Friday, 11 November 2016


I was very tempted to start this post with the sentence "Well that's it now then - the whole world has gone to shit and we might as well camp in our nuclear bunkers already." But, for the sake of positive thinking, let's just pretend I didn't.

First we had June 24th - EU Referendum Day here in the UK. We'd had months of poisonous, xenophobic bullshitty bullshit about 'taking back our country,' splattered like cow dung over the front of various 'news'papers that were - surprise surprise! - mostly owned by the same crooked corporate fat cat who wanted the UK out of the EU, because - and this is a direct quote from the man himself: 

"When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice."

(Let's just stop and think about that for a moment, shall we? Do you think a man who runs a massive media corporation - the man who once counted The News of the World among his publications until it collapsed under the weight of phone-hacking and police-bribing charges - should be in a position where he can boss the government of an entire country around? I don't. Sounds a bit too much like a Mafia boss for my liking. Isn't The Actual Government supposed to be a bit more incorruptible than that?)

But if there was a theme to the way that vote eventually went, it could be summed up in one phrase: 'Sticking it to The Man.' For many of the Brexiteers, that Man was personified by the EU itself - those pesky Bureaucrats in Brussels, making all their stupid, wacky laws that were so unfair and designed to deliberately pick on the British people. Except that, if you asked Brexiteers to name any of those laws, they either couldn't or could only spout the ridiculous ones they'd read about in a Murdoch-owned newspaper about non-bendy cucumbers or the like (which had long ago been proved myths invented by froth-mouthed right-wing hoaxers.) Meanwhile, the plethora of EU laws that have massively improved the lives of millions of Europeans (including the British) and would never have even come into being, never mind been enforced, without the EU... well, Brexiteers couldn't name a single one of those. (A lot of the laws focus on things like employee rights, environmental issues and commercial/manufacturing hygiene standards, as it turns out.)

For the rest of the Brexiteers, the Man was The Government, the ones who were currently in power - you know, the same ones who'd been doofing up running the country for the last two terms. They seemed very keen on staying in the EU - so what better way then, for the Disgusted of Great Britain to give them a massive two-fingers-up by voting for the very thing they don't want? Hah yeah, power to The People! That'll learn ya, ya posh douchebags!

This is the equivalent of burning down the house to piss off your parents, only to realise later on that all your stuff was still in there at the time.

But enough of that. It's done now, and there's no turning back, and the next job for those of us who voted Remain is to try and bite our tongues as the Brexiteers hop up and down in fury because invoking Article 50 is actually going to take ages and be a total nightmare, which is why nobody who knows anything about European politics wanted it to happen. (And what all of us really want to say to those angry Brexiteers is "because you thought it was all going to be soooo easy, didn't you? That good old British Blighty was going to be able to walk up to Angela Merkel and say "right then, we're outta this gig, but here's our list of all the EU perks we'd quite like to keep, 'cos they're pretty fab..." And she'd roll her eyes and smile and say "Oh, you little tinkers! Go on then, we'll let you, because we're really gonna miss you and, frankly, I don't know how we're all gonna cope without you on board anymore..." Yeah, well.... no.)

And then along came the American Presidential Election. And the misogynistic, homophobic, racist, tax-dodging, Tango-ed Bad-Hair-Day-Made-Flesh that was Donald Trump.

At first everybody laughed at the idea that he could actually become President, especially when there were so many other - jeez, any other - candidates to choose from. Comparing his chances to the proverbial snowball's in Hell seemed like letting him off lightly. But the opposition got whittled down, until it was just him and Hillary Clinton...

That's when a lot of the UK Remainers started to worry. And I mean, really worry.

I had friends in America who assured me "it's okay, he won't get in. There aren't enough Americans who'd actually buy into his hate-fuelled rhetoric to let him get in." They were so confident, believed so deeply that tolerance and sensibility and all the things that made America great would prevail.

And I tried to smile and hold onto that hope too, but it was hard to see and hear through the wailing sirens of deja vu. That's what we believed about Brexit, was all that was clanging in my head. Please, for the love of God, don't make the same mistakes we did...

So, while many of us here in the UK were as dismayed as many Americans when The Trump stormed to victory, we weren't entirely surprised. Don't feel bad, those of you who didn't vote for him - we know it doesn't mean you've morphed into a nation of hair-trigger bigots. You've been through hard times in the last few years just like us, and you wanted to see an end to it as much as we did. The corporate fat cats and mega-rich media vampires knew that, just like they did in the UK, and they fed you lies and propoganda about how to fix things and who could fix it for you. They fed it to you like the farmers feed those poor geese who end up as pate de fois gras, so that it was getting shoved down your throat every hour of every day whether you wanted it or not. And all the people who felt like they'd lost the most, and were angry about that and scared about how much more they were still going to lose, ate it up because they wanted to believe there was a way to make things better. The propaganda made them believe Trump's way was the way - even if it was dirty and cold and divisive. Those people are in for a rough ride too, when Trump finally struts into the White House and does precisely nothing to make their lives any better (but plenty to make it worse, probably.)

If 2016 were just a novel, I reckon most people wouldn't believe it. It's too ridiculous, they'd say, too farcical to think that things would really go down that way in the more enlightened times of the 21st century. It's more like a parody than a modern fable for our times.

Well, it looks like now we're living the parody. Perhaps the best approach is to strap ourselves in, shout and point to every violation and contradiction so that no-one misses them from now on - oh, and try to hold on to our collective sense of humour. It may well be the best weapon we've got left.

Sunday, 30 October 2016


When you sit down to write a story - whether that's a novel or a bite-sized piece of flash fiction - you obviously want it to be a quality work. Most of us don't want to settle for an "Mmmyeah, that was okay," from our readers - we want to wow them.

If your story was a movie (don't you tell me you've never imagined how your story would look in movie-form, because I won't believe you) yours would have the best sets, lighting and sfx. And in fact it could, because the budgets for story-movies in your head aren't constrained by piffling things like reality. So you can also go nuts with the casting too - why have protagonists with the acting chops of Tracey and Trevor from the local amdram society, when you could have Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt instead? (Well... maybe not as co-stars, in the light of recent events...) Big stars, after all, bring in the punters.

But with big stars come the big egos. They aint gonna touch your story-movie with a ten-foot pole if they don't like the script. Luckily there's a sure-fire way to make them love it, and that's to make sure that script is all about them, baby. This, as all the writing advice from the greats assures us, is the key to making a protagonist memorable.

But how do we actually do this? How do we make sure our readers are rooting for our main character to triumph, instead of, say, the quirky sidekick or - worse - the antagonist of the piece? We make their participation in the story's events matter. Whatever happens, however brilliantly or badly our main character behaves, they need to stay at the top of the reader's Give a Damn List, above all other characters in that story. And we need to do that not just for the duration of the entire story - we need to do it for the duration of each chapter and each scene of that story.

This is the advice given in a metric tonne of writing how-to books and by many a successful author. And having read many of those books and listened to many of those authors, here is my list of questions I like to ask my protagonist for each scene I write. I expect them to be able to answer these questions - or at least that I can answer them on their behalf - and if they can't, I dig deeper into the scene events and their pysches to find the answers. These questions help me to know where I'm going with my scenes - they might help you too. So without further ado - let's do this!

1 - So... how are things going for you right now?

