Advice to novel writers

Just what we need for November, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – or whenever the decision to first draft a novel strikes – some very useful writing tips recorded online.  BBC World Service radio has made available an entire series called “Writing Time” – each episode a 13 minute recording.

Topics covered include:

  • advice for aspiring writers
  • how to start writing a novel
  • developing characters
  • setting (how to decide where to set your book)
  • establishing voice (how to find your own distinctive voice)
  • dialogue
  • endings
  • how to find an agent



Sue Perkins on a Desert Island

Desert Island Discs is a classic UK radio programme which has the format of a biographical interview – and much more interesting than that sounds.  Each week, a different celebrity picks 8 favourite pieces of music and recollects their life around them. They’ve just hit a seam of gold with Sue Perkins last week – and now I see the next guest is John McEnroe.  Both have been interviewed, interviewed others, been commentators, lived public lives – for decades – and never said a boring sentence (at least on camera).

They speak eloquently, passionately, and thoughtfully on – well, life – and anything any interviewer throws at them.

“You’re a very quotable person, Sue Perkins” says the interviewer.


“Invisible College” – writing advice

The Invisible College” is a BBC series of programme, available free on i-tunes as podcasts, or listenable to on half-hour programmes.  They encourage creative writing and are now on series 2 (broadcasting Mondays, 4 pm, Radio4 FM).  Catch all previous episodes on BBC i-player, titled “Invisible College”.

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Dr Cathy FitzGerald – keeping it all lively and easy to understand

Brilliantly, the BBC are pulling on their recordings of all sorts of writers in many different styles, over decades, so it’s a mixed bag of voices and advice, ringmastered by Dr Cathy FitzGerald – we hear Maya Angelou, Eudora Welty, Ted Hughes, Susan Sontag, P G Wodehouse….. such a variety of writing genres and styles are covered.

The radio recordings are around 30 minutes each – but as podcasts (on i-Tunes) they are broken up into lessons averaging 10 minutes.  So you can learn a lot in pocket-sized parts of time!

This is the BBC doing what it does best: educating, informing and being entertaining while it does so.

Here’s a wee sample 2 minute extract – Ted Hughes advising on word choice:


The radio Series 1 episode 1 starts here:

Topics covered include: inspiration, routine, time off, concentration, character, plot and style, the importance of reading lots, choosing right words… and the joy, the joy, of writing and the written word.

UK favourite piece of music is….

Each week for 75 years, one radio programme has been broadcast on the BBC: Desert Island Discs.  The idea of the programme is to invite people of accomplishment (some of whom are celebrities, others experts in their field such as brain surgery, human rights lawyers) – to talk through their favourite 8 pieces of music, telling their life story and why they like each piece as they go.  Finally, they are asked to imagine that they will be cast away upon a desert island with only ONE of these piece of musics, only ONE book (as well as the Bible and Shakespeare) and ONE luxury.

When the public were asked their favourite piece of music, one came top: the Lark Ascending.  This is a classical piece of music, and makes me think that the audience asked were probably aged above 50 and confirmed BBC Radio listeners (as it has an entire channel devoted to classical music: Radio 2).

The BBC programme have put together a 5 minute animation about this poll and why people like the music piece – which is lovely – but unfortunately I can’t share it directly – just point here –

and say it’s worth going to see!

Separately, here is Nicola Benedetti playing the piece.


And in closing….

the funny and absurd humorous BBC Radio programme “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” has got a unique way to sign off at the end of the programme – here are a few:

“Well with Mickey Mouse’s hand pointing upwards and Goofy’s tail pointing downwards……   I realize that my watch is not a Rolex”

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“Well as the burnished chariot of fate is wheelclamped by the the traffic warden of eternity….”

“… and so, as the frisky tomcat of fate confronts the scalpel of destiny and the precious natural woodland of time meets the motorway extension of eternity…”

“… and so, as the still-warm seat of eternity is lifted by the charlady of time, before she brandishes aloft the Toilet Duck of destiny….”

“and so, Ladies and Gentlemen, as the Steve Davis of time clambers over the table of eternity to reach another red, and the wine waiter of destiny asks him to leave the restaurant…”


(all these and more at the website

Is there a point to art

… when so much of the world is trying to survive war and disaster?  A good friend of mine asked me this today, inviting me to discuss it with her, on a podcast.

Within minutes of reading her question, I randomly came upon this 2 minute BBC radio snippet – of a programme where a human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands,  cited his favourite music – and said Leonard Cohen gave him hope.

Screen shot 2017-01-19 at 18.43.24.png  (recording available til 16 Feb)

Then there was an audio recording of a concert in which Philippe and a friend were enthusiastically shouting out to the performer (they had front row seats), and Leonard responded with a few lines of his poetry, leading into his next song.

So much, packed into 2 minutes 17 secs.  I’m glad I heard it.




Gravy 2 ways

1)A 2 minute audio excerpt from classic Hancock (for those of you listening on the black and white wireless) on the subject of spectacularly poor cooking:


2) And another viewpoint on gravy – a poem – viewable in book “Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy” edited by Neil Astley and at blog


by Raymond Carver.

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”


(This poem was written by a recovered alcoholic, apparently washed up as a writer, who got sober, met and married a second wife – and got an unexpected decade of happy life)


Which reminds me of the recently deceased A A Gill, the tremendous food critic and writer, who was told by a doctor that he was on the point of death from his alcoholism when he was a not very successful 30 year old painter – at which point (1984) he signed into a detox clinic.  He lived to discover what he was born to do – journalism (despite severe dyslexia) – and married once (2 kids) then lived with his partner (they had twins). His comment, below, also reflects an appreciation of a second chance at life.

On death

I realise I don’t have a bucket list; I don’t feel I’ve been cheated of anything. I’d like to have gone to Timbuktu, and there are places I will be sorry not to see again. But actually, because of the nature of my life and the nature of what happened to me in my early life – my addiction – I know I have been very lucky.