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


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!                                                                                                     

Five Lessons To Combat Book Two Blues

The new work-in-progress isn’t progressing very quickly – which is hardly newsworthy. What Book Two ever went well?

In fact, in common with most debut friends of mine, this isn’t Book Two at all: rejected pitches litter my computer files, abandoned story ideas clog up my Creative Folder, and an entire 88K manuscript sits somewhere on an old hard drive.

Being fore-warned of the time it will take, the labour and love required, the commitment, the research, the inevitable disappointments, and (if I’m really, really lucky again) another long wait between completion and publication, isn’t the same thing as being fore-armed.

Frankly, part of me thinks it’s madness to start again.

Yet another part of me keeps whispering that what I now know about editing might (just might) make the whole business of producing another publishable manuscript less overwhelming second time around.

So what lessons has hindsight taught me?

First, write with passion and instinct initially. Over-plotting is a killer. But at the same time bear in mind that sooner or later we do have to answer the big questions: what is the heart of this story? What one scene/idea/moment would I save if I had to erase the rest? And what does that say about the story I think I’m trying to write.

A lot of writing gurus say the answer to that last question about the core of a story – its underlying meaning – only emerges at the end of a first full draft. I don’t know about that. I think I had a sense of what I was writing much earlier than that with The Goose Road. But it certainly did require time and distance from the first draft to look back with sufficient perspective to discover that a lot of what I thought I’d written wasn’t actually there.

How much time & distance? For me, it took a full six months, working pretty intensively on another story, one I murdered by over-plotting.

But I also believe it was the very act of over-plotting – of analysing “story” objectively – which brought into clear relief the formal structures that were missing from The Goose Road. Okay, I had an Inciting Incident (several, in fact!) but also great dollops of irrelevant junk, and no proper character arc. I rewrote Acts 1 and II almost completely over the course of the following six months.

So I guess Lesson One for me has been: write with passion, then somehow find the headspace to be ruthlessly objective, and the patience and self-belief to rip Draft One into pieces…

Continue reading on Awfully Big Blog Adventure where this first appeared on Feb 15, 2018 here

‘Place’ in stories: where reality and our characters collide

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.

He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs. You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”

Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.

His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.

  • Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;
  • Realistic characters exist in time and space;
  • Place therefore grounds characters.
  • Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?

Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.

Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.

But place as a writing tool is more than a rounded description of the physical setting: the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.

If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about ‘voice’ as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.

When I began writing, I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write ‘found’ stories. Instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.

By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feel it through their skin. This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.

It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story? A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, or in the same way as a wealthy bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels – and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.

Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.

A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these contrasting examples:

Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies


Wiltshire, September 1535

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.”

Annie Enright’s The Gathering

“You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.”

Lee Child’s The Affair

“The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.”

Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair

“On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.”


Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the airiness and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic and poignant. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk, not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps.

Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. The ground is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached: this place is a picture offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’

Lee Child’s narrator, Jack Reacher, has purpose behind his words. He explains as well as observes. Here the movement – the “unending stream of witnesses” – is part of the plan; nothing will be left to chance. This is an analytical description of place by a dangerous man with a tactical point-of-view.

How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to her, whereas Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.

In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful. For me, each opening ‘place’ is extraordinarily rich, beautifully setting the tone for the novel that follows.

Man Booker, BBC2 & Robert McKee: scene structure by the pros

This blog first appeared on November 15th, 2017, in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

Last week, as I was explaining to a local writing group a selection of approaches to self-editing, I basically talked myself into a corner and reaffirmed (at least to myself) a truth about revision.

That is, after the big development overview, when you nail down that elusive concept of the “heart” or soul of the story, and decide, for example, whether you’ve got too many subplots or characters, the natural focus for re-writing is the scene.

Not voice, not sentences, not even structure as such. The scene.

From their expressions, I’m not sure I convinced my students, perhaps because the example I used of an ideal scene was old and rather lame (and taken from Robert McKee’s Story, which is brilliant in my opinion, but rather too rooted in black-and-white films to be self-evidently relevant to today’s novelist).

Then, later than week, cuddled up with our cat on the sofa, watching the BBC 2 drama, Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, “Bingo!”

From now on, whenever I need to define “the scene”, it will be the climax to that story, with Derek Jacobi standing on the doorstep of the odious John Ruskin (played superbly by Greg Wise), about to bring his entire world crashing down with one word.

Before looking at that one word, and how the scene built up to it, here’s some context from George Saunders, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. He has been interviews all over the place, but these quotes come from this article in The Guardian:


In it he says, “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully … An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.”

