Monthly Archives: March 2010

Guest Post 3

Guest-Poster, Maria Smith

My third guest post and a good one! Maria Smith is a prize-winning writer, chief barista at the First Draft Cafe and organizer of some cracking writing trips. Here she gives some great advice on writing buddies. 

The Write Sort of Friend

Buddy, mate, partner, in fact whatever you feel most comfortable calling your writing pal. Now you may ask yourself, why would I want a writing pal? Well, this person is someone who has a good knowledge of writing – they will critique your work, tell you if your plot holds together and generally offer you support and general criticism about your writing. They are there to offer you moral support and encouragement in your life as a writer. 

The benefits are enormous if you can find the right person and are able to make the relationship work successfully for both of you. Above all else, it must be someone you trust.

 My pal and I are in contact throughout the week; via email we exchange each other’s work. We share any competition or market news, offer each other advice on submitting, celebrate any successes and lament over rejections.

 He will focus on my work, give me useful information, whilst pointing out any weakness in my manuscript and generally makes him self available for second, third and even fourth rewrites! He is consistent with his comments, reading or listening objectively to my work. I offer him the same in return.

 Only another writer can fully understand the struggles associated with the writing life. They can sympathise, empathise and generally and genuinely help you to get through.

 So where do you find such a person? Where is this editor, critic, this friend, and your own personal fan to be found? I hear you cry.

 I assure you that they can be found, but sometimes it takes a bit of work on your part. It may take you a few weeks or even months to unearth the right person. If you are a member of a writing circle or an online forum then you have lots of potential writing pals. You may meet up at a writer’s conference or maybe at a creative writing class in your local area, then again your pal maybe someone on the other side of the globe that you’ve found through a writers newsgroup. Take your time and choose wisely.

 Do try and find out if you have a few things in common, apart from writing that is…as your new pal must be someone you feel comfortable with, as you will be showing him your most precious work. Try to look for someone who you feel at ease with, they don’t necessarily have to write prose of the same genre as you but it may help if you have a common interest like short stories, poetry, travel writing or humour.

 I like to meet up with my pal every few weeks for a coffee, we don’t live too far away from each other and this works for us and our situation and it’s our chance to catch up, exchange goals and swap ideas. Everyone is different though and what works for one pair may not work for another.

 I’ve written and submitted far more than ever before since the arrival of my writing pal. I’ve seen big improvements in my own writing since we’ve paired up together and he has in his work too! We’ve both benefited greatly from the companionship and support that has been there for us 24/7.

 Just knowing that someone is going through the same things as you are and that they are available to help you through the tough times is inspiring in it self. There are some things that only another writer will understand.

 We regularly discuss and set our writing goals, finding they are similar. We talk about the problems awaiting us as writers and try to formulate a plan to face them together.

 It does take a bit of work to get a friendship like this up and running, but it will be worth it, as your pal will motivate you in all sorts of ways. When you are working with someone else you tend to get more done. Your pal understands you in ways your family and friends will not.So what are you waiting for? Get out there and find yourself a writing buddy.

 Good luck.


Four Top Writers Resources

Advice. There’s such a torrent of it; arriving from every direction. Much of it is good, a lot will only serve to confuse, befuddle and misdirect. Writing is one of those subjects, like teaching, that everyone has an opinion about. The reason for this is simple: everyone has had an experience involving teaching or written words, therefore everyone thinks that their own first-hand knowledge offers the keys to the kingdom. Sadly, however, it ain’t so. At least most of the time.

So I don’t give advice about writing. I try not to give advice about anything (not that I have any wisdom worth having anyway). I’m a lousy back-seat driver too. But the one thing I can do is to guide other writers to stuff that I’ve found helpful, inspirational or at least given me a good laugh. So what I’ve done is given you four links to useful resources. I’m sure they are familiar to most of my two and a half readers, but here goes nothing.

My advice is usually no better...

A caveat: These resources are skewed to genre fiction rather than any literary type genres. It is what I read most of and what I aspire to write. If you are writing the “Great American Novel” or something, these may be of limited value. Anyway, less gassing, more advice.

1) Standard Manuscript Format. This is something everyone who wishes to sell their work needs to know about. Publishers and editors often demand you submit work in SMF. Make sure you know what SMF means and how to convert your scribbles into it. I know it’s hard sometimes to change your document from a lovely Palatino Linotype font to the hideous Courier New, but such is life. If you read submission guidelines and follow them to the letter, your rejection slips will be all the sweeter. Like a Samurai warrior your goal isn’t to win or even survive a fight but to die a better death than your opponent (and thus acquire better karma for the next life). You see now why I never give out advice?

