Friday, 20 October 2017

What are you reading (1) ...?

By Gillian Hamer

Writers are first and foremost readers. Some of the best books I've read (The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell and All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr) to name but two have come to me through suggestions or reviews from other readers whose opinions I value. And both examples would most certainly have passed me by without this as they do not come into my usual choice of books or genre.

In the hope of discovering a few more masterpieces, this is the first in our regular feature where we'd like to share our current reads with you - and ask for your latest hot reads in exchange. Please join in the discussion and let's spread the word about some of the great books out there - whether classics or latest finds.

OCTOBER - What are you reading?


Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands

Headline: The author of the Love in Provence series returns to the South of France with a poignant portrait of a woman who must learn how to create a new life for herself…

Quote: … life on a manade, a traditional ranch where black Camargue bulls were raised … men, the gardians, on the back of wild white horses, riding through the surf and herding the bulls, evoked romantic images of a way of life that was quickly disappearing…


Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Headline: A 19th century tale of passion, injustice, hypocrisy, betrayal, seduction and murder.

Quote: ... Tess Durbeyfield, the daughter of a poor farm labourer, learns she may be descended from the ancient family of d'Urbeville. In her search for respectability her fortunes fluctuate wildly, and the story assumes the proportions of a Greek tragedy.

It explores Tess's relationships with two very different men, her struggle against the social morals of the rural Victorian world which she inhabits and the hypocrisy of the age.

Once you get used to the language, this book will fill your soul and touch every emotion.


We Are The End by Gonzalo C. Garcia

Headline: It’s an ARC from Galley Beggar Press. I always get excited when they publish a new book, because their writers never disappoint. This looks to be another winner.

Quote: ... Set in Santiago, Chile, Tomás is stuck. His girlfriend dumped him with the cryptic line, “I didn’t know I could do better. And now I know”. He can’t sleep and even if he could he hasn’t fixed the bed up in his new flat. He can’t come up with any ideas for his job as a video game narrative designer, he drinks coffee through a straw and the staff at Domino’s Pizza call him by his first name. Not only that but the Serge Gainsbourg vinyl album is stuck on the same track. It’s dry and lonely and funny and has a meandering internal voice which is oddly hypnotic and you just know you’re going to miss it when it’s over.


When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola, published by Cassava Republic.

Headline: Two friends so close they are like twins. One who never stops talking. The other who never stops running. In the summer before their eighteenth birthdays, their lives pull them in different directions. Karl flies to Nigeria in search of a father he never knew existed. Abu stays behind, in a London about to explode into riots.
Quote: ... This is a coming-of-age tale that explores friendship and trust, sexuality and gender. It touches, too, on the long legacy of slavery and colonialism to be found in both London and Nigeria. The voice is unusual, almost as if you’re overhearing a story one friend is telling another, and they’re not going to wait for you to catch up or fill in the gaps.
The sort of book that opens a window in your mind and lets in a breath of fresh air.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Who’s Afraid of a Nobel Prize Winner – a Celebration of Kazuo Ishiguro

By Catriona Troth

Stop the average reader in a library or bookshop and ask them to name five winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature and many would struggle. Ask them to name one that they’ve read, and they might struggle even more. The impression, however unjust, is that the prize is given to the obscure, the difficult – to authors you certainly wouldn’t think of taking away on holiday.

This year’s winner is different. Even non-readers are likely to know of Kazuo Ishiguro, through the films of his books Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I remember shortly after reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), I was in Cornwall. Walking along a cliff path, I came upon one of the stewards of the Boardmasters Festival. She was sitting on a stile, a book in her hands. I recognised the cover of Never Let Me Go and had to stop and talk to her. It was that sort of book. One you wanted to share with everyone. Even if the book infuriated you, you had to talk about it.

Ishiguro’s first two novels, A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986) were set in Japan. In an interview in the Paris Review (2005), Ishiguro talks of how writing about Japan freed him from the constraints of everyday life in London. It seems those two novels allowed Ishiguro to find his own voice, because Remains of the Day (1989) which won the Booker Prize, is set in an English country house and is narrated by a pitch-perfect English butler.

In another interview from 2015, widely quoted since the Nobel Prize announcement was made, Ishiguro gently mocked those reviewers so taken up with the novelty of a Japanese-born author heritage writing in English they couldn’t avoid clichéd Japanese-y metaphors.
They would talk about a still pond. With carp.” 
I will try not to fall into that trap! But it is certainly true there is a stillness and quiet on the surface of Ishiguro’s writing that he uses to conceal underlying turmoil. It draws you in, only slowly revealing what lies beneath.

In Remains of the Day, that stillness conceals both the narrator’s own emotions and dark political secrets. In Never Let Me Go, the characters appear to move almost placidly from childhood innocence towards their inevitable fate. But pay attention! The anguish is there. You just need to listen for it in the quiet.

Here are some other comments on Ishiguro’s writing:

JJ Marsh on Nocturnes

Occasionally, you come across a piece of art which creeps up on your emotions. Kazuo Ishiguro is a master at that with his novels, but can also pull off a similar feat with his short stories.

 In Nocturnes, literature and music intertwine. A collection of short stories, which feels like a full concert in five movements, changes mood and tempo with great subtlety, leaving a melancholy resonance behind.

This is about relationships, both between characters and with music, all in a minor key. Classic Ishiguro understatement leads to achingly poignant moments, but he also demonstrates his sense of humour with a few well set up moments of pure farce. As the title suggests, there is darkness, but also moonlight, laughter and that quiet magic which happens when you catch a lovely refrain carried on an evening breeze.

Gillian E Hamer on Never Let Me Go

One of the most poignant and thought provoking novels I have ever read. One of the only books on my shelf I've read more than twice! There's something unique in the writing of this novel that as a reader I find captivating and as a writer fills me with jealousy. The characters are so real, vivid and engaging - and yet the narrative is a plethora of questions and confusion.

It's very difficult to describe the storyline without giving too much away, and I don't want this to be a plot synopsis, but what seems like a story of innocence and adolescence through the eyes of a group of youngsters, always has a dark, ominous cloud hanging over the story, and, as the truth is gradually revealed the reader is pulled through every feasible emotion. And it also contains one of the strongest plot twists that stays with me still.

If you want a book that ticks every box and ties up every loose end, this isn't for you. But if you want a book that will turn your world on its head for a while I would highly recommend Never Let Me Go. I am so glad a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro has won the Nobel Prize - for ordinary readers like me it's a justification somehow that our feelings count too!

