Write with Phil | Productivity and time management for writers
Phil Hurst (1985 – ) is a British author from Birmingham, now based in Colchester. He had lived in a number of locations around the UK, including Belfast, Torquay and the Isle of Wight. He has a masters in Creative Writing from Queens University Belfast (2011). I’ve been enjoying writing for 15 years. I’ve written everything and met all sorts of writers.
This month I’m trialing a new format for blog posts. Inspired by podcasts (notably the Dead Robot’s Society) I’m going to start with a little update on my writing and then dive into more depth on a writing topic I’ve been thinking about. This month I explain why my writing is taking a back seat, and discuss introducing characters.
April 2019 update
From the end of March and all through April, my life is a totally different beast. My wife and I welcomed our first child at the end of March, and the month became a blur of nappy changes, sleep deprivation and housework. The impact on my writing is total – I haven’t been able to get anything done. This post represents the first time I’ve felt that I can write something that won’t become a garbled mess of words. The bab is sleeping, my wife is taking a well earned nap, and the house is filled with a relaxing playlist.
And you know? I wouldn’t change it for the world.
The meal planner has a new column. Somewhat lacking in diversity at the moment
So I have no stories to share this month, I have no competitions entered and I have no news on my creative writing. I hope to remedy in May, but new babies have a tendency to take plans and vomit all over them, so it’s a bit of lottery.
However, something has happened. Due to miraculous nature of Amazon pre-orders, my first non-fiction book, Writing Advice, is now available for purchase on Kindle. I’ve once again limited this book to an Amazon release, if only to take advantage of Kindle Unlimited.
You can buy the book here. Please do, and write nice reviews. You may see advertisements on Amazon for it as well as I try something new.
How should I introduce characters?
Having a bab (Birmingham/English definition below) in the house limits my writing opportunities as it’s difficult to write when one hand is rocking a Moses basket, holding a baby or folding tiny tiny clothes. I didn’t want to lose my connection to creative writing though, so I have made a conscious effort this month to try and intelligently consume TV when I watch it.
This leads to a question that, while I’ve thought about it in the past, In my writing, how are characters introduced? And how can I bring that into my own writing?
When watching TV counts as research (kinda)
Intelligent consumption of TV and books adds another level to how I take in stories. Rather than just watching the show or reading the book, I ask questions throughout. Why did the writer make this decision? Why is this happening now? It’s a little like research, only less formal.
The quality of the story makes this easier or more difficult. If I am really enjoying something, I find it more difficult to take the step back required to analyse it. If this happens, it’s probably something worth looking at again, and a rewatch is in my future.
With bad TV, or bad books, taking it apart as I watch it is much easier. In fact, it adds to the fun. Being able to identify clumsy plot holes and terrible character decisions can help me avoid similar mistakes in my own writing.
Thoughts on introducing characters
As I watch and read this enormous amount of content, I’ve tried to focus on how the writer introduces characters to the audience, Whether it is a cop show, a comic-book adaptation or a fantasy book, the introduction is key to setting the audience’s expectations of the character.
The speed of the character introduction
Have a watch of the first five minutes of GoldenEye.
GoldenEye Opening Scene - YouTube
When I watched this I noticed how long the writer took to introduce the character. Although it’s a bit of a trope of James Bond movies to do this, especially when a new actor is playing the super spy, this is used in a lot of movies and books when a writer wants to build up a bit of anticipation for a character. By building up a character as a sum of their parts, the audience can build their own picture of who the character is.
Other introductions are quick and brash. Take Tucco’s introduction from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Intro Scene - Tuco Escapes - YouTube
I’ll admit, it takes a while to get there due to some great misdirection from director Sergio Leonne. But the audience see everything they see need to in the first few seconds of the character’s appearance (helpfully frozen as the caption appears).
Show, don’t tell
Even though “show don’t tell” is good advice in general when writing, it’s key when introducing a character. Too much exposition from the writer can bore the reader.
If I can show bad guys something bad and good guys doing something good, I’ll highlight the alignment of the character with the audience straight away. The action has to be relevant though – there’s not point showing someone doing a charity fun run if the continuing story is about drug running in Sudan.
Think about the picture above. If this was the opening scene of a story, what would the action about tell the readers? Yes, it’s a kind act tying the little footballer’s shoelaces, but, the game is continuing in the background. Shouldn’t the referee be focused on the game? Isn’t that a bit irresponsible? Or is there another referee helping with the game, who the first trusts to look after the children?
That’s a lot to take from one picture, I know, but every now and then I like to look at images to start myself thinking creatively.
In terms of characters, the exercise above helps me think about the first ‘image’ of the character. Are they surrounded by fog, stepping in the murder scene? Or are they soaring above clear sky like an avenging angel?
It’s important to think about the number of these introductions, and what level of character I want to use them. Minor characters do not really need a significant, strong introduction. The police officer who holds the crowds back doesn’t really need to enter on a horse. I don’t want the writing to feel forced.
The tone of the story
Character introductions should never be just about the character. Even if I create a different character (like the antagonist police detective in a heist story) I don’t want their introduction to be totally different to the rest of the story. It’s easy to think that by being totally different in an introduction I’m being edgy and highlighting the difference.
I will avenge my son/climb that mountain/destroy that bridge. What makes this image striking? How does the add to the overall tone of the story? Image from Unsplash.
Instead, I think I’m confusing the readers and taking away from the overall tones and themes of the story. Even if the character is completely different to the rest of the cast, I need to make sure that he or she is introduced in a setting that adds to the overall tone of the story and fits in with everything that’s going to happen.
Know the character to introduce them better
I recently started thinking about my next story, and the characters within it. By thinking about how I’m going to introduce them to the audience I’m able to define not just the characters, but also the world around them. Do I want fast paced, quick introductions? Or do I want the story to take it’s time a little more, allowing me to slowly introduce characters?
