Collective Nouns – The Fun Uncle of the Writing World

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Let me start by saying Happy New Year, everyone.

As you may have gathered from this article’s title, I’m going to talk about collective nouns. I love collective nouns. Writing is filled with stuffy grammar rules that no one really likes, and which were created by the gods of writing to torture and torment schoolchildren and adults alike for centuries to come. Collective nouns are one exception. These are words used to describe groups of things: People, animals; almost anything that can be in multiples. And while there are some well-known ones, a murder of crows, for example, there are no hard, fast rules. My theory on this is that the ancient writing ancestors were celebrating the yule festivities with a snifter of mead which help relax their normal stick-up-the-arse outlook. All of a sudden, Roger, the fun one of the group, produced a bag of dubious looking mushrooms. He offered them around to the to others who, not wanting to look like a bunch of squares, joined in.

And so began the creation of the collective noun. This is why we have such gems as ‘A congress of baboons’, ‘A parliament of owls’. and ‘A smack of jellyfish’. (Yes, that last one is real).

This is why I love collective pronouns. They are the rebels of the language. They are the cool uncle who sneaks you the beer at the family gathering; who catches you smoking and asks for a light instead of snitching to your parents. And the best part is, you can actually make up your own when you’re writing. It’s your world, your rules.

Just for fun, here are a few of my favourites:

  • A rhumba of rattlesnakes – I love the imagery.
  • A bike of bees – It might seem an odd one but actually comes from the old usage of bike to mean colony or nest.
  • A gang of elk – Every seen an elk up close? Yeah, you just stepped into the wrong neighbourhood.
  • A horde of hamsters – The Dwarfs of the rodent world
  • A flange of baboons – For when you don’t want to get political

These are a mere taster of what is out there. As you can see, there are often multiple terms for groups of things. The baboons have at least two. This is what’s great, you can pretty much come up with your own. Remember that language is a living, fluid entity. It grows, it evolves.

Curiously there is no real collective noun for a group of writers. Admittedly we are a fairly solitary bunch but on occasion, we do gather. And I think it’s time we had something semi-official at the very least. The most common one I see bounced around is ‘A procrastination of writers’. Rather apt as we are all guilty of it. What would be your suggestion for what to call ourselves?

First Drafts – Your Own Block of Marble

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Let’s speak about first drafts. Sorry to say it, but your first draft sucks. I think this might be one of the most misunderstood parts of writing for new and fledgling writers. You’ve completed your first draft but something isn’t right. It’s not the instant masterpiece you had envisaged. What’s going on?

Well it’s simple: It’s the first draft. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. The first draft is to get the building blocks, the bones of the narrative. I think it can be best summed up by a famous quote from Michelangelo (no, not the turtle):

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

Michelangelo

That is what your first draft is; it’s your block of marble. Your job now is to start chipping away. Not with a hammer and chisel but with editing and revision. There isn’t an author alive or past that hasn’t had to do this. The illusion that the masters of our craft don’t do this is a common misconception and to be honest, I don’t know where it comes from. But the idea that we don’t get it perfect the first time is one that every writer has to get past in order to grow and have any kind of success.

It’s difficult. Our stories are more than just words to us. They are a part of us and it can feel like cutting off a limb when you have to go in hard with the red pen. This probably one of the most important parts of the process. There is no magic number to how many drafts you will need either. They will, however, get easier each time. The first Henrietta story, which is by no means a long epic tale, went through between 15 and 20 different versions before I submitted it.

The second Henrietta story is a good example of things you may have not thought of in the heat of getting those words down. There is a part where Amanda Moonstar stops a stampeding herd of cows by flying over them and releasing magical bedtime dust. I had the scene written and it looked great. I was happy with it and as actions scenes go, it was pretty awesome. Then one morning as I’m driving in to work a thought popped into my head. The way it was written simply wasn’t going to work. Even in a magical work, you have to account for physics, and dusting a stampede of frightened cattle from the front of the stampede is going to give end up with a very large and messy pile of cows. Why? Because the ones that get dusted first will also be the ones that fall asleep first. So begins the first major rewrite.

It was during this rewrite that I realised that there was also a disconnect between the start and the end. At no point had I mentioned the fact that the Gillyford festival was taking place. It suddenly got thrown in randomly in the middle. So back we go to the very beginning and another rewrite.

So know we are already on the third draft. This is how the process works. You will always miss things out in that first version. Or you will have extraneous parts that don’t add anything to story. They get in the way and will either bore or confuse your reader.

So don’t be disheartened when you’ve finished your story and find it’s not what you hoped for. This is your block of marble and now is the time to pick up the hammer and chisel to carve out the beautiful masterpiece that is inside. This is where the fun begins.

What’s in a Name?

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If there is one thing I struggle with more than anything else in writing, it’s naming my characters. I can’t explain it, I just get a mental block. With very few exceptions, I don’t think I’m ever fully happy with the names I give them. Sometimes it just falls into place like it did with Henrietta Hedgekin. BUT, what people don’t know (and I am about to reveal) is that originally, Ben was called Billy. I was about half way through the story when I decided to change it. Billy and Tilly just didn’t seem to work like I wanted it to. I mean, if you have twins, you’re unlikely to call them something like that, right? And yes, I get the irony in talking about realistic names in a book that includes a shapeshifting broom with with handlebars. It does kind of highlight the point though. In a world containing the fantastic, you need the regular, everyday things as well. If you do decide on a name change halfway through though, make sure you pay extra attention when your editing after the first draft. A find and replace function will help with what you’ve already written, but it won’t help with what is still to come. And after using the original for so long it is very easy to slip back without realizing.

So going back to coming up with names. I’m going to stick with Henrietta because it has a good blend of regular names and completely made up names. In fact, there is a naming convention that I decided to put in place which has helped a great deal. All the witches in this world have pretty regular first names. The magic comes from their surname. Hedgekin is a reference to being a Hedge Witch (I’ll let you guys look into that). In book 2 we meet Henrietta’s friend, Amanda Moonstar. Regular, everyday firstname; magical based surname. Having a convention such as this can be a huge help when world building. Remember, it’s your world and your rules.

The naming problem isn’t just a thing that plagues the rank amateurs like myself. And having a naming style is definitely nothing new. Probably the most famous comes from Marvel comics and from the late, great Stan Lee himself. Notice how many Marvel characters first and last names start with the same letter:

  • Peter Parker (Spider-Man)
  • Steven Strange (Doctor Strange)
  • Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic)
  • J Jonah Jameson (Oh come on!)

The reason behind this, as admitted by Stan Lee himself, is that he is terrible with names. Both coming up with and remembering. By creating a simple rule of having the first letters be the same, it makes the creation of names a lot simpler.

So the next time you’re struggling with naming characters in your WIP, try coming up with a naming style that works for you. Even if you only use it for that one story, it will make things a lot simpler and be one less hurdle to overcome.

Mistress of Potions

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Happy new year everyone.

To get 2022 off to a good start, I have a new entry over in Book Corner.

Mistress of Potions is a short story I wrote some time ago. It was intended to be part of a series of short stories set in the mystical world of Calindraal. As can sometimes happen, life had other ideas and the project never really got off the ground. Mistress is the only story that was ever written…for now that is. I may find myself revisiting the lands of Calindraal.

Courage In Writing

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There was a recent question asked on Twitter from my publisher, Austin Macauley:

What is the most daring thing you have done as a writer

@AustinMacauley – Twitter

My answer was to this was making the switch from primarily writing horror to writing children’s books. It was a bit of a gamble but I’m so very glad to have taken the risk. The question got me thinking though. The word ‘daring’ really stuck out. Is anything we do as writers that is daring? Well yes, of course there is. But there’s more to it than that. There is a lot of bravery involved in writing and I think that is something not many of us hear about enough.

The truth is, every time you put words down you are exposing a part of yourself. Showing a piece of your soul and inner being that you wouldn’t normally let the world see. But more important than that, there’s a good chance you are showing those parts to yourself. Most of the time you will do it without even realising. It might be until you start the editing stage that you start finding little messages to yourself. Something that your reader might not fully understand, but to you they reach deep inside.

What we write is more than just a tale. It is more than prose and characters. It is our inner selves screaming at us something that we may have been refusing to hear. Listening to what it has to say takes courage. Allowing yourself to understand even more so. That is the bravery of the writer. It is your voice, your passion and your courage.

Keep on writing you courageous word warriors.

Finding Your Voice

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A question that regularly comes up amongst new writers is: “How do I find my voice?

It’s a tricky one to answer. Your voice is unique to you and you alone. But like anything else, it will take time to find and develop. I’d say most, if not all of us start out by emulating our favourite authors. In my case my very first influence was James Herbert. Later I found myself moving towards a style more inline with the prose of H P Lovecraft. This is fine, this is good as by doing so you will learn by looking through the lens of those particular authors. But at the same time you will not be telling your story. You will be telling a story through another persons voice.

In my case it was actually my Lovecraft phase that really drove this home for me. While he is undoubtedly the father of modern horror (and one of my favourite authors), his work is from a very different era. It doesn’t work for a story written today. You have to keep in mind that language is a living breathing thing. It grows, changes and evolves over time. As an example, 500 new words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020 alone.

Now this time I spent writing in that style was by no means time wasted (check out Flight of the Damned). Any time you spend writing is time well spent as it will add to your knowledge and experience. And that entire time, your own voice is developing even if you don’t realise it. You will slowly find yourself combining elements from those different authors. This is where the growth really happens. It will happen out of necessity. Necessity you say? well yes. Imagine writing one of the fairly standard sex scenes that Herbert always puts in his books. I love his work but these scenes always have a cut and paste feel to them so any will do. Now, try and write that in the style of Lovecraft. It simply doesn’t work. So it is important to learn how to take these two conflicting styles and make them work together.

Suddenly you find yourself writing in new ways. In ways no one else has written before. You are no longer copying a specific style. You aren’t even combining separate styles. Now you are writing with your own, unique voice.

Like a lot of things in our craft, it’s about adapting and growing. Every word you write is a step in the journey. And like all journeys through life, our experiences are what really add to the whole and help us grow. Remember that writing is a journey with no destination and half the time the map is upside down.

Dreams Can Come True

This post is going to be a little different from the norm. Today I have some fantastic news to share. I’ve been writing for around 30 years now and my dream has always to become a published author. I’m absolutely buzzing to announce that a few weeks ago that dream finally came true: Henrietta Hedgekin is going to be published.

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A few months ago I submitted the manuscript for the first Henrietta book to Austin MaCauley Publishing. A week ago I received an acceptance and signed with them. I cannot begin to describe the absolute joy I’m feeling. It shows that you should never give up on your dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do or that your dreams are stupid. I remember my last year at school (vaguely, I’m getting old). It was near the very end in one of the PSHE classes. The teacher had us think about what we would like to see ourselves doing in the next five years. Of course I said “Having my first book published”. There were snickers and laughter. I mean what 16 year old says that, right?

Well I didn’t let that laughter stop me. Okay it may have taken slightly more than five years but it’s been a hell of a journey. It may be cliche but that journey is just as important as the destination. I want to say a big thank you to all those who have supported me over the years. Who have believed in me when the imposter syndrome is kicking my ass. And of course all those I’ve subjected to numerous awful drafts.

So don’t give up. Keep reaching towards that goal. Even if the road seems to be taking you in a different direction, you’ll get there and we will raise a glass together.

Hook, Line and…Stinker?

One of the most important jobs we have as writers is to make sure that we grab the readers interest right from the get go. The second, of course, being that we keep that interest throughout. But without that initial hook, the latter becomes redundant.

We really, really want to avoid this.
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So how quickly do you need to get that hook in?

Some schools of thought say it should be the very first sentence. That’s when you need to grab the reader. Personally I’m not a big fan of this method. Yes, your opening line is important, but should you rely on that one sentence to carry the burden of everything that follows? In my opinion it’s too much pressure. It also increases the chances of the dreaded purple prose.

It was a dark and stormy night.

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

We all know that one. It is probably one of the most derided openings in the history of literature.

My own preference is that the first page should be the hook. Maybe even that entire first chapter or the prologue if that is how the story is structured. But that first page will allow you to set the feel of the prose. You can go into more detail and give your audience a richer insight. What we want them to do is to want to look beyond that opening. To turn the page and become invested. You can have the greatest opening line ever penned but if the rest of that page doesn’t match up to that standard, they will lose their interest very quickly. A narrative is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember, no one turns the page after the first sentence.

You have the space to build your opening. Use it wisely.