TTT – Writing Groups (Part Four)

Hello and welcome to the final part of the writing groups’ mini-series. This week, our sights are set firmly on the question: how do I start my own writing group? And, seen as we’ve already covered the reasons to join, their pros and cons, and the benefits they have on your writing, it seems like a logical end.

How do I start my own writing group?

The first question you have to ask yourself is WHY you want to start one rather than joining an already established group. There are a number of good reasons for starting your own, chief amongst them is that you already have a group of writers you interact with and just want to make it more formal.

The next question – do I want to meet physically or online? – will determine whether you will need to charge for membership or not. For the purposes of this post, and the fact that doing otherwise will open up a whole new can of worms, I will assume meeting online will suffice.

Online writing groups

The internet has spoiled us (in oh-so many ways). The age of instant messaging and online chatting is now well established; even Facebook has facilities to group chat with selected friends. This has been a real boon to writers’ groups and has allowed the creation of pan-global circles.

Group voice/video chat has added another dimension to online meetings. The growth of smartphone technology and cross-platform messaging applications means that no writer need be isolated (so long as they have an internet connection).

What tools are out there?


The first writing group I was a part of utilised Facebook’s private group pages. We created and administered a private group which allowed members to share and critique each other’s work and generally chat about the world of publishing.

The benefit of the Facebook group was that it provided a secure area to share work that was only accessible by members. Any new membership requests had to be approved by all admins before access was granted.

However, chat functionality is limited and the majority of our chats were through comments.


Sarcastic Muse use Skype’s instant messaging, file sharing, video, and voice chat regularly (read, almost every night). This is the main way we share work, offer support to each other and provide that all important feedback.

The fact that Skype operates in the background whilst signed on to your machine, and even your smartphone, means that the feed is always on for anyone to contribute to the conversation. This is great for those of us operating across multiple time zones.

The voice and video functionality is ever getting better and, with the addition of free group video calling, continues to improve.

Google Hangouts

I’ve not had much luck with Google Hangouts myself but I’m hearing great things. There is a member of Sarcastic Muse, who shall remain nameless, that is pushing for us to upsticks from Skype and shuffle across to Google.

Google Hangouts is another free application which allows much the same functionality as Skype. They have made a number of improvements to its speed and call quality which has had many businesses flocking to use its conference call facilities. Definitely makes it one to consider for your writing group platform.

I have a group, now what?

Okay, you have your writers and chosen your platform, now what do you do? In truth, you can do whatever you like. You can make it as formal or as informal as suits your group but bear in mind that the key focus should be on writing and helping each other to improve in the craft.

If you’re the type who needs an agenda, set one up in advance and circulate it to the group. Less structured types may benefit from writing sprints and prompts to encourage work to be produced and shared. Why not discuss ideas you’re working on, or even problems you’ve encountered? Another writer may see a way of tackling a problem that you’d overlooked.

Above all else, have fun.

Has anyone out there started their own writing group? How was/is your experience of it?

TTT – Writing Groups (Part Three)

Wow! It’s week three already and we’re nearly at the end of this short series on writing groups. I hope what we’ve covered so far have been useful. If you haven’t seen them yet, here’s parts one and two.

Writing groups – huh, good God y’all – what are they good for? A lot it seems. A solid writing group is a great tool and platform from which you can develop and hone your writing craft. When done properly, they urge and promote both on a personal and a public growth, exposing you to new thoughts and ideas.

How do writing groups help writers develop?

1. Constructive criticism

I’ve mentioned this before but writing groups are the perfect source of peer reviews. Many groups encourage members to read and discuss their work in the public forum of the meeting. The very best don’t even let the author talk once the reading is over; they are to listen to the feedback and take notes. The odd question often is permitted where specific attention is needed i.e. character, realism etc., but these are to be asked before the reading. Constructive criticism is a learning exercise. Listening to what your peers think of your work and making any relevant changes allows you to tweak and polish that story/novel/screenplay into a masterpiece.

2. Find your voice

There is nothing like sitting in a group (or on an internet chat), listening to people you trust say things like “it doesn’t even sound like you” to give you a total sense of dread (or relief). For a writer, finding your unique voice feels like an uphill struggle. That struggle gets so much easier the more you write and almost a cake-walk when you get your friends and colleagues pointing out when you’re straying from the path.

