Category: Notes on Craft

Sitting (And Walking) With Your Characters: Writing Experiment No. 72

Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.

I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.

Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’

This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.

But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.

So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?

We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.

It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.

I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)

But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:

It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …

It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …

And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:

I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …

And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.

For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?

Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.

A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):

* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).

* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.

* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.

* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.

* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.

* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.

* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?

* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.

Click here for some more of Anna’s bon mots (someone was taking notes – thanks, Laura!) and here are some more of my observations and pics from the evening on Instagram.

Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.

And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.

Follow the energy!

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

Putting It Through The Typewriter Again: Writing Experiment No. 68

One of the most useful tasks that writers can give themselves during revising is retyping the whole text all over again.

I’ve actually met gasps of horror when I’ve suggested this in workshops. To which I usually say: lazy bastards! In fact, for many heavily changed drafts this work is not really a duplication of labour, and it’s probably more efficient to retype than scratching around in your own leavings, getting confused and failing to see what’s in front of you.

Also, don’t forget those poor Macless authors of yore scratching away with their quill pens or tapping at their typewriters; back in the day, producing a revision was even called ‘putting it through the typewriter again’. Imagine yourself as Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote (now there’s a choice) or Dorothy Parker, clattering out a new draft.

And, too, this is a physical act: your body (and mind and soul) will be energised. I’m always keen to find intuitive approaches back into writing and looking at your work afresh. Liberate yourself from attachments! And from being locked into the downward scroll of the screen, looking for edits on your last draft with a frown on your brow. Start afresh.

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So: try either of these writing experiments at the appropriate stage in your drafting:

* Allow your first draft to be a Zero Draft, and then embark on a Page One Rewrite for the next draft. Let that initial draft lay out your content and reveal your story matter – as Terry Pratchett apparently said (please tell me where!): the first draft is just a writer telling herself the story. Let the story drift, find a few dead ends perhaps. But too it’s fine to follow an outline.

Then print it out. You might want to make it look like a book or page proofs, i.e., single-spaced and justified, two columns or pages per A4 sheet, and using a bookish font such as Garamond or Baskerville. (And with page numbers, of course.)

Then read it. Maybe read it aloud. As you go, resist editing the text (refuse to engage in that way), but write any notes for the writer (yourself) in a separate notebook. You might even want to create a chapter and/or scene summary based entirely on what is in that draft, or to identify the gift given to the reader on every page.

Then put that draft away – in a drawer, in a safe. There is a good chance you might refer to it again, but there is a good chance too that you might not. I know of some writers who know they are never going to look at their zero draft ever again – simply surfacing their content this way was the important task.

Then, using your notes, or perhaps drawing on your inner resources (for the book is inside you, after all), start your next draft in a new document: effectively, a rewrite. You might want to write a new outline or treatment at this stage, or even several different outlines to help you explore variations.

* Polishing Through Retyping: This approach is also useful for a later draft, e.g., when you are doing a line edit on your prose, smoothing out glitches and clunkiness, spotting repetitions, and dealing with redundancy and overwriting.

Again, read a print-out of the previous draft, making edits on a hard copy: this time, it perhaps makes sense to go with regular double-spaced unjustified manuscript pages in clear, open fonts such as Times or Georgia (though maybe again experiment with a font you don’t usually use?). And you can even give yourself wide margins for adding notes and additions by hand.

Then reread, adding edits on the manuscript in pencil.

Then, sitting comfortably at your computer, and perhaps using a page holder or stand, rekey the edited text in a fresh (and clearly identified) new document.

It’s amazing what comes up, and also how easily you can start to see (and feel) things anew: simple word repetitions, or slips of the keyboard. Or garbled syntax. And yes – maybe your beta readers were right in saying that phrase was too cute, now you come to type it again. And you know – that scene is in fact too boring to retype, so maybe it’s just too boring?! There – a darling murdered more easily than you imagined. (Don’t be too brutal for its own sake, though.)

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This is something we discussed in the Craft of Revising workshop on Saturday, where a number of people were enthusiastic about the idea.

Some writers, of course, write very deliberately: John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Cynthia Ozick, Eliot Weinberger. Or they write spontaneously: Jack Kerouac, apparently (though we know that is a bit of a myth). They are planners, or process each word emphatically as they come out, or they are geniuses. And good luck to them! But not everyone works that way – or can work that way, or wants to work that way.

You could even consider starting each major revision in an entirely fresh document.

Rewriting has negative associations – as if we’ve done something wrong in the earlier drafts. But it’s remarkably liberating to actively incorporate it into your process. Free yourself! Embrace rewriting, and freshen your writing in the process.

And of course if you are one of those writers who already write your drafts by hand you can just turn to the rest of us and say: Told you so.