Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 3)

Step away from the computer...

This week, I’m continuing the idea of building a writers’ toolbox, but I’m now going retro and taking it offline; starting with a few select books and magazines. There are lots of books about writing to choose from and many are informative or useful. But these are my particular tried & tested favourites; the ones that I return to. Please add more of your own favourites below…

  • Story by Robert McKee – Even though it’s about scripts, it works perfectly for fiction.
  • Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul – Some sound advice for children’s writing, as well as a beautifully designed book.
  • Writing Magazine – includes the excellent Writers News as well as subscriber-only competitions: perfect for beginners or writers wanting to keep an eye on the submissions market  (@writingmagazine)
  • Mslexia – even though I usually shy away from gender-specific magazines, this magazine does offer great articles and features and clear submission guidelines (@mslexia). Plus, their Women’s Novel competition winner just got scooped by Harper Collins for a 6-figure sum!
  • Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame recommended to me by @STomaselli, a book that makes you cringe & smile in equal measure, especially if you’re battling to sign on the dotted line.

Do you know of any more good books on writing? Please add in the comments below: if there’s enough, I’ll collect and create a new post.


Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 2)

You'd never fish without a line

This week, I’m continuing the idea of building a writers’ toolbox, looking at some really useful and/or inspiring websites. Please add more of your favourites below…

Informative Websites

  • The literary hub of Ireland: is essential for writing tips, news, competitions, articles, events coverage
  • Thresholds – home of the international short story forum full of submission and competition info (thanks to @averillB for pointing this one out)
  • Bookmunch – as writers we’re also avid readers – but it’s not always easy to select what to read. This corker of a book review site is full of ‘acerbic, pithy and/or witless book stuff’ – a really useful guide
  • The Short Review – the best place for reviews of short fiction collections – new and old.

Inspiring websites

  • Creative Writing Prompts – It sure is ugly, but hover over a number, read the prompt, go write! Useful for the morning pages or to inspire a new submission when you’re short of ideas. You can also find more ideas in the weekly write section of the Scottish Book Trust website.
  • while I’m still getting to grips with it, this is a fun place to network, meet some cool people and get more coverage for your blog posts (as well as going to bonfires and earning bones…check it out to see what I’m talking about)
  • Prefer visual prompts? Try this Easy Street blog for ideas, or be get fresh ideas from Jason Lee (particularly good for characters & mood) or Gerry Chaney (think settings & space). Then, of course, there’s always National Geographic.
  • Authonomy – created by HarperCollins, a great community place to hang out, share ideas, get tips etc

Don’t forget to add your own favourites…

Build a Writers’ Toolbox (Part 1)

My home-made gardening toolbox

Like any other tradesman or craftsperson, writers need a toolbox. We need to have a store of useful items that we can call upon when needed. From interesting blogs to books on the art of writing, templates to brain teasers, there is a wealth of information out there designed to make our lives a little easier, or at least, more focused.

But as always, there’s the danger of procrastinating; searching the web or bookshelves for hours in the name of ‘research’ or ‘professional development’. So, here is a short series (3 in total) of a few useful/interesting items I’ve found along the way. This week: blogs that, as a writer, I particularly enjoy. This is, by no means, a complete list, so if you have any more suggestions, please add them in the comments so we can all share.

  • Cynsations – an amazingly informative and inspiring blog for YA/children’s writers
  • Photography by Jason Lee: particularly good for evoking mood, characters & ideas – this guy does some amazing stuff
  • The Vandal by Derek Haines: wit, stories, poetry, writing tips & more
  • Rant, with Occasional Music by Derek Flynn: fiction, music, reflections, writing, guest blogs
  • Catherine, Caffeinated by Cath Ryan-Howard: self publishing, self printing, reviews & tips
  • Pub Rants a straight-talking agent (of writers such as Sarah Reese Brennan) reveals all
  • Not for the faint hearted, this Evil Editor blog gives some straight answers on synopses and covering letters.
  • The Write Stuff – an amazing find, full of info gained from 30+ years as a freelance writer.

