Category: Notes on Craft

Learning From Poets

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I use poetry a lot in my teaching, but I don’t consider myself a poet and I don’t edit poetry as such (my frequent response to a poem has been, ‘Couldn’t you make it a bit shorter?’). A few things have recently set me to thinking about what I, as an editor and writer, have learned from poets and poetry.

This last week I read posts by Isabel Rogers and Isabel Costello on Isabel C’s Literary Sofa, as well as an article by Trevor Conway on the ways in which we encounter and consume poetry. They interrogate something of an assumption that many of us have inherited: the idea that poetry needs defending, or apologising for, or a gentle easing in. Because poetry is obscure, dense, intimidating. Poetry is hard.

There is a fear of poetry. What’s all that about?!

A lot goes back to how poetry is first encountered in formal settings. Even my beloved English teacher Mrs Blakemore thought poetry might be too much of a challenge for working-class kids from the Black Country studying for their O-level in English Literature, so she schooled us in My Family And Other Animals instead (which remains one of my favourite books EVER, along with two other fantastic texts we studied – Huckleberry Finn and The Woman In White – so I can’t complain).

Maybe never getting that education in poetry at an early age, when understanding can still become instinctive, accounts for why I’m still not great with knowing a dactyl from an anapaest (but then again, I never learned my times tables either). I regret not having strong skills in recitation, though Mrs B did make us learn a couple of monologues from The Merchant of Venice, and I’m still able to summon some of them up today. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …’

I mostly skipped through/over poetry during my BA in American Studies and an MA in English Literature, and when I worked in-house for a publisher poetry tended to be filed away under ‘Doesn’t Sell’ (along with, back then, vampires and nature writing).

But in my twenty-first century incarnation, I’ve engaged with poetry in more meaningful ways. An early lesson has been deciding that poetry should not be hard. Like Shakespeare (who is, after all, mostly poetry), it’s there to be enjoyed and understood, and if I’m not enjoying and understanding, I can either 1. try to understand, or 2. read something else. Goes for all literature, really.

Another important lesson: ‘poetry’ is a vast definition, so vast it’s almost meaningless. It many ways it is, basically, all of writing as art. It covers verse and prose, story and lyric and incomprehensible gibberish, haiku and epics and limericks. Talking of: limericks makes me think of the first ditty I memorised, via my grandmother:

There was an old lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She lay on her back,
And opened her crack,
And piddled all over the ceiling.

See: I had poetry in my blood from the very start.

My greatest gratitude for understanding poets and poetry came from the MFA in Writing & Poetics that I took at Naropa University. I had the opportunity to study at a couple of perfectly respectable and conventional (dull) English departments in Colorado, but I had already done that once before (dull English department); how could I resist a Buddhist university whose English department was founded by Allen Ginsberg and is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?

I was in the prose track, but it was probably from the poets that I gained most. I hadn’t quite expected this, but I was immersed in a world where poetry was the dominant form of writing. I had brilliant fiction teachers in Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, and Keith Abbott, but they all write poetry as well, and in some instances they are/were married to poets. Everyone at Naropa is married to poetry.

I discovered that Gertrude Stein is not difficult to grasp if read aloud or listened to, rather than consumed in silence. I took a semester-long seminar on Ezra Pound in which we read The Cantos in its entirety. I studied William Blake; I treasure the memory of a class discussing Songs of Innocence and Experience during a Boulder snowstorm, gobs of white swirling against a vast black sky.

I also took a seminar in Critical Theory, and one day next to a grade on a response paper received some of the most valuable feedback: ‘An essay is like a poem: every word counts.’ (A blog is like a poem, too, but it doesn’t stop me.)

Poetry remains a living thing for me today. My friend Mary Kite, whose haiku from Santa Fe I read most days on Facebook. Memories of Anne Waldman’s fierce performances at Summer Writing Programs. Jack Collom’s The Old Woods. Workshops where I use Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel (poetry? prose? do we care?). Rereading Patsy Alford’s magical Mrs God poems. (I think Patsy is my favourite poet from my days at Naropa.)

Something else that took me back to Naropa this week was reading a couple of wonderful pieces in the New York Times on Eileen Myles: such a funny and clever contrarian, and a wonderful stylist who writes heartbreakingly beautiful poetry to defy her slightly scary image. I feel very lucky to have seen her read: mesmerising.

The poetry world can be a supportive community; this is often the case in certain circles of genre and YA/children’s writing, too, but there is something quite captivating about the dynamics of eccentrics and weirdos in poetry circles. So I grew excited about the idea Eileen Myles mentions in one of those articles of a tv show about poets, which set me to dreaming of something in the vein of Looking or Transparent. Of course, any tv show about poets could not be written by a poet, hahaha! The poetry world can also be a bitchy clattering of egos (takes one to know one) that might seem best experienced from the fringes, though maybe that’s true for any community when it looks like cliques, and maybe it’s also true that any closed world is best observed from its fringes.

