Friday, 27 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 6 - Stoking the Creative Fires with Rebecca Lang


By Rebecca Lang

I run a fortnightly writing group. We, each of us, write different things – fantasy, memoir, crime, lit-fic – but all struggle with the same challenge: procrastination.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in ‘analysis paralysis’, where you can over-think yourself into a corner to the point where you write nothing at all. You know what I mean – you’re so full of ideas you don’t know where to start, so you don’t. You become the antithesis of a writer, which, by the way, my thesaurus confidently tells me is a reader!

Of course, most writers are readers as well, but if there’s no writing going on in your life then it’s hard to confidently refer to yourself as a writer. Let me help you remedy that situation the best way I know how, by challenging you to write something from nothing, using some tried-and-true creative tools.

Meme or Writing Roulette – Have you ever played Meme or Writing Roulette? You randomly select a meme (a humorous or thought-provoking image, video, or piece of text) and use it as a mental springboard into the deeper recesses of your imagination: your subconscious. It’s essentially a writing prompt, and thanks to the magic of sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest or search engines like Google, you can call up a host of choices using rather obvious search terms such as ‘writing roulette’.

Another great way to find inspiration is by actually typing in ‘writing prompt’ and select ‘images’ from the Google menu, whereupon you’ll be inundated with colourful and eye-catching scenarios, crafty phrases, and fantastical possibilities. These clever prompts have been dreamt up by other writers and editors to help you generate the first lines of your story.

This may seem like a very obvious source of inspiration, but the wonderful thing about using prompts such as these is that they use the element of surprise. Suitably startled, your brain is immersed in the creative soup that is your subconscious mind, leaving behind the restraints of your day-to-day critical, conscious thought processes. Happy day-dreaming!

StoryWorld Cards – What’s this? Witchcraft?! Well, the StoryWorld Cards created by Caitlin and John Matthews could almost certainly be modelled on that fortune-teller’s favourite, the old Devil’s Picture Book, also known as Tarot cards. Aesthetically rendered and rich with symbolism, StoryWorld Cards and their ilk act as a visual passport to your imagination, allowing you to access the dark, deep waters of your subconscious.

Sadly, the publisher stopped printing the StoryWorld Card decks (which feature many themed decks: faeries, haunted houses, adventures), so whatever remaining decks you see for sale represent its final print run. Our group loves the ‘three-card draw’, where you have to make up a story using elements from all three cards, and also the single-card challenge, where everyone uses the same card to inspire their story.

I’ve seen other inspirational decks pop up in recent times – including the Writer Emergency Pack and The Storymatic, to name a few - and they all play the same role in stimulating your creative juices. If you can’t lay your hands on a fancy deck, use some clever targeted searches on Google, Pinterest or Instagram. A visit to your local library can provide a similarly unpredictable and inspirational ‘old school’ experience by pulling books off shelves and opening them at random pages.

Story Map – This four-panel sketch is actually an idea I borrowed from a UK writing workshop, the exact source of which is lost to me in the mists of time and the Internet. It’s also of immense appeal to people like myself – visual thinkers who engage in a lot of doodling and spend far too much time blissfully zoning out to pretty images online.

The Story Map, as I’m calling it, is a great kickstarter for shorter writing projects – whether they be competitions or flash fiction – and as initial templates for much larger works. The Story Map forces you to focus on key elements: location, character, action and – crucially – an ending! You can read more on this approach below.

Deadlines – My father used to spend a lot of time quoting Parkinson’s Law to me when I struggled with writing essays, invariably leaving my assignments until the night before they were due. His variation was ‘work expands to fill the allotted time’, but the accepted quote as written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson himself is ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ In other words, if you have two weeks to write an essay, it takes two weeks; if you have one night, it will take one night, and so on. This explains how, seemingly against all the odds, I still managed to pass English.

