Tag Archives: On Writing

Writing what you do and don’t know

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Something writers are often exhorted to do is “write what you know”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your stories should reflect the literal truth of your lived experience, although they can. My first published story, “The Alchemical Automaton Blues” was basically a recounting of a real experience I had with some neighbours and their neglected dog, dressed up in fantasy drag. When I have kids in my stories, they tend to be my kids.

Writing what you know can also mean capturing some essential truth or belief, without presenting it in any context that corresponds to your lived experience. My story “The Navigator and the Sky” is about an old man using the last of his strength to help his granddaughter escape a wrathful god. The underlying truth of the story, for me, is the commitment that I believe parents should make to their kids.

But what about writing what you don’t know? There’s a fantastic talk at TED.com by Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, in which she talks about the experience of being pigeonholed by her ethnicity, the expectation that she will write Turkish stories, an expectation which she rejects. She stresses the value – the imperative, even – of writers stepping outside of what she refers to as their “cultural ghettoes” and exploring alternative ways of seeing the world. If you only ever write about yourself and your own little patch of the world, she argues, what do you learn?

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When To Send Your Novel Writing Into The World

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Why is it that we only realise how bad we were at writing novels… once we’re finally good at writing them? When I finished writing my first novel, I honestly thought it would be a simple matter of promoting it to the right agent or publisher, then that would be that. I lived in London at that time. Surely one of them would take it?

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

When I started writing my second novel, I knew it wouldn’t be that simple – I figured I’d have to at least pay for a manuscript assessment this time, you know, to really polish it off. So long as the manuscript assessment didn’t identify any major plot flaws, I figured I’d use the feedback to make my novel shine, then it would be ready to send out.

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

That first assessment didn’t identify any major plot flaws, but there was still work to do on character and voice. In fact, it would take many more years until I eventually found my voice, learnt about tension and stakes, and what kind of writer I really am.

Looking back I knew nothing, really, about writing novels. But that only began to dawn on me when I started writing short stories…

I started writing short stories because I’d heard published authors say it was a great way for writers to improve their skills and that getting short stories published could help get you noticed.

They were right too, at least for me. Writing short stories did improve my writing – so much so that, as I started winning competitions, I also started to find my writers’ voice. In particular, I found myself switching from third person to first person, from past tense to present tense. I’m not 100% sold on any particular tense, that changes according to the story, but I am now hooked on first person writing. And I’m a much better writer for it.

After I’d won a few short stories, I applied what I’d learnt to my novel, and that began to shine too. So… that’s it right? My novel’s ready to be published?

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

After I found my voice, my manuscript was starting to get there, yet when I sent it out it was with a hope that agents or publishers might like it, or at least see its potential. I remember crossing my fingers and wishing to be lucky this time. Why luck? Luck certainly has something to do with it. But, looking back, I was hoping for luck purely because I wasn’t confident in my novel. It still needed work, only I wasn’t ready to face that at the time.

As time passed and I continued writing, I focussed on developing my characters and improving dialogue, thinking about tension and stakes. The more I wrote, the better I became as a writer of my particular style and interests. So that’s it now, right?

Er, no…

Finally, I am happy and confident in my novel – and what do you know… I’ve got an agent who loves it too. Now all we’re waiting for is the right fit, someone who ‘gets it’ like we do. It’s not about luck anymore, it’s more about finding that special someone who recognises genius when they see it (he he!).

Now when an agent or publisher rejects my novel, it’s with words like ‘clear talent’ and ‘with regret’.

Still, I know better than to think that my learning curve is complete.

For every year that we write, we come to know ourselves better as writers – which is why it’s so important to wait until you’re ready before submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers, or self-publishing. What if you think your novel writing is ready, but it really isn’t?

I’m still learning as a writer, just as authors of internationally bestselling novels say they’re always learning as writers – so why rush it?

Eek, I shudder to think what would have happened to my writing career had I self-published back when I first thought I’d finished my novel! That’s why I advise writers on my creative writing courses never to send substandard work out into the publishing world. If you’re in this for the long-term, and I’m sure you are, only send your manuscripts out into the world once you have that confident feeling.

We’re all guilty of thinking that we can write when we really can’t. But just look back on when you first started writing and you’ll realise – we only realise that we can’t write, once we finally can.

