Sunday, 28 June 2015

Writing for Beginners (3)

See What Floats To The Surface
One of the more common questions asked by writers starting out in this business is, ‘I’ve got a problem: with so many ideas whirling around in my head, how do I settle on the right one?’
Call that a problem? There are writers out there who’d give their granny’s right arm to be so discombobulated! I’m rarely if ever short of an idea or several, although there have been times when the only one I’ve had has been so lonely and miserable I’ve had to take it out and shoot it, to put it out of my misery.

The nature of ideas is that they come and go like last week’s news, rarely hanging about unless you write them down as soon as they occur. (Note to self: practice what you preach; last week I couldn’t be bothered to stir myself and reach out for my notebook in the middle of the night, and an idea went walkabout. All I know is, it was a belter. If it should float your way – grab it.)

The human brain has a great capacity to be attracted to certain things over others. Laughter over misery, comfort over cold, chip fat over limp lettuce… But the subconscious works in ways we can’t explain – or, at least, I can’t. And one thing I’ve found over the years of slaving over a hot keyboard is that there’s a degree of natural selection at work in our heads. It makes sense, therefore, to rely on that inner skill when deciding which direction or choice to take.

What you might need to do is give that internal selector a bit of a nudge now and then, otherwise you’re expecting too much of it. The first thing is to organise your ideas in a way that makes them instantly ‘grabbable’.

Picture if you will, the mind of your average writer (and for this, I use my own as a model, so don’t feel I’m talking about you). It’s pretty much like a wheelie-bin - or, as my wife says - a compost heap. Full of all kinds of rubbish, none of it is recycled and most of it is swirling around and fermenting nicely. To make sense of this pile of festering flapdoodle, you need to sort through it and arrange the good bits into recognisable ‘tags’, so that you can pick them out at a glance.

This is where the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’ from the film industry comes in handy, where a scriptwriter has the length of time it takes to walk from the studio's front door to the elevator to pitch an idea to a producer. It helps if it can be contained in a single line.

Thus, if one of your ideas involves a small boy being abandoned in the jungle, where he is brought up by wolves and befriended by a singing, feckless ape and preyed upon by a nasty but clearly well-educated tiger, you could describe it as:

Small boy, jungle-reared, journeys from man-cub to man-child. Would make a fantastic feature-film!

Okay, I cheated with that last bit (and there’s not a writer alive who doesn’t fantasise about getting a film deal). But I'm sure you get the idea.

Speaking personally, trying to recognise my own ideas in any other way is far too confusing without using this brief kind of tag. But it’s enough to remind me what the idea is about without needing to look at all the detail or the notes I might have made about sub-plots, characters, locations and so on.

Just like the elevator pitch, it relies on a sketch, rather than the full picture. And writing these single-liners down (on separate pieces of paper if you like, to distance them further from each other) allows me to sort through them to see what appeals.

However, don’t rush it. What I do is allow the selection process to work by leaving the ideas to one side for a few days, then going back and running my eye down the list. Doing this, I inevitably find that one will suddenly look less attractive than it once did, compared to the others. So I lose it; dump it back whence it came, maybe saving it for another time.

This is where the brain uses the interaction between the eye and the subconscious, drawing you towards what appeals most, and away from the ideas that feel less worthy.

Repeat, as they say in cookery books, until done, or until you find that the same idea keeps floating steadily to the surface, or your eye keeps being pulled back to one more than the others.

It’s at this point that your writing really begins, because by this time, the creative part of your subconscious will also have been chugging away quietly, giving your initial idea more strands and directions to work on and expanding it into a tangible storyline.

·        Turn each of your scribbled ideas into a single, brief sentence with just sufficient detail to make them recognisable.
·        Look at this list over several days. Prune away any which do not instantly appeal.
·        By reducing the list, you are forced to concentrate on a narrower range without wading through
       too many distractions.
·        DON’T throw away your discarded ideas; one day you’ll come back to them - I promise.
Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Writing for beginners (2)

Continuing my occasional addition to the blog of previously published articles on writing for beginners. These have appeared in Writing Magazine - and in my book 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book'. (see below).

