Generating Writing Ideas

200 word story books

Some of my favourite books that inspired my stories

One of the questions writers are asked most often is, where do you get your ideas?

At the Newcastle Writers’ Festival I went to a great session on Microfiction where author Susan McCreery talked about her New Year’s resolution to write a 200 word story a day for the year 2015. And that’s what she did. Just imagine – 365 stories in one year! Sloopholespineless Wonders published over 30 of them in a gem of a microfiction collection called Loopholes.

I don’t know how she kept generating new ideas every day, but the thought of gradually building up a collection in this way excited me. What’s 200 words? Bah, nothing! But instead of an anxiously-long 12 months I would do it for 30 days – after all it only takes 21 days to create a habit so who knows what could happen.

Then I got this idea! What if every day I took one of my favourite books from the shelf or a short story I love, opened a page at random and selected a phrase, a paragraph, or a concept, or even some interesting thought the reading triggered, and wrote 200 words inspired by it? It could be like a little conversation with the authors I love. I immediately knew what my first book was going to be: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

That night a friend posted on Facebook that she had been given a book containing 365 daily writing exercises. So she was going to start doing a short piece of writing every day and wondered if anyone would like to join her. How’s that for serendipity!

But I was so looking forward to re-connecting with Virginia Woolf and my other old friends that I stuck to my original idea.

I’m now up to Day 17.

There have been so many unexpected pleasures. The pleasure of running my finger along the shelf and rediscovering books I had forgotten. The anticipation of opening it up and finding a perfect treasure. Of getting lost in the reading and remembering why I loved it in the first place. It didn’t take me long to realise that if I chose my book first thing in the morning I could let the little morsel I discovered bubble away at the back of my mind and when I sat down to write my words flowed faster and easier.

One morning I didn’t choose a book. My husband sent a text message that gave me such a brilliant idea I used that instead. I’ve always gone with “write where the excitement is” so for Day 8 a text inspired my 200 word story. It only came out at 100 words. Writing rules are guidelines only, right? But Day 11’s story finished at 1000 words so you can see there’s lots of flexibility here. Whatever gets you writing…

So do I have 17 brilliant stories? Of course not. I wrote them in 20 minutes. But what I do have are a handful of delicate buds that with work and nurturing might blossom into something fine.

It occurred to me that I might be in my own short story writer’s version of NaNoWriMo. DaShoStoWri? (Daily Short Story Writing) Nah, doesn’t really have the same ring.

Why don’t you give it a go, too? Now! Daily! And no need to wait for November.

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Lose the writing doubts

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A writer friend asked me if I would be her accountability partner. She has nearly completed her “autobiographical novel,” a beautifully crafted, honest and moving story of love, belonging and tragedy. She now rings me every Friday, and for half an hour she tells me what she has achieved for that week and what she plans to do for the next.

The first week she was beset by doubts about whether what she was doing was worthwhile. She was very contrite because she hadn’t done any actual writing. But she had achieved huge breakthroughs in her thinking, made inspired connections and links in her material, and gained a greater understanding of what her latest draft meant. I couldn’t believe she was even questioning the value of this week’s work, or her ability to do something with it.

And in listening to her I suddenly realised it’s been over a year since I felt that crippling doubt about whether what I was writing was any good, if I was wasting my time, if my writing was self-indulgent, or worthwhile. After we hung up I wondered why I didn’t feel like this anymore.

One night, nearly 2 years ago, I was reading a “tips from writers” article and I came across a writer – I think it was Neil Gaimon – who only had three words of advice, “JUST DO IT.” Now I’d seen that advice many times before but I think this time I was so frustrated and annoyed with my continually crippling state of anguish that the message finally hit me.

About the same time, I heard a conversation between Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. Cameron said that writing is like wearing loose pyjamas.

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Billie Dove

I’ve written about this elsewhere on the blog so I won’t go into details now. You can look it up here. What it offered was a way of writing that was casual and carefree, without the crippling expectation of producing something of value and worthiness.

So I JUST DID IT. I wrote for fun, pushed away the doubts, and had no aim to produce anything worth publishing. I just wrote. And I loved it!

And the funny thing was my stories started to finish themselves instead of lying in folders waiting for the final revision. And when I sent them off – filing them in competition and publishers’ piles instead of my drawers – some of them won awards, and others found publishers. And of course, that’s a huge motivator.

But so was learning that the most prolific writers, the ones who produce the largest quantity of good writing, are also the ones who produce the largest amount of poor writing.

