Writers like to brag about being solitary creatures, unless that is they’re humble-bragging about attending conventions and sitting on panels being apparently over-awed but also somehow sneakily wise. They also join more societies, groups, workshops and drinking circles than they like to admit. For one thing, these are excellent displacement activities, especially because they’re filled with other writers doing exactly the same thing. But they also provide what most writers secretly need, which is company they can share their frustrations with. Not getting published; not getting any money; not getting recognition; not getting any writing done—whoops; scratch that last one, it’s just the beer talking.

The problem with all this covert socialising is it makes the writer what he would most deny being: a herd member. Bit by bit and without him noticing, he accepts the warmth and security of numbers, of automatic support. He enjoys knowing that they know that he knows that what they all know is not what the non-herd knows (even though actually they do). He starts to notice herd names mentioned in awards; he hopes his will soon follow. He listens to the talk about what editor X likes and doesn’t like. He finds it harder to write as fluently as he once did; but that’s okay: he has friends he can talk to about it, who will understand.

Traditionally, however, story-tellers told stories to the herd. They were the one facing the herd, studying it, working it, entertaining it. But they were never part of it. Because the modern story-teller can’t know who his audience is, he has to launch his story at another target. Roughly speaking, there are three to choose from:

1.         Creative transition/the unknown

2.         Imaginary readers

3.         Something else

Let’s deal with 2 and 3 first. 2 is problematic. The traditional story-teller adjusted his story according to the reactions he saw in his audience; probably included some of them as characters in it. But if the modern writer tries to do the same with his imaginary readers, he’ll just be talking to himself. Apart from the obvious symptom this reflects, the problem is he can’t then surprise himself; therefore, his story is going to be predictable and derivative. It’s like trying to work out beforehand what your girlfriend is going to say about the fact you’ve just lost a grand betting on the gee-gees. When you meet her, you start answering the questions you thought she was going to ask but of course she interrupts you to ask some that you just didn’t see coming.

As for 3, ‘something else’ can be that award you really would rather like to win; or that editor you just know loves stories about gay robots. The problem with this is it means you’ve lain down railway tracks that your story is now destined to run along. And chances are, they’re not perfectly aimed, because you’re not being totally honest with yourself about your true intentions, and so you’ll miss your destination anyway.

Okay, for 1, let’s go back to that probably mostly mythical time when bards roamed the land. They were the story-tellers of their day but while they had consummate social skills (their lives could depend on them when singing to a megalomaniac king, for example), they weren’t part of the community they entertained. They didn’t want to be, because they needed to be telling stories full of the strange and exotic and new. And the community wanted them to remain distant, to spend most of their time travelling in foreign places, collecting more fantastic stories.

Fast forward to today and a group of people are out for the evening in a wine bar. They’re having a conversation but all of them are also on their mobile phones. The conversations taking place on Facebook and Twitter feed into and out of the conversations they’re having ‘live’ with each other. This doesn’t really matter because there probably isn’t much difference in content between the two social realms. Leaving aside the question of whether or not they should give priority to the friends who’ve actually bothered to turn up, the question here for the writer is: is he doing the same with his stories?

Groucho Marx once said, “Here are my principles and if you don’t like them—I’ve got some more.” Today, it’s very easy for a writer to say, “Here are my stories and if you don’t like them—I’ll write you some you will like.”

Social media is comforting. Everyone shares with people who think like they do. What they share makes them think even more like their Facebook friends. After a time, if you’re not careful, it isn’t really thinking at all; it’s herd behaviour. Then it’s harder to think differently because if you do, you might alienate your friends.

So, the writer has a choice to make. Does he aim his stories at the reader herd or does he step away from his writers’ herd and concentrate on 3: head-off into the creative unknown where he will need to make some sort of transition in himself, rather like a bard’s training, in order to first hear the music of the universe and second to translate it into stories which don’t do what’s expected of them, that surprise and illuminate and transform?

There is no doubt at all that there are millions of readers out there who want something different to herd fodder. But most of them are probably social media users too. Because of this they may not initially be as open to something different as their reader ancestors were, but that doesn’t matter: they will be once the writer does his thing.

Nowhere is this dichotomy of story origin more apparent than in Science Fiction. SF movies make huge amounts of cash and appeal to a massive herd. SF literature, on the other hand, is a tiny genre where writers are lucky to make enough money to pay for their ticket to Worldcon, even when it’s in their own country.

It’s difficult to see movie writers aiming their stories at 1. There’s too much at risk in doing so. But it’s also risky for the solo fiction writer. For quite some time now, traditional publishing has aimed mostly at the largest herds it can identify, and producing downwards pressure on writers to satisfy them. Self-publishing offers writers more interested in 1 the chance to at least make their work available, but it’s a longer haul. When you put a story up for sale on Kindle, you have to ‘tag’ it, and there is no tag named ‘Not What I Expected But Really Good and Made Me Think Too’.

So, all this needs to go on in the writer’s mind before he actually starts writing or even thinking about what he’s going to write. If he doesn’t consider these issues, then he’ll automatically default to a herd approach, either of the writers in his gang or of the commercial herds targeted by the fiction business; or both.


When deciding what to write a story about, I suggest staying away from the inner ideas committee. Resist brainstorming, blue sky thinking, flip chart listing and above all setting out one’s objectives.

Committees appear to put together most BBC sitcoms, for example. Which is why they’re usually based around a family. This is good committee thinking: let’s appeal to the widest demographic. Everyone has a family. It’s universal.

It’s also a default universal. When student son has run out of socks and pants he takes a bag of laundry home to his mother. When teenage daughter brings her first boyfriend home, Dad is jealous and disapproving. When it’s Christmas everyone eats turkey and argues a lot. And because your characters are all acting by default, the writing is in danger of doing the same.

A non-blood family can be better to write about because then they need a reason to stay together; they won’t inevitably be drawn back into each other’s magnetic fields. The characters in ‘Red Dwarf’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ are non-blood families; therefore tensions that exist can actually be game-changing – someone might just walk out or join a new family. But won’t of course, because there’s another series on the way.

Default universals are everywhere: the office, the pub, funerals, weddings . . . none of which are bad ideas in themselves, just as long as they’re not made the reason for the story.

The point is, life itself is a series of default universals. We think we’re in control of where and how we spend our time and spirit but not really. Not unless we make special efforts to be, and are prepared to pay the price. Don’t want to do Christmas any more? Fine, stop sending cards, eating turkey, attending the office drinks party . . . But let’s just say that in one form or another, you’ll be explaining/defending your decision for the rest of your life. Much easier to just go with the default flow.

And you can do the same with your writing. A lot of fiction stays close to default universals, and it’s often popular. Presumably this is because it doesn’t poke at one’s spirit conscience. If you can read about the same default universals that govern your own life, and it’s officially endorsed by a publisher or TV company, then you can feel okay about sticking with it.

But good writing deals with true universals. What are they? Well, I don’t have a pat answer to this question. I’m writing this blog after reading a lot of short fiction and finding myself frequently mystified as to what the stories were actually about. Oh, they featured characters who did stuff and who suffered or rejoiced accordingly. But mostly they just travelled from A to Z in doing so. I couldn’t see why they’d bothered, in other words, other than to provide a set of actions for the reader to follow.

And I guess the obvious suspects as true universals are the things we all can not avoid: death, love, thirst, hunger, pain . . . instinctively, however, I think there needs to be more than those bare bones, at least for a good story to emerge.

So, perhaps one true universal is the death of oneself: the facing or avoiding thereof. Oneself being that comfortable collection of default universals we think is us but which is really just what everybody else tells us is us. Then, if you write a story about, say, a kidnapping, the surface point of it may be whether or not the victim escapes but the true point of it would be about how she reacts when the process of being taken shows her that her existing life is not nearly as solid as she thought it was.

Similarly, a good love story will never be just about whether or not the boy and the girl get together at the end. ‘Groundhog Day’ is such a good film because while on the surface it’s a will-they won’t-they love story, the true universal underpinning everything is the question of whether or not he’s prepared to change his existing self to be worthy of her love, and whether he has the means to do it.

True universals have to be disguised, I suspect, by default ones. This is because you can’t force people to face the truth. You have to let them choose to, when they’re ready, and they may never be ready. ‘Groundhog Day’s truth is disguised with a lot of humour and charm and novelty. The Bill Murray character is not a nice man at the start, so you can decide the film is really about how a nasty chap becomes a good egg; not that it’s about asking yourself how you might change to be worthy of the good people in your life.

I’m still thinking about this. But I suspect the difference between a great, memorable story and one that is just okay lies in the writer facing true universals in his own life then translating the process into a well-structured story full of resonance, even if the reader isn’t sure why exactly.


