Finding your voice as a writer.

Take a piece of paper and write down everything you think makes you who you are. Where you grew up, religious upbringing, schools, university, jobs, relationships, children, assets, debts, awards, credit cards, affiliations, subscriptions, your social media channels, your hair colour, your preferred stores, your body mass index....or don’t because what I would have asked you to do next is throw it all away. 

Relax. Forget about finding your voice! You talk don't you? Therefore you write. I write because I prefer the look of my words to the sound of my voice and I like the chance to make things better rather than making them worse.

So chill out. 

‘I tell it as if I'm talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.’ Michael Mopurgo said.

Good for him. Some of the stuff I'm writing might not be suitable. So I write to talk to someone worth talking to; a smart stranger and someone who won't stay around and make a nuisance of themselves. Someone who actually wants me to keep talking to them. (Thus an imaginary friend.)

'A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book,' As Hem said and the good news is that the more punishment you take in life, the more relaxed you become about saying things the way you want to say them. Remember your main character is the part of you want to unleash.

Who would you be if no one was watching? Who would you be minus your life experience and circumstances? Do you know? When bad things happen you find out.

I know that I am the dirty yet twinkling foul river that keeps finding its way, that is useful in that it has a buoyancy that conveys a few not too posh passengers, and has a current beneath it that's more important than the junk floating on top.

I know my humour is the one thing I cannot do without nor can I bury it alive. I have seen that even in the darkest days, perhaps more on the darkest days, I will still laugh like a witch. So this is who I am. As the cat seems to say when she flings a dead mouse into the living room; deal with it. It's too late to be good.

That filthy river is what remains when luck and success is gone. I imagine you may know something about that. If you don't here's your chance. When you get success, you'll miss that slow-moving residue that's essentially you and look for it again. Trust me it will still be there when everyone else has gone.

So I urge you as would Hemingway not to be a faker, but to be yourself. That will work because there’s only one of you and that’s quite enough. Thank you.


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A Compendium of Writing Tips

Your Reference Material - Writing Tips.

(Twelve months of writing advice from the award-winning Man Booker author Louise Dean and her creative writing course at




How our writers wrote their novels in 90 days, in their own words.

Creating Wonderment in Fiction

'It is wonder that infuses Narnia, the land where trees and animals talk and a mighty lion is always liable to irrupt when least expected.'


Colin Duriez and David Porter 'The Inklings'

The Inklings was a group of literary friends meeting in Oxford from 1933 to 1949 which included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien who wrote the world-famous bestselling classics of literary fantasy. It was their belief that we win truth by metaphor, using highly imaginative models such as their worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth.

The creation of a work of wonder, a classic, is far more important more than a matter of life and death.

Wonder or the feeling of wonderment goes beyond the spectacle, or carnival, the pageant or festival, beyond feasting and fêting, beyond human celebrations and the things we enjoy thanks to the suspension of normal routine.

It goes FAR beyond those. Don’t mistake it for misrule or mayhem. Don’t confuse it with surrealism, romantic love or engrossment.

'I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write - or burst.'

CS Lewis 1952, aged fifty-four.

To some this desire comes later than others. To me it has come now at forty-seven years old. I find adult books and matters of love, life and death, tawdry and childish. They sit perhaps on Bogart’s ‘hill of beans’.

 ‘Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.’

I could never have foreseen this happening to me. Perhaps it's that you run out of moral energy in one direction and fall through a hayloft into a new place. Maybe you have to have suffered. After all, more than one kind of God wants us on our knees to even begin a conversation.

That the creation of a feeling of wonder or wonderment in your work is hard should not put you off. I am only asking you to want to create it for now.

The creation of wonderment is all about striving and feeling, striving and feeling.

Sehnsucht or the joy of yearning for the infinite and the unattainable was, according to CS Lewis, the prime mover behind his work, and one of the forces behind the ambitions of the small Oxford-based group of writers and thinkers from 1933-1949 who called themselves The Inklings and whose members included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

Faith first? Faith before reason? The French singer, idealist and humanitarian, Balavoine, proposed we rekindle a taste for life and love by replacing need with desire. 

'Qu'est-ce qui pourrait sauver l'amour, Et comment retrouver le goût de la vie, Qui pourra remplacer le besoin par l'envie.'

