The suspension hyphen’s quiet elegance

A couple of months ago I had a conversation about suspension hyphens – hyphens used to reduce repetition in a list of words with the same modifier – with a woman who used lived in Germany. Suspension hyphens are a common feature of both Swedish and German and we talked about how elegant they were. I told her that I once used one in a document, impressing my manager with how effortlessly I’d shortened a sentence. After admiring my solution for five minutes he put the word I’d removed back in, in case its absence confused people.

And it might have: suspension hyphens are rare in English. But they do exist. A couple of weeks after lauding them, I was delighted to read this in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend:

Hely was no good at baseball; he was always the last non-gay or -retarded kid to get picked for a team

Punctuation can be beautiful.

Reading about writing (isn’t writing)

Every now and again I read a book about writing. It always inspires me and reminds me to think about what I’m doing. This week, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s The Kickass Writer. When flicking through it, I saw the following advice:

Talking about writing isn’t writing.

Enough said. Almost. It made me think about reading about writing as a distraction from the action of writing. It is easy when you’re busy, or tired, or disheartened, to feel that reading about writing almost counts as writing. It is, after all, just like reading in the genre your write in, and reading outside it too, part of the job of writing. But it isn’t writing. It isn’t productive: it might put fire in your belly and ideas in your head but that doesn’t necessarily translate to words on a page.

Words on a page is what it’s all about. That’s writing. I just clocked 150.

Writing about writing, although writing, is a distraction. I’m going to do some editing now.

I need to know who you are: the problem with the first person

C. and I had a chat about one of the pieces I read at Illicit Ink earlier in the year. He said he thought it worked better as a spoken piece than a written one but couldn’t tell me why. I asked if it was because that it was in the first person. It has very little personal information about the narrator except that she has breasts and wears a bra. When I am on stage reading it, I become that woman – the first person is automatically my person – so the audience knows what she looks like, how old she is, where she’s from. None of that information is in the story. Many of my first-person pieces leave social context out: they are not about what I consider to be gender-, age- or class-specific experiences so that info feels redundant.

An early story of mine, and one of my personal favourites, Neon Tetra Suicides, didn’t originally specify the gender of the narrator. In my head, he was a man, but it didn’t matter to the story. It was about someone staying at friends’ while their flat was empty. What happened didn’t depend on the narrator’s age, class, nationality, race, sexuality or gender*. After reading an editor’s blog which said something along the lines of ‘Don’t send me a story where the narrator is ambiguous or doesn’t have a name’ I added gender indicators. My guy turned into a woman. Well, he turned into someone who goes to business meetings in skirts and tights. There’s still no name but we assume gender from the clothing. (Even with gender indications, Neon Tetras doesn’t sell so uncertainty about who the narrator is obviously isn’t its only problem. But that’s another story.)

But why should that matter?” C. asked me after I suggested that the lack of biographical content was why he preferred Mouth spoken. And that’s the question. I don’t know why, but I know that it does. Last December, I had a 100-word first-person story published online and in the comments one reader asked if the narrator was a man or a woman. For 100 words I didn’t think the gender mattered: either sex can milk cows and chop up frozen zombies with a chain saw. That’s just country living. But my audience clearly did think it was important.

I was asked to change the gender of Mouth‘s narrator for Liar’s League Hong Kong. It took very little effort. I changed a breast to a nipple, a top to a shirt and removed a reference to bras. The gender of the narrator can’t have been that important to the core of the story if that was all it took. For the performance it makes all the difference, however: it was read by a man and that man embodies the narrator.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any short first-person stories that I have read where I didn’t know basic biographical information about the narrator so I can’t tell whether I, too, want to know these things. That same fact makes me think that I do or more writers would leave them out. My perspective isn’t that of a pepper corn in a salt cellar: I’m not a uniquely socially blind individual. If I don’t think it’s necessary in the stories I write, that’s probably because I already know. I have an image in my head, one clear enough to satisfy my needs for detail. I need to remember to share that image, no matter how sketchy, with my audience. I don’t want to lose them to unnecessary questions.


* Saying that, there are some indications of age – the friends have children – and class – the narrator attends business meetings and mostly works from home on a laptop.


