118. Two great ways to free your creative juices

Has your creative well run dry?  Don’t worry. Writing isn’t a mysterious process that depends on random visits from the muse. It’s a craft, and there are craft techniques for generating ideas when none come on the aether. I should confess neither of these techniques is mine.

Random meetings

The first workaround comes, I think, from Boris Fishman but I may be wrong. Putting together things that aren’t related is the basis of metaphor, that mainstay of poetic creation. So, if you’re stuck, just give yourself two unrelated random things and then create a story that links them. Say you choose swan and company. Here’s my example of a story that links swan and company.


I love the mechanical simplicity of this workaround. You can create a story idea in five minutes. It comes from Dan Harmon.

Step 1. Your mind is blank.

quandrants 1 and 2

Step 2. Start with a random idea, anything that interests you, anything at all. Harmon explains his technique with “racoons”. I’m going to be more pedestrian and use “quest” because that’s what a lot of writers write.  Draw a circle as the world of the quest.

Step 3. Now draw a line horizontally through the circle, dividing it into upper and lower halves. As yourself what those halves might be. Maybe the upper half is the everyday, known world, and the bottom half is the special, unknown world of the quest. Label these halves.

quandrants 3 and 4

Step 4. Now divide the circle again with a vertical line dividing it into left and right halves. Decide what this division is and label it. Maybe it’s fearful and brave.

You now have four quadrants. Going clockwise around the circle from the top, your protagonist will start in the known world and fearful. S/he will travel to the unknown world, where terrifying trials await. In the course of these challenges s/he will discover courage and then return changed to the known world. As you can see, this is the Hero’s Journey.

In Harmon’s example, the divisions are biological/ storybook racoons and honest/ dishonest racoons. Pick divisions that have resonance for you and which you feel excited to explore.

You never need suffer writer’s block again.


115. Frame Stories

Frame stories are useful literary devices. They provide “containers” that help organise other narrative material. Many stories, sometimes several layers deep, may nest within the frame.

Think, for example, of one of the best-known frame stories in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  Shaherazad prevents the Sultan executing her by telling him a new story each night. Her attempt to keep herself alive provides the frame for the tales she tells.


Some of these tales, in turn, are also frame stories for collections of others: such as the Sinbad sequence.

Uses of the frame story

The essence of all frame stories is that they offer the possibility of telling other stories. But there are many reasons a writer might want to do this.

A narrator may want a container into which they can drop smaller narratives from their preferred stock.

Or there may only be one other story inside the frame. In this case, the frame allows the writer to suggest things about the second story. For example, to signal that the narrator is unreliable, or to propose other reactions to the reader.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six stories each nested within the previous one.


Framing for accessibility

Another use of the frame story is to make a more complicated structure accessible to the reader.

I used this device in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. It uses a simple frame story about an undercover policeman investigating a terrorist cell and falling for his target. The reader could choose to engage only at this level. But embedded within this are other magical tales which come to interpenetrate the real world of the frame story. Reality becomes the story we tell about things: a fitting epitaph for a professional liar.


Frame and reprise

A reprise is a repeating element. Often, the repeat is at the beginning and end of the story. This gives a sense of returning to the start, which readers tend to find satisfying.

Such a reprise functions like a frame, without being a complete story in itself.


This article is reprinted from my author newsletter. If you’d like to receive more pieces like this as well as tips on writing tools and news of work in progress, click on the Subscribe button on this page

114. From tiny tickles to character reveals: tropisms

What makes the inner world of a fictional character really sing? The author can, of course, have the character think ideas, speak, and carry out actions. But, besides and more interesting than this, is the way they respond to the world and understand things. After all, the universe inside every head seems magically different from the one inside my own.


I’ve just come across an author who tried to render that inner world, using an idea borrowed from biology. Plants grow towards the light. Biologists call this stimulus and response phototropism.


Encyclopaedia of Human Thermodynamics

The French writer Nathalie Sarraute used the metaphor of tropism to highlight the origins of actions, speech, and feelings in the momentary experiences on the fringe of consciousness.

In the first vignette in her 1939 book Tropisms, she writes

They seemed to spring up from nowhere, blossoming out in the slightly moist tepidity of the air, they flowed gently along as though they were seeping from the walls, from the boxed trees, the benches, the dirty sidewalks, the public squares.

