Ashley Lister is a prolific writer of genre fiction, having written more than fifty full length titles and over a hundred short stories. Aside from regularly blogging about writing, Ashley also teaches creative writing and lives in Lancashire
Description is the key factor that lets your reader understand the world you’re building for them. Consequently it needs to be sufficiently detailed without being laboriously overwritten. Consequently, the first tip here is:
Find the balance between too much description and too little. Read other titles in similar genres to yours. Use the writing of others to gauge as to whether or not you’ve got it right. Also rely on your gut. If you’re getting bored with the description, your reader is going to feel the same.
Be aware that a lot of the description is going to come at the front of the story. If you tell me on page 300 that the main character is wearing glasses, I’m going to have to reimagine quite a lot of the scenes I’ve already read, whilst restructuring the protagonist as a bespectacled character. It’s not a great inconvenience – but it’s like going to drag me out of the fictional world you’ve created.
Where possible, use all of the traditional FIVE senses to describe a scene. As writers we tend to rely on sight and sound and everything else gets overlooked in the passionate heat of creating a good story. Try to include taste, smell and touch and your reader will be thrilled by the unexpected sensory bonus.
Remember – aside from describing to illustrate, you can also describe to influence. For example, a big, burly bear of a man is likely to seem more friendly than a huge, hulking giant. If you want to subtly influence your readers’ opinions, description is the place to do it.
Readers appreciate specificity. If your character is walking down a road lined with yellow flowers, tell us what those flowers are so we can picture it more accurately. Are they daffodils, buttercups, roses or ragwort? The addition of a specific label make it substantially easier for your reader to picture the image you want to share.
I adore short stories. My PhD involve my reading many short stories. I try to write chapters of novels as though they’re complete short stories. And I regularly record a podcast with my pal Colin Davies where we look at classic pieces of short fiction.
Which is probably why I found this collection so engaging.
Peter Clines knows how to write, as evidenced by his lengthy back catalogue. He also knows how to write short fiction, as is proved by this collection. The stories have a wonderful sense of science-fiction, mixed with the ring of potential horror and the authenticity that comes from a good storyteller.
The collection starts with a police officer interrogating a suspect who’s wearing a lizard costume; a very convincing lizard costume. There is humour, intellect, pathos and surprises, all of which show a writer who is skilled at his craft and capable of entertaining readers on many levels.
I listened to the audiobook version of this one which runs at a little under 5 hours. It’s not a complaint – because the stories were each so well crafted – but it did leave me wanting more.
S J Dawson says: “I wrote Rainbow Dust originally in 1996 and decided as unicorns are now all the rage I would try and get it published. I went through an independent publisher, Purple Parrot Publishing and in July 2019 Rainbow Dust officially went on sale. I have lots of other children’s books I’m working on as well as a book of short stories and two novels. My second book Rainbow Dust and the Moon was released on July 31st 2020 to coincide with International Marshmallow Day because the moon in my book is made of the lovely sweet gooey stuff!! To read more about me and my characters visit the blog post on my website www.sjdawsonauthor.co.uk.”
Genre is a ridiculously overused word that has the potential to be very confusing. Etymologically, he derives from the French word that means ‘kind’ or ‘type’. Consequently it can be applied as a superordinate term, such as when discussing the genres of poetry, prose or plays, or it can be more subordinate, such as when discussing the prose genres of fiction or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, or when discussing categories of genre fiction such as cyberpunk, steam punk and splatter punk.
Genre is simultaneously vital and unimportant. Genre is unimportant to many writers because, when we get an idea, genre is only a minor consideration as we work at telling the best version of the story we want to tell. However, genre can be vital to some readers who enjoy (for example) science-fiction, pay their hard-earned money for science-fiction, and don’t want that story to be bereft of spaceships, aliens and maybe some ray guns.
Genre becomes more important to writers as they consider marketing and selling a story. You’ve written a western? Make sure it’s populated with cowboys, gunfights and wild west machismo. You’ve written a murder mystery? Make sure the clues are neatly spaced out so the reader can play the game of detection alongside the detective. Readers understand what they want from a genre and it’s a writer’s job to meet those expectations.
