Ashley Lister

Author Branding (Part One)

 By Ashley Lister

 One of the key ways to assure author success is to undertake appropriate author branding. Obviously, success will mean something different for each of us: one person might consider success to be reaching the top of a bestseller list, whilst another person might consider it a success to have emotionally connected with a single reader. (I appreciate this is bullshit, and that we all want the bestseller list, but I have to pay lip service to the idea that we write for reasons other than money, so let’s pretend it’s to make an emotional connection).

Author branding is a term that’s often bandied around but it’s hard to identify its purpose because the branding can be seen to be fairly pointless. Having a website that depends on a particular colour scheme; using a particular font for text; working with a specific style for image: can all contain powerful semiotic suggestions. But is this going to make any impression on readers?

The short answer is YES. If an author goes to the trouble of presenting themselves with the identity of a professional brand, readers begin to respect the authority of that author. Readers come to associate certain features with the pleasure they’ve previously had from that author.

In the first instance, a brand can work as shorthand to capture consumer interest. Consider the images we associate with names such Starbucks, Mercedes-Benz or Amazon. With each of these three examples, we see an image and immediately understand the nature of the company responsible. We associate Starbucks with professional quality coffee. We associate Mercedes-Benz with high quality automotive engineering. And we associate Amazon with an inexhaustible range of services and goods (including books) that are available through very swift delivery.

It goes without saying that each of these three companies has invested a lot of time and money in their branding. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a costly process for those of us with time, imagination and determination. (I appreciate that sounds like shorthand for being cheap, but that’s only because I am trying to be cheap here).

Over the next few months I hope to go through some of the key points of author branding but I want to start with the most important question: who is your ideal author?

My initial answer to this question was a snort of disdain and the observation that my books were available for everyone. Why would I limit myself to an ideal reader when I really want every reader in the world to pick up one of my books?

The reality is, if you have a better idea of your ideal reader, you can better target such ideal readers and make successful sales. To illustrate this point, here at ERWA, authors are writing for an audience who enjoy explicit sexual content. This means your readership are going to be adults with an interest in descriptions of the erotic.

You can narrow the audience further by deciding if you’re writing for a predominantly male or female audience. The general guideline is, if your writing focuses on the emotional connection or a sexual liaison, you’re more likely to be writing for women. If your writing focuses on the physical description of that sexual liaison, you’re more likely to be writing for men. This is an egregious oversimplification and it’s not intended to describe women as more emotional and men as more physical: it’s simply a way to identify your typical reader so you can better market your work to an appropriate audience.

To narrow the audience further, look at the age range of your central characters and realise that readers like to read about characters of a similar age to themselves. This is not a rule that’s set in stone. I read the Harry Potter stories when I was in my forties (and that’s a book about a teenager) and, when I was in my twenties, I read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire series (and those vampires are hundreds of years old). But, generally, we like to read stories that describe characters with whom we can identify and age is a significant factor.

Personal attributes are also worth considering when we’re looking at audience. If you’re writing about characters of a specific sexual orientation, or those with a specific fetish, those people are likely to be part of your audience. Who likes to read about spanking? People in relationships where spanking occurs.

There are other ways to identify an ideal reader but it does help to know who you’re writing for before you begin branding. Next month I’m hoping to write about developing a brand voice.

Book Snobbery

By Ashley Lister

I don’t have a lot of time for snobbery when it comes to reading and writing. It’s a shallow demonstration of idealised values that only serve to make everyone miserable. Book snobbery is perhaps the worst example of this.

I worked with someone (many years ago) who dismissed my writing as ‘those sorts of books’. When I asked her what she meant by that, she gave me a patronising look and told me that what I wrote was of no value. I think, in the conversation that followed, the word ‘twat’ might have occurred once or twice. If I recall things correctly, it was an exchange that only served to make us both miserable. She was miserable because she thought I’d said ‘twat’ too often. I was miserable because I hadn’t said it enough.

