Monthly Archives: January 2012

Write Better

Harry Shaw said “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton wrote “Books are not written–they’re rewritten.”

 Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and not always one of the easiest. It’s a challenge made easier by the assistance of beta readers, friends and writing groups. So I’ll start with a hurrah for all my beta readers, kind friends and writing group critics of the past, present and future. You make me a better writer. Thank you!

Like everyone, when I put writing out for comment, I await the response nervously. No-one wants to be criticised and of course we all love to be commended. But the truth is, enthusiastic applause is not terribly useful and, when consistent, is hard to believe. Which is why, when invited to comment, I have begun to curb my commendations and focus instead on what could be improved. As a writer, you are immersed in the scene – you see everything and you never have enough words to convey it all. So it is immeasurably useful to hear that your readers saw something different, missed a clue or picked up one you had left unintentionally.

So here is the elmowrites guide to writing a critique…

1. ALWAYS ALWAYS be honest. If you don’t like something, say so. You can word it kindly, of course, but if you don’t like something, say so.

2. Use a “good news sandwich”, if you can. Start and end on high notes. Ideally, one or both these high notes will be specific and directed, because it’s good to know what we’re doing right, so we don’t cut it out in the edit. “I like how you maintain a consistent character voice” or “You kick it off with a great opening line,” for example, are both more useful than “I loved it!”

3. For the filling of the sandwich, concentrate entirely on specifics, but don’t feel bad if these are mainly “negative”. Just try to be constructive where you can. For example, “I think second paragraph is a bit long-winded. You say she is hungry three times – we got it on the first time!” is better than “I got bored reading it.” Even if you can’t put a finger on why, the details of where you got bored will help the writer to hone the right section. The title of this post comes from when I crit’d a draft novel for my friend Drew. Occasionally, I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like a chunk, so I’d simply put “Write better” next to it. I do the same to my own work too!

4. Please avoid preaching! The writer has put a lot of time and effort into this piece and feels emotionally attached to it. They will appreciate your help, but at the end of the day it’s their writing. Only they stand or fall by it. So, in the end it’s their decision and they might have done whatever it is for a reason (bad grammar for an uneducated narrator, for example). Also, it’s just more demoralising to read “You can’t do this” than “I suggest you avoid this.”

5. Listen to the writer. If you’ve been asked to look at (or ignore) certain things, try to stick with it. Some writers, for example, hate to be picked up on typos. Personally, I don’t mind it, but others do. If the writer poses a specific question (like “I’m wondering whether to leave off the last line?”) try to address that question. But even then, feel free to give other thoughts, because you might have picked up on something the writer didn’t even realise was there. A few years ago, I gave a story to some friends to read. Every one of them hated the main character – I was stunned! But I’m glad they told me, because it’s something I could never have seen myself.

6. Most important, don’t be afraid to be negative. Criticism is what you’ve been asked for (directly or indirectly. All my blog posts, for example, are posted to invite criticism) and it’s the negative stuff that helps the writer grow.

And, for writers, the guide to receiving critiques…

Whoever they are, remember that each critic is just one person, giving their own opinion. Even if they are a world-renowned editor, you don’t have to agree. On the other hand, if a mass weight of readers tell you something, listen to them. Even if they were wrong, your writing allowed them to misunderstand, and that means you need to work on it.

Rudyard Kipling said it best: “trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…”


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Friday Fiction #10

Our great leader, Madison (, is back from her vacation, and provided today’s inspiration with the picture below. If you head over to her page, do look at the comments below her story – plenty of other writers’ links there, you might find one you love!

I love pictures of people – everyone in the scene has a story to tell – but today it was the camera’s viewpoint that seemed most interesting to me. I hope you enjoy, but as ever constructive comments are just as welcome as positive ones.

The station master looked up at me. “Need a hand there, Miss?”

It was the end of the line. Brian was already off down the platform, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket, head jerking from one side to the other, looking for Mum. But I couldn’t move.

On the other side of the platform, between some luggage carts and a coiled hosepipe, stood the boy. Unnoticed, or unseen? He had just the same expression on his face as he’d had that day. Accusatory more than frightened. I thought I’d gotten rid of him, left all that in Boulder.


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The Castle in the Woods

As promised in my previous post about Dana’s Dice (, here is a short story based on the picture posted there. I used each die in order and stuck with my initial impression of this beign a Famous Five-type tale. I hope you enjoy – i’d love to hear your thoughts, as ever.

Off to read other people’s stories now. If you want to add your own, do link to it in the comments here, or on the original post.

The Castle in the Woods

Lois bounded into her brothers’ room that morning with a look on her face that foretold adventure and excitement.

