York Festival of Writing 2013: Mini-Course, Workshops, And Panel


Here are some links and notes arising from the mini-course and workshops I led at the Festival of Writing at the weekend.



Carolyn Forche, ‘The Colonel’ – listen first, then read. Where is the FIRE?!

I used ‘I Remember’ in this mini-course, and it is also a starting point for a Friday Writing Experiment elsewhere on my site. I love this exercise for many reasons, and most of all for how it fosters a natural and easy (instinctive) voice within the writing. All credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.

If you’re curious about the tarot images that first inspired me, some pictures of the Rider-Waite deck are linked here. I suggest you look at the Aces of each of the suits/elements – Wands/Fire, Cups/Water, Swords/Air, and Pentacles/Earth – and if you want to go further maybe take a look at Queens, Kings, Knights, and Pages. I love these traditional images. Maybe you can think about ways in which they embody purpose, emotion, thinking, and the material world in powerful, symbolic ways. Maybe the pictures can even give you some ideas about how to use their respective elements in your writing.

One day I hope to write and publish a book on The Four Elements of Writing …



You can find some examples of good cover letters at Mediabistro’s GalleyCat: ‘Successful Query Letters For Literary Agents’ (fiction) and ‘Agent Query Letters That Actually Worked For Nonfiction’. They are American, so be forgiving, and imaginative in how you need to adapt.

I can’t remember if they were mentioned at the panel, but do consider the resources and events of genre organisations such as the British Science Fiction Association, the British Fantasy Society, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. AboutSF has a ton of resources too.

Oh, and sorry if I sounded snippy about the idea of magical realism. I LOVE MAGICAL REALISM, and even write stuff that could fit in that vein sometimes. But this article touches on some of the issues of how it can be more problematic as a working definition for writers than it is as a literary term used by scholars. My biggest issue with magical realism: thinking about it can make the writing too intellectualised, or overthought. (But then overthinking can be a problem when world creation takes over many sf and fantasy stories.)



Okay, I was a bit overambitious with this one, and I apologise for that. It was supposed to be half about what happens during editorial processes at a publisher, and half made up of tips on editing for writers, but I only really covered the first half.

The one thing I really want to emphasise: if you are self-publishing, please build these editorial stages into your workflow:

* structural editing (mostly: matters of shaping the content)
* copyediting (mostly: improving the text word by word and line by line)
* proofreading (quality control: eyeballing of the text in its final format)

I really believe in self-publishing. Really really really do. But there are too many editorially substandard self-published works out there. Yours must not be one of them.

And if you are aiming for someone else to publish you, you can probably (within reason) let their copyeditor worry about your hyphenation patterns and punctuation. We don’t want such anxieties to stifle your creativity. Just be sure your slip is not showing in such a way that you look sloppy or unprofessional.


* The University of Oxford Style Guide (more academic, of course, but covers many of the basics)
* George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (the full version)
* The Subversive Copy Editor blog (so you know who we fret over, so you shouldn’t)
* Philip Pullman on novels in the present tense (okay, never say never, but really really think through the limits of the present tense)
* In case you really care (and want to come into the Light): That vs Which
* David Gaughran, Let’s Get Digital (okay, he was teaching at York last weekend too, but if you are self-publishing and did not attend his classes you should probably take a look at his books – they are excellent)
* Some coverage of the Joan Collins trial:

Stephanie has a miscarriage and tells a doctor or nurse not to tell anyone, while she goes about trying to adopt a baby. In the meantime, she pretends for eight months to be pregnant. When the husband of her best friend sees her without her pregnancy disguise, she murders him. Then she runs to the forest to give birth to her imaginary child. Or something like that.

An editor should be able to help …



Last week I was cursing myself. What on earth did I sign up for this for six months ago? I’ve not covered this in an hour-long session before, and I don’t have all that grammatical jargon at my fingertips, because I wasn’t taught it either; I’ve had to mug up on it during my years of teaching, and it still doesn’t always come to me instinctively. Or to think about it sideways: my instinct tells me to go ahead and edit a sentence, but I don’t always know why, and as a teacher I need to know why, and I also need to be able to translate all that bloody jargon into something other writers can understand. I mean, come on – even the grammarians can’t agree whether there are eight, or nine, or seven parts of speech …

But I was pleased with how this workshop turned out. You were a great group of patient people (thanks to those who donated sentences!), and I covered the main points I wanted to make even if much of the rest was left to the handouts. Just remember that grammar and syntax are mostly not rules but a working system.

And try to use parts of speech in their best possible ways through remembering that aphorism ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’, and considering how nouns and verbs form their functions there.

Some resources:

* An old and out-of-copyright edition of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, before E.B. White was involved
* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax – recommended if you want an accessible introduction to grammar
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft – in fact, this is perhaps the most accessible guide of all, and includes chapters on: punctuation; sentence length and complex syntax; adjective and adverb; and subject pronoun and verb (you might need to order online)

A snap of that chart of hyphenation patterns from the Chicago Manual of Style is shown above. It’s taken from the 13th edition. They changed some of their own rules for the 16th edition, eek!



