1. I have failed at NaNoWriMo, due to TMGO (too much going on, including a laptop breakdown!) and I’m thinking that perhaps I will try again in January, when things might have calmed down. If you’re still battling away at it, good luck – and I take my hat off to you!
2. While my mum was staying here last week, we started a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. This was a very bad idea. It’s a long time since I’ve done a jigsaw. Who knew they were so hard? (and time-consuming and addictive?). It’s about two-thirds done and is covering the kitchen table. We are having to eat standing up.
3. I am listening to the audiobook of Sarah Water’s The Night Watch in my car.
It’s unabridged and very good but there are 17 CDs! And I’m only on 11 and I’ve been listening to it for at least two weeks already. I seem to have got embroiled in Things That Are Taking Ages.
But, on a more positive note, since my last post I have had a story accepted by The Weekly News and 3 article ideas accepted by Writing magazine (just got to write them now) and, despite friends (you know who you are!) saying I could ‘never do it’, I have resisted watching I’m a Celebrity which I have, in the past, described as ‘one of my favourite TV programmes’. So that’s self-discipline for you!
And all this leads me nicely onto today’s offering which, because my brain is still not in writing mode, is something I wrote for Writing magazine a few years ago, about using problem pages to get plot ideas:
What’s Your Problem?*
Most good short stories contain some kind of ‘conflict’ (see my last post!). If everything’s hunky-dory, your story’s going to make very dull reading. And the problem pages of magazines, newspapers and websites are a good place to look for ideas for drama and conflict.
Sainsbury’s supermarket used to print a problem in its in-store magazine each month (not sure if they still do! Anyone know?) and offered advice from a psychotherapist as well as members of a readers’ panel.
One issue featured a letter from a reader who’d taken a newly-divorced friend under her wing, only for the friend to start flirting outrageously with her husband (cheek!). She didn’t know whether she should tackle the issue (for fear of losing the friendship) but was seriously concerned that her marriage was under threat.
Another reader had introduced two of her friends to each other and they hit it off so well that they’d started spending time together as a twosome and often didn’t invite her along. She felt jealous and left out and was asking for advice on what she should do.
Either of these issues could form the core of an interesting short story. You just have to work out the ending. Although, of course, if you take the trouble to read the advice given, you may just be provided with a possible ending for your story too.
And it’s not only women who seek help from ‘agony aunts’. Questions to the Guardian’s ‘Private Lives’ problem page (which invites replies from readers of the newspaper), included a plea from a male reader, ‘My wife and I often sulk. How can we avoid becoming ‘grumpy old people?’ (which just goes to show that not all problems are deadly serious) and to Bel Mooney, the advice columnist in The Mail, ‘My mother-in-law thinks I’m not good enough for her daughter.’ There’s plenty of room for drama and conflict in that one!
It’s worth bearing in mind that the writer of any problem page dilemma may well be exaggerating, or deceiving him or herself. There is something of the unreliable narrator in most problem page letters, as there’s always another side to the story, of course, which you, as the writer, are free to imagine.
Aside from their value as potential plot generators, problem pages can also provide some useful writing practice. As an exercise in my classes, I sometimes hand out a real-life published ‘problem’ to my students, for study and discussion in small groups. I ask them to give names to the people involved and to imagine some more background to the issue and then, taking a character each, they write a monologue from that person’s point of view. This is great practice for getting into the head of someone very different from yourself (and possibly, someone not very likeable) and really trying to understand their feelings and motivation.
An alternative exercise is to write one of the pivotal scenes that the problem has suggested (for example, the scene in which the woman finally confronts her friend over her inappropriate flirting).
As writers, it’s important that we don’t shy away from writing dramatic scenes. They can be difficult but beware of having your pivotal scenes taking place ‘out of sight’: your reader will feel cheated.
And a final note of warning: reading the on-line forums, in particular, can be very addictive and time-consuming (rather like doing a jigsaw, in fact). Please don’t write to me if this becomes a problem!
* A longer version of this article appeared in Writing magazine in 2012