10 Things I Learned

Conversations I Did Not Have This Weekend

Me: Hello Herr Scheiber, we’d like a firewood delivery before the winter sets in.

HS: Of course. Is Monday morning OK?

Me: Perfect. By the way, we won’t be paying this time. Have a nice day.


Me: Could I book a hair appointment on Friday?

Hairdresser: Cut and blow dry?

Me: Yeah and quid pro quo.

HD: Quid what?

Me: Look, you cut my hair for nada and I tell all my friends how fab you are.


Me: Two tickets for Blade Runner 2049, please.

Cinema Employee: Where would you like to sit?

Me: Up the back and for free.

CE: Sorry?

Me: Well, I’m not sure if I’ll like it. But if I do, I’ll give it a great review. Oh and while I’m here, I’ll have the medium nachos with cheese sauce.

Conversations I Did Have This Weekend

Potential reader: Is your series available on iBooks?

Me: Sure, they’re available everywhere. Here’s the link.

PR: But these books aren’t free.


Website query: We’d like to read your book for our bookclub.

Me: Fantastic! Would you like me to send some bookclub questions?

WQ: That would be great! Could you also gift us 10 copies (e-books, not paperbacks, obviously!)


Casual acquaintance: My wife wants to read your books.

Me: OK, here’s a postcard which tells you where to buy them.

CA: You can’t just give her a copy?

You’ve all heard the Picasso quote – but if not, it’s at the end of this post.

I get slack-jawed in disbelief when people expect creatives to work for free – or more often – for the “exposure”.

I’ve done my time. University degree, years of teaching and learning, self-study and quite a few failures along the way.

Then a group of people (more on that next week) showed me how to improve and find a voice, a character and a style. I spent four years honing my first book, distilling all those years of craft and education it took to get to that stage.

So the next step is to give it away?


Before I published my first book, I promised myself two things: Never free, never exclusive. If I don’t value my work, why would anyone else?

Each of my e-books costs less than a cup of coffee. My paperbacks cost less than two birthday cards. Both will last a lot longer. I appreciate I’m also asking for your time and trust.

All of us readers approach a new book with anticipation and trepidation. You’re about to give me hours of your life – use them well

But if you value the hours of effort and skill that goes into keeping readers entertained, why would you expect all that for free?

Herewith the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal Picasso anecdote:

Picasso is sketching at a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for her portrait. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “5000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is outraged as it only took him five minutes. Picasso says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”





Guest piece for Words with JAM magazine by yours truly, on magic book descriptions that work.

Ten steps.

Five of which happen before you even begin to write.


Start with bare branches…

This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.


Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.


Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.


Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?


Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.



I went to the European Premiere of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Oh yes I did.


We had an absolute ball.

Meeting old friends, spending quality time together, getting excited, sharing jewellery, handbags, fashion advice and make-up tips. Not to mention the cocktails.


The film itself lived up to every expectation. In Odeon Leicester Square, the sound quality is so intense, your seats actually vibrate. The creatures, the acting, the story, the setting and most powerfully, the themes, held us all (regardless of age) rapt in our seats. You can read a more detailed review here.


A few things I learned about premieres:

  • The carpet’s not always red.
  • You cannot walk on cobbles in heels.
  • Dress so you feel fabulous AND comfortable.
  • When Non-Famous You gets out of the car, you can hear the fans groan.
  • Only professionals manage to keep red lipstick off their teeth.
  • Security geezers are truly amazing.
  • Warner Bros throw fine parties – Kowalski’s Bakery won.
  • Meeting the actors when prepared is incredible. When unprepared, you dribble.
  • It takes at least 24 hours and several conversations before you appreciate the film.
  • It takes at least 24 hours and several conversations before you remember the party.


An extraordinary Tuesday night.

A brilliant film I’ll watch again and again.

The first of five? Bring ’em on.




The Woolf Quarterly held WriteCon Zürich Autumn 16 last weekend.

A wonderful, stimulating day of ideas and discussion where 30 writers came together to learn and share.


