Monthly Archives: June 2015

Why writers need to take breaks

It’s been a week since I finished the final re-write of my forthcoming novel ‘The Art of Survival’ (due out this November). I have to do a thorough re-read before handing it onto the copyeditor in July, but I know I need to leave a space before I attempt that. If I re-read too quickly, I won’t see what’s actually there, only what I think I’ve put down.

I have, therefore, an enforced break from my novel writing. However, it got me thinking about the breaks we writers need to take in our writing. I’ve written about the writing process in my book ‘Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment’ (Sense Publishers: Here I suggest every writer has a rhythm and not understanding our own personal pace can lead to feeling blocked.

We have a rhythm within our writing day. Our body and mind need us to take regular breaks. We might work better in the morning or later on in the day. We also need to recognise when it’s necessary to step back from our writing for a more substantial length of time. The writing itself could benefit from being stowed in a drawer until we can regard it more dispassionately. But we, as writers, also require a pause to recuperate.

When we are caught up in our passion, when we’re doing what we’ve always wanted to do, it’s hard to recognise sometimes that we, and our work, would benefit from an easing off. In ‘Pathways’, I called it the ‘fertile void’ borrowing a term from Gestalt psychotherapy. I liked author Alan Garner’s description of feeling like a reservoir run-dry and waiting until he’s become filled up again.

When I’m in this place, I like to take the advice of Julia Cameron (‘The Artist’s Way’) and nourish my creativity and imagination by opening myself up to other artistic milieu. Withfertile void 001 the local Open Studios on recently, I was lucky enough to visit those of and I was particularly struck by Ruth’s use of words and collage in her paintings, something I enjoy exploring (in my own very small ways) for myself.

All this is leading up to explaining, I am taking a break for one week from this blog, while I revel in the fertile void.


Thoughts on re-writing my novel

I have finished the final re-write of ‘The Art of Survival’, the second in my crime series setwriter at work june 15 001 in Scarborough. The first in the series, ‘The Art of the Imperfect’, is already out on Kindle and in paperback:

I have written previous blogs about the many hats worn by an indie publisher/author. But the re-writing stage is possibly one worth re-visiting.

Drawing on my own experience and also my times as creative writing tutor/facilitator, I would say a writer without the support of an experienced editor makes three mistakes: we re-write too early; we ask for feedback at the wrong time; and we ask for it from the wrong people.

I have seen this quote attributed to Jodi Picoult, though I am sure other writers have said it: ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’ First rule of writing, get the words down. In addition, the impulse to re-write too quickly, I think, blocks creativity. I liken it to trying to go forward in reverse gear. It’s grinding, it’s exhausting and ultimately ineffective. It causes the writer to begin to doubt their capabilities and become too caught up in ‘getting it right’. Doubt and trying to please some unseen but very loud critical voice are the last things our imagination need. If we’re going to write the sparky, innovative, exciting stuff which readers want, we need to get messy, go wild, be un-girdled.

The second error is to re-write, re-write and hone before we ask for feedback. OK, yes, our manuscript has to be readable, but if we’ve thrown a tanker-load of energy and time into it, as well as our hearts, how much harder is it to listen to someone taking it apart? There’s a moment for asking for critical comment, and it’s not once we’re happy with our work. It’s sometime between the point at which we’re developing our precious ideas and the point when we feel our story is fully-fledged.

Finally, we need to choose our critical readers carefully. Let them be other writers, people who respect our writing and us and who, hopefully, don’t have their own axe to ground. Plus, I wouldn’t allow critical readers free rein, I would ask them specific questions to focus them on the areas where I feel I need the most help. How many? Stephen King suggests four. I had three for ‘The Art of Survival’ and I want to thank Sue, Ruth & Jane for all their support.

Then comes the re-write. By the time I come to it, I’ve left my story for several weeks if not months, so I re-read it, trying as hard as I can to imagine myself in a reader’s shoes. I make notes for myself. I then have the list of my thoughts and those of my critical readers. I read again hand-writing on the manuscript the changes which need to be made in order to incorporate this commentary. Then I’m back on the computer to mould the story into its final version, using my annotated manuscript as a guide. This is still, for me, a pleasurable creative activity, there are areas which need substantial re-writing.

