Archive for Writing tips

Writing advice from Rolling Stone Keith Richards

Music documentaries are endlessly fascinating to me, and they beat documentaries about writers hands-down when it comes to engrossing visuals and sounds. About the only thing the two documentary types have in common is an above-average culture-quota of black leather jackets. Garth Marenghi, Jim Morrison, I’m looking at you. Except I’m not, am I? Because I can’t tear my eyeballs from your matching jackets.

As I watched the recent Rolling Stones documentary, Keith Richards let slip a gem while doing his very best Jack Sparrow impression…”When it comes to music I look out for the silence between the notes,” he said. I’m paraphrasing wildly, but that’s honestly what he said. “That’s where the magic happens.”

And he’s right, isn’t he? Lots of magic hides in the silence. Look at those strange pauses infused by Indian rhythms in Get Ur Freak On by Missy Elliott. Look at the deep blues of the Rolling Stones, and the weird sexy dangerous bits between the thuds. Look at every song ever by the White Stripes. Meansters made fun of Meg’s blunt attack of the drum machine, but under Jack White’s mentoring her simple, drawn-out icky thumps make up 50% of that tasty alchemical gumbo.

Is it possible to play with silence in writing as well as music? Can it be laid bare to give depth and structure to a thing? Can you zen yo bad writerly self into seeing the spaces between the leaves of a tree as tangible,  as much a ‘thing’ as the leaves themselves? I’m pretty sure there was a zen exercise about this. But I practice the Zen of Forgetting on a regular basis, so I’m not the best person to ask about things of the past. On the upside, ask me how many pairs of stilts a mouse should have and I’m THERE, baby.

Anyway. Silence in words?

Maybe it’s the rhythm and cadence of a thing.

Maybe it’s the empty page itself, printed or made of light, and the way you make the lines squiggle onto it. That phrase. That word. Maybe it doesn’t want to hang out with the others in a big old herd paragraph. Maybe it’s outgrown them. Maybe it wants to hang out on its own, over…


Or maybe word-silence is the weird void where the thoughts come from, even if you sometimes stumble and think there’s nothing there. Maybe word silence lies in all those latent potential ideas as they build sufficient kinetic energy to come out of the void. Maybe it’s the pull, the rush that lurks behind every episode of writer’s block. I’ve always suspected that writer’s block represents too many ideas jostling for attention, desperate to be the one at the front, not too few. Yet, because they’re potential ideas, they’re only visible when you shine a bright light on them. We think they’re not there. They’re the emptiness. The not-here. The silence.

For me, writer’s block is a silent world doesn’t exist. It’s a really interesting void, a sunless abyss where Things Want to be Seen. Where Things Squirm Around in the Dark.

I’m not sure what word silence might be, yet.

But if it’s anything like as powerful as rhythm and blues, it’s a powerful thing indeed…

The Imperfect Perfection of the Love Triangle

Twilight. Harry Potter. Shades of Grey featured one between a girl, a boy and a furry spatula, probably. Love triangles in fiction, especially YA fiction, might be isosceles or equilateral or, or, you know, the other kind of triangle that I can never remember, but they’re THERE. Actually, my bad: they’re never equilateral. All three protagonists would end up with an equal dollop of power and desire, and what would be the point (yes, I went there) of that?

A number of agents profess to be sick to the back teeth of the YA love triangle and actively pay attention to synopses that don’t have one. If you check on Goodreads or any other reader networks, many regular YA readers are also happy to lay into the whole triangley thing to the point where our vulnerable three-pointed friends are beginning to feel like a marginalised group. Readers may not specify what shapes they’d like (dodecahedrons are probably a little too edgy) but triangles are OUT, my loves.

But what’s wrong with a nice, sturdy little triangle? It’s a humble beast, yet it reaches to the heavens if you point it the right way up. You just have to get the angles and degrees right. When crafting a love triangle it’s all about what angle you take, and to what degree it’s integral to the story.

One thing you often see on Goodreads is this:

“Oh noez I read this thing and YOIKS it had yet another love triangle, BUT…”

The reader goes on to specify what they genuinely liked about the characters or the situation or the thing, the other thing, the thingy-thing they actually genuinely liked. This other thing is, weirdly enough, often coloured by the presence of emotional stuff. Readers actually quite LIKE protagonists having problems with their heart-bits. They’re just tired of seeing the same emotional mechanics as that really big popular book which everyone read before it got turned into a film. Yes, that one.