3. Education

You thought the classroom was where you learned all you know about writing? The streets? Well, both are true to an extent but (voluntarily) sitting in a room full of likeminded people and discussing the finer points of past perfect tense (damned if I know, don’t ask me) is an education all of its own. The upside to a writers’ group setting is that we’re all…most of us are looking to improve our work (there are a few who think they know everything already. Feel free to ignore them. The rest of your group will be) and are often more than willing to help others struggling with difficult concepts. Sometimes all it takes is one person to explain a concept in a different way and, all of a sudden, it sticks.

Here are a few things you can pick up at a writing group:

  • Manuscript style and formatting tips
  • Technical aspects of writing
  • Word and sentence flow
  • New words
  • Grammar tips
  • Acronyms (thousands and thousands of acronyms)
  • Pit falls to avoid

4. Challenge

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger right? A good writing group will always challenge its members. It should rip you out of your comfort zones and prise your white-knuckled fingers loose from the back of the chair you’ve been so desperately clinging to. Above all else, it should inspire and challenge you to write, and write often.

TTT – Writing Groups (Part Two)

Welcome back to the second part in this series on writing groups. Last week, we discussed the things to look out for when joining a writing group (for those of you who missed that, it can be found here). This week, it’s pros and cons.

I firmly believe that the only two things every writer needs are a good notebook and a writing group. The former seems to be a given, at least for most. The latter, on the other hand, has encountered more resistance. Trust me, you NEED a group. You don’t necessarily need to join an established group; one you set up with friends will do just fine.

So, let’s look at the pros and cons of writing groups.


1. Learning experience

A good writing group will challenge you to push your knowledge of the craft beyond what you may be used to. The other members can be a source of inspiration and offer a wealth of information on grammar, style, formatting, and even an insight into the publishing industry. The biggest thing you’ll learn is confidence: confidence in your writing, confidence to share your work with others, and confidence to listen to and give constructive criticism.

2. Find your voice

If there’s one thing a writing group does well it’s to encourage you to find your voice. Through critiques of your work, regular readings, and guidance from other members about what they like and don’t like, you will find your voice starting to show through in your work. We all know how hard it is to discover your writing voice but, with the help of a group, you will find that when it does bubble to the surface you will know.

3. Generation of ideas

Writing groups, especially those that encourage workshops and exercises, are great forums for idea generation. Even ones that don’t do anything formal are still a melting pot of ideas and discussion.

4. Beta-reader pool

What better place to find your next set of beta-readers than a writing group. At least they’ll know what you’re going through.

5. Support Network

A good group is like your best friend, always there when you need them. They’re the ones who’ll help you through your low points, act as sounding boards when you need to think through plot holes, and just tell you to stop being ridiculous when the doubts set in.


1. Criticism

We join writer’s groups for the constructive criticism they afford us but not all groups seem to grasp this. A few are more concerned with promoting their “star” writer’s work than functioning as a group. On the subject of constructive criticism, honesty is essential for it to be worth anyone’s time. Some groups have a real problem with been honest with a writer about their work. It may be done for the best of reasons (i.e. not wishing any offence) but it’s useless.

2. Commitment

A writing group is only useful if people attend. You need to be sure that you (and others) can afford the time commitment of a weekly/fortnightly/monthly meeting. The more infrequent the meetings, the limited involvement and benefit you’re going to get from it.

3. Interaction

For a group to function well, it needs its members to interact with each other. This may be a terrifying thought; we didn’t become writers to “deal with people”, most of us become writers because we are unable to do just that. The old adage that you only get out what you put in is key.

4. Expense

There are many writers’ groups that are free to join, most of these dwell in the realms of cyberspace. Others meet at a physical location and, because of dirty words like “room hire” and “entry fees”, charge. It’s up to you to decide if the charges are reasonable and ones that you want to pay out.

5. Attention

The size of a group could have you vying for attention with the other writers. Consider the size of the group you’re looking to join and how well organised it is. Do members have to shout over each other to be heard or does everyone have a say and a turn to read/comment?

Next time: Writing Groups and Development.


What are your experiences of writing groups? Have you any pros or cons you think should be added to the list? Answers on a postcard…or, better yet, put them in the comments.

