On Sunday I returned from my first visit to the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York feeling inspired, energised, and very happy (and a little hoarse – my voice did last out till the encore of ‘The Edge of Glory’ at Lady Gaga’s concert in Twickenham, mind).
I taught a mini-course on creativity, and spoke on a panel on fantasy and science fiction. I also did a spiel on my pet topic of the moment – the four elements of writing; this was the first time I’d done a presentation on this subject to such a large group, rather than use in active teaching, and I can see places to tweak or flesh out in this format in future. But hey, I guess the whole idea of this approach is to dig deeper.
I also did over thirty one-on-one book doctor sessions, and throughout the weekend met many other wonderful writers and had all sorts of unexpected encounters and conversations. Some smart, funny, colourful, well-lived people.
I came away very impressed by the organisation, charm, and resourcefulness of the good people of the Writers’ Workshop. Harry Bingham really knows how to put a team together. The work they are doing so passionately empowers writers to understand more about publishing and to create writing that stands a better chance of finding its way into the hands of readers.
I was sorry not to have chance to sit in on some of the other workshops, especially the one on self-publishing (David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital contains excellent advice, and I’m planning to put some of it into practice with some short stories of my own very shortly).
Here are some of the materials I mentioned in various contexts over the weekend, as well as useful links on related subjects. (Some of these might be discussed again or more fully as separate blog posts later on.)
Ray Bradbury, ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’
(Why does so much of the best writing advice come from genre writers? ‘Discuss.’)
The four elements of Carolyn Forché
Listen again to Carolyn Forché’s sensational piece ‘The Colonel’, which I used in the workshop on creativity and the four elements. Then read it again, and work out how it’s done.
(Every time I read/listen to this, it offers new stuff. This might want to make you give up writing. I mean, how can anything be done better than that?! However, it reminds me of something that I heard Zadie Smith say at a reading last week; talking of her great and deep admiration, nay awe, for Virginia Woolf, she said we have to write not from Envy but from Love.
Yes: write from Love. Think of your Virginia, and write for her. Or him.)
In talking about voice, I mentioned Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues as well as his memoirs Telling Tales and Untold Stories. We also discussed point of view with reference to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. In conversation later, I also recommended George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones for his use of multiple POVs (yes, it can be done).
More than anything else: trust your natural speaking voice. Finding your voice is a myth; you have one already. This insight is something I gained from the great friend I first met when she was my brilliant teacher at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – Bobbie Louise Hawkins. Her Selected Prose is now available from Kindle, and for more info read this announcement from the Allen Ginsberg Project (make sure to watch the video of her reading to see those ideas about the voice in action – plus there is some fun stuff on Proust around 4:50, hahaha).
Using episodic forms, and working within constraints
Some of the books mentioned by myself and others in (and outside) class included:
Nigel Slater, Toast
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary
David Nicholls, One Day
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (ignore the haters)
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Remember: concrete imagery, specific words. And a 3/5/3 word scheme trains you in economy.
Perfecting your elevator pitch
Excellent advice on pitching from American writer and former agent Nathan Bransford (an all-round excellent site). Creating a good pitch is not only a commercial necessity; editorially it can help you boil your work down to its very essence. Measure everything against it.
A super book for writers of memoir is Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away.
And you might like to see my own blog on How To Write A Nonfiction Book Proposal.
Revising and drafting
As I said, I’m not a great believer in tight outlining myself, though some people are, and to great effect. Explore this for yourself. I do think it’s good to have a rough plan mapped out at the very least, e.g., what happens in Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3, and also to know where you’re heading; have an ending or even a last line to work towards, and if you are writing in a linear manner know roughly what’s going to come in the next few chapters ahoy.
(Though too now it occurs to me that some writers write in patchwork. Just be a good stitcher.)
But I like to think about Terry Pratchett’s comment that the first draft is just the writer telling him/herself the story; a first draft can, in many ways, be regarded as a form of planning, or of exploring your narrative content. (If anyone tracks that Pratchett comment down to its original source/quote, please let me know … I’ve seen it paraphrased in many places.)
And do read Anne Lamott’s ‘Shitty First Drafts’, found in full in her inspirational Bird By Bird.
Fantasy and science fiction
Many useful resources, including details of conventions (which are very important places for genre writers – network, network, befriend) can be found at:
British Fantasy Society (including FantasyCon)
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (tons of good stuff, including a great information centre for writers – though remember US practices are occasionally different)
Submit yours to Colorado-based Fast Forward (well, next year, maybe). Yes, it comes in print format.
Books on the craft, if you’re the geeky type:
Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (the essentials beautifully explained)
Stephen King, On Writing
Alice LaPlante, The Making of a Story
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
Harry Bingham, How to Write
And there are many more suggestions on the Resources page on my site.
And now …
The summer’s over. The Festival is finished, we waved our flags in the victory parade for the Olympics and the Paralympics, Lady Gaga’s been and gone. It’s sunny, but you can feel that crisp bite in the air as the breezes of the coming autumn tinkle the neighbour’s windchimes. The dark nights are on their way.
No better time for writing.