This seems to be a plague of weeds or vermin. In fact, she is describing people staring into shop windows.  But these are not people as characters. Rather, stripped of identifiable shapes and personalities they become sensations. Sarraute eliminated plot or character from her work, in order to explore the “impulses, desires, processes that exist before speech, before comprehension, before consciousness”, as Allison Noelle Conner puts it.

nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute

Sarraute would devote pages to exploring the mechanisms that intervened between the stimulus and the response.

The objective correlative

Though I don’t buy into Sarraute’s analysis that plot and character are conventional masks that prevent us exploring mentality, I do find something intriguing in her approach. T.S. Elliot had a similar insight in his idea of the “objective correlative”—a sequence of things or events which creates the sensation the writer is trying to summon in the reader. He described this: “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”


Other techniques

This clearly has connections with the often tiresome writers’ dictum of “show, don’t tell”. But it takes this instruction further. It makes location, conversation, and events a means of conveying character.

It also might seem similar to Swain’s technique of the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU), which also works on a stimulus-response basis. However, these work on the basis of a chain from feeling to action to speech, whereas in tropism, all of these are preceded by a simple sensory experience. I wrote about my experiment with MRUs in a previous post.


A method for illuminating mentality

I’ve used the insight about pre-conscious stimuli to rework the opening chapter of my current book, The Star Compass. Robert, a bookish recluse, has come to the remote Pacific island of Yap. All his life he has avoided ever learning anything about the South Seas so he might believe there is one place on the planet where nature is bountiful and people are nice to each other. Now he is forced to have a confrontation with reality. The chapter begins:

He paused at the bottom rung of the stairway. Then stepped onto the tarmac and off the edge of the world.

Here all his maps ran out. Here be dragons.

The humid tropical night wrapped itself like a moist towel around his nose. The bulk of his body began to cook from the inside. Sweat pooled in his armpits, beaded his brow, and trickled down his spine. The perspiration felt clammy. He wanted to turn, run back into the plane, and get away from this island.

But he continued to shuffle forward towards the door of the tiny airport, keeping his place in the line of a hundred other passengers and urged on by those behind. The terminal complex was so small it lacked an immigration hall and they queued on the apron. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, though puddles evaporating on the tarmac indicated an earlier downpour.

Things had happened here before he arrived. The island had its own hidden history. Anything might lurk here in the unknown South Pacific.

He reached the portal where souls were divided. One door for visitors, and the other for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia. The sleepy official took his landing card, examined his passport. Robert Urquhart, UK citizen, fifty-one years old.

Yap airport
Yap International Airport

In making this revision, I hunted for small sensations in the draft and considered these as stimuli. I then checked that there was a response for every stimulus and a stimulus for every response. For example, the action of stepping onto the tarmac provokes the sensation that he’s stepped off the edge of the world. Or the stimulus of the humidity makes him want to turn and run. And the realisation from the rain puddle that the things have happened here before he arrived, triggers a fear that anything might happen here now. I aimed to render Robert’s profound unease through these small almost pre-conscious moments. Sometimes, it involved taking a small moment and expanding it.


I’d love to hear whether you’ve tried or come across anything similar.


113. The third variety of fiction

Fiction is stories, right? The protagonist encounters a challenge, sets off in pursuit, and after many travails achieves a resolution. Much genre writing fits this mould.

There is another kind of fiction where the plot can be incidental or even non-existent. This is writing based on character rather than story. Often this type is called literary.

But that’s not all. There is a third, though rare, kind of fiction, which executes its code in your brain as you read. It rewires your consciousness.

I was very struck by this again reading Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, a literary science fiction novel set in a near future total-surveillance Britain.


The plot revolves around a detective’s efforts to understand how a suspect could have died under a mind-mapping session. It turns out that the suspect invented a series of narratives to keep her own consciousness secret. The book loops back and forth through these stories.

There is a sequence where Harkaway’s method is evident. One of the narrative personas is brought together with a woman who he is told is his dead lover, Stella.  The text oscillates between the possibility that she is an imposter and the possibility that, if she occupies Stella’s place in the world, she is Stella. Layers of philosophical hocus pocus, of metaphor, and of narrative exposition create a universe in which this transubstantiation is plausible.

