Sunday, 30 October 2011

Raised on the Web, but Liking a Little Ink ...

Thanks to for posting this, which I felt rather fitted what we've done here at WWJ Towers. An article published in Sunday's New York Times about the revival of small run printed zines. I've pinched their scan of the newsprint too. Please do give them a look if you have time. [JD - Editor]

Yes, it's finally happened ...

If you know me personally, you'll know that actually writing pieces for the magazine is something that, well, just doesn't happen, shall we say. But, over the last couple of months, I've been asked by a few people to write Blog posts related to writing and running the magazine. And I obliged ...

You can read Editor, me? Starting and running a literary magazine here:

And you can read Should I Submit? here:


JD Smith

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Dark Heart, by Darren J Guest

After far too long a delay (for which I can only apologise) we have a new podcast for you: the opening of Darren J Guest's intelligent, complex horror novel, Dark Heart, read by Daniel Barzotti.

On Leo's sixteenth birthday. something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when Leo thinks life can't get and worse... Leo dies.

A demon returns after twenty years.

An Angel follows close behind.

Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

To find out more about Dark Heart and about Darren Guest, visit his blog at

Monday, 17 October 2011

Please Sir! A guest post by Sam Payne

'Is this the writing class?' asked the dishevelled latecomer.

'Yes, please come in and take a seat,' said our twelve year old tutor.

'My daughter enrolled me, it was a birthday present.'

'That's nice,' said the tutor.

'NICE? NICE?' Laughed the latecomer somewhat manically, 'I'm bloody furious.'

I almost choked on the end of my pencil. This was my first creative writing course, excitement and anticipation had been bubbling away inside of me for days.

This was it. This course was going to teach me how to be the next JK Rowling. I was going to write a bestseller, make a shitload of money and retire to an island in the sun. Or, buy a campervan and tour Cornwall, I hadn't quite decided which. So why was the dishevelled latecomer or Bob as he later became known, so furious about being enrolled? What did he know that I didn't?

I’d always dreamt of being a famous novelist, hasn’t everyone? Trouble is instead of actually putting pen to paper, I decided I needed to learn all there was to know about writing a novel before I could make a start. So I bought a book: How to Write a Hugely Successful Novel that Sells Twenty Three Billion Copies and Gets Made into a Feature Film which Wins Six Oscars and a Golden Globe. At least I think that’s what it was called. I devoured the book in a single sitting and then as I sat picking bits of paper from my teeth I contemplated making a start. Over the next few days I wrote a grand total of one thousand, four hundred and twenty six words. That was the beginning of my novel, an epic thriller set in a cake factory, but something wasn’t right. It didn’t quite sound right. The story I had in my head didn’t quite match up to what was on the page. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. I needed more than a book, I needed feedback. I needed help to coax my inner genius out from under the rock it called home. So after a quick flick through the yellow pages and an even quicker phone call I was enrolled on a Creative Writing course at the local community centre. Which was where I found myself the following Tuesday and after Bob’s dramatic entrance, Tutor Boy introduced himself. He said he was a university graduate and a successful poet.

‘What do you mean by successful?’ asked Bob, whose voice seemed to have gone from manic to sinister in the time it took him to find a seat.

Tutor boy shifted uncomfortably, ‘well err...’

‘Have you won the Bridport Prize?’


‘The Poetry Society’s annual competition then?’ continued Bob.

‘Well no, but I’m a published poet.’

‘Oh really and where have your poems appeared? The New Yorker? The Paris Review?’

Tutor Boy looked confused.

‘Hmmm I thought so, just a bunch of failed writers running these things. All these courses do is teach you never to be satisfied with what you write.’ Muttered Bob.

Oh dear. It didn’t occur to me to check out the tutors credentials before enrolling on the course, I just assumed it would be someone who, at the most, knew what they were talking about and at the least, didn’t still wipe their nose on their sleeve.

