Category: Notes on Craft

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

Putting It Through The Typewriter Again: Writing Experiment No. 68

One of the most useful tasks that writers can give themselves during revising is keying in the whole text all over again: a Retype Draft.

I’ve actually met gasps of horror when I’ve suggested this in workshops. To which I usually say: lazy bastards! In fact, for many heavily changed drafts this work is not really a duplication of labour, and it’s probably more efficient to retype than scratching around in your own leavings, getting confused and failing to see what’s in front of you.

Also, don’t forget those poor Macless authors of yore scratching away with their quill pens or tapping at their typewriters; back in the day, producing a revision was even called ‘putting it through the typewriter again’. Imagine yourself as Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote (now there’s a choice) or Dorothy Parker, clattering out a new draft.

And, too, this is a physical act: your body (and mind and soul) will be energised. I’m always keen to find intuitive approaches back into writing and looking at your work afresh. Liberate yourself from attachments! And from being locked into the downward scroll of the screen, looking for edits on your last draft with a frown on your brow. Start afresh.

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So: try either of these writing experiments at the appropriate stage in your drafting:

* Allow your first draft to be a Zero Draft, and then embark on a Page One Rewrite for the next draft. Let that initial draft lay out your content and reveal your story matter – as Terry Pratchett apparently said (please tell me where!): the first draft is just a writer telling herself the story. Let the story drift, find yourself in a few dead ends perhaps. But too it’s fine to write and follow an outline.

Then print it out. You might want to make it look like a book or page proofs, i.e., single-spaced and justified, two columns or pages per A4 sheet, and using a bookish font such as Garamond or Baskerville. (And with page numbers, of course.)

Then read it. Maybe read it aloud. As you go, resist editing the text (refuse to engage in that way), but write any notes for the writer (yourself) in a separate notebook. You might even want to create a chapter and/or scene summary based entirely on what is contained in that draft, or to identify the gift given to the reader on every page.

Then put that draft away – in a drawer, in a safe. There is a good chance you might refer to it again, but there is a good chance too that you might not. I know of some writers who know they are never going to look at their zero draft ever again – simply surfacing their content this way was the important task.

Then, using your notes, or perhaps drawing on your inner resources (for the book is inside you, after all), start your next draft in a new document: effectively, a rewrite. You might want to write a new outline or treatment at this stage, or even several different outlines to help you explore variations.

* The Polish Draft: This approach is also useful for a later draft, e.g., when you are doing a line edit on your prose, smoothing out glitches and clunkiness, spotting repetitions, and dealing with redundancy and overwriting. It can be particularly useful if you have been making lots of stylistic alterations, e.g., shifting tenses or changing POV – it’s not only inevitable that some of the old text remains, but it’s also likely that here or there a deeper change is required (e.g., would a present-tense narrator even bother to pay attention to certain details that a past-tense narrator can accommodate?).

Again, read a print-out of the previous draft, making edits on a hard copy: this time, it perhaps makes sense to go with regular double-spaced unjustified manuscript pages in clear, open fonts such as Times or Georgia (though maybe again experiment with a font you don’t usually use?). And you can even give yourself wide margins for adding notes and additions by hand.

Then reread, adding edits on the manuscript in pencil.

Then, sitting comfortably at your computer, and perhaps using a page holder or stand, rekey the edited text in a fresh (and clearly identified) new document.

It’s amazing what comes up, and also how easily you can start to see (and feel) things anew: simple word repetitions, or slips of the keyboard. Or garbled syntax. And yes – maybe your beta readers were right in saying that phrase was too cute, now you come to type it again. And you know – that scene is in fact too boring to retype, so maybe it’s just too boring?! There – a darling murdered more easily than you imagined. (Don’t be too brutal for its own sake, though.)

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This is something we discussed in the Craft of Revising workshop in June 2018, where a number of people were enthusiastic about the idea. Isabel Costello, who attended that class, made a post about this on her blog The Literary Sofa – A Novel Process – the ‘Re-type Draft’:

With the benefit of time to ‘marinate’ and the observations of my trusted advisers, re-typing prompted me to question whether what was on the page felt ‘true’ – anything which didn’t leapt out at me. Whether in terms of plausibility or language, there’s nothing like having to reproduce a line or paragraph to reveal whether it belongs (or is banal/clichéd/superfluous). It made me realise how easy it is to settle for what’s already there, the parts you skim over in revisions because they’re ‘good enough’.

