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…

Whipping Your WIPs into Submission, OR ‘Fifty Shades of Completion’

Over on the Facebook Group for the 100k in 100Days Challenge, we don’t only talk about writing 100K words in 100 days. I know: it’s a shocker. We do mainly talk about writing, so if that doesn’t appeal, don’t join. Because it will bore you to tears, and life’s too short, even on a Grey day.

One of our recent natters intellectual debates was about languishing WIPS (works in  progress, lovies. You’re new here, aren’t you? Welcome :D).
Why do we have them? How many do we have? Will we/should we, ever finish some/most/all of them? After I suggested that performing a personal WIP audit could be useful,  suddenly the thread morphed into a secular online Confessional. Dozens of WIPs were admitted. The sin of Never Finishing any work above ‘short story length’ (a Grey area) was confessed (if this was a Vlog, you’d see me raising my hand here. As it isn’t, use your imagination). Some WIPs supposedly started when their authors were living in trees writing with a scratchy stick, but that was probably an exaggeration. Flamin’ writers.

Many of us felt we had at least a few WIPs worth retrieving from the Grey recesses of our archives – worth reviving or even completely rewriting, because the original idea was sound. How to do this logically, though, and how to balance the demands of ancient WIPs with the urge to start new stuff – that’s tricky. Or is it?As I’m all for giving an approving nod to other writers and their ideas, and this confessional mode is hard to get  out of, I’ll tell you now that if you need help with this, How To Finish What You Start – A Five Step Plan For Writersmay be all you need to tackle this Grey area.

BUT if the Five Step Plan seems too harsh, and not to have that holding-your-hand-and-guiding-you-gently-through-the-thicket-of-thorns-to-the-rainbow-rose-garden approach that you prefer, you might need my Fifty Steps Of Completion plan (except there are only fifteen) to Whip those Whips into Submission, instead. And no, I didn’t call it that to get hits from people seeking certain volumes of erotic fiction, it just came to me (no double entendre intended). If that’s what I was after, I would have mentioned E.L.James and slipped in the word Grey everywhere. (Oh… whoops.) Without Further Ado, I give you…


Fifteen Shades of Completion: Whipping Your WIPs into Submission.

Get a notepad ready – you’ll need it in a minute. (Yes, and a pen as well. Smarty Pants).

  1. Dig out every notebook and scrap of paper with writing on that you possess (yes, that includes shopping lists. What do they tell you about the person who wrote it, or what they’re about to do? They make great prompts!). Put them in one place: a boxfile if they fit, a bedroom if they don’t (displace the occupant. It’s for the Greater Good). Label your boxfile/bedroom WIPs.
  2. Search tirelessly through documents, blog posts, Sticky Notes, files from MyNovel/Scrivener/NewNovelist etc for writing. Save in one folder: WIPs.
  3. Time to separate your WIPs from your PIPs. PIPs are Ponderings in Progress. Snatches of dialogue, interesting info, undeveloped ideas; any pieces  less than about 5% of the intended finished length,  count as PIPs.
  4. Gather PIPs together in one computer folder and/or notebook, scrapbook, expanding/lever-arch/box file. If there’s a related cutting, join your PIP to it: staple, paper clip, or stick them on the same scrapbook page. Then, when you need a new idea (maybe you ran out of  WIPS; woo-hoo!) – all those brilliant seeds will be just waiting for you to come along and water them.
  5. FILE your PIPs, Make Way For Your WIPs! Label then store your PIPs.
  6. Only true WIPs left – got your notepad? LIST and number each one. No categorising, no comments, no ordering; just list. If it doesn’t  have a title, assign one that clearly identifies it, e.g. 1. Watch The Wall 2. Ghost sport story.
  7. Go down the list. Star WIPs that excite you/give you a warm fuzzy feeling.
  8. Again! This time star WIPs when you think, ‘I know what I’m doing with that.’
  9. Again! This time star WIPs when you think, ‘I could finish that fairly quickly.’
  10. Again! This time, star WIPs when you think, ‘I already have a competition/ submission/other purpose in mind for that one, that has a deadline attached.’ If the deadline is in the near future, give it two stars.
  11. You may feel that there’s one kind of project that you never complete, whether (like me!) it’s longer projects, non-fiction, flash…so brandish that pen again and star projects that fall into your ‘always left to last’ category.
  12. If your list contains items without any stars, take a good long look at them. Are there any that you feel you will never want to work on again? Now’s the time to heartlessly slash through those items.
  13. Hopefully by now you will have a short list of starred items – with any luck some will have more than one star. Your stars should enable you to write out a prioritised WIP list.
  14. What you need now is a PLAN. A rule that works for you, to ensure your WIP list is tackled whilst writing new stuff. Now you could go cold turkey – as recommended by the 5 step Plan – and ban yourself from writing anything new at all. By all means do this is you can, although remember to at least briefly write down any ideas in your PIPs book! But this won’t work for many people, who need to write new material because they have commitments to do so and/or need to write to earn money; or who find just revitalising old material feels stifling, making them lose heart.
  15. So if you can’t go cold turkey, what are your options? Here are some rules I suggested to Gerald Hornsby on the 100K group (he took up my audit suggestion and ended up logging a bewildering amount of languishing WIPs!).
  • ‘for every two new ideas I write up, I must finish 1 WIP’
  • ‘for every 2000 words I write on something brand new, I must write X amount on a WIP’,
  • ‘I will complete a WIP every two months’.