Bob didn’t turn up the following week; in fact he didn’t come back at all. Tutor Boy said it was because he’d been committed to a mental institute but I didn’t quite believe him. I attended every week and listened intently as Tutor Boy ‘taught’ us the fundamentals of creative writing which, quite frankly, left me wondering if he’d just read the same book I had. It should’ve stopped there, but come the end of the course I still didn’t feel equipped to write a novel. So I enrolled on another course and then another one and then another one after that. Pretty soon I was attending every workshop and seminar going, although, in hindsight, I probably should’ve given ‘How to Write an Erotic Shopping List a miss. I became obsessed. I was an addict. My life was over. I’d gone from spending all my time thinking about writing to spending all my time learning about writing which, would have been fantastic if I’d actually managed to produce something I was satisfied with. Did I write a bestseller? No. Did I even get close to writing a novel? No. Why not? I hear you cry. Because, try as I might, I couldn’t get past the opening chapter. Every time I looked at it I’d edit it a little bit more and then I would pass it over for feedback on whichever course I was attending at the time and some helpful soul would suggest ways on how I could improve it. When I’d done what they suggested I’d hand it back to the group and someone else would add another smidgen of advice and so it went on and on and on and...

Four years after that first course, (I know, slow doesn’t quite cover it does it?) I realised something. Bob was right. Yes, yes I’d learnt about the technical side of the writing process but I’d also turned into a perfectionist freak wielding a red pen. I spent so much time picking and picking at a piece of writing, before I knew it I’d stripped it of everything that made it good in the first place. Creative writing courses can be great, providing you find one with a tutor who knows what they’re talking about, but I’m done with them. From now on I’m just going to concentrate on getting past the first chapter of that novel. I aim to write a complete draft before I even think about editing and redrafting and hopefully, by then I’ll be able to trust my instincts and have a good idea of when to stop.

Sam lives in a quiet corner of Devon where she spends most of her time staring at goats.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Carver’s Couch

Exploring the psychological aspect of writing  with consultant clinical psychologist Sue Carver

When I read through my writing recently after a break of a few weeks, I found many faults with it. Reading the same piece of work through again soon afterwards I thought it seemed a lot better, even though I hadn’t yet changed it! Why do we react differently to our writing after a break from it? Is there an optimum period of time for leaving it before editing? 
Thanks,Tricia Gilbey

Hi Tricia,
Thanks for your question. I enjoyed tossing it around my brain.

There seems to be a rare consensus among writers about the wisdom of leaving a gap between finishing a piece of work and starting the editing process.

“Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.” Andrew Motion.
 “… try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” Zadie Smith.
“The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories.” Sarah Waters.

My trawl of the creative writing literature and writer’s websites suggests there is also agreement about the minimum amount of time required between writing and editing: three to four weeks seems to be the received wisdom and that chimes with my own experience. Jane Austen, however, put her novels away in a drawer for a year before starting the editing process. There may well be a lesson there for us all.

Why does it help to allow time to pass between writing and editing? I would say because time, or what happens cognitively during the passage of time, enhances objectivity. Both emotional and cognitive factors are likely to be relevant, but I will set emotion to one side and focus here on:  perceptual set; visual habituation; memory and forgetting.

Perceptual set is the tendency to perceive or notice some aspects of available sensory data and ignore others. Bugelski and Alampay, 1961 used the ‘rat-man’ ambiguous figure to demonstrate the importance of expectation in inducing perceptual set. Subjects were shown either a series of animal pictures or neutral pictures prior to exposure to the ambiguous picture. Those subjects who had had prior exposure to animal pictures significantly more frequently perceived the ambiguous picture to be a rat.

We fail to notice writing errors for similar reasons.

Extrapolating from this research, the more recently we have read the same piece of writing, the more likely we are to perceive what we expect to perceive and the less likely we are to be able to see it ‘afresh’.
Habituation is the psychological process in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioural responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus. For example, a short time after we dress, the stimulation of clothing against the skin fades and we become unaware of it – hair shirts aside.

