Alphabet challenge – the AZChallenge and structuring your writing practice

Reading Time: 3 minutes
AZChallenge badge
Use a structured challenge like the AZChallenge to lend form to your dialy writing practice.

One of the things that can hold a writer back from a regular writing practice, is the lack of a way to structure the output. Perhaps you write every day, aiming for a target of 100, or 500, or 1000 words. But without structure, it can seem random, maybe a little pointless. What are all these drabbles you are turning out? How would they ever form part of a body of work you can point to and be proud of? Isn’t it all just writing for the sake of it?

Well – yes. Sort of. Writing practice, is exactly that – practice to form a daily habit. So in that sense, it doesn’t matter if your writing pieces are unconnected. However,  for a lot of people (including me) that feels unsatisfying. I want to be making progress, and creating something larger than, say,  Tuesday’s isolated 500-word ramble.

A random bit of TV helped me crystallise what was missing. I saw the songwriter George Ezra interviewed on Graham Norton about his breakout success in 2014. George was travelling around Europe in a gap year, and writing songs. And by the end of his trip, he said, he ‘had this body of work.’ And so he decided to do something with it. He released an album which won awards and generated several hit songs. (All of which I love, by the way, and especially his lyrics, and especially his first big song, Budapest).

But that phrase – a body of work – got me thinking. I wanted a body of work. I knew I wanted to write novels eventually, but until then, how could I feel like I was creating a work of some sort? I’m working on my novel, but still need to keep up my other writing practice. Yet I found that turning out wordcount like homework was not satisfying.  I realised that what I needed was a theme,  a magnet for my words to collect around. And just as I was wondering, I read about the April AZchallenge, or A-Z challenge.

As a way of structuring work, it could not be simpler: write one chapter, short story, blog post or nonfiction book entry, for each letter of the alphabet. Decide on a target per-letter wordcount you can handle, and go. Writing one piece per day would be normal, but I guess it wouldn’t matter how long it took you, so long as you completed all 26.

I quite fancy doing this for:

  • – a book about combatting anxiety (non-fiction)
  • – a series of memoir snippets
  • – flash fiction stories
  • – blog posts on writing – what a  great way to spend, say, March!
  • – poems
  • – anything, really.

I feel a challenge like this gives a writer an opportunity to grow. When I browse the posts on the excellent My 500 Words Facebook group, I’m inspired by what others are writing. Some are novelists like me, but others write memoir, poetry or blogs on a vast range of topics. I’m really feeling the need to expand my repertoire after months focusing on this one book. A structured challenge like this could be just what I need.

There are lots of other ways to structure your writing practice into a collection. Here are five:

  1. Create the daily word count equivalent of an acrostic poem – take a word which is significant to your theme, and write a piece for every letter of it. I’m toying with the idea of a collection of flash fiction called TRUMPOCALYPSE, a series of responses to the regime change in America.
  2. Write a set number of pieces on the same theme. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird might become Seven Approaches to Night, for example. Or Teacups. Or whatever you choose.
  3. Write one piece for every year of your life – or every place you’ve ever lived, or every person in your family.
  4. Pull up the current Top Ten hit list and write something inspired by each of the songs on it.
  5. Go to the newsagent. Take a snap of the front covers in the specialist magazine section and then use their weird and wonderful headlines as your jumping off point. History Today, Nursing Times, New Scientist. Make anything you like from them. The photo you took is the cover for your collection.

Setting yourself a structured challenge like this offers endless possibilities – and benefits:

  1. You will always have something to write about.
  2. You’ll practise discipline, as well as regular writing, to complete the task.
  3. At the end, you’ll have a work, a piece of art, conceived and created by you.maybe you’ll share it, maybe not, but it is something, a solid work, with a focus.

What could I do for a 26-item A-Z challenge?  What challenges keep your writing inspired?

A-Z challenge blog

A-Z challenge Facebook group 


The Gripping Climax – an ingredients list

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Camel bench - gripping climax ingredients
The story’s climax should have you on the edge of your camel-themed seat. Use an ingredients list to make sure you include everything you need. Camel bench, Embankment north, London, 2016.

