Trust – on all sorts of levels – is a key element in the relationship between reader and writer and authorial consistency is essential for this. For example, if you have your hero aged 27 on page 11 and aged 29 on page 12, readers can’t read on for the alarm bells ringing in their heads. They are suddenly concerned that you don’t know much about your own characters. Similarly with memoir – you can’t have people dying inconsistently. So attention to detail is vital. But how do you keep track of all that detail – birthdates, exams, Halloween, dances, travel days, significant periods. For example, you may need to make a note of how long it takes to hand-stitch a dress.

A few practical tools will help. You will by now be familiar with the uses to which a novelist can put notebooks, folders, wallets and sticky notes. Pinboards can provide inspirational wall-decoration festooned with visual aids such as photos (cut out of magazines or withdrawn from family albums) which may suggest the physical attributes of hero and heroine. Or you can pin-up maps, town plans, street plans or room plans – if they’ll help you visualise where your hero is and how he moves around the space. You will also gather around you a reference library of everything from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable to Roget’s Thesaurus.

But don’t neglect the potential of the Spreadsheet – computer-based or otherwise. This can help you with:
• Timeline – what happens and when in your story. Check for feasibility.
• Chapter designation – reflecting the story arc, clarifying what’s important for you in it.
• Word Count – totting up the totals (Have you written a novel? A blockbuster or a novella . . ?)
• A note on the Point of View character for each chapter. (Avoid unnecessary head-hopping.)
• Locations – a list of settings (also indicating areas of required research).

So, as you see, you may find you are using far more than pen and paper or a computer to help you to write a book

Coffee & Creativity

Just had the first of the Autumn’s Coffee & Creativity sessions. Lovely contributions as ever. We have decided one hour is too short so our next session will take place on October 2nd 2014 from 10.30 – 12.30pm when we will further explore the writer’s question ‘what if?’ And its role in characterisation and plot-building. Join us. Cost £18 (and you get a second cup of coffee!)

News Item

I’ve been invited to contribute to a literary blog tour. Join me for ‘My Writing Process’.


To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, let’s identify some of the more common words and phrases that identify your character as an Irish man or woman.

Here are a few to sprinkle your character’s idiolect (personal language) with:

  1. Acting the maggot = acting the fool, joking
  2. Banjaxed = broken, ruined
  3. Craic = gossip, chat
  4. Ceilidh = dancing and music
  5. Colleens = young girls
  6. Cod – eg making a cod of himself = making a fool of himself
  7. Eejit = idiot
  8. Gob = animal mouth
  9. Press  = cupboard(as in Linen Press)
  10. Soft day = drizzle, mist
  11. Wet the tea = make the tea
  12.  I have no money at all at all (for emphasis)
  13.  No ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so:  ‘Are you coming home soon?’/I am./I am not!
  14.  I’m after hitting him with the car = I hit him with the car
  15. She’s after losing five stone. (Intention)
  16. T’is herself that’s coming now. (Emphasis)
  17. I can speak Irish, so I can. (Emphasis)
  18. Sure, I can just go on Wednesday.
  19.  I will not, to be sure
  20. Will I make a cup of tea?

Your character’s speeches can provide information that will move the plot forward. But speech can also play an important role in characterization by placing the character in the context of space and time. You can pinpoint his or her place of origin – whether it’s Ulster or Ottery St Mary – by offering the reader words and grammatical structures found only in that place. Sometimes this can be accurate to an uncanny degree!

Finding ideas!

So where do you keep all those jottings you produce about the experiences that lend meaning to your existence? And where do you record all those interesting little details you observe on your way through life and which may contribute to your writing some day in the most unexpected and original ways? A personal journal ? A writers’ notebook?

Which of the following would you deposit where?

  1. Observations
  2. Overheard Conversations
  3. Lists
  4. Longings
  5. Musical notes
  6. Letter drafts
  7. Names for characters
  8. Useful quotations from your readings
  9. Unsaid responses to someone
  10. Story idea
  11. Memories
  12. Dreams
  13. A poem
  14. A fantasy conversation (dialogue)
  15. Titles
  16. Floor plans for imaginary buildings
  17. Sketches and cartoons
  18. Newspaper cuttings
  19. Postcards
  20. Anything else?

Remember in your personal journal you are quite often looking inside at what you think and feel. In a notebook, as a writer, you survey the world as a craftsperson surveys his or her raw materials.

The Writer’s Notebook is somewhere to keep a whole host of snippets and rehearsals. As well as a notebook dedicated to each creative project of length, I also keep a notebook for general writing bits and pieces garnered on my way through life. This may contain anything from the odd and brilliant title that comes to me in the middle of the night to a conversation (or snippet) overheard on a train. But you can soon generate a seriously-threatening amount of material. And the question is ‘Where next?’

