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January, 2008

Torrey Meeks

Advice To Aspiring Writers
Perhaps less commonplace
By  Philip Spires

Use of the journal is to support you when you get an idea that needs fleshing out.
One helpful thing I have done since August 1973 is keep a journal. I am told that writers like to call them commonplace books." They aren't diaries. They're a cross between a scrapbook and a notebook, like an artist's sketchbook. You come across something you think is worth recording and you write it down. Sometimes it might be a review of a book or a concert. You might be doing research on some topic and need a place to keep notes. And there might be just stupid things that crop up. Here are some examples from my life.

A restaurant menu in Greece offers "stuffed corsettes." How about that to illustrate the importance of proof reading? What a difference one letter can make!

A restaurant menu in Chinatown, London, offered "braised crap with ginger and spring onions and chicken in spit."

More seriously, a proverb in Kikamba that I noted when I lived in Kenya reads: "Nyamu inynugaa kitheka ki ikomie – An animal smells of the forest in which it slept." The man who taught me the proverb said that it would always apply to me and my memories of Kenya.
In my commonplace book, there's a section where I describe an old madman who used to hang around in the market place in the town where I lived. One day he cursed me so that I would change into a snake. Ten years later he became chapter five of my book, Mission.
When I lived in Brunei, I was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth during her visit there. I have saved all the documents telling me how I should address her, how to bow and how we should not worry because she was good at putting people at ease. Sir Ivan Callan introduced the woman to my right as Jan, saying, "This is Jan. She's about to set off on the Chay Blythe Round-The-World Yacht Race." Mrs. Queen immediately said, "You must be mad!" Sir Ivan smiled and moved on to me. "This is Phil who organises all the concerts for our Brunei Music Society." "Yuk," said Mrs. Queen and moved on. It's all recorded in my commonplace book.
The real use of the journal is to support you when you get an idea that needs fleshing out. OK, you have the idea, but then with luck you have hundreds of snippets of information, observations and background that can be woven together to make it more interesting – and it's all real! It takes time and it's hard work, but the results are wonderful.
The way a really good writer works is to meet the reader in his own world, his own experience, or his own knowledge, and then by suggestion gently takes the reader somewhere new, introducing different ideas and different ways of seeing the world. This doesn't mean that all writing has to be set in the here and now. For instance, from our history lessons we all know something about the First World War, though it is unlikely that many of us experienced it. But as a writer you can set your work in that period because it is common knowledge. Your reader will be with you from the start.
Find your own roots as a writer, as a person and as a creator. Try to relate your ideas to a time and place you know or know something about. And draw the reader into your world by starting on common ground, not in a private world.
And how do you do that? You ROT. "R – O – T." Read, Observe, Think.
R is for read. Read, read, read – and when you read something, review it. And say more than just what happens in the book. So, read and review and write your thoughts into your journal.
O is for observe. There's a world out there. We inhabit it. Look at it, describe it. If you come across something of interest, make a note of it and how you felt or how it affected you. In our world, giants don't change into mice and lizards with red eyes don't fire laser guns. But millions of other things even more surprising, more interesting and less predictable do happen.
And T is for Think. Take time to think, to reflect on what you experience and, if you think it's interesting, write it down.
So to conclude, make public worlds and not private ones and ROT in your commonplace book, read, observe and think, and then make your notes. As writers it is our aim to communicate and to do that in a public, not a private place.

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Philip Spires grew up in Sharlston, UK, then a mining village. After London University he lived in Kenya. Then he taught in London before moving to Brunei, and then the UAE. Since 2003, he has lived in Spain, completing a PhD and his first published novel, Mission. Contact Philip at or visit

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