Habituation affects all senses and this bias towards novelty appears to be ‘wired-in’, presumably, because of its survival value. For the editing process, visual habituation is relevant: put simply – at the level of brain chemistry and neuron firing – the more recently visual information has been scanned, the less attention the brain will pay to it. 


A brief foray into the cognitive processes involved may be useful.

Sensory memory, the information we receive through the senses, lasts only a few seconds.

Short Term Memory (STM) takes over when the information in sensory memory is transferred to consciousness. Short term memory lasts longer than sensory memory (up to 30 seconds or so), but it still has a very limited capacity: 7 +/- 2 bits of information, such as a string of 7 digits.

Finally, there is long term memory (LTM). Unlike sensory memory and STM, LTM is relatively permanent and practically unlimited in terms of its storage capacity. It is the type of memory most relevant to your question.

Factors which strongly influence the transfer of information from STM into LTM are the significance and rehearsal; the more significant information is to us and the more we rehearse, the more we tend to remember. In learning theory terms, going over and over the same piece of prose constitutes rehearsal.


The ability to retrieve information from LTM tends to reduce over time, although failing to remember something does not necessarily mean the information is no longer stored. The information may well be there but inaccessible because of weakened retrieval mechanisms.

‘Over-learned’ information – rehearsed so often it leaves a very strong trace – is very resistant to decay.
To sum up, the longer one leaves it between writing and editing, the less rehearsal there will be and the more likely forgetting, of at least some aspects of the work, becomes. In addition, the influence of perceptual set and habituation are likely to be reduced, the combined effects facilitating greater objectivity. I hope that rather long answer to your question persuades you to let as much time as possible elapse between drafts. I may just have convinced myself.

Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose. 

Please send your questions to: with the subject heading Carver’s Couch. 

Three Ps in a Plot

by Anne Stormont

A finished novel is a work of art. The writer is an artist whose medium is language and whose artefact is a story. The story is what the reader interacts with, what the reader experiences. The story is a journey from A to B – or indeed, C to E via B, A then D – it can be non-linear, circular, long or short. But story is NOT plot.

Plot is an element of the writer’s craft. Plotting is a technical skill. A technically sound plot will not only ensure the reader arrives at journey’s end, but that they will get the most out of the experience. The successful plot needs Perspective, Possibilities and Pauses.

There is an assertion often made by tutors of writing that there are only seven basic plots in novel writing. You might dispute the precise number, but it’s probably fair to assume it’s a relatively small, finite amount. So, in order to produce a novel that is fresh and original, the writer’s choices as regards the permutations, dynamics and interaction of the ‘Three P’s’ are crucial.

I feel a metaphor coming on. I have a friend who is a hill-walking and mountaineering guide. When preparing to lead a party of walkers or climbers, she has to think about navigating and route-finding for the expedition. The start and end points of the trip are fixed and every mountain will have its own story to tell its visitors. But the guide must choose whether to navigate from north or south, whether to turn east or west at some point and must keep checking along the way that the bearings are true. Navigation decisions give a particular perspective. Then there are the route finding possibilities – will she lead the party along a well worn path, will she take a new, unexplored line, will she take them over rough or easy terrain? And finally – where will the rest points, viewpoints and possible side trips occur?

So author as tour guide – it works for me.

When plotting, the writer chooses the perspective from which the reader will view the story. The narration provides the map, compass and waymarkers - and may well leave some decisions and interpretations to the reader. The author will also provide intriguing possibilities as to where the path is heading, there will be some satisfying predictability and some unforeseen twists. And there may well be pauses – places to reflect, to look back, to study the horizon before pressing on.

All these decisions will be crucial for how the reader experiences the story. The plot lines determine how the artefact of the story is revealed. Anyone can tell a story - but only an artist can show it in its best and most intriguing light – and that is down to the ‘Three P’s’.  

