Friday Writing Experiment No. 51: Locked In


This week I was very lucky to attend what is, I’m told, an increasingly rare thing in the world of publishing: a launch party. Even more exciting: we were celebrating the launch of a debut novel by my friend Antonia Hodgson, who’s now proved she’s not only a deeply talented editor (she’s editor-in-chief at Little, Brown), but that she’s also a deeply talented writer (well, those of us who read her editorial reports already knew that: she brings a real wit to everything she does).

The Devil in the Marshalsea is set in London’s debtors’ prison in 1727. I’ve not read it yet, beyond its fantastic and bloody prologue (see for yourself via Search Inside, then turn to page xiii), , but it’s already getting super reviews (a ‘brilliant first novel’, says The Times), and I’m looking forward to setting aside some time to immerse myself into a Hogarthian world of brothels and taverns and coffeehouses.

What’s notable is that the bulk of the action takes place in a prison. Prison stories are some of my favourite tales: The Shawshank Redemption, Orange Is The New Black, Kiss Of The Spiderwoman, Prisoner Cell Block H … Prisons create constraints, and whether the story is a closed-room mystery or a psychological drama or a soap opera, the possibilities for narrative tension are instantly heightened.

For this week’s writing experiment, write something set in a prison. It could be a whole story story, or a prologue to a novel, or a poem. Use that setting well: push against the limits of those prison walls.

PS this writing experiment is dedicated to the principle that prisoners should be able to read books. I don’t usually get political or sweary here, but the justice minister is a sadistic fuckwit if he thinks books are a privilege to be revoked. This surely cannot and will not pass.


Friday Writing Experiment No. 50: Spring Is Sprung


I’ve dedicated a writing experiment to the idea of spring before (No. 17: O, Just-spring!), but today is (YAY!) officially the first day of spring. It’s also World Poetry Day, and apparently yesterday was the International Day of Happiness (DOUBLE YAY! you might want to check out this clip of the programme director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan when he spoke at Naropa recently).

So for this week’s writing experiment: write a happy poem about spring.

By the way, you’ll notice the picture of the daffodils above has some tumbling-down wire fencing separating that pretty strip of daffs from a very busy West London dual carriageway. But that strip of daffs is very pretty indeed, and thriving. Which just goes to show glasses can be half full, or quarter full even, when spring is in the air. (Unless you’re a miserable bastard, and next month is for you too the cruellest month …)

As an alternative, create your own special Day commemorating whatever special purpose, and either write about that, or write a short story or scene/chapter that is set on that day.

Whichever one you do, go pick a bunch of daffs, or buy one, and stick it in a vase on your desk while you’re writing. Or do this sitting on a park bench, enjoying spring’s promise.

Getting Published Day

Last Saturday I took part in this year’s Getting Published day, run here in London by the good people of the Writers’ Workshop. I did some book doctoring, and also ran a workshop on How To Write A Sentence (sorry about the tech failure, but maybe winging it with a handout isn’t so bad). It was a lot of fun. There were some really interesting projects (one of them was very exciting and right up my street), and some lovely people in attendance.

Even when people explained that the writing sample I’d read was perhaps a little undercooked/out-of-date/in need of more editing, this often led to a fruitful conversation. E.g., about NaNoWriMo novels usually being rushed and in need of greater emotional depth or layering. Or ways in which a novel with a rather conventional storyline could be given a more interesting twist if translated into a science fiction setting (especially relevant given that writer was a big science fiction fan). Or how, if you are an active and successful blogger, you can use your blogging voice and a blog/diary format to spice up the story you have to tell.

A handful of random observations about common ‘areas of improvement’ in writing, for what they’re worth:

* Fiction that sells (particularly genre fiction) usually needs a clear narrative focus that can be summed up with some sort of hook. This can be as much an editorial consideration as a commercial one.

* Writing usually needs an edge or some spark. It needs to work in the telling. A great high concept or plot twist is rarely enough. Consider how point of view, or withheld information ,or bringing forward a plot reveal, or some other trick of the trade can make the telling of your tale even more compelling.

* If ‘that’s coming in Chapter 2′ (or Chapter 3, or Chapter 12), at least give us something in Chapter 1 that makes us want to read Chapter 2 (and Chapter 3, and 12, right the way to the end).

* Or maybe just drop Chapter 1. You can always restore it for the uncut edition when you become an established bestseller.

* Comic writing is a tough one. It has to be funny. Funny is subjective. Good luck.

