PaperRules for creativity! What I learned from PaperWeek

Reading Time: 7 minutes
PaperRules! paperWeek in full swing.
PaperRules! Here, PaperWeek is in full swing in my lounge – current reading, my novel scenes on index cards, notebook and pen, and my Wall of Books.

Firstly, sorry if you saw a bizarre empty blog post email earlier. I pressed a key by mistake… doh! The Poem a Day blog post is coming soon. Meanwhile, onto today’s post:

I spent a week focusing on paper for my creative activities: reading, writing, drawing, learning. Here’s what I found – the good, the brilliant and the rest. I am definitely going to extend PaperWeek into my life in general, because I feel it has helped me loosen up my creative muscles and look at writing, and imagination, in fresh ways. I learned so much about creativity and my overall verdict is – PaperRules!

I gave myself a list of ideas for the PaperWeek challenge, and tried to tick off as many as I could. I didn’t have much equipment – an old lined exercise book, a Bic biro, and some blank index cards. That was basically it.

I started with reading the Sunday papers, start to finish. That took two days’ worth of creative-time. I read two to three pages, then made notes or comments in my exercise book. Sometimes ideas leapt out at me. It’s not like online news, categorised by topic; in print, the  articles are arranged by their supposed interest to the reader – meaning psychiatric crisis in hospitals was next to information about global warming and an exposé of a dating site for older men to meet much younger women. Put those three together in your writer’s brain and ideas begin to flow. Just for that experience, PaperWeek was worth it.

A poem minibook I made for my daughter. She loved it! It was disproportionately satisfying to be able to write Made by Mummy on the back cover with a flourish.

I did skim the sports pages. (I usually just bin them, since I follow no sport of any kind.) The articles were all written in terms of epic battles involving Fury, Attack, Storm, Triumph – whereas the photos showed some men (and a very few women) competing for possession of a ball. Sports not involving balls were nowhere to be found. At the back were four pages of tiny print like the stock market news. It was intriguing. I wonder what else might generate such intense interest, in a  fantasy setting?

One PaperWeek challenge was to make a mini book. This I did, aided by instructions from the internet, and found it amazingly easy to create a minibook involving one blank sheet of printer paper, and one snip with a pair of scissors. I wrote a rhyming poem inside, coloured some simple illustrations, and hid it on my daughter’s pillow. She was thrilled, and loved the rhyme and the (extremely sentimental) words. I made her another one, even smaller, for when I had to travel away from home this week. She absolutely loved it and wants me to make more. So that’s a Mum win as well as a Creativity win.

A postcard from an imaginary journey. Here, George complains of lack of handkerchiefs while the Wyverns close in.

Next, a postcard from an imaginary journey. I made this quickly while having coffee at a service station, en route to Lincolnshire and a customer site. I’d grabbed an index card before I left, and whilst sipping my mediocre £4 Americano, I wrote a plea from an aristocratic beast-hunter to his beloved, requesting fresh handkerchiefs and complaining about the staff. This servant had disappeared when he was supposed to be watching out for Wyverns.  I did my approximation of fancy Victorian handwriting (fake calligraphy is a thing!) and drew a stamp. In a very small space, I was still able to invent a scenario, a crisis, humour and an unreliable narrator who has no idea that the servant hates him and has run off, leaving the expedition at the mercy of supernatural creatures. Not bad for a six-by-four-inch space. I’ll be creating more postcards, and letters too, as part of my background project, the Journal of Imaginary Places. More on that another time.

If I’d had more time, I might have roughed out this postcard first, then redrawn it in fancy ink, with a handcrafted fake stamp, postmark, and so on. But in fact, the speed and roughness of my creation was liberating. I already knew it could not be perfect, so I just went for it. That’s a big lesson from PaperWeek.

I am learning to draw fantasy maps, thanks to YouTube. This was my very simple attempt which I was nonetheless very pleased with.

Next on my challenge list was to draw a map. I am rubbish at drawing maps, and have zero spatial awareness. I have trouble envisaging epic vistas in novels – in fact, trouble with location in general.  I cannot seem to hold a big space in my mind. This may explain why I love scenes in cramped rooms, and shy away from vast fjords, plains, and so on. Anyway. I found a video on YouTube to create this simple map, and am disproportionately pleased with it. There are more videos – amazing videos –  to create the kind of maps you see in Tolkien special editions – and I will be returning to map making for sure. However, my own  fantasy novel does not need a map – or does it??