What this post has helped me do is think about how important knowing the character is before I start writing. I need to know what I want that character to go through, what I want them to achieve before I start writing their introduction. Not only will that help me with the tone of the story, but it will also let me know how I want to introduce them, and how they will stand out to the reader/watcher.
Send me an email or message with one item or place you want the story to include.
And I’ll send my response to you as soon as possible. Depending on the numbers of books I sell depends on how quickly I’ll get the story to you. The more books I sell the longer it will take. But, for the first few, you can expect a pretty quick turnaround.
About Writing Advice (the blurb)
This book is for writers struggling with productivity, lacking motivation or confused and distracted by those around them. I was fed up of ‘write more’ being given as the best writing advice. That doesn’t really help! So I started my own book. Offering tips and ideas to improve your writing practice, each chapter solves a problem I came across when writing my novels and plays. Although I’ve taken my blog (available at writewithphil.com) as inspiration, I re-worked each of the chapters to make it worth your money, and to create a fresh look at the craft of writing.
Why call it Writing
I’m also aware that
there are thousands of writing books around. I had a lot of titles scribbled
down for this book, but instead I went with something plain and simple.
Something that people would just search for, and would point towards my book.
It’s not imaginative, but by calling it Writing Advice I’m hoping that new
people will find it and try it out. Then they’ll come and join the gang at WWP.
A long road
This is my first
non-fiction book. While it started as a quick job to get the blog into a book
form, it became something quite different. I had 12 month’s of posts to dig
through – over 60 blog posts – and chopping them down into a 20,000ish word
book took a lot of perseverance. There were posts that I loved, but couldn’t
fit in with the tone of the book. There were posts I realised I hated, and
considered taking them down from the blog altogether.
There was also work
to be done on the text itself. Many of my posts were directed at the reader.
There were a lot of ‘you’ and ‘you should.’ This was the way I put the blog
together in 2018, and you can see some examples of that here. For the book I
wanted to change the tone, to make it more friendly for readers who aren’t on
my mailing list, and don’t know me or my writing.
On the 9th March, I found myself in Chelmsford, speaking at Essex Authors and You. I’d volunteered to lead a session way back in January, after visiting last year and being inspired by the speakers and the discussions. So this year I asked if I could speak about “World Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy.”
I am writing up my notes from the talk over the next couple of weeks, but in this post I’m sharing my initial thoughts about the day, and what I learnt. I was lucky enough to have an official photographer (also known as a bored wife) so I’ve managed to get some pictures of the day throughout the post.
Saturday was the
first time that I’ve given any thought to the term speculative fiction.
After the talk, one of the attendees asked me if I’d heard about speculative fiction. According to the ethically debatable ‘gradesaver’ website, Robert A Heinlein coined the term back in the 1940s, as a way to avoid using the term science fiction. More recently, Margaret Attwood ‘provoked the ire of science fiction fans’ (Wired website) by using it to describe her books.
I’m not going to get into a debate on whether speculative fiction is a substitute for science fiction, or whether it can be used to describe fantasy books. That’s a debate for another time. However, debate it I will, as I might use it to describe my latest (as yet unfinished) book. Science fiction has certain connotations that goes along with it, as does fantasy. Would speculative fiction open my work out to a wider audience?
Or speculative fiction
If nothing else, as the attendee pointed out, saying that would be a lot quicker than ‘science fiction and fantasy’, if I ever redo the talk.
At the start of my talk, I was really honest with the audience. I set the scene by explaining this website, and I talking to them about The Unjudged. However, I also mentioned that The Unjudged had been 12 years in the making, and that I was currently struggling with the latest draft of my latest book. I might have imagined it, but showing that vulnerability seemed to release the tension in the room.
Speaking at the ‘writer slam’
After the talk, I noticed some other speakers at the day who, while they spoke very well, felt rehearsed. Listening to them had the feeling of watching an interview with a celebrity who has told the same ‘funny story’ a dozen times to a dozen different journalists.
Following my experience presenting to listeners and listening to presenters, I will make sure that I’m as genuine as possible in any further situations. I don’t want to ever run through the motions when I’m talking to other writers, I want to make everyone in the room get as much from it as possible – and being honest is the best way to achieve this.
I’ve even looked at the latest draft of my writing advice book and changed a few of the chapters to make them a bit more personal. It’s just more friendly!
There are writers out there
The best bit of the day? I got to talk about writing, with writers. In the real world. It was great. I made me realise that, while there are great resources available online (like my blogs for authors) and there are thousands of social media pages that have some great discussions on, nothing beats just talking about writing.
Final prep on the train
I haven’t been to Colchester Write Night for a long time, because (and this sounds pretentious) I’m too busy. I remember really enjoying the time I spent there, and attending the author day made me remember why I enjoyed it so much. It wasn’t the fact that it helped me start The Unjudged, or the short stories I would write there. It was because it was just fun to talk about writing. I must resolve to do that more often, not online in discussions that can be interpreted incorrectly and end up in shouting matches. I’m not even sure how you have shouting matches in online forums. Once you’ve gone CAPITAL, what’s next?
I should make the effort to attend more of these events. If anyone based in Essex knows of any that are going on, please let me know via or in the comments. I’m likely to be busy over the next couple of months with family stuff, but I’d love the opportunity to attend some in the near future.
I’m used to
eating breakfast alone, a bowl of cereal propped on my knees as I half-listen
to the BBC news. A cup of instant coffee within reach of my left hand, a glass
of orange juice close to my right. Every morning, the same routine, the same
bowl, the same spoon. The same cat stood by the back door (I really should get
a cat door installed) waiting to be let out when I’m finished. Everything in
its place, everything perfect.
perfect today, nothing controlled. Today I’m in Suffolk. About to climb a
mountain that doesn’t exist.
The maître-de, a
forty-something woman with short black hair, stops me as I enter the dining
room. She raises an eyebrow, expecting a name.
