Self-doubt and the short story

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I’ve been writing speculative fiction for about six months now, and very much focusing on the short story.  The length of these new stories varies, but on the whole they’re between 4,000 to 6,000 words, the perfect length for submitting to magazines. But I have one that I keep returning to, and it keeps growing and growing. 

This story began as a challenge to myself to write a steampunk story, after reading Cat Rambo’s wonderfully inventive Clockwork Fairies.  I had a feeling that steampunk would be fun to write, an opportunity to explore a historical setting and invent some wild technology with plenty of adventure thrown in for good measure.  I haven’t been disappointed, and my protagonist is deliciously headstrong, fearless, and pretty handy with a welding kit.  I’ve now reached the point where I’ve had to relinquish control over her behaviour — she is fully in charge and seems to know exactly what to do at every turn.

This week the story hit 11,000 words, and I’ve got the Devil of Doubt on my shoulder asking picky and awkward questions. Can you justify spending this much time on this particular story, when you don’t even know if it’s any good?  Have you read enough steampunk to know if your idea is original enough?  What if it just keeps on growing, does that mean you’re actually writing a novel?

Questioning ourselves seems to be the perennial activity of creative people, an activity that takes up almost as much space as the creating itself. I do believe it’s an essential part though. How are we to know the best way, if we don’t evaluate all the ways available? Questioning keeps us open to possibilities, stops us from becoming complacent or lazy, and sharpens our awareness of the quality of what we’re putting out into the world. The difficult task is to keep the questions from crippling our dedication to the craft and maintaining the flow of work.

There are several ways to deal with the push and pull of this. Firstly, it’s important to maintain an awareness of the questions, either making mental or physical notes, and once the notes are made, it’s likely to be much easier to let them go. Reading the work of others helps too. Evaluationg the writing you like (or dislike), will help you to evaluate your own, and give you confidence that you’re on the right path, as well as giving you ideas for how to tackle any writing problems that might crop up. But I think the most important strategy is to keep focussed on the work itself. Be dogged. Be determined. Be clear in your vision and keep going, regardless of the hurdles and the questions.

So for the moment, I’m going to ignore the Devil of Doubt, in favour of letting the story evolve. I like my protagonist and I want to see where she’s going to take me, so I’ll wait until I get closer to the 20,000 word mark (the top word count that most magazines accept) before I start taking any of the questions too seriously.

While my back has been turned writing this blog post, I’ve got a feeling my protagonist has been evolving too, so I’m going back to see what she’s been up to, and keep following the story.

If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at  I also offer one-to-one coaching, so if you’d like bespoke advice and guidance, go to the Coaching tab for details.

How to stay faithful (or not) to your story

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Last week a student asked if it’s problematic when the original idea or prompt for a story doesn’t seem to connect (or is entirely absent) from the finished piece.  The student is on a formal writing program, and was coming at this from the perspective of having her work graded, but it got me thinking about the relationship between initial idea and its evolution, and how attached we can become to aspects of our writing that don’t necessarily serve the story.

Firstly, I think creative people of all kinds have a kind of romantic relationship with their embryonic ideas.  These ideas can come to us slowly or in a sudden flash of realisation, but they often have the sunrise glow of something new and exciting, as though we’ve been gifted something we didn’t know we needed.  Humans are designed to feel attached to the things that inspire emotion in us (especially a sense of wonder or love), so it seems natural that this would happen with thoughts too.

The next stage is where you’re searching around for where the story might go, who or what is going to inhabit that space, what you want to say, what the events might mean.  During this time your mind is wanting to make connections, looking for space where growth can occur and identify some building blocks to progress the story.  You are thinking divergently, and while your original idea is likely to still be present in your mind, it’s important that you hold onto it loosely, so those other unexpected and thrilling connective thoughts can rise up and find you. 

