Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he wrote, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?


As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –


you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!



How do we get started?

How do we find the story? Wool-gathering and potholing

The perfect novel isn’t going to land on your page any more than it did for Tolstoy. Books don’t write themselves. What imagery works best for you about this? Would it help to feel that you need to hunt your book down? Gestate it and give it birth? Hew it from its rock, chip by chip, like Michelangelo’s prisoner sculptures?

One of my favourite images for starting a novel is catching a horse in a field. I used to know horsey people and found myself standing in a field in Kent one day with a head collar in one hand and a carrot in the other. The minute the pony became aware of me, she’d prick her ears and alertness would shiver the length of her body. If I took a step towards her, she’d spring away into the depths of the field and hide among the trees. Later I learned that if I held my body at 45 degrees to her and looked askance while walking up to her, she would stand still and dip her head for me, and let the head collar slide over her muzzle and ears without any need for the carrot at all.

It can be the same with our stories: if we stride after them too firmly, they run for cover. Sometimes we need to bide our time and let the story come to us as gently as we go toward it. It’s the act of writing day after day that brings us and our stories together.

Be kind to yourself while you’re developing these muscles. If you find you can’t just face it one day, don’t give up. Just go back to 15 minutes a day or so for a while. If you’re a true writer, you’ll still long to write and will always feel better writing something than nothing. The only bad writing day is one when you don’t write at all.

What do you write during these limbering sessions? It’s a big mistake to think that your book will arrive with you in a state of perfection and all you have to do is catch it. Now and again, if you’re very blessed, that can happen but mostly we redraft. Everybody redrafts. Even the mighty Hemingway said that all first drafts are shit, and he knew his job. So when I’m limbering up, I go wool-gathering.

This is easy, and helps you feel that being in the company of your book is fun. You’ll feel too that your book is coming along wonderfully, even if you haven’t got a page to show for it yet. You’re interviewing your characters and getting to know their secrets, prowling about in your book’s world, sniffing the bins, enjoying the meals and sea views, sitting in your fictional bars and gym locker rooms, generally getting to know what you’re going to write about. Here’s the good news: you can’t get this wrong. If you go back to something the following day and produce something different, just choose the better one. Even happier news is that while you’re relaxed and happily wool-gathering, there will be times when you’ll write something that shines with life and can go straight into your book.

Potholing is a variation on wool-gathering and is about you. What do you want out of this book? Why are you writing it? What excites you most about it, and why? Something doesn’t work; any idea why? If you pot-hole around it, you might find a way to make it the most exciting bit of all.

It’s all just scribbling but I believe that wool-gathering and potholing are the biggest shortcuts of all. They do so many things:

  • They give you an invaluable sense that writing is fun, easy and a joyous place to be.
  • They make it easier to develop your regular writing practice.
  • You get a sense of pages stacking up. Even if they’re not publishable yet, you have something to work on.
  • They induce a sense of excited relaxation, a sense of adventure that can produce freer, better writing.
  • You can produce whole sections that will be useful when you start to work on your first draft.

Wool-gathering and potholing don’t stop once you start your draft; you can keep doing them for as long as you like. They always help.

Happy scribbling!


Getting started

Your novel (short story, memoir, biography) is in that place of perfection in your head but somehow isn’t on the page yet. Why is that? What stops us just getting on with it? Writing isn’t fire-fighting after all or dangling from a wire over churning seas as the coastguard. There’s no actual danger to life if we just sit down somewhere peaceful and write.


Many things hold us back and for good reason. For some people, it’s the cumulative effect of too many homeworks. Years of red markings on whatever we write have scarred our brains (somehow the ticks seem to do this just as much as the crosses) and our creativity gets paralysed. Another word for this is perfectionism: the feeling that whatever we write won’t be good enough, can’t be good enough.

For others it’s fear that our grasp of grammar won’t be adequate. Well, that’s easily fixed. Grammar is the Highway Code for us writers and some of the Recommended Reads in the Better Writing section here will help you.

Lots of us are caught between the drive to write and a feeling that writing, while fun, is a waste of time in the grown-up world. Writing is self-indulgent, not quite permissible as long as there is money to be earned, children to be looked after, meals to be made and so on.

Yet that buzz at the back of your brain just won’t stop.  ‘Write,’ it says, ‘go on, you’re a writer, you won’t be truly happy until you write’.

Being a writer is no guaranteed path to happiness – I’m just saying that if you’re a writer, you’ll always be happier writing than not writing. As long as that story of yours stays inside your head, it will never have a chance to live and breathe in the outside world and you will regret it, heart, body and soul.

Your story is a living, pulsating thing, I truly believe that. It will haunt your dreams and generally torment you until you have given it the space it deserves.

War and Peace wasn’t written in a day and there must have been a time when even Tolstoy said to himself, enough of this dithering, it’s time to make a start. So, make a commitment to yourself to write something relating to your novel every day, if at all possible.

I’m a great fan of writing around our stories. By that I mean a sort of discussion on the page or screen between me and myself about what’s working and what’s not. What do I want out of the book? Why is one character evading me and another trying to take over? That sort of thing. For some reason, I find that this has to happen in written words; just thinking about it isn’t enough. There’s something about the physical act of writing that takes us deeper, so that eventually our mind and spirit are so steeped in our writing that the book begins to push forward.

The trick in getting started is to lower the bar of your expectations. Try writing about your book in bursts of five or ten minutes at a time. Time yourself and congratulate yourself each time when you’ve finished. You’ve made an important start and you’ll take it further tomorrow.  If you can’t think what to write about, try any of the following:

  • ‘I love writing because …’
  • ‘The best fun in writing is …’
  • ‘What I love best about my book is …’
  • ‘What I love/loathe most about this character is …’
  • I want my book to end with …

Find a piece of writing you’ve already done and feel proud of. Read it as if it’s by somebody else and highlight anything that sings out at you as having special energy. Use one of those highlights as your first line today.

Open a poetry book or novel at random and choose any line. Use it as your first line for your free writing today.

Remember that nobody is going to see these pieces of writing but you. They’re your private playground where you can do whatever you like.

These little sessions do several things for you. They limber up that writing muscle of yours – it might help you to think of them as like curls in the gym or a yoga stretch. They develop your sense of your book’s purpose, and where your characters are going. Sometimes you’ll find yourself writing something that can go straight slap bang into your draft. Don’t expect that every time though, it’s not the point.

The point is to get past that inner critic of yours, the one that tells you that what you’re writing is no good or you’ve no business writing at all, or it’s all been written before so what have you got to contribute. Any time you hear that voice (which afflicts most of us), say to yourself, ‘it’s just a first draft, I’m getting something to work on’.  Or you can just tell it to shut up, you’re busy.

Try and write around your book like this for at least five minutes every day. If you find that the writing is gathering power, taking hold of you and pushing towards something you never expected to be writing, keep going. That’s the richest adventure in writing and it’s wonderful.

There’ll be more about getting going and keeping going in my next post.