“Grace Kelly.” I
say, instantly regretting using my full name. She traces a forefinger (with
immaculate nails) down the list of guests on an expensive looking clipboard.
“Room 402. I think the room was booked under Bronte.”
She nods, taps
twice on the paper, and points to a table in the far corner of the room, hidden
beneath a beautiful painting of a beautiful woman long dead. Hunched over, chin
resting on intertwined fingers, her lips moving in a silent conversation with
herself, is the person who once hated me more than anyone else in this world,
“Your friend has
already ordered her breakfast.” I can’t stop looking at Siobhan. She hadn’t
arrived when I did last night, and I locked myself in my room. I didn’t want to
talk about what I did. About who I did it with.
I wonder what she
sees when he looks at me. I’m thirty-three, looking ten years older, wearing
grey jogging bottoms and a baggy sweatshirt adorned with a sports team I don’t
know anything about rescued from a charity shop. Walking to the hotel’s
restaurant I’d been aware of the noise my blue flipflops were making, but I
hadn’t thought about how they looked.
Even my toenails
I pause for a
second, wondering if I should ask for another table. Would dining alone offend
Siobhan? After all, until last week we hadn’t seen each other for twelve years.
I look forward
to Saturdays. In the summer, without exception, I head to The Big Essex Car
Boot, just outside Colchester. There’s something about the bustle of the place,
the sound of people haggling over pennies for junk that they don’t really need,
the smells of the burger van grilling sausages, bacon and burgers.
I have a stand. I
sell curried chicken wings, made using a marinade that I describe as top
secret, but in fact I took from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. I bring out a George
Forman grill with the branding scratched off and heat them through, charging three
pounds for five. Cheaper than Asda.
Last week I was
grilling away, a couple of people in the queue and a family waiting for their
wings, when I saw her, floating near a van selling knock-off workout DVDs. I
rubbed my eyes, forgetting for a second I was wearing my blue latex gloves, and
felt the burn of the chilli I added to the marinade.
By the time I’d
torn my gloves off, washed my eyes, and handed the family their wings, she
wasn’t there anymore. I took two more orders and tossed the wings onto the
grill, convinced I was going mad. Had I seen her before I rubbed my eyes, or
after? She’d looked different. Different hair colour, different clothes. Maybe
I’d not seen her. Maybe I’d seen a ghost.
It had been
twelve years. She’d forgiven Him, not me, moved to Japan, taking Him (or
rather, to give him his full title, Cheating, Lying, Thieving Him) with her. Why
would she be in north Essex, at a car boot sale, dressed like a goth, checking
The line moved
as I handed a customer a portion of wings. In front of me, a sad smile on her
face and an A4 piece of paper in her hand, was Siobhan Bronte.
good.” Siobhan says as I pull the chair opposite her away from the table. She
doesn’t move anything but her eyes. Her black hair is pinned away from her face
with bright pink hairclips, the only colour I can see her wearing. Everything else
is black. It’s a touch melodramatic, but who am I to say anything? Both of my
parents are alive and well, sitting on a beach outside their timeshare in
drinking caffeine,” I reply. Why did I lie?
pregnant?” she mutters. No chance of that.
I say, “I just
don’t like caffeine.”
you’re not pregnant.” I ponder the meaning behind her statement as Siobhan sits
up, cracks her neck, and raises her hand. Across the front of her hoody a
necklace falls. It holds a small silver cross, and I realise that I don’t know
if she’s wearing it due to a resurgence of her faith, or because she thought it
looked nice in Debenhams.
A waiter, an
eager young girl with long blonde hair pulled back into a long ponytail,
appears at the table and asks for my order. I ask for a full English breakfast.
She notes it down, reassures Siobhan that her food won’t be much longer and
skips away. I watch her go, envious of her youth.
“She looks like
you,” Siobhan says. I cough. It’s all I can do to stop laughing. Her tone
implies an insult – but whether it is aimed at me or the waitress I’m not sure.
Siobhan tucks the necklace away, and with it my chance to ask about it. “You
know, when you had blonde hair.”
I tilt my head
back, taking in the wooden beams across the ceiling. My hair is still blonde,
but I no longer have the money to colour it like I did when she knew me. The
brightness, the platinum, has long since faded. I look back at her, and she
avoids my gaze. “Remember when I dyed it pink?” I ask.
Siobhan nods to
the memory, hiding a grin she doesn’t want me to see. She must remember helping
me dye my hair in a cramped toilet, watching the pink dye streaking down my
face, my white jeans stained pink and red – and the pair of us sharing
embarrassed giggles for the rest of a train journey to Manchester.
We drop into silence again. I wonder what new memories she made in Japan, what friends she made over there, and whether she’s still with Him. Can I ask? Can we catch up like nothing happened, like our friendship didn’t end?
From behind the
George Forman I stared at her. I didn’t know what to say. Siobhan Bronte. I was
her best friend, her worst enemy, her Judas. She was in front of me again,
barely looking a day older than when we last saw each other. What did she want?
Why would she come back after all these years?
“We need to
talk.” she said. Behind her two more people joined the queue. Closing the stall
would mean losing money.
I pointed to the
queue. “I have customers.”
Siobhan held the
piece of paper out. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I could see the large font
at the top of the page. The last will and testament of Niamh Bronte. Siobhan’s
mum. The woman who was the life and soul of any room. The woman who helped me
when my own mother was too busy. The woman who took me to the clinic after the
incident with Archie Notley. Dead.
“Oh God,” I
stuttered, a lump in my throat. “Siobhan, I’m so sorry.”
She shrugged. “We
need to talk.”
eggs benedict the waitress adds a fresh cafetière to the table arrangement. She
doesn’t take Siobhan’s away – this was ordered in advance for me. For a moment
I’m mesmerised by the steam escaping around the top, and the smell of the
roast. It smells great, better than the instant I’m used to at home.
