A Book Is Not A Film


Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.

But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.

First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)

Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every rich detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.

Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)

Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).

So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:

Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.

I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?

It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.

But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, strong control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge. It could, to some readers, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.

In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)

Another example from further in:

For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.

What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let its do its work, then zoom along.

A few tangents.

Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.

In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.

Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?

Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.

I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).

And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.

I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …

The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.

And descriptions such as:

Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.

Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.

Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.

So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age.  Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.

Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.

I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.

I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.

A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.

And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).

I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?

There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.

If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.

And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.





It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.



New Pages Of Resources On Self-Editing And Revising



I’m tidying up my site (bear with me! one day maybe I shall understand how drop-down menus work their magic …). I’ve just added a couple of extra pages:

* Suggestions For Self-Editing – practical tips on drafting and revising
* Revising: A Craft Checklist – thinking about techniques that bring your writing to life

The text is adapted from handouts I often give to clients or share in workshops. I am sure the content of those pages might change in due course.

The Resources page includes lots of other recommendations and links to further guidance on writing, publishing, and the writer’s life.

If you have any of your own ideas for other resources that are useful for writers, please add your own suggestions in a post below.


When Does A Writer Need An Editor?


To round out this short series of posts on editing, I want to add something on the occasions when writers might think about forking out on the services of an editor for either structural editing, copyediting, or proofreading. I sometimes, for example, come across writers who are asking for copyediting, but after closer discussion that might seem premature, as any copyediting might be carried out on a draft that could still gain from revision.

As I need to maintain the gardening analogy: when do you need the help of a landscaper, a tree surgeon, someone to mow the lawn? (In this instance, let’s say you’re too close to the grass to spot the daisies. Okay, bad analogy, but you know what I mean.)

* If you are preparing to submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher with a view to getting published:
It should not be necessary at this stage to hire a copyeditor or a proofreader. If you know your spelling and punctuation are really dreadful, you might want to get a beady-eyed friend to pass an eye over the text to help your work look more professional. But an agent or editor is at this stage more likely to be looking for a compelling story told by an engaging voice, rather than prose that’s had every single error removed (along with most of its life). Lots of sloppy errors will, however, simply make you look … sloppy. But it’s hoped that you don’t need a professional copyedit to avoid looking sloppy.

Writers who are preparing to submit might gain more from a manuscript critique than a copyedit. This could address matters of developmental and/or structural editing, depending on the stage you’re at in your drafting: be clear what you’re looking for. You might in fact already have this sort of input from beta readers, and feel confident enough to submit anyway – a critique is hardly a requirement. Having been read by another good reader in whatever form is a good idea, though. Sometimes even experienced and agented authors solicit the services of an independent opinion, e.g., for a fresh project that might be something of a departure.

Another alternative would be to attend a writers’ conference or similar event where writers can share a sample of writing or pitch a story idea with an agent, editor, or book doctor (as a book doctor, I meet writers in this capacity when I take part in the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York). Only a snapshot of your writing might be read, along with a synopsis, but this can give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of a project, in the manner of a diagnosis of its strengths as well as areas for improvement. Plus feedback will be discussed with you directly, and little beats a face-to-face discussion, however brief it might be.

If you feel your style needs some serious help, maybe you are not quite ready to submit yet? Agents and editors can sometimes go for strong ideas and help you out editorially, especially with nonfiction, but this is something of a long shot and they’d have to be pretty committed to your concept in order to devote this much time to your writing. A freelance editor could help fix obvious mistakes and even tighten some of your baggy prose, but this does beg the question about the work writers need to be able to do for themselves. For me, style is vital to the way in which individual writers convey their personalities in writing, whatever genre they’re working in, and there are no quick or easy editorial fixes for that sort of thing.

So maybe there’s further work to be done in developing your own voice? And note that I don’t talk about finding your voice, as I don’t believe in that – you already have a voice, and it’s more a matter of using it confidently and working out how to put it into your creative writing. It might, for example, be worth taking some time to read widely in your genre (and others), figuring out how a particular style is achieved by another writer. You might also want to conduct a few experiments in voice and style, e.g., I Remember is a great exercise for this. And you could try your hand at some short stories (which of course have a value all of their own – a short story is not just trainer wheels for writing a novel). You might even want to do some broader studies in creative writing.