This is a question to ask right at the start of each new scene, because, unless it's Scene 1, the answer you get will depend on whatever happened in the scene before it. Whether the shizzle that happened was good or bad, their mood will be governed by that, along with their hopes/fears for what might happen in the future. So this question determines the tone and initial expectations for this current scene - and it needs to flow from the previous scene. If your previous scene ended with a nasty argument between your protagonist and her sidekick, you can't just open this scene with them chatting amiably as if they never had a cross word - even if a sizeable chunk of time has passed since then. (Oh, and you also can't cheat and open with some kind of weak disclaimer like 'they made up their argument later on, so by the time the next morning came they were friends again.' As far as your readers are concerned, if the cameras weren't there at the time, it didn't happen.)

With this in mind, if your protagonist ended the previous scene thoroughly pissed off with someone, then not only are they going to still be pissed off with them throughout this scene, but their judgement about anything that same someone says or does is going to be coloured by that - at least until that someone does something to redeem themselves. And that needs to be reflected in the protagonist's attitude and inner dialogue as well as for the mood of the scene.

2 - What's the Plan?

For any scene to have a point, the protagonist must have a goal - some objective she needs to achieve before the scene ends. That can be a proactive goal (taking steps independently to further her progress toward a bigger goal) or a reactive one (doing something to fix or at least stave off what just went wrong in the previous scene.)

(As a side note, this is a good way of picking up pacing issues in your novel; ideally you want scenes that vary between proactive and reactive goals. Several reactive scenes in a row will make the character look passive and clueless, while several proactive ones can overwhelm the reader with a feeling of relentless action without much depth. You don't have to be obsessive about it, swinging equally between the two poles with the precision of a  metronome, but if there are parts of your story that seem to sag or don't feel right, your action/reaction cycle is often a good place to start looking for problems.)

Whether your protagonist's goal is proactive or reactive, it needs to be there and she needs to have made some attempt to achieve it before the end of the scene. Now obviously she won't be aware she has that time limit (heck, she's not even aware she's in a 'scene' at all) but she should have some idea what she wants to get done - if not right at the beginning of the scene, at least well before the halfway mark. It should chime with either her external or internal need (determined by the character arc you gave her) which means it should be super-important to her - even if that's only for the duration of this scene. Oh and yeah, she only needs one per scene. Trying to fix more than one thing at once is often how real life has to work, but in fiction it just makes everything harder in a bad way - for you as a writer and for the reader to try and follow. Keep it simple, so everyone knows where the spotlight is supposed to shine.

3 - Did the Plan work?

At some point between the protagonist executing her plan and the end of the scene we need to know how that went for her. Well duh, I hear you cry. But you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget this - especially if you're a Discovery Writer/Pantser. Sometimes when your mind takes flight you can end up adding in new ideas that potentially take the story in exciting new directions... but don't resolve the initial issue presented at the start of the scene. If that happens, either put the new ideas in a separate Notes section until you can find a more suitable place to slot them into your story, or find some way to connect them to this scene's goal. Either way, once you set up the protagonist's goal at the start of the scene, your next duty is to report on her progress. It doesn't matter if she succeeded or failed, your readers need to know. More importantly, they need to know...

4 - Did it work out the way you wanted it to?

Most often the protagonist will fail to achieve her goal (because that's what keeps the story going.) This might be in very simple terms ('I tried to get this and I didn't get it') or involve a whole new world of complications ('Holy crap, I tried to get this and not only did I not get it, I just made things a whole lot worse!') The second one is often recommended as the better option for creating that page-turning thrill, but going back to the previous notes about active/reactive cycles, having the same level of emotion for scene after scene can make sections of a novel feel samey or over-intense, so don't feel that every failed goal has to end in the worst possible way.

Besides, on the flipside, sometimes interesting twists are created when the protagonist fails in her goal - and it turns out better for her that she did. Something unexpected happens, another character reacts in a way she didn't predict and she realises she might have been wrong to chase that goal in the first place. Of course the other way that can twist is if the protagonist does in fact succeed in achieving her goal - but it doesn't bring the results she wanted, or it brings results she absolutely didn't want.

However it pans out, it's important we know if she's happy (or not) with the result she got - and why. This is because it ties in with her character arc - most often with her external and/or internal need - and anything that feeds this helps the reader to bond more with your protagonist. In order to care about her, we need regular reminders about what she cares about.

5 - So what are you gonna do now?

Once you've got this far through the scene, the game-board has changed. The Plan in place near the beginning has been executed and either succeeded, failed or hella failed, and your protagonist is either celebrating, commiserating or full-on tearing out her hair. And in order to write the next scene, you need to give her something to work with from the start - in short, a new Plan, Stan. Well, maybe not necessarily an actual plan, but she needs to have at least drawn some sort of conclusion about what's gone down that you can carry through to the next scene. Like, what has she learned from this one? It might be some actual new information (a revelation,) either from another character or from some sort of detective work, and that may have been her intended goal or it may have just happened as a by-product of an unrelated goal. Or it may be deciding that her actions in this scene have made things worse/better/had no effect at all, and so she needs to try something different next time (or try the same thing again with other people or in another situation.) Either way, she will be ruminating on either an action or a revelation, (and, as with the active or reactive goal discussed earlier, a good way to keep the reader hooked in your story is to have a good spread of variety between actions and revelations for scene conclusions.) And if you can communicate this information to the reader, not only do you entice them to keep reading, but you've set up a solid starting-point for your next scene.

But wait, I hear you say. What if I've planned the next scene to be a flashback, or to make a massive time-jump? How does this system work with that? Well, it still should. The things we're talking about here - goals, actions, reactions and revelations - are all related to the protagonist's character arc - her external and internal needs - and even with flashbacks and time-jumps these should always be moving forward. Using the flashback as an example, even if the event being described is from the past it should still resonate with the lessons learned from the previous scene in the present day - if it doesn't, it may be that the flashback doesn't belong at that point in the story after all, and would be better pushed back or moved forward in the narrative.

So there they are - my five golden questions. This might look like a lot of work to do for every single scene in your story, but more often than not you'll find you've already done it for most of them anyway without even realising it. The ones that don't may well be the ones that feel flat or aimless, so if you couldn't put your finger on why that was before now, at least this will give you something to work from. It's worked for me, so maybe it'll work for you too,

Saturday, 15 October 2016


Moses: the world's first Beta-Reader.
Life is full of rules. There are the big rules, made by leaders of countries that everyone has to follow or risk spending time in a small room with bars on the windows.There are medium-size rules that will get you banned, blocked or otherwise excluded from venues or activities if you break them. And, right at the bottom, there are the smaller rules - the ones you can do waggly finger-quotes around if you're that way inclined, since breaking them will earn you not much more than some side-eye and a few 'unfriend'-ings on FaceBook.

This is because us humans love rules. It's how we make sense of the world and sort everybody out into their respective tribes. You can't build an IKEA wardrobe without instructions, (sometimes even with them) and rules serve as the instruction manual to the IKEA wardrobe that is our lives. Hammer all those wooden pages in before you squish the two bits together, make sure you put those weird locking-nut things in the right way up and don't, for the love of God, lose the Allen Key, and you'll end up with exactly what you were intending to end up with. Mostly.

