Friday, 19 August 2016

Creative Spark Week 8 - Flirting with Subtext

By Jason Donald

When writing prose, you should aim to have tension in every single scene. The more tension you build, the more engaging it becomes for the reader. But how, you may ask, do you place tension in every scene?

One very effective method is to use subtext. Subtext is whatever is going on beneath the surface of a scene in a story. For example, a husband and wife may be discussing who will take the kids to school, they are both being extremely polite to each other, however the reader gets the sense they are on the verge of divorce. What the characters are saying is on the surface, while their feelings are below the surface. Their feelings are the subtext. This difference between what characters say and feel is what creates the tension in the scene and the reader is engaged because they have to figure out what is really going on. So, creating a subtext creates tension, which creates a better scene.

Creating subtext is a two-fold process. So let’s begin by writing the ‘surface level’ of a scene.

First Exercise:

1) Choose two characters. Name them.

2) Imagine the characters are in the kitchen sharing a task. For example: washing the dishes together, making cocktails, preparing food, clearing up after a party.

3) Imagine what they would say to each other and write a short scene.

NOTE: Focus on the dialogue. Deliberately try to keep the dialogue very banal and straightforward. For example: “Is there any more ice?” or “Wait a minute, I’ll need to put these glasses in the dishwasher.”

As you re-read your scene, you may be worried that it feels flat. And you would be right! A good rule of thumb for spotting flat, unengaging writing might be this: If a scene is about what a scene is about, then you’re in trouble!

Flat, surface level dialogue is called writing ‘on the nose’. This is when characters say exactly what they mean. This may be fine when a character says, “Pass the salt.” But when it comes to more complex emotional issues, people in the real world rarely say exactly what’s on their mind. In fact, people almost never explicitly talk about their problems. Instead, they misdirect, threaten or negotiate to avoid dealing with the issue head on.

This is especially true when comes to expressing sexual desire. Flirtation is all about the subtext: you want to drop heavy hints without explicitly describing your desire. The same is true of a relationship breaking up. Most arguments are triggered by surface level things like hanging up the bathroom towels, while the real issues of anger, betrayal, disappointment or emotional projection are not explicitly addressed.

Now, let’s add the second layer to the scene you wrote: the subtext.

Second Exercise:

1) Take the two characters from the scene you wrote in the First Exercise and decide what kind of sexual energy exists between them. Make notes about what is going on within each character. For example:

- A and B are in love with each other and are hoping to kiss for the first time

- A has a crush on B and is trying to find out if the feeling is mutual

- A and B were once lovers but they now despise each other.

2) Without changing the dialogue, re-write the scene from the First Exercise while suggesting the sexual energy between the characters.

NOTE: Focus on the character’s movements and on how they say their lines of dialogue. Explore ways to reveal the character’s inner worlds without naming any emotions. Make the readers feel what the characters are going through.

3) Don’t worry if scene sounds like an innuendo laden scene from a ‘Carry On…’ film! It’s all subtext. Play with the scene. Have fun! Re-write it again, keeping the same dialogue, but this time make the characters hate each other.

Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, (Jonathan Cape) was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award. His second novel, Dalila, (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) will be available from Jan 2017. He lives in Switzerland.

All images courtesy of Julie Lewis

Friday, 12 August 2016

Creative Spark Week 7 - Polish Your Prose

Polish Your Prose by Tightening Descriptions Exercise
by Jessica Bell

Too much description and you risk boring your reader. Too little description and your reader has no environment in which to visualize your characters. But it really is a fine line, and depends so much on personal taste.
Being a poet as well as a novelist, I adore description. And I have to admit, I go overboard sometimes. But my “description binges” are always calculated. And more often than not, I cut them down to at least half the original length. There are two ways you can do this. I suggest you implement both for variety of pace.

1. Identify which parts of your book are purely “decorative” and/or have little or no relevance to your setting and plot and evaluate how important they are to you. You don’t need to get rid of them all. Just find a balance you’re comfortable with. Trust your instincts. And I say don’t take that “kill your darlings” stuff too seriously. If everyone killed all their darlings, they’d have no family left.

2. Extract a big chunk of description and break it down into rational stand-alone segments or sentences. Then incorporate them into some action.

Look at SEGMENT No.1 below, for instance. Here we have an example of action, an example of description, and an example of the same piece of action and description combined:

“I can’t believe Selma’s gone.” John runs his fingertips along the fence before opening the gate.

Isolated segment of description:
Rusty wire fencing borders the abandoned paddock. The gate is squeaky. It always has been. Selma claimed it kept her alert to trespassers and refused to oil the hinges.

Description segment added to action: 
“I can’t believe she’s gone.” John runs his fingertips along the rusty wire fencing that borders the abandoned paddock. He opens the gate. It squeaks like it always has. He’s reminded of Selma’s refusal to oil the hinges. She said it kept her alert to trespassers.