And then at some point you start making decisions, tying in the connections you’ve found to plot your rising conflict, character development and theme, as well as thinking about technique to find the best way to show this new expression of yourself.   Here you might suddenly realise the piece has moved away from that original great line or character idea, and you might even find yourself trying to shoehorn it into the story, but dammit, it doesn’t seem to fit anymore and there’s a wriggling sensation deep in your stomach that’s remarkably like guilt.  You’ve been unfaithful.  You’ve been carrying on an illicit affair with this new piece of writing when you’d already started a Big New Thing with something else that was too small and innocent to know what it was getting itself into. 

But… let’s have a shift in perspective here.  What if that first idea was actually a magnificent first date?  And what if that first date grew into a long-term relationship?  And what if that relationship had depth and truth and oodles of wonderful images and illuminating moments?

This is the new world you’ve created, and none of it could have happened without that first date, which ultimately, will always still exist in your memory. 

And so, my answer to the student who was worried about her grade was along these lines.    Give your work space to grow and evolve, let it become something beyond what you thought you were capable of envisioning.  The only things you need to stay faithful to are your attention to the work, telling the truth, evolving yourself as a person, and as a writer. 

If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at  I also offer one-to-one coaching, so if you’d like bespoke advice and guidance, go to the Coaching tab for details.

The Duality of Being Creative

I’ve always felt that my compulsion to write has been a blessing in my life, taking me to unexpected places, having surprising thoughts, and meeting some thoroughly magnificent people.

But this blessing can also be a challenge to navigate, not least because living a writer’s life often means inhabiting opposite states of mind, sometimes simultaneously.  We have to be obsessive (if we’re going to finish that 140,000 word novel), but we also have to resist attachment (if we have to cut 20,000 of those words).  We love getting lost in flights of imaginative thought, but we also need to be prepared for deep critical thinking.  We have to live out in the world to gather material and inspiration, but we also have to spend vast amounts of time alone.

The push and pull of these opposites can be bewildering and exhausting, and it can leave writers with a sense of guilt that they aren’t paying enough attention to one or the other of their opposites. 

It’s taken me a long time to realise that this is normal, essential in fact, to being a creative person.  What helped was reading about the creative mind and how it works, reading about the experiences of other creative people, and recognising myself in their states of being. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, both gave me a stronger understanding of my own mind, and how to navigate the sometimes complex compulsions of my thought processes and writing routines.

The first thing I learned was to notice my different selves, recognise the circumstances in which they flourish, and find ways for them to do the work they were born to do.  For example, having a regimented work/writing routine really helps my mind to know where it’s at and what my expections are.  My mind knows that at about 8.30am, when the smell of coffee starts to drift from the kitchen, it’s time to slip into my imaginative flow state and start writing.  This allows one of my selves full reign to be what it wants to be, and my writing benefits as a result.

At other times, when I’m feeling the discomfort of two opposite selves wanting control, I just have to follow my instincts, and when my instincts are too deep in the work to be definitive, I step back and give myself (or as many selves as possible) some space.  More often than not, the right path will present itself, usually when I’m least expecting it.

Of course, we are never only one thing, and in all occupations and relationships we present different versions of ourselves, depending on the situation and who we’re with.  Acceptance and understanding of the collective and individual selves is key, as well as acknowledging how tricky this can be, a balancing act that we’ll be practicing throughout our lives. 

Ultimately, all our selves feed into the words and ideas that end up on the page, so embrace the multifarious nature of who you are, and keep on writing. 

If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at I also offer telephone coaching, so if you’d like bespoke advice and guidance, go to the Coaching tab for details.

What’s the best way to learn how to write?

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This question comes from Aniko Madi, who is embarking on writing a novel of speculative fiction: —

What is the best way to learn how to write?  Should I do a course?  Do I need to go to university?  Is it possible to teach myself?

This is a great question, Aniko, and the short answer is this:  The only way to learn how to write is by writing, and whatever facilitates this is the right path for you. 

Of course, life is way more complicated than that, so here’s a more comprehensive answer…

Starting Point:  It might help to do some kind of life assessment to see what route is likely to suit the way you’re living.  When are you able to make time for your writing?  How regular and consistent is this time likely to be?  Are you someone who is self-motivated, or do you flourish best with a deadline?  Do you have friends/relatives who are experienced readers (or even writers themselves) who can read your work and give you feedback? 