If an adult work of fiction is a moral journey, singular but of broad application, the 'Classic' is altogether more avowedly universal and it requires reader and writer working together to replace our needs with desire, possibly our first foremost and final desire. The forgotten desire.

A masterpiece shows us our forgotten desire.

The Masterpiece and Our Forgotten Desire.

In Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God. The most beautiful and mystic passages appear when Dante looks into the face of God:

'all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa'

'at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe,' (Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).

Dante confesses that it's bloody hard to get that feeling of wonderment into words. As you will see in the course, other great writers have admitted how hard it is too, even in their prose, but that doesn't mean we're not going to give it a go. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that.

(And you thought it was going to be tough writing a classic, now I'm telling you we're looking at masterpieces!)

'In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.' CS Lewis.

The masterpiece classic - goes beyond good craft, good writing, good art. Its content goes beyond the matters of love, live and death. It shows us the face of God, you might say. It takes us into the realm of the ineffable and the divine, you might say. But if you are resistant to these concepts beyond the three dimensions of material, let’s just say there’s more to life and death than life and death and the great works help us burst through the doors of comprehension.

 ‘Over the course of history, there sometimes emerge works of art of such quality that they transcend boundaries of period and place.’

'What Makes a Masterpiece?' Christopher Dell.

We are removed from our bodied and boundaried experience when we experience a masterpiece. This is not ‘feet on the ground’ stuff. Forget Hemingway. This is the opposite of grounded reason.

This kind of writing work goes beyond craft skills. Yes, you need them. But your ambition is no longer worldly. Your primary objective is to return to find any early seeds of wonder, any recollections of that feeling and to transfer them now to a laboratory where you will grow them into monstrous, fantastic vision of wonderment.

 ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ 

 Pablo Picasso

 A masterpiece is the work of an artist who can transform a personal experience into a universal one. A masterpiece expands our consciousness. You know when you've encountered a masterpiece because it stays with you. It has a very profound meaning for you, and also millions of others. It has a universal appeal.

Once you get a handle on this, every song you hear, every work of art you see you will divide between good stuff (concerned with life and death matters) and great classic masterpieces (concerned with matters beyond matter, after death and before life.)

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep.

Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

It goes beyond visions of utopia too. It goes beyond anything worldly and into the sublime or the 'numinous'.

In 'Phaedo' ('On The Soul') Socrates tells us that there exists an ideal world above and beyond the world of matter.

‘In this other earth the colours are much purer and much more brilliant than they are down here... The very mountains, the very stones have a richer gloss, a lovelier transparency and intensity of hue. The precious stones of this lower world, our highly prized cornelians, jaspers, emeralds and all the rest, are but the tiny fragments of these stones above. In the other earth there is no stone but is precious and exceeds in beauty every gem of ours.’

The masterpiece and the classic work of fiction deliver a sense of wonder, a feeling of awakening or awe, triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible.

A sense of wonder has been considered one of the primary attributes of science fiction too, since the pulp era. The titles of the most popular Sci-Fi magazines of that period—Astounding, Amazing, Wonder Stories, Thrilling, Startling, etc.—clearly indicate that the cognitive value of the stories is more than counter-balanced by an affective power. There's a deep need for this kind of feeling in both children and adults, perhaps we need it even more so as we grow up.

John Clute and Peter Nicholls have associated the experience with that of the 'conceptual breakthrough' or 'paradigm shift'. (Clute & Nicholls 1993).

It's deemed breaking through the doors of comprehension, going beyond reason and science, or as William Blake put it, inspiring Aldous Huxley to try it out for himself, it's about going beyond 'the doors of perception.'

Damon Knight wrote about the ‘sense of wonder’ in sci fi in 1952 at the height of pulp. ‘All the great fantasies have been written by emotionally crippled men.’

Well, there’s a lot of them about, and you will see in the course how this applies to Hans Christian Anderson, JM Barrie,  JRR Tolkien. Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis too, whose works we will be examining.

Thinking about the boys who never grew up, I think of Michael Jackson and his Neverland ranch, and the desire above all else to dwell in wonderment and how this desire in itself manifests in the works of arts of the greats of music, art and song.

‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’  

Pablo Picasso

Never grow up, answers J.M. Barrie.