So it's hardly surprising that even writers - those free-thinking, creating-worlds-and-people-out-of-thin-air dreamers - decided that the craft of writing needed rules as well. Yes of course everything we create doesn't actually exist outside the pages of our work, so we are in effect trying to enforce discipline on pretend things - but even the intangible must be pinned down and categorised, dammit! We must know what tribe it belongs to, so we can decide if it's friend or foe to our own tribe - because only then can we figure out whether we should embrace it like a brother or chase its arse out of our village with the sharp end of our pitchforks.

And so the Writing Rules were born, and have been with us ever since. If you've been writing for any length of time, you'll probably know a lot of them already. Many are very good, and will most definitely help you to become a better writer. But this is why there are a certain number that keep on coming up, time after time, shouted throughout the writing community as if they were the sacred words of the God of Stories himself.

I'm going to say some terms and phrases now, well-known amongst writers, and see how many of them give you that inner urge to roll your eyes and sigh. Ready? Here we go then:

Passive Voice. Filtering. Show, don't tell. Adverbs.

Are you groaning yet? Sorry about that. I picked these in particular because they're the ones writers seem to get the most froth-mouthed evangelistic about. Somehow, these aren't just rules - they're RUUUUULLLLLEEEESSSS! As in, non-negotiable - you either toe the line on this or you forfeit the right to think of yourself as a proper writer.

Think I'm exaggerating? On many writing community forums you can regularly find long, ranty threads on the above four Rules. Just this week I saw one entitled '17 Words Good Writers Should Never Use' - that's NEVER, as in EVER, AT ALL. The Poster of this thread was serious, with no hint of irony in his message, and vigorously defended his point of view, as did a few others who replied to it. All fine and dandy - until you actually look at some of the words on that list of those Good Writers should 'never' use. Words like 'right,' 'then,' 'while,' and - I'm not making this up - 'was.'

That last one is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who seriously believes they will improve their writing by eliminating every instance of the word 'was' clearly does not understand how English works. You could certainly do it - but the verbal acrobatics you'd sometimes have to employ to still say what you want to say would leave your prose unreadable. Words don't stick around in a language for centuries if they're no use to people, and 'was' has been around for a bloody long time already.

The whole hate campaign against 'was' comes from the both the Passive Voice Rule and the Show, Don't Tell Rule - and there is some merit in the reasoning. Making the subject of the sentence the active element (doing the thing) rather than the passive (the thing is being done by them) does make that sentence more dynamic and help the reader to 'feel' the story more. The same principle applies when a subject performs an action that indicates an emotion (i.e. showing, with body language) than simply saying that subject 'was something' (i.e. 'Jane was angry' is telling.)

But here's the million-euro question: do readers care about that sort of thing as much as writers do?

To answer that question we need look no further than E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy, because it's easy to forget that, actually, it wasn't always branded the epitome of bad writing. When it first hit the (virtual) bookshelves it was a massive hit, and people were raving about it. Celebrities were happy to be seen - even photographed - reading it, and it turned Ms. James into a millionaire almost overnight.

And who was responsible for its initial, runaway success? Readers. As in, people whose first priority when choosing a book for themselves is a darn good story, not how 'well-written' a book is. It's only when the writer-readers - i.e. people who also wrote books themselves or aspired to - bought the book (perhaps to try and figure out what the heck the magic formula was for such phenomenal success) that the tide began to turn against it. Yes, it does break a lot of the 'Rules of Good Writing' and breaks them with repeated (very repeated) impunity. It's easy to see why legions of writer-readers who've spent years honing their craft and beating their writing into shape according to all these golden Writing Rules would regard Fifty Shades as a slap in the face to all that hard work and dedication. Especially when that 'badly-written' thing sells a million gazillion copies, gets made into a movie, has the whole world talking about it for years to come...

E.L. James isn't even alone in being ridiculed for her writing style. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown are regularly labelled 'bad writers' too - in spite of also writing multiple bestsellers and having millions of reader fans. Heck, even J.K. Rowling gets picked on for her love of adverbs. But what they all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a way that hooks their readers in and keeps them turning the pages. And that's not achieved by obeying all the Writing Rules designed to make your prose technically brilliant - it's a different kind of magic altogether.

Or maybe it isn't 'magic' at all.

Maybe what those best-selling 'bad writers' are doing is simply writing their stories with slightly different priorities to the 'Great Writers.' Perhaps for them, the story comes first, and the 'quality' of the writing comes second. Sometimes, using passive voice is the only way to show a protagonist's feelings of powerlessness in a scene. Sometimes giving your readers a brief summary of certain events (telling) is preferable to making them metaphorically sit through every trivial detail (showing.) And sometimes a well-chosen adverb can add just the right flavour to an ordinary verb, in a way that reaching for the rare and beautiful Super-Verb can't. By all means make use of the Writing Rules - but never sacrifice clarity to do so. Say what you mean to say, in order to tell the story you mean to tell - even if that requires you to break out the 'was'-es  and 'ly'-words.

Story first, writing to impress other writers second. That's how to craft a bestseller.

Friday, 30 September 2016


I know - little old me, writing sex scenes? What on earth would my mother say?

Before I go any further, I'll say it upfront; I am far from an expert in what's widely termed 'Erotica.' I have had a few bashes at it (make up your own jokes here if you like)  but it's not my preferred genre. I mostly only get to write sex scenes is when they happen to be part of the plot of whatever non-Erotica genre I'm writing in.  However, most of what I've learned from that apply to the Fifty Shades-type stuff as well, so I thought I'd share. Particularly the embarrassing stuff I've learned - I'll feel the shame so you don't have to, as they say.

Oh, and if the title wasn't a bit of a giveaway - a lot of this stuff is likely to be NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Seriously, don't be fooled by my Fisher-Price-toy avatar-face - I will be using Naughty Words. And just to be safe, I'll add in a TRIGGER WARNING too. Are we okay with that? Still ready to proceed? Good! Off we go then...

1 - At some point, you WILL be embarrassed about it.

Now I don't know you personally, and you don't know me that way either. You may be the most sexually liberated and experimental Love Cat in existence for all I know. (Or I might be, for all you know.) If you are, that's great. Well done you! But don't assume that being totally okay with doing the sex in every crazy combination in your everyday life means you'll be able to write about that stuff with squirm-free ease.

The first time I wrote a sex scene I was fine about it. 'Wow,' I thought, 'this isn't so bad at all. I thought I'd be all embarrassed, but check out my word count, baby - I'm flying here!' It was such a relief to discover I could write this kind of stuff without shame or hesitation...

Because it was a first draft.

A first draft, as we all know, is the free-wheeling joyride draft. You spill it all out onto the page, fresh from your head and with no self-censoring or editing. You can be as crazy, impassioned and out-there as you want, because hey, it's a first draft and... no-one will ever read your first draft. Even after a second draft I still felt good about this sex scene I'd written - no awkwardness, no fear. But then it got to the 'Beta Draft' stage. As in, the draft that I'd finally be allowing others to read and offer critiques on...

