The Writing Life – Feb 2014

Busy with all kinds of writerly activities this week. Yesterday a writing workshop at Art Central in Barry, courtesy of the Women’s Arts Association and their exhibition for International Women’s Day. Events conspired against us, with a few apologies from people who couldn’t make it due to illness (it’s been a bad winter for bugs of all kinds) and other problems, but those happy few who braved the possibility of winter weather were rewarded with a lovely clear day and a lot of fun at the event.

Arriving at the venue in plenty of time, we were unable to drive in as the bollards hadn’t been lowered, but I spotted a lady getting out of the passenger seat of another car and striding purposefully towards the Hall. On a hunch, I suggested we drive round the block and try again – which paid off as a charming man had unlocked the bollards to allow our access. Inside, I barely had time to glimpse the art exhibition as I was shown to the room I’d be presenting in. We rearranged the furniture and unpacked my props and stock. A writing buddy had arrived at the same time and helped set things up and we chatted about our current projects – my books and the script she’s working on.

The organisers (Gwyneth and Eve) had secured funding literally at the final hurdle – they’d only been informed of the final decision the previous afternoon, so they’d decided to make the event a free one, rather than charge participants as we’d agreed to do. It makes a nice change in these austere times to have some last-minute good news about funding!

Other participants arrived in ones and twos, chatting about the weather, their writing and everybody’s health problems. Some things never change. Apparently a local block of flats had been evacuated in the small hours when part of the roof blew off, so there was good reason to talk about the Welsh weather!

The workshop went really well – I love it when everybody jumps in with both feet, giving the exercises a good try, even when they protest that my prompts won’t work for their story. I’m a firm believer in the idea that adding elements at a tangent to the story you think you’re writing is a great way to add depth and twists the reader won’t anticipate. Apologies if that sounds like a mixed metaphor – it makes sense if you’ve ever been at one of my slightly anarchic workshops, honest! They were a fabulous bunch and we all had a great time. They left with freebies from me, a partially-constructed story each and several of them were planning to start a local writers’ group.

I still didn’t get time to browse the exhibition after the workshop, as so many people wanted to talk – both workshop participants and those who hadn’t made it for one reason or another. A really friendly town! I chatted with a lovely young lady about the ongoing story she’s writing at school (sounds like she’s got a great teacher) and a few people who asked about disability and told me related issues they had themselves. A few people bought copies of books from me and I even found time to eat a few of the yummy cakes laid on by the WAA ladies. (Loved the cupcake topped with fruit!) Then it was official opening time with the Lady Mayor. I was invited to say a few words about how I became a writer and I encouraged people to have a go at something creative, regardless of their age or life situation. More chat and we left. I was ready to collapse by the time we got back to the car.

A tiring day, but it was well worth it.

A couple of other bits of writerly news. I’ve guest-blogged on the Bristol Book Blog, giving Ten Tips for New Writers. You can read it (and other great entries, too) here:

I’m also participating in the #mywritingprocess blog chain. My episode will be posted tomorrow morning, complete with an explanation!

In case I wasn’t busy enough, tomorrow (Monday) is Launch Day for my new book – even though a few people already have their copies and have been giving me some great feedback. It’s a pocket guide for writers, especially those starting out and unsure of how to take their writing to the next level. It’s called Just Add Writing and can be ordered through all the usual retailers as well as myself:

There is a Facebook event for the launch – drop in and say hello if you can. There will be a party on there, with virtual drinks, nibbles and probably some shenanigans behind the virtual bikeshed I’ve had installed specially. There will also be the chance to win some non-virtual prizes. You can find us at:

So today I’m taking things easy, recovering from yesterday and getting stuff ready for tomorrow. Hope to see you at the party.

Beginning to Write

“How do I start to write?” The commonest question any writer gets asked when presenting an event. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who bites back a sarcastic answer of, “Just pick up a pen.”

But it’s not just sarcasm. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. There’s no magic recipe, no simple shortcut to producing a bestseller. Most writers only become successful after years of scribbling in the wee small hours, before they shower and dress for the day job that pays the bills. Yes, we’ve all heard about the lucky writer who turns their fan-fic blog into a huge bestseller – with sequels if they’re really lucky. But flash-in-the-pan success doesn’t last. The biggest selling book one year becomes an obscure trivia question three years later. We live in a world where success is truly fleeting and the way to make a career from writing is to hone your writing.

