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True Grit

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 09.23.12I’m a Prime Writer.  This past month, I’ve been the guest curator for The Prime Writers, a lovely collection of writers who are all “in their prime”, meaning we all published our first novels over the age of 40.  So what?  Age is just a number, and we are a nice contrast to all those “best of” lists for those under 40 or 30 or 12.  (The Telegraph’s even in on the act, citing Mary Wesley – and the Prime Writers.)
In today’s blog post, I wrapped up a series on “what made a difference” – what were the most important steps that got our writers from aspiring to published.  Was it pursuing an MA that led them to an agent?  Was it a professional course that got them to an editor?  There are links to the whole month’s worth of blog posts about all the different ways we got to where we wanted to be, but, in this last post, we also talk about maybe the most important writing tool of all – grit:   the ability to keep going, even when it looks like you’ll never finish your book or find the team who can help you realise your papery dreams.  True grit.

Writing in Residence

rochester_young_offenders_institution_mWant to know what it’s like to go to prison?  I served a four year sentence – as writer-in-residence at a young offender prison here in the UK.  I’ve never really written about it, and it was lovely to get the chance to do so for Women Writers, a terrifically supportive site.  Follow me in through the big wooden gate…

On Theme with Julie Cohen

photoFirst, she greets us with Hannibal Lego and reminds us it’s Snape Sunday.  It can only be Julie Cohen, whose workshop on theme, last in the weekend of the wonderful Festival of Writing 2015, is designed to help a writer to identify the theme in her novel, develop it, and focus her entire novel around it.  There are two schools of writers: some who think a lot about the book before beginning to write and others who simply begin.  Julie says, “When I try to write a novel, I often start with the theme first. I put it on a Post-it, put it up so that I see it all the time, and then it brings everything back to it. If I’m trying to think about what happens next, then I know. It informs everything I’m doing.”  Chuck Wendig disagrees.  He says theme is very specific, but Julie finds her more general approach more fruitful.  “So many workshops are about specifics,” Julie says.  “This workshop is about the abstract, about finding something very abstract and then applying it to your work.”  As writers, we often have core themes. I certainly do, ones I return to, again and again, no matter the setting or characters I use.  As writers, if we share core themes with other writers, they will still be ours, because we are all so different.  We see the world through such different eyes.

What is theme?  
The emotional core of the book
The question you’re asking by writing your book
The main idea you’re exploring
The focus, not necessarily of action, but of feeling or ideas
The pivot upon which your book turns

How do you figure out the theme of your novel? Find one or two abstract nouns. (Chuck Wendig says it should be a sentence, and not a question, but Julie is, reassuringly, more generous.)  In her novel, Dear Thing, Julie’s theme was parenthood, which gave Julie her characters and her settings and her situations, as well as her language and imagery, symbolism and metaphors all centred around parenthood, carrying and being barren, raising and rejecting.
First, she offered an exercise for us to find the themes of our novels, asking us to think about: the main characters’ conflicts and desires, the premise of the novel, title and first line, the novel’s main emotions, the idea/problem we were most interested in, and the resolution.  She noted some common themes: Identity, Finding one’s place in the world, Overcoming the past, Justice, Loss; and said that, often, theme is reflected in a piece’s last line:
“There’s no place like home.”
“After all…tomorrow is another day.” (Adaptation/change.)
“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Empathy)
Next, we were asked to take a blank piece of paper, or use Scapple as I did (as with their other marvellous programme, Scrivener, you can use it free for 30 days on trial) and put the single word we’d chosen in the centre.  Next, begin to add words around your theme, the ideas the theme conjures up.  Using parenthood as her theme, Julie quickly added words around it, from all the kinds of parents there are to states of parenting, “anti-parenting”, having and losing children, being unable to parent, not knowing that you have a child.  From here, she could apply these states to creating characters and subplots as well as to design the locations specific to her theme, from the school gates to pregnancy yoga.
Why is focusing on theme important – and how does it make for a better novel?  When a book is filled with theme, it is clear and focused.  It is satisfyingly whole and will help to make endings feel “right”.  When theme creates secondary characters, it gives them purpose as the novel is able to look at the theme from multiple points of view.   rs_1024x605-141212114211-1024-harry-potter-snape-lily-potter.jw.121214(Take Harry Potter.  He is able to vanquish Voldemort because of love, and Voldemort cannot understand Harry’s power because he had no love.  And, by the end, we can see that the much-maligned Snape did everything because of love, for Lily Potter.)  Theme helps to refine your hero’s conflicts, making them deeper and more personal.
Chuck Wendig says you should be saying something with your novel – a message to the world. So the reader walks away with this belief.  I walked away with a new theme for a book I’m struggling to get right.  Understanding my theme for this book, as separate from the core themes I’m always looking at, allowed the mists of ideas to clear and for me to see what it is I’m trying to do, so much so that I was up at 4 am, writing a new scene in the style I mean.  It is said that whatever gets you up to write won’t have to be changed, is right and will stick.  Here’s hoping!