When I was (a student) at Naropa I used to joke with a few (fiction-writing) friends that poets were wankers (this was behind the poets’ backs, of course, and I contained myself when I became a teacher there). Maybe it was the fact that poets are writing in a shorter form (sometimes …) that they seem to have so many words left over for talking, and so often those so many words are about themselves?! Oh my – the introductions at poetry readings! We used to take bets on how long they’d run. Many of them were longer than the poems, and the a/c in the Performing Arts Centre was chilly when we were on the fifth slot of the night (plus intervals). I also never forget the gulping noises that came from a handbag the night its owner brought her pet guinea pig to a reading. Or the night a friend wanked her boyfriend off in the back row: now, did that really happen? Yes, I’m sure it did. That’s what I meant by wankers (too).

Some self-described experimental poetry – or maybe I mean experimental poets – can, for me, shift into the pretentious a little too quickly. I find a lot of the chatter about, e.g., language poetry or new narrative dry and reedy. Shut up with the theory, and transport me with the spell of your words, or tell me a story, okay? Just don’t theorise about it yourself. Or use the word body in your poems … nooooooo, total turn-off. Though I try to be kind, I think I’ve probably heard more than my share of what Isabel R calls ‘heartfelt, non-scanned, non-rhyming nonsense’. I know that poetry often needs to be unpicked and deciphered, and maybe I just don’t get it. But I also know that I don’t need to be patronised by gibberish.

I do find a lot of the contemporary British poetry I’ve been exposed to thin, stiff, and dull, though maybe I just need to get out more. When I studied poetry at a prestigious English department, most of the discussion was thin, stiff, and dull, even when we were talking about my favourite poet-to-be, Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe it’s a British thing. But then I read someone like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, and I remember poetry is a broad church, and I probably do need to get out more.

But the Isabels’ pieces made me think about other lessons. There are lessons in sound: rhythm, rhyme, the music of words. Lessons in precision (again: every word counts).

There are also lessons in mood. Not everything has to be explained in every sort of writing; a significant weakness in a lot of the prose I read is that it tries to explain too much, at the expense of suggestion and impression. Fiction isn’t like academic writing, or technical writing, or journalism, which needs to clarify and ass-cover comprehensively. Much in writing – and reading – can and should work through the act of interpretation.

Poetry also helps you see the world anew, as in the inadvertent yet compelling performance poetry of Sarah Palin. Poetry keeps us on our toes.

The greatest lesson I take from poets, though, is not so much from their work but from their ethos. They are writing it for the love of it. Poets embark on their writing fully aware that their writing is unlikely to sell. It might deserve wider circulation, but they know it’s highly unlikely they can make a living or even a pittance from it. But they write their poems anyway.

I guess writers in other genres write their writing anyway, but sometimes I wonder if beginning writers of fiction are grasping towards the idea of publishing a little too, um, prematurely, and the very idea of publishing is getting in the way. And the hard facts of our material economy mean that unless you are writing something that other people will want to read (and that really is a gamble), it’s going to be tough to make a living selling your own books. And there are plenty of other things out there vying for our readers’ time: gym memberships, Netflix, Pizza Express, blogs. Some of us do our best to help writers do their best to get their work out there, but no one owes you a living, and even an agent or a publisher will only owe you what you agreed with them when you signed on the dotted line. And I am sure most agents and publishers are only hoping for the best too.

Meanwhile the poets are there, in the coffeeshops, at the microphones, in the libraries, on the bus, scratching out their poems regardless.

Lesson: Write because you love it. That sounds corny and simple, but sometimes I think that core idea gets lost. And we always have to come back to that thing we love, because that is probably where the writing will come alive, free of anxieties (about pitching our books, about Amazon rankings). And maybe, maybe that is the writing that will attract readers, and get published, and then attract more readers …

Part of me is slightly embarrassed that I wrote this post, because it might be read by some of my poet friends. You’re not all wankers! And also because it seems a bit silly to behold poets as objects, and explain why poetry is good for writers. But then I tell myself that many writers do in fact resist the idea of poetry, and there is much to be gained from it. So go on: make the next book you read a work of poetry.

Two of the three books I’ve finished so far this year (with many others in progress …) are works of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Physical by Andrew McMillan. And this set me to deciding on a belated new year resolution of reading or rereading a book of poetry a week. My third is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of The Mind. My fourth will come from the stack in the photo above.