Whilst I understand everyone is entitled to their opinion, I get frustrated when some people voice their opinions based on nothing more than hearsay and ignorance.
I’d heard this same individual (and many others, to be fair) voice similar opinions about the lack of worth in contemporary romance novels. I’m not trying to say that pulp contemporary romance is comparable to Shakespeare for its content. But I’m happy to admit I’ve read contemporary romances and cried at the Happy-Ever-After conclusion. I’ll be even more honest and admit there have been some Shakespeare stories which haven’t had that sort of impact on me. Am I supposed to embrace the facileness of book snobbery and claim that Shakespeare is always superior to modern writing? Or would it be better for me to be honest and admit that some of the supposedly literate stuff goes whistling over my thick head, whilst some of the less highbrow material hits me straight in the gut? If I do make such an admission, am I admitting to having a flawed sense of judgement?

I’ve heard lots of people dismiss the Fifty Shades series with this sort of book snobbery. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of the series. But I also have to admit those books touched a huge audience and they allowed BDSM erotica to be accessed by a mainstream audience. Maybe they didn’t work for me. But they scratched an itch that was felt by more than 50 million readers, so it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that they don’t have some worth. They’ve introduced readers to my favourite genre, and they’ve given BDSM fiction a veneer of respectability. Book snobbery in the face of such success would be hypocritical.

I’m not sure who’s meant to be impressed by book snobbery. If I disparage the genre you enjoy reading, does that prove my tastes are more sophisticated? If so: why would you care? Do the opinions of a book snob matter to anyone?

More importantly, if I was a book snob, why would I care what others are reading? Am I simply trying to impress everyone that my tastes are superior? Or, is it more likely that I have a shallow need to make myself feel important by pissing on the achievements and the enjoyments of others?

I’m not saying we have to love every book that’s out there. I’m not suggesting we have to embrace genres that cover subjects we don’t enjoy. I’m not even advocating that we sing the praises of authors who produce work we don’t like. But I would like to say – if you’re going to criticise a book, genre or author – make sure you’re criticising them for a valid reason: not simply to make yourself look clever by disparaging what others have done. That level of book snobbery only ever serves to make everyone miserable.

Rude Anatomy of a Risqué Poem

By Ashley Lister

As many regular readers will know: I love poetry. I think poetry can be an effective tool for writers as it helps us get a better command over our vocabulary, and it makes us think more acutely about the way we use words. I also believe that a lot can be said in a poem that makes us reflect critically on the environment that allowed such a poem to come into creation. Consequently, this month, I thought I’d share one of my poems here and discuss the inspiration and execution.

Granny pulled on her surgical stockings
She put her false teeth in the glass
She took the Tena pad out of her panties
And said, “Grandpa, could you please fuck my ass?”

The idea for this one came about because I’d wanted to write something that presented the act of sex in an unfamiliar fashion. As writers, I believe, we’re always trying to show the world to our readers in a way that goes beyond the familiar. I could go on here to discuss Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization, but those who know about that, know about that. And those who don’t know about that know about Google.

Writing about old people having sex struck me as being a humorous idea because we normally equate the sex act as being the domain of the young and the beautiful. We can see this in media, such as the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, where Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann famously tells Private Pyle, “You climb obstacles like old people fuck.” I’m not saying I subscribe to this idea of old age and poor sexual practices being relational. I firmly believe that good sex has nothing to do with youth and beauty. However, societal attitudes suggest that we treat those over a certain age as being past the need or ability for sex.

“I got horny last month at the bingo
When I called house on a sixty-nine.
It’s been decades since I’ve taken one hard up the chuff
And you ought to be there this time.”

“I got horny last week at the library
Whilst reading an old People’s Friend.
I saw an advert for polyester trousers
And it made my arse want your nob-end.”

“I got horny tonight in the kitchen
As I tuned in to Woman’s Hour.
I could hear the rain dripping on my cat flap
And I thought let’s try a golden shower.”

