Can You Teach Someone To Write?

You know, write. Not as in ‘form letters’ – you can definitely teach that!

Amongst writers, it’s always a bit of a debate – and there are lots of quotes from writing tutors claiming, somewhat paradoxically, that you can’t teach someone to write. It’s the old ‘is it a gift or a skill’? controversy. This article is a discussion with three authors on learning to write and teaching writing, whilst this list of tips from the Scottish Booktrust on getting ideas flowing is useful if you teach writing. They’re designed with a school class in mind but they’d work equally well in any creative writing class.

So what do I think?  Well I think it’s like carpentry.

Carpenters working on wooden drawers


No, bear with me. My point is that you can teach carpentry to a group of people and they may all become reasonably competent at joinery and construct perfectly serviceable, well-made cabinets. But will all of them want – or be able – to craft something beautiful? Something that requires inspiration and imagination; that’s off pattern? Or work that has a quality that in some way raises it above the rest?

The answer is – think – no. And I believe writing is much the same. You can teach most people to string together a grammatically correct, understandable sentence. You can teach them the theory of fluency and flow; about metaphor and simile. But will those ideas come into their head when it comes to imagining a story, and will they be able to translate their ideas into the written word in a way that does them justice? And will they have the staying power to persist until every sentence is polished, or will their work always remain a rough diamond? I’m not convinced they all will.

So what do you think? Can good writing be caught or are some people just gifted?



C is for Cool: Competitions, Evolution, Bono, Penguins & Positive Productivity!

I have the same problem with Cool as I did with Boring yesterday. So many things are cool – where would I begin? People with enquiring, open minds; people who aren’t scared to speak up against prejudice, even when it doesn’t affect them; parents who encourage their children to make decisions for themselves, instead of dictating their beliefs and aspirations – and provide them with the tools to do so. All very Cool.

Penguins, of course, live in cool places and are also inherently cool. Some have funky hairstyles, the Dad does his share of parenting and contrary to urban myth, they do not become so fixated on aeroplanes in the Falkland Islands that they fall over backwards while watching them, because they are far too cool for that.

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With all this abundance of coolness, I decided to simply share three of my Google Alerts that struck me as cool.

1) Competitions

Interesting creative writing competitions for children, particularly with good prizes, are relatively rare – but this one qualifies. Stroud Library are running a competition to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Laurie Lee, most famous for Cider with Rosie. I recommend Laurie Lee; if you haven’t read any of his work, shuffle off to the library right now. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a favourite of mine.

Laurie Lee

The theme of the competition is Legends set somewhere in the Five Valleys, where many of Laurie’s stories originated, and where he lived in the village of Slad.

There are two age categories for the competition:

  • Under 7s : 50-500 words
  • 8-12 years: 300-1,000 words

For each category the 1st prize will be £25 and a bundle of books and the 2nd prize will be £15, which is great, so if you know any young budding writers, point them in the direction of this page, where they can download an application form. The competition opens on 5th April and closes on the 31st May, and the webpage also has details of a workshop children can attend to help them get started on their masterpiece.


Scientists have been looking afresh at the Permian-Triassic extinction that occurred around 252 million years ago . While they know that this event, which destroyed 90% percent of marine life and 70 % of terrestrial life, was caused by a disruption to the carbon cycle, the cause of the disruption has always been a mystery – although they knew that something ’caused a burst of carbon to come out of storage’, turning seas to acid and raising temperatures.

According to the Smithsonian website, geophysicist  Daniel Rothman and his team have noticed that the carbon cycle disruption  wasn’t typical of a geological event like a meteorite strike or volcano, where it would peak then taper off; instead the disruption seemed to grow at an increasing rate over time. So they’re hypothesising that microbes may be to blame – pesky microbes that may have traded genes. They believe that Methanosarcina gained two genes from a bacteria that gave them the ability to eat organic waste (with its stored carbon) from the sea floor, causing them to pump out methane and push carbon back into the water. You can read the full article here.


It makes you wonder what else microbes may have been responsible for…

3) Bono

Bono is (arguably) cool, but apparently the poor lad has writer’s block – which is seriously delaying progress on U2’s planned new album and follow up tour. CBC books thoughtfully provided 5 brief writing tips from authors that might help him on his way. You can read them all if you want, but I wanted to share  my favourite one:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Mark Twain

Not only is this true, but it’s also the essence of a handy book by Simon Whaley, called The Positively Productive Writer, which explains in detail exactly how to  ‘break your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks’ and provides a host of useful and inspiring tips to get you started.

