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Saturday, 23 July 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Literary Blurb


Literary Blurb

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is a Literary Blurb. This is a lovely exercise for getting an overview of a story and also getting to the heart of it, which you can do for your own story or as a practice-run on someone else's.

The blurb is the back-cover description of the book: usually written with intense excitement, drama, and marketing fervour. If you have a rifle through your own shelves, you'll see that they fall into a similar pattern of who the main character is, where the story's set, what the situation is at the start, and some sort of dramatic statement or question near the end. 

The literary blurb follows a similar pattern, but it goes further. The first paragraph is much the same, though the final line might be expressed with a bit more nuance or left out altogether. But then it launches into a second paragraph, about the impact of the story, the themes it explores, the bold things it does... etc etc. Here's an example from AS Byatt's Still Life:

Frederica Potter, ‘doomed to be intelligent’, plunges into Cambridge University life greedy for knowledge, sex, and love. In Yorkshire her sister Stephanie has abandoned academe for the cosy frustration of the family. Alexander Wedderburn, now in London, struggles to make a play about Van Gogh, whose art and tragic life give the novel its central leitmotiv.

In this sequel to her much praised The Virgin in the Garden, AS Byatt illuminates the inevitable conflicts between ambition and domesticity, confinement and self-fulfillment, while providing a subtle yet incisive observation of the intellectual and cultural life of England during the 1950s.

So you're going to write a literary blurb of your own, with all those grand claims in the second paragraph, half tongue-in-cheek and half damned sincere – because even if you're not writing a literary novel, even if you're writing made-up stuff about half-magic pirates (raises hand), your story is still always, inevitably, about something you really really care about and feel strongly about.

You can do this either with a story of your own, whether it's a short story, a novel, some raggedy bits of initial draft, or just a nascent idea. OR you can pick a book you love, one which isn't literary, and give it the literary-blurb treatment. It might be especially fun to do with a children's book, even a picture book.

To help you go really all-out with the second paragraph, here are some handy words to throw about:

Useful adjectives

  • keenly observed
  • lyrical
  • profound
  • inspiring
  • razor-sharp
  • heart-rending
  • darkly comic
  • uncompromising
  • courageous
  • unflinching
  • fiercely honest
  • richly drawn
  • unforgettable
  • riveting
  • high-voltage
  • riotously funny
  • passionate
  • meditative

Useful verbs for what the book / character / author does

  • illuminate
  • re-awaken
  • come to grips with
  • grapple with
  • explore
  • accept
  • overcome
  • pursue
  • defend
  • contemplate
  • transcend
  • confront
  • expose
  • investigate
  • navigate
  • embrace
  • reconcile

Go wild with it, and most importantly, have fun!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Beyond First Draft workshop on 27 August. When you're redrafting, it's extremely important to keep a sense of what your story is (and isn't), an overview of its content, and why it matters to you. When you're tinkering away at the details, it's easy to lose sight of that. In the workshop, we'll use a bunch of techniques to keept that overall sense of your story clear and a literary blurb is a great way to do that: it captures the essence of your story, what makes it unique, and the thematic aspects that matter most to you. Beyond First Draft is the fifth of the five Summer of Writing workshops and the workshops start just one week from today, on 30 July. You can read more about all five workshops and book your places here.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

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Saturday, 16 July 2022

Weekly writing prompt: List situations


List: Situations

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is a List of Situations. List exercises are always hugely helpful for writing as they allow you to explore a concept without the pressure of immediately making it fit into a particular story with particular critieria. Because a list has multiple items on it by definition, it also frees you up to invent without imposing too much "quality control". I put "quality control" in scare quotes because often that response isn't actually usefully controlling quality – it's stymying ideas before they have a chance to emerge and develop. I often tell my students "If you can't think of one, think of three; if you can't think of three, think of twenty." It works every time.

This particular list exercise is to to write a list of situations to write about. A "situtation" is a nice gentle term. It's not as demanding as "ideas for a story" or as dramatic as "high-tension events" but it does imply that, well, it's "a bit of a situation". To give you some ideas, here are some from my list:

  • writing a letter asking for an apology
  • first day at a new job (maybe in a pub?)
  • a job interview
  • cooking for a special occasion
  • finding a snake
  • getting shipwrecked
  • caught in a flash flood
  • looking after a baby (not theirs)
  • showing someone new around town

Some high drama (I got rather excitable for a bit after the snake discovery), some low drama, some potential for something to happen, just some kind of... situation. With the first day at a new job, I added an idea of what the job could be; with the job interview and cooking for a special occasion, I didn't, because I was picking up speed and had already thought of the snake.

I suggest you do this as a limited exercise. First get yourself snug and comfortable with pen, notebook, and sippables (all the sippables: very important to stay hydrated in this weather! also, sunscreen, shade, etc etc.) Then either set a time limit for ten minutes or write the numbers 1–20 down the side of your notebook. With list exercises, some people prefer a time limit; some people find deadlines stressful and prefer to set an aim of how many to come up with. You do whatever works for you. And then just launch into listing situations, no quality control, from the banal to the wild, the everyday to the highly unlikely. And have fun!

Optional Part Two

If you'd like to explore this more deeply, you can do the Optional Part Two, which will take about as long again. If you're ready to stop, you can skip ahead to "Why this prompt?"

First off, check your sippables supplies. If you're thirsty, time for a top-up! (Yes, I'm very concerned about the heat!) Now go back through your list of situations. For each one, what's the underlying emotion? You might have several for some and they might be specific to your take on that situation: that's fine, write what emotion you see in it. For example, here are mine:

  • writing a letter asking for an apology – anxiety, outrage
  • first day at a new job (maybe in a pub?) – excitement, curiosity
  • a job interview – trepidation
  • cooking for a special occasion – nervousness, perfectionism
  • finding a snake – excitement, curiosity, respectful caution (my brother keeps snakes, I'm a big fan)
  • getting shipwrecked – terror, loneliness, determination
  • caught in a flash flood – adrenaline, alarm
  • looking after a baby (not theirs) – nervousness, alarm, curiosity
  • showing someone new around town – excitement, vicarious pleasure, pride

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Page Turners workshop on 20 August 2022. When we think of narrative tension, we often think of making it bigger, more dramatic, increasingly large stuff happens... But that's not necessarily what keeps people hooked to the story, eagerly turning the pages. And you certainly can't have BIGGER AND BIGGER AND BIGGER things happening on every page, but you want every page to be captivating. 