And that's when my bravado deflated. Suddenly I started mentally picturing the looks on the faces of potential beta readers when they read this particular scene. Many of them were people I'd got to know (albeit virtually) through the writing community we were part of, so there was a social connection there as well as a writerly one. And now they were potentially going to read this. I don't honestly think I project an image of being a prude, but at the same time I don't think I come across as a right little minx either. I might give some of these people the shock of their lives - maybe even be responsible for heart attacks or fainting. Or... they might think I'm writing this stuff from - direct life experience - and that would be categorically TMI from an internet acquaintance and possibly even a form of literary sexual harrassment.

But, after much agonising and tough self-talking, I bit the bullet and posted it anyway. And... it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, I knew it'd be okay when one of my beta-readers, who I'd always pictured as a quiet and shy soul, gave me the feedback "I think you could afford to spend more time detailing the foreplay before getting to the screwing part - I'd like to read more about the nipple-kissing and knicker-ripping."

For you that awkward moment might also come at the beta-reading stage, or it might not kick in until later, when you're on the verge of getting your work published. But at some stage, it will happen. So yeah, the first time - like actual sex  - is always awkward and tense, because you're not sure if you're doing it right and the fallout from potentially doing it wrong feels like the worst thing in the world that could happen.

But - like actual sex - it gets better and easier the more you practice.

2 - ...And this is why you need to be honest with yourself.

But what if that inner horror doesn't go away - or it feels like too big a hurdle to leap over? It's entirely possible that, no matter how much you might enjoy writing sex scenes, you're just not cut out to actually publish them. At least, not as yourself.

How do you know? Well, here's the acid test. Next time you're elbow-deep in the writing of a sex scene, imagine it being read by the following people (and all of those people knowing you are the author):
  • Your parents.
  • Your in-laws / partner's family.
  • Your boss and co-workers.
  • Your neighbours.
  • Your old head teacher from when you were at school.
  • Your children's teachers.
  • The parents of your children's schoolfriends.
Potentially, if you publish, this scenario could be reality. So if the thought of any one of these people reading your sauce pours ice water on your sex-scene-writing-mojo, to the point where you creatively freeze up and start assessing how many of the 'naughty' words you should cut out while you still can... perhaps you need a Plan B. A pen name is one option, obviously, and one that's worked for many. In terms of concealing your identity forever though, it's not exactly a bulletproof shield - particularly in the days of Big Google (who's always watching you, along with Microsoft and The Government.) You're still going to have to deal with the fear of your little secret being discovered - and if that fear is too big to ignore...

That leaves Plan C, which is... to not write sex scenes in your books at all. Or at least, not the ones you intend to publish. (Nothing wrong with indulging in a little 'recreational' writing, after all - call it 'creative me-time' if you like.) It can be done - lots of Hollywood movies did it and still do it, with their fade-to-black and/or symbolic shots of ocean waves and fireworks. There's a huge market for novels that don't include the rudey bedtime details - plenty of readers out there actually don't want them in the stories they choose to read. And that's okay. Forget about what 'other' novels are doing - it's perfectly possible for a story that has sex taking place in it to not actually have a front-row bedroom seat to that sex. If the thought of writing sex scenes that other people will read makes your insides crawl, don't write them. Your discomfort will show - in your writing as well as your face when you imagine people reading them.

3 - Either come right out and say it or don't say it at all.

Metaphors and similes are wonderful things. Throughout the ages, writers have been creative with them, imagining rich worlds of colour, senses and emotions with well-crafted turns of phrase. They can elevate an otherwise mundane story into a work of genius.

But metaphors and similes in sex scenes? Hooboy. That can be a minefield.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it can't be done, and done well. But when it is done well, it's usually because the author's aim was to say more than a plain-worded, nuts-and-bolts commentary could offer - not less. Using alternative terms and euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts out of fear or embarrassment of saying the actual words is a roadmap to Cringetown, resulting in the use of words like 'member,' 'man-meat' and 'massive weapon' when what you really mean is 'cock.' ('Dick' is also a preferred staple, as is 'prick.' In fact, for most 'sex words,' the simple, guttural-sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin are good go-tos. They came up with 'fuck,' after all - and that alone makes them experts.)

Most of the cringeworthy euphemisms - like the three first examples offered above - were invented by the porn industry. This is the same industry that tries to convince its audience that pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged men are potent sex-magnets to every nubile young twenty-something who crosses their path, and women love being forced into sexual acts that reduce them to little more than semen receptacles. Is that what you're actually trying to communicate? Of course it might be if you're genuinely writing a sleazy rather than a romantic encounter, but if your aim is to get pulses racing, not stomachs churning...

At the other end of the scale, using medical and anatomical terms is equally awful - 'he inserted his penis into her vagina' makes you sound like you're twelve years old, with only your school sex ed classes to guide you on What Sex Is Like.

So, if you really can't bring yourself to just tell readers what's going on... well, maybe you're hoping that dressing your dirty prose up in flowery rainbow language will disguise it from the prim and judgemental. If so, I refer you back to Point 2.

4 - Choreography can make or break it.

Remember Katy Perry's Left Shark at the Superbowl? Even if you're not a dancer yourself, you can tell something's not quite right there. Real-life sex is like a dance, in that it's an aerobic exercise that requires a degree of co-ordination and co-operation between participants (and sadly, some participants are more Left Shark than Right Shark.) But, like dancing, in real-life sex you can't defy the laws of physics, grow extra limbs or have parts of your body teleport or even disappear altogether. It can happen all too often in fictional sex scenes though...

When you're writing a sex scene, it's easy to get so caught up in making everything so crazy-horny and wild that you start losing track of where your love-bunnies various body parts actually are at any given time. That's how you end up having people being fondled in twice as many places as their partner has appendages to fondle with, guys kissing the nipples of the women they're simultaneously doing from behind and clothes mysteriously re-appearing on bodies so that they have to be ripped off twice. Since us humans are visual creatures, when we read a sex scene we're watching it play out in the movie-screen in our heads, and if the pieces suddenly don't fit together properly we're thrown out of the sexiness of it all and left trying to play Human Tetris instead.

So as you write your sex scenes, keep in mind a) what the human body is capable of doing (without breaking or dislocating something) and b) the limb transitions necessary for moving from one raunchy thing to the next. This is more for the editing stage than the first draft, and is probably worth making a separate pass devoted to it - the Choreography Pass, if you like. You'll need to approach it with a technical rather than emotional eye - forget about how it makes you feel, and focus on how it would make your love bunnies feel if they tried to actually do that thing you're making them do.

If you're not sure if something you want to write is feasible... well, if you've got a willing partner you could 'research' it yourselves (writers have used stranger seduction patter than that in the past.) If that's not an option you could, as a last resort, break out Barbie and Ken - but you might first want to make sure everyone else in the house is out for that one.

5 - Be very sure of what you want the scene to say, and why you need to say it that way.

Writers put sex in their stories for many different reasons, not least because there are many different types of sex.

There are the wild, no-strings hook-ups between lust-crazed individuals who just want the high of an orgasm with a semi-stranger or 'forbidden' lover. Then there's the deep and spiritual, connecting sex between people who love each other deeply. There's the sex that's offered in exchange for something, like a bartering system, and the temporary band-aid of Revenge Sex. There's BDSM and 'fetish' sex, and a whole load of other passions and motivations that drive people to have sex. And of course - unfortunately - there's sex that isn't consensual.

