A Christmas Ghost Story...ish

Something ghostly this way comes?

This year there's a new pre-Christmas ghost story in the air. You might have read about it in the news.

A debut author has, shock and horror, received help from her publisher in bringing her book to life. Okay, that's a broad brush. Let me be a bit more specific: a ghostwriter worked on it with her. Do I hear the sound of dropped cups, swooning and monocles falling out of place?

Zoe Sugg,  a hugely popular blogger and vlogger, has stepped into the literary fray by writing her first novel. So far, so what? 

Of course, we love the romantic idea of someone starving in a garret somewhere and then producing a book that would wring tears from angels, laughter from statues and respect from the critics. But that's our fiction and not hers.

Ghostwriters are nothing new (although, arguably, the runaway success of celebrity fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon). Katie Price's ghost-writer, Rebecca Farnworth, who died earlier this month, worked on both her memoirs and her fiction. Rumours persisted for years that prolific author Jeffrey Archer had a ghostwriter or two tucked away, although his prison diaries seemed to have silenced the critics.

I have a foot in each camp on his one. I've worked with some writers who had great ideas but struggled, in places, to fully realise them. It also goes without saying that any good publisher would assign a good editor. 

In the end, I think, a lot of it comes down to our expectations and projections as readers. I'd hope that the ideas behind the book, including the characterisation, plot lines and most of the dialogue, are the author's own work. However, I also know that in a collaboration ideas, themes and changes occur organically. In the end, readers will have to judge for themselves on the quality of the book.

Will Gompertz had an interesting take on Zoellagate on the BBC website.

What's your take on ghostwriters?

Coping with Bad Reviews

In the run-up to Christmas, author and Strictly Writing family member, Sam Tonge, talks turkey!

We all have our own way of dealing with bad reviews – and in my experience, whilst they may sting, it does get easier over time to cope. They are, after all, part of our job as an author, and it would be unreasonable – arrogant even – to expect that everyone is going to enjoy your work. We can all think of a bestselling movie or story that all our friends love, but we just don’t “get”. Equally, search out your favourite novel on Amazon – whilst you adored it you can be certain a number of people won’t have.

My bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, came out last November. Whilst overall it sold well, and was even shortlisted recently for the Festival of Romantic Fiction Best E-book award, it received its fair share of poor reviews. And one thing I quickly learnt was to differentiate between the constructive bad reviews and those which in tone, and choice of words, seemed hellbent on upsetting the author. The latter, where possible, are to be ignored!

However the constructive 1* and 2* reviews, I read with interest. It is fascinating to see how someone else views your work and to find out which aspects – for them – didn’t work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I took on board what a couple of them said, when writing Doubting Abbey’s sequel, From Paris with Love. I always appreciate the time people take to review my books and if they didn’t enjoy them, reading an explanation of why not can be really useful. After all, they’ve invested money in my writing - it’s only right they should have a platform to explain why they were left dissatisfied

Of course, it can be confusing – something one reviewer hates will be loved by another. For Doubting Abbey, one person would dislike the way my main character, Gemma, said “Amazin’” a lot, whilst another would head their review “Amazin’ book”! But if a certain criticism comes up more than once, I give it a lot of thought. In my opinion, the most important thing is not to take it personally – to most readers authors are faceless beings, and I don’t believe they think about them when critically dismantling a novel.

You know what they say – a bad review is better than none and I hope readers find lots to like in my Christmas novel Mistletoe Mansion, which features a celebrity wannabe, famous golfing wife, lots of cupcakes and a supposed ghost! But if not, I just need to remember that plenty of Marmite books have had great success. In other words, not everyone has to love your work for it to do well.


Samantha Tonge lives in Cheshire with her lovely family, and two cats who think they are dogs. When not writing, she spends her days cycling and willing cakes to rise. She has sold over 80 short stories to women’s magazines. Her bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction best Ebook award in 2014. Its fun standalone sequel is From Paris with Love. Mistletoe Mansion stars a new set of characters and is for fans of cupcakes and Christmas!

