Books of 2017

I read some good books this year. I also thought I had read a lot of books this year until I got a holiday round-robin from my auntie Ruth, who mentioned in passing the 188 books she’d read in 2017 (this was early December), including ones in the original Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French (she read some from German and Russian in translation, she said – though she speaks those languages, and another seven too). Not so pleased with myself now, am I?!

Some of the books I mention below as read in 2017 were published during this year, some were older ones that I finally got round to, some were rereads. Some books were overrated, overhyped, execrable. But my new year resolution is to try to be positive in the world (wishy-washy if well-meaning), so (for now at least) let’s leave it at that. There were plenty of books that lie unfinished, too – some not worth finishing, or perhaps I’m simply not ready for them yet. So many books!

Off the top of my head, two novels gave me most pleasure this year. One was The Green Road by Anne Enright. Among its many strengths, The Green Road has a structure I love – slabs of narrative that the reader is left to stitch together, and that cohere with force at the end. The characterisation is also disarming – these feel like real people, with all the points of affection or irritation you’d find in family members. You feel you are getting full lives, full stories here. I also loved the saltiness of the politics in this Anne Enright essay in the London Review of Books – potent, but not at all preachy.

The other novel I really loved was Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I knew it was set during the American Civil War, but I didn’t know other things about it, and it surprised me to the end. Barry wears his research lightly, and his narrator’s voice is winning.

Increasingly I find the short story most consistently pleasurable as a literary form, and among many stories I read in 2017 two collections stick in my mind. Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars gave me elephants and emperors and explorers and spaceships – stories with real dash and imagination, unbounded by genre or categorisation. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees gives us sharply drawn tales of migrants and families.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a big, baggy novel full of heart, and it was a pleasure to lose myself in it. And after that I read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – another big novel with big themes that’s become my favourite among her books. A further summer read was one of Kent Haruf’s earlier novels The Ties That Bind – his stories of extraordinary ordinary lives in Colorado make him, for me, one of the great prose stylists. The North Water by Iain McGuire was a bloody tale of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century, and also an example of a novel that uses present tense most effectively (I have to collect examples of such things, given how often I tell people that using the past tense is probably easiest and most sensible in writing a novel).

A couple of books I loved for their strangeness. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Xan Brooks’s The Clocks In The House All Tell Different Times takes something disturbing and makes something surprising out of it – an unflinching book. And Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing On Earth has great mood and mystery.

Two works of nonfiction told powerful stories of gay history and current affairs: Cleve Jones’s When We Rise and Paul Flynn’s Good As You. I also gained much from Why Buddhism Is True by Ronald Wright and The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning by Iain McGilchrist. The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats is a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s lectures edited by Bill Morgan that took me back to Naropa, and it also made me think how much I enjoy the syllabus as a literary form (see also: Lynda Barry).

One of my most memorable book experiences of the year came from listening to the audiobook of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I first read it over thirty years ago, and it was a real treat to have it read to me this time round, even if the playing fields of Twickenham, where I was often walking my dog at the time, lack the romance of the wide open spaces of Nebraska. What I particularly noticed is that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just very well observed. People are observed with heart, landscapes are observed with lyricism; everything changes, and everything stays the same – and there’s a point to that. I often recommend that writers listen to the audiobooks of favourites of their youth or childhood – I think we absorb a great deal when we soak up in this way a story that means so much to us. In the case of My Antonia, in fact, it had been so long that I had forgotten much of the story, though certain vivid images (a dead man in a freezing barn; a silhouette on the prairie) remained etched on my mind – or is it my heart? But I have always remembered the tone of the writing: warm, generous, wistful – a memorable experience of feeling in writing after most of the details were gone. The tone is perhaps even more alive in this audio version. (Much depends, of course, on the narrator chosen to read.)

Another great listening experience was the Mindful U podcast from my alma mater Naropa.

Coming in 2018 is Home by Amanda Berriman. What impresses me most of all: it uses not only the point of view but the voice of a four-year-old girl to tell the whole story. I know, I know – we don’t work with children or animals, but it’s wonderful when something so daring is so accomplished (plus: Watership Down – okay, books are not films in other ways too). What’s more, given its gritty subject matter, is that it has flashes of irony, even humour, dare I say. I know Mandy from various writing events, and know something of her application to learning the craft, so this makes this debut even more exciting – she deserves every success.

Another debut novelist I know professionally is Terri Fleming, whose Perception was published this year. It’s a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that focuses on the stories of Mary and Kitty, and it possesses real wit and economy, and some rich characterisation. I gave this as a gift to several Janeite friends during 2017, and everyone loved it. Some real raves.