Filing off the serial numbers

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Some of the best advice I ever got as a writer was to “file off the serial numbers” from stories I admired and use what I’d got from them in my own work. This is, as it sounds, an exhortation to steal – shamelessly – but not, as the reader may immediately suspect, to plagiarise, nor even to be derivative.

It doesn’t mean that you should (or can rightfully) populate your stories with Ring Wraiths fighting with red lightsabres on behalf of the Klingon Empire in their war against the phaser-equipped Robocops who defend the nation of sparkly vampires. (Although, how awesome would that be? In a Sharknado kind of way, anyway.) Nor does it mean that, if you admire, say, a particular secondary-world fantasy that revolves around the feuding of great noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom while winter is coming and also dragons, you should write a secondary-world fantasy that revolves around the feuding of great noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom while winter is coming and also dragons.

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The Making of Good Writers

Guest post by Zena Shapter

I’ve had this thought so many times…

Wouldn’t it be nice to do nothing else in life but write?

Usually it’s when I’m working on an uninspiring work project, on my hands and knees cleaning up milk spilt by the kids (yet again), or washing clothes covered in mud, chocolate or I-don’t-want-to-know-what!! It’s when I’m writing to a deadline on the computer, yet my husband calls out from the shower to ask if he should put the feed ‘n’ weed on the lawn this weekend or next. Argh!

Yes, it would be nice to just… write! Bliss would be having writing as my only job… To get up in the morning and just go to work – aka write – then stay there all day, come home, eat dinner and relax.

Instead I’ve got these kids to grow, a creative writing / editing / social media consultancy to run, I teach too, and do pro bono work, and there’s a house to manage with dinners to cook and clothes to wash (wow – are my kids/husband as messy as everyone else’s??), and the juggling to earn money and keep the family happy just goes on and on. So, yes, it would be lovely just to focus on… writing. Wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t that be nice?

Well, actually, no. I mean, yes it would be nice. But I don’t want nice, and not just because I love my family.

I wouldn’t want that kind of lifestyle because I also cherish the glory of struggle. I once made a list of all the struggles I’ve had in my life to date and it was quite long. Some people might feel sorry for themselves looking at a list like that. But not me. Only my parents, brother and husband know everything that’s on my list because I live life looking forwards, not backwards. I love my life now all the more for what it took me to get here, and now that I’m here you’d never know when you meet me that I’d ever struggled at all.

But I cherish that list for another reason too.

If all I did was write… if all I ever did was write… how would I connect with readers through my writing?

We all struggle. Life isn’t about having an easy ride of it. So novels shouldn’t be about having an easy ride either. Readers can also spot fakeness, struggles written by someone with no idea about real life. So why should I want that for my writing?

I don’t.

I don’t want to live differently to everyone else. I cherish the normalcy of my life’s difficulties, if there is such a thing! I welcome that normalcy because it took me so long to find it.

If, one day, when the kids have flown their nest and my novels are on the international bestseller lists, if then I do find myself writing and only writing everyday, I’m sure I’ll manage. As with my life to date, I’ll cherish it because of the struggles it took me to get there. But until then I’m going to try harder to enjoy the difficulty of my ride, and take more notes along the way. One day, those notes may be all that grounds me as I continue to write to connect with everyday readers – readers that struggle to get what they want, readers just like me.

So the next time you go wishing the world away, yearning for a time with only writing in your life, take my advice and think twice – after all, it’s the struggles that make you who you are.


Escaping from planning and world building

Guest post by Ian McHugh

I didn’t start writing stories – at least, not with the serious intention of having them published – until the year I turned thirty. Prior to that I’d fiddled about with ideas and worlds, maps, creatures and characters, even plots and actual scenes without ever progressing so far as actually writing and finishing a story. My world building and planning had become part of my procrastination, and remained that way for twelve or fifteen years.

I found my way out of it almost by accident, after a couple of writers separately made the suggestion to me that short stories are a good way to learn the craft of storytelling, because they’re of a more manageable size than novels, and you can write twelve of them, and explore twelve different plots, narrative styles, worlds and character sets, in the time it takes to write one novel.

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Social Media for Writers – Public or Private?

Guest post by Zena Shapter

I was sick this week. I was run-down, had the flu, was tired and slept a lot. My hubbie took over where he could. My children patted me and said ‘poor Mummy’. One day I opened the front door to some door-to-door sellers of solar power panels, and they said: “oh my, you don’t look too well at all”, then promptly hurried away. When I went to get my children from school, one of the other mums said she could tell from the way I was walking that something was wrong, “as if you’re drugged or something”. I had just woken up minutes before.

