Monthly Archives: August 2018

Lessons from a Letters Editor.

pen to paperFor many of us, getting a letter published in a magazine or newspaper is the first step on a career in writing. It’s not that easy either, especially if you aim for one of the better known titles. So I found it interesting to read in yesterday’s Times an article written by the letters editor, on what criteria he had for choosing which letters he published.

Here are some of his recommendations:

  • The piece should be elegantly and succinctly written
  • It should be true
  • If it is intended to be funny it should make the reader laugh out loud.
  • Be brief – avoid overwriting
  • But not too brief – unless you are composing a haiku.
  • Avoid clichés and hyperbole.
  • Avoid overused words like – sensational, dramatic, desperate, chaos, panic – to ramp up your prose
  • Don’t tell the reader what to think – let them decide for themselves.
  • Don’t ramble – get to the point.

His advice struck me as useful for writers of any genre who were looking to get published. And, in line with his recommendations, today’s post is definitely concise.


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Hyphens – use of.

I’m quite partial to hyphens – often using them instead of commas. But should I? Frequently, when I read over a first draft of something I’ve just written, I will remove many of the hyphens scattered throughout, and replace them with commas or full-stops. They felt right when I was tapping away adding – in my opinion – pace and intimacy. But, on reading with a critical eye, their over-use would start to irritate. Time – perhaps – to check out when and how they should be used.

A spelling guide, written a few years ago in conjunction with the Oxford University Press, states that there are no hard and fast rules about using hyphens (though your publisher may have a style preference), so the following points are for guidance only.

You can use a hyphen to:

Join two or more words to make a compound noun that is different in meaning from the words on their own – pick-me-up, late-comer

  • To make a compound adjective – ham-fisted, well-known.
  • A compound adjective can describe a compound noun – a well-known pick-me-up.
  • To differentiate meaning – your mother’s aunt is your great-aunt but she may also be a great aunt when it comes to thoughtful Christmas presents.
  • When you use a phrasal verb (such as in the phrase to build up your pension) as a noun – as in the build-up of traffic.
  • When you use two nouns to form a verb – to date-stamp.
  • To join a prefix ending in a vowel to another word starting with one – neo-woman-lying-on-sofaImpressionism (unlike neoclassicism). Though there are exceptions – most people now write cooperation rather than co-operation.
  • To avoid confusion – You might want to recover from the flu while lying on a sofa you have recently re-covered.
  • As part of a list, to save repeating a word – two-, three-, fourfold.
  • Some numbers – thirty-one (but not thirteen or three hundred)

You can also use one as a precursor to an example, or a short list, within a sentence. See my use above – or is it just me that does that?

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On using a not uncommon turn of phrase.

A police officer was recently reported as saying, “The community [must be able to] go police officerabout its daily business not unduly impacted by demonstrations taking place.” She was referring to demonstrations against President Trump whilst he was in Britain. Cue the grammar police attack of the vapours for her use of ‘not un…’

George Orwell was a leading literary figure who riled against this way of phrasing things – in fact he felt it should be banned; would you, he asked, write about a ‘not un-black dog?’ Obviously not! But he had got his own grammar a bit wrong, as who would refer to ‘an un-black dog’ in the first place, let alone a ‘not un-black’ one?

Jane Austen, by contrast, used the format without any qualms in Mansfield Park where Fanny was ‘not unamused’ by the activities of her associates. I think readers can appreciate the difference between being laugh-out-loud amused at their antics and being wryly and privately entertained.

It is true that in English there is a general rule against using a double negative – I do not like that, compared with the French je ne l’aime pas (literally – I not it like not). We have been taught to tease people who use them that a double negative is a positive. However a double negative has always had a place in a nuanced use of the language. What the police officer said, whilst admittedly rather inelegant (why say impacted when you mean disrupted?), is very different from her saying the community should be ‘duly impacted/ disrupted.’ What she meant, and what we all understand, is that some disruption was inevitable, but should be kept to a minimum. (What the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English calls a ‘weak affirmative.’)

This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Or at least, in my opinion, a not unreasonable one.