After five solid months of writing, some of it even on the work in progress, I now approach the crucial moment in my story: the climax. Here is where all the foreshadowing I’ve been doing over the last 100,000 words must come to fruition; where the hero must face his demons and overcome his opponent; where everyone decides whose side they’re on and where, ultimately, the end of the story is decided. But what makes a great climax? How can I be sure to include everything I’ve been setting my hero up for? How can I make it exciting for the reader, and ensure it forms the inevitable outcome of all the hero’s decisions thus far? I’ve created numerous themes and story threads and I want them all in the mix at the end – and to make sense. There’s so much to remember that I need a plan.  I use this method, which I think of as my ingredients list.

Climax scenes are fun to read. A great climax scene has you breathlessly turning the pages, whether the scene is a confrontation on the edge of a crumbling precipice, or a formal exchange in a courtroom, or two people on a swing in a garden, admitting their love.  As a reader, you must know what’s coming next. You turn the pages until you discover the answer. Then, with a sigh, you are ready for the slip-slide down to the ending, and the wrap-up.

But climax scenes are hard to write. Like opening scenes, there is just so much to do. All the threads you’ve been teasing out must now come together in a way that resolves everything and makes sense to the reader. (Or, if you’re not going to resolve everything, then those threads of story must come to a logical conclusion of some kind. Some things cannot be fixed, but the hero, and the reader, still need closure.) The auhtor must not forget anythign crucial, and must also not introduce any new elements which will confuse the climax, or diminish its impact. An ingrdient list will help keep the climax-recipe on track.

So you need to resolve the story’s main, big, urgent problem – with maximum drama and in a way that makes the reader think Of course! That is exactly what ought to happen.

That’s a big ask, and given that I started this story six months ago and have a memory like a crocheted swimsuit, I have made an ingredient list of what must happen, plus what I would like to happen in my thrilling climax to my book.

This is a process I tend to do quite early on, as I am finding my way in the story. If I know what kind of big finish I’m aiming for, I can add in teasers and clues as I write, hints which make this particular ending inevitable and satisfying. I think the style of a story’s ending determines the tone of the whole book. It would be no good, for example, to have Luke Skywalker learn Jedi swordplay, fly a frantic seek and destroy mission, and then defeat Darth Vader on a technicality in court. On a similar note, I can hardly wrap up a comic fantasy about gods, faith and lies with a bloodthirsty battle scene. It needs trickery and humour and affirmation, as per the rest of the story.

Here’s my checklist of what needs to happen:.

  • Reconciliation with the hero’s ally- realisation they are on the same side.
  • Release of the captured gods.
  • Defeat of the antagonist, through trickery.
  • Acknowledgement of the hero’s powers and duty.

Here are my ingredients – the list of things I want to include in my climax:

  • A huge, stirring setting such as Big Ben, the Great Pyramid, etc.
  • Cries of despair as the hero thinks all is lost.
  • Unexpected hope arriving at the last moment, giving the hero his final, brilliant idea for fixing this mess.
  • A breathtaking act of deception which gets everyone what they need.
  • The momentous defeat of his opponent  – or possibly a surprise compromise brought about through the hero’s genius.
  • Admission of the romance between the hero and his sweetheart.
  • Everybody gathered around at the end in joyous relief.
  • One small and humorous problem left over for the wrap-up.
  • Plus a bigger problem which can be solved in the next book.

That’s quite a lot to cram in, so my next move is to go back to my scene list and check where I am going to put all those elements. I need to check it flows in a logical way, and that nothing is missed out.

Then all I need to do is write it.


I feel more confident going into my climax scenes with a plan, however. I might deviate from my ingredients list but the required story elements are there. This means I can always get back on track if I begin to veer away from my goal.

How do you plan your stories’ climax scenes?


The DIY-MFA: how thrifty writers can still further the craft

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park - upstanding like I might be if a do a DIY-MFA
Raise your writing game to a pedestal with a DIY-MFA. This chap was an Air Chief Marshall, a title I quite fancy myself.   (Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park commanded RAF squadrons that defended London Luftwaffe attacks in 1940.)

