Category Archives: Writing Tips

Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:


1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards – if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.

Subjectivity, James Wood and First World Problems

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.

Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.

Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.

reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).

It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough.  When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.

May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:

Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.

For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).

Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.

Make things happen.

There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.

Show it to friends who know about writing.

You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.

Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.

Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.

Encourage your editor to challenge you.

For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.

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Memory, Julian Barnes and how not to apologise

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

I do not believe in “guilty pleasures” when it comes to art of any kind – but I have one and he is Julian Barnes. The joyously unapologetic dwelling on every aspect of a fictional world, the brazen yet beautiful revisiting of images and phrases over and over again, and the sheer quantity of introspection make a list of everything most writers will never get away with. Literary fiction has the time and space to analyse, to dive the psychological depths, but Barnes manages to survive with fewer oxygen breaks than most. He does exquisitely what almost anyone else would make incomprehensible and/or embarrassing. It is like reading the tide, coming in to the same places and images over and over again yet never repeating exactly, always giving a new and slightly different picture.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.” p1

The Only Story is about memory, so this revisiting is subject as well as form. The book is divided into three sections, and with them three points of view, over the course of the narrator’s life. The “I” of part one is Paul. At nineteen years old, Paul is young enough to feel he knows everything he needs or will need to, and self-centred in all the best and worst ways. He has absolute faith that his relationship with an unhappily married woman twice his age is all the more true and secure for flying in the face of social convention, and for the loveless and abusive marriage it is helping Susan to escape. The second section is narrated in second person. “I” has become “you” as Paul explores the launch and crash of his adult life, much of which is spent trying to deny and support Susan and her decline into alcoholism, age and the guilt or self-hatred that keeps her ties to the violent ex-husband she never wanted to be with in the first place. In part three, “you” has given way to “he” as time brings the self-acknowledged false-clarity of hindsight and Paul revisits his choices and Susan’s words from a greater distance.

“But here’s the first problem. If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?” p1

However we choose to answer, The Only Story is a great how-to and how-not-to guide for writing and for life. I truly wished I could throw this book back through time at myself – as is always the way of hindsight – thinking that if I knew what happened when you didn’t leave an unhealthy relationship before it had taken most of you with it, that you wouldn’t make that mistake. But the truth Paul comes to is we will make our mistakes anyway, in our well-meaning arrogance. And we rewrite, and reanalyse, all the way from intentions to results. The stories we tell ourselves are rarely if ever entirely without truth, yet none are quite true.

March writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Julian Barnes

Free Ranting

One of the reasons Julian Barnes’ introspection is greater literature than many of ours will be is the lack of apology I mentioned.

Free Ranting is an exercise I led at Green Ink Writers’ Gym recently when a member of the group had been through something difficult just before the session. I challenged the students to cover the page with everything that had made them feel strongly that week, particularly in what we might consider a negative way. I asked them to let themselves go with the anger, or resentment, or sadness, or frustration, and not to stop the pen moving for five minutes. It’s a “free writing” warm-up (I hate that phrase. Freeing your voice is what all writing is about) with an extra dollop of honesty, and the less you think about it as literature the more articulate, passionate and individual it will be. Which is, of course, a big step closer to literature.

The student in question struggles with dependency on stock phrases (clichés). As soon as the emotional training-wheels were removed by this exercise, all her phrases were individual, full of the voice, information and passions that made her who she is internally.

The lack of apology or editing that happens when the mind is passionately involved is your goal. Aim for that: the conviction to mean what you are saying. Make it till you can fake it, then share it with your characters.

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Friendship, Suffragettes and Sally Nicholls

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Things A Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls (published February 2018)

Sally Nicholls began her career in YA fiction with a novel about living with terminal cancer. The emphasis for eleven-year-old Sam was on the living, not the dying. Sam loved lists and facts but found adults shrank from sharing them with him about the subject he had the most right to understand: his own life. From English mythology to bullying, adoption and death, Nicholls’ subjects continue to reveal how adults can fear and fight against what they don’t take the trouble to understand.  The misconception that Young Adult fiction or Children’s Fiction cuts emotional corners isn’t worth dwelling on, but the publication on 1 February 2018 of Things A Bright Girl Can Do is a particular opportunity for gratitude and joy that we are living in age where lesbian eroticism underpins a YA novel about the Suffragette movement and the First World War.

Evelyn, May and Nell are three young women living at a time when growing up means fighting the German army, the English politicians, their families and eventually themselves for freedom on every level. As always, Nicholls shows sweetly, concisely, with a kind and bittersweet (yet never bitter) irony, exactly how unpleasant and unjust the world can be. She also makes you laugh, nod and learn. According to the reviews, this book is about three women in love, and that is absolutely true. But my favourite thing about her portrayal of love is the unromanticism. For Evelyn, whatever else Teddy may be – her fiancé, a soldier, an invalid, a husband – he was her best friend first.