If you’re a writer who needs a constructive kick up the butt and a Plan, then read all about it here before hopping off and buying (or downloading) it. Perhaps I should send a link to Bono, too…

The #LetBooksBeBooks Campaign; an Open Letter to The Book People

Today, with the might of well-known authors Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Carol Ann Duffy, Joanne Harris and Victoria Lamb behind me, not to mention the huge coverage of @LetToysBeToys ‘LetBooksBeBooks campaign, I tweeted The Book People again about their stocking of gender-specific and sexist titles. Would they still ignore me, I asked, now that these well-known names were supporting the cause?

Very quickly they tweeted me back, thanking me for my feedback and asking me to email them at I thanked them for the invite, had some lunch and set to…

Hello Book People, and thanks for asking me to email you. I would love to have had this dialogue with you earlier, and did attempt it, but unfortunately it seems it took other people taking up the baton – particularly famous names like Malorie Blackman, Joanne Harris, Victoria Lamb (aka Jane Holland/Elizabeth Moss) and Carol Ann Duffy – to grab your attention. This makes me sad and a little cynical, but frankly anything that brings this important issue to your attention is worthwhile.
The concerns I’ve been tweeting you about for some time have now been neatly encapsulated by the @LetToysBeToys #LetBooksBeBooks campaign, and their petition can be found here. No – don’t click it yet! ? Hold on and I will explain to you why this is important to me –and why it should be important to you too.
Here we are in 2014; and what a journey it’s been. Over the last 100 years, voting rights for women, changes to employment law and of course the Equalities Act of 2010 have been markers on a journey that’s changed the social landscape of our country. Today, men and women have equal rights and equal choice – don’t they?? Nothing that is permitted for one gender is withheld from the other. I’m sure that at the Book People you have male and female staff, and that some of you are parents. How lucky your children are to be born in this era. Your sons know they can be nurses, and realise it’s a worthwhile profession all of its own; they don’t have to be doctors ‘instead’. Your daughters, on the other hand, are never asked if they want to be a nurse, but asked if they want to go into medicine or healthcare; because it’s made clear to them all the time that they can be doctors OR nurses, right? The choice is theirs. The choice is everyone’s.
Everything that a girl or boy could want is available in several colours, so that hopefully they can pick their favourite. It’s fine for boys to wear pink shirts and girls to wear camouflage trousers. Boys can like butterflies, flowers, rabbits and dolls. Girls can like astronauts, soldiers and skateboards and everyone buys them pirate and Buzz Lightyear costumes. Girls and boys both have similar expectations of the future: how far their career might progress, how their behaviour will be judged and how much of the domestic burden will fall on them. Boys and girls know that some Dads stay at home to care for their children, and that some Mums go back to work after having babies (and may be the biggest wage-earner in the house). They respect that. Hopefully they also know that some boys and girls have two mums, or two dads. And they respect that too.
My, what an idyllic world we live in! How far we’ve come!
Or have we? Unfortunately, it seem that this journey of ours towards equality has taken a little detour. In true Bugs Bunny style, someone’s dashed ahead and turned the sign round so that we’re now heading down Double Standards lane.
Although the majority of parents – including all of you there in the Book People office – would say that they want their sons and daughters to grow up feeling they can do anything, BE ANYTHING, what’s the reality? What do children see around them?
Daughters are told that women have equal rights. They watch as their bedroom fills with butterfly stickers, craft activities, baby dolls, pink accessories, toy vacuum cleaners and ovens – just in case they were foolish enough to believe what they were told, they and their expectations have been put firmly back in place by the time they’re five. Yep, by the time they’re at school, mentally those doors are already clanging shut. What they COULD do and what they expect to do are already two different things. Sons can choose caring professions, and should be involved fathers, they’re told… as their world becomes filled with macho, action-packed superheroes, soldiers, racing cars, pirates and astronauts, while domestic play equipment, dolls, animals and anything connected with caring or beauty is relegated to being weak and ‘for girls’ (because obviously those two go together). Not to mention that any liking for these ‘girls’ things’ might make people think – shock horror – that they’re gay. Best keep those impulses locked away… until the misery makes them another teenage suicide statistic.
Books have always reflected our world and sometimes, show us a better one. Their role in shaping children’s beliefs and expectations is every bit as vital as that of toys and other forms of media. The Equalities Act becomes just a piece of paper if we are not living our lives – and writing, designing and marketing our books – to support its principles and ensure our children can expect to live and be judged by them.
Girls need to know that pink is not the only colour – and to lose the expectation that everything pink is aimed at them. They need to open a book and be surprised by the contents, not already condemned to expect page upon page of butterflies, fairies, make-up tips and tales of princesses who got everything they wanted – once a guy showed up to sort out their life for them. Boys need to know that they are ALLOWED to like pink, and butterflies, and rabbits, and dolls. They don’t have to be an astronaut, builder, soldier or train driver, and they don’t have to live with the pressure of expecting to be the breadwinner, rescuer, knight on a white horse. They need to know that sometimes THEY will need rescuing – and that’s okay. If we adults do our job well, perhaps those boys will realise that the person who rescues them might be a girl; a girl with no make-up on, riding a Harley Davidson without a pink pony in sight.
If you want freedom of choice for your own children, and value their right to keep an open mind – and see only open doors in their future – then surely you want the same freedom for all children. So come on Book People, what do you say? You don’t need to stock gender-specific, sexist titles entitled ‘stories for girls’ or ‘cooking with mummy’. You could choose not to. You could be the first retailer (because we only have publishers so far) to make a stand and say no. I can assure you, with all the major newspapers reporting on this campaign and radio and TV taking an interest now too, if you make this stand today everyone will know about it by tomorrow. You will be Equality Heroes – and have the satisfaction of knowing that you used your power for good. Join us!

