Thursday, 8 December 2016

A writerly Christmas

Gift vouchers ~ Christmas stars with old drafts ~ presents for writers ~ the hilarious present game ~ and some writing prompts to give you a much needed snippet of creativity in the midst of the festivities

Gift vouchers

You can now get gift vouchers for any of the Writers' Greenhouse courses or workshops: the Story Elements course, the Imaginary Worlds course, and the Summer of Writing workshops. You can also get vouchers for any amount towards a course or workshop. Read more about the vouchers here and maybe, if you're hoping for one yourself, discreetly leave the page open or forward it on Messenger, WhatsApp, text, Facebook, and Twitter, and tag them on Instagram...?

Christmas stars

These stars are very easy to make (eight-year-olds manage fine), very striking, and a beautiful use for piles of old writing print-outs. The writing becomes a texture of fragmented words, rather than something one reads, as if your prose is breaking free and into poetry. If you're using your old writing print-outs, make sure to cut the squares from the centre of the A4 sheets, so you get writing across the whole square. Find out how to make the stars here.

More present ideas

Lots more ideas of presents for writers across a wide range of budgets, from Poundshop stocking-fillers to suggestions for subscriptions and writing tools. Get more present ideas.

The Present Game

This isn't especially writerly but it's massive fun as an alternative to Secret Santa or to Christmas Crackers. Everyone gets presents - YAY! - and then passes them round, swaps them, steals them, et cetera, all in accordance with the rules which, being a good teacher, I have helpfully typed out on a doc for you to download and chop up. You can ask people to bring presents (generally cheap ones or regifting) or, if you forget, do a shopping-swoop somewhere cheap and cheerful. (I did very well with my one-pound-shop raids a couple years ago.) How to play the present game.

12 days of writing: The maps

Why did the protagonist fake those maps? A mini writing course with prompts to explore twelve elements of story-building by creating your own story. You can also use the prompts to develop a premise of your own. These are the twelve topics explored in Story Elements: premise, characters, place, time, plot-layering, tension and stakes, beginnings, themes, symbols, detail, and endings. Sneaking off for some writing time each day, or every few days, can help keep you calm and sane during the festivities.

12 days of writing: The spices

Why did the protagonist steal those spices? Another mini writing course to explore the twelve elements of story-building, looking at the same elements but using different prompts. Again, you can also use the prompts to develop a story of your own, or combine the prompts from both 12 Days of Writing on one of the premises. 

Happy Christmas and have fun writing!
Read More »

Friday, 18 November 2016

Imaginary Worlds ~ suggested reading batch 1 of 4

The reading list for the Imaginary Worlds course is a fantastic cross-section of the imaginary genres, from classic epic fantasy to literary fiction to dystopias to steampunk. Each week on the Facebook page I'm introducing one of the 16 books in more detail, and each month I'll gather up a cross-section of four of the books here, to introduce you to. (By the way, if you think you don't like reading fantasy or sci-fi, you should read this article first: Why you like reading fantasy and science fiction even though you think you don't.)

This month, we have Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, Peter F Hamilton's Neutronium Alchemist, and Ken Liu's Grace of Kings. Note: if you're coming on the course, don't panic - the 16 books are recommended reading, not required reading! It's fine if you don't read them before the course, we'll be looking at their blurbs and extracts during the course.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child's name is Fitz, and his is despised. Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king's fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort. To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.

The blurb for this book reads like fairly standard "sword-and-sorcery" style epic fantasy, but Robin Hobb's books are anything but standard. They're definitely within the genre of epic fantasy and use a lot of the genre's features, but with fabulous freshness, they duck a lot of the usual cliches and take an unexpected approach to some of the familiar tropes. The characterisation and sense of place are especially good, and the books are shot through with a deep sense of wisdom. I don't think I've ever used my Kindle's underlining feature so much.

This is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy, and if this one hooks you, you're in luck: several other trilogies follow the same characters and world, alternating between the Farseers and the Rain Wilds, all with gorgeous cover art by Jackie Morris. The chronological order for the trilogies goes...
  • The Farseer trilogy
  • The Liveship Traders trilogy
  • The Tawny Man trilogy
  • The Rain Wild Chronicles (four books)
  • Fitz and the Fool trilogy (in progress)
What these books do especially well: so much to choose from here... A fully realised world and sense of place, with varying geography and cultures; well-constrained magic; making small changes to the usual "fantasy world" and allowing those to ripple through fully; not using the usual feudalism=sexism trope.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

It's Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked 'Midnight Robbers' waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to you Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival -- until her power-coprrupted father commits an unforgivable crime. Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folkklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth - and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen's legendary powers can save her life... and set her free.