From Paris with Love

Kimmy Jones has three loves: cupcakes, gossip magazines and dreaming of getting fit just by owning celeb workouts.

When Kimmy’s Sensible Boyfriend told her he didn’t approve of her longing for the high life or her dream of starting a cupcake company, Kimmy thought she could compromise – after all, she did return those five-inch Paris Hilton heels! But asking her to trade in cake-making for a job sorting potatoes is a step too far.

So, newly single - and newly homeless – Kimmy needs a dusting of Christmas luck. And, masquerading as a professional house sitter, her new temporary home is the stunning Mistletoe Mansion. Soon she’s best buds with glamorous next door golf WAG Melissa, and orders are pouring in for her fabulous Merry Berry cupcakes! The only thorn in her side is handsome handyman Luke, a distraction she definitely doesn’t need. And talking of distractions, something very odd is going on at night…

Kimmy is finally living the life she’s always wanted. But will her glimpse into the glittering lifestyle of the rich and famous be as glamorous as she’s always imagined…?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SamTongeWriter
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SamanthaTongeAuthor
Website: http://samanthatonge.co.uk/
Doubting abbey Blog: http://doubtingabbey.blogspot.co.uk/
AmazonUK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mistletoe-Mansion-Samantha-Tonge-ebook/dp/B00O56X3HM/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412419104&sr=1-1&keywords=Mistletoe+mansion
AmazonUS: http://www.amazon.com/Mistletoe-Mansion-Samantha-Tonge-ebook/dp/B00O56X3HM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1412419236&sr=8-1&keywords=mistletoe+mansion

Polls Apart

As I write this, an ebook publisher and I are swapping emails about my thrillers. The signs are good, since:
a) They like my first book.
b) They wanted to look at all the feedback and reports for the first book.
c) They'd like to look at the second book.
d) They have a positive track record in the genre.
e) They're especially interested in taking on a series (and I'm writing book three, yay!).

This possible passport to publication, as well as being a snub to those who said I couldn't do alliteration, has made me think again about reviews.

Some interesting myths have grown up around online book reviews:
1. The first half dozen or so are usually by friends or stablemates from the same publisher, and consequently ought to be discounted.
2. There is a specific ratio (though not the golden ratio) of good reviews to terrible ones that will give you a clear indication of whether your book is really cutting the mustard.
3. A stinker or two, as well as contributing to the unspecified specific ratio of reviews also shows you have written something so distinctive that it polarises readers.

I recently came across an ebook that has done fabulously well, and I use that word deliberately (unlike all the other times I've used it).

It has sales in the squllions (well, okay, many thousands), driven by word-of-mouth and glowing reviews. It also has some reviews that tell a different story - a tiny proportion of readers who, clearly, got on the wrong book bus.

Here are some of the positive comments:

"The story line was unique."
"I'm very glad I took the chance."
"The characters are well developed."
...You become totally immersed in the lives of the characters..."
"Prepare yourself to laugh..."

By way of contrast here are some of the negative comments - naturally, I've tried to pick out some funny ones:

"The heroin isn't likable at all." (Worthy of an honourable mention for the spelling alone.) 
"I wanted to punch her in the face the whole time!"
"I am at 43% (I am reading on my Kindle) and I am about to give up." 
"I guess sometimes you shouldn't buy a book based on their reviews."
"...Great plot good book and if u want me to spoil it for u just let me know." (How very public spirited of you.)
"I didn't like the fact that they were liberals."
"Not my favorite but also not my least favorite." (Arguably, the same could be applied by the author to the review.)

When you factor in the fact that some reviews are based upon review copies, the only true measure of a book's commercial success is book sales. I wonder how the metrics would look if freebie downloads and their reviews were featured separately?

The more I look into it, the more I gravitate towards the opinion that none of this really matters. However, if the ebook publisher takes me and my thrillers on, rest assured I'll be back here in search of reviews quicker than you can say paraprosdokian.

