Monday, 28 December 2015

New Beginnings

It’s at this time of year when people think about new beginnings. With the new year just around the corner, there’s a certain neatness to sitting back and reviewing what has been achieved over the last twelve months and making plans about what to do over the coming year.

But while the first day of the first month of a new year has a freshness to it, it’s not the only time of year for new beginnings.

New beginnings are all about making a decision … a decision to do something positive, constructive or new. That’s the important point about a new beginning. Making the decision. Any new day can become a new start, or the start of a new regime.

So, if you feel under pressure to come up with some New Year resolutions (particularly writing related ones) and nothing comes to mind (or rather, nothing that fires you up with enthusiasm) then don’t force yourself to come up with a resolution or two. If they’re not really what you want to do then you will fail, because your heart isn’t in them. Take time to think about what you want to achieve.

And if that means your new beginning doesn’t start until 5th January then that’s okay. The important point is that you’ve found the new beginning that’s right for you. It doesn’t matter if your new beginning starts on a neat date, like 1st January, or any other date, such as 5th January or even the 29th December. What’s more important is that you’ve made the decision. The right decision. The date isn't really important at all.

Happy New Year.

Good luck.


Looking to sell more of your words in 2016? Photography for Writers could be what you’re looking for. Whether you have a mobile phone camera, a compact camera, or something a little bigger, being able to offer photographs can turn you into an editor’s dream. Find out all you need to know about how to take better photos, how to submit them, and how to offer photos when you don’t even have a camera, on this weekend course in March (18th - 20th Keele University). For more information visit:


Monday, 21 December 2015


When Ann walked into a workshop run by a theatre group over a year ago she had no idea where her project would lead. That’s what can be so fascinating about writing. You never know what you’ve started.

The theatre workshop looked at creating a small play, drawing upon an established piece of literary work for inspiration. Ann chose The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear.

After the workshop she brought her short play to the writers’ group, where we were allocated parts and did a reading. It was great fun, but it seemed such a shame that it should end there. Surely there was something else.

And this is where being a member of a writers’ group can lead to so much more trouble! We suggested turning it into a radio play, or perhaps an animation. But how? A bit of brainstorming turned up the idea that Ann should get in touch with her university tutor (she got her BA Hons at the age of 75), because we thought he might know some animation/film maker students looking for a project. Well, as these things so often turn out, Ann was given the name of someone who knew someone, who knew someone … etc.

And an idea was born. Not an animation, but a comic. (Which was also a lot cheaper.)

That was several months ago, and last Tuesday two of us from the group accompanied Ann to the home of Elliott, a 19-year-old creative who’d pulled the project together for Ann, drawing upon a graphic designer he knew in America and a local printer.

When Elliott handed the comic over, Ann was quite emotional (and the quietest I’ve ever known her). But it was great to see the finished product, professional produced.

Ann has clear plans for her three copies that she’s had printed. But as I sat there in Elliott’s family home, it was great reminder that writing is all about teamwork. Inspired by others at the theatre workshop, and encouraged (some may say bullied) by the writers’ group to take it further, Ann’s project came to fruition thanks to Elliott and his team.

So, next time you sit down and start a project, just wonder for a moment about where it may take you. And don’t forget, writing may feel a solitary exercise at times, but if your piece is going to be published, produced, or entered into a competition, there’s a whole of team of other people involved in making it happen.

Merry Christmas. 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Drafting Around

How many drafts of one piece do you write? I ask, because when I receive an assignment those that are still first drafts stand out for several reasons. They contain spelling (or more probably typing) errors, homophones (where words sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings), and there are usually structural errors too.

It doesn’t matter how much outlining you do either (although outlining may resolve many of the structural problems writers face). Even if you’ve outlined your piece to death, that first draft is just that: a first draft. Unintentional errors still creep in. And remember, whatever you’re writing, the text you submit to an editor/publisher is the first impression they’ll have of you as a writer, so don’t let the first draft be that first impression.

First drafts give you freedom. As Anne Lamontt says in her book Bird by Bird, it’s acceptable to writethose shitty first draftsbecause they become the stepping stones to the third and fourth drafts of sheer brilliance. Once you accept the first draft is just that, it offers freedom. There’s no need to worry about getting everything right. Just get down the points you want to make. Further drafts are for tidying up.

Many of you will know that I use Scrivener as my writing software of choice, and one function I particularly like is the snapshot option. One click of a button and it captures a copy of the text as it stands at that moment. Many word processors offer this facility now, where you can keep track of different versions.  The beauty of such software is that you can always roll back to a previous draft if the current draft has wandered off down the wrong side-turning.

I should also point out that there’s no magic number of drafts you have to undertake to reach a polished piece. Take as many as you need. I tend to review my first draft for structural problems, and then each subsequent draft looks at different aspects: cutting to the required wordlength, stylistic issues, spelling and punctuation, and so on. Sometimes I find three drafts gets me to where I want to be, other times it can many more.