Midnight Robber is a wonderfully unexpected mix of genres, starting off in a future world with some exciting new tech, feeling more like fantasy for much of the book, mixing in folklore and myth, and towards the end starting to feel a bit magical-realist, all sprinkled with Carribbean dialect. In the prologue, I found the dialect a tiny bit heavy, as I'm not used to it, but after a couple of pages I could tune my ear into it more easily (and I also checked ahead to see if the rest would be a bit lighter, which it was). Once I was into the story, the dialect felt lighter and also an essential part of creating the book's atmosphere. Most of all, the book's world is splendid and rich - I was gutted when it ended, because I'd have happily spent a full trilogy living in and exploring that world! A lot of fantasy draws on vaguely European landscapes of fields, mountains, plains, etc, and in the weaker books a paucity of animals, just foxes / hares / snakes / birds; to be in a compelling and fully realised jungle, replete with a jungle's many creepy crawly bitey things and humidity, was pure delight.

What this book does especially well: Many things - but for the Imaginary Worlds course, it's a particularly fine example of creating a world that doesn't follow the usual sci-fi / fantasy template, and also of filling it with flora and fauna.

Hopkinson's other novels use a similar freestyle approach to genre and play with language, so if you like Midnight Robber, you have another five novels you can read: Brown Girl in the Ring, The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms, The Chaos (Young adult), and Sister Mine. She's also published six anthologies of short fiction.

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F Hamilton

**** SPOILER ALERT! **** This is actually the second book in the Night's Dawn trilogy - the first book in the trilogy is The Reality Dysfunction. So if you want to start reading at the beginning, then skip the blurb.

The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence. Those who succumbed to it have acquired godlike powers, but now follow a far from divine gospel as they advance inexorably from world to world. On planets and asteroids individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the final Night. In such desperate times the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist - so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert has to find Dr Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated. But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to sue the ultimate doomsday device.

Peter F Hamilton writes fantastic beasts of books, great whopping volumes. I love long books and series of books - I've never understood some people's dislike for them, because what are you going to do when you finish besides read another book? Why not carry on with the same book? That's even better! If you like long books as much as me, this author's a winner: most of these tomes clock in around 1000 pages, and they come in THREES.

Hamilton writes serious solid sci-fi. Most sci-fi gets divided into "actual sciency stuff" (extrapolating a scientific principle) and "space opera" (lots of planets and aliens), but he does both together. His books are huge in scope as well as actual size, with a substantial cast and usually about five plot threads running together, but absolutely worth any momentary confusion of "Who's that again?" The metaphysical payoff at the end of his novels is invariably spectactular, leaving your mind reeling with ideas.

I do have a couple criticisms of his work. He definitely has a sexual "type", which becomes increasingly clear across the books. By the seventh nubile girl with freckles across her breasts - well, le sigh, but whatever. That said, his female characters are generally strong, complex characters. He also goes into more detail than necessary sometimes with the tech - by the third page explaining how a spaceship works, I tend to think "I wasn't planning on building the bloody thing!" but some might enjoy that aspect. And sometimes, with 5 threads, the tension is lost, because when you return to that thread, you've forgotten the cliffhanger you left it on. But these are very minor quibbles compared to his book's strengths.

What these books do especially well: fantastic themes, which culminate powerfully in each trilogy's ending; heaps of new ideas with careful thought of how these ripple through the society; some brilliant science.

I heard Peter F Hamilton speak at a panel at the World Fantasy Conference, and afterwards asked the panel which of their ideas they thought most likely to come true some day. Hamilton said that his idea of OC tattoos, circuitry under the skin, were already true, and he was kicking himself for not having patented the idea!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counsellors conspire only for their own gain. Even the gods themselves are restless. A wily, charismatic bandit and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor's brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their unlikely friendship will drastically change the balance of power in Dara...but at what price?