And if you want proof that retyping really is efficient, pay attention to what Isabel added in a later post:

Yesterday, on an impulse, I decided it would be fun to add up the ‘edit time’ on the five drafts of the book. I know, what was I thinking? The total (even after I remembered to convert minutes to hours) is so outrageous it can’t possibly be right, but I’ll tell you one thing – writers, you can thank me later – the second draft, which I retyped in its 90,000 word entirety, to many people’s horror and disbelief, amounted to the fewest hours by far, despite taking six incredibly intense weeks. Not only this, but it was so transformative to the development of story and character that I estimate it saved one or even two further drafts in the key mid-phase. Thanks again to Andrew Wille for putting me up to it!

Some writers, of course, write very deliberately: John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Cynthia Ozick, Eliot Weinberger. Or they write spontaneously: Jack Kerouac, apparently (though we know that is a bit of a myth). They are planners, or process each word emphatically as they come out, or they are geniuses. And good luck to them! But not everyone works that way – or can work that way, or wants to work that way.

You could even consider starting each major revision in an entirely fresh document.

Rewriting has negative associations – as if we’ve done something wrong in the earlier drafts. But it’s remarkably liberating to actively incorporate it into your process. Free yourself! Embrace rewriting, and freshen your work in the process.

And of course if you are one of those writers who already write your drafts by hand you can just turn to the rest of us and say: Told you so.

Now, pick up your quills …

(Updated 17 June 2019.)

The Craft of Revising, 23 June 2018

I really enjoyed Saturday’s workshop on The Craft of Revising – a lovely group of writers came along, and we left energised and enthusiastic to return to writing projects, seeing them in new ways and ready to try out fresh things with them.

We talked about Buddhism and drag queens and different types of editing, and taste and technique, and intention. We asked ourselves what genres we are writing in, and how our books might be positioned to readers by publishers. We thought about our characters and their yearnings, and discussed how specific slants or perspectives on our material can not only create a stronger focus for our stories but also lift their telling. I stressed the importance of not only verbs but also paginating your manuscripts, and we sought gifts and questions in each other’s writing. We talked about shitty first drafts, and I suggested lots of practical tips for self-editing and looking at your work in a fresh light. We also discussed working with feedback.

A serious aim for the day: the idea of listening to your writing. Listen by reading it aloud, listen by hearing it read aloud, and most of all listen with your eyes: hear what’s there on the page or the screen. Let your material make itself known.

We were lucky to have novelist Michelle Lovric come along to give an inspiring talk on tackling ambitious and challenging projects, and also provide useful and most intelligent guidance on creating voices for your narrators.

I think it’s important that the publishing business is demystified for writers, and we ended the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press, who gave many practical insights into the work of editors and what happens within a publishing house: when to stop editing, being an advocate for your authors with your colleagues, the importance of good booksellers. Lennie brought further inspiration with her good humour and absolute passion for books and writers.

Given I was the only man in the room, it also seemed relevant to touch on the subject of gender in the crowd at creative writing events. Do women writers like coming to workshops, while men writers prefer to attend masterclasses?! Or maybe they just go it alone?! ‘Discuss …’

As usually happens when energetic writers get together, we had far more content to share than we had time to cover. (I want a time-turner!) Everyone in the group had skills and expertise of their own, and there’s so much to learn from each other.

Follow-up notes are being emailed, and lots of handouts were provided (unpaginated … but they are individual, one-page handouts … though please please add page numbers to your own manuscripts!).

Kellie and I hope to run further workshops-slash-masterclasses in the autumn on voice and plotting (dates to come, maybe along with some men?!), and I am planning other workshops in other places too. Do register your interest by contacting me or Kellie.

Thanks to Kellie for a wonderful day, and to Michelle and Lennie for their generosity in joining in, and to everyone for coming.

* Interview on The Craft of Revising

* A post on feedback

* A post on being declined (aka rejection!)

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Listen to your writing!

Thanks to Kellie and Rebecca for photos.

Interview on The Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away recently interviewed me on her blog for the workshop on revising and self-editing that we are holding in June, and I thought I’d copy it here as well. I know some of the people who’ve signed up already, and there are a few spots left. Do let us know if you have any questions – and I’ll look forward to seeing some of you on 23rd June.

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Kellie: We have an exciting new workshop, The Craft of Revising, all planned and ready for Saturday, 23rd June. I’m teaming up once again with experienced editor and writing teacher, Andrew Wille, who’ll be leading the workshop. There’s also a Q&A session arranged for the afternoon with Virago Press chair, Lennie Goodings. Our venue, the London Bridge Hive, is a recently renovated space located three minutes walk from London Bridge Station – close to Borough Market and the cafes of Bermondsey Street. I thought it would be interesting to interview Andrew about next month’s workshop to give you a flavour of what’s on offer – especially as we’re planning more craft oriented workshops later in the year.

