Bruce Harris Author, and Editor of the Writing Short
Once the decision to write has been made, the next step is to decide what to write about. For many people, unfortunately, this first hurdle is
the one they stumble over so badly that they never get back up. For others, the choice is obvious; with particular interests and experience in
one of the prominent genres such as sports, science, historical or crime writing, they can immediately make use of their professional lives in
their fiction writing. Genre writing has limitations and restrictions of its own, and many people who have taken the decision to write will be
reluctant to be pushed so severely in an unnecessarily narrow direction from the start.
The conventional wisdom is to “write from experience”, but that, again, imposes restrictions of its own, limiting people to their own time,
country and reality. Imagination is one of the characteristics which distinguish fiction from more functional forms of writing, and unless a
person has had a particularly exotic or unusual life, the number of situations and settings which one life makes available may not be a
sufficiently rich resource for many people.
It is also clear enough that a successful writer has to be able to stand in other people’s shoes. Men who can only write about men, and women who
can only write about women, will quickly find themselves operating in an awkwardly narrow world and alienating half of their potential
readership. Similarly, young people who are unable or unwilling to attempt to get into the minds of their elders, and older people who have lost
all sense of what being young was about, will be straitjacketing themselves from the beginning.
Decisions about subject matter are also inextricably linked to the perceived audience, and to what effect the writer is trying to achieve. If it
is simply about “a good story” in the narrative sense, the conventional pattern of beginning, middle and end is what most readers will be
expecting, and if the settings, characters and events have a sufficient authority and authenticity about them, the reader is likely to engage
with the story, take it at face value and enjoy it.
If the writer is seeking to make a point or further a cause, more subtle calculations are required. Preaching or tub thumping will tend to put
readers off, as will a bias which ignores any contradictory views or facts. If the writer wants the reader to sympathise or empathise with
experiences in past lives, exaggeration for effect is also likely to alienate the reader.
There are a number of resources for an aspirant writer deciding what to write about. Firstly, many magazines and competitions use themes for
submissions and entries. Often, the themes are deliberately kept very vague and general, such as “emotion”, “urban fiction”, “power”,
“resolutions”. On occasions, editors or competition setters will choose a first or last line or sentence, or specify a particular time or place.
Generally speaking, what is being sought is some fresh or original interpretation, because it is understandably tedious for editors and
competition readers to wade through story after story using the same approach. Something which springs easily to mind when thinking about a theme
has probably also sprung to many other minds equally easily. Thinking around the subject, making notes and talking to other people can be
invaluable methods of preparation.
Secondly, reading short fiction and poetry can prove to be a useful source of ideas. I would emphasise that I am not talking here about
plagiarism, which is in any case dangerous, as the styles of many leading fiction writers are familiar to people with experience in the field.
Simply looking at how other people have dealt with themes, plots and characters in the limited space available can be a stimulation in itself,
and it is rare for two people to share exactly the same perception of how an individual piece of fiction should be handled.
Thirdly, many of the main resources sites, such as
firstwriter.com, will provide
profiles of magazines and
competitions detailed enough for site visitors to find out the kind of material which each publication or organisation
is likely to publish or reward. If it is clear that the content is not suitable for what the writer is trying to do, time and effort can be
spared before even looking at the magazine or competition itself. If it does seem probable that the author’s work might be considered as
appropriate, then it is worth taking the time to look at the kind of material which the magazine has published. This will not only save the
writer from making futile submissions, it may also provide a useful source of ideas and themes.
Fourthly, Wikipedia and a host of other recording and historical sites can provide information concerning anniversaries, birthdays, events,
people and places which can enable the necessary research to be done to produce what has been called
"faction": that is, fiction built on a frame
of actual happenings. A great deal of fiction based on wars, meetings, childhoods and journeys has been originated in this way and continues to
be. In this respect, people who have a background in research or are patient and persistent enough to teach themselves will have a built in
Fifthly, local libraries and bookshops almost invariably have sections of local material available concerning the folklore, history and
traditions of their area which can provide a rich resource for developing fictional material.
Finally, the media at large, including broadcasting, the national and local press, social media sites, magazines, radio and Internet search
engines are all capable of providing ideas and source material. A fiction writer needs the same impulse of investigation and discovery as the
successful journalist, to make sure the ideas never run out.
About the author An anthology of 25 stories by Bruce Harris which have all won prizes, commendations or listings in UK fiction competitions, First
Flame, was published in October 2013 by
In addition to second prize in the 2014 Momaya Press Competition, his awards list includes Writers’ Bureau (twice); Grace Dieu Writers’ Circle
(five times); Biscuit Publishing, Yeovil Prize, Milton Keynes Speakeasy (three times), Exeter Writers, Fylde Writers, Brighton Writers (three
times), Wells Literary Festival, Wirral Festival of Firsts, New Writer, Segora, Sentinel Quarterly, Swale Life, Havant Literary Festival,
Southport Writers’ Circle, Lichfield Writers’ Circle, Cheer Reader (three times), TLC Creative, 3into1 Short Story Competition, Meridian, Five
Stop Story (three times), JB Writers’ Bureau, Red Line (twice) and Bridport Prize and Bristol Prize longlists.
He also edits Writing Short Fiction at
http://writingshortfiction.org: a free resource for all who write or who want to write short stories.
