Tagged: voice

Words Away Salon, 19 September 2016

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Last night I was very happy to take part in the inaugural Words Away literary salon run by Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin. It was a super evening: a great turnout, with a lovely, engaged crowd of writers, and the Teahouse Theatre is a wonderful venue for this sort of event too. Also, Vauxhall is so easy to get to from so many places, and we were a very short walk from the tube.

The subject under discussion was self-editing, which as Emma pointed out is a useful term (and something of a recent coinage) that brings clarity to this idea that to edit ourselves we need to put ourselves in a special frame of mind.

I emphasised the idea of working free from attachment. I mentioned that super quote that I believe comes from Terry Pratchett (and I paraphrase): writing the first draft is just the writer telling herself the story. It’s good to give yourself room to step back (and especially away from the computer) to ask yourself what this book can be. Has your intention shifted? I suggested practical ideas such as printing off your manuscript in different formats in order to defamiliarise your own words. It’s also helpful to do exercises outside of the book itself, or using some of your content knowing that this writing is not going into your baby (and in fact sometimes it will end up in the book after all). Be free in your writing at this stage.

I often describe these early stages of editing developmental editing, and I discuss this in more detail in this post on structural editing. Sometimes input from other readers or agents or editors can lead to doubts, and it makes sense to be reflective: this post on working with feedback might give you some pointers.

In practical terms, the natural speaking voice is, I believe, the greatest asset to any piece of writing, so learn to trust it. Here is a link describing a workshop on voice I led in the past (it includes links to further exercises on voice too). And I heartily recommend I Remember exercises as very easy and accessible ways to work with voice in your own writing.

I do like some narration in my storytelling, and here is a link to a subtle bit of narrating to be sampled at the start of My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Tweaks for the art and craft of narrating are often essential during revising,

This salon was titled ‘Make Your Novel Shine’, and I do think there is a great value to decluttering our minds of words and letting symbolic thinking (or maybe I should say symbolic feeling?) guide us through revising. For example, think about the idea of a light shining its way through your book like a torch, or maybe be guided by the image of a prism reflecting light in and off its many facets. Something else I suggested was thinking about writing as giving, and the gift you give your readers on every page. Such ways of working can force us to go a little deeper, and perhaps discover unexpected treasures that belong in the writing in some way or other.

In addition, here are the pages from this site for craft and revising and tips on self-editing (used for the booklet we gave our yesterday). And Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog has TONS of resources for writers too (pay special attention to psychic distance). In addition, a special mention for the excellent and very successful online course on self-editing your novel run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

Thanks again to Kellie and Emma for having me along. Forthcoming salons will have speakers talking about character (17 October), plot and story (14 November), and historical fiction (5 December). Hope to see you there.

York Festival of Writing 2016

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Yesterday I returned from my fifth Festival of Writing. I’m tired, and overstimulated, and typing on three devices; I have email, Twitter, two Scrivener projects, three Word documents, and an infinity of Safari tabs on this very screen right now. (No Facebook, though. I’ve deactivated that. For now, for good?)

But I have to say I really love that buzz I get when I come back from York. Here is a quick wrap-up including links to various things I mentioned (perhaps to be updated as my monkey mind remembers bits and pieces).

DIY MA IN CREATIVE WRITING
Here is the post that inspired this workshop: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing.

I hope I didn’t sound too biased in my advocacy of the self-help model over educracy (or crookademia, as we called it on a train heading home). But looking at the cost of an MA should really give anyone pause, and in this class I wanted to give practical suggestions and resources for writers who wanted to build their own programme of studies.

We all agreed that doing the necessary studying then drafting and completing a book is probably going to take longer than the usual year of an MA. We thought three to five years was reasonable, maybe seven or eight.

I brought into our discussion a couple of case studies where I had asked two writer friends (one published, one about to be published) how they would put to good use a budget of about half the cost of an MA.

Both said they would spread the learning and writing across three to five years (which seems pretty accurate), and they included things such as: courses, writing retreats, the services of a freelance editor who can also give some market advice, a writing conference where they could pitch to agents, and membership of genre organisations and attending their conventions. Both writers also stressed the importance of networking and building community through such activities – and especially the joy of making like-minded and lifelong friends. Childcare is an additional expense that can be worth the investment at key times.

