Authors’ stimuli: preparing for that blank moment

PERFUME                                 SMELL                            STINK



In a previous post I suggested that, at the point of urgently scribbling down that new idea, it may be worth exploring what actually prompted it.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. I believe it is much harder to ‘dream up’ an olfactory experience than a visual or auditory memory that might affect the character in your story. For  a visual stimulus we have Art to display ideas, perspectives, narratives, symbols.  We have Theatre and Radio to present ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_opt

There is no equivalent for smells. The writer may sit, pen raised, summoning up exactly the right sound or sight to cause his hero to pale with emotion, and the reader to imagine this accordingly. Far more difficult to write more than ‘the smell/scent/perfume/stink of’ (whatever) caused the emotional impact. How much of a struggle to work out what might have been recorded in long term memory.


It might be a good idea to be prepared for that blank moment. Perhaps the answer is to note down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant, listing the source for each but avoid the obvious like dog poo. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a down-at-heel great aunt; the scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs.



With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you. Easier then to strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Literary competitions


Short Story competitions


I think winning stories have to capture the heart as well as the attention of the judges. I’ve rarely read a winning story without feeling I know why it was chosen. Usually the setting is striking, the structure is very satisfying, the ending unexpected and the main character convincing. I’m saying nothing out of the ordinary, I know, but it’s as well to have these features of winning stories in the back of your mind as you start to write yours. Some writers give up competitions at the first or second failure to get on the shortlist.

However, some rehash their stories or even leave them as they are and keep submitting them to different competitions, on the basis that ‘liking’ a story and finding it surpasses other good entries is very subjective.  

I reviewed one winner, Anne Corlett, on a previous post (See Review: H.E.Bates winner)  Her story is well worth reading for that structure, setting, believable character (s), and unexpected ending, a thoroughly satisfying read. 

It is not always previous competition winners or successful journalists turning to fiction who win. There have been some notable first timers who have run the contestants out of the ground. The main thing is to have a go. The writing towards winning is good practice, and you can regard it as just that. Robert the Bruce would have been entering every competition until chosen, egged on by his spider. So, try, try, try again if you haven’t been successful so far.

These competitions have April deadlines.


11 April — Litro magazine Theme: Augmented Reality Max. length: 3,000 words
26 April — Felixstowe Book Festival Short Story Competition Theme of Conflict 
30 April — 13th International Short Story Conference Story Contest fee: €10 (theme: The Braids of Identity) 
30 April — The Bristol prize   any subject. Max. length 4,000 words
30 April — E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest 
30 April - Fiction Uncovered 2014 
30 April — Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 
The more entrants, the more money to finance the next competition. Let me know if you are one of the short-listed or even better.

A Rich Read: writers’ ideas.

fountainpenpaperWhat prompts a writer suddenly write down an idea? Authors of any genre – there’s a lot going on when you write.When you think you have an out-of-the-blue idea and must just get it down, more likely the germ of the idea, even if it’s caused by something just noticed, has an appeal that lies in some unconscious association. That is, past experience will affect the particular event observed, aurally or visually. Why notice this (length of someone’s thumb), rather than that (choice of tie)? Did you know that subliminal exposure can influence preferences? Even patients with amnesia can demonstrate affective preferences without remembering any encounters with the objects of their affection (Johnson & Multhaup, 1992). But the experience of preferring one stimulus rather than another is conscious. As a writer, you are aware of ‘the good idea’ or the urge to write down something noticed or experienced, (conscious preference) without recognising that some original strong, possibly emotional, experience sparked your attention to or your ‘preference’ for a particular stimulus. What one person sees and immediately focuses upon may be ignored by another. kaleidoscopeEvery scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory and visual stimuli. At a party, Jane’s attention may be drawn to a particular blue-grey dress. She says, when asked afterwards, ‘I don’t know why I remember that dress. I didn’t even particularly like it.’  But in fact it’s the same colour and texture as a dress worn by a shouting aunt in a long-ago quarrel. Her focus of attention means that she fails to absorb the content of conversation in the nearby group. Derek, beside her, has his eyes on one speaker whose gestures irritate him. He can’t say why. If he’s a writer, he may think about why, worry away at the conundrum. Sometimes it is possible to dredge up the original stimulus. A writer may go back over and again over his/her thoughts about an experience such as those above. Occasionally, the origin emerges and it is usually a very satisfying feeling even when the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. Why is this unconscious layer of memory part of the human experience? It has a social, a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) from our very early days we must attend to and perceive the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behavior.  In unconsciously absorbing tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities, there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. Moreover, when a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why s/he has focussed on that detail in the chapter, but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues. Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904 A character may be softly rubbing the edge of a desk as some significant news is given him. The reader enjoys noticing this detail and absorbing it as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read. I have written about auditory and visual stimuli here. Olfactory stimuli is another matter. It is commonly known how certain smells activate long-forgotten memories in the most vivid way. I will write about this in another post. This is the first of several pieces relating to the cognitive process in writing.