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Kellie: Our first collaborative endeavour, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, had an emphasis on creativity and intuition rather than outcome. This new workshop is focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing – our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. Can you expand on this a little?

Andrew: It is certainly more outcome-oriented, in that we’ll be working towards the goals of a finished manuscript and a published book, which are practical aspects of writing we might relate to the left side of the brain in the Everyday Magic workshop. We’ll discuss aspects of form and technique essential to improving a draft (Craft), and also talk about the realities of the market (Connect).

I prefer to think about readership rather than marketplace, though: writers connect when their books are read, rather than when they are sold, so let’s think about relationships with readers instead. Writers connect especially when their books move readers, so what do we need to do to convey feeling in our work? Much relies on developing intuitive approaches: digging deeper with character, achieving the right voice and tone, remaining open to a book’s potential, experimenting.

And how do we sustain those initial sparks that bring your work to life (Create)? And what in fact were those initial sparks, and how might the work have shifted during the drafting?

I’m hoping this course will foster a creative and intuitive approach towards a practical outcome. Both/both, rather than either/or.

Kellie: How developed does a writer’s manuscript need to be in order to get the most out of this workshop?

Andrew: Writers who have a first (or an umpteenth) draft should find this useful, but so should writers who’ve embarked on a work-in-progress and completed some writing of substance: an outline, or a few chapters, maybe the 15,000 words of an MA dissertation. It’s about training yourself in approaches to revising, as well as the tasks that self-editing might involve.

The workshop should be helpful for novelists and writers of longer works, but also writers of short stories and essays. Some of the discussion might seem more obviously focused on the craft of fiction, but this can be just as relevant to nonfiction too. Voice, character and setting are vital in a novel, for example, but they are also needed in nonfiction, even if they crop up in more subtle ways.

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Kellie: Is editing a creative endeavour?

Andrew: Of course it is! Occasionally we generate pieces of writing that come out perfectly formed, but on the whole I’m with Anne Lamott: expect first drafts to be shitty, and improvement to come through the creativity of revising and editing.

Kellie: Are all first drafts shitty … ?

Andrew: Actually, maybe I’m not so much with Anne Lamott – maybe I don’t like the idea of anydraft being shitty? A first draft is just a first draft, after all – it’s about getting the material down, and sometimes we don’t really know what we have until we get to The End. And what’s shitty about that? It is what it is.

By contrast, Allen Ginsberg said: First Thought, Best Thought. Though I question that approach, too – I’m all for spontaneous bursts of genius, but a First Thought can often be revised into an Even Better Thought.

Kellie: You clearly think drafting is important, then?

Andrew: Yes! I’m surprised at how often beginning writers finish a first draft, give it a light dusting for typos, and then submit a manuscript for publication. I guess there must be occasions when such books do get published – though if anyone knows of an example, please let me know! It’s more likely that much of the real work begins once a first draft is complete.

The task of creation gains depth when, armed with the hindsight of reaching the end of a first draft (or even just its middle), you start to probe your intention: where on earth did that come from? Why did I write that? Should I follow that trail for a while …? Giving yourself permission to explore during the drafting can be very important.

Maybe the shittiness of a first draft is rich manure, and maybe what’s grown in it includes lots of seeds that need thinning out, and some dead wood or crossing branches that need pruning, and maybe a bush that needs some special attention so that its flowers bloom more brightly?!

Gardening presents many analogies for the work of self-editing and revising. You take what’s there, and see what’s needed and what’s not needed, and you plan accordingly. And: you can’t have everything! This is advice that my own garden is only finally heeding now. I’ve had to murder a few darlings, or at least give a few away, and the frost did some of the rest in. Likewise, focusing your energy on your strengths and resources will make your writing more effective.

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Kellie: You have a background in publishing and worked as an editor of fiction and nonfiction for many years: what do you hope to bring to this workshop that might be new to writers?

Andrew: I’ve worked with writers for decades now. I started working in publishing in 1987 as a trainee with the Maxwell Corporation. Later, I was part of the successful editorial team when Little, Brown won its first publisher of the year award, and subsequently I’ve freelanced for all of the major UK houses and many small presses and individual writers. I’ve worked with bestselling and award-winning writers, and also on books that were, sadly, published without trace. So I bring commercial experience, and my own instinct as an editor.

