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 FM.com. 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?






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



L – Love and romance when you’re not in the mood to write it

Reading Time: 4 minutes

azchallenge loveIf you write romance, or have a romantic subplot in your story, you have to come up with the mushy stuff, or the hot stuff, whether you feel it or not. And that’s hard, excuse the pun. So what tricks can you use to generate a bit of romance when you really, really cannot be faffed? Music-?  Reading or watching something romantic -? Perhaps, except you are supposed to be using your precious writing time for writing, not getting in the mood for love. So here are a couple of things you can do to introduce a little Unresolved Sexual Tension, aka sizzle, when otherwise every character would remain platonically friendly forever.

Smell. Lovers like how each other smell. Oh yes. Make sure your romantic leads get a faceful of each other’s delicious personal scent. Be a bit poetic too. She smelled like almond leaves and hope is rather purple, but in a  first draft, it gets the job done.

Touch. Have them keep touching, preferably without planning it. Think, their hands brushing by chance, as they labour together on a shared mission. Cram them up against each other in lifts whilst tending the rescued puppies. You get the gist. It’s corny but it does, quite literally, bring your characters together. Perilous situations offer the perfect excuse for this, clinging to swiftly-fraying ropes, and so on.

Listen to what your leads are telling you. I threw my hero and a beautiful princess together in chapter one of my WIP, a but in a throwaway line he told her he wasn’t interested, and I frowned, and then he met the antagonist and took one look at him and I was like right, so there’s where we’re up to then and had to rewrite a whole lot of everything because these two kept gazing at each other. True story. It was also much better than my original plan, because there is so much to prevent my hero and his opposite number getting together, whereas the rebellious princess was, in my hero’s opinion anyway, far too available.

So if your lead characters really don’t want to get together, then put them with the one they do want. It’s usually your author instinct telling you that there is a more interesting story going on over there in the B characters than in your good-looking, competent, successful A characters (who frankly, when you look at them, are boring.)

Enforced bed sharing. This always works. Have them obliged to share a sleeping space through some hotel booking mishap, or oblige them to share a tent or a teetering ledge on the edge of the mountain they’re climbing. Enforced intimacy reveals lots about both characters, and Inappropriate Thoughts begin to occur, and off you go. It can be funny, romantic, or disastrous, but it always peps up a story. This is the oldest trick in the book, but it does work.

If your two characters absolutely must get together and you cannot bear to see it, write it with your eyes squinted shut – by the numbers, dial it in, and return to it later. He kissed her, she kissed him, they fell into the hay gasping and clutching at each other – new chapter. When you revise, the scene might not be as awful as you think, and anyway, improvement is what the editing stage is for. I write a passionate climax scene that I had really lost interest in by the time I reached it – but thus far, nobody has commented. It was a while ago, and reading it over recently, I found that the romance had never been the heart of that story anyway – other themes of trust and madness were the focus. So my less-than-sizzling scene was not the climax:  that took place earlier, and the romantic get-together was the denouement. Phew. Some writers distance let me see this.

Write a really really long build up. If you were about to jump into bed with someone, you might start by hoiking them up into the sink, Fatal Attraction style. But probably not, probably it would be all, can I take your coat, oh right, thanks, have you got any decaff because I’ve got an early shift tomorrow… and if you keep that going and really put yourself in that awkward, real moment, you can usually write it. Eventually.

Please don’t have your leads get it on in their regular bed. Dull dull dull. Pick a fantastic location, like a lighthouse in a storm,  or inside a clock tower, or on top of a burning building. This is fiction. Why would you have them make love in the master bedroom, when all of 1930s Paris, say,  is at your feet?

Make sure the romance climax, pun intended, is tied to the story climax. They must solve the mystery AND get it on within or close to the same story space. Their emotional arc must intertwine with the story’s mystery arc, or the romance feels bolted on. If the romance is in fact bolted on, take it out. Much as I love romance, not all stories need it.

I love writing romance, but sometimes I am exhausted with it by the time I reach the all-important romantic climax, so my top tip for writing those scenes is to write them first, when you first imagine the story. Don’t waste that passion on planning, Put the plot in later. If you have an amazing scene in your head for how your two characters get together, write that out now and then build in the rest. Without this approach, my Musketeers story would never have made it to 60,000 words and the big reveal scene. I was shattered with the intricate plot and the length of time the story took to write, but luckily I’d written that romantic scene months previously, and could pull it out and slot it into place. Use your passion when it strikes, and your most difficult romantic scenes should be down on paper by the time you have to fit them into your story.