Whatever your reason for including a sex scene in your story, there has to be one - and that reason has to be character-driven, not market-driven. Do not force your characters into bonking each other purely because 'my readers want and expect at least one sex scene in this book' - if there's no logical or emotional reason for them to do it, that scene will give off a stink that readers can detect a mile away. Even those shocking, seemingly out-of-character moments of passion between two people in a desperate and highly pressurised situation should have a degree of inevitability about them - the reader should still think "yeah, I can see why they'd go for each other in those circumstances" rather than "WTF? He'd never do that with her!"

Once you've established the 'why' of the sex, the next job is to make sure that what they choose to get up to reflects that. A casual, lust-crazed hook-up between two horny singles isn't going to play out like a Mills & Boon bridal suite scene, for example - just like the 'first time' between two teenage sweethearts wouldn't involve a catalogue of wild sex moves resulting in mutual, body-shaking orgasms.  Most important of all, decide whose point of view matters in the scene and make sure everything you describe comes from that point of view only. Please please, don't head-hop during sex scenes. Would you want someone tapping you on the shoulder and breaking your train of thought, every time you got close to your Happy Ending? That's what head-hopping in sex scenes feels like to the reader.

Once you've got your POV sorted out, you need to determine how they're feeling about this sex they're having. This applies even if you're using an omniscient POV, because the feelings of the person chosen should dictate the mood of the scene. Your POV character may not have the same feelings as their partner about what's happening, which means they're going to see what they're doing (and what's being done to them) in a different way.

This is particularly important if the POV character is not as into the sex as their partner - and doubly important on top of that if they're being forced or coerced into it against their will. In those circumstances, be very careful about the language and especially the mental camera angles you use to depict what's happening. At no point should it seem like the victim is 'seeing' what's being done to them (i.e. as if they're experiencing everything through the eyes of the person violating them,) and nor should you describe those things in ways that make it sound the same as consensual sex. It's an act of violence, not passion, and the words, images and senses you choose should make that crystal clear.

 Jeez, I hear you say. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing people would enjoy reading at all. Well, if you're going to write a rape scene that's the way the cookie crumbles, I'm afraid. Rape is a horrible, gut-wrenching thing that happens to real people in real life, and if you've included it in your story just because you like the idea of chucking a hand-grenade into your plot you gotta be prepared for the massive, messy explosion it leaves behind. In other words, if you want that kind of Real in your plot, it has to be horrible and gut-wrenching to read  - and often to write as well. Write it in a way that makes it sound even the slightest bit titillating, and you deserve all the hate you will certainly get.

But regardless of whether the characters' experiences are positive or negative, the one thing every type of sex scene should do in fiction is change the game. It could be a good change or a very, very bad one - but either way, once characters have bumped bits there must be a palpable sense  - for at least one of the characters involved - that bridges have been burned and things can never go back to being the way they were before. This is also true of any other kind of scene in a novel - if it doesn't impact on the plot it doesn't need to be there - but a sex scene shouldn't be cut more slack just because it is a sex scene. Readers look for stories above everything else when they pick up a novel, with sex scenes as an occasional bonus. If they're only looking for something to get their rocks off to - well, they got the internet for that...

So, that's my top 5. What else do you think is important when it comes to writing sex scenes? What have you learned? Feel free to drop in a comment.

Saturday, 10 September 2016


I have a friend who is always looking for the next solid-gold, get-rich-quick scheme.

She's tried 'em all - from the pyramid-shaped 'own businesses' like Avon and Amway, to auditioning for talent and 'reality' tv shows, hoping to prove she's The One with The Only Way to Bake Off The Voice Factor.

And while I can see how landing a solid gig with any one of these options could beat working in a shop for the rest of your life, let's be honest, it's not exactly an arena that's wide open to all comers. You've got to have something a bit special in you to make it, and by 'special' I mean 'actual talent for that particular thing' (even if, as is the case for certain 'reality' tv shows, that 'talent' is no more than being spectacularly dumb or annoying. Wow, I think that sentence just broke my personal record for use of ironic quotation marks!)

She knows I'm a writer, and that I'm currently working on Redemption. She also knows I've been reading a tonne of books about writing, plot and story structure, characterisation and all the other tools of the writing trade since I started taking my writing seriously. But she's also swallowed all the media hype about self-published millionaire authors, like the tale of a certain Ms. E.L. James who wrote some book that's (allegedly) badly-written but yet still somehow sold gazillions of copies. And all because she apparently woke up one morning and thought "Hmm, what shall I do with myself today? Oooh, I know, I'll write a novel based on Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series! Mmm yeah, try something creative, because I've never done anything like that in the past..."

Before the likes of Fifty Shades and Amanda Hocking, my friend had no interest in writing anything at all. She'd observe how long it took me to get anything I wrote published or performed, compare it to the monies earned and tell me it seemed like "an awful lot of hard slog for sod-all reward." But once she'd heard the fairy story of Cinder-E.L.-a, writing novels suddenly began to look a lot like another of those potential get-rich-quick schemes. Clearly I was doing it the hard way though, what with all the learning from books and rewriting stuff until it was good enough. There must be a by-the-numbers, idiot-proof System you could follow that would streamline the process, surely?

So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when she asked me "Isn't there some sort of template for a novel out there - y'know, like a form you can fill in or a computer program you could use that will write your novel for you?"

I have to admit, my first instinct was to think "I bet there is, somewhere. Hell, there must be - there's templates for just about everything these days, even eating your breakfast. That is, after all, how that godawful term '[insert thing]-hacks' was spawned."

And a lot of the books I've read about plot and structure - all that three-act, Hero's Journey, Story-Grid and twelve-step stuff that charts the rises and falls readers expect - if not demand - from a great story - seem to give the impression that a blueprint of some sort does exist. Most of the best-loved novels of our time will slot very neatly into any one of the aforementioned methods for writing a successful novel.

But I know my friend well enough to know that's not what she meant. What she was after was some kind of reusable widget you can use to churn out novels like you're on a factory production line. All you'd have to do is come up with an idea for a story, and then you just open up the Novel-a-gram and fill in all the pre-determined fields for each stage of the story by answering a bunch of helpful, leading questions. And when you've finished - bam! One novel, ready for publishing.

Could something like that exist already? Hell, yeah, probably! One that actually works? Dream on. After all, we've got this thing called the internet now, and even before then, we should never underestimate the human desire to separate gullible people from their money.

A guy called Edgar Wallace had a bash at it back in the prehistoric days of No Computers with his 'Plot Wheel' - if you were stuck with your plot and needed some inspiration, all you had to do was spin the Plot Wheel (kind of like Wheel of Fortune but without a prize - or much of the accompanying excitement, I would imagine.) And - ta-da! It would dial up some completely random and rather ambiguous Plot Event you could try to shoehorn in. But that's not really a template - and if you tried to use it as such you could only end up with a novel no-one would ever want to read.

The closest thing we've got to templates are the aforementioned structural set-ups like the three act-structure, the Hero's Journey and all the other variations that can be found in a myriad of writing how-to books. These will certainly help to steer your story in the right direction with regard to pacing, plot progression and characterisation - but only if you have at least the bare bones of a plot, setting and characters to start with. No story structure in existence will create all of that for you; they exist purely to advise you what to do with that stuff once you have it.

All of which means that some sort of story-o-rama machine, which will take your one vague idea for a story and automatically create a simple join-the-dots crib-sheet where you can just fill in the blanks to complete a full-blown novel...