Scripts: Plot, Rinse and Repeat

 by Ola Zaltin

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, in a galaxy far, far away...

...a story began. Probably, this ur-story began around a camp-fire, and probably because someone died. (This was some millennia before Celebrity Big Brother, mind) Someone had died and to explain the inexplicable, a person close to the deceased started telling the story of who he, or she, was: what they did in this life and where they went in the hereafter.

Thus; religion and story-telling became inextricably intertwined. A dual, Manichean, universe evolved that would influence most world religions to describe an everlasting storyline of good vs evil.

To make the legends that developed into story clearly recognizable as tales of woe, wonder and mystery, a formula began to develop: It was a dark and stormy night - There was once a - ‘Twas the year of - Etc.  Stories started taking on a certain form, a template, if you like. There was a hero. There was an adversary. But most of the time we already knew the outcome. The good guy would climb up to sit at God almighty’s side. The other fella would wash his hands in eternity: The hero would overcome all the obstacles, the adversary would vanish in a fiery pit.

This is where plot begins. Joseph Campbell was the great old man who synthesised millennia of story-telling into “The hero with a thousand faces” (1949) and it became a seminal work, with the later “The Power of Myth” (1988) seriously bringing him to Hollywood’s attention. Because if it’s something Hollywood has been looking for since Day One, it’s the answer to this question: what is the recipe for a block-buster  money-making mega-hit? How do you make tons of cash on stories. Later on, Christopher Vogler would distill Campbell’s work into the now legendary “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for writers.” (1992), which was exclusively aimed at screenwriters.

Although this article isn’t about Vogler’s book,  I dare you, dear reader, to check it out on Wikipedia and not laugh out loud when you recognize exactly all the steps of the Hero’s Journey, being portrayed in film after film from Hollywood ever since Star Wars (George Lucas was a huge fan of Campbell), to now almost any modern crime, drama, rom-com or action film.

Basically, scripts set up a question-mark in the beginning: Will the detective find the killer? Will the boy get the girl? (When watching both of these genres - romantic comedy/drama action - note how after the last denouement, either romantic or dramatic, not very many seconds of film are left. I.e. The guy finally gets the girl? End of story. The Detective captures/kills the killer? End of story. Both plot engines - the question marks set up at the beginning of the story are null and void the second they are answered - and our interest fades faster than you can spell THE END)

I’ve previously mentioned it, but I’ll gladly be a repetitve old bore: character is plot. The main-character must take action. Action is forward momentum and action defines character - and so - plot. Imagine, if you will, a young American dreamer sitting on his room writing endlessly on his blog about his dream to become an action-hero, kick bad-guys’ asses and getting the girl. And that’s all he does. Nothing else.

Now, imagine the same set-up, but the guy making his own costume and walking out on the streets to become a super-hero. However, the first thing that happens is he gets brutally stabbed in the stomach by punks - then hit by a car. (Goal, Action: Twist). That was the opening of Kick-Ass, if you hadn’t noticed.
Because in the world of  formulaic film, you’ve got to have a plot-point 1: the first serious turning-point of the story. I think of it as throwing a  king hell-size spanner into the motor we just got humming smartly along. Something that seriously alters the course of the story.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, e.g,  this would be the second wedding, when Carrie introduces her fiancée to Charles, dashing his romantic hopes, and spinning the story into unexpected waters.
I’ll refrain from getting into the mid-point the second plot-point and the possibility of a four-act structure and the mid-act ”pinches” of Syd Field and whatnot. Life’s too short. (And my word-count is headed for the moon.)

 As for the outcome in both films: the characters overcome insurmountable adversity and get the girl. Not surprised? This is probably because there is such a beautiful wonderness as Suspension of Disbelief. And without it, film-making would be dead in the water.