The answer is understanding the psychology of narrative tension – or, my preferred term, narrative interest. The things that prickle at us and draw us in. And that's where your list of situations comes in. They're not all Huge Events, but they all have their own underlying emotion that tugs at our interest and makes us want to know more. If you did the Optional Part Two, you've already gone through and identified some of those emotions. Even if you didn't do the Optional Part Two, you've instinctively identified them by choosing what counts as "a bit of a situation" to you. And when it comes to keeping every page captivating, that's the stuff you need. 

The Page Turner workshop covers all aspects of narrative interest, across genres and types of fiction. (In fact, as I said in the previous Page Turner writing prompt, all the excerpts illustrating the key suspense techniques are deliberately taken from literary fiction, to show that it really does use the same storytelling tools.) We explore how to sustain the reader’s interest at every level: your overall narrative drive, your story’s main sections, the shape of individual scenes, right down to the individual page. You can read the full workshop description and book your place here.

There's also a new writing prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 9 July 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Loving parody


Loving Parody

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is a Loving Parody – an element of sending something up, but with genuine affection behind it. Think "teasing someone you love and both laughing together" rather than mockery. 

To start, choose a genre you genuinely love. That could be fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, crime, horror, action thrillers, psychological thrillers, romance, comedy, dystopia, literary fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories, historical fiction... whatever you enjoy. You can also narrow it down to a subgenre – for the last couple years, I've been heavily into historical detective fiction.

Once you have your genre, write a loving, teasing, affectionate parody of all the clichés of the genre: heap them on! Have a proper giggle! Don't worry about where the story's going, just keep on shovelling the familiar elements into it. Here's one I had enormous fun with, on detective noir:

Chicago, 1930

I shoved the bottle of whisky back into the drawer on top of a pile of unpaid bills when she came in. What a dame! She wept prettily behind her veil.
     “Mr McHardface, I hope you can help me!” she drawled. “It’s my husband, he was due a large inheritance but he’s been poisoned! But we were alone – except for the butler, of course – and the room was locked from the inside!”
     “Lady, I’m retiring today,” I grunted.
     “But the police have taken me off the case! I’m a lady detective, you see, but they say because I was married to Mr Harcourt…”
     My head snapped up. “Daniel Harcourt? Of Harcourt and Harcourt Incorporated?”
     That was different. That led straight back to the cold case at the start of my career, the one that drove me to drink in the first place. The one that killed my wife.
     “Goddammit!” I swore. “I’ll take the case.”
     I strode out the room, failing to notice the sealed envelope on the mat.

It doesn't have to be massively long, you can easily do this as ten-minuter. Just shove in all the genre tropes and tricks that you can, giggling away to yourself all the while. Have fun!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Tropes and Archetypes workshop on Saturday 13 August. Often when people say "tropes", they mean "clichés", because it's easiest to spot tropes when they're way overused and being trotted out in exactly the same shape yet again. Actually, "trope" doesn't mean cliché: a trope is an elemental block of storytelling, something that taps into our shared experience of living and of stories, and often draws its strength from an underlying archetypal character or emotion. There are heaps of tropes we can use and enjoy as they are. 

Then there are the tropes that are overused, and those are the ones you're spotting and giggling about in your parody. We don't necessarily want to chuck them all out, but they can definitely do with a fresh spin. Think of the "alcoholic detective" trope I used in my example: old as the hills and ripe for parody. But you can also use that principle of "personally flawed detective" with a fresh spin. In Death in Paradise, each of the lead detectives across the various series has that "personal flaw" trope to balance out their brilliance: one can't bear the heat or unEnglishness of this paradisical island; one is haplessly clumsy and forgetful; one is chronically allergic to almost everything on the island. So you can take the overused trope and put a fresh spin on it. Alternately, you and the reader both know the trope is sitting there waving, so you can subvert it and share an in-joke with the reader about it, as you did in your parody. (Pratchett is brilliant at this.)

And then there are the tropes that are straight-up bad news, best abandoned completely. For instance, in my parody, I didn't make my female character "leggy" or make any speculations about whether her legs are attached to her torso: even in jest, that sexist leering is in the "no" pile for me, and I'm setting that pile on fire.

Every story draws on and uses tropes and every reader brings their story experience shaped by them. Understanding the tropes is like suddenly seeing the building blocks of stories. And once you start spotting them, you realise they're everywhere. The trick is knowing where their underlying archetypal oomph is coming from, how to use them, reinvent them, subvert them – and which ones to kill with fire.

You can read more about this workshop and the other four and book your places here. Note: there are only four places left on the Tropes and Archetypes workshop, so book asap if you'd like to join.

There's also a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Weekly writing prompt: ulterior motive description


Ulterior motive description

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is Ulterior Motive Description: a fantastic exercise for writing purposeful description.

You're going to write two descriptions, both of the same spot, from two very different points of view, each with its own ulterior motive. This is the landscape you'll be describing:

Landscape

And for your points of view, choose any two of the following four: 

  • an assassin
  • a farmer looking to buy land
  • a wedding planner
  • a prey animal (eg field mouse, deer, etc)

Try to include as much info about what's physically there as possible – all the while through the lens of that character's identity & motive, of course. You can choose how obvious or secret you want their motive/identity to be in the writing: you can go full-obvious ("That boulder was a great spot to hide behind with a sniper rifle"), suggestive ("The boulder gave a clear line of sight onto the beach") or even furtive ("The best view was from the boulder...")