But did anyone on social media know?

No. I said nothing.

On other occasions, I’ve happily shared my cold/flu status on Facebook or Twitter – after all, who doesn’t like to whinge a bit when they’re sick… and who doesn’t relish a little sympathy every now and then? Well… not me this week. This week, I didn’t want fans to worry that I might not be able to make it to an appearance later on that week (of course I made it, they’re my fans!) and I didn’t want clients to worry I may be late with their projects (which, naturally, I wasn’t). I didn’t mind my friends and family knowing – but my friends, family, fans and clients are all so mixed up on social media these days that I simply chose not to say anything at all.

And why should I really? It’s not exactly a news-worthy revelation…


 Still, it got me thinking – how should novelists, aspiring or established, juggle their personal and public profiles on social media?

If you’re on Facebook to share photos and news with family and friends – what should you do when you get a friend request from a writer you hardly know, but whom you’d maybe like to get to know better? Do you befriend them, or if you don’t what might happen – will they hate you forever? Do you keep some space on the internet reserved for friends and family and, if so, what and how? Do you simply keep your private life out of social media altogether? If so, how then will you stay true to yourself and ‘be real’ online? If you hold back, how will people connect with you?

As more novel writers are getting online and connecting with others on social media, I’m hearing these questions more and more. Where do we find the balance between public and private?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you exactly – only some practical advice which you can interpret as individual situations relevant to you arise…

Nothing on the internet is private!


Once it’s out there, it’s out there forever!

The internet is engrained in our lives. Yet it’s also still new and evolving. Who knows how it will evolve over the next fifty years?!

So, yes – be real online, just be you, and don’t hold back – otherwise what’s the point in getting online in the first place. At the same time, be cautious and don’t share everything. After all, do you really want people imagining you lying on the sofa at home with a red nose and puffy eyes. I know I don’t 😉


Killing your darlings

Guest post by Ian McHugh

I think a lot of people come at this notion the wrong way – that, in writing, you must kill your darlings. A friend in my writers’ group was talking one day about his long-term novel project in these terms – that he needed to kill this exasperating, enervating darling of his and move on to other things. The rest of us stared at him, aghast. “No!” I cried. “You never kill a story! You just lock it in a trunk like Boxing Helena, then go back and open the lid every few months to see if it’s still alive and willing to be compliant now. Or, if not, whether you can harvest its body parts for something else.”

At the opposite extreme, there are apparently writers who take this as an instruction to violently attack their own prose to eliminate any literary flourishes and who conflate it with the contemporary fashion of expunging all adverbs, adjectives and said bookisms from the English language. (“Every adjective is a parasite sucking the life from a sentence,” is how I’ve heard one proponent of that fad express it.)

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Time Management for Writers

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Time – as writers it’s probably our most precious commodity. We need it to write. We’d give anything to have more of it. We juggle it. We savour it. We devour it.

Sitting down at my computer to write, time can vanish in an instant – you know the feeling, don’t you? I’m often so deep in the world of my characters that hours can disappear, to be replaced only by words on the page (lucky page!).

These days, writers are also expected to do a lot more than write if they want their writing careers to flourish. Being heard above the noise is the name of the game and elegant promotion is key. But where do we find the time to do all that? Going to writing events such as writing festivals, book launches, talks and awards nights takes time – time away from our writing. Getting on social media, writing blog posts and chatting with fans takes time too. How do we put our writing first, yet also stay on track connecting with fans online and in the flesh?

Here are some basic tips:

