Friday Writing Experiment No. 53: Breaking Up Is Never Easy, You Know

Okay, so I was going to stop weekly writing experiments, but in fact I had decided to do them every now and then as the whim takes me and inspiration strikes. And lo! So soon.

The spur and inspiration: my brilliant friend Bhanu Kapil, and her brilliant blog, which this week included a post of her break-up letter to Jacques Derrida.

Dear Derrida: I waited for you behind the pillar at the Rijksmuseum in 1988.  Do you recall? We drank cocoa in the cafe. You showed me how to breathe.  I was wearing a lambs wool jumper. You were wearing a mauve silk shirt unbuttoned to your mid chest. Though it was cold. It was winter. I break up with how much I longed for you at that time of my life. I break up with the desire to be seen. Hey. Are you reading this?  Death: a letterbox. You are so beautiful. I sank to my knees. I am sorry I did not understand your poetry at the time and judged it so harshly. Goodbye for now. Goodbye forever. Love: you know who I am.

I reckon that break-up letters are great for writing. You tap into something profound. You latch on to details, and then latch the writing on to those details. Your voice is powerful and direct in its address. Your writing is laden with purpose. Go for it!

For this week’s writing experiment: Write a break-up letter. True, fictional, personal, political (Scotland didn’t write one after all yesterday).

(The writing of this post is not responsible for any ensuing divorces. It is amazing what can surface in writing experiments.)

(And additional thanks to Ella Longpre, who once gave me a brass heart, which afterwards I realised made me the Tin Man. If I only had a heart … And he had one all along.)

(PS I should stop judging poetry I don’t understand so harshly too.)


Steering The Craft, By Ursula Le Guin


There are many books with elaborate theories of narrative structure, or top ten ways to create memorable settings/living characters/powerful dialogue. But many easily overegg, or go off at tangents, or create second-order systems that take over and stop the real writing coming through. At the root of all writing is, um, writing, and the basics of writing lie at the core of Steering the Craft.

Ursula Le Guin is of course the author of dearly beloved and ground-breaking novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Wizard Of Earthsea. She’s also a very generous critic, who reviews for the Guardian, among other publications. Look at her recent review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, for example. Read any of her reviews, in fact: warm, joyful, encouraging of both readers and writers. No snark. This is what reviewing should be. What a dream.

No wonder Ursula Le Guin just received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. (Note that fellow recipients include those two other writers in the trenches of genre who’re also the writers of what I consider two of the most useful other works on writing: Ray Bradbury, author of Zen In The Art Of Writing, and Stephen King, author of On Writing. When it comes to writing on writing, genre writers rock.)

Back to St Ursula. All of her creative and storytelling brilliance aside, Steering The Craft is her most useful work for writers of fiction (and nonfiction) looking for practical advice as well as inspiration. It’s a short book, and deceptively simple in what it has to say. Everything it contains is pure gold.

Perhaps it’s easiest simply to give the self-explanatory titles of the ten chapters:

* The Sound of Your Writing
* Punctuation
* Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
* Repetition
* Adjective and adverb
* Subject Pronoun and Verb
* Point of View and Voice
* Changing Point of View
* Indirect Narration, or What Tells
* Crowding and Leaping

Additional sections cover verb forms (in case we need to brush up), provide a glossary of working literary terms, and offer tips on running a writing group (very handy). And its subtitle is Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

Such delights! It’s full of many bon mots. Here are just a few choice points.

* Unlike many other guides for writing fiction, St Ursula devotes space to grammar and usage, as you might gather from the list above. But rather than dwelling on technicalities, she gives commonsense principles to work by, interrogating the idea of ‘correctness’, yet still caring about commas – but in the most enabling and graceful of ways:

If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.

Who could resist that?!

* Writers get bored of apparent experts telling us to ditch the adverbs and adjectives, but at the start of the chapter devoted to them St Ursula gets the point across directly and easily (see, I use them too!):

Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

She continues:

The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

Point made?

* Her chapters on point of view include incredibly practical working definitions, e.g.: observer-narrator in first person; observer-narrator in third person; the detached author; and a term she prefers to omniscient narrator – the involved author:

This is the voice of the storyteller, who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen … It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view – and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.

Once upon a time …

* Her thoughts on the idea that stories are driven by conflict are extremely important for all writers to think about:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

So: how are your characters relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing?

You can sample more of her discussion of story on her own site. Pure gold.