Also, though, matters such as style and voice are often quite subjective. You might just have to test your manuscript and wait for some reactions. At a certain point, you simply submit – try out your manuscript on the world. (Another post on that later.) You can always do further work, depending on any feedback you get.

* If you are preparing to deliver a contracted manuscript to your agent and/or editor:
Some contracted authors do have longstanding relationships with independent editors and might get a critique or some help with drafting or even a bit of a line edit. But on the whole editorial work is usually done in relationship with the publisher (and sometimes the agent too).

Any submitted project is likely to go through further editing and revising: maybe some developmental or structural editing with agent and/or commissioning editor, and definitely rounds of copyediting and proofreading with your publisher’s editorial department. Occasionally authors have preferred freelance copyeditors, and even though they have moved publishers they continue to work with the same copyeditor for all their books.

At the time of delivering your manuscript, it is worth asking how your book will be handled – keep channels of communication clear and open, and know what to expect and when. I always think it is a good idea for authors to see a copy of the copyedited manuscript before it is typeset (and I am surprised at how often this seems not to be the case).

Note: authors should not be charged for editorial (or other) work done by a publisher, unless you are working with a vanity press, which is basically self-publishing (see below).

Sometimes an author will be delivering a manuscript that an agent hopes to sell to a publisher. An agent should not require payment for reading a manuscript or other editorial work; an agent earns a living by taking a percentage cut from any deals made on the author’s behalf. Scams have been known; though in practice such dealings are rare, they can make writers unduly wary. In fact, agents do sometimes recommend the use of an independent editor for a critique or a fresh view or some other editorial input, and this can be sincere and helpful for the writer. As in all business relationships, this is a matter of trust.

It can be reassuring and informative for writers at this stage of their careers to join professional or genre organisations that can give advice on matters such as working with agents and editors. Sometimes a bit of networking or lurking on Twitter or other social media can be instructive (though I recommend that discussions about personal transactions are conducted privately rather than in more public forums). And you’ll also find many similar resources on writers’ blogs and websites.

* If you are self-publishing:
If you are self-publishing, do make sure you have at some point shared your writing with other readers before charging money to book-buyers or giving it away for free. Beta readers or professional editors see errors and incongruities that you miss in your own text. They will help you to improve your own work and avoid any embarrassment.

If you are publishing in print formats, certainly make sure your book is copyedited as well as proofread; typos and spelling errors make your book look amateur. You might also want to have done some sort of structural editing, or have taken the book through revisions after getting feedback from beta readers. It will undoubtedly be a good idea to make sure that at least the proofreading is done on hard copy. The human eye catches different things on a printed page.

If you are publishing in both print and ebook formats, you should also aim for a structural edit, a copyedit, and a proofread. In practice, the work for both editions can usually be combined.

If you are publishing in ebook format only, again aim for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Though the work is being published in a digital format, it is still worth introducing a hard-copy read for either the copyedit or the proofread. It might also be worth having a final proofread on files converted for reading in their ultimate format on an ebook reader or tablet.

When briefing an editor, be clear about whether you want a light or a heavier copyedit – you might discuss this with the editor and even ask to see a sample of editing (which might need to be paid for) to be sure that any work done is to your liking. You might also ask a proofreader to look out for specific things you might feel need double-checking, e.g., a change to a variant in spelling that you made after the copyedit was done.

Editing and proofreading are often offered by many of the self-publishing operations that also provide design, formatting, printing, and distribution services. It’s worth inquiring about who’ll actually do the work, and again asking for samples. In some ways, though, it can make sense to arrange your own copyediting and proofreading – it will give you more control over the outcome. It might be a little more expensive to use an experienced editor, but it can make a real difference to the work that’s done.

Whatever else you do (even more important than copyediting – and it pains me to say!): hire a good designer to create a striking cover image that will look good on screen as well as on a print copy (print copies need to be sold online too).

