Helpful hints for writing… or not…

This is an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago for my Moving Dragon Writes blog,

Like most people who  do something – in my case writing, I try and do all I can to do it better… mostly it is just practice, practice, practice (Gary Player said ‘Yes, I’m a lucky golfer, but do you know, the more I practice, the luckier I get!‘) I also read a lot about other writers, especially those I admire and those who are considered masters – what they write, and what they write about writing. There are many helpful hints, but a lot of the hints are things I do already. There are also suggestions (and sometimes more forcefully, instructions, or even commands) which just do not work for me – and I am sure this is true for most people. My way of writing isn’t the same as anybody else’s… I mentioned several things recently which some writers dictate others should do:

  • always carry a note-book… no, it just doesn’t work for me; I forget to use it, or I can’t read what I have written, or having deciphered it can’t imagine why I wrote it, or the brilliant idea, like the poem you think of in the night, is actually just rubbish
  • plan your story from start to finish, rough out the chapters, do a timeline, do an autobiography for your characters… no this really does not work for me; my mind isn’t like that, I would find it boring, things change as I write – just as I change in life as I learn and experience different things – a person I meet for the first time might seem a completely different person when I get to know them better
  • have a routine… stop right there! No! I hate routine!

In fact I think I will stop there…

You see what I have learned through working hard at my writing and writing every day and keeping going even through the boring bits and finding inspiration in all sorts of strange places and writing in my head when I can’t write because I’m doing something else… What I have learned is everyone writes in their own way. If I could ask ten of the writers I most admire how they write and how they write so well and what advice  they would give, I bet every single one would be different.

Having said that… there are some interesting writing ‘tips’ here:

… and here are a few from the list I like:

  • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. – Jack London
  • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. – W. Somerset Maugham
  • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. – Lev Grossman

Another thing I really do find valuable, is criticism. If I agree with it I can change whatever it was. If I don’t agree with it I have to work out why I don’t agree with it, defend what I have done, then ponder on why the criticism was made. An example is, a friend criticised one of early stories saying there was too much dialogue; I disagreed but looked back at those passages in my book. What my characters said was the conversation I had overheard in my imagination, a very real and vivid conversation, and I had noted it all down. However – however ‘real’ that conversation was, do my readers actually have to ‘hear’ all of it? So although I disagreed with my friend, I took serious notice of her comments and have ‘adjusted’ my characters’ conversations ever since.

Here is a link to me e-books and my latest paperback, ‘Radwinter’:




I’ve been writing about writing over the last couple of weeks – yes, I know I’ve been writing about writing ever since I first write this blog, but I’ve been thinking about planning and target setting. Some writers – maybe many writers, plan their story in the most minute detail, writing biographies and back stories for their characters as well as family  histories and descriptions (even details which don’t appear in the actual finished work) Some writers have time-lines, and plot lines, and wall maps which look like a map of London underground, and do huge amounts of research about every aspect of the history and geography of the locations… Sometimes it takes a year or so before they are even ready to write!

I confess, I don’t plan… I have ideas… I have thoughts… I may even have some half-started pieces, or left over pieces from other stories. I do end up with all the other things, biographies, back-stories, timelines – except mainly they are in my head. In Radwinter, because unexpectedly it became a series, I do have actual written down family trees, but that’s mainly because they are genealogical mysteries!

Target setting… I generally have a vague idea these days about when a story might be finished, and from then a similarly vague idea of when it might be published, but with one exception, I don’t set myself a target to complete certain parts, or write a certain amount. The one exception is the National Novel Writing Month, an annual on-line challenge to write 50,00 words of a novel in one month. I have done it for the past four years, and completed it, but I have to admit last year was a struggle… but I did finish!

In the past, except for NaNoWriMo, I haven’t set myself a set number of words to write in a day, week, month etc. It hasn’t seemed necessary. However, just at the moment I have so many writing projects, that I confess, I am losing momentum with my latest novel, another Radwinter story, probably to be called ‘Saltpans’.

Then, two things happened… one of my favourite writers who I follow on Twitter, posts a daily word count. I suspect there are several reasons, none of which are to be boastful or brag; I guess it’s a way of motivating himself to write, knowing he’s going to be sharing the results, good or bad, and also to give himself a sense of achievement, and also to set himself a target… yes, target setting.

When I first started teaching, learning to be a teacher, I had to write lesson plans which might be why I so hate planning now. Aims, objectives, method (or some other word) what actually happened (can’t remember the word we used then) future development (or something like that. Our lesson plans were really simple, and as an aid to teaching for a learner, it was quite useful (I never thought I would ever say that!!) When I was a proper teacher, I still planned, of course I did, but my written notes were just jottings of what I was going to do. I knew what my aim and my objective was, it was obvious, that was why I was teaching it! All was well in the world of teaching (sort of) for many,many years, until suddenly I was told to start planning my lessons ‘properly’ again. I have to say I rebelled big time – I became a very naughty teacher (as opposed to a naughty student)

… but this is all off the point – except that detailed planning really puts me off and shuts down inspiration and spontaneity – and actually has the negative effect of making me feel anxious and irritated!

