Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Now that August is over ... some writing tips from Elmore Leonard –Dianne Hofmeyr

While most people have been enjoying what August is all about – a summer holiday – I’ve spent the entire August re-editing, re-editing re-editing. To be fair my summer holiday is at another time of the year. When it’s all bleak Feb here, I’m in a southern hemisphere.

But as everyone returns to their desks, a few reminders from Elmore Leonard might inspire. Of course as experienced writers you never do any of these things in any case! I happen to have just totalled my exclamation marks in the first 10 pages of my re-edited, re-edited novel and I have 45! But then my story starts with a storm! And referring to Rule 6, I’ve also discovered 14 mentions of ‘suddenly’ but I’m clever at disguising them. I put them in the middle of the sentence.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do 'the American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Have fun at your desks. Hope the holiday time has been good for everyone. Hopefully a plate of figs will still remind you of the sunshine. 
Twitter @dihofmeyr
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Classics for Children in the last 10 years.

Monday, 31 August 2015


In September, the year’s rhythm changes. The summer’s visits and visitors have gone. In their place comes that urgent need to get that work-in-progress not only progressed but blooming well finished! Yet, even as you slide into blissful solitude, alone with your screen or notebook, that dreadful anxiety starts to bite and you find yourself needing what Anne of Green Gables called a kindred spirit.

There’s a special value in friends who don’t see writing as a glam & easy task, who don’t consider you obsessive when you’re maunder about your work and who might even be able to help with some of your writing problems. So, pondering on writerly support, I started asking around about the different ways to find such help.

For a start, I expect there’s a Writer’s Circle near you. I was once involved in a local group and now sometimes speak at such gatherings. Each group will have its own energy, ethos, ambience and range of members and if these combine to offer what you want, that’s great.  Many run to a traditional format: a programme of talks, workshops, competitions & adjudications, with regular manuscript evenings in between. Such evenings can be interesting and sociable but, in my experience, this busy pattern doesn’t quite suit a focus on longer fiction. I’ve also met rather mixed responses to writing for children & young people and to being published, but maybe that was me. Even so, with patience, you might find a kindred spirit or two there and can meet up quietly in your own time.  I still have a couple of good friends and now and again we do just that.

Or there’s a “Writing Practice” Group. The variant I’ve heard about is probably invaluable for providing motivation and keeping you writing in low or fallow times. Such groups meet monthly, weekly or whatever suits them. How do they work? One person – not always the same organiser – introduces a starting point or writing exercise. Then everyone writes on that topic for a certain time, and afterwards there will be time to read out work.  I’m not sure these groups aim for publication – this is writing practice just for yourself and for the pleasure of being like a student again: a blessing when you’ve been got at by too many author visits.

Many writers find themselves what’s sometimes called a  Writing “Buddy”. Personally, I am not fond of the “buddy” term as it always sounds sporty and formal and cheerful and the very opposite of my writing mood. 

However, I’ve been asking around and finding out about people’s writing friends - and “how it works”. The most formal arrangement was described by my first contact, who met her buddy for lunch on a regular basis. Originally they’d been tutor and student but now as friends, they helped each other. Although one was published, the other wasn’t yet “although she is a terrific writer, and though they both wrote children’s fiction, their work was very different, They arrange to meet whenever they have a WIP that’s stalled, or are near the end of a project or just need support and they swap draft chapters and talk about the pieces when they meet. “We are honest (the mss are always covered in red) though we are quite careful of each other.”  
Over lunch, they toss ideas about, treating each other’s work with sensitivity but also making use of each other’s strengths - “ X is great at planning and plotting” -,as well as discussing grammar & style and what they’ve read that might be useful or that might be in a similar vein.  This buddying sounded ideal and efffective but it also came with a warning:  “Beware of getting too dependent on your buddy”. It may not be easy to deal without the support of such a relationship if other circumstances suddenly make meetings impossible.

My second writer met up, every six weeks, for lunch with two friends she’d made on a writing course twenty years before. They'd chat, commiserate and very occasionally, when the work needed it, share writing. 