I also plan this drafting process into my writing schedule, even when I have a deadline. Having a regular column in Writing Magazine means that I’m sending off an article to the editor every four weeks, or so. As soon as I’ve submitted one, I start working on the next. This gives me four weeks to undertake several drafts.

Putting work aside for a couple of days really does help to give you a fresh perspective on your work. Something that wasn’t obvious at the time might jump out at you now. 

So next time you finish writing a complete draft of a piece of writing put it to one side. Congratulate yourself on having finished your text, and celebrate if you want to. But understand that a first draft is the start of the writing process, not the end. A first draft is the hardest draft though. Subsequent drafts are easier to cope with.

Good luck.

Monday, 7 December 2015


As you’ll know from my post two weeks ago ( I’ve been judging the National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Short Story competition. I have now concluded my deliberations and my decision has been forwarded to the organisers for them to notify the winning entrants.

As part of this process I also had to offer a critique to those entrants who paid for this extra service, and this is the first time I’ve had to do this for competition entrants. One thing in particular struck me with this service: several entrants who paid for a critique submitted more than one story into the competition. So if they entered two or three stories, they paid extra to have critiques on each of those submissions.

What I found interesting in this scenario is that when an entrant submitted more than one story they tended to submit very similar stories, or similarly-styled stories. This meant that if I came across a problem in one of their stories, their other entries frequently exhibited the same problem. Therefore, when it came to writing up their critiques, I found myself making the same comments.

In some ways this could be seen as a good thing. To learn that you’re making the same mistake gives you the opportunity to learn from it, especially when it comes to the fundamental basics of writing. It could be it’s that same mistake you are repeating that is preventing your work from moving onto the next stage and being published or winning competitions.

However, it could also be seen as a missed opportunity. To have paid twice to be told the same thing could be seen as a little frustrating.

But what it made me realise is that competition entrants tend not to experiment with their submissions. If they pay to enter more than one entry, writers frequently enter similarly-styled submissions. To me, this seems a waste. If you’re going to submit more than one entry, why not submit two completely different pieces? Experiment a little. If it’s a short story competition, why not write one that is set in the present tense and one that is written in the past tense? Or send one in the first person and one in the third person. Write one that revolves around a flashback and one that doesn’t.

If you’re entering a non-fiction competition why not write one written in a journalistic style, and another that takes a more creative non-fiction approach?

Judges are individuals, with individual tastes. If you submit three stories written in the past tense, first person viewpoint with flashbacks, and the judge doesn’t like flashbacks, then all three of those entries risk being disliked by the judge. But if two have flashbacks and one doesn’t, then the one that doesn’t may still find favour with the judge.

So, it might make sense to be a little more structured with your approach to competitions. If you’re going to send more than one entry into one competition, send completely different pieces, with completely different styles. You may increase your chances of winning, and you may learn more from the critiques if you select this option.

Good luck.

Monday, 30 November 2015

50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make

This week I wanted to bring to your attention a new eBook by friend and fellow WB tutor Alex Gazzola. Called 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make it does what it says on the tin. It identifies, explains, and then tells you how to avoid making the those mistakes.

We all make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is a Good Thing, because they give us a great learning opportunity. But what Alex’s eBook does is it tells you about the most common mistakes many beginner writers make … so you don’t have to make them. This eBook is therefore a short cut to doing it right in the first place.

Alex covers a variety of errors, from why it’s wrong to think mistakes are bad, why writers shouldn’t avoid reading, and why it’s wrong to think you shouldn’t invest in your writing career, through to why it’s a mistake to be nervous about contacting editors, or fretting over them stealing your ideas.

As tutors, we frequently find that writers starting out on their non-fiction writing journey regularly make the same mistakes, which is why Alex started his blog (which I can throughly recommend if you don’t already follow it): 

Many of the mistakes can be found on his blog, along with several others, but by buying them in eBook format (it’s an extremely good value of £1.99 - and yes, I’ve already bought my copy) you’ll find it easier to read. What I liked about it was that you can either sit down and read it in one go (however long it takes you to read some 20,000 words), or if you’ve only got a couple of minutes you can quickly read a mistake or two. It’s perfect for those with Kindle apps on their smartphones or tablets.

If you want to buy a copy of Alex’s book you can do so here.

And if you want to read Alex’s latest post where he explains why he put it all into eBook format, click here - you might see a name you recognise ;-)

Good luck.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A Judge's Plea

Please, please, please can we have stories with a happier ending? Okay, I’m being a bit facetious here, but there is a point I’d like to make.

I’ve just finished judging one short story competition, and I’m in the process of judging another. And so many of them end in death. Yes, those stories are emotional, thought-provoking, and some are extremely well-written. But why does there have to be so much death?

As writers we sit in our own workspace, our own little world, creating a story that we hope might win a competition. All we think about is our story. But have you ever thought what other writers might be writing? What are your competitors writing about?

For the competition I’m currently judging I have over 125 entries to read. I’m about half way through, but I read a batch of twelve yesterday and in every single one of them somebody died right at the end of the story. I stopped reading. There’s only so much death a man can take in one sitting.

