Sunday, 10 June 2018

Writing for Beginners (41)

Writing humour

There’s a view among some aspiring writers that the only thing you have to do to write humorous material is to string together a list of jokes. That this doesn’t work will become painfully obvious by the speed with which rejections hit your doormat. The fact is, many editors – especially magazine editors - say they receive very few useable examples of humour, which surely leaves a space to be filled by those who can do it successfully.

First, what’s the difference between comedy and humour? My rule of thumb is that comedy is performed - often, but not always before a live audience - and intended to raise a laugh. Humour aims more at achieving a wry smile or at the most a quiet chuckle. (Unlike a business colleague of mine who once spent an entire flight from Paris to Toulouse, hooting like a Thames barge when I unwisely showed him a copy of a Bill Bryson book I was reading. Apart from the embarrassment of being sat next to him, I hadn’t got the heart to tear it off him, so had to make do with the in-flight magazine instead, which was no fun at all).

Ironically, writing humour can be a serious subject; what strikes one person as amusing may hit the next like shingles. But some magazines are prepared to consider lighter material if it fits their subject matter.

This is perhaps the key guideline for budding humour writers: produce something geared to the wry appreciation of a subject close to a reader’s heart, and you may strike lucky. In a magazine about caravans, for example, an item most likely to get a caravan enthusiast smiling is a humorous piece about caravans… or anything associated with them. It’s a question of making a connection.

Describing a journey from A to B, for example, could be mundane and, on our current busy roads, about as funny as gangrene. The same journey with a line of washing caught on the back, however, might take on an entirely different tone.

The first thing to do is - surprise, surprise - study the market. In this case, identify those titles containing light or humorous material. Then zero in on those where the subject matter appeals to you, or is ‘open’ in nature.

Ask yourself whether the tone and content indicates that readers do not take themselves or the subject matter too seriously. Does the editorial show a tendency to swipe fondly at anything surrounding its core subject? Are the other articles light-hearted? Are there any cartoons? If the answer to these points is yes, then plainly a degree of humour is acceptable.

The next point is to identify a gap. Most editors like to vary the content, and much of it these days is of the ‘quick-bite’ size, digestible between other tasks. By its nature, humour material falls into this category.

Once you have a feel for the magazine’s slant, then you can start building something around the subject matter which will appeal to the editor (most important), and thus the readers. And if you can treat the subject humorously, yet with a degree of knowledge, rather than simply ranting on about your favourite bete noir, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in getting a foot in the door.
The idea of trying to get inside the mind of a magazine reader might seem a little daunting, but in the main, readers who regularly buy a particular title do so because they have specific interests. The advantage for us is, this makes their likes and dislikes easier to identify.

Pitching unsolicited humour to an editor is like any other kind of writing; there’s a lot of competition. It’s a numbers game, so the best way of approaching a magazine is to suggest multiple-choice ideas. Give them an A, B and C to choose from, and you might stand a better chance of getting beyond an initial weary glance on a cold, wet Monday morning.
Assuming you have three ideas in mind, make them as varied as possible. If the magazine has recently done a piece (funny or not) on, say, the spending habits of young women, they are unlikely to repeat it too quickly. Spread the net as wide as possible, and your submissions have a better chance of attracting a second look.

Whatever the topics, they should fit the tone and style of your target market. Whether you use a first-person ‘opinion’ piece (seen through the eyes of the author), or an anecdotal ‘interview’ style, there should at least be a solid basis to the article and it should reach a conclusion (humorous, preferably). If your article, as well as being funny, has something readers can learn from, so much the better. Just because it’s humour doesn’t mean it can’t be educational.

Most importantly, the article should not offend the reader. You are writing to entertain, not cause apoplexy over their cornflakes. It can even - subject to the editor - inspire discussion, which is why some letters pages feature loud support and vitriolic condemnation of the same subject in equal measure – and many of them are a riot.