*... does not exist, and probably never will. Sorry about that, especially if you just skipped from the post title to here. That was a bit mean of me, wasn't it?

The only way to write great stories is to write lots and lots of them, for a long time. First you have to write bad ones that get universally rejected. Then you have to read them and understand why they're bad, and use that understanding to write not-as-bad ones. And then you learn from them, and so the cycle continues until eventually you're writing really good stuff - good enough to publish.

It's not a quick process, like, say, learning to ride a bike or memorising all the dance moves to Beyonce's Single Ladies. That's why it needs to be something you do for the love of doing it, not because you think it might be an easy way to make a quick buck. Because you're gonna be doing it for a very long time.

You want to churn out novels like Apple churn out new products? Your only hope is to become James Patterson. But even he has to write the outlines for his little minions to ghost-write for him, supplying both the recipe and all the necessary ingredients for his little cooks to mix and bake. In effect, he is their story-o-rama.

And that's why it's his name that ends up on the book covers and not theirs.

Monday, 15 August 2016


One of the hoariest old writing chestnuts out there is 'write what you know.'

This is good advice, especially when you know that it doesn't prohibit you from writing about alien invasions or shape-shifting demons or even how to commit the perfect murder, because of a wonderful thing called extrapolation. You may not have direct experience of any of the aforementioned scenarios (in fact I hope you don't) but you can combine research with feelings and motivations you've experienced in your own life that would likely parallel what's going on in your characters' lives. Or you could actually be writing biographies - either your own or those of friends, relatives or clients who've hired you for the purpose. But either way, most, if not all, fiction writers find little bits of their own lives and selves creeping into their stories. It's certainly true for me, and in the many years I've been writing made-up stories, here's what I've discovered about the little sand grains of truth that end up in the oyster of fictional stories.

1 - You already do it more often than you think.

I would never describe my current w-i-p Redemption as an autobiography. For a start, it's a sci-fi story set some thirty years in the future in a completely different country, so how could it be? And while there always was one particular incident, even in my first draft, that I was fully aware contained elements of things I'd actually experienced, the rest were purely made-up scenarios from my imagination. Or so I believed back then.

But of course a first draft is just the initial brain-emptying stage, where you vomit everything onto the page without editing or analysing it too much. Now I've got the whole thing planned out into a coherent plot, I can see there's much more of my life in there than I ever realised; certain characters that are eerily similar to people I've known, futuristic environments that operate similar regimes to some from my past. They're not straight-up depictions of those things, obviously - more like the view you might get from one of those carnival mirrors - but they're in there all the same. I'll probably be the only one who ever sees them all clearly, although some of the people who are close to me might hazard the odd guess at a few of them. 

This of course is what happens when you go deep into a character's feelings and emotions. For the writer, the only way to connect is to empathise - and to do that, you have to use those moments in your own life where you've felt the same way you imagine your character feels right now. The good news is, unless those moments in your real life were particularly unusual, the average reader's not going to connect it to anything specific from your real life. Well, unless you decide to go on Barbara Walter's show and do a tearful confessional, I suppose.

2 - It can be therapeutic.

In my real life, I have been through Some Stuff. Stuff that resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and an 11-month stay in a psychiatric unit as an outpatient following a mental breakdown back in my mid-twenties. I'm better now, thanks (and thankfully) but there are still things that, to this day, I cannot bring myself to talk about. To anyone, ever. But that doesn't matter, because I have been able to write about them instead. 

Kind of. 

Again, it's like the carnival mirror analogy. By twisting it into a different shape and making it look like something else entirely, I've talked about it in Redemption and in some of my other works without directly talking about it. This means I can express my pent-up feelings about those things , but through the mouth and mind of a fictional character instead. And since I would never judge another human being - even a fictional one, as it turns out - as harshly as I judge myself, I'm essentially giving myself a free pass to have all those feelings 'for the good of the story.' Have them, explore them and then... well, maybe not completely exorcise them, but at least render them harmless in my day-to-day life.

It's not all warm hugs and self-acceptance, mind. Writing out your demons can burn emotionally and mentally, leaving you feeling like the loser in a boxing match. All too often you can find yourself thinking "Should I be writing this at all? Am I just being self-indulgent - is it fair of me to inflict this awful dark stuff on readers?" 

Well clearly George R.R. Martin was never troubled by such doubts, and he's done alright as a result. It's natural to feel all kinds of guilt and embarrassment about 'bleeding onto the page' in this way because, for you at least, it's personal. But it isn't for the average reader. And no matter how dark you might think your story could be, there's next to no chance some other author somewhere hasn't gone way darker. Seriously, it's been done already.

3 - Sweet sweet karma, baby!

Linking into the previous one here, but in everyone's past there are people from the past who did and said stuff that... just didn't make sense. That playground bully, the teacher who inexplicably hated you, and don't even get you started on that asshole boss you had, right? Why you? What in the holy heck did you do to make them single you out for their douchebaggery? Or maybe there was a relationship that crashed and burned and you never figured out why. That's the beauty of writing fiction; you get a chance to recreate the people and the situations and re-enact them - only this time you get to choose the outcome!

It's tempting to do it as a kind of revenge-fest - and that may be how it starts out - but more often than not something else happens. Because writing a well-rounded and believable character requires getting inside their head, understanding their motivations and realising that they at least believe they're doing the 'right' thing, so you often end up seeing their point of view, even empathising with their reasons for doing what they do. Suddenly you see the desperate insecurity behind that crazy ex's jealous tantrums, or how that smarmy boss who kept taking credit for other people's ideas spent every working day terrified his own bosses might find out he's not as dynamic and smart as he seems. The lust for revenge cools into something more like pity, as you realises their behaviour toward you wasn't about you at all - they had their own problems and demons to deal with. And even if you still can't forgive the real people your pretend ones represent... well, you've called them out now, haven't you? Doesn't even matter if no-one else ever knows it but you - the karma is still warm and fuzzy.

4 - ...But maybe don't serve it raw, yeah?

I wrote a post a while back about writing your Screw You Piece. As I said in that, every writer does it at some point in their life, I sure as hell did it and I still believe every writer should write those pieces. Write all that pain, rage and resentment out! Buuut.... don't go rushing out to publish it while it's still hot from all that burning passion. If at all.

Most of the fear and rage from my own life that made it into Redemption comes from events that happened to me years, even decades back. But I included them not because I still felt the pain of those emotions about them - but because I didn't, not anymore. I still understood why I'd felt that way back then, but the rawness has dulled over time. I'm detached from those memories now - which means I can write about them rationally, with the puzzle-compiling mindset of a writer, rather than the bitter incoherence of a wounded soul.

If you take injustices done to you and put them in fiction when you're still angry and hurting from them, it will show - and not in a good way.  The character you've chosen to act out your pain on your behalf (most often the main character but not always) will come across as immature, ranty and whiny - a thoroughly unlikeable person. For the reader, it feels like being forced to listen to only one side of an argument from a very angry person, who rips the attention back to them and shouts even louder if anyone tries to see any other point of view instead. We've all met at least one of those people in real life and we all try to stay the heck away from them, because they're not fun to hang out with. Readers won't stick around to read about characters like that either - and hell to the no if they're a main character.

