Mastodon The Writing Desk: 2011

27 December 2011

Jane Austen's Writing Habits

Jane Austen's Writing Box
(Courtesy of the British Library) 

Jane's Writing Habits

Most of Jane Austen’s best known writing was done at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where she revised Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.

Jane would try to write every day, close to a window for the light, using an amazingly small walnut table (which survives at the Chawton Cottage Museum) and a 'writing box' thought to have been a gift from her father. This can be seen at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library and was donated in 1999 by Joan Austen-Leigh, a direct descendent of Jane Austen's brother James. Described as 'a small chest which opens to reveal a writing surface and storage space for inkpot and writing implements' this was a convenient way to make sure she could quickly start writing.  (I wonder what she would have made of modern lap tops which take an eternity to 'boot up')

She wrote initially on small slips of paper, which fitted easily into her writing box. (This may have given rise to the story that she would quickly hide her writing if she heard the door creak - now thought by some experts to be unlikely). As her style developed, Jane's manuscripts were mostly written on 'booklets' of about 190 x 120 mm, probably made by cutting down half sheets of ‘post’ writing paper to form quires of up to eight leaves (16 pages) which were assembled inside one another to make fatter booklets.

Jane wrote using a quill pen that she dipped in a small inkwell. I have tried writing with a quill and found it quite satisfying, once you become used to it. The ink used by Jane was made from iron gall, which was tannin mixed with iron sulphate, some gum arabic and a little water. As well as being indelible, it was cheap and readily available.  When exposed to the air the ink would change from a pale gray to a rich blue-black then gradually turn brown as the iron oxidises.

Her way of writing was to mane an initial draft, often crossing out phrases or whole sentences until she was happy with them, then revise the whole work. It seems that reading the draft aloud to her friends and family was an important part of the process, particularly to her sister Cassandra.

Looking at the surviving manuscripts it is easy to see that Jane was not troubled by perfecting the grammar or punctuation as she wrote.  Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University studied over a thousand original handwritten pages of Austen's unpublished writings and points out that they feature blots, crossing outs and "a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing".

 Draft manuscript of Jane Austen’s
unfinished novel 
The Watsons
(Courtesy of the Bodleian Library)
Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

11 December 2011

Thomas Hardy: Afterwards

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
'To him this must have been a familiar sight.'

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.'

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
'He hears it not now, but used to notice such things'? 

1 December 2011

Ten things I've learned from completing NaNoWriMo

Yes at 10.30 pm on the 30th of November I did a word count and hit 50,014. Has NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) changed me? Well it has moved my WIP on in some interesting ways I certainly didn't expect.

I enjoyed the challenge and met some really interesting writers and 'writing buddies' I will definitely stay in touch with. I also learned a few things about how to write more productively so here, in no particular order, are my top ten:

1. There is a lot more to NaNoWriMo than just the writing

I was surprised at the range and variety of forums of every kind – and the amount of posts. I didn't have time to make the most of it but there is a wealth of ideas, tips, and writing information that is definitely worth a look.

2.  Google+ is an ideal support community for writers

I joined a small NaNoWriMo circle on Google+ in the first week which grew to 794 by the end of the month. For the first time I have seen how helpful it is to have so many people sharing ideas and worries on a single topic. There are a lot of very interesting writers in the circle, so now I have a new challenge of sorting them into something that will work for me in the future.

3. Writing in 'short bursts' works

One of the many tips I picked up from the forums was to write in short half hour 'bursts' with strictly no interruptions then stop and do something completely different. It sounds obvious but I'd never really tried writing like this and it seems to work for me.

4.  2000 words a day is a good target

Another thing I'd never done was worry about how many (or how few) words I'd actually written on any day. NaNoWriMo changes all that, of course. The actual daily target was 1667 so I found that 2000 words or slightly more meant that I could slowly gain some ground for the days when things weren't going so well.

5. Quantity can inspire creativity

Another NaNoWriMo tip was to just write and not worry at all about the quality, on the basis that you will always review and rewrite. I suppose I had fallen into the trap of trying to make the first draft as polished as I can. The NaNoWriMo way seems to be to just bash it out without reviewing your work until you reach the word count target. I expected that this would result in some dull dialogue but the reverse was the case, as speeding things up makes my speech feel more realistic than pondering over every line,

6. Backups can go horribly wrong

The NaNoWriMo calendar includes special days for backing up your work and I shifted from weekly backups to 48 hourly. The problem was that I made the classic mistake of backing up the wrong version of a chapter and of course didn't spot this until it was way too late, resulting in 3,500 words of retyping. It's never quite the same second time round and I would have rather spent the time on new writing or reviewing. My mistake has also reminded me of the value of backing up to different places and maintaining version control.

