Tag Archives: #amwriting

Writing – a solitary occupation that brings people together?

Whilst on holiday last week I read I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. This is her grimly compelling novel about the relationship between two small boys; one a bully, the other his victim.

In a postscript she summarised the origins of the story. She had rented a remote cottage where she could work uninterrupted on finishing another novel. Her tranquil surroundings inspired her – the beautiful surrounding countryside including a nearby wood, the unusually hot weather, and two small boys who she often spotted when out on her daily walks. These boys seemed like great friends, unlike the two in her novel. But they provided the germ of an idea for a new story. By the end of her sojourn, she had written the opening chapters of I’m the King of the Castle, and outlined the rest of the plot in her notebook.

Although the book is about children, she wrote it with adult readers in mind and, what she thought, were adult themes exploring evil, isolation, and a lack of love. However it has often been a set book for school exams and seems to resonate, to an alarming extent in her view, with the fears and pro-occupations of teenagers. It was written before the era of social media, but the account of bullying by one child leading to another taking their own life, is thoroughly modern.

She admits that it is a ‘dark’ book, even though it emerged as an idea in a beautiful place, and many people have written to her to tell them how much they dislike it. My copy, picked up in a charity sale, looked unread, a friend warned me that I would not like it, and I did find it an uncomfortable read. But other people have been gripped and have told her: ‘That’s what it was like for me. [Your story] made me realise I haven’t been alone.’

This, she feels, is one of the reasons why she and others write novels: to make some people realise that they are not, after all, on their own. Or, as the seventeenth century poet, John Donne, put it – albeit in a different context, ‘No man is an island.’

Links to my books and social media






Super writing tips.

These aren’t my super tips. They are from Joe Norman, whose book – The Super Tutor: The Best Education Money Can Buy in Seven Short Chapters, is published this week.Luckily for us, two chapters are devoted to writing and here are some of the tips he comes up with.

In the chapter on how to hone your writing style he recommends splitting your allotted time into three parts. First try staring out of the window a lot without really thinking about exactly what you want to say, followed by examining your thoughts – perhaps making a few rough notes, but not actual sentences.

Next, when you get round to the actual writing, try writing as you speak – find you voice, in other words. Though, if you don’t like your own voice, you can always aim at being a cleverer, wittier, version of yourself. As Cary Grant once said, ‘I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.’ Writing by hand can force you to think harder and to cut out waffle and padding words like ‘very’ and ‘really.’ Use ‘said’ in preference to any other word relating to speech, and avoid exclamation marks.

Having spent the second third of your time writing, you should spend the last third checking it, at least to start with. As Hemingway said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’

In his chapter on how to write fiction, Norman says there are only three kinds of sentence: action, dialogue, description. ‘You don’t have to use them in equal amounts, but if you don’t know what to write you could simply put the letters A,D,D down the left hand side of a blank page of paper, then write a sentence (or paragraph) of action, followed by dialogue, followed by description.’

And repeat.

And repeat.

He quotes Aristotle who says there are only three acts to a story: beginning, middle, and end.


as David Mamet puts it:

Act one – stick your hero up a tree.

Act two – Throw rocks at her.

Act three – Get her down again.

Norman recommends eavesdropping on people in public places to get a grasp of authentic dialogue.

His tips are aimed at exam taking school students and their parents, and may strike the aspiring adult writer as a bit simplistic. But he is a highly paid ‘super tutor,’ so his methods must work for a lot of people. If you are stuck with writer’s block, or struggling to move your story along quite as you want to, one or other of his ideas may work for you. Personally, I’m going to try the staring out of the window suggestion.

Links to my books and social media




HerStory (2) – talking books, writers and readers.

Saturday 30th March. Picture for yourself nearly 20 women and two men, aged from about 15 to 70, in an airless, windowless, side-room in Coventry city’s main library. Outside is is a beautiful spring day. Inside we are talking about HerStory – why women write and do they get a fair deal?

The poet, Emilie Lauren Jones compered, and I was on the panel with two poets, Sarah Leavelsey, and Malka Al-Haddad who is originally from Iraq. It was all part of the Positive Images Festival 2019, in Coventry – the nominated City of Culture for 2021. There was plenty of audience participation.

