Words, their quality
of less weight than their number –
two thousand a day?

(I am attempting to write a novel in a month for NaNoWriMo. It is taking all my poeming time away.)


cc by Steve Johnson via Flickr


Prompt: Write about a scent


I probably wrote this around this time last summer. It’s hot.  

Dull, wet and heavy, the scent of concrete excreta hit his gag reflex the moment he stepped outside, instantly light-headed in what should have been fresh air. It was so humid the air was practically rain, a perverse kind of sticky rain that slurped at his nervously acrid temples and left him no cleaner, the kind of rain that would rain if rain could rain in soup.

With a barely perceptible swish, the glass doors closed behind him.

View from Tokyo Metropolitan Building

Tokyo in summer. It’s hot. By Caroline Hutchinson.

In pursuit of my Muse


I like to write. There’s no chaos of voices to cut through to get my point across, the words jumble themselves up less when I fix them down on paper, and pinning them down, I’m often as surprised as anyone to learn what I think.

But one thing I’ve found about writing is that it doesn’t happen on its own. Mine is a unruly Muse, and she ain’t nobody’s bitch. Sometimes she just ups and leaves, sometimes for months at a time. The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to win her back.

Absinthe - the green fairy

Are you… who I’m looking for?

There are those that will tell you that writing is like a muscle: exercise it and it grows stronger, neglect it and it grows weak. While it’s my belief that the aphorism that burns half as bright is twice as annoying, there’s probably something in it. It’s certainly more likely to lead to some kind of meaningful production than absinthe, much as the Green Fairy may resemble the Muse under certain lighting.

So, how to work those creative pecs? One way, and something I’ve been doing for about four years now, is using writing prompts: short, thought-provoking starting points that get the words out on the page without much regard for polish. When done as part of a writer’s gathering, it can be fascinating to see how differently people can interpret the same idea, and it’s not uncommon to expand and polish promising ideas: there are examples of this here and here.

What I’m proposing now, however, is to post my prompts sans spit and polish, be they good, bad or ugly. I’d welcome any ideas or feedback – let me know if there’s a plot idea you think I could run with, an image that resonates, or a word you think I should never, ever use again. And when I have a writing six-pack, my Muse will never leave my side.

Archive: The third fiction of “women writers”


3. To write women, write people (women are people too)

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars? Sorry mate, but you pulled that from Uranus.

Men and women are biologically different, yes, but women don’t think with their ovaries any more than men think with their… well, you know what I mean. And in a recent poll of a representative group of my friends, equal numbers of men and women had experience with either a) hunting sabre-tooth tigers, or b) using carefully whittled bone chips to sew sabre-tooth tiger pelts into attractive and functional clothing. Which is to say nobody said yes to either, because it’s 2014 and we are not, apparently, hard-wired to live in caves.

Venus and Mars, Botticelli

“I can’t escape the feeling that somewhere far in the future, someone’s using our names to make meaninglessly sweeping generalisations about gender. Sigh…” (Venus and Mars, Botticelli)


So, men, here are two tips for writing female characters from past masters:

1. The Neil Gaiman Infiltration Technique

Why not try getting to know one or more of these women, perhaps by engaging them in conversation at a family or social event? Let’s err on the side of more than one, as women demonstrate a bewildering array of differing wants, ideals, goals and values. But fear not, here’s a fun fact: there are 3.5 billion women in the world – chances are at least one of them was your mother!

So let’s now take this woman – easy tiger, I don’t mean literally. What are her defining characteristics – I’m going to steer you away from breasts and menstruation here, because an excessive focus on them in your prose may detract from your seriousness as a writer (“she opened the door not with her magnificent breasts but with her hand, the hand she always used to buy tampons”). Think about what makes her her. Change some of it, and watch a new person take shape. When creating your character, try mixing and matching the interesting parts from a number of your female acquaintances – again, the key point here is not literally.


2. The Martin One-World Approach

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what about those of us writing in gender-segregated societies, or living under a craggy hunk of hyper-masculine granite-RAWK? How are we to collect enough bits of women to make a character if said women run screaming every time we take out the cleaver of character creation?

Another feted male writer of female characters gives the following advice:

“I’ve always considered women to be people” – George R. R. Martin

And there you have it, really. Write humans, with an eye for what humans do, from walking on the moon to walking their dogs to moonwalking… to just plain walking, because that’s frankly a freak of nature in itself. Write humans as they are, as they think they are and as they wish they were and as they wish they could have been. Write humans as they live and breathe and breathe their last, as they stumble and falter, as they cry and lie and reach out their hands and hearts to others who may or may not reach back.

And do me a favour? There’s room for more than Madonna and whore. No woman is all good. No woman is all bad. True heroines trip up and fall flat and overcome, just as true heroes. Multi-dimensional trumps cookie-cutter strong, every time.

From here on February 11 2014.

Archive: The second fiction of “women writers”


2. Women can write about whatever they choose

Which brings me neatly to the second thing that gets my she-goat. When men write female characters and get it right, they’re praised for their unique insight (more on this in a second). When women write men and get it right, they’re criticised for selling out the sisterhood. And woe betide those who place those men in positions of power…

Earthsea Trilogy front cover

Earthsea Trilogy front cover (artwork by Leo and Diane Dillon)

As a child I adored the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, mostly because he can do MAGIC but now he’s showing off and eeeek, he’s summoned some kind of shadow thing but he can turn into a BIRD and talk to DRAGONS. Cooooool. Rereading it as an adult, I can see balance and wholeness, rites of passage and the confrontation with the self, Jung and the Norse Gods and the Tao Te Ching, and many of the themes – human psychology, anarchism, structures of power and issues of identity – that inform her science fiction writing.

Not once, either as small me or as tall me, did I find myself thinking “I wish there were more girls in this” – if anything, the series is conspicuously right-on, with a dark-skinned protagonist and a second book focussing primarily on female characters. Nor did I ever think that the saying “as weak as women’s magic” meant anything other than that in the book, men controlled access to magic and scorned women as users of it, just as in the real world, boys sometimes wouldn’t let you near the good Lego. Not ideal, sure, but not unrealistic.

So I was pretty surprised to find that not only has the series been criticised for depicting a patriarchy, but that Le Guin later wrote two further novels focussing on female characters, and women’s magic. They’re fairly overt in their intent, and left me cold. While I hope she sleeps easier at night, no writer should have to write the world as they wish it should be. Saying that a woman who writes about a patriarchal society approves of said patriarchy is like saying that George Orwell wrote 1984 as a manifesto.

Those of us who are compelled to write don’t do it into a void, sure, but we’re also not politicians or ideologues. When I write, I am representative only of me, not of all women, all the time, or of what all those women want. Truth to tell, sometimes I write things even I don’t agree with. That aren’t even true. That’s why I write fiction: you get to lie and call it art.

And that’s why reading a woman won’t necessarily help you understand that woman.

From here on February 11th 2014.