Sheila Bugler on When We Were Orphans

I read the final section of When We Were Orphans on a London bus, travelling from my job in Oxford Street to my home near Tower Bridge. I spent the entire journey weeping uncontrollably, devastated by the haunting sadness at the heart of Ishiguro’s fifth novel.
Like many of my favourite books, When We Were Orphans was recommended to me by my father. I had already read – and loved – The Remains of The Day (another ‘dad’ recommendation) so my expectations were high. 

The novel is narrated by Christopher Banks, a famous detective in 1930s England. Through the gradual unfolding of his memories, Christopher’s early life is revealed to the reader – an expatriate childhood in Old Shanghai, boarding school in England and on to the privileged world of high society London.
Although he’s a top detective, Christopher has never been able to solve the central mystery that has shaped his life – the disappearance, in Old Shanghai when he was still a young boy, of his parents. As the novel unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that this loss is at the heart of everything Christopher does. It defines him and renders him incapable of moving past this tragedy. 

Believing his parents are still alive, Christopher returns to Shanghai, a city on the brink of war. By now, it’s apparent that the great detective’s image of himself is at odds with the impression others have of him. The more he is drawn into the catastrophic events of the Sino-Japanese War, the more he loses sense of what is real and what isn’t. 

The moment Christopher finally learns the truth about his mother’s terrible fate, and realises how much she loved him, is unbearably moving. Although it’s too late to free him from the ‘emptiness’ that has been with him since he lost her, he realises too that ‘Her feelings for me, they were always just there, they didn’t depend on anything.’

When We Were Orphans is a devastating tale of the unconditional nature of parental love. Having spent over half my life in a different country to my own parents, the novel reminded me that afternoon on the bus that I should never take that love for granted.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Beauty of a Boxset

As the nights draw in, curl up in front of the fire and dive into a boxset. Binge-reading is good for your health, mind and brain, thus heartily recommended by all great authors.

Here are two crime series and two historical fiction sets for you to devour. Plus there's more where they came from ...

The Gold Detectives

By Gillian E. Hamer

Includes the first three crime novels of the series in one handy boxset.

Encounter the dark underbelly of North Wales and the island of Anglesey - featuring DI Amanda Gold and her team.

What readers think:

If you like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves or Peter May you’re seriously going to love Amanda Gold and her team.

I've become addicted to Ms Hamer's books! After thoroughly enjoying the first in this series, I read her other books before coming back to the Gold Detective books. The characters are complex, with their strengths, foibles and personal problems making for a realistic -though gruesome! - story. As usual, the body count is high, and there's some painful detail, but it kept me hooked to the end. And what an ending! 

Hamer does something quite special with her writing. She manages to combine glorious descriptions of Anglesey with quite gruesome murders. These combined with a pacy narrative, make her novels a compelling read indeed. 

The Beatrice Stubbs Series 

By JJ Marsh

Meet Beatrice Stubbs, your new favourite detective.

For lovers of intelligent crime fiction, three heart-racing adventures through Europe
Beatrice Stubbs: detective inspector, metaphor mixer and stubborn survivor.

What readers think:

For those who like their crime with a lighter, less gruesome touch. - The Bookseller

If you've not yet read a Beatrice Stubbs book, I envy you. What a treat you have in store. - The Bagster

My favourite thriller / procedural novel type has a strong female lead. One that is convincingly human and real, who isn’t the classic maverick detective, but works as a cog in a team, supporting her colleagues, just like in real life. Oh, and she needs to have some flaws. I need them to be written honestly, with interactions, opinions and emotions that echo people I know. Beatrice has all this in spades. - Dawn Gill


By Jane Dixon Smith

My name is Zabdas: once a slave; now a warrior, grandfather and servant. I call Syria home. 

I shall tell you the story of my Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Protector of the East, Conqueror of Desert Lands …

What readers think:

JD Smith's wonderful characterisation and meticulous research paints a vivid and dramatic picture of Syria in the 3rd Century AD at a time when Rome is disintegrating under the weight of its own corruption. The early years of Zenobia, one of the great enigmatic figures of history, are seen through the eyes of her cousin Zabdas, a slave who becomes a general. Zabdas is the perfect narrator and his story follows Zenobia from clever, precocious young girl to imperious manipulator of kings and emperors, from the desert kingdom of Palmyra to Rome and back. Full of passion, intrigue and drama it draws the reader in and holds them to the very last page.
Douglas Jackson, author of Caligula

Syria's Boudica [Boadicea], self-styled Cleopatra, and real-life Daenerys Targaryen.

Zenobia, Queen of Palymra, can now take her place beside a couple of other picturesque and photogenic fictional queens - Danerys and Maergery from Game of Thrones. The difference is, Zenobia really existed.

Historical Fiction at its best.

The Bone Angel Trilogy

By Liza Perrat

Three standalone stories exploring the tragedies and triumphs of a French village family of midwife-healers during the French Revolution (Spirit of Lost Angels), WW2 Nazi-occupied France (Wolfsangel) and the 1348 Black Plague (Blood Rose Angel) in one boxset.

What readers think:

Olga Núñez Miret, author/translator (English/Spanish), psychiatrist, book reviewer:
 … a must for lovers of historical and women’s fiction. Beautifully written, carefully researched, and emotionally charged, the three books are connected by an amulet
and the female legacy it represents … adventures of strong, brave, and
determined women who will pull at your heartstrings.

Terry Tyler, author: An intricately researched and beautifully written series that artfully shows how the threads of the past link generations together.

C. P. Lesley, author of The Golden Lynx and other novels: Three compelling heroines linked by a bone angel with a mystical past—a French village struggling with revolution, world war, and Black Death. Follow Victoire, Céleste, and Héloïse as each undertakes a richly imagined, emotionally complex journey toward a definition of womanhood that is uniquely her own. This trilogy--on my list of Hidden Gems--is one not to be missed.

Josie Barton, Book Blogger at JaffaReadsToo: … grips your imagination from the very beginning and the momentum doesn’t stop until all the stories are completed.

Cathy Ryan, Book Blogger at Between the Lines: … a sweeping saga following the fortunes of three strong women bound together by a bone angel talisman, passed down through the generations. Fascinating, moving and realistic - a must for lovers of historical fiction.

Friday, 22 September 2017

BOOKCLUB: The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

This month on the Triskele Book Club, we're discussing The Keeper of Lost Things, by Ruth Hogan.

About the book: Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.
Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.
But the final wishes of the 'Keeper of Lost Things' have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters...


I thought there was something completely captivating about this novel from the first page to the last and couldn't believe it was a debut novel. What appealed to you about Ruth Hogan's style?

