Writing Down the Rabbit Hole

Like most writers, I love learning new things and I’m not picky about either the subject matter or the source of information. If something is new to me, I’ll read everything I can about it, delighting in the way new information fills some planet-sized holes in my education. What I love about discovering something new is that it will inevitably lead to something else. Jump down a rabbit hole and who knows where you may end up. Starting to read a book about William Blake and the Industrial Revolution can lead to discovering how carbon paper was invented, which in turn can help you discover why the roads in Victorian London were covered with a variety of different materials and the impact that had on horses.

One curious by-product of this quest for knowledge is it can leave peculiar gaps. This is what happens when an amateur tackles a broad intellectual concept. Several years ago I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in which her detective becomes fascinated by the story of Richard the Third, and is convinced that the last Plantagenet was treated shabbily by history. Then, after he’s completed his research and reached his conclusion, he discovers that this ‘Richard was Innocent!’ notion was already well-established and fairly popular. Oh well, at least he had fun. I had fun reading the book and became equally fascinated with Richard.

Because I loved the TV series, and because I’m likely to learn something new about film-making, grammar, or politics, I’m addict to The West Wing Weekly podcast. Last week on it I heard my hero Aaron Sorkin confess that he, too, has planet-sized gaps in his knowledge. He talks about telling his daughter about a great new singer he’d just discovered. Daughter replies, “That’s Beyonce, dad.” He went on to describe ‘discovering’ Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and being astounded to learn the song was already hugely famous.

I can relate. I trip over information in the oddest ways. Very often it’s not obscure stuff, it’s just that I haven’t happened upon it yet. Like Sorkin (ha! That’s probably the only time I’ll be able to claim any sort of similarity with him), I find ‘gems’ and tell my daughter, giddy with my discoveries. She rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, mother, that’s Adele. How can you not know Adele?”

I don’t know, but I manage it somehow.

A few months ago I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. I’d read some articles about him and then, because of a link someone posted on The West Wing Weekly podcast site, I found Gladwell’s own podcast, which I’m now working my way through. Understand, we’re not talking about some obscure historian or economist. We’re talking Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.  The same Malcolm Gladwell who was named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

When I said planet-sized holes in my knowledge, I wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, I’ve just started listening to his podcasts and in the one that waxes lyrical about Hallelujah, he mentions David Galenson and his unified theory of creativity. Galenson, an economist, has discovered that there are two broad types of creative genius. There are the child wonders like Picasso and Andy Warhol who burst on the world early and whose most esteemed pieces are those produced at the beginning of their careers. Then there are the Mark Twains and the Cézannes whose genius took time to ferment and who didn’t start to achieve excellence until they were well into middle age.

Now I have new books to read, new rabbit holes to explore, new ideas to formulate. I expect / hope Galenson will make reference to some other great mind and I will find another rabbit hole to explore. As you can see, diving down one rabbit hole often leads to many others.

As rabbit  holes go, these ones are particularly exciting because they explore the nature of ideas and creativity. Things I am fascinated by.

I love chasing down various bits of information. It doesn’t matter too much what the topic is, art, literature, psychology, physics, history or anything at all really, bring it on.

Some people approach learning in a much more organised manner. They focus on one topic and can discuss it with huge understanding and insight. I love talking to such people, I enjoy learning from them, but I could never be like them. My range of interests is wide, but once I’ve grasped the basics I’m on to the next thing.

What does all this have to do with writing?

Well, it’s not a coincidence that great minds all link together. As one great mind suggests a theory, that theory connects with another great mind who takes the theory in another direction. In the middle of all of this is the writer, taking what she needs from each and forming her own ideas. If she is lucky, one or more of those ideas will culminate in a story.

While burrowing in one of my rabbit holes one day I happened upon the story of the Necropolis Railway. This was a dedicated line that was built to transport the dead on special trains from London to the city’s outskirts for burial. What writer could fail to be fascinated by the possibilities. I got a story out of that called, not surprisingly, The Necropolis Railway (which appears in Before Baker Street). Reading an article about a musician who was disowned by his family for following his dreams led to a new story (not yet published) called And Righteousness Shall Look Down.

Sometimes the discoveries you make in your reading connect with events in your life. A documentary about Ireland’s fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising led to memories of being bullied in school. Those two topics merged and became a story, too.

