Exterminate, Exterminate

No, I’m not talking about Daleks, but verbs.

Last weekend I attended my first Romantic Novelists’ Association conference. What a fabulous event! Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and the range of talks offered made it difficult to choose. I changed my mind several times and still regret switching out of the session on alternatives to MS Word.

I left more enthused than ever to finish my current writing projects. This means, however, I am editing novels rather than writing new stories. I am a member of the New Writer Scheme. This means I can have a manuscript assessed by an experienced romance writer, as long as I submit it by the end of August. Some organised people have got theirs in already.

I have a finished novella which has been rejected by Carina. I could send it in now, but…

I have improved areas of the story which I think lacked passion (this means emotional power, not more sex) and am now on the final proofreading. Or so I thought.

A snapshot of the work ahead

I am hopeless at proofreading my own work, so I have a paid-for electronic editor, ProWriting Aid, which picks up a lot (but not all) of the problems. One of the features it offers is overused words. This is a handy function but, to my chagrin, almost always lists the same problem verbs: was/were (or is/are if I’m writing in the present tense), have/had, knew/know, think/thought, could, feel/felt.

Why are these a problem? With the exception of ‘could’, they are all stative verbs, that is verbs which describe things. They tell the reader about something rather than show it in action. This is one of the reasons so many writing blogs advise chasing down and exterminating the verb ‘to be’.

Let me explain a little more about stative as opposed to active, or doing, verbs. Stative verbs indicate:

  • properties or states of being/belonging: That was my ex-husband. Morally it was right. Damian was so angry that … Your colour is better.  These things had no place in the field
  • ownership: Probably she had friends who were lords. I’ve a croft about a mile from here.
  • thoughts and opinions: You wouldn’t believe how many emails that generates. I know this is a fling. I didn’t recognize you. I woke up and saw sense.
  • senses: She felt the kick of adrenaline… “Thank God,” Damian said when he saw them.

These are all examples from my novella, Digging up the Past. After working through the first 12 pages yesterday, ProWriting Aid still advises reducing was/were from 590 to 476. I have no idea how it comes up with this second figure, but it signifies that I’m probably telling more than I’m showing so some rewriting is necessary. The important point is how to go about it.

You will find plenty of advice online, but I find a lot of this ends up simply substituting one verb for another or adding in a cliché. For example, instead of ‘The room was very silent,’ a suggested rewrite was ‘Silence filled the room’. Really? In my opinion, this is unimaginative writing of another kind: yes, you’ve eliminated a ‘was’ but not in a good way!

You can’t exterminate ‘to be’ or ‘to have’. Sometimes they form part of the progressive tense and that is correct for the situation: “I was taking a bath when the intruder broke in.” If you change this to ‘I took a bath when the intruder broke in.’ it means something completely different. Leave it in.

Sometimes it is right to tell: it moves the story on quickly.

Dialogue is another issue. The sort of writing I do — romance and women’s fiction — contains a high proportion of dialogue. People use the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ a lot when speaking: writing these verbs out will result in some unwieldy utterances. For example, ‘That was my ex-husband.’ is spoken by my heroine to the hotel keeper who has just encountered the dastardly Jonathan. How else will Lauren convey this fact without sounding like a thesaurus? Ditto ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I’ve a croft about a mile from here’. There are alternative ways of phrasing these, but they aren’t necessarily better in context.

So, I am concentrating on the problem verbs occurring outside speech because that’s where the most gain will be made. ‘She … felt the kick of adrenaline that came with the start of a new dig.’ probably needs to go, especially as it’s in the first paragraph. How to do that without descending into purple prose will be a challenge. If you have any suggestions, please let me know inform me leave a comment.

Nobody said writing well is easy.




Writing for the womags is a step to book success

What a joy it was to read the interview with Joanna Courtney in August’s Writers’ Forum.

I’ll admit, I often don’t read the articles even though I subscribe to the magazine. Most of them are of little interest, or introduce nothing new to my writing repertoire. But this one caught my eye because of her recommendation. And, I admit, I was pinned beneath three sleeping ducklings at the time so it was read the article or stare at an off-white wall.

How can you resist having these in your lap?

I hadn’t heard of Joanna and, if I’m honest, her day job of teaching creative writing at the  Open University university was a big negative for me: I’ve done their courses and found a lot of snobbishness about what constitutes good writing. One of my assignments required me to write a short story for a defined market. I wrote one aimed at Women’s Weekly at which my tutor expressed ill-disguised disappointment. But Joanna has her feet firmly in the real world, as well as a publishing contract with Pan Macmillan.

She recommends writing short stories for women’s magazines as a step towards a publishing deal.


It helped her to plot tightly and introduce characters succinctly. These stories are well written she says (here-here), with good characters and clever plotlines.

She details how her first success was with The People’s Friend. She thought she’d cracked it, only to receive a flurry of rejections before her next success.

This all sounds terribly familiar.

She’s right, though. The editors don’t buy any old story just because it’s family friendly and can be read over a cup of tea before picking the kids up from school. It has to be well-written and entertaining. It has to contain all the elements of a classic good story.

Joanna has written some interesting historical novels which I shall have to investigate.

Meanwhile, some of us have books to write, and stories to send off to women’s magazines because the publishing deal with Pan Macmillan hasn’t arrived quite yet…

So, what are you up to today?

Back to the 70s

I haven’t done much womag writing recently for a whole host of reasons. One of these is kitchen drama! Our larder fridge broke down this week and has been certified dead. It was only 6 years old. Fortunately we have an old ’70s under-the-counter style fridge. We inherited this with our house 20+ years ago and it is still going strong, so all the salvagable perishables are now in there.

Living and cooking with this little fridge has provided a real blast from the past. It is the sort of fridge my mum had in the ’60s and ’70s and managed with perfectly well for a family of five. I, on the other hand, am struggling even though we are only two.

It got me thinking about how life in the kitchen has changed since I was young. It’s given me an insight into lots of other things, too. For example, this week we’re throwing less into our rubbish bin and our food recycling bucket. Having to plan day-to-day means we are buying less and eating everything. To be honest, I thought we wasted relatively little in the first place (sell by dates don’t scare me!), so it has been a bit of an eye-opener.

This is all good material for writing. Next time I want to set a story in the ’70s, I will be better prepared. So I thought about the contents of our larder fridge and drew up a list of differences between then and now.

Ten things my mum did not have in her ’70s fridge:

My mum wouldn’t have known what to do with goat’s cheese
  1. Wine
  2. Beer
  3. Cheese from south of Cheddar
  4. Cheese not made from cow’s milk
  5. Yoghurt
  6. More than one day’s worth of meat/fish
  7. Creme fraiche (or cream for that matter unless a celebration was in the offing)
  8. Fruit and veg other than salad
  9. Jars of lazy chilli/garlic/ginger
  10. Chicken breasts

I could add many more items. I haven’t mentioned all the opened jars of olives/peppers/capers, or hummus – some of today’s staples.

Thinking back, my parents very rarely drank in the house. I can only remember the whisky bottle coming out at midnight on New Year’s Eve when Andy Stewart was singing Auld Lang Syne and, later, after my Mum had died, when my dad’s friend visited on a Sunday evening. Actually, they rarely drank at all. Celebrations, mostly.

Fruit, with the exception of tomatoes, was kept in the fruit bowl. Vegetables lived in a basket under the sink.

10 things my mum did keep in the fridge that I don’t now:

There was always apple tart in our fridge


  1. Cold cuts from the Sunday roast
  2. Block icecream wrapped in cardboard
  3. Eggs (there was a special egg rack built into the door at the top)
  4. Soft margarine
  5. Block margarrine for baking
  6. Lard
  7. Apple tart: my aunt made one every week and my dad had a slice after tea with…
  8. Carnation milk
  9. Salad cream
  10. Jelly (Sundays and celebrations)

Linked to this is less space for food storage generally back then. From there was a short leap to TV programmes that try to reduce people’s food bills or persuade them to eat more healthily. These inevitably start with a ritual hunting down of junk/processed food, usually a couple of boxes worth. In the ’70s, we wouldn’t have had room to store that stuff, let alone store that AND proper food.

So maybe eating more and getting fatter is as much to do with having the ability to buy and store more food in the kitchen?

Just a thought.

Help me recreate my ’60s/’70s/’80s kitchen: what do you remember from your mum’s kitchen when you were growing up?


Women’s fiction markets.

This month I’ve decided to take stock of the women’s short fiction markets. Things are changing so quickly, it’s difficult to keep up with who’s accepting and what they want.

So I’m taking a short break from writing a pocket novel to sit down and work through the information on the womagwriter blog, as well as up to the minute info from elsewhere on the web, to consolidate it all in one place.

For those unfamiliar with the womagwriter blog, it’s a must if you write short fiction for the women’s magazine market. It’s run by the hardworking Patsy Collins and provides all the links and information you will need. Today, for example, she’s updated the story lengths for The People’s Friend as well as a link to the current guidelines.

So, here’s my summary of where you can (and can’t) submit along with why you maybe should.

pros and cons notes links/contact
The People’s Friend The most writer friendly woman’s fiction magazine. Takes largest number of stories. Not the highest payer. Distinctive style Twitter @TheFriendMag for useful tips and current requirements
Need to post work Fiction guidelines
The Weekly News Two stories a week. £80 a story. A bit edgier than TPF, with a higher male readership. Stories of 1200-1500 words, but longer ones likely to be edited down. Guidelines here 
Irelands own Doesn’t acknowledge stories or notify of rejection. Stories of 2000 words or 1000-1400. Payment €50-65 submissions@irelandsown.ie
Also takes children’s stories and memory pieces (Irish)
My Weekly Only accepts from writers on their approved list, You can get on the list via their pocket novels Online stories 
pocket novel guidelines
Woman’s weekly Large market but takes all rights. Weekly magazine 1-2000 words Fiction Department, Woman’s Weekly, 161 Marsh Wall, London E14 9AP
New writers need to post work Serials up to 3 parts of 3800
Fiction special 1000-8000 words
Prima Takes all rights 800 word monthly competition yourwinningstory@hearst.co.uk
pays £100
Yours Takes all rights 1000-1200 words yours@bauermedia.co.uk (Subject: Short Story Submission)
Strong competition
Need to preface with a synopsis
Love Sunday (Sunday supplement) Non paying Max 1500 words f.bertolini@mirror.co.uk
Good publicity e.g. if have a book out.
In the moment A more literary feel than most Uplifting stories 2000-2400 with a ‘moving on’
Female protagonist. calmmoment@immediate.co.uk
Your cat Closed to subs Romances must mention a cat
Spirit and Destiny Takes all rights. 1400 words, some spiritual content e.g. ghosts. tracie.couper@bauermedia.co.uk
Need to pitch the idea first
Take a break including fiction feast Only permitted writers may submit. That doesn’t include me!
Allas (Sweden) £100 at the last mention Apparently accept similar stories to Woman’s Weekly.
You don’t have to write in Swedish! Guidelines here 
Allers (Finland) Linked to sister mag Allas. No sub info available A story accepted by Allas may also be published here
You (SA) Currently not open to subs due to a backlog
That’s Life (australia) Good rate of pay. Only accepting from authors who already have a contract with them This market recently contracted and mostly needs shorter stories. Currently asking for 900 words or 570-620
Woman’s World (US) Tough market to break into but excellent pay. 800-word light romance.

Currently looking for summer romance with lots of chemistry

Helpful blog here
$800! also very niche crime slot front page here with up to date news and summaries

So, that’s the up-to-date list of magazines accepting Women’s short fiction as far as I know. Apologies for any spelling bloops but my spellcheck button has disappeared from the WordPress dashboard and I’m a hopeless proofreader.

I would highly recommend you pop in to womagwriter.blogspot from time to time to see what’s new. Patsy works hard at making sure she puts any new development in these markets on there. And leaving a comment helps her. If you have any news yourself, put it up there for her, or let her know. Presumably there will be some good news regarding markets at some point, but for now we’re all a bit restricted.

Book reviews – be honest now!

Last night I bought a book from Amazon. The author is new (to me), and I was  excited about their reputation for accuracy on UK police procedure. This is something I know nothing about, which is a real hinderance to a budding crime writer.

Eagerly I opened the e-book and snuggled into my pillow. Three very short chapters later, I was looking up the publisher on Amazon (nope, not self-published, in fact the publisher is a Big Name) and checking out the reviews. The book had an ‘above 4’ star rating, but I was struggling to read it because, to me, the writing was amateurish and it wasn’t holding my attention despite two murders already. My mental editor’s pen was getting in the way of the plot.

one star review
I’ve only once left a one star review, but it needed it! Courtesy of pixabay.

Some readers had left 1, 2 and 3-star reviews. These all flagged up issues I had already identified as well as others I am not yet in a position to comment on. But they were vastly outweighed by the ‘gripping’, ‘couldn’t put it down’ and ‘excellent writing’ type 5-star reviews.

I know some people won’t leave a book review unless it is positive. I can only assume that phenomenon is at work here. Either that or an awful lot of people are tolerant of average writing.

Which reminds me of the time I got lambasted for leaving a 4* review for a debut crime novel. I actually enjoyed the book enormously, but there were two whopping plot holes that the editors really should have sorted out, as well as rather amateurish dialogue (every other utterance starting with ‘Oh!’ for example). I thought I was really positive, actually, and stated I was eagerly awaiting the next book. Which I was.

The reaction? ‘How can you only give this 4 stars? It’s brilliant!’ etc. I knew these reactions came from friends and members of his writing group. How? Because I’d been notified about the book by another member of his writing group and asked to leave a review. Two of these members have since confided that, in their opinion, John (not his real name) can’t write and yes, there were whopping plot holes!

As a writer I’d want rave reviews. As a reader, I want a balanced view of a book before I spend my hard-earned pennies. I know this doesn’t always happen and if I ever get a book published, will be aggrieved by every negative comment I get. But that’s a writer’s life. I once left a 2* review for Chris Brookmyre, who I’d loved up to that point, because he had come over all literary when describing his main character’s angst: Ruminations went on for many many pages, internal thoughts and arguments repeated in various styles. I couldn’t read it, despite skipping huge chunks at a time (“Struth, he’s still going on about it!” etc). It only got the second star because some bits were pure joy, Brookmyre at his best. The thing is, if you were someone of Brookmyre’s stature, wouldn’t you want to know you were losing readers because of a change in style?

I will continue with my new read because I want to learn about police procedure and how to build it into a good plot. But, so far, this book will not receive anything more than 3 stars and a suggestion that potential buyers ‘Look Inside’ first to get an idea of the author’s style. If I were giving personal feedback, I would start by suggesting the author reduces the continuous tense,  complex verb groups, and passive constructions. Then simplify the longer, Dickensian sentences and ditch the head hopping. Take this example from the first page:

His brain was finding it difficult to comprehend…

Nothing as such wrong with that, but there are punchier ways to put it, and what part of you other than your brain ‘comprehends’?

In the middle of a section written from the point of view of a female SOCO, we suddenly find the male detective making a note of ‘what she said’ and moving into the kitchen to search for a receipt, where he saw a screwed up carrier bag.


I had to stop there for a moment and wonder if it was me that had slipped a cog or the author. This wasn’t the first slip of point of view. I doubt it will be the last. On the other hand, she is a published novelist and I am not.

So, over to you. Do you ever leave less favourable but balanced book reviews, or do you keep those more negative experiences to yourself?