Summer Break


Things have been quiet here of late, though I have been busy. I am very pleased in fact to have recently introduced two very good writers to two very good literary agents – let’s hope that those very good agents find very good publishers who believe in these wonderful writers as much as we do. It’s great when things work out.

I am now on a summer break from work and blogging (though who knows, I might sneak back here). Which might seem self-indulgent, but in the freelance life you rarely say no, and I realised I needed to for a short while in order to refresh myself.

I’ll be back at my desk in September, when I’m also appearing at the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York. There, I’ll be book doctoring and also leading workshops on showing vs telling (hint: both are needed) and my tarot-inspired approach to writing that I call the Four Elements of Creativity. I’m also running an afternoon-long mini-course called Tell Me A Story: The Art of Narrating, which will cover a pet passion that I’ve discussed elsewhere. Far too many books (I just finished a slog through one) have plenty of fantastic ingredients, but simply lack that magical quality of embracing a reader in their storytelling, and in this session we’ll use readings, discussion, and exercises to look at ways to locate and revive the dark arts of narrative pleasure. Come along! There are tons of great things arranged for that weekend in York. The good people of the Writers’ Workshop really are the best at organising such events (else I’d not be working with them): much to learn, much to take in, and sometimes very tangible successes to gain.

Meanwhile: priorities, which will include at the very least (and in no obvious order) dog, garden, food, and reading.

Enjoy your own summers!

Friday Writing Experiment No. 52: Happily Ever After


This is going to be the last Friday Writing Experiment, as such. I’ve had various interruptions of late – a dog, a garden, other work – and my regular posts became irregular, but I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d draw things to an end when I reached a year’s worth of weekly writing exercises. And here we are, on the fifty-second. I might add others, perhaps in the contexts of different types of posts, and there is a list of all the other exercises elsewhere on this site (this will be updated). I shall continue to make posts about writing and publishing on this blog, but maybe they’ll take other forms, such as reviews of resources for writers, or craft essays. I’d like to say that would be weekly, but right now I can’t commit.

For this last writing experiment, though, I want to return to one of my (our) first influences in reading and writing, and also one of my first experiences of being a student in a writing workshop – in fact, this draws inspiration from the very first exercise in the very first week of my very first Summer Writing Program, back in a hot summer in Colorado in 2002.

It was a workshop on fairy tales, led by the very brilliant and very inspiring Rebecca Brown. Are there any literary forms more fun, more magical, more sparking of the imagination than fairy tales? We read and talked and wrote, and read and talked and wrote some more. We discussed the elements and structures of fairy tales: heroes and villains, and magic objects, and patterns of three (three wishes, three sisters, three little pigs).

We also talked about our own favourites, which is always so inspiring. It doesn’t matter if it’s Grimm or Disney; the Disney versions are the ones I grew up with most of all (had a fantastic bumper book of Disney stories largely based on fairy tales), and I don’t buy the idea they are sanitised (plenty of them had moments that scared the hell out of me as a kid), and at least back then they had yet to be commercialised the hell out of, or overanalysed by dry little sticks with PhDs.

And of course there are plenty of other types of reworkings, whether it’s Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’ or one of Anne Sexton’s Transformations or The Glass Casket, the richly imaginative reblending of one of the Grimm Brothers’ tales published this year by my friend and Naropa peer McCormick Templeman.

But back to that workshop in 2002: we did lots of writing within the short span of a week. We retold fairy tales, we composed fairy tales of our own making, and then I had most fun of all with the exercise where we rewrote our own life histories in the terms of a fairy tale (I in fact read this at my first public reading).

It’s below. It was one of those pieces that came out pretty much just right, and it’s copied here with barely any editing since. Sometimes those unfiltered pieces come straight from the heart, and have a voice and a directness that shouldn’t be toyed with. This was another time and place, of course! Written from that time when I lived in the US as a student. And it’s selective of places and players and particular episodes, of certain love affairs. So, please, be forgiving …

It’s not hard to translate the people and places in your own life into the archetypes of a fairy tale: mean aunts become wicked witches, the love of your life a handsome prince or a beautiful princess, a career change a shapeshifting transformation.

So, for this week’s writing experiment: write a version of your own. Recast events of your own life into a fairy tale.


Happily Ever After

Once upon a time a little boy lived on a far northern isle of rolling hills and forests of oak. The little boy led a charmed childhood, gathering blackberries from brambly hedgerows and sailing paper boats in slowly treading rivers. Best of all he loved to read books, and he especially loved books in which people lived Happily Ever After. Many of these books were set in a Magic Kingdom across the ocean in the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers. The little boy believed he too would live Happily Ever After if he lived in that Magic Kingdom, whose king was a mouse with a permanent smile.