7. Telling people you are writing something gets it written

The advice on the NaNoWriMo site was to tell people you were doing it, as an additional incentive to persevere when running out of time (or ideas). I made a point of trying this and found it does work, so the same applies to any writing.

8. There are lots of ways to find extra writing time

One 'casualty' of NaNoWriMo has been the luxury of reading whenever I want to, so I'm glad to have that back again. I allowed myself just one book to read in November but tried to do it at times when I wouldn’t have been able to write. I have also developed a new routine of waking early and aiming to write at least 500 words before breakfast, then being more selective about what I watch on TV and writing instead. I've also not been able to spend much time on my blogs but took the opportunity to have a couple of guest blogs, which went down well and were no work for me.

9. Revision can wait

I was in the habit of revising as soon as I could after writing something, in case I forgot the details or repeated things. Thanks to NaNoWriMo I now realise that it's good to leave writing to 'mature' for a while, as the revision feels more objective.

10. You have to validate on the 30th

This was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo and although I knew the wordcount had to be validated before I could be pronounced a 'winner' I had missed the point that you have to paste the whole 50k ON the 30th as the web site is read only on the 1st of December. Never mind, I feel like a winner!

13 November 2011

Guest Post: Update on Notes from an Alien by Alexander M Zoltai

I'm self-published and, even though the tasks of promotion are extensive, I love the Indie life. My book, Notes from An Alien, was published May 1st and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the iPad.

Here's the elevator-pitch:

* Start with a 500-year InterWorld War.
* Continue through ecological disaster and the decimation of populations.
* Follow the institution of a Worlds’ government, bringing a glimmer of hope.
* Discover the challenges and failures of unifying three very different Worlds.
* Explore what it takes to give birth to a lasting peace.
This is what reading Notes from An Alien promises.
And: This Story Could Help Earth…

Even though it's for sale, I still give away digital copies. My post, Free = Sales ~ Give It Away & Sell More…, gives some strong points in favor of this promotional tool---plus, it serves the purpose of making sure people actually read the book, no matter how many buy it.

Also, I hate the word "marketing". I "promote" my book and the first action in promotion is making a friend. If they find out about my book, that's o.k. If they get a free copy, that's wonderful. If they go on to buy it, that's stupendous.

Visiting the site to fill-out the form for a free copy also lets folks opt-in to my email list for updates about future books.

Notes from An Alien will be followed by a collection of short stories, one for each chapter of Notes, written in the same time frame as the novel's chapters but not necessarily with the same characters or settings. And, after the short story collection, Stories from Angi, will come another volume, Poems from Angi.

I recently asked the people on my list for ideas they want to see in the short stories and directed them to the special section of the forums to contribute to the book's evolution.

I love involving my readers in the process of writing my books but I still write them the way they must be written. I have a very jealous Muse :-)

About the Author

Alexander M Zoltai lives in Kettering, Ohio and describes himself as a writer and dreamer with roaring flames in his heart.  His thought provoking first novel, Notes From an Alien is available from:
Amazon   Barnes & Noble  iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch

Check out Alexander's Blog  or follow the Author on Google+ 

See the review of Notes From An Alien on this blog

11 November 2011

Guest Post: Nowhere Left to Hide by Elle Amberley

Rock star or husband – which would you choose? We have all been warned the of dangers of the internet, but do we take notice?  When Natasha clicks on a link, her whole life is turned upside down. A flash from the past, a chance meeting with a gorgeous French rock star..  

A chance to start over and forget the pain and misery from the last two years. But can Natasha let go? Will she accept this new twist in her life? Will she regain her "joie de vivre"? Or will the sparks fizzle out?

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Writing has been very therapeutic for me, expressing my feelings and helping me ordering my thoughts as well as shedding more light on past events.  I do cry and laugh along with my characters as I write the story, perhaps one of the reasons I write so quickly, it can quite draining. I used to fear for my sanity. Is this normal, and what is normal anyway?

The good news is men in white coats have not come to take me away yet. A friend of mine, who also happened to be a novelist, once told me “You’re not mad, you’re creative.”  I like the sound of that, that’s my excuse anyway.

Santa Barbara holds a piece of my heart and became a life-changing experience for me. So, when Natasha popped up in my head, demanding to be written, I knew this was the place for her. A safe place, away from harm, where she could relax and drop her guard, find and be herself.  It is not my story although Natasha and I share similar experiences.

I wanted to show “victims” do not have to accept labels, we can all break the cycle. Sartre said that we always have a choice. Indeed how we react is up to us, we can lay down as victims or pick ourselves up, live to see another day and grow from it.

