Short story woes – 7 types of not-really-a-story

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Shipwreck - avoid these short story disasters
The wreck of the American Star, Fuerteventura, 2006. I revisited a while back and it’s now completely disintegrated, like many of my short story attempts.

I am not a natural with the short story form. Time and again I start, only to find that my idea has fallen into one of the chasms listed below.  Once in, it’s very hard to get out.

The cure? Read successful short stories. I’m thinking magazine reads, 1500 or even 700 words long, where a character makes a decision and there’s a consequence.  Cosy murder mysteries make a great educational resource. So-called twist stories too. Watch for the setup, the comedy of errors in the middle, and the reveal.

I learn best by immersion in my chosen genre or form. I will be reading a lot of stories over the Yuletide months. Meanwhile here is what I watch for, as I try to come up with a short story which does not absolutely reek.

The story with no other people in it.

A single character wanders about, thinking. Sometimes for variety, he remembers things.  He interacts with nobody, but as a result of thinking, decides to do something different after the end of the story. Instead: give the character at least one other person to interact with and have him do something other than think.

The story where nothing happens

A character meets others, and talks, and perhaps travels from place to place. No decisions are made and nothing changes but at the end she realises something which she has known all along. Instead: force her to choose between two actions and meet the consequences of her choice.

The story that is really a poem

It’s so beautiful! But it’s just a  description.

The story which is really chapter one

There’s a great hook and a fantastically intriguing setup, but too many threads are started or teased at, and they can’t all be resolved in a short space. This is the start of a novel, not a complete short story. Instead: write a novel. Or pick one simple thread from the story and strip away the rest.

The story with too much explanation

The story’s over but there are still more words, explaining every tiny consequence of the story. What happened to each character is given in detail, spanning years, and every story thread is tied up so tightly it’s painful. Instead: let the reader infer some of the consequences.

The story with too many people in it

A cast of dozens crowds every paragraph with names and personal histories. Which one is the lead? Whose story is it?  In the final section, a new character is introduced and becomes important. But we’ve never seen them before, where did they spring from? Instead: focus on the characters who drive the action.

The story where the action is offstage

Two people meet and tell each other things which sound fantastically interesting, but the reader never gets to see them. It’s hearsay, after the event.

A twist on this is where characters discuss the plan to solve the problem, and then the story ends with them standing around the debris, congratulating themselves on how it all worked out. We never get to see the explosion! Instead: show the action, not the discussion.


I’ve been guilty of all of these story-fails. And it is a lot easier to spot what’s wrong, than to come up with something which is right. Why else would the internet be so packed with people promising to sell you a ‘template’ for a story? If ever I crack this, I’m going to create a template of my own, and retire to the Cotswolds. Meanwhile, I’ll keep learning.

One genre which is a good teacher of story elements is the murder mystery. I mean old-school murders, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, MC Beaton – what they now call cosy murder, in order to distinguish it from the other, modern style, which I might call unbelievably harrowing murder. Cosy murder focuses on the how and why, forming a puzzle.  This makes for a solid story format.

You need a crime, a good guy, and a bad guy, as a minimum. You need an ending, and you already know what that is – the mystery is solved and some kind of justice is found for the bad guy. There’s a huge amount of wiggle room within these simple requirements. Which is why I think my next story will be a murder mystery.

What are your short story bugbears? Do you find this form challenging? What do you look for in a gripping short story?

Let me know in the comments! -Sef


What to do when you’ve written a book – 11 editing steps

Reading Time: 4 minutes
editing with a fine quill pen
Grab your editing tools and start polishing your own first draft into something worth casting in bronze. A quill and poem, Bournemouth, England, August 2017.

How do you turn mush into gold? When you finish the first draft of a novel, you’re on a high. You did it, you put in the hours and you completed a book. Next thing – publication and worldwide acclaim. Right? Wrong. Next is poring over that book, finding its strengths and weaknesses, and making it into something you could possibly put in front of an agent or publisher. In other words, editing.

But how do you do that? Yes, you can hire an editor, but if you want to give them to best chance to focus then your draft will already be in the best shape you can make it. So that means a large amount of self-editing before you share with anyone.

What, then, does editing involve? Spellcheck? Grammar check…? Yes, and more. Here are some broad areas for your post-first-draft attention.

1. Make a scene list and number the individual scenes. Forget chapters for the moment, list your scenes. This gives you a manageable picture of your whole story. A scene list involves writing a line or two – no more – per scene. Highlight its main moment, how the plot moves on and any important setting.

2. Now think about tone. Look at your scene list again and in one word, note the tone of each scene. Gloomy, flirtatious, thrilling? It’s very hard to be consistent over a whole novel, and what starts out light and fluffy may veer into grimdark territory by chapter ten. Ahem. So if your book’s promise is a light-hearted romp through a fantastical landscape, check that what you’ve created delivers that.

3. Think about the must-have scenes. These are the scenes that must happen for the plot to work, the big or momentous scenes,  the ones you want the cinema audience to remember for months after they see the film. Where are they? Do you have everything your imaginary back-cover blurb  promises? Focus on those key scenes. This is another step that helps dodge overwhelm.

4. Consider the structure you want for your novel. This may have changed since you first started writing it. Get out your structure reference sources (I like the structure laid out by Save the Cat. I also like what James Scott Bell does with structure )  -and using your scene list, map your story onto the structure that best fits your genre. This exercise lets you see if your story performs a beautiful arc to a towering climax and perfect denouement… or if it arrows to a peak in chapter three and then meanders for the next two hundred pages. Try to pin your novel’s key moments to that of the structure you want it to have. Does it hit all the key points? What’s missing, what’s repeated unnecessarily, what’s over or underdone? For me this is the hardest part of editing, but it is necessary.