(GH)  I think the feeling of confidence that comes from 'good' writing, whether a debut novel or not. Confidence in the story, confidence in the characters, and confidence to deliver a satisfying read to their audience.

(JJ) I agree about the confidence. There's a gentle rhythm to the way she writes and you just know you are in good hands.

(LP) I enjoyed Ruth Hogan's charming, fairytale style of storytelling; the way she quietly moves you.

I would class this as my 'comfort read' of 2017 so far - did you feel the same?

(GH) Yes, although I came to the novel believing it would be quite a sad read, touching on love, loss and grief. And while there was certainly elements in there, it also had numerous touching and moving moments, glimpses of humour and jealousy, and a lot of happiness and awakening of minds. A real balance that couldn't help but put a smile on the reader's face.

(LP) Yes, I found this a quite a soothing kind of read, the heartwarming moments nicely balancing out the tragic moments.

(JJ) Exactly. Very human and although it takes in the sadness of loss, it was uplifting and left you feeling positive towards the rest of the species.

Although this is essentially a story of loss - from Anthony's wife to the assortment of lost items - it is also a 'feel good' book with more highs then lows - which is a clever balance. How do you think the author achieved her goal?

(GH)  It felt to me that the reader simply connected with her characters and let them get on with telling their story. That may sound simple, but it is anything but. However, I feel the writer was so in tune with the novel that she let the highs and lows write themselves. If it feels right to the author, it will feel right to the reader, and everything fitted perfectly in place here.

(LP) Yes, I did relate to it more as a "feel good" book, perhaps because of the clever, quirky moments, in particular with Sunshine, some of which were "laugh out loud".

(JJ) Well yes, there is loss but also recovery or at least learning to live with the absence. Plus the characters handle their misfortune in many different ways. Sunshine is certainly an endearing personality and wholly unpredictable.

The author examines many sides of human nature, using the lost items as a catalyst for each story, which I thought was uniquely clever. Did you enjoy this narrative - and could you name another book with similar structure?

(GH) I really enjoyed the narrative structure. I liked how the 'lost things' became plot points. And one of the main reasons I liked it was the uniqueness. I cannot think of a similar book!

(LP) Yes I too loved this unique narrative and can't think of another similar book.

(JJ) I've read/seen stories which feature items threading their way through different peoples lives, but not across such a range of time and place. The structure was perfect, with each sub-story retaining its own atmosphere.

Which was your favourite character - and why?

(GH) I'd like to say Sunshine but that's probably a little unoriginal. So, I'll say Anthony Peardew because without him there would be no story.

(LP): I didn't have a favourite. They were all enjoyable, unique and interesting in their own way.

(JJ) Eunice, I'd say. From a modern-day perspective, you could say she's not a great role model, but I admired her quiet dignity and generous heart.

The author carefully handled Sunshine as a character, not shying away from her Downs' Syndrome, but using it as a positive rather than negative trait. Did this work for you?

(GH) Sunshine lived up to her name. She brought an unpretentious quality to the story. Her simple honesty and genuine highs and lows were refreshing against the muddied lives of the other characters.

(LP) Very much so, as Gillian says, her child's innocence was a welcome break from the sadness.

(JJ) And rightly so. There's no self-pity in Sunshine, but a huge optimism and expectation of welcome. I thought she was great fun and a good lesson to many of us.

There was an element of the supernatural, particularly centred around Sunshine, that added an unexpected layer to the story for me. Did you feel the same?

(GH) I liked it but then I like books with an extra paranormal edge, and to be honest it felt perfectly natural to me that Sunshine would have a connection with the lost things. I felt as if Anthony always knew this, and it was all part of his big plan.

(LP) This was the only element of the story that I didn't really relate to. I found it a bit intrusive and not really necessary. However, it certainly did not spoil the story for me.

(JJ) I tend to agree with Liza there. The positive, moving-on thrust of the book was imbalanced by that particular thread. But we can't all love every element or it would be very dull.

There was little use of location in the book, except for Anthony's home, Padua. Did the description of the house and garden bring the setting alive to you?

(GH) I'm usually a big advocate of the use of location within a story. But Padua is the focus of the story so it didn't detract here.

(JJ) Padua would be my second favourite character. That's what got me looking for all the Shakespearian allusions, too.

(LP) Yes, I certainly felt "at home" at Padua, and could imagine it clearly in my mind's eye; even smell it!

One of my highlights was the mini stories inside the main plot - essentially the story of the lost things - did you enjoy these breakaway insights or did they detract from the main plot for you?

(GH) I loved them! Each little tale brought a smile (or tear) to my face. I thought it was so clever to sit and think about each item and bring to life the story behind it. It was one of most favourite things about the novel.

(LP) I agree with Gillian; I loved them!

(JJ) They were great fun and encouraged the reader to imagine what stories the other objects in Anthony's study might tell. It also relieved some of the  pressure on the main narratives, having some of these side stories to explore.

Many readers may not have heard of Ruth Hogan. Readers of which other authors do you think would enjoy this novel? Why should they give it a try?

(GH) I think it's a tribute to the author and the book that no names spring to mind! But I would say that Kate Hamer has a similar literary style, examining the tiny details and letting the bigger picture come to life by its own accord. But anyone who likes a modern day psychological thriller but with a more gentle pace would appreciate Hogan's writing.

(LP) Despite the fact that this is a very unique novel, a few authors who examine the finer details spring to mind, such as Kate Atkinson, Ann Patchett and Maggie O'Farrell.

(JJ) It does what it says on the cover - it's a feel-good story, perfect for when the nights start drawing in. Hogan's writing reminded me a little of Jojo Moyes in the way she handles emotion. I found it a cathartic read when managing a loss of my own.

Read an interview with Ruth Hogan here.

Friday, 15 September 2017

What We Read This Summer

As this summer draws to a close, the Triskele girls compare what they read on the beach, in a mountain chalet, lounging in the garden, or wherever ...

Here are a few recommendations from each of us:


Close to Me by Amanda Reynolds: gripping psychological drama where a woman falls down the stairs at home, and wakes up in hospital having lost a whole year of memories. Then she begins to remember...

Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant: Despite the fact that most of the characters are unlikeable, I found this another unputdownable psychological suspense story, perfectly evoking the heat and oppression of one Greek summer.


The Breakdown by B.A. Paris: Highlight of the year for me, loved the eerie quality of the book, unsure if what you were reading was fact or fiction. The author has a talent for creating complex characters which worked well in this novel. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys the latest trend of psychological thrillers with a twist.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: Bit late to this classic, I know. But following a visit to The Lizard in Cornwall in June this year, and having stood gazing out across Frenchman's Creek, I decided to work my way through Du Maurier's catalogue, starting with the darkly captivating Rebecca. I love the author's style, the use of location and the edge of tension she keeps running without. Can't wait for the next one!


