Category Archives: 7 prompts for writers

7 Prompts for Writers #7: Poetry

Poets and readers of poetry will spend endless amounts of time arguing about what is poetry. For some, a poem is not a poem unless it rhymes and sticks to a strict rhythmic pattern. I happen to disagree with this stance. A poem can be hung together around the sounds of words, a metaphor or a shape on the page, for instance. Personally, I think there is much more cross-over between prose and poetry than some traditionalists might want to admit, for me it is a continuum.

There are some great definitions of what poetry is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (edited Dennis O’Driscoll, 2006). However, I would struggle to say why they don’t apply to prose. I like Stephen Dobyns’ introduction in Best Words, Best Order:

‘I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct that is meant to touch the heart of the reader, that is meant to be re-experienced by the reader. I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. I also believe that a poem is a noise and that noise is shaped. A poem is not natural speech, it is artificial speech.’ (Page xii, 2003).

On the other hand, could we not also say prose is a construct, meant to reach a reader? A window between people? A noise shaped into a narrative and to a page? We all know when we sit down with a book what we have in our hands is a series of squiggles on a page we have agreed to understand as a language with meaning. It is the business of all writers – whether prose or poetry – to use those words in such a way that the reader forgets the artifice and accepts to enter (with head and heart) into another world, a world we co-construct together.

I would argue, therefore, that prompts I’ve advocated previously – especially use of a writing journal, free writing, using all the senses and taking note of our own experiences/feelings within our own bodies – are equally prompts for those intending on writing poetry.

A poem is a conversation between people

All writers should be avid readers. We learn so much about our art and craft by studying others. Just as an art student visits galleries or a music student attends concerts. To write poetry read poetry and plenty of contemporary poetry – there are many anthologies in our beleaguered libraries, use them before they disappear or borrow unashamed-ably from friends.

Now here’s something to try. Find one line from a poem you like. Write it down in the middle of a page. For three minutes, write quite freely your own words and phrases around it. Then re-write the line on another piece of paper. Study it, read it out loud, notice the rhythms and patterns made by the words. Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2002) is a good guide in this regard. Now start with a clean page. Using your own words which you noted in the first three minutes, see if you can echo in some way the sound or the timbre of the original line you picked. Put it in a drawer. Take it out five weeks later and read it out loud. If you are still pleased with it, share it with others.



7 Prompts for Writers #6: plot

OK, by now you are writing regularly and exploring voice and characterisation (see previous 7 Prompts for Writers posts). At some point, if you are writing prose, (though there is some argument narrative applies equally to poetry – see next post in the series), you need to come up with a story-line.

Perhaps you have started with the story and have had to find the characters to tell it. In which case, I hope the preceding posts in this series will have helped. Perhaps, in exploring voice and characterisation, the story has begun to tell itself. There is an alchemy in creative writing which is impossible to dictate, whereby once the elements are in the crucible, the precious narrative begins to shape itself.

However, it is also possible for a writer to be looking for a story. There are obvious places to look: ourselves, our family history, the stories of the places we live or visit, our friends, museums (the smaller and quirkier the better!), newspapers…. The list is endless and I am sure you can find your own additions. As a writer, always be alert to stories, take your writing journal everywhere, so you can jot down ideas, odd facts, questions, all of which are the starting points for stories.

From the ancient Greeks onwards (and no doubt before) there has been much written and pontificated on the basic plots of literature (and life – for the two, are, I believe, intertwined). Personally, I feel most plots can be boiled down to a quest. Skimmed back to the skeleton, most stories start with a question to which the protagonist attempts to find an answer. The protagonist goes on a journey (frequently an internal journey, they become changed by the quest), overcomes barriers/conflict (three times is a good figure to bear in mind here) and comes to a resolution.

I have written elsewhere about structuring a crime novel: and much of what I suggested there can apply to a novel of any genre.

I tend to write quite organically, so plan less than other writers. There are no hard and fast rules about how much planning a writer should do, I think it is down to the individual. But, in my opinion, there will come a moment, when a plan/structure will be required. I like to do it on sheets of A3, with columns going across: (1) point of view; (2) what happens?; (3) what does the reader learn?; (4) what do I need to do in terms of re-writing?

When structuring, it’s worth thinking in chunks:

  • 0-15,000 words initial question.
  • 15,000 words point of conflict/tension.
  • 30,000 words conflict/tension, possibly a new path.
  • 45,000 words realisation.
  • 60,000 words resolution.

Always bear in mind: how is my protagonist being changed by this? Where is the conflict/tension?

Where have your story ideas come from? How and at what point in the writing do you plan? The best tip you’ve been given about plotting?

7 prompts for writers #5: building characters

Keen-eyed readers of this blog will notice that this is the third post in my ‘7 prompts for writers…’ strand which is about characterisation. Some of you might be wondering why I keep coming back to this aspect of writing. My answer would be, because the vast majority of my writing is character-driven. To a certain extent, I believe, once I have my protagonists, the plot will take care of itself.

