Category: Writing Experiments

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.

Writing Experiment No. 64: The Wrong Envelope

I’m planning for a workshop on plotting I’m leading at the Getting Published Day on Saturday. I went online earlier to read the news, and I saw this photograph of the audience at the Oscars just as it became clear that the wrong envelope had been opened by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway when they announced Best Picture. A classic reversal of fortune! Everything was going smoothly, and then it turned out someone had made a very human error. An error with a very human cause, and perhaps with very human effects (let’s see who carries those briefcases next year). But fortunately there are systems in place, so it was an error that was caught and resulted in that moment of truth; it all ended happily ever after, with two production teams acknowledging – celebrating – the victory of one of them on stage.

The moment of truth is captured above by Los Angeles Times photographer Al Sei – read the story about the taking of it here: ‘What is happening???’ Times photographer explains how he captured that viral Oscars moment. Look at those big names we’ve seen on Graham Norton’s sofa. Look at those slack jaws, look at those stars who’ve entertained us so often on the edges of their seats. I don’t think they were acting right then.

This unexpected error certainly injected some drama and thrills. Poor La La Land! But how wonderful for Moonlight! As Anthony Lane said in this charming piece in the New Yorker: ‘it was a disaster for all concerned, but it was also, in its harmless way, super, super everything we need in our lives right now. Peace and blessings’.

In reading this story about the wrong envelope, I’m also thinking: what does wrong actually mean? This strikes my imagination perhaps because last week I read another news story about the great, great care that goes into making sure that everything is right and correct in the running of the Oscars. Who knew?! We scoff at contrivances in the melodramatic plots of blockbusters and soaps, but things go wrong all the time in the real world, so why shouldn’t they in fiction? Writers just have to make things feel credible, or at least compelling. (Compelling can probably rush a reader past any lack of credibility. Compelling, and a good voice.)

As a writing experiment: Write a short story called ‘The Wrong Envelope’ in which someone is given a wrong envelope. The story could culminate in this event, or it could begin with this event, or the handing over of the envelope could take place off the page, or before the main action of the storyline begins. The giving of the wrong envelope could result from a human error, or otherwise. A train of events will be triggered: there should be causes, or consequences, or both. There might, or might not, be a moment of truth. And perhaps you can take your readers to the edges of their seats too.

Peace and blessings!

Friday Writing Experiment No. 63: A Gift On Every Page

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What are you giving the reader on every page?

Let’s revisit that idea of giving, as we considered in the writing experiment last week, where we reappropriated appropriation as an act of giving.

For this week’s writing experiment: As an exercise in revising and drafting, print off a copy of your manuscript in a format different from the one in which it was originally composed. I suggest, for example, a bookish typeface such as Baskerville or Garamond, single-spaced and justified, and when it comes to printing put two pages on a sheet of A4/letter paper – see the sample below. Check your page settings for how to do this: you might have to fiddle around, and, e.g., play with the margins. And, unlike me in this case, remember to add page numbers, else things could get confusing. I think this was 11pt Baskerville.

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Defamiliarised, your writing will look and feel different when you read through it this time.

Take a block (or blocks) of time to sit down with a pen or pencil, and read through your work.

At the top of every page, make a note of the gift you are giving the reader on that page.

Your offering can vary: sometimes it’s dramatic stakes (tension in a scene), sometimes it’s narrative stakes (plot point and tension within the bigger story), sometimes it’s a fresh insight into character, or a quiet interlude that gives us an emotion, or a lovely bit of sensory detail of setting, or some poetry in the prose, or a powerful symbol working its magic, or some clarifying perception of the world.

If you can’t identify anything in particular, 1. stop being negative about yourself, and 2. simply find the strongest word on the page, and rewrite that at the top as your gift: maybe, later, you can give some thought to the deeper meaning of that word.

Also, don’t be tempted to note more than one gift on each page. Each page might have a number of offerings, but it can help to identify what’s most important. This might give you some thought about whether some items might recede, or even be pruned. Writing can get too clotted, just as it can feel too thin.

Don’t rush. Read in a leisurely manner. It can even help to read aloud. Otherwise, avoid making further marks on the pages; this is an exercise in focus and restraint about your skills in the arts of giving.

Once you are done, collate your gifts into a list:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

… and so on for every page of the book.

Put this to one side for a couple of days, then come back and see what work you need to do. You might annotate your list further, e.g., noting where you have too many gifts, or too few. There might be some evening out to do in the pacing.

You can extend this further, e.g., thinking about the gift in every paragraph. But I think every page works fine.

And at the end, ask yourself: what is the gift this book is giving as a whole?

Happy Christmas! (That lovely rose above was a gift that came this morning. Flora makes such lovely gifts. Maybe think about your own writing as a flower too?)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 62: Receiving, and Giving

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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. 

 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 61: Raising The Tone

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The first version of this post described how I got emotional at a workshop at York this year, but every time I go back to my earlier drafts I feel I’m just adding to the shit-heap of whine and opine, so I decided to spin gold out of shit and turn it into a writing experiment.

Let’s just say: we live in a divided culture. We squabble over politics, over our place in the world, over other people’s places in our small world, over our leaders. Some of our political leaders qualified for office on the basis of careers as newspaper columnists whipping up emotions with falsehoods, so it’s no surprise that in public life logic counts for little, facts count for little, and experts and expertise have been derided. The people have spoken, and that’s that.

No, it’s not. The people spoke on the basis of a pack of lies, and I think the main reason I got emotional in that workshop (called Raising The Tone) was that words are my livelihood, and this summer words have been devalued. The tone of public discourse has been debased.

So how do we work ourselves out of this mess we’re in?

No answers to that. But I do know that one of the most helpful things was reading a couple of very thoughtful articles. They were written by proper writers, not pedlars of tabloid falsehood. Writers can help. Reading and writing can help.

Few places have produced as many great writers as Ireland, and few places understand the UK’s relationship with power better than the Irish, so it was not surprising that great clarity came from a piece in the Irish Times incorporating a cross-section of views from Irish poets and novelists: UK Was Groomed. Published on 27 June, it came as a sobering but necessary read: elegiac, raw, and not a wasted word. Two different writers there chose a particular word to describe the leader of the opposition: pointless. That word lodged in my mind all summer, and it’s still there, defining. Pointless.

So: 1. one thing writers can do is choose their words carefully.

Another good piece came from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books: Fences: A Brexit Diary. Zadie Smith is another special writer, with her own type of insight and brilliance, and in reading this I was reminded of something she said about politicians in an interview in the Standard in 2013. Her interviewer reports:

Certainly, she would run a mile from politics. When I ask about Barack Obama, she shudders and expresses her horror at his drone strikes, and the ‘inhuman’ decisions that anyone who enters politics must make. ‘Any artist who aligns themselves with a politician is making a category error,’ she asserts, ‘because what politicians do is not on a human scale, it is on a geopolitical scale. Individual humans are being killed by anonymous planes in the air, and artists should be interested in individual humans. I would no more give support to Obama than I would to David Cameron — the decisions they have to make are not conceivable to me.’

So: 2. we don’t align ourselves with politicians. Writers and wordsmiths are the tricksters. We can (and must) tackle political topics, but we align ourselves with politicians at our peril. We are here to see through the bullshit and lies, and keep politicians on their toes. Only connect. That’s what E.M. Forster urges in his epigraph to Howards End. Our guiding principles should be truth and empathy. The Buddhist ideal of Right Speech is handy too.

I was also reminded of attending a Zadie Smith reading for her novel NW. It features, at one point, a character walking across London, and during the Q&A someone asked if she felt intimidated by Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf, one of her literary heroes. She replied very simply that we have to write ‘from love, not envy’.

So: 3. Write from love, not envy.

Truth and love and empathy. We’re not getting these things from our political leaders, so let’s write them into the world. I certainly felt empathy from writers at York (thank you to those people attending that workshop). Writers might be weirdos, but we’re writers for a reason.

For this week’s writing experiment: Walls seem popular among many of our politicians, so write about a wall: some description, perhaps, that’s concrete and specific and creates some mood out of its presence.

And then tell us what and especially who is on this side of the wall.

Then describe what and especially who is on the other side of the wall: that what and who will be markedly different in some way.

And then write about a door in that wall. And then tell us how things on either side of the wall can be made to connect. Maybe a miracle will happen (more on miracles another time).

Feel free to adapt, e.g., a fence instead of a wall, a gate instead of a door.

As you write, really work with the symbolic power of doors and walls and maybe the idea of the miracle in. Dig deep. And remember:

1. Choose your words carefully.

2. Be your trickster self.

3. Write with love.

And PS after reading a staunch defence of Gary Lineker’s right to have an opinion penned by Marina Hyde, a newspaper columnist I mostly certainly trust for her trickster spirit:

4. Stand your ground against bullies.