But it's not just that. A world of 'wonderment' must strive to go beyond redeemed experience - 'the vacation eyes' of childhood, a long way beyond, so that if it falls short we are still in the gutter but looking at the stars. It goes beyond surrealism, the bartering of ideas and concepts and playful rearrangement to assist sensory awareness, it goes out to the big beyond without hope of answer. It's the call, that's the point, and whether the answer is imagined or heard, it's crucial. That ain't panto. That ain't pretty pictures, that's hair-raising stuff.

It’s 'numinosity' that takes a work BEYOND the big matters of life and death to the GREAT possibility, beyond death, beyond the door of death.

Pack your bags.

I'm going to take you to 'the numinous' in the lessons of The Classic Course. I’m going to show you step by step how to create a numinous experience of wonderment in your work and I will show you exactly how  JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll,  JM Barrie and others did it. You're in for some surprises. Join us!

The 3 Features of a Bestseller

I’ve never paid attention to the features of my story which might make it more likely to be a bestseller.

But I’m all grown up now, so I thought I'd best take a closer look at the difference between the novels I've long admired and fiction's bestsellers of the last hundred years to understand what makes one book sell millions, and another thousands.

Not all of these three features need to be present in the one story, but of course 'layering' them up in the winter of our publishing discontent, might be smart.

1. The Extreme Situation



  • extreme locations or landscapes
  • extreme dilemmas
  • extreme danger, murder afoot

'Literary' fiction works the other way round, and deposits an extraordinary person in a normal or 'normalized' situation - think Orwellian or Kafkaesque dystopian nightmares. We have a whole range between classics and bestsellers best exemplified by The Bourne Identity on the one hand which has an extreme situation meet its match with an extraordinary person (bestseller) and John Le Carré's Smiley books or Graham Greene's books which are more literary by virtue of their hero-next-door, bespectacled, ordinary hero - in an extreme situation. There's a broad spectrum. The more 'super powered' or magical the hero, the more the story stacks up as a bestseller.

 2. Magic


A fairy tale of transformation or a story powered by the semi-divine, superhuman, magical qualities and attributes of a character.

3. 'Walk in My Shoes'

This is a way of telling. It eschews rhetorical grandstanding, innovative techniques, stylistic flourishes, and poetic symbolism in favour of the more prosaic 'walk in my shoes.' The style is the substance of experience. We see through the narrator or character's eyes, we touch what they touch, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep. From the outset of the book. We lose ourselves in the netherworld of another human life. It is the ultimate vacation or voluntary absence, a guided dreaming.

 But let me show you what I mean.


This week I’ve been reading 'The Snow Child' which combines the features above.

Eowyn Ivey's debut novel was published in twenty-six languages, and became an international bestseller. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 2013, and Eowyn won the International Author of the Year category at the 2012 National Book Awards. 

I rarely read bestsellers so I picked this up, wary of being pulled by my hair through jammy clichés. Not at all. The first chapter is extremely carefully considered and I sat back to think what was working so well. It was 1. The extreme Alaskan landscape 2. The Fairy Tale quality of the story 3. The immersive 'walk in my shoes' technique.

As if to make it very clear how to write this way, Eowyn Ivey dwells on the matter of feet in shoes a number of times.  The terse man of few words 'Jack' is more often than not reaching for his boots. Regularly we feel with Jack and Mabel the snow beneath their boots or their feet cold within their boots. If intimate or revelatory exchanges occur, we are given to understand that Jack is in socked feet. When the source of sadness is revealed, as it pertains to Jack, we are told that;

'He put one foot in front of the other and walked without seeing or feeling.'

The novel's first chapters move with the slow dignity of the Alaskan winter, but we are either in Jack or Mabel's shoes the entire time. 'Descriptions of natural life come over bright and clear.' (The Independent.) And with the 360 degree experience of being present.

Eowyn Ivey was inspired to write this  her first novel, The Snow Child, after she chanced upon a version of a classic Russian fairy-tale in the bookshop where she worked. Please note now that, Ivey, who was raised in Alaska, was named after a character from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings by her mother.

(See the all time bestsellers list below to explain the 'magic' inference of this blessing.) 