“Get up! Get up!” She dragged the covers off them both and wrestled briefly with John when he resisted. “I’ve got us a boat!”

Adrian sat up quickly. “Where?”

“Never mind where, get up, we can go to the castle at last.”

The children had been looking at the castle for days. It nestled in the woods across the narrow creek and they were convinced it must hold magic or mystery. Dad said they had been reading too many Famous Five books and refused to take them over there, but now they could go see for themselves.

Not wanting to be left behind, John pulled on his clothes and raced down the garden after his older siblings, calling to them to wait.

“Shut up!” said Adrian in a loud whisper. “If Dad catches us we’ll never get there.”

“Did you steal this boat?” John asked Lois as he climbed in.

“It was in the neighbour’s boathouse. He hasn’t used it since we got here, I’m sure he won’t miss it for a day!”

She pulled hard at the oars until they were free of the bank and then settled into a careful scull. The creek was narrow here and flowed quickly, but by aiming slightly upstream, she managed to manoeuvre their craft across and land a little south of the castle. They tied the boat to a tree and walked up the sand.

Suddenly, Adrian stopped, blocking his sister with an outstretched arm. “Look!”

They could see what he was pointing at. A single bare footprint in the sand. It seemed to have nothing around it, as if someone had hopped out of the trees and landed there, then disappeared. They searched around, but there were no other prints, so they pushed their way into the trees in the direction of the castle.

“That was weird,” said John after a while.

“Super weird,” Adrian agreed.

They stopped briefly to eat some sandwiches Lois had packed for them, then pushed their way through the thick trees, keeping the sound of the creek on their right as they travelled. After a long walk, the trees gave way to a crumbling stone wall, crawling with green tendrils of ivy.

“This is it!” said Lois in barely a whisper.

The boys came up on either side of her and felt the stonework until John let out a little yelp of surprise. “There’s a hole here!” he said when he could breathe again.

It was just wide enough for one of them to squeeze through at a time, and dark inside. The children looked at each other.

“You found it, John,” said Adrian, “You can go through first.”

But John had peered into the hole and he knew that you couldn’t see the other side. What if it was a dead end, or worse, full of spiders and earwigs and nasty things ready to chew off his arms and legs?

“Lois is the eldest,” Jon replied, trying to stop his teeth from chattering.

“I got the boat,” Lois replied, as if that let her off the hook.

Adrian sighed. “Good job I brought Mum’s decision die along,” he said.

The children had been making decisions with the decision die for as long as they could remember – who sat in the middle seat of the car, who got the first piece of cake – good or bad, the die decided their fate. He pulled it out of his pocket and threw it onto the ground. It teetered on a rock, then fell beside it with 1 showing clearly on the top.

John gulped, but didn’t wait to see Adrian pick the die up. Instead he put an arm into the hole and crept inside. There was a twist and then he was out of the wall and found himself in a small courtyard. Lying on the ground in front of him was an old man’s walking stick and towering above him, the castle they had seen from their cottage. Really, it was more of a fort than a full castle, just one round turret, standing tall in the tiny courtyard, and accompanied there by a small shack, which seemed to be much newer.

Lois and Adrian pushed through the hole in the wall, and joined him.

“Maybe that explains the single footprint,” said Adrian, pointing to the stick in John’s hand.

“A one legged-man!” gasped Lois.

They all knew it didn’t really explain the footprint at all, where had the one legged man gone? And why hadn’t he taken his stick? But it was a better explanation than they had had before.

 “Let’s go in the castle,” said Adrian. He pulled the torch from his backpack and headed for the door. The others were quick to follow.

The castle was as dilapidated as the surrounding wall. Flowers grew through the floorboards and streams of sunlight burst in where the walls had crumbled. But to the children it was a place of wonder and excitement. As they explored the castle, they forgot their initial nervousness, and ran up and down the stairs calling to each other and exploring each room in turn.

When they reached the very top, they burst out into the fresh air like conquering heroes. The bright sunshine was blinding and Lois, who was first through the door stopped suddenly enough for her brothers to collide with her as they emerged.

When their eyes grew accustomed to the light, they walked to the edge of the battlements. The view was spectacular – in two directions entirely blocked by the forest, but to the North they could see the creek snaking away from the island, and overhead, as they eyes grew accustomed to the daylight, the pastel light of a crescent moon against the blue summer sky.

But John was looking East, towards their holiday cottage with its green lawn sloping down to the bank. “Who is that talking to Dad?” he asked, shielding his eyes to see more clearly.

“I think it might be Mr Jennings,” said Lois slowly.

“Mr Jennings who owns the boathouse?” asked Adrian.

She nodded, “We are in so much trouble.”