Yeah, I hear you say, all fiction does that. It invites us to suspend disbelief. But what Harkaway does is more than world-building which postulates orcs and elves and offers us an escape into magic. He transforms your sense of reality such that we understand personal identity in a new way. We don’t escape into a fantasy world. Rather, reality changes.


I described this technique in an earlier post.

Words can create illusions. They can bridge impossible gaps allowing magical connections to be made between unlinked things. This is the stuff of fantasy, but also the stuff of poetry and of magic realism. Imagination can stitch together things never connected in the real world. Recurring words and images can stitch together these magic connections

Harkaway describes in a blog the process of writing the book:

This was like weaving a tapestry thread by thread while holding the entire design in your head, and my head just wasn’t big enough. Meanings intersected with other meanings, with consequences. I had to go back, again and again, re-work, re-conceive, re-imagine. Sure, yeah, I know: writing is re-writing. I’m familiar with the re-write. This was more like starting a new book every four months or so. The number of plotlines and their interactions meant a kind of exponential multiplication of possibility. I’d made a maze in my own mind and I kept getting lost in it. The book was smarter than I was.

Reading Gnomon was more like taking a mind-altering drug than like narration. A few other books have done this. One was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo.

Another was A U Latif’s Songs from the Laughing Tree (currently out of print). In a review of Latif’s book I wrote

Our brains are evolved to seek pattern and meaning, and Latif plays with this. The figures of the stories loop and dive, and create impossible or magical meanings that are whimsically held together by no more than a concatenation of words, an ellipsis of adjectives.

Have you encountered books in this third type of fiction?

112. Rules bestselling authors ignore

Writers are taught many rules by the greats. But should we believe them?

Stephen King adverbs

Avoid adverbs

Stephen King famously said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and urged writers to eliminate them. Three years ago, I wrote in defence of these much maligned parts of speech.

Now we have some objective analysis of the truth or otherwise of the dictum. Ben Blatt analysed the more than 300 novels that reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list since 2000 and the 100 most recent winners of literary awards. He compared these “professional” authors with a sample of 9,000 “amateurs” who had written novel-length fan fiction. The professionals used around 114 adverbs per 10,000 words, compared to 154 by the amateurs. So there is a correlation between fewer adverbs and literary success. As you can see from the graphic, I used 44 adverbs per 10,000 words in my current novel.

adverb use by category of writer

However, Stephen King seems to be wrong about eschewing adverbs, if you take him literally. He used an average of 105 across 51 books.

adverbs by author
Source: Ben Blatt


Never open with the weather

Another great writing dictum Blatt explores is Elmore Leonard’s “never open a book with the weather”.  The graphic below shows that Leonard did this 4% of the time across 45 novels.

weather in first sentence
Source: Ben Blatt

Keep it short and simple

Bestsellers today, according to Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers’s The Bestseller Code, use shorter sentences and simpler words. And it seems true that sentence length and complexity has gone down.

Sentences in Jane Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility averaged 23.2 words and in Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities 17.7 words. They both require a reading age of 14-15 years.

By contrast, J.K. Rowling’s 1998 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with a reading age of 12-13 years, came in at 11.8 words. Stephanie Myers’s 2005 Twilight was a lightweight 9.6 words per sentence and demanded a reading age of 10-11 years.

While the complexity of language has gone down, the size of novels has gone up. In the era of mass publishing between 1850 and 1950 shorter novels arrived but they grew in size again after the advent of long-haul travel and the airport blockbuster.

111. What are judges looking for in a writing competition?

Ever wanted to know how judges make their choice in literary competitions? Here is the answer.

I can’t promise that this is true of all contests, but the Farnham Short Story Competition uses a format to ensure consistency of assessment between stories and between judges.

