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Thank you for visiting! This is the hub website for my music, writing and teaching projects. I am always looking to meet similar people who share my passion for a range of creative forms. The aim of this site is to bring together the different faces I have happily worn for the last fifteen years: musician, writer, performer, tutor and presenter.

Mollie Baxter
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Wordspark #017: Creating Suspense in your Fiction Writing

July 3rd, 2014

www.nicolajoannecarter.co.uk

Do your openings lack oompf? Do your middles meander? Maybe your endings are anti-climactic? If so, it may be that you are not making the most of your opportunities for creating suspense. Suspense is interrupted forward momentum. Something must be faced, maybe it’s inevitable, or maybe there’s a chance to avert it – but this something must be of considerable cost or gain to the characters involved. A scene where a woman waits for a train contains limited suspense; but a scene where a woman waits for a train whilst the hero does everything he can to reach her before she boards contains much more. Your aim is to create a space which separates the moment of knowledge from its conclusion.

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Look at your chapter endings. See that white space running to the bottom of the page? There, in a very real sense, is space. Your reader must turn the page before they can continue. To make the most of this opportunity, redraft it so you also end on a moment of new knowledge, or a very clear signal of what the next plot-problem is going to be. For instance: a character discovers that only two people had access to the ride-on mower that day. Or she decides that before she does anything else, she has to get in contact with her cousin.

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Try These Scenarios:

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A couple are having a light aircraft flight for their anniversary. The one who booked the flight intends to propose when they break through the cloud cover…

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Your character works at a casino, refilling the peanut bowls on the Hawaiian bar amongst the tomb raider slots. They are tense and keep looking over to the same place – a decorative alcove containing a large aspidistra…

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Your character is trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach because she is about to give a presentation on how to set up a small business. She is also heavily pregnant…

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Write a complete short story in one sitting, made up of at least three sections. Each section should end with a moment of suspense. How could you incorporate this technique into your other writing?

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A final thought, we often talk of suspense ‘building’. When tension spikes, it takes more tension next time to achieve the same sense of excitement. See if you can keep the suspense building in your story, working towards an inevitable – but unpredictable – climax!

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(c) Mollie Baxter

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Wordspark #016: Bingo!

August 13th, 2013
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Random House has launched a Bingo Challenge with a printable bingo card. Rather than numbers, you mark off when you’ve achieved reading tasks such as a book you chose because of its cover, or a book “everyone” but you has read. It’s a great spin-off from the traditional game and it inspired the following Wordspark exercises. You can try these with your writing group, or, if you are a tutor, use them to bring a bit of light-hearted learning to an end of term session.

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Game 1 (Prose):

Use with an established group, one that is experienced with giving and receiving feedback. Since the game involves looking for flaws in writing, it is not the best choice for beginners or new groups even though the flaws have been deliberately created by the authors. An undergraduate group would be perfect.

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Step 1: Each player (or small team) devises a bingo card filled with common writing mistakes rather than numbers. The grid can have any number of boxes, but 3×3, 3×4 or 3×5 mean you have enough boxes to get a decent ‘hit-rate’ during the game, but not so many that the entire session is spent creating the grid in the first place.

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Here are some examples of what you might put in your grid:

- A mixed-metaphor

- A shift in point of view

- Lack of specificity in a detail (e.g. ‘birds’ not ‘sparrows’)

- Awkward dialogue adverbs

- Close repetition of words

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Step 2: Each individual writes a short piece deliberately incorporating several of the flaws from their grid. It’s a good idea to offer a prompt for this new piece since, interestingly, deliberately writing badly takes a lot of concentration and ingenuity on its own without also having to think of a story-worthy idea too.

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Shuffle and redistribute the bingo cards. You’ll need to devise a marking system – anything from bits of sticky-tac to pencil ticks that can later be rubbed out will do. You’re ready to play.

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Each person takes a turn to read, whilst the teams mark off their grid each time one of the mistakes on their grid occurs. ‘Bingo!’ can be called by whoever gets 3 hits, but in true traditional style, they have to call back their results to everyone present before the win can be confirmed.

