Monthly Archives: February 2015

Picking your plot


When it comes to plotting, how do you go about it?

Every writer, of course, has their own way of creating a story, but crime author, Stuart Neville, was recently asked the following question about plotting versus character building, and I thought it was worth flagging up:

Q: ‘When you’re writing, what do you create first – plot or character?’

Neville replied: “Plot is a consequence of the choices that characters make, so plot can’t exist without character.”

Author, Stuart Neville

Author, Stuart Neville

I liked this. It was clear and to the point. Often, we can get bogged down in creating the ‘perfect plot’ – I know I do – and I think Neville’s advice was simple but incredibly useful. If you consider character and plot as being intertwined rather than treating them as two separate entities, then your story will flow more easily and happen more naturally.

Really knowing your character(s) however, and placing them in particular situations and making them respond to those situations – to make decisions – will give you the beginnings of a plot. The consequence(s) of these decisions will subsequently lead to more situations, decisions and plot points – and so on and so forth.

As Neville said: “If a boulder rolls down a hill and hits a house, that isn’t plot. If someone pushes a boulder down a hill because he doesn’t like the person who owns the house, then that is a plot.”


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A cache of crime writers

(L-R) Stuart Neville, me, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

(L-R) Stuart Neville, me, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

This week I enjoyed a special evening of Northern Noir at my local library (you can read my review here on Culture NI) – as part of Libraries NI’s ‘Catch a Crime Writer’ event.

It was attended by Northern Irish authors, Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville and Steve Cavanagh, and they shared their stories of netting publishers, how they write and why.

I took a few things away from all this, but mostly it reminded me of the most important things of all about writing – NEVER give up. IMG_0427

McGilloway was informed (and not always nicely) by some publishers/agents that he would never make it as a crime writer – that he was nowhere near good enough. He’s now a New York Times bestseller… Newcomer to crime fiction, Steve Cavanagh, similarly suffered dozens of rejections from agents and was told the same. He’s set to publish his debut novel in the next month, with more planned.

If the writing’s good, then no matter what anyone says, hold onto it and don’t give up. Eimear McBride is, of course, a perfect recent example of this. She penned her prize-winning novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, back in 2004, and 10 years later… a tiny independent publisher finally picked it up. And now she has the publishing world at her feet.

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee)

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee)

As Eoin McNamee – Libraries NI writer in residence for March’s Creativity Month and a former Man Booker nominee – told me later in the week, you have to stay true to your own writing and if it’s publishable, then you’ll get published.

His advice? “Just put your head down.”



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Swimming in Stories

IMG_0431The best way to brighten up a chilly February is by snuggling up with a few good books of an evening – once work has been put to bed and the pet pooch has had his run of the dunes of course… And, with last week having been my birthday, it was books in abundance!

First up, I plunged into Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie – a book crammed full of first-hand experiences from a variety of published short story writers. There are tips aplenty but ultimately, this is a book which champions the short story and pulls together a lot of good advice in one handy volume. There’s no formula for writing the ‘perfect’ short story of course, and the book doesn’t suggest this at all, but it’s a great resource to have to hand I think – a bundle of creative writing classes stapled together for frequent perusal.IMG_0428

It’s also opened my eyes to the art of flash fiction and the tantalising challenge which lies in crafting a snippet of prose in this much more concentrated form, but more perhaps on that in a future post…

In the meantime, I’ve punctuated my reading about writing, to well, reading actual writing, and a varied mix it has been! This has included everything from the beautiful descriptive prose of Bernie McGill in Sleepwalkers, to the magic realism of Neil Gaiman in Smoke and Mirrors and the darker undertones of belfast noir – a collection of short stories by Northern Irish authors centred on Belfast and the unsettling stories lurking beneath this cityscape… (Four of these authors will be chatting about crime writing at my local library this week, so I very much look forward to hearing what they have to say about writing! I’ll keep you posted…)IMG_0427

