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Top Tips for Writers

Top Tips for Writers: The Boy in the Burgundy Hood Street Poster

I’ve been writing stories since the age of seven, but I’ve only been studying the craft of writing for the last ten years or so. Here’s a few top tips for writers that I’ve learnt, many of which I wish I’d learnt sooner. They would have saved me a lot of time.

Read A LOT – your imagination needs fuel and it’ll get a lot from your real life, but much much more from reading thousands of stories. Yes, thousands. (Here’s a few goodies to start with.)

Plotting’s not for everyone but for me a short overview helps me not go down too many dead ends. You can always change your plot as the story develops.

When thinking about plotting, remember that most stories, even non-fiction ones, are about suspense. The writer’s job is to create a character so real that the reader invests their emotions into him or her. And then to put that character through a whole load of difficult scenarios where the reader can’t help but keep reading to see what’s going to happen to them.

Keep your writing precise not flowery and avoid as many adverbs as you can.

Find the angle – if you’re struggling to find an angle that makes your scene and characters spring into life, starting with dialogue is always a good idea.

Keep learning (a mantra for being alive, really).

Only do it if you love it – except for a very small number of people, there’s no fame in it and you’ll make a lot more money in your standard day job. (Although we can all dream that one day, in the not-too-distant future, our name will be writ large on the street…).

For the definitive advice check out the 10 points of Elmore Leonard (and while you’re there, sign up for the fantastic newsletter of Brain Pickings).

Finally, if you haven’t read it, get this:

And this:

Do you believe in Ghosts? A Halloween post

Do you believe in ghosts? We’re well into spooky season now and I was asked the perennial question again recently.

On balance, I’d have to say no. The world is a very strange place, with the chances of it and us existing being essentially zero. Parallel universes, action at a distance, the big bang – all of these things are astonishing. So I keep an open mind about ghosts and everything else. But I also weigh up the odds based on my experience, so I live my life as if they don’t exist.

Do you believe in ghosts? The Boy in the Burgundy Hood ghost pic

But then, there was one time…

I was living in an old Victorian shared house in Scotland, doing a Masters degree at Stirling University. One night I woke up and was convinced there was a woman sitting on the end of my bed, looking at me. I immediately put it down to my imagination and of course when I peered again into the grey dark she wasn’t there.

The next day I told a friend, one of my flat mates, about the incident. He was a bit shaken up. I asked him why, and he told me that the afternoon before he’d been coming up the stairs and seen someone walking across the top of the landing above him, heading towards my bedroom. He was completely nonplussed and just shouted hello to her, thinking it was one of our flatmates. But of course he soon found there was no one there, nor anyone in the whole house for that matter.

So – do you believe in ghosts? If you have any spooky stories to tell I’d love to hear them below.

If that’s whetted your appetite for spooky stories, why not order a copy of my ghost story, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, in time for Halloween? It’s available now on Amazon. Don’t think I could have hoped for better company on Amazon on the cusp of Halloween…

The Boy in the Burgundy Hood Amazon Bestseller

My Publishing Journey – How I became an Indie Author

I was asked recently about which publishing route I took and why. So here’s a potted history of how I became an independently published writer – or ‘indie author’, as we’re increasingly known.

The City of Light signed copy

I’m an indie author, published entirely now on Amazon. I gave up my job to concentrate on writing a few years back. It was what I’ve always wanted to do, and besides publishing quite a bit of poetry, I knew I wanted to write novels. I submitted my first book, the young teen novel The City of Light, to agents and publishers. An agent reader’s report said it was a potential Harry Potter (can you imagine how I felt!?). A friend of a friend in the Children’s Rights department of Random House loved it and championed it through editorial teams – only for it to fail at the sales team, who in the post-Harry Potter world had moved on from contemporary fantasy to gritty realism.

The Boy in the Burgundy Hood - a ghost story with a difference

To be honest, I gave up for a couple of years until my sister-in-law suggested I go indie. I’ve never looked back. I’m no more of a control freak than the next person, but sending off to agents and publishers was about as dispiriting as it gets. There were lots of long waits and half-promises. Being in control of what and when I write and how and when I publish is great. The downside of course is lower sales – we’d all love distribution in bookshops throughout the world. But of all my colleagues who write and have been traditionally published, none have ended up with rosy sales figures. And most have had a pretty miserable time with their publisher’s demands and processes.

As far as tips are concerned, I did put a lot of time into publishing on multiple platforms – but always for a measly return. When I went exclusive on Amazon and signed up for Kindle Unlimited my sales rocketed. Sad, but true.

Let me know if you’ve had experience of the publishing world. And if you’re a reader, does whether a book is published independently or through traditional publishers affect your choice?

A Poetry Playlist on National Poetry Day

OK, so technically National Poetry Day was yesterday and I missed doing this Poetry Playlist post due to juggling 101 other things!

Whilst I love reading poetry on the page, it’s important to recognise that it developed from oral traditions, a means of passing down the values, wisdom and playfulness of humanity from one generation to the next before writing became common.

