The Characters that Let Your Stories Fly

The Characters That Let Your Stories Fly

When I started writing more keenly, I thought what I needed most was to plot better. I worked on that, hard, and my stories grew wings… but somehow they didn’t take flight. They felt like planes circling the airport, even with their immaculate flight plans.

What I actually needed to learn took me much longer, because I didn’t realise I needed that: to write characters unlike myself. Not just the wrong ‘uns, all of them. Especially the main characters.

Again and again, in my teaching, I’ve seen other writers hobbled by the same thing. It’s not a glaring lack, like plot, but it stops stories flying. And you don’t know why – because our selves are a blind spot to us. How we are, that’s just normal, right? But other people are different. And until all our characters can be too, including our main characters, we’re clipping our stories’ wings.

It is a blind spot, because our selves are our normal. So before we launch into why it's important, here are two quick tests of whether you’re stuck in characters like you:

  • The Three-Traits Test: Can you (and your writing group / buddy if you have one) quickly and easily write three separate personality traits for them? If you can’t, they’re not fully characterised, and likely a diluted version of you.
  • The Reaction Test: When your character reacts to something big (a heartbreak, discovery, thrill, frustration), can you say why they specifically react like that? Or is their reaction just “normal” to you? Because them being just normal might be them being just you.

If, in your writing so far, your characters are mostly you, especially the main characters, you have a wealth of discovery and joy ahead of you. Because this is what characters unlike you – again, especially the main characters – will give you.

You get more vivid characters

We don’t see ourselves as clearly as we see other people. Like fish not noticing water, we live inside our own traits without realising how much is specific to us, rather than standard-issue human, so we don’t describe those characters well. Without that clarity, our characters-like-us stay vague, undifferentiated. Worse still, to make the character “not us”, we often strip away what is unique and interesting, leaving the character not only blurry but bland. When your character’s not you, they become crisply drawn with distinct personality.

You vary your characters across stories

Even if your stories are wildly different, having much the same person at the centre of each gives them a sameyness. That gets boring for the readership you want to grow and boring for you as a writer. Different central characters bring fresh sparkle and variety to both your stories and the writing process.

You vary your cast within stories

The disjuncture between different types of people is a rich narrative seam. It increases your story’s depth, intensifies the point of view, and offers wonderful narrative tension as your disparate characters connect and clash. For that to work, all your characters need to be different, not just the “villains” of the piece. That also means learning to see the value in traits very different from your own.

You get wider scope for stories

As your characters open up in variety, so too do your storytelling possibilities. There are stories I’ll never be able to tell about a Meganesque character, even if I dress her up as an astronaut, a religious peasant, or a cursed child in a desert land. As soon as it’s not me, though, I can write about a Machiavellian commitment to social change, a status-driven ambition, a rigid adherence to minutiae, or a stone-cold indifference to others’ opinions, and how those traits play out to the good. When your characters aren’t you, your stories open up in exciting new ways.

You get more consistent characters

Once a character isn’t you, they start shaping their story themselves, because they have a distinct personality, which you can identify, and they act according to it. When your characters are still “basically you” and you’re trying to write a specific story, the events and character are often at odds. A Meganesque character doesn’t make sense as an astronaut: yes, she has the maths skills; sure, I can give her the fitness levels; but an astronaut needs the easy equanimity and (to me) near-bland resilience she simply doesn’t have. That clash will show in the writing. When your characters aren’t you, they stay in character – their character, not yours.

It’s easier to write about autobiographical events

The big things that have happened to you, which you want to approach in fiction or auto-fiction: surely, given they happened to you, perhaps even shaped you, this is where the character should be most like you? Counterintuitively, no. To make fiction about that, or even the thinly veiled memoir that is auto-fiction, you need artistic distance. That’s hard to get about something you feel so vulnerable, pained, or raging about. Putting clear blue water between you and the character – making them distinctly not you, or unlike you, in a few significant ways – helps hugely. It lets you write about it in a way that does draw on your experience, with all the insight that gives, and also with the objectivity that makes it the stuff of story.

You get to step through the magic doorway, regardless

There are times when writing seems impossible: when you’re so stressed it feels like you can’t breathe; when you’re crying so hard you can’t see the words. If you can step through the magic doorway into your story’s world, it’s transformative. You enter a flow state and your breathing returns to normal. Your tears dry and you rediscover a part of your life that doesn’t hurt. I’ve done both, but it’s only ever been possible when my characters weren’t basically versions of me. Having characters that aren’t you lets you step into your story world, whatever’s happening with you.

*

All your characters will always, in some way, be you: after all, you’re writing them. But instead of having mini-yous or bonsaied-yous enact every story, you get to act out being all those different people. Your stories’ freedom becomes your freedom.

And you do have the skills to do it. You live in a world brimming with people who’re very different to you. You socialise with them, work with them, and make a dozen accurate predications a day on how they’ll behave, without even noticing. That’s part of being human. That’s the same skill you can bring to your writing, to create characters unlike you and set your stories free.

If you want a rocket-booster to get your stories airborne, the Characters Unlike You workshop is on 17 August, 10am–4pm, in Oxford. You’ll explore 8 personality analyses (encompassing types, spectrums, and shifts) to heighten your awareness of your own traits and create characters unlike that. Across the workshop, you’ll also try out 7 different tools to develop those characters. You’ll leave with 3 new characters, totally different from you, whose strengths you admire, and an ongoing toolbox for creating characters who make new stories fly. See all the details and book your place here.

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Summer writing food: Roast Mediterranean Veg


  Summer Roast Mediterranean Veg

As always, perfect writing food is quick (either to make or to double up another day's cooking) so it doesn't steal your writing time, low-carb so your writing time isn't sabotaged by sleepiness, and as much a treat as writing itself. 

Roast Mediterranean veg is quick to prepare, easy to make lots of, and freezes well. You can play around with the exact ingredients and quantities, add extra protein for omnivore / veggie / vegan eating, and get creative with herbs and spices to change it about. 

It's also ideal for whatever extreme of summer we end up getting. In a heatwave, cooked food is less physical work for your body to digest than raw salads, so roast vegetables that are delicious at room temperature is perfect. As soon as a heatwave is forecast, I prep trays of roast veg for the week ahead. In veils of rain, you can serve it hot or reheat it, and enjoy all the flavours of summer while admiring how very green everything is, through the rain-streaked window. Possibly with a summer-themed blanket wrapped round you. I'll keep any further witter to after the recipe!

Summer Roast Mediterranean Veg recipeScroll on for the recipe or download it as a PDF here

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Roast Mediterranean Veg

Serving and times

  • Active time: 15 mins
  • Oven time: 40 mins
  • Serves: 4–6 (easily doubled or more)

Ingredients

  • Approx 1.5 kg of mixed Mediterranean veg, eg
    1 aubergine
    2 courgettes
    3 peppers, any colour or a combination
    300g mushrooms
    2 small red onions
  • ½ head of garlic (about 6–9 cloves)
  • 4–6 Tbsp olive oil
  • ½ – 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper
  • Optional: 4–6 whole mild chillies

Optional extras: protein

We often serve it as is, or with grilled chicken or sausages. You can also add more protein to the dish, partway through cooking or at the end:

  • Chorizo: 5mm slices, 20 mins before end
  • Halloumi: ¾ cm slices, 10 mins before end
  • Walnuts: 5 mins before end
  • Cheese (goats, camembert, brie) when serving

Optional extras: additional flavours

You can add whatever herbs, citrus, and spices you fancy, to vary it. Eg rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, basil, tarragon, chives, parsley, lemon, lime, chilli, cumin – though perhaps not all at once! My favourite combos are: mint and goats cheese; rosemary and lemon; chilli flakes and lime; cumin, leaf coriander, and lemon.

