Saturday, 30 May 2009


How many hours a day are you not writing? Frankly, the answer should be none. Most writing is done far away from the desk as you soak up the minutiae of everyday life. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, your senses should be primed, eager to interpret the sights, sounds and smells around you. That sky isn’t just blue – it’s watery or silvered or glassy; dragonflies don’t just fly – they dart or hawk or skim; nothing smells just nice.

Get into the habit of really seeing things, observing tiny detail, the nuance of all you encounter, as if you were a child seeing it for the first time. The veins in a leaf, the actual hue and texture of blood, the taste of fresh coffee. Don't write about your memory of these things - which will be laden with clichés - go and experience them first hand. (Except the blood; wait for that to come to you.)

Writers don’t stumble blindly through life; everything and anything should fascinate you. Especially people. Describe their behaviour in your mind; assume their motives; listen to them, watch them, study them. What gives them away? Where does that nervous twitch come from? Imagine what their worst fear might be, the terror they’ll never speak of? Who was their first love fifty years ago? What events have shaped them? What thought sends them to sleep each night? What's the one thing they'll never tell anybody?

There are no days off, I’m afraid. You are always writing.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Have a listen to this classic short story, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, courtesy of The New Yorker. It caused quite a stir when it was published in 1948. This is powerful storytelling at its best.

Saturday, 23 May 2009


Where do you buy your books? The interweb? The High Street? Village fete? And does it matter? Well, that depends on whether or not you care who gets your hard-earned cash, who benefits from the transaction. Buying literature has different consequences depending on whether you shop at Waterstones or Amazon, your local independent or Oxfam. What are the implications of buying second-hand books, for example? This brilliant article at How Publishing Really Works explains some of them.

I have to admit to buying a new hardback on Amazon recently for 1p. Perhaps the seller made something on the postage, but the author certainly didn’t. And so from now I am vowing to buy no more second-hand books (unless they’re out of print), no more ridiculous bargains. It’s independents only for me; you know, those delightful, friendly bookshops that have such variety, who don’t get huge discounts from the publisher, who don’t charge the publisher to feature their books in 3 for 2 sections, who don't sell Harry Potter for 37p to get you among their fruit and veg.

And the other virtuous place to buy books? The small presses, of course, such as Salt.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


When your characters speak, it must sound authentic and specific to them. The reader should get a sense of who’s talking just by hearing their dialogue. And yet this resembles little how people actually talk. Listen to any conversation – lovers flirting, an argument, an impassioned debate – write it down verbatim and read it back. Makes for terrible dialogue. You have to trim all the pauses, the repetition, the prosaic irrelevance. Everything your characters say must move the story forward, reveal character or act as exposition. Dialogue must be crisp and taut, pruned of extraneous flab. Read speech back aloud and ask yourself whether your character would say that. Not many people say: ‘I cannot understand why I sound so stilted.’ Use the contraction ‘can’t’ unless you’re writing a period drama.

Don’t be afraid to use ‘she said, he said’ all the time. Use ‘he espoused’, ‘she exclaimed’, ‘they quipped’ only if you’re sure your reader has a bucket nearby. Unless you’re conveying volume – ‘he shouted’ – ‘he said’ suffices and allows the author to remain invisible. And don’t qualify with adverbs too often: "Yeah, right," he said, sarcastically. This is telling the reader what to think of the dialogue; the speech itself should do that where possible. Worse still is using speech tags to develop character, as in “Go fuck yourself,” said the coarse, plain-speaking woman; or to point out the speaker’s state of mind: “Outrageous,” he said, aghast.

A sequence without tags can be powerful, as long as it remains clear who’s talking. (Nothing more irritating than having to track back to confirm the voice we’re hearing.)

Vary direct speech with reported speech to give your writing cadence and variety.

Be careful of characters telling each other things they clearly know. “It’s great to see you, as it’s been three weeks since the parachute jump, when you broke your ankle and we laughed in the ambulance as it rained outside.”

Avoid dialect or broken English unless absolutely necessary.

Study published writers to see how they use dialogue to advance the story, show you something about a character.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Favourite reads

Someone sent me this on Facebook (ruinous networking site that writers of old didn't have to contend with): This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. The purpose being not to populate your list with pretentious literary heavyweights; you know, the ones you are supposed to have read.

Here are mine...

1. The Outsider - Albert Camus
2. The World According to Garp - John Irving
3. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
4. Cheating at Canasta - William Trevor
5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
6. The Blind Assassin - Magaret Atwood
7. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
8. Julius Winsome - Gerard Donovan
9. An Equal Music - Vikram Seth
10. The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
11. The Diceman - Luke Rhinehart
12. The Trial - Franz Kafka
13. The Wasp Factory - Ian Banks
14. 1984 - George Orwell
15. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre

Come on, play along...(And, yes, I know one is a collection, but it had to go in.)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


I blogged here about why writers do what they do. Most feel they have something to say, some just want to entertain. Implicit in the process, though, is presenting the finished product to a reader or, ideally, readers. (Does fiction, like a tree falling in the woods, exist if there’s no one there to read it?) So who do you show it to first? Who can you trust for that initial appraisal? Friends? Family? Online writing group?