First of all we discussed whether women get the recognition they deserve. Why it is that awards seem to go to books where the protagonist is male, even if the author is female. Is it because female readers will read about male or female characters, but male readers prefer a male protagonist? Why does the gender bias also seem to apply in regard to the author’s sex? For example, the Bronte sisters had to write under men’s names in the nineteenth century just to get published. But more recently, J.K. Rowling chose to conceal her sex when publishing the Harry Potter books (and her more recent books for adults). On the other hand, many men writing romances (for Mills and Boon, for example) will adopt a female pen name. We could all agree that, for many reasons, women writers have not always had the recognition they deserve – though the last Man Booker prize went to Anna Burns for Milkman, which, despite the title, had a female protagonist.

Later we discussed how we decided what to write about. For Malka this was very much her experiences as a refugee, asylum seeker, and campaigner for human rights. Sarah and I drew on more prosaic experiences, listening to those around us and mixing real experience with imagination. For us, getting the voices to sound authentic was important and could influence whether we wrote in the first, third, or even second person. For Malka, the message was the important inspiration for her poetry, which perhaps made her writing more personal. For all of us, making the people in our novels or poems believable, especially our female characters, was very important, and that means drawing on personal experiences – though in my case at least, the experiences get shared around various characters as I am not comfortable writing anything too easily identifiable with me or those around me.

Finally, we talked about our habits as readers, and I find I am not the only one who likes reading in the bath. (Warning – don’t try this with a Kindle). All of us on the panel, and the audience, agreed that reading, as well as being a joy in itself, was important preparation for a writer. A sentiment which led nicely into the time allotted to selling our books.

You may not have been there but, if you are interested to find out more about the panelists and their work, here are the links to our websites or other social media:

Sarah Leavesley http://sarah-james.co.uk

Malka Al-Haddad: amazon.co.uk/Birds-Without-Sky-Poems-Exile

And my links: Links to my books and social media




HerStory – why women write.

On Saturday 30th March I am participating in HerStory, a free literary event aimed primarily at women writers and readers. It is part of the build up to Coventry being the City of Culture in 2021. It is hosted by the poet, Emilie Lauren Jones, and will be taking place in the Central library in Coventry from 1pm to 3.30pm. And did I mention that it’s FREE!

We will be talking among other things, about how can you tell if the writer is male or female? And does it matter? Is there a ‘recognition gap’ between the ranking of male and female writers? Is there one for male or female characters?

On a more personal level we will talk about why we write; how we choose what to write about; and how important are female characters in the story / poem / play?

And, because writers need readers (see my last post) what sort of stuff do we like reading? And where do we like to read?

Of course, there’s plenty more going on, including readings and a Q&A session. But you’ll have to be there to get the full flavour. That, and read my next blog where I will report on how it all went.

Links to my books and social media




Pitching your work

I recently attended an excellent workshop on how to pitch your masterpiece – sorry, manuscript – to a potential agent or publisher. The workshop concentrated on doing face to face pitches, but much of the advice applies to the pitch you would want to make in a cover letter. I will just refer to an agent here, but the same goes for pitching to a publisher who accepts unsolicited submissions

First and foremost, of course, you need to actually have a completed manuscript. No good having most of it still in your head if an agent gets back to you and says they want to read the whole lot next week!

Assuming you’re good to go, the pitch needs to answer the agent’s unspoken question – Why would I want to take on this book? You need to research which agencies – and which agent within that agency – deals with books like yours.

As a rough estimate, a pitch should take about two minutes to deliver. At three words per second, and allowing for a few pauses to take a breath, that comes to about 350 words.

When you get going, don’t be apologetic. Remember, agents depend on writers for their living; you just might be their next best seller. You are also selling yourself as a dependable addition to their literary empire.

A verbal pitch is a performance, but don’t overdo the dramatics – just because you’ve written a hilarious book about Brussel sprouts, doesn’t mean you have to go dressed as one.

Have a ‘headline’ opening comment. It doesn’t all depend on the first thirty seconds, but you do want to pique their interest, so get what’s special about your book in early, e.g. does it deal with something really topical – like knife crime, or climate change? Introduce the main character early on.