Method

  • Heat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan).
  • Chop the aubergine, courgettes, and peppers into chunks about an inch / 2.5cm big – err bigger than smaller.
  • Rub the mushrooms clean of dirt and trim the stalk ends if necessary.
  • Halve the onions, peel them, and trim the ends leaving as much on as possible. Chop each half into quarters or thirds lengthways.
  • Break the garlic into cloves, the skin still on.
  • Get an oven tray large enough to hold all the vegetables in a single layer. (The oven’s own tray does well, lined with foil if necc.)
  • Toss all the vegetables in the olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Put the tray of veg in the oven for 40 mins.

Optional Extras

  • Before roasting: Toss any lemon zest, chilli, and whole spices (eg cumin) with the veg. Tuck any woody herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage) under the veg, stalks and all.
  • While roasting: Set an extra timer for when to add your chorizo, halloumi, or walnuts.
  • After roasting: Add any chopped soft herbs (eg mint, basil, tarragon, chives, parsley, coriander), any citrus juice (eg lemon, lime), and any cheese.

Notes

Avoid dishes with high sides for roasting: A metal tray with low-ish sides is ideal. Higher sides keep more of the moisture trapped, even when the dish is open at the top, making the veg boil in its juice more than roast.

Fridging, freezing, re-eating

  • Keep for up to 5 days in the fridge. 
  • To freeze, portion into tupperwares (don’t squish it down) & label with masking tape & a sharpie. Defrost overnight in the fridge for maximum food safety.
  • For hot days, take it out the fridge an hour before to eat at room temperature, with a dash of extra olive oil and balsamic or citrus juice.
  • For colder days, reheat for 10–15 mins in a 160°C oven. Add a splash of lemon or lime to brighten it.

Further witter on roast veg, chillies, and variable summers

In 2022, with the Summer of Writing workshops finally set to happen in person again, a massive heatwave was forecast. I leapt into action. For me and my partner, I roasted heroic quantities of Mediterranean veg, throwing in some of my freshly homegrown jalapeΓ±os: the perfect chilli-heat to add some zing but still eat whole without blinking. For everyone coming to the workshops, I laid in extra ice, double quantities of iced teas, two electric fans, an extra large garden umbrella for lunchtime, and a water-mister and hand fan to pass round. The front room, where the workshops are held, is north-facing and always the coolest, but even so I pinned thick white cloth on the conservatory side and the stair windows to block any heat from the south side of the house. The roast veg was delicious, and everyone at the workshops was kept as cool as humanly possible. 

After two weeks of heatwave, I made another batch of roast veg, with the new jalapeΓ±os that had grown. I ate one, and... I didn't even get the laughing chilli high. Just straight to crying with pain, half a pint of milk, brushing my teeth (while crying), more milk (still crying), and then collapsed into a pain-induced nap on my partner's lap. I couldn't even finish my dinner. Heatwaves, it turns out, make chillies hotter as well as people.

In 2023, I was even better prepared to keep everyone cool. Everything as before plus a second even bigger umbrella for the garden, more bottles for iced tea, cream black-out blinds installed on the south side instead of cloth... and we had the other kind of summer. Cue piles of towels to dry people who arrived soaking, coathangers for sopping coats to dry off, hot chocolate alongside the teas and coffees. All the veg I'd bought to roast made cosy warming dinners for wet evenings and welcome hot lunches for writing days. And the chillies, even the superhots, offered the humblest zing of heat, right at the bottom of their respective Scoville scales.

So, whatever kind of summer we get this year, beware of heatwave chillies, happy eating and happy writing!

Mapping Out Mist


Mapping Out Mist: Text overlays a misty scene of a wooden gate opening onto a field in autumn.

The Chaos of Art

The thing we’re creating doesn’t yet exist.
We’re sat in the mud pit, banging our rocks
and shouting at flowers. Suddenly adult, insist
on a Timeframe of Output, firm, at a desk,
mapping out… mist. We can’t yet exist
in such untrammelled time. Thought-barges collide,
now huge in the fog, already. A list?
We detail the tips of our icebergs and teeter,
the swaying unseen bulk dismissed,
placating the busying Protestant mind
while we grow things that don’t yet exist.

I wrote that in 2023, while I was planning a new novel and also the Planning A Novel workshop. It’s a strange business, planning things that don’t exist, which also can’t exist without a bit of planning. You might have an exciting heap of ideas (as I did with the workshop) or reams of first draft (as I did with the novel). It has a definite existence in potentia, but… well, it doesn’t exist.

I plan a lot of things that don’t exist. Novels, courses, workshops. Every year, when I find out the two new Summer of Writing workshops, I set about writing the workshop descriptions: a line or two introducing the topic, fine; a paragraph of what we’ll cover, cool; and then a paragraph beginning “By the end of this workshop, you’ll have…” My brain skids to a halt so fast it leaves tyre tracks.

How can I possibly say that? I don’t know! The workshop doesn’t exist yet! I haven’t made it! I frown, scribble, cross out, panic, go for a walk. At some point, in the next day or two, my brain will leap forward confidently and declare, “Come on, it’s easy. If you went on a workshop described like that, what would you expect to have done by the end? Cos that’s probably what that bit should be? Duh.” And I briskly scribble that final line.

I’ve tried writing down that sage impatient advice, for future years, but it doesn’t work. I still need the “frown, scribble, cross out, panic, go for a walk” routine. Somewhere in that process, I’m working it out: mapping out mist.

Fog

Fires, canal-side grey. The
faint sparks drown in air. Light
fades and swells, ballooning
flimsy round a lost lamp.
Follow the path – but it’s gone.
Feel for barbed, bare hawthorn:
find where escaped thoughts hide.

The frown-scribble-crossing-out bit is feeding your brain all the puzzles you want it to solve. The moments that you’re walking, or staring out the window, thinking you’re not thinking but actually thinking very hard, are often the most productive. But you also need to capture all those mist-emerging thoughts, and order them so you can find them again. But how do you order something which has no order, because, again, it doesn’t exist yet? And you can’t have too much order, too soon: you need to keep the possibilities open.

Focus

Fixed stare – at nothing – I
float: the brambles have spread…
folding origami
flowers with unseen hands…
Focus! But as my dreams
flit, I see their work: they
fix what I’m not watching.

That’s wild mental work. During this work, I often painstakingly devise the exact thing I need to help me capture ideas. To draw these felt-tip rectangles, it would help to have a straight edge – a piece of cardboard, perhaps? I could mark the length and height of the rectangles on the cardboard, so they’d all be the same. Something firm enough to press a felt-tip against, with regular units of measurement I’d have to create… Oh, look, I’ve invented the ruler. Well done, me.