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Word crimes – or how to catch a killer by their writing.

A book has just been published that is described as a ‘must read’ for any crime writer looking for ideas. I would like to suggest it could also be a useful guide for anyone wanting to include letters or other messages in their work that ring true for the characters they are portraying. I.e. Would my character really use words like that? Is the writing consistent with their age, level of education, intelligence etc?

The book in question is More Wordcrime – Solving crime with linguistics, by John Olsson. Olsson is a forensic linguist and, as the title suggests, this is not his first book on the subject. He is often used as an expert witness for trials where the authorship of letters, text messages, suicide notes etc. is in dispute. His job is to identify the use of words, slang, spellings, and grammatical structures that are out of the ordinary for the alleged writer of the text.

One case he cites is David Ryan, who was jailed for the murder of Diana Lee. At his trail his defence was that he wasn’t at the scene at the time of her death as she had sent text messages the next day. However Olssen’s examination of the text showed the last few texts were not in keeping with her usual style. (She didn’t use spaces after commas; he did and had sent the texts himself from her phone to deter friends and relatives from looking for her).

Often a message written by someone purporting to be another will show that they know enough about them to use a particular phrase they are associated with, but use it in the wrong place, or too often. One murder victim, for example, regularly started her Facebook messaging with ‘Haha …’ Her killer continued her messaging after the murder to distract from the actual time of death – but he put ‘Haha’ at the end of each message as well – something she never did.

Some of Olssen’s findings were not helpful to the police. For example witness statements from ordinary people that used technical terms (like ‘extrajudicial,’ or ‘proceeding in a vehicle’ instead of driving a car) would suggest the witness had been given some inappropriate assistance in writing their statements.

Aside from crimes he cites that could inspire a crime writer, his work demonstrates to all aspiring writers how to aim for authenticity in their fictional missives. You still might not find a publisher, and may decide that an actual jewellery heist, or kidnapping an heiress, would be more profitable than writing about it. But at least you stand a better chance of getting away with your crime should you choose to cover your tracks with fake texts and letters.

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Writing together – a novel experience (2)

Ann and RobAs promised in my last blog, authors Ann Evans and Robert D. Tysall answer questions today about their recent collaboration on writing the supernatural / thriller The Bitter End.

 Why did you decide to collaborate?

Rob: I had no choice. Ann said ‘you’re doing it’ so I did! It’s my fault for having the idea in the first place.

Ann: Rob always comes up with great story ideas, but when he told me about this idea, I said I couldn’t write it. It was too deep and too dark. But he wouldn’t let the idea drop, so I made a start on the story and showed him. It wasn’t how he envisaged the story to go, so I said, right, we’re going to have to work on this one as a team.

How did you decide the genre and plot line?

Rob: With the plot line, it was both of us pushing one way, then the other. There was a lot of discussion about what might happen in the story. But often things would take us both by surprise.

With the genre, the way I first described it to Ann made the decision for us – it was always going to be a supernatural thriller. Although some reviewers have suggested that it’s bordering on horror and would make a great horror film.

Ann: We started with a basic story line, which revolved very much around the character Lamia. Then we had to create the more ‘normal’ world that she’d decided to inhabit. I think the personalities and lifestyle of the characters then dictated the plot and where it was going.

Who does what?

Rob:  As Ann is a magnificent typist she puts it down. I lounge on the settee, with a G&T, waffling away until I drop off! She never stops adding life to the bones.

Ann: Most definitely I do all the typing. I’m a far better speller and a quicker typist. He does sit there dictating. At times, it feels a bit like Barbara Cartland dictating to her secretary – minus the feather boa! Actually though, prior to writing any new scene, we’ll have discussed it at length, so we know where we’re going with it.

How do you ensure it all joins up?

Rob: The joining up can be a problem if we’ve discussed scenes out of context. But by going over and over each section, we make it work smoothly.