If you want to do this with your writing group, you could swap pieces once you've written them, to guess the identity/motive in each description. You could also make it more challenging by each making up your own identity/motive, so the others aren't guessing from a list.

To do this as a ten-minute exercise, give yourself five mins for each description. Short timed exercises are great, because a) you're much more likely to do it, because ten minutes is such a manageable snippet of time to fit in your day, and b) when you don't have much time, you're much more likely to start scribbling immediately instead of staring at the page! That said, if you want more of a writing-stretch, you could easily extend each description to 10–15 minutes.

Have fun with it!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Writing in Scenes workshop on Saturday 6 August. Description is the scene-ingredient we most often forget to include or even hesitate to use, worried it'll slow down the pace or that "contemporary novels don't have much description". Actually, contemporary novels have far more description than people realise: right across genres, mainstream, and literary fiction, novels are over 40% description. Writing "ulterior motive" description is a great way to practise including that scene-ingredient while feeling confident that the description is serving a narrative purpose.

As well as the ingredients of scenes, the Writing in Scenes workshop also covers mapping a story out in scenes, jumping between scenes, and useful techniques for the "big" scenes: the action scenes and the emotional / pivotal scenes. You can read the full workshop description and book your place here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post. And if you'd like another writing prompt playing with scenes, you can try out a Scrapbook Story.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Weekly writing prompt: List: Pasttimes


List: Past times

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is a list exercise: a list of pastimes. How characters spend their spare time can be one of the hardest things to make up, but it's a very rich writing tool. Firstly, it improves your characterisation, by giving your character a wider and more varied life, and perhaps one or two unexpected skill sets. Secondly, it gives you more variety of scenes. If you've ever written a dialogue-heavy scene in a coffee shop / living room / restaurant, you'll know how agonising and dull that becomes to write. When your characters have something to do in the scene, suddenly the writing becomes much easier – and more fun. Why have your characters endlessly cradle their steaming coffees when they could be rolling out pastry, zip-lining, crocheting a blanket the size of a house, handling their bees, exploring caves ("spelunking", as your character could tell you, if they were into that), playing the xylophone, and so on, and so forth, etc, etc.? There's an untapped wealth of potential there.

So this exercise is just to brainstorm all the pastimes and hobbies you can think of, from the banal to the exotic, the everyday to the avant-garde, the familiar to the bizarre, to give yourself a lovely repertoire to select from in future. Some of the more surprising pastimes you come up with may even end up creating a character. I suggest you do this as a ten-minute timed exercise, to come up with as many as you can in that time OR, if time limits stress you out, pick a number (I'd suggest 30-50) and come up with that many different pastimes and hobbies. Have fun!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Getting Romantic workshop on Saturday 30 July. Characters' interests are more than usually important when you're writing romance or romantic sub-threads: shared interests and sharing new interests with each other form a central part of getting to know each other and of the relationship. It opens up exciting scene opportunities for when they're spending time together, instead of yet another restaurant scene. Unusual interests can also help you delve deeper into their characterisation, so rather than it being a "quirky" stick-on hobby, it becomes integral to their personality and skills. You can read more about the workshop and book your place here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Editor's Notes


Editor's Notes

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is Editor's Notes: a hilariously satisfying exercise on redrafting.

First off, pick a story, something famous or classical or revered, which you think is flawed. It might be you love the author but think that particular book isn't their best. Or one of the Greats that you feel is overrated. For instance, I think King Lear starts with a bang and then just goes downhill, and that business with the Fool vanishing from the story is a nonsense. I love Dickens, but Little Dorrit is so mawkishly sentimental – it could definitely do with some bucking up, more humour, and a bit more backbone for Little Dorrit herself. Romeo and Juliet is frankly unconvincing: they barely have time to get to know each other and then that whole "missed message" thing is way too plot-convenient. It doesn't have to be the classics, though – you can also pick on a TV series (the ending of Battlestar Galactica, anyone?), so long as you're focusing on the storytelling and the story structure. Just make sure it's something you know decently well and think is a bit flawed.

Next, once you have your target, you're going to step into your editoral shoes, as that person's commissioning editor (the one who's choosing to buy this book for the publishing house) and you're going to write them some Notes. That's critical feedback on how they can  improve their story and iron out some of the issues. Make detailed practical notes covering what they need to fix and also giving suggestions of how to fix it. Write it as a letter to the author, making sure to start with all the positives in their work. For example...

"Dear Will,
Most of this is fantastic stuff, really well done. I especially admire the character of Cordelia and the way you've used her sisters as a foil for her. The relationship between her and Lear in the opening scenes is very moving. I think you could strengthen the whole thing to the same high standard as that very strong start, by addressing a few structural issues. When I think of your Macbeth, and how tightly gripping that was throughout, I really think you can bring some of that pacy energy and tension to your King Lear. I've outlined some key areas to consider below, with suggested fixes..."

And then note the various issues with the story and add suggestions for how to resolve each one. eg,

"The Fool disappears partway through the story, without explanation – I suspect this is an oversight? You could remedy this and further increase the tension by reintroducing him to the later scenes and making his survival more of a tension point. It might also add an emotional tension if he's in love with Cordelia while remaining loyal to Lear?"

And so on! Critical but supportive, encouraging, and constructive. I suggest you spend 10 mins on it, though you could happily up it to 20 mins if you want a longer session. And, of course, have fun with it!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Beyond First Draft workshop on Saturday 27 August. Redrafting is so much more than editing your work or making cuts: a significant part of it is stepping back to look at your work as a whole and reassess its structure. In the workshop we'll look at various ways to get an overview like that of your own work. Doing the same thing with someone else's work, as you're doing with this prompt, is excellent practice for that. What's more, it's easier to come up with fixes for someone else's story and that in turn gives you ideas for how to resolve some of the issues in your own work. You can read more about all the workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Yay! Ahh...