Kellie: And you write too? And teach, of course?

Andrew: Yes, I also write, though in a haphazard way. Mostly short fiction. So … I sympathise.

More than anything, I consider myself a reader, I think, which is one reason I love being an editor. I was always writing as a kid, but that seemed to stop sometime after I began work in publishing. Reading is very consuming when you work in-house.

Then I started writing in earnest as an adult when I studied and later taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, which recently discovered it is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement. Working among poets and small press publishers and activists as both writer and teacher gave me many gifts, not least among them an understanding of contemplative traditions in the arts.

In my practice as a teacher and an editor, I try to bring together these two approaches: an indulgence of creativity for its own sake, but also an understanding of what it takes to get published. These are not mutually exclusive categories.

I also find similarities between my editor self, who’s always seeking to improve the work, and my teacher self, who’s always trying to make writers more curious about their potential.

Kellie: If a writer is struggling with a particular aspect of self-editing will there be an opportunity to explore this problem on the day?

Andrew: Absolutely. We’ll probably open with an overview of the types of editing done by both writers and publishers, and subsequent sessions will be focused on different aspects of craft: the bigger picture of character, setting, and storyline; choices in narrative style; and last but not least the nuts and bolts of prose style. There will be plenty of chance to raise questions throughout the day – specific examples will offer everyone valuable lessons.

The group will be relatively small, so even the shy ones will get a chance to speak. I’m hoping there will also be room for everyone to share some of their writing or maybe a rough outline with other writers, working as partner-editors or in small groups.

Kellie: And we‘re concluding the day with a Q&A with an editor?

Andrew: Lennie Goodings, the chair of Virago Press, is a good friend – I first met when we attended editorial meetings together at Little, Brown. I cannot think of any press more hallowed than Virago, and Lennie is, simply, one of the best publishers in the business. She’s passionate and engaged, and she understands the book trade, and she has a sense of humour (a requisite in any workplace). And she edits – yes, she edits! Contrary to scurrilous newspaper reports, editors do edit, and the list of authors that Lennie’s worked with speaks for itself.

Lennie is also writing a book for Oxford University Press called The Idealistic Publisher. I think the world needs some idealism right now.

We’ll probably have a couple of questions ourselves to ask Lennie to get things started. But I’m hoping that the delegates will bring lots of questions of their own, and we can have a lively discussion about books and writing and editing. There might even be gossip. (Where publishers gather, there is always gossip.)

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Kellie: Can you elaborate about your idea of a DIY MA? What’s the ethos behind your idea? How would this work and who would it be aimed at?

Andrew: There are so many resources out there: workshops, masterclasses, writing groups, mentoring, retreats, online courses, festivals, genre conventions … I’m interested in helping writers to develop their own programme of studies in the craft and process of writing. I have blogged in more detail about this here: Learning and Studying and Writing: A DIY MA in Creative Writing.

Kellie: Incidentally, I’m testing out some new cake recipes to bring along for morning and afternoon tea. Besides your editing expertise, what are you bringing?

Andrew: I have a sweet tooth, so biscuits might be involved, but I can’t swear they’ll be homemade. I’ll also bring lots of handouts and worksheets. We can’t possibly cover everything about revising and self-editing in a day, but we can send everyone home fired up, and equipped with a set of exercises to try out on their work-in-progress.

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Hope to see some of you at the workshop if not before!

Kellie

 Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive
Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive

Festival of Writing 2017

The 2017 Festival of Writing in York was great fun – it’s always lovely to end the summer seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve already posted my I Remember for the weekend. I was only sorry that timings meant I missed Sam Jordison’s industry panel, as I really love the work of Galley Beggar Press. But overall I had a (slightly) easier schedule this year, too, which meant I felt less rushed and had more energy and felt more relaxed. Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for once again inviting me.

Here are a few notes and links following up from workshops and talking to writers.

BOOK DOCTOR SESSIONS
The book doctor sessions were probably the highlight, as I love nothing more than that one-on-one interaction of working with writers, saying what is working well and asking questions that invite them to dig deeper, often into unexpected places. Sometimes I sense that writers aren’t confident about where to take their work, and an outside prod is what’s needed. I am a prodder.

In terms of craft, I often found myself asking for more MOOD or EDGE in the writing (often a matter of working on VOICE, PACE, or TENSION), or a clearer FOCUS on EXTERNAL ACTION: every chapter, every page, every paragraph should have a gift for the readers, and many of those gifts will involve changes in the outside world that actively move the story forward. We also have to make allowances for giving the reader a breather, of course, e.g., fantasy novels may indulge in a fat paragraph of description here or there, if they bring that world to life.