These three words mean that although we know that Bruce Willis is an actor and acting in a fiction recorded on celluloid  and reading from a script;  if it’s done well enough, we’ll still sit on the edge of our seats. Will he survive the 101 guys with machine-guns after him in a highscraper? Oh Willis, will you make it? Yippee-kay-yeee motherfucker!! (He does.)

We instinctively buy into this ancient sense of community around the warm camp-fire light. “Let me tell you a story,” and we hunker down and we hush up and we point our bright eyes to the story-teller and our bushy tails into the cold dark night and share stories. In kids this is very pronounced. When my niece Filippa wants to hear Where the wild things are read for the umpteenth time that day - nevermind week - she’s displaying the same instinct we grown-ups have as well (albeit we think we disguise it better).  For  there is something strangely satisfying about knowing the outcome of a story.

This, to me, is the central role of plot: an exciting question-mark set up to be answered, a sense of forward propulsion, astounding and unexpected things throwing us off track, coupled with the age-old safeness of suspension of belief and the the knowledge that at least here, within this story, we can rely on that all will end well.

Don’t Lose the Plot

Creative Writing with Sarah Bower

OK, it’s a hint on the imperial side, but Rudyard Kipling inscribed a little ditty to define plot. Plot, he said, was a band of ‘six honest serving men’ and
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

I dare say most readers of this magazine live perfectly adequately without any serving men (serving women, on the other hand, raising a whole new argument which has no place here). There are contemporary writers and theorists of the novel who would contend that the novel can live equally well without a plot. David Markson, for example, famously wrote non-linear, discontinuous narratives which are classified as ‘postmodern novels’. However, he entitled one of these This Is Not A Novel, thus begging the question, however ironically, whether or not a plotless narrative can be defined as a novel.

That said, however, the popular novel remains a predominantly plot driven form. The extraordinary success of a novelist like Dan Brown illustrates the pre-eminence of plot over skilful characterisation, atmospheric scene-setting or plausible dialogue. Plot, therefore, you must, if you wish to sell books. Kipling would have found it difficult to conceive of civilised living without servants. The novelist who wants to make any kind of living at all must learn to plot.

Plot is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it is something we do almost intuitively. We are hard-wired for storytelling. From the point in our distant past when we first learned to make fires and gather round them to cook and keep warm, we have passed the time by telling stories. The hunter arrives home as darkness falls and what he narrates, while the meat is roasting, is not that which is mundane or reflects badly on his prowess but the exciting, the dangerous, the heroic. It’s not the humble creatures he caught and killed that count, but the battle he had with the sabre-tooth to get them or the big fish that got away. From the outset, we have reordered and edited the facts to improve the story.

On the other hand, as Guy Saville, a recent interviewee in this magazine, has written, ‘writing is as much to do with logical deduction as it is with inspiration’ . New students frequently come to my novel writing classes saying they have a great idea for a novel, they have written maybe ten or twenty pages and then run out of steam. This is almost always because they have failed to appreciate the importance of planning. Unlike a short story, which tends to be an examination of a single theme or situation, a novel is a complex structure involving many characters, multiple storylines, an extended chronology and a range of different settings. It is absolutely impossible for the writer to hold all this in her mind without mapping the novel out so she knows where she is going.

This is the process we know as plotting, and, as it is the least conventionally ‘artistic’ part of the creative work, it often frustrates the beginning novelist. The conventional novel is constructed around a spine of Aristotelian causality. As E. M. Forster puts it in Aspects of the Novel , ‘the king dies, then the queen dies’ is a story; ‘the king dies, then the queen dies of grief’ is a plot – the king’s death causes the queen’s death. This is where you need to begin when devising a plot. Its spine will consist of a series of causally linked events which carry the principal characters on their journey of discovery and self-revelation.

