Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Cleckheaton Literature Festival Iain Pattison Short Story Workshop review - 21/4/16

On 21st of April Cleckheaton Literature Festival 2016 started with a Short Story Workshop with Iain Pattison.

Iain has been writing for 42 years for a living, 20 years in newspapers then in fiction, specialising in short stories and horror/dark fantasy under the pen name Jay Raven.  He judges 6 competitions a year, including Writers Bureau competition and also teaches creative writing and written/marked distance learning courses for short stories.  He explained how he came up with his pen name and revealed that he writes from 9am - 4pm in the afternoon and churns out stories, but he replicates again, again and again every day.  The reader does not see the formula, just the shiny story at the end.

He asked which of the attendees had been published and then dealt with Headings. He believes there are parameters, two lengths women's magazines, 800 and 2-2.5k words per episode.  More than 4k is a novella and if you write more than that, there is something wrong, e.g. too many characters.  He likes 2k words as it is short in timescale. 

Iain gave the analogy of a short story being a snapshot of a view from against a glass window and recommended aiming for real time.  If it's more than days it is heading towards a novella.  It's one persons' story, e.g. a group of people meeting together, but who's story is the key.  For example if it is an expedition, is it the leader of the exhibition, the head of the tribe or the 12 year-old boy enlisted in the army not understanding what is going on?  Your Main Character is the person who has the most emotional attachment/most to lose/at stake/affected by events that take place.  Go inside their head, share their thoughts/feelings and see through their eyes.  If someone is going to die before the end, they are a bad choice for the Main Character.

Don't overload your story, four characters maximum, usually three.  If you do, no-one gets enough stage time, you may confuse the reader in who you want them to root for as it should be the Main Character, and not enough time and space to inhabit/own the story.  One person gets dull after a while as no scope for conflict, e.g. argue, fall in love etc. as you can't on your own.


Write it long and then edit, like a sandwich with too much butter.  For example, you can take out long descriptions of place because people will have seen most things you could describe, e.g. stately home, you don't need more than that and three words should suffice with most things.  Only describe things if they vary from the norm, e.g. letter in a pillar box you don't need to say it is red, but if it is purple with a flashing sign mention it, but only if it is relevant to the plot.  Mention it only if it crops up later.

The difference between a character and a prop is vital.  A character has a name, talks, plays a meaningful part in what takes place and a prop does not, e.g. a postman who brings a terrible letter is a prop, but the one who gets the letter is the character.

Stick to the mood/style throughout the story, i.e. if it is supernatural, it has to be at the start for the mood.  The plot = Set up versus plots, series of events.  A set up is a jumping off point, e.g. Benjamin Button, the people born old and get younger is a set up, people trapped in a lift, plot is what happens next.

An easy-peasy plotting technique A B C. A: Introduction  B: Middle  C: Ending

The introduction is when something dramatic happens, Main Character faces a crisis/upset to his/her life, e.g. someone threatens to reveal a secret.  Pack it with menace/jeopardy.

The middle - Iain likes to use flashbacks to the events that lead up to the crisis, e.g. blackmail, I wish I hadn't done x, y and z that lead up to this.  He gave the example of 'Do you save the drowning person?' if the MC almost drowned as a child, the someone drowning is an enemy and this is his dilemma and the decision is the end.

The ending is how this problem/dilemma/crisis is resolved/factors that the main character uses to make it happen brings it to a resolution.

Story also needs urgency, for example someone is drowning.  He prefers the story to finish abruptly and if possible, with a twist.  People have to care and so does your Main Character.  You can get emotion into the characters in two ways, one: cast yourself as the MC, think what would I do in this situation and it suddenly comes alive or two: don't waste your dialogue on the mundane, only have them talking when they have something dramatic to say as this helps to bring them alive. 

Be original or try to be original.  You can do this by taking the world and turning it on it's head.  Iain gave the example of an updated Dickens - Scrooge is the only one that likes Christmas and so the ghosts were pointing out everything he should hate about it.  Stories have to be dynamic.  Theatre is restricted to the set design as stage is a limited space, but we're not bound by that, we can set it anywhere, so aim for an unusual setting.  Never have people sitting down talking, have them going somewhere/doing something, don't have it static.

