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.


I Don’t Remember: Writing Experiment No. 67

Earlier today, Kellie Jackson directed me to this powerful photo essay on the stolen generations of Australia. The accompanying essay talks about ‘disremembering’ – the untold histories, the silenced voices, the highly selective nature of looking at colonial history.

It made us think about the I Remember exercises that are probably my favourite writing experiments – there’s no better way of establishing an easy voice in writing. I Remember can be a charming nostalgic trip, or a journey back into sad moments, but it tends to directly access lived experiences that bring a whole time and place to life.

I Don’t Remember, on the other hand, invites a degree of irony, or asks us to be more critical about received wisdoms. Don’t-Remembering is, of course, a means of remembering too, and it’s one that might require a little more work, a look aslant – recovering, revisiting, restoring the truth, whether it’s dealing with family secrets or fake news or the brushed-over abuses of history. I Don’t Remember confronts lies, and makes us bear witness. It digs deep, and gets to the core.

For this writing experiment: Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write an I Don’t Remember … Start every line/sentence/paragraph with I Don’t Remember, and see what comes next. Once you come to a halt start the next I Don’t Remember, and continue until the timer rings.

Interview: The Four Elements of Creativity

Kellie Jackson from Words Away interviewed me for her blog (10 September 2017) in advance of the Everyday Magic workshop we ran in November 2017.

Kellie: Is this workshop suitable for a beginner or of more benefit to a more advanced or published writer?

Andrew: Anyone interested in writing – or any artistic practice. I strongly feel that true artists are permanent learners, constantly evolving and keeping their work fresh.

Kellie: As a writer I’m often trying to achieve a goal or outcome; be it a short story for a deadline or a novel to submit to a prospective agent. Why might I give time to putting outcome aside and focus on creativity?

Andrew: I sometimes observe a certain grasping quality among unpublished writers. Part of my job is of course to help writers understand how to make their work more publishable, and that involves practical matters in exploring the writer’s craft. And a tangible goal is always important. But a focus on outcomes can sometimes get in the way of making the most of the fresh, moment-by-moment experience of writing. Those neuroses creep in. I often see writers tense up, worrying about what an agent might think, or anxious about getting things ‘wrong’.

Any craft requires discipline and rigour, but the idea of right and wrong can be inhibiting in the arts. So it can help to trick the mind and put these concerns to one side, at least for a while (and not least because worries about agents’ opinions are usually jumping the gun).

Kellie: What can a writer do to put these concerns to one side?

Andrew: Relax. Surprise yourself. Let your subconscious do some of the work. Experiment, and give yourself the freedom to fail from time to time, because you will learn something from your mistakes. In fact: what is failure, if you have gained something from it?

And failure (also known as experimenting) is an essential part of drafting. Embrace failure! Aim to fail somewhere along the way, and see what comes up and what you learn from it. I am convinced that what arises will in fact help in getting you towards that goal of being published too.

Kellie: Why have you focused on the four elements for this workshop?

Andrew: I started off thinking about the difference between the right brain (loosely associated with creativity and intuition) and the left brain (associated with structure and the rational mind). But I resist binary thinking and either/or – the world is always more complex than that.

I also became interested in tarot, and particularly its use of symbols and archetypes as they relate to storytelling (its fortune-telling aspects don’t appeal so much). The four suits in tarot are related to the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air, which also occur in classical philosophy and astrology, and present themselves in other ways in many contexts. Jungian psychology describes four functions: intuiting, feeling, sensing, and thinking. Myers-Briggs personality tests, often used in professional training, draw on aspects of the four elements too.

Kellie: Are four elements enough to work with?

Andrew: Some traditions have five elements. Indian philosophy gives us seven chakras. I like the balance of four, and the symbolic powers represented by the elements are easily understood in the context of writing. I began to see how working symbolically with the four elements can help to deepen writing and make it more engaging.

Kellie: How will this be applied in the workshop environment?

