Water Ways

On Saturday a lovely group of writers came along to Water Ways, the newest of the Four Elements workshops that I’m running as a series with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Among the Four Elements, Water is identified with feeling, and as the workshop approached I realised the field of emotions presents a pretty HUGE and amorphous subject as a topic within writing. Given my ambition slash weakness of needing to be comprehensive, how would we cover it ALL?!

So we approached the subject of emotion through a few specific lenses. We started by discussing memory and symbolism as ways to activate, contain or convey feeling in writing. Inspired by Lynda Barry, we also gave ourselves watery names for the day – with my teacher hat on, I became Professor Newt.

We then looked at methods of crafting narrative tone, paying special attention to perspective and sentence structure and examining the emotional shifts within a particular scene in Brokeback Mountain. A good scene will contain CHANGE, especially in the feelings of characters – and readers. We also looked for Proulx’s use of water imagery.

And I forgot to ask: where in the story do Ennis and Jack say, ‘I love you’? What does that say?

Thinking about tone in relation to pitch, it also occurs to me now that we use the word pitch to describe that brief description we use to sell books. Which makes me think how a good sales pitch really goes to the heart of a book, and ideally grows out of the narrative tone and voice and style of telling the story.

We ended the day looking at the emotion created within the intimate space of a letter with reference to works by Ocean Vuong and Tove Jansson. And then we wrote thank you letters of our own.

I wish we’d discussed the idea of the unconscious a bit more. But it was certainly present; we talked plenty about Ocean Vuong, and only now do I realise: the clue is in his name! OCEAN = WATER, right?! There: the unconscious in beautiful action.

A highlight of the day was our brilliant guest tutor and resident wavemaker: author and illustrator Sally Kindberg. I am really keen in this series of workshops to experiment with practices and viewpoints from creative fields that rely less heavily on verbal forms, because words are so often the problem with writing – words can get in our way, just as writers often need to get out of their own way too, and it often makes sense to develop writing without actually doing any writing. So on Saturday we drew.

At the start of the day, instead of a meditation we did a contemplative drawing exercise using our hands and lines. And then in her drawing workshop Sally got us to make some (hilarious!) self-portraits, and, using her magic top hat, guided us through the creation of characters that we took on adventures in four-frame comic strips. Clouds became potatoes, and much mirth was had. Under my student pen name of Simon Seahorse, I was very pleased to learn how to draw wings in flight.

Comic strips also prompted a brief discussion about yonkoma manga and kishōtenketsu, and we bonded in questioning the necessity of conflict as the central drive in writing (an idea that many of us are fed up with – more on that anon).

Sally inspired me so much I spent the following afternoon watching the wild and brilliant Studio Ghibli classic Porco Rosso and then playing drawing games with a friend who’d come to visit. Thanks, Sally! I finally got to art school.

And thanks again to Sally for bringing drawing into our class so purposefully, and to everyone who came for joining in so fully.

Our next Four Elements workshop is Earth Works, where our guest earthshaker will be dancer and Physical Intelligence expert Claire Dale. It’s held on 21 March, which is the spring equinox; I promise we shall be marking the wRites of Spring in appropriate style!

 

 

Food in Writing

On Sunday I taught for the first time at the Victoria and Albert Museum: a workshop on food in writing called Food: Bigger Than The Page.

We started off talking about food as a genre or genres (plural) of writing. Some books of food writing have an investigative or campaigning approach, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then there are works of food history such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.

Someone also brought up the name of one of the great food writers: MFK Fisher. And I forgot, oops, to mention Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, which was inspired by the blog she wrote cooking her way through Julia Child’s classic cookbook – if you are interested in the publishing process, you might enjoy this piece from the publisher Knopf on The Making of … Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Moving on to the use of food in fiction and memoir, we discussed the role of food (and hunger) as symbol and driver of plot in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then explored the part that food plays in activating memory, using Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Paying attention to the ways in which all five senses create images that bring writing to life, we listened to some poems by William Carlos WilliamsPablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and Meryl Pugh. (Meryl teaches popular courses at Morley College and the Poetry School, should you be interested.) Some of these poems celebrate food or everyday life in very straightforward ways, while others have more layered meanings.

And then, after a brief palate-cleansing meditation, we became hunter-gatherers: we created Word Hoards of our sense perceptions by getting intimate with mint and star anise and kiwi fruits, and carrots and lime-blossom tea, and a fancy tiny pear called Piqa Reo (Waitrose, we salute you – and you’ve even given us a further way to use the Q tile without a U in Scrabble) (though the lime-blossom came from Gaia in St Margarets – support your local indie!).

We then paid a visit to supermarkets in California with Allen Ginsberg and Armistead Maupin, and created some characters of our own by thinking about the ways in which food acts as a social marker.

We fitted in a snack-sized look at recipes in food with Heartburn by Nora Ephron (and Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel also got a mention here). And then we finished off by discussing recipes as a form for poems with ecopoet Jack Collom – something to try at home?

I had a lot of fun putting this workshop together – see the links and titles above and also below in the list of resources. Thanks to the V&A and everyone who came along – and especially to Stacy for thinking a writing workshop would be a good idea (I first met her when I attended a V&A book club for The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – I’m going to tell myself that Frida Kahlo led me here). Thanks also to Michelle for the photos (and the kind words) below.

