What to Read Next

Waterstones has a reward scheme where you receive points on a card depending on how much you spend at the till. You used to be given stamps on a card but this has been replaced with a credit-card-style system.

On Sunday, I discovered I had three old stamp cards. When they were trasferred to plastic, I discovered I had £20 towards my next purchase.

While this is great news, there was nothing in stock that attracted my interest enough, and I also have enough books waiting to be read without buying any more. I’ve been a terrible writer of late, as I haven’t read enough of others’ work.

What I might do instead is save the card until I need to buy a gift for someone. It’s a satisfying feeling to pick exactly the right book that you know they’ll enjoy.

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More Important Than the Important Work

There probably isn’t an author who hasn’t been distracted from their work at one time or another. Even when a deadline is approaching, sometimes it’s a more attractive option to wash the dishes, walk the dog or head to the pub.

I suffered from this affliction recently when I spent about an hour trimming the cords on the blinds in my writing room rather than complete a piece. The cords did need trimmed, but as they’d waited about a year already, there was no reason why they couldn’t have lasted another day.

Now it’s happened again. The distraction this time isn’t a menial task, but another piece of work.

I recently joined a story writing group called Table 23. The intention is for the other members to chip in with suggestions for our individual projects and to provide some friendly peer pressure so we’ll actually complete what we’ve proposed.

I talked about the novel I want to redraft and I was given helpful suggestions about how the plot might progress. But after several visits to the annual Edinburgh Festivals this month, I’ve come away with another idea, this time for a one-hour play featuring two characters. I find myself thinking about it and coming up with new plot points at the expense of the Table 23 novel.

In this instance, I’m going to run with the play and at least make a first draft. My novel has at least been planned out and can wait a little longer, whereas I want to capture the play on paper before all the details evaporate.

When It Sounds Terrible on Paper

I’m a member of the Poetizer app, where members can post their poetry for others to read. I use it only to post my own work and read what my comrades have written., but some people explicitly state in their profiles that they welcome feedback on their work,

One profile contains the following:

Currently working on changing every chapter of the Book Thief into separate found poems. I would love feedback and constructive criticism!!

My first reaction to this was No, please don’t, that’s a terrible idea, although I didn’t reply to the person.

Thinking about it, however, I realise I don’t know exactly how the poet intends to execute the project, and it might work well once it’s done. Look at the success of the 50 Shades of Grey series, which started out as Twilight fanfiction.

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called Sir Madam, featuring a character who identifies as neither female or male. I was already uncertain about whether I’d hit the right tone or conveyed the right message. Before its debut, I summarised it to a friend, who reinforced my doubts and added Check your privilege.

I performed the poem anyway at a showcase event. But I included an introduction by way of mitigation; this went on longer than the piece. I needn’t have worried; Sir Madam was rather well-received, and was the one that people remembered when they saw me next.

When a plot is reduced to nothing more than a summary, the nuances are lost and the emotion can be sucked out of it. We always hear stories about authors who had novels rejected multiple times, but it’s likely this was also a judgement on the synopsis, not just the sample chapters that agents often request

With this is mind, I plan to keep an eye on Poetizer, and find out how well – or badly – The Book Thief lends itself to poetry.

The Camper-Plan

As we head into the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided my project will be to revisit an old novel and turn the handwritten manuscript into a typed one.

My plan was to copy out the piece, making any amendments as I went along. But when I started writing, I found the rather bland factual descriptions were somehow morphing into something ten times as lively, with the narrator’s personal opinions peppered throughout. I’ve since written a few guidelines to help keep the voice consistent, and I’ll be introducing a counter-narrator for alternate chapters.

I don’t know why this particular leap occurred, because I haven’t revisited the manuscript since it was drafted. Perhaps it’s because I wrote it in chronological order – which is unusual in my practice, and indeed unusual among novelists in general. As such, I know how the characters develop by the end of the story.

One factor that’s helped in the past, as possibly with this piece, is the use of voice dictation software, specifically Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I initially installed this program to reduce Repetitive Strain Injury, but I now find it invaluable in other ways, since I have to speak my handwritten text out loud. This is great for highlighting individual words that slow down the narrative, and I find that some pieces have a different tone from what I intended.

During Camp, I’m aiming to edit for an average of one hour per day, although I’ve built in time to read my mailbox messages and to catch up with fellow writers in our online Cabin. A Cabin works a lot like Twitter, but is restricted to 20 people; writers can choose to be assigned to one at random, set up a private one with friends, or elect not to use one at all.

Personally, I’m finding their support invaluable, as I’ve only managed around 10% of my goal and we’re 30% through the month. There’s still time to catch up, but it will be a struggle.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.