Make a Private Wikia for Your Novel!

Many writers have a large notebook or digital file affectionately called their “Writing Bible”. It contains everything they need to remember—details about their characters, plotting, locations, fictional races, ancient history, research—you get the idea.

I’ve always been one of those writers who puts it down by hand in an A4 notebook with a rainbow of tabs. Eye colour, height, hair colour, background, beliefs—all on paper, because I hate trying to wade through a digital word-dump even if it does have “ctrl+F”—I’m fussing about presentation and organisation.

On numerous occasions, I have been SUPER TEMPTED to start Wikia pages for my novels, to insert links to other relevant pages, to set out section dividers, pictures and collected information sections.



Continue reading

Building strong narratives in the post-apocalyptic genre


I always appreciated—and what I appreciate even more now, in the wake of dozens of post-apocalyptic series that didn’t work nearly as well—was that the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people, not the ruins.

—  Todd VanDerWerff

I read that quote a while back at the very bottom of an article about the modality of grief in Battlestar Galactica, which includes a variety of people expressing their opinion on “Unfinished Business”, an episode that split viewers two ways as either being pointless or profound because it focuses so entirely on character development that, technically, nothing happens plot wise.

That quote above, written by Todd VanDerWerff, hit me so much that I cut it from the text and emailed it to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve been thinking it over and over to the point that I thought I’d comment on it.

VanDerWerff’s main point about characters is clear: it should start and end with them. That is what makes post-apocalyptic stories work.

But, to be honest, this is true of any story, of any genre. “Character drives plot, not the other way around,” said some mysterious person who’s advice was swallowed into the writer’s guide from the void. But it’s the way VanDerWerff has worded his opinion of this universally acknowledged writing technique that really sticks with me, ‘the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people, not the ruins.’ Earlier in his piece, he says,

What’s interesting to me about “Unfinished Business” is how many of the so-called “rules” of good TV that have come up in the last 10 years or so that this episode breaks. Apparently, the crew of the Galactica has this long-standing tradition of beating the shit out of each other when tensions run high, one that we’ve never heard of before. […] In fact, it reminded me of showrunner Ron Moore’s Star Trek history. If we were randomly told that the crew of the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine had rankless boxing grudge matches every so often, no one would bat an eye. It feels different here, because everything is supposed to matter.

If we do not focus on the ruins or the futility of the character’s struggle in the grander scheme of things, does that mean the people themselves offer hope/intrigue simply through their experiences? To what extent must a story not focus on the ruins of civilisation for it to work? Why does VanDerWerff ‘appreciate’ an internalised story, like Battlestar Galactica’s, more so than one with a clearer focus point on the end game? These are questions I can’t answer but am happy to ponder.

Despite being a post-apocalyptic science-fiction story, I would actually call Battlestar Galactica a political drama. The world of the characters, though unbound by the vastness of space, is ironically limited to their spaceships. There are no alien worlds to visit. There are no planets they can stop off at and have a curious look around; stay aground a few days and test the rock density. And this spacial limitation is what forces the writers to focus on the characters and their desires – how these people fit into the greater scheme of society as a concept rather than as a ‘thing’ that must be saved. It must be reformed. The very set-up of Battlestar Galactica lends itself to the phrase ‘the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people,’ because where else could it turn? Space, the final frontier, except not really?

Should we have entire episodes, or chapters, that focus totally on character development for a story to feel genuine? How do we balance plot and personal-social-politics? What does VanDerWerff mean?

Character, I guess, it’s all about character. But applied and implemented how in this particular instance? VanDerWerff doesn’t give any examples of stories he feels have failed, so it’s hard to dissect what exact technique is being praised.

Television and books have more freedom to explore character than, say, films. They also have less chance of doing it well (if we’re to focus on character and character alone in the wake of a larger plot) than, say, roleplaying video games, where it’s often expected that players get one-on-one time with characters and can take a break from the main story. The split in opinion over “Unfinished Business” shows that a large enough number of people watching television don’t think an episode about characters trying to resolve their wounds by boxing each other, currently an unexplored facet of the world, was necessary. Some, like Genevieve Koski, argue that it felt too out of place, too overdone, too much like a “patch-work-quilt”. While she enjoyed certain aspects of the episode, in her opinion piece, she says,

However—and here’s where I turn into the party-pooper—I find I have a much harder time connecting to the Starbuck-Lee-Anders relationship this time around, divorced from the rest of the series. Maybe it’s knowing where all those characters are heading after this cathartic boxing match—more anger, more betrayal, more all-consuming guilt—or maybe it’s just the lack of momentum inherent in viewing it out of context, but this time I found Lee and Starbuck’s midnight tryst a little eye-rolling, which somewhat tainted their final embrace for me.