TTT – Writing Groups (Part One)

Whether you love them or hate them, writing groups are a valuable tool for those who are serious about the craft of writing. Gone are the days of the elite groups hunkered away in the depths of basements, identifiable only by the mists of cigarette smoke drifting out from beneath a locked and guarded door…but that might be Freemasons, I get confused. Writer’s groups now can be found almost anywhere: your local library, bookstores, coffee shops, bars (warning – writing progress may suffer), and even online.

In the coming weeks, I will take a look at writer’s groups, what you should look for in a group, the pros and cons of joining one, and the ways that they’ll help you to develop your writing. This week we’ll start with the

What to look for in a writing group

Not all writing groups are right for everyone. We all have our own preferences when it comes to people we interact and share or work with. This is no different when choosing a group to work with. Some groups are huge, boast hundreds of members, meet fortnightly in a prestigious hotel and charge through the nose for entry. Others are small, intimate, free to join, and meet on only the 29th day of February. The rest are somewhere in between.

Most established groups are often on the lookout for new members

When choosing a group, you should consider the following:

  • Cost – does the group require members to pay a fee? How often? What are you paying for?
  • Size – is the group large or small? How many members attend regularly?
  • Location – is the group accessible to you?
  • Entry requirements – does the group require its members to be published? Earning from their writing? Writing for specific genres?
  • Meeting frequency – does the group meet frequently or are there prolonged gaps between meetings? Does this fit with your needs? Do they meet at a time that suits you?
  • Affable – are you welcomed into the group? Do you get along with other members?
  • Comfortable – Do you feel like you want to participate? In discussions? By reading your work?

The main requirement for me and other writers I’ve spoken to is that the members should be capable of giving and receiving both creative and constructive criticism. This will become clearer when we look at the pros and cons of a writing group, but the biggest assistance a group can be to a writer is with regards feedback on their work. Support comes a close second.

At the time of writing, I (technically) belong to two writers groups. Both of them existing only in the realms of cyberspace with one group more active than the other. Both are small groups, were free to join (although, I do pay emotionally), and give me all the constructive criticism I can handle right now. The best thing is that all their feedback is honest and doesn’t pull any punches. What more can a writer want?

Over to you, do any of you belong to a writing group? What made you pick them? What makes you stay? I’d love to hear from you.

TTT – How to Survive NaNoWriMo

Fifty thousand words in thirty days seems like an impossible task. Before July, the idea of competing in NaNoWriMo or one of the camp events sent a chill though me. What had put me off all those times before was the commitment. I’m good at starting a challenge, but tend to lose interest quickly; in fact, it’s a wonder I ever finish writing anything.

Taking part in NaNo and April’s A to Z challenge was as much about forcing myself to finish a project as it was about the challenge. If you’re like me, or even just to give your novel a push, I’d urge you to take part. For those not yet ready for the full might of November’s NaNoWriMo, the camps run twice a year (April and July) and are a good way to ease yourself into the challenge.

Okay, now that I’ve recruited convinced you with my extensive powers of persuasion, you’ll be needing a few tips to reach that terrifying target. Here goes…


1. Have a plan

I don’t care what anyone says, the only way to win at NaNo is to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be a blow-by-blow synopsis with each scene plotted down to the last details (I can’t work from these kinds of plans either), but it should include a basic road map. The plan is not there to stifle creativity but to help you in deciding what scene you will be writing in a given session. Trust me, you don’t have time to debate where you’re heading next.

2. Get rid of the plan

The plan is great, the plan will help to keep you on track. But remember, the plan is only a guide and not set in stone. Writing is organic and often has a mind of its own. If things go ‘off course’, go with the flow, get rid of the plan and keep writing. The goal is king, everything else is just edit-fodder.

3. Don’t stop writing

Time is of the essence during NaNo and, unless you’re lucky enough to be a full time writer, your writing time will be like mine and snatched at every available opportunity. Any delay can result in missing that daily word count and falling behind. Don’t spend an hour agonising over that one scene. Don’t waste time typing, deleting, retyping that sentence in chapter four. Make a note of what you’re trying to say, or the rough direction you want to scene to go, and move onto the next.

