Oxford – A Brief Literary Journey

I was in London last week, spending some time visiting my parents and relaxing with hubby. John, one of my oldest friends, wanted to take a visit to Oxford.

I was fortunate enough to attend Ruskin College when I decided to embark into higher education, so I was thrilled to go back there for the first time in years and show my hubby and my friend some of the cool places Oxford has to offer.

John picked us up and we set off fairly early. It didn’t take us too long to get to the outskirts of the city.

For those who don’t know, Oxford is a city which hates cars. You’d be more likely to find a first edition of Lord of the Rings lying around on the streets than a decent parking spot.

So we stopped at one of the Park and Rides to catch a bus for the final part of the journey.

John and Luke (hubby) at the Park and Ride.

Our first stop (well, after grabbing some ice cream from the amazing G&Ds on St Aldates) was the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. It was just around the corner from Ruskin and a place I often popped into for inspiration, while I was studying there.

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

The museum has a fantastic collection of antiquities. Here are a few examples:

16th Century Chinese Sewing Box
Didcot Coin Hoard
A collection of lutes

Well, wouldn’t all that art and history be enough to give you a terrible thirst? So our next stop had to be a bar.

Those of you who know me are probably quite aware that I write a lot of speculative fiction for younger people, so there really was only one choice (made somewhat easier by its close proximity to the Ashmolean).

The Eagle and Child

Why is this place such an important literary landmark? A blackboard in the back of the place explains why:


There were several nods to the Inklings around the bar:

Hobbit Cover
Unexpected Party

And a door you probably wouldn’t want to mess with:


Aslan is watching
Close Up

So we had a fine meal in there and, of course, a pint. Then set off for the place my hubby wanted to go most of all, the botanical gardens, to see a particular bench:

Will and Lyra’s Bench

So, those who’ve read Phillip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials, don’t need to ask how important this place is, and I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t experienced the sheer brilliance of this trilogy.

I’ll only say we were there on the day after midsummer, so we missed them by 24 hours.

It really was a fantastic day. The experience of going back to Oxford has rejuvenated me in a way I could not have wished or expected. I plan to go back again in a couple of months and, this time, I’ll take a decent camera with me.

Luke and Damian



Clay’s Writing Tips: Landmarks and Signposts

I’m a pantser. There’s just no escaping it.

The last two novels I’ve attempted to write, I tried to change my game and planned them out, in an attempt to make things slicker and smoother and, hopefully, require less drafts to bring me to the stage when I could start to edit. Both of them failed almost totally.

So, I’m a pantser, and I should just live with it. I’m not going to try planning again. When I wrote my first poetry editing post, I defined the first draft of a poem to be like mining for ore. The first draft of a novel is exactly the same. Only, when you’re pantsing, you’re going mining without a map.

One question I’m asked a lot by planners is: “Are you mad?”

I usually laugh and say something about horses for courses. But then they tend to ask a more pertinent question which often applies to them, even though they do plan.

See, the thing is, even when you plan you can run into problems. Something occurs to you halfway in the novel which is a much better idea than the one you had at the outset. And why wouldn’t it be? You’ve actually brought your characters and world to life. They may not like the plans you had in mind. As your initial plan grows into reality, you may see a lot of possibilities you like a lot better.

So back to that question. They ask: “What do you do when you can’t see a way forward?”

That is a good question and I have two possible solutions for everyone.


So you might be a planner. You’ve veered off your initial course and can’t see the way forward. Or, like me, you might be a pantser and just don’t know where to go anymore.

Landmarks are clearly visible locations you want your character to end up. If you have planned, look through the rest of your plot. Is there a place you know you want the character to end up?

I don’t mean in a specific location in your world, though that is a possibility. It could be anywhere the character needs to be, physically, mentally or emotionally:

I need Mr Hicks to realise he’s made a mistake by firing his servant.

The cowboy has to get to the dry springs so he can meet the cartographer.

Tim from Ruislip has to see that his relentless body odour is holding him back in his relationships.

Planner or pantser, all you need do is a little forward thinking to work out where your protagonist has to be. From there, you just need to work out the incremental steps to get them there, or, even one step, just moving them forward will do. So long as you keep your landmark in mind when finding the next step, you’ll get them there eventually.

