Viva Venezia! – and the Art of People Watching

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I got a bit snap happy as round every corner was another photo opportunity.

I LOVE city breaks and over the last few years I’ve been lucky to visit some of the most exciting cities in Europe. I’ll go anywhere to experience new sights and learn new things but there are particular cities that have always been on my travel wish list.

One of them was Venice and I finally managed to tick it off the list last weekend. With such high expectations it would’ve been easy to be disappointed but thankfully Venice lived up to its reputation of being one of the most stunning cities in the world. We only had three days to explore and this meant we could only scratch the surface of Venice’s many attractions.

But apart from cramming in as much sightseeing as time (and my feet!) would allow, one of the bonuses of the break was to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes – people watching (everyone needs a hobby!)

i_m_watching_you_Noticing the idiosyncrasies of those around you is an essential activity for a writer. Being aware of a person’s mannerisms and eavesdropping on conversations can prompt a story idea or descriptive scene.

I’ve recently dabbled again in one of my other favourite pastimes – writing flash fiction, and I’m sure some of my observations will find their way into a piece of writing. My most recent 75 word story was featured on Paragraph Planet while I was in Venice and appropriately enough it includes an Italian cheese! If you missed it online, here it is but be warned, it’s best not to read it before eating!

A Taste of Home

The door slammed, he was home. Drunk. Again.

‘Is the spag bol ready?’

‘It’ll be a few more minutes; I need to nip to the loo first.’

I smoothed Arinca cream over the purple yellow bruise on my arm. Sitting on the loo seat, I got busy with the nail clippers and file. I was pleased with the handful of powdery flakes my toe nails produced.

‘Some parmesan?’

I sprinkled generously.

My people watching expedition started at the airport and really went up a gear when a woman sat next to me on the plane and I witnessed an annoying habit that was a new one on me. She spent the entire flight pulling fluff from her mohair jumper. I was glad the flight was only 2 & 1/4 hours long!

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The ‘wow!’ factor.

We were in the right place at the right time in Venice when we got caught up in the celebrations of St Mark and Piazzo San Marco filled with flag waving locals chanting, “Viva San Marco!” The square was buzzing and when we reached the top of the campanile we witnessed an aerial view of a massive flag being unfurled. The most amazing sight though was right beside me, a father and son ignored this once a year spectacle to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones. The boy played a game and the father scrolled through Facebook updates.

Felt I had to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

Felt  obliged to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

On the vaporetto to Burano, a man decided to treat his fellow passengers to a ‘song’ with no words, no tune and at a high volume. Only he and his pal who was filming it seemed entertained.

There were lots of other weird and wonderful behaviours on show that I took in while roaming around Venice and it’s certainly true that there’s nowt as queer as folk.

Only the week before our trip I went to hear Irvine Welsh at the Aye Write! Festival and he mentioned that he often does a complete circuit of a city’s subway route to see how folk act, dress and talk.

Do you also find people watching feeds your writing?

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Love is in the Air

10615502_759935190742545_4776851674993844753_nFor the third time, I went along to Woo’er with Words with my bestie and I was one of 16 local writers who took part in the monthly spoken word event held in Falkirk. It’s organised by [Untitled] to give writers an opportunity to read their poems and short stories in public. It’s a lovely set-up with a very casual, laid-back atmosphere to experiment with new writing and practise reading aloud. It’s also a great chance to meet like-minded folk and make new friends.

Love_HurtsThere’s a theme for each month and as it’s so close to Valentine’s Day, the obvious choice was ‘love’.  I decided to challenge myself to do something out of my comfort zone. I don’t read or write poetry but at a recent workshop, I was given the task of writing a list poem starting with, ‘Who here has… ?’.  The idea seemed simple enough so I thought even I could manage to come up with something about love. My poem is called ‘Crazy Little Thing’ as I’m intrigued by the things people do and say with the pretext of love. I wanted to hint at the flip side of love when it can morph from being positive to negative when protective turns into being possessive. I’m not convinced my poem worked and it’s probably a one-off for me (some might be glad to hear) and I’ll stick to fiction but it was worth dabbling with something different.

logo4 copyI also read out a piece of flash fiction I’d recently submitted to Paragraph Planet. I enjoy writing flash fiction and regularly submit to the Paragraph Planet as I like the discipline of keeping within the rigid word count and have often found that the short pieces have sparked an idea for something much longer.  It’s a great cure for writer’s block. The website has been publishing one 75-word paragraph every day since November 2008. Famous authors and aspiring writers have all got involved, submitting a mixture of twist-in-the-tale flash fiction. My latest offering has been submitted in the hope that they might feature it on Valentine’s Day. If it doesn’t get selected, you can get a preview (or only view!) here.

No Rhymes or Roses

I stood at the window but the postman’s van sped past the house in a flash of red.  There was no thump of mail on the doormat so no need to check for a card.

The single tear rolled down my cheek.

My brother shook his head.

“I don’t understand why you’re upset, there’s nothing special about Valentine’s Day, no one loves you on the other days of the year either.”