4. Remember this is a first draft

This was the obstacle I think I had the hardest time overcoming. I’ve always had a problem with editing on the fly and it wasn’t until NaNo that I finally worked this out. NaNo doesn’t give you the time to edit, you barely get the time to read through the words written the previous day. Whatever you write during NaNo, keep this in the back of your mind: you can write crap, you can write the worst sentences and paragraphs your mind can dredge up, because when you’re finished, you can edit all that out. Write now, polish later.

5. Get some support

Nothing keeps you on track more than a supportive group of friends. They could be family members, people in your writing group, or other writers suffering the same crisis of faith you are. NaNo has some great forums for finding other competing writers and most are encouraging of others. The best thing about having a support group is that it makes you accountable to more than yourself. It’s amazing how much of a kick in the arse you get from knowing that someone is going to ask you what your word count is now.

6. Be prepared to improvise

No amount of planning frees you from the possibility that you’ll hit 45,000 words and run out of scenes. I know a few writers this has happened to and most of them are pretty good at planning. What do you do if this happens to you? You keep going. Pants if you have to. Try out scenes you were unsure of during planning; those ones you cut out because you didn’t think they’d work. Add new scenes you KNOW will not work. You could rewrite scenes from the perspective of a different character or even write a short story with the same characters as your novel. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

Over to you: has anyone else out there competed in NaNo recently? Anybody planning on joining me in November? For the veterans amongst us, are they any other tips you’d like to share?

TTT – Developing Characters through Short Stories

To write your character’s story, you need to know them as well as, if not better than, you know yourself. This isn’t an easy ask. There are so many questions, so many things to learn. Where do you start? A chat over dinner and wine? A long, drawn out interview? I find actions speak louder than words.

The majority of my characters have been developed through short stories and, more recently, flash fiction. I like to put them through their paces, maybe torture them a little (a lot), and find out how they tick. Like a scientist (or just some kid with a bug in a jar), I immerse them in scenarios and study their reactions. You’d be amazed by how much you can learn and, if nothing else, it’s a whole heap of fun…


1. History

Backstory tells you a lot about your characters. Experience and past encounters shape who they are and what they’re capable of. Living through those experiences, alongside your character, is the perfect way to understand their motivations, goals and abilities. Flash and short fiction are the ideal media for this. They allow you to focus on individual events that had the biggest impact. They also allows you to gauge the condition of relationships in the character’s immediate circle. For example, does a loving husband find the relationship with his wife strained when they argue, or is he certain they’ll come out fine? What about their friends? Do they speak kindly of them when they are not around? Write the scene, learn from it.

Exercise: Choose three key moments in your character’s past and relive them in three flash/short stories. Be sure to pay attention to how your character reacts in the heat of the moment.

2. Test of time

When done correctly, character development takes an incredible investment of time. This is doubly so if you intend to use them as the main character in your novel. Ask yourself, are they worth all this effort? Often, it’s hard to tell. We might start writing and soon find they are not all they appear to be.

When I get an idea for a character, I write them into a short story, either as the main character or as supporting cast. There are two benefits to this:

  1. I’ve already started to test them in conflict; and
  2. I get a good idea if their story is the right one to tell.

Sometimes the person you think is right to tell the story is more of a supporting character, at best. Likewise, the character you gave a bit part to sometimes has the stronger voice and the better story.

Exercise: Choose a character you haven’t fully developed and write a story involving them. Do they come across as a strong character? Do they entice you to explore them further?

3. Trial by fire

Knowing how a character will react to a given crisis…situation is half the battle. The only real way to do this is to test their reaction, both external and internal, to conflict by throwing them to the proverbial, and sometimes literal, wolves. When you write with your characters in mind, you’ll find that they have a habit of steering the story down their own paths and in ways you never expected. This is a great indication of the extent that you know your characters, that you have started to adopt their mindset. It’s also as frustrating as it gets.

If you really want to find out how the character will react to conflict, write the conflict and, while you’re doing it, listen to what they’re telling you. It pays to listen to their thoughts and emotions too.

Exercise: pick an intense scene, one filled with conflict, and then throw your character into the thick of it. Do they sink, or swim? Do they react how you expected? If not, are they likely to react like that again?

4. Voice

Short fiction, especially that written in the first-person, is the perfect way to explore and develop your character’s voice. Writing from their perspective puts them in the driving seat and gives you a unique opportunity to discover the way they communicate with each other and with their audience. This is exceptionally useful for secondary characters, ones that play a significant part in your story but are not main characters. It’s all too easy to give these characters a generic, even stereotypical, voice. Don’t let that happen, coax it out of them with flash.