Historical Fiction with Emma Darwin

Unknown-1 Emma Darwin’s workshop on historical fiction is designed to break through the terror of writing it, as a form. “Remember, you are not writing history. You are writing stories. You are writing a novel about something that never happened about people that never existed.”  The thing that will make your characters seem plausible is not the facts. It’s that you inhabit their skin.
We begin with a writing exercise:  Think of one of the important locations of the story. Take one minute to write down everything you can see, and hear, and smell, touch, and taste, and sense of the space, kinaesthetically.  This is a really easy way to make people real. It’s important to gauge with more senses than sight. Smell and taste are rarer and they are very vivid when they’re used.
On research: “… all the research done for the novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question… Reimaging implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction.” Rose Tremain
The challenge is to make things you don’t know believable. Margaret Atwood says historical fiction is any book that occurs before the writer came to consciousness. And, to your character, this isn’t historical fiction. This is just living.  When you’re researching, you have to keep an eye on story. And when you’re writing, you have to keep an eye on what research you need.

A writing exercise: think of an historical object which you haven’t seen personally but that you know existed.  Describe it using all senses.  Next, imagine the history of the object itself.  Who held it before?  Who owned it?  Where did it come from?  How many hands has it passed through? Next, imagine your character trying to give this object to someone else – do they take it?  Can this exchange, with this imbued object, become a scene?

  • Things you may need to research:  
    Important facts that will affect the plot (the route)
    Travel times, transports, communications
    Mealtimes, accommodation systems
    Law and order systems, religious structures and sanctions
  • Reliefs, mores, manners which will affect the story (the journey)
    Religion, gender/ethnic roles, prejudices, class behaviour, politics.
    Allegiance and betrayal, intimacy across social boundaries
    Naming conventions, job and personal titles, status signifiers
    Hats, cigarettes, shaking hands, greetings across social boundaries
  • Voice and language is the interface between reader and story
    Use real historical sources: vocabulary, syntax, grammar, sentence and structure: (Don’t rely on historical fiction for your history. Their history has already been filtered through another writer.
    Does class/gender/ethnicity make a difference?
    Which historical flavours will you draw on? Which will you “go modern” with?
  • Scene setting which will help us believe in the world:
    Roads, buildings, ships, interiors, landscape and terrain, weather
    Smells, sounds, animals, food, colours, clothes, weapons, arts, leisure.

images-2Do you have or need a storyteller narrator? Stylistically, this already feels “right” for historical fiction, and the storyteller can see the history from another perspective, as well. Will there be diaries or letters or historical documents? Both can help the piece to feel more authentic, as if it exists in a period of time.  What creates the voice?  What happened?  Who is telling the story?
Is it character within the story? What does that mean for their voice, attitudes, take on the events? Which parts of it they convey to the reader? What do they not, but you want the reader to “get”?
Is it a narrator who’s outside the story? How present are they going to be in the storytelling? What access do you grant them? How different is their voice from any characters’ voices?
Some things to consider:  A narrator with a “historical sounding voice” will be very “showy” while they are “telling” information?