I also sought out paper visual input. I have my WonderBook, but I also love the fantasy illustrations on these Oracle cards.

One source of inspiration which I had overlooked was the purely visual – pictures. I look at a LOT of pictures online, of course – I think humans in 2017 live for pictures – but it was a while since I really looked at pictures in a book. So WonderBook has been an inspiration. (Separate post on Wonderbook coming soon.) I also love the art on these ‘oracle cards’ – a kind of daily inspiration set. The aim is to pick a card and read the little book. It’s similar to the astrology section in the tabloids – today is a day for new thoughts cast off old ways, unless you already have, in which case, don’t. Basically harmless, and I love the art on this set. I’m not into tarot, but some of those sets have truly surreal illustrations, if you like that sort of thing.  I need more fantasy art in my life, and not just online. Holding the art is a different experience. I can’t express that very well. But it may explain my greetings-card habit.

Mini placard. One challenge was to create a protest placard. I should write a protest song to go with it too. I could call it PapaerRules!

I wanted to create a miniature protest placard but did not have time, so drew one on a blank card.  I did not do as much drawing or doodling as I’d hoped this week so I’ll continue to work on it. I doodled my way all through high school and I am convinced it helped me concentrate. I have two kinds of doodle – automatic – repeating patterns of hexagons, swirls or boxes – and pictures of eyes. I’ve no idea if this Means Something. Therapists out there – I’d probably rather not know…

Novel map
A map of Bell’s novel structure. Visualising on paper helped me solidify the concepts in my mind.

A separate task for this week was to conquer novel structure.   For nine months, I have had tremendous trouble holding the shape of a novel in my head. (Not my novel – the theoretical novel as illustrated by Weiland, Lakin and Bell, plus others.) But now, egged on by PaperWeek, I was moved to draw a map of Bell’s structure, and it really helped.  I will recreate this, so that it looks better and illustrates the structure. but as an idea and a memory exercise, this was brilliant.

packing list
A packing list for a fantastic journey. Note the imperialistic tendencies of the traveller.

Also on Bell and structure – I wrote my novel’s scenes out on index cards. I had already done this in Scrivener, and again in an exercise book (see the post on Backwards Planning), but putting them on cards has been helpful in matching my scenes to the three act structure. I have not yet laid them all out, but I’m in a hotel room for a chunk of this week so maybe I’ll have some time and floor space there.

writing prompt jar
Prompt jar. I am writign down things seen in dreams, or phrases which strike me, or words I just like, for later inspiration.

My last project was a  writing prompt jar. For this, I caved in and puchased some readymade tiny tags, of the kind designed for scrapbooking and card-making. These I simply stuffed into an old Bonne Maman jam jar, and voila! a prompt jar. I have begun to write prompts on the tags – scenes from dreams, mostly, but more inspiration will come from Holly Lisle’s ‘Sweet Spot’ map.  (There will be a blog post on the map soon.)  Anyway I love the look of the little tags in the jar, because they were made by people with colour printers, and we’ll see if I actually use it when I need a prompt.

I created more than this – but overall, what a blast. I recommend a PaperWeek to anyone, especially if, like me, you spend far too much of your working life in front of a screen, and then continue the trend in your personal life, wrecking your eyes and your circadian rhythms. Working with paper forces you to take a screen break, and also jolts your creative mind into new ideas. PaperRules!

My overall PaperRules findings:

  1. Reading paper books helped me learn. Maybe I was channelling my schooldays, but it really seemed to make a difference when I read it on paper.
  2. Making notes and reflecting on my reading helped with… everything, especially learning and retention.
  3. Reading paper books gave me a lot less time for reading. I do most of my reading on my phone in odd moments, and can whiz through a vast range of fiction on my Kindle app, plus news articles, craft blog posts, etc.  I often read, and write, in a dim room while my child drifts off to sleep – not possible with a paper book.
  4. Reading paper books is way more expensive than reading Kindle. If I lived in a  big city I would probably be able to satisfy fiction and non fiction with the library, but my town library, while pretty good (you know, for a FREE service), can’t stock the latest books in all the areas I read. And if I want something specific, I have to buy it. So ebooks are still king for giving me most value for least cash.
  5. Reading newspapers again after a deliberate break of about five years, has been great. It’s also an expensive habit though, so I’ll save it for the occasional Sunday, I think.
  6. Related: PaperWeek has made me appreciate the amount of free, quality content which is available online!
  7. Drawing and diagramming is a great way to solidify ideas. I knew this, academically, but it was rewarding to prove it for myself.
  8. Creating in paper was relaxing and freed my mind. I felt more imaginative after I made a tiny book or a map. I gave up so many other creative pastimes when I began focusing on writing, and I’ve been the poorer for it. I will make time for non-word-based creativity from now on.

