Writing

Nearly finished a draft? Can't quite write "The End"? You're not alone.

A friend has just asked for advice about how to get over the finishing line of a first draft. They're less than 10,000 words from the end of the first draft "for yourself", and until recently they were powering along, longing to reach the end and get stuck into the second draft "for your reader" - and from thence into the third draft "for your agent". And yet day after day they're procrastinating, dodging, fiddling, doing anything rather than actually getting to the end of the story. I've blogged a lot about procrastination, but this is a very particular case,... Read more →


This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin is available for pre-order

So my forthcoming book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, is available for pre-order. This thing has just got real, in other words, and I'm in a familiar state, at once wanting to tiptoe away with my fingers in my ears before anyone notices, and wanting my words (which means my self) to go out there and be heard come what may. What's more, various festivals and other writerly places have asked me to join them and talk about the book, though most I can't specify yet (sounds much more cloak-and-dagger than it is). One that I can... Read more →


Being Published Part 5: Publicity

This is the fifth in a series of posts which I'm planning in the run-up to next February, when This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin will be published. In each I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that this stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. Before we start, let's get something sorted out. Marketing and publicity are often talked about as the same thing, and they do have... Read more →


"How dare they?" Can you write fiction ethically, without clipping your own creative wings?

As you may know, I also have a column, Doctor Darwin's Writing Tips, over at Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association. A version of this post first appeared there, but in an era when we've all become more sensitive to questions of cultural appropriate in the arts, it's relevant much more widely. Certainly if you want to build your story on people of another ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, class or perhaps just wildly different life-experience, there's work to be done compared to what you'd need if you stayed inside your own. So the ideas and strategies I've... Read more →


Being Published Part 2: Editing

This is the second in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here. BEING EDITED If you've ever had good, experienced feedback on your work, in some ways being edited by a publisher isn't that different. It can... Read more →


10 Reasons for a Prose Writer to do a Poetry Course

Every now and again someone asks me not, "How can I write this story better?" - to which I have a whole Tool-kit-full answers, obviously - but "How can I become a better writer?" Assuming that my interlocutor is already meeting the absolute pre-condition of being a better writer, which is reading more, and more widely, my next suggestion is probably to take a poetry course. That's not because I think everyone should write lyrically - although that is a very honourable goal - but because I think it can help any writer to develop. As Ray Bradbury puts it... Read more →


Basing Your Fiction on Real People? Can "Real" and "Fiction" live in the same book?

At October's Words Away Salon next Monday, the 16th, Kellie and I are delighted to be hosting Jill Dawson. We'll be talking about writing fiction based on real characters - recent or ancient. Jill is a poet and novelist, and a highly-regarded mentor of writers, and her most recent novel is The Crime Writer. That's about Patricia Highsmith, but she's also written The Great Lover, about Rupert Brooke, and Fred and Edie, based on a famous 1920s murder. So we thought she'd be the perfect person to start us off talking about this fascinating but very challenging kind of fiction,... Read more →


How To Handle Feedback On Your Writing

I've blogged more than once about how to give feedback, but most writers get feedback even more than they give it, since as well as workshop friends, you'll get it from teachers, agents, editors, reviewers, friends and family. Here, I'm going to refer to them all as "the reader", because that's what we hope a feeder-back will be: a representative of the readers we're hoping for. Obviously the setup varies. Some settings are "live": a Skype session with a mentor, round a workshop table, at a one-to-one book doctor session, in virtual workshop on your online course. Some are written... Read more →


Mastering the tyranno-thesaurus

Among teachers of English at school-level, using a thesaurus is a Good Thing, being a means of enlarging children's vocabulary. But a ticked box for the maximum number of different words on the page is a poor substitute for teaching genuinely good writing, so among serious writers, and teachers of writing, using a thesaurus is often spoken of as a Very Bad Thing. And when you consider the thesaursed version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", which floats round the internet attributed to John Raymond Carson, you can see why: Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific.... Read more →


Lady Macbeth and rubber duckies; how much do you need to explain?

