Tuesday, 31 May 2011

What Are You Looking For When You Ask For Feedback?

At some point, unless you are only writing for your self, everyone needs feedback on their writing if only to check that what is happening in your head is being transferred to the page. I've written about getting feedback before, the differences between professional feedback and using friends or family, and how to get the best out of each.  But I've not written about what sometimes lies underneath our requests for feedback.  

I remember showing my first short story to my partner and although he was positive - it's good, was I think the comment - I felt dissatisfied. I don't know what I wanted - certainly not criticism (which would have rankled), even more detailed positive comments (such as, the description's good) wouldn't have gone down well (what, does that mean the rest is bad? Cue tantrums).

I'm afraid whatever his response had been - apart from, it was wonderful, amazing and you are the best writer EVER - I think I wouldn't have been happy.  What I said I was looking for was feedback on my story, but in reality I wanted something completely different, something I couldn't even articulate myself.  Love?  Reassurance?  Acceptance?  Whatever, expecting to find it from inviting criticism was doomed to failure.

One student showed her work to her parent and was devastated when the response was luke warm.  But she knew that her parent wasn't even close to being the sort of readership her novel was aimed at, so what was she really looking for?  Feedback on her writing or parental approval?  Another student showed their work to their partner and was thrown when they gave a negative response, which led to the student questioning the point in continuing to write. 

You've got to ask yourself what your motives are if you ask anyone who isn't also a writer; however much they read, they are unlikely to know the technical aspects. I always say to people that they should never, ever show their work to their beloveds - there's just too much other stuff floating around. 

Think before you ask: I know my mother's opinion about my genre, so I know what she's likely to say about my writing.  I don't ask, because I don't want to hear it from her.  I always say to people that they should never, ever show their work to their beloveds - there's just too much other stuff floating around. In fact, I prefer it that my children and partner don't read what I write (so long as they get all their friends to buy my books).  It's so much safer and happier that way. 

And if you ever get asked by a partner, sibling, child, parent or close friend for feedback, then think twice before you say anything other than 'wonderful, amazing, you are the best writer EVER'.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Amateur or Professional?

I went to an art exhibition at the weekend, the annual 'show of work' of a local art club a friend of mine belongs to.  It was....interesting.  Not because the work was dreadful - because it wasn't, it was uniformly competent - but because none of it was good enough to be in a commercial art gallery.  

I see a lot of writing that is competent.  It does what it intends to.  It tells a story, it gets characters from A to B, and yet it just isn't good enough for publication.  (In my opinion, of course, and all this comes with a great caveat that comment on art or writing subjective and open to challenge.)  The trouble is, you could be in the top 1% - ie the best out of 100 writers you know - and still not be good enough.  I expect you have to be in the top 1,000, or even the top 10,000 to get published. 

I was talking to a poet friend who said that people never understood how she could tell immediately whether a poem was good or bad.  'I've been writing and reading and teaching poetry for twenty years,' she said.  'I can tell, just like that.'

I know what she means.  Experience makes such a difference, which is why your friend saying they really like your work doesn't mean very much (unless they're actively involved in looking at new writing). I've seen a lot of student work over the past twelve years that I've been teaching, yet I expect I've seen less than an agent sees in a year, or even six months. Just imagine how acute their eye must be, how sharply they read, how quickly they judge if it's worth a further look or not.*

If you want to be a professional writer - ie you want someone to give you money for your work - then you have to be professional about it.  If you don't want to be a professional writer - and there's no reason why you should, the best reason for writing is for the sheer pleasure of it - then you can do what you like.  But don't confuse the two.  Competent isn't good enough.

*That's not to say they don't get it glaringly wrong sometimes.  Like the agent who told me I was wasting my time about a book that went on to be a bestseller in 14 countries....   

Friday, 27 May 2011

When One Word Makes All The Difference

Here's a game for you to play. Thinking about first lines, I realised what a delicate balancing act they are. Sometimes it only takes one word to be between the ordinary and the intriguing. Here are two first lines, and I've changed one word in each - can you spot it?

