Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Writing for Beginners (9)

Continuing my occasional articles for beginners on the art of writing, taken from the pages of Writing Magazine and my subsequent compilation 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book'  (see below).

Get out of the garret!

Heard about the lonely writer who struggled in his garret for fifty years, bent over his trusty Adler (a sort of early virus-free word-processor) ignoring all other worldly distractions in order to produce the perfect story? By the time he emerged triumphant, fingers numbed, back aching, blinking into the daylight and clutching his hefty manuscript… the world had gone digital.

To the other extreme, take the ever-gregarious wildebeest. Some experts believe they don’t group together simply because they happen to be going in the same direction, or for security against marauding carnivores. It’s more mundane than that; they band together because (a) they like to chit-chat and exchange news, views and grass recipes with other wildebeest, and (b) because nobody else understands a wildebeest quite like another wildebeest.

As writers, it goes without saying that we need a bit of peace and quiet to get the ideas out of the bone onto the paper. We can’t all produce best-sellers at a corner table in a café or on the 08.15 to work. But it’s worth remembering that there is a world out there - a world containing a lot of other writers, all sharing the same hopes, burdens and fears. And it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of this and become isolated, fixated on the idea that the only way to write effectively is to shut ourselves away.

This was brought home to me recently while talking to a new writer. She was amazed when I happened to mention that I experience the occasional rejection letter. This seemed inconceivable to her, based on a firm belief that, as a published writer, everything I now write - even on spec - must be automatically accepted, a sort of Gold Card access to the coffers of the publishing world.

Yeah, right.

Some might call her naïve, but further discussion revealed that she had never talked to other writers, published or otherwise, and had therefore built up presumptions which had never been corrected.

The fact is, we all need to network with others of our kind, in order to share common experiences. And this is probably more important for writers than many others, because we engage in what is arguably a fairly lonely way of passing the day. Some might dispute this and say they're able to work quite happily on their lonesome without interaction. Fine. But toiling away in a garret was never meant to be an industry standard!

There are ways, of course, for new writers to ‘plug in’ to what is going on, and pick up on some useful secrets and tips along the way.

Joining a writers’ group is one, and there are plenty dotted around the country, usually meeting once a month. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea at first, faced with a group of confident faces with tales of output, word count, competition successes and how they are just waiting to hear the good news about their latest submission.

But don’t be put off; most groups are welcoming and eager for fresh blood (in the nicest possible sense), and will usually encourage members to show/read their work for analysis by the rest of the forum. While criticism in such a face-to-face manner can seem a little daunting, the wise writer will cherry-pick the comments and gain some gold dust to take away with them.

The benefit is that being able to talk about your writing is a surprisingly useful way of making you think about it in the wider sense - as is being able to comment on the writing of others. As a consequence, you might well spot ways of adjusting and improving the way you work and develop some ideas for future projects.

Literary fairs or exhibitions are also great meeting places for writers of all genres. The subjects under discussion will be broad, and you might have to pick and choose to find your particular area of interest. But these events often include workshops hosted by professionals, where writers of every level can pick up all manner of information and advice about the art of writing, as well as how to go about the basics of doing background research, making submissions and finding a market for their work.

Book signings and talks, usually held in bookshops, are also ideal trawling places for picking up tips and ideas. Most published writers are happy to share their experiences, and since most have come up through the ranks writing short fiction or features, you could say there is some degree of common ground.

On a more personal basis, finding a like-minded ‘buddy’ to talk to is invaluable. Especially on a cold, wet Monday, when the postman has just dumped another impersonal rejection letter on your doormat. One way to counter this literary kick to the vitals is to take time out and talk about it to another writer over a cup of coffee. Because ten to one they’ve experienced it, too.

But never forget - one of the best ways to combat a rejected story is to send it off somewhere else!

In short, problems which may have seemed insurmountable can often be brought into a clearer perspective when aired with someone who understands what you do… and most of all, why you do it.
Garret-hound or wildebeest… or a mix of the two?

It’s your choice.


·        Too much isolation can kill off creativity.
·        Ideas need the compost of outside contact.
·        Mixing with other writers can stimulate ideas and ambition.
·        Talking with like-minded individuals is refreshment for the soul.

The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook. 


Sunday, 20 September 2015

Guest Blog - Marion Grace Woolley

Having had the honour a while back to guest blog on Marion Grace Woolley's blog, I was desperate to return the favour, partly because she would be my first ever guest blogger (an event worth the Italics and the odd whoop, I reckon), but because I know what an inventive writer she is, with a great background. I also said write anything you like, so was intrigued by what she would come up with.

I reckon she came up trumps.

“Where does all the darkness come from?”
“It’s funny your books are so dark, you’re actually a really happy person.”

