On Editing & Bird by Bird: how different approaches to writing can be!

This month I bought two more writing advice guides: On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

The contrasts between them are remarkable; you’d be forgiven for thinking they aren’t about the same subject at all.

On Editing is practical, clear, logical and full of excellent editing advice, like how to develop a Show Not Tell mindset, how and why to control viewpoint, and classic ways of plotting your story’s shape.

Bird By Bird is personal, wise, endearing, and full of excellent creative writing advice about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously, of finishing whatever small portion of a story you’ve started, of silencing inner critics, of freeing your imagination.

Devouring them both, it became clear that On Editing is the right book for me as a mentor for writers seeking publication, but I dithered about whether Lamott’s vision might be more relevant to where I am at the moment as a writer: i.e. starting over.


(Yup, I know. Sadly, after a year or so exploring the WWII story I’ve blogged about before, I found I didn’t believe in it enough to keep on keeping on. Never mind. There are galaxies of stories out there, and we only need to discover one star.)

Anyhow, if you’re a writer you’ve no doubt discovered long since that there is no ‘right’ way to write a story. This is a truism of our business. We each do what we do. Plot or not. Start with a hunch or refine a premise. Run with an obsession. Fall in love with a character. Ask What If…?

After a decade of attending writing courses, and running them myself, this tenet of individuality had come to seem rather obvious and run-of-the-mill. Trite, even.

I certainly thought I knew myself: I plot, I structure, I edit. Guides like On Editing, Story and Into the Woods were the books for me. Then…

I attempted to teach creative writing skills to young people who weren’t remotely interested in the subject (!) but had, nonetheless, to write an original story for their exams. In the classroom, all the received wisdom, all the insights about creativity I’d gained over the years seemed to count for naught.

My enthusiasm for conflict, for protagonists, for rising tension and turning points simply didn’t translate into 450-600 word coherent narratives, with varied sentence structure, and good spelling, punctuation and grammar, to be written in 45 minutes.

Worse still, my research into effective ways of teaching creative writing in schools and colleges unearthed an alarming amount of academic evidence that professional writers teaching in class have statistically insignificant effects on official measurements of pupil attainment and progress.

[It was a relief to read the Literacy Trust’s recent report which showed author visits do have positive benefits for literacy, but that report came out too late to offer any comfort during my teacher training year.]

Suitably humbled, and with a new toolkit marked “author visitor”, I’ve now returned to the realm of the writer with renewed appreciation for the magic and wonder of the creative process. What a gift it is to be able (eventually) to say what you mean, and shape that into a story worth sharing.

It no longer seems to matter a jot whether one writes methodically, with a guide like On Editing to hand, or as a free spirit, completing each nugget Bird by Bird. What to write remains a big question, of course. But how to write it? Any damn way you please.

This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure July 15, 2019


Barmier & barmier: our Kafkaesque approach to teaching storytelling to teens

Trawling through online teaching advice for the now-defunct A-level course in creative writing (with the intention of scavenging the best bits to help design my own fiction writing lessons) is a sad and salutary experience.

England’s last A-level creative writing students will re-sit their exams in the summer of 2019 and then that’s it. All over. 16-to-18 year olds who really want to write their own original stories now have to be satisfied with a short module in another course.

Meanwhile, 16-18 year olds who fluffed their first English language GCSE still have to write an original story as part of their re-sit regardless of how difficult they find it.

My heart goes out to both groups of young people.

During its brief years of existence, the exam board which offered the creative writing A-level, AQA, said this about it: “Creative writing is a distinct discipline in higher education. It encourages the development of skills that are essential for further study and a range of professional careers. This A-level enables aspiring writers to start on the path to professional practice and is equally useful for anyone interested in improving their creative and critical thinking and communication skills.”

Amen to that!

Thousands of teachers and students signed a petition to stop it being axed.

In the past few weeks I, too, have seen for myself how well-thought out the course was, and how different to English language and literature, despite the Department for Education insisting it overlapped both.

Back in my day, creative writing wasn’t an option at school or sixth-form. But then, nor were Netflix, YouTube, Snapchat, What’s App etc. Instead, by 16, I had devoured hundreds of books. The local public library had been my bolt-hole as a child – as for so many fellow writers. Then, collectively, friends and I discovered Middle Earth, and Tolkien became our escape, our go-to safe space when being a teen got too tough.

Today, with the Harry Potter generation grown up, I can’t find a contemporary book that is shared in that same, immerse way.

For films, there are the Marvel franchises. The Twilight series and The Hunger Games also still seem widely known among teens. But a novel? By a contemporary author? So far, when I’ve asked, all I’ve drawn are blanks.

Now, back at that defunct A-level, among the many excellent bits of advice I found in its study programme was a recommendation that students follow authors on Twitter, and discover through them the immense wealth of blogs about creative writing written by professional writers.

