Category: Writing

A little bit of potted “wisdom” based on my own experience of receiving edits and critiques

When confronted with edits, you invariably won’t like what the editor has suggested. They may have changed the meaning, or the tone of a sentence in a way you don’t like. But, don’t get upset or angry over it (or not for too long, anyway), because you don’t have to accept their solutions.

Instead, take a step back and look for why they thought the edit was needed. Figure out the problem they were trying to address. You might not agree there is a problem. In which case reject the change and fight your corner. You have your own reasons for wanting it that way and so long as you can justify it to yourself there are no wrong ways of writing.

More likely you’ll see where they were coming from, and while you don’t like their idea of how to fix it, you’ll agree with the need for a fix. Often, in these situations, a better solution will jump out at you. It might even be a sentence that you’d struggled with before, and seeing their suggestion will trigger something in you and you’ll suddenly figure it out.

So, when you receive edits you don’t agree with, don’t get emotional, get to work. Unpack each edit and let it guide you, one way or another, to improving your writing.


On Author Voice vs Editors

What is your author voice? How do you develop it and bring it to the fore?

It’s a tricky question and one many authors struggle with. I myself struggle to reconcile what I know to be good writing practice with injecting distinction and personality into my writing.

I went to a fantastic seminar at the Hay Festival earlier this year, which really helped me explore the notion. The crux of the seminar, hosted by the BBC Writer’s Room,  was “first, know yourself, then, put yourself in the writing”. Easier said than done, granted, but it’s a starting point. The goal is to achieve “specific” and “distinctive” writing, and avoid “bland”. Bland is bad.

What I’ve been trying to do to meet this challenge is go with my gut instinct a little more. Rather than strictly following the “rules”, I’m trying to go with what I feel works best, especially where I can pinpoint why I feel that way.

Red pen editingI felt like I was making progress on the concept of author voice vs technique, but recently I had a little setback.

I submitted a short story for a collaborative anthology and got some edits back to consider. Now, really, I ought to be happy with the fact there were only a few small edits per page. I know this. I should be ecstatic. Some of the edits were genuine mistakes and I was happy to accept these, but the rest, well. It almost felt like they targeted everything I’d purposely done to make the piece more interesting and more distinctly me. Here’s some examples:

  • There were a number of adjectives deleted as superfluous. I tend to use them sparingly anyway, so where I have used an adjective it’s because I wanted to enforce a point, make something stand out.
  • There was one particular place where I’d used “then” at the beginning of a paragraph, on purpose, to give a stronger sense of a break from what came before it. I could have gone for “But, then,” but I thought “then” was enough. What I didn’t want, as the editor has suggested, was to continue the action without that pause to actively draw attention to the difference between the before and after, and the fact that the after has alleviated the before.
  • What probably disappointed me most was the re-wording of a couple of past continuous sentences to past perfect. If I’ve used past continuous it’s because I want to convey a sense of continuous action or movement! The two tenses are different and one is not inherently better than the other.

When I first started out, these types of things could be found all over my early, amateurish work, and I learned to look out for them. In fact, I became quite hung up on them. I would strip out any adverbs that crept in, stick to past perfect unless I absolutely couldn’t see a way around using another tense and I would search my work for “was”, “then”, “just” and a bunch of other “banned” words. Passive voice? Nope, not allowed.

At first it was a great way to improve my writing, but after a while it started to turn my writing into something I didn’t recognise as mine. Obviously I understand the need not to flood my writing with such things, but everything was coming out the same and I didn’t know how to inject that sense of character or author voice into it. If we all rigidly stuck to the same rules all writing would be the same.

Which is where the advice from the seminar and my own realisations come in; I needed to relax and go with the flow. This piece was one of the first where I’d put that philosophy into practice. So, having the things I would previously have hunted out myself, but actively chose to keep in, picked up on by someone else undermined my confidence a little. Perhaps I was going at this the wrong way?