  • Why are they telling the story? This too affects how they tell it.
    For example, are they telling it to save their life? To get justice?
  • And where are they “now”, relative to the “then” of the story?
    To whom are they telling it?
  • Does that make a difference to what they tell and how they tell it?
  • How will they therefore tell it?
  • Tone, vocabulary, syntax, sentences, figurative language, psychic distance, showing vs telling (evoking vs informing)?
  • How “historically flavoured” is the voice going to be?

Historical Voices:
Examples of internal narrators (first person):  We read an excerpt from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Anglo-Saxon English, using a shadow tongue, as close as he can get to Anglo-Saxon without adding Norman grammar which would be like “giving the characters an iPad.”  Examples of external narrators (third person): storyteller narrators. The narrator of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: “Some years ago there was in the city of York, a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.” A very effective, “telling” opening.
Cold Mountain: Inman waking with flies among the roosters: very American and immediate. Sensory details, but external.
Andrew Miller’s Pure: “A young man, young, but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time.” Very external narrator, looking at the character, not within at all.
Second Person: (You.)  Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light

Ultimately it’s your book; it’s your rules. What matters is that you decide what you’re doing and you stick to it. You can do whatever you like within the first 20% of a novel, but you have to keep going with it. If you have a very historical opening, and then it goes very modern, very snappy, all of a sudden, it will feel wrong. It must be wholehearted. Understanding the decisions we make and why we make them is about doing it properly.

In the Q&A, many questions were about research:  how much to do, how much is enough?  Emma researches first whilst plotting and engineering, then tries to forget what she’s learned so she can write. The only thing that stops her in her tracks is if she doesn’t know the vocabulary word for something, or how an object works, if it must be destroyed, etc. She puts in a big bracket, reminding her to fill the word in, and keeps going, so that the not knowing doesn’t stop her writing.

She reminds us to take a look at the Ted talk by Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, and the promise you make to the reader. Part of the promise is about what “kind” of book it is. What is the book offering? You’re kicking the plot off, but also showing how the book will work and how the voice works. What sort of story it is, what is the tone? Are you trying to convince the reader that this is “authentic”?
Emma Darwin has a new book coming out soon from Hodder: Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction.  If it’s anywhere near as clear, helpful, and supportive as her workshops, I’ll be picking up a copy, right away!  And do remember Emma’s wonderful resource blog for writers: This Itch of Writing.

The Shark and the Iceberg…

Hi-res-3-e1332974339947… Or how to be brilliant at backstory. Who wouldn’t want to go to a workshop with a title like that?! From the Festival of Writing, here’s Shelley Harris: “Of all the manuscripts I see, it’s backstory that seems to need the most work.” And so we begin. First, she says, “Your story is a shark: it has to keep moving.” (She notes this quote is nicked from Jeremy Sheldon.) Often, it is backstory that slows a story down, grinds it to a halt. Backstory is necessary. It is all the things your reader needs to know in order to understand the story you’re currently telling. Backstory isn’t the story and it isn’t current, but it must be dealt with.
icebergErnest Hemingway suggests the theory of omission is the way: “He may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Death in the Afternoon.  In agreement, Shelley suggests that backstory is an iceberg, hovering beneath the surface of the story. ” It gives us pleasure as readers to work things out. We like to work, to feel clever as readers.” She advises not to give the reader any more details than they strictly need.

THE TOOL-KIT: Through a series of extracts, we look at a number of methods for tackling the introduction of backstories into the story:
Objects: In Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes we read an introduction laden with objects, from chintzes to Zulu shields, with no explanation of context. The reader must do the work to decide what such objects mean and how they reflect character’s backstory allows the reader to make their own conclusions.
Character: In AL Kennedy’s What Becomes it is the language which reveals character, through their word choices. Vocabulary betrays class, education, and attitudes. Be in your character’s world view when you write. Which words do they choose to use? Vocabulary reveals backstory. It is a floor or tiles or quarry tiles? A sofa or couch or chaise longe?
Dialogue: In Jo Baker’s Longbourn, dialogue is used for backstory, to great effect, with all characters revealing themselves through what they choose to say and how they say it. Through dialogue, backstory is active. If you can include subtext, so much the better.
Direct Speech: Nicci Cloke’s Some Day Find Me begins with a first person story that tells the reader, straight out, what has happened. A character can tell backstory directly, because we learn about her through vocabulary, word choice, pace, rhythm and tone, and we learn about the character instead of simply a load of facts.