Exercise: Take a secondary character and write a scene, or short story, from their perspective. How do they talk? What mannerisms do they have? Do they seem educated? To what level? Do they favour slang and jargon, or do they avoid it?

5. Day in the life

Day to day activities are not the kind of thing that makes it into novels and stories. It’s not often that a character will have a typical day in a novel (these things are, and should, be edited out). You’ll never go into detail about their paperclip collection (unless you’re setting them up to be The Paperclip Killer, or his patsy), what they had for lunch, or give the blow by blow on their lunchtime meeting (Le Carré-esque spy thriller, anyone?). How a person lives tells a lot about who the person is. Short stories and flash allow you to live a day in their lives. It won’t make for exciting reading, but it will reveal all sorts of juicy secrets about them and their ‘ordinary’ life.

Exercise: write the story of your character’s typical day. What does it reveal about them? About their family and support network? How do they feel about their job?

Has anybody out there just short stories to learn about their characters? How has it worked out? Comments below please.

TTT – Flash Fiction and Novel Writing

I know it seems contradictory that writing flash fiction can help you to finish a novel, but it’s true. How does writing a 500 word flash fiction piece help you to cultivate the skills you need for novel writing when the two are at different ends of the writing spectrum?

Ways that flash helps longer works
1. Concision

A novel is a vast entity with an almost unlimited capacity to store words. What difference does an extra 500, 1,000, or even 5,000 words make when you’re taking about a word count of 80,000+? A big difference, that’s what. Novels are simply long stories, or a series of interconnecting ones, and like all stories should be treated with respect. They should be fed and nurtured and tended to in order to allow them to grow to their full potential. They are not a dumping ground for excess words the author can’t be bothered to prune.

Flash fiction has a word limit. To write it successfully, you must make every word count. There’s no room for hangers on. Flash fiction teaches the writer how to edit (and I mean REALLY edit). It teaches that, for a word to survive the cut, it must add to the telling of the story, to be more than just window dressing. Far too many novels could benefit from shedding a few excess words.

2. Character exploration

Flash is a perfect way to flesh out and explore a character’s personality. Use it to put them through their paces before you invest your time in writing their story. Use it to develop backstory and answer those all-important ‘What-ifs’.

Writing a novel’s going to take you months, even years, it’s only sensible to find out if the character is worth sticking with for all that time. Maybe there’s a better character waiting in the wings? Maybe the character isn’t all they profess to be? Maybe your character is just a dick? If I had a pound for every character I’d fallen out with…actually, I just have a pile of character bodies. Harlequin, you have been warned.

3. Just for fun

Picture this: you have a scene in which an immeasurably powerful spirit is meeting with a, slightly green, mage. The mage is trying to secure an item from the spirit, one that the spirit is never going to surrender. The mage needs this item to save someone’s life. How does he get it? Dunno? Yeah, me neither. I encountered this problem a long time ago, trying to find the solution to something that occurs in Harlequin’s backstory (It’s not even important to the plot in any of the books, but I NEEDED to know). What did I do? I wrote it out. I wrote sixteen flash fiction stories; each approaching the problem from a different angle. When I read back through them, I had my solution.

It happens to all of us. Half-way through your novel, you’ll encounter a problem you hadn’t anticipated. Brainstorm with flash fiction. It’s a great problem-solving tool, not to mention how much more fun it is than staring at a blank screen and willing the imagination faeries to appear (if they do turn up, let me know: the buggers owe me money). No problems encountered? Good for you, but why not use flash to consider alternate scenes you may have dismissed at the time? One of them could be the scene that lifts your novel higher up the bestsellers list.

4. Empty your mind

Ideas are like buses. You sit around for hours in the freezing rain waiting for one and then twenty turn up all at once. Trust me, when you start to write your novel, your subconscious batters on the door like a child, showing you all kinds of new and shiny ideas. Often it’s enough to exorcise the little menace by jotting the idea down in your notebook, but sometimes you have to bring out the big guns. Use flash to get that idea out of your head and firmly down on paper, freeing your sub-conscious up to generate ideas relevant to your novel.