Perhaps it was an oddly structured episode, perhaps it was out of place, and maybe the anger everyone in Battlestar feels does come across as too overdone (it’s important to note that Koski acknowledges watching episodes singularly rather than in order – and with hindsight – can affect its overall impact), but I personally still enjoyed the episode’s study of grief, like VanDerWerff, because it left a stronger impression of the characters’ bonds with each other.

What does that mean for those of us who are writers?

I suppose a question that often gets ignored by writers with massive worlds is this: how can I show the character has been impacted by current events? How can I show they are struggling without meandering away from the main plot and creating something hollow or cliche? Is it possible to do so without wandering away from the main plot?

When the main theme of our story is world destruction and it hinges upon an evil master plan, we can easily be swept away by the scale of our own ideas. There are so many explosions and betrayals and chase scenes that there’s little time left over to stop and hear the laughter. World destruction equals crying and gun-fights. It means grim-dark-grim-grumble-punches.

Perhaps, then, what VanDerWerff means is that it’s important that we take time to look away from the crying and the gun-fights. VanDerWerff appreciates it when the characters take a moment from grim-dark-fighting-and-futility to confront relationships, whether they are tangled love-hate affairs or simple friendships often overshadowed by war. These little moments are what make the bigger things feel important, because character gives meaning to conflict.

What do you think?

How do you feel about the post-apocalyptic genre? What do you think about episodes, regardless of series, that do nothing for the main story but show something sincere about the characters? Should the writers find better ways to incorporate characterisation? Or does it not matter, so long as the events of that episode still mean something in later episodes?

Bloody hell, writing is difficult.

6 Ways for Writers to Procrastinate and Still be Productive!


art by yasmeanie

Writing a novel or a short story is challenging at the best of times. There’s plot holes to consider, bathrooms to be cleaned, food to be eaten and, sometimes, motivation to be found.

I’ve been writing novels for the past seven years and yet I still suffer from chronic procrastination. When my Deadline disappears I turn into a Twitter dwelling, PS2-gaming, clean freak – anything but writing. This is stupid, because I don’t just love writing, I adore it.

So, over the past seven years I’ve taught myself to avoid writing by writing or crafting other things. Like right now (I should be planning another essay). In this lens I’ll share with you 5 ways to procrastinate and still make progress on developing your novel, short story or writing skills. No magic needed.

1. Mood Boards
staring at your wall can now be productive

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo Prep: THREE ways to load your characters into the NaNo-launch-day cannon

“Dive right in!” they said. “It’ll be fun!” they said.








I’m talking about the word-cannon of inspiration. Getting to know your characters. If you’ve done much writing in your life before, you’ll know that starting anything can be one of the hardest things. NaNoWriMo is no exception. It’s midnight! Your friends have gathered, the room is silent with concentration, it’s time to flay the page with words…

But what words? Where do I begin? Does my character even like ice cream, I don’t know? Should I talk about the room or who McMary is looking at? Would McMary even be in the same room as her enemy yet?

There are only four days left, so, to lessen your nerves and make you feel more confident about who you’re writing about, try these three very simple exercises.

1. Monologue
Write one of your character’s talking. Just talking. No action description. A monologue. They have committed murder. This does not have to be relevant to your plot (unless you want it to be). This is a fun prompt.

2. Other Person Monologue
I’ll bet you all the money in the world that your character mentioned another person during their monologue. We’ll call him McJobe. Now, write another monologue from McJobe’s perspective.

3. Duologue
Finally, put McJobe and McMary in the same room and let them have a conversation. There should be conflict, either physically, verbally or internally.

From these, you might discover a plot idea that you’ll want to come back to during the downer-period that always comes with NaNoWriMo; when you’re lacking inspiration. It’ll also tell you how certain characters think, feel and react to various circumstances. What have you got to lose? Have fun!

Final Fantasy Flash-Fan-Fiction Contest

Because I don’t already have enough to do, I thought I’d host a contest for Final Fantasy fan-fic writers. I love to see fans hard at work fangasming with creativity, and I love to make GMVs, which I haven’t been making enough of lately. So, I thought I’d combine the two.

How would you like to see one of your stories turned into a short promo-trailer? I can (within reason) make your ideas come to life. I create videos and I can manipulate footage into new scenes – your scenes.

For a sample of such videos check out some of my most popular ones:

And that’s not all. Sometimes I hire on voice actors. If you have a story about Yuna, I have the perfect voice actress. Would you like specific lines from your fan-fiction to be voiced like it’s the real thing? Then I can almost certainly make that happen for you (please note: Zack Fair is the most difficult character to find an actor for, but I can find one if you desperately want lines for him).

A short promo-trailer of YOUR fan-fiction, an old story or a new one.