I’ve been reading about the ‘DIY-MFA’ this week, and wondering if such a thing is achievable or worth it. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) roughly translates, for those of us in the UK, as a PhD for the arts:  a degree-level period of study, based on two or more years of research, resulting in a final thesis and considered to be the highest level of study for a profession, allowing its graduates to teach.

In the US, a programme like this might cost $20,000/£18,000. You can see why people might want to skip that fee. So several alternatives have sprung up, for those working in the creative arts but wanting to take their craft further and deeper. The DIY-MFA idea has a website, a book, and now, new from Ninja Writers, a 1000-day-MFA community based on Ray Bradbury’s list of activities for learning to write well.

So what would that involve? Shaunta Grimes at Ninja Writers unpacks it like this – read a poem, a short story and an essay every day, and write a short story every week. That’s the Ray Bradbury prescription for improving your writing, by the way. Shaunta believes that 1000 days of focused study alongside finishing a work every single week for around three years, will have a huge positive impact on the quality of work produced. I agree – but while choosing stories to read might come naturally to writers – reading widely within your genre, for example, or breaking into works by authors with styles totally different to your own – choosing a worthwhile poem, or particularly, an essay to read, sounds daunting to me.

The Ninja Writers DIY-MFA also prescribes, in addition, reading a novel a week for novelists, AND 12 craft books a year. Yikes! That is a lot of reading, and could seriously eat into my writing time.

Or.. could it? I’m tempted by this challenge. The nerdy swot in me loves school and anything like school. I am the only person I know who enjoys exams. And what an achievement it would be, to have read 1000 poems, 1000 short stories and 1000 essays, and written around 150 short stories by the end.

How much time would it take, and where could I find that time? I instantly know the answer to this: no more facebook whatsoever. I already ditched Pinterest and Tumblr to get more reading and writing done (and it totally worked, by the way – those are time eaters). Do I spend an hour a day on my last remaining attention-guzzler? Hmmn. Maybe I do. An hour of extra reading a day would get the reading part done, but what about the writing?

I already watch less than an hour of TV a day, more like 40 minutes. I don’t commute, so there’s no usable time there. I try to go for a 20-minute walk after the school run when I’m at home – which translates as 20 minutes’ story ‘dream time.’ But to get words onto the page I need writing time. My current writing time is used for:

  • my WIP fantasy novel
  • my personal diary
  • my intermittent additions to a long-term work
  • this blog

I also spend at least an hour a week critiquing in my writing group.

My time is pressed, to say the least, because I also have a day job which involves UK-wide travel and frequent twelve hours days. I do get extra free time in hotels because I don’t have to do the school run, make dinner, do bedtime etc. Top writing tip: get an on the road job! So much thinking time and so much time in hotels with poor WiFi. It’s unbeatable for productivity.

So shall I do it? Perhaps I should take only the Ray Bradbury option and aim for a story a week. It would need to be a short story, in the flash fiction line – under 1000 words. But also … I actually would like to read a poem every day. And flash fiction doesn’t take long to read… And I already read or listen to a TED talk most days – I could swap that for an article from a journal. Or I could just count the TED talk as my essay, since they cover every topic. Yes!

Another swap or cheat is that I use the Google Newsstand app to read articles from news sources all over the world – probably half an hour a day over meals etc. So I could swap that for something worthy, for writing when I am sitting down somewhere, or as before, just consider that part of my essay diet.

Keener people might suggest that I gain writing time by using a dictation app to write whilst making dinner or going for my walk. But (contrary to appearances) I hate the sound of my own voice.  So that’s a non-starter. Probably. Maybe I should just get over myself. it might be brilliant. -For factual writing, anyway. I need to see the words on the page for fiction.

So I probably do have enough time for this. Next question: what to read? well, I could work my way through the Penguin Book of English Verse that I bought ten years ago. Or I could go to a website like and let it select my daily reading for me.

12 craft books is a challenge, though. Here’s my proposed list for 2017, or what I am already thinking of the first 300 of the 1000 days:

The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, Natalie Goldberg

Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterRoy Peter Clark

5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 6), K.M. Weiland

You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One)Jeff Goins

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

On Writing, Stephen King

Published: The Proven Path From Blank Page to Published AuthorChandler Bolt

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

Creating Imaginary Worlds: The Twelve Rules, Charles Christian

Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande

Story Genius, Lisa Cron

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder

You may have spotted that there are 13 books on this list. I’m an optimist. Books like Goldberg’s, or Goins’, might be dipped into or re-read several times during the year. The DIY-MFA isn’t about speed reading, it’s about learning and growing.