1. When Kalyna Beimuk married Ray Stevenson on the fourth of October 1976 she knew she was committing bigamy.

2. I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his money. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.

So, do either of them grab you? They're both quite intriguing, both dealing with drama - the bigamy and the threat of death - and we'd probably have been quite happy to have written either of them.

Now read them in their correct version:

1. When Kalyna Beimuk married Ray Stevenson on the fourth of October 1976 she hoped she was committing bigamy. (Two Red Shoes by Vivien Kelly)

2. I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. (Straight by Dick Francis)

See how it makes a difference. The drama is still there, but on top is something unexpected. If Kalyna hopes she's committing bigamy, then what has happened to her first husband? Where is he? Is he still alive? And how can you inherit a mistress? Things yes, people no. What was going on between the brothers? What's happened to the dead brother, and how could it nearly kill the remaining one?

What both these openings do is startle the reader into asking questions. By asking questions the reader is drawn in to the story, and once a reader is drawn in, you have them hooked. Are there questions in your first lines?

Thursday, 26 May 2011

First Lines

How we react when we read the first lines of a book or a short story will determine our attitude to it. It has to convince us to read on, in the case of a novel, convince us so much that we spend our hard earned cash on it. There are various techniques we can use to do this. Take this beginning, from Laura Lockington's Stargazey Pie:

Nobody understands the meaning of the word embarrassment unless they have travelled on a packed InterCity train with a small masturbating monkey. Although the monkey, Jicky, was packed into a wicker cat basket, he could be clearly seen indulging in his favourite, well, his only, hobby through the door of the basket.

She's using several techniques -

The surprise - shock even - of the first line.
The conversational tone.
The irony of "his favourite, well, his only, hobby" - he's a monkey, and monkeys don't usually have hobbies.
Sympathy for the un-named, but terminally embarrassed, escort for Jicky.
And agreement - you would understand the meaning of the word embarrassment in those circumstances.
Humour - the circumstances are embarrassing, but also comic.

I think it's an effective first paragraph; it's certainly memorable and grabs the reader.

The problem is that it will also be a complete turn off for many readers. Did I buy the book? No, because I don't want to read anything that features a small masturbating monkey and, even if Jicky doesn't feature much, there are plenty of other books out there that offer the same humour and ironic tone without a monkey, masturbating or otherwise.

But you can't expect that everyone in the world is going to love your book. Reading is a subjective experience and we're all different and have different tastes. Check out your first paragraph and see how many reasons there are for a reader to carry on.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Greatest First Page Ever Becomes More Essential

It's always been important to have a great first page, and a great first chapter, but I realise it's become more important than ever. Why? Well, it's been my birthday recently and for my birthday I got a Kindle.

This weekend I downloaded about 300+ books for under £10 - the complete works of Austen, Wharton, Brontes (all of them), Shakespeare, James, Hardy, Dickens. I reckon that'll keep me quiet on the longest train journey. (And does the availability of 31 novels by Edith Wharton for 71 pence explain why ebooks are apparently outselling paper books on Amazon in quantity? I suspect so.)

I also downloaded lots of samples, some for 'How to write' books - my little weakness - and some for contemporary novels. Of the 8 contemporary novel samples I downloaded I actually went ahead and purchased 2. That's 6 books I might have bought in a bookshop where I could only really read the first page and look at the cover, and 6 books which I decided against buying when I'd read the first chapter.

This is the future, a One-Click world where it's very easy to buy books, but equally easy to discard them if the contents don't grab the reader. And over the next couple of days I think I'll be talking about ways to grab the reader - and yes, anticipation is one of them.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

When the Right Person to have Viewpoint is the Wrong Person.

Generally, the right person to have viewpoint is the person to whom the most exciting stuff is happening, but there are some notable exceptions....