The Oxford Dictionary defines time as ‘The indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.’ But as writers (including Parkinson) know, time is really elastic. It can speed up, and it can slow down. Occasionally it can seem as if it has stopped altogether, usually when you’re stuck on a plot point or you’ve entered that spiritual and physical void of unspeakable boredom that seems to consume all creativity, what writer Douglas Adams called the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

We know we can mark, measure and muse over it, but when we harness this mercurial motion with the power of deadlines, we can all briefly master time.

Chris Baty, the founder of the popular National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), a challenge in which writers strive to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, knows about the power of deadlines. ‘A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form.’ Word! Someone give that man a cup of tea! Wait, don’t – you’ll only distract him. He has his own stories to write.

Deadlines, as Baty rightly points out, can be a galvanising force for writers. Don’t fear deadlines, use them to their full potential as motivating goals. Think of your deadline as a Harry Potter-style ‘Time-Turner’, a device that will help you travel to a future state where your story has been fully realised and written. Deadlines deliver rewards.

So where does this leave us, friends? Optimistic? Inspired? Ready to pick up your pen or hit the keyboard? I hope so.

Here’s a short exercise combining all of the above tools to help send you on your way.


1. Deadline - Set your alarm and give yourself 20 minutes. It’s okay to cheat, I often hit ‘snooze’ and give myself another five to 10 minutes.

2. Inspiration – Use a meme, writing prompt or a StoryWorld card or similar as a starting point. Google is also your friend here! The words or images don’t have to represent THE perfect idea, just start writing.

3. Story Map - Take a blank piece of paper and divide it into four quarters by drawing two intersecting lines. In the first quarter, write a location for your story and draw it (it could be a map of a place, a house, a tree, a planet – be creative!).

In the second quarter, imagine your main character and sketch something representative (it could be a person or maybe an animal).

In the third quarter, illustrate an action – it could be someone doing something (perhaps exciting) like driving a fast car or running, or an event taking place.

In the fourth quarter, think of your ending or resolution and draw it as best you can.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, these are just markers for your story. Using these four sketches as a guide, and your StoryWorld card or meme/writing prompt for further inspiration, write down the bones of your story. Be as descriptive as possible.

The words or images from your meme, writing prompt or StoryWorld card don’t have to represent THE perfect idea. Your Story Map isn’t set in stone. These things are catalysts for the ideas process, so just start writing and marvel at your rich and marvellous imagination as characters and scenes tumble forth.

Depending on how well your ideas have formed and how quickly you write, using this method you can, on average, pen between 400-600 words in less than half an hour. Not bad from a standing (or sitting) start. Happy writing.

Rebecca Lang is a writer and editor based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. She runs a lively fortnightly writing group, Novels by Night, and writes when and where she can – mostly on the train. She is the author of a series of novellas including Army Dreamers and For Fear of Little Men, and the editor of several anthologies including a collection of soon-to-be-published ghost stories, Dark Spirits.

Twitter: @rebecca_lang

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 5 - Creating Characters with Clare Flynn

Creating Characters that Readers Care About 
By Clare Flynn
Photographs by JD Lewis

Whether you’re a daredevil seat-of-the-pants writer who sits down with a blank page and lets the story unfold, or a meticulous planner and plotter who knows in advance what will happen in every chapter, there are times when a character will surprise you. What? You might say, I’m the author, I’m in control! But that’s not always the case.

Why do characters have a nasty habit of running off on their own – sometimes in a different direction from the one we intended, leaving us lolloping along behind them? Well, it can be a sign that they are living, breathing people who have a clearer idea of their own destiny than the plot structure imposed on them – or it could mean they aren’t yet fully formed.

One way to find out, is to know your characters as well as, or, given that self-knowledge is rarely a strength, better than yourself.

A fundamental element of story, from Shakespeare to Star Trek, is the concept of a hero’s journey. One of my favourite expositions of this is shown in this short clip from Kurt Vonnegut

So, what are your characters’ journeys? The start point is getting clear on what each character’s role is in the story. The main character or protagonist (MC)? – the central focus of your story – the hero on his or her journey. The antagonist? – whether well-intentioned or plain evil, they are out to foil the MC’s mission. A minor character? – if so, what is their role in the story and relationship to the MC? For the purpose of this post I’m going to focus on the main character – as if you get that wrong you’ve lost your reader.