Some things to think about: Drip feed the backstory. Think what you can save for the last possible moment to reveal, for the biggest impact. If you are creating suspense, you can take a plot sequence up to a suspenseful point, cut away to deliver backstory, and then cut back to the book, as does The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe. Be playful and inventive. Shelley cited her own Jubilee for curing a backstory problem through playing a game, All the Beds, which is her failsafe cure for insomnia. Her main character, a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda in Britain deals with his insomnia by remembering all the beds he’s ever slept in, from his Uganda home to cold, damp Britain.

Lastly, we’re given a writing challenge: Using the Tool-kit, she asks us to bring to mind a character. Choose 3 aspects of their backstory. How can you introduce the three elements of backstory subtly but effectively? At this point, I had to leave the workshop for another, but I’m going to do it. How about you?

The Arc and the Impetus

From The Festival of Writing a workshop on narrative arc and well-made structure with Nelle Andrew, an agent at Peters Fraser & Dunlop and a novelist.  UnknownShe begins us with a picture of a tree-lined road through a woods. That is how a reader feels, beginning a novel. For a reader, every book is an emotional risk.  And, she reminds us, agents are readers themselves.  As a reader – and a writer – we are often thinking:  What is the point? Why do I care? Why should I bother reading this?  Compulsion, impetus and journey: the components all bestsellers share.
When planning a book, your choice of the narrator dominates how your narrative journey will play out. Usually, when an author comes unstuck it is due to the limitations of the narrative and the choices made. Plot is determined by your characters, not the other way around. When you read and think – I don’t buy it – it’s because you don’t believe the characters would act that way. We have to understand our characters inside out, the cause and effect of them. If we don’t have our characters down, the book won’t work.
To discuss how narrative arcs are made, Nelle shared clips from films.  The narrative arc is made of the following:
SET-UP: We read the opening paragraph of Notes on a Scandal, wherein the players are introduced, with who is the narrator and who is the protagonist. The problem is introduced – it is about a scandal. And we can already feel who the narrator is.
CONFLICT: In conflict is where character development begins.   We watch a bit of August: Osage County and the battle for pills on the living room floor.
RESOLUTION: We watch a scene from Never Let Me Go, which ties together all the plot strands at once. Resolving your novel doesn’t mean it has to be an easy ending, but it must be a conclusion, that the questions I have posed have been answered. A good resolution should make the novel feel complete. The entire point of a book is to have a point. It must feel resolved and the questions answered that your novel has been posing throughout.
The driving force of a book is the impetus – something has to happen. There are different sources of impetus:
Universe: The world is against you.  We watch a bit of Jane Eyre and see how circumstances and the outside world stand against her.
Mind: The attitudes of your character can be the driving force for their choices. How do their attitudes and behaviours impact on their choices. One character’s cruelty and jealousy makes the other character into an antagonist, as in Memoirs of a Geisha.
BNfZppfCEAAtIKxPhysics: Events and direct actions of characters that affect the world around them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s volunteering makes the whole of the plot, her ability to act and challenge the world she lives in. Plot can also hinge on inaction, such as the Bridges of Madison County and the character’s not opening her car door to run.
How are narrative arcs created?
Exposition: setting the scenes, characters and background of the main event. We looked at the opening of Rebecca as Manderley, the characters, the death of a wife and a grieving widower are all set up as one.
Rising action: building to the climax. The climax is the turning point of the novel. The climax is the peak, the pivot around which your novel swings. Sophie’s Choice. What is the pivot upon which the novel turns?
Falling action: the conflict of the novel unravels with the protagonist. Suspense, tension and doubt of the overall outcome of the conflict you have set up. In Harry Potter, the falling action means that everything gets changed. The hero might lose. The antagonist is not an antagonist. The protagonist might be an antagonist.
images-1The end: Denouement, resolution, revelation, catastrophe. All the strands come together. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice receives a phone call and Hannibal Lector announces he’s having an old friend for dinner.  It is a suitable, satisfying conclusion with some question left as to how the characters will really end up.
This was a fast, well-thought out workshop and a whistle stop tour of the “well made book” that had us all writing as quickly as possible, and Nelle Andrew speaking and clicking on clips as fast as she could.  A very solid introduction to key concepts.  Thank you, Nelle!