If you haven’t tried a PaperWeek challenge, here’s what you do:

  • Commit to reading paper as your main source of news/fiction/nonfiction.
  • Draw something every day, however doodlish and silly.
  • Create art with paper – paint, draw, cut, stick.
  • For more ideas see my full post on PaperWeek.

Have you tried a PaperWeek challenge, or something similar? What did you find from the experience? Let me know in the comments!


Exciting Writing – why is it rewarding to write?

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Exciting writing in a cafe or at your regular desk.
Not the day job – What makes writing so exciting? How can I keep it that way, year after year? Pay attention to these aspects of writing.

I spent a morning recently building some interactive online dashboards as part of my day job. It was not exciting work and mostly it was frustrating, as software wouldn’t co-operate, or connections fell over halfway through trying to achieve a thing. I looked at the clock. Yes! Quarter past twelve.

Nearly lunchtime, or actually lunchtime if I liked. An hour of My Own Time awaited me.

In that time I was going to write. Yessss!!!

I realised then, that whenever I saw that clock tick to My Own Time, I was excited – not to be stopping the IT work, but specifically to be starting to write. Scenes and voices began pressing themselves against the inside of my forehead. I thought of looking at one last customer email and decided it could wait.

Writing would not wait. I didn’t want it to wait. I was thrilled it was lunchtime, delighted to be able to start doing what I enjoy.

So off I dashed, ready for fifty minutes of solid writing, plus ten minutes of mad-rush eating to sustain myself through more IT tasks in the afternoon.

How can I maintain that excitement – forever? I’ve never sat down to write thinking, Oh God, not this again. I have very frequently sat down to my day job with a sinking heart. So how do I stop my writing becoming like a wretched broken dashboard with nuh-uh errors and drearily slow connection time?

I was curious to explore this.  What makes my unofficial-job of writing so exciting? What keeps it that way, year after year? After some thought came up with this:

Control and ownership. My writing belongs to me and I can do it any way I like.

Freedom. I can try new genres or styles, write poetry or news articles, or paint watercolours if I choose. I am not working to a brief – or rather, I am, but it’s my brief.

Feedback. I get regular feedback from my writing group, and from readers of my just-for-fun fanfiction. This means I can respond and learn on the job.

Personal development. I read craft books and blogs and apply new techniques in my work.  If I had endless money, there are conventions, courses and festivals I can attend to improve my writing. But even working with free and cheap resources, the opportunities for growth are huge.

Escapism. I write fantasy, and I write it because it lets me travel to other places and meet interesting people – a bit like my real-life job, except I don’t have to stay in a lot of budget motels to do it.

Progress. I can see wordcount building up and structure taking shape. Ifd I read stories I wrote fourteen years ago, I can see the improvements I’ve made in style, technical approach and structure. And eventually I will be tracking, I hope, progress in the form of sales.

And not to forget the big reason, the overarching reason I do what I do, mostly for free, devoting hours of my life to it:

Working with words. I have to do some writing in my day job and it’s among the best aspects of what I do. Words are powerful, and fun. Of course I want to spend as much time working with them as I can.

To me, these things are what keeps me thrilled to dash off at lunchtime and write a ton of words towards my current project. And it strikes me that by paying attention to each point, ensuring that I continue to learn, escape, experiment, respond – then for me, writing will always remain exciting.

What keeps your writing exciting?



30 Nanowrimo strategies – write a novel in a month

Reading Time: 4 minutes
30 strategies for Nanowrimo
Is it a lamb? Is it a banana? Yes! Its Superlambanana, the iconic Liverpool sculpture created in 1998 by Taro Chiezo.  I give you 30 strategies – go and  create something entirely new with your Nanowrimo novel this year.

Here are 30 strategies which I use to write a novel in 30 days. It can be used for Nanowrimo, or whenever you just want to get that first draft done.