When the right person knows too much.
Sherlock Holmes is the classic example of this. He spends a lot of time knowing who dunnit, but keeping the solution back until it's certain (or until Arthur Conan Doyle has written enough pages). If we were in his point of view we would know what was going on in his head, and the solution would be revealed. If the writer keeps crucial information out of the character's head despite them knowing it, then they can expect to run into problems with readers when the solution is finally revealed, as Agatha Christie did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

When the right person is too far away from 'us'
Again, Sherlock Holmes is the example. He's just too darn intelligent, talented, superhumanly gifted for us to engage with him. We are fascinated by his glittering brilliance, but that's because it's at a distance. Instead, Dr Watson becomes our viewpoint character. He's a decent enough chap, but sometimes a bit slow on the uptake. The reader is always one step ahead of him, and several behind Sherlock.

When the action isn't really in the events that are happening
The example of this is The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway observes Gatsby, Daisy, Tom etc as they dance around each other. He is the onlooker, not an active participant, in their relationships. But he's the one who is changed by the experience, so while he's not that affected by the external events, he's very affected by the internal changes to himself.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Choosing the Right Point of View

Sometimes a student will bring a story in for workshopping and I realise that, while there may be exciting things going on, they've chosen the wrong point of view to tell the story from. Try this scenario:

Jennifer's husband has died in his 60s. Back for the funeral and to make arrangements are her two children, Mary and John, and their respective partners David and Caroline. At supper the night before the funeral an argument starts. Mary reveals that she's been having an affair. Whose POV is best suited to the scene?

There are pros and cons with most of the characters. Jennifer is the grieving widow, but she isn't directly affected by the announcement and neither is John. David is affected, but until Mary's announcement, he's slightly on the sidelines as a non-blood relative. Caroline is a non-blood relative too, and she doesn't have direct involvement in Mary's announcement. Mary is probably the best choice because not only does she have a secret to keep for the first half of the scene, but she also has to deal with the fall-out from her announcement.

Now change the scenario. It's as before, except Mary's lover is Caroline, her brother John's partner. Whose POV?

Both Mary and Caroline have secrets to keep in the first half of the scene, and fall out to deal with after the announcement. I'd be tempted to have the first half of the scene from Mary's POV, then have the aftermath in Caroline's as she deals with a) John's reaction and b) her own reaction to Mary revealing their secret. Both John and David are affected, but not until Mary's announcement.

Now change the scenario again. We're back to the first one, where Mary's lover is someone else outside those present. This time, David and Caroline are also having an affair, which no one else knows about. Whose POV?

Mary has her secret, John and Jennifer aren't directly involved. I'd go for either David or Caroline's POV because they've both got a secret to keep hidden, then after Mary's announcement their situation changes. Caroline could realise David might become free to marry her, which could be a good or a bad thing. David could be shaken into realising that it's really Mary he loves, or he could think he's just been landed a Get Out of Jail Free card - he can now leave the marriage and be with Caroline.

In general, who ever has the viewpoint should be a character that a lot - if not the most - is happening to. There are a couple of exceptions to this - which I'll deal with tomorrow.

Friday, 20 May 2011

How to Re-Write a Novel 5

And now it's on to the last stage of this lovely meal. The cutlery has disappeared and you're now going to add the finishing touches. Sometimes writing is perfectly OK, there's nothing technically wrong with it, but it can feel bland or dull - Janet and John writing, for those old enough to remember that reading scheme. I've written about adding Pzazz before, but this is it, your moment to check that your writing is as good as you can make it.

Look for opportunities to add colour and edge. It could be a bit of neat description or an amusing metaphor, a nifty bit of dialogue or a pacy bit of action. I go through my texts with a highlighter pen and mark all the bits I think add pzazz. There have to be at least 5 on each page and if not, I add some. Ideally, there are many more than that. They may be small, but the accumulated effect is of energy and colour. (I hope.) Here are a few of mine, all of which I know I added at this stage.

