Monthly Archives: April 2013

Editing Update – April

April’s editing had the kind of shape to it that many of my projects do. I started strong, did nothing in the middle, then had a little spurt to get finished before the final deadline.

This month’s goals weren’t too ambitious. I wanted to get things all set up so that I could start the actual rewrites in May. I juggled my notes, made some plans and considered some options but most importantly, I created the word document entitled NEWPlan. It’s one of the most enlightening things I’ve ever done in my writing ‘career’.

I started with the scene by scene plan for the new version. For each scene, I created a page on the word document, headed with the one or two sentence description of that scene.

Then, opening up the latest version of the old draft, I cut and pasted each section into the right place in the word document. It’s a bit like a jigsaw where you find all the red pieces and put them vaguely in the bottom right hand corner of the board because you know they go there somewhere, even though you don’t yet know how they fit together.

The consequence is strangely pleasing. Although all of it will need hard-core editing (it’s now in the right order scenes-wise, but completely the wrong order for all the little details), it’s nice to have 80k of rough draft in the new document and only a few scenes which are still blank.

Next on the list is three months of solid rewriting, starting with a little stand-alone subplot which forms a sort of skeleton on which the rest of the story hangs.


1 Comment

Filed under Writing

Writing Without Teachers

Last week, I read Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.

writingwithoutteachersThe book contains two distinct parts – so distinct in fact, that I’m not persuaded they belong in the same book, but there we go. First, Elbow gives us his theory for how to write more (and ultimately better) through what he calls “freewriting”; then he sets out a model for teacherless writing classes.


The main point of this section is that many people don’t write at all, or don’t write enough, because they get too hung up on writing well. They are frightened to start and if they do start, they spend too long polishing as they go. The result is very little work, and all of it filtered through the unreliable editor of the writer’s instant reactions.

Elbow suggests that writers (and by writers, he is talking about anyone who writes for whatever purpose; his focus is actually business- and essay-writing, rather than fiction) should let the words just flow, keep writing even if they have nothing to write except “I don’t know what to write”. He points out that editing should come much later, and that by starting at all, we often reach a much more honest and smooth voice than if we had tried to plan everything before putting pen to paper.

It fits nicely with how I write as a fiction writer. I find that the writing I do when I just start is often the smoothest, whereas when I make a detailed plan there are jagged edges as I try to make what is coming out of my head fit into it. my Friday Fiction stories are usually like that – I see the picture and it prompts a first line in my head, I start writing that and see where it takes me. I genuinely do find that characters and scenes are sufficiently developed in my head that I only have to transcribe what I witness to have at least the bare bones of a story.

Even in a pre-planned piece, the nicest bits are often the tangents, and in editing Phoenix Fire, I’m definitely redefining many of my ideas about what the story is really about, based on the ways the writing developed from the original plan.

There’s always editing to do afterwards, of course, but Elbow and I agree that this should be a different stage.

Teacherless Writing Classes

His theory here is that a teacher can only tell you one person’s reaction to your writing and presents his opinions as indisputable facts, thereby doing you a disservice twice over. Whereas in his “teacherless writing classes” (most people would call this a “Writing Group”, I’m a member of two in person and two online, none of which follows the Elbow method), you get feedback from a variety of readers. Moreover, he suggests that such feedback be strictly limited to facts (more on that momentarily), presented as mere individual opinions, thereby giving them more value but less power.

How does this work?

Well, a teacher has a degree of authority. If a teacher tells us something is good or bad, we tend to believe them, although with writing, like any art form, so much is subjective that this teacher’s opinion is just that. By contrast, if we receive the opinions of a dozen other writers, we get a more diverse spread and a better idea of how the wider readership might react. So far, I agree.

But in addition, he says, this wider readership should not attempt to give value judgements or to suggest changes. It is the writer’s job, and his alone, to rewrite the piece. The readers should only present facts about the way they perceived a piece of writing. So, for example “This paragraph felt boring to me” rather than “You used too many adverbs here” or even “This paragraph felt boring to me, I suggest you look at removing some of the adverbs.” Elbow is of the opinions that we cannot, as readers, know why a piece effected us in a particular way and therefore shouldn’t muddy the waters by trying to guess.