Nowhere Left to Hide is not a sad story, but a positive one. You will not find graphic details in my book but you will meet a strong woman who is determined to turn her life around. She is not a victim, she’s a fighter and a go-getter.

Elle Amberley

‘Lyrical from start to finish, Elle Amberley embraces the essence of women and friendship in Nowhere Left to Hide. Natasha, a young poet and writer, is wise beyond her years, as she lets us accompany her on her year long journey from England to the sunny coast of Southern California as she finds courage, her true calling and love.’.
Ana Lewis, Founder, Women on the Verge

"A heartfelt tale, told with a deft touch" Rowan Coleman, author
# # #

About the author:

Although she is a British author, Elle Amberley likes to dabble in French too and hopes to resume work on her French novel when time allows. She also enjoys writing articles on women's issues and whatever she feels passionate about, as well as poetry. A follow up to Nowhere Left to Hide is due for publication in Spring 2012.

Visit my website Elle Amberley Author to find out more about me and don’t hesitate to drop me a line.  I’m always very happy to hear from readers or fellow writers. You’re very welcome to follow me on Elle Amberley Twitter and Elle Amberley Facebook where you will find updates and details of book signings.

1 November 2011

Paul Gallico: Confessions of a Story Writer

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don't feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you're wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

Paul Gallico, Confessions of a Story Writer, 1946

29 October 2011

Book Launch: Farsighted by Emlyn Chand

Emlyn Chand's first novel is everything I hoped it would be. Innovative and thought provoking - the first novel I've wanted to read in one go for a long time.

So what is Farsighted about?

The comfortable but uneventful life of blind student Alex Kosmitoras suddenly changes when he realises he can 'see' things others can’t  - visions of the future. When his unwanted visions suggest that the girl he likes could be in danger, he has no choice but to do something about it.

The innovative bit is a clever touch, as it is not easy to do something different but Emlyn has.  Runes, one of the earliest forms of writing, are simple yet mysterious.  At start of every chapter of Farsighted is a Rune and a 'prophecy' that hints at what is to come (if you can work out the clues).

The thought provoking bit is to enter the mind of someone who can't see. Emlyn could easily have overplayed it for effect but I like the way she gently reminds the reader just how much harder the everyday challenges of life can be if you are blind.

Intrigued, I asked Emlyn about this and she told me she doesn't have any blind people in her life - just did a load of research before getting started.  She admitted that it took a while to adjust to writing without visual details, but it became much easier as the work progressed.  (Interestingly she had a team of seven 'beta readers' checking for details a blind person couldn't know!)

I don't make any claims to precognition - but I can see a bright future for Emlyn Chand as a novelist!

Get your copy of Farsighted now by visiting’s Kindle store or the eBook retailer of your choice. The paperback edition will be available on November 24 (just in time for Emlyn's birthday).

Blog Tour Prizes

You could win a $100 Amazon gift card as part of this special blog tour. Just leave a comment below saying something about the post you just read and you’ll be entered into the raffle. I could win $100 too! Please help by voting for my blog in the traffic-breaker poll. To cast your vote, visit the official Farsighted blog tour page and scroll all the way to the bottom. Thank you for your help with that.

The Author

Emlyn Chand has always loved to hear and tell stories. When she’s not writing, she runs a large book club in Ann Arbor and is the president of author PR firm, Novel Publicity. Emlyn loves to connect with readers and is available throughout the social media interweb. Visit for more info.

The Trailer:

26 October 2011

Re-learning the importance of the short story

I've just finished reading a collection of short stories by Dean Koontz, one of my favourite writers.  It is called Strange Highways and shows his impressive versatility with very different stories.  The best bit for me, however, was at the end, where he has a twelve page note to readers about the craft of short story writing. Koontz says the secret of success is to really enjoy the process of writing – even when a page is on its twenty sixth redraft and still isn't working. He also acknowledges that literary agents don't really encourage short stories, as the limited markets tend not to pay very well.

This got me thinking. All writers have ideas that may one day make it into a full length book but I suspect that most, like me, rarely bother to work them up as a short story. I remembered reading a really good book about how to write short stories years ago – and managed to find it again.  It's called "The way to Write Short Stories" by Michael Baldwin (a quick check on Amazon revealed 14 copies going for as little as £0.01)   As well as writing a dozen novels, Michael has judged international writing competitions and has some great tips for anyone interested in short story writing.  This little book is also packed with examples that highlight the potential to craft a worthwhile short story from just about anything, from notes of overheard conversations to three random objects.  