* Get some training in writing. You can learn, and you can improve your writing – whatever some experts say. (And here’s a great response to that, and maybe some Kingston University students should be asking for their money back.) More on that another time, perhaps, but thinking practically I’ve detailed elsewhere various ways in which you can construct your own course of studies in creative writing, and you could also, e.g., take a class such as the online course on self-editing your manuscript run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop.

* If you want to be published, think about your writing in terms of what you are giving to a reader.

* Don’t just change something because an agent/editor/friend/I told you to. Make changes that you believe in.

In any creative field the advice given by the professionals on a day like Saturday, which explores a rich range of possibilities, will inevitably present contradictions. We are there to help, and we usually offer suggestions or points of departures, not prescriptions or hard-and-fast solutions. As fellow book doctor Debi Alper says, you have to sift through the feedback and knowledge you gather, and then Accept, or Reject, or Adapt. Make it your own, make it new. Don’t be too literal, and don’t get too grasping after that book deal. But use your imagination.

Stun us with the powers of your imagination!



Friday Writing Experiment No. 49: More Tales Of Your City


Following on from the last time, inspired by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, for this week’s writing experiment: write the next chapter, a couple of pages in which your character from elsewhere will meet a native of your chosen city or the place you love. Let some sparks fly …

Again, in some way make sure something of the unique qualities of the city/place come to life, and again make sure this new character is also based in some aspect of yourself. Also think about point of view – maybe maintain the point of view of your newcomer character, who beholds this local in some particular way, but too you could switch POV; just be sure you are using POV in an interesting way. Dialogue will probably be important, but try to make it fresh and crisp (and don’t afraid to use reported speech for the boring bits – or even to miss them out).

After that, you could write a third chapter, where your two characters do something together. And then a fourth, and a fifth … See if each chapter can make some sort of move forward, and have some headlong energy. If you get stuck or find yourself drying: introduce a new character, or location within your city/place.

And so on … after fifty or seventy or maybe a hundred short chapters, maybe you’ll have a novel?

As a variation on this, Writing Experiment No. 49B: take one of your favourite novels, and create a writing experiment inspired by it. Perhaps try to make it something based in craft or technique: something in your fave’s narrative form, or its use of point of view, or its evocation of setting. But mostly consider what you love about that book, and let that inspire you.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 48: Tales Of Your City


I’m reading The Days Of Anna Madrigal, the most recent (and apparently final) novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City series, which must rank among my favourite books.

They have probably created some of the most beloved characters in contemporary literature: bright-eyed new girl in town Mary Ann Singleton, landlady Mrs Madrigal, gay BBF Michael (and this was back before we had BFF’s), various supermodels and gynaecologists and cult leaders. At a talk I attended at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (a quarter of a century ago, I realise – eek!), someone asked Armistead how he came up with his characters: they seemed so original yet so real, so surely they must be based on real-life people. In fact, he replied, the main eight or so characters were all based on aspects of himself. It’s a diverse cast of players, and one that’s notable for painting a generous, rainbow-coloured vision of the world.

These books are particularly striking too for how they use real and fictional locations to conjure up a particular place. Russian Hill, 28 Barbary Lane, the Marina Safeway, Grace Cathedral, office cubicles, Dance Your Ass Off: San Francisco from the 1970s to the present day is brought to life. It’s quite a record of the times of a very special city.

What’s notable about this series too is that the books (the earlier ones at least) were composed serially, as columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, which perhaps accounts for the madcap plots; you can almost imagine Armistead wondering how he’s going to get out of the narrative corner he’s painting himself into. So in the next instalment he seems simply to have introduced some new character or unlikely coincidence, and through his daring and the great energy and colour of his writing he pulls it off. The pressure of writing for a weekly deadline accounts for some very good writing indeed.

The column format also accounts for the bright and punchy economy of the writing. Each chapter in the earlier books is short but very sweet, a couple of pages of sparky dialogue and lively interaction that move the story along.

For this week’s writing experiment: write a first chapter of a couple of pages inspired by Tales Of The City in which a character from elsewhere arrives in a place you love and know well. Capture the mood of this time and place through the eyes of that newcomer. Also, base that newcomer on an aspect of yourself. And for now just focus on this one character and his or her perceptions of your city (or place).

If you wish, also write with the pressure of a deadline: give yourself no more than two hours to do this.

To be continued … (we’ll revisit this exercise next week).

PS I realise I totally missed seeing Armistead Maupin in London this week. Damn! (Guess I have been busy with other things, or rather other whippet-thing.)