Skip to main content

Events & Resources

This section is dedicated to offering free support, advice and tools, and to prompting wider conversations about development techniques for full-length narrative.

Upcoming Events

I’m planning to start organising free workshops again in 2022

Watch this space for further details — or for instant notification you can join my mailing list here:

Subscribe to the email list for notification of future events.

* indicates required

Past Events

Here's a selection of events from before lockdown.

Once all restrictions are lifted, I’m also happy to come to you! If you’d like to arrange a fun, interactive workshop for your writers’ group, creative colleagues, book festival or conference, contact me for a chat.

Agony Column

And we’re off! For the first issue we have five cracking questions, a potential blind date and a fun game for you to play at home.

Here goes:

Dear Auntie Sam

I’ve reached a fork in the road about half way through my short story, and it could go in either of two different directions: how can I decide which is best?

– A newbie writer, Edinburgh-on-Sea

Dear Newbie,

I’d say try sketching it out in both directions, then have a think about exactly what you want the story to do. I read somewhere* that ‘the purpose of a story is to work up to its ending’. This may not be entirely true, but the ending is certainly where you want all the meaning of the story to collect, and be released for the reader. So two different endings will send you back to the beginning of the story, to plot two different pathways to the meaning you intend. Which means, with any luck, you’ll end up with two great stories, instead of just one!

– Sam

*I can’t remember exactly where, but there’s definitely an excellent chapter on short story endings in the first edition of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie and published by Salt. The chapter is by Elaine Chew – put it on your reading list, Newbie!

Dear Auntie Sam

My novel keeps changing direction as I write it, away from the planned ending. How do I keep it on track (assuming I should?)

– A newbie writer, Edinburgh-on-Sea

Hello again, Newbie!

Novels are a different kettle of cornflakes – you could lose years of your life writing different versions, just to see where it’ll end up this time. Much better to take a step back and invest in some plotting, planning, and pre-writing.

The crucial question here is: why is your story pulling away from you and trying to do something different? Chances are your writing brain is trying to solve a problem that you haven’t yet spotted in planning and editing mode. I’d suggest this is likely to be something that’s insecure or undeveloped in the concept, world, or characters, and this underlying gap is diverting the surface plot from your intentions.

For you, I prescribe some long walks by the sea. Keep asking: what’s this story for? What is its essential purpose? That’s what you need the ending (and therefore the plot) to deliver. And if you get tired of talking to yourself, rope someone else in for a round of the ‘so what?’ game (see panel on right!). Enjoy!

– Sam

Miss Boyce

My editor said an antagonist of mine is not sympathetic enough, and yet it is based accurately on a dead (real) person. What should I do?

– FarmGirl, The North

Dear FarmGirl,

I’m not sure that being sympathetic is a necessary attribute of all antagonists, but my guess is your editor wants a bit more credibility and depth in this particular character. Search your soul, FarmGirl! Is your aim to portray this dead individual negatively as a form of public revenge or private catharsis? Fair enough, I say, and a perfectly valid motivation for creating a villain. But the result may be a little too one-dimensional for fiction.

Step away from the page for a bit, and have a think about the job this character has to do in your story. Try mind mapping the antagonist’s role in relation to the story’s underlying concept, wider themes, and emotional journey. After which, if they’re still unremittingly nasty, then fine! At least they’ll now be fully earning their place in the narrative, and your editor’s concerns should be satisfied.

– Sam

Could everyone stop getting shot?

What to do when your characters just keep on dying

Dear Sam

Every short story I’ve written recently has ended with the protagonist’s death. I’m starting to think I’m being a bit lazy in my pre-planning. How can I let my characters live and round off the narrative?

– Spoiler, they all die at the end, Leith

Dear Spoiler

For a shortcut, you could simply break the habit. Make yourself write in the first person because, as everybody knows, ‘and then I died’ is going to be a poxy ending for a story. Or, if you’re committed to the third person, change narrative position so you’re focalised to a minor character who can carry the plot beyond the protagonist’s demise. To further halt your killing spree, try focusing on story ideas that need a deliberately long tail; endings of ambiguous possibility that resonate for the reader far beyond the final line. You might like to read the book chapter I recommended to Newbie earlier, too.

