Posts Tagged ‘Creative Writing’

How Do Writers… Come Up With Ideas?

| How Do Writers... A Series of Practical Writing Guides


I sculpted opening sentences as I sorted spikey Velcro rollers at my job at the hair salon. I pictured my own name in print, as I sold books in WH Smiths. I noted customers’ dialogue as I worked the shop floor at Harrods. The words, jokes, settings, and characters built up in me until my ideas overflowed. I had to write a book.

Where do writers get their ideas from? Everywhere. Here are my top three places to hunt the muse:

1. Real Life

Write what you know, so the saying goes. And what do you know better than your own life? To me this doesn’t mean write a memoir (though you can certainly do that). More it means, what is your unique selling point? Apologies for the marketing jargon, but this is an important concept: what is it that you know that is distinctive or, as of yet, unwritten about elsewhere?

– What life event? John Green drew on his experience of being a student chaplain at a children’s’ hospital, to write about two teen cancer patients in The Fault in Our Stars.

– What location? The rugged Cornwall wreckers’ coast inspired Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

– What job? Kingsley Amis wrote Lucky Jim about the eponymous university lecturer, whilst working as an English academic himself.

– What person do you know? Mario Puzo said his inspiration for his main character in The Godfather, was his ‘wonderful handsome’, but ‘fairly ruthless’ Italian immigrant mother, who single-handedly raised her family of twelve in the New York slums. Badass.

2. Newspapers

Whether you’re reading about complex crimes, long lost loves being reunited, or domestic incidents playing out against global events, there’s a wealth of stimulus in newspapers. I keep copies of articles that I find intriguing. Newsworthy events are also a great way of pinpointing what’s of the zeitgeist. Publishers are keen on identifying this, because a book that captures a public spirit or moment often enjoys increased sales!

3. Images

A quirky image, whether a photo, a painting, a film, a TV show, or a postcard is a great jumping off point for ideas. Tell yourself a story about what you see: what’s happening? Who is this character? What will happen next? Write a line about it. Write a paragraph. Write a page. It’s a great way to get your mind to wander (in a good way!)

To paraphrase Wet Wet Wet, (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write): I feel it in my fingers. I feel it in my toes. Ideas’re everywhere you go…

When I finally sat down in my late twenties to write my book, I had several false starts. Some manuscripts stretched into the tens of thousands of words, but no matter how promising they seemed at the beginning, they all petered out and ended up in the trash. What I had was an idea of a book: a vague notion of character, an opening scene, an impression of what I wanted it to be about. But something was missing: story.

Now I work as a professional reader for The Literary Consultancy, I appreciate how common it is for writers’ first books to lack story. A good old fashioned yarn, with a beginning, a struggle, and a triumphant, or otherwise, end.

Ideas are good, but they are only the first step. Ideas are bricks. Play with them. Then use them to build something bigger. Use them to build your story. Use them to build your book.


Where do you get your ideas from? Share your own tips in the comments below.

Catch up on How Do Writers…Write A Book? here. And check back for the next instalment: How Do Writers… Tell A Story?  

My crime thriller Follow Me is published by Avon December 2015.

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Why Creative Writing Courses Need To Face Up To The Reality of Publishing

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Kent University Creative Writing Centre stumbled into a Twitter storm over the weekend when a section of their prospectus was circulated online:

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It’s a master class in literary snobbery, and offensive to genre writers. Once again, it’s a case of literary fiction versus, well, everything else. A Proust covered two-finger salute to that nasty horrid publishing industry, and their nasty horrid genre rubbish. The Kent University Writing Centre had the good sense to apologise and alter what they claimed was a badly worded online piece. Ironic that, from those “world-leading” writers. Ahem.

I’ve had a memoir published about working in the fashion industry. It has a pink cover. I’ve experienced my fair share of dismissive assumptions about my writing capabilities first hand – most recently: “You have a degree in literature and you published this?” I am used to encountering academic or literary book snobs. I find them dull. I love literary fiction, and I love genre fiction, I love YA and I love non-fiction. My tastes, as I’m sure with a lot of readers, are fairly wide ranging. How sad to limit your life to one flavour? The idea some books are intrinsically bad because of their genre is ludicrous. Reading is great. Inflammatory material and grammatically incorrect output aside, we should be happy people are reading.

I don’t want to be one of those people who disparage another’s work by asking how it got published? This particular thread of snobbery seems almost unique to literature. I may see someone wearing a dress I wouldn’t wear, but I’d never say ‘That dress shouldn’t have been made!’ I’m not particularly fond of red cabbage, but I wouldn’t proclaim, ‘This cabbage should never have been grown!’ Yet book lovers, and often writers, can be brutal and damning in their condemnation of things they see as beneath their art form. Phoey! Your reading material is a personal choice, like whether you want red cabbage for supper. It is not our place to police what others ingest.