Please add more of your favourites below…


Our dog Shrimppot is a real character

Aristotle concluded that story is superior to character. In the 1800s, many thought that structure was simply a way to convey the fascinating characters that readers desired. But, as fiction continues to evolve, where do we stand today?

Looking at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realised that all of my novel-length pieces of work begin with character names/personalities; these create the initial spark that gets ideas flowing. The plot, the tension, the outcome – they all start to come alive as soon as a cast of names form in my head and are allowed to interact on the page. But when it comes to writing short stories, I get a sense of the mood that I want to convey first, and the characters come later. In fact, sometimes the characters come so late, I have to put the story aside for a very long time before they enter stage left.

Weird that both genres should be approached so differently – and weirder still that I’ve only just realised that this is how I work. So I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and understand what’s making me/my characters tick. Here’s my thoughts on some of the great advice that I found:

The best characters stay with readers and listeners long after childhood is over. Think about the qualities that make a character stick with a picture book’s audience long after the book is shut.” (Ann Whitford Paul, Writing Picture Books, p54)

  • Absolutely. I love children’s books and am in the process of writing some – they really make you think about the character on a larger-than-life scale because you’re trying to connect with the simplified, overly-honest viewpoint of a child. That character had better be memorable!

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature… The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling. (Robert McKee, Story, p 101/4)

  • I find this easier to achieve in a novel when you have more room to develop your characters – which is probably why my characters come first and the plot second (in terms of development, not importance).

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self…The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. (Robert McKee, Story, p 105/6)

  • Again, although this fits with all genres, I find this easier in a novel-length piece. The format (in my world) lends itself to more exploration and I find the structure/characters fuse more easily

The best modern short stories convey information by suggestion rather than by fact. Try to use suggestiveness and gestures to give a sense of character and story.” (Patricia O’Reilly, Writing for Success, p72)

  • I find this challenging. Perhaps this is why the plot comes first when I’m writing short stories?  Maybe I need to give myself a sense of character before the character becomes real? This can’t be a universal approach, so I’d love to hear how other writers tackle short stories.

As a writer, how do you handle your characters? And does your approach change if you switch genre?

Gustav Dore conveys character beautifully

A writer’s desk

As you can see, I need order

This is my desk; and I make sure it’s set up like this every morning so I don’t have to worry about anything other than writing. This is what’s on it:

  1. Macbook Air – I write the early drafts of my novels in Scrivener and later drafts in Word.
  2. Mslexia Diary – only writing-related stuff goes in here; deadlines, submissions, blog schedule, etc.
  3. Notebook – for automatic writing (every day, first thing) to warm up my brain.
  4. MontBlanc Fountain Pen – a treat I bought myself for finding an agent (thanks Sallyanne!).
  5. Thank You Book – I jot down nice stuff that’s happened and get a kick from reading thank you’s from the likes of Seamus Heaney.
  6. ‘Drift Away’ candle – An idea I got from a writer/composer friend. I light it every day. I find the smell very relaxing.
  7. Rory’s Storycubes – sometimes, you need a bit of inspiration. Or just a bit of fun.
  8. Bog Cotton Coaster – no drinks disasters here please! Plus, my husband picked me some bog cotton when we were just friends, to send to me in the post – and lost his shoe in the process. Looking at it always makes me smile.
  9. Alice in Wonderland/Floral Desk Tidy – I got this designed specially on Etsy; you can turn each block to suit your mood.
  10. Antique Cookbook Stand – A gift which I love. I’ve never used it for cooking but I love the design and I can prop my diary/research on there.

I’m fascinated by how different writers work. From the garden shed of Roald Dahl to the train journeys of Agatha Christie – I love seeing what makes each writer tick; how they can create the perfect space to create.

So, what’s on your desk? I’d love to know!

Organised chaos, I call it