Yay! Ahh...

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is "YAY! Ahh..." Some of you might remember the childhood game, "There's an aeroplane". Simple rules: the leader announces what's happening and the rest of the group yell "YAY!" and "Ahh..." alternately. For example...

"There's an aeroplane!"
"Yay!"
"But it's going to crash!"
"Ahh..."
"But the pilot's getting out!"
"Yay!"
"But he doesn't have a parachute!"
"Ahh..."
"But he's headed for a haystack!"
"Yay!"
"But there's a pitchfork in the haystack!"
"Ahh..."
"But he's missed the pitchfork!"
"Yay!"
"But he's also missed the haystack!"
"Ahh..."
"But he's landed in a dustbin!"
"Yay... BWAHAAAHAAAHHAAAR!"

And your childhood self rolls and rolls around laughing because everyone said "YAY!" when he landed in a dustbin!

SO, for this week's writing prompt, you're going to play a dramatic plot-twisty game of "Yay! Ahh..." in your notebook. (It's your choice of whether or not to trick people into saying "YAY!" about something naughty at the end.) The rules are simple: each report is alternately met with "Yay!" and "Ahh..." I suggest you spend ten minutes on it, which gives you plenty of room for all sorts of dramatic twists and turns. Write fast and freely rather than agonising over each step and don't worry about absurdities, you're just having some silly fun with it. 

For the thing you've just spotted, whose vicissitudes of fortune will ensue, you can use your own idea or pick from the options below, and then just run with it.

There's a... ☘️ supermarket! ☘️ recipe! ☘️ database! ☘️ child! ☘️ piano! ☘️ village! ☘️ bird! ☘️ robber! ☘️ prime minister!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Page Turner workshop on Saturday 20 August. Identifying the narrative highs and lows, and the different suspense techniques that create or foil the readers' expectations, is invaluable for arranging your story's events so they have maximum narrative interest. And this principle runs across genres, from childhood game to action thriller to literary fiction. (In fact, in the workshop, all the excerpts to illustrate the key suspense techniques are taken from literary fiction – a deliberate choice, as people are often hesitant to believe that literary fiction really does use these same storytelling tools.) Playing with suspense techniques in a silly way is great preparation for spotting and using them in more "serious" work. You can read more about the Page Turners workshop and the other four workshops here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 4 June 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Tarot character


Tarot character

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is Tarot Character, a lovely characterisation exercise. The beauty of a system like the tarot is that it's the condensed result of hundreds of years of people thinking very deeply about different archetypes of people, so it captures a lot of wisdom about people and personalities. Plus it comes with delightful pictures!

To start, pick an existing character – ideally one of your own, from a previous exercise or a work in progress. (If you've been doing this series of prompts, then Deluded Diary will have given you two characters.) If you don't have a character of your own, pick one you know well from a book / film / TV series. (Poldark springs to my mind, but then he so often does...!)

Next, look through the tarot cards to decide which card would best represent them in a tarot spread, as a symbol of them. This website gives a lovely summary of each card, then you can click through for more details on a card if you think it suits. Unless you already know the tarot very well, stick to the "major arcana" (the first 22 cards, with names). Delving through all 78 unfamiliar cards would take far too long and the major arcana capture the most significant extremes. Don't worry about the gender of the card; look for which meanings match your character best. For example, for Poldark, I'd pick the Fool, the Chariot, or the Devil.

Now scribble some notes:

  • In the card description, what matches your character?
  • What doesn't match your character?
  • What's distinct / unique about your character that makes them more than that archetype?

Now reread the full description of that card and take a few more notes / freewrite your thoughts: 

  • Are there any aspects of that archetype that shed new light on your character? 
  • Does it flag up an aspect of them that you've been dimly aware of but not really identified? 
  • How could you incorporate those aspects, in their personality / actions / story, while keeping them their fully unique self? (If you're borrowing someone's character, you're into fan-fic territory here, making up new adventures for them.)

Have fun!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Tropes and Archetypes workshop on Saturday 13 August. Storytelling and character tropes abound in fiction, inescapably, and also often draw on deeper underlying archetypes. Gaining a richer understanding of what archetypes your character might be tapping into can help you see more clearly what role(s) they're playing in the book, how other characters might see them, and how your readers might react to them. It can also deepen your own knowledge of the character and possibilities for them that you hadn't thought of before. Throughout that, we also want to make sure our characters are unique individuals, to keep that tension between the archetype and their idiosyncratic, even contradictory self. You can read more about all the workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 28 May 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Scrapbook Story


Scrapbook Story

The Summer of Writing workshops are back – and back in person! In the run-up to the workshops in July & August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.


This week's prompt is a Scrapbook Story. You might have heard the term "epistolary novel" before. That's usually taken to mean a novel told completely through letters, but actually it can include all kinds of documents. Bram Stoker's Dracula, for instance, uses letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, and one of the letters is an invoice – a rather chilling invoice, when you realise what it refers to. So you're going to put together an epistolary short story, in ten documents / excerpts from documents. My first thought was five documents, but ten allows you to also include much smaller "hint" documents, such as a bus ticket, a shopping list, etc. I suggest you choose ten different types of documents, for the fun of variety, though you might decide you want the first and last documents to be the same type – up to you. There's a list of documents below to give you ideas, but literally anything written on paper is fair game, even a till receipt. The only restriction is "Can I glue this in a scrap book?"

You might have a story idea in mind, perhaps one you haven't worked out how to tell yet or perhaps one you've already written which you think would be fun to rewrite in epistolary form. If you don't, here's a selection of story-starter ideas for you to choose from:

  • An affair with a ghost
  • A body is found in a tree
  • The character not who they think they are
  • An ancient manuscript shows we came from space
  • A village fights against being demolished
  • Dragonflies are magical beings
  • ALL online privacy systems get hacked

You can do this as a quick ten-minute exercise, to play around with the idea and map out the overall structure, or as a longer project, completely up to you.