Wish me luck...and tell me about the best and worst reviews you've ever received.

See Me After Class

I want to talk about the Arts for a moment - don't worry, it has a direct bearing on writing. Honest.

Recently, the actor David Morrisey, in an interview with The Radio Times, lamented what he calls the "intern culture". His viewpoint is that only those with access to financial support can afford to do acting internships, so those from a poorer background are generally excluded. 

The actress Julie Walters also shared similar sentiments. Actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Freddie Fox have also commented on the issue and, rather than having me paraphrase and risk misquoting themyou'd be better served by reading the BBC website piece here: 

Who is right and what has this to do with writing?

All of them and none of them. Everything and nothing.

The US Declaration of Independence includes a very interesting phrase: "...The pursuit of happiness..." Not, you'll notice, a guarantee, a promise, or even a modicum.

However, let's not kid ourselves that the Arts was ever a halcyon democracy. Or even a meritocracy, come to that.

Money creates opportunity. Education creates opportunity. Class creates opportunity.

David and Julie are speaking from personal experience, but so are Benedict and Freddie. They both come from acting families and relative wealth, but that would only get them so far without them having developed their talents.

Following a recent rejection of one of my thrillers - We like the beginning very much, the writing is good with a humorous tone. But then it continues with too little edge-of-your-seat action. For a thriller it feels too little thriller-ish, and we feel it’s too long, so I’m afraid we’ll give it a pass. - I went through the familiar soul-searching about whether the book actually is good enough to be published. From there it's a short hop, skip and jump to 'Am I wasting my time?' and a reflection on the fact that I'm now writing my fifth novel. 

Is education stifling my ability to write well? (Well enough, I mean.) 

To quote Peter Cook out of context: ...I never had the Latin.

Had being the operative word. A writing education, of sorts, is now available to anyone with internet access. Similarly, the proliferation of ebooks gives would-be writers and readers an opportunity to read the classics, or any genre, from the comfort of their own living room (or lounge, or front room, or front parlour, if you prefer). Time and money are less of an issue, I think, than motivation.

For example, I came to Thomas Hardy when I was 25. I'd simply never encountered him until then and I've loved his work ever since (especially Jude the Obscure). Every author I read informs and influences my writing. How could it be otherwise, since my writing is an amalgam of all my experiences, ideas and imaginings?

Class is part of that too. I believe as writers we should embrace who we are, where we've come from and what values and perspectives we've inherited. But...that shouldn't define the limits of our experience - on the page or off it. Education can expand our horizons by lifting our expectations and showing us what is possible.

I also recognise that the writer's pursuit of happiness is merely that - a journey. You may or may not get published (by whatever means). You may or may not make any money at it. Fame, fortune and artistic opportunity may elude you. 

But be true to your pen, and your writer's instinct, and you life will be a unique adventure.

Which novels have you read that changed your writing for the better, and which would you recommend?

Five great things about being published!

Published authors sometimes have a moan about deadlines, revisions, edits and bad reviews – in fact I’ve also blogged on this tour about the negative aspects of being published that I wished I’d known about before. But you know what? All of that is far outweighed by the positives. So don’t give up folks, if you are still striving for that deal – and here’s why.

1 Getting published demonstrates one thing that we all know but sometimes need concrete proof of – that hard work and perseverance will guarantee success. Is that a bold statement? I don’t think so. I’ve known a lot of writers over the years, and without exception, every single one that has learned their craft, studiously subbed to agents/publishers, and moved on from rejection, has eventually landed that deal. Okay, so it has taken some writers longer than others, but the overriding quality they have all shared, in order to at some point sign on the dotted line, is DETERMINATION. And it is a wonderful feeling, when you finally sign the contract, to realize that all those years of hard work have paid off.

2 When you tell people that you are an author, they insist that you must be clever – and, of course, on a very vain level that is lovely. Not that I believe it, however. See above. I am more determined than gifted. In fact my stock answer (which I truly believe) is that everyone has a degree of talent in some area that can be nurtured, be that writing, selling clothes, being a great parent or singing pop songs.

