Tagged: Narrating

York Festival of Writing 2015

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I returned last night from the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York, which as usual leaves me tired yet simultaneously full of inspiration and energy. So many books, so many writers, so much gossip, so many friends old and new, so many dog-lovers sharing pics of their hounds on their iPhones. So much passion, so much love.

Agents, editors, and book doctors noted not only an improvement in the quality of the writing that we were reading, but also what seemed to be a shift in expectation. Events such as York can hold out to writers the prospect of snagging a book deal (agents, publishers), but we all know that much depends on taste and luck, and we also know that in many ways writing is often not quite ready yet (those snotty book doctors).

This year it seemed notable that many of the writers (probably all of the ones I spoke to) possessed realistic self-knowledge in greater abundance than unrealistic ambition. We might have a good central idea, and maybe a strong opening chapter, and perhaps a whole first draft complete, but there is still room for the work to grow: aspects of craft to refine the telling of a story, ways to strengthen the voice or build the emotional core of the work. Writers seemed more immediately interested in improving their writing than in getting published, though of course that remains a long-term goal.

It was also noticeable that this patient approach *does* lead to results. People who’ve been working on their writing for some years are now getting manuscripts called in by agents and editors, and acquired for publication. You know who you are!

Many of the delegate writers were already agented or published (both publisher-published and self-published), but came along to York as they feel they still have things to learn: about the craft, about the business of publishing. An event such as York, along with some self-study and writing classes, can be an effective – and more affordable – way to build your own writing programme (see my earlier post on Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing for further ideas on this).

And all of us surely have things to learn every day – I gained so many insights and inspirations this weekend too.

I always leave York feeling there is so much left unsaid – things I could have added to our discussion of readings, for example – but these workshops are more than anything points of departure, offering ideas to take away and experiment with in our writing.

Here, however, are a few links and notes for following up or revisiting:

Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity
Someone who came along tweeted that he might not have done so had he known that he’d be doing a guided meditation! Haha, that’s why I keep that bit (and the tarot cards) quiet. But apparently it helped him unlock the right mindset for the rest of the weekend (thanks for oversharing – something I’m good at, and a quality I commend in others: please make sure I’m there in the audience).

We talked about the left brain and the right brain as we explored ways to expand our process of writing beyond simply thinking about it: clearing our minds (that meditation exercise), getting fired up, creating emotional connections, introducing the full range of sensory experiences into our work, then bringing clarity back into our writing through a powerful central idea. We had some fruitful discussions along the way.

Here is the video of the amazing Lynda Barry describing how creativity gets stunted by self-consciousness, and here is the audio recording of Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’.

A couple of further things. First, I hope I did not seem rude about NaNoWriMo, but I really would love to see writers apply themselves in equal measure to aspects of craft such as voice and narration as they do to composing a stream of 50,000 words. It’s often important to carry out such work away from your master (or mistress) project, so that you can develop these skills on the side then return to your book equipped as a stronger writer. (I post many writing exercises here.)

A good editor/teacher also, when the writer seems ready, needs to be a bit of a bully. Perhaps about things such as writers not apologising for the genre they’re working in: be authentic, and own your genre. Sometimes writers also need prodding into doing things that they say they can’t do. Gentle bullying does not hurt. As Miss Rosenberg said to us in primary school, ‘There’s no such word as can’t in my vocabulary.’

(And is it just me, or are many British writers just a bit uptight about some things?! I use the word uptight in a gentle way too … I say that as a Briton myself, albeit one from the Midlands, where I suspect people are often too laid back to be uptight. That is a good birthright to enjoy.)

Trusting Your Voice
Find your voice: that was the first myth to bust this weekend. Instead, trust the voice you have already, and ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast’ (Bobbie Louise Hawkins). Write with ‘density and speed’ (Donna Tartt). We looked briefly at samples of writing (academic, business, sales) that have other purposes (investigating, analysing, selling), and discussed the purposes of creative writing (telling a story, establishing mood).

I used an audio selection from Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. I backed this up with a hearty recommendation to read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, and played a selection from this excellent recording from his publisher, in which he describes how he created the novel: he didn’t start with a plot, but writing in the different voices of his characters led him to the story he needed to tell. (If I had had my wits about me, I could have related this to the way in which Stephen King in On Writing compares the writing of fiction to the hunting of fossils: we don’t always know exactly what’s there yet, but have to dig it out.)

Reading aloud is both fun and instructive, and we read aloud Joe Brainard’s I Remember to show how we can trust our natural speaking voices as the foundations for our writing (something I’ve blogged about here, and maybe I’ll post my version for 2015 later this week: some really choice memories, eh?!). I also recommended listening to audiobooks, perhaps of favourite books: experience some of your influences via a different sensory mode.

