Category: Notes on Craft

Interview on The Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away recently interviewed me on her blog for the workshop on revising and self-editing that we are holding in June, and I thought I’d copy it here as well. I know some of the people who’ve signed up already, and there are a few spots left. Do let us know if you have any questions – and I’ll look forward to seeing some of you on 23rd June.

***

Kellie: We have an exciting new workshop, The Craft of Revising, all planned and ready for Saturday, 23rd June. I’m teaming up once again with experienced editor and writing teacher, Andrew Wille, who’ll be leading the workshop. There’s also a Q&A session arranged for the afternoon with Virago Press chair, Lennie Goodings. Our venue, the London Bridge Hive, is a recently renovated space located three minutes walk from London Bridge Station – close to Borough Market and the cafes of Bermondsey Street. I thought it would be interesting to interview Andrew about next month’s workshop to give you a flavour of what’s on offer – especially as we’re planning more craft oriented workshops later in the year.

image1.jpeg

Kellie: Our first collaborative endeavour, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, had an emphasis on creativity and intuition rather than outcome. This new workshop is focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing – our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. Can you expand on this a little?

Andrew: It is certainly more outcome-oriented, in that we’ll be working towards the goals of a finished manuscript and a published book, which are practical aspects of writing we might relate to the left side of the brain in the Everyday Magic workshop. We’ll discuss aspects of form and technique essential to improving a draft (Craft), and also talk about the realities of the market (Connect).

I prefer to think about readership rather than marketplace, though: writers connect when their books are read, rather than when they are sold, so let’s think about relationships with readers instead. Writers connect especially when their books move readers, so what do we need to do to convey feeling in our work? Much relies on developing intuitive approaches: digging deeper with character, achieving the right voice and tone, remaining open to a book’s potential, experimenting.

And how do we sustain those initial sparks that bring your work to life (Create)? And what in fact were those initial sparks, and how might the work have shifted during the drafting?

I’m hoping this course will foster a creative and intuitive approach towards a practical outcome. Both/both, rather than either/or.

Kellie: How developed does a writer’s manuscript need to be in order to get the most out of this workshop?

Andrew: Writers who have a first (or an umpteenth) draft should find this useful, but so should writers who’ve embarked on a work-in-progress and completed some writing of substance: an outline, or a few chapters, maybe the 15,000 words of an MA dissertation. It’s about training yourself in approaches to revising, as well as the tasks that self-editing might involve.

The workshop should be helpful for novelists and writers of longer works, but also writers of short stories and essays. Some of the discussion might seem more obviously focused on the craft of fiction, but this can be just as relevant to nonfiction too. Voice, character and setting are vital in a novel, for example, but they are also needed in nonfiction, even if they crop up in more subtle ways.

IMG_1013.jpg

Kellie: Is editing a creative endeavour?

Andrew: Of course it is! Occasionally we generate pieces of writing that come out perfectly formed, but on the whole I’m with Anne Lamott: expect first drafts to be shitty, and improvement to come through the creativity of revising and editing.

Kellie: Are all first drafts shitty … ?

Andrew: Actually, maybe I’m not so much with Anne Lamott – maybe I don’t like the idea of anydraft being shitty? A first draft is just a first draft, after all – it’s about getting the material down, and sometimes we don’t really know what we have until we get to The End. And what’s shitty about that? It is what it is.

By contrast, Allen Ginsberg said: First Thought, Best Thought. Though I question that approach, too – I’m all for spontaneous bursts of genius, but a First Thought can often be revised into an Even Better Thought.

Kellie: You clearly think drafting is important, then?

Andrew: Yes! I’m surprised at how often beginning writers finish a first draft, give it a light dusting for typos, and then submit a manuscript for publication. I guess there must be occasions when such books do get published – though if anyone knows of an example, please let me know! It’s more likely that much of the real work begins once a first draft is complete.

The task of creation gains depth when, armed with the hindsight of reaching the end of a first draft (or even just its middle), you start to probe your intention: where on earth did that come from? Why did I write that? Should I follow that trail for a while …? Giving yourself permission to explore during the drafting can be very important.