These pieces of paper: they belong together. But their order might change: I can’t staple them. I need something like a staple, but which I can easily put on and take off. Something that slides on, instead of piercing the paper. Perhaps, with a longer length of thin metal than a staple, I could twist it to fashion some kind of… Oh. I’ve invented paperclips. Again. I’m the Elon Musk of stationery.

When your mind is that full of half-seen story, you become simultaneously absolutely brilliant and very stupid. It helps to have stationery, for a start. A lot of stationery, if only to save yourself the trouble of inventing it from first principles. I’ve gradually learnt to add all the relevant stationery to my writing bag. For the first Planning A Novel workshop, I put in my biggest ever order, to create what we variously termed the “stationery villages” or “non-stationary stationery”:

Gif showing assorted stationery turning on a lazy susan.

And alongside the stationery, techniques. Over the years, and some eleven or so novels, I've worked out principles and processes, strategies that now seem as simple as paperclips. I lay my notes on those next to me, alongside the paperclips, the post-its, the slide-binders and felt-tips. I know that even though I haven't yet mapped out this mist, I have the tools of my creative cartography right there: the approaches for how to map out mist.

Esoteric problems often have deliciously simple solutions. "This is how you join pieces of paper you'll later re-order." "This is how you turn a series of brick story walls into things you can explore." "This is how you free your mind to work on one piece of the puzzle, without the whole Jenga-tower of thought falling down." Because if you can sort out the practicalities, the rest of your head is free for the esoteric. We need both: the simple solutions, and the respect for the esoteric, the seemingly-invisible work we’re doing.

And as you veer between the mapping and the mist, in strange ways, with a lot of apparently mindless staring at starlings and some seemingly pre-school-style Busyness With Felt-Tips, you’re conjuring up something that will, and increasingly does, exist.

Lapse

Light slips, between soft sounds:
loose as humming, it’s a
lilt of a moment, mind,
life – a caesura in
liturgy: we forget
lists, briefly, slide into
liquid thoughts, lipid ways.

The Planning A Novel workshop is running again this August in Oxford, alongside the two new workshops, Story Poems and Multiple Viewpoints, whose final lines I have now written. And that non-existent novel is now a couple chapters away from the end. You can see the complete list of workshops, past reviews, and how to book here.


Planning a Novel



Why Can't They Remember?!


Why Can't They Remember?! Text overlays a collage of memorabilia in pale blue: cameo brooches, old newspapers, a playing card, etc.

It’s one of the most maddening things. You excitedly present the next instalment of your story to your writing group, your writing buddy, your friend who’s eagerly reading alongside your writing. You can’t wait for their reaction: their shock at your Dramatic Reveal, their thrill at the plot twist, their emotion at the most moving thing you’ve ever written…

Instead, they’re drawing a blank. They can’t remember who the character even is or confuse them with someone completely different. They’ve forgotten that plot thread, so your carefully constructed Dramatic Reveal lands with all the impact of a wet dish cloth. They’re asking “Is this about X character?” when it’s clearly five hundred years before: for crying out loud, it even says so on the page, right there, in the middle of that paragraph, see? “Five hundred years”. And that character: there was a whole scene about her, in chapter four! And that Dramatic Reveal: you have your notes from before; one of them spotted your foreshadowing and guessed what was coming! Are they even bothering to read your writing? How can they not remember?!

Sometimes, in writing group, we’ve discussed whether it’s because we’re not reading like “real” readers. “Real” readers don’t have to wait a week or a fortnight for the next instalment; they can just turn the page. “Real” readers aren’t following the story over a couple of years; they might finish the book in a month, a week, or even a single day of holiday.

It’s true, we’re not reading like “real” readers. We’re reading with our pens out, underling favourite bits, spotting repetitions, scribbling notes in the margin. We’re going back over the whole section in group, discussing it at length. Sometimes we’re reading the same scene again, rewritten with its previous issues ironed out. We’re paying incredibly close attention.

And those “real” readers, with the complete book in their hand? They’re reading in the bath. On the bus or the tube. In bed with their eyes drooping. On the sofa, curled up with a head full of flu. They’re listening while they chop vegetables for dinner or while they navigate the traffic on their way to and from work.

Every time, the group comes to the same conclusion: the gaps in time are more than balanced out by the incredibly close attention we’re paying to each other’s work. So if we can’t remember those details, the “real” readers don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.

Of course it’s frustrating and disappointing. Of course we’re tempted to pull up the exact passages that our writing buddies seem to have not even read or had wiped from their minds. But if they can’t remember, that’s a problem in the writing, which needs fixing in the writing.

As a teacher, I have a mantra: if a student doesn’t understand, that’s my fault, not theirs. It’s literally my job to help them understand. The same is true for us as writers: if readers don’t remember, that’s on us and it’s our job to help them. If two people in my group remember and one doesn’t, it still needs fixing. That’s a third of my readers confused, so why not make it clearer?

There are lots of things we want our readers to be wondering about. What’s going to happen next. If X is a bad ’un or is going to turn out trustworthy. Whether Y and Z will end up together. If that’s a clue or a red herring. We want to save the reader’s headspace for all of that, not squander it with them trying to work out the basics of who characters are, what happened before, and when even is this.

Frustrating as it may be to encounter the problem, fixing it is blissfully rewarding. It’s not like ironing a bug out of some code or correcting a spelling error, a dutiful necessary task. It is rich with discovery and delight. As you go back to make those characters more memorable and find ways to sneak in reminders, they leap to fuller life than they ever did before. As you seed memory-hooks into that past scene and weave them in to the new one, both turn thick with vivid detail and new story possibilities. When the phrase “five hundred years before” isn’t registering and you make everything look, feel, smell like it’s five hundred years ago, you discover astonishing new depths to draw on.

And even if you had to bite your tongue so hard it hurt, when you were getting feedback, now you can loosen it to thank them – because by flagging up the problem for you, they’ve helped you discover all this.

Then the next time you’re writing, you remember to create and seed those details in from the start, which embeds them even deeper in the story and opens up richer story possibilities. And then, when you’re asking the group if they remember X, they’re saying “Of course, how could I forget her? She’s the one…” and “Yes, absolutely! That was the bit where…”

If you want whole rafts of techniques for orientating the reader in who characters are, what happened before, and when things are, the Shifting Between Scenes course has just launched, to help you with exactly that. It’s a brand-new Freestyle video course, full of hands-on activities, which you can use with your work in progress OR with the practice materials I give you. You can use it whenever suits you, as many times as you like, and it’s fully accessible and chunked into short sections. Plus, as part of the course, you get permanent membership of the Writers’ Greenhouse Community. So if you don’t have a writing group or writing buddy yet, you can start meeting other writers.

Click here to see the full course and get started.

Writing Skill: A Fond Farewell


A Fond Farewell

In the run-up to the Story Elements course, I'm posting a trio of Writing Skills, one a week, to get you exploring the different ingredients that go into story creation: premisecharactersplacetimeplot layeringtension & stakesplot point of viewbeginningsthemes & symbolssubplotsdetail & dialogueendings.

Bookings close in just three days!

This week's Writing Skill is A FOND FAREWELL, to play with the final four topics of the course: themes & symbols, subplots, detail & dialogue, and endings. It's also a delightful way of using epistolary fiction (stories told through documents) to make a short story, with a side-helping of exploring subtext, reveals, and voice.