2) The Turkey City Lexicon. A guide for setting up a Science Fiction critique groups as well as some of the most obvious errors to avoid when writing a story. (My particular favourite is squid-in-the-mouth). A useful list of things not to do and mistakes to avoid. There are always new mistakes to make, though. Sometimes I think writing is a bit like dodging bullets by hiding behind a pineapple.

3) Clench Racing. This is just so much fun. Like Cervantes’s Exemplary Tales it instructs while delighting and delights while it instructs. It tells of how plot coupons govern fantasy literature and guffaws at Leonard Nimoy’s awful poetry. Fantastic stuff by Nick Lowe.

The Doctor, pondering why all his cliff-hanger endings result in him "reversing the polarity" of something or other.

4) Rules For Genre Stories. Here recounted in a great and informative blog, the advice of the great Lester Dent. The author of these rules wrote genre fiction for a living, including a lot of the Doc Savage books and stories. It demystifies the whole thing: writing is a tool not an art, stories are built to a plan, not by “letting the characters speak” or other pseudo-mystical bunkum that people use to cover up the fact that they haven’t thought out a plot yet. I’ll be following his rules for my next story. I wonder if it will sell?

Well, that’s about it. I read these things often and find them useful. Now I can access them from my own blog (and get my hit-rate up while doing it. I love the interweb, I do). Just to leave you with a bit more of other people’s advice ringing in your ears, here’s Robert Heinlein’s rules for writing:

1) You Must Write

2) Finish What You Start

3) Do Not Re-Write

4) Put Your Story On The Market

5) Keep It On The Market

6) Start Work On Something Else (a later addition to Heinlein’s 5 rules)


Comic Book Classics 4

Milton Caniff 

Milton Caniff was proper old school. He started drawing cartoon strips for daily papers in 1922 and kept producing a daily strip for the rest of his life. His work ethic alone is worthy of note. However, the reason why I class him as among my favourites is that his phenomenal understanding of how comic-book narratives work. He also pioneered the contemporary (as opposed to historical) adventure strip, had a wonderful ear for dialogue, his characters (particularly his femme fatales) were always rounded (!) – and what’s even more important – memorable… oh, and he could draw a bit too.


I won’t tell you too much about his life and times. There’s a 900 page biography of the man if you are really interested. All I’ll tell you is that the key date in his story is the year 1938. This is the year that Milton Caniff got his big break at the New York Times, where he was chosen to take over ‘Terry and the Pirates’ strip. During WWII he produced comic-books for the troops and in 1947, he began his own strip: Steve Canyon. He produced this strip for 41 years until his death in 1988.

Terry and the Pirates is often regarded as his best work. In the strip the reader follows the adventures of Terry, a young kid living somewhere in the South China Seas, as he and his friends solve crimes, foil plots and best the villains. Terry, as opposed to many cartoon characters, is allowed to grow to manhood and becomes a pilot and all round action hero. A prototype for Indiana Jones (one of many, I’ll admit).

Steve Canyon carries on the aviation theme. The eponymous hero is an ex-USAF pilot who also has a series of adventures involving dastardly female villains. His career path is, however, redirected back to military service when Steve re-enlists during the Korean War. The strip becomes almost a mouthpiece for the USAF and its airmen. In recognition of this, Steve Canyon is the only fictional character ever granted a United States Air Force rank. His popularity dipped during the Viet-Nam war when the pro-military stance of the strip jarred with many readers. The 60s was also the time of underground comix, where clean-cut heroes were not exactly popular or well regarded. Like all good craftsmen, Milton Caniff persevered. Quality will always survive the vagaries of fashion.


Milton Caniff was also an activist and a defender of cartoonist’s interests, particularly in terms of artists having control of their own creations and on copyright issues. He was a founder member of the National Cartoonists Society (and served as its president). He was awarded the title of Cartoonist of the Year on three occasions and had the ear of US presidents. There are stories of him getting access to the Oval Office in preference to the Washington press corps. It made the journalists quite upset. But then they couldn’t draw, so stuff them!


For me the most important aspect of his genius is the understanding of his craft. His instinctive and unpretentious feel for the creative process. He delivered, year after year, delightful adventure stories to his many readers. If things had been different, if superheroes hadn’t choked off the American comic-book market like the vile pond weed that they are, a more diverse, grown-up comic book market might have flowered. Milton Caniff offers us a glimpse of what that environment might have looked like: the world that American comics lost and will never get back.

