Category: Events

Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

I’m offering an editorial critique via the online auction Authors For Grenfell Tower. The money raised will be paid to the British Red Cross and will be going to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’ll read and report on up to 15,000 words plus a synopsis or proposal for your novel or work of narrative nonfiction.

More details on this specific offer here, and more info on how to bid here. Bidding is open until Tuesday 27 June, and this particular offer is available to writers worldwide.

And there are many other offers too – critiques from editors, lunches with agents, signed copies from authors, and many bookish giveaways. If you are a writer, these could be excellent opportunities. If you are a reader, you can never have enough books on your shelves, right?! And you might have chance to meet your favourite author in person too.

Bid, and bid generously – on as many bids and as much as you can afford! I can’t think of a better cause than helping people rebuild their lives. And if you’re unable to bid, perhaps circulate on social media to people who can.

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Plotting Workshop

The Writers’ Workshop Getting Publishing Day was great fun. It was good to see some old faces and meet plenty of friendly new ones. I saw some really accomplished writing, a lot of it already at a publishable standard. With the right breaks and a good dose of luck, some of these books could be on the way to finding an agent and publisher – and let’s not forget we can create some of our own luck, too.

It was the first time I’d taught a workshop on plotting in an hour-long slot (though I realise we ran over by fifteen minutes, sorry!). In other contexts I’ve been able to assign reading beforehand, so we’d all be able to discuss the same stories together, but yesterday I fell back on examples such as Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I emphasised that plot is best regarded as a verb rather than a noun: though inspired twists never hurt, plot is not some clever thing we have to conjure up – instead, plotting is an active process that brings together other aspects of craft such as characterisation, structure, narration.

Character is especially important: what are your character’s deepest yearnings, and how might they come into conflict with those of other characters? And how are the events of the book character-building?

I don’t dwell too much on what might be seen as the jargon of structure, but it can be useful to think about inciting incidents and reversals of fortune mounting tension towards a climax as a connected sequence of events. Most of all: don’t be boring! (The only rule in writing.)

I read the opening of Notes On A Scandal not only as an example of a strong narrative voice plotting away but also to point out how Zoe Heller chose to put what might be regarded as the most dramatic revelations of her story right into the first paragraph: the first sentence, in fact! So much about plotting is about the ways a writer chooses to handle time.

And those choices, I suggested, are best handled in drafting. Though some writers, especially more experienced ones, work from detailed plans, I propose that beginning novelists might regard the process of creating a first draft as an active part of plotting. By all means work from an outline – you’ll need one – but be free and easy with yourself in your first draft. Let yourself see what comes up. Have fun, be playful. Perhaps write bits off to the side to see how a different point of view or scene might work. Maybe even write notes to yourself in scenes at challenging points, e.g., ‘I need to work out a way to get A to do B to C in this scene here’ – reaching the end might give you the perspective on what B needs to be.

And when you finish that draft, print it off, and read it through, perhaps making a few notes as you go but mostly just reading through for the experience of reading (using a different typeface can help to make things look different).

Then ask yourself: what plotting can I create from what I have here?

And then – the most important thing I have to say – take that print-out, sit it beside you on your desk, push back your shoulders, and type it out again into a new document.

Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of the first draft being the writer just telling herself the story. The second and subsequent drafts are there to work out the best way to tell – plot – that story, which might of course change along the way. And liberating yourself from your attachments is much easier when you’re not just tinkering with existing words on a screen. In the golden olden days a writer used to clatter out second drafts on a typewriter or redo them by hand. Some writers even put the print-outs in a drawer and never refer to them again, and write the new draft wholly afresh. You know the story, don’t you?!

To help with reading your draft, I also distributed a plotting analysis worksheet, and suggested that writers complete it in different ways, e.g., with reference to: a favourite book of childhood (done from memory); a book you’ve recently read and admired in a genre you’re working in (done with close reading of that book); and for drafts of your own work-in-progress (again, done from memory at least to start – what you contain within you is most important).

I shall be running an expanded version of this workshop as a plotting masterclass at the York Festival of Writing on 8 September.

Here are some other resources from my site on self-editing and revising.

And here are other links to further information on plotting, as well as quotes offering thought-provoking opinions:

* Dramatic Structure (including Freytag’s Triangle)

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* From my own blog: Tell Me A Story and A Book Is Not A Film

* Online Etymology Dictionary

* Someone asked for a good recommendation on grammar – I always suggest Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

* EM Forster defined story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’: The king died, and then the queen died. And plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

* Ursula Le Guin on change as the driver of plot:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

* Stephen King on plot in On Writing:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course) …

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

Plot is … the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you are going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s last choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story … The situation comes first …

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)

What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)

* And some of the books whose plots I often find myself discussing:

* Zoe Heller, Notes On A Scandal – read the opening chapter here
* Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Best. Plot. Ever.)
* Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
* JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings
* Nina Stibbe, Man At The Helm
* Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
* George RR Martin, Game Of Thrones
* Angela Carter, ‘The Werewolf’
* Paula Hawkins, The Girl On The Train
* Kent Haruf, Our Souls At Night
* Jack Kerouac, On The Road
* Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
* Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
* Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

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.

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
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).