In recent weeks, any student who’d followed that advice might well have stumbled across a fascinating discussion initiated by journalist Charlotte Eyre, of The Bookseller, involving two top literary agents, Joanna Moult and the founder of the Skylark agency, Amber Caraveo, along with Waterstones, Piccadilly, and various published and pre-published writers. The subject: a 21.5% drop in Young Adult novel sales last year, and associated marketing issues surrounding younger teen books.

This exchange included one tweet from Waterstones complaining about the dearth of books for the early teen market (!?!). Amber, in reply, suggested that Waterstones could make these books more visible by having a dedicated space for teen readers, which (rather surprisingly, imho) drew a positive response from the Piccadilly branch.

This whole chicken-and-egg discussion (are there too few books written for early teens or not enough exposure to generate a viable market?) reminded me of a debate I heard years ago about motor bikes in the USA. (This is from memory so please take the details with a pinch of salt.) The USA had, apparently, banned imports of smaller Japanese bikes to protect sales of the bigger US models like their famous Harley Davidsons. The trouble was, younger riders couldn’t afford big Harleys, and without access to cheaper Japanese bikes, fewer people became bikers so demand for Harleys fell over time.

Something similar is, presumably, happening with young people’s fiction.

Parents and grandparents still buy middle-grade books for children, while primary schools also actively promote reading for pleasure to these age groups. But then keen readers, who want to make their own choices at 11-to-12 years old, can’t find books to suit them. By that age, too, secondary school is demanding more and more of their time, and the manifold digital lures of our age are increasingly tempting as well.

Little wonder, then, if many of them stop reading for pleasure entirely. Like the USA bikers who never bought a Harley, even when they were old and rich enough to afford one, so these once keen readers are lost to the book world. They aren’t around to discover YA fiction, except if it’s linked to a Hollywood film, profits for which seem to have peaked with Twilight and The Hunger Games, hence we haven’t seen a really big YA novel for years.

I know this isn’t a new or an original argument, not by a long way. But given the well-documented drop-off in reading among teens, plus recent evidence of weak YA sales, it does seem to me that trends in the publishing world have ramifications for young people’s education, and therefore their job prospects.

If, for example, decisions about the content of English language exams rest on outdated assumptions about teens’ reading habits, then GCSEs are in fact far harder than they might appear to adults who come from a reading-for-pleasure generation.

As adults, we might bemoan this lost art of reading; we might even be right to do so. But to demand that young people write 500-word stories under exam conditions (and condemn them to try again and again if they can’t) when we couldn’t dream of flying a drone via our smart phones, let alone how to make a YouTube video out of our drone footage, then rig our phones to relay that film to a PS4 while simultaneously playing music, smacks to me of a highly blinkered mind set.

This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure in February, 2019

Favourite scenes & inspirations behind The Goose Road

Louise Twist of Books for Boys fame interviewed me for THE GOOSE ROAD’s launch blog tour. Here’s what we discussed.

Did you do a lot of research for The Goose Road? If so, what stuck in your mind most?

For the book, I did months and months of research in the UK, France and online, spread over three years, but I’ve continued to read and think about WW1 ever since. I believe all historical periods are important to understand, as far as one can, before embarking on an imaginary journey through them. Readers – especially young people – will (hopefully) absorb our stories at a visceral and emotional level, so the “truths” we present to them in fiction might well become more significant and long-lasting than the “facts” they pick up in history classes.

I also wanted to understand this terrible time better myself. The more I researched it, the more it struck me how little I knew. So many images one has from the First World War are about the hell-on-earth that was the Western Front, but the Eastern battles were dreadful, too. The Serbians suffered terribly, as did the Russians. World War One bought down Empires, and globalised international relations, and began the great 20th century confrontation between Communist Russia and the capitalist USA which still reverberates today. I’d love to continue to research those years, and write about them again.

Is there a scene in The Goose Road you enjoyed writing more than others?

The most powerful scenes for me are also the saddest, but saying I enjoyed writing them best seems a bit weird. Yes, there is huge satisfaction to be had in deciding – invariably after a long struggle – that you have, finally, said what you meant to say. But in terms of actual writing fun, it would have to be a scene with Napoleon the gander, especially the one with him and Rene in the orchard. I love Napoleon. He’s so gutsy.

What inspired you to read as a child?

As a young child, I remember being drawn to strangeness in stories and fairy tales from distant places. When Dad read us Swallows and Amazons, I liked Missee Lee, set in the Far East, more than their English adventures. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader thrilled me, too, and the Slavic folklore of Baba Yaga. I was slow to start reading, but once I’d got the hang of it I devoured books during school holidays. The Crusades fascinated me when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and early medieval courts, the She-Wolves of France as their queens were called, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, all of which led me to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in my early teens.

