Category Archives: Writing Advice

In the beginning….

Creation—if only it were this easy

Creation—if only it were this easy

Pandora Hope|5 January 2016

This article is strictly for newbies. It’s a confession and a lament. It is about what happens BEFORE your first novel is selling millions (thousands? dozens?) on Amazon. Before you even have a novel—or perhaps even a complete short story.

It is, in other words, about beginnings.

At least, it’s a warts and all tale of my experience as a ‘beginner’, a ‘newbie writer’. I know that you are out there, fellow writing babies, sweating, screaming, or, in some rare cases, absolutely serene. The serene ones can tune out now. You’re on the side of the gods. Creation is a breeze! Seven days, pfft! You could do a story in a weekend.

This post is for the rest of us. The dispossessed. The ones with enough reject slips to paper a wall. We are not fans of the creation myth.

So if a blank piece of paper (or blank screen) brings you out in a sweat, know that you are not alone. You’re not going to trumpet your failures on Twitter or Facebook, but maybe they’re showing a little behind your brave smile. I see you (and yes, I hate those phenomenal success stories on Facebook and Twitter as much as you do). Okay, nobody said the world was fair, but no-one prepared you for this degree of suffering. Failure is a bitter thing.  Continue reading

Serious comedy

So you think you're funny?

So you think you’re funny?

Sean McMullen|9 May 2015

Some years ago I was in the green room at a World SF convention when an organizer dashed in and asked me to chair a panel on comedy. Someone else was double booked, as I recall. I didn’t like the idea of doing something like that with no notice at all, but then I heard Terry Pratchett’s voice behind me. I turned around and called out:

“Hey Terry, want to chair a panel on comedy?”


“In about thirty seconds.”

“Oh good, let’s go.”

Comedy Panel at Chicago Convention: L to R: George R.R. Martin, David Langford, Terry Pratchett, Sean McMullen

Comedy Panel at Chicago Convention: L to R: George R.R. Martin, David Langford, Terry Pratchett, Sean McMullen

We set off, preparing as we walked. More and more people fell in behind Terry as we made our way to the room, all looking very eager as the word spread: Pratchett’s going to talk about comedy! It was a bit like being in a Diskworld adventure … or maybe we really were there. The panel also featured George R.R. Martin and David Langford, and it went over very well. This may sound strange coming from a panelist, but I actually learned a lot about comedy in that hour.

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Dump the infodump

Too much information

Information overload

Pandora Hope & Sean McMullen|10 March 2015

All of us have seen it, that lump of words sitting in the middle of our stories like a constipated bean bag. It needs to be there, because you have a load of information to get across to the reader quickly and you’re right on the word limit. It’s impossible to make a bean bag exciting. Right? Wrong.

I used to know some medieval reenactment people who dressed up in armour and fought mock battles. They even had siege engines which fired bean bags. If you got hit by a flying bean bag, you were declared dead and had to leave the field. Under those circumstances, bean bags were to be taken very seriously.

Infodumps are similar. If, for example, you want to show that a guy is dangerous, you can do a physical description of his haircut, tats and scars, followed by notes on his childhood, education, military and martial arts training, and police record. Or you can do what Neil Gaiman did at the start of an episode of the BBC series Neverwhere: “You can call me Mr Croup. You can call my brother associate Mr Vandermaar. You may have had nightmares about us.”

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Research or write?


Sean McMullen|15 February 2015

What have nuclear weapons got to do with your writing? What’s that? You say you’re not into post-apocalyptic stories? Actually this is about how to do research, but the development of the first Soviet atomic bomb has a very important lesson for you.

In 1947 the German scientist Gunter Wirths was a rather unwilling guest of the Soviets, and they had just learned that their uranium was purer than what the Americans produced. A minister told this to Wirths, and said he was very proud of it. Wirths said “Is no use to be proud of it, because Americans make it just as pure as is necessary, and you do by far more, and that makes it very expensive.” The minister replied “You damn Germans.”

Stop and think about that. How many times have you done way, way more research than you could have possibly needed to write your story, just because it’s interesting – then tossed most of it away. You almost certainly have a full time job if you are on this site, but have aspirations to be a writer. That means your free time has around eight hours chomped out of it by your job. Remove another eight hours for sleep, and four more for eating, shopping, Facebook and taking out the garbage. You are now down to four hours for writing.