You Want Me To Do WHAT? OR, Meeting Your Public

So we all know the deal these days. Whether your début novel is published by one of the Big Names and sails into the best seller charts, or whether you’re trying to sell copies of your self-published book to anyone besides your neighbour, aunt and grandma, you need to promote yourself and your work. And for most writers, the onus is on them to contact local papers and radio, tweet, set up a Facebook Page, blog, link, vlog about their writing journey, do guest posts about what their study looks like, share links to their Pinterest account, get LinkedIn… and generally put themselves about a bit.

If you want advice about how to promote your book, look no further than ‘self-confessed media tart’ Jane Wenham-Jones’ book, Wannabe A Writer We’ve Heard Of her brilliant follow up to Wannabe A Writer. You can find info about them both on the link.

But say, after urging from your publisher and/or advice from Jane W-J, you now find yourself in front of a crowd at a village hall, in front of a pile of books at your local book store, or in the studio of a local radio station wearing big headphones, with the producer counting down to your cue while sweat pools in between your shoulder blades? Few of us come purpose-built to deal with those situations gracefully and productively. That’s where Skillsstudio could come in handy. They offer corporate, group and one-to one coaching on presentation skills, public speaking, communication skills, voice training, interview skills and media training, plus e-learning, and their website offers some great tips. As radio interviews are often the first media-facing exercise writers have to endure, those are the Skillstudio tips I thought I’d summarise and share.

Tips for Radio Interviews
When you are interviewed on radio you have an incredibly short amount of time to make an impact.  So it’s important that you don’t waste a second or mess up – as you probably won’t have time to recover from a mistake.”

Definitely true. A good friend of mine was suddenly told she would be interviewed on the radio, via telephone, about the services provided by the family centre she ran. I tuned in and listened while she pelleted poor Barbara Sturgeon of Radio Kent with a super-speed burst of facts. Barbara had no chance of getting a word in edgeways and was falling about laughing by the time my hapless friend finished. It was certainly a memorable first radio interview, but not a good one. Her message wasn’t clear because she rushed – hence Studioskills golden rules:

  • use the time before an interview to focus on what the presenter is saying beforehand.  You may pick up some useful background information or context that you can use in your responses.
  • Speak in short sentences – one thought per sentence.
  • Take time over the first three words of the sentence – so that you don’t rush into the sentence.
  • Don’t rush any syllables – make sure each syllable in the word is pronounced
  • Don’t butt in to the question – wait for the presenter to finish asking the question before you respond
  • Focus on understanding the question, rather than rehearsing your response in your head
  • Buy yourself time at the start of your response with a phrase such as “that’s a very interesting question” – if you need time to think about how to start your answer
  • Tell a story – if you imagine each of your responses are a short story – this will automatically inject more energy and expression into your voice
  • Emphasise important words – these are the key words that make up the essence of your sentences and will help you to sound more convincing
  • Smile – when you smile your voice smiles and it comes across more appealing and personable to the listeners. 

If you want more tips about how to face your admiring public with confidence, pop over to Skillstudio and take a look. And next time one of your loved ones is short of a present idea, why not ask them to buy you a course? Especially as at the moment, if yours is a personal booking, you can get 25% off the advertised prices – just include the promotional code PERSONAL when completing the online booking form. You must also pay for the course within 5 days of making the booking.

Now… first question… where did you get the idea for your book? Don’t rush your answer! 😀


My #100kwords100days and Other Challenges, OR, Why Do We Do It?

