Something about mothers

It’s Mother’s Day, in England at least, and so here is a prompt that rarely fails. Write 500 words beginning with: “My mother always… .”

Mother and Child detail from The Three Ages of Woman

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Something for the weekend #37

Mark Twain said, “Reality is stranger than fiction.”  Well, take a look below at the picture of a CNN news story.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 8.21.57 AMAlso found in the motel room by the police was “an incoherent man.” So, here is the prompt: what happened before the police arrived?


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Inspired by ABDCE

Nobody ever said writing was easy, and if they did, they didn’t know what they were talking about. Our group met today to write and to wail about the difficulties we’re encountering along the way: the elusive plot element, that character who just won’t behave, and the six months of hard graft of revisions only to find the first draft might have been better.

I always benefit from these sessions–writing can be a lonely occupation–and more often than not I come away with some idea for fixing what’s been troubling me about a scene, or a chapter, and even my novel as a whole.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 1.05.24 PM

(Source: Coursera, Creative Writing: The Craft of Plot)

Today, we also talked about online writing courses. You may be aware that there are many, often free, courses offered by globally-renowned universities. The particular courses we talked about were Creative Writing: The Craft of Plot, from Wesleyan University, and How Writers Write Fiction, from the University of Iowa.

For me, plot is a challenge. I love setting and character, but the plot, well that’s the reason for taking the Wesleyan course. It was a joyous revelation that much of what is going  wrong in my stories can be addressed by a simple ABDCE.

Note the order of those letters.

A means action, B means background, D is development, C is climax, and E is ending. One of Wesleyan’s course assignments was to write 400 words with the ABDCE sequence, according to this prompt:

“Begin a scene where someone wants a concrete physical object more than anything else in the world. Now include each of the five key components of a scene as you’re writing. Write for a few minutes, then give that character a disease where they learn they have only 24 hours to live. This is your first significant rising action. Write some more, then give that character a choice between that object and an antidote. This is your second significant rising action. Finish the story with a conclusion. Your final story should not exceed 400 words.”

Try it, it’s fun!

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Something for the weekend #36

There is a monster park north of Rome, the ruin of a folly, inhabited by giants and ogres and mermaids. Abandoned in the nineteenth century, it became a shelter for local shepherds and their flocks. It’s a tourist attraction now. What if you’d come across it on a walk in the woods? (Photo courtesy of


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Something for the weekend #35

Cardross, St Peter’s seminary Cardross, near Glasgow Alamy Ruins

Fantastic photograph by Tom Kidd/Alamy that I just came across on The Guardian today. The article, The 10 best ruins in Britain, could definitely inspire some new writing this weekend. This photo features St Peter’s Seminary in Glasgow which opened in 1966 but closed in 1980.

All the ruins in the article are worth checking out but my other favourite is this photo by Alamy:

Witley Court Worcestershire

This is Witley Court and I love this quote from the article: “If it had remained intact it would have been one of the more boring of Britain’s stately homes, with its senseless repetition of statements of status. As a ruin it is potent.”

If you can see the potency in any of these ruins… get writing!

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Something for the weekend #34


Love this picture of “Lady & Leopards” I just came across in this Huffpost article by the author of a recent book about circus history, Linda Simon.

If I wasn’t driving kids around and cooking food and washing up all weekend long maybe I’d write something. Roll on Monday!

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A fictional guide to editing your writing?

bone clocksIs it weird to take advice on editing from a fictional character? I think that’s weird, right? But when that fictional character is (maybe) based on Martin Amis and the author behind the character is novelist David Mitchell, perhaps it’s not quite as daft as it seems.

I’ve just finished reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and particularly enjoyed a scene where Crispin Hershey (the Amis-esque character) is teaching creative writing to undergraduates.

Here’s his thoughts on adverbs:

“Adverbs are the cholesterol in the veins of prose. Halve your adverbs and your prose pumps twice as well.”

On simile and metaphor:

“… grade every simile and metaphor from one star to five, and remove any threes or below. It hurts when you operate but afterwards you feel much better…”

And if you can’t decide if it’s a three or a four? Crispin is asked:

“If you can’t decide… it’s only a three.”