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Game 2 (Poetry):

Maybe because the rules of Bingo are so easy to pick up everyone seems to be playing it, if the success of sites such as bingogodz.com are anything to go by. Ten years ago, the old 1950s Bingo calls we know and still love were updated to appeal to modern players. Ten years ago, the old 1950s Bingo calls we know and still love were updated to appeal to modern players. According to this article, ‘Bang on the drum – 21′ was replaced by, ’21 – J-Lo’s bum.’ This second game works on the basis that, ten years later, it’s now time for J-Lo’s bum to sashay off and make way for phrases fit for 2013.

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Step 1: Assign three numbers to each participant and set them the task of devising the new calling phrase for each. Younger players simply need to tune in to rhythm and rhyme, but older players can also get bonus points for topicality or wit.

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Step 2: After ten minutes or so, eyes down and you can read around the results. To really bring it alive, why not play an actual round of bingo, where everyone takes a turn to draw numbers from the hat and the new phrases are called out by their writers?

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Have fun!

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Review: ‘Sweet Home’ Scott Prize Winning Short Story Collection by Carys Bray

August 8th, 2013
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Intense moments of shock, grief and trauma are rich subject matter for short stories, but in this impressive début collection Bray focuses not on the dramatic incident itself, but on the life that must be lived despite it: rather than the death of the sister, it’s how the brother exists alongside his own grief and the grief he sees in his family; it’s not the rescue a father makes of his drug-addict son, it’s the reality of how such a desperate desire can become the background texture of every, normal day; it’s not the moment a newborn baby dies, it’s the knowing it’s going to happen. Bray shows us how we paper the cracks of tension in our lives and whilst the result is dark, it is never gratuitous and her commitment to emotional honesty gives substance and bite.

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For the full review click here.

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Here’s what Carys had to say about her writing, her processes and what she is working on now:

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I started writing the stories during my MA at Edge Hill in 2009/10 and I carried on writing in the year after I graduated. I didn’t think of the stories as a collection initially, but over time it became clear that they did fit together and that’s when I decided to enter the Scott Prize.

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I think lots of things define what can make a good short story. I like a surprise, not necessarily a ‘twist’ but something unexpected or unusual or new. I’ve just read The Best British Short Stories 2011 and I loved the way Hilary Mantel’s story ‘Winter Break’ misdirected and surprised me.

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I really like fresh language and I particularly enjoy Helen Simpson’s stories. Sometimes her metaphors and observations stop me in my tracks and I have to read a sentence again because it is so beautiful.

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People like to say ‘show, don’t tell.’ Although it’s a useful thing to keep in mind, there are some brilliant ‘telling’ stories that are told so well, they actually ‘show’ things, if that makes sense! One that comes to mind is Lee Rouke’s ‘Emergency Exit’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011. There is a lot of telling, but it’s skilfully done and the story really works.

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Carys has just done a reading with Jenn Ashworth author of The Friday Gospels at Ebb and Flo, a lovely new bookshop in Chorley. But you can catch her at the Southport Flower Show on Saturday 17th August where she’ll be doing a book signing.


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Thanks, Carys – I can’t wait to read the novel!

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WORDSPARK #015: Sinistral or Dextral – What’s your chirality?

February 21st, 2013
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I’ve learnt a new word today: ‘chirality’ refers to your handedness. 90% of the world’s population is thought to be dextral – right-handed – and just 10% left-handed or ‘sinistral’. A rare few might be ambidextrous, particularly if they’ve made a point of practicing, a few more might be ‘mixed-handed’ where the dominant hand depends on the task in hand (so to speak). Mixed-handedness feels a little lame as a term compared with its fellows. Perhaps ‘Melangal’ from the French ‘melange’ or mixture could add a bit more spice? (Spot the lateral-link to a famous sci-fi series there…)

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Free-writing with the non-dominant hand