Ann: That’s the reason just one of us does the typing.  If we were both typing bits into the manuscript it would be a disaster.  We work together moving the story forward. When I’m alone, I’ll go over what we’ve done, dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s and so on.  That’s except for Lamia’s demonic speeches, Rob often writes those when he’s alone, then emails them through to me.  I imagine he closes the curtains, drinks blood and plays Black Sabbath music to get in the mood!

How do you critique each other’s work?

Rob:  We critique by again continually going over areas – and getting help on any medical scenes by people with very big brains (the wife!).

Ann: I have to admit, the very first time Rob said that something I’d written needed changing, I almost cried! However, a took a deep breath, and listened to what he had in mind. And that’s how it’s gone throughout the whole book. Anything that jars or doesn’t sound exactly right, we work on, rephrasing, finding a different way of saying it, until we’re both happy.

Any arguments and if so, how do you resolve them?

Rob: No arguments. If Ann feels something is really needed or important, it generally goes in. The same for myself. We both respect each other in that way and we seem to be on the same wavelength with our books.

Ann:  I agree, we don’t argue. What would be the point? If someone wins the argument, that piece of text might stay, but the other person would begrudge it being there.  It has to be compromise all the way. However, there’s been a few times when his ideas have shocked me, and I’ve actually screamed, “No!! You can’t kill ….” “Oh yes you can,” says Rob. And when I’ve got over the shock and horror at his plans for a certain character or two, I realise that if it shocked/surprised me, it will shock/surprise the reader too.

When do you decide it’s finally finished?

Rob: When we reach a definitive section that ties it all up.

Ann: We knew where we wanted to end the story – and how we wanted it to end. So reaching that point, we got to write…after four years….The End.

How / who published it?

Rob: Bloodhound Books published it, I’m happy to say!

Ann: Bloodhound Books published my first thriller last year, Kill or Die. Later, I met the publisher at the Theakston Crime Writing festival, and she asked me what I was working on next. I told her about our collaboration and the story idea, and she asked to see it when it was finished. Happily, she liked it!

Any plans for another collaboration?

Ann Evans and Rob TysallRob:  Yes, we have plans for further collaborations. The Bitter End was four years in the making, so when another completed book appears is hard to say. The sooner the better.

Ann: We’re currently writing a sequel to The Bitter End, which will also be a stand-alone book. And we’re determined this won’t take four years.

Thank you, Ann and Rob. You make it sound (almost) easy. I’m (almost) tempted to have a go myself – except you can’t collaborate on your own, so  I’ll have to find a writing buddy.  Any one out there?

About Robert D. Tysall. Rob was born in Rugby and has always been very much part of the music scene, and still is. He’s a singer, songwriter and percussionist. Plus, he’s a professional photographer ( It was through photography that he and Ann first got together to work on magazine articles – Ann writes, Rob takes the photos.  Together they are Words & Images UK (  He added: “Ideas, ideas, ideas – that’s what I do, plus poems, lyrics – and now books!”

About Ann Evans. Ann has been writing since her children were toddlers – and they’re now all grown up with children of their own. She writes for a variety of genres: children’s, YA, reluctant readers, romance and crime; plus non-fiction magazine articles. She’s also a former feature writer for The Coventry Telegraph.


Paul finally has his life back on track. After losing his wife, Helena in a horrific car crash, he has found love with Sally and moves into her country cottage.

As a former high-ranking Naval Officer, Paul now works as Head of Security at MI5.

Paul has no memories from before he was ten years old. An accident left him in a coma for 9 months.  But was it really an accident?

Soon Paul starts to have flashes of childhood memories, all involving his childhood friend, Owen.

Sally introduces him to her friend, Juliet, the owner of a craft shop. Paul is shocked when he meets Juliet’s partner, his old friend Owen.

Flashes of memories continue to haunt Paul, particularly the memory of his first wife Helena burning in the car crash.

As dark things start to happen, and local people begin dying in horrific accidents, Paul must face his past and will end up fighting for his life.


He sipped the brandy, it warmed his throat and made him drowsy. He drifted, eyes half closed, listening to the crackling of burning logs. Tomorrow he would get a bucket of soapy water and wash down the windows in the barn, inside and out. Maybe get a broom and give the place a good old spring clean. His mind wandered to that penknife, recalling now that he’d got it for his ninth birthday. It had been a gift from Owen.