Writers need to keep their minds and their eyes open. Stories are everywhere but you have to watch out for them. If you aren’t paying enough mind they’ll slink away and wait for someone else to write them. Or worse, they may never be written at all.

I love that there is so much for me to learn. It ensures I’ll never be bored — even if it does mean I’ll always have some planet-sized holes in my knowledge. That’s OK, though. The act of discovery is worth as much as the information. I have so many more rabbit holes to explore. Who knows, maybe one of them will explain what a Kardashian is.


The West Wing Weekly podcast: The West Wing Weekly (episode 3:22 Posse Comitatus includes Sorkin discussing Beyonce, Hallelujah, and much more.)

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast: Revisionist History

David Galenson on the unified theory of creativity is summed up in this Wired article: What Kind of Genius are You? but you should consider checking out Galenson’s books, too, if the subject interests you.

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Learning Editing from Brian Langan

Last Saturday I took the bus to Cavan and spent the day with other writers taking a class in editing from Brian Langan. Brian is an editor at Transworld/Doubleday Ireland, an imprint of Penguin Random House. He is also a published author and is currently writing his second novel.

Offering classes in venues around the country is a new enterprise for the Irish Writers’ Centre and from the comments of various participants, it’s a welcome one.  Almost half the class came from Donegal. They said it only took them two hours to get to Cavan, but would have taken four to get to Dublin.

As I’d never been to Cavan before and had half-an-hour before the class began, I took a little ramble. It’s a charming town whose medieval origins are still evident, and whose people are kind and hospitable. The general atmosphere of bonhomie put me in the perfect frame of mind to spend the day learning more about my craft.

A number of things can make or break an educational session: poor environment, disinterested or pushy fellow students, ineffective facilitator, or the session fails to meet expectations.

Image result for johnston library cavanIn this instance, the venue was the lovely Johnston Central Library in Cavan. A mere four minute walk from the bus station, the modern building is airy, light, and quiet. The only negative was the heating failed half-way through the morning, but the staff brought in space heaters so we didn’t freeze. They also kept us well supplied with tea, coffee, and a variety of munchies.

Ten students attended the class, which seemed exactly the right number. Too many and people tend to form splinter groups and you have to deal with side conversations that distract the others. Too few and the class can feel flat. In this case, not only were the numbers right, but everyone seemed committed and focused. Having taught and facilitated many classes myself over the years, I know how difficult it can be to keep everyone engaged. It is particularly difficult when the class lasts all-day. Much of the credit for keeping everyone attentive must go to Brian’s delivery and pacing.

You can tell a lot about students by the sort of questions they ask. At another session I attended recently, one woman dominated the class by interrupting with a question every thirty seconds. None of her queries were broad enough to apply to anyone but her and the facilitator’s inability to handle the disruption completely spoiled the session for everyone else. Thankfully, that didn’t happen on Saturday. Everyone seemed engaged and asked questions that were of interest to everyone. In addition, the whole class seemed eager to participate.

The course was an intensive look at the process of editing your own novel, how to prepare your work for submission and how to get the pitch right. Originally planned as a 2-day course, this condensed version meant we had to stay focused and skip some of the original exercises. In addition to covering all the essential topics, such as plot, character, setting, narrative, language, and so much more.

I’ve been attending writing classes for many years, and I can honestly say this was one of the best. Sometimes it’s difficult for those of us with some publishing credits to find a course that meets our needs. The majority of educational sessions for writers tend to be geared towards the beginner. Although Brian’s class was perfectly suitable for people just starting out as novelists, it offered a lot of advice and encouragement for the more advanced writer, too.

Brian Langan Irish Writers Centre

Brian Langan

If I have one quibble, it’s that the time allotted to the course was far too brief. However, Brian is planning to offer a longer, more intensive version at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Yes, I know it means schlepping to Dublin, but trust me, it will be worth it. If you are writing / have written a novel and are serious about making it the very best you can, this class will give you all the tools you’ll need, including a few you never realised you were missing.