Maybe the shittiness of a first draft is rich manure, and maybe what’s grown in it includes lots of seeds that need thinning out, and some dead wood or crossing branches that need pruning, and maybe a bush that needs some special attention so that its flowers bloom more brightly?!

Gardening presents many analogies for the work of self-editing and revising. You take what’s there, and see what’s needed and what’s not needed, and you plan accordingly. And: you can’t have everything! This is advice that my own garden is only finally heeding now. I’ve had to murder a few darlings, or at least give a few away, and the frost did some of the rest in. Likewise, focusing your energy on your strengths and resources will make your writing more effective.

IMG_1028-1.jpg

Kellie: You have a background in publishing and worked as an editor of fiction and nonfiction for many years: what do you hope to bring to this workshop that might be new to writers?

Andrew: I’ve worked with writers for decades now. I started working in publishing in 1987 as a trainee with the Maxwell Corporation. Later, I was part of the successful editorial team when Little, Brown won its first publisher of the year award, and subsequently I’ve freelanced for all of the major UK houses and many small presses and individual writers. I’ve worked with bestselling and award-winning writers, and also on books that were, sadly, published without trace. So I bring commercial experience, and my own instinct as an editor.

Kellie: And you write too? And teach, of course?

Andrew: Yes, I also write, though in a haphazard way. Mostly short fiction. So … I sympathise.

More than anything, I consider myself a reader, I think, which is one reason I love being an editor. I was always writing as a kid, but that seemed to stop sometime after I began work in publishing. Reading is very consuming when you work in-house.

Then I started writing in earnest as an adult when I studied and later taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, which recently discovered it is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement. Working among poets and small press publishers and activists as both writer and teacher gave me many gifts, not least among them an understanding of contemplative traditions in the arts.

In my practice as a teacher and an editor, I try to bring together these two approaches: an indulgence of creativity for its own sake, but also an understanding of what it takes to get published. These are not mutually exclusive categories.

I also find similarities between my editor self, who’s always seeking to improve the work, and my teacher self, who’s always trying to make writers more curious about their potential.

Kellie: If a writer is struggling with a particular aspect of self-editing will there be an opportunity to explore this problem on the day?

Andrew: Absolutely. We’ll probably open with an overview of the types of editing done by both writers and publishers, and subsequent sessions will be focused on different aspects of craft: the bigger picture of character, setting, and storyline; choices in narrative style; and last but not least the nuts and bolts of prose style. There will be plenty of chance to raise questions throughout the day – specific examples will offer everyone valuable lessons.

The group will be relatively small, so even the shy ones will get a chance to speak. I’m hoping there will also be room for everyone to share some of their writing or maybe a rough outline with other writers, working as partner-editors or in small groups.

Kellie: And we‘re concluding the day with a Q&A with an editor?

Andrew: Lennie Goodings, the chair of Virago Press, is a good friend – I first met when we attended editorial meetings together at Little, Brown. I cannot think of any press more hallowed than Virago, and Lennie is, simply, one of the best publishers in the business. She’s passionate and engaged, and she understands the book trade, and she has a sense of humour (a requisite in any workplace). And she edits – yes, she edits! Contrary to scurrilous newspaper reports, editors do edit, and the list of authors that Lennie’s worked with speaks for itself.

Lennie is also writing a book for Oxford University Press called The Idealistic Publisher. I think the world needs some idealism right now.

We’ll probably have a couple of questions ourselves to ask Lennie to get things started. But I’m hoping that the delegates will bring lots of questions of their own, and we can have a lively discussion about books and writing and editing. There might even be gossip. (Where publishers gather, there is always gossip.)

IMG_1074.jpg

Kellie: Can you elaborate about your idea of a DIY MA? What’s the ethos behind your idea? How would this work and who would it be aimed at?

Andrew: There are so many resources out there: workshops, masterclasses, writing groups, mentoring, retreats, online courses, festivals, genre conventions … I’m interested in helping writers to develop their own programme of studies in the craft and process of writing. I have blogged in more detail about this here: Learning and Studying and Writing: A DIY MA in Creative Writing.