Flash-fiction must be 300 words or less.
2) Create a unique piece based on one of the images below. Please let us know which images your piece is based upon. You can choose up to two images. Your story does not have to involve the characters within the pictures below, they’re meant to be atmospheric prompts more than anything else.
3) Your work must not be anything you’ve published before or part of an existing work. Let’s make this totally organic!
4) Your piece must be about characters from the Final Fantasy universe, but your piece can be an AU.
5) Post your flash-fan-fiction piece as a comment to this blog entry. This makes submitting your entry for us judges to read 100% easy for everyone.

31st of August (recently extended). This is a challenge to get your creative juices flowing – a writing sprint. Flash fiction.

Myself and Tobirion.

Now pick your image and get writing!

Image #1
Image #2
Image #3
Image #4
Best of luck to all entrants! We will announce the winner as soon as we have decided which is the most outstanding piece. If there are 15 entrants or over, we’ll even choose runner-ups, so spread the word and challenge you friends!

Give it a chance. Who knows? This small challenge may inspire you to write a whole new story…

A quick guide to the basics of writing erotica

Picture by Rob Spierre

“We are dealing with sex. We’re going to be embarrassed and everything will have a double meaning. We’re not even going to try and rise above it.” — Sara Bailey

Sex is both blushing difficult to write and wonderfully simple. There is a larger market for erotica fiction than you might think, too, so it might be something to consider when food on the table is lacking! I’m joking. Kind of.

I’m going to share with you what my professor, Sara Bailey, has shared with us in our beginning lessons about how to approach writing erotica.

First off, why is it called ‘erotica’ and not ‘porn’? What’s the difference? To put it simply:
Erotica teases, it is not immediately sexy.
Pornography is in your face, masturbation material.

Simple enough, right? Erotica is glimpses of skin, lingerie, thoughts of what might happen: tension, tension, tension before any boobs appear or penetration happens.

Sex should be simple but it rarely is, it’s linked with our emotions whether you’re male or female, and different people think of sex differently again regardless of being male or female. The thing to cling to as you write erotica is: is it turning you on? If not then you’re writing it wrong. Yes, you need to be able to make yourself excited and blush like a beetroot as you write down the character’s secret thoughts and motivations. Funnily enough, it’s like writing a story but an extra inimate one with a stimulating purpose.

Things to remember when writing sex or foreplay:

— It is NOT a medical guide.
Use emotive, descriptive, sensational language that heats up your skin and senses. Don’t describe each movement or body part. This isn’t a guide to sex, it’s about being sexy.

— It IS about intimacy; senses, surroundings.

— You DO need a good story; good characters.
Two bodies walking into a room isn’t erotica, that’s porn. We’re writing a story that the reader can invest in. They must crave for the characters to touch each other.

— Keep it simple.
Insert tab A into slot B (or C, depending on your preference). As soon as Fiona starts putting her leg over John’s shoulder and her other leg around his waist, then thrusting her sideways it becomes confusing and, quite often, improbable. If you want to write positions other than missionary be sure that it’s feasible.

— Research
Sex is simple but if you’ve never slept with someone and you’re unsure how anatomy works, what can be used as lube, what a vagina looks like, how gay people have sex: look it up. The internet and even the library will tell you a lot. Don’t assume you know how sex works from reading amateur erotica (like fanfiction) or watching films – this includes watching porn. Porn is not real and most porn stars have had days to prepare for the more adventurous ‘acts’ they perform.

— Don’t be afraid to write what you know.
Or find out what you don’t.

— Humour IS allowed.
Because sex is funny and it’s never as smooth as Hollywood would have us believe.

— Remember sometimes the sexiest scenes are when nothing apparently sexual happens.

— Your characters don’t just want sex.
Sex is great an’ all, but there are other things in life.

— Relationships ARE important.

— Your fear is your best friend.
Trust your instincts. Approaching erotica is hard and I still blush when I write it. I agonise for at least five-ten minutes before I can bring myself to write the word ‘cock’ (and cock is a great word). Don’t be afraid to write kinky words. Urgency and being afraid of sexual urgency is partly what makes sex exciting.

— Finally, if it turns you on you’re doing something right.
Yeah, you can turn yourself on. Don’t be ashamed. Heat is the aim of the game.

First, write down all the words used in sexual fiction that you have problems with. This can be words you hate or words you feel uncomfortable using, e.g. pussy, dick, pound. Now put those words aside.

Next, think of words that please you and write those down. Why do they please you? What is your reaction? Physical? Emotional? Spiritual? Good words might be heat, touch, urgency, wet, flush, throb.

Now write a scene using the words you hate and love. Make especially sure to use the words you hate and be descriptive when the ‘moment of truth’ happens.

When you’re satisfied with this scene (keep it to a page if you can) your next challenge is to write an ‘almost scene’ between two people. Build up the tension but don’t give into desire.

Now, because I’m brave, I’ll share with you what I wrote for class. Enjoy and happy writing!