Some writers, and some creative writing courses, perpetrate the idea anything “mass-market” is dirty. A sell out. A failure. A friend of mine asked the Creative Writing MA class she teaches who wanted to get published? Only half her students raised their hands, while the other half audibly scoffed. Wanting to be published and wanting to get paid for your work has a PR problem in the writing world. Of course you’re welcome to take a course of study just for the pleasure for it. You are free to write purely for the feeling of contentment and satisfaction a well-crafted piece can bring. But no one should disparage others who seek an audience, or payment for their work. Unless you’re lucky enough to be independently wealthy, you’ll need to earn money to feed, clothe and house yourself. Why shouldn’t you seek to do that from the thing you love?

Which brings me round to the danger of creative writing courses ignoring the realities of the publishing industry. All the terms used with such derision in pieces and conversations like those quoted above, “mass-market”, “genre”, “children’s fiction”, “thrillers” etc, are all vital components of a working publishing industry. A beautifully written manuscript just isn’t enough anymore. You need a strong concept, hooks, pace, audience, marketability and a whole host of terms I hear frequently used by agents and editors, but virtually never by anyone teaching a creative writing class. For all those taking courses for the joy of writing there will be all those taking courses to increase their chances of being published. They’re investing their hard earned money and time on something they hope will launch or further a career. Ignoring the vagaries of an increasingly difficult market will leave many writers labouring for years on work they cannot sell.

The laughable idea that a “genre” book is somehow easier to both write and publish ignores the thousands of current unsigned, unpublished authors who are out there slaving away. I know many good writers, and several excellent writers, who are still the wrong side of a publishing deal. Getting published is hard. Creative writing classes that disregard how the publishing industry works, by indicating they’re somehow intellectually above all that messy money stuff, not only do their students a disservice; they also do down those who are published. Authors have not sold out to get there, they have worked hard, they are doing what they love, paying the rent, feeding their kids, earning a living (or something close to it).

I’m not suggesting writers should only set out to write those mass-market thrillers everyone loves to name-drop, far from it. Creative writing courses are an excellent place to develop and progress your artistry, and sculpt your craft into that of a master (though you’re perfectly welcome to do that at home on your tod as well). But, if you want to sell your work, if you want to get published – whether you’re writing literary fiction, young adult, sci -fi, or any book – then you need to know what the publishing industry wants. If creative writing courses feel they are above teaching that, then they should be transparent and honest about it. Yes, they will help you write a book, but you’ll need to look elsewhere for your day job.


Confessions of a Festivalnista: Camp Bestival Backstage Bites

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Bestival 1

Yeah, yeah, I know festivalnista isn’t a proper word, but neither is fashionista and I published a book with that in the title. It’s that same book that saw me invited to appear at Camp Bestival, which took place in glorious Dorset this weekend.

I’ve been to festivals before, but never one this big, and never as an artist. It’s rather lovely having an ‘Artist’ wristband. My mates (who from now on will be referred to as ‘my entourage’) pitched their tent next to Katy Hill and calmly watched Mark Owen stroll past without squealing. I’m proud of you, girls. There’s a swanky backstage bar area called The Lucky Cat. It was decorated with opium den style slouch couches, Chinese lanterns and me, reclining in various positions, sipping gin coolers. And there really are nicer toilets in the VIP area. You know you’ve arrived when you have guaranteed access to loo roll on a festival site. I was so spoiled it almost made up for feeling like a loser for most of the ten years I spent working in the fashion industry. Almost.

Lucky Cat

The Camp Bestival site is a glorious sprawl of fun and colour, spreading around and away from Lulworth Castle like a fete on hippy crack. There were some big name acts that were lapped up, got down too, and generally screamed at by my entourage (told ya), including Grandmaster Flash, The Levellers, and the quite unbeatable Horrible Histories (I’m guessing the average age of our group was a shade older than their usual audience). But for me the true joy of festivals is found away from the main stage, in the unexpected gems you stumble across. The disco tent, the inflatable church with dancing barefoot vicars, the small child in a monkey onesie chasing and leaping after a bubble. It’s what you see on the way to the big stage that you really remember. Festivals are like life in that way.

I was very lucky to do my own turn in the Guardian Literary Tent. I regaled all with my powerful insight into festival fashion tips: get a gel manicure, get a blow dry, get your eyelashes tinted…only joking. As I said on stage, I always feel so happy when I’m at a festival, is it the alcohol? The communing with nature? The fact my entourage are all with me? No, it’s because I spend four days without mirrors. At best you might come across a small shiny plastic square stuck to the back of a portaloo door, which is so fuzzy and unclear it’s like looking at an Instagram of yourself. So my true festival fashion tips are: wear what makes you happy, and what you can pee easily in. Unless you’ve got access to those artist loos, in which case go for as many complexly fastened outfits you have to fully remove to wee in, as you like.