For a ten-minute exercise: Spend ten minutes deciding what types of documents you're going to use and what each one contains. If you have any time left over, you can write / start writing some of the documents.
For a longer exercise: Actually write it! You can plan it beforehand as above, if you like planning, or just launch into the writing, if you prefer writing to discover.

Either way, pens at the ready, and have fun!

Ideas for documents

  • academic paper
  • almanac
  • diary
  • dictionary
  • manual
  • newspaper article
  • minutes of a meeting
  • invoice / receipt
  • letters / text / telegram
  • legal document
  • transcript
  • log book
  • household accounts
  • advert
  • pamphlet
  • manifesto
  • recipe
  • police report
  • encyclopaedia entry
  • textbook
  • poetry and lyrics
  • religious text
  • travel documents


Have fun!


Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Writing in Scenes workshop on Saturday 6 August. A key part of writing in scenes is learning to zoom in on the action and events "in real time", so the story is something we're living through rather than being told about. Identifying documents as "evidence" for a story is a lovely and fun way to hone in on those snapshot moments and real-time events, while also thinking carefully about their purpose in the plot. You can read more about all the workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Weekly writing prompt: Deluded Diary


Deluded Diary

The Summer of Writing workshops are approaching – and this year they'll be in person again! I can't wait to welcome you all back into the land of felt-tips, grapes and biscuits, multiple teas, lunch in the garden, classroom chatter and laughter, and the busy silence of communal concentration and avid scribbling. The tomatoes are already eagerly shooting upwards to shade the conservatory for you in the breaks. For those of you who've not been to the workshops in person, you can see the classroom space below (a cool north-facing room, ideal for July and August) and more about what it's like here.

sunny airy workshop space

To warm us up for the workshops, I'll be posting a writing prompt each weekend for the next ten weeks – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun. Each of the prompts loosely connects with one of the five Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first.) I suggest you give yourself a set amount of time for the prompts: 10 minutes is good, as that's a very doable amount of time to fit into your weekend (or the week ahead). If you want longer, though, you could easily spend 20-30 minutes on this one.

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is Deluded Diary: a delightful exercise playing with character, voice, and romance.

Your character is in love. Proper, giddy, even-the-trees-look-different love. It's completely sincere, completely heartfelt, nothing to be mocked here, though we might smile and giggle alongside them. And they're writing about this in their diary, and about the person they're so dizzyingly in love with. All the while, though, they are completely oblivious that the other person fancies them right back, just as fierce. (We can tell, though. It's blindingly gloriously obvious, from the diary, but your character genuinely has no idea.)

For the character, you can use an existing character if you have one handy. If you'd rather grab a brand-new character, this character-cameo generator is delightful. It gives you enough info to dive straight in, without overwhelming you with detail. And of course, feel free to change any of the details it offers you. 

So choose your character or whisk one up with the generator, set a timer if you want to do it as a time-limited exercise, and start writing their diary!

Why this prompt? This prompt links with the Getting Romantic workshop on Saturday 30 July. Strong characterisation is essential to writing a compelling romance or romantic subthread, and through the diary, you get a two-for-one on characters. Firstly, the character writing reveals their personality, through what they say and their voice. Secondly, the description of their beloved gives some insight into the other character. Writing a diary entry also allows you as the writer to indulge in all sorts of flights of feeling: it's the character writing, not you, and they're writing for their own eyes only, so there's no need for Polished Restrained Prose – which leaves you free to explore the full range of their feelings. 

You can read more about all the workshops and book your places here. There'll be a new prompt each week, so you can also subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • Getting Romantic (Saturday 30 July): Explore how to create convincing romantic relationships that matter to the plot and to the reader
  • Writing in Scenes (Saturday 6 August): Explore how to balance the different ingredients of a scene and ways of approaching the “big scenes” in your story
  • Tropes and Archetypes (Saturday 13 August): Using tropes and archetypes effectively, avoiding cliché, and the fun of subversion
  • Page Turners (Saturday 20 August): How to keep the reader reading – whether you’re writing literary fiction or a pot-boiler thriller
  • Beyond First Draft (Saturday 27 August): Once your first draft is done, what do you do? Practical tips on how to redraft, refine, and edit your story or novel

Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 12 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Meddle with a duplex


Meddle with a duplex

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite! This is the eighth and final post in the series: you can read the whole set here.

In Week 8 of the course, the final week, we look at original forms: all the different elements that can go into shaping a poetic form, and creating and swapping our own original forms. All poetry forms are invented at some point, however far back that point might be, and even the most ancient traditional forms continue to develop as poets put their own spin on them. Across the course, we look at a wide range of forms, from the most traditional and established to very recently invented ones. They're not just rhyme and metre forms, either: they have a wide range of constraints, including repetition, syllable counts, imagery, content, etc. 

As a warm-up, a recently invented form which is great fun to play around with is Jericho Brown's duplex.  It's a hybrid between the ghazal and the sonnet form, with lots of repetition / respinning similar lines. Here's a summary:

  • 14 lines, in couplets, ideally 9 to 11 syllables each.
  • The first line is echoed in the last line.
  • The second line of [each couplet] should change our impression of the first line in an unexpected way.
  • The second line is echoed and becomes the third line.
  • This continues until the penultimate line becomes the first line of the couplet that leads to the final (and first) line.

As always, it's easier to understand with an example, so here's an example I wrote:

I couldn’t keep the god, there was too much
despair: a parent who condemns you for their

despair. A parent who condemns you for their
choices in a cold school hall, but I found

choices. In a cold school hall, I found
the songs the others sang, the highest notes.

The songs the others sang, the highest notes,
were ancient, trees and candlewax and stone.

Were ancient trees and candlewax and stone
stolen by our raw and rigid church?

Stolen by the raw and rigid churches,
the ancient songs live on with twisted words.