I urge you, therefore, to go back to my previous ‘7 prompts for writers’ posts on characterisation and voice. I want layered characters. I want voices which are various and interesting. As writers we might find characters by looking around us, since, let’s face it, characters are ‘merely’ people. People we decide to bring onto the page and then allow their stories to unravel.

There are two aspects to consider here. First, however close we may be to somebody, we cannot possibly know everything about them. There will be secret corners to them, and nooks which even they are unaware of. When I am creating characters, it is the nooks which they themselves are oblivious to, which interests me. Love an ‘unreliable narrator’ me! Secondly, once we as writer brings a person onto the page, they are immediately morphed from the person or people they are based on. Just as a portrait is subtly altered from the sitter, and the portrait creator is in there somewhere.

So, once we have a person to bring onto the page, how do we flesh them out? Luckily we have one person who is forever open for investigation and discovery: ourselves. Author Milan Kundera suggests: ‘The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.’

We are back to excavating ourselves. But not the ‘self’ we live with every day, which we show to the world, to our friends, to our lovers. It’s the many selves which have not been realised, our potential selves… For me, given the genre I write in, this includes the potential towards violence, which I would normally run away from very fast.

How do we find our potential selves? My tip is to develop them through free writing in our writing journal. I am constantly advocating this, so you will find references to free writing littered throughout my blog posts. I will give another definition here. Write for three minutes without thinking about grammar, spelling, making sense. Don’t follow the lines. Get messy.

Natalie Goldberg in her seminal work Writing Down the Bones, says the aim is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against your writing instinct.

Warning: free writing and worming our ways into the nooks which we don’t normally look into and often keep well hidden (for good reason) can be upsetting and destabilising. Make sure you have emotional and psychological support. Look after your mental wellbeing.

I feel the need to give the warning, for I know it is required and true. On the other hand, read again Kundera: ‘my own unrealised possibilities’. How great is that to spend time with the many people we could have been. I could be the woman who first conquered Everest, in my writing. I could be less afraid, more care-free, in my writing. I could be anything, anyone, in my writing. And that’s why I think writing will be with me all my life, endlessly fascinating, endlessly enthralling.

What tips do you have for fleshing out characters?


7 prompts for wrtiers #4: voice

Another Place by Antony Gormley

Voice is an interesting aspect to writing – at least I find it so. I think of it in two ways. First, there is the writer’s voice. The often difficult-to pin-down ‘something’ which means when we pick up a book we know it is by a particular author (and not only because that author’s name is on the front cover). Secondly, there are the various (and hopefully variable) voices the writer might choose to take on to create, for instance, a character or a tone for a poem.

It might be easier to compare it to actors. There are actors who have a very strong and defined presence – perhaps Michael Cain is an example – and this comes through in any part they play. Then there are actors who appear to morph into different roles. I remember seeing Daniel Day Lewis in three films in a single year – one being My Left Foot – and I would not have been able to say it was the same actor playing the main protagonist in each, his portrayals were so varied. The writer’s voice is part Michael Cain and part Daniel Day Lewis.

So let’s initially look at the Michael Cain aspect of a writer’s voice. I believe it might take a time for a writer to hit upon their voice and this voice – much as with our natural voice – may change over our writing life. I think mine has become more confident, perhaps more measured, less anxious about its nature – which is (I have gathered from feedback) fairly slow, poetic, discursive.

How to nourish this part of the writer’s voice? Write, lots, as freely as you can, bringing you to what you actually want to write, and not what you feel you ought to write. I follow the methods of Julia Cameron (morning pages – thought I rarely do them in the morning – in her book The Artist’s Way) and Nathalie Goldberg (in her book Writing Down the Bones).

The aim of free writing, says Nathalie Goldberg, is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against our writing instinct.

One thing which certainly squashes the Michael Cain part of our writer’s voice, is criticism (or fear of it) too early in the process, too often and when it is overly or overwhelmingly negative.

Then there is the Daniel Day Lewis aspect. Where does this come from? It comes from listening. Listening to other people: to their use of language, to the cadence of their voice. And from watching, observing their body language. We can also research voices: through interviewing people, through oral history projects and archives. I recently went to the wonderful national centre for the written word in South Shields ( where they are collecting examples of dialect both written and spoken. What a great resource.

We do not want all our characters, or poems, to have our voice, so, as writers, we must develop attentive listening skills. Then, once we have done our writing, we must read it out and listen again, to ensure we have captured what we hoped to. I have found the recording function on my computer useful for this, so I can read out and then listen back to my writing.

Writing exercise: take yourself to a local café on your own and choose a corner table. Have a listen. Have a go at reproducing the voices you hear around you in your writing. Or interview someone who has a very different upbringing/background to yourself. Choose parts to transcribe. Notice the use of language. How would you describe the unique cadences in your writing?