My old friend
doesn’t stand on ceremony. She dives into her breakfast, grace with the speed
of a starving barbarian. I lean back in my chair, impressed. The years of using
chopsticks appear to have given her a level of dexterity that I could never
achieve. I could have done with that dexterity on the train to Manchester.
With a gulp of
coffee, she finishes her meal.
“Thank you for
coming,” she says, tapping the top of her hair to ensure it is still in place.
As she does, I notice tiny roots at where it is parted in the centre. Her
natural red hair, a source of jealousy, hidden away under black dye. I wonder
what made her do it, I wonder if it was Him. I wonder if it was a new boyfriend,
a Japanese boyfriend.
The waitress arrives
with my food. It’s a full Suffolk breakfast, apparently. The menu gives clues as
to the difference between this and a standard fry-up – this has local pork,
eggs and bread. No mention of the tomato sauce, which sits in a reassuringly
familiar bottle. I pick it up and remove the lid, shaking it for good measure.
A blob of sauce
falls out, missing my plate entirely and landing on the white tablecloth.
“I’m here for
your Mum,” I say, trying to clean the mess with the white napkin on the table.
I fail, instead smearing it across everything. Siobhan looks less than
impressed. This is why I stay in, this is why I like my cereal at home with my awful
coffee. I can’t do social situations. I can’t –
“I’ll meet you at the front door in fifteen minutes.” It’s an order, not a
request. There is no room for negotiation. I nod, silently, feeling like I’m
sixteen again and she’s telling me to go upstairs with Archie Notley. I feel my
shoulders tighten. This isn’t Archie Notely. She walks away from me and I tell
myself I’m a grown woman, with a house and and a love of curried chicken wings.
After I’d closed
the stand we moved and found two old plastic chairs half submerged in mud
outside The CuP (with a capital P), a Citroen van converted into a mobile
coffee shop. The owner, a hipster who would only let people call him Bank,
watched me sip his too-hot tea, massaging his thin beard and adjusting his
thick rimmed glasses.
any mountains in Suffolk,” I said. Then, catching myself, “Are there?”
“So why did she
ask us to climb one?”
She still had
her finger on the relevant clause in her mother’s will. The clause in which
Niamh Bronte – the eccentric, mischievous and far too brilliant, Niamh Bronte –
demanded Siobhan and I go to the tallest mountain in Suffolk to spread her
ashes. Without evidence, taken on my phone and presented to them by me, the
solicitors where not to release any of the inheritance.
her head. “They agreed that the tallest point in Suffolk will do.”
On the plastic
table between us she dropped another sheet of paper, this time with a Google
map printed on it. One of those red pin things was dropped in the middle of
green area with a few white roads criss-crossing around, but very little else.
Hill,” she said. “It’s outside Bury St. Edmunds.”
A third piece of
paper appeared and was placed on the previous two. A reservation in her name for
two rooms in an expensive looking hotel in Suffolk. I didn’t need to look at
the date. As long as it’s not a Saturday morning I could do it.
her cup to the floor. The tea spills out of it. Behind her Bank stops stroking
his beard as his mouth falls open in shock.
Mother there anyway, if you want to come along, that’s up to you.” Her
challenge laid down, she turns on her heels and walks away, squelching in the
tea-moistened ground, leaving both me and Bank staring after her as she left.
The girl still
knew how to make an exit.
Great Wood Hill
is as unremarkable as you would expect. There’s a tall telephone mast about two
hundred feet tall, dotted with satellite dishes and antenna, a row of trees –
hardly a Great Wood – and not much else. I’m grateful for the landmark,
otherwise I think we would have driven straight past it, further extending the most
awkward car journey of my life. I didn’t realise that it was possible for two
people to be that silent. If it weren’t for the sound of the engine and the Sat
Nav, I would have thought I was going deaf.
Siobhan has her
mum’s ashes in her hands. The current residence of Niamh Bronte is plain and
practical, a million miles away from the woman when she was alive. I take my
phone from my pocket and open the camera app. There’s a slight breeze. I feel
like the weather has let her down – it should have been a whirlwind, a
hurricane, a tornado.
“Ready?” I say.
Siobhan doesn’t reply.
Instead she walks towards the phone mast. I hold the screen up and hit record.
But she doesn’t stop walking when she gets a decent distance away. She keeps
shout, and start to walk with her. I’m careful to keep the camera on, in case I
miss it. I wasn’t going to come this way and miss the big moment.
The mast is
protected by a wire fence, but Siobhan doesn’t stop. I record as she finds a
hole in the fence – a little too quick for it to be a coincidence – and ducks
through. I shout after her again, and she turns.
Her eyes are
full of tears. “My Mum. Needs a proper send off.”
I don’t move to
her, I don’t try and stop her, even though I know what she’s going to do. I
keep recording. She’s right. Letting her do this – it’s the least I can do
after my betrayal.
She tucks the urn
under her chin and starts to climb.
I wonder what
the combined height of the tower and Great Wood Hill are, and if the lawyers
will understand when they see this recording. I don’t wonder why Siobhan is
climbing, and I don’t wonder why I’m letting her do it.
hide behind black clothes and hair dye. Niamh didn’t sit in her house and
follow the same routine every day, just because it was easier. Niamh didn’t
escape to the other side of the world when things went wrong.
If there are no
mountains in Suffolk, for Niamh Bronte, two old friends will create one.
Great Wood Hill By Bob Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9314623
February is a hard month, were I find my feelings are too often dominated by the weather. When I open my curtains in the morning I honestly don’t know what to expect. Will I see lovely (if cold) sunshine, pouring rain or (and this the most likely) just a dull, grey sky that sucks the life from the world around it? In the UK, the possibility of snow is real in February, threatening to send the country into chaos with a meagre few centimetres of ground cover.