The Grace of Kings is book 1 of The Dandelion Dynasty, but feels and works like a standalone book, with narrative satisfaction at the end. It's epic fantasy, in the sense of being set in an imaginary world and exploring its large-scale politics, but without many of the usual tropes of that - notably, no magic and no mythical beasts - and using tech with steampunk leanings, while not overtly being steampunk in other ways. Its main concern is with politics: how political machinations work (or fail), changing perceptions, and the personalities behind it. It had much less description than epic fantasy usually does, which is a shame for me, as that's what lets me imaginatively inhabit a world, but the rest was good enough to keep me engaged.

What this book does especially well: Its precise exploration of politics is fascinating, especially in how tightly this is woven with an understanding of characters. Each time a character does something that thrills or disappoints you, you have a sense that that was, perhaps, inevitable in their personality.

New recommendations are coming out each week before the Imaginary Worlds course. You can follow me on Facebook/writersgreenhouse or Twitter @writersgreenhse to see the latest, or sign up to the newsletter to get the next blog-batch sent to you and other occasional interesting things:


The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.

Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Why you like science fiction and fantasy even though you think you don't

People constantly tell me they don't like fantasy and science fiction when they clearly do. It's bewildering. At the start of the Story Elements course, I ask students to bring their three all-time favourite novels. Invariably, with at least one fantasy or sci-fi novel in their pile, they explain that they don't like or read fantasy or sci-fi. One of my closest friends swears blind that she cannot stand fantasy or sci-fi. Recently, she did one of those Facebook name-your-ten-favourite-books lists:

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Never discard anything - Tim Major

I met Tim Major when he came on the Story Elements course in 2012. When he published his first novel recently, I invited him to write a guest post on the most useful thing he'd learnt about writing through that novel. 

Never discard anything. Plenty of readers and writers will recognise this impulse, at least in terms of their book collections. I struggle to cull any book from my shelves, including those I’ve read and those I suspect I never will read. However, I’m thinking more in terms of writing.

Never discard anything. Not only is writing anything a worthwhile exercise, any completed piece of writing is worth keeping.

Here’s a case in point. My first published novella, Carus & Mitch, began life as a YA (Young Adult) novel. It was my second attempt at writing a novel, a more-or-less academic exercise along the lines of NaNoWriMo (in which would-be novelists attempt to write 50,000 words of fiction in a single month, without backtracking or engaging their ‘inner editor’). I didn’t have high hopes of the novel being publishable – and it wasn’t. However, the first three chapters, in which the two young female protagonists lived in isolation within a remote house, were pretty good. The following summer, I ripped out and rewrote the first three chapters and reworked the ending entirely. The novella was published in 2015, reviewed well, and was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award. (Megan Kerr critiqued part of the original YA novel as part of a Writers’ Greenhouse course in late 2012, and her notes were invaluable, despite the fact that that particular chapter was culled entirely. Thank you, Megan!)

While I enjoy writing short stories for their own sake, with hindsight I’ll often find that they’ve acted more as testing grounds. Perhaps it’s something subconscious – perhaps it’s just easier to commit to developing an idea into a short story, rather than diving into writing a novel. Before submitting to magazines, I’ll sometimes reread a story and then realise that the aspects that now seem most interesting are those that have been left out. My second novella, Blighters, began as a 16,500-word story and became 30,000 words in its final form when it was published in July 2016.

My first published novel, You Don't Belong Here, was originally a 7500-word story about a man who steals a time machine and then hides in a rural manor house in order to conduct tests with it. I wrote it when my wife was pregnant with our first son. Then, three months after Joe was born, I looked again at the story and found that the subject matter seemed oddly suited to my current state of mind. Daniel Faint’s disorientation at his continual leaps forwards in time, his uncertainty about the time and date, his panic about what might have happened in the interim period, felt like an analogy for my child-induced sleeplessness and drowsiness. I reworked the story to take into account these new personal hooks – that is, my own permanent state of disorientation, plus a preoccupation with family and fatherhood. The story grew and grew to become a novel. All of the elements of the short story remain, but now the short story feels like little more than a synopsis of the plot elements. The psychological element was all new.

So, there’s my advice. Never discard anything. Rework failures and mine your shelved stories for anything salvageable. Sometimes the story will only become apparent the second or third time you have a crack at it.