Film review: Tenderness vital for child development

Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.


Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.

The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.

It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.

The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.


Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, has tapped the back of a child’s head when he threw an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.

The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.

The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.


Ballet teachers are in difficulties for no longer can they easily correct a body position,  such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point as before

Nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.

father-holding-handFor this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.

Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along.  Falardeau has certainly done his bit.

REVIEW: In Spite of the Dark Silence – Volpi

We don’t see enough of Latin American writers in the UK. I am glad to review this literary novel by Jorge Volpi (Mexico) published by Swan Isle Press and seamlessly translated by Olivia Maciel.

Dark Silence

When you know a novel has suicide as a central focus, you wait to find the right – the strongest – frame of mind before reading it. This was true of me, and so it is some months since I received this impressive work for independent review from Swan Isle Press. Fresh from reading the captivating ‘To the Beautiful North’ with its irrepressible characters (by Luis Alberto Urrea, another Mexican), I took up this well-presented volume with its haunting, probably haunted, portrait on its dust cover.

It is a hard read: hard in the sense that it is intellectually challenging; hard emotionally; hard in tone and use of language as opposed to soft and fluid; hard in its relentless move towards facing death.

The author, Jorge Volpi, is one of the originators of the Crack movement in Mexico, ‘crack’ or fracture – a break from what is trivial or superficial, and from the established magical realism of authors such as Marquez, well loved in the UK. Perhaps ‘crack’ is apposite with regard to Volpi’s novel since it centres upon the cracking up of an esteemed poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta, and ultimately of the narrator. We use ‘cracked’ or ‘crackers’ to denigrate people who have become mentally ill. Cuesta’s ‘crack’ connects with his ambivalent sexual identity. His attempt at a fusion between the male/female ended with self-emasculation. But more than that, he was obsessed with catching the moment to the point of defeating time, perhaps finding a crack through which he could pass in order to do so.  “Time doesn’t stop, but passes.”


Jorge Volpi

If magical realists such as Marquez write about incidents, characters, and settings that could not occur within the physical world as we know it, Volpi straddles a world in which the reader is witness of what seems to be occurring but is in fact fiction, and is informed of a parallel set of events that are factual. Boundaries are deliberately blurred. The narrator is Jorge, like the author, like the poet.  His friend, Eloy, has the same name as the author’s father and Cuesta’s colleague.

Jorge, a poorly paid writer, overhears mention of Cuesta’s name and suicide following self-mutilation. He tells us at least twice that sharing the christian name hurts his life twice. It seems to place him under a responsibility to tell Cuesta’s tale.

The novel begins as Jorge visualizes in great detail the last agonizing days of Cuesta’s life. He gives an unnervingly empathetic account.

Jorge Cuesta is not really known in UK.  His achievements in two professions were remarkable, yet the acme of his inventions appears to have coincided with his mental deterioration.  The wisdom and despair of his poetry seep through the novel as Jorge searches out the poet’s point of view. “I’m searching for Cuesta’s not my own.”

While immersing himself in researching Cuesta’s life, Jorge listlessly follows his own. He is in an unrewarding relationship, unrewarding for his partner as well as for himself. Volpi’s unpicking of this relationship is masterly. He shows us the selfishness of both partners and their unwillingness, not inability, to engage in the other’s raison d’etre and preoccupations. It is a hostile dependency that fails to improve or to end.

Jorge amasses all the information he can about Cuesta, studies the poetry, takes note of the inventions, imagines the extent to which Cuesta loved, believed and understood. His scholarly and increasingly emotional investigation includes tracking down the two important women in Cuesta’s life, his lover and his wife. Increasingly, the reader notes the parallels between the two Jorges’ existences, and despairs in his obsessive moves towards repeating the pattern.

In the process of his research, Jorge’s own life becomes increasingly deranged.  He believes that if he could fuse male with female he could preserve the moment of ecstasy, could break through the force-field of time. Volpi skilfully shows the intricacies of his thought pattern.  The reader becomes concerned for Jorge’s self-destructive behaviour, his immersion in dark thoughts.