·       Don’t offend the reader just to be funny.
·       Avoid starting open warfare – controversy has its limits.
·       Go for a chuckle, not a belly-laugh.
·       As a benchmark, think about what makes you smile.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

Beginners: Beware the Jibber-Jabber

My latest article in the June issue of Writing Magazine deals with the over-use of technical jargon and pseudo-science in books, also prevalent in certain films and tv series.

Quite simply, there comes a point where a prolonged spouting of information which the writer feels they must impart to the reader/viewer no matter what, becomes too much. This usually pops up in sci-fi-related films, or where technical hardware is involved. This leads to overloading us with non-moving info that, while probably of interest to some fans, leaves me (and, I suspect, others, stone cold).

Note my use of 'non-moving'; if what's written doesn't move the story forward, it's not doing its job. Some technical/science information is necessary, I grant you, but more than about five seconds of it can make the viewer-reader switch off and start skimming.


The New Author Profile this month is on ROZ WATKINS, author of 'The Devil's Dice' (HQ/Harper Collins).

Inspired by the sight of her dog carrying what appeared to be a human spine in its mouth, and wondering what it would be like to stumble on a dead body, is, as Roz says, 'not normal'... but that's where it all began.

Whatever it takes, is what I say.

When a dead lawyer is found in a cave with his initials carved in the wall, it poses a problem: because the carvings have been there for over a century. This sets DI Meg Walton off on a journey of discovery, not least because her own family has secrets that refuse to be buried.

For more information about Roz, see:


Review of 'A Secret Worth Killing For' by Simon Berthon

Anne-Marie Gallagher, a former lawyer, has risen to the dizzy height of UK Minister of State for Security. She’s done well and is now a face to be reckoned with, possibly a future leader.

Maire Anne McCartney grew up in a house of secrets in the 1990s. She had a lover and a brother, both members of a team of vicious IRA killers known as the ‘Gang of Four’. When her lover, Joseph, suggests he and Martin, her brother, want her to get close to a British Special Branch officer, and ‘do whatever it takes’ to get him to a location so he can be 'interrogated', she recalls sharing in Martin’s pleasure when the IRA blew up Margaret Thatcher’s hotel in Brighton, and agrees. The SB officer dies.

The problem is, Anne-Marie Gallagher, UK Minister of State, and Maire Anne McCartney, are one and the same person...
Read my full review on the SHOTS Magazine website.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Writing for Beginners (40)

Give yourself a break

It’s that time of year again: the holiday season. When people bitten by the writing bug take a long, hard look at the calendar and affirm, ‘I’m going to do some serious writing!’ 

This decision is often accompanied by purchasing a fresh note pad, giving the laptop a wash and brush-up or trying to figure out a way of getting everyone else to push off to Ben Nevis for a few days and leave you in splendidly creative isolation.

Well, sorry to kick sand in your face, but this is remarkably similar to other summer-time promises like, ‘I’m going to clear out the loft’ ‘…creosote the fence’ or ‘…tile the bathroom’. And, like my dear old dad used to say about good intentions, it’s all very well trying to put on your wellies while walking downstairs, but you’ll probably end up disappointed.

One reason we fail to achieve everything we want to during these all-too-rare breaks, is because we set our sights too high. We rarely get all the quiet thinking time we expect or need (yes, staring into space like a hypnotised goldfish is an accepted writerly phenomenon); we find all manner of other distractions for not being able to put words in the order we want to; and instead of being relaxed and ready to let the prose flow from the brain to the paper, we end up stressed, irritable and ready to bite holes in the sun-lounger.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that all your writing plans should be given the elbow just because the rest of the family want you to go to Bognor, Berlin or Barbados. Or because your friends are likely to descend on you like a marauding army the moment you put pen to paper. You probably need the fun just as much as they do, anyway.

But what you might do is scale down your expectations without losing sight of your aims or even being any the less productive.

(Actually, thinking of beaches, I should probably ‘fess up straight away and say that I can’t recall ever having written anything meaningful on a beach… not unless it was that rude word I carved in the sand at Cromer one summer when I was ten. I think it was only the fact that I mis-spelled it that saved my bacon).