Your character is writing a farewell letter – in which they are (rather badly) hiding that they're in love with the person they're writing to. Their badly-hidden love becomes increasingly clear to the reader, but they remain convinced that they're managing to hide it.

If you prefer writing to discover, you can just leap straight in and find out the rest through writing. Start "Dear H—," and just keep writing. If you get stuck at any point, then have a glance at the suggestions for planning below, to feed in further ideas.

If you prefer to plan a bit first, then take a few minutes to brainstorm / jot down notes around these three things:

  • How they're leaving (eg ship, train, plane, etc: whatever appeals to you for vibe / time period)
  • Why contact will be difficult once they're gone
  • How they know each other (eg visited town, holiday, friend of a friend, roommate, working together on something, went through some hardship together, etc)

I suggest you start writing once you have those bits of info, and let more details emerge through the writing. Planning can be useful to give us enough of a springboard to start writing, but never plan so much that you don't get to make discoveries through the process of the writing itself. Discovering through writing is part of the joy, and what we come up with that way is often more organic. Don't worry if your letter seems to go "off topic": follow it and see where it goes.

If you need more ideas of what to write about, then you could include... 

  • their supposed purpose in writing (eg to thank the person, clear something up, info they forgot to pass on when saying goodbye)
  • reminiscences of particular moments, objects, etc that they treasured
  • things they discussed together before leaving
  • references to people they both know
  • their current surroundings and the contrast of that with where they've left

Sometimes we can find a story's end through pure writing-to-discover; sometimes we need to step back a moment and do a bit more planning. So...

Towards the end: To make it a short story, you need some sort of pithy ending. Some possible endings you might consider are:

  • a reveal (to the reader) that the other person loves them too, though the character writing the letter remains unaware (SO TRAGIC 😭)
  • a postscript of how / when / where the letter is found, and by whom (that could be tragic, untragic, or anything in between)
  • a factual detail that gives the reader foresight (eg if the ship they're catching is The Titanic) – that could be a date, a place, a specific transport with a famously disastrous end, etc (the delicious chill of prescience)

or anything else that occurs to you!

Why this skill?

This Skill is a lovely organic way to explore the final four elements of stories: themes & symbols, subplots, detail & dialogue, and endings. A letter written by someone in love immediately gives you its theme, whichever approach you take to it, and the intense focus of love, how it latches onto and treasures the smallest objects, will spoil you for choice with symbols. That same focus also allows you to explore detail & dialogue, because every texture of every moment and every word of the beloved's means so much, when a character is smitten – and, of course, the letter itself means you're using the character's voice. Making it a short-story of a letter also lets you explore the possible endings. And through that ending, the letter itself can become a subplot of a larger context: of the person who finds the letter, or the factual detail that tells us the inevitable end.

These are the final four elements we explore in the Story Elements course, starting at the end of April / start of May, as live online classes OR in person in Oxford, your choice.

Bookings close 23 April, in just three days' time. Read more about the course and heaps of reviews, and book your place here.

Writing Skill: Scene Bookends


Scene Bookends

In the run-up to the Story Elements course, I'm posting a trio of Writing Skills, one a week, to get you exploring the different ingredients that go into story creation: premisecharactersplacetimeplot layeringtension & stakesplot point of viewbeginningsthemes & symbolssubplotsdetail & dialogueendings.

This week's Writing Skill is SCENE BOOKENDS, to play with the middle four topics of the course: plot layering, tension & stakes, plot point of view, and beginnings. Scene Bookends are those first and last lines of scenes that drive the tension leading into the scene and create DA-DA-DAAAA! moments at the ends of scenes. What's the question that's driving the scene? What changes as a result of what happens? What does the reader hope or fear will happen next? That's what the starts and ends of your scenes should flag up, and here's how to make that happen.

For this, you need a story to work with, so you have a couple of options:

  • Grab a chapter or two of your work in progress, if you have one,
    OR
  • Pick a fairytale whose shape you know pretty well and jot down five key scenes. For example, for Cinderella: 1) Weepily cleaning while sisters plan ball, 2) Day of ball and Fairy Godmother does her thing, 3) Ball itself from arrival, 4) Fleeing at midnight, 5) The next day's true-love-by-shoe-size discovery.

Now you're going to write the first and last lines for those five scenes. Don't worry if you don't have the rest of the scene written, that's absolutely fine! You just want to make your first and last lines as dramatic as possible. You can do this completely by instinct or, if you prefer, use some of the tricks and techniques below – up to you. Sometimes it's helpful to go by instinct first, then compare with the tricks and techniques, to see what you can refine.

Tricks and techniques

If you're using a work in progress, look near the starts and ends of your scenes: what are your most dramatic lines? Could you move those up/down to bookend the scene? Could you start the scene a bit further down, with that dramatic line, and end it a bit sooner, with a dramatic line? Some writers (me included) tend to have a bit of "throat-clearing" at the starts of scenes, and carry on writing a bit longer than necessary.

For the first lines, think, What's the narrative question that's driving that scene? In the first scene of Cinderella, maybe that's Will anything nice ever happen to her? or Why are the stepsisters so awful to her? or Will she survive their brutality? Most of the time, you want the first line to flag up that question. For example,"Cinderalla edged into the kitchen, hoping the stepsisters wouldn't notice her this time." 

Alternately, you can play a little guess-who/what game with the first line: "A foreign princess approached her, dripping with diamante, more elegant than Cinderalla could ever dream of being." And then it turns out, a few lines into the scene, that she's seeing her reflection.

For the last lines, think, What's changed as a result of what's just happened? What does the reader hope or fear will happen next? You want your last line to flag that up like a giant arrow pointing to continuing the story. You have a bunch of different techniques you can draw on here:

  • cliff-hanger (end at most dramatic point) eg The clock clock strikes 12 and Cinderella's gown starts to fade into rags
  • dramatic irony (we know something the character doesn't) eg "Behind Cinderella, unseen, the clock stood at one minute to twelve."
  • false dawn: ("What could possibly go wrong!?”) eg The Fairy Godmother sending Cinderella off, confident everything will go exacty as planned 
  • near miss: (“Whew, that was close!”) eg Cinderella panicking about time as the clock chimes – no it's okay, it's only 11. If she then relaxes, that can also become more dramatic irony: as readers, we know she mustn't relax, because she'll forget the time again! We know how the story goes; she doesn't.
  • straight-up plot plan: Use the last line to set up what the character's planning to do next. eg a dirty tired Cinderella, just finished cleaning the kitchen, resolves that whatever happens, she will go to the ball.

Have fun!

Why this skill?

This Skill plunges you right into the middle four elements of stories: plot layering, tension & stakes, plot point-of-view, and beginnings. By separating out your scenes and working on the first and last lines of each, you're paying close attention to the plot purpose of that specific scene: that's part of your  plot layering,. And by creating strong narrative drama in those lines, you're highlighting the tension & stakes of each scene. 

Some of those techniques also highlight the plot point-of-view vividly: dramatic irony, for instance, can jump outside the character's point of view (us seeing the clock that Cinderalla doesn't) or can rely on the character's restricted point of view, compared to the reader's knowledge (her relaxing when it's only 11, not knowing the story because she's in it). And plot plan explicitly centers their point of view as protagonist.

These hooky lines to start and end also build the skills we need for beginnings of stories: ways to draw the reader in, before they know what the story's all about or what's going to happen.