Andrew: In a Four Elements workshop, we read or listen to samples of writing, and then we discuss how the four elements come to life in them. Water, for example, represents feeling, so we identify ways in which the workings of tone carry emotion to the reader. And then we put this into practice with some exercises. I usually give suggestions for writing experiments to try at home too.

Kellie: Have you given a workshop like this previously and how did you develop the idea?

Andrew: In my work as an editor and book doctor, I often come across writing that seems overthought, cluttered, or trying too hard – it feels neurotic. It can be flat, and fail to engage – it lacks mood or emotion. Then I meet the writers of these manuscripts, and they describe their work in conversation with more passion, eloquence and ease than they achieve in the writing; I often find myself saying: ‘Write that down! Bottle it’ – that energy belongs somewhere in your book.

I also feel that many conversations about writing are over-intellectualised. It certainly helps to understand concepts from literary criticism, but theory can also contribute to the clutter that gets in the way of clear expression. This is material that should be understood deeply but practised lightly.

As a teacher I thought about a framework in which we can develop more intuitive or holistic approaches to writing while still paying attention to important practical matters of craft such as voice and characterisation. I was looking for ways for us to learn – or rediscover – how to restore such natural qualities to our writing.

Kellie: When you first described this workshop, I wondered if it might be too experimental or hippied-out for my taste.  What would you say to someone who’s interested in creativity but worried that this workshop might be too out-there?

Andrew: Loosen up! Embrace your inner hippie. I’m serious: don’t take yourself too seriously. Invite a little of the wild in, and relax into your best self.

But you can still take your writing seriously. If you are not a hippie or an experimental type, I’d suggest that it’s good to embrace a different style, even if just for a while. Just as conventional writing can gain from trying more experimental approaches, experimental writing gains from understanding the conventions.

And again, I question the binary of conventional vs experimental. I think all projects of the imagination draw on both convention and experimentation. Writers and artists must be open and alert to all possibilities.

Kellie: Last question. How can we develop our intuition as a writer (or editor) and in what way might this feed our creative life?

Andrew: Read widely and deeply. Read beyond your usual taste or genres. Listen to audiobooks, especially of favourite books you’ve read already – listening is an embodying experience that burrows deep. Read interviews with your favourite writers (try the Paris Review ones or run a search on YouTube). Write regularly – every day if you can. Be open to experiment. Do other things that stimulate you, particularly in non-verbal ways: gardening, yoga, walking the dog, cooking, photography, swimming.

And most of all: have fun! The teachers who’ve influenced me most have been the ones who create most fun in the classroom. From Naropa University’s Kerouac School, where I studied and later taught, I particularly think about Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who stresses the importance of the natural speaking voice, and Jack Collom, who frequently used poems written by children as inspirations. I also greatly admire the teaching philosophy of Lynda Barry, with its emphasis on play. And Ray Bradbury, who says that the things that you do should be things that you love, and things that you love should be things that you do. Having fun is the best nourishment, and the best way to avoid the trap of self-consciousness.


Do You Think Writing Can Be Taught?


How many times do we have to revisit this question of whether writing can be taught? Of course writing can be taught. Painters are taught how to use colour, or wash brushes, or draw a dog in motion or at rest. Gardeners are taught how to make acid soil more alkaline  or to adapt by planting acid-loving plants.

I have in my time frequently encountered the view that that writing can’t be taught, but I have little patience with dinosaurs and dullards who resist the idea of learning. I do however understand that sometimes the teaching of writing is uninspiring, clunky, or wrong-headed – or simply of a style unsuitable to what the writer needs right now.

The other day I read an interview with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard where he answers the question ‘do you think writing can be taught?’ like this:

No. You have to learn it yourself. It’s like playing, you know? And you have to find your own way. So no, you can’t teach that. But there are so many other things you can teach.

This is what I believe. I’m a teacher, so I believe in the idea of teaching and learning and studying. I believe in the principle of improvement. Even the most experienced writers learn new things all the time, or learn to see things afresh (seeing things afresh is an important lesson for writers who are switching from, say, journalism to fiction, or vice versa).