I’ve scribbled to good effect on trains, yes; boats, too – and planes – especially when I’ve wanted to avoid conversation. Even walks in the country have produced that blinding ‘Yes!’ moment, when a problem was overcome with a flash of inspiration. But never by the sea. Too much sand in delicate places, too much weather, too much nature and way too much going on around me to be ignored. Although, on the last point, I once sat on a deserted Cape Cod beach and got endless enjoyment watching absolutely nothing go by. It was brilliant!

So, the thing to do is set your aims to suit the circumstances. Instead of trying to write a short story in its entirety, why not simply sketch out the main characters and an outline plot – maybe even two? For a planned feature, jot down a tick-list of the points you want to cover – maybe even the illustrations or photos you could use to go with it. For something more ambitious (yes, the book) rough out what you would like to see happen as main events in the plot. List the characters, with whatever descriptive details might occur to you, and the locations. Even build some idea of the chapters and their contents to suit the flow of the story.

Vague as it may seem, what you are doing is working on building a framework which, by its very looseness, will give you a number of useful options about what to do next.

You’re not being bogged down at this point by unnecessary detail or structure, nor are you lured into going over the same points again and again due to fractured concentration. And none of these scribblings needs to be hugely accurate or in any specific order; all that can come later. It’s merely another use of the stepping stone process I’ve mentioned before, but it can lead to real progress.

So much better, I find, than staring in bug-eyed frustration at a blank screen or note pad and wondering, if you buried the noisy g*t next door in the nearest flower bed (along with his strimmer), would anyone notice?

I find this shorthand form of creativity much easier – and in the end, considerably more satisfying than trying to write against all odds. In fact, it’s as though the very act of not trying too hard unleashes a buzz of ideas. And being able to refer back to my ‘notes’ at any time, no matter how unstructured they might be, allows me more flexibility in what I’m doing.

It also lets me face that first holiday gin and tonic of the day with a real feeling of accomplishment. And accomplishment, to most of us, is surely what it’s all about.


·       Don’t set unrealistic writing goals when you know circumstances are not in your favour.
·       Random jottings can be just as productive as a full page.
·       Prepare a framework, then fill in the detail when time allows.
·       A relaxed mind is far more creative than a stressed one.
·       Don’t forget, have some fun, too.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Writing for beginners (39)

Using the pressure cooker

A good friend of mine always claims to work best when he’s under pressure. He’s not a writer but a home renovator, and the pressure comes from his own sense of perfection... and a little bit from his wife.

But even that lady admits that when he has only a few hours left to do what he’s been faithfully promising to do since last Michaelmas, he goes at it like a whirlwind and does a marvellous job. As she says afterwards, it’s not always pretty to watch, but the result is spectacular… unlike when he takes his own sweet time and ends up fiddling about until he trips over the paint tin or falls off the ladder.

Many professional writers also claim to do their best work when under pressure. In this case they’re not simply talking about being under the cosh from their agents or editors. Some will be referring to the pressure of knowing they have a piece to do, yet not having a clear idea of how the story or article will pan out - because they haven’t written it. They will, of course, because they know they must.

While it’s not a good idea to put yourself under this kind of pressure too often unless you can help it - or you’re one of those strange beings who enjoys the stress - setting your own deadlines can occasionally be a useful device to kick-start those creative juices where sitting and thinking about it at length will not.

It’s what some might refer to as controlled panic.

It's also a handy way of getting used to writing to a time limit, which could serve you well when taking on future commissions.

Writing for competitions (such as in those in Writers’ News for instance) is one way of introducing yourself to working to deadlines. They always have a date by which your story has to be in or it will no longer be eligible. Not that I’m suggesting anyone should deliberately leave it to the last minute before making their submission just to motivate a great story; the organisers get plenty of late entries already. But the deadlines are always fairly generous, some of them several months ahead.

