Ten Tips for Editing Your Writing

As I may have mentioned before, I’m involved with an activity group for ‘seniors’ in Stratford these days, called Sunny Side Up – I take the Creative Writing Group – and a couple of weeks ago we looked at ‘editing your work.’

It’s something that new writers don’t realise (I’m sure I was the same!) but those first words you jot down on a piece of paper are only the start, the first draft of something hopefully much better. First drafts are supposed to be a bit rubbish, maybe even embarrassing and, as someone famous once said (Hemingway?): ‘all writing is rewriting’.

So here are the tips I passed on for editing. Please let me know what works for you!

1. Put your work away in a drawer for as long as possible!

2. Read the whole piece (ALOUD is best) and ask yourself:

(i) Have I started in the right place?
(ii) Is there a ‘hook’ for the reader?
(iii) Can I chop off the first sentence or two, for a snappier start? (Often we ‘write ourselves in’ to a piece or put in an introduction when it’s not necessary).

3. Is the middle ‘saggy’? Is the meaning clear to the reader? Have you repeated yourself (with actual words or ideas?).

4. Check point-of-view. Have you ‘head hopped’ unintentionally?

5. Check the tense you’ve used. Does it change, inexplicably half way through?

6. Is the ending satisfying or does the piece just peter out? Could you end the piece sooner? Is there too much anti-climax?

7. If you’re writing fiction, are all the characters necessary? Check that their names are not too similar (very confusing for the reader!).

8. Do you need to ‘kill’ any ‘darlings’?

9. Next, ‘copy editing’ Is the writing the best it can be? No overuse of adjectives or adverbs, is the dialogue sparkling, have you avoided clichés?

10. Finally, proof-reading. Check spelling, grammar and punctuation. (and if there’s time, put it in a drawer again for a few more days…)

When to stop? When you’re happy with the piece and feel that you’ve got it to where it needs to be. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable! Just try to write the best piece of writing you can, at this time.

NEWSFLASH: The first one has sold out but there’s still room on the workshop I’m running at Evesham Festival of Words on Sunday 9th July 2.30 – 4.30 (‘Writing Short Stories for Women’s Magazines). To register please email info@eveshamfestivalofwords.org

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Do You Really Want to Be a Published Novelist?

Apparently, a major reason for not writing or finishing one’s novel, is FEAR.

Fear that you can’t do it, fear that it won’t be as good as you’ve imagined, fear that your mum will read the sex scenes, fear that people will think you’ve got ‘above yourself’, fear that’s it’s all been a complete waste of time (and you needn’t have given up Coronation Street), fear of success.. HOLD ON! ‘Fear of success’?

Funnily enough, last time I met up with my writing buddy, Sally, we talked about this (and got the giggles because it all sounded so silly). But what if you DO write an amazing first novel and you’re snapped up by an agent who sells it to a publisher for a rather respectable sum. What then?

I have to admit (even though I’m a long way from this ever happening..!) that it’s a rather scary thought. Because then, unless you’re going to be a ‘flash in the pan’ or a ‘one hit wonder’, you’d be expected to produce another amazing novel (chances are, if you get a book deal from a traditional publisher, it would be for more than one book). And what if you couldn’t do it? Pressure! And even if you did manage to write another one that wasn’t too awful, that’s it, you’re on the ‘novelist treadmill’, with your publisher wanting ‘more of the same’ and probably sooner than you’d really like.

I would really, really, love to hold in my hands (and stroke!) a physical book – a novel – that I’d written and was proud of.

But when I read the blogs of some published authors, it is a little bit off-putting…

Sam Tonge, for example, has just blogged about ‘The Five Unexpected Consequences of Getting Published’ and revealed not only that it’s ‘hard, hard, hard work’ but that she spends at least half of her working day on networking, social media and promotion. And no, she’s not self-published – that’s just what you’re expected to do these days!

Prolific writer Jane Holland (aka Victoria Lamb, Beth Good – and others!) blogged here about how sometimes ‘being a writer seems like the hardest thing in the world’.

