Tagged: voice

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.

 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 56: Fanmail

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Inspired by Joanna Rakoff typing replies to fanmail for J.D. Salinger, described in My Salinger Year (and my own review), do one of the following:

* Write a letter to a writer whose work has left an everlasting impression upon you.

* Write a letter to one of your readers.

* Write a fan letter to yourself.

* Reply to fanmail sent to you.

* Write a letter in which you give advice back to yourself on writing (or any other matter) in the manner of a worldwise author with a fanbase.

If you really want to get into the spirit of Joanna Rakoff’s book, type your letter on a typewriter, or pen it on Hello Kitty stationery (or paper of your own craziness/choosing).

Friday Writing Experiment No. 53: Breaking Up Is Never Easy, You Know

Okay, so I was going to stop weekly writing experiments, but in fact I had decided to do them every now and then as the whim takes me and inspiration strikes. And lo! So soon.

The spur and inspiration: my brilliant friend Bhanu Kapil, and her brilliant blog, which this week included a post of her break-up letter to Jacques Derrida.

Dear Derrida: I waited for you behind the pillar at the Rijksmuseum in 1988.  Do you recall? We drank cocoa in the cafe. You showed me how to breathe.  I was wearing a lambs wool jumper. You were wearing a mauve silk shirt unbuttoned to your mid chest. Though it was cold. It was winter. I break up with how much I longed for you at that time of my life. I break up with the desire to be seen. Hey. Are you reading this?  Death: a letterbox. You are so beautiful. I sank to my knees. I am sorry I did not understand your poetry at the time and judged it so harshly. Goodbye for now. Goodbye forever. Love: you know who I am.

I reckon that break-up letters are great for writing. You tap into something profound. You latch on to details, and then latch the writing on to those details. Your voice is powerful and direct in its address. Your writing is laden with purpose. Go for it!

For this week’s writing experiment: Write a break-up letter. True, fictional, personal, political (Scotland didn’t write one after all yesterday).

(The writing of this post is not responsible for any ensuing divorces. It is amazing what can surface in writing experiments.)

(And additional thanks to Ella Longpre, who once gave me a brass heart, which afterwards I realised made me the Tin Man. If I only had a heart … And he had one all along.)

(PS I should stop judging poetry I don’t understand so harshly too.)

 

Tell Me A Story

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Among the many manuscripts that I read for people who’re at the start of their fiction-writing careers (and also among many contemporary novels I read as well), I think one of the most significant weaknesses that I encounter is the lack of a narrative voice. Lack of a narrator, even. Nothing excites me more in writing than being told a story, so give me a storyteller, please.

There are probably several reasons for this lack. One, I think, is that emphasis on showing rather than telling that is ardently promoted in mondo creative writing. With good reason, of course. Too much inferior writing is clunky in how it plonks information our way. If we are simply told the vicar is cruel, we’ll take that in as a piece of data, and there is a chance we won’t really absorb it that deeply, or feel it: that information is delivered as something for the mind, and it can easily go in one ear and out the other. It is, perhaps, a less engaging and maybe even a lazy form of telling us something.

We’re probably going to be drawn much more experientially into a scene that shows how the vicar who is kind to his congregation is cruel to his children. It could show us his cruelty through the things that he does (action – the beating with a knotted pillowcase, the locking in the attic) and through the things that he says (dialogue – ‘You are your mother’s son!’ ‘You’re going to burn in a lake of fire!’). I think of such writing as dramatising: action and dialogue create a dramatic scene that brings a human point to life. It’s not only delivering an item of information about the vicar, but embodying it in a way that excites our passions and feelings about him.

But showing can be overdone. A lot of (unpublished) (or self-published) writing in the thriller, fantasy and science fiction genres emphasises foreground action in such a way that it reads more like film or tv than a novel. Of course, action is important in these forms, but such writing often relies heavily on closeups of characters running around at a madcap pace or talking to each other in info dumps: it can feel like an overwrought script for Dr Who. Though cinematic qualities can be super for bringing a world to life, especially through visual detail, prose fiction has many other things available to it that screenwriting cannot use, in particular the narrator (voiceovers are often frowned upon in the screenwriting world, I am told).

An excess of foreground action can also affect the pace, as events start to blur into each other. A narrator can take charge, punctuating and controlling the momentum of an unfolding story.

Writing that shows too much still needs to tell us things (e.g., about characters’ back stories), and trapped in its mode of ceaseless showing it often breaks for those ruminations we call interior monologues. And all too often, sentences that begin something like ‘She remembered when …’ are red flags that this reader’s attention is about to drift … Couldn’t a good old-fashioned invisible narrator recount a bit of what I call narrative summary as a simple way to convey this back story, instead of these rememberings?

An example of narrative summary from one of the great short stories, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Yes, there’s telling there, but it’s elegantly done: those eccentric and revealing names of both people and places, the rhythm of Annie Proulx’s prose (which I dare to say amounts to poetry), the simple truths of these lives. It also comes after a couple of paragraphs of what amounts to prologue that presents some evocative and curiosity-pricking showing of Ennis in the present day (and present tense). And most of all, this narrative summary is efficient, and engaging.

And sometimes showing is simply too subtle, particularly with literary fiction. Katharine Viner summed this up finely in an article she wrote a few years back on judging the Orange Prize:

There were two particularly low points. One was when I had a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses, often at the University of Iowa. They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. At one point, I rang a friend and shouted at her, “I wish some of these bloody writers would write about Iraq!” Or anywhere with a bit of politics or meaning.

Since then, in classes I’ve referred to that excess of subtlety as the Dishwasher Syndrome. You see it in a lot of what might be called ‘workshop fiction’ – carefully chilled prose, often written by sensible graduates in English literature, that is totally free of both error and soul.

So: perhaps we could gain from a bit more subjectivity in our narrating, please? Andrew Lownie’s blog this week included a feature on what editors want, where Mark Richards, editorial director at John Murray, says:

can we bring back the third-person narrator? I read a lot of novels where there’s a lot of statement – about what’s happening or what a character’s thinking – and not a lot of texture to that statement; no sense of the novel itself having an opinion on the events it relates. Perhaps it’s the long reach of Hemingway, but whatever it is, the effect is often deadly – it’s forgoing one of the great generators of irony and comedy in novels.

He also says: ‘I really think novels should be in the third person, unless there’s a very good reason for them not to be. Too many debut novelists, it seems to me, think that the first person is easier than the third. It’s not: it’s significantly more difficult to tell a story when the narrator is within that story, and doesn’t have the advantage of omniscience.’

There are plenty of good reasons to use first-person, of course; the ingenious plotting of a novel such as Fingersmith is achieved through extremely deft use of point of view, which works its magic through first-person narration in a way where third- would not succeed as grandly. The bigger issue might be that many debut novelists are maybe too ambitious, and probably as yet lack the expertise to pull off the first-person with aplomb, though we can certainly find plenty of successful cases, once we start looking. Fingersmith was Sarah Waters’ third novel, but her first, Tipping The Velvet, has a super first line, launching its first-person narration: ‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’

Think of all those great first lines spoken by narrators, first- and third-person: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ ‘Call me Ishmael.’ ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ ‘The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived.’

And, of course, ‘Once upon a time.’ That sense of narrating is perhaps nowhere stronger than it is in fairy tales and folk stories, where storytelling maintains its roots in the oral tradition, and where that notion of a speaker talking to a listener is paramount. That direct form of speaking can be such a strong way to address a reader, too.

There’s much more that could be said about narrators. The importance of trusting the natural speaking voice as the foundation of your voice in writing (writers don’t need to find a voice; they already have one). Varying the ‘psychic distance’ (a term used by John Gardner to describe ‘the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story’, and which is discussed in an excellent blog post by Emma Darwin). Focalisation (as an alternative to thinking about point of view). The narrative stance of a piece of writing. Unreliable narrators. ‘In Search Of The Perfect POV’ describes one writer’s search for a suitable narrator. And another time I want to revisit showing vs telling, too, because good showing should not be neglected either. Good stories lie in that careful balance of showing (dramatic scene) and telling (narrative summary).

But for now it is enough to say that a narrator invites the reader in. Third-person or first-, narration grabs us, holds our attention by telling us a story. Importantly, it can give your voice – your writing – some personality. Ask yourself whether your story can gain from having a stronger narrator.

And maybe have a go at this writing experiment.

You might also want to take a look at this related post: A Book Is Not A Film.