Monthly Archives: May 2014

Writing to a Brief

At some point in your writing career, you are going to want to write to a brief. When you are writing for an anthology or as a freelance writer, you are writing to a brief. A brief is a set of instructions that define the piece to be written; these instructions might cover length, style, topic, intent, market. If you take yourself seriously as a writer, you won’t see these instructions as restrictions, but as a challenge.

To be honest, I enjoy writing to a brief. I find the challenge invigorating, it gets my creative juices fizzing, and I often am inspired by the very instructions set by the publishers and editors. The challenge brings out my best efforts and so I produce work that gives me a real sense of accomplishment.

Do not think that you can get around the rules, even by exceptional writing. There is no quicker way to alienate a publisher than trying to be too clever by half. If you want to bend a restriction, ask first. That way you know where you stand, and the publisher will appreciate that your respect their opinion. If the answer is ‘no’, accept it and move on.Image

It won’t hurt your professional standing if you can get a reputation for being able to work to a brief.

Here are a few tips to help you if you’ve never tried to work to a brief before:

1/ Consider the market: The style you write in should be tailored to the audience. A science article for a serious magazine uses a more formal style when compared to an online gossip column. If you are uncertain, try to read some the previous work published by that publisher or editor.

2/ Word length: Do not try to inflate a piece with waffle to achieve the required word length. Apart from being a bad writing practice, it might render the good parts of your work unpublishable. Conversely, if your piece runs too long, don’t think that you can’t edit back to the correct length. Your work will be stronger after a good edit – take out the weasel words.

3/ Read the brief carefully: This might sound self evident, but you would be surprised at how many times you might miss an important point by ‘skimming’ the instructions and going off half-cocked. I recommend reading the instructions three times, even if you have a perfect memory. I often put the instructions at the top of the page when I start a project, for easy referral.

4/ If you are uncertain, ASK: It is much better to ask a question than get it wrong and waste all your efforts. There is no such thing as a stupid question.


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Submissions are open to the Lane of Unusual Traders, published by Tiny Owl Workshop.


Here is a call out to all my writing friends.

I’m fighting for a place in this anthology. But I’m no dog in a manger.

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Rebellion against the black dog.

I am having a ‘down’ day. I tried to fight it, by going out and shopping and socializing, by listening to upbeat music, by talking on the phone with my mother, but it is just one of those days when my spirit feels like it is made of grey clay or lumps of lead. Once upon a time, I would not write on these days. Once, I would fall into the black dog’s pit and not know how to climb out.

This has changed. Now I rage against a grey day by writing with the brightest colours I can manage. None of these words may be worth keeping in the long run. But, thanks to these silly old words, already I can find a ladder back up into the sunlight.


I’m turning my grim into a Chihuahua, one day at a time.

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No post today … I’m writing.

No post today ... I'm writing.

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May 29, 2014 · 11:12 am

The Writer’s Clock

The Writer's Clock

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May 28, 2014 · 11:27 am

Listening to your Muse


Sometimes the voice of your muse may seem too soft to hear. You feel stalled. It is time to think about why you are stalled.

Have you written yourself into a situation and can’t think of a way to escape it? There are several ways around this situation. Personally, I ‘skip’ the block and start writing the story from further down the track after the situation was resolved. This often presents you with possible solutions to the sticky situation. Another tack is to just write the silliest solution possible – flying pink elephants fly in and rescue everyone (this is the first draft after all) – and then give yourself plenty of time to ‘fix’ that scene. Don’t just sit there and stare at the page, because your rising frustration will just ‘block’ you even harder.

You can’t get started. This is often caused by putting too much pressure on yourself. Sit back and relax. I have two little exercises that help. (These are copied from a previous reply I made to a comment for ‘Facing Disappointment’.) These help flex the writing muscles and are fun. They get your muse into the writing mood.

 1/ Word Play. Set up a timer for a ten minute alarm. Now pick a word with a LOT of significance, like Apple or Rose or Boat. For ten minutes, write down every single thing you can think of to do with that word. For example, an apple might make you think of Adam & Eve, Snow White, an apple a day keeps the doctor way, apple pie order, and so on and so forth. At the end of ten minutes, pick three of the silliest ideas and write a paragraph on each one. Then write a short 1000-word story based on the best of three paragraphs.

2/ Pick one item in your house that you love, for whatever reason. Say it is a picture of your grandfather’s house or a vase your best friend gave you. Write a letter to that object thanking it for the pleasure it brings you. Now write a letter from that object to you. Pick the best five sentences from the letters and turn them into a poem.

You have no inspiration. It is time to recharge the batteries of your muse. Get up and spend a couple of hours away from the keyboard. Take the dog for a walk, go visit with friends or watch your favourite movie. Remember, input equals output. Your muse needs input to come up with ideas. Personally, I find a lot of inspiration in watching the news and in reading science  reference books.