Julie Evans, winner of the 2018 Farnham Short Story Competition, with competition administrator, Derek Keen
  • Is the submission formatted readably, and without typos, spelling and grammar mistakes? Reject entries that are poorly formatted, inadequately proof-read, and full of spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Overall, is it a good story?
    • Does the story work?
    • Did it move or enlighten you?
    • Did you enjoy reading it?
  • Character and point of view.
    • Does the author create believable, memorable characters with the uniqueness, complexity, and individuality of real people?
    • Do the main characters undergo change?
    •  Does the dialogue work?
    • Is point of view handled consistently?
  • Plot and structure
    • Does the opening draw you in, setting up a clear dilemma?
    • Is there a clear and compelling storyline with an arc of conflict, crisis and resolution?
    • Is the plot original?
    • Is there good pacing?
    • Does the ending satisfyingly resolve the opening dilemma?
  • Theme
    • Does the story contain a central or dominating theme?
    • Does the author make this idea concrete through the characters and their actions?
    • How well is the message integrated into the story?
  • Setting and atmosphere
    • Are historical and geographic details sufficiently and accurately developed to give the story realistic or appropriate atmosphere and setting? Can you visualize the places being described?
    • Is the setting an integral part of the story
    • Does the story contain anachronisms or inconsistencies?
  • Writing quality
    • Is language skilfully used?
    • Do specific details appeal to your senses and hold your attention?
    • Are character and detail “shown” rather than “told”?
    • Is there a good balance between narrative and dialogue?
    • Does the author use precise, active verbs and avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs?
    • Is rhythm used effectively?
    • Are metaphors and similes fresh and effective?
    • Are recurring motifs and/or symbolism used to create additional layers of meaning?

This list is an attempt to summarise the elements of good writing. You can find the full judges scoring sheet at FSSC judges scoring sheet -ilovepdf-compressed

Congratulations to this year’s winner, Julie Evans, and to runners up, Katrina Dennison and Jacky Power.

110. Writing densely: layers and motifs

I’ve read a lot of stories recently, as part of sifting submissions to Freeze Frame Fiction. Many are okay. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the memory of them blows away in the wind. I reject around 99% of the submission, and I’m becoming aware that the stories that give me pleasure have a quality which I’ll call density.

Perhaps I can best explain what this quality is by describing yarns that don’t have it. There is a character. He or she has a problem. As they try to solve the dilemma other characters help or frustrate them. There is a final resolution. So we have a general storyline. And some tales don’t go further. The writing is only one layer thick.

More satisfying stories are multi-layered. They have a past. Like geological strata, they speak of deep forces. The surface layer is the simple storyline—what the protagonist wants and what happens to him or her. But below the skin may be layers that are shaped by the protagonist’s identity and world they inhabit. These strata create subplots. Perhaps what the protagonist wants is not what they really need. Perhaps their station in life or the times into which they’re thrust constrain what they can do. And so, the storyline is supported by an underpinning of other meanings.


Density is the connection between things and the way events and places and objects resonate with each other. This is inherently satisfying to a reader because we respond to worlds that are saturated in meaning. Narratives lacking density feel insubstantial as candyfloss.

Stories are powerful not because they are a chain of events, but because they show us connections. They tell us what goes with what, what is important and what’s unimportant, who to praise and who to blame. They’re not just about what happened, but about what those happenings mean.

A sense of density can be fashioned in many ways.

  • The way a plot embodies a bigger issue or message
  • Layers. The structural element of density is created by adding layers or subplots
  • Motifs. These are recurring ideas or images which resonate with each other and create a satisfying experience of connectedness. This is partly achieved by structure and partly by wordcraft.

An example

I wrote a 100-word flash fiction story, called Short Circuit, about a monk in a medieval scriptorium. His task is to scribe an illuminated manuscript. As the sun’s rays reflect off the gold leaf, he has a revelation. He believes the words on his page picked out by the sun are a message–meaning is created by a short circuit of the manuscript.

The story went through 16 drafts, growing to 2,066 words. In the second draft, I added a Viking attack just at the moment of revelation. In subsequent edits, I gave the monk an interest in researching the alchemical skills of the ancients, a passion that flirts with heresy. There was now an obvious theme of the conflict between knowledge and spiritual authority. Quite intentionally I began to craft this to echo modern debates about truth and its denial.  The metaphor of fire was coming to play a major role—the fire of insight and the fire of pillage. I decided that the abbey was on the holy isle of Lindisfarne at the time of first Viking raid in 793.

And that led me to the monk’s backstory. He had been an apprentice blacksmith before a local chief slew his parents. Iron can make tools, but it also makes weapons, and the boy abandons iron in a quest for tranquillity and learning. Under attack from the raiders, the monk turns back to his cell to save a valuable letter from a correspondent in Byzantium.