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A Wizard Day at the Irish Writers’ Centre

When Una and Ana-Marie and Simon and I decided to go to the Open Day at the Irish Writers’ Centre, we knew we’d have a wizard time. Simon said we were just a dog called Timmy short of an Enid Blyton-style adventure. Not that we had a mystery to solve or a secret passage to discover, but, oh! the lure of the open road and the exciting things that were sure to follow. We knew there’d be lashings of tea and coffee (if not so much ginger beer) awaiting us.

We stopped at the charming cafe in the Hugh Lane art gallery next door and Ana-Marie, naughty girl that she is, put salt in her coffee. Not deliberately, you understand. Ana-Marie is certainly old enough to know the difference between sugar and salt, but perhaps mummy forgot to teach her that lesson. So, with a mouth full of salt and no ginger beer to wash it away, we went next door to the Writers’ Centre.

The staff were very happy to see us. “You’re the Kells Writers’ Group!” they cried. “Hurrah!” We pointed out we were just a small number of the members, but agreed that we were represented enough to allow the Hurrah! to stand.

After more tea and coffee (Ana-Marie decided to pass this time), we went upstairs to the very top floor without the aid of lifts, oxygen masks, or flasks of brandy — sorry, ginger beer — to attend a class on poetry writing given by the charming and talented Yvonne Cullen. We had a wizard time learning to take our pulse and write a verse with the same rhythm. My pulse beat in iambic pentameter which means, obviously, I am a poet at heart.

Simon was particularly pleased with the class and decided he’d stop writing his stories in which people are murdered in quite non-Blytonesque horrible fashion, and instead write poems… in which people are murdered in horrible fashion.

Una and I celebrated the class by quoting Leonard Cohen to one another. Gosh, did we laugh to share Lenny’s cheery and upbeat verses!

Next up came the novel fair information session with Anthony Glavin, a former judge of the competition. Way back when the novel fair was inaugurated, I was one of the winners. How splendid to see so many other people hoping for their own chance to be discovered.

The last session was a Presentation on Professional Development offering information on the services and resources that the Irish Writers’ Centre can offer professional writers. This was a very grown up session covering topics like mentorship and facilitation and taxes. We all listened carefully and asked lots of good questions as befits well-behaved students.

At last, our lovely day at the Centre came to an end and we agreed we’d learned lots, met some splendid people, and had a wizard time, though Simon needed a stiff whisky (and ginger beer) to help him recover from the drive through Dublin. Ana-Marie promised him a special treat in his tuck box for being such a good chap. Simon said he hoped it wasn’t another dead mouse. Oh, how we laughed.

We managed to untangle our route out of Dublin. The streets are properly mangled, what with the new tram lines being laid and bus routes being disrupted. Una said it will all look jolly pretty when it’s done and Ana-Marie said, “I don’t give a shit, I want to go home.”

“Language!” exclaimed Simon.

“Piss off!” said Ana-Marie, and she tossed his tuck box right out the window.

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How to Write a Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

A pastiche is the ultimate method of honouring the fictional character of your choice. It is also a great way of learning the craft of writing. You already have a template of sorts to guide you, some familiarity with the characters, and a ready-made readership.

When I was in my early teens, I read a number of Star Trek pastiches. They ran from the inventive and faithful to the series, to the what-were-they-thinking. There are pastiches based on The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and James Bond and many others. For me, though, it’s all about Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve been a Holmes fan for more than fifty years. I love the characters, even the villains. I love the Victorian London setting. I love the quirkiness of the plots. I love the wit and the humanity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of which leads me to my first pastiche-writing rule:

You have to love it

Seriously, there’s no faking here. You can toss your head back and squeal and bang on the table a la Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, but a real fan will know if you’re faking it. In recent years, we’ve seen a spate of ‘affectionate’ films or TV shows based on Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, The Man from UNCLE and, of course, Star Trek. Having grown up with all of these shows, I have to admit I’ve been underwhelmed by these 2.0 versions. If you really are a fan, then why would you destroy all that made the story work in the first place? I don’t want to see the characters completely altered. Don’t blow up Vulcan. Don’t make Spock a romantic hero. Eww! Give him his dignity, man. These changes smack of commercialism, not affection. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Know your source material

If you have holes in your knowledge, prepare to fill them because, I promise you, your readers will know this stuff. If you call Mrs Hudson Mrs Huston you’ll earn some wrath. If you love Sherlock Holmes, then for pity sake read Conan Doyle. Don’t watch Sherlock and think you’re an expert in the canon. You may be an expert on Sherlock, but that’s not the same thing.