The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence. Hard to categorise as the initial lightness of tone gives way to much darker layers. Abby pops round to a neighbour's flat to borrow a tin of tomatoes, but he's dead. This episode and her pragmatic reaction - she smokes two cigarettes, calls the police and takes the tomatoes anyway - soon leads the reader to realise Abby has problems relating to the world. Fascinating, well written and a curious insight into managing bipolar disorder.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty. No surprise this won The Booker. A book which makes the impossible plausible and in doing so, holds up the harshest of lights to illuminate our broken civilisation. Dickens, where Sellout was born and raised by a terrifyingly obsessive father, has been wiped off the map. But he has an idea how to get it back. By re-instituting slavery. A book to make you laugh and gasp, but most of all, think.


I've picked two books about as different from one another as it is possible to be. The first is Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. Sophia Khan wears skinny jeans, smokes, swears, has issues with deadlines and agonises about getting fat while scoffing muffins and lemon puffs. So far, so Bridget Jones. On the other hand, she wears a hijab, doesn’t drink alcohol, prays five times a day and has no intention of having sex before marriage. This is romantic comedy with real heart. Do not expect this to end with Sophia ripping off her hijab and going on a binge. Nor with her settling down to be a ‘traditional’ submissive wife. This is about how you can be modern, independent, strong-minded – and still a faithful Muslim. Something most Muslim women have always known; Malik is just letting the rest of us in on the secret.

The second is not exactly your typical beach read, but in the current state of the world, it could hardly be more important. In Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge addresses (among other things) the erasure of Black Britons from British history, the nature of White Privilege, the failure of White Feminism to engage with issues of racism, the often overlooked intersections of race with class – and what white people should be doing to tackle racism. I want to put this book into the hands of every good-hearted, liberal-minded white person I know and say, ‘please read this; please try and understand. We are all complicit, but we don’t have to be.'


Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell: This was a wonderfully written book. You think you know the end, you think you know all the answers; you think the conclusion obvious. But as you race through the pages, you realise there's more to Ellie's disappearance, and the secrets unfold to the very end. Serious page turning material. 

If anyone has read a book they particularly enjoyed this summer, we'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 10 - How To Turn Your Life Into Fiction

By Helena Halme
Images courtesy of JD Lewis
During my MA in Creative writing some 10 years ago, writing the story of your life was somewhat frowned upon. Yet, one of the most often uttered pieces of advice was to ‘write what you know’. So how can we use our own life as inspiration for a novel?


Get Inspired


Your first task is to do some research into your own life. Yes I know this sounds crazy, but you need to get those creative juices going. Use old photographs or letters to remind yourself of how you felt, and write a short paragraph on the girl/boy in the picture or letter. What was going through his or her mind, what was she or he looking forward to or fearing?

What is the Story You Want to Tell?


It may be obvious what the story you want to tell is. However, a fiction book needs a start and a finish, and a plot. Think of the most significant event in your life, and start thinking about how this event shaped your life. In Doris Lessing’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Proper Marriage, the significant moment is Martha’s realisation that her marriage is a terrible mistake. You could also think how an event could have changed the path you’ve taken if you’d acted differently. Start plotting a scene based on the significant event, changing (if you wish) the conclusion for better or worse, and then write a short scene about it focussing on how you or someone close to you felt. This most significant event is the main plot point of your novel.

Have an Exciting Start

Now you’ve got a plot, make sure you start your novel at an exciting place. What was the most central, critical point of the story? Start there.
In the ‘A Proper Marriage’ we meet Martha when she is at her unhappiest, just as she is deciding to leave her life in colonial Africa behind.
Write a paragraph or two, charting the scene, making sure you get the raw emotion of the characters onto the page. If the central character is you, don’t hold back, just write how you felt, explaining your emotions as if talking to a friendly stranger about your life.

Combine Characters


Do make your characters complicated and interesting. I’m not saying that your life is filled with boring people, but in order to make a story fly, it needs strong characters. Don’t include every real person in the novel. Too many characters are confusing to the reader. They make the story unnecessarily complicated and jarring. Combine a few characters to make them stand out and to increase the pace of the novel. As an exercise think of two people that could be combined into one, complicated character, and include them in a scene.


Write with Confidence


Don’t worry about letting your pen fly when you start writing. Since you know the plot – and the characters – already, writing the novel based on your own life can be very quick. If you decide later to change scenes, subplots or characters, that’s easy. If you don’t worry too much about how truthful – or not – the story is, your writing will become much more fluid and confident.

Helena Halme is a Finnish-born author of six novels. Her best-selling title, The Englishman is based on her own life story of how she met and fell head over heels in love with a Royal Navy Officer at the British Embassy in Helsinki.

Now based in London, Helena is winner of the John Nurmi prize for best thesis on British politics, and a former BBC journalist. Helena currently works as a Writing and Marketing Mentor, is Fellow of CreateThinkDo and Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors.

Helena writes a regular blog on and can be found on Twitter (@helenahalme), Facebook ( and Instagram (helenahalme). 

Helena’s  book, Write Your Story: How to Turn Your Life into Fiction will be out on 29th November. It is now on a special pre-order price of £1.99 on Amazon.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 9 - How Do Your Characters Inhabit Their World

By Sunny Singh, via Catriona Troth

When you start to learn about writing the ‘Other’, one of the first things you are encouraged to think about is how different people inhabit the same space. A woman walking into a bar on her own and ordering a drink does not experience that bar in the same way that a man on his own does. A young gay couple walking down the street hand in hand does not experience that street in the same way an elderly straight couple does. And so on.

But how do you get deep enough inside the skin of another person to begin to understand that different experience well enough to translate it onto the page? Conversely, how do you gain enough objectivity about a character who is like you to understand the way they see the world in a fresh way and not simply as the ‘default’?

Sunny Singh is a Creative Writing tutor at London Metropolitan University. If you follow her on Twitter you will know that a lot of the work she does with her diverse student body is to make them aware of the way they inhabit the world and to allow that to inform their character building. I had the immense privilege of winning a one-to-one workshop with Sunny as part of the charity auction #authorsforgrenfell – which raised money for the victims of the terrible fire in Grenfell Tower earlier this summer.

I came away from the workshop feeling that my mind had been stretched in at least five dimensions – and that I had a huge amount of work ahead of me, but that I’d been energised to tackle it. With Sunny’s permission, I am sharing some of that work with you here.