For any of these to work, it’s best to make a spreadsheet or some kind of record, to keep yourself honest, AND on track. Hope that’s cleared up any GREY areas 😉



Sorting Out Your Sub-Plot: Part 1 – What The Butler Did

Scared Smiley

Plot can be a bit of a scary word. Hence all those famous writerly sayings.

You know – ‘Plot me no Plots’, ‘Out, vile plot!’, ‘Is this a plot I see before me?’, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent plot?’, ‘It was the best of plots, it was the worst of plots’ and of course the infamous ‘When shall three plots meet again? In thunder, ligh-‘ well, you get the concept. (Ok, I made the last one up. It is of course a parody of Terry Pratchett’s ‘When shall we three meet again?’  ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday…’)  *waits for torrent of abuse from Shakespeare fans who think irony means ‘how clothes look when you’ve put that hot flat thing over them’*

I digress (constantly. It’s a writer thing). The point is, plot is a bit of an obsession if you’re a writer. Is it strong enough? Does it fit the theme? Aren’t they kind of the same thing? But no – you’ve read that plot grows from theme. You’ve read theme grows from plot, too! Eeek – now you’ve read that plot grows from characters! But surely characters come from plot? No good having a Special Forces sniper, then plotting a regency romance! Hold on – what’s this: a plot is a set of events linked by causality. Er – what’s that? What are plot holes and where are yours? Is your plot believable? pen on notebookWould Mrs Tiggins-Mapleleaf really commit suicide in the jacuzzi just because she discovered her layabout husband, Fortescue Tiggins-Mapleleaf, in a state of undress with the butler in the library? (Maybe not – unless, ooh, unless she didn’t give a stuff about Mr T-M, but had yearned for the butler for ages! Where’s my notebook… jacuzzi, butler… library, yearnings… there. I’m back in the room.)

Then, just to scare the socks off you (your pants are gone already, fleeing at the mere mention of ‘causality’), someone asks what your sub-plot is. 

You explain that none of the action is under the sea; have they not read your magnificent synopsis? The novel’s a regency romance set in Derbyshire. They look at you blankly. You squirm and try again. There are no popular high street chain design-your-own-sandwich establishments in it either. You clear your throat nervously, and add that you don’t think there was such a phenomenon in regency Derbyshire. Was there?
They still look blank and you realise it’s time to admit you don’t know what the hell a sub-plot is; now, before you run out of a) ideas that begin with sub b) self-respect.

If that’s you, fear not. Over the next few posts I will attempt to put my Diploma head on, the one that’s meant to understand this stuff; nick quotes from other writers that explain it better than me; and generally Reveal All about sub-plots.