Crispin is also an advocate of writers building character sketches. He wants his students to write letters to themselves from their characters. When asked what they should put in the letters he’s demanding:

“Your characters’ potted life histories. Whom or what your characters love and despise. Details on education, employment, finances, political affiliations, social class. Fears. Skeletons in cupboards. Addictions. Biggest regret; believer, agnostic, or atheist. How afraid of dying are they?…Have they ever seen a corpse? A ghost? Sexuality. Glass half empty half full, glass too small? Snazzy or scruffy dressers? It’s a letter so make use of their language. Would they say ‘mellifluous’ or ‘a sharp talker’? Foul-mouthed or profanity-averse? Record the phrases they unknowingly overuse. When did they last cry? Can they see another person’s point of view? Only one-tenth of what you write will make it into your manuscript, but when you knock on that tenth… you’ll hear oaken solidity, not sawdust and glue.”

All great stuff really, but my favourite bit of all is Crispin’s thoughts on the writing life:

“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned… Art feasts upon its maker.”

Love it!!

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Monday writing


Yay! We all got it together this morning, despite three year olds clinging to legs, mad dogs and the Comcast guy and we have been writing. Our prompts today were:

Who is on the bus…


The object of desire or hate


A place you used to live


A place you used to work


A place you have never been


Worst job/first job.

Try one…

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Writing about writing

Cynthia Bond

In May I was able to do a Q&A with Cynthia Bond whose novel, Ruby, I really admire. The full Q&A is posted here, but I wanted to pick out this one question particularly because she talks about her experience in writing. Enjoy!

Me: Some of the most harrowing scenes in the novel take place in the house run by Miss Barbara. Were they (or others) as difficult to write as they are to read?

 Cynthia Bond: Oh my God, yes. I love writing, and of course, I fear it as well…because it is difficult to write about such tragic events. In addition to being a carpenter, my grandfather was a douser. He would take his diving rod and start walking. The rod would just point down, begin to shake, and then he’d tell the farmer how deep the water was and start to dig. He was uncanny in his accuracy regarding depth. Sometimes he would take my mother, put her in a bucket and wheel her down, to collect rocks, and dig earth. Once, when she was down at the bottom of the well, water starting rushing in. It quickly reached her shoulders, she pulled on the rope and shouted and he quickly pulled up the bucket. Sometimes writing feels a bit like being lowered into the bottom of a great well. Sometimes it is fascinating to observe the minerals and roots, and at other times the water rushes in so quickly that I must scramble, leap to freedom. Because for me, writing is something I experience viscerally. Then I rewrite…then rewrite it…then rewrite it again! One of the reasons that I list three baristas in my acknowledgements is that, for a period of time, it was difficult for me to work alone, and I needed people around me—not talking, or distracting me, just there. The folks at a coffee shop named Swork in Los Angeles let me park in a corner with my laptop for at least two years, quietly weeping at times into my cappuccino—the foam artfully crafted into a swirled heart.


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Setting prompt

The following excerpt from Cynthia Bond’s powerful new novel (you heard it here) Ruby makes a great prompt to start a story or just tackle a familiar setting in a new way. Read and model your writing as closely as you can or as loosely as you like…

The crow caught a cross current and gained altitude as the man grew small and then vanished behind a rise in the earth. she tilted with the curve of the horizon. The sun warmed her hollow bones, her blackest feathers holding its heat. She flew over thatches of land, gold, green, brown following the red river road until she reached the town square. Far below she saw a knot of men crowded onto the store’s steps, the women fanning their faces and looking on, headscarves tied. A woman chasing three boys off with a broom. She saw the different roofs, black tar, shingled, wood. She flew on. More farms. Wide wild pines spearing the clouds. Pockets of green. Bony fences leaning into the road or boxing in pigs, chickens, cows. A berry cobbler set out to cool. A red melon split on an outdoor table, children gathering around it like flies. The crow saw two men plodding home, carrying empty pails. Smoke from the mill in the distance. She flew past Marion Lake and the tangle of woods beneath, a wealth of beetles, grasshoppers and other legged insects, until she finally reached Bell land. The dried grass, empty hard field. Figs and apricots wormy on the earth. Gravestones litterring the hillside. The house with holes poked through the roof. Rain and sun cutting them larger each day until now the foot of the girl’s bed was in view. She was asleep on her belly, her black soles facing the sky.

18282970I have just finished reading Ruby and am very excited to be have had the opportunity to ask Cynthia Bond some questions about it as part of a feature I’m writing for the Historical Novel Society. It’s an amazing book. Hard reading but rewarding.

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