Mr Hicks feels unwell and realises he’s not taken his medication because his servant wasn’t there to remind him.

The cowboy is captured by his enemies. They leave him stranded in the desert. His only chance for survival is to get to the springs.

Tim tries to go swimming but is turned away by the pool receptionist and shamed publicly.


Signposts are the opposite of landmarks, though they also present us with another way forward.

Signposts are those little, extremely forgettable, things we write that have no use or meaning beyond that initial inclusion:

She said she might go to Skegness. What did he care about that place? Wasn’t that where working class drinkers went to get sunburnt on the beach and glass a few locals? He’d been there once in his childhood at the home of some distant relation. He’d never been so bored in his life.

So right there, we’re using that verisimilitude to give his view of Skegness some weight. We had no intention of pursuing the path of his distant relative.

But what if we did? What if that relative is the key to further resolution in the story?

So signposts are another great way forward. Read back through your manuscript and write them all down. You’ll more than likely find the one which points forward.

Now. Go write!



Together Bears

Together Bears

For Luke, on our 12th anniversary

You’d never have believed you’d be eating onions
as part of almost every meal.
If your 19 year-old self saw you drinking coffee
he would totally ask, what’s the deal?
If I’d told you that curries would be your top choice
you’d have told me my brain was misplaced.
And if I’d said, you’ll be vegan one day,
you’d surely have laughed in my face.

But what could I see, twelve years in the future,
and why would it matter at all?
When the one thing I knew is that we’d be together
holding hands through each rise and each fall.
Through triumphs like defending your thesis,
while so poor we shared one pair of shoes.
For better or worse, it’s a beautiful curse
to know I’ll be right here with  you.


Chicago-Method Writing Workshop Rules

Over here at The INKubator, we’re pretty excited about getting the Chicago workshops running.

It really is a different and insightful method to get a variety of reader’s and writer’s opinions on your work and put you in a fantastic position for making revisions to bring your work to burnished perfection.

What follows is a guide to explain the rules and give you an idea of the process, in the hope this makes the events an easier and smoother experience for everyone involved.

If you are joining us for the workshop, please take the time to read through these guidelines.

Before the Event

If you’d like to have a piece of work included in the workshop, or even if you’d just like to attend, please fill out the sign-up sheet you can find at Google Forms.

You’ll need to make two copies of your Google Document: one should allow for comments so that your fellow workshoppers can annotate your work; the other should be read-only to allow the reader to concentrate on the piece without the major distraction of people live editing as they do so.

If you are submitting prose, please make sure it is formatted to have a single line space after every paragraph.

Submit only a single poem, up to three pages (max 1500 words) of prose, or five pages of properly formatted script.

Please make your submission at least thirty minutes before the start of the workshop so we can fix any problems in advance of it beginning, as there won’t be time to do so once the workshop has begun.

Before entering the channel, please set your discord mic settings to push to talk.

During the Workshop

Work will be workshopped in the order it appears in the queue.

A reader will be selected to read the piece out. It must be someone other than the author. It should be read exactly as it is on the page. The reader must resist the urge to extemporise or correct errors as they go. This way the writer gets to hear their words read back to them with all the clunks and stumbles.

After the work has been read, the members of the workshop will have a chance to feed back over voice chat on the piece. This must be done with no interruptions from anyone. You must wait for your turn to feed back.

Once everyone has fed back, the writer can ask readers to explain any comments that weren’t clear to them or they didn’t understand and ask one or two questions if there were concerns they had about their piece that weren’t brought up. Just remember if there is a long queue, and many people who want feedback on their work, to be fair and reasonable in the number of questions you ask.

We then move on to the next piece in the queue.

If we don’t get to your piece this time it will keep its place in the queue for the next workshop.

Chicago workshops are a fantastic way of developing your craft as a writer. So why not come along and give it a go?

Damian (AKA Big Bad Bear)



One day Mum felt bored and lonely
so she made some macaroni.
She cooked it in her giant pan –
the one reserved for stews and lamb.

It boiled away for hour on hour
till all the liquid was devoured.
She added milk and added water,
a pint of blood from her eldest daughter.

She put in pepper, sprinkled salt,
a clove of garlic, spoon of malt.
But something she had done unknowing
kept the pasta growing and growing.