So, as we can see from the verses above, I’ve decided to include lots of placeholders that put this in the category of old people. There’s mention of Tena pants (a product for those who suffer from urinary incontinence). There’s mention of bingo. I identify People’s Friend: a UK magazine with a readership who are primarily elderly, with an average reader age of 71 years and 45% of readers being in the 75+ age group. There’s also mention of Woman’s Hour, a BBC Radio 4 programme that has been broadcasting since 1946. The demographic for Woman’s Hour is not necessarily old but, because it’s been broadcasting for so long, there is an association of the audience belonging to a more mature age group. There’s mention of polyester trousers, and later we’ll see mention of brands targeted towards a mature consumer, such as Steradent, the denture cleansing tablets, and Horlicks, the sweet malted milk hot drink.

These are all thrown into the poem to help create the humorous juxtaposition between a glamorised version of the erotic act of intimacy, and the cold reality faced by today’s modern elderly consumer.

Also note the way the three verses above are working to the rule of three. “I got horny last month… / I got horny last week… / I got horny last night…” We’re building to the present moment in specifically divided increments, moving directly to now. We’ve had mention of an array of sex acts from mutually reciprocated oral sex, a suggestion of cuckoldry, anal sex and urolagnia. Again, the humour I was aiming for came from the unnatural coupling of these acts, which we associate with youth, and the trappings of being elderly.

“So I’m here and I’m hot and I’m horny,
And my teeth are in the Steradent glass.
I slipped Viagra into your Horlicks
So please do me now, up the ass.”

It’s worth mentioning something about the structure here. Each verse is a four-line stanza with an x a x a rhyme scheme (where x is an unrhymed line). I’ve not kept to a particular meter because my intention was to write this as a performance piece, allowing me to pause or force pronunciation in some areas. You will notice that the punchline for each verse comes in that final line of each stanza, and usually in the final word.

Well Grandpa, he did try to please her
As she lay there with her legs spread wide
He gave her a cuddle, and a bit of a kiss,
And then teased her piles to one side.

This verse was there to exploit the notion of humour that comes from disgust. Studies have shown that we are able to laugh at things that are disgusting, as long as the thing we’re laughing at is benign. Because sex is usually presented as the glamorous union between two relatively attractive individuals, this suggestion of a flaw as unglamorous as haemorrhoids is meant to amuse. This is not me saying that I think piles are funny. I don’t. But I’m sufficiently familiar with humour to know that bottoms are funny. Want to make a baby laugh? Blow a raspberry: the same sound that comes out of a bottom. Want to make a toddler laugh? Tell a fart joke. Whether it’s slapstick comedy, where Charlie Chaplin is getting kicked in the buttocks, or is kicking someone else in the backside, or whether it’s the scatological literary brilliance of Jonathan Swift in his poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, which contains the immortal phrase, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”, we always have and always will find bottoms, and the things that come out of bottoms, amusing.

But poor Grandpa was having a problem.
Her desires had caught him off guard.
He rubbed and he tugged and he yanked and he pulled
But the old man’s old man wasn’t hard.

He imagined doing all three Beverley sisters
Trying to coax some life to his dick
He imagined doing Margaret Thatcher
But that made him feel a bit sick.

And Grandma was looking impatient
As she lay there consumed in her lust
He considered her bare flesh and liver spots
And her fanny: all grey curls and dust.

Apologies to my American readers. That final stanza includes one of those cultural anomalies that support George Bernard Shaw’s notion that ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.’ In the US, fanny refers to buttocks. In the UK, fanny is a euphemism for the vagina. I used the word ‘fanny’ in this verse because it seemed playful and inoffensive. There are lots of euphemisms for vagina but, remember, I wanted to keep the content of this poem humorous and that humour comes from choosing the correct word.

I didn’t want to go with any of the usual expletives because, although the poem is written for an adult audience, there are some taboo words that can simply kill the mood of indulgent humour. Vagina is too medical and technical (and contains one syllable too many for this line). The idea of using potentially dysphemistic phrases such as ‘minge’ or ‘kebab’ or ‘flange’ might have worked, but there was the danger they would be seen as stepping away from the benign into something malign, which would impact on the humour.

It was true he still found her exciting
She’d take out both sets of false teeth to please
And whilst it sounds sick, he’d swear by his dick
Wrist jobs improve with Parkinson’s disease.