So am I going to do it, some kind of weird hybrid DIY-MFA / self-improvement fest? I think I might. At the very least I’ll do the reading. And since you can’t learn writing without writing, I guess I’ll do that too. It looks like I’m in – perhaps for 2017, perhaps until 2020.

I have doubts about motivation and pace, and about my ability to select books which will truly push me as if I had oversight by a professor. How rigorous could a self-taught ‘degree’ truly be? But Ray Bradbury, and others learned on the job. They took it seriously and made sure they knew everything they could possibly learn about their genre, their predecessors and compatriots, the writing styles and shortcuts available. Bradbury never got a university degree in creative writing. With dedication, then, it is certainly possible to advance. That has to be worth something. And if I don’t read a total of 1000 poems, 1000 books or write 150 stories, then I’ll still be further on than I am now.

What are you doing to advance your craft? Are you following a formal programme, paid or unpaid? Have you signed up for any of the DIY-MFA programmes? Or do you just grab opportunities to learn as they arise? Let me know in the comments.


Editing: KonMari your writing and declutter your prose

Reading Time: 4 minutes
KonMari book
Marie Kondo’s bestselling book demonstrates how to tidy your space. But why not KonMari your writing as well as your house with the same simple principles?

Tidying the house is exhausting. It’s physically tiring because of all the running up and down stairs with items which need relocating from room to room. But more than that, it’s mentally exhausting because of all the small KonMari decisions you need to make as you tidy. Keep or toss? Put it with similar items or have a spare set of them in this room as well as that room? Charity shop or recycling? Can I eBay it? Can I please stop now?

Writing is also a morass of tiny decisions – every character needs to sit or stand or speak or do nothing, every sentence must have rhythm and sense, every word must mean exactly what you intend, and this all takes place in a setting which you must design in its entirety. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system you could use to declutter your writing in the same way you declutter your house?  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make those editing decisions with confidence, kowing that what is left is exactly what you need and love?

William Morris has a famous saying: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  Marie Kondo, AKA KonMari, the Japanse tidying guru, believes that you should only possess things which ‘spark joy’ when you touch them. These tenets simplify tidying decisions.  If it’s not useful and sparks no joy – it goes. Easy.

Using these ideas, my house now contains less junk, less of the things I previously had two or three of, and more free space. Now, if I need to declutter, it’s only a surface layer built up during a busy period – and my task is simpler because I know the rules by which I keep or ditch each item.

So a couple of years ago I began applying this principle to my writing. At the time, I was writing fanfiction, a chapter a night, two or three different stories at once. In fanfiction, people don’t have time to read long stuff. (Sometimes a reader tells me they stayed up all night and finished my book-length fanfic in one gulp, which is flattering – but the exception rather than the rule). People read in snatched moments, while the dinner is on, or while commuting. So every chapter needs to be snappy, and every chapter must move the story on or deliver gratification in some way. *

This approach simplifies writing decisions. I have a continual internal dialogue with myself which goes like this:

-What’s the point of this scene? (points to lengthy section detailing a trip to a market square).

-It gives local colour of the market in this fantasy town, and shows how I’ve invented amazing foodstuffs for my characters’ breakfast!

-OK, so do we learn anything except that there’s a market and my characters have breakfast?

-Uh, there’s a bit of gossip they pick up about the Plot.

-Right. I can put that in on their way to the Palace.

Decision: 1500 words gone, replaced with the line, After breakfast in the market…

I find these decisions go double for dialogue. If I find a raft of to-and-fro while a character updates another character with what’s happened in the previous chapter – I usually ditch it. I am especially suspicious of relating phone conversations where everyone on this end of the line already knows what’s gone on: dull. If there’s a funny line or two, I cut and paste it into my ‘edited out/keep for next time’ document (see below for more on this.) I have loads of hilarious exchanges between my hero and his friend – but they did not fit with what their scenes needed to achieve.