In practice, in much of the work I do as a book doctor or an editor I find that I can make a very quick judgement about the writing on the basis of sampling the voice in a page or two, and I probably have more time or inclination (and patience) than busy agents or editors. Writers who want to be published: you need to get this stuff right. Some of this is about right or wrong, but some of it is about more subtle stuff that has no easy solution. The counsel of St Ursula might just help you get there, though. This is not only a fantastic book for apprentice writers looking for resources as they are getting started, but also an excellent guide for more experienced writers; its clarity cuts through some of the clutter and contradictions in a very level manner, and it will also provide an epiphany or two along the way. It’s a book to read and reread whenever you need clarification and affirmations.

Okay, so book reviews should be useful, but this one isn’t in one very important way. This book was first published at the end of the last century by a small press in the US, and it does not have a UK publisher. I think I picked it up in the Boulder Book Store’s excellent writing section some ten years ago (because I love St Ursula, nay I worship St Ursula – I holiday in Ursuline convents, in fact). I’ve been recommending it for years, and British writers could order it online. But now I see that it’s trading for, like, £33.18 used and £72.33 new! And I can’t see an ebook. Perhaps readers overseas could order a print copy direct from the US? Though I see it’s hardly cheap there …

I think we need to ensure this book is brought into print in an edition that is available internationally. I shall badger publisher friends working at suitable imprints, and I shall ask friends in Portland if they ever run into her in the legendary Powell’s. And maybe I shall email St Ursula and her representatives with a copy of this post, and ask what can be done?

Really, this is one of the best of books on writing, and probably my favourite. It tops my list because of its writer’s voice: reassuring, wise, good-humoured. It makes you want to be in this writer’s presence, but on reflection, in fact, it succeeds in bringing you into her presence. That is something any writer or reader wants to achieve.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

York Festival of Writing 2014


Just back from the York Festival of Writing. Well, I came back on Sunday, but I’m still decompressing on Thursday, all afizz with emails and Twitter and words and ideas.

The only thing that I really don’t like about York is the fact that you don’t get chance to spend time with the dozens of wonderful souls you meet. A fleeting hello to Ruby whom I met two years ago and now see daily on Twitter, someone else who told me her sentences had improved, a fantasy writer with a very rich new landscape, a few shy people I’m sorry I had no chance to speak to, lots and lots and lots of new faces and voices and writing. A dirndl, Buzz Lightyear, many dogs, survivors, and heroes. I need Hermione Granger’s time-turner, except I want it for socialising rather than swotting.

I did meet Matt Haig (and very much look forward to reading his forthcoming memoir), and it was fantastic to hear Antonia Hodgson’s keynote speech, full of daydreams and resilience, both of which writers need in abundance (far too many of the former and not enough of the latter, as far as my own writing is concerned, I realise). Antonia’s tale about a prison guard (involving one of her authors, not her …) brought pricks of tears to my eyes.

The best story of the festival though involved the racism directed towards blue vibrators by sex professionals. It’s one of those real-world tales that proves that truth is stranger.

Lots more, but there’s only so much a mind and a blog post can hold. What I can remember of links and the things I failed to squeeze into various workshops are described below.

But before I go: thanks SO much to Writers’ Workshop and all who dwell there. They really care, and given the scale of the event I never fail to be impressed by their organisation and friendliness, and their ability to attract participants who’re both practical and inspiring whether they’re presenting or coming along as delegates. The Writers’ Workshop really is the best at what it does, and it is an honour to be asked to take part in their events. Thank you.



It’s all about the voice, darlings. Take any dull material and wrap a sexy voice around it, and that’s going to be an improvement.

This was a great group that really warmed up (I think I was rambling a bit at the start – sorry). A lot to cover, and I didn’t get through it all, but the room was smart and responded to the readings in meaningful ways, and I also ended up talking some about plotting (not plot), which is a particular passion of mine.

The exercise on voice began with Elaine Kingett’s ‘How To Be A Writer’, which was in turn inspired by Lorrie Moore’s ‘How To Become A Writer’. In another screen, I am penning my own (it might be a bit TMI and ranty, but I might post it once I’m done).

I also used the opening of Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal.

And thank you, peeps, for allowing me to indulge my inner Julie Walters via my outer Alan Bennett. Put another bar on.



We have to show as well as tell in our writing, but Show Don’t Tell is a myth that needs busting; we need to storytell.

Here is a link to Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. In all our discussion of what takes place in the opening (nothing, but lots too), we never got round to mentioning that the story expands into a particular dramatic situation – one that also never gets explicitly discussed within that story. Showing, not telling.

We listened to the start of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which as far as I am concerned is one of *the* great pieces of fiction, and (note) only takes 10,000 words or so to work its magic. Showing and telling and storytelling.