5. Trust your audience

Something I see time and time again with new writers is over-explanation. This is often caused by a lack of confidence in their own ability to communicate their ideas. They worry the audience won’t understand what they mean, so they add a side note e.g. The green-skinned woman licked her lips with a forked tongue, because she wasn’t human. I know, I know, this is an exaggeration but not by much. I’ve seen things worse than this and, more than once, in (self) published work. Now, the forked tongue and green skin can only mean she’s not human (either that or body modification has gone too far) and your audience will pick up on that.

‘What’s all this got to do with flash?’ I hear you ask. The extreme limit on word count in flash fiction gives no room for detailed explanations, and I would urge anyone, especially beginners, thinking of writing a novel to give it a go. If nothing else, it will teach you to trust that the reader will pick up on clues and arrive at the same conclusion you did. They’re smarter than they look, give them a little credit.

If any of you out there are using flash fiction to help write your novel, or if you have any tips and suggestions of your own of how flash and novels go hand-in-hand then I’d like to hear from you. Please use the comments below.
Next week: Character exploration through short stories.

TTT – How to Write Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is easy. Flash fiction is hard. And both of these statements are true.

Before January, I’d never written a piece of flash, didn’t even know what it was. But once I started, I was hooked. It got its little spines into my noodle and wouldn’t let go…okay, that’s not true. It lets go every once in a while and, when it does, you’ll find me scrabbling around the floor trying to put it back in (what can I say? I miss the little guy when he’s gone).

Since then, I’ve been involved in numerous flash fiction challenges, most notably Thain in Vain’s weekly prompt, and I wrote (shameless plug alert) A Dictionary of Tales, twenty-six short tales of myths, monsters and legends which you should really check out.

Anyway, I digress. It’s on with the show…

What is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a literary term used to classify any complete story of 1,000 words or less (some argue 2,000). To be true flash fiction, and not just a snapshot or short scene, a story must have all the classic elements: a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. With an extremely limited word count, some of these elements may likely be implied in the narrative.

It is all too often thought of as an easy out by some writers and that its authors lack the discipline, skill, or commitment to tackle longer works. This is (excuse my French) shite…or is it merde? Anyway. Flash is no less important in terms of discovering your capabilities as a writer than is completing your novel. There’s an art to good flash fiction. It is a discipline all of its own and it take a lot of commitment (and a whole heap of editing) to write a story in only 1,000. I find that writers who knock flash fiction often end up with tomes full of excess words (but more on that later).


1. Know your (word) limits

It pays to keep your intended word limit in mind as you write. If you don’t, you risk telling more of the story than was intended and end up with a more substantial edit than may be strictly necessary. The word count is what makes the work flash fiction and it is all too easy to begin to expand out of control (see K.I.S.S. below).

I usually write to a 500 word limit which, depending on your font/font size, is about one side of typed A4. As the text gets closer and closer to that final line, I know I’m approaching my word limit. This is a helpful guide when it comes to assessing whether or not the story you are trying to tell is suitable for flash.

2. Start in the middle

No piece of flash fiction starts at the beginning. There simply isn’t the room. As its name suggests, flash is a sudden shock, straight into the action with little or no warning. To achieve this, you must think about your story as a whole and assess where in the narrative the action really begins. For example, in Crow, I explored the aspect of the goddess, Morrigan, and a battle she bore witness to. There were many places I could have started (the preparations for battle, the indignity that caused it to be fought, the call to arms of the soldiers). I chose to start after the fighting had already begun, right in the heat of the conflict. Any earlier and I’d have run out of words before I even gotten to the battle, any later and the story would already be over.

The key to good flash fiction is knowing where to start.

3. Leave ’em hanging

Never finish the story. Well, of course you have to finish it but rarely does flash fiction (or even short stories) finish with ‘The End’. Start late and finish early, before the conflict or resolution has fully played out. Make the audience ask “But what happens next?” Flash fiction is as much about what you leave out what you put it.

4. Make every word count

Every word must pull its weight. Flash is not the place excess baggage. Likewise, it is not the place for strings of descriptive adverbs/adjectives. All stories need a few for flavour and to prevent the story from occurring in a vacuum but you don’t have the space to describe every detail. This shouldn’t be limited to adverbs/adjectives either. Ask yourself:

  1. Could I start this story later?
  2. Can I cut that without losing meaning?
  3. Does that word/sentence/paragraph add anything to the story?