I blogged a lot in September and October 2013 as a warm-up to NaNoWriMo in November, with a series of articles related to writing a novel. The feedback convinced me there is an appetite for this – that people know they could write a novel but aren’t sure they could structure their work, or don’t know how to make their characters interesting. Or any number of other aspects. So I try to help with tips I’ve learned the hard way over the years.

One beginner didn’t have time to read my blog and told me I had to summarise “just the important bits” for him – I didn’t even bother to reply. Another writer complained he’d signed up for an online course in writing and they kept making him write “boring stuff” instead of the novel he feels he’s got inside him. I don’t agree – I replied that it’s a writer’s job to make the boring stuff interesting and even the worst writing exercise in the world is good practice. Writing courses can be really helpful, every book on writing has something to offer if the reader looks out for the tips that are useful to them. But books take time to read, time you could spend writing. Be wary of reading every book about writing and never putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Or worse still, buying all the books on writing and arranging them neatly on the shelf to gather dust.

All good writers are readers. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in the genre you want to write. There are more good books out there than you’ll ever read. Reading in the simplest and most enjoyable way of learning grammar and sentence structure. Forget all the rules you half-remember from school and soak up the rhythms of language from books already published. Learn to read with a critical eye: make a mental note of a phrase that just says something perfectly; stop and reread any sentence that doesn’t quite work – what’s wrong with it? Can you see a better way to say the same thing? Copy out the whole paragraph and have a go…

How does a beginner become a writer? Simple – read everything, write every day and practice editing work to make it better.

Yes, it’s always possible that your blog or self-published ebook will happen to tap into the Zeitgeist – the spirit of our times. But don’t sit around waiting for that miracle:

Read … Write … Edit

If you’re in the Barry area this Saturday (15th Feb), or fancy a day out to visit this lovely town in the Vale of Glamorgan, you may like to come to a writing workshop I’m presenting at Art Central. It’ll be lively and fun, with exercises to encourage you to write. It’s aimed at beginners, but there’ll be plenty to enjoy, even if you’ve been writing for years. £4 a ticket, including freebies, cuppas and cake afterwards. I’ll be selling my books at a discount to participants, but there’s no pressure to buy. Promise! (I’ll never be any good as a salesperson!) Starts at 1:30 pm, or get there early for a chat. More details on Facebook ( ) or message me. Hope to see you there. 

Book on the Way

There’s a strange lull period just before self-publication of a self-published book. I’ve finished writing the book, designed the cover and sent it all off to the printers. (It takes a few weeks for the physical books to arrive.) I’ve got limited edition production runs to arrange for items in the goody bags. But apart from those, I’m in a kind of writing limbo.

I don’t want to work on another writing project, as I’ll have to pour all my energy into this one again when the books arrive. And a few weeks isn’t long enough to finish anything. And frankly, I’m tired after the last few weeks of frenetic writing.

Yes, I’m working on various writerly events I’ve got lined up in the next few months. So far, I have a couple of guest blogging spots, a reading for International Women’s Day and two workshops:

Saturday 15th February, Running a Taster session for the Women’s Arts Association in Barry. Gonna be lots of fun and very lively for all levels of writers. The bad news is it’s £4 a ticket.  The good news is that my books will be available at a discount 😉 and I’m promised that there will be cake. 
Details here:

I’m also running a Writing Workshop at Steampunk at the Seaside, Camber Sands in March. Details of that one will follow when I know what’s happening.

Meanwhile I’m catching up on a backlog of non-book admin that’s been building up and taking orders for the new book. I’m offering an option of a small goody bag with a few extras, as my goody bags proved so popular with Chrystal Heart. (You can pre-order here: if you’re interested.)

Promo Pack JAW

I might even have a bit of time to relax. Hmm, what’s on my knitting needles at the moment…?

Knit Orange

Giveaway! Just Add Writing

My new book will be out in February – it’s a small volume of writing tips to lift a writer onto the next level.

Front JAW
Just Add Writing. 150cm x 15cm, 100 pages

I run writing workshops for groups of writers and several other organisations. I’m guest lecturer at our local University and have been NaNoWriMo ML for Wales for a decade. And I get asked the same questions time and time again. So I thought I’d put my answers into a book that people can take away with them.

Many writers find it hard to scale up their work – they can handle short fiction, but it’s too big a step to write a coherent novel. It’s not just a case of producing more words – it’s a very different animal to write. A short story may only have one dimension, a timeline with little or no character development. More usually it has breadth as well, a second dimension in which characters can move at right angles to the main plot, generating interest for the reader. But a novel needs depth, too – the third dimension which keeps the reader turning pages right till the end.