First of all, for Sunny, it is important to pin a character down in a specific time and place (be that real or imaginary). The more specific you can be, the more detailed you can be about the factors that built their character in you story’s present.

So let us begin with a character who is like me. A white, middle-class, educated British woman in her late fifties. Sunny insisted I pin down exactly how old she was. What year was she born? Where? Who were her parents? When were they born? Did they become adults before or after the end of the War? What was the first political event that impinged on her? What was her impression of it? Describe how she looked on her first day at university? What are the first things she notices that day with her five senses? And so on.

The aim was to create a timeline of significant events in her life, and to think of those events in terms of the family, community and national and global events around her at those times. So not enough to say, ‘What is her favourite book?’ You need to find out when she first read it, what was happening around her at the time, why it became her favourite, what it means to her now given all that has happened to her since...

Of course, very little of what you find out will make its way into your finished work, but the fact that you know your character that well – that you have, in effect, lived for a while in their lives before they even enter your story – will mean that every decision you make about what they do in the story will be grounded in believable reality.

As Sunny says – there is no escaping the need for craft.

So now you have thought about your character’s life. You have done your research to understand the context of those lives (the music they listened to growing up, the political events that shaped the way they think...) Sunny now gave me three exercises to do. Two of them involve changing something fundamental about the character so you see them afresh (a bit like looking at a photograph in the negative to spot features you miss in the original). And the third involves seeing your character as others see them.

EXERCISE 1 Gender: Flip the gender of your character for key moments on their timeline. How does it change way they inhabit their world? What were you not noticing about the way the character originally inhabited it?

EXERCISE 2 Spatial Identity: Walk someone through your character’s home for the first time. (Even better if you have two characters, each in each other’s homes.) They don’t need a reason to be there. Just let them move through the space, poke their nose into every corner. What do they notice? What’s on the walls? In the fridge?

EXERCISE 3 Sexuality: What does your character find desirable in another person? Now flip the both the gender of the person they find desirable and the sexuality of the character (e.g. instead of a straight man fancying a woman, describe a gay man fancying another man). How does that change their focus? Remember, other things about this character (age, place of birth, education...) remain the same.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 8 - Trying to Find the Click

By Sophie Wellstood
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there’s a pivotal scene between Brick and Big Daddy, where Brick explains his need to drink.
Something hasn’t happened yet, he says. That click in my head. The click in my head that makes me feel peaceful. It’s like a switch clicking off in my head, turns a hot light off and a cool light on and suddenly there’s peace.
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to equate Brick’s struggle to find his ‘click’ via pints of Bourbon with a writer trying to find theirs by way of a jumble of sentences - and of course Brick’s search is for oblivion rather than revelation, but never mind. For me the struggle is similar. The click is a rare, contrary creature. It hides. It beckons, then disappears. It sometimes feels like it has never existed. Oh, it visits every other writer, all the time, generously depositing its gifts of character, plot, dialogue and drama and two thousand words a day, but it avoids my front door like I’m the village hag who eats frogs and abducts orphans. It flirts, makes promises, then breaks them.

But we keep trying, don’t we? Because when the click does arrive, it’s why we write. It’s peaceful. It’s a hot light turning off and a cool light turning on. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle, the thrill of a new birth. It’s where we want to be. It’s just right.

But how do we find it, and, equally as importantly, how can we trust it’s the click we want, and not its loud-mouthed perma-tanned sibling, cliché?

There are countless exercises which develop the muscles and discipline of writing, countless lists of good habits, good advice and inspirational soundbites from fantastically successful writers. All have their value. The most true and comforting for me is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Accept that, and that’s the first hurdle cleared.

I guess the three or four main strategies for me in terms of searching for the click are these – in no particular order:

Psychic (narrative) distance

John Gardner explores the concept and practice in his book The Art of Fiction, and the authors, editors and tutors Emma Darwin and Debi Alper teach it (brilliantly). Understanding and using psychic distance in any fiction is probably the most effective way of finding a missing click – and essential in terms of changing text from a monotone drone (like my ex history teacher imparting the key dates of the industrial revolution) to an operatic orgy (like my dreams).

Scene structure

Oh it’s such hard, hard work. Why not just have page after page of lovely sunrises and birdsong until BANG, someone’s carked it? The first draft of my novel had over a dozen sunrises. In the current draft (probably around the 25th, I’ve lost count) I’ve managed to reduce the sunrises to about three, plus one very foggy morning. I love writing about weather but sadly readers don’t like reading about weather. Kill the sunrises and make every scene muscular, every page powerful, make the reader compelled to continue reading.

Some of the best advice I’ve found about scene structure comes from Dwight Swain / Randy Ingermanson here:

This should be tattooed on the inside of a writer’s eyelids:

Goal - Conflict – Disaster – Reaction – Dilemma – Decision.

Ingermanson also describes at length the concept of Motivation-Reaction Units. It all sounds very unsexy and un-arty but it works. With practice it should become second nature and provide clicks galore.

Cross dressing

Who is the narrator? Why? Whose story is it, really? Send your narrator away for the week and re-write the crucial scenes and / or the whole idea you have from another character’s point of view. By character, we can choose the dog, the lover, the parent, the china dog on the mantelpiece, or even the flames burning in the fireplace. It’s fiction. Of course we can give fire a voice. And change the other characters. Do they have be the gender you’ve assigned them? Or the age, the sexuality, the race, the height? How would it change your protagonist if they existed outside the stereotypes? Could the male hero be four foot ten? Could the female love interest be hairy?

Gifts (or stolen goods)

All writers should be eavesdropping, all the time. It’s basic, basic stuff. The click for my story ‘The First Hard Rain’ came before I’d even written it, during a car journey with a dear friend who announced, in all seriousness, 'But the M6 - now that’s what I call a motorway'.

I knew then that I had something, and I would use it, at some point. The sense that someone could have feelings towards a motorway… I would never have come up with it, ever, and it rescued my story. I’m eternally grateful to her. Another friend had a very elderly boyfriend who was at the time very ill with pneumonia. ‘Or Old Monia, as I call it!’ she laughed. And I’ll have that, too, thanks very much. So listen, listen, listen to people, take their words, hoard them and when the time’s right, use them.

There are a few writing exercises /games I use too when inspiration is low. They may not all lead to clicks, but they really help to just warm the word muscles up, to become focused.

One syllable stories

Exactly that. Write a story of 500 words using words of only one syllable.

Animal, vegetable or mineral

Some characters seem to arrive fully formed, others are less clear. One of the ways I get to understand my characters is to turn them into an animal. Or in a couple of cases, vegetables. In my second novel, I have a (gay) couple who are a polar bear and a fox. In the current novel, I have a couple who are a carrot and a turnip. It helps me to ‘see’ them and their characteristics very clearly. So give every character their equivalent animal or vegetable. It’s a lot of fun and may provide some lovely insights.