* He was wearing short sleeves, but the ghosts of leather patches circled his elbows like wreaths of pipe smoke
* A laugh dirty enough to plough
* Steve looked mildly surprised, not dissimilar in expression to a Hereford bull suppressing hiccups
* Dancing to the rhythm of the music (though not entirely with it), spiralling away like a drunken daddy-longlegs.
* A knife sat in an opened jar of peanut butter, like Excalibur waiting for King Arthur

Or you might need to up the pace by making a quick cut from one scene to another...

And then Briony split up from Jerry.
'To be honest, it's a relief more than anything else,' Briony said, apparently without a concern in the world, as they made their way through a group of French school children cluttering the pavement outside the Abbey. 'Jerry asked me if I was shagging Simon, and I said yes - was that a problem?'

As well as getting the pace going quickly it has the added advantage of some insider info - if you live in Bath you know all about parties of French schoolchildren cluttering the pavements.

And then when that's all done, sit back and bask in glory. And then get ready to send it out.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

How to Re-Write a Novel IV

The previous re-writes were very much about getting the novel into its finished shape. Once I'm happy with the outside shape and feel, I'm now moving closer to the substance of the novel: the scenes. This is where the meat of the novel is.

Rather as I looked for problems with the novel's overall structure, I'm looking for problems with the scene as a whole - outside working in again.

* is it clear where and when the scene takes place (preferably contained within the first para)?
does the timing make sense, do people have long enough to go from A to B, or conversely, if A and B are close together, do they cover the ground quickly?
* are people active throughout or are there any bits when the characters are waiting for something to happen? Do I need to re-write to correct this?
* is it clear what the characters' attitudes are to each other, the location, the situation?
* are any patches of description too long? too wordy? too complicated?
* is there enough description of setting etc?
* if I have to describe a place or an action, is it easy to understand what's going on?
* are characters moving about, or are they static - worse, are they drinking tea? Could I move it to another location which would add a new dimension to the scene?
* if there is flashback, is it justified? Is it adding to the storytelling in an active way? Is there any way i could incorporate the information into the narrative?
* am I moving the story forward?
* is the scene anchored in reality or has it floated off?
* does the balance of white space to text work?
* is the scene too long or too short? Is there enough going on, or too much?
* does it end at the right place?
* would a reader want to read on?
* does the scene have the right pace, is there a good shape to it?
* does something happen? Or is it just events?
* are the characters plausible, consistent, believable, sympathetic? Would I like to spend time with them?

I go through every scene in this way and re-write until I feel I've dealt with all the queries, issues and problems. This may involve moving bits around, cutting and adding. That done, it's on to pudding...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

How to Re-Write a Novel III

Now we're moving onto something with a bit more protein. I've decided roughly on the scene order and if there need to be any new scenes, or if some are being taken away, or combined. I'm now thinking about the characters.

The main character starts the process. I'm looking at their development - is it logical? Do they make any sudden jumps that are inconsistent? Have I explained where they're coming from? Do they have enough conflicts? Should I add another level of difficulty to their lives? They carry the story, so they need to be strong enough. If not, they need extra scenes to show how and why they're changing or behaving in the way they do.

I expect my main character will be present in all of the scenes as I usually write from a single viewpoint, but if I was writing from a multiple viewpoints I'd be checking that everyone their fair share of the story-telling. When I did this process with Adultery for Beginners, I discovered that one character dominated the story telling. I decided they deserved to take centre stage entirely and took out the other characters' viewpoints. This involved a serious rewrite - I eventually changed about 90% of the scenes. Painful, but necessary.

But even though I write from a single viewpoint, I want to make sure that the secondary characters have their own story. I don't want them to be just hanging around for the main character to show up, they need their own lives. For example, Lorna in Kissing Mr Wrongchanged to Briony in the subsequent drafts and got a life. She goes through her own development and her own story and her life has changed by the end of the novel. As a writer who is a former actor, I like to think that there aren't any duff roles in my books.