It hit the floor and filled the kitchen
expanded through each room we lived in,
brought the house down, didn’t stop,
this soggy swelling pasta slop.

Soon it swamped the entire planet.
That was the end and so I’ll have it –
never let my mum cook pasta.
It’s going to be a huge disaster.




Open up your door and I am there
standing, waiting on the dusty street,
ready with a football and a day,
time enough for both of us to smile.

Our weekends are fields and lakes and trees
and walks out in the woods with pack and tent.
I always have a story or a song
and you, a riddle, or a funny joke.

And if there is a stream I cannot cross
you push me on and guide me safely through.
I hold you through the damage that’s been done
by your family’s cold indifference.

Be it in pain or obstacles to pass,
we haul each other up into the light.




On Shoe Lane,
the world fades.
My knees give way.
I tilt forward,

I swim in ether;
that sickening, sweet
smell presses up
through my nostrils.

Time is displaced
till voices return
as cruel consonants:

“Stand Back! Stand Back!
Give him some air!”

Pain pulses,
my brain splinters,
and my eyes open.

“Don’t try to get up.”

The Days of the New Raj

The Days of the New Raj

The masala dosa hangs
twice the radius off my plate
but now I see your thali,
I’m jealously reminded of a circus.

The choices we make at tiffin
are the most important
and flavour the remainder
of the afternoon.

Malaria is not considered
a danger in the heart of Soho
but we ward it off anyway
with ice mountain gin and tonics
as dry as Chianti,
as bitter as grapefruit.
Lemon eighths glisten in the mix
like yellow sapphires.

The world turns around us,
south of Fitzrovia.
The talk of your ideas,
which will shape the minds
of a generation,
seem to others the ramblings
of a three martini lunch.

As the midday sun makes an Arizona
of Old Compton Street,
Hoxton boys forsake
the alfresco seating, invading
air conditioned rainbow bars
and trendy queer restaurants.

You snort. “Look,
how quickly those cunts retreat.”

Writing Workshops 101

Writing is a mostly solitary occupation.

We spend hours, days and months working on stories, novels and poems in seclusion, developing our craft as we go. To begin with, as you work on the basics, it’s fine to be in this position.

At some point, most of us make the realisation that to make any significant forward progress we’re going to need feedback from writers more advanced and further along with their craft.

At this stage you’re probably going to go look for a writing group, either in real life or online. This is the best route for further development, even though, to begin with, it can be a scary prospect, especially when you first start to share your own work with a group of people you don’t know.

The same often applies when you have to begin giving feedback on the work of others.

This post is somewhat of a short primer on what to expect and what may be expected of you. Of course, this will differ from group to group.

So I’ll be talking about the general rules of etiquette used in writing groups. Be sure to make yourself familiar with any house rules in use within any groups you join.

One – make certain you’re ready for critique.

There’s a lot to get right before you submit your work to a group. Your grammar, punctuation and spelling should be up to scratch.

No one worries about typos or commonly misused words but if you’re still working on the basic elements of language, in-depth workshopping is not yet for you. There’s no way around this.

I’ve heard people ask before: “Just look past my poor use of English and judge the content alone.” The trouble is, grammar and punctuation affect meaning. The entire reason for workshopping is to bring work to a publishable standard. At this level, without the basic tools of writing at your disposal, it’s just not something that can be achieved.

On top of this, writers are only human and I’m not sure I know of any writer who wouldn’t start correcting technical errors in a piece the moment they’d been handed it. This level of editing and correcting is something you should be doing before you submit your work for feedback. Writing group participants sign up to help work on people’s craft, not to teach remedial English.

Two – if you’re looking for people to tell you how great a writer you are, don’t submit work.

If you’re looking a piece you’ve written and are thinking: “This is the greatest thing ever. I can’t wait till they recognise my genius,” get ready for a huge serving of disappointment.

Or, better still, don’t submit work.

Three – leave your ego at the door.

When you offer your work to be critiqued it is about the work only, it’s not about you. Good workshoppers will judge the work as they see it on the page and not take anything else into consideration.

Yes, to begin with, it can hurt to get negative feedback but that’s only because you’re allowing your ego to get involved. Feedback will mostly be about the work and rarely directly about you unless you’re making a frequent error and someone points that out.