The Things We Thought Were Beautiful Poetry Book

So for me poetry exists in two very distinct states. The poem on the page, which emanates its power in a wonderful, still silence (if it’s good!) And then there’s the poem as read by the poet or avid reader, which can take on a wholly different feel. The pacing and the length of the end-of-line pause, the emphasis of certain words, the catching of the poem’s rhythm. All are shaped by the personal interpretation of the out-loud reader.

I’ve done quite a few poetry readings in the past – at festivals, schools, pubs and in such illustrious venues as the basement of the Troubador Cafe in Old Brompton Road, where Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones played (and Ed Sheeran and Laura Marling for you young folk!). But with Covid there’s much fewer chances of doing live readings, so why not take a look at this Poetry Playlist I’ve put together? In it, you’ll find me reading six of my favourite poems from my two collections, Up in the Air and The Things We Thought Were Beautiful.

And if they inspire you to read more, the books are available here:

Secret of the Tirthas: a reading from The Unknown Realms

Today I’m reading a short excerpt from The Unknown Realms, the last book in my mystery adventure series, The Secret of the Tirthas. It’s the moment a Venetian boy, Alessandro, sees the hero, Lizzie Jones, emerge from one of the magical portals, or tirthas, with a very unusual – and frightening – companion. I won’t give any more away for those of you who haven’t read the previous books!

If you enjoyed this reading from The Unknown Realms click below to find out more; or, if you’ve not yet started the series, click on The City of Light.

To learn about the magical garden of rooms that inspired the series go here, and about the real City of Light in India go here.

Negative Capability: Living with Uncertainty

Negative capability

I was amazed when I heard ‘Negative Capability’ used in a meeting the other day. People were looking at the ways in which society works, and using the term to highlight the skills needed to navigate increasingly complex systems. It’s pretty impressive, considering Negative Capability was a concept invented by the Romantic poet, John Keats, to describe the poet’s seeking after Beauty without becoming bogged down in reasoning.

I’ve always liked this concept. We can easily get distracted from creativity and even living life itself if we try and keep on top of everything. Negative Capability is not really negative at all, it’s about letting go, about wading right into the mystery and seeking out the things most beautiful and important to you. Hold faith with those things you cherish, even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.

Many people are not happy with uncertainty. They prefer to make concrete decisions about the way the world is and isn’t. I think I’m the opposite. As part of the universe, I feel fundamentally ill-equipped to make final pronouncements on it. I just don’t know. Why are we here? Is there an ultimate purpose to life? I tend to think not, but given the inconceivable improbability of our own existence, who knows? There are always gaps, always possibilities.

I think in our modern context, Negative Capability really comes into its own. Society is becoming more complex, mainstream views are being overturned, strong-man populists reign, a pandemic rages, and the climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. In a decade or two’s time, most jobs will require digital literacy, or be taken over by robots. The times, in short, are changing. Sometimes it feels like the only way to survive is to ignore the the big picture and double down on what matters most to us. Whatever that may be. Art, Environment, Politics. We need to function, and thrive, in the midst of all this complexity.

So, hats off to Keats. What an amazing poet, creating words and concepts that are just as significant now as when he invented them.

How’s your tolerance for mystery? Are you happy not knowing things or do you like to find rational explanations for everything?

Find out more about Negative Capability here.

Interested in finding out about my poetry? Go here.

The Man who was Saved: A Poem for Lockdown

This poem from my first book Up in the Air was written a few years ago. I think it’s pertinent to our current coronavirus crisis, where once again we find ourselves reliant on brave and selfless public workers. It’s my first – and only – prose poem and I wrote it after watching a TV programme about the Marriott World Trade Centre hotel, which stood beside the Twin Towers. As you can imagine, the hotel was damaged beyond repair, and there was one guest who spoke in tears and amazement about how a firefighter saved his life. I can’t remember much more than that, but it showed how there’s something more important to us than money and power and status. It’s the ability to feel widely, to be open to everything and have empathy. We’re not talking about being wishy-washy, but about sensing the ‘drunkeness of things being various’, as the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice would put it. The world is amazing. What makes us special is the fact that we are able to sense and feel it, in all its fathomless complexity.

The man who was saved: poem

Up in the Air is available on Amazon:

Sorted: a poem for World Poetry Day 2020

I’m posting this poem from The Things We Thought Were Beautiful for World Poetry Day not because it’s a ‘happy’ poem, but because sharing our sadness can also help us to pull through.

Many people think of poetry as a sideline, or even worse, an irrelevance. But for many of us, poems are a source of inspiration and comfort. Losing the possibility to see and hug our close relatives is surely one of the hardest things for us all to deal with at the moment.

This poem, Sorted, heads up the ‘Without Love’ section of The Things We Thought Were Beautiful, and it was written about the frustration and emptiness we often feel when we’re not with a lover. But I think it works just as well in the context of being apart from anyone we love.

Take care and stay safe.

Sorted poem

For the First Time – Poems on Video

Here’s a video of me reading “For the First Time”, a poem about finding love. It comes from my new poetry book, The Things We Thought Were Beautiful – out now on Amazon.


If you enjoyed it, you can purchase a copy here: