The Path Less Travelled and why it (sometimes) pays to take it

Plus a Can’t Fail Writing Tip and More Daily Prompts

Cathedral

On my usual morning dog walk the other day, I took a different path. It was rough, muddy and overgrown – but there was this big, barky dog on the other path and I was in no mood for canine fisticuffs.  And even though my dog promised to be on his best behaviour and that butter wouldn’t melt in his little spotty mouth (he’s a Dalmatian in case you think I’m getting personal) I didn’t really believe him. Or at least, I wasn’t prepared to take that chance.

But taking the more difficult path had its rewards, one of which was it took me somewhere I’d never been before and afforded a stunning view of  the lovely Wells Cathedral, seen  from a slightly different angle.

DukeOnHisBack

Back home, as I scraped the mud of the dog (and quizzed him as to how he managed to get some on the back of his head) I started thinking how good it is for life in general but my writing life in particular to move out of my comfort zone occasionally.

(And to pay him back for all that mud, here’s a rather inelegant shot of Duke looking totally in his comfort zone.)

But, dog walking aside,  this is the time of the year when I move so far out of my comfort zone I go completely off piste.

So what am I doing?  Can you guess from the last three items on my internet browsing history?

  • Italian processed meats
  • Witch name generator
  • The Addams Family

I’m writing a pantomime.  Oh, yes I am!

For the benefit of overseas readers, a pantomime is a peculiarly British form of entertainment, put on around Christmas and the New Year and tells a story (usually a well known fairy story, such as Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk) where men dress as women, women dress as men, there’s lots of singing and silliness and the audience is encouraged to be very rowdy.

I live in a small Somerset village where for the last five years we’ve put on a pantomime.  And every year, at about this time, I say I’m never, ever going to write another one.  That’s it’s not my thing.  That I write anything from short stories to full length novels; from magazine serials to a monthly column; from this blog to angry letters to my local paper complaining about the threat to our library service.

BUT I do not write pantomimes.  Never again.

Then she-who-makes-things-happen comes to see me about 48 hours after the final curtain on the final performance of the last pantomime I will ever write and she says:

“I’ve been thinking, Paula.  How do you fancy…..?”

Last year she reeled me in with Calamity Jane.  And yes, I know I said pantomimes are usually fairy stories, but we do things differently in our small corner of Somerset.  In my hands (because I can never write anything straightforward) Calamity Jane became Calamity Wayne and involved a man dressed as a woman who dressed as a man until ‘her’ transformation scene when he/she dressed as a woman.

Are you still following?  It was complicated.

Where to start?

Once I’ve finished moaning (like I am now) about how I can’t write what she-who-makes-things-happen wants me to write and that it will never work, I start with the list of available cast members which gives me an idea of how many parts to write.

And yes, I know that’s probably not the way the Alans Ayckbourn or Bennett start writing their plays.  But they’re not writing for a small village theatre group where everyone wants to be in the pantomime and the men’s ‘dressing room’ is a very small, very old caravan parked outside the village hall.  It’s a bit of a challenge for the man dressed as a woman dressed as a man when he has to wriggle into a hooped crinoline for the final scene! But our members are nothing if not resourceful.

Once I know how many I’m writing for (and the numbers increase every year) I then start thinking about the characters’ names.  This year, the ‘how do you fancy having a go at….? question was followed by… The Addams Family.

My answer was, not really.  But here I am, after binge watching black and white episodes of the Addams Family on YouTube and I’ve got the title.  “The Fladdams Family – the Panto.”  This at least warns the audience that things might not be quite what they’re expecting.  In fact, it’s going to be a sort of Addams Family meets the Sound of Music, with maybe a little bit of Downton Abbey thrown in.  Oh, and lots of rude noises.

My ‘can’t fail’ tip for writing pantomimes.

If the script is dragging and you’re in need of a laugh, have Sound Effects make a rude noise. (He’s very big on rude noises, is our Sound Effects guy).  Or say something rude about the people in the next village.

And if you really want it to go with a bang, then make a rude noise while saying rude things about the people in the next village.  I promise, it will bring the house down (which, given the state of the ceiling in our village hall would not be difficult).

And those internet searches?

I was looking for characters’ names.   So far, I have got:

  • Fernando Fladdams
  • Mortadella, his wife
  • Bugsy, their son
  • Thursday, their daughter
  • Evanora Crowe (Mortadella’s mother)
  • Dowager Countess Grimley
  • Pancetta Von Trip (Mortadella’s sister)
  • Uncle Pesto (Fernando’s brother)
  • Anti Pasta (his wife)
  • Grunch, the butler….
  • Albert Snaffles, international jewel thief
  • Sidney Sniffles, his side kick.
  • …… And assorted servants, villagers etc.

I could go on.  But I’d better not.  I’ve got a pantomime to write.  Oh yes I have.  (And this is where the audience shouts: Oh no you haven’t!)

Back to the sane world of blogging

I am very grateful to Helen Yendall for putting a link to this blog in hers.  Helen’s blog (link to blog here) is a wonderful example of how to build and maintain an informative and entertaining blog.  I am in awe of her!

I’m still finding my way around the blogging community and recently came across Helena Fairfax’s blog. ( link here)   She’s writing about the inspiration behind and the writing process involved in her novel Felicity at the Cross Hotel (which I have read and very much enjoyed).  Helena’s also included a list of writers in what she calls a ‘Round Robin’ who are also blogging about the same thing.  It’s a fascinating list and I can’t wait to read them all.  Yet more to add to my tottering TBR pile.

In the meantime, I’ve got to get back to the thing at the top of my even more tottering TBW (to be written) pile.  So far, I’ve written:

Act 1, Scene 1.  Front of curtain.  Enter Albert Snaffles and Sidney Sniffles.

And that’s it.  The rest of the page is a terrifying blank.  Actually, that’s not strictly true.  As I wrote in my last blog, Writers’ Prompts.  A limitless supply of story inspiration sometimes sitting down and writing about not knowing what to write about is all it takes to unclog the log jam in your mind.  I can now see exactly how that first scene is going to go now.   Pity about the other five scenes though….

Daily Prompts.

I hope you’re enjoying the prompts from my last post. (see above paragraph for link) In between my pantomime, I’m writing a crime short story based on the prompt ‘a host of golden daffodils’. (March 21st). I’ve almost finished the first draft and it seems to be working out ok.  I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

April prompts.  1st – 15th April.

These are the daily prompts for the first fifteen days of April.

  1. There is no fool like an old fool
  2. My father always told me….
  3. The kindness of strangers
  4. Cinderella, set in the present day… Or maybe even the future?
  5. She lived alone and few could know/When Lucy ceased to be/But she is in her grave and oh,/ the difference to me. (Wordsworth)
  6. These are the things you can trust.
  7. You are standing on one side of a closed door.
  8. Be careful what you wish for
  9. A compromise
  10. The first book of crossword puzzles was published this day in 1924.  Write about a puzzle fanatic.
  11. ‘He that stays in the valley shall never get over the hill.’
  12. Hindsight is always twenty twenty.
  13. Broken promises
  14. Write about a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing
  15. First love

There are some interesting nuggets in there, don’t you think?  Who knows, I may be able to work one into my current work in progress.  There’s nowhere in my rules that says it has to be a completely new piece of work.

Thanks for dropping by – and happy writing.

Writers’ Prompts.  A limitless supply of story inspiration

When no choice is the right choice

I started my writing career as a short story writer.  As soon as my stories started selling in significant numbers  I realised it was no good sitting around waiting for the ideas for my next stories to come to me.  I had to go out and find them.

I read every how to book I could get my hands on that contained advice on how to get ideas.  One of the methods I liked most was the use of writing prompts.

But the problem with prompts for me was that I spent way too much time reading through them until I found one that ‘spoke’ to me and inspired me to start writing.

I was doing it the wrong time around.

I’m a Libran and find the whole process of decision making a nightmare. Also by introducing the element of choice, I was using the analytical side of my brain to find the prompt that appealed to me.  But, in doing so, the analytical side was overriding the creative side.

All that changed when I discovered daily prompts.

A daily prompt can be anything – a proverb, a quotation, a book title, a fact, an anniversary  or merely a phrase.  I started compiling a list of them, one for each day of the year.  And the time I spent doing this has been repaid over and over again.

The important thing about daily prompts is that they remove the element of choice from the process.  Instead, you take whatever prompt is set for that day and get writing before the analytical part of your brain kicks in.