I recommend this book for anyone approaching their first (explicit or implicit) love scene: Be a sex writing strumpet, by Stacia Kane. It’s hilarious and packed with practical advice about writing those intimate scenes.


I’ll be back on Monday with M – Main characters and how (not) to write them


K – Klingons on the starboard bow: my most successful fanfic ever and what to include in a hit story

Reading Time: 5 minutes
  • azchallenge fanfic success tipsI never expected to write a Star Trek fanfic. I always liked the TV show as a kid, but was in the ‘OK but no great fan’ level of interest. I like SF, but I couldn’t name any specific episode – or most of the characters. And then they recast Star Trek for a new audience, and suddenly I was extremely interested because they had written a modern story and had proper CGI and it was all exciting and thrilling, the way it must have seemed in 1966. ‘I must write,’ I cried in 2013, and so I did.

My throwaway, non-canon, completely AU (alternate universe) Star Trek fanfic story got more hits per day, consistently for weeks, than anything else I’ve ever written. It was amazing. I think it stands today at 80,000 hits. That’s not big compared to Twilight fanfic, but for me, it’s pretty good. At the time, I was writing fanfic in the Sherlock fandom – also very big back then – and if a fresh chapter didn’t attract 1000 hits overnight, I’d be disappointed. But this Star Trek one was in another league. Long after the story had ended, it kept – keeps – getting views. I don’t know how people are finding it, given that it must be way back on page 900 of the fanfic websites by now. But people are still finding it, and they are still reading it.

I got so much feedback too. That is my favourite benefit of writing fanfiction: engagement, day by day, with your readers. I learned so much from the feedback (more on that below).  My story was ‘different to other fanfics’ they’d read (I get that a lot). And it was an ensemble piece, which I had never tried before, and found I absolutely loved writing.

I’ve often idly wondered what was it about my most successful fanfics that made people love them so much. How come, years later, I still get breathless reviews from people who sat up all night reading them (some are long – 40,000 words, 60,000 words) or from people who thought they wouldn’t like it but then loved it – people who laughed and cried. One Elementary fanfic, Torchlight, has somehow earned a placed as a classic of its kind on TVTropes.com.

So what can I learn from these experiences to apply to my original fiction? Based on the feedback I got, here are my ideas for a successful story:

Know the conventions of your genre. A lot of fanfiction is experimental, playing with structure and form within the bounds of the story premise. This is great for writers learning their craft, and for readers to experience new forms. But for success, I find that understanding reader expectations is key. So a Sherlock or Elementary story must involve a proper mystery, and a Star Trek one must involve tech/space/politics/alien culture. I know that for my main genre of fantasy, readers will expect at least some action, some magic, and detailed worldbuilding.

Strong romantic arc. Two characters, with plenty in common but plenty to hold them apart, are thrown together by Duty or Peril.

Related: Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST). I’ve been told that UST is my thing, and certainly, it’s what I love when I read stories or watch TV. Smouldering glances and people not saying what they mean and readers thinking hey, is something going on here? It is! I love it. A bit of UST – even if maintained to the end with no get-together for the characters – can really pep up a story.

A proper story. A lot of fanfic is written purely for gratification, or because the author wants to see Mr Darcy meet Dracula. But the most successful stories have a fully-developed plot with its own internal logic and a character arc where the protagonist has changed and grown by the end. I know people are somewhat bemused by fanfic, but I can tell you, the standard of writing is often very high. Original or fanfic, you can’t just string together ‘scenes we’d like to see’ and then stop. You need a plot.

Ensemble cast. The tale of a ragtag band of characters is harder to write than a story focused on a single protagonist, but it brings so many benefits: your story can be in several places at once; you can showcase your setting and make your mystery more complicated; you can play with a multitude of different characters voices. Readers love the B characters as much as the A characters, sometimes more.  Look at Jane Austen fanfiction to see how many are devoted to Mr Collins or Kitty.

Thrilling action. Like romance, this depends on your genre, but including the heart-racing action scene will lift your story. It might be a scene in which Kirk, with a broken arm, wrestles a half-finished escape pod through enemy fire to the safety of a hospital ship (ahem!) or it might be where your romance’s heartbroken heroine has to tackle motorway driving for the first time since passing her test. Whatever the level of excitement you need for your genre, make sure you extract the most impact from it.

