The 2017 Festival of Writing in York was great fun – it’s always lovely to end the summer seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve already posted my I Remember for the weekend. I was only sorry that timings meant I missed Sam Jordison’s industry panel, as I really love the work of Galley Beggar Press. But overall I had a (slightly) easier schedule this year, too, which meant I felt less rushed and had more energy and felt more relaxed. Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for once again inviting me.
Here are a few notes and links following up from workshops and talking to writers.
BOOK DOCTOR SESSIONS
The book doctor sessions were probably the highlight, as I love nothing more than that one-on-one interaction of working with writers, saying what is working well and asking questions that invite them to dig deeper, often into unexpected places. Sometimes I sense that writers aren’t confident about where to take their work, and an outside prod is what’s needed. I am a prodder.
In terms of craft, I often found myself asking for more MOOD or EDGE in the writing (often a matter of working on VOICE, PACE, or TENSION), or a clearer FOCUS on EXTERNAL ACTION: every chapter, every page, every paragraph should have a gift for the readers, and many of those gifts will involve changes in the outside world that actively move the story forward. We also have to make allowances for giving the reader a breather, of course, e.g., fantasy novels may indulge in a fat paragraph of description here or there, if they bring that world to life.
Here is a link to an older blog post on getting feedback on your work.
My workshops followed a sequence, I realised, from the bigger picture of story (plotting) to the craft of telling a story (showing and telling) to the nuts and bolts of voice and style (nouns and verbs).
Story is what it’s all about for me, and plotting is what makes stories come alive.
I really enjoyed leading this longer version of a workshop I first did at this year’s Getting Published Day, though it was a bigger room and a slightly larger group and I wasn’t really able to find out what everyone was working on this year.
The biggest take from this class, I feel: the active engagement of plot as a verb rather than a noun, which is why I prefer to think about plotting rather than plot. One of my favourite plots comes from Fingersmith, whose scheming characters use or are described with variations of the word plot 37 times. Let your characters plot, and let their plottings arise from their yearnings.
We looked at: character as the heart of plotting and your stories; structure and time; conventions and types of story; and outlining and drafting as a means of extracting symbol and theme. Along the way we discussed why change is probably a more important driver for story than conflict, and how Dolores Umbridge in her pink jacket and Cersei Lannister in her Shame! Shame! Shame! are more engaging antagonists than Voldemort and the Night King.
To create some rising action of our own through the push and pull of hope and despair, we did a Fortunately/Unfortunately exercise as a pass-around. I wish we’d had chairs in a big circle so our creative collaborations could logistically have been a bit easier! But I was impressed how some mini epics were cooked out of the given constraints (a genre; a positive or negative change; continuing what someone else had written).
I also suggested a number of exercises for people to try at home, as well as prompts for reflection in their writing journals (you do keep one, don’t you?!).
There are a lot of books on structure and plot, and some that shall remain unnamed are rather, um, mansplainy. You have to know this stuff, but I find they often overegg things.
Here are the ones I like, along with other relevant links from our discussion, as well as a few extras I couldn’t shoehorn in:
* Stephen King, On Writing (I just got the audio version, read by the man himself – fab)
* Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
* Albert Zuckerman, Writing the Blockbuster Novel
* Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here
* University of British Columbia/edX, How To Write A Novel – an excellent course I reviewed here
* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’
* 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
* What makes a hero? from TedEd – as well as watching the film, be sure to check out further resources under Dig Deeper
* Sophie Hannah, Top Ten Twists in Fiction
* And for taking some of your work deeper: Friday Writing Experiment: Word Power
Showing & Telling & Storytelling
We deconstructed the creative writing myth Show Don’t Tell, making a case for storytelling and a narrator, and using an Ernest Hemingway short story and the opening of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain to identify some of the techniques that help create the mood necessary for emotional engagement with a story. Here are some links to posts I mentioned:
* Tell Me A Story (my own blog)
* A Book Is Not A Film (my own blog)
* Psychic Distance: What It Is And How To Use It (from Emma Darwin’s blog)
* The Ultimate Description Toolkit (some excellent tools to help with showing from Angela Ackerman)
* Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ A Universal Truth Or A Colonial Relic?
Nouns & Verbs
The simple message of this workshop is: choose the best subjects for your sentences, and then choose the best verbs to power what they do, and probably pick as few verbs as you can get away with, else they’ll be cluttering or confusing your writing.
Also: be specific when necessary, but you can sometimes leave something to the reader’s imagination.
And: adverbs and adjectives are fine – but as Ursula Le Guin says, they add fat, and stories need muscle. I mentioned Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt, whose statistical survey of classic and bestselling books does in fact prove that what are commonly regarded as the best books have the fewest adverbs.
Adverbs and adjectives tell. Nouns and verbs show. What balance is required for your writing?
* Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs, from Chuck Paluhniak
* Anyone who wants a lively and informative guide to grammar could take a look at Constance Hale’s brilliant Sin and Syntax.
* And Steering the Craft contains much crisp advice and wisdom from Ursula Le Guin, as well as plenty of exercises. Really, you have to try all this out by putting some of it into practice.
AND COMING SOON …
The workshops I ran at York this year were craft-based, with a bit of motivational pep talk in the delivery, I hope.
If you’re interested in something a little different, and are available and close to London, on Saturday 18 November I’m leading a one-day workshop on creativity in collaboration with Kellie Jackson, who runs the Words Away salon series. You can read a little more about my inspirations for this workshop in this interview with Kellie.