Or, if you’ve ignored rule one and people are constantly commenting on your grammar and spelling.

After a while, it gets much easier to disconnect yourself from your work. In my first year of university studying creative writing, students were treading on eggshells around one another during workshops.

By the end of the second year, when we all knew we were about to get final marks based on our work, that all stopped and in workshops we’d say: “Rip the shit out of it and tell me what’s wrong.”

Four – assume your editors are treating your work with the best intentions.

The work – it’s all about the work. When I edit a piece I go to town and I take no consideration for how the writer will feel about it. If I started holding back for fear of upsetting the writer, I may make them feel a little better but I’d be doing a serious disservice to their work.

So you may sometimes feel that they’re poking you with a big stick. They’re not. They’re probably doing the best they know how to make your work as good as it can be.

Again, it’s about leaving your ego at the door.

So, either editing or being edited, don’t take yourself so seriously. Take the work seriously.

Five – after you’ve received feedback there’s only one comment you’re allowed to make:

Thank you!

No matter how substantial or how true you found the feedback to be, whether you feel ecstatic or heartbroken by the comments, the critiquer has given their time by reading, editing and annotating your work.

So no matter how you feel, say: “Thank you!”

On the other hand, you are allowed to ask questions. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask if that critiquer could amplify, clarify or expand on their comments. However, don’t use this as a chance to get salty with them because you got a hard critique.

You can also ask specific questions if they didn’t give any comments at that point. Things like:

Do you think the ending works?

Did you spot the twist/foreshadowing/intertextual reference?

Do the characters seem real to you?

Really, anything that’s of concern for your piece at that stage in your writing.

Six – once you’ve received feedback, use it.

Give it some time, think long and hard about what’s been said before you get down to making the edits.

Don’t just shift a few words around and think that will do, then re-submit a piece to other critiquers. You’ll be wasting their time if you didn’t take everything they said into consideration.

Seven – the final decisions lie with you.

You have to decide on the advice you accept and the advice you don’t. This is why it’s good to try to get feedback from a number of people. There’s a good chance at some points you’ll see critiquers disagree. Again, which way you go will be up to you.

Readers’ vs Writers’ Opinions

One thing that’s almost a certainty in such groups is that you’ll be expected to give feedback on the work of others. It’s only fair – if people are going to invest their time looking at your work it should be obvious that you should repay the compliment.

But what if you’re just starting out and don’t feel confident about offering writing advice?

Say so, and let them know you’ll be offering a reader’s opinion.

Restrict your feedback to talking about what worked for you and what didn’t. Where you felt the pace build and drop and that sort of thing. Let them know if there were parts you found which didn’t flow well or that you didn’t understand. Let them know where you laughed, cried, got angry.

Readers’ opinions are very important to writers. They give us a feeling of how our work is likely to be received by the public. The more feedback we get, the better. It lets us see how different people will receive our work.

If you say you’re offering a reader’s opinion, the writer won’t be expecting a technical exegesis from you, but there’s so much insight your comments can give, to enable them to fix the weaker elements of their work and enhance those bits that they do well.

What if I disagree with the comments another editor has made?

From time to time, this is going to happen. If something they have said is clearly wrong, then you should feel free to state that directly.

For example, I recently workshopped a piece on which another editor had said: “The word just should never be used.”

With things like this, it’s fair to point out this is wrong so that the writer will ignore the comment.

But where you disagree with the comment of another editor about something which is not so hard and fast, couch your comments in support of your opinion, not against the opinion of the other editor. For example:

Editor One: I think the dialogue here is too verbose.

Editor Two: I’d go the other way on this. I feel the dialogue here reflects the characterisation you’ve set up for the protagonist.

The final thing we should be wary of is trying to push our opinions on elements of the writing that go to the voice of the writer.

Things like:

You’ve used the word nasty here, it would be better if you said horrible.

…are never okay. Or:

I don’t like that word, you should should use something else.

The key question to ask yourself is if the writing works. Making changes on the basis of how you would do it, when nothing is technically wrong with the piece, is a step too far.

All of this is a learning process, but a worthy one. In learning how to critique the work of others you’ll be increasing your understanding when it comes to editing your own.

Learning to critique is as important a process as learning to edit. If you have any questions about critiquing the work of others, ask the more experienced members of your group. They’re writers after all. In my experience, there’s little more that writers like than talking about writing.