We can see the way the poem is starting to shift its focus now. Up until this point, the humorous final lines have all ended with vague or explicit references to the sex act. This stanza is replete with references to old people engaging in intercourse but the humorous sting of the final line comes from our limited understanding of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

There are three main symptoms for Parkinson’s which include stiff and inflexible muscles, slow movement and involuntary shaking. However, for a general audience, the symptom of involuntary shaking is usually perceived as the dominant symptom. When we’re discussing diseases for humorous effect, we rely on an audience’s simplistic understandings of medical conditions. For example, we perceive the main symptom of Anorexia Nervosa as being extreme slenderness or weight loss, rather than it being a serious mental health condition. We talk about Alzheimer’s as though it’s only a memory problem, rather than it being a chronic neurodegenerative disease with symptoms that include confusion and difficulty with familiar tasks.

The reverse of this simplification is when we contribute a single cause to the onset of a complex condition. There is more to the causes of diabetes than eating too many sweets. Not every cancer is caused by the sufferer smoking, or having being exposed to cigarette smoke.

But he stood there and looked rather sheepish
He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve just been with another.
I thought that you knew, when I put her to bed,
I always have a quick shag with your mother.”

Once again, notice the softening of the vocabulary. The innocuous word ‘shag’ is used here which is one of the milder euphemisms to describe sexual intercourse. Bonk was considered as a potential alternative, but the harsh consonant cluster at the end of that word, and the fact that it can be construed as potentially violent, made it seem a less palatable choice. It will also be remembered that the main character in the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, used the word ‘shag’ repeatedly. I mention this because the film was released as a 12 certificate in the UK, which allows children below the age of 12 to view the material if accompanied by an adult, supporting the notion that this epithet is comparatively mild. The same certification was also applied to the film’s 1999 sequel: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Y’see, true love is based on two things
Forgive and forget say old timers
Grandpa knew she would forgive and forget
That’s the benefit of having Alzheimer’s.

This final verse was added a long time after the construction of the previous part of the poem. I’d performed the first eleven stanzas several times and, whilst I was pleased with the way the poem was received by audiences, I felt it was lacking the impact of a final punchline. I’m not trying to be reductive with this approach: I understand that poetry is not all about making rude jokes. But the piece is meant to be comedic and one of the essential elements in something comedic is the need for a punchline.

However, it was difficult to know where to go with a punchline. The sexual content had already contained some heavy-hitting variations from standard sexual proclivities, any of which would have been appropriate for the conclusion of the poem. I could have edited the content so that one of these subject areas was left as the conclusion but my worry was that the result would have looked like a patchwork at best, or cannibalised at worst.

Which is why I ended up going with the concept of the final verse: grandpa knows he can be unfaithful because grandma, conforming to the stereotyped dictates of our understanding of Alzheimer’s, is going to immediately forget his confession of infidelity.

I should point out that I’m not trying to suggest the poem is high art. I understand that this poem is little more than a rhyming collection of crude jokes, decorated with examples of poor taste and black humour. However, with the addition of this final stanza, it has been better received by audiences. Since this revision, it has often been the case that I don’t need to deliver the final line for audiences to groan, protest, or finish the piece for me.

To summarise, the poem came about because I wanted to entertain an audience with a poem that drew parallels between the expected positive conventions of describing the sex act, juxtaposed against the negative way our society perceives the elderly as being unattractive and prone to disease. The poem’s success, for me, lies in the way it is favourably received by audiences. Its main failing is that audiences dismiss it as trivial and crude, rather than seeing that it describes an inequity of standards and perception in our current society.

Writing Prompts

by Ashley Lister

Whenever we’re asked the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ a lot of us puzzle over our response. To most of the writers I know ideas aren’t the problem: finding the time to commit those ideas to paper is the real problem.

However, I’m aware that some people do search for inspiration and I’m hoping the following list of 13 questions might prove to be a useful resource to inspire ideas.

