I returned last night from the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York, which as usual leaves me tired yet simultaneously full of inspiration and energy. So many books, so many writers, so much gossip, so many friends old and new, so many dog-lovers sharing pics of their hounds on their iPhones. So much passion, so much love.
Agents, editors, and book doctors noted not only an improvement in the quality of the writing that we were reading, but also what seemed to be a shift in expectation. Events such as York can hold out to writers the prospect of snagging a book deal (agents, publishers), but we all know that much depends on taste and luck, and we also know that in many ways writing is often not quite ready yet (those snotty book doctors).
This year it seemed notable that many of the writers (probably all of the ones I spoke to) possessed realistic self-knowledge in greater abundance than unrealistic ambition. We might have a good central idea, and maybe a strong opening chapter, and perhaps a whole first draft complete, but there is still room for the work to grow: aspects of craft to refine the telling of a story, ways to strengthen the voice or build the emotional core of the work. Writers seemed more immediately interested in improving their writing than in getting published, though of course that remains a long-term goal.
It was also noticeable that this patient approach *does* lead to results. People who’ve been working on their writing for some years are now getting manuscripts called in by agents and editors, and acquired for publication. You know who you are!
Many of the delegate writers were already agented or published (both publisher-published and self-published), but came along to York as they feel they still have things to learn: about the craft, about the business of publishing. An event such as York, along with some self-study and writing classes, can be an effective – and more affordable – way to build your own writing programme (see my earlier post on Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing for further ideas on this).
And all of us surely have things to learn every day – I gained so many insights and inspirations this weekend too.
I always leave York feeling there is so much left unsaid – things I could have added to our discussion of readings, for example – but these workshops are more than anything points of departure, offering ideas to take away and experiment with in our writing.
Here, however, are a few links and notes for following up or revisiting:
Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity
Someone who came along tweeted that he might not have done so had he known that he’d be doing a guided meditation! Haha, that’s why I keep that bit (and the tarot cards) quiet. But apparently it helped him unlock the right mindset for the rest of the weekend (thanks for oversharing – something I’m good at, and a quality I commend in others: please make sure I’m there in the audience).
We talked about the left brain and the right brain as we explored ways to expand our process of writing beyond simply thinking about it: clearing our minds (that meditation exercise), getting fired up, creating emotional connections, introducing the full range of sensory experiences into our work, then bringing clarity back into our writing through a powerful central idea. We had some fruitful discussions along the way.
Here is the video of the amazing Lynda Barry describing how creativity gets stunted by self-consciousness, and here is the audio recording of Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’.
A couple of further things. First, I hope I did not seem rude about NaNoWriMo, but I really would love to see writers apply themselves in equal measure to aspects of craft such as voice and narration as they do to composing a stream of 50,000 words. It’s often important to carry out such work away from your master (or mistress) project, so that you can develop these skills on the side then return to your book equipped as a stronger writer. (I post many writing exercises here.)
A good editor/teacher also, when the writer seems ready, needs to be a bit of a bully. Perhaps about things such as writers not apologising for the genre they’re working in: be authentic, and own your genre. Sometimes writers also need prodding into doing things that they say they can’t do. Gentle bullying does not hurt. As Miss Rosenberg said to us in primary school, ‘There’s no such word as can’t in my vocabulary.’
(And is it just me, or are many British writers just a bit uptight about some things?! I use the word uptight in a gentle way too … I say that as a Briton myself, albeit one from the Midlands, where I suspect people are often too laid back to be uptight. That is a good birthright to enjoy.)
Trusting Your Voice
Find your voice: that was the first myth to bust this weekend. Instead, trust the voice you have already, and ‘Tell it fast, honey, tell it fast’ (Bobbie Louise Hawkins). Write with ‘density and speed’ (Donna Tartt). We looked briefly at samples of writing (academic, business, sales) that have other purposes (investigating, analysing, selling), and discussed the purposes of creative writing (telling a story, establishing mood).
I used an audio selection from Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina. I backed this up with a hearty recommendation to read Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, and played a selection from this excellent recording from his publisher, in which he describes how he created the novel: he didn’t start with a plot, but writing in the different voices of his characters led him to the story he needed to tell. (If I had had my wits about me, I could have related this to the way in which Stephen King in On Writing compares the writing of fiction to the hunting of fossils: we don’t always know exactly what’s there yet, but have to dig it out.)
Reading aloud is both fun and instructive, and we read aloud Joe Brainard’s I Remember to show how we can trust our natural speaking voices as the foundations for our writing (something I’ve blogged about here, and maybe I’ll post my version for 2015 later this week: some really choice memories, eh?!). I also recommended listening to audiobooks, perhaps of favourite books: experience some of your influences via a different sensory mode.
Here is more on voice from an earlier workshop, where we looked at some different examples.
After the workshop, someone asked me about practical ways to adapt the natural speaking voice, e.g., for other characters. In discussion that person (whose name I never caught) said maybe it was like having a particular type of substrata in geology: many different types of plants can grow upon chalky soil. A good analogy. I don’t think your speaking voice has to be the only voice in your writing, but it can be a strong foundation at the start. Get fancy later.
Someone also directed me to this *excellent* interview with Annabel Pitcher that was recommended in another workshop: ‘Me, Myself and I: The Secrets Of Writing In First Person’. Really useful tips on how to make tweaks and shifts to your natural voice.
Showing & Telling & Storytelling
A second exercise in myth busting: let’s tell, don’t show.
I don’t wish to downplay the importance of showing, in the right measure (which might be 99% of a piece of writing), but in this workshop I make a strong case for the special telling that comes from having a strong narrator at the heart of your book: the storyteller. It might only be a sentence or two of narrating at the right point within the story, but it can arrest and guide the reader in a very efficient way.
I used examples from the openings of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ and Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to illustrate both showing and telling. And examples of info dumps can be found in this clip from Acorn Antiques (try around 0:55-1:36). My blog post Tell Me A Story also looks at some of these ideas.
Lovely people in the 1-to-1s, and some of the same things coming up:
* Tightening of syntax (is every verb needed in a sentence?)
* More mood, please!
* Are you absolutely sure this needs to be present tense? Past often gives the writer great freedom
* Not everything needs explaining: gaps and edges are often what make writing interesting
* Voice, voice
* What is revealed when (among characters; to readers) for best effect?
* Psychic distance (discussed over at Emma Darwin’s blog)
* Motivate your characters
* What are the dramatic stakes?
* A novel is not a movie (a point driven home in Hal Duncan’s workshop on point of view, which had an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of different POVs – thanks, Hal!)
* Might there need to be a trade-off in the writing in order to make what’s really important work?
* Voice, voice, voice
And in case feedback left you feeling a bit frazzled, here’s a post from last year:
Books I recommended included:
* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft (finally back in print in a new edition, as of last week)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
* Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey;
* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
* Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
* Turkey City Lexicon from the SFWA
* the Self-Editing course taught by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop
* A very thoughtful writeup of the weekend: ‘Nine Lessons In Writing From The FoW15 Conference by Jo Hogan (to whom I give thanks for mentioning the Annabel Pitcher interview above)
* And some clips from Naropa University, which I mentioned a few times (I studied and taught there, and it changed my life)
Thanks to the good people of the Writers’ Workshop for asking me along, and to everyone I met there who made it such a pleasure. York really is a highlight of my year.
See you next time, I hope!