While author Tim Lott says rather than a dream job, life as a writer is a ‘horror film’. Most novelists, he suggests, write because they’re driven to write but if he had the choice to be George Clooney instead – or a taxi driver – he would seriously contemplate it (although, to be fair, when he wrote that column, George Clooney hadn’t just had twin babies. He might not be so keen now!)

And then there’s the money. Forget the JK Rowlings of this world just for a minute. The average advance for a debut novelist is estimated to be less than £7,000. You’re going to have to write an awful lot of books or clinch a fabulous deal, to even think about giving up the day job.

What do you think? Too negative? Is writing full-time THE dream job or is it a case of:

Posted in Books, Novels | Tagged | 16 Comments

The Benefits of Keeping a Diary

I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 yesterday and there was an interesting item on ‘diaries’ (a subject close to my heart. I wrote about it once on the blog here).

If you’re interested in diaries, there’s an exhibition running at Somerset House in London until 7th July 2017: ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants’ and one of the curators of the exhibition – Dr Clare Brant – was a guest on Saturday’s programme (27 minutes in, if you want to listen to it).

It sounds fascinating. Might I humbly suggest the exhibition would be a great venue for an artist’s date? I’m sure you’d get some writerly inspiration.

Something that appealed to me which was mentioned in the programme: you can donate your old diary to The Great Diary Project (they currently have 8000 diaries) and you can even put a closure notice on it when you send it in, expressing how many years it must remain closed (30 years, if you like!)

“The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

I’ve got a pile of diaries, dating back to when I was ten or eleven. I might donate them…!

I wrote an article about keeping a diary – and how it could help your writing – for Writing magazine a few years ago and I’m reproducing it here.

Let me know if you keep a diary now, or if you did once. If you’ve still got all those diaries stacked up or hidden away in drawers, what are you going to with them…?

‘Dear Diary…’

Many of us kept diaries or journals in our youth but something (self-consciousness perhaps, or a perceived lack of time), makes us stop as we reach adulthood. But are there benefits for writers in keeping a diary and if you’ve stopped, is it perhaps time to start again?

Author Ben Hatch, who wrote a diary when he was 21 (and which ultimately turned into the bones of his first novel, The P45 Diaries), suggests that recording real events and conversations ‘helps to give you an ear for dialogue.’ He also believes that ‘over time the diary will naturally describe the outline of a story. Before you know it – you’ve got a book.’

You may not be convinced that your life’s interesting enough to turn into a novel – or that the quote attributed to Mae West, ‘Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.’ – applies to you but nonetheless, keeping a diary could still help your writing.

For a start, it’s habit-forming. We all know the writer’s mantra: ‘write every day’. If you keep a diary, you can tick that off your ‘to do list’ right away. Virginia Woolf observed that writing for no audience – writing just for the sake of writing – is great practice because ‘it loosens the ligaments’.

You can use your diary to record everyday events, anecdotes and snippets of dialogue that you might otherwise forget. You may find it reassuring, to look back at past worries and difficult situations and see how you got through them. You may find you can use them later in your writing. Over time, your diary could turn into a valuable research tool.

If you have a stack of diaries written, say, in the ’70s or ’80s, they’ll contain all kinds of details from those decades. If you wrote diaries as a teenager, they’ll be invaluable if you want to recall how it felt, in order to write from a teenager’s point of view. I once heard a great example of the ‘teenage mind’ on the radio. A woman phoned in to talk about re-reading her diary from one day in July 1969. She’d written in great detail about her clothes and make-up on that day, the friends she’d spoken to and – most of all – the boys she fancied and then, at the very end, she’d added a cursory, “And a man landed on the moon.”

Most of us who look back at our teenage diaries will laugh, cry and cringe but there’s no denying, they can be fun to read. I spent two hours recently going through all my diaries and they gave me several ideas for stories and articles – not least, this one.

It’s been proven that keeping a diary can make you happier. Some people find it therapeutic, to write down their thoughts and certainly, keeping a journal can help to process worries and get things into perspective. But collecting positive memories can also help us to appreciate them. By keeping a diary and building an archive of memories, you’re producing a bank of instant ‘happy moments’ to relive in the future. It’s a kind of literary mindfulness.