How would you inspire boys to read more?

I feel like the worst person ever to answer that question because my son NEVER reads for pleasure! That said, I suspect I know at least one of the reasons why: the pedestrian, old-fashioned, set texts he was forced to slog through at primary school before he was allowed to choose his own books. Why the powers-that-be limit children’s reading this way is beyond me. Sure, some parents will object to anything novel (no pun intended) as will some governors, but I’m dismayed when teachers also restrict their pupils’ reading. I think a great first step to encouraging boys to read more would be to stock libraries in both primary and secondary schools with a wide range of books, including lots of Barrington Stoke titles for reluctant readers, so that every child has access to the wealth of brilliant authors writing for young people today. Sadly, I suspect this is very unlikely to happen in the current educational climate, and with libraries and professional librarians everywhere under attack from public sector spending cuts.

What is your favourite book to read to children?

When my son was little, we loved Debby Glori books at bedtime. Puzzle books were wonderful too, and picture books about the natural world. We shared and discussed them all the time. As a primary school governor, I used to read anything the child wanted. I think their taste in books is more important than mine.

Which book do you wish you had written?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I wouldn’t want to have written any of my favourite novels because then I wouldn’t have discovered them, and been transported by them. So I’m going to cheat and say I wish I’d been commissioned to write The Definitive Guide to African Wild Cats, then I could live in a tent far out in the bush, researching animal behaviour and listening to the fantastic sounds of the African night beside a campfire.

First published April 9th, 2018




Setting out to discover The Goose Road

In my edition of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, his powerful World War 1 novel centred on the first, disastrous day of the Battle of the Somme, Mr Faulks says the original inspiration for his story dated back to his schooldays, when he’d read out at Assembly all the names of the old boys who had died in the fighting.

In the preface to my edition, he says, “It was a tiny school, but the list was so long that I was excused lessons the next day with a sore throat.” His curiosity was piqued by this terrible list, along with his history teacher’s reluctance to talk about the war.

Unlike Faulks, my schoolgirl brushes with the First World War convinced me for decades that I knew as much as I’d ever want to know about the horrors of that conflict: the nightmare gas attacks, the mutilated, dismembered bodies, lions led by donkeys, the pity of war…

Even at the London School of Economics, where I studied 20th century history as part of my international relations degree, I shied from courses that covered the 1914-1918 war years. Politics, I felt back then, ended when the fighting began and resumed when it ended. And I was only interested in politics.

It wasn’t until 2013, on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that chance changed my mind.

In the summer of that year, Andersen Press announced a short story competition for students on the writing for young people MA which I was attending at Bath Spa University. The rules were simple: write a story set during WW1 with a girl protagonist. The prize: publication.

I jumped at the chance, partly out of journalistic impatience – a short story would demand a concentrated effort over weeks (months at most) and not the wearisome years it takes to complete a novel – but also because my imagination had been fired by seeing the National Theatre’s brilliant production of War Horse the previous Christmas.

Most important of all, this was a real subject, one that demanded research. Travel. Facts. I’m not a big fan of sitting around, fishing in the well of the subconscious for story ideas. I look outward for inspiration, not inward.

But my subconscious was at work whether I knew it or not. Something intuitive and deep-rooted stirred as the Andersen editor talked us through the competition. It brought to mind one image of WW1 in particular, a photograph I’d seen years before on a television documentary.

The photograph showed hundreds of farmyard geese waiting in a French railway marshalling yard, and was being used to illustrate how Spanish Influenza – the terrible bird ’flu pandemic which swept the world in waves in 1918 and 1919, killing tens of millions of people – arrived in France in the winter of 1916/1917, and also how it spread via soldiers returning home by railways and ships.

I now believe that picture provided me with what Skellig author David Almond calls ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations,’ an idea he came across through the American author, Flannery O’Connor.

In an interview, he explained: ‘For me, it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject … like the fact that I’d been brought up as a Catholic; that I’d been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realizing that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work.’

That WW1 photograph gave me France, a country where I’d lived and worked as a Reuter’s foreign correspondent and always love to revisit. It gave me geese: mysterious birds linked to witchcraft and early Celtic mythology. It gave me railways and the steam trains that had taken my grandfather to the battlefields of the Dardanelles in 1916. Andersen Press demanded a wartime heroine. I had my creative limitations.

Armed with the complete poems of Wilfred Owen, the SatNav coordinates of a French rural museum which kept a flock of Toulouse geese, and a growing conviction that I’d remained wilfully ignorant of what had happened between 1914 and 1918 long enough, I set off to discover the story that would win me the Andersen Press competition, as The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese (War Girls, 2014), and five years later would be published by Walker Books as a full length novel for teens as The Goose Road.