The charred logs shifted in the grate and Paul half opened his eyes. He stared into the fire. Vivid red and blue tongues of flame licked upwards, the heart of the fire glowed now like some magical palace. He could see gateways and portcullises. He could see images in the flames.

He awoke suddenly and tried not to look. He wanted to tear his gaze away, but it was too late. His brain conjured up a face amongst the burning embers. A shrieking face, wide-eyed with terror. A face lying sideways at a painfully twisted angle as Helena burned to death. And the screaming was back.

Links to The Bitter End and to the authors’ websites. Ann Evans and Robert D Tysall - The Bitter End_cover smaller

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Writing together – a novel experience (1)

I don’t think I’d be very good as a co-author. I struggle to compile a shopping list with my husband without getting irritated, and as for joint authorship of friendly little missives on the Christmas and birthday cards we send out – don’t go there!

So I’m always very impressed when I hear about two or more people collaborating on a novel – especially when it all works out and their work gets published. Even more so if they are – and remain – married.

There are plenty of examples of successful collaborations. To start with a couple of married couples: there’s the British couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who write psychological thrillers together under the pseudonym Nicci French. There are also the children’s books authors Janet and Allan Ahlberg – although maybe they were able to maintain marital harmony by dividing their labours, with Janet doing the illustrating and Allan the writing.

Although the books were published under one name, the famous jockey Dick Francis always acknowledged Mary, his wife, in each book. She is widely credited with licking his prose into shape after he came up with the plot ideas. When she died he collaborated with his son, Felix.

Sometimes writers who are famous in their own right get together on a joint work with considerable success, as did Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). Despite his diagnosis of dementia, Pratchett continued writing until he died, including writing the Long Earth Series with Stephen Baxter.

The most recent, and well publicised, collaboration is that between former president Bill Clinton and James Patterson who worked together on The President is Missing.

Ann Evans and Rob Tysall

Robert D. Tysall and Ann Evans

I haven’t had the chance to interview Bill and James, to find out how their collaborative efforts were for them. But on my blog on the 8th August the children’s, romance, and thriller author Ann Evans and her co-writer Robert D. Tysall (better known as a musician and photographer) will be answering questions about their new novel-writing partnership.

  • Was their recent collaboration on a novel successful?
  • Are they still speaking to each other?
  • Let alone still working together?

Find out by reading my next blog…


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A Bestseller’s tips for aspiring writers.

Many of us dream of being writers (preferably famous ones) from an early age, and may even draft an opening chapter or two whilst still in primary school. Few of us, however,girl-writing-fourth-grade  will actually finish a novel before leaving school or college. Even fewer will get anything published at that age – even if our grannies think what we’ve done is absolutely brilliant.

Some of us will sustain the dream into later life. Then, as the distractions of work and a growing family fall away, we pick up a pen and, with an optimism soon replaced by grim determination, many set-backs, rejection letters and, finally, a bit of luck (if we’re lucky!) complete a book that actually gets published.

The older aspiring writer can draw inspiration from advice given by Joanna Trollope Joanna Twho once said “you can be too young to write – because you haven’t lived enough – but never too old.” Think of Ruth Rendell writing bestsellers in her eighties, PD James doing the same into her nineties, and Diane Athill, who didn’t start getting her own work published till her nineties, is now over a hundred, and maybe not finished yet.

Trollope maintains that people write better from the age of thirty five, simply because they have more experience of the ups and downs of life and love by then. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get into training meanwhile. Most important, she says, is honing your powers of observation – the hallmark of all successful novelists. Also, remembering to keep a notebook with you helps, so you can jot things down as they happen, or as they occur to you: ideas, observations, snatches of dialogue, interesting place names, intriguing names for businesses or shops, names people give their children or pets.

I added the last few examples myself but, as this famous bestseller once said, “No amount of noticing of other people is ever, ever wasted, for a writer.”

Well, it works for her!

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