These four are the middle four elements we explore in the Story Elements course, starting at the end of April / start of May, as live online classes OR in person in Oxford, your choice. Read more about the course and heaps of reviews, and book your place here. Bookings close on 23 April, just ten days' time.

I'll be posting another Writing Skill next week, so if you want it delivered to your inbox, you can also subscribe to the mailing list below / on the side of this post.

Writing Skill: The Pretence


Cross Purposes

In the run-up to the Story Elements course, I'm posting a trio of Writing Skills, one a week, to get you exploring the different ingredients that go into story creation: premisecharactersplacetimeplot layeringtension & stakesplot point of viewbeginningsthemes & symbolssubplotsdetail & dialogueendings.

This week's Writing Skill is THE PRETENCE, to play with the first four topics of the course: premise, characters, place, and time. You have two characters, each of whom is pretending to be something they're not. They might be pretending they have a different job, status, class, nationality... whatever you fancy. I suggest you choose a different type of thing for each character. And both characters are trying to impress the other. For example, the CEO of a big finance company is pretending to be the janitor, to seem more practical and down to earth, and the new hire is pretending to be French, for reasons I haven't quite yet worked out, but which might emerge in the writing. NB: The reader already knows the truth about both characters, so we know they're lying, and we're giggling away and half eating our hands with the tension.

To start, spend a couple of minutes deciding what each is lying about, being reasonably specific. For example, if they're lying about their job, what's their actual job? What are they pretending is their job?

In choosing their lies, you'll also be generating the setting for the scene (the place and time). For example, with my CEO of a big finance company, I've immediately got a setting of the City of London, a towering glass building, a corporate environment, and I can keep that present day or jump back a bit in time. How about 2009, when bankers were deeply unpopular? That would give my CEO added motivation to hide their real identity!

You don't have to stick to your own lived timeline either: one of the characters could be a pyramid builder, lying about being the pharoah, or indeed the pharoah, lying about being a pyramid builder.

Once you've got your two characters through their lies, and the setting, spend the rest of the time (about 8 mins if you're doing a ten-minuter) writing their interaction. You can stick to dialogue mostly, throwing in action/description where it's relevant, as this is very much first-draft stuff. And play it for laughs!

Why this skill?

This Skill gives you a swift, nifty way in to the first four elements of stories: premise, characters, place, and time. I've given you the premise: two characters lying to each other. That's enough to start you off writing, and how you develop it is what will make it unique. Your characters are created through their lies: an unusual start to character development, but a fun one to loosen up your powers of invention, and it instantly creates character complexity. And those lies in turn give you your setting, your place and time, which immediately makes it easier to start writing and suggests new avenues of story and character possibility – such as my CEO's lie being in the context of the global economic crisis.

These four are the first four elements we explore in the Story Elements course, starting at the end of April / start of May, as live online classes OR in person in Oxford, your choice. Read more about the course and heaps of reviews, and book your place here. Bookings close 23 April.

I'll be posting more Writing Skills in the coming two weeks, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can also subscribe to the mailing list below / on the side of this post.

Spring Writing Food: Italian Frittata


  Spring Italian Frittata

Perfect writing food is quick (either to make or to double up another day's cooking) so it doesn't steal your wriitng time, low-carb so your writing time isn't sabotaged by sleepiness, and as much a treat as writing itself. 

In spring, I start hankering for fresher food than winter's roots, stews, soups and braised veg, but with a nip in the air, I still want something hot. Italian frittata fits the bill perfectly: flash-fried fresh salad vegetables in an open omelette, topped with cheese. It's ready in 5–10 mins from start to finish, packed with freshness, and piping hot. And unlike its Spanish cousin, no pototoes! (I love potatoes, but boy do they make me sleepy.) It's also super-flexible for whatever fresh veg and cheese you have about, and whatever herbs, chillies, or spices you fancy adding.

I got a little shy about suggesting it: it's hardly avant-garde or innovative, and I thought of another much more glamous recipe instead... But this isn't a cookery school or a place for me to show off a new recipe I've nicked; it's easy ideas to make the most of your writing time. And actually, now that it is spring, this is what I'm throwing together almost every writing day. So here you go!

Spring Frittata recipe recipeScroll on for the recipe or download it as a PDF here

To use the PDF as a scrollable on your phone, download Adobe Acrobat Reader free from Google Play or the Apple Store. When you open your PDF in the Adobe Acrobat Reader app, tap the Liquid Mode icon at the top for easy scrolling.

Italian Frittata

Serving and times

Active time: 5–10 mins
Serves: 2 (easily halved or doubled and tasty served cold. I usually make enough for 2 and have it cold or quickly reheated later in the week.)

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs, whisked
  • 2 teaspoons butter / oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 handfuls of vegetables (see below)
  • grated/crumbled cheese of your choice

Suggested combinations

This is what “2 handfuls of vegetables ” roughly equates to, in actual veg, plus the cheese combinations I like. Any veg that you can also eat raw does perfectly: use what you have and what you fancy. (Each suggested combo is for its own frittata, serving two.)

  • 200g spinach (it looks like masses but quickly fries down to almost nothing), optional half-onion, lemon zest, topped with blue cheese
  • 1 red pepper, 1 courgette, 1 chilli, optional half-onion, topped with cheddar
  • 1 onion, 1 pepper, chilli flakes, topped with cheddar
  • 2 courgettes, optional half an onion, topped with goats cheese
  • 1/2 cup of peas and 50-100g mangetout or asparagus tips, topped with parmesan
  • Peas and fresh herbs, topped with feta.

You could also add meats: ham, chorizo fried slowly to render it, bacon bits, etc.

Method

  • Put the grill on to pre-heat.
  • Whisk your eggs and the salt together.*
  • In a pan on the stove, heat the butter / oil and add pepper / chilli / any spices you’re using.
  • Fry your vegetables – choose your temperature and timing accordingly. I gently wilt spinach on medium heat for 2 minutes, and sear peppers and courgette on high heat for 3–4 minutes.
  • When the vegetables are almost done, turn the heat down to medium-low.
  • Pour in your whisked egg, stir briefly to mix the egg and veg, shake the pan lightly to redistribute the egg, and return to the heat.
  • While it cooks, grate or crumble your cheese over the top.
  • After 2–3 minutes, when the bottom is cooked but the top is still wet. pop it under the grill for 1–2 minutes to cook the top and melt the cheese.
  • Slice in the pan and lift out with a spatula, to serve.

Notes

  • Leftovers: Any leftovers keep well in the fridge and make a lovely cold lunch.
  • Pan sizes for doubling or halving: The recipe scales easily, but remember to scale your pan size too. If the frittata’s too thin, it won’t hold together; too thick, it’ll struggle to cook through. These are the approx pan sizes I use:
    2 eggs: 20cm pan
    4–6 eggs: 24cm pan
    6–8 eggs: 30cm pan
  • Wet vegetables: If you use  mushrooms, tomatoes, or other vegetables that hold a lot of water, fry them for longer first so they release any water and it boils off before you add the eggs. For courgettes, I sear them hot rather than let them release all their water.
  • Herbs: If you want to use any soft-leaved herbs (basil, mint, tarragon, coriander, chives, etc) chop them finely and mix them with the raw egg.

Recipe credits: Italians, generally, and Megan

* Salt in the eggs? Really? Yes: Serious Eats says so!

