Category: Writing Experiments

Only Connect: Writing Experiment No. 74

1.

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

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

What did you inherit?

What did you reproduce?

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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:

***

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.

 

***

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!

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

items.[0].image.alt

Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in many instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!

 

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.]