On its own, however, this kind of structure would quickly become boring. The next phase of the plan must be to set up obstacles which will throw the characters off-course and delay, inhibit, or even reverse, their progress. Now you are beginning to introduce narrative tension to your work. You have shown what your characters have to achieve, and then blocked their path so readers become anxious as to whether or not they will succeed. As long as you have created engaging characters, this uncertainty will be a major factor in hooking your readers and keeping them interested.

At this stage, we are still working with a linear chronology. One event leads to another in a conventionally logical way, and the only disruption is a series of hurdles you have erected around the track to provide a bit of excitement. But the novel is more than this, surely. The novel is an illusion, a sleight of hand whereby the reader is duped into believing mere words on the page constitute a concrete world. To succeed in creating this illusion, we must add a depth of perspective to the narrative. We achieve this by devising minor characters and giving each of them a storyline which feeds into the main spine of the story. Imagine a fish skeleton, with the fish’s spine being your main plotline and all the smaller bones feeding into it being the sub-plots which you build around the minor characters, gradually bringing all these together as you approach the novel’s climax.

According to Robert McKee , a plot consists of five parts:
•      The inciting incident
•      Progressive complications
•      Crisis (the DECISION which brings about the climax)
•      Climax (brings about IRREVERSIBLE CHANGE)
•      Resolution

To a greater or lesser extent, you can break down each chapter and even each scene in the same way – as if your plot was a verbal cauliflower! The inciting incident is that which radically upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life. The rest of the novel charts her/his struggles to regain that balance. The climax is the major turning point, induced by the crisis. The resolution can involve either the balance being restored or the protagonist coming to terms with a changed environment. Whatever the resolution, the protagonist must have gone on a journey. This may be physical as well as intellectual and emotional, but need not necessarily be so.

How you plan your novel is your choice. There are writers whose plans are so detailed they are virtually précis’ of the finished work, with only the creative ‘gaps’ (dialogue, scene-setting, description etc.) to be filled in when they begin to write ‘properly’. Others use timelines, spreadsheets, index cards or brainstorms, all tools we tend to associate with activities such as manufacturing or accountancy rather than creative writing. Whatever approach suits you, once you have made a plan, it is a good exercise to test it against McKee’s analysis. If any scene doesn’t contain these elements, you need to ask yourself if you really need it. Will it hold the reader’s interest and carry the action forward? If not, cut it – and you will find this a lot easier to do at the planning stage than when it is a complete and polished miniature masterpiece.

Even if you choose to explore the less-travelled road and challenge the conventional wisdom that the novel is a plotted narrative, you will still need to plan. It is impossible to reveal your intentions to readers unless you can create a pattern for them to interpret. So, however strong the inspiration with which you start, be prepared to plan if you want to be able to carry on past the first wave of enthusiasm and work through those difficult, mundane stages in the process that are the vital mortar between the big, exciting set-piece ‘bricks’.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Best Comedy Scene Competition 2011 - THE WINNERS

Getting Married by Tony Oswick

Had Adam not Eaten the Apple by Peter McGinniss
Daisy (excerpt) by Thomas Willshire
Pen Picture of Larry (excerpt) by Richard Gibney
This is not a Love Song (excerpt) by Richard Gibney
Conversations with Gran by Deborah Smith

Prizes: £200 First Prize (plus publication in Words with JAM ) and five runners up of £25 each and a copy of Christopher Brookmyre’s Where the Bodies Are Buried (plus publication on the Words with JAM Blog)

Judge’s Report by Danny Gillan
I’ve always said I’m not a judgemental person. I’ve never believed it, of course. So, when asked by the Almighty Ed to judge the comedy scene competition I humbly yet eagerly accepted before she even got to the question mark.

The variety of style, format and subject matter in the entries was astonishing, and it was great to see not just prose writers but screenwriters, sketch writers and playwrights entering the fray.

Whittling down the entries to a longlist of six and then an overall winner was agonising in a way people with multiple physical injuries will never understand. But, it had to be done so do it I did.

First a few words about our five worthy runners up.