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.