Words Away Salon, 19 September 2016

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Last night I was very happy to take part in the inaugural Words Away literary salon run by Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin. It was a super evening: a great turnout, with a lovely, engaged crowd of writers, and the Teahouse Theatre is a wonderful venue for this sort of event too. Also, Vauxhall is so easy to get to from so many places, and we were a very short walk from the tube.

The subject under discussion was self-editing, which as Emma pointed out is a useful term (and something of a recent coinage) that brings clarity to this idea that to edit ourselves we need to put ourselves in a special frame of mind.

I emphasised the idea of working free from attachment. I mentioned that super quote that I believe comes from Terry Pratchett (and I paraphrase): writing the first draft is just the writer telling herself the story. It’s good to give yourself room to step back (and especially away from the computer) to ask yourself what this book can be. Has your intention shifted? I suggested practical ideas such as printing off your manuscript in different formats in order to defamiliarise your own words. It’s also helpful to do exercises outside of the book itself, or using some of your content knowing that this writing is not going into your baby (and in fact sometimes it will end up in the book after all). Be free in your writing at this stage.

I often describe these early stages of editing developmental editing, and I discuss this in more detail in this post on structural editing. Sometimes input from other readers or agents or editors can lead to doubts, and it makes sense to be reflective: this post on working with feedback might give you some pointers.

In practical terms, the natural speaking voice is, I believe, the greatest asset to any piece of writing, so learn to trust it. Here is a link describing a workshop on voice I led in the past (it includes links to further exercises on voice too). And I heartily recommend I Remember exercises as very easy and accessible ways to work with voice in your own writing.

I do like some narration in my storytelling, and here is a link to a subtle bit of narrating to be sampled at the start of My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Tweaks for the art and craft of narrating are often essential during revising,

This salon was titled ‘Make Your Novel Shine’, and I do think there is a great value to decluttering our minds of words and letting symbolic thinking (or maybe I should say symbolic feeling?) guide us through revising. For example, think about the idea of a light shining its way through your book like a torch, or maybe be guided by the image of a prism reflecting light in and off its many facets. Something else I suggested was thinking about writing as giving, and the gift you give your readers on every page. Such ways of working can force us to go a little deeper, and perhaps discover unexpected treasures that belong in the writing in some way or other.

In addition, here are the pages from this site for craft and revising and tips on self-editing (used for the booklet we gave our yesterday). And Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog has TONS of resources for writers too (pay special attention to psychic distance). In addition, a special mention for the excellent and very successful online course on self-editing your novel run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

Thanks again to Kellie and Emma for having me along. Forthcoming salons will have speakers talking about character (17 October), plot and story (14 November), and historical fiction (5 December). Hope to see you there.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 60: Word Power

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This is an exercise to help with revising, but it could also be used in other contexts. It builds on Friday Writing Experiment No. 9: A Word.

* Take some key word from a piece you are working on and do some rooting around in the history of that word, e.g., at Etymonline.com.

* E.g., let’s say you are writing a story about a witch – let’s take a look at magic. One bit of this Etymonline definition that I take away is the following:

to be able, to have power (see machine)

* So: really think about the relevance of your finding to your piece of writing. In this case, how does your writing embody, feel, think, bring to life (in this case) this idea of having power or ability? And how are various aspects of craft working with this idea, and how might they be developed within the work?

And most of all: how are you giving the reader something of this definition in the writing. Writing is always an act of giving. Writing is a gift to someone else.

* Reflect on this definition further, and see what else you might need to bring out in your drafting and revising.

Further note: Don’t worry too much about the precise origins of a word. Sometimes they will have direct correspondences with the place or time you are writing about, and that sort of synchronicity has a magic of its own. The goddess is looking down on you! But, too, sometimes word histories can come from entirely different places, and unless you are writing about a particular context using particular constraints that doesn’t really matter. What matters is making the writing you are doing in the here and now relevant and powerful.

(If you are writing fiction, especially, your duty is to use your imagination rather than labour some other form of truth that might never be proven anyway.)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 59: Words Words Words

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If possible, the first time you do this read each stage and follow its instructions before scrolling down to the next stage. (I hesitate to use the word instruction, because writers can be a bolshie lot who take instruction poorly, but in this case just do as you’re told as constraints are good for you.)

Give yourself about twenty minutes.

 

1. Have a timer, notebook and pen at the ready, and a favourite book at hand (probably a print book but could work with ebook).

 

2. Close your eyes. Open the book at a random page. Put your finger on the page. Open your eyes. See what word your finger has landed on.

 

3. Take the first letter of that word. Set the timer for three minutes and write/brainstorm a list of as many words that you can think of that start with that letter of the alphabet.

 

4. At the three-minute bell, stop.

 

5. Look over your list quickly and circle your two favourite words. Trust your instinct here.

 

6. Now close your eyes and use your pen to stab your piece of writing: whichever word you land on is your third word.

 

7. Set your timer for fifteen minutes, then take these three words to generate a flash fiction or scene or the start of a short story or first chapter.

 

Adapt this as necessary, but again, stick with the exercise and its constraints for a while if you can.

You might also want to combine this with some of the foragings in word history of Friday Writing Experiments No. 9: A Word and No. 60: Word Power.

(And yes, I post this on a Wednesday, but it was a Friday when we first did it at the Festival of Writing 2016. And someone did generate a really good one and email it to me by first thing Monday morning.)

York Festival of Writing 2016

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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?

BOOK DOCTORING
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 …

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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).

Story Is A State Of Mind

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Today is my first day back at my desk, and even though it feels as if summer only began last week autumn is certainly in the air. This is my favourite time of year. There’s something about the slant of morning light in September that makes me think about fresh notebooks and starting back to school. Maybe I’m just a perennial student at heart. Last September I felt a particular pang of envy, and, as I was taking a short break from reading manuscripts anyway, on a whim one Friday night as the new series of Graham Norton was coming on (no, not more Hollywood hard-sell), I signed up for a creative writing course ‘that approaches writing with the rigour of academia and also as a contemplative practice’. I needed a refresher, and wanted some inspiration, and this felt like a perfect fit.

That course was called Story Is A State Of Mind, which is run by Canadian writer Sarah Selecky, author of the story collection The Cake Is For The Party. The course is online and self-paced, which suited me just fine (I’m also something of a hermit at heart). I started the next day, the Saturday, and organised it into a mini retreat of three weeks, three days for each of the seven units.

Those units have the following titles:

* Freewriting
* What Starts A Story?
* Character
* Dialogue
* Plot and Drift
* Consciousness
* Influence

Each unit includes a lecture, readings and reading debriefs, shorter exercises of writing practice, and a longer writing assignment. These materials come in the form of thoughtful audio podcasts (usually between ten and twenty minutes long), alongside print notes in PDF format transcribing the audio. There are also four video lectures, as well as links to other recordings and videos of writers talking about writing; I found the one with Ira Glass particularly incisive. The podcasts occasionally use breezy transition music that succeeds in being ever so energising in setting the tone for the work you have to do. Jaunty jingles clearly rouse me.

Sarah Selecky is in herself the great inspiration within this course. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything work in print as well as in podcasts and video, and Sarah brings a warm and inviting presence that is also grounded in a practical grasp of what it takes to write purposefully and effectively. She offers various tips, which range from obvious reminders, such as carrying a notebook with you at all times, to more personal observations on freeing the imagination. The idea of writing as ‘the kind of knowledge that feels like it is coming out of your body’ really makes sense to me, and I love the idea of letting your writing orbit around you in the same way you hold respect for a person you love:

A dear friend or love is always something of a mystery. The beauty of a deep relationship is that you can orbit around each other for years, always learning new things about each other, always trying to understand each other.

My advice: treat your writing with the same kind of respect.

There are many excellent writing prompts too. One of my favourites is a really good twist on the popular ‘I Remember’ exercise.

I gained many fresh insights. I particularly liked the idea of drift as it relates to plot within your drafting:

The art happens when you go off track.

I also brought away a sense of how I need to pay more attention to dialogue in my own writing. Nothing beats good dialogue for bringing life to a story, does it?

Aspects of craft are introduced artfully and easily, and the course gets the balance just right in explaining important concepts and techniques without constraining your creativity. One of the first exercises gets us to understand (and practise) the difference between showing and telling in a straightforward, intuitive way. There are plenty of fun activities for creating characters, and the first-rate lesson on dialogue contains many thoughtful recommendations on, e.g., the importance of subtext. Point of view is explained with clarity. Many introductory courses get schoolma’amy, or bogged down in jargon that belongs in an English literature classroom. Or they are simply boring. This course, however, feels more like a studio in an art school. It possesses a lightness, and energy, and the emphasis is certainly on fostering ways to write spontaneously and easily.

Everything is extremely well organised, and well designed. The choice of readings as explanations and departure points is particularly strong, and includes work by writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Tobias Wolff, as well as a number of writers who were new to me. A number of them are Canadian; Canada seems to produce so many noteworthy writers whose work I enjoy, and this added a further freshness of perspective for me. In addition, an interactive style diagnosis quiz in the section on influence presents recommendations for inspirations in further reading based on your own preferences. Apparently I am a Fearless Creative who might enjoy Lorrie Moore or Mary Gaitskill; this is true!

The focus is, on the whole, on the craft of fiction that is most relevant to writing short stories, but would-be novelists should not be deterred – characterisation and dialogue and attention to detail are things any writer needs to practise and grow, and we have to walk across a room before we can run and go the distance of a marathon. And, too, short stories are a joy in themselves. I’ve had a summer reading many good books, and I dare to say that the ones I enjoyed most were books of short stories. No second best.

Best of all, this course gets you to do lots of writing (LOTS), and to finish a short story. I almost filled a notebook with writing – about 140 handwritten pages in three weeks (which, even though it also includes some notes, is significant creative output for me).

Since I took this course in 2015 it has been renamed the Story Course, and Story Is A State Of Mind is now used as the name of the larger online school it belongs to. Other classes include the Story Intensive (a teacher-guided and interactive version of the Story Course, with classmates and fixed deadlines) and the Story Intensive (a critique course with organised feedback for a story from each member of the class). The Story Course currently costs US$250, and you can enrol and start at any time, and take however long you need to complete it.

I can’t recommend Sarah Selecky’s Story Course highly enough. I’m already a believer in and practitioner of contemplative approaches in writing and learning, and I truly enjoyed everything it gave me. If you want an inspiring entry point into creative writing that also offers a grounding in fundamental techniques, this class ranks among the best. An inspiring Friday-night whim!