While we are on the subject, let me share Annie Proulx’s splendidly hatering write-up of the Oscars the year that Crash (a film I really hater too) won Best Motion Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Fantastic example of voice and tone.



Emma Darwin, who chaired this panel, is remarkably eloquent and inspiring and brainy, but unlike many other brainy people I know she can translate brainy into words the rest of us understand and relate to. She really has such a wide range of knowledge too.

Some things that came up: it’s still all about the voice. And character. No such thing as rules. Legal matters aren’t always clear-cut but involve degrees of risk. Have you thought of writing nonfiction? And we all love Sarah Waters (my fave is Fingersmith). I also recommended Kate Grenville’s Searching For The Secret River (to read after The Secret River). I perhaps should have made my recommended read Game Of Thrones.

A question I wish I’d myself asked the editor (Sophie Orme) and agent (Jamie Coleman) – who both seem very bright and brainy too, but I’ve just spent less time in their company so can’t gush so much – is perhaps a question that could be posed to other agents and in-house editors, and booksellers too. Fashions come and go within genres and without, and a few things I read as book doctor this year felt very much in the vein of historical blockbusters I read in my youth such as Gone With The Wind or The Far Pavilions or the blockbusters of Ken Follett or Edward Rutherford. And I wondered if my points of reference were old-fashioned? Whither the historical blockbuster? Where or how does that sort of book get placed in the market and with readers now, relative to, e.g., reading group fiction (which, I know, is quite a vague name for a wide-reaching description). I think I need to do a bit more research myself, and maybe I’ll blog on that one day.

Perhaps too that is an answer for writers to find themselves, for sometimes it is in making something new that something successful and exciting is created.



This is the third time I’ve run a workshop on this topic at York, and this year I actually passed my tarot cards around for the first time. I have fun with this topic, stretching ourselves beyond words and the conscious mind. For it is in reaching towards the ineffable and delving into the unconscious that we make writing not only instinctive as a process but whole as an outcome.

I never got the name of the writer who cleverly identified the characters of The Wind in the Willows with the four elements: Mole as earth, Rat as water, Toad as fire, Badger as air (think I got that right – but correct me if I’m wrong). Yes, we can draw on the four elements for archetypes too.

The piece I used in class to illustrate the use of the elements is ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché. I did register a few doubts in the room when I said that writing (probably all writing) has a purpose, even a political purpose, relating that to Fire. Entertainment is a purpose, and that can be – perhaps even emphatically is – political (think carnival, think subversive). Is there a piece of writing that isn’t political? If you’re not changing the world with your writing, are you just reinforcing the status quo? ‘Discuss.’ No answers to that one, but exploring that matter in the work can make the writing bold.

Also, we listened to the piece first, without reading the words. For writing is a bodily experience in that way too: it might be invisible, but the spoken word is a material thing (Earth), and generating spoken words is a somatic practice too.



A few common things that came up this year:

* I found myself suggesting to several people who were writing fiction that they might try nonfiction for their content, and vice-versa. Oh dear – I hope I’ve not derailed anyone. But usually projects were at early stages, and in that case I assume most anything is available for discussion, and there were reasons to put these ideas out there. But don’t blame the editor! There are any number of complications in this area (legal, ethical, aesthetic), and it’s something you have to tussle with sometimes.

* And you can’t have it all.

* Prose style and voice are often what define literary fiction. It’s all about the voice. It’s all in the telling.

* Less can be more.

* In fiction (and narrative nonfiction), establishing a mood and impression is often more important than explaining things. (Less can be more.)

The books on writing I recommended most are: On Writing, by Stephen King; Steering The Craft, by Ursula Le Guin (which is going for silly prices online in the UK, suddenly – are my recommendations outstripping the supply?! we need a British publisher!); and Sin And Syntax, by Constance Hale.



Lots of other things to say and follow up, but they need separate posts. Look out for: integrating feedback (especially when it seems contradictory); agents, and how to address them (however you like?), and whether they need photos (no); different types of editing; when is a poem not a poem; the small press option. Etc., etc., etc.

I’m also thinking of starting a regular/weekly agony uncle/problem page about writing and publishing: watch this space (or the menu above).

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was lovely to spend time with everyone there.


Truth is a matter of the imagination


From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93 Ekumenical Year 1490-97

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story …

- Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

After the void


So: back to work, after some time off. Time in which very little was done, or so I’ve been telling myself. Still need to call the dentist, find a plasterer to fix a curtain rail, crack the spines of most of the volumes in my summer reading. Didn’t even have a proper holiday with bucket and spade and paddling in the sea.