3 There’s the feeling of vindication. Whilst I have only ever had support from friends and family (fellow writing pals haven’t been so lucky), there is the need, when unpublished, to constantly justify why you expend so much sweat – and so many tears – pursuing a place in an industry that gives you nothing back but rejection. At last you can shout “Yes! You see! I knew I’d get there in the end! I knew what I was doing! I wasn’t wasting my time and energy! I CAN write!”

4 Royalties and climbing rank positions are lovely indeed, but one of the best aspects of being published is positive feedback from readers. A review that says your book cheered them up. Nothing pleases me more than knowing that I might have made someone’s day into a better one. I’ve made a difference, however small.

5 That sense of immortality – knowing that when you pass onto the next world (or into a black hole of nothingness, whatever you believe!) you have left something tangible behind. It is as if authors beat Mother Nature. Although, having contentedly said that, I did think recently, with a wry smile, that so far my books are digital-only and if there is ever a severe energy crisis, my stories might disappear into the ether. So I need to press forwards for a print deal!

Samantha Tonge lives in Cheshire with her lovely family, and two cats who think they are dogs. When not writing, she spends her days cycling and willing cakes to rise. She has sold over 80 short stories to women’s magazines. Her bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, came out in November 2013.

Every girl dreams of hearing those four magical words Will you marry me? But no-one tells you what’s supposed to happen next…

Fun-loving Gemma Goodwin knows she should be revelling in her happy-ever-after. Except when her boyfriend Lord Edward popped the question, after a whirlwind romance, although she didn’t say no….she didn’t exactly say yes either!

A month-long cookery course in Paris could be just the place to make sure her heart and her head are on the same page… And however disenchanted with romance Gemma is feeling, the City of Love has plenty to keep her busy; the champagne is decadently quaffable, the croissants almost too delicious, and shopping is a national past-time! In fact, everything in Paris makes her want to say Je t’aime… Except Edward!

But whilst Paris might offer plenty of distractions from wedding planning – including her new friends, mysterious Joe and hot French rockstar Blade - there’s no reason she couldn’t just try one or two couture dresses is there? Just for fun…


Martin Bodenham - Once A Killer

Back in 2012 I met a fellow thriller writer, Martin Bodenham. His novel, The Geneva Connection, and my dark tale, The Silent Hills, became stablemates and we've tried to stay in touch ever since. I say tried because Martin gets around - as you'll see! 

I recently caught up with him online and he recapped his writing journey for Strictly Writing.

How did you get into writing financial thriller novels?

During the heady days of the 1990s and the subsequent dotcom bubble, I was a corporate finance partner with both KPMG and Ernst & Young, putting together Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) deals and raising private equity for clients.  After that, I ran a private equity firm in London.  I saw at first hand the tension between greed and fear in investment banking.  They say write about what you know, so I guess it was natural for me to look at the world of international finance for inspiration.  I found plenty!

What are you up to now?

Last year, I moved to the west coast of Canada where I write thriller novels based around finance and crime.  My first novel, The Geneva Connection, was published in 2012 when I squeezed in the writing during the evenings and weekends.  On the back of that book, I was able to sign up with a New York agent.  Now I write full-time and my second novel has just been published.

How do you find the process of writing for an international audience?

It’s funny, but I wrote my first novel with a UK audience in mind, but most of my sales were in the US because that’s where my publisher was located.  When the book went through the editing process, I had to learn quickly about the language differences between UK and US English.  That was not the difficult part, though.  It is the more subtle differences that are hard to spot.  A turn of phrase we might use in the UK can have a completely different meaning in the US.  That is where a good editor improves the quality of the final manuscript.  Mine is based in the US, so she is well placed to spot my errors and misuse of language.  Moving to Canada last year has complicated things further as it seems Canadians have some form of mid-Atlantic English of their own.

Was writing the second novel easier than the first?