What are your thoughts on your writer’s voice?


7 prompts for writers #3: characterisation


Another Place, sculpture by Anthony Gormley

I find the idea for a character in a story can come from anywhere. It might be someone glimpsed on the street or a snatch of conversation overheard or from a piece in the newspaper. Even if the character is inspired by someone I ‘know’, then I will still only be aware of the part of themselves they choose to share, perhaps only the surface.

Characters in stories, especially novels, have to have layers, they have to have conflicts, they have to have textures, and it is the writer’s task to add them. To literally add flesh, bone, blood, soul and mind to a notion of a person.

I live with depression, I have had therapy over a number of years and I trained as a counsellor. I have, therefore, spent some time considering the human condition. I do think this assists in creating characters which live and breathe off the page.

On any creative writing course, we are told ‘show don’t tell’. In other words, if a character is sad, show what this looks like rather than tell the reader, Frank is sad. I would also add, the showing should really be more about inviting the reader to feel the sadness. And to do this, the writer has to get inside the body – their own as well as their character’s.

Our bodies feel our emotions before we can name them. Yet we cannot use this knowledge of the body in our writing unless we allow ourselves to inhabit our own bodies fully. As writers, the danger is we will spend too much time in our heads. As people in contemporary society, we might spend too much time distracted by the whirl of life: phones, adverts, noise, chatter…. In either case, we will miss the vital understandings brought to us by our bodies.

My way into my body is mindful walking (I have written about this: Though yoga comes a close second and I am sure you will findboots your own way towards body awareness. Notice and take notes in your writing journal of how your body reacts to emotions and environments.

However, while you are creating and layering your characters, take this a step further. Imagine yourself into your character’s body. Walk as they would. Ask yourself, how would they feel afraid? Or sad? Or love? Notice and make notes in your writing journal.

Finally, you could also interview others. Ask them how they experience their body? What happens in their body when they feel a particular emotion? You may be surprised, and inspired.

What is your tip for creating layered characters?

7 Prompts for Writers #2


This week we went to Whitley Bay. On a grey, blustery morning we scrambled our way to St Mary’s Lighthouse. The causeway was open, so we walked over. The place appeared deserted. My first thought: what a great setting for a novel, especially a murder mystery.

A place can be a great starting point for writing. I am fan of Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way. In it she suggests taking regular ‘artist’s dates’. These are day trips to places to gain inspiration. I would echo Cameron in saying these should be dates with yourself – don’t take anyone else, unless they are also writers and/or know how to be quiet. Endless chatter will get in the way of imagination.

Places abound in stories. When was a place established? By whom? Who were the designers? Who the builders? Who lived there? Are there any connections with historical events? Who lives thereabouts now? How do present conditions compare with those of the past? What about the future? What wildlife is around? What is the landscape like? How has this all changed over time? And so on, I am sure you can supply other pertinent questions to get you going.

Try making notes in situ and remember to evoke all the senses – smell, sight, sound, touch and taste.

What is your favourite place to visit as a writer? Have you been inspired to write a story by visiting somewhere?

7 prompts for writers – introduction

daffsMarch16We all have out different reasons for starting to write and then developing ourselves into writers. I’ve always said to students and workshop participants, a writer is someone who writes. They don’t just talk about it, dream about it, intend to do it, they do it, and through the doing they become. Writing is not something that happens ‘in theory’. I still believe this. Writers write. But perhaps there could be other elements to being a writer? Writers seek to develop their writing. Writers read. Writers get together with other writers to learn from each other. Writers are interested in the reader. Maybe these all interweave in one way or another to create a writer.

What’s for sure is that all writers find their own process. I tend to write to discover: something about myself; about my characters; about my plot. I’m not a great planner. I like to set off and see where the narrative will lead. I also write regularly. This is something I encourage others to do. I have a writing journal and I write in it almost every day. This is not a diary – someone reading it (though, in reality, it is not for anyone else to read) would get a very strange idea of what my life is like – however, I may write about things that I have done, found or been inspired by. My journal is a place for me to flex my writing muscles, keep them toned. Some of what goes in there may get crafted into a piece I will share with an audience, but not all.

I don’t know whether it is because of my writing journal, but I never lack for ideas. I am always cherviotsvery surprised when I meet a writer who says they run short of ideas of what to write about. I had always thought within the definition of being a writer, is the capacity to generate ideas. I certainly don’t have a problem. My block comes when I begin to imagine the audience, this can paralyse me with shame and feelings of ‘not being good enough’. We all have our own boulders to trip over.

The idea of this new seven-part thread on my blog is to encourage writers to find their own ways of generating ideas.

Tip #1: get a writing journal – a notebook, preferably without lines – which is only used for your creative writing. And start jotting in it, every day or every other day, for ten minutes.
You’ll be surprised how it builds up.

What do you think defines a writer? Any tips for generating ideas?