Thank you, Camp Bestival. It was a pleasure.



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Creative Writing Class Clichés

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Creative Writing Class

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ll probably recognise some of these characters:

The Undiscovered Genius

Andrew is Hemingway reincarnate. He feels it deep in his troubled soul. His new build one bed flat is a homage to 1920s Paris. He starts every piece he writes with a drink and works into the night, making sure he hones the pallor of a struggling artist: dehydrated, and starved of sun and sleep. At weekends he sits in a local cafe writing by hand about impotency. His writing class are far too bourgeois to understand him. They haven’t even heard of Gertrude Stein. After class, Andrew sits in the corner of the pub, wearing a cable knit jumper, drinking whiskey and challenging anyone who comes near him to arm wrestle. By day he’s a chartered accountant.

The ‘I’m Too Busy’ Writer

Iris joined this class to give herself a deadline each week to write to. But she’s always so busy; she just hasn’t had the time to type. She’s had to do so many things. You know, all those things that just have to be done. Next week she will definitely write. Next week will be different. (It isn’t).

The Grey Haired Lady

Marjorie has been coming to this writing group for six years. Each week she travels up to town in her knitted cardigan and sits in the same seat. When the youngsters go out for a cigarette, she eats the ham salad sandwich she’s packed. Now they insist you type all your work, she’s had to dig out her typewriter. She spends an hour before class randomly pressing buttons on the photocopier to coax it into life. She finds something positive to say about everyone’s writing, and always lets someone else read first. Now she comes to think of it, it’s been years since she actually read anything. The teacher and the other students are mildly patronising to her, but they don’t mean any harm. When she finally reads, Marjorie recites a tender homosexual sex scene from her second novel. Everyone is speechless.

The Know-It-All

Jim is a writing god. His command of the English language is unsurpassable. He knows how to use an Oxford comma and he’s not afraid to tell you. He doesn’t need any criticism, idiots. He came to this group so you could appreciate his literary magnificence, idiots. Only a fool would question his loose sentence structure, indecipherable prose or complete lack of plot. Jim could teach this class better than that idiot teacher. He could give Hilary Mantel a run for her money, idiot. Huh! He could give Proust a run for his money, idiot. (Idiot).

The Newbie

Jane really enjoyed creative writing as a child. She’s been meaning to start again for years. At school the lovely Mrs Brownlee, her old English teacher, always said she had natural talent. There are bound to be one or two good writers in this class of thirty, but Jane’s quietly confident she’ll be in the top ten at least. She visibly shrinks as one after another incredibly talented, hardworking writers who’ve been at it for years, read. She shoves her piece back in her bag. She has a lot of work to do.

The Journalist

Louise is a sub on a national newspaper. She hates telling her writing group what her day job is because they get overexcited. ‘A paid writer! How amazing! How wonderful!’ Louise knows she spellchecks for a living, but she dreams of writing the last great Fleet Street novel. After years of generating copy in high-pressured, professional environments, her daily word count is staggering. She can’t understand why everyone struggles to layout a simple page. How hard is it to double space? And what’s with all these gaps between the paragraphs? She out drinks everyone else in the pub after class, and goes home to dream of the Pulitzer.

The Sci-Fi Geek

Geoff works in IT. He often breaks off during his reading to explain the finer points of Artificial Intelligence. He spends every night, weekend and holiday writing, because his created world is much better than this one. He only leaves the house to attend his writing group; the rest of his social life is online. If you refer to sci-fi as genre fiction he’ll quote Orwell and Huxley at you. His classmates take the piss out of him and his glasses, which are stuck together with sticking plaster. He lands a six-figure three-book deal and celebrates by buying voice recognition software.

The Writing Mum

Anna gets up at 6am to wake the kids. Then it’s; breakfasts, washes, hair combing, teeth brushing, bags packed, coats on, and off to school. Back at home she puts on the washing, strips the bed, makes soup for supper, before going to the shops for supplies. Just after 11 she sits down to write. At 11.30 the phone rings: one of the kids has forgotten their lunch. She gets in the car drives to school, delivers the lunch, drives home, just in time to take another call: one of the kids is sick. The evenings are swallowed in a whirlwind of homework, dinner, costumes to be made for the school play, story telling, teeth brushing, refereeing fights, baths and pyjamas. At 9pm she collapses into bed. During the half hour she managed to write, Anna will have produced far more quality words than anyone else did in a week.



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