Exercise 1

Answer these questions about your MC (it’s a good idea to do them for the antagonist and supporting characters too).

· What’s their role in the story?

· What do they yearn for? This is fundamental! It’s what drives them and sends them on their journey

· What do they look like? Whether you include these details in the book or leave them to the reader’s imagination is irrelevant – YOU need to know this – and this goes for all of these questions!

· A brief pen portrait of their personality – just a few sentences

· What’s their occupation?

· Do they have any habits or mannerisms?

· What’s their background? (history, family, location, backstory)

· What are their internal conflicts? What causes their angst? Their dark nights of the soul?

· What are their external conflicts? Who or what are the source of these?

Exercise 2

Once you’ve done that, here’s another exercise. This time write freely in the voice of your character filling in the blanks. Don’t stop to think – just get it down on paper, preferably by hand.

Let me tell you who I am ––––––

As well as all that, what you really need to know about me is ––––––

OK confessional time here, what I really want is ––––––––

I’d be able to have exactly what I want if only ––––––––

Don’t tell anyone, but what I dislike most about myself is ––––––––

My life changed forever the day –––––––––

The worst thing that ever happened to me was –––––––––

The best moment of my life was –––––––––––

Exercise 3

To get right under the skin of your characters, give them the Spanish Inquisition.

You can use The Proust Questionaire ,

or any online personality test

or do what I did when I was writing The Alien Corn and needed to reconnect with the characters in the previous book, The Chalky Sea, and use the excellent one JJ Marsh wrote about here, or make up your own.

I recently did an online course with a university on outlining (I was trying to move from being a seat-of-the-pantser to a plotter). One of the exercises was to fill out a very comprehensive questionnaire in the voice of your main character. Many of the participants found it difficult, if not impossible, to answer as their character rather than as themselves. That’s fine if you’re writing a memoir, a fictionalised account of your own life, or are transplanting yourself into your novel as the main character Hey, why not live vicariously? You too can swing through Amazon jungles or live as a Trappist monk. But in most cases your characters are NOT you and you need to get to know them better than you know yourself.

Most of the questions in a questionnaire may seem pointless – I’ll never use it in my book, you say. But you’ll be surprised at the gems you uncover that can add colour and shade to your characters. Think of characters as being like icebergs – the biggest part is hidden from view but it’s what gives strength, power and presence. A character who only consists of the words that make it onto the page is going to be thin and insubstantial. We are all what we lived in our pasts – a complex construct of past slights and injuries, compliments and excitements, moments of joy and sadness.

Some of the areas to think about (not an exhaustive list) in forming your characters are –

· What is their backstory?

· Voice and manner

· Tastes

· What do they dream about?

· Quirks and behaviours

· Skills and aptitudes

· Fears and desires

· Strengths and weaknesses

· Formative experiences

· Friends and enemies

My last top tip is, having done all the exercises, print them out and keep these together as a reference document to inform your writing. Or if you are paper averse, save them in a folder where you can easily refer to them as you’re writing. If you ever feel “stuck” a dip back into the folder can produce rich pickings.

Author of seven novels, Clare Flynn writes historical fiction with a strong sense of time and place and compelling characters.
After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting company for 15 years and now lives in Eastbourne where she writes full-time – and can look out of her window and see the sea.

Clare’s latest novel,
The Gamekeeper’s Wife, is available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon
Facebook –
Twitter –
Instagram –

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 4 - Blurb with Louise Mangos

You’ve written 120,000 words of your book and pared them back to around 90,000. You’ve edited and re-edited and edited again. You feel like you’ve read those words eleventy bazillion times (yes, that IS a number). You can even quote big chunks of the narrative from memory. Now you need to write a blurb. And the very thought makes you want to abandon everything and pour yourself a pint of prosecco. 