The ancient songs live on. I twist the words:
I wouldn’t keep the god, but I keep much.
To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples, but on the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others. You can also read this example by the inventor. He's also written very beautifully about how he invented it, including the autobiographical details that led up that. And as he says in that article, "I’d love for you to write a duplex". Inventing forms is a delight, and it's equally delightful when other people take the new form and run with it. 

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: Wednesday 26 Jan). It explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Saturday, 1 January 2022

Meddle with a quatern


Meddle with a quatern

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite!

In Week 7 of the course we explore keeping the meaning open, so a poem both has meaning and is open to the individual and personal interpretations readers might put on it. Think of your own favourite poems, and the ones that feel like they express your feelings about an event in your own life: that's the kind of openness we want to give our readers.

One of the most useful ways to explore this is through how the same line can be turned to mean very different things. In the course, we do this with glosas. As a warm-up, though, I offer you the lovely flexible quatern.

Based on fours, a quatern has four stanzas each of four lines, and the very first line repeats in each stanza, moving down a slot each time. So it's the 1st line in the 1st stanza, the 2nd line in the 2nd stanza, the 3rd line in the 3rd stanza, and the 4th line in the 4th stanza. The metre and rhyme are completely up to you. Here's what that looks like:

LINE 1
xxxxxx
xxxxxx
xxxxxx

xxxxxx
LINE 1
xxxxxx
xxxxxx

xxxxxx
xxxxxx
LINE 1
xxxxxx

xxxxxx
xxxxxx
xxxxxx
LINE 1
And here's an example quatern, that I wrote:
Your hand wrapping round mine, love
in the firm clasp as cobbles and balconies steepen,
as my legs weaken, and you lead me lightly
into the shade – always finding me shade.

Like a sea breeze, a tingle travels my skin at
your hand wrapping round mine. Love
tumbles like vines sprouting flowers from stone
down the precipice, in verdant vertigo.

Alleys narrow, flower pots rise, old doors open
as the strangely silent siesta unpeels to find
your hand wrapping round mine. Love
lays out its glittering wares, as lamps light.

Shutters rise, evening exhales and starts to laugh.
Seafood wafts, glasses fill, fingers tease my palm
and the templar knights’ castle rises, calm and eternal as
your hand wrapping round mine, love.
It's a really lovely form to play with, repeating and structured but very flexible too, and each time you approach that repeating line, you find a slightly different way to interpret it. (Note: to respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.)

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: 26 Jan). It explores a host of different poetry forms, as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here.


Tuesday, 21 December 2021

CELEBRATING 10 years with my 10 best feedback tips

In the previous celebration post of my top 10 tips overall, the final tip was to join the circle of writers: our creativity flourishes best together. A vital part of that is giving and receiving feedback well. Over the last ten years, I've given feedback on well over a thousand pieces of writing and I've learnt a lot about giving feedback that genuinely helps people. In my own writing groups, I'm both giving and receiving feedback: being on the receiving end is essential for my own writing and to remember what it's like for my students. So gathering all of that together, here are my 10 best tips for giving and receiving feedback.

1 Ask questions

When you give someone writing for feedback, say what you want feedback on. Tell them what level draft it is, eg first draft, reworked but not edited, almost-final draft, so they know where to pitch their feedback. If there's a typo in a first draft, you don't need to know; almost-final draft, that's useful info. Then ask questions. Useful questions for fiction might be...

  • What do you think of x character?
  • Did the tension lag in any bits? Did any parts feel too expository?
  • What do you guess / suspect will happen next?
  • Is the voice consistent?
  • Where could I add more description?
  • Middle 2 paragraphs of pg 3: I'm debating cutting these. What do you think?

For poetry, questions might be...

  • What mood does it evoke for you?
  • What's your interpretation of what it's about?
  • What does the reference to x mean to you?
  • Which do you think are the strongest / weakest lines?
  • What do you think of x-y rhyme pairing?
  • How does the metre flow for you?

Keep your questions open-ended, avoiding spoilers and yes/no answers. For example, instead of "Can you tell Y is the murderer?" ask "Who are you most suspicious of?" Instead of "Is X-character coming across as intelligent enough?" ask "How is X-character coming across?" For characters, the three-traits test is good: everyone in the group writes down three character traits for that character, then compares. That gives a great cross-section of views – plus if people are struggling to think of three, you know the character isn't clearly defined yet.

These questions are important for the people giving feedback, so they know what to comment on. They're equally useful for you: thinking carefully about what questions to ask gives you new insight into your writing. It also acts as a lovely safety net while you're writing. If I'm having a difficult-words day or feeling insecure, I dash down the questions to ask my writing group, then carry on, knowing their help will be coming in the future.

You're also allowed to ask for positive feedback only. If something's tentative first-draft, you don't need to know the characterisation's still weak or pages 2-4 are all exposition: you need to know which stuff is exciting and interesting. You need enthusiastic readers who'll help you spot the possibilities. 

Finally, put your questions at the end of the piece. Let the reader form their opinions then see what you want feedback on. Often, in our group, we find we've flagged things up before reaching the question on that issue, which is an extra confirmation it needs sorting out.

2 Say what's good

The first time my students give me work for feedback in a course, the instruction sheet says "DON'T PANIC" (in large friendly letters) and then "You're not being marked on your work: I’ll tell you what’s working well in it and give you suggestions to improve it." Sometimes students joke about the "shit-sandwich" approach: the idea that to give negative feedback, you start and end with positives. But that's not what it's about, in writing feedback. Yes, hearing positives makes it easier to take negative feedback on board, but saying what's good in writing is 100% valuable in itself. We need to be told what's good because we don't already know. In a first draft, you often can't tell. By third or fourth draft, something you worked hard on at the start is so familiar you've forgotten it's even doing something important. If you're cutting your writing down for length (I'm a chronic over-writer), it's a Godsend to have the group's feedback on which are the best bits, so you know to keep those.