There is hope, however. It’s about now that I notice the days start to get longer. On my morning commute sunshine takes the place of artificial lamps and strip lighting. Even on the most miserable days, I start my journey home in daylight, and if I’m lucky I get to see the sunset from my train window. The first snowdrops have appeared, and the first of the trees are blossoming. February might be a cold, hard month, but it’s not without it’s beauty.
Of course, all this horrible weather also gives a writer plenty of opportunity to stay inside and get some work done. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with mixed successes.
Essex Author Day
As part of the Essex Book Festival, in March, I’ll be speaking at “Essex Authors and You” in Chelmsford. It’s not often that I get chance to talk about writing to a room full of writers, so I’m excited about this. I asked to speak on world building in sci-fi, something that I had to struggle with when writing The Unjudged (and am battling again with False Sanctuary). I’m hoping that, rather than me just chatting away for an hour, I’ll be able to convince people to join in with the session and help me make it a really interesting discussion.
I’m not allowed to
record the session, unfortunately, but I’m going to write a summary what I’m
going to cover as part of next month’s update. As I’ll be there the entire day,
I’ll also have the chance to flog some copies of The Unjudged, and increase awareness
of the blog. I’m trying not to go in with any particular expectations, as I
don’t know who will be attending, or what they’re hoping to get out of it. I’ll
be happy if anyone turns up to my session.
Write more isn’t
enough (The Write with Phil book)
The draft cover
This is still underway, and I’ve made significant progress this month. I’m giving it another run through in what I hope is the final order with a view to publishing early March. After some significant editing, this won’t be a heavy book, but what it lacks in length I’m hoping it will make up for in substance.
The main problem I’ve had with this book is trying to bring together the changing writing style of WWP in 2018. I’m the first to admit that I was often rushing my blog posts last year to meet the publication deadline, and as a result some of the posts were too random, too scatty and too confused for a real book. So what started out as a simple compilation of blog posts has turned into something quite a bit different. Although some of the titles are similar, a lot of the content is now completely new.
As well as creating
something of high quality, going back over the posts has helped my think about
the structure I used for the blog posts, and how I might improve it going
forward. A lot of the posts last year were brain dumps. The information was in
there, but how I presented it was very different. Reflecting on this can only
improve both my creative and non-fiction writing.
Last month, I powered through a submission for the Mogford short story prize. It was great. I loved writing the short story, and I was really happy with the outcome. This month, however, I got myself into a pickle. I saw the prompt that I wanted to write for – the Writing Co-operative/PS, I Love You competition on Medium – but for whatever reason I couldn’t create a narrative out of the idea that I had. I think that moving into Romance (or in this case, anti-Romance) was a step to far for my creative brain.
Finally, this morning I made the decision to call the project dead. This was a big call for me, as one of my goals this year was to enter a short story competition a month. I’m now halfway through the month with a blank page. I’m not even sure what competition to enter. 15 days is plenty, though. I’m sure I’ll manage something. I’m determined not to fall at the first hurdle.
If anyone wants to
help with the WWP book, I’d love a volunteer to do a proper proof read,
preferably towards the end of the month. This is simply a grammar job, I’m not
looking for detailed feedback at this point, just someone to make sure my
sentences make sense.
So, my friends, I’m
off to enjoy a walk on a frosty morning. The sun is low and not giving off much
heat, but it’s better than nothing. Plus I might get some pretty pictures, like
the images on this post.
Would you ever describe yourself as a content creator? I dabble in a number of different formats, and in a number of different mediums, creating content. But I would describe myself as a writer first, content creator second. I started wondering, was that right? Do I need to become more specific with how I describe my writing online?
And is there
anything wrong with being a content creator anyway?
I’ve spent a bit of my recent time writing on Medium. And reading on Medium. It seems that there are a lot of people pushing content creation as a viable option to make some money. And rather than writing for other sites, or writing on blogs, I’m being increasingly told that I should be writing for Medium.
(By the way, I’m well aware that I’ll be posting this on Medium as well. The irony is not lost on me).
But would I still be a writer then? Or would I be a content creator? And if I am, is there anything negative about that?
How Medium is encouraging the content creator
It’s my opinion that some writers need to start describing themselves as content creators. This is a new role, an offspring of blogging and SEO and other online writing jobs. It’s not beautiful, it’s not aspirational, but it exists – we just haven’t embraced it yet. Blogs started the process, although they were difficult to monetise (read about why I stopped putting adverts on my blog here). Platforms like Medium are becoming more and more popular as the monetisation is done by a central ‘owner’. These platforms pay writers based on the number of views and the number of likes/claps/stars they receive.
The exact algorithms are a closely guarded secret. I can’t tell how many claps on Medium equals how much money, or how many page views I need to break $100. No one, other than those inside Medium Towers (assuming that they have a tower), could let me know that. That’s frustrating for me, but it must be especially maddening for writers who depend on the supplementary income that Medium provides.
Writers have adapted
in a number of ways. Some are positive – writers are encouraged to look for
topics that interest the readership, to stay topical, and to keep their writing
easy to read and clear. Some are not so positive – every other article on some
pages are lists, promise a quick fix to something, or are have borderline
clickbait headlines that have no relevance to the article. The negatives and
positives of these adaptations are up for debate, but I don’t want to touch on
them in this post. Instead, I want to look at the only way that I can see of
guaranteeing income from Medium.
The easy guarantee: write as much as possible
If I don’t know the
algorithm, or the trick, to having a single successful article, the best way to
maximise my chance for payment is to write as much as possible. Flood the
system with content and I’ll start to play the averages game. Why spend three
hours researching and writing one article, when I could spend an hour each on
three, and have a three times as high chance of one of them going viral, or
getting a certain number of claps, or appearing on the front page?
This isn’t a new
problem. Amazon has it with their self-publishing platform – and in fact Amazon
is playing the same game, just using other people’s time do the work. Where
there are no barriers to entry, more is best. The best estimate I can find is
that there are over six million books self-published books available on Amazon
More search results mean that more people will likely find something they like.