Humour. Even the most angsty fiction benefits from humour. It might be rather dark and sarcastic, or it might be side-splitting one-liners from your main charcater, but a touch of humour elevates every story. Humans are compelled to use humour, especially in tense situations, and a humourless protagonist is a fast way to turn me off. I find that the harder I try to write something serious or sad, the funnier it gets. Watch this space for my hilarious account of escape from domestic violence.

A snappy summary. This is vital in fanfiction, and all fiction. I will not click on a  story where the author has put something like, This probably sucks, I don’t know why you’d read it but please review me lol! Or where they have mis-spelled the word summary. The summary should mention the characters involved, the basic premise, and a hook to make readers want to click to Chapter One where you will, of course, grab them and never let them go.

I’m still pondering what magic combination of plot, characterisation, romance and humour made my most successful stories so popular. If I have a lightbulb moment, I’ll update you. And by the way, none of my fiction features Klingons.

If you’re curious about the fics mentioned:

The Logical Choice (Star Trek 2009 movie) An imagined first meeting between Uhura and Spock at the Academy, and the story of their romance. There is respect, and interest, and the promise of something more. Meanwhile, conspirators plot to sabotage Starfleet’s flagship.

Torchlight  (Elementary). Blackout in New York. It started with a touch, and whirled out of control until she never wanted it to end, and then it was over and the lights came back on. Sherlock and Joan and being in the dark.

Wolves (Three Musketeers) Anne of Austria is on a straightforward journey. All is well. She has protection. But she cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong. Featuring everybody. A light-hearted adventure.

I’ll be back tomorrow with Love, and how to write it when you’re really not in the mood.


J – Jazz age writing

Reading Time: 2 minutes

azchallenge jazz ageI was recently obsessed with New York 1926. If you think that rings a bell, it might be because the Jazz Age is the setting for last year’s Fantastic Beasts movie, which I saw, and alone of all Harry Potter things fell in love with. Partly this was because it was about adults facing, sort of, adult problems. But mostly it was because of New York, and 1926. Steams ships and old cars and prohibition bars and detailed clothes and old-fashioned manners. And magic. It was a perfect storm, and when you threw in romance (as one must always do when Eddie Redmayne is playing the diffident lead) then it is impossible to resist.

I immediately wrote a what-happened-next fanfic with my own beasts and peril and of course romance.

But what I really wanted after seeing the movie, was to read more stories about that era, more peril and magic and romance. And as usual, I could not find much that I liked. It was all either too romance – thin plot, characters I disliked as soon as I read the blurb – or too 1926 – misery, terrible working conditions, poverty and inequality and depression and miners’ strikes. JK managed to create something which felt authentic but what absolutely wasn’t, which offered the fantasy view of the past we all crave. LaLaLand tapped into this same yearning for escapism.

So what are the elements of a successful Jazz age fantasy? I mean, what would satisfy me in a story?

Romance. It’s not the point, just a  happy side outcome.

Fabulous clothes – of course. These might be flapper dresses and pinstripe trousers and spats – or they might be farmboy bags and floral country dresses and a few vestigial Victorian grandmamas.

Manners, especially male manners. A comedy of manners is always good. Bertie Wooster was an idiot, but a courteous one.

Mystery. This was the golden age of sleuth fiction, still riding the thirty-year wave of the launch of Sherlock Holmes. Mysteries set in posh houses, peopled with the privileged stereotypes of the day, were de rigeur.

Old tech. Phones and gramophones and telegrams and letters written by hand, and typewriters and steam trains. Bakers’ boys and blokes on bikes, and handcarts and horses as well as trams, and the Underground or Le Metropolitain. Old tech! Check out this 1928 footage of New York City.

Prejudice which the author can whisk away with a wave of the Poetic Licence wand. Gay people can have happy endings, black people can take centre stage, female people can do interesting jobs, all is good.

Seek out some Jazz Age stories here:

  • The Mummy (1999) rocks that retro vibe, as does Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • In a similar vein is the recent Tutankhamun drama with Sam Neill – leaning more to archaeology in the 1920s than urban life, but still awesome.
  • Of course there is The Great Gatsby.
  • I cannot fail to mention the later series of Downton Abbey.
  • Bertie Wooster existed for about forty years in a time era known only to his creator, PG Wodehouse. In several, Bertie visits New York in what appears to be the 1930s, but might also be the Fifties. Or the Twenties. If you’ve never watched the excellent dramatisation with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, then do!
  • Hemingway, basically.
  • The Peter Wimsey books of Dorothy L Sayers.