Pick out some of your ideas – the strong ones are those you like best  – and think about the possibilities:

  1. Have you a clutch of memories leading towards a central theme? Could this be the basis of memoir or a journalistic piece?
  2. Have you found a captured moment with a strong character, good dialogue and an intriguing setting? This could grow into a short story.
  3. Do you want to describe a single significant autobiographical moment – using the power of language (sound, rhythm, imagery) to express it?  A poem, perhaps?
  4. Have you an unruly bunch of characters saying what they mean and don’t mean? Have you thought of drama?
  5. Are you impressed with the concept of using all of the above in broadstroke combination? Write a novel.

And this is just the beginning.

The usefulness of Cliche

Writing a drama? Cliches are endlessly useful. They set period and place and help with characterisation. Journalist?  Cliches offer a kind of shorthand for communication with your readers. For example, all bets are off as we run the idea up the flagpole and see whether the cat salutes!

But, for fiction and, even more especially, poetry, cliches are ill-advised. All of us have used cliches so frequently, they cease to surprise us – however apt – and we no longer respond to them. As poets are seeking to communicate with us through surprising imagery, this hardly helps. So, try this:

  1. Go to http://clichesite.com  and study 2100+ cliches listed there
  2. List ones that you use over-much and endeavour to avoid them in future.
  3. Then choose ten of these similes –

1)    as blue as a

2)    as rough as a

3)    as lonely as a

4)    as tall as a

5)    as talkative as

6)    as eager as a

7)    crying like a

8)    praying like

9)    reliable as

10)as expensive as

11)as mad as

12)milling around like

13)common as

14)regular  as

15)as pretty as

16)as reluctant as

17)as smooth as

18)as quick as

19)running like a

20)creeping like a

21)as loud as a

22)as nervous as a

23)as green as

24)as angular as

25)as mellow as

26)as sure as

27)shaking like a

28)as rich as

29)as perky as

30)growing like a

Finish the sentence stems in your own way


Mix up word stem and image and note the effect. Eg as angular as custard.

If nothing else, this exercise will make you sensitive as a writer to inclusion of cliches!


  1. Brainstorm possible titles – write down anything and everything that connects to your book idea. Get your friends to help.
  2. Look at your list and choose one
  3. Write it down at the top of a fresh piece of paper and brainstorm alternatives without referring to your first list.
  4. Style: try to create your own unique list of ‘frames’ to create titles – compare those in bookshops or Amazon.  Look for any other appropriate frames – more zingy – which will give you sales/marketing angles to suggest to your publisher. Eg 6 ways to . . ., How to . . . and stop . . . 
  5. Look at a Thesaurus – always look for the better word
  6. Test against global books in print with Google – test keywords/ test working title.



Mothers have a lot to answer for! I know. I am one. But one thing we should absolutely teach our children is how to use criticism and how to take compliments.

So, when you read out your work, make sure you choose an ‘informed audience’. Ideally, their comments  should be designed to help. And any group you choose should be working with you to produce the best pieces of writing you are capable of. Not simply damning you with faint praise – or worse!

We have ownership of our work. So  we shouldn’t defend our creative choices or argue with our fellow group member. We should take what is said on board and incorporate – or otherwise. Just as our comments on the work of others are put out there as suggestions, no more. There’s no need for a slanging match – or a sulk!

Equally, if someone is complimentary about your work, just accept the praise with grace. No need to deny or self-denigrate. But, if you habitually lack confidence, write the compliments down. They’ll hearten you in the dark night of the soul when you can’t think what happens next in your plot!

For further encouragement, see my Authorgym blog.




There will always be occasions when the writer’s nightmare stalks the corridors of the writer’s group.

Some real-life no-nos (and I’ve seen them all):

  • Don’t rewrite the plot. There’s a difference between making suggestions and proffering a version of events which you say is ‘better’ than the writer can imagine.
  • Don’t challenge areas of specialist knowledge possessed by the writer.
  • Don’t make exclamations – such as ‘Yuk!’, ‘Bloody Nora!’,  or ‘These are characters I don’t want to spend any time with.’
  • Don’t yawn.
  • Don’t sigh.

Why not indulge in these?

Well, there’s a fine line here. This unhelpful rudeness is designed to bolster the position in the group of one particular member. It is not ‘constructive’.

A writer may spend years producing a book but only half an hour on a cover letter to potential publishers and ten minutes (if that) on a title. This is a flawed strategy.

Why bother? What can a title do for you? The answer is: quite a lot. The title is the first example of your writing your potential reader experiences. And there are compelling reasons for making it compelling!

Your title will:

  • resonate with readers, encouraging them to open your book. You should treat this as an honour. Yes, seriously.
  • promise a reader an experience – from light entertainment to catharsis to the step by step acquisition of a desirable skill.

So how do you dream up a good title?

Firstly, you need to understand the theme of/idea behind your book. Then, you need to study modern trends in titles. You need to test your title’s uniqueness and how attractive the search engines will find it. You need to do all this research, then sleep on it and hope for a Eureka moment when you wake up.

More than ten minutes’ worth – that’s for sure.

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