Category: Writing Experiments

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

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Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in any instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]

 

 

We Are A Muse: Writing Experiment No. 69

I recently went to the excellent exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was captivated! And I am still working out exactly why it beguiled me so much.

I’ve liked her work, though I’m not sure I have really loved it, and I can’t be sure I’d have gone to the exhibition until someone told me how good she thought it was, and then someone else I’d not seen in ages told me that she’d love for us to meet there. And I went, and I loved it.

Something funny though: a publisher friend had also seen and she did not enjoy it in quite the same way. We usually have similar tastes , and we tried to work out this difference: she said she wanted more of the art and less of what might be seen as an objectification of the artist, while I realised that this embodiment of the artist was what I found so enticing. So much there – so many details of the artist’s life. Perfume bottles, Frida’s illuminated false leg, beads spattered with green paint, the retablos (devotional artworks), and the clothes – remarkable in their bright colours after being locked up in a bathroom in the Casa Azul for fifty years. And in fact there is quite a lot of the art – enough to make me want to take a more serious look at the paintings. The life on show is in fact giving me a further route back into her work. 

I also recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna (where Frida plays a significant role), and watched Selma Hayek’s film Frida, and I’ve spent a few hours looking at the gorgeous V&A exhibition catalogue (exquisite bit of publishing). What a life: it’s impossible to separate her everyday life from her creations from her friends from her lovers from her family from her politics.

This immersion into so many things Frida set me to thinking about the ways in which the life of the artist and the art itself are enmeshed. The world of creative writing involves itself with serious matters of mastering the craft and pitching and publishing, but sometimes (often) there’s room for things that might seem silly or indulgent but are inspiring and sustaining, or simply feed your soul in some indescribable way. I have a hunch that sometimes writers (and especially British writers?) don’t indulge themselves as artists as frequently as they could; they might even be embarrassed to think of themselves as artists, or to regard what they create as art. Someone might be writing the pulpiest fiction, but it’s still art, I say. 

I am also inspired by the award-winning poet Anne Waldman – beyond her writing, she lives and breathes Art in every way, whether in a grand hundred-year project, such as cofounding an alternative university (Naropa, where I got my MFA), or in something more personal, such as her flamboyant choice of scarves. 

In her book Vow to Poetry (the clue is in the title), Anne includes an essay called ‘Creative Writing Life’ that starts ‘Be in the mind/perspective of a writer twenty-four hours a day’, and then continues for nine pages with a manifesto listing things to feed your creative energies, ranging from carry writing material at all times, to organising sessions to exchange work, to recording your dreams, to writing a radio play, to proposing a question before you sleep (‘See what happens. Keep a notebook that will “worry” the questions).

So, inspired by Frida’s mantra ‘I am my own muse’ and Anne’s ‘Creative Writing Life’, write a manifesto for yourself as your own muse. You might include:

  • Activities to add to your routine (maybe something nonverbal – a sport, or yoga, or gardening, or chess)
  • A class you can take in some field other than writing (oil painting, or singing, or dance, or astrology)
  • A class you could take in writing (come to one of our masterclasses!)
  • Things to wear (scarves! beads! flowers in your hair!)
  • Things to put in a shrine on your writing desk or a bookshelf (little Aztec figurines, if only from a museum gift shop? a pretty coaster for the mug of tea that sustains you while you write?)
  • Expertise and resources you can share with others and, e.g., put into a workshop offering of your own or offer as consultancy (this can become a whole other purpose to develop for your artistic self)
  • Blogging, or careful tending of some presence on social media (I hesitate to suggest Twitter or Facebook, because I’m not wild about either, but I know others use them very well indeed)
  • Routines and rituals you’ll create for yourself
  • Artist Dates (as inspired by Julia Cameron)
  • Buying a new journal (any excuse for new stationery)
  • Also think of people to be around – a company of fellows. Maybe arrange to see them in some regular way, and not just as a writing group, e.g., outings to exhibitions, or a book club: a salon of sorts.
  • Getting a dog, or borrowing one (or another animal – I am a dog person, much more than a person person, I suspect), because company that speaks in nonverbal ways can be ever so important
  • Like Frida, you could even take an artist-lover and have a wild affair

Then start doing these things – give yourself deadlines and targets, perhaps.

I think of the following as people who in some way serve as examples for me: the artist and writer Austin Kleon (I always look forward to his inspiring Friday newsletters), my friend Bhanu Kapil and her blog, my friend the curator and writer Jennifer Heath, the all-round shiny brilliance of teacher and writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. And RuPaul, of course: ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag’ – a relevant analogy for self-creation and finding the muse within.