Origami bookshelves by Sarah Buchmann

Lindsey Grant guided her group through the complexities of writing Memoir and Non-Fiction. This is a subject which requires an experienced tutor with an awareness of how traumatic some personal experiences can be.

Thankfully, as an ex Program Director of NaNoWriMo and memoirist herself, she steered a professional course between sharing individual stories and keeping the group focused.


Memoir & Non-Fiction workshop

In the Fiction Masterclass, Jason Donald packed structure, story, plot and prose into one intensive day.

Tragedy begins with harmony and ends with chaos. Comedy is the reverse.

His insights into Plot v. Story, the difference between the Hero/Heroine’s Journey and the significance of subplots intrigued me.

Main plot carries story, sub plot carries theme

In the afternoon session, we turned our attention to our own writing. Jason asked us to edit 3-5 pages of our work in progress.


Fiction Masterclass

First we weeded out all the bad habits (every author has a crutch in terms of words, phrases or sentence structure). Next we whipped out all those unnecessary filters.

Felt, wondered, decided, seemed are all filter words which distance the reader.

Finally, participants worked in pairs to create fresh, surprising prose.

This exercise was such a success, I’m sharing it here.

Write down ten words which express emotional states in your story. Eg, frustration, loneliness, jealousy, passion, triumph…

Write down ten words which appear in the environment of your storyworld. Eg, ice, sea-salt, wind, fur, shells…

Take one from each list and combine them into a sentence, using an image featuring the latter to evoke the former. Don’t mention the emotion, just hint at it. Write five sentences, sometimes a question or a negative. Amongst them, you’ll find one you can use or develop.

Hermit crabs scuttled their shells sideways at his approach, as if even they shunned him.

Her smile, sea-salt in his wounds, expressed nothing more than pity.

Swap lists with a partner. Give them your lists and see what five combinations they create.


Finally, writing workshops always result in such fabulous goodies!

Origami books, a syringe pen and a dead body pen holder. My kind of weekend.


Take me there. Paint me a picture by any means you know how. Magic carpet, perfumes, spices and strange sounds or maybe just a few words in the right order.” – Rose Mason

Authors can drug, hypnotise, lull and electrify with no potions or spells simply by manipulating 26 letters. Worlds, atmospheres, periods, characters, environments, threats, opportunities and experiences are drawn only in words, yet appeal to every one of our senses.

Here are a few striking examples which attracted me and what I learned from each. None claims to appeal to a single sense – we rarely experience an event through an isolated channel – but all play on a sensory impression.


Visual: The Shark by Edwin John Platt

His body was tubular

And tapered

And smoke-blue,

And as he passed the wharf

He turned,

And snapped at a flat-fish

That was dead and floating.

And I saw the flash of a white throat,

And a double row of white teeth,

And eyes of metallic grey,

Hard and narrow and slit.

Then out of the harbour,

With that three-cornered fin

Shearing without a bubble the water



He swam—That strange fish,

Tubular, tapered, smoke-blue,

Part vulture, part wolf,

Part neither—for his blood was cold.

The choice of precise words – smoke-blue, shearing, flash, teeth, throat and the underlining of threat in the final line brings this impressive yet sinister creature into sharp focus. Not only can I see it, I feel the writer’s awe.

welsh barn

Auditory: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles

of the humming streets, hammering of horse- shoes, gobble

quack and cackle, tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced

boughs, braying on Donkey Down. Bread is baking, pigs are

grunting, chop goes the butcher, milk-churns bell, tills

ring, sheep cough, dogs shout, saws sing. Oh, the Spring

whinny and morning moo from the clog dancing farms, the

gulls’ gab and rabble on the boat-bobbing river and sea

and the cockles bubbling in the sand, scamper of

sanderlings, curlew cry, crow caw, pigeon coo, clock

strike, bull bellow, and the ragged gabble of the

beargarden school as the women scratch and babble in Mrs

Organ Morgan’s general shop where everything is sold:

custard, buckets, henna, rat-traps, shrimp-nets, sugar,

stamps, confetti, paraffin, hatchets, whistles.