‘I was shelving books at the store one winter evening and I came across this little inexpensive children's paperback. It was illustrated very simply with just a couple of sentences on each page. As I read it I got this tingly sensation that I had found the story I had been looking for. I felt a sense of fate or destiny. I'd always wanted to tell a magical story set in Alaska, but I hadn't found the way to get it. I'd been working on a different novel for almost five years, so I set it aside and started writing The Snow Child.’ (Eowyn Ivey)

Ivey chose 'Little Daughter of the Snow', a folk-tale first translated from the Russian by Arthur Ransome, as her springboard. Relocated to Alaska in the 1920s, her story starts with Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged farming couple only just making it in weather where giving up the will to live at times seems like a sensible option. They have an awkward but loving relationship yet miss the children they never had.

The Faina, a beautiful feral child, shyly enters their lives. Mabel believes that she is the embodiment of a snow child the couple had made previously in a rare moment of leisure and levity. Jack knows that Faina's drunken father has just died and that she had lost her mother when she was a baby. The final truth about her stays a mystery.

One of the suggestively transformative or magic occurrences of the novel is when the neighbour Esther gives Mabel sourdough starter for her baking, and this is what I'd like to offer you as a writer. Until the middle ages, sourdough starter was an essential part of breadmaking. If you wanted your dough to rise, this culture of flour, water and wild yeasts was what did the lifting. As a living ingredient, starter needs to be looked after – even fed occasionally. The bread it produces has more flavour, lasts longer and is easier to digest.

Your Christmas Gift from Kritikme

 Consider using a fairy tale as your story starter. If Tolstoy and Dickens shamelessly plundered the genre, then many have followed in their glass-slippered footsteps, and you'll probably want to begin with a look at the genre broken down into the key types of tale by the wonderful Maria Tatar.

The Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar looks at the re-telling of famous tales by authors such as Perrault, Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, James Thurber, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter and Roald Dahl.

You should not miss Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber. Though the lusty and fabulous gore of her short stories cannot be sustained over the course of a novel, it will prove inspiring. The title story is a re-telling of the horror story cum fairy tale that is Bluebeard, which it now occurs to me runs as a slight undercurrent in my forthcoming novel.

This anthology for budding feminists, Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, might well get your dough rising. Carter has taken fairy tales from across the globe including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Arctic, Scandinavia and the Caribbean. Several of the stories are written in a local dialect. The main characters in each chapter are usually female and find themselves in situations good, bad and ugly... 



The 10 Bestsellers of the last 100 years.

You will note that some books use all three of the features above, and some a combination. Where a single factor is used, the sales ranking is boosted either by 'zeitgeist' being of the moment, or belonging to a rising cohort or speaking for a readership demographic, or by that old-fashioned quality - great writing.

1. The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkein 150 million +

 Continuing the story begun in The Hobbit, Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power – the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth. All he lacks in his plans for dominion is the One Ring – the ring that rules them all – which has fallen into the hands of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as the Ring is entrusted to his care. He must leave his home and make a perilous journey across the realms of Middle-earth to the Crack of Doom, deep inside the territories of the Dark Lord. There he must destroy the Ring forever and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.

2 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - 150 million +

The Alchemist was published in 1988, and it is about Santiago, a young Spanish boy who has a dream that urges him to go to Egypt. Before he sets out, he learns about the Personal Legend, which is something that someone always wanted to do with their life. If someone decides to follow their own Personal Legend, then the universe will try to help them. And the universe is a very powerful ally. If the universe will bend to help a person on their Personal Legend, then it’s possible to do the impossible, like alchemy, the process of turning lead into gold.

3 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 140+ Million

The Little Prince looks like a children’s book, but it actually has a lot of keen observations and insights regarding human nature and relationships. The book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert and meets a young boy with curly blond hair. The boy tells the pilot that he’s a prince that fell from a small planet called Asteroid 325, however on Earth we call it Asteroid B-612. The Prince left his home after he fell in love with a rose and he caught her in a lie, so he is traveling across the universe to cure his loneliness.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - JK Rowling 107million +

Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (The other books in the series also feature in the top bestsellers of all time - hats off to JK - but I thought it would be tedious to list them here.)

5. The Hobbit JRR Tolkein 100 million +

The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit, who embarks on a strange and magical adventure. See the video above for Tolkein's account of it's humble beginnings.