Assuming you’re writing Sherlock Holmes stories there’s another, more fundamental reason why you need to go to the source. Spelling. Someone once sent me a Holmes story they’d written in which Holmes’s name was misspelled all the way through. Oops.

Finally, the original tales allow you to delve into the mind and character of Holmes and Watson in a way that even the best films and TV series cannot. You need to have a sense of the cadence of narration, and the way language is used. These are things the telly can’t tell you.

Do your research

We don’t live in Victorian England so there are things we don’t even know we don’t know. What did those streets smell like? How hard was it to get from one end of the city to another? How long did the journey take? It’s hard enough for those of us who have spent years of our lives living in London to imagine, but how much more difficult must it be for Holmes pastiche writers when they’ve never set foot in the UK? Despite the obvious difficulties, some of them do so remarkably well. They reflect the society, replicate the mode of discourse (sorry, I mention Victorian England and, poof! I’m there), and share fascinating insights into how people lived in that world.

The careful pastiche writer will know that the Victorian age lasted more than 60 years, and the London in which Holmes lived was significantly different from the age of Dickens. If you don’t know the difference, then you need to learn.

You need to avoid making really dopey mistakes. While they are very entertaining to some readers, they also destroy your credibility. One pastiche writer spoke of Holmes pulling a £100 bill from his wallet. If you don’t know why that’s laughable, you need to hit the books. Mind you, that was still preferable to the Victorian lady who dabbed her eyes with a paper tissue…

Even if you’re lucky enough to live in London, or able to visit with some frequency, you must know that the modern city has changed a lot since Conan Doyle’s day, what with that little contretemps called World War II flattening big chunks of the city. You can find photographs and paintings of the period, though, and you can read accounts of what Camden Town or Whitechapel looked like. The idea is to immerse yourself in that world. The more real it is to you, the greater your chances of making it real for your reader.

Take it seriously

Last weekend I watched an interview with one of my favourite actors, the late Dirk Bogarde. The interviewer asked if he felt slightly embarrassed about his early, fluffy films. Certainly not, Bogarde replied. “I’m an entertainer, and if people were entertained by those films, I’ve done my job.” He explained that his ‘Doctor’ films (Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, etc.) had helped many people overcome their phobias about hospitals. Children and the elderly felt a hospital was safe because his character, Simon Sparrow, was a kind and intelligent doctor. Furthermore, people had met their future spouses at Bogarde’s early films. “I’m responsible for four generations of families,” he said, “I’m very proud of that.”

The point is, while many people won’t understand why you feel drawn to pastiche writing, all that really matters is that you enjoy it and approach it with a determination to do your best. If you take it seriously, others will, too.

Don’t go too far off-piste

If you want to move Holmes to New York, fine. If you want to make him gay, also fine. Just try to limit how many changes you make from the canon otherwise you’re liable to ruin everything that people love about the original stories.

In my novels, I had the temerity to give my Holmes a wife. I also tell my stories in the form of the detective’s diaries. My reasoning was I wanted to get inside Holmes’s head and heart and both of these changes furthered that end. However, everything else– Baker Street, Mrs Hudson, the violin, etc.–remain sacrosanct. You can get away with a few changes, but the rest of that fictional world must be recognisable.

Think twice, even three or four times, before you decide to kill off a major character. Remember, you are expecting other fans to read your story. They won’t take it kindly if you kill off Doctor Watson, for instance, especially if Watson is their favourite.

Avoid the Hackneyed

For some reason, a lot of new pastiche writers seize on a ‘novel’ idea, assume they are the only one who ever thought of it, and end up writing the 45th version of Sherlock Holmes meets / kills / IS Jack the Ripper. To coin a phrase: Boring.

If you have an idea that makes you tingle, then at least do a little research before you get started. Google ‘Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.’ My Google search brought up 384,000 results. It’s a fair bet this is a story that’s been told. Repeatedly.

If you really have got a variation on this theme–Mrs Hudson is the Ripper, or the story is told from the Ripper’s point of view–at least continue to search and see if this approach is unusual enough to warrant your time writing and my time reading.