If you answered “yes” to questions 1 or 2, or “no” to question 3, then your word rationing needs looking at.

5. Write long, edit short

The story comes first and, as with all first drafts, what you’ve written is likely to need severe pruning. Concentrate on getting the words down first, don’t worry about the word count but do try to bear it in mind. Once that’s done: cut, cut, cut. Ask yourselves the questions above and those we discussed in a previous post on editing.

Remember: not all stories can be told in flash fiction.

6. K.I.S.S.

That’s right Keep It Simple Stu….sunshine. You haven’t got the room to develop multiple characters and twisting subplots. If you have an idea like that then congratulations, you have the makings of a novel, but these don’t work for flash. Flash rarely has more than one or two characters and usually only one plot strand (others may be implied). You’ll drive yourself mad doing it any other way. So, do your noggin a favour and K.I.S.S.

7. Write often

Flash fiction is a perfect medium in which to discover your ‘voice’. Because flash can be written in a comparatively short space of time, it is possible to explore many different facets of style, perspective and tense in the same time one writer might take to draft a novel. Do the maths: if a flash fiction story takes a day to write and edit, then it is possible to write thirty in a month (ignore February. It isn’t even a real month anyway). Although it’s possible to write a short novel in 30 days, there is no way you’ll have it edited in that time also. This means that a flash fiction author has the potential to explore twenty-nine different themes in the same time a novelist explores one. Think about it.

I’m going to cast the floor open once again. Does anyone have any tips they would like to add? Any sage advice on crafting flash picked up through experience? I’d also like to hear people’s thoughts on flash fiction. Do you like it? Loathe it? Do you even see the point in it? Comments below, please.

Next week: How flash fiction can help you write your novel.

TTT – Staying Power

Writing a novel is the dream of most writers, but finishing a novel can become the bane of our existence. A novel is a huge commitment, a long haul. It requires stamina, fortitude, and coffee (a LOT of coffee).

Some writers find novel writing a breeze. They sit down at their desks and, by lunchtime, they have a first draft. Okay, that’s not true, but some writers do find it easier than others. Those who don’t always have the same excuse: no time. They don’t have the time to write a novel, don’t have the time to do the research, don’t have the time to edit, don’t have the time to submit. Don’t, don’t, don’t…

[Insert music from a very small violin here]

We all have the time. No one has more of it than anyone else. Twenty-four hours is all we get. The real problem is a lack of staying power.

What is staying power?

Staying power [noun]: the quality or ability that allows someone or something to continue to be effective… for a long period of time (Mirriam-Webster, 2014)

In this instance, staying power refers to the writer’s ability to invest the time and energy required to get from the first word to ‘The End’. A pretty big ask, especially when you think of a novel being between 60,000 and 100,000 words. I typically write for an hour or two every day (longer if I lose track of time), averaging around 600 words. At that rate, the first draft of a short novel would take 100 days to complete.

A hundred days?! But, I have other projects to work on and new ideas to research…and therein lies the problem.

This year, I will be participating in my first ever NaNoWriMo event (in 8 days, to be precise) and my staying power needs are at an all-time high. So, how do we keep ourselves excited and motivated through the novel writing process?

1. Accept that you’ll have rough patches

You sit down at your desk, notes ready, fingers poised and…mind blank. You’re lucky if you manage twenty words before you give up in frustration. That, my friends, is a rough patch and they happen to all of us. Don’t force the words. If they won’t come, give yourself a break for that day, or better still…

2. Write a different part

This used to trip me up all the time. I’d start writing, have a great idea for a scene mid-way through the book, then I’d stall before I got anywhere near it. If the idea for the scene is persistent enough to be distracting, why not get it out of your system and write it now? Write it and then put it to one side, then get back on with it.

3. Reconnect with your characters/story

During the long haul, we often forget the reasons why we started writing the story to begin with, why we felt so excited at the beginning. Take some time to reconnect with your story, reread your old notes, or talk it through with a sympathetic (writer) friend. If possible, why not experience life through a character’s eyes? Try out their favourite hobby (Note: the author accepts no liability for your actions, so be sensible), visit their favourite place, even eat their favourite food. Any of these things may be enough to re-light that initial spark.