I found this list maybe a decade ago on the internet, and have chopped it and changed it to suit purposes in classes over the years. I no know where the list came from but I’m grateful to the original author for them sharing it online.

a) Do you believe honesty is the best policy?
b) List 5 people you know. Then describe each of them in 5 words.
c) If you could have anyone locked in a room so that you could torment them for a day, whom would you choose, and how would you torment them?
d) Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares every night for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
e) Would you enjoy spending a month of solitude in a beautiful natural setting? Food and shelter would be provided but you would not see another person.
f) If you could have one superpower, which would you choose?
g) Which of the four seasons do you most anticipate?
h) Would you be willing to become extremely ugly physically if it meant you would live for 1,000 years at any physical age you chose?
i) Who would you most like to be stuck in an elevator with? Least like?
j) You can select one person from history and ask them a question to which they must give a truthful reply. Whom would you select, and what question would you ask?
k) If you could bring one character to life from your favourite book, who would it be?
l) Would you be willing to commit perjury in court for a close friend? What if your lie would save his life?
m) What dead person would you least want to be haunted by?

With the above list, don’t simply answer yes, no, or insert the name of your least favourite politician where appropriate. Give each one a little thought and see if the answer doesn’t provide the kernel of an idea.

Writing Rules

By Ashley Lister

It’s a common mantra within the writing community that we don’t write: we rewrite.

This investment in revision is supported by Hemingway who is meant to have said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Of course, Hemingway died in 1961 so he never got a chance to read any of my first drafts, which are far from shit, but I understand a lot of people put credence in Hemingway so I won’t dismiss his opinions here.
The need to rewrite is important. Few first drafts reach the giddy heights of what we wanted to do with our work and revision helps us to achieve our goals by producing a more accessible text. However, rather than look at Hemingway’s reductive (and scatological) observations, I find more value in considering George Orwell’s guidance from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

The essay itself is available on the internet and remains relevant and readable, even though it was written more than 70 years ago. It includes many valuable nuggets of wisdom and concludes with six rules that, for writers, are well worth living by. I’ve reiterated them here and I’m going to go through them in a little more detail below.

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

This makes perfect sense as an editing rule. Readers don’t want to be revisiting tired phrases such as ‘she was as pretty as a picture’ or ‘he was working like a dog’. These are phrases with which we are so familiar that we don’t bother considering their content and simply come away from them think ‘she’s pretty’ and ‘he’s hard working’. Victor Shklovsky, in his essay ‘Art as Technique’, discussed the notion of defamiliarisation, suggesting that our readers can see things more clearly when they’re given an original description. Consequently, if we use alternative phrases such as ‘she’s as attractive as a tax refund’ or ‘he’s concentrating harder than a bomb disposal technician with shaky hands’, then our readers are seeing the world from a fresh perspective.

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.

In an episode of Friends, Joey Tribbiani uses a thesaurus to help him write a recommendation letter for Chandler and Monica. His original phrase, that the couple are “warm, nice, people with big hearts”, has been translated into “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps.”

This is a perfect example of why our personal vocabulary is usually sufficient for the task of writing, and a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of using a thesaurus to simply make our phrasing look cleverer. As the old joke says: if you use long words without being absolutely sure of what they mean, there’s a danger you might look photosynthesis.

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Words like really and very are useless modifiers. You should be able to find stronger verbs or adjectives for whatever you’re trying to enhance.

Similarly, words like totally, completely, absolutely and literally are words that don’t add information to a sentence. For example, “The shelf was completely full of books.” reads the same as, “The shelf was full of books.” or better yet, “The shelf was crammed with books.”

4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

This is not Orwell saying that foreign phrases, scientific words or jargon are verboten or non licet. It’s simply his observation that the complexity of these words can sometimes be a barrier to clarity. I’d argue that some foreign phrases, scientific words and jargon need to be used: but this is only in cases where there isn’t an English equivalent that has the specificity of meaning I require. Other than that, I try to place a moratorium on vocabulary that might drag readers from the narrative I’m sharing.

