Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

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

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

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

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

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

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

Getting Published Day 2016


Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

Getting Published Day, 2 March 2013: Follow-up Notes

I was at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published day as a book doctor on Saturday. I met a number of writers to give them feedback on sample material for their proposed submissions to agents, and I also led a workshop on voice, in which I talked about the value of the natural speaking voice. It was a lot of fun, as it always is when you get to meet writers directly. And as ever the Writers’ Workshop people were fun and well organised and direct in addressing the needs of writers: thanks to Harry, Laura, Nikki, Deborah, Lydia, John, and everyone else involved, and it was great to meet the other book doctors again or for the first time.

Here are a few notes to follow up, including some of the resources mentioned during the day.

The workshop
* To start, we discussed the idea of trusting the natural speaking VOICE as a vehicle for your writing, and considered how TONE in writing particularly concerns itself with introducing an emotional quality.

* We looked at some examples of professional writing for the structures and patterns we often use in business or academic contexts (e.g., an objective tone; lots of subordinating clauses). Such voices often lack personality, and intentionally. But in fiction or more creative forms, a neutral voice can feel colourless, and fiction can start to feel cluttered by certain forms of syntax that let us pack in or even bury information when we need it. Yet very often, these have become the ways we write – our natural way of writing.

* By contrast, thinking about the NATURAL SPEAKING VOICE (and thinking and remembering voice), we read a selection from Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’, and wrote our own versions and then read them aloud. This form is natural and easy to use, and it is notable how it relies on simple sentence structures (okay, we’re going to introduce sentence variety later). It also has the strength of instinctively focusing our writing on concrete and specific words, especially nouns and verbs (adjectives and adverbs are so rarely needed, even if they do add a certain something).

* I read aloud the opening from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and noted not only its gossipy quality, but how every sentence in that first paragraph is directed towards the idea of STORYTELLING or NARRATION. (And what is gossip, if not storytelling?!) We also noted that the voice and tone here belong to a specific PERSONA (in this case, judgemental and even bitchy), and this can enrich the CHARACTERISATION in our work (this being the persona, not the bitchiness – though maybe that too!).

* We also looked at and listened to Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ as an example of writing that takes a particular tone, again a judgemental one. I wish I’d had a bit more time to discuss tone, so I’ll mention it briefly here: there are specific ways we can vary the tone in terms of not only form (e.g., word choices, using different parts of speech, sentence lengths, modes of address), but also content (the narrative ingredients selected for observation and inclusion).

Something I did not mention in the workshop was this great statement on simplicity in writing from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:

the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.

That might sound a bit extreme, especially if you’re working in a more literary mode. But this emphasis on simplicity – the simplicity found in the natural speaking voice – is perhaps one of the best foundations for most good writing.

Book doctoring
It was interesting that the writer whose voice I thought most striking and fresh from her submission turned out not to be a native speaker of English. Which perhaps accounted for the number of slips in spelling! But even those sorts of slips just go to show that a good voice shines through anyway. And also that there are differing definitions of perfection – after all, we need to keep some work for the copyeditors. Anyway, I’d never have guessed she was not a native English speaker; a particular name, in fact, made me think she was an English woman of a certain age, and that was what I was expecting. Wow. To do that in a language you weren’t born into; puts most of us native English speakers to shame.

In addition, this writer comes from a part of the world that might bring a fresh perspective to an established genre, and I encouraged her to think about introducing more of that into the writing too. Good luck to her!

Some of the things that came up in other samples: writing that packs too much in too soon; various other issues of pacing; developing a narrative focus, and letting unfolding action tell the story; overwriting, especially overexplaining (fiction can suggest, be allusive); using point of view to give a story an edge; prose style needing more life, texture, and colour (specific and concrete imagery often add a spike of energy, as do well-selected verbs and nouns).

It’s also a good idea to know your genre, and what might be expected of it – everything from conventions you can use, to trends, to word lengths. This knowledge can grow your own instinct in writing. It’s worth paying a visit to a larger or specialist bookshop, maybe during the morning when you might be able to chat with a bookseller about trends and popular writers. Pick up some recommended books, if you have not read them already, and sample them for what you can bring to your own work.

And beyond the writing, writers often need to think about the profile and platform that might help an agent or publisher promote your work. Even in fiction. In fact, personal experience can often inform the writing in good, instinctive ways, lending it depth and authority. Though of course we must always allow for flights of fancy and imagination, too.

Finally, don’t forget that publishing is something of a lottery. I tend to think that the best books eventually find a home, though whether they sell once published is another matter. And of course some not so great books get published and become roaring successes – but that is usually because they connect with something or other among a readership. What is that thing in your writing that might connect?

Recommended reading
Regardless of the genre you’re working in, these are some of the most useful books on writing. And yes, you probably can gain from doing a bit of studying of this sort, either on your own or in a creative writing class. Understanding techniques in writing will just add depth to your work.

Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale
Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin
The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
How to Write, by Harry Bingham
On Writing, by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias

Memoirists might also find useful:

Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg
The Arvon Book of Life Writing, by Sally Cline and Carole Angier
my own notes on writing a nonfiction book proposal

And for revising your work:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was great to meet everyone else there too.