blanket stitch and I pricked my finger. I thought nothing of it until my blood appeared on the work. I've never bled on a piece of work yet. This person received bad news a few days later.

What a time we've had. What would a superstitious person make of that?

Although superstitious rituals weren't encouraged when I was growing up I am aware of them. I went to school with people whose parents were superstitious and who had rituals for all kinds of situations such as walking near ladders, buying purses or spilling salt.

As an adult I believe in omens and really wish I didn't. Sentences and images stand out and cause me concern. The work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is informed by superstition. He was brought up with his grandparents who were extremely superstitious.

Perhaps in the past people made sense of life with such rituals.

Write a story about a drop of blood being spilled on something. You choose the situation.
The story can be funny, serious, dark, gothic, modern or historical.
What does the spilled blood signify to the people in the story?
What events are going on in their lives that seem more or less significant once the drop of blood has been shed.?

What words, phrases or expressions exist to describe blood.

Write a list of colours that might describe the colour of blood.

Read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


superstitions and omens


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

magazine fiction

Workshop for would be magazine fiction writers. Hope you can make it.


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. So many dreadful stories have emerged from this period of history and many of them have taken a long time to tell.

In some research I did on this period of history one group of people who were persecuted as the Nazis pursued a pure race were Romanies. It was customary for this group of people to pass on their stories verbally at gatherings of families and friends. Artefacts, objects and heirlooms didn't seem to be a feature of their lives and it is quite possible that whole areas of their history have been destroyed for ever.

If you have time to research you could consider some of the people who were sent to concentration camps, political prisoners, for example. There were others. Write diary entries for the week before they were captured. Try to imagine or research the ordinary events of their lives as well as anything extraordinary.

world war sinti

Monday, 19 January 2015

Inner turmoil as the basis for a plot.

I'm back at my computer now that it has been repaired and returned to me after it had an accident. In its absence I wrote by hand but missed adding to my existing work badly. I need to write to stay sane. As long as I can write stuff down and channel my thoughts I can be cheerful.

Being computer-less and also sharing a house with poorly family members and being poorly myself I have watched a lot of telly. I don't usually and enjoyed it very much. Too much. I'm weaning myself off it this week. What I noticed about a lot of the drama programmes is the plots.

Some rely heavily on violence and shocks or they start out being very exciting and scary but taper off in the concluding scenes. Why is this?

I think it happens when the story is driven by plot and not character. Viewers like action. Nothing new there but in order to create drama through a character we need time to get to know them and understand when something out of the ordinary has happened for them. 

Also, a lot of drama is internal and invisible. Think about the panic you feel when you get an unexpected bill or realise you have arrived at work without an important document. Perhaps things become more visible when you bump into your ex or someone you had an argument with and more visible still when you are pushed or shouted at.

Lots of people cover their internal dramas. Inner torment  isn't as easy to show in a dramatic way on telly as it is in a short story. 

It might be interesting to write a short story (500-1500 words) about a person who appears to be living life as usual when in fact they are in a state of turmoil. Sometimes the ordinary can be used to heighten drama because it's close to home. Think about how to introduce the inner action and how to give the story a good end. Good ends are every bit as important as good beginnings.

Could your story frighten anyone or leave them feeling affected. Have a go.