Tag Archives: Learning to be a writer

The Editing Tree



simple question:

Why do you write?

Why do you write like that?

Why do you need to tell that story?

Why did you do it that way?

Why did you end it that way?

Why is key to understanding what. 

What are you trying to say?

What is driving the action?

What does the character want?

What will they do to try to get it?

What will stand in the way of them getting it?

What happens next?

What leads to how.

How does the character set out to get the thing they want?

How much do they want it?

How will they feel if they never get it?

How hard do they try?

How will their own inner demons impact on getting it?

How much do their actions impact on others?

How do they change?

Editing is a string of key questions starting with WHY?




But always be prepared to start over and let new saplings take root elsewhere



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Learn how to read in public

When I was back in Wales a few weeks ago, and had the pleasure of catching up with friends at the Bangor Cellar Writing Group, James Phillips, one of the talented members of the group, gave us a talk on public speaking, using his experience more from being a musician and performer but also taking elements from having spent many years working as a teacher in the classroom.

I found this so useful because one of the things we as writers face, especially if we have success, is having to move from behind the computer screen to standing centre stage. I believe the foundations of this can be built by belonging to a writing group. I remember the first time I had something to read out but being so shy (me some might say? Shy?) but I think there are two elements to this fear. First that it means sharing work and we all think it’s pants! And that we have to stand in front of people to do it. But I soon got over that because at the end of the day, this is your work — and you know how you want it to sound. The more I did it, the easier it became. Trust me. By the time I started to have short stories accepted and published, I was able to conquer the next hurdle and stand in front of a small audience, with others thankfully, and read.

The biggie came when my novel was out. But by then I had also had to stand in front of children in the classroom to run workshops, and at publisher events I was invited to and hosted, so it was far less daunting. But it still meant I had the spotlight just on me. I had to stand in front of an audience for an hour and read in an African American accent and answer questions. I was thinking oh my God! But actually afterwards I realised I had enjoyed it and have done it a few times since. I have also been on the radio a few times too and it really does get easier!

We all think we want to hide and that’s why we write and don’t perform, but actually, whether it’s in front of a small group like Canvey Writers or a large audience at the Hay Festival, writers do need to learn how to speak and read in public. So here are a few basic pointers:

  • Prepare (this is key): practise it!
  • Use your diaphragm for volume, don’t shout
  • Read slower than you think you can, so when you speed up at the pacey bits, you are still reading slowly and clearly
  • Alliterate — don’t mumble: focus on the vowel sounds
  • Characterisation: you know how you want your characters to sound, so capture their voice
  • Stand up
  • Make eye contact when you speak (not for too long or you can make  people feel awkward!) but draw them in as if only you and them are having the conversation
  • Hold your book or paper up in front of you when you read so you speak outwards and do not mumble down into the piece of paper
  • Don’t worry about nerves, we all feel it but the more you do it (and the more you prepare) the easier it gets and some nerves is good
  • And above all, enjoy it!

Breathe from the abdomen – Relax the throat – Read slowly – Look up and smile

Thanks to James for such a great talk last month and for sharing your handouts. I passed them onto the Canvey Writers which was particularly pertinent as we had a whole evening given over to manuscript readings and many of these writers are new to it, so a great lesson to start us off. I wish more writing groups embraced this aspect. There’s more about being a writer than just learning to write.

And what a talented bunch they all are; it was a wonderful evening. Everyone stood to read and took on board what had been said.

And as a final ending to this post one of our writers: Fiona, the writer who does have an agent, announced that she has just signed a 2-book deal for her psychological/crime thrillers with a HUGE publisher and rights have been sold worldwide… now that deserves champers! I think cake at the next meeting for sure! Amazing. While this was already in the pipeline and can not be attributed to Canvey Writers we are claiming it as a our first success… and what a success that one is! FANTASTIC, well done Fiona. She will be on this blog and charting her journey with us so I think this will be interesting to all.

Dreams come true if you believe. And work hard.

Have a great Tuesday!

What the Dickens?

               What the Dickens?


Filed under being a successful writer, Blogging, Learning to be a writer, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Passion for writing, Publishing, Reading, Writing

Can you learn to be a writer? Do you need an MA in Creative Writing?

This is an interesting question because there is a lot of debate around the value of doing MAs in Creative Writing and the notion it’s a way of universities making a lot of money.

So I would be interested in hearing peoples’ views on this.

Are MAs worth the price and do agents and publishers take you more seriously if you have one? What do you think?