Decision: unnecessary dialogue gone, replaced with tell-not-show lines such as, I brought him up to date with events at the temple…

But what about sentimental items, you may wonder – in your house, this might be ornaments given to you by departed loved ones, or memorabilia from a wonderful trip. In writing, these are the beloved scenes which are your absolute favourites, or which inspired the whole story. The FlyLady has a solution for this tidying problem – take a photo of the thing and get rid of it. That way you still ‘have’ it – the ugly vase, the mountain of your children’s’ drawings – but you don’t have to store it.

You can apply the same idea to writing. If you have a beloved scene which makes you laugh or cry or which is just too adorable or clever to delete – cut and paste it into a separate, Edited Out document, and store it well away from the finished work. That way you have not lost it, but it’s not cluttering up your manuscript either. (Della Galton, veteran womag writer,  has a policy of never throwing away stories, even ones which have found no favour over years of editing and resubmission. One time she told a group of us that she rewrote a story editors hated, but which she loved,  about ten times before finally rewriting it from the point of view of cats and submitting it to a cat lover magazine. Bingo – success. )

Decision: the great scene in which my hero is obliged to dance with his friend’s abrasive sister, gone. I love that scene. But I’ll find another story where it moves the plot forward for the hero to be blackmailed into a foxtrot.

All right, so in a genre plot you can trim out the non-essentials. But what about literary fiction? Well, the beautiful/useful rule can be applied here too.  Literary language is meant to spark joy. So you are still watching for pointless scenes, but in lit fic, the ‘point’ might be it’s just so beautiful. (I think. I only distantly appreciate lit fic. The subject matter is mostly too miserable for my taste.)

In my own writing, I try to include only things which move the story forward, or are vital for the reader to experience the setting. I’ve got more work to do – a lot more work – before my writing is as lean and efficient as it should be – but with these principles beside me, alongside my trusty KonMari book, it is not as exhausting as it seems.

How do you tidy your writing?  Let me know in the comments.


Spark Joy by Marie Kondo the global phenomenon that is KonMari explains her guiding principles for a tidy and beautiful living space.

The FlyLady – a system for avoiding chaos in your home and your life.

William Morris

Della Galton

*There is a whole genre of fanfiction known as fluff, which basically requires zero plot and is one hundred percent indulgence of favourite fantasies about your beloved characters – Sherlock and John getting a puppy for Christmas, for example. So plot is unimportant, but the beautiful/useful rule still applies – a chapter without squee is a chapter that wastes the reader’s time).


Book Blog: The Voyage of the Dolphin – truth and lies in memoir

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Voyage of the Dolphin - fiction or memoir
Take scant facts and transform them into wild adventures

Life writing can take many forms – but how much truth, and how much fiction, do you put into a novel inspired by real events? What details do you put in, and what can you leave out? How do you handle dialogue and other parts you cannot know? Even if you are working from a pile of historical evidence such as ship’s logs or diaries, how can you be sure that their creators are reliable? How do you make the story of a real life interesting to people other than close relatives? How can you draw from real events a theme or lesson, and give your memoir a structure that actual, messy life cannot have?

Kevin Smith’s book, The Voyage of the Dolphin, appears to

memoir 1
My grandmother hand-wrote her memories when she was 90 – only up to 1946 but we treasure these notes.

be a fictionalised account of a true event in the life of his grandfather: a journey by three Irishmen to the Arctic in 1916, to attempt to recover the bones of a ‘giant’ who perished on an even earlier mission. The voyage takes place against the backdrop of the First World War and the Easter Uprising in Dublin, where the three protagonists are studying at Trinity College. The specifics of life in Dublin at the start of the twentieth century are sharp and precise; the horrors

The specifics of life in Dublin at the start of the twentieth century are sharp and precise; the horrors of a steam and sail powered journey into frozen waters seem straight out of Shackleton’s diaries. And yet as Smith’s tale moves on, the reader becomes ever more suspicious of the veracity of the events.  In the final chapters, as the voyagers reach the seas around Greenland, the reader’s belief is stretched to snapping point, until at the end there is only a wistful feeling, a sigh at how wonderful it would be if all this really had happened.