Here are my love triangles so far. You are welcome to say if you think they work or not.

GATEWAY BOY: David (the hero) and Molly used to be best friends but after several years apart they’ve discovered their affection has grown stronger over time. However, David’s got the whole of England to save and Molly is locked into an arranged marriage because that’s how queening and politics work in the Kingdom of Below. It’s not really about the triangle, it’s more about discovering that mutual affection is really nice and can help you in the dark times when you’ve got some Big Stuff To Do. Also, very importantly, whatever your loveliness situation is, you never know what’s going to happen next.

JABBERWACK: Ellie Darkbrow and Vin grip their shovels tight as they unearth collapsing social systems and rising entities, but they’d rather work these problems out with each other than anyone else. No love triangle. They don’t need to sniff round anyone else. People have asked me if there’s a secret love triangle between Ellie and boy b, or between Ellie and girl b, but there isn’t. Ellie and boy b and girl b don’t fancy each other. And while boy b may not be gay, girl b definitely is. It’s sometimes hard to believe but you don’t have to fancy literally every person you meet. And, even if you’re (trope alert!) really beautiful and don’t know it, they’re under no obligation to fancy YOU. I know, amaze! But it’s true!

HOUSE OF SIGHS: HOORAY AT LAST IT’S A GENUINE LOVE TRIANGLE BY JIMINY. However, it’s an integral part of a locked room mystery set in an Orphanage where nothing is as it seems. At the risk of spoilers I will say that while Jane’s decision to pick Mort or Nicholas Hobb will make a big difference to everything that ever was, she’ll be in a pickle either way.

Not every book needs a love triangle. They may well help things sell to readers who have not yet had a relationship and would like to experience ALL the twists and turns of love in about 300 pages. That’s fair enough. But only you can decide, as a writer who is writing a book you’d want to read, whether your book should have one or not.


Firstly, we are going to do a flip and make the YA hate triangle a trope. As soon as you know what a hate triangle might be and how it might enrich human experience and literature, get back to me.

Following a mate’s suggestion, we can try thinking about choice triangles instead of love triangles. Three sides, but many facets of human nature.

We are going to be brave and explore other love shapes like points, lines, teetering trapezoids and shapes that only exist if you can operate in six dimensions.

We are going to remember that colour by numbers results in a delightfully hamfisted picture of a sailing boat, but not a book that we or anyone else can be proud to have on their shelves or their portable magical box.

If there’s an opportunity to receive a critique in a writing competition, take it.


There are some things in writing you should never pay for.

Never pay agents a reading fee to read your work. That is not how good agents work.

It’s up to you whether you choose to pay for a literary editing service. If you aim to self-publish, it’s probably a very good idea; a good literary editor will push you hard and help you iron out the technical kinks you never knew you had. It’s a lot of expenditure for a full manuscript, but getting an eye cast over those first three chapters can work wonders.

It’s entirely up to you whether you enter writing competitions which charge an entry fee. Check the cost of entry versus the sum of the prize, taking into account the prestige of the competition. If it’s £25 to enter a competition you’ve never heard of and the 1st prize is only £10… forget about it.

If a writing competition offers you a critique as part of either the prize or the entry fee, TAKE IT. Research the judges, obviously. Research the site/resource/publication in general. But they’re offering you gold, so TAKE IT.

I entered the first chapter and synopsis for two unpublished novels to the Novel Rocket Launch Pad Contest.

I didn’t win, but the critiques I was offered were so insightful that I felt like I had won anyway. They ripped my work apart, those master butchers, and they had clearly been wielding their knives with skill and clear-eyed dispassion for some time. They dissembled my musty old cadaver of a first chapter and showed me how to rebuild it into something that will soon not only stand up but walk.

I’ve been on plenty of online writing forums and I’m sure you have too. They’re great. They’re tough. They’re loving.

But they’re NOTHING like this.

This was my very first taste of high-level feedback from industry insiders , with highlighting of action beats and DNA-level sentence structure and stuff I’ve never before seen covered in forum critiques. I felt like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Aslan strips away his dragon flesh layer by layer, finally returning him to the form of the boy he was meant to be.

Industry-level criticism is objective and it is there to make you improve. If you see an opportunity to get it via a writing competition, you’d be silly not to take it.

It’s a game-changer.