5. Consider character story arc. Now stop thinking about plot and think about character story arc. Now you know how the main plot points work out and fit together, how does that match up with your main character’s personal story? It’s no good him having an epiphany in chapter two and then following the plot for another eighteen chapters, fully developed. His epiphany must come at or close to the realisation of the main plot point; his disasters must coincide with the plot’s low points, his triumphs with its final resolution. Or at last, there must be a correlation between whats going on in his heart, and what he’s trying to achieve in the external world.

6. Check your facts. I prefer not to research in any detail before I start writing. I do a bit of googling to get broad facts right, but leave the detail for later. So now is the time to make sure you know when and where things happened – dates, places, names. If you refer to a train journey, check it’s possible and how long it takes. Maybe like me you write the work CHECK!!! in your manuscript for stuff you know you’ll need to look up later. later is now. Go!

7.Look at the book’s pace. Does the reader have time to breathe, to get to know characters, in between breathless action scenes? Does the story move forward at every point, with no redundant scenes of local colour and texture but no plot? Jack Reacher drinks a lot of coffee, allowing him and the reader to take stock. If gunfight followed gunfight, we’d never keep up. Editing specifically story for pace can fix that. Seek that balance between reader interest and reader overwhelm.

8. Listen to the dialogue. Find your characters’ speeches and make sure that each person sounds like herself, every time. Each of us has a distinct speech pattern and it should be obvious, even without tags, who is speaking. I reckon you could pick out Sherlock, Hermione and James T Kirk from their dialogue. Your characters need to be as distinctive.  Add idioms unique to each person, work on patches where everyone seems to sound the same.

9. Setting check. I’m guilty of under-describing things because I can see them just fine in my mind. This is not good enough. So I spend a lot of my editing time checking that events are not happening in a narrative blank space. Make sure the reader can tell where the action is happening – what it looks like, its atmosphere and weather/lighting. And the time of day. Also make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene,

10. Timescale check. Make sure it’s obvious when in the narrative this is happening – right after the last scene, some time later, or what? And make those settings work for your story. If they are a bit generic, make them specific. If they are a bit mundane, make them amazing. Not everywhere needs to be the Paris Opera House in a thunderstorm, but everywhere needs to feel like somewhere.

11. Theme. Make sure that the theme of the book is present throughout the story. You needn’t hit readers over the head with This Is About Friendship! every two minutes, but the motifs and set-pieces where the theme is explored, need to be there. Make sure it’s introduced early and tied up, or at least referred back to, at the end.

12. Spellcheck and grammar check. Now you can do the line edits, sentence structure, scene structure – starting with basic spelling and grammar checks. And check by eye, not by squiggly red line on the screen. Read each word slowly and individually. It amazes me that even after three final read-throughs on my weekly stories, someone (often me) always picks out a typo after the piece is shared in the workshop. Every time.

There are many other things you can do to tidy up the enormous pile of mush that is a first draft. But these few should keep you busy.

Let me know how you get on, or if you have any other tips you want to share. -Sef


The 100 day book – 10 lessons from this amazing challenge

Reading Time: 8 minutes
100 day book program
This writing challenge was hard work but so worth it. I wrote a complete first draft, with the 100 Day Book program. And now I’m shattered. Levens beach, in Fife, Scotland, September 2017

At the end of August I completed the 100 Day Book program from The Write Practice. From the middle of May, I had committed to a daily word count, and a weekly share of my work, and giving weekly feedback on the progress of other writers in the program. I had slogged and sweated and ignored the housework and at the end of 100 days I had a complete first draft of a fantasy novel.

This challenge is definitely not for everybody. You need to be prepared to work. There’s teaching and support in the program, but that doesn’t write the book for you. You have to put in the hours, every week, and share the results in the private 100 Day Book forum, without skipping a week.

It’s been unbelievably hard work, especially since like most people I have a family and a job. I can’t just swan off to a log cabin and bury myself in my art, tempting as that sounds.

So how do you do it? What does this program involve, and what have I learned from doing it that I would pass on to other writers?

1.Firstly, 100 days is not 100 days. Sure, it’s 100 elapsed days. And you have a word count goal to achieve in that time.  So many words per day, simple, right? But take out your calendar. Here’s that wedding you will be at all weekend. Here’s the go-live on a massive work project. Here are early mornings and evenings where you will be travelling in areas without signal. And in July the kids break up from school for six weeks. How are you going to write then?

Your task is to strike out all the days when you already know you won’t be writing. Divide your word count goal by the remaining days, not 100.

I got to July this year, with nearly six weeks to go, thinking this was easy. Then I realised that from mid July til the end of the challenge, I would not be able to write at lunchtimes or on Fridays – my two main opportunities to write. That meant I had to double my daily word count in the days I could write. Suddenly the task got a lot harder.

Lesson – count up your genuine writing days in advance. Divide your total word count by that number, not 100, to get the number of words you must write on writing days.

2. A writing community is an amazing gift. In the last four weeks of the programs I had a ton of catching up to do, and was posting 7000-10000 words a week in the 100 day book forum. And my readers were reading them – in amongst posting their own massive chunks of novel. I would have been happy for people to skim my posts just to give me a bit of encouragement and pick out a page or two to give feedback on. But they didn’t, they read the lot, they found plot holes and demanded to know what would happen next. So that was awesome, and helped keep me going.

Lesson – writing within a community of supportive, committed artists is a joy, and it keeps you going on days when the words will not come.

3. The 100 day Book program creates an addictive writing urge. When you stop having to write every day you really, really miss it. For three weeks since the challenge ended, I have been totally lost. The story  was over. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Last week I began creating my scene list, ready to do the structural edit which this book really needs. But even then, halfway through that task, I felt bereft.

I am now back on my 750 word a day general writing target. For now it doesn’t matter what I write* so long as I get back into that habit. So that’s a great takeaway from the 100 day book. It creates a writing habit, to the extent that afterwards you can’t not write. That’s pure gold, right there. Thanks, Write Practice!