I once took my 1975 diary to a family gathering and read out random extracts. None of us could remember the day my dad locked the dog (and car keys) in his Ford Capri or when the neighbours’ hamster went walkabout but those anecdotes produced howls of laughter all those years later and yes, made us happy.

You can even use your diary to practice your writing. Instead of describing your feelings, write descriptions and observations; forbid yourself from using the verb ‘to be’ – it will make your writing more interesting – and try experimenting with form. Keep a diary for a week using sentences of no more than 10 words (or only allow yourself to write one sentence for each day); instead of writing in the usual first person, try writing in the third person; experiment with stream-of-consciousness, or write in an accent, in broken English or in baby language for a week. Make a list entry – just using nouns to describe the day. These short exercises will enhance your powers of description and observation.

Most people’s diaries are private but you may wish to write one to pass on to your family. There’s never been such an interest in genealogy and your ancestors may one day treasure your diaries, if you’re writing them with one eye to the future.

Whatever your reason, it’s never too late to start writing a diary again. You don’t even have to wait until January 1st!

First published in Writing magazine, 2015.

Posted in Artist's Dates, Events | Tagged | 14 Comments

The Story Behind The Story: ‘Dinosaurs’

I have a story called ‘Dinosaurs’ in the current issue of Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special (out until around 5th June, after which, July’s edition will hit the shelves). Isn’t that a lovely illustration they’ve put with it?

I got the initial idea when I drove past a farm which had a sign up outside: ‘Emu eggs for sale’. That, I decided, needed to go into a story. But that was as far as I got. I jotted it down in my notebook and there it sat, for several months, before the ‘partner idea’ came to me. (I usually need two ideas to make a story – I’ve probably told you that before).

Waitrose has a free weekly newspaper and it often has interesting and useful articles in it (other supermarkets – and newspapers – are available!). Back in March, they had a feature on a producer of quails’ eggs and that was it. As I read about the quirky little birds, who live in polytunnels and are ‘little princesses’ with lots of character, I got the idea for a poultry farmer and a girl who’s a reluctant rep’ for an animal feed company.

It took me a long time to write it and I had to do a bit of research on emus but the end result was a bit different, I like to think – at least, in terms of setting and subject matter – and perhaps that was what clinched the sale.

If you want to know why it’s called ‘dinosaurs’, you’ll have to buy the magazine and read it (or stand in WH Smiths and flick through, very quickly!).

Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special June 2017

And still on the subject of ‘wildlife’, we currently have 2 sets of bees nesting in our garden. Not sure if ‘nesting’ is the right word but the first lot – and they are tree bumblebees, we have worked out – are definitely nesting, because they’re in our (old, un-used and cobwebby) bird box.

Here are Bertie, Bella and Branwell Bee! Up to 500 bees can live in a bird box, so only another 497 to name.

I suspect we might have so many because, completely by chance, we have 2 of the top plants for bees in our garden – wisteria and cotoneaster – both currently in flower.

We also have buddleia, which is in their top 5 too but that won’t flower until later in the summer. If you look very closely at the photo, you can just see the gingery fronts of 3 of the bees. I had to get quite close to take that shot but according to Friends of the Earth, they are ‘very docile and will only sting you if you grab them in your hand’. Well, I’ll try not to put that to the test.

The second lot of bees are in the eaves of our garage and we can’t get quite near enough to decide what they are. Anyway, they’re a bumblebee of some kind too, which means, as they’re not honeybees, we won’t be getting any kind beekeeper to come and take them away to his/her hives. Hmm… I can feel a story idea taking shape…

Bees’ favourite: wisteria

Posted in Magazines, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Ditching The Distractions = Get More Writing Done!

You could say that I’ve taken my own advice to an extreme: on Monday I resigned from my ‘day job’ (part-time but increasingly filling the hours and headspace that I need for my writing) and I’m not actually recommending that you do that.

Work is a distraction, true, but a necessary one for most of us and I will be stepping onto the hamster wheel again at some point…!