You are distracted. You are in the middle of one project, but your muse keeps throwing up ideas for something else entirely. This lack of focus is getting you nowhere fast. So, get a make on those other project(s). Sit down and write out a plan or notes for these other ideas. This way, you won’t forget them, and you know those notes will be waiting for you when you finish your original project. With that out of the way, you should find it easier to focus on completion of your current work-in-progress.

A writer needs to grow big ‘ears’ to listen to the muse.


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Facing Disappointment


Sometimes, no matter how hard you are working, the words crash to the ground like lumps of lead instead of flying off the page like songbirds. This happens to everyone. We all have off days. The important thing is to remember that this is a temporary phenomenon and not to give up.

When nothing is going right, it is time to take a break and rest up. Go for a walk in the sunshine. Ring a friend and go out for coffee. Reread one of your favourite books. The goal is not to fret. Don’t give yourself the chance to wallow in disappointment.

And remember, there is always tomorrow. Your muse will be waiting for you.


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Jamais vu – finding the weirdness in real life


As a writer, I spend some time each day investigating the paradoxes of modern life. For example, for a society that tries to ignore death and pretend it isn’t something spoken of in polite society, why the fascination with the undead in our entertainment? Why do people drive their cars two blocks to go to the gym. Why are there no footpaths in new suburbs, when we are all encouraged to walk more? I could go on and on. Everyone can all think of one or two, I’m certain.

I see it as my job to notice these little rituals and enigmas, and use them to add life and colour to my work. The goal is to create that ‘ah-ha’ moment and to create a sense of jamais vu. You know that feeling, when you look at something you’ve seen every day for years and you suddenly realise how strange it is.

Shaun Tan often does this without words. In his masterpiece, ‘The Arrival’, he captures the alienation a stranger feels when moving to live in a new culture. This is a quote from his website about some of the underlying themes of ‘The Arrival’:

Beyond any personal issues, though, I think that the ‘problem’ of belonging is perhaps more of a basic existential question that everybody deals with from time to time, if not on a regular basis. It especially rises to the surface when things ‘go wrong’ with our usual lives, when something challenges our comfortable reality or defies our expectations – which is typically the moment when a good story begins, so good fuel for fiction. We often find ourselves in new realities – a new school, job, relationship or country, any of which demand some reinvention of ‘belonging’.

Shaun Tan is talking about feeling that you get that you are alone in a crowd. When we evoke that feeling in a reader, they relate to it immediately. So how do you tap into that feeling?

One of the easiest methods is to borrow a pre-schooler and take them for a walk. They treat everything like an adventure, and ask questions that might never have occurred to you. My perfect example of this came from crossing the road with my youngest child when she was four. She noticed that everyone pressed the button to cross the road, even when it was obvious that it has already been pressed. As well, she noticed that a lot of people press the button more than once (including me). She came up with the theory that you HAD to press the button for everyone who was going to cross when the light changed, and wanted to know who needed to know those numbers. Her question immediately gave me that sensation of jamais vu. Why did I press the button more than once? On some level did I think it might hurry up the light change?

You don’t need a pre-schooler if you can train yourself to think like one. Try it now. Look out your window and find one thing that you took for granted, and now realise how strange it really is…

I can see a couple of wheelie bins that haven’t been taken in since the rubbish collection on Friday. Why are wheelie bins camouflage green? It isn’t like anyone is going to hide them in the middle of a jungle. What would happen if you could pick the colour of your bins? Surely it wouldn’t hurt to provide bins in blue or grey or brown.

So there you have it. Another technique to enrich your writing, and your everyday life! I would love to hear from anyone who tries this.



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Plotting a Complex Scene in the Steampunk Work in Progress


In the past few days, I have added about 2000 words to the manuscript. It has mostly been in one complex scene, which I am trying to sort out to my satisfaction. Part of the process was sitting down with pen and paper and drawing the stage directions for that scene.

Why go to the trouble?

For clarity’s sake. If I have a very clear idea of what is happening in this scene, it is easier for me to write in a manner that keeps things understandable. One of my goals in writing is to make my prose clear and readable. Nothing alienates a reader faster than being ‘lost’  or overwhelmed in the middle of a scene (like the deer in the image).

So, I sat down for a hour and just played with the scene. What did I want to say? What did I want to happen? What was the timeline for this scene? Who HAD to speak, and who didn’t? What did they have to say?

Once I had a map of my stage directions, I was able to sit down and start writing again with confidence. If I had been confused, my writing would have been weak and confused. I prefer to be in control.


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“If you look on…

“If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” William Somerset Maugham

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May 24, 2014 · 5:43 am