(*It does matter what I write. My Type-A personality insists that I am writing towards a sequel or prequel or some other useful piece of work. Jotting down random thoughts does not count.)

Lesson: Writing intensively like this creates a lifelong habit which will fuel your productivity forever.

4. You can’t cheat on a creative promise. Sometimes you simply do not have time to go into the detail that you would give without an excruciating deadline. So you can add notes – ‘brief chapter here where hero explores the city and we see examples of the governor’s cruelty’ as placeholders ready for the second draft. But you can’t just go, ‘oh, here’s a bit where the plot is all solved, tada, I’ve written a book’.

I included a couple of places where I knew the scene I needed to write but had just run out of time. My readers in the 100 Day Book forum didn’t like that. They wanted to see words on the page. That was my promise. So be warned – to-do-later notes are fine, but your outline is not your 100-day-novel.

Lesson – don’t cheat your readers or yourself. You’ve promised to write a book, not a synopsis. Think – adding a load of Do It Later notes just gives you more to do in second draft.

5. The first week is really hard. Not because of the writing. That’s easy. You are the most energised at the start if a big project, brimming with ideas, raring to write the scenes which gleam in your mind’s eye. No, the hard part of the first week of the 100 day book program is having to create your book plan.

That’s right people, they make you do a plan. A synopsis of the story, but also a chapter by chapter book outline, plus identifying the book’s audience and creating a plan for marketing. For once in my plotting life, I had to know the ending before I started writing.

So that first week was a tough one for a lifelong pantser like me. But in the year since I started this blog and began exploring writing techniques, I have come to accept that planning can be useful, even if like me you prefer to do it in your head rather than on a  spreadsheet.

I had to tarnslate my instincts into a formal book plan. I always do know the kind of ending I want (big weather, dramatic scenery, the hero shouting his previously undeclared love across a ravine as the monster rears up to snatch him and the heroine away…) and I know the thing that kicks off the book – but I struggle with getting from A to B. Being forced to write the middle, ugh, the middle, was really helpful.

Lesson – knuckle down and make an outline, even if you hate it. Follow the program’s guidelines for doing this is you’re totally new to it. It works.

6. The synopsis and outline will help with querying later. This is great. Every week on the Write Practice forums I see questions from writers going through the process of submitting their work for publication. And everyone agrees that summarising your art for a potential commercial buyer is the hardest part. If you already have a premise, synopsis and outline, then you have a head start. It’s easier to hone something than to create it from scratch. I’ll be honing like crazy over the next few months.

Lesson – creating a premise is a long term gain.

7. Don’t miss that weekly deadline. I didn’t miss any of my 14 weeks, but if I had, there would have been consequences. In the case of the 100 Day Book program, this was a monetary consequence. You heard me right. You give them an amount of money for joining the program. At the end when you succeed, they give you a chunk of it back. But not if you miss deadlines. Now that’s motivation.

Also don’t miss the deadline because the weekly deadline is awesome. You feel a camaraderie with the others in the program, knowing that across time zones and beyond oceans, all over the world there are other people going, ‘Dammit, Friday already,’ and typing whilst stirring dinner or feeding the baby or sitting on the train. Then as the posts roll into the 100 Day Book forum, there’s that huge sense of relief. People head to the private Facebook page to give metaphorical air punches.

Lesson – deadlines are motivational as well as stressful. And sticking to them gets you cash (back) in the bank. Result.

8. Give feedback generously. Once Friday has passed, there’s a bit of a lull while everyone recovers. But before you start thinking about this week’s 7000 or so words, you need to carry out the final part of your weekly commitment: giving feedback on at least 3 posts from other writers.

In the general Write Practice forum, feedback tends to be critical, in the literal sense – designed to help writers improve and finesse. In the 100 day book program I found that feedback is necessarily a bit softer. After all, these are words typed at speed for the creation of a first draft. Critiquing at the sentence structure level may not be relevant, because the chances are, the writer has barely had the chance to read through what’s been written, never mind start scanning for tone, pace, and dangling modifiers. So I found that offering support and encouragement, and more general feedback -‘this part here was a bit confusing’, ‘this was exciting!’ – was more appropriate than line by line critique.

Also – you’re pressed for time. Even just letting the other person know you read their post,  supports them. ‘Great job, keep going, nearly the end.’ This is what we need to hear on a massive challenge like this. Because we already know it can’t be perfect, and it won’t be the thing of beauty that the publisher gets to see. It’s rough, and we’re awesome for creating, in such a short space of time.

Lesson – giving line edits is great, but giving feedback on any aspect of the work will be gratefully received by people toiling away and courageously sharing the raw output of their creativity.

9. It’s not just the writing, it’s the editing. My words come out rough. I write on my phone, mostly, and autocorrect plays havoc with every sentence. I know what I meant, but to another reader it’s nonsense. For example my phone replaces ‘that’ with ‘tyst’ every time, even though i have removed ‘tyst’ from the internal dictionary and it is not an actual word.

So as well as finding time to write, say 700-1500 words every day, I also needed to find time to read through and correct that week’s 7000-10000 words before posting it on Friday.

I guess I could have posted the original, to show I had done the writing, but it quickly became clear that everybody was turning in really crisp, clear, spellchecked first drafts. I kid you not. So I had to spend two to three hours a week, on top of writing, going through my horrendous mess of work and making it so another human could understand it.

Lesson – go back over that writing calendar and find more time than you originally thought you needed. There must be more housework you can not do, right?

10. Do it. Writing a book is a huge undertaking. I mean, you’re writing a full length book. Novellas do not count in this challenge. Everyone is writing something of 60,000 to 120,000 words long. These are sweeping stories with characters, plot and resolution, or memoirs covering long lives in carefully researched detail. This is not some fluffy ‘you can be creative yay’ type of program. It’s the real thing. Plan it, divide it into weekly chunks, do the work, follow the guidelines and you will turn in a completed first draft on day 100.