The blurb is a handful of sentences that sets the scene for your novel. If you’ve written in genre, the blurb should show something at stake for your protagonist or main characters in the narrative, whether your story is a romance, a crime, or a historical novel. The blurb often, though not always, asks a question of the reader – what would they do in a precarious situation? It should state the premise – perhaps a sentence about the dramatic opening to your story – and a hint of at least one reason your protagonist is not getting what they want. Most importantly, it has to make the reader want to dive into your work.

The blurb will appear on the back cover of the book, so it’s the second thing a potential reader will read after the title and your name. It has to be more perfect than all the words in your novel. It is not a synopsis. You must not reveal any spoilers. At this point you are giving nothing away beyond the first chapter.

The blurb is also useful as an elevator pitch. When someone asks you ‘What’s your book about?’ you need to be able to tell them without hesitation, especially if it’s an agent or a publisher. You never know where you’re going to meet these people. They are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, and you must be ready to present them with the golden key. Assume you only have the time it takes to journey in the lift between four floors to forge your key and unlock the magic.



The easiest way to write a blurb is to create a mind-map.

1. Take your main protagonist. Write their name in a bubble at the centre of your mind map.

2. In a bubble above your character, write a sentence about the rising tension to the first dramatic incident in your plot. You could also make this a question – ask the reader what they would do in your protagonist’s shoes.

3. The other bubbles around the centre should include early plot arcs or twists in the narrative.

4. Pick one, and write a sentence that hints at the jeopardy or conflict in that incident.

5. Expand on the consequence of the drama, without giving away any obvious clues.

6. What is at stake for your protagonist? State their most intrepid challenge. This should be the final line of your blurb.

As an example, here is the blurb for my debut psychological thriller Strangers on a Bridge:

To what lengths would you go to protect your family? 

When Alice Reed goes on her regular morning jog in the peaceful Swiss Alps, she doesn’t expect to save a man from suicide. But she does. And it is her first mistake.

Adamant they have an instant connection, Manfred’s charming exterior grows darker and his obsession with Alice grows stronger.

In a country far from home, where the police don’t believe her, the locals don’t trust her, and even her husband questions the truth about Manfred, Alice has nowhere to turn.


You’ve got your blurb, something you’ve decided you can also use as your elevator pitch. And you pitched it so perfectly in that lift, you now have an agent who’s interested in representing you. Alternatively, you might have gone down the indie route and decided to self-publish. Now you need a tag line – one short sentence that will appear on the front cover of your book to deliver an essence of the tension in your story to the potential reader. Your tag line could be the last hanging sentence of one of your most tense chapters.

The tag line for Strangers on a Bridge is: ‘She should never have saved him

This might shock the potential reader. Most of us would do anything to prevent the suicide of someone – our instinct is to pull any fellow human back from the brink. So why shouldn’t Alice have saved Manfred? She does actually think this at some point in the narrative. Your tag line should make your potential reader want to find out why.

However, I should add that if you’re lucky enough to strike a deal with a large publishing company, it’s likely you won’t have any say in the tag line chosen for the cover. There may be three or four people working on the marketing and publicity for your book, and they will come up with a selection of possible tag lines. These will be passed around the team and a shortlist drawn up. Focus groups might then have the taglines tested on them before the final one-liner is chosen. Not by you. By the publisher.

A final note on writing the blurb: Most authors only write the blurb after the manuscript has been perfected. But it helps some writers to have a vague version of the blurb when they’re plotting the chapters. I use the mind map method to plot my novels, and have adapted my own system from the Snowflake method taught by Randy Ingermanson. You may not have a final title for your novel, but it helps to create a working title, even if it’s something like ‘Woman Stalked by Man’. Around the title, forming the start of your snow crystal, you have your main characters, and from there you have key moments in your plot. This method can be used as deeply as you wish. You might want to plot each of your chapters this way, each with its own individual snowflake. Here is a link to Randy’s site for writers who might be finding it difficult to plot their novels:

I look forward to seeing all your wonderful novels on bookshop and library shelves!