The final example does several things. There is action. There is back story and character info on Selma and there is description.

In the grand scheme of things, the changes you choose to make are your choices. So if you want lots of description, and believe it deserves to be there, so be it. But, I urge you, please don’t go on and on for pages about the beauty of Mother Nature in spring. Your readers will just stop reading if the action is interrupted for more than a page. Some say that the limit is two paragraphs, but if, like me, you’re a literary author, I think you can get away with one page. At the very most. And I’m talking a book page, not a manuscript page, and that should add up to, on average, about 250 words.

So, as well as cutting your description to the level you feel comfortable with, and peppering it throughout the action, how else do you think you can go about polishing it?

Don’t overuse adjectives and use more strong verbs. The key word here is “overuse.” I’m not saying never use adjectives. I’m just saying your writing will be stronger with moderate usage.

Take a look at SEGMENT No.2 below. Here we have a weak example of description, with lots of adjectives, and a strong example of description using a moderate amount of adjectives and strong verbs.

Weak example:
The darkness of the thick grey low-hanging clouds made the massive decorative rocks in our backyard look like animated gravestone-giants.

Strong example:
The thick clouds hung low and shadowed our backyard. The decorative rocks doubled in size and morphed into gravestone-giants.

Can you see how the strong verbs in the second example help to eliminate the need for all the adjectives in the first one?

Now it’s your turn.

Combine the following texts so that the description is peppered throughout the dialogue and it uses less adjectives and more strong verbs.

Patti Smith begins a Jimi Hendrix cover on clarinet. A tragic mellow vibrato goes through Lykabettus Theatre like a sad wilting willow. The crowd is quiet and still. The guitarist’s jazz scales moves the clarinet’s tune like warm approaching rain. The rhythm guitar sounds like a heartbeat, and the pounding makes the crowd become a big loud mess of chaos. Patti puts the clarinet down, comes over to the microphone and sings in her deep, gruff, aching voice, If you can just / get your / mind together … The slow four/four beat of the guitar and Patti’s voice is like quaking earth. It moves through my legs, body, arms, making my throat tight. Synchronic drums, bass and distorted guitar move alongside the rhythm on the beat, creating an eruption of sundry emotion within me that makes cold and awestruck tears fall down my cheeks.

“Have you ever seen Patti Smith live before?” I said.

“Nah. This is my first time. I’m not entirely impressed yet,” he said.

“What? How can you not be impressed? She’s an icon; a genius.”

“Yeah, but, you know. I guess I’m just not as into it as you.”

“You should just close your eyes and listen. Can you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That. Shh ... Feel it.”

Need more self-editing advice? Why don’t you check out Jessica Bell’s editing guide: Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.

Jessica Bell is an Australian award-winning author, writing and publishing coach, and graphic designer who lives in Athens, Greece. In addition to her novels and poetry collections, and her bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series, she has published a variety of works online and in literary journals, including Writer’s Digest.
In addition to the above, she is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Vine Leaves Literary Journal & Press, a singer/songwriter/guitarist, a voice-over actor, and a freelance editor and writer for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide such as MacMillan Education and Education First. She is also the coordinator of the Writing Day Workshops which take place throughout the United States on a regular basis.
Before all this she was just a young woman with a “useless” Bachelor of Arts degree and a waitressing job.

All images courtesy of Julie Lewis

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Creative Spark Week 6 - Voice and Character

Voice and Character Exercise
By Lindsey Grant

Voice in fiction writing can refer to either the author’s voice, which is the style of writing that makes a work distinctively yours; or the narrator’s voice, which is the way in which a novel’s main character thinks, talks, or writes (in epistolary form) throughout the novel. This exercise will focus primarily on the latter, though you may learn a bit about your own writing style as you discover your character’s voice.

As the components of your novel come together, you will find that POV, character, and voice are all very closely related pieces of the puzzle. Before you start working on character voice, you'll need to identify from the perspective from which the main character or characters tell their story. Is this a first person narrative, in which the character will be guiding us through his or her own thoughts and experiences? If you are instead writing in the third person, do we as the reader have access to the character’s inner monologue? Or is the third person perspective limited only to what an outsider can observe of the events that are unfolding around your characters? (Even if you’re not convinced of your POV choice yet, writing through a couple different scenarios using dialogue, inner monologue, description, or the epistolary form can help you not just figure out your character’s voice, but also the POV you feel most comfortable writing from.)

Remember, the scenarios provided for the writing prompts below don’t need to be included in your novel; instead, they are meant to be instructive in revealing how your character interacts with others, thinks about the world, and communicates his or her thoughts. If you already have an idea or ideas about scenes you’d like to write into your novel, use one or some of those instead!