Tim Major's time-travel thriller novel, You Don't Belong Here,  (Snowbooks) is available now. He has also released two novellas, Blighters (Abaddon) and Carus & Mitch (Omnium Gatherum) – the latter was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award. His short stories have featured in Interzone, BFS Horizons and numerous anthologies. He is the Editor of the SF magazine, The Singularity, and blogs at

I strongly second Tim's advice and it's something I've found to be equally true in my own writing. When I wrote about the things I learnt in the Rope of Words series, one of the most useful things I learnt was the same: Keep your fragments.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: How to make a document template for your writing

Love your laptop. Turn the lights low,
open some wine, put on some music...
This post series is the techie tricks to make your writing life so much easier, with all the nifty little things you can do on Word. You can read the first post here.

Once you've learnt how to set up the Styles for your writing, you realise you don't want to faddle about with that every time you start a new story. There must be an easier way. The whole history of computing boils down to "How can I make the computer do this for me?" And there is! Templates! You're going to open a new document, set up the styles and some other useful settings, and then save it as a template. Then every time you start typing up a new story, you create a new document from that template, and everything is already set up.

How to create a writing template

  1. Open a new document
  2. Set up your Normal and Normal_new styles - if you can't remember how, or haven't read the previous post, here's how. More practice!
  3. You could head Straight to Go, Collect £200 now, but how about a few other useful settings? Add some page numbers. On the Insert tab, click Page Number and then Bottom of Page, Center. (That's standard, you can put it wherever you want.)
  4. Good margins are always useful. Narrower text is easier to read plus agents and publishers want proper margins, none of this 2cm on each side malarkey. I recommend the original defaults: Top & Bottom margins of 2.54cm, Left and Right margins of 3.17cm. To set your margins, click the Menus tab,then the Page Setup button, and then select Margins from the dropdown list.

  5. If there's anything else you're always doing to your writing documents, now's the moment to do it! Once you're fully skilled up in my smartypants ways, you'll be adding field codes and macros and all sorts. But don't worry about those for now, you can always add them later.
  6. Save the document as a template: click the Office button, move down to Save As, and choose Word Template.
  7. The dialogue box will open for you to name and save your template. It should automatically save the template in the right place, with all the other templates. (We'll check in a moment that it has; if not, I'll tell you how to move it to the right place.) Give it a nice name and click "Save".
You've made your first template! Now you can go crazy and make templates for everything you do a lot - letters, poetry, recipes, whatever.

How to create a new document from your template

  1. Click on File, then choose New.
  2. In the options that appear, click on My templates. (In older versions of Word, the options will appear on the right hand side, and you need to click on On my computer... Also, for some versions, you might need to choose the option Personal templates.)
  3. A dialogue box will open of your templates - click on the one you want. In this case, Novel.
  4. A new document will open based on your template - so it has all the settings and the styles you created in your template. Result!
If it's all worked, you can scroll on down to tweaking your template's styles. If you can't find it, here's how to sort that out:

How do I find my template?

Your template should have automatically been saved in the right place. If it wasn't, then we need to find the right place and put it there. Every version of Windows / Mac, and apparently every version of Word, keeps the template in slightly different places, so the easiest way is just to search for it. These are instructions for PC users - any Mac users, feel free to shout instructions in the comments and I'll add them.

You're going to search for where templates live on your computer and open that folder, then search for your template and open that folder, then drag your template to the the proper template home.

  1. Open Windows Explorer.
  2. On the left, click on the C: drive (to search the whole computer)
  3. In the Search Box (top right, picture of a magnifying glass) type the name of the normal template and its extension: Normal.dotx (or for old versions of Word, and press Enter. Wait while it peruses all your files. This may take some time, so maybe make a cup of tea while you wait. (Normal is the standard Blank document template, so we know that'll be in the right place.)
  4. Once it's found it, click on it, right-click, and select Open file location. That'll open a new Windows Explorer window in the folder where it's stored. You should be able to see on the left and along the top where it's stored. Mine is in C:/Users/Megan Kerr/AppData/Roaming/Microsoft/Templates.
  5. Open a new Windows Explorer window, and search for your template - eg Novel.dotx. Again, once it's found it, click on it, right-click, and select Open file location.
  6. If your two windows are full-screen, click on the Restore-down button in the top right, next to the close button. Restore-down is the middle button:
  7. You should be able to see both your windows now. Drag your template from wherever it's hiding into the same window as the Normal template.
Your template's in the right place now, so you can scroll back up to create a new document from your template.