The little boy had a younger sister, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, many cousins, even a great-great-grandmother, but enough of them for now; they have their own stories, for another time. The little boy’s mother was a good seamstress: remember the mother. The little boy’s father was a good gamekeeper but a bad husband who abandoned his wife for an older woman who lived down a coal mine. Then he was a bad husband all over again when he abandoned his second wife for a much younger woman, who lived down a different coal mine. Then he abandoned his third wife for her even younger sister, who lived down the very same coal mine. The little boy was lucky, as he never had to live with any of his three wicked stepmothers. He never even met them, but his mother assured him they were wicked. They have their own sorry stories, which we can hear another day. The little boy was simply happy that his mother and father were no longer fighting all the time. He could read his books in peace now.

So, the mother was a good seamstress, and she was a good mother, but she was poor too, and the bad husband never sent her any money. The bad husband, however, had a father who was a High Priest in the Church of Many Prohibitions. And it came to pass that the High Priest had to visit the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers on a mission to spread the good word of Many Prohibitions, and he brought the little boy with him. And together they visited the Magic Kingdom, where a sleeping princess had woken from a dark spell, and where little boys never grew up. They danced with the mouse with the permanent smile, and a quarrelsome duck with a freakishly large head.

But magic of this illusory kind never lasts forever. The High Priest continued on his trip to the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers, and brought his grandson to the Gathering of the Missionaries of Many Prohibitions. The little boy discovered that the Church of Many Prohibitions outlawed the eating of shellfish and the practice of sodomy. He never liked to eat shellfish, anyway, and at that time he hadn’t the foggiest idea what the practice of sodomy could be. While the missionaries frothed and foamed and rolled around in their rules and regulations, he sat in a corner and read books about the Magic Kingdom. Maybe, one fine day, he could return and live Happily Ever After with the mouse with the permanent smile?

Despite his activities in the Church of Many Prohibitions, the grandfather was a kind grandfather, and before they returned to the far northern isle he took his grandson to visit many other wonders of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers: a grand canyon hewn from orange rock, an immense waterfall carved into a horseshoe, a giant city of towering steel and glass. The little boy came to understand that magic could take many forms, that Happily Ever After resides in many different locations, and not just the Magic Kingdom where the mouse was king.

The little boy and his grandfather returned to the far northern isle. Years passed. The boy continued to read books, and when the time came to attend the Academy of Specialist Knowledge he focused his studies on the many marvels of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers. He still loved the tales of the Magic Kingdom, but he came to understand the wider history and many great artforms of this fresh green breast of a new world: the adventures to be found on the roads of its rich and varied lands, the great discoveries of the best minds of its many generations. And he learned that the people of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers were unique in the history of the world, for they had a collective contract with their leaders that guaranteed each and every one of them not only Life and Liberty, but the Pursuit of Happiness. The intangible glories of Happily Ever After made into an inalienable right. Dreamy Dreamers indeed.

And, for a while, the little boy returned to study in a small and modest corner of the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers called the Land of Enchantment, a desert kingdom of captivating sunsets and cities in the sky, where he lived happily. But not yet Happily Ever After.

For the little boy was now a man, and he had come to understand that Happily Ever After resides not in a place but in a state of body and mind. And though he still did not like shellfish – he was vegetarian, after all! – he now knew, and liked, the practice of sodomy. Loved it, in fact. So when he once again returned to the far northern isle he knew that the good word of the Church of Many Prohibitions was in fact, for him, a bad word. A very bad word.

And then the little boy – now a man – met a tall, handsome, dark-haired prince. That’s a tale for another time, but, for now, let’s just say they lived and ate and travelled together, and together they explored the healthy and hearty joys of sodomy, and their love for the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers.

For now they live in – of all places – the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers, in its western Land of Rocky Mountains. The little boy – now a man – is finding new Pursuits of Happiness, at an Academy of Mind, Body and Spirit, where a High Priestess of No Prohibitions But Many, Many Scarves holds a summer festival of poetry and storytelling. The little boy – now a man – is discovering that Happily Ever After is, for him, an ongoing journey into the world of books and the imagination. And sodomy and a dark-haired prince.

And lest we forget his mother, the seamstress, who is a quiet and unassuming woman, hence her minor role in this particular tale: she is coming to visit in October. Who knows, she too may find magic and happiness in the Realm of Dreamy Dreamers.

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!