In my experience, none of the above. Or at least if you do, pay no attention to the effusive praise or damning criticism (especially the former) you receive. Unless your sister or best friend is a published writer, a literary agent or editor, their opinion, I’m afraid, is next to worthless. Sure, they may be voracious readers, know a good story when they see one, even write a little themselves. But this does not qualify them to play any part in your next draft.

Think about it. You’re a trainee plumber just finishing the elaborate pipe-work in a large house. Your great aunt, who has lived in many fine houses in her time, all with expertly working water systems, turns the hot tap on and waxes lyrical about the way the water comes out so quickly, and so hot. Does that make you a great plumber? Well, it’d take a precise inspection of the work to know.

And even if your friend regards your work as unadulterated tripe, are they really going to tell you? Family will be even less objective; they’ll find something nice to say about it. As for writing groups, they can be good for motivation, but members might have their own agenda (indulging in mutual appreciation or enacting revenge), or simply be unqualified to give apposite feedback.

The solution. Until you have a trusted agent or pay a reputable editorial service, in the absence of your best friend being a successful novelist, there’s only one person who can do the job. You. It’s not easy judging your own work initially. The only way I know is to read those who have done it well. Read the masters of your genre. How have they achieved that effect? Why did you love that book? How was character revealed? Tension and conflict created? Look at the structure and style of your favourite novels. Why is the dialogue seamless and authentic, the events plausible? What compelled you to keep turning the pages?

Eventually, you will become your own best critic.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


I don't write much what is termed flash fiction. As with poetry, I suspect it's not really in my blood. Or bones. Or wherever it's supposed to be. One of my efforts, though, did feature here. You’ll need a version of iTunes to listen to it, as it’s read by the author and blogger Ian Hocking. Oh, and it’s a bit dark.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


I have been planning a piece on writer’s block for a while now; the words just won’t come. As Nicola Morgan mentions here, this affliction can manifest variously. There’s the despairing, slumped-on-the-keyboard variety, where motivation has evaporated to nothing and a solitary mouse click makes you feel like Sisyphus. Such Level One Blockage is generally regarded the more serious, eliciting a constant stream of self-doubt that usually concludes with Why would anybody, ever, try to write a novel.

Less severe, though equally unproductive, Level Two Blockage is the utter inability to see where the story can go next: a creative rather than motivational drought. Perhaps you know where you want your characters to go, but can’t seem to get them there. Or when you try, they refuse to go.

The first thing to remember is that writing a novel is not easy. I’d put it in the top seven* most difficult things a person can do. So when Blockage takes hold, remind yourself you were somewhat crazy in the first place to even start this, but now that you have you may as well see it through.

Then recall Hemingway’s much quoted wisdom: The first draft of anything is shit. It really is. For everyone. It can’t possibly, ever, be anything but. Tens of drafts down the line might see it creep into mediocrity, but until then it can only be detritus of the highest order. This, hopefully, will free you up to just write, fearless of the drivel every first draft inevitably becomes.

Next, change something. Anything. Posture, room, time you write, what you write on or with. You might be able to trick the brain into thinking something else is occurring.

Then have it out with your characters in dialogue, see what they have to say about your inertia. (Remember to remove yourself from any scenes that stay in the ms.)

If your cursor is still blinking mockingly, get out of the house. Take a pen and paper, just in case, but just walk. Let go of the story completely. For some curious and beautiful reason the unconscious carries on working on it. I bet half way around the park, or in the depths of the following night, some small epiphany makes itself known.

If all this fails, if weeks and months pass and the only change to your word count is the cobwebs forming around it, if Blockage is the natural default, perhaps, maybe, difficult as it sounds, this messy business of writing ain’t for you.

* Random number chosen entirely for effect

Saturday, 2 May 2009


This was one of my favourite novels of recent years, so I was both excited and timorous to learn it was being adapted for the screen. There were a few sleepless nights about Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks clones murdering the roles with saccharine-laced dialogue and a silky, nauseating voice-over, all culminating in a morass of sentimental tripe. So I was pleased to see I'd barely heard of the actors chosen.

The film, due for release in the autumn, will receive considerable hype, especially given this HUGE advance the novelist got for her next book based on sales of TTTW.

Few great novels make the transition to film well (some ordinary ones are occasionally transformed into great cinema by a talented and visionary screenwriter; plenty of terrible ones go on to make terrrible films, mentioning no names, Dan Brown), so we'll have to wait and see.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would be my ultimate success when it comes to adaptation. Any others?