Writing character profiles: looks and motivation

As part of the process of plotting a novel, I decided to write proper character profiles. Previously, I’d had little sketches and a note or two about them, but not a full study. That’s fine for the main character who I know quite well, but it wasn’t good enough for some of the smaller but still important characters. I needed to know more about them.

I probably won’t describe my characters’ physical attributes in great depth* but I still need to know what they look like. That means knowing their eye colour, hair-cut, size, clothing style and grooming habits. One of my characters, for example, is written with wild, fluffy, ginger hair. In my head, however, he’s got dreads. The character description sorted that out. (He used to have dreads, he now has long hair. Towards the end of the book, he’ll grow a beard. )

One of the most fun aspects of writing down what my characters look like, was surfing websites looking for faces and bodies to match them to. Keith, one of the major characters, is described early on as being startlingly good-looking.  So I visited a couple of modelling sites to find a face for him. To me, Keith looks like someone from a perfume ad, one of those ridiculously perfect guys with chiseled features and waxed pects. Model agencies should have dozens of those, I thought. But no, I can’t find any. There are lots of interesting-looking men but I can’t find one who looks just right. So Keith remains an image in my mind. Other characters were much easier to find: finding Stephen Fry in a velvet cloak and fez was the work of minutes.

Of course, it’s not all about what my cast of characters look like. The most important aspects of the profiles are the characters’ background and motivations. I’ve come across a number of problems – inconsistencies, bits of history that doesn’t work, the realisation that two characters that didn’t know each other probably went to school together – and learned useful things about my characters, and the world they live in, fixing them.

Writing character profiles doesn’t feel like writing a novel, but it valuable work, and involves writing. The process has given me useful insight into my cast. It was so useful, in fact, that I also wrote organisation profiles too. A number of organisations feature in the story and now I know how they are structured, who works where and what their purposes are.

And when I forget, in mid-April, I can go back and remind myself.


* Personally, I find extensive character description and constant updates on what people are wearing tiresome, but I accept that at a minimum, readers need to know whether a character is male or female, tall or short, young or old. It helps build the story’s world in the mind. If it’s not clear in my head, I can’t put it on the page and readers will quickly get confused.

What do you mean you didn’t plan your first novel? You did, I know you did.

Last year, I posted a picture of the plan for novel the first (NTF). I use the word plan in vain: what I had was a loose timeline with a few important events marked in and something a little bit like a mind-map that explained something about some of the characters.

At the time, that felt like a plan, even a pretty detailed one. But it wasn’t. I found this out when I got stuck for the first time and looked back at the multi-coloured lines to see if there was a solution there. There wasn’t. Of course not: one of the colourful blobs that had filled me with such satisfaction when I first drew the plan said ‘other big event’. That’s a problem, not a solution. Identifying problems upfront when you start a project is useful but it is not the same as solving them. This happens when I plan: I get so far, then I realise that something else is needed but I’m not sure what that something is. (I once submitted a partial story to my writer’s group with the word ‘epiphany’ where said event needed to go. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew I needed one.) Then, being an eager kind of person, I get writing, powering through the parts that I know something about and writing myself into a corner.

At one point, I tried to make a better plan and wrote a chapter breakdown. I got a detailed breakdown of the first half. That was the half I’d already written. So, not really a plan.

I learned a lot writing NTF, but I need to learn more before I get something I can send out. That’s why I’m moving on to novel the second. This time I’m planning it properly. Yes, the first draft of my plot spreadsheet looked something like the colourful drawing I made last time, but as I’ve revised it, questions have popped up (and a few answers – so far mostly to events in NTF, so yay!, there’s hope for it still.) and I’m forcing myself to deal with them. This time, I’m thinking about pacing and emotions before I start writing. I hope this will give me a better book. Practice isn’t just doing the same thing again and again but changing your technique to improve it. Hence my tweaking from a more planned approach – pantsing it, to miss-quote Chris Hill, didn’t work for me, so I need to change something. I also think I need to be more focussed, to think about it more, and work faster, so I’m allowing this story to take over most of my spare brainpower.

Obsession, planning and focus. It’s the way forward.