So I tried it and, to my surprise, it worked. It’s still working.  And it will work for you, too.

So what do you need?

Ready to give it a try?  This is what you’ll need.

  • a list of prompts (see below)
  • A notebook
  • A pen that you enjoy using
  • An open mind

These are not set in stone (apart from the open mind).  By all means, write on a computer, or even your phone, if you prefer.  Or on the back of supermarket receipts, cereal packets or fancy notebooks.  Whatever takes your fancy.  Use a gold fountain pen, or a ‘free’ pencil from Ikea.

Having said that, I believe it’s important to honour your craft.  You’re a writer and proud of it.  And consequently, you owe it to yourself to use that special notebook with the kitten on the cover, or the picture of your favourite team.  And if you enjoy writing in purple ink, or love the feel of a roller ball as it glides across smooth, thick paper, then go for it.  Do whatever makes you feel good.  Indulge yourself.  Have a good time.  Because you’re about to let your inner child out to play. And your inner child is worth it.

Next, take the prompt for whatever day of the week it happens to be (no peeking at tomorrow or yesterday) and start writing.

I’m writing this on 16th March and the prompt for that day, as you will see below,  is  ‘The Fool on the Hill’  OK, so you don’t want to write about this?  I can’t say I did either.  Then start by saying so.  Start writing about why you don’t want to write about it rather than thinking about it. Just sit down and write.  Don’t stop to go back and read what you’ve written.  Or to correct spellings or typos. The important thing is that you just keep going and keep the analytical side of your brain out of the way while you do so.

When do you stop?

Sometimes I do a timed ten minutes or whatever time I have to spare.  Other times (and this has proved the most productive) I’ll keep writing until I get that ‘buzz’ that tells me I have the beginnings of a story. Or the characters come alive and start telling me their stories. And that’s what keeps me in love with writing.

These prompts aren’t meant to be used every day, although if you can come up with a different story every day for a month then respect to you.  But it’s not something I could do because sooner or later you’re going to have to stop playing and settle down to do the tricky stuff.

In his brilliant “On Writing”  Steven King, writing about finding ideas says” “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”  But recognising what makes an idea worth developing into a story is something I’ll explore in another post. At this stage, you’re still scrabbling around in the recesses of your mind for those very ideas.

To sum up, then, the most important thing about these daily prompts is that you don’t have to stop and think what you are going to write about.  That decision is taken for you. (Great news for us Librans!)

I’m writing this on  March 16th and today’s prompt is “The fool on the hill”.

Go on, then. What are you waiting for?   I will if you will. …….

My Fool on the Hill  (warts, bad handwriting and all)

WritersNotebook
March 16th. Fool on the hill

I wrote:

The fool on the hill is today’s prompt and it’s not something I want to write about because all that’s going through my mind at the moment is the Beatles’ song and if I am not careful I’m just going to end up writing down the words of the song.

The man with the foolish grin is sitting perfectly still.  See?  I’m doing it.  Why is the man sitting perfectly still?  And why the ‘foolish’ grin?  Why not one of those grins that are infectious?  Like a happy labrador?

Charlie Masterson couldn’t stop smiling. He sat on the bench at the top of the hill without moving.  Just sitting there, thinking.  And smiling.  He tried several times to think of something that made him sad like maths or Man U losing in the last minute.  But it was no good.  Back would pop that smile again.

Now when I started this I didn’t know I was going to write about a child. But there he is, little Charlie Masterson.  Sitting alone at the top of the hill, smiling.  I’m not sure I want to write about a teenager though.  I think Charlie is much younger (although what is he doing alone on that hill?) and that he knows a secret that he’s bursting to share. But can’t.

…..

I could go on.  I probably will because I want to know about Charlie and his secret.  Maybe it will turn out to be one of those stories that are based on misunderstandings.  I love the way young children can so easily get hold of the wrong end of the stick when they’re trying to make sense of the crazy world of adults.  And I really want to know Charlie’s story, so watch this space.

So, are you up for the challenge?  Just remember, no picking and choosing.  Go with whatever comes up for the day.

March prompts.

As I’m posting this half way through the month of March, I am setting out prompts from March 17th, starting, obviously, with the Fool on the hill.