And this is the problem. For some serial prevaricators, anything which smacks of several weeks ahead may be too generous; with a date you can’t see because it’s on the next page of the calendar, there’s a tendency to cogitate a bit or go for a series of long, writerly walks and talk to the trees, searching for that perfect plot, that un-rejectable idea. The inevitable outcome is that three months shrinks to two, then one, then two weeks, then… Suddenly, the deadline is gone and you’ve missed the boat.

If, however, you can get accustomed to shortening that deadline yourself, by working to get your entry off a month before the absolute last day, then you may find you can generate the determination to complete the job instead of staring blankly at the wall for weeks until you’ve cogitated yourself to a standstill.

As with my builder friend, when he knows he simply has to paint (or not eat - the choice is stark), a deadline can help develop a real focus - even a crispness - about your work which may be lacking at other times when you can take a more leisurely approach.

By way of another illustration, in a recent wildlife documentary, a lioness was shown chasing a variety of game in a very half-hearted and therefore unsuccessful manner. The reason? She wasn’t actually all that hungry, but simply going through the motions. (Well, she was a lioness, and when a springbok goes pronking by without a care in the world, what’s a self-respecting big cat to do?)

The missing ingredient was hunger - ie: urgency. The moment she began to feel hungry, she regained her role of lethal hunter.

We, too have a similar instinct when responding to urgency, and there’s no reason why we can’t apply it to our writing; in other words, we can do it because we must. There is no time to waste on choosing that elegantly descriptive word or that neat bit of dialogue, you simply go for it: open with a bang, then onto the next sentence, disregarding any waffle. Before you know where you are, you’ll find you’ve done something that any manner of studied thinking would not have accomplished so quickly. Sharp, incisive, uncluttered. Finish off with some honest editing and the job is complete.

Of course, setting your own deadlines demands discipline and planning, along with the ability to brush aside distractions and get on with the job at hand. And there are ways of doing it which will fit into your everyday life. Before going on holiday is one good way; by the end of a holiday is another.

Before the end of a quiet weekend and a return to the hectic day job can be useful, too, as can a day at home with nobody else around, if you can manage such a luxury. Anything, in fact, that you can use as a device will work, providing you stick to it.

As my builder friend's wife says, it may not be pretty to watch, but the results can be spectacular.


·        Set yourself deadlines, even if not required by your target magazine or publisher.
·        Bringing discipline to your writing sessions will help you make the most of the time available.
·        Be realistic about what you can achieve – but keep trying harder.
·        Imagine what each project might achieve to keep you focussed.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

My review of 'House of Beauty' by Melba Escobar

A change of pace for me - I usually review thrillers with more of a wham-bang pace about them - but

this translation of Colombian author Melba Escobar's 'House of Beauty' (with a stunning cover) was intriguing. It can be read in full on the Shots Magazine website right here:


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Latest Beginners article and New Author Profile

In the April edition of Writing Magazine, a must for all writers, my usual monthly 'Beginners' piece is called 'Ack Nicely'. (No, not a typo).

Ack, short for acknowledgements, is a question all published book authors might have to face. It's not as time-consuming or demanding as writing the book itself, nor as troublesome as coming up with a synopsis or even the jacket blurb on the back. It doesn't even come close to the level of research one might have to undertake.

But it can be very important.

Essentially, what goes in the book depends on detail; detail that comes from the author's imagination, from research or even the author's own experience. But most authors at some time or another have to ask someone for advice, be it details of a particular profession that is outside their own experience and essential to the believability of the character or storyline, or even simply checking some technical data.

And it's the person you have to ask for that information who should be given a nod of recognition for their help - an acknowledgement. They might not have helped with the whole book, they might have answered one simple - to them, anyway - question. But without it your book might have lacked that vital credibility of detail.

Do say thank you. It will help you go back to them in future, and might make the difference between your story being believable or not.


New Author Profile.

This month's debut author is Stuart Turton, whose first book, 'The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle' was published by Bloomsbury/Raven last month.

Already optioned for television, it's described by Stuart as 'Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day in a stately home', where the protagonist wakes up in the body of a different houseguest every day.

'The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle' - available here.