He visits the hospital where Cuesta lived his last days before hanging himself. The current patients are circling around a central flower bed. He asks a nurse why they do this. She answers, ‘Perhaps they want to exit time.’

Jorge’s work to reveal Cuesta’s ‘meaning’ culminate in scholarly articles. These are met with ridicule and condemnation by his intellectual colleagues and the academic community. This is devastating not only to his self-esteem, but to the chance of conveying the central concept via Cuesta’s biography. Volpi, in the voice of the narrator, sees Cuesta as one of the “fugitive poets that favoured a clandestine existence rather than submit themselves to the absurd rules of time.”

Meanwhile, Jorge’s refusal to commit to an emotional and supportive involvement with his partner causes her to leave him. She has been no better able to provide an emotional investment in Jorge. She goes away with her former lover despite her sudden realization that she loves Jorge.

Left on his own, the last vestiges of normality leave him or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his last hold on himself as a unique individual drifts away. He is in despair.

A major strength of this novel is the economic and skilful delineation of the process of thought and the coming apart of a tortured mind.


 Lovecraft – ‘Despair”

Cuesta waited to end his life until he had written his poem, Song to a Mineral God.  Early in the novel, this is discussed by Jorge and his friend, Eloy. With premonition, Jorge states “I’m going to write an essay -”  In his last moments he does so. It is an account of his feelings. He is fully aware of the irony that this comes too late to save his love relationship. He writes his essay before repeating the act and manner of Cuesta’s death.

The suicide of  Cuesta, poet and chemist, was a great tragedy.  Without academic recognition, Jorge’s struggle to understand Cuesta and convey to the world the significance of the ‘moment within the moment’, the implacability of time, now has no hope of standing the test of time. He is defeated by it and faces death in spite of its dark silence.

Affordable writers’ services


I take reviewing seriously. A few months ago, a writer seeking my independent review will have been disappointed. I read it and commented, but didn’t publish any review.

My policy: if my rating would be 3 stars or less (Goodreads, Amazon) I don’t publish. I send the review privately to the author. I’ve never seen the value of a highly negative review. It’s not as if the general public are rushing out impulsively to buy a novel from which they must be protected. The prize for the best hatchet job leaves me cold, in the same way that putting an obese person naked in a crowd of jeerers would.

The point here is that the fore-mentioned author had not used an editor.  The novel was full of factual inaccuracies about the main dilemma, which made the plot unworkable. The first chapter alone would have caused any editor worth his/her salt to advise the author not to go further until the necessary research had been carried out. Furthermore, the minor character in Chapter 2 had a different personality when he sneaked in again in Chapter 11. Finally, there were two chapters in the middle that were not relevant, let alone essential, to the plot. They needed cutting. The writing itself was fine, so was the original story concept. Shame. I hope that writer took the advice.


RULE: Never submit any novel until it has been edited.      

I always read and re-read and constantly correct my own work, yet a proof-reader will find several things per chapter that I need to tweak. It might be a lettr missed out, or a, comma misplaced or even word missed out.  Once spotted I can’t imagine how these errors escaped me.

RULE:   Always use a proof reader, even for a short story.


When you decide to publish, you’ll need to convert your book into e-pub and e-mobi formats. This is not an impossible task, thanks to Calibre but it is time-consuming and fraught with potential error-making. You can land up with ?eft? #blb instead of the word you wrote. The headaches this formatting task may cause you, even if you overcome your fear and time problems, can be eradicated by using a conversion service.

RULE:  Even if your printed book is absolutely perfect, every page needs checking again in its e-versions.

Such services can stretch the writer’s budget unbearably but they are vital services. Without access to a known editor or proof-reader, it is safest to go to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders Directory of Editorial Services who will charge about £21-28 per hour according to the extent of textual work required (e.g. proof-reading alone would be at the lower end of this).

Of course, there are many tempting offers online but it’s a risk to take one up without knowledge of their quality. The dangers  have been outlined on other blogs I’m sure, so I won’t use space detailing these. What I can do is point readers to affordable and reputable writer/reviewers/editors. The following  people are all authors themselves and who offer proof-reading and editing. They charge about £4 per 1000 words for proof-reading, £5 per 1000 words for editing. A full structural edit is a long job so a 100,00 word novel will run you into the hundreds.

All the following people have different styles and strengths.