I do think that writers need to take charge of their own learning. Sometimes writing students can seem to get a little locked into the idea of finding easy solutions, and some teachers or courses are perhaps a bit too tired or prescriptive in the expectations they create – that goes for publishers and agents too. And creative writing doesn’t really work like that. The imagination needs to find its own way.

Yet the best answers usually come through a process of searching, and there remain many things to learn (or be taught). Nowadays there are so many options available to writers: workshops, academic writing programmes, online courses, creative writing manuals, writers’ conferences, genre conventions, literary festivals,  manuscript critiques, writing groups.

I’m a big believer in writers and artists making their own way – and even if you’re following other ways (such as an MA or a PhD), they are rarely enough; a formal qualification usually needs extending in some way or other to become meaningful (to finish the manuscript; to get published).

I’ve discussed this in another blog post on the idea of a DIY MA in Creative Writing, and I shall be taking some of these ideas further in an afternoon-long course I’ll be teaching on the Friday afternoon of the 2016 York Festival of Writing, which runs from 9 to 11 September this year. I’ll be offering suggestions, guidance, and recommendations for writers who want to develop their own self-directed programme of studies, and I’ll be promoting ways in which writers can develop an instinct for what works in their writing, for what holds up, for what feeds their imaginations.

Also in attendance at York will be plenty of excellent teachers and writers (or teacher-writers?) offering their own perspectives too; the editors and agents who’ll be there looking for new talent will be there in some capacity as teachers too, with lessons to share for those listening.

I’m also teaching workshops on the related but distinct topics of voice and tone at York, and I’ll be book doctoring there too. Later in September in London I’m also hoping to teach a fuller, day-long workshop on voice, which will look more closely at aspects of craft such as point of view, narration, tone, and prose style, using examples from popular and classic books as the basis for discussion and spurring writers to try new things in their own work.

And before that I’m also leading a workshop on Showing & Telling & Storytelling at the Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon at Waterstones Piccadilly on Friday 27 May.

Can writing be taught? Of course it can!

This Week: Lines and Holes

  This week:

* I read the excellent Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night as well as this profile on the Making Of A Writer. For some reason, I paused and wondered if Haruf might have been more widely known if he’d been a woman. Not that he wasn’t widely known, but his prose style really excels in a way that few others quite match, and for that he should be one of those writers who has been read by everyone who’s serious about writing themselves, and that is far from the case. Is it that his novels have modest and domestic settings, and it’s okay for women to write about those, but not so much for men? Such pigeonholing limits both men and women, and if we are to break out of that perhaps we need to recognise that men can and should write about the domestic just as much as women can and should write beyond it. Never mind, he took me to small towns in Colorado with some haunting images and sharp turns of phrase. Fantastic dialogue too – some of the best.

* Talking of pigeonholes, I read a thought-provoking piece about desegregating literature. It made me think about the lines that writers write across: lines of colour, lines of gender, lines of otherness. Also lines of responsibility in writing.

* Some of these (and other) points were addressed more specifically in this Guardian-hosted conversation about African writing.

* I also read a profile of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

* And took a look at David Foster Wallace.

* I chuckled to read how Twitter taunted EL James. I’ve yet to read a word of any of her books, so what do I know? But I cannot forget the fact that her lawyers got heavy on a parody, while her book is itself just a piece of clit-friggy fan fiction.

* I celebrated Olivia De Havilland’s 99th birthday!

* I was encouraged to read a piece on growing fruits and vegetables in schools. After the teaching of history, I cannot think of anything more valuable for children to learn than gardening. (Except perhaps a foreign language.) Horticulture should be on the national curriculum.

The event I’m sorry I missed: the Classic English Whippet Derby.

Food experiment of the week: I made ice cream for the first time. Lemon and saffron. Jury’s still out – it’s in the freezer, doing its freezing (and apparently without needing a stir, though I have done). And I made one half with Xylitol, to experiment with alternatives to sugar.