Free writing

From all good creative writing classes. Choose a random object – or get someone to choose something for you. The duller or weirder the better. A cat hair. A breadcrumb. A cork from a wine bottle. An intestine. (Spot the clues about my lifestyle here…). Write for fifteen minutes about that subject without stopping, without lifting the pen from the paper at all. No stopping to re-read, no editing, no judging or worrying about spelling or grammar or whether it’s ‘good’. Just words, words, words, one after another, for fifteen minutes. Something lovely happens with the subconscious, and there’s the huge satisfaction of seeing a page fill up with writing that wasn’t there fifteen minutes ago.

Mixed length sentences

Fix a dreary passage by using sentences of varying lengths (which should be standard practice anyway) e.g the first sentence must be exactly six words, the second exactly fourteen words, the third exactly four words and so on. Or write your Booker Prize acceptance speech using sentences which increase by one word until you get to twenty.

Hi. I write. I write books. I write good books. The book won a prize. This is a wonderful achievement…and so on. (This is a very bad example and you will do much better).

And finally … stop writing

More often than not, my best clicks have come from stepping away from the computer and going for a long walk or a long swim, preferably in the cold north sea. The rhythms of walking and swimming just loosen up my creative knots. I can visualise settings and people, and ‘watch’ them as they move around. I can see how they stand, how they interact with each other, how they laugh or cry. I talk to my characters too, out loud, and they talk back. I don’t care if it’s mad.

We all write because we feel compelled to create authentic imaginary worlds, to inhabit a new universe where we are the God of absolutely everything. It’s the most wonderful activity, and extremely difficult to do it well. There’s no quick fix for bad writing, and often no reward or recognition for good writing. But I hope some of these suggestions help you with finding your own clicks, and help you to take your writing closer to being the best it can possibly be.

Friday, 18 August 2017

BOOKCLUB: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

This month on the Triskele Book Club, we're discussing Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

About the book:

Libby Day was just seven years old when her older brother massacred her family while she hid. Her evidence helped put him away. Ever since then she has been drifting, surviving for over 20 years on the proceeds of the 'Libby Day fund'. But now the money is running out and Libby is desperate. When she is offered $500 to do a guest appearance, she feels she has to accept. But this is no ordinary gathering. The Kill Club is a group of true-crime obsessives who share information on notorious murders, and they think her brother Ben is innocent.

Ben was a social misfit, ground down by the small-town farming community in which he lived. But he did have a girlfriend - a brooding heavy metal fan called Diondra. Through her, Ben became involved with drugs and the dark arts. When the town suddenly turned against him, his thoughts turned black. But was he capable of murder? Libby must delve into her family's past to uncover the truth - no matter how painful...

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members—including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

Discussion (Liza Perrat, Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh):

Why do you think the author, Gillian Flynn, set Dark Places on a farm?

(LP): the particular farm on which this story is set is rundown, bleak and isolated, just like many of the characters. This setting reflects the general dark, macabre ambience that runs through the whole story.

(GEH): The farm the author describes here isn't one of bouncing lambs and clucking hens, it's a bleak, rundown place that the family are struggling to keep afloat. I think the sense of loss and despair in the story are echoed in the settings, a very clever move by the author as it really adds to the atmosphere.

(JJ): For me, it symbolises the failure of the old ways. A farm means exposure to the harsh truth of climate change, unpredictable weather, unsustainable debt and the inability to rely on free labour, such as your kids. Additionally, it's remote and distanced from the town and its people.

The novel’s protagonist, Libby Day is a self-loathing liar, manipulator, kleptomaniac, and opportunist. Do you think the author intended to make her unlikeable? And were you able to empathize with her on any level?

(LP): Libby’s personality was shaped by the family she was born into, then the terrible tragedy that befell her at such an early age. For that alone, the reader can empathise with her. And yes, I do think the author intended to portray Libby as unlikeable. We see that right from the opening line: 'I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.' But I believe that is one of the author’s great talents; that she is able to render such an unpleasant character likeable and someone you come to root for as the story progresses.

(GEH): I didn't really grow to like the character, but I did feel empathy for her situation. To have lost her mother and sisters in such a brutal way, and to have been witness to the event, would scar even the strongest person. I also appreciated the fact that Libby recognised her own flaws and made no secret of them. She wanted to always be a better person but lived under no illusion it would actually ever happen. I think it's a brave call from the author to give the lead of the novel to this character but in my opinion it worked well.

(JJ): She reminds me of a turtle. There's a carapace born of hurt, formed by kindly sympathy around an immature, vulnerable interior. "I was raised feral". There's also laziness, pessimism, greed and judgement. She gives herself a free pass "because of what happened" but makes no effort to grow, come to terms, or make amends to those who wanted to help. She is incredibly annoying at times, which is what makes her an intriguing character. I didn't like her but she certainly interested me.

Why has Libby ignored Jim Jeffreys’ advice to earn an income for so many years? Why do you think she did that?

(LP): I think Libby was convinced society and the monetary gifts from strangers were her dues, as payment for her ordeal and the hard life she made for herself, because of the tragedy. As if society had to pay for her bad luck. She felt she didn’t owe society a thing, such as working to earn a living, or being a decent adult, but that it was owed to her. I don’t think Libby cares much about money anyway, or material possessions, and living basically hand-to-mouth suits her depressive, self-loathing personality.

(GEH): I think primarily down to a mix of self-pity and laziness. Libby feels the world owes her because of the tragedy of her childhood, and when the world stopped paying it turned her to bitterness.

(JJ): I agree with both your assessments. She does feel owed and she is lazy. This whole persona seems to have developed out of a sense of nihilism. She always has her "I could kill myself" card up her sleeve. This short-term approach to life means she cannot plan, will not contemplate a future and regards relationships as transactions. Or so she tells herself. However, someone with such a keen eye for the subtleties of human nature is nowhere near as disengaged as she'd like to think.

So why then do you think Libby takes up Lyle’s offer from the Kill Club?

(LP): Libby is skint. The kindness of strangers has run out and she’s desperate for cash, which is the major reason that propels her towards the Kill Club. After all, she’s lived off the victim card for so long, and this isn’t really any different. Also, perhaps now that many years have lapsed since her family was massacred, she can begin to look at the crime, and the supposed perpetrator, through different eyes.

(GEH): Desperation. She realises the money will soon be at an end and it's the easiest way of getting money fast. I don't think her intentions were any deeper than that, she certainly never thought of it as a way of clearing Ben's name in the beginning.