Firstly, there is multi-tasker Morgen Bailey, whose richly informative blog I have already mentioned in my post Towards a Superblog.  I can vouch for her outstanding speed and attentiveness and for the reasonable prices she charges for her editing and proof-reading.  She can rapidly spot where a story is going wrong as well as punctuation or continuity mistakes. Her work is worth every penny.  She will also offer a critique – a very helpful service for a writer wondering whether their piece is worth pursuing.morgenbailey

Morgen also constructs websites – a nightmare for many writers. See the one she did for the journalist and novelist Jane Wenham Jones whose articles you’ve probably read in Writing Magazine and elsewhere.

Secondly, there is novelist Karen Perkins (Thores Cross; The Valkyrie Series, etc). Go to her for inexpensive help for converting files to the required format for publishing as paper-back or e-book. Not only does she offer editing, conversion and other services but she has just published two really useful books: one on editing, one on formatting. If you want to be self-sufficient, these books certainly fill a very important gap in the market. I will be reviewing these books in the near future.

Karen Perkinsformatting guideEDITING guide UK - small

Thirdly, there is Lucy Middlemass, YA author, with two books winners on the writers’ site Authonomy. Watch out for her lively character,  Jinger Barley, when her books are published.  She is a very good reviewer across genres. Her reviews are extremely thorough, helpful and fair, even when it’s clear she has not had a high opinion of a book. She manages a review thread for YA fiction where she encourages the same positive approach. Lucy similarly offers a thorough editing and critique of novels. It is clear that she has not only read thoroughly and made her line-by-line edit, but has thought out the writer’s intentions and can advise his best route forwards.  LucyMiddlemass

Finally,  Tony Foster offers full structural edits. Tony has a B.A. (1st class honours) in Creative Writing. He begins his Ph.D focusing on Writing Theory and Cognitive Poetics later this year. He writes across disciplines, including radio plays, screenplays and prose fiction. Tony’s edit includes a detailed critique and chapter-by-chapter analysis. He charges £10 per 1000 words, negotiable above 50,000 words, which also includes proof read, line edit and manuscript layout to publishing standard. He can be contacted here:

DON’T FORGET:  You will need reviews for your book once it is fledged.

RULE: Never pay for one.

Not every reviewer writes to a high standard but you can look at their other reviews to estimate their quality. You can look at Amazon’s top 100 reviewers and hope to get a review. You can ask friends and family BUT have reviews that sing out what you have done.  The best reviews are those from readers who’ve read your book and constructed their own, independent opinion of it.

I may write a subsequent post detailing online reviews that have impressed me.

Troubled narrators



Some years ago I was watching the news.  A US school was in a state of panic after multiple shootings by an adolescent.  The account was truly shocking and the outcomes were followed closely by the media over several days.

I knew that much analysis would follow. I decided not to.  During my work as a psychologist I was chilled by a home visit I had to make one day.  I sat in the bedroom of a serial school refuser.  He had a KEEP OUT sign on the door and the inside was painted black and hung with swastika flags and 16 posters of rifles. After some intricate effort on my part, he’d agreed to see me there as a way of ensuring our interview was confidential.  The  cooperative mother was as keen for her son to continue his education as was his school. The boy had formerly been a quiet pupil with no apparent behaviour problems.  Unfortunately, adverse influences upon young people come from a variety of sources. That boy’s story is confidential and I haven’t written it. However, such experiences did colour a story I wrote years later.

boywgunI wanted to put a younger boy into another geographical and social setting and imagine what might lead to such an extreme act.  I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year. I’d had to cut it to fit the word-length requirement and I preferred it in its original form. Later, I uploaded it to a writers’ site, YouWriteOn (established in 2006 with Arts Council funding) where the top 3 rated novels (10,000 word extract) receive the reward of a full review by Random House, Bloomsbury or Orion editors.  Top short stories only receive a mini-review. Therefore, I thought out a possible extension to describe mine as a novel and wrote a synopsis.

A Boy with Potential achieved the top 3, so gained its review from Bloomsbury. The editor had no flies on him/her and advised that the submission worked best as a short story. However, s/he did say that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that s/he “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” S/he went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.”

There were also suggestions for how I might improve it, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl’.  I put my story to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting  ‘A Relative Invasion‘. In fact I still am. I’m a serial re-writer.  It wasn’t until I wanted to start listing my novels and short stories for this site that I took out A Boy with Potential again.


I think I will rewrite it, taking account of the helpful Bloomsbury critique, and upload it as a Kindle Single – when I’ve learned how. Technically, that promises to be a killer.