And if it suddenly starts snowing...

Then you might want some Winter Writing Food: Bhakti Dahl Soup, a warming, bright and fragrant lentil soup, lively with ginger and chilli.

Happy eating and happy writing!

Writing Skill: Prove It's You


Prove It's You

To launch the online GETTING ROMANTIC workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to get your pen moving and inspire you with the story possibilities of a soupçon of romance. The workshop explores writing both new and established love, so last week's Deluded Diary played with new love, and this week we're diving into the riches of established love: Prove It's You.

For this, you need two characters who're already in a romantic relationship, whether that's months, years, or decades. You can pick two characters from your work in progress, if you have one and it has suitable characters. Otherwise, you can whisk two characters into existence with this very handy generator.

One of the characters is going to send the other a message – maybe a text from an unknown number, or an email from a new address, or a physical letter, or through a messenger, whatever suits your story or your preferences for setting and time period. But they need to prove it's them who's sending the message. That it's not a scam, a trick, a sinister ploy, etc.

So what can they say in the message, as something only the two of them would know? That someone else couldn't take a chance on making up and getting right? For example...

    “He said it’s safe to come down. And that he’s alright. And he said to tell you…” The voice sounded puzzled. “Sardines and beans?”
    She gulped. He was alive. By the seas, he was alive.

If you're using a work in progress, you can brainstorm ideas from your existing writing. Flip back through it, if you need to refresh your memory: what are the moments that are pivotal and unique to them? What unique details are in those moments? What in-jokes would only they understand? What memories would both treasure? Try to find at least five options. Don't worry if you can't find much, though: this is also an opportunity to invent it, and dramatically enrich their relationship, so if you don't have enough, skip instead to inventing it from scratch.

If you're inventing from scratch, think of your own close relationships – not necessarily romantic; it could be siblings, friends, or any longstanding warm relationship. Think of how many in-jokes and shared memories you have. Food, places, repeated sayings, specific sights; moments that were terrifying, surprising, dreadful, hilarious, dreadful but hilarious in retrospect... And look for the unique details within those. Picking thorns out of someone's head. A blow-up sofa. Saying "It's a little bit nice" and falling about laughing. Gargling a song. That's the kind of wealth you want for your characters.

To keep this a ten-minuter, spend five minutes brainstorming as many possible details as you can. You don't need the backstory here: just throw down phrases, places, sights, names of birds, anything at all. As you scribble, ideas for back stories for some of them might pop into your head. After that, for the next five minutes, pick 2–3 of the details you jotted down, whichever most appeal to you. What's the story behind that detail? What makes that such a treasured and pivotal moment between them?

Have fun, and relish the richness of discovery!

Why this Skill?

The specific details of what only each other would know are the idiosyncracies that make a fictional relationship close and unique, rather than a generic Love Interest. A genuinely close relationship will always create its own rich history, filled with these sorts of details. Making the character prove it's them is a great test for whether the relationship's invented details are standard-issue (rose petals and champagne; a sunrise; a wedding day) or unique to them. And if the story doesn't have enough of that detail yet, this is a lovely way to invent it!

The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop is two half-days on on 24–25 February 2024: live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore how to create convincing romantic relationships in any genre, which matter to the plot and to the reader. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people. Click here for more details and to book. (NB: The workshop is limited to 16 places and is already over half full, so do book asap to get a spot.)

Getting Romantic: February workshop online

Writing Skill: Deluded Diary


Deluded Diary

To launch the online GETTING ROMANTIC workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to get your pen moving and inspire you with the story possibilities of a soupcon of romance.

The giggling trembling agonising bewilderment of new love is a riotous joy to remember and write, however lurchy and nauseating it may feel at the time when you've no idea how things will play out. It's also a brilliant way to delve deep into characters, because so much of that new love is about discovering the other person, and the fascinated attention to their every whim and habit. The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop explores the story possibilities of both new and established love, so the first of your two new skills is Deluded Diary: a delightful exercise playing with new love, character, and voice.

Your character is freshly, staggeringly 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. 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 fiercely. We can tell, though. It's blindingly gloriously obvious, from the diary, but your character genuinely has no idea. And while we're completely sympathetic to the passionate sincerity of their love, we've got one hand clasped across our mouth to suppress the giggles that they don't realise.

So that's what you're going to do: write their diary entry! Just one entry, if you like; more, if you get enraptured in it. Give yourself ten minutes, and then if you need to get about the rest of your day, you've dipped in enough to get a sense of it; if you want to keep scribbling away, do.

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 Skill?

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. 

The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop is two half-days on on 24–25 February 2024: live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore how to create convincing romantic relationships in any genre, which matter to the plot and to the reader. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people. Click here for more details and to book. (NB: The workshop is limited to 16 places and is already over half full, so do book asap to get a spot.) And to make sure you don't miss the next Writing Skill, sign up to the newsletter on the side / underneath this post.

Getting Romantic: February workshop online

A Poem for Every Moment

Colour wheel compiled of nature photos

For years, I waited for poems to come to me. I'd coax their arrival with long walks; I'd catch fragments and phrases, and wait patiently for them to build. When it came to writing stories and novels, I'd long since learnt not to wait for inspiration, but I firmly believed poems were different. They were mystical, magical, elusive. If I had an evening to myself, I'd make a Special Occasion of it: light candles, put on music, pull out my notebook and pen, and Await Poems. They often didn't arrive.

It's not that I didn't take my poetry as seriously as my fiction. I took it very seriously. I spent hours editing my poems; I faithfully entered and re-entered the few I had to competitions; I attended poetry events; I painstakingly assembled a chapbook and submitted it to a few publishers; I got a paid critique from a very experienced and kind poet.

I wish I could say my poems were better for that near-religious respect and all that work, but they weren't. They were stiff and stilted. Their imagery, so painstakingly sought, was dull. While my fiction leapt from strength to strength, my poetry languished behind.

In retrospect, I was like a lonely person hungering for company while keeping myself locked indoors away from people, never so much as picking up my phone. I genuinely didn't know that I could step out, in every weather, to go and meet some poems. 

Then one year I tried the April Poem-a-Day challenge. That was the year that everything changed. Every day, I wrote a poem, regardless, and it turned out all the poems were there, waiting for me, all along. Suddenly my stiff stilted over-worked little oeuvre was swept aside by this bright new tide of lively vivid poems, bursting with surprising imagery and unexpected thoughts. I learnt to stop Taking Poems Seriously and get to know them playfully, instead, trying out new forms with doggerel, seeing what happened if I set myself a particular challenge, letting the words themselves decide where things went. And my poems vaulted in quality.

I continued writing a poem a day for 32 months. Rather than poems being tremulous fragile things that I had to create the perfect moment for, I discovered types of poems for every possible moment. Whatever I wanted to do, there was a poem for that. So here, for whatever moment you're in, is a poem that's waiting for you.

Colour wheel compiled of nature photos

Are you in love? If it’s yearning and secret, try a tanka or katauta. To go more in depth, a sonnet of any kind. (There are many kinds beyond the Shakespearean sonnet.) If it’s obsessive, lustful, or tantalising, the drumming repetitions of villanelles, pantoums, and triolets await. If it’s joyful, go wild with the repetition in a roundelay.