All these questions are likely to nudge you somewhere along the sliding scale between the thrill of self-discovery at one end, and structured learning with deadlines and qualifications at the other, with a blend of the two in between. 

If you find yourself at the self-discovery end:—


  • You get to set your own pace and choose your own topics, reading lists, etc.  And you can study while drinking a glass of wine, yeay!
  • There is something really thrilling about discovering things for yourself.  Self-realisation is a powerful force that can be life-affirming, a huge confidence boost, and encourage you to take yourself seriously as a writer (a crucial element in every writer’s journey).


  • You might feel like you’re scrabbling around in the dark not knowing what you’re doing or what direction you want to go in.  This is an uncomfortable feeling, but much of writing is actually like this — we don’t know what the story is, how to get there, etc — the thrill is in the journey itself.  So… this is good training for a writer, and therefore also an advantage.
  • It’s possible it will take you longer to hone craft and technique unless you’re particularly good at analysing the stories you love (or hate, there’s a lot to be learned there too), and therefore good at stepping back and analysing your own writing.  This is a skill that takes a while to develop, so learning some study skills can also be helpful.

And at the formal writing course end:


  • You’ll be given structure to your study, with set texts, deadlines and writing assignments.  You’ll have clear goals, and you’ll know how you’re getting there.
  • Telling people you’re doing a writing course can be much easier than saying I am a writer (you have plenty of time to build up to that surprisingly daunting statement), which all lead to you taking yourself seriously as a writer. 
  • There are many courses that provide the learning materials but you get to set your own pace, which can be helpful if you have an inconsistent schedule. 
  • There are also courses that facilitate students getting in touch with each other, so you can develop a network of writers that you trust, giving feedback on each other’s work.


  • There is a cost involved, and sometimes you’ll be studying a subject or reading texts that don’t light your fire. 
  • Technique, genre tropes and text analysis can all be taught on structured courses.  But there are many essential elements in becoming a writer that (arguably) can’t be taught.  These include intuitive instinct, originality of thought and expression, grit and dedication, etc.  Be realistic in what a course can provide for you, and be prepared to explore the rest for yourself. 

A quick note on university level study, including undergraduate level and MA: 

  • These have all the advantages/disadvantages listed above, but with some additions.  The main disadvantage is the cost, they are pretty expensive and may even leave you in debt. 
  • But the main advantage is you’ll find yourself in a community of like-minded creative people, with writing friendships and support that can last the rest of your life. 
  • Important note on doing an MA:  You do not need an undergraduate degree to do an MA.  You are judged on the quality of your writing and your dedication to the craft.  I did my MA (at Bath Spa University) when I was 37 years old, and I left school when I was 16, so I had no other qualifications except O-Levels. 

So, as you can see there is no right or wrong answer to this, and the different routes to writers learning their craft are as varied as the stories and poems they write.  If you feel you’d like more guidance in your development, I would recommend trying a short course to see how it feels, and then commit to something longer if it works for you. 

I also offer one-hour telephone consultations that provide guidance appropriate to your needs, as well as guidance on specific writing projects.  Get in touch by email if you’re interested in booking a slot:

If you decide to go the self-taught route, read as much as possible, and read like a writer, noticing how the writer is achieving success in the various elements of story.  Read How-to-write books too, and find yourself an alpha reader, someone you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback.

Whichever route you choose (or whichever blend), carve out time to write.  And write.  And then write some more. 

That is how you know you are a writer, and you can legitimately tell people you are a writer.

Below are a few organisations that offer courses that have a good reputation, so have a browse to see if there’s anything of interest. (Note:  I have no affiliation with these organisations except for the Open University, who I currently work for as a Creative Writing Tutor):—
National Centre for Writing (they have a small selection of short courses you can do for free)
Arvon Foundation (also offer writing retreats)
Open University
City Lit

And a few How-to-write books that have helped me along the way:
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
The Creative Writing Coursebook, Ed. Julia Bell & Paul Magrs
Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, Ed. Linda Anderson

I hope that helps answer your question, Aniko, and good luck with the novel, an exciting new adventure! 