To an extent, he’s right. We can’t know for certain why a piece bored us, but as a recipient of feedback, I ALWAYS appreciate the reader’s attempt to share not just his experience but what he thinks caused that experience. Of course, it must always be the writer’s prerogative to disagree with or ignore the feedback he receives, but I still think it’s valuable to get the most specific and constructive feedback possible.

If I am having a piece reviewed, it’s the third kind of feedback above that I find most useful. It gives me a sense of how my words affected the reader (felt boring) AND why they think that was (too many adverbs). If just one reader out of 12 says this, I might be inclined to think that individual was just having a bad day, has a bugbear about adverbs or just isn’t my target readership, but if more than a couple of others agree, I’m going to take it seriously, and consider whether the adverbs, AND anything else about that paragraph, could be improved.

I’d love to hear whether anyone has tried Elbow’s methods, and what you think about feedback in general. And, if I know you in person and you want to borrow the book, just let me know.


Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Friday Fiction (sort of) – The Colonel

As I haven’t had chance to respond to this week’s Friday Fiction picture, I thought I’d share with you a second one from last week. It was actually my first response to the photo and falls firmly into the “inspiration, not illustration” category. I liked it too much not to share it, but I also liked Janine.

I’d love to hear what you think.

The Colonel

“Glad to see you, son. Couldn’t stand another minute of that clap-trap. Stinks being the only one really alive around here. Sharp as sausages, that lot.”

Andy had a soft spot for the Colonel’s grumbling; it made a change from the cheerful repetitions of many of the residents.

“Takes a certain sort of chap to engage with a mind like mine. They haven’t a clue. Might as well be addressing a wall as some of them.”

Andy pushed a cushion further down the old man’s crumbling spine as he walked past. The Colonel carried on his monologue to the rosebush.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

Using your judgment

Another grammar point today, and this time a word with particular importance to me as a former lawyer: Judg(e)ment.

It’s another place those pesky Yankees* have messed with, but this blog is about British English, so use Judgement in all circumstances EXCEPT in the legal sense, where it is definitely Judgment.

The Judge used her best judgement when preparing her judgment

The Americans, being lazy*, never bother with a silent e when they have the opportunity to spell words wrong (wrongly?) and use “judgment” for all circumstances. I even found a “Writing Tips” website, which reads “I suppose it’s because I’m an American, but I can’t see any reason to keep the e before a consonant if it’s not needed to soften the g.”

Well, my friend, how about this for a reason: Because that’s how it’s spelt. You can’t just change the spelling of a word because you feel like it.


*Yes, Janet & others, I’m deliberately goading you – it’s a highlight of my week these days!


Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

Show and Tell

Anyone who has ever read anything about writing or editing knows that there are two universal truths: 1) Show everything, tell nothing, and 2) Avoid adverbs like the plague.

The problem in writing a novel, is that by definition you are telling a story. Television, picture books and comics literally SHOW much of the story, but in the printed word everything is telling. So really, rule 1 is a fallacy. There are, however, degrees of telling, and the purpose of this rule is to nudge us towards the show-y end of the spectrum. For example:

Sarah felt embarrassed

Is more tell-y than

Sarah blushed

Is more tell-y than

Sarah’s face filled with an unmistakable tint of red

All these examples say the same thing, and since none is accompanied by a picture, they all do it by telling us what happens. The difference is that the second two paint verbal pictures.

If you’re editing a draft, you can do worse than to search for the word “felt” and check around it. Emotions are generally easy to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. Although, “Sarah felt a prickling warmth in her cheeks” would be a decent way to deliver this sentence, because it’s using “felt” in a physical sense and not an emotional one.

Adverbs (and to some extent adjectives) are also often markers of telling, handily linking rule 2 in with rule 1. “He squeezed tightly through the hole”, the adverb tightly is arguably redundant because of squeezed, but it is also at the telling end of the spectrum. Instead, we could replace the sentence with something like

The skin on his arms grazed against the panelling; the hole was no wider than his shoulders.

Telling is often a shortcut. Showing almost always takes more words. As such, sometimes telling can be useful. “He slept soundly” could be replaced with “He lay in bed, unmoving, his breathing shallow and regular, his eyelids flickering only occasionally as a dream crossed his mind’s eye without disturbing his body’s rest”. But imagine if it was important for the reader to know that this continued for the whole night. I think most readers would vote to be told that, and not to have to read a minute-by-minute account of it.