When you finish, you’ve done more than write a book. You’ve demonstrated to yourself that you are capable of completing a tough challenge – a technical challenge, an endurance challenge, a time management challenge, a creativity challenge. You can do it. Here’s the proof in the form of this manuscript. For me, that’s priceless. I’ve spoken to many lifelong writers who have the passion and the dream, but who lack confidence. This program gives you that confidence, that inner certainty that if you have an idea and a plan, you will be able to complete your creative dream.

Lesson: do it. Join the 100 day book program. Because at the end of it, you can no longer have any doubt. You’ve written a book. You are a writer.

And so:

I joined the 100 day book program on an impulse one Thursday night, with no book idea and no plan, and a dozen existing commitments in the next three months. I invented a plot on the Sunday and posted it in the forum when the synopsis and outline were due. Then I wrote to a regime for 100 days. And now I have a book, a book which before that first Sunday, I had not even dreamed of. Even better, it’s a book I like, and my readers loved the characters I created, and were invested in the plot, even in this rough early draft. In the world I created, there’s a load more mileage and my writer brain is already itching to start a  sequel.

If I hadn’t signed up, I would have written something, sure, some chapters here and there of various works in progress, some short stories… blog posts. But because I joined, I have instead written a whole book.

That’s what I call a  result.

The 100 Day Book program is run by The Write Practice, with training given by bestselling author Joe Bunting. Details on the program here.

By the way: I don’t work for the Write Practice, I’m not on commission to promote them or anything. I just think it’s a really great community and I recommend it to anyone committed to improving their writing and following their creative dream. You can find out more on their website.


Tired writing – tech and tips to beat writing fatigue

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Tired writing cures
Use these cures for tired writing and let your prose soar like the Angel of the North.  -Which is iron, and fixed to the ground – another reason for me to find better imagery.  Angel, by Antony Gormley.

I am tired. I’m halfway through a Book in 100 Days program from The Write Practice, writing 1000 fresh words every single day, plus editing a large chunk of those for readability in order to share with the 100DB group every Friday. On top of this, I have a regular writing commitment at Short Fiction Break – next story out this Wednesday – plus, you know, my full-time job. So I’m feeling the hit in my turn of phrase. My characters seem to do nothing but nod or blink; my settings are all silvery, my magic is constantly shimmering.  It all feels very ugh. But I have sought out some tools to help me (when I reach the second draft stage) seek out my tired brain’s repetitions, and correct them into fresh, dazzling prose.

Get the data on your words. The first tool I suggest for tired writing is SpookForge, which analyses your pasted text for repetition, number of unique words and average sentence length. Be warned – this is a massive time suck as you pore over the statistics of your work. At surface level, however, it’s great for spotting words you overuse.

Let a robot tell you if your prose is hard to read. Another old favourite is the Hemingway app, which analyses your ability to present crisp, concise prose. It highlights sentences it feels are difficult to read, points out your adverbs and also shows where you’ve used passive voice. Brilliant!

Find a word well and drink from it. Having identified words I overuse, I can then turn to I don’t use it to try to find fancy alternatives for perfectly good words. I mostly use this when a word is on the tip of my tongue and I can’t recall it. It’s also good for brainstorming magical names for things. Type in a word that isn’t quite right, and it will suggest a host of related words. Click one of those, and same again. Another rabbit-hole you might end up going down, but word rabbit-holes are rarely wasted.

Not all repetition is bad. Sometimes, repetition is the clearest way. If you are going to use a thesaurus to replace some of your overused words, be cautious, and avoid the pitfall of elegant variation. If it’s a car, it’s a car. You don’t need to refer to it next time as a vehicle, and the next time as a motorised transport device. It will sound as contrived as it is.

Imbibe someone else’s lovely words. By this I mean read. Put down the non-fiction research books you’ve been devouring in order to support your novel, and pick up fiction. I struggle with finding novels I enjoy, so will often turn to old favourites. Lately, however, I’ve found some new authors whose work keeps me interested, while their phrases seep slowly into my consciousness, enriching my vocabulary and gently giving me ideas. Edward Marston’s Elizabethan theatrical murder mysteries are great, and I’ve enjoyed some seafaring Hornblower from CS Forester, plus Belgravia from Julian Fellowes, he of Downton Abbey fame. These various diversions have propped me up, word-wise. I also try to read a  poem a day, for example at Here’s some guidance on reading usefully.

Write like the wind. One thing that I struggle with when tired is coming up with fresh imagery. I can draw the characters’ actions but I cannot describe what the situation is like. I need metaphor. Or simile. But nothing as easy as pie: that’s been done.

This is real writer-work. Really, I shouldn’t be attempting it when exhausted. But sketching a rough idea of what I’m trying to convey now, will help me pin it down in second draft. So I try to invent a new way of showing what I mean, whether it is the motion of waves on a beach (pawing at the shore? water dragging away, like a dog on a lead?) – even when I know my words are, as yet imperfect. Sometimes, just the act of forcing myself to invent as something as a something can inject life into writing. Here’s an article on the fine art of creating metaphors and similes. And here are a handy simile generator and a metaphor generator to poke your brain into action. I just got ‘her nose was like a farm‘. OK, I guess that gives me a start.

Review your descriptions. Check out my article on making description work overtime to provide character, tone and plot.

Those are my go-to ways for reviving tired writing. There’s a list of several more here. And why not try some of these online tools?

The Meaning Generator. This uses words and images – click each image to change it – to build a metaphorical statement.

Adverbless. Identifies adverbs in your prose.

And check out ThoughtCo for a ton of great articles on language, grammar and style.

Word Frequency counter.

I have a pet hate of half-hearted words like almost/barely/ nearly/hardly,  but I can’t find an existing resource about what they do to your writing and how to avoid them, so I’ll write one myself and link back to it when I’m done.