When something does take off and become really popular, Amazon doesn’t care how
many books fail alongside it. They get their cut.
As a consequence,
there are dozens of posts on Medium about writers who have explored writing every day,
or who give you hints to write every day. But if everything I am writing is a
standalone, separate blog post, how well researched can it be? How strong can
the writing really be?
Content is king
When writers are not
thinking about the quality of their work as much as the amount they can put
out, I argue that they should really be describing themselves as content
creators. Their aim isn’t to write something that’s going to change someone’s
life, or really discuss an issue (like I’m trying to do with this post), it’s
to get as many views as possible and maximise revenue.
I’m not knocking
writers that spend their time like this. Someone’s going to get paid for
writing, and it may as well be them. I don’t think it’s for me though – and
Being a content
creator is not easy
I have a lot of
respect for content creators. Being able to turn out 1,000 plus interesting and
engaging words in a day is not an easy skill to master. Many people would love
to be able to write this much. I have, in the past, dabbled with this level of productivity,
but I often start to fail after a few days.
It’s not just the
writing, you see. Good content creators are able to write articles that have
something interesting to say about the time of year, relevant news of the day,
or a hot topic. They look at things with a specific lens and are able to add
their voice to it. The very best content creators often have a following who
enjoy reading their updates, and without it would feel quite lost.
Sound familiar? It’s
nothing new – it’s the blogging game, starting up again, with a centralised
I think there are some simple guidelines writers can follow, though to make sure what they’re writing adds value to the reader – and doesn’t just waste their time.
How to be a good
content creator – three thoughts
I think there are
three principles to follow when writing anything non-fiction, whether it’s on
Medium, a blog, or anywhere else. I was going to call them rules, but I think
they are much more strategic than rules.
Respect the time of the reader. I won’t write for the sake of it, or to get my numbers up or increase the number of views that I’m going to get. Those writers are everywhere. Instead, respect the amount of time that a reader will spend reading my work and put together something really thoughtful and intelligent.
Respect the source material. It would be really easy for me to take something that already exists and twist it so, on a superficial level, it seems fresh and new. In reality, though, it is nothing of the sort. Readers pick up on things like that, and will not return to me if they don’t think I have an original perspective to share.
Respect my own time. Everything that I put together takes much, much longer to write than it does to read. This article has taken me a few hours to put together, but it’s taking my readers about 5 minutes to read. That’s fine. But it’s worth thinking about what I want from an article. Is it simply to receive a few more likes? Or is it part of a longer term market building strategy? These are the type of questions that I should be asking, otherwise my own time will end up seeping away, with very little to show for it.
Content might be
king, and becoming a content creator is a way to make money, and even start a
career, but I’m trying to make sure that I don’t get caught in some of the
traps that seem to be built into the system. Hopefully, it will make others
think a little about what they’re writing too, and steer them in the right
Christmas and New Year are a good time for reflection, and for planning the year ahead. You may have noticed – I’ve done enough of it on the site over the last few weeks. I know that some people are reluctant to put resolutions in place, but I’ve found them really useful in the past as a way of focusing my efforts in a year.
So, in now particular order, my two priorities for 2019.
Objective 1 – the
Looking back over my posts of 2019, I’m really happy with the way that the blog has gone. I think I’ve put together some really good articles, and I hope I’ve helped a lot of writers out there. I mentioned in my wrap up post a couple of weeks ago, I do think that 12 months concentrating on the blog has helped me put in a lot of routines and good habits that I’ll continue into 2019. The blog continues to be a place to meet people (all the author interviews were a great way of building connections) and for people to contact me.
However, I’m also
aware that my creative writing has suffered as a result. Although I’ve put
together a second draft of a novel, and am making headway in my next secret
script, overall I think the blog has taken my focus away from my writing. As
well as this, I have commitments away from writing (I have an allotment, a
pretty fast paced job, and my family). I just don’t think the blog, in its
current form, is going to be sustainable in 2019.
So I think I need to
find a compromise.
I’m going to try, in
the first half of 2019, to reduce my main post frequency to once a month.
However, to make up for this, I’m going to spend a little more time on them,
and make them more substantial. I want to be able to cover more meaty topics,
and discuss them in a little more depth. The internet has enough how to lists,
in my opinion, and I need to think about what makes Write with Phil different.
Why would people visit my blog when they have dozens already bookmarked?
Longer, more in
depth posts would also help me with that horrible beast – structure. Looking
back over the last year, some of my posts have been a little difficult to
follow, and bounced around a bit. I often get feedback on my writing that says
similar – good story, good dialogue, but difficult to follow. Posting longer
pieces may go against what the internet wants (who decides what the internet
wants?) but I’m not fussed. I hope that my readers will enjoy it anyway.
My priority for this year is to get False Sanctuary finished. If it kills me, I will get another book on my Amazon author page.
I also want to get the script I’m working on drafted and out to BBC Writersroom in their next drama window. I love the story I’m putting together for this (although I would say that!) and I want to get it out there as much as possible. It definitely doesn’t deserve to sit around doing nothing, so I’m going to make it work for me.
Available from Amazon now – sequel in the works this year (hopefully)
And finally, to help
scratch the ‘something new’ itch, I’m going to write a short story a month for
whatever competitions happen to be on. I have a massive OneNote page full of
ideas that are sticking in my head and not getting out there. Why should they
hang around when I can get them one (digital) paper and into (real) hands. It
doesn’t matter if they do well, it doesn’t matter if I win anything. But I want
to start getting my writing out there. I should be able to find the time to
write one short story a month, right? I’ll share my monthly update with you on
…and that’s it. I’m
not going to write any more objectives for my personal writing. Last year I was
restrained, and gave myself realistic targets. I’ve got a busy year coming up,
and I’d rather do those two things really well than do another four or five
Bring it, 2019
The next year is
going to be an interesting one. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a 12
months more in my life. I hope my readers will stick with me through it. Time
for a change.