Thankfully, at the same time as wrong footing me the feedback gave me the opportunity to analyse the examples. No writer can ask for anything more than the chance to think things through from a fresh angle and learn from every setback. I took the story away and went through each and every edit in detail and found a way to improve the problem sentence or paragraph. I can honestly say the result was a better piece of writing.

Know about as many things as you can!

The classic advice to writers is to write what we know, or the more accurate alternative: “Write what you know, or can research.”

There’s an inference in the quote above, that information you research is inherently different from information you know. Which, I suppose, may be true, depending on your definition of knowing.

There are different types of information which feed into a book. The original advice to write what you know was never about all of that information. It was about themes. Write about ideas that you understand and identify with. That you know, intimately. The details: the characters, locations, events, back story, that’s what needs to be underpinned with a mixture of inherent and/or researched knowledge.

There are also different kinds of research. Some can bring you closer to knowing than others.

There’s a risk sometimes as a writer of experiencing everything from behind a computer screen, looking up facts, figures, descriptions and photographs. Where it’s just about factual accuracy, that’s exactly the kind of research we need. Last week I spent a few hours collating astronomical data and moon phases, and let me tell you, that is exactly the kind of task where the internet is invaluable. If you want to know when Jupiter aligned with Venus in the 18th century and what day of the week it was… no problem.

But a lot of what goes into a book isn’t about factual accuracy, it’s about perception, capturing the essence of something. Consider location for instance.

Christchurch College - Oxford

Christ Church College – Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

There’s really no substitute for first had experience of places. I took a trip to Oxford recently, to research locations for my current novel. None of the pictures I’d seen prior conveyed the shear volume of tourists and the constant frustration over parking and vehicle access. The Oxford in my book wasn’t going to believable unless my characters were constantly shoving through crowds of people aimlessly looking up at the architecture.

If you need to describe a particular building from the outside, you might just about get away with streetview. But if you want to know what it looks like inside… well there things start to get difficult. Sometimes you get lucky. I found a conservation policy document for one of the buildings I was researching, which included pictures of all the restricted internal spaces, but even with the accompanying floor plans, it was still hard to work out how it fit together.

On my trip I visited the building and went on a guided tour, and that gave me an understanding of it that far surpassed what I could get from pictures. The pictures helped me research it, but the visit helped me know it.

Visiting the locations also created ideas. Once you can stand in a place, and visualise the scene, exciting new options suddenly begin to pop out. Previously invisible details present themselves for consideration.

The School of Natural Philosphy - Old School's Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford
The School of Natural Philosphy – Old School’s Quad, The Bodlian Library, Oxford – Image © 2015 Christine Harrison

Actually going there might sound like a “well, duh” suggestion for location research, but many writers skip it, if only because their location is a fictional place that doesn’t exist. But, in a way, it’s almost more important to visit your fictional places. Your imagination remixes and recycles experience and blends it with abstract ideas. If you have no experience to draw on you’ve limited your potential already.

Imagine your setting is a fictional forest on an alien world. You can’t visit it, but you can visit other forests here on Earth. Perhaps your location is a fictional factory; visit some other factories that do exist. You can find your location hidden a bit here and a bit there within the places you go. You can find it in the differences between what you imagine and what you see.

What goes for locations goes for everything else: pictures and descriptions = good, field trips = better.

That might sound daunting, but really it’s the best thing about being a writer! We get to try everything. We get to dip in, give things a go, observe, and then try to fake being an expert when we write. How renaissance.

So my philosophy is “write what you know, and get as close as you can to knowing about as many things as you can.” Not only will it make you a better writer, but it’ll be crazy good fun.

I’ve been having a think about what makes a good piece of flash fiction, and while I don’t think I can say it any better than David Gaffney does in this article – Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction (which came out just before the very first National Flash Fiction Day in 2012) – I thought I would share a few thoughts.