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

As I said at the start of this blog, we don’t write: we rewrite. Personally I find Orwell’s rules are a useful tool to help me when I’m rewriting. I sincerely hope they might be of use to you if you’ve read this far.

Is It Good Enough?

By Ashley Lister

Without wishing to sound like a neurotic writer, constantly begging for acceptance and validation, I think the question at the top of this blog post is one that we often ask ourselves: is it good enough?

I’m not talking about the worries we all have over our creativity. We have an idea for a novel or story. We love the idea. But then we begin to worry that it’s been done before. Invariably, because the nature of story gets the comparable from the parable, we realise our idea is similar to something else. And a lot of writers step away from the good idea at that point, bleakly confident that there is no place in the world for their slant on creativity.

These sorts of doubts are commonplace and are a typical part of the insecure writer’s toolkit. Originality is an abstract concept. Even if we’re so original we write an erotic story that describes a new and previously unchartered method of sexual congress, there will be readers out there who dismiss our genius as, “a horny story about a couple getting it on.”

Here I’m talking about the worries we have once we’ve produced a piece of fiction. Is it good enough for the marketplace? Is it good enough to be worth troubling an editor? Is it good enough to meet the needs of a readership?

Unlike those forms we can complete online, which tell us that we’re 58% of the way through the content, and there are only 212 questions left, there are no convenient guides that tell us when a story is ready for its audience. Because of the solipsistic nature of writing it’s common that the only person who knows when a story is ready is the person who wrote it. And a lot of us have barely convinced ourselves we’re capable of writing a story, let alone understanding when it’s ready to be published.

So, I thought it would be helpful to mention some of the tell-tale signs which let us know a story is ready for publication.

1. This is probably the most important one: are you happy with what you’ve written? You finished your story a fortnight ago. You’ve allowed a little distance between yourself and the text you produced. Now, returning to the story with fresh eyes, you’ve had a chance to read it and answer this question: are you happy with what you’ve written?
This is the point where you should be making sure it tells the story you wanted to tell. The characters are the characters you wanted to see in this story, and the whole piece has the cohesive feel you envisioned when the idea first struck.

2. Does this story do what was asked for in the Call for Submissions (CfS)? If you’re writing for a CfS, or to the remit of an editor or publisher, does the story you’ve produced do what they wanted? Is the word count correct? Does the vocabulary match other titles from this publishing house? Or, for example, if the story asked for steampunk themed stories, is your story sufficiently steampunk, or does that content need to be developed in the edit? If the story was for an anthology of lesbian vampire stories, are the main characters in your narrative lesbian? Is there some suggestion of vampirism?
I’m not suggesting any of us make these latter sorts of mistake regularly, but I do know editors who have received futuristic science-fiction stories when they’ve been asking for Victoriana, so I believe it’s always a point worth making.

3. How close is the deadline? I’m not saying this to be brutal or callous but, if you’ve been working on this story for the past six months, and the deadline is midnight tonight, the thing is ready to send. Stick it to an email and dump it in the editor’s inbox.

4. What do your beta-readers think? No man is an island (except for the Isle of Man) and a second set of eyes is always useful to appraise the manuscript we’re producing. If you’ve had a beta-reader or two go over your story, and they’ve given a green light, it’s time to hit send.

The French essayist, Paul Valéry, said, “A poem is never finished only abandoned.” This is a helpful way of avoiding responsibility for any of the poems we’ve ever written, but it’s an unhelpful approach to gauging whether or not our material is ready for the marketplace.

I sincerely believe, if a writer considers his or her responses to the four questions above, they’ll be a step closer to knowing whether or not now is the correct time to publish. And, if you have any other ideas for how we can tell when a manuscript is ready, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.



By Ashley Lister

A colleague got in touch with me the other day. He was sitting in front of a blank sheet, waiting for inspiration, and he wanted my advice: “I’m blocked,” he explained. “What should I do?”

My response was immediate: “Write a haiku.”

When it comes to physical exercise, we’re all sufficiently savvy to know that it’s sensible to warm up before running or pumping iron. If you start to run without having stretched your body into an appropriate state of limberness, then you court the danger of serious physical injury. If you start lifting weights without having stretched, then you could easily strain a muscle or tear something important.