Write outside the square


I was asked recently at a literary bash what sort of writing I did. When I explained that I wrote various things, ranging from articles to short stories to books – even radio comedy material for a while – I received the kind of look you get when you accidentally step on someone’s freshly seeded lawn.

It seems I had somehow transgressed in the other person’s eyes, as if engaging in more than one kind of writing was deeply sinful. My interlocutor, incidentally, claimed to write ‘only serious material’, without revealing quite what that was.

However, it set me thinking. What he clearly found so odd was that I couldn’t be slotted into a convenient box marked ‘Short Story Writer’, ‘Poet’, ‘Feature Writer’ or whatever. And it’s not the first time I’ve encountered this reaction.

Unless you like to work in a specific field, I don’t see what’s wrong with ploughing a broad furrow. You may possess background knowledge or experience which allows you to concentrate on a particular subject area, which is fine. But most writers I know inevitably try a variety of subjects or styles along the way, whether by accident, design or commission (the latter being where you might get to eat once in a while).

Trying things out.

Merely another way of flexing your writing muscles. And on the simple basis that you never know what you can do until you try, there’s a good argument for trying different forms of writing.
Of course, the act of putting words on paper is common to all writing, but there are some basic differences in the pursuit and practice between, say, writing a piece of fiction and penning a magazine article. But they’re hardly insurmountable.


AKA Making stuff up, gives you complete freedom to write what you wish. It’s your world, so as long as your characters, setting and events are believable and acceptable to your target market, anything goes. And most, if not all your creativity can take place at your desk, the main tools being your mind and whatever information sources you might have at hand.


NOT making stuff up requires a slightly different approach, where accuracy is essential if you want to gain and maintain credibility. Fail to state the correct facts (and there’s always somebody out there who knows) and your writing will be questioned, usually with fatal results for any future projects. Accumulating these facts requires physical study, interviews or research into the subject in libraries, museums or on the Internet.
However, we’re only varying our working practice slightly, not re-inventing the wheel, and we try other forms of activity in life, so why not with writing?


Most of us grow up playing one or more forms of sport, be it football, hockey, baseball, swimming, etc. Most of our choices are governed by background, education or simply the facilities available. But just because we’ve always kicked a ball about, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we should do.
Many of us in this country rarely see snow from one year’s end to the next (even as I write this, I’ve a feeling I may regret it). But if we’re lucky enough to try winter sports on holiday, we may discover an ability to ski with reasonable, even consummate ease. Some of us who rarely go near water except to wash, find we have a real and hitherto untapped affinity with the stuff when given a wetsuit, flippers and sub-aqua equipment (okay, and tropical temperatures to go with them!)
Both sports may be very different forms of activity from our personal norm, yet we’re still using the same basic equipment, albeit with the add-on of curved planks or floppy shoes to help us along a bit.
Similarly, writing is writing, whatever you are working on. And until you test yourself, you may be unaware that you have the ability to do something you’d never considered before.

Marshalling Facts

Working on assembling a feature is excellent training for developing a control of detail in a work of fiction. If your story is set in a real, identifiable town, for example, it helps to ensure your description of roads, places and the general layout is as accurate as possible, otherwise it will be spoiled for people who know the place you’re writing about.

Creating Scenes

(and I don't mean in public) from nothing is essential when writing non-fiction. The topic may be factual, even dry, but it still needs to be an entertaining read. And the creative use of words you employ in writing fiction can help you lift the page from being a listing of facts and figures into something enjoyable.
So, unless you wish to stick rigidly to one genre, it might pay to consider others. Changing projects every now and then is a useful way of refreshing your work and giving yourself a break. And writing something outside your normal comfort zone might help spread your talents to other, equally rewarding fields.
More than anything, though, next time anyone asks what you do, you can tell them quite simply and positively.
You’re a writer. End of story.