Read the Best

Go to the source. Read every book and story in the original collection. If you’re a fan, that shouldn’t be a hardship. Don’t forget to read other pastiche writers. I have lots of favourites, Nicholas Meyer, David Marcum, Molly Carr, Dick Gillman, Kim Krisco, Richard T Ryan, and many more besides. See how they handle things like dialogue, plotting, and characterisation.

You might want to start with an anthology. MX  Publishing has several volumes that include tales by some of the best in the business. A new 2-part collection is due to be released by MX Publishing next month.

Pastiche-writing can teach you so much about fiction as well as give you an insight into how your favourite writers crafted their tales. If at some point you decide you want to try writing a novel or a short story that’s completely your own, you’ll find the lessons you learned from this sort of writing will stand you in very good stead.


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5 Most Common Errors Writers Make with Their Submissions

Recently I’ve been reviewing some unpublished manuscripts which are, the authors tell me, ready for submission to an agent or publisher.

To quote George Takei, Oh my…

While some of these stories were intriguing, they all shared the same fundamental flaws. See if you’re guilty of any of these. If you are, you might want to revisit your work before you submit it anywhere:

1. Punctuation is not an optional extra.

I was amazed at how many of these writers had no clue about the most basic elements of punctuation. We’re not just talking ‘difficult’ things like apostrophes, but commas, quote marks,  and even full stops. In most cases, these were randomly scattered across these pages, as if someone had filled a salt shaker with punctuation marks and randomly scattered the contents. Some people wrote whole paragraphs with nary a punctuation mark in sight — and that includes a full stop at the end.

Punctuation is not supposed to be haphazard. It is meant to make reading more comprehensible for the poor sod trying to plough through your stuff. That, by the way, includes editors and agents who are deciding whether or not to publish your work.

Submitting a manuscript without taking the time to punctuate it properly and apply the basic rules of grammar is like showing up for a job interview with dirty clothes and fingernails.

Do your job. Punctuate. If you really think it’s not your job then, really, what is it you think a writer does?

2. Beware the pesky homophone

Again, this was a mistake made repeatedly in these manuscripts. A homophone, by the way, refers to words that sound the same but have different spelling and a different meaning. If you don’t know the difference between to, two, and too, then find out, will you, please. Likewise, their, they’re, and there. Bear and bare. Compliment and complement… You should know there are more than 3.000 homonyms in the Concise English Dictionary (8th Edition), so getting confused is understandable. Staying confused, however, is not.

“Secret-keeping is a complicated endeavor. One has to be concerned not only about what one says, but about facial expressions, autonomic reflexes. When I try to deceive, I myself have more nervous tics than a Lyme disease research facility. [pause] It’s a joke. It relies on the homonymic relationship between tick, the blood-sucking arachnid, and tic, the involuntary muscular contraction. I made it up myself.”

(Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in “The Bad Fish Paradigm.” The Big Bang Theory, 2008)

If you use MS Word, one way to be sure you’ve used the write word is to right click on it and check the synonym. If you check the word ‘bare’, for instance, you will find options include simple, unadorned, and naked. ‘Bear’, on the other hand, suggests tolerate or accept.

There are lots of examples on the internet to help you learn more about homonyms and homophones and homographs. Here’s one of many: Homonym-Homophone-Homograph.

3. Get the words right

Similarly, some writers are writing so quickly, they just go with the wrong word. These aren’t homophones, necessarily, but are similar enough to what the writer is going for. Lose rather than loose, for instance. Lose rhymes with ooze and means to mislay.

“Did you lose your watch?”

“Yes, the strap was too loose…”

Loose rhymes with goose and is an antonym (opposite) to tight.

Someone else wrote that the family wrote in a ‘gentile’ house. So, not Jewish, then?

Listen, snafus like this happen all the time. In first drafts. Catching them is what your later drafts are for.

4. Avoid barbed wire sentences

These are the clumsy ones that catch the unfortunate reader and force a re-reading –sometimes more than one — to make sense of the thing. One sentence (which I’ve revised slightly to underscore the point), said, “to Dot Leonard’s widow in the garden…” The lack of punctuation doesn’t help, but in my initial reading I was left wondering why would Leonard’s widow need to be dotted. Of course, the name is capitalized, but it remains the sort of sentence you need to read at least twice to understand. Maybe if it were rewritten, “Leonard’s widow Dot thought…” Or, you know, punctuate.