Give Into Me
Li-Ling closed the gap Friedrich had created and tilted her head to the side. “When do you have to leave?” she asked. The cotton sheets beneath her hand were begging her to lie down on top of them.

He kept his face plain; his Adam’s apple moving as he swallowed. “When everything is sorted,” he whispered.

“What if that takes a long time?” she whispered back, leaning closer to him as if conspiring. His eyes darted to her lips and warmth travelled over Li-Ling’s shoulders and through her breasts.

“I don’t know.” His voice was disappearing. There was nothing else Li-Ling could think the say. There was nothing else she wanted to say. The intimate touch of another person was what she craved and had done for a long time now. Unable to stand the indecisive space between them, Li-Ling made her choice and tipped her chin up. Her lips brushed against his.

Friedrich seemed uneasy, his eyes peering down at her as if this were painful. She moulded her lips around his bottom one, applying a soft and calming pressure. He responded with the same gentleness and a wonderful sensation poured through her limbs, releasing the tension in the back of her mind.

His hand slid around her waist and heat throbbed between her legs. Li-Ling’s concentration hazed as she imagined each throb as a thrust of Friedrich’s cock. His hand swept up her neck and through her hair, and Li-Ling longed for his hand to sweep down over her breasts. She could tell Friedrich was still unsure despite his heaving chest. Li-Ling supposed it would be sweet if she didn’t desire to see him urgent. She wanted him to take her, hard, and leave nothing untouched.

She pressed her hand to his leg and slid it up until her palm found his hardening dick. A gruff hum filled his throat and her cheeks burned as Friedrich took her knee and pulled Li-Ling onto his lap. If only she hadn’t changed out of her dress. Through her clothes Li-Ling felt his straining cock. A smile came over her as his lust betrayed him.

They rocked together, the friction pulsing through both of them. Her knickers grew wet and nothing else mattered. Li-Ling could hardly believe she would be satisfied at last and with someone forbidden. After knowing his touch she knew she would crave Friedrich again.

“Can I have you?” he said against her neck.

A moan accompanied her eager reply. Pleasure tingled through her thighs as Friedrich undid her trousers and Li-Ling tried to muster the courage to do the same to him without trembling too much. The unexplored body of a man with experience both intimidated and excited her. She had hoped to continue in his lap, to thrust him on the edge of the bed, but Li-Ling found herself made breathless to let Friedrich take control.

He tried to prolong the undressing, kissing down her thighs, but Li-Ling couldn’t stand waiting. Before he could inch off her top she made them tumble onto the bed, half-dressed and Friedrich didn’t complain. With a devious smile he brushed the tip of his cock over Li-Ling’s clit and she shuddered, sighing. When he finally entered her, swelling with pleasure, Li-Ling closed her eyes and knew she had found not only satisfaction but a man who warmed her heart.

Writing Reviews [part 2]: Tips & Examples

Transform your inner reviewing kitty from this…

A few weeks ago I explained how important it is to know the formula of writing a review – particularly when the review is to help other writers improve. This week I’m going to be a little more detailed and give a tip on how to style your review. Style is, of course, not quite as important as the formula and this post in no way explains the only method of reviewing.

Before I go into that, what do I mean when I say ‘style’ and ‘formula’?

Formula: A method of doing or treating something that relies on an established, uncontroversial model or approach.

Style: A quality of imagination and individuality expressed in one’s actions and tastes; A customary manner of presenting printed material, including usage, punctuation, spelling, typography, and arrangement.

Formula is a lot more ridged and you should really know what goes into writing a review. Style is less important but it does contribute to the overall effect. The method within this post is how I approach reviews. This is in no way the correct style but it’s useful to know about. Let me state that I’m no expert. I’m just a pleb with a pen like most other human beings. I just know some stuff. Japanese word of the day: 研究 (kenkyuu) = research.

Here we go:

This isn’t about you or me

The best way to distance yourself from the writer is make it clear you are focused on the text. How do you do that? Avoid the subjective personal pronoun ‘I’ as much as possible and, most definitely, the pronoun ‘you’. This will feel strange at first but the story is what is being discussed, not ‘you’ and not ‘me’. What this does is focuses our critical opinion and distances the author’s emotions – not entirely, of course, which is why you must still phrase yourself carefully.

Example: “This story has terrific flow and a strong, consistent, narrative voice. Susan is a believable old lady and her relationship to her daughter and her community is heart warming. The pace is well managed – a wonderful example of writing down thought and speech without making the scenario confusing, or inconsistent.

The only section that may need consideration…”

As you can see, I’ve managed to talk about some of the key strong points and I’m about to discuss its potential weaknesses. At no point was it necessary to say ‘I think you didn’t do this well’ or ‘I think the dialogue is strong’.