She said “You need to choose your writing buddies carefully. You have to be on the same wavelength.” I
It certainly shouldn't feel like this:

A third writer meets up with her writing friend whenever they feel the need, sometimes just posting a message on Facebook asking if the other is free. She says “neither of us feels tied to it. We meet when we have time and it is very flexible. They meet for two or three hours during which they chat about anything that is ongoing or that they are having problems with. Occasionally they will ask the other to read their work, if there is something on which they’d welcome thoughts, but they are “both very busy and are wary of intruding on the other’s writing time”.  This writer’s friend writes historical and women’s fiction, as well as being a successful playwright – maybe at one time almost acting as an informal mentor? -   but now the two clearly value their writing relationship and both are interested in working in YA and fantasy. “I find it really useful. It helps to get another view on things, to have someone to talk things out with. It has to be someone I can totally trust.”

The fourth writer has a brother for a writing friend.  Two “historical writers”, they began by read each others work and chatting about writing when they were out walking. Although one is an experienced author and the other a new, unpublished writer, they value each others strengths: “He is an artist and so has that sense of balance, pattern and structure and reads wisely”.
I found the next stage of the partnership interesting. They had both reached a point when their writing felt stuck so for a while, after the walks, they went into a pub, bought a drink and wrote in silence for an hour. Afterwards, “we could talk and the talk was often about the books and the problems we were having.”  Their talk was usually about problems with planning and plotting. They do not read their work aloud, nor look at each others work unless asked.  
This writer’s comments offer a good analysis of why support, even the very best, can be unhelpful as well as helpful. “We are both reluctant to read each other’s work in progress, as we feel that too much advice at such a delicate stage can knock you off balance and send the work in directions you never wanted it to go. I’ve found this, in the past. Sometimes the better the advice, the worse I can be – because you’re more inclined to try and follow good, experienced advice, even if it’s wrong for you or for this particular book. For this reason I’ve always avoided writing groups. It’s not that I think they couldn’t advise me – it’s that I fear I’m too suggestible and would run after any and all advice and become utterly confused.”
It was clear that all these different forms of writing friendship were subtly tuned to each pair’s particular personalities and needs. Empathy and patience were as much a part of each mix as writing craft.

Online Critique Groups.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to meet other writer in person, and this is when the online critique groups are a good thing. Although the groups are confidential, a couple of writers gave me some general feedback on how their group or groups work. (Thank you!)
            One explained that she joined a small online critique group because she wanted an independent view of her work. Over time, that original group grew, split into smaller groups and developed a YA off-shoot. A crit group requires a serious level of commitment so limiting the membership to eight or ten people makes keeping up with everyone’s efforts an easier task.  Each member is supposed to submit up to 3,000 words each month and everyone is expected to offer them their critique, which will depend on the stage the ms is at, as well as any particular requests from the author. Some members now have publishing deals, so the group is currently considering if they need to make changes, especially as some members are now writing middle grade and/or picture books, not just YA. Needless to say, each member will have a different writing style too.

How do they share their crits? The long, detailed comments are posted on the group’s private blogger platform but, as one of the writers said:  “Recently we’ve been geared towards longer pieces of work, which we email through the associated Googlegroup.”  The members do try to meet when they can. “Due to geographical practicalities, it’s not often, but it’s lovely when we do”.  Each month, they chat on Skype and/or share various issues on a private facebook group. I was most impressed by the involvement and support these groups established and I’ve seen for myself the close bonds between SCBWI friends and members. As I was told:“We are incredibly supportive.  Many of us have been published since the group was set up.  It’s lovely to feel involved in someone’s published book, especially when mentioned in the acknowledgements!”
However, you do need to find time to do your own work and do that month’s crits properly, as well as wording your comments so that you don’t offend anyone. “A good crit group needs to spring from careful honesty – there are ways of saying things and it’s only your opinion – try not to give or take offence!” My contacts were enthusiastic about what they got in return: “The free and often brilliant techniques as well as the support, general advice and friendship.”
These account of SCBWI crit groups helped me understand that the organisation’s not negligible subscription could be money well spent, although other critique groups are available. I’ll end this section with one final comment:“Critique groups are wonderful when they are working well, but it can take time”

