Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation. Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk…
Running a bit behind on updating my workshop schedule here – but this is a head’s up for an upcoming editing workshop: The End – Hurrah! – Now What? It’s on Saturday 16 February, 3 – 4:30. Along with Sue Bassett, Director of the Kent Festival of Writing, we’ll look at approaching the editing process from macro to micro – and get you editing in the room. Want to know more? Here’s the full line-up. Book your spot here:
This is only one of a whole range of workshops, from writing with the senses to the art of memoir with the marvellous Marnie Summerfield Smith. The Faversham Literary Festival is in its second year – and it’s a corker. The festival proper runs the following weekend – here’s a link to the weekend’s schedule:
Ahoy! September was a blur of planning: I’m currently lecturing for the Creative & Professional Writing programme at Canterbury Christ Church, working with a range of student writers and forms. But I’m still running workshops out in the world. I’ll be working on POV, but there are lots of great events here – including a “writer’s circuit” with fellow lecturer Sonia Overall.
Why not pop along to Canterbury and boost your writing?
According to my last post, I haven’t been here since April. What happens when you’re too busy living to blog? You leave a lot of gaps – a lot of white space and unwritten words, here. Meanwhile, there is writing and editing, elsewhere. There are workshops and modules being written and taught, there are dissertations being supervised and marked. There are lightbulbs going off in heads, both yours and your students. There are dog walks and people walks and time in the woods. There is sun – an awful lot of sun, here in Britain. There is travel, camping trips and swims in the sea, morning pages and cups of tea. Having been editing much of the summer, I have pressed the “send” button; now I wait for feedback, in this pause, taking time out to read and dream, sort and order, plan my next steps. Soon, there will be new writing. Soon, I’ll be staring down the start of a new academic year. Soon, I’ll be teaching a lot, and that takes time and attention, both of which I’m very glad to give – but right now I’m pausing. Right now, I’m in the gap between letters, the space between words. I’m pulling weeds and rearranging the furniture and trying to look at things from new angles. Soon, I’ll see you back here with new workshops & new ideas – and maybe some news.
Join me at the upcoming Kent Festival of Writing, Saturday 14 April, 2018. It’s a full day of writing exercises and great conversations by the sea. I’m doing a one hour workshop on a writer’s “voice”: what is it – and how can you find yours? I’m also thrilled to be in conversation with debut fiction author Kate Mayfield and her editor, Jenny Parrott, to discuss the release of The Parentations. Want to know more? Just follow the link to Kent Festival of Writing:
These are the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, flat land that stretches between the poles that define many of our calendars. 5 days of “Chrimbo Limbo” that span the time between the frenzied, all-consuming build up to a day of food – or faith – and the tail end of the year, one which many will be happy to leave. From our cars or sofas, from muddy woods or frozen beaches, we can feel the world turning. Time, flying. This is a hinge, a pause before the first new day of a new year, filled with possibility.
How can we hang onto this sense of time? How can we use it to prepare for a new year or a fresh start without creating the feeling that we should “do more” or “be more” or “be new” somehow, which is its own kind of all-consuming frenzy?
I return to the page and the old ritual of morning pages.
I have written about morning pages before, and how to get started on them; it is a practice that continues to sustain me. It has become a natural – and necessary – start to my day. A space and time to shape and sharpen my thoughts before the day begins and time sweeps me away in the wake of what it wants.
Morning pages are 3 sheets of A4 (or my preferred online method at 750words.com) written without planning, editing, or censorship. These are raw words, written faster than we can think, as we come to wakefulness. That is their power. It is us, when no one’s looking in a clean space that we define and refine, daily.
It is a place to flex and stretch, mentally and emotionally. An iron for the mind, smoothing away the wrinkles. A meditation made with moving fingers.
These last few months of 2017, I felt too busy to think. My mind was always scratching away in every direction, trying to make sense of tensions and disappointments, moods and missteps, conflicting bits of information and inspirations. When I felt there was no time for morning pages, I knew that they were more essential than ever. How else to keep some control over my own day, other than to take my first 12 minutes or so and write down how I felt, what I wanted, where I wanted to go? Morning pages became a place to capture 750 words of my work-in-progress, before I had to turn to other projects; somedays, it was the only work I was able to do that day for myself. Through a very season, and university term, I kept writing morning pages and using them as starting places for scenes and chapters. Now, at this pause before a new year, I find the WIP is nearing 30K. It will certainly be over that mark, when we toast a brand new year.
Consciously and unconsciously, 750 words sets me up for writing, however busy the day, because I have focused myself on it. I have stated my intent. I have set my brain on that work, as I boil the kettle, as I let out the dog, before the dash and rush to come.