  1. Divvy up the action. It’s 1660 words a day but life will intrude. Count on your calendar how many days you have which contain the requisite 2 hours. Mark those as writing days. For the others, put a target of, say, 400w. Check it adds up to 50,000.
  2. More apportioning. I always spend far too long scene-setting at the start of the book, then find myself 40,000 words in, on chapter 3 of 20. The last 5000 words of The Dark Line, 2005, were pure exposition. “So she got the sword and went to the land of the Trace and killed the Pale Trace and brought the Dark Trace back-” It sounded Biblical, but was a total cheat’s way to ‘finish’ Nano. So instead, set content targets. Like so –
  3. Week 1 – Set scene, introduce everybody, write the ending. Writing the ending is psychologically vital. This makes the rest of the month just ‘finishing it off’.
  4. Week 2 – First bit of action, flesh out the ending.
  5. Week 3 -When you’re sick of the sight of the thing – do scene-setting, adding details to characters and locations you’ve already done, boost your wordcount with Chris Baty’s numerous tricks, including having characters tell each other random stories, or giving every character three names.
  6. Week 4 – Home stretch. The tricky middle part still to do, so start with the ‘final battle’ whatever its form, and spread out from there.
  7. When you cannot think of anything, snuggle your face in a pillow. Or faux fur throw. Seriously. Cuddle up and picture yourself in the climactic scenes of your story.
  8. Type quickly and don’t stop. Obvious but essential. Ignore the Autocorrect stupidity. In fact, for fantasy novelists, Autocorrect will provide some of your best character names and ideas! A Persian Car Pet?  Why not?
  9. Get a spreadsheet. There are always a ton of Track Your Progress spreadsheets around, available through the Nanowrimo forums or just by googling. It is amazing how motivational these are, especially the ones with charts. I work all day with charts and dashboards and mostly I hate them as a pseuodomanagement waste of time, but for novelling, they’re great.  Update your wordcount on the Nanowrimo website as often as you can.
  10. Tell everyone you’re noveling. But do not mention it to your work. They may find your mystery illness spanning 27-30 November suspicious.
  11. Get the Facebook widget which picks up your wordcount from the Nanowrimo website and announces it to your FB buddies – unless your FB buddies are your workmates, in which case, don’t.  See above.
  12. You need a plan to follow blindly on bad days, so make a scene list in a  little spiral bound notebook: split it 15/10/15/10 and label the sections Start, Trouble, Battle, End. That’s just my guesstimate, but it should help avoid Overstarting (see #2).
  13. Remove Tumblr from your phone. I’m serious. Also Pinterest, Instagram and anything else you stare at, your mind blank, your swiping thumb the only sign you still live and breathe. You can always put them back in December. I uninstalled Tumblr, which was almost my favourite thing, in May and I still haven’t put it back. I’m getting too much done.
  14. Blog or journal your progress. A single line is all I’m talking. End or start your day with it and by Day 30 you’ll have an excellent guide to your own noveling style, which you can use to reassure/castigate yourself with next time around.
  15. Eat one-handed for a month. Lunch is sandwiches, dinner is pasta. Type with the free hand. Come on, you’re not the Queen.
  16. Be prepared to hate your novel at any point. Try not to take it personally. Conan Doyle hated Holmes and swore he’d never write another word after the Reichenbach Falls. He held out for 8 years, but you don’t have that long. Just think UGH and continue.
  17. Resist the urge to use Scrivener’s Compile button.* Your story will look so beautiful, so complete, that you’ll never write another word. (*Until you’ve finished of course. Then Compile away!)
  18. Make a list of things you love about the kind of novel you’re writing. I love unrequited love, sarcastic people, intricate cities and happy endings. You might love tall ships and heroes with squints. So whatever’s on the list, make sure you put it in your book. Or really, what’s the point?
  19. Plan for some varied moods in your book. Maybe you want to try Gothic suspense, or Arthurian derring-do; maybe it’s frenetic action or lingering poignancy you seek. Add some mood notes to your plan. “Jane reveals to John she is undead. Tone=Flirtatious.”
  20. Open each day’s scene list with a light heart. It’s only a novel. Start typing. You’re way ahead of the people who signed up for Nano and then did nothing.
  21. Make a list of names for background items which might crop up. These could be mere placeholder names, for speed – but they can’t all be Smith. Grab Seventh Sanctum’s amazing set of generators and make a list of people, towns, pubs and brand names you might need.
  22. Back up your work – I use Evernote AND Google Drive as well as my own PC – but don’t look at it.
  23. Abbreviate. Make AutoCorrect work for you in Word/on your phone. This can plus-up your word count too: you type HPRZ, it puts High Priest of the Realm of Zinnador. 7 words for your one, and more time for creation.
  24. When you are exhausted, write 100 more words. You really can do this. Just 100 more. This increases faith in yourself too.
  25. Pick your noveling music  before you start. I love Classic FM, but also movie soundtracks. Check out Audiomachine. Nothing with words!
  26. If your scene list item develops into a paragraph or more, brilliant. never mind the No-prose-before-November rule. Just use those words. No blank page for you, sirree.
  27. Steal time ruthlessly from other activities. Do the Tesco shop in 7 minutes but say it took 60. Sit in the car and write. The shopping’s still done, right?
  28. Feed your brain between writing sessions. I recommend TV drama. There are also books. But remember: 1660 words first, X Factor finals second.
  29. Buddy up with like minded people on the Nanowrimo website. Buddy me if you like, I am usually encouraging! My author page for Nano is below.
  30. Remember, everyone else is just trying to eat, sleep, work, raise children. You’re doing all that AND writing a novel. That makes you special, forever.