Yes and no.  You learn a lot about technique and plotting during a first novel.  That means the technical process is a little easier on each succeeding project.  However, the idea for my first novel was swimming around my head for some time so, when it came to write it, the story just spilled out onto the page.  For my second novel, I had to go hunting for story ideas.  I had to drop quite a number of them before settling on my final choice.  One piece of advice I received from another published author was to make sure you are absolutely happy with the outline plot before committing to it.  That was good advice considering you have to spend the best part of a year to create a finished book.

What is your second novel about?

The book is called Once a Killer and it is set in the world of hedge funds and M&A in New York.  The best way for me to describe it is by sharing with you the blurb from the back cover:

Michael Hoffman has come a long way from his deprived childhood in Chicago’s south side. Now he’s a young, successful partner in a major New York law firm, handling some of its clients’ most prestigious M&A deals. With a beautiful wife, and two young daughters who look up to him, he has built the perfect life.
But Michael has a secret: one that goes back to his childhood; a secret so dark it could destroy his family and brilliant career. Discovered by the wrong people, it would certainly get him killed.
There is only one person who knows about his past, and he is a career criminal who manages a low profile hedge fund, bankrolled by Eastern European mafia money. Michael is safe, but only for as long as he agrees to feed details of his firm’s deals to the fund so it can make millions from insider trading.
More information can be found on my author website: www.martinbodenham.com
Where do you get your ideas/inspiration from?

One thing I have become is a people watcher.  I don’t mean that I go around staring at complete strangers, but I try to observe how people react to situations.  What do they say and what expressions do they make to demonstrate their emotions?  As a writer, our job is to show the reader what a character is feeling by describing their behaviour and through the use of dialogue.  It is lazy writing simply to tell the reader a character was angry/ happy etc.

As for plots, they are everywhere: newspapers, television, obituaries, even former work situations.  They say there are only six stories to describe the human existence: love, revenge and so on.  The trick is to find new ways of telling them...

How do you stand out in the crowd?

As I said, there are only so many stories.  A writer needs to find his own approach, perhaps by creating interesting characters or by setting them in new environments.  There are not that many financial thrillers out there, so I guess I saw that as my gap and opportunity to stand out.  My inspiration was my favourite author, John Grisham who, as a former lawyer, led the way with legal thrillers.

What’s next?

My third novel has been written, but I need to take a break from it.  I find taking a break from a story for three months or more enables me to see it in a completely new light.  Once I have revised it, then it will be time to send it to my professional editor.  You need thick skin to take some of her comments, but the process really improves the final product.

Martin Bodenham

Course Correction

Well, that's the OU Fiction Writing online course done and dusted. It's been about a week since I last logged out, actually, and I wanted to reflect a little on what I experienced and what I've earned.

As a free course, requiring only three hours a week to complete each module, you quickly confront yourself at the screen. You can race through if you want to, or pause to carefully read - and re-read - about all the essential elements of writing fiction that you think you already know. I suppose it's a little like the notion of there only being seven plots, but the art lies in how each author approaches in and how they are written.

Similarly, the module exercises that are not shared online are a matter between you, your pen and your conscience. Just like a diet or an exercise regime, only you know the truth. Although, of course, eventually, one way or another, the truth will reveal itself.

What struck me at times was how uninspired I felt when it came to producing a character description or a short story. I'd never set out to write a short story to order before (competitions don't count because they're elective). Two of my pieces were set in pubs - possibly the same pub - and now that I think about it, they both dealt with health problems.

My course contributions, in my opinion, only really stepped up a gear for the final story submission that, like other pieces, was reviewed by other writers on the course. Originally I'd planned to wrk with the opening scene of a new book I've been thinking about (after I've completed The Caretaker), but, unsurprisingly, it didn't work as a story at all. What changed things for me was attending an event at a local art gallery, where ideas started attaching themselves to me like limpets and barnacles.