Some genres are semantic and some are syntactic. To illustrate: a romance is a romance because the two smitten characters are introduced early on, circumstances force them apart through the majority of the text, and the story invariably concludes with them coming together and having a happy ending. This is the syntactic structure of the romance story. However, if the semantic furniture within that story shifts, it can become a different genre. Set this romantic narrative aboard a spaceship, and you’re reading science-fiction. If the same romantic story is set aboard a pirate ship that’s about to pursue an immortal dragon, then you’re firmly in the territory of high fantasy.
Genre is often treated as a dirty word, such as in the phrase, “He writes genre fiction.” Genre is only a dirty word in the mouths of those literary snobs who believe that anything done for the consumption of a broad audience is inferior to the inaccessible bollocks published outside the rubric of a specific genre. Admittedly, there has always been snobbery within writing but if you enjoy writing or reading a specific sort of material, whether that’s cosy murder mysteries, HEA romance or dinosaur erotica, I’d advise you to embrace your passions and ignore the sneering snobs. Reading and writing should only ever be about what pleases us – not someone with their own skewed agenda.
It seems mean-spirited to describe a short story as a steaming sack of garbage. And yet, here we are, having read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s tedious and lacklustre: ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’.
This is not the worst story I’ve read. I’m fairly sure that honour goes to the impenetrable and over-hyped drivel that is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. But this is up there for a lack of engagement, for its loss of coherence, and for its general ability to satisfy the reader. Fair warning, I might get sweary when I talk about this one.
It sounds ridiculous to say ‘I accidentally read a book,’ but hear me out. I listen to a lot of my current reading via audiobook. This allows me to engage with text whilst I’m driving, cleaning, exercising, etc. For Christmas I was given a pair of Aftershock bone-conduction headphones and I use these for most of my audiobook experiences. More recently, I’ve changed cars (I now drive a white one!) and this vehicle has bluetooth technology enabled. This means I can get into the car, listening to an audiobook on my headphones, and the technology takes over when I key the ignition and the car starts to play my audiobook through its speakers. I found this out, wanted to test the whole thing for consistency and the quality of sound reproduction, and ended up using an old copy of At Home as part of the experiment.
Because the book is so damned compelling, I ended up ‘accidentally’ listening to all of it.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life, follows Bill Bryson as he goes around his home, examining each room and its contents, and discussing the history behind each innovation. Bryson is a masterful storyteller and he makes everything in this book sound fascinating. Whether he’s talking about all the death and destruction that are behind the history of the salt and pepper pots on an average dining table; the types of cement that are used to keep house bricks together and how the technology behind this innovation contributed to the construction of the Erie Canal; or how one tenth of the weight of a six year old pillow usually consists of sloughed skin and mite droppings: Bryson always manages to find an interesting angle that humanises the story and makes it incredibly relevant to the reader.
There are so many fun parts to this book.
The construction is based on following Bryson as he goes from room to room, which compartmentalises the narrative into subject-specific areas. A visit to the dressing-room looks at sumptuary laws, the history of clothing, and even discusses those pointless buttons that appear on the cuffs of every suit jacket ever made. Standing in the hall, Bryson reminds us that the original houses occupied by our ancestors were nothing but the hall, and he guides us through an overview of this story.
Maybe I’m just a Bill Bryson fanboy. Or maybe this is one of those marvels of research that allows us to see the wonderous story behind every item in our modern homes. Either way: I 100% recommend this title.
Poetry, scripts, and stories have always been important to me. My mother read to me the adventures of the Secret Seven and Alice in Wonderland and My father bought me my first poetry book, Silly Verses for Kids by Spike Milligan. The first script I read was Quatermass and the Pit by Nigel Kneale (1960); though I will admit I thought I was borrowing the novel when I took it out of the library. In 1999 I wrote a short film that was produced by Underground Film Works. It premiered at the St Annes Pleasure Island cinema and was included in the catalogue for the Edinburgh film festival.
My first novel for children, “Mathamagical”, was published by Ivory Moon. Unfortunately, the publishing company had to fold, and the rights returned to me. In 2012, I decided to try self-publishing. I am not opposed to traditional publishing and there are books I am working on that would suit this root, however, the books I was working on were not aligned with the market at the time, so I have stayed with self-publishing for the time being.
In 2017 this book was used by 8-year-old magician Issy Simson as a prop on Britain’s Got Talent. Other titles I have published: “Anagramaphobia: at word’s end”, “‘Twas the Night of Halloween”, a poetry collection, “The Book of Colin”, a book version of my ‘Saboteur Awards Short Listed’ spoken word show “2001: a space ode and ditty”, and the anthology styled novel “Blood Ink.” I write screenplays, stage plays, and radio comedies. I have also produced poetry for the Nationwide Building Society.
In 2021 I ran the writing room for a Pantomime at Blackpool and Fylde College where I took on the lead writer and script editor role. I founded the ‘The Blackpool Horror Society’ and record a weekly podcast alongside Dr Ashley Lister PhD, and other guests including award-winning writer Ramsey Campbell and ex-Coronation Street actor, turned master cheese maker, Sean Wilson. Recently I have been working with magician Russ Brown to set up a regular open mic poetry night at his magic-themed bar in Blackpool. The inaugural night of ‘Magical Words’ was very successful.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of character in fiction. This sounds like a trite statement but when you consider that there are people who genuinely believe Sherlock Holmes lived or that our opinion of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare’s play of that name, you begin to understand that fictional characters can sometimes bleed over into the real world and take on a life of their own.
When you accept that some characters such as Bond, Bilbo, Dracula and Frankenstein only need a single name for us to identify them as fully rounded individuals, you begin to realise that there are some fictional characters who have made a bigger impact on the world than many of their real world counterparts.
Which is why I will keep returning to the importance of characters.
Get the name right. Names don’t just help with identity – they also help to establish relationships. I’ve previously pointed out the difference between Dirty Harry and Dirty Harold. Dirty Harry sounds like a cool anti-hero who should look like Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harold sounds like he should be on a register. But, if a young Dirty Harry is being reprimanded by his mum, he’s going to be Harold. Get the name right for the character and the character’s relationship with the person addressing them.
Describe them early on in the story. Imagine the frustration of meeting Bob the hero on page one, following Bob’s adventures for two hundred pages and growing to love Bob’s attitude to every problem. And then, on page 201, you learn that Bob wears spectacles. And is only four feet tall. And is known by the other characters (who haven’t mentioned it to that point) for always wearing his hair in rainbow-coloured dreadlocks. Describe characters when they’re introduced so that readers can keep that image fixed in their mind as the story progresses.
Make sure you understand your main character’s role in the story.
Accept that there are flat and round characters. E M Forster made a distinction between flat and round characters, with the implication that round characters are more integral to the plot. But we also need some flat characters. For example, if my main character buys a coffee from a coffee shop, he doesn’t need to know the backstory of the person selling him the coffee. This is not to say that people who work in coffee shops aren’t important: they’re incredibly important. But the only people important in my story are those characters who have an impact on the plot. And, unless the barista in this story has decided to poison my hero, the only impact they’re having is aiding a caffeine rush.
Bring them to life through their actions. You can always tell me that your hero is a good, selfless person but that’s a dull way of sharing that information. Show me the hero giving their last £5 to a homeless person, or getting their best suit ruined because they jumped into a dirty lake to rescue a drowning kitten, and I’m going to follow that character far more passionately.
Characters are the lifeblood of what we do with writing. Making sure they’re presented properly is essential to quality writing.
This week we’ve been looking at a fairly contemporary piece by the British writing legend that is Ramsey Campbell. Please note that Col is curating a list of these stories so you can find examples of them being read on YouTube, and this one is well worth listening to.