Other say-what sentences include:

  • Joe saw the dog looking out the window.
  • Alice’s floor needed sweeping badly.
  • Gordon made a suit entirely from his head.

Here are a few from the press. You know. Professionals:

  • “This is the first time there has been institutional support,” said Martin Levinson, the director of the drug prevention program in District 30 in Queens. “For the morale of the drug workers, it is a shot in the arm.”(3)
  • Like the family barn, Harold Wright’s car is still going strong after 285,000 miles.
  • The task force said it looked at hunger as a social problem in which some people cannot obtain adequate amounts of food.
  • Nannouk is a 10-week-old Spitz mix female and will grow to be medium sized. She does well inside. Sterilization is mandatory for anyone wanting to take her.


5. Formatting in the 21st Century

When I started to write, I used an antique Royal typewriter. Back then, you needed to underline a word if it was meant to be italicised. You had to click five spaces to indent a paragraph. At the end of a writing session, you ended up  with black ink on your fingers because the ribbon jammed (again), and you probably had to type the same sheet at least three times to make sure there were no typos.

Now, we have templates at our fingertips, and can set up our computers to do all the hard work. Editors have come to expect pristine documents.


Once you have made your list of preferred agents or editors, check their websites for any formatting preferences. Some sites like specific fonts, for instance. Others have expectations regarding spacing, headers, or some other weirdness. Sorry. Eccentricity.

Assuming there are no preferences listed, however, you can reasonably go with the standard.

  • Use a 1″ margin on all sides.
  • Use a title page. This includes the title of the work, your name, contact information, and word count. Do not use the word or symbol ‘copyright’.
  • Don’t number the title page. Begin numbering with the first page of the text of the book, usually the introduction, prologue, or chapter one.
  • Use a header on each page, including your name, the title of your novel in all caps, and the page number.
  • Start each new chapter on its own page, one-third of the way down the page.
  • The chapter number should be in all caps.
  • Begin the body of the chapter 4-6 lines below the chapter number.
  • Indent fives spaces for each new paragraph (MS Word defaults to 1.27cm, which is usually fine).
  • Double-space the entire text.
  • Use a standard font, 12-point type. Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier is fine.
  • Use a heavy paper such as 20-lb. bond if you are submitting a hard copy.

If you aren’t sure how to format other documents such as a cover letter, synopsis, or short story, don’t guess, look it up.


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Psst! Prompt Me!

If I had to guess the part of our weekly writers’ group that is the most popular, I’d say it’s when I give the gang a writing prompt and fifteen minutes to produce a story based on it. It’s funny, but individuals who really struggle to get started when they’re on their own really respond to this exercise.

I suspect there are a few reasons why it’s so effective:

The Prompt Itself

Being given a peculiar scenario or just a word or two really helps to unlock the imagination. Last week, for instance, the prompt was, “You’re digging in your garden and find a nugget of gold…”

Because the prompts are usually odd and unexpected, no one has a preconceived idea of how the story ought to go. That really frees up the imagination.

The Time Factor

Even the most procrastinating of writers will rush to write when they are told they have fifteen minutes to produce something. You can try this yourself at home: Set your alarm and just start. Fifteen minutes isn’t long, so there’s no time to edit or second-guess yourself. Second-guessing clogs up so many creative arteries, so anything that gets the blood flowing is wonderful. Give it a try and see if it unleashes your creativity.

The Response

We have a very nurturing writers’ group and we are an enthusiastic audience. We laugh, cheer, applaud, and otherwise support each other. Knowing a positive response will greet a story helps most of the members to produce something innovative.

Variations on the Prompt

If you are interested in trying prompts for yourself, you can do it yourself at home. Here are a few methods:


Go to your bookshelf and take down the 7th book. Now go to the 7th page. Look at the 7th line, and use that as the beginning of your story. You can, of course, use other numbers, or sets of numbers.


Close your eyes and just select a book at random, open at any page, and, with your eyes shut, point anywhere on said page and use that sentence or phase. This works particularly well with books of poetry. Some people stick pins in the sentence, but I shudder at the thoughts of damaging something so precious as a book, so don’t do that.