Once one takes the plunge and wears the badge of 'writer' it can be easy to divorce oneself from the fundamentals. However, characters need to live and breathe, plots have to be based in a believable reality, and dialogue has to flow and engage. Most importantly of all, the story needs to matter to writer and reader - they have to care. 

These things do not change because we have books and stories to our names. If anything, it all gets harder because we now know the path that lies ahead.

Newbie writers can be brimming with enthusiasm (or cowering in fear), yet to be tested by the page. We met them in the forum, adding a word of encouragement here and there, or a critique if it was asked for, learning from their untainted perspectives.

Some writers on the course were brilliant; I read comments that were as carefully crafted as the sharpest of prose. Other commenters were mean-spirited, more attuned to a spelling mistake than the impact of the prose itself.

I relearned that:

- Everyone has to start somewhere.
- Feedback is always appreciated, especially at the beginning of the journey.
- People are endlessly fascinating when you take the time and pay attention, and everyone has a story to tell.
- People write for different reasons. Just as some writers I know of dropped out of the course, or didn't start it in the first place, so others used it to carve out dedicated time and space each week for writing.
- There is always room for improvement (as my beta readers know only too well!).
- A good idea drives the story forward. In my own case, one scene led to a character who revealed his backstory, which affected how he behaved and how the plot progressed. I have his story an open ending as a thank you.
- Writing and life are inextricably linked. You cannot write in isolation. Several people on the forum spoke of family crises, bereavement and other issues that compelled them to write.
- Writing can be cathartic.
- Writing can take you to new places if you allow it. My final story (which I plan to pitch to magazines next month after another edit) would not have existed without my going on the course. 

Where has your writing taken you and where might it take you next?

Back to the Well of Inspiration

How many times have you promised yourself you'll get up especially early, just for the pleasure of writing? Or perhaps you've thought about getting inspired again, by taking your journal out with you to somewhere new?

I think I'm easily influenced. While speaking to a friend at work, I listened in awe as she described a stroll through the valley not so long after dawn. She concluded her tale with the words: "That set me up for the whole day." Later, while listening to the weather report at home, I noted that the sunrise was at 05.07 and mentioned it to Anne. "If you're planning on going out early, good luck with that," she said.

Be careful what you wish for. The third time I awoke the next morning the house was as still as my ebook sales. It had to be around 06.30 - the birds were in fine voice. I checked the clock - 05.10. Now, a normal person would have smiled at the synchronicity, turned over and drifted back to sleep. I, however, think that normal is over-rated. Actually, let me go further: There is no normal.

Anyway, I crept downstairs, grabbed my wellies and my Blackberry, and teased open the back door (to avoid calling the cat). I didn't take a notebook, but I had the idea to try and record the birdsong and create a soundscape for future writing. We're very fortunate to live in a village that leads down to some woods, so in only a few minutes I was heading past a field where horses were curious to see me. 

The results of my first soundscapes weren't encouraging. True, you could hear the whisper of birds, but the rustling of my cagoule (come on, you knew I'd have a cagoule) pretty much drowned out everything else. No matter, I went down to the woods and breathe in the day. There was, needless to say, no one else around. Sunlight stretched down to touch the fading bluebells, like a last caress. Blackbirds seemed to bicker with wrens while robins chuckled at them both. 

I remembered then, as I stood smiling at the river, that this was what writing used to mean to me. Not followers and likes, or retweets, or even blog posts, just a writer's curiosity and that sublime cocktail of inspiration and imagination. In that forest I was with elves, their shimmering presence flickering through the foliage. I heard cloven hoofs behind me and turned to see only the dust of my reason, lifting free in the dewy haze. I breathed in the forest and touched upon something glorious - the absolute certainty, that moment, that a writer's life is meant to about moments and adventure, and the quest to bring that back to the page. Everything else fell away, right then, until there was simply a communion between me and the muse. Only this time the muse didn't offer me stories and characters, or plots and metaphors. She simply drew close, as I closed my eyes in the sunlight and felt her breath against my face, and she whispered joyfully, "Write."