Writing: where do you start?

‘I’m not sure where to start’ said a friend of mine who, after a long hiatus, is getting back into writing. Like me, she wrote as a teenager but stopped when she went to university. There was so much writing to do, so much serious stuff to read and think about. Telling stories for your own pleasure suddenly seemed frivolous. And anyway, with writers like Shakespeare, Austen and Hemingway – never mind the alive ones – who does she think she is that she can tell a story anyone would care a fig for? What could she add?

But she misses the pleasure of writing and wants to tell stories again. But where to start? How do you know what length of story, or what shape of story to write?

How indeed. There’s no point in sitting at your keyboard, or with a pad and pen, waiting for inspiration. It might never come.

Fiction is play and as hard-working, serious adults, we need to learn to play again (well, I did). Stories come from imagination and imagination has to be nurtured. It seems to me that much of the training that goes into becoming an adult involves closing down the channels of our imaginations that are least likely to help us pay the rent. It’s hard work getting creative juices to flow is blocked-off channels but it can be done. The way to do it? Start writing, start playing with ideas, and other ideas will come. No, really, they will.

…if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas. If you turn off or blunt the enthusiasm of your subconscious for engaging in creative play, the stream can dry up.
Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook

Find sites that offer prompts, like 101Fiction, or the Scottish Book Trust’s 50 word writing competition, and write on the prompts. Prompts, particularly ones with word counts attached, give you parameters to work within. You don’t have to come up with everything from length to topic to genre, ‘just’ the words. Very short stories are a great place to start because you can write several and see where they take you. Working with someone else’s ideas help you start having your own.

There are books that fill a similar function, like Bonnie Neubauer’s The Write Brain Workbook, which has 366 exercises to get you thinking and writing. Below are a few sites: a web search will find more.

Find Prompts and Themes

Sometimes you have to dig around to find old prompts, but it won’t take you that long to find them.  Some magazines publish their themes several months in advance, giving you several options to look at.

  • Liars’ League – accepts stories between 800 and 2,000 words. Use that limitation to keep the word-count down. (Remember: you don’t have to send the story you write, you’re just trying to get the idea machine running.)
  • Penumbra – takes stories up to 3,500 words but you can set yourself a lower word count to get going and have fun with the themes.
  • Creative Writing Prompts – short, to the point, prompts.
  • Writer’s Digest Writing Prompts – prompt and a bit of background.
  • Writing Prompts – a site of writing prompts that Luke Neff, a teacher, uses in his classes.

New year, new goals – new project

I’ve thrown out last year’s plans and started over. Plans are good, but I’m not sure that I’m in a position to make realistic ones.

Last year, my plans were numeric: this many short stories, this much income from writing, this number of performances. Not so this year. I want to write a few more short stories – it’s more fun to send out new stories than ones that have been knocking around for a while. But more importantly, I want to draft the sequel to my first novel. And I want to do it quickly. To this end, I’m changing my approach. A natural gardener, or seat-of-pants, writer, I’m going to try to develop a plan, a plot, an outline.

Novel the first, still not quite there, was only half plotted. A lot changed as I wrote – the killer, for example, and the structure. Novel the second will be fully plotted. I’m spending January outlining it and doing proper background work on my characters so that I can then spend the next four months writing. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m still interested in writing the story once I’ve worked out what’s happening when and how. Most of what I’ve written to date has been grown instead of being built and there are stories in my drawer without endings. Hopefully, this year will give me time to decide what to do with some of these, which to complete and which to retire.

One of the problems with novel the first is that I’ve forgotten what its all about. Because I’ve had long breaks in the writing, and because there’s no firm outline, I’ve forgotten about my characters’ motivations and I’ve forgotten things I meant to put in. What does that tell me? I need to work things out more fully before I start, and I need to keep better notes. To return to the architect and gardener metaphor, I’m going to try architecture for a while since gardening has proved too thorny.

Novel the first began as a job of joy and folly but ended up a mess. I’m hoping that a more structured approach will take the second one further. The process might also help me sort out some of the problems of the first one. It’s resting for now, but it will come out of the drawer at some point.