And so Good luck! And if on your journey, you discover more Nano-winning tips, please let me me know.

Resources mentioned:

Seventh Sanctum Random Name Generators

National Novel Writing Month

Chris Baty, National Novel Writing Month founder


Buddy me! Here’s my Nano page.






Book blog: You’re a Writer – So Start Acting Like One

Reading Time: 1 minute
Stand up and be a writer.
Stand up and be a writer. Gormley statues, Formby.

I’ve just finished reading this book by Jeff Goins. I love it. I love how the power of just saying and believing those words – I am a writer – makes amazing things happen. I love how hard work and self belief combined can do great things. And I love how your life is still OK  even if the hard work has not, yet, paid off.

Yet this is not all hand-holding and cheerleading. This book details specific strategies to ‘just write’ and for promoting your work. Goins’ aim is that you reach a point where you can write, and your work promotes itself. For many of us, that is the dream, and Goins is showing a way of achieving it.

This is a short book but a great one. Be a writer: get it.

You are a Writer – So Start Acting Like One – Jeff Goins


Book blog: Say ‘oo’ to induce terror

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Use the sound of words to create specific moods.
Use the sound of words to create specific moods.

Rayne Hall’s book details many useful techniques for writing fight scenes. The chapters are mostly divided by the type of weapon being used – Sword, Club, Firearms etc – and the book also identifies fights as either gritty or entertaining, and guides on psychology.  The part that captivated me, though, was on how to use specific word sounds to control a reader’s mood.

Hall has written a separate book devoted to what she terms ‘euphonics’ – subtly creating atmosphere in the reader’s mind through the use of  words with a particular sound.  For example, she suggests using words with ‘oo’ sounds to generate a feeling of impending doom in the reader.  This goes further than deliberate use of assonance: Hall suggests that sounds are linked to specific emotions.

There is research to back up this idea, as outlined in articles linking ‘i’ to happiness for example, or ‘oa’ to negative moods.  It seems to be connected to the expressions our faces must make while pronouncing certain words aloud – ‘cheese’ makes you grin, ‘moan’ makes your face long and sad.

Does it work when reading silently? Hall says yes.  I don’t know. It’s a fascinating idea though and I will be looking out for it in others’ fiction. I’ll let you know the results.

In the rest of the book, there are chapters on male and female fighting styles and dis/advantages, plus ideas for battles and sieges. Hall provides a useful template for any fight scene, to be adapted to suit, and guidance on how to fit your fight to your genre.

Hall gives many specific tips – such as to describe how the ground feels underfoot during the fight scene – to root the reader in the moment. Another tip is to use short sentences for action scenes, and longer ones for the aftermath. She is very particular: no paragraph more than four lines during an action scene, no sentence more than five words.

This all sounds rather proscriptive, but if like me you struggle to write action, then it is all worth a go.

I struggle to write action.  The only thing harder is sex scenes. I figured out how to write those by first focusing on the emotion of the scene, rather than anything physical – and then going back and counting the arms and legs, checking nobody was facing one way while still supposedly lying on their other side. Once the emotional side is working, it is only about choreography. On this principle, my fight scenes will centre on the emotional drama, and then I’ll check that my lead is not hurling rocks with the hand they still have a sword in.  Using what I’ve learned from hall, I will certainly create deliberate pacing with short sentences, and try some euphonics too.