Saying what's good in someone else's writing is also one of the best ways for you to improve as a writer. Spotting flaws is much easier than spotting what someone's doing right. Flaws stand out more. We're trained to look for the negatives. And we spot the flaws in areas we're already good at. If your dialogue is excellent, you see in an instant that someone else's is clunky. But spin it round. If your dialogue is poor, can you spot good dialogue? Seeing what other people are doing well teaches you far more than seeing where they're not as good as you. Everyone wins.

3 Say what could be improved

This is the second half of what I promise my students. Hearing what's good is essential, but so are suggestions for how to develop. If something is unclear or confusing, if the tension lags, if you genuinely can't make head or tail of a poem, that’s part of feedback. When a writing group or writing-buddy relationship becomes too "kind", it slowly stagnates – and it's not actually kind, because it's not helping each other progress.

That said, be gentle in your delivery. Talk about the writing, your response to it and understanding of it, not about the author. It helps to use “it” and “I” language, not “you”. Instead of “You lost me on pg 3” say “I found pg 3 a bit confusing”. Instead of “All your exposition is slowing down the story” say “It has a lot of exposition, which is slowing down the story.” We identify strongly with our writing so a critique can feel personal: help it stay focused on the piece. And remember to stick to the brief, ie their questions: if someone's submitted first draft and doesn't want line-by-line feedback, don't go in with your editorial red pen, Just because you've spotted something doesn't mean it needs flagging up now.

4 Listen and consider

When you're receiving feedback, it's tempting to jump in and say "So what I was trying to do there was..." or "I need to put that in because..." Bite your tongue for a bit. In some groups, we've even had a rule that the writer isn't allowed to speak for the first ten minutes. That helps the feedback stay focused on what's actually there on the page, not what the writer meant to be there. It also helps you listen and process your first responses, especially if you're feeling defensive. Nod, thank people, make notes. Once you've listened fully, you can ask follow-up questions: "I do need some of the stuff about lemons as set-up for later: do you think it would work if I just kept x line?" "I can see the character's not coming across the way I intended. Which bits made her seem hostile, to you?" and so on.

The other part is to consider. No-one's feedback is the Word of God engraved on stone tablets. It's another writer's opinion. If you disagree strongly, don't chuck it out immediately: sit with it a bit, sleep on it, think it over. Consider it. And if you consider it's wrong, then you can dismiss it.

5 Feedback should help people write more

I've had a number of students join a course with serious scars from past feedback from other courses or agencies. Often they've stopped writing for years. The thought of getting feedback again has made some of them shake and nearly cry. I'm in awe of their bravery, that they have still signed up for a writing course, that they're giving me their writing to read, however fearfully. And I am Mother-Bear furious with the people who did that to them.

Feedback should help people write more. The single biggest factor in improving our writing is writing more. All the theory, tips of the trade, and craft-of-writing books in the world are useless unless we're writing lots. We don't have to figure out every writing trick ourselves, through trial and error, but we do need to use them in our writing – which means we need to be writing. If someone's feedback stops a person writing, that feedback is a complete failure. It doesn't matter how clever it is, how "insightfully" it "identified the problem": it has failed at its fundamental purpose.

Remember this, if you've had or if you get feedback that quashes you: the person giving the feedback has failed, not you. To avoid ever giving feedback like that, all these tips will help, plus a few other pointers. First, pitch your feedback to the person's level. Look at where they are in their writing development right now, and choose areas to improve that are within their grasp. Second, be selective: don't detail every single aspect that could be improved; focus on the things that will make the biggest difference. We are all always developing as writers, but we can't develop on every front at once. And we'll develop best by continuing to write.

6 Think growth not talent

One student, who's also my oldest friend, told me, "Your feedback's always so helpful for improving stuff, but it's so positive that I don't know if I'm any good at writing." We had a slightly puzzled conversation, because I'd just told her, in her written feedback, what was good in her writing and what could do with work. Eventually she said, "But what if someone's just really bad? Would you tell them?" Then I realised we were coming at the question from completely opposite ends.

There's no such thing as a bad writer. There's no such thing as a good writer. There's no such thing as talent. There are people who have some slight advantage – for instance, learning to read young and growing up in a wordy household, which creates more exposure to language, so their early work is ahead of their peers, so they're encouraged and praised, so they do more, and continue to, in the constant sunlight of admiration... That's just getting good by doing something lots and being encouraged, but it gets mistaken for talent.

We all develop as writers. Would I tell someone their writing is "bad"? No. Nor would I think that. It's at a particular level of development. I'd tell them what's good in it and make suggestions to improve it. As I told my friend that evening, some of my students producing fantastic quality work, publishable and/or published, gave me intial submissions that she'd call "bad". If I'd cut them off then, they'd never have had a chance to develop. If a student wants to know if a particular piece is ready to be sent out for publication, that's a different question, which still isn't about them being good/bad, but how developed that particular piece is. None of it's about being "good" or "bad", it's about developing.

I've learnt to reflect that in my language, when I give feedback. In the early days, I'd say "You have a talent for description" or "You have a flair for dialogue", and so on. Sounds encouraging, right? Actually, it's unhelpful and even insulting. It insults the work they put in to write that description and dialogue: it didn't "come naturally", they did that. And it doesn't help them. Next time they're stuck with their dialogue or description, what should they think? That they've lost their flair, their talent? If I recognise the work they did and say what they did to make that bit good, then they can do that again next time, when it's coming less easily. These days, my feedback will read more like this: "You've written very natural dialogue, by using contractions and leaving out unnecessary words. The way you imply x, rather than explaining it, gives us a sense of how well they know each other." and so on. And it feels a hell of a lot better to be praised for the specific choices you've made than to be told you're "talented".