How to change styles and add new styles in your template

We already set up the styles in your template, but as time passes, your tastes might change - you want more line spacing, or a different heading font - or you might develop new styles you want in all your writing. Then you find you're modifying your styles every time you use your template... Noooo! That's what we wanted to leave behind! But we CAN leave it behind. There's another little trick, which consists simply of a tick:
  1. Add a new style or modify your style as usual. If you can't remember how, here's how.
  2. In the Modify Style window, once you've made your changes, look at the bottom left. You'll see a tick box for Add to template. Tick it.
  3. Click OK.
  4. When you save your document, it will ask you if you want to save the changes to the template as well:
    Click Yes.
You're done! It's so easy! This is just for styles, though - if you want to make changes to margins or anything else, you need to open your template.

How to change your template

First you need to find your template in Windows Explorer, so if you don't know how, scroll back up to How do I find my template? I've added my template folder to my libraries, so I can find them easily. (Once you've found it, right-click on the Template folder and choose Include in library.) Then...
  1. In Windows Explorer, right-click on your template.
  2. The right-click options will open up:
  3. Choose Open not New. New is in bold: that means it's the default option, so if you double-click on the file, it will create a New document based on that template. By right-clicking, you've brought up the Open option.
  4. The template itself will open. You can then make any changes you want to. When you're done, just click Save and close it.
Done! You're a template guru!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: Set up your styles to lay out your writing properly

Love your laptop and customise it!
This post series is the techie tricks to make your writing life so much easier, with all the nifty little things you can do on Word. You can read the first post here.

Once you've put proper headings in your document, you're already using the Styles and Formatting - and it has a ton of brilliant uses besides the headings and the document map. You can customise it so your headings look exactly how you want, and you can also set it so it does proper layout for you, without you having to press tab all the time. If you're not sure what story layout should look like, compare these two documents:

If your story or book looks like the one on the right, hurrah! You're using sections and paragraphs like a pro! If it looks like the one on the left, every paragraph flush with the margin and white space above it, you need to shoot off and read this post on layout, and spend some quality time flipping through the books on your shelves, saying "Ohhhh..."

Proper layout does all sorts of useful story-things, but all those indents mean a lot of enter-tab, enter-tab, when you'd rather be concentrating on the writing. So you set up your styles to do it for you! And you do that by customising your styles.

We'll start with customising your headings, to cover the basics, and then go through setting up proper layout. As before, if you feel nervous, use another document to play around.

The golden rule of Styles and Formatting

This is the golden rule of Styles and Formatting: except for italics within the writing, never make formatting changes to the text itself: change the Style instead. It's so important I'll put a box around it:
Change the Style not the text formatting.
Want a pretty font for your headings? Don't select the heading and change the font - change the heading style! Want your writing in Times New Roman instead of Cambria? Don't select the text and change the font - change the Normal style! Want indents and a special font for the text messages your characters send each other? Don't just change the formatting for that bit - create a new style!

Why? For a short story, doing formatting by hand doesn't cause you problems - it's only a few pages. And for the first 10,000 words of your novel, you won't notice any issues either, probably. By the time you finish your novel, though, it's probably at least 80,000 words. And then you've written it in Calibri point 11, because that's what you like, but the agent says "Times New Roman or Cambria only not Calibri, point 12" because they hate Calibri and want good-sized text. And then you have to change everything. But you can't just select everything and say "Times New Roman, point 12" because you also have those text messages, remember? And the headings. And that innovative stuff you did in the middle, to mimic Google search results. And then you're trawling through your whole document trying to fix it and change it, and it's not just a few pages, it's over 200. But if you're using Styles instead, you make a few quick clicks and - voilà!

How to customise your headings

The in-built headings are often ugly, a bit corporate, or just look too much like the documents you see at work. Make them your own!
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the style you want to change and choose Modify.
  2. A box will spring up in the middle
  3. Click Format to change the settings.
  4. Choose Font to change the heading's font, colour, size, whether it's underlined, small caps, all caps, etc:
    Then click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  5. Choose Paragraph to change the alignment, and the space above and below it. Don't use extra Enters to create space - use the Styles:
  6. On the second tab of the Paragraph box, you can tell it to start a new page automatically. If you want each chapter on a new page. Click Page break before.
    Then click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  7. Click OK in the Modify Style box.
Done! You can play around with your heading settings to your heart's content, use colour, have a font that matches your novel, anything you like. (And then before you submit it to a publisher, you can change it back to a sensible font by changing the style again.)