Nicci French – a writing partnership

Nicci-Gerrard-and-Sean-Fr-007For the keynote speech of the Festival of Writing 2015, we meet Nicci French: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, whose thrillers are routinely called, “dark, nerve-tingling and addictive.“  As a partnership, the pair have just turned in their 19th novel.  They met whilst at The New Statesmen, both as journalists, and quickly married, had children, and began to think about writing together.  Writing felt like something that was shared in their relationship and they began to think about about writing something about recovered memory, which became their first novel, The Memory Game.
Their method is to work out the story and the deeper story – the spine, the beating heart – and the voice together, before writing. They thought it would be easier for them both to write in a shared first person voice. Once they feel sure they have the same book in their heads, they begin to write their own chapters, one after the other. One writes the first chapter, edits or overwrites it, writes another chapter and emails to the other, chapter by chapter. In the writing, there is no separation of labour. They both must do all the research, because they don’t know who will be writing what.
There are rules for their collaboration. If you think it needs changing, change it. Don’t lecture the others. If one removes a spot of pretty writing, you can’t just put it back in. And they don’t tell which one writes which portions or chapters. They both own it, whether they wrote it or not. The work they do is for the sake of the book.  They are very different writers with different styles, but it was also an interesting experiment for them – could they write this way? Could they write together – and stay married?
Their process of working together enabled them to find their voice. Becoming Nicci French was a way of their exploring the world together. They’re interested in dread, in when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. Taking the feelings that everyone knows and turning the ratchet up. Nicci French is interested in the thin ice, small mishaps that turn into disasters and what’s going on under the surface of an ordinary life.
Why is the thriller so popular with readers right now? There is an uneasiness in our lives, though we’ve never been so safe. We are living through the death of authority; we no longer believe in doctors or the church or our leaders. Nobody will rescue you. Post-war Sweden is the most prosperous and safest nation ever, but why are their writers writing so many thrillers? There is an unease, an anxiety. You can go into therapy or write a thriller. Thrillers are interested in ways that people can rescue themselves.Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 14.52.57Unknown

