The Mislaid Art of Storytelling

July 2, 2019

It’s July of 2019. If you’re reading this blog, you can likely write creatively. You’re probably thinking about writing a novel, or you’re already writing one. At some point, some way down the line, at the back of your mind, you’re probably thinking it might get published.

The chances of that are very high in the era of 2019. You have various options. The least likely is traditional publishing, although you will spend a disproportionate amount of time pursuing it.

If you want your book available to a broad audience rather than ignored by a few, to own a real physical copy of your book, then indie is an option.

Whether you are going traditional or indie, there is one crucial detail you will probably mislay along the way which is story, or rather good storytelling.

There are two types of book writers in my experience, and you can work out which you are by how you describe what you’re doing. If you’re writing a novel, congratulations, you are among the 99.8% of writers who can write, who have a great idea but are unable to give that idea to an audience, and by give I mean make it an entertaining story. Call it stubborn, ego, apathy, self-interest, insecurity or a lack of insight.

If you’re a writer who believes you’re telling a story and the only thing that matters is the wider audience, then you’re very rare. It has to be said neither is more likely to be successful, but one is more likely to entertain an audience.

So how do you become a storyteller over a novel writer? The first step is to realise what an audience expect from a story, in a nutshell, they want to know:

The world and timeframe, to be hooked by dynamic characters very quickly, to understand the story stakes and dramatic theme.

What is the false goal the characters pursue during the extraordinary journey that has them fall in love and discover hidden qualities and even a few nasty traits? What forces them to take control in the middle of the story, what truth do they learn fighting increasing odds, in the face of despair and even death?

How do they use this uncertain truth to face the bad guys, and how does the conflict resolve? How does the theme punch you emotionally, have you thinking about the characters after the credits or the last page has turned?

If a story doesn’t deliver all this, the audience instinctively knows something is missing without necessarily knowing what that something is. As a fully paid-up member of the audience, how will you know your novel is hitting the required marks as a storyteller, as an author?

I thought you’d never ask.

If I tell you story requires structure you will roll your eyes. I know, right! You’re creating art! You’re not writing to a formula!

Let’s consider whether you would buy from an artist who visibly doesn’t understand the foundations of composition? Or from a musician who audibly doesn’t understand the principles of rhythm?

The problem with novel writing is that our entry point is an ability to write well, we’re well educated, the page to page works, it’s misleading. Our broader perspective of story is built on a lifetime spent as a consumer. It’s instinctive.

It should be no surprise to discover telling a good story is as challenging to master as fine art or good music. While a few take to it naturally, 99.8% of us will have to graft to gain insight.

Getting hold of the right material to learn from can be confusing, there are a lot of people ready to take your money, a whole bunch of books to buy. I would buy just two:

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (great for the essential structure)

K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story structure, plot and character development (the absolute reference for blending everything else).

Then understanding story structure and character arc is just the beginning, seeing it implemented across a broad scope of fiction is necessary to build our storytellers muscle memory, our point of reference.

These past few years, I’ve been doing just that, breaking down story to gain insight into how it’s put together. The last year I’ve been figuring how best to breakdown a story as a video, to learn and share that knowledge. I think I’m getting there.

The first video is linked below: Monsters Inc. The breakdown is on YouTube. It’s free. You’re welcome.

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A Blagger’s Guide to Schmoozing

November 15, 2013


Abbie Todd

Abbie Todd

I am organising the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference Party. It’s a great opportunity for unpublished and published authors and illustrators to mingle with editors, agents, publicists and art directors.

I recently stumbled across this blog, which I wrote after attending last year’s SCBWI Undiscovered Voices party, but I never did anything with it. Good timing, I thought. So here it is!

When I attended a glitzy publishing party in London, I was faced with a room full of agents and editors – all masters in the art of schmoozing. Oh God, thought I, how am I going to get through this? They’ll sense my fear! Pounce on it faster than the next Harry Potter.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ll probably find it beneficial, at some point, to venture out of your writing cave and try to engage with the real world. I’m talking mingling, networking, chatting, business carding, and other scary words that end in ‘ing’. Yes, I too loathe to be dragged from my writing cave. I struggle to interact with real people rather than characters. I have to remember that talking to myself is only acceptable in the inner sanctum of the cave. But needs must.

