Category: Writing Experiments

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.

 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 60: Word Power

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This is an exercise to help with revising, but it could also be used in other contexts. It builds on Friday Writing Experiment No. 9: A Word.

* Take some key word from a piece you are working on and do some rooting around in the history of that word, e.g., at Etymonline.com.

E.g., let’s say you are writing a story about a witch – let’s take a look at magic. One bit of this Etymonline definition that I take away is the following:

to be able, to have power (see machine)

So: really think about the relevance of your finding to your piece of writing. In this case, how does your writing embody, feel, think, bring to life (in this case) this idea of having power or ability? And how are various aspects of craft working with this idea, and how might they be developed within the work?

* Set a timer for five minutes, and write these thoughts out in your notebook by hand, e.g., for the words magic/ability/power: Magic is important to me/my book as … The idea of ability can be embodied in my book through … My characters show their powers by … I have found magic in my world/family in …

You might event want to copy out the definition first: see which words excite you as you write them down. You can also do this with a passage of your own writing. Which words sizzle as you write them?

* Continue to reflect on this definition further, and see what else you might need to bring out in your drafting and revising.

* Most of all: how are you giving the reader something of this definition in the writing? Writing is always an act of giving. Writing is a gift to someone else.

Further note: Don’t worry too much about the precise origins of a word. Sometimes they will have direct correspondences with the place or time you are writing about, and that sort of synchronicity has a magic of its own. The goddess is looking down on you! But, too, sometimes word histories can come from entirely different places, and unless you are writing about a particular context using particular constraints that doesn’t really matter. What matters is making the writing you are doing in the here and now relevant and powerful.

(If you are writing fiction, especially, your duty is to use your imagination rather than labour some other form of truth that might never be proven anyway.)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 59: Words Words Words

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If possible, the first time you do this, rather than reading ahead, read each stage and follow its instructions before scrolling down to the next stage. (I hesitate to use the word instruction, because writers can be a bolshie lot who take instruction poorly, but in this case just do as you’re told as constraints are good for you.)

Give yourself about twenty minutes.

 

1. Have a timer, notebook and pen at the ready, and a favourite book at hand (probably a print book but could work with ebook).

 

2. Close your eyes. Open the book at a random page. Put your finger on the page. Open your eyes. See what word your finger has landed on.

 

3. Take the first letter of that word. Set the timer for three minutes and write/brainstorm a list of as many words that you can think of that start with that letter of the alphabet.

 

4. At the three-minute bell, stop.

 

5. Look over your list quickly and circle your two favourite words. Trust your instinct here.

 

6. Now close your eyes and use your pen to stab your piece of writing: whichever word you land on is your third word.

 

7. Set your timer for fifteen minutes, then take these three words to generate a flash fiction or scene or the start of a short story or first chapter.

 

Adapt this as necessary, but again, stick with the exercise and its constraints for a while if you can.

You might also want to combine this with some of the foragings in word history of Friday Writing Experiments No. 9: A Word and No. 60: Word Power.

(And yes, I post this on a Wednesday, but it was a Friday when we first did it at the Festival of Writing 2016. And someone did generate a really good one and email it to me by first thing Monday morning.)

Getting Published Day 2016

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Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!