If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at

Feeling the fear of reinvention

‘…if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.’

Ray Bradbury

I’ve had to reinvent myself many times over the years, sometimes in a way of my own choosing, sometimes it was forced upon me.  However it happened, these transitions have always evolved into positive change, and they’ve always had a purpose (even if I didn’t know it at the time).

One such change happened at the end of last year, and it was a disorientating and confusing process.  I’d been writing nonfiction essays for several years, getting published in paper journals and online, and was even nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  I felt I’d hit my stride in a genre I loved, and enjoyed writing a fortnightly blog where I’d try out ideas of subject or form, and then cherry pick what looked interesting to develop into an essay. 

The blog and the essays never felt like work.  It was playful, and fun, and interesting.

But then it stopped being all those things.  And I had no idea why.  I pressed on, looking for ideas and trying to find the excitement that usually fuelled my writing days.  I was hoping for something to show up that would return me to where I was, and who I thought I was as a writer.

In the end, I gave up and just stopped writing over the Christmas period, and there was something about that break that made me realise that I’d lost my spark because I’d written everything I wanted to write about my own life.  I’d experimented, I’d stretched myself, and I’d been learning about myself along the way too.  But now, I was done.  Finished.  The nonfiction essay was no longer my current life.  It was my history. 

This came as a massive, and scary revelation.  What was I going to do, if I wasn’t going to do the thing I was good at?  What if I never write anything good again?  And what’s the point of me anyway?

While I was letting these big existential questions rummage around in my head trying to find a reassuring answer, I remembered a weird little story idea that I’d written up several months previously.  Would doing something completely different help me rediscover my mojo?

So I looked at the weird little idea, and I worked on it over a week or so, and it turned into a weird little short story of speculative fiction.  And it was a lot of fun.  I mean, a lot of fun. The fun I thought I’d been having with nonfiction was nothing compared to this. It was exhilarating and exciting and unexpected and just plain bonkers.  And I felt full of what Ray Bradbury calls, Zest and Gusto.

When it was finished I started having other ideas for speculative fiction, a genre I’ve taught but never really written myself.  Yes!, my brain told me, do more of this!  More out of your comfort zone.  More speculative and crazy ideas.  More playtime!

So this is what I’ve been doing over the past few months, and now I’ve also decided to return to blog writing, but this time instead of trying out new material, I want to write about the process itself.  I don’t mean technique and craft.  I mean all the other stuff that doesn’t often get included in the How-To-Write books. 

Things like planting and harvesting ideas, how writers can harness the flow state, how to overcome anxiety, doubt and self-sabotage.  How to reinvent yourself and your writing. 

I’ve been teaching creative writing for 15 years now, and writing fiction and nonfiction for over 30 years.  One thing I’ve learned in those years is that writing is mostly solitary, but learning to write can be a  collaborative process, and contributing to the conversation is one way to be a part of this collaborative community.  So, please do let me know if you have a question about writing that you’d like answered, or a writing problem that needs a new strategy.

As the first post of my new and reimagined blog, reinvention feels like a fitting subject matter.  I’ll aim to post once a fortnight, sometimes with writing exercises and things to try, sometimes answering the questions of others, sometimes examining my own. 

Here’s the first…
Recommendation: Get yourself a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury (preferably from your local independent bookshop). You can tell by the title of his preface — How To Climb The Tree of Life, Throw Rocks At Yourself, And Get Down Again Without Breaking Your Bones Or Your Spirit: A Preface With A Title Not Much Longer Than The Book — that this is a man who enjoys what he does and has a lot of fun while he’s doing it.

And here’s the first…
Something to try: Think of a genre or form of writing that you’ve never written in, but are curious about.  Close your eyes and imagine yourself working in this genre, the ideas that will open up to you, the places it could lead you.  Imagine these scenes in vivid colours and feel the emotion of doing something new (the fear and the excitement), and when you open your eyes again, let these feelings seep into the rest of your day.

Sometimes, meaningful change and growth begins with imagining that the change is possible.