The dialogue is strong, it is consistent and the pace is well managed. Learn to recognise the talents and pit-falls of a piece of writing and make concise statements about them. That said, it does take practice to recognise universal strengths and weaknesses of a piece and not what is your opinion (but you’re reading this post so I’m guessing you intend to exercise your reviewing ability). What do I mean by this? When you notice the factors of a story that make it awesome or shite, you think, I’m quite certain everyone thinks the dialogue is amazing and not just me. This would make it a universal strength and ‘not just your opinion’.

The screenwriter Danny Stack is in love with this method of critiquing and I’m going to quote him so you can see how I agree and disagree with his approach:

There is no ‘I’ in ‘Reader’ so avoid phrases like: “I don’t think this works” or “I laughed out loud” because the coverage shouldn’t bring attention to the reader, it should be wholly focused on the script. Your comments represent what you think so there’s no need for any first person narrative. Some comments like, “in this reader’s opinion”, are okay because it helps to qualify the balance of critique being offered. Also, don’t try to be too funny, jokey, glib or dismissive. This doesn’t help anyone.” page 8

Stack’s approach to reviewing is intended for the eyes of an executive and not for the writer, but he does justly say that a review should be wholly focused on the script/novel/extract, not the reader or writer.

Sometimes it is just you

It’s not likely that you, reader of this blog, are writing a review for a film director or agent – you’re writing a review to help an author improve. In this case, it’s not always possible to omit yourself from a review. You are just one person, after all, and how you respond to a piece – though valid – might not be universal. When this happens it’s necessary to fall back on the SPP ‘I’. This usually happens when you find something about a story that’s confusing, vague, offensive, potentially unnatural or you just aren’t familiar with the genre rules.

Example: “There was also a swap in tense that didn’t help, which is: ‘says’ instead of ‘said’. I understand this was deliberate but (and it may just be me) it didn’t quite sit right. I just thought I should point it out in case it proves jarring for someone else, too.”

As you can see, I made it clear to the author that I’m not condemning them for their choice, nor have I phrased myself as if my opinion is certain. Many other people might disagree with me, and the majority rules, but I felt it was important to bring this use of tense to the author’s attention. Now, if I’m the only one who ever says this line is problematic, the author will know it’s just me and can easily dismiss my opinion, or vice-versa.

Bad Example: “There was also a swap in tense that didn’t help. I found it confusing because I don’t think it feels right, even if it was a deliberate choice.”

Can you see how, if read with the wrong intonation, that second sentence can be misread to sound condemning or absolute?

Always think about what is your opinion and what is clearly bad or beautiful writing.

What to look for

Sometimes after reading an extract, the reader can think: “Man, what am I going to say and where do I begin?” But this is where knowing the basic structure of a review is a valuable tool of reference. This also depends on how in-depth you’re willing to go. Obviously, the more thorough you are the longer it will take. This is why editors (or at least freelance editors) get paid so much. It takes time. For the rest of this section I’ll be quoting Stack almost verbatim.

A safe starting place is CONCEPT: is the idea any good? Is it commercially appealing or more intellectual and discerning? Or is it just a shameless rip off of a million genre flicks before it? Or does it bring something new to the table? Is it genre?

PLOT: Does it make sense? Is it convincing and/or original? Too predictable maybe. Jumbled?

STRUCTURE: is there a basic understanding of craft on display? Is it a join the dot three-act-structure or does it contain a solid and reliable framework to tell its story? However, the reader shouldn’t get bogged down with restructuring tips because it’s not a full-throttle editing exercise. You’re a reviewer, remember that even if the line is blurred.

CHARACTERS: Are the central and minor characters believable, original, compelling, inspiring, colourful, loathsome, boring etc? Decent character development or emotional journey for the protagonist? Effective use of subplot with the supporting character?

DIALOGUE: Distinctive, realistic, off-the-wall, on-the-nose, funny, dull, plain, quirks, true to each character?

TONE: Does the writer have an original voice; is the tone of the story consistent to the genre etc?

PACE: Pace, rhythm, tempo. Scenes start too soon, too late? Cut too soon, too late? Boring segments with little dramatic impact or importance? Where does the pace flag? What’s its overall effectiveness?

SETTING: It is important to the story – does it make a valid and visual contribution to the characters and plot? Does it effectively build a fictional world and hold it up?

Not all of the points above need to be addressed in a casual review but if you’re feeling lost on what to talk about, these are the key factors.

Final Example

I don’t write perfect reviews myself, I just know what makes a good review. A useful review. Here is my final example, a review I wrote for the opening chapters of The Power Inflicted by Sam Kearns. I now hope you have all the basic tools you need to write good reviews as well. Hooray!

There is nothing fundamentally broken about The Power Inflicted to point out! This is very typical of the Epic Fantasy section and is lavished with beautiful descriptions. The metaphors and imagery used throughout are vivid; I could almost feel the mud of the mangroves.