I’ll tell what I think. I am quite academic and as some of you will know started my working life as a scientist. I have a BSc. and an MSc.  but have always written. I attended a basic creative writing course some years ago to get me writing again, an ONC I think it was.  A friend did later suggest it might be worth me doing an MA when I was getting really serious about my writing but I disregarded it at the time as I had a full time job and spent all my other time writing anyway.

It was when my second novel kept getting rejected, a few agents asking to see the rest but then saying I wasn’t quite there yet I asked myself the question well how can I get to be there?  I was already reading books on writing, running the local writing group, writing all the time and making steps to be better. There are three MA courses in Bangor and I picked the one that I could do with a full time job and one that was flexible enough to hone to what I needed; I wasn’t interested in studying poetry, I wanted short fiction and novels. So in that way it worked well for me. But the course I chose meant I was on my own working and choosing my projects with little teaching. But I did get one-to-one feedback with my tutor which is like having an editor. I passed it last year.

Has it progressed my career? Now that’s really the question. And I guess would it have made any difference if I’d not done it?

The answer to this is yes it has helped in some way and no  I’d still be here without it. I think what counts above all else is passion.

Let me say that again: PASSION with a big fat capital P.

I think the writing and need to write is in us when we’re young and needs to be nurtured and developed like anything else. There are very few children that are gifted and even those that are, let’s say the ones that pick up a violin aged three and can play Mozart… did they just do that? I doubt it, we all need to learn and hone our craft and think of how many hours of practice these children need.

It’s the same with anything if you want to be good at it: singing, acting… you probably have the foundations by having a leaning towards it and I am guessing if you have the right influences too, so like most things a combination of nature-nurture. Certainly I grew up surrounded by books with parents that encouraged me. And Dad was a writer/artist and Mum writes poetry. It helps.

So I think you can learn to write, but I think you HAVE TO WANT TO. You may have to write at school but the difference is choosing to do it for fun.

But do you need an MA?


Again: NO.

But you do need to learn and that is often a question of expense and what sources are available to you in your circumstances.

The passion will lead to what you need, and as I have said here many times, the passion is what will make you want to be a BETTER WRITER. So maybe you join a writing group (recommended), look at the National Association of Writing Group website. If there isn’t one- start one. You’d be amazed how many writers live in your area. Buy writing magazines, borrow writing books from libraries or buy books that come recommended. Join critique groups, on line or face to face, look for local writing workshops or courses. Read writing Blogs. There’s a lot of free information out there, you don’t have to invest in doing an MA. I thought it was a lot of money and could only afford it because I was working full time and I paid monthly.

And write. Whenever you can. Write. You will get better.

For me I think it was the combination of all of the above including my work for Bridge House, as a publisher and then adding to that the MA that moved me in the right direction. What did I learn ? Everything I could, from everywhere I could and applied it to my own writing career.

But if I hadn’t done the MA would I be further behind? No I don’t think so not on its own, but it must have helped as part of all the other things I was doing. Had I only been doing the MA, well that’s interesting because I think I wouldn’t be as far down the line as I am, I think it needs many things.

I am not saying there is no worth to the MA, and I think there are some great ones, I am saying for me, it’s not only about that.

What the MA has done for me, however, is prove that I had to study really hard. I had to write critical essays to accompany my fiction and really delve into what role fiction plays in our lives and indeed why I write. So when I look up at that certificate on my wall, proudly displayed (the other degrees aren’t but then this is what I really am) I know how hard I worked while in a full time job and writing and doing the publishing stuff! So yes I am glad I did it and for me working as a writer and an editor it is a qualification that shows I do know something. It might make clients value me, although I suspect they also look at my other credentials as in publishing record and on recommendation. So again I think it is part of the picture.

Do agents and publishers take someone with an MA more seriously? Probably not. It’s again about the writing. If that’s great then that’s all that matters.

When I look at submissions I never look at whether someone has an MA, or has anything else published. I always look at the bio after I’ve read the story and decided if I want to include it. What I will say is if I then read the author has an MA or has had other things published I nod, yes I thought so. So that shows what? That the MA made them better or is it just one of the many things they did to get better driven by above all: passion. I think most likely the latter.  But it doesn’t sway me, nor does having an MA have more impact than having a publishing history. Both show passion and drive to be better. Both show the author is serious about their writing. But it’s always the writing that I choose, not a piece of paper!

So I think when I write in my pitch that I have an MA in Creative Writing it serves to show the same thing, I am serious. But just because I have an MA doesn’t mean I can write a great novel.

I think I will end on that and welcome comments.

YAY! Am I a writer now?



Filed under Crtiquing, Editing, Learning to be a writer, Literary Fiction, MA Creative Writing, Mainstream Fiction, Mentoring, Novel writing, Rejection, Research, Securing an agent, Writing, Writing workshops