7 Set time and length limits

Whether you're writing buddies, a writing group, or a teacher taking in work for feedback, set strict length limits on how much someone can send in. Our group of 4–5, which meets weekly, has an upper limit of 4000 words. (Introduced to keep me in check!) For student submissions, I limit it to 2000 words of prose or one poem of 40 lines. Likewise, set time limits for when stuff need to be sent by, if you're reading each other's work before you meet, and set time limits for how long you spend on each person's work. These may seem like humdrum logistical points compared to the other tips, but they're the basis of a healthy long-lasting writing group or buddy arrangement: clear boundaries which keep it doable for everyone. Reading other people's work takes time, talking about it takes time, we all have other things we need to slot it around. Respecting everyone's time keeps the relationships harmonious.

8 Be careful who you ask for feedback

You show your family and friends your writing, and they read it. (Result!) You say eagerly, "What do you think?" and they say, "I liked it." You push for more feedback. Striving to be helpful, they start to criticise it. They point out typos, tell you they don't like the genre, flag up a swear word a character used... The experience is upsetting for everyone and discouraging for the writer.

Non-writers are usually hopeless at giving feedback – and fair enough. You have to know a lot of the machinations of writing to give useful feedback and being a reader isn't enough. I'm a driver, but I couldn't give a car mechanic feedback on their work; all I can say is "It's making a funny noise" or "The noise is gone now." It's not fair to expect our family and friends to give us helpful feedback, especially when a piece is still developing. If you want help, ask fellow writers. If you don't have a writers' group or a writing buddy, set one up. Lots of students on my courses form writing groups at the end of the course, and anyone who's been on the courses can join the Slack / Facebook community, to find people to form groups with.

Be especially careful not to ask for feedback when you actually want praise, validation, or just to share your world. It's easy to fall into this trap with parents and partners / love-interests: we say "What do you think?" when we mean "Look what I made!" So use your writer-words to say what you really mean: "I'm so pleased with this poem and I wanted to share it." "I'm having so much fun creating this world and I wanted you to know about it too." If you really need them to say more than "I liked it" then return to Tip 1 and ask questions you want the answers to. "Which is your favourite bit?" "Which character did you like most?"

Your family, friends, and partners are there to love you and share your delight. Your fellow writers have the know-how to help you develop your writing.

9 Avoid group-think in writing groups

Similar to the danger of a writing group or buddy arrangement becoming too "kind", a group can develop "group-think" over time. That's when keeping the group harmonious becomes more important than thinking critically and independently, and it can lead to some very skewed perspectives. 

To avoid this, firstly, actively embrace disagreement within your writing group. If one person thinks a particular page should go and someone else loves it, good! If one person hates a character and someone else loves them, good! Never try to move from that to a group consensus: someone will be backing down and you'll be losing their insights. Make a note of the differing opinions, and you as the writer can choose your course later. Secondly, work apart and then together. In the three-traits test, everyone writes down their own view of a character and then compares. In our group, by sending our writing in advance, we read it independently and then compare our views. When people are forming and expressing their opinions at the same time, it's very easy to landslide down with the first, loudest, or strongest opinion, and not even notice we're not thinking independently anymore.

The beauty of a writing group is getting multiple opinions at once: keep them multiple.

10 Have multiple feedback sources

Having multiple opinions within a writing group is fantastically helpful. Having multiple groups and writing buddies is also good, not disloyal. We need different people for different stages. The person you've talked out the whole plot with can't tell you if your suspense and reveals are working: they already know everything. The group that helps you hammer and polish your first draft can't read the final draft with fresh eyes: they know every detail of what you're trying to do. This is also where family, friends, and partners come back in.

In my writing, my partner knows every detail of the world. I read aloud the raw first-draft to him in the kitchen in the evenings, at the Plough on weekends, on holiday in Turkey. That's him being my cheerleader and my love: I want to share my world. I thrash out plot problems and pick his brilliant brain: then he's my co-creator. When I turn that raw first-draft into actual story, I write it, type up, print it, add bits, refine it, print a clean copy, and give him that to read: then he's my alpha-reader. He flags up anything that strikes him as odd. Sometimes practical matters: if you saw a barrel lengthways, it'll fall apart. (Doh!) Sometimes story-structure matters: x character seemed completely unsurprised by that news. Sometimes suggestions: he'd like to see that scene in more detail or that part is happening too fast. I make adjustments and then it goes to my writing group.

The writing group are my writing experts: they hammer down into the serious story structure stuff, flag up exposition, comment on prose. I come away with a sheaf of edits and usually some reworking. If I'm heavily rewriting a scene, I'll bring it back to them for a second pass: it's not going to surprise them, at that stage, but they can help me check the language.

When the book is finished and I've edited it, then I need fresh readers. These don't have to be writers, necessarily, just readers, so it can be friends and family. This isn't about looking for expert advice, it's finding beta-readers for a reader-response to the finished book. To make that work for both of us, I need to remember Tip 1 and ask questions. At the end of each chapter: "How is x character coming across? What do you think will happen next? Who do you suspect? What most surprised you?"

That's 6 different roles, some of which need more than one person: cheerleader, co-creator, alpha-reader(s), writing expert(s), beta-readers. Some of them can overlap and be the same person; some absolutely can't, because it needs fresh eyes. It's not "disloyal" to have several writing group / buddy arrangements: it's important. And we absolutely can't be alone, as writers. As I said at the start, we need each other: our creativity flourishes best together.

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My aim, as a teacher, is always to empower my students: people shouldn't be dependent on me, to write. But we don't have to be independent, either: we're interdependent. Over the last ten years, I've learnt so much more about teaching, thanks to all of you and your feedback, created so many new courses and workshops, thanks to all of you and your input, got to read so much of your lovely writing and share in so many different worlds and stories. The solstice tips today and the year's almost over, so this is the last of the ten-year celebration posts, but the Writers' Greenhouse is going strong, thanks to you. And whatever year it ends up actually happening, we are definitely having that ten-year anniversary party!

Happy writing and may all your feedback be helpful!

 

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