Self-Editing for Novelists: a Workshop

writingHello from the Festival of Writing in York!  I’m grateful to be here due to generous funding from Canterbury Council and Arts Council England, and it’s only right that I pass on all I’m learning, one workshop at a time.  With kind permission from wonderful writers and tutors Emma Darwin and Debi Alper, here is a look at today’s four hour taster-workshop, Self-Editing for Novelists, ordinarily a 6 week on-line class.  If you like the sound of it, the next course starts in October. The workshop and course are designed to help writers get a handle on the process of self-editing, revisiting all the decisions you made in the first draft and looking at them, knowing what you know now, in terms of the story and the characters.  This one’s a long one, so hold onto your pens!
CHARACTER:  After a quick writing warm-up,we begin on a discussion of developing characters and how they are inextricably entwined to plot.  If story is the journey you take your readers on, plot is the pathway, the line getting you from beginning to end.  Characters come from interacting with the plot, reacting to what happens, and changing – and, as they change, their reactions change.
Beyond the basics of character:  name, age appearance, background, circumstances, taste, a character is revealed through interactions with the plot – actions, choices and changes – as well as what they do and say, what their bodies and faces do, as well as, their physical sensations and their internal thoughts.  Foremost is developing a sense of what a character wants – and what a character needs.  What will they do to get it?  What gets in their way?  And how do the wanting and the not-getting change them? And, as they change, does it change what they want?  Characters are effectively revealed under pressure – putting characters under pressure is “how you get plot”.
Debi and Emma find “obstacle” a more useful term than “conflict”, in creating the opposing force for a character.  In drama, conflict is usually embodied in an antagonist, a separate character, while in a novel the obstacle can be a dilemma, a moral dilemma, or an internal conflict.  It can be the weather.  When self-editing, check that characters are consistent, even as they are changing, and that the plot is consistent with the character.
imagesVOICE: Voice is the human interface with the story. It’s one of the reasons why agents and editors go on about the voice – as if it’s the thing that can’t be taught. Which isn’t true – it can be learned, like any part of writing can. Voice, in a novel, is the combination of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. The human interface between the reader and the story. Voice is what draws the reader in, before you know the character – that first half page before you know what’s going on. If the voice doesn’t work, it’s a much bigger problem than plot and character. Who’s telling the story? Your character acting as a narrator – in first person. Character narrators have two “characters” – as narrators and as characters.In self-editing, make the voice as strong as you can.  In terms of the writer’s psychic distance to a character, the “closer” you are in third person, (meaning that you are looking “through them” rather than “at” them) the more the character’s voice is likely to colour the prose.
In their person, the narrator may be a character or not.  They may be a character who is the main character, or a character interacting with the main character, as in The Great Gatsby, or may be a storyteller, standing outside or above the action.  Whichever, the narrator is still a “character” with a voice and peculiarities.  External narrators can have privileges, what they can know and what they cannot. The narrator is a character, even if we never see them as a character.  A storyteller narrator can control points of view, pointing out what two characters are thinking about at the same time. POV: what the character can see, vocabulary, style, emotional response, motivation. Are they trustworthy, can we believe them? The deeper we are inside the character, apparent contradictions will lead to unreliable narrators.
As you edit, look at if what you have is the right voice for the story? Is it consistent? Does it change? If it changes, which is best – beginning or end, in style? Differentiate between voices – look at how they can look different. Different lengths of sentences, short and long, simple and twisty, finishing sentences or not. Slangy, colloquial, how is the grammar. Rhythms. Similes and metaphors – which do they use and do they use them at all? Structure – fluid or chunky. Vocal tics. Is their tone consistent – do they change how they speak to different people.
How do you get closer to your character, to work on voice?  Debi suggests taking a ride on the bus as your character, see the journey with their eyes and start to build a sense of their vocabulary, what they notice.  Emma suggests making a list of all the characters own, because we expect them to (the successful lawyer with a flash car, etc.) and then a list of 10 things we expect them to own, but they don’t (the model who doesn’t own a toothbrush, etc.)  How can characters surprise and wrong foot a reader’s assumptions?  Even with secondary characters, they must have specificity and a voice of their own.  All characters have arcs and different characters see each other differently.  All must have a vital role.  And – challenge your assumptions.  Must the bus driver be a man?  Are all French characters stylish?  Etc.  Lastly?  Give your character the “kick the dog test” – this belongs to JoJo Moyes, they said:  your character sees someone kicking a dog – how do they react?  Lastly – write in first person and then change to third, retaining the sense of the first person closeness and specificity as you do so.
STRUCTURE:  Sometimes our first drafts are in a muddle.  If we write without planning, self-editing can impose “retrospective planning” on the text we have.  Emma chalked out a character arc, the rising and falling of actions and expectations, the gradual increase of what’s a stake.  For a more thorough examination of the mechanics of structure, they recommend John York’s Into the Woods, who says that scene structure is “fractals”.  Rising stakes consist of what a character hopes for and dreads.  Scenes comprise of unites of “getting wants” and getting disappointed, leading toward the mid-point of the novel where the “want” of a character turns to a “need”.  Scenes are units of change.  They suggest looking at every chapter and writing down, in three lines only, what happens and what changes.  This is quite a hard exercise!  In analysing your scenes, look at what changes – and if nothing changes, maybe you don’t need the scene – maybe it can be reported instead.
Look at scenes like railway carriages.  The coupling between them is how you get from scene to scene.  These need to be strong.  Jump cutting from carriage to carriage makes the reader start from cold, every time.  A good honest couple of sentences can help you and the reader move from one to the other and help with pace.  Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing has a toolkit on this:
MICROSCOPE EDITING:  The last stage of self-editing is looking at the text close up.  Every word has to earn its place.  Looking at prose – you can cut it, expand it, or change it. Look at every line – is it right? Too long? Too short? Not right? Then what about it is not right – what kind of different? Is it voice or character or punctuation – and individual decision. Then move on to the next sentence.  Look at the rhythm of your prose. Mix it up. Look at the variety of sentence structures, lengths, for texture and variety.  Use to see what your particular word tics are – do you use “just” or “suddenly” too often?  Do you have too many adverbs – and too many adjectives?  Make everything vivid. Choose the best words. Check not too many adjectives.  But don’t fiddle with your text.  Too many rewrites in, your eyes get a bit dead to it. Don’t work on your book unless you know what you’re going to work on and keep track of what you’re changing, as you do.  Save new versions, so that you can go back, if you need to, or use track changes in MS Word.  Print out drafts and mark them up.  You don’t have to solve the problem on paper, just find it.  Emma suggests keeping track of the novel on a spreadsheet grid.  You can read more about it here, as well as great blog posts on psychic distance, which is, for them, the key to character and story.  Check out This Itch of Writing and its equally marvellous resource, the Tool Kit.UnknownScreen Shot 2015-08-24 at 14.52.57