If you fancy losing yourself down a font rabbit hole, have a look at Dafont's collection. Most of them are free for personal use and you can just download them. Once they're downloaded, open the zip file, drag them onto your desktop, then drag them into C:/Windows/Fonts to install them. Hours of fabulous WAB! (Writing-Avoidance Behaviour.) Be careful with sites you don't know, though - I've had viruses bundled into font downloads before. Dafont is safe.

How to create your story layout styles

You're going to do the exact same thing, but with a few extra settings, for your story layout styles. You need two styles: Normal will be your paragraph style, indented, with no white space above. Normal_new will be for the start of a new section, not indented, with white space above.

Just like you did for the heading, modify the Normal style:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose Modify.
  2. A box will spring up in the middle
  3. Click Paragraph and change the Indentation to First Line - 0.63cm.
  4. I also change the Line spacing to Multiple - 1.15. I find that's easier on the eye than single-line spacing, but you still get a good amount of text on the screen.
  5. Click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  6. You can also change the font settings if you want, and when you're done, click OK all the way out.
NOTE: This might make all your headings indent as well! That's because all your styles are based on the Normal style. That's fine - just go into any headings you're using, modify their style, and set their indent to None. Yay! More practice!

Now you're going to create the Normal_new style, for new sections:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose New Style.
  2. The box will spring up in the middle:
  3. In the Name box, type Normal_new. (You can call it whatever you like.)
  4. Underneath the sample text, you'll see it says "Normal +". That means it's based on the Normal font, so has all those settings, plus whatever you're going to choose now.
  5. In Style for following paragraph, click the down arrow and choose Normal.
    This is genius. It means when you start a new section, and then press Enter, the next paragraph will automatically be the right style - a nice indented paragraph!
  6. Click on Format then Paragraph to open the paragraph settings. Change the Indentation to None and the Space Before to 12 pt:
  7. Click OK to confirm.
  8. In the Modify Styles box, look below the Preview section and you can see that your new style's settings are Normal + First line: 0cm; Space before 12pt. That means any other changes you make to Normal, except those two extra things, will also apply to this Style. So if you change Normal's font, this one's font will change too. Brilliant! That's because the style is based on Normal (as it says in the box).
  9. Click OK.
You now have your two headings set up! Whenever you start a new section, you click the style Normal_new, and it automatically adds the white space above it and goes flush with the margin. When you press enter at the end of that paragraph, the next paragraph will automatically be Normal, so it will be indented with no white space.

That's the essentials! If this has been a steep learning curve, I suggest you go away and play with this a bunch, then come back later once you feel it's properly under your belt. If you fancy delving a little more, read on...

Go wild with your styles!

Any time you need particular formatting, you can add a style to do that for you. You don't need to make a style for italics in the text, like this, but for most other stuff it's useful. For example, in my novel, I have two separate story strands with two separate fonts, so things set in the other world have the styles Otherworld and Otherworld_new. I also have styles for text messages, which are heavily indented, use a smaller point size, and use MS Sans Serif font. I have fonts for newspaper headings, because the novel has a bunch of those. You own your computer, you tell it what to do, you create your wonderful repertoire of styles however you want.

How to create character styles

Most styles you create will be Paragraph styles - ie they apply to the whole paragraph. Sometimes, though, you have a bit of text inside a paragraph that needs a special setting - so you want to change just those particular letters. ("Characters" means letters, here, not your imaginary people.) In Rope of Words, I had the "titles" the woman thought her story would have plus the words that had a physical existence in the story:

If I created a paragraph style, it would change the whole paragraph, not just those words. So you create a character style:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose New Style.
  2. The box will spring up in the middle.
  3. In the Style Type box, click the down arrow and select Character:
  4. Now, if you click Format, you only get options that apply to the characters, not the paragraph:
  5. Make any font settings you want. I made my "physical" words Book Antiqua, 12 pt, bold, with a shadow. Click OK all the way out.