I’ll be back on Saturday with Klingons on the starboard bow – elements of a successful story


I – Islands and inspiration – how an island setting can create a great story

Reading Time: 4 minutes

AZchallenge islandsI could go all metaphorical here and say that every writer is an island because ideas must spring from the writer’s head alone… But I won’t. I’m thinking about real islands and why I like them and why we humans are so fascinated by them. I also suggest some specific islands that could inspire your next story.

Islands fascinate because of their essential isolation. This has a big part to play in a story’s dramatic impact. Would And Then There Were None have had the same impact if the guests were all in a house in central London? Of course not – because at any moment they could escape into the metropolis and avoid their fate. Even if the story had taken place on a desolate moor, there would still have been the chance for the victims to get away. But on an island, trapped by the sea and a storm, the guests must face their doom.

An island setting provides instant drama: beautiful or haunting scenery, the chance to described an enclosed community like the sad Plague Island of Venice, the possibility of being trapped by weather or shipwreck.

Islands offer the tantalising idea of exploration and discovery. Perhaps this island has never been inhabited. Perhaps no human has ever set foot on it before… Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), two of the earliest novels in English, tap into our human love of the new and the unknown, and involve various islands.

Some islands are functional – lighthouse points, or shipping sentinels in the sea. One of my favourite stories, aged seven, was Five Go to Demon’s Rocks, where Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog stay in a lighthouse and, of course, solve a thrilling mystery. I will always remember the strange curved inside of the lighthouse, and that it was where I first encountered the word ‘buffeted‘.

Some islands are artificial – made for pragmatic purposes such as in Kansai,  to hold an airport, or purely to realise an ambitious holiday fantasy, like  Palm Jumeirah.

Fantasy and science fiction offer the notion of floating islands – either literally, an unmoored piece of land which drifts from ocean to ocean – or metaphorically, with every colony ship or space station. Stories which take place on cruise ships offer the same dramatic possibilities.

Alongside isolation come benefits – the phrase, a private island conjures an irresistible idea of glamour and secrecy, an escape for the super rich or the super recluse. Richard Branson and Barack Obama seek out islands to evade the spotlight.

Some islands might be secret for other reasons: a military installation, an illegal tests location, an island which has been struck from the map after a disaster or disease. Jurassic Park doesn’t work anywhere except on an island. Check out this list of Forbidden islands. Doesn’t just the title make you want to reach for the keyboard?

Some islands are famously mysterious Easter island/Rapa Nui is the classic, but what about the abandoned workers’  island featured in that Bond film – or Sentinel island, where the inhabitants resist all attempts to make contact?

How about a part-time island, like  Lindisfarne or St Michael’s Mount, both tidal islands, where you can walk out from the mainland at low tide?Burgh island, the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s And then there were none and also Christie’s home, is another tidal island, to which I have actually walked. (It’s awesome, and apparently the 1930s hotel is now restored. I first saw it in 1977 when it was a spooky ruin – and it’s probably the reason for my obsession with islands… The shiny new website makes me want a return visit, in style. Cocktails on the terrace and preferably no murderers, please.)

Then there are ex-islands – where silt deposits or deliberate land reclamation, have rejoined the island to the mainland; islands lost when rivers have been covered over in city improvement projects – or underwater lands like Doggerland off the east coast of Britain, submerged over the millennia. Some islands are vanishing right now as a result of rising sea levels. Inundation is a terror for all of us who live on islands, feeding off Plato’s 2000-year-old story of Atlantis and the still-real fear of a sinking ship.

The planet is creating new islands all the time. The volcanic Canary islands are still relatively new, but actual brand-new land is being thrust up from the sea near Japan. This is good news, because I crave more islands.

Reality can only provide so much island goodness, though,  which leaves imaginary islands.  One man has extensively mapped the imaginary Koana Islands off Madagascar. Fantasy islands on fantasy maps are the best. Someitmes they are walled, or chained, or covered in a dome of glass or ice. Sometimes they have a mind of their own and can hide or run away. They are home to magic and mystery and monsters.  Reaching them is a huge challenge for the fantasy characters. These islands, even more than their real-life counterparts,  hold secrets and thrills. I think it’s safe to say that in stories and in life, I love islands. Yes!

I live in an archipelago of around 6,000 islands, known collectively as the British Isles. I can’t contemplate moving to a continental landmass. My big-island home and the islands I visit for work and play are part of my writer’s psyche, and islands will always form a source of inspiration to me.

What’s your favourite island in life or fiction? How does it inspire you? let me know in the comments!

I will be back tomorrow with J – the Jazz age writing vibe


G – Goals and how dreary they can be – and how to fix that

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Goals. We are all supposed to have them. We are supposed to be driven by them, inspired by them to peak productivity and massive achievement. But oh boy, working purely to goals can be dull.