1. Get It All Out First

Or as David Gaffney says in his article, “write long, then go short.” This is actually common sense in a way. When you draft your brain is creating as it goes. It’s natural to repeat yourself as you think of better ways to say what you want to say, on the fly.  You need to repeat yourself because the second or third way you brain comes up with to say something might better than the first.

It’s also natural to explore as you write, which creates tangents, distractions and irrelevancies as often as it discovers vital details. You won’t ultimately want half of what you uncover in a short piece, but you have to dig through rocks to find diamonds.

2. Find What’s Important

I recently took a 400 words first draft I really liked and cut it down to 150 words which I liked even more. I started by critically looking at my draft and highlighting the phrases and words which did the work; the ones which conveyed the story, rather than those that enriched, or worse, obscured it. There were actually very few of them.

3. Be in the Moment

For me, the best flash fiction pieces are scenes. This is a matter of taste, true. But there is a reason behind it: constraining a story to a scene constrains it to one moment.

Long fiction contains lots of moments but in flash fiction you only have a moment to create a moment. It could be the start of something, the end, or a change. It could be a moment of connection, realisation, or enlightenment.

Find the one moment you want to share and make the story about that, however you choose to write it.

4. Let the Reader Work for You

In flash fiction, you have to let the reader be an active participant in the realisation of the vision. I say let because writers can be control freaks about getting across their vision.

You don’t have the luxury to spend words and time on description in flash fiction. Trust that your reader will do this for you. Don’t worry about describing characters and settings, let the action show something of their nature and let the reader make up the rest however they want.

5. It Need Not End Here

Most flash fiction pieces will, by definition, be very open ended. They are short stories, moments, within the unspoken wider narrative of your characters’ lives. Let the idea of that wider narrative be there in the background and don’t stress over explaining it or tying up loose ends.


So that’s my top five thoughts on writing flash fiction. If you write something you’re proud of, be brave, share it with someone, or submit it to a publisher!

And on that related note…

The Great Escape Flash Fiction Competiton 2015

The site where I act as fiction editor is running a Flash Fiction Competition this month, in celebration of National Flash Fiction Day on Saturday 27th June.

It’s an open competition with fairly loose criteria, so why not share something you’ve written. Your story might get featured on our site and we could even offer you a spot in one of our anthologies. Visit for all the details.

The Great Escape's Flash Fiction Competition


Tomorrow I start the mammoth task of turning my 70,000 word manuscript into a finished novel. I may not finish in the month of April, but I plan to put a shed load of work in. 60hrs or more.

I had a little personal celebration moment today and indulged my stationery addiction. Look, new binders! One of which I actually needed! The other two I bought because there was a 3 for 2 offer… not sure what I’ll do with them yet.


Part of the reason I wanted to celebrate was because today I decided to build a field trip into my Camp NaNoWriMo month. I’m going to Oxford, one of the main settings for my novel, Mime. While I’m there I’m going to visit the Bodleian Library on the Oxford University campus for a guided tour.

A lot of what I write is set in fictional universes; either fantasy realms, other planets or futuristic versions of our world which only bear a passing resemblance to where we live now. It’s a lot easier to write when you can create your locations from scratch. With Mime I have had to take a different approach. Set in present day, real world cities and areas of the UK, it needs a fine balance between accurately described real world places and imaginary places that would fit into the wider real world locations.

Place is something that has to be experienced in my opinion. Even with such powerful tools as Google Earth and Streetview it’s hard to get a feel for somewhere you have never been. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale, weather, people or vibe of the place.

I want my readers to believe the story I tell takes place in a place they know, and to do that I need to go there and, if possible, write the scene in the location.

Other places on my “To Visit” list include:

  • Oakhampton and Dartmoor
  • Castle Park and Victoria Square in Bristol
  • Debenhams in Bristol
  • John Radcliffe and Churchill hospitals in Oxford

How do you research real world locations? Do you take field trips to places that will feature in your books?

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