Bilbo Baggins enjoys a quiet and contented life, with no desire to travel far from the comforts of home; then one day the wizard Gandalf and a band of dwarves arrive unexpectedly and enlist his services – as a burglar – on a dangerous expedition to raid the treasure-hoard of Smaug the dragon. Bilbo’s life is never to be the same again.

6. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie 100 m +

A group of people are lured into coming to an island under different pretexts, e.g., offers of employment, to enjoy a late summer holiday, or to meet old friends. All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are charged with their respective crimes by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible. 

7. Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James 100m+

The first instalment in the Fifty Shades trilogy traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes.The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fan fiction series. 'The story is less a booster for bondage than a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of her saga, when all the whips have been sheathed and the harnesses have been unstrung, Anastasia Steele has tamed and wedded her beast, given birth to one of his children, and conceived another.' (New Republic.)

8. The Lion, The With and The Wardobe - C.S. Lewis 85 million +

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe takes place in 1940 and tells the tale of four English siblings who are sent to the English countryside because of the Blitz. While there, they discover a magical wardrobe that is a gateway to another world, Narnia, which is full of talking animals and magical creatures. When the children arrive, the world is in perpetual winter because the White Witch has cast a spell to keep Narnia frozen. To help their friends in Narnia, the children must work together to defeat the White Witch and break her spell.

9. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown 80 Million +

A murder in the halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ. The victim is a high-ranking agent of this ancient society who, in the moments before his death, manages to leave gruesome clues at the scene that only his granddaughter, noted cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and Robert Langdon, a famed symbologist, can untangle. 

 10. The Catcher in the Rye. JD Salinger 65 million +

The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. Holden Caulfield's voice is distinctive, the writing is great, and for three days the reader walks in his shoes. 

 Out of interest....

C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were in a writing group called The Inklings. While both writers were working on fantasy novels—Lewis on Narnia and Tolkien on The Lord of the Rings—they met every Monday morning to talk about writing. Others started to join them, and soon the group swelled to 19 men, so they started meeting on Thursday evenings to share and discuss their work.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe' is based on Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Snow Queen.'

Tolkien didn’t like 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe''.

Some say it’s because Tolkien didn’t like how Lewis mixed different mythologies together. Another theory is that Tolkien was threatened by the speed with which Lewis assembled his world, when Tolkien was so meticulous in his invention of Middle-earth.

Tolkien said in a letter: "It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S. Lewis's work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.”

Come and find out how to write a bestselling classic with the new How To Write A Classic course at


Use Short Sentences

Creating Impact.

I ran three versions of a first page past the writers at Kritikme. One of the writers pointed out the version she liked best had a 'pile up' of images. I thought this was a very good turn of phrase for the best way to create impact fast, failing a knack for perverse metaphorical genius.

We can't always be poetic. We cannot always find a new way of saying things. But if we offer visual images in short sentences, we can create an effect on our readers that is an assault on their senses. Think Bob Dylan.

One short sentence hard on the heels of the last is a highly engaging way to write. It forces the reader into a world that is unfolding with immediacy, speed, possibly danger. Wham. Slam. Bang. Things are happening fast as in an emergency. The story is unfolding. The reader is alert.

If you listen to the words of the song by Squeeze 'Goodbye Girl' in the video above (press play in the photo above) you can see how using even quite ordinary short phrases, an effect accumulates rapidly. We are drawn into time and place by paying attention.

Word Count for Sentences

 In The Ninety Day Novel course, we look at the way in which John Coetzee's career as a programmer for IBM dovetailed with his passion for poetry to produce an elegant, logical prose style. One sentence flows, of necessity, from another. This is 1+1=2 and no other. It's where Pythagoras meets Plato. It's the arithmetic in art.

Poetry is a kind of algebra where one thing does not of necessity flow onto another. But the smell of wet earth.

See what I mean? Poetry is sleight of hand. That's not what we're doing in a novel. We've got pages that need turning.

The reason a novel needs arithmetic is because the logic and reasoning a story must add up. Truth or untruth has nothing do do with it. It must, as a publishing editor once told me 'ring true'.  A reader does the sums with you. Of course, you have already done the rough workings. That's your first draft. When your novel is ready to go out the door, you remove the workings and show the sum in its pure logic and beauty. At the end of your writing, when a novel is ready to go as mine was last week, you're only asking one question 'Is there anything wrong here?' Does anything not add up.