Expand on your headline with more details, e.g. a brief resume of the plot, the catalysts that change things, and the other key characters. If you have relevant knowledge, e’g it’s set in the Amish community and you are Amish, mention it. Name your genre, the word count and the likely readership. (Maybe also a famous author whose work yours could be compared to – especially if this author is with this agency.)

Don’t get side tracked into every twist and turn of the plot or name check every character – remember you’ve only got two minutes!

Don’t leave cliff hangers – the agent wants to know what they’re buying in full. The teaser ‘what happens next?’ as a final statement, is for your back cover blurb, not your pitch.

Don’t just dry up at the end. A closing sentence could be something like ‘… from what I’ve read about your agency, I feel my book would be a good fit and I’d love to be able to work with you in the future. Thank you.’

It’s OK to pitch to more than one agent at a time. It’s a competitive world out there, so not every pitch is going to result in an immediate acceptance.

Links to my books and social media




Is it ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ – and does it matter?

A bit of grammar today, and a report of a minor tiff between a reader, a writer, and a sub-editor on The Times in December 2018.

An article stated that a forthcoming event was ‘fewer than two weeks away.’ This prompted a letter from a reader pointing out that the writer had used the wrong word:

‘We have here a sense that ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’ is needed because we are dealing with a number of weeks. But this isn’t so. The only number of weeks that is fewer than two is one, and a reader who encounters ‘fewer’ is automatically led to think of a whole number – and thinks of one week.’

Well, I wouldn’t say this would have been my first thought, but what The Times writer intended to convey was that the event was under two weeks away. When he submitted his copy he had written ‘less’ not ‘fewer’ – which would have satisfied this grammatically aware reader. Unfortunately the sub-editor changed it to ‘fewer,’ in contravention of the paper’s own style guide.

This guide says: ‘Fewer in number, and generally with plural nouns (fewer goals, fewer people); less in size or quantity and with singular nouns (less confusion, less work). Treat duration, distance etc. like size – i.e. singular (time, space) even if the units (years, miles) are plural. [BUT] this is an area where prescriptive zeal should not trump common sense.’

In other words, use what sounds right – and don’t lecture the poor sales assistant on the checkout till, next time you visit a supermarket, and the sign above says ‘10 items or less.’ Of course you know it should be ‘fewer,’ but life’s too short.

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Write what you see.

One of the first things you are told when you want to be a writer is to ‘write about what you know.’ Really? It’s a good tip, but it only goes so far, and most good writers ignore it – Shakespeare never visited Italy or ancient Troy; he was never a crowned king; he didn’t go mad. Anyway, what you know can be expanded by trips to the library – or, more likely these days, browsing on the Internet.

The tip doesn’t place much value, either, on a writer’s imagination: did Terry Pratchett live on the back of a tortoise? Did Ruth Rendell join the Police? Or go round murdering people for dark psychological reasons? Better, perhaps, is the tip to write convincingly, having done enough research for your needs – be it into your own experiences, or through wider reading and travel, or through dreaming up a whole new world.

Tracy Chevalier wrote a book based on a picture that fascinated her, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. She liked the painting and had a poster of the Vermeer painting on her wall for years, but never really thought much about it until one day a thought struck her. Why did Vermeer make her look like that? Suddenly the painting stopped being just a picture on the wall; it was a story (and a very good one too, once she’d put it down on paper!)

So here is a tip from her: When looking at a picture, write what you see. In an article in The Times recently, she elaborated on this:

First I act like a movie camera and zoom in on details; then pan out to view it from a distance, and from one side or another. Each angle gives me a new perspective. When I zoom in, I pick out the details: the clothes people wear, the background, the landscape, the colours and brushstrokes the artist has used. Then I start asking questions. Why is she wearing that? What is he thinking about? Do they love or hate each other? What happened just before this painting was made? Where does that road lead to? Asking and answering draws me in so I become part of the creation of the story that the painting is telling.’

With The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the process certainly worked for her. It could work for the rest of us too – though I suggest we pick a different picture!

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