Of course when you start your next book, you'll want some of the same styles, at least the Normal and Normal_new already set up. And if you're writing lots of short stories, then you'll be wanting new documents with those set up all the time. So we should probably look at templates, next! In the meantime, have a play with this, have fun, make things silly colours and crazy fonts, OWN the machine! Love your laptop!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: How to manage your whole novel in one document

Love your laptop.
You absolutely don't need a specialist programme to write a novel. Word can do everything you need, it's almost infinitely customisable, you probably already have it, and at the end your document is in the format publishers and agents want it. They always want a .doc or .docx. Plus Word has a host of nifty little features and tricks perfectly suited to writing. Often, these aren't remotely complicated - you just need to know they exist and why they're useful for writers. So the next rash of posts will be some computery how-to on all the nifty things you can do, to make life and writing easier, so you love your laptop to bits instaed of fighting with the machine, and we're starting with the most absolutely crucial and basic thing:

Keep your novel in one single document

Every time I see a thesis or a novel in multiple documents, one for each chapter, I want to weep - not for me, but for the poor soul who's trying to work like that. There is zero reason to have separate documents for each chapter: text files are incredibly light. To put it into perspective: a single photo from your mobile is about 1000kb. (1 MB) An 80,000-word novel is about 750kb. Your entire novel uses less computer memory than one picture of your coffee. So trust me: put it all in one document. Your computer can cope.

The other reason people keep their novel chapters in separate docs is that they don't know about the document map / navigation pane. This lets you jump around your novel from chapter to chapter incredibly easily, plus you have a nifty overview of your chapter titles. If you've never used this, prepare... to be... amazed! More on how to use that below.

And here's why you should be keeping your novel in one document:
  • you can scroll / jump back up easily, to check minor details - eg a cameo character's name
  • you can change the font / formatting of the whole thing
  • you can do find-and-replace to the whole thing at once - if, for example, you change a character's name from Kristoff to Xavier, you don't need to open 20 documents to do it
  • you can spell-check the whole thing at once
  • you can manage different versions of the document much more easily
  • you can back it up to multiple places much more easily - it's just one file
  • you can print it out with proper page numbering and headers running through the whole thing
  • you can send it to the agent as a single file (and not look like a massive amateur by sending a file for each chapter!)
  • you can check for repetitions of particular words across the whole novel

To manage your novel in one doc easily, you need to know three things:
  1. How to Insert > File (if you already have a bunch of separate documents)
  2. How to use Styles & Formatting (to get your headings set up)
  3. How to use the Document Map / Navigation Pane (so you can jump around the doc easily)
If you're nervy with computers, I suggest you play around with some other documents to start with, so you don't feel like you're learning something new and handling your precious beloved novel at the same time. The more playful and game-like you can make the learning bit, the better!

1. How to Insert > File (if you already have a bunch of separate documents)

You could open each document in turn, then copy-and-paste it into a new document, but there's an easier way.
  1. Open a new document
  2. Click on the Insert tab
  3. In the Text group, click the arrow next to Object.
  4. Click Text from file.
  5. In the dialogue box that opens, navigate to the first chapter, and double-click that. It will be inserted into your document.
  6. Press Enter to start a new line (in case your doc didn't) and repeat from #2 with all the chapters, in order.
Ta-da! Your whole novel's in one document! I suggest you save it as Your Novel's Name v1. (v1 = version 1, useful thing to add for managing versions.) Next, we want to get your headings set up properly so you can use the Document Map / Navigation Pane to jump around easily.

2. How to use Styles & Formatting (to get your headings set up)

Styles and formatting are one of Word's superpowers and have a fabulous range of uses for writing - plus you can customise the styles however you want. Right now, though, we're just going to stick to headings and we'll use the default settings. The next blog post will look at how to customise them to your taste.

All text is “Normal” by default – that’s body text.
  1. Click within the paragraph or line you want to change, then choose the style from the Home tab. In this case, click on your chapter title and then click Heading 2. (If you want to save Heading 1 for the novel title.) You don't have to select the title: just put your cursor on that line, blinking away.

    You can repeat that for each chapter title. You can also copy the format instead:
  2. To copy a format from one paragraph to another, put your cursor in the paragraph whose formatting you want, and click the Format Painter button: 
    The next paragraph / line you click will get the same formatting.
    To paste the formatting in more than once place, double-click the Format Painter button. When you're finished, click it again to "put it down".
All your chapter headings are now set as Heading 2 - so now we can do the magic bit!

