It’s been a challenging festive season in many ways and today is no better. So while the other occupants of the house have an afternoon nap, I thought I’d indulge myself in drawing up a new entry for the First Draft column at Writer’s Forum Magazine.

For those of you who don’t know it, the First Draft column is a 250-word section of a modern novel into which 20 mistakes have been deliberately inserted for the reader to find.

Proof reading can open a can of worms

I love doing these. It’s so much more fun putting deliberate (and preferably sneaky) mistakes into writing than hunting down and taking out inadvertent ones.

Today I have started and changed tack twice. The first 250-word section had some fantastic opportunities for error insertion, but the more I read it, the more I thought the original contained an error. This complicated things.

So, I chose another 250-word section from the same book – Donna Leon’s The Temptation of Forgiveness – which I bought myself for Christmas. I love Donna’s mild-mannered Venetian detective, Brunetti.


…in the second section I met another dilemma: Yes, they were hand-sewn.

Hmm. Should ‘hand-sewn’ be hyphenated? Really? I felt it should be two words and my husband-cum-grammar and spelling guru agreed. The internet didn’t help. Dictionaries mostly listed ‘handsewn’ but mentioned in passing ‘hand-sewn’ as a variant. Grammarians, on the other hand, argued till my head hurt (it was nothing to do with the Bailey’s, honest).

Now what do I do? Add a note to my submission to the effect that ‘hand-sewn’ is the author’s original and I’m not sure enough about it to strike it out, or start a third passage? At this rate, I’ll finish the whole book by examining it for potentials for the column, and that will spoil the read. I do so want to enjoy Inspector Brunetti’s next adventure.

Still, it goes to show that even if you’ve had multiple books published by a respected publisher, it doesn’t mean you’re an expert at grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Which is reassuring.

Happy New Year, everyone, and may you all find writing success in 2019.



Yacon for breakfast

What, you ask, is yacon? It’s a root vegetable from south America but which grows well in the north of England. It tastes a bit like water chestnuts and has hardly any calories because the main sugar is inulin which we can’t digest so it stays in the gut and creates, um, wind.

Nevertheless, I had some for breakfast today as part of a stirfry.

Not conventional, but I was hungry and it’s cold and a smoothie was not going to do it.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s unusual, and that often is what we need to tap into with our writing.

Take the Writer’s Forum flash competition this month. 300 words using one of four starter lines. The problem is, the starters are all such clichés:

  • Watching in horror as someone small stands on the edge of something
  • Waiting in a waiting room
  • Jazmin receives an email from her sister (the implication is this is unusual or disturbing in some way)
  • Helen has trouble breathing because of the footsteps behind her.

My online writing group friends all struggled with this. Some didn’t enter because it’s too hard. Others were thrown by the clichés.

Mess up your cogs? Moi?

I would argue this is the competition you should enter because if we, published writers, are finding it difficult, then so is everyone else and the chances of success improve. The trick will be to find the unusual angle and write about that well. For the first starter, one assumes the small person is perhaps a child standing on the edge of a cliff or other high place. But what if it’s your parrot standing on the edge of a presentation you just finished (you spread the pages out on the floor for some reason),? It might be some sort of precious model, or a renovation project it’s taken you two days to figure out all the parts of and you’ve got them all neatly laid out. You just know little Oscar is going to pinch one of the parts. Or maybe mess them all up again.

The possibilities are endless. Where you take it, of course, is up to you and not always as easy as making a stirfry for breakfast with a little-known vegetable, but the results can be just as rewarding. It took me so long to decide though, I missed the deadline. Again.

That seems to be happening a lot recently. What do you do to avoid missing deadlines?


Word Cloud

It’s been an odd week here at Cook towers. Fast on the heels of the death of favourite duck came an email from Shirley Blair, editor at The People’s Friend, which sounded like a ‘no’ in answer to my query about a story sent in May. This triggered one of those dreadful ‘I’m not a writer and everyone hates me’ days.

Actually, the no was a yes that became a maybe – some tweaks needed to the main character who, true to my writing type, was a bit too flawed. I’ll add that story to my Nanowrimo list of “things to get done”.

word cloud, ducks, hogwarts
Word cloud from Death of a Duck

What’s the relevance to word clouds, I hear you ask? Editing, is the simple answer.

I rarely follow links to writing advice these days – I need more practice not more theory – but I followed this one on 7 sentences you should stop writing from Steve Laube, an editor I follow on Twitter.

The advice is not new, but the accompanying simple explanations caught my attention. In particular, the introduction said

I like reading text that sounds as if the writer is speaking to me

I’d noticed this quality in publications I’m currently targeting. Does my writing have that quality? Heck no. Should it? Probably yes.

I overuse several of those naughty 7 sentences, in particular excessive was/were (and had/have). In addition, there’s beginning sentences with a prepositional phrase… So, the website has given me a framework for improving my latest competition entry – an out of the box story on loss.

With the help of Prowriting Aid, I reduced the was/were/ and had/haves to an acceptable level. Then I worked through grammar issues, checked consistency of spelling (always an issue) and quotation marks, and eventually reached the end of the editing ribbon where sits the ‘word cloud’ button.

Bored, I pressed it.

Why on earth is a story about dying ducks and world devastation by the modern equivalent of Spanish flu dominated by the word ‘like’?

Obviously, I needed more red pen action. I could not remove several instances of ‘like’, especially ‘feel like’ as in ‘I don’t feel like I’ve got flu. Do you feel like you’ve got flu?’ This repetition is deliberate and normal people don’t say ‘do you feel as though you’re suffering from flu?’

Most of the other ‘likes’ were equally difficult to get rid of because they required substitution either with a pompous word or a much longer phrase.

I removed 3, I think, and reran the word cloud. No change. Maybe it’s an omen and the judges will ‘like’ my story.
















Stars can’t shine without darkness.

I found the title for today’s post in a list of inspirational sayings about adversity. Isn’t it wonderful?

Indian runner ducks

I was trying to find the end of the quote ‘out of adversity…’ because the last few days have been trying, frankly, and yet that’s when I do my best work. It’s a bit like the English football team – they never really start playing until they are 3-0 down.

So yesterday, while our second, and favourite, duck was fading away in a makeshift pen in a little-used room, I was at my desk writing and sending competition entries – the first subs this month.

This morning, favourite duck was gone and today has been a round of disinfection and disposal.

Of course, being a pessimist, I knew she’d die. And the remaining ducks will get sick one by one until there are none. For now, the four of them are  disgustingly fit and healthy and chase me round the lawn for food every time I go out there.

But for me, adversity fuels creativity: I might be a pessimist but I don’t let it get me down. Today’s story will be a humourous look at death for an anthology comp. I’ve got plenty of material. I spent yesterday afternoon trying to disinfect an entire coop in the rain, with failing light and a hose that refused to work (it worked fine as soon as I’d finished). As darkness fell, the ducks told me exactly what they thought about trying to go to bed when the bases of the nest boxes were still drying in the boiler house and I was tossing some newfangled wood shavings onto their floor. It meant I had two knives in the car when I went out to an appointment this morrning, fervently hoping I didn’t get stopped by police. Then there was the dim light of an old-fashioned low energy bulb which made a boxing glove look remarkable like a dead duck. What the boxing glove was doing on the floor of the ‘duck ward’ is another story.

What do you do when life kicks you in the teeth?




The Invisible Blog

So, today, apart from dodging wasps which have plagued the house ever since we did our honey harvest, I received feedback on my romance novel submitted to the Romantic Novelist’s Association New Writer’s Scheme (NWS).

For people who haven’t heard of this, 250 lucky aspiring authors each year can join and gain access to the association’s activities plus have professional feedback on their work in progress. Some people who are eligible for full memberships choose to enter the NWS because of this feedback – it helps them develop as writers.

There’s a scramble for places on January 1st every year. When did I remember I should have been part of that scramble? March. Fortunately, in July a friend told me they had 3 spare spaces. Unheard of! These things are like gold dust.

I and my cheque book were there like a shot. The downside was I didn’t have much time to polish my book – last year’s shortlisted entry for the Mills and Boon/Prima competition. This manuscript has rotted on my hard drive ever since: Mills and Boon are so specific in their wants I really didn’t know what else to do with it.

To the feedback. It was what I expected. The plot let me down. The conflict wasn’t sufficiently complex to be sustained for the whole book. As Kate Walker says in her book 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance, the central conflict needs layers. Mine didn’t have those. It just got tested in a small number of different ways.

Plotting is not my strong point. The anonymous reviewer suggested possible plot options but added that I’ve probably got a lot of other ideas.

Er, no. That’s my problem. If anyone knows how to solve that, I’d be ever so grateful.

To be honest, though, in a lot of M&B romances I’ve felt the author was stringing it out a bit, sometimes quite a lot.

Apart from that, there were a lot of positives including a very short list of editing boobs – I was expecting pages.

In summary, no surprises, but it’s still nice to have your strengths pointed out.

online marketingThe other thing that happened today was that one of the reviewers for the NWS said she was surprised how few members who submitted manuscripts have a web presence. I suspect I am one of them. Search engines don’t find this blog. They’ll find the other Sue Cook, the famous one, and all sorts of other Sue Cooks selling fireplaces on eBay etc. But not SueCookWrites.

Which leaves me in a quandary. Do I change my name to something less common and already ‘taken’? Sue Berrycloth, perhaps. I found ‘Berrycloth’ on a list of rare surnames. There are some corkers on there. Perhaps I should go the whole hog and become Amanita McCaa.

Maybe not.

It might be easier to stick a made up initial between the Sue and the Cook? But, one worries, what will that do to my blog? I’ll have to change the title to match. Does that mean I’ll never be able to find it because my shortcut won’t work or that all my previous posts will disappear? On this point, I have lots of imagination. All bad. That’s pessimism for you.

But I guess I need to take a leap of faith, probably with my fingers crossed, look on the bright side, even if it is raining and we’ve got a sick duck.

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve had problems getting found by search engines. If so, how did you resolve it?