Read it aloud to understand the delight Thomas takes in sound. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyme and rhythm seem a higgledy-piggledy cacophony but his skill blends them all into a symphony. Every writer and reader should listen to the whole of Under Milk Wood one day.


Tactile: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

I want you to trace he fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers the lightest touch. If someone else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.

And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.

A book all about feeling, Davidson’s Gargoyle hacks away at the outside to get at what’s within. Here, the alignment of skin sensitivity and the character’s horrific injuries make us understand with shocking clarity the sensation of being burned.

barbed wire

Gustatory: Syed Ali “Porkistan

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

This extract is so charged with guilt and cultural influence, it could serve as a multi-sensory example, but the real beauty here is that nowhere does he describe the taste. Yet we, the readers, know exactly what he means.


Olfactory: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.

I couldn’t leave Suskind out, even if it is an obvious choice. Two things strike me here – he ranges across all aspects of city life evoking smells in every corner and uses two powerful verbs, surrounded by select and accurately described nouns.


If you have any examples of fabulous sensory writing, let me know. And look out for the Writing Sensory Detail session in the upcoming Triskele’s Creative Spark – an online creative writing course – no sign up, no cost, no catch. Starts 1st July.

Thanks to JD Lewis for all these beautiful images. Check out more of her work here.





This is my summary of the Writing for Performance workshop (at Geneva Writers’ Conference) with Shaun McCarthy

shaun mccarthyShaun addressed a small workshop group of fourteen people for two hours. He spent the first section talking about three things an audience expects, whether it is theatre, television or film. We may not do this consciously, but our conditioned knowledge of storytelling makes us expert at assessing what works.

“It might be the first play/film/TV episode you’ve ever written, but it’s certainly not the first story your audience has ever been told.”


Shaun began with three key questions.

Plausibility: do we believe this could happen? Whether in reality or this fictional world? Is the action driven by character motivation as opposed to puppets serving plot? Does the piece raise questions, make us think about themes, incite us to argue over its message?

Coherence: where it starts and ends, the gaps filled in, the backstory and momentum from one scene to the next, is this logical? Is chronologically the best way to reveal the experience? Can the audience predict what comes next and could that be subverted?

Convention: The poster, title, image, strapline and marketing sets up a certain kind of expectation – viewers have an expectation of how they will feel at the end. Yet there is also an expectation of originality within the form. The space between satisfying preconceived ideas and challenging thought is an exciting area.

To illustrate the above, we watched the opening of Peaky Blinders and discussed what genres it referenced and what promises it set up.



Next, we explored the five act structure.

(Pick a play/film/TV series you know well and identify these for yourself. It’s a useful exercise.)

Establish the world of the play and then turn things around. Something must happen to challenge the normality of this environment and trigger a desire in our protagonist. This is the INCITING INCIDENT.


rome 008


Followed by Advances and Setbacks. One step forward, one back, with increasing threat and/or greater glory, the hero/ine progresses to a point where everything rests on one choice.

CRISIS. The action, the decision, the risk-it-all leap, which must be propelled by character or the changes s/he has undergone.

CLIMAX. Will he or won’t she? Do we or don’t they? This is where the protagonist wins or loses and creates a new play/film/ world order. Whether it’s a home run, a kiss or the jury’s verdict, nothing will ever be the same again.


rome 017


RESOLUTION: The success or failure of the choice in crisis now spool outwards, resolving all those lead-up moments for better/worse. This is where the tension is released.

Shaun split us into groups to write our own outline of a Five-Act Structure, entitled The Legacy. The formula proved a helpful framework, within which Shaun helped us see where we needed extra characters, thematic underpinning and shortcuts to tension.

Finally, one member of the group asked about turning a family member’s experience into a screenplay. Shaun’s reply:

Real life is often a great story. But usually a rotten script.


rome 009


Further reference material

Shaun McCarthy: Hooligan Theatre

Robert McKee: Story

Lajos Egri: The Art of Dramatic Writing


Next Page »