I ended the year reading the diary bits of Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On and then Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days. Both have distinct voices, and both are uncompromising in their politics – sometimes directly, sometimes more subtly. Jeanette’s Christmas book was recommended to me after last Christmas, and I’m glad I saved it until this one. It’s charming.

I also reread Moominland Midwinter, and was very excited to see the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Beyond books, the revival of Angels in America in June was magical! We saw it first time round, and we loved every bit of it this year: funny, fantastic, gutsy, fierce. The Angel in this version was not what I expected, but I very much liked.

I very much enjoyed seeing George Saunders talk about writing and read from his work (along with a troupe of performers at Goldsmith’s) this year; he is a funny and generous man. Words Away salons with Monica Ali and Tessa Hadley were other highlights among events, as was the Polari tenth-anniversary reading at the Southbank Centre.

On TV I loved Big Little Lies. Christmas was a bit thin on TV offerings, though I did love the hammy Crooked House on Channel 5, which I thought was more fun (less pretentious) than the recent BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie. No one chews scenery better than Glenn Close. And we did catch up on a lot of Larry David in December too.

So: put on the spot, I guess my books of 2017 were The Green Road, Days Without End, and My Antonia.

Happy New Year!

Everyday Magic Workshop, 18 November 2017

On Saturday I led a workshop called Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity in conjunction with Words Away. It was the first time that I had done this workshop as a day-long event, and I was also particularly excited to teach a Four Elements workshop in London for the first time; a peculiar and unexpected thrill came from teaching something that I am passionate about in the city that I love. Totally in my element! And maybe after all London is finally my home town.

I was very pleased with how the day went. A super bunch of writers came – many of them very experienced and published writers, and all of them passionate and engaged. Through readings and discussion, we freed up our writing by seeking out and activating the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Much of the work involves making space for our Observing Minds, giving our Thinking Minds a rest and not worrying about judgment and outcome. I am a big believer in drafting, but the editing comes later. For now: create! Generate writing, and let sparks fly.

We put this into practice with some fun exercises too. The idea of play is important, which might involve some relearning, or unlearning. I especially enjoyed the pass-around stories, which proved how shiny and brilliant writing can be if we create conditions that let ourselves be spontaneous; the collaborative element also makes them good exercises in letting go of attachments.

London Bridge Hive was an excellent space for a class.

We all need our own writer’s shrine, and here was our impromptu one for the day.

We also all need our own Little Mys, or trickster spirit guides. (Though maybe not the sweater vest and scarf next time?! And maybe not clutch the back of that chair quite like Larry Grayson?! Shut that door!)

I produced a little pamphlet of exercises and inspirations …

… as well as some bookmarks. Maybe I’ll become a bookmark publisher.

Among others, that quote from John Keats and another from Zadie Smith came up in our discussion:

It was a long day, but we all kept going, and you know what they say about time flying … Thanks to everyone who came and made this such an enjoyable day.

And special thanks to the wonderful Kellie Jackson of Words Away for helping get this event off the ground. We hope to run this workshop again in the new year, and are thinking about holding some others. Contact Kellie via Words Away to express your interest – and also to take a look at some of the guests at their forthcoming salons. See you there!

(Update: we are running this workshop again on Saturday 21 April 2018 – more information here.)

Everyday Magic: Future Attractions!

Writing is often described as a form of magic – alchemy. Tor Udall spoke about writing in these terms just last weekend at the Festival of Writing. Something gets transformed, spun out of a few ingredients: pictures and sounds we hold in our mind, memories, yearnings, random happenings, pen and paper. The imagination is fed, and creates something. Yes, this really is magic.

Sometimes the imagination needs a spur, though, or to free itself of clutter or anxieties or other forms of self-consciousness, and this is why I have developed Four Elements workshops for writers keen to find fresh approaches in writing. Using Fire, Water, Earth, and Air for a framework of readings, reflections, and writing experiments, they are inspired by many things, such as mindfulness practices, tarot, and my practical understanding of publishing, but mostly they are fed by our love of books and stories and writing.

On Saturday 18 November, I am really excited to be collaborating with Kellie Jackson of Words Away to offer Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity as a one-day workshop at London Bridge Hive.

Kellie hosts, along with Emma Darwin, the very wonderful Words Away writers’ salons at the Teahouse Theatre in Vauxhall. This series has quickly established itself with engaging guests and a great crowd of regulars. Kellie is a lot of fun to work with, and we are excited about this workshop.

If you are in/near London, do think about coming along. We are hoping to get a good mix of people attending.

You can read some more about the inspirations for this workshop in this interview I did with Kellie.

And you can book a place here.

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.

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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.