Kellie: Incidentally, I’m testing out some new cake recipes to bring along for morning and afternoon tea. Besides your editing expertise, what are you bringing?

Andrew: I have a sweet tooth, so biscuits might be involved, but I can’t swear they’ll be homemade. I’ll also bring lots of handouts and worksheets. We can’t possibly cover everything about revising and self-editing in a day, but we can send everyone home fired up, and equipped with a set of exercises to try out on their work-in-progress.

***

Hope to see some of you at the workshop if not before!

Kellie

 Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive
Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive

Festival of Writing 2017

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.

WORKSHOPS
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).

Plotting mini-course
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?

Recommended resources:

*  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.

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

Friday Writing Experiment No. 62: Receiving, and Giving

img_0037

A subject that comes up frequently in the world of writing is that of cultural appropriation: using other people’s voices, or taking stories that peoples claim as their own. People can be sensitive about cultural tourism, and rightly so, given the uneven balance of power through history.

But neither am I comfortable with limits on what we can or cannot write. Writers often bear witness to things they have observed, rather than things they have experienced directly, and the outsider account often has great value. And writers should be free to go beyond their immediate selves, anyway; the imagination is the greatest tool and purpose of writing – and reading.

There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas that come up, and some of the views expressed can feel righteous and needlessly divisive. Among many pieces on the matter, the following are thought-provoking:

* Lionel Shriver’s speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival

* Whose Life Is It Anyway? – other writers responding to Shriver

* Who Gets To Write What? by Kaitlyn Greenidge

* Marlon James on why he’s done talking about diversity

* Marlon James on pandering (this needs to be said)

A few tips I gathered here: the need for humility (Hari Kunzru). ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand’ (Aminatta Forna). And, especially: ‘Fiction doesn’t appropriate, it creates’ (A.L. Kennedy).

I usually come down in favour of freedom of speech, but most of all I favour the freedom to do what your mother always told you: think before you speak. We live in times of quick reactions in the echo chambers and mirror pools of social media, and it’s good to make time for reflection. One of a writer’s primary duties is to listen.

For writers have to earn the right to write about something beyond their obvious reach. They have to do their homework: research, sounding out expert opinion, trying out work on readers, slowing down to hear the world they’re writing about.

Writers sometimes also have to accept that they don’t get things quite right first time, and take criticism on the chin, and try to do better next time (this applies in many instances). Good writing often asks that we are robust (as writers, as readers), and don’t make hasty responses.

It’s also worth thinking through the meaning of appropriation. Appropriating refers to the act of taking, and the idea of taking has unpleasant connotations – about colonialism, or theft, or stealing someone else’s identity. But most if not all writing is about taking. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian piece linked above: ‘In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight.’

Why not reconfigure this idea of taking, though, and think of writing as receiving something; it’s a subtly different gesture, a less aggressive exchange that has a greater sense of sharing.

Plus, perhaps anything that is taken can also be balanced out by the act of giving something back in return?

For this week’s writing experimentTake – or rather receive – something from the outside world that’s very different from your own experience, and write about it in a way that not only makes it your own but also gives something back to the world in the process.

Write with authority during this exchange: listen, do the research, test the work on readers, and all the time scrutinise your intention and be sure you are proceeding respectfully with the purpose of being authentic. Maybe even write yourself a memo first, addressing with honesty some of the ethics of taking (receiving) content from the world and getting down some ideas about giving something back. 

Many of these matters boil down to aspects of craft that help turn your writing into the best possible gift to the world: using a well-drawn point of view that (eventually) comes naturally, taking time really to think about a character’s yearnings, choosing the best verbs to power a sentence, pruning excessive adjectives wrapped around a noun.

‘A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style,’ says Chris Cleave in that Guardian piece. Be a good receiver, too, and then be a good giver: pay attention to what you observe and receive, and then how you present it and give it back. It’s good to share. 

 

Story Is A State Of Mind

IMG_0029

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!