A death can tug at the heart-strings. It can illicit a wealth of emotions in the reader. It can give a story poignancy, significance and a moral. But it’s also possible to do all of that without killing everybody off!

Because so many stories seem to end with a death, they all blur into one. Whereas I do remember the ones that finish on an upbeat note. They really stand out. That doesn’t mean that those stories are not emotional, or engaging. They are. In some ways, more powerfully so.

It is possible to write a powerful story and end on an upbeat note. The winning entry of the competition I’ve finished judging, for example, was about the emotional battle of coming to terms with a life partner’s severe, debilitating stroke. Through the course of the story the narrator goes on an emotional journey questioning the quality of their partner’s life … and that of the narrator. And so the narrator decides the kindest thing to do, for both of them, is to kill their life partner. 

At first I was thinking, “Here we go again! Another murder in writer-land.” And it would have worked as a story. But the writer chose to end it differently. Just as the narrator was picking up the cushion, their partner made a movement. A finger moved. That’s all. but it was the first movement since the stroke. And at that split second the story completely changed. There was hope. Suddenly the narrator’s outlook went from one of despair to one of joy, love and excitement.

I know we have no way of knowing who else is entering a competition, let alone what they’re writing about. But if I can offer one piece of advice it’s to remember that you are competing against other writers. Yes, you’ve got to please the judge (and that’s not easy because we all have our own subjective tastes and preferences … and this post is clearly about one of mine), but your story needs to stand out from all of the other entries too (for the right reasons - poor spelling and grammar isn’t a good reason).

So consider your story a little more before you submit. Does it have the right outcome? If someone dies at the end, is it because that’s the outcome most people would expect? Or could there be a different one? One that puts a whole new perspective on the story?

Don't just think about the judge reading your story. Think about your story in amongst several hundred others. What is it about your tale that makes yours different enough to stand out from all of the rest?

Good luck!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Major Milestone

Most of you know that I write non-fiction: articles and books. But I also dabble in fiction. Unlike the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’ve had published I’ve only had a handful of short stories published. When it comes to fiction my confidence is somewhat lacking.

Last week it got a serious boost. I met, had lunch, and signed with an agent: someone who likes my novel and thinks she can sell it. While this is a boost to my confidence, I also know that there is still a long road ahead.

Being taken on by an agent doesn’t guarantee that a publisher will want to publish my novel. But it does mean that my novel will be exposed to more publishers than I could ever approach. (Many publishers - including the big five - only accept agented submissions.)

But throughout this process of finding an agent (I began my search on 2009 and have written three novels in total now) I’ve learnt many things along the way:

- Agents have personal likes and dislikes. (They’re human!) When an agent rejects your work it might not be because they think it’s unpublishable. They might not like the genre, setting or era of your story. Half the battle is finding an agent with the same taste in style that you write.

- If you’re writing humour (and my novel makes an attempt at it at times) you need to find an agent who shares your sense of humour (I feel so sorry for my agent), and also one who thinks they know editors at publishers who also share your sense of humour.

- An agent only takes on a writer whose work they think they can sell. Reputable agents don’t charge writers upfront. So they don’t earn any money until they’ve sold your book. Therefore, they have to love your book and believe they can sell it, in order to take you on.

- If an agent likes a writer, but they don’t feel they can sell their book, they won’t take the writer on. They might encourage them to write another book, but it’s the book they have to sell to a publisher first. 

- You can approach several agents simultaneously (usually with three chapters and a synopsis, although this does vary from agency to agency), but if an agent asks to read the whole novel, it is common practise to let them do so on an exclusive basis. 

- Some agents’ websites say something like: if you’ve not heard from us after three months you can assume we’re not interested in taking your project further. Don’t take that as gospel. Two agents contacted me asking to see more of my work over seven months after my initial submission (and four after I’d ‘assumed they were not interested in taking my project further’).

- Agents’ systems have glitches too. Don’t take it personally when you get a rejection from an agent by email, and then two more rejection emails from the same agent ten minutes later! (It happened to me twice. It’s not nice being rejected, but being rejected three times by the same agent in ten minutes kinda hurts!)

- Always follow an agent’s guidelines. If they want the first two chapters in Times New Roman, font size 12, on pink paper, folder once and submitted in an A5 envelope, postmarked on a Tuesday … then do it. Agents get inundated with submissions, so many are looking for any excuse to reject. And those writers who take time to read guidelines and then abide by them are setting themselves up as people who are prepared to listen and follow advice. 

It’s not necessary to have an agent for non-fiction books. Indeed, I’ve had over a dozen published without the need for an agent (although I can recommend the Society of Author’s contract vetting service for members). But when it comes to fiction, an agent is increasingly necessary these days. Many publishers won’t deal with unagented authors.

So, if you find yourself looking for an agent, be prepared to play the long game. Never give up. Always submit what the agent/agency ask for, and keep going until you’ve approached every agent in the country. And if that doesn’t work, write another novel and start again.