If short sentences create an imagery pile up, apprehension, involvement and excitement, they also help the reader keep track of logic. It's simple and more seductive. 

The most virtuous novel of the last 25 years is, to my mind, the Man Booker-winning Disgrace by JM Coetzee. I teach from it in The Novel in Ninety. There is nothing wrong with it. If you consider the first sentence and the last sentence - I won't spoil it for you - you will see a perfect progression. The moral journey wrought in numbers. The average sentence in its first chapter is 12.87 words long.

The novel was programmed.

The most economical short story writer of all time is probably Raymond Carver. With his precise, punchy prose, he conveys in a few words what many novelists take several pages to elucidate. In stories such as 'Fat' and 'Are You a Doctor?' he writes with flat understatement about suburban disenchantment in mid-century America.

I'd like to share with you the two things that made his short stories works of art.

  1. At the end of every short story- as in the first chapter of a novel - EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED.

  2. Carver's genius was to incorporate here what happens in the last chapter of a novel which is the narrator is facing life after him or her - THE ANNIHILATION OF SELF. (See my blog piece on this: Beyond You.)

These themes can be served, should be served, in staccato sentences for great power. 

Plain Speaking.

'Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech.'                        2 Corinthians 3:12

'The Story of English' (Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil) crowns the King James Bible as, 'probably the single most influential book ever published in the English language.'

The King James version, on a par with the plays of Shakespeare, is far less wordy than you might imagine. In total only 8000 different words are used and the average verse is just 22 words long, but the conjunctive 'and' is used rather than full stop or period meaning that in modern terms the equivalent sentence length is about 11 words.

From the first chapter of John, we have a great economy:

1.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The shortest verse in The Bible is John 11:35

'Jesus wept.'

It's extremely efficient. It's especially efficient as we might say - it sums up the message of the New Testament!

Make it shorter.

'Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.' Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut employs a choral technique from the songbook of modern music too, with repetition of an almost biblical phrase 'So it goes' throughout Slaughterhouse-5.

When Kurt Vonnegut uses that sentence again and again throughout Slaughterhouse Five, setting it against the backdrop of one of the worst tragedies of WWII — the firebombing of Dresden — the fatalistic attitude of that short sentence provides a hard contrast to the horrific details of Dresden.

Let me take you away from all of this.

Work even in your first draft on making your sentences shorter and you will work harder and tighter and produce greater impact. You don't need to reach for that elusive metaphor....'The sky was like...'. Everyone knows what the sky can be like. So 'The sky was orange' will do. Follow the sentence - as if using your headlights - with how things sound, or small. 'The earth smelt of dung.' Layer up your images. As one of my writers said, create a 'pile up.' 

You don't need to be clever, you need to proceed in an orderly fashion with a touch of impatience. It's all been said before but nobody has lived this moment until you set it down on the page.

Try a 'training frame' and as you write longhand onto your notebook set a pattern of say 11 words per sentence.

Members of Kritikme and my writers on The Novel in Ninety plan will find a more complete analysis of the first chapters of Ernest Hemingway, JK Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut, Frederik Backman, Raymond Carver and my own book Becoming Strangers at The Members Lodge in The Novelists Drawing Room. You will find there a free tool to calculate your own sentence length too. 

It's a lot easier than you may think to write a great novel. Make it easier still. Keep those sentences short and sweet. 


Start writing your novel today.

See this picture?

The little lodge in the middle of nowhere, with a raging fire and food and drink and you inside all toasty warm looking rather charismatic putting down thousands of words of pure poetry onto a page. That ain't going to happen.

Never. No way. Not even one day. That 'golden time' to write your novel? It's not coming for you. Nope. Sorry.

So you're going to have to buck your ideas up a bit. Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today! If I sound a little 1940's, well I am thinking that today's novelist needs to be like the wartime housewife.

This is more like it.

Think of writing your novel as if it's war time.

I've got a recipe for you from the Ministry of Novels. (One day, your 'designer writer lifestyle' might come but when it does, you’ll still be using this chicory-stained tried and tested recipe from our scrap book.)