So write that venty piece while the vitriol's still hot... and then file it away somewhere. Sit on it for a while - weeks, months, maybe years. Wait until you can look back on the events that inspired it with a sigh and a shake of the head rather than the urge to sob uncontrollably or punch a wall. Then get it out and maybe take another look at it. There may be stuff you can use - but not necessarily the stuff you think.

The basic plot events might seem trivial - even redundant - as story material now. The emotions will almost certainly seem one-sided and over-the-top. But there will most likely be... something underneath that could work in another story, where things happen that aren't the same as the things in this old story but share similar motivations and moods. You're no longer the patient - you're the therapist, and unravelling the pieces of your plot is an intriguing and rewarding task rather than a pain-wracked ordeal.

5 - Real life in fiction isn't REAL LIFE.

Even the most faithful of autobiographies don't tell everything that happened exactly as it was. This is partly because even the average human memory works like a Salvador Dali painting when it comes to recording the facts of any given situation, but it's also because a completely accurate autobiography would be the dullest reading to shamble out of Dullsville. Even when we tell anecdotes to others we tend to embellish them a bit, wringing out every ounce of comedy and drama for our audience.

But sometimes when writers use events from their own lives to paint over their fictional stories, they feel some sort of duty to 'stick to the facts' to make it 'authentic.' Even in a fantasy world full of mythical creatures, magical items and crazy spells, the beautiful mage can't dump her lover for the distinctly average peasant rather than the dashing knight because 'that's not how it would happen in real life.' (When what they really mean is 'that ex-girlfriend of mine dumped me for the college jock, not the janitor's son.')

It's not always about not wanting to look stupid. Sometimes we do it because there's a worry that, by changing the facts a bit, we're somehow being unfair about the real-life persons involved in the events that inspired the fictional ones - even wilfully lying about them to make ourselves look better. But that why we don't ever use people and places directly from our own lives - at least, not unless we're actually looking to get slapped with a libel suit. We change things; give our characters and settings different names, tweak their backgrounds a bit - do whatever we can to make sure no-one could follow the breadcrumb trail back to the actual source. (Unless of  course you're saying nothing but lovely things about them...)

And if you've done a good job of that, you're not beholden to telling the absolute 'truth' about them and every shenanigan you get them involved in. When you turn your characters into blundering toolmuffins you're not really mocking the real-life people who inspired them - even when it feels like you kind of are. In fiction, the story comes first, and the only 'reality' that counts is the one that works in your story-world.

As long as you never tell anyone, your secret's safe with you.


So how do you feel about using your own life in fiction? Has it benefited you - has it help you deal with stuff you couldn't deal with any other way? Feel free to drop a line in the Comments.

Friday, 29 July 2016


When it comes to possessing skills we all start at zero. True, some people start with a better zero than others, which is what enables them to eventually rise to loftier heights than the rest of us mere mortals (I'm a-lookin' at you, Mr Stephen King) but other than that no-one pops out of the womb fully-equipped with all the necessary knowledge and experience to be the best they can be. We all gotta try and fail and learn and then try and fail and learn again, in a never-ending cycle until... well, there is no 'until,' actually. Oh wait, yes there is - it's 'death...'

But it's not all bad; in between the try-fail-learn cycle there will also be try-succeed-learn cycles too - and hopefully there will be enough of the latter to make the former feel worth enduring. This is true of most skills in life, whether it's a sport or a humanitarian or creative endeavour, and it's definitely true of writing.

however, the period of time between someone first saying "I want to be a writer" and becoming a successful author is glacial compared to, say, learning how to use Microsoft Office. Even the so-called 'overnight successes' like E.L. James actually weren't, in spite of what the hype tries to claim (you'll never convince me a woman who worked her way up to an executive position in an advertising agency had never written a single creative thing before embarking on her Fifty Shades.) And the learning process never stops. It shouldn't stop, because the day you tell yourself as a writer "Well, that's it, I know everything I need to know about writing now - there is nothing more I can learn" is the day your writing peaks as high as it will ever go - and the only way from there is down.

So what can we do as writers to keep on learning? How can we keep on improving?

1 - Write. A Heck of a Lot.

Well duh, is the entirely reasonable response to this one.... isn't it?

You'd be surprised. This is because what constitutes 'a lot' varies wildly between people. Many writers - properly famous and respected writers - have talked about how many words the average writer needs to have written before they become 'good,' and the ballpark figure is usually around a million words. They've certainly achieved that, but how many other writers have? What about the ones who punch the self-pub button on Smashwords or CreateSpace for their first draft versions of 30-page 'novels?' Or the 'aspiring writers' who've been trying to write the same novel for the past twenty years of their lives because they can 'only write when they feel inspired?'

Don't get me wrong - if any of you out there fall into either of those categories this is not a snarky dig at you. I'm simply giving you the maths; if it really does take a million written words to become a 'good' writer, you are, by definition, going to take longer to hit that target. Someone who writes every day - whether it's for a full-on, working day or even just a quick half an hour in their lunch break - even when they don't particularity feel like doing it, is going to hit that million-word target sooner than the one who has to wait for the right 'mood' or motivation' to strike before they can put a word to the page. As is the writer who rewrites and edits the heck out of their first draft to make sure it's the best it can be before they put it out there for public consumption, rather than hitting that 'Publish' button three seconds after they've typed 'The End' on their virgin manuscript.

When I look back now on some of the abandoned novels and short stories I wrote twenty, ten - even five years ago, I can see how much I've improved since then. Heck, I'm damn glad I never published any of that stuff, even though I probably thought it was pretty awesome at the time. It's the best proof you'll ever get that you've levelled up on your writing journey, and the only way to get further on that journey is to put the petrol in the car and drive. Every day? I find it helps me, even if it's just for half an hour and not necessarily on my work-in-progress - even a quick poem, journal entry, book review or new story idea counts. If that really isn't possible for you (and it may not be, what with full-time jobs and homes and families to run) then I'd suggest at least a regular schedule - knowing in advance that you can and will write for, say, an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays does at least build a sense of commitment that becomes easier to stick to the longer you do it.

But if you only ever write when you're 'feeling it' - waiting for those moments when inspiration strikes like lightning from the Gods of Creativity... well, you're going to waiting a long time for actual results. If you want to be a successful writer, the idea that writing should always make you feel happy and be a purely pleasurable activity is a myth, I'm afraid. Ask any published author and they'll tell you writing feels like work a lot of the time - that it should feel like work. But if it's work you truly believe in, you'll love it. Even when you hate it.

2 - Read. A Heck of a Lot.

How many of you out there have heard at least one of the following statements from wannabe writers:

1 - "I don't have time to read. I'd rather spend that time writing instead."
2 - "I'm afraid that if I read too much I'll just end up copying other writers instead of developing my own style."
3 - "Reading is boring. That's why I started writing in the first place - to write something people like me would actually want to read."

I'll bet you have, because there are genuinely people out there who think that way. The first two I can sympathise with. There's a logic to thinking the best way to improve your writing is by clocking up the hours and 'finding your own voice' - mainly because it's true. But your creativity is also like a bank; if you only ever make withdrawals and never deposits... well, you're going to drain your account eventually. If words and ideas are your currency, surely it makes sense to keep your bank topped up? Stephen King put it best "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the tools to write."