Ultimately, of course, the way to write a good short story is to just write.  He reminds us that "one word on the page is worth a whole story planned in your head."  Similarly, it helps to resist being too critical of your own work.  One of the attractions for me of the National Novel Writing Month challenge is the freedom to just write without worrying about how good it is.  Revision is another step in the creative process – and to leave the last word to Michael  Baldwin "If you feel entirely contented with your product [writing], you have substantial grounds for alarm."     

24 October 2011

Guest post by Emlyn Chand, author of Farsighted:10 lessons I’ve learned

When did you have enough confidence in your abilities to officially call yourself a writer?

For me, it was when I first received money for my work as a freelance columnist. For you, it may have been when you finished the first chapter of your first novel or won a prize for a short story. Maybe you never had any qualms about saddling yourself with this label. Maybe you still don’t consider yourself a “real writer.”

Me? Now I know enough to see that I was a writer long before someone handed me that first paycheck. It’s kind of something you’re born with—like it or not.

But being an author, that’s different.

The term writer focuses more on the craft—engaging in the actual activity of writing. The term author encompasses not only the craft but also the business aspect of it.

So when are you worthy of the label author? Why, when you publish your first book of course!

I write this post just days before I make the transition from writer to author. My first novel Farsighted releases on October 24, which means my 26-year-long (AKA life-long) dream is finally coming true. When I look back at the journey that brought me to the peak of this beautiful achievement, I can’t help but think of what I wish I’d have known before starting on my path.

I’ve identified 10 lessons I’ve learned along the way. Maybe you already know these things. Maybe you don’t. I’m gonna share ‘em anyway...

1. Something’s gotta give. Writing is not something you can do with just a little bit of effort. To get through the first draft, editing, what-have-you, you'll have to work hard! Yes, you could space it out over several years, but if you want to finish anytime this year, you’re going to have to make sacrifices. For me, this was less time with friends and family, less television, and less attention to my health (eating right and exercising). Oops.

2. Write what you want to write—not what you think you should be writing. Boy, this was a hard one to learn. I’ve always fallen back on being “that smart girl.” When things didn’t go right in my personal life or when I was picked last in gym class, I took pride in my intellect. Therefore, I’ve always done what I can to improve my wit and make my best trait the best it can be. That being said, I spent a long time forcing myself to read classic literature. I did enjoy it, and I still do, but it’s definitely not what I find most entertaining (YA is). Still I kept at the classic literature because it was important to me that others respect my intelligence (damaged by high school much? :-P). Naturally when I decided to write a novel, it came out as literary fiction. That’s the me I wanted to portray to the world. I wanted people to salivate over my talent and proclaim my literary merit... Except the novel wasn’t that good, because it wasn’t a piece of who I really am. Now that I’ve cozied into YA, I couldn’t be happier. And the larger facade of who I once pretended to be has lifted. I. AM. FREE. Now this lesson doesn’t just mean: don’t put on a false front. It also means: don’t chase trends. Write what your heart wants to write, and it’ll all be good in the end.

3. You’re going to make mistakes. LOTS of mistakes. Practice makes perfect. Well, it makes it better than before. You may be an excellent writer, but if you’ve never written a novel before, you’re a newbie. That’s okay too! When writing that all-important first novel, you’re pretty much going to make every mistake in the book. In my first novel, I really struggled with keeping a consistent point-of-view and writing authentic dialogue. The POV problem was very difficult to fix, but in trying, I learned an important lesson—one I couldn’t have learned if I hadn’t made such huge blunders. Now that I do know how to correct and avoid these problems, dialogue and POV are two of my strongest areas (at least that’s what readers tell me).

4. Writer’s detour is a bigger problem than writer’s block. Writer’s block gets all the PR, but it’s not as dangerous as writer’s detour. When you’re blocked you’re not moving forward. When you take a detour, you’re moving in the wrong direction. Will you get to California quicker by taking a small rest in Boise, or will you get there quicker by following a pretty red car to Ontario first? (My advice, drive straight-on through to Cali if you can). Don’t get so caught up with a minor character (or a theme you want to convey) that you stray all over the place. Which brings me to my next point...

5. Structure is important. We writers fall into two camps: pantsers and plotters. Some pantsers consider themselves superior, because their writing leads their plots—not the other way around. I used to think like that too. Even if you want to keep your plotline fluid, you need some form of structure. Shudder at the thought of outlining? Then mapping your characters is crucial. You need to know where you’re going and/or who's taking you there. Otherwise you’re just groping about in the dark. Yes, writing is absolutely a creative process, but don’t under-estimate the value of good planning.