For now, we’ll just establish what a sub-plot is.
Firstly, like a plot, a sub-plot is a series of events ordered by causality. If the term ‘causality’ is unfamiliar to you, think of it as ‘with a cause’; each event like a falling domino in a line. (Remember the domino metaphor, because we’ll come back to that in future posts). Still not clear? Enter Mrs Tiggins-Mapleleaf, stage right:

brandies,brandy snifters,cigars,glasses,libraries,library,males,men,people,persons,stogies,stogy

Mr T-M doesn’t show his wife affection because he is secretly gay causing
Mrs T-M to look elsewhere for affection and develop a crush on the butler, AND Mr T-M to develop a crush on the butlercausing…
Mr T-M to reveal his feelings and get the butler in a passionate clinch in the library, unfortunately witnessed by Mrs T-M, causing...
Mrs T-M to feel betrayed and despair of finding lasting happiness, causing…
Mrs T-M to commit suicide in the jacuzzi, causing…
Mr T-M to leap in to save her, causing…
Mr T-M to fail – but hit his head and drown in the attempt!, causing…
The butler to inherit the huge estate and erect a memorial to them both, also mounting an international campaign for increased jacuzzi safety measures, causing…
him to meet a lovely bloke named Jeff at the Jersey Jacuzzi Conference and live happily ever after.

Obviously if you wish to steal this stonker of a plot, get in touch and we’ll discuss terms. It’s not often I let a gem like that out on public view, but I like to think I’m part of a supportive writing community. *yes, the clothes do look flat, don’t they*

Secondly, a sub-plot is a secondary plot – less important than the main plot. You would expect it to ‘occupy’ less of the text. Some sub-plots interact hugely with the main plot; some barely at all. It depends on the effect the author want to achieve, and the nature or genre of the story. Which brings us on to:
What Can A Sub-Plot Do For Me, And Do I Need One? But we’ll think about that next time.


SUNDAY SITE SWEEP: Five Fab Sites for Beating Writer’s Block

This week, sites to generate ideas and spark creative thinking. Are you champing at the bit, ready to start a new project, but can’t fix on a starting point? Or perhaps you’ve come to a sticky patch in something you already have on the go? Whichever it is, hopefully one of these sites will provide the inspiration you need….and an ancient post of mine, A Walk Round The (Writer’s) Block, might prove useful too.

Plinky Prompts

Plinky: ‘because sometimes you need a push’. Plinky prompts can be sent to you via email, Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr and there is a new one every day. They used to do specific creative writing prompts but as far as I can tell these are a thing of the past (they used to include prompts such as ‘write the dialogue between a cop and the mother of a lost child’).  Also, overall the prompts seem to require less soul searching than they used to – describing the worst day in your life is very powerful, but describing your three most hated Facebook statuses, perhaps less so. Despite that, they are still very useful and it amazes me that so many writers are still ignorant of Plinky; there will be something to get you thinking at least a few days a week. You get a recap of the week’s prompts every week by email, and on the website you can access hundreds of old prompts – and perhaps even better, look at other people’s answers. Inspiration gold!

The Scriptorium

This site has a whole host of useful features including some excellent printable worksheets. The whole site is well worth any time you have spare for browsing, but for the purposes of inspiration these pages are the ones to focus on:


Free-writing exercises and scenes to write up


First lines and paragraphs to get your story brain working.


These exercises are in the young writers’ section, but are useful for writers of any age!

Errant Dreams

Scroll down the page until you see category listings. Category 1 is Images – visual prompts; anything from ‘a car with a web of cracks on a side window’ to ‘a star was tattooed on his brow’. Other categories are phrases, concepts and techniques.


‘PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.’ I think this mission statement – or perhaps it’s more of a raison d’etre – tells you why it is a great place for story and character ideas.

The Seventh Sanctum

This novel site has a random story generator and, in the left hand side bar, a whole host of genres – click on one and you will find lots of info on the chosen genre and links to story generators for that genre. Very…novel!

And as a bonus – I’m not an ipad user, but the apps below were mentioned in Webbo’s Web Watch in the September issue of Writing Magazine. Thanks, Webbo 🙂 I’ve added the links so you can investigate for yourself.

Flash Fiction Prompter

iDeas for Writing



Spring Cleaning – thanks Adrian Magson and The New Writer!