Good luck.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Golden Hour

There’s a saying in the photographic world that, for landscape photography in particular, the best light of the day occurs during the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t take great photos at any other time of the day - you can - but during these golden hour periods the lighting has the ability to give our images a special quality.

Something similar could be said for writing too. Although it is possible to pick up a pen and write at any time of the day, I find there is a time of day when the words flow more easily, and the creativity behind the idea sparkles with a special iridescence. I’m a firm believer that our brain can be ‘trained’ into working at the same time each day. Make sitting down and writing at the same time every day a habit and, over time, the words will flow more easily. But the golden hour I’m referring to isn’t that time when our brain has been trained to write. Instead, it’s that time when it wants to write. 

There are some writers who only write when the muse strikes. For me, the muse is that golden hour. I’ve trained my brain into writing during the day, when I have to write, in order to meet deadlines and generate an income. But I enjoy those golden moments when the muse strikes and everything just flows. 

The golden hours don’t happen every day - for writers, or for photographers. Indeed, there have been times when I planned to go out with my camera, but the weather forecast changed and it began peeing it down with rain and continued to do so well into the night. However, there are days when I can look to the skies, and know that everything (including stuff I don’t understand) is coming together nicely and it’ll be worth going out with my camera. 

The same thing happens with the muse. I don’t look to the skies, but there’s a feeling, a sense, that things are coming together nicely, and I should make the effort to sit down quietly with pen and paper in hand. The golden muse is on its way. 

The next time the muse hits you try to explore the moment. What does it feel like? What mood are you in? What sort of atmosphere are you surrounded by? What qualities have combined to create this moment? The more you understand of these moments the more you can exploit them in the future.

There’s the potential for the photographic golden hour to happen twice a day, every day, but the weather doesn’t always play ball. However, photographically, I don’t wait for the muse to strike, I get out there and make the best of what I can. The same can be said for our writing. Don’t wait for the muse to strike in order to do any writing, but learn what conditions you need for it to strike, and then maximise its potential whenever it happens.

Good luck.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Asking For Help

I’ve been a right pain in the neck to some friends recently ;-). I asked for some help. Eighteen months ago I had an idea for a short story, and I sat down and drafted the first 500 words. But then I got stuck. The resolution wasn’t there, so I didn’t know what I was writing towards.

For several months I returned to the story, re-reading it, trying to work out what the actual story was. What was the conflict? What was the resolution? Whose story was it? I changed the character viewpoint. I changed the setting. I even changed the time period. Yet, still, despite having some sort of resolution, it wasn’t right. 

Then, a few weeks ago, it struck me that a completely different structure might be the solution. And it was. Sort of. The story is much stronger, more emotional and the resolution is there. But I’m not happy with it. There is still something that isn’t right.

Which is why I asked a couple of friends to help me out. When you’ve been this close to a project for such a long time, you are too close to it. You need fresh eyes to look at a piece. That’s what those friends can offer.

And their feedback has been great, so far. I say so far, because that’s why I’ve been a pain in the neck. They’ve given me some more ideas to consider for this story, which has been a great help. I now have plenty of angles to work on: points I hadn’t considered. But now these friends can’t get the story out of their heads. They keep having thoughts and ideas (which is brilliant for me, but not for them when they’re trying to get on with their own writing).

We all need help from time to time. Our projects are special to us, but sometimes we’re just too close to them to see any potential improvements. 

So if you get stuck on a project, ask for help. If people have the time, they usually will - especially if there’s an opportunity that you can reciprocate for them in the future. And also, if you have an idea for a project, pursue it. Sometimes these ideas need time to evolve. Perhaps I started work on this one too soon. But one thing I do know is that with some help from my friends, it will be finished. And then I can start submitting it. (And if it gets published, then the next round of cakes and coffee at the tea shop will be on me!)

Good luck.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Your First Three Months for Free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Last Saturday, the writers group I go to organised a couple of workshops for the local literary festival, and one of our guest speakers was journalist Nick Fletcher. Nick has worked for several of the UK’s national newspapers and continues to write for them and many magazines on a freelance basis.

He was passing on his hints and tips for writing articles, and he made an interesting suggestion, one that some might find a little controversial. If you want a regular column, offer to write it for free. Or rather, offer to supply a column and give the editor the first three or six pieces on a free trial basis (three pieces for a monthly publication and six for a weekly publication). Once the free trial was over, Nick would then ask the editor if they’d like him to continue with his column, but now pay him for each subsequent piece.

He’d discovered this technique was successful, but added some important caveats:

  • His column filled an existing void in the magazine - his column ideas met the needs of the magazine’s readers that weren’t currently being met by the magazine.
  • His subject matter (motoring) often helped the magazines bring in more advertising … which is why the editors were keen to continue the column and, more importantly, start paying for his contributions.
  • The free pieces he offered were reworked articles he’d already sold, so he wasn’t wasting a lot of time on this exercise, in case the outcome wasn’t what he wanted.