The ending remained elusive. Again, I returned to blacksmithing for the answer. The monk reinterprets the words picked out by the sun to mean he is commanded to be the destroyer of the invaders. Breaking his vows, he takes up the iron again, seizing a weapon.


How to use the concept of density

The elements below roughly correspond to stages in the writing process

  • The seed of the story. This is the writer’s animating purpose. It may be an idea you want to explore, a situation, a moral, a dilemma–stories can emerge from anywhere. Note, this is not the same as the basic storyline. Give the seed time to put out roots before you start drafting. My story, Short Circuit, originated from a comment by a writer arguing the literary meaning is a short circuiting of the world.


  • The chess board. This is where the storyline exists. There is a location and a cast of characters, a set of pieces that move in distinct ways. At the beginning, you may not know exactly what they will do. You may discover this as you let them interact. My chess board for Short Circuit was the Viking interruption of the monks’ life in Lindisfarne Abbey. The protagonist has conflicts with the Prior about his pursuit of knowledge, and an inner conflict about the brutal killing of his family.


  • The mountain. Beyond the moving, mating and slaying on the chess board, there’s an over-arching destination, the distant mountain. This may only come into view slowly for you as you write. In Short Circuit, the monk puts his own life in danger to save the valuable letter. He puts his soul in jeopardy by taking up the sword.


Everything that happens on the chess board should move the story closer to the mountain. The mountain is both the resolution of the story and the achievement of the writer’s animating purpose. It is the fruit of the gambits on the board and of the seed’s flowering.

  • Polishing in the infinite hall of mirrors. This is possible only when you’ve completed the first draft of the story. It’s part of the editing process. In that process, you check for comprehension, flow, clarity, coherence. Often, the first draft is just the bare bones of the story. Now you tighten it up and make the prose sing. But the editing stage may also be where you discover what the story is about and add additional layers.

hall of mirrors

Finally, you look for ways to connect the layers, making them resonate with the same underlying meaning. Recurring motifs, reflecting each other in the hall of mirrors, help to create this effect. In Short Circuit, the recurring motifs were good iron and bad iron, good fire and bad fire.


Do you enjoy density in stories? If so, what do you mean by it?

108. Creation and Analysis

Synthesis is building something new out of simpler elements. Analysis is understanding something by breaking it down into its constituent parts. On the face of it, writing seems to be a synthetic activity. But not always. Sometimes creation involves analysis, as this example shows.


A member of my writing group said they’d like to see more of the main female character, Ayesha, in my novel The Tears of Boabdil. The plot, in summary, is about an undercover policeman (Vince) infiltrating an Islamist group and having a forbidden love affair with the sister (Ayesha) of his main targets. The theme is duplicity, that we are all stories we tell ourselves and other people.

My friend suggested she’d like to see Ayesha angry, receiving a gift about which she has to feign pleasure, and being observed by Vince in a situation that shows the reader the difference between her real nature and Vince’s fantasy about her.

I liked these suggestions. The first two were relatively straightforward. The third posed creative problems. The story is entirely told from Vince’s point of view, lies and all.  He’s a classic unreliable narrator. The reader can only see what Vince sees. So, how to show Ayesha in a different light?

The process I went through to structure this scene was:

  1. Firstly to make a list of Ayesha’s attributes. She’s generous, tolerant, intelligent, whimsical, dutiful, frustrated by her life, and overly trusting. Vince sees all of these qualities, bar the last.
  2. So it was obvious I needed to focus on trust as the basis of the scene. Given the theme of the book, it was a good fit, underscoring for the reader the danger Ayesha runs in trusting Vince. So the next question was who, besides Vince, was Ayesha going to inappropriately trust? And how was Vince going to misunderstand it? Answering the second question seemed to promise a resolution of the first. Since Vince is a manipulator, a story-teller, perhaps he would mistake Ayesha’s trust for guile. He sees her as his talisman and guide into the terrorist conspiracy.
  3. I didn’t want to introduce extraneous characters, so that implied the interaction would have to be between Ayesha and her brothers. A good place to locate it was a chapter in which one of the brothers invites Vince to lunch with his family.

dramatic irony

  1. Finally, I had to work out some stakes for the mistake. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something important that a character doesn’t know. A classic example occurs in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan arrives trustingly at Macbeth’s castle, not knowing his hosts plot to murder him. Ayesha’s brothers might well kill her if they suspect her of sleeping with Vince. By seeing Ayesha as being like him, Zami can ignore her vulnerability, and hence his responsibility to protect her. Instead he sees her as protecting him.
  2. As a last touch, I thought it might be nice to see if I could work in a reference to Macbeth and Duncan, which will serve the dual purpose of providing a literary echo and of alerting the reader to the dramatic irony.