I'm also looking for gaps. In Nice Girls Do for example Anna goes up to London to stay with her boyfriend Oliver, who she's completely besotted by, and everything else gets left behind including the lovely Will who isn't mentioned for pages on end. Now it's reasonable for Anna not to think about Will as she throws herself into Oliver's luxurious lifestyle, but I didn't want the reader to forget him. So I had to add a couple of quick scenes to keep Will, if not physically around, then present in Anna and the reader's consciousness. You'd do the same thing if, for example, you had two main story lines but one of them was on the back-burner for a while.

By now the index cards are getting a bit messy. If I remember I use one colour initially, then use a different colour for added scenes. I staple scenes together if I'm going to combine them, make lots of notes, rewrite the card if it's getting v untidy. Finally I've got a stack of index cards that I'm happy with. At this point I re-write the novel from start to finish using the cards to guide me. When I started writing novels I needed to do this process several times. When I'm happy with the shape it's on to the next course.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

How to Re-Write a Novel II

The first course is soup, a lovely liquid mass. It's contained within the bowl, but can flow anywhere. Look at the cutlery and choose the spoon furthest away from the plate - you're working from the outside inwards, remember.

The reason I say go outside inwards is it makes no difference how beautiful any individual sentence is, if the whole thing is wrong, if the story telling doesn't work, if there are problems with structure, then no one is ever going to read that perfect sentence. So, the story, the structure, the shape has to be right before you start fussing over adjectives and verbs.

At this stage I like to put the story down on index cards, one card per scene. On the card you write the setting, characters present, the purposes of the scene and the main action. This is one I wrote for an early draft of Another Woman's Husband.

Setting: Don't actually know! next page, B's house somewhere. Also, not dated.
Becca and Lily. Becca dreaming of Paul, Lily wanting to go out late clubbing. Frank rings, wants Becca to go round and help. NB Frank last mentioned/seen when? Pages ago.

And a couple from Kissing Mr Wrong...

Setting: Lorna's place. Dinner party. L's invited Marcus for Alex. Other people there NB should have been mentioned in opening scene. Skiing trip mentioned - Alex will need to find the money. Lorna offers her job in the gallery.

Setting: ????? Alex and Lorna. Alex talks about a) career, she's gone adrift b) Marcus as perfect man c) what to do about photograph. Lorna a) tells her M's going to Glasgow b) suggests Gus as possible re photograph

Obviously, as I was writing out my index cards I realised there were some problems which would need to be addressed should the scenes remain in the next draft and made notes accordingly. But that's for a future stage. Right now I'm checking that it's clear what the purposes are for each scene and how they move the story on.

When I've gone through the whole of the novel I've got a stack of index cards. I lay these out on the bed (I work a lot in bed). This is the easiest way to 'see' the novel as a whole. I'm looking for various things, all concerned with structure -

* is the 'shape' of the novel right, with exciting stuff happening throughout (the cherries - see earlier post)
* is there a good balance between active and reflective scenes (ie pace)
* do scenes flow ie have I set actions up
* are there any obvious holes - a character goes missing for a while, a plot strand is unresolved
* is the timing right? eg if someone becomes pregnant in Jan, do they have the baby in the autumn? At this stage I work out exactly when each scene takes place and note any bank holidays or other events that may affect the story.

I move scenes around, I add them, I take them away, I combine them. Anything. It's a fluid process (it's soup!). When I'm happy with the shape of it, it's on to the next course.

PS It's my birthday today!

Monday, 16 May 2011

How to Re-Write a Novel I

Have you ever been to a posh dinner and been presented with a vast array of silverware spreading in ranks either side of your plate? Re-writing is like dealing with all those forks and spoons without getting it wrong and spilling soup down your front, or using the butter-knife to eat your peas. The simple answer is to start from the outside and work your way in.