What tools and techniques do you use to keep your words fresh? Let me know in the comments!


What is your promise? The writer’s manifesto

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Write and share your manifesto
Post your manifesto – on your blog, or literally, using this fantastic hexagonal Victorian pillarbox in Shrewsbury.

I’ve been reading the inspirational and motivational Jeff Goins again lately. Boy, did I need to. I’d got totally off track doing the blogging challenge (because I cannot resist a challenge) and forgotten what my writing is really about. Jeff says you should write a manifesto stating your goals and promises.

At first,  I couldn’t work this out. My goal isn’t to help people write books (although I love doing that) or produce great blog content (though I like doing that too).

That’s when I twigged. No wonder I’ve been feeling so weird lately. I’ve been beavering away towards a thing which is not my goal. It’s helping me in various ways but not with my main thing, the thing I know I can promise people.

So, I thought, what is my promise? What can I guarantee to do, or try my hardest to deliver, every time?

My manifesto is not about helping people write books. This may be where my website is proving a distraction more than a useful tool. Good practice, but not achieving anything towards my goal.

I thought about it. And I wrote it down. And in less than five minutes I had a rough manifesto that matches with what I do and where I want to be. It was easy. I didn’t have to dig too deep to know this thing – after all, I’ve been thinking about it all my life. And it is a promise to myself, as much as to my readers.

Here it is:


  1. My manifesto is to write stories that make people feel good. That’s it. Easy to think up, easy to write down.
  2. I promise a happy ending every time. Not always totally happy – maybe there will be bittersweet sacrifice or poignant absence. But everyone you’ve been rooting for through the book will get their thing. Usually, that thing will be love, but it might be something more material like the object of their quest.
  3. I promise that my characters will be humorous. I can’t help it anyway.
  4. I promise that my stories will make readers go Oh, that’s so true when I make observations about life.
  5. I promise that my characters will be distinct and different from each other.
  6. I promise to make every book an easy read, the kind of book you save up for when you need escape, relaxation, a real treat. I promise not to create deliberately difficult work that you need to brace yourself for.
  7. I promise to entertain.
  8. I promise to write regularly so readers will always have something new to look forward to.
  9. I promise to finish stuff.
  10. I promise to engage with my readers. I love to hear what people think of my stories and I love talking to people. I don’t need an air of mystery.
  11. I promise to have fun doing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
 So I urge you to do as Jeff says and write your manifesto. It may be for writing, or art, or some other activity. But do it. The moment I wrote this down I felt so much better – clearer, more certain. After all, this is a promise to yourself as much as to your audience. It shows you when you are veering away from your dream, and confirms when you are right on track.
I linked to it above but just in case, here is where to get a copy of Jeff’s free book, The Writer’s Manifesto.
And just for fun, here is an article about Britain’s oldest pillar box which is still in daily use. Most Victorian pillar boxes are hexagonal – the Penfold design – but this one is octagonal and has been in place since 1853. And of course, pillar boxes were invented by another great writer, Anthony Trollope.

Show us your subgenre! There’s a niche for every fiction

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The mermaid fantasy subgenre is a thing. Subgenres rule when it comes to SF and F.

I found a list today that I didn’t know I needed but now cannot live without. It’s a description of every subgenre of cyberpunk. I’ve given some examples, below, but it’s got me thinking about how detailed our fiction categories have become, and how identifying your exact subgenre can help clarify tone, find the right title for your audience, and position your story among its correct competition. I’ve put together a brief list of links to subgenres of the major genres too.

Blake Snyder advises that we are intimately familiar with our story’s categories and subcategories, because it helps us design a cover, tailor the query letters and compose a thrilling synopsis for our editor and readers. Snyder maintains that all stories fit a very small number of categories – but that’s an idea to explore another day. For now, I just want to revel in the existence of so much specialised fiction.

I now want to create a list of James Scott Bell’s Obligatory scenes for each of these subgenres, but that will have to wait for another time, because I have a 100-day-book deadline to meet. (More on that another time, to0.)

Below are resources for identifying your story’s subgenre. There are lists for romance, so-called women’s fiction (ugh, what a horrid genre name), thriller, mystery and of course SF and fantasy.

I have also listed an article helping you find your Amazon categories – another key way that readers find your story.

So check out these examples and descriptions of cyberpunk subgenres. I totally love clockpunk:


Then again, there are even more subgenres for fantasy. Check out this list of amazingly niche fantasy subgenres, including:

  • Alternate History Fantasy
  • Anthropomorphic Fantasy
  • Arcanepunk Fantasy
  • Court Intrigue Fantasy
  • Crossworlds Fantasy
  • Dying Earth Fantasy
  • Gaslamp Fantasy
  • Sword and Planet Fantasy
  • Weird West Fantasy
  • Wuxia Fantasy
  • Grimdark Fantasy
  • Arabian Fantasy
  • Flintlock Fantasy
  • Gunpowder Fantasy

Each of these subgenres is distinct in what a reader expects. Knowing your niche will help you market the book, and help you be crystal clear on your tone and content. For example, I think my Merlin-genderless-mythic-Norse-reimagining might be in these categories on Amazon*, each of which is pretty specific:

  • Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Arthurian
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Myths & Legends

But there are so many more places it might fit. I find this reassuring. It’s good to know that, however specialised is the fiction that floats your boat, there is a home for it somewhere, and a set of fans just waiting for a new release in their favourite subgenre.


Romance subgenres This list is fairly high-level but gives good explanations. This list goes into a lot more detail.

Thriller subgenres Plenty to love here, especially in the crossover area.