What’s New?

These are the dog days of summer.  Sadly, here in Britain the dog is wet.  Rain tapping on the Blue House makes me think of autumn and all that will come.  I’m happy to announce I’ve received a little grant from the Arts Council and Canterbury Council to support my second novel, which is finished and awaiting feedback from some new readers.  The grants have afforded me some guidance from a freelance editor, as well as the funds to attend two upcoming events which will, I hope, make a real difference to my writing.  First up is The Festival of Writing in York, which brings writers in contact with agents, book doctors, and editors over a weekend of workshops and one-to-ones.  I’ve already submitted my opening chapter and a 500 word chunk of the book for various competitions and feedback.  Fingers crossed!  Second, I’m delighted to be able to attend the next residential workshop with the most marvellous Susan Elderkin.  (I highly recommend her newest publication, The Novel Cure, offering bibliotherapy by the book.)  I had originally thought this workshop would take place in the spring but, life being what it is, all plans changed.  Now, attending in October, I hope to be staring a finished Book 2 in the face and getting to grips with Book 3.  Outside, the rain pounds, ever harder.

Here are some rather enormous logos, with enormous gratitude:  

It’s time for morning pages…

Morning!  It’s time for morning pages!

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll already know how I start my days, clogging your timeline with #amwriting tweets and lovely cups of tea.  Every morning, it’s time for morning pages as soon as I can manage it, leaving bed for the kettle to wake myself up with words.  It is a practice, a ritual, and a habit, one I’ve done for years and years.  I flex my fingers; I empty my head.  It is the only form of meditation I actually commit to and do.  Without morning pages, I feel a bit scratchy, a bit foggy and shocked.  Like the proverbial tree falling, is it morning if I’ve not done pages?  My head isn’t so sure.

So, what are morning pages?  Do they have to happen in the morning?  How do they work and why do I, along with writers across the whole of the world, continue to do them, day after day?  Morning pages as a writing practice came into popularity with Julia Cameron’s creativity manifesto, The Artist’s Way, though the idea itself is first found in Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, published in 1934.  Here, Dorothea suggests:  “Just as soon as you can – without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.  Write anything that comes into your head:  last night’s dream; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience.  Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically.”  Simply write without direction, without hope or control of the outcome as a way to begin the day.  While Julia says the writing must be done by hand, Dorothea says, “If you can teach yourself to use the typewriter in this period, so much the better.”  Julia says to fill three blank pages, while Dorothea suggests we should write as long as we have free time, until you have “utterly written yourself out.”   So, even the gurus of morning pages can’t quite agree on how they should be done – only that they should be done – and that they should be done in the morning.