6. Novel #1 may never leave the drawer. Or it may leave the drawer, journey around the query circuit, and then come right back to where it started. My first novel DID get me an agent, but 9 drafts later, it still wasn’t good enough to publish. When my agent suggested I change 2/3 of it for draft 10, I decided to move onto my next project. I just wasn’t enjoying the process anymore. I’m so glad I finally called it quits on novel #1, because novel #2 is so much better, and now I get to put it out there into the world. If I would’ve kept agonizing over the inferior manuscript, novel #2 may have never happened!

7. When you’re done, you’re not done. I’m just a big ball of sunshine today, aren’t I? But it’s important to understand just how much work follows being “done.” Anne Lamott said it best in Bird by Bird, you’re going to write “shitty first drafts.” I can guarantee it! Don’t let that stop you, just be prepared for it.

8. Writing is a business just as much as it’s an art. Getting a novel published and promoting it once it’s out there is infinitely more work than writing a novel in the first place. That’s not to under-value the writing process, but it’s true. Sure, you can finish your novel, self-publish it, and then do virtually nothing to promote it. Fine. But if you actually want to sell copies of your book, you’ve gotta handle the business side of things. Finding an agent is an extremely formal business interaction—you even have to write fancy business (AKA query) letters. Marketing your book is a TON of work. It’s pretty fun (at least, I think so, but I moonlight as a book publicist, so I realize I might not be normal). However, being fun is not equivalent to being easy. Not even close. Expect lots of work and lots of stress and not very much sleep. The good news: you get out what you put in, so give it all you can!

9. Querying will destroy your soul. My unhappy place is remembering query letter Hell. I honestly can’t remember anything harder in my life. Ever. Make sure you have a good support system in place. Because even if you’re brilliant, you can pretty much expect a slew of rejections. I ultimately got an agent but had to suffer through 60 “not for us”s first. Of course, it hurts. As writers, we pour our hearts and souls into our manuscript. Our words are a part of who we are. Having a faceless stranger tell you it’s not good enough is pure torture. End of argument.

10. You will sustain injuries. Gosh, my neck is killing me while I’m writing this post. You’re probably going to get neck and back pain too. Headaches from staring at the computer too long. Possible eye problems. Definite poor posture. Maybe even carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s just the way it goes, so be prepared.

Seems pretty cynical, doesn’t it? I <3 the craft and would never abandon it (like I even have a choice), but I find that those who are starting out with visions of Stephen King or JK Rowling-esque fame already see the pretty side of writing—the glamor. Having a balanced picture is so important. Even still, all the practical knowledge just can’t compare to experiential knowledge. Follow YOUR path to author-hood, make your own mistakes, learn lessons from them, and then share with the rest of us.

Blog Tour Notes

THE BOOK: Alex Kosmitoras may be blind, but he can still “see” things others can’t. When his unwanted visions of the future begin to suggest that the girl he likes could be in danger, he has no choice but to take on destiny and demand it reconsider. Get your copy today by visiting’s Kindle store or the eBook retailer of your choice. The paperback edition will be available on November 24 (for the author’s birthday).

THE CASH PRIZES: Guess what? You could win a $100 Amazon gift card as part of this special blog tour. That’s right! Just leave a comment below saying something about the post you just read, and you’ll be entered into the raffle. I could win $100 too! Please help by voting for my blog in the traffic-breaker poll. To cast your vote, visit the official Farsighted blog tour page and scroll all the way to the bottom. Thank you for your help with that.

THE GIVEAWAYS: Win 1 of 10 autographed copies of Farsighted before its paperback release by entering the giveaway on GoodReads. Perhaps you’d like an autographed postcard from the author; you can request one on her site.

THE AUTHOR: Emlyn Chand has always loved to hear and tell stories, having emerged from the womb with a fountain pen grasped firmly in her left hand (true story). When she’s not writing, she runs a large book club in Ann Arbor and is the president of author PR firm, Novel Publicity. Emlyn loves to connect with readers and is available throughout the social media interweb. Visit for more info.

9 October 2011

National Novel Writing Month

I am taking part in the 2011 National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st and is how you can write a 50,000 word novel by midnight on November 30th.  Known by aficionados as 'NaNoWriMo,' this writing marathon is for everyone who has ever wanted to write a novel but never been able to make the time.

You may have heard the advice "if you want to be a writer, write!"  and 'NaNoWriMo'  means you have to write at least 1667 words every day for a month.

Like many of us, I have too many distractions in my life and am hoping this simple discipline will be really good for me.  I've also fallen into the trap of eternally revising my work.  Although this is a very necessary part of the process, it will be great to have a break and simply enjoy writing again.

50,000 words may seem short for a novel but that's the length of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' – and although you are not supposed to write anything in advance of the 1st, you can of course keep going after the end of November.

There are a few simple rules - quantity, not quality and don't read back or revise. It is about liberating your creativity and taking risks.  Last year over 200,000 people joined in 'NaNoWriMo' and over 30,000 met the deadline.