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new film Lady Macbeth. The performances are marvellous, the direction remarkable - especially for a first feature - and costumes and settings are beautiful in a terrifyingly austere way. But I also noticed an aspect of the script which is extremely relevant to writing fiction and creative non-fiction, or anything else story-shaped. In neither script nor image does Lady Macbeth give you almost any backstory or side-story (my term, but you know what I mean), for any character or situation. We learn almost nothing beyond the edges of what we... Read more →


How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a... Read more →


"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader": True or false? Plus choirboy syndrome

So, the poet Robert Frost said, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". This, I think, we usually take as being about writers having to be willing to feel what they want their readers to feel. Indeed, although Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, famously describes poetry's origin as "emotion recollected in tranquillity", he goes on to say the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the... Read more →


When a good stopping place is a bad starting place

Today is supposed to be a writing day, and the morning is my prime writing time. The project is going well, I've got Scrivener fired up, and I've run my eye down yesterday's work to remind myself where I've got to. And yet ... I've just spent the last hour not-getting-on-with-it: faffing about with useful-but-not-urgent work and domestic things, consoling a Facebook friend who's struggling with the outcome of a nasty book contract clause, doing a bit of necessary professional tweeting, and making cups of tea that I then forget about. This is nothing to do with serious procrastination: I'm... Read more →


Is using semi-colons pretentious?

To add a little spice to the season of goodwill, may I propose that anyone who shouts at you that it's pretentious to use semi-colons in fictional prose is, themselves, being pretentious? As I was saying in Picked up a Bad Book? Think about it at as a Good One, if you want to widen as well as improve your craft it's good practice to assume that professional writers have good reasons for doing what appears to you to be a bad thing - and then ask yourself what that good reason might be. As my favourite handy punctuation site... Read more →


Should I do a Creative Writing MA?

I've blogged about whether, and when, a course in Creative Writing might be a good idea, and about how to choose the right one for you. And if you're wondering whether, and how, Creative Writing can be taught, this unpicks that hardy perennial of a question. But a quick search on the UCAS website shows 459 Masters-level courses in Creative Writing. True, part-time and full-time versions of the same course are being listed separately, but the darned things cost a fortune these days (though student loans are these days available for both part- and full-time study). So, assuming you're thinking... Read more →


My story is far too long. What do I do?

A writer recently howled on a forum that his novel was far too long: it was 180,000 words when people were saying that no agent will look at a book over 90,000. He did sense that there were things to cut, but didn't know where to begin. And how on earth was he to get it down to half the length - lose every other word, effectively - and still have a novel, not a blood-sodden mess? There are an awful lot of writers who have faced up to this problem, but actually it's two relatively separate problems: what length... Read more →


Life Writing? Travel Writing? Creative Non-Fiction? What are you writing?

At this year's York Festival of Writing I gave a workshop on literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of the topics that came up was: "What is creative non-fiction?" Which is a very good question and (like all the best questions) not quick to answer. Creative non-fiction - which also gets called "Narrative non-fiction" and "Literary non-fiction" - lives in a fascinating liminal area, bounded by fiction and poetry on one side, by journalism on another, and by "proper" history, biography, autobiography, travel-, food-, science- and art-writing on the third. So creative non-fiction is narrative: it is an act... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2016

... and some that I didn't but which might be useful. And apologies for the blog being silent, lately - normally August is a quiet month for work, with plenty of blogging time, but this one's been very busy, not least because of HNS16, but also because we've been planning a new series of evening events for writers in London: the Words Away Salons. Normal(ish) service should resume at some point between the York Festival of Writing, next weekend, and my workshop at the Harrogate History Festival towards the end of October. HNSOxford16, in Oxford for the first time, was... Read more →


Guest Post by Jenn Ashworth: Making the Rules: Physics and Fell

One of the questions I suggest asking your novel is "Who is telling this story?" And the next is, "Where are they standing, relative to the events they're telling?". So I was excited to discover that Jenn Ashworth was building her new novel, Fell, on one of the most interesting - and fruitful - answers to that question that I've yet come across. I was lucky enough, a while back, to have a tiny role in her working-out of the considerable writerly challenges it posed, and when I read the book a few weeks ago I just loved it (its... Read more →


Filtering: HD for your writing

"Filtering", as a technical issue in writing, probably wins the prize for Most Useful Concept With Most Unhelpful Name (although, for that prize, "Free Indirect Style" is a very close runner-up). But John Gardner called it that in one of Creative Writing's founding texts, The Art of Fiction, and Janet Burroway sets Filtering all out very clearly in her classic Writing Fiction, so we're stuck with the label. The basic idea is that writers very often use phrases which get between the reader and a straightforward representation and evocation of what's happening. Gardner describes it as: ... the needless filtering... Read more →