For the last few years, I’ve created a little video for Christmas. This year I’ve decided to mix it up a little bit, and post a short monologue/story that I created a few years ago. I believe that stories should get their time in the sun. The story isn’t Christmassy at all, so anyone not too keen on the festive period needn’t be put off. It’s embedded on a PDF, which I think looks the best, but I’ve copied it below it you’re reading on mobile or email.
A bedroom. McFell, early thirties, sits on
Yesterday was the
first time I’d seen her. I heard her
before, shuffling downstairs. Heard her
TV once or twice – but not too many times, thankfully. But yesterday morning I was up using the
toilet – I haven’t been sleeping well anyway, and my bladder only needs the
slightest encouragement to deny me any more – and I decided to get a look at
I’m always a little
dubious about new neighbours. Especially
as downstairs is a rental. People who
rent don’t seem to realise that there are certain things you don’t do in a flat. You don’t have the TV up too loud, you don’t
have loud sex, and you don’t keep pets.
has a dog.
Still, she’d been
living there for a couple of weeks and, the occasional bark aside, I’d not
heard or seen her. So I suppose
curiosity got the better of me. I went
into the empty room and waited for her to leave.
I didn’t have to
wait long. Out she went – and oh my God
– she is stunning. The dog came out
first, running to the end of the path in the excited, enthusiastic way that
dogs do. But following this pathetic
litte creature came an angel.
Bright blonde hair,
pulled back into a long ponytail that finished about halfway down her back. Tight
black leggings that showed the curvature of her behind perfectly, and a bright
orange one of those supportive bra-come-t-shirt things. There wasn’t an once of fat on her.
think I fell in love. Right there, in
the empty room.
My bladder groaned,
and I hobbled to the toilet, relieved myself and slid back into bed.
A herd of elephants
could charge through the bedroom, and Ellie would barely stir. It’s a skill I believe she perfected when I
staggered back from award shows and events, pissed and obnoxious.
to us. And all that bollocks.
The alarm buzzed
less than an hour later, she keeps it under her pillow so that the vibrations
wake her up. Probably give her brain
cancer in the future, but… what does she care?
She climbed out of
bed and headed off to work, dressing in the empty room so to not wake me. I pretended to be asleep throughout.
A hospital waiting
There’s a queue for
the physio again. There’s always a
queue. They ask you to get here fifteen
minutes early, then make you wait. It’s
like they don’t understand that some people are busy…
It’s not getting
better, anyway. The shoulder. I can feel it. Still not as strong as it
was. Can’t open a jam jar. A jam jar.
Used to be nothing that could stop me.
Now a jam jar can reduce me to tears.
But the calendar has
a green star over the date, so in a taxi I jump, and to the hospital I go. Fifteen minutes early, as requested.
When I go in though,
it’ll be the same old routine. A shake
of the head, a questioning look at my latest x-ray. He won’t be able to understand why it’s not
getting better. He won’t be able to
fathom how a shoulder can stay so weak, for so long. Next time it’ll improve, he’ll say. Next time there’ll be some improvement.
he’ll ask me if I’m ok. You know, in my
And I’ll tell him I miss
hearing (because you never see the exact moment) the contact a golf club makes
with the ball. That bittersweet moment when
the swing is completed, and you look up to catch the flight of the ball.
microseconds, until your eyes make contact with it, the uncertainty, the
excitement… And when it goes exactly
where it is intended to go – that feeling…
And he’ll tilt his
head, and ask if that’s all I miss, and I’ll tell him to fuck off and leave the
Apparently there’s a
website. What happened to Adrian
McFell? What happened to the prodigy who
promised to set the world of golf, who made the likes of Rory McIlroy and Tiger
Woods weak at the knees with admiration?
I don’t go on those
websites. It’s not my place. Someone will tell them eventually.
I just go and look
at the trophies in the empty room. I
touch them, with the one arm that can reach above my head, and hope that some
of the talent that earned them can somehow infuse itself into me, that the
events of that night will somehow undo themselves, and my shoulder will be
fine, and we’ll be back on the golf course again, sun on our backs, smiles on
For the last few
days, I’ve been pretty much camped at the window while Ellie’s at work. Willing the girl downstairs, in the middle of
the day when I know she’s at work, willing her to go for a run.
can stare at that path for hours.
Anyway. I’ve a plan for that girl. I’ve decided.
It’s perfect. I’ll be her sugar
daddy. I’m older, wiser, experienced,
not entirely unattractive. She’ll be
putty in my hands.
“Mr McFell to room 242” echoes
down the corridor
we go then.
Back at home, in the bedroom.
We ran into her on
the way back from Sainsbury’s. Her name’s
Olivia. But we should call her Liv. Twenty-five.
Public relations to some celebrity agency. Anyone we should know? I asked.
No one you’d particularly care about, she said.
She asked me if she
disturbed us with her early mornings. I
looked at Ellie, gave her my best confused face, and said no. Ellie laughed. I’m dead to the world when I shut my eyes at
night, she said. We all laughed.
I was aloof. But not too aloof. Ellie’s known me almost as long as I’ve known
myself. She knows I’m a nice
person. So if I’m not nice she’ll know
something up. Even though nothing’s up. Yet.
You’ll have to bring
your boyfriend for dinner one night, I said, a double date. See what I did there? Assumptive.
Oh, she said, I’d
love that. I’m not threatened by
him. Probably some annoying little
know-it all yuppie. Easily
Ellie wasn’t sure
later – they’re ten years younger, she said, what are we going to talk
about? I pointed out that the
psychiatrist said that meeting new people and broadening our social circle is
an important part of the healing process.
She doesn’t have a
clue about my true motives. I’m sure of
She’s in the empty
room now. Sleeping. Meditaiting, something. I don’t listen. I know it all upsets her. I know she blames herself. I mean.