Email questions or writing problems to

Archive: The Unwriteable

…the river house


The house beside the river is a house of lazy, hazy days.  You have gone there looking for something in the low grey sky and the thick flowing river, the still of the trees and the arched stone bridge. 

You are there with your lover, laden with food and wine and strings of lights, and later, when your friends find the flashing beacon and appear at the door, the thing you have been looking for has arrived.

The arrival of love.

The arrival of stopped time.

A pause in the chase for a slow deep breath, the river house slipping into a held moment, the air vibrating with a buzz that thrums in your collective bloodstream.

Love infuses the wooden beams, the pillows and soft blankets, the shared food, the words that flow with a river’s strength.  Love bulges out from the river house, spilling onto the bridge and into the darkening woods. 

And when you leave, these days will stay inside you, beating to the sound of your heart and the shifting breath of your lungs.  They flow through the river of your veins.

The lazy, hazy days of the river house.

…on not knowing

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What to do when you’ve said everything but there is still everything to say?  Your mind is both depleted of words and so full you barely know where to begin.  As always the tools are waiting for use, pen and paper, keyboard and screen, but the starting point is elusive, a mere fleeting glimpse.  Instead you sit in the wilderness of not knowing.

You breathe.  You listen to classical music, piano notes that smooth the frayed.  You feel the coiling tensions that have gone unnoticed, and in your space of solitude they begin to unwind, the red of the berries against the rain-dashed window becoming more clear, more vivid. 

In this hung place where a new year begins, you decide not to reach for answers, but instead seek out the questions that need to be asked, having faith that if you search for truth with wandering steps, the truth will come to find you.

…on tradition

Found graffiti


Tradition is just peer pressure from the dead

The dead are powerful.  The dead are invisible but their imprint is everywhere, tendrils of belief that curl and hook into sight and sound, winding their way into darkened rooms and open spaces, into minds still soft from birth. 

Tradition wants you to be Mr/Mrs/Ms and to tick a box for your gender.  Tradition wants to know how to treat you.  Deference or dismissal? 

Tradition spent time sorting the world, categorising and labelling in its neat boxy handwriting:— 
— School: Geography, Maths, Chemistry, English Literature, English Language, Physics, French. 
Instructions for use: Choose one or the other.  This or that.  
— Hospital: Dermatology, breast cancer services, endocrinology, haematology, pain management. 
Instructions for use: *Choose one or the other.  This or that.
*You were once asked to choose between the leg specialist and the back specialist.  You needed both so you chose neither. 

Tradition delivered power to private schools and exclusive universities, posted it into the mouth of children so they got to like the taste.  The flavour lingers on the tongue, fattens the belly, stays in the blood stream.

Tradition likes a committee, an agenda, a set of rules.  Tradition sets out the punishment when the rules are broken, frowns upon the transgressive, the queer, the outsider and free thinker.

Tradition brought you up to be a good girl, a good wife, a good mother.  To smile, make an effort, to be selfless and nurturing. 

Tradition is peer pressure from the dead.

Fuck tradition.

…out of hand

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What the hand does the mind remembers
Maria Montessori

Your hands are more familiar to you than your own face.  Every crease and freckle, the corner of your thumb that cracks in winter, the sweeping lines of your palms.  You are fascinated by other people’s hands too, how deeply intimate it feels to look at another’s hands, and how rarely you get to touch or examine another’s fingers. 

There are 27 bones in the hand.  They move with 29 joints and over 123 ligaments, but fingers do not have muscles.  They are operated instead by the muscles in the forearm.

Your hands hold extraordinary sensitivity and muscle memory.  You learned to touch type thirty years ago so your fingers instinctively know how to shape every word, even though your mind struggles to remember where the keys are.  You trust your hands to chop onions and herbs, to check the heat of your bath water, to carry out the delicate action of turning the pages of a book.

You once broke your little finger falling up the stairs in a margarita-fuelled haze.  As you fell forward your little finger found the wooden edge of a step, saving your face from damage and bouncing you back to upright. Your finger was splinted for a time and now feels stiff in cold weather, but you are constantly amazed by this little finger that was able to take the weight of your entire body. 