Here are my top tips for how to blag your way through such an ordeal:

  1. Don’t booze and schmooze. By all means, have one (or two … or possibly three) to calm your nerves, but don’t get carried away. I’m thinking that vomiting on the shoes of an editorial director, or bursting into tears in front of an agent who’s rejected you isn’t the best way forward.
  2. You will enjoy yourself. It’s mandatory. Smile, and make eye contact with people, even if they walk right past you.
  3. Find some kind of tenuous link to your schmoozee (the person you wish to schmooze). If you sent them a manuscript when you were fifteen (as I did) and received a personal response, go and thank them! If you read and enjoyed something they edited/agented(?!)/wrote, tell them. If your second cousin’s wife’s brother-in-law lives in the same village, mention it. But don’t take this too far – we don’t want to stray into stalker territory.
  4. Have a good exit strategy if you end up talking to someone for too long, or if your eyes are straying to other people you want to talk to. Try ‘I need some more water’, or ‘I’m just going to find the loo’, or ‘I must go and catch up with such-and-such’.
  5. Most folks who work in publishing are absolutely lovely, but there will always be exceptions. I was once quite coldly rejected to my face by an agent. Don’t be discouraged if someone is rude to you. You are worth talking to, damnit. Just find someone who will listen.
  6. Have a pitch ready. Fairly obvious, you might say. But it needs to be succinct. A sentence or two. The longer it is, the more likely you are to mess it up/stumble over bits/forget key plot points.
  7. Find someone who knows everyone, and strike up a conversation. Often, people will gravitate towards them, and if you stand there like a lemon for a few seconds, you’re sure to be introduced.
  8. Don’t regret who you didn’t talk to. Focus on the small victories and feel proud of who you did talk to. (I should definitely practice what I preach with this one!)
  9. Don’t be tempted to cluster in the corner with your friends like nervous sheep. Move around the room. If you’re not looking for someone specific, pretend you are, until you notice someone you want to talk to.
  10. If a couple of people are deep in conversation and you want to butt in, do it! Just go in with ‘Sorry to interrupt’ and no-one will think you’re rude.

All of the above can be applied to any number of writing events – author signings, writers’ conferences or parties. Remember, you’re not the only writer who feels nervous about putting themselves out there. And even if it doesn’t lead to anything, it’s intensely rewarding to conquer that inner hermit who’s adamant that you’re better off staying in your cave.

Good luck – happy schmoozing!

Follow Abbie on Twitter: @abbietheauthor

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Iain M Banks

April 6, 2013

On the 3rd of April 2013 Iain [M] Banks made an announcement, that started quite simply: “I am officially very poorly”. By the end of that announcement it was clear that Iain truly is the master of good humour, macabre and understatement – he’s dying, and very soon there will be no Iain Banks in the world, ‘M’ or otherwise.

Except that’s not true, well, Iain may disagree, but I have a shelf full of books with his name on it and says he’ll live forever, even if it’s in a metaphorical sense (not much consolation I realise). I’ve been thumbing through that already well thumbed collection. Every random page I settled on is a gem, every sentence earns its keep. If I ever become half as good as Iain Banks I will be ten times the writer I am now.

There is one book in particular, the first Iain Banks book I read actually, Complicity, where the main protagonist is playing a game called Despot throughout the novel. When my random flicking settled on the chapter where Despot is introduced I laughed, because in my current WIP, the main protagonist is playing a game I made up called Endless Possibilities throughout the story. Endless Possibilities has a substantially different role to play in my novel, but I suspect, all those years ago, Complicity planted the tiniest seeds of an idea in the back of my mind, and, over time, a novel has blossomed. Thank-you Iain.

Iain also created “The Culture” when he writes with an M in his name. I was given one of The Culture novels by a friend, “Consider Phlebas”, which turned out to be the first of Iain ‘M’s novels to feature the breath-taking Galaxy spanning but absolutely believable Culture, with their enormous spaceships and tiny, fly sized (indeed fly disguised) robots. I remember thinking how amazing and odd that two authors could have almost the same name. Indeed, I hypothesised that the Sci-Fi author must have had to add the ‘M’ to his name to differentiate himself from his non-SF counterpart! But who could blame me (OK, I could have read the blurbs on the back of the book, or perhaps the “By the same author” section…) so different are the books in style and scale. Yet irrespective of which style he was writing in, his novels are truly mesmerising.

Iain’s announcement can be read here:

and you can leave your own personal message to him here: 

(I hope Iain’s not reading these in his precious final few months, I’m thinking they’re more of a collective group hug for the rest of us)

John Hoggard

John Hoggard

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Charlotte Betts wins RoNA Award

February 27, 2013

WordWatchers’ own Charlotte Betts was in London last night for the RoNA Awards, where she was delighted to pick up best Historical Romantic Novel for 2013 with her wonderful 17th-Century romance, The Apothecary’s Daughter.  Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan were there to present Charlotte with her award.

Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley with the award winners

Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley with the award winners

News of the win reached us as tweets from the event started to appear, including this lovely accolade from fellow short-lister, Susanna Kearsely

and then congratulations from Charlotte’s publisher Little, Brown, via Charlie King, Marketing Director:

The award is well-deserved recognition of Charlotte’s talent and continued hard work, not only on The Apothecary’s Daughter, but also on her two subsequent books, of which The Painter’s Apprentice has also had its brush with award ceremony success when it was short-listed for The Festival of Romance’s Best Historical Read Award 2012.

The RoNA award for TAD, as Charlotte’s winner is affectionately known here at WordWatchers, will find itself in good company, with previous recognition coming from various sources:

So, with her RoNA to add to the list, Charlotte is rightly thrilled, and we’re hugely proud.  Well done, Charlotte!


* I can’t resist also pointing out that the YouWriteOn Novel of the Year Award for 2009 went to WordWatcher alumni member Katherine Webb, with The Legacy.

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Festival of Writing 2012: Reflections on second albums, real people and flip-flops

September 12, 2012

I went to York University last weekend for the Writers’ Workshop annual Festival of Writing.  And, to be honest, I went with a heavy heart – nervous and unsure about why I was going and what I expected to find when I got there.

You see, this was my second time, and last year was brilliant.

This year had all the potential of being the difficult second album or the after-ten-years-in-the-wilderness comeback tour; you shell out good money for it, really want to enjoy it, but somehow, eventually, end up admitting to yourself that it’s actually not very good.  You wish you hadn’t bothered.  But it’s too late; the damage is done, and the memory of the original is tarnished.  You get the idea.  Repeat holidays are the same.  So are school reunions and re-runs of 80’s TV shows.

Part of the reason for the nerves lay in where I was with my writing, working on a difficult scene that has ended up feeling like the shabby hallway I want to rush my visitors through on the way to a beautiful lounge, hoping they don’t look sideways and notice the patchwork walls and bare woodwork.  Put another way, as I near the end of a third rewrite, I wasn’t feeling good about the prospect of mixing with the great and the good of the industry.

Another reason for the uncertainty was the doubt I was feeling about the industry itself.  I’ve seen what it’s meant to a number of my friends to become ‘published writers’, as some reach great success and others wonder why they’ve put themselves on what feels like the most painful of treadmills, juggling tight publishing deadlines with a life already full to the brim.  Coming along to a conference that felt so geared towards traditional publishing seemed to be missing at least some of the point.

But, cutting to the chase, from the moment I arrived, on a sunny Friday afternoon, to the sights and sounds of ducks and geese and writers and agents and publishers and book doctors, I knew it was going to be okay.  And so it turned out to be.

The second album was certainly different to the first.  More assured.  More self-aware.  But filled with just as many great tunes and moments of soul searching as the first, and definitely just as much fun.

A few of the many highlights for me …

  • The Friday workshop with David Gaughran and Talli Roland – an independent perspective that gave great balance to what followed, and prompted some lively (and mostly open-minded) discussion about everybody’s role in the writing business
  • Pretty much everything about Friday evening in the bar, doing the whole ‘what do you write?’ thing with fellow writers, and meeting numerous agents, who, by the end of evening, had become real people and not industry targets to be pitched to and feared… people I felt actually wanted a partnership with their writers, and with whom I felt I wanted a partnership
  • David Gaughran in flip-flops at the gala dinner
  • Julie Cohen‘s ‘Character’ workshop, conjuring ‘real people’ (though on this occasion not agents) out of 2 pieces of paper, a coin and a few simple questions
  • Coming away from one-on-ones with self-belief restored

All in all, I arrived home inspired, ready to write, ready to dig deep and get the book finished and sent off… and ready to sign up for next year’s appropriately named festival of writing.

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Potter’s Month in Writing August 2012

September 11, 2012

Where to start. It has not so much been a busy writing month but certainly a productive one. I’m currently gearing up for the launch of my book of short stories titled: Snapshots, a title courtesy of fellow WordWatcher Debbie Smith.