Here is more on voice from an earlier workshop, where we looked at some different examples.

After the workshop, someone asked me about practical ways to adapt the natural speaking voice, e.g., for other characters. In discussion that person (whose name I never caught) said maybe it was like having a particular type of substrata in geology: many different types of plants can grow upon chalky soil. A good analogy. I don’t think your speaking voice has to be the only voice in your writing, but it can be a strong foundation at the start. Get fancy later.

Someone also directed me to this *excellent* interview with Annabel Pitcher that was recommended in another workshop: ‘Me, Myself and I: The Secrets Of Writing In First Person’. Really useful tips on how to make tweaks and shifts to your natural voice.

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
A second exercise in myth busting: let’s tell, don’t show.

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of showing, in the right measure (which might be 99% of a piece of writing), but in this workshop I make a strong case for the special telling that comes from having a strong narrator at the heart of your book: the storyteller. It might only be a sentence or two of narrating at the right point within the story, but it can arrest and guide the reader in a very efficient way.

I used examples from the openings of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to illustrate both showing and telling. And examples of info dumps can be found in this clip from Acorn Antiques (try around 0:55-1:36). My blog post Tell Me A Story also looks at some of these ideas.

Book Doctoring
Lovely people in the 1-to-1s, and some of the same things coming up:

* Voice
* Tightening of syntax (is every verb needed in a sentence?)
* More mood, please!
* Pacing
* Are you absolutely sure this needs to be present tense? Past often gives the writer great freedom
* Not everything needs explaining: gaps and edges are often what make writing interesting
* Voice, voice
* What is revealed when (among characters; to readers) for best effect?
* Psychic distance (discussed over at Emma Darwin’s blog)
* Motivate your characters
* What are the dramatic stakes?
* A novel is not a movie (a point driven home in Hal Duncan’s workshop on point of view, which had an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of different POVs – thanks, Hal!)
* Might there need to be a trade-off in the writing in order to make what’s really important work?
* Voice, voice, voice

And in case feedback left you feeling a bit frazzled, here’s a post from last year:

* Working With Feedback On Your Writing

Books I recommended included:

* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (finally back in print in a new edition, as of last week)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey;
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
* Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
Turkey City Lexicon from the SFWA
* the Self-Editing course taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop

And finally
* A very thoughtful writeup of the weekend: ‘Nine Lessons In Writing From The FoW15 Conference by Jo Hogan (to whom I give thanks for mentioning the Annabel Pitcher interview above)

* York reports from Emma Darwin and Debi Alper

* And some clips from Naropa University, which I mentioned a few times (I studied and taught there, and it changed my life)

Thanks to the good people of the Writers’ Workshop for asking me along, and to everyone I met there who made it such a pleasure. York really is a highlight of my year.

See you next time, I hope!

York Festival of Writing 2014

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Just back from the York Festival of Writing. Well, I came back on Sunday, but I’m still decompressing on Thursday, all afizz with emails and Twitter and words and ideas.

The only thing that I really don’t like about York is the fact that you don’t get chance to spend time with the dozens of wonderful souls you meet. A fleeting hello to Ruby whom I met two years ago and now see daily on Twitter, someone else who told me her sentences had improved, a fantasy writer with a very rich new landscape, a few shy people I’m sorry I had no chance to speak to, lots and lots and lots of new faces and voices and writing. A dirndl, Buzz Lightyear, many dogs, survivors, and heroes. I need Hermione Granger’s time-turner, except I want it for socialising rather than swotting.

I did meet Matt Haig (and very much look forward to reading his forthcoming memoir), and it was fantastic to hear Antonia Hodgson’s keynote speech, full of daydreams and resilience, both of which writers need in abundance (far too many of the former and not enough of the latter, as far as my own writing is concerned, I realise). Antonia’s tale about a prison guard (involving one of her authors, not her …) brought pricks of tears to my eyes.

The best story of the festival though involved the racism directed towards blue vibrators by sex professionals. It’s one of those real-world tales that proves that truth is stranger.

Lots more, but there’s only so much a mind and a blog post can hold. What I can remember of links and the things I failed to squeeze into various workshops are described below.

But before I go: thanks SO much to Writers’ Workshop and all who dwell there. They really care, and given the scale of the event I never fail to be impressed by their organisation and friendliness, and their ability to attract participants who’re both practical and inspiring whether they’re presenting or coming along as delegates. The Writers’ Workshop really is the best at what it does, and it is an honour to be asked to take part in their events. Thank you.

 

TELL ME A STORY: THE ART OF NARRATING: MINI-COURSE

It’s all about the voice, darlings. Take any dull material and wrap a sexy voice around it, and that’s going to be an improvement.

This was a great group that really warmed up (I think I was rambling a bit at the start – sorry). A lot to cover, and I didn’t get through it all, but the room was smart and responded to the readings in meaningful ways, and I also ended up talking some about plotting (not plot), which is a particular passion of mine.

The exercise on voice began with Elaine Kingett’s ‘How To Be A Writer’, which was in turn inspired by Lorrie Moore’s ‘How To Become A Writer’. In another screen, I am penning my own (it might be a bit TMI and ranty, but I might post it once I’m done).

I also used the opening of Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal.

And thank you, peeps, for allowing me to indulge my inner Julie Walters via my outer Alan Bennett. Put another bar on.

And here is the original blog post that was a starting point for this workshop: Tell Me A Story.

 

SHOWING AND TELLING AND STORYTELLING: WORKSHOP

We have to show as well as tell in our writing, but Show Don’t Tell is a myth that needs busting; we need to storytell.

Here is a link to Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’. In all our discussion of what takes place in the opening (nothing, but lots too), we never got round to mentioning that the story expands into a particular dramatic situation – one that also never gets explicitly discussed within that story. Showing, not telling.

We listened to the start of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which as far as I am concerned is one of *the* great pieces of fiction, and (note) only takes 10,000 words or so to work its magic. Showing and telling and storytelling.

While we are on the subject, let me share Annie Proulx’s splendidly hatering write-up of the Oscars the year that Crash (a film I really hater too) won Best Motion Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Fantastic example of voice and tone.

 

HISTORICAL FICTION: GENRE PANEL

Emma Darwin, who chaired this panel, is remarkably eloquent and inspiring and brainy, but unlike many other brainy people I know she can translate brainy into words the rest of us understand and relate to. She really has such a wide range of knowledge too.

Some things that came up: it’s still all about the voice. And character. No such thing as rules. Legal matters aren’t always clear-cut but involve degrees of risk. Have you thought of writing nonfiction? And we all love Sarah Waters (my fave is Fingersmith). I also recommended Kate Grenville’s Searching For The Secret River (to read after The Secret River). I perhaps should have made my recommended read Game Of Thrones.

A question I wish I’d myself asked the editor (Sophie Orme) and agent (Jamie Coleman) – who both seem very bright and brainy too, but I’ve just spent less time in their company so can’t gush so much – is perhaps a question that could be posed to other agents and in-house editors, and booksellers too. Fashions come and go within genres and without, and a few things I read as book doctor this year felt very much in the vein of historical blockbusters I read in my youth such as Gone With The Wind or The Far Pavilions or the blockbusters of Ken Follett or Edward Rutherford. And I wondered if my points of reference were old-fashioned? Whither the historical blockbuster? Where or how does that sort of book get placed in the market and with readers now, relative to, e.g., reading group fiction (which, I know, is quite a vague name for a wide-reaching description). I think I need to do a bit more research myself, and maybe I’ll blog on that one day.

Perhaps too that is an answer for writers to find themselves, for sometimes it is in making something new that something successful and exciting is created.

 

THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF CREATIVITY

This is the third time I’ve run a workshop on this topic at York, and this year I actually passed my tarot cards around for the first time. I have fun with this topic, stretching ourselves beyond words and the conscious mind. For it is in reaching towards the ineffable and delving into the unconscious that we make writing not only instinctive as a process but whole as an outcome.

I never got the name of the writer who cleverly identified the characters of The Wind in the Willows with the four elements: Mole as earth, Rat as water, Toad as fire, Badger as air (think I got that right – but correct me if I’m wrong). Yes, we can draw on the four elements for archetypes too.

The piece I used in class to illustrate the use of the elements is ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché. I did register a few doubts in the room when I said that writing (probably all writing) has a purpose, even a political purpose, relating that to Fire. Entertainment is a purpose, and that can be – perhaps even emphatically is – political (think carnival, think subversive). Is there a piece of writing that isn’t political? If you’re not changing the world with your writing, are you just reinforcing the status quo? ‘Discuss.’ No answers to that one, but exploring that matter in the work can make the writing bold.

Also, we listened to the piece first, without reading the words. For writing is a bodily experience in that way too: it might be invisible, but the spoken word is a material thing (Earth), and generating spoken words is a somatic practice too.

 

BOOK DOCTOR ONE-TO-ONES

A few common things that came up this year:

* I found myself suggesting to several people who were writing fiction that they might try nonfiction for their content, and vice-versa. Oh dear – I hope I’ve not derailed anyone. But usually projects were at early stages, and in that case I assume most anything is available for discussion, and there were reasons to put these ideas out there. But don’t blame the editor! There are any number of complications in this area (legal, ethical, aesthetic), and it’s something you have to tussle with sometimes.

* And you can’t have it all.

* Prose style and voice are often what define literary fiction. It’s all about the voice. It’s all in the telling.

* Less can be more.

* In fiction (and narrative nonfiction), establishing a mood and impression is often more important than explaining things. (Less can be more.)

The books on writing I recommended most are: On Writing, by Stephen King; Steering The Craft, by Ursula Le Guin (which is going for silly prices online in the UK, suddenly – are my recommendations outstripping the supply?! we need a British publisher!); and Sin And Syntax, by Constance Hale.

 

AND

Lots of other things to say and follow up, but they need separate posts. Look out for: integrating feedback (especially when it seems contradictory); agents, and how to address them (however you like?), and whether they need photos (no); different types of editing; when is a poem not a poem; the small press option. Etc., etc., etc.

I’m also thinking of starting a regular/weekly agony uncle/problem page about writing and publishing: watch this space (or the menu above).

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was lovely to spend time with everyone there.

Cheers!
Andrew

Friday Writing Experiment No. 46: Gossip Drops

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I’m going to return to that subject of narrators and narrating again through another focus. Something precious, something lifeblood. GOSSIP.

I’m afraid I’m a gossip. Hang on, that sort of apology suggests shame. I’m proud I’m a gossip. I remember us getting a lecture from a rather lovely but rather righteous poet at Naropa that we should not gossip for the rest of the summer writing programme. My cheeks went red. She was talking to me, right?!

I guess gossip when it gets really cruel and malicious and destructive is bad. Let’s take on board again that Buddhist idea of Right Speech:

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

We can but try. But all the same, sometimes gossip can charge up what you have to say. I was reminded of this when I read in the LRB today a review of a couple of gossipy tomes set within particular literary communities (real juice there – read that review). Literary communities are great for gossip. My good friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins has some great stories about poets and writers, such as this one, which starts off observing people’s vanities but then ends up someplace deeper and dark. Bobbie is a great believer in the power of gossip for the way in which it comes naturally and easily as a way of telling stories. It’s not just about juicy content, either. Gossip uses our natural speaking voices, and it often excites passions and gives real force to what we have to say.

For this week’s writing experiment: dredge up some gossip. Remember some story that give you a real thrill in the telling, or the listening, and get it down on paper. Make it really juicy. Write it in your own voice, in first-person.See where you go. Admire what you write. Don’t feel inhibited; tell yourself you’re never going to share this, and write it anyway.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 45: Thrice-Told Tales

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Let’s revisit the idea of the narrator, explored in a post I made last week.

For this week’s writing experiment: treat the same event in three different styles of narration, each a page long. You could vary any of the following in whatever combination: point of view; tense; format; narrating stance; psychic distance.

E.g., you might want to use a conventional first-person narrator, relating events in past tense some time after their fact, and then contrast that with the first-person narration in the format of a journal or letter, which relates events again in past tense but close to their happening and with the certain edge that brings, or maybe some first-person present-tense narration. Or a limited third-person, maybe using different characters. Or an omniscient aka involved narrator, who can shift between all the characters. Or an objective narrator, who does not much more than observe exterior realities. You could even try second-person narration.

As you’re writing, and afterwards, think about the trade-offs. You can’t have it all in any choice in writing, but you can find an approach that gives your writing an edge, something that makes the ingredients of your story even more interesting in the telling.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 44: Once Upon A Time

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I just posted a craft essay that in fact started out as a preamble to this writing experiment but then grew too long. In it, I discuss the importance of a narrator in fiction, and how the narrator can sometimes be neglected. I mention ‘Once upon a time’, which emphasises the idea of a narrator more than perhaps any other thing; these words invite some of the strongest narrating we can imagine. Plus: they make writing easy. They make stories accessible.

For this week’s writing experiment: write a story or a poem or an opening chapter of a novel that begins ‘Once upon a time’.

It does not have to be a fairy tale. And you might want to tack this start on to an existing idea you’re a bit stuck with to see how you might launch yourself afresh with this sort of narratorial projection (though, of course, start your story over again – the whole point is to tap into that instinctive storytelling beginning).

And if this is a bit too open-ended, also start off by writing a last line too. It could even be ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

(Which reminds me of a lune of my own composition that I was very proud of:

Once upon a
time we all lived very
happily ever after

See: the simplest things are often the most satisfying.)