Of course, you don’t have to do any of the above. As I often stress, if you want to be published, you don’t have to write a good book as much as a book that other readers want to read, and we know there’s no accounting for taste, right?!

* Who to hire?
A personal recommendation is ideal – ask around, particularly of writers working in your field. It’s a good idea to know the editor’s track record: books they’ve edited or proofread, and publishers or writers they have worked for (sometimes discretion is required).

Rates vary significantly. I tend to quote on a job basis after seeing a sample of work, for example, while other editors set a page rate or an hourly rate. Don’t be afraid to say that you have a certain budget to work within – but too don’t be surprised if an editor turns down a job.

I don’t give direct recommendations for editors on this site, though I do have various experienced associates whose services I can suggest, depending on the sort of book that needs help.

York Festival of Writing 2015


I returned last night from the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York, which as usual leaves me tired yet simultaneously full of inspiration and energy. So many books, so many writers, so much gossip, so many friends old and new, so many dog-lovers sharing pics of their hounds on their iPhones. So much passion, so much love.

Agents, editors, and book doctors noted not only an improvement in the quality of the writing that we were reading, but also what seemed to be a shift in expectation. Events such as York can hold out to writers the prospect of snagging a book deal (agents, publishers), but we all know that much depends on taste and luck, and we also know that in many ways writing is often not quite ready yet (those snotty book doctors).

This year it seemed notable that many of the writers (probably all of the ones I spoke to) possessed realistic self-knowledge in greater abundance than unrealistic ambition. We might have a good central idea, and maybe a strong opening chapter, and perhaps a whole first draft complete, but there is still room for the work to grow: aspects of craft to refine the telling of a story, ways to strengthen the voice or build the emotional core of the work. Writers seemed more immediately interested in improving their writing than in getting published, though of course that remains a long-term goal.

It was also noticeable that this patient approach *does* lead to results. People who’ve been working on their writing for some years are now getting manuscripts called in by agents and editors, and acquired for publication. You know who you are!

Many of the delegate writers were already agented or published (both publisher-published and self-published), but came along to York as they feel they still have things to learn: about the craft, about the business of publishing. An event such as York, along with some self-study and writing classes, can be an effective – and more affordable – way to build your own writing programme (see my earlier post on Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing for further ideas on this).

And all of us surely have things to learn every day – I gained so many insights and inspirations this weekend too.

I always leave York feeling there is so much left unsaid – things I could have added to our discussion of readings, for example – but these workshops are more than anything points of departure, offering ideas to take away and experiment with in our writing.

Here, however, are a few links and notes for following up or revisiting:

Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity
Someone who came along tweeted that he might not have done so had he known that he’d be doing a guided meditation! Haha, that’s why I keep that bit (and the tarot cards) quiet. But apparently it helped him unlock the right mindset for the rest of the weekend (thanks for oversharing – something I’m good at, and a quality I commend in others: please make sure I’m there in the audience).

We talked about the left brain and the right brain as we explored ways to expand our process of writing beyond simply thinking about it: clearing our minds (that meditation exercise), getting fired up, creating emotional connections, introducing the full range of sensory experiences into our work, then bringing clarity back into our writing through a powerful central idea. We had some fruitful discussions along the way.

Here is the video of the amazing Lynda Barry describing how creativity gets stunted by self-consciousness, and here is the audio recording of Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’.

A couple of further things. First, I hope I did not seem rude about NaNoWriMo, but I really would love to see writers apply themselves in equal measure to aspects of craft such as voice and narration as they do to composing a stream of 50,000 words. It’s often important to carry out such work away from your master (or mistress) project, so that you can develop these skills on the side then return to your book equipped as a stronger writer. (I post many writing exercises here.)

A good editor/teacher also, when the writer seems ready, needs to be a bit of a bully. Perhaps about things such as writers not apologising for the genre they’re working in: be authentic, and own your genre. Sometimes writers also need prodding into doing things that they say they can’t do. Gentle bullying does not hurt. As Miss Rosenberg said to us in primary school, ‘There’s no such word as can’t in my vocabulary.’

