Top Ten Writing Mistakes Editors See Every Day

Originally posted on Blot the Skrip and Jar It:

Goya -The sleep of reason produces monsters (c1799) recut

In addition to writing and teaching, one of the things I do for a living is to evaluate manuscripts for their suitability for publication. I read fiction (and non-fiction) across several genres, and write comprehensive reports on the books. I try always to guide the author towards knocking his or her project into a shape that could be credibly presented to literary agents, publishers and general readers. You know how Newman and Mittelmark introduce How Not to Write a Novel by saying, ‘We are merely telling you the things that editors are too busy rejecting your novel to tell you themselves, pointing out the mistakes they recognize instantly because they see them again and again in novels they do not buy,’ well they’re right; I am one of those editors.

However good the idea behind a novel, when the author is still learning the craft of writing – like any…

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Rothko’s 7 core qualities for art – and for storytelling?


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From the Rothko exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.

It can be hard to connect with abstract art. Rothko’s blurry oblongs seem at first to be mute and meaningless. But following the progression of his work from the figurative, one sees how images of people, of subway and street scenes, are replaced by rectangles of colour.
The artist speaks to us mood to mood, short-cutting the middleman, leaving out the figures in a landscape, the still life. Black speaks of grief, red of passion, sombre browns and greens of quietude.
Rothko, who would withdraw from exhibitions if his works were not displayed in the right environment, would have approved of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. It’s a wonderful Modernist building from the 1930s, tiled and calm and democratic. Their audio tour was on an electronic device around my neck. I was struck by one section: Rothko’s seven core qualities for art.
Seven core
I wondered if these could also be core qualities for storytelling.
Always unable to remember lists, I typed them in to my phone:
1. Death
2. Sexuality
3. Tension
4. Irony
5. Humour
6. Transitoriness and random chance
7. Hope

A Receiver of Stolen Words

A Receiver of Stolen Words is an anthology of fifteen short stories in settings as far apart as Paris in 1716, Mesopotamia in 1916, and modern day West London. A common theme linking them is time and memory, time shifts, the passage of time, how we remember, how we forget, how we see the future, and sometimes just being set in another historical period.

To write these stories, I feel as if I’ve woven together ideas and words stolen from across centuries. That gave me my title. Characters are formed from ghosts, from research, from tiny snippets of people I’ve met, from strings of words that occur randomly at dead of night, or in the shower. The stories are all my own work, (not plagiarised by any means!), but someone else, somewhere else, maybe used words like these, once. I hope.


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US, iBooks,, (print and ebook).

The cover image was taken (stolen?) in Spitalfields, London, in March 2014.

Setting up home in 1840

After reading the advertisements in the Yearly Journal of Trade, 1837-8, I have been fortunate enough to obtain a fine cast-iron range, with a patent self-acting oven, for the house in Newhall Street. It was ordered especially from London.
Self Acting Range

I also discovered a quality outfitters, offering clothing suitable for well-dressed gentlemen.
49 Lombard St

Sadly, though, apart from Hygeiana, Mr. Goss’s excellent publications, the Medical Admonitors, suitable for general perusal, but offering the most important moral precepts to both the aged voluptuary and the youthful prodigal, appear to be out of print.Admonitors-p1

If I get to 30,000 words will everything be OK?


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It’s all organised in a complex hierarchy on my computer; the parts, the chapters, the sections. It’s like a house I’ve moved into, a few rooms adequately furnished, my scanty belongings still in cardboard boxes in the spare bedrooms. The Novel. It started as a couple of scenes in a screenplay, a radio play; the equivalent of a student bedsit with a few possessions carefully arranged.
Then I graduated to this partly occupied house. Chapters echoingly empty, although I have vague ideas of how they should be furnished. Characters I had not envisaged are coming to stay. The findings of each day are jotted down here and there; 200 words, 300 words, like lampshades, occasional tables, saucepan sets. Each room is furnished slowly and piecemeal. History becomes an IKEA catalogue: that might go well there.
Will it all end up like my friends houses? Manicured, perfect, spacious, elegant? Or become an unmanageable mess of clutter?
As John Braine once wrote, ‘The novel, once put aside, is never taken up again’ (or something like that). But, then, why would I move out of my house?

Creative Writing July competition


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‘Holidays’ is the theme for the Telegraph Creative Writing Group July short story competition. A comment by a fellow Facebooker about the Memories of Sand inspired this month’s story.

What makes a story? Apart from the geological insights, I have added some personal memories of much revered family friends, photographs of the Normandy beaches taken on holiday in July 2010, the name of a girl who was once at infant school with my son (to please Maggy), my husband’s dislike of sand, and a remark made by a lady to whom I recently sold our folding bikes, about not being able to get into Ouistreham for the D-Day ceremonies. Not much happens in the story, some subtle shifts of attitudes perhaps, but it’s all about how we remember. Holidays are the most ephemeral of creatures, after all.

‘Victorian values’



Recently I have had to park in a different place in the hospital where I work, and it was with a sort of grim delight that I photographed these mid Victorian buildings in an obscure corner of the hospital grounds. IMG_0118The remains of the mid-Victorian West Bromwich Union Workhouse infirmary (above is the former ‘Itch and Venereal Ward’) date from around 1857-8.

IMG_0125IMG_0127I suspect that the old iron railings and brick piers fronting onto the street also date from this time.IMG_0129At that time the workhouse and all the trappings of the Poor Law were feared and loathed by many. Victorian values – the work ethic, a stern religiosity and harsh class divisions, in which the ruthless capitalists preyed upon the poor in a laissez-faire economy, have had a bad press. Historians express surprise that England did not tumble into revolution during the 19th century.

But the picture was more complex. In some cities, Birmingham for example, the social divides were narrower, with much manufacturing being in small workshops where a craftsman could easily become an employer, and vice versa. The Birmingham Political Union, in which working class and middle class people campaigned together, was a driving force behind the Reform Act. There grew a concept of civic pride, in which citizens worked together in the newly incorporated towns to build their local infrastructure. And, nationally, there were plenty of people who campaigned for political reform, for education, and for public health. The reason we even know nowadays about the awful living conditions of the poor is that public health campaigners went out and documented what was going on. Read the small ads in the Times in the 1840s and you will find innumerable philanthropic societies; ladies’ knitting circles holding sales of work for charity; the establishment of voluntary organisations, the RNLI for example, that we still hold dear today. The Times editorials will be full of criticism for the plight of the workhouse paupers and the neglect and abuse which they suffered. ‘Victorian values’ were not a single entity, any more than are 21st century political beliefs.

The workhouse infirmaries of the Victorian age evolved into a health service for the poor, and, in the 20th century, became the hospitals that were the foundation of our National Health Service. Across the country, workhouse buildings and land have been used for our modern hospitals, gradually being developed and rebuilt. Could we have had the NHS without the workhouses, or our welfare state without the lessons learned from the Victorian age? I think not.

Creative Writing Group May competition entry : The Duddingham Line


Train2The TCWG May competition theme is ‘Public Transportation’, so I’ve written a short story about railway closures in the post-Beeching era. ‘The Duddingham Line’ was inspired by my local railway, which after far more dirty tricks and political machinations than I could ever possibly hope to portray in a short story, was eventually spared the axe, and continues to run a reliable and convenient service into Birmingham.


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