To find out more about 'NaNoWriMo' visit and to join in, register for free at

2 August 2011

Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting by Robert McKee

Story is for any writer who ever wanted to understand and develop their craft.  Robert McKee's book is one of those wonderful discoveries that you can open randomly at any page and learn something about writing.  (I was recently given it as a present by my brother and couldn't put it down).  McKee's main point is that all notions of paradigms and 'foolproof' story models for commercial success are meaningless.  Instead of looking for shortcuts we need to be faithful to our principles.

I have no aspiration to become a screenplay writer but, like many of us, I once had a go at writing a play for radio. I am glad I did, as it helped me appreciate how much easier the whole experience could have been if I'd followed the principles set out in Story. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of the genre and subgenre system used by commercially successful screenwriters.  McKee points out that genres don't inhibit creativity – they inspire it and anyone who ever tells a story is really doing so within the principles, structure and style of a genre - even those who rebel against genres!

His chapter on characterization and character development is also very thought provoking for any story writer. Characterization is described as the sum of all the observable qualities that make the character unique – but true 'character' is what waits behind this mask to surprise us.  McKee argues that true character is revealed through the choices made under pressure – and the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation. The memorable characters of film and literature are all of course rooted in this simple but easily overlooked principle.  I like the idea that, having analysed the clear and obvious choice for a character, we then ask what would be the opposite to that and why they would act in that way?
Story has hundreds of examples from movies of every genre (the list at the back takes 33 pages).  I've never really thought about it before but he points out that how odd it is to sit in a darkened room full of strangers and give our undivided attention to a story for two hours without a break.  I wonder if I will ever watch any of them again without thinking about the screenwriting.

I also found myself wondering how many of these movies have influenced the way I think about story writing – and I definitely have renewed respect for screenplay writers.  Next time you go to see a movie, make a point of knowing who actually wrote the story.  You will find someone who was prepared to write every day, line by line, page by page –with the courage to risk rejection and failure in the quest for stories told with real meaning.

Story is available on Amazon  and follow on Twitter at @McKeeStory

Robert McKee developed his ideas on creative writing when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. His seminars have contributed to the work of 36 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 19 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 16 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners. 

19 July 2011

Caroline Gourlay: Adapting the haiku to English (letter to The Independent)

Haiku Master
(Image credit Wikimedia Commons) 
Sir:    I was very pleased to see that your poetry editor chose four haiku for the Daily Poem today (16 April). Although this literary form is one of the oldest in the world and has been practised in the West since the beginning of this century, there are still those who believe it can play no part other than in the Japanese poetry tradition.

James Kirkup is a skilled writer of haiku and has played a key part in bringing this genre to a wider audience in the West, but while I have great respect for him on both these counts I take issue with his statement that every haiku should have 17 syllables.

As a member of the British Haiku Society I am as concerned as anyone that the essence of haiku should not become diluted as it becomes more widely practised. But concentration on the 5-7-5 syllable count of haiku is misleading and obscures other important features of this form - a certain flexibility where appropriate can serve the spirit of haiku more faithfully than a rigid adherence to the "rules" at all times.

The syllable count in haiku is often misunderstood. Japanese poets do not count syllables, they count onji. This word means "sound symbol" and is much shorter than the English syllable and much more uniform in length. Approximately 12 English syllables best duplicates the length of Japanese haiku in the traditional form of 17 onji.

Caroline Gourlay

Caroline Gourlay is a UK author and poet who lives on the Welsh Border and has written poetry for much of her life.  She recently featured on Stephen Fry's 'English Delight' programme on BBC Radio 4

15 July 2011

A Short Guide to Facilitating Risk Management by Penny Pullan and Ruth Murray-Webster

Business is risky.  So how well do you understand and manage the risks you face every day?  A Short Guide to Facilitating Risk Management  sets out a practical approach to anticipate what could go wrong and has some great tips for risk management facilitation.

Illustrated with examples from the authors' experience and their findings from interviews and surveys, this new book differs from the usual guide to risk management in that it is not just about risk 'mitigation' but puts the emphasis on risk ownership.  In their research the authors found that all too often it is tricky to find out who is being paid to really care  about a particular risk.

There is also very useful guidance on facilitating risk workshops, which can provide an effective basis for managing and prioritising risk - a 'must read' for anyone who wants to help their business avoid expensive surprises.