His self-editing method is a binary process, which he describes as a meter in his forehead flicking from positive to negative as he imagines how each passage he’s written will be received by a first-time reader, and then editing his work “so as to move the needle into the [positive] zone.”

He describes this process as repetitive, obsessive and iterative: “watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose … through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments … Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.”

Beautiful prose, isn’t it? I’m really glad he won this year’s Man Booker prize, and I look forward very much to reading Lincoln in the Bardo over Christmas.


What if you don’t have time to steer your ocean liner through a thousand incremental adjustments? What if you have a full-time job and/or a family to raise, and no milk in the fridge and a deadline to meet, and… and… and..?

In other words, what if writing isn’t your whole life?

For me, in the trackless oceans of imagination, structural advice books are star charts, and the solid possibilities of a well-crafted scene as essential as a life-raft.

So, back to Effie Gray … via Robert McKee.

If I had to keep just one book from my library of writing advice guides, McKee’s Story would be it. Despite his focus on film, the understanding he’s given me about storytelling is unequalled.

In a nutshell, what he says about scenes is this: every scene should build, beat by beat, to a Story Event, by which he means a meaningful change from positive to negative or vice versa in a fundamental human value (or a Story Value as he terms it).

Examples of changes in a Story Value include: cowardice to bravery, hope to despair, fear of commitment to commitment, happiness to sadness etc.

For McKee, such switches should be achieved by pitting a protagonist with a clear objective against an equal or more powerful force of antagonism with a diametrically opposed goal. Via progressively escalating confrontations, the scene should culminate in an unexpected pivot point that alters this Story Value for a central character.

All of which the climax scene in Effie Gray does to perfection.

SPOILER ALERT: Do watch the film first if you want to experience the deliciousness of the denouement in full. It is available on iPlayer for the next few weeks. I’ve skipped over some elements of the plot for the sake of brevity, which does a disservice to the richness and complexity of the sub-text, but anyhow, here goes.


Events Structural beats
Effie Gray’s lawyer gets out of a carriage and opens his legal document case. Earlier scenes have established Effie’s desire to escape from her unconsummated marriage with abusive & sexually-repressed John Ruskin. The protagonist’s objective is established: to deliver a legal letter. In this scene, the lawyer is both Effie’s proxy and also a representative of Victorian social values & the law.
Inside the house, the interfering parents of self-satisfied grandee John Ruskin excessively admire a new portrait of him by an eminent pre-Raphaelite painter. The antagonists’ objective are established: the Ruskin family seek to enhance John’s social standing via the portrait.
Servant George enters with news of an unexpected caller for John. The inciting incident. An external force interrupts the domestic status quo.
Effie’s highly respectable male lawyer, kept waiting on the doorstep, announces he has a citation to court for John. John’s parents stand between John and the lawyer. The lawyer communicates his scene objective. The parents, by blocking the doorway, form a physical barrier between the lawyer & his objective.
John & his mother question the purpose of the citation; when the lawyer says it is a petition for divorce from Effie, the father snatches the letter. A force of antagonism strikes directly back at the lawyer.
The lawyer insists the letter must, by law, be delivered to “the defendant”. The father reluctantly relinquishes the letter to the lawyer, who gives it to John. While taking it, John remains composed, and questions Effie’s grounds for divorce. The protagonist’s proxy defeats the father’s desire to protect John by calling up the power of the law, i.e. society’s power over the family. Effie wins round one, although John’s disdainful pride & self-confidence remain apparently intact.
When the lawyer refuses to answer John’s questions, citing the delicacy of the matter, John presses him for an immediate explanation, culminating in his demand for an answer. In response to this demand, the lawyer states that her grounds for divorce is John’s impotency. This beat of questions and rebuttals builds to the pivot point of both the scene and the entire story.

The word “impotency”, delivered in Derek Jacobi’s magnificent voice, challenges John’s manhood. Effie is calling down on him not only the full weight of the law, but also Victorian society’s expectations of a man and his sole duty to his wife. With one word, she has countered all of John’s malicious threats to ruin her reputation through false allegations of wantonness.

The horror of the impending scandal slowly dawns on the mother, but more quickly on the faces of John and his father. As their expressions turn from shock to comprehension to shame, the father shuts the door in the lawyer’s face. John’s cold, imperious pride (his Story Value throughout the film) is quenched. Henceforth, he will be humiliated, while Effie’s Story Value switches from enslavement within their marriage to the freedom to live as she wishes and to love another. Well done, Effie! And well done to the film makers. A fantastic scene.