Okay, that might be pushing an analogy too far, but it’s one way to visualise the step change between the different media. I’ve read novels that were really just short stories padded out in the first two dimensions, lacking in any depth. A novel like this will only succeed if it has something extra, something that captures people’s imagination and taps into the zeitgeist. In other words, it takes luck – and that’s not a good thing for a writer to rely on.

There are also writers who produce a novel-length manuscript and don’t know how to make it “work”. They don’t know how to turn a draft into a completed novel. In this day of free e-publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, all too many of these get released into the big, wide world without proper consideration.

And so, my little book. Just Add Writing is designed to help those writers to write a novel that people will want to read. To focus on the aspects that keep readers turning the pages, bring them back for the next book. We live in a world of free ebooks and throwaway fiction, and this is a guide to making you novel stand above the swamp of the mediocre.

No, I’m not promising you’ll write a bestseller – only that I’ll help you write the best novel that YOU can. There are ways to maximise the return from the time you can spend on writing – many of them learnt the hard way by your humble writer. (Me!) There are tips I can give you to improve your writing, but the hard work is down to you.

Hence the title.

Enough waffle. Just Add Writing will be published on 17th February and available through all good booksellers, online and even in the real world!
You will soon be able to pre-order a limited edition pack with a few extras.

Watch this space.

Meanwhile, to win a copy (including worldwide P&P), simply post a picture of yourself reading one of my books and tag me in the picture. If you have an ebook, show the cover of my book on your ereader’s screen and point that towards the camera. 🙂 Closing date 10th Feb, 2014. The three best pictures will each receive a signed copy of Just Add Writing.

(I’m also presenting a workshop in Barry on 15th Feb. See you there?)

NaNoCoDo #13 A Writing Space and Time to Write

This is my tenth year of doing NaNoWriMo. I have written at least 50,000 words every November for the last nine years and I plan to do the same this year.

I have other commitments, other demands on my time. I have writing that’s promised to magazines, family problems, health issues, computer glitches and all the other things that get in the way of a good month’s writing. We all do. I was even packing our house ready to move one November. NaNoWriMo is all about being the one who produces 50,000 words in a month despite everything else that’s going on in your life. If it was easy, what would be the point of doing it?

One of the great benefits lies in finding out how much time you waste in a “normal” month. Ten minutes waiting for someone to get ready. Half an hour while dinner’s in the oven. An hour in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Yup, I’ve written in all of those timeslots. And that’s the key to NaNoWriMo.

People tend to assume that writers have a set schedule, that they type all day and then have a normal social life. The reality is often more to do with holding down a full-time job and squeezing their story into tiny snatched moments during their day. NaNo is great practice for just such a life. If you’re hoping your work will be discovered by a publisher someday, get used to the idea that you’ve got to spend the next few years earning a living in the mundane world before that happens. Sorry, but that’s reality for you!

One other useful point to NaNoWriMo is that you can use this month to train your family / friends not to interrupt when you’re writing. My long-suffering Hubby knows the dangers of speaking to me when I’m typing and he has the bite-marks to prove it. You can explain to everyone that it’s only for November – they’ll be happy to humour you for a month and then they’ll have got used to it so you can continue writing (although not as frantically) afterwards. By the time you’ve done this for thirty days, you’ll have trained yourself to write (or think about your story) at every opportunity. And your family / significant other / friends will have learnt that you’re serious about this writing lark.

You don’t need to be sitting at your favourite desk to write. You don’t have to wear your writing undies. You don’t need silence or solitude.

You’re not trying to produce deathless prose, just a novel-length piece
of work you can be proud of.

Write when you can, think about your plot when you can’t write. Hold conversations (in your head) with your characters when you’re on the bus. Make sure you take backups!

All you need is a computer, imagination and the will to succeed.

See you in December, Writers! <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #12 Begin at the Beginning

Oh no – November is fast approaching. Now is the time to think about types of writing style. First person or Third? Past tense or Present? And if Past – which one?

Simple answer – don’t get hung up on any of these details. Try telling the opening of your story out loud, as if you were telling a mate. Do you find yourself using third person? Then write in third. Do you talk in a past tense? Then write in that one.

If all else fails, just start writing. If you find you’ve changed point of view (PoV) after a couple of chapters, don’t panic. Just keep going.
You can sort it all out in an edit later – if the book’s worth polishing. I’ve advised a lot of writers to change their PoV and their stories have been much stronger after that edit!