 

Further resources

Sandra M. Gilbert and Roger J. Porter, eds., Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing

Mark Kurlansky, ed., Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing

Jill Foulston, ed., The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food

Dianne Jacob, Will Write For Food (practical advice on writing about food)

Diana Henry, What Goes On Behind The Scenes Of A Cookbook (for more about the creative and production processes, and Diana Henry is an inspired writer and cook too: I have enjoyed many of her recipes)

Lynda Barry, Syllabus and Making Comics (great on creativity – you might also enjoy this interview with the genius herself: at the least, watch the first five or ten minutes)

Plus, just because, a gorgeous piece of food/cookery writing on candied oranges I read earlier today.  (Will edit for candied oranges: a trade, anyone?!)

 

And before I go: as I type, I believe there might be one space left on the day-long Four Elements workshop Water Ways on 8 February, which explores how we evoke feeling in writing, and I’ll also be looking at food among other experiences of the earthly realm in Earth Works on 21 March. More info via the links at the Words Away website.

 

One of our frondy inspirations.

 

Such a grand setting!

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.

Summer 2019 Masterclasses: Density and Speed, Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I have lined up two further day-long masterclasses on craft for the summer term.

* Saturday 11 May 2019: Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time in Writing, plus Q&A with book PR Alison Menzies. 

* Saturday 15 June 2019: The Craft of Revising: A Masterclass on Self-editing for Writers, plus Q&A with editor Faiza Khan of Bloomsbury Publishing. 

I am right now putting together materials for new class Density and Speed. This is inspired by hearing Donna Tartt, in a tv interview at the time of the publication of The Goldfinch, say that she loves Charles Dickens for the ‘density and speed’ she finds in his work.

What did she mean by that?! I wasn’t quite sure at the time, but this idea of density and speed caught my imagination and refused to go away. In my thinking, density has come to refer to the texture of a world that’s created in either fiction or nonfiction: characters, settings, the way in which a grounded reality is conjured up. It is related to perspective, tone, and description. We’re often told to avoid description in writing, and yes, we might need to be sure it doesn’t slow the storytelling down too much. But as a reader I love good description when it’s well rendered. Sometimes it’s great paragraphs with life and colour, and sometimes it’s just a single word in the right place, but description can really halt me (in the good way) in how it evokes a scene, a whole landscape.

And speed for me describes our movement through a piece of writing: the techniques with which a story creates pace and tension and urgency, and that keep the pages turning from the start – a commercial imperative, too. At the sentence level, as well, parts of speech play roles: at a basic level, nouns anchor us and verbs move us through.

The more I thought about it, so many other things come into play with these ideas of density and speed: dramatic structure, narrative distance, what’s unspoken in a story. Word counts, genre, sex, death – immortality! And I also realised that the ways in which we carve up and present space and time in our writing also give us an opportunity to question the shapes of our stories: there’s much more to storytelling than the conventional narrative arc, and I plan on discussing some of these matters in our class in May.

In June our class on revising and self-editing is a repeat of one we ran successfully last summer, and it should be of use to writers who have finished drafts, as well as people with works-in-progress.

Masterclass series on craft
These classes round out a year of classes designed to use practical, intuitive approaches to craft topics in writing. They cover the ground that might be addressed in seminars for an MA or MFA in creative writing: Plotting; Voice; Character and Setting; Prose and Literary Style; Space and Time; Revising and Self-Editing. I think they have been successful so far as we have a great community of regulars coming along for intelligent and good-humoured discussions; many of us go along to Words Away salons with Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin too. The spirit is collaborative, and our focus is practical, and everyone brings along valuable contributions from their own writing, reading, and professional backgrounds.

And you don’t have to come to all of the classes to gain something from them. They are designed to stand alone, and dropping in to just one class might simply offer fresh insight or a jolt of energy to any writer wanting a bit of a boost in their creative process.

I’ve also been pleased to invite along industry speakers for Q&A sessions at the end of the day. So far we have appearances from not only an agent and editors, but also people from other areas of publishing talking about other aspects of the book trade: audiobooks, production, PR, rights, literary estates. I don’t really like the idea of publishers and agents as gatekeepers, and prefer to find ways in which writers can empower themselves in what is, at best, a collaborative creative process. It’s important that publishing is demystified, and it helps to know what goes on behind the scenes. Understanding that this is not only a business but a working life can have a subtle effect on how writers think about their own books and careers.

Classes usually come with preparatory reading suggestions and sometimes an advance writing exercise too. I try to use a variety of selections to illustrate craft points – some books that I’m currently rereading are shown in the pic above (note: you won’t have to read them all!). I also send follow-up notes after each class, including recommended resources, further reading, and writing prompts and exercises.

The May and June 2019 classes will again be held at London Bridge Hive, 1 Melior Place, London SE1 3SZ. (And places for these classes are going; Density and Speed is already booking up quickly.)

And I shouldn’t forget: on Monday 29 March I am co-hosting the Words Away salon with award-winning historical novelist Antonia Hodgson, who’s going to be talking about Plotting, Process and Page-turners. Hope to see some of you there.

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]