A useful book overall and great for building confidence in writing fight scenes.

Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall


Accountability: write more words!

Reading Time: 1 minute
Write, write like the wind! (Fuerteventura, Canary Islands: my usual speed-tourism in a hired Jeep.)

This week I need to make some writing progress: 10,000 words in a week. This is perfectly achievable given my prior history of writing 12,000 words in one day. But to be sure, I am setting myself no other targets.

-Except to write and workshop a short story for the Fiction Break contest.

Also to continue working on my novel outline as a background task (which means every time I get in the car. Road signs are merely decorative to me.) CS Lakin’s book is helping.

Also to continue my Dark Ages research. I have Neil Oliver and Michael Wood on hand for this.

Also to research Amazon fiction categories to see where my book might fit. Amazon categories are… fascinating. If you thought Japanese street fashion contained highly specialised niches, check out Amazon categories.

Plus you know, my job. But I have already cracked 2000 words, and I will have time to write this evening. I need to write my main character off an island, over the ocean, and onto a totally different island via some disasters.


Target: 10, 000 words added to my novel by Friday.


Master post on outlining a novel – 21 ways to outline your book

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Sphinx beside Cleopatra’s Needle is inscrutable, but these links will help unlock the mysteries of book outlining.

In my attempts to outline my novel I did a lot of online reading as well as the books I’ve previously mentioned. Google will find you many sites which offer help with outlining a (fiction) book, but I’ve gathered 20 useful articles. Which one suits you?

  1. This starts small and builds up from a single sentence for your story, to a complete novel. It does assume your initial sentence is good though:

2. This is like the reverse of the snowflake method – start with some questions, imagine scenes that answer them, then write a sentence to describe the overall story:

3. This helps you build a scene list for a novel:

4. This has 8 story structure elements, different to others I’ve seen:

5. Like a Lady Boss? Surely that’s just a Boss, the same way we no longer have Lady Doctors, or Authoresses? But anyway. This is an overall strategy for your book, including outlining:

6. This is part of the Guardian’s series, 30 Days to Write a Novel, or more accurately, 30 days to outline a novel. It goes into enormous detail and for a total pantser like me, is terrifying. 30 days before you can write? What? It’s high quality advice though:

7. This takes a workshop format to build up an outline:

8. Oh my god so much detail in this I can feel the creative life force being drained from me. Sorry. If you love micro-managing your writing, this is for you:

9. This has a great checklist to make sure every scene is adding to your story. No fluff allowed!

10. This is very strict – answer 9 questions to develop a chapter list, then the remaining 15 to complete a detailed outline:

11.This is high level novel-writing strategy, but it includes what to consider when crafting your outline:

12. The Plot ‘Skeleton’. Ugh. But it explains it clearly:

13. This is very detailed and you’ll need to up your browser zoom to read it but:

14. Short and sweet, with further links to explore:

15. For pantsers:

Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

16. This uses the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to illustrate story structure:

17. This is very similar indeed to the snowflake outline:

18. So is this:

19. This is very straightforward and would work for pantsers as well as plotters:

20. This comes with various free templates. The spreadsheet one is pretty good:

And finally this – if you’ve read all of these and tried them and still your story will not be shoehorned into any of these outline shapes:

21. Pants it.






Novel structure – James Scott Bell and my book outlining challenge

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Dragon sconce south door, Westminster Abbey, London, 2016
I’m struggling under the weight of all the story elements I have to understand

I’ve now finished reading James Scott Bell’s SuperStructure. I was a bit sniffy about it in an earlier post and didn’t feel it could apply to me. But now I’ve changed my mind, or at least, moved the furniture round. I’m ready to finalise my story outline and crack on with the writing the middle and end. And this book, along with the others I’ve read, has helped with that goal.

I have trouble identifying the beats or structure elements of stories. I don’t know why. I guess I feel stories more than I analyse them. You just know when it’s time to step up the action. You just know when characters are standing around talking about their relationships instead of moving the story forward (boo, Doctor Who for being guilty of this one – you should really know better and it’s for KIDS who are the sharpest detectors of boring grownups talking boring stuff).

