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June 2011

May 2011

The darkroom and the double-helix

Because terror of the blank page and the "wrong" words hamstrings so many writers, I spend a lot of time saying, "Just write. Nothing's set in stone. You can change anything, once you've got words on the page to change". But in the long-gone days of silver halides I learnt that although you can do amazing things in the darkroom with both light and chemistry, you can't print what isn't in the negative. The pattern of dark and light across the film - what was there when you saw and took the photograph, that seemed to say what you wanted... Read more →


Have you heard the one about "was"?

Have you heard the one about "was" being a word you should cut out of your writing? No, really, it's genuine; I've seen it bandied about among aspiring writers, and even some teachers. Where did it come from? What is it about the past tense form of the most basic verb of all - to be - which makes semi-illiterate ignoramuses put it in the Index Prohibitorum? Seeing a student miserably pulling some perfectly decent sentences around to get rid of was made me so cross that I came over here to work out when you might use was, and... Read more →


Talking speech tags

One of the old chestnuts that gets re-roasted every so often, by aspiring writers and those who try to help them, is the one about speech tags: this post is typical. On one side are the writers whose English teachers have told them to vary things by using "he giggled", "she grimaced", "they prevaricated" and so on. I assume it's partly by way of a bit of vocabulary practice, and partly in the cause of elegant variation, to avoid repeating "said". And it's true that once your repeat-alert is set to pick up any particular word, including "said", they'll shout... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm falling before the first hurdle"

Dear Jerusha - I've been writing for over five years now. The second novel I wrote met with a pretty usual reception: eight rejections, and one request for the full novel which bred only silence in the face of several polite follow-up emails over the next two years. Since then I've written several more, which I haven't been able to face sending out at all. When I finished my most recent novel I summoned up every ounce of courage I had and sent it to two agents. Result: one rejection, one request for the whole MS which I'm sure will... Read more →


Over-done, over-written and over here

A while ago I blogged about being drunk on words, and why it's a good sign in a beginner. Too many would-be writers think their writing is spare and muscular, when in fact it's just bald and impoverished. But if the writerly teetotallers are guilty of underwriting, then the inebriates are also guilty: of over-writing. "It's overwritten" is a very baffling reaction to your work, even though it's a common one. The problem is that overwriting is very easy to feel, but even as a teacher I find it quite hard to analyse. So when a friend asked me to... Read more →