 The first comment came from my mother after the release of Lucid. It involved an uncle murdering his niece after dosing her with LSD – undeniably dark.
The second came from my twelve-year-old nephew, who is himself an avid reader and perhaps the greatest challenge to my books-shouldn’t-carry-age-limits stance - see here. Thankfully my theory holds strong. The words in my books are just long enough, and the concepts just adult enough, to lose out to Point Horror.

When posed by loved ones, these are questions that get under your skin. We’ve all got demons to draw on for inspiration, but what causes some writers to go looking for that inspiration in the first place? Why don’t we all just write Mills & Boon or happy-ever-afters?
Part of it has to do with what I’ve grown up with, I suppose. Sure, I liked the Care Bears, but I also liked Goosebumps and reruns of The Twilight Zone. Something my nephew would undoubtedly understand with his interest in Horrible Histories. As much as adults like to deny it, most kids love a bit of gore.

That graduated to a strong interest in horror movies. I think Pet Sematary may have been the first book-to-film adaptation I saw, having read the book. I loved Stephen King, James Herbert and Shaun Hutson in my mid-teens. (I also loved Terry Pratchett, but that doesn’t quite fit into my tale so well.) My dad and I bonded over horror movies. We’ve sat through The Human Centipede and Midnight Meat Train together, as well as more humorous stuff like Severance.
Now, I’m not saying this should be everybody’s bag, but for me it’s pure escapism.
I live and work in an area of Africa that experienced a genocide just over twenty years ago. Part of my job recently involved showing human rights delegations around memorial sites and refugee camps, talking, in depth, about what happened. The country is very different today to how it was two decades ago. It has a very modern capital with big shiny buildings, voted the second safest city in the world for women to walk alone at night. Yet the scars are still there. Survivors exist, trauma exists, mass graves exist.

I am extremely aware of the difference between reality and fiction.
Which perhaps makes it strange that I should abhor the reality of murder whilst adoring the fictionalisation of it. My novel Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran was written in first person about a young girl who took pleasure in killing.

Duality tends to create a really big problem within our black and white rigidity of social norms: how can you say one thing, and think another? Perhaps due to generations of ambiguous political figures we inherently come to mistrust anyone who can think dualistically on topics that should clearly divide.
Writers don’t have that struggle with duality – or, if they do, they seldom turn it into a war.

Writers, actors and artists live somewhere between socially accepted normality and inner reality. They create the moral person committing an immoral act, the villain who is accidentally a hero, the character you identify with even though you hate what they do, the character you don’t identify with yet can’t stop reading, the voice in your left ear and the voice in your right.
We are all a very big mixture of everything, but provided an author doesn’t get lost in the maze of their own imagining, they return to their balance point.

There was an interesting interview with late author Ian Banks - see here - in which he was asked:
Q: When you're writing about dark material, is it in any way strange writing in the first person?

A: Not really, no. It's a technique you get used to as a writer, you know? You don't really think about it, you just get on with it. It's an answer to a technical problem, if you like, and so it's something you adopt quite naturally and easily. It has no real bearing on your own psyche.
It seems awful to reduce the creative process to a ‘technical problem,’ but it is. Fiction authors are in the business of escapism. The moment you stop to ask yourself whether what you’re writing is acceptable or offensive, you’re no longer escaping.

Perhaps the most shocking things to write about provide a chance to explore the most complex parts of being human. Sometimes we like to escape with romance and happy endings, and sometimes we like to escape into a puzzle. Hutson’s Nemesis was the first novel I even put down because I was too squeamish to continue. More recently, Laine Cunningham put me right off my dinner with a scene in He Drinks Poison, involving jam jars.
Far from resenting these writers for making me uncomfortable, I feel an incredible sense of admiration for minds that stretch further than mine. It is at the point of greatest discomfort that we tend to learn most about ourselves.

That, I think, is my attraction to darkness.
Marion Grace Woolley studied at the British Record Industry Trust  (BRIT) School of Performing Arts, Croydon. After obtaining an MA in Language & Communication Research from the University of Cardiff, she declared that she'd had enough of academia and decided to run away to Africa.
Balancing her creative impulses with a career in international development, she worked and travelled across Africa, Australia, Armenia, and a few other places beginning with 'A'. In 2009, she helped to oversee the publication of the first Dictionary of Amarenga y'Ikinyarwanda (Rwandan Sign Language), a project of which she was immensely proud to have been a part.
The same year, Marion was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers. She currently lives in Rwanda, where she works in human rights and international development.

Marion's website is here
Her blog is here
See her on Facebook
Catch up with her on Twitter: @AuthorMGW 

Friday, 11 September 2015

What's My Motivation?

My latest 'Beginners' article in October's issue of Writing Magazine is called 'What's my motivation?'