(JJ): Yes, obviously the money is a draw but so is the attention. Her name has dropped from the limelight and she resents all the billboards advertising another girl's disappearance. She gets into this for venal reasons, but the experience has a deeper effect. I also see a curiosity in her about why people care. Libby doesn't care passionately about anything so to see a group meeting of such urgency and obsession makes her take off her shades and blink.

What do you think begins to stir Libby’s mind about the innocence, or guilt, of her brother, Ben, for the crimes?

(LP): The Kill Club is a group of crime enthusiasts who meet to discuss famous cases, such as Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper … and Libby’s Kansas Farmhouse murder. And when Libby realizes many of its members are convinced Ben is not guilty, she starts to question what she saw exactly, or did not see, the night of the massacre. The author expertly evokes the fallibility of memory here, and the lies a child might tell herself to get through such a devastating trauma.

(GEH): Yes, I think meeting so many people who were so certain of her brother's innocence lit a spark of guilt somewhere deep inside Libby's psyche. How did she know what she saw as real back then really was the truth? When she couldn't answer that question to her satisfaction, she had no option but to follow her journey to the truth.

(JJ): As mentioned above, Libby avoids the 'dark places'. These include the truth of that night, happy memories of her family, any honest analysis of her own behaviour, the potential enormity of a miscarriage of justice. She sticks her fingers in her ears and sings because she lacks the emotional tools with which to break any of it down. She's disaffected until she encounters the affected. Taking a peek at the possibilities, at her own pace, she starts to examine shadows, doubts and her own instinct. The latter is vital because she has learned not to trust herself.

Did you think Ben was guilty?

(LP): Well no. That seemed to be the whole point of the story, putting doubt in the reader’s mind. However, I did ask myself, along the way, if the author might be creating a red herring.

(GEH): Not really. It could have been a dramatic twist that the bad guy really was the one doing life in jail, but it seemed unlikely. I thought the ending and the big reveal were my personal highlights of the novel.

(JJ): Because we spend a lot of time in Ben's head, and understand his disenfranchised rage and teenage impotence/potency, I didn't. Had it been a single act of violence, a crime of passion by a pent-up kid with a shotgun, maybe. But strangulation, shooting and axe murdering three of his family? He simply wasn't that kind of kid.

What did you make of Diondra and her relationships?

(LP): Diondra loves to be in control and I think she’s attracted to Ben as she can have complete control over him. She can manipulate him to do whatever takes her fancy, and send him on a guilt trip over her pregnancy. And then there is the “friend”, Trey, with whom Diondra seems to relate on a sadistic, warped kind of level. Someone she feels comfortable being evil with.

(GEH): Now that's one character I didn't connect with on any level! She is very complex, spoilt, needy and dangerous too. The unplanned pregnancy set her on another level, and she saw the best way yet to control and manipulate people. I did find her part in the modern day story quite shocking too.

(JJ): I'm with Gilly on this - I loathed her and her privileged arrogance. A classic manipulator. That said, I think the portrayal of Ben's experiences with her and his reaction to her friends is pitch perfect. I felt every single one of Trey's put-downs personally. Sly, devious and people-users. Toxic.

Libby’s mother, Patty Day constantly worries whether she is a good mother. What did you think?

(LP): Poor Patty is a victim of her time, place and situation in society. She tries her best, but constantly fails due to situations beyond her control, such as finances and an abusive husband who keeps turning up to claim money she hasn’t got. However, at the end, the reader realizes just to what extent a mother such as Patty would go, in an effort to try and provide for, and protect, her children. I really felt sorry for Patty, trapped in this terrible situation.

(GEH): I sympathised with the position Patty found herself in and couldn't fault her for doing her best under the circumstances, but did question her life choices and decisions. Obviously, if you look at her final decision it was solely based on improving the lives of her children, so yes, a good mother I think.

(JJ): Certainly a victim of circumstances, strong for her kids but weak with her husband. Her sister has more of a toughness which the children respect. Patty's exhaustion is total. Little moments show how much she loves her children yet she cannot provide for them alone. She reminded me of that classic Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange. At the end of her strength still trying to hold everyone up.

Did you like the story’s split narrative? Did you find one point of view more appealing than the others?

(LP): I enjoyed reading all the different points of view equally, as each cast a different light on the events.

(GEH): Yes, it worked for me. It made it far more layered to see the story and the history of the events played out between the major characters involved. It didn't confuse me at all, although I applaud the author for mastering the complicated narrative.

(JJ): The fact that each voice has such a distinctive tone and pace made it a definite success. Libby's inertia, long drives, introspective thought contrast with Ben's violent, jerky, scattershot narration whereas Patty is running out of ideas, so her recounting of the day feels like one punch landing after another. I think it's beautifully balanced. 

If you've read this book, please feel free to join our discussion and make a comment.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 7 - Self-editing

By Debbie Young
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

No matter which genre you write in, cultivating a habit of effective self-editing will make your books better and boost your confidence as a writer. As an author myself, I know that’s been true for me, and I’d like to help you gain the same benefits by explaining how and when to self-edit – and when it’s time to stop and hand over to a professional.


There are three main kinds of editing:

Developmental or structural editing: addressing your book’s shape and form, looking at story rather than style
Line editing: refining your story sentence by sentence, to make the language as precise and expressive as possible
Copy editing or proofreading: checking for technical correctness of the language e.g. spelling and grammar

Professional editors provide all of these services, and self-editing includes them all too. 


"But wait!” I hear you cry. “Isn’t it received wisdom that you can’t edit your own work because you’re too close to it?”

Sorry, I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. Even with a bottomless budget, you should still edit your own ms to the best of your ability before submitting it to your chosen professional editor for a final polish. Why?

To learn and grow as an author – if you let someone else tidy up  your mistakes, you won’t learn to stop making them 
To reduce the costs of a third-party edit - a good professional editor will charge less for a relatively clean script than for one riddled with errors
To build a better relationship with your editor – make him or her look forward to your mss rather than dreading them

“But I’m aiming for a contract with a trade publisher, rather than self-publishing,” you might be thinking. “They’ll provide an editor to do that for me.” 

Er, dream on. Yes, a trade publisher will provide an editor, but they’ll also be much less likely to offer a contract for a shabby script than for a polished one. You’ll still have to do much of the editing yourself, following their instructions. Surely it’s better to get it right first time, rather than being sent back your script covered in edits, like homework marked in red pen? “Must try harder” is not a pleasant message to receive at any age.


“I’ve got plenty of editing apps that will fix that stuff for me.” 