But if death is really your thing and there’s no getting away from it, you need to spend some time thinking about what it signifies in your work, and how you can best express that. Here’s an idea: you could take a walk with Newbie and play a few rounds of reciprocal ‘so-what’! I can put the two of you in touch! No really, I insist: it’s all part of the service.

– Sam


I’ve just finished my first draft of a work in progress and I’m taking a break from it before I go back to edit. However, I can’t stop worrying that I’ll get stuck on the line edits rather than the bigger structural/plot issues. Any tips on starting to edit the second draft?

– Emily, Edinburgh

Dear Emily

Yep – lipstick on a turnip. Rearranging the deckchairs. Etc. Leaping straight to the line edit can do wonders for your sense of productivity and professionalism. Indeed, its most important role may well be to distract you from the yawning black chasm of something wrong, somewhere in the depths of your novel. Or at least it lets you put off the big questions for a while, because the more you polish, the more plausible it all looks, right?

Deep breath, Emily. If the structure’s ringing alarm bells then you need to forget about the sentences entirely for a while. Abstract it from all that tantalisingly fixable prose, so you can see it clearly. I recommend experimenting with maps and diagrams to visually represent the different structural elements of your novel. For plot, you could start with basic three and five act structures*. For multiple character arcs, thematic structures and the like, you’ll need to add different kinds of diagram. Look hard at what the novel’s structure is doing right now, and then play around with alternatives. Keep it all mobile and provisional while you’re experimenting. And if you need a productive diversion, take yourself to a stationery store and a toyshop. Huge sheets of paper, multicoloured post-its, felt tips, stickers and string are all extremely useful tools. Have fun!

– Sam

*There are many variations on the 3 and 5 act structure diagram – any search of the World Wide Web will give you plenty of options to choose from. But the most useful starting point (in my view) is in John Yorke’s Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them published by Penguin.

The Agony Column is a public entertainment, based on your problems.

All narrative dilemmas considered: send them in an email with ‘Agony Column’ in the subject line, and test my problem-solving skills!

When you write, please include your name and where you’re based. If you’d like your identity disguised for publication on the site, that’s absolutely fine — just let me know your preferred alias too.

Email me at with your problem now!

The ‘So What?’ Game

For two players.
  1. Formulate the essential premise of your story, in a sentence or two.
  2. Persuade a friend or family member to listen to your summary, then ask you: ‘so what?’
  3. Answer them with whatever information or idea seems most relevant
  4. Tell them to keep asking ‘so what?’ (and nothing else) every time you offer an answer.
Keep going until:
  1. You achieve a version of your story idea that seems totally clear and compelling; or
  2. You’re forced to admit this particular idea isn’t going anywhere right now; or
  3. You’re in danger of committing an act of aggression. To avoid this conclusion, choose a partner least likely to ask ‘so what?’ in a sneering, challenging tone. Unless you happen to enjoy that kind of thing.

If you can’t find anyone else to play with, there’s a widget to simulate player two in the widgets section!


The ‘So What?’ game

  1. Formulate the essential premise of your story, in a sentence or two.
  2. Respond to the next prompt of 'So what?' with whatever information or idea seems most relevant and click 'Send your reply'.
  3. Keep going as long as you have the patience! The longer you can stick at it the more useful it’ll be.
  4. When you’ve finished you can view all the answers you’ve given, and use the best of them to start building a statement of purpose for your story.
  5. If it doesn’t work out, don’t despair! Your idea might just need a bit more thought. Or, if you get really stuck, you could always try writing in to the Agony Column.

Statement of Purpose

This is handy to have at the beginning of your story development process. It won’t give you the plot, characters, themes, setting or any of the surface detail. But it will tell you exactly why this thing is worth the effort of creating – and what it’s going to go out there into the world to do.

You can use it as a compass for checking all the creative decisions that follow, and as a motivational tool when the writing gets tough.

Check this page again soon: a widget to help you make your statement of purpose is coming up next!