So there I had all the component materials for my new synthesis. Like a flat-pack furniture kit, all I had to do was assemble them into something functional and pleasing.



106. Story tricks: making surprise work for you

I’m a literary snob. I tend to look down my nose at stories with a surprise ending, a “twist in the tail”. They seem to me gimmicky and superficial. And yet, I have been struck by a disturbing question: is surprise, after all, what writing is about?

A good story always has us eager to know what comes next. But now think about a bad story. It’s plodding and predictable. We know what’s going to come next—the bad king will be overthrown, the princess will marry the peasant, who will, of course, turn out to be a prince and the true heir. If we can predict what’s coming next, why would we read on? So, logically, a good story must have surprise.


This is what cognitive scientist Vera Tobin argues in her book Elements of Surprise. The book shows how the glitches in our cognition works informs the way successful plots are constructed. Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, turns on the consequences of the protagonist’s mistaken belief that she is an accomplished matchmaker.  She has great difficulty imagining that, once she has arrived at an interpretation of events, others could think otherwise. The surprise comes when she realises that she, after all, loves Mr Knightly.


Twists and jokes

Twists, or surprises, can work in different ways. In the classic version, the reader is led to believe things are one way, and then that belief is turned on its head. The scattering of clues must be sufficient for the ending to seem inevitable, and yet they must be sufficiently disguised not to be noticed. This, of course, is the recipe for the detective story. It is also the recipe for the joke.

Two gay men watch a beautiful woman hipping her way down the street. One sighs and turns to the other, saying “it’s at times like this you wish you were a lesbian”.

The mind is led down one path, only to be shown at the end a completely different meaning to the chain of events. The natural physiological response is the sudden explosive exhalation we call a laugh.

The problem with this version of the surprise is that it only works once. There is nothing to the lead-up that would hold our attention once we know how it will end. Once we know the punchline, once we know the butler did it, the magic is gone.


Twist in the tail and twist in the character

But I now realise there other kinds of surprise. And Tobin holds the key to them. She argues that two “flaws” in cognition are at the heart of stories, and at the heart of social interaction. The first is our difficulty in understanding that others may be different from us. The second is the “curse of knowledge” – we find it hard to model the mental states of people who don’t know something that we do. There is infinite room for fashioning dramatic misunderstandings in these two facts.

Since a character with a desire creates a plot, I suppose a character change is a form of “twist in the tail”. But it’s a more satisfying one, and one to which we will return again and again. Our reaction is less like that to a joke and more like that to a loved one.

But, I think there is more than just surprise available here. There is also delight and understanding. Fiction allows us to experience the one thing we can never really know—what the inside of someone else’s head feels like. When a character in whom we are invested undergoes change we experience a twist in the character. And, if the author has achieved the trick of making the change both inevitable and surprising, we understand something profound about ourselves and others.

It all makes sense

There is, perhaps, yet a third kind of story. It’s like a numinous form of the first, the twist story. In this kind, the writer reveals to us how the world works, or at least how their world works. There is an aesthetic pleasure of discovery when we understand how all the pieces fit together. Vicariously, it’s like experiencing the “aha moment” of a scientific discovery. When we have the whole picture, suddenly it all makes sense.

What kinds of surprise work best for you in a story?


100. How to increase visitors to your site

So you want to draw more people to your site. There are three ways to do this

  • Produce great content.
  • Make sure people know about it
  • Be incredibly famous

How do you do these things? The secret of being incredibly famous still eludes me, so I’ll concentrate on the first two topics.

How do you produce great content?

great content
Anatomy of great content

Apart from being talented (which, of course, you are) what can you do to produce great content? Great content is, at least in part, stuff that other people want to read. Nathaniel Tower writes a blog which I really like. In January 2018 he published a helpful post on writing what people want to read. In summary, his 5 tips are:

  1. Write about something that answers a commonly-asked question.

He recommends using something like Moz Keyword Explorer to find out what questions people are asking. This will tell you that 11,000-30,000 people a month are asking questions about writing.