I’ve just returned from a short story workshop in Oregon. I had to read around 240 stories by different authors before attending. Although I work with new authors and have been a member of various critique groups, this was the largest volume of stories I’ve read in a short period. If nothing else, it would certainly make me think twice about editing a magazine. 

However, you do learn a lot from such a process. I’ve been writing short fiction for several years now, and sold around 40 stories. But the experience of reading so many from a wide range of professional authors has got me thinking about the fundamentals of short fiction writing, away, perhaps, from the more prescriptive ‘do this, don’t do that’ guide books on the subject. 

Short stories are, after all, the closest equivalent we have to story-telling around the community fire. It may now be more a case of the individual in front of the screen but the principles probably haven’t changed so much. The question is, what exactly are the principles of good story-telling? 

At this point, I can feel the teachy tug towards talking about the 7-point plot structure, Show Not Tell, POV, etc. But I’m going to resist it, mainly because I think one of the reasons there is a high degree of predictability about a lot of short fiction today is that the craft lessons begin too far forward. 

So, in the beginning . . . 

A very long time ago, before there were galaxies far, far away, the universe was awash with energy that only wanted to expand and be free and playful and spiritual. But every time it tried to express itself nothing appeared, just some inarticulate pulses that rapidly faded away. 

And so energy had to slow down somewhat, take a bit of time to build a platform or two on which to perform. Planets were formed, full of theatrical possibilities: mountains and seas and animals and weather and pain and pleasure. Now there’d be some shows! Energy passed into all the different bits of matter, and lives were played out in births and deaths and the journeys in-between. 

And yet . . . it all became rather predictable after a time. Something was missing. The cycles of the planets and the lives upon them were always the same. Perhaps it was because the universe was in effect telling its own story. An independent story-teller therefore might change things. 

And so the writer was created. 

Always torn between paying the bills and letting rip with his imagination. Or his imagination and the desire to win prizes. Or to be loved. Or to be respected by his peers. Or whether to go with a PC or a Mac. His head is part god and part boulder. Which wouldn’t be so bad if he decided before writing anything what balance to aim for between the two. But instead, he gets an idea, or steals one from someone else, putting it down to simply borrowing from the collective writers’ pot, then gets half way through the story before realising he doesn’t know why he’s writing it. Not wanting to waste all those words, however, he carries on anyway and finishes it. Sends it out. Is rejected. Is bought. 

Before he knows it, his writing is running along a well-worn channel, the only problem being that he doesn’t really know where the channel starts or finishes. And the problem with any well-worn channel is that it tends to be predictable and therefore joyless, lacking in surprise, delight and excitement. 

Just to complicate things, a writer has two beginnings. His first is when, without a care in the world, he writes stories with both eyes on the stars. Words flow and creativity fires his blood. The trouble is, no one can get the energy from his pages; it’s got no matter to perform through. So, he has to learn the matter stuff: to put together the prose platforms on which his story can be enacted. 

Every kind of writer then starts from the same place. At least they do in terms of technique. But all that learning has dulled their beginning place. They know how to write, so they write, and straight away they’re zooming along that well-worn channel. They may even make a lot of money in the process. But they may also never recover the thrill of the first beginner writer they used to be with eyes fixed on the stars. 

So, I think a true writer has to find the true beginning of every story. It won’t be in the selection of a stock character to fit a stock setting to solve a stock problem. The end of its tail will be flying about in a blood-fizzing ocean storm of joy, whether dark or funny or charming or painful. He’ll resist the channel and spend some time trying to grab hold of that tail, knowing that when he catches it, the ride will be a joint one: its energy, the matters that he’s learned, and most important of all, his desire to produce something unique from all three. 

Next: finding the true universals . . .



It’s been a while since my last blog post. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say, more that I haven’t had time to reflect enough on what to say before, well, saying it. In the past month or so I’ve had to write six short stories, do quite a lot of editing work and take a creative writing course at Denman College at the last minute after the tutor became ill. The course was a lot of fun, partly because it had to be pretty spontaneous. Also, when I thought about it on the way there, I reckoned I’ve had a tremendously varied experience with taking and giving different kinds of courses, in different parts of the world, in different genres and different formats. Which should be good for the students. I don’t adhere to any particular way of teaching, just try to find methods and practices that will help each student become the kind of writer they want to be. If they know what that is, of course.

For the blog, I could have bashed out some more Tales from the Street but they wouldn’t have been given any reflection. By which I don’t mean doing a lot of re-writing or polishing. It’s more to do with having the time to push an idea beyond the first, immediate level of cognisance.