Nicholls also handles the realisation that shouldn’t be a surprise yet always is: that getting what you want does not make everything else alright; in this case, that women getting the vote still means living with the everyday injustices you can’t fix; that you can’t always make the world the easier, kinder place you wish it could be for all those you love.

Friendship forms our identities in so much greater quantity than love affairs, yet can get overlooked as driving forces. My best friend when I started primary school was Katy. Apparently, the moment Katy knew she wanted to be friends with me was when our form teacher, Mrs Wilmott, told us we were about to do Maths. I said, “Oh no, not Maths!” and burst into tears. And Katy just knew.

I don’t remember the Maths incident. I do remember the sparkly rainbow wig Katy wore when she came to my house, the white moon and star drawings on her bedroom ceiling, the seagull puppet that you pulled a string on and watched it flap its wings. I remember her brown cuckoo clock and the magic of it striking on the hour. I remember how mind-blowingly exciting it was to be in a house where everything in the kitchen was safe to eat (my family was kosher, her family was vegetarian). I remember watching Labyrinth and The Neverending Story for the first time and being fascinated and terrified, not simply by what was happening in the film but by the creeping realisation that fiction was real and powerful in its own way. I remember playing Hide and Seek and hiding in the tiny the cupboard under my family’s stairs and my mum shutting the door; the sound of my fists and tears and how big a thing it all was for thirty seconds. I remember making pizza (my mum did most of it really) and wearing printer-paper chef’s hats (all our own work). I remember the words to the song Katy and I wrote about polystyrene (but I don’t remember my times tables).

Katy and I lost touch for several years before we found each other again over Facebook. In that time, we had both turned into five-foot ex-copywriters. We’re living in different cities now, both working on our first novels, both love horror and David Bowie. We both live in vegan households, with angry-looking cats.

Romantic relationships are one thing, but there are quieter influences with just as much mileage for fiction. That’s my earliest, but there are many others I could plot with a similar list of specific memories that informed my personality, choices and future.

February writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Sally Nicholls:

Plot a Friendship

The power dynamics, memories, passions and assumptions that underpin friendships are wonderful writing territory. Every friendship in your story is a window, so there are views in two directions: insight into the soul of the character (who they are) and out into the world (who they could or want to be).

Pick a character. Your main character who you know well, or the oddly memorable stranger you saw on the bus the other day and haven’t written anything about at all yet.

Build a Character:

  • Who is the friend your main character takes advice from?
  • Which friend do they like but somehow look down on?
  • Which friend makes them feel most like the self they want to be?
  • Which friend reminds them of the past?
  • Which friend do they need more than they like?
  • Who do they wish they were closer to?
  • Who do they wish would go away?
  • Why?

Structure a Plot:

  • Write the scene they met for the first time.
  • Write the scene where they argue for what is not the first time. What’s it about? Does it matter? Will they even remember it happened?
  • Write what they’d normally do together.
  • Write the most important thing they go through together.

A plot is the ladder-rungs, or spinal column of your story. A friendship underpins all kinds of new plots. Take one friendship, fill it out, and you’ll have any number of new offshoots for stories from the one you thought you were working on.

Example from this month’s author:
This one’s just been published, so no spoilers, bUT the example I’d pick above all others is when Evelyn prays to the God she didn’t believe in for the old friend she doesn’t know if she loves. In doing so, she learns more about the self she’s fighting for than at any other time in her story.

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Time, Death and Maggie O’Farrell

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I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell (published December 2017)

Confucius lives on the home screen of my iPhone. It’s a photo I took of the cardboard box my Sherlock Holmes candle came in a couple of Christmases ago. Confucius shares the screen – and the cardboard – with Plato and Chekhov (in word form, of course). ‘Choose a job you love,’ says Confucius, ‘and you will never work a day in your life’.

Today, though, I was sure I must be cheating.

Green Ink Writers’ Gym had just begun its Christmas break, LAMDA Exams tuition had finished for the term and as I moved into my holiday “office” (laptop, coffee, sofa) I was looking at one of the best “have to”s of my career. My deputy PhD supervisor had suggested that for the first part of my exegesis I reread every novel by Maggie O’Farrell. I would document why and what I loved about my favourite author, explore her influence on my writing and what I thought we (she and I, a comparison I barely dare type) derive from our shared family tree of gothic literature. I would reread her seven novels in order – just in time for the publication of her first autobiographical work, I Am, I Am, I Am: seventeen brushes with death.