Perhaps I had to go through that self-doubt stage to reach this next one. It’s not that I don’t have doubts anymore, it’s more that they don’t get in the way. I can now ignore the crippling personal doubts and concentrate on the doubts about my work. They’re usually pointers to the problems in my story, and are invaluable.

So that’s what I told my friend: wear loose pyjamas and JUST DO IT.

I hope she still rings me next week…

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Writing Colour

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Menindi by Virginia Hanlon,

This week I watched my friend Virginia, an intuitive painter, throw aquamarine and cobalt blue onto a green, purple and vermilion background, and then spray on water so the gleaming paint dripped down the canvas like rain. I could drown in the depth and layers of colour in her paintings.

I started to think how much writing is like painting, except words are our medium. How what we’re trying to do is show the reader a picture: images of the world of our story and the people in it. And how much colour plays a part in brightening it.

Later that night I came across a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles which painted colour with words:

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… we saw a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow, and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling yellow here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.

A green sky? Violet earth? It takes careful observation to see what is really there in front of us rather than what we believe should be there. This past week with the fires raging out of control to the north of us, the sea was burnt sienna.

So I’ve been looking at writers’ use of colour.

Any common object that has a stable colour can be used as a colour word. Look at the way Josephine Rowe uses colour  in her short story Glisk which won the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short story prize in 2016 to describe her character’s hair.wheat

Fynn arrives on a Saturday morning with one duffel bag, his blondeness gone to seed, hair brushing the collar of the bomber jacket he wears in spite of the January heat.

Colour that come from objects or living things are often metaphorical. This extract from Donna Meehan’s story of an aboriginal girl taken away from her family uses blue to colour this heart-breaking scene. And the image of Mum waving a white hanky is loaded with symbolism.

There was my mum in her only good blue dress standing next to my aunts and our old grandmother. Just standing there. Standing there with tears rolling down their cheeks too fast even to wipe them away. Then Mum waved a white hanky and I pressed my face against the windowpane as hard as I could, watching her. Watching until her blue dress faded into a tiny blue daub of colour.

Look at the colour metaphors in Jean Toomer’s Cane.

Sempter’s streets are vacant and still. White paint on the wealthier houses is a chill blue glitter of distant stars. Negro cabins are a purple blur. Broad Street is deserted.

Colour can accurately depict a situation, as in Lucy Treloar’s story, Natural Selection. Kate’s obsession with her son blinds her to effect this has on her daughter Rosie.large_coorong_sunset

Everywhere Kate looked was saltbush and sea beneath a pan of impossible blue sky. She lifted her face and felt the white light fall on her and let it burn away the thought of Rosie sunk in the black hole of her room.

Character and situation are revealed through the use of colour in Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room, about a visit from a friend, the colour of her skin hinting of her cancer.

I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for colour, and pink is flattering even to skin that is turned yellowish.

Nouns and verbs have a stronger impact than adjectives. For stronger writing use nouns that carry their colour – plum, ebony, salmon – and colour verbs – the fire reddens sky. Keep colour adjectives to a minimum to avoid purpling your prose.(Sorry, bad pun.)

If you come across a great example in your reading of how colour is used I’d love to hear from you.3-turner

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Man Booker Winner 2016

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I heard Paul Beatty talking about his novel The Sellout on Radio National’s Books and Arts . It’s an insightful interview by Sky Kirkham.

The Australian Independent Bookseller had this to say about the novel that won this year’s Man Booker:

A biting American satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.

Born in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout is raised by his single father, a controversial sociologist, and spends his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. Led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, he is shocked to discover, after his father is killed in a police shoot-out, that there never was a memoir. In fact, all that’s left is the bill for a drive-through funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: his hometown Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school.

What follows is a remarkable journey that challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

It’s on my reading list now. And I can’t resist Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk either.

What with Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek, it’s an exciting year for writing!

What new writing have you loved this year? Have you read any of the 2016 Man Booker Shortlist? What did you think of the choice?

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Big Journey of a Little Fiction

Who would have believed that one little 200 word story could travel so far? Other stories I’ve had published, 20 times as big, live in the dark pages on my bookshelf after their five minutes in the spotlight. ‘Koi’ keeps getting asked out as if she’s the popular girl on Tinder.

When ‘Koi’ was shortlisted for the Newcastle Writers’ Festival Microlit short story award, director Richard Holt made a movie about her. (Drum roll) ‘Koi’ won the Oscar, and her movie was screened at the iconic Civic Theatre. If you haven’t seen it yet you can watch it here.

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Little Fictions  –     Sydney Stories

A month later she was invited to the Sydney Writers’ Festival session of Little Fictions’ Sydney Stories at the Knox St Bar, and read by actor, Holly Myers, to a full house.

This month ‘Koi’ came back from the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and the launch of the Award Winning Australian Writing 2016 anthology published by Melbourne Books in which she’s included. The launch was held at the grand sandstone Athenaeum Library in Collins Street, which somewhat made up for having to be read by the author instead of a professional actor.

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launch @ Athenaeum Library

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The Books!

This week ‘Koi’ has learned she’s performing with Spineless Wonders at Book Expo Australia 2016 in Sydney on the 8 – 9th October. She will be part of the initiative called story phone. You pick up the handset of a 70s
style push-button phonetelephone and press a number to listen to one of nine stories.

As a work of fiction ‘Koi’ may be tiny, but the opportunities and possibilities for micro-fiction are enormous and excitingly varied. As you can see from Koi’s journey.

Want to try your hand at writing short fiction? See What is Microlit? for writing tips.

And then check out the burgeoning avenues for microfiction, including creative short fiction publisher Spineless Wonders.

 

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Artist Date

carriageworksWhen I ask my inner artist on a date to Carriageworks to see Francesco Clemente’s exhibition Encampment, my critic says dryly, ‘How imaginative! Taking your artist to an art space.’

Does my critic ever wonder why I never invite her?

I plan it carefully. I’ve never been there before. Train from Museum Station to Redfern and a short walk from there. The taxi my artist hails dropped us off at the door.

Carriageworks takes up disused railway sheds.  Clemente’s exhibition includes six family size tents pitched inside a very industrial cavernous space, and there’s still room for a cricket game.

 

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The Museum Tent

My artist heads straight into the first tent before she’s even read the artist’s statement on the wall.

‘We don’t know what this tent is supposed to represent,’ I say.

‘Try to feel it,’ she says. I feel she thinks I’m a bit of a pain.

One of the gallery guides gives me a catalogue but my artist won’t let me look at it. She takes my hand and we walk around each tent, noting the words and symbols embroidered in gold thread, from the prehistoric hand-print to suits from a deck of cards, and woodblock printed fabric in a pattern that remind me of army camouflage.

Inside the tents my artist makes me stand and look at the tempera washed walls for longer than the 4 seconds studies have shown is customary for viewers. The Angel tent gains a new angel.

 

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The Angel Tent

The Devil Tent is full of disturbing men in Victorian dress and top hats with erect penises.  My artist has a theory about why I think Victorian males seem particularly evil but I forbade her tell you about it. But the overwhelming fear for me here is about powerlessness.

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The Devil Tent

Then we move on to the Taking Refuge Tent. It is dark and frighteningly secretive inside. No  moral Australian can fail to read a fitting metaphor here and not feel shame.  My artist suddenly wants a stiff drink at the bar near the entrance but I drag her on.

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The Take Refuge Tent

My spirits are so lifted by the Pepper Tent I can’t stop smiling. The sun comes through the skylights and shines on the ceiling making the colours luminescent. See those two sneaking a kiss behind the pole?

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The Pepper Tent 

In the bar we try to make our own sense of what Encampment is saying. It makes me think of moving through Jung’s rooms that represent aspects of our personality. From rooms where our shadow selves live into places of lightness. It’s about impermanence, my artist says, tents pack up and move on. It’s like a constant journey.

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We read the catalogue.

For Clemente the work is about moments of transition. His work demands that the viewer moves from suffering to joy, from place to place, from physical to spiritual ecstasy. Never settling in one place, or on one interpretation.  ‘It’s never supposed to be a beginning or an ending; it’s supposed to be a transition.’ Like the substance of life itself.

Like the  best short stories, my artist says.

We stroll through the lanes of terrace houses in Redfern to the train station, holding hands, dreaming about what an encampment of short stories could look like.

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What is Microlit?

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Short shorts/ microlit/ flash fiction/ microfiction/ very short stories, by any other name would be as… umm… short.

The deadline for the national Newcastle Writers’ Festival/Joanne Burns Award 2016 is gaining on us – 31st August. See details here.

That might seem like ages away when you only need 200 words but great microlit has its own set of challenges.

What are the main challenges of writing such short pieces?

  • An idea must be distilled into a ‘micro’-cosm, the essence of the idea that doesn’t lose its full flavour.
  • Just like longer works the short form needs time: time to think, write, rewrite, think again, revise, edit.
  • Every single word and phrase has to earn its place in the story, and most will carry more than one meaning.
  • Imagery is important to all writing, but none more than microlit. A single image can save you hundreds of words. Writing is a visual art; paint pictures with words.
  • Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through.
  • The micro-story has to say something. There has to be some deeper resonance or narrative insight. There must be the feeling that something important happens, otherwise it’s an anecdote or vignette.
  • relinquish neatly tied-up conclusions for endings that keep the reader wondering about the story long after he/she reads the last word.

This post is already 50 words longer than the flash story you will enter in the competition. Did I mention the challenge of keeping to the word count?

So start writing now! Have fun and good luck!

 

 

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Award Winning Australian Writing 2016

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Last Thursday I got the exciting news my story ‘Koi’, which won the Inaugural Newcastle Writers’s Festival Microlit Competition has been selected for the Award Winning Australian Writing 2016 anthology!

And to top it off a writer I work closely with, Maree Gallop, had her story accepted, too! It’s the moving story ‘The Scent of Life’ which won the Forest Fellowship of Australian Writers Short Story Competition.

The book is being launched on 31st August during Melbourne Writers’ Festival week!

The skies above Newcastle are full of flying champagne corks!

 

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Speech Recognition Software

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Over the past year I’ve noticed that my hands and wrists are becoming sore from typing. Not just the soreness from overuse but there’s been some nerve pain too. So I started looking up speech recognition software on the Internet, reading reviews and talking to friends who use them in their offices.

I didn’t hold out much hope for me in the speech recognition department because my SIRI always wants to order me a pizza when I ask her to ring my friend Elise.

The one everyone recommended was Dragon Speaking so this morning I went down to Officeworks and brought it. At $249 it wasn’t cheap. It’s cheaper on the internet but my hands didn’t want to wait. As soon as I got home I downloaded it onto my computer. No problems. I did the tutorial. I found it easy to follow.

And then I put it through its paces. I’d been working on a story that needed the last bits of editing done. There were a few little teething problems. Mine, not its. My problem was not knowing what the commands were to move the mouse up or down, how to delete certain words, how to select words. As I worked through the help menu or the sample commands in the instructions I started to get into the swing of things. A lot of the commands are intuitive.

After an hour and a half, including downloading and doing the tutorial, I finished editing my story … and I’ve written this blog. It is definitely quicker than typing.

What I have noticed is there is a fine difference in the way I write sentences with speech recognition software. Because the software likes you to speak in sentences I have to form my sentences before I write them rather than let them form AS I write them. Whether this will have any bearing on the way I write I’m not sure yet.dragon (2)

Unlike SIRI, this guy gets me. In that hour and a half he probably only misunderstood five words I said. It’s only early days yet, but I’m looking forward to getting to know him better and to a long and painless relationship.

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THE NWF/JOANNE BURNS AWARD 2016

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It’s time again for the Microlit Award jointly-sponsored by the Newcastle Writers Festival and Spineless Wonders.

Finalists in 2015 saw their work made into visual presentations. Very exciting! Check out my winning story under ‘videos’ here.

In 2016 finalists will be considered for publication in an anthology, and in another innovative multi-platform spectacular selected stories will be included in Spineless Wonders’ #storybombingNWF17 project.

Theme: LANDMARKS

Length: 200 word max.

Closing date: Aug 31

The 2016 joanne burns Microlit Award will compromise both national and local categories. The national category, open to Australian citizens living anywhere and to any person residing in Australia, will be judged by the award-winning writer, scholar and critic, Cassandra Atherton. The Newcastle category, open to Hunter residents, will be  judged by Joanna Atherfold Finn and winner of the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival Microlit Competition, Karen Whitelaw.

Winners of both categories will receive cash prizes of $300.

We are looking for  writing which responds imaginatively to the theme of ‘landmarks’. Landmarks may be critical or celebratory, watershed moments or turning points in history and culture or in relationships. There are literal landmarks and marks on the land(scape). Interpret the theme as broadly as you wish, using any tone, from the serious to satirical, from whimsical to witty.

Microlit includes any form of short writing such as flash fiction, prose poem, dramatic monologue etc. Please note that we do not accept poems with line breaks for this competition.

Details are available here.

Good luck!

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