Everybody has heard of NaNoWriMo, haven’t they?

writer cat

Chances are, your aunt’s neighbour’s cat is sitting in his basket right now, licking the end of his fountain pen and making notes on his kitty blanket for November 1st, because this year he gonna be prepared, damn it.

We’ve all heard of the Kindle, too, but Other E-readers Are Available. Well so are other writing challenges. Currently insane self, and at least 361 other writers who should know better, are taking part in #100kwords100days. Organised by the lovely Sally Quilford, the title’s self-explanatory, and I say ‘at least 361’ because that’s just the writers who have joined the Facebook group.

relaxed dog

100k badge

Obviously 100,000 words in 100 days is a more achievable than NaNo’s 50k words in 30 days.

What’s that? 100k in 100 days is too easy? Hmm, well, if you want to go to the other extreme…

For those who can put everything aside for an entire weekend – and I mean everything; either book yourself into a hotel room, or bind and gag every living thing within 20 metres – there’s NaNoWriWee. The brainchild of writers on The Kernel magazine, NaNoWriWee requires you to write 50k in a weekend. Yep, you heard me. Two 15 hour writing days. I’m guessing they named it NaNoWriWee because weeing is precisely what you won’t have time for. So perhaps book a home help, a colostomy bag and a catheter whilst you’re at it.  It sounds crazy but people are signing up. Hell, I’m even considering it. And seriously tempted by the hotel room option.

So why do we do it? What IS the magic lure of the writing challenge – and are there any downsides? Who better to ask than my fellow 100k100dayers…

“For me it’s the daily accountability,” Sarah Little says. “Many’s the evening the past week where my last half hour is scribbling out words just so I know I’ve done *something* for the day, whereas usually I’d have the excuse of ‘too tired’.” Gemma Noon agrees. “It makes me write. I have someone other than myself to be accountable to.” This pace-pushing has a great side-effect for Paula Martin. “It helps me ignore the inner editor that usually slows me down. I always spend ages revising, anyway, so this kind of challenge helps me get the words down, ready to revise later.” “It helps keep me on pace and working towards a goal, and on largely one thing rather than a lot of random little things.” says David Sorger, and this is something Tracy Enright finds a definite plus point;  “it makes me focus on one piece rather than flitting around like a butterfly brain. I get a real sense of achievement when I meet the target.” Ahh.. targets. But can’t targets be scary?

Apparently not. It’s the targets in these challenges that drag writers forward – and drags the work out of us.  ” NaNo makes me write – come what may! I have a ridiculously busy job and a family so it makes me focus, and I have three 70k novels because of it,” says Phoebe Randerson. And word meters hold no fears for Gemma Noon! “I like stats. I like having a target to work towards and I like knowing that I am making tangible progress.” Awen Thorber confesses: “I’m a deadline girl… I’ve procrastinated for years about writing my novels and thanks to NaNoWriMo I finally have the bulk of one done… and thanks to 100k I now have plots for more novels, research for one, and many thousands of words towards a few other novels. Challenges are my push to succeed and along the way I have found like minded friends and support that I wouldn’t have found on my own.

The support of others is something everyone pointed to as a pro. “There is an incredibly supportive network both on line and at write ins and I feel very motivated at the end of it,” says Tracy Enright. Tracy was the only person to voice a downside of writing challenges, although it’s certainly one that many writers (me included!) can relate to – “I’ve found other work tends to get left by the wayside, I go short of sleep and the kids get more quick meals!

David Sorger told me he’s been “enjoying the camaraderie and encouragement from my fellow writers and group members. It’s really motivated me to keep up at a thousand word a day pace.” It’s not only motivation that makes companionship important during the challenge though: “it is having people who will encourage me and share their experiences. It makes the whole process less lonely, ” Gemma Noon told me, and it’s this support Vikki Thompson feels is vital. “For me, the thing about writing challenges is knowing you’re not alone. That other people are trying to do the same thing, suffering the same fears, concerns, highs and lows of the challenge.


Hmm. This all sounds rather warm and fuzzy… almost, gulp, noble… oh come on! Am I the only one who thinks we night all be a bit nuts? No, I’m not. “Until NaNo, I’d thought of writing as such a solitary pursuit,” says Sarah Little. “It was fab to find out there was a huge bunch of like-minded loons!” Er, thanks, Sarah, for proving my point. I think…




Guest Post: Melissa McPhail – My Take On Magic Systems

Officially the blog tour has finished, but to round off the week here is a guest post by Melissa McPhail, talking about magic systems in fantasy and how she devised the one she uses in Cephrael’s Hand. Then read on to learn how you can win huge prizes as part of this blog tour, including a Kindle Fire, $450 in Amazon gift cards, and 5 autographed copies of the book.