Finally, three more quick suggestions:

If distance is a problem, an Email Group can be wonderful. One of my favourite support structures is a simple, small and confidential writer’s email group. At the most basic level, the “members” – friends would be a better word -  report in daily on their word count or their progress on their written work. The group’s aim, originally, was not to be another “discussion” group but purely a group that offered encouragement and motivation - and a kind of listening ear. The group’s not very strict and every so often, other topics creep into the emails - the sorts of frets and rants of frustration you can only share with other writers and the big and small successes that it’s a joy to share - but after a short burst, the group will self-sets itself too: everyone knows the main purpose is to get the words done. Confidentiality and trust are essential, but wise words, commiserations and practical advice are there when require. 

If you are stuck, try a Performance Group or Class. Sometimes it’s good to practice new skills or try out another form of writing. My local theatre, for example, ran a weekly writing group, originally with a tutor, later without. Twice a year, the theatre put on a “new writing festival” where a dozen or more short themed plays were performed as well as a special evening when two or three longer pieces were staged. These performances gave the writing group a focus for their work and skills, at least until the theatre was put under new management. I know of a Poetry Writing Group that meets in a pub and performs their poems once a month. There’s nothing like facing peril together to bond a group’s members. Although neither group is about the writing of a novel, both heighten an awareness of the sound of one’s own writing.

Lastly, there is always a slightly sideways step: a Writer’s Reading Group which offers support, if of a slightly remote kind. Some writers who’d been part of the Playwriting Group moved on to other, different personal work. It was soon clear that the styles, interests and life matters made it impossible for them to continue as a whole “writing group”. However, wanting to keep in touch, they became a poetry reading group. Each month, they meet to study a particular poet, bringing along examples of poems or, on other evenings, reading a mixture of favourite poems. This central focus keeps the door sociably open, allowing for personal writing to be discussed as well as keeping the writers alert to the power of words.

Enough! There are many other forms of support, including writer’s lunches and gatherings, not to mention Writer’s Conferences like those in York and Bath this coming weekend or various writing retreats, and . . . and . . . 

Yes, writing is a solitary life – and most writers love that aspect of it – but sometimes it’s necessary to come out of the shadows and say hello to the wider world of humans. What seems to be important in all these writing groups and partnerships? Sharing what you need to share. Fairness, respect for each other and each other's strengths, skills and differences. A certain equality of purpose and values. Sensitivity, good manners and friendship - as well as quite a large amount of food and drink!

If you have any good examples of writer support, do tell us about them. Thanks –and special thanks to all who helped with the content of this post.

Happy writing!

Penny Dolan

Sunday, 30 August 2015

What you learn in tents - Lari Don

It’s nearly the end of the Edinburgh Book Festival – a wonderful opportunity for booklovers to gather and get rained on in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh.

I live in Edinburgh, so as well as being fortunate enough to do author events at the festival (this year, I did an event on my new book Serpents & Werewolves, and one on the gorgeously illustrated Tale of Tam LinnI also spend a lot of time enjoying other authors’ events.

I learnt a lot about writing from the book festival when I was starting out, both from writers’ workshops and from asking questions at the end of authors’ events.

Do I still learn about writing from the events? Yes of course, though not in the waterfall way I learnt years ago, when I had no sense of who I was as a writer. I still listen and learn, but I no longer scribble frantically the whole way through events.

But writing isn’t the only part of being a writer. Author events, readings, workshops and Q&As are just as much part of my job nowadays as imagining and inventing and editing. So, having learnt how to be a writer by haunting the EIBF 15 years ago, is it now possible for me to learn how to do author events by watching what other authors do?

