Category: Thoughts on writing

Lessons for authors from an auteur

At the age of 28, Vittorio Dare Ole found himself working as assistant director to the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Over 30 years later he described the experience in a recent article for the BFI. I read the article because I love Kurosawa’s movies, but it seems to me that there are lessons for authors as well as auteurs in the five maxims Dare Ole used to sum up what he learned from the master.

Uncompromising attention to detail
Great writing is about precision. The author, like the filmmaker, builds his story through an accumulation of specific and carefully selected details, not through grand, vague assertions.

The organisation of chaos
A famous quote, attributed to many famous writers, holds that “the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” Real life is messy, chaotic. Story has structure and moves toward an ending. However if you allow its underlying mechanisms to become too obvious, your fiction will appear crude and predictable. Mimic the ragged edges of life while maintaining the shape of your story.

Working with the elements
Writers at the beginning of their journey are often waiting for the perfect moment to write, when they will be undistracted by the mundane problems of existence. That moment never comes. Serious writers are not deterred by external factors. If it’s raining in your life, write the rain into your story.

An actors’ director
Kurosawa used to pull the cameras a long way back from his actors, not because he wanted a wide shot, but because he wanted the actors to forget the cameras were there. Give your characters room to breathe, let them become real and act naturally. Don’t always be shouting directions in their ears.

Control that allows for improvisation
While you can’t let your story become too loose and flabby, if you keep too tight a grip on it you’ll stifle the life out of it. When spontaneous creativity appears, be ready to recognise what’s good and use it.

Why join a critique group?

With our first meeting approaching, I asked members of my critique group in the UK what they got out of it. Here are some of their responses:

Being new to the world of fiction writing I was quite anxious about reading my first piece of work aloud. The feedback was so positive and constructive that I took on the advice and submitted my first flash fiction piece. It’s a great support network.


It’s a fantastic environment full of fantastic people who encourage you and make you feel safe about sharing your work. It’s also inspiring to hear what other people are writing and their process.


The group delivered serious critique which encouraged me to write more and better, supported me when that’s been difficult, and built my confidence as a writer.


Listening to other people’s work in progress (in many different styles) is a privilege, and members of the group make very thoughtful comments. There’s a spirit of camaraderie, careful listening, encouragement and sincerity.


Nobody had read or heard my work before when I first read at the group, and I was anxious that I would be exposed as the fraudulent writer that I was. Instead, I received some of the best advice I could have asked for, and felt good about my work for the first time.
I don’t feel like an expert writer now, and I know there may be no such thing, but all of this group’s advice and critique has in no small part made me feel like I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life, and loving every minute of it.

Why not come along on the 8th March and see what a critique group can do for your writing?

Huffington Post brags about not paying its writers!

We all know it’s hard to make a living from writing, but it still comes as a shock when one of the biggest names on the internet announces not only that it doesn’t pay its writers, but that it takes pride in not doing so. Huffington Post is owned by Verizon, which makes a billion dollars a month in profits, but won’t pay its writers because to do so would not be “authentic”.

I tried this argument at the supermarket (“I’d love to pay for my groceries, but it wouldn’t be an authentic shopping experience if I did.”) Oddly enough they weren’t very happy and insisted on being paid in cash. So I’m going to join with Chuck Wendig in urging writers to think very hard before writing for Huffington Post, or even before reading it or linking to it.

Keith Waterhouse’s 12 Ground Rules for Writers

  1. Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured).
  2. Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).
  3. Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination).
  4. Use positive words (he was poor) not negative ones (he was not rich—the reader at once wants to know, how not rich was he?).
  5. Don’t overstate: fell is starker than plunged.
  6. Don’t lard the story with emotive or “dramatic” words (astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).
  7. Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that).
  8. Don’t use words thoughtlessly. (Waiting ambulances don’t rush victims to hospital. Waiting ambulances wait. Meteors fall, so there can be no meteoric rise.)
  9. Don’t use unknown quantities (very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?).
  10. Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.
  11. Don’t use jargon, clichés, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym for mother).
  12. Words are facts. Check them (spelling and meaning) as you would any other.


Cate Kennedy’s Top 10 Tips For Writers


For the moment, try to forget about marketability, prizemoney, fame, fortune, or who’s going to play you in the miniseries. None of these spurs will actually allow you to write a better story as you’re sitting staring at the blank page. Instead, try to visualise your unwritten story as something to approach with a respectful curiosity, something you need to pick up carefully in both hands.