(And is it just me, or are many British writers just a bit uptight about some things?! I use the word uptight in a gentle way too … I say that as a Briton myself, albeit one from the Midlands, where I suspect people are often too laid back to be uptight. That is a good birthright to enjoy.)

Trusting Your Voice
Find your voice: that was the first myth to bust this weekend. Instead, trust the voice you have already, and ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast’ (Bobbie Louise Hawkins). Write with ‘density and speed’ (Donna Tartt). We looked briefly at samples of writing (academic, business, sales) that have other purposes (investigating, analysing, selling), and discussed the purposes of creative writing (telling a story, establishing mood).

I used an audio selection from Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. I backed this up with a hearty recommendation to read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, and played a selection from this excellent recording from his publisher, in which he describes how he created the novel: he didn’t start with a plot, but writing in the different voices of his characters led him to the story he needed to tell. (If I had had my wits about me, I could have related this to the way in which Stephen King in On Writing compares the writing of fiction to the hunting of fossils: we don’t always know exactly what’s there yet, but have to dig it out.)

Reading aloud is both fun and instructive, and we read aloud Joe Brainard’s I Remember to show how we can trust our natural speaking voices as the foundations for our writing (something I’ve blogged about here, and maybe I’ll post my version for 2015 later this week: some really choice memories, eh?!). I also recommended listening to audiobooks, perhaps of favourite books: experience some of your influences via a different sensory mode.

Here is more on voice from an earlier workshop, where we looked at some different examples.

After the workshop, someone asked me about practical ways to adapt the natural speaking voice, e.g., for other characters. In discussion that person (whose name I never caught) said maybe it was like having a particular type of substrata in geology: many different types of plants can grow upon chalky soil. A good analogy. I don’t think your speaking voice has to be the only voice in your writing, but it can be a strong foundation at the start. Get fancy later.

Someone also directed me to this *excellent* interview with Annabel Pitcher that was recommended in another workshop: ‘Me, Myself and I: The Secrets Of Writing In First Person’. Really useful tips on how to make tweaks and shifts to your natural voice.

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
A second exercise in myth busting: let’s tell, don’t show.

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of showing, in the right measure (which might be 99% of a piece of writing), but in this workshop I make a strong case for the special telling that comes from having a strong narrator at the heart of your book: the storyteller. It might only be a sentence or two of narrating at the right point within the story, but it can arrest and guide the reader in a very efficient way.

I used examples from the openings of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to illustrate both showing and telling. And examples of info dumps can be found in this clip from Acorn Antiques (try around 0:55-1:36). My blog post Tell Me A Story also looks at some of these ideas.

Book Doctoring
Lovely people in the 1-to-1s, and some of the same things coming up:

* Voice
* Tightening of syntax (is every verb needed in a sentence?)
* More mood, please!
* Pacing
* Are you absolutely sure this needs to be present tense? Past often gives the writer great freedom
* Not everything needs explaining: gaps and edges are often what make writing interesting
* Voice, voice
* What is revealed when (among characters; to readers) for best effect?
* Psychic distance (discussed over at Emma Darwin’s blog)
* Motivate your characters
* What are the dramatic stakes?
* A novel is not a movie (a point driven home in Hal Duncan’s workshop on point of view, which had an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of different POVs – thanks, Hal!)
* Might there need to be a trade-off in the writing in order to make what’s really important work?
* Voice, voice, voice

And in case feedback left you feeling a bit frazzled, here’s a post from last year:

* Working With Feedback On Your Writing

Books I recommended included:

* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (finally back in print in a new edition, as of last week)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey;
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
* Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
Turkey City Lexicon from the SFWA
* the Self-Editing course taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop

And finally
* A very thoughtful writeup of the weekend: ‘Nine Lessons In Writing From The FoW15 Conference by Jo Hogan (to whom I give thanks for mentioning the Annabel Pitcher interview above)

* York reports from Emma Darwin and Debi Alper

* And some clips from Naropa University, which I mentioned a few times (I studied and taught there, and it changed my life)

Thanks to the good people of the Writers’ Workshop for asking me along, and to everyone I met there who made it such a pleasure. York really is a highlight of my year.

See you next time, I hope!