THE EXERCISE BOOK

"Cut All the Adjectives & Adverbs". Why it's Nonsense, and When it Isn't

Cut all the adjectives & adverbs" is right up there with "Show, don't Tell", as one of the first "rules" that new writers get told, and for similar reasons. And although it's perhaps responsible for more bland, threadbare writing than almost any other phenomenon except the ghost of Hemingway, it's not entirely nonsense either, any more than Hemingway is. The truth is, writing would be impossible if we couldn't use adjectives, adverbs and adverbial and adjectival phrases. But although you'll never get me to say that you "should" cut them, there is a whiff of good writerly sense somewhere at... Read more →


Freewriting: What is it? Why should you use it?

The run-up to NaNoWriMo (more about that here) seems a good moment to think about Freewriting. You might have met its first cousin as Morning Pages, in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and in the great, original how-to-write book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande suggests something similar. It has many uses, but first let's think about what it actually is. In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow describes it beautifully: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something... Read more →


Please don't hate me for loving synopses

The other day, without so much as a gun to my head, I willingly wrote a synopsis. Since synopses are, famously, at best a chore, at worst a nightmare, it was with mock-contrition that I murmured on Facebook that - sorry, hate me now, but ... I actually really enjoy writing them. The first ten comments were un-re-printable, but then my fellow synopsis-lovers cautiously put their heads above the parapet to agree with me. In the end there were ten or so of them, too, and we agreed, trying not to sound smug, that they can also be extremely useful... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Guest Post: In Praise of Sentences, by Barbara Baig

You probably know how cross I get when I hear of writers being told that they should stick to short sentences. I suspect it's sheer cowardice on the part of writers and teachers who haven't bothered to learn to control a long sentence, but it's also terribly stupid, because it deprives your writing of the energy and variety that you need if you're going to tell your story as effectively as possible: any writer worth their salt needs to be able to handle any kind of sentence. And it's doubly-terribly-stupid if you're ever trying to evoke other voices in narrative... Read more →


Ring-fencing Writing Time

I don't make New Year's Resolution of the "Must do better, be slimmer, sweeter, nicer, harder working and learn to windsurf" sort. But a writer friend whose work I really admire, and so do lots of proper critics, said recently that at one stage of her apprenticeship, when she was insanely broke and insanely busy, she realised that if she was going to keep her writing ticking over at all, all she could manage was a haiku. So she made a resolution to write a haiku every day, for a year. And did. Like most people who make a living... Read more →


Dogs and cats aren't just for Christmas: they make great viewpoint characters

A writer friend posted this: Can anyone think of adult books (i.e. not War Horse) where you briefly get an animal's POV? I would love to use my sweet little dog (who has a place in the story) to be the reader's first experience of a crucial, awful place, before anyone else's. I want to get his keen senses in there - to show the place through a creature who is in one way acutely perceptive - but I wonder what level of language I can get away with. For example, could I describe a smell as metallic, or is... Read more →


Past and Present tense: which, why, when and how

It's a simple, but huge, decision you have to make about your novel or creative non-fiction, right at the beginning: will your main narrative tense be past tense, or present tense? And what, if anything, will you use the other one for? It is always possible to change your mind later, but doing so is somewhere between a flaming nuisance and a nightmare, so it's well worth thinking hard about the pros and cons of both. Ages ago I blogged my first thoughts about past vs. present tense, and I haven't changed very much of my mind, but that was... Read more →


Exercises, heroes and your hat-check girl's journey

A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways. - The Other character becomes pure character-in-action.... Read more →


"Quantity gives experience, experience gives quality"

In Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury says this: An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. What I really like about this is that it runs counter to the idea which is implicit - or explicit - in so many people's ideas about how creative work happens, perhaps because it's implicit in so much of the modern, capitalist West, at least: that the better and cleverer you are, the more quickly and efficiently you should be able to reach your goal.... Read more →


And the Winners of the Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition are...

I was so thrilled to have so many great entries for This Itch of Writing's 500th Postiversary Competition. It was terribly difficult to chose, (as well as terribly difficult to find enough time to choose carefully), between so many posts which made me laugh, and think, and gave me so much insight into how other writers think and feel. It's the readers who make this blog what it is, and it's lovely to know that y'all are as fascinated as I am with the whole business of how writing happens. So thank you hugely to everyone for entering, and another... Read more →


Cake houses and paper games

Children instinctively know what makes a satisfactory story: if that knowledge isn't coded into our genes, it's certainly wired into our brains. But I've been wondering what else in my childhood has fed into my writing self, and I realise that one thing I'm grateful for is childhood paper games. Adverbs: The first person draws say ten lines across the page, then on the left-hand side writes a vertical column of ten quantities - a hatful of, a fathom of, a milligram of - and folds it to hide them, so only the lines show, not the words. The next... Read more →