1. Dig for victory. Go scrump and scrounge. 

Go get some free ingredients for your novel, bring home some rubbish. When you describe where someone lives and you want to show they're not 'toffs' don’t tell me the crisp packet was blowing up the street; it's always blowing up the goddam street. Tell me there's a sheepskin coat over a refrigerator outside the front door. Get off your backside today and go outside and note the things that are the real rubbish out there and use them. They're free. These ingredients will make an excellent dressing for your descriptive passage main courses.

2. Mock Hero Soup - based on a famous writer's recipe.

Read writers you admire, but don’t take notes. Make a glutton of yourself on their books but don't get yourself in a trot trying to follow their workings. You can’t write like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Stephen King or Donna Tartt. But you can write like you. Take the big picture from them - the things I show you at Kritikme - the way characters have real lives, messy lives and don’t behave nicely or to plan. That sort of thing. But don’t nab their sentence structure or compound clauses - in other words the things that are there because they have evolved that way for them. Just swallow it whole and let it sink in. Take with Andrews Salts. Digest, and relax. 

How to nail your style? Well, think of a couple of writers or books you adore. Describe the writing style of each. Which parts do you think you share? I know that I like a jovial fatalism with occasional sentimental asides and caustic cheap-arsed remarks (Vonnegut, Coetzee and me, all me). Nail your schtick. Write it down. Take two, add you, make one.

 3. Sentence Stew - let's taste every ingredient please.

Check every descriptive, declarative statement you write against these:

  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it accurate and true?
  • Is it scintillating?
  • Has it never been said this way before?

Now go cook that novel in your air-raid proof hovel.

Have fun, make a mess, fail lots, and keep schtum about your work in progress!

For more advice like this head to 

Choosing the tense and point of view for your novel

My writers often ask about first or third person, past or present tense and all the wonderful variations of those.

One of my favourite books of all time, and Mr Graham Greene's too, is Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier.'

The clue is most certainly in the title. 'The Good Soldier' is meant as in 'the good sort' or 'the good egg'. It's sly.

Ford Madox Ford writes as 'I' with what turns out to be knowing 'melancholy' about an event in the recent past, and the self-pity is pure cyanide.... it could not have been written in present tense, because he is an unreliable narrator.

He begins the book with formidable élan, unreliably, apparently with heartfelt poignancy. "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

As Julian Barnes put it 'What could be more simple and declaratory, a statement of such high plangency and enormous claim that the reader assumes it must be not just an impression, or even a powerful opinion, but a "fact"? Yet it is one of the most misleading first sentences in all fiction. This isn't - it cannot be - apparent at first reading, though if you were to go back and reread that line after finishing the first chapter, you would instantly see the falsity, instantly feel the floorboard creak beneath your foot on that "heard". The narrator, an American called Dowell (he forgets to tell us his Christian name until nearly the end of the novel) has not "heard" the story at all. It's a story in which he has actively - and passively - participated, been in up to his ears, eyes, neck, heart and guts. We're the ones "hearing" it; he's the one telling it, despite this initial, hopeless attempt to deflect attention from his own presence and complicity. And if the second verb of the first sentence cannot be trusted, we must be prepared to treat every sentence with the same care and suspicion. We must prowl soft-footed through this text, alive for every board's moan and plaint.'

In the Ninety Day Novel course at, I ask my writers from the outset of planning their novel to begin by considering the magic trick they are about to perform, to make a pledge to the reader from the opening gambit and to be seen to 'deliver' upon it. But magic is sleight of hand. It's sly, and it beggars belief, because we are being made to look in the wrong place. 

'My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.'

The reasoned tone of voice gains our trust within the first paragraph of the novel, but it turns out they knew a lot about Captain and Mrs Ashburnham and more than was fair.

If your narrator is unreliable in the telling of his or her tale, past tense is right.

If he or she is leading us 'live' down a garden path, possibly unwittingly as a bit of a dope, proceeding one might hope for a novel is a moral journey if not a literal one towards an awakening, then present is right.

In my work in progress, the narrator goes between present and past, in the former where she is becoming aware of herself and is a bit of a dope (!) and in the second, where she is telling a yarn to someone else which may or may not have happened as she describes it. 

Enjoy not only the magic of your novel, but the music.

"Music heard so deeply

That is not heard at all,

but you are

The music

While the music lasts."

T.S Eliot.