I’m all for the following of rules, but only when they suit me.  As both Julia and Dorothea agree morning pages must be done in the morning, so do I.  “End of the day pages” would be a diary or gratitude journal.  You want to write while you’re still a bit fuzzy, before the day has had a chance to get you into its rhythms, its demands.  Julia says longhand matters, because, “There is an energy to the hand that leads our thoughts to a deeper and more connected place than writing on the keys does.”  That may be true for Julia, but longhand hurts my hand and is all but unreadable, should I wish to read it.  If a typewriter is acceptable to Dorothea, I choose the laptop, whose keys are quieter and whose heft is less in the lap.  And while Julia would most certainly not approve, I do my morning pages online at the excellent (and free) site, which sends me an email every morning, reminding me to write, just in case.  They also track your moods through looking at your keywords, if you want them to.  This is me, today, as most mornings:

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Typing away, I’m unaware that I’m feeling anxious or that I’m concerned mostly about death.  Is it true? Does it matter?  I’m not conscious of doing or trying to do or say anything.  I’m only letting my head noodle though my fingers and following my thoughts where they go.  Sometimes, my morning pages read like to-do lists or laundry lists of concerns and worries, mistakes and hopes, plans and dreams.  Sometimes, my morning pages are filled with self-pity, so that I can rid myself of it and move on.  My morning pages can be first stabs at new thoughts – new ideas, things I’m thinking about writing – and sometimes the earliest writing of new projects happens here with morning pages that look like monologues from characters or snatches of dialogue, things I or my characters might say or think.  Sometimes, I write about what I wish I were writing about – and I find that I am writing about it, simply because my ego and my inner critic are still waiting for the tea to kick in.  Morning pages can be whiny or inspirational, they can be true or false, they can be bursts of newness or relentless churning returns to old slights and digs and memories.  In short, morning pages are a place to dump the contents of our messy heads to make some room, for whatever will come.  It is meditation in action, through fingers, and also a frame for thoughts, feelings, and imaginations.

Morning Pages certainly have their detractors, even when they begrudgingly join in, as does Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian article.  Yes, morning pages take time, though I manage my 750 words, most mornings, in 10 – 12 minutes.  Julia Cameron would say that’s too fast, but she can’t reach me from her ranch in New Mexico to where I am, laptop on my knees in bed, or sitting on the porch of the Blue House, angling my limbs toward the sun.  Sometimes I do morning pages standing up with a cup of tea at my elbow, typing away until the website tells me when I’ve hit the magic number and it’s time to stop.  The website keeps track of our days and words.  Apparently, I’ve written more than 3 novels worth of morning pages on the site already, unreadable, unusable words that will never be published and are of no value to anyone but me.  Only occasionally do I copy what I’ve written in morning pages to paste into a document, rare mornings when an insight comes into what I want or what a problematic character is really doing, and I know I’ve caught a snatch of something that I didn’t have access to, in my conscious mind, the one that’s concerned with deadlines and word counts and “is this working” and when can I have another cup of tea?  These bursts of words you didn’t intend, of thoughts and feelings you didn’t know you had, are gold.  While not the purpose of morning pages, they are a benefit, an added extra that can lead your writing – indeed, your life – in whole new directions.  And that’s all we want to do, by writing, isn’t it?  To understand ourselves and others, to see, for a few brief moments, how it is that the world works and where our place is in it, and how to word it?

Well, at least that’s what I found in morning pages this morning, thinking about why I do them.  Whether by hand or fingertip, standing or sitting, dressed or pyjama-ed, with tea or without, why don’t you give them a try, some morning and see what comes?


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