Let’s be honest – walking into a writing group and into a workshopping situation if you’ve never done so before isn’t ever going to be easy. Just be gracious, stick to the rules, employ good etiquette, show humility, and you’ll soon be reaping the rewards.

Poetry Editing 101: Session Seven – Words Don’t Grow on Trees: Full Stop

In the final stages of editing a poem the most essential part of the process is cutting.

The ability of a poem to encapsulate an idea into as few words as possible, into the most powerful and effective words as possible, is a huge part of what enables it to move and hook into the mind of a reader.

When editing poetry, this may mean replacing weak phrases with single words, editing entire lines to tighten them up, or cutting out certain words entirely. This concept is called conservation of language.

To offer an analogy, writing a poem is a lot like making yourself a whiskey and soda – the more soda you add, the weaker the drink.

Take this couplet:

I think that you look very nice in red.
I see your new dress flare as you spin around.

Right away I can see there are a ton of words in there of which we can rid ourselves and keep the exact same meaning:

You look very nice in red.
Your new dress flares as you spin.

That’s a good start but we’re not done yet. That very nice in the first line can be turned into a better adjective. How about:

You look phenomenal in red.

We could go even further and take it down to:

You’re phenomenal in red.

But I don’t like the change to the rhythm that produces. However, I do like the change from look to are, so…

You are phenomenal in red.

With the second line we could edit it down with a rewrite and keep the meaning:

You spin – the new dress flares.

So let’s compare the original to the edited version and see which you think is stronger:

I think that you look very nice in red.
I see your new dress flare as you spin around.


You are phenomenal in red.
You spin – the new dress flares.

For the rest of this session, I’m going to answer some frequent questions on the subject of capitalisation and punctuation.

Before I start, it’s worth pointing out that there are no set rules for this within poetry. The most important thing is consistency. However, what there are a lot of are reader expectations and receptions to the various styles.

There is an old school method to poetry punctuation which most modern poets have abandoned, that is, the capital letter on the first word of every new line and then standard punctuation. It looks like this:

Holy Sonnet VI

This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

John Donne

This is, of course, fine. No one would criticise you for this approach, but, to me at least, it does seem dull and slightly plodding, even stuffy.

The next option I’d like to look at is using full, classic punctuation as if the piece in question was prose. Here, the first word of a new line is only capitalised if it’s a new sentence. Commas are only used when they would be any other time, so some lines will end with no punctuation mark at all. Here is this style being used in one of my poems.


April brought the dreams of summer,
days when we will pack a hamper,
lay out our blanket in the sun
and take a break from everyone.

We will savour all the fare,
bought from foreign grocers, share
each flavour and each moment while
we live a day vacation style.

And though this reverie has passed
to rain which drums the window’s glass
Outside with you, my dreams remain,
together in idyllic June.

This approach gives a much lighter and more contemporary feel. Not capitalising the enjambments also makes them easier to parse.

The final style I’d like to look at is one with no capitalisation or punctuation, probably best known as the e e cummings style. Again, using one of my poems, this is how it looks.


sometimes i dream
of a hermit’s life
on an untroubled beach
amidst natural wonders
where i shall nurture
those parts of my being
so starved in the big city
only forced to hide
from passing boats

To me, this style feels unobtrusive and somewhat meek and low-fi. It’s a good one to use when you want to bring that to the page. It may seem in places, problematic, not to be able to use punctuation, but part of learning to write in this way is learning how to use the other aspects of poetry to work around this.

I was recently offering some advice to @tinypaleokitchen about a piece she had written in this style. There was a section where a patient was being revived with electric paddles and a doctor shouted, clear.

promises snuffed out
around him medics shout


trying to jumpstart
the beating of a heart

Tiny wanted to use an exclamation mark on the line, but, as we saw in the last session, the fact this is a single word on the line, all on it’s own, already gives it that emphasis.

Whichever style you decide to use for a poem, the key thing is consistency. I say, when in doubt, use the second style, perfect punctuation.

In the final session we’re going to be bringing everything we’ve discussed together and doing some editing. There will also be room for questions, so if there’s any final doubts, things you’d like to know or have amplified, let me know in the comments.

For now, go write!