One came to £4,200, and the other to £3,600. (Gym memberships can cost more!) This is significantly cheaper than most MA courses, which anyway would probably need to be supplemented with other courses or input as the writer extends what is usually a 15,000-word dissertation, give or take, into a book.

And while we are talking about costs, here is a clip that might give further thought on a subject that came up in the class: ‘Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying’. What is writing going to cost you? How are you going to pay for wherever you want to get in terms of making time, and making space? Time and space are going to be more important than money. (One of my case studies also built a very lovely writing shed, but this is shared with writer’s partner and would blow any MA budget. At least visitors can be slept there at Christmas.)

I mentioned the highly practical and very brilliant self-editing course run for the Writers’ Workshop by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin as a sensible investment too; I always feel a bit sheepish touting the house wares, but I did point out that, among people who have taken it, this course seems to be more highly rated than any other I know, and it turned out that several of its graduates were in the room to back me up.

When signing up for any course, check out the tutors (and note not all the best are famous writers either … or have even published books – at least in that sense). Personal recommendations are always good.

I also suggested an exercise based on the Lynda Barry diary. Here she is in action: Creativity & Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry.

I also recommend highly David Gaughran for his wisdom and fire about self-publishing, and his generosity with resources for the writer. His book Let’s Get Digital is free to download right now (and perhaps you can buy one of his novels in exchange).

Back to the course: we did a few brainstormy exercises on the fly, and I used one to challenge writers to produce a short story, and offered to read and comment on any sent my way by Monday morning. And I got one story first thing this morning, and it’s really good! The constraint within that exercise worked really well.

Many other resources, including stuff from the handouts and plenty more, can be found in the Resources pages on my site.

The better you are, the more sweat I’m gonna demand.
Lydia Grant
of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts

TRUSTING YOUR VOICE
This workshop focused on trusting your natural speaking voice as the foundation of your writing. It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s how we’ve been telling stories all our lives. My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins from Boulder has been a great influence on my sense of using the speaking voice.

We discussed how different types of writing have different purposes (informing, selling, arguing a case, telling a story, creating an atmosphere). And this creates different needs in the syntax. Fiction needs mood, as do many forms of narrative nonfiction, and sometimes, if we’ve grown used to writing in other forms (academic writing, journalism, business writing) we need to adapt and perhaps return to the simplicity of getting the natural speaking voice on to the page.

We discussed how fronted adverbials can be bad for the health of your fiction, and enjoyed the delightful right-branching syntax of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Here is my I Remember from York a few years ago (I remember getting affirmation that we needed a whippet of our own …), and here is an exercise: Variations On The Theme Of I Remember.

Related to voice, I also gave a mention to narration, the narrator, and the persona. We also looked at ways to adapt and extend your natural speaking voice and using dialect in writing. How much can we get away with? Not much is needed, probably. As in many things, sufficiency is a useful principle in writing.

Here is a useful piece by Annabel Pitcher: Me, Myself And I: The Secrets Of Writing In The First Person.

Here are some more exercises on voice from this blog:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices

I’ll end on a quote about a voice’s distinctive qualities from Stephen King:

A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.

Something to aim for.

RAISING THE TONE
Here are a few examples of logos, ethos and pathos in action.

Here is the Garrison Keillor essay that shows a certain ironic take towards its subject: When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want.

And here is a profile of Kit De Waal, whose most sincere My Name Is Leon we listened to.

Can’t go without mentioning George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

And here are a couple of older posts on related matters: Ding. Dong! Right Speech and What Words Can You Use?

BOOK DOCTORING
The manuscripts I read were a good bunch. One was outstanding, and made me wish I was a publisher again, or even (scary) an agent. A couple of others showed a lot of potential. Actually, quite a lot of them did.

In fact, is it too pollyanna of me to think everyone has potential? I had a meeting with someone I’d first met at the Getting Published day in the spring, and he’d gone away and studied the books I recommended and taken Debi and Emma’s course and (most importantly) done lots of writing, and his prose style had truly come on leaps and bounds. Improvement comes through application.

In general, tweaks for mood and pacing are often the things I was paying attention to – things that bring a distinctive style out in the voice and help build an emotional connection. With content, there was sometimes a need for a clearer narrative focus: what’s at stake in the story as a whole? And by extension: on every page? I told one writer I chatted to in passing that every page should offer a gift to the reader. It is helpful to think of writing as an act of giving.

I had to see a few people at short notice – if any of those good folk are reading this and need any points clarifying, drop me a line via my contact form.

Further to that, though, I want to recommend this post for anyone who’s figuring out what to do after meeting with agents and editors: Working With Feedback On Your Writing.

(To come: a post on choosing an agent or publisher.)

TILL THE NEXT TIME
As ever, the Festival of Writing was great fun. A real meeting of minds and especially hearts – there are a lot of good-hearted people at the festival, and that is because writing is fundamentally a good-hearted practice. Group hugs all round! (Man hugs especially.)

Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for having me along, and to everyone I spoke with: it made for a very enjoyable weekend.

And a special thanks to those left behind …

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PS for anyone in or near London: I’m joining Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin at the Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall next week. We’re going to be talking about editing your writing. And networking and building community (see above).

A Book Is Not A Film

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Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.

But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.

First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)

Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every last detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.

Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)

Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).

So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:

Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.

I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?

It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.

But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge and speaks directly to the reader. It could, for some, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.

In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)

Another example from further in:

For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.

What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let it do its work, then zoom along.

A few tangents.

Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.

In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.

Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?

Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.

I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).

And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.

I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …

The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.

And descriptions such as:

Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.

Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.

Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.

So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age.  Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.

Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.

I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.

I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.

A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.

And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).

I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?

There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.

If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.

And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.

 

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!

Getting Published Day 2015: Voice Workshop And Book Doctoring

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On Saturday I took part in the Getting Published Day at Regents College, London. As always, with Writers’ Workshop events, it was a lot of fun: meeting writers, making friends, talking books, having a laugh. Good spirits all round. I led a seminar on voice and also did some book doctoring, and I’m posting some follow-up notes on both below.

Book Doctoring

I read some good samples this time, and made various editorial suggestions for further drafts: tightening and brightening the prose style and voice; avoiding too much explanation that gets in the way; worrying not so much about fashions in writing but instead writing a book so good that it stands out as a timeless story (though some agents or editors might tell you otherwise); thinking about the narrative focus and the dramatic stakes (and the dramatic focus and the narrative stakes); not being too subtle; considering the single outstanding thing that this book might be, and trying to make that thing stand out on every page, every line (an impossible feat, I know, but it’s the striving that matters).

Oh, and importantly: paginate your manuscripts, even for short submissions such as the ones we used on Saturday. Do follow any specific guidelines, of course. But page numbers are probably essential for any reader – pages get printed, dropped, jumbled, need referring to consistently (there were a few places where I wanted to refer to something on, e.g., page 3, but I had to write in the page numbers myself first). A lack of pagination can seem a bit sloppy or thoughtless. And hey, if it’s your unpaginated manuscript that gets knocked off the edge of a desk, maybe it won’t get read.

In short: be professional by making life easy for your readers.

Reading recommendations included 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias, Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, On Writing by Stephen King, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I also recommended the Writers’ Workshop online course on self-editing your novel taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin several times a year; it could be a structured and informative way to guide your book through another draft.

And if a book doctor session leaves you a bit confused or frazzled, you might find it useful to read an earlier post on working with feedback on your writing.

Voice Workshop

Find Your Voice is one of the great myths of creative writing; you have a voice already, so let’s find ways to turn it into writing. That’s the idea – I’ve put some notes into another post: Voice Workshop.

Till the next time?

Thanks again to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop for inviting me along (yes, that is a plug too, but I like and trust them a lot). And also thanks to all the writers I met – it’s a real pleasure to share in other people’s inspiration and creativity, and to listen to their stories.

And maybe I’ll see some of you at one of the London Literary Salons run by the Writers’ Workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly over the coming months? I’m co-teaching one on revising and editing with Debi Alper on 31 July.