I was introduced to Maggie O’Farrell’s books by my friend Jim Craddock. It was the early 2000s and Jim was Head of Workshop at the Questors Theatre. He’d begun that twenty-year career when he hit retirement age as a teacher and inspector of schools, so would have been pushing eighty when he photocopied the openings of a selection of his favourite novels for me to consider as I worked on my own beginnings. One of these was After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. The feeling was less akin to falling in love than falling in empathy. With an author, yes, but also with the world as I knew it. The clarity with which she inhabits time periods, keeping different eras of characters’ lives and generations of families while keeping the reader within a vivid timeline, brings you close to an individual and their personal and familial networks with the thoroughness of an encyclopaedia and the lightness of a feather.

I’d like to think Jim saw something in me beyond the shyness and the mentally and physically paralysing wish to please that have characterised the hardest times of my life. I’d like to think he saw a writer. I am sure, given that Jim was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, that it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t. Jim gave me confidence to see myself as a writer. The Green Ink Writers’ Gym slogan is Boost your confidence – and your word-count. Jim didn’t live to see me begin teaching at Waterstones Piccadilly or any of the venues that have since become home to the workshops, but he did live to see me get my first short story published and my first request for more from a literary agent. I’m glad I’d found enough voice in time to thank him for what he’d (possibly) seen and (certainly) done. One of the two other quotes keeping Confucius company on my iPhone is Plato’s ‘The beginning is the most important part of the work’.

For linear beings, we humans are never exclusively “now” any more than we are exclusively ourselves. We are networked in time and in voice with friends, family, teachers, colleagues, heroes and anti-heroes. Drafting the first version of my exegesis – and flicking to another Word doc or seven as my mind interrupts with new material or edits the old like the centrifuge I am – Jim is as present in my sofa-office as my own characters and Maggie O’Farrell’s. But so are less helpful influences, such as those to whom it was more important a sentence be correct in form than true in voice. At best they didn’t make clear to us the difference between technique (learn the toolkit) and interpretation (use it creatively); at worst they were training us for a literary world they wanted back, instead of opening us up to the undiscovered country. In my case, that teacher made me love and feel welcome in literature in the first place so I regret nothing, least of all the struggle to identify what rebellion was needed. The challenge is learning to take from the past what I want but leave what I do not. After all, it’s my past. For a short story or chapter to come to life, it needs to be secured framed in a present from which to remember and to project. Past and future are important but there must be no time like the present.

The third quote on my iPhone screen is Chekhov’s ‘You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.’ It’s as true on the page as off: every character is the product of every character and time that formed them. We are all networked, but we’re also all alone with ourselves and that’s who to trust to get truthful, individual developing characterisation. So dip into the past. Wallow, even. You never know what you’ll find. But remember the point of the journey back is the journey forward. What you’re really there for to propel your story towards an authentic future, shaped by your own voice.

January writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Maggie O’Farrell

1. Past/Present/Future: Self
Walk your character around somewhere very familiar to them (on paper, naturally). Perhaps pick a place you, their author, haven’t spent enough time in yet and could do with seeing more carefully (and hearing and smelling and touching and even tasting). It could be a current home, the local pub, a childhood haunt they loved or hated. Every room will have memories in it. You might find as soon as you start allowing yourself to write about the memories they overwhelm the piece. That’s fine, in fact it’s the whole point: a first draft is a playroom, a place of discovery.

2. Ladder Rungs
Now comes the structure. What is your character trying to do? Are they looking for something? Performing a task? Are the memories an obstacle to what they want or have they come here to see if the past where the answer lies? Shape a beginning and an ending for your chapter or story through their intention and the result. See how much exploration of memories can be supported by the current, linear time of the story. ‘Now’ is your story’s ladder rungs: keep checking in with ‘Now’ or your reader will fall through the spaces instead of floating happily from one rung to the next. Just make the past your story’s carrying so heavy you break the rung.

3. Painting the Ladder
Now zoom in on your character and their reactions to their environment (present) and memories (past). What do they see? How do they judge it? What does it remind them of? Are they wearing rose-tinted spectacles? Blinding themselves with hindsight? Wishing something was different? What are they going to do about it? No memory is neutral, or entirely reliable. What does their attitude to the past tell the reader about who they are in the present? Allow yourself to play with details and interpretations.

Example from this month’s author:
Check out this “ladder” example from Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel. It’s the first section called Gloucestershire. In the first edition it’s on page 41. The section begins “For Monica, it began with the cat.” I’m not going to comment on it, just wish you a happy journey. Do start at the beginning.

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