4. Write your book’s blurb (or you award acceptance speech)

We all write for different reasons and, when we’re at our lowest, these reasons are often forgotten. When you feel your mood getting low, do something that reminds you of why you started writing. If your only goal is to see your novel completed, take some time to design the cover and write the blurb. If it’s fame and fortune ye seek (ahem…sorry), write your literary award acceptance speech and then get back to work.

5. Take a break

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and sometimes a break is all you need to rekindle your desire. Give yourself some time (two weeks, maybe) where you don’t work on your novel. Pack up all notes and sketches and don’t look at them during that time. When you return to it, it’ll be like the return of an old friend. I find this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in a rut. The time away allows my brain to work the kinks out of the novel and I find I know exactly how to proceed when I get back to it.

Bonus tip
6. Dealing with new ideas

We’ve all done it: sat down to write a story and, BANG, one thousand and one new ideas spring from the mists, each one better than the last and all of them vying for immediate attention. They offer promises of fortune, fame, and other prizes. It’s enough to make you scream. So, what do you do if this happens mid-novel?

That’s easy:

  • Write it down
  • Give yourself a little time (a day/two days) to explore the idea
  • Once the time is up, put all your notes on it away
  • Make yourself a promise to return to it AFTER you’re finished.

Alright folks, I’ve waffled long enough. Does anyone else have any tips for keeping your novel on track? Any methods of resisting temptation? Please put them in the comments below.

Next week: how to write flash fiction

TTT – Read Like a Writer

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

– Stephen King

Writers need to read. It helps us to translate the world around us into written word. With every book/story/article read, we expand our understanding of the mechanics of writing and the art of storytelling. We’re lucky in that respect; we have the most enjoyable on-the-job training ever. What other professional can lose themselves in fiction and claim that they’re honing their skills?

But, it is not enough to simply read. Although it’s true that some knowledge will be osmosed subconsciously, it’s only when we really study great (and poor) writing that we gain any real insight into the art.

1. Read critically

Scrutinise every word, every sentence. Ask yourself why the author chose that particular phrase to convey their meaning? What does it reveal about the characters/setting/plot? Is there anything you can take away from it that will add strength to your own stories?

Reading the work of others with a critical eye is the best way to learn the craft of writing. It’ll help you to identify what does and doesn’t work about a piece. Writing shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel. Follow the examples set by others and draw inspiration from them and, very soon, others will be drawing their inspiration from you.

When reading, it is all too easy to let your brain fall into neutral. This has the same effect as zoning out at the cinema; you may have followed the gist of what is going one but you’ve missed the subtle clues about the plot. Don’t let that happen. The best way to achieve this is to:

2. Keep a book journal

What better way to combine writing and reading than by keeping a book journal. You can do this in a notebook (one specifically for the journal, or in your writer’s notebook), on loose leaf paper, or even make note on the computer. Whatever format the journal takes, use it to record the following:

  • your thoughts on the work;
  • your thoughts on the characters;
  • what you liked/didn’t like about it;
  • what you thought worked or didn’t work; and
  • any interesting quotes, phrases or words you encountered.

I know writers who prefer to fill the books they’re reading with notations, highlighting interesting passages within the body of the text. I’m not one of these people. If you come near any of my books (textbooks excluded) with a pen or highlighter, I will hurt you…badly.

3. Read with a dictionary

Words are our clay. From them, we create vast worlds, vibrate people and epic adventures (or stories about people drinking in bars). English is a hugely versatile and poetic language with an estimated (although unverifiable) word count of over 1 million words (source: joint Harvard/Google study, December 2010). But, no one can know all of them and their individual meanings without help.

The more, and the wider, you read, the higher the likelihood that you’ll encounter words you’ve never come across before. When this happens, make it a point to look up the word and study its meaning. Who knows, it may be just the word you’ve been looking for your own work.

4. Read outside your genre

When we stick to the confines of our preferred genre, we miss a world of possibilities. Think about it, if authors stuck solely to one genre we wouldn’t have such great crossovers as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books, 2009), or American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2001). The wider we read, the more we open ourselves to new ideas and different ways of presenting our work.

Do you read with a critical eye? Has reading outside your preferred genre sparked any ideas? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below.