So what is going on with this story inspired by a real life? How can any of that last section be true? (No spoilers: what happens is possible – just – but makes you question everything you know about the Arctic…) It’s an amazing story, though,  comical and dark, thrilling and visceral. Would it have been as enthralling without those almost-unbelievable elements?

Many people dream of writing true-life stories – their own, or that of a relative.  There may be diaries or letters for inspiration and detail, or just the memories jotted down. My grandmother wrote down the story of her life during the War, laboriously, in giant writing wth a black marker pen, because her eyesight had gone.  My cousin scanned them, and now we grandchildren each have a copy. Small details, that none of us knew before, came out in these hand-printed notes.

And yet, even working from direct evidence such as this, ‘truth’ writing poses many challenges, particularly, verifying how much of it really took place. I would be thrilled if my grandfather had written his own memoir of the same period – for contrast! As it stands, we only have our own memories of the stories we were told as children. Over a glass of wine with one of my cousins, we discovered that we had each received a separate set of anecdotes from our grandparents, which did not seem to overlap. I heard mine in the 1970s and 80s, she, much younger, heard these stories in the  1990s. Both of us were learning of events from half a century before. How much was true? How much was misremembered, or embellished after an extra 20 years of retelling?

And … does it matter?

lavatory seats memoir 2
Intimate or weird details make a true life story more compelling. Outside lavatories and bed bugs in the 1930s. Ugh.

It’s possible – likely – that our grandparents’ stories were not quite as thrilling as they seemed. I recall a conversation between my grandparents and some of their friends, about the War. My grandmother Vera said, “Oh, it was a wonderful time, really.” Her friend Joe said, “No, it wasn’t. You were always terrified for your life, afraid a bomb was going to drop on you. It was a terrible time.” And there in that room I realised that the version of the War I’d always believed, a rather romantic version, belonged to my grandmother, and that everyone else had their own experience of events. Joe’s reality seemed more plausible to me. But that too was only his opinion. Which version would you write down in a memoir or novelisation of a real life?

In fact, it doesn’t matter which version you choose, or whether you embellish the facts a little for interest, a little for continuity because chunks of your source material are missing, or a whole lot because it makes a much better story. What matters is that as a writer, you choose consciously how you present the events. Choose the purpose of your life writing and hang your version of events on that:

If it is a personal memoir for your friends and family, you can have a loose structure and no ‘moral’ of the story. Your readers will be familiar with the places and people involved, and they will have their own life’s structure to make sense of the stories you tell.

In a novelisation of an important part of a life, your readers will want a start, middle and end of the story, and a sense of purpose driving towards the outcome. So a memoir of adventures in wartime, might need to be bookended with aspirations growing up which led to becoming a soldier, and the results of the soldier’s experience of battle.  Or there might be a structure you can use based around a specific mission, or a specific period such as basic training – something to give a sense of progress through the book.

Some life writing is simply a series of anecdotes, often humorous – but these still need to be tied together by a common theme (lessons learned? time spent in a particular city?) or they will appear as no more than random memories.

For all life writing, look for the most striking, the most unusual or untold aspects of the story. You may not want commercial success with the book, but even your best friends may tire of reading about everyday events. Look for the weird occupations, the strange coincidences and the stories of bedbugs and lavatory seats – see my grandmother’s notes on those, above…

Returning to The Voyage of the Dolphin, it turns out that Smith’s book is not based on real events at all – far from it. It is not a memoir. One of the characters is named after his grandfather. There were no diaries, and crucially, there was no trip to the Arctic. Kevin Smith says he made the whole thing up.  He was wondering about his grandfather’s life, and wanted to give him a fantastic alternative life history – and so wrote this thrilling tale of polar exploration and stowaways and indestructible dogs. And I think it’s all the better for the fiction liberally daubed over the fact.

Get the book: The Voyage of the Dolphin, by Kevin Smith

Read more about life writing:

Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer

Open University Creative Writing coursebook

Have your written a memoir, or are you writing one? What are you putting in, and what are you leaving out? How much truth will you include… and how much fiction? Let me know in the comments!