But since Monday, the ‘Universe’ seems to be telling me that I might just have done the right thing, in taking a small ‘break’:

• The short story workshop that I’m running at Evesham Festival of Words sold out on Tuesday
• My ‘flash comp’ entry (an extract from a ‘longer work’ that I’m trying to write), was a runner-up in Tuesday’s Writer’s Forum
• On Wednesday I won the Tamworth Literary Festival short story competition
• Today I had a story accepted by Woman’s Weekly

Coincidence? Probably. But I’m telling myself it means something! (because we writers have to hang onto any encouraging signs, don’t we?)

And now, because you seem to like them.. here’s another of my previously-published articles on writing subjects. This one’s got some tips on making more time to be creative. (If you have any other ideas, do please leave them in the comments!)

Ditching The Distractions

As writers, the call of the ‘real world’ is difficult to ignore. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to procrastinate but often, not being able to ‘retreat’ – either mentally and physically – is a real barrier to writing.

Research has shown it can take up to 15 minutes to regain focus after a distraction, so how can we stay focussed and also find time and space to write?

Some distractions are unavoidable, so concentrate on controlling those that you can, for example:

* Use an answer phone
* Only check emails twice daily (or do what I try to do and resist checking emails or social media until 4pm. The idea of that being, that there’s still an hour or so of the ‘working day’ left, if you need to reply urgently to someone).
* Re-think those household tasks. If you worked in an office, you wouldn’t be able to mow the lawn in the middle of the day, so why waste your precious writing time? Whenever you have an overwhelming urge to complete another task when you ‘should’ be writing, ask yourself whether it really needs to be done, now? Writer Carole Matthews recognised when she was procrastinating and used to tie her leg to the desk, to prevent herself ‘wandering off to do the ironing’!

Novelist Zadie Smith famously disables the internet using Freedom© and SelfControl© – computer programmes specifically designed to help writers – when she’s at work.

Charles Dickens – like many of us – needed absolute quiet in order to write. In one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed in his study to block out noise.

Renovating your home is probably not practical but if you need silence to write, try using ear plugs – or even ear defenders. Many writers play music through headphones or listen to CDs of ‘white noise’ – such as crashing waves or falling rain.

If the view from your writing room window is too tempting, then you could follow Stephen King’s advice (in his seminal book ‘On Writing’) and turn your desk to face a blank wall, or adopt the technique of American novelist Jonathan Franzen: he wears a blindfold and relies on his ability to touch-type.

Most writers need solitude but if you find that difficult, then being with others who are also writing – whether ‘virtually’ or in reality – might help.

‘One day writing retreats’ are becoming more available. For a small fee you can leave housework, TV and other distractions behind and go to a centre for a few hours of uninterrupted writing. Most organisers encourage you to set goals in advance and provide refreshments and ‘time and space’ away from the real world.

Why not organise a ‘power hour’ with a writer friend or Facebook group? Agree on a start time and at the end of the hour, get in touch via Twitter or Facebook and compare achievements.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, allegedly asked his valet to hide his clothes and wrote in the nude, so he couldn’t go outside but many writers find it easier to leave the house, to write.

Novelist Clare Morrall has written most of her books away from home. “I write in a room in a friend’s house, and I like the sense of isolation that comes from leaving my home environment, shutting the door on everyday life.”

If you don’t mind some background noise, then there are plenty of coffee shops to choose from. But if you want that coffee shop ‘buzz’ without spending a fortune on lattes, the Coffitivity website will provide the same noise and you don’t even need to leave your desk.

Or what about writing in your local library? Warm, quiet (ish) and most of them have desks these days.

Friends and family, however well-meaning, can be a major distraction. They often don’t understand our need for peace and quiet.

Jane Austen knew all about the ‘casual interruptions’ of family life. She never lived alone or experienced any solitude in her daily life, yet she still managed to write and made the most of her family by reading out her work-in-progress to them in the evenings.

Perhaps that’s the answer: try to use your distractions to your benefit. Writer Wendy Clarke admits that she never gets any writing done when her husband’s home but he’s a great proof-reader, when she’s finished a story!