And yet, when it comes to writing, a form of psychological exercise than can be as draining as a marathon and as challenging as any weightlifting competition, the idea of warming up with a brief exercise is invariably dismissed.

I know I’ve mentioned haiku on here before, but I do think the simplicity of the form is impressive. More importantly, I think the discipline that comes from writing a haiku, forcing oneself to focus on a clarity of image and a rigidity of syllabic expression, helps each of us to enter that special zone of focus that is needed for writing.

It’s a form of exercise that I try to use before each writing session. The concept is relatively simple. I need to write a single haiku before I can begin. This means I need to compose a three line poem where the first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables, and the final line contains five syllables.

Obviously there are variations on the haiku form, and there’s the distinction between a haiku and senryu that I tend not to worry about, but I stick with the traditional form because it best suits my needs.

This was a whimsical one I wrote the other morning:

I’m worried because
One of my balls is larger
Than the other two

It’s nothing special. But the syllable counting and making this quip in a specifically concise manner, was enough to get my mind into my personal zone of creativity.

My colleague got back to me. He’d written a haiku and then managed to get a few more pages down on his current WIP.

Writing Exercise – Overwriting

by Ashley Lister

Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2019 brings you all that you deserve, and may your happiness and pleasure be enviable.

Last month I wrote about the importance of description and the lovely Lisabet Sarai was sufficiently sagacious to remind me that it’s a common error in new writers to include too much description. Consequently, I thought that this month we could look at balance in writing and description.

Before we begin, I’d seriously recommend watching this video from the hilarious Weird Al.

I think this song illustrates how easy it is to overwrite any piece of fiction. Weird Al is parodying ‘Trapped in the Closet’ and is doing it with his usual panache and style. In one scene, when the couple have decided to go out for a meal, we’re treated to the following lines:

“We head out of the front door.
Open the garage door.
Then I open the car door.
And we get in those car doors.
Put my key in the ignition.
And then I turn it sideways.
Then we fasten our seatbelts…”

This is funny because it’s so much unnecessary detail: far more detail than any audience would ever want. However, if this was in a piece of fiction, we wouldn’t be enjoying it. Rather than feeling as though they were immersed in the physicality of the situation, our reader would simply become bored with the iteration of dull minutiae. And the golden rule of all fiction is: never bore the reader.

So, how does this apply to description? Well, frustratingly, description can sometimes be the dullest part of a piece of fiction. Below is my least favourite piece of description in all of literature:


One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

As a piece of description, I think this is effective and I can’t fault Brontë for the detail of her description. I can clearly picture the villainous old guns and the liver-coloured pointer. But I think this also slows down the pace of the story and, speaking personally, I think there is a strong danger of the reader becoming bored. The description is static – nothing is moving and nothing seems to be happening other than the narrator standing in the doorway and taking a mental inventory of what he can see.

By contrast, this is how I started a piece of description on a short story:


The parlour was quiet enough so Victoria could hear the tick of the Grandfather from the hall outside. Stark spring sunlight filtered through the net curtains to illuminate the elegant furnishings. The family’s finest bone china was laid out on a lily-white tablecloth. The afternoon tea was completed with freshly baked French fancies. Sitting comfortably in one of the parlour’s high-backed chairs, Victoria placed one lace-gloved hand over the other, adjusted her voluminous skirts, and stared down at Algernon as he knelt before her.

She knew what was coming.

She had anticipated this day for months.

Before he started to speak, she knew what he was going to say.

It was the first time they had ever been together without a chaperone. Unless he had come to the house with this specific purpose her parents would not have allowed her to spend any time alone with a suitor. The idea of her being alone with a man was simply too scandalous for civilised society to contemplate.

“Victoria, my dearest,” he began.

There was a tremor of doubt in his voice. Victoria liked that. It suggested he wasn’t entirely certain that she would say yes. His bushy moustache bristled with obvious apprehension. His Adam’s apple quivered nervously above his small, tied cravat. His large dark eyes stared up at her with blatant admiration. He looked as though his entire future happiness rested on her response to this single question.