It’s a good resolution, because it’s probably one of the easiest to stick to if you love books and reading. There are plenty of short poetry books, after all, and maybe, maybe you can also fit in someone’s Complete Works, or some Homer too? (God knows I tried and failed with Moby-Dick – again – last year.)

Poetry is not just a means, but an end in itself.

Here are a few resources for writing as well as reading poetry, should you want to explore some more. Lot of free poems too – poets are generous souls.

Poetry For Dummies – a fun intro, especially for the fearful and the uninitiated, and the people who wrote it from the San Francisco Poetry Center are certainly not dummies

* Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, Poetry Everywhere – a super book for establishing a poetry practice using different forms

* Jack Collom’s brilliant Ecosystem of Writing Ideas

* Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments

Poetry Society

Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

* Electronic Poetry Center and its Library and Charles Bernstein’s Experiments

 

A Book Is Not A Film

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Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.

But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.

First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)

Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every last detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.

Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)

Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).

So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:

Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.

I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?

It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.

But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge and speaks directly to the reader. It could, for some, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.

In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)

Another example from further in:

For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.

What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let it do its work, then zoom along.

A few tangents.

Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.

In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.

Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?

Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.

I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).

And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.

I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …

The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.

And descriptions such as:

Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.

Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.

Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.

So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age.  Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.

Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.

I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.

I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.

A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.

And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).

I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?

There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.

If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.

And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.

 

Enchantments

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It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.

 

 

New Pages Of Resources On Self-Editing And Revising

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I’m tidying up my site (bear with me! one day maybe I shall understand how drop-down menus work their magic …). I’ve just added a couple of extra pages:

* Suggestions For Self-Editing – practical tips on drafting and revising
* Revising: A Craft Checklist – thinking about techniques that bring your writing to life

The text is adapted from handouts I often give to clients or share in workshops. I am sure the content of those pages might change in due course.

The Resources page includes lots of other recommendations and links to further guidance on writing, publishing, and the writer’s life.

If you have any of your own ideas for other resources that are useful for writers, please add your own suggestions in a post below.

Thanks!

York Festival of Writing 2015

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I returned last night from the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York, which as usual leaves me tired yet simultaneously full of inspiration and energy. So many books, so many writers, so much gossip, so many friends old and new, so many dog-lovers sharing pics of their hounds on their iPhones. So much passion, so much love.

Agents, editors, and book doctors noted not only an improvement in the quality of the writing that we were reading, but also what seemed to be a shift in expectation. Events such as York can hold out to writers the prospect of snagging a book deal (agents, publishers), but we all know that much depends on taste and luck, and we also know that in many ways writing is often not quite ready yet (those snotty book doctors).

This year it seemed notable that many of the writers (probably all of the ones I spoke to) possessed realistic self-knowledge in greater abundance than unrealistic ambition. We might have a good central idea, and maybe a strong opening chapter, and perhaps a whole first draft complete, but there is still room for the work to grow: aspects of craft to refine the telling of a story, ways to strengthen the voice or build the emotional core of the work. Writers seemed more immediately interested in improving their writing than in getting published, though of course that remains a long-term goal.

It was also noticeable that this patient approach *does* lead to results. People who’ve been working on their writing for some years are now getting manuscripts called in by agents and editors, and acquired for publication. You know who you are!

Many of the delegate writers were already agented or published (both publisher-published and self-published), but came along to York as they feel they still have things to learn: about the craft, about the business of publishing. An event such as York, along with some self-study and writing classes, can be an effective – and more affordable – way to build your own writing programme (see my earlier post on Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing for further ideas on this).

And all of us surely have things to learn every day – I gained so many insights and inspirations this weekend too.

I always leave York feeling there is so much left unsaid – things I could have added to our discussion of readings, for example – but these workshops are more than anything points of departure, offering ideas to take away and experiment with in our writing.

Here, however, are a few links and notes for following up or revisiting:

Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity
Someone who came along tweeted that he might not have done so had he known that he’d be doing a guided meditation! Haha, that’s why I keep that bit (and the tarot cards) quiet. But apparently it helped him unlock the right mindset for the rest of the weekend (thanks for oversharing – something I’m good at, and a quality I commend in others: please make sure I’m there in the audience).

We talked about the left brain and the right brain as we explored ways to expand our process of writing beyond simply thinking about it: clearing our minds (that meditation exercise), getting fired up, creating emotional connections, introducing the full range of sensory experiences into our work, then bringing clarity back into our writing through a powerful central idea. We had some fruitful discussions along the way.

Here is the video of the amazing Lynda Barry describing how creativity gets stunted by self-consciousness, and here is the audio recording of Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’.

A couple of further things. First, I hope I did not seem rude about NaNoWriMo, but I really would love to see writers apply themselves in equal measure to aspects of craft such as voice and narration as they do to composing a stream of 50,000 words. It’s often important to carry out such work away from your master (or mistress) project, so that you can develop these skills on the side then return to your book equipped as a stronger writer. (I post many writing exercises here.)

A good editor/teacher also, when the writer seems ready, needs to be a bit of a bully. Perhaps about things such as writers not apologising for the genre they’re working in: be authentic, and own your genre. Sometimes writers also need prodding into doing things that they say they can’t do. Gentle bullying does not hurt. As Miss Rosenberg said to us in primary school, ‘There’s no such word as can’t in my vocabulary.’

(And is it just me, or are many British writers just a bit uptight about some things?! I use the word uptight in a gentle way too … I say that as a Briton myself, albeit one from the Midlands, where I suspect people are often too laid back to be uptight. That is a good birthright to enjoy.)

Trusting Your Voice
Find your voice: that was the first myth to bust this weekend. Instead, trust the voice you have already, and ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast’ (Bobbie Louise Hawkins). Write with ‘density and speed’ (Donna Tartt). We looked briefly at samples of writing (academic, business, sales) that have other purposes (investigating, analysing, selling), and discussed the purposes of creative writing (telling a story, establishing mood).

I used an audio selection from Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. I backed this up with a hearty recommendation to read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, and played a selection from this excellent recording from his publisher, in which he describes how he created the novel: he didn’t start with a plot, but writing in the different voices of his characters led him to the story he needed to tell. (If I had had my wits about me, I could have related this to the way in which Stephen King in On Writing compares the writing of fiction to the hunting of fossils: we don’t always know exactly what’s there yet, but have to dig it out.)

Reading aloud is both fun and instructive, and we read aloud Joe Brainard’s I Remember to show how we can trust our natural speaking voices as the foundations for our writing (something I’ve blogged about here, and maybe I’ll post my version for 2015 later this week: some really choice memories, eh?!). I also recommended listening to audiobooks, perhaps of favourite books: experience some of your influences via a different sensory mode.

Here is more on voice from an earlier workshop, where we looked at some different examples.

After the workshop, someone asked me about practical ways to adapt the natural speaking voice, e.g., for other characters. In discussion that person (whose name I never caught) said maybe it was like having a particular type of substrata in geology: many different types of plants can grow upon chalky soil. A good analogy. I don’t think your speaking voice has to be the only voice in your writing, but it can be a strong foundation at the start. Get fancy later.

Someone also directed me to this *excellent* interview with Annabel Pitcher that was recommended in another workshop: ‘Me, Myself and I: The Secrets Of Writing In First Person’. Really useful tips on how to make tweaks and shifts to your natural voice.

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
A second exercise in myth busting: let’s tell, don’t show.

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of showing, in the right measure (which might be 99% of a piece of writing), but in this workshop I make a strong case for the special telling that comes from having a strong narrator at the heart of your book: the storyteller. It might only be a sentence or two of narrating at the right point within the story, but it can arrest and guide the reader in a very efficient way.

I used examples from the openings of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to illustrate both showing and telling. And examples of info dumps can be found in this clip from Acorn Antiques (try around 0:55-1:36). My blog post Tell Me A Story also looks at some of these ideas.

Book Doctoring
Lovely people in the 1-to-1s, and some of the same things coming up:

* Voice
* Tightening of syntax (is every verb needed in a sentence?)
* More mood, please!
* Pacing
* Are you absolutely sure this needs to be present tense? Past often gives the writer great freedom
* Not everything needs explaining: gaps and edges are often what make writing interesting
* Voice, voice
* What is revealed when (among characters; to readers) for best effect?
* Psychic distance (discussed over at Emma Darwin’s blog)
* Motivate your characters
* What are the dramatic stakes?
* A novel is not a movie (a point driven home in Hal Duncan’s workshop on point of view, which had an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of different POVs – thanks, Hal!)
* Might there need to be a trade-off in the writing in order to make what’s really important work?
* Voice, voice, voice

And in case feedback left you feeling a bit frazzled, here’s a post from last year:

* Working With Feedback On Your Writing

Books I recommended included:

* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (finally back in print in a new edition, as of last week)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey;
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
* Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
Turkey City Lexicon from the SFWA
* the Self-Editing course taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop

And finally
* A very thoughtful writeup of the weekend: ‘Nine Lessons In Writing From The FoW15 Conference by Jo Hogan (to whom I give thanks for mentioning the Annabel Pitcher interview above)

* York reports from Emma Darwin and Debi Alper

* And some clips from Naropa University, which I mentioned a few times (I studied and taught there, and it changed my life)

Thanks to the good people of the Writers’ Workshop for asking me along, and to everyone I met there who made it such a pleasure. York really is a highlight of my year.

See you next time, I hope!