For example, ‘brainstorming’ is an exercise beloved of trainers. You fill flip-charts and cover the walls with Post-it notes of the first things that pop into people’s minds. At the end, you stand back and admire all the sheer stuff everyone’s produced. Someone writes it up but when/if anyone looks at it later all they see is the bleeding obvious. I believe this is because, while it may be true to assume everyone has gold inside them, it’s definitely true that to get to it, you have to bypass all the rubble and rock in the way. And that takes both courage and time. So, it might be better instead to choose the three best thinkers in the group and give them a few days to come up with ideas that are new and challenging. But of course that’s not a very democratic approach.

You see a similar effect with critics, especially these days when everyone wants to read a review immediately, even during if possible, the release of a new film/book/TV programme. So, critics brainstorm with themselves. They watch, say, the latest BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ and brainstorm their review with the easy to grab hold of rubble and rock lying around in their front brains: Cumberbatch, bromance, Gatiss/Moffat-is-God, in-jokes, etc, and come up with exactly what’s in everyone else’s front brain. Which these days passes as a good review. Later, a strange thing happens. Critics, often the same ones, make more reflective comments which are oddly contradictory to what they said earlier. Now they talk about how the latest ‘Sherlock’ was something of a disappointment; that the plots just didn’t add up; that there were too many nods to the fan-boys; that the whole ‘Are they gay?’ thing with Holmes and Watson was over-done, and so on.

Now, I’m going to move this into writing. I’ve just reviewed ‘Dust’ by Hugh Howey for Arc (New Scientist’s online magazine for Science Fiction, reviews, etc). It’s the final book in his series set in a dystopian future USA where people live in giant silos surrounded by poisonous air. I thought it was the best of the bunch and I really like Howey’s integrity and obvious passion for what he writes. However, while the lead character, Juliette, is just what you need in such a story – gutsy but with faults, heart mostly in the right place, determined and brave – most of the rest of the characters don’t come across as much more than sign-posts for plot developments. Which on the surface is strange, since Howey spends quite a bit of time telling us what characters are thinking, including a lot of their history and their hopes and fears. Whole pages are taken up describing someone’s every thought as they walk between rooms. But somehow all that information doesn’t really tell us what they’re like.

If you’re with a friend in the pub, and they’re telling you about this interesting new person who started work at their office today, all you really want to know is what they’re like. So, if your friend goes, “Jack wore a plain blue suit today the same one, he told me, he always wore when starting a new job. At 10 am he made a coffee for himself, using a one-cup cafetiere that he said he took everywhere with him. I joined him and he told me that his mother is in hospital for routine surgery, he supports Spurs and his cat is called–“

“Yes, but what’s he like?” you scream.

Now we need to take a detour and look briefly at Show Not Tell (SNT), which is of course one of the important lessons a writer has to learn. In essence, it’s about causing a reaction in the reader so that they discover for themselves the nature of a character or a scene, rather than you just telling them what it is. A classic example is to portray a character doing and saying things that make the reader laugh, so he says to himself, “Hey, this character is really funny!” rather than you telling the reader that the character is really funny – oh, how everyone laughed at the hilarious things he said, and so on – which of course is likely to cause pretty much the opposite in the reader who just wants to laugh.

However, like most principles, SNT only goes so far. It can get your readers laughing, say, at your funny character, but it’s perhaps not so good at conveying what they’re really like. Yes, better writers will avoid the trap of just piling in lots of information and action and hope that it will somehow Show you the character. They’ll provide plenty of touches of actual emotion; plenty of Show. But I’ve been thinking lately that something else is needed; perhaps a higher level of Telling.

Back to your friend in the pub. If he says something like, “There’s this guy at work called Alex who just loves an audience. He even walks into the open plan area wearing a show biz smile, arms held up, nodding warmly at his people . . . ” you get a pretty good idea of Alex, even though your friend isn’t really showing you Alex, he’s telling you about him.

But this kind of Telling requires reflection. It stems from a mind which is always curious about other people; always trying to work out what they’re really saying and what they’re really thinking. It requires a sort of confidence, tinged with arrogance: that you know you’re right about this character; you don’t have to hide it behind a lot of Showing.

Anyway, with these ideas sort of in the background, I’m going to resume the blog proper next week, possibly with a short series on writing short fiction but with the intention of Telling about it perhaps, more than Showing; the challenge being to make it this second tier of Telling that I’ve been struggling to understand recently.