I'm a BIG fan of rewrites. I think the quality of the rewrites is the difference between getting published or not getting published. (I can hear the planners clattering away at their keyboards about to lay into me for wasting time and not being efficient enough to do a decent piece of work first time round but hey - this is my blog, right, and what I say goes.)

The first thing to do is put the book away for as long as you can manage. The longer you leave it, the more distance you have. The more distance you have, the more you read like a disinterested reader, and the more you're able to spot problems. There's what you think you wrote and there's what you actually wrote, and if you're too close you can't see if there's a gap.

When I did this on my first novel the gap was about four months, mainly because I was incensed that the world hadn't realised what a startling work of genius had just landed on their doorstep and turned it down. Cue metaphorical flouncing out of the room and mega sulks from me. When I did finally go back I was ready to concede that the world might have a point.

So imagine spreading your starched linen napkin across your lap, gearing up for the lovely meal ahead. You've been thinking about it for ages, you've got various ideas as to what you might expect to see but you're open to whatever turns up on your plate. You know it's going to take time to get through all the courses and you're ready for that. Psychologically you're prepared for it to take as long as it needs. Ready? First course coming up...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

6 Formatting Bugbears

One of the by-products of reading a lot of student work is how sensitive you become to poor formatting. I imagine it's the same for agents and publishers so I thought I'd list some of my bugbears...

The first line of every paragraph should be indented. You can do this very easily if you use Word. Go to Format, then Paragraph. There's a box marked Special, which is probably empty. Click on the little arrow on the side and First Line comes up. Save this page. From now on, every time you press the carriage return key your next line will be automatically indented. Hooray!

Spaces between paragraphs
Academic formatting is no indents, and a space between each paragraph. Creative writing is just the opposite. You should only have a space between paragraphs when you want to indicated a new scene.

Uneven spacing
Sometimes Word randomly adds spaces between lines. Actually, it's not random, you need to go back to Format then Paragraph and check that the gap between lines is left blank.

When the writing is made to form a straight edge on the right as well as the left hand side. It makes manuscripts look like a block of text which can be off-putting.

Dialogue on completely separate lines to the speaker's actions
Character A does X (an action). Character A says something. It's on the same line. It's not:
Character A does X.
Character A says Y
Character B does Z
Character B says W.

Italics and other difficult to read fonts
Arial is supposed to be the easiest font to read, Times New Roman the most common. Choosing an unusual and exciting font will not make your work unusual and exciting, just harder to read.

It's a real pleasure to pick up a manuscript and realise it's beautifully presented. I want it to read well. Isn't that how you want an agent to feel when they pick up your manuscript?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


I've been late with the blog the last couple of days, and my excuse is I've been staying up late and getting up early to get through my marking - it's end of semester at the American university where I've been teaching two classes this year. Marking is my least favourite part of teaching, especially when connected with giving grades.

I read through carefully, making comments and corrections. I'm careful because you just know that the student is going to read every comment, trying to work out why they got this grade or that grade, and if they don't like their grade, they'll be querying what you scribbled on the side of their submission. And then you have to justify your remarks - tactfully, of course. Many years ago I had a student who was furious with his low mark and I longed to say 'You're simply not a good writer, that's why the mark is low'. (But didn't.)

I don't like feeling in judgement over another person's writing, to say this piece is better than that piece. It's only my opinion, after all. I may have missed some crucial element. It's not like maths, where the answer is either right or wrong. It's subjective, not objective. Alternatively, perhaps one student has played safe by submitting work that has already been workshopped, whereas another has aimed high and risked trying out something new but perhaps not been entirely successful. Who deserves the better mark? Do you include scope and ambition when considering marks? Is a brave attempt more worthy than playing safe?

Tricky decisions that I'm not keen on making. And all over the country there will be other writers with the same dilemma as the number of university creative writing courses proliferate. Will it make any difference to the quality of the writers? If anything, I worry that we will get a homogenised product, writing that earns high marks in writing class, writing that we are taught to believe is 'good', writing that doesn't take risks.