If you’re grieving, haiku are there to hold the frozen moments. The ghazal is ready to be added to as long as you need it.

If you want to write a poem for someone else, try a chant, a charm, an ode, or a shape poem. If you want to write about a place, a haibun, a pastoral, an Old English poem or a Pleiades all fit perfectly. If you want to tell a story, you want a ballad, a terza rima, or anything in anapest. If you’re in the mood for something funny, try common measure, Skeltonic verse, a rubliw, or monotetra – though monotetra’s also quite happy to turn creepy, if you want it to.

If you want to explore an idea that’s clearly outlined in your mind, try a list poem, a fold poem, a sonnet, a cinquain chain, or a quatern. If you just have the starting point of an idea and want to write to discover, see what you find out by writing an  Old English poem, a chain poem, a rondeau redoublΓ©, a golden shovel, a Pleiades, a terzanelle, a treochair – and if you really want to explore it in depth, a sestina.

If you have no idea what to write about or you’d rather rub chilli in your eyes than spend time with your thoughts right now, there are heaps of poems that will still let you write, which only need a word, a phrase, an artwork, or a short extract, none of which need be yours, to kick them off: ekphrasis, a coupling poem, a golden shovel, a Pleiades, an acrostic poem, a glosa, or a Venn poem.

If you’re determined to write a poem but you only have a few minutes, no problem. Dash off an elevenie, a haiku, a lai, a katauta, a nonet, a tanka, a lune, a rubliw, or a cinquain. If you want to spend hours on an absurd poetic challenge, try an acrostic wreathed sestina. (I've only written one. It nearly broke my brain.) And if you just want to write a poem about drinking wine in the evening, there’s even one for that: an anacreontic!

You don’t need to know any of these types of poems, yet. Before I started the poem-a-day practice, I could probably have listed only sonnet, villanelle, and haiku, off the top of my head. You meet them by writing them. You don’t have to wait for them: they’re there, waiting for you.

If you want to explore heaps of types of poems, in friendly supportive company, the Meddling with Poetry course is running this Feb – March, with both online and in-person options, and bookings close on 31 January. Each of the eight weekly sessions is themed around a type of poem to explore aspects of poetry: fresh language, musicality, and rhythm. Plus your bonus weekly booklets gradually assemble into a fantastic little poetry bible of 56 forms, complete with contemporary examples, which you can constantly dip back into. Find out more here.


Writerly Party Games


Writerly Party Games

Four nifty party games and after-dinner games for writers, bookworms, and word lovers, which need little to no prep, mostly suitable for a wide age range, and ranging from the playful to the deeply writerly to the very, very silly. Enjoy!

Passround Elevenies

Elevenie Elevenies are tiny poems of just eleven words in five lines, following an exact pattern:

Line 1: 1 word: a noun (a thing, place or person)
Line 2: 2 words: what it does
Line 3: 3 words: where it is
Line 4: 4 words: further explanation
Line 5: 1 word: a feeling about all this

This passround game uses their very exact structure to create consequences-style poems, from the uncannily meaningful to the gleefully absurd.

For example...

Parrots
hover, untidily
up down everywhere
They dream of jungles
terrified

You'll need...

πŸ“œ PAPER: Strips of paper big enough for five lines of text (max four words per line) and space to fold. (A4 cut into four strips widthways is perfect)
πŸ–Š️ PENS for each person.

How to Play

  • Give each person a slip of paper. 
  • Put one person in charge of reading out the instructions for each line
  • Each write a first line, then fold and pass on. 
  • Each write a second line, then fold and pass on – and so on till the end. 
  • Unfold the finished poems and each read one aloud. Feel free to do Special Poetry Voices and Dramatic Declaiming! 

πŸ‘‘ Everyone wins, and what you win is a poem!

Ex Libris

Elevenie This is one for the real bookworms. In a nutshell, by turns, one person reads out the back cover blurb of a novel, they write out the real first line while everyone else makes up a first line for it, and then the reader reads them all out and everyone tries to guess which is the real first line. (This is a homespun version of the game invented by Leslie Scott and designed by Sara Finch.)

You'll need...

πŸ“š BOOKS! Ideally, each person should bring 3+ books from their own shelves, so the host doesn't have the Home Shelf advantage – or if you're playing in a family, each person gets to choose 3+ books that they'll be The Reader for. (You can also use Kindle books, of course.)
πŸ“œ PAPER: Strips of paper big enough to hold one sentence. They should all be the same so you can't tell whose strip is being read out.
πŸ–Š️ PENS for each person.

How to Play

Take it in turns to be the reader for each round.

  • The reader reads out the back-cover blurb of a novel.
  • Everyone invents a first line for the novel, and writes it on a slip of paper. The reader writes out the real first line on a strip of paper.
  • The reader reads out all the first lines, including the real one, and everyone votes for the one they think is real. (Reader: make sure you can read everyone's handwriting, so you don't stumble while you read them out!)
  • You get 1 point if you vote for the real first line and 1 point for each person who votes for your first line.

Change reader for the next round, and keep playing for as long as you like, or until you reach an agreed score (eg 20), or until you run out of books. 

πŸ‘‘ The winner is whoever has the most points at the end

25 Letters

Elevenie In a nutshell, you each have a 5-by-5 grid which you want to make words in, and each person takes it in turn choosing a letter. The best bits are the YEEHA! when you manage to wrangle a word and the bewilderment of WHY ON EARTH someone wants a *J* and where on earth you can put it.

You'll need...

πŸ“œ PAPER, any kind big enough to draw a 5-by-5 grid on
πŸ–Š️ PENS for each person
πŸ•΅️ Some way to stop each other seeing your own grids – something to press on so you can write on your laps, or open books to stand up in front of your grid, or just jealously guard it from view with your other hand

How to Play

🏹 Your aim is to make 3, 4, or 5 letter words.

  • Each draw your own 5-by-5 grid on a piece of paper.
  • The first person chooses a letter. You each have to write it somewhere in your own grid; you can choose where.
  • The next person chooses a letter, and so on round, each person taking a turn, until all 25 squares are filled.
  • You get 3 points for a 3-letter word, 4 points for a 4-letter word, and 5 points for a 5-letter word. (If you have younger players, you can also have 2 points for a 2-letter word.)
  • Words can overlap (eg JIGIN can be both "jig" and "gin") but one word can't contain another (eg MIXER can't be "mix" and "mixer")

πŸ‘‘ The winner is whoever has the most points at the end

Answers and Questions

Elevenie Definitely one for the silly part of the evening! In a nutshell, players use their Mythical Mystical Telepathic Skills to divine the answers to questions that haven't been asked yet. The best bits are when answers uncannily match the questions – or are wildly off-piste. Also, finding a book of Answers years later and puzzling over this mysterious homemade I Ching type thing.

You'll need...

🀷  Nothing, or if you don't fully trust each other, πŸ–Š️πŸ“œ pens and paper

How to Play

  • The first person Thinks Of A Question, but doesn't say it out loud. This can be anything from "What shall I make for dinner?" to "What is the purpose of existence?" 
  • When you've Thought Of A Question, announce this to the group, but NOT the actual question: Telepathically Transmit The Question. You may wish to rub your temples and hum mystically to aid the process of Telepathic Transmission. 
  • When each person has Received The Question, and Divined Their Answer, they say they're ready. 
  • The Questioner announces their Question and each person tells them their Answer. 
  • The Questioner chooses the person with the best Answer, who then gets to ask the next Question

Trust Issues!