Ahem. Anyway I’ve always just known. Even in my long stories, I just knew. But a novel is more than a long story and I’m finding that out.

For me the best parts of SuperStructure were the parts about the final battle and the end. These are the areas I know least about and where I have the fewest preconceptions.  And reaching these parts in Bell’s book, it all made a lot more sense:

  • The Q factor, that is, the object or person which prompts the hero to decide to fight the final battle, makes perfect sense to me. These are the bits and bobs I throw in for texture at the start, and which I suddenly recall close to the end and use as magical items to support the hero through the last pages, or reveal something he/she needed to understand. I already do this. Go me.
  • The battle, either physical or psychological – yup, got that.
  • The wrap-up which shows how things have changed and the outcome of the battle. Great.

So it was only the middle parts of Bell’s guidance that I struggled with. Antagonists and mirror moments and doorways of no return. Why do I find this so hard? I just don’t know. The concepts I grasp fine. Applying them seems impossible.

Of course it is the middle part of my book I am stuck on at the moment. I know what’s going to happen but I need to move my characters, and the heart of the story, from location A, through a brief sojourn at B, to location C. B and C could become one if that makes more logical sense. I literally have to get them across an ocean and I don’t have a reason for it except that the legend I’m sort of retelling takes place in location C.

So choices.

  1. The easy one – start at location C like the original legend does. I have options here for the kind of settings I want for the early parts of the book. This would be easy.
  2. Hard choice – continue to struggle with why they all up-sticks to C when A and B form their natural setting.
  3. Harder choice – examine why location A is so important to me that I started telling its story at all. Do I even need to continue to my legend of location C? My character could do all the necessary transforming right there at A. It would not be the book I imagined but it might be a better one, using all the things I’ve set up in the first parts of the story to bring about the battle, and the transformation. (Also – that ending has a kind of Book One feel to it. They can go to C in Book Two…)

I wanted to write this story because of my interest in this lead character. The others are less intriguing to me. One of them is practically only the love interest and I’m having a hard time imagining him as more. He needs to be more for the love part to work at all. So maybe I can ditch him? Or, better, plonk him at location A as a minor character, he can show up close to the end to offer a bit of light relief, but the real meat of the story is the lead’s transformation. Plus, obviously, saving the world.

These are hard things to think about, but I must. Apart from anything else, this is all good practice and learning. Also I said I would finish my outline by tomorrow and it’s already today.

Externalising the debate is helpful. Usually I just run through possibilities at the speed of light whilst typing. I like working that way. but it’s good try to new things too. After all, my usual way has not won me any Pulitzers. So let’s see.

One doorway is my character jumping through the first doorway to seek glory and freedom. But the consequences of that jump means there is no going back and the home he left behind is destroyed. OK. So far, so Star Wars. That leads nicely to Act 2.

The second big doorway is when my lead has to decide whether to risk all to destroy the enemy which has pursued him throughout, or use the coward’s way out which has been tempting him all along. Actually that sounds just like one of JSB’s examples. Maybe I’m not so horrible at this after all.

Task one of my two-day-outline challenge is completed. Now for the rest of it.

**Mirror moment. JSB describes this in an interview with KM Weiland as a point in the story when “The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?” Interview here.

*** Doorway of no return. In his summary of JSB’s two pillars of story structure, Brian Klems describes the doorway of no return as a point where there is no way back for the main character. The first doorway in a novel  forces the character into Act 2.  The lead cannot go home, back to the old world they started in. The second doorway  makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution; this is often an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. I’ve paraphrased – the full article is here.


Outlining challenge- finish my novel outline in two days

Reading Time: 2 minutes
New York bull, 2014
Am I caging my novel by creating an outline? There’s no way to find out without trying.

This week I have a mission – to finish the outline for my book. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks, by reading from some experts, plus actually drafting some outlines, mind maps and scene lists. I think it has helped, but now I have a sneaking feeling that the main point of all this has been writing avoidance. And so I’m going to finish my outline.

 In two days.

To do this I will need my skills. Here’s a quick review of those:

Things I know I’m good at:
  • Openings and hooks
  • Foreshadowing
  • UST 
  • Romantic intimate scenes
  • Humour
  • Cliff hanger chapter endings
  • Mimicking a voice I know well e.g. for fanfiction
  • Sounding confident
Things I know I’m not very good at:
  • Structure
  • Endings
  • Fulfilling on the promise offered in early chapters
  • Balance of length across chapters – actually, dividing things up into chapters at all
  • Outlining. I barely do it, have barely ever done it, but like self-editing* I now need to learn how to do it
So it seems like I know where to concentrate my efforts. But I don’t; all these elements are opaque to me. I’m starting with outlining because that gives me a shape with which to work on the rest. It’s been far too long since I wrote a spine-tingling finale. Time to change that and craft an outline for this book that will have me itching to get to the good bits.
  1. Complete reading the James Scott Bell book on Superstructure.
  2. Build on my theme mind map and add to it with a scenes mind map. Anything goes – just get it all down.
  3. Build up an order of play for my scenes, based around my theme.
  4. Check my outline against the various structures suggested by Bell and others.
  5. If there’s time, work in reading another book on structure. KM Weiland  has one, there are many others.
I still want to really study structure and outlining as I feel this is the main missing tool in my skill set. Given how well and fluently I can write, imagine what I could achieve if I had an actual plan before I started.
Hence my target for this week: a completed outline. I’m now sick of not having it done, so I need to do it.
Also …  I joined the Accountability thread in the SPS community, so now I have to. Yikes.

I’ll update on progress when I’ve finished blogging and made some.

PS: If all else fails, then there’s always this: Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t

*There will be more on self editing. I never used to do this and then fanfiction. Suddenly I was faced with the idea that not every word I wrote was golden. Imagine. And so I had to learn how to do things like re-read my work, and even delete some of it. I’ll share my tips for this soon.


Like the plague: why you should avoid writing groups

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Horse Plinth Trafalgar Square 2016
Is being in a writing group just flogging a dead horse?

I’ve followed Joanna Penn for a little while now and found her website and its writing resources very helpful. So the chance to hear her advice on publishing, specifically self publishing, at the SPS summit in June was too good to miss.

Everything she said was relevant and informative, but one thing leapt out. She obviously knew it might be controversial but she went ahead and said it anyway:

Avoid writing groups for critique.

I spluttered my coffee when she said this – in approval, not outrage. Because with one notable exception, every single writing group I’ve been involved in has been utterly useless for learning or improving as a writer. They have mostly been useless for anything at all.

Joanna knew the reason why. Because the people in your writing group are not your target audience. Simple.

To explain: in a writing group, everyone writes in different genres and styles; ranging from literary fiction or poetry to fantasy novels and category romances. So the criticism offered is influenced by writing and reading taste, and might not reflect the quality of your work within its genre. Essentially, the people in your writing group are, as Joanna put it ‘not familiar with the tropes of your genre’ and so can’t judge whether you’re using those tropes well or badly.

I almost fell off my chair. Of course! So obvious. And it also explains why giving criticism is so hard in writing groups. You read the poem, you can see there’s something going on with it, but it is Not Your Thing.

This is precisely why my exception to the rule, The Write Practice, works for me. The Write Practice is BIG. There are plenty of writers involved and a fair few of them write in my genres of fantasy/speculative fiction. There are also poets and romantic novelists and YA novelists and many many others.

This means I can choose some writing in my own genres to critique, and give knowledgeable feedback. It also means the stuff is fun to read.

If I see something rather highbrow and literary I can engage if I wish, but there are a bunch of other people better qualified and more interested, who can do that for me. And if my honest response would be Please Stop, it is much better if I don’t have to mince words to avoid crushing someone’s dreams. It’s not necessarily a reflection of their writing skill, only of my deep dislike of highbrow, literary things. That’s what 3 years of Eng Lit will do for you.

But if you’re not signed up for The Write Practice, then what?

Joanna’s suggestion was to seek out readers/writers within your genre, within your target audience, and get feedback from them. She personally prefers to hire experts for specific critique – the examples she gave were of an expert on Maori culture, and an expert on Mumbai – and also to hire editors to do the kind of line-by-line picking that writing groups might offer. All this struck me as sound. Joanna suggested, shock horror, the internet as a brilliant resource for finding your genre experts and critique partners.

Just to be clear, she didn’t say writing groups were horrible – only that the people in them are by definition all amateurs (she put it more nicely). If you were learning to drive, you wouldn’t get in beside your non-driving friend and say, Well, let’s try this, and encourage each other when we seem to be doing something right. You would pay an instructor or seek out an experienced mentor.

I quite fancy having Joanna Penn as my mentor. Hey Joanna, pretty please?