I slipped away, but a few steps though far away,
Leaving the world behind me.
Each step an answer to a call I could not name.
Earth and Sky became my companions,
Drawing me gently to a place I'd almost forgotten.
Enchanted by birdsong and the content of horses,
I trod the path.
Down, down into the verdant shadows,
Where silence embraced me.

I have seen the resting place of kinds,
Heard secrets I cannot now recall,
And witnessed a miracle, a becoming.
And all my cleverness fell away,
Until I was not the observer,
Nor even the hallowed guest.
I simply belonged.

Back to Basics

When Richard, a fellow writer, sent me a link for a free online fiction course from the Open University, he closed his email with the phrase 'Coals to Newcastle'. Yes, by now, I should have the building blocks of writing covered, but that doesn't mean I don;t have a lot to learn - or a thirst to learn it.

The course runs over eight weekly modules (we're at week three as I write this), each expected to take a minimum of three hours. There are video clips, audio clips and succinct observations and prompts on the practice of writing. It's fun to let go of novels published and unpublished (and, frankly, in need of writing) and just immerse myself in the cauldron of writing.

Incidentally, the OU offer other free online courses - here's a handy link: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/upcoming 

The prompts for writing are the things that every writer should be attuned to - but this writer hasn't been for a while: snippets from the radio or TV, things you hear in your day, or an emotion / situation. It's great to see beginners on the forum, gaining their confidence and receiving positive encouragement from more seasoned scribblers. It actually feels like a community - remember those?!

Here are the first drafts of three of my random writings, just for the hell of it.

1. Write about a writer who is in a difficult place to write.

"Do you mind?"
Of course he minded; he watched in dismay as his elbow recoiled and his pen skidded across the page. She didn't look round and he was grateful for that. Every word extracted required concentration - a feat of inspiration and dexterity. Every shift of a foot to regain his balance seemed to shatter his equilibrium. Another train stop and a brief reprieve as the hordes surged past him. A gulp of air, the pen held close like an amulet, and another wave of bodies oozing into the carriage - carrying with them a cacophonous scent of fast food, gaudy perfume and sweat. He nearly gagged, finding focus in his words. The train jolted forward; time to begin again. Chapter 2, line four.

2. Write about a writer who is in a good place to write. (The same train.)
Was it wrong to take delight in his discomfort? Maybe, but Margaret allowed herself a sigh that emerged into a smile, drawing her handbag close across her knees. On top of it, her notebook lay open. Oh, she could feel the person to her right, taking a look. The curved reflection in the glass opposite captured every furtive glance - nosey cow. Despite that - or maybe because of it - Margaret wrote with a flourish.

She captured the scrawled lines across the man's face, the way his short hung limply outside his trousers and the way he seemed to shuffle from foot to foot, as if eager to get back to the page. Mostly, though, she tried to imagine what he was writing, what secret worlds he was creating or revealing. She let him stream from her pen, entertaining nosey cow and herself.

3. Write a story prompted by a line heard on the radio.
This, I kid you not, was what Radio 4 had to offer to me: "...The FBI and other intelligence agencies."

Just a snippet; the tale end of something more significant, or sinister. But Tony had heard enough to send him scurrying away from the radio and back downstairs.

Every day the same ritual. He trusted Radio 4, relied on it to cast an augury for his day. If it was good news he'd venture outside, risk polluted air and the threat of contamination; take his money out in a clear plastic bag, in gloved hands, and navigate to the corner shop, avoiding the cracks.

If it was bad news, or anything that frightened him, he'd descend to sanctuary, open another tin of baked beans - the ones with the little sausages in that mum used to tell him were like the ones that real cowboys ate. He'd open a tin and put on his DVDs; sit there watching for an hour or more until he needed the toilet or he heard the letterbox rattle. Then, fortified by Bonanza or The High Chaparral, he'd feel brave enough to return upstairs and try to make something out of the day.

Playing with words can be liberating, much like playing with a box of crayons. If you approach the exercise without expectation or judgement, you might just remember why you got into all this in the first place.