Sadly, the world of Spiritual Communication is full of ghastly charlatans who may use smoke and mirrors, or outright lies, so depending on how much you trust the group, you can adjust how to play:

😍  Maximum trust: All the Answerers genuinely will say their original Answer, no need for proof
🀨  Medium trust: All the Answerers have to write their answers down, so they can show it as proof. (Still, real mountebanks might have several answers written down. So...)
😈  Zero trust: All the Answerers have to write their Answers down and pass them over, and the Questioner announces the question before looking at any of the Answers.

We generally play on maximum trust, although one year my partner had a bunch of heartshaped notebooks left behind at the restaurant, so we used those. I found it years later and was utterly confounded by these strange notes I'd scrawled to myself! (And in case it's not abundantly clear, I don't believe in telepathic powers!)

Have a wonderful festive season, everyone!

Winter Writing Food: Bhakti dhal soup

"Carve out your writing time and defend it like an angel with a flaming sword," I say again and again. Most of us are carving out writing time from the crannies of an already busy life and the hacks for doing that are often simple, practical things. Like a shower after work, to reset your mind and reenergise you. Or having food already sorted, to win that extra time. In my personal life, I'm the queen of recipe sharing (I don't think my Facebook friends know I do anything besides cook) so I thought I'd share a recipe here, each season, of handy writing food. 

The perfect writing-food recipe has two criteria:

  • Time-saving: incredibly quick to make or very easy to make a double batch of and freeze for your writing time. That's carving out the time.
  • Low carb: I'm a big fan of carbs, but there's nothing like a sandwich to pole-axe my afternoon or evening's writing with yawns. Carbs = sleepy, so low carbs is defending the time.

And, it should go without saying, delicious: a treat to eat, just as writing time is a treat to have. Economical is also a major plus-point: if you can work less, you can write more. If you want to drop to a four-day week, to write more, you want perfect writing food that matches that.

With those criteria, absolutely brainstorm what's in your repertoire already: we start from where we are. That said, winter writing food can be a challenge. The writing-day salads I joyously chow down six months of the year have no place on a freezing misty day. Most gleeful wintery bulk-cooks are swimming in creamy carbs. And while I have a ton of low-carb bakes I make and freeze in heroic quantities, I figured the inaugural recipe should be a tad more accessible.

I'd been puzzling over this for two months. Then we got Covid, just as we'd run the freezer down in advance of Christmas cooking, and I went through my recipe list for "What can I make in five minutes, while feverish and swaying, which will sort us out for several days?" and returned to this absolute marvel:

Bhakti dahl soup

Bhakti Dahl Soup is a warming, bright and fragrant lentil soup, lively with ginger and chilli. It's reviving, nourishing, and incredibly quick to put on. As a bonus, it's vegan and gluten-free. (I'm an omnivore and gluten-enthusiast, but I'll make sure recipes I post here either suit everyone or are easily adaptable.) And it wins prizes for thriftiness.

Why it's quick: It uses hing, aka asafoetida, aka yellow powder, instead of onions and garlic, which cuts down on prep time. If you have a food-chopper, you can throw the ginger and chilli together into that, to speed it up still more. The only other prep is grating a courgette. The rest is frying spices, opening a tin of tomatoes, and pouring things into the pot. So with five minutes' prep, you've got a six-portion soup which freezes beautifully. It does need to simmer for 30-40 mins, but you can carry on writing while it does. If it's just for you, freeze the other 5 portions for future writing sessions: it freezes perfectly. And if you're feeding a household army, it's very easy to double the recipe, or even triple it if you have a big enough pot.

Bhakti dahl soup recipeScroll on for the recipe or download it as a PDF here

To use the PDF as a scrollable on your phone, download Adobe Acrobat Reader free from Google Play or the Apple Store. When you open your PDF in the Adobe Acrobat Reader app, tap the Liquid Mode icon at the top for easy scrolling. I've repeated quantities in the method, so you don't need to scroll back and forth while cooking.

Bhakti Dahl Soup

Serving and times

  • Active time: 5–10 mins
  • Simmering: 30–40 minutes
  • Makes: 5–6 portions

Ingredients

Spices

  • 1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds
  • 1–2 inches ginger, finely chopped / grated
  • 1–2 green chillis, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon hing (also called asafoetida or yellow powder)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

Other ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon ghee or oil
  • 1 courgette, grated
  • 1 teacup red lentils (170g)
  • 1 tin tomatoes
  • 5 teacups boiling water (1 litre)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Optional: to serve

  • Fresh coriander, if you have any and fancy it
  • Handful of spinach leaves stirred in and wilted just before serving
  • Generous dollop of yoghurt

Method

  • Grate 1 courgette and discard the top.
  • Chop / grate 1–2 inches ginger and 1–2 chillies.
  • Boil a litre of water in the kettle.
  • Heat 1 Tablespoon oil or ghee to medium-high in a good-sized pot.
  • Add the dry spices: 1 Tablespoon cumin seeds, 1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds.
  • As soon as the mustard seeds start to crackle like tiny popcorn (usually about 30 seconds), turn the heat to medium-low and add the wet spices: ginger and chilli.
  • Stir for 30 seconds or so till fragrant, then add the powdered spices: ½ teaspoon hing, 1 teaspoon turmeric.
  • Stir to mix well then add a teacup of red lentils (170g approx) and the grated courgette. Add the tin of tomatoes and 5 teacups (1 litre) of hot water. If the tomatoes are whole, use a potato masher to break them down.
  • Stir in a teaspoon salt.
  • Simmer for 30–40 minutes till the lentils are soft and mostly broken down.
  • Serve it as it is, or add whatever you fancy: a handful of fresh spinach stirred through to wilt down, a sprinkling of fresh coriander on top, a dollop of yogurt in it. Bliss out on the lively flavours and enjoy your writing!

Notes

  • Weights and measures: This recipe is very happy with approximation. I use an actual teacup instead of weighing / measuring, with a 1:5 ratio of lentils:water.
  • Ginger & chilli: Original recipe says 1 inch ginger, 1 chilli; I double both. (And I sometimes add more chillis, if they’re mild. I like heat.)
  • Storing ginger: When you buy it, cut off any very tough bits of skin, chop it into 1-inch lengths, and freeze it in a ziplock bag: you then always have fresh ginger to hand. To use it, I blitz it from frozen in my food chopper, along with the chilli. You can also grate it. I don’t bother peeling it.
  • Hing aka asafoetida aka yellow powder: If you don’t know it, Hare Krishna recipes use this in lieu of onion or garlic and you’ll smell why! You can find it in most Asian groceries (eg Tahmid Stores on Cowley Road), usually in a bright yellow container. It comes from the resin of giant fennel plants and is wonderfully pungent.
  • Freezing & portioning: Always cool food fast to freeze it, and freeze it in the portion sizes you need. I allow just under 300ml per person. To label it, I stick masking tape on the tupperware and write in Sharpie.

Recipe credits: The Higher Taste (Hare Krishna recipe book)

Enjoy! And if you make it and use Instagram or Facebook, do tag me: I'm always thrilled to see people making the recipes I've sent them.

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