Here is a link to an older blog post on getting feedback on your work.

WORKSHOPS
My workshops followed a sequence, I realised, from the bigger picture of story (plotting) to the craft of telling a story (showing and telling) to the nuts and bolts of voice and style (nouns and verbs).

Plotting mini-course
Story is what it’s all about for me, and plotting is what makes stories come alive.

I really enjoyed leading this longer version of a workshop I first did at this year’s Getting Published Day, though it was a bigger room and a slightly larger group and I wasn’t really able to find out what everyone was working on this year.

The biggest take from this class, I feel: the active engagement of plot as a verb rather than a noun, which is why I prefer to think about plotting rather than plot. One of my favourite plots comes from Fingersmith, whose scheming characters use or are described with variations of the word plot 37 times. Let your characters plot, and let their plottings arise from their yearnings.

We looked at: character as the heart of plotting and your stories; structure and time; conventions and types of story; and outlining and drafting as a means of extracting symbol and theme. Along the way we discussed why change is probably a more important driver for story than conflict, and how Dolores Umbridge in her pink jacket and Cersei Lannister in her Shame! Shame! Shame! are more engaging antagonists than Voldemort and the Night King.

To create some rising action of our own through the push and pull of hope and despair, we did a Fortunately/Unfortunately exercise as a pass-around. I wish we’d had chairs in a big circle so our creative collaborations could logistically have been a bit easier! But I was impressed how some mini epics were cooked out of the given constraints (a genre; a positive or negative change; continuing what someone else had written).

I also suggested a number of exercises for people to try at home, as well as prompts for reflection in their writing journals (you do keep one, don’t you?!).

There are a lot of books on structure and plot, and some that shall remain unnamed are rather, um, mansplainy. You have to know this stuff, but I find they often overegg things.

Here are the ones I like, along with other relevant links from our discussion, as well as a few extras I couldn’t shoehorn in:

* Stephen King, On Writing (I just got the audio version, read by the man himself – fab)

* Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer

* Albert Zuckerman, Writing the Blockbuster Novel

* Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

* Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* University of British Columbia/edX, How To Write A Novel – an excellent course I reviewed here

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* What makes a hero? from TedEd – as well as watching the film, be sure to check out further resources under Dig Deeper

* Sophie Hannah, Top Ten Twists in Fiction

* And for taking some of your work deeper: Friday Writing Experiment: Word Power

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
We deconstructed the creative writing myth Show Don’t Tell, making a case for storytelling and a narrator, and using an Ernest Hemingway short story and the opening of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain to identify some of the techniques that help create the mood necessary for emotional engagement with a story. Here are some links to posts I mentioned:

* Tell Me A Story (my own blog)

* A Book Is Not A Film (my own blog)

* Psychic Distance: What It Is And How To Use It (from Emma Darwin’s blog)

* The Ultimate Description Toolkit (some excellent tools to help with showing from Angela Ackerman)

* Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ A Universal Truth Or A Colonial Relic?

Nouns & Verbs
The simple message of this workshop is: choose the best subjects for your sentences, and then choose the best verbs to power what they do, and probably pick as few verbs as you can get away with, else they’ll be cluttering or confusing your writing.

Also: be specific when necessary, but you can sometimes leave something to the reader’s imagination.

And: adverbs and adjectives are fine – but as Ursula Le Guin says, they add fat, and stories need muscle. I mentioned Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt, whose statistical survey of classic and bestselling books does in fact prove that what are commonly regarded as the best books have the fewest adverbs.

Adverbs and adjectives tell. Nouns and verbs show. What balance is required for your writing?

Recommended resources:

*  Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs, from Chuck Paluhniak

* Anyone who wants a lively and informative guide to grammar could take a look at Constance Hale’s brilliant Sin and Syntax.

* And Steering the Craft contains much crisp advice and wisdom from Ursula Le Guin, as well as plenty of exercises. Really, you have to try all this out by putting some of it into practice.

AND COMING SOON …
The workshops I ran at York this year were craft-based, with a bit of motivational pep talk in the delivery, I hope.

If you’re interested in something a little different, and are available and close to London, on Saturday 18 November I’m leading a one-day workshop on creativity in collaboration with Kellie Jackson, who runs the Words Away salon series. You can read a little more about my inspirations for this workshop in this interview with Kellie.