Titles - Dead before the Dawn is a title, The letter is a label, not a title.  The title needs to grab you, so don't use 'the' or 'A.'

Iain gave out a hand-out on the power of three and Openings and Endings.

He feels you have thirty words to grab the reader at the beginning, which includes the title, so needs to be baited with a hook.

"I didn't murder him."

"Yes, I am an assassin, but it was my day off."

This leaves the reader wanting to know who has been murdered, who the assassin is and even the day off is intriguing.

A bad introduction tells the editor it will only go one way and the editor will only read this and reject it.  No matter how great the twist at the end is, you've lost the reader. 

Plot is everything.

He likes flashbacks, but use sparingly/carefully and not too high up in the story.  Where the story is taking place, who Main Character is, 6/7 paragraphs is the earliest he would introduce a flashback.

Endings should be the highlight, don't blow it at the end.  Has to be logical and have a satisfying conclusion to the events, for example, bank robbers shoot each other because they fall out trying to decide how to share the money.  You have to get some emotional response from them.  Any reaction is good.  Like a joke, a story should have a punch-line/a reason for it to have existed.  A journey through a short space of time and can't leave it to the reader to supply the ending.  He likes an upbeat ending but it doesn't have to be happy.

Main Character faces a dilemma then resolves it at the end, the journey makes them re-evaluate themselves, the journey makes them learn something from the lesson, e.g. Tracy gets sacked, landlord about to throw her out and decides to throw herself of a bridge when a car pulls up and mate from school days offers her a job - this is just dumb luck and readers wouldn't accept it.  She could decide the water is too cold and decide to start an accounts firm, followed by success and then she sees her former employer and shows off.  You can pile on the agony for the Main Character but s/he has to resolve them all.

Do not use: 1) Woke up, was a dream if you are aged over 8, 2) Can't write any more, time for a medications and men in white coats, 3) Didn't happen to me, notes for a short story I am writing, or not really killing each other, just rehearsing a play.

Plant ambiguous seeds throughout the story and let the reader jump to the wrong conclusion, e.g. lots of noise, bikers bringing down the neighbourhood, but turns out to be a barbershop choir turned up on penny farthings.  You can't lie or you will just anger your reader.  For the sting in the tale, keep one fact hidden, i.e. the age, gender, location, era set in but not that the Main Character is a dog/cat.

Iain goes beyond the twist with a comedy line.  Normally the last sentence is the twist, preferably the last word.  Don't be crude, shocking or offensive just to get a reaction.  It's a cheap trick and people won't like it. 

He gave his story 'Crowning Glory' as an example.  You need to grab in the first nine words.  Don't describe an alley, because she's terrified, reader is too.  No description of the underpass or takeaway.  It is a three act drama with middle flashback and a twist in the last line.  The MC sorts out her own problem.  Iain uses a lot of three beat sentences and in his dialogue too.  Took up classic defence pose, let's the reader fill in the blanks.  He used the friend in the story as he wanted a 50/50 split between exposition/dialogue.  Too little and you don't engage the reader, too much and it reads like a script or can make it bland.  The reader will do the work for you, you don't have to put loads of info on the character as it is not needed.

Story is mechanical, technique pays the bills not ideas.  He was a sub-editor and came up with those terrible headlines.  Well-known sayings and give them a twist, e.g. walk like a man change to wok like a man, great expectations to grate expectations (young couple arguing over whether to bid for a fireplace for their new home, auctioneer takes it as a bid and win it anyway) or grim reaper to grime reaper.  These can spark a story idea, e.g. crate expectations.  Iain gave an example of a story about Pandora's box and a crate that has magical powers and the story was all about the expectation the people in the story would have about the crate.  Iain does horror stories with a 19th century Wild West, witches etc.  Uses this theme, carriages arriving with four black horses with plumes, so looks like a hearse and back of horse box with painted on magical symbols.

Iain finished the workshop by giving out hand-outs on Writing for Women's Magazines, his business card and a sign up address for his FREE monthly newsletter. 

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