You can also use the stats from your own site to identify what search terms drew people to your posts. In my case for example two frequent search terms were variants of “formula for flash fiction” and “scenes, sequels and MRUs”. These drew people to two of my most popular post – Scenes, Sequels and MRUs and My Secret Formula for Flash Fiction.  This tells you it’s worth putting some effort into thinking about your titles.

  1. Write about something that will help people.

Like, for example, how to drive more visitors to your site. Last year I tried this in a big way, with an online writing course. It never took off because I’d neglected the third of my three principles – fame. I’m not a famous writer, so why would anyone listen?

  1. Write about something that’s controversial or polarising

Nathaniel gives the example of his post on whether you should write every day. He advises that you cover both sides of the controversy so you engage all the readers rather than turning off half of them.

  1. Write about something you’ve never seen written about before
  2. Write about something that means a lot to you


How do you make sure people know about your site?

If I was writing as an expert, I’d try out all the ideas and then tell you the result. But I’m writing as I learn, so I’m going to share the experiment with you instead. These are some of things I’ve tinkered with and intend to try more systematically over the coming year

  1. Join an online community

This has been far and away the most successful strategy I’ve used. In the first nine months of this blog, I got an average of 53 views and 23 visitors per month.  WordPress has 74.6 million blogs and receives 21 billion page views per month. That’s an average of 281 views per blog per month (if the reads were distributed evenly, which they’re not). So my hits were distinctly below par.

In the next year, views of my site jumped over 10-fold to 592 a month and unique visitors to 174.

blogstats 2

This wasn’t because my content was so much better. One simple thing changed in February 2016 – I joined an online community. Friday Fictioneers is a group of writers that varies between 70 and 100 people a month, producing a hundred-word flash fiction each week. Posting these stories exposed me to a bigger audience, not just for the weekly stories but also for my other content.  Why not join it too? It’s managed by Rochelle Wisoff .

Since joining the community, my stats have continued to build slowly. In the 10 months to January 2018, views grew a further 22% to an average of 721 a month and individual visitors rose 28% to 222 a month.

The slow growth coming from Friday Fictioneers will take a long time to reach the next level (say 1,000 hits a month).  But this strategy worked so well that it may be worth finding other communities. The difference between a community and the other approaches is that it’s not a one-off: you’re engaging permanently – building credibility, trust and relationships.

Strategies I’ve tried

Strategy Average increase in reads Permanent change
Online community 540 Yes
Cross post in other communities 15 1 follower
Author interview 20 No
Guest posts 1 No
Mentions by others 40 No
Mention others 9 No

Other writing communities

However. I have tried other communities in the past – Webook, a writers’ community about to go into liquidation, as well as publishing online on Wattpad and on Big World Network. None has been as effective as Friday Fictioneers.

Image © Vladimer Shioshvili

Authors Publish suggests four communities worth joining.

  • Lit Hive aims to be a community that unites writers with readers. The most widely read book received 19 comments, the most recent over two years ago. The discussion boards seem equally inactive.
  • Scribophile is a large members-only community of writers and claims 858,776 critiques for 145,608 works, an average of just under six responses per work. Being a closed group, it has the advantage that it shouldn’t prevent you submitting your work elsewhere.
  • Writers Network is another writing community.
  • Writers Café is another writing community. Its server was achingly slow when I tested it.

2. Engage more with readers and potential readers

I have probably not been as generous as I should be in reciprocating readers’ interest. I pretty much do respond to all comments, but I don’t necessarily reciprocate follows and likes or build a conversation. Some ideas are:

  • Follow more people (particularly if they follow me)
  • Join in the conversation on others’ sites
  • Build and maintain an e-mail list with unique content for regular followers and attentive commenters. There’s a saying in marketing about the importance of e-mail promotion “the money’s in the list”. This is the strategy I’m currently experimenting with.

The reason I haven’t done these things isn’t aloofness. It’s shyness. I engage with friends and colleagues I know well, but it takes me out of my comfort zone to do that with strangers. In a very British way, it just seems pushy. The whole language of “building your author brand” just makes me a little queasy.  But, building trust and relationships I understand. So of course, I have to spend time outside my comfort zone if I want to engage with the community of other writers and readers. The idea of building relationships (rather than selling) is fundamental here.