If you're writing your novel in the first person, choose a scenario below or make up your own in which your main character has a conversation with a secondary character.

If you’re writing from the third person omniscient perspective, write your character’s inner monologue on a subject below, or one of your choosing.

If you’re writing from the third person limited POV, describe a scene based solely on the events unfolding—that which can be observed—using a provided topic or one of your own. (Hint: This is where you will start to feel your own authorial voice taking over.)

Or, no matter what POV you’ve chosen, try writing a letter penned by your character about one of the provided topics, or one of your own.

Possible topics:

  • The death of a childhood pet
  • Asking for a loan
  • Catching a loved one in a lie
  • Meeting a past or current idol
  • Encountering an ex

Once you’ve completed your scene or scenes, look back at the way your character expresses him or herself, including the types of words he or she uses, the tone of his or her communication, and—if you’re able to distance yourself enough from your own character—the way his or her talking/writing/thinking makes you as the reader feel.

As you answer the questions below, you may find you need to revisit this exercise again to feel confident enough in your character’s voice to move forward.

1. Can you sum up your character’s voice in a sentence or two?

(eg: My main character talks a lot, without pausing, and often interrupts others, all in an effort to cover up his own nervousness and insecurities.)

2. Is your character’s voice consistent with the plot and tone of your novel?

(eg: Not really. My character thinks abstractly, veering into poetic ruminations on the world around him, but the action of the story is meant to be taut with suspense and fast-paced.)

3. Does your character’s voice lend itself to the POV you’ve chosen to write your novel from?

(eg: Yes. I didn’t want to write the book from a first person POV, but the inclusion of the letter-writing device allows the reader to glimpse the inner thoughts of my character from the character’s perspective. Best of both worlds!)

Lindsey Grant is the co-author of Ready, Set, Novel! A Writer's Workbook and author of the memoir Sleeps with Dogs: Tales of a Pet Nanny at the End of Her Leash. You can learn more about her and her work at

 All images courtesy of Julie Lewis

Monday, 1 August 2016

Big 5 Mentorship Competition Shortlist Announced!


Triskele Books and Words With Jam are happy to announce the six shortlisted entries of our Big 5 Mentorship Competition –– from manuscript to publication –– worth over £5000!

Pleased with the multitude and quality of the entries, three members of the Triskele team read each and every one before finally coming to a joint decision.

We enjoyed reading through the variety of genres: everything from children’s to young adult, crime thrillers, sci-fi-fantasy, historical and literary fiction.

Only a few failed to adhere to the rules, such as no synopsis, no first chapter, which, unfortunately, disqualified these entries. So just a gentle reminder, it’s vital to read the competition rules before submitting.

The winners have been contacted and  invited to send the first 10 pages of their manuscript before September 1st to our independent judge, Sheila Bugler who will select one winner to be announced on Friday 4 November 2016.

Thank you to all who entered, ensuring our competition was a huge success. From the shortlist, I just know we’re going to have so much fun working on a great book to bring it up to publishing standard!

So, without further ado, here are the six shortlisted winners, in no particular order:

A Whisper of Snow in the Mountains by Janet Wright

Crocodile Tears by Dianne Stadhams 

White Stock by Gill Thompson

Original Sins by Linda Duncan McLaughlin

Half a Small Kitchen by Su Lynch

The Sky is a Blue Bowl by Sophie Wellstood 

Look out for more details soon!

Friday, 29 July 2016

Creative Spark Week 5 - Character and Story Development

Exercise on Character and Story Development
By Roz Morris

Write about a wedding, from the point of view of two characters who’ll be having very different experiences. One of them is happy to be there.
The other is churning with negative feelings.

The exercise is to describe the same scene from the two characters’ viewpoints. 
To help you enter the two different experiences, the happy character will think in shades of blue or white – imagery, descriptions of feelings, figures of speech and objects they notice. 
The angry character will use phrases, images and observations that involve the colour red. Use this mental colour palette to create two distinct experiences.

This will highlight how very differently two people might see one event, depending on their mood and emotional baggage.

Now we’ll make one of these folks into an unreliable narrator.
It’s probably expected that the spurned character, Red, will be the character readers will dismiss. Nobody believes a grouch, especially on the happiest of happy days.
But let’s be unpredictable.
Write the scene so that hey-nonny-nonny Blue is the unreliable one. Slant their account so that the reader doubts their judgement. Make them naive, or blinded by optimism.

Now look at what you’ve got. See how far the scene has come now you’ve done a few mental twists.
Did you begin by assuming Red was in the wrong?
Has the story deepened now you’ve explored both people?
You never know what you’ll find until you let the characters live.