Dr Penny Pullan is Director of Making Projects Work and has wide experience for working with multinational companies and as an external consultant. Penny is experienced in facilitating risk workshops and equipping others to do so. See and follow @PennyPullan 

Ruth Murray-Webster is Director of Lucidus Consulting Limited and facilitates organisational change across a wide range of sectors. Ruth is co-author of two earlier Gower books, Understanding and Managing Risk Attitude and Managing Group Risk Attitude See www.lucidusconsulting

28 June 2011

Guest Post: The Gift of Writing by Heather Hummel

Have you ever given yourself a birthday gift? One that no one else could give you, so you gave it to yourself? That’s what I did for my 40th birthday - I gave myself the gift of becoming a fulltime writer. This gift meant walking away from the high school classroom where I taught 9th and 10th grade English. It meant hearing, “You shouldn’t have quit your day job” ad nauseam.  Still, laptop in hand, I ventured out to my favourite coffee shop day after day and most evenings to write my first novel.
  That was the summer of 2005. I completed Whispers from the Heart that fall, staying close to the essence of being an English teacher. I created Madison Ragnar, a high school English teacher who teaches To Kill a Mockingbird. That is where the similarities between my personal life and that of Madison’s end and fiction began. One of Madison’s students commits suicide and his fellow students are left with a teacher and a theme from Harper Lee’s classic to deal with the shock and loss of their classmate.
  Madison’s students struggle to understand death and suicide while Madison is faced with healing and moving on from her past. A theme of self worth threads throughout the pages - both inside and outside of her classroom.
  When I set out to write Whispers from the Heart, I didn’t do character developments and outlines the way many authors do. Instead, I sat down and allowed my characters to invite themselves in. I allowed the storyline to direct itself. I welcomed Phil with surprise and wonderment when he suddenly showed up well into the book, but clearly played a pivotal role in Madison’s life. 
  The adventure that writing took on that summer was, for me, the realization that I gave myself the best gift possible…the gift of my creativity.
Since then I have published a nonfiction book, Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age, and Write from the Heart, the second novel in what is now the Unforgettable: Write Your Story series. Remember Me, God? will be the third in the series and is forthcoming this fall.
  In the six years since my 40th birthday, I have begun ghostwriting for celebrities and public figures. Many people have stories to share, but can’t find their written voice. That’s where I come in and am allowed to continue to use my creativity in writing books for others. It means showing up with no personal agenda or self-serving twist to their book. It means finding their voice and helping them put it down in a story. It’s one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges I’ve encountered.
  One of the greatest rewards came recently when I wrote a blog post that has made the biggest impact on me as a writer. I wrote a blog about two women who suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that has gone viral via Twitter and Facebook. The blog has resulted in record numbers of hits and, more importantly, has embraced a community that greatly appreciates the voice I’ve given them. Those who are suffering from CFS are reaching out to me to share their stories and with gratitude that I shed some light on an often misunderstood and unrecognized disease. I’ve been humbled by this experience and have realized that sometimes the less we write, such as a blog post versus an entire book, the more impact we can have. It has given the term re-gifting a whole new meaning to me.
Heather Hummel is a "photonovelist" who blends her love for photography with her award-winning career as an author. Her published works include: Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age (McGraw Hill, 2008), - Merit Award of the 2009 Mature Media Awards, Whispers from the Heart (PathBinder Publishing, 2008), - 1st Honorable Mention of the 2009 New York Book Festival, Write from the Heart (PathBinder Publishing, 2009)  Heather is a ghostwriter for celebrities and public figures and her books have appeared in newspapers such as: Publishers Weekly, USA Today and the Washington Post; and in magazines that include: Body & Soul, First, and Spry Living, a combined circulation of nearly 15 million.

Visit Heather’s website at

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25 June 2011

That I did always love - Emily Dickinson

That I did always love,
I bring thee proof:
That till I loved
I did not love enough.
That I shall love alway,
I offer thee
That love is life,
And life hath immortality.
This, dost thou doubt, sweet?
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary.

14 June 2011

Book Launch Guest Post: Vision by Beth Elisa Harris

Vision has been a concept for quite some time, since learning years ago about my ancestors from the Isle of Colonsay in Scotland. Those with vivid imaginations can concoct all sorts of drama when your father tells you, “We are descendents of the MacPhie clan, who were ostracized from the island by the MacDonald’s.” Regardless of the details, I had a springboard for a story. Now where, when, how to begin?

I often say I did not arrive at this place by walking a straight line. On the contrary, I have only recently returned to a less complicated frame of mind when dreams were as simple as one wanted them to be.  I arrived on planet earth as a writer.  That remained the purest of intentions until my warped perception of being a responsible adult slowly chiseled away pieces of my imagination. Before I knew what happened, I was writing business-i.e. things for others, such as articles, press releases, marketing materials, ghost projects and so forth.

