blog, writing process

Visual Thesaurus – mapping words beautifully

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Do you love words? Do you sometimes struggle to find the exact word to convey your meaning, whether for poetry or prose? Here’s help, and it’s beautiful.

The Visual Thesaurus is one of my favourite tools. It functions like a mind map for words, linking words, meanings, synonyms and sometimes antonyms. The interface is elegant and clean, and it blossoms on the screen like a flower.

Like fire, but not

For example, take ‘fire’. Typing this into the search bar brings up the animated map above. It shows different synonyms for fire, colour coded by verb, adjective and noun. When you hover over each node, a definition appears with example sentences containing that word. If you click on any word, a second map appears, and you can navigate back and forth until you find the precise word you need.

At the centre above you can see the word ‘hire’ which is the opposite of one sense of fire. This is useful when you can’t quite remember the word you need. The brain works in strange ways, and Visual Thesaurus allows us to approach the needed word in reverse.

Another word for burn?

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Clicking on ‘burn’ brings up this map, which is also fully interactive. You could follow any word, generating maps which vary in the number of nodes, but always give new ideas.

You can choose to hear the central word spoken in US or UK English. It is possible to print your result for offline use. The site has many other links and word games, enough to keep logophiles happily scrolling for hours.

The cost is very reasonable too: $2.95 monthly or $19.95 annually. You can try it free for fourteen days.

I love the infuriating, sprawling, mongrel language that is English. I love its willingness to assimilate words from other languages, giving so many shades of meaning that it is usually possible to find that elusive nuance that I’m seeking. That breadth can outsmart a tired brain which knows that fire is sorta, kinda right but not quite.

But what about other languages?

Fear not, VT has you covered. Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish are also included. You can choose to search one or more languages. Here is the map for ‘fire’ showing UK English plus French. Every word is fully searchable.

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How cool is that?

This tool allows much greater variety in description. It’s satisfying to write about fire without using the word. This tool gives you the alternatives you need, in a comprehensive, informative, visually appealing format. You’re sure to expand your vocabulary if you spend some time with this thesaurus, whether native English speaker or not.

And it’s fun to use! We all need more fun in our lives.

Give Visual Thesaurus a try now, and tell me what you think.


blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story, writing process


a 100 word drabble on ‘the comfort of strangers’

Free-Photos via pixabay (edited)

A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.

A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.

The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.

“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”

My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.


This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.

We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.

Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.

We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.


blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

NaNot today

MonikaP via pixabay

In my writing groups, it’s all about NaNo; daily word counts and writing yourself into a corner and plot holes you could drive a bus through. Maybe that’s the answer to the plot problem. Have the protagonist drive a bus through – never mind…

Things I’m doing instead of NaNoWriMo

  1. Wondering if I should have done NaNo, then reaffirming my decision to pass.
  2. Lunch with friends, bonding with one over the recent loss of her mother.
  3. Sitting at my desk, watching a pheasant walk across the lawn.
  4. Wondering why the pheasant is in my garden.
  5. Chatting with the delivery guy and comparing weekend plans (me: not much.)
  6. Writing a fragment of a poem.
  7. Making a new iTunes playlist, even though I find it hard to write to music with voices.
  8. Pouring away my third half-drunk cup of tea.
  9. Making fresh tea and deciding I do deserve a biscuit. (see point 6)
  10. Gathering the last few chillies from the garden before the frost gets them.
  11. Downloading another book to my Kindle. If not writing, should be reading, right?
  12. Looking at the TBR pile of actual books and sighing.
  13. Wondering again about NaNo.
  14. Concluding that I just don’t have time.
  15. More tea.
  16. Staring.

Where did the day go? Time to make dinner…

blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.

Constructive vs. destructive

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.

If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.

Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.

Put up your guard

Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.

Defence not attack

Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.

Probing for weaknesses

A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person.  You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.

Engage in rational discussion

You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.

  • Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
  • Consider the alternatives presented.
  • If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
  • You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.

Round two

Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.

Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”

Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.

The student becomes the teacher

Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.

Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.

Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.

blog, writing process

Writing a query that hooks agents

pexels via pixabay


I’ve been following Kristen Lamb ‘s blog for a while now, and she always has something interesting to say about writing and publishing. She is not afraid to say that writers should be paid, for example, and then to write about the ensuing storm of comments. That is not a discussion for today, but if you want to read more, it’s here.

Today I want to talk about query writing, and how to hook a literary agent. Of course I don’t pretend this is the last word on queries, there are resources everywhere. This is what I gleaned from various sources and from Pitch Perfect, one of Kristen’s webinars I attended recently under the WANA banner. She runs regular courses aimed at getting writers skilled, published and noticed.

How to find an agent to query

Literary agents represent specific genres according to their personal taste. They take on a book they believe in, and sell that book to a traditional publisher to offer in bookshops and stores. They also sell rights to film, TV, translations and so on.

You want someone who likes the kind of thing you write. Do your research so you won’t end up sending gory horror to someone who likes cookbooks and cosy mysteries, or indeed vice versa. You and your agent will conduct a business relationship aimed at selling books and making money. It pays to find the person who will be the best fit for you and your story.

  • Acknowledgements sometimes mention the agent by name. Check in books that are similar to yours – in other words, comparative titles.
  • Attending conferences and festivals can yield contacts.
  • Twitter can be very useful for making connections with agents. Also try looking through hashtags such as #mswl (manuscript wish list) which details stories agents are looking for right now, or genre based such as #scifi or #romance. Not all agents are very active on twitter, but it offers a chance to interact and importantly, to see how people behave online.
  • Google can be your friend here. Searching manuscript wish list + genre + agents will yield more options to look at.
  • Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK) and Writers’ Market (USA) are very useful resources for everything to do with writing, including searchable databases and physical directories which are updated annually.

Which agents to query

Your agent will be getting 15% of your earnings, typically, so you want to be sure they are adding value. Check their websites to see what they have sold recently, who their other clients are, and so on. Remember that most of their energy will be spent on servicing existing clients. That said, everyone wants the next bestselling author. The new agent looking to build their list might have more time for you than JK Rowling’s agent.

Draw up a long list, and send queries out in batches of 10-12. They need to go in groups, it can take some time to get a reply so sending them singly takes far too long. If two (or more!) agents want to read more of your work after seeing the sample pages, you can always grant one exclusive reading for say, two weeks. Then they need to decide or you can move on to the next prospect.

What to write in your query

First read the submission guidelines. Let’s say that again.

First read the submission guidelines. Then follow them exactly.

Every agent has a slightly different preference. You look this up on their website, and you do not deviate. This is no time to show your creativity, you need to show that you can follow instructions. The agent or assistant has hundreds of these emails to read. They’re looking for a reason to say no and make the job easier. Tough, eh? But that’s how it is. Not dissimilar to making a job application, you need to demonstrate a professional approach. Reading and understanding instructions is a basic skill.

Everything is pasted into the email. Nobody will open an attachment. That’s the quickest way to viruses, the modern-day equivalent of the plague.

qimono via pixabay

The query itself

The query is brief, no more than one page. Write in Word or your preferred program, and trim until it fits. Four paragraphs should cover it.

  1. Greet the agent by name.
    If unsure of gender, avoid titles and use the whole name eg Dear Sam Smith. This is a formal letter to a stranger, so unless you know them well, no first name terms. State your connection if applicable, eg met them at a conference, referral from a mutual contact, conversed on Twitter. Otherwise state how you found them eg from manuscript wish list, represented similar books, or anything else.
  2. Write about the book.
    “TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at (word count).”
    If you have a comparative title, mention that here, “in the style of (title)”. Don’t be overambitious and mention a mega-selling book. Just a current best-seller will do.
    Summarise the story, beginning with your log line. This is intended to whet their appetite to read more, it should sound like back cover blurb. It is not a full synopsis, that comes later.
  3. Author biography goes here.
    Keep this simple and on topic. Any writing credentials such as an MFA, and any publishing credits or competition wins belong in this section. Personal details such as age, job, how long you’ve been writing, are irrelevant until you meet your agent. The exception is where your thriller is set on an oil rig and you worked in the business for fifteen years, for example. That’s relevant.

    No credentials? Just state you’re a writer living in X, you write Y genre, and you’re currently working on Z. Don’t apologise for it. Absolutely every writer started with nothing to their name.

  4. Thank you for your time.
    Agents read constantly. Between meetings, while commuting, in the evenings. They have lives just like us, and they love good books, and they don’t get a penny until you do. A thank you is basic good manners, and rude people are remembered for the wrong reasons. Don’t be that person.

Below this, you paste the sample pages or chapters as per the submission guidelines (check them again). And below that, a one page synopsis. This is the one time Kristen suggests going off-menu.