Going back to Stephen King (and why not, he’s done pretty well for himself) he says at this stage he’s mostly cutting. I have found myself mostly adding, making links. When I am writing I tend to forget readers haven’t lived with these characters as long as I have so may not be exactly au fait with their back-story. Plus, since I am writing a series, there are aspects to the characters and action which have to be brought through from novel 1 and set-up for novel 3, ‘The Art of Breathing’ (in draft form). Enough for new readers to catch on and not too much to bore those who have already lapped up ‘The Art of the Imperfect’.

I count myself enormously lucky as this time I am able to afford a copyeditor and a proof Scarbbeachreader. And I am very excited to be working with and David Powning (

I am waiting a couple of weeks before I do my final read through before passing it onto Charlotte for the copyediting. Therefore, given the sun is shining, I will take myself off this computer and head out doors to the wonderful Scarborough beach.





Writing about writing about sex

Agatha Christie didn’t do it, nor did Conan Doyle, and DL Sayers only wrote about the results – I’m talking about writing sex into crime novels. I think it may be relatively unusual. 

However, I have recently read two thrillers – by Louise Doughty & by  SJ Watson – which have included a fair amount of sex. Both have had older female characters in stable, happy marriages, having affairs. One was written by a woman, the other by a man. Both have depicted the female character wanting and having sex which is a little rough and/or takes place in less than salubrious settings. 

I must own up to a prejudice against men writing about women enjoying rough sex. I have a suspicion that the male writer is merely detailing what he hopes a woman would want because he himself fantasises about it. 

This prejudice stems, at least partly, from an experience I had several years ago. I joined a writers’ group where I was living at the time in West London. It was held in the afternoon so was attended by mostly retired people and I was the youngest there by at least two decades. As with most writers’ groups, the idea was to share work and receive critical feedback. It was the lack of any real attempt at the latter which meant I didn’t stay long. However, I went for a good few weeks. 

The other members were mostly women, though there were a few men. One of these, I will call him Clive, was a friendly sort, polite, always conservatively dressed. The other participants kept saying to me, oh wait ‘til you hear some of Clive’s work, he writes brilliant thrillers. I did begin to see Clive as something of a cockerel surrounded by clucking hens, but tried to remain open-minded. 

When he did come to share his writing, I was open mouthed. His work was full of violent sex, the violence all being towards women, which had little if anything to do with the very thin and derivative plot. I’m afraid even the rather nice cake and tea which followed each meeting couldn’t persuade me to keep returning to hear more of Clive’s output. Playwright, Alan Ayckbourn was right when he identified writers’ groups as fertile ground for observing the more challenging sides of human nature.

I think it’s incredibly difficult to write a sex scene which doesn’t have the reader cringing or rapidly turning the page. Some very distinguished authors have been awarded the annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award. 

I have tried to write a sex scene for The Art of Survival, my next novel in the crime series I am creating. I am unsure whether to keep it in. The point for the plot of keeping it in would be to explore a developing relationship (which could be done in other ways), as well as show how difficult it is to approach a healthy relationship when all the character has known thus far is unhealthy ones. 

Hats off to SJ Watson and Louise Doughty for managing to create sex scenes which did not turn me off their respective novels. It’s not easy and not for the feint hearted. What do you think, should writers dive in between the sheets with our characters, or decorously leave them to it, closing the door as we do so?


What makes good writing?

The other day I was half listening to a programme on Radio 4 and somebody mentioned the idea of ‘informed ignorance’ when thinking about the creative process. He meant that as we become more expert at our craft (through practice and learning from others), we can become freer in how we approach a project. The knowledge/skill/talent we have cultivated can then inform, but not get in the way of, our imagination going wild.

I rather like this notion. In response to last week’s post, a fellow writer talked about finding writing difficult if she ‘tries too hard’. Others have said that we come up with our most innovative thoughts when we turn away from a problem or look at it askance rather than head on. I think this probably only really works if we have this store of understanding which can underpin this ‘unthinking’ or ‘unconscious’ approach. 

This week I’ve also been considering what makes good writing. I began reading a novel by a therapist which purported to explore aspects of psychology and depict therapy sessions. It should have been a novel I would have devoured with pleasure. However, I found the writing pedestrian. 

I began to wonder what do I mean by this? What makes prose sing? Alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhythm, word sounds – these are all techniques more associated with poetry. Yet, I think they are equally applicable to prose. OK, maybe not every phrase. But having sentences which balance around a particular word sound or a contradiction in word meaning, this, in my opinion, is when prose begins to dance (rather than plod) across the page.

I had some fab comments last time I threw in a question, so I’ll do it again: what do you think makes good writing?