In the new year, I will be teaching many mornings. For those of you who know me, you know how jealously I guard mornings, when I feel I write at my best. Though we aren’t always in control of our timetables, I aim to stay in control of my brain and my time, as best I can. In the coming new year, with all its early starts and pressures, I will seek to continue my practice and share it with students, asking them to begin our day with morning pages. I hope to introduce them to a practice and a ritual that will nurture their writing and their thinking, so that it might sustain them through their writing lives, as it does mine. Looking for a new you? Try an old practice. Morning pages.
See you on the page.
I run workshops, as you’ll know from my blog, and it’s really good practice to take them, whether you run them or not! Last week I treated myself to a whole day workshop with the fab Andrew Wille for Words Away, who run workshops and salons in South London.
Here’s a picture of the “writer’s shrine” he built for the day. It made me want to come home and dust mine!
Here’s a link to his run-down of the day. Do visit – and sign up for his emails, which are chock-full of good advice for writers. It was a wonderful workshop, as you’ll see from his blog. I must say, even a week later, I’m still fizzing with ideas. Here’s to great writing workshops for all!
Hello! If you were on yesterday’s writing retreat with the Kent Festival of Writing, here are the links I mentioned. If not, feel free to read anyway – and join us on the next one!
PLANNING: Our day began with a look at tools, as we all quickly identified that one of the things that can hold us back as writers is a lack of organisation, whether in structuring our days or our work. Finding the right tools is essential for keeping track of our writing – and making the most of our limited time.
INDEX CARDS keep me organised. I use them while I’m planning and while I’m writing. I like that you can add cards easily – no software required – and shuffle them to change the order of scenes or elements. After a first draft, I use them to get to grips with my structure and my story – to track what happens when, what the consequences of events are, and how they affect the characters. This way of tracking plot and meaning with every scene comes from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genuis”: if you like the idea of using index cards, give it a read. And if you prefer your index cards to be digital, there are apps for that. Try Cardflow – it’s free.
WHITE BOARD/CORK BOARD: Some people like the freedom of a big board in their writing space – TV thrillers make us all want rooms full of cards and photos and string – but we might not all have the space. If walls are at a premium, you can work with digital boards. Stickyboard 2 is a giant white board with an endless supply of sticky notes, while Scapple is a programme for digital mind-mapping. Apparently, the drawing and linking of words fires new synapses while we’re planning – and as it’s made by the fine people who designed Scrivener (more of that below), it also interfaces with that software.
POST-IT NOTES: The Queen of Post-it Plotting is Julie Cohen – read about her method on her site. She likes their portability, their flexibility, and how they stack together when multiple story strands meet in a scene. (But I wish their glue was a little tougher!)
BUTCHER PAPER: I first heard about planning on long rolls of paper from Shelley Harris from her fab blog post, Plan-O-Matic. In the workshop, we looked about how the paper can roll down, from Scene 1 to The End, or how it can run sideways, along the narrative arc. I use long rolls of paper for story planning – but I like the freedom of lines and squiggles, all drawn with my beloved Sharpies. Wondering how to get to grips with a really complicated plot or series of strands? Get drawing. There is, of course, an app for this too, and it’s called Daedalus. But a little Googling shows that this software no longer works with Dropbox, so if backing up is an issue for you – and it always should be – they suggest using Ulysses as an alternative. Here’s what David Hewson has to say about it:
EXCEL: It may be the dullest piece of software on our computers, but it can really help you keep track of vital information. I use it to log dates: characters birthdates, the beginnings and endings of wars, vital dates for inventions or key events, and specific bits of research. Some use it to keep track of characteristics: eye colour, hair colour, etc., so that characters aren’t repetitious.
SCRIVENER: If you like the sound of one piece of software that can integrate all of the above, try Scrivener. I wouldn’t write without it. It’s a linear planning place, like a roll of butcher paper, that transforms into a cork board with the push of a button, and it provides flexibility with moving, finding, and sorting text that MS Word can only dream of. And now that it interfaces with mobile defices, it is the perfect tool.
At yesterday’s writing workshop, we also talked about our “issues” as writers: what’s holding us back, what’s making it hard? I really enjoyed the chance to think about how to answer each concern – here’s what we all came up with:
MENTAL BLOCK: What happens when we just can’t write something, when the words or the story has us stopped in our tracks? Often, blocks are a sign that the road has run out – there’s something crucial we don’t know that keeps us from moving forward. Do some planning and find out what it is that you don’t know before you try to write. Find out the “what” of your story before you try to tell it.