Saying this, there are some sentences that try too hard to be descriptive. As an example: “He would test his endurance and his agility in the clustered jungle at the centre of the islands where the foliage was thickest”. It might be better to cut out ‘in the clustered jungle’ as it goes on to say ‘where the foliage was thickest’, which imply the same thing. Aside from these few clustered sentences, the rest of the narration flows wonderfully and has maintained being descriptive without over-saturating the reader.

The dialogue may also need a little consideration. It’s so very close to sounding natural but not quite there yet. A few exchanges between Tantha and Parus felt staged, like an anime. These are few but it might be an idea to read out the dialogue with a friend.

My final note is something that personally bothered me. There’s a lot of standing on the cusp, lips and tide of the sea. It’s a beautiful scene, a beautiful beach, beautiful descriptions – I can feel the water tickling my toes and smell the salt air – you don’t need to keep reminding the reader that Tantha and Parus are stood by the water’s edge. It was by this point (example coming) that I didn’t want to see the sea’s edge mentioned again: “Parus clasped her arm as they stood on the cusp of the sea and stared in wonder.” It might just be me who was irked by the one repetitive imagery, however, which is why it’s a personal add-on.

As you can see, these aren’t major problems. The pieces IS fairly typical of the genre and might need work to stand out amidst other Epic Fantasy novels, but it’s an enjoyable read. You write with vivid flourish. 🙂 ”

You can read the opening chapters of The Power Inflicted by Sam Kearns [here] Thank you Sam for letting me use this review!

Script Reading in the UK: The Complete Guide by Danny Stack [see his blog here] or [download the chapters here]

…to this! Clever cat indeed.

Related articles

How to write critical reviews; a skill every writer should learn.

NOTE: There is a hyphen between every paragraph because wordpress keeps trying to delete the breaks. Sorry!

I recently joined a site designed to help writers improve. It works on the basis that for every review you give, you get one in return. The more popular your work gets the higher up ‘the list’ it goes until a publishing company reads it. Rather professional sounding, wouldn’t you say?

It worries me (and in some cases infuriates me) how unprofessional some of the members of this site can be when writing reviews for other people. Bare in mind, these are not newspaper reviews, these are the type of reviews intended to help people become stronger writers. Aforementioned members seem to have no clue about how to write a review. By all means, they know what they’re talking about but not how to phrase themselves. I don’t care how many pieces of work you’ve had to trawl through, your professionalism should not slip and no one is unworthy of your time.

Below I have written the Dos and Don’ts of writing a critical review and, in the same vein, how to receive reviews. If you are a writer this is an important skill.

So, yes. These are things (listed in what I feel is the order of importance) that have bothered or offended me, but I hope I’ve made strong and valid points that you can take away from this post. 🙂

Let’s begin…

Writing Reviews and Giving Criticism

  1. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
    As a reviewer, you are reading someone’s work to help them, not to assert your authority or flash your experience. Let me say that again. You are reading someone else’s work to help them improve. This does not mean you are entitled to the author’s gratitude and it does not mean that your opinion holds water. Your opinion is your opinion, it is not necessarily correct and when you give your opinion be diplomatic. Don’t force it down someone’s throat – this is a good rule for life, too. There is a difference between your opinion being correct and your opinion being valued; informative.

    This means think before you speak. It’s all well and good pointing out the flaws of a piece of writing but delivery is key. Speak honestly but kindly. Phrases like: “Your descriptive prose sacrifices clarity for a stylised approach which I am charitably assuming is intentional” are not kind. The point ‘your prose lack clarity’ is a valid opinion and a very useful one for the author to note down. The delivery, however, is full of snobbery and gives an impression of disgust. ‘I am charitably assuming’. You are not being charitable. The author is not to be pitied or looked down upon.

    This attitude is what makes writers look like snobbish, elite and self-indulgent twats. So you’ve been published six years, had marvellous reviews throughout your career and have met Lady Pembury, have you? That’s nice. Did you leave your manners at the writing desk, too? Nine times out of ten, no one made you read the text. Even editors in the publishing industry can read the first page, the first chapter, and then decide the rest isn’t worth their time. You should never try to make the author feel grateful that you took the time to read their terribly unpolished work and then took the time to write a review as well. Who do you think you are?

    Part of this is down to the internet (where we shall assume you give your reviews), that screen blocking you from face-to-face interaction. Your intonation does not travel well through text. You have to remember: one sentence can be read in many different ways and with many different inflections. Be clear when you phrase something. What sounds friendly or funny in your head may not translate on the page. Also, this is the internet 😀 If you just can’t make something sound as nice as you intend put a bloody emote. It won’t offend the other person, just don’t abuse emotes to the point they litter the review. Make an effort before resorting to an emote.