You’re going to spin this out of thin air, so let your subject matter creep up on you from wherever it comes from, and permit yourself the playful mental spaciousness to pay it some non-judgemental, sustained attention. Get a good look at it.


There is nothing in the world you need to research or investigate at this moment, except what’s already bumping around in your head. Do yourself the favour of turning off the external, distracting stimulus for once. You don’t need more information – you need to see the patterns in what is already there.


Don’t worry too much about where it’s going, or the direction it’s taking you in. This is not a cerebral, analytical process. Your rapier-sharp judgment and compulsive need to solve it all can come into play later. Just trust that you will, at some stage, come to see the story that is emerging in what you are writing.


Feeling hesitant, nervous, queasy almost, about the raw revelation needed to give away your deepest secrets? That’s the way. Sit tight.


Try to see this as a two-stage process – the hot stage and the cool stage. That egotistical little voice on your shoulder, whispering about control and competence, whining for your attention? Gag them for the moment. They’ll have plenty of time to show off later, when you’re redrafting and have achieved, through this process, a little more detachment from your work. For now, plunge in. Nobody’s watching – you’re allowed to skinny-dip.


Don’t overthink this. A story is an offer, not a claim. Writing with something to prove – your extensive vocabulary, your arcane bits of knowledge, your cleverness – will trip you up like clown shoes. Learning to write wholeheartedly instead will let you gradually burn away the lurking pretention and self-regard which will choke your story to death.  Your inner voice is the one that has true pitch; your ego-ridden voice is dangerously tone-deaf.


An unbeatable combo for storytellers and writers keen on getting better.


Here’s the thing – at the other side of your boredom (and disillusion, and aggrieved sense of entitlement) lies your better, more honest self and your stronger, more powerful story. Mastering your distracted restlessness will get you there, solitary minute by solitary minute.


as you’ll quickly find as soon as you get to the end of your first draft. Stories are living, breathing entities; they refuse to be corralled by aphorism. So…


until you no longer get a stitch every time you try, until you feel like sharing it, until it becomes its own reward. By then, it’ll be knitted into your DNA, so it’ll be too late to even consider giving up.


Take your “self” out of your fiction

An important reminder, that readers don’t want to read about us- they want to read about themselves:

Take Your “Self” Out of Your Fiction

3 Questions to Ask When Considering Self-Publishing

Some useful thoughts on routes to publication here… but however you’re published, all writers need to be entrepreneurs these days!

3 Questions to Ask When Considering Self-Publishing

On writing advice, and when to ignore it

The always brilliant, and usually NSFW, Chuck Wendig writes here about the dangers of writing advice:

Lest we incur Mr Wendig’s righteous, sweary wrath, let me make it clear that the advice offered on this site is intended to inspire, provoke, stimulate, amuse and most of all to get you writing and keep you writing. Because the best way to become a better writer is by doing it, not reading about it. And that’s how you discover the writer you really are.

On finding the time to write

There will never be time to write. There will always be something else in the way, some obstacle or excuse to not to sit down and put pen to paper. You can’t wait for that time – you need to make it.

Andrew Killeen

Sherman Alexie’s Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers

The Top 10 Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Been Given (Or That I’ll Pretend Were Given to Me)

by Sherman Alexie

[10] Don’t Google search yourself.

[9] When you’ve finished Google searching yourself, don’t do it again.

[8] Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.

[7] Don’t have any writing ceremonies. They’re just a way to stop you from writing.

[6] Turn your readings into events. Perform and write with equal passion.

[5] Read 1,000 pages for every one you try to write.

[4] In fiction, research is overrated. But that means readers will write you correcting all of your minor biographical, geographical and historical errors. If you like, make those corrections in the paperback, but don’t sweat it too much.

[3] Don’t lose the sense of awe you feel whenever you meet one of your favorite writers. However, don’t confuse any writer’s talent with his or her worth as a human being. Those two qualities are not necessarily related.

[2] Subscribe to as many literary journals as you can afford.

[1] When you read a piece of writing that you admire, send a note of thanks to the author. Be effusive with your praise. Writing is a lonely business. Do your best to make it a little less lonely.


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