A Rough Guide To Leicester’s Writing Ecosystem

 Welcome to my jungle. As I peer through the fronds and creepers, it feels like I’m not in Leicester anymore. It’s a dangerous environment for a writer. A bit like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here but with two critical differences.

  1. There are no celebrities
  2. No-one is getting out of here.

    Leicester in Bloom...

Still, you can make a good life for yourself if you’re careful; dodge the large predators, avoid the snakes, leeches and weasels and reach a pleasant modus vivendi with your fellow creatures. I for one have over a year’s experience in handling this environment. Oh, yes. I’m dead good at this, me. So if you are new to Leicester or to writing (or both), let me show you round the place and squeeze the life out of this jungle metaphor. So strap on your pith-helmet and glug down your quinine. Quickly! We haven’t got all day.

Now, lets start at the beginning. If you are new to writing and/or Leicester, you do need a place to start. A safe haven to learn a few tricks, meet a few fellow travellers and get an idea of the lie of the land. Some sort of base-camp, if you will. The safest place to begin your journey is in Wellington Street. In the college, next to the library is Writing School Leicester. An essential stopover for aspirant wordsmiths. WSL run courses on all kinds of subjects related to writing (Poetry, journalism, Sci-Fi, writing stories for women’s magazines). They cater for all levels and abilities. There are courses on almost anything you can think of. Sign up, meet some fellow scribblers and take notes. It will set you up with what you need to continue on.

Hopefully these courses will give you some confidence to proceed. If so, perhaps it is time to approach a writing group. These are the watering-holes in the savannah where the animals congregate. There are big beasts, dinosaurs, cheeky monkeys and fluffy bunnies galore. Be prepared for the occasional mishap, but give them a try; you might make some good friends there. There is a pecking order in amongst the apparent mayhem. At the top of the food-chain, you have Leicester Writer’s Club. These guys are serious. You have to be a published writer (or have two years of WSL courses under your belt) in order to join. They do have public events, though, where you can meet them and make useful contacts. One day you might get to join them.


More accessible groups for the neophyte include The Leicester Casuals, The Speculators (For SF/Fantasy/Horror), Grace Dieu Writers (Coalville). All are good and worth a visit. Libraries (a great resource, wouldn’t you know) have details of many of them. That interweb thingy can also be useful in identifying a group near you. It may be that you prefer to get together with friends and run your own group-writing or critique sessions. Do it. There is nothing that improves your writing as much as exposure to fellow lit-heads. Find them, bring them (rule them and in the darkness bind them) together.

At certain times of the year, writers flock and migrate. These ‘conferences’ are important for your calendar. Social events are always a boon. Writing is a solitary calling, so this is a chance for writers to meet and share ideas. (And to drink themselves senseless). If any of that appeals, the Biannual Writer’s Industries Conference takes place in Loughborough. Lyric Lounge is a poetry and performance event, The Literary Leicester fest is brought to you by the folks at Leicester Uni, St Georges Day will bring some liteary events to the Cultural Quarter this year. If you are an SF nerd like yours truly, there is also Fantasycon (Nottingham) and Alt.Fiction (Derby) to consider.

The jungle is a noisy place. Full of screeching, howling, muttering and declaiming. If you fancy making some noise to go with your syllables there are various spoken word nights dedicated to poetry and prose. Word is the most venerable of these. Leicester Poetry Society caters for the rhymers and shakers. For prose it is Shortfuse , staged in the wonderful Y Theatre.

Ian McEwan, headliner at a Shortfuse event.

As with every other sphere of life, government impinges on our selvatic paradise. Running logging concessions for Leicester and the East Midlands region is Writing East Midlands. They provide a number of useful services for aspiring writers including manuscript readings (and critiques), mentoring programmes and funding for events and conferences. A very helpful bunch all in all. There are other bodies that deal with creative writing too. The Literature Network is a fine example of a locally based one. They act as an information hub and provide lots of other kinds of help.

All that keeps you afloat in this game is your fellow writers.

Finally a word about the dangers. In any jungle there are predators. In this case most will be after your money. They range from vanity publishing outfits to ‘editorial services’ which charge you a fee to bring your work to a publishable standard. Inform yourself about such scams and avoid them at all costs. Similarly I would warn all writers to beware of Creative Writing Degrees/MAs/Diplomas offered by universities desperate to cash in on your dream of a writing career. Forget them. What they can teach you you can learn from the WSL at a fraction of the cost. You can save the money for a rainy day. That day is drawing ever closer as my beloved jungle is facing huge challenges as arts budgets are squeezed and opportunities diminish. How many elements of the ecosystem will survive this crisis?

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