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Play Time in Writerville

While recent posts might suggest ideas are easy to come by, it’s always fun to hear about new ways to exercise the writer-brain and this one really peaked my interest. I was sent this picture by my writer friend, Dana (his website is here: if you’re interested.)

He received the dice as a Christmas present – the challenge is to come up with a story featuring all these components. Now the first thing I thought when I saw this was “Famous Five”. Must be something to do with the flashlight and the moon and the castle, but I think mostly the footprint. You have my permission to psychologically assess me based on that impression – I wonder why I went for all the corner pieces first!

But I digress…

I feel 100 words won’t do either this challenge or the components of this story justice, so I’m planning to write something a little longer in resposne to this picture. I’ll post it when it’s done. If you would like to join me, feel free to post your own stories either in the comments below, or in your own blog with a link in the comments. I won’t be reading them until I’m done mine, but then I would love to see what other people saw in Dana’s Dice.


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More on Inspiration and Murderers

Less than a week after writing my previous post, “Where do you get your ideas?”, I was sitting in a juice bar waiting for my husband.So I picked up the book he’d been reading and started leafing through it. To my surprise, I came upon the author’s views on just this question – the writer’s top FAQ. It made me realise there was something else to say.

In the Preface to “What the Dog Saw” (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Malcolm Gladwell attempts to answer the question first of all by giving some specific examples of where his ideas came from, but then he summarises, “The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell.” He goes on to correct himself, calling this trick a challenge.

Gladwell is a reporter; he writes factual books and articles about interesting psychological and societal phenomena, but his remarks gave me pause. Because he is right in a way, but I wouldn’t call it a trick or a challenge, more a worldview. A way of looking at things. And maybe that is what makes me a writer of fiction.

Last week the Friday Fiction picture was an airport (you can see the picture, and my response at And yet only maybe 20% of the responses featured an airport. The rest spanned heaven and hell, ancient sailing ships and moderns cruise-liners, shopping malls, alien space craft… we couldn’t help it. We couldn’t just see the picture and think “There’s an airport concourse [full stop. no story there.]” any more than we could look at an acorn on the ground the week before and see nothing but an acorn. We all saw something else. Characters. Drama. A story.

So perhaps, as a fiction writer, when faced with the question “Where do you get your ideas?”, there is only one answer, “I’m a writer. It’s not a question of where I get them, it’s a matter of how I get rid of them.” And that, of course, is by turning them into stories.


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Flash Fiction #9

Thanks to Madison Woods who hosts this group and Susie Landau ( for standing in her stead today. If you go over to Susie’s blog you can check out all the other responses to her intriguing picture inspiration. Please feel free to leave comments and suggestions on mine. I found it hard this time but I’ve been thinking a lot about the Costa Concordia disaster and this is my homage to those who lost their lives. Focus in the press has been on the Captain and crew and the mistakes they made, but this is for the passengers and employees who knew and suspected nothing.


Some genius had decided the inside should look like a sailing ship. The steel pillars holding up the roof were decked with sails and each one had a crow’s nest half way up. Which would have been cute except that I didn’t need to be reminded we were at sea. Liam only persuaded me to come on the cruise because it would be nothing like sailing.

The sails were just for show. The ship was wide, solid and safe. This was going to be like staying in a classy hotel in Vegas – we just happened to be afloat. He promised.




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Where do you get your ideas? (or, Could you defend a murderer?)

Where do you get your ideas? This is one of those questions that comes up a lot as a writer. It’s as much my standard fodder now as “Could you defend a murderer?” was when I was a lawyer(1). In fact, probably more so.

Writers never ask it of each other. We occasionally read books about it, and we even occasionally swap ideas or steal each others’, but we don’t ask each other “How do you come up with these things?” Perhaps that’s because we know there’s no real answer. Or at least, if there is an answer, it’s hard to put into words. But I’m going to try my best to answer it anyway – if you’re a writer, feel free to send people here next time they ask you, or to leave comments about how you get your ideas. If you’re a reader, I hope this begins to answer your question.

1. Inspiration

The first stage of any idea for me is the inspiration. This can come from a variety of sources. On Fridays, I get a picture from Madison Woods’ excellent blog. For Bookers’ Seven, I was given themes, first lines, chracter names and a rough idea of the plot type. Sometimes I work with an interesting phrase, or an overheard snippet of conversation. Very occasionally, I start with a character or a setting. And once in a while, I have a dream which becomes the opening or closing scene.

In addition to all this, there is the technical way to seek inspiration. In books on plot, we are told that all plots start as what ifs. What if some young boys found a body in the woods? (Stephen King’s Stand By Me). What if a young wizard came to the royal court, believing he was destined to take care of the Prince when the King had banned magic? (BBC TV’s Merlin). What if two handsome strangers arrived in a village full of eligible young women? (Pride and Prejudice). I’m less convinced by this – I think it’s easy to reverse engineer a what if out of a story, but I’m not persuaded about how many writers sit down with a What if stuck in their craw.