Roz Morris is a book doctor and an author in her own right. She also has a secret identity as a ghostwriter with sales of more than 4 million copies under other names. She teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London and has mined more than 20 years of writing and editing experience to create her Nail Your Novel series. 
Find her books here

All images courtesy of Julie Lewis

Friday, 22 July 2016

Creative Spark Week 4 - Point of View

Creative Spark Week 4 - First Person Point of view
By Amanda Hodgkinson

As we all know, Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita, is written from the POV of Humbert Humbert, the man who pursues Lolita. That’s to say, the novel’s story is told to us by Humbert Humbert. We hear his version of events. His voice. And Humbert, we soon learn, is an unreliable narrator. But what if Nabokov had decided to write the novel from the point of view of Lolita herself. One thing is sure, it would be a very different story…

Clearly, the writer’s choice of point of view is crucial. For this exercise on POV think of Cinderella. Traditionally, the story focuses on motherless, down on her luck, sweet and modest, Cinders. She searches for happiness in a world where everybody, it seems, is out to thwart her goals. But is that really the case?

Spend a few minutes thinking about a possible opening scene from the story. Now, write a few paragraphs from Cinderella’s POV. Use her voice as you hear it. Use the word ‘I.’ Let us really hear who Cinderella is – What kind of accent does she have? How does she see the world? What are her desires? Is she really dreaming of marrying a prince? Or does she dream of other goals? Go with whatever comes into your head. Surprise yourself. What story does Cinderella really want to tell?

Now write a scene, or perhaps the same scene, in another POV. What happens to the story if we hear it through the voice of the fairy godmother? How does Cinderella’s Stepmother tell the story? Or the prince? Remember as you write, first person POV, is exactly that. We can only know for sure what the ‘I’ of the narrator sees and thinks and hears. We cannot go into another character’s head and hear their inner thoughts.

Now that you have tried out first person POV, I hope you can see that the narrator who tells the story in this way, using the ‘I’ form, will always focus on their own ‘angle’ of the story.

Amanda Hodgkinson's debut novel 22 Britannia Road became an award-winning international bestseller. Her new book Spilt Milk came out in February 2014 (Penguin Books) and her novella Tin Town was published in the Grand Central collection of stories (Penguin US) in 2014. Meanwhile she is working on a third novel...

All images courtesy of Julie Lewis

Friday, 15 July 2016

Creative Spark Week 3 - The Essence of Character

The Essence of Character
By Joanne Furniss

Some characters make it easy for you—they will walk into the room and stand beside your computer, drumming their fingers on the desk while you write their story. A teenage character in my first novel, The Lonely Steps, appeared like this; I spotted a girl being escorted by her doting boyfriend across a crowded swimming pool in Switzerland and she high-stepped into existence as Lola, my “girl out of time”. But other characters, like Lola’s mother, may be more bashful and need to be coaxed into reality.

The central question for any character—the reason they occupy space in your story—comes down to what do they want? There is a second part of this question: and what do they need? Chances are, your plot will involve denying them what they want in order to give them what they need, so you must be clear about these driving forces in their personality.

What does s/he want?

Exercise 1: Everyone has a secret. Most are not life-changing. So why do we decide that one particular incident / fact / mistake is so powerful, we keep it hidden?


From the POV of your character, write a private letter or diary entry. The first line is: I have never told anyone this, but…

What does s/he need?

Exercise 2: Most people don’t know what they need in life—we’re too distracted by our desires—and your character is no different. Someone else can probably see into their heart more clearly than they see it themselves.


Your character walks into a café / pub / restaurant to meet someone they know well, a friend or family member. There is also a waitress/ barman / cleaner. Write a 360° description of the scene from three POVs; how the friend sees the character, how the stranger sees the character, and how the character sees the scene. 

How do these conflicting wants and needs motivate your character?

We are all driven by desires and instincts. What your characters wants and needs will affect their every decision, consciously and unconsciously.


Exercise 3: A brain-storming activity to answer this one question. The aim is to nail the issue of want / need into one clarifying sentence.

What wounded her early on in life and led her to believe a lie?

As an example, the answer to this question for my main character in The Lonely Steps is: Marlene believes that, because of her own frigid childhood, she doesn’t feel emotions deeply enough to be a good mother.

From this stage, you can develop a character arc—how your character will change (or stubbornly not!) during the story. Their actions within the plot will also be grounded in these deepest desires.

Jo Furniss is a British writer now based in Singapore. Her first novel, The Lonely Steps, is represented by the US literary agency Browne & Miller. A second domestic thriller, set in the glossy expat world of Singapore, is making progress. After working as a Broadcast Journalist at the BBC in the UK, Jo gave up the glamour of night shifts to become a serial expat and freelance writer. She is editor of, a magazine for writers in Singapore. 

All images courtesy of Julie Lewis