I mix going to see authors I already love to read and authors I’ve never heard of. I learn a little bit from all of them, from their writing process and their inspiration. But I also learn from watching them do their events. From their readings, dressing up, musical accompaniment, audience participation, powerpoint presentations, debates and discussion with other authors, and all the other things authors do at festivals. And the main thing I learn is - the most successful events are the most honest ones, the ones which genuinely reflect the author’s work. There is no point in trying to do the same event as another author, because the most important thing to do in an event is be honest and open about your writing process and your book.

I may love listening to Patrick Ness or Marina Warner, but I can’t copy the way they present their events any more than I can (or should!) copy their books. Whether talking to 300 kids in a tent in Edinburgh, or 15 kids in a library in Ayrshire, all I can ever do is share with my audience what I do and why I love it. (This is why I very rarely do an event without telling one of myths or legends or folktales that inspire my fiction.)

So, I learnt to write my own way from workshops all those years ago in Charlotte Square, and now I’m learning to talk about writing in my own way too.

But the tents will come down next week. And we’ll all need to stop talking about writing, get our heads down and start writing again!

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
Lari’s website 
Lari’s own blog 
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Lari on Tumblr

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Priorities - John Dougherty

I've been sitting here wracking my brains over what to write for my post this month, and really, the only thing I want to write about is something that's already been covered by the inestimable Dawn Finch, writing a post for us here.

It is, of course, the recent Reading Agency report on reading for pleasure, which collated the findings of the most robust research on the subject. Please click on the link above to read Dawn's informative and thought-provoking post; but here are a couple of extracts from it:

"The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia... an improved sense of wellbeing... a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills."

"Children and young people who read show a significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary and cope better with education and social engagement."

And besides all this, of course, from an educational point of view - well, we all know that the best way to improve at something is to practise it over and over. And the best way to get someone to practise a skill is to get them to want to do it. So it seems self-evident that if - as the politicians keep telling us - improving literacy skills is a priority, a good way to do that is to get children reading for pleasure.

So: why isn't reading for pleasure central to the primary school curriculum? Why aren't school libraries statutory? And why are library services nationwide being defunded, hollowed out and deprofessionalised?

Let's not stop asking those questions.


John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman, is published by OUP.


Friday, 28 August 2015

Little Platos and monthly philosophizing - Clémentine Beauvais

In the past year, as highlighted by my post a couple of months ago, I've become increasingly interested in philosophy for children. What fascinates me, among other things, is the astonishing variety of approaches that are ingeniously being created and deployed in various philosophy for children movements. There's much to learn from the ways in which philosophy for children writers and practitioners harness the distinctive powers of all kinds of formats, narratives, styles and types of discourse to enrich and diversify their purposes. 

I've been keeping an eye on what's going on on the continent, and after Wonder Ponder last time, I thought I'd introduce to you two others that take radically different perspectives. 

The first one is a publisher called Les petits Platons, which specialises in very high-quality fictionalised philosophical biographies of famous thinkers, from Socrates to Heidegger, from Lao-Tseu to Hannah Arendt. The graphic identity is edgy and sleek, the writing beautifully precise and elegant.  

Le Cafard de Martin Heidegger

The premise of the series is that children are not just able to play with complex ideas - a now commonly accepted notion, at the root of Philosophy for Children movements - but that they are also able to understand and appreciate the coherence of a system of philosophical thought in relation to its creator's life and historical context. It's not pure non-fiction, though - most of the Petits Platons books are heavily fictionalised, the style sometimes lyrical, the biographical elements selective and purposeful, with plenty of magical realism and fantastical elements.

Visite d’un jeune libertin à Blaise Pascal

In France, the Petits Platons series are very successful, and the publisher has done gorgeous box sets sold, among other outlets, by Le Monde and the quite bohemian-bourgeois Télérama. It's been sold to dozens of other countries, and, miraculously for a non-Anglophone book, to America - the series will be published in English in September by University of Chicago Press. Sounds elitist, but there's nothing forbidding about this mixture of dreamlike illustrations and solid historical facts, dramatic tension precipitating years of peaceful meditations into one striking concept, and the visible embodiment of these ideas into people. 