2. Motivation

Possibly this should go first! Different writers have different underlying intentions in writing – for fun, for money, for company or for solitude, but a specific motivation can help too: a contest with a weird brief, an event like NaNoWriMo, or a deadline. Sometimes i just get hooked on a story in my head and have to write it down. there’s always an underlying motivation, there’s usually also a trigger.

3. Imagination

Inspiration, with a touch of Motivation, gives me the nugget. But that’s not enough of itself. If it were, everyone in the Friday Fiction group would write the same response to Madison’s pictures, and we definitely don’t.

This is the hard bit to explain. It’s about looking around the inspiration. If that’s a picture of an acorn lying on a rocky path, where is that path- in a forest or on a barren mountainside? In one case the acorn is perfectly natural and unremarkable, in the other it’s special, either a miracle or a clue to disturbance. Who is seeing this acorn? How were they feeling and what were they doing when they found it? A squirrel will see it as food, a depressed human might see it as hope of rebirth, someone in love might just think it’s pretty.

Sometimes I light upon a story straight away, sometimes I try a few different scenarios, often I just find a scenario that interests me and start writing, to see where it leads.

A bit of old-fashioned bloody-mindedness helps. I find the story comes easier if the acorn is not in a forest in the springtime, surrounded by other sprouting acorns, being found by someone walking the dog who saw it lying there unsprouted yesterday. Boring. Put it on a rocky mountainside in early winter and suddenly there has to be a story!

4. Perspiration

As tWhere do you get your ideas?hey say, there’s no substitute for hard work. Once the basic story idea is there, I run with it. It might twist and turn and come out differently from how I expected, but that’s fine by me. Or, I might know right from the start what the ending is going to be and keep dropping hints as I go. I enjoy it either way, because the first is like reading a story for the first time and the second is like sharing a secret.

The more I write, the more I feel able to pick up any challenge, any inspiration and turn it into a secret worth sharing or a story worth hearing. I hope you tend to agree!


(1) The answer to the lawyer question is equally long and complex. Luckily, I was a property lawyer, so I never had to wrestle with it in the flesh. It would make a good story though … Just ask John Grisham!


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Friday fiction #8.2

Apparently yesterday I set unfair expectations by promising Lindaura a dragon. So here, to set things right, is an alternative story, again inspired by Madison Woods’ excellent picture prompt.


It rattled briefly, then stopped. Lindaura watched breathlessly. No-one could say it was an acorn now, but she had lost the urge to prove them wrong – she would keep this secret for herself.

It rocked again: rapid, frantic movements as if desperate for air.

Linda reached out but daren’t touch it. Then she heard a sound like ice dropping into water and a crack appeared in the side.

Slowly, feeling its way through the shell, a yellow tendril appeared. It waved in the air like an antenna, then scraped at the ground, growing longer and redder with each passing second.


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Friday Fiction #8

Thanks again to Madison Woods for the picture inspiration for this story. I think you’ll see in the story the first thought which struck me about how it looked. I’d love to hear your comments – good and bad. Enjoy!

I tugged at my Protection Suit – I’d lost another stone and it swamped me. If we couldn’t surface soon, there wouldn’t be time before next winter and we wouldn’t survive another one underground.

It lay in the rocks, a single sprout poking out like the leg of a hatching dragon. To our children, an acorn sprouting was no less mystical, but to me it was hope. I wrestled my Protection Suit again. The first gasp of air caught my lungs like water. I choked on it, but I was still coughing two minutes later. And that meant I was alive.


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Platform Building

When I was at university, a keen theatre technician, I liked little more than lugging metrodeck (or in the older days, steeldeck) onto scaff legs and then crawling about underneath tightening the bolts that held it in place (known as “monkeying” because of the need to climb up and into the small spaces). My best friend and I were both equally keen on this job, our determination enabling us to lift heavy decking and our small bodies making us ideal monkeys.

Platform-building, in those days, was something I was good at.

But now, platform-building is a dark art to me. A lot of my friends read and (I hope) enjoy this blog, but I’m struggling to get it out to the wider world. I’ve started researching this topic online and if you’re looking closely you might spot a few changes in the coming weeks and months as I seek out new and wonderful ways to get more visitors and followers, but if you have any suggestions for things I could do (or do better) I’d LOVE to hear from you.

In the meantime, if you enjoy Elmowrites and you know anyone else who might share your interest, do pass on the link!

For now, I’m off to find an adjustable spanner (wrench to all you yankees!)


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