16.The fool on the hill

17. St. Patrick’s Day. Keeping a promise

18. The ugly duckling

19. This is what happens when someone doesn’t listen properly.

20. Out of sight, out of mind.

21. ‘A host of golden daffodils’. (W. Wordsworth)

22. Crocodile tears.

23. Being inappropriately dressed. (Eg Batman and Robin in Fools and Horses)

24. ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth/Is it to have a thankless child’. (Shakespeare’s King Lear)

25. Write about a Saturday night.

26. You’re in a cafe, the door opens and ….

27. Living a lie.

28. Publish and be damned.

29. The anniversary of the first London Marathon, 1981

30. ‘He had something of the night in him’ (Anne Widdecombe)

31. It’s 2.30am and sleep is a long way off.

Next month, I’ll post the entire month of April.

I’d love to hear which, if any, you used.

Where do writers get their ideas from?

How asking the right question led me to a job that’s lasted ten years …. and counting.

There’s so much good advice out there for writers it’s difficult to know which, if any, to follow.  We’re told to:

  • show don’t tell
  • Write every day
  • Write about what you know.
  • Kill your darlings.
  • Don’t work for nothing

IdeasStore

All good advice.  But sometimes working for nothing can pay off in unforeseen ways.  I’ve just written my 125th column, The Writers’ Idea Store, for the UK writers’ monthly magazine, Writers’ Forum. You do the maths – that’s over ten years!  (I have to pinch myself sometimes).  In that time I’ve written approximately 103,750 words – and I still haven’t run out of things to write about.

So where did I get the idea for The Idea Store from?

For many years I was a regular attendee at the wonderful Writers’ Holiday at Caerleon, a place where I made so many good friends and happy memories. (Writers’ Holiday is still going although it is now held at Fishguard.)

Apart from all the great courses and workshops (not to mention the amazing food)  they also held what they called After Tea Sessions, where people volunteered to give a talk (unpaid, of course) on a subject of their choice.

I was just beginning to sell my short stories at that time (thanks to a brilliant short story course I’d attended the previous year given by the lovely Lynne Hackles) so I thought I’d have a go at an After Tea talk. It was the first time I’d ever done any public speaking and thankfully quite a few people turned up, so I wasn’t talking to an empty room.  The subject of my talk was: Where do short story writers get their ideas from?

To prepare for it I contacted every short story writer I knew (and some I didn’t know) and asked them that same question.  I got such a good response that I ended up with enough material to give a whole week of talks!

When I got home, my copy of Writers’ Forum was waiting for me.  As I read it, I realised I could use all the material from my Caerleon talk and make it into an article.  Which I duly did.

Only, as I wrote, I realised I had enough material for more than one article.  So I wrote the first article and with the covering letter suggested I could maybe do a series  on the subject.

The editor, Carl Styants, thought my Idea Store sounded a good idea and that he’d see how it went.  And ten years later, it’s still going. Only now, I don’t just ask short story writers the dreaded question, but novelists, feature writers, poets.  Published or unpublished.  Everyone has a story to tell.  And most are happy to share it.

My little 40 minute unpaid talk paid off with a job that’s lasted over ten years – and still counting.  And whilst it hasn’t earned me a fortune, it’s a steady income and I’ve met some lovely people along the way.

Where did I get the idea for the title from?

I’ve now written over 400 short stories, serials and articles and having to think up titles for them all has been challenging at times. Sometimes I come up with one I’m really happy with, only to find the editor’s changed it.  I still smart at the memory of the short story with the title Here Comes Batman! that was changed to Oi! Boy Wonder! Other titles appear as if by magic.  My first published story was entitled Angels on Oil Drums, still one of my favourite titles.

But I have best selling author Neil Gaiman to thank for my Idea Store title.  Because when asked the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas from?” question, one of his replies was “From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis.”

And that was it. Wouldn’t it be great, I asked myself, if there really was an  Idea Store – the writers’ one stop shop?  And if you think that sounds vaguely like a certain well known furniture store, that is purely coincidental.

The format of the column has changed slightly over the years and I now include a Fiction Square which is very popular.  (More about that in a future blog post).  But mostly, it’s about me asking every writer I meet that most irritating of questions:

Where do you get your ideas from?

And if you ever feel like answering it, regarding your own work and would like to be featured in a future Idea Store, please get in touch.  I’d love to hear from you.  Either leave a comment below or contact me at ideastore@writers-forum.com