Strangers on a Bridge was a finalist in the Exeter Novel Prize and long listed for the Bath Novel Award and is published by Harper Collins imprint HQDigital. Louise also writes short stories and flash fiction, which have won prizes, placed on shortlists and been read out on BBC Radio. You can visit her website with links to more of her short fiction, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @LouiseMangos. Louise lives on a Swiss Alp with her Kiwi husband and two sons. When she’s not writing you can find her in her kayak on the lake in summer or on the cross-country ski loipe in winter, painting in her studio, or drinking prosecco in vast quantities when she’s trying to write blurbs for her novels.

Link to Harper Collins page: link:

Amazon UK link:

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Creative Kicks - Week 3 - The S-word with Jean Gill

The S-word we all hate

That is, of course, s for structure. Before you rush off to read something that’s more fun, just answer one question. What if the story starts with Cinderella looking in the mirror at her middle-age spread and grey hair, as she remembers the moment when her bad-tempered husband, now King Charming, fell in love with her? How does that change the story? Hold those thoughts!

‘Structure’ sounds rigid, all rulers and straight lines, but we’re going to get messy, fool around with the sequence of scenes in a story, and consider the consequences.

The simplest structure for a story

Good storytelling is as old as sitting round a fire with friends and, although the terms used for the craft might change with fashion, the craft itself remains the same. My touchstone as to the simplest story structure, very useful for a play or short story, dates back to Aristotle. His theory of three unities suggests that you should limit your story to one location (place), one day (time) and one plot (action). Breaking one unity is fine but if you break more, you risk confusing your audience and losing the power in your storytelling.

In a novel, we can play with multiple places, times and subplots, but we should still be aware that this adds complexity.

Let’s return to the Cinderella story and consider some of the choices related to one of Aristotle’s unities, time.

Time structure is the order in which the content of the book (whether story, poems or facts) is revealed to the reader. This is where we have fun and get messy because there are so many options. There are no rules - just consequences!

The simplest time sequence for telling a story
is chronological, by the time and date events happened. Imagine a four-year old telling you, ‘Then I went on the swings, then I went home.’

Even with a chronological structure, we can incorporate memories (the past) and hopes or fears (the future). We can change points of view (but not too quickly or the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ will annoy our readers). Versions of Cinderella’s story often begin with her being ill-treated as she does endless domestic chores, then she sees the invitation to the Prince’s ball. In between there are obstacles and resolutions. The ending is a Happy Ever After – classic romance structure.

What is the effect if you begin at the end?

In my Cinderella version, the beginning shows poor Cinders disillusioned and wondering what went wrong – the chronological ending of the story. This is now women’s fiction instead of romance, so there is a genre change. The hook is no longer ‘Will she meet her Prince, against all odds?’ (and because it’s romance, you can expect that she will) but ‘I know just how she feels. I want to spend time with this real woman and find out what went wrong.’

What if you begin in the middle?

Jane Davis’ superb novel ‘Smash All the Windows’ starts in the chronological middle of the story. The opening chapter shows us the trial and verdict regarding a lethal disaster in a London underground station. We know who was killed. The structure removes all suspense as to who dies, or what the trial verdict will be. This transforms what could have been an all-action disaster thriller into a contemporary novel focused on the survivors’ relationships and emotions.

You could start the Cinderella story with a middle scene. She is at the ball dancing with the Prince. This changes the mood of the beginning from misery to happiness and gives different ways of continuing the story, perhaps a) flashback to all the events leading to the dance, followed by losing the Prince again and a similar story arc until they are together at the end. Or b) a dual timeline, one chapter narrating Cinderella’s tough life with her stepfamily and the next continuing from the dance.

Why use a dual timeline?