I remember forgetting to mention various things at various points during the weekend. I remember that I’ve since forgotten what they were. Oh dear. I’ll remember some other time.

Something I forgot to add when I first posted this was a link to the Erotic Readers & Writers Association for someone I met during a book doctor one-to-one. In general, know thy genre: the conventions used in the writing, the conventions offline and on- where you get to hang out and network (and maybe eventually get published).

And another recommendation for writers of erotica: Elements of Arousal by Lars Eighner. It’s a how-to book on writing erotica that is a little out of date now, thanks to digital publishing, but it has some of the BEST advice on writing fiction of any type (though the faint-hearted might note he also writes gay erotica, and the braver-hearted might find it is out of print, though look around for second-hand copies and also Google the author too).

Something I can’t forget: As ever, many thanks to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop (sorry you couldn’t be there, Harry – but: priorities!). And thanks to everyone else associated, and to everyone who came along and made it such fun. I met some people who now feel like old friends as well as lots of new and fantastic people, both writers and industry professionals.

Beyond that, here are links on the book doctor one-on-ones and where you might want to go next (aka a DIY MA in Creative Writing). And also, here’s a more personal response.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 6: Writing Good Sentences

We can come up with brilliant ideas, storylines, and characters, but they’re unlikely to be much use unless we can bring them to life with elegant, vibrant, cogent, taut, muscular sentences.

I.e., unless we can write.

The book I recommend more than any other to writers and students is Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax, which is a lively and informative overview of all the grammar and usage we probably did not learn in English classes. I’m keen to acquire a copy of her new book Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch (one on the way, or rather, I’m on the way to one), which is – ahhhh! – devoted to verbs, those powerhouses of the sentence. I hope to review both of these books in the near future, but meanwhile take a look at Constance Hale’s newly designed website and blog, which has a ton of useful resources.

And inspired by St Constance’s love for ‘wicked good prose’ (and a day late – oops!), this week’s writing experiment is dedicated to writing powerful sentences.

Take any interesting sentence you’ve written lately – interesting as in a sentence you were pleased with, or maybe it’s a sentence that gave you a problem because it felt a bit clunky or did not quite express what you wanted. Or perhaps it’s just any old sentence from an email, or you can borrow one from someone else.

And if you are feeling bold and have the time: take a whole paragraph.

Now perform at least five different operations on that sentence/paragraph, i.e., rewrite it or modify it in at least five different ways.

Some suggestions:

* Change the word choices subtly, e.g., use a thesaurus to bring different shades of meaning out of each word in the sentence.

* Change the word choices radically, e.g., replace each word with another word that’s an equivalent part of speech acquired randomly – perhaps replace its first noun with the first noun you find in a newspaper story, then replace the next noun with the next noun you find in that same story, and so on. Understand word order, and words as placeholders of content.

* Express the action using passive verbs instead of active, or vice-versa.

* Remove all adjectives.

* Remove all adverbs.

* Change nouns to proper nouns, where you can (e.g., change ‘tea’ to ‘PG Tips’).

* If the/a sentence has more than one verb, remove unnecessary verbs (purging yourself of linking verbs and auxiliary verbs). If all the verbs seem necessary, let them take turns at being the only verb in the sentence. Change the verb if it seems necessary.

* Feel free to extend or develop sentences using content from other sentences from the original text, e.g., merging it with a nearby sentence to create a compound sentence and/or a complex sentence.

* Extend sentences by using a co-ordinating conjunction and another clause to make compound sentences. What effect does that have?

* Extend sentences by using a subordinating conjunction and a dependent clause to make a complex sentences. What effect does that have?

* Double the length of your sentence, without changing the basic meaning.

* Halve the length of your sentence, without changing the basic meaning.

* Rewrite your sentence/paragraph as a text message or a Tweet (under 280 characters, or 140 in old money).

* Add more life to your sentence/paragraph.

* Think abstractly. Conceive of your original sentence/paragraph as an action: right now, is it a kiss, a kick, a projection, a hinge, or some other gesture? How can you make it into a different action: a flight, a decoration, a flick, a punch?

* Assess the elemental quality of your sentence/paragraph: is it mostly Fire, Water, Air, or Earth? Like an alchemist, translate it into another element through your sentence structure and word choices. Aim to keep close to the original meaning, perhaps, but also explore how the sense can be shifted.

* Invent your own sentence operations, and share them with the class. Let your imagination go a bit wild with sentences.

I suggest you do these exercises by hand in a notebook. You can of course do on screen as well. In fact, it might be interesting to explore these processes of composition in different media: on the screen of your phone, on a blackboard, on Post-its.

And then repeat over with a different sentence/paragraph. It can be a good constraint, though, to use the same sentence/paragraph for several different operations in order to explore the possibilities.

If you need to look anything up, and don’t have your own Sin and Syntax (why not?!), here are some useful resources:

* Mantex study notes on English language

* Parts of Speech Overview – from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab

* Definitions of Basic Sentence Parts