Melissa Foster

Snapshots will feature four short stories written by me. The first three were written in 2006 and have been fully edited this last month. The final short I wrote this month too. I love them all of course and consider them to be a bit good. Each story is about 7000 words long, so technically the purists may consider them not to be shorts at all. They are perfect little reads for commuting and while sipping your Horlicks before bed. The content covers different writing styles I’ve experimented with in the last six years, namely: Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism and something I’m going to call right now Crime Realism. This last story additionally features DI Boer from Chasing Innocence.

The cover art for Snapshots will consist of five drawings in a style inspired by the Corpse Bride, which I’m very pleased to announce are being created by Monika Filipina, who also happens to be the cover model for my fiction thriller novel Chasing Innocence.

Snapshots will be available as a Kindle download for under £1 from November. It will also be available for very little money as a paperback from Amazon. If  you’re in Newbury leading upto Christmas and are approached by a hopeful looking bloke waving a book at you, it’ll either be me or the Salvation Army. I’ll be giving away free copies of Snapshots so keep an eye out.

There is very exciting news as Chasing Innocence has won ANOTHER International award. There is a chance by October it will have gained at least one more award (maybe), so I’m keeping it all under my hat at the moment. I have spent a very interesting week working with some fellow authors and book promotors in the States: mostly I’ve been blown away by the whirlwind that is Melissa Foster. If you are trying to find an audience in the digital realm then I highly recommend you check out one or all of her sites. The World Literary Cafe, Fostering Success and her own personal site.

I have reached a very important threshold in the writing of TMWWRWs, a monumental threshold. A whole bunch of things came together this month. Anyone that reads this monthly post (yeah you two, I’m looking at you!) will know I’ve struggled mightily. A friend said to me the other day, if you’re winning all these awards for writing like you did in Chasing Innocence, why the hell are you now trying to write in a completely different way?

Very good point! See you next month, should be a big one.


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Pong! On an iPad near you now!

August 16, 2012


Pong! A wonderful book for children by Chris McCormack

WordWatcher Chris McCormack has produced a book guaranteed to delight children with its larger than life main character, Pong, who loves racing more than anything.  Illustrated beautifully by Naomi Lunn, the rhyming book tells the story of Pong’s efforts to beat Jake, a boy from Earth with a talent for Maths.

Initially available on the iPad, where it comes with voiceover (provided by WordWatchers’ own Julian Dobbins) and educational interactive elements about space and the solar system, the book will soon be coming out in printed form.

Pong! is available from iTunes for 99p.



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Charlotte features in Newbury Weekly News

January 28, 2012

There’s a lovely article in this week’s Newbury Weekly News about Charlotte, the most recent member of Wordwatchers to have publishing success. Timed nicely to coincide with the release of the paperback edition of The Apothecary’s Daughter which comes out on February 2nd (and is available, of course, from all good book shops!)

There’s a short article now online at NewburyToday, for those too far from Newbury to pick up a copy of the actual newspaper, available here.

If you’d like to meet Charlotte in person, she’s doing a book signing at Waterstones in Newbury on February 11th between 1100 and 1500.

Wordwatchers are of course, hoping she’ll be swamped with requests for signings, but we’ll be trickling through, during the day, to keep her company and offer moral support.

Note: Find The Apothecary’s Daughter on Amazon here: TAD (Paperback, Hardback and Kindle editions available)

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The Year of the Short Story

January 22, 2012

The only time I really get to read the newspaper these days is when I am preparing the fire, scanning each page before I scrumple it up and shove it into the woodburner.  Yesterday was such a day and it found me reading the Review section of the previous week’s Saturday Telegraph (a newspaper which typically only gets looked at for the big general knowledge crossword on the day it comes out, and then ignored until, as I say, it’s getting pushed into the fire).

So it was, sitting in front of the woodburner, poised, ready to scrunch, I learned that short stories are “the literary form for our times” and that we can find out how to write them by joining in with the Telegraph’s creative writing course, delivered as part of their Short Story Club.

I took a look and it seems there’s quite a lively forum developing.  Definitely worth checking it out… and the competition side of things allows you to submit a story a month.

Since Wordwatchers began over ten years ago, we’ve had a tradition for short stories, running two competitions every year.  2012 sees them going as strongly as ever, as John’s blog posting shows.  Let’s see what the year brings as we start sending some of the new batch out in to this brave new world of short story opportunity.

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Even more success for Katherine!

December 12, 2011

It would seem there’s no stopping Katherine’s rise to literary stardom – as well as making it on to the Sunday Times Top 10 best sellers list, she’s also topped this week’s Love Reading poll! (

From everybody at Wordwatchers Katherine – well done!

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Next Page »

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