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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

Guest Post by Esther Chilton

I am delighted to welcome Esther Chilton, author, copywriter and Writers Bureau tutor, to guest post. See Esther’s blog at

Esther, welcome to my new blog and very many thanks for coming to guest post. I’m eternally grateful to you, for all your help as my former Writers Bureau tutor. It’s a real milestone to be able to invite you to my own site – beyond anything I dreamt of when enrolling as a student!

Perhaps we could start by looking at a few aspects of short story writing, as this is an area where you’ve had considerable success. One of the most helpful comments that a fellow member of Woking Writers’ Circle made about a story of mine was “in a few deft strokes, he painted a picture of X.”

This was an sudden flash of revelation for me, because it illuminated a comment in Iain Pattison’s excellent WB course companion, “Cracking The Short Story.”

Iain explains that long, detailed passages of characterisation are unnecessary and slow the pace of a short story. My problem was always striking the correct balance, between excessively overblown description and sketchiness that bordered on the non-existent. How do you see this balance and how do you know when you’ve achieved the right compromise?

A. I always find it useful to make a few notes about my characters – in terms of both physical traits and personality traits. It’s good to know your characters well. But it doesn’t mean you then need to use all these in the story. Weave a few in here and there so that you’re creating an image of the character while you’re also pushing on with the story.

Does it depend, to an extent, on the length of the story?

A. Yes. If you’re writing a flash fiction story, for instance, you really haven’t got much room for character description. Whereas if the story is 5000 words long, you can spend a little more time on your characters.

The same general comments about brevity and concise, effective usage seem to be relevant regarding descriptions and scene setting. How do you achieve the required balance here, for example with respect to weather or atmosphere?

A. Again, you can create a sense of place and atmosphere as you build the story. Here’s the opening to a short story. See how it grabs your attention with the opening dialogue, before painting a brief picture in the mind, before pushing on with the story:

Look at that, Jenny. Quick! Over there,” I say, my finger jabbing in the air, pointing at the two squirrels darting in and out of the trees.

She laughs, a melodious chuckle bubbling in her throat. Her eyes dance in delight at the spectacle, following the grey blur of fur as the animals race up a tree trunk, disappearing into a sea of brilliant auburns, rusts and coppers. A branch bounces up and down and golden leaves tumble to the ground to nest with others who’ve found a new home on the forest floor.

I suck in a deep breath. Then blow it out. Tears sting. I push them away. Not now. I won’t let them ruin this moment.

The rest of the story doesn’t feature much more description, just snippets here and there as the story unfolds. It’s good to have some description, but you don’t want your story to read like a travelogue.

We’re often told that short story competition judges look for, among other things, character development – growth through facing challenges, acquisition of more mature attitudes, philosophical approaches to the inevitable, etc..

How do you approach this and how central is it to your focus, when plotting a story?

A. I always enjoy taking my characters on a journey. Most of my stories feature characters who have been through something, whether it’s good or bad, and they learn lessons along the way and it has some effect on their lives. It really is a strong part of the story. I do plot my stories and have an idea of how the story will be shaped and the lessons learned, but sometimes the characters take over and go in a completely different direction! But even though the outcome may be different, the character will still be changed in some way by the end.

Staying with short story competitions, one interesting piece of advice I remember from recent reading was to reject the first few plot ideas that you have, as if you’ve thought of them that quickly, many other people will have done so.

Would you agree with this and if so, what might inspire you when you seek original plots?

A. Yes, I agree with this. I often advise writers to jot down ten ideas. The first few will usually be the ones that come to everyone’s mind. It’s the one’s that come after – the ones that you work at that are the more original and interesting ideas.

Someone who had listened to me reading a short story at one of our recent meetings seemed quite disproportionately worried that my story had involved more than one genre. Is this a fundamental error, or do your regard it as, at least in some cases, natural and even desirable?

A. It depends on the market. If you’re writing for a magazine, then you’ll need to keep to the genre they prefer. If it’s a writing competition, judges often like writers to go for something different and to push the boundaries, so a mixture of genres may be something they find makes a welcome change. If you’re writing for yourself, then anything goes!

Moving on to books, if we may, firstly, serious congratulations on the publication of your latest work “Publication Guaranteed (well almost!)”. I’m guessing that this grew out of your experience as a tutor and through running your own tutoring and advice service?

A. The idea for the book came about after one of my students was struggling to get published and then she had one success. She was over the moon and it gave her confidence to send more work out and to believe in herself. It reminded me of my own journey through The Writers Bureau. My book shares the lessons I’ve learned along the way, together with plenty of examples, tips, writing exercises and resources.

Finally, I’ll always remember your help in getting my first novel, “Theta Double Dot” into existence, as several Writers Bureau assignments. Have you any marketing tips for new authors entering the bewildering phase following publication?

A. This is something I struggle with too! When my latest book came out, I did a shout out via my blog, Twitter and Facebook asking for any marketing tips. The replies, advice and support I received back was overwhelming and has really helped. Social media is a great marketing tool.

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