Category: Notes on Craft

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.

 

‘Heart’ Words vs ‘Head’ Words: Guest Writing Experiment No. 73 From Zoe Gilbert

I’m really happy to introduce a guest writing experiment from Zoe Gilbert. She’s chosen a topic that I myself encountered in one of her excellent workshops – Zoe’s teaching is *highly* recommended (see link below), and so is her book Folk, a truly original work of fiction that was one of my favourite books of 2018.

Over to Zoe:

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The English language is a richer resource than we might realise. Thanks to the influence of many languages arriving on our islands over the centuries, we have enough synonyms to warrant a thesaurus (not all languages have one of these). Especially useful to the creative writer is learning to distinguish between words with Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, roots, and those that derive from Latin, or related romance languages. I like to call these two sets of vocabulary in English ‘heart’ language and ‘head’ language.

Germanic words are our heart language: they are direct, simple, concrete, and go straight to the heart with their emotional impact. Think of words like home, hearth, love, hate. They are sometimes onomatopoeic, blunt, informal or downright rude (think of the best swear words).

Latinate words are our head language: they are formal, academic, abstract, and appeal to the rational mind. Think of words like intellectual, superior, consideration, providence. They are sometimes emotionally distancing, elitist, technical or jargonistic.

Learning to spot which kinds of words you are using gives you the power to choose for effect. Think of the difference between writing ‘gut’ vs ‘intestine’, ‘sluggish’ vs ‘languorous’, ‘irk’ vs ‘displease.’ You can do this by feel, or enjoy an intense relationship with online etymological dictionaries until you get the hang of it.

If you want to create ‘oomph’, aim for Germanic language. If you want to prioritise the rational over the emotional, or create distance, use Latinate.

 

Exercise: take a scenario and write it twice, once using as many formal, Latinate language words as you can, and once using Germanic language words. Use a thesaurus or etymological dictionary if you get really stuck. You might find that the different words require different sentence structures, too.

Here are some scenarios to try out:

  • An animal attacks its owner
  • A lover ends an affair abruptly
  • A person discovers something unexpected in their house

Alternatively, make up your own, or take one from a story you are working on.

Here’s an example of the first scenario, written two ways.

A          When Phoebe saw the wound, anger flooded through her. Could she share her home with this fiend? In battle, which of them would win? She backed away, into the kitchen, to think through her next move.

B          When Phoebe perceived the perforations to her epidermis, a sensation of acute hostility cascaded through her. Would it be possible to inhabit the same space as this demon? In combat, which of them would be victorious? She retreated to the kitchen to consider her strategy.

 

Zoe Gilbert is the author of Folk, currently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and she won the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She is currently completing a PhD on folk tales in short fiction, and teaches creative writing at London Lit Lab. You can find out about her courses on using folk tales in fiction here.

 

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Back to Andrew: Thanks, Zoe! This really is one of the best exercises – really getting down into the mire of language. I remember being in a Zoe workshop where we forensically went through an Angela Carter story looking for Germanic and Latinate words – it’s a great exercise in reading too, and I am in fact very shortly going to be tasking students to look for Germanic and Latinate words in one of Zoe’s own stories.

If you’ve not read Folk, you can find out more here – I’m clearly not the only fan!

And before we go: on this day of days, let this exercise honour the many languages and cultures that have always made up these islands – and always will. Vive la différence!

 

 

Sitting (And Walking) With Your Characters: Writing Experiment No. 72

Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.

I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.

Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’

This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.

But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.

So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?

We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.

It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.

I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)

But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:

It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …

It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …

And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:

I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …

And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.

For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?

Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.

A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):

* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).

* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.

* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.

* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.

* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.

* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.

* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?

* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.

Click here for some more of Anna’s bon mots (someone was taking notes – thanks, Laura!) and here are some more of my observations and pics from the evening on Instagram.

Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.

And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.

Follow the energy!

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.