Whilst tidying my study the other week I happened upon a writing exercise I’d tried years ago. The task was to free-write using my non-dominant hand.I remember it was ….slow – quite different from the usual free-writing process where you write as quickly as you can, one word after another. It was frustrating and as you can see it thrust me back into the childhood process of learning to write for the first time! Apologies to Mrs Winn for my unseemly outburst at the end…

Free-writing with the non-dominant hand

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Some say that writing with your non-dominant hands forges a link to the other side of the brain than that which we usually prioritise. Who knows what alter-egos, spectres or doppelgangers we might be able to tap into with this exercise? But, it’s also simply an entertaining diversion that may or may not throw up writing we can develop later. For those teaching creative writing this would be good one to try on those long, stuffy afternoons in over-heated classrooms where no-one can settle. It’s light, and throwaway, but it also forces participants to slow down and to concentrate… and it’s amusing to see who can’t help stick their tongue out of the side of their mouth while they do it.

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So, set your timer and for ten minutes write with your non-dominant hand. How does it differ to a normal free-writing session? Do you happen upon anything unexpected or entertaining? Do you find yourself reliving your schooldays? How does it make you feel?

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A Place to Put Your Thoughts – The Writer’s Journal (Part 1)

February 15th, 2013
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Do you keep a journal? How does it help you?

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Telling writers what to do is like herding cats. They don’t make a point of being single-minded, skittish, aloof or obstructive, it is just part of their nature. And in the same way a cat-lover understands and respects their cat’s behaviours, so should a writer’s tendency to do everything their way be accepted as being for a very good reason and not to be awkward. They do it that way because that’s how it needs to be done for them.

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Take writer’s journals. Ask a writer to show you their journal and you might see:

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A blog
A scrapbook
A notebook
A computer folder
A shoebox
A pin-board
A diary
A box of index cards
A camera

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… They might even shrug and say they don’t have one.

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Each approach has different benefits, but all work towards getting new words on the page. We’ll explore some of these different methods in Part 2, but first let’s look at journal keeping more generally. How does journal keeping help a writer? To answer that we need to know what they’re up against. In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande suggests we face ‘four difficulties’ with writing.

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Firstly there is the difficulty of writing at all, that is to say making a start, breaking through the barrier of inhibition, putting words on the page until achieving a ‘full, abundant flow’. Most writers can tell you of times when they’ve been in this flow and how exhilarating and rewarding it feels; the difficult thing is maintaining it. For most, it’s not something that can be turned on like a tap – it must be worked for. A journal, whatever form it takes, greases the writing cogs and keeps them turning.

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Secondly, Brande refers to ‘One-Book Author’ Syndrome. This can be a killer to the creative process. As soon as a writer produces anything they’re halfway pleased with, they find themselves faced with a set of expectations for future work – it must be at least as good. Regularly keeping a journal can assuage this because it encourages us to think of writing as a daily practice first and foremost. It helps us learn that first drafts are still valuable despite not being dazzling, polished pieces of work.

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The occasional writer presents the third difficulty. This is when a writer’s creation of new work is so sporadic it is like an engine sputtering into life in a cloud of smoke and steam. No sooner has the rust been scraped off the wheels than everything falls back into dormancy and the rust returns. This is not to say that fallow periods aren’t sometimes a natural part of the creative cycle, but I think most writers, if you asked would they like to double their output during creative times without lowering the quality, would want to. A journal is a way to bolster those touch-and-go times when writing is hard or slow and might fall by the wayside because it gives us some parameters to work within. And it gives us a bit of momentum.

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Finally, the uneven writer is faced with a more technical problem. Some aspect of their writing holds them back. They might be a bit edit-shy, or have a tendency to overwrite. They might use a few too many cliches or have a tendency to repeat the same words, or have other writing ‘tics’. Keeping a journal may help first with identifying these tendencies, and then with ironing them out.

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So, keeping a journal can certainly be a valuable way for writers to overcome obstacles to their writing, but what actually IS a journal, and what do you put in it? And are they always as good a thing as they’re made out to be? In Part Two we’ll look at some different approaches to journal keeping along with the benefits and pitfalls.

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I have been away… but now I’m back… until the next nappy change!