It all started with Simon Whaley talking about my piles.
Ok, that’s not strictly true. I commented on Twitter that my dismantled study was in piles in my bedroom (building work loometh), and that amongst said piles I had to find a stack of not-so-sticky-any-more sticky notes: a scene-by-scene novel plan. I won’t tell you what Simon said about my piles, gentle reader, because your delicate ears don’t need to hear it. But by the time I’d retrieved those sticky notes I had decided enough was enough. I couldn’t cope a moment longer without a desk – I can write anywhere, but need one organised location for all my writerly bits. And I couldn’t cope a moment longer with my bedroom resembling the aftermath of a riot in WHSmith. either.

Currently the only place for my large desk is in the corner of the riot-stricken bedroom. Cue large scale furniture moving and reorganisation. But it so happened that in this very week I had been rereading Adrian Magson’s Write On!, and had got to the section about Spring Cleaning, AND had found the The New Writer’s spring issue that I had somehow failed to read, featuring Nicola Daly’s article about…Spring Cleaning.

The Culprits

Both writers were urging me to go through my old work and spring clean my attitude to my writing too, as well as giving me a timely reminder that sometimes, as much as we love books, it’s time to let some go *sniff*.  I took their advice and a week later I am just about sorted. There is still paperwork to go through, but the desk is reassembled and reorganised and around 100 books have been decluttered, with those that remain (don’t be fooled, there are still hundreds!) reorganised on bookshelves that now have new homes. Despite my doubts, it seems my bedroom can be both haven and workplace.

But what was most useful was the looking back through old notebooks.
Adrian Magson says doing this can ‘make you realise that what you wrote in the past actually wasn’t all that bad’. But if like me, you have the memory of an inebriated goldfish, you can leave out the ‘wasn’t all that bad’; it can make you ‘realise what you wrote, full stop.

How can I have forgotten the beginnings and rough synopsis for a story I originally intended for the National Trust/Mills & Boon competition? (Looks like a good candidate for a My Weekly Easy Read submission). Or that when I started writing a pocket novel at Sally Quilford‘s Pocket Novel workshop last year, I based it around Cornwall and smuggling because I’d been researching those topics for the YA novel I had fully planned out? I had started far more, and got further along with far more, than I remembered. Great news.

Hopefully my new ‘writing home’ will produce good results. In the meantime, no hate mail please just because I forgot to take the ‘review copy’ sticker off Adrian’s book. I buy lots of books but occasionally am spared the expense of doing so by the perks of my husband’s job, and luckily he manages to bring home some Accent Press review copies (unfortunately someone beat him to Sue Moorcroft’s Love Writingso that is on the Christmas list…and if I found out who it was… my vengeance shall be mighty!


SUNDAY SITE SWEEP: Six Super Sites on Writing Dialogue

Writing dialogue is a tricky business. We want it to ‘sound genuine’ and not stilted, but we need realism without the everyday ums, ahs and errs. We want it to convey emotion, relay information, show character, move the story on…

Poor old dialogue! We ask a lot of it. And that’s without the scary task of indicating dialects or speech impediments, and ensuring that our characters sound different….aargh! Luckily some writers share their words of wisdom on how we can tackle these problems, so out with the notebook and see whose offerings ‘speak’ to you (all puns intended).

Speaking of Dialogue

A light hearted look at how to make dialogue sound real from Hugo and Nebula award winner Robert J. Sawyer.

A Few Thoughts About Dialogue

Novelist Janet Fitch’s views include the idea that you only need dialogue in your story if it’s showing conflict between characters. It’s a fair bet not everybody will agree with that one, but the post is well worth a read.

Writing Really Good Dialogue

A PDF guide to writing dialogue from NaNoWriMo, complete with exercises to try.

A-Z of Writing – D is for Dialogue

Light-hearted advice from the delightful Sally Quilford, writer of novels, columns and short stories.

Dialogue Techniques and Dialogue Tags

Essential info from the Crabbit Old Bat (her words, not mine!) Nicola Morgan

Dialogue Workshop

This is from author Holly Lisle. Well worth trying this on days when your brain is blank and you want someone to give you a random starting point, too (what do you mean, you don’t get those?).