I’ll cover the theory and practice of the log line and synopsis next time.

blog, writing process

How to edit your writing, part 2

jarmoluk via pixabay

And on with part 2 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

Crutch words

These words support our speech, giving us time to think. Actually, um, honestly, so, are all examples. You might find them when you write natural sounding dialogue. Good dialogue is not the same as natural speech. It’s natural speech, polished.

When we write, crutch words are those we use repeatedly, and often without being aware of them. I discovered that I use ‘but’ way too often, to start sentences and join clauses together. You can find them using a word frequency counter. Next, you need to search and destroy. Print the list, and highlight them individually in your document using the Find/Search function. Now you can consider each one separately, and decide if it stays or goes. Some more tips, such as using a word cloud generator, can be found in this post by Alyssa Hollingsworth.

If you cut out a proportion of and, that, when, but, and similar words, it will tighten your prose. It immediately becomes clearer.

Adverbs: friend or foe?

I read that when asked what she would change about the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling said she would remove all the adverbs. The first book in particular contains lots of adverbs that tell rather than showing. I am a huge JKR fan, and it’s interesting to see how her writing (and editing) evolved over the series.

It is an article of faith that adverbs should be killed off, but like all absolutes this is too extreme. Think of them as seasoning, to be added judiciously lest they overpower the whole. Often in rewriting, there is a better choice to be made.
‘Walked quickly’ can become strode, hurried, ran, or another word that conveys the exact meaning. When you can’t quite remember the word you want and the thesaurus isn’t helping, try this site for the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Maybe English isn’t your first language, or it is but you’ve temporarily lost your words. This site is brilliant for those times.


This is a favourite construction of mine, and maybe yours too. Perhaps this is because we naturally retell events this way, but good prose is more than natural dialogue.

While you need not banish was/-ing totally, minimising its use improves your prose. Consider the following examples – featuring adverbs (and a cliché for good measure).

She was walking slowly along the road, when suddenly he came into view.
She walked slowly along the road, and then saw him appear from nowhere.
She shuffled along, eyes scanning the road ahead. There was no time to hide when he stepped into her path.

Most times, the simple past tense, with or without a better choice of verb, will improve the text. If you overwrite and need to cut words, this is one good way to do it without losing the sense of your text. If you underwrite, better verb choice and more description might be needed. Search for ‘was’ and look critically at every instance.


Overused phrases only hurt our brilliant prose. Be creative and find a new way to say it. This site allows you to paste your text and find any cliches that slipped in. At the end of the day, you know it makes sense.

Next time: filter words, passive voice, flashbacks. See you there.


blog, garden, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

A writer in her garden

“start with a plan”

jryanphotog via pixabay

No matter how detailed, or how loose, start with a plan. You cannot reach the destination without a goal and at least a few markers set along the way.

“bury the treasure well”

Narcissi February Gold

The plot twist, the clues, Chekhov’s gun. They must be planted ahead of time, before anyone realises, while they are thinking of something else.

You of course, are following the plan. You know what is coming.

“right plant, right place”


Hibiscus, Costa Blanca, Spain

You may fall in love with something gorgeous.

If it does not fit, you must either provide the right conditions for it, or put it somewhere else. Remember my space pirate last week? He awaits the right plot.

You may create beautiful prose, so lovely you weep tears of joy when you read it back. You need not kill your darling, this post tells you what I do with mine. Nothing wasted, in a garden as in writing.


“subtlety is underrated”


A bold swathe of colour is lovely to see, but hard to pull off in a garden. It can also leave the plot looking a bit bare in other times and places. It works, if well supported by action elsewhere. Whether writing or gardening, a single bravura flowerbed or scene is not enough to sustain interest.

A quiet gradation with one plant leading gently to another can have great impact, as well as ending a long way from the starting point without jarring. Not everyone will appreciate the thought behind it. But some will, and it is satisfying to add another layer of meaning, to challenge your own skills.

“enjoy your harvest”

Fruits of my labour

My garden’s variety of plants and purposes leads to this. Fruits and vegetables to savour, knowledge for next season, compost made from those that didn’t make it.

My story, long or short, leads to this. Plots, subplots, character arcs, the seeds of a sequel, must all culminate in a satisfying conclusion.

It’s hard work, but let’s not forget why we do it.

When our ideas come to life, it’s glorious.