Women’s fiction subgenres. I have cheated here because I feel it is so wrong that this category exists at all. Here is an article which outlines why. After all, the very existence of ‘women’s fiction’ suggests that all the other fiction types – thriller, fantasy, etc etc – are therefore ‘men’s fiction’, which is patently not true. I don’t see Lee Child or JRR Tolkien listed as ‘men’s authors’ for example – nor should they be. So why are Marian Keyes or Katie Fforde under the ‘womens’ fiction’ umbrella? Grr. However, if you feel that this is where your novel fits best in the current marketing setup, this article gives a good discussion of what constitutes the genre. Meanwhile it seems the only way to avoid being labelled a ‘woman author’ is to be a genre author. Thus Suzanne Collins, Patricia Cornwell etc avoid writing ‘women’s fiction’ by writing SF or murder mystery.

Science fiction subgenres – So many!

Fantasy subgenres – Even more!

Mystery subgenres Plenty here from cosy to caper.

How to find your Amazon category – there are plenty of articles offering advice on this, but this one from BookBaby covers the whole gamut of selling your book via Amazon.

So what are your subgenres? What are you doing to reach out to your readers? I want to know!


*By the way, to find those categories I uncovered an absolute ton of other books on Amazon which matched up in theme and content wth my Merlin story. Who knew?


R – ReadingWeek – commit to reading usefully

Reading Time: 4 minutes
readingweekWell, it’s the last day of April, but I still have 8 letters to go in my blogging challenge. The challenge was to blog for 26 out of 30 days in April, one post per letter of the alphabet, and I managed OK for the first 2 weeks, and then tailed off as existing commitments piled in. Still, I’ve learned a lot about generating content, about how long it actually takes to compose and edit 1000 words of readable and useful prose, and about what I want this blog for, and how I should use it. For May, I’m returning to my weekly posts on Tuesday of each week. I’ll sneak in the remaining April-challenge letters here and there over the next wee while. but for now, here’s R – ReadingWeek.
‘Reading week.’ We used to have this at university. For this one week, Eng Lit undergrads were supposed to wade through the remaining twenty or thirty books on that term’s reading list, and write essays. Of course aged eighteen, we regarded this as a week off. People would go home, do their laundry. But then, in those days you didn’t need to pay for a university education.* I bet they don’t have reading week now it costs nine grand a year plus living expenses just to attend. Anyway, next week I am going to reinstate reading week for myself. Here’s why:
Reading the wrong things
The main wrong thing I read is the internet. I think we all do – we check news websites, social media, our favourite blogs and forums.  I’m going to actively ignore a load of this and use the time to read fiction, preferably in a paper book. Old school, right? But news articles yesterday revealed that people are turning back to paper books, and books as objects. There are a lot of benefits to this, but mainly I think it’s that books are portable, and feel good in your hands as you progress through the pages.
The next wrong thing I spend time on is fiction I dislike. I am going to ditch books where the writing isn’t up to scratch, or where the theme depresses me, or the topic is simply not engaging. Yes, maybe there are things to learn from those books. But I feel I have a better opportunity for learning from writers I love and admire, than writers whose work makes me ew while I read.
I’m going to stop trying to read books that don’t suit me. If I don’t like it, I’m going to ditch it. Austin Kleon agrees with this sentiment – his pithy post on how to read is generally very awesome.
The last wrong thing I read is writing craft advice. I feel this is important to read, but also dangerous when you’re in mid-creation. I can normally crush my inner editor when writing, but books and blogs about writing tend to invite it back out. During reading week, I’m not going to look at writing advice. I never used to when I was at my most prolific (and happy) as a writer – when I was fifteen years old. I guess I’m a better writer now, but I feel like a lot of the techniques I know, I learned before 1987, and I learned them from reading fantastic examples of them in use – not from writing craft books.
Pursuing writing craft is part of the DIY-MFA that I’m doing, so they will still be on my general reading list. but not next week.
Finding the right things to read
I used to come home from Borders loaded up with delicious books, and plough through them. Now, most books I pick up, I reject when I see the strapline, the back cover blurb, or the first paragraph. My main reactions are either Not this again, or just Ugh so gritty.
Toni Morrison said Write the book you want to read. That’s my goal, but I’d also like to find some examples of it too.  So my first task is to identify my favourite things in fiction and seek them out. I love fantasy, so I’ve turned to lists such as Best Fantasy Books as a start point for this.
Next I want to have an idea of what’s current in my genre. Many of these fall into the Not for me category, but I still want to know what’s happening right now. For this, book review sites and publishers’ updates are my friends. And having glanced at the rundown of what was hot in 2016, I have added one or two to my list.
I also want to catch up with the classics in my genre. I’m relatively new to fantasy, and while I’ve read a lot of the obvious genre giants- Tolkien, Holdstock, Anthony,  and so on – there are so many classic authors I’ve never tried. I sought out feelgood-fantasy recommendations and found several books that met my ‘sounds like fun’ requirement alongside my ‘learn more of fantasy traditions’ requirement. I mean – I’ve never read Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams, or Roger Zelazny. I’ve started with Marion Zimmer Bradley this week, having been recommended it by a friend when we were at school. I reckon in one bout of ReadingWeek I can remedy my ighnorance with a couple of old-fashioned, ie short, novels.
 When will I read? Finding time
Read instead of TV. Read instead of Facebook or whatever else you diddle away your spare time with on social media. Read instead of scowling in traffic (I mean an audio book in this case, obviously). Soak yourself up in reading for a whole delicious week, guilt-free because this is part of your education.
I plan to do three lots of ReadingWeek per year, like at university. And I plan to enjoy it.
*(In fact, up until 1989, the UK government paid not just your university fees but your accommodation too. Hard to imagine these days, but back then education was considered something which should be open to all. You know, what with it offering young people the best chance in life. Obviously various governments since the 1990s have put a stop to this dangerous notion and instead prefer to have universities filled only with kids whose parents can support them or who are prepared to start their working life forty grand in debt. Goodbye working class kids in higher education. …I’m not angry about this AT ALL.)
I’ll be back next week with my regular posts. I have some new ideas for this blog, but I’ve also just signed up for a very intense writing assignment. I have a scant three weeks before things get crazy, which means I’ll be updating and reposting some posts from a long way back – and using them myself. See you next week for the relaunch of the Jigsaw Novel. 
Did you like the more frequent posts in April? Were they helpful, and if so, which topics were most useful? Let me know!