The good news is, you don't have to trawl your way through all 'the classics' to consider yourself well-read. Nor is there any point in forcing yourself to read something you hate, just because the Literati have marked a particular book as a 'must-read' for 'anyone who's serious about writing.' Non-fiction counts as much as fiction - in fact, I'd argue it's even more valuable if you want to write in specialised areas like historical fiction and sci-fi, where research is essential (this also means magazines have the advantage over books, since the information in them is far more likely to be up-to-date and therefore accurate.) And of course it makes sense to read other books in the genre you want to write in, if only to be aware of what's already been done to death.

If, however, your reason for not reading is number 3... well, you'll certainly end up writing stuff people like you will want to read. But - how can I put this gently? - you're the one seeing a problem with what's already out there, not the bajillions of readers who are quite happily reading all this stuff you find 'boring.' Your 'niche' might end up being smaller than you think.

3 - Spy on People. A lot.

Not literally, obviously. Well okay, maybe kind of literally - just stop short of anything that might get you arrested (installing hidden cameras and bugging phones is a bit of a no-no, for example.) You want to write great characters, you have to find out how real-life people work, and you can only do that by spending time amongst them, watching them and listening to them. Friends and family are great, but when you interact with them both you and they have an agenda. They know you, so they know what bits of themselves to hide from you to make the conversation go their way. Total strangers on the other hand, who are interacting with other people and not you, and therefore don't care what you think of them...

This is where it pays to hone your eavesdropping and people-watching skills. Some of the greatest stories ever written have been as a result of the author overhearing a snippet of real-life conversation or observing some real-life moment between strangers.

4 - Expand your vocabulary. A lot.

Relax, I'm not suggesting you chomp your way through a Websters. In fact, please don't do that. The popular idiom about not using a fifty-dollar word when a five-dollar one will do is sound advice; no-one wants to have to keep referring to a dictionary to understand what they're reading.

I am, however, suggesting you make friends with a thesaurus; a dead-tree copy is great, an online one even better. Having twenty alternative words for common ones like 'walked' and 'looked' is a godsend for any writer avoiding the dreaded repetitive sentences, not to mention for finding the right alternative to that word that sort of means what you need it to mean but not quite... There are also some great books out there filled with descriptive and emotive phrases and action beats, for when you can't picture the body language a character might use when they're irritated, for example (Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan and The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are two great resources.)

And expanding your vocabulary can also include slang - not so that you can use it in your own work, but so that you know when - and indeed if - you should use it. Some slang dates quicker than others, is regional rather than universal and only used by specific generations, and if you're not aware of the conventions around that you can end up looking like the embarrassing youth club leader who tries to get 'down with the kids' and just ends up alienating them.

5. Question EVERYTHING. All the Time.

Multimedia these days is flippin' amazing. News is flung at our eyeballs and earholes every second of every day, whether we ask for it or not. Google, Bing and dozens of other search engines will answer every question you could possibly conceive, and plenty more you couldn't. Information is everywhere.

Just one problem: a huge proportion of it is garbage.

If you have a daily newspaper - or even one particular one that you either buy regularly or actually have some sort of subscription to - you are not learning about what's going on in the world, you are being told what to think about it by whoever is editing that newspaper (who is probably in turn being told what to tell you by the owner of that newspaper.) Same as if you only ever watch one news channel, or go to a select handful of websites for particular areas of interest. ALL media is run by corporate businesses who have a vested interest in selling you something - whether that's a product or service they happen to provide, or an ideology they want you to believe because it benefits them. The recent EU referendum here in the UK is a perfect example of this. The vote went to the Leave Camp because many of the owners of our newspapers wanted to leave; Rupert Murdoch certainly did, and he owns two of the biggest-selling newspapers in the country (The Sun and The Times) along with the BSkyB tv channel. Others who were very clearly pro-Brexit were The Mail (a bastion of bigoted and xenophobic thinking at the best of times) The Star (ditto) and The Telegraph. In short, a huge proportion of the British public were brainwashed into voting Leave, because that was the mantra being thrust in front of them every single day by their newspaper of choice.

This is what happens when you just absorb the first piece of information you hear on a given subject and don't bother to see if there is anything out there that contradicts that information. It's why people rant on forums quoting random 'facts' they read on Wikipedia as gospel, when that very 'fact' was most likely typed in by Some Drunk Dude who had a spare twenty minutes to kill and fancied a giggle (because that's how Wikipedia works - anyone can edit it.) And it's how many a writer throughout the years has been horribly tripped up by something they wrote in their novel because their 'research' for it consisted of one five-second Google search, and hordes of angry and better-informed readers have left ranty reviews pointing out the glaring inaccuracies.

On the other hand, questioning a piece of information and searching for the opposing view is the very thing that has spawned countless brilliant stories over the years. Wicked would not exist, for example,  if the author Winnie Holzman hadn't asked herself what the witches' take on the events in The Wizard of Oz might be. Animal Farm would not exist if George Orwell hadn't asked himself "could Communism work as a political regime?" In fact, you could argue that every story that begins with a 'What if..?' scenario is an example of the author hearing an idea or point of view and then, rather than simply accepting it at face value, testing it to its limits to see what happens. Even if the conclusion they eventually reached matched that in the original information, they still did it by taking it as far in the opposite direction as they could first - and in the process, created a story.

6 - Life your live. All of it, all the time.

You know why teenage writers sometimes get so annoyed with middle-aged-and-beyond writers? Because we have this tendency to tell them things like "when you're older and have had more life experience, you'll be able to write with more authority about [insert real-world tribulation here.]"

Mmm yeah, sorry about that, all you youngsters out there. I know it sucks when we do that. And there are many times when we are wrong to do so - a sixteen-year-old who grew up in a south London council estate is going to have a darn sight more experience of the harsher aspects of life than a middle-class thirtysomething who went to Cheltenham Girls' College and is currently writing her novels from her converted barn in the Cotswolds, for example. So when I talk about 'living your life' I'm not simply talking about racking up the year-count. That alone does not fill your life-bank with writeworthy 'experiences.'

You know what else doesn't? Watching television. Playing computer games. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying don't do those things. Just... maybe don't do so much of those things so often. Don't make them your primary sources of entertainment in life. And don't - definitely don't - mistake anything you see on tv or play through in a computer game as an acceptable substitute for the same experience in real life. Watching Michael Palin travel Pole to Pole on tv does not mean you've experienced a little of what it's like to do the same thing - you haven't, you've just watched someone else do it. You still have no clue how it actually feels for you to do it yourself.

So don't cloister yourself away for years in some seat of higher learning, taking creative writing course after creative writing course in the belief that this alone will make you 'a better writer.' Get a job or two - even if it's just a part-time one. Bonus points if you get at least one crappy one you hate so much you eventually end up quitting. Go to a club or two. Get drunk at least once in your life, just to find out what it feels like. Travel - see as much of the world as your budget will allow. Stay in a one-star motel at least once, as well as a five-star swank-pad. Heck, do that Gap Year Thing in ratty hostels with toilets that are little more than holes in the floor if it floats your boat. Try weird food, meet eccentric people. Once in a while, do stuff that scares you. It's all gold for the Creative Bank - y'know, along with all that reading and writing you're doing.

Well, these are my starter for six. What would you add to this list? I'd love to know in the comments below,