Nick was treating the writing-for-free element of this exercise as an investment, much like many special offers try to entice customers into using new services. He couldn’t guarantee that it would work every time, but as long as he was offering a service that met a need, he stood a chance of being rewarded for his efforts. And by the time Nick’s ‘free trial’ offer ended he discovered that many editors had received readers’ letters generated by his pieces, so he knew readers were engaging with what he was supplying. That also makes it harder for editors to stop using material that readers are engaging with!

So, if you’re looking to become a regular columnist, this could be one way of doing it. But you need to offer the right material to the right readership, and be sure you can do it on a regular basis for some time to come.

Good luck.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Very Good Lives

I’ve just read a book by J K Rowling. No. Not a Harry Potter novel. Nor was it one of her Robert Galbraith novels either. It’s a title called Very Good Lives, and it is a book version of the graduation day speech she gave to the students at Harvard University in 2008. It is subtitled The fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination

In her speech she talks about the fear of failure being the driving force that spurs many people on to succeed. However, she also explains that those people who have failed have learned something … often about themselves … and often something that no university can teach them. It’s this knowledge that then propels them to success, not the fear of failing again.

As writers it is easy to assume that success is whatever outcome we dream of for the current project on which we are working … and any other outcome is therefore a failure. But there is success in everything we do. If an article or short story gets rejected then it’s perceived as a failure: the end result was not what we dreamed of. But we have succeeded at something, because we still have something to submit or something to rewrite before resubmitting. It’s more than the blank page that the person who was too scared of failure ended up producing.

Marlon James has been in the news last week, as the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. And one thing the media has picked up on is his story about how his first novel was rejected by 78 publishers. He even considered giving up writing. But he didn’t. Those 78 rejections probably felt like huge failures at the time. But he didn’t give up. Those failures did not stop him becoming a Man Booker Prize-winning novelists, did they?

As Rowling says in her speech, “It is impossible to live without failing at something.” We’re all failures. But failing is a success, because it means we’re attempting to do something. We’re taking a risk. And every time we fail we learn a little bit more about ourselves and our project.

So don’t let the fear of failure stop you from tackling a writing project. A writer is someone who writes, not someone who gets every word they ever write published. As Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.

So if you have an idea for a project then pursue it. You never know what the outcome might be. Marlon James probably didn’t envisage his first novel being rejected 78 times, and therefore feeling a failure 78 times over. But he probably didn’t feel a failure when he collected his cheque for £50,000.

Good luck.

Very Good Lives by J K Rowling
RRP: £9.99

Sales of very Good Lives benefits Lumos, an international charity founded by J K Rowling that works to end the institutionalism of children around the world.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Experience Constipation

Experience constipation. There’s a lovely thought for a Monday morning! It’s a phrase used by Getting Things Done guru David Allen in his latest newsletter, and it’s something I think we writers should consider. It happens, he says, when we stop doing things because of past experience. It’s as if we’re afraid to make mistakes. We want to know that everything is going to work out right, before we even make a start on our projects. If we don’t know, or can’t be certain, then we don’t take the risk and start.

In Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird she tells readers it’s okay to write “shitty first drafts.” In other words, it’s okay to make a mistake. That’s the whole point of first drafts. How many times have we been told that writing is all about rewriting? Editing is where it all happens. When you write something you have something to edit. When you have something to edit you have something to polish.

As a businessman David Allen knows the importance of good ideas. As writers we need ideas. And Allen’s advice to business entrepreneurs is just as valid to us: “The best way to have a good idea is to have plenty of bad ones.” In other words, bad ideas are okay … as long as you later realise it’s a bad idea, but understand that it helped you to progress to a good idea. In Allen’s experience, many business people fail to have good ideas, because their experience constipation stops them from having ideas. They’ve experienced bad ideas and don’t want another one.

I remember watching a documentary about the businessman Richard Branson where he discussed the benefits of failure. Some of the best business people in the world have been some of the biggest failures. But they’ve learned from those failures. They wouldn’t have developed into the successful business people they have without first being a failure. Those failures were of use to them.

So, write down all of those ideas. Don’t dismiss them now. Judge them later. Write them down. Doing so frees up your brain to have another idea. Likewise, don’t stare at a blank page dismissing out of hand every first sentence you come up with because it isn’t good enough. Stop judging. Just write it down. You can edit it later, when you’ve finally got rid of the naff first line from your brain, giving it the space to think of something better at some point in the future.

If you want to write something, write it. If it turns out to be complete cack - so what? Who cares? You don’t have to show it to anybody. But once you’ve written it, you might find that there’s something there after all. Those initial mistakes - the wrong choice of words, the erroneous starting point, the inappropriate point of view - they can all be rectified.

So don’t suffer from experience constipation. Have a good clear out and just get writing. (Sorry!) 

Good luck. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

If It's Good Enough For The Scottish Rugby World Cup Team ...

Last weekend I was running my The Complete Article Writer course in Leeds, on behalf of Relax and Write (who do a wide range of great courses). When I arrived I discovered the hotel and conference centre was also the official venue for the Scottish Rugby World Cup Team. Not only that, but to get to our workshop rooms we had to walk through their designated area of the conference centre.