  1.  Know roughly what you’re going to do with individual slots of time. Many years ago, I used to be a lawyer and lawyers (generally) have to account for their time every six minutes. Every – six – minutes. It’s the only way to charge clients fairly for time spent on their cases. That said, lawyers can’t simply spend as much time as they like on each case, they also have to be wary of whether their client would be willing to pay for the work done. The same is true of promoting yourself as a writer. How much time are you willing to spend away from actual writing in order to promote yourself? Decide in advance what seems fair to you, then stick to that time slot. For the rest of your writing time – write!
  2.  Don’t get distracted! The internet is a dark and dangerous place. For this reason, and because I can’t trust myself (after all, I am part-cyber), I write far away from the internet. What easily distracts you? Are you tempted by housework or the television? If so, write somewhere you can’t see it! Your writing time is precious, remember – so treat it with the respect it deserves.
  3.  Be an artist. Even when you’re not writing, give yourself permission to be an artist. Artists are renown for being obsessed with their craft, for thinking deeply and extracting life experiences for use in their art. Does that sound like you? It should! And that’s okay. Take down notes when inspiration strikes, even if you’re at a dinner party! Memorise the things people say in cafés, in arguments or on the bus. Then, when you come to write, you’ll be able to use your writing time more efficiently. You’ll saturate it with life lived and duly noted 😉
  4.  Clear your mind of other obligations. I do this by keeping a to-do list and an up-to-date calendar (a paper one, if you must know). I’m constantly shuffling around my priorities, so that I can juggle effectively. But staying organised in this way also helps free my mind for when I write. The only thing I want on my mind when I sit down to write is my character and what they’re going to do about the mess they’re in. So do yourself a favour, and keep both a to-do list and a note of when everything on your list needs to be done.
  5.  Find hidden opportunities to write. For example, have you tried writing while in transit? I don’t drive (yes, yes, stop rolling your eyes!), so try to squeeze in extra writing time as I travel from place to place. I do get motion sickness, but it’s not so bad if I sink down in my seat until I can’t see anything passing by outside. Try it!
  6.  Be selective with your self-promotion. You don’t have to do everything all at once – pick and chose. When it comes to social media, for example, pick your favourite and stay most up-to-date on that. I love my blog and facebook page (come visit me at www.facebook.com/ZenaShapter!), so I’m always on those. If I don’t manage to reply to people on Twitter or Google+ for a while, I forgive myself. You should too. Don’t spend too much time on your business instead of in it.
  7. Finally, get yourself an understanding family, who gives you guilt-free writing time. There’s enough obstacles in your way as it is, so once you have that time to write, don’t reproach yourself for enjoying it. Don’t think about the time you should be spending with your children, your parents or your partner. Just give yourself permission to be with your characters, and get writing!

Good luck!

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part III

The Return of EWKASWLFLOTR: Three for the Elves, and One Rule To Rule Them All
writtern by Ian McHugh, on behald of the CSFG Hivemind

The final chapter of the epic crap-talking journey that began with The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR and continued with The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers! 

XV: The Unfeasibly Large Everything Rule

This is one for the movies. The Fellowship of the Ring was a fantastic movie. It cherrypicked the best parts of the first (and second) book (ie, the bits that weren’t Tom Fucking Bombadil) and put them on screen in a way that delivered solid character development, escalating tension, threat and stakes and some holyshitwow visual spectacle. The escape from Moria was dizzyingly, ridiculously, hyperbolically epic. It worked because it was fresh and because the movie built up to that spectacular sequence. Jackson took time to earn it. And there was enough separation between that and the other impossibly over-the-top moment where the Fellowship pass the Argonath, the gigantic statues that mark the ancient boundary of Gondor. There’s a pause to savour the epic wowness of the Argonath, and then the movie reverts to human scale again for the climax.

Those moments work in FOTR because they’re allowed to be special. As with the discussion of ceaseless action in Rule XIII, that discipline goes right out the window in the sequels. Those movies, most especially ROTK, are so chock full of unfeasibly large elephants and unfeasibly steep slopes and stairs and unfeasibly tall castles and unfeasibly phallic towers and unfeasibly large rocks being flung from catapults and unfeasibly big EVERYTHING that it just becomes white noise. None of it is special because it’s all so overwhelming.

It’s possible to have too much awesome. Less is more. Read more →

Authors’ Tips on Handling Unpleasant Online Experiences

Zena Shapter has posted about how writers should respond to trolling and bad reviews:

Last week, I asked how far you usually go to solve unpleasant experiences in your life. At what point do you let things go? Well, after I wrote that post, I wondered how other authors handle unpleasant online experiences and what, if any, advice they had for other writers. The two main unpleasant online experiences authors generally encounter are: trolls & bad reviews. So, here’s some tips from some author buddies of mine – some of which can apply to readers too:


Trolls are internet users who just want to pick at you and make you feel bad about something. They can lurk anywhere and everywhere, and there can be no end to their abuse if you’re unlucky enough to interest them. I’ve seen it happen to author buddies and witnessed how much it upsets them. Since the sole intent of a troll is to provoke, “the only solution,” says travel writer Walter Mason, “is to block, delete and refuse to engage”.

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