This article first appeared on YouTuber and reviewer Alex Pattinson’s website http://alexsfictionaddiction.tumblr.com Her review of The Goose Road is: here



Five editing exercises for flabby drafts

A few years ago, when I was looking for an agent, a unique ‘Voice’ seemed to be the single most important thing they were looking for in debut writers. Maybe they still are. Yet when it came to editing with publishing houses, style seemed secondary to structure: the story was the thing.

I heard that sentiment echoed elsewhere in the industry, including from luminaries such as Barry Cunningham and Robert McKee. But I can’t think those agents were wrong; the trick, it seems, is to nail both.

Voice is a big topic, one I’m not comfortable holding forth about since it’s not a big thing my own writing. Rather, in The Goose Road and now in a World War 2 work-in-progress, I’m aiming at a coherent style – a sort of stepping stone to an identifiable Voice. Editing helped me achieve this no end.

So here are five editing exercises which I learnt while writing my debut novel. Not only did they help cut the flab from early drafts, they also pulled the manuscript together, purging a variety of styles that had crept in over the course of several years of writing.

  1. Read the text aloud.

This, I think, is almost universally accepted as a great thing to do. Reading aloud reveals clumsiness, repetitions, logical and stylistic inconsistencies, and complex sentence constructions that are bound to trip a reader.

One trick to speed up a spoken read through (and this advice, I think, comes from the marvellous Book Bound UK team) is to print out the manuscript – or at least sizeable chunks of it – and read it quickly, without interruption, marking in the margins every place where you stumble, and only going back afterwards to sort out the problems.

Personally, I can’t do a read through on-screen. It has to be a paper exercise. And worth every hour it takes!

  1. The Rule of ‘2+2’.

The rule? Never give ’em four!

My early drafts were littered with examples of me telling the reader the answers to an internal, rhetorical question or explaining a cliff-hanger, which left the reader nothing to figure out. Which is boring.

It may be that 2+2 isn’t actually a stylistic issue at all, and has more to do with the process of learning to trust the reader, which until I had a realistic expectation of having readers – as opposed to critique partners – felt way too abstract to worry about.

It was Stephen King’s fantastic On Writing that blew this misconception out of the water, and explained how the reader is integral to the story. As a writer, we must ask: what do I want the reader to know that my characters don’t know? How will they know it and when? For storytelling purposes, that takes precedence over details such as choosing active verbs and laying off the adjectives.

That epiphany, in turn, made me wonder whether other, purely stylistic issues can’t be left until the end as well. Can we, in effect, retro-fit Voice?

I know many writers (and some agents and editors) will say, ‘No. You can’t.’ For them, discovering the right Voice is key to unlocking the story itself. Maybe, then, it is a matter of degree. If Voice is all important, it’s not a question of style. Otherwise…

  1. Tidy up dialogue attribution.

The convention that ‘said’ is better than ‘expostulated’ or ‘remonstrated’ seems pretty well universally accepted these days. But don’t all those saids get boring!

I allow my characters to cry, shout, answer, mutter, spit, protest and a few others, too. I also love this formulation: ‘“That’s absurd!” She laughed.’ Where an action substitutes for attribution.

And if there are only two people in a conversation, I cut out attribution completely so long as it’s clear who is talking.

  1. Observe. Emote. Analyse. React.

Thus, ‘The bomb exploded. Her heart leapt into her mouth. The sound was terrifyingly close. She scrambled to hide herself under the desk, and waited for the ceiling to fall.’

Just as adjectives fit most comfortably into a particular order, and jar in any alternative sequence, so this progression somehow imparts the clearest sense of immediacy, allowing the reader to experience an event at the same time as the character.

However it works, THANK YOU, Em Lynas, who taught me about this order.

  1. The filter-ectomy.

It was the ever-brilliant Emma Darwin who opened my eyes to this fantastic editing tool.

Filtering (so named by John Gardner) is the process by which the writer shows the reader something via an observing ‘consciousness’ – usually through the eyes of a character – rather than describing the thing itself.

In her blog, This Itch of Writing, Dr Darwin quotes Janet Burroway saying, ‘Generally speaking – though no laws are absolute in fiction – vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favour of direct presentation of the thing seen.’

Apparently, early in our careers, we all tend to write: ‘Turning, she noticed two soldiers’ bodies lying in the mud.’

After an edit, this becomes: ‘She turned. In the mud, lay two soldiers’ bodies.’

While homogenising every observation in this way would be dull and unoriginal, a thorough filter-ectomy works wonders for pace.

Emma Darwin’s blog is always a gold mine of good advice. Here’s the link to one about filtering:


This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure on Aug 15th, 2018. This is a corrected version!