    Delivery is one of the most important things to remember when writing a review. Even the most hardened of writers can be stung by pompous or snide remarks. It makes them feel resentful for trusting you to be professional.

  2. Honesty is the best policy
    Always be honest. This does not mean you are allowed to say, ‘this is shit’ – please see the section above. Lying to the author gets them no where. This can be particularly tough if you aren’t used to editing your friend’s work. If you are editing for a friend, though, you are under even more obligation to be honest. You are a safe person, your friend trusts you and they will be grateful that you pointed out their ‘baby’s’ flaws before the big bad world got their hands on it, so don’t panic if the plot-holes outweigh the gems. Being thorough is extremely helpful.

    Unfortunately, if a writer cannot handle criticism (criticism, not rudeness) then they are probably not meant to be a writer. The problems with any Meisterwerk won’t go away unless someone points them out and it’s up to the author to take on board what we, as the reviewer, say. But whether they do or not – that’s a different matter all together. Remember: you’re being honest, and this honesty is based upon your opinion. The author doesn’t have to bow down to what you think should be changed.
  3. Don’t just seek out its flaws
    A review should consist of the bad and the positive. If I were to focus on everything wrong with your personality, rip it to shreds, hold these things in front of you and then say goodbye, it’s very probable that you would want to give up on being ‘you’. I know, you’re critiquing the work and not the person and the author especially needs to remember this. But if you focus on only the negatives of someone’s work it’s very likely they will feel like a failure and never want to write again. They will, of course, get over it if they’re passionate enough, but still. They’re a writer – you’re probably a writer – this is what you both love! What did you enjoy? What did they do well? And don’t just say, ‘Joey is a nice character’, give the author a little satisfaction.

    What’s nice about the character? How did that really good scene make you feel? Did a particular description flare vividly in your imagination? If there are only negative remarks in your review the author may come to the conclusion that the whole thing is shit. This doesn’t mean you have to spend paragraphs praising them on what you think they did right, it means you have to give the writer hope. They should feel eager to improve their work come the end of a critical review. Always end on a positive, if you can. If the Meisterwerk was blatantly written by a monkey with a paintbrush stuck up his nose and purple dribble for ink, well… Just be nice. It still has feelings.
  4. Make an effort
    You took the time to read it. Brilliant, thank you! You made notes on things that need improving. Even better! Oh, wait, why have you dumped your initial, unedited thoughts on the page and not made transitions between each of you brief points? You just copy pasted your notes, didn’t you? This is not particularly helpful. It’s about as helpful as writing an instruction sheet on how to build a 34 piece Christmas tree. If you’re going to write a review go the whole ten yards and be helpful, be detailed. Give some suggestions, examples and explain why something did or did not work.

    OK, so maybe you didn’t enjoy what you read and maybe it really was stressful to read, but if you’re going to write a review at least put some effort in. Reading it was effort! I hear you cry with weary rage. Oh, was it? I’m sorry to hear that. Please, I really want to know what you didn’t enjoy and why it was stressful. May you help me by explaining what was wrong? Perhaps tell me tomorrow when you’ve had a break and time to think about it.

    Thank you, I really mean it. From, the author.

Receiving Criticism

  1. Some people are just douches
    This will never justify being spoken to like an imbecile or treated like a turd, but some people just don’t know how to be nice and have a pole wedged firmly up their arse. Don’t let these people get you down. This can be extremely hard, I know. Maybe I wrote the worst heap of words since P.C. Cast and her daughter Kristen Cast, but why did some reviewer have to treat me like cretin unworthy of their time? They didn’t have to treat me that way. They didn’t even have to say they detested my story, but for whatever reason they are a bitter person and felt they had a right to speak unprofessionally to me.

    Find a close friend who understands your plight, share your woes and then get over it.
  2. Don’t lash out, that’s just immature
    Someone just took the time to write you a review. You read it. Overall, they didn’t like it and their negative points outweigh the positive. Don’t you dare throw a tantrum and tell them they are wrong to have such a negative opinion of your work.

    “I think you’ll find everyone else likes my work! It’s had 5 star reviews. Yours is the worst review I’ve ever had. Please don’t ever read any of my work again.” I have received something like this almost verbatim. I was shocked. I had tried my best to be as honest and friendly as possible, which was hard because zes story was incredibly racist. You want help, don’t you? You want to improve as a writer? You won’t improve if all you ever hear is half-hearted reviews praising your work.

    Do not take a review personally. Take a deep breath and reread it later after the initial sting has worn off.

    Is the reviewer fair to you? Have they been thoughtful and explained as much as possible why they feel something didn’t work? Have they tried to point out the positive things? This is a good review. They have been honest with you and tried hard to make you understand what might be wrong.