Goals are like work. Proper work, where you are meant to show up on time and make progress and meet targets. Where the boss and sits you down once a year to go through a questionnaire to see if you have over- or under- performed, or performed at all.

Goals can make writing boring. Drudgery.

I both love and hate goals. I love them because they motivate me. A challenge – like this blogging one – lends structure, and prompts fresh ideas, fresh ways of working. I am still at the stage in my writing life where I am looking for new ways to succeed.

I also hate goals, because they can be purposeless.  Goals like, Complete a writing prompt every day, or, Finish ten writing exercises this week, fall into this second category. I mean, Ok, but why? What is the point?

The trouble I have with goals is that they can offer a false sense of progress. To be productive, a goal must have a clear outcome, and that outcome must be something you actually want. It sounds obvious but from various writers I’ve met in online communities, it seems that this last aspect of a goal is sometimes missrd. So a goal to write 500 words a day * van be utterly meaningless unless you understand its desired outcome –   creating a daily writing habit. Writing 500 words (any old words) in itself is not progress, but it’s the practice that’s the goal, not the quality of the words you write. Every time you write, you have achieved your goal – you are reinforcing the writing habit – but don’t get confused that this is achieving anything beyond that.

The other potential pitfall with a goal is that it can suck the passion from your creative life. I write for fun. I love writing. I have to be disciplined to post a blog every day, or my Write Practice novel chapter every week, bit I also want to leave time for goalless writing. That’s where I can write without thinking about selling or persuading or impressing. I generate ideas, I play, I write stuff just for me. (coughfanfictioncough) Without this freedom, writing can feel like a chore. If I’m only turning up because I set myself a goal to turn up, what is the point?

So my thoughts on goals are:

When you pick a goal, be clear about the outcome it promises. 500 words a day promises a writing habit. That habit will certainly help you write a book, bit if that’s your ultimate aim, then pick a goal which directly related to it.

Create your goals to match your dreams. Check the promised outcome against your ultimate aim.

Don’t get caught up in falsely productive goals that have nothing to do with your dream. They are a waste of time, and they can turn your creative passion into grudging duty.

How do you use goals? Have you ever set a goal a regretted it? Let me know in the comments!


I’ll be back Monday with H – Happy Endings


F – Forging new ideas

Reading Time: 3 minutes

AZchallenge forge new ideasWhenever you write, you are generating fresh ideas – or you should be. But how can you come up with new ideas consistently? Everyone agrees, the Muse is dead or never existed, and we all need to earn a living. Nobody these days lives in an Italian garret, supported by private income until the inspiration strikes at the next blue moon. We need ideas and we need execution plans and we need to be creative on demand.  Here are some ways to fire the forge.


  1. Challenge yourself to think of five new settings. Pick locations you haven’t used before. Grab them from things you’ve seen this week: documentaries, books, magazines. Shipyard, Byzantium, Versailles (I see a lot of history), Brooklyn, Swindon. Write down three things you know (or have just made up) about each setting.
  2. Challenge yourself again – this time invent five new surnames. Make names that honour parents, or places, or the personal traits of the gods your family once worshipped. Make names that sound evil or sound virtuous. Channel your inner Christopher Marlowe. Think Warthole, Bublum, Delicrat. Then write three things about the person who has each name.
  3. One more challenge. Think of five insurmountable obstacles. They might be geographic, like a glacier or a jungle. They might be personal – plague, or crippling agoraphobia. (Phobias are gold for writers). Write three crazy ways a character might overcome that obstacle. If you’re feeling keen, write three more ways in which the obstacle crushes the character to a tragic end.

You know what I’m going to suggest now. Yes: mix up your fifteen new creations and among them find one, just one, possible storyline. Write a paragraph describing how it might pan out.

Non-fiction – blogging

Oh, blogging is the worst. You really have to pick a topic you love. If you just pick something which you think would be good on a blog, you’re sunk. No: you need the thing you go on and on about to your friends, the thing that draws you into internet discussion every time, the thing which, without realising it, you have researched to death because you cannot stop thinking about it.

Then you need structure. I can recommend a challenge, like the AZchallenge I’m doing right now. Check out this post for other challenge style structures. But here are some other ideas.