The second thing that happened was that I was cruising round the NaNoWriMo site as I often do, seeing what’s new:

… and I came across a ‘tracker’ device. It is not tied to the November challenge, or any of the other activities (writing camps for example) it is just a thing which allows you to set a target of however many words in however many days/week/months, you set the final date.Well, I thought to myself, well this is light – why don’t I have a go? So I set myself a two month target to try to write eight hundred, 800, words a day.

I mentioned last Tuesday that I was going to try and have a set word target, and that was before I discovered the NaNo goal tracker… so last Tuesday I started… and I am pleased to say it’s worked really well! I’m not sure I will do it for everything I write but the beauty of it is it’s just anonymous words not attached to any complete thing – so I could do a track for two weeks to finish off a particular part of something for example. The word count is averaged out – so if I don’t manage one day, if I’ve banked enough words from another day, I am still on target!

It’s like going to a fitness camp where you build up your writing muscles and stamina! So in seven days I wrote 6,350 words, which works out at just over 900 a day!!! Wow! I am so impressed with myself – and so pleased with getting back into the rhythm of writing!

By the way… it would be interesting to see how many words I write here every day!!

Here is a link to my e-books and my recently published paperback, Radwinter:

… and if you want to follow me on Twitter:

Treacle scones

Our summer weather has improved; we have had some rain-free, wind-free warmish days but not the lovely glorious brilliant sunshine and blue skies which we all enjoy. I know cream teas can be eaten at any time of the year, but they do seem a particularly summery thing with fresh Cheddar strawberries to go with the scones and clotted cream.

So looking at different recipes for scones, I came across some black treacle scones – now they would be good with clotted cream and maybe ginger jam on a not so red-hot day!

Treacle scones:

  • 8 oz plain flour (I don’t like baking powder so I would use self-raising flour, and then cut out the next two ingredients)
  • 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda (see above – or if I had no self-raising flour I’d use t level tsps baking powder)
  • 1 level tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 level tsp ground ginger (I would whack in a bit more as I like really gingery things!)
  • ½ level tsp mixed spice (I would up that as well, spicier the better!)
  • (I would add drained and chopped stem ginger or chopped crystallised ginger as well – as you might add dried fruit to other scone mixes!)
  • 2 oz butter
  • 1 level tbsp black treacle
  • 1 beaten egg
  • milk
  1. sieve all the dry ingredients together
  2. rub in butter
  3. beat egg and treacle together and stir into the flour
  4. add milk if needed to make a fairly stiff dough
  5. cut into rounds and brush with more milk or another egg beaten
  6. bake at 220° C, 425° F, gas mark 7 – this is a hot oven so check they aren’t catching on the tops before they bake right through
  7. serve with butter/butter and ginger jam/ slotted cream/clotted cream and ginger jam – and of course a pot of tea


Most newspapers, and many magazines have crossword puzzles in  them; quite often there are two puzzles, a cryptic and a general knowledge one. I’m quite good at general knowledge, but I find the cryptic ones almost impossible – although one an answer is explained I do understand how it was arrived at.

I though maybe crosswords had been around for a long time, knowing how people like to have word puzzles and teasers going back to Saxon times and their riddles. However, I was surprised to discover crosswords are actually not that old – what we would think of as very basic word puzzles started appearing in the 1800’s, and at first just being for children. All changed when a crossword puzzle was published in 1913 by Arthur Wynne; his puzzle was just white squares but within the next ten or so years, the black squares were introduced. These puzzles, at first in American newspapers and magazines, and then crossing the Atlantic to Britain, were for adults as well as children. Soon, in Britain, the cryptic clues began to appear, and crosswords began to get more and more fiendish!

I’m no good at the cryptic, but as I mentioned I’m not bad at the general knowledge. The Saturday crossword in our paper is quite large, and some of the questions are very obscure… in fact we never manage to finish it. We never ‘cheat’ and look up the answers; only when we admit defeat do we then do some research and track down the mysterious solutions.

Here are some of the clues which defeated me today:

  • also called a gate-keeper,a mainly orange coloured butterfly feeding on brambles, ragwort, wild marjoram and wood sage (5,5)
  • Swiss —–; the national anthem of a country with no capital (5)
  • item used in the game of taw (6)
  • capital of the Correze department in south-west France (5)
  • item worn as an amulet or charm (7)
  • monetary unit of Indonesia (7)
  • author of The Destructive Element; or a 1990’s drama starring Jimmy Nail (7)

Do any of the answers spring out at you? Did you manage to get them all right? or were you totally baffled, like me?

Here are the answers:

  • hedge brown
  • psalm
  • marble
  • Tulle
  • periapt
  • rupiah
  • Spender

Well, now I know, but I can’t imagine I’ll use any of them very often – although knowing the butterfly might be useful when we’re out in the country!