I must admit to being a little nervous. There were No Media Beyond This Point signs everywhere and security guards checking passes and stopping any unauthorised access … and my press pass was sitting tightly in my wallet.

During the course of the weekend I saw snippets of how the Scottish Rugby Team were preparing for this event and realised that as writers, we can learn from them too. (So could the English Rugby Team, but this is not the place for that discussion!)

1) Respecting Our Bodies
On Saturday morning all so the coffee machines in the conference centre had signs stuck to them. The team’s next game was Sunday afternoon, so their caffeine intake was restricted and then prohibited completely after 3pm on Saturday afternoon.

Now, I know many writers swear by their caffeine intake, particularly when there’s a deadline looming. But rather than need three cups of coffee in order to get going in the morning, or six more cups to keep going into the early hours of the next morning, it’s much better to have a naturally clear head. So, if you’re finding it difficult to think, don’t force it. Don’t turn to the caffeine in the hope that it’ll help you to produce something, because it may not. And even if it does it may not produce the quality you’re after. The Scottish Rugby Team respected their bodies. They know they get better results without the artificial stimulants.

2. Watch Our Competitiors
On Saturday afternoon they had all piled into one of the larger conference rooms to watch Wales playing England. They were scrutinising the competition to see how they were playing, and what tactics they were using.

Writers need to do the same. Read widely. Read what your direct competitors are writing. What are fellow article writers discussing? What sort of storylines are fellow short story writers coming up with? We learn from each other, so what can yo learn from other writers?

3. Do Something Completely Different
The Scottish Rugby Team weren’t always practising and training. They were chilling out. A change is as good as a rest. Some were playing games on their smartphones and tablets. Others were reading. Some were pretty good with a guitar, too.

Stepping away from our writing is just as important for us. Writing in our garrets shuts us off from the real world, which means we need to make time to re-engage with it. Step away from your writing desk on a regular basis - it doesn’t matter whether you write full-time or part-time - we all need that break, because it helps keep our minds fresh and receptive to new ideas.

Good luck.

Monday, 28 September 2015

If You Don't Ask - You Don't Get!

I’m currently putting together the February article for my Business of Writing column in Writing Magazine and, because next year is a leap year and we’re getting a whole extra day in which to write, I’m looking at productivity techniques.

I’ve approached a selection of writers asking for their tips, but I also wanted to get a couple of quotes from a productivity expert. One of the best-known productivity experts is an American man called David Allen, who wrote the book: Getting Things Done. (He’s such an expert he’s often referred to as a ‘productivity guru’.) And he’s sold a few copies of that book too … nearly two million copies worldwide. His Getting Things Done technique is now a multi-million dollar business for him, and he’s recently updated his bestselling book (check out the new version at:

My immediate thought was: No, don’t even bother trying to get in touch with him. His company executives will filter out his emails, the chances of him responding are practically zero. It would be a waste of time.

But the more I thought about what I wanted to say in my article, the more I realised that a few quotes from him on a specific aspect of the subject matter would be beneficial. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained - I got in touch.

Twenty four hours later, I had a reply, with some useful quotes, and he’d also sent me the link to download the obligatory author photo, which I could forward to my editor. Brilliant! 

Which goes to show two things:

1. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 
2. His Getting Things Done technique clearly works, because he had plenty of time in which to answer my questions ;-)

So next time you find a little voice inside your head telling you not to bother - tell it to shut up and just do it.

Good luck!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Critical Comments

One of the workshops I attended at the NAWG Festival of Writing looked at criticism: how to give it and how to accept it.

As writers, one of the best ways of developing our craft is to listen to other people’s feedback, and then decide if that improves our work or not. Sometimes making that decision is easier than other times. For example, if six people all make the same comment about one particular aspect of your work then perhaps they’re onto something. But it’s not always possible to get several people’s opinions on a piece of text, and so listening to just one person’s opinion can be daunting - how much do you trust their opinion?

A good way to make that judgment is to consider what you’ve been told. The most constructive criticism is that which offers a solution (or at least one potential solution) to the problem identified. If someone says they found your introduction boring then that doesn’t really help you. But if they explain that the opening sentence was so long they had difficulty in following it and grasping the point you were trying to make, then you have something practical to work with.

Criticism isn’t about identifying faults. It’s about offering solutions and improvements to your work. And once we’ve learned how those improvements benefit our writing, we find ourselves including those tips in our writing automatically.

Something else to bear in mind is that if someone offers a solution to a problem, try it out. But if you don’t like the result there’s nothing stopping you going back to your original version. At least you tried. And if you don’t like their solution, then hopefully you’ll have learned from the process and understood why that solution didn’t work for you.

It’s also important to understand why you are seeking criticism and what you’re looking for feedback on. What is it that you need help with? It can help those offering their feedback if you can guide them on which particular areas you’re unsure of. For example, asking people if your dialogue sounds natural gives them something to focus on. That doesn’t mean they won’t pick up anything else they spot, but they will focus on the aspect you’ve asked them to.

