Yesterday I returned from my fifth Festival of Writing. I’m tired, and overstimulated, and typing on three devices; I have email, Twitter, two Scrivener projects, three Word documents, and an infinity of Safari tabs on this very screen right now. (No Facebook, though. I’ve deactivated that. For now, for good?)
But I have to say I really love that buzz I get when I come back from York. Here is a quick wrap-up including links to various things I mentioned (perhaps to be updated as my monkey mind remembers bits and pieces).
DIY MA IN CREATIVE WRITING
Here is the post that inspired this workshop: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing.
I hope I didn’t sound too biased in my advocacy of the self-help model over educracy (or crookademia, as we called it on a train heading home). But looking at the cost of an MA should really give anyone pause, and in this class I wanted to give practical suggestions and resources for writers who wanted to build their own programme of studies.
We all agreed that doing the necessary studying then drafting and completing a book is probably going to take longer than the usual year of an MA. We thought three to five years was reasonable, maybe seven or eight.
I brought into our discussion a couple of case studies where I had asked two writer friends (one published, one about to be published) how they would put to good use a budget of about half the cost of an MA.
Both said they would spread the learning and writing across three to five years (which seems pretty accurate), and they included things such as: courses, writing retreats, the services of a freelance editor who can also give some market advice, a writing conference where they could pitch to agents, and membership of genre organisations and attending their conventions. Both writers also stressed the importance of networking and building community through such activities – and especially the joy of making like-minded and lifelong friends. Childcare is an additional expense that can be worth the investment at key times.
One came to £4,200, and the other to £3,600. (Gym memberships can cost more!) This is significantly cheaper than most MA courses, which anyway would probably need to be supplemented with other courses or input as the writer extends what is usually a 15,000-word dissertation, give or take, into a book.
And while we are talking about costs, here is a clip that might give further thought on a subject that came up in the class: ‘Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying’. What is writing going to cost you? How are you going to pay for wherever you want to get in terms of making time, and making space? Time and space are going to be more important than money. (One of my case studies also built a very lovely writing shed, but this is shared with writer’s partner and would blow any MA budget. At least visitors can be slept there at Christmas.)
I mentioned the highly practical and very brilliant self-editing course run for the Writers’ Workshop by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin as a sensible investment too; I always feel a bit sheepish touting the house wares, but I did point out that, among people who have taken it, this course seems to be more highly rated than any other I know, and it turned out that several of its graduates were in the room to back me up.
When signing up for any course, check out the tutors (and note not all the best are famous writers either … or have even published books – at least in that sense). Personal recommendations are always good.
I also suggested an exercise based on the Lynda Barry diary. Here she is in action: Creativity & Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry.
I also recommend highly David Gaughran for his wisdom and fire about self-publishing, and his generosity with resources for the writer. His book Let’s Get Digital is free to download right now (and perhaps you can buy one of his novels in exchange).
Back to the course: we did a few brainstormy exercises on the fly, and I used one to challenge writers to produce a short story, and offered to read and comment on any sent my way by Monday morning. And I got one story first thing this morning, and it’s really good! The constraint within that exercise worked really well.
Many other resources, including stuff from the handouts and plenty more, can be found in the Resources pages on my site.
The better you are, the more sweat I’m gonna demand.
– Lydia Grant
of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts
TRUSTING YOUR VOICE
This workshop focused on trusting your natural speaking voice as the foundation of your writing. It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s how we’ve been telling stories all our lives. My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins from Boulder has been a great influence on my sense of using the speaking voice.
We discussed how different types of writing have different purposes (informing, selling, arguing a case, telling a story, creating an atmosphere). And this creates different needs in the syntax. Fiction needs mood, as do many forms of narrative nonfiction, and sometimes, if we’ve grown used to writing in other forms (academic writing, journalism, business writing) we need to adapt and perhaps return to the simplicity of getting the natural speaking voice on to the page.
We discussed how fronted adverbials can be bad for the health of your fiction, and enjoyed the delightful right-branching syntax of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Here is my I Remember from York a few years ago (I remember getting affirmation that we needed a whippet of our own …), and here is an exercise: Variations On The Theme Of I Remember.
Related to voice, I also gave a mention to narration, the narrator, and the persona. We also looked at ways to adapt and extend your natural speaking voice and using dialect in writing. How much can we get away with? Not much is needed, probably. As in many things, sufficiency is a useful principle in writing.
Here is a useful piece by Annabel Pitcher: Me, Myself And I: The Secrets Of Writing In The First Person.
Here are some more exercises on voice from this blog:
Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices
I’ll end on a quote about a voice’s distinctive qualities from Stephen King:
A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.
Something to aim for.
RAISING THE TONE
This was the first time I had taught this workshop, and it surprised me. I am going to blog more specifically about this later on, but here are links for some of the things I discussed.
Here are a few examples of logos, ethos and pathos in action.
Here is the Garrison Keillor essay that shows a certain ironic take towards its subject: When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want.
And here is a profile of Kit De Waal, whose most sincere My Name Is Leon we listened to.
Can’t go without mentioning George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.
And here are a couple of older posts on related matters: Ding. Dong! Right Speech and What Words Can You Use?
The manuscripts I read were a good bunch. One was outstanding, and made me wish I was a publisher again, or even (scary) an agent. A couple of others showed a lot of potential. Actually, quite a lot of them did.
In fact, is it too pollyanna of me to think everyone has potential? I had a meeting with someone I’d first met at the Getting Published day in the spring, and he’d gone away and studied the books I recommended and taken Debi and Emma’s course and (most importantly) done lots of writing, and his prose style had truly come on leaps and bounds. Improvement comes through application.
In general, tweaks for mood and pacing are often the things I was paying attention to – things that bring a distinctive style out in the voice and help build an emotional connection. With content, there was sometimes a need for a clearer narrative focus: what’s at stake in the story as a whole? And by extension: on every page? I told one writer I chatted to in passing that every page should offer a gift to the reader. It is helpful to think of writing as an act of giving.
I had to see a few people at short notice – if any of those good folk are reading this and need any points clarifying, drop me a line via my contact form.
Further to that, though, I want to recommend this post for anyone who’s figuring out what to do after meeting with agents and editors: Working With Feedback On Your Writing.
(To come: a post on choosing an agent or publisher.)
TILL THE NEXT TIME
As ever, the Festival of Writing was great fun. A real meeting of minds and especially hearts – there are a lot of good-hearted people at the festival, and that is because writing is fundamentally a good-hearted practice. Group hugs all round! (Man hugs especially.)
Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for having me along, and to everyone I spoke with: it made for a very enjoyable weekend.
And a special thanks to those left behind …
PS for anyone in or near London: I’m joining Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin at the Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall next week. We’re going to be talking about editing your writing. And networking and building community (see above).