·        Trying different writing styles is like flexing different muscles.
·        You already possess the equipment – try using it for different tasks.
·        Refuse to be pigeonholed.
·        You never know what you can do until you try.
'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' -  available in paperback and ebook

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Writing for Beginners 1

'The hardest, most challenging thing for many writers is to start writing. The next is to keep going.'
Having learned this the hard way over many years writing short fiction, features, books and a whole lot of other things (t-shirt slogans, greetings cards, radio comedy, a play and even poetry) I was delighted to be asked to share some of the other lessons I picked up as a writer. These became a monthly column called 'Beginners' in Writing Magazine - an excellent print and online magazine and facility (and meeting place) for writers of all kinds and levels, starters and professionals.

That was (to my great surprise, checking back) all of 12 years ago!

Since then, many of the pages of 'Beginners', were, with the kind permission of the editor, morphed into a book called 'Write On! - The Writers' Help Book' now available in print and ebook (see below).

But it recently struck me that along with the current column and the book collection of previous ones, both of which include a heap of Top Tips, it wouldn't hurt to share some of my suggestions and advice with new writers on an occasional basis via this blog .

So, here's the first one I put into the book, starting with the chapter header:

There is no easy way to start writing. You can’t creep up on it stealthily and take it by surprise; nor can you sit and wait for it to happen like an attack of measles.You just have to decide what you want to write … then write.
A bit like walking, really. Only you’re leaning over a keyboard.
Breath out. Flex the fingers … now let the ideas flow.
Where do I begin?
I now know how my father used to feel when my brother or I, on being given some information he undoubtedly thought would help us develop into mature and rounded characters, would promptly come back with, ‘Why’s that, dad, why?’ This, bear in mind, was at the tender age between ‘The Beano’ comic and more ‘serious’ reading, where a boy’s idle curiosity usually outstrips his willingness to go off and find out something for himself.
This revelatory moment came about for me after a gentleman approached me at a conference recently and announced: ‘I’ve never written anything in my life, but I’ve always wanted to write a book. Trouble is, I don’t know what I want to write.’
‘Okaaay,’ I said, not sure where this was leading. Then he hit me with the BIG one, the equivalent to the ‘Why, dad…?’.
‘So where do I start?’
My initial thought was that he would find it easier to put together a nuclear power station (at least there are diagrams available for building your own version of Sellafield, and most DIY stores seem to stock everything required by a budding power freak). But, a serious question requires a proper answer – and he couldn't be alone in wanting to know. What I suggested is (roughly) as follows:

What’s your poison?
A good place to start is to consider what you like to read, on the basis that (a) this is the genre with which you are most familiar and (b) you should at least write something you enjoy, the alternative being, surely, madness. You might also, hopefully, have an idea of what else is on the market, which is far simpler than charging at it blind and hoping you can produce something commercial out of nothing (been there, got the rejections slips…)

Start with a plan, Stan.
Once you’ve decided on the genre, it helps to have a plan in mind. Will it be plot-led (say, an action thriller or a torrid romance) or character-led (a family saga, perhaps, or an individual’s journey through a particular event in life – a right of passage, for example)? Is there a particular age group you’re aiming at? Male or female? Adult or teens? Will it be told in the first-person or third? How many main characters will you have? What’s the location – real or made up? Contemporary or historical/future setting? These are just some of the points to bear in mind, rather like deciding the shape and style of a building before you start phoning round the builders’ merchants.

What’s the theme?
In other words, the main subject running through the story? Is it one of revenge? Growing up? A journey of discovery? Hardships overcome? The theme doesn’t need stating outright, but recognising it might help you nail the core of the story.