    On the other side of the coin, have they been snide? Unhelpful? Made remarks that really hit you in the gut? Then you have every right to feel hurt, but don’t lash out. You will only look like a fool and more of an asshole than the person who wrote your review. It is horribly hard (honestly, I know) but if you HAVE to say something, say ‘thank you for reading my work’.

This post is already long enough. Next week I’ll share examples of how to write reviews and tips on how to distance yourself from the author.

I sincerely hope this has been helpful. Now I need a mug of tea. Mitch Allan, where are you?!


How to build a character and, possibly, a novel plot in 10 minutes.

Script in Performance, taught by the international playwright Seamus Finnegan, brought to you by Duck-Face-the-Unknown (a.k.a. Willow).

A new term has begun and my new favourite (legally attended) class, is Script in Performance. The professor of this class, Seamus, is an Irish jem, and I feel privileged to be taught by someone so hilarious, artistic, outright and practical.

The first time he addressed us as a class was to say:

How many people smoke here – cigarettes, that is?
No one? …And you call yourselves writers? Alright, how many people smoke other substances?

SAM raises his hand.

Well at least there’s one honest man among us. Who here drinks alcohol?

EVERYONE raises their hand.

Oh thank fock for that. I was gettin’ worried.

We soon realised that the legend of his ‘fag breaks’ are no exaggeration. When Seamus wants a smoke, he will have his break when he sees fit and for as long as he likes. Of course, there’s only one person in the class (who attended on that day) who smokes, and upon his return he looked as though he felt estranged.

No offense to you, Sam, but that was the loneliest fockin’ fag I’ve ever had.

But on with bestowing his wisdom unto you, dear reader. The following is an exercise you can do to discover a new story, to develop a character you already have, or simply as a task to keep you writing and plotting.

Section 1

If you are seeking to make a new character, pick a profession from the list below. Though you may not find something you like, it’s surprising what you can create when you push yourself to be creative. As this isn’t a formal class, however, you may of course prefer to choose a profession not listed below. If you are developing a character you already have, skip to the next section.

List of occupations
Brick Layer
Shop Worker
Land Owner
Film Director

Section 2

You have a profession? Awesome.
Now write their name, their age, where they were born, and where they live.

Mine: a Priest, Isaac, 30, Bavaria, Germany.

Section 3

Having given your character a name, you’ve determined whether they are male or female. Some jobs are obviously gender-specific (unless you’re defying them), but either way, you chose a gender. You don’t have to know why, but picking a gender is important and the reasons behind your choice might be interesting. That’s for you to muse over though.

The main task.

Draw a box. In that box, write the character’s name.
On the right-hand-side of the box, draw an arrow outwards and write the word ‘family’.
On the left-hand-side of the box, draw an arrow outwards and write ‘society’.
On the bottom-side of the box, draw an arrow out and write ‘self’.
On the top-side of the box, draw an arrow out and write ‘universe’.

It should look something like this:

Now get a timer (you have a computer that must have even the simplest of gadgets, there is no excuse!) and set yourself 10 minutes. In that time, you will write under each heading all about your character, e.g. what kind of family the character has. How they perceive themselves and how the character thinks others perceive ‘him’. Then you will write how society really sees ‘him’, how the character interacts with society and what he thinks of it. And you will write his thoughts upon the world, his thoughts of life, his ambitions and what the world he lives in is like. Let the character and universe speak to you, don’t dwell or fret. You have 10 minutes. Go.

Here is what I produced in 10 minutes of class time:

Section 4

Alright, next task! If you’re looking at this from a novelist’s perspective, don’t rebuke this yet. I now ask you to write a monologue for the character you have just created. A monologue, you cry? But that’s for scriptwriters! Maybe, but this is a writing exercise, not a polished product.

Write a monologue. It can be about anything. It can be as long as you want. But remember, it’s a monologue and not a short piece of prose. There is a big difference in writing prose and writing a chunk of dialogue. Challenge yourself, because remember, this is about discovering the character not you as a writer.

Your character can be lying down, sitting, standing, swimming – whatever you want. Let the character decide, but put them in a situation. Just a brief situation, and then let your character talk to you.

It’s a bunch of fun when you don’t try to consume yourself in a plot you don’t necessarily have. The plot doesn’t exist, only the moment you are writing, and it can be riddled with as many mysteries and characters (preferable spoken about and not involved) that you don’t know yet.

When you’ve finished writing the monologue, you’re bound to have the whispers of a plot in the back of your mind. But that’s not the main reward of this task. The reward is to know your character better.

Once you’ve written your monologue, upload it for me to read (if you’re willing)! Post the link in the comments section below. I’d be thrilled to read what you produce from this.

Go, ever-budding writer! Give birth to a new, or more in-depth character!


P.S. I got bored in our seminar today:

My character Kiyoko, wearing the mask her lover made to stop her smelling magic and going insane.