Juxtaposing Cinderella’s time with the stepfamily before and after the dance with the Prince would allow psychological depth. She could know despair after happiness was snatched away, and realise that the cruellest emotion of all is hope. This would be a good structure for a novel raising questions about our existence.

A dual timeline is also useful for any story where two sequences of related events are separated by time, especially – but not only – Historical Fiction. J. T. Lawrence’s ‘Why You Were Taken’ creates sci-fi suspense by switching between two related women’s viewpoints, in 1980s and 2020s South Africa. When it works as well as this, readers are hooked as they puzzle over the connections.

A dual timeline can converge at any moment in the book, when the connection is revealed, but authors often leave the full revelation to the end, where a conclusion ties up all the main threads, apart from those left for the next book in a series.

Create suspense through the sequence of scenes

Readers love knowing something that the characters don’t, so show the reader something that’s going on, then let another character head for disaster, not necessarily straight away.

Let’s add a scene to Cinderella.

1) Cinderella finds Prince Charming in bed with her (ugly) sister.

From Cinderella’s point of view, this could come as a great shock or be no surprise but either way we know as much as Cinderella does.

However, if we see

1) Prince Charming in bed with a sister then

2) Cinderella talking to her friend about how happy she is with her dream husband

we feel the pain of Cinderella’s betrayal and we’ll read on quickly to find out what happens when she finds out! This is a classic example of dramatic irony and is one of the most effective weapons in the writer’s armoury.

Now it’s your turn to have fun with these techniques.


1) On separate post-it notes or, if you’re hi-tech, in Scrivener or other software, arrange the scenes below

i) chronologically. What genre/s is the story?

ii) in alphabetical order. How does this change genre and mood? How would you write the link from one scene to the next?

iii) randomly. Shuffle the scenes, lay them in a row and add any scenes you like. Add a point of view for each scene (could be the same throughout)

iv) as a dual timeline. Add four scenes from the life and viewpoint of the stepmother twenty years before the ball. Put these in a row. Choose 4 scenes from Cinderella’s story and put these in a row above the stepmother’s. Read the story, zig-zagging from one row to the other, then add or write one scene to bring the two timelines together.

2) Play the same analysis game with any novel which struck you as having an interesting structure, especially if it’s in the genre you are writing.

3) Write each key scene in your story in the same way and have fun moving scenes around. Plotters can do this before writing and pantzers can do it at any stage. Both can do it at re-drafting stage. A key scene is whatever you want it to be – could be an event, could be a revelation (e.g. Luke Skywalker finds out that Darth Vader is his father).

J. Cinderella sees the invitation to all girls to go to the ball at the Palace so the Prince can find a wife

A. Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters are horrible to her and say she can’t go to the ball.

M. Her stepmother gives Cinderella lots of housework to do so she can’t go to the ball.

B. Stepmother and sisters get dressed up and go off to the ball.

O. Cinderella is crying and her fairy godmother appears.

R. Fairy godmother makes coaches out of pumpkin, footmen out of mice and creates beautiful gown. She instructs Cinderella to be home by midnight.

D. Cinderella is at the ball and dances with Prince Charming. Love at first sight.

P. Clock strikes midnight. Cinderella runs away. One shoe falls off.

V. Visit from the Prince and entourage to Cinderella’s house with shoe to see if the shoe fits. Ugly sisters try shoe.

L. Discovery of another girl in house. The shoe fits. The Prince has found Cinderella. Joy. Wedding.

Jean Gill is a Welsh writer and photographer now living in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man. For many years, she taught English in Wales and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales. She is mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic.

Her nineteen books are varied in genre, including the award-winning Troubadours Quartet, memoir, military history, dog books, poetry, and a cookery book on goat cheese. With Scottish parents, an English birthplace and French residence, she can support the winning team on most sporting occasions.



Sign up for Jean’s Special Readers’ Group

Youtube Channel

IPPY Award-winning ‘Best Author Website’




The Troubadours Page