3. How to use the Document Map / Navigation Pane (so you can jump around the doc easily)

Once you have headings and sub-headings, you can use the navigation pane, also called the document map in some versions.
  1. Go to View and tick Navigation pane.  (Some versions might call it Document map.) The navigation pane appears on the left-hand side, showing all your document's headings. Now you have an overview of your whole novel, with all your chapter titles! Here's the navigation pane for my original document on how to do this:

  2. Click on any heading to jump to that place in the document. You can now leap from chapter to chapter in your novel at just a click, hurrah!
Some added handy features...
  • You can use headings lower down the hierarchy - Heading 3, Heading 4, Heading 5, etc - to mark key sections in your novel, especially ones you want to jump back to often. This is especially useful for pivotal scenes you want to refer back to a lot. Before you submit the novel, you can easily take out those extra headings. 
  • Each level of heading appears nested below its parent - in the example above, "Styles and formatting" is Heading 1, and the ones beneath it are Heading 2, indented. You can click the little arrow to show or hide those subheadings.
  • Whichever section you're in shows as selected in the navigation pane - usually as that warm yellow highlight. That's incredibly handy for some of the more avant-garde stuff we'll cover, like jumping through a document checking for repetitions.

Once you've got these basics of styles and formatting, you can start bending them to your will - changing the Heading font to something splendid and spiffy that suits your novel's theme, getting the paragraph settings all nicely done for how a novel should be laid out, and so forth, all of which we'll cover in the next post.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Write Around Your Cycle

Having a pronounced hormonal cycle isn’t often seen as an advantage – especially in a society that generally only recognises the PMT stage. Actually, a menstrual cycle which affects your moods a lot can be a massive boon. You can predict weeks in advance – even months, if you’re regular – how you’ll be feeling on a given day, regardless of the weather, work, and what else is happening. What’s more, you can harness those moods.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Tips for a perfect Summer of Writing

The Summer of Writing workshops have launched! Summer is a busy, social time, so in one sense an odd time for workshops - but it's also a creative time. We forget, sometimes, that we're animals. That like any animal, our energy levels rise with the warm weather, alongside our adventurousness, our sense of fun, our enthusiasm, our interest - which is all, in a sense, our creativity. The long winter months often get the credit for creative endeavour, what with staying indoors and not much to do, but creativity isn't a faut de mieux: it's our lifeblood. Our joy. And like the rest of our joy in life, it jumps up and down and does cartwheels in the summer. That's why I run workshops in the summertime, even though it's also such a busy time - it's the perfect time for adventure and discovery. So here are my tips to create yourself a glorious Summer of Writing.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

March is Thank The Author month!

It's time to thank your favourite authors - in writing - for their wonderful books. This month, every time you read a book you enjoy, write to the author and thank them. If that's too much, just pick your favourite author and write to them. Tell them what you specifically liked about their books. Post it care of their publisher or agent. It'll reach them.

I've made an absolute heap of images for you, as beautiful reminders for yourself and to share all over the place and encourage your friends to join in - scroll down for Facebook cover pics, Twitter headers, Instagram pics, and desktop wallpapers. All the versions come with and without the link to this page - Thank the Author is not about driving publicity to my site, it's about thanking the author! But I put the link option in, in case people want to read more details. Like why we should thank the authors and what we can say...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Virtual FantasyCon 2015: Faeries and the fae

Fae-Fi Folk-Fum: Faerie and Folktale: Faerie tales, myths & legends are part of the fabric of the British Isles; our folktalkes are full of strange places, creatures and practices. This panel examines how traditional tales are influencing contemporary fantasy, horror, and supernatural storytelling.

with Charlotte Bond, Victoria Leslie, Emma Newman, Mike Shevdon, and Alison Littlewood (mod)

Get occasional emails about interesting things

* indicates required

I won't share your email with anyone else. You'll get emails from me only, about upcoming courses, writing competitions, publishing opportunities, interesting articles about writing, new blog posts, and creative events in Oxford. All emails are sent via MailChimp and you can unsubscribe at any time. Add to your address book if you want to keep the emails from vanishing into spam.