This isn’t just about their work, but about who they are: the artistic fire, intelligence, and generosity that comes across in all that they do. For them, writing is not something done to a schedule to get a book deal (though it can be too); it’s whole, it’s consuming, it defines their all.

Thinking about the lifestyle of an artist may not seem to involve the hard graft that’s needed for developing the craft (that comes elsewhere), but these are the artefacts and activities that get documented in exhibitions years after we’re gone. Or maybe these things just make life better, or raise our spirits when other things aren’t working out, or they lead us into new communities? Success in writing comes in many forms, and not just through publishing – lead a life as a joyful artist, rather than a struggling one.

Also, if you get chance:

  • Visit Frida at the V&A (runs till 4 November – and I’m actually going again tomorrow …).

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then reread, adding edits on the manuscript in pencil.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Experiment No. 66: Copyist

On Saturday I again taught my workshop Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Writing. We started the day by introducing ourselves with a favourite book, telling the group how and why it’s left an impression on us. Much-loved books came up: The Underground Railroad, Cloudstreet, Ladder of Years, Station Eleven, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Home (twice!), Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Palace Walk, Pride and Prejudice, A Song For Issy Bradley, This Is How You Lose Her, East of Eden, Tirra Lirra by the River, Finn Family Moomintroll.

What was evident was that all of these books had in some way evoked feeling for their readers: these books are loved. One writer talked about the book she chose simply leaving her in awe, and it’s often hard to sum up how and why the simple fact of words on a page have spun their magic.

As writers we have to read books critically as well as for pleasure, unpicking the workings of craft and identifying techniques that have, however invisibly, had an impact on the reader.

Such analysis usually requires the sort of critical thinking we might have done in a literature class, e.g., looking at the effects of word choice and sentence length on tone, or identifying actions that define a character, or finding symbols layered within the work. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer is a super guide in exactly that.

Much of my Everyday Magic workshops is, however, about not thinking about writing, i.e., not so much engaging our thinking gear (Air in the four elements), but also working with the energy (Fire), emotions (Water), or physicality (Earth) of writing in order to develop and expand our instincts and experiences as writers.

There are many ways to do this. A couple of methods that I often recommend (and that we did on Saturday) are reading a text aloud, and listening to it, e.g., listening to an audiobook, or to a writing partner reading some of your own work back to you. I’m also thinking of friends in Boulder who have a reading group where, rather than reading a book for discussion, the members gather simply to read books aloud in a group, taking it in turns to read sections or chapters. They’ve read large amounts of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that way – and in both instances I can’t help but feel that reading aloud or listening are perhaps the ideal ways to experience certain writers.

In both instances, my old teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins would say that the sheer acts of utterance and listening have a chemical effect on the body, and that affects how you write. The physical act of listening can slow us down and make us more thoughtful, more attentive. I certainly feel that being immersed in a good audiobook can shift my mood for the better. Reading and writing are, after all, physical acts too, so it’s worth paying attention to their somatic qualities.

This sets me thinking to another somatic exercise that I sometimes suggest: copying out text.

For this writing experiment:

* Find a memorable passage in a favourite book, and copy it out by hand on to the left hand page of a notebook – see my example of copying out ‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter above. When you reach the bottom of the page, continue it on the next left-hand page, until the scene is done. (Two or three pages should be fine.) As you are writing, pay attention: to word choices, to sentence length, to verbs, to punctuation, to the introduction of content, to beats within the action – but perhaps try not to think about this as you’re doing it. Just: pay attention through the physical act of copying.

* Then perhaps take things further by using the writing you’ve just copied out as a model for some writing of your own: on the right-hand pages of your notebook, write a passage that physically emulates the writing you have just copied out, roughly line by line. Write paragraphs and sentences of a similar length, e.g., using verbs in the same places as the original, adding description or dialogue where the original had description or dialogue, introducing new characters or aspects of content at similar points.

* You could also try copying this out using keyboard and screen – a different physical experience.

This is, of course, just an experiment, and I don’t necessary recommend writing a whole book this way … Not least, there might be the matter of plagiarism, though probably not if the content is different – there are ethics in acknowledging influences and models, but there are many shades of grey here too; lots of poetry uses found materials from other writing, after all.

Copying out writing is a known practice. Hunter S. Thompson apparently used to copy out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms so that he could understand what it felt like to write a masterpiece; his biographer describes it as an ‘unusual method for learning prose rhythm’. This exercise in the somatics of writing might be a good way of shifting gear in your writing process, letting you experience in a fresh way a book that has inspired you. Think of it as echoing as a writing practice, and an exercise in listening to your body.