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!

How To Write A Novel: Reviewed

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As I teach creative writing, taking a writing course might seem like a busman’s holiday, or teaching grandad to suck eggs … or something like that. But I am firmly of the belief that practitioners should keep their practice fresh. There are always new inspirations in creative fields, and it helps teachers to see familiar ideas in new frameworks.

I am also an eternal student, and come September that slant of autumn light makes me wistful for the classroom. So last term I took two online courses on writing a novel from the University of British Columbia’s prestigious writing programme. Offered via the edX learning platform, they use probably the best teaching materials on writing I’ve come across. Week by week, they cover the following aspects of craft and process:

How To Write A Novel: Structure and Outline
* Character, antagonism and world-building
* Internal and external journeys
* Story architecture 1: acts, scenes, beats, and story hierarchy, as well as a broader discussion of outlines
* Story architecture 2: complications, saggy middles, subplots, and resolutions
* Endings and scene analysis
* The transition to writing, including the creation of a detailed writing plan

How To Write A Novel: Writing The Draft
* The aesthetic journey: voice, prose style, point of view, and beginnings
* Conflict and tension, including characterisation
* Dialogue, including subtext
* Plot, including the specific requirements of genre and endings
* Research, including ethics
* Mind over manuscript, including theme, focus, blind alleys and procrastination, and other practical tips on the writing life

They don’t need to be taken in this order, and can be taken independently of each other. A commitment of four to six hours a week is suggested, though the courses are self-paced, and materials remain available to learners after the courses have ended. Downloadable video lectures, backed up with transcripts and additional notes, are pithy, punchy, and engaging, with ideas further brought to life through close readings in all the major genres.

Practical assignments are well pitched, and include the writing of specific scenes as well as various Q&As that will help you analyse what your book needs in terms of craft and technique. I’ve seen many character questionnaires in my time, but the one created for the Structure course must be the most purposeful in making your characters more engaging; I doubt you’ll answer all its questions right away, but it will give you plenty to think about in going deeper with your writing, which can only be a good thing.

The courses do not offer detailed workshop interaction or mentoring, though online forums get you to discuss important matters in your work and share selected samples of your output. Fellow learners, who included beginners as well as experienced professional writers, were dedicated and encouraging, and given the online setting it was refreshing to meet people from all over the world, some of whom were writing in languages other than English.

I particularly enjoyed working in a setting based in Canada, using examples from various writers who were new to me. And who can’t fail to be impressed by a country where working in more than one language seems no big deal at all? Postnational: I’ll take that description. It’s a good one for the country of writing.

The instructors, award-winning authors Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, are immensely generous in sharing their own experiences. Throughout the course they bring matters of craft and process to life by discussing their own work, and they also post examples of their own outlines and drafts. Further support comes from sf writer Andrew Neil Gray, who’s active in fielding questions in the discussion area.

The teaching team’s engagement goes even deeper in live weekly hangouts (lunchtimes in Vancouver, 9pm here in London), when they answer specific questions posted in real time or during the previous week. Annabel, Nancy, and Andrew genuinely engage with writers’ questions with good humour, bright ideas, and endless encouragement. Videos of the hour-long chats are saved for learners unable to attend at the designated time. These hangouts were really energising, and one of the things I’ll remember most about these courses.

What’s also sparky are occasional marked differences in the instructors’ style and process. Nancy, for example, told us how she starts her second draft in an entirely fresh document, not even referring back to the first draft. Annabel, on the other hand, returns to her previous drafts in a particularly organised way. Further videos offer valuable contributions from a number of other authors, such as Sarah Dunant, Lauren Groff, Paula Hawkins, Miriam Toews, and Jeff Vandermeer. The diversity of advice reflects the fact that all writers need to find their own way in matters of both craft and process.

I certainly gained plenty of fresh insights and practical tips from these courses. For example, one term that was new to me was half-scene, which describes that blend of summary and scene that I realised is the narrative mode of many books I enjoy; I am already applying this idea more consciously in my own work. The week on research prompted vigorous discussion on the ethics of cultural and personal appropriation in writing. I also came away with a deeper respect for and wider understanding of the possibilities of outlining. A good outline can not only bring the practical focus and discipline that keep you going until you complete a first draft, but also stimulate the imagination and help you find room for the flair a novel needs.

These courses are, I believe, currently running twice a year. A third course, on revising your novel, is in development for later in the spring of 2017, and it sounds most promising. The next offering of Structure and Outline begins on 10 January 2017: you can watch an introduction from Annabel and Nancy on YouTube.

Academic courses are no longer the only route for someone keen to learn the craft of writing. But creative writing is an industry, and some offerings are more practical – and far better value – than others. Of all the courses I’ve come across, online or in person, these are the best on writing fiction that I’ve come across. They are also far more affordable than most (US$295 for each course). I would recommend them heartily, not only to any writer keen to build their own programme of studies, but also for recent graduates of MFA/MA programmes in search of impetus, or experienced writers wanting fresh insights for a project that’s stalling. They could be particularly useful for writing partners or small writing groups who want to share some external structure for their practice. I took these courses alongside another writer friend, and I think it might really help to have that additional motivation to help keep you on track and continue with the work.

 

Books of 2016

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My book of the year is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. It might even be my book of the decade. Its short stories bring to life a certain world of poets and bohemians that reminds me of Boulder and Albuquerque, where some stories are set and where I’ve lived too. In fact, various friends of mine were friends of hers, and she always sounded much loved by those people – so why hadn’t I read her before?! But this was much more than a nostalgia trip (even if I had to read it with a Boulder Book Store bookmark). Lucia Berlin is a real artist. Her writing enjoys a true bite and wit, and great warmth of perception. I was prompted to tears at a number of points.

Stories describe the working life of a hospital receptionist, or getting by as a single mom, or having affairs with a range of different lovers, or teaching in a prison, or growing up in a mining town in Chile, or going home to Texas, or bonding with a dying sister in Mexico, or a love story in letters. Or hitting the bottle, or life in rehab – many of these stories come pickled in booze. So: nothing sensational, really, just everyday craziness related with a certain confessional quality. There are no clever twists or particularly artful surprises, but an unpretentious and effortless magnificence. The storytelling is direct and easy. You can’t help but warm to Lucia’s generosity of spirit, and there’s always a sympathy for the underdog. This is writing that refuses to blink at ugliness, but finds beauty or humour within the grit. Lucia Berlin is a big-hearted, clear-sighted writer.

This is Great Writing. You read her stories and bring away a sense of the value of art in spinning gold out of the darkness. It’s ironic that wider appreciation for her work only came a decade after she died, but this does grant her a wish:

I don’t care about money or fame or New York Times reviews or any of that stuff. But I love the idea that I’ll be read a long time from now. I think more of that than I do of fashionable opinion.

You can read that charming interview with her at Lit Hub, and profiles at Vanity Fair and the Paris Review, and an excerpt of her fiction at Flavorwire, and there’s lots of other good stuff at luciaberlin.com. I want to reread this book all over again, and in fact have some volumes with other stories I shall be reading soon.

I finally read several other writers I’ve been waiting to get to this year. I read lots and lots of Alice Munro’s short stories this summer, often on my kindle in the middle of the night, and I finally get what the fuss is all about: again, that clocking of truth in the middle of the darkness. Elizabeth Strout’s ‘novel in stories’ Olive Kitteridge was another powerful read, once more handling dark matter (many of the characters have problems with mental health), and once again enlarging in how something greater gets created.

My novel of the year has to be Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You – an uncompromising story about gay lives, and a deceptively ambitious study in desire and trauma. Stylistically, it’s just about as flawless as you can find. I feel very lucky to have seen him read this year too.

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History was another novel by a great gay writer – imaginative, funny, and (again) unflinching, this time in its rage about love and loss and the AIDS crisis.

Other novels I enjoyed were Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which is cleverly structured and richly characterised and often very funny, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, an epic novel about slavery in America with a most inventive central conceit.

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe was a real treat. Humour is hard to pull off, but Nina is brilliant – her voice has ease, her characters are charming, and her observations sharp. And there is, as with her other books, a bittersweet edge to the writing. I recommended her books as holiday reads several times this year. She was another writer I was lucky to see read in person this year.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was a work of nonfiction that give me plenty to think about, as did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a memoir whose oversharing tendencies never failed to deliver. To behold such frankness!

This week I squeezed in another wonderful book by an old favourite writer: Moonglow by Michael Chabon (out next month in the UK, but already available on Kindle). I’m not sure whether it’s memoir or a novel, but I’m not sure I really care – the central story about the author’s often unloveable but never unloved grandfather is a marvellous piece of portraiture and a powerful work of history.

I did finally complete Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I know it has admirers, but I also know I’m not alone in finding this book quite a slog (though I shall persist with other volumes in the series, as I am assured things improve). I couldn’t help comparing this book with various of these autofictions I’ve enjoyed this year, and by contrast found it humourless and laboured. The secondary characters feel interchangeable, the central relationship unexceptional, and (worst of all) the translation clunky; it was hard to read a paragraph without rewriting it in my head. It particularly makes me appreciate the sheer and shiny brilliance of Lucia Berlin’s prose.

Bookmarks remain jammed at early pages of a number of other bestselling, critically acclaimed, or award-winning novels, but there’s no accounting for taste or the bullshit of publishers or the gush of social media.

Overall, though, this was a year of good books. I attribute this in no small part to the fact that it was a year in which I read more because I ditched Facebook (an early adopter in this regard, I’m proud to say). I still find Instagram a pleasing distraction (plant porn and dog pictures), but Twitter so often feels shrill, fawning, or patently showing off, and just about every time I look at it I feel some sense of revulsion. I don’t miss Facebook at all.

I am a fan of newsletters that come from well-curated blogs with thoughtful, intelligent, or practical writing. such as Lit HubAusten KleonThe Frustrated Gardener, and The Middle-Sized Gardener. One thing that marks all of these sites for me is the generosity of their content, and I respond to that.

On tv, Stranger Things was great fun, and even if it’s a royalist plot I succumbed to The Crown. I continue to rave about Transparent and Game of Thrones – I love where the story is taking us, especially in that last explosive episode, and maybe the book of Winds of Winter will come this year?

And before I go, a couple of mentions for books coming in 2017: I recommend in advance Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (out in January), and I’m dying to read Laird Hunt’s new novel The Evening Road.

Happy New Year!

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.