I remember, as a child, being struck by the pages devoted to Hypatia and Simone de Beauvoir in a big book of philosophers I'd been given by a well-meaning aunt. It seemed surreal to me that there could be women in a book of philosophers. I hope Petits Platons readers in America and elsewhere are equally struck by the variety of life experiences, backgrounds, and profiles that can coalesce into 'being a philosopher'. 

Another country, another medium, another perspective: the monthly magazine for children Philéas et Autobule, in Belgium. 

Que faut-il pour être heureux ?
'What do we need to be happy?'

I've written a number of short stories for the magazine in the past few months - very short stories: two pages long - and I've very much enjoyed reading the magazine itself. It's anchored in the tradition of children's monthlies, very popular in the francophone world (a common gift for children is a subscription to a monthly story magazine). But as far as I know, it's the only children' monthly that specialises in philosophy. 

All the traditional ingredients are there: one-page comics with recurring characters, multiple-choice personality tests, documentary features, games, trivia, and short stories; but all geared towards playing with ideas, thinking about how they fit together and with different worldviews. Philosophers are mentioned occasionally, but they're not centrestage. 

I'm impressed by the scope of media, techniques, formats, discourses that philosophy for children movements has invested. It's made itself fiction, non-fiction, card game, self-help book, comic, questionnaire, poem, play, conversation; it's in bookshops, magazine booths, on the internet, on video, and of course in the immaterial, everyday practices of teachers, activity leaders and philosophy for children experts. 

I admire this versatility not just for what it says of the strength of philosophy in current informal or extra-curricular educational endeavours, but also for what it can teach me about my own writing pratices; about how much more I could, or should, explore.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

September Stirrings by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

It's that time of year again...the shops are full of delicious 'back to school' offers of pens, notebooks, coloured pencils and other stationery delights. I haven't been a teacher (in school at least) for many years - and it's been even longer since I was a student! I still feel a strange delight though in the sense of a new year starting. Once you have been part of the rhythms of school or university life it is hard not to!

Like most of my writer friends (there are many, and they are various) I take the opportunity to hoard new, fresh-smelling notebooks. I am particularly fond of the sub-Moleskine variety produced by one of the large supermarkets, in case you were wondering, and it's the sense that anything could happen this year that thrills me. The possibilities.

Every time I get a new idea, I start a new notebook. I don't necessarily write them immediately, but I do keep them together on a shelf in the study so that I can revisit them. I have enough notebook-story-starters to last me for years!

Anyway - I can't write any more here as I have a notebook buying trip planned. Care to join me? We can even buy some pens while we are there, and stop for a coffee on the way back. Who knows - we may have to make notes for a new book as we sip our drinks...

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Adventures with a Birthday Present

Julie Sykes

Last birthday I was given a whole year of National Trust membership. It’s one of the nicest presents I’ve ever had. I love the countryside and the National Trust owns and maintains some of the best. The houses are fun, too. What’s not to like about nosing around other people’s properties, especially when you’re a writer!

Here are some of my favourite National Trust properties and places to date.

St Michael's Mount

 Cape Cornwall


The place I visited most was Mottisfont, near Romsey in Hampshire. The grounds are spectacular as is the chalk bed river running through the property. The house is pretty special too, crafted from a medieval priory it has the sort of hallway that makes you want to roller skate down it. There’s an impressive 3D room, where pictures literally spring from the walls. Another brilliant thing about Mottisfont is that it regularly hosts events.

Last summer there was an exhibition by Quentin Blake and an exciting story trail through the gardens.

This year it’s the turn of Lauren Child. Lauren has generously lent over 50 original pieces of her own artwork to Mottisfont, including a sneaky preview of the illustrations from her new book. She’s also helped to create a fun adventure trail through the house and grounds. Keep a sharp eye out for that Pesky Rat. Bed you won’t guess where he’s hiding!

The Art of Lauren Child: Adventures with Charlie and Lola and Friends exhibition runs until 6th September. It’s DEFINITELY worth a visit.

I wonder how the National Trust will top that next year.

I’d like to nominate Chris Riddell. Mottisfont, can you hear me…

Which author/illustrator would you pick?