I’ve also finally purchased Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, and have a little book of Irish stories to pore through, so I’ve more than enough to keep me going. From assessing styles and themes, to noting the language used, the narrative viewpoint and many other things, the more I read of short stories, the more I love them. Of course, it’s always by osmosis, I believe, that we really soak up the ‘rules of writing’ – only by swimming in stories, will we pick up the natural ‘knack’ of writing well.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, which I’m sure will pop up again here in the future!IMG_0430

“Short stories, by definition, are windows, perhaps a series of windows, a short chunk of life in motion, usually an extraordinary, compelling, or dramatically resonant stroboscopic snapshot of one or a few characters’ lives… their endings are of a different category to novels.”

Therein lies the challenge, and that is why those of us who love them, do.




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Writing for radio

Writing for radio is something that I’ve sometimes considered, but never pursued, so this week I listened with great interest at a free BBC workshop to do with just this. It was part of Belfast’s 360 Scriptwriting Festival which happens every year, when the BBC runs a week of workshops for people like me who are curious to find out more about this area of writing.

Now, to be honest, I thought the workshop I was attending – ‘From Fact to Fiction’ – was going to look at writing prose for radio, but it was actually drama. Which, as it happened, turned out to be great anyway. Our BBC Radio 4 writer (and Man Booker Prize nominee/established author) Eoin McNamee, chatted about what it means to write for radio, and even alluded to the old short story as well. 🙂

Not the best pic but... at my BBC radio scriptwriting workshop with Eoin McNamee

Not the best pic but… at my BBC radio scriptwriting workshop with Eoin McNamee

“There’s a strong relationship between a short story and a radio play,” he said. “I try to write the last page of a short story first – it means you’ve thought the idea through. This helps you see where the story’s going.”

Other handy tips we picked up were – using sound. Yes, it might, er, sound obvious, but when you’re writing drama for the radio, it isn’t, as Eoin told us, a play for the stage. Or a movie for the screen. You can have an aeroplane, a storm – anything that you can attach a sound to. That’s the brilliance of radio – you paint a picture through the soundscape and the words.

As for using real stories from the news to inspire radio plays, Eoin said: “Real stories have their own architecture. They take you places you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself. But – you’re also in danger of libel. There are moral issues as well. I struggled with this for a long time, until I realised I’m not a priest. My responsibility is to the fiction.

“If you get the story – the art right – the morality tends to follow with it.”

We were also told:

  • Don’t over-research – “When it’s finished, go back and check the facts. You kill the heart of it if you over-research.”
  • Don’t address issues directly – “Put the people (your characters) off to one side of the main events.”
  • Think of the constraints you have regarding cast – probably around three to four actors.
  • Duration – these Radio 4 dramas are just 12 minutes long.

IMG_0396“Radio is immune to the form and structure of a TV movie,” said Eoin. “Think about sounds you can use and can create. It’s not a stage play – there’s no constraints.”

It definitely gave me some food for thought… Perhaps I’ll try my hand at a short radio piece next…





Going back to fiction, today I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Why? Well, I watched a documentary on Lewis Carroll last night, which was made to mark the 150th anniversary of the story, and of course, it made me want to go back and remind myself of what this highly lauded book was like.

I have to admit – it’s never been one of my favourite children’s stories and that’s coming from someone who loves fantasy tales and the weird and wonderful. Reading the books again, I think my main issue is this – IT’S ALL A DREAM!!IMG_0399

Whether you believe creative writing can be taught or not, everyone knows that the cardinal sin in writing fiction (surely) is coming to the end of a book and finding out that it was, yes – all a dream. She didn’t actually have any adventures. It was all in her head. Twice.

It’s a bit annoying and the nonsensical stuff also grates on me a little, but then, that’s dreams for you. I’ve never been one for dream stories, so maybe that’s why I’ve never loved this duo of books. I like it and I did enjoy revisiting the stories again today but… I think Catherynne M Valente’s modern-day ‘Alice’ stories with September in her children’s fairyland novels, is more me. What do you think? 🙂



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