Images that inspire you to write

A friend of mine collects images that inspire her to write. They are mostly sunk sailing ships, or ghost sailing ships, or airborne sailing ships. What can I say, the girl likes ships. Also, she’s writing a novel about the captain of a sailing ship, which may have something to do with it.

I like this photo when I’m scribbling modern urban fantasy.


Etymaulogy: The coining, splicing, ruffling, condensing and mutating of words. Throwing words together to create something new.

When we do this with ideas, it is called inspiration, and the world grows.

When we do this with words, it is called etymaulogy, and the world grows.

Etymaulogy is a word I dreamed up a moment ago. It is an example of etymaulogy.


Protectoplasm – Does it protect you from the other side? Or does it protect the other side from you?

Prewarication – Sniffing round that thing you were meant to do, not approaching it, not entirely sure it is a thing that should be done.

Cornuphobia – The fear of plenty

Further examples of etymaulogy more than welcome 🙂

Why I Love Dystopian YA


Dystopian fiction’s been around for a long time, but cultural anxiety means it’s rearing its head. And it’s especially suited to YA, because events like the zombie apocalypse or the hunger games ask the question that we’re particularly prone to asking when we’re young: “It’s all utter bollocks. Why is nothing being done about it?”

It’s somehow easier to ask this about fascists when they’re carrying laser guns, and self-involved masses when they’re groaning for your brainsssssssss. Or, if they’re vegan zombies, for your grainsssssss*.

With dystopian YA, you can make the whole system come crashing down (usually in a situation where the adults are all dead or ineffectual. Poor adults) and leave the characters and the reader asking themselves: “Just what am I going to do now? Because no-one else is going to do it. Big Ben has been destroyed and the adults are dead/useless/mad-scary. It has to be me.”

Honestly, a crumbled civilisation is terribly empowering. It is.

YA focuses on making decisions that begin to shape who you are, your role in society and what you want out of life. Plant these choices firmly in a dystopia and the consequences of your choices become even more starkly in-your-face than they are on a Sunday night when you realise the next day you have to go back to a school where everyone probably hates you and, because they’re unfortunately real living people not zombies, you can’t despatch them with an incinerator, and not just because you’ve built it all wrong and you haven’t got enough flame fuel.

Because it’s about choices, about strength in the face of adversity, dystopian YA isn’t necessarily pessimistic. Which is good, because I like things like jokes and hope and buttered crumpets, and I think other people do too. Relentless pessimism is relentlessly boring. Why read a book so grimly inevitable that the end sentence is “and they all died but you knew that anyway”?

To follow a story means you want to know what happens next, and that means that situations can be CHANGED. In a seemingly hopeless world, but your choices actually make things BETTER.

Again, empowering. And not entirely unlike the wonderful and complicated world we live in today.

*This joke belongs to Deborah Taylor. I have merely borrowed it for safekeeping.


1984 – George Orwell (best read for the first time when you’re a teen)

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – Anthony Burgess (some would say this isn’t YA, but Alex and his droogs are older teen protagonists whose entire life is based around playing truant from school to do… other things.)

THE HUNGER GAMES – Suzanne Collins (Yep. Now we all want arrows and moss.)

DIVERGENT – Veronica Roth (lovely lovely feudy feuding tribal gangs)

A PLACE IN THE SUN – absolutely blinding short story by Joanne Harris

JABBERWACK – In the words of Bad Robot Productions, I made this! More choices, pickaxes and shovels than you’ve ever seen in your life, and an amputation in chapter 3. That’s a promise, folks.

I feel like chicken tonight…

It’s amazing how many calls for submissions state “Please, no more stories about rapist-murder-cannibals.”

How many do they receive? One? Twenty? How many is too many? Is three about right?

Who are all these people trying their hand at a bit of rape-murder-cannibal fiction? Perhaps it’s just one dear old lady*, the kind who offers you Werther’s Originals when you knock on her door, a veritable Barbara Cartland of the subgenre with 786 under her belt…

*It’s not me.

WRITING TIP: You’re best off not writing rape-murder-cannibal fiction.

Shannon A Thompson

You need the world, and the world needs good people.

one bow...

Malena Lott Putnam | storyteller. strategist.

D.E. Atwood

...writes books she wants to read...

Kip Wilson Rechea

Write, travel, eat, repeat.

Encyclopaedia Vanitatum

a dictionary of spectral curiosities

Sarah Hans

Author, Editor, Educator

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