If you do that, you’re more likely to accept some of the suggestions you’re offered. You’re more likely to see it as help rather than criticism.

So when it comes to having your work critiqued, remember three points:

1. Criticism is only negative if it offers no solutions. If someone says something doesn’t work, ask them why it doesn’t work and what steps you can take to change that.
2. Accept that seeking criticism is your desire to grow as a writer. Asking other writers for help means that you’re keen to improve your work.
3. Help guide some of that criticism by analysing your work yourself first, and identifying areas that you’re not happy with. If you’ve already self-critiqued your work, you’ll be more accepting of the solutions offered.

Good luck!

Monday, 14 September 2015

They Know Nothing!

Last weekend was the NAWG Festival of Writing at the University of Warwick, and one of the many highlights was Julian Fellowes who came to chat to us. For those of you who don’t know, Julian Fellowes is the author of a novel called Snobs, the writer of the hit film Gosford Park (for which he won an Oscar) and the writer of the hugely popular television series Downton Abbey.

The key point that Fellowes wanted to get across to us was that those in charge in the creative industry sector know nothing (when it comes to fiction). His novel, Snobs, was rejected by many literary agents, including one who told him to “go away and write something grown up.” (Ouch!) Of course, Snobs was published, and it has been translated into nearly 40 different languages, a fact Fellowes enjoys pointing out to that very literary agent every time he sees him.

When it came to trying to get film companies interested in Gosford Park Fellowes said that every UK film company told him that films exploring the British class system were of no interest to the general public any more. That was everyone’s expert opinion. Which is why Fellowes eventually sold the idea to an American production company. 

He then explained how, when it came to organising where it would be released, the American production company insisted it should premiere in the USA. Fellowes didn’t like the idea - the film was set in Britain, written by Brit, and predominantly acted by Brits. As a compromise, the film premiered in the USA, but also opened the London Film Festival that year - as a one-off screening, although it didn’t go on general release in the UK for another six months.

At the London Film Festival, Fellowes told us that the critics panned it, particularly the broadsheets. The American’s loved it. In fact, they loved it so much Fellowes was nominated for an Oscar (which he won). Of course, all this news filtered back to the UK, and when the film eventually went on general release here the critics (including the ones who’d panned it before when they’d seen it at the London Film Festival) now raved about it.

When it came to Downton Abbey, Fellowes told us that many production companies advised him the British TV audience didn’t want yet another period or costume drama, and when ITV commissioned it there were many mutterings that the television company had got it so badly wrong, investing so much money in this idea, when ITV had little money to spend at the time. Of course, Downton has since gone on to be a worldwide success.

Now, Fellowes wasn’t saying that these creative professionals hadn’t got a clue and didn’t know what they were doing. Actually, they were making judgments based upon the information and their experience at the time. And their gut feeling. After all, there is no magic formula that says if an idea has X, Y and Z, with a hint of A and B, it will be a huge success. So, people in the industry have to love a project to accept it and take it on. They are taking a risk, after all. A huge one. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a literary agent, a publisher, a film producer or an editor.

But what Fellowes was saying was that you have to believe in yourself, and your ideas. It doesn’t matter how many times you get rejected, keep persevering. It’s the tenacious b*gg*rs who don’t give up who go on to succeed. When it comes to fiction, there are no clear cut guidelines as to what will work and what won’t. But you have to believe in yourself, and you have to continue banging on doors, trying to find that one person who will believe in you. And when they do believe in you, just take a moment to appreciate the risk they’re taking in you.

Good luck.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Pseudonym Solicitudes

Last week I had the same query from two new students on a subject I happen to be writing about at this very moment for my column in Writing Magazine: pseudonyms - when should a writer use one?

In many respects, I’m confused by the number of new writers who think about this. Let’s be blunt - if you’re a new writer, then your priority should be sitting down and writing something first, rather than struggling to decide what name you’re going to be published under. After all, you can’t be published until you written something and submitted it!

That’s not to say writers don’t need a pseudonym, and there are many reasons why you might HAVE to have one. For example, last weekend I was at the National Association of Writers’ Group’s Festival of Writing, during which they held their annual Mini-Tale competition. Entries must be 100-words (exactly) and, in previous years, submitted under a pseudonym, enabling the judging process to be blind and impartial (this year a new numbering system was introduced negating the need for a pseudonym). So, delegates who'd entered in those previous years HAD to submit under a pseudonym. It was a condition of entry. But they had no need for a pseudonym until they’d written their entry.

There are short story writers who regularly write for the women’s magazine market. While many of these magazines are happy to have two short stories by the same writer in the same issue, some are uncomfortable if they want to use three or more stories by the same writer in the same issue. At which point they get in touch and ask the writer for a pseudonym to use instead. Again, these writers had written something first (and, the reason for the pseudonym is not because they’d written something, but because they’d written lots) and had then been asked for a pseudonym by the publisher.