Have you written a love themed poem or story? Do you have a local opportunity to experiment and share your writing?

The Highs and Lows of my Writing Year

1473055_612428212125677_1989818867_nIt’s been an interesting year as far as my writing goes with a couple real yippee moments but also a few harsh kicks in the teeth. I’d hoped that 2013 would be my year and all those hours locked away with my laptop wouldn’t have been better spent watching The Great British Bake Off (at least I might have been able to eat the results of my hard work).

I started 2013 raring to go on my 3rd novel and for the first time I used the ‘freefall’ method. This has its good and bad points with the main bonus being that you quickly get the story down on paper (or screen in my case) so it’s great for keeping up momentum BUT when you finish and begin editing there’s a LOT of work to be done. I naively believed that I’d be able to finish editing by the end of the year but no matter how much I wanted to reach my goal,  I soon realised that my target was unachievable if I wanted to give it my best effort. Patience is a virtue which I don’t possess, I want to get it out there and also I’m keen to develop ideas I’ve had for my next novel (ask any writer, there’s always a next one…).

ups-downs-in-life-278x278Of course, I WILL finish editing at some point (hopefully early in 2014) but annoyingly it’s taken a lot longer than I’d like. Because I’ve dedicated my time to the novel, I decided to put writing short stories on hold this year. However, I submitted a story I wrote a while ago and was chuffed to bits to have it published in Gutter magazine. That was no2 in my top highlights of the year as I’d been unsuccessful in my previous submission and to have a piece in Gutter is to be in prestigious writing company.

Midsummer, it felt like it was all happening! The no1 high of my writing year had to be making the shortlist of the Hookline Novel Competition.  I was skipping round my bedroom singing The Only Way is Up (takes me back to hearing Yazz played on a constant loop in Kavos in 1988). It was an anxious wait to see if my last novel would be selected by book groups to be published by Hookline but unfortunately the bubble burst. I didn’t make it so it was a bittersweet high that became the no2 low of my writing year.

And the no1 low? Being unsuccessful in my application for the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award, making the shortlist might have taken the edge off the disappointment but that didn’t happen either. The standard knock-back states that, “due to the high volume of applications we are unable to give individual feedback.” This is frustrating because this was my second attempt and I’m none the wiser as to how I could improve my chances next time.

imagesAnd will there be a next time? If the truth be told that despite positive experiences with Hookline, Gutter, Paragraph Planet and inspiration from seeing other wannabe writers succeed, I’m at an all-time low as far as my hope of achieving a career as a writer. I first blogged about my writing journey in 2011 when I began my MLitt course but I was on the long and winding route years before uni. I’d already been on two Arvon courses, written three novels, had a handful of stories published and yet although I’ve made progress, I’m wondering if being a published novelist will ever happen. What’s a girl (okay, forty something woman) to do???

When the latest rejection hit home there was a lot of, “Why am I bothering?” moans and groans. It’s not easy to constantly bounce back and keep telling yourself (and try to convince family and friends that you’re not delusional) that it’ll happen one day and maybe this latest novel is the ONE.

It took my hubby to point out that I was always writing the novel for me, for pleasure, not to win an award, a competition or even get published. The man talks sense. Seeking external approval is not why I started writing in the first place and it’s why I’ll keep going, no matter how many knock-backs 2014 brings…

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Using the Past to Write about the Present

images (3)Continuing with my summer series of posts on places I’ve visited for inspiration and determined to get my money’s worth out of my membership to the National Trust for Scotland, I recently visited Castle Campbell in Dollar, a 15th century fortress (I’ve also visited Falkland Palace and The Pineapple in Airth but I’ll maybe save those for another post…).

The castle has a dramatic setting high above Dollar Glen and unless your car brakes have been recently checked, don’t even think about trying to drive there as it’s a white-knuckle ride on the way down the steep single track road. Then there’s a 500m 1:8 gradient walk to the castle itself so don’t wear high heels!

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Wondering who has climbed the spiral staircase all those years before me.

I’ve been to the castle grounds several times before but have been too tight-fisted to cough up the entrance fee as it looked like it was mainly ruins and the money would be better spent on lunch (food always takes priority!). But, although the castle is in the care of Historic Scotland, our NTS membership got us in for free so we’d nothing to lose by adding a wander round to our day out.

I don’t write historical fiction and I don’t read a lot of it either and yet that doesn’t mean that a Lowland stronghold for a Highland chief lacked inspiration for my own contemporary writing. People watching is a favourite hobby of mine and there was no shortage of folk to observe.

There was the dour faced dad who looked like he’d rather be in front of the telly than drag his weans round the ruin when all they seemed interested in was making ghostly,”WoooooooOOOOoooOOOoWwwwooooooOOOOOOOOO” noises running up and down the 85 steps of the spiral stairs. Thankfully, there was peace outside, the gardens are a lovely picnic spot and one brave family tried to ignore the black clouds overhead but the Scottish ‘summer’ beat them and it was soggy sandwiches all round.