I felt a bit cranky at the end of last week, thinking I’d achieved so little and I really must be even more of a lazy git than I thought, but since then I’ve concluded 1. I am not really the (over)achieving type (which is not to say I don’t have desires or ambitions), and 2. sometimes you need a bit of empty space. Various traditions including Buddhism value the concept of emptiness,  and I’ve been thinking about that value myself. Sometimes we get a bit crowded out by other things – grasping to attachments, or things undone, or the crowings of social media – and, however unplanned (and however much it can’t really be a goal in itself), emptiness helps you clear your way through some of that and see more clearly what can or must come next. Emptiness is not the same as nothing.

I did get to spend some top-quality time with the dog and with old friends passing through; those sorts of achievements are immeasurable. Also bingewatched some good tv, especially seasons five and six of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which incidentally gave me innumerable tips for my own teaching and coaching style). And I experimented with a few changes to diet that, along with dog walking, have since the start of April resulted in weight loss of 20 pounds, another form of emptiness, but one that had been elusive yet very necessary and that feels very, very good (maybe another half a stone to go to reach my ideal).

And what feels even better: I didn’t go to the gym once! In fact, I’m cancelling my gym membership. I hate gyms, and I hate running, and I hate personal trainers with their facile targets and idiot heads, and none of them seem to agree on anything anyway. I’ll do things my own idiot way, thank you very much, walking in the great outdoors with our beloved little whippet, and eating plenty of vegetables and cheese and fish and fewer but better carbs. And gardening.

We laid the foundations for a new garden in the spring, and during the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time out there. Hoeing, watering, pruning, scattering, washing stones, scraping dirt from under my fingernails, planting, replanting, transplanting (but don’t tell my mom as she thinks I move things round too much). Also created something of a gravel garden out front. Even when I’ve not been in the garden, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it: where to order bulbs and when to plant them, what shrubs to get for where, which rose to start its climb of the corner by the back door next spring. I also read a lot of books and blogs on gardens (far more than I did of fiction). I found a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden incredibly inspiring, and wrote about that for a friend’s blog.

After the initial spurt of planning and planting, and as autumn approaches, the editing of the garden has begun: more ferns, more evergreens, grasses going into pots (where they look great), no more gooseberry or phlox, fewer geraniums given so many didn’t flower, maybe fewer dahlias but more rudbeckias, and making sure the catmint won’t dominate (easy to create a splash, but scrawny after a while: think there’s a message there somewhere). We only have a small space, and there’s only so much you can do.

As with work. I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been balancing teaching and editorial coaching with other freelance work, and I probably need a little more focus to make this more meaningful (while remaining dog- and garden-friendly). I am thinking of developing some of the teaching I do for writers – both beginning and more advanced – into a more structured yet informal programme of studies for writers, something I described in a blog post last year. Do drop me a line if you’re interested.

I’ve also been very encouraged that over the summer I’ve introduced two clients to agents, and a third not only found an agent but secured a deal with a publisher, and a very good one at that. These were writers of very different books, but I very much enjoyed working with all three, and even better they were writers who were engaged and responsive to editorial input. This makes the work we do meaningful (hope that’s not too crowing). One cut 20,000 words to make a tighter, leaner, stronger book. One retold her story in the past tense to give it greater depth and feeling. And one sat with me in a pub near Charing Cross, and showed me diamonds. Real diamonds. I had no idea diamonds would be so captivating.

And now it’s back to work. Over the next months I hope to make posts here more frequently. No more Friday Writing Experiments, but I plan to post reviews of books and other resources on writing, as well as craft essays and notes on publishing. Some future posts will address subjects such as different types of editing, when to self-publish, word counts, prose style, and the sort of input you can expect from a book doctor.

This week I’ve been prepping three workshops for next weekend’s Festival of Writing in York (Tell Me A Story; Showing & Telling & Storytelling; The Four Elements of Creativity) and I’ve also read all the submissions from the writers I’m meeting as book doctor. Quite a mix of stuff, and in different ways quite exciting. Whether it’s diamonds on a table next to a Scotch egg, or the start of a richly told tale set in a richly imagined world, or a scarily true story, the work I do can really take me to some unexpected places in some wonderful company, all in the cause of good writing (and reading).

It’s feeling very autumnal out there. Dusk, a robin singing like crazy, dinner on the table. Back to school/work. (That’s an autumn fern – Dryopteris erythrosora – with the rudbeckias in the picture, by the way.)