Don’t confuse your reader!

As you can imagine, as well as doing a lot of writing (I’ve actually set myself a 800 word a day target for the next six weeks – not counting what I write here!) I do a lot of reading, and I do a lot reading about writing. It was a mixture of these things which, on the suggestion of my fellow blogger from my other blog, the Moving Dragon, that I had a look at a site which runs a ninety day challenge – to write eighty-five thousand words (yes 85,000)

The site which is called, has lots of interesting and helpful articles and I came across one which really rang a bell with my writing teaching – from when I was a teacher to now when I lead several writing groups. It’s all about not confusing your readers – and in actual fact they are the most simple and obvious points – simple and obvious but very easy to forget!

Here are the five by Wendy Janes:

  1. Ensure names and descriptions of characters are consistent
  2. Differentiate your characters
  3. Handle time carefully
  4. Yes, write beautiful prose, but don’t show off your vocabulary
  5. Steer clear of using drama for the sake of drama

Simple aren’t they? Because I’ve been writing just about all my life, from almost as soon as I could hold a pencil, I’ve learned these lessons by making mistakes on all these tips. Now I really try to make sure I don’t create muddle with names – however, in my genealogical mysteries, because my main character is dealing with family history sometimes there is a repeat of names – in my fiction as in real life family trees. I do that deliberately and carefully – and sometimes there is a muddle – but that is part of the story and I very clearly (I hope) make sure the reader knows it’s an intended muddle! I also write things down in old diaries to keep track of the dates of when things happen in my stories – I want events to be sequential and to be possible!

I guess my ultimate challenge in trying not to confuse the reader with characters was my latest Thomas Radwinter mystery, ‘Earthquake‘, where there were thirteen Chinese girls at a little boarding school in the 1930’s, one of them was murdered and the other twelve were all suspects! Twelve teenage girls!! I had to work really hard to make sure my readers didn’t get in a muddle (I got a bit in a muddle at times myself, I have to say!

When I read point number four, I almost blushed… with a little embarrassment. Last year I published my e-book ‘Lucky Portbraddon‘; it was something I had written quite a while ago but I wanted to get it off my mental writing shelf and out into the world. I set to editing it, having not looked at it for about seven years… oh dear… When I wrote it I had been trying to write a literary book… some of what I had written was actually very good, but it just felt unnatural and not my style, and well… pretentious to be honest! I went through with a mighty editing scythe and whipped out all the pompous, ‘aren’t I clever, aren’t I a wonderful writer‘ bits. I slimmed it down by more than a third cutting out ‘the beautiful prose’ which was just ‘showing off’ my vocabulary. It was a lesson learned, I can tell you!

Here is a link to the article which is very appropriately entitled, ‘Avoid Confusing Your Readers’!

… and here is a link to the challenge site:

…and here is a link to my slimmed down ‘Lucky Portbraddon’:

… and my twelve suspect 1930’s murder mystery:

… and here is a link to our other Moving Dragon blog:

The fun of a forum

It’s not that long ago that the word forum had mainly Roman connotations, the open public space where people could meet, discuss and debate; originally it was an open area where markets could be held, and other events. Its modern use as a place for debate arose in the seventeenth century, in the 1680’s. Now it’s used everywhere in every sort of way, from an actual physical place as it originally was, but now shopping complexes or sports arenas, but also as a discussion group separate from a place.  There are actually places with the name of Forum –

  • Forum, Arkansas, USA
  • Blandford Forum, Dorset, England
  • Forum Fulvii, a lost Roman village in Italy
  • Forum Peak and Forum Lake, in Canada,

However, these days, many people think of forums (or fora I guess) as an on-line places where people can ‘meet’ to discuss every sort of thing imaginable.

I became involved in a forum when I was doing a couple of MOOCs (massive open on-line courses) All sorts of discussions arose from various topics, and quite often people became ‘friends’ and either continued in the forum long after the course had finished, or got in contact independently.  The next time for me was doing the November novel-writing challenge – 50,000 words of a new book in thirty days, organised by the National Novel Writing Month.

As you may know, I also have another blog, a writing blog; we are the Moving Dragon Writes, and appear here on WordPress as the Somerset Writers – however, I assure you, Somerset has the most elastic boundaries! The idea of our blog is to share other people’s writing as well as our own. We know quite a lot of people who are great writers but don’t want to have their own blog, but really want to put their stuff out into the world – stories, poems, comical tales, polemics… you name it, we share it! As we have found forums interesting and helpful, we started one of our own… but somehow we didn’t manage to publicise it properly, and sadly we haven’t had many members.

Not wishing to be defeated, I’ve started again – and the Moving Dragon now has a new forum –

If you want to have a look at our blog, here is a link to that:

… and if you haven’t yet read any of my novels, here is a link to my e-books and my recently published paperback, Radwinter: