Books I Enjoyed Most In 2019

I read a lot of good books in 2019. I am never sure about the idea of Best Books, or giving them scores out of 5. I mean, who are we to judge, and sometimes good books are simply no fun. So I like to think in terms of the books I enjoyed most, and for whatever reason: the ones that got under my skin or touched my heart or tickled my fancy or lifted my spirits in some special way. In 2019, these were:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous 
Edward Carey, Little
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandel
Tatyana Tolstaya, Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Larry Mitchell, The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, audio narration by Patrick Lawlor
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, audio narration by Richard Armitage
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, audio narration by Michael Page
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, audio narration by George Guidall
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs

The stand-out has to be Ocean Vuong. Consider the sheer scale of the stories in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: stories of migration, stories of families, stories of trauma. A love story. A working-class story. The great Vietnam War novel we hadn’t read yet. And then there is his gorgeous and often mysterious prose! And he only learned how to read at age eleven! And he’s only thirty-one now! It was also a real treat to see him talk about his book at the Southbank in July too; he sang a hymn to us as well.

Olga Tokarczuk was another notable discovery, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her work. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is quite something, gnarly and magical and surprising, if you’ve yet to have the pleasure.

I was reading Edward Carey’s Little this time last year, and I finished it early in 2019, and I knew I’d be writing about it today as one of my faves. This fictional life of Madame Tussaud is rich and immersive storytelling at its best.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a gem of historical fiction that transported me to Constantinople in the sixteenth century. And it nearly beat Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead to best title of the year.

The Friend moved me immensely, and not just because of the dog; it just gets the tone right, and goes to show that obvious plotting isn’t everything (even for a reader who loves a juicy plot).

I vowed to read more sf and fantasy in 2019, but I didn’t. However, in a smug and thoroughly unexpected breakthrough I did read three and a half (and counting) monster works by dead white males that have been taunting me from my bookshelves for decades. For various reasons – mostly: too many books, and not doing English A level – I’ve been a latecomer to various classic authors. And I’m enjoying catching up. (Just remembered: I used the hashtag #deadwhitemales on Instagram, and it seemed to lead to me being unfollowed! Be gone, unimaginative followers, and while you’re there get some schooling in irony.)

Reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s salty stories set me towards finally embarking on War and Peace. Philip Hensher is right: it can be read in ten days! If you are on holiday, and not doing much else. And it really is a great novel, the great novel. Other than the epilogues (one dull, one disappointingly reactionary), I loved it. The Briggs translation was the one I read, but I did also dip into three others, as I love comparing different renditions into English. I guess I could learn Russian, but.

This was, in addition to the year of Ocean, the year of the audiobook. Not least, this was the way I finally cracked some of those omissions on my TBR shelves. I finally read (and loved) Portrait of a Lady (on the fifth or sixth try), and I finally understood the big-hearted and nutty brilliance of Charlies Dickens, in no small part because of the fantastic narration by Richard Armitage of David Copperfield, which bowled me over. Armitage gives the characters regional accents – the Micawbers are Brummies! And of course Dickens works so well when you’re listening to a talented performer. I feel set up for watching the forthcoming movie – and also excited for the colourblind casting that will for sure confound the unimaginative. (‘Racism is fundamentally a failure of the imagination’ – discuss. I hate binaries.)

The Left Hand of Darkness was a reread. I love rereading via a good audio narration. That trek across the snow! And just everything about this book, everything. Now I know again why I call it one of my favourites. And a terrible and crushing admission: this year I reread Wizard of Earthsea too, book form, and though there is much to love in the world-building I found the pacing a bit stodgy and the characterisation a bit dry. Maybe I should have tried the audio.

So: audiobooks are just wonderful. One has currently guided me 59 per cent of the way through Moby-Dick, which is about twice as much ground as I ever made on numerous attempts before. The narration, by William Hootkins, is very Ah-ha, me maties, and I feel confident I’ll finish it early next month. Shan’t I feel smug?! (Jury is still out on Melville’s masterpiece, though. I mean, on the one hand. But on the other. Check this space this time next year.)

Some lessons and virtue signalling: a good balance of men/women. A goodly number of works in translation. A number of indie presses. Could probably make a bit more effort with live hetero males as well as the dead white ones? Virago publishes good books. I like being taken elsewhere – other times, new places, fresh angles.

There are plenty of books I didn’t like or didn’t finish. Nowadays I tend to give up on books I’m not enjoying; life’s too short, etc. Others I might finish one day, if: time, mood. Hype certainly got in the way of others. A couple of sequels were disappointments. Perhaps this says something about me and sequels, or maybe it’s about publishers being publishers (that thing they have with more of the same).

Olive, Again was fine in the actual reading, but with hindsight it was pretty forgettable; I only read it last month, but I remember little other than the fact it depressed the fuck out of me. Which was also, I realised, how I had felt about Lucy Barton and its sequel (whose title I forget), which I read a couple of years ago. But how I had adored Olive Kitteridge! That book surprised me when I read it a few years ago, and it’s a book that withstands rereading. Yet despite this author’s command of craft and tone, somehow these others of her books lacked the wit of OK. They had, for me, an overriding grimness, and though I’m no pollyanna I’m getting too much of that in the news and on Twitter.

Find Me read like fan fiction written by the author. Which is fine, as why shouldn’t an author love their own work. But all those bisexual intergenerational relationships among the multilingual metropolitan culturati felt interchangeable and unbelievable and self-indulgent, and I ended up wishing I’d never read it. Find Me succeeded in the impossible by undermining the charm of Call Me By Your Name and my love for Out of Egypt. You can have too much of a good thing – I should have read another Henry James, shouldn’t I?

I decided to read The Testaments next year, after the hype has gone down and when I’m not so irked about the copout of the ‘unanimous’ (don’t believe it!) sharing out of the Booker Prize (ffs!). I’m very keen to read Bernardine Everisto’s Girl, Woman, Other and Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, and I’m saving a few other books I had my eye on (ear out for?) in 2019 for audio reads. (Which take time! And dog walks.)

I am sure I have forgotten some other reads, including books on the craft of writing. I did find myself reading/rereading Natalie Goldberg and LOVING her more than ever. Oh, and Lynda Barry’s Making Comics! It’s missing from my photo above – but then again I have about ten pages left so perhaps I shall add to next year’s list. Everyone should read Lynda Barry, or just watch this. I also found Charlotte Wood’s Mind of One’s Own series of podcasts on writing really engaging.

On telly, I loved the second series of the adaptation of Big Little Lies until the last episode, which I really didn’t like, and then I read about the production and began to hater on it. Game of Thrones: the ending was just great by me, loved it, but I wish it had had a much better build-up, and I wish one actor had been treated like a grown-up and at least been given a glimmer of their character arc some seasons ago. And after giving up after watching the first three Witchers slack-jawed at clunky writing weighed down with info dumps, we’re now LOVING the new adaptation of Watchmen. My fave tv of the year though has to be the five series of Peaky Blinders. Dodgy Midlands accents aside (big caveat), it’s a cracking piece of drama, and it made me wonder if/who is writing big ballsy blockbuster novels in that mode nowadays.

I attended some good events (some certainly better than books they were promoting). I was very happy to attend Eleanor Anstruther’s launch for A Perfect Explanation. I also attended some super salons from Words Away. Another event that stood out was the series of panels organised one summer evening by Hachette Pride at a crowded Waterstones Piccadilly. Not least, they fit seventeen speakers into a couple of hours! It made me proud I used to work there in another century’s incarnation, and also pleased to see how far the world has come with LGBTQ+ rights and reading. I was particularly engaged by the panel with trans writing and writers; so much to take in. Let’s also pay heed to Patrick Gale’s warning about rights that were earned and rights can be taken away.

‘The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.’ That line, from ‘La Vie Bohème’ in the musical Rent, reminds me that in tough times we have to forge our own alternatives. One book whose playful and utopian impulse inspired me is Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, whose author, Andrea Lawlor, teaches a class in utopian literature, which led me to the peculiar book The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, which is whimsical and hard to classify, but then the best things often are.

And I mustn’t forget Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which was salve during tough moments when our dog was ill. Laughter is the best medicine (except for steroids, which saved his life).

So: this was Ocean’s year. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one book I shall certainly be rereading on audio. And some more Dickens. And I can’t wait for the new novel by Garth Greenwell, or the memoir by Carmen Maria Machado, or Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing.

Happy New Year! Off to watch more Watchmen.

Workshops for 2020: Food, Water Ways, Earth Works

In 2020 I’m continuing the ongoing series of new Four Elements workshops with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Four Elements workshops follow a holistic approach, using mindfulness techniques and placing a strong emphasis on play and experiment, while also addressing practical matters of craft and the business of publishing. Each day-long workshop considers the symbolic powers and perspectives of the elements: fire for the energy it creates, water for the feelings it evokes, earth for conjuring up the material world, and air for the way in which it structures the world and brings clarity to our thinking. We also discuss ways to balance all four elements in our writing, as required.

We held the first new workshop last month; in Finding Your Fire we paid particular attention to how the power of fire fuels our intention and charges up our voices, with one session devoted to crafting dialogue, which is perhaps one of the most striking ways to add a spark to our writing. We also looked at many ways in which fire appears in writing.

Writers sometimes overthink our work (too much time spent in our own company?!), and we all gain something from getting out of our own heads, and to do so it often helps to work with creative materials other than words. So we are also inviting guest gurus to lead sessions during each day – practitioners who bring in fresh (and elemental) perspectives from different fields in the arts. In the pic above, guest firestarter Kate Beales is showing us how techniques from theatre help summon up fiery energies to empower our writing. In other workshops we’ll gain insights from teachers or coaches from the worlds of illustration, dance, and poetry.

I usually circulate brief writing assignments as well as reading suggestions in advance, so that everyone comes prepared. And of course there is plenty of writing during the day, and afterwards too, as I provide writing prompts and resources, as well as follow-up notes with plenty of suggestions for further writing and reading. We also make time for brief meditations.

Our workshops are attended by published authors as well as beginning writers, and the spirit is engaged and collaborative; it’s good to observe community forming and writing partnerships developing.

If you are interested, below are the dates for the next workshops – my Forthcoming page also has more information, and you can find booking details via the links below:

* Saturday 8 February 2020, 9.45am-5pm Water Ways: A Four Elements Workshop on Feeling, Tone and Perspective – our guest wavemaker is artist and author Sally Kindberg

* Saturday 21 March 2020, 9.45am-5pm Earth Works: A Four Elements Workshop on Description and Action – our guest earthshaker is dancer and coach Claire Dale

* Saturday 16 May 2020, 9.45pm-5pm Writing On Air: A Four Elements Workshop on Structure, Form and Focus – our guest aeronaut is poet and performance artist Bhanu Kapil (more info and booking link to come)

* June 2020 (date to be confirmed), 9.45pm-5pm
The Four Elements of Editing (more info and booking link to come)

Also, on 26 January 2020, 2pm-5pm, I’m leading Writes at the Museum with Food – Bigger Than The Page, my rescheduled Sunday-afternoon workshop on food in writing at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inspired by the V&A’s recent exhibition Food: Bigger Than The Plate, it will explore all sorts of ways in which we use food in writing. I might even wear a pinny.

Have a good holiday break – and I hope to see some of you in the new year. Let’s see 2020 as the beginning of something good – in our writing, in the world.

Syllabus for a DIY MA in Creative Writing 2019

In an earlier post I discussed how writers can assemble their own self-directed programme of studies: a DIY MA in creative writing.

Following further posts about that on Twitter last week, and inspired by my inner teacher as well as Lynda Barry’s wonderful book Syllabus, I’ve put together a syllabus for anyone who might want more specific guidance on what a good writing programme might need to include.

Follow this link for a PDF of the Syllabus of the DIY MA in Creative Writing for 2019.

(This is very much a work-in-progress, and I might tweak or add updates or corrections in the future, in which case I’ll amend the date and version on the final page, just in case you too are a little obsessive about such things.)

A brief overview: it has four modules:

  • Craft Seminar
  • Writing Workshop
  • Manuscript Project
  • Professional Development Masterclass

I’ve chosen four textbooks that are in my experience the most helpful (and affordable – at current prices their total cost is less than £50):

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction (tenth edition)
  • Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

The content is based on my own teaching in MA and MFA programmes as well as craft masterclasses and workshops I’ve taught such as the ones that I run with Words Away; it’s also informed by my intuition and experience from over thirty years of working as an editor and mentor.

This syllabus is never going to be a substitute for a classroom, physical or online, where you can speak and listen to a teacher and interact with other writers. But it does suggest readings and activities for anyone who wants to develop knowledge and skills not only of the craft of writing but also of the business of publishing.

One unit of five classes of the Craft Seminar, Styling Your Prose, is devoted to style, syntax, and grammar, which is something that doesn’t get much focused attention in most MA programmes I’ve investigated in the UK; these are the aspects of craft that really help a writer develop a stronger voice, and for me (and many readers and publishing professionals) voice is what defines a piece of writing. This unit is where I recommend reading (and rereading) Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax.

An important part of an MA is being part of a writing community and getting and giving feedback on writing, so it will be important to seek out writers who can help with this. On another occasion, and in collaboration with others, I hope to share more tangible suggestions for how writers can, e.g., find writing partners or create a writing group, and locate more specialised resources on genre. But for now, if you have any ideas on this or anything else that would be suitable for someone embarking on studies in writing, perhaps you could post them in a comment below?


A few tips for getting started

* Practise some (or even all) of your writing away from your masterpiece-in-waiting. Sometimes we put a great deal of investment in ideas for books, and this can get in the way of the actual process of learning. There can be greater freedom in using exercises and writing flash fiction or short stories; fresh and powerful things often emerge too. Spend some time developing the craft and your intuition as a writer – then tackle your novel. Your passion for a project will still be there.

* Develop writing as a regular practice. Julia Cameron recommends morning pages: three pages of freewriting. Natalie Goldberg gives lots of prompts for you to tackle in a notebook. Robert Olen Butler insists that you write every day to maintain the creative energy in your zone or dreamspace. Explore for yourself; find what works for you, but – as with any craft – regular practice will make writing come more easily.

* Write in short spurts. Timed writings of ten minutes using prompts can generate a lot of material. You might want to edit it later, and you might not even want to use any of these words – but good stuff often surfaces in these short bursts of writing, particularly, e.g., in the last minute of a ten-minute write. And then you can take this good stuff and make even greater stuff with it later.


PS and while I’m here: if you are interested in an in-person workshop, we still have spaces in the Everyday Magic workshop I am running with Words Away on Saturday 28 September. Using the idea of the Four Elements, it looks at craft and creativity through the lens of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. It’s a day full of reading and writing and listening and talking that, I hope, brings fresh perspectives on writing and new inspirations for writers.


Workshops for Autumn 2019: Four Elements, Food, Fire

Here towards the end of the summer break comes a post with info on writing and creativity workshops I’m leading in the autumn:

* Saturday 28 September, 9.45am-5pm
Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, at London Bridge Hive, in conjunction with Words Away

* Sunday 13 October 2019, 2pm-5pm
Food: Bigger Than The Page, at the Victoria & Albert Museum

* Saturday 9 November, 9.45am-5pm
Finding Your Fire: A Four Elements Workshop on Theme and Voice, at London Bridge Hive, in conjunction with Words Away

You can follow the links above for further information plus booking details (and early bird rates for Words Away workshops), but here is a little more background on each of them.

First, I’m very excited to be teaching at the V&A for the first time. The 13 October workshop is inspired by a truly innovative and highly recommended V&A exhibition called Food: Bigger Than The Plate.

I’m not sure the writing experiments we’ll be doing will be as wild as some of exhibits you’ll find there (communicate with a tomato! coffee cups made from … coffee grinds! plant pots made of … cow shit!) – but we can try. We’ll consider some of its themes of composting and trading and cooking, and we’ll pay particular attention to food for its symbolism, and its ability to evoke the senses, and its power to conjure up memories. Food can play a central role in many types of writing – not just cookbooks and food writing, but fiction and poetry and memoir and film and stage. Fancy a madeleine?!

Oh: and the V&A classroom is AMAZING. Not that that is the only lure, of course.

I’m also excited to be working with Kellie Jackson of Words Away once more. We’ve worked together before, and I think we are a good team. On 28 September, we are revisiting Everyday Magic, the workshop based on the Four Elements I’ve run several times before. And later in the autumn and then into the winter, spring, and summer I am expanding this into four entirely new workshops devoted to each of the elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Air.

I developed Four Elements workshops as, in my work as a book doctor and editor, I find that one of the greatest hurdles for writers is overthinking. This shows up in any number of ways that can lead us away from the act of creation: cluttered prose, procrastination, self-consciousness, neurosis, comparison, destructive self-criticism. Writers often need to get out of their heads, and their own way.

With that in mind, Four Elements workshops invite writers to gain fresh (and less overthought?) perspectives on writing: its energy (Fire), its emotional qualities (Water), and its ability to conjure up the material world (Earth). And then we return to thinking about writing with greater clarity and focus (Air). Working holistically and symbolically, we can expand our sense of what our writing can be.

My inspirations and touchstones for these workshops are varied: tarot, Jungian archetypes, meditation, contemplative approaches to learning I encountered at Naropa, inspiring teachers such as Lynda Barry and Natalie Goldberg and Bobbie Louise Hawkins and Jack Collom and Austin Kleon. Also: reading. I do plenty of reading, and I’m always thinking about the Four Elements as I read. I usually assign short reading and writing assignments to be completed before class so we have a common foundation for our discussions and activities. Our readings nearly always include, among others, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx; it’s only 10,000 words, so everyone has chance to have read it, but it gives us so much to talk about. And it’s such an awesomely good story.

So we shall be looking at craft, using examples from the readings, but we mostly shall try to avoid getting too schoolroom about such matters; lots of writing courses focus on technical aspects of writing, including our own series of masterclasses, and one of the aims of Four Elements is to find different routes into writing that are intuitive and avoid over-intellectualising. So, for example, we shall seek out the fire in a piece of writing, and use that lens to consider and feel how that energy is achieved – particularly through doing writing ourselves. There will be plenty of prompts and writing experiments to try in class and to take home.

The four new Four Elements workshops will also feature sessions led by guest gurus whose work in various fields in the arts invites further perspectives on creativity. We hope to have a firestarter from the world of theatre coming along on 9 November, and then poets and other artists coming to other workshops later.

The workshops are interactive; it’s always valuable to hear what other writers have to bring to our discussions, and I never fail to leave a class brimming with fresh ideas people have raised, as well as, e.g., lots of reading recommendations. There’s always something new to learn. And we get a great variety of people coming along: published writers and absolute beginners (no such thing!), and everyone in between; fiction writers, journalists, poets, writers of nonfiction, screenwriters, people trying new forms, other types of artist.

Each workshop stands alone – Everyday Magic (28 September) serves as an overview or an introduction, but it’s not essential to taking one of the other Four Elements workshops, and you can sign up for any as you wish, as they are designed to be self-contained. We continue with Finding Your Fire (9 November), when we will explore ways to bring energy into our writing and our practice, and pay particular attention to theme and voice as well as the symbolism of Fire. We’ll follow with (titles tbc):

Feeling Your Way: Water – emotion, tone and perspective (January tbc)

Grounded in Action: Earth – character, action and description (March tbc)

Clear Thinking: Air – symbol, structure and form (May tbc)

And in June we hope to repeat the successful masterclass The Craft of Revising, which is a daylong intensive on self-editing and revision.

Kellie interviewed me about some of my inspirations for an earlier version of Everyday Magic, and in addition here are reports on that from both Kellie’s blog and my own blog.

And meanwhile I hope you have had productive summers. I feel very smug, as without planning to do so I read War and Peace. And yes, it can be read in ten days (I was on holiday, mind). I very much enjoyed the Anthony Briggs translation – have to mention that, as I dipped into others, and though I gather it’s not for purists I found this translation the most fleet in the reading.

I so often make new year resolutions to read X or Y (this year it was more sf and fantasy, um), but I always end up feeling I’ve let myself down. But this summer I read War and Peace! And it is GREAT. Now, 1,400 big hardback pages later, I understand the raves. And, too, I FINALLY read Portrait of a Lady and David Copperfield too – both as audiobooks, in fact.

I hope to see some of you later in the autumn – at workshops, or at other events such as Words Away salons.

Meanwhile, back to the garden, where I’ve also been busy this week. Chrysanthemums always welcome the autumn, don’t they?


Only Connect: Writing Experiment No. 74


I saw Bhanu Kapil reading at the LRB Bookshop on Friday. An intense but joyful event – tales of migrants, tales of violence, tales of family, rites of mud and glitter. Also: birthday cake on the summer solstice: that magical.

Bhanu posed a question – two questions – directly, simply in her writing:

What did you inherit?

What did you reproduce?

Inheritance and reproduction: energies to seek out in our writing.


I am reading Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. And O! It really is gorgeous. I also recently read the profile Ocean Vuong’s Life Sentences in the New Yorker, and noted the following description of his style:

The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel, too, and they work on overlapping scales: passages are organized by recurring phrases, as are the chapters, which build momentum as a poetry collection does, line by line. Most of the novel centers on Little Dog’s childhood and adolescence, but Vuong roams in non-chronological circles through a wide field of intensified memory. The narrative occasionally extends backward, to visions of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother in Vietnam, before he was born, and it briefly reaches forward, in a few passages that signal that Little Dog has become a writer.

(Update 25 June 2019) I’ve since completed the novel. It really is gorgeous, and brilliant, and in so many ways. I’ve also since read a couple of reviews – one of which comments on how in the book ‘a lot of information … comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact’.

Now: this suggests that this book might not be for every reader, particularly those who want their stories laid out clearly in the manner of representative realism.

But: for me these very dislocations and refusals feel very much part of the book’s design. I think some things in this book – scenes, images, statements, fragments – operate outside of the usual conventions of rendering time and space, lacking obvious consequence.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, that’s more than fine. This is a novel that among other things is about the Vietnam war, immigrant experience, gay lives, and the limits of the body. It’s inevitable that things leak out, resist definition.

Consider this in your own writing with caution, perhaps. This is after all a novel written by a poet and some of its forms and gestures will feel more familiar to readers who’re comfortable with some of the conventions of experimental poetry. But I think there are matters here that any writer can consider: character, voice, story, and what happens when things refuse to be pinned down.

Ocean Vuong talks more about some of these matters in a podcast with Barnes and Noble. I quote one selection:

Desire plus powerlessness is momentous feeling. I wanted the characters to move a little and feel a lot … The [fiction textbook] is all about plot: what’s the plot, and secondly: what’s the conflict? That’s also the formula: you need a plot to move through, and you need conflict.

And I was very suspicious of that. Perhaps because I’m a poet, in many senses we are plotless. And I thought: I don’t know if that’s how I feel as an American, as a person. I wonder if I live in a linear plot? To me it feels much more like proximity. The way we sit beside our loved ones. The way we move through the world, meaning tension and drama happen simply by proximity. The way chemistry works, you have oxygen and hydrogen: fine on their own. Put them side by side and all of a sudden: water. That was how I thought of the structure of the novel. It was blind faith. It was not the go-to form.

But I wanted something more faithful to what it meant to live as an American, in which we move from space to space, and meaning, drama and the substance of our lives happens because we are side by side each other, not because we are in a linear plot device.


I relate these ideas to my recent blog post on alternatives to conflict in plotting.

Whether you are writing something that’s non-chronological or something that’s more linear, have a go at this writing experiment:

* Take some index cards and some Post-it notes. (You could use Scrivener or some mind-mapping software, if you prefer, but I really do think there is a great value in physical interaction.)

* Use the index cards to write down the chapters and/or scenes of your book, identifying the key CHANGE that happens within that chapter or scene. What takes the story forward?

* Then lay the cards out on a table or desk. (Or if you have lots of cards or not enough desk space, do a few at a time, perhaps moving through a stack of cards you keep at your right then gradually stack to the left as you work through them.)

* Next, using the Post-its, identify the CONNECTING ENERGY that fills the space between each of the index cards, and how that energy is achieved. It might be an overt matter of cause and effect: what happens in one chapter might lead to the events of the next. Or it could be more subtle, or the jolt that comes from a twist, or an abrupt shift of setting or point of view that delivers some reward through juxtaposition, or the question that’s raised at such a point (it might be as simple as: why are we now here?). Consider, for example, the energy arising from:

  • twists
  • information gaps
  • surprises
  • unexpected changes
  • reversals of fortune
  • turns
  • recurrences
  • variations
  • juxtapositions
  • elisions
  • chronology
  • jump cuts
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • overlaps
  • frames
  • contrasts
  • dislocations
  • mosaics
  • fragments sitting beside each other
  • alignments
  • questions
  • inheritances
  • reproductions
  • expanding horizons
  • contractions in focus
  • refusals
  • leakages
  • reactions by characters
  • cause and effect

That last one – cause and effect – strikes me as an important one overall.

For these points, think about: spikes of energy; connections; questions that prick our curiosity. How are these scenes/chapters and connections SEQUENCED? How might a CONTRAST create a forward propulsion? I am also thinking how both Ocean Vuong and Bhanu Kapil are writing narratives of migration that are made up of smaller pieces, even fragments: how do your own stories possess a quality of MOVEMENT that arises from the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?

Do this for both scenes as well as chapters eventually. It’s useful to consider both the connections between bigger units of narrative, and also those closer up, scene by scene.

Once you have finished this exercise, you might want to spread out all the Post-its in order, and see what you have: what patterns emerge? You might want to tabulate the connections and energies you find into a list. Are there gaps that could be made into something more interesting, or could the very fact of their gappy nature be heightened and made into a feature of the work? Are there points where the writing feels a bit too chronological (ploddy): might it increase the energy to introduce a gap or a disruption between two chapters or sections? How can the larger work gather MOMENTUM? Consider the types of connections listed above, and others of your own reckoning. See what you can find.

What’s the mud and glitter that holds together your work?

If you want to take this exercise further: use your index cards and Post-its to compose an outline in narrative form of a next draft.