It’s also common for writers established in one market to consider a pseudonym when trying to break into another market. Readers may be confused if your last twenty novels have been romances, and your next is a psychological thriller. Writing under a different name for a different market keeps your two ‘brands’ distinct and separate. But again, in this situation the writer has already written plenty of material and had it published.

Of course, there are times when what you’re writing about is too close to home, and it may be unsafe for you to write about it under your own name. That’s certainly another valid reason for using a pseudonym. But in that situation creating a pseudonym is relevant when you’ve written your material and are ready to submit to publishers/publications.

So, if you think you need a pseudonym, ask yourself if you need one right now. Or could it wait until you’ve actually written something? Don’t waste your energy trying to think of something suitable until you need one. Some writers get so hung up trying to come up with a new name they find themselves unable to actually get on with the writing.

Good luck.

Monday, 31 August 2015

A Roadmap of Action

I’ve had what feels like an unproductive week. When I say unproductive, what I mean is that I’ve not written many words. That’s the problem with writing. A good measure of whether you’ve done any writing is to count how many words you’ve written. The more you’ve written the more productive you’ve been.

Of course, quantity does not equal quality, but at least with quantity you have the opportunity to edit your way towards some quality - that’s the ethos behind the ever-popular NaNoWriMo event held every November. (Get 50,000 words written during the month of November and you’re a good two-thirds of your way into the first draft of a novel - so you’re more likely to finish the first draft, giving you something to edit.)

But, even though I’ve not written many words this week I have still been busy. I’ve been planning. I’ve been:

- researching who to ask for help for my next article in my Business of Writing column in Writing Magazine (and then I’ve asked for that help),
- reading a biography for a book idea I’m developing,
- researching publishers for another book idea I have,
- processing photos from my Scottish holiday the other week, and identifying any useful images that may help secure some pitches,
- pitching ideas to editor and creating new angles for new article ideas,
- sorting out some workshops I’m running in Leeds at the end of September (there are still places available - check out for more details)
- planning the next few scenes in the current chapter of a novel I’m writing.

It’s only when I stop and look at this list that I realise I have been more productive than I originally thought. All these things are helping me progress my projects further, and get them to a stage when I will be writing something.

The planning part of our writing projects is vital. I’m not just talking about plotting some fiction, or structuring a piece of non-fiction - I’m talking about the practical steps we have to take in order to move our project one step forward.

Every time you start a new project sit down for a few minutes and list the steps you need to take to get started. Perhaps you need to research a subject. Perhaps you need to research potential markets. Perhaps you need to make a few pitches. Whatever it is, be specific. Don’t write: Do research. Research what? Research where? Research how?

Instead, write: go to the library and research which books will be useful to read on the subject of XYZ.

That’s much more specific, which means you’re more likely to do it. And that’s what will get your project moving. That’s what will get you closer to the writing stage.

Planning is the roadmap to completing our writing projects. We don’t like it because it doesn’t feel like writing. But without it we’re less likely to get our writing projects started, and therefore less likely to get to the writing stage, and therefore, ultimately, finished.

Good luck.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Don't Switch On the Television In The First Place

I’ve just returned from a week-long holiday in Scotland (which also included a week of entertaining my seven-year-old nephew … so it wasn’t exactly a relaxing holiday, as such). But it was a holiday with a difference because the only television in the entire self-catering property was located on the upstairs landing. There were no televisions downstairs, and none of the bedrooms had one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big television fan. I like to keep abreast of the news. The Great British Bake Off is a must at the moment, as is its associated Extra Slice (Friday evening). If the soaps are on then I may keep tabs with what’s going on, but I can just as easily forget them. The Family Guy cartoon series will often attract my attention, even though I’ve probably seen every episode six times now. But even so, it’s surprising how often the television gets switched on just as background noise, or with the intention of switching it off when the news is over, only to find two hours later that I’ve gained a sudden interest in Eastern Russian nomadic living according to the latest celebrity chef. 

But last week, while I was away, it was more difficult for the television to attract my attention. So I read. Or wrote. I also did a lot of thinking … because it was quiet. It highlighted to me that although I’m pretty disciplined (if I have a deadline and I need to focus then the television stays switched off and doesn’t distract me at all), if there’s no urgent deadline then I do have a tendency to switch on the television. And once it’s on it soon sucks my attention from other activities.

So I’ve made a decision. In the evenings the television only goes on if there’s a specific programme I want to watch. If there’s nothing on, then it doesn’t get switched on. I’ll read. Which is probably a good thing, because while I was on holiday we went to a bookshop and I bought three new books. (Three? That’s quite refrained for me!) Or I’ll write. Or think. 

Review your writing area to identify any distracting machines, and consider ditching them, or keeping them switched off, and then consider what impact this has on your writing life. You may not get any more writing done. You might decide to read instead. But reading is just as important to writers as writing is. And reading helps us to think, too. Which means that more thinking could spark off more ideas. And what’s a writer without ideas?

Good luck.