Lucky Dip

Write nouns on pieces of coloured paper. One noun on each sheet of paper. TIME. NIGHT. FAMILY. MUSIC. SPACE, etc. Now, using a different colour, write verbs: CRYING, LOVING, RUNNING, KISSING, SLAPPING… and so on. Now, mix them up and randomly draw one of each colour. Whatever you end up with is the theme. You might have ‘Crying Time’, for instance, or ‘Kissing Space’.

It’s helpful if you can get a few friends to help you by writing nouns and verbs. That way you can’t anticipate what you might end up with and it makes for freer writing.

You can also add adjectives in a third colour and use that in addition to the first two, or instead of one of them. For instance, you could have ‘Yellow Night’, or  ‘Blue Kissing.’

Go Visual

Have friends give you photographs or pictures cut from newspapers or magazine. Randomly select a picture and use that as your prompt.


There are lots of sites on the internet that will offer you prompts, no matter what your interest. You can Google, “Fiction Writing Prompts”, or “Creative Writing Prompts”, or even, more specifically, “Science Fiction Writing Prompts”, for instance, and see where you end up. If you then select the ‘images’ option, you’ll get pictures to inspire you. Printerest offers some great ones. Here are a few of my favourites (the picture at the bottom of the page comes from the visual writing prompt site I’ve linked):

Fiction Writing Prompts

Visual Writing Prompts

Story Prompts

One Caveat

The only downside to using writing prompts is they can become something of a lifeline. They are certainly fun exercises, and they will get you started, but they’re really not a substitute to writing a well thought-out story. Think of them as the literary equivalent of playing chords on the piano.

Anyway, here’s an example of one of the visual writing prompts to give you an idea. See what you can do with it. You have fifteen minutes. Your time starts…




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Don’t Hide the Madness

DegasOver the past several months I have attended a number of arts’ events. There were a couple of poetry readings, some painting exhibitions, that sort of thing. The one thing all these events had in common was the type of artist they attracted. I suppose you would call them enthusiastic amateurs. The poetry comprised of the, “I saw a butterfly. It reminded me of mother. I cried,” sort of thing. The visual arts tended to be mostly pretty pictures of bucolic scenes copied from photographs. The word ‘charming’ comes to mind.

Charming. Perhaps. But is that art?

Yes, that’s a tricky question and one we have been toying with since, I suspect, people decorated the walls of their caves.

One of the things these poets and artists had in common was a desire to ‘express themselves.’ I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I do question the artistic merit of some of their results. There was something so ephemeral about these offerings. The poems and paintings, many of them, were positively wispy. Surely one of the key components of art is its ability to resonate? To endure?

The work the true artist produces isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s dark, challenging, and even disturbing. Very rarely is it charming.

For the artist, the work is all. Crafting the perfect line or expressing an idea on canvas is what matters. The artist knows that a lot of people won’t get what they’re trying to do. The work is what matters, though, not the acclaim.

This was what I found most unsettling in the events I mentioned. The majority of people were present to be acclaimed, to be told how talented they were. That was what mattered; not the actual work. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me.

At one of these events, I had been invited to read my own work. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. My friend who accompanied me was outraged, but to be honest I was relieved. The opening scene of my work in progress, a tale of madness and violence, would have had no place in a charming garden full of charming people reading their charming poems.

My friend Carrie, a painter, spends months on her pictures. She takes me painting with her sometimes and we wrestle with nature. Well, I wrestle. Carrie is a true artist and she thinks nothing of spending three hours just getting the lines of one tree right. There’s no sense of it being an effort for her. Sure, it may take a long time to reach the sort of perfection she craves, but the process is what she loves. I’m much more slapdash with my paints, which probably explains why I’m a writer and not an artist. I take those sort of pains with words and with as much pleasure.

There’s nothing wrong with being a talented amateur. Every professional was one once. Nor is there anything wrong in expecting other people to admire the things one produces. However, I do think there’s a danger in assuming every quick and easy idea that drops from one’s pen or brush is art. With work, it may become so, but it will take time, effort, study, and diligence.

Art can be unsettling. It is provocative. It isn’t safe. That’s what makes it fun.

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.

–Allen Ginsberg.

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