Likewise character names. I don’t always know what my characters are called when I start a story, so I just give them a label I can change later. That’s what “Find – Replace” is for in your word processor. You could call them AAA, BBB, CCC and so on. I tend to name them according to their role in the tale – Donna was the daughter, Frank her father, Simon the son – and so on. Your characters will tell you if they want a different name, or you will come across one you think is perfect. Find – Replace. Simples!

I’ve known writers complain, “No-one reads novels written in the first person” and try to force their narrative into the third person, even if that fits like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Or “My heroine needs a really cool name” and then spend weeks trying to find the ideal name before they write a word.

My advice is always the same – just get to work writing your first draft. You can make those decisions later and edit what you’ve written.

We’re all procrastinators some of the time.

But writers write!

NaNoCoDo #11 Endpoints and Sequels

You have to end your book by wrapping up the story it started with. Sounds simple, but if you’re writing the first books in a series, you don’t want to end your plot. You want to leave things open for the sequel. And if you’re writing the middle of a five-book saga, it’s even worse – because you don’t even have a clear point to begin your tale.
But you have to.

If you look at books that form a series you’ve enjoyed, each volume has its own identity. Yes, there are threads which pass from one to the next, but there are more that get tied-off.

In television terms, this is the difference between a continuing drama and a soap opera. Drama may have plots that carry from one episode to the next, but there is character development and an overall structure that you can see if you stand back from the action. Soap opera may have development of some characters, but there is no overall plot. I’m not knocking soaps, millions of people enjoy them, but they are a different type of drama. And many series sit somewhere between the two extremes. So if you’re going to turn out books in a series that doesn’t go anywhere, you’ll be alright as long as you produce two a week for the indefinite future.

Think of sci-fi series. Good old Star Trek had no overall plot. Each episode was contained in its own little bubble. If a character was aged by fifty years at the start, they were miraculously restored by the end of the show. Whereas Babylon 5 had a plan, there were plots setup very early on that didn’t come to fruition for years!

More examples.

James Bond can get married in a book / film – but she’s bumped off at the end, leaving him free for the next one.

Doctor Who can be on trial at the start of an episode, but he’s free by the end. (Unless the story runs over a few weeks, but the same rule applies.)

The way to check this is to imagine reading / watching the stories out of order. Do they still make sense? Then there’s no overall story arc.

But what if you don’t have a plan for your saga? You just want the same characters to have a series of adventures, each of which is self-contained. Then you simply tie off all the threads at the end of a book and very little is carried forward. You’re writing a soap opera – and that’s fine.

But if you want an overall plot and don’t actually know what it will be, you’ve got the toughest job. One good tactic is to use a different viewpoint character for each phase of your story. So:

Book1: Tom’s Story – ends when he dies heroically, saving a younger man.
Book 2: Dick’s Story – starts when he’s saved and ends when he falls in love with a woman he’s only just met.
Book 3: Harriet’s Story – starts when she’s being stalked by an admirer and ends when she marries him.

You get the idea.

This may be more structured than you want for NaNoWriMo – but why not use this month as a practice run for a novel you actually want to sell someday? Even if you don’t have a detailed structure at the start, think about it as you’re writing and look out for the point where you can wrap up the plots you want to, even if you leave some open for next year.

NaNoCoDo #10 Subplots and Plot Shapes

So you have some idea what sort of story you’re writing, who your characters are and you’ve been living in your setting for the last month. But what is actually going to happen in your book? Is this a love story, a quest, a horror slasher? Whatever you plan, there are certain shortcuts to plot structures that will leave your reader happy at the end of your book.
More to the point, there are easy ways to leave them unhappy and your job is to avoid these!

Each plot or subplot has a definite story arc – it begins, things happen, it resolves. Even if a particular subplot is left open at the end, you still need to round it off ready to pick up in the sequel. Or in the reader’s mind.

And your book needs to have a single story arc that starts as close to the beginning as possible and ends climatically at the close of the book.

This is important.

If you begin with a character’s lousy love life, you end with them snogging the man (or woman, or alien) of their dreams. You do not end with their city being blown up – that’s a different story arc.
There is a contract with the reader. You will signal the end of your story by the beginning. You promise that you’ll end by wrapping up the tale they bought in to at the beginning.