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It was a dreich day but with a backdrop of the Ochil hills, the view from the Tower House ramparts over Clackmannanshire was still impressive. Up 20m high, we were surrounded by ancient trees and it felt like we were in the rain-forest, but with midges rather than monkeys surrounding us. A kestrel swooped right past us and down in the courtyard a swallow was nesting in the gap above a doorway.

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A keek inside the creepy  ‘pit prison’ in the Tower House.

The building itself must hold 600 hundred years of stories and secrets within its stone walls. I admire writers of historical fiction for their ability to research the facts as well as create an interesting tale. At Castle Campbell, I found it hard to truly imagine what life would’ve been like behind the castle walls and wouldn’t dare attempt to write about that period in history. But I was inspired to write when I got home, although it was from a contemporary perspective.

I scribbled something down and on the spur of the moment, I submitted it to Paragraph Planet, a creative writing website which publishes a different 75 word paragraph daily (I haven’t heard yet if it will be used although only 1 in 8 submissions appear on the website. But published or not, and however short, every scrap of writing is good practice). Here’s my wee mini story, not a ghost story but just as dark.

Say Cheese

The castle’s information panel described it as a ‘pit prison’. It was a hole underneath the floor with a trapdoor. It was no bigger than a double wardrobe. He marvelled at how anyone could survive in such a small dark space. He shoved me up against the wall to pose for a photo of our day out and told me to smile for the camera. I knew how it felt to be trapped.

Are you a reader or writer of historical fiction? Do you find old buildings inspiring too? Where have you been over the summer that has influenced your writing?

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Clearing Writer’s Block

My last blog post was all about me not writing a single word following my MLitt dissertation and feeling guilty about still calling myself a writer. I received lots of reassuring messages that there was no need to beat myself up about it and just to take my time and get back to writing when I was ready.

One of the main reasons excuses that I had for not churning out a daily word count was my search for a new day job.  My wee brain can only cope with so much at one time so I’ve been preoccupied with researching and preparing for a new role that involves numbers not words.

Because I’m a self-confessed control freak, this means that I can relax a bit now that one area of my life is sorted and I can get back to writing.  Whoop whoop! But after a break, how do you flex those creative muscles again? My answer was to do a warm-up exercise (the only fitness regime I follow!)by submitting a 75 word story to the Paragraph Planet website.  This site thrives on variety, what you write is up to you. It might be a moment captured, it could be an intriguing section of a novel in progress, or it might be a short, short story.

I’ve now been featured on their site 5 times and I’m always excited to see my writing published online.  If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, I highly recommend giving Paragraph Planet’s challenge a go. It’s certainly helped get me thinking again about what I want to write and now I plan to flesh out the 75 words into something much bigger.

My story is called ‘Saturday Market’ and although writing a mere 75 words is not much to shout about at least it’s a start and a step in the write (sorry, couldn’t resist it) direction. 75+75+75… all adds up.  This is the story which could grow and grow…

Saturday Market

“Try them on in the back of the van darlin’.”

I nudged Lorraine and she climbed inside the rusty Transit. I followed and closed the van’s door. Almost.  Lorraine peeled off her leggings like a second skin. She lay on her back to yank the skinny jeans up over her chunky hips. I sat on my hunkers.

We knew he was watching. Lorraine’s giggles turned to snorts.

“Let’s give him a proper show.”

Do you have any tried and tested writing workouts which help get you motivated to keep writing and whip you into shape?

Flash Fiction

Being only five foot tall, I’ve always sworn by the expression that good things come in small packages. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing flash fiction.  For anyone who hasn’t come across the term ‘flash fiction’ before, it doesn’t refer to a story about a comic book superhero but is fiction which aims to prove that it’s not the quantity but the quality that counts.

"My name is Wally West. I'm the fastest man alive."

Flash fiction is normally between 300-1000 words long and has become increasingly popular for various reasons.  In this modern, digitized world the gap between readers and those who can’t allow time for such a luxury continues to grow. Someone who believes they cannot read for pleasure is unlikely to pick up a full length novel. But what they can do, however, is click on a link offered by a friend, or website. This is why flash fiction, one of the most ancient forms of prose, has found new life in the digital era.

I’ve been dabbling in flash fiction recently to try to master the art of doing a lot with a little. The uni assignment I’ve been working on this week was to write 4000 words of an A to Z on any topic in sections of around 153 words each. The challenge was to examine different facets of a subject and my relationship to it. I chose to write about my childhood and treated the exercise as 26 pieces of flash fiction.  Out of all the assignments so far for the MLitt, this has got to be my favourite.

An example of my flash fiction is published on the Paragraph Planet website. The idea behind the website is to write a short piece exactly 75 words long including the title. It might be a moment captured, it could be an intriguing section of a novel  in progress, or it might be a short, short story. I submitted a piece called, ‘Roadkill’ and you can read it here (7th of April entry in the archive).

I think flash fiction’s low word count is a great way to improve my writing by making me think about the importance of every word in a story. It also gives me the freedom to experiment without the commitment of a large project. Let me know if you’re a lover of flash fiction as a writer or a reader.

P.S. In the spirit of flash fiction, this is my shortest blog post yet!