However, if it’s not important for the reader to know the exact time period, it’s worth considering whether the reader could be left to infer that this state of affairs continued until the next scene, where we see the character awake and alert the following morning.


Filed under Writing

Inspiration Monday – We know

This week’s InMon prompts were tough for me, plus I’ve got a huge to do list, so the writing was a bit rushed. I quite like it, but I’d have liked to have more time to polish and perhaps extend it. Let me know what you think!


Knowns and Unknowns

“We know what we know,” he began, in time-honoured tradition.

“Dad, if you’re going to give me the Donald Rumsfeld treatment, can we just take it as read?” I wasn’t even sure how we’d come to be discussing my love life in the first place. That’s the thing about long car journeys in my family, they somehow turn into confessionals, and then I’m trapped in a steel box with them both, trying not to scream.

“The Donald Rumsfeld treatment?” It was like he didn’t know he did it.

“Come on, Dad. You give us the same speech all the time: there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.” Sometimes it’s good to have a brother – someone who shares your unique understanding of your parents’ foibles.

“A known unknown, Jacob, is something we know we don’t know.”

He was going to do it. He was actually going to go ahead and give the speech anyway. I just couldn’t take it. “Dad. Stop. Please.”

“All I’m saying is that you only know part of the story. There are probably parts to it you don’t even know you’re unaware of.”

“I know, Dad. Look, can we change the subject?” I stared out at the sleet lashing down over the countryside and tried to think of something other than Peter Lassiter and all the things I knew and didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, about why he’d broken up with me. Fiona Acton was a known known. I wished right then that she wasn’t.

“Nice weather we’re having,” said Jacob as the car was slowed suddenly by a deep puddle. Sometimes it’s good to have a brother.


Filed under Inspiration Monday, Writing

Friday Fiction – Washed Up

This week’s Friday fictioneers picture comes from Janet Webb. As usual, our cruise is piloted by Rochelle.

Next week, I won’t be able to respond to the Friday Fictioneers prompt, but those who enjoy my writing will find a second story prompted by this week’s photo. I hope you’ll nip back to read it.

wasp-nestWashed Up

Washed up. That’s what he’d called them. Washed up.

Not shiny and clean. But like a body on a beach: the flotsam of life. That’s what her husband, Tom, had meant when she told him her plans. It’s too late to travel the world, Janine. We’re washed up.

Janine squeezed sand between her toes and watched the sun setting far out to sea. She took a sip on her pina colada and smiled.

If she was washed up, she was a pebble. Yes, buffeted by the waves, and the sand, and the journey, but only to make her more beautiful.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing

Who Are You Writing For?

To those authors who read endless guides on getting published, this is a question about audience, market share, and pitching, but to everyone, it is also a question of heart. Whenever I open a book, I stop at the almost blank page at the beginning – the one that says something simple like “For Amy”, cryptic like “For H.K.”, or effusive, like “To Mum, for all the times she picked me up before I fell”.


It’s not the same as the Acknowledgements at the back, although I usually read those too. This isn’t the place for colleagues, research assistants, or a long list of family and friends. It’s a moment of intimacy, even though reading those words tells the vast majority of the readership nothing at all.

I always pause there, but I can’t tell you why. Maybe it reminds me that there’s an author behind the words; that there is a true story hidden behind the fiction. Maybe it just appeals to the romantic within me. Perhaps it’s simply that I am addicted to reading (I’ll read anything – toothpaste tubes, adverts, ingredients lists … even contract small print!) and can’t turn the page without taking it in.

If I ever get a book properly published, I don’t know who I will dedicate it to. There are so many possibilities – people who have changed my life, or shaped my craft; those who matter the most to me on a wholly personal level; various people I have loved and lost; even the people I have never met who have somehow influenced that particular novel (Melanie’s story, for example, could be dedicated to other child carers like her).

Is this something that published authors think long and hard about, or do they go by gut instinct? Is it perhaps just another place where the muse stamps her authority or where a publisher makes suggestions? I don’t know, but I hope one day to find out.