By all means run your ms through your word-processor’s spellchecker, or more sophisticated, algorithm-based apps such as Hemingway or Grammarly, but beware of their limitations. These mechanical methods will not pick up every error, nor will all their suggestions take your personal style into account. Its corrections may not be net improvements. For example, spellcheckers will accept words that are accurately spelled but wrongly used. No apps can replace the power of the human brain, or have your insight into your book’s unique concept and qualities. 

So if you want your book to be truly your own work, presented to the best of your ability, you should self-edit it thoroughly, rather than write the first draft and abdicate responsibility to all and sundry to turn it into a finished script.


Now for the good news: although self-editing is hard work and time-consuming, it’s also hugely rewarding. Many authors even prefer self-editing to writing the first draft, because this is when their story really begins to shine.  

If you’ve never done much self-editing before, you’re in for some surprises:

The number of edits you’ll make long after you thought your draft was finished (a quick check of my final draft of my latest novel yielded 350+ further tweaks)
How much easier you’ll find the process on each subsequent book, (I learn more with every book I write)
How intense and exhausting the process is, physically as well as mentally (if you’re not tired after self-editing, you’re doing it wrong)


So now let’s press on with instructions on how to go about it – and then I’ll give you an exercise to practise your skills in miniature, before you let yourself loose on your current work-in-progress.

First, take a break from the actual writing process. Writing and editing require two different parts of the brain – the first creative, the second critical. You need to turn off your creative brain and reboot your inner critic. 
The creative brain and the critical brain are like those two little weather people in a traditional wooden weather house: they should never both be out at once.

Received wisdom is that you should put a book manuscript away for about six weeks in a drawer (as if a drawer adds a special magic absent from a cupboard or shelf!) That allows time for your short-term memory to clear, so that when you come back to it, you will read what you actually wrote, rather than what you think you wrote, and so be more objective.

Plan to read through your manuscript very many times, with most of these times being for a specific reason, e.g.

- For plot structure – does the timeline work, does it make sense, will it meet readers’ expectations for your genre?
- To check speech – do conversations flow, do speech tags help rather than hinder (less is always more with speech tags), is it always clear who is speaking?
- For superfluous words – have you eliminated flabby padding that doesn’t add anything to the story except word count?
- For sentence and paragraph length – too many long blocks of text are hard on the eye, and it’s usually easy to them shorter, e.g. interjecting an action in the middle of a long speech to add a bit of movement and variety
- For writing tics - favourite words that are over-used (if you’re not sure what yours are, paste your whole ms into a word cloud generator, downloadable from the internet, and see what floats to the top – you may be surprised at the result)
- For continuity errors – do anyone’s eyes change colour from one page to the next, or their hairstyles or their names? (all frighteningly common) 

At each pass, key in  your changes before starting your next round of edits. This may seem an extravagant use of time, but it is the most effective way of fine-tuning your prose. 


The  more formats you read your ms in, the more opportunities for improvement you are likely to find. Many authors work exclusively on their computer, but paper print-outs can be surprisingly helpful. 

“But I want to save trees!” is a popular misconception.

In our environmentally-friendly age, many authors feel guilty at printing off paper copies, particularly of long works, worried about wasting paper and ink. Avoid a guilty conscience by buying paper from sustainable resources (which is pretty much most of it these days) and tell yourself you’re supporting the forestry industry instead. 

Read your ms in the following formats as well as on your computer:
- On paper (ideally in a different typeface to the one you wrote it in)
- On an ereader or ereading app (these apps are free and available for phones and tablets, so unless you’re a complete Luddite, you’ve no excuse to avoid them)
- On paper again – but this time formatted in the style you expect your finished book to be in  (suddenly your book will seem much more real, and you’ll see it more through your readers’ eyes and be more sensitive to errors you don’t want them to read)

Finally, read the whole thing out loud. Yes, that will take a long time, but the resulting improvements will justify the time spent. (If you dictate your first drafts, you’ll have already discovered how much better spoken text flows.)


You don’t have to wait for your next book to be finished to try this system for yourself. Here’s a quick and easy exercise that I hope will leave you convinced that self-editing will make you a better writer and help make your books the best they can be. 

1. Take a pen and paper and write a 200 word description of something you do every day, e.g. making a cup of tea, cleaning your teeth, getting dressed.
2. Get up and leave the room, get yourself a drink, then come back, with your writer’s mind rebooted in critic mode.
3. Type it into your computer, and as you do so, if an obvious improvement jumps out at you, feel free to include it.
4. Read it on screen a number of times, checking and correcting each of the following, one at a time: logical order, continuity, writing tics, sentence length, paragraph length.
5. Try to reduce its length by 10% by eliminating superfluous words. It may be easier than you think. Can you reduce it by 15%? 20%?
6. Print it off, and while it is printing, gaze out of a window to refresh your eyes.
7. Now read the revised new print out. Spot anything you missed? If so, input those changes and print again.
8. Now read it aloud. Anything else you want to change? Change it, and reprint it. 
9. Finally, compare it to your original manuscript. You should see a significant difference. And think how much happier your professional editor would be to see the self-edited version rather than the original draft.


Put your final version away in a drawer - ah, the mysterious magic of the drawer! ;) Take it out again at least 24 hours later, but preferably six weeks later, and see whether there’s anything else you’d like to change. I bet a professional editor would also still find room for improvement.


Don’t let the number of corrections you’ve made in the self-editing process dent your confidence as a writer. Instead, congratulate yourself on your craftsmanship and dedication at honing your prose to the best it can possibly be, just as a sculptor chips away at a block of marble, little by little, until a masterpiece stands before him.

But also like the sculptor, beware of applying the chisel for too long! There comes a point at which self-editing morphs into self-defeating. Don’t be the sculptor who chips off your statue’s nose. 

If you find yourself unwilling to stop self-editing, ask yourself whether you’re really just putting off the moment of declaring your work complete. I met a man the other day who told me he’d been editing a novel for ten years. Either he’s been writing the wrong thing, or for some reason he is afraid of publishing it: fear of success, fear of failure, or fear of being sued. 

Sometimes good enough is good enough, and it’s time to move on to a new writing project. 

A rigorous self-editing habit will make your work the best it can be, now and throughout your writing career. 

Good luck, and keep writing!

Debbie Young is the author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, the first of which is Best Murder in Show, and various collections of short stories. 
She also writes non-fiction books, such as How to Get Your Self-published Book into Bookstores, part of the Self-publishing Success series published by the Alliance of Independent Authors, of which she is Publications Manager. 
For more information about Debbie’s writing life, please visit her website