Other ways to ditch the distractions:

* Use a kitchen timer. Try setting it for 30 minutes or an hour and don’t do anything but write. When the bell goes off, allow yourself a short break, then set it again. Keep going until you’ve finished.
* Beware of telling friends when you’re at home ‘writing’. They’ll often interpret that to mean you’re ‘available’ (for lunch and coffee and stuff, which is lovely BUT…)
* Do one thing at a time. It’s been proven that multi-tasking doesn’t actually save time and it can cause stress!
* Try clearing your head through yoga, mindfulness, meditation or Morning Pages/journalling.
* Clutter is very distracting. Make sure you have a clear desk or room and space in which to write.
* Invest in a ‘do not disturb’ sign.

Based on an article originally published in Writing magazine in 2014

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | 16 Comments

May The Force Be With You

This was supposed to be written and posted yesterday but I’m afraid I didn’t manage it because I had to watch the BBC programme about stress last night, instead (go figure, as they say).

Who was it – Douglas Adams, I think – who said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by…”?

Anyway, I didn’t realise the significance of yesterday’s date until the afternoon, when I was walking the dog near Broadway Tower and an American tourist, camcorder held high, boomed (presumably for the benefit of the folks back home), “MAY THE FOURTH – BROADWAY TOWER!” It sounded like he was saying ‘May the force…’ and of course, all the Star Wars stuff I’d heard on the radio earlier, suddenly made sense.

It made me think (*slightly tenuous link alert*) about a writer’s ‘force’. I reckon it’s inspiration. Without that, we’re stuffed. And two recent experiences have been a source of inspiration for me:

Firstly, last week I went to several events at Stratford Literary Festival.

I’m lucky enough to have 4 great literary festivals (Stratford, Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden and Evesham) within half an hour’s drive. (I’ve only linked to the last two because the others are over for this year).

The first three are all held in April and May (practically back-to-back), so there just isn’t time to go to everything but last week I binged at Stratford and managed to see (amongst others), a poet and a novelist who are favourites of mine but whom I’ve never seen speak before – poet Simon Armitage and fabulous novelist, Tracy Chevalier.

Someone I once taught was very dismissive of literary festivals. When I encouraged my class to go to events, he said he put them in the same category as writing magazines – a waste of time, a form of procrastination, when he should have been writing! (erm, actually he didn’t do a huge amount of writing, but that’s beside the point..) but I find them the opposite. I find listening to authors or poets that I admire and being with other, like-minded people in the audience, buying books, taking time out from the everyday to indulge my passion for reading and writing, isn’t a waste of time at all: it’s rejuvenating and inspiring.

Listening to Simon Armitage read his poem about Poundland, for example, was liberating. Yes! I thought, it’s OK to use the everyday, the mundane, the humorous, in ‘serious’ poetry (his Poundland poem is actually based on a section in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, so it’s clever stuff).

Tracy Chevalier was great too. Remember my post about Margaret Atwood and her Tempest-based novel? Tracy has also been approached by the Hogarth Shakespeare Project and she chose Othello and has written a novel (‘New Boy’) based on the play. (I’m still waiting to be ‘approached’ by the way. They’d better hurry up or the only plays left to ‘re-imagine’ will be the odd ones that no-one else wants, like Timon of Athens or Pericles).

Her latest novel (she was only 6000 words ‘in’ last week and had been writing it on the train on her way to Stratford!), is set in Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s and you can read about it here.

So, in a nutshell, literary festivals = inspiration. There are soo many now, that there must be one local to you. Have a look on the website and see what you can find!

And my second recent source of inspiration? Someone who posted on Facebook, “Just surfacing. I’ve written 5000 words today!”

What do you think of that? There are lots of possible reactions but I found it inspiring. Wow! I thought.. then a little stab of doubt hit me – I NEVER write that much (in a week, never mind a day!). But then, a little voice said, ‘But could you?’ and then it turned into ‘You could!’ and I started to think how I might manage it, if I planned well in advance and had a day specifically set aside. I haven’t done it yet but the idea’s there.

I’ve been inspired.

What, or who inspires you? Do tell – it might help us all!

Posted in Books, Cotswolds, Events, Ideas, Novels, Plays, Poetry, Television, West Midlands | Tagged | 2 Comments

In Which I Confess to Two Misdemeanours

I belong to a poetry group (that’s not one of the misdemeanours, by the way).