Writers are currently being invited to
enter this year’s SaveAs Writers’ Competition:
"Each year we are increasingly impressed by the quality of
the writing that we receive from around the world. Now in
its 7th year we hope to make this the best year yet."
There is no limit to the number of entries per person. The
deadline for all poetry and prose entries is December 31,
2014. Entries with a post mark of December 31 will be
Submitted pieces should not have been entered
in any previous SaveAs Writers’ competition or been placed
in the top three in any other competition. Otherwise,
previously published entries are accepted. The copyright of
each entry remains with the writer but SaveAs Writers
reserves the right to publish winning entries on its
website. The judge will see each piece – there is no
There are prizes for first place of £100; £50 for second
place; and £30 for third place. In addition, each winner receives a trophy.
Short stories may be up to 3,000 words, and may have any theme.
The judge is Amy Sackville, whose debut novel, The Still Point, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her
second novel, Orkney, won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2014.
Amy teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent.
Poems up to 50 lines long are welcome on any subject. The
judge is Helen Ivory. Waiting for Bluebeard is
Helen Ivory’s fourth collection for Bloodaxe Books (May,
2013). She is editor of Ink Sweat & Tears and teaches for
the University of East Anglia and the Writers’ Centre
How to Enter
Entry fees: £3 per poem/story,
£8 for three.
Entries can be either hard copy or
electronic. If submitting hard copies please post them to:
Luigi Marchini Chairman SaveAs Writers 35 Spillett
Close Faversham Kent ME13 8QP
Your name must not
appear on your hard copies but please include a covering
letter with your name, contact details, and title of the
Electronic copies must be sent to
email@example.com and headed as either
"Prose". In both cases all monies must be sent to the
above address with cheques payable to "SaveAs Writers".
The winners will be announced at the Annual Awards Ceremony
in March 2015.
For the details of over 100 other current writing
Jeff Berg's Resolution
Agency closes down
Less than two years after it was
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Berg blamed the closure on Chinese investor Bison Capital
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seven months after its launch.
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Resolution had represented
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To search over
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Major arts festival
coming to Nanaimo in 2015: April 30–May 3
The Cascadia Poetry Festival is coming
to Nanaimo. The third in an annual festival series that
originated in 2012 in Seattle, CPF3-2015 is expected to
bring more than four-hundred visitors to eat, sleep and
soak up some great poetry in this Vancouver Island city.
Cascadia began as the brain-child of poet and arts activist
Paul Nelson, through an organisation called SPLAB (the
Seattle Poetics Laboratory). It started out small, with
about one hundred poets and attendees from both sides of the
border. By its second bout in 2014 that number had
quadrupled. Canadian poets have participated from the
outset, but this will be the first time the CPF has come to
As the CPF website (www.cascadiapoetryfestival.org)
makes clear, this is a festival born with a visionary
concept - an international festival that seeks to “bioregionally
animate and culturally construct” Cascadia by gathering
writers, artists and scientists to “collaborate, discover
and foster deeper connection between inhabitants and the
place itself.” Cascadia, as defined by writer and scientist
David McCloskey, is the bioregion that stretches “in a great
curving arc from Northern California to southeast Alaska—a
vast swath which also includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho,
Montana and more than half of British Columbia.”
Accessibility is a key value for this festival. A Gold Pass
to four days of readings, panels and discussions costs $25
and only $10 for students. The four scheduled workshops
aren’t covered by the pass but, at $60, they are a literary
bargain. You can buy your tickets on the CPF website. The
schedule is already posted on the website too, and bios of
the forty-two participating poets from both sides of the
border. And, of course, you can volunteer!
The Cascadia Poetry Festival creates a
special ambiance, says CPF3-2015 Co-Chair, Vancouver
Island poet David Fraser. “It brings together people who
want to be part of the important conversation about our
rich, trans-national community."
informal mingling at CPF is as important as the panels and
performances, Fraser says. "We create time and space for
people to sit and talk about what Cascadia really means to
Lantzville poet and publisher,
Ursula Vaira, writes about Cascadia in her book about
kayaking through the region – and see what happens,
published by Caitlin Press in 2011. Two of the couplets in
her extended poem, Frog River, say this:
still, river becomes mountain becomes cloud.
becomes bird. the hollow bone.
Vaira will be part
of the CPF3-2015 lineup – a lineup that brings together
emerging and established poets. One of the featured
participants, Brenda Hillman, won the 2014 Griffin Poetry
CPF3-2015 is forging a relationship between
area poets and local businesses, schools, Vancouver Island
University and the City of Nanaimo – everyone helping to make
the festival a success and to highlight the area's strength
as a community of poets and writers. There were four-hundred
attendees at Seattle’s CPF, held in May of this year.
CPF3-2015 organisers are hoping to match or better that.
Taking the lead in festival organising is a small
Nanaimo-based arts society called “WordStorm” (www.wordstorm.ca)
– a dynamic group of writers who run monthly Spoken Word
performances in local cafés (currently the Vault Café on
Nanaimo’s Wallace Street). CPF3 co-chair, Fraser, is also WordStorm’s artistic director and president.
“Spreading the word that Nanaimo is not only a gorgeous
place, but also a major arts destination is one of the
city’s key strategic goals,” Fraser remarks. “It is
gratifying that a small, volunteer group of poets is helping
to manifest that message.”
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