In the meanwhile, I will learn useful lessons about plotting a novel and have a lot of fun making life difficult for my favourite characters.

Reading out loud and meaning every word of it

On May 5th, I’ll be reading at Illicit Ink. The theme is sleep and although I haven’t yet written the story (there’s plenty of time) I have started thinking about the presentation.

In November last year I attended a workshop on performance and presentation, presented by the amazing Alex Gillon and arranged by the Scottish Book Trust. There were eight writers working in a variety of disciplines, from playwrights through novelists and short story writers to poets. All of us need to stand up and present our work  with confidence. As Alex pointed out, every time we read our own work, we’re selling it and we want the audience to go away impressed enough to buy a book.

The workshop was very well timed for me: two weeks later I had two readings same week and it gave me the tools I needed to present with confidence.

It annoys me that I need the help – I used to be a tour guide, I used to do training. I have years of experience of standing up in front of an audience and talking to them. But I haven’t done much of that in the last ten years, and now I work on my own, from home. I’ve forgotten the mechanics of projecting, speaking slowly and anchoring myself to stop my knees from knocking. I used to enjoy the performance aspect of public speaking but I’ve even forgotten the feeling of “yay, everyone’s looking at me!” that was the childish foundation of that enjoyment.

So, I needed the training and I looked forward to it. I had heard a lot about Alex. She trains the Story Shop writers, among others. Alex has a beautiful, schooled voice and doesn’t pull her punches. She tells you what you’re doing wrong until you get it and start doing it right. She breaks you down and gives you the tools to build yourself up. Daunting, yes, she it can be, but I rather liked her technique. In a group, you have a lot of opportunity to learn from other people’s example. The first person to read for Alex gave me a long list of things to think about. I was second. Unsurprisingly, my performance raised new issues for us to think about. The main things I took away were:

  1. Remember to breathe.
  2. Look at your audience. Especially, memorise the first and last lines so the audience can see your face when you read them.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Read out loud whenever you have an opportunity. When you can confidently read someone else’s writing on the first go, you’ll have more space to work on how to your perform your own writing.
  4. Commit to the performance. Go for it. Don’t be afraid. Believe in the words and your ability to deliver them.

I’ll keep Alex’s advice in mind as I first write and then practice my story for May 5th.


(Read an account of the workshop by Andrea Mullaney’s.)

Writing exercise: a sense of place

It’s early and the crowds haven’t arrived yet: all he can hear is the sound of the espresso machine. The scent, the rich, inviting smell of coffee is already all around him. He wraps his cold hands around the cup, stroking the click, glassy surface fondly. He takes a sip, enjoying the  way the milk wraps the coffee in a gentle blanket, waking up his taste buds slowly. The pattern on top of the foam distorts after his sip, the change in tension makes bubbles burst, like dreams touching reality.

The above is not a great piece of writing. It is what I wrote, in five minutes, when set a writing exercise to work on “sense of place”. The task was to think about a place and write a sentence for each of the senses inspired by that place. I thought of Brew Lab, the café in South College Street, because I like the look of their exposed, somewhat grungy walls.

So where are the walls?

Being a professional and what it takes to make money from fiction

In recent weeks, I’ve come across two blog posts that gave me food for thought. One made me feel good about my approach to writing, the other made me feel a little naive. (There’s been a lot of that going around recently.)

The post titled The 9 Warning Signs of an Amateur Artist makes some very good points about what pursuing a creative career is all about: taking yourself seriously, entering the community, and having realistic expectations. I approach my creative writing career in much the  same way as I approached my technical writing career. There wasn’t as many applicants, so to speak, for the tech writing jobs as there are for the fiction jobs but the principle’s the same. Get good at what you do and keep applying.

How to Make a Living as a Writer chimes a note I recognise: don’t give up the day job. I’d like to, not because I don’t enjoy my day job but because I enjoy writing fiction more. But as everyone tells me, fiction doesn’t pay. It does if you’re one of the top ten sellers, but for most of us, it just doesn’t.  There are two options: give up now or keep writing and submitting work. Sitting back and sulking doesn’t get you anywhere.

This is what you need to do: write stuff, read stuff, seek feedback and submit stuff. Repeat.