3. Engage other people’s readers

Engaging other people’s readers might help make the next jump.

  • Guest posts. Invite other people to do guest posts on my blog and solicit invitations to post on theirs. I tried this a little bit in the past on A Writer’s Path (with over 26,000 followers), which didn’t generate much evident short-term boost to my stats, but then I haven’t explored this systematically. I have a guest post coming up 4 May on Dee Cee Taylor’s blog It’s All About Books as part of a blog tour to promote the Climate Fiction anthology Nothing is as it was (in which I have a story) to be published on Earth Day 22 April by Retreat West Books.
  • Reblog other people’s posts. Hopefully they’ll reciprocate.
  • Interview other people. I had intended to establish a regular series of interviews with other writers. I did one in 2015, a conversation with A U Latif, author of Songs From the Laughing Tree I never got around to doing any more, until this February when I published an interview with Claire Fuller.

Claire Fuller

I can track an additional 19 reads this brought to my blog, so this isn’t going to boost my followers into the thousands. However one friend did say “Would love to see you post more such interviews. So helpful to compare another writer’s process with mine, get new ideas for approaching research, see how things evolve.” So it falls into the category of posting what others want to read.

  • Mention other people in your posts and tell them you’ve done so. For example, I wrote one post thanking some writers for their support. Their friends did read the post.
  • Write a “top ten” list, any top ten list, it doesn’t really matter. For example, the top ten sites for advice to writers. This is a much more intricate take on the previous idea. The idea is that at least some of them and their followers will read your post and you’ll pick up some as your own readers.
  • Include reviews of books you’ve liked. Again, I’ve done this sporadically on my blog, but most of my book reviews go on Goodreads, where I don’t have much of a profile.

The basic driver behind all these ideas is good old-fashioned vanity. Everyone likes to see themselves in print. We read our reviews and what others are saying about us. (You obviously have to let the people know you’ve done it, so they’ll go and look and tell their friends about it). And, of course, if you choose people with thousands of followers, you’re more likely to pick up new readers. The challenge, though, is to convert them into regular readers, which goes back to having good content. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: ruthless self-promotion will only end up looking like what it is; you have to engage with what people want, not with what they can do for you. In other words, be genuine and interested in them and, if you can’t, don’t do it all.


4. The techie stuff – don’t worry about keywords

It used to be the case that spending a lot of time massaging the tags and keywords on your site could make a huge difference to your ranking on search engines. There still are ways in which you can manipulate this, but it’s much less important than it used to be. Google no longer uses keywords to rank its output.

To prove this, I checked out the page rank score for my blog on the Moz site and compared it with two other writers’ sites (which I won’t name). My site has one keyword (my name) and a page rank of 40. The page rank indicates how prominent the page is likely to be on search engines, out of a possible 100. The two writers I compared myself with (both with significant followings) have 80 and 19 keywords respectively and both have page ranks of 41. J.K. Rowling, by comparison, has a page rank of 77.

So, if like me you’re bored with fiddling under the hood of your site, you can pretty much ignore this. The only thing you need to know is that you’ll rank higher if you include useful links in your posts, and particularly if others link to you.


5. More techie stuff – best time and day to publish

Another set of data you might or might not want to ignore is that on the best time and day to publish. There’s a useful summary of several studies by Garret Moon. These suggest that the best day for page views may be Monday morning between 9:00 and 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

time to post

Two of the studies indicate that the best time for comments and shares is at the weekend. This would make sense, since there’s less competition from other posts then, and people have more free time. However, another study indicates that the best time for shares is Thursday at 10:00 a.m. EST.

The reality is probably that you should be guided by your own experience. A lot will depend on who your audience is and where they’re located. Your blog provider will probably give you some analytics and installing Google Analytics will give you more. In my case, around 35% of my readership is from the US, around 27% from the UK, and 17% from India. My highest page views come on Wednesday between 8:00 and 10:00 EST. That is for the simple reason that Friday Fictioneers publishes on a Wednesday.

I’ll let you know which of these strategies I experiment with, and with what results.

What strategies have you tried to increase traffic to your site? How did they work out? I’d love to hear your experience.