You read that if you have to choose, the index finger is the best one to lose as it’s the one you need the least.  You will bear this in mind the next time you’re involved in a bank heist and the robbers feel sure you know the numbers to the safe, advancing towards you with pliers in hand. 

The Venna Amoris is the vein that runs up the ring finger and is known as the vein of love, as it leads directly to the heart.  You once wore gold rings on this finger, one embedded with a diamond; a marker of love but also possession.  When you no longer wished to be married, removing your rings was a statement to the world and yourself that you were free, you were your own and yours alone.  Now you wear only silver rings on your fingers and thumbs.  Your ring finger remains free.

You know that your hands can reveal many things about you.  When you’re feeling nervous you rub your nails and the skin around them.  When you’re excited or deep in conversation they move in accompaniment to your words.  The ridges in your nails show you were cold several weeks ago, and again a few weeks before that.  Your party trick is to make your double-jointed thumbs dance in time to the music.

You currently have a white line running across the middle of the nail on your ring finger, evidence of trauma to the nail bed nearly a month ago.  Your lover was walking along a wall and you jumped up to join him but misjudged the height and fell instead, grazing your legs and hitting your hand.  Your son rushed to help you back up, as did your lover, and you sat on the wall for a few moments, in pain but laughing, your breath coming fast with the shock.  Now, every time you see that white line on your fingernail, your think of the love you felt from them and for them, and how your body is prone to slapstick misadventure. 

The whole of your life is written on your hands, and yet, with so little effort they keep turning the pages.

…a history of classrooms

The first classroom you remember has a high ceiling, high windows, a plastic trough where you play with water.  There are books that are read to you while you sit cross-legged on the floor, your feet tingling with pins and needles.  You sit at your desk pondering over workbooks that have puzzles and questions, the paper shiny and smelling of chemicals.  You are afraid of this place.  Every day you leave hoping you’ll never have to return.

When you’re older, your Home Economics classroom is portioned up with tables and cookers, counters with food mixers and chopping boards.  In your memory the room smells of butter and sugar, beaten together in a china bowl until the mixture is a pale and creamy swirl.  Everything is brought to school in a biscuit tin, ingredients portioned into plastic bags or old margarine tubs.  In the classroom they are transformed and returned home, steaming in the same biscuit tin.

Your biology classroom is rows of counters, each one with a sink and a tall brassy faucet.  You once dissected an eyeball here, and possibly a frog.  One summer day the room is heavy with a heat that presses against your face, drawing the oxygen from your lungs like it wants to steal your life.  A boy sits in the row in front.  He wears thick-rimmed glasses and always brings a briefcase to school.  He is smart.  Today, you watch him sink into the chair and then slowly slide to the floor, the heat gleeful with such evident success. 

You learn your writing craft in a classroom at the top room of a castle beside a lake where swans nest amongst the reeds.  Regardless of the weather, inside the castle is always cold and cramped, its mullioned windows letting in little light.  But here you talk about writing for two hours every week, your fellow students sharing your passion.  You have found your tribe.  You absorb everything you possibly can in that year of learning, attending all the lectures, all the bonus talks by visiting writers, all the after-talk gatherings down the road at The Globe.  Your mind fizzles with conversations and ideas and a sense of belonging.

When you learn how to teach your craft yourself, the classrooms are bright and clean and brimming with technology that doesn’t always work, or you don’t always know how to work it.  You learn what it means to be in the moment.  To do your job you cannot be anywhere apart from that classroom, with those students, talking about that topic.  You learn to love this state of being, and at some point you realise you are in the same place as when you are writing.  You do not want to be anywhere else but here.

Now your classroom is often the screen of your laptop.  When you do make it to a classroom, a place of walls and desks and smiles behind masks, the room smells of whiteboard markers and cleaning fluid.  You’re aware of how clean everything is.  How diligently you’re being cared for by an unknown person.  And with the laptop comes a different kind of care.  To be in people’s homes while you share knowledge.  To be part of someone else’s journey.