Q – quick inspiration, mind inputs from sight and sound

Reading Time: 3 minutes

inputsSometimes you need to take a break from creating. If you’ve been outputting your imagination intensively, you’ll need to rest and refuel. Treat your mind to some inputs from these sources.


I am often inspired by the visual so firstly:

Search on Tumblr – people create amazing art and take inspiring photos. There are writing communities and fan communities and people who just post random stuff. Search for something and follow the tags that come up.

Check out pixabay – free to use images and illustrations.

Play on canva – create some designs with their simple ceative tools.

Pinterest, obviously. Create a mood board or just pin quotes to get you motivated.

Look at readymade book cover designs. They always make me want to write the book that goes with them…


Don’t neglect audio inputs for inspiration. Many writers listen to music while or before they write, but music is not the only option.


Ambient noise, such as this ready-made cafe background noise. This really works for writing at your otherwise boring desk.

I also like nature recordings of water or surf. These are good for relaxation but also for when you are trying to describe a specific sound. The British Library has a host of recordings you can listen to, from all around the world.

Spotify playlists. There are lots of categories and styles,  and if you are a regular listener, it suggests music you might like with Spotify Discover.

Movie scores. These are my go-to writing background music. Lately, it’s been the fantastically romantic and uplifting score from Fantastic Beasts, but what you choose would depend on what you’re writing.

I’ve mentioned Spotify for music, but I also listen a lot to classical music on Classic This isn’t stuffy old recordings of hour-long obscure pieces – this is [popular classical, mostly short pieces and includes contemporary classical, movie score and music composed for games. I’m no Final Fantasy gamer but the music is awesome.

Titillate your ears with foreign language radio. I don’t mean a language you can understand, I mean sounds that your brain will stumble over. get those synapses firing!  BBC Radio Cymru is good for this – where else, outside of Wales, will you hear Welsh spoken?

Touch and Taste

New inputs from other senses are inspirational too. I’ve picked two pleasant ones!

Eat new food. If you live in a city this is an easy option. You can pick somewhere new to eat out – Lebanese or Polish or Korean. If you’re at home then you can cook that thing you never cook from the recipe book. Travel is the best way to taste new foods – iguana, say, or reindeer – but there are restaurants around which serve you zebra burgers and crocodile nuggets, if you look.

If all else fails, check out The Gallery of Regrettable Food. I found this site in about 1997 and it’s still great! Pictures from the recipe books of your mother. Or grandmother. Get inspiration on quirks for your stories with articles like Cooking with 7-up or Jello Art of the 20s and 30s.

Touch something new. I know that sounds weird, but truly, how often do we feel new stuff? (OK – every I time go clothes shopping. I touch every item in the shop to see if it passes my can-bear-to-have-it-near-my-skin test. But still). I touched sealskin in a market in Norway and wolfskin. I’ll never forget that. I understood immediately how hunters used sealskin for waterproof clothing. And the wolf fur was deeper than my fingers could reach. Just seeing a picture of the thing would ever convey the understanding that touch collected.

What inputs do you seek out for fresh inspiration?






P – Public learning, public mistakes

Reading Time: 4 minutes

azchallenge publicThis blog is about my biggest pants yet. That should have been the blog’s title, but pants is funnier in British than American, so I didn’t. What’s the point when half your readers won’t find it as snortingly humorous as the other half?  Anyway, learning by the seat of your pants, and in public, is a great tool for improving your writing, and your life. Being a bit of a muppet in public shows you that so long as you are not, say, president of a crazy and secretive nation, or crazy president or an otherwise completely fine nation, the world will not end. (If you are such a president, then I only hope there is large secret-service person close by, who will snatch your hand away from the big red button).

So why is learning in public so useful? Jami Gold says it can help you get feedback as you work, and build interest in your idea or brand. She also highlights a few downsides – including sharing something which contains errors. (I’ve done that for sure – I corrected some typos in one of my AZchallenge posts just this morning. Yikes.)  Another potential pitfall she mentions is setting yourself up for problems if you don’t deliver what you promise – readers excited to receive your finished work might be very unhappy if it doesn’t appear when promised. Read her entire post about it here.

Joe Bunting says sharing your work helps you to fail faster.  And the faster you fail, the quicker you get to success. Weird logic, but you can see how that would work. Check out more of Joe’s articles on his writing community, The Write Practice.

Jeff Goins is a big proponent of failing in public, and like Joe was one of my inspirations in creating this blog. Jeff’s philosophy on this is that other creatives don’t do their thing in a garret. Musicians don’t just record their music and listen to it themselves: they share it in live performances. Artists, even graffiti artists like Banksy, don’t hide their work, they put it up where people can see it and get excited about it, one way or another.

It encourages other people who are on the same path as you. Austin Kleon believes you should share something every day. That helps solidify a habit, and it creates a habit for your audience, too, to look out for each day’s contribution from you.

It gives you confidence that mostly your actions don’t have terrible consequences, and most consequences can be fixed. I went back and removed those typos I mentioned earlier. Nobody commented to complain about my shoddy proofreading, and I apologise right now for not having gone over that post properly before publishing it. I’ve also changed my mind about all the structure stuff I posted on when I started this blog. It was a mistake to ignore structure for most of my writing life until now, and I admit that freely. I’m learning from that mistake!

It challenges you to hold yourself accountable to your audience.  This blog allows me to practise blog writing (!) and also to reflect on things I love and hate in the world of literature. I could do this in my private diary, but by doing it in public, I have to check spelling, test sentence structure, and make sure that each post’s argument more or less hangs together.