  1. Theme – FlyLady has a monthly habit which she encourages her followers to adopt. She says a habit takes two weeks to learn, but for regular people with busy lives, four weeks is a better target. Love FlyLady! For blogging try a theme that matches your content.  Writing themes might be Editing, Submissions, etc. If you have a book review blog, you could go genre – Horror Month, Fantasy Month etc – or by author, say, Dickens Month.  But that tight focus, perversely, gives you more scope to really explore your chosen theme.
  2. Make master lists. I love master lists because they save me having to do all the gathering of handy links for later use.
  3. Have a rant. Use this one with caution, but if there is a topic which pushes your buttons, write about it. Obviously don’t be abusive towards other people’s ideas, but feel free to express your own. I can’t stand on-the-nose dialogue. can’t stand it. Something on that is for sure coming your way. Frustration and fury make great motivators to write. If you only make a list of all the things you can’t bear about your theme, you’d have blogging diamonds.
  4. Share the love. What has helped you? name them and put links in. A monthly We Love post is a great reminder for you, gives ideas to your followers, and is a nice gesture for the blogs/resources you link back to.

And if all else fails – invite a guest blogger to contribute. (Hint: guest bloggers coming soon to a blog near you … interested bloggers, comment below!)

PS. Half an hour ago I had no idea what to write for this blog post. I challenged myself to come up with three ways to generate fresh ideas for non-fiction and fiction (you see – theme and structure are key!) and it seems to have worked. Thanks for reading. -Sef

I’ll be back tomorrow with G – Goals, how dreary they can be – and how to fix that


E – Experience and how to get it

Reading Time: 3 minutes

azchallenge experienceI always admired Harry Harrison – for his pulp SF, which I loved as a teenager – and his author bio. His bio revealed that before he became a writer,  he had a ton of non-writing jobs. ‘Truck driver’ was one. I knew what this meant. Harrison had experience. He didn’t go to writing school and learn about theoretical writing. He didn’t work in one of those publishing or editing or proofreading industries. He had a proper job.

I loved that. Still do. Apart from anything else, this means that Harrison would never have to google “life of a truck driver” for novel research.

Side rant: Stories about writers exhaust me. Oh, a failing screenwriter, really? A novelist looking for love… yawn. From the number of movies and novels featuring writers, you’d think that ninety percent of all workers were wordsmiths. Well, they’re not. Despite what the internet would have you believe, most people do not work as investigative journalists or romance novelists.

This, for me, is the equivalent of another pet hate of mine, the career politician. If you leave school and study politics at uni and then become a politician, what do you actually know about anything you’re legislating on? Grr.

Rant over. For writing, you need to write what you know, and that does not mean only writing about being a writer.

So as a writer, how do you get life experience? Here are some suggestions.

Work a lot of different jobs. In today’s uncertain labour market, this is almost the default. Most of us have no choice but to do a series of crummy jobs while we pay off student debt and/or try to find work which doesn’t suck the soul from us with every breath.

Talk to people (1). I have a terrible habit of chatting to people I meet on my many, many hotel stays for work. In this way, I have found out the main reason giant recycling machines fail, how people cope with not seeing their new baby and sort of ex-girlfriend because they’re on permanent nights, and what’s involved in being a ghost hunter. All useful material.

Talk to people (2). Find out what people in your acquaintance do, and build up a list, so that if you ever need to, you can pick their brains about the technicalities of their jobs. For example, in my acquaintance is a former ocean liner captain, an immigration official, an anaesthetist, a part-time checkout assistant and smallholder, and a scientist. I also know a lot of people with farm animal expertise. What people do all day is fascinating.

Read biographies. Specifically, read biographies of people who are not like you. My favourite one as a teenager was for Baron von Richthofen, but I also enjoyed that of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and many others.

Write an emotion CV. You may never have battled a dragon, but you have almost certainly experienced extreme emotions. If you survived your teenage years, you are basically qualified for the full gamut. Create a CV with all the emotions you expect your characters to experience in the story, and check off the details against your own life. Loss, heartbreak, joy, excitement, disappointment – note down the events which caused these in you. Are there any missing? I’m not for one moment suggesting you go out and get your heart broken if you’ve thus far dodged this, but maybe read/watch some stories about that to build up your knowledge. Vicarious experience still increases our understanding. I read somewhere that the brain cannot tell the difference between a remembered or imagined emotion and the real thing – which is why reliving past hurts can be so damaging. Anyway, if that’s true, then by fantasising about the emotions you wish to portray, you are – by brain standards – really living them. Well done. You are now ready for the dragon.

What life experience have you used in your writing? What else could you seek out to enrich your creative authority? Let me know!

I’ll be back tomorrow with F – Forging new ideas