I'm a writer, not a judge, but judge I must. So that's what I've been doing. But I'm glad that this part of teaching is nearly over for another year.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Choosing Which Short Story Competitions to Enter

I've been asked to be the final judge for a creative writing competition next year. It's got lots of different categories - short story, monologue, essay, age groups etc - so the organisers helpfully sent me a breakdown of last year's entries so I could see how much work was involved. Overall there were about 350 entries, but in the adult short story category there were....16.

Yes. 16.

I checked with the organisers, and the number is accurate. Most short story competitions that I've been final judge for have had a short list of 15-20 so that means if you entered this competition you would be automatically on the short list.

It has to be said that this competition isn't as prestigious as, say, winning the Bridport Prize and I'm not sure if there's a cash prize, but if there is, it won't be much. But then, if you were entering competitions for the money then I think you'd be better off going in for the lottery. On the other hand, if you were entering competitions for the warm glow of success, or clocking up credits then this would be a great competition to go in for.

Decide what you're looking for - money, prestige, credits - then go for most appropriate competition you can find. If it's credits, then look locally. My first short story success was in a competition run by a local firm of solicitors together with the local paper. I don't know how many entries there were, but I came 2nd and the thrill has kept me going all this time.

Friday, 6 May 2011

What I've Learned From Teaching

And after my grumpiness earlier in the week about a new term starting, I'm off this morning to teach the first session this term of my Friday class, the longest teaching job I've had - over ten years, who'd have thought it? Ever Friday morning (and afternoon, because the waiting list for the morning led a duplicate class in the afternoon) in term time for over ten years I've come up with a new class idea for thirty odd students to react to.

That's a lot of classes. A lot of ideas because I rarely duplicate a class unless asked to (or once because I came across a scribbled class note to myself and thought "that's a good idea, I'll use that in class", completely forgetting that I already had) and a lot of people putting their heads down and reacting to my commands to write something impossible.

And they do. I set these impossible tasks, they pull faces and then write something in response. They're so obedient! I hardly ever get a refusal, their creativity hitting a blank. There may be moans and groans, but they do it.

Usually when I call time they're less obedient. The pens scribble on. I call time again, and reluctantly people leave the world of their writing and come back to the class.

So, what do we learn?

Firstly, it doesn't take long to get sucked into writing. You just have to get started and it pulls you in.

Secondly, if you HAVE to - a new class looming means a new idea must be found, a teacher demands you write something - you will write.

We've been proving that every Friday for over ten years. We'll prove it again today. It's true for you too. Sit down, start writing, and in a few minutes it will come.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Knowing Your Writing Preferences

We all have writing preferences, the stuff we find easiest to write. Through lots of writing you learn which your preferences are and what the good and bad points are of that style. In the workshopping group I belong to, one writer has a tendency for poor little me, another is fond of hyper-realistic descriptions but not much action, and the third likes characters lying back in the bath and reflecting on what's just happened. And as for me...

I like writing rows. That's good, because they're dramatic and usually trigger crisis moments. But they're also bad, because I then want to write the main character doing a lot of poor little me and feeling sorry for herself.

I also like writing bad men. This is a tricky one. I find my 'bad' men attractive and am appalled when people only see the negative side of them. I have to work at making my negative characters more rounded and appealing.

I have a terrible tendency to make my main characters a bit wet and feeble. I have a BIG sticker on my screen saying Positive People Planning with Purpose and that's helpful - I no longer have to do so many rewrites. But the tendency is still there and I have to fight it, and then check carefully for it in the rewriting process.

I'm a big fan of extraneous words: that, just, really are my top three. I don't fuss about it when writing, just use the Find and Replace option at the end.

I should have been born a Victorian, as I like both melodrama and sentimentality. Both are fine in very small doses, but I have to watch my writing to check that they don't take over.