Think about the structure.
Ideally, every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. No doubt some modernists will go puce and mutter ‘phooey’ or some such expletive to this outrageously dated suggestion, but most readers have traditional tastes, and that’s who we write for, not the fadists. Knowing the structure – even in a rough form – will help you work out the rise and fall of your story, building from the introduction of your characters and setting, and leading through the progression of events to the ending. Another function of deciding the structure is to see if the story has ‘legs’ - in other words, do you have enough of a story to write in the first place? And will it sustain a reader’s interest over, say, 80,000 words? This also comes back to the characters, because they will form an integral part of the structure. If they are not engaging, the structure falls down and your readers might as well go and read a sauce bottle.

Write a synopsis.
Many writers avoid this like the plague, and only produce one on the threat of having hot needles inserted under their fingernails. But someone totally new to writing should find it a useful exercise. Bearing in mind what I said about ‘legs’, if you can’t put enough of an idea together to write a synopsis (a synthesised version of the story), then you’ll have hell’s own job writing a complete one. Try writing your projected story on a single sheet of paper, concentrating on hitting the main points, characters, events and the ending. From there, you can look at expanding it, adding chapter headings and outlines, secondary characters and scenes you feel are important to cover. In this way, a framework will begin to take shape – and more ideas will flow as a consequence.

Start writing.
Stating the bleedin’ obvious perhaps, but like walking, the best thing is to take the first step. You could try writing a short story before you attempt a novel, because then you won’t have expended too much effort to see if you can do it. After that, it’s a question of scale. I have to say, I’ve done a lot of both and find myself sweating rivets over short stories, whereas books give me far more scope and room to work in.
Either way, only when you’ve tried something will you know if you like it… and can actually do it. Hopefully, it will be a bit like sex: if it’s good it will be great; if it’s not good…well, it might still be a lot of fun.


·        What do YOU like to read? What themes attract you?
·        What style of writing appeals to you?
·        You have to feel that you could, at least, do just as good. Better helps.
·        Start with a plan. Get the ideas in your head down on paper, then flesh them out.
Write On! - The Writers' Help Book

UK -

US -


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

My latest 'beginners' article in Writing Magazine... and another thing.

This month's article in Writing Magazine is called Do Look Back, and deals with the knotty problem most writers face from time to time: that of knowing when to stop writing more of what you've got (when it probably isn't necessary), but instead, making sure there are no holes in the storyline behind you.

I liken it to planks in a jetty stretching out over a blue sea. It might be nice for it go out much further (as in, away from other people), but if there are any planks missing, the structure isn't safe or complete.

Writing Magazine - in print and on line - here


And Another Thing...

As if writers didn't have problems enough, we now have calls for the year 2018 to be "... a Year of Publishing Women. ... the basic premise (being) precisely what it says on the tin: all new titles published in that year should be written by women." (see Kamila Shamsie's piece in The Bookseller, - 'The Year of Women'.

Now much of what Ms Shamsie says may be right - I don't know. If deliberate, it needs correcting. Although in an industry with a large number of women making the decisions, as agents, editors and publishers, maybe they're the ones to look to for the answer.

But in calling for this 'imbalance' to be addressed by excluding all male writers for a whole year, she is plainly unbothered by the idea of adjusting one bad situation by creating another... of demanding that men step down in their jobs while - presumably, if I read her right - allowing women to catch up.

Isn't this discrimination against male writers?

As a professional writer, the idea of downing keyboard for one year is unthinkable - and unrealistic. I make my living by writing, so what should I do instead - go stack shelves just so somebody else can feel good about a perceived unfairness?

All the authors I know, of both genders, have got there by working hard and being perceived by an agent or publisher as being good enough to be published. Other descriptions might include compelling, interesting, gripping, fresh, provocative, creative, thrilling... and a whole host of others.

But I wasn't aware that any of these adjectives were gender-based. Men and women alike, as far as I'm aware, stand the same chance of being published... or not.

So, no apologies, but I won't be downing tools for the year 2018. Nor, I suspect, will many other male writers.