My Take on Magic Systems

A guest post by Melissa McPhail


One of the most enticing aspects of writing fantasy is developing a magic system. The author’s magic system is inextricably woven into their world and contributes greatly to the reader’s vision of the world overall. The way a system is created either makes the world seem real or unreal, depending on how well the author has grounded the system with laws and limitations.

For example, scientists in our own world have defined laws—inertia, gravity, the periodic table—that describe the physical limitations and properties of energy. We don’t expect a stone to rise upwards when we throw it, but we might believe it could float if it were somehow made of helium. Likewise in a fantasy world, it’s important to codify the system with laws and rules (and to stick to those rules once established), to set boundaries for what the magician can and cannot do with magic, and to establish consequences for and ramifications of magical misuse.

This all shows that magic systems require significant thought and research on the author’s part to develop realistically. Yet for all of this, the manner in which one might design and describe the magical process is potentially limitless—there are as many magical systems as there are fantasy novels, and equally as many readers eager to pontificate on their pros and cons and/or to organize the systems into categories and types.

The one thing most magic systems have in common, however, is that they all handle energy. Whether that energy is spiritual, omnipotent, corporeal, or derives from physical objects or living things, the working of arcane arts surrounds the manipulation of energy.

I designed the magic in Cephrael’s Hand based on scientists’ existing understanding of electrical fields. The process of thought has been scientifically proven to produce energy, and human bodies are known to generate electrical fields. For the magic in Alorin, I proposed that all living things produce a metaphysical energy which is formless but which flows across the world in natural currents. This energy is called elae. This is the energy a magician of Alorin uses to produce arcane workings. How he does this is the creative part.

In Cephrael’s Hand, all things are formed of patterns. A single leaf derives its pattern from the larger pattern of its motherly oak. The snowflake harbors the pattern of a storm. Rivers form patterns that mimic the pattern of the world, and a living man harbors within him the pattern of his immortality. These inherent patterns collect and compel energy (elae) toward a certain purpose—growth, action, states of change.

To compel energy, a magician of Alorin (called a wielder) must learn to first identify and then usurp control over the pattern of a thing in order to command it. This is a laborious process requiring a lifetime of study.

Unlike wielders, the Adepts in Cephrael’s Hand are born with the ability to manipulate certain patterns. Adept Healers can see creation patterns (life patterns) and mend them where they’ve become frayed. Truthreaders can hear certain thoughts and read minds to see what a man saw versus what he says he saw. Nodefinders have the ability to move long distances with a single step by traveling on the pattern of the world. And Wildlings tap into a variant aspect of the lifeforce called elae to shapeshift or even skip through time, among other intriguing talents. The last type of Adept can sense the patterns of nonliving things—stone, air, water, fire, etc.—and use those patterns to compel the elements themselves.

Adepts are limited by nature of their birth—they can only inherently work one category of patterns. They are limited by their training, their inherent intelligence, talent and ability. And of course, like us in real life, they are limited by their own vision of their capabilities.

Above all of these limitations, we find Adepts limited by “Balance.” The concept of Balance draws from my studies of Eastern philosophies. It is the high governing force, the yen and yang, karma, cause and effect, fate. It’s as esoteric and arcane as these concepts imply. How far can the Balance be pushed in one direction without lashing back at the wielder? Which actions stretch it and which ones defy it? Balance is a complex and complicated subject—as difficult to define as our own world’s myriad competing religions. The only real agreement on the subject of Balance is that all magical workings stretch the Balance to some degree. Understanding how far they can be stretched without snapping is central to survival in the arcane arts.

The concept of Balance provides, well, the “balancing” force to all magical workings in Cephrael’s Hand and is central to its plot. You see, the entire realm of Alorin is out of Balance and magic is dying—and the Adept race dies along with it.


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All the info you need to win one of these amazing prizes is RIGHT HERE. Remember, winning is as easy as clicking a button or leaving a blog comment–easy to enter; easy to win!

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About Cephrael’s Hand: Two brothers find themselves on opposite sides of a great battle, neither knowing the other is alive… A traitor works in exile while preparing for the disaster only he knows is coming… A race of beings from beyond the fringe of the universe begin unmaking the world from within… And all across the land, magic is dying. Cephrael’s Hand is the first novel in the award-winning series A Pattern of Shadow and Light. Get it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

About the author: Melissa McPhail is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a Vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid Fantasy reader. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their twin daughters and two very large cats. Visit Melissa on her website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.