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Who are these characters?


characters Sean McMullen|16 January 2015

Why are you writing? The chances are you want to create a ‘perfect’ characters. Worse – yes, worse – you may want to be one of your characters. Bad approach. I’ve seen that happen a lot while judging writing competitions and running writing workshops. I’ve even seen it happen in professionally published novels.

What is wrong with the author being in love with a character, or being one of them? For starters, characters like that can do no wrong, and this is seriously boring. Well, to everyone except the author, anyway. What do Dexter Morgan, Walter White and Sherlock all have in common? Apart from being guys, and being in television series, they get it wrong sometimes and get pushed to the limit. They are flawed, and they spend a lot of time cleaning up mistakes, yet they are still great characters.

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When a great idea isn’t enough


Inspiration without perspiration?

Sean McMullen|4  January 2015

I call this the Eureka phenomenon, and I bet you’ve experienced it at least once in your life.

Imagine it’s New Year’s resolution time and you see a poster of a very buff body promoting your local gym. What better way to turn your life around, you think. By the next day you’ve joined the gym and are eyeing off the heaviest weights, imagining your own reinvented physique on that poster in a month or so. So you grab the biggest barbell, and…well, that afternoon you’re at the doctors with a sprained back and a demolished fantasy.

So what does this have to do with writing? More than you might think. You’ve just come up with a stunningly original idea for a novel—Eureka! You’re positive it’s going to be the world’s next mega hit and you’ll need a body guard to protect you from adoring fans. This idea is so hot that you won’t even tell your best friend and you’re thinking about hiring a copyright lawyer.

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Working on the Warlock—Writers Collaborating

writing collaboration

Writing collaborations—duet or disaster?

Sean McMullen|21 December 2014

Working on a writing project with another author can be tricky. It’s easy to see why some authors avoid joint ventures like poison. On the other hand, collaborations can be a great way to increase output and reduce writing time.

I recently began collaborating with the author Paul Collins on a six-part Young Adult fantasy series called The Warlock’s Child.

Two and a half months after preliminary discussions I had the first of the six The Warlock’s Child novellas in my hands. If there isn’t already a proverb saying ‘Two minds make light work’ there should be. When a collaboration runs smoothly, writing time can be dramatically reduced and output increased. That’s the good news.

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Overcoming writer’s block

Dealing with writer's block

Creative block can be a writer’s most distressing afflication.

Pandora Hope|13 December 2015

The very phrase ‘writer’s block’ is enough to send a chill down my spine. A fortunate few never experience it, so legend says, but for me ‘the blank page’ is an ever present threat. Is today the day I sit down at the laptop and write…absolutely nothing?

The wonderful Anne Dillard is the woman I turn to on days like this, and her advice never fails to  lubricate the rusty cogs of a stubbornly silent mind. Her ‘The Writing Life’ should be compulsory reading for all aspiring writers, and the following inspirational extract is just one reason why:

“When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle — or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite.

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Judged by the fifth line

Five Line Test

Some readers (and editors) will judge your book by the first five lines

Sean McMullen|5 January 2015

Like to know how it looks from the other side of the submissions desk? When I visited the late Peter MacNamara, publisher of Aphelion Press, he challenged me to score a pile of manuscripts out of ten by reading the first page. I gave very similar scores to his by reading the first four or five lines. None scored well. None of those first few lines had any sort of hook or intriguing elements, and there was little incentive to reader further. Was a masterpiece rejected for want of a well-written five lines? Sadly, we’ll never know…

Here are twenty lines from four novels. All of them contain hooks, though the hooks used by these authors are very different.

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Getting your readers hooked

A hook like this intrigues readers

A hook like this intrigues readers

Pandora Hope & Sean McMullen|11 December 2014

A hook is a device or technique that intrigues readers and persuades them to read on. Generally it works by appealing to the very thing that got the cat killed. Yes-curiosity! John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ begins “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” Want to know what’s going on? Sure you do. My story ‘A Ring of Green Fire’ begins “As I was walking through Westbury Forest, I met a man with a ring of green fire around his penis.” Okay—a penis with a green halo. Have I got your attention?

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