November 19th, 2012
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Morecambe's Winter Gardens, back in the day.

Thanks, Simon Kurt Unsworth for inviting me to do this. Although I’m still managing to squeeze in writing when I can, things like going to readings, running events, blogging etc has taken a back seat for the moment with the arrival of baby Ted, so it’s very nice to have these questions to plug the grey matter back into the writing world!

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1. What’s the working title of your next book?

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Titles seem to either present themselves early on, or cause weeks, months or even years of searching. You know when you’ve got the right one, though. My novel is called Finding Funny, and I’m pretty happy with it. It takes place in Morecambe, where I lived for many years. Set in the austerity post-war era of the 1950s, it follows ten year old Essy and her father Henry in their life as Variety Show performers. It was a poignant time – Variety was trying to regain its feet after the war and maybe could have succeeded, but other factors like rock n roll, cinema and television caused what we can now see as an inevitable decline.

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2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

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I’d been on the search for a novel-worthy idea for a while. I came to the conclusion I was trying to be too clever. Rather than playing around with meta-structure and narrative style, first I needed to actually learn how to write a sustained piece after years of flash fiction and short stories. I went on the look-out for something rich and fun. Then, the winter before last, there was a short series called (I think) The Golden Age of Variety. As the guests reminisced, I sat in front of the fire with a notebook on my lap and scrawled and scrawled – dates, anecdotes, characters of the time, contextual information. I knew this was something I could immerse myself in for a 400 page stint.

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3. What genre does the book fall under?

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Probably simply ‘Fiction’, although within that it is humour and historical.

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4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

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The last Story Forum of 2011! Now with added music and reduced ticket price!

November 3rd, 2011

It’s back! Special guest compere for the night will be the wonderful Ann Wilson.

Remember you can reserve a seat by emailing Mollie. Doors open at 6pm and seats are reserved until 6.15. Show starts at 6.30pm.

This month we have….

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The Story Forum #2 Tuesday September 13th 2011

September 5th, 2011

New thing: Seats can be reserved by emailing Mollie or contacting her via Facebook. Seats will be reserved until 6.15. (Doors open at 6pm)

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Flash Mob Flax #026 listen or download for Kindle or iBook

August 24th, 2011
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Click here to visit the Litfest website and listen to the Flash Mob stories – including Mollie’s ‘Talent Show,’ or you can download the entire anthology for Kindle or iBook.

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Deep Clutter ‘Slices’

August 18th, 2011
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Together, Steve Lewis and Shaun Blezard are Deep Clutter, an experimental and improvisational duo combining vocals and electronics. Some months ago I was contacted by Steve who asked if he could use extracts from my story ‘Thinking in Slices’ (Published in Flax 001) for an E.P.. I know Shaun and Steve’s work and couldn’t wait to hear how they used the words with their soundscapes.

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It’s a strange and exciting experience to hear your words reinterpreted. The sample track below, ‘I Slice Tomatoes,’ is taken from the open lines of the story. A woman, recently bereaved, fixes herself supper and is visited by the ghost of her lover. In the story, it is the ghost who can’t move on, who can only communicate with the woman on the same footing as when he was alive.

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It’s a story of deep frustration, loneliness and resentment, although it is cloaked in the mundane action of slicing tomatoes for supper. Deep Clutter’s interpretation cuts through all the veils and gets to the sharp-edged heart of things. The repetition suggests the futility of trying to move on, the heaviness of expectation. The vocals move from plaintive whimpers, to ghostly, unsettling wails. Clear ambivalence – who speaks – the ghost or the woman?

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I Slice Tomatoes is taken from the Deep Clutter 6 track album Slices. Listen here.

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Available on handbuilt CDr (£3+ free digital version) and digital download (£2+) from CM store at bandcamp and soon all expensive sites like iTunes. Support independent producers and buy from Shaun’s bandcamp!

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Music by Steve Lewis – Vocals/FX & Shaun Blezard – Electronics
Words by Mollie Baxter

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Released by: Clutter Music
Release/catalogue number: CM007
Release date: Jul 30, 2011

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