Do you have plans for a dedication? Do you stop and read them, or is that just me?


Filed under Writing

Try and Understand

Here’s another of my favourite grammar bugbears for you.

The verb “to try” always goes with another verb – ie the action being tried. For example, Sebastian is trying to walk, I’m trying to get by on insufficient sleep and you’re trying to understand this post. Often, the verb will be implied, but it’s still there.

“Are you coming tonight?”

“I’m going to try” [In other words, I’m going to try to come]

Now, here’s the rule. See that verb attached to the trying verb? See how it always starts “to…”? Well, that there is the infinitive. You’ll remember him, and the fact that he can’t be split (except when he can).

Just to be clear, try itself isn’t always used in the infinitive. It matches the subject: I try, you try, he/she/it tries etc; and the tense: I tried, I am trying, I have tried, and so on.

But the thing that is being tried, that’s the infinitive form. Or a gerund (a noun made out of a verb, like “swimming”, “eating” etc). What it NEVER is, is some made up form of the verb called “AND + [Infinitive minus the TO part]”. A couple of examples:

“I try TO BE clear” not “I try AND BE clear”

“You’ll try TO UNDERSTAND?” not “You’ll try AND UNDERSTAND?”

There are times when the word “and” follows part of the verb to try, but they are occasions when the thing being tried is implied, and the word “and” is followed by something else, often a none-infinitive verb, something else being done by the trier. Like:

“Are you eating?” “I’m trying [to eat is implied] and juggling the phone and a baby”

“Did he win the race?” “He tried and beat his personal best”

In these posts, I try to give you a way to remember these rules. This one is pretty simple, if the verb after “try” is the thing being tried, use TO + Infinitive; if it’s not, the verb should be the same part of speech as “to try” is in. Or remember this sentence:

If I haven’t explained this well, it is not that I tried to fail, but that I tried and failed.

[Last bit amended to hopefully clarify, thanks to my old school pal Katie for the crit!]

1 Comment

Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

Friday Fiction – Whiskey Tales

You know what it’s like when you get an idea stuck in your head? And no matter how wrong it is, it just won’t go away? Obviously, if the idea is “rob a bank”, you’d do well not to exorcise it by exercising it, but I’m hoping the same isn’t true of story ideas, because that’s what happened to me with this week’s FF prompt. For those with the time / patience, I’ll explain more after the story, but for now I can only beg your understanding.

Thanks to Sandra Crook for providing the photo, and Rochelle Wisoff Fields for running the show. You can see lots of (less tenuous) other stories inspired by this photo by clicking on the little blue guy on Rochelle’s page.


Whiskey Tales

“You go places, you see things. Sometimes they ain’t good things. I saw a man kill his dog once.”

Alice only half listened. Whiskey Tales, her father called them: half true, half whiskey. The man called Ryder waved his arms as he described the dog murder. Dog-o-cide? she thought. Caninicide? She’d wanted to go to High School, where you learned that kind of thing. But instead she poured the whiskey half of the tales. Tails, she smiled.

Ryder flailed towards the empties gathered at one end of the bar. Her father noticed and pulled the tray to safety. “Easy, Ryder!”


* * *

Drafting Notes (or What’s that got to do with the picture?!)

It all started with an error. I looked at the picture and thought about the Easy Rider poster (blame my Saturday morning writing group, where one of the stories referred to it this week!). That led me down the path of the bad pun which forms the “punchline” in this story. It was only after I’d written it that I checked the poster and discovered that the niggling doubt at the back of my mind was right – the Easy Rider motorbikes were 2 wheelers. Anyway, the damage was done.

The second prompt for this story was my reaction to Sandra’s photo. She’s given us other pictures in the past and the first line of this story is a tribute to Sandra – she goes places, and she sees things. She’s also kind enough to take photos and let us use them as prompts.

Once I realised my mistake about the bikes, I was tempted to bin this story. However, I’ve developed a soft spot for Alice, so I can’t. She’s trapped in the world of her father’s bad jokes – they’re even rubbing off on her. She’s frustrated but not, I think, totally unhappy. I hope that both she and I can keep learning the lesson that happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.


Filed under Friday Fiction, Writing