It deals more with the carrot than the stick approach, since most writers tend to respond negatively to any kind of forced regime to get the words on the paper unless they impose it themselves. And the best motivation of all is striving to match the desire to be a writer because you want to - by simply doing it. The rest is down to sweat and determination.

Asking somebody to jump across a sand pit (see the article) illustrates this by way of finding out what you can do - then improving on it and gaining the confidence to go further.

And that's what writing is all about; doing it again and again and stretching yourself.

As I say in the article, it's better to say you tried than regret never having done so.


Also in this month's issue is a profile of debut author Susan Murray.

Her novel 'The Waterborne Blade' was published by Angry Robot in May, and the sequel 'Waterborne Exile' quickly followed in August. A good way to hook readers; don't keep them waiting for the next book.

Details to buy here.


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Writing for Beginners (8)

Getting the (Writing) Buzz

I met up with a friend and writing colleague recently, to discuss a forthcoming literary event we were doing together. For reasons of convenience, the fact that there was a decent coffee shop, and no doubt for the same reason salmon and wildebeest invariably end up treading familiar territory, we met at a local bookshop.

As if that were such a strain.

It was one of those barn-like places where books come at you from all directions, and if you’re of an easily intimidated frame of mind, you’ll feel a little awed by the sheer volume of… well, volumes.

But it could easily as have been one of the local independent bookshops, as the net result was the same: I felt a warm glow spreading through me like a virus – and it had nothing to do with the coffee.

I have to admit the visit did me the power of good. Because it took me right back to the years before I got published, when I’d find myself in a bookshop, eyeing up my favourite authors and wondering how they’d done it. How they’d got there.

And thinking: I want to be part of this!

(That desire has in no way diminished, by the way, even though my 20th published book comes out in January).

By being part of, I meant being published – and there was, as there is now, such a huge variety of possible subjects to choose from, it was a little like being in a sweet shop and not knowing where to turn next.

That’s not to say that this recent experience was instantly productive or impressive. I had the drive home to follow, during which many creative thoughts probably slid out of my brain and fell onto the hard shoulder to join the bits of shredded lorry tyres, the occasional shoe (why always one?) and the unfortunate wildlife which hadn’t managed to join the chicken on the other side. But I did reach my PC with enough energy remaining to make me sit down with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for what I was doing for a living.

And that was worth its weight in gold.

Writing being the solitary procedure it so often is, we can so easily fall into the habit of getting too wedded to our keyboard day-to-day, of simply having our minds cluttered with the very idea of being productive, come hell or high water. It’s a bit like thrashing around in the sea and not going anywhere; it might look impressive for a while, but it soon gets tiring. This false productivity also comes at the expense of self-motivation, because it can leech away that fantastic yet hard-to-explain buzz which set us on the writing path in the first place.

A good way of resetting your writing default, therefore, is to re-acquaint yourself with the marketplace. And the only way of doing that is to get out there in it, even if just for an hour or so. Forget the internet and all those soul-less sites which, although packed with colour, information and ease of access, simply lack the sheer atmosphere and tactile quality of a room full of books.

It means going to a bookshop or library and becoming absorbed by your surroundings. Pick up a book or ten and check out the blurb. See what’s out there and allow yourself to take in the sheer volume and variation of published works, whether in your favourite genre or not. Check the latest publications and see what’s hot – and who the publishers are. Do a quick word count to see what’s current, and take a peak at how the opening couple of paragraphs are handled and compare them with your own style.

It’s also worth looking at the strap lines on books. Yes, it’s marketing-speak, and meant to catch the eye for a split second before the reader moves on. But do the snappy lines give you any ideas? Do they throw up an image in your mind? If so, what kind of strap could you think of for your current/future project?

Many books also contain a lot of information about the author (their websites) and the publishers and agents (check the attributions pages). This is especially useful for the yet-to-be-published, and at least gives you a name to aim for when making that first submission.

Of course, some might say there’s a down-side to being surrounded by so much published material. The very sight of so many books, many claiming to be ‘best-sellers’, can be a rather brutal reminder of just how much competition exists out there. Well, very true. But life is all about competition (sorry, kids) and trying to overcome it. Instead, take comfort from the fact that those authors on the shelves all had to start somewhere – and most of them probably did a lot of what you’re doing right now before they got their big break.

The worst thing in the world would be to try and pretend that the successful authors don’t exist.

The best thing in the world is to try your utmost to join them.


·        What do you want to do – write or push words around?
·        Renew your desire to get published by becoming absorbed in the marketplace.
·        See what else is being published and compare it with your own writing.
·        Take in the books on the shelves and reinforce your determination to put yours within distance of joining them.


Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
UK -   US -