To say something in me snapped a couple of years ago is an understatement.  Leaving out the details, let me just say I let the muse back in, spent the next year writing, editing and publishing Vision, started writing the two sequels and one other novel, all for young adults.

A voracious reader, I have a very open mind to different genres. Young adult or teen lit was just one of many types I sometimes enjoyed reading. But the more great YA books I read, the more I realized it was my writing genre. It takes more than remembering your early school years to write good YA, you have to love to read it too. The stories made sense, because the younger protagonists tend to be strong, brave, honest, slightly sarcastic and most of all, not whiney.  Sometimes ‘adult’ lit carries too much baggage, an over-abundance of skepticism about life weaving through the story, and it’s a turn off. Call me crazy, but I like triumph in some form. It’s the reason you flip pages to reach the end.  And yes, really liking young adults helps. I happen to adore teens and pre-teens.  Their voices are important. They have a lot to teach us.

I wrote Vision for what is considered upper young adult.  That is just how it came out.  There had to be some borderline adult situations to keep it real-I’m all about honesty, and my novels don’t contain too many netherworld creatures.  Instead my characters are real, diverse in all ways, passionate, vocal and inspiring.

And thankfully the readers agree! More than anything, I love getting comments about the unique flavor of the story, those that say ‘you’ve never read anything like this and I don’t know how to classify this book.’  With that said, those already waiting for the sequel should expect something out later this year.  I also hope to finish another YA novel Flyers appropriate for a slightly younger audience.

It’s all on my blog, so hop over for more information.  Residents of the UK should be able to currently purchase a Kindle version from Amazon UK and other e-books from Smashwords.

Beth Elisa Harris is a young adult author living in Southern California. Vision is her first published novel through eInteractive Media.

Beth Elisa Harris YA Author - Vision (series)
Published by: eInteractive Media
LCCN: 2011904385
BISAC: Juvenille Fiction/Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magic

Follow on Facebook as Beth Elisa Harris - Author
Follow on Twitter @Bethelisaharris   Goodreads Author Page 

BUY Vision at Amazon or on Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble NOOK and at Smashwords

9 June 2011

Guest Post by Tracy Sitchen: Making a Living Writing Online

There are many, many ways to make a living as a writer online. You can start your own blog, write e-books, work as a ghost writer (selling post or e-books for someone else's blog), or supply articles for content portals. With the changing face of the media industry, you can also write articles and editorials for online newspapers and magazines. However, working from home as a freelance writer requires a lot of discipline and determination if you are to become successful.

Create a Schedule

Working from home presents a number of temptations that can derail your productivity. Pretty soon, the flexible schedule that enticed you to work at home becomes so "flexible" that it is non-existent. Stay on track by creating a schedule, and stick to it the same way you would if you were punching a clock. Your schedule doesn't have to be from 9 to 5, nor does it have to be the same every day. Plan your weekly schedule according to the work you know you have to do and the personal commitments you expect.

Meet Deadlines

As a freelance writer, your reputation and credibility are key to your success. Ensure that you maintain a good reputation by delivering work on time. Keeping a schedule can help you meet deadlines. In addition, be sure that you don't over commit. It can be tempting to say yes to every offer that you get -- especially since the nature of freelance work is so erratic, and you never know when you will get your next job -- but don't accept work if you don't time in your schedule. Even if you're able to finish it on time, the quality of the work is likely to suffer, which will also hurt your reputation and your ability to get more jobs in the future.

Set Appropriate Rates

When you're just starting out, it can be tempting to set your rates very low so that you can get more work. Though you won't be able to start out charging $30 an hour, you should take a comprehensive look at your expenses and determine a reasonable rate -- both for you and your clients. Determine your living expenses and decide on a yearly salary. For example, if you want to make about $30,000 a year -- a modest salary -- you should divide that by 52 weeks, then divide that figure by 40 hours. Your rate would be just about $14.50 per hour. Keep in mind that as a self-employed writer, you are also responsible for paying your own taxes, purchasing your own health insurance, and saving for your own retirement plan. Keep all these things in mind as you set your rate. Over time, you will be able to raise it.

Always Look for Work

Even if you have a full schedule, always look for work. Many jobs that you find will be temporary in nature or will be on a project basis. You don't want to wait for those jobs to end before you start looking for new jobs. The availability of work is too erratic to count on finding a job as soon as your last one ends. Always be looking for new opportunities.

Do you work as a freelance writer, either full-time or part-time? What are some of your tips for success?

Tracy Sitchen is a veteran coupon clipper, stay at home Mom, and aspiring writer. While she loves shopping, she loves the chase of the deal even more! She’s recently been writing about City Museum coupons along with McDonalds coupons over at her blog where she shares deals and discounts to help every day people save money.