It was her fault. But she
shouldn’t blame herself. No point. I suppose she looks at the trophies and
wonders how things could have turned out.
No point. I don’t. I don’t look at young Liv and wonder what
if? I think, I’m going to get that. Positive action.
The affair will
help, I’m sure of it. I’ll be happier,
I’ll be more receptive to looking after Ellie.
I’ll listen more, because I’ll be too busy thinking about fucking Liv. Maybe she’ll fall in love with me, and move
in. I’ll be one of those trendy and cool
men you see with a harem of women following him around.
I could do
that. A different room each night. Alternate them. Stimulating conversation with
Ellie one night, discussing politics, religion.
And then next night, swinging from the rafters with Liv.
The best of both
worlds. It’s perfect. I’d be a fool not to.
mean, once I’ve redecorated the empty room.
A kitchen. The sound of food cooking in the background. Wine being poured.
on a business trip. All week.
She came home all
sullen and miserable and told me the other day.
Apparently there’s been some minor industrial accident in one of their
French factories, and they needed on the site expertise to deal with the
So off she went,
crying the second the taxi door shut.
She was worried about me, she said, worried how I’d do without her. I told her not to worry. I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself.
I told her I’d take
the week to redecorate the empty room.
She asked me not to call it that.
It needs doing, I said. It’s part
of the healing process. She asked me to
leave it alone, and to stop calling it that.
I slipped a note
under Liv’s door. Invited her up for a
drink this evening.
He takes another glass from the
You should see
her. Knocking on the door as soon as she
came home. Her boyfriend’s giving her
grief apparently. Some London hotshot,
apparently. She thinks he’s letting his secretary
suck his dick, apparently.
She’s been drinking
already. Eyes kept glazing over as she
chatted away. She’s ranted about his
tiny penis, about how she’s sick of men her own age, how she’s thinking about
I pointed out that
turning lesbian is not really something you can do on a whim. Then she asked me for that drink I’d promised
You should see
her. Skirt suit, tailored to her body
perfectly. Hair loose now, flowing over
her shoulders. A blouse that just keeps
opening over her chest. That perfect
creature I see every morning is now sat on my sofa right now, letting her skirt
ride up her leg and laughing at all of my jokes.
He takes a bottle of vodka from the fridge
and adds it to one of the glasses of wine.
not a bad person.
boyfriend’s a bad person.
fucking his secretary.
The bedroom. McFell is a state.
I told Ellie
everything. I wanted to. I met her at the door… wearing exactly what I
am now. God knows what she thought had
I sat her down in
the empty room and told her everything.
The plan. My obsession with Liv. My plan to seduce her, to create a new live
with both of them. My harem.
I told her about
getting Liv up her. About how she was
already drunk and angry, and how I kept giving her drinks and listening to her
complain. I was a shoulder to cry on, a
kind ear to listen to her troubles.
When Liv had
eventually leaned in to kiss me, how I had kissed her back. How her hands had run all over my body, how
they’d caressed my shoulder and made the pain go away.
cry. She didn’t scream and throw things
at me. She just waited for me to finish.
I told her how Liv
had led me upstairs, and how she hadn’t wanted to have sex on the bed that
Ellie and I shared. That she’d pulled me
into the empty room and made me watch as she slowly stripped down to her underwear.
Her red, expensive,
perfectly fitted, underwear.
How I’d not been
able to move. How what I was about to do
had frozen me to the spot. How I’d
looked around and seen thing’s I’d not seen in months. How all of a sudden I saw Adrian’s trophy’s,
and his golf clubs, still packed away in the corner. The walls, covered with his drawings of him
and me on the golf course. His faithful
Then she’d come
over, pulled my shirt over my head, and pushed me back onto his bed.
I threw her out of
the room, I screamed at her, I scared her.
And I left this
beautiful young woman, dressed in only her lingerie, crying in the corridor
outside our flat, flabbergasted that a man such as me would turn a woman like
I told Ellie all of
this, and she just looked at me.
I told her how I’d
gone into the room and tidied everything up, smoothed down his sheets and made
it just like it was before.
I’d polished the
trophies, how I’d thrown her clothes into the corridor. How I’d looked to the heavens and begged for
Adrian’s forgiveness. How I’d fallen
asleep in the middle of the floor, like a dog.
I stopped. I looked up at my wife, and I asked her why
she hadn’t asked me any questions. She
just looked at me. Then she stood up and
walked into the room.
followed her – what was I supposed to do?
She leaned in and
sniffed the pillow. She looked up at me,
a look of relief on her face. I stood in
the doorway, silent.
asked me if I still thought it was an empty room.
At the end of last year I wrote a quick post about my highlights, and what I wanted to accomplish for 2018. As we steam toward the end of the year, it’s time to look back and see what I achieved, and what I missed. These type of reviews can be hard to do, but they’re important for writers, as it lets you manage your expectations for anything you do in the future.
When I’ve put this post together, I’ll give the some thought over the Christmas period, and share some targets for 2019.
Write with Phil has taken a lot of time this year. I’ve posted at least once every week (although I think I missed one in the summer) and every now and then I’ve even managed two.
My author interviews, which concluded in the summer, were a great way for me to get in contact with other authors and screenwriters, and see how they work, and why they write. I learned a lot from their interviews, so I would like to say thank you to everyone who took the time to answer my questions.
Wide range of topics
I’ve also written on a variety of topics this year, a natural extension of the original aim of WWP to be based around productivity. Part of this flows from concerns I discovered about burnout and the pressure that writers put themselves under. From talking to people both in the real world and online, I realised that websites that last year I loved can have a side-effect. They can make you feel that they work you are doing isn’t enough, or you’re not writing fast enough.
I had three targets at the end of 2017.
Post at least once a week
10 Guest posts on WWP
10 posts by me on other blogs
I’ve missed one of them – getting ten guest blogs on other websites. Although I started strongly,with posts on