HOW TO BEGIN: Oh, the terror of the blank page! Where to begin? We talked about the value of prompts to get us going. We did some free writing with a series of words, called out at random, and we responded to a series of images, either looking at them with our senses or making a story from what we saw: who/what/where/when/how. If you have trouble getting started, fill your toolbox with words, pictures, objects, and books that provide inspiration. This is also a method for KEEPING IT FUN.
HOW TO PLOT: Find our how you think and how you work. Try out all the tools above – and make sure you’re clear about structure and plotting. We talked about John Yorke’s Into the Woods as a great book for thinking about structure and storytelling. Here’s him giving a talk about his book – he also regularly offers workshops.
HOW TO MANAGE TIME: This is a big one! We talked about setting limits, so that we use what time we have effectively, rather than frittering it away. In bursts of writing, 30 minutes at a time, everyone seemed pleased and surprised with what they were able to achieve. If you don’t have someone like me bellowing the time at you, you could try an egg timer or use the Pomodoro Technique. And, when time is limited, working with a system like Index Cards will help you to focus on small moments or elements to work with, instead of being overwhelmed with how much there is to do every time you sit down. Lastly, know when it is that you write the best – and defend those hours. There is little point in setting time aside to write – when that time is not your best.
HOW TO FIND A COMMUNITY: Writing is a lonely business and like-minded souls can cheer when the work gets hard. Similarly, there’s no one like another writer to help you celebrate every time you reach a milestone: finishing a draft, finishing an edit, getting an email from an agent. One way to find a community of writers is to write with them – keep going to writing workshops to find your tribe. Every year, I go on retreat with two writers I met at a workshop years and years ago – I trust them with my tender, early writing as well as my ups and my downs. When it’s hard to find the time to retreat, you can find a community on Twitter, by following other writers and with #amwriting. And why not try NaNoWriMo? The National Novel Writing Month starts 1 November and will put you in touch with cheerleaders, prompt-makers, sprint-starters and tens of thousands of writers, all over the world.
HOW TO FINISH: In our retreat, I asked you to jump straight into the hard part – the crisis, the climax, the thing you were afraid to write. Many of you had real breakthroughs, jumping in and swimming hard. However you begin, keep going!
And that is good advice for all of us!
‘The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead.’
So begins the first of this year’s Reith Lectures with Dame Hilary Mantel on BBC Radio 4. You will know Mantel from her astonishing Tudor series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) and any number of her other wonderful books. In her lecture, she defends the role of the historical novelist and talks about her unique approach to writing from and about history. Here’s a link to the BBC Radio 4 Player, as well as a transcript of the lecture, if you’re unable to listen. I’m not a historical novelist, but I took so much away from this talk and am looking forward to the next one, next week:
UPDATE: Here is a link to her second talk.
This past weekend I was very pleased to be in conversation with Michele Roberts at WhitLit, Whitstable’s literary festival. In a wind-blown marquee on Castle grounds, Michele shared her work and her writing process with good humour and a real generosity of spirit. The interview wasn’t recorded, but here are a few things I’ve taken away with me:
LIVE WELL: At 68, Michele Roberts is still doing what she loves: writing, swimming, exploring London, drinking wine and going to parties. Recently, she acquired a new agent, has a memoir for sale and has just started writing what will be her 14th novel. I was impressed with her energy and vibrancy. At any age, writers may worry they are falling behind. (Am I on track? Will there be time to tell all the stories I have in my head?) Michele is only one example of a writer’s longevity. (Think of Diana Athill, 99 and still publishing!) Michele’s days are rich and varied; so is her work. Writers may be as old as their backs, but we can remain as young as our ideas and our hope will let us.
WORK HARD: Michele was very honest about her setbacks. We might think any writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Daughters of the House) has “made it” – whatever “it” is. When her newest novel, The Walworth Beauty, was initially rejected by her publishers, she didn’t let herself despair for long. She said it took more than two years of rewriting, cutting hard and twining in new story lines, to get a book that both she and her editor were happy with. That process, she said, forms her newest memoir, on how to write yourself out of “failure” and what you discover as you do. Established writers don’t often speak publicly of the hard times, but Michele was very generous to remind us that every book can be a struggle, when you are trying to push both yourself and the form, but any writer can turn a book around, if she can find the strength and self-belief. The process turned into two books and a new agent for her – which isn’t bad going at all for a bout of “failure”!
KEEP GOING: When I asked her for one last bit of advice for us, she simply said to keep going, even when it feels like there is not enough support or encouragement, in the long slog of rewriting and the fear the book will never come together, or in the wake of an editor’s “no”. At any age, we can down tools and decide the work is too hard – or we can pick ourselves up, strengthen our resolve, and just keep going. The writers I most admire are all in it for the long haul. How about you?