We take it in turn to host the meeting in our homes, once a month, (just drinks and biccies to be provided) and I can heartily recommend it as a ‘model’ if you want to set up any kind of writers’ group.

The idea of ours is that we write a couple of poems and read them out at the meeting, for feedback from the others. There are usually 7 or 8 of us and there are some very good poets in the group (better than me but that’s no bad thing, because I learn from them!) and invariably, because I don’t find writing poetry easy, I am beavering away into the early hours or even on the morning of the meeting itself.

Last time, just before Easter, everyone came to my house. This wasn’t stressful at all.

The dog jumped up on the first lady to arrive and made her trousers dirty (eek!) and then, when I went to make her a coffee, to soothe her, the flippin’ Tassimo machine – which had been perfectly OK the day before – decided not to function. It was apparently telling me, with its flashing red lights, that it needed a new filter but I didn’t have time to find out how to do that, so I yanked out my trusty old coffee machine from the back of a cupboard and opened the bit where you put the coffee in – only to find the remnants of the last time we’d used it (January!) ie: mouldy coffee grounds, so I had to quickly wash it out, hoping no-one would notice a) the mould or b) my panic and all the while, other poets were arriving and I was trying to be a cool, calm hostess and get them drinks.

Luckily my friend Chris arrived and helped me. (She didn’t know about the mould. But she does now. Whoops – sorry, but you had tea, so you were safe).

Anyway, it was a bit of a mad start but it reflected the sort of week I’d been having. Namely, a strange one. But it had given me an idea for a poem and here it is:

The Near Miss

I come out of the supermarket
to find my car has disappeared.
Stolen! But who would want it, really?
A hundred thousand miles on the clock and paintwork
faded to pink.
Oh! There it is!
What is it doing there on the other side of the car park,
lined up, dead straight against the kerb?
I march over,
inspect it for bumps.
There are none.
Nor is there an irate driver with a damaged wing mirror
a flattened old lady on the ground
an injured dog or child…
Oh, God.
The car wash men ignore me
other shoppers’ vehicles cruise in and out.
Nothing happens.
I slip into the driver’s seat
pull the handbrake on,
Take it off again, start the engine.
All the way home my driving is steady,
my mind, racing.

Everyone laughed when I read it out and then realisation hit them. They popped their heads up to check their cars on the drive.

“Erm… so, did that really happen?”

I had to admit that (for the first – and hopefully, last – time in my life) I didn’t put the handbrake on when I went to the supermarket and my car, somehow, (it’s still a mystery to me), snaked its way slowly – and safely – across the car park and parked itself neatly against a metal barrier.

As I finished telling the sorry tale, my friend Chris looked at me. “I’m driving to Fishguard,” she said.

Which brings me on nicely to Writers Holiday in Fishguard, where we go every year and will, hopefully be there again this year (cars and handbrakes permitting).

If you’re looking for a writing holiday where the emphasis is just as much on the holiday (food, drink and general relaxation) as the writing – and you don’t mind a trek to Pembrokeshire – then this could be the one for you!

Have a look at the programme here (they call it a ‘conference’ but honestly, it’s much more informal than that). Famous people like Della Galton, Simon Whaley and Kate Walker are running courses (plus you can do poetry, painting or crime – that’s crime writing, not the real thing – amongst others) and because it’s not huge (unlike some other writing holidays, mentioning no names), Fishguard is much more personal and you’ll get more attention and chance to read out your work and ask questions.

Chris and I run the book quiz on the first night, which is a bit of an ‘ice breaker’ and I’ll also be running a few ‘after tea’ workshops (subjects still to be decided!). If you live within driving distance, you can attend as a day delegate for a reduced rate.

Let me know if you’re going to be there, so I can say hello!

Grazia First Chapter Writing Competition

And on a different note, here are details of the Grazia first chapter competition – submit by 5th May, free to enter and you could win £1000 and a trip to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Award night!

Puts me off rather that they want your date of birth AND a photo but them’s the rules, as they say, so it’s up to you if you want to give it a go…

Fishguard Bay Hotel. Richard Burton has stayed here (while filming Under Milkwood)

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Events, Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment