The writer’s task

A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

Susan Sontag (2007) At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches quoted in a post on the beautiful, brilliant, challenging website Brain Pickings

Quotes like this both inspire and trouble me. IMG_3804

I am troubled because such wisdom humbles me (agonising over my tawdry romantic thriller) and because I don’t know if I understand.

I think Sontag is saying that truth is not absolute and to pretend otherwise is to collude with over-simplification of a complex world; that it is the writer’s job to deal with shades of grey and the general messiness of life – and the writer’s privilege to give hope (and instill fear) in a world of endless possibilities. But I’m not sure!


I am inspired because these thoughts help me see that although I may work with small stories from obscure corners of history I can – I should – nevertheless aspire to “depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture”. And because it helps me make sense of a question I felt compelled to put recently to one of my beta readers (a dedicated reader who is struggling with ambiguities in the central relationship): Surely love and lust can co-exist? 



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In praise of … BetaBooks

beta books image

BetaBooks: The world’s first reader management software for professional authors

I like to think I arrived late at the beta reader party because I was waiting for BetaBooks to come into my life.


I knew there had to be an easier way to get feedback on my book than the semi-public humiliation of writers’ festivals and disjointed conversations with my youngest sister whilst she struggled to negotiate a 120,000 word PDF on her smartphone. Thanks to Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed email, I found it.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that joining BetaBooks was a game-changer in my embryonic career; the moment when I came out as a writer and actually let people read my story, when embarrassment gave way to pride in my readers’ enjoyment, and shyness became professional curiosity as to what works and what wobbles in my writing.

BetaBooks is practically perfect. It’s good to look at and intuitive to use, with incredible attention to detail and a real understanding of the needs of authors and the enjoyment of readers. It works as well for me with my newbie novel and my handful of readers as it appears to work for established authors juggling multiple books and a fan base of thousands. I love the pioneering spirit of the authors (themselves writers, I believe), their engagement with users of the software, and the sense of constant review and improvement.

I plan to write a couple of posts about working with beta readers so I won’t describe the process right now. I’d far rather you used the time to hop over to BetaBooks and watch the walk-through video.



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Less is more

I’ve reached the dreadful climactic denouement in my new story so, by way of light relief, I’ve been thinking about the structure of my first book.

As mentioned elsewhere, I’m not happy with Part 1 of The White Lady in the version currently under scrutiny by my faithful beta readers and recently submitted to unsuspecting literary agents.

I won’t bore you with my entire thought process because I’ve done nothing more than any decent, clear-sighted editor would do (although I will give credit for the daily prompts from this very nice e-learning exercise); suffice to say I have concluded that most of Part 1 (besides the opening section and the sex in chapter 5) is stilted, stodgy and dramatically slack.

I can see how this came about. I had a flash of inspiration (the garden! suffering suffragettes!) and jumped right in. I had no idea what would happen once the roses had metaphorically faded and so I meandered messily along; reminiscing, falling asleep in the sun, and forming unnecessary romantic attachments.

roses on wall

This should not have mattered – after all, my keyboard has a well-used ‘delete’ button – except that 100,000 words later Part 1 had become the stuff of legends; embedded in my psyche and engraved on my heart. My first-born. Perfect. Untouchable.

I’m not beating myself up about this (although I do feel embarrassed regret over my premature submissions) because I could not have written it any other way, at least not at this stage in my writing career. I must not minimise the anxiety I felt at the time: not enough words, not enough worthy themes, not enough story.

But I have learnt two lessons.

Start with a draft. I agonised over words and so didn’t see the paragraphs, let alone the plot. And, having spent so much time and effort on so much beautiful prose, change became impossible.

Have clear aims. My original aim was to write a feminist social history of early 20th century England focusing on the contribution of militant suffragists with additional modules on rural deprivation, mental illness, and temperate climate horticultural.

My new aims are thus:

  • to keep readers reading
  • to help readers get to know (and maybe like) my protagonist
  • to paint my protagonist’s world as she is experiencing it 
  • er, that’s it…



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Why Journey’s End didn’t make me cry

I went equipped – alone, handkerchief, mini bottle of wine – prepared to silently sob my way through most of the 107 minutes. After all, I cried at the end of Paddington 2 (when Q – sorry, Paddington – opens the door and there’s Aunt Lucy) and I wept as the soldiers read Churchill’s speech post-Dunkirk. I even wiped away a tear more recently when the presses rolled in The Post.

But Journey’s End? Emotionally drained and totally befuddled as I stumbled out into the daylight – but completely dry-eyed.

We love to cry during movies. Crying during a film bonds us with others (all that oxytocin washing around) and, after a short satisfying period of misery, we actually feel happier than we did before the film started.

It’s social interactions that make us cry in films, rather than planetary destruction. As the story unfolds we mirror the expressions of the actors, so when things go badly we empathise and reach for the tissues. There doesn’t even have to be a human or a golden retriever involved; Toy Story 3 prides itself on making grown men cry. Heroism, self-sacrifice, and loss are all recognised triggers and close-ups make it all more visceral – which is why we’re far less likely to cry in the theatre. At least 30% of the tears shed in cinemas are happy tears (yes, looking at you, Aunt Lucy); usually tears of relief after a period of tension.

There’s plenty to cry about in Journey’s End (clue: its the Great War, at the start of the spring offensives of 1918; backs to the wall and so on) so why didn’t I cry?

Was it because I was forewarned, my heart preemptively hardened? I’ve read the play, written in 1928 by R.C. Sherriff, a veteran of the Western Front. I’ve also read dozens of other first-hand accounts and memoirs. I know the set-up: Grim-faced men smoking, officer looking at watch with whistle poised. You just know it’s going to end badly. Maybe I was over-familiar with the genre; maybe I am (heavens forbid) desensitised?

I don’t think so.

We love to cry during movies. More significantly, movies makers love to make us cry – because movies with a high weep factor tend to get the awards. Aristotle identified three strands to the art of persuasion, one of which is pathos – or stirring emotion in your audience to induce them to make the right choices. We could call it manipulation. I don’t have a problem with that: Bums on seats. More films. More mindless misery and rebound happiness.

But the height of manipulation – or the depths, depending on your viewpoint – is, of course, the final scene of the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. (Just Google it – and don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The building tension in spite of the silliness. The close-ups (Good luck, everyone!) The scramble over the top into a hail of bullets. And then the relief – for the viewer at least; the retreat into monochrome slow-motion and dirge-like theme tune before we fade to a field of poppies. Good God, I’m welling-up just writing about it!

The one thing I feared above all else was that Journey’s End would be given the Blackadder treatment and that the attitudes of another three generations would be consolidated into futility and tragedy and one-dimensional Great War stereotypes. It wasn’t and I don’t think they will be.

So, why didn’t I cry?

First: There was no soaring movie music; just occasional discordant, edgy bursts of notes. No subliminal prompts when tragedy struck. Nothing to tell me when to blub as surely as traffic lights changing to green. Just the muffled pounding of exploding shells.

Second: There was no break in the tension. A ‘dark night of the soul’ moment in Act 3 but with no resolution. He died but we know this particular death is only the beginning; the beginning of the end of the war, true – but there was no sense of sacrifice or heroism, just love and sadness. (PS The weird aerial shot at the end? Not needed, Mr Dibb. It was a bit too close to fading to a field of poppies.)

Third: He didn’t cry – so why should I? In fact, how dare I indulge myself with weeping in the midst of such tragedy, such steadfastness, such angry stoicism? The sergeant major says come now, sir! So he stood up and he walked away. I didn’t feel manipulated. I felt I was intruding.

What does this mean for the writer?

I have two particularly sad chapters in my first book. I wept as I wrote both of them (not surprising for someone who cries when Aunt Lucy knocks at the door) – yet one of my beta readers described the first as “heartbreaking” and the other as “sentimental”.

I think I have a bit of work to do to understand the difference.




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Farewell Facebook

Following on from my previous post I need a strategy to make better use of my time: to produce work that is the very best it can be whilst making the most of the resources and opportunities social media have to offer.

I have three needs as a writer:

  • knowledge, skills, and stimulation to become a better writer
  • individualised advice and guidance to help me shape my career
  • emotional support and friendship

How best to meet these needs?

Facebook (@hannahhulmehunter) is like a huge, ramshackle hotel. The entrance hall is full of drunks all shouting over the tv but there are hidden rooms where people gather in the hope of meeting like-minded folks. There are hundreds – nay, thousands – of writers’ Groups on Facebook. I’ve done the rounds but am invariably left dissatisfied. The conversations are too noisy and the contact too superficial. I feel battered by other people’s problems and disappointments and find no answers to my own.

If Facebook is Hotel California then Twitter (@mountainhares) is a vast, eclectic party. As I wander around the party I eavesdrop on heated debates on history and politics and sneak off to the library to follow links and check references. Sometimes I spot someone I know and we talk but usually I’m sitting on the sidelines chatting about The Archers and looking at photographs of Cillian Murphy and war graves. Twitter is the scruffy staff sitting room, my newspaper, and my remote control. I’ve learned a lot about writing from Twitter and attended some amazing events.

Instagram (@hannahonbrillhill, @gardenonthehill) is a peaceful gallery full of modern art and mountains, gorgeous gardens and portraits of family and friends wherein I wander with a cup of tea. For more sustained refreshment, personal and professional, I turn to my curated list of blogs and websites; well-written, thoughtful places of abiding interest and quiet engagement. I think it is these that really feed my writer’s soul.

So, what is my strategy? How do I quiet the anxious worm that keeps me “chasing someone else’s path to success” on social media and distracts me from the discipline of writing – yet still expose myself to the unknown unknowns of life, those life-changing, life-affirming Black Swan events?

Let’s try this for starters:

Farewell Facebook. Yes, I mean it – except for a weekly visit to dust the shelves on the two charity pages I manage and catch up with village gossip. Refer family and close friends to WhatsApp.

Go cold turkey on Twitter’s drip-drip-drip of dopamine and check my feed just once, in the evening as a reward for a productive day.

Build real-life support. Make application to WoMentoring and consider that if this fails I may have to pay for editing and/or mentoring. Look for opportunities to meet with other writers and expand engagement with readers.

Choose learning resources carefully: 

  • don’t re-visit old tips and tricks; have confidence in my skills and move on
  • push the boundaries: look for resources that offer something new and prioritise real-life opportunities
  • challenge myself: try short stories, flash fiction, writing prompts

Work to a timetable. Write early and late when distractions are minimal and inspiration highest. Set aside time in the middle of the day for research and other reading including blogs and emails. Measure and log actual writing time.

How’s that for starters?

PS Whilst writing this post I downloaded and completed an excellent workbook called Write with Purpose on from Highly recommended to help one identify priorities and formulate a writing plan. (Pay what you can afford.)











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Running out of Life

Right, this is going to be quick. Why? Because this post is about not wasting time on social media and it would be deeply ironic if I then proceeded to waste time on social media writing about wasting time on social media.

We writers are constantly urged by pundits to network, build a brand, and generally put ourselves out there. This is known as “planting lightening rods”: one day a tweet may be endorsed by JK Rowling, a Facebook post may grab an agent’s attention, this blog may be read by a bored editor. At least that’s the theory.

Then I read cobbler, stick to your last a short article by American ghostwriter David Moldawer (ironically, following a link posted in a Facebook Group). Moldawer acknowledges the attraction of those lightning rods; he understands that publishers don’t come a-knocking and businesses have to be visible. But he nevertheless makes a devastating observation:

It breaks my heart to think of all the writers—and filmmakers, musicians, designers, inventors—who created even one less thing because of time, effort, and emotional bandwidth invested in the work of social media.

Moldawer urges us to build what he calls a positive Black Swan strategy. Black swan events are rare happenings of extreme impact but low predictability; the “unknown unknowns” of life.  The outbreak of war in 1914 and 9/11 were Black Swan events. An editor chancing on this blog would be likewise – except now it wouldn’t be because I  have anticipated it happening and Black Swan events are only retrospectively predictable (viz the Great War).

A positive Black Swan strategy is to accept uncertainty, and embrace serendipity by exposing ourselves to new opportunities, in all worlds. It’s being insatiably curious and healthily sociable. It means enjoying doing what we do for its own sake.

It means producing work that is the very best it can be – and that ain’t going to happen if we squander the most precious resource of all: time.

Here’s David Moldawer again:

When you invest money, you start with a limited quantity. Lots of people got rich on lucky bets, but if you invest in a handful of lucky-looking stocks to imitate that success, you will have no more money.

Time is different. We can keep making the same mistakes with our time and energy and, sadly, we just run out of life, eventually. We don’t get better at our work and we don’t create as much stuff as we could have, all because we squander our precious resources chasing someone else’s path to success.

I gave up my day job in 2017 because the decades were racing past and I was already a IMG_2889good 20 years past the average age at which writers are first published (ones late thirties
are, apparently, a good age at which to win that publishing contract). I am running out of life and yet I still spend time in the toxic Hotel California that is Facebook and sitting on the sidelines of the over-excited party that is Twitter.

I need a positive Black Swan strategy.



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Aristotle, Cinderella, and the Three Act Structure


If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of the Three Act Structure. First described by Aristotle, it’s a fixture on every creative writing course – if only for the sake of argument. It’s the hallmark of every Hollywood film, the rhythm of every gripping novel. You don’t need to know the theory of the Three Act Structure to appreciate its effect; it’s embedded in our literary DNA. It’s the reason why fairy stories are innately satisfying. It’s what keeps us listening to The Archers.


If a television adaptation doesn’t “work” in spite of opulent settings, gorgeous costumes, and heaving bosoms it’s generally because the plot has strayed from the Three Act Structure in order to squeeze an epic into a corset – or it’s been mauled by a tiger in post-production. The final episode of the recent BBC adaptation of Little Women was a masterclass in the Three Act Structure whilst the Corporation’s other 2017 Christmas offering the The Miniaturist just didn’t work. (I can’t be bothered to watch The Miniaturist again to analyse why this was so but I feel it was something to do with a premature Midpoint – unless the reveal of Whatsit’s sexuality was not the “big twist” and his sister’s pregnancy was – which would skew the whole story. OTOH I’ve watched Little Women three times.)

The Three Act Structure is one of those writery rules we should try to understand – even if we’re going to be terrible brave and alternative and break it. I am not yet that writer and so this week I turned to the Three Act Structure for help. First I analysed my WIP and it fitted nicely – which I knew it would because it’s flowing like a dream. Then I slotted in the plot of my completed MS and found, yep, we have a problem. I can see where the problem is and I think I know what I need to do to sort it out – but I cannot bear the thought of doing it.

I’m sure if I just keep wriggling and squeezing and shaving bits off, like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella (now, there’s an excellent Three Act story), the glass slipper will eventually fit. It has to – because the alternative feels like fratricide.



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Three books (soldiers’ diaries of the Great War)


To Fight Alongside Friends: the First World War Diaries of Charlie May edited by Gerry Harrison (2014)

One of the kindest, funniest, most thoroughly decent men I have ever met, on or off the page, Captain Charles May wrote his diaries primarily for his wife and baby daughter. Patient, good-humoured accounts of the frustrations of endless training, delayed actions and the confusion of war – but also vivid description of friendships, everyday courage, and evening horse rides along the Somme valley. The final entry is at 5.45am on July 1, 1916.

I listened to To Fight Alongside Friends on Audible back in the days when I communted to work. I missed two trains during the closing chapters when I had to retreat to the far end of platform 12 at Reading to weep.

The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven 1914-1918 by Hon Ralph GA Hamilton (1924)

I must admit I fell a bit in love with Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Hamilton when I read his diary on Kindle. He spends his time planning bombardments with maps and coloured pins, getting drunk with French artillery officers, and picking snowdrops for his wife back in London (to be delivered the next day by a subaltern going on leave). And then along come the first of the German offensives in late March 1918:

I cannot describe the whole day; it was too confused, but it was a wonderful experience I would not have missed for anything.

Two days later he’s dead. The book closes with the War Office telegram to his wife and a post-humously delivered letter asking her to send him more shirts.

Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin edited and introduced by Richard van Emden (2009)

Jack died in 1970 at the age of 85. I somehow knew when I was reading his diary that he would survive the war. He’s tough, intelligent, and totally irreverent. An engineer turned signaller, he and his section are usually off doing their own thing; setting up observation posts, laying telephone lines, dodging officers, brewing tea, finding a decent estaminet.

But Jack has a soft side as well. He plays the piano in the NCOs’ mess, leads the singing on marches, and admits to loving his mates. Here he is in August 1917:

When we were passing through the outskirts of St Omer, we saw some English girls (WAACs) – the first we have seen since we have been out here. It was something of a shock to us and we had a funny feeling inside which forced tears into our eyes so that we turned our heads away from each other.





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In praise of … Focus

Forget word counts; countdowns are my new motivator.

Word counts are good – especially when one is at the Draft 1 stage – but there are still times when one is gazing vacantly into space or looking for sartorial inspiration on Pinterest but still technically working and it’s profoundly irritating when this is not acknowledged as such by ones word count.

shutterstock_588214760 copyFocus Keeper Work & Study Timer is an iPhone app by Limepresso – but I daresay there is an excellent Android version if that’s your bag. The paid-for version costs less than the proverbial cup of coffee and does nothing much more than count down 25 minutes to a background of ticking clocks, café babble or soothing rainfall (or silence – which I fill with a carefully curated Spotify playlist). Focus then allows you 5 minutes ‘short break’ (amazing what you can do – and how much money you can spend – in 5 minutes) and then we’re back to the café babble. And so on for a couple of hours, when you are allowed a ‘long break’ of your chosen length.

It’s brilliant – once you have faffed around for a day or so optimising your work and break lengths, choosing your ticking clock (choice of five), and deciding on a colour scheme (the default is an angry red which does do at all).  It appeals to the nerd in me and the gives me enough of a dopamine hit to want to comply.

Right, time’s up. My phone has pinged (choice of bicycle bell, whistle, or chimes). Back to work.


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In praise of … iThoughts

ithoughts mind map

This is a mind map of the book I’m working on right now. I produced this map over the course of several months last year using toketaWare’s brilliant iThoughts programme. It served as a depositary for my flashes of inspiration and random thoughts and enabled me to map these against timelines and various story arc models. I referred to it when I started Draft Zero but didn’t look at it thereafter because my story and characters were already evolving. (I think even the names have changed now.)

I’ve used iThoughts for several years now to plan everything from new flower beds to resuscitation lectures. It’s intuitive, endlessly adaptable (the map above collapses down into six little thought bubbles), and the pleasing graphics and colours and the gentle sound effects give a nice little dopamine hit 😉

I’ll probably start a new iThoughts map soon to off-load the ideas I have simmering away for book 3.

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