I think most of all it encourages you to share your work. Once you get over the idea that what you do can be seen by other people, it emboldens you to give them more things to look at. I could post a new novel, chapter by chapter in public, and get feedback as I go. I could test out story system ideas on people instead of in my head. I could do anything. I never intended this blog to be a platform for my stories, but I’m starting to wonder if I should change that. I love Austin Kleon’s idea of sharing a poem every day.


It kills off perfectionism. I encounter a lot of writers who are afraid to start writing because they know that what they write will not be perfect. Or writers who go over and over their first chapter, trying to make it flawless, before they move on.

If you’re writing in public, on a schedule, you haven’t got time for that. You check your work to the best of your current ability and you send it out into the world. I learned this in 2013, when posting fanfic chapters every day. My readers would message me asking when the next part was coming. I wanted to meet that demand, and so even when I could see a sentence which could be honed further or a plot point which could be developed more, I held back my perfectionism and pressed Publish. It was time to share, and I shared. I achieved so much more this way than if I had stalled and fussed over my writing. It’s not perfect, but it’s out there being read, and that was my aim.

Here are some places you can share your work and learn in public:

Tumblr – I use it for stories, many people use it for art.

Twitter – Jeff Noon tweets stories – haunting, beautiful, weird stories.

Archiveofourown and for transformative fanworks. Fictionpress for original fiction.

A lot of people use Medium and Wattpad. Also, consider sharing your books on Goodreads and Smashwords.  I’ve not tried these, so can’t comment. Yet. And of course there’s Amazon.

I think learning in public has toughened me up and made me more aware of my audience. It’s brought me a good habit of writing to be read.

What do you think of public learning? Are there other outlets where you share your work? Let me know in the comments! I love to find new places and ideas.

I’ll be back tomorrow with Q – with a mystery theme…



N – No ideas but still need to blog? How to get content ideas

Reading Time: 4 minutes

AZchallenge N blog contentIf you plan to blog regularly, you will need a regular supply of material to blog about. If you’ve been blogging for a while, you may have already plucked the low-hanging fruit – the ideas which first prompted you to start writing, the hot topics which pushed your buttons. But now you still need fresh content. How can you find it, and how can you give yourself structure so that all your writing time is productive? Here are some suggestions.

You need a problem to solve. Every blog post needs a theme, a problem, and some suggested solutions for that problem. If you’re blogging fast, then three is a nice round number of solutions – though a lot of bloggers favour nine or ten, or go completely crazy and promise 50 ways to address your issue.

If you can come up with a title, a problem for that title, and three ways to solve it, you’re good to go. Once you start writing, more ideas will occur.

Think of issues you yourself have faced, and if you have already blogged about them, seek out the problems others are experiencing. How could your content approach these issues in a fresh way?

If thinking about problems seems rather negative, turn that on its head, and think of your personal successes. Then consider what you had to overcome to achieve that success. Tada – you now have problems, and solutions, and a happy outcome you can offer your readers.

Action: think of the top five problems in your blog’s theme. For writing, these might be to do with grammar, writer’s block, and finding inspiration. Invent a snappy title for each problem, and list three possible ways to resolve each problem.  Bonus: what twist can you put on the problems facing your readers?  What have you done that might seem weird or counter-intuitive, but which worked for you?

You need the magic combination of restriction and freedom. This sounds as if it would restrict the flow of ideas, but the opposite is true: give your brain a limitation and it will work harder and more creatively to resolve it. Saying, I must think of something about Gardening for my gardening blog, is likely to result in a blank page. Say instead, I must think of 30 ways to handle vegetable growing in a dry climate, and your botanical brain will come up with 40.

Have regular brainstorming sessions to think of themed ideas for new content. Set your imagination a challenge to come up with new or more or crazy ideas for a very limited theme and it will suprise you with how much material it generates.

Action: Make a list of tightly-themed titles right now and use them as your jumping-off point. That’s what I did for this challenge – there’s no way I could come up with something new 26 times just off the bat.  I had a restrictive A-Z structure, see my post about this, and then I worked out a list of titles, and voila, I had a starting point to write from.

You need a fallback plan. If you’re blogging alone, creating one-hundred-percent zinging new content is going to be very hard work. That’s OK, but sometimes you need to accept that a post will offer more general content, that forms part of the ‘reference section’ of your output. This might be a master post list, or a post researching someone else’s brilliant idea. Start an ongoing feature and return to it whenever you have a fallow period. On a car restoration project blog, you might have an ongoing series on Worst Tweaks Ever, or Wildest Transformations. They’re not your car projects, but they’ll still be relevant to your readers.

If all else fails, write a review – of a conference, industry event, new book, or film. If you attempt this, the item in question must be blog-relevant in some way, and your writing must be sufficiently entertaining that people who have not experienced this book/film etc will still enjoy your post. I will read anything by David Mitchell or Jemery Clarkson – who each write on a broad range of topics – because I am completely confident that their piece will make me laugh. I care not one bit about shiny cars, but Clarkson can make anything entertaining. His politics are not my politics but I still love to read them. And Micthell could make a shopping list fascinating and hilarious.

Action: seek out news relevant to your readers and write a post about it – or invent an ongoing feature for your blog that you can return to when writing times are hard.


You need a guest blogger. if you’ve temporarily run out of fresh material, or simply want to expand what your blog offers, invite a friend or colleague to write for you. Find a like-minded blogger and collaborate – write a post for them too, and share the exposure. Somehow it is much easier to come up with ideas for someone else’s thing than your own, so this approach could have multiple benefits.

Action: invite a guest blogger to contribute. Most people will be flattered to be asked, and will bring a fresh take on your theme that readers will appreciate.

I hope this helps. How do you consistently generate fresh blogging or writing ideas? Let me know in the comments!

I’ll be back tomorrow with O – Ordinary writing