Your subplots can start and begin in a convoluted way during the book – but your final paragraphs are to close the story you began in the first chapter. That’s how the reader knows they’ve finished your book. That’s what makes them happy.

The only time you can really dodge this rule is with murder mysteries. Your reader knows someone’s going to get killed fairly early on, so you can build up the tension for a few chapters. Otherwise, you must start by setting up your major plot. And finish with the same plot’s ending.

Okay – this might be too involved for a NaNoWriMo book. But there’s no harm in knowing what to aim for.

Sounds trivial, but I’ve seen stories which open with the heroine looking for love and close with her finding the hidden treasure. Gold is no substitute for love! If your story opens with a ghost being sighted – it doesn’t end with the hero and heroine walking away hand-in-hand.

It sounds trivial, but this is essential for a good story – whether it’s a book, a film or whatever. Even if you’re continuing for a ten-book saga, each volume must end with some sort of closure that relates to where it began.

Think about it.

NaNoCoDo #9 Supporting Cast

By now, you should be on good terms with your Main Character and their partner / sidekick / love interest. But you’re gonna need more people to make a decent book of their adventures. Each of these needs you to keep some records of them.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger a character’s part will be, the more details you need to keep a note of. The two henchmen may not have names, but you need to remember the tall, skinny one’s ginger and the shorter one sweats when he runs – if these details are likely to crop up again. But the retired knight / policeman who’s teaching your heroine to fight needs a lot more description, as he’s going to stick around for a few chapters – and may sneak back in towards the end, too.

Don’t assume you’ll remember all the details without making a note – even if you do, what happens if you make a change? To remember everything in an up-to-date way would require a freakish memory and scrupulous attention to detail.

Similarly, don’t ever think it doesn’t matter – your readers WILL notice. They always do. It’s not just me!

It doesn’t matter whether these notes are in a notebook, electronic file or written on your bedroom wall – so long as you can refer to them all the time and update them when you need to.

As well as physical and character descriptions, you need to keep track of the relationships between your various characters. This could be a list of who’s going out with whom for a High School Romance story, a family tree for your inter-generational saga or a detailed hierarchy of both military and civilian characters (as in the great Russian epics).

If you’ve got multiple threads going on, you may want to use sticky notes to keep track of who’s in each group. Try colour-coding them for clarity.

Or you may have a better idea that works perfectly for you.

National Novel Writing Month starts on 1st November but the site is open for sign-ups now. If you don’t know what it’s about, have a read of my NaNoCoDo posts. If you think you’ve got a novel in you, why not sign up? What have you got to lose? <<– Sign up here.

NaNoCoDo #8 Baddies

I can’t think of anything more boring than a story where only good things happen to your Main Character. They set out on a quest, find the treasure, meet the love of their life and live happily ever after.


That may be a life to aspire to – but it’s never going to be a book worth reading.

Readers want conflict, difficulties, trauma, drama, suffering, blood – and that’s just for a light romantic read!

Seriously, your hero(ine) needs obstacles to overcome so the reader can see them at their best. This is your baddie. It may not be a person – it could be a group of people, fate, the weather, a computer, an alien civilisation – whatever you like. It could be the Sheriff, if your “good guys” are outlaws! The Opposition. But let’s refer to it as your baddie.

Baddies need motivation (I mentioned this in my previous entry). If it’s a person (or alien or computer) then it must be sentient enough to have its own wants and needs. Even the giant wolf that’s hunting your character has needs – DINNER.

Non-sentient baddies don’t have conscious needs, but they have set patterns of behaviour. If your characters are battling to build a shelter before the monsoon, they know roughly when it’s likely to start. It may come a week early and wash away their undried mortar, but there will be warning signs.

Natural disasters may appear to be random events – but they can trigger each other. In European history, the Black Death killed a large part of the population and the survivors were not up to preventing the Great Fire of London the following year. (Which was a good thing – fire really kills all those lingering germs!) Look at the Plagues of Egypt in the Bible (Exodus) and the Q’ran. Each plague could have caused the next – the plague of frogs die and then there’s a plague of insects, presumably springing from the frog carcasses. You need to think like this for your fiction, too. Cause and effect makes the sequence more acceptable to the reader of your book – and helps you structure a crescendo of danger for your characters to overcome.

So give some thought to the way your baddies will interact with your good guys. Think about how their actions will escalate, forcing your heroes to ever greater trials to win through. And make sure you understand their motivation, so they aren’t just a collection of random obstacles on the hero’s way to win the crown.