Here, what I’ve tried to do is make the description dynamic rather than just being static. We hear the sound of the clock. The sunlight is filtering through net curtains and Victoria is adjusting her voluminous skirts. I’ve also tried to use description to help build the narrative tension. So, in the final paragraph, when the reader is wondering what Algernon is going to ask, and how Victoria is going to respond, I’m drawing out the moment by describing Algernon’s appearance, from his bristling bushy moustache to his quivering Adam’s apple.

Description allows us to inhabit the world the writer has created, but there is a time and a place for it. Too much unnecessary detail leads down the road of the Wonderful Weird Al song. Description that is static slows down the pace of a story. Keep your description dynamic, and have it work to keep your reader interested.



by Ashley Lister

One of my favourite writing exercises comes from Jose Silva and Philip Miele, reiterated in Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing, a practical guide.

It goes:

Close your eyes and sit quietly.
Bring into your inner field of vision – a lemon.
Examine it closely.
It is porous, with a little green dot in the middle of each pore.
Feel the knobbly cool surface.
Imagine a knife.
You are slicing the lemon in half.
You raise one half to your mouth and sink your teeth into it.
What has happened?


Casterton bets that anyone reading the description, and investing in the content, will find their salivary glands pumping at the stimulus of the description. Personally, I think she’s right because, even though I’ve shared this exercise with dozens of classrooms, it continues to make me drool in response to that fictional acidic rush of citrus juice.

And this is what we should be aiming to do with each aspect of description in our fiction. Description should be an immersion for the reader into the physicality of the storyworld. If a character is wielding a whip, we want our readers to flinch from each snap that it makes. If a character is enjoying a sensual massage, we want our readers to shiver with the tactile frisson of skin touching skin.

Description is where the magic happens in writing and it’s a skill that can best be developed through practice. As writers, we’re involved in a contract with the reader where we’re supposed to facilitate their suspension of disbelief. This is greatly helped when we present them with a world that seems so real they can experience it through their physical senses. And we achieve this by using exactly the right words with specificity, detail and sound symbolism.

Specificity: don’t tell your reader there are yellow flowers at the side of the road.  Describe them as daffodils or dandelions or buttercups. It’s not a fast red car: it’s a scarlet Ferrari. It’s not a jaunty nineties pop song: it’s Britney singing, ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ Notice how, in each of these examples, it’s easier to see or hear the more specific description.

Detail: in the example at the top of this page, we are shown the little green dot in the middle of each pore. I had never noticed this feature until I read the description and now I see it on every lemon I encounter. If you’re describing buttercups, tell your reader about the silky sheen on the inside of each petal; talk about the way the petals sit awkwardly together; or mention the icing-sugar dusting of pollen that coats the stamen in the centre of the flower.

Sound Symbolism: I was once engaged in a discussion with a publisher about which word was most appropriate to describe a type of glass: the snifter or brandy balloon. Snifter is the US name for this type of glass whilst balloon is the UK name. Being a UK writer, balloon was my go-to phrase when I described this in a story. However, the publisher suggested I reconsider the word and use snifter. Their argument made sense. The fiction was going to be published in the US and, as per my point above regarding specificity, it made sense to use the word readers would most easily recognise.

But I wanted to argue for holding onto balloon. The vowels in snifter, a short i and a concluding uh, don’t reflect the full rounded shape of the glass I was describing. Balloon, with that full final vowel sound and the association of roundness we have when we hear the word ‘balloon’ seemed more appropriate to my ear.

Description is a vital tool in our writing arsenal that can make readers feel as though we’ve spoken to them on a very personal level. With the careful use of specificity, detail and sound symbolism, we can ensure that the description we provide helps our readers to immerse themselves fully in  our fiction.

Cogito Ergo Sum – Characters

by Ashley Lister

Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.

For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’

Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?

She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.

Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?

These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:

Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.

An enviable anomaly.

Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:

The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.

As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.

I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.

As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.


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