So, those are my problems. What about yours?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Other Stuff

Term starts this week, and I'm about to have my first day back at the university. I love teaching; I get so much out of working with people, whether mature students or undergraduates. Most of the time problems are simple, and solutions straightforward (though not necessarily straightforward to implement). I wave my magic wand and people are amazed, although it's really only experience and common sense combined that allows me to make diagnoses and suggest solutions. It's a joy to be able to spot a problem, explain it and see the penny drop, to see someone who was confused rush off full of renewed enthusiasm for their work. I love it.

And yet...

Right now I feel a real reluctance to go back to teaching. I think: I'm a writer, not a teacher, so how come I do so much teaching and so little writing? I give to others, but what about giving to myself and my creativity? It's a struggle for me - which is ironic, given I seem to be teaching writers about conflict at the moment.

I was talking to someone yesterday about making time for writing. They had a full time job, and found that 'the other stuff' crowded out the writing. The 'other stuff' was all the necessary, day to day, functional stuff - cooking, cleaning, sorting, admin, domesticity of all kinds.

The thing about 'the other stuff' is that it is infinite. Even if you had all the time in the world, 'the other stuff' would never get done. There will always be more boxes to tick on the To Do list. We find ourselves prioritising someone else's laundry over our writing. We prioritise a telephone call from a heart sink friend. We prioritise going out with our mates, or watching Coronation Street, or doing a Su Doku puzzle. At some point we have to stop, and ask ourselves what we really, really want. Is it, for example, to watch TV or write?

And when you've answered that, go and do whatever your heart's desire tells you to do.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Writing Like Standing on a High Wire, Playing the Violin

I was in Bath yesterday afternoon. The sun was out and everyone was enjoying the Bank Holiday atmosphere. On Stall Street, outside the Pump Room, a street performer was doing a high wire act so I stopped to watch. He was standing on one leg on his wire about nine feet from the ground and playing a violin. Amazing!

I carried on watching, he carried on playing the violin and standing on one leg. Hmm. I felt less amazed. Not to detract from his ability - I can't play the violin, or stand on one leg for so long, let alone be on a high wire - but I couldn't help feel he'd established he could stand on one leg while playing the violin on a high wire. There needed to be something more. He could have run up and down the wire, or even changed legs. As it was, I went on my way. (BTW returning later after lunch he was still up on the wire, more or less the same place, and still playing the violin. I'm not sure if he'd changed legs.)

Sometimes reading student work feels like this. You settle down to a promising start - some sparky dialogue, some vivid description. Great, I think and cheerfully read on. And on. Half way through page 2 I'm getting twitchy and thinking to myself, move on. The dialogue is losing its sparkle, the description is getting a bit dull. Where's the story?

When we're writing it's easy to get stuck in one place. We've all got writing preferences (I like a good row, myself) so we tend to write that. If you're lucky, your preference is for moving the story on. If you're unlucky, your preference is for a static form of writing such as description. If you're really unlucky, you like writing description and you're on a Creative Writing MA and getting your description praised to the heights.

But however clever your writing is, however beautiful, it's a bit like the guy on the high wire. You need to move on and do something else, preferably some action that moves the narrative along, or you'll lose the punters/readers.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Nasty Characters

When I started writing I had a tendency to write unlikeable characters. It was the most usual bit of feedback for my writing and it always puzzled me. Why did characters have to be likable? Wouldn't interesting do instead? In fact, wasn't nasty more fun?

At the time I used to be part of a workshopping group, and one of the writers was working on a detective story where the main character was just perfect. Her clothes never creased, her hair was just so, she always knew the answer when everyone else was floundering. I hated that character; I couldn't stand her smug perfection and know-it-allness.

What I couldn't see was that my characters were just as flawed as her character. Her character was nothing other than perfect; mine were nothing other than nasty. Pure nastiness is just as dull as pure perfection. It's the contrast that is needed, the good and the bad. My nasty characters needed to have some nice aspects, her perfect character needed some flaws. None of us are perfect, and it's the imperfections that make us ourselves - and make us lovable.