Category: Writing Experiments

Writing Experiment No. 65: An Archive Of Belonging

There are lots of theories about the number of stories there are: two, eight, twenty, sixty-four. But I have a hunch that most stories boil down to just one story, and that’s about the search for home.

I’m not sure quite when I decided on this. Maybe it was when I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which at its end, after all the fuss and fatwas, is about people looking for home.

Which takes me to Rushdie’s brilliant essay, ‘Out of Kansas’, on The Wizard of Oz, which reminds us all that There’s no place like home.

Which takes me to all sorts of friends of Dorothy. The logical family that forms on Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. The home created by Sue and Maud in Fingersmith. Jeanette Winterson’s story of adoption in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the even more extraordinary true story in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? The Moomins defending their home from comets or welcoming odd bods into the Moominhouse. When I was eight years old I was always drawing plans for my own Moominhouse. It had two verandahs.

The stranger in a strange land (the Durrells with their strawberry-pink, daffodil-yellow, and snow-white villas – which all had verandahs drawn by me too). Or: the stranger comes to town (Gatsby). A migration to a new home (My Antonia). Defending a homeland (Game of Thrones). And think of the grand narratives of the idea of home that infect public life today: ‘I want my country back,’ exclaimed the gammon-face on Question Time. Me too, love.

Even the story of someone staying in one place – say, Emma Bovary in provincial France, or Olive Kitteridge in her seaside town in Maine – can be a tale of building a home: maintaining it, facing your own reality, messing things up or holding things together. Recently, Amanda Berriman’s powerful novel Home is narrated by a homeless four-year-old who reminds us that home is not something we can take for granted.

In thinking about the idea of home, something else that comes to mind is the blog of Bhanu Kapil, where she talks about the experiences of coming from a migrant family and being a migrant herself. Please read this post, where Bhanu describes an astonishingly generous gesture made towards her family shortly after they arrived in London.

Lo: look at the light that shines out of that beautiful story. Bhanu calls this the first entry in an Archive of Belonging. In these fractious times of Brexit and Trump and school shootings, much public discourse bubbles over with rage and spite, and it’s too easy to dwell among the noises and disagreements and slurrings. So it’s lovely to read such a story of creation and celebration. It’s important, too. As Bhanu says: ‘This kindness and hospitality is somehow unimaginable in the era we have entered now, and yet, perhaps it is not.’

Home, belonging, security, the quest for wholeness, loving and being loved, acts of generosity and creation. I think of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, an inspirational essay on the work of the writer that concludes with ‘a new definition for Work‘: LOVE.

So: as a writing experiment, let yourself have a few moments of contemplation, and take yourself to a time when someone gave you something that made you feel that you BELONGED. Then write about that experience. It could be about someone else, if you prefer. It could be a true story, or it could be fictional. But fill it with people and places and telling details (such as Bhanu’s Aunty Catherine’s lily of the valley perfume). Fill it with LOVE as you CREATE something or some things that made you (or other people) feel at home.

Maybe creating entries in our own Archives of Belonging will make us kinder and more generous people too? The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation, etc. (That’s from ‘La Vie Boheme’ in Rent – another story about creating home.)

Ongoing writing experiment: Continue to add to your Archive of Belonging.

Alternative exercise: Draw a plan of your own Moominhouse. (And don’t forget a library.)

And if you’d like to try some other writing: 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.

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.

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.

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


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.


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:


… 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


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.